Dreams Deferred and Trees of Life

I’ve been revisiting Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes‘ brief-but-powerful poem “Dream Deferred.” It evokes so much for me in this season, from marriage to eschatology to relationships to community. I’ll let it speak to you:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Dreams need to be translated into fulfillment, into reality, before they simply die, or worse. Mr. Hughes echoes the proverbial wisdom “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but fulfilled longing is a tree of life.”

So to all my friends who are hurting and hoping: Here’s to sweet dreams, and the salty journeys that evoke our thirst for fulfillment–only in sugar and salt can we be parched enough to drink together of Life’s Common Tree!

This was originally posted on November 13, 2007. 

See also:

Tree of Life: A Poem

Dancing ‘Round the Tree of Life: Two Poems

Evolution and the Two Trees in the Garden

Weeping with the Goddess in Jake’s Kitchen

A couple of weeks ago I was dog-sitting for my friend Jake who was out of town. At one point after breakfast, I found myself prostrate on the ground, weeping and talking with an intimate stranger…the Goddess, in fact.

But before I go into all that, it’s probably helpful if I rewind a bit and share a less-known slice of my personal history with the Good Lord.

As longtime readers of this blog might know, my family and I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we moved from our native Atlanta are in 2006. We moved here with over a dozen of our friends from undergrad days at Berry College, as well as with new friends and co-dreamers from across the country to ‘seed’ the planting of an ‘organic’ expression of church life – what some variously know as house church, simple church, or intentional community. We were part of a national movement that began to come apart at the seams right around the time we moved; we lasted ‘till about 2008.

Back to me and the Goddess for a second: What caused a nice Jesus-lovin,’ evangelical-reared boy like me to be weeping in front of the Sacred Feminine on my friend’s linoleum floor, a Lassie-looking pup looking docilely on? I was going to write an original explanation of all this, but then I looked back into my ‘Writings’ folder here on the computer, and found something I shared with our house church community back in 2007, on the topic of…

What You Might Not Know About The Lord & Me

You see, our church structure (ideally, at least) was open, participatory, egalitarian and interdependent with others in our ‘family’ or network of churches. Our typical gathering was initiated by singing, and then any number of us sharing for 3-5 minutes, drawn from what we reflected on throughout the week – our “portion of Christ” as we saw it. From time to time, we were given outside direction. We were ‘planted’ and ‘watered’ by those we called ‘workers,’ what those in other traditions might call anything from ‘circuit riders’ to ‘apostles.’ (But we in the Watchman Nee/T. Austin-Sparks post-Brethren lineage that we were, we called them workers.) Our worker at the time, who had a day job as an influential financial manager in the Northeast, challenged us to get to know one another better by having a series of gatherings wherein one person would ‘take’ the majority of the meeting, sharing on What You Might Not Know About the Lord and Me. It was a rich time of hearing new facets of people who lived among – some whom we’d known for years. What follows are rather detailed notes on what I shared:

“The Lord”?

I’m sorry, but this question just lends itself to some rather shady pronouncements. Like “When I was eight, the Lord beat me up and threw me behind a dumpster…” [Dark, Mike. Dark.] But no. I appreciate the impetus behind this question. Many of us have secret pasts and presents with God; dark and mysterious and wondrous things, and it would be good to share.

The first thing you should know is that I don’t call God “the Lord,” not usually. While it’s utterly true that he is our Lord—our Master, the Maestro of the Art of Living—I find it ironic that we’ve picked up on this most formal of titles and made it our choice term of intimacy. The standard placeholder “God” works for me fine, though I also enjoy the Hebrew proper names, like the dynamic and revelatory YHWH, “I am as I shall show myself.” Or El Shaddai.

Let me say a few words about El Shaddai. It’s the most common way I address God while enjoying fellowship with God in Centering Prayer. Now don’t get the wrong impression; I don’t do this nearly as often as I want to; I don’t have a daily ritual of time ‘wasted’ with God like our brother to my right does, though I hope to soon. But when I can, I do the following:

  • I’ve chosen a name of God as the symbol of my awareness of God’s presence within, through and around me.
  • Sitting comfortably and with eyes resting, I briefly and silently introduce this name—El Shaddai—as the symbol of my consent to God’s presence and action within.
  • When I become aware of thoughts, I return ever-so-gently to “El Shaddai.”
  • At the end of about 20 minutes—I typically use a timer—I just sit for a moment or two. I might slowly say the Lord’s Prayer.

There are two reasons why “El Shaddai” is my most intimate of names for addressing God. One is that, with my proclivity toward eating God, it makes the most sense; one rendering of this name is “The God who feeds.” But there is a second reason. A deeper and more literal rendering of this name is “The God with breasts.” El Shaddai means provider precisely because she is the breast-feeding God. Also known as “The voluptuous God,” this is one of the many female depictions of God that has fallen by the wayside in popular use. (See my Appendix handout for Scriptural depictions of God-as-feminine.)

Why is this important to me? Well for one, becoming familiar once again with the many feminine faces of God in Scripture and history gives dignity and power to our sisters in Christ; it is an abandoned memory that needs to be recovered in our words, in our worship, and in our reflections on who God is in our midst.

But for me as a man this has an altogether more close-to-home meaning: recovering the eroticism of God in my devotional life. About a decade ago—first with certain songs coming out of the Vineyard movement and charismatic renewal, and then from the teachings of our itinerant church planters—I was introduced to a vigorous, full-on God-eroticism via bridal language.

Drawing from the Song of Songs and the many bridal images in both Old and New Testaments, I saw painted for me a love affair between the God of Israel/Christ and the people of God, both Israel and the Church. It was illustrated to me as a male suitor pursuing his beloved with fervor that can only be described as sexual, finally culimanating in the saucy, sensuous repertoire we see in both Song of Songs and the end of Revelation. I’ve seen how this understanding has revolutionized the devotional lives of our sisters in communities across the globe; I’ve also seen men in our churches try to get in the game, with varying results. Jesus-as-our-lover has a kind’ve mixed resonance for men because we’re men – it’s even parodied in our larger church culture by men who are uncomfortable with this level of intimacy in contemporary worship songs as Jesus-Is-My-Boyfriend Music. (I wonder: Have any of these critics ever read Bernard of Clairvaux? Hildegard of Bingen? Teresa of Avila?) We recognize that “In Christ there is no male or female,” so in a real sense we too can enter into the ‘bridal experience’ and feel what it’s like to be ravished by our bridegroom via imaginative prayer and resting in divine fellowship. But for those of us who happen to be heterosexual men happily inhabiting our bodies, this is never quite an intuitive experience, is it?

So for me, seeing the sacred feminine as Sophia in Proverbs, or El Shaddai in the Old Testament, or Jesus-as-Mother in several New Testament depictions (not to mention in the writings of mystics like Julian of Norwich) gives me back something I’ve never had as a man: the Voluptuous God, the female creator and nurturer who is comfortable with the space she inhabits. El Shaddai is self-possessed with a powerful, seductive eroticism, one that can both initiate and follow. When I spend time with God, she can ignite my senses with insight and proposition; she can also receive everything I have to give. When our workers encourage us to “Make love to your Lord,” guys, it’s worth reframing this!

The early Genesis poem recounts that both male and female are needed to fully bear the Imago Dei, the image of God on earth as s/he is in heaven. I have taken this to heart, and have sought to incorporate both the male and female in my multi-faceted relating to a many-splendored God.

*                 *                *

That’s what I shared in 2007. So. Many. Words. These days, words are failing me. I feel like Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life, when he fell into a profound silence that lasted weeks. When prompted by one of his assistants to continue writing the thousands of pages of analytical theology had was known for, he replied: “I cannot write anymore because all that I have written seems like straw to me, compared to what has been revealed to me…”

Recently, I’ve been through a dark and challenging time in my life. It isn’t over quite yet. And no, dear readers, I will not be disclosing. Some things are best not blogged. But it really doesn’t matter: If you’re breathing air, you know what I’m talking about: The dissolution of something you once held dear, or thought was solid – perhaps in an outside relationship or job; perhaps within yourself. Changes are taking place; sometimes it feels invigorating, sometimes it feels scary.

I was in just such a place while dog-sitting for my friend Jake – doing dishes, listening to music via my iPhone dock, wondering what was next. I was specifically listening to Krishna Das, an American Kirtan singer – his album Live on Earth. Das’s voice is deeply masculine and totally enchanting all at the same time, the depth of devotion he infuses in his songs is hauntingly beautiful. I’d bought his memoir Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold at one of the liquidation sales of the late, lamented Borders, and started reading it recently. As far as coming-of-age-in-the-1960s-and-now-being-an-enlightened-superstud stories go, I enjoyed the writing and pacing of Keith Martin Smith’s A Heart Blown Open: The Life & Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi better. But still – Krishna Das’s story of finding grounding and expansiveness through a life of chanting the Names of God is inspiring – and challenging, as stories like these from varying faith traditions threaten to make me a perennialist yet.

But here I go again with words, words, words – layers of interpretation. Let’s return to the heart of the story: A song came on, Das’s rendering of the Devi Puja, or Goddess Prayer.

From the first notes of his harmonium (an instrument I first heard with powerful effect by my friend, the street-smart yogi and Kalachakra monk Kir – aka Kirantana – at last year’s inaugural Wild Goose Festival), and the repetition of the words He Maa Durga, I stopped drying a glass and froze. Then, I dropped to my knees. I knew that I was in the presence of God, but in this familiar-but-still-culturally-foreign form of El Shaddi, Ruah, Sophia…and more particularly still, Shakti, Shiva, Kali – but more generally, The Goddess.

If you’re one of those people who needs to know what the words mean, here’s an approximate translation of the Devi Puja. But I didn’t know this at the time:

Oh Goddess, you are the one who conquers all
You are the One beyond time
The auspicious One beyond time
The bearer of skulls who destroys all difficulties
Loving forgiveness and supporter of the universe.

You are the one who truly receives our sacrificial offerings
To you I bow.

I did not know, but I had the sense of this personified feminine Love, upholding the universe – and yet being difficult (or perhaps I was the one being difficult). And I was certainly bowing. I began crying – a little bit at first, and then weeping. Who was this One I was in the presence of? Somehow familiar, yet utterly foreign. Goddess. A complex swirl of thoughts, memories, and emotions began to swirl within me. Last May, I was initiated into the ManKind Project – a totally awesome secret society (we aren’t really, I just like to call us one); my initiation and subsequent, consistent time spent in a local circle of men has done wonders for digging deep into and integrating my experience of masculine energies – making peace with the idea of being both a real man and a good man. And now, it seems, that Femininity herself is knocking on the door of my heart. My integration continues.

After ten minutes or so of weeping and verbally asking questions of the Goddess, I decided to write them down. I picked up my journal. This is what I wrote:

May 22nd.

Goddess, I can’t be a man without you. 

Who are You, who’s been refracted so imperfectly through the women of my life? 

Abandoned
Smothered
Wounded
Unattainable
Complex

…why is Your energy so inaccessible, O cruel archetype? 

I long to know You as Mother, Lover, Friend. 

But You are aloof – You play games with me.

The absence of You divorces body from soul, heart from access and flow.

In my life, I’ve idolized You, and I’ve hated You.

I want neither.

Instead, I want to flow into You – to be lost in Your warmth, intoxicated in Your sensuality, recognizing and honoring Your essence in all things.

I also want to feel like a man in Your presence, to give you my essence and have it received, with gratefulness and joy. 

In many ways, my journaling strikes me as being like a Psalm – structured in complaint and collapse into Love. Clearly, I have some issues with feminine energy – and clearly, I long for her. At times, I am misogynist and feminist: This is my confession. Both are true.

The Devi Puja ended, and so did the experience. But she has lingered.

In so many ways, I’m at a crossroads of life and experience. While composting the best of my past, I feel like the first-century church at Pentecost, watching and waiting for the Spirit to hover over the face of my waters. And sometimes, this Spirit comes to me in distinctly feminine form. My prayer – for healing, wholeness, integration, and fresh creation in the world – is summed up in many ways by this song from the band Live at the turn of this century:

Sitting on the beach
The island king of love
Deep in Fijian seas
Deep in some blissful dream

Where the Goddess finally sleeps
In the lap of her lover
Subdued in all her rage
And I am aglow with the taste

Of the demons driven out
And happily replaced
with the presence of real Love
The only one who saves

I wanna dance with you
I see a world where people live and die with grace
The karmic ocean dried up and leave no trace
I wanna dance with you
I see a sky full of the stars that change our minds
And lead us back to a world we would not face

The stillness in your eyes
Convinces me that I
I don’t know a thing
And I been around the world and I’ve
Tasted all the wines
A half a billion times
Came sickened to your shores
You show me what this life is for

I wanna dance with you
I see a world where people live and die with grace
the karmic ocean dried up and leave no trace

I wanna dance with you
I see a sky full of the stars that change our minds
And lead us back to a world we would not face

We would not face
We would not face
We would not face…

See also my “Biblical Proofs” for the Feminine Face of God in Scripture

Recommended Reading if you want to explore the feminine imagery of God more fully:

In Memory of Her by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Feminist)

Is It Okay to Call God “Mother”?: Considering the Feminine Face of God by Paul R. Smith (Evangelical)

Embracing Jesus and the Goddess: A Radical Call for Spiritual Sanity  by Carl McColman (Episcopagan)

Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power by Rita Nakashima Brock (Womanist)

Revelation of Love  by Julian of Norwich (Contemplative Catholic)

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Feminist)

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain (a general literary-historical investigation)

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd (Post-evangelical, post-Mainline)

The Maternal Face of God by Leonardo Boff (Catholic-Liberationist)

The Unknown She: Eight Faces of an Emerging Consciousness by Hilary Hart (Perennial)

“Biblical Proofs” for the Feminine Face of God in Scripture

Welcome, Rachel Held Evans readers! Just so you know, this post outlining female depictions of God in Scripture makes the most sense in conjunction with its follow-up post, telling the story of my head-on encounter with God’s feminine side: Weeping with the Goddess in Jake’s Kitchen.

I’m not much of a “proof-texter.” I don’t like using the Bible as a weapon to fight out my outlook on life versus someone else’s. Further, I’m committed to the ‘progressive hermeneutic’ of ongoing revelation/unpacking the riches of God in our midst. Even so: I don’t, in celebrating the feminine face of God (and sharing my experience of the same), think I’m going ‘beyond the Bible.’ Here’s a sampling of the wealth of feminine images of God in Scripture, including the Apocrypha.

Take a moment and let these sink in*:

Sophia:
First nine chapters of Proverbs focus on Wisdom

  • Proverbs 4:13 she is your life, giver of life
  • Proverbs 8:35 whoever finds me finds life
  • Proverbs 8:15 decrees what is right
  • Proverbs 8: 22 – 31 like Wisdom herself, before the foundation of the earth I was there. Wisdom comes from God, was created by God
  • Wisdom 7:22 – 8:1 She is the fashioner of all things; 21 attributes which is the product of two perfect numbers 3 & 7. Wisdom is perfection multiplied by perfection. Intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all powerful. Overseeing all, penetrating through all other intelligent spirits
  • Wisdom 8:1 She orders all things
  • Wisdom 7: 24 She pervades and penetrates all things
  • Wisdom 7:27 She renews all things – renewable energy
  • Wisdom 9:10 She shares the throne of God
  • Wisdom 7:10 – 14 She’s the source of all things new
  • Sirach 1:1 – 8 It is God who knows wisdom and pours her forth upon the world
  • Sirach 24: 1 – 27 Hymn of self-praise sung by Wisdom in which she describes herself, her origins, her relationship to God and the good things she does for human beings. She came from the mouth of God, she is God’s word, breath, Spirit; as the spirit/wind that hovered over the waters of creation and as mist / steam that covered the earth at the beginning; she is universal, everywhere. Her image as a tree echoes Proverbs 8 – she strikes root among God’s people. She feeds all who long for her. Her food is sweeter than honey. Her food is herself. All who eat of her will hunger still, who drink of her will thirst for more. One will never be able to get enough of what she offers. What she offers is life. She concludes her song with a promise similar to Proverbs 8:35 – 34 – those who obey her will not be shamed. Those who serve her will not fall short. I believe she is the personification of God’s wisdom as the feminine archetype.

Birthing God – womb
• Gen 7:1 – Breasts illuminate a feminine image of God
• Deut. 32:18 “You forget the rock who begot you, unmindful of the God who gave birth to you”

• Job 38:8 “Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?”
• Job 38: 28-29 God’s fathering of rain and giving birth to ice from her womb
• Isaiah 42:14 “I groan like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant”
• Isaiah 46: 3-4: “You who have been carried since birth, whom I have carried since time you were born” – incubating in God’s womb
• John 1:12: Those who believe in God are born of God
• John 4:7: Everyone who loves is born of God
• John 16:21: God is bringing forth a new humanity like the pangs of a woman in labor; her hour has come
• Acts 17: In God we live and move and have our being
• Gal 4:19: God’s womb is in pain
• Romans 8:22 From the beginning to now the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth (creation)

Creator God of Israel is also imaged as the shaper, maker and mother God who formed Israel in the womb and birthed Israel with labor pains:
• (Deut. 32:18; Psalm 90:2; Proverbs 8:24 – 25; Isaiah 43:1,7,15; 44:2, 24; 45:9, 11; 51:13; 54:5 From the word “womb” (rehem) comes the verb “to have compassion” (raham), and the phrase “Yahweh’s compassionate (rahum) and gracious” repeatedly appears in the Hebrew scripture to describe the merciful and saving acts of God in history. (Deut. 4:31; 2 Chronicles 30:9;  Nehemiah 9:17; Ps 78:38; 86:16; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8; John 4:7 These verses show images of God who demonstrates “womb – like compassion” for her child Israel.
• God creator is sometimes depicted as woman giving birth and sometimes a reproductive image of God as both male and female: Deut 32:18; Job 38:28 – 29; Is 42:14; Acts 17; John 16:21; Gal 4:19; Rom 8:22; John 1:12

Nursing mother:
• Isaiah 49:15 does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son (daughter) of her womb
• Numbers 11:12 was it I who conceived all this people, was it I who gave them birth that you should say to me, carry them in your bosom like a nurse with a baby at the breast
• Psalm 131:2 – 3 But I have clamed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul within me is like a weaned child.
• John 7: 38 From his breast shall flow the fountains of living water
• 1 Peter 2:2 – 3 You are newborn and like babies you should be hungry for nothing but milk – now that you have tasted the goodness of Christ

Nurturing God – mother:
• Gen 1 :2 nesting mother
• Deut 32 : 11 – 12 mother eagle
• Hosea 11:34 I myself taught Ephram to walk, I took them in my arms
• Hosea 13: 8 I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs
• Psalm 131 image of repose – like a child in its mother’s arms as content as a child that has been weaned
• Ps 17:8 guard me in the shadow of your wings
• Ps 36:7 all people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings
• Ps 57:1 in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge
• Ps 61:4 find refuge under the shelter of your wings
• Isaiah 31:5 like birds hovering overhead, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem
• Isaiah 46:3 – 4 who have been borne by me from your birth carried from the womb… even when you turn gray, I will carry you. I have made and I will bear, I will carry and will save
• Isaiah 66: 10 –13 comforting mother…… as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you
• Luke 15:8 woman tirelessly sweeping for her lost coin, for what is important to her
• Luke 13: 34 (Matt 23:37), how often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings

Other images:
• Ruah – Gen 2:7, Ps 104: 29; Jn 3:8 presence gives life; feminine Hebrew word meaning breath, wind, inspiration or spirit.
• Rahamin Hebrew word for compassion – root word, rahan, means womb.
• El Shaddai – God of the mountains or God of the breasts
• Seamstress – Gen 3:21
• Washerwoman Isaiah 4:4, Psalm 51:7
• Midwife Psalm 22:9 – 11, Psalm 71:6; Isaiah 66:9
• Woman baking bread Matt 13:33
• Seeks justice Proverbs 8:18

*I’m pretty sure I originally derived this list from somewhere, though now I forget where. If you know where, please share in the comments and I’ll attribute.

Recommended Reading if you want to explore the feminine imagery of God more fully:

In Memory of Her by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Feminist)

Is It Okay to Call God “Mother”?: Considering the Feminine Face of God by Paul R. Smith (Evangelical)

Embracing Jesus and the Goddess: A Radical Call for Spiritual Sanity  by Carl McColman (Episcopagan)

Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power by Rita Nakashima Brock (Womanist)

Revelation of Love  by Julian of Norwich (Contemplative Catholic)

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Feminist)

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain (a general literary-historical investigation)

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd (Post-evangelical, post-Mainline)

The Maternal Face of God by Leonardo Boff (Catholic-Liberationist)

The Unknown She: Eight Faces of an Emerging Consciousness by Hilary Hart (Perennial)

Blue Like Jazz: The Movie – the Mike Morrell Interview

Update: Due to some unfortunate-but-understanding channel issues, the current host of my Blue Like Jazz interview has been switched to password-protected mode. We’ll be moving it to our Wild Goose Festival Vimeo channel soon; in the meantime, you can watch it by entering the password “miller.”

Last month I got to hang out at my favorite bar, Big Boss Brewery’s taproom, with two generations of indie Christian icons: Steve Taylor and Don Miller. They’ve teamed up to bring us Blue Like Jazz: The Movie, based on Miller’s nearly decade-long best-selling collection of vignettes of faith and coming of age. I interviewed them on behalf of the partnership between BLJ and the Wild Goose Festival, the arts, justice, and spirituality festival that’s helping create a world that’s recognized as wholly holy.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

And here’s the trailer for the Goose:

You should check out theaters in your area this weekend to see if Blue Like Jazz is playing; supporting an independent production like this in its opening weekend is crucial for its overall success. And you should really join us this June 21-24 at Shakori Hills campground in North Carolina. We’re going to have so many amazingly gifted artists, musicians, community organizers, spiritual wisdom-holders, ragamuffins, agitators, and ne’er-do-wells. And most of all, plenty of new friends and community that you can take with you. This week only, enter “bluelikejazz” at checkout, and get 15% off any Wild Goose registration! Our way of saying thanks for supporting good films and good festivals.

Without further ado, here’s the 30-minute interview between Steve, Don, and myself. I think we all had a good time.

(Remember: “miller” will let you watch this video.)

A Matter of Life and Death.

Love might be winning, but my waistline isn't.

It’s 11:20 PM; I just wrapped up another stressful day of work. And now, almost automatically, I find myself microwaving and eating a bowl of ramen noodles – two bowls to be exact.

What am I doing?

I’m not in college anymore.

I should know better.

I do know better.

So what gives?

Tonight is just the latest round in my life-long tug of war with food, fitness, and health. What is it that Paul says? “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate.”

Yeah. That’s me.

know “the good I ought to do.” I was raised in a family that ate “all-natural” food back in the 80s when it tasted like cardboard – I actually enjoyed carob chips! And my wife is an excellent cook; we eat mostly organically-grown and/or locally sourced foods – fresh! Not canned! We don’t drink carbonated sodas. I snack on apples.

And I love my life; there’s so much to be thankful for. I have a beautiful wife and an amazing four-year old daughter; I’m part of some vibrant faith communities. I do meaningful work; I’m a successful multipreneur (which is ADD-speak for having lots of interlocking gigs and businesses). And yet, there is this core of self-sabotaging behavior that works its way around food and eating. It looks like this: I eat really well all day long, but then “cheat” “just once.” This “cheating” works its way into a habit over a couple of weeks, and the next thing I know my clothes are fitting tighter. Then I work out harder, try and eat better, and a few pounds melt away. But then, they come back.

Sound familiar?

Here’s the thing: I know a lot about what makes for a good diet. And I’m even blessed to be someone who can afford to eat a good diet in the convoluted foodscape that is 21st century America. I don’t need more food rules; I actually need food grace. I don’t need a complicated set of dos and don’ts; I need a re-start button. I want to drink deeply from the fountain of Life, and let my body and mind be renewed and rebuilt on a molecular level.

Thankfully, I’ve discovered something called Living Fuel, a remarkable whole-food based superfood meal replacement that keeps friends of mine 10-15 years older than me in amazing shape. I’ll be saying more about this in my next health-related post, but for now suffice it to say that I have a grand ambition: Lose 80 pounds and be in the best shape of my life – body, mind, and soul.

In the coming months, in addition to blogging about faith and culture as usual, I’ll also be blogging more about health and fitness. Because it’s all related, isn’t it? It’s a step into greater vulnerability to be sure (kinda like that post I wrote a year or so ago where I confessed to you all that I’m nuts), but if Mike Morrell dot org ain’t the place to come clean with you, I don’t know where (online, at least) I would. Because good theology, spirituality, strategic foresight and cultural analysis isn’t done in some kind’ve gnostic vacuum: I’m a body as well as a brain – what bodies do, matters.

So – this should be a fun next few months. Please feel free to keep me in line if you feel like I’m becoming an info-mercial, or dangerously mirroring those seductively-slick media barrages about the ‘perfect body.’ I want to do neither, and yet I do want to honor bodies, and embodiment, as I seek to incorporate a more integral life practice.

Feel free to weigh in with wisdom and encouragement in the comments!

In the meantime, I leave you with some weight-loss wisdom from KC Craichy, the founder of Living Fuel:

 

The Way of the Heart Part 9: Christ is Living in Our Midst

This continues my series on Cynthia Bourgeault‘s recent day-session at the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro. You can start reading right here, or scroll below to see the previous sessions. 

Regular centering prayer encourages our direct knowing, without which there is no actual living Jesus tradition.

While we call Jesus our ascended master, our risen Lord, we act like we’re absentee landlords. Why do we invoke Eucharist in third person as though he’s not here?? Why not second person? Surely he didn’t go away when he died!

[Mike's note: I love how Cynthia says Jesus “is” and “does” rather than “was” and “did” like so many of her fellow progressive Christians, who do indeed see themselves as absentee landlords presiding over a Jesus Christ estate sale!]

Surely our hearts can pick up a connection with our living master if we’re only shown how.

The heart is the original spacecraft, for time travel – connecting us with all that is true, beautiful, and real.

Recognition of power is a profound kriya; Peter walking on water is the perfect example of this. If we want this connection in a similar fashion, we have to become serious students of the heart.

Nondual consciousness must be carried by the heart. Orthodox (Eastern) Christians have known this from the start. “The mind must be in the heart.” If you talk to a good Buddhist, they’ll say they know through the mind, but this carries inherent limitations. Unitive oneness, compassionate action, the grace & clarity we attribute to the saints – this is never attained by the mind alone.

In utero, the heart & brain begin as a single organism (according to an embryologist she spoke to). There can be a feedback loop between the two of them. We are becoming students of the magic of this extraordinary cardiology, opening up a unitive way of seeing.

(A humorous aside – Cynthia visited some older monks who knew Thomas Merton. Their take on Merton: “Oh yes. The little silence he knew, he spoke about very well.”)

I’m not trying in any sense to trash the mind; it’s a wonderful instrument. When the mind and heart work together, they’re brilliant. But anything which makes the mind rigid, fearful, simplistic creates a human being who uses neither the mind nor the heart.

To be continued…to see where Cynthia’s going with this, I recommend checking out her books The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and MindCentering Prayer and Inner Awakening,  The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, and The Wisdom Way of Knowing.

If you’re interested in exploring the myriad of ways in which apprentices to Jesus can navigate change in the 21st century – in our worship, our spiritual formation, our way of engaging the crises and opportunities we face today – I hope you join me at Co-Creation 2012, happening this April 12-15 in the same space where I saw Cynthia. Brian McLaren, Diana Butler-Bass, and Integral Christianity author Paul Smith will be joining with the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, North Carolina and a half-dozen artists and musicians to bring a truly unforgettable, interactive experience. To register, click here; to read more about this in an in-depth blog post, go here.

In This Series:

The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 1: What IS the Path of Jesus?
The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 2: See What Jesus Sees; Do What Jesus Does
The Way of the Heart Part 3: Cynthia Bourgealt’s Four Proposals – Beyond ‘The Imitation of Christ’
The Way of the Heart Part 4: Heartfulness Practice Transcends & Includes Orthodoxy
The Way of the Heart Part 5: Upgrading Our Operating System
The Way of the Heart Part 6: A Rorschach Blot for the Mind
The Way of the Heart Part 7: When 20/20 Hindsight Becomes Blindsight
The Way of the Heart Interlude: Kenosis Hymn
The Way of the Heart Interlude: Speaking of Life Divine
The Way of the Heart Part 8: Heart Surgery
The Way of the Heart Part 9: Christ is Living in Our Midst

Sunday Devotional: Matthew Fox, Cosmic Mass

Note: This post will make a lot more sense if you read The Nine ‘O Clock Service: The Vibrant, Troubling Birth of the Emerging Church first.

Today’s Sunday Devotional is sure to raise some ambivalence – but no one processing religion, faith, and spirituality in a post*(everything) world can afford to ignore Matthew Fox - tempestuous, flamboyant, inventive; priest, artist, liturgist and theologian. The defrocked Catholic-turned-Episcopal priest was (with the unlikely influence-pairing of Vineyard revitalizer John Wimber) responsible for inspiring what was arguably the first ever emerging/postmodern congregation in the mid-1980s – the brilliant, controversial, combustible Nine O’ Clock Service. Inspired by a Wimber prophecy at St. Thom‘s in Sheffield and nurtured by Fox’s Creation Spirituality amongst working-class rave culture, the NOS was a potpourri of influences and expression.

The message is as straightforward as it is apparently elusive to many “spiritual leaders” today: The person and message of Christ and the Christian mystery must be not only applied to, but interpreted by, the Janus-faced Crises/Opportunities we face today: political, economic, cultural, and ecological. When we mine our Scripture, tradition, poetry, and luminaries on the one hand, and nature, art, science, and global cosmologies on the other hand, real magic can happen.

Even after it’s untimely demise, the NOS’s ‘Planetary Mass’ idea – shades of Teilhard de Chardin‘s Mass on the World – re-caught the attention of Fox himself, who brought it back to the US as a ‘Techno-Cosmic Mass.’ To this day, there are many interested in applying the ideas of Original Blessing and Creation Spirituality to communal expressions, as well as many of wide variety of theological persuasions interested in alternative worship expressions.

“Eyes on a page are not really a way to open the heart up,” says Fox. To see footage from his Cosmic Mass in Oakland, see this video here. If you’re part of a worshiping community, join me in considering: How can we bring more beauty and awe into our worship, drawing from the deep wells of our tradition, from ecology, and from postmodern culture? 


For a compendium alt.worship resources, go here. Also see Fox’s YouTube channel.

If you’re interested in exploring the myriad of ways in which apprentices to Jesus can navigate change in the 21st century – in our worship, our spiritual formation, our way of engaging the crises and opportunities we face today – I hope you join me at Co-Creation 2012, happening this April 12-15. Brian McLaren, Diana Butler-Bass, and Integral Christianity author Paul Smith will be joining with the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, North Carolina and a half-dozen artists and musicians to bring a truly unforgettable, interactive experience. To register, click here; to read more about this in an in-depth blog post, go here.

Portions of this were originally posted on February 7, 2010. 

The Nine ‘O Clock Service: The Vibrant, Troubling Birth of the Emerging Church

Update: Wondering what a NOS-styled ‘Planetary Mass’ would look like in the US, minus the scandal? Check out Sunday Devotional: Matthew Fox, Cosmic Mass

Historians tracing the birth of self-consciously ‘emerging’ forms of church – if they seek to trace such things – will quibble about where and when, as historians do. But my best case is that a modest Anglican church in a small northern England city visited by Vineyard leader John Wimber in 1985 is the genesis of all that emerges today: An eclectic band of cultural creatives serious about radical discipleship began to craft one of the most creative, aesthetically appealing, and theologically forward-looking congregations ever – for the 1980s/90s or today. The congregation called itself the Nine O’ Clock Service, and its leader was Chris Brain. Under Chris’s leadership, NOS (as it was known) became a model in the Church of England and beyond – a template for what later became Fresh Expressions, as well as the alternative worship movement, which eventually spread (in at least some respects) to American innovators in the Young Leaders Network, which eventually became Terra Nova and then Emergent Village.

With that said, NOS could never fully emerge out from under the ‘radical discipleship’ and ‘shepherding‘ movements that marked the charismatic church – UK and American – in the 1970s and 80s. From the beginning, something was quite…off.

What was it?

I got to visit the NOS incubating church, St Thom’s of Sheffield, in 2003 – less than a decade after NOS’s demise, and ask St Thom’s members what went down. It’s legacy – both helpful and hurtful – was still palpable in this church and this town. I received further, in-depth clues after reading (at Phyllis Tickle’s recommendation) The Rise and Fall of the Nine ‘O Clock Service. As she said,

This is everybody’s idea of the perfect cautionary tale. As such, it is also one of the saddest reads in the growing literature about Emergence Christianity; for the Nine O’Clock devolved into scandal instead of evolving into a fresh expression of church. Its story needs to be known, however, by anyone seriously interested in being part of shaping an Emergence community.

It was hastily-written and could have used a better editor, but it’s a treasure trove of relatively-even-handed information and reflection. But more recently, I discovered a documentary that aired in the UK just as the national scandal – yes, national scandal – involving the NOS broke. As much as I’d read, as much as I’d talked to St. Thom’s members, I was unprepared for actual video feed of both NOS’s stunning services and face-to-face interviews with the brilliant/delusional Chris Brain and his co-creators/victims.

If you consider yourself an ally of emergence or a nemesis – or a charismatic movement enthusiast, or antagonist, for that matter – you owe it to yourself to watch this documentary. Here it is:

 

 

 

 

 

 

My reflections? I feel ambivalent. I think it would be all-too-easy to dismiss Chris Brain, when in fact trying great, bold things often seizes hold of our darkest shadows, and leaves open the possibility to great, bold failure. But is it better to have tried nothing? If Brain erred on the side of authoritarianism and prompting anxiety in his co-congregants that was very against the grain of the grace, freedom, and exploration he proposed, well – I’ll just come out and say it: I think that many of today’s emergent leaders (and I count myself in this, sometimes) suffer from a failure of nerve. Because we don’t want to be a “sage on the stage” we become “a guide on the side,” muting our deepest wisdom and most provocative gifts. Because we don’t want to be a Falwell or a Hinn or a Piper or a Mohler, we’re often diminutive in our impact.

photoI’ll say this: If we had more leaders like Chris Brain today – hopefully who have done substantial shadow work, a la ManKind Project or Women Within, which do fantastic work helping people transform their personal banes into blessings – the Great Emergence that many of us feel is in fact arising right now during our time of cultural transition would be more self-evident to every follower of Jesus today, not to mention the culture at large – whether they ‘agree’ with it or not.

None of this excuses Brain’s excesses, of course, or our all-too-common desire to latch onto a cult of personality.

But who else has stepped up to take eco-spirituality seriously in the past 20 years in a high-impact, visible way?

Who else has stepped up to bring truly beautiful worship into our midst that incorporates the ancient with the postmodern?

The answer, of course, is “lots of us.” From Matthew Fox and Brian McLaren to Karen Ward to Jonny Baker, Kester Brewin to Lilly Lewin, there has been a much more distributed effort. But for those who call out for a “Steve Jobs of religion,” well, for one thing be careful what you wish for. But for another thing – we may have had it, in the 1980s and 1990s, in Chris Brain and his dedicated team of worship-crafters and experience-curators.

If anyone is reading this who used to be part of the Nine O’ Clock service at any level and would like to respond with a comment or even a proposed guest post, please let me know.

Bonus: Download a rare MP3 of a 1992 NOS Planetary Mass here.

Evolution & the Two Trees in the Garden

Evolution. The very word struck fear into the hearts of 1980s homeschoolers everywhere – myself included. I remember my first encounters with the term, in an Answers in Genesis video series that our Douglasville-area homeschoolers association banded together to purchase and watch. Kids 4-17 huddled together in the Prays Mill Baptist Sunday school room, adjacent to the gym, to watch long, sweeping caricatures of evolutionary theory dismissed with two refrains said derisively-yet-sweetly by Australian creationist Ken Ham (who still had red hair back then):

It’s only a theory!   and,

Were you there? 

 This video series (and the accompanying subculture) were all we needed to realize that the universe was created in six literal days 6,000 years ago, with carbon dating a sham and evolution a Satanic plot to discredit the bible and promote abortion, homosexuality, and one world government by the same godless people who took prayer out of public schools and watch Susan Sarandon movies.

Fast forward to college around the turn of the century. A philosophical young lad and fellow student turned me on to Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe, with his argument that the Big Bang and an old earth/universe was indeed compatible with the biblical narrative of Genesis. I took to Intelligent Design like a duck to water – it was refreshing to not have to believe that God made rocks and stars appear old as a test of faith (as SBTS president Al Mohler apparently believes). It turns out some friends in my Atlanta-area house church were Hugh Ross fans, and indeed he was invited to speak at the school where one of them teaches – so I joined them there one night for a lecture from the man himself. While I was more convinced than ever of the scientific arguments for an old earth and cosmos, I learned that night Ross did not extend the same courtesy to biology that he did to physics – he rejected ‘macro’ evolution outright, seemingly on theological grounds.

It wasn’t until 2007, when I with TheOOZE helped put on Soularize in the Bahamas, that I heard a clear, passionate, positive articulation of the relationship between science and faith – in one Michael Dowd, pastor and author of Thank God for Evolution, curator (with his wife, scientist Connie Barlow) of the Evolutionary Christianity interview series. From Dowd I discovered Bruce Sanguin, author of Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological ChristianityThe Emerging Church: A Model for Change and a Map for Renewal,  and the beautiful, poetic, prayer/worship book If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Finally, thanks to my buddy Tripp Fuller, I discovered the dizzyingly brilliant heart and mind of Philip Clayton, whose insights on evolution and Christianity are many and substantial. I really want to read his The Predicament of Belief : Science, Philosophy, and Faith, coming out in a few days!

Coevolution from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Do yourself a favor and watch the video above, and the rest of this series by my friend Travis Reed at The Work of the People/Alter Video Magazine. Even if you have to stop reading this blog post – they’re that good, and might change your life. Seriously.

From their insights (and the many antecedents they point to), I began to see the evolutionary impulse as emergent nested creativity, a divine spark that is ever-expanding in complexity and empathy, bringing us, quite possibly, to an approximation of Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin‘s idea of an Omega Point, where the universe is becoming conscious of itself (vis-a-vis us) and all of reality is forming the cosmic Body of Christ. Celebrating the gifts of the scientific community, these thinkers and idea-leaders embrace science with zest as (to put in Augustine’s terms) God’s other Sacred Book – nature.

More recently still, I’ve been reading some more cautious, but equally vital, works of scholarship: Peter Enns‘ magisterial Evolution of Adam, The: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins and Christopher Southgate‘s The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil.

With all this as preamble, I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about the second creation narrative in Genesis 2-3 – with Adam, Eve, the Serpent, two Trees, God and the garden. I’ve been pondering its significance, and how certain epiphanies in this narrative have led me to substantially re-imagine an eleven-year personal writing project. I’m currently staying in a lovely rural house with friends about 40 miles outside of Raleigh, on a writing ‘semi’ sabbatical. In addition to serving my many clients (don’t worry folks – I am still working!), I’m looking to at long last complete at least the ‘First Act’ of my Four-Act book. The book – and this is the first time I’ve said this publicly in 11 years – is titled Eat God, provisionally subtitled Taste Heaven, Party like a god, and Save the World.

Yesterday, my e-friend Shane Crash asked a pitch-perfect setup question via Twitter and Facebook – the kind of thing that primed the pump for me to road-test some ideas for the book. Here it is:

“People who believe God is punishing humanity because a chick ate an apple. Why?” 

There were some fun answers, which you can read if Shane’s privacy settings are sufficiently low (I’m not sure). Here’s what I said, edited slightly for better coherence:

I’m not always fan of Augustine, and I’d like to get away from the idea of “The Fall,” believe me. I enjoy Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing, and I think he makes some compelling arguments for the original and sustaining goodness of creation, affirmed in Scripture and our experience. And yet, I can’t believe that humanity was just blissfully enjoying life when one day some grumpy religious people made up the myth of Eden and the rotten fruit. No…we must have felt something happen, some kind of existential shift, and then told this story of a primal human pair, two trees, and a tragic dietary choice.

Do I believe that God is ‘punishing’ us? No way! Do I believe a literal piece of fruit was ‘eaten’ by some first woman? That is highly debatable. But here’s what I think happened:

For some 200,000 years, homo sapiens enjoyed a pretty good life. Far from being ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short,’ a growing number of today’s anthropologists and archaeologists are pointing to a quite new vision of our deep pre-history. During the paleolithic era, we seemed to enjoy a deep sense of connection to our own bodies, one another, our natural environment, and our sense of the sacred (the last one of which seemed to include a High God/Creator, an immanent sense of the ‘spirit-ness’ of everyday objects and things, plus an ongoing communion with ancestors who have gone before us). We can see this way of living mostly neatly glimpsed in the rare, surviving aboriginal cultures on our planet today.

During most of our history, we shared everything. And there was abudnance – enough. We lived on a relatively ‘virgin’ planet, and population was much lower, for instance. Women were equal to men, and organized warfare was unheard of. I know this sounds like pie-in-the-sky, but read some Jared Diamond or Jetha and Ryan’s Sex at Dawn. It’s astonishing, the new consensus emerging about our original culture.

But then…something happened around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture – there’s debate about which factor(s), but there’s a clear demarcation in our collective psyche, beginning in the Fertile Crescent and radiating outward along trade paths and weather patterns. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but ‘suddenly’ in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers. Psychologists call this until-now-unheard-of process self-reflexive consciousness.

Self-reflexive consciousness, the ability to reflect on ourselves “as though” from the outside, turned out to be a burden as well as a blessing. Over the milennia it’s given us planes, trains, and automobiles, but also war, pestilence, and famine. It’s given us art and ache, innovation and envy. This development of the ego is fundamental to all that is recognizably human. And yet, it is what gives us this undeniable feeling of four-fold alienation: from God, self, others, and our environment.

I think that the Hebrew bible and it’s narrative arc is wise beyond it’s years, but of course we (whether fundamentalist or modernist) over-literalize and argue about details. In its broadest strokes, though, I think that the break with ‘oceanic,’ interconnected ways of knowing to this four-fold alienation is “the fall.” I think that the Tree of Knowledge represents self-reflexive consciousness, dualistic thinking, and discursive reasoning, whereas the Tree of Life represents a kind of non-dual seeing, a holistic living in the present moment that embraces all of life as it arises.

This ‘Tree of Life’ consciousness, which is more a practice than anything (a practice I call eating God), is both backward-reflecting on our deep-time roots as humanity and forward-looking to our aspiration of integration: Taking the best attributes of our recent 10,000-year adolescence in division, judgement, and Fruit of Knowledge indigestion, putting us on a Tree of Life de-tox regimen so that unripe knowledge is purged from our systems, making way for the ripened fruit of the Wisdom we need before it’s too late for us as a species or an ecosystem.

[As a parenthesis, the story of Cain vs. Abel is the story of ascendant complex agrarianism (on its way to nascent urbanism) clashing with hunter-gatherers and simple pastoralism. God prefers the worship-connection of the hunter-gatherers over those of the upstart agrarians - the violent farmer knows this, and murder is born. For more on this perspective, see Brian McLaren's novel The Story We Find Ourselves In, and Daniel Quinn's fascinating Ishmael trilogy]

I think that Christ can point the way, or even BE the Way, if we ‘eat Christ‘ and take him as both Life and the Wisdom of God. Seeing what Jesus sees, and knowing what Jesus knows, is the route out from the dead-end of small-egoic consciousness and the on-ramp to four-fold re-connection with God, self, neighbor, and ecosystem.

Moby is a fan of 'Eat God'...don't you want to read?

Eat God: Act 1 (‘taste heaven’) transfigures the classical Christian mystical stages of ascent – illumination, purgation and union – into tasting, de-toxing, and digestion – and looks at how to make this practicable every day. It should be juicy. But in the meantime, if you’re interested in these concepts, I’d recommend you check out The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History. It’s not from a ‘Christian’ perspective (which is fine by me though the author missed some obvious, rich literary material) and the guy could’ve used an editor, but the research he pulls together is pure gold.

Eat God: Acts II – IV weaves all of this together with spiritual practice, Jesus’ subversive meal-sharing habits, and our contemporary food and water crises as a clarion call to a new way of being spiritual and human in the 21st century. It’s rooted in the deep tributaries of the Christian tradition, but incorporates science, poetry, and a good deal of strategic foresight and systems thinking as it applies to our food and water systems.

As I mentioned, I’m at a farm-house outside of Raleigh making a dent in writing part one, as I’ve been working on this puppy since a few months before the twin towers fell.  I’m realizing now how much more editorial work is needed to keep it fresh, concise, and accessible. I hope this isn’t my own ego talking, but I see this as an important work – spiritually, culturally, and ecologically – as we need a contemplative, mystical, “deeper life” literature for today that inspires us, from our deepest convictions and highest apsirations, to live – sacrifically if needed – for the good of our children and our planet. Because I want to take advantage of the freedom and innovation that is contemporary self-publishing, I’m considering a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds for the completion of the manuscript(s) and their innovative word-of-mouth marketing. So – a poll for you dear readers: Would you consider supporting a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign if it meant that a.) This work could get out there in the world, and b.) You would get the first copies of it? There’s no wrong answer here – I’m just curious what interest is out there.

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(If you answer ‘yes,’ please leave a comment below! I’ll want to let you know if I actually do this. :) )

I’ll close with a gem from Joesph Campbell‘s Thou Art That which has deeply informed my thinking and intuition:

When Man ate of the fruit of the Tree, he discovered himself in the field of duality instead of the field of unity. As a result, he finds himself out, in exile. The two cherubim placed at the gate are there representative of the world of the pairs of opposites in which, having been cast out of the world of unity, he is now located. You are kept in exile by your commitment to that world.

Christ goes past that – “I and the Father are one” – back into the realm of unity from which we have been expelled. These are the mysteries. Here is an echo and a translation into another set of images of what we ourselves are experiencing. What comes forth now with the grain, as particles of that one life that informs all things, is the revelation of the spiritual unity in all its aspects.

Adam and Eve are separated from God and they are aware of this break in their sense of oneness. They seek to cover their nakedness. The question becomes, how do they get back to the Garden? To understand this mystery, we must forget all about judging and ethics and forget good and evil as well.

Jesus says, “Judge not, that you may not be judged.” That is the way back into the Garden. You must live on two levels: One, out of the recognition of all life as it is without judging it, and the other, by living in terms of the ethical values of one’s culture, or one’s particular personal religion. These are not easy tasks.

The Problem with Pietism: Why Nondual Mystics and Awestruck Atheists Get It Right

So an increasing number of my friends these days are atheists.

I don’t mean that I’m going to Atheist Meetup Groups to make new friends (though that would be fun, I’m sure); I mean that alot of my Christian friends are beginning to conclude that seeing God as an anthropocentric being ‘out there’ is no longer cutting it for them. They’re not (primarily) getting there via Dawkins or Dennett or Harris or Hitchens, though that might be side-reading. They’re getting there more via Dietrich Boenhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, or Pete Rollins’ The Fidelity of Betrayal or Insurrection - or Zizek or Badiou or Caputo or…you get the idea.

They’re also getting it from life - a lifetime spent doing the things that good (typically evangelical and charismatic, but also mainline and Catholic) Christians are taught to do. The virtue/prayer formulas taught in Deuteronomy or Proverbs (or even by Jesus) don’t seem to be working. The next thing you know, they start reading Mark’s gospel kinda like this, and Ecclesiastes, and voila! Atheist Christian.

What is an atheist Christian, you ask? Well, perhaps I’ll ask Ted Troxell to write me a guest post, but for now I’ll say this: An atheist Christian is a materialist who sees Jesus‘ (and, in many cases, Paul’s) ideals and programme under some soft of social-utopian lens, languaging a relational order in which all are given dignity. The theistic language that accompanied such visions is a necessary fact of the times in which they lived, but need not signify a core part of their ideology, as many of their other ideas (such as the smashing of idols, or the death of an incarnate God on a cross) are actually critical of and subversive toward overt religious claims.

I think I’d go so far as to say that I have more ‘atheist Christian’ friends these days than I do ‘uncomplicated’ Christian friends. How about you? Apparently this is not just a trend among emergent types, as even evangelical publishing house Tyndale has published The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn’t Exist addressing this trend, though I’m not sure if  Craig Groeschel‘s prognosis (which seems to be double-down and try more of the same) is really going to cut it with growing numbers of my friends. Atheist Christianity seems here to stay.

In many ways this trend disturbs me – too many of my atheist Christian friends have a nihilistic streak in them a mile wide. If “you shall know them by their fruits” is applied to their deconstruction of faith, well, in many cases their depression, anger, cynicism and disintegrating family life speaks for itself.

On the other hand, you have happy, well-adjusted atheists like Alain de Botton and Carl Sagan. To hear them talk they sound more like mystics, in awe at an interconnected universe. They don’t particularly believe that there’s an underlying, transcendent, conscious intelligence behind said universe, but they’re definitely reverent when it comes to What Is.

Compare this to the pietisms of the world – in Christianity, Pietism has Lutheran, Weslyan/Holiness, Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical flavors. Puritanism is a close cousin of pietism too. Pietism says that God is a God “out there,” but if you please Him enough (through faith, devotion, good works, discipline, or any number of other requirements), you can feel God in you, transforming you.

Pietism is powerful – a lot of people report feeling God. In the same twentieth century that brought on the Death of God movement, birthed in an Atlanta pub that I’m sure hosts theological conversation to this day, there’s also been an explosion in Pietism as manifested in Pentecostal, charismatic, and indigenous ‘Spirit-filled’ churches throughout the global south and two-third world. Marked by passionate worship, fervent evangelistic preaching, ardent expectations of signs & wonders, (often) prosperity teaching and (usually) the Second Coming of Jesus, these churches are growing by leaps and bounds. It’s estimated that one out of two congregations on earth are one of these types.

I can see why. I grew up in them. There is much to commend about their palpable sense of the reality and goodness and availability of God.

And yet…there is trouble in Pietism.

I began to see this trouble when I started reading mystics when I took off for college, in the late 1990s, and started trying to do what they recommended doing – ie, savoring Scripture slowly in lectio divina, chanting Psalms, or sitting in openness before a God who’s rendered unknown at the very site of revelation. I’ve tried and fumbled at these practices as an individual, as well as in groups, ranging from Quakers to house churchers

Now, at first blush, Christian mysticism is like Pietism on crack. If pop pietism can effuse ‘Jesus is My Boyfriend‘ Top 40-style worship songs, mystics can pen toe-curling erotic poetry to each member of the Trinity. If Pentecostals go to get their Jumpin’ Jehovah & Jesus fix twice a week (Sundays and Wednesday nights!), mystics expect some kind of daily encounter of the availability of God (though many are quick to caution against excessively showy manifestations, which they call ‘consolations’). But there’s a difference: In general, Christian mysticism or the contemplative path is far more subtle than Pietism, with its entire sanctifications, second blessings, and fast-tracks to an explosion of God’s palpable presence. The contemplative programme typically involves a lot of sitting, a lot of awareness, much letting go and a lot of quietly-cultivated love.

The end result of a life lived from this transfigured point of reference: A sense that God is everywhere even if God isn’t terribly overt; a weak God who looks like Jesus (strength made perfect in weakness) who is, nonetheless, All in all. A God in whom we live, move, and have our being – a ubiquitous God who defies description, even descriptors like ‘presence’ or ‘existence.’ It’s a deep ‘down and in’ consciousness of divinity, in which Spirit shows up disguised as your life.

Here’s where an extended quote from Jewish lawyer, activist, and spiritual teacher Jay Michaelson - author of Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism - is going to be awesome: Because I’m thinking is that deep-rooted nondual mysticism and awe-filled atheism are practically the same – at the end of the day, a God who is nowhere and a God who is everywhere might be merely a difference in semantics – a joy-filled word-play that we can each have fun with, riding the dialectic to a happier and more connected life. So here’s Jay:

To many people, spirituality is about having certain feelings, and spiritual practices are those actions which bring the feelings about. Light the candles, and feel “connected.” Pray, and become inspired. One does these practices in order to have certain feelings, or mindstates, to which one may attribute a range of mythic or psychological meaning. Conversely, if a practice isn’t working for you – that is, if you don’t get the desired feeling – drop it.

Secular critics of this type of spirituality (which often is derided as “New Age”) complain that it is narcissistic. Essentially, it’s just another thrill - and one which is then overlaid with delusion. At best, these pleasant delusions are rather pathetic balms. But they may also be deeply counterproductive, as the happy spiritual practitioner blissfully ignores her own problems, and those of the world. At worst, if the spiritual practitioner actually believes Allah, or Jesus, or whoever, is speaking to him, the delusions of the New Age are little different from the fundamentalisms of our era.

Within religious circles, surprisingly similar criticisms are leveled against ‘New Age’ spirituality. First, religious critics argue that New Age spirituality puts the individual before God. Some argue that it improperly values experience over authority, or over ethics – it is immodest, indulgent, and perhapsjust too much fun.

A less common critique comes from within the world of spiritual practitioners itself. Here, the complaint is neither impudence nor egotism but theological error. From a nondual perspective, spiritual practice is not about having a particular feeling, but about waking up to the shocking reality that your conventional self only exists as an appearance, a mirage. Like the Big Dipper, it is “there” in some sense, but not in the deepest sense; it’s not a structure of reality, but merely a way reality appears when looked at from a certain way. Spiritual and contemplative practice, in the nondual view, exist to wake us up from that “certain way,” which also happens to bring about all kinds of suffering, selfishness, and violence.

To do so, nondual spiritual practice must be all-pervasive. If you suppose that God is only present in the pleasant stuff – on a summer’s day but not in a cancer ward, when you’re feeling relaxed but not when you’re tense - then you’ve still making the same dualist error: God is here, but not there. In fact, the best spiritual practice might be one that neither provides the allure of the present nor the expiation of the difficult – but one which is utterly transparent, colorless, and thus always available. (Much more here!)

Michaelson is one of the most fascinating spiritual/religious thinkers, practitioners, and teachers today, precisely because he’s asking how the Western monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam might be potentially just as nondual as eastern traditions of Taoism or Advaita Vedanta. Now, for my more traditionally-minded Jesus-following readers who might feel like I’ve completely jumped the shark, don’t worry – I’ll get to my lens and my caveats in a moment. But first, let’s come back to Michaelson, in another article, this one on Prayer and Nonduality:

Nonduality may be understood in at least two ways. First, and traditionally, it proceeds from the theological tenet that God is infinite (Ein Sof in the Kabbalistic locution). Logically, if God is infinite, then every thing is God. “Do not look at a stone and say, ‘that is a stone and not God,’” wrote the sixteenth-century rabbi Moses Cordovero, one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time, “for you have dualized — God forbid. Instead, know that the stone is a thing pervaded by Divinity.”

Nonduality may also be understood from the bottom up (from our own experience), as well as from the top down (from the perspective of theology). The bottom-up inquiry proceeds not from a theological tenet but from a very close observation of our perceptions. Where, for example, is the “essence” (Platonic or otherwise) of the chair on which you are sitting? Take it apart mentally: is it in the wood? The legs? Its property of holding you up — which, if you inquire more closely, has nothing to do with the “chair” and everything to do with molecular properties, strong and weak nuclear forces, and all sorts of other things you and I do not understand? Really, “chair,” and everything else, is an emergent property that usefully describes reality as we experience it, but doesn’t really describe its actual truth. As Joseph Goldstein likes to say, it’s like the Big Dipper — it describes something about how things look from a particular perspective, but we all know there is no Big Dipper really, right?

It’s possible, if the mind is quieted and slowed by meditation, to notice how thoughts pop in and out, how they are all conditioned by other things, and how the idea of the “self” in which all of us are so invested is, like the Big Dipper, just a useful label that describes how things seem from a particular perspective — not how they are. In actuality, to speak of chairs, selves, and other things as existing in their own right is useful but not entirely accurate.

But if there’s no self, what is there?

That question is where pantheism and atheism shake hands, where nonduality in its specifically religious forms becomes quite interesting. God, we might say, is what is left when the self is subtracted from everything else. A Buddhist would say everything is an empty play of conditions: your decision whether or not to keep reading is due not to some homunculus inside your brain but to a myriad of causes, including genetics, what else you have to do today, how well I’m writing, learned behaviors, and so on. A nondual Jew or Christian uses the word “God” to refer to those conditions. (emphasis mine)

If God is All there Is, we can stop looking for the miracle – life is the miracle. We can also stop trying to explain away truly extraordinary, unusual happenings like the spontaneous healings and spot-on ‘words of knowledge’ and bizarre manifestations I’ve witnessed – because everything is God. This does not mean that there is no room for improvement, or that genuine evil and atrocity do not ‘exist’. Indeed, as Ram Dass said, “The world is perfect as it is – including my desire to change it.”

Or as Ken Wilber said (and as we recounted right here on the blog last month),

If you are the One, and—out of sheer exuberance, plenitude, superabundance—you want to play, to rejoice, to have fun, then you must first, manifest the Many, and then second, forget it is you who are the Many. Otherwise, no game. Manifestation, incarnation, is the great Game of the One playing at being the Many, for the sheer sport and fun of it.

But it’s not always fun.

Well, yes and no. The manifest world is a world of opposites—of pleasure versus pain, up versus down, good versus evil, subject versus object, light versus shadow. But if you are going to play the great cosmic Game, that is what you yourself set into motion. How else can you do it? If there are no parts and no players and no suffering and no Many, then you simply remain as the One and Only, Alone and Aloof. But it’s no fun having dinner alone. (The whole piece is well-worth reading if you haven’t already)

Now – there’s only one piece of this that doesn’t work for me as a relatively ‘orthodox’ Christian. It’s not God being all-pervasive, which I think is compelling, nor is it the difficulty this entails with ‘the problem of evil,’ which I think all cosmologies share – no, it actually shows up in the subtle-but-huge difference between Wilber and Michaelson’s depictions of nonduality: For Michaelson, ‘God’ often seems like a descriptor we give to the All – ‘God’ is a figure of speech. Eastern paths – and Western paths that tend to be over-accommodating to them – tend to elevate the impersonal over the personal as the highest insight possible. But for Wilber – in this piece at least – God has agency, and personality.

For me – and perhaps this is a weakness of mine, or perhaps this renders my nonduality and atheist-friendliness to be the thinnest of artifices – God must be personal. And God must be ultimately good - or, love - in the ways in which our deepest intuitions imagine goodness and love to be. Which is why I’m so taken by Jesus, and the imaging of God he depicts – ‘the exact representation of the Father’s being.’ Owning that yes, of course ‘Father’ and even ‘Person’ are projections and anthromorphisms, I can affirm that whatever ‘God’ is,

God must be more than personal – but I can’t agree that God is less than personal.

How can I get all of this to hang, cosmologically? Well I’m not sure, but let me throw a sketch out there, that my most theologically-astute friends can hopefully help me or rebut me on: You know how in Walter Wink’s theology, there’s a ‘spirituality of institutions’? How he posits (in The Powers that Be and everywhere) that “the Angel at the Church of Sardis,” et al, is referring to the collective identity of a particular congregation, which has a kind of supra-personality that includes but transcends the sum of its parts? And you know how Wink proposes that ‘the demonic’ is similarly institutionally personal – an ‘Angel’ who has turned against its reason for being? So that everything from the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex to Coca-Cola to the Church of Peter, Paul, and Mary and #Occupy is a principality and a power – either angelic or demonic, for good or for ill? (If you aren’t familiar with this way of thinking about the biblical witness concerning ‘the powers,’ read Wink‘s books! They’re borne out of both personal experience with the demonic in helping end South African apartheid, as well as careful scholarship. They’re life-changers.) A corporation or a congregation or a popular mass movement seems to exert actions or behaviors that sometimes override the wills of individual members within it – even those who supposedly occupy influential or top-ranking positions within them. It’s as though the sum total of these groups have a will of their own, in a way that projects an aura of personality that transcends the organizational life of the collective.

Well, what if God is like that, relative to the Universe? If the universe is greater than the sum of its parts, the Personality thus generated is God. This could be a very specific God, revealed in one of the great world religions or philosophies, or perhaps fragments revealed in all of them – including atheism. (Sociologist Rodney Stark explores this possibility in Discovering God). This God could exhibit traits intelligible to humans, and could decide to manifest in one or more of any number of ways.

There are, as I see it, epistemological difficulties with this A-Personal-God-is-a-Projection-of-the-Universe idea. Namely the charge that this is simply pantheism writ large – God IS Reality, albeit personal (whereas most pantheists, like most deists, conceive God as most philosophers to – non-personal). Therefore, the pre-existence and transcendence of God is toast in this view. This need not be the inevitable conclusion, however. Because if time, as I understand Einstein, is a byproduct or  co-extensive effect of space, then a God who transcends and includes the sum of the Universe’s parts need not be constrained by all of its strictures. Put another way, words like ‘eternity’ are themselves human creations, and we tend to associate ‘time’ with them when ‘depth’ is closer to their original meaning. Given all that we don’t really understand about quarks, super-strings, and holographic physics, we live in a strange and wonderful Universe that could bear or be borne by a strange and wonderful God.

This is not a ‘God of the gaps’ theory, relying on some sloppy appeal to ‘mystery’ and ‘what we don’t yet know’ to substantiate it. Ultimately, I’m deeply okay if God = The Universe (pantheism), or if God, even while being the personality generated by the Universe, turns out to be in some way outside its strictures and thus ‘transcendent’ over/beyond it (panentheism). Either way, God is All in All, as my Christian Scripture attests in its brightest moments. And either way, a God who emptied Godself in kenosis, and who died rather than seek revenge, who is resurrected nonviolently – this is a God whose ‘weak force’ is strength in a way where ubiquity might as well be non-existence, as ‘existence’ is a category too paltry to contain the Beloved. Instead, we have a Way who empties himself of easy certainty, a pathless path that is co-extensive with life itself. The realization of union with God (which need not come with bells and whistles – only the simple, trusting/experimental acknowledgment) yields a way of seeing in which God is everywhere, and manifest in everything – which might be the true meaning of Bonhoeffer’s ’religionless Christianity,’ a path that is “utterly transparent, colorless, and thus always available.”

Pietism, then, is a frustrating half-measure – a God who is neither everything nor nothing, and is thus a bridge to nowhere – a dead-end of unmet religious longing leading to dangerous fundamentalism on the one hand and impotent liberalism on the other hand. Could it be that the God revealed in Jesus is a God willing to be broken and poured out , and in Pyrrhic resurrection negate into ubiquity, becoming tastable and handle-able by each of us, power distributed to the whole of us rather than a Power-Narrative all too easily abused by the strongest of us?

I can hope. Or at least, wonder.

Recommended Reading:

Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words by Brian McLaren
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler-Bass
Integral Christianity:  The Spirit’s Call to Evolve by Paul Smith

Not conincidentally, all three of these authors will be sharing at a most unique gathering: Co-Creation 2012: The Great Emergence & The Spirit’s Call to Evolve, hosted by the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, North Carolina! They’ll be joined by world-class artists and musicians, as well as participants from across the country; come on out and see us this April 12-15th! Register here.

Other good reading on this includes The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See by Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault, If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics by Bruce Sanguin, and Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd.

 

Other Posts of Potential Interest:

Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’

and

The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 1: What IS the Path of Jesus?
The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 2: See What Jesus Sees; Do What Jesus Does
The Way of the Heart Part 3: Cynthia Bourgealt’s Four Proposals – Beyond ‘The Imitation of Christ’
The Way of the Heart Part 4: Heartfulness Practice Transcends & Includes Orthodoxy
The Way of the Heart Part 5: Upgrading Our Operating System
The Way of the Heart Part 6: A Rorschach Blot for the Mind
The Way of the Heart Part 7: When 20/20 Hindsight Becomes Blindsight
The Way of the Heart Interlude: Kenosis Hymn
The Way of the Heart Part 8: Heart Surgery