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If you come to listen to a talk as if you are going to hear something great from somebody else, this is a big mistake.
The word teisho means something you already intimately know, and it is during the teisho that the roshi makes the Dharma, or truth, come alive. So the Dharma talk is really going on twenty-four hours a day.
Sometimes it seems like it’s with Roshi.
Sometimes it’s with the sound of an airplane.
Sometimes it’s with the heater turning on.
Sometimes it’s with roosters crowing across the way or the sound of wind and rain on a corrugated metal roof.
But the Dharma talk is going on continuously, without interruption, realized or not.
We should remember this. It’s usually very near at hand, preciously close, and always with you.
In the comments to the latest post on the Quaker Universalist Fellowship blog, I posted my current approximation of a 60-second answer to “What do Quakers believe?:
We sit silently, putting aside our personal or social or political or religious concerns, and wait.
Perhaps we notice a greater unity which lies beneath these partial truths. Perhaps we share this greater awareness out loud.
More often we simply do our best to live from that awareness in the world at large.
This is an update of my (very obtuse) words on the About page.
I have for several years been practicing a rather threadbare, in some ways malnourished religion—more by necessity than choice, though the choices are obvious to me.
I wrote that first sentence on Wednesday, March 31st of this year, shortly after I received confirmation that I could move my mother from hospital, where she had come through the crisis of a major systemic infection, into a new skilled nursing facility (SNF), where staff were better equipped than in her old one to care for her at her suddenly more advanced stage of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Monday of that week, staff at her previous SNF had told me, to their own dismay, that they could not manage her new occasional combativeness and escape-seeking behavior. As I wrote at the time, through those next two horrifying days of searching, my practice was reduced to the bare discipline of stopping myself, over and over again, to say, “Keep me in your living present.”
Five months later, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I could say that this sentence—deceptively simple and ambiguous—almost sums up my whole faith and practice:
Keep me in your living present.
Two weeks ago, I read Chris Hedges’ review of a book by Bart D. Ehrman called God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer in the Spring 2008 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin (78-82). Because Hedges articulates so well an understanding which has matured in my own awareness, I will be quoting him here at some length.
Evil is not a problem. Evil is a mystery. Bart Ehrman in his book God’s Problem cannot reconcile a belief in God with this mystery and the cold reality of the morally neutral universe we inhabit…. [He] remains trapped within the simpleminded belief that religious faith, to have legitimacy, means there has to be something logical and ultimately just about human existence….
There is strong desire on the part of many in the human species to believe that human suffering and deprivation is ultimately meaningful, that it has a purpose, that our lives make sense…. (78)
This powerful human desire, however, should not be confused with the reality of the transcendent. God answered Moses’ request for revelation with the words: “I AM WHO I AM.” This phrase is probably more accurately translated “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”
God is not a being. God is an experience. God is a verb, not a noun. God comes to us in the profound flashes of insight that cut through the darkness, in the hope that permits human beings to cope with inevitable pain, despair, and suffering. God comes in the healing solidarity of love and self-sacrifice. But God and the vagaries of human existence, including suffering, are beyond our capacity to explain or understand. (80)
I am grateful that, sometime in my thirties, I began to see the fallaciousness of this human expectation, this self-injuring enterprise we attempt of testing God against the so-called “problem of evil.”
Put simply: we suffer because we know we are mortal. We suffer because we are able to cling in memory to past pains and losses, and we are able to fear in imagination those yet to come.
Yet mortality itself—including its pain and loss, but also its awe and joy—is not a punishment. It is simply a fact.
The salutary response to suffering is not to resist those memories or fears but simply to experience them, to take note of them—and then to remain in the present. The present is the only place where we can act for ourselves and for each other.
And the present is where the something more enters into human consciousness.
Hedges writes of the various unqualifiable, transcendent forces which enter into human life: “love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil, and the reality of death.” Then he writes of what I have very clumsily called the something more.
God—and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes—is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe.
Religion is our finite, flawed, and imperfect expression of the infinite. The experience of transcendence, the struggle to acknowledge the infinite, need not even be attributed to an external being called God. The belief in a personal God can, in fact, be antireligious. Religion is about the human need for the sacred. God is, as Thomas Aquinas writes, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence. (80)
THAT which works upon us and through us. Yes.
Hedges cautions us that
God is a human concept that arises from this impulse and the reality of the transcendent. Our idea of God includes human prejudice, tribal and national self-exaltation, morally indefensible edicts, naked bigotry, and absurd formulas to get God to work on our behalf….
Ehrman correctly challenges these very imperfect and flawed human descriptions of God and the vain attempts to make sense of suffering. But he mistakes the characteristics human beings have invented for God with the reality of God…. These are inadequate attempts by human beings to explain why we suffer. But the inherent flaws in these numerous explanations do not finally invalidate God. They only expose those who write and think about God as human. (80)
The title of Hedge’s review is “A Hollow Agnosticism.” For several decades after I dropped out of Lutheran seminary, if I had to put a label on my faith and practice, I said agnostic. This is not a true label.
Look at that contrast in Aquinas: religion as “the human need for the sacred” versus God as “the power that allows us to be ourselves.”
I’ve written previously (see my “Weeds” series) about James Carse’s reclaiming of the term “religion.” Religion is the mystery which binds a community gathered by a shared seeking after the sacred, not the believe systems used by some to draw boundaries around what one ought or ought not to consider sacred.
I now understand that my supposed agnosticism was about not knowing which belief system I could or should confess, not about questioning the reality of God.
THAT I do know.
I share with the Hebrews the awareness that the experience of YHWH is at once too personal and too complexly beyond the reach of human concept to name. I share with the first Quakers that awareness which they feared conventional Christianity had forgotten: THAT cannot be contained in a name or a liturgy or a theology.
When my heart and mind are in distress from caring for and grieving over my mother, my father, my family and friends, my work, my beautiful, suffering world, when I manage to stop and to center down and to listen, I do not get solutions.
I get the present moment.
Last Sunday, Mom was back in hospital following another mini-stroke and a recurrence of the systemic infection. Angry, fighting the nurses, insisting upon leaving. Mid-afternoon, when I first arrived in her room, for the first time in my experience she did not recognize who I am.
Knowing what I know about Alzheimer’s, I simply said “That’s okay” and sat with her, allowing silence.
“This isn’t a pleasant experience, is it?” I said.
“No, it’s not,” she replied, still glaring.
“We can get rid of that!” she said with annoyance, pointing to the huge old Zenith TV mounted on the wall near the ceiling.
“Okay. What else do you want to get rid of?”
“That.” She pointed to the nursing supply cabinet on the wall. “And that,” pointing to the nurse’s whiteboard.
“What do you want to keep?”
“The cross,” said this ancient Lutheran, indicating the crucifix in this Roman Catholic hospital room.
Several times she repeated these statements about “getting rid of” things in the room. Eventually, I came to suspect that in imagination she was sorting and jettisoning her own things.
I retold for her the story from four years ago, when she systematically divided up her life’s accumulation of furniture and effects among her children and step-children, in the process of leaving her home. She smiled at the memory of having been able to direct this gifting herself.
I told her of my own recent inclination to purge our numerous storage spaces of stuff we brought to this city ten years ago and have not looked at since.
She nodded, but then she said, “It’s dangerous just to get rid of things. You have to look at each one first and remember what you enjoyed about it.”
I marveled in silence, seeing once more the well-remembered wisdom of this woman, which is so much deeper than the dementia.
Several times during this strange conversation, she asked me, “Are you happy with the new?”
“New what?” I wondered the first time, but I simply said, “Yes.” The second time I said, “I’m not sure yet.”
By now Mom was profoundly peaceful. It felt as if we were in a gathered meeting for worship. For long moments we just smiled, eye to eye.
“It’s good to know where we’re going.”
“Yes.” I didn’t ask or interpret.
“This is nice.”
“Well, it’s been a good visit. I’ll see you when you come again.”
Keep me in your living present.
And so it is.
Languages of belief
As my spiritual life has matured and deepened over the decades, I have come to understand that no religious language, whether in scripture, in doctrine, in written or spoken ministry, or in personal testimony, describes the ultimate Reality in any objective way. Rather, at its best such language can only describe the human experience of interaction with that Reality.
This is not because the Real is unknowable, but because human language is limited. Even at its most articulate, the human brain is not able to abstract its intimate experience into concepts and symbols which are at once fully nuanced and also wholly unambiguous to others.
How can we share with each other our common experience of this one Reality, and yet allow that our individual relationships with it are idiosyncratic and, in their inmost core, inexpressible?
I point at the moon saying, “Don’t look at my finger.” Yet is the moon a round outer-space object reflecting sunlight, or a goddess, or the mirror of my emotions, or the clock of the tides, or…?
Part of my goal with The Empty Path is to become more articulately multilingual in describing to others my real faith and practice as it happens. Hence, I am very grateful to Zach A of The Seed Lifting Up for his gentle bravery in describing his process of moving away from belief in God and that movement’s interaction with his longing for real spiritual community. Though the belief crisis of my 20s was very different than Zach’s, I recognize kindred longings and seekings in what he describes —ones which persist for me to this day.
In this post and others which follow, I am borrowing Zach’s language to shine light on my own concerns and openings, not to debate with or try to persuade him or other readers. I apologize in advance if I misunderstand or misrepresent what Zach intends to communicate.
Zach has published a sequence of posts upon which I am drawing:
- “A post-Quaker vision of the Society of Friends” (March 27th)
- “Carrying the Society as long as you can” (August 26th)
- “The post-religious destiny of Quakerism” (September 2nd)
- “A note on being constructive” (September 2nd)
He describes two concerns which are interwoven throughout these posts.
The first has to do with a quest for belief “based on evidence” rather than on doctrine or superstition.
The second has to do with a desire to be part of a spiritual community which, to use the classic Quaker distinction, is centered in authentic practice rather than in outward profession of “right belief.”
I intend to address that first concern in a later post.
For now I am focused more on the tension Zach describes between two compelling internal forces related to that second concern.
One is a deep desire to be part of an intentional community of believers who are committed to serious, mutually supportive practice of their faith in the day-to-day world.
The other is a strong discomfort with the sort of unreflective “profession” of Christian orthodoxy which seems to assume agreement on the part of all listeners.
Both of these forces have been active in my own life, ever since I left Lutheran seminary during my first year there, back in 1973. I went to seminary fully invested in not just the profession but the practice of Christian life. However, I also went there while I was still deep in the closet as a gay man.
When I realized that personal and spiritual authenticity demanded I come out, I was confronted with what seemed an irresolvable conflict. The real presence of God, of Christ, in my inner life did not condemn but affirmed my orientation toward loving another man. Yet the orthodoxy of my church—and of most other religions—did condemn that core part of my personhood.
For a long time I was a refugee from the “christian” world, even though I had no doubt that Christ went along with me in my exile. I will write more of my own questing later, but here I want to generalize about exile and the seeking of refuge.
In his post “Behind the Hedge” back in April, Richard M of A Place to Stand expressed very well the dilemma now facing Quaker meetings—and, in fact, almost any religious group which opens its doors to spiritual refugees:
Being among people who share and affirm our values is uplifting. Time spent among Friends can be time to repair the damage done to our psyches by the world.
This is why some Christian Friends long for a purely Christian meeting. They would feel safer and more protected there. Hearing ministry spoken in their own Christian language sounds dearer to them. They feel especially wounded when someone within the meeting criticizes them for being Christian. They feel as exposed and attacked as they do in the world, here in the one place where they long to feel safe.
But there are many Friends who are refugees from abusive “Christian” churches for whom Christian language is threatening and not comforting. These Friends would feel safer and more protected if the word “Christ” were never spoken in their presence.
This is a problem in many meetings. Love and unity are hard to maintain among us when some Friends are hurt by neutral “Light” language and other Friends are hurt by ministry that explicitly speaks of Christ.
All the advice I can offer is for Friends to be brave. If someone’s language feels like a slap, turn the other cheek and try to respond lovingly to this Friend. Listen to them carefully for signs that Love speaks back through them.
Remember that others quite different from you are also looking for a place of love and shelter behind a hedge guarding them from a hostile world.
I came to Quakerism for refuge. I was drawn by the willingness of Friends to worship deeply together and to make authentic spiritual commitment to each other, without first requiring confession of “right doctrine.”
I began attending my first meeting in 1987, and I became a recorded member and then clerk in the early 1990s. My spouse Jim and I were married under the care of this meeting in 1994. Though we moved to another state seven years ago and attend another meeting, we still have our membership there.
What I remember of this meeting is its weightiness and diversity. In retrospect I know that the members range from Christocentric to Nontheist. They all seemed to be deeply involved in real witness in the social and political challenges of our community and nation, as well as in genuine caring for and ministry to each other.
Yet when Jim and I moved away in 2000, Friends were only just beginning to acknowledge in meeting that we needed to become able to talk with each other about what “Jesus” and “Christian faith and practice” might mean to each of us—whether or not “Christian” was our chosen language.
The meeting I attend now is smaller, more political, perhaps less ready to lift the cover of “Christian” language in order to talk about what inner, secret languages we each use. Again, the people are active and caring. Yet the awkwardness and uninformative silence are there.
So, at least until I stumbled into the Quaker blogosphere, I have been puzzling over my approach/avoidance reaction to “Christian” on my own.
Which leads me back to the question with which I titled this post….
(To be continued)