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Ways of Knowing

Ways of Knowing

To Know God
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Today, we continue with Robert McAfee Brown, who uses an excerpt from the Book of Jeremiah to describe knowing God:

What does it mean to “know God”? Who are the ones who know God?

The questions seem simple and answers come immediately to mind. Those who know God are the ones who have had some experience of God about which they are able to tell us—sometimes a little too easily and glibly to be fully convincing, but sometimes in halting and fumbling ways that are themselves authentic pointers to the magnitude and awesomeness of the encounter they are trying to describe. Such people will tell us that they have found God in the face of another person, or in a sunset, or in a compulsion to obey a moral demand, or in a sense of the immensity of space and their own smallness, or by reading the Bible, or through meditating on the life of Jesus. The ones we call the “saints” are often those from whom we get our clearest picture of what it must be like to know God; their lives of prayer and meditation and good works have a transparent goodness that makes their appeal to the name and will of God convincing and compelling.

In contrast to such people, we know other people who make no such claims whatever. . . . For some of them, God is simply not an issue, and they live good, decent lives apparently unruffled by concern about God’s reality or nonreality. . . . For still others, God is something or someone they have consciously discarded. . . . They may live exemplary lives, exhibit concern for the neighbor, even make sacrifices for the cause of the poor and the destitute. But they no longer claim to “know God.”

The above description is fairly commonplace . . . but we will be doing serious violation to the Bible’s understanding of what it means to “know God” if we leave it at that. There is a short—and startling—episode in the book of Jeremiah [22:13-17] that poses the question of “knowing God” in quite another way.

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing,
and does not give him his wages;
who says, “I will build myself a great house
with spacious upper rooms,”
and cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
Do you think you are a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord.
But you have eyes and heart
only for your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.

I, Richard, would ask, if a “believer” does not practice some level of nonviolent justice and compassionate action, do they really know God?

Reference:
Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (The Westminster Press: 1984), 63-65.

Image credit: Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII (detail), Piet Mondrian, 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Perhaps it was the strangeness of the setting, perhaps it was the power of the moment, but, as I stood there, those stones began to speak. It was a clacking sound, a clattering sound, like the fluttering of wings, the descent of birds, the pounding of a hundred thousand hooves across the frozen tundra. —Kent Nerburn
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Ways of Knowing

A Strange New World
Tuesday, October 15, 2019

I grew up relatively sheltered in my Kansas home and in Catholic schools. However, over the years, life has provided me with countless opportunities to meet people whose different experiences and understandings have opened unseen doors and enriched my knowing. Moving out of our comfortable bubbles is essential to knowing God and reality in a self-critical way.

Presbyterian theologian and activist Robert McAfee Brown (1920–2001) wrote about what Karl Barth (1886–1968) referred to as “a strange new world.” Brown begins by telling a story:

A retired Air Force major, now a seminarian, went to a conference on “The Church and Central Africa.” As the talks proceeded, he got angry. One speaker, he reports, “was basically saying that the United States is greatly responsible for the suffering in third world countries.” . . . [He] went back to hear the African speaker a second time. His outlook was modified:

[The speaker] was showing us that our imperialism is often unconscious, done through economic arrangement. As Christians who have compassion, we need to know these facts, even if they hurt. . . . I came away . . . with a deeper awareness that we have to attempt to see the world the way others do. . . . [1]

What [he encountered] is what Swiss theologian Karl Barth described . . . [as] “The Strange New World Within the Bible.” [2] . . . When [Barth] approached the Bible, every bit of spiritual and mental equipment he brought to the task was shattered by that “strange new world” and that as a result he had to begin looking at both the Bible and his own world in a new way. . . .

Christians make the initially bizarre gamble that “the strange new world within the Bible” is a more accurate view of the world than our own and that we have to modify our views as a result. This means engaging in dialogue with the Bible—bringing our questions to it, hearing its questions to us, examining our answers in its light, and taking its answers very seriously, particularly when they conflict with our own, which will be most of the time. . . .

We must be in dialogue not only with the Bible but also with Christians in other parts of the world who read the Bible in a very different way . . . [especially] Christians . . . who are generally poor and powerless, victims of political and social and economic structures . . . that oppress them on all levels of their lives, while those same structures support and enrich us. . . .

When [they] listen to the Bible, they hear different things than we hear. It often seems as though they and we are reading different books. . . .

People like us read the Bible from the vantage point of our privilege and comfort and screen out those parts that threaten us. [People who have been marginalized] tell us that the basic viewpoint of the biblical writers is that of victims, those who have been cruelly used by society, the poor and oppressed. . . . Consequently, when they hear the Bible offering hope and liberation to the oppressed of the ancient world, they hear hope and liberation being offered to them as the oppressed of the contemporary world. If God sided with the oppressed back then, they believe God continues to side with the oppressed here and now.

References:
[1] From Sequoia, Northern California Ecumenical Council (September 1983), 5,7. As cited by Brown in his Introduction, 12.

[2] Karl Barth, “The Strange New World Within the Bible,” The Word of God and the Word of Man (Peter Smith Publishers: 1978, ©1928), chap. 2.

Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (The Westminster Press: 1984), 11, 12, 13-14.

Image credit: Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII (detail), Piet Mondrian, 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Perhaps it was the strangeness of the setting, perhaps it was the power of the moment, but, as I stood there, those stones began to speak. It was a clacking sound, a clattering sound, like the fluttering of wings, the descent of birds, the pounding of a hundred thousand hooves across the frozen tundra. —Kent Nerburn
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Ways of Knowing

Coexistence: Beliefs and Experience
Monday, October 14, 2019

We cannot know God only by thinking thoughts. Unfortunately, for much of Christianity, faith largely became believing statements to be true or false (intellectual assent) instead of giving people concrete practices so they could themselves know how to open up (faith), hold on (hope), and allow an infilling from another source (love). Contemplation opens our heads, hearts, and bodies to God’s living presence.

Over the last couple weeks, I shared about my own Franciscan order. Benedictines, who follow the Rule of St. Benedict (c. 480–547), are another Catholic order that often emphasizes practical, experiential spirituality. During one homily, Brother Michael, a member of the Benedictine monastic community of Weston Priory in Vermont, reflected on the day’s Scripture readings (1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Luke 4:38-44):

What I heard Paul saying, basically, was that although he has preached, there was something more for the Corinthians than simply listening to preaching. It was their actual experience of believing. And I think Paul was trying to ask them really the question: what do you believe?

I think that’s such an open question for ourselves right now, when there’s a lot of information, a lot of preaching, a lot of answers given to us. But the same basic question remains: what is our experience of our beliefs?

For myself that was the real window into the Gospel today that talks about the miracle stories of Jesus. These stories are not about the suspension of natural laws. The Gospel writers are trying to tell us that something new was happening. I think that Jesus was somehow able to wake people up, to cure them and heal them of their dis-ease. I think that there was something in his message; the reign of God is close at hand. What does that mean? What does that experience signify for us? I think it brings it right into our own time, into our life together. Trying to move into our experience of believing, of living, of loving, and finding within it, within the many challenges, that that’s where our hearts are fully engaged.

Maria Guarino reflects on Brother Michael’s message:

It may seem radical for a man in a Christian vocation to call the literal truth of the miracle stories into question, but this is exactly the kind of grounding . . . spoke[n] to in [his] reflections. Just as [another] admonished his monks to take the Rule of Benedict very seriously but not to take it literally, so the brothers took matters of spirituality, scripture, and faith very seriously but with an open-mindedness grounded in the immediate reality of experience. . . . As in all aspects of the Benedictine life, there is a balance to be struck. . . . The brothers were open to mystery and the ineffable, but . . . the mysterious did not require suspension of the rational or the intellectual. For them, the rational mind and the spiritual heart coexist. Head and heart, rational and spiritual, need not stifle or silence one another. Both are necessary as the brothers position themselves toward an experience of God that is immediate yet distant, familiar yet ineffable, immanent yet transcendent, and as rational as it is unknowable.

Reference:
Maria S. Guarino, Listen with the Ear of the Heart: Music and Monastery Life at Weston Priory (University of Rochester Press: 2018), 148, 149, 150-151.

Image credit: Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII (detail), Piet Mondrian, 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Perhaps it was the strangeness of the setting, perhaps it was the power of the moment, but, as I stood there, those stones began to speak. It was a clacking sound, a clattering sound, like the fluttering of wings, the descent of birds, the pounding of a hundred thousand hooves across the frozen tundra. —Kent Nerburn
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Ways of Knowing

Doing the Homework
Sunday, October 13, 2019

Contemplation is an entirely different way of knowing reality that has the power to move us beyond mere ideology and dualistic thinking. Mature religion will always lead us to some form of prayer, meditation, or contemplation to balance out our usual calculating mind. Believe me, it is major surgery, and we must practice it for years to begin to rewire our egocentric responses. Contemplation is work, so much so that most people give up after their first futile attempts. But the goal of contemplation is not success, only the continuing practice itself. The only people who pray well are those who keep praying! In fact, continued re-connecting is what I mean by prayer, not occasional consolations that we may experience.

The capacity for nondual knowing that is developed through contemplation allows us to be happy, rooted in God, comfortable with paradox and mystery, and largely immune to mass consciousness and its false promises. This is true wisdom knowing, and it is the job of elders to pass it on to the next generation so we need not start at zero.

Contemplation is meeting as much reality as we can handle in its most simple and immediate form—without filters, judgments, or commentaries. The ego doesn’t trust this way of seeing, which is why it is so rare, “a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14, New Jerusalem Bible). The only way we can contemplate is by recognizing and relativizing our own compulsive mental grids—our practiced ways of judging, critiquing, blocking, filtering, and computing everything. But we first have to catch ourselves in the act and recognize how habitual our egoic, dualistic thinking is. Each person must do this homework for themselves. It cannot be achieved by reading someone else’s conclusions.

When our judgmental mind and all its commentaries are placed aside, God finally has a chance to get through to us, because our pettiness and self-protective filters are at last out of the way. Then Truth stands revealed on its own—quite simply—and we will experience a rebirth of the soul.

References:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . . : Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013), 398, 407.

Image credit: Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII (detail), Piet Mondrian, 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Perhaps it was the strangeness of the setting, perhaps it was the power of the moment, but, as I stood there, those stones began to speak. It was a clacking sound, a clattering sound, like the fluttering of wings, the descent of birds, the pounding of a hundred thousand hooves across the frozen tundra. —Kent Nerburn
Read Full Entry
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