Chapter 9: Home Alone: Meaning from Fragments

A couple of years ago, Dawn bought me a Kindle, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Whereas I had previously spent most of my time reading to learn, for the first time I read novels which not only stimulated my mind, but also my imagination. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Shack, Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, The Autobiography of Gandhi, Tale of Two Cities, and many more. Because of declining physical function, both as to ambulation and energy, in February, 2012, as earlier stated, I quit volunteering at school and stayed home to rest and hopefully recover. During that time, I had more opportunities to read and to write. In March, in preparation for counseling for codependency and obsessiveness, I wrote my history involving those issues, entitled, Getting over Childhood. In mid-April I began this project of collecting and summarizing my notes in an attempt to draw together into a meaningful whole my spiritual journey. My Kindle permits me to highlight portions of books that have meaning to me. Over the last six months or so my reading has intensified, perhaps because I realize that both multiple sclerosis and post polio syndrome have a history of taking a toll on mental functioning: use it or lose, or, use it while you have it. The following is a summary of some of those notes.

I had read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship some years ago but I recently revisited it in the light of circumstances at our local church over the last two years with a new pastor and a woman that was his associate pastor: A powerful family in the church who wanted to reclaim the church from “gays and lesbians” (who they felt entitled to identify and castigate) and from “liberals,” particularly “the usual liberal United Methodist pastor.” Through a series of machinations, they were able to oust the pastor that we had and to obtain from the Bishop appointment of a fundamentalist minister from the Omaha area who was well known to them and others as being “anti-gay.” Shortly after his arrival, he confiscated materials of a support group that he felt promoted acceptance of the GLBT community of our church, and he orchestrated the dismissal of two women in the front office of the church that had served our church between 17 and 20 years, each, without any forewarning, without demonstration of appreciation for their long service, and without any severance pay, leaving one of them destitute and both of them feeling devastated. They took down from display boards and all walls all materials that were associated with the United Methodist campaign to “Rethink Church,” as well as any literature or reference to the public commitment of United Methodist’s to “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” Then they removed the Wednesday night meal service to members of the church and to the poor in our community, posting a sign at the entrance to the Fellowship Hall stating that all were expected to make a minimum contribution to the meal of three dollars. I and others felt that these actions were unchristian and unbecoming of a United Methodist Church. I discussed my concerns about the firing and retreat from Christian values and Methodist openness and acceptance in a spirit of love with leadership and discovered that they entirely supported the pastor’s actions. In time, we got so much resistance to making it right with the women they fired that I began a blog under the title, Heal Our Church, which described the injustices done by the church leadership and the pastor, the efforts to obtain justice for those who were hurt, and the roadblocks and diversions thrown up against our calls for justice. Ultimately, after four months, we were able to obtain for the women who were fired a reasonable severance pay sufficient for them to get back on their feet. Thereafter, in what would appear to be the largest church conference in any church that I have ever attended, those in attendance overwhelmingly supported the pastors and approved a remarkable 20% increase in their pay from that granted to them less than six months before. In the following year they again were each granted significant increases in pay. During both of those same years the church has failed to meet its financial obligations which were previously called apportionments and are now called mission shares, intended for the administration of the United Methodist programs, including missions.

That first year, the senior pastor tried to justify his actions in firing the women by preaching on forgiveness. His message was that forgiveness is forgetting a wrong that another has done to you, as though nothing happened. That caused me to download The Cost of Discipleship to my Kindle and re-examine it. In that book, Bonhoeffer addressed this situation where the pastors were demanding that they be “forgiven” for firing the women without acknowledging any guilt. “Cheap grace is grace without price; grace without cost!” “Luther said that grace alone can save; but those words were always spoken in correlation with the obligation of discipleship, of obedience to Jesus.” [Cheap grace is] preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance.” “That faith without works is not faith at all, but a simple lack of obedience to God.” It appeared to me that our pastors and church leadership were preaching love and forgiveness without acknowledging their wrong, and while their actual works were quite contrary to the Gospel message of compassion.

I had liked de Chardin, so I downloaded several of his books to revisit him. I saw that Henri Bergson was a great inspiration to him. When I was writing on notions of justice, I read both Whitehead and Bergson. I downloaded some of Bergson’s writings, and I will begin with that.

In his book, Creative Evolution, Bergson notes two remarkable characteristics of an organ of the animal or human body: the complexity of its structure and the simplicity of its function. “It must not be forgotten that all the parts of an organism are necessarily coordinated.” Some have taken this fact to conclude that the complexity with function demands a maker: God. Bergson writes, “If the variations are accidental, how can they ever agree to arise in every part of the organ at the same time, in such a way that the organ will continue to perform its function? Darwin quite understood this.” . . . “The already old experiments of Dorfmeister had shown that the same chrysalis, as it was submitted to cold or heat, gave rise to very different butterflies, which had long been regarded as independent species.”. . . “The more we reflect upon it, the more we shall see that this production of the same effect by two different accumulations of an enormous number of small causes is contrary to the principles of mechanistic philosophy. . . . “If the crystalline lens of a Triton be removed, it is regenerated by the iris. Now, the original lens was built out of the ectoderm, while the iris is of mesodermic origin. What is more, in the Salamander maculata, if the lens be removed and the iris left, the regeneration of the lens takes place at the upper part of the iris; but if this upper part of the iris itself be taken away, the regeneration takes place in the inner or retinal layer of the remaining region. Thus, parts differently situated, differently constituted, mentioned normally for different functions, are capable of performing the same duties and even of manufacturing, when necessary, the same pieces of the machine. Here we have, indeed, the same effect obtained by different combinations of clauses.”

Bergsen proposed that this coordinating principle be called the vital élan or “vital principle” from within rather than directed from without – no God intervening to direct evolution. “Whether we will or no, we must appeal to some inner directing principle in order to account for this convergence of the facts.” My layman’s understanding of that is that the process of evolution is analogous to genetic structures that influence an off-spring’s development.

As indicated above, Teilhard de Chardin was greatly influenced by Bergson. Teilhard takes the view of creation that, rather than individual creations of plant and animal life, all life on earth derives from a single appearance of life.

[T]he most convincing proof to me that life was produced once and once only on earth is furnished by the profound structural unity of the tree of life.. . . “Survival of the fittest by natural selection” is not a meaningless expression, provided it is not taken to imply either a final ideal or a final explanation.. . . This dramatic and perpetual opposition between the one born of the many and the many constantly being born of the one runs right through evolution.. . . All scientists are today in agreement for the very good reason that they couldn’t practice science if they thought otherwise.. . . To jolt the individual out of his natural laziness and the rut of habit, and also from time to time to break up the collective frameworks in which he is imprisoned, it is indispensable that he should be shaken and prodded from outside. What would we do without our enemies?

Admittedly the animal knows. But it cannot know that it knows: that is quite certain. If it could it would long ago have . . . developed a system of internal constructions that could not have escaped our observation.. . . Is evolution a theory, a system or a hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow, in which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts.

Teilhard rejects the notion of a life hereafter “in heaven” as egotistical, false, and against nature:

No element could move and grow except with and by all the others with itself. . . . The outcome of the world, the gates of the future, the entry into the superhuman – these are not thrown open to a few of the privileged nor to one chosen people to the exclusion of all others. They will open only to an advance of all together, in a direction which all together can join and find completion in a spiritual renovation of the earth.

Teilhard sees all of life as sacred. Indeed, he sees full immersion in the physical world as a Eucharistic celebration and holy, as a mass on matter.

Considered in its full biological reality, love – that is to say, the affinity of being with being – is not peculiar to man.. . . A universal love is not only psychologically possible; it is the only complete and final way in which we are able to love.. . . In the course of the coming centuries it is indispensable that a nobly human form of eugenics, on a standard worthy of our personalities, should be discovered and developed.

De Chardin uses the phrases, “religion of the earth” and “the God of the ahead.” Of his faith, there was no threat of dualism:

If, as the result of some interior revolution, I were to lose by succession my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, and my faith in spirit, I feel that I should continue to believe in the world. The world, (its value, yes its value and its goodness) – that, when all is said and done, is the first, the last, and the only thing in which I believe. It is by this faith that I live.

In early 1991 I read a biography of Gandhi. In the past year I downloaded onto my Kindle Gandhi an Autobiography: the Story of My Experiments with Truth. It was even more interesting to hear what Gandhi had to say about himself and his “experiments with truth.” I could particularly relate to a statement he makes early in his autobiography:

My own recollection is that I had not any high regard for my ability. I used to be astonished whenever I won prizes and scholarships. But I very jealously guarded my character.

He describes fundamentalist Christian claims that their religion had the exclusive hold on “being saved.”

In those days Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.

Elsewhere, he wrote that if the gospel consisted only of the Sermon on the Mount, he would have no trouble with Christianity.

He also had no difficulty in recognizing the limitations of his own Hindu faith. Inspired by Tolstoy, he envisioned a much more universal God.

And he who would be friends with God must remain alone, or make the whole world his friend. . . . [T]ruth is the substance of all morality. Truth became my sole objective. . . . When helpers fail and comforts flee, I find that help arrives somehow from I know not where. . . . [T]he argument [for] proof of Jesus being the only incarnation of God and the mediator between God and man left me unmoved.

Gandhi speaks of a Christian’s attempt to convince him that salvation was impossible except through Christianity and that eternal life is only possible through the sinless son of God,

If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin.
It was impossible for me to believe that I could go to heaven or attain salvation only by becoming a Christian. . . . If God could have sons, all of us were his sons. If Jesus was like God, or God himself, then all men were like God and could be God himself. . . . The pious lives of Christians did not give me anything that the lives of men of other faiths had failed to give. . . .Thus, if I could not accept Christianity either as a perfect, or the greatest religion, neither was I then convinced of Hinduism being such. Hindu defects were pressingly visible to me.. . Though I took a path my Christian friends had not intended for me, I have remained indebted to them for the religious quest that they awakened in me.

Truth is like a vast tree, which yields more and more fruit the more you nurture it. The deeper the search in the mine of truth, the richer the discovery of the gems buried there. . . It is my firm conviction that all good action is bound to bear fruit in the end. . . .Service without humility is selfishness and egotism. . . .Soul-force . . . is but another name for love-force. . . . My uniform experience has convinced me that there is no other God than truth. . . . I do not know how far this movement is going to succeed; at present it is only in the incipient stage. But I have full faith in it. At any rate it can do no harm.

I then turned to Tolstoy, to whom Gandhi acknowledged great debt. A Letter to a Hindu summarizes the principle that became Gandhi’s method of civil disobedience: “The punishment of evildoers consists in making them feel ashamed of themselves by doing them a great kindness.”

In The Kingdom of God is within you: Christianity Not As a Mystic Religion but As a New Theory of Life, Tolstoy states his thesis simply:

… The Christian doctrine, in its direct and simple sense, was understood, and had always been understood, in a minority of men, while the critics, ecclesiastical and free thinking alike, denied the possibility of taking Christ’s teaching in its direct sense.

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed an idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him. . . . Christianity is understood now by all who profess the doctrines of the church as a supernatural, miraculous revelation of everything which is repeated in the Creed. . . . But Christ could not have founded the church, that is, what we now understand by that word. For nothing like the idea of the church as we know it now, with its sacraments, miracles, and above all, its claim to infallibility, is to be found either in Christ’s words or in the ideas of the men of that time.

Every branch in a tree comes from the root in unbroken connection; but the fact that each branch comes from the one root does not prove at all that each branch was the only one. . . . . Strange as it may seem, the churches as churches have always been, and cannot but be, institutions not only alien in spirit to Christ’s teaching, even directly antagonistic with it.

In about 1991, I was in a Sunday school class and I suggested that Jesus’ admonition in that particular case was very clear, for example, keep nothing for tomorrow for tomorrow will take care of itself . . . turn the other cheek . . . forgive seventy times seven. The leader of that class responding by stating that Jesus was the son of God, he could do that, but we are but human and cannot. That is precisely what I understand Tolstoy to be saying in My Religion – What I Believe, when he says,

 My spiritual instructors taught me that the law of Jesus was divine, but, because of human weakness, impossible of practice, and that the grace of Jesus Christ, alone, could aid us to follow its precepts. . . . It was only another way of saying that the presence in the Christian doctrine of the commandment which no one observed, and which Christians themselves regarded as impracticable, is simply an avowal of the foolishness and technicality of that law. . . . The church says that the doctrine of Jesus cannot be literally practiced here on earth, because this earthly life is naturally evil, since it is only a shadow of the true life.” “Reason does not proscribe; it enlightens. . . . [The doctrine of original sin] seems to be innocent. But deviations from truth are never inoffensive. . . . Of the struggle between animal instincts and reason, which is the essence of human life, this doctrine takes no account. . . . [According to the doctrine], Adam, once for all, sinned for me, and Jesus, once for all, has atoned for the wrong committed by Adam. . . . . The effects of the knowledge of good and evil, which man so unhappily acquired in paradise, do not seem to have been very lasting.

In all the different ages of humanity we find the same thought, that man is the receptacle of the divine light descended from heaven, and this light is reason, which alone should be the object of our worship, since it alone can show the way to true well-being. This has been said by the Brahmins, by the Hebrew prophets, by Confucius, by Socrates, by Marcus Aurelius and by all the true sages.… And yet we declare, in accordance with dogma of the redemption that it is entirely superfluous to think of the light that is in us, and that we ought not to speak of it at all!

The true life is the life which adds something to the store of happiness accumulated by past generations.. . . Jesus’ meaning was that the dead are living in God.… Jesus affirmed only this that, whoever lives in God, will be united to God; and he admitted no other idea of the resurrection. As to personal resurrection, strange as it may appear to those who have never carefully studied the Gospels for themselves, Jesus said nothing about it whatever.
The idea of a future eternal life comes neither from Jewish doctrine nor from the doctrine of Jesus, but from an entirely different source.… We are so convinced of the elevated character of this superstition, that we use it as a proof of the superiority of our doctrine to that of the Chinese or the Hindus. . . . According to the Jewish doctrine, man as man, is mortal. He has life only as it passes from one generation to another, and is so perpetuated in a race. According to the Jewish doctrine, the faculty of life exists in the people. . . . The difference is that while the religion given by Moses was that of the people for a national God, the religion of Jesus is the expression of the aspirations of all humanity. . . .. . . The entire doctrine of Jesus inculcates renunciation of the personal, imaginary life, and a merging of this personal life and the universal life of humanity, in the life of the Son of Man.

A drowning man calls for aid. A rope is thrown to him, and he says: ‘Strengthen my belief that this rope will save me. I believe that the rope pulls me; but help my unbelief.’ What is the meaning of this?… They refused to believe, not in the rope, but that they are in danger of drowning.” “[P]ersuaded that they will not perish, so men who believe in the resurrection, convinced that there is no danger, do not practice the commandments of Jesus. . . . I saw that what these men call faith is the faith denounced by the apostle James: ‘What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man believe he hath faith, but hath not works? Can that faith save him? . . . The doctrine of life is the foundation of faith. . . … The other doctrine, taught by Jesus and by all the prophets, affirms that our personal life has no meaning save through fulfillment of the will of God. . . . So those who believe that true happiness is to be found in the personal life can never have faith in the doctrine of Jesus.

Jesus never asked men to have faith in his person; he called upon them to have faith in truth. To the Jews he said: “Ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth which I have heard of God.” . . . One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be severed.

The doctrine of Jesus is to bring the Kingdom of God upon the earth. The practice of this doctrine is not difficult; and not only so, its practice is a natural expression of the belief of all who recognize its truth. The doctrine of Jesus offers the only possible chance of salvation for those who would escape the perdition that threatens the personal life.

How forthright! How courageous! Tolstoy speaks boldly of matters that I only suspected but dared not address directly. I returned to the priest and scientist, Teilhard de Chardin’s Christianity and Evolution:

Considered objectively, material facts have in them something of the divine. In relation, however, to our knowledge, this divine element of them is no more than a potency. . . . And it is almost impossible to conceive that, among the millions of galaxies which whirl in space, there is not one which is known, or is going to know, conscious life – and that evil, the same evil is that which is such a blemish on earth, is not contaminating all of them, like some insidious ether. [As to the traditional concept of original sin] he is caught in a dilemma: either he must completely redraw the historical representation of original sin (= a “first man’s” disobedience); or he must restrict the theological Fall and Redemption to a small portion of the universe that has reached such boundless dimensions, the Bible, St. Paul, Christ and virgin and so on, but hold good only for earth.

Let me say frankly what I think: it is impossible to universalize the first Adam without destroying his individuality. . . . [The doctrine of original sin] simply symbolizes the inevitable chance of evil… which accompanies the existence of all participated being. . . . Strictly speaking, there is no first Adam. . . “Adam” represents the price that has to be paid for progress. . . . A mankind which proclaims that it is alone, or in a special position, in the universe reminds us of the philosopher who claims to reduce the whole of the real to his own consciousness, so exclusively as to deny true existence to other men.
The idea of an earth chosen arbitrarily from countless others as the focus of redemption is one that I cannot accept; and on the other hand the hypothesis of a special revelation, in some millions of centuries to come, teach the inhabitants of the system of Andromeda that the Word was incarnate on earth, is just ridiculous.

Instead, Teilhard offers another meaning of “original sin:” “This is that original sin expresses, translates, personifies, in an instantaneous and localized act, the perennial and universal law of imperfection.

Nobody, I think, can fail to see that the vital question for Christianity today is to decide what attitude believers will adopt towards this recognition of the value of the whole, this ‘preoccupation with the whole.’ Will they open their hearts to it, or will they reject it as an evil spirit? . . . Science and philosophy’s revelation of the whole is an undeniable fact.

[L]et us, then, see whether, in examining the features of this new Earth, we may not find a way of arriving at a new interpretation that will fit in with both the expectations of the pantheist and the hopes of the Christian. . . . However individual our salvation may be from many points of view, it is in consequence accomplished only by collective fulfillment.

There can be no hiding the fact: in the present teaching of theology and ascetics, the most prominent tendency is to give the word ‘mystical’ (as in mystical body, mystical union) a minimum of organic or physical meaning. . . . Without realizing it, they make the very common mistake of regarding the spiritual as an attenuation of the material, whereas it is in fact the material carried beyond itself: it is super material. . . . What form must our Christology take if it is to remain itself in the New World?

From the point of view of the Christian scientist, acceptance of Adam and Eve necessarily means that history is cut off short in a completely unreal way at the level of the appearance of man; what is more, when we reached the more immediately living domain of belief, original sin, in its present representation, is a constant bar to the natural development of our religion.. . . . [I]t drags us back inexorably into the overpowering darkness of reparation and expiation. . . . Original sin, conceived in the form still attributed to it today, is an intellectual and emotional straight jacket. Fundamentally, in fact, the idea of Fall was no more than an attempt to explain evil in a fixed universe. As such, it is completely out of keeping with the rest of our representations of the world; and that is why we find it oppressive. . . . We must remember, the world was only a week old when Adam sinned. Nothing in Paradise, accordingly, had yet had time to perish. . . . I say this with all sincerity: I have always found it impossible to be sincerely moved to pity by a crucifix so long as this suffering was presented to me as the expiation of a transgression which God could have averted – either because he had no need of man, or because he could’ve made him in some other way.

The complete and definitive meaning of redemption is no longer only to expiate: it is to surmount and conquer. . . . The truth about today’s gospel is that it has ceased, or practically ceased, to have any attraction because it has become unintelligible. . . . Here again, if we are to remain faithful to the gospel, we have to adjust its spiritual code to the new shape of the universe. Henceforth the universe assumes an additional dimension for our experience . . .
For my own part, the thing is clear: in the case of a true act (by which I mean one to which one gives something of one’s own life), I cannot undertake it unless I have the underlying intention (as Thucydides noted many centuries ago) of constructing a ‘work of abiding value,’… not that I am so vain, but some sort of essential instinct makes me guess at the joy, as the only worthwhile joy, of cooperating as one individual atom in the final establishment of a world: and ultimately nothing else can mean anything to me.

This reminds me of something Dad wrote to me some seven or eight years ago. He said that many Christians think that the point of Christianity is dying and going to heaven. He says, “No, it is living a life of eternal significance.” At their 40th wedding anniversary, I asked him about that statement. In response, he said that he didn’t think we were made to be throwaways, and he referred to Matthew where Jesus said, in effect,”In as much as you have done unto the least of these, you did it to me – enter into your reward – but, inasmuch as you did it not to the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

George Sartain notes in his book, Leonardo and the Birth of Modern Science, that from Leonardo’s apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s studio he learned the theory of perspective, art of light and shade, and the physiology of vision. His training in colors and varnishes was an opportunity to learn some principles of chemistry. He made a thorough analysis of the “human machine,” how it was structured, how it functioned and how that structure affects the exterior appearance of the human body. His anatomical drawings provided a great tool for the anatomical study of the body. He had the opportunity and the inclination to study the pathology relating to hardening of the arteries, tuberculosis lesions, and the causes of senility. He also was a practical engineer, including a military engineer. As he engineered canals he noted various layers of sand and clay, prompting his inquiry into their formations. The field of botany was natural to his interests in drawing plant life. His employment as a military engineer led him to a notion of a submergent device by which ships could be sunk, and he also explored concepts which were later realized in the design of 20th-century helicopters.

Without the development of mathematics, the 17th century would not have been able to achieve its scientific feats. Galileo’s conflict with the church was that of observed fact with the inflexible rationality extending from the Middle Ages.

The message is clear to me: Science and faith, when properly understood are not in conflict but are compatible. Faith may declare what our eyes do not see, but they do not declare contrary to what the eyes see.

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