RonRolheiser,OMI

The Origin of our Conflicts and Differences

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Why do sincere people so often find themselves at odds with each other?  The issue here is not about when sincerity meets insincerity or plain old sin. No. The question is why sincere, God-fearing people can find themselves radically at odds with each other.

There’s an interesting passage in Nikos Kazantzakis’ autobiography that intimates far more than it reveals at first glance. Commenting on Greek mythology and the many conflicts there among the gods and goddesses, Kazantzakis writes this: “The heroes in ancient Greek tragedies were no more or less than Dionysus’s scattered limbs, clashing among themselves. They clashed because they were fragments. Each represented only one part of the deity; they were not an intact god. Dionysus, the intact god, stood invisible in the center of the tragedy and governed the story’s birth, development, and catharsis. For the initiated spectator, the god’s scattered limbs, though battling against one another, had already been secretly united and reconciled within him. They had composed the god’s intact body and formed a harmony.”

In Greek mythology, the supreme god, Dionysus, was intact, containing all the scattered pieces of divinity that took particular incarnations in various gods, goddesses, and human persons. Inside Dionysus, the intact god, there was harmony, everything fitted together, but everywhere else various pieces of divinity wrestled and sparred with each other, forever in tension and in power struggles.

That image is a fertile metaphor shedding light on many things. Among other things, it can help us understand what’s at the root of many of the conflicts between sincere people and why we have a lot of religious differences.

What is the root cause when people are at odds with each other and there is no insincerity or sin involved, when both parties are honest and God-fearing? Today we speak of ideological differences, historical differences, political differences, and personal history as to why sincere people often see the world differently and are at odds with each other. We have a language for that. However, I’m not sure our current language (for all its sophistication) captures the heart of this as clearly as does that particular metaphor inside Greek mythology. In the end, aren’t we all grabbing our own piece of god and making it the be all and end all, without accepting that those we are fighting also have a piece of god, and we have divinity fighting divinity?

Boiled down to its root, isn’t that what lies at the base of the tension between “conservative” and “liberal”, between soul and spirit, between head and heart, between young and old, between body and soul, and between the other binaries that divide us? Haven’t each of us grabbed an authentic piece of divinity and (because we don’t have a vision of the intact God) let our piece of divinity become the prism through which everything else must be seen?

We are not an “initiated spectator” who, as Kazantzakis puts it, has enough of a vision of the intact God to see how all the pieces ultimately fit in harmony. So we continue in our disharmony.

Much too can be gleaned from this image in terms of how we view other religions. Writing around the year 200 AD, one of our renowned Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria, wrote a book he entitled (in Greek), Stromata, a word which literally means “being strewn about”. His concept (carefully nuanced through his Christian lens) was that God, while revealed normatively in Jesus Christ, is also “strewn” (in pieces) in other religions and in nature itself. In essence, what he is saying is that there are pieces of God lying around everywhere, though Clement doesn’t elaborate on how these discrete pieces of divinity often fight with each other.

More recently, Raimondo Panikkar (died 2010), one of the major Christian commentators on world religions, again picked up this concept of God as “strewn” and applied it to world religions. For him, what Christianity sees as contained in the Trinity is experienced in pieces in by people in other faiths. For example, certain faiths, like Buddhism, make central the experience of contingency, awe, dependence, and self-effacement in the face of what they believe to be “God”. For Panikkar, these are religions of “God the Father”. Some other faiths, particularly Christianity but also Judaism and Islam, strongly emphasize “God, the Father”, but their scriptures and other beliefs have an incarnational principle, a “Christ”. Certain other religions such as Taoism and Hinduism focus much more on the experience of spirit, the “Holy Spirit”. Since we each emphasize one particular aspect of God, it is no surprise that, despite sincerity on all sides, we often don’t get along.

And so we, sincere, God-fearing people, are often at odds with each other; but it’s helpful to know (and acknowledge) that an “intact” God stands invisible in the center of our conflicts and watches us fight with “his scattered limbs”, knowing that in the end all these strewn pieces will be united again in harmony.

Taking Tension out of the Community

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Whatever energy we don’t transform, we will transmit. That’s a phrase I first heard from Richard Rohr and it names a central challenge for all mature adults. Here’s its Christian expression.

Central to our understanding of how we are saved by Jesus is a truth expressed by the phrase: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. How are we saved through Jesus’ suffering? Obviously, that’s a metaphor. Jesus is not a sheep, so we need to tease out the reality beneath the metaphor. What prompted the first generation of Christians to use the image of a suffering sheep to explain what Jesus did for us, and how does Jesus’ suffering take away our sins? Was there a debt for sin which only God’s own suffering could cancel? Was the forgiveness of our sins some kind of private, divine transaction between God and Jesus?

These questions have no easy answer, but this much must be said: while some of this is mystery, none of it is magic. Admittedly, there’s mystery here, something that lies beyond what we can adequately explain by rational thought, but there’s no magic here. The deep truths that lie somewhat beyond our rational capacities do not negate our rationality; they only supersede it, analogous to the way that Einstein’s theory of relativity dwarfs grade school mathematics.

Thus, allowing for some mystery, what can we tease out of the metaphor that presents Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?  Moreover, what’s the challenge for us?

Here’s the historical background to this image. At the time of Jesus, within Judaism, there were a number of atonement (reconciliation) ritual practices around lambs. Some lambs were slaughtered in the temple as offering to God for our sins, and some others were employed as “scapegoat” lambs. The scapegoat lamb ritual worked this way. A community would gather with the intention of participating in a ritual to ease the tensions that existed among them because of their weaknesses and sin. They would symbolically invest their tensions, their sins, on to the lamb (which was to become their scapegoat) with two symbols: a crown of thorns pushed into the lamb’s head (making it feel their pain) and a purple drape over the lamb’s back (symbolizing its corporate responsibility to carry this for them all). They would then chase the lamb out of the temple and out of town, banishing it to die in the wilderness. The idea was that by investing the lamb with their pain and sin and banishing it forever from their community, their pain and sin were also taken away, banished to die with this lamb.

It is easy to see how they could easily transfer this image to Jesus after his death. Looking at the love that Jesus showed in his suffering and death, the first generation of Christians made this identification. Jesus is our scapegoat, our lamb. We laid our pain and sin on him and drove him out of our community to die. Our sin left with him.

Except, except, they did not understand this as some magical act where God forgave us because Jesus died. No. Their sins were not taken away because Jesus somehow appeased his Father. They were taken away because Jesus absorbed and transformed them, akin to the way a water purifier takes the dirt, toxins, and poisons out of the water by absorbing them.

A water purifier works this way. It takes in water contaminated with dirt, impurities, and poisons, but it holds those toxins inside itself and gives out only the purified water. So too with Jesus. He took in hatred, held it inside, transformed it, and gave back only love. He took in bitterness and gave back graciousness; curses and gave back blessing; jealousy and gave back affirmation; murder and gave back forgiveness. Indeed, he took in all the things that are the source of tension within a community (our sins), held them within and gave back only peace. Thus, he took away our sins, not through divine magic, but by absorbing them, by eating them, by being our scapegoat.

Moreover, what Jesus did, as Kierkegaard so wonderfully says, is not something we should admire; it’s something we need to imitate. N.T. Wright, in his recent book Broken Signposts, sums up the challenge this way: “Whether we understand it or not – whether we like it or not, which most of us don’t and won’t – what love has to do is not only to face misunderstanding, hostility, suspicion, plotting, and finally violence and murder, but somehow, through that whole horrid business, to draw the fire of ultimate evil onto itself and to exhaust its power.  … Because it is love that takes the worst that evil can do and, absorbing it, defeats it.”

Whatever we don’t transform, we will transmit. There’s a profound truth here regarding how we need to help take tension out of our families, communities, churches, and societies.

The Power of Beauty

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The world will be saved by beauty!  Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that, Dorothy Day quoted it, and centuries before Jesus, Confucius made it central to his pedagogy. They were on to something.  Beauty is a special language that cuts through and sidelines all the things that divide us – history, race, language, creed, ideology, politics, economic disparity, gender, sexual identity, and personal wounds. Beauty melts down all differences. Its speech, like that of a newborn, has no explicit words, but is a language so perfect that it can only be soiled by violating oneself. Two things in this world cannot be argued with, beauty and a baby. They also cannot defend themselves, and have only their own vulnerability as protection.

In classical Western philosophy, beauty is seen as one of the transcendental properties of being, and therefore as one of the properties of God. God is understood as having four transcendental qualities, namely, as being One, True, Good, and Beautiful. Hence, beauty possesses a divine, sacred quality. Artists and everyone sensitive to aesthetics have always recognized this, not necessarily in that they affirm explicitly that beauty is a property of God, but that they recognize a godly quality in beauty; they sense a “blaspheme” whenever it is defaced, and feel the energy to create as divine.

Beauty, as we know, takes many forms. Who of us has not at times felt the stunning power of physical beauty? Who has not been momentarily transfixed by the beauty of a sunset, an ocean, a mountain range, the stars, a full moon, a desert landscape, a particular tree, a thunderstorm, fresh snow, a gentle rain, an animal in the wild, a work of art or architecture, or a human body?  Physical beauty is self-justifying. It cannot be argued with and may never be denigrated by an appeal to something higher and more spiritual. It is unequivocally real and thus needs to be recognized, affirmed, and blessed.  

For most of us, when we hear the word beauty, physical beauty is what comes to mind. Now, while that beauty is real, powerful, and can transform the heart, there are other kinds of beauty equally as powerful and transforming. I am not sure what language works in terms of what I am about to describe, so forgive me if my expression here is amateur and awkward, but we can speak, and need to, of beauty in the emotional and moral realm. There is something we might call emotional beauty or moral beauty.

Emotional beauty is not the beauty of a sunset or a great painting, but is the beauty of a particular expression of love, of empathy, or of compassion that, like a beautiful sunset, we are occasionally graced to witness. For example, we can be transfixed when seeing the miraculous rescue of a child, when seeing a helpless animal saved by rescuers, when seeing an elderly couple affectionately holding hands, or when hearing of a generous response by the public to a plea for help by a poor family. As with physical beauty, there is a divine quality here and, as with physical beauty, there is something here that only the most boorish of persons would dare smudge. However, whenever our emotions are involved there is always the danger of an unhealthy sentimentality also being present; but, that danger notwithstanding, our emotions, like our eyes, are also an opening to beauty.

Finally, not least, there is moral beauty, beauty of soul. The salient example here is martyrdom and every other kind of love that sacrifices its own wishes, desires, and life for something higher. While this does not always make for a beautiful body, it does make for a beautiful soul. In affirming this, I am not thinking, first, of its most salient examples, the religious martyrs who gave up their lives rather than deny their faith, or even of persons like Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Maximillian Kolbe, Oscar Romero, and the many today who give up their lives for others. These are powerful examples of moral beauty, but many of us see this first-hand in our own families and circle of friends. For example, I look at my own mother and dad who for most of their lives sacrificed to provide for a large family and, especially, to provide that family with what is more important than food and clothing, namely, faith and moral guidance. There was a moral beauty in their sacrifice, though sometimes during those years, by Hollywood standards, my mom and dad looked more haggard than beautiful. Moral beauty, though, is measured by a different standard. That being said, there is also the need to be cautious here: while emotional beauty carries the risk of sentimentality, moral beauty carries the risk of fanaticism. Fanatics, serial killers, and snipers are also highly focused morally. Morality, like anything else, can be misguided.

The world will be saved by beauty! True, though I would employ the present tense, the world is being saved by beauty.