Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sacrifice and Bliss

My Tuesday evening at the Presbyterian Church attending their six-week "The Power of Myth" series continued this week. Its become the highlight of my week. Only two more sessions to go, then I'll have my Tuesday evenings free. Tonight's segment was on "Sacrifice and Bliss." For an hour, we watch the DVD of Bill Moyer's interview with Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist who had these interviews just a few years before he passed on to the spiritual realm. Joseph Campbell's most famous quote is: "Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls." Nice sentiment, but I'm not sure if its true. I think (key word: "think") I have been following my bliss, but I haven't found my satisfying career yet. Just a serious of low wage jobs with dead end futures. I'm not getting any younger. We'll see, though. I realize that life is a long haul and sometimes the struggle is necessary before you receive your just reward (the dream career that pays the living wage I have sought for eleven years now).

After watching the hour-long segment, we break up into two groups for discussion. The pastor of the Presbyterian Church mentioned something interesting during the discussion. A lot of people liked what Chief Seattle said about there being only one God and that we belong to the land, rather than the land belonging to humans. The pastor wants to preach environmental responsibility to his congregation, but finds so few references within the Bible to use. This caused an interesting discussion that I almost contributed to. Almost! I tend to be the quiet listener. Sometimes I want to speak, but others beat me to it and the moment is lost. As I listened, though, I was stunned by some of the questions. Someone had asked if God speaks to us today and why there wasn't an ongoing canon of scripture that reflects modern life. The pastor acknowledged that the Bible was geared towards ancient man's worldview, rather than modern day life. For example: taming the environment was necessary back then, but now we have well tamed our environments...to the point where animals are becoming extinct. How can the Bible speak to pollution, nuclear power, over-population, our food industry, etc?

I'm amazed whenever I hear someone ask the question, "Why aren't there scriptures for today?" The question revealed to me just how spoiled I am to be born and raised in the Community of Christ (RLDS), where we do have a book of scriptures in which modern-day revelation is added from time to time. The Doctrine & Covenants. I guess I just took it for granted. However, a lot of the sections within this scripture seem too business oriented (minutes of a meeting type of deal, with appointments and retirements). The last few sections, though, have been provocative and worthy of fostering discussion about what it means to be a Christian in the modern era, when faced with issues such as equality for homosexuals in priesthood ordination and marriages (still a divisive issue within the church).

As the discussion continued about the appropriateness of using outside sources to convey a message in a sermon at a Presbyterian Church, I was struck by the attachment other Christian denominations still had to the Bible. This is the kind of "inside the box" thinking that is not going to attract Generation X or the Millennials back to the pews. There's a reason why the Bible is incapable of addressing modern issues! It was written by ancient man who did not have the foresight to envision overpopulation, steel and glass skyscrapers that would make the Tower of Babel look like an anthill, submarines under the ocean, airplanes that can fly someone around the world in less than 24 hours, a space station hovering the planet, cars that can travel the North American continent in a week's time, instant communication via the Internet and Skype, politicians sending x-rated photos to complete strangers through his cell phone, etc. Why be a slave to the Bible? The Bible is merely a tool. Its not meant to be the final word. If a pastor can't find the right scripture verse to illustrate his point on caring for our environment, there shouldn't be anything stopping him from using other sources of information.

When I took a New Testament class in college, I learned that the reason why Jesus spoke in parables (metaphors) is because he knew that the authentically spiritual among his listeners would get the meaning he was wanting to convey. The literal-minded would take everything to be the truth and miss the larger meaning. Time and time again, in verse after verse, a reader can see that the literal-minded were often confounded by Jesus' ministry. The pious Jewish people of Jesus' day were obsessed with following the Letter of the Law, which meant that they would leave a man for dead on the road to Jericho because it was against Jewish law to dirty one's hands on the Sabbath. There were laws against men speaking to single women, for touching people with leprosy, for being touched by an unclean person, etc. Jesus violated all those laws, which angered the Pharisees, who were tasked with maintaining the law. Jesus came to show that it was the following of the Letter of the Law at the expense of the Spirit of the Law that was a problem with Judaism. People became obsessed with rules and obedience, while ignoring the genuine human needs around them.

So, if Jesus was here to visit Christian churches, I'm certain that he would offend many of them because of their rigid structure and obsession with following the "literal truth" of the Bible, rather than the metaphors and parables. If a pastor wanted to speak about the Christian responsibility to be a caretaker of the environment but couldn't find passages in the Bible to support his or her sermon, then go to another source! The Bible shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of spirituality!

The most controversial aspect of the segment on "Sacrifice and Bliss" is Joseph Campbell's view that cannibalistic ritual was not much different than the Catholic view of "transubstantiation" -- the belief that when one partakes of the wafer in holy communion, it literally becomes the body of Christ, and the partaking of the wine becomes the actual blood of Christ in the parishioner's mouth. Ew! I never knew Catholics believed this until I read one of the Tales of the City novels several years ago that featured such a plot. I admit that I have a problem with the symbology of communion (Jesus did tell his disciples to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him). It is a ritual that many don't question, a church tradition that I've heard many admit was their primary reason for wanting to get baptized at 8 years old (to partake of communion for the first time).

Though Campbell does connect the Christian ritual with the practices of cannibalistic tribes, the difference is that one is a symbolic ritual while the other was an actual deed. Innocents were sacrificed to become dinner for their tribe. Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was supposed to end the practice of human sacrifice.

Last week, during the discussion, a few people brought up the tragedy of losing tribal culture and what the European settlers did to the native populations during the expansion of "civilized" culture on this continent. Though it is tragic for the native populations, I believe that life is about evolution and those that can't adapt die off. It sounds harsh, but its the way things happen. Civilizations constantly rise and fall. When I lived in Italy, I was shocked that the ancestors of people I met were capable of building the greatest empire our planet had ever seen. Modern Italians had pretty lax living and working styles. They preferred to live to the fullest than to work too hard, and the Italian military is a joke. How did a people change so much over the centuries?

My point is that the march of progress is never ending. I'm one who does not believe that there is anything appealing about tribal culture. Sure, some of the spiritual beliefs, customs, and medicine information should be preserved for history's sake as well as our own sake. We can learn much from tribal traditions, but that does not mean that I want to run around in nothing but a loin cloth hunting for bison all day. I like modern life just fine. Sure, it could be a little more spiritual (I'd love to be part of an organization devoted towards building a spiritual culture), but I don't think giving up our Internet access, our ability to travel the globe, our billions of books, our music and movies, or our homes is necessary to live an authentic spiritual life. We have to find what works for us, what resonates for us. The ancient native cultures are not able to keep up with the flow of human history. I suppose the idea of living in huts or teepees and wearing loin cloth from animals that you just killed is not a big selling point for most people raised on suburban life.

This series has proven to be insightful for the past month. Not only do I finally get to see this excellent interview series, but I also get to learn about the similarities and differences between the Presbyterian Church and my own faith tradition. I often don't appreciate the Community of Christ as much as I should, but every now and again, I get a fresh reminder why I feel so blessed to be raised in this church. People in another Christian denomination are asking questions I've never had to ask. God does speak to modern people and there are other scriptures that testify to the ever-evolving work of God.

1 comment:

T said...

The Power of Myth series is truly powerful and transformative. Campbell was a brilliant man. Did you know that series was filmed in the library at Lucas's Skywalker Ranch?