02 November 2006

Anthony Bloom speaks to the non-mystic

Two weeks ago in this blog, and in the comments that followed, Alan Rutherford reflected on an implication of Friends' emphasis on the authority of experience--it "gives more authority to those who sense God than to those who don't."

I've been reading Anthony Bloom's book On Meeting, and have quoted from it at least twice, but in view of the discussion of "immediate inspiration," I can't help citing yet another thoughtful passage. Again, Anthony Bloom is responding to an interviewer's question:
Tell me, why do some people who are sensitive and kind by the natural inclination of their souls not have a conscious experience of faith--why doesn't God seem to send it to them? Is kindness without faith possible?
I can't answer that; if I could, I'd be praised as a wise man throughout the whole Orthodox world. But I think we can at least set out some pathmarks. First of all, there is nobody in the world in whom the image of God doesn't continue to be alive and active, however deeply it might be buried. There's nobody who is not in that sense an icon of God, in whom that icon-ness, that similarity to God, doesn't operate.
From this, it follows that a lot of what we consider humanness is actually on the divine margin. When you read the Gospel, you are meeting the Living God, but you are also meeting the genuine, the singularly genuine Human Being in the person of Christ, a Human Being ["Man" in the capital-M sense of pre-sensitized English] in the fullest sense of that term. And for that reason every human being, by virtue of being human, is already part of this Christic mystery.
Another thing (but this is my reasoning, and therefore I'm not convinced of my own objectivity): humanity does not consist of separate, scattered individualities. Each of us is born, not as a completely new creature, but as the heir of all the generations that have gone before. The genealogies of Christ given in the Gospels--in Matthew and Luke--serve as a confirmation of this. If genealogy has meaning for Him, it must for us also. He is the descendant of all the lines of humanity from Adam to the Blessed Virgin. In all these lines of descent there are saints and there are those we would call ordinary sinners--imperfect people, and even some who go beyond imperfect to flagrant. Rahab the prostitute is probably a clear example of "flagrant," but she is a direct ancestor of Christ the Savior.
Can we consider them as a part of that stream which, in sum, constitutes the incarnation of of the Son of God? It seems to me that they all, righteous and sinners alike, strived with all their being (successfully or, by our lights, completely unsuccessfully) towards the fullness of being, as they understood it--that is, towards God. They lived for the sake of God.

The politicians' machine dialers can stop calling now! I've already voted. Bill Clinton phoned to ask me to be sure to vote for Gov. Kulongoski. I tried to tell him that I took my Oregon mail-in ballot to Papaccino's coffeehouse last Saturday and completed the whole thing in a little over an hour, but he talked right over me. Earlier today, Virginia Linder, running for election to the Supreme Court, did the same thing. I'm not alone; as of Monday, apparently 17% of Oregon's ballots had already been returned, even though our voters have until 8 p.m. on November 7 to get their ballots to an official ballot pick-up point. (However, the tricky thing is for people to remember that a mailbox does not qualify as a pick-up point; people who mail in their ballots should get it into the mail by tomorrow.)

This will have to do for now. I'm off to the opening reception for Smith Eliot's new installation at Pushdot's gallery. More tonight or tomorrow.

I'm back. Smith's installation at Pushdot Gallery was moving. It was based on her photography and research at the former Dammasch State Hospital, a sister institution to the one at which the film version of the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was made.

These preceding links lead to some online photos that give a hint of the haunting power of Smith's images. The first room of the gallery displayed the full-size photos (example: the one behind Smith's head). As you look around at those photos, you become aware that there's another room from which people are quietly emerging. Looking closer, you see a small bed, an artifact from Dammasch, with snakes writhing out from under the bed, spreading through the metal webbing and climbing up the walls, while other snakes come down through the ceiling. The snakes (and Smith's dress) are made from Dammasch curtain fabric. These three-dimensional details amplifies the human dimension eerily echoing through all the photos, refusing to be pacified by the orderly pages of hospital manuals and inspection reports plastering the cell walls.

I last saw my sister Ellen in December 1969, during her incarceration at the Illinois State Psychiatric Instite. Three months later she "eloped" (in the language of the incident reports plastered on Pushdot's walls), only to be killed on the Calumet Canal Bridge a few days later. She was killed with a sawed-off shotgun by a man who nevertheless, according to Anthony Bloom, bore somewhere within him the image of God. Smith's images shimmer with the power of incongruity: the silent marks and debris of human institutionalization and involuntary restraint, as seen through intensely human eyes. Savage ironies abound, but are noted quietly, allowing shared humanity to witness what a more manipulative presentation would simply exploit.

Pinned to a sheet of care standards, an inmate's note in crayon: "Content in Tues. There but in His grace go I. Overcome evil w/good. Jesus knows me."

Links, righteous and unrighteous: The latest Washington Post has at least two stories mentioning Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Story number one, "Evangelicals Broaden Their Moral Agenda," mentions that he is one of the evangelical leaders who signed a plea for George Bush to take action in the situation in Darfur, Sudan.

The second story will cause much anguish in some circles, uncertainty in others, and perhaps even some uncharitable glee in yet others: "Church Leader Resigns after Gay Sex Claim."

New Life Church itself has issued a studiedly quiet press release (PDF link). (Saturday PS: new press release from Life Life Church.)

In the meantime, Catholic commentator Garry Wills has this worthwhile essay on our faith-based White House.

Forgive me for taking a bit of comfort in the thought that critics of religious faith are sometimes also caught getting it wrong! I confess guilty pleasure in reading this lively review of Richard Dawkins' bestselling exposé of people like me, The God Delusion. Many thanks to Simon Barrow for this nice ... er, interesting link. (Saturday PS: Simon has helpfully grouped several other reflections on Dawkins here and here.)

Today's political frustration involves the Democrats: I'm not an uncritical fan of America's Democratic Party, which has its share of cynical operators and special-interest agenda-pushers. But right now the Democratic Party represents, in our truncated political spectrum, the only viable opposition to the criminal element that has taken over our country's government. My frustration today is not so much with the party itself as the conventional wisdom of so many commentators who, instead of discussing historic and present-day Democratic ideals, take the lazy way out by saying the party has no coherent message.

Recently CNN trotted out that same line in its "Broken Government" series. We were told that voters feel Democrats have "two left feet," project a "wimp" image, are seen as being out of touch with ordinary people, and incompetent on security issues.

Why is political commentary so often reduced to a fascination with "perceptions"? Should the commentators not be promoting a conversation on substance? There is certainly no perfect unity within the Democratic Party on specific policies (nor is there among Republicans, whose current leaders strike me as being even more out of touch, and certainly no more competent than Democrats). Yet the enduring themes associated with Democrats--social and economic justice within a framework of personal responsibility; political reform; sensitivity to labor rights, popular access to education; public health and safety, and environmental concerns; and international cooperation--remain pretty stable. Once upon a time, there was even broad overlap on these points with many Republicans. Seems to me that themes such as these, in times of crisis, form an urgent agenda for public conversation. The passing fortunes and images of either party shrink in comparison.

Some will say, "But these image issues are actually issues of leadership. How can we trust leaders who can't create their own reality?" But if you depend on conventional wisdom to do your filtering for you, you will too easily end up with leaders who create "realities" such as the lethal mix of corruption now hobbling us at home and abroad. American voter: it is time to create your own reality. Start by thinking for yourself, and decide what cluster of values to raise up by your vote. Social justice, or special privilege? Environmental concern, or the law of the jungle? International norms of mutual respect, or destructive (and self-destructive) messianic pretensions? Modest and pragmatic leaders, or slash-and-burn rhetoricians who are not worthy to use the Christian symbols they shamelessly exploit?

Yes, I wish our loyal opposition displayed a bit more passion. But I don't want them to fake it. Look where faking it has gotten us to date.


Anonymous said...

Two of the themes from your 11/2 blog come together for me - the Ted Haggard scandal and frustrations with the Democratic Party.

Living in Colorado, images of the New Life Church are hard to escape. For years, Pastor Haggard has represented much of what I have a hard time stomaching about evangelical Christians. For starters, the church seemed to be more about rock concerrts and theatrical pageants than about religion.

In his many television appearances, I have tried to separate out Haggard's physical appearance. I think it is just the physical construction of his face, but no matter what the subject, whether serious or light, happy or sad, he always looked like he was sneering. At each appearance, I tried to set aside his facial expression, but he never seemed sincere to me.

Now all this breaks loose. At first, my reaction was that gender was irrelevant here - the first issue was that he had betrayed his marriage. Then it seemed to me that the central issue was that he lied in many ways -- most immediately to the press, but for years to his congregation and the public in his stance about homosexuality. Hypocrisy is for me the greater sin than homosexuality.

Today has brought about a sea change for me, through Haggard's letter to his congregation. He talks of lifelong temptations.

Today, I view Haggard as the victim rather than the perpetrator.

The simple truth may be that Haggard is either bisexual or homosexual in his orientation. Rather than accept this as a personal difference, one that could manifest in a loving way, his "religion" persecutes him, convincing him that urges he feels are the work of Satan. As a result, he can only respond to inner urges through illicit contacts.

A decade ago, I had a theroetical appreciation that homosexuality, when not criminialized, could exist in ways that express everything we call Christian.

Over the past decade, I have had treatments for medical problems ranging from neuropathy to cancer, along with the natural process of menopause.

In the course of treatments, it has amazed me that a tiny daily pill could make me perceive sex, in the context of heterosexual marriage, as anything from strange to irrelevant to attractive. Clearly, our desires have a strong chemical rather than moral basis.

There is scientific evidence that homosexuality may be no more than a reaction to hormonal imbalances during pregnancy. And for that, we persecute people.

So what does this have to do with Democrats?

I have volunteered with the local Democratice party, and I work for a Democratic elected official. I share much of the frustration with the Democratic party.

A letter to the editor appeared in our local newspaper today, and it truly spoke my mind. I wish our local Democratic party would get enlarged copies of this letter and nail it to the front door of the party office.

Here's the letter:

Democrats reflect Christian values:
For several years Christians have been encouraged to vote according to "family values" issues.

Basically, this translates into policies against abortion, gay rights and assisted suicide.

While I respect those who view these as critical issues, I personally believe these should not be our Christian or moral priorities. The Bible barely mentions these issues, and there is no record that Jesus ever said one word about them.

Jesus clearly did state the values priorities for his followers. He directed us to feed the hungry, give good water to the thirsty, have compassion on strangers in need, clothe the naked, and to help those who are sick or in prison. He further called us to do everything in a kind, loving, compassionate manner - which frequently contrasts to the tone of the "family values" discussion.

These are my values and priorities, and that is why I vote Democrat. I believe that the policies of the Democrat Party best support my Christian and moral values.

Mary Catherine Griffith
Pueblo West

smith said...

hi johan!!
thank you so much for what you said about my show!!! i can't remember if i told you what everything was, but if i didn't it looks like you got it, and i liked what you said about noting things quietly, as i have always been something of a hammer. :)

i liked what you said about humanity not being comprised of separate, scattered entities. for me, it isn't just because of the genetic threads that connect us all but because we are all the same flesh...i mean, the trees and the rocks and the water and the cats and the people are all part of the same body of the earth.

goodness gracious. am i making any sense at all??


Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Ellen, great to hear from you! Thanks for that letter to the editor.

I don't plan to spend much more blog time on Ted Haggard, but since we're in a press-clipping mood, I'd like to cite this interesting sample from the mostly unedifying stream of comments in a Denver newspaper's Web site concerning his downfall: (from before the Saturday denouement...) "I am a Christian Newlifer. I have a gay member of my family. I would not have gone to a church that preached hate and intolerance for that lifestyle. If any of you actually knew Pastor Ted you would know that he supports gay rights--just not gay marriage. He is not a gay basher and he is a fine man who may or may not have done something wrong. Who are you all to point fingers? -lovesGod 11/03/06 03:25:50 PM"

One other comment: I don't know what to make of the self-diagnostic portions of his letter to his congregation. Does it reflect a genuine struggle with evil, or does it reflect a singularly bleak view of the sexual dimension of our lives, a dimension he was unable to reveal or heal in safety as pastor--or as a man? What role might have been played by an excessively transactional view of morality and grace? How many others are in similar situations of bondage?

Smith--why am I not surprised that you included cats? Oh, and I need to send you the rest of the pictures I took at the show. Right now we're glued to election returns (all except our resident MoveOn volunteer, who's glued to the returns at another location).