The Sacred and the Profane

One of the things I appreciate about  Joseph Campbell is that he showed me the Christ in Paganism.  Listening to Campbell you realize He is there, woven into pretty much every pagan mythology waiting for the astute missionary to find Him.  Campbell by the way is no Christian and was not going looking for Christ, but looking for the things that are commonalities in all faiths.  In a sense, anyone looking at his writings could probably find their own faith recapitulated in many others.  The coincidence of Christ figures in paganism however is so apparent that some have postulated that Christ is some kind of amalgam of past pagan faiths, particularly the devotion to the Roman God Mithra, which somehow merged with some other pagan stories and Jewish traditions to form Christianity borrowing bits from each other.  To believe that kind of thing it helps to be a little like the Mel Gibson character in the 1997 movie “Conspiracy Theory”.  Everybody keep that tinfoil on your heads please.  

From a purely Christian worldview the presence of core Christian truths embedded in other faiths should be no surprise.  If I take the most fundamentalist kind of approach, I could recall how Eve was deceived in the garden.  Eve had added to the command of God, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.'”  From a Christian point of view, deception in religion is not going to generally be whole cloth but will be by degrees.  A core truth about the world will be distorted, overemphasized, or in some way used to draw people away from a relationship with the true God.  From a more pluralistic point of view we can take from Paul’s admonition that, “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made,”.  From that, it might be assumed that a bit of truth about the universe could have been gleaned by people sincerely seeking after a higher power, even if, as Paul observed in the next verse, they generally get it wrong.

I am a mathematician and we deal in what is as close as humans can get to what Schaffer called true truth.  A mathematical truth is far more reliable than say a truth gained by observation since a mathematical truth can be determined to be true even if all I know with certainty is that I am a nexus of thought.  Euclid’s proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers will still be true even if you, my car, my house, Europe, the Milky Way Galaxy and the rest of the universe exist only in my imagination.  One of the things that often happens in mathematics is an unanswered question will lead to the development of new inquiries in mathematics that turn out to be much more interesting and important than that posed by the original question.  That was the case with Fermat’s last Theorem.  Men trying to solve Fermat’s problem developed a great deal of mathematics that was much more important than the problem originally posed by Fermat.  That is the treasure in the mystery of unanswered questions and so with the mysteries of God.  There is gold in asking the questions even when we don’t get the answers we were expecting.

I was recently discussing the concept of the spirit with an eclectic group of friends, Protestant, Catholic and Mormon and the question of the preexistence of the spirit came up.  It occurred to me that this is a topic that Mormons and Eastern faiths rather neatly put in a box but that orthodox Christianity really doesn’t address very clearly because the bible doesn’t seem to address it very directly.  Of course, there is bound to be something about it in the CCC.  There always is.  But as I pondered the question driving to work this morning driving past the bucolic fields of grass and ranchland I suddenly realized something profound about myself.

I thought about the miracle of conception, the egg and the sperm being offered up by the woman and the man.  I thought of the analogy of the seed being placed in the ground.  I thought of the way that Jesus used that to parallel our own new birth.  I thought about our own culture and how it treats sexuality and I had a revelation of sorts.  The egg and the sperm are not merely bodily fluids.  They are sacred.  There is, dare I say it, something analogous to the Eucharist going on here because they confer life when united.  Like the penitent in adoration of the Eucharist who, as a part of the bride of Christ, longs to be united to the body of Christ in the Mass for the life it will bring, the sperm longs to be united with the egg for the life it will bring.  Sexuality in the context of marriage is holy and my body engaged in sexuality in that context is engaged in a holy feast of celebration.

Some Jewish traditions understood the sacredness of the body and my sexuality and expressed it in the most clear terms possible. “It is prohibited to waste seed . This is the most severe of all sins in the torah. Those who spill seed in waste, not only do they commit a major sin, they also place themselves in excommunication. Referring to them the verse says “your hands became filled with blood”. It is as if he kills a person.” (Kitzur Shulcan Aruch 151)

I don’t agree with this rather severe view.  In reading more about this tradition, I realize it is based upon a belief that the soul of the preborn child exists within the seed of the male. “It comes out, all souls who were to be his children now intermingle with the sitra achara. He takes holiness and turn it to impurity, good into evil (Kaf Hchaim 240)”.  But I do appreciate the reverence it shows for the body and for the act of a man and a woman uniting in intimate physical union.  In particular I am not an advocate of men gritting their teeth and “white knuckling” their way to avoiding masturbation for fear of sin.  What I am speaking of is a different way of seeing yourself and your body as a sacred part of yourself.

I could speak at this point about the lack of teaching on the spirituality of the body in the protestant church, or the way as men we compartmentalize our spirituality and our sexuality or even the issue of duality and the tendency to view the physical realm as bad and the spiritual realm as good, but instead I am going to get a bit more personal.  How does this knowledge impact me now?  All of me, all of me, matters to God.  I carry eternity inside me.  I am reminded of my favorite quote from  my favorite Anglican, C. S. Lewis.

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people.

You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

I have to disagree with Lewis on one count.  I think we spend far too little time considering that we too are made for eternity, that we too are not ordinary people, that we carry eternity inside us.  Catch a glimpse of that glory alive inside you and a part of you and it will change you.  It already has.

They lied to you in Sunday School

The bible is one of the most widely published and least read books.  Almost every home has one, and it undoubtedly lays at the very foundation of basic principles of Western Civilization, but most people have knowledge of the book second or third hand.  It gets worse though.  Many of these myths get repeated from pulpits.  Take for instance, “The Curse”.  I have heard most of my life that we carry within us a curse from God as a result of the fall of Adam, but read carefully Genesis 3.

14The LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
Cursed are you more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you will go,
And dust you will eat
All the days of your life;

15And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

16To the woman He said,
“I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.”

Only two things were cursed in the garden, the serpent and the ground.  Neither the man nor the woman were cursed.  That moment of awareness of sin changes all of us, but God does not curse us.  His greatest wrath is reserved for those things around us that confuse and bewilder and deceive us into distrusting His goodness.  PortlandJapaneseGarden_20120923 (1)

An Introduction

This is my own story and my own insights gleaned from a life that has many more yesterdays than it does tomorrows.  I share it only because I trust it will give hope inspiration and help to a few others.  It is what I have found to be true for me and it is a way of understanding myself that has led me to a level of freedom and happiness I never thought possible.  It is an eclectic mix of experience, science, philosophy, and faith.  It leans heavily on others who have gifted me with their wisdom and acted as companions, mentors and surrogate fathers and brothers.  In the field of science it is said that all models are false but some are useful.  In the same way, the paradigms or models through which I may gain understanding of myself are inherently flawed at some level and they may shift and bend and I may incorporate bits and pieces of many, but I work under the premise that the underlying moral truths of the universe like the laws of physics must be universal.  What is right and wrong, moral and immoral cannot merely be a convention, the creation of the mind.  Else we would have no basis from which to condemn the choices of any culture.  You cannot condemn the NAZI and at the same time claim that all morality is a human construct or else you must conclude that the only failing of the NAZI’s was not to win.  Any other position is simply vacuous.  We may disagree on what the Natural Law is, what the highest eternal moral values are, but they are not mere arbitrary constructs or we cannot find any common ground upon which to engage in a discussion about them.  Otherwise Nietzsche was right and morality will be whatever I am able to impose on you through the force of social pressure or the power of the state and discussion will give way to whoever can manage the more resolute will to power.  In such a world morality truly would be a force of oppression.

With that spirit I will be sharing the paradigms that have helped me and why and those that have not helped and why along with observations on the world in general.  I hope you find that my insights and my own journey will be of benefit to you.