17 Apr Justifying Our Existence
In my early years of ministry, I remember going to meetings of clergy. At some point in our meeting, everyone would pull out their calendars as we tried to schedule the next meeting. It was an extraordinary exercise of show-and-tell, as we displayed to each other our busyness. We were virtuosos of indispensability for God, for the church, for people, for the world. Despite all of that effort, talent, good intention and sincerity, the Church which we have served has continued to shrink in size and impact. The world simply must not need us that much anymore. Many have tried to keep up with what the world imagines that it needs—more entertainment, more promises that we are on the right track and simply need inspiration to stay on our frantic course, more effort at unravelling unjust structures and ushering in just ones by the force of our wisdom and persistence. The can-do gospel of American culture fuels the ministry of conservative and liberal clergy and churches, no matter how different these ministries might appear to be on the surface.
Like many colleagues, I have taken the journey from a conservative religious upbringing to a progressive expression of Christian faith as a result of shifting cultural realities and quality educations. Our worlds have expanded, and I am very grateful to have engaged in a period of questioning which has led to a new synthesis which I experience as more expansive and less brittle. Thanks Davidson College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and countless relationships and experiences which have birthed in me a new awareness. Yet, what continuing decline in Church and crisis in culture are saying, I believe, is that more and deeper transformation is being asked of us.
What might that be? I am concluding that it means exploring the roots of our consciousness structures to enable us to show up in ways that we cannot quite imagine at the level of our current structures. I am finding paths to the roots of consciousness in classic and current contemplative writings and practices, and in efforts to map the structures of human consciousness in figures like Ken Wilber and Jean Gebser. This journey to the roots feels much less like a can-do agenda and more like a leap of faith or a letting go.
I’ll share a small example of what I mean from Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Wisdom Jesus, which a group of church members and friends are digesting. She observes that Christianity got off on the wrong track with Jesus almost from the beginning. His vision was simply too radical for most to grasp and so they unconsciously put Jesus and his life and teachings into a frame which they could hold, instead of wrestling with the reality of Jesus until a new frame could arise.
Take Jesus’ saying: “Those who would lose their life will find it; and those who would keep it will lose it.” We find in the Gospels what could be an added qualification: “Those who would lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.” What’s the difference in these two?
The first offers a path to a transformed consciousness, and the second a sacrificial path which leaves one’s consciousness unchanged. The first saying could be understood as an example of what contemplatives call nonduality. When we lose our fixed sense of self as fundamentally separate, we discover a self which is essentially connected to God and others. Isn’t this what Jesus was offering—a new way of seeing which opens up a new way of being in the world? The second saying does nothing to interrupt our fixed way of perceiving. It leaves the me who perceives myself as separate, from God and others, firmly in place. As long as this entrenched dual mode of perception is running the show, we will find ourselves locked in a stance of defensiveness, judgment and comparison. It’s to such a consciousness structure that can-do approaches appeal. “Come on, you can do it! You can achieve your dream! You can change the world, if you try hard enough and think correctly enough!”
Following a radical path of letting go of one’s established sense of “personal” self flies in the face of everything that we have been taught, and is contrary to the unexamined assumptions of almost everyone we encounter. “What do you mean, let go of you? Who will be there, if you are not?” The contemplative proclaims: “Taste and see. Be still and know that I am God.” The cartographer of human consciousness counsels: “There is a structure of consciousness which will free you from hopeless dualisms and give you a breadth of freedom beyond your wildest dreams. Here’s a map of what it looks like and how you can find yourself there.”
I’ve tried the can-do path. I’m old enough to be aware of its dead ends and false promises. I figure: “What do I have to lose? Why not give this letting go path a try?” I have to admit that it is hard to undo habitual patterns. The old ways don’t give up easily. Yet, the freedom of the new breaks in often enough that at least I know in what direction I want to go.
I’m not as busy as I used to be. I am scheduling time for daily meditation and reading from contemplative sources. On Wednesday nights, some in my church community sit for twenty minutes in silence, sing some chants, engage in a contemplative prayer of body movement, before we talk about something in print. We try to slow down, open up, listen deeply, let go of the judgments of ego, and practice presence. Sometimes, we wonder if we are getting anywhere, but, in moments of clarity, we remember all of the nowheres we have been in our years of busyness. We return once again to the practice, and let go.