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Friday, March 22, 2013

What's in a Name, God?

Does a name define an experience, or merely give us a way to talk about it? If we call a table a door, does its essence change? If our best friend decides to start using her middle name rather than her first name, does she substantially change or is she the same person?

Harold 
Once we get to the point on our spiritual journey where we no longer believe that God is Harold, my name for the old guy with the white hair and beard who lives beyond the clouds in an undisclosed and invisible location, and rather understand God to be Spirit rather than embodied I wonder if it really matters what we call God. It's an important question for interspiritual understanding, because if we are attached to a certain name for God than we will automatically dismiss any understanding of what we call God that has a different label attached. If Paul Tillich, among others, is anywhere near right in describing God as the Ground of Being, then the experiential reality of God is so different from what most people associate with "God," I cannot help but wonder if we need to choose another name!

Given that God hasn't knocked on any of our front doors and said, "Hi, I'm God, nice to meet you," the truth is that we don't encounter God in the same way that we usually encounter human beings. Some would rush to say that we "meet" God in the Bible. Though I understand what people mean when they say that, I don't believe that's accurate. I do believe the Bible is the story of several thousand years worth of people's encounter with God, and while it can tell us quite a bit about what other people living in a certain period in history thought about God, it doesn't constitute an encounter with God any more than reading a biography of President Kennedy means that when I have finished I will have met him. The same could be said for Jesus.

An interesting part of the Buddhist-Christian monastic dialogue is that Christian monastics and Buddhist monks report the same experiences in contemplative prayer for the Christians and meditation for the Buddhists. For those who don't know, what Christians call contemplation and what Buddhists call meditation is essentially the same thing - sitting in silence. As you might have guessed, what Christians call meditation and what Buddhists call contemplation is also the same thing - pondering great truths in prayer. It must be said, however, that with Buddhism having come to the west and more Christian monks studying Buddhism it can be harder to know what a Christian means when she says "meditation."

If the Christian monastic tends to call what she encounters in prayer "God" and the Buddhist calls it something else (perhaps "emptiness") but their experiences are largely the same, isn't getting caught up what name is applied a huge exercise in missing the point? I believe it is exactly that, and that insisting we all use the same language can have disastrous consequences. In fact it has caused wars and genocide throughout history, one side having decided the other is heretical simply because we are labeling our common experience differently! Can we get over ourselves, already?

We can broaden the discussion even further when we learn that every major historical religion has encouraged spending time in the silence and every major historical religion has arrived at the same foundational values of love, compassion, non-violence, sexual responsibility and peace making. There is great diversity in how those values are expressed, in the names applied to spiritual experience, and in rules around worship and other rituals, but what comes forth is the same. Does that not seem to indicate that these common values spring from a common source, no matter what that source is called? If we do share a common source, what it there to fight about?

The human capacity for shedding blood over the smallest details of religion has always baffled me. One of us believes Saturday is the Sabbath, the other Sunday, and a third practices every day. You wear a Yarmulke, he wears a Kufi, and I pray with my head uncovered. Clearly, the best thing to do is to kill one another over such obvious and profound transgressions of religious polity. The three Abrahamic faiths tend to lead the way in killing those who see Divinity differently, most likely because we struggle to believe our own religious teachings that we are accepted and loved by an all knowing, all seeing, all loving Deity that created everything that is. Essentially, we don't believe our own story but are perfectly willing to kill you for doing the same. If Harold was God, he would be shaking his head up in the clouds.

Ultimately what is experienced in prayer and meditation is far too large to be described with words. Every attempt to do so falls miserably short, which is why do many mystics resort to poetry in an attempt to do their experience justice. Perhaps we would do better to not name whatever is encountered. That might be why God, when Moses asked God's Name, simply responded "I am." Who is encountered in the silence? That which is. Perhaps even saying that is saying too much.


17 comments:

  1. Excellent commentary Bp. Craig. In my World Religions classes we call your Harold The White Guy in the Sky. Nobody much holds to that notion when they talk about it but it is a prevailing image in this culture. My own spirituality is influenced heavily by Sufi, Tao, Zen and a bunch of others filtered through the language and culture of Western Christianity. The experience of transcendence is interpreted though culture and that, in turn, colors the narrative and on and on it would seem

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    1. Thanks, Ed!

      To be sure, my language is Christian and my frame of reference is Christian. It's the tradition I was raised in, the tradition I accepted as my own as a twenty something young adult, and - perhaps most importantly - it's the "native" spiritual language I speak, just as American English is my native language. When I want to make a spiritual point, it's Jesus and the Christian paradigm to which I naturally go. It's the tradition in which I am ordained. It's also the tradition from and to which I speak and write. That being said, I don't for a minute believe that any one tradition can capture the entirety of God - that would be profound arrogance in that it would assert that tradition was bigger than God and so in fact make it out to be God - and that's idolatry. My other paths, my spiritual dual citizenship if you will, affords me the opportunity to view God from a different angle and gain more insights. I am convinced that for the world to survive we need to transcend tribal religion and learn to talk with each other!

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    2. Isn't worshipping Jesus idolatry? It's nice to see spiritual open-mindedness amongst Christians, for once >:(, but just because you are most familiar with Christianity doesn't mean it is the best religion for you, just saying. Saying that Buddhism and its study has enhanced your spirituality as a Christian comes off to me as an admittance of spiritual uncertainty. Moreover, it cheapens Buddhism, as if to say that Buddhism as a religion and spirituality exists only to cater to other people's religious doubts. It's kind of the same abuse "yoga" goes through when it becomes a hollowed out fitness regime for exercise and stress relief (ergo, nothing like real, traditionally practiced yoga). Just because westerners like us may not be familiar with Eastern ideas and terminology/language doesn't mean we should just settle for the "next best thing", like the ever-familiar Christianity. Moreover, Christianity is not a religion fit for Eastern morality or theology, as it's own scripture concerns itself more with what is now falsified history and stolen myths. A Christian can no more be open-minded and accepting of other religious beliefs/ideas than it can be closed-minded and selective of its own scriptural beliefs. You really can't have it both ways in my book, as Christianity, like the Judaism before it and the Islam after it, is an inherently intolerant and unaccepting religion. Anything considered true for another religion or faith will jeopardize the uniqueness and validity of Christianity's dogmas. That's how it goes. Buddhism is just incompatible with an Abrahamic faith. One cannot be practiced alongside another without cheapening or disenfranchising the other. I've studied both religions (and many others). It's a nice gesture towards peaceful coexistence amongst religions, but it's just not a correct path to go down. Pluralism will ultimately be more favorable than syncreticism.

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    3. P.S. There is no such thing as idolatry, as all religions pander to using imagery, worshipped or otherwise, to enhance people's understanding of the divine and the sacred. No one literally worships idols of stone and wood anymore than Christians worship the cross on which their God was crucified. The continued use of that word disgusts me as much as Jews who call others "gentiles", or Muslims who call the non-Islamic "infidels". Words like idolatry in the Abrahamic religions serve only to remind me of how unreligious such faiths really are, and how political they tend to get. People are attracted towards "exotic" Eastern religions because they see that such religions are gentle, and actually "do as they say", so to speak. A specific set of principles is one thing, and practice is important (otherwise it's hypocrisy), but you are right to put emphasis on the plurarity of truth, and the relativity of religions. Invoking the word dogma is a spiritual turn-off though. So close, yet so far towards spiritual peacefulness. Everything else you speak of rings true otherwise.

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    4. By "invoking the word dogma" I meant to say "idolatry", not dogma. My mistake.

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    5. Wow.

      I appreciate you sharing your views even as ours diverge. I suspect you tend to see Christianity as rather monolithic and other the fundamentalist variety. The truth is it's much broader than that. Also, I would hasten to point out that idolatry is not only the worshiping of images but rather worshiping that which is not God as if it were God. Materialism is a kind of idolatry, as are addictions of every stripe and the consumer capitalist system in general. In fact, as someone who appreciated iconography and other religious art as a doorway to contemplation, unless we are going to parade about with a golden calf - or, say, a monstrance - I'm inclined to believe that images are the last place one would find true idolatry.

      It sounds to me as if you believe I am advocating syncretism. My own journey is much more pluralistic, though I have no problem with someone who finds that syncretism works for them even as I find most people who pursue that avenue long enough eventually find it leads to more problems than insights.

      I respect your assertion that you can't have a Buddhist Christianity even as I disagree with it. Thomas Merton did just fine with it, Thich Nhat Hanh had no problem receiving Eucharist, and even the Dalai Lama encourages people to take what they will from Buddhism and apply it back in their "faith or origin," to coin a term. Finally, the mystics from both every tradition have found great commonality in their experiences in meditation and contemplation - the differences are in doctrine and dogma. You might say that when we *experience* the transcendent, we experience the same thing. When we make rules around it or talk about it, our experiences diverge. For me, there is greater value in the experience than in all the words in the world, for all of those words will inevitably fall short of the experience.

      For me, every religion is nothing more than a finger pointing at the moon (to use a term common to both Buddhism and Christianity). No religion has it absolutely right or every thinking person not born into that religion would have left theirs to join it. In that way, we can even make religion an idol. I spend more than a few years studying different religious systems and perspectives and finally came to the conclusion that what we do in religion and spirituality is try to make sense of our world. For each of us it will be something different that is key in that process. I am content to allow each to find their own way without trying to dissuade them from the path to which they are called. I share mine because it may be of interest or assistance to some, but if not I would encourage them to leave it behind.

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    6. Sounds like you have found enlightenment. I apologize. The world needs more thoughtful people like you. But I wasn't saying that a Buddhist couldn't receive a eucharist, or other rituals along that line, I was saying that it is quite impossible to be both a pious Christian and practice Buddhism at the same time. Much of what the Siddhartha and Jesus taught have parallels, but their seems to be just too much elsewhere in their respective teachings and socio-religious ancestry to be compatible. For example, one cannot believe that a person is only saved through accepting Jesus Christ as their "Lord and Savior", while also believing that spiritual liberation from rebirth can be attained through diligent practice of the Eightfold-Path and acknowledging the Four Noble Truths. These literally point in opposite directions, and they're not complimentary. Buddhist spirituality may seem nicety-nice when having, say, a picnic or a simple ritual with Christians, but their actual beliefs cannot work in tandem, let alone compliment the other. Another example is Buddhist emphasis on letting people follow their own paths to truth, whereas Christians, right from the start, seem to find converting others to itself a necessary mission. Buddhism primarily upholds a belief in continual rebirth, the object of which is to escape this cycle. Christianity very clearly posits a final resting place after a single birth and death, entry to which is gained through (usually) faith in Jesus' salvation. Maybe the raw spirituality is reconcilable (in the most liberal light of my Christian friends views of their religion, like your own), but the actual religions to which this spirituality is given form will more often then not work at all. After all, whether you consider such views a minority "fundamentalist" or fringe Christianity or not, mainstream Christianity and its adherents say that I am in fact going to burn in Hell forever because I did not a) confess my sins b) receive a baptism c) surrender to a church authority of any sort d) do not accept Jesus as my "Savior" or e) all of the above, including combinations of these. Once again, I applaud you for your open-mindedness, and personally wish it existed in greater bounty, and maybe you aren't promoting a literal combination of Christian and Buddhist practice, but I still get that vibe from your views. And saying to me that Buddhist celebrities or authority figures, such as H. H. the Dalai Lama support such seeming ecunemism as what you have suggested is like a me telling a Quaker that they should stop using contraceptives because it is a no-no to the Pope, pure ignorance (no offense). :(

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    7. Enlightened? Now that IS funny. But seriously, I think we are talking past one another because we are using the terms Buddhist and Christian differently. I believe you are using them to describe being a member of the Buddhist or Christian religions (or being eligible for membership). I use those terms to mean following the teachings of the Buddha and/or Jesus but not necessarily the doctrine that humans have layered over the teachings across the centuries. I absolutely agree that it would be difficult to belong to most (but certainly not all) Christian congregation without down playing your Buddhist side. On the other hand, from a spiritual perspective there are great commonalities - especially for followers of Jesus who have abandoned a first century world view and so ceased to insist on a literal interpretation of historically conditioned mythos.

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    8. By the way, I'm certain the "finger pointing to the moon" parable is strictly of Buddhist origin. I heard a story written by a Christian blogger such as yourself that in every detail was a Christian adapted Buddhist parallel (I even did background research to be sure there was no common ground I missed that would result in such curious similarities, sure enough there was no such story I had heard of in Christianity save the one this individual fabricated to prove a point). I would have considered this acceptable if the individual had either quoted a story common to both faiths, or, if not, had given credit to the original (Buddhist) parable that clearly inspired it. He did not. It aggravated me a great deal to see that, as it was more or less a religious plagarism. It is like the Bible taking a story from another culture's myth (a flood myth symbolic of humanity's redemption perhaps) and passing it off as it's own inspired material...oh wait!

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    9. I was sincere about the enlightened thing by the way. I wasn't being sarcastic, but if YOU want to go their, I will gladly put on my lucky satire cap and ready my wit for a good show. I like paying people their dues, good or bad. The only thing you are talking past me is seeing only my criticisms, and not what I have to agree about you. I think you haven't once seen that. I'm beginning to think you are only half-reading my comments.

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    10. I do appreciate our points of agreement, and apologize for not acknowledging them. As for the enlightenment thing, I appreciate the complement but I live with myself LOL. I see the places where there is still a long way to go. My 84 year old neighbor was murdered last week, and I confess to being less than enlightened about that event or its impact on my family. That being said, I have come to a place in my life where great fights over differences make little sense to me. I would rather we be who we are honestly - which requires a certain amount of safety - and learn to live together not despite our differences but rather with a full understanding that we don't have to be the same to walk together. I suppose that desire leave me suspicious of hard and fast, black and white positions because life in my experience is seldom hard and fast or black and white.

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    11. I apologize for your loss. You are right. That is a tough lesson to learn in such a manner. I simply had the fortune of not being born in anything less than a laid back family. I hope the best for you and yours.

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    12. It's the stuff of life. Fortune or misfortune, life is the place where karma ripens or we work out our salvation, depending upon your preference. I appreciate your well wishes, truly. I would say that my journey to a laid back place was a process, due in large part to years of mantra practice. It's very funny, all of a sudden I looked in the mirror and realized I had changed - for the better. Maybe the greatest transformation occurs when we stop ttying and just practice,

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    13. One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is that change does not begin or end. It is haunting to know that we are doomed to die. It brings both hope and despair. All we can do is make our time worthwhile.

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  2. I remember having that question a long time ago. What's in a name - indeed? Well I guess different people would have different responses. Some might relate to how important it is to know someone's name while others may not see the point. We're all different.

    But if God has a name, wouldn't it be worth knowing? If the Bible states it, wouldn't it be worth recognizing? Yahweh or Jehovah - that's the name of God because the Bible says so. But yes, there's more to just knowing His name. But if God wants to share His name to us, which He did through the Bible, should we snob it?

    But yes, in our quest for knowledge and enlightenment, we should not enforce our beliefs to others. It's a shame if we forget the essence of God's teachings by trying to prove which teaching is accurate.

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  3. I appreciate your perspective, even as I would disagree that God revealed God's name definitively, for all people and for all time, through the Bible. The Hebrew people believe that God revealed God's name - interestingly, not as "God" but as "I am," and then the Hebrew people started coming up with names like El Shaddai, YWHW, and so on. Believing that God's name is God is great if you're an English speaker, but for German Christians it's "Gott" and for Arabic Christians it's "Allah." I believe we walk on treacherous ground indeed when we start asserting (with apologies to Texas Governor Rick Perry) that either God or Jesus spoke English.

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