Of spiritual rebels, untamable hearts and a God who is bigger than religion

Here is another instalment of thoughts from Krista Tippett’s book Becoming Wise.

On religion or religiosity:

Certain kinds of religiosity turned themselves into boxes into which too little light and air could enter or escape.

On responses, throughout the centuries, to the Church having lost its way:

The wandering ascetic, eccentric sages known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the visionaries like Benedict or Francis or Ignatius of Loyola across the many centuries in which Catholicism was the only way to be Christian – they all emerged at a distance from a Church they experienced to have grown imperial, externally domesticated, and inwardly cold – out of touch with its own spiritual core.

Intriguingly – and rightly, in my judgement – Tippett sees the ‘nones’, those unaffiliated with any particular religion, as the modern-day equivalent to the mystics and monastics who, in earlier times, have called the Church back to its ‘spiritual core’:

The Nones of this age are ecumenical, humanist, transreligious. But in their midst are analogs to the original monastics: spiritual rebels and seekers on the margins of established religion, pointing tradition back to its own untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart.

I love the notion of religion’s ‘untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart’. Without this, we have little of real value to offer to our world.

And Tippett quotes former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reflecting on the meaning of the divine name ‘hayah asher hayah‘, which he explains in transreligious terms:

Don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you. One of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. Don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.

An evil book? C. J. Sansom on the book of Revelation

Revelation was the first C. J. Sansom book I have read, primarily because the plot is built largely around the seven bowls (or vials, as they are called in the King James Version) of judgement found in Revelation 15–16. I shall say more about the novel in an upcoming post, focusing on some of its comments on the book of Revelation for now. These comments are of particular interest to me, as Revelation is one of the biblical books that I am working on at the moment.

Sansom, a historian by training, has interesting things to say about how the book of Revelation was interpreted during the troublesome times of Henry VIII, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries and during the bitter conflicts between the radicals (i.e. those influenced by the Protestant reformers) and the conservatives (those wishing to preserve Catholic traditions).

One of the themes that comes up repeatedly in conversations among the novel’s main characters is Revelation’s obscurity. Consider the following conversation between Barak, the assistant of Matthew Shardlake, the book’s protagonist, and the latter himself. They are discussing the seven bowls of judgement:

‘I remember our vicar reading about that once. I couldn’t follow it, it sounded like a mad dream.’
‘A mad dream. Yes, well put. …’

In another conversation they reflect on Revelation generally:

‘This book makes no sense,’ Barak said at length. ‘It tells the same story in different ways, different versions of how the world will end, angels and wars and vials. There is no …’
‘Narrative? I know. It is the only book in the New Testament that is so obscure.’

Indeed, the book’s obscurity is causing all kinds of problems, as Shardlake points out:

There are as many interpretations of Revelation as there are interpreters, each one saying his understanding is the true one. And most are ill-educated fanatics. This book is causing much trouble in the world.

It is Guy Malton, a doctor and ex-monk, who puts his finger on one of the key problems:

Thrown into a different world, where the Bible is interpreted as literal fact, its symbols and metaphors forgotten, and fanatics react with equanimity to the blood and cruelty of Revelation. Have you ever thought what a God would be like who actually ordained and executed the cruelty that is in that book? A holocaust of mankind. Yet so many of these Bible-men accept the idea without a second thought.

But it is not only the interpreters that are at fault. The book of Revelation itself is deemed to be deeply problematic, as both Matthew Shardlake and Guy Malton repeatedly suggest. This is how Shardlake characterises Revelation:

The last book of the Bible; full of wild, fiery, cruel language, hard to understand, unlike anything else in the New Testament. Erasmus and Luther both doubted whether Revelation was really the word of God …

He then goes on to stress how different this book is from the rest of the New Testament, especially ‘in its violence and cruelty, its representation of Jesus as God’s harsh judge, who holds the keys of hell and death’. Indeed, Revelation appals him:

I read its cruel barbarous message and I despair.

Malton, for his part, comments:

What an evil book it is, for it says that humanity is nothing, is worth nothing.

And so he concludes:

Christianity would be better without that book. It preaches nothing but cruelty and destruction. It teaches that the destruction of human beings does not matter, is even to be rejoiced over. It is evil.

That these characters express Sansom’s own views about the book of Revelation is confirmed by the ‘Historical Note’ that concludes the novel. Here Sansom talks about ‘a London increasingly divided between radical and conservative parishes’ and notes that:

the radicals, with their view of themselves as persecuted saints, often comforted themselves in the belief that Revelation foretold their eventual victory against the ‘Beast’ of Rome. Many believed then, exactly as Christian fundamentalists do today, that they lived in the ‘last days’ before Armageddon and, again just as now, saw signs all around in the world that they took as certain proof that the Apocalypse was imminent. Again like fundamentalists today, they looked on the prospect of the violent destruction of mankind without turning a hair. The remarkable similarity between the first Tudor Puritans and the fanatics among today’s Christian fundamentalists extends to their selective reading of the Bible, their emphasis on the Book of Revelation, their certainty of their rightness, even to their phraseology. Where the Book of Revelation is concerned, I share the view of Guy, that the early Church Fathers released something very dangerous on the world when, after much deliberation, they decided to include it in the Christian canon.

Most of what Sansom says, especially about fundamentalist interpretations of Revelation, is very well taken. But his novel also leaves us with the question whether the book of Revelation is indeed evil in and of itself. And that is one of the issues I shall have to ponder in the coming weeks, as I reflect, among other things, on ‘Revelation, Apocalyptic Worldview and Violence’.

Best Reads 2013. III: Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain SpiritualityThe Solace of Fierce Landscapes, says Frances Young in Brokenness and Blessing, is the kind of book she would have liked to have written herself. Published by Oxford University Press, this is a well-informed exploration of desert spirituality. But it offers more than that. Talking about ‘the permeable boundaries between critical scholarship and lived experience’, Belden Lane also reflects on his own experience of spending time in wilderness places; and he gives a very personal account of his journey alongside his dying mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer as well as his attempt to come to terms with his father’s somewhat mysterious death earlier on in his life.

The book is in three parts, which reflect the traditional three stages of the spiritual life: Purgation: Emptiness in a Geography of Abandonment; Illumination: Waiting in a Silence Beyond Language; and Union: Love as the Fruit of Indifference. These three stages, notes Lane, are symbolised by the desert, the mountain and the cloud.

There are chapters on:

  • spirituality and the environment,
  • wild terrain and the spiritual life,
  • prayer without language in the mystical tradition,
  • the symbolism of Mounts Sinai and Tabor in the Christian tradition,
  • the landscape and theology of early Christian monasticism,
  • the desert Christians’ counter-cultural spirituality of attentiveness, indifference and love.

And, to give you another list, which is the only way I can even begin to do justice to the book’s richness without giving an extensively long account, Lane offers insightful thoughts on:

  • abandonment of control (and the desert as teacher of renunciation and abandonment),
  • letting go and the emptying of self,
  • loving that which cannot be understood,
  • the power of compassion as the fruit of indifference (the notion of indifference might require some explanation, but you have to read Lane for that),
  • a new harmony with the land,
  • learning to pay attention,
  • the transformation of desire into love,
  • meeting love in the most unlikely places,
  • the power of silence to connect and heal,
  • liturgy and the reaffirmation of ordinariness.

Woven into the fabric of the book are interludes, called ‘mythic landscapes’, in which Lane takes his personal account of the journey with his dying mother as well as his repeated experiences of wilderness places as the starting point for further reflections on issues such as a spirituality of brokenness, the gift of nothingness in a desert landscape, the unexpected gifts of grief, and a spirituality of desire.

Having had some recent desert experiences myself, I have found this a rich and rewarding read.

Learning from monks, nuns and friars

Ian Adams, Cave, Refectory, Road: Monastic Rhythms for Contemporary LivingCave, Refectory, Road: Monastic Rhythms for Contemporary Living by Ian Adams, another short book of just under 100 pages, adopts an approach to spirituality and Christian living that seeks to learn from the strengths of the monastic tradition. It represents the movement of ‘new monasticism’, in which key monastic principles are applied to ‘regular life’ in a non-monastic setting.

Such a life finds expression in the cave, which symbolises withdrawal in order to make space for stillness, prayer and contemplation; the refectory, which stands for commitment to a place and community, for hospitality and presence; and the road, the life that is open to travel, encounter and world-engagement.

Adams offers perceptive comments on the monastic rhythm of life with its different approach to time, prioritising prayer, silence and stillness over everything else; and there are thoughtful chapters on the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, which are reinterpreted as simplicity, devotion, humility and rootedness.

This is a gentle and reflective book that seeks to point the way to an authentic spirituality focused on being and living.