20 June 2006

The best of times, the worst of times

There’s a lot of news out there these days about progress (and the lack thereof) in religion, specifically Protestant denominations. Several large American mainline denominations have had conventions and conferences, both national and regional, of late. Note this USA Today article about various denominations, particularly the Episcopal Church USA and the Presbyterian Church (USA), and their ongoing debates over same-sex unions and ordination. At the time of this writing, the Episcopalians are still holding their General Convention in Columbus, Ohio – this is a triennial conference of the Episcopal Church throughout the USA. They are still debating resolutions about whether to express regret to the global Anglican community regarding the ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as a bishop a couple of years ago. In a hopeful sign of progressiveness, however, they elected a woman (and a liberal one, theologically speaking), Katharine Jefferts Schori, to be their new “Presiding Bishop”, which is sort of like being the chief Archbishop over the whole country. Bishop Schori is a very interesting woman – she earned a Ph.D. in oceanography in 1983 and worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service before changing career paths and entering the ordained ministry, and is apparently a strong advocate for the Millennium Development Goals. Naturally, there are some Episcopalians who are unhappy about her election – although they say their unhappiness stems not from her gender, but from her progressive theology.

Meanwhile, a recent regional Conference of the United Methodist Church was a mixed bag of religious tricks. On the bad side, during a debate on an resolution about bringing the troops home from Iraq, one delegate addressed the Conference by reading a passage from the Quran about killing infidels and the like, and cited this passage as evidence that Muslims are inherently violent, and therefore we'll never be able to cease the war on terror until we subdue them all. Apparently this good Christian brother isn't familiar with Psalm 137, where the psalmist writes (verses 8-9) “Babylon the destroyer, happy is he who repays you for what you did to us! Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against a rock.” Nor is he probably familiar with Hosea 13:16, “Samaria will become desolate because she has rebelled against her God; her babes will fall by the sword and will be dashed to the ground, and pregnant women will be ripped up.” Funny, sounds like Christians have their own violent past, doesn't it?

In other words, Christianity doesn’t have an exclusive angle on peacemaking and love, nor does Islam have an exclusive angle on a violent past. All of us religious types have histories we need to overcome, to evolve beyond. Unfortunately, some religious types are stuck in the past, or want to defend the past and are fearful of evolution (spiritual as well as biological). We who are not, I believe, are obligated to continue striving for enlightenment and understanding, both within ourselves and throughout our faith communities. Anything less will condemn us to the ash heap of history, because history is inherently progressive and forward-moving.

Should we hope or despair? Should we be optimists or pessimists? I reached one tentative conclusion this past week – I think I might try to be a spiritual optimist and a political cynic. That is, I do think that history inevitably moves forward, and human enlightenment has no choice but to grow and expand. The alternative, I suppose, is species extinction. I don’t think that this progress is neatly linear – reformations always spawn counter-reformations, and the forces of retrenchment get pretty fierce when they begin to perceive that the struggle might not turn out their way. As noted author (and former Episcopalian priest) Barbara Brown Taylor put it, "human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God." Here’s my question: If the God you worship is in such dire need of your protection, what kind of deity is he? I could say the same thing about the so-called “Defense of Marriage” amendments kicking around Congress and various state legislatures - if your marriage needs to be defended from two gay men or two lesbians who love each other and are monogamous with each other and want to get married to each other, perhaps you should be less concerned with them and more concerned with what’s going on in your own marriage.

02 June 2006

Tongues of fire?

In Western Christianity, this Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. For those of you somewhat unfamiliar with the Christian calendar, this holiday celebrates the occurrence in the early Church wherein the Holy Spirit is reported to have descended on the gathered followers of Jesus like “tongues of fire”. According to certain gospel accounts, the post-resurrection Jesus promised his disciples that although he’d be leaving soon (ascending to heaven), they would receive this indwelling Holy Spirit, which in later Christian teachings became regarded as the third person of the Trinity (the others being “the Father” and “the Son”).

What happened on Pentecost, according to the record of the Book of Acts of the Apostles, was that the frightened disciples of Jesus, left alone after he went on up to heaven, were gathered together in a house when all of a sudden this wind blew through, and these tongues of fire descended on their heads, and they all started speaking in different languages – languages recognizable to the travelers of various nationalities gathered in Jerusalem at the time.

(An interestingly humorous and oft-overlooked side note: Some who heard this talk thought that perhaps the disciples were merely drunk. Peter, in their defense, said that they weren’t drunk, because it was only nine o’clock in the morning. Note that he didn’t say “Oh no, we’re good followers of Jesus, we’d never be drunk.” No, he merely argued that it was too early in the morning for them to be drunk yet. But I digress…)

Nowadays, Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians often practice this phenomenon of speaking in other languages or tongues, technically known as glossolalia. It is seen as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a particular believer – often concomitant with a special receiving or baptism of that same Spirit. It’s occasionally associated with ecstatic prayer, but also can be part of a quieter devotional practice.

That’s all fine, but here’s my rant on the current practice – and this can apply to a lot more than just glossolalia. The emphasis too often winds up being on the individual believer and the individual practice. Rather than looking at what one believer can or can’t do, or whether that believer or another is filled with a particularly holy or enlightened spirit, let’s focus instead on the oneness of the Spirit that’s supposedly doing all this indwelling. The point of the story about the early disciples of Jesus isn’t that they all had special language skills because of their special relationship with the divine spirit; rather, the point is that this spirit, working through them, was able to bring together an incredibly diverse crowd of folks from all nations by speaking to them in ways they all could understand.

If you’re thinking that I’m continuing with the theme of my last post – that whole underlying unity of the cosmos thing - you’re catching on. I also wanted to include a comment from my friend the Psych Pundit (you can find a link to his blog on the side of this page - although his schedule has precluded him from updating it as frequently as he’d like, it’s still quite a good read). PP noted in an email to me that my last post made him think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and paleontologist who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th Century. He propagated such concepts as the noosphere, a sort of higher level of consciousness interconnecting all humans (or perhaps all sentient beings), and the Omega Point, a final unity toward which all creation is evolving together. PP’s comments, in essence, were that Teilhard stressed that our most profound interconnectedness will ultimately occur at this higher-order level of consciousness, as opposed to the lower-order level of quantum field constituent parts.

I think that the book I mentioned might agree with PP’s analysis and comparisons with Teilhard – perhaps it was only my clumsy rendering of those ideas that made it seem otherwise. When you think about it, Teilhard’s collective interconnected consciousness sounds a lot like various Buddhist concepts, all of which go back to this underlying unity of all things. Hey, if Jung can have a collective unconscious, why can’t we have a collective consciousness also?

Some folks have even posited the notion that the Internet is an early concrete step toward creating the noosphere. A really interesting aspect of this (well, interesting to me, at least) is that this evolution toward an Omega Point is at some level a conscious evolution, and that probably as we progress in this evolutionary process, it becomes more and more of a conscious process.

So are we yet at a point in human evolution when we can begin to evolve consciously? Can we start taking steps to evolve in ways that will be beneficial to all of humanity, to all sentient beings, to the entire planet, to all that is? One can only hope that we’re getting there. The alternatives don’t seem very appealing for our species.