Thursday, March 01, 2007

"All our theology is shit!"

My friend Ted is not one to mince words. I wrote this quote down because it had me in hysterics, but now, a day later, I can't remember at what in particular his irritation was directed. We both belong to a men's group composed of old left-wing farts, mostly discontented Catholics, and we meet twice a month in different homes to ponder the weekly mass readings and how they apply to the world, and we puzzle over the sorry state of the Church and its misguided hierarchy. This is not to say that we are total heretics. Most of us go to mass regularly and value the ritual and the sacraments, but we often differ from the faithful in our interpretation of scripture.

I was telling Ted about film director James Cameron's upcoming documentary for the Discovery Channel that claims to give evidence that a crypt discovered over twenty years ago in Jerusalem once contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth. I was less interested in the documentary (without cable, I won't see it until it's released on DVD) than I was in the hysterical reaction to it by Christians insulted that Cameron, director of "Titanic" and "The Terminator," was trying to disprove the resurrection. It was "The Da Vinci Code" furor all over again, only this time Cameron, who made a documentary about the finding of the remains of the Titanic deep at sea, is claiming that his discovery is truth, not fiction.

I don't understand why some think the Gospel message of Jesus stands or falls on the truth of his resurrection from the dead (St. Paul clearly thought so). And this is where Ted and I got into the insufficiency of Christian theology. I told him that a member of our Sangha, a group studying the writings of Bede Griffiths on Hindu-Christian dialogue, was upset because Timothy Freke was invited to speak at a conference on Griffiths last summer in England. He called Freke a "self-styled, pagan-gnostic author," and said "he argues that Jesus never existed as a historical person but was rather a fictional construction from various pagan myths." But why, I wanted to know, is it necessary that Jesus was a historical person? Do all Buddhists believe that Buddha must have existed, and Muslims that Mohammed was a a real person? How about Hindus, the followers of the blue-skinned Krishna. Was he for real Arjuna's charioteer. I see the life and teachings of Jesus as a parable, and parables are powerful for what they say, and not because they are historically true.

Such questions get me into trouble. So I looked up Timothy Freke on the internet to see if he was a kindred soul. He has a web site and a Wikipedia entry, so it's easy to check out his views. My sense, from a quick scan, is that Freke is an enterprising New Age entrepreneur who is plowing the same contrarian field that Dan Brown and dozens of others have plowed. I had to laugh at his catch phrase for awakening: "lucid living." If his books help anyone to wake up to the timeless truth of non-duality, and to a desire for social justice based on the intuition of interconnectedness, more power to him. But I suspect his more immediate goal is to make a buck off of disenchanted people who know they're sick but can't find a physician.

Bede Griffiths was aware that a concern for historical truth, for facts that can be supported by science and reason, is a diversion. "The sacrifice of Christ is the central event of human history; it is the event which alone gives meaning to life," he wrote. But this truth is a mystery. The "dogmas of the church, of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, do not define the mystery properly speaking. They only express in human terms what he [God] has chosen to reveal concerning himself," according to Griffiths. "For the divine mystery can only be approached by faith." (Quotes from The One Light: Bede Griffiths Principal Writings, edited by Bruno Barnhart) Because the core of spirituality is a divine mystery, I think an obsession with historical reality, with what really happened, is a mistake. It's not important that Jesus really existed, or that he really rose from the dead. So I don't feel threatened by Brown's fiction or Cameron's possible discovery that the bones of Jesus once resided in a tomb in Jerusalem.

Christians are now observing Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter that commemorates the 40 days Jesus spend in wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. It is a time of fasting and repentence, of reflection and renewal. Our priest last Sunday spoke of his addiction to chocolate and his struggle to resist its charms. I thought this a trivialization of temptation and hoped that he would find something deeper for his homily, like addiction to power that tempts politicians and the yearning for world domination that attracts our leaders. At the end of his sermon he told of presiding over a funeral the day before for a 17-year-old girl who had committed suicide. "She had been unable to resist the temptation," he said, and his insensitivity shocked me. Is death addictive, like chocolate or power? At one time the church refused to bury suicides in the same cemetaries along with the virtuous others. Are we returning to that time?

In a recent column for the online site Common, Joyce Marcel wrote perceptively of the link between death and culture: "Anna Nicole Smith died for your sins, America." The writer's indictment includes that "cruel show," "American Idol," with its over 30 million weekly viewers, the universal desire to be famous, plastic surgery as a way to stay young and beautiful, "nitwit comedians who make jokes about women's 'racks,'" the rising popularity of "entertainment" publications that thrive on celebrity "news," and even gold-diggers looking to marry money, incoluding "all of you who married Donald Trump." Marcel sees Anna Nicole Smith's life as "almost a symbol of what America's become. Rapacious, willful, undisciplined, ignorant, venal, anything for pleasure, anything for conquest. Tell me that's not America incarnate."

While I was traveling in Europe and Asia and speaking with people from many different countries, I thought about America and wondered what went wrong in our culture. Has our technological progress and economic success blinded us to the plight of the poor and the destruction of the environment? Of course the wealthy are the same everywhere, unable to see past their privileges. But why in America, where all are created equal, is there so much inequality today? And why, when they finally earn a little leisure, are so many attracted to the "bread and circuses" of celebrity news, obsessed about the death and life of Anna Nicole Smith and Brittany Spears, as well as the winners and losers of "American Idol"?

I met few Americans on my travels and wondered where they were. I heard stories of Americans who sewed Canadian flags on their backpacks, fearful of people learning where they were from. I suspect that after 9/11, many Americans decided to stay home rather than see the world. Statistics are hard to come by, but it looks as if fewer Americans have passports than citizens from other countries (18-30% compared with 40% for Canadians, for example), and probably even fewer of these passport holders use them. This will change, now that visitors to Canada and Mexico are required to carry a passport. And I've learned that all soldiers sent to Iraq must have a passport (many of whom might not otherwise travel overseas). American is isolated in North America with only two borders to the north and south, and most Americans never cross them. Only Australia is similarly isolated, but I met lots of Aussies in Thailand. Another reason might be that Americas have less vacation time than travelers from other first world countries. Whatever the reason, Americans tend to be insular and isolationist. Even if they embrace the big picture, they have less experience with The Other.

So what's the answer? Turn off your TV, cross borders, and encounter the divine mystery in others.

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