Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Other as Guru

How often we righteously chase after that which puffs us up! How often we condemn and dismiss those who do not share our pursuits! Might that threatening gaze of the condemned, however, not serve as the greatest instructor? In his poem 'Possible Answers to Prayer,' Scott Cairns affirms the worth and dignity (and by extension God's presence) in all, while gesturing towards the realization that, as the Dalai Lama suggests, "one's enemy is the best teacher."

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

Those who "rouse our passions" quickly call us back to our better selves - or, at least our truer selves. They force us to take note of our convictions, to take responsibility for that which we hold to be self-evident. They challenge us to seek further, to look beyond, to widen our net. They make us face our implicit ways-of-being.

According to the Puratan janamsakhi, the learned pandit Brahm Das approached Guru Nanak to ask him where he could find a Guru. Nanak pointed towards a hut that housed four faqirs. Upon arrival at the hut, Brahm Das was instructed to walk to a nearby temple. When he finally reached the temple, he was severely beaten with a shoe by the temple's guardian. Upset, Brahm Das returned to the hut and shared his pathetic tale. "That was Maya," the faqirs explained. "She is your guru."

The story can be read in multiple ways. One interpretation speaks, I believe, to Cairns' insight. It was only through his encounter with the temple guardian who roused his passions, that Brahm Das came to realize the superficiality of the path he had been following - namely that of Maya, or worldly pleasure. In a similar way, does not Cairns insinuate: if you are so easily angered and offended by particular habits or sympathies, perhaps you should reconsider the nature and intended destination of your path. To what have you attuned yourself? Where are you going, and why? Is there perhaps a tincture of Maya enveloped within?

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On Tradition

Postliberal theologian George Lindbeck warns of emptying out the specificity of a religious tradition and substituting a “vapid lowest common denominator” in its place. Believe it or not, our faith tradition did not begin in 1961. Too often, the tangled webs of liberal religion’s genealogy get brushed aside. What would it mean for our future, if we were to reclaim our past – not out of nostalgia, but out of the firm conviction that Unitarianism and Universalism represent the ground of our being, and the foundation for our flourishing? I suspect that if we were to take our history seriously, we would learn of internal vibrancy, dynamism and diversity. Contrary to the Christian straw men we erect, our historical roots branch out in a multitude of directions: Deism, Transcendentalism, Pragmatism, Liberal Christianity and Humanism, to name but a few. We have never been a monolithic faith tradition. We do ourselves a disservice when we remember ourselves – or, with time, forget ourselves – as such.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

East vs. West

My mother recently received a birthday card that charmed and challenged me in countless ways. It read: "Eastern philosophy tells us to live in the present...Western philosophy tells us to open the present."

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