Monday, January 3, 2011

"Lost Christianity"

This is the beginning of the second week of my vacation. Among other things, I'm catching up on some reading--the first book I read was Jacob Needleman's Lost Christianity. If you know anything about Needleman and his ideas, I'd love to hear from you.

I found the book fascinating. His main point is that what has been "lost" in Christianity is a necessary focus on our own self-awareness. We can't become who God intends for us to be until we've confronted/celebrated what we are right now. Of course, I totally agree with that!

And for an existentialist like me there are breathtaking gems in this book. Like this:
The whole of the universe rests on the sacrifice of God. But this Christ looks directly at me. The immensity of this sacrifice, which I do not understand or even wish to understand, is directed to me, personally. For the first time, I feel that something is required of me, a response to this sacrifice. I glimpse, for the first time, what it means that Christianity demands a response. I am obliged by the fact of Reality and the fact of my existence. I have felt this before about the whole of my existence and the existence of the world. But I have never felt it with respect to Christianity. Nor have I felt it so realistically as now, regarding this face. Existence here as a human face which I did not invent or imagine; it is an objective I, as much a part of Being as stars and trees. I am obliged, but what in myself can possibly answer this obligation? Nothing. And cannot be nothing, the sacrifice could not have been made or communicated like this if there were nothing that could come from [us]...I feel on the edge of a new understanding of the greatness of Christianity.

and Needleman's talk with Anthony de Mello:
"You ask what in yourself can respond to the sacrifice of God? But this sacrifice, as you call it, is love. What is the proper response to love?" At first I thought Anthony was expecting me to answer. I had no answer. "The proper response to love," he continued, "is to accept it. There is nothing to do. The response to a gift is to accept it. Why would you wish to do anything?"

I love that. On many levels, I love that. What first grabbed me, though, was his idea that "the whole universe rests on the sacrifice of God." I remember, maybe 20 years ago now, being struck with the strangeness of the whole idea of sacrifice. That we actually live in a world in which sacrifice on behalf of others exists at all struck me viscerally. It was one of those Stop-Everything-and-Forget-to-Breathe moments.

But after my visceral response to the insight, I didn't quite know what to do with it. I had a sense that there was more to the idea than I was able to articulate. And now, 20 years later, here it is.

The whole of the universe rests on the sacrifice of God. So utterly amazing. The Cosmos Itself, in all its immensity, all its' glory, stunning beauty, relentless pain, energy, chemicals, forces the human mind still cannot grasp...all of it brought into being from the sacrifice of God. Big Bang or one tiny atom, doesn't matter. That the universe exists at all--the old question of why there is something rather than nothing--necessarily entails a sacrifice from the Creator. And yes, once one understands this wholistically, then of course, this sacrifice invites a response.

The existentialist in me marvels and is filled with gratitude. That I am a Christian entails the same response. This is what Jesus invites me to know. This sacrifice, as Needleman says, has a face! -- the face of Jesus the Christ.

And "the face" is such a potent image, for I, too, have/am a face. Yes, the "proper response" is to accept the gift of love, but I think there's even more to it. That this cosmic sacrifice has become personal also invites me, like Jesus, to sacrifice my self as well.

The false self. All that separates me from this love that is the gift of the Creator. All that separates me from others. All that separates me from the authentic self I am meant to be and become.

What I am invited to sacrifice throughout my life is, as Thomas Keating puts it, are those emotional centers that LIE to me, i.e., those false messages that tell me I "need" and must have --
  • affection/esteem/approval
  • power/control
  • survival/security

These things are not intrinsically wrong or hurtful, but the fact is that now, as an adult, I do not actually need them--in the sense that to cling to them, to attach myself to them, is death. To let them go in order to place my TRUST in God, to live into Julian of Norwich's insight that All Shall Be Well, is life.