In her standup comedy special called “Jesus is Magic” first aired on the Comedy channel in 2005, Sarah Silverman asked why Jewish people are such enthusiastic customers of cars manufactured by German auto makers who participated with the Nazis regime during World War II to exterminate them. She quipped that those auto companies might not have participated with Hitler had they known they were killing their best future customer base.
I have often said you can’t be an American and claim to be a Christian as well. Think about it… Americans don’t believe in the sovereignty of a monarch, we believe in democracy, in freedom, and in free will. In England and America the 17th-century philosopher John Locke discussed natural rights in his work, and identified them as being "life, liberty, and estate (or property)", and argued that such fundamental rights could not be surrendered in the social contract. These ideas were actually claimed as justification for the rebellion of the American colonies. Of course, we now know this phrase in the form it comes to us from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Other powerful words are enshrined in our American psyche; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights. . ." In the nineteenth century, the movement to abolish slavery claimed this passage as a constitutional principal, although the U.S. constitution recognized and protected slavery. The future Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase argued before the Supreme Court that:
"The law of the Creator, which invests every human being with an inalienable title to freedom, cannot be repealed by any interior law which asserts that man is property."
My, my… we are already into some heavy concepts. Patience, I’ll get around to mining this rich intellectual ground later. For now I want to finish my somewhat sardonic thought about how being an American is incongruous with being a Christian.
Really, patriotic Christian Americans will say they don’t believe in a monarch, yet they are perfectly willing to give over their life, liberty, and 10 percent of their earnings to a king of the universe. This king is invisible, yet divided into three parts, and presides over all manners of principalities and lesser kingdoms. Patriotic Christian Americans will tell you hard work, being nice to your neighbors and a righteous person are the keys to success, yet they’ll also tell you there’s nothing you can do to escape the wrath of a jealous God who may or may not elect to include you in heaven. They’ll be repulsed at the thought that a child should pay debts for their parents, but are perfectly fine with humanity paying the freight for Adam and Eve’s original sin.
I’m not trying to be funny, or belittle organized Christian religion (don’t even let me get started on Islam!), and I’m not being disrespectful of other beliefs. What I am trying to say here is that we live in a universe of paradox where there really are no absolutes. Modern physics tells us chaos is really only a level of order we don’t understand, or cannot use. It tells us the fundamental building blocks of all matter, space, and time basically do not exist in ways we can possibly understand. Bozons, quarks, and strange particles dance in and out of parallel universes. In fact, matter, space, and time are all interrelated in wild and scary ways. Yet, there are people who blithely go about hitting all of us over our collective heads with absolutes, when it is abundantly clear to thinking, rational human beings that we are creatures of paradox — not of absolutes.
A paradox is defined as an apparently true statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition. The recognition of ambiguities, equivocations, and unstated assumptions underlying known paradoxes has led to significant advances in science, philosophy and mathematics. Paradoxes also yield startling insights into the study of God, otherwise known as theology.
We human beings are deeply divided when it comes to the very notion of God’s character and essential traits. That slippery deity cannot be contained by words or our concepts of it. You think you understand the Bible or the Koran, or any other holy book; you think you’ve got a handle on some juicy absolute and the next thing you know you’re dealt the body slam of a paradox, otherwise known as a contradiction or a situation, which defies intuition.
Isn’t the Trinity a paradox? Questions about the Trinity are what drove us Unitarians to be called Unitarians. We Catholics understand religious paradox very well, except that the church calls them “mysteries of faith”. Jairo Mejia describes some wonderful Christian paradoxes in his book entitled “Christianity Reformed from its Roots”:
Anyone familiar with Buddhism has no doubt come across this great puzzling paradox: the apparent conflict between the "no soul" doctrine (anatta) and belief in reincarnation. If one has no soul, who or what is reincarnated, and how?
People make the mistake of fixing God, and what they believe he says to them as absolutes in a kind of Newtonian sense. It is what I refer to as the God Machine; God must respond to us in certain ways or He is not God, and we have to approach God just so or we fail and can slip into a fiery hell. I assert the way most of us relate to God is actually more as paradox than as an absolute. We just don’t think very deeply about it because if the all powerful, omnipotent, omnipresent God exists as an entirely absolute entity there would be no way to tell a lie, or cheat at a card game, or not pay all your taxes.
No, you see, God is deeply paradoxical because He reflects the way the universe actually is. I say, that is the best way to understand God. Why is that? Because God is everything, and we succeed as much at fixing God into a humanly understandable concept as we do trying to predict the precise position in time and space of a subatomic particle. I say Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle applied to subatomic particles must also be applied to God juice.
So, why bring all this paradox and absolutes business up anyway? Well, remember at the beginning of this sermon I talked about how you cannot be an American and a Christian? Our lofty thoughts about government and God always run smack into practicality. Those inalienable rights so beautifully written about in our Constitution are quite paradoxical, and also a bit ironic. In fits of zeal our founding fathers declared that all men are created equal. Yet, at the very moment those words were penned slavery was legal everywhere in the United States. Being practical means we generally do what makes sense at the time. Certainly slavery was a terrible evil, but stopping it completely in the United States, even for the best-intentioned people at the time, would have seemed impractical.
So, what makes sense? What is practical, from a spiritual perspective? Well, to start out with, I believe we need to make sure we don’t leave our brains at the entrance of churches. It is important to apply the wisdom and knowledge gained from all ages towards a present understanding of spirituality. To me that means we each have a right to explore our own path towards an understanding of the infinite. We must embrace our inner heretic and ask ourselves questions that lead us to those famous “mysteries of faith” or deep paradoxes. We must look at all spiritual belief structures in the light of reason.
People who lived during the time of Jesus knew nothing about astrophysics, electricity, aerodynamics, quantum mechanics, or atomic energy. They had not invented gunpowder, did not know that the earth was round, had no clue of archeology, and could not probably ever imagined day-time soap operas as a form of entertainment. Entire fields of human knowledge, which we take as common fact, were literally unavailable to them. Their world was awash with spirits, and was populated by demons and gods. Everything from the weather to their behavior was a result of unseen forces that could only be explained by mysteries inside of mysteries.
For them, ritual adherence to their laws, were the only way they could gain some control over the circumstances of their lives. If they could manage to please whatever particular god is appropriate, things would go well for them. If things went wrong, it was because the god being appeased was not satisfied with something. This was not a perfect way to view the world, but it was tidy. One could argue that it has as much validity today as ever, since we have managed to substitute all manners of neurosis for demons and many still believe that the light from stars that has taken centuries to get to us have some possible bearing on our lives at present.
People of antiquity did not employ what we know as a scientific method in their observations of the phenomena they encountered. They knew something about chemistry, art, agriculture, fishing, sailing, government, astronomy, birth and death. Above all, the greatest technology they possessed was that of the written word … a way to record an oral tradition that extends in some form or another back to the very beginning of human consciousness. Added to that, they could theorize, pontificate, extrapolate, and imagine what was at the center of human experience along with the rest of us. This -- the fact that we can all speculate about the nature of human experience — is at the very core of what we have in the common with people who lived two millennia ago.
A person born in the era that Jesus lived could have been transported bodily back two thousand years before that time and still feel pretty comfortable with his surroundings. That is a trick that could not be duplicated with a person from this time. Yet, it is precisely what organized religions expect of us — to view our spiritual selves with two thousand year old eyes. A person of normal intelligence and sophistication from our time would take a lot more to be impressed by whatever signs and wonders were all the rage then. Much of what we do every day, from using the telephone to watching an airplane fly by, would be nothing short of miraculous to our ancestors. Yet, organized religions expect us to believe that something that was written about thousands of years ago by people who had no intention, or concept, of reporting a fact objectively; something that has been translated and retranslated, interpreted and reinterpreted — to accept these as words of truth from our God. God help humanity, if in the event of some post-nuclear conflagration, that there should arise a religion which bases its holy script upon surviving issues of the "National Inquirer". Imagine the televangelist of the distant future talking about the significance of the chimpanzee born with a human head or the face image found on the planet Mars.
The term Kabbalah has become the main descriptive of Jewish esoteric knowledge and practices. According to Kabbalistic tradition, Kabbalistic knowledge was transmitted orally by the Jewish Patriarchs, prophets, and sages, eventually to be "interwoven" into Jewish religious writings and culture. It is intended to transmit to each generation an understanding of the meaning of life. That is important and significant… each generation is permitted to interpret the meanings of the Kabbalah in their own terms, and in a way that is relevant to them.
Practical spirituality demands that we like the Kabbalists of old, reinterpret the message of God so that it is relevant for each generation. Practical Spirituality demands we accept responsibility for our actions and go every moment into the sanctuary inside us to stand before our God for instant blessings or instant correction. Practical Spirituality urges us to live in the present, incorporating its lessons and insights into the fabric of our lives. It requires us to be open to endless potential perceived through the eye of possibilities tempered by reason.
I suppose practical spirituality is best summed up by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Some of us need a details. We like a religion with which to codify the Golden Rule. I can think of no better religion for the Golden Rule or practical spirituality than that offered by Robert Fulgham in his book entitled “All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”:
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!