Stepping in the Light: The Life of Worship

Back to the thought provoking study questions in Howard Macy’s, Stepping in the Light.  (Is calling them “thoughtful” an attempt at flattery? )

1.  In a “gathered meeting”, we feel that together we have genuinely encountered God.  What are your most memorable experiences of a “gathered meeting.”  Try to identify what made it so.

Never been to a gathered meeting in the Quaker tradition so cannot directly respond to this question.  However, I feel like I can respond to it from the Catholic tradition:

The Litany of Saints during the Catholic service is always memorable. The entire  community chants the litany in unity and the unity is palpable! And talk about expectancy. The litany is recited during the Paschal Vigil when people are baptized and received into full communion with the church.  It’s a beautiful, moving ceremony – despite the fact that some Quakers might find it “garish”.

2.  What are some of the ways we can prepare for and strengthen the meeting for worship?  What is the importance of seeing this as everyone’s responsibility?

Clearly, referring to Catholic worship doesn’t work for such a question.  But I think Buddhism potentially applies.  And I’m wondering if American Buddhist meetings might not be more like the Quaker meetings of old?  The Buddhist meetings I have attended, based upon the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, don’t have preachers.  Meditation is held for long periods of time and completed with a tea ceremony where people contribute their personal thoughts.  But these thoughts rarely have anything to do with “preaching to others”.  The “worship” IS the silence.  That is why everyone is gathered together – to be silent in community.  Buddhists say that we will not maintain our personal meditation practice unless we also meditate in community.  Everyone who comes to a Buddhist meditation is responsible.  There’s no point even questioning individual responsibility!

3.  Of your pet peeves about worship (most people have some) which of them are merely petty and personal and which may suggest positive ways to strengthen the life of worship?

We went to a UCC Church last weekend which almost completely embodied my pet peeves about worship.  The music was beautiful, but recited in Latin, so people had a difficult time following it.  The minister told a completely trite story to make a trite point, but acted as though it was profound.  More than 70% of the people attending the service were over 70 years old, and the vast majority of these were women.  People sat apart, not in groups, which suggests that the community doesn’t know one another at all outside of Sunday worship.

I’m not pro-worship. I appreciate Buddhist services far more than I do Christian services.

4.  How can a meeting honor and encourage vital vocal ministry, whether from appointed speakers or others?

Again, I’m not familiar enough with Friends to know how this might be accomplished in their worship.  The Catholic Church I belonged to had a weekly panel discussion where members of the congregation could ask their most troubling questions to priests willing to field the questions.  An intentional community was set up in order to address the needs of the congregants.  Of course, it was quickly wiped out by the powers that be within Catholicism, but while it existed, it provided a powerful vocal ministry.

Hamlet (1948)

I have seen several different versions of Hamlet, on screen and off. This is my very first experience with Sir Laurence Olivier’s version. It’s considered to be the best film adaptation of Hamlet ever made and it was the first British film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

I deeply enjoyed this version, but felt like far too much was left out. Where were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? It’s been a long while since I’ve seen Branagh’s 1996 version, but I think I liked it better than Olivier’s. I’m a little bothered by the over-the-top Oedipal complex in Olivier’s version and I also take issue with what he seems to think is Hamlet’s problem which he introduces in no uncertain terms at the beginning of the film. “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

Perhaps it is about a man who could not make up his mind, but isn’t that kind of trite? What has always struck me about Hamlet “not being able to make up his mind” was the very human balance we all try to achieve between reason and emotion. At the beginning of the film, Polonius offers Laerte some famous fatherly advice. Among this advice is: “This above all, to thine own self be true, and then it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.” But how does one be true to himself? That is much easier said than done!

Hamlet is told by what may be the ghost of his father (Hamlet is never fully certain it is his father’s ghost) to avenge his father’s death. This demand is clearly in conflict with Hamlet’s sense of Christian morality and his belief in the dignity of Humanity, but he accepts it anyway. It’s not just that Hamlet “can’t make up his mind”, he is deeply engaged in the complexities of being human. How do you reconcile the conflicting paradigms of humanity: life and death (to be or not to be), good and evil, emotion and reason? To me it is very Karamazov-esque.

But perhaps that was Olivier’s intent?  He presents the film in an almost existential film-noir way and has stripped it almost entirely of comedy.  One of my favorite scenes in Hamlet is the gravedigger scene which Olivier did leave in, but I still like Branagh’s use of Billy Crystal better.

Another favorite Hamlet film moment is from Michael Almeryda’s 2000 film version of Hamlet where he inserts an excerpt into the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from a Thich Nhat Hanh documentary, Peace is Every Step.  The excerpt discusses the state of  interbeing.  (The question is not “to be or not to be!)

ACIM Lesson 153: In my defenselessness my safety lies.

ACIM: You who feel threatened by this changing world, its twists of fortune and its bitter jests, its brief relationships and all the “gifts” it merely lends to take away again; attend this lesson well. The world provides no safety. It is rooted in attack, and all its “gifts” of seeming safety are illusory deceptions. It attacks, and then attacks again. No peace of mind is possible where danger threatens thus.

AMEN to that!!!

ACIM: Defenses are the costliest of all the prices which the ego would exact. In them lies madness in a form so grim that hope of sanity seems but to be an idle dream, beyond the possible. The sense of threat the world encourages is so much deeper, and so far beyond the frenzy and intensity of which you can conceive, that you have no idea of all the devastation it has wrought…You are its slave. You know not what you do, in fear of it. You do not understand how much you have been made to sacrifice, who feel its iron grip upon your heart. You do not realize what you have done to sabotage the holy peace of God by your defensiveness. For you behold the Son of God as but a victim to attack by fantasies, by dreams, and by illusions he has made; yet helpless in their presence, needful only of defense by still more fantasies, and dreams by which illusions of his safety comfort him.

I think this is why so many people claim we can only learn such a lesson by going through a dark night of the soul. Something has to shake us to the bone to make us finally realize that we’ve been defending nothing. Very often ACIM and all religions are used as defense and very often what is thought of as defenselessness/forgiveness is just another means of defense. Ultimately, a teaching is just a teaching. It points the way. But it isn’t the way. So there is no reason to defend a teaching, either.

Please Call Me By My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second to be a bud on a spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope, the rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond, and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills up the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and my laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.

Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber

I finished Ken Wilber’s Grace and Grit last night. I was crying so hard during the last few chapters. My husband came in from a dinner party and it was all I could do to pull myself together to find out how his evening had gone. I wanted to get back to the book!

The only books I’ve read by Wilber so far are Grace and Grit and Boomeritis. I’m told these books make him more likable than his other books because they are more biographical and less philosophically intense. I’m interested to dig into one of his more philosophically intense books, now.

I feel like I have a general understanding of integral spirituality but haven’t quite gotten into the nitty gritty of it. So far, it makes a lot of sense to me. Grace and Grit made me want to experience a Tibetan Buddhist center. We’ve gone to two different Zen centers, one based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings (Vietnamese Zen) and the other on Shuryu Suzuki Roshi’s teachings (Japanese Zen). It also made me want to get back to ACIM studies because Treya Wilber practiced it every day. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at the lessons at all.

Kierkegaard and Buddhism

During Dreyfus’ last lecture, the issue of Buddhism came up and Dreyfus lumped Buddhism in with the Greek Philosophers. He thinks it is probable that Plato came back to Greece after his long journey to whatever mystical place he was said to have visited with Buddhist beliefs. Buddhism was in existence at the time of Plato, so it’s possible.

What Dreyfus points out is that Kierkegaard’s idea of unconditional commitment is entirely different than the Buddhist idea of non-attachment. Kierkegaard is saying we have to go through despair in order to obtain bliss and because the Buddhists seem to be focused on the avoidance of suffering rather than obtaining an unconditional commitment, he thinks that Kierkegaard would say they cannot possibly attain bliss.  

Which just seems plain silly to me. I can think of several examples of Buddhists that seem to me to be fully living and acting in the world while not being of it – like Thich Nhat Hanh and definitely the Dalai Lama.  They feel the pain of being exiled and losing loved ones.  If it doesn’t cause them suffering, I’d say it’s because they recognize infinite possibility (which is otherwise known as nothingness.)

Dreyfus’ son is a Buddhist and I guess they get into arguments – he tells his son that life is not about getting rid of suffering, it’s about obtaining meaning.

I guess I have a hard time understanding his argument – where is this meaning supposed to come from unless we create it? If Kierkegaard is saying that God is “infinite possibility”, then isn’t it we who create our meaning out of that infinite possibility? If Kierkegaard doesn’t believe in a supreme being, then surely he isn’t saying that there is some entity out there who has made everything the way it is and is pushing it all to a particular end. That would make God finite rather than infinite.

Robert Thurman says the aim of Buddhism is to become enlightened in the swirl of animal life forms and that this is possible because we have the ability to choose to optimize our being together. It is not a life negation, but rather a means to become aware of all that is around you and to function from that place of awareness. In a discussion between Deepak Chopra and Robert Thurman about “God” (according to the Vedic tradition), Chopra says God is the field of infinite intelligence and infinite potentiality and we are the finite expression of the infinite (although at another level, we are both.) If we are able to recognize the existence of infinite potentiality, then we can make more optimal choices.  Thurman agrees with this.  Nothingness is nothingness in Buddhism because it comprises everything (but undifferentiated).

Maybe I am wrong, but I think Kierkegaard is sort of saying the same thing – but in a different way. Through Buddhism you achieve this awareness through non-attachment. Kierkegaard is saying we have to achieve higher levels of consciousness through an unconditional commitment which does seem to be the opposite. But is it?

According to Buddhism and the Vedic traditions, what creates suffering is the fear of death and loss. You cannot detach yourself from suffering by avoiding it. You have to be willing to face it head on. There are Buddhist meditations where you imagine yourself as a rotting corpse with worms crawling through your body and learn to accept that image because that will be the state of our bodies one day. If we fear that fact, then it is impossible for us to truly live because our lives will be focused upon the avoidance of death. Detaching yourself from suffering is not avoidance of it – just the opposite. You can only transcend suffering through suffering. Which, as I said the other day, seems to me to be what Kierkegaard is saying about despair. You can only transcend despair through it. Avoiding it, not acknowledging it, will only keep you mired in it.

There has to be an absolute acceptance that at the common level of human consciousness, suffering and despair are the human condition. You have to be able to imagine all the possibilities. Not just the ones that don’t scare you. Of course, there is the possibility of accepting despair and suffering and then staying stuck within it – like the French woman in Hiroshima Mon Amour does (the Knight of Resignation). Her imagination is more limited than that of the Japanese man (the Knight of Faith) who has been through equal despair but has managed to transcend it.

Again, Kierkegaard says something to the effect that God is infinite possibilities and infinite possibilities is God. (Through God, all things are possible because God IS infinite possibility.) What makes a Knight of Faith a Knight of Faith is that he recognizes that there is infinite possibility even in the finitude of his existence. He can walk home dreaming of a wonderful stew yet be perfectly happy when he gets home to find out only a very meager soup is available because the possibility of the wonderful stew existed so the meager soup is not a disappointment. Maybe things aren’t going the way he wants them to go, but knowing that it is possible for them to go the way he wants them to go is enough to transcend despair. This is what makes him a Knight of Faith rather than a Knight of Resignation. In a sense, his recognition of infinite possibility creates a sort of unattachment.

I think what allows us to recognize this ability might be different in the west than it is in the east. A while back, I was at a lecture where an American Buddhist (or Hindu – I can’t remember which) was explaining the danger of eastern philosophies hitting the mainstream in America. Traditionally, in Eastern cultures, community is more highly valued than individualism. But in Western cultures, individualism is more highly valued than community. (Not that either deems the other non-important, but the emphasis, in general, has been on community in eastern cultures while it has been on individuality in western cultures.) The religions that have come out of the cultures reflect these differences and seek to compensate for the imbalance. Christianity is a communal religion. The emphasis is based on communion and being One in Christ. Prayer is done communally, repentance of sins is done communally, etc. But Eastern religions primarily emphasize the individual. While you meditate with a Sangha there are communal rituals, but the emphasis is more heavily individual than it is within Christianity. Many of the Zen Buddhist exercises are meant to break the individual away from his identification with the family (ancestor worship, etc.).

You have to fully recognize “the other” in order to recognize Oneness. For those of us in the west who already have an exaggerated sense of “me” and “you” (rugged individualism in the U.S.), eastern religions have the potential to create dangerous levels of narcissism if not approached in a very mindful manner. We think of ourselves as individuals and we push for the rights of individuals, but we still have a really difficult time recognizing the other as “other” in the west. So I think it makes sense that Kierkegaard says we need to discover “the self” through an unconditional commitment to something “other” rather than through an idea like non-attachment. That’s not to say non-attachment can’t be helpful, but it does have the potential to make it even more difficult for we westerners to recognize the other as truly “other” rather than a narcissistic reflection of ourselves. Perhaps it is true (I think it is, at least) that what we see “out there” is “in here” and that people are reflections of ourselves. But there are different levels of understanding this truth and we have to be careful not to understand it through narcissistic inclinations. The point of realizing that what you are seeing is a reflection of yourself is not to assume what you are seeing is yourself – but to recognize the egoic limitations of actually being able to see clearly at all.

OK – so a lot of rambling. The Sickness Unto Death has got me thinking about a lot of things so I’ll probably have at least one or two more posts on it.  My apologies in advance. It is likely I’ll change my mind on a lot of it, too. It’s helpful just try and get it into words.

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Letter to a Christian Nation is a very quick read by Sam Harris. Harris is an interesting guy. He graduated from Stanford with a degree in philosophy and has studied both western and eastern religions. Currently, he is getting his doctorate in neuroscience. He’s a staunch atheist who thinks all religions should be done away with. But he’s also somewhat of a mystic in that he believes it is possible to make the “self” vanish in order to achieve higher realms of personal well-being (something that makes a lot of atheists uncomfortable).

I don’t know about his belief that all of religion should be gotten rid of. But I definitely agree with the rest of his argument. If fact is what is being debated, then clearly science trumps religion. No doubt about it. And clearly, most of Christianity (and religion in general) believes the debate is about “fact”. I’m just not convinced this is true of all religion. I do, however, feel quite certain that Jesus had no intention of creating a new religion. And I sometimes wonder if he was actually religious at all. I wonder if Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) was religious, too. Both were definitely making some radical statements about the religions in which they were raised. I find it highly doubtful that Siddhartha intended a new religion, either.

But what do you do with a religion like Tibetan Buddhism that is so clearly social justice oriented? Or Thich Nhat Hahn’s discipleship and ideas of interbeing? Can religion be so easily dismissed when it does not claim to hold a monopoly on what is fact? I recently watched a documentary on the Dalai Lama who was asked something like, “If science proved unequivocally that reincarnation was an impossibility, would you continue to believe in it?” The Dalai Lama said that if you could prove that it was impossible, then they would have to change their ideas about it. But he asked, “how would you go about proving that it isn’t true?”

Harris claims that the Christian he is addressing throughout his book is one, that at the minimum, believes the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death. But he also condemns liberal Christians who may not fit this definition, as allowing atrocities to occur, too. Science is right, all else is wrong? That seems to be the message although I suppose I’d have to read his other book to know for certain.

Harris says these liberal Christians claim that “There are Christians who have no fear of hell and do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. These Christians often describe themselves as “religious liberals” or “religious moderates.” From their point of view, you and I have both misunderstood what it means to be a person of faith.” I think I am likely one of those people. But what I think I don’t agree with is that religion is necessarily about salvation or that we are even in need of salvation. What are we supposed to be saved from? I’m just not there with the utopian idealism anymore. In fact, I’m right in line with C.S. Lewis’s argument about this. Humankind was not meant to exist forever. What makes us think it should? Science is often every bit as utopianistic as is fundamentalist Christianity and it seems to me what Harris might be arguing is the means for achieving this utopia. If we all believe like he believes, we can save ourselves from ourselves? He genuinely believes one side has to lose in order for another to win. Perhaps he’s right. But maybe he’s just stuck inside the same paradigm of “right” and “wrong” the fundamentalist Christians are stuck within.

I’m not exactly certain what it is he is preaching. But what he has written in this book most definitely will not be heard by fundamentalist Christians. If anything, it will only strengthen their resolve because it is a direct, frontal assault. But I think he likely wrote the book to empower atheists and maybe convert a few liberal Christians. I doubt he thinks he can change the mind of fundamentalist Christians by confronting them with reason. That reasoning would be as circular as he claims fundamentalist Christian reasoning is.

He cites some pretty scary statistics.

  • Only 12 percent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process.
  • 53 percent of Americans are creationists.
  • 44 percent of Americans believe Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.

He claims that religion divorces morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. I think in some cases this is definitely true. He says religion makes people believe their choices are moral when they are not. Again, no argument from me on this. But doesn’t science and reason often do the same thing? He claims the problem of religion is a problem with dogma. But isn’t science often equally dogmatic?

My mother was one of the few women in her era that actually breastfed her kids because science said formula was better. She said she was the only mother in the entire hospital that chose to breastfeed and that the only reason she was able to do so was because she was so headstrong. I had a hell of a time trying to convince my doctor that I wanted to have my kids naturally. “Why would I want to do that? It just makes things harder for both the patient and the doctor.” I don’t know. I couldn’t argue it reasonably with him. It just felt important to me in the same way breastfeeding felt important to my mother. And we were both headstrong enough to insist upon our way even though we didn’t have logical reasons for it. Now we have enough scientific data to argue our justifications for breastfeeding and natural childbirth. But at the time, we didn’t. It was simply based on something intuitive.

Intuition is not based on known facts. But give science time and it typically reinforces the validity of what was once “just intuition”.

As far as his statistics about atheists being more “moral” than theists, I don’t doubt it. So much of theism is heavily narcissistic. What is touted as humility is in reality narcissism and arrogance. It is my personal experience that atheists are far more social justice oriented than are conservative Christians so having the statistics to support this experience does not surprise me.

He claims that Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are the least religious of the developed world and that these countries are also the healthiest, have the highest literacy, highest per capita income, gender equality, and lowest homicide rates and infant mortality rates. My fair state which he calls pious Texas, on the other hand, has three of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. Recently, I read that Dallas is the most dangerous city in the U.S. But how do you convince fundamentalist Christians this is due to their belief system when Dallas suburbanites, who tend to be far more conservatively religious than actual city dwellers, live in some of the safest conditions anywhere?

Harris claims that atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the poulation) claiming to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence. But what kind of argument is this? Likewise, he can’t prove that God does not exist.

However – proving that God is benevolent might be a different consideration. There might also be an argument made for God as omnipotent, omniscient, etc. Clearly, the evidence is to the contrary. But not all Christians believe in a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent God. A UU Christian ministers here in Austin wrote a book entitled, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. (Haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my bookshelf waiting for me.)

Harris writes that the conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. I’d agree with him if all of religion believed in a benevolent, omnipotent, omnipresent God that can interfere in the affairs of men and that takes a special interest in humanity (over the rest of nature). But not all religions believe in this sort of God.

I don’t disagree with him that we are creating major problems for oursleves with the recent rise in fundamentalism – both within the Muslim world and here at home. My husband’s family who was never particularly religious before have all become far more religious since 9/11. It’s happening all over the place and it is very scary. But if I tried to go up against my husband’s family with Harris’s arguments, they’d dismiss my intentions in a heartbeat.  Harris’s arguments are not going to make them feel any less fearful. If anything, it would only make them more reliant upon their religious beliefs. It would only escalate the problem. Not solve it.

We recently had a big argument in our neighborhood over a hideous billboard an apartment complex decided to put up. We don’t live in city limits so have no regulation of such things. What had happened is that the apartment had been trying to advertise by putting little signs all over the medians. The homeowners complained about all of these little signs and filed a suit saying it was illegal for the apartment to place these signs on the median. So the apartment complex decided to build a monstrosity of a billboard for which there were no restraints. Had both sides tried to figure out what it was the other needed, maybe something could have been resolved without this hideous thing having happened. The little signs were far better than what we have now. But each side had to head butt the other and so everything escalated.

In many martial art forms, people are taught that the most efficient use of energy is not confrontation, but rather using the energy of the other against them. Perhaps that is what Harris is doing here, because clearly, fundamentalist Christians argue fact. But this idea that all of religion need be eradicated seems as self-righteous, narcissistic, and arrogant to me as does much of fundamentalist Christianity. I think there is a church of reason that doesn’t yet realize how religious it is because it believes it holds a monopoly on reality just like the fundamentalist Christians believe they hold a monopoly on reality.

How do you resolve such a difference? Clearly, as Harris states in his book early on, one has to lose and the other win. Maybe. But I’m not convinced.

Merton – A Film Biography

I have been fascinated with Thomas Merton ever since my Catholic Days. I read the "Seven Storey Mountain" like a dutiful Catholic and find it very interesting that Merton disliked that book so much. He didn’t like it being turned into a Catholic fairy tale.

I think it is also quite interesting that he believed America was already getting Nazi tendencies in the 1960s. He’s so well-respected now. But while he was alive, people called him a communist and the Catholic administration tried to silence him.

Originally, most of what I knew about Buddhism came from Merton’s writings. He did so much to bring eastern philosophy to the west.

The film offers a brief biographical sketch of Merton’s life as well as interviews with people who knew Merton, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. There is also a bonus feature from the Thomas Merton Foundation called “Remembering Thomas Merton” which was very interesting.

Very informative film.