Monday, September 23, 2013

Does God have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Last week, I was talking to a friend who is an Evangelical street minister from East Oakland. She, herself, lost a son to a drive-by shooting and she was complaining that it is difficult to get folks to turn to God or Jesus on the streets of Oakland because so many have witnessed friends, children and other family members killed by violence. They ask, "Why doesn't God intervene at these unfathomable horrors and stop them? Where is God?" An unusual thought occurred to me, when I heard about their incredulity from my friend. I spurted out, "Maybe God has PTSD from witnessing the violence on the streets." My friend responded, "That's deep. Maybe God is sad."

As I reflect on our conversation, I'm getting increasingly convinced that God has PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Like Vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, women and men who are victims of sexual assaults, and those witnessing street violence in the inner city or in Baghdad or  those touched by the terrorism in Nairobi, maybe God feels survivor guilt and withdraws her/his will from intervening in human events on account of her despondency.

This quirky twist on the "problem of evil" or, more technically, theodicy, assumes that God is a present witness to the world. Theologians, such as Sallie McFague, posit that the universe could be viewed as the "Body of God" and that rich metaphoric descriptions of God, such as God as Mother or Friend or Healer, are paths leading away from the theological literalism of Fundamentalism or the irrelevancy of God as Father to contemporary culture. If the world is God's body and her body is assaulted by violence and pollution and neglect, it would seem natural that she or he would develop PTSD.

The idea that God might have PTSD hearkens back to the city lamentations of the Ancient Near East. In the Mesopotamian Laments of the City of Ur, the goddess Ningal weeps for the ghostly desolation that has befallen her beloved city, Ur. She is tearful and sad, like my friend's God who mourns over the unspeakable devastation and the loss of the children of Oakland. If God were all-powerful, then he could of course, in principle, intervene; if God were empathic, the she would cry over incomprehensible pain and loss. I choose empathy over power; loving awareness over detached principles. A traumatized God is preferable to an indifferent deity, if we are created in the image of the Divine.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Unitarian Universalist Confessional Prayer

During these High Holy Days of Judaism, there is a specific practice, called Tashlikh. Celebrants will gather by a body of flowing water and cast off their sins into the sea. The best water will have fish in it, which, as one friend told me, can symbolize the open eyes of the Holy One, observing our actions. Last Sunday, at the Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church in Hayward, CA, we recited a litany prayer, with one line spoken by the worship leader and the response in italics by the congregation:

We have turned to pride over humility, arrogance over humbleness.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have loved ourselves over others.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have remained silent in the face of injustice.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have hunkered down in fear rather than breathing out compassion.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have clung to the familiar instead of opening up to the new.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have tread on the fragile earth rather than preserving the greenness of life.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have been quick to anger rather than wise in slow hesitation.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have been fractious in our demands rather than unified in spirit.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

Let us love and forgive and mirror the Divine waters
Which erode away error and smooth over harshness
That we may, with intention and love, renew our commitment to justice, compassion, unity and discovery for another year.

Amen and Blessed Be

Thursday, September 5, 2013

God is Love...Or not?

One of the most common and extensive monikers for the Christian God is "Love". 1 John 4:8 proposes that "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (NRSV). Indeed for Unitarian Universalists, our Universalist strand of theological inheritance is grounded on the belief that God is love and a loving God could not condemn anyone to Hell. In addition to this equation of God as Love, almost every church that I've attended, including some UU congregations, will argue, in sermon after sermon, that Christian love is agape--akin to familial or selfless love.  Agape is distinct from the Greco-Roman construct of love as eros, typified by the obsessive and chaotic love between ardent lovers. The former pope Benedictus XVI wrote in a 2005 encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, that earthly Eros can lead to heavenly Agape, just like, initially,  puppy love can lead ultimately to the stability of marital relationships.

My experience as a therapist and a pastor-to-be compels me to recoil at such simplification. The nature of love is turbulent and chaotic, cyclical and unsteady. Living through love is more like tacking through a typhoon than quietly sipping a coffee onshore. But that is not necessarily bad, just psychologically realistic.

Plato in his Symposium on Love presents us with a bevy of beautiful stories and allegories about the nature of love as eros. On such myth, as told through the voice of the priestess Diotima, recounts the genealogical origin of the god Eros. Eros' father, the god, Poros (plenty or resourcefulness), got hammered from drinking nectar at one of Zeus' parties. Eros' mother, Penia (lack or poverty), seduced Poros and later  gave birth to Eros whose character traits combined both those of his mother and father. Eros often is in need, empty and squalid like his mother, while, at other times, is resourceful, clever and energetic like his father. He is betwixt and between. Unlike either parent he craves the beautiful because he is simultaneously aware of his emptiness and motivated toward seeking perfection.

We humans are sibs to Eros--body and soul--lack and plenty. We are in urgent need for love, yet, at the same time, aware of its storminess. Let us not forget our humanity is our striving for the impossible perfection of an immutable "God as Love".

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Christ the Teacher: Buddha the Preacher

Sarcophagus from the Crypt of the Abbaye of Saint-Victor Marseille France
Christ Teaching Peter and Paul 4th Century CE

Architectural Element from Gandhara, N Pakistan SF Asian Art Museum
Deities Imploring Buddha to Preach 100 to 300 CE

Don't we usually imagine Jesus as a preacher--Sermon on the Mount--and Buddha as a wise and psychologically insightful teacher of the Dharma? In these two images, a reversal of roles of these two community ministers compels us to re-imagine their messages. The early Christian iconography of traditio legis or Christ's handing down the law to Peter and Paul derives from Roman images of philosophers or emperors passing on knowledge or decrees, while Greco-Buddhist iconographic tradition of Buddha being coaxed by the gods to preach the Dharma comes from sutras narrating stories from Buddha's life. What these images share is an uncanny visual artistic style, that of the Hellenistic sculptural tradition. Here Provence meets Pakistan and Christ meets Buddha in a feast of the hybrid. Both Buddha and Christ preach and teach their respective laws through the medium of an expansive iconography that stretches across Eurasia. Could Christ and Buddha share ethical and sapiential values as well?