viva la particularities

Posted by on 01.14.09 | 6 Comments
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This is a submission to a synchroblog (synchronized blogging) on faith and ethnicity. Here are the excellent entries so far:

  • Susan Barnes on Just a God of the West
  • K.W. Leslie on Why I went to an all-white church
  • Adam Gonnerman on Multicultural experience (and inexperience)
  • Matt Stone on Is the church ready for a multiethnic future?
  • Steve Hayes on Christianity and ethnicity
  • Jeff Goins on Gypsies in Spain
  • Phil Wyman on Seeing the Middle East from a Jewish Perspective
  • Joshua Jinno the Antechurch
  • Raffi Shahinian on Faith and Ethnicity: A True Story
    And of course, this post!
  • web
    photo by ChristineValters Paintner

    Indra’s Net…

    “Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.” –Alan Watts

    This is not a post about either faith nor ethnicity–directly. But about both, at the heart of the matter.

    While attending graduate school (seminary) I learned a few things. Maybe not what I should have, nonetheless there are a few lessons that have stayed with me. Lesson one: not everyone is as free as I am. Lesson two: I’m far more bound up than I think.

    While this may not seem to be graduate level thinking, it was for me. Here’s how it came about. If you paid me real cash money I couldn’t tell you what the paper I wrote was about, but I can tell you a comment made on it by a teacher’s assistant!

    I attended Iliff School of Theology in Denver in the early 1990′s. Iliff is a United Methodist theological institution and has the reputation of being quite liberal. (This is the reason I chose to attend it, other than that I needed to go there to meet my now ex-husband Tom, but that’s another story!) At that point I’d had a smattering of exposure to lots of new age thought, had been been brought up evangelical Christian so I had a basic understanding of the tenets of Christianity, and was interested in eastern philosophy. I had studied the Course in Miracles some. I had read some feminist theologians. I was in grave danger of becoming (ominous drumroll)…a pantheist!

    Pantheism, much simplified, means all is God. In this view, God is synonymous with everything in the universe, and is contained within it.

    During my first semester, what I wrote on that fateful paper used God as a ‘he’ pronoun. I did not think then or at anytime in my life, even with all the preaching that I’ve suffered through, of God as ‘he’. However, it is difficult to write papers about God without using personal pronouns, and so for ease–I should have known that reason would bring me to no good end–I used ‘he’. The TA was a radical feminist, but I do believe that if I’d used God as ‘she’ she would have had the same reaction. What she wrote was, ‘Beth, can’t you think of a better way to illuminate the nature of God than to use male pronouns?’ I was stunned, as I had no connection with God as male. I was puzzled, than angered, as this comment triggered something for me, but at first I wasn’t sure what it was.

    Here is what I came to after wrestling with this issue–which is, of course the real work of seminary, the wrestling with. As I prepared myself for service in the field of theology, if I used my greater freedom (all is God) without great consciousness, I was in danger of hypocrisy of a subtle kind. If I really believed that all is God, then I would take great pains to make sure that all, especially those less free than myself, feel included. I could not be subtly cavalier or dismissive. Instead…I had put space between me and the reader/TA. I had no intentions of pushing my freedom to call God anything in this particular young theologian’s face. But that is what I had done.

    Lesson # 1: use my freedom with great circumspection and grace, because, yes, I am more free than some.

    Lesson # 2: my freedom is another person’s bondage, because, yes, I am less free than many.

    This second lesson was a tad harder to swallow, and it came from the same statement by that honored but nameless TA! She was a profound theological stimulus for me. Not sure I ever thanked her enough!

    If I believe all is God, then what is the purpose of particularities and preferences? Where are the personal pronouns? Where is the space for differences of paradigm, huge chasms of space where dialogue may or may not be possible? Where is that chasm inside me? Where is freedom found?

    I began to look around me and in me for the chasms of freedom and bondage. I began to watch the students of other nationalities and perspectives with a keener interest. How did they experience their worlds? How did they interact with their theologies? NOW I was in theology school…all from that little statement.

    The outcome of this intensive was that I found myself less free of judgment and stricture than I had believed myself to be, entering seminary. I had thought of myself as liberal-minded and open. I began to find all the barriers to real freedom within my own mind, and I began to break down under the weight of those self-judgments. For support, I had a good spiritual director, my new friend Tom, my hospice work and new friends. But what carried me through this breakdown–which is expected in seminary because if you don’t breakdown you come out the same as you go in–was the study of non-theistic Buddhism and the non-dual Course in Miracles. The purpose of this story is not to delve into these two paths, but rather to say that they led me to a place of acceptance of my duality and compassion for my judgment.

    What did I come out of seminary as, if I went in as a pantheist? I came out as a panentheist. The literal Greek definition is all-in-God. It broadened the thought from all-is-God to lay me down in the arms of all is contained in God, but all is not God.

    This current understanding (du jour?!) is that God is ever-becoming. God is a dance. God is a learning vibrant potentiality, in dialogue with the universe. At the same time God is the universe. This view of God is something like the Buddhist concept of interpenetration. God interpenetrates every part of nature and the universe, but is more than the universe and extends beyond space and time, to which the universe is linked. This view of God will grow and expand with my life experience and reflection and maybe come back full circle–who’s to know?

    This brings us, finally, to the topic of faith and ethnicity. If you’ve labored along with me this far, we’re almost finished, thank the Goddess and all the tea in China.

    ‘Particularities’ are those qualities, perspectives and contradictions that make up our humanity; in many ways although they define us, they also give us a sense of separateness. In the above perspective of God, particularities are not to be homogenized, but to be celebrated and accentuated as proof that God is among and in us, breathing through us, learning with us. Common particularities, hashed to death, are: race, gender, sexual preferences, religious/spiritual thought system, age. But there are deeper senses of separations, ones that can in turn overwhelm or enlighten: particularities of confusion, doubt, fear, anxiety, angst, prejudice and even hatred and rage.

    If we are called out from the madding crowd by that great Joy which inevitably attracts life to us, how then do we relate to these deeper particularities? How do we find the grace to be more free–and thus less in judgment– of our chronically anxious brother in law or our fearful, prejudiced mother? And as we dance with those particularities, how do we promote expansiveness in our understanding of ethnicity, race, class in a world of Gazas where ancient enmities exist?

    Rafah refugee
    photo credit: BBC
    Some Gazan refugee camps lack basic amenities

    I do not know the answers to these questions, but the theological reflection for me now is one of perpetually drawing the picture of God larger, always knowing that I don’t know Jack. And never, ever, calling God he.

    Finish where we started, with a Buddhist image that gives a partial perspective of a panentheist God! The part that is un-imaged is that the multidimensional spider’s web is reflected in the eye of the Spider, She/He Who Weaves the Particularities of the Universe into the Universe.

    Indra’s Net…

    “Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.” –Alan Watts




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