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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

nicene-creed

How do we interpret and reintegrate the concepts of the ancient Church in the 21st century? We can accept them as they are given I suppose but that strikes me as intellectually lazy leading only to formulaic thinking and all the attendant prejudice and superficially ritualistic exchanges. Or, we can toss it out altogether and find a new system of thought – drop the Nicene Creed, for example, from our Liturgies.

Yet, that amounts to throwing the baby out with the wash water. Just because something was written in pre-scientific times does not relegate it to the junk heap of history. Consider the genius of Plato and Aristotle, the pre-Socratics and the texts of the Wisdom traditions of the East. While post-modern hubris may direct many to discard what is old simply because of its age, this would be adolescent and the height of folly. As Hans Gadamer has said: ” Read nothing that isn’t at least 2000 years old.” Add to this, Alfred North Whiteheads comment: ” Everything is a footnote to Plato.”

I agree with Gadamer that all understanding is bounded by the perspectives shaped by language and  culture. Yet, wisdom transcends culture. When the early Fathers of the Church gathered in 352 AD for the First Council of Nicea they struggled with so-called heresy and, through dialogue, arrived at a consensus about what to belief about Jesus. While framed by pre-scientific thought, sincere communities in dialogue discover things that each person would not have. Often, communities of prayerful debate stumble upon rich metaphor that emerges from the intersection of different agenda and experiences that tap a deep well of Knowing.

Nonetheless, we cannot interpret through their eyes, though scholarship certainly places us in a better place to appreciate where they were coming from. We read mindful of history but of course within the context of our age, our experiences, our language and new forms of thought.  We must allow the words to soak in and find in them the wisdom that speaks to us. “What if it simply goes nowhere for me?” asks a sincere person struggling with the statements of the Creed for example. In this instance, one can do no better than focusing elsewhere on aspects of tradition that do speak to you and, failing that, to find a group that approaches the mysteries from a different vantage point altogether. I, for one, have chosen to stay put having spent two decades sampling many different approaches only to find something missing. So, with feet squarely planted on the ground in the Episcopal tradition, I struggle with the beauty and the sometimes incomprehensibility of antiquity. I choose to allow the words to rise out of history and live in whatever way they may in me as they forge new meaning especially through dialogue with others.

On this the Eve of Thanksgiving, I share a meditation in this vein on the first phrase of the Nicene Creed to be followed in subsequent posts with reflections on the remaining phrases:

” We believe in God the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.”

Beyond all imagining, I embrace the timeless Beginning, the  matrix on which  the whole of Creation is shaped and is moving;  a Heart, a force of Love, that is ever present in this moment as in the first moments of the Big Bang, drawing all things forward toward their completion and fulfillment in a larger pattern unknown.

I believe in the “father” of time as the universe expands, the “mother” of life who inspires all becoming, the “spirit” driving patterns that ebb and flow according to unseen fields of force.

I believe that more is unseen than seen. I believe that all knowing has its roots in the Cosmic Knower who yearns for unity in diversity, and that all knowing is always personal. 

© The Harried Mystic, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Science-without-religion-is-lame-215x301

What is the relationship between science and religion?

Throughout history, and even now, the tension between them has been too much the characterization. The argument goes that science proffers testable hypotheses and the scientific method uncovers either support for that hypothesis or fails to do so. Religion, on the other hand, is discussed as wholly subjective, defined by untestable beliefs.

In establishing this dichotomy, a false one in my estimation, they are endemically at odds with each other. In today’s scientific and pseudo- scientific ethos, science is often deemed superior and more appropriate for our times. Religion, on the other hand, is portrayed by empiricists as a quaint remnant of pre-scientific explanation. Theists, on the other hand, see science with suspect eyes, arguing that it misses the deeper import of events and what it means to be. Both polar viewpoints are ill informed.

Fundamentalist science and religion are, indeed, at odds with one another. Both suffer the same problem: they proceed from a dogmatic position of what is true, right and knowable. I set aside fundamentalisms of all kinds as too narrowly constructed and thereby intrinsically fragile and lacking in merit. Those who subscribe to them are welcome certainly to their beliefs but it strikes me that such extreme positions render dialogue impossible, and creates a climate of mistrust, sterile bickering, and mutual claims about the inadequacies of the other. For me, such banter is a waste of energy and are, simply, uninteresting.

Instead, I live at the nexus between these two methods of knowing and both have much in common along with complementary differences. They need each other if the goal is agreed upon as a seeking after truth and a deep desire to get inside the ontological mysteries. Science speaks in the language of mathematics. Math is wholly based on certain assumptions and, while an invention of humankind, it is unusually powerful in unraveling the mysteries of the Cosmos. The scientific method then is brought to bear on predictions to apply critical tests. Yet, while we have seen convergent evidence of their existence, no one has ever seen, for example, a quark. In other words, we study the cumulative record. Having done so, new evidence may overturn, and often does, our most established interpretations.

Religion is also a cumulative record. Yes, it is a phenomenological one but this too is data. Seen through the lens of well reasoned theological discourse, it too makes predictions and offers interpretations. For example, in a universe that became conscious of itself, one can rightly posit that intelligence must be fundamental in its essence ( I.e., that it had a first cause). One need not resort to a simplistic Creationism that mangles good science to get there either. With the integrity of both science and theology left fully intact, one can catch inspiring glimpses of the heart of mystery.

To devolve to angry and oppositionally defiant atheism is to ignore experience and the universal sensibility of something greater than we that beckons. Such a retreat to mere science reduces matter, energy and space-time to mere objects of study rather than deep subjects with which to have a relationship. The result is spiritual reductionism and solipsism.

I am a scientist- theologian because as I study the one it informs the other. The reflections of science for me give rise to the meditations of spiritual practice. I delight in the online lectures such as those offered by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in the UK Faraday Institute for Science and Religion that serve to elevate and poke our understanding.

When both scientific and religious discourse act with genuine humility, we can proceed boldly and with the spirit of the child into realms of deep wonder. May our eyes be opened to see the wider landscape that awaits us if only we get beyond the tyranny of methodological chauvinism.

Life is way too short to narrow one’s field of view.

© The Harried Mystic, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Norman’s Woe is a coastal reef in Gloucester Massachusetts immortalized by the tragic poem ” The wreck of the Hesperus” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It tells of the captain of a ship, the Hesperus, who met a fierce storm off the Eastern coast of New England. His daughter was onboard. Other senior crewman offered their good counsel but the captain was filled with hubris and refused to hear it.

In trying to save his daughter from the ravaging seas, he had her strapped to the mast to avoid the threat of seeing her swept overboard by the tall and ferocious waves crashing on deck. Horribly, all perished, including the girl, who drowned as the ship capsized and, having been tied to the mast, was unable to free herself and possibly survive the calamity.

The tale of an innocent’s death and that of all crewman on the reef is a cautionary fable loosely based on a devastating blizzard that in fact did occur off the coast of New England in 1839. The story rings in my ears as I read the wonderful just published book, Breakfast with Socrates, by Robert Rowland Smith.

In this breezy and very accessible retelling of the legacy of philosophy, Smith places each of many of the great philosophers in the midst of our everyday experiences, and we get an opportunity to briefly “dine with them” and imagine conversation on the questions with which we struggle as we navigate the mysteries, triumphs, and travails of our lives. All of this got me to thinking about the enormous treasure trove that is the classics.

Each of the great books, treasures that have withstood the test of time, offer enlightened and ever fresh commentary on our condition. Each of the voices from the ancient choir of the lovers of wisdom offer free counsel to anyone with the courage and mental fortitude to embrace it. Yet, the overwhelming lack of interest, generally speaking, in the classical library remains an undeniable reality.

The cry for relevance, practical plug-and-play utility, and small-minded self-help prescriptions is deafening. It is as if two meals are served: One a banquet of culinary genius, gourmet foods and great wines, and all for free, and it is rejected; while the other,  a grease-stained bag of fast food burgers costing far more than it’s worth, offering unwholesome calories, and containing excessive undisclosed filler materials and meat shot full of antibiotics and hormones, is the one hastily chosen and enthusiastically consumed.

It is time to go back, all of us, regardless of how well versed we are in the classics in general and the writings of the great philosophers in particular, and set up a renewed daily diet of wholesome calories. Furthermore, here’s the irony, like the free gourmet meal, the classics can be downloaded for free.

It is time to learn the lesson of the Hesperus and listen to the counsel of elder sages who speak to us from the deep recesses of recorded history. We can still save the young girl,  the archetypal Sophia, who is the the very soul of Wisdom. We can still rescue her from drowning in the turbulent and vicious seas of postmodernity and 21st century egoism and spiritual consumerism. We can resuscitate her and so revel in the sweetness of her voice, the alertness of her sight, and youthful embrace of the real.

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman’s Woe!

Excerpted from the poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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“Kill him!”

So goes the saying.

In other words, to find him as uniquely resident in another person is to objectify him and engage in idolatry. Makes sense in the context in which the saying arises but, in another sense, this is, tragically, the way humanity tends to typically react on meeting a remarkable spirit, a Mahatma, a Soter, or a Buddha. We kill him.

In meeting the Christ, the prevailing political powers were inspired to homicide. “Crucify Him!” the crowds screamed. “Crucify him and release Barrabas.” Better a criminal be released than the Prince of Peace for Jesus was seen as far more dangerous.  Jesus, like prophets before him and prophets who came after, was persecuted for the very wisdom for which he was initially extolled. Why? What is the great danger that so stimulates fear in lesser hearts?

It is authenticity, presence, authority, and intimate connection with the divine source, the infinite wellspring. The prophets do not suffer fools with political or diplomatic grace. They don’t tell us what we want to hear. They don’t congratulate us for our astuteness and prideful qualities. They don’t bathe us in praise for our genius and our goodness. They don’t thank us for magnanimity and goodness nor do they tell us that we’re ok.

On the contrary, the soters (saviors) tell us what we don’t want to hear. They force us to look in the mirror without blinders on. They speak of our sin. They tell us about our delusional and illusionary egoistic state. They exhort us to do better and to live more sincerely. They ask us to repent ( and they do so with a sense of keen urgency).

In claiming an innate greatness, not with hubris but with enlightened self-knowledge, the saviors and spiritually authentic teachers and sages are critiqued by the fearful as blasphemous. Truly, there is no more fearsome thing than to be required to enter the “inmost cave” where we meet our true face and our real condition. Unfortunately, the need to reject takes many clever forms but, in the extreme, that rejection translates into murder.

As we approach Easter, we are urged by the Calendar of tradition to look at ourselves and ask:

  • How many times must we crucify him?
  • Am I complicit in any way in cleverly dodging the inconvenient and difficult teachings?
  • Do I play politics with the Word, cherry-picking the Gospel to fit my own preferences and comfort, refusing to embrace the difficult wisdom that passes all understanding?
  • Where around me are those who are even now yelling at the top of their lungs in abject terror of the truth — “Crucify Him!”

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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We have all heard the phrase, ” a thirst for knowledge,” and many people are motivated by a need to discover, understand and reveal the essence of experience and phenomena. These are the people who take seriously the Socratic admonition to  “know thyself,” and embody the idea that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The times in which we live are times of great contrast. The United States electorate is acutely divided, and we see, once again, the perennial visage of culture, race and class warfare in the exchange of emotional and unthinking rhetoric.

What I see is a rising thirst for ignorance. Orthodoxies appear on the rise, and liberal philosophies in all arenas are ridiculed and demonized. When the appetite for “heresy” declines one should be watchful for the erosion of liberty, critical thinking, and genuine insight into issues. At a recent dinner, I was part of a cordial conversation among friends and associates about this political moment in America. At one point, I was labeled by a colleague, only half in jest, as a liberal elitist. Why? The label was meant to sweep into a neat category my love of scholarship, incisive dialogue, taking nothing at face value, and seeing all orthodoxy as worthy of inspection. Ok, then, no problem. I am a card-carrying liberal elitist and proud of it. Dismiss me if you please.

In our current times, it is both easier and increasingly well-regarded to cling to the formulae fed to us by those who affix dismissive labels as their way of coping with what they fail to understand and have little energy to genuinely explore. It is easier to buy into a platform of ideological character. It gives one a sense of solidity when so much that swirls around us is uncertain and complex.

I, for one, love uncertainty. Doubt and the challenge of all assumptions is “philosophy,” the love of wisdom. I am absolutely certain that nothing is absolutely certain! I know that what I know is fact until new evidence reveals that it isn’t. Ideology is “window dressing” and icing for the mind. It entices. It draws you inside to look things over and encourages you to buy or partake. However, as so many things that are adorned with icing, the repast is likely one of many empty calories!

  • A few snowstorms where they aren’t typical and where the snowfall breaks records after many years, and many, including ostensibly intelligent legislators, are declaring the folly of “global warming.”
  • After decades of strong evidence of the veracity of Darwinian evolution and evolutionary developmental biological science, a good number have chosen to reject it for a more fundamentalist theology, and insist that this alternative be taught along with the science.
  • The facts around the necessity for government stimulus and spending in these recessionary times is denigrated as an example of out of control tax and spend big government.

Heretics and individualists are no fun. Their incessant challenge gives one a headache. They seem like they are not team players. They “move to the beat of a different drummer.” They are “not like the rest of us.” The Matrix movies were a testament to the will of many to stay deluded and comforted by machine generated, or, by analogy, party-generated or state-generated fantasy.

The price of the pursuit of knowledge is to place oneself in harm’s way. The deaths of Socrates, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Anwar Sadat and Jesus of Nazareth represent a dynamic that is as real and potent today as it has ever been. Salman Rushdie was under the threat of a Fatwah for his novel. Cartoonists have been threatened for offending orthodox beliefs. A demonizing and fear-mongering minority is actually succeeding in flipping the balance of power in the United States just over a year after the election of a President with a decade’s worth of serious challenges to address and a recalcitrant opposition hell-bent on denying him any meaningful legislation.

The appetite for ignorance always seems to overwhelm the true thirst for knowledge. Higher education in the U.S. often needs to be camouflaged lest one be labeled and set aside as an “elitist” or “academic”. Just look at out national values by comparing the very small percentage of the Federal budget set aside for education compared to what is allocated for defense and the story is told.

We do well to step back and reflect on our estate. How much have we bought into a ready-made set of comfortable mythologies and how alive do we want to be? Is freedom a value or a catch phrase that is nullified by a deeper need to be told what to believe, how to live, what to wear, how to talk, and what it means to be succesful?

It is our’s to choose:  Ignorance or knowledge. This is not only an imperative of citizenship and mind, but is a critical aspect of the depth and breadth of our spirituality. One cannot separate these from one another. They are inter-dependent parts of one true Self.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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This has been a difficult Winter for many parts of the Nation and Europe. London and many German cities have seen snow that they haven’t experienced in over a decade. The Southeast has experienced unusually cold temperatures and one after another serious storm.

As soon as the news media get the word, all attention turns to tracking the storm. Language becomes quickly melodramatic and even small things get big coverage. People are deployed to capture footage of the storm, and we watch. The next predictable behavior is a somewhat frantic run on bread and milk at the supermarkets ( though I prefer fruit, sparkling water, and cheese). In all the hustling and talking about the “approaching storm,” one detects a certain palpable undercurrent of real excitement.

Like so many others, if I am at home, I sit mesmerized by the reporting. It’s exciting. In our lives of otherwise predictable tomorrow’s and the round of boring tasks, a storm brings with it clear uncertainty and unquestioned authority. It isn’t relative or nuanced. It just is what it is. We can’t control the weather. We have no idea how big and bad it will really be until it hits and passes. We stand in awe of nature’s power and it speaks to us in primeval ways. It speaks a language of creation and the forces that violently gave birth to our world.

The tempest is the face of mystery. It is the one manifestation of the unknown and of the danger of living that brings us to attention. We are alert in a storm. Our senses are on high gain. We are attuned to all around us. We are full of expectation and watching. How delicious is the waiting and the wondering and the force of it when it strikes. Secretly, we hope its big enough to be really challenging but not so big as to put us in serious jeopardy.

G-d resides inside the storm. We feel a Presence, a defining power, and an immediacy. It is no wonder that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit philosopher, theologian, archaeologist and Priest, wrote of a conversion experience in the face of an approaching storm.

The sky was “green” with electrical activity and he watched as a front moved swiftly toward his place in an open field. Rather than run for cover, he stood tall and threw all caution, quite literally, to the wind. Lightning strikes were many around him, trees were split by them, and yet he remained standing as the coming fierce rain and wind came down upon him with a seeming vengeance. When it passed, he was transformed, more fully alert and alive than ever before. He sensed the Presence of the Sacred and was briefly united with it.

I recall, as many readily can, the storms that were moments of encounter with the great mystery. As a young man, this happened, while unadvisedly traveling in a Boston whaler, out by about a mile off shore into the open ocean. A storm suddenly came up and the waves grew swiftly very large. With waves lifting the propeller out of the water with each crest,  I turned and headed back toward shore in both abject terror and exhilaration. The sky was “angry” and the rain fell hard and literally hurt as it fell on my face, hands, and head.

I was, like Teilhard, more truly alive, if terrified, than ever before. Life brings these peak moments to us infrequently, but they are memorable when they do arrive. The weather is a vehicle for intimacy with the Sacred. Our instinctive attraction to them is testament to our kinship with the raw forces in them that are part of our collective unconscious.

It’s the storm that cries out for us to really awaken to the creative act and moment. All creation is a destruction. After the storm, the sky is clear and the air is clean, and the world feels as if reborn.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Rorschach Inkblot #3

This weekend, I caught a PBS panel discussion about brain games designed to stimulate plasticity, cut the odds of Alzheimer’s disease, and generally keep the brain “young” and agile. The three experts on the panel conducted a very interesting exchange on the story that is emerging from the research. The commentary that especially captured my interest included the facts that:

  1. The best brain exercises involve the mix of multi-sensory experiences ( olfaction, touch, hearing, taste, etc.).
  2. Sudoku and crossword puzzles are less valuable for enhanced plasticity though practice will make you better at Sudoku and crossword puzzles.
  3. Challenges that involve social interaction demanding creativity are likely to yield greatest benefit.

So, what’s good for the brain is good for the soul: time spent experiencing challenges that demand creative and imaginative reactions in a social setting. Having to attune ourselves to the differences among people, to adjust to different communication and problem-solving styles, and think on one’s feet in response to challenging questions posed by others are all wonderful nourishment for the brain.

It is isolation, insulation, radical individualism, separation, social distancing and solitary pursuits that stand in the way of the great discoveries about ourselves and the farther reaches of our creative capacity. After all, in writing a novel, we populate the story with characters in dialogue working through their respective and intersecting dramas. While we may write while alone, it is the social engagement and experience that determines the richness of the writing.

One of the most enriching and revealing exercises that I’ve enjoyed is improvisational theater and actors exercises in spontaneously playing out a role. It is no wonder that actors are often better able to read other people than professionals whose job it is to accurately do so.

Spirituality and neuroplasticity are endemically social. It is in communion with the Other that our consciousness truly evolves.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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