Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tradition

With the holiday season upon us, I thought it appropriate to share some thoughts on tradition. Without it, where would our holiday season be? The memories, expectations, and meaning we derive from our holidays are based in the traditions we create and follow each year. Some traditions are more ingrained than others. For example, I've never not had turkey for Thanksgiving. However, where I have eaten the turkey has changed over the years. In fact, this year, for the first time, my mom and her husband will celebrate Thanksgiving at my house. Normally, someone from my generation would not yet be entrusted with the weighty responsibility of hosting such a sacred meal. However, my husband will be on call at work this week so we're unable to leave town. Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday until my dad died. His birthday was November 26, so we always celebrated his birthday on Thanksgiving. Given that the ending of that tradition was such a painful one, it effectively disrupted the entire holiday for me. Since then, I've celebrated it at my home without any company, with my husband's family, and even at church. And I find that I have less anticipation for Thanksgiving given that I haven't developed new traditions which connect me to the holiday.

Conversely, I have begun to enjoy Halloween immensely. I surprised myself by decorating our front yard this year more than in years past. My husband and I even dressed up for the occasion. I realized I was becoming more enthusiastic because it had become a significant day for our family. With young children at home, we had made a point to make it festive for them. We are typically in town for Halloween, so that facilitated creating easily repeated traditions. We attend trick-or-treat-a-trunk at church and trick-or-treat in the neighborhood as well. This year we even added a party at a friend's home and trick-or-treating at Botanic Gardens. And thanks to the message at the UU church we visited on Halloween, we also added honoring the deceased in our family. Our tradition is being built upon and enriched over time. Next year, we're likely to repeat the new events we tried this Halloween.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of tradition, both for individuals and communities, even society as a whole. It connects us to our past and helps us feel like we belong, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Typically, specific traditions have persisted because we find something of value in them. They give us something to anticipate. It can be comforting and orienting to know what to expect. There is a known script for everyone to follow. At Christmas, I know my family will open gifts one at a time, starting with the youngest and working up to the oldest member, while the members of my husband's family will tear into the gifts simultaneously.

As I have progressed through this reevaluation of my faith, I've given much thought to the role of tradition in religion. I come from a denomination (church of Christ) that tends to devalue tradition. We were taught in church that we needed the Bible alone and we rejected formal creeds as they were human creations, as opposed to the Bible, which was the inerrant word of God. We fancied ourselves a perfect replica of 1st century Christianity. No modern cultural influence here. Unlike everyone else, we cut through nearly 2000 years of misguided human interference and interpreted scripture just as God intended. In so doing, we created some traditions and informal creeds of our own, though we'd never call them that. But try questioning or changing them, and see where that gets you. This naive approach to the Bible prevents us from seeing the way our world view impacts our interpretation. Like an adolescent, we are blinded to the wisdom of others who've gone before us as we arrogantly declare our superior understanding. We unwittingly draw on our humanity in the development of our religion, just as people have done since the time of the apostles.

The truth is, we really can't get by in life without traditions. We are human. We will develop them. In fact, that is part of what makes us human, our ability to develop culture. I think the more mature approach is to continually reappraise our collective religious traditions, honoring and holding on to what is still valuable and creating our own traditions over time as we see a need.

So, I hope you all have lovely traditions to celebrate this Thanksgiving. And I would certainly enjoy hearing what they might be.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Update

It's been awhile since I posted here. I've been more focused on reading than writing lately. I'm trying to give some attention to my questions about who Jesus really was as well as the historicity of his resurrection. I'm trying to study these questions within the larger context of the 1st century Mediterranean world. It is very timely that DagoodS recently posted on similar themes. Additionally, Richard Beck recently reviewed Jesus: A Revolutionary Life by Dominic Crossan. This is the book I happen to be reading now. It's my literary interlude as I slog through NT Wright's book, Resurrection of the Son of God.

In other news, my husband has been more actively pursuing his own questions about God. He is more engaged in the question of why we don't always experience the presence or love of God. He found a song which really resonated with him. He even bought a ring and had the inside engraved with the title of the song,
The Silence of God.

In the past, the love of God seemed evident to me in the gift of salvation to all, answered prayer, and loving relationships with others, which appeared to be a reflection of His love for us all. Now, the belief that salvation resulted from the death of an innocent man as well as the belief that we are being saved from a torment created by God appears to be anything but loving. I don't know how much I believe in answered prayer as I have difficulty accepting God as capriciously fixing minor problems like lost car keys while ignoring major ones such as a tyrant oppressing an entire country. Prayer does not appear to be moving mountains. However, I certainly do experience the love of others on a daily basis. If anything does leave me with a faith in something/someone transcendent and benevolent, it would be my relationships with loving, thoughtful, giving others. Of course, this still leaves me with making sense of all the ugly, evil experiences I have had and witnessed in this world. So, in the meantime, I will do my best to be aware of all the beauty and love in this world and to reflect it back in my own life. Surely, I can't go wrong there, can I?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Book Review of "Why Us?" Part 4

In my final installment of this book review, I'll discuss ch 8 in which Le Fanu addresses neuroscience. His primary question about the brain is this: "How to reconcile what the brain is from what the brain does?" He answers his own question by stating "they cannot be reconciled, and the dissonance between the unprepossessing, homogeneous brain and the spiritual mind to which it gives rise was for thousands of years the most persuasive evidence for the 'dual' nature of reality consisting of both a material and a non-material realm." He spends the rest of the chapter arguing that neuroscience research supports this dual nature of reality, by inadvertently confirming "the reality of the soul."

Le Fanu describes scientists' attempts to understand the mind as if they were children chasing a rainbow. No matter how much is learned about the structure or function of the brain, understanding it's inner workings continues to be an elusive task. He describes 5 areas in which the brain continues to remain a mystery:

1. Subjective Awareness
2. Free Will
3. Richness and Accessibility of Memory
4. Human Reason and Imagination
5. Sense of Self

He summarizes his view of these limits to science by stating "These may be 'mysteries' to science, but they are certainly not to ourselves. Indeed there is nothing we can be more certain of than the reality of our sense of self and our everyday perceptions of the world around us, our thoughts and memories. The paradoxical legacy of the Decade of the Brain, then, is to bring to our attention in the most forcible manner how the human mind, like the Double Helix, fails the test of scientific knowability not just once but twice over. First, science, for all it has revealed about the 'without' workings of the brain, can tell us not an iota about the 'within' of the non-material mind, no how it imposes 'the order of understanding' by bridging that gap between those perceptions, thoughts and memories as we know them to be and the electrical activity of the neuronal circuits of the brain as they are known to science."

I think Le Fanu does an excellent job of highlighting the unknowns of science. However, I'm not sure that this necessarily translates into an authoritative assertion that these areas will remain unknown. He gives a great deal of weight to our internal experience of ourselves as evidence for the non material. He boldly declares: "When the most certain thing I know is the reality of my non material self as a unique, distinct, structured spiritual entity, then there is every reason to believe it to be so. And when I have the impression of myself as an autonomous being 'free to choose', then that is how it is, regardless of whether the ability of my non material, freely chosen thoughts to influence my actions contradicts the laws of science." Whether this is right or wrong, I think it reflects a typical human response. In discussions with people about their belief or lack of a belief in God, I've observed that it almost always comes down to their experience or lack thereof with what they perceive to be the metaphysical. What have you observed to be the case?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Remembering

On Sunday, our family (incredibly including my husband) attended the Unitarian Universalist church I wrote about in a previous post. My oldest son wanted to return the money he had collected for a UNICEF service project there. It was Halloween, so the children's story time focused on how many people honor those who have died during this holiday time. They briefly touched on various traditions and invited the children to remember those in their family who had died. I found this a meaningful way to address the holiday, rather than labeling it as evil or reducing it to cute costumes and candy.

My children came home lamenting, and I mean with loud wails(they are dramatic types), both the death of their pet fish, Blue, 2 years ago, and the death of their grandpa, my dad, 4 years ago. They decided to commemorate the passing of Blue by pouring a glass of water over his burial site in the backyard as they had done when we buried him, (so he would have water in which to swim). Then my youngest decided to pour a glass of water on the tree which his grandparents bought for his birthday gift when he turned one. He then made a wish that his grandpa would "come alive again." It was a tearful moment for me, but I was touched that my boys longed for a connection with their grandpa. Today, November 5th, is the fourth anniversary of his passing. Needless to say, he's on my mind today. Every year, we remember him by doing many things my dad loved to do and likely would be doing with my boys now. It's a way for them to experience what they might have had with their grandpa. I picked a book from the library to read to them that my dad read to me. After school we'll get ice cream, which he greatly enjoyed, and watch a recording of him telling a story to my children. Then, we'll play chess at a chess club, where my oldest is developing a passion for a game his grandpa loved as well.

I'll close by including a famous quote by John Wesley, which my dad had written inside the cover of his Bible. It certainly reflects the way he spent his 57 years in this world.

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

*I avoided major spoilers, but if you intend to read The Poisonwood Bible, you may want to read this post after the book.

I recently took a break from more serious reading and finished the novel, The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. It's a very engaging and worthy read about a domineering fundamentalist Baptist preacher who takes his wife and four girls to the Congo on a mission effort. It's also a commentary on the tragic consequences of U.S. intervention in Africa at both the individual and national level. The question of guilt must be addressed by the characters, haunting some and driving others to madness. It is written from the perspective of the wife as well as the four daughters. As one may expect, they meet great challenges and tragedy in their efforts to win the Congolese for Jesus. I was particularly interested in how each character's faith and religious beliefs were shaped over time by the interaction of their personality with life experiences.

I personally identified the most with the character Leah, who begins her journey to Africa with enthusiasm, eager to help her dad save souls, convinced he holds The Truth and is capable of sharing it with others. She continuously seeks her father's approval, but is given no recognition. Over time, his ineptitude becomes apparent, and she loses faith, both in him and in her religion. She transfers her devotion and love to her husband and to the suffering of Africa. She continues to be a spiritually minded person, but she trusts little in the Bible. Her father's ill-conceived interpretations and use of it as a weapon and punishment are the reason why. Instead, she follows the example of a former missionary who told her "When I want to take God at his word exactly, I take a peep out the window at His Creation. Because that, darling, He makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers."

I differ from Leah in that I was blessed to have a loving dad whose interpretation of the Bible encouraged rather than discouraged me from following it. However, I'm similar in a few ways. I, too, entered a mission field, convicted of the need to save others. I was overwhelmed by the thought that so many people had not been taught about Jesus and therefore wouldn't be saved. This eventually led to an evaluation of how I view scripture. I am still in that process and haven't given up on scripture, but I do find myself trusting in "creation" more to give me any understanding of God. Of course, what we understand of God through nature depends on the person doing the observing as well as what aspect of creation is being observed.

I found it interesting that another character, Leah's twin Adah, gave expression to my objection to the doctrine of hell, as I had been taught:
"Accoring to my Baptist Sunday-school teachers, a child is denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo rather than, say, north Georgia, where she could attend church regularly. This was the sticking point in my own little lame march to salvation: admission to heaven is gained by the luck of the draw. At age five I raised my good left hand in Sunday school and used a month's ration of words to point out this problem to Miss Betty Nagy. Getting born within earshot of a preacher, I reasoned, is entirely up to chance. Would our Lord be such a hit-or-miss kind of Saviour as that? Would he really condemn some children to eternal suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth, and reward others for a privilege they did nothing to earn?"

A cynic at heart, Adah is never one to become idealistic or loyal to any ideology. She does grow restless and searches for some type of religion, ultimately settling on science. She studies and appreciates nature in a more detached, intellectual way than her twin. Her studies lead her to conclude that "God is everything" both "virus" and "ant." God values all life, human and non-human, and values a balanced existence of all organisms rather than primarily rooting for the survival of people.

If anyone has read the book, I'd be interested in other perspectives. Also, what does creation say or not say to you about the nature and/or existence of God?