John Bennison Words and Ways | 2014 | January

The Words & Ways Commentaries – 2013: A Synopsis

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Looking back on the path we’ve traveled together to see where our Pathways may be headed in the year ahead:

[Note: The Archives menu will take the reader to all referenced commentaries below, or click here. Print and/or read this Article here. ]  

We began 2013, not only in the aftermath of the Christmas holiday, but the in the wake of the Newtown massacre of the innocents, as well.  I wrote and shared a piece that was intended to be a stinging indictment of the dark stain on our national character, in a society addicted to gun violence. The piece written for Twelfth Night and the Epiphany season, “In the Winter of our Discontent: What Gift Shall I Offer?” was a follow-on; as a pandemic of violence continued throughout the year.

“Unarmed and Dangerous: A Gospel of Non-violence in a Violent World” continued a line of thought; challenging us to wrestle with the deeper implications of the itinerant sage from Galilee who was no gunslinger. Armed only with a message of disarmament, it was so impractical, naïve and idealistic as to be useless, or the only alternative to our sorry state of affairs.

Following a reflection for Valentine’s Day, entitled “Love and Death, or When the Catfish Are Jumpin’’” we turned to Pathway’s corollary observances for the perennial Lent and Easter observances, starting with “Dust & Ashes: the Gift of Mortality.”  I spoke of a “Lazarus factor” and “Lazarus effect” that suggested our mortality was sufficient blessing, and not a curse; otherwise causing us to neglect the new lease on life which is often repeatedly bestowed upon those of us with eyes to see. Like Lazarus, unbound and let go for yet a little while, I offered a Mortal’s Prayer:

 From earth we come, and to earth we return; formed of water, wind and sod. For breath of life and length of days, let us humbly accept our mortality; with gratitude for whatever compassion and affection we might bear one another, until we each come to our journey’s end. Amen.

 From such a vantage point, we were able to approach the Easter observance by reconsidering “The Easter Way of Jesus: A Modern Day Via Dolorosa,” as a way to understand Jesus’ death only in the context of his life; and his only resurrection as an unfinished story to be borne out in the mortal lives of those who have followed after him. In other words, it is not about some personal future immortality, with the fanciful notion that being saved somehow means eluding our own ultimate demise.

Next, we embarked upon a 2-part series on the nature of revelation, and the Book of Revelation, called “The Body Politic of God.” The last book of the Christian canon is popularly seen as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, right and wrong, God’s elect and the damned. Whereas in actuality – and historically – we were able to consider the socio-political forces of human behavior that influenced and shaped the text; all the while challenging the writer’s partisan bent with a different vision of a “new heaven and a new earth” that are one and the same.  Indeed, the true “Whore of Babylon” to be named in Revelation is human avarice.

Mid-year, around the time of our nation’s Independence Day observance we considered, “Unalienable Rights, and the Question of a ‘Christian’ Conscience.” As human social institutions devolve from suspicion and distrust to increasing disdain and irrelevance, one can ask if the current state of affairs will result in individuals becoming social anarchists or self-led reformers, acting out of their own conscience (The “Snowden” Factor”). If so, who or what will guide and shape our acts of conscience?

Next we began a series exploring how one could be an a-theist (that is, not a “theist”), and still consider oneself a “Christian,” in the sense of following the teachings and way of life expressed in the life of a human Jesus. I began by sharing a bit of “The God I Don’t Believe In,” and followed that by acknowledging the kind of mythic language I still cannot help but “borrow;” to speak of something other, something more, than what I no longer believe as I once did.

Our guest presenter in September, Harry Cook, introduced evidence to at least support his hypothesis that – given the widely varied interpretations of Jesus – perhaps there was more than one historic figure! While the idea might give orthodox Christians and the religious establishment apoplexy, others of us were nonplussed over the idea.  From my own perspective, it is clear to me that whoever the historical figure may have been – and as close as we can try to come to the original source, or sources – the Jesus each one of us has sought to understand and consider following is nonetheless a composite character in the end.

This “confession” led to my third commentary in this series on Christian atheism, considering “Jesus, My Imaginary Friend.”  That is, we might just as well acknowledge every subsequent individual orator, writer, or their collective early faith community employed their own active, creative and interpretive imaginations to configure, or reconfigure, whoever, or whatever, that original figure may have been.  In fact, every image of that other “kingdom” that this composite figure depicts for us is borne out of an extraordinary imagination; by a character that may have either been the most imaginative character that ever lived, or we could ever imagine.

This was the set-up piece to end the year, with a Pathway’s perspective on Christmas with, “De-mystifying the deification of a human birth, and restoring the full humanity of a remarkable life.”  We look back at 2,000 years of Christianity, the human longing for immortality, a connection with the mystery of something more than our fixed place in time and space, and an “incarnation” of sorts to call our own amidst all the oft-repeated claims of dying and rising gods.

But when you start to make a human being out to be more than a human being, there’s little room for anything other than something that claims to be divine, eternal, superhuman. And human beings aren’t perfect, spotless, and immortal.  Otherwise, an entire apologetic then needs to be constructed, and the construction project never ends.   In the religious salvation business they’re typically called creeds, dogma and doctrine.

Before we had reached the Christmas holidays, however, we had our Thanksgiving observance. The piece entitled “Thanks for Nothing:  Thanksgiving in an Age of Anxiety” described the set-up in the title itself.  There is an increasing, stark distinction between those who clamor for more, and those who have next to nothing, or nothing at all.  The premise that predominates is illusion that more of more will lessen our anxiety over the fear of having less; even as we feel things slipping right through our fingers.

We learned how Jesus ‘ teachings came from a school of Jewish wisdom that strove to distinguish between the  false and illusory values that pose as something more; but in fact, result in our own impoverishment.  From the perspective of a momentum and trajectory begun with the Jesus school of life and living, those who might consider ourselves progressive Christians might now move forward, once again; and consider our capacity to grasp and hold fast to the wealth borne of nothingness, over against the impoverishment of that which is only illusory wealth and power. For us, Jesus is not a deified and “immortalizing” savior to save us from ourselves. Whatever so-called divinity he may have embodied, it was in his message and expressed way in which he lived and died as a manifestation of that message whose possibility resides within us all.

Borrowing from the contemporary writer and professor of philosophy, David Galston, it is about embracing a human Jesus, as a path for contemporary Christians. Part of a faith community of his own, Galston asks time and again how we might “bring the historical Jesus to church.”

Put another way, I prefer to ask how we might instead bring ourselves to embrace the human Jesus as the embodiment of a “Jesus ethic.” And, if a faith community emerges as I’ve experienced it myself, all the better. So here we are, on the road again; not unlike the wandering Galilean sage, opting for a tent over the temple.   jb

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