Tuesday, October 7, 2008

World-stopping wonder and awe

I wrote the following in response to Fr. Terry's marevellous essay "Dancing With God." As usual, my comments were lengthy, stumbling, and not particularly well-written, but what made Haloscan spit it out was the fact it had too many links. So, what the heck, I'll post it here and link:

Yes, YosemiteGreg, those stories and that of the Empty Tomb. :)

Terry, I love this essay of yours and have read it several times now. But, as usual, it's also got me thinking. One of my favorite parts was this:
...the world-stopping wonder and awe that overcomes you when you begin to glimpse the movement of God in your midst.

How do you begin seeing this movement? By expecting it. By believing it is true, and then beginning to seek God out.

It took me a very long time to allow myself to expect it, believe it was true, and I still struggle with seeking God out in my everyday life -- but I do glimpse that glory, in and through bad times, as well as good.

Reading this made me recall the many years when I fought it. I come from family and friends and an educational background that surrounded me with the "spiritual but not religious" perspective on religion and faith (even as I attended Sunday School and church weekly with my family while growing up and was confirmed in 8th grade, with much anguish, with, in effect, my fingers crossed). My studies in anthropology, history, and literature; Sunday School teachers who told us our Jewish friends were going to hell; and the images of Buddhists in Vietnam burning in protest of the war, while my own pastor prayed (in those seemingly interminable pastoral prayers the Methodists do), prayed for U.S. military victory and thus (as I understood it) death to the enemy -- all contributed to a deep skepticism and mistrust of any kind of institutional religion. I also never *got* it as a child -- always felt like an outsider in my home church, thought of Jesus as mysterious and offputting (didn't look or talk like any "friend" I knew or could imagine), and was horrified at what struck me as celebration of a tortured death.

Yet, the day finally came when I did start to get it, indeed came to expect, believe in, and seek God's movement in my life, when Jesus Christ became my means for doing so. But today I see so much in our contemporary culture that adds to those barriers, the scales that were once in front of my eyes. Two things, especially, come to mind.

First is the continued force of the so-called Religious Right in culture and politics, which I believe is what fuels the fear and loathing of agnostics and atheists (most recently evidenced by Bill Maher's new movie, Religulous, which I have not seen but have read about, and the websites associated with the movie). On one of Maher's recent shows, he talked about how scary it was that Sarah Palin "literally believed in the Bible." Now if he meant an anti-science view based on Creationism or foreign policy based on Dominionist theology, for example, I, too, admit to fear, or at least deep concern (though personally I'm more concerned about the woman's inability to tell the truth -- but that's another matter). But when I listen to Maher and others rant about Palin's religion, what I hear is also deep aversion and sometimes contempt for anyone who believes in God as someone or something that is revealed in everyday life, to whom one does pray, for many reasons, but including intercessionary prayer, for anyone who actively seeks God's will in trying to wrestle with difficult decisions. This is not a new problem in Western culture in general and U.S. politics in particular (recall Stephen Carter's The Culture of Disbelief back in the 1990's), but it is growing with leaps and bounds on the internet and news right now.

Second, strangely enough (to me, at least), people within the church, all across the spectrum of theological/political views, seem to view those who hold the "spiritual but not religious" view with both pity and contempt. This growing segment of the U.S. population (as high as 40% of the total population, according to one article), is viewed by some as "moderate voices" in favor of religion (see same article), but more often, as lazy, self-centered or New Age flakes among those "inside" church culture, right and left (not what she meant, I know, but how Kit Carlson's recent article would have struck me back when I was an outsider). A better view may be what Robert Fuller said (at the end of the article at Beliefnet that prompted Kit's essay):
But it is difficult to move to a more qualitative understanding. We don't fully understand how unchurched Americans assemble various bits and pieces of spiritual philosophy into a meaningful whole. We are even further from understanding how to compare the overall spirituality of unchurched persons with that of those who belong to spiritual institutions.

Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issue of how our lives fit into the greater cosmic scheme of things. This is true even when our questions never give way to specific answers or give rise to specific practices such as prayer or meditation. We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is "spiritual" when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life."
People who are scared to death because of what they see and hear (or think they see and hear) from religionists and religious people can be reached by ways in which they allow themselves to glimpse the glory of God -- the sublime, for example, in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" or even the "self-willed" order of non-human nature in Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild. Personally, I don't believe that the way to reach them is to avoid religious language or revise religious practices (at least that never worked for me), but rather to find ways to get religious people to speak as Terry has, openly, clearly, and joyfully about how and what they see, feel, and know about God in their lives, without apology and without censure, but with some kind of better understanding of what motivates the "spiritual but not religious" -- their deep, and not entirely unrealistic, fear of promoting ignorance and intolerance by in any way supporting or participating in institutional religion. Looking at the deep conflict and bitterness in the Episcopal Church, it is hard to argue that, well, it's just the "nutters" (as Mad Priest might say) -- the denominations and sects of extreme fundamentalism -- not "us." And, for the sake of some degree of peace and forbearance in the midst of our strife, it becomes increasingly difficult to appeal to individuals' "experience" of the divine, especially among those who do not readily express it in orthodox terms, without fear of an attack from the neo-orthodox or conservatives within the church. So it seems "we" progressives seem to get caught in middle between those we would seek to evangelize and those who would brand us heretics.

I don't know the answer to this problem, but for me, at least,what you write, Terry, strikes me as a step in the right direction (as well as your overall efforts in both your blogs). And I share with you not only the hope but the firm belief that God will see us through these troubled times, from glory to glory.

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