Sunday, March 12, 2017

Going Where Teaching's Only What's Already Known

Daffodil in decaying leaves and snow.
Why does the good book begin not with one account of creation but with two? Why open with apparently contrasting, even contradictory, stories of our beginning and our nature? Karen Armstrong says that the stories in Genesis “seem to be warning us against any simplistic conception of the divine, which must always elude our limited comprehension…[God] frequently appears to be as ambiguous, contradictory, and dubious as they [humans] themselves” (p. 13, In the Beginning). 
In E.A. Speiser’s examination of Genesis, “the point here is not whether this account of creation conforms to the scientific data of today, but what it meant,” “not whether the statement is true or false, but what it means” (p. 9, The Anchor Bible Genesis). In his introduction, Speiser focuses the point: “The history of the biblical process is ultimately the story of the monotheistic ideal in its gradual evolution” (p. xlix).
Might it be that we are given the two accounts because the dissonance offers us the engagement with our distinctive human inheritance: the capacity for wonder. We are meant to search out our meaning, “my beloved, . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Martin Buber on Genesis: “The perception of revelation is the basis of perceiving creation and redemption” (p. 10, On the Bible).   And it is in story that we build the capacity for the work of wonder in the play of making meaning out of likeness, of parabolic instead of literal, out of that which acclimates to our evolving consciousness.
Why tell good stories? 
Among the varied reasons, a favorite of mine muddles around the paradox of powerful teaching: “You can’t teach persons something they don’t already know.” Paradox might be the proper container for our genetic complexity because it contains opposites. Since teaching, at first glance, is directed at what isn’t known, how does it also depend on what is already known? 
The function of analysis, with breaking into opposites as a prime example, drives toward deeper understanding. If we wish to further our knowledge of teaching, then, exploring this mystery of the paradoxical known/unknown promises tracking of the secret. And, after the analysis, if we believe that the whole is greater than the parts, we’ll need story to restore our broken Humpty Dumpty because all the king’s men and horses in the academy’s hegemony of scientific analysis can’t put the world of genesis together. But story can. On story’s terms. And that includes the holding of paradox and the love of parable.
  Idries Shah plays with all this. In Seeker After Truth, Shah blends several sources in order to discuss “How to Learn What is Already Known” (pp. 92-94).
  • Referencing al-Ghazzaii: “The question of divine knowledge is so deep that it is really known only to those who have it.” So the paradox has to do with a very special kind of knowing.
  • Bahaudin’s eighth counsel: “Be prepared to find that certain beliefs are correct, but that their meaning and interpretation may vary in accordance with your stage of journey, making them seem contradictory to those who are not on the Path.”  Capacity for paradoxical thinking includes tolerance for changing meanings and for apparent contradiction.
  • It also requires going alone and being rejected. Shah takes the tolerance for ambiguity on into dealing with invisibility and being devalued: “true mystical teachers may be ‘invisible’ to some people in the sense that such people cannot realize their worth. .  . What they are teaching, and its methods, may be imagined to be some mundane activity, even” (p. 93). Remember the teaching, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24).
We could simply say that the answer is that there is no answer. As T.S. Eliot eloquently and perhaps frustratingly put it: “Except for the point, the still point,/ There would be no dance, and there is only the dance” (Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”). Paradox, for one who chooses to engage it, means searching without full closure. It affirms the process, the longing, and therein builds understanding, that and tolerance.

Good stories give the playground, the stuff for exploring. Not THE answer. For a human who gives answers denies the authentic source and displaces the inner direction of the secret. Good stories help us laugh in the human condition. Good stories model the character of loving, of losing, of redemption.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

From Garden Dark to Beautiful Beasts


Karen Armstrong opens her consideration of Genesis not with the Garden but with an exploration of Jacob’s wrestling because that’s the model for our engagement with divine revelation. We have to yield to the struggle of imagination and surrender our craving for arrogant certainty. The window into that which surpasses, that which includes love and hope, opens of necessity by parable, by likeness; how else can we see into that which is greater than immature sight? And it’s in narrative, in good stories, that we practice the work/play of parable. Armstrong says:
“The biblical authors force us to make an imaginative effort. They imply that it is a hard struggle to discern a sacred reality in the flawed and tragic conditions in which we live and that our experience will often be disconcerting or contradictory. Like Jacob, we will have to wrestle in the dark, denied the consolations of final certitude and experiencing, at best only transient, elusive blessing” (In the Beginning, p. 6).   
As noted in the previous blogMartin Buber urges us to re-see the biblical narratives so that we experience continuing revelation. It’s like learning to see in the dark, in what has become dark due to repeated looking without seeing further. Without the active searching advocated by Armstrong and Buber, the light goes out; or perhaps our doorway, our capacity to see, closes when we fail to exercise the gift. 
Christian teachings call for maturity: “put away childish things” (I Corinthians 13); and the teacher demands that we advance in understanding of parable (e.g., Matthew 15). Maturity in understanding shows up in “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness” (Jeremiah 9:24). If sacred text such as the Qur’an contains multiple layers of meaning, and it does, how do we learn to see further? 

I believe that our work/play with good stories builds capacity. For example, our literary inheritance offers many fabulous tales on the beauty-and-beast theme. A first level of experiencing these stories usually has a magical transformation in which the beast changes form, as when a kiss breaks an enchantment and the frog turns into a prince charming. In the “Marriage of Gawaine and Dame Ragnell,” upon the knight’s kiss the hideous woman is then seen as the most beautiful maiden.
But if we learn to penetrate to a deeper understanding, we might begin to glean from the texture of relationship shown in the tale. When might realize that in true allegiance between knight and ruler as well as between beloveds, only when persons incarnate sovereignty is the vision gained to perceive the higher level of beauty. We recite easily the bromide about “only skin deep,” but do our footsteps follow the divine when they beckon beyond our comfortable materialism? Can we attract leaders with vision of compassion? We might begin to see as ugly  instead of attractive our own desires as well as other persuaders who value appearance, riches, and worldly fame. 
Our spiritual and literary inheritance tries to guide us. After Nasrudin is shunned at the banquet when wearing shabby clothing and then honored when he returns fashionably attired, he puts the food in his jacket pockets while saying, “Eat, coat, eat!” In response to his shocked host, the teacher replies, “It’s my coat you welcomed to the feast, not me.”
Since Adam and Eve left the Garden, we’ve been destined to journey in the shadows of the tree of knowing good from bad. When Psyche left the castle garden to go in search of Love, she had to develop capacity to see in the dark. Her naïveté prevented her from seeing the treachery of those she presumed to love her. Her footsteps led her over and again past her failures to see. She had to learn to look with the vision of belief and to trust the resources coming from the divine source. That’s the stuff of sovereignty. It’s developed step by step, task by bigger task. And often enough, we’ll feel defeated, especially as Rilke translates Jacob’s wrestling into our choosing to engage “constantly greater beings."
Back to the “Marriage” story, Gawaine also models the progression. He proved the nature of service, trusting the leadership of the authentic rule, looking beyond the superficial that was labeled “ugly” by material, habitual, conventional sight. He leaned into the divine relationship, and on into the kiss that is made when one acts not for worldly praise but for the Word. Then the eyes open to see further into truth and beauty.


When we grow stronger in translating good stories and parables, when the Word lives in our politics, our work, and our inner being, then we gain capacity to see further in the dark, step by step into the light.