Friday, September 25, 2009

O Magnum Mysterium

Much time has passed since I started this discussion, but the subject never leaves my mind for long. I suppose that’s because the subject of “mystery” keeps flowing in and out of my life and my conversations. Coincidence? Or just chaos theory in action?

And today is the fifth anniversary of my blog--I guess that deserves some sort of effort on my part.

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Mystical Seeker (MS) asked some wonderful questions in the comments to my previous post on this topic, and I have spent a lot of time pondering them.

I’ve questioned the best way to engage in dialogue here. To do point/counter-point has the advantage of forcing me to confront the questions MS and others raised, and I think it’s important to do that. I don’t want to look as if I’m ducking the hard issues.

The downside to my responding in that way, however, is that it can look as if I am trying to argue people into agreeing with me (or at least to “prove” that I am somehow correct in my approach or interpretations). I assure you that is not my project. Like anyone else, I prefer to be “right,” but I long ago accepted that—if we are honest—in matters of faith, there ARE no right answers.

For me, the whole point of this exercise is that I am still trying to figure out for myself what *I* believe---why I feel this need to hold “truth” and “mystery” in tension with one another and let the baby splash in the bathwater without throwing either of them out.

As I have noted, in some parts of my life, being a confessing Christian seems very...exotic. It’s like saying you believe in fairies or the boogeyman. In those parts of my life, people cut me some slack because they know I’m not one of “those” Christians. I don’t proselytize and I don’t speak about my faith unless invited to do so.

But the question is always there, though usually unspoken: How can you believe “that stuff?!”

Even in church, I get that feeling sometimes. Last Sunday morning I attended a discussion on Jesus for the Nonreligious in my home parish. The class was well-attended and quite lively and interesting. Several people made comments about how they had reached a point in their journeys of faith where they could no longer have remained in the Christian fold if they had to believe that “nonsense” about virgin births and miracles.

And I thought to myself, “Am I the ONLY one who thinks I can believe in quantum physics and miracles at the same time?”

And so, I type to MS and the others who commented—but I am really talking to myself...

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The fact that we exist at all--that's a mystery. The fact that there is love--that's a mystery. I don't have to believe in the literal truth of fantastical tales in order to believe in a mystery.

But what IS “mystery?” Is it simply a word that means “what I/we cannot (yet) know or understand?” Or is it more than that?

And, in the immortal words of Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” It seems to me that this is the unasked question in +Spong’s work—he assumes he knows exactly what “truth” is, and that you will agree with him about the definition.

I suppose I am too postmodern in my approach to truth. While I believe that there *is* Absolute Truth, I’m also pretty sure we can’t know it in this life. So, in that sense, all truth is relative. “Truth” changes because our understanding about the world expands and changes over time.

Having said that, I wonder sometimes if that is why we have lost the capacity to appreciate miracles—and why so many people no longer believe in them. We put our faith in science, as our modern version of “truth,” and think that we are so much more advanced than our first-century cousins in Palestine.

But are we really so different than they were? Many people--me, among them—accept the “truth” of the Big Bang theory. (Please note the quotation marks—I am well aware that scientists do not use the word “truth” about theories, but, in practice, we all do it.) But it seems to me that the notion of a singularity that is infinitely dense and hot and then—BAM!—expands to create the universe in less than a picosecond is at least as fantastical as the stories of miracles in the Bible!

What constitutes a mystery in your world? Tell me that and I will know something about your version of the truth.

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The universe is for me such an amazing source of awe, I don't have to revert to a five-year-old mentality and believe in Santa Clause in order to feel this awe.

I, too, am awed by the universe. But I guess I’m with Mary Sue on this. What’s wrong with being a 5-year-old when it comes to stories? Who enjoys Christmas more? The grown-ups who “know” there is no Santa Claus, or the little kids who can hardly sleep for quivering with excitement?

I know the objection to this, of course--Santa Claus isn’t “real.” But, for me, that’s where the mystery comes in. As crazy as it sounds, I DO believe in Santa Claus. Because the “reality” of Santa Claus is that there is love and generosity in the universe, and, when I “play” Santa Claus for my children, I am acting on behalf of that for them. From my perspective, I am merely channeling what already exists--and giving them some fun and lovely memories while I’m doing it.

This is why I think Jesus made such a point of talking about having faith like a child. They haven’t lost their capacity for wonder. They aren’t bound by “rationality” and science. They still know how to thrill to something. They aren’t cynical and jaded like the adults in their lives.

I really do aspire to be more child-like in that sense. It’s not about accepting falsehoods. It’s about being open to things that are not always rational. And if that doesn’t define God and faith, I don’t know what does...

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One of the problems that I see in religious credulity is that it often boils down to "my fairy tale is true; your fairy tale is false." So Christians can believe that Jesus literally walked around after being resuscitated, but they will refuse to believe the fantastical claims of Muhammad or Joseph Smith. Incredulity with other religions, credulity with my own.

Fair point. But I don’t believe that. I’m fully aware of just how crazy the Christian story is, and willing to grant that Muslims or Mormons ALSO have the “right” story—or at least another facet of it.

My “problem” is that I’m a Christian who doesn’t believe that Christianity is the only way to God--but I’m lumped in with all the fundagelicals.

I started this conversation by asking why people who can’t accept the idea that Jesus was anything other than a good teacher would want to hold on to him--but I guess I should ask myself why I want to hold on to him when I don’t think I “have to” in order to be saved (whatever that means) and it puts me in the same group with people whose theology and worldview I find repugnant?

That conversation, I suspect, will be a lifelong one...

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The difference between Cinderella and Jesus' resurrection is that adults don't take Cinderella literally, but lots of adults do take the fanciful tales in Matthew, Luke and John about his resurrection literally.

I will beg to differ with you on this. They may not take it “literally” in the way that you mean it, but women in our culture have internalized the story of Cinderella and I think the damage is incalculable. From the time they are infants, girls hear almost nothing but stories about beautiful princesses who are rescued by handsome princes—and then go on to live “happily ever after.” Those stories shape the way girls feel about themselves and the way they look at their relationships with men. I’m trying hard to figure out how believing that Jesus turned water into wine can have that same type of negative cultural impact...

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I discovered a lot of churches where people read Borg or Spong in reading groups, but when push comes to shove, as this discussion bears out, most Christians, even progressive or non-fundamentalist ones, seem to prefer to treat these stories as if they are true.

That’s because they MEAN something to us.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it difficult to live in a completely “rational” world all the time. That’s where poetry and music and stories come in for me. If you read those biblical stories as “poems,” what’s wrong with accepting that miraculous things happen? You can’t “prove” that they didn’t, anymore than I can prove that they did--but my life would be much poorer without those stories.

For instance, I think many people fail to see the beauty and power of the story of the virgin birth. Think about it for a moment--God comes to earth in human form, and there is no man involved! Do you grasp how radical and life-affirming that could be from a feminist standpoint?

I’m not willing to stake my faith on that story being “true” in a literal sense, because I know all about the history of virgin birth stories--and I don’t demand that anyone else believe it. But I love it, and I’m not willing to give it up because some people declare it to be impossible. If I can believe in a God that created the universe (and I do, however that has worked itself out over the last 14 billion years), believing in the virgin birth is really not much of a stretch. For the God who could create this:


a virgin birth—or turning water into wine—would be little more than a parlor trick.

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There is more--much more--but this is already too long and I want to post something tonight. So I will close with this...

When I was in high school, I sang in the school choir (known as the A Cappella). Our choir director was a man of great talent who held high expectations of us, and, one year, he entered us in a regional choral contest. Here is what we performed:




It was ambitious for a bunch of fundamentalist kids who had never seen Latin before the day he handed us the music. I don’t remember that we did particularly well at the contest, but I have never forgotten the beauty of that piece. In some sense, it is the story of my faith:

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum.
Alleluia.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Grief, Pragmatism, and Warnings: My letter to the President

Although I've been promising to do a follow-up post to my post on Spong (and I will!), my dear friend Jane at Acts of Hope has challenged us all to DO SOMETHING about healthcare reform. Today she challenged us to write to President Obama.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am still grieving the death of my friend, Terri-Lynn. Her death has turned me into a stark, raving maniac on the subject of healthcare reform. I always supported a single-payer system, as far back as President Clinton's push for healthcare reform. I have said many times that I thought Clinton made a major mistake by not starting out demanding a single-payer plan---by starting in the mushy middle, he gave away the store before the debate even got started. And that meant he--and more important, WE--got nothing.

President Obama, it seems, did not learn from that debacle. He keeps telling everyone he is a pragmatist---and I believe he thinks he is. But a REAL pragmatist would know that you start out asking for pie-in-the-sky, with the hope of getting something in the middle. A REAL pragmatist would have figured out by now that Republicans are not interested in creating a bigger safety net---and that the raving lunatics at these "town-hall meetings" will never be won over by a centrist Black man who they believe is not even an American.

It is not pragmatic to argue with crazy people. It is not pragmatic to give those who are deeply in the pockets of the insurance companies and Big Pharma the ability to control the debate or veto your proposals.

It is not pragmatic to abandon your base.

So I used this link to write to the President, and here is what I said:

Dear Mr. President:

On May 25, 2009, my friend, Terri-Lynn, died of cancer. TL was 50--a self-employed, single mother of a 10-year-old son with a chronic health condition. When TL started having symptoms 5 years ago, she didn't go to the doctor because she didn't have health insurance and didn't think she could afford to see a physician. By the time they found her colon cancer, it was too far gone. She spent the last couple of years of her life not only dealing with cancer but worried about how to pay the rent and feed her son. It was sickening, and totally unacceptable in a country that bills itself as the "leader of the free world."

TL died because we privilege profits over people's lives. If we had had a REAL public option for healthcare 5 years ago, I have no doubt she would still be alive. Her son would not be motherless and those of us who loved her would not be grieving.

But we are grieving not only her death---but your failure to lead on this issue. I knocked on doors for your campaign--as did my 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. We believed you when you said you would support a single-payer healthcare system. We believed you when you said you would be a leader for change.

But now every time I read the news, I hear that you have dropped even a public option---never mind a single-payer plan. Every time I read that, it's like hearing the news that TL died all over again.

Your desire for bipartisanship is admirable--but it should be clear to you by now that it will never happen. It is time you listened to those of us who are begging you for help and LEAD. How many more Terri-Lynns have to die before you find the courage to do what you promised us you would do when we worked to get you elected?

I want a single-payer system like the one my mother, who married a British citizen 6 years ago, has under the National Health Service in the UK. But barring that, I want a REAL public option for healthcare in this country. Anything less will be no reform at all. Anything less will continue to leave the power in the hands of insurance companies and Big Pharma---and that will mean more Terri-Lynns. That is not acceptable, Mr. President. We believed you. Please don't let us down.

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Maybe you don't support a single-payer plan, or even a public option. You think the government can't do anything right, and--anyway--you don't want your "hard-earned dollars" going to pay for healthcare for "deadbeats" who can't afford health insurance.

You go right ahead believing that you are somehow different from the Terri-Lynns of the world. You go right on believing that your hard work and your job-related insurance will protect you from what happened to her. You go right on believing that she just didn't work as hard as you, or "live right" the way you have. You go right on believing that your insurance company will take better care of you than "government bureaucrats," even though the former has a financial incentive to deny you coverage while the latter doesn't.

But please, when it all comes crashing down---when your little girl gets a brain tumor or your spouse has kidney failure or you develop a life-threatening illness and your insurance company refuses to pay for the treatment you or your loved one needs--please don't tell me "But I didn't KNOW!!!!!"

When your health insurance premiums rise 50% next year after the defeat of healthcare reform, because the health insurance companies know they own Congress--or all of a sudden you lose your job because your spouse has cancer and your company can't afford to carry you anymore because the insurance company has slapped a $1M premium on them because of that---please don't tell me "But I didn't know they could do that!!!"

Because you have been told. You have been warned. Terri-Lynn, and those like her, are simply the canaries in the coal mine. If you can't be moved to support healthcare reform from simple human decency, you should be moved to support it from pragmatism.

Because you're next--and the President, "pragmatist" that he is, needs to know it and be a leader.