Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Do this before you die

There’s a book at Urban Outfitters that exemplifies this idea that we must do a certain set of things that define life as good. If you think this is bunk, then think of how many times you’ve been on facebook and compared your life to someone you haven’t seen in a while (this becomes more pronounced as we get older) and thought their life is better than yours. In the book, the set of things we’re supposed to do are dangerous, regrettable, and often immoral, which goes well with the popular view that with serious things we must be irreverent, not humorous, but irreverent. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that there is a list of things to do before we die that are not immoral, though I question any morality that sees this life as the ultimate end of a person. Let’s pretend it’s something like sky diving, or riding a horse bareback, or traveling to Bali.

The assumption behind this is that life ends at death, and as beautiful and romantic and how great this might make for a movie that will do moderately well at the box office, it’s a view of life I find wanting. If it all does end at death, then why do good? Or why even live? How about a dramatic suicide, and even that I’ll allow with something like the label of love attached to it? A loving suicide. I’m sure in that kind of framework and with such a cheap definition of love that is circulating today, it could exist.

The saints however, disagree with this view of living. Death is not the end, and in fact it’s a beginning. And bodily death is only one kind that we experience. In the Christian tradition, a person can be spiritually dead, but bodily they are alive, like corpse animated by strings not its own.

The mystics would say we need to live in the moment, the present is the only reality, though the promises of God and what we are predestined for is always in sight. I find this a far more compelling and truer view. The other is driven by discontent and an unclear depiction of the good life. It’s easy to accept and buy into- pop culture will provide plenty of images and ideas of how to move forward with it. It’s false, however, and only makes the problem worse.

The other is a mere acceptance of where we are, as it is, and to move on from there. What is happening now? My strongest memories are of when I stopped and sank into the ground of where I was and lived, wanting nothing else. God shows up in those moments like that whisper of His tends to do, and I’m lifted above things, seeing beyond them and into them. In these moments we taste the divine, and we live a life not of this world, a far more pleasing thing that falling from the sky in an airplane. Eternity is really eternity when we touch God and play by His rules, for those are the rules of the universe. There is no other set to follow that will lead to life.

But let’s say God did write a bucket list for all those wanting to experience life. Let’s say they’re found written on stone, or coming from the mouth of Christ, the divine Logos. What would it have to say?

We are not of this world, and looking for an otherworldly experience in this one is futile. Futile is the word that best describes this part of our existence, because the bucket list of this world can run on forever; not the forever of heaven, but the forever of hell.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Morning Poison

I pray from a Catholic devotional based on the Liturgy of the Hours called “Magnificat.” For every morning and evening prayer, there is a verse set as a response to a stanza in the psalm, and with the verse comes a summary of the psalm to help guide the pray-er in her meditation.

For this morning it mentioned “morning poison” which is the leftover garbage from the previous day, residual mess that only hinders our functioning for a new day. Morning poison is an apt name for this spiritual phenomenon. It’s the breakup that doesn’t settle until you wake up and realize that actually happened the day before. It’s the recollection of the past day’s choices, a harmful comment, or a sad reality about a person’s life.

The antidote for this poison is not denial, an quick-fix to a lingering problem. Denial can take many forms, even the deceptive satisfaction of putting on a smile with no regrets. Regrets play a part in dismissing the poison, as painful as it might be. What it takes is a cold confession to God, knowing the reality of what we can and can’t do, and seeing the day for what it is.

This is why I pray before anything else in the morning. If you wait to long, the poison will spread and do an incredible amount of harm.

The reality, like many kinds of poisons, is that it is natural at its start, though the fermentation over time makes it the lethal intruder to the spirit.

I’ve also found that if I can’t detect any poison, even if there is some, it will rise to the surface through silence or fasting. Take food away from me for a day and all the nastiness that has settled and assimilated to my soul will be purged and the sight is atrocious. Emotions arise along with bad habits that become undeniable.

The truth is that fasting can take many forms, the most obvious being what we all think of when we hear the word. Depriving ourselves of something that brings comfort and life, and letting the spiritual life rule in its stead.

Morning prayer can be a minor fast because it’s a deprivation of hurry and busyness, especially if our evenings end in a run, killing the poison hidden and revealed by stress.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lies concerning prayer: part one

There are those that want to leave teaching on prayer in the hands of a “just do it” approach. This view does not fit well within the larger Christian tradition on spiritual formation and prayer. Numerous saints, many of them living the monastic life, have had no qualms in teaching their Christian brothers and sisters how to pray. Certainly there is value saying a person needs to learn by doing, but that only goes so far, similar to learning to play an instrument without any outside help. I see how this analogy could quickly fall apart.

Summed up, this means prayer can be done poorly.

“But wait, we should applaud attempts at communing with God.”

This is true, though it’s lazy to not try and do it better or learn as much as we can about it. If you don’t believe me, then read the parable of the pharisee and the publican, or Cain and Abel’s offerings to God.

There are three great lies concerning prayer in our time.

“I never pray for myself.”

It sounds holy on the surface. It is not. Where would such an idea come from? What we’ve done in our time is take an odd stance on virtue in saying the more a person focuses on others, the holier they are. It’s simple math, if a person who thinks of themselves all the time is not good, then the complete opposite is far better, right?

The problem with this is that in order for us to become holy, we need to bring all of who we are to God, which means the way we are regardless of what we think we should be. This might be the biggest impediment to genuine prayer. Someone who becomes a completely different person when they approach God in prayer is not being honest with God and is missing the greatest part of prayer. It’s an issue of the will. The purpose of prayer is to bring who we are, which is closely tied to our will, and presenting it to God to be changed to have God shed light on us. It’s creating space for us and God to interact. Anyone who has kept the habit of prayer will tell you this. Entering a state of prayer changes a person. Openness to God is fundamental to prayer.

But wait, what about the publican, he was so self-effacing in his prayer. This is true, and self-effacement is not the same as never praying to become more holy, or for God to work good in our lives. Two key ingredients that must be present for good prayer: our will and God’s will. If either are shirked or fudged, it loses much of its power. Dishonesty is our worst enemy when we pray.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Negative Salvation

In John Paul II’s book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” a chapter dedicated to Buddhism and Christianity covers a few interesting relations between these two major world religions. The book was written in the mid-90s when Buddhism’s appeal was a vibrant voice in conversations concerning the spiritual landscape in the West, which I participated in as an interest my freshman year of college strictly out of the desire for spiritual practices other than reading the Bible and extemporaneous prayer taught to me by my Baptist friends. Like many people who are attracted to Buddhism, it was the practice of meditation that lies at the center of it that appealed to me. This is not to say that Bible reading and extemporaneous prayer are deficient as spiritual practices, but they are lacking in one area of the spiritual life.

I bought a few books, took up the practice of meditation for half an hour a day, and it’s something I haven’t completely removed from my daily life since.

My interest in Buddhism, though, ended after a few months, and I moved on to Augustine and the early church. If someone were to ask me years later why I walked away from Buddhism I would say it’s because I felt isolated and removed from everything.

But that’s what Buddhism is about. It’s an atheistic religion that sees detachment from the world, enlightenment, nirvana, as the goal and way of salvation. The appealing aspect of this is that it is salvation, though only half of it. It’s what JP II calls “negative salvation.”

In psychology we call this negative reinforcement. The good is the removal of the bad, or more particularly, detachment from the world which leads to suffering, which is bad. Much of what Jesus says with his “dying to the world” talk relates to this. Christianity is right in line with Buddhism so far. Open up “The Imitation of Christ” and you’ll see passage after passage dealing with detachment from the world. I read this work alongside my Buddhist readings and saw the similarity.

So, Christianity and Buddhism are the same, right?

They’re not, and for this reason they’re not- Christianity poses a negative salvation along with a positive one. Both make up the Christian view of salvation. We are called to detach ourselves from the world, and transcend it because we are not made for it. Something’s off, we’re not at home, and the absence of suffering is not the answer to this problem, nor is it the complete answer.

The Christian view of salvation is that we remove all love of this world and cling to God.

That’s the big difference. Humans are not called to transcendence alone, but to be transfigured, lifted above the mountain and changed into something not of this world. And this can only happen through God’s intervention in our downward spiral away from Him.

God is not a nothingness we cling to, though Christian mystics might allude to this at times. What they’re getting at is that the great “cloud of unknowing” is the mystery beyond the world, beyond human reason, where God resides. It’s in the emptiness of the cross, the peak and lowest point of human suffering, that God saves us and we have access to Him.

So, what was the one thing I wanted my freshman year that Bible reading and extemporaneous prayer didn’t seem to offer? Silence.

Buddhism will give a person plenty of that.

One last point. The differences in meditative practices show this divergence between the two because Buddhism seeks silence and detachment while Christianity seeks the same, though only in order to fill it with the voice of God. The question on a practical level, then, is whether or not a person’s spiritual life has both these elements.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ricky Gervais and atheism

A video I found yesterday with Ricky Gervais talking about his conversion to atheism:

Two things worth saying:

I believe Gervais is being genuine. He grew up in the church like many atheists do, and he had an experience in his late teenage years where his mother, who was a big influence in his religious life, and tried to shut up his brother who apparently had the truth about God. What's the secret?

God doesn't exist. God is a babysitter, or more specifically the Son of God is the babysitter and his mother used Jesus to keep him out of trouble.

I don't know Gervais' mother, but going by his account I'm not surprised Gervais lost his faith. It was based on deception and use misuse of God for practical reasons. This isn't an unpopular view. Many people who are atheists or at best nominal Christians want their children involved in church life because it's good for them. I agree it is good for them. But if what's taught is morality alone, then it will fall flat like in Gervais' case. For him, it took one interaction between his brother and his mother, then an hour of thinking and it's done.

Who's the god Gervais believed in?

That god wants everyone to do good, and if they don't do good, they will be punished. Santa Claus is similar. This is second grade Sunday school theology and if a person keeps it the rest of their life, their faith will disintegrate as fast as his did. Of course, God is concerned about what we do, but why and to what end? That's the real question and it's never asked.

God is all about morals, and the Bible is solely a book on morality with poor history and science thrown in for fun. I'm not surprised Gervais rejected that god. You can hear his view of God come out in his description of Jesus.

"Jesus was kind." That's beautiful. Just a really nice guy.

And what about the Fall?

God made two mistakes: letting the serpent loose in the garden and making him an atheist. God didn't do either of those. Free will left the option for the serpent to deceive and for us to be deceived, and Gervais chose to be an atheist in his hour of thinking over what his brother said.

What he's showing is a somewhat sophisticated view of the Fall (evil in the world, natural disasters, the serpent in the garden, etc.) and a very poor view of God's plan to redeem us. Really? Do you honestly think after all the evil and corruption in the world God's only solution was to send another human to tell us to be nice?

The problem is that he wasn't taught the doctrine of the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, etc. God didn't merely choose to teach us, he chose to come down Himself and redeem us all the way through. Our wills have been corrupted and we have to be refashioned, and we're done so to be greater than we were before the Fall. But he doesn't say this, does he? Probably because he wasn't taught it.

If he was given an apology for the way of salvation, I bet he'd say it was absurd. It is. I agree. The truth of it is probably the hardest to accept, something he alludes to at the beginning of the video.

But isn't it interesting how quickly he moved from his theism to his atheism? A lifetime of teaching and religious life gone in an hour, and no one objects. His family doesn't stop him either, other than his mom's scolding his brother.

What's deceiving about his story is that he says he grew up believing in God and in a Christian home. This is not true. If his mom never believed it, then it's no surprise his faith is paper-thin. This is the problem with religion as morals alone.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The bullying of immediate consequences

Imagine a life where there are no obligations to anyone, anything, except for the minimum of paying bills to live. This life would be something similar to the life of a three year old, with the necessary additions of adult responsibilities. What would you do with your time? In this scenario, when there are no obligations, there are no immediate consequences to your actions. Add a job, or a marriage, or kids, or any other normal thing and the obligations pile up, but they don’t disappear. Most of us would still have free time at that point, even if it is minimal.

In that free time we are given, we have no immediate consequences.

In the obligations we do have, there are varying degrees of intensity. If you miss work three days in a row, there are serious consequences. If you don’t come home for a week without telling your family, there will be consequences. If you don’t study for a final, there are consequences. And most of these are immediate. They’re easy to pay attention to because we don’t want to reap the results of shoddy work. Fulfilling these obligations are good, everyone should complete them as best they can, but what about the things that don’t scream so loudly when they’re neglected for a bit?

Parts of life like our relationship to God, our children, old friendships, or hobbies we’ve always wanted to take up?

I have great friends from my past, and it’s easy to tell myself that not talking to them often doesn’t harm anything. In fact, I can completely neglect those relationships and never see negative consequences. But that’s the point.

When negative consequences are what drives a person to act, or the more immediate one along with it, then life is not lived well.

When we shrug off worship or prayer, or time with old friends because they’re expendable and we have more pressing things to take care of, we let those things run our lives and we don’t have a healthy life.

Go back to that scenario I put forth at the beginning of this blog.

If your answer is that you will do nothing because you have no obligations to anyone, then you are living right now by the rule of immediate consequences.

We don’t need a hypothetical situation to figure out if a person is, though. All that’s needed is close examination of a person’s free time.

Had a day off? What did you do? Is that who you want to be?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Philanthropy as a Fad

More than I’ve seen in my short lifetime, and as far as I can tell from the past hundred years, the past few decade has seen a new phenomenon arise within the culture, that being philanthropy as a trend. People spending time and money on others is not a bad thing, and most would agree, but what I question are the reasons why people are giving.

If we donate such and such to such and such cause, we’ll help out these people in a country much poorer than our own. It’s a nice thought, but why? For social change? That’s a popular one. To change the world? Another big one. But what if those things don’t happen? Are we certain that giving will make any difference at all, and what is the stopping place?

That’s the real point I want to make. If it’s guilt, social change, compulsion, peer pressure that are the reasons, then I have serious doubts as to whether this movement toward philanthropy will be lasting. Those in the Christian tradition helped the poor because that’s what Christ commanded. It’s the new law. And the law should not be broken for the sake of convenience, even though it very often is.

But that’s not how these causes are advertised is it?

Help us change the world. Help us make a difference. Look how efficient your money will become if you donate it to us. It’s become a point of marketing a product because of its efficiency, not because its goodness. When efficiency becomes the end in itself, it becomes a move to progress without a clear goal. If the reason for doing anything good is out of a desire for global change, or guilt, or anything or thing besides moral law and it being good in itself, then it will die or turn into something far nastier than a person intended.

St. Francis of Assisi is a popular saint as of late. “Preach the Gospel and use words if necessary,” is the famous saying. Read about his life and his personality. He was the least efficient person when it came to good works. He was impulsive and flighty, but look at the good he expressed through his life. He was already sold on loving simply because he knew he was loved by God first, and all he wanted was to share it with every person he came in contact with. Because of this, he’s one of the most revered saints in the Christian tradition.

That’s his reason. What’s yours?