Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Treasure in Earthen Vessels

"But we have this treasure in earthen vessels . . ." (2 Corinthians). So often we focus on the "earthen vessels" and the depravity of our humanity. Augustine conceived of "original sin" wherein we are tainted with sin before we are born. This caused the need for infant baptism to assure that the blighted, newborn is cleansed from his/her genetic depravity.

Anabaptists believed that children were innocent until they reached the age of accountability. Pelagius, an originator of Celtic Christian thought, was declared a heretic for attacking Augustine's doctrine of original sin; instead emphasizing the goodness of our humanity through being made in God's image. Sin entered through the development of an individual's ego and socialization into fallen systems.

Because of Western Christianity's emphasis on original sin and the Calvinist corollary of total depravity, I grew up with the focus of being an "earthen vessel." My church, especially during the revivals of the 50s and 60s, reinforced this notion. How I believed in my worminess!

On the other hand, we are made in God's "image and likeness" (Gen. 1:26). This is the "treasure" that we carry in these earthen vessels. Throughout my adult life, I've had to work hard to see this treasure within and to quell the socialized voices that keep appearing. Through work with my dreams, contemplation, music, and other spiritual disciplines I have come to recognize how valuable this treasure is.

But we can't stop with just recognizing our own treasure. We have to see the treasure in others as well. Because of my own socialization, it has been easier to see the earthen vessel in others rather than their treasure. By seeing others' treasure within, we focus on their potential rather than their behavior.

We cannot deny that we are earthen vessels. But let's not get stuck there. Let's focus on the treasure within and our potential as God's good creation.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Imagination, Myth and Dreams

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts.” ~Robert Fulghum

I have been ruminating on this quote for several days. Something about it resonates in my soul, but not in my head. There’s the rub. Imagination, myth and dreams are all left-brain activities, while knowledge, history and facts are right-brained. The first group of adjectives belongs to poets and musicians, while the second belongs to historians and scientists. 

The reason that I call it a rub is that as a Western male, I have been socialized to believe that the second set of adjectives are more important than the first. That right-brain functions are worthier than left-brained ones. “I think, therefore I am” (Rene Descartes) has been the ruling principle of the Age of Reason. Westerners would contend that, “Knowledge is stronger than imagination. History is more potent than myth. Facts are more important than dreams.”

Fulghum turns that Western thinking on its head. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, also turned that thinking on its head. He studied the areas of imagination, myth, and dreams, and discovered a deep reservoir of paranormal phenomena within  our psyches. These were not accepted as science, because much of what he discovered could not be explained, let alone proven. Yet, for those of us in tune with our souls, what he discovered touches us deeply. 

He found myths and symbols that crop up in our night-time dreams to be similar around the world. He called the source of these images our collective unconscious. I call it the place where God stamped his image into our souls. 

The more I have experienced God through spiritual disciplines, the more I have been able to understand the truth of Fulghum’s quote and Jung’s discoveries. I also am more able to draw from the depths of my psyche all the good, the bad and the ugly that is me, hold them together and let them be my teacher. I am much more open to mystery, ambiguity and paradox.  

Post-moderns are actually beginning to embody Fulghum’s wisdom and move beyond the Age of Reason. Post-moderns are becoming more open to mystery, ambiguity and paradox. But those who are entrenched in their black-and-white, either-or, creedal thinking, will continue to hang on to their “truth” with a vengeance. 

“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The historical Jesus as God incarnate; holding both historical “fact” and myth in tension.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?

I teach Spanish at Eastern Mennonite University. The other day while awaiting for all the students to arrive, a few began to engage me in some small talk. “Do you know that you are different when you speak Spanish?” one student asked. “You are more laid back; funnier. You seem to be more serious when you speak English.”

I asked other students who had arrived if they experienced the same difference in me. I was a bit non-plussed at how vigorously several students nodded their heads. Now, I had been told before that I act differently when I speak Spanish, but this was back during a time when I was struggling with faith issues and had become quite cynical. My responses to questions in English tended to be dripping with biting sarcasm. My Spanish persona wasn’t as hard edged, perhaps because I used it mostly in teaching situations or social encounters. 

When I was in high school, I was a class clown. I was knocked for not taking anything seriously. That silliness was replaced by cynicism through the severe realities of poverty and oppression that I witnessed in Latin America where I learned my Spanish. I have worked hard at overcoming my cynicism and snide remarks and thought that the class clown and cynic had resolved their differences. I guess the class clown still resides in the Spanish side of my brain while the cynic still influences
the English speaker. 

I know for a fact that it is easier for me to give compliments in Spanish than in English. Part of the reason is that I never received many compliments in my own upbringing, while I was overwhelmed with compliments when living in certain parts of Latin America. Another reason is because giving compliments in English, especially to someone of the opposite sex, depending on the recipient, can be seen as harassment. In Spanish, a compliment is always accepted with huge grins, unguarded thank yous, and often a hug; from either male or female. 

I am also more polite in Spanish. I use more words to express my thanks; many that would be too flowery in English. I use more hand gestures and touch more while speaking Spanish. Do these examples make me be more laid back and funnier in Spanish? 

I have known quite a few multi-lingual people over the years, but I can’t say that I observed a wide variance of personality in them when speaking different languages. One, a native speaker of English, has converted his way of thinking and use of language completely into the mindset of the second language he had learned. Another is exactly the same in all three languages. Each language is pronounced with the same cadence and the same personality comes through no matter which he is speaking. 

I do know of one example of a woman who speaks Italian and a rural dialect of German.  When she speaks Italian she seems to be a fashion model, but when she speaks the dialect of German she comes off as an ordinary farmer’s daughter. This example seems to be more like the differences my students were pointing out in me than others I have cited.

So this begs the question, do I have two distinct personalities depending on whether I speak English or Spanish? Wonder if I would score differently on the Myers-Briggs scale if I took it in Spanish. I have not even addressed the fact that I have to deal with a third reality, Swiss German, the language of my wife. Do I act differently when I speak in Swiss or is the German more akin to English so that not such a drastic difference in personality can be detected? 

Will the real me please stand up? I really don’t think twice about how I am acting when I speak a certain language. Whatever I speak or however I act, it is me. I am not two-faced. I do not have a split personality or an evil twin. I am not Jekyll and Hyde. I think I am simply emphasizing certain aspects of my personality as I embody the cultural and linguistic nuances of each. My soul, stamped with the image of God, is just reflecting more of God’s wonderfully diverse mosaic of people.

The real me stands up no matter what I do or say. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Collective Unconscious, Mandalas and DNA: Preparing Our Souls

I am extremely intrigued by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory on the collective unconscious. He believes that as human beings we inherit images, myths and symbols that are shared across time and cultures. These collective manifestations appear in our legends, dreams and art. 

An example of a symbol that Jung found in most cultures around the world is the Mandela symbol. This symbol is a circular image which meant wholeness for Jung. “A  mandala is generally a circle with dividing lines separating it into several quadrants. Each quadrant represents a different theme and starts at the center of the circle working outward,” according to a site on mandalas. (source: http://www.meaningofmandalas.com/

His initial discovery of this symbol came from India where they are quite prevalent. Here is an example: 

From Europe, we have appearing in many cathedrals what is called a “Rose Window.” These windows have the same circular shape and quadrants. 

(Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/94/Rosace_cathedrale_strasbourg.jpg)

From Latin America, we have the Aztec calendar which also meets the definition of a mandala symbol. 

From Africa comes this image, which is not exactly a circle, but it has the same quadrants, and a circle can certainly be imagined by rounding off the corners. 

The Christian cross can also be imagined as a mandala symbol since it has four quadrants. The Celtic especially designed the cross with a circle in the center, making it more like a mandala symbol. The following image of a celtic cross shows that relationship.

Now an interesting find. There are images of our DNA that look like mandala symbols. Here is an example of one from the website http://www.blazelabs.com/f-p-geom.asp

Not only are these images in our collective unconscious, but also in our DNA. Apparently there are mandala-like patterns throughout the universe; from DNA to galaxies. 

According to Jung, the mandala symbol comes from our collective unconscious. 
I believe that the collective unconscious is the stamp that God has put on our soul. In Genesis 1:26-27, we read that we have been created in the  “image and likeness” of God. Within that image and likeness resides a holy longing for God. Symbols that well up from our unconscious (soul=psyche), like the mandala symbol, are reminders of our need for God. They are also reminders of what we as humans across cultures and times have in common. 

Ultimately, I believe that good missionary work is to listen to the stories and the symbols of each people to whom we want to share the Good News. These stories and symbols, rather than being cast off as “pagan,” are the groundwork that God has laid in each of our souls to prepare us for the final revelation of Truth; God’s becoming flesh and dwelling among us.