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WORD UP SOCRATES

It was Socrates who said that “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  Of course, being a philosopher in the 4 century B.C.E., one didn’t have Voice Mail, Email, Facebook, Twitter, and Super Bowl predictions amidst a countless sea of daily to-do’s clamoring to distract you from this special task.

But is it a luxury, examining your life, or is it a necessity?

It seems the answer is the latter.  The challenge of finding meaning and orientation in life appears to have been one of our most basic of needs since the beginning of recorded time.  Psychologist James Fowler  describes human beings as “creatures who cannot live without meaning.”

While this need for meaning is present in each of us, it cannot be addressed exclusively-or even primarily- as an individual matter.  And none of us really gets to start from scratch.  We have been born into traditions, as a member of a family or as a member of the society we live in, and this has helped us to orient ourselves in the world, for better and for worse.

This meaning making is always BOTH a solitary endeavor AND eked out in relationship with others. Relationships being the vehicle in which we garner context in order to do any kind of self-examination and vice verse.

Maintaining relationships, having conversations with others, and choosing to be in community with those who are also trying to live their lives with intention helps to correct the all too human tendency (this correction is exacted sometimes with a feather, sometimes with a 2×4!) to make and keep assumptions about people, places, and things.

MYSTERY

Underpinning all our knowledge of the world and its workings is mystery. 

The Christian theologian Karl Rahner writes: “Mystery is something familiar, something that we love, even when we are terrified by it or perhaps even annoyed or angered and what to be done with it… In the ultimate depths of our being we know nothing more surely than that our knowledge, that is, what is called knowledge in everyday parlance, is only a small island in a vast sea, but ultimately it is borne by the sea.  Hence the deepest question for us humans is this.  Which do we love more, the small island of our so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery?”

I have discovered for me that “the small island” that comprises the traditional religious beliefs I was raised with and the dogmas and creeds that were spoon fed to me give me no reliable information about the nature of mystery.  The tenets and closed ended affirmations, the once and for all proclamations of what brings salvation and what is the meaning of life, may bring for many a craved sense of security, and be enough.  But they leave me feeling like I’ve only stuck a timid toe in, never plunging down into the depths of the ineffable.  

Religious practices that place us in relation to the real, transforming power of mystery, the power of God, the ones that have as a participant with this creative force, this energy alive but resisting definition, that puts us squarely in the face of mystery, in a direct experiential way; that’s what I’m talking about. Hoping to risk my significance for this.  Hoping I can. 

What has been most imperative it seems is that I empty myself, or perhaps more accurately, be more self-giving.  I must commit myself to the process, as much as I can each day.  And as only God knows, this level of commitment shifts from day-to-day, moment to moment. 

How do I know if I’m actually floating in this vast sea of mystery?  It’s usually what I never initially intended.  It always when I am not attempting to shape the world closer to my own heart’s desire but instead am somehow having my heart transformed so that what I now want is something very different that what I desired at the beginning. 

While I can dally in the idea of God beyond space and time, I need a religious reality than must be some aspect of the observable, natural world. It is infallible because it holds together when I am broken, and while great disasters are not averted here in the real world, personal ones, local ones, global ones, they are not the final answer.

When what had once appeared as mundane events in a life of what can at times feel like an endless loop of dry cleaning, dog walking, work, dinner preparation, sleep, repeat again,  now is punctuated with encounters and events pervasive with meaning. Where once had been merely material happenings randomly occurring, there is now richness and trust in the very process of life, perhaps even prophecy, that is mystery.

There is not longer just my story, my will. Letting go of control, of plans,what is exposed is a collective tendency within the world to create ever-increasing complex wholes, in which the parts work together to enhance and magnify each other. 

That these daily moments of grace happen is a practice of noticing.  How they happen is mystery.

I HEAR YOU STEPHEN HAWKING, AND…

How serendipitous! The BBC news agency published an article on Sept. 2nd relating that Prof. Stephen Hawking, in his latest book The Grand Design, has concluded that God was not necessary to create the universe. Among Hawking’s statements: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch-paper and set the universe going”…”The Big Bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics”…and finally, and for me, most importantly, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”

In my August 31st post entitled “Awe…some”, I was offering a different way to think about God, using new language to include God in the discussion with a wide swath of people with variant viewpoints.  It was not the anthropomorphic construct of a Father or Lord with flowing, shimmering robes and a long white beard.  Rather it was “God as the ultimate mystery of things, as the serendipitous creativity manifest throughout the universe…through which new forms and configurations of reality and life have come into being.” (Thank you Gordon Kaufman).

Spontaneous creation says Hawking, Serendipitous creativity says Kaufman.  Scientist, Theologian.  To my way of thinking, the more that one wants to separate these two fields of inquiry, the closer they appear to fuse.  Science and Religion are compatible. They need not be at odds with one another. Whether we are referring to either science or religion, we must be willing to expand our vocabulary, to open our minds to ways of seeing the world, the universe, in ways that to previous generations seemed unimaginable.  This takes both a willing faith to jump into the unknown as well as all of our faculties of reason to make sense of our new discoveries.

The prevalent worldview is that there is only “this”-the space-time world of matter and energy and whatever  other natural forces lie behind or beyond it.  This modern, nonreligious construct has no foundational place for tradition notions of God.  It thus makes the reality of God problematic.  For some, it leads to rejecting the reality of God, or at least to serious doubts about God, and thus to atheism or agnosticism.

And for those who continue to believe in God, it changes how God is thought of.  Many Christians basically accept the modern worldview’s image of reality and then add God onto it.  God is the one who created the space-time world of matter and energy as a self-contained system, set it in motion, and perhaps sometimes intervenes in it.  God becomes a supernatural being “out there” who created a universe from which God is normally absent.  This is a serious distortion of the meaning of the word “God”.

For me, God always points to something greater,  a “More” and an “And” . Why can’t God be Creator, Spontaneous Creation, and Serendipitous Creativity? We can live out of our imaginations. The vision of reality emerging in postmodern physics does not settle our understandings once and for all.  Religion and postmodern science alike both point to a stupendous “More.”  

 People throughout history and across cultures have had experiences that seem overwhelmingly to be experiences of the sacred.  There are also the quieter forms of religious experiences that happen in the dailiness of our lives.  We witness natural disasters and unmitigated tragedies, and we then we see nature growing and returning to burned forest or flood damaged lands. We hear stories of hope and compassion, beacons of light that rise up when the odds would bet otherwise.   While these experiences can’t be quantified, they can be qualified.  Existence refuses to quit creating.  This experiential base of religion is quite strong; it is ultimately what I find to be its most persuasive ground.

In closing, some words from Marcus Borg: “Finally, no story can be told about the truth of God. It can’t be argued or televised.  And witnesses can’t prove it exists.  Yet the truth of God brings peace instantly.  There is only one unchanging truth about anyone and everyone.  None are left outside of the warm assurance and gentle rest it offers, because God’s truth is Love.”

SAINTS ARE SINNERS WHO KEEP ON TRYING

I admit it; I am enamored with saints.  I am fascinated with those who have reached the pinnacle of spiritual freedom, unity with God.  Regardless of their religious traditions, these are men and women who are deemed “scientists of holiness.”  We can learn from them. They are not only guides to the grail of enlightenment but they teach us how to live in a practical and substantive way that can enrich our everyday living. 

Saints never think of themselves as such.  Each has had their own personal demons to face down.  It is in choosing not to run away in the million ways we humans do, but utilizing their trials and struggles for personal growth and focusing on the inner life that they demonstrate another dimension of human potential.  Recovering a bit of the asceticism that has always been the foundational gristmill for spiritual advancement can help us tremendously.  What I mean by this is we don’t need the severe self-denial and austere lifestyle of a Gandhi or a Buddha or a St. Francis, but to give up the current wave of entitlement, to be able to say no to our temptations on occasion, is freeing.  We become able to resist our own compulsive consumption.   

People need to experience God, not be told about God.  Living examples, being very much in the world, do that by inspiring the lives of others.  These are not “feel good” pseudo-spiritualities or for the spiritual elite, but for everyone. Our experience of the Divine informs the self and yet continually needs to be balanced with community.   Reaching out to others is both a natural progression and a means for necessary connection. Indeed, those with spiritual depth often understand social service to be as important, if not more important, than the more traditional activities of preaching and teaching. 

Saints would probably also scoff at the idea of them being mystics, though that is what they are.  Yet mystics are not so mysterious, rather I’ve heard them described as “ones who see into the depth of things through the fissures and fragments of our human experience”.  With single-minded purpose, these friends of God (or to the ALL that IS) are granted a special way of seeing, a heightened awareness of a presence or absence. 

Casting the mystical net wide as the awareness of some sort of ultimate reality that transcends all religions; religion can unify instead of divide.  We can recognize that different traditions can learn from one another, if one if grounded in one’s own tradition and open to another. Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, all can enrich each other’s practices.  For instance, Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, was influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

It is not the visions or miracles attributed to those regarded as saints, during their lives or posthumously, that should be the reasons for  reverence.  In fact, that kind of thinking leads to idolatry rather than the harder working of following by example.  It is the spiritual practices and articulated paths that are to be learned from.

That is not to say that we should disregard profound and unusual human experiences. It’s just that without a conscious effort to seek out these mystics, both past and present, their voices quickly become drown out by the difficulties of daily living, the heroes who win World Championships and are given parades, and the Hollywood stories of celebrities.  In an effort to reclaim the saint, human foibles and all, we are being re-called to something larger than ourselves.

Ten Religious Words That The Spin Doctors Doctored

10. Gospel– This word almost always refers to writings about the life of Jesus, more specifically, the canonical writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Its original meaning however is much more broad.  It literally means “good news”.  Now for many of us these writings of the New Testament are indeed good news.  Yet, for others, it could be the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the works of Maria Rainer Rilke or the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous.  In other words, what is good news to you, that you use to build your life around.  What is your gospel?  

9. Heretic– The Roman Catholic church has, over the centuries, given this word a new definition.  Its current definition means those who hold unorthodox or controversial beliefs or opinions which differ from that of the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.  However, in its original form, the word, from its Greek roots “hairetikos” to its Latin and early English and French derivations, simply means “able to choose”.  So, a heretic, is one who is able to choose what he or she believes.  A wonderfully democratic term turned slander.      

8. Agnostic– one who believes that truth claims about the existence or non-existence of God are in fact unknowable.  They don’t know.  They doubt. While I am not an agnostic, I believe in God, I think that agnostics have been given a bad rap.  People scoff when they speak of a friend or co-worker that is agnostic, like there is something weak or deficient in such a stance.  Yet, I have faith, but sometimes I have doubt.  When I have doubt, I guess one could say I was feeling agnostic.  Lacking certainty is not always such a bad thing.  And it is certainly not a stagnant thing.    

7. Sin– OK, I could write a tome about this one.  I know some of my more evangelical brothers and sisters will get their panties in a bit of a twist here, sin looming large (I’m thinking of Jonathan Edwards dangling a spider over a boiling cauldron, like God dangling our souls over the pit fires of hell).  But I can berate myself just fine, perhaps too fine in fact and I don’t think God wants to get in on the fun.  Sin simply means “missing the mark”.  In most cases, in our day to day living, it’s simply means we are human. We can dust ourselves off, and continue to strive to do and be better (without shame and guilt).  Just like I don’t want somebody “shoulding” on me, I don’t want someone sinning me to death either.   

6. Religion- I don’t want to beat a dead horse.  I mean, after all, hasn’t this word been bludgeoned enough. But, this word, which has come to represent differences and divisiveness was originally just a verb, religio, meaning “bringing together that which is separated”.  So, all I’m gonna say is, huh?

5. Salvation– OK, first we’ve got all that hell stuff to contend with.  Eternal damnation sounds really scary and I don’t want it to happen to me.  A lot of folk want to give you a formula, words to recite, and then you’re good to go.  You’re saved.  Salvation is then nothing more than a deliverance from sin.  But salvation is  more beautiful and subtle than that, the etymological meaning of the word is health.  In early New Testament readings, it meant to restore you to spiritual good health, to make you whole.   

4. Righteous– This word mostly gets a negative connotation, as we tend to immediately think self-righteous, which obviously no one likes. Being righteous is characterized by virtue and moral soundness and sense of social justice.  A true righteous person is a wonder to behold.

3. Tolerance-Many religious leaders nowadays talk of tolerating those of other faiths, as if that is enough.  I’ve never met a deeply spiritual person who didn’t openly inquire about another’s faith, who looked to appreciate some aspect of it, or its encourage its blessings.

2. Evangelical-Unless you are an evangelical, you are very likely leery just hearing the word.  Yet the word is from the Greek “euangelos”, meaning a messenger or angel bringing good news.  It’s too bad, because I’m not too confident that we can bring this one back to its original, more open and joyous meaning.   

1. Liberal– The religious right, the political right, the conservative whatevers have suceeded in the last several decades in making the word liberal a dirty word.  It permeates all aspects of our public discourse. If you are a political or religious liberal, you are somehow bereft of moral values, ethics, or for that matter, common sense.  This is a terrible injustice. Liberal, liberalis (Latin) means to be free or to be free and let others be free.  It was the founding paradigm of our nation, Thomas Jefferson wrote a declaration about it. We the people need to take this word back and give it the honor it so rightly deserves.

Book of the Day: Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris 

Quote from the Book of the Day: “I find it sad to consider that belief has become a scary word, because at its Greek root, “to believe” simply means “to give one’s heart to”.  Thus, if we can determine what it is we give our hearts to, then we will know what it is we believe.”

Nun Tuck’s Almanac

Welcome Congregants of the Blogosphere!

You have stumbled upon a brand new blog. It is a sometimes serious, but always real attempt to return religious vocabulary back to its rightful roots. And if the roots are rotten, we’ll creatively reimagine these words so that they work for us now, in the 21st century.  You know many of the major religions as well as secular humanism tout  lofty goals, such as moving towards a harmonious interdependence of the world’s inhabitants (since forever), whilst quibbling over dogmas and dictums.  Here is where they can come and get a soft nudge or a solid knock upside the head, depending on whether they are the feather or the 2×4 variety of person, and we can get comfort or empowerment or meaning or whatever it is we’re looking for.

This almanac will include, but is not limited to:

* Providing you with brief but accurate and researched information about particular aspects of the world’s religions to fodder questions and discussion (will vary daily on how the spirit moves me.)

*Sharing my own personal musings on the sacred journey or anything related to the collective spiritual quest (this could mean outlining various meditation techniques or what it means to be in a faith community or probing the nature of serendipity…).

*Religion is a word that has been used and misused ad nauseum.  Its definition, its meaning, is very simply that which binds us together.  The religion of this blog is: compassion, an openness to others’ beliefs and ideas (or at the very least, let’s not get nasty) and exploring ways to engage in the simple daily practices of spiritual fitness.

Finally, while I am a highly trained theologian, you can try this at home.  I can wax theological with the best of them, using big academics words like hermeneutics and exegesis, and I like to, at times.  But mostly, people’s eyes glaze over.

I am committing to blogging daily while reserving the right to an occasional lapse, for excuses such as : the Sabbath (everyone needs a rest), illness that raises my temperature or upsets my digestive tract, a paying gig, or a TIC (Teenager in Crisis, one of mine).

My oath to you: I will not daunt, I will not proselytize. I take my opinions seriously until I change them, at which point, I take those opinions seriously.

What about the Name?

I am Nun Tuck, because I can’t be Friar Tuck.  I’m a girl, and while I’m not a Catholic and only play a nun on this blog, the Good Friar and I share four important things in common:

1. I too would much prefer the company of a community of outlaws enforcing a little social justice to a band of self-satisfied complacent Sunday morning hypocrites.

2. Now while stealing from the rich to give to the poor may sound to some as Anti-American sentiment (can you say “Bolshevik Plot?”) many of us are sufficiently outraged by the unadulterated avarice of the past several years/decades to think this perpetually populist idea particularly poignant (take that, Peter Piper).

3. Both of us enjoy a full glass or two from the fruit of the vine (not too picky about the vine) served with any generous volume of carbohydrates.  We continue to attempt to live simply and faithfully (lots more on future blogs regarding this) but alas, the flesh is weak.

4. While friendly and gregarious (we are in the business of saving souls after all), we are fiery by temperament.  Friar Tuck was expelled from his order due to a lack of respect for authority, and I chose to leave my childhood denomination as the chasm between the choices made by the church’s hierarchy and true care and concern for its people became too great.  If authority wants to be respected, it has to earn it.

The Almanac is simply a nod to another historic figure, Benjamin Franklin (one to whom I give Rock Star status) and his version of an 18th century blog of sorts, Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Tomorrow’s post: “Does it matter what you call yourself?”

Book Pick of the Day: Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott

Quote from the Book of the Day:  “My Al-Anon friend told me about the frazzled, defeated wife of an alcoholic man who kept passing out on the front lawn in the middle of the night.  The wife kept dragging him in before dawn so that the neighbors wouldn’t see him, until finally an old black woman from the South came up to her one day after a meeting and said, ‘Honey? Leave him lay where Jesus flang him.’ And I am slowly, slowly in my work-and even more slowly in real life-learning to do this.”