Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

JOB 38:1-7, 34-41

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
    so that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
    and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
    or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods cling together?

39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens,
    or lie in wait in their covert?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God,
    and wander about for lack of food?

If there is a dominant lesson that the Book of Job is trying to bring home to us, it is that life’s meaning will not be found in explanations. An explanation is always and necessarily an abstraction from experience, whereby we step out side of the moving stream of life itself and take hold of verbal formulas that name and assign value to what we are experiencing.

Being the thinking creatures we are, we cannot help but jump to conclusions frequently in order to make sense of what’s going on. It becomes especially profound when we are making our way through tragedy and loss, but the one truth that we must learn in life is that its meaning is not “out there” in some mind-independent reality, but instead is constructed (and subsequently entertained) by our mind.

The whirlwind in this passage is surely a metaphor for Job’s experience: disorienting, confusing, unbalancing, chaotic. Up till this moment in the story, Job’s friends have been advising him on how to make sense of his misfortune and personal illness – by seeing it as retribution for unconfessed sin or at least as due chastisement for insisting on his innocence before God. But all of their explanations and theories amount to nothing more than a piling-up of justifications for God, letting God off the hook by shifting the blame to Job.

Job’s unwillingess to play the scapegoat for God resulted at last in his experience of epiphany. God answered Job out of the whirlwind – not from outside it, but directly out of its chaos of questions and contradictions.

JOHN 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

Miracles are dangerous because the lead us to believe that God acts through the suspension of physical laws, interrupting the cause-and-effect chain of events that we take to be ordinary and natural. Thus our words ‘extraordinary’ and ‘supernatural’ for naming the miraculous. The problem with this explanation is that it drains the miraculous from what is, in fact, not an ordinary universe at all!

But when we come across accounts of the miraculous in the scriptures and folklore of religion, our responsibility is to ask more than whether or not this really happened. The writer of the Fourth Gospel acknowledges the critical importance of this ‘something more’ when he refers to the miracles of Jesus as “signs” – things or events that point beyond themselves for their full value and meaning. We can get hung up in a debate over the scientific accuracy of this account, or we can follow the indication of the sign itself. What is it really saying? Where is this miraculous feeding of five thousand directing our meditation?

The writer is drawing a parallel between the New Testament prophet-messiah Jesus and the  First Testament (the so-called ‘Old’ Testament) prophet-messiah Moses, under whose leadership the exodus community had been liberated from slavery in Egypt. In that earlier era also, God had provided miraculous meals in the desert.

1 PETER 4:12-14; 5:6-11

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

Theism is generally the belief in a god (or gods) who exists in some higher (supernatural) or hidden (metaphysical) location, supervising human affairs. A god may be more or less directly involved with these humans (commonly called believers or devotees). There is typically a reciprocal relationship between believers and their god, where worship, offerings, and obedience are directed toward the deity in exchange for protection, blessing, and perhaps beatitude in the next life.

Early polytheism entertained a variety of deities – and devils, who were mischievous or malevolent deities – representing the forces of nature and concerns of cultural life. When the Mosaic revolution in Judaism rejected the existence of any god but Yahweh, something had to be done with them besides simply dismissing them out of hand, along with their diabolical counterparts.

One solution was to preserve the existence of these other deities and devils, but demote them to subordinate status as angels and demons. A variant of this was employed later, in the idea of a divine council assisting Yahweh in his administrative duties. As a member of this heavenly committee, Satan was depicted as “the adversary” who tested the faith and loyalty of Yahweh’s human subjects (as in the literary example of Job).

At about this same time (sixth century BCE), a prophet known as the Second Isaiah suggested the more radical idea that Yahweh is the only one behind the “weal and woe” that humans experience. For this writer, having one supreme cause behind everything that happens was a way of giving meaning to the universe and all possible events. This was his way of answering the national tragedy of exile by the Babylonians (587-538 BCE).

Eventually, however, the generally accepted solution to the problem of good and evil was a dualistic one. God was put in charge of the good (blessing, prosperity, salvation) and Satan was moved out of the heavenly boardroom and into his own nether region, where he orchestrates the cause of evil (iniquity, calamity, and damnation).  As a messianic movement within Judaism in the first century, Christianity carried forward this dualism, joining it to an apocalyptic expectation of a fast-approaching end of the world.

Wherever we may stand on the issue – one god with several angelic and demonic ministers, a single supreme will behind everything, or a polarity of agencies in the war of good and evil – the key to remember is that all solutions are efforts to make meaning of what human beings sense, suffer, care about and hope for. Truth is not really a question of accuracy, but therapy in helping people work through the challenges and opportunities of life.

PSALM 114

1 When Israel went out from Egypt,
    the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
2 Judah became God’s sanctuary,
    Israel his dominion.

3 The sea looked and fled;
    Jordan turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
    the hills like lambs.

5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
    O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
    O hills, like lambs?

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
    at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
    the flint into a spring of water.

Parting the Red Sea and Jordan River are mythological references to the story of when the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt and later given possession of the Promised Land. These images resonate with our universal human condition, delivered as we are in our birth, wandering through the wilderness of this world, and hoping for passage to a better place on the other side – either the other side of what we are currently up against, or on the other side of the Dark Gate.

The mountains skipping like rams and the hills like lambs are obvious metaphors (technically similes). Water from rock is another link into the national myth of the Hebrews, recalling the time when a whack from the staff of Moses brought forth refreshment for the mutinous assembly at Mount Horeb (Exodus 17:1-7).

But let’s not stop there.

“The Lord” is also a metaphorical reference to a supreme power and intention behind all things, personified on the model of a high magistrate or land owner. Is God literally a sovereign ruler sitting on a throne somewhere, or the deed owner of the universe? No, not literally. These titles and associations are being used elliptically, as it were, to speak of something that cannot be directly named or known.

Those who seek after an unmediated experience of the supreme reality are known as mystics, and they are unanimous in cautioning the rest of us against taking our names and concepts of God too seriously. Is the deepest mystery a skipping ram? No, not literally. A sovereign lord? Again, not in the literal sense. What about a being “up there” or “out there” in some straightforward way? Not even that.

Orthodoxy is in perpetual tension with mysticism in every religion. The dogmatists want to define and legislate our representations of God, while the mystics are trying to penetrate past our need for concepts altogether. One defends explanations while the other cultivates an experience. Together they embody the dynamic poles of a creative rhythm: control/release, certainty/openness, verbosity/silence, belief/faith, and meaning/presence.

Dogmatists push religion outward into greater divergence, as all religions differ in the way they make sense of God. Mystics, on the other hand, pull religion inward toward a deeper convergence, where holy books are respectfully set aside and words are finally surrendered to ineffable communion with the divine mystery.

Somewhere in this rhythm the rest of us work out our salvation, on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

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.