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The Story of Truth

At this holiday season we have another chance to take a deeper look into story. What is it exactly, this peculiar arrangement of words that conjures up images in our minds, sweeps us away into other times and places, to places that never were nor likely will ever be?

Take the story of The Nativity, for example. It is the founding narrative of one of the two competing traditions behind our present-day Christmas holiday. Where is the truth in this story – which is really two distinct stories told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

Nativity

Matthew’s version includes a heavenly star and oriental court astrologers who visit Mary and Jesus at their Bethlehem home address. There’s the maniacal and jealous King Herod who orders all males under two years old murdered, in his effort to eliminate this contender to the throne. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem and eventually to Egypt until wicked King Herod dies. When the coast is clear, the First Family moves to Nazareth where Jesus will spend his youth.

Luke’s version has Joseph taking his pregnant wife, Mary, from Nazareth to his ancestral home town of Bethlehem for tax enrollment. Upon arriving the couple discovers that every hotel room is booked, and thus is forced to stay the night in an animal shack behind the inn. There Mary goes into labor and delivers Jesus. Meanwhile, an angelic choir announces to shepherds in their fields that a savior has been born in Bethlehem. They go with haste and find the First Family in the stable, just as foretold.

There are some obvious inconsistencies between these two Nativity stories – maybe you caught them.

Joseph and Mary begin in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem in Luke’s version, whereas they end up there after starting in Bethlehem in Matthew’s. Luke’s shepherds visit Jesus in an animal stable, while Matthew’s astrologers find him in a “house.” Obviously one has to be right. If you had been there, what would you have seen with your own eyes?

Before you answer, let’s note that Luke’s shepherds are probably hired hands or day laborers, down in the socioeconomic mucky bottom. They aren’t businessmen, artisans or merchants. They represent the class just barely inside the definition of class, and definitely outside of having any political clout.

Matthew’s court astrologers, on the other hand, are pretty high up on the social ladder. They may be outsiders but they come with wealth and power. Still they leave their country and kingdom in search of the “king of the Jews,” and when they find him they lay their offerings at his feet.

So did it happen just that way? But which way?

In their effort to merge these different storylines into a single coherent narrative, commentators have suggested that Matthew’s events actually took place after Luke’s – maybe as many as two years later. That accounts for Herod’s massacre of two-year-old males and gives the First Family time to get from the stable into a bona fide residence. The astrologers and shepherds never met each other, which means that our crowded manger scenes on postcards and storybooks are an historical inaccuracy.

But it’s not necessary to merge these two narratives. They are inconsistent only if your assumption is that the truth is somehow outside the stories, in the facts of history and what must have “actually happened.”

This question of which Gospel Nativity story is true – and the question of truth in story generally – cannot be answered by jumping out of the story and looking for facts to back it up. Actually, this scramble for historical evidence and the sworn testimony of eye witnesses is a very late development. It became urgent and pressing once the spell was broken.

What spell? The spell that any great story puts on the mind of whomever is willing to “go under” its entrancing power. You can’t keep interrupting the narrative with ejaculations of “Did that really happen?” and “Is that literally how it went?” Follow the example of a young child: Once upon a time carries the imagination into another world – that is to say, into a different narrative construct from the one you’re in right now.

Don’t sweat it. You’re just leaving one spell for another. You’ll be back in no time at all. For now, simply relax, close your eyes and listen …

Luke’s Nativity introduces you to the start of a world revolution, where an insurgent savior is born to poverty. The good news (gospel) of his arrival is first announced to shepherds “living in the fields,” outside and away from the power-centers of wealth, politics and religion. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel – if you are patient enough for the whole story – continues to fill out this character who comes to level the playing field, to challenge the high and mighty, and pull the hopeless poor to their feet. Luke’s Jesus is the prince of a new kingdom, and you are invited in.

Matthew’s Nativity invites you to a revolution as well, but his messiah is fashioned on the model of Moses, the great liberator who saved his people from bondage in Egypt. In order to solidify this association, Matthew arranges for Jesus to be in Egypt (hiding from Herod) and be granted a safe exodus into the new “promised land” of Nazareth. Matthew’s story overall is about the world significance of this New Liberator, represented in a heavenly star high above and foreign magistrates from far away. Apparently no one alive “under heaven” is excluded from this very good news, not even you.

Coming back to the burning question, what can be said about the “truth” of these stories?

The Nativity stories are not true because they accurately relate how things actually went down. They were not composed as an effort to piece together evidence in a factually reliable report. We can safely make this generalization about all true stories. They are true to the degree they are successful in bringing about a transformation of consciousness, orienting the spell-bound audience to reality with a new set of values and expectations. If the story changes you, then it’s true.

But if it can’t change you, simply because you refuse to “go under” and get “caught up” in its alternative fantasy, then it’s “only a story” or “just a myth.” You might as well set it down and get on with your life, such as it is.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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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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Mystics and Prophets

Robinson: “So let us begin by looking again at the two perspectives on truth represented on the one hand by the Hebraic and on the other by the Vedantic [Hindu], contrasted as the prophetic and the mystical.”

We live and die in the round of time. Circles define life, in the rhythms that turn, pulse and spiral in our cells, in our bodies, in the earth’s seasons, in the coming-to-be and passing-away of generations, in the “Big Turn” of the universe itself.

For most of history, human beings have struggled to reconcile ourselves to the many wheels of time that move inside and around us. The so-called “nature religions” represent the early effort at putting our special concerns as a species into accord with the larger fate that holds us captive. The individual life-cycle (infancy, youth, maturity) had to be carefully nested inside the turns of a tribal career (student, householder, elder), which needed to fall into sync with the planetary rhythms of harvest and the hunt. Out and beyond all this foreground revolution were the predictable (auspicious and ominous) travel-paths of the planets and stars.

Somehow, from the tiny oscillations of nerve impulses in our brains to the circuits of stars through the sky, life is borne along inside a complex web of time intervals – nanoseconds to days to months to years to decades to generations to light-years of cosmic time. Health and prosperity were believed to be a function of how obediently and reverently we did our part. Ritual ceremony coordinated tribal life with these smaller and larger cycles. Human destiny was worked out inside the closed circles of time.

And then a revolution happened.

Almost simultaneously in India and in Israel, escape from the circle was accomplished. The Hindu and Hebraic revolutions don’t appear to have influenced each other, so it almost seems as if these two breakthroughs were separate uprisings of a common quest for liberation. Their different paths out of the closed circle became the energizing principles in two ways of engaging reality and constructing meaning.Circles_ArrowsIf you look just underneath the surface of sea waves, the rolling action is really a progression of kinetic energy moving along as each circular current spins open and passes momentum into a new circle. As it spins open to release its energy forward as the next wave, an inner spiral is pulling around the circle’s center, where it will be released to the deeper support of the ocean itself.

Try to imagine each circle as an individual “package” of energy, called consciousness. As it becomes more conscious of itself as an individual, this enclosure of self-identity reaches a point where its mortality – the fact of its very temporal existence – becomes nearly unbearable. Under the stress of this realization, the circle stands a real chance of breaking down.

But then, unexpectedly (from the circle’s vantage-point) the enclosure of its self-concern opens out to an expansive awareness. Along one axis it becomes aware of the momentum that is surging through its own limited form. What feels like a giving-up is really a giving-over to this higher purpose, to a will and direction greater than its own.

Along another axis, the inward clutch around its own center dissolves into a quiet sense of being. In letting go, a deeper essence to its own life as a wave-of-the-ocean is manifested to awareness. The “release” in each case amounts to a liberation of energy as the circle opens up to a larger reality – a higher purpose (up ahead) and a deeper essence (underneath).

This is one way of understanding the Hindu and Hebraic revolutions, and how they were related liberation movements on the advancing threshold of human spiritual evolution. The critical achievement on each front was the breakthrough of a new awareness, which would become the organizing principle in the construction of a new world(view).

Transcendental monism, where all is one beyond the apparent separateness, offers up a model of reality that sees each individual circle as a time-bound expression of a timeless mystery. To each circle it can be said, “Thou art That”; not that you are god, because even the gods are circles in their own way. They are, you are, and everything you see is a surface manifestation of the unfathomable depth of being-itself. You and they and everything around you is essentially one.

Ethical monotheism is how the revolution played out in Israel. As the circle opened up to the forward momentum of which it was but a temporary vehicle, a powerfully new interest in the future emerged. Now in addition to the conventional ties to tradition, the way of the elders, and the archetypes of the past, the question of direction and purpose provided leverage for challenging the status quo. “Thus says the Lord” became a kind of pretext for resistance and upheaval, for the sake of a new reality.

Two spiritual types were born out of the labor pains of this revolution, one springing up in India and the other in Israel. The mystic is one who feels drawn into the depths, breaking through the enclosure of self and personality, to the unqualified mystery of being-itself. A danger along the way has been a tendency to hold on too long to “me,” and thus to twist the whole contemplative path of communion into some kind of exceptional talent, a rigorous discipline and esoteric knowledge reserved for an elite few.

Playing out the other axis, the prophet is one who feels drawn to the future, inspired and compelled by a vision not only of what might be, but of what will be. The danger here is that the prophet will be reduced to a fortune-teller, a mere predictor of future events. Because we cannot control the future, there will always be business and celebrity for those who claim to know what is going to happen. The endless postponements and recalculations may help to expose the “false prophets,” but utopias and end-times are an inexhaustible market, and more will always be ready to step into the vacancy.

Mystics and prophets are really our “two eyes,” one looking into the essential reality beneath, and the other to the emergent reality beyond the fears, fixations and concerns of our ego and tribe. There is, then, in each of us a “mystical intention” and a “prophetic intention” – still susceptible to the corruptions mentioned above, but present at least as potential tracts of revolution.

The spiritual life today must continually seek deeper ground as it reaches for higher purpose. As fellow inhabitants of this planet, we are one in ways we still need to understand; and we are moving into a shared future that needs us working together for the good of all.

 

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The Inner Voice

Kierkegaard: “In eternity, conscience is the only voice that is heard. It must be heard by the individual, for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. It must be heard. There is no place to flee from it.”

The sixteenth-century Reformation in Christianity began in Luther’s discovery of the individual conscience and his belief that this inner voice is the very voice of god. Up to that point, institutional religion had successfully spun the delusion of the individual’s separation from god, and of our collective need for intervention that only the institution can provide. Any insight or guidance or judgment you might inwardly discern was not to be trusted.

So when Luther decided to regard his inner voice as the voice of god, this single decision severed the chain of external control.

Of course, there had been others before Luther’s time who valued individual authority over compliance with “the system” (call it institution, society, fashion, or empire). They were revolutionaries, if their visions and ways of life caught on with others; or saints, if it took some time for them to be respected and appreciated; or maybe just misfits and odd-balls, if no one else really “got it.”

But Luther made his declaration on the cusp of a dawning new age – modernity, with its growing obsession with individuality and the individual’s experience.

Inside this discovery and its more widespread acceptance throughout western European culture, we can also detect the seed of what is now called “postmodernism.” While perspectivism had been developing in painting for a couple centuries already, Luther applied it to faith and morality. If this is how I feel, then maybe this feeling is a divine prompting. This is how things seem from where I stand.

At trial for all the commotion and cultural upset that he had caused, Luther announced the new maxim of perspectivism: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” I am compelled by the force and authority of my own experience. Kaboom.

In effort to justify its dominance of the individual, tribal orthodoxy does two things: (1) It claims for itself a divinely ordained authority, sustained by a sacred tradition reaching back to supernatural events (revelations, miracles) where this transfer of truth and power was made; and (2) it weakens the creative spirit of the individual with a doctrine of depravity, guilt, and shame (in short, a doctrine of sin).

Your corrupt nature, inherent selfishness, and fundamental inability to save yourself makes you utterly dependent on (the external, metaphysical) god for salvation. Thankfully (and you’d better be thankful), a way has been provided. Long ago we (the tribe) were given the secret, which we have guarded over many centuries. Listen up, join us, believe this, sit here. The devil – counterpart to our god – is still loose and at large in the world, so be vigilant! His most seductive temptation is to encourage your self-consciousness.

Luther was still too much entranced with this orthodox instruction to take full responsibility for his life or look too deeply into his own human nature. The doctrine of sin persisted – one might even say it was amplified in the emerging traditions of Protestant Christianity. Now that the institutional middleman is out of the way, it’s just you standing naked before god. Egad.

So what does this have to do with Kierkegaard and the future rise of postmodernism? Whereas Luther had been an unabashed theist, believing that his inner voice was nothing less than the directive of a god who existed outside of himself, Kierkegaard followed the root system of this interior experience, into the very ground of his own existence. For this reason, he is rightfully honored as an early proponent of Existentialism.

Existentialism is a philosophy of life. Whereas other philosophical traditions had involved rather abstract speculations on metaphysical realities (god, soul, mind), Existentialism dedicated its focus to the time-bound, flesh-and-blood individual who is working out the meaning of life along the meandering course of daily experience.

At this early stage we don’t yet have recognition of the fact that the individual is constructing this meaning as a world-creator and not simply finding it “out there” ready-made. But it’s coming. A necessary step in this direction was Kierkegaard’s replacement of Luther’s conscience as a voice of revelation from elsewhere (the external god) with the notion of conscience as the voice of inner guidance, available to the perceptive and internally grounded individual.

Isn’t all of this just a set-up for rampant individualism? When we start listening in on the universal wisdom as it resounds up from the depths of our own human nature; as we tune into this inner voice of spiritual grounding and guidance; when we begin taking responsibility for our choices and the worlds we create and destroy with them; finally, as we come to appreciate ourselves and acknowledge each other as present (and passing) incarnations of the One Mystery – after all of this, won’t the world come apart and the devil win?

Seriously?

Of course, there is a risk. Not everyone will join the revolution. Tribal orthodoxy works hard to keep you compliant. There will be hell to pay by anyone who dares to question the sacred trust of its holy tradition, supernatural revelations, ordained authorities and inerrant Bible. Too many of us value emotional security over spiritual fulfillment to put so much on the line.

After all, it’s working, isn’t it? It hasn’t all come crashing down yet, thanks to the true believers who are keeping the faith. Get in here and hang on with us!

There, there. Shhhhh. Close your eyes and go back to sleep.

 

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