Saturday, March 28, 2009

Synchronistic & paranormal

Dr. Thomas yelled, “Stand back!” as the patient’s chest jumped from a charge to jolt the heart muscle to its regular pace. This is a scene in Beyond Knowing by Janis Amatuzio, a forensic pathologist who challenges the assumption that modern science proves the non-existence of spiritual reality. As part of the staff anxiously watching the patient’s body filled with tubes and monitors, Amatuzio had no medical explanation for her next observation.
Something happened that I still cannot explain. I saw, or more accurately felt, a shimmer of light in the corner of the room above the foot of the angiography table. I quickly looked to see if the pump team was using a lighting device that perhaps reflected off the wall, but they were not. I looked again, somewhat puzzled, and suddenly had the profound sense of a deep, overwhelming, calm presence, in stark contrast to the frantic activity in the room. It was unmistakable! I was amazed.

Staring intensely at the ceiling, she wondered why no one else could see it and whether she was losing her mind. Then a thought formed in her with clear words, “He’s watching . . . and he’s fine!” Despite frantic efforts by the medical staff, the patient died. After the doctor reported the sad news to his wife, Amatuzio sat alone with her and felt a shiver when she heard, “I can hardly believe this has happened. . . . He said he would be watching . . . and he would be fine.”

Another incident in Beyond Knowing is an example of precognition, knowing something through extra-sensory means. A husband appears at his wife’s bedside saying he’s been in an accident and his vehicle is in a ditch where it can’t be seen from the road. She calls 911 and officers find him in a ravine not visible from the road. Later the desk sergeant says thoughtfully, “She told me that it didn’t really seem to be a dream. . . . He was really standing there, next to her bed.”

I have heard and read countless stories like this, and less dramatic incidents have happened to me. Just yesterday I was asking myself why I felt inexplicably glum and then minutes later learned some bad news. My most striking experiences with precognition are too personal to tell here. The stories fascinate me, and they also console me. When the world is too much with me, when human greed, wretchedness, perversity, stupidity, and ignorance depress me, my soul is refreshed by evidence of Spirit, “the still point of the turning world” where reigns peace, wisdom, and beauty.

I am not unique in having experiences that science cannot explain. Everyone I talk to about this can tell her or his own stories except committed, fundamentalist atheists who are also physicalists, firm deniers of that reality which is beyond description.

Three Cups of Tea tells the story of American Greg Mortenson building schools in the backwaters of Pakistan. One person critical to his effort was nudged aboard by a providential occurrence. Julia Bergman was traveling over the Himalaya Range on a helicopter when the pilot asked if they wanted to visit a typical village. They happened to land near the one that had saved Mortenson’s life when as an injured mountain climber he’d wandered into it. Captivated by the villagers’ simple goodness, he had built his first school there, funded by another climber in the Himalaya, Swiss scientist and entrepreneur Jean Hoerni. Julia said,
I looked at a sign in front of the school and saw that it had been donated by Jean Hoerni, my cousin Jennifer’s husband. Jennifer told me Jean had been trying to build a school somewhere in the Himalaya, but to land in that exact spot in a range that stretches thousands of miles felt like more than a coincidence. I’m not a religious person, but I felt I’d been brought there for a reason and I couldn’t stop crying.
At Jean Hoerni’s funeral, Julia met Greg Mortenson and offered to help. When he said he wanted to create a library for the school, she felt the same sense of predestination she’d felt before. “I’m a librarian,” she said.

This is an example of synchronicity, spiritual patterns discovered by Carl Jung. Synchronistic phenomena are connected by meaning but not by external causation. No ordinary reason can be found to explain Julia’s helicopter dropping down by precisely that school, and to claim it was only chance is preposterous. Her tears also signal a spiritual event, a moment when Spirit wrenches us out of the ordinary and into stupefied awareness of Itself and Its purposes.

Fundamentalist atheists deny the meaning in these phenomena because it threatens their physicalist belief that Spirit doesn’t exist, it interferes with their denial of all spiritual reality.

They’ll deny my friend Athleen’s story too. In response to an inner urge, Athleen changed her plans and went to church on All Soul’s Day, exactly two years after her mother’s death. Sensing someone at her side, she looked and saw her mother, who didn’t say anything but just stayed there a while and then disappeared.

Physicalists will deny my friend Tina’s story. In an email she said they were planning for her brother’s end.
Yesterday he told me he was ready to go . . . it was just he and I with the sun streaming in the room and it was such a nice peaceful chat. He said he was ‘over there' and they told him it was OK to come. Everything was all right.

"I saw Grandma,” he said. “She was wearing a blue skirt and had her hair all up like she did it."
“So what did she say?”
"Oh nothing. She just smiled and waved at me."
Our maiden name is Walz, and on the way out of the hospital it came to me. Blue Skirt Walz. I smiled all the way to the car.
We are lucky, those of us who accept the mystery.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Moral clarity"

When fundamentalists claimed they voted for George W. Bush because he offered “moral clarity,” the rest of us were thrown into amazed thoughtfulness.

A situation in Brazil shows what that kind of “moral clarity” gets us. A 9-year-old girl weighing about 66 pounds, who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather since she was 6 years old, was pregnant with twins. In Brazil abortion is illegal except in cases of rape or danger to the life of the mother. For protecting the life of the girl by choosing abortion, the mother and her doctors were publicly excommunicated by the Catholic archbishop, who declared abortion is "a crime in the eyes of the church" and that human laws cannot override the laws of God.

This conflating and confusing of God with Church rules was common in Christendom during the Middle Ages, and it lingers in ultra conservative circles, even among educated and intelligent Catholics in the U.S. The situation in Brazil illustrates in an extreme way how a spiritual principle such as respect for human life can degenerate into rigid, reflexive opposition to something. Instead of moral clarity we see simplistic rules. In some instances, abortion or condoms or euthanasia may not be the worst choice.

I give one Vatican official credit for having the grace to be appropriately embarrassed. The president of the Academy for Life criticized the Brazilian archbishop’s declaration, saying it was “insensitive, incomprehensible and devoid of mercy.” You’ll find story details at Hasty excommunication.

Stories like this give evidence of shifting religious awareness. More such comes from the latest PEW survey on religion in America, which reveals that profound changes are happening in religious affiliation Change or drop religion. Christian denominations are losing numbers quickly—only non-denominational churches show more growth than losses.

Of particular interest to me is the growing number of “unaffiliated” (now at 16.1%), which includes atheist (1.6%), agnostic (2.4%) and "nothing in particular." Most interesting is that these people are not hostile to religion but leave the one in which they were raised, apparently because particular beliefs and practices don’t matter to them, while spirituality does.

The survey didn’t touch on the difference between spirituality and religion, but I think the results of this and other surveys show that Americans increasingly distinguish between them. Percentages vary in polls and terms for spiritual reality vary, but an overwhelming majority of Americans—from 92 to 95 percent—say they believe in “God” or “Higher Power” or “Universal Spirit” Believe in spiritual. So say even atheists as well as people who move from one church to another, or to no church. And some people raised in no religion at all develop a spiritual orientation.

Paradoxically, in this American cauldron of diversity, which has more religious variety than any other nation, religious absolutism still flourishes. Those who can’t tolerate ambiguity cling to familiar interpretations of morality, to familiar conceptions of what we call God and familiar ways to relate to It. In fact, I attribute the growth of religious fundamentalism during the ‘80s and ‘90s to people’s uneasiness about changes they couldn’t avoid seeing. They’d like a return to simpler times when answers came in well-worn religious phrases, when deciding between right and wrong didn’t pose a puzzle.

As we move through the century, I expect the yearning for old-time religion to decrease and diversity of spiritual practice to increase. At this stage in the evolution of human consciousness we have the task of replacing simplistic religious formulas with authentic moral clarity.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rich in Spirit

The yawning gap between the highest and lowest incomes in our country signaled a serious problem well before the credit freeze and stock market gyrations. No unjust society can long endure.

On Minnesota Public Radio I heard a speaker lament that his life will not be better than those of his parents, it will be worse. A speaker with an Asian accent after him spoke wisdom in the face of that fear. He said essentially, “So what if I drive a smaller car, live in a smaller house, and consume less stuff? It’s not so bad.”

I think it’s better. This financial crisis may save the planet from destruction by our culture of consumerism, which is quickly spreading to the rest of the globe. Now that people are holding off on purchases, maybe they can take a breath and identify the important values in life. I feel for those who live frugally and still lack the basics, but many Americans have been living beyond their means.

Columnist George Will cited “a blizzard of credit cards” for separating “the pleasure of purchasing from the pain of paying.” A letter in our local paper says it’s time,
for Americans to conduct ourselves in a manner becoming a leading nation—by moderating our gluttony and treating our natural resources as valuable and finite. Our overbuilding, overeating, and overextending behavior isn’t a result of anything we didn’t see coming, but a predictable result of wasteful and lazy behavior.
This harsh judgment has much truth. Finally, consumerism seems to be getting its long-needed correction. Unfortunately, innocent people may be hurt the most.

My parents were married a few weeks before the stock market crash of 1929, and my mother conditioned us to be frugal. I’ve said I’m so tight I squeak, but the structure of our rapacious culture demands participation from everyone. And I too worry about my children’s possible decline in standard of living.

I hope that ten years from now we will be saying this crisis signaled the beginning of a pendulum swing toward more sustainable living. In materials things, we need to stop striving for MORE and be happy with ENOUGH, to stop striving for material riches and strive for spiritual riches—the most important values. One inevitable result would be more for the hungry and destitute of the world. (April 5, 2009)

March 11.
Multimillion dollar bonuses are no longer admired. “High end” shops are no longer the coolest places. People look for ways to live frugally and thank God for what they have.

Our economic meltdown is jolting us awake, reminding us of what we know deep down but forget when we’re caught in the treadmill of earning and buying:
• Piling up stuff does not make us happy
• Suffering fosters compassion for others who suffer.
• Spiritual values soothe and endure through thick and thin, no matter what.
• The REALLY good life can have an inverse relationship with money because huge amounts of money insulate us from the want of those with no money. When “everybody” is in the same boat, people are kinder, better, more awake.

Our nation is resetting its mental and spiritual compass, and I rejoice over that while concerned about the financial future of myself, my loved ones, and everyone else.

Tonight I’m off to the Women and Spirituality Symposium at Cleveland State University to present the message of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky—that Christian language must be understood symbolically, without claiming exclusive superiority. Then it can have meaning for all spiritual ways, religious and secular.

This is another jolting realization coming from our evolving world.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Paul a liar?

How Jesus became God.
A man from Nazareth 2,000 years ago had a magnetic effect on people as he tried to raise awareness of their inner spring of divinity—the Reign of God. This man Jesus, an extraordinary, provocative mystic, embarrassed his family (Mark 3:21-35), but after his death at least one member of his family apparently changed heart.

After his death, groups of Jewish Palestinians revered Jesus and gathered together for sacred meals in memory of and devotion to their fellow Palestinian. They formed the nucleus of what would become the great religion of the Western world. Their leader was James, the brother of Jesus.

This pre-Christian Palestinian movement did not worship Jesus as God. My faith in Jesus of Nazareth is closer to the faith of these earliest Jesus followers than is that of most Christians today.

“Christ” means “Anointed One” in Greek. The name “Christian” was given to Gentile followers whom Paul converted to Jesus, but Jesus’ closest followers, the Palestinians, were not called Christians. In their Hebrew language, “Anointed One” is “Messiah.”

Palestinian Jewish followers of Jesus lost importance after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Jewish temple in 70 C.E. Then Gentile Christians dominated the new religion and contributed the God-man imagery of paganism. It’s significant that all the documents of the New Testament were written in Greek, the language of Christians whose spirituality was formed in pagan imagery—God-man imagery.

Christianity is one of many religions.
A book reviewer in America magazine (November 10,2008) was disturbed by exactly the kind of statements that bridge the divide between religions, those challenging the claim that Christians possess a unique and superior revelation. William Reiser reviewed Ancestral Grace: Meeting God in Our Human Story by Diarmuid O’Murchu, a Catholic priest.

Reiser seems unsettled by O’Murchu’s presentation of Jesus
• as not coming to “to rescue human beings from anything.”
• as only one incarnational figure among many such religious figures.

O’Murchu’s focus on the earth that gives birth and mothers us, and his focus on the Church’s patriarchal domination and clericalism disquiet Reiser. Why? Aha! O’Murchu gives no theological significance to the cross. So here we have it again. Traditionalists can’t tear themselves away from the pillars of belief that Jesus is God and his death saved the world.

I particularly like O’Murchu’s approval of this statement by Robert Funk:
Jesus himself should not be, must not be, the object of faith. That would be to repeat the idolatry of the first believers.
I agree emphatically.

Reiser objects that this view ignores the New Testament and “centuries of liturgical practice.” He’s right about liturgical practice. Readers familiar with my views know that I dislike the god of Christian liturgies. On the other hand, the New Testament presents a variety of Jesuses, not only the pre-existent divinity preached by Paul and worshipped by the tradition. Discerning readers of the New Testament see that the historical Jesus did not make himself the object of faith.

I take issue with one part of Funk’s statement. Because the first Christians lived in a world where Jesus was only one idol among many, I doubt that the first believers idolized Jesus as much as some Christians idolize him today.

Reiser states he would not “relish the prospect of outgrowing or transcending the Gospel determinants of my religious identity.” I do relish it. In fact, I see that many Christians already transcend their parochial religion and participate in the “process of evolutionary emergence” that O’Murchu envisions. Christians really true to Jesus will stop worshipping him and pay attention to his preaching.

Paul is more responsible than anyone else for turning Jesus into a god-man.
But was Paul a liar?
An atheist wrote to me,
Thanks to Paul’s passionate preaching, Jesus the Jewish prophet became a dying and rising savior similar to other divine-human saviors in pagan religions. Thanks to Paul, a Hellenistic god took the place of a Jewish prophet. Jesus the proclaimer of God’s reign became the one proclaimed.

Does this mean we can accuse Paul of spreading a lie? Go to his letters and you can’t avoid seeing that Paul has no intention of duping people. The letters evince an emotional, intense, mystical temperament, obviously sincere. As sincere as Christians around us today who worship male individuals they call God.

So what’s going on? It’s the power of religious myth.

Like the mythical Jesus, Hellenistic gods and goddesses had the power to transform people. Marinated in this culture, Paul’s spiritual inclination became a powerful tool for spreading the new religion of Christianity.

Paul did not create the myth he spread so effectively. In First Corinthians 15: 3-4 we learn that it was passed onto him. Who made up the myth and why? Nobody made it up. The belief that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose on the third day arose spontaneously from deep within the human psyche in a culture prepared for it by similar myths. This has been observed by depth psychologists and mythologists around the world.

Religious myths never are created by individuals. And they’re not just worthless lies. Anyone who has known true believers can see their transformative effect, usually for the better. Myths even have the power to transport people into communion with the spiritual reality we call God.

Understandably, the man who wrote the statement above was bitter because he’s seen firsthand the damage done to gays by a fundamentalist Christian sect that claims to “cure” gays and make them straight. Even their cruel activity comes out of conviction, although I hate to admit it because they do so much harm.

But the founders of Christianity and Christian preachers today do not mean to dupe people. What would be their motive? The power of myth is what drives irrational Christian belief that a male-only god had a male-only offspring without any female help.

Religious myths are not the same as the word “myth” used in our American culture, where it means a foolish belief with no validity. Religious myth is fiction—it’s not factual—but it’s not a lie in the sense of deliberate, intentional deception.

That Christian and pagan myths are similar shows their source from a deep psychic well in humanity. If the world understood the power of myth, we might move past believing the myths literally to building harmony between religions.