Monday, April 7, 2014

A living faith...

I have a nuanced but imperfect faith: there are gaps I cannot explain and aspects I have chosen to embrace without complete comprehension. I think that is the working definition of faith, yes? It is trust that God is God. In this trust, I don't have to pretend to have a wisdom that can explain all things to all people. Rather, like the mother of Jesus, my calling is to ponder many things in my heart - holding them together - without knowing their full meaning. The gospel of John puts it like this at the foot of the Cross: Mother, behold thy son.

This is a call to contemplation - taking a long, loving look at what is real - and holding it deep within my heart. Some consider this a "simple faith" or even a "childlike faith" - and that is partly true. There is a deep peace that comes in surrender, acceptance and trust. Like Psalm 131 says:

Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
   my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
   too great and too marvelous for me. 

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
   like a weaned child with its mother;
   my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

At the same time, however, it is a complex faith - filled with paradox - and saturated with unknowing. When I was doing post-graduate work at San Francisco Theological Seminary, there was a deep emphasis on making all of our academic work valuable for the local church. As my adviser used to say, "If you cannot talk about human suffering and God's place within it in a way that matters to the people in your congregation, you shouldn't be there." A bit harsh, perhaps, but equally true. No question vexes both clergy and congregation more than this one. Another challenge from the seminary was equally demanding: "Because you can never know all things, you have to figure out which gaps in your understanding you can live with." That is, with humility and patience, a pastor must come to terms with the limits of human wisdom and the vastness of God's mysteries.

Anything less, it seems to me, is hubris. In time I came to believe that a great deal of human suffering (but not all) can be explained and understood as part of God's creation: we were formed - and creation is so ordered - in such a way that we can learn from our failures and go deeper into grace through our sins. It is painful. It is often ugly. And it is always tragic. But, as Paul writes, in ALL things God works for good with those who love the Lord. Not that all things are good, but that all things can lead us into greater intimacy and trust of the Lord if we are willing to follow the way of the Cross.
Fr. Richard Rohr has been exploring this downward spiral as the way of holy wisdom for the past few years with verve and zest.  In this extended quote from two of his daily reflections, the central symbol of Christianity - the Cross - is shown to be the way of a faith that grows closer to the truth of the Lord even through our suffering.  It is NOT, mind you, the same as saying God caused suffering. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that God invites us to use our suffering to experience deeper love. 

The Cross teaches us to win by losing. But the ego doesn’t like that. The ego wants to win by winning! That’s the nature of the human psyche. And when the ego is not exposed for what it is, which Jesus’ teaching does very clearly, it simply gets out of control.

In a masterful game of smoke and mirrors, the Christian church has focused for centuries on judging the shadow self, which Jesus never wasted time on. He put all of his energy into revealing the ego self. But we have spent most of our time making people feel guilty about their shadow self, that part of us for which Jesus has great pity and sympathy and compassion. Jesus is never upset at sinners; he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners (i.e., those who have not faced their shadow and often project their evil elsewhere).

Look at Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee’s ego had him trying to engineer his own righteousness. He could not see the shadow of his arrogance and judgment. The tax collector saw his sin, and realized his complete reliance on God’s mercy. It was the tax collector who went home “justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18: 14).

The commonly accepted version of Christianity has largely developed in response to individual ego needs for worthiness and significance. But in the biblical tradition you do not see this self-made, autonomous “getting it right” agenda that you see in later images of Christian holiness. Biblical rightness is primarily right relationship! There are no Promethean figures in the Bible. With the possible exception of Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Jesus himself, almost every other biblical character, whether in Hebrew or Christian scriptures, is shown as a transformed sinner, as someone who first does it wrong before he or she ever does it right. The Bible is full of flawed, wounded individuals.

By the grace of God, saints and holy ones of every century still got the
point of the transforming power of the path of descent, but only if they were willing to go through those painful descents that Catholics called the “way of the cross,” which Jesus called “the sign of Jonah,” which Augustine called the “paschal mystery,” or the Apostles Creed called “the descent into hell.” 

Without these journeys, there’s something you simply don’t understand about the nature of God or the nature of the soul. “Can you drink of the cup that I am going to drink?” Jesus said to James and John, who still wanted roles. “We can!” they responded, and he said, to paraphrase, “Indeed, you will and you must, but roles are not my concern” (see Matthew 20:22-23). Religion is largely populated by people afraid of hell; spirituality begins to make sense to those who have been through hell—that is, who have drunk deeply of life’s difficulties.

Christians speak of the “paschal mystery,” the process of loss and renewal that was lived and personified in the death and raising up of Jesus. We can affirm that belief in ritual and song, as we do in the Eucharist, but until people have lost their foundation and ground, and then experienced God upholding them so that they come out even more alive on the other side, the expression “paschal mystery” is little understood and not essentially transformative.

I have come to embrace what Rohr articulates so clearly:  until we have lost our foundation and experienced God's upholding, faith is more of an intellectual construct than a part of our soul.

1 comment:

Peter said...

"The sign of Jonah"--another sound of the penny dropping...

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