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.

The great falsity of colonisation, the art of letting go – and some other thoughts from John O’Donohue’s ‘The Four Elements’

John O’Donohue is one of the most evocative writers I know. His books, his thoughts, his phraseology are like beautiful cathedrals to me, beautiful cathedrals made of words. Here are some passages from ‘Air: The Breath of God’, the first essay of The Four Elements.

John O'Donohue, The Four ElementsMost of the brutalization that occurs externally in the world is usually subsequent to a prior brutalization that has happened within the heart.

On fundamentalism:

One of the terrible deficiencies of most fundamentalism is that the … flow and risk of life get totally managed and programmed into categories.

Talking about Jesus, O’Donohue points out that ‘any place he appeared, his presence became a challenge’. A challenge, one might add, that is as unwelcome in institutionalised religion (the Church) today as it was at the time, a challenge we so often are quick to tame, contain or ignore.

I love these observations on territorial and spiritual colonisation:

We believe that salvation can only come from outside. This is the great falsity of colonization, be it territorial or spiritual. It robs the native land, or the native soul, of the sense of its own indigenous treasures and resources. Against all attempts at programmes and methods, the great art of holiness is to let oneself be.

And here is what O’Donohue has to say about religion vis-à-vis the truly inspired, the eternal:

Something inspired has the surprise, vitality and warmth of the eternal within it. … There is none of the deadness, seriousness or narrowness which affects so much religion and which has nothing to do with the eternal, but everything to do with the fears and competitiveness of the ego.

Finally, some words about loss, the art of letting go and receiving back a hundredfold:

We need to learn to be creative about loss …. The art at the heart of the mystical is letting go. If you learn to develop this art, you will receive back again a hundredfold everything you released. If you love something, let it go, and it will return to you. … This is the free art of presence in love and friendship. The Kingdom of God is about the transfiguration of Nothingness and loss into the fecundity of possibility.

The ‘fecundity of possibility’ – something to hope for and trust in, I suppose.

The one and only test

The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience or devotional practice [is] that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine [makes] you kinder, more empathetic and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness this [is] good theology. But if your notion of God [makes] you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it [leads] you to kill in God’s name, it [is] bad theology.

Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

The Great Chain of Being à la Auntie Muriel

Some lines from Margaret Atwood’s novel Life before Man:

Auntie Muriel is unambiguous about most things. Her few moments of hesitation have to do with members of her own family. She isn’t sure where they fit into the Great Chain of Being She’s quite certain of her own place, however. First comes God. Then comes Auntie Muriel and the Queen, with Auntie Muriel having a slight edge. Then come about five members of the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, which Auntie Muriel attends. After this there is a large gap. Then white, non-Jewish Canadians, Englishmen, and white, non-Jewish Americans, in that order. Then there’s another large gap, followed by all other human beings on a descending scale, graded according to skin color and religion. Then cockroaches, clothes moths, silverfish and germs, which are about the only forms of animal life with which Auntie Muriel has ever had any contact. Then all sexual organs, except those of flowers.


There are no shades of grey for Auntie Muriel. Her only visible moral dilemma is that she thinks she ought to rank her family with the Timothy Eaton Church members, because of their relation to her; but she feels compelled to place them instead with the cockroaches and silverfish, because of their deplorable behavior.

Lion Isaiahists and Wolf Isaiahists battling over the Peaceable Kingdom

The Lion Isaiahists and the Wolf Isaiahists both preached on street corners, battling when they met: they were at odds over whether it was the lion or the wolf that would lie down with the lamb once the Peaceable Kingdom had arrived.

This little satirical gem from Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood puts it finger rather squarely on one of the problems Christianity tends to suffer from.

There’s much insight in the following thought, too:

… religion is a shadow of God. But the shadows of God are not God.


The challenge

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.

This is one of the statements that I most associate with Richard Rohr; and it is one that he must have said dozens of times. And so it also appears in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, where he adds:

If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter. Indeed, there are bitter people everywhere, inside and outside of the church. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know where to put it.

If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down. The natural movement of the ego is to protect itself so as not to be hurt again.

Biblical revelation is about transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing the pain onto the next generation. … Exporting our unresolved hurt is almost the underlying story line of human history, so you see why people still need healthy spirituality and healthy religion.

I think Rohr is right. How we deal with our hurts, disappointments, betrayals etc. makes all the difference, not only in how we experience and treat others, but also in how we experience life itself. Bitterness, cynicism and distrust are so dangerous because they are so destructive. They can seriously hurt and even destroy others, but that’s not all: in the end, they can destroy us, too.

The challenge, then, is not to close down but to accept and integrate our hurts, disappointments and betrayals, which of course hurt the more the less expected they are. The challenge is to transform our pain and not transmit it, to let ourselves be hurt without hitting back. A true challenge indeed, but the realisation that this is the only healthy way forward is perhaps the first step. Compassion for those who hurt us and a commitment to non-violence in all walks of life make all the difference, for ourselves in the first place but also, in the long run, for those we encounter.

The freedom not to know

As a footnote on my previous post, I should say that Kennedy’s statement appeals to me because it connects with the Christian apophatic tradition, which is precisely a tradition of not knowing. Richard Rohr (in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality) defines this as ‘the very concept of faith, the freedom not to know’, and notes that

it is amazing how religion has turned this biblical idea of faith around to mean its exact opposite: into a tradition of certain knowing, presumed predictability and complete assurance about whom God likes and whom God does not like.