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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Split That Hair a Few More Times, Will Ya?

One of the things I have noticed over the years about Christianity - and I will absolutely say right up front that this tendency has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus - is its tendency to compartmentalize life. There are hints of that in the New Testament's expression of the Greek view that the body was a prison for the spirit. In its more extreme forms this philosophical position led to practices such as "mortification of the flesh," consisting of actual self-abuse as a vehicle for spiritual growth. If people went too far and actually did themselves in it wasn't altogether bad because the spirit had been released.

More benign practices centered around idea that the world and its flesh were bad and the spiritual world was good started in the earliest days of the Church when the Desert Fathers and Mothers retreated from "the world" into the isolation of the desert in search of God. I don't believe they were trying to establish some kind of precedent or make a statement about everyday life being bad, but some people certainly saw it that way. During the Middle Ages monasteries became centers of education in addition to being, at least in their cloistered expressions, centers of withdraw from the world as well. The Protestant Reformation, especially those profoundly depressed individuals who developed the notion of the "total depravity of humankind" took the fragmenting of life at the hands of the Church to new lows. Contemporarily, evangelical fundamentalists have been waging a "culture war" for decades that characterizes everything from popular music and entertainment to free thought as "the work of the devil." This has led to a generation of home-schooled social misfits from that world, perhaps the most long term devastating effect of the narrow minded world of popular religion over the last one hundred fifty years. Many self-identified "Christians" now live in a world they are intensely afraid of and about which they are ill informed. Some have even advocated wanton disregard for the environment in the hopes that the world will end soon, which they see as a necessary preliminary event for Christ's return. Of course, that view is based on the most profoundly ignorant biblical scholarship available, but why should facts get in the way?

All of this goes on among people who believe they are following Jesus, who in fact was intensely involved in all corners of his world, from the mundane events of daily life to cutting edge political and religions action. His was a life of speaking truth to power and advocating for the full inclusion of all people in the Church of his day - and because the Church and State were part of the same entity in his day, that meant he was also advocating for the marginalized in the political arena. He attended to people's daily needs as well - their need for healing, for food, and for shelter in the storm. Extremely significant to me is the fact that although he did go away for periods of meditation and contemplation, he did not withdraw from the world.

From my first exposure to Buddhism on to today, one of the most impressive things to me about Buddhism has been its conviction that the material for spiritual practice not only draws from everyday life, but in fact is everyday life. From the Zen saying, "Chop wood, carry water," to the principles of Engaged Buddhism, to Chogyam Trungpa's assertion that "The path is the goal," daily life is the very stuff of practice. Its respect for the life of all sentient beings makes environmentalism not a problem but a requirement, and its emphasis on compassion precludes dismissing any part of our world. These values are a breath of fresh air in a world filled with anger and judgmental zeal, and they may be our best hope for the future. Rather than continuing to fragment reality into the good, the bad, and the ugly, Buddhism sees it all as necessary for practice. While there certainly are Buddhists who go to live in monasteries and similar settings, they go for intense spiritual practice rather than to avoid a defective world.

It is these kinds of contrasts that convince me that Interspirituality is essential for the future of our planet. Since different religious traditions developed in different cultural settings they are bound to have different emphases as well as different strengths and weaknesses. Looking across traditions provides a much needed corrective when an aspect of one tradition has been corrupted by well meaning but ill informed adherents. It's clear that Jesus would not have endorsed fracking, for example, even as many who purport to be his followers do so. A quick look across traditions leaves us hard put to justify a skillful spiritual person advocating poisoning our water for profit - and the truth is that looking across traditions counters the arguments of a vocal but misguided minority from any single tradition. It's much harder to hijack a very large, very diverse group of people from a diverse collection of spiritual traditions.

In the end, it's not who we follow that's important but rather that we follow them faithfully. As a mono-non-theist (to coin an awkward term), it is absolutely my belief that all of the historical traditions are trying to get to the same place and answer the same questions. The differences between traditions are for the most part cultural and historical while the essentials are commonly held. Theologians tend to see tremendous differences between traditions while the mystics - those who practice to encounter the essence of their tradition - find their experiences to be remarkably similar. Speaking just for myself, actually encountering Divinity is much more important than arguing about what official pronouncement we subsequently make about the encounter others have had - and the halls of theologians have never been heavy with mystics, in fact quite the opposite. Theologians tend to be very threatened by the mystics because they can't be controlled and so historically theologians have spent a significant amount of time trying to drive the mystics out. The results are clear to see, and it's long past time for a change!

Instead of listening to people who make pronouncements about people who have spiritual practices and achievements, imagine what would happen if we listened to those people directly? Instead of listening to self appointed theological press secretaries, why don't we look for ourselves? Instead of splitting hairs even further, why don't we admit that everything and everybody is inseparably interconnected? Imagine the revolutionary changes that would follow!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this insightful article. One of my primary realizations after I was awakened from the "Christian Hypnosis", was that the practice of fundamental, evangelical Christianity seems to miss the daily joy of living. The focus is so laser-focused on heaven and the Spirit and my life after this life, that the enjoyment and 'practice' of everyday living is cast to the wayside.

    I so much more enjoy the mindset of "Chop wood, carry water" than I ever the minimal satisfaction I sustained by focusing on my "Heavenly Home."