Empathy, perspective, and the log in all our eyes.

A story about ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu goes like this,

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. “Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.”

“You are not a fish,” said the friend, “so you can’t really know if they are enjoying themselves.”

“You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu, “so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”

 

I don’t know why, maybe it’s because of our roots and heritage that the Christian church is obsessed with sin. What is it? Is this a sin? Is that a sin? Is it something I do? Something I think? Something I believe? All the above? In fact we’re so gripped by the idea of sin, actually we’re gripped by the idea of sins more so than “big S” Sin, so obsessed with them that we read the idea of transgressions back into the text where it may not even exist.

Consider Matthew 7:3-5:

“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Now this passage, in my personal experiences, especially in the house church movement, has been read in two major ways.

On the one hand, it has been used as a reactive defense against confrontation. If someone says to you, “You sinned by going to watch that Batman movie.” (I wish I could say this is a fictional example.) You might say to them, “Yeah well I saw you smoking a cigarette! Get the log out of your own eye!) Hopefully shutting down the confrontation.

On the other hand, some have focused on the last verse and said “Look! Jesus meant for us to help the brother to get the speck out in the end. As long as I am free from sin in my life I have every right to point out my brother’s sin and help them remove it.” In my experience if the brother in question didn’t agree to accept the “help” it wouldn’t be long before exclusion from the community was a consequence. I’ll write more about this sad process later.

But what if we have sort of missed the point of the whole thing? If the basic premise of living a Christian life means slowly but surely eliminating your sins until you look like the “sinless” Jesus then yes, this verse would seem to fit into that paradigm somehow though it becomes very destructive. I can bear witness to this in my own experience.

But does this look different with a new paradigm of the Christian life? I think it does. What if the Christian life is about transformation through renewing our mind? Finding and exploring new ways to think about everything! And what if this is a lifelong process instead of a one time destination? This is much closer to my current view of living the Christian life. Along with other things of course.

So with a paradigm of mind renewal driving personal transformation, how might we read this verse anew?

How about instead of seeing the speck and the log as sinful behaviors or even thoughts, we look at them as faulty modes of thinking or faulty ways of seeing reality. Here’s why I think this makes sense. The eye is the key here. If something is in your eye, you can’t see properly. Everything is skewed and blurry and distorted. This isn’t a metaphor for sin. It’s a metaphor for illusion or blurred perception. I think most people who didn’t grow up in the church, or who have rejected the church at some point but are now exploring faith and spirituality understand very well the concept of not judging others and showing mercy. I would like to think I’ve tried very hard to get past my tendecy to judge the thoughts and actions of others. What I have replaced that with is a pattern of evaluating the views, beliefs, thought patterns, and perceptions of others to contrast them with my own, pass judgement on their correctness, and do my damndest to bring them over to my point of view and my way of seeing things. I want to read this passage again in terms of illusions and paraphrase a bit to explain how it’s challenging me.

Why do you always take notice of these little “incorrect” pieces of other people’s beliefs while ignoring that your entire perspective is fundamentally flawed? And how can you possibly help them change their perspective when yours is so wrong? First fix your perspective until you understand reality, then maybe you’ll be able to help the others with their illusions.

The powerful and paradoxical part of this is that most likely, it was your flawed perspective that made you think your friend was incorrect in the first place! Another paradox is that if this mind renewal perspective shift IS a lifelong process, when does it become appropriate to try to force anyone else’s perspective to get closer to yours? Reading the passage in this way really challenges me to consider that there may be better ways of sharing our journey without constantly trying to correct each other’s perspective. This is where the Chinese philosophy comes into play.

In the story at the beginning, Chuang Tzu is a victim of his friends attempt to “fix” his perspective. Just stopping right there, I have to reflect on how many times per day I do this, both internally and out loud. Just think about that. It’s not a matter of whether or not this activity is right or wrong, The fact is, I have to assume my own clarity of perspective to be so confident in my denunciation of a differing one, and where does that confidence of clarity come from? Do I really imagine that my friends don’t have that same feeling of clarity? It would be foolish to assume that my perspective is somehow more valid in an objective sense than my neighbor. So the log in my eye isn’t some bigger sin than my neighbor for which I need to repent before judging my brother, the log is the very idea that I can have certainty about the clarity of my perspective. And what if this log is removed? Perhaps the friend of Chuang Tzu, instead of denouncing his perspective, would have sought to learn more about his perspective, to understand what Chuang Tzu was really trying to say or perhaps how he was so familiar with fish feelings. In other words, he may have acted from a position of trying to experience what his friend was experiencing in that moment, which can loosely be defined as empathy.

That’s where I’m going with all of this. I think Chuang Tzu in his response was being a good friend AND a good teacher. He could have flatly contradicted his friend and emphatically stated that he knew the fish were happy. He could have backed off for the sake of avoiding conflict by saying something like, “It just looks like they are happy. You’re right, I don’t really know.” He could have gone into great detail in his knowledge of fish emotions and attempt to persuade his friend that you can know what fish feel. But instead Chuang Tzu took another path. He bypassed the assumption that there was, indeed a speck to be removed in either party’s eye and he went right for the log. “You are not me, so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?” This whole conversation is about a simple question:

Do you believe that empathy is truly possible? 

Chuang Tzu’s friend, in order to make his correction, had to assume that he understood the full range of human experience possible. So he assumed his own full empathy with humanity while ignoring the possibility that his experience was limited and growth was possible. Chuang Tzu simply took the argument to its logical extreme, which is that no empathy is actually possible because “you are not me.” In fact, the statement, “you are not a fish” is actually just another form of the more general “you are not me”. If this is true, empathy is gone. Understanding another point of view is gone. Not only will we never understand the perspective of our friends, but they cannot understand ours either and so we cannot convince them. The whole system, built upon the desire to change the mind of our brothers and sisters into the form of our mind, falls apart at the seams because if they are truly different, than they always will be and each of us is an island of self, surrounded by dark waters of our perceptions of reality, unchangeable by those around us.

The log of Jesus is the logical conclusion of Chuang Tzu’s friend. “You are not me.” If we believe empathy is possible, we fundamentally assume some kind of essential sameness. We can debate all day about the fine points of that sameness but it is required for empathy. To some extent the idea of “you are not me” is not true. The log is both the idea that I can be certain of the clarity of my perspective and the idea that you are not me. The path away from the log is one of humility and empathy.

Humility leads us away from the certainty of our own clarity and empathy leads us toward oneness with everything. Another hidden lesson in the Chuang Tzu story is the arbitrary category separation of humanity and other parts of creation in terms of the ability to empathize.

I am not saying we should never try to convince others of things, even this article is trying to convince you of something, as were Jesus and Chuang Tzu. But perhaps our arguments would look different if we were walking with the humility of knowing we are still working on our log and mentally tearing down the walls of differentiation that we build between us and everything else through the process of growing up. Both the Chinese story and Jesus’ parable give us a way to examine these ideas with benign examples void of much emotion. Only by becoming disentangled with the actual issues can we realize the bigger log, otherwise our emotional response to controversial and passionate issues blocks our ability to see it.

Of course if we find ourselves in a state of the log being removed, which some would call enlightenment, we may see that the speck in our brother’s eye was an illusion, that it isn’t important compared to the log we all carry, or we may realize that we were seeing a part of our self all along.

In the Name of Love – A reading of Acts 4

There’s an extremely annoying and useless debate among some Christian groups that is nearly enough to make me contemplate jumping off a cliff with one of those squirrel suits every time I hear it come up. Here it is: 

Some Christians think that when you baptize someone, the following words ought to be said “in the name of the father and the son and the Holy Spirit.” I guess they think this because Jesus said to in some verse. Other Christians think you should say “in the name of Jesus.” Because Jesus is god’s name and so what Jesus really meant in that verse somewhere was that you should say his name since the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit is Jesus.

Now hold on, if I could just bring you back from the brink of insanity after hearing such “debate”, I think I can just about redeem this by explaining further than promptly changing the subject.

So, the smart Christians usually come in at this point and say something like, “hey chaps, it doesn’t matter what you say. You don’t have to say anything in fact! Jesus wasn’t asking you to say some phrase or use some name, he was simply letting you know that god’s authority is behind your inclusion of the nations into the good news and the family of God through baptism! See, the use of the word ‘name’ here is a fairly common way of saying ‘with the authority of’. So go out and invite in all sorts of people. Gentiles, Jews, sinners, Romans, Greeks, barbarians, whoever!” They usually say something like that.

So what does this have to do with Acts 4? Well, smart Christians, while talented at settling debates that very few people care about, are often blind to some of the implications of their conclusions for other, more “settled” passages.

Like a lot of my recent readings, things strangely take the opposite meaning that they used to have once you introduce some cultural context.

“When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead-by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.””

‭‭Acts‬ ‭4:7-12‬ ‭NASB‬‬

Now, this whole section is often reduced to one, all important, irreducible, and undeniable truth. You can almost hear the important voice of a bearded, sunglassed street preacher exclaiming, “ONLY CHRISTIANS ARE SAVED! ONLY THOSE WHO CALL ON JESUS NAME!” Well good sir, we probably don’t agree on what salvation means but to put that aside for a moment, I think this verse means the opposite of what you think.

Peter and John are in a pickle. They just healed a guy and caused a stir. When the official religious deciders bring them in, they have questions. They are the deciders after all. They want to know, “who you are working for?” Read it again in a Russian accent or perhaps German. Now you have the sense of it. So Peter says quite boldly that not only does this healing come by authority straight from Jesus, but so does salvation! Basically Mr priest, you’re not the decider, I’m not the decider, Caesar isn’t the decider, and no council or group is the decider. Jesus is the decider, and it has nothing to do with a particular name or group or religion. It has to do with the fact that God has spoken! Shalom, forgiveness, reconciliation, you’re in. That’s good news right there.

So an explanation usually given to explain a cute little baptism wording argument actually has real power to help us shift from an exclusionary reading of Acts 4 to a daring, in your face, establishment be damned inclusionist reading. Isn’t that neat?

Good day.

Photo by Marcelo Quinan

God is not the owner, or the vineyard keeper

I’ve been reading a lot more about second temple Judaism lately. That’s the culture Jesus grew up in BTW. Thanks to folks like NT Wright and Michael Hardin who have made the topic approachable for someone like me. Wright’s book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” alone is a wealth of information. I would also recommend Hardin’s book. “The Jesus Driven Life” which also can help couch Jesus in his culture for us.

So one interesting thing that happens when learning this history is that when you read the gospels you start to see things once missed. A perfect recent example for me is my recent reading of Luke 13:1-9

“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'””

‭‭Luke‬ ‭13:1-9‬ ‭NASB‬‬

This passage was always confusing to me. On the one hand Jesus seemed to be saying that the listed misfortunes weren’t necessarily connected to how bad a sinner the victims were but on the other hand warning his disciples of a similar fate if they didn’t repent. The moral story usually conveyed by preachers of this passage is that sinners always run the risk of terrible catastrophe unless they repent. Once I learned about a couple things common to Judaism  at this time some things began to fall in place not just for this passage but for verses 5-9 as well. And this interpretation I think could be very freeing for folks. Let me explain.

First of all, nowadays I approach the term repentance in its most general sense when I encounter it in the scripture so that the context of the situation can provide the scope of the repentance. Repentance is basically a change of direction or intention. It does not mean to be sorry for sins or even to stop sinning. There are even times the scripture describes God repenting, indicating a change of direction. So the first thing to keep in mind is that the rest of the passage can inform us as to what change of direction Jesus is referring to.

A common belief among second temple Jews of Jesus’ time was that if Israel could remain pure before God, that He would help them overthrow the Roman occupation and take back Israel. Another common belief was that, in general, God protected and gave favor to those who were faithful and pure while bringing destruction on sinners. These two ideas were deeply embedded in the culture.

When I read this passage yesterday, some things fell into place which showed me how Jesus was actually dismantling a belief that it appeared he was reinforcing on previous readings. The passage addresses two catastrophes, galileans being killed by the Roman governer, and some structure falling on some folks In Jerusalem. I always thought these were disconnected random misfortunes because I assumed Jesus was reinforcing the idea that disaster was a constant risk for those outside God’s protection. But I was wrong. These events are connected in the sense that Jesus uses both to address the same problem, the ongoing and impending violent resistance against Rome, and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem as foreseen by Jesus. The parable of verses 5-9 also can be seen in light of this problem as well.

With all this context in mind, I’d like to present the following reading of Jesus’ response to the question of the Galileans.

“Do you really think that it was because they were worse sinners that these Galileans were slaughtered by Rome? No, but if you continue believing God will give you victory over Rome and protect you in war you will meet the same fate. And what about those 18 people in Jerusalem who were killed when that tower fell, do you really believe that happened to them because they were worse sinners than others in Jerusalem? I’m telling you that’s not the way things work. But again, if you don’t turn away from your agenda of the violent establishment of the kingdom of Israel, you will meet the same fate when ALL the structures of Jerusalem are toppled by Rome.”

I’m just trying to present this in the way I’m understanding it as I’m reading. So this reading basically disarms the whole holiness/protection/sin/punishment paradigm and also denounces the idea that God is on the side of Israel against Rome. Jesus is warning Israel of their coming destruction, not by the anger of God against their sins, but by virtue of the fact that they are trying to establish a kingdom of God based on the same principles as Rome. Cultural supremacy and justified violence among other things.

Since the idea that God is protecting the faithful and judging the sinner with catastrophe is also very prevalent today, a reading that shows Jesus as denouncing this principle could be huge for christian communities in how they understand God and encourage one another in difficult times and catastrophes.

Verses 5-9 can now be easily seen as a continuation of Jesus’ point about Rome and Jerusalem. Perhaps, like me, you always heard that the meaning of this parable was that if you didn’t eventually bear fruit, God would uproot you and Jesus is the merciful vineyard keeper trying to give you more time. In this interpretation God is the owner, Jesus is the vineyard keeper, and you are the fig tree. Or perhaps you heard the more nuanced interpretation where Israel is the fig tree and God is the owner who no longer sees fruit coming from Israel so he wants to uproot it to make room for new trees ( Christianity perhaps?). Who the vineyard keeper represents is less clear in this interpretation.

I prefer to read this in the context of the Rome vs Jerusalem issue that Jesus addresses earlier. Rome is the owner seeing the people and culture of Israel as more of a problem than as a useful resource to the empire. The vine keeper represents those who are in Jerusalem trying to stave off the wrath of Rome (Pilate, Herod, priests, sympathetic Romans, etc…) and the fig tree is Israel. In other words, Jesus rightly understands the politics at play in the relationship between Rome and Israel and he realizes just how close to the brink they are. He is desperate for peace but knows the opposite is inevitable if Israel, including his followers, remain on their trajectory. This reading frees us from an understanding that Jesus already disarms, that God is rewarding the faithful/fruitful with safety and prosperity, while also submitting to disaster the sinner/unfruitful.

In conclusion, God is absent from our power struggles while still present in our midst just as Jesus separated himself from the ultimate power struggle of his day, even denouncing the struggle, while still being present among the people.

Authority: Deconstruct, Then Garden – Part 3

If you’re starting this series here that’s awesome! You can catch up here if you’d like. This post is an example of a major concept that I’ve had to deconstruct and I hope to suggest an alternative way of understanding authority that doesn’t require a lot of structure building to interact with.


 

There was a prophet named Samuel, as the story goes, well known among the people of ancient Israel, having great influence and providing critical leadership, vision, and direction for the tribes. In fact, his leadership was so established that the tribes came to him when they wanted to appoint their first king and asked him to give them a king, which he did in appointing king Saul. So you have this prophet who routinely provides the people and the king with a word from god. In fact, he supposedly successfully foretold the future on multiple occasions.

One day he approaches the king and tells him that god is ready to avenge the Israelites from multiple generations past when the Amalekites attacked the Israelites, starting with the weakest stragglers. The Israelites won that original battle. But now, it was time for vengeance. Samuel’s instructions were for Saul to destroy them completely. Men, women, children, babies, animals, everything. If you were to read this story, you would discover that Saul more or less carries out the command but not completely and he is cursed for it by Samuel. However, I tell this story not to confront the obvious moral questions this story presents but to explore the relationships of authority that seem to exist between the characters.

To give the story the benefit of the doubt, God gave the command to Samuel. Samuel gave the command to king Saul, and Saul gave the command to his soldiers. It’s an obvious chain of command. But for most Christians, it doesn’t stop there. Someone wrote all this down and so the traditional assumption is that they were eyewitnesses and gave an accurate account, or they were given the story later by God, either through direct revelation or the passing of the story in tradition. So the original chain of command was in place to ensure the event takes place, and a secondary chain of command exists to ensure we know of the event and believe it. There is traditionally no room given for us to disbelieve this story but a lot of room given for us to question it’s meaning or applicability for us today. These two chains exist throughout the bible in the mind of the believer though the secondary chain is clearly implied and must be drawn from other key portions of the text.

But may we ask what might have happened if things were different? We who have begun deconstruction find ourselves constantly asking, what are the stones in my wall that give these stories their power? In other words, what are my assumptions that I bring to stories like this? Perhaps if Samuel was a modern day man he would have questioned whether such an extreme command from god might be a hallucination or some other mental disorder. It doesn’t help that being insane and being prophetic were closely linked in the time this was written. See 1 Samuel 19:24. There was really no context for Samuel to believe anything different but that he was hearing from the god of his fathers. I’d prefer to not assume he had some motive of personal vengeance against the Amalekites, though that might have been the case. But what if he had heard the word and refused? What if Saul had refused to obey Samuel? What if the soldiers had refused to obey Saul? Their society and culture were not necessarily to the place where they would have felt there were good reasons to refuse but what would have happened if they did refuse?

The result is very clear to us who have been drinking from the well of the bible for a long time. The result of such refusal is destruction. If the chain of command is compromised the one who breaks that chain must be removed, and usually killed. This idea is reinforced multiple times in the stories throughout the old testament, it is reinforced in the garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, Abraham’s sacrifice, Moses and his detractors, the israelites and the law, Samuel and Saul, etc… I call this the principle of Absolute Threat. Most structures of authority presented in the bible are based on this principle and the narratives of the culture reinvigorate the principle. “If you refuse, you will join the condemned.” Saul breaks this chain of command in the story, killing all but the king of the Amalekites and keeping the best of the animals. His punishment is the loss of his line as a dynasty and a nasty death following a long descent into madness. This principle finds its terrible finality in the medieval idea of hell. Perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse in sharing my deconstruction of authority before sharing my deconstruction of the Ultimate Threat (hell) but they are quite intertwined so I had to choose one.

Now, we should ask ourselves if these authority structures can be found in the church as well. Of course they are. In the “early church” there was a great amount of emphasis on the idea that there was some kind of authority transfer from Christ to the twelve (eleven?) apostles. I’m not going to go into great detail here but that concept translated to bishops inheriting some kind of authority from the apostles, and from that cauldron emerged the structure of the Magisterium with the pope at the head, understood to exercise the authority of Christ/God on earth. Most of the splits and schisms before the reformation concerned the question of who exactly held that authority? Who was the “true pope” or the “true church”? But with the Reformation came a new model of authority. Perhaps they would have called it a recovered authority. For them, that was the authority of the scriptures.

Since my religious background and worldview were essentially protestant in nature in understanding authority, that is where my deconstruction had to begin. The protestant view of scripture from the beginning till now seems to be founded on a lofty hope, that the God who inspired the scripture is capable of illuminating the meaning to those who are faithful to listen. This causes a real dilemma. What if my understanding of scripture differs from yours? Than we must either assume God is responsible for the lack of illumination, or we are. If it is God, there is nothing to do but wait until God brings us all in line. In which case, there is no need to worry or argue because God is the only one who can reveal that truth to us anyway. However, if we play a part, we must discover what that part is and how to play it so that we can reach the true understanding of scripture. The second option seems to be the primary way of resolving this dilemma for most of the protestant world from its earliest schisms to today.

To put this all in other words, until we all miraculously reach a point where everyone agrees on what the bible means, we are left with the realization that the authority of scripture, as understood by most protestants, is actually a manifestation of the authority of the individual mind. We in the Protestant movement are asked, nay commanded to go to the bible ourselves to test the preacher and test the church authority. We are not “really” searching after God until we have done this. But the protestant movement is really a mixture of individual authority and church leadership authority. Because when someone does really search and finds some major point of disagreement, the leaders insist that they are interpreting it incorrectly and must fall in line with the orthodox teaching, which is a manifestation of the authority of church structures. So we see that the so called “authority of scripture” is really a mixed manifestation of the already established “authority of the church” and the newly discovered “authority of the individual” thrust into the whole culture by the philosophy of the Renaissance. With the whole mixture using the bible as a kind of language datum rather than a real useful litmus test of right belief.

As you can see from the above paragraph. For me, deconstruction doesn’t involve ignoring a topic because it makes me uncomfortable, but rather to study, scrutinize and understand a topic to see my own faulty assumptions. What I discovered was that the authority which scripture was supposed to hold, lost its illusory power almost from the very beginning of the protestant movement, when it failed to hold together those most concerned with upholding its place as the standard of belief. If it was able to hold together those people who trusted it completely, it might have made a much stronger candidate for a governing authority. But it does no such thing.

So what now, are we to return to the authority of the church as the highest earthly authority for us to know the truth? Many protestants, when they have removed the foundation stone of ultimate biblical authority, desperate for something to go in its place, lest the building tumble, quickly return to one of the older structures of authority (catholicism, orthodox, anglican). I’m not saying that’s the only reason people return to these forms of the faith but I know it happens since the apologists and evangalists of these structures have learned the usefulness of helping their potential converts to deconstruct their view of the bible before welcoming them back to The Church, as they put it. But many are unable to return to “The Church”. That stone simply will not fit. And the building is shaking.

The church also continues the narrative tradition of the scripture in their usage of the Ultimate Threat principle to enforce their authority. Think about excommunication, threat of torture and death (at times), threat of loss of family relationships, threat of loss of marriage, threat of loss of possessions or health, and finally, threat of everlasting torment in fiery hell. We are constantly reminded that to step outside or refuse to follow the chain of command, will result in the authority that once “protected” us, reigning down in vengeful wrath to consume us along with the enemies of God. So both the narratives of scripture, and the actions of the church have sought to enforce a chain of command structure of authority that only works by using the principle of ultimate threat.

At this point I will contend that this is the only way for a “structure” of authority to work. Without the ultimate threat principle, the dissident is always seen as a threat to the structure by their questioning of foundation stones. In order to preserve their concept structure, the dissident must first be intellectually dismissed, then authoritatively condemned. That is, the act of removing the dissident from the community must be seen as sanctioned by God, which is not difficult to achieve given our dedication to the biblical narrative.

It might seem at this point that I am totally against the very idea of authority. But I am not. I do want to suggest an alternative style of authority. One that can only reach one level and still lets us jump to the ground. One that can produce food from the ground in the different seasons of our lives and that can nourish us and bring us from moment to moment without the need for a complicated and fear based chain of command. Let me give you an example. I have separated myself from an arguably “biblical” understanding of authority in marriage. I don’t think I need to rehash the details of that view with the chain of command moving from God to the Husband and then down further to the wife and kids. Yuck! Ok, but what then? That does not mean the idea of authority does not exist in my relationship with my wife and also my kids. If we have any kind of relationship at all, as opposed to two individuals living in proximity, we have authority in one another’s lives. It’s not an authority I can seize and enforce. If I did that, the relationship, as we know it, would be over. Neither can I build this authority using the principle of ultimate threat. I must build it from a different principle. That of the Ground of All Being. That of God. That of Ultimate Love. That is where my relationship must find its own ground. That kind of authority gives us influence over one another in a way that makes us realize our oneness. This authority is a paradox. We don’t have it until we let go. In a way that’s love. Letting go. And it is entirely possible and even natural to “let go” and still fully participate. Don’t mistake my meaning. I’m not saying that we should somehow be indifferent or hands-off in our relationships. I’m saying do not assume that you can somehow control or hold on to the experience of joy you have right now or at some point in the past in your relationship. You may kill it by your desire to hold it too tightly. And there’s no need to hold on to some structure of hierarchy in our relationships. It doesn’t really exist and the relationship won’t fall apart without it.

You might argue that raising kids is primarily about enforcing your will upon them even if it’s in their best interest. However, even then the goal is not to enforce submission long term but rather to teach them how to think for themselves and in fact leave our “authority”. So the result of this authority is still to let go.

What about government? Well, in so far as government is all about governing, we will simply end up with more and more rules that we are less and less sure how to follow. Government also is at its best when it’s not under the illusion that it actually controls people. When it learns to “let go” and work with the people instead of pretending to be over them. Of course it’s not an illusion that many governments, spouses, and parents use the ultimate threat principle to enforce a structure of authority. It’s not an illusion that people are abused or killed or threatened in these structures. It is an illusion that this top down, ultimate threat based view of authority is the only view.

So you have to start somewhere. Maybe personal relationships are a bit complicated for a starting place. If you’re a religious person, observe your religious authority first. Does god really operate from the top down? Has he really communicated his will to some who then accurately wrote it down? Is this how our relationships, the ones we want to last, really work? Seeing authority from a gardening perspective means seeing that authority cannot be taken, it can only be given. And we only give authority to that which we either desire to, or feel obligated to. Next time you read your scripture which has held authority over you, or you speak with your religious authority who may be a person, ask yourself if you feel obligated to take them at their word. If you feel obligated to obey. Now ask yourself if your most valued friendship requires the same sense of obligation for you to experience that depth of spiritual connection. Now imagine this. God is your friend. Does that change anything?

Ground: Deconstruct, Then Garden Part 2

As I explained in my last post, as our consciousness develops, we construct a worldview which essentially helps us understand the world we experience. For whatever reason, we start asking, from a very early age, Why. And our caretakers are at the ready with an explanation. Ancient and tribal cultures began to explore the idea of cause and effect with what we call magic today. Magic was a way of understanding that there must be reasons that things happen, and perhaps we can even influence those events and causes. For a fascinating read on examples of this understanding in ancient cultures, check out this excerpt from a book entitled “The Golden Bough” written by Sir James George Frazer. Religion was a replacement for this early understanding in many cultures though most did not completely let go of a magical understanding, especially among the uneducated. Of course the enlightenment and the scientific revolution changed everything a few centuries ago. Through this process, we have come to understand that there are methods by which we can analyze objects and events to discover the causes. Those causes can then be analyzed in turn to discover further and deeper causes.

There is a fundamental weakness in this approach. While it is useful for many things, the process of analyzing anything forces us to define the boundary of the thing in question. As I discovered in engineering school and especially thermodynamics, this is necessary and effective to manipulate systems. A boundary must be defined at the very outset. From that definition of separation comes all our ability to apply laws and equations to determine desired inputs and outputs into and out of that system.

When we step back though, when we are no longer concerned with manipulating reality but rather understanding reality, the boundaries become a hindrance. They are actually nothing but illusions! This can be a very difficult thing to grasp so bear with me. I once heard Alan Watts ask an audience if they thought they could point to or place their finger on the separation between his fingers. Of course this is impossible. While each can move independently, it is only because they are attached to each other and the hand. In fact if we really want to analyze the finger as totally independent, we must cut it off. In which case it is hardly effective or able to function in any way like we would expect a finger to function. And so, if we want to understand why we build these structures of understanding with levels of cause and effect, we must first understand that our entire worldview, our sense of self-understanding and self-awareness, our way of seeing the world, is built upon the principle that boundaries between things are real, that things have an existence of their own apart from other things, especially human things. And this is just fine. We can go on living perfectly extraordinary lives while believing this. But it is not true. It is an illusion. So what are you?

Let’s return to the stones. The three-year old who asks why until you’ve reached the end of your patience is similar to the three year old that loves to climb up on the couch, only to jump back to the ground again. If you can, remember when you were very young. What made the world such an extraordinary, breathtaking place. For me, in those moments of remembrance, it is the total acceptance of the experience before me. The total, unquestioning openness to reality and my full engagement with it. I didn’t need to understand any meaning behind the wind blowing through the trees and the smells of the air. They were their own meaning in that moment. Truly they were gloriously without meaning. As we get older, we get curious about things like the wind. Why do the trees move, where does the wind come from? Etc. But while we began to set those foundation stones in place, we also loved to jump off of them and roll around in the dirt for a while. Please understand I’m not saying it would be better not to grow up. As Jesus once said, “unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom.” Wisely leaving out exactly in what way we were to become like lowly children. The key to experiencing true reality is not to cease growing, but to remember and engage again with your waking moments as a child. For the idea that there are boundaries between things gives us a context for making use of those things but they also are only real in the sleep of illusion. Since everything must have a meaning/cause/boundary, we lose our ability to re-engage with the meaningless. That’s not to say we don’t enjoy the things we did as a child, but the worries and cares of this world and the thoughts in our heads keeps us from seeing them for what they are.  I won’t say that our culture is entirely to blame, but it certainly is oriented toward giving us the “right” answers to our questions and elevating us higher and higher above the ground. At some point, we cease jumping off the wall and spend the rest of our lives building it higher for the wall’s own sake, perhaps occasionally remembering the feeling, at which point we may find ourselves with a deep longing in our hearts, and the sting of tears as we experience the pain again of losing our access to that childlike acceptance of being on the ground.

Part of what makes the journey of deconstructing this wall so difficult is that we are terrified of the ground. Even though any line of questioning will always lead us back to “just because” we have good reasons for avoiding this and creating illusions, even ones we all share. Our openness as children made us open to pain and suffering as well. We have to handle that somehow. That’s why I don’t say that these illusions are bad or evil. In fact I explain their usefulness and utility repeatedly. I am an engineer by trade after all and my living depends on understanding these boundaries and manipulating them. So we want these illusions and in a certain sense we need them for our current form of existence to continue. But I think we also want the ground, especially those of us who find ourselves in the place of deconstructing our beliefs. Without the ground, we feel only terror that there is nothing left, the void. The paradox is that finding the ground IS to awake, and to awake is to enter the void of meaning and separation. The ground of “just because” is also ultimate reality, which is God. “I am”. Which is also love, or complete giving of oneself to the other, as to Oneself.

This is all very esoteric without any context so my next post will explore an area of deconstruction, and introduce a way of interacting with reality that will hopefully allow us once again to continue engaging with the illusions of our experience while returning to the spirit which allows us to jump off the structure of illusion and live on the ground. This is a practice I will call Gardening.

By the way I’m not some kind of expert in this area. I’m just sharing my thoughts and explorations of these topics, most of which I am learning about myself while I write. However, I’m really not sure you can be an expert in what we are talking about, as we might call it “living”. And who can be an expert at living?

Till next time.

Deconstruct, Then Garden

garden

As we grow up, and begin to ask questions, we find ourselves constantly building ideas. From the 3 year old who repetitively asks her parents why to the 17 year old who no longer believes his parents have the answers. We start with foundations. What am I? Who am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? How does this or that work? Once we feel we’ve found a satisfactory foundation stone, we set it in place, conveniently girded up by the stones to the right and left. Then we begin to build on those. We begin to believe things about ourselves and about other people based on those critical foundation stones. You can know this is true by repeating the exercise of the 3 year old. For every belief that arises in your mind, ask yourself why, then do it again. Every reason is a lower stone. Eventually you reach The Ground, where the only explanation left is “just because”.

Here is a classic example from the perspective of a very patient, modernly educated christian parent. I’ll use simplistic language as if speaking to a 3 year old.

Why is it so hot?

Because it’s summer and we get more sun?

Why is it summer?

Because the earth goes around the sun in a big “circle”.

Why does the earth go in a big circle?

Because the sun has gravitational pull and is constantly pulling on the earth but the earth wants to keep moving away even though the sun is pulling on it so it keeps spinning in circles for ever. (At this point the parent picks up the child and swings him around by the arms to demonstrate and to evoke laughter, which we all love.)

Why?

That is how God made the universe, so that all things pull on each other with gravity.

Why did God do that?

Because he loves us and we couldn’t exist without gravity.

Why does He love us?

And there…we’ve reached The Ground. The only answer left for the christian is “just because” or “He just does” or “it just did”. Any number or level of different religions, philosophies, or scientific beliefs could have drastically varied this process and made it either shorter or longer but in the end, it all ends up at The Ground.

Maybe there is a good scientific explanation for why young children do this. Something developmental, or maybe they just like our reaction. I like to think that they have an intuitive delight in arriving at the ground.

But we adults do not. Why??

For one thing, every time we work our way back down the walls, we have to see again the stones we placed at one point. The catch is, things may look a bit different to us now than in previous years. Maybe the stone doesn’t fit quite as well as we thought it did. Maybe there is a crack in one that we didn’t notice before. Most frighteningly, maybe we find a gaping hole where we thought we had placed a stone but now realize we only imagined it was a stone in the heady days of our youth and really it was a block of ice, long melted away.

We’ve spent a long time building our structure, whether that structure is a castle, a temple, or a high rise. To see the weaknesses in our walls is to realize the risk of damage and collapse. We would much rather stay on top. This is why only the rich can afford the penthouses on top of the high rise. We love to be above the weaknesses and this lofty position is in high demand and is given high value. Those who know the most and who have the strongest walls are given authority. We all want their advice on what stones we should use and how they should be installed. So we stay on top and continue applying layer after layer of new stones. Preferring to ignore the weaknesses below, and remain ignorant if possible.

Something happens though doesn’t it? Something that shakes it all up, something that pulls us deep into our own structure and pushes our face into the weakest stones. For folks who grow up with and maintain a belief in god, especially the monotheistic god of christianity, this process of getting shaken up and seeing our foundation stones in a new light for the first time could be called deconstruction. If you haven’t reached this point, I’m not here to rush you. It’s not fun. But it can be freeing. See it’s very unsettling to live three stories up and to feel your bed shaking underneath you from an unsettled ground below. Those who have experienced an earthquake know what I’m talking about. So it can relieve that unsettled feeling to find that cracked stone and remove it. However, that leaves the unsettled feeling of void, of not knowing what to put back in the place of the stone removed. Not only that, but once one stone is removed, you begin to see more cracks in the stones around it and those must be removed as well if they haven’t fallen out already.

Our first inclination is to rebuild, find better stones, frantically build a whole new wall if that is what is required to keep our building project going. Why??

Let’s go back to the 3 year old game again. The constant question of why could be framed a different way. If someone were to ask you, do you want your life to have meaning, most of us I suspect would answer right away…Yes! But what do we intend by this idea of life having meaning? Words have meaning, a word stands for a concept. In many ways, the concept is seen as the reality and the word is only a symbol of that reality. For instance, you could explain the meaning of the word rock. You could give me a definition of the word and perhaps a picture or an actual rock. But suppose I pointed to your example and said, “OK, but what’s the meaning of the rock?” You would probably say, it doesn’t have a meaning. It’s meaningless. It is what it is. It’s a rock. This is the same as the “just because” answer I’ve already mentioned. That’s perfectly acceptable to us when referring to a rock. But when we are asking about our life it seems to fall flat. To explore why it falls flat, and why we feel the need to get up so high, in the next post, I want to move my focus from the building to The Ground.