Wednesday, October 28, 2009

the rapture of mere being

Last Sunday my cousin Alice based her sermon on the opening verses of Psalm 34. She took for her title the beginning of the fifth: “Look to God, and Be Radiant”.

Her sermons are frequently informative, charming, witty, and profound and this one is no exception. She tells us what the word Paradise meant to early Christians — a place where you could go to find comfort, beauty, and freedom from the stresses of daily life; a garden, but not a remote or long-ago one like Eden, but rather a here-and-now public space, a park, a place of repose.

She says early Christians expanded the pre-Christian definition of the term to cover their experience of their religion in the world of their time. Drawing upon a book called Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, she goes on to say "Paradise. That was the defining visual metaphor of the early church – not suffering, not death – not atonement, not sacrifice – but Christian life as life in paradise. Jesus as giver of paradise, and not paradise in our sense of the word, an other worldly place – but paradise in the here and now. '[T]his world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God.'[p. xv]"

She says, more than a place, paradise was "a way of being in the world, a way of living — and that way of living and being was most present and obvious in the church."

For us today, she says, paradise is metaphorically a place to experience
theosis — human divinity — not in the sense of, “Oh goody, I get to be boss and I am GOD!” but rather in the sense of – “All of creation expresses God and I am part of that. I am completely one with God.”
In closing she exhorts us to "Live in paradise. Be radiant!"

One evening in April 1895 William James said something quite similar in an address to the Young Men's Christian Association in Harvard.* His subject was not joyful embracing of life through community worship. He did not describe church as a space in which "clouds of witnesses embraced this life and lifted it to touch the heavens."** Rather, his subject was the effects of a psychological condition, the indifference that he saw among people of his time — a feeling of disconnectedness, a sense of powerlessness in the face of the uncertainties and ambiguities of daily life, a condition he called (after Seneca) tedium vitae.

But though his subject was different the thrust of his argument was very similar to my cousin's.

He said he knew that the progress of knowledge over the course of the century which then was coming to a close had negated the religious certainties of earlier generations. He quotes a pessimistic poet of his day on the meaninglessness of a life ruled by chance and uncertainty in which churches are unable to guarantee redemption:
We have no personal life beyond the grave;
There is no God; Fate knows nor wrath nor ruth:
Can I find here the comfort which I crave?***
He told his audience that they could not count upon a divine reckoning, on second coming to judge the living and the dead; they could not realistically hope to ascend into Heaven after death. There was no real likelihood of atonement for sins and nothing to be gained by religious sacrifice. Still, he told them, with the sort of faith he advocated they might again learn to experience "the rapture of mere being." In fact, he said, it that their faith might help bring about this paradise. Though he used a different terminology, he said in effect that they, by means of faith, could (just maybe) experience theosis and experience a sort of paradise in this world.

He told them they had to accept the battering that religious dogma had taken throughout the century as scientific advances and philosophic inquiry undermined its rational bases:
We of the nineteenth century, with our evolutionary theories and our mechanical philosophies, already know nature too impartially and too well to worship unreservedly any God of whose character she can be an adequate expression. Truly, all we know of good and duty proceeds from nature; but none the less so all we know of evil. Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference, — a moral multiverse, as one might call it, and not a moral universe. To such a harlot we owe no allegiance; with her as a whole we can establish no moral communion; and we are free in our dealings with her several parts to obey or destroy, and to follow no law but that of prudence in coming to terms with such other particular features as will help us to our private ends. If there be a divine Spirit of the universe, nature, such as we know her, cannot possibly be its ultimate word to man. Either there is no Spirit revealed in nature, or else it is inadequately revealed there.

James said the people of his time should in effect move on from the now untenable beliefs of their forefathers. He challenged them to see unbelief as itself a challenge and invited them to accept the adventure of a fight waged resolutely and obstinately against great odds in opposition with the "powers of darkness." He said the weapons of this fight were mankind's natural curiosity, its sense of honor, and its latent pugnacity and willingness to go into battle.

And he said the purpose of this struggle should be to reveal a "harmonious spiritual intent" in the universe beyond the scientific certainties of the known world. He says people have a psychological predisposition to believe in "harmonies hidden between all the chinks and interstices of the crude natural world." This predisposition is as much a fact as other scientific certainties "and if needs of ours outrun the visible universe, why may not that be a sign that an invisible universe is there?"

He said he believed that faith could make life worth living, but not a conventional, unquestioning one. He said faith must acknowledge intellectual doubts and philosophic uncertainties. Religion gains strength and effectiveness not from its dogma, from any supposed literal and factual truth, or from its liturgical practices, but from the "personal response" of believers: "I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any one of us may make to the religious appeal. God himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity."

He says life is an adventure. As with all adventures there can be no certainty of the outcome. But, despite the uncertainty inherent in human existence, the adventure is an exciting and fulfilling one. And the faith we hold in the human potential for goodness is our salvation from the despair that can overwhelm us in the face of our uncertainties.
For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight, — as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears. For such a half-wild, half-saved universe our nature is adapted.
He says (paraphrasing), it is "through the cracks and crannies of caverns that waters form the fountain-heads of springs, and likewise it is within our deep selves, our crepuscular depths of personality, that the sources of all our outer deeds and decisions take their rise." He asks us to seek out the heart of our inner being where "we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and fears" and to "be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact."

{William James; source:}

{William James; source:}


Some sources:

“Look to God, and Be Radiant”
October 25, 2009
Rev. Alice Hildebrand
Sunset Congregational Church, UCC
First Congregational Church of Deer Isle, UCC
Psalm 34:1-13, Jeremiah 31:7-14, Mark 10:46-52

'This present paradise' by Rita Nakashima Brock And Rebecca Ann Parker

Is life worth living? by William James (S. Burns Weston, 1896)

The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy by William James (Longmans, Green, And Co. New York, 1912)

Seneca's Epistles Volume I



* Is life worth living? by William James (S. Burns Weston, 1896) - or - The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy by William James (Longmans, Green, And Co. New York, 1912). Jackson Lears discusses this lecture in a book I'm currently reading: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920.

** Source: 'This present paradise' by Rita Nakashima Brock And Rebecca Ann Parker

*** Source: Our country, its possible future and its present crisis by Josiah Strong (Pub. by the Baker & Taylor Co. for the American Home Missionary Society, 1891)

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