Posted by: dacalu | 5 September 2014

Sympathy, Empathy, and the Bible

The Bible has been a great help to me in times of trouble. It has been a consolation and a joy, but perhaps not in the way people commonly hear that, so let me say something about help and about what the Bible means to me.

I frequently confuse the words sympathy and empathy. One day, working the word mines – that is to say writing – I came across this animation that explained it beautifully. The short improved both my language and my ability to care for others. Empathy means entering into the suffering of another, metaphorically climbing into the hole with them and saying, I’m here with you. Sympathy, on the other hand, usually requires you to maintain “perspective” and separation so that you can help them out of the hole. It is, in the worst sense, pity or charity, in place of real compassion. It means trying to solve a problem for someone instead of solving it with them. In bureaucracy this may be the best course of action; in psychology, it almost never is. You cannot improve people’s mental state for them, but you can be there with them and help them climb out. [I think this applies to the state of their emotions, their soul, and will as well, but that is a longer argument.]

The Bible speaks of God’s empathy for me, and allows me to empathize with many others who have suffered what I suffer. In the darkest of times, I can turn to those who have gone before and take comfort from knowing that they have been there. I can even look to how they responded without feeling a need to respond in the same way. They travel the journey with me.

I love God. As with any relationship, there are ups and downs, so sometimes I need to empathize with those who find their relationship with God troubling. I can look to Job. Job worried that life was not worth living. He thought God had been unjust and he spoke up about it. He ranted at God and about God, because sometimes it feels like God is a bit of a bastard. [This by the way, is one of the few insults Christians can get away with with impunity. Not a single member of Trinity has parents who were married. The sentiment is problematic, but that is exactly my point.] If I find myself in the very pit of despair and have trouble believing in God, Job is with me.

More often, God has been quite good to me, but seems to be holding out in one way or another. And then I can turn to Sarah. Sarah laughed when God promised her a son. She thought she was too old. The story does more than tell me Sarah was wrong – it tells me she was there. She felt as I do. I can empathize with her and she with me.

When I have failed, Peter stands with me. When I am lonely, John. When I am overwhelmed by others, Isaiah; by myself, Solomon. When God seems to be asking the impossible, Abraham, Moses, and Mary appear. When I doubt, Thomas. When I am doubted, Mary Magdalene. The Bible is so chock full of people suffering, it surprises me we read it at all. Remarkably often, things do not end perfectly in these stories. They do not end well by Earthly standards. Job gets a replacement family. Sarah ends up feuding with Hagar. Jesus and Peter are crucified. Mary loses her son and Moses never makes it to the promised land. The Bible has remarkably few concrete instructions for how to get to the promised land, but it is filled with people on their way. It has companions, with whom we can be in the midst of life.

Many modern Christians, but particularly Evangelicals and Pentecostals, want to turn the Bible into an instruction manual. They present it as a perfect record of God’s salvation or and eternal expression of God’s perfect servants. I respect these Christians in many ways, but cannot follow them in this. First, the Bible is a lousy instruction manual. It’s not concise, consistent, sequential, or by any means fool-proof. Most of these people turn out to be exceptionally bad role models. Even in the New Testament, look to Mark or Acts and you will find the disciples behaving in some rather dicey ways. Second, and more important, if they were perfect, it would rob me of true companionship. It would take away the empathy I have for them and, I believe, they for me. It would take away the God who is with me in the darkness and turn him into a repairman, who entered simply to change the light bulb. Part of the problem to be fixed is inside me, and I can be invited into that change, but I cannot be fixed.

I do not wish to deny the power of God. Indeed, I am a great defender of omnipotence and providence. But the Bible is not God. Nor is it a reference book on perfection. To turn the Bible into such a thing makes it an instrument of sympathy and not of empathy, an act of condescension and not of grace. At best it is gnosticism – to value propositions about faith over faith itself – and at worst idolatry – to confuse the creator with the created. Even if all the theological arguments fail, the pastoral issue remains.The Bible is most efficacious when it is narrative and companion, rather than didactic overlord.

I need companions more than I need idols. So, these are my people, and one of the greatest gifts of Christianity, not in spite of their suffering, but because of it.

Posted by: dacalu | 2 September 2014

Bite Size Jesus: Angels

The Author of Creation writes and orders reality. The author works with and through ministers who serve, counsel, and carry out plans for the story. The ones we know about have bodies, intelligence, and freewill just like us, but they are neither human nor once human. Because they focus on part of the Author’s work, they can help us understand God.

God is too big to comprehend. Angels give us small chunks of divinity that we can wrap our heads around. This is good; it allows us to see part of God’s work. It can also be dangerous; we can be tempted to confuse this part for the whole. We listen to angels because they can tell us where we fit in the story. We don’t worship angels (or listen to them uncritically) because they are only part of the whole.

Angels remind us that the story is bigger than our concerns. God does things that have nothing to do with us. Thus, angels talking to humans often begin by saying, “do not be afraid.” They are powerful and foreign, but also central to the plot of the story.

 

Notes on specific angels: The bible names only Michael and Gabriel among the angels. Michael appears in Daniel and Revelation (12.7) and takes the title of Archangel (high angel) in Jude (1.9). Michael leads the armies of heaven and acts as chief advocate for Israel and humanity. Gabriel appears in Daniel and the gospel of Luke, where he proclaims Jesus’ birth. Gabriel acts as God’s herald and chief messenger. Two other angels show up in the more popular disputed books of the Bible. Raphael appears throughout Tobit, and attends to marriage, healing, and pilgrimage. Uriel appears in 2 Esdras and Enoch, associated with wisdom and repentance.

Angels traditionally have neither sex nor gender, though for philosophical, linguistic, and cultural reasons are usually given a masculine pronoun.

In Hebrew

Michael – “Who is like God?”

Gabriel – “man of God”

Raphael – “God has healed”

Uriel – “God is my light”

Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2014

Bite Size Jesus: The Fall

If life is a good story with an Author who loves us, why is it so painful? Why do bad things happen? Christians remember a time (it could be historical or just figurative), when the earth was a garden, when only two humans walked among the trees, and the Author walked with them. Things were good.

The Fall refers to the break from that goodness: strife with the world, with one another, and with God. Christians think humans caused the break. The first humans ate fruit from a tree after God asked them not to. But this was not enough. God came to the humans and asked them what happened. First they hid. Then they blamed. The man blamed the woman and the woman blamed the snake. So, humans broke the rules then they broke fellowship. They did not care for the garden, the trees or the animals, or one another.

That is the situation we still find ourselves in, though it’s much harder for us now, because humans have been in the habit of selfishness for a very long time. We live in selfish communities. One of the goals of the community of Christ is to fix the break.

[Strangely, many tell this as a tale of disobedience; we suffer because we do not obey. In the Bible, harm does not come when the humans disobey, but when they don’t listen, hide, and cast blame. God does not punish them, but spells out the results of their actions then prevents them from doing further harm. Similarly, Paul does not speak of Adam’s disobedience, but his lapse. Christians, if this sounds odd to you, please read Genesis 2-3 and Romans 5 again.]

Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2014

The Life of the World and the Death of a Comedian

The first I heard of Robin Williams’ death was a Facebook post from my friend Shawn. He posted all of “O Captain! My Captain” by Walt Whitman, re-popularized by Williams’ movie Dead Poets Society. Shawn, like the students in the movie, was mourning the loss of a hero.

For my part, I posted a short reflection and a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.

“[I am] giving thanks for the life of Robin Williams, who amazingly took all of his pain and allowed it to illuminate and delight us. The best comedy has always come from troubled souls, who see more clearly some of the tragedies of life. He will be missed.

Into Your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Robin. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech You, a sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of Your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.”

It amazes me how much the internet has become part of our lives; both Shawn and I felt a need to share our grief online.

It was not until the next morning that I discovered how concerned some people were about the whole affair. Robin Williams committed suicide. Matt Walsh wrote a blog emphasizing this. He wants us to know that Robin took is own life; there is nothing heroic about that. It made me think hard about how I feel and what I mean when I celebrate the life that has just ended. It conjured questions of disease and free will and the meaning of life, something I study. It also touched on my faith and my belief that suicide is a bad choice.

When another friend asked me my opinion, I had to sit and think. It’s not an easy matter. Daniel McInerny criticized Walsh. He wants us to know how much our biochemistry and our health impact our choices. It was more than just a “bad choice.” It was influenced, perhaps even brought about by depression. Chris Attaway, argues against a too simple morality that judges people on what they cannot control. “We don’t expect people with Downs syndrome to perform rocket science. We don’t expect people with cerebral palsy to compete at the Olympic level.” Is there such a thing as not-guilty by reason of depression?

Walsh and McInerny and Attaway all make great points, but they have confused mourning and understanding. In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, I want to remember the good he did. I want to speak about what he meant for me. I want to pray for his soul, for his self, wherever it may be. I don’t think understanding what happened will help with any of that. And I fear worrying about it gets in the way of dealing with my own loss.

Let me say for the record – as a Christian, as a pastor, and as a theologian – I think suicide is a bad choice. It doesn’t work. It seems like an option when we are in pain, when we feel alone and powerless, when we don’t want to be where we are. And yet, suicide closes options for the future, it hurts people and pushes them further away. Suicide takes away what it promises to give – our chances for getting better. And that has real important to me, as one who’s considered it, one with friends who struggle with it, and others who, sadly, have made such a choice. This is a very important issue, but now is not the time.

Why do I focus on Robin’s life and not his manner of death?

First, publicizing suicide is a bad choice. We know that the idea of suicide is contagious. Prominent coverage, particularly for celebrities, makes the idea seem more feasible. Public condemnation may be better than public praise, but a brief informative report is better than both.

Second, I favor love over judgment in all cases and for all events. This can be a tough principle, but I find it really important for Christians. Before an action comes a time to discern, to debate, to persuade. After an action, we work at love and reconciliation. If I hope to change someone’s behavior in the future I might tell them how much harm they’ve done. With Robin, I wish him the best as he moves on.

Third, I must not confuse my own needs with those of others. Walsh tells us how important it is to him that he has a choice. I honor his sharing of that about himself, but I don’t think judging Robin empowers Walsh or anyone else. There’s something existential about choice and we have to grab it for ourselves.

Science and medicine can tell us something about our choices. We know that. Doctors treat depression as a medical condition because our biochemistry and mood are intertwined, and they influence our choices. Chemicals like serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), epinephrine, dopamine, and oxytocin profoundly impact the way we feel. It’s valuable to know that the drug Ecstasy can cause euphoria (serotonin high) and that it can also impair your ability to feel the same thing in the future. It’s helpful to know that our environment and choices change who we are and the choices we make – maybe even the choices we can make.

When the time comes, I’ll be happy to talk about the will we have and the will we don’t. I’d love to recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow all about the heuristics running in our heads. I’d love to recommend Kathleen Norris book Acedia and Me all about depression and despair, choice and spirituality. I’d love to tell you how important it is for us to know that we can make choices. Perhaps it will prevent us from making bad choices in the future. Cieply and Barnes point out how important work was for Robin. It was a way to fight depression. So, if I must talk about Robin’s demons, I will say this, he channeled the power of their attacks into making the world a better place.

To everything there is a season. I believe passionately about free will and our need to study and debate how much control we have over our lives. I care deeply about theology and meaning and the value of life. We must reflect on our priorities in the summertime, so that when winter comes we know what matters. And, when a beloved friend dies, it is time to mourn. It is time to affirm the life he led and the lives we lead. That too is a choice.

For now, I come to bury Caesar and to praise him. For myself and for my readers, I’ll choose life. That’s were our attention should be. I’ll praise what was praiseworthy and forgive that which was hurtful. I remember the good he did and the good I may do. And I pray, as always and with the grace of God, that that will be enough.

Posted by: dacalu | 14 August 2014

Martial Arts Booklist

In looking over some old files, I see that I put together a list of good martial arts books in 2004 for Enso Center. It looks like it could use some updates, so feel free to recommend in the comments.

The Classics:

Tao Te Ching   Lao Tzu (Trans. Stephen Mitchell, Thomas Cleary)

The Art of War   Sun Tzu (Trans. Thomas Cleary)

I Ching   (Trans. Thomas Cleary)

Way of Chuang Tzu   Chuang Tzu (Trans. Thomas Merton)

The Book of Five Rings   Musashi Miyamoto (Trans. Thomas Cleary)

Muye Dobu Tongji   (Trans. Sang H. Kim)

 

 

Modern works of interest:

Korean Hapkido   Kwang Sik Myung

The Art of Peace   Morihei Ueshiba (Trans. John Stevens)

Budo   Morihei Ueshiba (Trans. John Stevens)

The Encyclopedia of Taekwondo   Hong Hi Choi

Aikido   Koichi Tohei

A Road that Anyone Can Walk: Ki   Koichi Tohei

Aikido and the Harmony of Nature   Mitsugi Saotome

Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere   Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook

Secrets of the Samurai   Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook

Zen in the Art of Archery   Eugen Herrigel

The Tao of Pooh   Benjamin Hoff

The Te of Piglet   Benjamin Hoff

Tao: The Watercourse Way   Alan Watts

The Way of Zen   Alan Watts

Way of the Peaceful Warrior   Dan Millman

T’ai Chi’s Ancestors   Douglas Wile

How to Win Friends and Influence People   Dale Carnegie

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense   Suzette Haden Elgin

The Relaxation Response   Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper

Beyond the Relaxation Response   Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper

Flow   Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Taekwondo for Dummies   Jennifer Lawler

Martial Arts for Dummies   Jennifer Lawler

Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People   John Corcoran and Emil Farkas

Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition, History, Pioneers   John Corcoran, Emil Farkas

and Stuart Sobel

 

 

Works for children:

Taekwondo Dinosaurs   Y. H. Park et al.

Education for Peace Series   Terrence Webster-Doyle

Zen Shorts   Jon Muth

The Asiapak comic Series   Tsai Chih Chung and Brian Bruya

- Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness [Chuang Tzu]

- Sunzi Speaks: The Art of War [Sun Tzu]

- Zhuangzi Speaks [Chuang Tzu]

- The Tao Speaks: Lao Tzu’s Whispers of Wisdom [Lao Tzu]

- The Dao of Zhuangzi: The Harmony of Nature [Chuang Tzu] (by Zhizhong Cai)

- Confucius Speaks: Words to Live by [Kun Fu Tzu]

Posted by: dacalu | 12 August 2014

History of Theology

In a recent post, I set forth a three part history of knowledge, drawing on, but not identical to, Michel Foucault’s archaeology of human sciences in The Order of Things.  It goes something like this:

 

Period                                            Knowledge is

1300-1600 The Renaissance         hidden in the world

1600-1800 The Enlightenment      best way of comprehending the world

1800-1950 The Modern Period      historical state of belief about the world

 

Foucault goes on to label the categorization of knowledge in these periods as Similitude (recognizing the hidden correspondences), Taxonomy (applying the right framework within which everything fits), and History (understanding the progression of ideas and events in time). My next post looked the history of biological knowledge. Those posts, and one on the history of cosmology, appear in my work blog.

Only recently, have I come to appreciate that the typology applies to Christian theology as well. Because this is more speculative and controversial, I’ve placed it here on my personal blog.

Renaissance Theology

In the Renaissance, theology was believed to reveal the underlying patterns of the universe. Indeed, the line between the Natural Law revealed the physical world and the Divine Law revealed in scripture was a thin one. Both were ways of understanding the way the world works, like different windows into the same room.

When medieval and renaissance theologians called sacraments “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” they meant that the sacraments conferred the good gifts in which they participated. When they spoke of the Church, they meant that small fraction of the family of God visible in society. And when they spoke of Scripture, they meant the present active work of the Holy Spirit, alive in the reading and interpretation of the written words. The truth was in all things from the beginning and the things of Christianity were those things that made it most visible (Romans 1:20).

Enlightenment Theology

The Protestant Reformation (Europe c. 1500-1650) shifted our perspective on the truth. For the new theologians, dogma had to do with that order which was given by God and stood in judgment of the world. Our job was not to participate in the Logos of creation, but to comprehend God’s purpose for the world, and comprehending place ourselves in the correct camp.

When Reform (and Lutheran) theologians spoke of sacraments, they wanted to insure we understood them as making sense of grace, but not participating in it. (Luther, I think straddled this divide, but his followers completed the transition.) When they spoke of the Church, it was the category of the blessed within the taxonomy of salvation. This is one reason that purgatory was so offensive; it blurred the line between the saved and the damned. And when they thought of Scripture, it was something wholly outside the corruption of nature, God interceding through the Word.

Modern Theology

The Third Great Awakening (US c. 1850-1900) includes the rise of Pentecostalism, the Holiness movement, and the roots of what we now call Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. For this group, divine truth began to take on a historical character. (I believe this was when talk of “salvation history” became popular, but I’d love to hear from you if you know more.) Faith was characteristic of an individual, at a specific point in time, someone who had been lost and was now saved.

The Fundamentalists have no concept of sacraments in the medieval sense, believing that the symbol is fundamentally apart from the thing it points to. “Sign” has a completely different meaning. Instead, they prefer to talk about the fullness of God’s will concretely present in a particular time and place. Likewise, the Church is a concrete collection of believers, not an abstract eternal construct. Finally, Scripture takes on the burden of guaranteed truth no longer afforded to sacraments and institutions. It is a record of God acting in the world and an opportunity in time for your personal redemption.

Getting It Right

For me, this makes sense of how alien the three theologies appear to one another.

Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians lean toward medieval and Renaissance theology. For the first, truth is communal – mediated by the magisterium of the church. If you do not conform to the community, you are a heretic, literally one who thinks alone. For the latter two, truth is interactive. The liturgies and works of faith are participation in the truth. There is no way to hold it apart from acting it out.

Most Mainline Protestants (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quakers, UCC, etc.) hold to an Enlightenment theology. They are confessional because the heart of Christianity (for them) lies in holding the correct picture of the universe, in accord with God’s picture. If you do not comprehend that truth, you cannot be saved. Christian doctrine has become an intellectual exercise. Evangelism (spreading the Good News) has become apologetics (the defense of doctrine). Those who don’t get it (the belief system) don’t get it (salvation).

Fundamentalists (including most non-denominational churches) hold to a modern theology. Doctrine is important, but rather than debate the truth of the doctrine, they want to know if you’ve accepted it. Where are you in your spiritual journey? Have you been saved? No amount of action or belief can take the place of that life-changing moment.

Posted by: dacalu | 11 August 2014

Bite Size Jesus: Creation

The story of the world begins with an author. The Author – like the Word, both a person and a principle – gives this world a plot. It means something when read in its entirety. The plot is good and the end is good and all of the characters are good: light and darkness, the sky, the earth and seas and plants, living things: tiny and huge, tame and wild. Humans act as a main character; like authors they keep and drive the plot. And this story, with humans in it, is very good.

Many people mistake the point of creation. They think it is about defending the author, but the author needs no defense. The point of creation is to defend the world as meaningful, good, and complete as written. The world does not need editing. It gets its goodness from the same place it gets its existence. Often we do not understand the details of reality or morality, but we trust that the author is going somewhere with all of it. Creation asks that we read every word in curiosity and hope.

Posted by: dacalu | 11 August 2014

Bite Size Jesus

I’ve set myself a goal of writing a series of very short essays on Christianity: 200 words to capture some of the core beliefs that Americans seem confused about.

 

Christianity in Brief

There is a basic order behind the world and, confusingly, that order is both a general principle and a touchable person. We call him Jesus, the Word, Logos. The Word loves humans and came to us, not as a ruler or even a tourist, but as a guest. We hold a great sadness that we treated this guest so poorly – so much so that we killed him in human form. We hold a greater joy that his love overcame our betrayal. He came back as one of us and still loves us both as a person and as the order behind the universe. Christians feel called to treat one another as the Word treated us, with curiosity, care, and service that holds others equal to our selves. The story of love lost and re-found is played out in our daily lives over and over again and we think it will also be played out in the course of history.

Posted by: dacalu | 25 July 2014

Suspended

Between Seattle and Toronto

the airplane window

fails

to show me

the space between.

 

Traveling mercies –

the innkeeper with room,

the roadside attractor,

the roses –

call me away from myself

 

One perfect moment of peace,

neither here nor there

but in the meantime,

the mean time,

whose value comes from averages.

 

I try to sum my life

with variable delights,

summaries and maximums

that protect me

from the moments themselves.

 

The sheer mass

scares me –

the weight of moments

pulling me

into reality.

 

Gravity:

a thousand thousand

pieces of my soul

calculated

in moments.

 

But wrapt in aluminum

and engineering

how can I know

what passes beneath –

what passes within?

 

It’s ironic

that the plane

keeps me

on the surface

of things.

 

[24 July 2014]

Posted by: dacalu | 28 June 2014

Anti-Virtues

As my friends well know, I have a rather medieval mindset at times.  I have a preference for ordered lists and hierarchies, quite popular in Medieval (scholastic) theology which favored exactly 7 sacraments, 9 ranks of angels, and 7 orders of ministry. [1] Thus I learned early the 7 deadly sins and the 7 human virtues. [2] It always puzzled me that the one did not mirror the other.

The more I reflected on them, the more I realized that the 7 deadly sins [3] were more sensationalist than helpful.  They make for popular art (from Garth Nix’ children’s books, Keys to the Kingdom, which I recommend, to the Brad Pitt movie, Se7en, which I am just as happy to have not seen).  They do not, I think, make for good meditations as focusing on what not to do rarely helps.  I would suggest that instead of thinking about these, it is far more practical to think about the seven virtues and the want of of them.

There are two ways to be in want of a virtue: to lack it all together and to have it’s opposite.  For instance, one who does not love might hate or simply be apathetic.  It’s hard for me to say which is worse, for hatred leads to antagonism, but it also requires some interest in the object of your hate, thus love can turn to hate (and vice versa) more easily than it can turn to apathy.  There is so much more I could say, but for now, I’d just like to give you list to see what you make of it. Note that the virtues are all related to love of God, neighbor, self, or creation, while the lacks are all forms of apathy.

 

Virtue (Anti-Virtue, Lack of Virtue) [4]

Love (hate, apathy)

Hope (despair, carelessness)

Faith (distrust, ignorance about persons)

Fortitude or Courage (recklessness, cowardice)

Temperance or Self-Control (scrupulosity, impulsiveness)

Prudence or Wisdom (foolishness, ignorance about things)

Justice (injustice, isolation)

 

 

[1] In case you are wondering, that would be Sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Eucharist, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Unction; Ranks among the heavenly hosts: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Ophanim, Cherubim, Seraphim; Orders: Porter, Lector, Exorcist, Acolyte (minor orders), Sub-Deacon, Deacon, and Priest (major orders).

[2] In the Middle Ages, they were known as the princely virtues, but the Roman Catholic church renamed them in the 20th century in a fit of political correctness.

[3] The seven deadly sins have been mentioned in multiple versions, but the ones I am familiar with are Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, Lust, and Pride.  Due to a diminishing vocabulary, some moderns may be unaware of the distinction between Envy (wanting more than your neighbor) and Avarice (wanting to accumulate stuff). Alternate lists include vainglory and despair.

[4] The first three or “theological” virtues come from I Cor 13:13.  The second four “cardinal” virtues come from Wisdom of Solomon 8:7. A number of other popular and historical lists exist as well.

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