Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The best thing about having read Velvet Elvis (see Monday's post) is that I think it will give me a week or so of things to post about. There's lots of food for thought in it, even when I disagree with him. Here is something that I will pass along in that vein (food for thought, that is). Early in his pastoral life, Bell burns out and ends up going to see a therapist. (which is fine by me, I've seen a couple of excellent therapists and have found it very helpful.) And in his very first session, the therapist tells him something to the effect of "Your only task is the relentless pursuit of becoming the person God created you to be." Interesting, yes? relentless pursuit. I like that. Who knows if it's literally true, but it's interesting to think about.

Of course, then he practically ruins it by adding, "Anything outside of that is sin and you need to repent of it." which is so much in the style of things I would have heard as a child that it practically made me laugh.

But the first bit is still worth thinking about.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

We went to see the Spiderwick Chronicles last night. It's OK, but not worth seeing if you're not a fan of the books. My daughter loved the books and we wanted an excuse for a family outing, so we went. There was one moment that stuck out for me, completely out of context, that I thought I would pass along. The main character is Jared, a 12-ish year old boy who comes to live in an enormous old house in the country. The story revolves around a book, a field guide, that contains some powerful secrets about the natural world. The book has become highly sought after by various different forces, particularly an evil guy named Morgrath or something like that. Jared tells his great uncle that he is afraid of what will happen if the book is lost. And his uncle replies, "You've read the book. The knowledge is in you. You are the book."

Which is kind of an interesting new way of looking at how to interpret one's sacred text, if that's not too much of a logical leap for this early in the morning. Once you've read it, digested it, you've worked on it and it's worked on you, it lives inside you. Literalism is irrelevant in that case, I think.

Monday, February 18, 2008

the problem of wineskins

I've been reading Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (by Rob Bell) for awhile now. I read about a third of it last fall, and then finished it over the last week or so. His writing style drives me nuts at times, but his target audience is probably mostly people in their teens and twenties, so I tried to keep that in mind. But style aside, he has some interesting things to say. I found myself at various different points wanting to wave it around and say, "See, someone else thinks about these things, too!" Particularly when he was talking about inerrancy, although I don't think he ever uses that term. That was the high point of the book for me, since he covers many of the same difficulties in interpreting scripture that I have in this blog. He also pokes holes in many of "sacred" beliefs that turn out to be just part of middle class American culture. For example, he makes the point that he is put off by any political group that would call themselves "Christian" because of the assumption that all Christians will have the same opinions. What if he feels, as a Christian, that the most Christian thing he can do is vote in the exact opposite way? All along these bits, I was nodding my head vigorously, happily.

But I ended up being disappointed. He still seems to come down on the side of mostly conservative Christianity. He never really gets specific about many issues, so it's hard to say. It reminded me of a book by Philip Yancey that I read years ago, Disappointment with God. In both books, the author does a bang-up job of running through all the inconsistencies and difficulties of what happens when Americanized, middle-class-ized Christianity runs up against the wider world, although neither of them phrases it exactly like that. But also in both books, the author ends up defaulting (in my opinion) in favor of staying in a church that would be clearly recognizable as having most of the same flaws that they spent the first half of the book pointing out. The message, in both books, seemed to me to be, "Well, yes, you can argue that the theology of middle-class American Christianity is flawed here, here, here and here; but you know, they're mostly good guys, so let's just keep paddling along in the same boat with them anyway." In other words, let's continue to vigorously evangelize people of other religions, let's feel comfortable condemning the sexual lives of people we know nothing about, let's all vote Republican. I'm exaggerating, of course. And it's more of an exaggeration with Bell than it is with Yancey (although it's been ten years since I read that book, so maybe I shouldn't even say that). But what about those of us who can't do that? Who have proceeded far enough out on the limb that it just doesn't feel right coming back in?

It's exactly the problem of putting new wine in old wineskins. Jesus' use of this analogy is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). If you put new wine in old wineskins, the old wineskins will burst. It's a common enough metaphor, one that has been used by Christians for centuries in all sorts of contexts. Once you reach the point where your understanding has changed, where your reading of scripture has gone beyond the point of just being further out on the bell curve of the variety of opinions in your church, can you continue to put yourself in the same old container, the same old church, with the same old label? Can you just give in and say, "Oh, well, I'm staying here because....." insert reason here... it's easier than rocking the boat? my family would be so disappointed if I left the church? I really love the people in this church even though I disagree with them?

It's just so damn complicated. Because all of those are the reasons why I still go to a Christian church a couple of times a month, however grudgingly it may be on certain Sundays. Most of the time I don't have a problem with considering myself to be a Christian, as in "a follower of the teachings of Christ" (a definition I first heard in an interview with Bono). But my belief system has become so far out there that I'm pretty sure that if I were to spell out exactly what I believe, most of the Christians I know would say that I'm not Christian. One writer I read last year said he quit going to church when he could no longer say the creeds, since the creeds were (to him, anyway) the essence of what it means to be Christian. It's been years since I could say the creeds, but I'm still going to church.

I guess my question is, at what point are you so far out there that you can no longer participate? You need a new wineskin. I think I'm getting there. Neither Bell nor Yancey has reached this point, I think, since they leave this question almost entirely unaddressed. In the final page of his book, Bell says you have two choices: become bitter and filled with hate and leave the church; or remain hopeful and "reclaim the innocence" of your faith and stay in the church. But of course there are plenty of other options out there, including remain hopeful and reclaim your innocence and leave the church. which is why I was disappointed. I'd like to have some advice here, some input into how one figures this out. But it wasn't in Velvet Elvis.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

OK, so here's a theory. Best read late at night, which is when I usually think about it, though I'm typing it out in the morning.

Eons ago, before there were stars or black holes or even the universe itself; before time had started, there existed a Something that was Everything. There are no good words to describe this Something, because our words are bound by time and our sense of space and dimension. This Something can hardly even be imagined, let alone understood. But we must call it something, so we will call it Bob. Bob is a vast field of everything, holding all potential within itself. Everything that might ever exist is present in nascent form in Bob: light and dark, heavy and light, wet and dry, existence and non-existence. But since Bob is everything and everything is Bob, Bob cannot understand who or what it is, or why it exists, or what it might be able to be. So Bob decides to make itself into something, to more or less activate its potential and see what happens.

And in that instant, the Universe begins. Father Time winds up his clock. Mother Universe unfurls her starry cloak. The Big Bang occurs, to use language that is already becoming archaic. And it takes all of it -- all the stars in all of the galaxies, all of the black holes, all of the planets, all of the mountains and lakes and highways and skyscrapers, all of the life forms, starfish and hooded mergansers and oak trees and turtles and mosquitoes; all kinds of humans-- willful two-year-olds and crotchety 89-year-olds and bright-eyed 18-year-olds-- whatever life forms exist on other planets -- all of it, to express what/who Bob is. All of it. Bob is every atom, every quark, every gluon. Bob is always watching, learning, figuring things out, understanding what it is, what the totality of everything is.

And a further interesting part of this theory. Bob is also still there behind everything, the original vast Something, and you and I can interact with it. But Bob doesn't have a preset personality, a character or a way of being that would make sense to you and me. It is far too vast for that, far beyond what our tiny minds can comprehend. When we interact with Bob, to some extent we get what we expect. If we expect loving acceptance, there it is. If we expect a cruel and demanding taskmaster, OK, Bob can do that, too. If we expect nothing but sensory input, that's all you'll get.

So, that's all. No conclusions, just some late night ideas. Apologies for calling Bob "it" but it seemed much better than assigning a gender, and there's no other way to do it in English. I think you can sort of fit this in with string theory if you allow for more than one Bob. Or if Bob is so immeasurably vast that it can manage gazillions of universes with ease, I suppose.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I changed my profile to read that I am a "Buddhist Christian skeptic" recently, but I'm changing it back. "Agnostic" may not have precisely the meaning that I want, but it's better than skeptic. Maybe I should just change it to "terminally undecided."

more accurate.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

thinking about Buddhism- detachment

This was the hardest one for me to wrap my brain around, and I have to be honest-- it still is not all that appealing to me. But the Buddhist idea of being detached, of not allowing yourself to be attached to anything, still has been very interesting to me as a mental exercise. Again, I think part of the reason that it took me so long to even begin to understand detachment is because there is no good word in English for what is meant when a Buddhist uses it. Before I knew anything about Buddhism, if you had asked me to tell you what it means to say someone is "detached," I would have said they were emotionally cold, unavailable, and stand-offish. But I don't think that is what Buddhists mean by the term at all. The word "un-attached" is somewhat closer to the meaning, I think, but still doesn't quite get it.

My understanding is that Buddhists believe that everything we do and see and feel is dictated by our thoughts. And our thoughts are nothing but our perceptions; they have no literal value, no basis in what is truly real. So there is no point in becoming attached to the way we think. You may think that it's depressing when it rains. You may think that you are worthless because your parents were so horrible when you were a child. You may think that you aren't capable of achieving greatness because you tried once or twice and failed. You may think that your neighbor is angry at you because he barely spoke to you at the mailbox yesterday. All of those are thoughts that could have a strong influence on how you act, maybe with all kinds of consequences that could go on for a lifetime. But all of those thoughts are just your impressions, they're just smoke, or maybe soap bubbles. They have no validity beyond what you give them. They may or may not have anything to do with anything.

So the idea is that there is no point in getting attached to your ideas or opinions. The goal is to live your life with an open mind, not let pre-conceptions get in the way of your direct experience of reality. Try to drop all your opinions and just live, keep breathing. Just see what happens. I'm not sure I'm explaining this very well. I'm trying to learn to approach my experience with a feeling of softness and vulnerability, rather being defensive and clutching tightly onto my ideas about what is scary and what is impossible.

Each of us has situations where this is harder or easier, depending on our own experience and personality. Ideas and objects and people that are particularly difficult to let go of are "sticky"-- they cause us to grab on tight to our fears and insecurities and not want to let go. We know that new pair of shoes would (briefly) make us feel better so we clench tightly the idea that having a new pair of shoes will make us happy. We are absolutely positive that this job is essential to staying financially solvent, so we fuss and fret about every little detail of what goes on at work. We try to protect ourselves by clutching tightly onto whatever makes us feel safe.

But the only thing that is dependable, really, is that things will change. The tighter we clutch, the more seriously we take our attachments, the more miserable we will be when they fail us. When the shoes don't provide durable happiness. When my job is eliminated and I don't know what to do.

In classical Buddhism, you want to get to the point where you attach no importance to anything in this world. And that's where I get stuck (um, so to speak). I do think there are things in this world that are worth forming attachments to, even if it will hurt like hell when the attachment fails. And I think if you follow the philosophy of non-attachment to its conclusion, it is difficult to make a case for art (art for art's sake, anyway)-- which is very important to me. So a classical Buddhist would probably just think that I am admitting to my immaturity, and of course I am. But I'm OK with that.

So that's my take on it. Since I think this is the last of my posts on Buddhism (for now, anyway), I'll just say it one more time: I'm a beginner in the study of Buddhism. If someone out there with more experience would chime in and clarify things, I'd appreciate it.


Friday, February 01, 2008

thinking about Buddhism- meditation

When I first came in contact with Buddhism, more than ten years ago, it wasn't very appealing to me. The couple of books I had read and the Buddhists I was acquainted with at that time made it sound like it was all about discipline-- being cool and detached, unemotional, your thoughts under perfect control. I was curious about it, so I tried meditation a bit and read a bit more, but it went nowhere. But about four or five years ago, I ran across the writings of Pema Chodron and met some different Buddhists, and my impression began to change.

The heart of Buddhist practice is meditation. But my early understanding of what that meant was looking at it slantwise. I thought the idea was to completely shut down all thought in your brain and try to merge with the Great Nothing. I don't think I had any idea exactly what that meant, it was just my impression of Buddhist meditation. When I sit down to meditate now, my goal isn't to stop thinking, what I want is to create a little space between me and my thoughts, to watch them, see them go by-- the classic example is like watching clouds float across the sky. (I especially like that example when it is the night sky, with clouds floating by in front of the vast starry expanse.) The idea is to not attach any significance to them, to realize that they're just thoughts, electrical impulses that have no meaning outside what I give them.

I should confess here that I am terrible at this. I have what I think of as Busy Brain Syndrome. Not that meditation is easy for anyone, but I think a lot. In the space of a minute, I might think about what we're having for dinner, who's picking up my son from school, what responsibilities are "real" vs. ones that I've just picked up out of guilt, where my daughter is going to college next year, whether or not I'm over-involved in her decision, is that load of laundry done, and if evil starts small, how am I participating? And honestly, I have rarely managed to stop this flow of constant mental chatter for more than a minute or two, although I've spent far longer than that sitting and working on it.

but what I'm learning to do is to just observe all that constant stream of thought. Just sit and watch it. When I first started, I would imagine that I had some sort of helmet that completely covered my head and it was all covered with lights and dials and wires that were constantly blinking and humming and clicking, representing all my mental activity. And then I would just slip out of the helmet and leave it sitting there, flashing and humming and clicking away, all by itself. It is such an enormous relief sometimes to leave it aside. According to the Buddhist teachers I've read in the last few years, the mind is innately spacious. We just have to step away from the claustrophobic stream of thoughts that makes us feel stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious to experience that spacious, open feeling. I've only rarely experienced this; I'm not the most disciplined of practitioners. but I've experienced it enough to continue to work at it.

Should I put my disclaimer in every day? I'm a beginning student of Buddhism. Take all of this with a grain of salt.