Monday, October 17, 2011

god is one (pt 2)

A word of hope, encouragement and good news
a remembrance of humble saving power
a burning bush of unquencahble fire
a tnagible sign of hidden salvation
a window open towards heaven
a bridge of peace
a house of friendship
a noah's ark, a ship of fools
a shelter from the storm
a blessing on our life's journey
(Lord Hylton, vision statement of Ammerdown Centre)

(This is a continuation of the previous blog, a long version of a sermon I gave at in Cirencester...)

... Now, unfortunately, this breakthrough, this revelation and belief in monotheism in actual practical application, is often what gets blamed for (and is the cause of) religious wars. I'll give you one example, that Karen Armstrong writes about. When these same exiles (known as the golah) returned from captivity in Babylon, they immediately turned that revelation of God's inclusivity into a reason for exclusivity instead. Not only were the goyim--the gentile nations to be excluded, but even some of their own people. When the people of the old northern kingdom of Israel, known as Samerina, offered to help in the rebuilding of the Temple after the exile, they were rejected by the returning exiles! They were called the am ha-aretz, the "people of the land," members of the ten northern tribes and other Judeans, the children of those who had stayed behind. And in spite of the fact that prophets such as Ezekiel saw all twelve tribes as members of Israel and worthy of holiness, Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua his priest and their followers deemed that only the golah--the exiles constituted the true Israel, and even these Samarians were seen as enemies. Later, after the Torah became the official law code of Jerusalem under Nehemiah and Ezra, at one point even among the returned exiles men were commanded to send their foreign wives and children away to join the am ha-aretz. "Membership in Israel was now confined to the descendants of those who had been exiled to Babylon and to those who were prepared to submit to the Torah," Armstrong writes, and goes on to point out that from then on this "ruthless tendency" to exclude other people would henceforth become a characteristic of the history of Jerusalem. But doesn't this seem to be the tendency of religion in general when it is in search of a kind of cultic purity? Some of the actions and attitudes of Roman Catholics seem to have a tendency this way these days too. I have heard more than one person say how they wouldn't mind a "smaller more faithful church," and how many discussions I have heard about who should be denied the Eucharist!

That same situation with the golah and the am ha-aretz played itself out in Jesus' time. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem passing through Samaritan land. And the people of the region won't offer him hospitality because he was on his way to Jerusalem. Those who had been excluded now become the excluders! The violent cycle of exclusion keeps churning. So the apostles offer to call down fire from heaven, but Jesus will not allow it. Jesus is bringing a new understanding of the law and it is this: concomitant to love the Lord your God is that nobody gets left out, not the blind, not the lame, the lepers, the tax collectors and prostitutes. And who is my neighbor? Specifically the one who had been excluded: the Samaritan. What may not be obvious at first is also that Jesus is a Galilean, and the Galileans had a special appreciation for the Israelite traditions of the north where Galilee was located. The gospels quote the northern prophets (Elijah, Elisha, Jonah) but the rarely mention the kings and priests who were typical of Jerusalem and Judea. "They speak of the Isrealites as 'children of Abraham' and avoid the theology of Zion and the holy city." Furthermore--and doesn't this add an interesting element to understanding Jesus?--the Galileans "were probably accusmtomed to a more relaxed interpretation of the law, and were less strict about certain purity laws than were the Judeans." (Pagola, 50)

(An aside, that story of Jesus heading to Jerusalem always reminds me on not being able to get to Israel last year when we were in the Mideast, but we couldn't go because Syria would not give a visa to anyone who was on their way there, nor let someone back in the country if they had been. Chilling.)

So, somehow the way it gets interpreted and manifested, it seem as if it were built into the very structure of the Abrahamic faiths to be in competition with each other and with other religions and with other gods, and even within one's own ranks in search of cultic purity. And the Abrahamic faiths often get accused of intolerance because they manifest themselves not as a unity but as a kind of triumphant exclusivism. And so folks will contrast monotheism to the paganism of, say, the ancient Sumerians or Canaanites, or the polytheism of the Greeks and Romans, or Hinduism's henotheism, which are all seen as somehow more benign and tolerant because they accept a variety of gods. This applies not just to back then, mind you, but also now. This is a very current argument. I'm using "pagan" in the modern sense here, not in any pejorative sense. There are many people nowadays who proudly refer to themselves as "neo-pagans," and their tolerance of the worship of many gods gets contrasted with monotheism's rejection of all that in the name of this one God. In some way this is a valid critique, because how many times and ways throughout history has monotheism become a kind of supremacism, simply a claim to the possession of the absolute truth as opposed to others who possess only illusions?

But actually this revelation of and understanding of God's Oneness (at least as James Carroll argues it) is supposed to serve as an antidote to violence and a repudiation of any kind of exclusivism, because this is not a god who is opposed to any creature or people--this is the God of all creatures and people. It's a fundamentally positive message. And this is certainly not a god who is opposed to creation in general, because this is the God who is the ground of all being, and with whom, so Jesus shows us, we are meant to be in intimate relationship.

And relationship is somehow the key: our relationship with God is only exclusive in the same sense that any love relationship is exclusive. As in a marriage, where the exclusivity of the love of one partner for the other is pro-creative, the relationship gives birth and opens itself up to inclusivity, to children, to relatives, and hopefully eventually to an ever wider circle, to neighbors, to the tribe, the nation, and finally opening up to strangers and foreigners, to universality. In Israel's case there was a certain what we call "scandal of particularity," this One God having chosen one particular people. But even here it's meant to move "through exclusiveness to inclusiveness," as a marriage would, from one people opening to all people. That's why Isaiah says they will be "a light to the nations." This is what Peter and Paul come to realize as they began their mission to the Gentiles, that nobody gets left out. This is the genius of the idea of election in the prophetic traditions, that it doesn't involve "the oneness of total union in which the individual is lost," and it's not about simple uniformity. Again, like a marriage, why the mystics of all three tradition resort to the language of marriage and bridal mysticism. Election is a union of communion, the union of a relationship in which separate beings, while remaining separate, neverlesstheless come together, a union in which fear of and opposition to each other gives way to friendship. Of course, we Christians believe that that is exactly what occured in the Jesus' new way, and he even says to his disicples, "I no longer call you servants, but my friends."

The problem is not in the tradition, not in the religion; the problem is in us. We get it wrong. When we reduce God's oneness to an excluding monotheism, we get it wrong. When we think and act as if God's Oneness means that God is at war with other gods, we get it wrong. When we act as if union means the destruction of all difference, we get it wrong. No, union means E pluribus unum--from many to one. Bad religion is totalitarianism; good religion is union in diversity. The theme that stretches throughout the Bible going back to Abraham, Moses, David, indeed to the very story of creation, is God's oneness, a "oneness that unites rather than destroys."
Thus the genius of Genesis, and of the religions that follow from it, is the insight that all that exists was and is created by the same God. More: all that exists was and is created in that God's image. Oneness, not cosmic war, is the ground of existence. God is One, and each of God's creatures participates in that Oneness, with humans as the creatures who know it, even if, having a genius for evil as well as good, [we] tend to imagine it otherwise. (Carrol, 303)
And so the response that Jesus gives when he is asked about the coin in the Gospel of Matthew??--"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's," he says, since Caesar's head is not it, "and give to God what belongs to God"??--really begs the question, "What does not belong to God?" The Lord's are the earth and its fullness. God is one.

So what is the antidote to monotheism (or any spiritual tradition) being exclusivist and triumphalistic? Only a real conversion, an experience of God not being the God only of Christians (or Jews and Muslims or anyone), but God who is the God of all people who are struggling to understand the fullness of divinity in their own (and our own) sometimes feeble and immature stabs at worship; to see the oneness of God not being about a quantity but as a quality, to understand God as the ground of being itself, as the ground of awareness itself; and to see the image of God manifesting wherever we see beauty, truth or goodness manifesting, be it in a great work of art, the budding of an apple tree, a work of scientific genius, in another religion; to recognize it in any kind of self-donation from a simple act of kindness to world-changing social reforms. And to make of our hearts and our homes and our spiritual communities little places of this unity, unity in diversity where union means not a bland comformity and uniformity, but a celebration of the panolpoly of unity in its beautiful diversity.

God is One.