Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Virtue of Agnosticism

"Mystical Sunrise"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I am writing a new book under the working title of A Faithful Agnostic. In point of fact this is how I see myself at this stage on my own spiritual journey - I am a follower of Jesus, a person of faith and yet I cherish the fact that I am a certified, card carrying agnostic. Some may think it odd for an ordained priest to call himself an agnostic - I actually think agnosticism is a noble virtue to be embraced on any spiritual journey.

That word “agnostic” usually carries some pretty negative baggage with it in religious circles. Agnostics are viewed as people who do not “enjoy” the certainties of faith and need to be shown the true way. It’s true that agnostics are people who are unable or unwilling to affirm who "God" is with any degree of certainty, but I’m not at all sure that agnostics need to be shown the “true way,” maybe the opposite is true. 

It seems to me that rather than figuring out how to convert an agnostic, perhaps people of faith might look upon an "agnostic mind" as a model of where faith should lead. Any spiritual path should always lead to deeper mystery, a mystery that cannot be explained or named or pushed into pre –conceived categories.

I think about something Jesus once said as he placed a small child upon his knee and told his disciples: The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

As I see it, Jesus was teaching his disciples to have the “mind of a child” when walking in his "Way." Always be filled with wonder, see the world with new eyes every day, don’t ever try to figure “God” out because God is a mystery that can only be experienced and never explained.

Jesus’ teaching is very similar the Buddhist concept of a “Beginner’s Mind” - the more one grows in wisdom the more one develops an uncluttered mind, free of pre-conceived explanations and clear-cut ideas, always open and ready to embrace the world as it happens in every moment as if you are seeing it for the first time.

Saint Augustine once said: 

Anything you think you understand about God is not God.

In similar fashion, the celebrated Christian mystic, John of the Cross, said:

The higher one ascends on the ladder of the spiritual journey, the less one understands.

So, whenever I think I have it all figured out (or even sort of figured out) I am probably stuck in a rut and I need to remind myself that the greatest faith to which I can ever hope to aspire is to say:

I don’t know

Over the next few months as I write my new book I am hoping to get as much “feedback” as possible from people who read this blog so that I might reflect on what you say and hopefully include some of your comments in the book.

Please join me on this journey of faithful agnosticism.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Safe Harbor

"Shadows and Light"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I just read a very interesting blog article in which a person explains why she goes to church every Sunday morning: “Church is a safe harbor for me. I can leave all my problems and my worries at the door and know that at least for the hour I’m in church, God is going to take care of me.”  

I wondered if this person may be an icon, emblematic of so many folks who turn to religion as a safe harbor that shelters them away from all the troubles of the world in the hope that God is going to make it all better.

In college I used to have a poster on the wall of my room that read:

A ship is safe in a harbor but that’s not what ships are for

I thought about that poster when I read that article about church as a safe harbor. As I see it, a spiritual path of any sort should never remove us from the everyday world of real life experience; rather faith of any kind and the practice of any sort of spiritual discipline should help to equip us for sailing on the water of life - however rough the sea may sometimes get.

I am reminded of a very astute observation by Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor:

To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight,
admitting limits and transcending them,
falling down and rising up.
To want life with only half of these things in it is to embrace only half of life,
shutting the other half away
where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.

None of us wants pain or suffering, loss, misfortune, violence or terror to happen to us in our lives, but suffering exists and no amount of running away, no bottles of pills or artificial lights or going to church for an hour will eliminate the chaos and darkness that inevitably resides alongside the brightness of the light in life.

In the Christian Scriptures, before he is crucified, Jesus commissions his followers to continue his work of peace, justice and reconciliation in this divided and broken world. He addresses his assembled disciples who are paralyzed by fear and “scared to death” over what will happen to them now that Jesus is going away, and he tells them:

Do not let your hearts be troubled.

He doesn’t comfort them by saying, “Don’t worry, be happy because everything is all ok.” He doesn’t promise them that “God” is going to take away the troubles and make life all bright and beautiful.  No, he stands among them in the midst of all the chaos, the violence and hatred the world has to offer and he tells them not to have anxious hearts as they go out and face this troubled world. He tells them that they will always have one another and he promises that his spirit of enduring love will always abide, so their hearts need not be troubled.

It seems to me that, these “final” words of Jesus to his disciples might well be applied to any person on any sort of spiritual journey. The power of love abides with us and we have one another, so we need not hide our lives away in an artificial safe harbor because that’s not what ships are for.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Limits of the Golden Rule

"A Radiant Tapestry"
- along a wilderness trail -


While browsing through Facebook a few days ago I noticed something a friend of mine posted: This world would be a far better place if more and more of us lived according to the Golden Rule.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

In one sense I agree that the world would probably be better if we applied this principle to our daily lives; but I actually don’t think the Golden Rule goes far enough. In fact, It seems to me that there are some rather serious limits to this highly-prized rule of life and I think we would do far better living each day “beyond’ what the Golden Rule prescribes if we really want to make this world a better place.

When we say that we should treat others as we would like to be treated, it sounds much like the kind of negotiations that go on in a business transaction: “I will do some good for you because that’s how I want to be treated, and in return, I expect you to do something equally good for me.”

The basic assumption here is that we are all separated and isolated from one another and that we are all in competition for a prize place at the table of life. So I help you and you help me to make our way up the ladder of success. 

It seems to me that the first thing we need to do is to go beyond the dualistic thinking of “me” as opposed to and separated from “you” and instead realize that there are no different-others. Everything and everyone is invariably and inevitably woven together into what the theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, so beautifully describes as a radiant tapestry of being.

Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars
and genes from the sea creatures,
and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin
in the radiant tapestry of being.

While it may be a good idea to treat others in the way I “expect” to be treated by them, the fact is that regardless of my intentions and regardless of my expectations, everything I do or say inevitably affects everything and everyone else because we are one another, all of us woven together into a radiant tapestry. When I come to this awareness, my thinking goes beyond the limits of the Golden Rule.

The Buddha teaches:

See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?

More than treating others in a way I would like to be treated, I know that what I do to others I do to me, what I do to a world of nature I do to me, what I do to the planet I do to me because there is no isolated “me” separated from “others” and everyone utterly everyone is kin. When I know and believe this, then indeed whom can I hurt, what harm can I do?

Now if we all lived according to this precept, the world would indeed be a far better place in which to live.