Monday 26 March 2012

The Grammar of God

I call it the Grammar of God. There are three sacred prepositions that in a lifetime of aspiring to live a faith journey or spiritual path have been a major source for me of soul sustenance and courage through light and shadow.

The prepositions are with, for, and in. They are only three small words, but together they add up to an empowerment much stronger than any supplement or other external aid.

One of the basic affirmations of all major religions, except perhaps for a strict form of Buddhism, is that God, the supreme mind and source of the cosmos, is with us. Holy books repeatedly bear witness to this reality. The Jewish and Christian scriptures, for example, remind us of this on almost every page. I think often of the story of God's challenge to a timid, fearful Joshua to become the successor to Moses in leading the Children of Israel into the promised land. He was told: “Be strong and of a good courage. Have I not commanded thee? Fear not, neither be thou dismayed; for I the Lord your God will go with you whithersoever thou goest.”

In the beloved words of the 23rd Psalm the promise is that even when we walk “through the valley of the shadow of death we can conquer fear because “Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff comfort me” - i.e. bring me divine presence and courage. These and dozens of passages like them can become our internal mantras in times of stress. God is with us as we live in trust.

Secondly, we need constant reminding that God is also for us. He so to speak is “on our side” whatever we encounter –especially when we go through trying spiritual and emotional dry spells or crises. Perhaps one of my most favorite chapters in all the writings of St. Paul is Romans c.8, where he asks rhetorically: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He then goes on in very moving, soaring words to say that nothing in all of the entire created order can ever “separate us from the love of God” as expressed in the Jesus story.

The whole underlying message of the Bible is that God acts moment by moment on our behalf. In Her/Him we “live and move and have our being” as Paul is said to have told the crowd in his famous speech on the Hill of Mars (the Areopagus) in Athens. Interestingly, he backs this up by noting “as certain of your own poets have said” and then directly quotes from two Stoic writers well-known at that time. In other words, Pagan thinkers also shared this belief in the divine presence surrounding all humanity and pervading the universe.

The third preposition is to my thinking the most potent and important of all. God is in us. That is what is truly meant by the difficult-sounding term, incarnation (literally, enfleshment). The dominant theme underlying all the major religious traditions in the world is that ultimately the presence or essence of the Divine is embodied in every part and dimension of the whole of creation from the very tiniest and as-yet-unkown particles in remotest space to every human heart. Everything is in the end an expression of the God within.

We can deny this, live as atheists, or some perhaps, God forbid, as criminals, yet this reality abides. God in us, or as Paul puts it, the Christ (principle, power, or consciousness) in us, is there to be acknowledged and nurtured all our lives. For Hindus the word for this reality of the God within is called the Atman. Other faiths express the same reality by other terms. Mystics in every tradition come very close together at this point. Sadly, semantics too often masks this underlying unity. It cries out to be recognized as we move ahead on the road to greater global harmony today.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

American religious expression off the rails

     Two weeks ago I wrote about our experiences with the service industry
in the US and how it is currently considerably more courteous,
enthusiastic and warmly kind than ours in Canada.The inflow of
extremely positive e-mails in response announced that many readers
strongly agree with that assessment. But, there are other aspects of
American culture that are not working nearly as well for them.  For
example, their entire election process is obviously very seriously
flawed. I leave that, however, for political commentators. My concern
here is in a field where I have some claim to expertise, namely
theology and spirituality.
       Looming over  Interstate 65 highway,  just south of Montgomery
Alabama, is a very large billboard. In block letters it says, “Go to
church or the devil will get you.” The message is accompanied by a
stereotypical image depicting  the supposed embodiment—the
personification— of evil itself. There is no hint of subtlety. The
devil is entirely and solidly black. You'd think when it was that
close to the city where in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her
“white” seat on a bus and became the “Mother of the Civil Rights
Movement” another color might have been deemed more appropriate. But
as suggested already, subtlety is not a big feature of  religious
outlook in the truly conservative South or any other region in the
U.S. where ultra-conservative Christians are on the march.
       Driving for three days from Destin Florida north to our home near
Georgian Bay, with the car radio as our main and at times only link
with what was happening everywhere else, we had an incredible,
eye-opening saturation in some of the most dumbed-down, crude and
extremist religious ideas and ideologies I have ever heard in all my
years as an informed observer covering faith issues around the world.
       Not just in Florida but all over the U.S. today fundamentalists hold
what seems at times like a total monopoly on radio stations of every
size.  At times it seemed actually impossible to find a program that
wasn't expounding some obscure verses from the Book of  Revelation or
weighing in once more against gays, abortion, birth control or
President Obama's alleged “war on religion.” Radio, as Marshall
McLuhan often said  is a “hot” medium compared with television. It
hammers away at you demanding that you pay attention.  It can change
people's minds much more effectively than TV Nothing better suits
those who are utterly convinced that they alone are right and also
righteous. The rest of us according to their “Gospel” are captives of
“the father of lies” i.e. a personal devil and we are hell-bound
unless we instantly convert to their literalistic, narrow creeds. The
billboard was eloquent in a number of ways. It revealed a coarse
attempt at coercion through fear—something sadly at work in almost
every religion across the globe.  You must go to church if you want to
avoid something horrible happening to you, it said.  At a deeper level
its foolish, implied assumption that there is a real entity of evil in
an historical, literal sense who is going around trying to “get”
humans shows a naivete almost beyond belief. There is real evil out
there but to attempt to shift blame from our own shoulders or to
threaten people by a hypostatization (turning it into a person) is to
miss the point entirely. Evil is the result of harm caused by human
error or deliberate choice on the one hand or by disease and other
natural calamities on the other. None of the language about the devil
or Satan in the Bible or elsewhere is meant of be taken literally or
historically. Yet this kind of simplistic literalism marked the
outlook of  every firebrand preacher on the air.
       The only thing these demagogues weren't literalists about was Jesus'
words about loving one another and about turning the other cheek. In a
huge hypocrisy to which they seem totally blind they are all fiercely
“pro-life” while vitriolically foaming at the mouth over the need to
risk war with Iran. They are loud in support of Israel but only
because it fits into their scenario for “the last days” and a mythical
Battle of Armageddon. It's nonsense but apparently it “sells.”
       Personally, I look at this kind of  rampant religious expression as
free enterprise gone completely off the rails intellectually,
spiritually and morally as well. I pray it never happens here.