Apprentice to the Truth

A New Book by Myron Penner

I haven’t read this book yet, but I can recommend an article taken from it, called “Ironic Witness,” which appears in the July 10th issue of The Christian Century. Myron Penner likens living faithfully, in this age, to being an “apprentice to the truth.”

I love that phrase, “apprentice to the truth.” Penner explains what he means:

“… a life of faith is more aptly articulated in terms of a struggle to be faithful— to live truthfully– than as the possession of truths and absolute certainties…. Rather than thinking of the believer as the possessor of truth, who must then work ardently to maintain belief over against all rational challenges, it might be better to view the one who has faith as an ‘apprentice to truth.’

“To speak of an apprentice to truth in this way is to acknowledge that truth is not our possession, but something by which we must be possessed. I do not have the truth and cannot get it on my own. Instead, I must apprentice….”

In many ways, this is a fine articulation of religion in balance: the affirmation of the reality of a Truth (or a Love, or a Power, or a Goodness, or a Beauty) bigger than– and independent of– any person’s idea of it; the affirmation of a humility that recognizes our inability to possess this Truth (Love, Power, Goodness, Beauty); and the affirmation that this Truth (Love, Power, Goodness, Beauty) is worthy, not only of our time and attention, but also of our bending our will in its direction. It’s a reality to build lives out of.

via NetGalley Catalog

Life Sunk Deeply in Death

The dark sacred time-space of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday is largely lost in sunny American optimism and happy consumerism. While we are broken and pained enough, as a culture, to appreciate tragedy, we work overtime to avoid it. Cue the chocolate bunny and the painted eggs: who needs resurrection if there is no death?

I like American confidence and prosperity, as do many from around the world who seek to live here; a “can-do” attitude is better than desperation. However, there’s a difference between confidence and bravado. Increasingly, we’re full of a bravado that looks confident and hopeful, but which in reality only masks our fear of the dark. Anything that has the faintest whiff of loss or diminishment is hidden off-stage, at great cost to our ability to reckon with the bedevilments of our age, political and otherwise. Religion is often complicit in making the mask.

True religion unmasks our denial, and points us to the dark sacred time-space of Gethsemane and Calvary. These are places of loneliness and agony that we already know deeply, but try to forget. What would be helpful is for us to acknowledge their presence; and most helpful would be to acknowledge their presence in some form of communal observance. (All of ancient Athens gathering to watch Sophocles’ drama of Oedipus comes to mind.)

Life is tragic– not ultimately tragic, but truly so. Any confidence worthy of the name needs grounded in the rich soil, the life-giving soil, that exists only through the mystery of death.

Giant Lobsters and Procreating Whales: Praise the Lord from the Earth, You Great Sea Creatures

A Big Lobster Statue in Canada

Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths (Psalm 148:7)

True religion, like great art, enlarges our attention– sometimes shockingly, sometimes gently. True religion awakens our sense of the depth of Creation and correspondingly of ourselves, and reminds us that life is surging on.

These two stories are for free. The lobster is first; the whales are second. Enjoy.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

One of the biggest and oldest lobsters ever caught in Britain has been saved from the pot and will live out the rest of its long life in an aquarium.

The massive crustacean measures close to one meter (3 feet) in length and weighs more than 4 kg (9 lb).

“He’s a fantastic specimen and by his size alone he has got to be at least 50 years old,” said Lindsay Holloway of the Blue Reef aquarium in Portsmouth, southern England where the lobster now lives.

“He is an amazing creature and it’s quite an achievement to have reached such an impressive age,” he added.

The lobster was caught in around 14 feet of water by a compassionate angler fishing for sole in Bracklesham Bay, off the coast of West Sussex.

Lobsters are among the planet’s oldest inhabitants with fossil remains found dating back more than 100 million years. They are also extremely long-lived with some reaching ages of over 80 years.

The aquarium said the heaviest recorded crustacean is an Atlantic lobster nicknamed Mike who was caught in 1934 and tipped the scales at an awesome 19 kg.

via Huge lobster caught off England’s south coast – CSMonitor.com.

And from Al Jazeera:

Silence reigns over San Ignacio lagoon in North Mexico. The only sound is the hum of an idling motor in the launch that has brought the half-dozen tourists to the centre of the lake. They grip the side of the boat, straining to see movement in the depths below or squint off into the middle distance with cameras held in eager hands. It is a tense, expectant still, broken only by the occasional excited squawk of a false alarm.

Suddenly a huge flipper rises into the air, flails around and slips back into the icy waters of the lagoon. Seconds later another appears, before the water is alive with a windmill of giant flailing extremities. As the tourists coo and point, three huge bodies briefly rise to the surface before disappearing from view as the complex gyrations continue.

This is the mating of the grey whale, taking place in the most public of bedrooms. They travel up to 10,000km each year to enact the ritual, beginning the long swim in the icy waters of the Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi seas between Russia and Alaska before heading here, to the balmier water of the Northern Mexico Bajan California peninsula. It is the longest migration of any mammal in the world.

Breaking waves: The story of the grey whales – Features – Al Jazeera English.

Religion At All? (Let Alone in the Balance…)

In response to my recent post on Salman Taseer’s assassination, my friend Paul writes:

Violence is rarely the answer, perhaps never. And it leaves me to wonder if John Lennon wasn’t onto something when he said, “imagine no religion …” Can the good ever outweigh the evil done in religions’ name(s)?

Thankfully, the critique of religion is not just the province of atheists– of whatever historical moment and philosophical stripe– but is also the province of religious people themselves. In a recent article in The Christian Century, Douglas John Hall quotes Swiss theologian Karl Barth as having remarked, “‘The message of the Bible is that God hates religion.'” The idea is to contrast religion– understood as the way to capture and own God– with faith: faith being a lived and living trust in the transformative power of the Transcendent One,  Who by definition is beyond being controlled or captured.

As long as human beings are around, religion isn’t going away. That means that the need for the critique of religion isn’t going away either. And that’s the spirit of this blog: that true religion opens individuals and orients communities toward active trust in the mystery and power of God– and that it is precisely this kind of faith that can provide a balancing counterweight to the violence and narcissism of our time.

“We’re Mad as Hell….”: Anger, Fear, and Pain

Driving down a busy road last week, I saw a man with a sign standing in the median at an intersection. He  faced the other way, but I could see that the back of his sign had writing on it. The light turned red; I slowed and read his sign. It said, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

As traffic piled up behind the red light, I found myself stopped just behind this man, who still faced the traffic coming the other way. I wanted to ask him a question, but I was a little afraid– after all, not only was he mad as hell, but his sign suggested that there were others too, and maybe they were in the bushes ready to pounce.

I rolled down the window. “Excuse me, sir. What are you mad about?” At that point, he turned his sign around, and written on the front were the names of two incumbent state and national politicians. “Gotcha. Thanks,” I said, and waved. He smiled and waved back; the light turned green and I was off.

It’s helpful to remember that anger is a defense– a defense against either fear or pain. Meaningful relief is possible only by getting behind the anger, to trace it back to its source in  fear. Politicians might make handy scapegoats (someone needs to pay– the thinking is–  for how miserable I feel), but politicians are as scared as you or I, or my friend by the side of the road. The nature of political life (its risk-aversion, its zero-sum thinking, its reduction of meaning to slogan, its fundamental commitment to coercive power) makes it singularly unsuited to address the fear in our society today.

We’re scared as hell. Authentic religious life tells the truth about our fear, and calls us to stay open even when everything in us says, pull in tight and clench.

Prescription drug abuse surged 400 percent in past decade – CSMonitor.com

Check out this unsettling yet unsurprising story from the Christian Science Monitor:

Prescription drug abuse is not just on the rise – it has become a national crisis, according to a just-released White House study detailing a 400 percent increase in substance abuse treatment admissions for prescription pain relievers between 1998 and 2008.

The non-medical use of prescription pain relievers is now the second-most prevalent form of illicit drug use in America….

The abuse of these strong drugs is an indication of a much more widespread cultural problem, says addiction specialist Clare Kavin of The Waismann Method, a treatment center for opiate dependency….

“We are in a culture of immediate gratification and nobody will put up with even the slightest discomfort anymore,” she says.

via Prescription drug abuse surged 400 percent in past decade – CSMonitor.com.

The culture of immediate gratification is a culture that has lost its grounding in a Transcendent Source, in a Higher Power. And who would blame us: pain hurts; gratification is fun; therefore, avoid pain and gratify oneself whenever possible.

The problem is, we’re supposed to be adults who know better. True religion, of whatever stripe, helps us become mature people who can deal with suffering in life-affirming ways– ways that include, among other things, tears and grief, anger and anguish. In other words, true religion helps us be honest– even when honesty hurts.

It goes without saying that none of this is a criticism of palliative care, or of medically necessary pain management: both are mercies for which we can be thankful. Neither, further, is this a criticism of individual prescription drug abusers, whose pain I wouldn’t try to imagine. Compassion, not scorn, is the proper response to these people.

The criticism is of our culture: the culture of instant gratification, which doesn’t give us much help as we try to make our way through suffering, loss, and pain.

Religion should teach us that, inevitably, there is a time in an authentic human life for surrender.