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Excavating Christmas

Let’s get out our shovels. We are searching for the true meaning of Christmas – this season that rushes upon us and is as quickly gone again.  Our quest will proceed on the analogy of an archeological dig.

Christmas ExcavationBefore even breaking the surface, one layer in the meaning of Christmas is commercial. Earlier each year, it seems, retailers are pumping the music, putting out their holiday sets, and giving us fair warning that our chance at 60% off is “this weekend only.”

Christmas is a celebration of materialism. It is time to buy – before it’s too late. All the glitzy and gaudy trinkets, the Jing Tinglers and Flu Floopers, are brought out of storage to get us in the mood. Our credit card balance after the holidays is the lingering reminder that we got bamboozled once again.

Just barely under the surface of this layer of Christmas commercialism is the figure of Santa Claus. He’s the one we’re waiting for, hoping he’ll bring us what we really want this year. Or maybe he’s the one we’re pretending to be as we swipe to satisfy the material cravings of our children.

“Santa Claus” is an informal rendering of Saint Nicolas, which suggests that this genius of package delivery logistics is somehow (or once was) a religious notable. His backstory in folk tale and legend tells of his charitable endeavors in bringing cheer to orphans and children whose families couldn’t afford the luxury of toys.

The giving of gifts brings us down yet another layer in our excavation of Christmas. We need to be reminded every year that it’s not the gift but the thought and love behind the gift that really matters. Back in the day, according to the Bible story, wise men from the east brought Baby Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Narrative detail would probably be more important to us had Christianity remained anchored in its foundational myths. As it happened, story gave way to theology, and abstract doctrines took over from the concrete narratives that shaped the earliest Christian experience.

Stories are arranged in a system called a mythology; doctrines are arranged in a system known as orthodoxy. Stories appeal to the imagination, doctrines to the intellect.

At the doctrinal level, Christmas is about the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son), the sinful condition of humanity, the “kenosis” or self-emptying of God in becoming human. The vehicle of this incarnational miracle was a virgin, whose status as “Christotokos” (Christ-bearer) made this a central doctrine not only for Roman Catholics but Protestants as well.

Inside of story and deep along its root-line is metaphor, which is a way of representing something that eludes our conceptual grasp. Once the metaphor is offered up by creative imagination, our minds get busy weaving a meaningful pattern of storylines around it.

Stories of immaculate conceptions and virgin births can be found across the cultures. Early Christian storytellers were not the first to ponder this metaphor as a kind of doorway or passage from eternity into time. It’s important to know at this point that eternity does not mean “everlasting” or “unending,” as it is popularly (mis)understood today. Instead of “without end,” eternity refers to what is “without beginning.”

Rather than thinking of eternity as an endless extension of time, or as another realm of existence separate from this one, imagine time as we (think we) know it moving like a horizontal stream in a “forward” direction. Eternity would be represented as a perpendicular line drawn straight down along the vertical axis. The place of this intersection is not itself part of the time-stream, but always NOW. It’s not that this present moment comes to us from the future, and neither does it recede into the past. It is timeless.

Contemplating Mary and the universal metaphor of the Virgin Mother, we can begin to appreciate her value to mystics everywhere, by whatever name she is called. She is a literary symbol, a mythical archetype, and – in a celebrated paradox – the spiritual embodiment of those qualities that must be nurtured if you are to be fully present to the mystery. What qualities?

Emptiness. The opposite of emptiness is not fullness, but preoccupation. Instead of relaxing the boundary of attention and expanding your capacity for awareness, your mind becomes increasingly cluttered. Real presence is available as you are able to drop assumptions (from the past), release expectations (for the future) and surrender all distractions.

Humbleness. From the root-word humus, “humble” and its cognate “humility” carry the idea of being fully grounded. Not exalted or “full of yourself,” not inflated or disengaged from what’s going on, but fully here and now. Humility is a position of greatest strength, balance, and resilience. In the present moment you are grounded in the really real.

Faithfulness. Having little or nothing to do with orthodox beliefs, faith refers to the act of entrusting yourself to the providential support of reality in this moment. Its opposite is not doubt, but conviction, which is not about opening up to mystery (as faith is) but closing down on meaning.

Creativity. The creative life is not about “making” something of yourself or accomplishing great things in the eyes of others. You give a lot of attention and time to making money, making progress, making up, and making do. Creativity doesn’t flow along the conventional channels of effort, work and accomplishment. Instead it breaks into time through the portal of this present moment.

I’m suggesting that while in the deeper layers Christmas might seem like it’s about something that happened a long time ago, the early Christian myth-makers were not writing history, doing theology, or just making stuff up. The Story is a creative composition, to be sure, but it’s more an exercise in mystical contemplation than anything else.

Christmas is an invitation to get to a place where you are empty, grounded, and open to the real presence of mystery. Only then – when you are centered, quiet and receptive within – can the creative life truly begin.

The revolutionary life of Jesus came through the contemplative preparation of Mary. It still does.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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Embodied Faith

Tillich: “The history of faith is a permanent fight with the corruption of faith, and the conflict with reason is one of its most conspicuous symptoms.”

“Reason” as a term referring to a faculty of human intelligence has an interesting history of its own, both on the human-evolutionary and individual-developmental scales. Its ascent in the evolution of our species gave us new powers for critical thinking and rationality. It’s not that reason is any more reality-oriented than faith, but it moves less by wide leaps than smaller logical steps, connecting dots into patterns of meaning.

The relationship between mystery and meaning helps illustrate the essential differences in faith and reason. Faith is your primary response to mystery – to what I’ve been calling the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality. It’s a very here-and-now phenomenon and has to do with the quality of your experience in terms of how open, grounded, centered and trusting you are to the greater reality in which you live.

Awareness at this level is beyond words (ineffable), not just because words are fixed and the mystery is fluid, but also because this experience is processed in a deep, preverbal part of your brain.

When you were still in the womb, reality was registered in your nervous system as providential or inhospitable, depending on the sensory-intuitive information it was picking up from your uterine environment. And because all organisms are equipped with a survival drive, the general tenor of your resulting nervous state was somewhere between agitation and calm, distress and composure, anxiety … and faith.

Your brain’s primary task is to regulate the internal state of your body and continually match this state to its external environment. Such adaptation is what Darwin called “fitness.”

According to this definition, faith is a deep response to reality rooted in your very physiology. Anxiety or faith are felt at a level far below verbal processing, deeper even than conscious awareness. How you feel is the way it is – I could say “for you,” but it really doesn’t matter. This is why there is such certitude in this kind of knowing: no argument is needed to make the point.

Reason takes it start from this place of direct knowing. The nervous state of faith is preverbal, subconscious and inarticulate until the mind can begin to represent it somehow. The earliest forms of art, dance, song and poetry were likely creative expressions of the human experience of reality – as vast, sublime, frightening, and awe-inspiring. These were the first products of reason in its attempt to translate pure experience into communicable forms of representation. This was also the birth of meaning.

As it develops, reason takes these products of its own creative effort and puts them together in more complex patterns. Eventually – and it doesn’t take long at all – a complicated web of cross-referencing associations is generated, expanding up, out and around the ineffable mystery of your present experience. This meaning is tribal and personal, and its all about orienting your experience within the larger web of collective metaphors, values and concerns that make up your cultural world.

One of the important terms in your culture’s web of meaning is the mythological god. He is responsible for creating the cosmos, calling your ancestors to a special destiny, providing for your salvation, protecting you from harm, showering you with blessings, and finally taking your soul to everlasting life. At one level – at the imaginative, creative, and metaphorical level – such belief in god can promote a “blessed assurance,” a profound and confident trust that everything is going to be okay.

In a time when human culture was still in its creative-artistic phase, the mythological god was completely compatible with reason. It made sense to speak of a supernatural personality who made the world, who watches out for those he favors, and intervenes on their behalf. But when human evolution moved into a logical-rational phase, something had to be done about myth, the mythological god, and the traditional organization of life around one’s relationship and obligations to him – now formally called “religion.”

The progressives have always been in favor of putting down the stories and taking life more seriously, as enlightened and sophisticated adults. Conservatives, on the other hand, typically preach the necessity of holding on to the traditions and preserving the values of our forebears. If the myths and the mythological god don’t seem any longer to be compatible with our contemporary scientific worldview, then it only exposes how far we have fallen in our sin.

Faith now becomes inseparable from a literal Bible, an objectively real god (up there, out there), along with the orthodox doctrines, denominational creeds, and ordained authorities appointed to defend them as absolute truth. This is what Tillich means by “the corruption of faith.” What is basically a primary nervous state and existential stance in reality – open, trusting, present and receptive – gets retooled into an exercise in intellectual by-pass where we are pressured to believe and confess things that require an outdated worldview to make any sense at all.

Progressives also need to move past the point where they criticize mythology as childish and culturally retarded. There’s often a sour smell of self-congratulatory pride in their dismissive comments, and not enough genuine appreciation for the creative imagination and how metaphorical theology can still speak to our deep human need for grounding in a providential reality.

Truth is in the myths, but not when they are taken literally. At least not any more.

 

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