Wednesday, January 30, 2008

We are all alcoholics

Jim Findley, the Buddha scholar who presented half of the sessions at the conference I went to last weekend said, "There is no belief system in Buddhism. The Buddha said, 'Don't believe me. Listen to me and examine whether or not what I said agrees with your own experience. "

I think that this has always been the way that I've approached church and that is why I used to feel so out of place. I remember reading Walt Whitman my sophomore year in college and underlining the following passage because it spoke attitude out loud so that I could recognize it in my own life. I used it in the paper that I wrote for the class and when I was in office hours with Professor McGowan, he said in his sweet, somewhat mumbling monotone, "This is a nice passage." Very high praise from a quiet, and very Modern, poet. He was not given to hyperbole.

This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church, or in any books, and dismiss whatever insults your soul and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

(from the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass, emphasis mine)


Richard Rohr said later in the conference, "Christians have never had to have much self-knowledge. All you had to have was a system of beliefs. That is why Buddhism is attractive to so many people." He was talking about contemplative prayer and meditation and how it tends to bring up the negative experiences in our life but that we should carry on for the sake of what we will learn. This is the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism: the recognition that suffering exists and subsequently understanding our suffering. The seond noble truth is that there is an ignoble way that leads to suffering and the perpetuation of suffering and it is wanting life to be something other than it is. The last two noble truths have to do with how to alleviate suffering by accepting it.

Richard made the distinction between a system of beliefs and a life lived in awareness of our connection to God frequently throughout the conference. This is so emergent. He talked about the dualistic mind a lot. This is the person who has all or nothing thinking. To this person, if something is not entirely true, it must be entirely false. My alcoholic friends tell me that they think this way and it is only in working towards tempering this black and white view of the world can they stay sober. I have a sneaking suspicion that most of us have a tendency toward this type of dualistic thinking and that this is why we make mistakes and feel unhappy so much of the time.

The teachings of Jesus require us to turn our world on its head. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the earth. This is not how the world seems on the surface. It seems like the pushy get what they want and people that can't speak for themselves get screwed. But if we look deeper, as the Buddha tells us, we see that people with more power, fame and money actually seem to be the least happy people and that when regular people live lives of self-sacrifice, both they and the people they help get closer to having everything that they need to be happy, which turns out to be much less than anyone expected.

But we cannot really understand the teachings of Jesus until we give up our alcoholic, all or nothing thinking. We will never be perfect. Never. But this doesn't mean that we're completely bad, either. We're human. We are not God, which is the first realization that recovering alcoholics have to make before they can begin their healing. We can only be, like the noble truths teach us. Part of this being can involve working toward being better but that should never be done by denying who we are right now. The gospel (good news) is that God loves us exactly as we are right now, so our self-knowledge and self-love of this state at bring us closer to aligning ourselves with God's perspective.

Buddha did not set forth a system of beliefs that people had to accept in order to be Buddhist. This is why people can be both Christian and Buddhist at the same time. He set forth a way of thinking about the world that would bring about peace of the spirit. Buddha also didn't talk about God in any specific way, although he came out of the Hindu tradition. In regards to this, Richard said, "I wonder if the Buddha wasn't making the same decision Bill Wilson [the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous] made: Let's just call it the higher power. Let's address the issue at the level of addiction, at the level of the ego. Because everyone's addictions and egos are the same." By this he meant that simply by being human, we all have addictions and egos and that both get in the way of experiencing God.

We have to experience in order to believe. (Notice I didn't say "seen." We can experience lots of things without engaging them with our senses.) Therefore experience must come before we can even begin sharing with other people what we believe. Richard pointed out that "when you have not experienced the formless, you will be pre-occupied with the forms," which is the problem with most churches these days. Additionally, so many people cannot experience the formless because their egos need to be acknowledged for having created appealing forms for God. They have alcoholic thinking and insist that God is one thing or another. But the reality is that God is so big, we really can't comprehend her. Jim Findley compared it to Groucho Marx saying that he could never respect a club enough to join it if it wanted him for a member. I couldn't worship a God that I could actually contain within my limited cognitive capacity.

This is a lot of big brain kind of stuff and I don't necessarily have a satisfying conclusion to it all. However, I wanted to share it with you because it all resonated with me and changed my orientation a little as I keep walking forward on this path to God.

1 comment:

Ali BG said...

I love the image of all of us being alcoholics in that sense of longing for absolute, all-or-nothings.

The funny thing is that I think I see people fall into this trap in my community, but not in the theological/eschatalogical/
epistomelogical sense. Instead (and I wonder if this is true in other more emergent communities?), it has more to do with life choices--people begin to feel that "faithfulness" means "not shopping at Wal-Mart."

And then start thinking they cannot be a part of a particular small group or church if they do,in fact, shop at Wal-Mart.

But then again, when we base our faith communities, and especially small groups, on affinities, there is a way that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy...

Random midday thoughts, I suppose.

-Ali