Inconvenient Conscience, 8 – Turning Around, 4 – Germany

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If we review the various ages of history, we will see that in every generation the Lord [the Creator God] has offered the opportunity of repentance to any who are willing to turn to him.”

– Clement of Rome at the end of the First Century CE

In 1929, Germany was considered by many Europeans to be the most progressive, civilized, highly educated, and scientifically sophisticated nation in Europe.  Its historical cultural attainments were also highly admired.  Theologically, it was considered the leading Christian nation.

It had been over ten years since the end of the Great War of 1914-18.  Germany had greatly struggled to find itself following the catastrophe of crushing defeat and the ensuing social and political revolution.   The Versailles Peace Treaty had been so vindictive that many Germans were unable to accept all the territorial and financial penalties and limitations on their status as a Great Power which it had imposed.  But as 1929 dawned, it seemed that Germany had adapted and was finding a new future as a peaceful, once-more prospering nation in the international community.

Many Germans were still angry about how the Allies had treated the Fatherland and imposed a diktat which made Germany the scapegoat for all the terrible things that had happened since 1914.  But reasonable, liberal people were leading the country and seemed to have found a road back to respectability and reintegration in the international community.  Even the onerous reparation payments had been renegotiated with the Allies and made more tolerable.  The economy was once more humming, workers were once more getting a living wage for their families, and German culture was once more regaining its leading edge among the enlightened nations of the world.

Then came the Great Crash of October 1929.  Within a year, Germany faced economic Armageddon – six million unemployed in an adult male workforce of about 22 million, millions of pauperized families destitute, thousands of businesses gone, banks going bankrupt, and on and on went the tale of woe. 

The lurking forces of extremism rapidly thrust themselves front and centre after having spent the previous five years in the political wilderness.  A quirky, brooding, charismatic fringe-party leader with a Charlie Chaplin moustache catapulted into national prominence with electrifying oratory and promises of German redemption and the restoration of all Germany’s old, lost greatness. 

His more outlandish views about Jews and other undesirables could be ignored as demagoguery if you didn’t know any better, which 95% of Germans didn’t.  A few restrictions on “those people” wouldn’t hurt anyway, eh?  And if you really thought about it, history and culture really did show that Germany was a superior nation and Germans were superior people – compared to the half-barbarians of the East and the mongrel nations to the south, or even southern France.  The Nordic nations and England were the only countries that could racially compare.

Hitler thundered that Germany had been cheated and betrayed from within by those wretched connivers and manipulators – the Jews and Communists.  Germany had not really lost the Great War because of military defeat; internal enemies had undermined the nation’s effort, sapped morale, and engineered a socialist revolution which still threatened to destroy the German people and rob it of its true destiny.

So went the tale, and, over the next two years, it sounded better and better to millions.  The fiery, hypnotic orator with the funny moustache and mesmerizing eyes looked more and more like the man who could lead them out of their wretched national condition and give regular folks a new chance to have secure jobs and a country able to protect and provide for them.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler, who had become the most powerful politician in Germany, was constitutionally sworn in as Germany’s Chancellor (Prime Minister) by octogenarian President Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the icon of the old leadership establishment.  The Old Guard thought they could control and use the ex-corporal; within two months they learned that they could not.  He used and completely outwitted them, and, with Hindenburg dead in August 1934, his hold on power became absolute.  Der Fuhrer had arrived!

Twelve years later in May 1945, Germany lay in utter ruin, along with most of Europe.  The German people had lost at least six million war dead, not counting the “subhumans” previously removed from the population.  The country was completely occupied by the victorious Allies, who quickly fell out among themselves while dividing Germany into two – West and East.  The two halves were fashioned in the image of the occupiers – the democratic, capitalist West, and the Communist, totalitarian East. 

The division ended in 1989 when the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain were torn apart, and Germany proclaimed its own reunification.  Some trembled at the thought of a reunited Germany in the heart of a Europe where the old Occupiers had faded away.  The new Germany (Fourth Reich?) was born with a pledge to be democratic, peaceful, and dedicated to cooperating with its neighbours to build a European Community where all were equal and could prosper.  The government swore that the new Germany would never allow the old ultra-nationalism and racism to once more raise its head.  It seemed reassuring that the leading party in Germany was (and still is) the Christian Democratic Union Party.

In contrast to East Germany before reunification, West Germany emerged into prosperity and repentance and reconciliation with its former enemies in the period 1949-89.  Its first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was a deeply committed Christian.  Although the general population of West Germany was still too numb and absorbed with recovery to follow in his spirit for the first twenty years, he led West Germany to full recognition and relationship with the new Israel.  He negotiated generous annual reparation payments to the Jewish state as early as 1951, and reached out to other nations to seek reconciliation. 

From 1965-68, there was a series of West German trials of SS war criminals and Nazi officials who had operated the most notorious death-camp of Auschwitz between 1941 and 1944, and later of other death camps.  This marked the full acceptance in West Germany of what had happened, and taking full responsibility for it within the populace.  From that point on, the people and country embarked on a road to make amends.  After 1989, that effort moved into the former East Germany, however reluctantly, and it continues in all Germany to this day, both by deliberate government policy and at the grass roots level, where it had really begun even before the Frankfurt Trials in the 1960s.

Jesus once said, “By their fruits you will know them.”  We also say, “Actions speak [much] louder than words.”  Germany has produced fruit pointing to the nation’s true repentance.  The Nazi past has been accepted and repudiated; Nazi criminals have been brought to justice; Israel has had firm support and received (and continues to receive) generous reparations to Holocaust survivors and other aid from Germany; Germany has endeavoured to reach out to its neighbours for reconciliation and with practical help; Germany is the backbone of the European Union and has been more than generous in helping the other members when they have been in crisis.

While not every German owns what happened in 1933-45, there is a large majority that do and abhor it.  What can we learn from the German example?  Many things, but we can only mention a few here.

First, pious apologies at an official level for historic wrongs mean little or nothing.  In the last two decades, it has become a bit of “a thing” for Western governments to issue official apologies to ethnically oppressed and victimized minorities, throwing conscience money along.  Here in Canada successive federal governments have apologized to all kinds of groups and minorities for racism and neglect and victimization by the majority European stock population over the last four centuries.  But does this signal repentance and a real acceptance of and desire for it?  The lack of meaningful action that leaves so much as it has been suggests otherwise.

Some other states have done better at this than Canada.  Some have done less.  None have approached Germany’s effort.  What is the missing ingredient?

Repentance!  And how does one truly repent?  That comes from within, in and of the spirit, the full acceptance of what an awakened conscience shouts at our hearts.  It cannot be contrived by an intellectual process or a superficial emotional response of regret and remorse.  Political posturing does not constitute repentance, as necessary as political action is at the national level.  In Germany, there was, from the beginning of the movement, an underlying spiritual movement.  It came out of the country’s long-neglected Christian roots. 

Repentance is not a “one and done” deal.  It is an inner disposition which initiates and sustains action over the long haul.  After all, “sin” (missing the mark, falling short, committing moral offence) is a problem that has to be dealt with all the time since we all continue to miss the mark.  When we are speaking of the sins of a nation, the terrible damage runs very deep and very wide.  The repentance must be commensurate with the offence.

There remain at least two major aspects of this subject to discuss before we conclude.

Next time, we will look at some other national situations in the light of what we have noted so far in this exploration.

Finally, we will apply whatever we have gleaned to the individual, personal level.

Inconvenient Conscience, 7 – Turning Around, 3 – Repentance

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 “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand/nearby/right here/among you/in your midst/within.” –

an expanded translation of the meaning of what Yeshua/Jesus said about beginning to change one’s life and seek the Creator.

We now come to a very hard word for our ears to hear and our Post-modern minds to accept: Repentance.  This word is encrusted with religious connotations which our culture has generally rejected.  There is no substitute or synonym which conveys its basically simple meaning without all the baggage rife with religious judgmentalist connotations.  It is not the same as sorrow or regret or remorse, which are basically passive responses.  To “get it” we have to revert to etymology and the New Testament (koine) Greek word it translates so poorly.

The English word is imported from French – (se) repentir, la repentance – which in turn is derived from Latin poenitere.  The prefix “re-“ refers to a repeated action, not a single one.  The French pentir(e) refers to a leaning posture.  Thus repent(ir) is to turn or change a direction to its opposite, to turn back, to turn around.  The Latin is very close in meaning to the Greek verb – metaneō – to turn (right) around, to go in the opposite direction.  The French originally retained the sense of the Latin, having been directly derived from it.  The English is thus third-hand and, as we noted, has morphed into a caricature of the original.

Repentance is therefore an action, an active, ongoing posture. It is not a one-and-done deal, although it must begin sometime, somewhere with a positive decision, followed by the act of turning away from the destructive way to the positive, life-giving way.

The English word “sin” comes from Old English and its Saxon roots.  Its meaning is the same as that of words in other languages designating a religious and/or moral violation which offends God or the gods.  The Greek word is hamartia, and, while it means “sin” it denotes and connotes “missing the mark/target”, falling short of the desired goal.  Thus, it is not exclusively about religious or moral fault.

Why belabour the semantics of words which are out of vogue and are among the new “four-letter words” in our brave new progressive West?  (Meanwhile, the old “four-letter words” have become cultural mainstream.)  Simply, our relegation of such things to the dim fringe of our language and conceptual framework is one more symptom of our deliberate cultural and moral impoverishment. 

Do we really have to talk about “sin” and “repentance”?  Who today believes people are “sinners” other than religious fanatics?  As for moral standards, we all know they are quite malleable and can be legislated to suit the newest and latest research from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and moral philosophy – or even bio-genetics, physics, and chemistry.  Moral guilt?  I suppose we still need some semblance of that to assign blame for anti-social acts.  But an anti-social act is itself conceptually a changeable thing according to evolving popular standards.  Heck!  Professors professing the wrong set of ideas in university, or even playing devil’s advocate in a discussion, may be guilty of anti-social acts these days!  (So much for the great commission of the universities to explore truth with some sort of objectivity!)

Meanwhile, in the back reaches of our souls, the little inner voice still whispers, “But you know you are a sinner, that you have been and are immoral.  You know there really are right and wrong things, things in your mind and that you actually do which really should change, however much they can be rationalized and temporized by your own inclinations and the wink-winking of society.”

The debate within goes on, poked alive from time to time – maybe by one of those religious-types or some passing reference in a show or a book or a magazine.  Old terms like “(in)equity” and “(in)justice” still evoke moral outrage, whatever they may now be directed at. 

And then the “celestial spark” flares up at you and irritates you:  “When you took that little thing at work, you know it was stealing, eh?  When you lied that little black lie to your partner or your boss to cover up, it was a lie.  When you tell yourself your drinking, recreational drug-use, gambling, and porn “dabbling” are not really hurting anyone else, you know damn well that’s so untrue.  When you go out on another shopping binge and spend way beyond your discretionary spending budget, you know it just ain’t right or fair and everyone else in the family will suffer for it.  When you habitually gorge on junk-food as some sort of emotional therapy, underneath you know how bad it is for your health, and that you will pay for it, and so will those who have to care for you.  And, in all this stuff, everyone else pays for your guilty conscience’s desperate gymnastics and your manipulative antics to justify and bury your – um, er, gulp – sins!”

This litany is not my way of saying I am more righteous than anyone else.  The reason I can make the list is that I am well-acquainted with sin myself, and with some of the things on that list.  But denying that they make me feel guilty (just another way of saying they spur my conscience into appropriate reaction) will never give me peace or help me change.  For that, well, there’s only one road out – get ready for it! – Repentance!

I suspect that a great many of us here in the West will not even be able to accept that this primal need is more than a sort of vague cultural memory that can be dismissed out of hand, or at least by procrastination and neglect and rereading/rehearing all the rant and cant against subservience to religious claptrap.  But if we accept that this old concept still lives in our hearts and souls because it is a reality, however hard we have worked to bury it, we then have to come to terms with how we actually go about it – this “turning right around to go in another, radically different direction” so that we can really begin to change and experience a new way of living at peace with ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.

Perhaps a recent and very powerful historical illustration will help.  I speak of Germany.

Absurd Holocaust denial aside (yet millions still buy the Big Lie that it never happened, or that it didn’t happen on anything like the scale all the historical records declare), the whole word is aware of the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi regime in Germany between 1933-45, aided and abetted by a great many accomplices in other states of Europe, whether directly ruled by the Germans or coerced.  Six million Jews and as many more other “subhumans” (Romani, gays, disabled, etc.) died in extermination camps or by massacre or execution.  Tens of millions more were killed by deliberate policy of reprisal, starvation, deportation, intimidation, etc.

We now know that the fable that the ordinary German populace did not know, or knew little, about what was going on is mostly bunk.  It is easy to judge from the outside that they should have stood up to oppose this horrendous and monstrous action, that the Army should have taken action to stop it and punish the SS and perpetrators.  However, we don’t have to look far afield to find numerous examples of bystanders looking the other way while terrible things are done right under our noses.  Fear and the desire for personal peace (“just stay out of it!”) keep mouths shut.  It is costly to step in to confront injustice and just plain old evil.  You may very well end up the next victim.

World War 2 ended and some of the worst war criminals were tried and executed by the Allied victors.  Others vanished, while still others were quietly slipped into the shadows to serve the new masters who wanted their expertise to use against new enemies.  A great many minor players just blended back into the general population, hoping to remain more or less invisible.

But in Germany, after a decade or so, a remarkable thing began to happen, and it lives in that nation still.  There was a real, genuine, national repentance!

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 5 – Turning Around, 1

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“You reap what you sow; if you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.” The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

“Turn right around, for the Rule (Kingdom) of God is at hand/right here/right now/among you at this very moment.” – Jesus

I have been a student of history for most of my life.  I grew up in a home surrounded by books and steeped in a love for music.  My father had a large library of serious books about all kinds of things – history, philosophy, theology, psychology, and science among them.  He had never finished High School because, when the Depression hit in 1929, as the oldest of five, and a sixteen-year-old boy, he had to drop out of school to help feed the family.  Despite this, he always hungered to learn and accumulated and read books, encouraging his children to do what he had not been able to do.

My parents not only made sure we had the basics, but strongly encouraged us to go farther than they had been able to.  (My mother had completed High School.)  Mom made sure we had an impressive array of good children’s books and Encyclopedia – the Britannica Junior, Britannica (Adult) and Americana, and a complete set of The Book of Knowledge.

I was a strange kid.  I rarely read the Hardy Boys, but loved adventure stories, especially those based on History, like Enid Blyton or G.A. Henty books.  But I loved “real history” most of all and began devouring all the Encyclopedia articles about history – in all three sets of Encyclopedia by the age of Ten.  I began to rummage in my father’s library too to find interesting stuff I could at least partly understand.  I read Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War  the first time at ages thirteen and fourteen.

It was my strange taste in books which opened up a door to a friendship with my paternal grandfather, a man with a reputation in the family for being hard and at times mean to kids, a veteran of WW1 who never spoke about it except with a few old army friends he still had – and me, under an oath of silence until he was dead!  (I have written and published an account of my unique friendship with “Grandpa” in Grandpa’s Hands, available on Amazon.)  This is one big reason true war stories have always drawn me.

What fascinated me about history was that it reveals what people are really like – the good, the bad, the ugly, the sublime, the stupid, and the downright wicked.  I discovered that historians don’t always agree about exactly what happened and why, and sometimes not even when, but through all of that muddle the truth about who and what we humans are really like as we show by deeds rather than words keeps breaking through.  Psychology has its place, but history, I found, is the context for everything and teaches the best and worst about human nature set in the nitty-gritty of both the big story and all the little stories as they fit into the big story.

I also found that all the great leaders displayed some degree of deep perception of human nature.  Great thinkers might have this too, but many of the great ideologues seemed to lose sight of it in their flights of imagination and fascination with the stratosphere of best-case scenarios if only humans would stop being so damn contrary.  This led me to read extensively about the two extremes – the amazingly good people and the downright evil ones.  So I read a lot about heroes and discovered that they all have clay feet, like Churchill and Lincoln, both of whom remain among the “greats” despite their flaws.  And I read a lot about horrendously wicked people such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, mad (as in insane) genii who functioned at a high enough level to do very terrible things while somehow convincing and coercing myriads to acquiesce in their infamy.  (The psychology of why people follow such monsters is quite another issue.)

The three brief references at the top of this episode point to the most important but most neglected truths about humanity that paying attention to history teaches us:  (1) the Law of Karma is almost completely borne out over time, to the degree that it invites belief in the old-fashioned idea of fate; (2) everyone knows that we should learn from the past, but almost no one ever does – both as individuals and as societies from the smallest level (family) to the widest (nations, civilizations); (3) nevertheless, there is a way out of the trap of being the pawn of history and the mere victim of fate, – both personal and collective.

First, about Karma.  I am not a Hindu or a Buddhist, but the idea of karma is quite simple: sooner or later your past, or our past, will out and catch up with us.  There is always a price to pay, whether now or later.  Biblically, it is “You reap what you sow,” and “Be aware; sooner or later your sins will find you out,” and, as Jesus said, “What was said in secret will be shouted from the housetops,” and “You will be accountable for every idle word that you say.”  Physics tells us that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” and also now tells us that even chaos theory and the uncertainty principle seem to sort themselves out to take every obscure event into the equation.  We best see this illustrated by the “butterfly effect”, that the beat of a butterfly’s wings in China may be the final factor in unleashing a typhoon on Hawaii.

History is full of “might-have-beens”, “what-ifs”.  What if the assassin in Munich at the beer hall in 1939 had succeeded in killing Hitler?  What if the British Tommy in 1917 who had him dead to rights in the Battle of Arras had not just let him walk away?  What if John Wilkes Booth had been stopped and shot by Lincoln’s AWOL bodyguard at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865?  What if Julius Caesar had heeded the seer and his own wife Calpurnia on March 15, 44 BCE?  Etc.

And, perhaps the greatest of all, at least in the West, what if Yeshua ben-Yosef had never been born in Bethlehem, probably in the year 4 BCE?  We could then have just been gradually transformed into Stoics or Epicureans, or, perhaps by the gradual progress westward from India of monks and adherents, we would have evolved into an Asokan-style Buddhist culture.  Or perhaps we would have all become Jews, or just remained pagans of various varieties.

But the West’s history turned down a very different road following the coming of this single person and the life and death (and reputed resurrection) of this extraordinary comet of a human being named Yeshua ben-Yosef.  He came from “Nowhereville”, from a very obscure village called Natzeret in the north of an insignificant province of the Roman Empire on the eastern fringe of the Roman (and then Western) world.

The absurdity of the West’s identity-crisis and the extent of its conscience troubles are no better illustrated than by its attempts to divest itself of direct association with the Person of Jesus.  Failing that, we exert might and main to transform him into something far less potent and challenging than he was or can be made to be by even the most extreme efforts. 

Since he was born and lived and died, despite the completely asinine but still persisting attempts to say that he never really existed (!!!???), we then proceed to a bunch of other “if-onlys”.  If only he hadn’t made it so damn hard to reduce him to another nice philosopher and moral teacher.  If only all those wretched miracles didn’t keep popping up to confuse the record, and to confuse the gullible masses who keep insisting they can and do still happen!  And worst of all, if only the absolutely absurd tale of his resurrection from the dead could just be disposed of, once and for all!  Then we could ignore all the really challenging bits of his life and teaching, and the kinds of extreme behaviours to repeat those challenges and make us rethink our own lives and society that some of his most dedicated (fanatical?) followers have kept confronting us with over the last two thousand years.

That word of his they keep repeating just plain sticks in the craw of the modern psyche.  Metanoia in the ancient Greek – Repent in English!  Sounds too freaking religious, eh?  It just means, “Turn around!  You’re going the wrong way, straight to destruction!  There’s another way, a better way, but you have to turn around!”

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 11 – Rebirth, 2

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“…evil is not an essential part of creation, but is the result of a distortion within a basically good created order.  As a result of this distortion, humans have lost the glory of the creator, that is, the wise stewardship of the creation…. any attempt to state a monotheistic doctrine of whatever sort carries certain implications about the analysis of evil in the world.”

N.T, Wright, The New Testament and the People of God.  (Fortress Press. Minneapolis: 1992), pp. 258-9.

In the statements above, “Tom” Wright, an Anglican Bishop and eminent scholar of the New Testament, sums up the foundational perspective of both Judaism and Christianity concerning the presence of evil in the creation.  The work in which he wrote these statements is the first volume of his monumental study of the foundations of Christianity, Christian Origins and the Question of God.

Of all the great religious books, the New Testament has provoked more controversy, venom, and sublime exaltation than any other.  Despite the numerous hammer blows it has taken over the last 100 years from its detractors and denigrators, both from within its main historical base in the West, and from its outside opponents, Christianity still remains the largest faith in the world,. 

The major source of its cultural and ideological fall from grace has been its own adherents’ cataclysmic failures and lapses through engaging in actions and proclamations of truth contradictory to their faith’s declared ideals and the character of Yeshua/Jesus, its founder.  Those abysmal events and distortions have given all the ground needed by its enemies to lambaste it and claim its irrelevance as a spent force which should now be relegated to the trash heap of history.  Forgotten in the recriminations are all the positive contributions that the fundamental message of Jesus and his best followers have bestowed on both the ungrateful West and the larger world.

Those immense positive gifts begin with the idea of rebirth, or new birth – being “born again from above” so that a vision of the Kingdom of God takes hold in the heart, soul, mind, and spirit, supplanting the destructive obsession with “me, myself, and I”.  The beginning of understanding the necessity of this new birth from above is monotheism, which makes a declaration that there is a Creator who designed and made the universe from nothing other than His/Her will and “word”.  (“Word” here is not a passive idea, but a personal active power.) The Creator designed and made all that is according to His/Her own nature.  That nature is one of goodness, love, and compassion – along with other attributes such as perfect wisdom, perfect justice, and perfect mercy.  All of these characteristics, or personality traits (attributes in theological and philosophical language), are perfectly balanced.  The Person and Nature of the Creator is far beyond a creature’s ability to understand, and what the Creator makes must of necessity reflect Who the Creator is.  It cannot be other. It is supreme arrogance and hubris of the creature to presume to judge the Creator for not behaving as the creature conceives “godhead” – an arrogance really based on making ourselves god, and therefore God’s judges.

The bedrock of the Western view of humanity for the better part of two millennia was that humans are “made in the image of God” but that, by rejecting the Creator and seeking to replace Him/Her with the god of self we have created – a distorted, contorted, corrupted image of what we ourselves are intended to be.  Out of this broken image flows all the twisted, broken, destructive results one would expect – all the abuses and pain and suffering we humans inflict upon one another.  At this point we no longer know, or even really wish to know, who we are.  Even within the wider “Church”, effective denial of this truth has intruded. 

Instead, we find the general proposition, apparently based on psychological “science”, that there is nothing basically awry in the human heart, soul, or mind.  Evolution’s perspective tells us that we are simply what we have been made to be by ineluctable evolutionary development.  We are called on to “progress” in our individual and collective development, and part of that is to affirm that pretty much anything that makes us feel better about ourselves, even in a delusional sense, is to be encouraged.  We can verbally, and by a sort of Nietzschean decision based on willpower, declare the changes we want to embed – for example changes in the meaning of identity as humans, changes to biological gender realities, changes to morality and ethics that prove personally inconvenient.  We appropriate and promote social constructs of which some are manifestly much more destructive and productive of terror and horror for multitudes than others – all in the name of “progress” towards the “higher good” of the new, utopian society where personal liberty and choice is all, regardless of how it will really play out in our families and communities.  Everything is a heroic struggle because nothing is a duty or the plain old “right thing to do”.

Yeshua speaking to Nakdimon about “spiritual rebirth from above” was talking about true radical change, because more of the same – using the power of the state, of religion, of fear and manipulation and control to compel outer conformity, whether by actual law or social pressure, cannot produce true readiness and willingness, let alone ability, to enter the Kingdom of the Creator.

The New Testament uses a word for the heart of this birth from above, a word which is repeated over and over in the writings of Yochanan and Saul-Paul, in imitation of what Jesus/Yeshua taught and lived out with his disciples.  That word is agape.  It is  translated as “love”, but has a different denotation and connotation from other Greek words also translated as “love”- philia – the love between friends and siblings, for example.  Eros applies to sexual love and passion, and storge applies to parental and protective love.  Some modern psychologists have added two more, but the ancient Greeks distinguished among these four. 

The three besides agape are “normal”, human forms of love that we all know and experience to some degree.  But these three are incomplete in themselves and imply a dimension of personal benefit and good.  In the case of eros the mutuality is quite evident – the reward of sexual fulfillment and intense pleasure and a mutually supportive intimate relationship makes it very desirable.  In the case of philia, the same can be said minus the sexual passion.  In the case of storge, there is perhaps more of an element of self-sacrifice, at least in the short term.  Dependents grow up and, hopefully, can be positive supports and affirmers of their parents, guardians, and mentors as they age.

But agape is used as the “love from above” – a love that is given freely regardless of the merit and reciprocation of its recipient.  It is characteristic of the Creator’s love for His/Her creatures and creation, and most especially of those who bear His/Her image.  It is also the love that His/Her image-bearers were made and called to lavish upon one another and on the creation which they were originally made to steward, to care for, to bring into its best and fullest manifestation of what the Creator intended it to be and become.

But, in our self-directed usurpation and rejection of what the Creator designed and made us and that creation to be, we brought in all the elements of destruction, death, and futility that we find now all around us in ourselves and in the Cosmos.  The Cosmos too knows the futility and expresses it by letting us undergo the aberrations of its brokenness – natural distortions and disorders we call “acts of God” or the terror of nature’s sheer power-out-of-control.

There is no cure or healing possible of any of this without a reordering, a rebirth from above by turning back to the Creator and receiving once again the infilling of His/Her agape so that we may once more know who we are and what we and all that was made truly were made to be and become.  The coming of the Kingdom of the Creator is the return of agape to each of us, individually first, then as a community, and finally in making it real in the human and natural Cosmos within we “live and move and have our being”.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 4 – Conspiracies

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“Christian dogma …. is dead, at least to the modern Western mind.  It perished along with God  [cf. Nietzsche’s declaration about where we have brought ourselves in our quest for freedom from dogma and superstition].  What has emerged from behind its corpse, however—and this is of central importance—is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new totalizing, utopian ideas.  It was in the aftermath of God’s death that the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism sprang forth (as both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche predicted they would.  Nietzsche, for his part, posited that individual human beings would have to invent their own values in the aftermath of God’s death.  But… we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls.  This was Carl Jung’s great discovery…”

(Italics are in the original source.)

Jordan B. Peterson.  12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos
(Random House Canada, 2018), p. 193

The COVID-19 Pandemic has quickly taken its place as a conspiracy theory. As with most conspiracy theories, some of the current rumors about Novel-Corona doubtless hold grains of truth.  In fact, some quite reputable sources are asking some very serious questions about what we’ve been told and evidence that very plausibly points to some rather unsettling origins and actions or inactions related to its rapid propogation.

History illustrates all too starkly that there really are dark and sinister people and forces working to undermine society, world order, and democracy.  Many of the current batch of these agents of evil are blatantly obvious.  Fascists, neo-fascists (China is nominally Communist but, if you compare it to Nazi Germany, it is really now a Fascist State), Islamists, Anarchists, Cut-throat Capitalists, and Communists who hate Capitalism.  Throw in the numerous haters of liberal (or any) democracy and the West who would love to bring it down so their version of Utopia might somehow emerge from the chaos and ashes.  

The haters are part of the society they hate, projecting on it and their fellows their own alienation from humanity.  They wear ideological disguises or simply wallow in sociopathy. 

Amoral, unscrupulous people and organizations always improvise in order to reap the maximum selfish profit and benefit out of any opportunity for whatever nefarious purposes they aspire to achieve.  Such behaviour sometimes inhabits a national leadership elite and will use completely immoral methods to undermine the societies of their real or perceived enemies.

Some conspirators are Capitalists without a conscience seeking a freer rein for their corporate greed and predatory practices.  Some conspirators are in positions of great political and social power and influence, both within nations and in international affairs.  They include financial super-players and mega-corporate entities in the economic and socio-political realms.

Conspirators pride themselves on being master manipulators of the gullible classes and masses, the ordinary, “unenlightened” regular people just striving to live a reasonably peaceful, productive, and happy life.  Many conspirators are fanatical ideologues (religious or other) whose agenda is a new world order according to their vision of utopia, with themselves at the helm, of course.  Before taking power, Fascists in Italy, Nazis in Germany, Bolsheviks in Russia, Maoists in China, etc, were all conspirators hiding in plain sight.

Because such people like to move and manoeuvre out of the public limelight, they leave that plane to the next level below them – the ambitious and idealistic (or just plain greedy and self-serving) cadres who seek to gain access to government and para-government agencies where power and control over public policy can be had.  Their ambition makes them vulnerable to suggestion, subtle bribery, and blatant manipulation.  Meanwhile, the masters move in the shadows, content to use money, spider-web connections, the media, and social networks to pull the strings from the shadows.  History is chalk-full of the records of all this, from Ancient Egypt to modern-day ISIS, drug cartels, and internationalized crime syndicates.

For the great unwashed mass of humanity who never see this level of power and have no or very little notion of it, save a caricature perhaps portrayed in popular literature and film, all of this sounds very much like mythology and hyper-imagination.  Do the Illuminati exist?  Is there really a Bilderberg Group?  Have these groups morphed into a new incarnation (the Davos select super-elite?) devising a scheme to impose a world government on the unwary common crowd?  According to the conspiracy watchers, the elect pull all the strings from the back rooms of the UN and its super-national agencies (e.g., WHO, IMF, UNESCO, World Bank, etc.)? 

Every institution and organization is political.  Politics by its nature is full of back-room secret meetings and hidden agendas.  The wheeler-dealers manoeuvring for position, influence and control are hardly likely to raise a flag to identify themselves and openly declare their plans and intentions.  What appears in public is the tip of the iceberg, whether we are in a liberal democracy with freedom of expression and association or in an oligarchic totalitarian society such as China.

In the present case, the rumors are that this COVID thing is a clever and choreographed dress rehearsal for the next step in moving the world to accepting the necessity of a central direction for the whole planet.  After all, could we not once and for all end world poverty if we had a central authority to (re)distribute the world’s resources more equitably?  Could we not end famine if we could centrally direct the food supply so that the great surpluses in some places could readily be sent to alleviate the dire need in others?  Could we not end war if there was a central political authority to resolve international disputes?  Could we not save the planet’s ecosystem if we could centralize an authority to rein in the unconscionable rape of nature?

None of these ideas are very new, except perhaps the new awakening to the perilous climate situation.  A conscious plan for One World Government (under UN auspices as the most obvious route) is not a far reach, and the European Union has evolved as a functional working prototype for the One World Movement.  It is certainly not difficult to credit the One-World idea as an eventual goal among the leading internationalist intellectuals and plutocrats.  Some of them have even said publicly that they hope for this.

Of course, the underlying question about a One-World Cartel system is who would be at the top?  We can quite plausibly see much of the international manoeuvring as the game of positioning for that role.  Obvious rivals are China and the US, and China still has to supplant the US and bring the West into disrepute to take its place.  Thus some of the rather disturbing questions about this whole COVID outbreak and its (mis)management.  The economic and social damage done to the West has been monumental while China seems comparatively unaffected and now can portray itself as the great benefactor – a role it has already been playing in the less developed world.

Attempts to create international agencies and apply versions of the One-World ideology have been made in both ancient and modern times.  “World Empires” were one method – the Roman being the most effective and long-lasting outstanding example.  This is undoubtedly one the main reasons it fascinates so much to this day.  (See blog Archives – “The Allure of Rome”)

I would not presume to diagnose where we are on the road to instituting a One-World System of ultimate political, economic, environmental, and social control.  But there is a huge amount of history behind this gradual process.  Since the Scientific, Industrial, Economic, Intellectual, and Social Revolutions began to take hold in the latter half of the 18th Century, the “System” has been generating itself almost like a living entity evolving before our eyes.  The catalyst was the Enlightenment. 

In all probability the historical trend to one-world is not the result of a single (human, at any rate) conscious mind or even group of minds working within and through a well-knit secret elite society such as the Illuminati or the Freemasons or the T’ang, Islamist Mahdiism, or a Super-Corporate Cartel such as Davos or Bilderberg.  But perhaps such groups are taking a serious hand in the present phase of this movement.

There are undoubtedly groups operating, manipulating, conspiring, and using aspects of the system in the present exceptional circumstances to further their own agendas, among which a One-World System would be included as a means to achieve their own vision.  Some of those listed above may well be manoeuvring to help the process along, and even functioning in temporary alliances of convenience.  Regardless of the extent to which any of this corresponds to real people, organizations, and events past, present, and future, at bottom they are manifestations of something much deeper and more hidden.

The term “occult” means hidden from view.  Conspiracies of all kinds are, by their very nature, in that sense, occult.  Those who foment and participate in them want to remain hidden so that they can manipulate and move in the shadows.  Only at the end do they emerge from that realm to take the place of final power and control to triumph in the revolution they have executed.

All things occult crave hiddenness, and thus darkness.  The occult’s native language and modus operandi is conspiracy.  Its nature is to undermine, to distort, to corrupt and poison until it overthrows and destroys the thing it hates.  Conspiracy is a kind of evil engendered at the most destructive level of deceit, lying, defrauding, calumny, misinformation, and a long list of many other practices – all steeped in the “dark arts” that lead to theft, death, and destruction.

At this point some readers may think I am speaking about “Occult Arts” like Black Magic, Satanism, necromancy, séances, etc.  While these are certainly “occult” in their naive and rather superficial (but nonetheless possibly nasty) way, I am talking about the kind of occult activity that is practiced by hosts of people who would never self-identify as practitioners of the above “Occult Arts”.  I am speaking about the heart of evil that has haunted humanity since its inception – however people account for human nature, whether by direct fiat creation by a personal Deity, by the ineluctable processes of evolution with its brutal universe of survival of the fittest and natural selection, or, as many religions suggest, by the existence of a purely malevolent set of beings conspiring to destroy humanity.  Or a combination of all or some of the above.

But, whatever the origin of evil, humankind has been its own biggest destroyer, its own worst devil, its own greatest enemy.  The evil that proceeds from deliberate human choice and action (or inaction) and speech has done far more than any natural disaster or “Act of God” on record.  In that sense, as we have said throughout this series, evil always wears a personal face, and it is not God’s.  It may be Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, Pol Pot’s, the Grand Inquisitor, or an African tyrant or Islamic terrorist at different moments, but, beneath them, and following the lead of such horror-creators, it wears the face of “regular folks” who decide to do as their told because of some benefit or reward they believe will be theirs, or perhaps because they have swallowed the Big Lie about doing it “for the greater good”.

We cannot depersonalize evil.  And, as Perterson points out in our opening quote, we can’t blame God any more.  The bankruptcy of the claim that religion (God) is the cause of almost all the really evil stuff humans have done to one another has been exposed as utterly wrong.  It is not religion, it is the moral corruption and deadness of the human heart and soul, now left with no fall-back at all without God as a convenient whipping-boy.

Even the Devil, Satan, or whatever term we use to name the evil power at work in the occult realm (remembering the root meaning of occult), is not ultimately to blame for what we do to one another.  Perhaps such a power conspires and seduces the human perpetrators, but the humans choose to execute the terrible deeds. 

The issue of God ordering some horrible things done is really a red herring.  The ‘normal’ pattern is human decision to be evil for selfish purposes born of the evil in our own hearts.  The oft-repeated accusation of an all-good God ordering genocide is usually a dodge to avoid facing the innate capacity of humankind to do great evil on its own hook. 

Whether any or all or none of the latest batch of conspiracies hatched and hatching out of the COVID-19 crisis prove to be true, we need to recognize the root of all of it, past, present, and future.  One of the oldest comments on this wretched situation is this one from the Hebrew Bible: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.  Who can fathom it?” (Yirmayahu/Jeremiah 17:9)

TO BE CONTINUED

Lent 4 – Quarantine, Lead Us Not Into Temptation

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The year 2020 will now be long remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We find ourselves in unprecedented territory, at least for the last hundred years.  It is just beyond 100 years since the Spanish flu pandemic, the last real global “plague” of a highly contagious disease.  SARS, H1N1, Ebola, were mere scares which, happily, never lived up to their advanced publicity.  Unless you are someone in sub-Saharan Africa with Ebola or AIDS.

The Spanish flu of 1918-19 lives on in the memory of the West because it hit hardest in those countries – carrying off perhaps 50 million at the highest estimate – at a time when the world population was much lower (about 1.5 billion) and a terrible war had depleted resources and weakened many people’s health and constitution through long-term privation.  The Spanish flu did not discriminate against the elderly but was most devastating to the young.  My father caught it at age six and was at death’s door for at least a week.  (Obviously, he survived.)

We know that an effective quarantine is the best way to limit the spread of deadly disease.  It is not a cure, but must be done to protect those who have not been infected, while providing the best care possible for those who are suffering from the disease. 

It is interesting for those of us of Christian conviction (for me at least, at any rate) that this pandemic is hitting its global stride during the season of Lent.  Of course, from a scientific standpoint, this is irrelevant and mere coincidence, of no more import or interest than if it happened during Ramadan (Islam), Sukkot (Judaism), Diwali (Hinduism) or some other religious season for another major faith.

But its occurrence is calling the whole world, even its most wealthy and powerful, to mindfulness about the most basic issues of existence – what we live for and why we find life so precious that we are (or being made to be) willing to shut down all sorts of things that we normally choose to spend so much time, energy, and resources on.  Things like amusements and entertainments and public gatherings, shopping and restaurants.  Vacations and trips of all kinds cancelled.  Emergency centers and measures which we normally would resent or ignore being applied under government auspices, and, for the most part, with ready compliance because the potential consequences of non-compliance and pursuing blithe self-indulgence are too risky.  Or perhaps we simply fear being shunned as selfish and so self-absorbed that our peers would despise us.

The English world ‘quarantine’ is lifted right out of French – quarantaine – meaning “about forty”. 

In the Bible forty is a much used and symbolic term.  It first appears with Moses in exile from Egypt for forty years before God speaks to him in the burning bush. Then it recurs with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and Moses up on Mt. Sinai for forty days before God gives him the Ten Commandments.  Forty seems to symbolize a period of searching and preparation, withdrawal to regroup or retreat, to find the way.  In the New Testament, Jesus fasts for forty days as he begins his public life, being tempted by Satan and learning the will of God.  And at the end of his earthly sojourn, he visits his disciples off and on over a period of forty days before his ascension.

Here we are with a once-in-a century phenomenon of a world practicing quarantine (quarantaine again in French).  We are told to practice social self- isolation.  As we do, we cannot help reflecting on life’s fragility and death’s randomness.  We can hardly help getting back in touch with the most basic questions about why we live.  A century ago in 1918-9 the Spanish influenza had the same effect at the same time of year.  It seems that most of us in the West will not turn aside from our frenetic pursuit of so much that is frivolous and far from what is really important unless forced to by some sort of personal crisis.  Now we have one for all of us at the same time.

We have an opportunity to take stock.  What have we made our lives about?  What have we made our civilization about?  What are the great idols in our lives which rule our hearts and minds?

When Jesus spent his self-imposed quarantaine fasting and praying and meditating, we are told that he faced three “temptations”, or great questions.  The first was hunger.  The second was to prove how holy and tuned in to God he could be by daring to try something only God could do, or could save him from.  The third was to turn away from God to worship a false god and in return receive all the success and power and worship and adulation this world can offer.

Jesus did not give in to any of them, but they were very real temptations, very powerful attractions for a human wanting to find a formula for success or an easy way to get through life with the least hassle.  Jesus was a real human, so resisting these allurements was neither easy nor automatic.

In his first test the Tempter had said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”  He had just completely fasted for forty days!  I will not debate whether Jesus had the real power to transform stone into bread, but there are the stories of his turning water into wine and multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish into enough to feed thousands.  But what Jesus faced is exactly the sort of thing we all face every day, but hardly ever think of in that way. 

Now, I can’t turn smooth round stones into loaves of bread. My temptation is to worry about how my needs and my family’s needs will be met, whether there will be enough, or whether we’ll find a way through our present trials and tribulations, whatever these look like.  Bread represents the day-to-day basics we can’t get along without. Maybe now more than ever as many face unforeseen loss of income on a massive scale.

Jesus was in the Judean desert (which I have seen and gone through) and there was (and is) nothing to eat or drink for many kilometers.  In some way and at some point, almost everyone faces a desert where there looks to be nothing to sustain us.  For many right now, that point is now. Jesus’s response to the Tempter was “Man (humanity) does not live by bread alone (mere physical bread), but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  For me, I may not see how my needs and my family’s and loved ones’ needs will be met or how we will get through our valley of the shadow of death. But, like Jesus, I can say that the Creator will meet me/us and walk through to the other side with me/us – and in the process provide what we really need, beyond what the appearance seems to tell me/us that I/we need.

In the second test the Tempter takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.  For doesn’t the Scripture say that God will not suffer you to fall or even dash your foot against a stone?” 

I don’t expect to be taken to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome or some other great holy place of renown and splendor and be tempted to jump.  And of course that’s not the point.  This is about the second path people often choose to “lose their lives while seeking to save/find them” as Jesus puts it in another place.  It is the path of religion and striving to be known as a great spiritual leader, guru, mystic, model, shaman, witch, ayatollah, priest, bishop, preacher, etc.  It is the path of making religion and recognition for spirituality one’s god rather than turning to the Creator Him-/Herself to find the way to truth and peace and harmony – “Shalom” as the Bible calls it.

It is the path of making God serve me rather than me serving the Creator, imposing my agenda and ambitions over those that come from His/Her heart and mouth.  For those of the population still hungering and thirsting for something deeper than the “stuff” and all the pleasure it can offer, this is a great temptation.  I can become someone respected and looked up to and listened to if I can rise as a holy person, a gifted person who “hears from God” or is “in tune with the spirit-realm” and able to channel such energy or “bring in the lost”, etc.  Or perhaps, if I do some heroic thing of self-sacrifice and self-immolation I will win a great reward and a place of honour.

This is a road I know something about, but it is a dead-end.  Religious performance and “getting it all right” as per a set of dogmas and rules will not create a bond with the One who made me to be part of His/Her family.  Jesus had some of his harshest words for people who were all about religion and hardly at all about caring for the needy and helping those who needed a little practical love so they could feel the love of the Creator.

The final test Jesus faced was to bow down and worship the Tempter himself.  In return, all the kingdoms of the world would be put at his feet.  He would have all the power and dominion possible for anyone to have.  Jesus’s answer was, “It is written, “You shall worship the Lord God alone, and He alone will you serve.””

I don’t expect to be offered great riches or worldly power any time soon (or ever).  Or fame and fortune and acclaim to make me the envy of millions (or thousands, or even a few hundred or dozen).  But once again, the temptation Jesus faced is generic – to bow down to the great idols of success of our culture, which the West has so idolized and made the great symbols of “success”: Money, Fame, Acclaim, Reputation, being envied by others, having the best job, car, house, stuff, nicest partner, best (most accomplished) kids, etc., etc.  To do whatever it takes to get there, to reach the top of the heap. 

The promises of the Tempter are all empty.  They may fool for a time, but in the end they whither and fade and leave the deluded one empty in heart and dead in soul.

Now, back to quarantine.  We have an opportunity, while we are waiting for the return of ‘normalcy’ so we can all turn back to running after our own particular set of goals.  Before we turn back to making sure of where all the stuff I “need” will come from, putting on a good show about how spiritual I am, and seeking to climb to the top.  The opportunity is to use our own “forty” days in the wilderness that we have been collectively given to turn away from our vanity and turn towards the only two things that really matter: finding our home in the Creator’s heart and arms, and sharing His/Her love to take in the others around us as we find that home, that Center.  In the old language it was called “Love God with you whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Love your neighbour like you love yourself.”

Lent 2, Sowing and Reaping

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“Do not be deceived; you reap what you sow. If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.”

Dwight L. Moody

As a culture and civilization the post-modern West of the 21st Century is quite peculiar.  It (we, really) do not have much regard for tradition, for customs, for the ways of our ancestors.  Most cultures and civilizations (and there are still quite a few others out there despite our Western global encroachment on everybody else) still place a high value on the things that have made them who and what they are.  Somehow, we have gone in an almost diametrically opposed direction.  Somehow we expect to survive and thrive by turning our backs on most of what has made us what we have become.  We also prefer to denigrate and devalue most of the people who once upon a time played the greatest roles in that becoming.

In a (relatively) short blog such as this it is impossible to explain or describe with any justice how this amazing state of affairs has come to be, let alone the “why”.  And naturally, for any sense I could propose to make of it, a myriad of other voices, more potent and noteworthy, would rise up to denounce or disprove my interpretation.  Which is at least in line with what the West has been for the last three hundred years – a society open to the challenge of new ideas which can be debated and accepted or rejected, or perhaps nuanced into something more true and balanced.

My point here is that for those of us noting and to some extent currently observing a certain season called “Lent” in English, we now find ourselves in a twilight zone, a cultural back-eddy, while the vast majority of our co-travelers on  the S.S. West are either oblivious to it or could care less even if they have heard of it.

Here are two of the probable reasons for our amnesic cultural disregard of Lent – a chosen amnesia which is symptomatic of the greater current we find ourselves in on our ship’s journey.  For Lent is a practice found only in Christianity, although, as we previously noted, other traditions have their own times of fasting, self-denial, and spiritual reflection.  And, in the West, until perhaps sixty years ago, awareness of this season would have been pretty general throughout the ship’s company, even if many of the voyagers did not observe it.

I rather like the play on words which the English name for this solemn season opens up – even though it doesn’t work in any other language I know of.  “Lent” reminds me that my time aboard Spaceship Earth has been “lent” to me by our Creator or, if you prefer, the universe.  I do not own my time.  It is a gift to me, lent to me for as long as I live and breathe.  There is a Bible verse in the Book of Acts which reminds me of this, when a man named Paul tells the great philosophers of his day in Athens that everyone lives on borrowed time, that “the Unknown God” is the One in whom we all “live and move and have our being”.  Basically he’s telling them (and us via them, for we are very much like those skeptics of two thousand years ago), that we didn’t make ourselves, that we have very little power to change the nature of reality (self-delusions aside), and that there is a Power far higher and greater than any we can conceive of to whom we owe both life and even our feeble ability to understand existence itself.

Thus, Lent points us to something that, Christian or not, sceptic or not, atheist or not (as many of that crowd of the intellectual elite of that age were), we must all face: we are not God; we  are not gods; we did not just appear as some sort of cosmic hiccup that the ever-gyrating maelstrom of universal energy suddenly and quite unintentionally just barfed up one “day”.  And yes, even back in Paul’s long-ago day, that was a serious philosophical and proto-scientific proposal which both Greek and Roman thinkers had considered – Democritus on the Greek side and Lucretius on the Roman side being two examples of such thinkers who were taken quite seriously by the great professorial and sartorial dons of Athens to whom Paul spoke.

The second part of thinking about life being (like) “Lent” is that something “lent” is supposed to be returned to the lender.  If we realize that this “lender” is in fact the Creator (once we get past our arrogance and blinding pride about being “in charge or our own life and forgers of our own destiny” – or perhaps our call to “self-actualize” in this age’s usual ultra-individualist formulation), it puts a whole different perspective on who we are and why we are here (two of the most basic of all questions of existence, questions everyone who thinks asks at some point).

But what do we make of someone who refuses to admit they have borrowed, or been given, the most basic thing they have, with an expectation from the Lender, or Giver, that that precious thing will be returned in good working order?  Or perhaps rather that it will have been used to enhance the lives and general well-being of all the rest of what the Giver had created.  What will the Lender-Giver make of such an outcome as refusing to accept the conditions or mandate of being gifted?

In our dominant current Western way of thinking about it (or, rather, adopting an avoidance-strategy in order not to think about this), if there is indeed a Lender-Giver, He-She-It-They will just be so kind, generous, and loving that it won’t matter.  It’ll be a big shrug of disappointed love at worst, but have no real bearing on what, if anything, follows.

We are not going to rehash the old debates about heavenly rewards and hellish punishments.  There is, however, the issue of reaping and sowing.  If I sow a life-course that is based almost entirely on personal satisfaction and self-fulfillment, what return have I made to the Giver for having invested in me as a contributor the Big Vision of creating a better, more harmonious universe?  It does not take Christian theology to know that, eventually, generally, “you reap what you sow” and “if you sow the wind you shall reap the whirlwind”.  What we all find as we come into the world is what is being reaped from our ancestors, their works, their words, and their deeds.  This sobering realization begs us to think about what we are bequeathing our own descendants, at least once in a while.

Lent is a good time to consider our sowing and reaping, our use of what has been lent to us by the Creator, or, if you prefer, our ancestors and the universe.  It is a good time to consider how to improve our use of the great gifts we have been given, and how to stop abusing them – whether those gifts be other people and their gifts of love to us, or the gifts of resources and time we find all around us.

Fasting is a practice often associated with Lent.  In line with sowing and reaping and learning to truly appreciate and value the gifts we have, and the Giver who gives them, practicing a little self-restraint to teach ourselves to begin returning love for love and appreciation for the gift of life, which comes before all others, would not be out of place.

Which is where tradition comes back in.  Tradition is a way of acknowledging how much has been passed on to us by those who have preceded us.  Traditions recognize that our forebears sowed into our lives and created things we enjoy.  They gifted us, in many cases with loving intent, and with a faith that what they were passing to us would make our lives better, would enhance our ability to give back in the future.  In our trendy phrase, they are saying “pay it forward”. 

The West has by and large chosen to discount many of the best gifts of  the previous generations, especially those coming out of the religious and concomitant moral aspects our cultural heritage.  Consequently, the West has also by and large lost its coherence and way. “Without a vision for the future, people perish,” and struggle to find viable ways to maintain any coherent sense of worth about both themselves and their world.

So we now find our ship S.S. West aimlessly meandering, perpetually searching for some anchorage. The port of haven is proposed in the shifting target of the supreme humanist values of individual identity and rights and freedoms. As good as these may be theory, they have to be continually redefined to suit the newest trends.  It is time for the  West to begin practicing some of the old Lent discipline and turn towards the compass of a much Higher Ground of Being than mere personal preferences.

The foundations are shaking, and it may just be that the Creator is allowing the ground to quake beneath us and the whirlwind to stir around us, according to the old law of reaping and sowing. The wake-up Trumpet may be tuning up.

Lent, 1

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I will begin this post with a thank you to all my regular readers and subscribers for your faithful support and interest.

We are now in the season of Lent, which will end on Easter Sunday, April 12.  The word “Lent” in English is derived from Old English lencten, referring to the time when days lengthen or a long period.  Latin-based languages such as French derive their world for the season from the Latin word for forty –  quadraginta – of fortieth – quadragesima, e.g. – French la Carême.

During this season, i.e. for the next five or six posts, we will be taking a break from the usual fare of this blog.  There will not be a fixed theme, except along the line of what our topic today indicates – things appropriate to Lent.

Once upon a few generations ago in the West, this season of about forty days was publicly acknowledged and discussed as a time to dial back our usual bent towards self-concern and self-indulgence.  It was even mentioned in public institutions and political and cultural events to encourage people to “get a grip” on their bad habits and help one another out.  The purpose was to commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The forty days was as an imitation of Jesus’s time in the wilderness before he set out on his public ministry.

Whether you observe the traditions of Christianity or not, dialing back and slowing down, taking the focus off oneself for a season, deliberately finding a time and some self-discipline to regularly turn aside from “the usual” – the  pursuit of self-fulfillment for good ole Number One – cannot be a bad thing.  Other faiths do it and encourage it too (Ramadan in Islam is a prominent example), and even the sages of the health and well-being industry who promote forms of alternative spiritualities or secularized forms of such things (yoga is the most common) tell us that periodic fasting and self-denial is a good thing, especially when we mix in some genuine altruism to get our heads out of our own belly-buttons.

Many people set themselves a goal of “fasting” in some way during this time.  In the “old days” when most people in the West were at least nominal Christians, this meant doing without some favourite foods, for example.  Many people still do this, and add in more focused attention to daily prayer, meditation, and devotional reading.  Other forms of “fasting” might be setting aside forms of personal entertainment, abstaining from social media obsession, or watching less or even no Television or videos.

Now we live in a culture which hardly registers Lent as a blip.  There is a good side to this.  As a Pastor friend pointed out when we were talking about church attendance and declining numbers, the good part of this is that the people who are in church or “walking the walk” these days are there because they want to be and are committed. 

Some dominations and affiliations within the “Church” (I use the word here in its “catholic” sense of “universal” – the One Church which crosses all the denominational boundaries and enfolds everyone who follows Jesus, regardless of their affiliation as “Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, etc.” – are more deliberate and formal about this whole Lenten season and making it a real observance.  I encourage those of you in that persuasion to “go for it” with all your might.  For others who may have more of a hesitation about being so deliberate and intentional about “observing days and seasons” as if they can create more godliness in us or impress God somehow, I would encourage them to see this season as an opportunity to more consciously implement the kinds of disciplines their background values.

No one can compel us individualist Western Christians of the 21st Century to do much of anything “religious” these days.  We love to say that faith and salvation are an individual choice, “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).  Coercion and manipulation by guilt or social pressure are pretty much done for most churches and individuals in North America and Europe.  All the statistics about religious adherence and practice demonstrate this.  But our self-indulgence and claim to individual rights cross into every aspect of how we live our lives.  Lent is one of those.

We might say that we have the same choices to make every day God gives us to continue enjoying (or enduring) our lives.  True enough.  But if all days are the same, no day is special.  The truth is, we really don’t live the rest of our lives that way at all.  We all want and need to feel unique and special, to have special occasions and days.

Our cultural hypocrisy then excludes this from the religious and spiritual side of our humanity.  And this is just another manifestation of what has occurred over the last century.  Despite all the attempts to remove religion and spirituality (the old Enlightenment progressive code-language for Christianity in particular) from the public sphere, humans are innately spiritual, even those of atheistic bent.  There is a hunger and need at our very core.  We deny it at our peril.

The point of Lent is to stop denying it and awaken it, encourage it to search for what can finally bring us to real  fulfillment – to set aside the counterfeits that can never fill the hole in our soul.

Of that, more next time.

The Third Way, 58: Saviours and Salvation, 13 – Boomers

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“The three most formative thinkers of the darker moments of the modern era are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In one way or another, most baby boomers were fed a steady diet of heightened awareness of human exploitation, oppression, and illusion, coupled with the insight that the received world of common opinion and tradition was a chimera.  Suspicion of progress and optimism, and dread of a world breaking down, became de rigueur.  After all, most… baby boomers were highly receptive to the radicalism of their teachers and the books they thought important…. our culture was lost to the homogenizing influence of Hollywood, public policy was massively influence by the power structure, marginal peoples were oppressed… consumers were passive dupes of subliminal advertising and the corporate manufacture of false needs…

“…. Baby boomers were a generation with a deep desire for commitment, yet, ironically, many were persuaded that all bonds were distorting and colonizing, and that they should commit to nothing permanently.  While a corrective to platitudinous boosterism of the status quo, this teaching was also highly corrosive to civic trust, partisan loyalty, or pride of inheritance.  Indeed, the image of a human being it vaunted was that of a drifter: Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur who is a detached street voyeur, Claude Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur who deconstructs and sifts ideas, compounding them at will, Jean-Paul Sartre’s skier who leaves no tracks.  There is neither commitment nor investment required by such lives, which surf above life, where traditional pieties give way to chic cynicism and disassociation.  It allowed baby boomers the sophomoric mien of being against “the System” without having to commit to a specific alternative.”

Peter C. Emberley, Divine Hunger, Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd,, 2002), pp. 36-7.

Being of the Boomer Generation (first cohort), so deftly described by Professor Emberley in our lengthy opening citation, it is the one I am most familiar with.  He evokes the ethos of the late fifties and the sixties very well.  While most of us did not consciously adopt Baudelaire’s or Levi-Strauss’s posture towards society and life (few of us having actually read these authors), many of us practised it, having been seduced by its illusion of “freedom”.  Having no obligation to commitment meant “free love”, “tripping out”, “being cool” rather than having to grow up and take responsibility.  There were plenty of more accessible models of these postures (e.g., The Beatles, Timothy Leary, etc.) than these rather esoteric, heady ones. 

Emberley gives a short list of books which signified this whole cultural shift, particularly in the Canadian universities.  Here a few of the better known ones, at least to Canadians (his list gives only Canadian authors of that era): Marshall Macluhan’s seminal and ground-breaking Understanding Media (to which I would add Macluhan’s other, more accessible offering, The Medium is the Message), John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic, and Pierre Vallière’s White Niggers of America.  Many non-Canadian titles were as widely read in Canada as in the U.S.  I am sure that some readers of this blog could offer their own list, but here a few more that come to my mind: Thomas Harris’s I’m OK, You’re OK, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, Leonard Cohen’s (another Canadian) Beautiful Losers, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, John Robinson’s Honest to God, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Neil Sheehan, et al.’s The Pentagon Papers,Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,etc. 

In that age, everything was up for questioning and the sense of crisis and radical change in values and old patterns pervaded every domain of life, at least in the West.  Music, drug shortcuts to temporary nirvana, fashion, moral values, ethics, the sexual revolution accompanied by easily accessible and usable birth control, government turmoil, the threat of nuclear annihilation, brutal war (Vietnam) waged in full Technicolor on TV, and civic disorder and violence seemed to confirm  the diagnosis of the end of the old world and the desperate need for a new way of doing things at every level.  A few paragraphs cannot capture or convey the “feel” of that time, any more than they can that of any other generation and its time. 

Emberley goes on to describe the enormous letdown that ensued when the dreams of “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” disintegrated in disillusionment in the ‘70s.  Having questioned everything and come up mostly empty and short of any real solution to what so obviously seemed a need to fundamentally change the way power, economics, and society work, by the ‘80s boomers “had a paradoxical relationship to the workplace.  Many boomers achieved a level of success and affluence which… bordered on the obscene.  Both their real spending power and the senior positions of influence with which they were already flush in their forties represented a new apex of worldly success.” (ibid.)  Thus, the boomers who had eschewed commitment in their libidinous and “sophomoric” youth stood it all on its head by insisting on and getting posh pension and benefit plans in addition to fat salaries and wages.  If they had to now “work with the man” and even “be the man”, they would redefine what this looked like and negotiate their own terms. 

In the name of freedom and equality for all, the 60s activist impulse was diverted from idealism to cynicism in a scramble for “a fair piece of the pie”.  Luxury items and lifestyle took the place of failed ideals.  “Bliss out” was replaced by “drown out” the pain and the repressed gloom with stuff and games and substances.  Depression became the new epidemic, and Prozac (or cocaine) the new drug of choice.  The quest for personal freedom to enjoy life and not “be screwed by the system” or “ground down by the Establishment” had to be diverted into “making the system work for you”.  You could now use that old evil of money to capture life on your own terms with whatever amusements and pleasures took the place of the old ideals of “universal love, brother-and-sisterhood, peace, and freedom”.  However, the old inequities and class divisions had not really gone away and the rich got progressively richer and the poor fell farther and farther behind – which is where we find ourselves now.

The boomers had largely abandoned the old, inherited paths to salvation through tradition, established ways, adherence to religious custom, respect for class and appropriate expectations for one’s inherited position, marriage and family, financial reward for hard work and integrity, and “doing one’s duty”.  Now it became all about personal expectations and agenda.  The old paths to “salvation” out of chaos, failure, and disorder had been replaced by finding one’s own way to meaning.  Salvation was in whatever you chose as your personal path to “self-actualization”.

As Emberley points out, some reverted to “that old-time religion” as they aged, but moved to more energetic and active forms of it in Evangelicalism and Charismaticism, or perhaps into soft forms of oriental faiths, especially Buddhism and Yoga—which are still very popular.  In fact, recent data on religious affiliation and practice in the US suggest that, next to “no religious affiliation”, Buddhism is the fastest growing faith preference in North America.  Many serious scientists have been quietly turning in that direction as well in order to seek inner peace and meaning as they deal with the semi-mystical and elusive realities of Chaos Theory and the Quantum Universe.

“Personal peace and affluence”, as Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the age even as it unfolded, was the boomer road to salvation, the way of escape from despair and hopelessness.  Every society which exists and has ever existed either lives by a path to meaning which has already been established and generally accepted , or, if that established path has collapsed or been radically uprooted, sets out to find another one.  When such upheavals occur, the times are troubled and great turmoil ensues.

The Boomers sowed the wind when, as the Chicago 1 album put it, it sought to “Tear the system down, tear it down to the ground”.  Lamentably, as they forsook their old idealism, they went over to the hedonistic side of their “cultural revolution”.  Now, forty years later, what they seem to be leaving to their Gen-X children and the Millennials resembles a cultural wasteland filled with a whirlwind of violence and expectations of impending apocalypse.  The planetary environment is in severe distress and the socio-politico-economic infrastructure is strained to breaking point and quite unsustainable for much longer.  Yet the boomers still control and refuse to relinquish their self-serving stranglehold on the levers of power in the corporate, social, and political institutions which dictate most of what life will be like for the 99.5% of the rest of humanity who support the elitist paradigm.

For the Millennials and Gen-Xers who will soon be and already are moving into the positions of executive power (as in Canada where our two-term Prime Minister is a Gen-Xer), they have the opportunity to learn from the Boomer debacle.  Rather than being irresponsibly seduced by false promises of some sort of hairy-fairy Aquarian Utopia built on romantic dream-castles, they see quite well and more practically that the old ways are disintegrating, and have been for decades.  What is also clear is that their parents have done very poorly at managing the foundations as they have pursued a completely unsustainable paradigm of luxury retirement built on unceasing GDP growth .

The big question is where the upcoming movers and shakers of the world will turn to for their answers. What will be their salvation strategy to preserve enough of Planet Earth to continue as a living, thriving “Garden of Eden” in a universe that seems to have produced only one of its kind?  At the very least, it seems that they can hardly do worse than their immediate forebears.

The Third Way, 57: Saviours and Salvation, 12 – The Jesus Story, 9: The Third Way

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“Jesus called himself the Son of God and the Son of Man, but he laid little stress on who he was or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the Kingdom.  In declaring that he was more than a man and divine, Paul and his [Jesus’] other followers, whether they were right or wrong, opened up a vast field of argument.  Was Jesus God?  Or had God created him?  Was he identical with God or separate from God?  It is not the function of the historian to answer such questions, but he is bound to note them, and to note how unavoidable they were, because of the immense influence they have had upon the whole subsequent life of western mankind.  By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume One.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp. 456-7

Not all readers of this blog or all Christians will agree with H.G. Wells in every detail of this citation from his magnum opus The Outline of History.  I would agree with his view that it is not the historian’s function to pass judgment on questions such as Jesus’ ultimate identity.  He is fair in recognizing that Jesus did accept the titles of “Son of Man” and “Son of God” as proper to himself.  He is right in saying that Paul (and the other Apostles and first disciples) opened up “a vast field of argument”.  These arguments came in later generations, but, while they had disagreements among themselves, the Apostles did not disagree about Jesus’ identity.  As Wells says, perhaps the later arguments were “unavoidable” and have been historically significant “because of the immense influence they have had” on all the generations since.

I would not agree with Wells that Jesus “laid little stress on who or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the [coming of the ] Kingdom [of God].”  If one considers only the three “Synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one could reach that conclusion on a superficial reading.  But the major emphasis in John’s Gospel is the central issue of Jesus’ identity.  It focuses on his proclamation that the Kingdom of God had arrived in the form of his person.  The heart of the message was really that the coming of the Kingdom was not just coincident and correlative to his own coming among humanity with a new teaching at a specific time and in a specific place, but that it was intrinsic to his being present.  It was and is bound up in his person, and entering that Kingdom was and is through him, through commitment of one’s life to God through him.  When we look carefully at the Synoptics[i], we will still find Jesus declaring this. 

The difference is one of “optics”—focus and perspective.  The focus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptic means seeing the same, taking the same perspective) is Jesus’ public ministry and persona as seen by the witnesses involved as he travelled through Israel and met his death, and then rose from the grave.  By comparison, the perspective of John is an intimate look at how Jesus related to those closest to him and with those who opposed him and eventually engineered his crucifixion. 

Wells is effectively doing what so many have done when trying to sort out “the historical Jesus” from “the Jesus of faith”; he is reducing him to a message, a set of teachings and admonitions to be applied, comparable to what the typical mystical prophets, philosophers, and sages have done for millennia.  But, as we said in our previous episode, we cannot reduce Jesus to that; he does not fit the mould or stay in our neat categorical boxes.  His message was really himself, and in that he is really and truly unique among all the great religious figures of history. 

Buddha, Muhammad, Lao-tse, Confucius, Zoroaster, etc. did not say things like “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father/Creator except by/through me.”  We could give many more examples of Jesus making such statements.  Here are a few to reinforce the point: “I am the door; I am the bread of life; I am the Good Shepherd; … I am the resurrection and the life,” etc.  Any of these others “greats” saying such things would have rightfully been declared a megalomaniac.  As C.S. Lewis so cogently puts it, “He does not leave us that option.”  He is so sane, so manifestly not a Lunatic!  So manifestly not a Liar!

Jesus also openly claimed to be sinless and publicly challenged his critics to produce one instance in which he had sinned.  He had lived a very public life for at least a couple of years by this point, and had been shadowed at every turn by hostile critics who should have been able to produce at least one tale of his having acted badly.  There were no takers.

Jesus did indeed teach extensively, often in parable form.  He challenged hypocrites wherever he found them.  He discredited stereotypes, stood up for the poor and downtrodden, and commented critically on many issues such as the way the powerful control, oppress, laying heavy burdens on people and inflicting suffering.  He criticized the wealthy and their lack of compassion. 

He said that his followers needed to be different from all this—to be like him!  Everything he brought to the table as a new way, a Third Way, was bound up in knowing him and following him.  It was not about a new set of rules or a new philosophical insight, or even a different way of performing religious rituals and routines—or not performing them, for that matter.  He elucidated and illuminated what they already knew, declaring that the scriptures spoke about him.  As we have said before, it will not do to confine him to being a sort of nice, peacenik guru saying “All you need us love, so stop being selfish and nasty.” 

Certainly, we need to stop being selfish and nasty, but the problem is that, in and of ourselves, we just can’t do it very well, at least most of us can’t, no matter how hard we try. There area few who somehow manage it much better than most, like Buddha, for example.  But even most of the prophets, gurus, and sages come out pretty splotchy when we dig a little deeper.  Most of us are like the Prophet Daniel’s dream of a giant statue of a King-God made of massive, shiny, metallic sections of gold, silver, and bronze.  We (try to) look shiny, powerful, and impressive, but we’re standing on clay feet which cannot support us at all when the waves crash in.

At the end of our citation Wells says, “By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Unfortunately, this part of his assessment is all too true.

At the end of The Third Way 56, we noted the tremendous positive and progressive impact of the legacy of Jesus and the best of the work of his disciples over the last two millennia.  As Wells puts it—the “charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Too often though, we have seen large segments of those followers turning inward on one another, “agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments” with one another about God’s nature, Jesus’ nature, the Holy Spirit’s nature and work, questions of Church order and government, questions of right ritual and observance, and on and on.  And when the workers turn in upon one another, the anathemas proliferate and the love evaporates, evening  climaxing in war sometimes.  This does not even include the completely twisted notion of crusading to convert or crush “the infidel” or “heathen” of another religion.

When the Church, which is really just the community of his followers which Jesus commissioned to be “the light of the world and the salt of earth” loses its way and does those things, it has gone over to the “Dark Side” and lost its salt.  It breaks faith with its Founder and shames and dishonours itself.  So do all who take Christ’s name in vain by using it to say and perpetrate things and actions which in the end he will denounce and declare dreadful distortions of everything he is and calls those who follow him to be.

Nevertheless, Jesus has always had followers “muddling through” to act and be as he calls them to be and do.  There is still and has always been a remnant of communities and individuals who are “doers of the word, not mere hearers” and fancy talkers and theologians.  Now, at this time in history, and especially in the history of the West, faithful hearers and doers are more needed than ever, for much of the earth is in spiritual famine and dying in its vapid materialism and self-absorption, without hope or vision.  “Without a hope, without a vision for the future, people perish,” says a verse in the Book of Proverbs.

The core of the Christian proclamation is about hope—Good News—which is what the word “Gospel” really means.  That Good News is the coming of God’s Kingdom into our midst.  And it has come and continues to abide in a living Saviour who promises to “be with you always, even to the end of the age.”  He said, and says, “In this life, in this world, in this age, you will have trouble.  But take heart, for I have overcome the world.”

The “First Way” is the way of Religion—seeking peace and safety through appeasement of the universe and its dominant forces by the right kind of actions and staying out of the way of what can destroy us.  The “Second Way” is the way of Power, the way of control and manipulation and domination, to (re)make the world in our own image, even if it is just our own corner of it.  The ultimate form of this kind of counterfeit safety is world mastery—political, economic, and social domination and forcible conformity.

Both of these “Ways” of trying to make sense of reality are alive and well.  None of us is entirely free of them, either within ourselves or in our dealings with others, or even with nature.

The “Third Way” is what Jesus offered and offers—to cease from the first two and become truly free, as only he can make us free: “For if the Son (Son of God and Son of Man) shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”


[i]  “Synoptics” = Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  These three take a similar, more or less biographical perspective to Jesus’ public career.  They see Jesus through the eyes of witnesses who were there, although takes a somewhat different witness perspective.  Matthew’s perspective is very Jewish – Jesus as the fulfilment of Torah and its reinterpreter for the New Age, the renewed or new Covenant.  Tradition says that Mark’s perspective is based on Peter’s stories about the Messiah Yeshua.  For much of the account, Jesus seems to be keeping a low profile, but is finally revealed to be the Son of God and the Messiah.  He is then arrested and crucified.  The end is wonder and amazement, and there is scholarly controversy about the last part of the final chapter being a later addition.

Luke takes a more scholarly approach, systematically accumulating evidence and eye-witness testimony.  Tradition says Luke was a well-educated, articulate, very literate physician, perhaps even a Gentile convert of Paul’s.  His story focuses on the humanity of Jesus while including details of healings and relationships which a doctor would note.

With this understanding, John’s approach becomes more illuminating as a bridge from the very public record of Jesus to his more intimate, personal dimension and the things he said about himself both with his closest followers and those who challenged and opposed him.