Friday, July 30, 2010

“God”--That Weasel Word

William James called “experience” a “weasel word.”  The same can be said of the word “God”:  It means something different to every individual. Even when we think we’re talking about roughly the same  reality when we converse about God, we’re probably still light years away from one another’s experience and understanding of God.  Does that mean we should stop talking about God? Or stop using the word “God”?

A cultural and global moratorium on the word “God” might give us the time and silence we need to find our way forward at this moment in history.  Since that’s unlikely, maybe we should each observe an individual moratorium on speaking the word “God.”  For a limited amount of we would refrain from using the word and meditate, as honestly as we can bear to, on the following questions: 
  • What do you mean when you say “God”?
  • What do you think most people around you mean when they say “God”?
  • What do you hope when you use the word “God”?
  • What do you fear when you use the word “God”?
  • What word or phrase would you substitute for the word “God.”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

We Are Anxious, We Are Afraid, We Want to Fall Back Asleep

It amazes me how many ways we find to run away from ourselves.  The temptations are endless.

What is temptation? Anything that keeps you from becoming who you are, who you were meant to be.  Anything

Some temptations confront us with a clear and urgent choice like the one Moshe put before the fledgling nation:  Choose you this day life or death, the difficult freedom of the way of the Teaching or the easy way of the scattered and lost. Emanuel Levinas, in his essay “The Temptation of Temptation” (Nine Talmudic Readings sets before us another like choice like this:  Place ontology, the science of being, first, or ethics, the responsibility to the Other that confronts you, first.  The temptation of temptations is to choose knowledge, for knowledge sets you at the center of the universe.  If your choose obligation, you acknowledge that you stand always already in relation to an Other than has a prior claim on you. That is the way to life.

Some temptations come with the full force of drama, complete with warning lights and sirens and axes falling.  That woman or man who promises to be a better match for us than our current partner.  That urge to hurt the person we love.   The need to push another lower to raise ourselves higher. 

But it is the countless, tiny little temptations we face every day without realizing it that worry me today.  All the distractions of “normal” life that we allow to crowd our lives and dull our attention. We want to pay attention, be present to the Presence, and what do we do?  We watch TV, we exercise harder, we call our friends, we drink wine or beer or smoke, we surf the Web, we frenetically try to keep up and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter, we read literature meant for consumption, we clean our houses, manage our family’s lives, search out great meals and other pleasures, shop, find new hobbies to “pass the time,” consult the stars and psychics, follow the lives of the gods and demigods we call “celebrities.”  None of these is bad in itself.  But when we do them unconsciously, repeatedly, they keep us from going deeper.  It’s easy to stay on the surface.  Nothing is required of us. 

We know how alive we feel when we wake up from this stupor and are really present, even for a moment, to another person or the natural world or ourselves.  Yet we keep going back to sleep.  We keep sipping that sleeping draught so we will not be fully present. St. Paul said it well:  “The good that we would we do not; and the evil that we would not, that we do.”

Why, when we know gives us life and what numbs us, do we keep choosing what numbs us?  Why do we keep enslaving ourselves to empty habits that drain the blood from our lives?  Why do we keep running away from ourselves?  Why do we keep hiding?  Why are we so frightened of becoming who we are?  So afraid to be free?   So afraid to be found?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Do We Need God?

Do we need God?  This is a question.  It is not a rhetorical opening to an argument for or against the existence and necessity of God. 

Do we need God?  Let’s bracket for a moment the questions of who this “we” is, what “need” means, what “God” means, “need God for what?” and “who wants to know?”

Countless observers of human beings--from all disciplines and traditions--have concluded that part of what it means to be human is to stand in relationship to something greater than ourselves, a reality that goes beyond the corporeal world or the world that appears to us, a reality that is eternal or infinite that we nevertheless sense or participate in. Whether they speak of humankind as homo religiosus, piety as the feeling of the Infinite acting upon you in your finitude (Schleierrmacher)  the sacred dimension (Mircea Eliade), the idea of the holy (Rudolph Otto)  the alone with the alone (Emily Dickinson), the eternal in man (Max Scheler), the religious experience (William James), the Ultimate Concern (Paul Tillich), or the face of the Other (Levinas), they point to the pervasiveness of this experience. A sweep over the millenia of human history confirms this: human beings in every age, in every culture have developed and continue to develop  rituals, texts, and spaces that nurture this relationship.  And today,  even many of those who have stopped believing in God continue to think about God or the Eternal.  Recently, Jacob Needleman put it this way:  “To think about God is to the human soul what breathing is to the human body.” (What Is God?, 3)

Many other observers, acknowledging the pervasiveness of the human concern with God or the Infinite, argue that this failure to cast off believing in or thinking about God by no means proves that God or something like it is essential to human life.  Rather, it proves that most people are still caught in primitive, unenlightened, irrational ways of interpreting reality.  Common religion and God may be, but they are by no means inevitable, essential, or necessary to human life. Quite the contrary, they are distracting at best and destructive at worst.  We don’t need God; we need rationality, we need morality, we need humanism. Read the news for “God-inspired” genocide, terror, torture, abuse. Case closed.

I tend toward the first position.  As long as there are human beings we are going to wrestle with, puzzle over, rail against,  and argue about that reality we cannot fully grasp or control that nevertheless impinges upon our existence or intrudes itself into our lives or awakens us to something beyond the limits of our ordinary minds. Some of us will experience this as “sacred,“ others may call it  the ultimate ideals they live by.  I came of intellectual age in a time when scholars were speaking of the religious dimension of all experience, or the root of faith in all human beings, that which they place their ultimate trust in and give their ultimate loyalty to, whether they identify that center of all value as empiricism, secularism, family, nation, a religious tradition, or the One.  To me the question of faith and God is simply this:  How does one ultimately orient and ground one’s life?  Whatever the answer—and it is a difficult question to answer honestly for even the most self-aware—that is one’s god. 

And yet, I would not argue with a person who claims to be or boasts of being areligious or indifferent to faith and God.  Should I insist that they are religious even though they do not realize it?  Should I prove to them that in the absence of faith in the One that they really worship money? success? That their body or their partner is their idol?  How would that serve?  I am no apologist for the one true faith, however I or anyone else may define it.  Perhaps their denial of faith as they understand it and of God as they have understood that concept is what clears the way for them to experience the depths of the Infinite in the limits of their finitude, whatever they may call it, however they may interpret it.  Maybe my way of asking the question or the language I am using has closed an opening for them.  And why have I made their inner life my goal, when the work on my own remains unfinished?  The question is to me, not them: Who are you?  Where have you been?  Where are you going?  Are you on the way to becoming truly human?  

The power of persuasion lies not in words or arguments, but in the felt experience of the One among us.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

To Be Free, Tether Yourself?

In the early 1970s, when I was at L’Abri in Huemoz, Switzerland, living in an Evangelical community that followed the monastic pattern of work, study, and prayer, I met two young men from Malaysia.  A group of us were sitting on the floor of a chalet perched high in the Alps, the sun streaming in. We were sharing our journeys--from agnosticism or atheism or existentialism to faith, from Hinduism or Islam or secularism or Satanism to Christianity.  The two recently arrived Malaysians both taught me something that afternoon that was essential to my life.  The first teaching I thought I understood,and I put it into practice immediately; the second haunted me for years.

When your mouth is burning from hot peppers, taught the first man, you time the fire by placing something sweet on your tongue. I’ve been doing this ever since.  It occurs to me now that there is a deeper, mystical meaning to his teaching as well—something to pursue another day.

The second man, born a Hindu, told the story of how he became a Christian.  He was floating free in the sky, he said, like a kite.  He was blown here and there at random, at times spiraling out of control, at times tangled in wires, at times crashing to earth.   Then he found Christ.  Now he could soar freely, soar higher, fly faster and farther, because he was tethered to this rock. 

When I heard this I was twenty and a hippie to boot, more interested in rebelling against all limits and chasing the illusion of absolute freedom than listening to any talk about being tethered.  The word tether called up images of playing tether ball on our three-room Christian school playground. It was bad enough being a player, playing against bullies who sent the ball flying so that it knocked with full force on your head and landed you in the gravel with a headache and bleeding knees.   Now I was supposed to be that ball, bandied about by anyone’s whim, being spun around endlessly in circles of absurdity?  Somehow the beauty and truth of this young man’s image pierced my heart.  Whether he meant Jesus the Christ or the cosmic Christ  of the logos open to all I did not know. But I heard the truth of his words: that we crazy creatures, we highly unstable combinations of earth and spirit, need to be tied to that which is ultimate to live in true freedom.

I heard, but I did not understand.  For decades my ego, my allergy to authority, my contrary temperament, and my suspicion of patriarchy and hierarchical religions kept me from understanding.  Not until my fifties, after undergoing a long series of  family traumas that crushed my spirit, did I begin to see.  Through a combination of hitbodedut, silent retreats, Sufi breathing and dhikr, and laying tefillin when I davened in the morning, I slowly awakened to the truth that we must tie ourselves tightly to the eternal to fly on earth.  My rabbi, a woman, had counseled me to try laying tefillin as a way of navigating a difficult transition in my life.  I found to my surprise that when I laid tefillin, I felt safe, calm, alive, whole--for I was bound to that which is constant.  Feeling the leather straps, the skin of another animal like me, tightened against my skin  was a liberating experience.  Their pressure against my flesh reminded me who I truly was:  I was not  a slave to anyone or anything, any circumstance or any theory.  I was a free servant freely choosing to bind myself to the One, the One Beyond Who is the One Who Dwells Among Us.  As I stood wrapped in my tallit, my head, arm, and hand wound round with darkened strips of skin containing and forming holy words of light, it seemed to me I was rooting my being, my whole being, in the only soil where it could grow.  And being so firmly planted, I could move with greater freedom, unencumbered. When I touched the root of all being and was touched by it, I was not shaken by fear, I was not compelled by desires, I was not distracted by the noise and things and frenetic activity within and around me, I did not get lost in possibilities, I did not  lose my mind in the giddiness of the spirit, I did not lose my way in meditation and forget how to return to the beautiful world we call human being.  I was present.  From this place I could live free, I could fly on earth.

  And I remembered the young man from Malaysia tethered to Christ and smiled in recognition. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Riot of Images for God

At the  beginning of Hayyim Bialik’s poem “Zohar” (1909),  the poet, compelled to speak that which cannot be spoken, spills forth a world’s worth of ways to point to that elusive reality:
In the midst of my childhood I have been engulfed by loneliness,
And craved all my life for silence and the hidden,
From the body of the world I craved for its light,
Something which I could not fathom murmured like wine inside    me.
I was looking for hiding places.  There I silently observed,
I was like a visionary looking into the eye of the universe.
There my friends were revealed to me, I received their secrets,
And sealed their voices in my mute heart.
My friends, how numerous they were:  any flying bird,
Any tree and its shadow, every bush in the forest,
The face of the meek moon shining into a window,
The darkness of a cellar, the creaking of a gate . . .
The sweet and awesome mixture of light with darkness
In the depth of a well,
Where the echo of my voice and my image are found,
The chiming of a clock, the tooth of a saw grinding within a log,
As if they are pronouncing the forbidden name of God . . .
(in Joseph Dan, The Heart and The Fountain:  An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experience, 252)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Faith? Belief? What’s the difference? Who owns them?

It’s common for people to distinguish between faith and belief, usually assigning the lesser of the two, belief, to one group, such as the Christians, and the greater, faith, to another group, such as the Jews. In Two Types of Faith, Martin Buber distinguishes between these two ways of relating to God without playing the game of My Religion Is Better Than Yours.  He contrasts the Hellenistic-inspired notion of faith as “mere believing,” that is, accepting the certainty of specific truths one had not previously held, with the Hebraic view of relational faith as trust, that is, depending on the “contact of my entire being with the one in whom I trust” (8). He refuses to identify faith as belief with Christians in general and faith as trust with Jews in general, arguing that both types of faith permeate both religions. He does argue, however,  that faith as belief finds its “representative actuality” in Christianity and faith as trust finds its “representative actuality” in Judaism (11-12).

Though I may quarrel with his last conclusion about “representative actualities,” my experience within and knowledge of Christianity and Judaism confirms his view that faith as belief and faith as trust run through both traditions (and more than likely through Islam as well). Faith as belief is part of both Christianity and Judaism. Christians have creeds, distillations of teachings that help people navigate the scriptures and contemporary philosophy rightly, and they recite many of them during their liturgies. So do Jews. The Sh’ma and  and Maimonides’s Thirteen Attributes of God are the most well known, but Saadia Gaon, Yehudah HaLevi, and others developed lists of beliefs to guide the faithful through the scriptures and contemporary intellectual challenges as well.  Whether formal or informal, universally or not universally accepted,  intellectual formulations of specific truths it is important to affirm or assent to--such as the unity of God and the goodness of the created world--play an essential, constructive  role in religious traditions. They complement faith as trust; they do not supplant it.  The faith that grounds and transforms the whole person must be mind and heart, truth and trust, emet v’emunah.

Faith as trust (emunah in Hebrew), Buber’s second type of faith, is also at the core of both Judaism and Christianity. The dominant understanding of faith in Christianity, before and after the Protestant Reformation,  is also trust, as Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and many others confirm. To call this talk of trust, as Buber does,  the survival of or a resurgence of “genuine Judaism” within Christianity seems incorrect and unnecessary. The 20th-century Reformed theologian H. Richard Niebuhr bypasses the notion of belief altogether to define faith as “radical trust in and loyalty to the One.”  In Jesus, Buber says, “the genuine Jewish principle of” faith is manifest (12).  I agree, but I would argue that in accepting Jesus as the Messiah, Christians did not merely believe him to be God: they adopted his way of being faithful to God, his way of trust. Faith as trust cannot be claimed primarily for one community of faith over the other.

I confess my great ignorance about the Islamic tradition. Yet from my reading and experience I would venture to guess that it, too, is pervaded by faith as belief and faith as trust.  The shahada (and much of Islamic theology) represents one side, the recurring note of faith as radical trust in the One (tawwakul) the other. Recently I came across a definition of faith by al-Hujwiri, the 11th century Persian Sufi saint, that plumbs the depths of this notion of faith as radical trust, trust that penetrates to the root of one’s being, unifies all of one’s being,  and requires the slaying of all rivals for our absolute trust: “Faith is really the absorption of all human attributes in the search of God.” (Revelation of the Mystery, tr. Reynold A. Nicholson, 289) 
What al-Hujwiri means by this he shows by telling a story he heard:
[W]hen Ibrahim Khawwas was asked [by the man narrating the story] concerning the reality of faith, he replied:  “I have no answer to this question.just now, because whatever I say is a mere expression, and it behooves me to answer by my actions; but I am setting out for Mecca: do thou accompany me that thou mayest be answered.” 
The narrator continues:  “I consented.  As we journeyed through the desert, every day two loaves and two cups of water appeared. He gave one to me and took the other for himself.  One day an old man rode up to us and dismounted and conversed with Ibrahim for a while; then he left us.  I asked Ibrahim to tell me who he was. 
He replied:  “This is the answer to thy questions.”
“How so"?” I asked.
He said: “This was Khidr [the enigmatic figure in Islam said to have guided Moshe to deeper wisdom and who continues to appear to guide and instruct people with his illuminated wisdom; roughly analogous to the legend of the Prophet Eliyahu in Judaism], who begged me to let him accompany me, but I  refused, for I feared that in his company I might put confidence in him instead of in God, and then my trust in God (tawwakul) would have been vitiated.  Real faith is trust in God.” (Ibid., 289-290)
Faith as trust and loyalty belongs to no religion, no tradition.  It is the way of living from the root of one’s being with the One.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Wheel That Revolves Us Nearer to the Center

This poem from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, with its own wonderfully strange images of God, is reminiscent of Yehuda Amichai’s and other poets like Yona Wallach’s focus on coming and going, opening and closing when the subject is God.  Why, I wonder, do so many poets find themselves at this image of continual movement when struggling to point to this reality?  Thomas Mann gives a clue in Joseph and His Brothers, when he speaks of the God of Joseph as the “God of becoming.”  Martin Buber gives another when he translates the name of God revealed to Moshe at the burning bush,  Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I Am that I Am, this way:  I Will Be who I Will Be. 

This is one of the challenges of relating to the One: that we are not responding to a static order or reality, one that we can finally grasp or contain; we are responding to a dynamic, living reality, one that is continuously creating, ordering, healing, limiting, opening doors and slamming them shut, disappearing from the familiar places and reappearing in strange ways and places.

All intimate relationships require us to seek the depths of constancy and faithfulness in the midst of continual change, the hub that anchors the spokes.  When we can’t find those depths, our spirits suffer.  When we do, everything we do widens from “turn to turn.”  Our relationship with the Ever Alive, as I refer to God these days,  is no different.      
You come and go.  The doors swing closed
ever more gently; almost without a shudder.
Of all who move through the quiet houses,
you are the quietest.

We become so accustomed to you,
we no longer look up
when your shadow falls over the book we are reading
and makes it glow.  For all things
sing you:  at times
we just hear them more clearly.

Often when I imagine you
your wholeness cascades into many shapes.
You run like a herd of luminous deer
and I am dark, I am forest.

You are a wheel at which I stand,
whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up,
revolve me nearer to the center.
Then all the work I put my hand to
widens from turn to turn.
(I: 45, tr. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, 81)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Turning Our Pronouns for God on Their Heads

There’s been a lot of argument over the years about the proper pronouns to use when speaking about and to God.

With the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, we began to see the limits of the supposedly universal pronoun “he” and lobbied for more inclusive language—adding “she” to “he” when speaking of God, or avoiding pronouns altogether by simply repeating “God” in every sentence instead of using a pronoun for the antecedent. (Admittedly, this is a bit awkward, but it’s still better than most alternatives. And is anyone else dismayed by the lack of inclusive language in most religious services today, after all these years of consciousness raising?) 

Some—I among them—opted to go the route of many mystics and use the neutral pronoun when referring to God, “it,”  as a way of focusing on the reality of God beyond the personal dimension. This was distressing to some, who (incorrectly) concluded that referring to God as “it” necessarily objectified God or stripped God of all personal dimensionality.  They might accept  impersonal metaphors or names for God such as Ocean or Being or Ultimate Reality or the One, but referring to God as “it” or speaking of “its” complexity was beyond the pale for them.  Nevertheless, I found the pronoun “it” a good reminder not to limit God to the personal, our privileged way of experiencing God.  I often joked that I taught my children not to say He-She or She-He when speaking of God, but “He-She-It.”  For some this was blasphemous (spotten we called it in Dutch, making light of the sacred) rather than funny.  For me, it was another reminder:  humor is also necessary when we talk about God. 

We all make assumptions about the meaning of pronouns in our language.  Ancient and contemporary rabbis, for example, are fond of teaching the theological depth of the pronoun switch in the formula for blessing, Blessed are You, Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who....  Many prayers start out addressing God in the second person as “you” and then switch midstream to addressing God in the third person, “Ruler/King/who=he.”  This juxtaposition embodies the life-giving paradox that God is at once very near us and far beyond us.  That is a deep theological  teaching.

And here is another.  When it comes to God,  all our language falters, even our pronouns. They  may not mean what we assume they mean.  Recently, this teaching of the Baal Shem Tov from Ben Porath Yosef 31a made me sit up and pay attention to pronouns for God in a way I had never considered before:

It is written, “You are He, the Lord our God” (Jeremiah 14:22). The Baal Shem Tov explained this verse in the following manner:

      When a person thinks that he is speaking directly to God, where he can say “You,” he is really very far from God.  He is actually only speaking to Him in the third person, and is actually saying “he.”

     On the other hand, when a person feels that he is separated and far from God, where he can only speak of Him in the third person—”He”—then he is really very close to God, and is actually in His presence.  Such a person can therefore speak of Him as “the Lord our God.” 

[in Aryeh Kaplan, The Light Beyond:  Adventures in Hassidic Thought, 29]

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Let Poets Be Our Theologians Now

Some of the most creative reimagining of God today is being done by poets, singers wrestling with God, wresting a blessing for our time from words and images.  Like this stanza, Number 20, from Yehuda  Amichai’s poem “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” in Open, Closed, Open,  46:

The sounds of a drawer closing—the voice of God,
the sound of a drawer opening—the voice of love,
but it could also be the other way around.
Footsteps approaching—the voice of love,
footsteps retreating—the voice of God
who left the country without notice, temporarily forever.
A book that stays open on the table beside a pair of glasses--
God. A closed book and a lamp that stays lit--
love. A key turning in the door without a sound--
God.  A key hesitating—love and hope.
But it could also be the other way around.
A sacrifice of a fragrant scent to God,
a sacrifice of the other senses to love:
a sacrifice of touch and caress, of sight and of sound,
a sacrifice of taste.
But it could also be the other way around. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Secularism Envy?

Have you ever envied your totally secular friends?  The ones who don’t think or worry about God?  Who aren’t troubled by God?  Who are comfortable living in the world they can see and hear and touch and explain (if not now, someday)?  Those for whom “God” is a sociopolitical problem, cultural artifact, or distant memory from their childhood, nothing more?

I have.  In college, I studied philosophy and literature, not theology, because I wanted to be the kind of person who had nothing to do with God—an intellectual!  How could you be and intellectual and believe in God,  a holdover from a more primitive, less enlightened time?  When I went to the University of Chicago Divinity School to study history of religions with Mircea Eliade, I wanted to be like many of my classmates—interested in God only from the distancing vantage point of academia, not from within the standpoint of a faith community.  To be a person of faith meant you were not capable of true objectivity about your own religion or that of others.

Many times in my life I have wished I could just forget about God.  It’s nothing but trouble and embarrassment, being a person of faith  who is also a 21st century post-Enlightenment, post-Darwin, post-modern, post-post citizen. How can one defend oneself? There are no airtight proofs of God’s existence.  The reality and experience of God exceed the limits of reason.  The concepts we’ve inherited for talking about God, self, and world are woefully outmoded or just out of touch with the assumptions or worldviews of most people.  We often look like fools or are taken for fools. 

Here’s the burden or responsibility some of these fools bear:  finding ways to mediate between the wisdom of our faith and the best of contemporary culture’s rational understanding of the universe.  It’s a classic move among people of faith, faith seeking understanding. Origen, Philo, Augustine, Anselm,  Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn-Sina, Ibn-Rushd, Maimonides, Ibn-Ezra, Erasmus, Schleiermacher, Martin Buber, Mordecai Kaplan, and H. Richard Niebuhr practiced it.

It would be easier to ditch God and run with whatever current or perennial philosophy is hot.  I’ve tried.  I can’t do it.  I have to accept that I was born tuned to spirit.  Not everyone is.  That’s good, too.  And sometimes I wish I were like them.   But whether i like it or not, I’m one of those fools who dance to music some people can’t hear.  And that means I have to shoulder my part of the burden of finding new ways of practicing faith seeking understanding today. I’m often not sure how best to do that. Counter the fundamentalist attack on reason and science? Create new concepts and images for God that incorporate recent scientific understandings of matter and the universe?  Sidestep science with poetry?  Bracket God and focus on morality?  I’m still finding my way. What’s yours?

Monday, July 19, 2010

What Carries You Beyond?

No metaphor, simile, concept, or model can ever fully or adequately capture the reality of God. 

Still, we’re human: we talk. And if we’re going to talk about God—there’s no stopping us, it seems—then we need a wildly abundant garden of metaphors, similes, concepts, and models to draw from, so that we can point truly to that complex reality that goes beyond all our thoughts and imaginings.  Consider the diverse metaphors  for God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Father, Mother, Friend, Warrior, Shepherd, Lover, A  Woman Baking Bread, King, Eagle, Dove, Enemy, Compeller, Rock, Thunder, Storm, Mountain, Fountain, Ocean, Womb, Center, Place, Dwelling.  The list is long and it is open-ended.
Each of these images, whether it’s personal or impersonal, female or male, active or static, does the work of metaphor:  It carries us beyond our ordinary perception to taste something new of the reality of God, which is like and unlike all that we know.  In La métaphor vive (The Living Metaphor), Paul Ricouer notes the power that metaphor releases when two things like and unlike one another are juxtaposed.  The force of their collision explodes into new meaning.  We need metaphors to expand our awareness of all experience, including our experience and understanding of God.  And where God is concerned, we need even more metaphors.  Let a thousand  metaphors for God bloom! 

And yet, in different times and circumstances, certain metaphors dominate human consciousness. This is not necessarily a bad thing. True, some metaphors are used to to devalue and push out all others. Examples of this are all too easy to find.  But a single shared metaphor that is not a despot but primus inter pares can focus, unite, and guide a community or an individual.  There may be a thousand metaphors for God, but from this fertile garden which is the one (or ones) that looks and smells most beautiful to you?  Which is the one (or ones) that is alive for you?  That speaks the language you understand? That explodes into your consciousness and carries you beyond yourself to experience God more deeply?  It may not be the same metaphor your culture or faith community finds so compelling. It may be one that is unfamiliar or even repulsive to them. Yet it is yours, and it is to be cherished.

Metaphors for God are dynamic. The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities, for example, experienced God in different ways through the ages and developed new ways of relating to God and talking about God to reflect that new experience.  (See Karen Armstrong, The History of God; Jack Miles, The Biography of God; Ilana Pardes, The Biography of Ancient Israel).  The same is true for individuals.  We develop our own shorthand images for our personal experiences of God, and these change through our lifetime.  (See Ana-Maria Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God; James Fowler, Stages of Faith.).  The metaphor of God as Father may comfort a child, but when the child reaches adolescence she may need a new image that supports her growing independence—an eagle bearing her fledglings on her wings, perhaps; and when she reaches maturity, she may require a new image, such as Friend or Beloved. In every stage of communal and individual life crises and trauma can shatter our familiar images and force us to wander in search of a new focusing image.  As painful as this can be, it is inevitable, and it can lead to new awareness.

When I was a child the image of God as Father was comforting to me.  Because of my family, I would have found the image of God as Mother far too frightening. When I was an adolescent, the image of God as a rock in a changing desert landscape or as the purifying waters of life settled my spirit. When I became a feminist, I still did not warm to God as Mother.  Instead, nurturing images from nature, such as a well of living water, spoke to me.  During my many anxious years of converting to Judaism from Christianity I experienced God as a compelling force, more like Job’s destroying whirlwind than anything else.  As a Jew I discovered the beauty of the rabbinic image of God as Ha Makom, The Place which is the center and circumference of all that is, the only reference point for our lives. My journeys with the Sufi community have reawakened in me the image of God as the Beloved, an image I have known well since childhood from the prophets and the Song of Songs.  My love for the work of poet-novelist-theologian Edmond Jabès has brought me the evocative image of God as Question. (See Jabès, The Book of Questions). 

What’s your history with images of God? What is the metaphor(s) for God that opens up new meaning and experience for you now, carries you beyond?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Crying Out for a Vision

To remain present to the Presence every moment is a continual challenge. We keep slipping back inside the prison of our fears, anxieties, disappointments, anger, pride, desire.  Once back behind the bars of our self, how do we escape? There are times when a liberator comes to us from outside, saying just the right word, hitting just the right note, performing just the right action that bumps us out of our narrow vision to see ourselves and the world anew.  This agent of liberation could be a teacher, a friend, a stranger on the street, a book, a piece of music, a wonder of nature, an illness, a trauma, a crisis, a gift—anything.  But what of the times when no agent appears? When we are left inside, alone, and our faith, once a strong flame,  flickers in the winds howling around and inside us? When we feel abandoned, desperate? 

Cry out to God. Literally.  Practice the kind of prayer that Hasids call hitbodedut.  Seclude yourself and begin talking out loud to God. Scream. Cry.  Complain.  Lament.  Accuse. Give voice to the depths of your feeling, the not so flattering ones included.  Don’t be afraid to expose the worst of your personality.  Forget your image of yourself as a spiritual or pious  or loving person and just speak from your heart—all of it. 

What kind of spiritual counsel and practice is this?  Isn’t it wrong to complain? Are we not supposed to bless and thank God for all that happens, the sorrows as well as the joys, evil as well as good?  Isn’t it blasphemous to speak to God this way?  Are we not to praise God’s name and stand in awe before the Presence?  Yes, yes, yes, and yes. 

And yet hitbodedut is a practice that can break you free of your little self so you can stand in the Presence in awe, praise, and thanksgiving.  Here’s how it works.  You express all that is in your heart in the language of your heart, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches, talking in whatever way will lead you to “experience true heartbreak.” (Likutey Moharan B 25; in Aryeh Kaplan, The Light Beyond, 226) He doesn’t mean only until you feel the full force of the pain or sorrow or fury you are carrying; he means until your heart breaks open.  You cry out, giving full vent to the depths of your heart. As you talk to God, you begin to hear the words you are saying. You hear how silly or petty or angry or unhappy or blaming or lost you are.  You begin to “see” yourself from a distance, as if from a larger field  of vision. You and your experience and feelings and personality are put in perspective and so become fundamentally altered.  Perhaps, seeing yourself from this perspective, you begin to have compassion on that little self daring to speak so boldly about its little concerns to the One.   It may take minutes,  hours, or days, but if you are sincere in crying out to God in this way, you will be bumped out of your self-concern into a larger space where you can breathe spirit freely and calmly. 
Complaining is a dangerous habit. It quickly becomes a trap.  But a sincere complaint, spoken from the heart directly to God ,is one way to draw closer to the Presence. The Psalmist knew this.  Why have you abandoned me?  How long must I wait?  My enemies surround me. The prophets, too. You have ringed me about with walls, set obstacles in my path, sent lions to devour me.  And Job, that troubled friend of God. I cry out to You, but you do not answer me…You have become cruel to me; with your powerful hand you harass me.

Hitbodedut is also a sign of trust in God. The Psalmists, prophets, Hasids, and others who shout out to God are not afraid to show themselves in all their humanness to God; for they trust that the All Merciful will not judge them for what they do not yet see or accept but will accompany them on their journey to full communion with  the One. Like a child raining puny fists on the chest of its father, or a lover crying out to his or her beloved, “Be with me as you were in the youth of our love!”,  they know they are loved. They trust that the One who loves them wholly and unconditionally will never abandon them, but will wait them out and guide them as they journey closer.  If they did not, they would not be locked in this embrace with God, crying out with such passion.  Being held in this loving embrace while they cry out is what brings them the calm they need to realize they are not little selves straining against prison bars but the friends of God.

The practice of hitbodedut also sets a liberating limit to the troublings of the heart, whether they take the form of complaint or railing or tears. Practice this conversation with God one hour a day, the Hasidic masters say, and then leave it behind and move through the remainder of the day in joy, free to serve.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who’s present? Who’s absent?

We long for God’s presence.  We lament God’s absence.  But what do we mean by this?  We often speak of wanting God to be with us, to comfort, protect, guide, or calm us.  We pray for this, in words and silence.  But what if we turn this inside out, the way Martin Buber does when he says, “There is no Presence for those who are not present”?  Instead of imagining God coming to be present with us, imagine our being present to the Presence in which we live and move and have our being.  This requires its own kind of discipline—removing the veils and masks our egos and minds and hearts throw up that obstruct our experience of the Presence.  When we carefully, patiently strip away these obstructions, we are able to breathe spirit freely, and we are released into a new way of being—being present to the Presence.  For Buber, being present to the Presence is the definition of prayer.  For many Native American tribes it is as well; they call it “paying attention.”  

When you leave behind the demands of your ego, your concepts and self-consciousness, and your passions, you experience the calm and calming liberation of entering a place far greater than yourself, your family, your community, your country, or your culture or race or gender—a place where you belong with and among all, but where you are not the center or even a focal point.  Here there is rest and joy and freedom.  You never want to leave this place.  (The Place, HaMakom, was one of the names the rabbis of the Talmud used for God. It is a rich image—one I’ll return to in a later post.)
You can practice being present to the Presence as you move through every moment of each day,  You’ll probably slip out of this presence back into your narrower world of self, but you can always slip back into it.  The goal is to be fully present to the Presence that is All, that is Whole, more and more of your life.  The Navajo call it “walking in beauty.”

May we all practice being present to the Presence, breathe spirit freely, walk in beauty.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How does one talk about God?

Out of silence. In order to talk about God without speaking total nonsense and causing trouble, we need to cultivate silence. The mystics of many traditions remind us—from Dionysius the Areopagite to Amma Theodora to Maimonides to Meister Eckhart to Hildegarde of Bingen to Krishnamurti to Rav Isaac Kook—we know nothing about God. And as the eight century mystic Rabi’a teaches,
Since no one really knows anything about God,
those who think they do are just
(Daniel Ladinsky, Love Poems to God, 27)
Whatever and whoever God is, the reality of God ultimately lies beyond our grasp. We with our limited minds and hearts cannot comprehend it. We cannot contain it in concepts, images, or words, however complex or evocative they may be. It will always break the bonds we place around it. The most appropriate response then is silence.

And yet. And yet we must speak of it, for this reality is that in which we live and move and have our being. How can we, the creatures born to consciousness and language, not talk of this reality that impinges on and supports every moment of our existence? Like many mystics, Rav Shneur Zalman of Ladi experienced the power of this paradox:
The rav asked a disciple who had just entered his room: “Moshe, what do we mean when we say ‘God’”? The disciple was silent. The rav asked him a second and third time. Then he said: “Why are you silent?”
     “Because I do not know.”
     “Do you think I know?” said the Rav. “But I must say it, for it is so, and therefore I must say it: He is definitely there, and except for him nothing is definitely there—and this is He.”                (Buber, Tales of the Hasidim I:263)
To live this paradox of silence and talking about God is the goal. All talk of God must emerge out of silence, be limned by silence, and return to silence.
What does this look like in practice? Cultivating a life of prayer and meditation beyond words in which one experiences the boundlessness of The Beyond. Taming the tongue so that one speaks only that which is necessary, straining to say that which one does not understand. Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan quotes this advice on speaking from a dervish, “’Only speak when you realize that you can’t say what you want to say. If you think you can say it, then don’t say it.’” (The Call of the Dervish, 30) In short, make humility your practice. Speaking of God out of and with silence is part of the prophet Micah’s (6:8) counsel to “walk humbly with your God.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

Welcome to the conversation!

Everywhere today God’s name is invoked. Yet there are so few places to have a genuine conversation about God, a true I-Thou dialogue in which the participants are present to the depth and complexity of the reality we call God, aware of the limitations of their own concepts, assumptions, and perspective, and able to see and hear the others as they are. Conversations that are dialogues are not arguments in which opposing adversaries compete for the one single truth. Nor are they sales pitches for the best product or tradition, or bids for confirmation of one’s position. True conversations are more like this: navigating an ocean with a group of strangers who are unlikely travelling companions, each one boarding the boat in a different place, each one speaking a different language, all working together as a crew along the way to keep the boat afloat and moving forward, each one disembarking at a different place—yet each traveler arriving at a new place, a place different from where she or he began, a place they have not been before, everyone transformed by the journey.

This is the kind of conversation about God I crave. Am I capable of it? I hope so. At least I aim to try, with the wisdom of Samuel Beckett to guide me: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”

I invite you to board the boat and join me on this spiritual adventure. What I’m interested in is seeking spiritual insights that can revive and refresh spirits weary of arguments and images that were once fresh in their day but have now worn thin. When the ancient Hebrew prophets had a question about what was happening in their community, they would go “inquire of the Lord” for a fresh word to bring to their new experience. We live in the twenty-first century. The Enlightenment has been over for 300 years, and we’re still in a quandary about how to talk about God in a way that makes sense to intelligent people who want to deny neither religion nor science and philosophy. So let’s talk inquiring.  I’ll offer questions, reflections, or suggested readings as catalysts. Let’s start talking and see what kind of journey we create together. As the theologian Nelle Morton says, “The journey is home.” As Rabbi Hayyim teaches, this is how we journey together:

In the month of Elul when the people prepared their souls for the days of judgment, Rabbi Hayyim was in the habit of telling stories to a tune that moved all his listeners to turn to God. Once he told this story: “A man lost his way in a great forest. After a while another man lost his way and chanced on the first man. Without knowing what had happened to him, he asked the man the way out of the woods. ‘I don’t know,” said the first man. ‘But I can point out the ways that lead further into the thicket, and after that let us try to find the way together.’ “So, my congregation,” the rabbi concluded his story, “let us look for the way together.” (Buber, Tales of the Hasidim II:213)