Friday, September 26, 2008

Evil and fear

Carl Jung observed that traditional Christianity presents an imbalanced view of good and evil, because the menacing dark side of reality—evil—is glaringly absent in Christian God-images. By contrast, images in other religions acknowledge mysterious dark forces both positive and negative. For instance, the Hindu Goddess Kali represents darkness, violence, and annihilation, while also representing Ultimate Reality and Source of all.

In Christian teaching, evil comes from a non-divine Source, but this denies that God is the Source of all. This one-sided view of reality also leads to denial of the shadow—that part of ourselves that we don’t want to look at. If Ultimate Reality brings only perfect sweetness and light, we want to avoid unpleasant realities. We strive for perfection and deny what we don’t like in ourselves. Nothing scares and repels us more than our own shadow, the disorderly, not nice feelings, desires, and drives that complicate our lives. And so we deny and repress them to the point of not knowing what feelings we have.

I still remember my startled recognition about 25 years ago when someone described resentment. Forcefully I said to myself, “I’m resentful. I’m resentful!” It was one moment of enlightenment in my long journey of inner work. Another step in that journey was to express my anger without doing it destructively.

As long as we are alive and lucid we have work to do, uncovering parts of our inner selves waiting to be discovered. Being rigidly moral and begging a god’s forgiveness for our wretched sinfulness does not help us to accept responsibility for ourselves. Preoccupied with doing good and avoiding evil, we refuse to befriend our weaknesses and remain strangers of our total and true selves. But spiritual health requires acknowledging the sludge. It’s the only way to avoid being phony.

The nasty consequence of losing touch with our own nastiness is that we attribute evil to others and fear them, thus igniting all conflicts, including wars. As Jungian Episcopal priest John Sanford writes, “Accusing our neighbor of possessing those qualities we hate and fear so much in ourselves is no help in solving the problem.”

Shadow denial affects all human relationships, including international affairs. It created the current tension between the U.S. and Russia, the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine, the escalation of military weapons worldwide, the demonization of Islam, the war in Iraq, and on and on.

We can make pious statements about good and evil, but if we can’t honestly admit our own shortcomings, our pretty talk contributes nothing to a world crying for justice, peace, and healing. Herein lies the key to all human interactions.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


I want to give you a taste of the sin-talk mentality that all of us in the Western world have inherited. My examples from Christian literature illustrate the extremes of that thought paradigm.

The Christian Father-god laid down rules and inspired fearful obedience. He was a Big Boss topping a long line of bosses in the hierarchy of the church. This is evident in the words of the interrogator at St. Joan of Arc’s trial:
You are subordinate to . . . our Holy Father the Pope, the cardinals, the archbishops and the other prelates of the church.
He might have gone on to remind her that she also had to obey priests, her father, and all men. She in turn was superior to animals and to all of nature. Relationships in this paradigm are vertical. We either dominate or are dominated in a silly sort of pecking order.

St. Augustine’s words make this clear:
You . . . make wives subject to their husbands . . . you set husbands over their wives; you join sons to their parents by a freely granted slavery and set parents above their sons in pious domination . . . You teach slaves to be loyal to their masters . . . [You] warn the peoples to be subservient to their kings.
Quite a switch from the words in the Declaration of Independence:
that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.
We might be tempted to think we’ve moved way past relating in the subservient way. But the following theology was written as late as 1982:
Just as it is not possible to be a father without having a son, so too God cannot be almighty unless he has creatures over which to exercise his power.
In this paradigm, power devolves from above so that we are always looking up to some and down on others. And what effect does this have?

Meeting the demands of the exacting god prompted St. Teresa of Avila to "thinking of how I have offended God, and of the many things I owe Him." It led her to frequent confession and worrying that her confessors were "poorly educated" when they said that "pastimes and satisfactions" were acceptable. She was afraid their lax idea of sin—calling what she considered mortal sins only venial sins—put her in danger of going to hell. "Without a doubt," she wrote, "it seems to me that my salvation would have been in jeopardy if I should have then died."

Teresa was no more scrupulous than were many of us Catholics when I was growing up. It was a vertical universe that demanded strict obedience to higher-ups.

Today we’re shifting to a more horizontal picture. We are breaking the image of the Big Boss over and above us by visualizing the Holy erupting from below or appearing from within. We are learning to listen to an inner voice.

We are shifting from practicing POWER OVER to POWER WITH or POWER TO as in the power to act capably and courageously, even if it displeases some individuals in authority. This more horizontal way of relating invites us to look straight ahead and act with integrity, treating all alike instead of looking up to some and down on others.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Eckhart Tolle

I was pleased when the celebrant at our Sunday liturgy referred to the “Speaking of Faith” program he heard on his way to our service. I’d been listening too. Interviewed was Eckhart Tolle, who raises many of the themes in my book and blog. His deep wisdom and his ability to express what is very difficult to say has given him, in Krista Tippett’s words, “a powerful reach.” Through Eckhart Tolle, Zen Buddhist understanding is now being popularized in American culture.

Tolle wasn’t given his first name at birth; he took it from the 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart. The first time I heard his name, I was drawn to it because I revere Meister Eckhart—not a surprise to anyone who reads my book and blog. I didn’t like hearing that Oprah Winfrey had made Tolle popular because I dislike faddishness, but I was wrong when I feared that popular always means shallow. His message distills the authentic core of spirituality.

Raised Catholic, Eckhart Tolle synthesizes core teachings from many spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism, and especially Buddhism. After having spent several decades reading spiritual texts, and after a deep and dreadful dark night of the soul, he experienced a sudden breakthrough, a cathartic release, and woke up to everything looking,
precious and alive . . . everything seemed so peaceful, even the traffic. Later, I saw that phrase in the Bible somewhere, "The peace that passes all understanding."
T.S. Eliot has a parallel phrase—“the still point of the turning world.” Another term for it is “the Reign of God.” But Eckhart Tolle said he does not use the word “God” often, giving the same reason I hesitate to use it.
I use the word God rarely because it's been misused so much by the human mind. . . . when you say ‘God’ you make it into a mental idol.
[The word God] has made the timeless, eternal, that which cannot be named, the vast mystery of life itself [into] a thought form. And then you think you know what you're talking about. But of course that's the misuse of the word God. But what ultimately it points to is the essence of who you are and the essence of what everything else is.
The underlying essence of all life.

Words are so useless when we talk about this. [That's why] the first line in the Tao Te Ching is "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao."
[Tao is] the mystery. . . the great un-manifested power that is behind all life which cannot be expressed in words.
[Laughing] The book says you can't speak of it. And then it continues to speak of it.
He reminds me of how often I struggle to express the Inexpressible!

Like many contemporary seers, Eckhart Tolle sees a planetary shift in consciousness underway. There’s an exceptional readiness in the world, as the explosive response to his message attests. The whole interview is available at Eckhart Tolle's Now