Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Faithful Questions

"Bright Shadows"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

The other day I came across the title of a newly published book: Faithful Questions, and it struck me that in my younger years such a title would seem very odd to me, maybe even scandalous

As a boy growing up in a traditional “Christian-Catholic” tradition, I was always taught that the stronger your faith, the less questions you asked, and I equated “faith” with an unswerving belief in the doctrines and teachings of the church. I still remember one of my teachers in elementary school telling me that absence of doubt was a sign of a person who has a rock-solid faith. I have since come to believe the opposite is true.

On some level I think it’s good to have some relatively strong commitment to one’s beliefs and principles; but as I see it, when it comes to faith and belief, “certainty” is never possible. In a very real sense every faithful person must also be willing to constantly ask questions. In fact, as I see it, a faithful person is always somewhat “agnostic.”

As I see it, an agnostic is someone who is unable or unwilling to express unquestioning belief in any certainty regarding the claims of faith. In the mind of an agnostic, you can never be certain about God because “God” is a mystery. In fact, in a very real sense, “God” is unknowable. So when it comes to “God,” the agnostic says, ‘I don’t know.” 

When it comes to God, there are always way more questions than there are answers and so that’s why I think that a vibrant faith and healthy agnosticism go hand in hand.

The contemporary theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, observes:

God is outside of all classes and categories
and beyond the possibility of being imagined and conceived.

Over the ages theologians and scholars of all religious traditions have generated volumes and tomes of words and ideas, systems and categories, attempting to come to an understanding of the “Great Mystery” we call ‘God.” But every theologian and scholar worth his/her salt were always “questioners” who knew that their words and concepts were, in fact, nothing more than “feeble attempts” at describing that which cannot be described and naming that which cannot be named but only experienced at some deep level of awareness.

Back in the 4th century Saint Augustine, celebrated today as one of the “all-time” greatest theologians of the Christian tradition, once said:

In talking about God if you claim to understand what you are talking about,
then, what you have understood is not “God.”

There have been many times in my life when I have experienced the “reality” of “God,” a “Holy Abiding Transcendent Presence.” But, I often find that this presence is often best  articulated through a song or perhaps a poem, a story, a work of art rather than with theological or scientific words that demand accuracy and logical certainty. I can no more prove the existence of who “God” is than I can describe or prove with logical certainty that I love my wife or my children.

The desert where I live is a wonderful place for embracing a faith in “God” that always leads me on a path of asking the deeper questions about what my faith really means and continually fosters my own sense of agnosticism. The desert is an untamed place of abject desolation and excruciating beauty, a place where I often encounter “absolutely nothing” - miles and miles of nothing but sand and rocks where everything is totally silent.  Yet, in the silence and in the nothingness I often experience a thunderous presence.  I have no idea as to what this “Presence” means, I can’t describe it and I certainly can’t prove that it exists, so I just allow myself to take it all in as I live with the deeper questions and bask in the One whom I do not and cannot ever really “know.”

I am reminded of a little story that comes out of the “Sayings” of the ancient 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers:

Once some monks came to visit old Abba Antony
and young Brother Joseph was with them.
Abba Antony, wanting to test them, began speaking about the Holy Scriptures.
He asked the monks to explain the meaning of each of the texts,
and each of them gave lengthy answers.
But to each he said,
‘you have not yet found the right answer.’
The old Abba Antony then asked young Brother Joseph,
‘What do you think these scriptures mean?’
Joseph replied, ‘I don’t know.’
Abba Antony said,
‘Indeed Joseph alone has found the true way, for he has said, he did not know.’

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Prepare to Stop

"Good Advice"

This morning, when I opened up my Facebook page I was greeted with the news that today marks the 25th anniversary of the internet –a quarter century ago people throughout the globe were first invited to participate in the exciting new venture known as the World Wide Web. This morning’s announcement elicited all sorts of memories for me about how I was first introduced to the internet and its potential for global “progress.”  

When our now-adult boys were children, our family took a summer trip to Epcot Center in Disney World where I was first introduced to the newly emerging internet technology.  The Disney exhibit heralded all the wonderful potential the “web” might offer to the world in the days ahead. The internet would help to connect with people everywhere, offering fresh new possibilities for dialogue and mutual understanding. Furthermore, we were shown how in the future we would be able to do all our shopping “on the web,” get our mail by pushing a button on a computer and at the click of a key access information about anything we wanted to know from anywhere in the world. There would be no need to spend all that time shopping at a store or going to a post office or doing research in a library, and this would “free us up” so that we could have way more time to relax and lots more time to spend with one another. 

Twenty five years later, I realize that most of what was predicted about the future of the internet basically came true, except that it didn’t really help us to create a community of dialogue and mutual understanding, nor do it free us up for more leisure time devoted to friends and family.

I think about all the mean-spirited tweets and strident attacks on others posted by so many people nowadays in the easily accessible social media of our own day - hardly a vehicle for dialogue and understanding. I also think about how many people today have become so obsessed with their technologies that instead of taking the time to rest or to look up into a starlit sky, they spend most every waking hour sitting in front of a computer surfing the web, or pecking away at a smart phone even while having dinner with friends.

Buddhist author and teacher, Susan Murphy, offers this analysis about the spiritual tyranny of today’s internet technology and the effects it has had upon the soul of today’s culture:

We have allowed ourselves to become fractured and made small
by technology’s voracious intent to talk to us incessantly.
We talk to more and more people but fewer and fewer face to face
and we strain to do everything in less time.

We are constantly subjected to incoming messages,
a ceaseless bombardment from proliferating electronic platforms and
only a fraction of these interruptions are important enough to deserve the
unhesitating priority they are given.
Many undermine rather than add to knowledge
and truth is rarely a concern.

While driving my car yesterday I came upon some highway construction as a roadside sign flashed the message: Prepare to Stop!  Today, as I think about the anniversary of the internet and this new era of social technology, it seems to me that maybe that flashing sign may offer us all some good advice as we travel along the electronic highway. 

Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, puts it this way:

If you are like most of us, since you’ve been born you’ve been running tense,
the mind always pre-occupied by so many things.
So first of all you need to train yourself to stop - stop running after all these things.
Stop, be here, come back to the wonders of the present moment.


Today I plan to celebrate the anniversary of the internet by pulling the plug, muting the texts and disconnecting at least for a few hours. Maybe I’ll take a walk in the desert or contact some friends I haven seen for a while.  It seems to me that a good way to celebrate today’s anniversary is to “stop.”

Monday, August 22, 2016

Embrace Simplicity

"A Single Flower"
- beauty in the wilderness -

Over the past few days I realize that I have come to a certain “saturation point” when it comes to consuming the volume of continual political rhetoric barraging my mind spirit in this American presidential election season. I am at the point where I often mute the TV or turn off the radio when I hear the almost endless, strident voices of carefully calculated political strategies—everyone saying and doing whatever they have to say and do to win the election and make their way to the top of the heap,

I wonder if I have become so “tired out” by all this election rhetoric because it is such a vivid icon of the spiritual malaise that afflicts everyday life in today’s contemporary culture? How many of us follow a course of complex, almost-endless ambitious scheming in our routine lives, and does all that spiritual debris rob us of our joy and drain us of a deeper peace?

I think it’s no accident that the wisdom of almost every single world-wide spiritual tradition calls for the practice of simplicity in living every day. The Buddha called his disciples to live simply and so did Jesus who walked though fields of wildflowers and told his disciples to live without anxiety, as simple as the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. Perhaps the ancient Taoist, Lao Tzu, best sums up this wisdom when he teaches:

Manifest plainness
Embrace simplicity
Reduce selfishness
Have few desires

Teachings like this are so contrary to our own “dog-eat-dog” world of always wanting more and better that they they almost sound like a foreign language. In fact, the very word, “simple” carries an awful lot of negative baggage in today’s popular culture. In our technological society, simple things are seen to be inferior to more sophisticated gadgetry, and we also think of simple people as those who are less educated and less sophisticated,  and we relegate them to the bottom of the social pecking order.

Today’s presidential elections in America may indeed be emblematic of (and feed into) a deeper cultural belief that those who make it to the top in society are those who have the most ambitious and complicated schemes in life. However, while complex schemes and self-centered strategies for achieving more may get you to to top of the heap, this is certainly not a pathway for finding that “peace that surpasses understanding.”  

Yesterday as I turned off the TV as yet one more political story was featured, I sat at my desk and came across something contemporary Franciscan priest and author, Richard Rohr, once said. He wonderfully sums up some profound teaching about embracing simplicity – necessary spiritual wisdom for all of us in our own day and age:

When you live simply
you are free to enjoy what life has to offer
but you never let enjoyment become your master.
Every day you practice non-addiction and letting go.

When you live simply
you find a natural solidarity with people at the bottom or at the edges
because you stop idealizing the climb
and find there is no top anyway.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.