DEEPER LOVE Faithful Rhetoric for Progressive Social Change
A project of Progressive Christians Uniting
Listen to the DEEPER LOVE hymn
Words by Jim Burklo - Sung by Argentine singer-songwriter, Lucia Marco, soloist at Woodland Hills Community Church, UCC, Los Angeles
What Is Deeper Love?
Deeper Love is a web resource provided by Progressive Christians Uniting, updated regularly with input from its users, offering faith-based language for progressive political and social action. It provides activists, lay and clergy people, politicians, campaigners, and organizers with inspiring rhetoric to advance social change. Deeper Love is edited by Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California, with the Theological Reflection Committee of Progressive Christians Uniting.
Not by Bread Alone
By Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, in Matthew 4:4 (NRSV)
“Politics without prayer or mysticism quickly becomes grim and barbaric; prayer or mysticism without political love quickly becomes sentimental and irrelevant interiority.”
– Edward Schillebeeckx, The Schillebeeckx Reader
It’s been said that money is the mother's milk of politics. But, to paraphrase a passage from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, politics does not live by mother's milk alone. It also feeds on spiritual food. Politics is animated by hearts that burn and souls that yearn. Why else would people ever vote for a politician who passes laws that effectively take bread off their tables?
In his wise book, Reverence, the philosopher Paul Woodruff muses that "voting is irrational." The outcome of an election is extremely unlikely to be determined by whether or not I vote. So why do I still fill out the ballot and mail it in? It's a ceremony, says Woodruff. A liturgy we use to affirm the spiritual value of the dignity and worth of our common humanity. It dramatizes and reinforces the conviction that your word and mine have no less weight than the voices of the rich and the famous. Those of us who vote do so religiously - quite literally. To cast a ballot is to make a statement of faith.
Many of those who don’t vote – well over half the eligible electorate in many if not most elections – have lost faith because the language of politics is so seldom the language of the heart. Love is drowned out by vituperative partisan ranting in mass media.
This project aims to change that. It gives life to rhetoric that moves the heart to move the hand to mark the ballot to build a kinder and better nation. “Deeper Love” is about keeping the body politic and the soul together in a new way. “Deeper Love” offers an inspiring, positive political language of love that will “votivate” Americans.
But to move forward, we must look back to see how we got where we are today.
Politics didn’t lose its soul because of our Constitution, nor because of the way that our courts have interpreted it. There is no separation of religion and public policymaking, even though the Constitution puts up a wall between church and state. That’s because the wall has a one-way door in it. The body politic must refrain from imposing a creed or a structure of faith on the people. But religious people and institutions freely influence politics. And politicians can be guided by the light of the spirit as they see it, and speak the word of soul as they hear it. Bans on Christmas crèches on the front lawns of city halls, or of scripture references on courtroom walls, pose no impediments to the free expression of faith in political life. On the contrary, preventing the government from establishing religion has resulted in a very lively free market of faith in this country.
The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America (1840, p 445), was impressed with the vigor of religious life in America and with its positive influence on democracy: “Every religion… imposes on each man some obligations toward mankind, and so it draws him away, from time to time, from thinking about himself… Thus religious people are naturally strong just at the point where democratic peoples are weak.” These words echoed those of William Penn over a hundred years before: “If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.”
Faith has always been part of public discourse. For most of its history, American political rhetoric was characterized by what Rousseau called the "civil religion". The American sociologist Robert Bellah saw it as a spirit and a rhetoric grounding politics in non-doctrinal, broadly Judeo-Christian themes. Abraham Lincoln, though criticized for not belonging to any church, artfully and sincerely employed the civil religion to lay the spiritual cornerstone of reconstruction. He declared that the Civil War was the consequence of the sin of the whole nation - north and south - for allowing slavery to go on for so long. God demanded justice, and it was extracted in the blood of both the blue and the grey. For Lincoln, bringing the nation together again was the next step in the divine plan to restore righteousness. In his second inaugural address, he said: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
From its founding, America's public life bubbled out of a spiritual fountain, taking form somewhere between Deism and “mainline” Protestantism. Generally, politicians employed faith language that stayed out of the weeds of sectarian dogma. And Christians understood that political action and structural social change were necessary means toward the end of living out the gospel. We don’t associate the Salvation Army with progressive politics today. But in the1890’s, Ballington Booth, commander of the Salvation Army in the United States, said that “To right the social wrong by charity is like bailing out the ocean with a thimble… We must readjust our social machinery so that the producers of wealth become also owners of wealth…” Many other evangelicals and fundamentalists in America in the late 19th and early 20th century were political leftists, and did not hesitate to use religious rhetoric in support of the labor movement and of the legislative efforts to reign in the runaway power of corporate trusts and monopoly capital. William Jennings Bryan was a fundamentalist Christian who ran unsuccessfully three times for the presidency as the Democratic nominee. Later he became famous for defending six-day creationism in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Hard as it is to imagine it today, in that time he was attacked by the Republicans for being so strident and public about his old-fashioned religious beliefs. But in fact his most notable uses of religious rhetoric fit into the mold of the “civil religion”. He was a vigorous advocate of “bi-metallism”, which would have allowed the US central bank more flexibility in monetary policy that would have benefited farmers and workers. The business elite defended the gold standard. In his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, he declaimed: “If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It was a classical example of the use of religious rhetoric without reference to religious dogma.
Martin Luther King did the same. A Baptist preacher, he spoke for the highest ideals of the nation when he compared the civil rights struggle of blacks to the exodus of the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was an inclusive spiritual message that resonated with people across religious boundaries.
Such expressions of the civil religion began to recede in 1980's as the Republican Party entered into a coalition with Christian fundamentalists. It was a political wedding of the business elite with white cultural conservatives in the Bible Belt. The movement suggested a real American to be someone who accepted a specific creedal manifestation of Christianity. Biblical literalism and Christian exclusivism, once confined to a cultural backwater, became integral to right-wing public discourse. Political candidates were subjected to grilling about their doctrinal purity. Horrified by such divisive language, many Democrats abandoned religious rhetoric for fear of being associated with radio preachers drawling about apocalyptic “end-times”, or they used religious language in a defensive, negative way to distinguish themselves from Republicans. Except for brief flickers of consciousness that they have abandoned a potentially sympathetic constituency, many progressives still cede too much of the language of faith to conservatives' political space. Theological conservatism does not and never did equal political conservatism, but political progressives seem to have lost sight of this fact.
The conservative movement for over 30 years has consistently demonized government as the enemy of the people, and when it has held power in Washington, it has given Americans good reason to believe that this assertion is true. President Barack Obama sagely diagnosed the resulting “Catch-22” on October 29, 2014: “There has been a certain cynical genius to what some of these folks have done in Washington. What they’ve realized is, if we don’t get anything done, then people are going to get cynical about government and its possibilities of doing good for everybody. And since they don’t believe in government, that’s a pretty good thing. And the more cynical people get, the less they vote. And if turnout is low and people don’t vote, that pretty much benefits those who benefit from the status quo.”
This cycle of cynicism alienates the American people ever further from their national institutions and symbols. Gerrymandering of legislative districts to favor the party in power has the effect of further demoralizing the electorate. Just before the 2014 midterm election, the public’s approval rating of the Republican-dominated Congress was 14% (less than half of President Obama's approval rating), yet almost all incumbents were re-elected because their districts had been drawn to ensure their “safety”. A growing number of Americans blame politics and politicians in general for their alienation, and that makes progressive change even harder to achieve.
Conservatives relentlessly advocate "personal responsibility". You are on your own. You owe little to society, and society owes little to you. This is a factless, faithless, loveless political philosophy. It is unappealing to most Americans. Republicans may have prevailed in the 2014 midterm election, but their political dogma landed with a hollow thud in the hearts of the 64% of potential voters who didn't cast ballots. How can any politician claim a mandate for action with such a pitifully low voter turnout? To do so makes a mockery of democracy. And the outrageousness of politicians acting on a mandate that doesn’t exist makes citizens even less motivated to vote.
Political conservatives generally use negative rhetoric in campaigns – except when they use religious language. The opposite is true for progressives. “… Democratic religious rhetoric tended to be considerably more negative than that of Republicans. This is particularly interesting, given that secular speech did not follow this pattern. In fact when we examine the secular campaign stump speeches, it is clear that Republicans tended to be the more negative party of the two,… Nevertheless, this pattern was reversed when the parties spoke to voters in religious terms… much of the angry Democratic religious rhetoric was in response to the relationship between religion and the Republican Party. This defensive posture has characterized much of the Democratic religious rhetoric from 1980 to 2004. “ (Christopher Chapp, Religious Rhetoric and American Politics, Cornell Univ. Press, 2012, P 77)
The disuse and misuse of religious language by progressives is also a consequence of a long-term trend in America toward spiritual individualism. What religious language will resonate with a nation of such diverse beliefs, or of no beliefs at all? According to recent Pew Research Center data, 23% of young people between ages 18-29 have no religious affiliation, and that number is rising. In their magisterial analysis of current trends, American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell describe the weakening loyalties of Americans toward all kinds of religious institutions. Yet the bookstores and the blogosphere abound with things to read and watch about matters spiritual. America is split between a minority of citizens with very strong religious allegiances and a larger population with increasingly fluid spirituality. Putnam and Campbell tease out the statistics to reveal a hard core of politically conservative and strongly religiously affiliated people who are more attracted to the political orientations of their congregations than they are to their theological commitments. This minority group of conservatives who tend to show up regularly to vote faces a larger population of citizens whose voting turnout is as spotty as their worship attendance. The right-wing political preaching in conservative churches has alienated many young people who are dropping out of both religion and civic engagement.
The collapse of the civil religion is partly a consequence of progressives’ failure to understand the nature of politics itself. George Lakoff, cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley, argues that people reason with their emotions, not through a cold, Cartesian logical calculus. But many progressives craft their political rhetoric with the assumption that people vote on the basis of cold self-interest. Says Lakoff: “Right now the Democratic Party is into marketing. They pick a number of issues like prescription drugs and Social Security and ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those issues. They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity. People vote their identity, they don't just vote on the issues, and Democrats don't understand that.” Lakoff explains that conservatives do a much better job than liberals in expressing their morality in straightforward, emotionally-charged terms. Until progressives learn this lesson, they will have a hard time motivating their natural constituencies not only to vote for them, but to vote at all. People vote on the basis of inspirational morality and identity, and spirituality and religion are central to both.
“I do think the Democratic Party has for far too long been hesitant to talk about the things we deeply believe and value, ... Many public policy positions have their foundation in religious beliefs that we hold dear.” Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (an ordained Methodist pastor)
Political progressives try to appeal to the American people with particular policies that would benefit them. But this does not inspire the souls of the people, and it also leads into the weeds. Hardly anyone understands exactly how Obamacare works, nor do they wish to read the fine print. Hardly anyone has considered every complex detail of the bipartisan immigration reform proposal that the Tea Party Republicans have stymied in Congress. Progressive politicians must touch the hearts of the people by inspiring them to serve not their own self-interests, but the interests of their fellow citizens. If we all vote with love for others, we can begin to meet everyone’s needs.
“The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.” Nikolai Berdyaev
The politics of deeper love, delivered in spiritually grounded rhetoric, affirms democracy as the way we care for our fellow citizens in the thousand ways that they cannot possibly or practically care of themselves alone. We need progressive political platforms expressed in heartfelt, positive, and simple terms, using the spiritual language of compassion, especially for the most vulnerable members of our society.
The collapse of the old civil religion partly results from the increasing religious diversity of America. Immigrants bring to our shores all of the world’s faiths, and sects of those faiths, contributing to the spiritual heterodoxy of Americans. We pick and choose our beliefs from a longer and longer menu of perceived options, creating individualized theologies and combinations of practices. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, in his book Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, explored the North American tendency to make religion a matter of personal experience. There is a trend of long-standing in America to value direct mystical encounter with God over the repetition of corporate religious ritual. This perspective dominates across the theological spectrum. The Pew Research statistics show that more and more people report having mystical spiritual experiences, even as worship attendance goes down. Fundamental and evangelical Christians today ask a question that would have been essentially meaningless to the first Christian settlers in America: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” The 1620 Pilgrims believed that their salvation came to them not as individuals through personal confession, but as a community through divine providence and predestination. But this sense of communal spirituality has eroded among Christians across the theological spectrum. And Americans with weaker religious ties also see spirituality as a matter of personal experience and mutable choice. Culturally Jewish people practice Buddhist meditation, people raised Catholic go to yoga retreats, and some nominal evangelical Christians believe in astrology and reincarnation.
The civil religion was predicated on a society in which people had respect for civic institutions. It was predicated on a spiritual authority underlying the temporal authority of governments and churches, and even of companies and clubs. But the relentless conservative message that “government is the enemy”, the splintering of the news media into a myriad of sources that often are no more than ideological echo-chambers, the lack of loyalty of corporations to their employees and the resulting lack of loyalty of employees to their employers, to say nothing of the drastic weakening of people’s loyalty to religious denominations – all are both causes and effects of the weakening of social authority.
Conservatives know they are a minority group whose political domination is tenuous, so they show up to vote more often than liberals. Conservatives feel and express, more clearly and succinctly than liberals, the emotional logic of their positions. Conservative politicians wrap themselves in the flag and claim to be the “real” Americans, while dismantling the American institutions that protect the people from physical and social insecurity. This perpetuates a cycle of cynicism that alienates the American people ever further from their national institutions and symbols. A growing number of Americans blame politics and politicians in general for this alienation, and that makes progressive change even harder to achieve.
“There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” Martin Luther King Jr.
At its root, this cynicism is a spiritual problem, and it requires a spiritual solution. “The present crisis of authority is only one of a thousand consequences of the general crisis of spirituality in the world at present. Humankind, having lost its respect for a higher authority, has inevitably lost respect for earthly authority as well.” These were the words of Vaclav Havel, the avant-garde playwright who became the first president of the Czech Republic after communism, in a talk to the National Press Club of Australia in March of 1995. He believed that both capitalism and communism had lost this sense of responsibility to a transcendent order, and had been swept up in destructive hubris. Havel was not a religious person, but he believed that the future of democracy and of human civilization depended on deep respect for the transcendent.
Even if we wanted to go back to the old days of the “civil religion”, could we? - now that American religion has become so diversified, atomized, privatized, and even commodified - now that we have so little sense of holy or even unholy authority underlying our institutions?
But we can and we must craft a fresh political rhetoric that flows from our shared spiritual experience of compassion, giving life and purpose to our democracy.
America still has a soul. It will express itself differently than it did in the days of the nation’s founders, or even in the days of the great civil rights and anti-poverty struggles of the 1960’s. We may be at a loss for words to express them, but our nation’s heart is still burning to put our transcendent values into action.
Havel gave America a hint of the new civil religion in his memorable address to a joint session of the US Congress in February of 1980. “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed – be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization – will be unavoidable…. (what is required is) Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success – responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.” Havel used spiritual rhetoric to move his nation away from a spirit of retribution against the oppression of the communists and toward a flowering of democracy and freedom. As an artist who understood the reality and power of words, he believed that this rhetoric was not only a tool to use toward these ends, but was the essence of the ends themselves. The open expression of respect for the transcendent is itself the foundation of social and political authority. And the transcendent need not be expressed in supernatural terms.
“In the beginning was the Word,” opens the gospel of John. Can we have personal spiritual experience without language to express it? Whether or not one believes that thought is predicated on language, it’s clear that experience and words to describe it are inseparable, and that words are social constructions. So there is no way for spirituality to be individualized completely. Charles Taylor observed that “It matters to each of us as we act that others are there, as witnesses of what we are doing, and thus as co-determiners of the meaning of our action. (p 85)”
“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55: 11, NRSV) This was the word of God divined by the prophet. The ancients took this idea literally. Until the invention of the printing press, when printed words became ubiquitous, most people believed that words were not just random symbolic place-holders to refer to things, but were real things in themselves. Words were real entities that went forth in the world to act and deliver results.
Part of the disenchantment of Western civilization has been the loss of this palpable sense of power in the word. Essential to the re-enchantment of our civilization and its political life and institutions is holy awe for the potential energy packed in the language we speak and hear and write and read.
This resource aims to re-enchant America with a spiritually-centered rhetoric that reconnects our souls with our political activism in a language that unites rather than divides, includes rather than excludes. It is language that opens doors to the world rather than separating insiders from outsiders. It is language that takes a stand but doesn’t suggest a last stand. It is language that leaves room for interpretation. It moves through poetry and music. It’s a rhetoric that makes us hungry for love and justice, moving us to share the bread for the sake of a deeper love.
Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, p. 168. http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm
Ballington Booth, quoted in Norris Magnuson, Salvation in the Slums: Evangelical Social Work 1865-1920, 1977, p 166.
Christopher Chapp, Religious Rhetoric and American Politics, Cornell Univ. Press, 2012
Vaclav Havel, quoted in “Cross Currents” magazine, Fall 1997.
George Lakoff, quoted in UC Berkeley News, Oct 27, 2003.
Robert Putnam, David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us: New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.
Edward Schillebeeckx, The Schillebeeckx Reader. Crossroads Press, 1987.
Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited. Harvard University Press, 2002.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America,1840
Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, chapter 2
Dear friends and family:
Will you join me in voting on March 3 in the LA primary election? Email me back with your commitment!
It's a way of voting on the "buddy system". By promising our friends that we'll vote (no need to tell how we're voting), we increase the likelihood that we'll actually do it!
Showing up to vote, or mailing in our absentee ballots, shows that we care about what happens in our community and that we are paying attention to what our politicians do. If lots of people vote, politicians feel the necessity to be more accountable for their actions. Each and every vote thus makes a difference.
Some folks, like myself, are election nerds. Others are not, and for them, it's totally legit to follow the voting advice of people they respect and whose values mirror their own. It's another form of full participation in the democratic process. The more people vote, the more responsive our elected officials must be - and that benefits everyone.
Here are my picks for March 3:
Charter Amendments 1 and 2: YES. This will consolidate LA's City Council and School Board elections with state/federal ballots. The hope is that this will raise the number of voters in local elections substantially, up from the current abysmal level (less than 25% in the most recent mayoral election in LA). The challenge will be to get voters informed about local contests at the same time they are bombarded with state and federal ballot choices. So it is not a perfect solution, but it should move us in the right direction.
City Council, LA, District 4: Carolyn Ramsay. She was the chief of staff of our current Council member, Tom LaBonge. She is very familiar with city issues and city politics; she is a pragmatist; she supports the $15 minimum wage for the city, she wants to strike a good balance between residential needs and economic development. It took me a long time to make up my mind in this race, because of the 14 candidates, many are excellent, including Tomas O'Grady, Steve Veres, Sheila Irani, and Wally Knox. I particularly like Ramsay because she could hit the ground running, due to her extensive experience at City Hall.
Los Angeles Community College District:
Seat 1: Francesca Vega - Works as government relations officer at Cal State Northridge - her qualifications and endorsements seem good to me, and getting a Latina on the board seemed like a bonus.
Seat 3: Sydney Kamlager - good qual's and endorsements -
Seat 5: Scott Svonkin - effective incumbent
Seat 7: Mike Fong - good qual's and endorsements
For other races in LA outside my area, see the endorsements of the LA Times (which I always consider seriously): http://www.latimes.com/opinion/endorsements/
"... remain here, and stay awake with me." Jesus, Matthew 26: 38
I’ve spent a certain amount of my life with my head stuck in a jug, convinced that the whole world is dark. For me, mindfulness meditation practice has been the means by which the jug gets pulled off and I'm able to wake to the light.
My mindfulness practice began in 1976. When I arrived at San Francisco Theological Seminary in Marin County, CA, I was assigned a roommate by the name of Ken Meece. I think the seminary administration perceived correctly that neither of us were conventional students, and paired us on this basis. Ken had spent a long time in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal. He told his lama that he wanted to become an official Buddhist, but the lama told him to go home to his native country and practice the religion of his origin, and become the most enlightened Christian possible. Ken followed this order and arrived at the seminary with a shaved head and a habit of doing yogic handstands in our dorm room in the middle of the night. Once I stumbled into the apartment, and, groping for what I thought was the floor lamp, screamed when I found it was covered with hair!
I asked Ken to teach me everything he'd learned from the Buddhists. So, at 6 am every morning, we'd climb the hill to the Presbyterian chapel and sit on the floor, bathed in light stained by the windows, and practice mindfulness meditation. Then we'd take a six-mile run through the forest on the flanks of Mount Tamalpais.
Ken died a few years ago, after an impressive career of very innovative hospital and prison chaplaincy in northern California. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and wove the insights of mindfulness practice into everything he did. His life richly fulfilled the intentions of Lama Yeshe, his spiritual teacher.
Mindfulness is a particular kind of meditation focused on being aware and accepting of all forms of experience,in the moment, without judgment, and with an attitude of compassion. It's doing for ourselves what we do best when we spend time with our friends and family, being present without giving advice, trying to change things, or giving value-judgments. Wherever I have gone in my career, I've started mindfulness practice groups. I have done so both out of altruism and because of my need for a group of other people to join in maintaining the discipline. I started such a group at the University of Southern California, for students and staff. I also teach a course in basic mindfulness practice at our medical school for students and staff. These programs are part of a new campus-wide initiative my boss, Varun Soni, and I started this academic year: Mindful USC - Mindfulness at the University of Southern California . It's been gratifying to watch this initiative take hold with great enthusiasm from faculty, staff, and students. We are not so much leading it as tending it!
Besides meditating with the group on campus, I practice mindfulness on my daily walk after work. To get started, I chant to myself, one word per step, "What - is - here" - inside and out? What is here in my inner world of emotions, urges, sensations, thoughts, memories, plans, scenario re-enactments? What is here in the outer world I experience: birds, telephone poles, vistas, mountains, clouds, trash cans? I strive to walk with an awareness of what is present, without judgment, without being "sucked into" any particular experience and lose the perspective of the compassionate observer. I find walking meditation to be much harder than sitting meditation, because there are so many inviting distractions. But I find it hard to do sitting meditation on my own, without being in a group.
Looking back, I am grateful for the benefits of this practice. It has helped me be present, moment by moment. It has slowed time down for me, lengthening my life substantially by enabling me to savor more of the here and the now. It has trained me to smell the flowers, notice patterns, savor beauty, listen more deeply to others, see and feel so much more. But by far the greatest benefit has been in improving my relationships with other people. I have further to go in being a good listener, letting go of judgments toward others. But I am certain that the degree to which I have been a caring and supportive presence has had everything to do with my mindfulness practice.
Just before being arrested by the Romans and executed for rabble-rousing against the Empire, Jesus sat in the garden of Gethsemane. He asked one thing of his disciples: remain with me, and stay awake with me. Be with me, simply present, quietly listening, carefully appreciating. Be here now, because now is all we ever had, and will ever have. But they couldn't do it. So they missed out on the eternal life in the eternal now that they could have had with their beloved teacher in his final moments. The season of Lent, which we now enter, is the time on the Christian calendar for practicing what Jesus asked of his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. If we find that our heads are stuck in jugs, we should take consolation, knowing that this consciousness was as hard for Jesus' disciples to maintain as it is for us. The difficulty of this practice is just another occasion for patient loving-kindness.
I'm nearly 40 years into this mindfulness discipline. But every time I return to it, day after day, I'm a beginner. Every time I do the practice, I start like Kai, with my head stuck in a jug. Slowly, as I meditate, the jug is gently lifted off my head, and I wake to the light of a heightened awareness once more.
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
After 21 years living with a Christian minister, hoping the whole time that I might be able to help her get some clarity about the subject, she still was frustrated. When she was a child, growing up in a devout Catholic family, going to Catholic schools, attending mass faithfully, she wanted to believe in God. She would lie in bed at night, looking out the window at a sky bathed in moonlight, asking God: "If you really exist, can you flutter the curtain right now?" Every time she asked, the curtain stayed still. She gave up.
Roberta had nothing to do with organized religion until I came into her life decades later. She kept hoping that I'd give a sermon or write a "Musing" that would explain it all to her in comprehensible, coherent terms. Over and over again, the curtain stayed still. She felt like my last post might finally give her the answer, but it didn't quite do it. Hearing and seeing her disappointment this time, my heart went out to her.
As you may have noticed from my recent "musings", I've been spending a lot of time with professed atheists lately. In particular, this week I found myself engaged in a rich email dialogue with Gretta Vosper, pastor of West Hills United, a congregation of the United Church of Canada. She describes herself as an atheist. Few openly atheist pastors of Christian churches are seen in the US, but there are many in Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, including some who were part of this email exchange. The atheists on the email thread challenged us post-supernaturalist theists to give up God because the term is too associated with "guy-in-the-sky" theology.
These encounters have inspired me to consider again what I mean when I use the word God, and why I still feel the urge to use it.
A few years ago, I wrote a poem to this end: "Musing on God" . It still speaks for me, but since writing it, and since these recent engaging discussions with atheists, I find I have more to add.
Jokingly, I have referred to myself as an "agnatheist" - someone who is not sure of the existence of atheists. How can you unbelieve in something that defies definition, I ask? When I talk about God, you are hearing poetry. And poetry is why I talk God-talk. Poetry evokes. Like God, poetry does not define and decide and determine and direct. God is a fuzzy word. God is a fuzzy God, for that matter. I don't know all that God is or all that the word God means: that's why I speak it and write it. The word God is not one to lose: it's one for the muse to use.
Poetry depends on the spiritual, living power of words. You can't do poetry, you can't enjoy poetry if you treat words as blank, lifeless, arbitrary mental place-holders for real, discrete things that exist in the world. If you think God is just a noise or an arbitrary set of marks on a page that is supposed to refer to a Guy in the Sky, well - it's no wonder you might go down the atheist road, if there is one. You look in the sky, there is no Guy, so you drop the word along with that to which it was supposed to refer.
But wait: the word God is potent and rich. It doesn't refer to something else. It is something else. It does something else.
The word God evokes highest aspirations. It suggests the whole, and what makes me whole. It delivers me into the rich darkness of mystery, the allure of the unknown. It provokes possibility. It aims beyond what I can explain. The word God invites me beyond what I can imagine. The word God hints at the personality of the universe. It touches me with all-surpassing Love. The word God invokes curiosity, creativity. My uncertainty about what the word God means spins me into a healthy, humbling disequilibrium. It leaves me giddy.
In the Bible, the word God has no clear, unequivocal referent. Is God a nationalistic, jealous deity? The essence of existence? A Godhead or council of supernatural beings? A giver of laws, a judge of deeds? A clumsy creator, an inept parent? A human named Jesus? Love itself? A careful reading of the Bible ought to be enough to bash away any remaining certainty about the meaning of the word God.
The great mystics of the world's religions made a habit of chanting or mentally repeating the word "God" or its equivalents over and over again as a form of prayerful contemplation. They understood that the word God doesn't refer to God: it is God. It's not a concept to be believed. As was true for them, God is in us, and we are in God, simply by invoking the word.
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California