Monday, January 9, 2017

Different Kinds of "Narrative"

I mentioned in my last post that I was drawn back into Christianity by re-reading the Scriptures through the lens of early Friends (Quakers) and their way of seeing the Scripture story as a spiritual "narrative" that all who seek God pass through in some way. Their approach was never called "narrative theology" - that term apparently arose in the late 20th century as a kind of reaction to the theological liberalism that arose in the 19th century among Christian thinkers who sought to integrate their theological approach with the scientific thinking of that era. A thinker and theologian who was very influential in my own journey was Stanley Hauerwas. It is from him that I actually learned the term narrative theology. And I understood his approach to be that the scriptures set forth a story that people, over history, incorporated themselves into in some way. How you did that was personal, but it played a large role in shaping the lives of those who "bought into it" - who decided how they would live their lives by buying in to the story and modeling their lives after those who were part of that story.

This is certainly one way to approach the Scriptures narratively. But as I've studied the Scriptures more over the years, I've come to see things a little differently. I think it is a little off to ascribe the idea of a narrative approach to the Christian message to modern times. When I read the Scriptures, I am constantly reminded that all of the writers who contributed to the creation of the Scriptures were "narrative" theologians at some level. All of them were adding on to the contributions of earlier writers or editors, and they "added on" in ways that brilliantly interwove their ideas with the ideas and images of earlier writers. That is what is so miraculous about the text of the Bible - Old and New Testaments. This "book" - this compilation of oral traditions, myths, poetry, hymnology, history, critique - is not the work of one creative mind or pen. It is the creation of probably hundreds or thousands if we add in the editors, compilers and translators. They (It) is not the Word of God, but the words of those in close communion with God [and with each other] since the beginning. So how can it possibly be that the themes and images and metaphors and story lines weave together as if they came from one creative genius? I DON'T KNOW, but I am in awe before it as I am before the glories of nature when I open my eyes to them.

So, when I talk about "narrative theology," I am not really speaking of 20th century theologians, I am speaking of all those believers who brought the writings together and those who wrote them, like the writers of the gospels, the disciples and especially the writer of John's gospel - and, of course, the letters of Paul. They filled the gospels with allusions and direct references to the narrative they saw Jesus fulfilling. I am not sure - there is no way anyone can really know - if some of the story they told was historically true or just inserted to assert a theological truth they saw. Did Mary and Joseph really go to Egypt to escape a slaughter of infants they believed Herod was going to carry out? Or were they simply trying to link Jesus and Moses together in the narrative web. In Hosea 11 it is made clear that God's people -- and his "son" - would be called out of Egypt, and Deuteronomy 18:15 also contained words of prophecy: "Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself [Moses], from among yourselves, from your own brothers; to him you must listen." The context of Jesus being threatened with death at the hands of a tyrant like Moses in his youth; and the bringing of the anticipated prophet out of Egypt, these are details that interweave Jesus' story with Moses' in a way that cannot be just happenstance. Did they happen historically? This I doubt. The two more "historically based" gospels - Matthew and Luke - do not agree on these details; but clearly the addition of these details helped readers to see who it was the gospel writer believed he was writing about.



Thursday, April 21, 2016

A "Narrative" Approach to Scripture

Everyone is connected to multiple "narratives" in our lives: the family narrative - who our parents are or were, where they came from, what they did and what kind of personalities they had; the connected national narrative - how the family narrative weaves into the historic narrative of our country; and then multiple narratives having to do with religion, ethnicity, race. These narratives shape our identities in very profound ways.

I don't think I realized when I started reading the Bible how important it would be in connecting me with yet another larger narrative, a narrative of people seeking to connect themselves to God, to see their lives as part of an overarching and deeply meaningful plan. I started reading it when I was about 9 years old after deciding that it probably was the most important piece of literature ever written or rather assembled. I always knew it was not the work of one author. It was a hodgepodge of pieces transmitted orally for centuries, then written down and preserved and added to. After starting out on the King James version my grandfather got for me as a child, I soon put it down for years. Then, when I was 23 and very much an atheist and political activist, returning to college to get a Master's degree in English at UNC, Chapel Hill, I bought a beautiful Jerusalem Bible. It was in fact the first thing I bought when I went to Chapel Hill. Again, I started reading it from page one and read it through as if it were a novel. It didn't bring me back into the Church I had briefly joined and then left in 1964. But I loved it as literature, mythology, poetry and history.

Some thirteen years later, after I'd gotten my Masters, been married, had children and then divorced, I started reading it again; but this time I was in a different, more open state of mind. And I was reading it along with the writing of early Friends' (Quakers') accounts of their conversion experiences and realized that they saw in the Scripture narrative an array of "types" or "figures" that not only led through the Old Covenant to the New Covenant in Christ, but also reflected an interior spiritual experience that was archetypal in many ways.  It told of the whole journey of "man" (all of us) from creation through sin, to a spiritual exodus through a massive desert, guided by rules or law, through more shallowness, unfaithfulness and conflict to a place of rest and peace. Virtually every early Quaker wrote of the journey through the various "ministrations" of God to a resting place "in Christ," in his resurrection. These early Friends were not called "narrative theologians" - that term was not yet in the landscape of religious discussion - but they were.  Indeed the writers of Scripture and the apostles of Jesus were "narrative" theologians, seeing this story play out in the life, death and resurrection of their Lord.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

From Inner Core to Looking Out and Back

That undeniable level of experience, which we often tag with the word "emotional" - depriving it at some other level of seriousness - is, I think, the level on which our faith is truly constructed. Typically the emotions that propel us toward's that deepest reality - God - are the following:

Awe: being overwhelmed by the beauty and order of nature - the stars at night, the rising and setting sun, the landscapes we see every day, the stunning variety of life forms, and our capacity to ponder it all.

Cries for help: trying to cope with the heart-wrenching tragedies that life brings, the neediness we have for help in finding a way forward, the need for a touch of love much deeper and more constant that the love anyone simply human can show us.

Thankfulness: the sense of happiness and peace we feel when critical needs are met, when love and assistance seems to flow from the well of blessings that also seem to come our way.

While these are the main experiences that open us to the "divine," there are others that had played a major role in my life: guilt was one, the guilt I had as a child for creating a world of lies when I was about 8 years old that made it impossible for me to invite friends into my life. I did not "confess" these lies to those who had heard them from my lips, but when given a new opportunity to start things over in a new place, I made a promise to an inner presence I called God, what I would now call a "covenant," to live life differently, to live it based on telling the truth.

But while these deep impulses, "motions," or "commitments" are foundational for all of us, we tend to minimize their centrality in how we shape our lives and turn either to an established set of explanations that the people around us use to articulate "truths" - usually the religious or ideological "landscape" we happen to grow up in, or, if we're not rooted in any particular tradition, to more intellectual, word-based, idea-based grounds for discussing who we are, what we believe and what Truth is, the philosophical notions we become introduced to as we go through school.

As a person who was not really born into a religious family and did not spend early childhood going to church or synagogue or mosque, I still knew even when I was ten, that a lot of people built their beliefs on a book called the Bible. I remember at that age having a conversation with a friend about what book we'd take with us onto an island if we could only have one thing to read for the rest of our lives.  I chose the Bible, and I explained why - because it probably had been important to more people throughout history than any other book. I think it was shortly after this that my grandfather took me to a Macy's store at the Cross-County Shopping Center and got me a beautiful King James Version of the Bible. And because my grandmother had died a little while before this - an event that caused an aunt of mine to step in, have me baptized into the Episcopal Church so I could go with her and my cousins to church and feel part of it - I started reading that book. I read it from the beginning up to somewhere around the psalms and then put it down. It wasn't a "sacred" book to me; it was just a book. I didn't realize at the time how important it would become to me.



Friday, April 1, 2016

The Doubt Hurdle in Modern Times

Doubt is part of the faith-net. We are all Thomas-like, at some level yearning to be able to put our mental fingers on Christ's wounds to "know" that he is really in our lives. For us "moderns" - post scientific revolution - the challenge of doubt is even greater since all things spiritual have to do battle with the mindset that what we can "know" is all that really matters. We cannot "know" anything about God or about Jesus - or Moses or Muhammad - or anyone. We live in a world where we do know experientially that we cannot completely rely on any human account of events in the past, even things just a few days ago. And the advances of science, the amazing achievements that have flowed from human efforts to understand and find the laws that govern the physical world are awe inspiring.

My faith in God is not based on what I can know. It is based in all honesty on internal commitments or "leaps of faith" that my mind, heart and soul have made to experiences in my life that seem somehow more real to me than anything I have ever learned: a sense that there was some "being" with "eyes on my soul" that I swore an oath of integrity to when I was still a child, that there was a power that surrounded me that felt like encouraging love, a pillar of faithfulness to me that I could never really doubt in any deep sense of that word. I doubted intellectually, because I could not ever find arguments that could serve as "proof" that Jesus even existed historically in exactly to detail set forth in the gospels. But he was there in me, in some place deeper than my mind, when I was suffering great stress and went through a hypnotism session with a doctor that led me straight to Jesus' face and this was during a period of some fifteen years when I would have told you I was an atheist. And I remember also thinking during that time that God - if there was a God - would rather have me be honest about my inability to believe than pretend that I was a believer. Such irony!

Modernists need to consider that there might be a level of "reality" that is beyond the scope of our scientific inquiry. It is a level in us on which we build our lives, construct our values and make commitments that give what we call meaning or purpose to our lives.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sharing in Christ's Resurrection

This seems pretty exciting to me, getting back to my blog after several years of silence. I have struggled over the call in me to write, to share my thoughts on life and the world, and it hasn't been easy. I am happy I was able to share the many years of Scripture reading and study and contemplation, but it was easier when I was just recounting the passages I had read and making comments on them. Now, I am mostly just writing from my head, and it's a 70 year old head that doesn't work quite as well as it has in the past. But it is Christ in me that brings me back always to life and away from decay and despair. I must trust. There will be many things I hope that end up on these pages, and I pray that they may all be rooted in love and appreciation for life and growth and change.

The first things I want to share is that I was recently accepted back into membership in the Westbury Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. I am so thankful. I first became a Friend in 1980 in Asheville, NC. This was 16 years after I had joined the Catholic Church in 1964 and then slipped into a time of doubt and political activism. It was through Friends, early Friends, that I had been able to find my way back to Jesus, and that resurrected faith would eventually lead me back to the Catholic Church in 1991. I wrote the whole story out in my book, Leadings: A Catholic's Journey Through Quakerism. When I returned to the Catholic fold, I did so very much with the intention of bringing the Quaker approach to the Christian faith to the Catholics I met. I did do that on every occasion that presented itself. And in Meeting, I have continued to testify to the leading I feel I have had that all Christians should be one, and that all Christians should be linked to the long and sometimes stained tradition that goes back to Jesus' time. The Meeting I was part of dropped me from the rolls, assuming that was my intention, but it never was. It's taken a while, but I am back as a dual member.

Now how can that be? How can one be part of two denominations? It's kind of like being a dual citizen of two countries - both roots are part of an identity that is important but complicated. I feel I don't fit into any of the boxes humans created to simplify identity issues. I want to say "No" to the break-up of the Church. I don't want to just swallow history as it is fed to us. I want to think about it. We'll see how this works.

Monday, February 10, 2014

New Testament Inspired Words of James Nayler - Nayler Sonnet 26 by K. Boulding


New Testament Inspired: Beautiful Quaker Words: James Nayler’s Deathbed Testimony
There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world's joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.

Thou wast with me when I fled from the face of mine enemies: then didst Thou warn me in the night: Thou carriedst me in Thy power into the hiding-place Thou hadst prepared for me: there Thou coveredst me with Thy Hand that in time Thou mightst bring me forth a rock before all the world. When I was weak Thou stayedst me with Thy Hand, that in Thy time Thou mightst present me to the world in Thy strength in which I stand, and cannot be moved. Praise the Lord, O my soul. Let this be written for those that come after. Praise the Lord.

Kenneth Boulding’s Nayler Sonnets:
26. Who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life
While yet we see with eyes, must we be blind?
Is lonely mortal death the only gate
To holy life eternal—must we wait
Until the dark portcullis clangs behind
Our hesitating steps, before we find
Abiding good? Ah, no, not that our fate;
Our time-bound cry “too early” or “too late”
Can have no meaning in the Eternal Mind.
The door is open, and the Kingdom here—
Yet Death indeed upon the threshold stands
To bar our way—unless into his hands
We give our self, our will, our heart our fear.
And then—strange resurrection!—from above
Is poured upon us life, will, heart, and love.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

New Testament Inspired Words of James Nayler - Nayler Sonnet 25 by K. Boulding


New Testament Inspired: Beautiful Quaker Words: James Nayler’s Deathbed Testimony
There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world's joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.

Thou wast with me when I fled from the face of mine enemies: then didst Thou warn me in the night: Thou carriedst me in Thy power into the hiding-place Thou hadst prepared for me: there Thou coveredst me with Thy Hand that in time Thou mightst bring me forth a rock before all the world. When I was weak Thou stayedst me with Thy Hand, that in Thy time Thou mightst present me to the world in Thy strength in which I stand, and cannot be moved. Praise the Lord, O my soul. Let this be written for those that come after. Praise the Lord.

Kenneth Boulding’s Nayler Sonnets:
25. I had fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth
can I have fellowship with them that fed
on desert locusts, or the husks of swine,
slept without tent, went naked as a sign,
and made the unforgiving earth their bed?
When I in gentle raiment have been led
Through pastures green, and have sat down to dine
At banquets, and have let my limbs recline
On easy couches, and slept comforted?
How can we pray for daily bread, with lip
Still smacking from a comfortable meal
Or how, from Dives lofty table feel
With Lazarus the glow of fellowship,
Unless, with spirits destitute, we find
Fellowship in the deserts of the mind.