2014-08-17

Shoveling Snow With Reality


A friend of mine, who teaches science, and who I might describe as a "Mystical Materialist", sent me the following poem by Billy Collins. It is entitled "Shoveling Snow With Buddha", and I think it says volumes about how to be present to the experience of Ultimate Reality in the midst of the reality we experience every day:

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow. 

"Shoveling Snow With Buddha", by Billy Collins

This was a great piece to evoke thought on a Sunday afternoon. The poem evokes for me something like the distinction between illusion and enlightenment (in Eastern religions) or between idol and icon (in Western religions).

The essence of illusion and idolatry seems to revolve around something like the human propensity to raise our interpretation of Experience above the Experience itself. We experience "The Experience", and then we analyze, codify, and define the Experience. Then we say "the really important thing" is that our experience correspond with the Orthodox interpretation / definition of experience. Those who interpret the experience the same as we do-- using the same categories, the same terminology-- are the ones who have it right. And those who do not interpret the experience in our Orthodox way never really "had" the experience at all.

Thus the man in the poem interprets "this experience" as better than Church, more of a sermon than a sermon, more prayerful than prayer, etc. While the implied antagonist-- the Western Churchgoer-- would presumably say the chatty snow shoveler is having no "spiritual experience" at all, because true spiritual experience happens only within a certain liturgy, using certain concepts, saying certain words.

Both are really a kind of second-order Orthodoxy: An orthodoxy of tradition versus an Orthodoxy of anti-tradition (which, in Hegelian fashion, will one day become some group's orthodox tradition).

And in raising their second-order interpretations above the actual "being-present-in-the-moment" experience of Reality, they have both committed to a form of idolatry by embracing a form of illusion.

The Buddha stands a nice antithesis in the poem. He is fully present to the experience, fully mindful of the embodied knowledge that is his encounter with Reality. He has no need to comment, to define, to capture the Experience. Instead, he is fully present to the Reality that is fully present to him.

That fully-present-mindfulness allows the Experience to become an icon: A window to encounter the Really Real in the midst of human experience. What the Zen Buddhists call "tathata": Literally the "suchness" or the "this-ness" of Reality. Experience is not reducible, but is a Gestalt whole that must be taken as it is, in all its fullness. Experience is ultimately not able to be broken down into constituent parts, because that is not the Experience itself (capital E), but a series of discreet abstractions which are experiences (small e) in themselves. To dissect, to analyze, is to destroy the Experience. It evaporates even as one describes it. And all that is left is one's definition, but not the Experience itself.

The only way for the Experience to maintain its role as "icon" and as "tathata" is to take it as a whole, beyond words, beyond concepts. It is what it is. And perhaps through this, the Real says "I am what I am", without being able to be described, dissolved, categorized, or reduced to some combination of other finite abstractions.

So, when Moses says the Really Real is the personal YHWH who speaks from the burning bush, saying "I am what I am", perhaps this is not too far removed from the Buddha saying that the Really Real is "tathata" which transcends personhood, contingency, and categorization, which was revealed in his burning heart. And perhaps this unspeakable Real which is encountered in shoveling snow, and making love to one's spouse, and watching sunsets, and taking morning showers, and pushing up that last rep, is that to which Wittgenstein points to when he says "That which cannot be spoken must be passed over in silence".

Granted, I am sure this could all be taken in a decidedly luddite direction as some kind of screed against knowing and studying and analyzing the Reality we inhabit. But it is not. Because I don't think a person can fully grasp how vast and wonderful and beautiful and good the Unspeakable is, unless one has first pushed themselves to the limits of what they can know and understand and analyze and say. And furthermore, health of body and mind is necessary as a pre-requisite to both empirical analysis and transcendent experience. And health of body and mind only comes about by human science (in the broad and narrow senses).

But beyond all our science and philosophy, beyond our words and categories, beyond our theologies and a-theologies, there is a Totality to the Real that ever evades capture, escapes dissection, and transcends definition. This Totality is glimpsed and grasped through finite Experience. But like a bird darting through our peripheral vision, it is lost as soon as we train the full gaze of our consciousness upon it.

I think at this base level of encountering the Totality of Reality, and in affirming the life-giving values and virtues that flow from such an encounter, there is much to connect the Western Saint and the Eastern Guru and the Modern Materialist.

2014-06-29

How should we prepare to partake in Eucharist?



Some years ago, I wrote a short essay explaining different views of what is happening in the Eucharist, and what it means for Anglican Christians. Judging by statistics, it is the most popularly read article on my blog, and you can find it here.

Today, a friend of the blog sent me the following email:

"I sincerely thank you for this. It is by far the best instruction I've ever received on this subject. You have outlined all these interpretations of the Eucharist in a clear, non-judgmental way that stimulates the reader to think about his conclusion rather than attempt to force one upon him.

I am a convert to Roman Catholicism but am seriously thinking of returning to the Church of England due mainly to my skepticism about transubstantiation, which was rather badly explained to me by a priest at my initial instruction several years ago. For this reason I haven't taken communion for three or so years, during which time I have been reading, thinking, praying in an effort to find answers. Reading your explanations was almost like receiving manna from heaven!"

So, this very kind email-- which is much kinder than the blog deserves-- raises the pastoral question:

How should we prepare to receive the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood through the elements of duly consecrated bread and wine?

2014-05-18

The Truth: Knowing Who is at the Center


Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” [From John 14.6-7]

This is an edited re-post of an earlier sermon, that has been enlarged and explained. It was occasioned by one of my friends encountering a particularly poor sermon done on the text of John 14.6. It is this text which most directly confronts one of the touchiest subjects in academic culture: What the "Truth" is, who has access to "Truth", and who doesn't.

2014-04-02

Subscripts and Superscripts for iPad



This is very different from nearly all of my other spiritual/philosophical blog posts. It's semi-complex, kinda techie, and intended to help make iPad use easier. So if you don't care about entering math or chemistry into an iPad, PLEASE IGNORE.

However, if you use an iPad and type chemical formulae or math equations on a regular basis, or other text that requires numerical subscripts or superscripts (such as H₂O or A² + B² = C²), this may be of interest to you.

2014-03-12

Working out my Theology


Lately I have been working out, and getting some really good results (if only I could combine it with greater weight loss!). My wife, and some of my friends, have asked me to help them with designing a workout. Rather than explain the same routine over and over, I thought I would put all my thoughts in one place so anyone can benefit.

2014-03-03

Metaphysics and Moral Value

Thus spake Nietzsche: Courageous enough to admit what morality without metaphysics entails.

One of the fundamental claims of most forms of religion is that Metaphysics-- the Ultimate Reality that grounds and upholds physical reality-- is somehow necessary for moral values to really exist. The claim is often made that without Metaphysics, moral statements become mere statements of personal preference. This is a hard claim for many to understand, so I wrote this to help.

2014-01-29

Christ, Consumerism and the State of the Church

A Comic Strip illustrating the Church in Consumer Culture. It helps that Jesus is talking to Kevin.

My friend and mentor Kevin Martin recently wrote a "State of the Church" address in which he painted a dichotomous picture of the health of The Episcopal Church (hereafter TEC). His "macro" analysis is basically that TEC, as a national organization, is crumbling under the weight of its outmoded institutional structures and oversized financial obligations, in light of its dwindling membership base. His "micro" analysis is that there are "a thousand points of light" (to quote the elder President Bush) in countless individual parishes and faith communities, regardless of the overall implosion of TEC.

While I largely agree with Kevin's macro/micro analysis of Church health, I think we also must expand our scope and have a "meta" analysis of the TEC in Western Culture as well. And the metadata seems to show that our culture is in the midst of a turn toward the secular. Tobin Grant recently did a good summary of dozens of studies on the sociology of religion which be found here.

2014-01-14

My Moses Year Begins

Moses wonders what he has gotten himself into, and if there is a return policy on stone tablets.

Today marks my entrance into the "Moses year": 40 years of journeying through the wilderness that is human existence. Although I can quickly count a dozen things I really should be doing instead of this, I think I would be remiss to let this day pass without some written reflection.

2014-01-08

Eucharist, Epiphany, and Richard Feynman


Today I celebrated Eucharist for Epiphany at TMI - The Episcopal School of Texas. Since our chapel service on Monday was our actual reading of the Epiphany narrative, I chose to talk about the Epiphany that happens within Eucharist, where the Risen Jesus is "known to us in the breaking of the bread". Of course, I used the Gospel text of Luke 24, where Jesus talks with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, but they do not recognize him as Jesus until he breaks bread.

And then suddenly the Epiphany dawns on them: It is the Risen Lord!

And as I was thinking about how the deep mysteries of the Universe can be revealed to us in something as simple as a meal that remembers a man, I remembered a toast given by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. He spoke of seeing the interconnections of all things in a glass of wine:

Fr. Thomas Hopko: 55 Maxims for Christian Living


I just found a great list posted by Bryan Owen at "Creedal Christian". It's not very often that I read a list of things and say to myself "I think I agree with everything on that list!" I almost said that to this list, although I have appended addendums on two items I feel need elaboration.

Nevertheless, this 55 item "rule of life" by Orthodox priest Fr. Thomas Hopko is worthy of meditation and integration into one's own spiritual journey. Enjoy!

2014-01-04

The Most Common Objection to Prayer


There are several objections to prayer. I read them all the time on blogs, websites, and comments sections. I hear them from students and parishioners. Many people experience a profound discomfort with what prayer DOES, even if they pray all the time.

2013-12-23

The Bostian Bunch 2013


Everybody is happy on Santa's lap. Well, almost everybody.
Greetings from the Texas Hill Country,

Can you believe another year has come and gone?  We surely cannot.  We have now called San Antonio home for nearly four years.  Our children are getting so spoiled by all that this great city has to offer (the mild winters, rivers, parks, hills and culture).  I didn't realize how accustom they had become to the area till the children thought that 45 degrees was too chilly to be outside, at the same time our Dallas friends and family were experiencing "Icemageddon 2013".  This year we have enjoyed the outdoors, especially as Vera has begun to get more mobile and enjoys her backpack carrier.

2013-12-22

Miracles and Minds, Science Fiction and Scientific Probability

Dr. Manhattan ponders the possibility of miracles by reading this absurdly long essay.
For years I have wanted to deal with one of the greatest philosophical and pragmatic objections to the idea of "revealed" religion. This objection is second only, in my opinion, to the question of "theodicy": How can a supposedly loving and powerful Creator allow his creation to suffer and die in such excruciating and wasteful ways? I will briefly return to this "greatest of all" objections at the end of the essay.

This "second greatest" objection makes "revealed religion" of any type-- whether Christian or non-Christian-- appear foolish, hokey, folksy, credulous, silly, superstitious, and fundamentally ignorant of the way the world works. This, of course, is the objection against miracles. Because if miracles are impossible, and therefore false, it renders any kind of Divine intervention or communication impossible and false. And if there is no Divine communication, then all religions that claim to be based on it are fundamentally flawed.

I would like to deal with this objection from my unique threefold perspective: First of all, as someone who has grown up in the fastest era of technological change known to humanity. Second of all, as someone whose favorite genre of literature is science fiction. And thirdly, as a committed if somewhat progressive follower of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. I think these perspectives can help us understand the issue in a way that avoids the pitfalls of merely rejecting miracles on one hand, and accepting illogical and impossible claims of the miraculous on the other.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to save us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2012 by Nate Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment or clicking HERE.