Posts Tagged ‘fundamentalism’

MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

We are each aware of our life as it unfolds through time, with an exterior facing out to the world and an interior opening to the depths of the soul’s inner space. The ego, our center of self-conscious identity, toggles this boundary between objective facts and subjective feelings, between matter and value, between sensory perceptions and subtle awareness, between what we appear to be and what we really are.

To be perfectly honest, it is far easier to manipulate appearances than to live authentically, and much to be gained as far as the acceptance, respect, envy, or fear in others we are hoping to impress is concerned. Jesus didn’t put much weight in appearances, and he was sometimes caustic in his criticisms of those who fluff their feathers and strut around for the glamour value of their knowledge or social class standing.

The real tragedy – and this is what disturbed Jesus so much – was that these appearance-and-protocol obsessed legalists were not only duped themselves, but were pulling others into their delusion. For them, you’d better follow the rules and pay your dues to tradition if you hope to be in God’s favor. All the purity and dietary laws prescribing how and what one could eat were taken to be the “fundamentals” of their religion, and to transgress on these was a crime against God punishable by exclusion from the community.

Jesus looked at them and saw not only a hollow piety but a dangerous deception for the multitudes as well. And so, for the sake of their liberation, he spoke out against it.

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JOHN 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

In many ways, the gospel of Jesus is the esoteric (inner-oriented) and spiritual fulfillment of the historical saga of biblical Judaism. If the fall of Adam removed our species from proximity to the tree of immortal life, so that we pain and hope for a life after death, the gospel of Jesus reveals the path back into Eden, to authentic life before (and hence also beyond) death.

If the journey of Abraham was across the geographical terrain of the ancient Near East, that of Jesus is across the spiritual landscape of the soul. If the mission of Moses was to gain the political freedom of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, the work of Jesus is to liberate the human spirit from the prison of guilt and fear. If the old Joshua led the way into the new frontier of the Promised Land, the New Joshua (the Hebrew form of the name Jesus) opened for us the higher frontier of freedom and love, the kingdom (or kin-dom) of God.

This means that there are two ways of looking at the same phenomenon of religion – according to its outward, external, and historical aspect; or its inward, subtle, and eternal aspect. It’s the difference between mythology and mysticism, religious ceremony and spiritual awakening, dogma and experience, logic and insight, worship of God and union with God.

These are not exclusive of one another, but neither should they be thought of as co-equal. The one is meant to be form to the other’s substance, body to its soul, house to its living presence. Nicodemus to its Jesus.

                                                                                            

The problem is that Nicodemus can’t understand Jesus, just as religion will never be able to understand spirituality. It will try. It will try to force its rigid nouns and logical rules over the intangible and elusive mystery of Spirit, but to no avail. It doesn’t matter how hard he tries; words just can’t define the indefinable, can’t capture the ineffable. The deep experience of Mystery simply cannot be translated into the boxes of language, however inspired.

Indeed, the harder Nicodemus tries to comprehend (literally, “to grasp”) Jesus, the more frustrated he is bound to become. This may very well account for the violence-prone desperation one finds in fundamentalist religions.

As Jesus is talking about spiritual rebirth, Nicodemus is trying to imagine the gymnastics required to get a full-grown adult back into his mother’s womb for a second go at it. And when Jesus speaks of “eternal life” – literally a life with no beginning, life outside of time altogether – all that Nicodemus is likely to hear is only some formula for “everlasting life” (a life that never ends, and which remains stuck in time).

What Nicodemus needs is a transformed mind (metanoia, the Greek word that most frequently gets translated as “repentance”). His religious ritual of baptism, “being born of water,” must give way to the new creation within, where the inner self is infused by the Divine Mystery beyond.

“How can these things be?” the bishop asks in bewilderment. He will never understand.

MICAH 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

One of the dangers that religion has had an impossible time avoiding is the temptation to think that its sacred symbols, ritual performances, and doctrinal formulations somehow qualify its members for God’s special favor.

The elaborate superstructure of religious tradition, architecture, and orthodoxy can become so impressive as to eclipse the metaphysics of spirit altogether. Consequently the holy Mystery and gracious Presence at the heart of all things can get lost in a view obstructed by the self-glorification of a belief system.

As often as religion has fallen to this temptation of an inflated self-importance, there have thankfully arisen the clear lights of men and women who knew better. In the biblical narrative we can find Abraham stepping away from the polytheistic practices of his countrymen, Moses grinding up the golden calf idol of the impatient Israelites, Amos exposing the systemic violence and inhumanity in the government programs of his day, and later Jesus defending human dignity and demonstrating God’s love in the face of a religion too fixated on being right to be concerned with doing good.

The prophet Micah was another one of these clear lights. In his day (a rough contemporary of Amos in the southern nation of Judah) so much of religion had collapsed into becoming little more than blind ceremony. People had been made to believe that giving the right sacrifice, on the right day, and in the right way, earned them merit in God’s eyes.

                                                                                  

What are sacrifices – and, we might add, what are buildings, writings, rituals, sacred objects, appointed officials, liturgies, and even tradition itself – but the “mechanics” of spirituality?

None of these things are that mystical current of creative power and love we call Spirit. Their role is to serve as vehicles for Spirit, icons of Spirit, witnesses to Spirit, and even bearers of Spirit, but never its substitutes or permanent containers. The problem, of course, is that Spirit is essentially ineffable (beyond words) and our brain (at least our left brain) is incessantly verbal.

Add to that the ingredient of our egos – that nervous bundle of insecure, guilt-ridden, and control-fixated self-consciousness – and you have the recipe for fundamentalism. Soon enough, we have made God in our own image: self-righteous, judgmental, vengeful and violent.

As one who “speaks for” God (Gk. prophetes), Micah confronted the dying system of his religion with the fresh winds of spirituality. What does God want of you, but to work for equality, practice charity, and cultivate your relationship with Spirit? Notice how these virtues and disciplines fit together in an organic whole: our journey deeper into God produces loving-kindness in us, which seeks to build a safe, fair, and just society for all.