Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pentecost Thoughts

Happy Pentecost!

Perhaps there are those who wouldn't be excited to celebrate the "birthday of the Church." Lately, decrying the evils of institutional religion has been the fashion in literary circles, as shown by books like Letter to a Christian Nation , The God Delusion, God: the Failed Hypothesis, and God is not Great. I certainly agree with the thesis that people's manipulation of religious belief throughout the centuries has often resulted in tremendous injustice, violence, suffering, intellectual backwardness, and cruelty. Galileo's trial? Stupid. The postmortem excommunication of Wyclif? Asinine. The Crusades and the Inquisition? Hideous. All the recent scandals, insults, and pastorally insensitive decisions too numerous to name? Frustrating beyond expression. All these are certainly far easier to notice than the quieter moments of individual heroism, the openness of some churches (including mine) to advances in scientific understanding and scriptural scholarship, the call to recognition of the sacred, and the evolution throughout the centuries of hospitals, social programs, and educational programs throughout the world, which have been achieved in great part thanks to the works of the church.

To blame the religions and not ourselves for the utter failure to respect human rights, be educated and thoughtful, and live in peace, as most religions call people to do, is lame and incorrect. It's so much easier to point the finger than hold up a mirror. The institutions constructed by human society don't fail us; we fail them. One could easily say about anything institutionalized - government & politics, for instance - that it is divisive and corrupt.

I believe it's abundantly clear that fundamentalist or militant groups claim the name of God for their own purposes without any understanding or even concern for whether their ideals and actions are consistent with their religion's teachings about humanity and God's relationship to it. It seems to me that these groups would be violent out of pure hatred for "the other" regardless of the existence of religion. There's always an excuse to hate for those who hate. Those types will always be around, even if a thousand years from now societies come to embrace rational empiricism and look back on religious belief as primitive or a function of some neuroanatomical phenomenon - even though belief that God isn't there, that reality is comprised only of what can be proven, is, like all other faiths, nothing more than belief too. Just as the poor, the enraged, the miserable, and the hateful will "always be with us," I also believe, contrary to views I heard expressed on TV by supporters of the recently opened Creation Museum, that there will also always be people who strive to live loving, moral lives regardless of their understanding of God or belief in his existence. In fact, I believe that those who work to live moral lives not because of fear of punishment, which is indeed a primitive, thoughtless motive for embracing virtue, but rather because morality benefits human lives, show superior moral reasoning.

So I do celebrate. Pentecost - this is a joyful, wondrous feast, when we remember an event so indescribable and inexplicable in the history of the early church that authors could only describe it by comparing it to the rush of a great wind, or to the descent of tongues of flame over a group of believers. Christians believe they were on fire with the Holy Spirit, and that when they spoke the good news that they were burning to tell people about, listeners miraculously heard their words in their native languages. I love the story for its mystery, its sense of something momentous and transfiguring in people's lives, its implication that God comes alive in givers and receivers and the transactions in between, intimately connecting us with each other and with a life greater than our own.

Being a Star Trek fan, sometimes I ask myself, if it happened as described, what might provide a natural explanation for it? Did some alien civilization swoop in with their huge space ship (hence the wind) and implant "universal translators" into people's brains, using some visible energy that hovered over their heads like flames? Was some omnipotent life form, like the Q on Star Trek: the Next Generation, controlling their minds and perceptions, trying to see if they could induce a religious movement based on a mythic (or staged) resurrection story, some miracles, and a whole lot of machinations?

Well, sure I guess. Doesn't quite meet Occam's Razor criteria, but it could be a valid theory in this little mental game, though I laugh to myself thinking there are less absurd things.

But perhaps there's a less outlandish "natural explanation" that could explain Pentecost, the way mental illness or seizure disorders are now thought to explain entities once attributed to demonic possession. How about, they were all in a room, there was a huge gust of wind, they went into a mass hallucination, and somehow managed to communicate with people from various cultures about their experience? Hmm, a little vague, but maybe.

Are any of these possibilities less absurd than the possibility of Emmanuel: God with us? Or the possibility that love is real? If there is Life from whom all life proceeds, an energy Source that set all of the natural world in motion, is it then so unbelievable that such a generative energy be a loving one, one that could be present among us, BE us, and triumph over human limits, even the perceived limits of physics and biology?

I am no theologian. I will not pretend or claim to understand spiritual mysteries, to know God or Christ or any of the world's holiest prophets. For me, story and ritual nourish that part of my brain / mind / heart / spirit that longs for transcendence, and I am at peace with incomplete understanding. The doctor in me usually has to know about things; there is a part of me, though, that doesn't need to know or understand everything, that has found peace in mystery, in the process of reaching for greater wisdom whether or not such wisdom is attainable. Trying to find natural explanations for events and experiences is a good thing. Reason is a human gift. We're supposed to use it. But perhaps in some cases, going through all sorts of intellectual contortions to try to understand certain human experiences is futile and, in the end, missing the point.

Something happened back then. I don't know exactly what. But the world was never the same afterward, in both good and bad ways. So that Something made a real dent in our physical and historical reality, and I think our task now hundreds of years later is to let that same Spirit work through us, like hands kneading bread, or leavening that makes bread rise.
-What are we on fire about?
-What would we give our lives to communicate?
-How can we transform ourselves, our world, into something greater than the sum of its imperfect parts?


This morning my family, here and in Manila gathered around NPR's webcast of Weekend Edition Sunday (it's amazing that we could even do this!) to listen to a short essay I wrote and recorded for their series This I Believe. I don't know if this was coincidence, but they chose to air the essay, which is essentially about spirit and mentions spirit a lot, on this day of all days, the day of the Holy Spirit. Listening to it reminded me that the Spirit doesn't always have to come in a big gust of wind. Elijah found it in a whispered breeze outside his cave. I see it in my children and my husband every day - in their questions, their joy, their sorrows, their love, in everything that makes us living beings, in all those moments that create our human life.


Patty said...

Hi! I found your site via Hilda's (Dominican Oboist). What fun to find another oboe blog ... and to find you are a Christian as well. (I do wish I'd heard your "This I Believe" on the radio; I must have missed it. Rats!)

I'm wondering if I can add you to my oboe site (the blogger one isn't really complete). I list links to reed blogs:

T. said...

Hi, Patty! Thanks so much for your comment and for visiting! Please feel free to add me to your site; I will place a link to yours in my links column as well. I think I've seen your comments on other oboe blogs - I'm thrilled to have someone out there I can "talk" to about the oboe, because there's really no one else around me except my teacher who would "get it," plus I am SUCH a beginner I can use all the help I can get. Incidentally, the This I Believe piece has been preserved online for listening/reading @, or also on the site. Till soon, t. (stands for a childhood nickname my family calls me)

Patty said...

Thanks, t! I've added you in.

I'll look into the NPR broadcast too. Thanks for the link!

Hilda said...

Hey there!!

I am finally done with the MCAT and had some time to come over to your blog.

I am very excited for you to be starting on the oboe. I still remember my first days very fondly. Good for you that you didn't let the naysayers talk you out of it. You are going to love the journey.

I too am happy to read your posts about faith too. I am going through a bit of a weird period right now (been attending the same Catholic church all my life) and I suspect that the whole religion issue will become more important this coming year as we contemplate starting a family. Your posts about it raise interesting thoughts.

If there is absolutely anything I can do to help you on your oboe journey, just let me know. We're all in this together.

And I'll be sure to bug you about medical stuff :-)

T. said...

Thanks, Hilda! I'm excited for you for this coming year. When I was applying to med school the best advice I got from my premed advisor about having kids was, "Have them as soon as you can. Life will never be as flexible as it is in med school." People thought I was crazy (again, the naysaying) but we - my husband, daughter, son, and I - all got me through it. You'll have quite a journey too! Hope you don't mind, I've taken the liberty of adding a link to your cool blog on my "favorite links" section. Thanks for visiting! Reading about what an amazing player you are is inspiring, and even if I'm never at that level, it's still the best undertaking ever.