Silence

Last night the Monday night study group I’m in watched the movie Silence .

The film takes place in 17th century, feudal Japan and is told from the point of view of a pair of Portuguese Jesuit priests (Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe – played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who, travel there in an attempt to find out what happened to their revered teacher and mentor, also a Jesuit priest (Father Ferreira – played by Liam Neeson) who preceded them in their mission to Japan and reportedly renounced his faith after torture at the hands of the Japanese “inquisitor”.

I believe that Martin Scorsese knew that most people would see a particular theme in the film.  Reviews and commentary following it’s release certainly followed this thinking.

In a January 5, 2017 article in the Chicago Sun Times, Richard Roeper wrote about the movie and what he felt was the essential message of the film…

“Silence,” the movie Scorsese has been trying to get made for some 30 years, is a two-hour and 40-minute epic about faith.

Faith and how it inspires acts of miraculous, selfless sacrifice.

Faith and how it can be the main source of hope and redemption for oppressed peoples.

Faith and how it can be viewed as a threat to the very fabric of a nation.

Faith and how it can be warped to inspire acts of terrible, shocking, unspeakably cruel violence.

In a December 22, 2016, Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times that a central theme of the film revolves around the question of God’s silence.

Why, does God not answer prayers and alleviate suffering?

I saw a different message in the telling of this tale.  One that I also found in the common understanding of the stories in the Bible.  There are the stories most people know and recognize on the surface that are told repeatedly through lectionary cycles in many Christian denominations.   But for me there are often other meanings that come alive when I think about and imagine the stories in a broader context.

This is not intended as a critical assessment.  I don’t believe I’m being critical when I address a historical reality that may be somewhat unpleasant to consider.

The story of this film centers on the persecution of Christians.  But there’s often more than one side of any story.  In this case, this other side is even given voice near the end of the film by the character of the fallen priest, Father Ferreria.

When the Portuguese Jesuit’s first encountered the people in the islands of Japan, what did they expect to find and what was their intent regardless of what they found?

The intent of the Jesuit order is the salvation and perfection (i.e. the justification and sanctification) of each individual Jesuit and, ultimately, every human being.

They arrived in Japan with the intent to convert the Japanese people into Christians.  They were certain that there was no redeeming value in any belief system that was non-Christian, so they didn’t bother to understand it beyond what they might need to know to build arguments for their Christian beliefs in opposition to the beliefs of the natives.

 

They arrived in Japan to indoctrinate the local people in the dogma and doctrine of the Christian church.  Essentially, to replace one system of domination with another.

I find it very unlikely that this is what Jesus had in mind.  Had they been following the Way of Jesus they would not have focused so much effort on teaching that following the doctrines and rituals of the church, in the face of severe oppression, would bring them an existence in paradise after they have endured great suffering and death at the hands of their oppressors.

I believe that Jesus intended to spread the word that there was a way to establish paradise on earth in the current time.

God’s kingdom on earth.

The Jesuits didn’t understood why the Japanese feared their conversion attempts.  They failed to understand that Buddhist teaching left room for people to learn about the Way of Jesus without abandoning their traditional beliefs.

We’ve seen these misunderstandings repeated in history.  The doctrine of Manifest Destiny that resulted in the subjugation of the indigenous tribes of the Americas is but one example.

There are other ways to understand God than the one taught through traditional Christianity.  In fact, there are other ways to understand God that leave room for the Way of Jesus and his teachings, as well as those of others.

For me, this movie pointed out that there is real danger in assuming that the beliefs we hold are the only valid or valuable beliefs there can be.

Jesus did not teach us to force our will on others.  He taught inclusion not exclusion.  His Way was really fairly simple.

Love those around you.   Especially those who are different from you.  Especially those who would want to mistreat you or harm you.  Love them deeply.

Cast off your hold on possessions and things and bring your wealth together into common community to care for those who have less.

Advocate for justice, but not in terms of our western understanding of justice as law.   Instead through Jesus understanding of justice as the social manifestation of love.

 

If There Is No God, We Don’t Make Sense

If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning — just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.  Dark would be without meaning.  Similarly, the fact that eyes exist suggests that light must exist.  And the the fact that we have spiritual longings … the fact that we even have a meaningful category of thought and speech called spirituality … Suggests that there is some corresponding reality out there which we have the capacity to “sense”.  That capacity would be called faith, and that reality, God.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1943, p. 46)

Skepticism and Doubt

The skeptic doubts one set of propositions because he believes another.  None of us live with absolute, unassailable certainly about anything; we all live by faith.  What someone thinks or feels absolutely certain of is really relative certainty.  It’s certainty based on faith that they are right.  The fact that they are certain is proof that they possess great faith. Likewise, one who doubts yet believes also demonstrates that some degree of faith is inescapable and runs through all that we claim to know.

Albert Einstein once said that there is no knowing without believing.

As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.

The supreme task of the physicist is the search for those highly universal laws from which a picture of the world can be obtained by pure deduction.  There is no logical path leading to these laws.  They are only to be reached by intuition, based upon something like an intellectual love.

The mechanics of discovery are neither logical nor intellectual.  It’s a sudden illumination, almost a rapture.  Later, to be sure, intelligence and analysis and experiment confirm (or invalidate) the intuition.  But initially there is a great leap of the imagination.

— Albert Einstein 

Faith defined simply 

Faith isn’t something you either have or don’t have, but something that ebbs and flows in the life and soul of every individual.  Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith.  It’s an element of faith.  Where there is absolute certainty, there can be no room for faith.

Wondering about wonder

Where has the wonder gone?  I’m not talking about wonder as a verb… A question…  As in… “have you ever wondered about…” or “I wonder what…”.

I’m interested in rediscovering Wonder as a noun…  of finding that fascination and feeling of overwhelming joy when one encounters something marvelous…. Something extraordinary; or beautiful; or just … Wonderful.  As paraphrased from Arthur C Clarks 2001 Space Odyssey…

Something’s going to happen. Something wonderful.

In this context, wonder isn’t something we do.  It’s not an action.  It’s a state of being… an experience… an observation of a state of reality.

In a way, this distinction is similar to the one we find ourselves in when we consider the state of the “scientific” within the Christian and other faith traditions.

Why does a debate between creation and science exist?

The debate itself doesn’t make any sense to me because I think that science is a gift that helps us to experience wonder, and though that gift to experience God.  It’s not about proving whether or not God exists.  It’s about finding the wonder in our physical existence and understanding that our physical existence itself is of God.

Sometimes scientific minds make the mistake of thinking we’ve figured it out and therefore there is no reason to explore further.  However, if we continue to dig and go deeper we uncover more mystery… More wonder.   When we manage to internalize that experience, we transform and have the opportunity to experience God.

The English physicist Sir William Bragg once said…

Sometimes people ask if religion and science are opposed to one another.  They are — in the same sense that the thumb and fingers of my hand are opposed to one another.  It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped.

What a brilliant analogy!  Experiential paradox!  It is only through the opposition that we can understand and grasp the wonder.  It is only through the experience of pain and suffering that we can grasp the meaning of pleasure and joy.  It is only through the experience of birth and the certainty of death that we can grasp and understand the wonder of our spiritual birth and timeless spiritual existence.

When I think about wonder, I begin to see that I frequently fall into the trap of thinking that God is a God of actions.  That the concepts we attribute to him are concepts explained in language through the use of verbs.

We say…

God loves us…  God forgives us…

Yet we struggle to accept this.  We don’t understand how we can possibly be good enough for God to love us.  We don’t understand how God can forgive us when we have done so much wrong in our lives and continue to do wrong despite good intentions.  We struggle because we feel that if we fully accept God’s love and forgiveness… if we fully accept God’s grace… we will no longer have a reason for trying to live up to any type of standards.  Why try if God will love us and forgive us no matter what?

The problem is that we are thinking of God’s love and forgiveness as actions that God does.   And with an action that God would do, we assume that God must choose to either do it or not.

I think the mistake here is believing that God’s existence includes relating to us through the actions of loving and forgiving.  Perhaps instead… God exists in a state of loving and forgiveness.  God is love.  God is forgiveness.  He doesn’t chose to love us or forgive us.  He simple is love and forgiveness, and because He wants relationship with us that relationship must exist in a state of love and forgiveness, because God exists in a state of love and forgiveness.

So, how do we manage to love God?  Why do we need to do anything good, moral and right if God’s forgiveness is already there?

Again, as we ask these questions we slip into thinking about love and forgiveness as the relate to God, as actions rather than states of being.  Perhaps what needs to happen, is that we need to experience transformation… to move from a place where we understand our love relationship with God as an action to a place where our love relationship with God is a state of being….  We move from a place where our faith relationship with God is no longer an action… we no longer act faithfully.  Instead we are faithful.  We transform our faith from action to state of being.  We transform our love for God from the act of loving to living in a state of love.

In a similar way, we transform and stop trying to experience wonder within our existence.  Instead we begin to live in wonder as a state of being.

Don’t act.

Be.

The Opposite

“Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable. I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It all became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat… It’s often wrong.”

–George Costanza – “The Opposite”, Seinfeld Episode 22, Season 5

If I’m truthful, I have to say that I’ve found this tendency to be true in my life more than I’d like to admit.  As I pondered this reality I began to realize a bigger truth…

This is often the case for many people, not just me.  It’s also true for entire groups and institutions.  Rarely are we really in control.  Rarely do events turn out the way we envision them.  In fact, when we stop and think about it we begin to realize that we’re not really in control of anything.  Yet we continue to function as if we can be.

Recently, I’ve seen this played out in a particularly peculiar way in my church.

As is so common in the Christian community today, my church struggles a bit financially.  We make ends meet.  But we also suffer from corporate worry about failing infrastructure and systems that we just don’t seem to have the means to care for.  Sure, we could appeal to members to give more so we can pave the parking lot.  But, it’s not a very sexy appeal is it?  Let’s face it.  If given a choice more people would toss in more money for the installation of a coffee bar than for a new furnace.  Unless of course it’s the dead of winter and we can’t keep the building warm.  Although…. Even then….  Folks might be inclined to just complain and not come.  But if we had a coffee bar?  And if the coffee was free!?!  Yeah boy!  Count me in!

So… my church could use some additional funding.  We have infrastructure needs and expenses that we have to juggle to pay for.  We could ask more from our members.  But, the economy has been rough and some people really are giving all they can.  Right?  Besides, there’s the whole “what do we ask for” question that I posed above.

Okay. So I need to get back on topic.

The natural inclination in situations like this is to look at what we need to do to attract more members.  More members = more money.  More money = funding for projects.  Funding for projects = bathroom repairs.  What could be wrong with that?

Simple.  It never works.

We’re like George.  We instinctively work tirelessly to solve the problem faced by a lack of funds.  When what we need to do is to fight our instincts and do the opposite.

Interestingly enough, there is biblical guidance that also suggests that we should fight our instincts.  Heck, just look at the entire way that Jesus lived his life.  Eye for an eye?  No! Turn the other cheek.  Fight against Caesar’s taxes?  No!  Give Caesar what is Caesar’s.  The poorest are the richest.  Give up your life to have life.

He taught us that all of life is paradox.  It’s not what it seems to be.  We have no control.

So how do we function in light of this realization?  We DO faith!  That wonderful yet completely misunderstood concept.  Faith.

All my life people have told me that I should HAVE faith.  That it’s good to HAVE faith.  To BE faithful.  I was taught to believe that faith was something that I could possess.  And if I possessed enough of it, I’d be okay.  Kinda like money.  If ya got enough… what have ya got to worry about, right?

Of course we all know that even people with “enough” money still have problems.  So, if you can’t have enough money….  can you have enough faith?

The problem is that faith isn’t something you possess.  It’s something you DO.  It’s an action.  A state of mind.  A state of being.  It becomes you when you become it.  It’s a philosophy of being, not an understanding.  The same is true of control.

This life is not controllable by us.  The most we can hope for is to react well.  God set a miraculous chain of events in to motion when He began to create.  We’re a part of that creation – not the creators.  Sure, we can influence things.  We have that power.  But can we really control them?  I think not.  Nor should it be the point.

George Costanza stumbled on a great truth.  Control is a myth.  It’s an illusion.   Sometimes, the best course of action is to ignore our desire to try and control things and learn how to live within the boundaries of the gifts our life gives us.