A Lenten Meditation on Easter

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As Lent is well underway now, I’ve been feeling a vague sense of dread as Easter nears. You see, I have a confession to make. I really dislike Easter. Almost loathe it. While Christmas is a joyful occasion full of celebration and hope, Easter, from a religious perspective, is the opposite for me. It doesn’t need to be I guess, many will say that it’s not ultimately suppose to be about execution and death as much as it is suppose to be about resurrection and new life. But to me, and how it typically gets preached about in the Evangelical/Protestant circles that I’m familiar with, it has always seemed to have been more about how shitty us humans are suppose to be in Gods eye’s. So shitty in fact that the only way God could reconcile his love(?) for us miserable and pathetic creatures and to appease his blood lust, was a human sacrifice of Himself (in the form of Jesus) to Himself. This is apparently, so I’ve been told, the “Good News” of Christianity. Please forgive me as I try to hold back my exuberant gratitude.

Fortunately however, this isn’t the only game in town when it comes to the theology around Easter. As I’ve been engaging with Lent, I’ve been doing a lot reading of books, listening to podcasts, and watching talks and interviews on YouTube. Some around things related to engaging with the Lenten season, like contemplation, self examination, gratitude, servitude etc. But also a great deal around church and doctrinal history and theology. The interesting thing is, contrary to popular opinion it would seem, theology has been a changing and ever-evolving thing throughout all of Christian history. It’s common contemporary manifestation we see here in 21st century North America, is not “just how it’s always been.” That includes how the Bible is read and interpreted. The literal fundamentalist reading for example is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. There has been a number of pockets of that pop up over the centuries, but It began becoming popular or mainstream only with in the last century or so. Making it somewhat ironic that fundamentalists often shout “heretic” when it’s pointed out that maybe they shouldn’t read the Bible as being accurate and literal history. It actually really wasn’t written that way, or read that way for much of Christian history.

The theology around Jesus’s death has likewise not “always been” that it was a ransom paid (He died for our sins) to a wrathful God to make us somehow now acceptable to Her (I’ll save the Him/Her gender thing for another time). There’s been a variety of theological views, some more popular than others at different times and places.

It wasn’t until around the year 1100 that Anselm of Canterbury purposes the theology that a debt was actually paid to God for our sins in Jesus’s crucifixion. Anselm’s infamous Cur Deus Homo has been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written.”

Then the Franciscan theologian Jogn Duns Scotus in the 13th century, who was inspired by the “high level cosmic hymns” in the first chapters of Colossians and Ephesians and the first chapter of John’s Gospel came to a different understanding, one that Franciscan author and teacher Fr. Richard Rohr described this way: ” The best way I can summarize how Scotus tried to change the old notion of retributive justice is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. God in Jesus moved people beyond the counting, weighing, and punishing model, that the ego prefers, to the utterly new world that Jesus offered, where God’s abundance has made any economy of merit, sacrifice, reparation, or atonement both unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) all notions of human and animal sacrifice and replaced them with his new economy of grace, which is the very heart of the gospel revolution. Jesus was meant to be a game changer for the human psyche and for religion itself.”

This seems to me to be in close alignment with the Eastern Orthodox Church’s theology, as I understand it, that mans salvation(another loaded word that often gets misconstrued) did not happen on the cross, but in the stable. Jesus’s birth is the game changer. Not his death and resurrection(whether you view the resurrection as literal or metaphorical is secondary to the point I think).

What a different take that is! It changes not only Easter, but even Christianity as I understood it for most of my life.

I’m not going to suggest that we ignore Jesus’s execution as a state criminal at the hands of the Roman Empire. Something that was clearly a historical event, one that Christianity needs to mark in order to be properly understood. But what if we treated Easter as if it isn’t about sin? Not about guilt, fallen creation or what miserable and wretched little creatures we are? What if the resurrection story, either interpretation of it, simply symbolizes a new way of life? A new way of seeing our shared humanity, a new way of relating to each, even a new level of elevated consciousness?

That seems to me to be more inline with what Jesus actually taught and how he lived his life. A teaching that if contrasted with the theology of him acting as a human sacrifice to a malevolent and wrathful deity, seems to be more than just a little incongruent.

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Walking the walk, swimming and some things that I learned about Zen

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference that exists between reading about something and doing it. How our perspective can be so radically different between those two things. An analogy that is sometimes given is swimming. If you’ve never swam before, or even been in a pool, lake or ocean. You can pick up a book and read about water and its buoyancy, resistance and the mechanics involved in swimming. There can be some value in that. But if you then go and jump into the deep end of the pool thinking you can now swim you are likely going to be shocked when you sink straight to the bottom flailing your arms and legs as you go. Your perspective about swimming and all that is entailed will be very different now even though you had an intellectual understanding before hand. Or thought you had.

One of the first and most obvious examples of that for me was when I first encountered formal Buddhist practice, nearly 9 years ago now. I had recently developed an interest in meditation mostly from a secular perspective and I wasn’t necessarily interested in Buddhism. But I quickly discovered a dizzying array of meditation techniques and hadn’t the foggiest idea which was best, if there was a best, or if I was even doing it correctly. Since it appeared that Buddhist had the monopoly on meditation, and most scientific studies investigating the benefits of meditation involved Buddhist practitioners, I figured that I might as well focus my search there.

Not knowing the slightest thing about Buddhism I picked up a few books about and by the Dalai Lama, since as far as I could tell he was kind of the pope of Buddhist( it was sometime before I realized he was the spiritual leader of only around 10% of the worlds Buddhists. The remaining 90% have nothing really to do with him. I was shocked). I found Tibetan Buddhism utterly confusing. I was looking at it from the perspective of a westerner raised in a Judeo-Christian context of a Protestant fundamentalist variety. So I was reading and trying to understand Tibetan Buddhist (which I thought basically represented all Buddhists) through that lens. I ended up just really confused but gathered they worshiped a host of gods that looked like demons and believed perplexing stuff about higher plains of existence, or something. But I still knew nothing about meditation. So I Googled around for local groups to try and learn about meditation from the source, I discovered several, including a Zen group offering free instruction at UVic. Zen? Sounded relaxing, you know, like a spa experience or something. But I didn’t actually know what it really was about. I discovered on an online Buddhist chat forum that it was in fact a form of Buddhism. Or might be…. Of the first 2 threads I read through on the topic I learned in the first one that they meditate, a Lot. Even known as the “meditation Buddhists.” The second thread however there was a debate being raged in which a guy claiming to be an ordained monk in another tradition was insistent that Zen was not Buddhist regardless of what they called themselves.

So from what I could gather Zen people were at best wannabe Buddhists, but they meditated a lot at least. Which was all I was really after anyway so I decided to go and check it out.

My first night was bizarre. So bizzare I almost never went back. There was some tall shaved headed white guy in black robes and others in black uniforms. There were candles and incence burning, an alter, people bowing to it(a form of worship I figured) and everyone seated in silence looking at the floor. Then to really make it weird they started chanting. That sealed it. These phony wannabe Buddhists were clearly nothing but a strange brainwashing cult.

I’m not even sure why I went back a second time. But I did. I gradually unlearned a number of things over the years. Like, Zen practitioners are real Buddhists. Most members of other traditions do not contest that fact. I also learned that they are not a brainwashing cult, although the fact I went there looking to meditate from a purely secular perspective and ended up wearing robes, bowing to graven images, chanting and sitting in silence for hours on end may leave some challenging that claim…..
I also learned that they don’t worship gods, or teach about different plains of existence, or even really have many beliefs that are held to be more important than formal practice and how you engage with your life. I learned to be more tolerant of myself and others and to be more grateful and compassionate. I learned these things not by believing in a doctrine, but by practice. Its active learning, never passive. I also learned that if something makes you uncomfortable. You should probably do it. I learned that growth is painful and messy and never happens in a straight unobstructed line. And most of all that silence can be deeply profound.

Books and chatrooms have their place, but I don’t think I ever would have learned what I did if I didn’t leave my comfort zone and tried to walk the walk.