Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter posts past

March 31, 2007
From a religious point of view, Easter is a more important Christian feast than Christmas, but it gets less attention because there’s less money to be made from Easter. So much for our supposedly Christian nation.

Like Christmas, Easter derives from pagan myth and ritual. The ancient religions surrounding the first Christians celebrated various saviors coming down from heaven and going back up to heaven.

A striking parallel to Easter is reported by church historian Henry Chadwick. He tells of the god Mithris, whose death was mourned on March 22 and resurrection celebrated on March 25.

The likeness of Good Friday and Easter to religious festivals of the pagans prompted them to accuse Christians of plagiarism. Besides the idea of dying and rising again in three days, Christians apparently borrowed ritual ideas.

My reporting this may give the impression that I have little respect for Holy Week and Easter. Wrong. I regard the Paschal mystery as a profound spiritual mystery, one centered on transformation, one that grows in meaning as I grow older.

But it doesn’t belong to Christians alone. Our tradition received appreciation of the link between dying and rising from both Judaism and paganism. Mythologist Joseph Campbell found thousands of transformation stories in myths of the world.

The word “paschal” is derived from the Hebrew word for the annual Passover celebration, when Jews commemorate their deliverance from Egypt. God brought death to Egyptian homes but passed over Hebrew homes on the night of their escape. They celebrate their break from bondage, the promise of a new home, and their birth as Yahweh’s people.

New Testament accounts say that Jesus was put to death on or around Passover, and so Christians and Jews celebrate the feast most important to them at the same time.

Pagan religious festivals honored several deities who died and rose in three days. The region where Christianity began teemed with death and resurrection stories prefiguring that of Christ.

Especially poignant is the story of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who gifted humankind with fertile land and bountiful harvests. Persephone is playing in a field when she is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld and brother of Zeus, who is Persephone's father.

Heartbroken and mourning fiercely, Demeter learns what happened. She vows never again to let the earth be fruitful until her daughter is restored to her. Zeus relents, but Persephone has to spend part of the year above and part of the year below. When she arises every spring, the earth turns green again.

This mother/daughter story balances against the father/son story of Christianity as both portray the central figure dying and rising—both symbols of transformation. And the Eleusinian Mysteries, which commemorated Persephone’s rise, were celebrated for almost two thousand years, about as long as Christianity is old.

These mysteries had much in common with Holy Week mysteries. Initiation, fasting, and extensive preparation preceded them. There were processions, music, purifying with water, ritual eating and drinking, fire and light symbolism—all the elements of masterful Holy Week liturgies.

At the climax of the Eleusinian Mysteries, participants had a beatific vision that released them from the fear of death. They were transformed. Christians are urged to be transformed into new people, to die to our old selves and rise to new selves. But transformation from death to life permeates all of existence.

New shoots in spring arise out of dead vegetation left by winter. The end of a job opens the door to a new path in life. Births and deaths come together in uncanny ways. More than one family has seen new grandchildren arriving upon the passing of a grandparent.

The Paschal mystery tells us that beginnings and endings are joined in a mysterious way. John 12:24 states, “Unless a grain of wheat fall to the earth and dies it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it produces much fruit.”

Understanding this soothes the pain of change. Every end’s sadness opens to a fresh beginning. Easter and other religious myths and rituals symbolize this holiness in all creation.

Good Friday, March 21, 2008

Last evening a performance of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly reminded me of Good Friday's larger, deeper significance.

An American Navy officer marries a geisha girl in Nagasaki with the intention of soon leaving her. With steadfast faith she waits with their young son for his return. He returns with his American bride to take their son away from her.

She is Christ on the cross.

And Christ is Annemarie in Rwanda. Her son was born in the middle of the genocide. “My child was almost a skeleton because I didn’t have milk in my breasts. But that man, that rapist was with me. He kept raping me again and again. . . . we went through torture like no other person has gone through.” About her son, now 11, she says, “He is the only life I have. . . . If I didn’t have him, I don’t know what I would be.”

And Christ is the Shi’ite man in Baghdad kidnapped by Sunni militia, beheaded, and left on the street to terrorize others. And Christ is the Sunni victim of ethnic cleansing in Iraq.

And Christ is the people of Zimbabwe terrorized by their president Robert Mugabe. And the people of Uzbekistan terrorized by their president Islam Karimov.

And Christ is the families in New Orleans displaced by Hurricane Katrina and now sickened by formaldehyde fumes from their FEMA trailers.

Good Friday services that fail to remind people of the suffering Christ in the world today fail as Good Friday services.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

God, Who?

The Creator/Source of All that Is and Could Be is portrayed by traditional religions in ways that do not comport with present-day knowledge and awareness. These poems say it better than I could. 

We must not portray you in King's robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.
You are like a web or you are like a tree
or you are a forest through which I run,
or you are a herd of luminous deer
and I am forest and dark
and you run through me.
                                               
Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Joanna Macy)



Offering from a Catholic Sister

Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark dank of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
“This is my body, this is my blood”?

Did the woman say,
When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
“This is my body, this is my blood”?

Well that she said it to him then,
For dry old men,
Brocaded robes belying barrenness,
Ordain that she not say it to him now.

--Sister Frances Croake Frank

Books recommended by Bp. Regina Nicolosi from the forum The Feminine Face of God
                      March 13, 2011

The first time this next poem stirred me, we were having Mass in a living room. The presider sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a small, draped coffee table. The rest of us were comfortable on chairs, floor, or whatever. The “homily” developed in reflections from whoever was inspired to speak, and prayer petitions likewise.

We passed around the plate and cup, breaking off pieces of the bread for each other. Ritually we became bread broken for each other, as each of us received from one and gave to the next. Then this poem:

BAKERWOMAN GOD

Bakerwoman God,
I am your living bread.
Strong, brown Bakerwoman God,
I am your low, soft, and being-
shaped loaf.
I am your rising
bread, well-kneaded
by some divine and knotty
pair of knuckles,
by your warm earth hands.
I am bread well-kneaded.

Put me in fire, Bakerwoman God,
put me in your own bright fire.

I am warm, warm as you from fire.
I am white and gold, soft and hard,
brown and round.
I am so warm from fire.

Break me, bakerwoman God.
I am broken under your caring Word.
Drop me in your special juice in pieces.
Drop me in your blood.
Drunken me in the great red flood.
Self-giving chalice swallow me.
My skin shines in the divine wine.
My face is cup-covered and I drown.

I fall up
in a red pool
in a gold world
where your warm
sunskin hand
is there to catch
and hold me.
Bakerwoman God,
remake me.

  Alla Bozarth-Campbell



Her Faith Is Mine  February 12, 2016

Since the 1990s I have communicated with German relatives at Christmas time. This last December Eva Igelmund wrote that their tulips were rising from the ground, almond trees were starting to bloom, and birds didn't know if they should stay or go south. I laughed upon reading this, but it also is sad and frightening to see predictions of global warming that I read decades ago come to pass.

In a later email she reported that the forecast for Christmas weekend called for 62 º F. Germany lies at a slightly higher latitude than Minnesota’s, but western Europe is warmed by the Atlantic Gulf Stream. Minnesota reaches temperature extremes because it is in the middle of a continent. Lake Superior is the closest large moderating body of water. Because of Eva's news I was actually glad that winter returned to Minnesota in January after an unusually warm December.

Eva summarized her relationship with religion and in doing so summarized mine. She gave me permission to translate her German words into English. Describing herself as a free spirit, she writes,
Although born and bred Catholic and from earliest childhood interested in spirituality, I began to question as a young child. Or did I perhaps question for that reason?

I read extensively and tried many paths, stayed away from the Catholic Church for a time, but never from God. Since then I have made my peace with the institution, knowing that its officials have the faults and weaknesses of us all.
I live an intense life of faith, celebrating daily worship by maintaining contact with the Creator/Jesus/God/One Source of all Being. From day to day, the face of this power shifts as my moods shift, depending on my experiences and sources of inspiration.

My childhood image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, now gives way to images more diffuse, ineffable, exalted, unbelievably near and trusted, but formless Being. Whatever the form imagined, uniting with it brings solace, power, joy, confidence and hope.
Eva’s words delight me, as they could be my own confession of faith. She states my thoughts and feelings as if she were in my mind. That she says them in German intensifies their meaning for me and the pleasure of having words convey thoughts.

If anyone would like to see Eva’s statement in German, email me. Hit the contact button at godisnot3guys.com 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Jesus

Jesus’ real significance was concealed by the halo put around the man. The god in our liturgy and popular piety started emitting a bad smell for me early in my life. Worshipful language by Jesus-freaks turned me off. 

What a different figure I found when I read the scriptures with new eyes! A person so refreshing, so human, so real—a feisty, earthy, gutsy, and passionate man! He uses spit and dirt to heal, weeps openly, raises havoc, makes merry, and gets angry. He calls people names, loves it when a woman fusses over him, and uses shocking language to thrust home his points.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).
Jesus did not act like a “good Christian”—always nice, always accommodating, always smoothing things over. I like the real Jesus a lot better than the image coming out of evangelical fervor.

Present-day worshippers would shun the man who actually walked the paths of Palestine 2000 years ago. The real Jesus of Nazareth railed against privilege and honor; “lord” and “king” do not fit this revolutionary critic of status-seeking.

When I broke free of the stuffed-shirt Jesus, I found a spiritual rebel in the synoptic gospels who could be sharp, blunt, combative, and even caustic. He does not think, talk, or act like a guy trying to fit social expectations. With pluck and spunk he defies them, displaying uncommon freedom from the opinions of others. He hangs around with scum. Nice people are appalled.
Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Lk 7:34)!

I believe the historical Jesus taught and modeled spiritual goals taught by all spiritual masters. The Nazarene did not think he was God. Scholars agree that he didn’t say the words put into his mouth by evangelists of the Fourth Gospel. Jesus didn’t give himself an exalted title when he called himself the son of humans. “Son of man” was foolishly and mistakenly given ponderous significance by generations after Jesus who did not understand his Palestinian culture.


One way the man in history shatters popular images of Jesus is in his relationships with women, the most shocking with Mary Magdalene. I hope you can study this information about the Beloved Disciple without the prejudice I had in my first response to it. Whatever the historical details of Jesus’ conversations with women, it is unlikely that an evangelist would have invented the stunning reversal of patriarchal and hierarchical norms we see in the gospels. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

I AM

The 1st reading on the third Sunday in Lent is Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15. It contains the best definition/description/summary of God in the Judeo/Christian tradition—I AM. God also says in this passage, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But the name of God for these patriarchs was El Shaddai, the Breasted God (Exodus 6:3).

Unfortunately, Bible translations commonly render El Shaddai  as "God Almighty," following early influential translations. But "God Almighty" subverts the original meaning, as shown by David Biale in a February 1982 article for the journaal, History of Religions.

The ordinary Hebrew word shad means “breast.” In ancient Akkad (north of Babylonia) shadu meant both “breast” and “mountain,” a link easily understood. The Egyptian word, shdi, meant “to suckle.” The ending –ai, an Ugaritic feminine ending, occurs in the name of Abraham’s wife—Sarai.

Biale adds that the term’s context in biblical texts supports the conclusion that El Shaddai should be translated “God, the Breasted One.” Genesis 49:25-26 asks that El Shaddai bring
blessings of the heavens above,
blessings of the abyss below,
blessings of breasts [shadayim] and womb [rehem]
blessings of fresh grain and blossoms,
blessings of the everlasting mountains,
delights of the eternal hills.
Mountains and hills follow breasts and womb, just one verse of seven in Genesis indicating that “God, the Breasted One” inhabits the Book of Genesis. She is the fertility Goddess, the One who generates and regenerates.

More evidence of the Goddess in the Bible comes from Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. She tells us that the Hebrew word for "womb"—rehem—is metaphorically and grammatically linked to the Hebrew word for compassion or mercy. Womb metaphors saturate the scriptures, suffusing them with female images of the Holy One. Trible observes,
The entire process of birthing has been attributed to the deity. In various passages,
God conceives, is pregnant, writhes in labor pains, brings forth a child, and nurses it.
Translations often conceal the feminine power.

David Biale, who makes the case for Shaddai being the Goddess without ever using the word “Goddess,” concedes that for exilic and postexilic authors in later scriptures, the name meant a storm and war god. He considers it
understandable that the Septuagint and the Vulgate [two influential translations] should render Shaddai as the ‘Almighty.’
But Biale thinks that Shaddai as “remote, mysterious, and destructive” may have been adopted “because it so thoroughly contradicted the fertility interpretation.” In other words, to counter any hint of the Goddess.

The word Yahweh also is the product of sexism. Scholars think it derived from the verb “to be” and originally carried no gender bias. Scriptures write the name of God as YHWH, four consonants of the Hebrew name of God, because ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. Out of fearful reverence, the ancestors of the Jews avoided pronouncing the name and substituted Adonai, translated “Lord” in English. The original pronunciation of YHWH is lost. 

Today the name of God in the Old Testament is written and pronounced Yahweh. "The Lord,” a male individual, emerged from patriarchal pressure and the human inclination to personify God. But imagining Holiness as a lord subverts the meaning of the revelation in Exodus 3:14.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Antonin Scalia

I confess that when I heard the news of Antonin Scalia’s death I said “Thank God!” fervently, sincerely, earnestly. I have nothing against the man.  He was a good man who did what he thought was right, and now he is happily in the spiritual realm.

It’s his family and friends who deserve our sympathy.  That’s always the case when someone dies. I don’t feel sorry for the deceased—they are happier on the other side than in this time/space realm on earth. I believe that to be the case no matter what kind of life they led.

I understand Scalia was a colorful, jolly, opera-loving, friendly man, but he led others to wreak terrific havoc on our political system. With his passing we have a chance of overturning the most destructive decisions coming out of the court in the past 30 years.

We can’t undo one disatrous decision of his—putting George W. Bush in the presidency in spite of the popular vote going to Al Gore. Scalia’s claim that he based decisions on originalism—following  the original intent of the text—does not wash with this decision. It’s a glaring inconsistency that he brushed off when confronted about it. By installing his choice in the presidency, Scalia and the justices he led violated the original intent of the Constitution.

Had Gore been president, the U.S. would not have started the disastrous Iraq War that expanded Sunni/Shia rivalry that eventually created ISIS. I hold Scalia partially responsible for the mess in the Middle East that the Obama administration has been trying to manage for 8 years.

Scalia led the ultra-conservative pack in the Supreme Court to unreasonable advocacy of corporation “rights” and gun “rights.” His decision, the inappropriately named Citizens United, is allowing Big Money to corrupt our democracy. It would more aptly be called Citizens Divided or Citizens Corrupted.

Antonin Scalia is eulogized as a giant in American jurisprudence. I don’t deny his outsized influence; I decry it. I hope the country can soon get past the shadow he threw over our political system.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Downton Abbey

I admit it. I’m madly in love with Downton Abbey. Not much gets in the way of watching when it’s on television, twice a week, every Sunday and repeated on Wednesday evening. I plan my evening activities around it. If someone calls, I cut the conversation short.

The costumes, period details, and love stories don’t capture me as much as the quality of the writing and the overriding theme—class pecking order is fading. Already in the first episode in the first season this theme came through to me. A friend didn’t like the show. She criticized it as all about nobles who think they deserve their privileges. I said, “That’s the point.” I expected their privileges to be challenged.

I don’t know how Julian Fellowes managed to convey so effectively at the beginning that things would change. Maybe it’s character development; the acting rises to the level of the writing. I savor every facial expression, every line. Fortunately I can read their dialogues in captions. I asked a friend more technologically savvy than me to fix that mode on my remote because I have difficulty processing oral speech—the British accent often defeats me.

Julian Fellowes draws characters quite unlike one-dimensional Hollywood stereotypes, the downstairs staff in Downton Abbey as comprehensively as the upstairs family, and all are thoroughly human. Each has something to love as well as hate—villainy mixed with nobility. Thomas, a coward in World War I and a schemer against fellow workers, loves children and frolics with them. I’m glad the series discovered early in its development that Fellowes had to be the sole writer. No one else could stay true to the characters while they change.

All Downton characters tug at our sympathy, and Fellowes does not eschew happy endings. Political activist Tom Branson loses his beloved Lady Sybil but gains the love of her whole upper-class family. Fellowes’ characters gain wisdom, are kind to each other, and good things happen to them. Maybe this is Downton’s greatest appeal.

I have asked myself why I’m so taken by Downton Abbey. How does it fit into my passion for religion and spirituality? Julian Fellowes seems to share my fascination with human beliefs and thoughts, how they are formed, what influences them. Downton Abbey explores the evolution of sensibilities in Britain over only a few decades—the demise of the rigid, class-conscious Edwardian era to the beginning of modern democracy. I examine the evolution of religious and spiritual consciousness happening in my lifetime—the gradual demise of patriarchy sanctioned by religion.

In Britain, nobility and church hierarchy are intertwined; they lose power together. Both secular and religious spheres are moving away from top-down authority toward bottom-up authority, which neatly steps away from vain, sputtering attempts to control and simply does what it thinks best. Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham, tells his mama, the imperious dowager played inimitably by Maggie Smith, “They don’t listen to us anymore.”

Downton Abbey has few explicit ties to religion—prejudice against Jews (when Lady Rose falls in love) and Catholics (when Lady Sybil’s baby is to be baptized)—but God the Father hovers over the entire series, as it is premised on the British system of entailment. Because Lady and Lord Crawley produced no sons, modern viewers would expect the estate to be inherited by their daughters, or at least one of them, the oldest (betraying our training in hierarchy).

But no, women are not allowed to inherit property (a vestige of the Old Testament when women were property). Enter Matthew Crawley, but the actor playing him wants to move on to other roles. So Fellowes kills Matthew, shocking me and viewers around the world. Consequent to Matthew’s death, Lady Mary becomes Downton’s fiscal agent.

Fellowes’ genius for tricking positives out of negatives puts women in charge time after time. Lady Sybil defies patriarchal expectation by marrying the chauffeur, and Lady Edith becomes the owner/publisher of a magazine. Their mother, Lady Grantham, sides against Lord Grantham and with younger family members in financial disputes. That the estate even exists yet depends on the money she brought as an American heiress. Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, defers to Carson, the butler, when he lords it over the servants, but in their one-on-one conversations she often bests him.

Thus do the women of Downton Abbey play out my religious theme of reducing the grip of Father. With my lens so focused, I see the Father defeated in every episode. It seems obvious to me that Fellowes does it deliberately and enjoys it.

Widening the focus of my lens, I look at the expanding chunk of Americans with no religious affiliation—the nones. They are the ones who don’t listen anymore to the Lord. Most don’t marshal virulent arguments against religion, like some atheists; they calmly accept and relate to spiritual reality in their own way.

In Catholicism it is the womenpriest movement that most effectively flouts traditional authority. I await the day when the Vatican will be defied as decisively as women and servants in Downton Abbey defy tradition and become their own masters. Unfortunately, the religious shift cannot unfold as quickly as events in Downton Abbey.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Virgin Birth, Incarnation

This December 2009 piece I had re-posted on Christmas 2015 but lost it while wrestling with technical difficulties. They are preventing further posts.  I hope soon to get this problem fixed.

Godfrey Diekmann, OSB,  exploded with this statement in the students’ dining hall at St. John’s.
It’s not the Resurrection, dammit! It’s the Incarnation!
An editorial in National Catholic Reporter reminded me of this story in The Monk’s Tale, a biography of Diekmann by Kathleen Hughes. When I was at the School of Theology, she came onto the Collegeville campus to gather stories for her book about our colorful and inspirational professor, Godfrey, as he was known by students and fellow professors. The first-name basis at SOT is one of my fond memories of those years, and I’m proud to have my own memories of Godfrey Diekmann, who played an important role in contemporary Church history.

Godfrey passionately preached the implications of the Mystical Body—that we share divinity. This is the Incarnation, and Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation. In the traditional Christian perspective, God’s entry into time and history happened at the birth of the Nazarene, Jesus. But let’s not worship an external God-image, which is a form of idolatry. We incarnate or embody the Divine. We are the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ, and I don’t mean a man, and by “we” I don’t mean only Christians. Divinity resides in the heart of the Hindu, Inuit, Muslim, Sikh, animist, whatever. Eternity is enfleshed in all creation, and our distinctly human task is to consciously advance this process of Incarnation.

When I said something like this in a blogspot a long time ago, someone commented that non-Christians would object to being called “the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ.” I have to agree. I’m doing my best here to bridge Christian doctrine with other spiritual systems, and I inevitably offend one side or the other. Speaking as a Christian, I’m comfortable with Christian terms, but I have no patience with traditionalists bent on preserving the literal and exclusive understanding of our religious doctrines.

A Buddhist interviewed in Sacred Journey (summer 2009), said of the Dalai Lama,
He feels that even if someone is beating his body, underneath the cells of his body is the realm of pure light that is blissful. . . . welling up from the core of the reality of life, an infinite sustaining energy, which is what I think all highly spiritually developed people tap into, whatever they call it.
How well this captures incarnational possibility!
I think that, if Godfrey were working in this new century with its wealth of alternative spiritual voices, he would have listened. He would have synthesized the Dalai Lama’s view with Paul’s “Christ lives in me.” And he might even have seen the link with secular humanism, which more than religions has advanced human dignity and human rights around the world.

Carl Jung led the way toward integrating Christian doctrine with secular spirituality. He showed that our thinking I, our ego or conscious mind, needs to become aware of our unconscious totality, our Higher Self. And this inner Self “cannot be distinguished from God-images,” Christ, of course, the prominent example. How do we achieve this union of ego with divinity? Jung, the depth psychologist, said, “God becomes manifest in the human act of reflection.” But I like the Christian image of becoming “the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ.”

We are called to become Mothers of God in a Virgin Birth.
****
Now a response to my latest posts that came to me by email. I got permission to quote Ron Ohmann because his comment may help others to understand my message:
Thanks, Jeanette. Although we enjoy the prevailing Catholic/Christian "take" on Christmas, we remind ourselves it is largely mythology. It really is beautiful mythology which is why it has such strong cultural appeal, I suppose. But, as thinking Catholics who read Bp.J.W.Spong, yourself, and others, we are, I believe, more realistic regarding Christmas and other aspects of Christianity. It is, I feel, the only way one can truly grow spiritually as a Christian. Happy New Year, Ron