Sunday, January 28, 2007

Spiritual Communication

One of the reasons I began this blog is that so often we get bogged down in the rhetoric of doctrine and dogma and we miss the spiritual experience. One illustration that has been helpful for me to tell the difference is the picture of someone pointing to the moon. The object is to be able to see the moon and so often I get stuck looking at the finger.

I remember having a history teacher who had the habit of pointing out things on the blackboard with his middle finger. In a religious school this was bigger deal than it should have been, but it became a distraction from learning history.

We had a Japanese exchange student send us pictures, before he came, so that we could get to know him. He came from a very conservative Japanese family and was studying to be an English teacher. He thought he knew American culture and was trying to fit in. If you have seen some typical Japanese friendship shots, they usually do the peace sign. As we were flipping through the pictures we came along one with him and his friends all giving us the middle finger falling all over themselves with big smiles. I thought is was pretty funny, but there was some doubt about what we were getting ourselves into.

Once we met him, it became apparent that he didn't know what it meant at all or he sent us the wrong picture. We actually had to explain it to him after which he was horrified. I thought it better that he knew, so if he decided to make another such picture, it might reach its intended audience.

In all these cases the "finger" or the method of communication became the message and the "moon" continued to be unobserved.

Friday, January 19, 2007


I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh's book "Living Buddha, Living Christ" when I came across this short story...

"During a conference on religion and peace, a Protestant minister came up to me toward the end of one of our meals together and said, 'Are you a grateful person?' I was surprised. I was eating slowly, and I thought to myself, Yes, I am a grateful person. The minister continued, 'If you are really grateful, how can you not believe in God? God has created everything we enjoy, including the food we eat. Since you do not believe in God, you are not grateful for anything.' I thought to myself, I feel extremely grateful for everything. Every time I touch food, whenever I see a flower, when I breathe fresh air, I always feel grateful. Why would he say that I am not?"

This reminded me of the trick questions the lawyers would ask Jesus. For example when Jesus was teaching that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, He was asked who is our neighbor by an expert in the law. Jesus "answered" with the story of the good Samaritan who aided the beaten traveler when the Levite and the Priest passed him by while he lay on the road, followed by the question, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, the Samaritan was not to be associated with and was seen as an "undesirable." To consider a Samaritan as one's neighbor would be unthinkable. This story has always brought a smile to my face when I imagined the expert in the law trying to figure out how to answer Jesus. What's interesting is that his answer never said the word Samaritan. The lawyer answered, "The one who had mercy on him." Kind of an early example of spin.

Thich Nhat Hanh doesn't have a clever story, but reveals his source of gratitude in a very beautiful way.

"Contemplating our food before eating in mindfulness can be a real source of happiness. Every time I hold a bowl of rice, I know how fortunate I am. I know that forty thousand children die every day because of the lack of food and that many people are lonely, without friends or family. I visualize them and feel deep compassion."

My own gratitude has come from knowing the suffering of loneliness. When I remember what it was like to be alone, I find great joy and gratitude to be with my wife and sons. When I am able to be a part of another's healing process and I observe the suffering they have gone through, I am grateful for the ease of my pathway compared to what they have gone through.

My guess is that when Jesus told the expert in the law to "go and do likewise," it wasn't only for the benefit of those he might help, but it may have been more for the lawyer himself. For, the gift of gratitude is happiness.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

What does a Gnostic know?

"The word gnosis (from the Greek word for knowledge, γνώσις) refers to a form of spiritual knowledge that is more commonly familiar to people as enlightenment." As I have been reading about the gnostic traditions in the early formation of Christianity there is an amazing contemporary aspect to its development. In this article on Valentinus by Stephen A. Hoeller, first published in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions (Vol. 1), it presented something about a different type of ignorance that caught my eye.

Who was this Valentinus and where did he come from? Valentinus "was born in Africa, probably within the territory of the ancient city of Carthage, around or before 100 A.D. He was educated in Alexandria and in the prime of his years transferred his residence to Rome, where he achieved a high degree of prominence in the Christian community between 135 and 160 A.D. Tertullian wrote that Valentinus was a candidate for the office of bishop of Rome and that he lost the election by a rather narrow margin."

In the view of Valentinus, it wasn't intellectual ignorance that created "wrongness" in the world, it was ignorance of the spirit. The great difference in the gnostic view of the world and the view of what we now call the orthodox view was in WHERE "wrongness" dwelled. They both agreed that "somewhere, somehow, the fabric of being at the existential level of human functioning has lost its integrity." The orthodox view came to believe that the "wrongness" was due to Adam's disobedience and sin in the human being. "This means, that all evil, discomfort, and terror in our lives and in history are somehow our fault."

"Valentinus, in opposition to this guilt-ridden view of life, held that the above-noted defect is not the result of our wrongdoing, but is inherent in the system of existence wherein we live and move and have our being. Moreover, by postulating that creation itself is lacking in integrity, Valentinus not only removes the weight of personal and collective guilt from our shoulders but also points to the redemptive potential resident in the soul of every human being."

In my experience, guilt has not been very effective in changing who I am. It may temporarily alter my behavior, most times against my desire, but I have never sensed any true transformation. Clues to how Valentinus viewed this process can be found in the quote from Valnetinus in Irenaeus' work against heresies.

"Perfect redemption is the cognition itself of the ineffable greatness: for since through ignorance came about the defect . . . the whole system springing from ignorance is dissolved in Gnosis. Therefore Gnosis is the redemption of the inner man; and it is not of the body, for the body is corruptible; nor is it psychical, for even the soul is a product of the defect and it is a lodging to the spirit: pneumatic (spiritual) therefore also must be redemption itself. Through Gnosis, then, is redeemed the inner, spiritual man: so that to us suffices the Gnosis of universal being: and this is the true redemption." (Adv. Haer. I. 21,4)

Another way to put the idea of salvation is that we can be saved from the illusion of this world through the knowledge or gnosis or awakening of the spirit. "The ignorance of the agencies that create the false system is thus undone and rectified by the spiritual Gnosis of the human being. The defect can be removed from being by Gnosis. There is no need whatsoever for guilt, for repentance from so-called sin, neither is there a need for a blind belief in a vicarious salvation by way of the death of Jesus. We don't need to be saved; we need to be transformed by Gnosis. The wrong-headedness, perversity, obtuseness, and malignancy of the existential condition of humanity can be changed into a glorious image of the fullness of being. This is done not by guilt, shame, and an eternal saviour but by the activation of the redemptive potential of self-knowledge."

Parallels to this idea can be found in some of Jesus' words. In Luke 17:20,21 we can read...

"Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."

Or in John 3:4-6

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit."

Or in Mark 12:33,34

"To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

What is this Kingdom of God that can come within us? What if Jesus was teaching a form of gnosis?

Stephen Hoeller continues...

"The Gnostic contention is that both the world and humanity are sick. The sickness of the world and its equivalent human illness both have one common root: ignorance. We ignore the authentic values of life and substitute unauthentic ones for them. The unauthentic values are for the most part either physical or of the mind. We believe that we need things (such as money, symbols of power and prestige, physical pleasures) in order to be happy or whole. Similarly we fall in love with the ideas and abstractions of our minds. (The rigidities and the hardness of our lives are always due to our excessive attachment to abstract concepts and precepts.) The sickness of materialism was called hyleticism (worship of matter) by the Gnostics, while the sickness of abstract intellectualism and moralizing was known as psychism (worship of the mind-emotional soul). The true role of the facilitators of wholeness in this world, among whom Jesus occupied the place of honor, is that they can exorcise these sicknesses by bringing knowledge of the pneuma (spirit) to the soul and mind."

Paul even reflects this in this quote from Romans 12:2 "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

So how do we transform the spirit? How do we renew the mind and the soul? How do we enter into the Kingdom of God? Gnostic beliefs and traditions seem to offer an alternate insight into this process. This is something that I believe is important to explore.

"What is this pneuma, this spirit, which alone brings Gnosis and healing to the sickness of human nature? We cannot truly say what it is, but we can indicate what it does. It has been said that the spirit bloweth where it listeth. It brings flexibility, existential courage of life. By way of the healing agency of pneuma, the soul ceases to be fascinated and confined by things and ideas and thus it can address itself to life. The obsession of the human psyche with the importance of the material world and/or of the abstract intellectual and moral world is the sickness from which the great saviours of humanity redeem us. The obsessive state of material and mental attachments is thus replaced by spiritual freedom; the unauthentic values of the former are made to give way to the authentic ones brought by the spirit."

It would interesting to know more about Valentinus and I will close with one last quote from Stephen Hoeller...

"Valentinus, the Gnostic who almost became pope, was thus the only man who could have succeeded in gaining a form of permanent positive recognition for the Gnostic approach to the message of Christ. The fact that circumstances and the increasing floodtide of a regressive pseudo-orthodoxy caused his efforts to fail must be reckoned among the greatest tragedies of the history of Christianity."

Monday, January 1, 2007

Source of Truth

As I begin the new year I have been meditating on what is the source of my truth. What I have been following is contained in my own life experiences. What I have found is that, while the experiences of other people are valuable, I really don't understand something fully, until I go there. When I dialog with people and they tell me their stories I certainly can observe the results of their individual experiences.

I just read an article in the latest Scientific American where some researchers have hooked up a device that measures brain wave activity on two people. The first person is doing a particular activity and the second is observing the activity. The interesting result is that their brain patterns are identical, possibly indicating that we can feel what another person feels through sharing an experience.

I have been exploring the idea that God is expressed, in part, by every person on the planet. So, the reasoning goes, the more people I can connect with the larger picture of God I can see. Obviously its much more complex than that, but it does provide me a picture that I can start with.

The other idea that came to mind was that as we become more skilled at expressing that piece of God we each have and we support each other in that expression, the greater manifestation of God. And if one believes that God is Love, the greater expression of love.

I'm sure this is not a new idea, but I've had more of an emotional connection with it lately and am interested in putting it into practice and see what becomes of it.