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The Transitory Nature of Beliefs, Part II

A reflection and commentary for Holy Week & Easter Observances from the perspective of a progressive thinker from the Christian faith tradition.

 

Symbol, Ritual, and Learning to Distinguish True & False Myths

Because religious progressives often like to emphasize actions over words, and doing over some musty, ancient, stratified system of believing, I’ve asked what part any creedal statement of belief might still be embraced to express any eternal truths that still hold fast. In Part I, I asked if there was anything about which I could still say, “This I believe. Always have, and always will?”

To summarize prior comments: Where once I may have believed something to be true, but no longer do, even that is a belief that is all the more important because I believe it. That is, one cannot not believe. Furthermore, because who we are is defined by what we value and believe to be most important and meaningful, it goes straight to the core of our individual, personal identity. In a word, we are what we believe. This means so-called progressives are true believers too. That is, they have come to discover beliefs once held as true no longer ring true for them.

A creed is a summary statement of beliefs. Previously, I noted our word for creed comes from the Latin, credo. But the Greek word for creed is symbolon; a word that meant half of a broken object which, when placed together with the other half, verified the bearer’s identity. A creed was therefore the outward sign or symbol for something that only tried to represent what might make us truly whole.

But wholeness is a loaded word, when it comes to our mere mortal experiences in an imperfect world. It’s a human notion about something which we not only long for; but ultimately fall short of being able to fully define, but only imagine. And so, the best we can do is consider those human actions and experiences that resonate most authentically for us; and try to discern which are most authentically expressive or representative (symbolon) of who we are and what we believe. But here’s the thing:

It is in those transitory representations and expressions of a kind of wholeness we can only imagine that we come closest to those things we might say we always have – and always will – believe.

While symbolic acts and ritualistic expressions can convey different beliefs to different people. It is in the interpretation applied to such experiential acts that one’s transitory beliefs can be tested to find whether or not they are representative of certain enduring truths one can still believe are true and unchanging.

It is in the interpretation applied to such ritual acts that one’s transitory beliefs can be tested.

 

A Typical Sunday Morning

Recently one morning I rise when I leisurely wake up, and go about my usual ablutions; in preparation for what has become a Sunday morning ritual. My beloved and I put on our walking shoes, then pile our golden retriever into the back of the SUV. The critter knows where we’re going, and whimpers with excitement.

A week of stormy weather has passed and it’s a glorious Spring morning to walk around the nearby reservoir. White pelicans float across the water that ripples and shimmers in the morning sunlight. In the hills, the distant sound of wild turkeys always drives the dog crazy. At the end of the hike a coffee hour for two will complete what has become a ritual routine.

But on our way home we happen to drive past St. Mary’s (Catholic) Church. Across the street, a handful of protesters are holding big signs that include scripture verses and dire warnings to sinners: “Gospel Preaching is Love,” and “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:31), “God Hates Enablers,” and “God Still Hates Fags.”

The church has been forewarned of the demonstration. Ushers hustle the faithful through a side entrance to the church. Outside the main sanctuary doors there’s another, larger group of demonstrators holding their own signs and a rainbow-colored flag, representing the LGBT community. Older people and families with young children hold up signs expressing their inclusive love and acceptance of those condemned by the counter-demonstrators on the other side of the street.

It’s unclear if anyone outside has any affiliation with the church. But inside, a worship service filled with believers of yet another persuasion is underway. Then I remember it’s Palm Sunday in the liturgical calendar of the Christian faith tradition, and I smile with mild amusement. So many different people, I think to myself, willing to spend a perfectly beautiful day vehemently expressing their diverse and fervently held beliefs.

The Power of Symbolic Rituals

For many years, the liturgical season of Lent was the richest time of the year for me. It started with the ritual of Ash Wednesday, sprinted through a Holy Week marathon of worship services and culminated with Easter Sunday, The perennial pilgrimage of forty days and nights was a multi-act drama; a ritual reenactment of a faith journey, filled with deep, symbolic meaning.

It began with the imposition of ashes on the forehead, making the sign of the cross and those somber words about our mortal nature and how it’s all going to end. An old, brown and brittle tree that was once evergreen and kept over from a Christmas celebration only a few months before would stand vigil at the entrance to the sanctuary, as a further reminder that nothing is green forever.

My own pine coffin that I’d built years before would be hauled out and propped up in the front of the sanctuary; and in which worshippers would drop sticks and stones, week after week. The stones represented those burdens and shortcomings they longed to lay down and leave behind. The sticks were an acknowledgment of our corporate culpability and all the ways we remain complicit building crosses of crucifixion to those truths that we hoped and believed might remain eternal.

Palm Sunday would kick-off with a rather straggly re-enactment of the original procession; while an unsuspecting youth who knew how to ride a horse portrayed the christus figure. The long passion narrative from one of the canonical gospels would be read out loud as if it were yet again another rehearsal; with the various roles arbitrarily assigned to unsuspecting worshippers who’d just come to watch the long-running drama once more.

Maundy Thursday would have servant leaders tenderly washing feet of anyone who with enough humility to ask. On Good Friday evening, the old tree would be stripped of its branches and fashioned into a jagged cross. The coffin would be emptied, with the stones cast clanging into a metal tub, then carried out to a nearby field and buried.

Meanwhile, the sticks would be piled high outside the sanctuary and set ablaze. Sparks would fly up from the crackling bonfire into a dark night sky and disappear. Those who’d gathered would stand arm in arm in a large circle as the fire’s warmth slowly waned; leaving only ashes once again. A beautiful old prayer, offered as an affirmation of a certain belief, would conclude the gathering before everyone departed in silence: “ …  let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new …”  (Book of Common Prayer, p.280)

Easter Eve there’d be baptisms with more rituals of initiation and blessings. And when the sun rose the next morning, fresh cut flowers from home gardens would adorn the skeletal cross, fashioned from a dead tree trunk. As a customary finale, a parish youth would always greet the children after worship with an egg hunt, dressed as a giant bunny. After all, it’s mostly all based on a pagan ritual observance of the Spring season.

Upon reflection, it all makes a walk around the reservoir on a Sunday morning seem rather, well, plain! But here’s my thought:

Every one of those ritual re-enactments and symbolic expressions were the means to live out certain values and principles we held to be true and enduring; beyond whatever transitory theological claims or assertions might be believable or unbelievable at any point in human history, place or culture.

That beautiful old prayer cited above concludes with an affirmation about a divine savior figure that will one bring all things to godly perfection. I believe such a vision was the creation of a fervent human hope; combined with a transitory belief that human consciousness has outgrown. (For a further example of this see Jack Spong’s “Twelve Theses” in his book, Unbelievable– summarized in Part I.)

Those Lenten rituals expressed a plethora of different individual beliefs, depending on the interpretive understanding each participant lent them. The perennial reminder of my mortality and unmasking of my ego by means of penitential rites regenerated my sense of gratitude, measuring my days. Furthermore, I regularly reiterated I did not equate Easter resurrection with resuscitation of that which was dead and gone; but the raising up of that which was as good as dead; but is now new, life-giving and life-affirming. The longer I’ve lived and learned to interpret it the little deaths I’ve experienced and survived, the more I’ve come to appreciate such symbolic — and, in this sense, believable – rituals.

For those for whom such ritualistic expressions still resonate deeply, how might they interpret, or re-interpret such eternal truths and principles within such traditional acts as expressions of those deeper, eternal principles? Moreover, how might those who now opt for a morning stroll through a secularized world with a faithful, four-legged friend employ simple rituals as interpretive, expressive acts of what’s most important?

The atheist, neuroscientist, and writer Sam Harris (Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and The End of Faith: Religion, Terrorand the Future of Reason) has made this observation:

“Whatever rituals we have that frame these moments in life that are profound and need to be framed in a way that separates them from the rest of our superficiality … (are) moments in life where we engage our ethical steps and what’s most important to us. Whether it’s community, or the intransigence of life, or our hopes for our children … I think a thousand years from now we need to find a moment where we leave our sectarianism behind.”

As a self-described non-theist, I would concur. But I would substitute the word transitoriness for sectarianism, because all those things that differentiate us, one from another, are ultimately subject to change. Instead, the key seems to be discerning how the richest rituals can be most meaningfully employed and re-enacted as symbolon. Not as fixed beliefs; but as signs that represent the truest of life experiences.

 

More than For or Against: True and False Mythmaking

Soon,
there will be a triumphal entry,
up Pennsylvania Avenue,
bigger than Putin’s,
bigger than Kim Jong Un’s,
all the warriors,
every weapon of war,
angels of death winging overhead…
and they will line the streets
and cry “Hosanna!”

 

Meanwhile,
the Christ,
whom once they worshipped,
is nailed to the cross,
dying for the Church,
dying for America,
dying for the world…
dying…
to live again?

– A poem by + J.S. Thornton

Throughout the history of our collective human story there have been mythic tales spun and re-spun to symbolically describe those common life experiences we all share. The truth-telling in mythic stories is not found in empirically observable and provable facts, of course; but in the deeper interpretive truths they convey. The capacity to distinguish between true (life-affirming) myths and false (deadly) myths is what’s important.

The truth-telling in mythic stories is not found in empirically observable and provable facts, of course; but in the deeper interpretive truths they convey. The capacity to distinguish between true (life-affirming) myths and false (deadly) myths is what’s important.

For example, there is the mythic tale in all its various versions about what constitutes power and might, and distinguishes the victor from the vanquished. The extended plotline employs violent means to violent ends; only to beget more retaliatory violence.

As an example, the poem above mythologizes a proposed military parade in Washington, DC. It would be a grand ritual, expressing a certain belief system that we have learned over and over again throughout human history spins a false, deadly myth.

The second stanza hearkens back to another mythic tale, where one who would be king and savior ends up servant of all, giving completely of oneself for the sake of the other. It is expressive of those truths that I believe, have always believed, and will always believe are not fleeting or transitory, but enduring.

Beyond For-and-Against: The Context of Transitory Religious Beliefs, and (Non-sectarian) Enduring Truths

On the eve of Holy Week this year, a joint document was released by a significant number of Christian leaders, entitled, “Reclaiming Jesus: How Confessing Faith Can Respond to a Moral and Constitutional Crisis” It was signed by such well-known figures as Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Richard Rohr; as well as theological and biblical scholars, professors and denominational leaders. An abridged version of this statement of “beliefs” and “resolutions” follows:

WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26).

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership.

WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ …

THEREFORE, WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God.

WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46) …
THEREFORE, WE REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God.

WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition, whose vocation includes speaking the Word of God into their societies and speaking the truth to power.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life.

WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule.

WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18).

THEREFORE, WE REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal.

WE ARE DEEPLY CONCERNED for the soul of our nation, but also for our churches and the integrity of our faith. The present crisis calls us to go deeper—deeper into our relationship to God; deeper into our relationships with each other, especially across racial, ethnic, and national lines; deeper into our relationships with the most vulnerable, who are at greatest risk.

What is first obvious to me in this religiously prophetic declaration is first the premise, or context, of each creedal statement, “We Believe,” leading to the “Therefore, We Reject” conclusions. On the one hand, it is yet another For-and-Against declaration; based on certain ancient, sectarian texts believed to be authoritative and sacred. The context has it’s place, while remaining mindful of its limited, sectarian function.

Yet, on the other hand, just consider this: If you were to delete all such statements of “belief” — along with all mention of the words “Christ,” or “God” or “Church” — it would not in any way diminish the power and truths of those resolutions. It would still express those enduring principles that transcend the transitory nature of any given creed.

© 2018 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive go to the Words & Ways Archives.

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