Friday, August 13, 2010

Secular and Sacred: Two or One?

I was thinking: "what would it mean to really have a secular perspective on life?" I guess it would mean making sense of life as if there was no active Divine power in life. Many people have said and written that modern life is characterized by a secular perspective. For instance, when my throat is sore and I have a fever, I am more likely to want some antibiotics from my doctor than a prayer from my minister. Now, of course, if the doctor's treatment doesn't work, well then I might be relying a lot more on prayer. Or, if my car is leaking oil, I am unlikely to pray about that, but very likely to call the mechanic for an appointment.

So,in some ways, where I have answers to problems provided by modern science, medicine or technology, I tend to act as if I live in a world which I understand and a world that is controlled by understandable, even controllable forces.

And, parts of life seem to be that way. But, it doesn't take long to move into other parts of life that don't seem that understandable or controllable. As with the example above about the sore throat, what if it turns out that I have a bacterial infection that is resistant to antibiotics? Or, what if I am not dealing with a problem with my car but with the prospect of death from a terminal disease or the break-up of my family?

The understandable and controllable can quickly become the incomprehensible and uncontrollable in human life.

But, it is not as if we have a secular world in which we can understand and control totally separate from a spiritual/religious world in which we cannot directly understand and control things. Reality is one. Sacred and secular interpenetrate each other in the fabric of life. To think God is only "relevant" or involved where we come to the limits of our own understanding or answers is to think of God as the hypothesis we posit when we need an answer. Dietrick Bonhoeffer wrote that the sooner religion is done with "God as an answer" the better. Bonhoeffer also said that this view of God is one that often finds God irrelevant or unreal in comparison with modern science and experience.

As we begin to think of life as a unity, and our experience as a unity, and of the interweaving of sacred and secular in life, we begin to experience God as much at times in the "secular" as in the "sacred." We become like the scientist who is awakened religiously as he or she comes to a deeper understanding of the forces of the universe. Or, we become like the theologian who becomes deeply interested in science because of his or her spiritual experience that the creation is deeply and thoroughly good.

When I am able to study and come to understand something like how to fix my air conditioner, I experience gratitude for the mind I have been given and the ability to really exercise some control over the forces that affect my life. Of course, in my case, I have to hope I have enough money to pay someone who can fix my air conditioner and give thanks that they have the ability to study and understand such things, since I apparently don't!

Sometimes I think that Eastern thinkers see life as one, not dividing secular from sacred in their thinking and not dividing mind from body, whereas Western thinkers who follow Descarte see life as separated between secular (material) and sacred (spiritual/non-material/mind). A simple example is the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which might be found when a person is totally present in a simple activity like drinking tea and thus experiences a sense of peace and aliveness. Mindfulness means a oneness between body and mind and an embodied awareness of life itself as one participates in it.

Reality is one. A way of understanding life that helps us experience the oneness of reality, the unity of sacred and secular, is also a way that helps integrate and unite the fragmented parts of our own self.

One parting thought: a Christianity that separates New Testament from Old Testament creates a false religious understanding, one that separates the material from the spiritual, one that separates history from eternity,one that separates Gentile from Jew, and one that separates humanity from God. A Christianity that understands the profound and organic unity of New Testament with the Old Testament (i.e., that the New Testament experience has grown and is born of the Old Testament faith)unites the material and the spiritual, understands the interpenetration of history and eternity, experiences the reconciliation of divided humanity with itself and the reconcilation of the world with God.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Importance of the Bible

When a person really takes the Bible seriously and becomes familiar with it, then that person comes into a conversation, a relationship with a sacred history of thought and life. It is a strange book, so far as books go. It spans topics from the creation of the universe through the history of one particular people and nation to the recreation of all things that exist. The Bible contains descriptions of the lives of prophets, kings, peasants, and the Christ of God. The Bible has more examples of evil than of good, taken as a whole. In that sense, the Bible is terribly realistic. It reflects reality to a large extent, but then, there is that creative strand of Scripture that reflects a reality that transcends life as we know it – it reflects the One who rules history from within history. It is as if God is present in the smallest molecule, but far beyond the greatest mountain.

To let yourself be taken in by the Bible is to allow yourself to see life from the depths of a mystery and to begin to participate in that mystery of life. But, most people don’t read the Bible like that. Most people look for an answer to this and that, and then close it back up. The Bible is meant to be read with imagination and humor and hope and love. You can’t really read the Bible unless you bring your whole self to it.

But, if you do, the Bible takes on a holy and sacred function in life. In time, if you stick with it, the Bible becomes Holy Ground that you can return to again and again. And, Scripture begins to live within your memory and heart as well. It is a place you can go to, when the rest of life seems false. It is a place you can go to when you want to experience something outside of the same old day to day life. It is an opening to a new world. Karl Barth once called it “The Strange New World of the Bible,” even though he had been reading it for most of his life. Somehow, in his late 20’s the Scriptures began to glow. He felt like Moses at the burning bush. He realized that Scripture could be a place of true revelation, the reading of Scripture an occasion for meeting the LIVING GOD.

But, there is preparation for all this. Children need to be told stories, the stories of Scripture. And, then children need to learn to read the Scripture in a way that it means something to them. And, children and adults need to gain a basic sense of the whole of scripture, so that they become interested in reading and putting it all together in some way. Once this is in place, a person has a sense of that sacred reality overagainst all their other experiences in life. They have some place to go. It really is a strange old book. It is the mystery of it that has saved me year in and year out, and renews me now as it did thirty years ago. It is also solid and has the feel of being true and reliable. But, you have to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Every word is not gold; every story is not gold. Let him who has ears to hear listen to the what the Spirit is saying.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Looking for Meaning in Life with Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes is a book that is in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and is a book that many might be surprised to find in the Bible at all. Jewish people would probably not be surprised at all, but I think many Christians would. Because, the writer of this book (an old wisdom teacher) looks at his life and the way things are on earth and explains how it really depressed him to reflect on it all. He notices the injustice, the arbitrariness, and the fleeting nature of life itself. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," he writes. Yes, that is a refrain in this Biblical book.

In Ecclesiastes, we don't find any belief in life after death. He doesn't take consolation in a heaven or a coming kingdom of God. No, Ecclesiastes is a little like Bob Marley, who sang: "if you know what your life is worth, then you will look for yours on earth . . ."

And, that is what Ecclesiastes is left to do: find the meaning and joy and energy to live right in the midst of life itself. And, he seems to be having a hard time finding anything but more scenes of injustice and hopelessness, until something happens to him. Something that can only be described as a very earthy mystery. He was looking for a great philosophical answer that would make sense of all of life, but what he found when he wasn't trying was the power and goodness of life itself. Ecclesiastes finds his salvation from despair in eating and drinking and working and enjoying his life with the wife he loves.

I imagine the old wisdom teacher returning home one night when he had come to his senses, and he sees his old wife for the first time in years - he really sees her as she is, and he is filled with thanksgiving that she has remained with him and is still with him as he smells supper cooking over the fire. And, he looks over at her and says: "why don't we try a cup of that wine your brother has made?" And, his mind stops reflecting, and he starts living in the moment: smelling the food cooking, asking his wife what has been going on since he was gone, and really listening as he sips along on what turns out to be a very good bottle of wine.

Sometimes I wonder whether thinking and talking about heaven the way we do in Christianity does more good or more harm. I tend to think of the coming kingdom of God, a linear, historical conception, rather than "heaven," a spacial non-historical concept. But, whatever we religious people think about when we think about life beyond the grave or beyond this age, it seems to me that we are left just like everyone else to find meaning in the midst of life. Now, I have this hunch that if you think rightly about heaven/kingdom of God, it opens the present to you. Notice the way Jesus embraces and enhances life on earth and celebrates the coming of God's kingdom (the life to come). If you think wrongly about it, it alienates you from the present life. Notice the way those who "have" so often teach those who "don't have" to take heart because they will get theirs in heaven. True faith enlivens, awakens a person, whereas false religion deadens, falsifies a person.

I really like the analysis of the alienating and liberating potential of religion by Thomas Berger in the "Sacred Canopy." Berger was one of the pioneers in the field of the sociology of knowledge. He and Peter Luckman also wrote a book called the "Social Construction of Reality." I was deeply influenced by Barth's criticism of religion, and the criticism of Liberation Theology, and then Berger's book gave me a way of understanding it that took it even farther and deeper.

And, there are many non-religious false views on life that just plain kill the souls of thousands upon thousands. But, I have to say that I have seen people who have no expressed religious beliefs who do seem to find something deeply meaningful and joyful in the midst of life. And, it seems to me that those who rejoice in the created universe and experience the power and goodness of life and celebrate it . . . well, it seems to me that they are returning the kind of thanks that the Creator of all appreciates whether they are religious or not.

Our religion, if it is true, will push us beyond religion to a new language, a new community, a new hope. Our religion, if it is true, will unite us with the One in whom all things live and move and have their being.