by Pastor Doug Kings
The news story I talked about last week, of the priest who misspoke his baptisms, has gotten attention across the country. The reactions have been mostly negative and even Catholics are incredulous. “What are they thinking?” It’s yet another case of the church shooting itself in the foot.
What this incident reveals, along with the story of the young woman denied communion at her parents’ church, is that many church leaders live in a different world than most people. It is a fantasy world built on a foundation of words. In this world saying and believing the right things are essential. How you feel and act? Not so much.
A group of us have been discussing the book Living Buddha, Living Christ by the internationally acclaimed Buddhist teacher and author, Thich Nhat Hanh. (He died just last month at age 95.) In this week’s session, we read Nhat Hanh say that the Buddha was leery of words and their tendency to swamp spiritual experience and being mistaken for reality.
[The Buddha’s] teaching was very practical. Theologians spend a lot of time, ink, and breath talking about God. This is exactly what the Buddha did not want his disciples to do….
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Concerning that which cannot be talked about, we should not say anything.” We cannot talk about it, but we can experience it…. The way to experience it is to abandon our habit of perceiving everything through concepts and representations. Theologians have spent thousands of years talking about God as one representation….
If you talk about things you have not experienced, you are wasting your and other people’s time. As you continue the practice of looking deeply, you will see this more and more clearly, and you will save a lot of paper and publishing enterprises and have more time to enjoy your tea and live your daily life in mindfulness.
It’s not a stretch to say that Christianity has been obsessed with words. That obsession has led to centuries of conflict and division. There were fights over the creeds, deciding whose words were right and whose were wrong. There were fights over what scriptures could be read and which should not because they had the wrong words.
The Reformation was a fight over words. I like Richard Rohr’s description of it as a “theological food fight.” Theology is all about words. During seminary I worked in the library: 300,000 volumes of theological words, much of them generated by or in response to the Reformation. Many Lutheran pastors’ proudest possession is their 55-volume complete set of Luther’s Works. Somehow, I never owned even one.
I like words. That’s why I’m writing. And I used to like theological words. But over time I’ve come to recognize that love as a dangerous addiction. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddha, and Jesus understood, words easily hide more than they reveal. And they can give the illusion of understanding when, in fact, we can be ignorant about what is most important.
The Bible’s words are not exempt from this danger. Whenever we hear someone say, “The Bible says…” alarm bells should go off. More nonsensical statements have begun with those words than any others. Jesus railed against “the scribes and Pharisees,” the people of his day most responsible for interpreting the Bible’s words. In John’s gospel Jesus says to them, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”
Marshall Davis is a retired Baptist minister who has found a new life as a writer and teacher unconcerned about others’ judgements of his words. A longtime congregation pastor, for most of that time he was an ardent evangelical, if not fundamentalist. Eventually, however, he discovered his beliefs were an obstacle to faith and now lives and teaches what he calls “nondual Christianity,” which emphasizes the experience of God over right words about God.
In the introduction to his book, Experiencing God Directly: The Way of Nondual Christianity, Davis writes:
My life as a Christian pastor has convinced me that most religious people hunger for first-hand experience of the Divine. They are not very interested in religion with its doctrines, rituals, commandments and bureaucracies. They will not settle for church programs, self-help workshops or spiritual novelties. They do not need more spiritual books on their bookshelves or more spiritual insights in their minds. They may put up with organized religion and spiritual teachers, but only if they might lead to a genuine spiritual encounter.
(We will use this book in our Lent study. See the notice below under “News & Events.”)
It’s almost hard to believe that religion’s original purpose was to facilitate people’s experiences of God. Religion’s dereliction is the reason so many now describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious.” Ironically, as Davis goes on to say, this was the main teaching of Jesus, his gospel. The Kingdom of God is in our midst, within us even, here and now. We don’t have to go searching for God. We don’t need the “help” of clergy, scholars, gurus, or institutions. We only need “eyes to see, and ears to hear.” In Buddhist terms, used by Jesus as well, we need to “wake up.”
This is the basis of the Buddhist practice of “mindfulness,” which means simply “paying attention” at every moment. It assumes that the primary sacred reality, God, permeates everything, echoing Paul’s statement in Acts that “God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” All we need to do is open our eyes and ears, to be genuinely mindful of reality around and within us, to encounter that Presence. That experience is available to everyone, here and now.
Blessings in your life and ministry.