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.