A Spiritual Life, Conscientious Objector

Posted: August 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 14C,

21.08.2016 Luke 13: 10-17

A Spiritual Life, Conscientious Objector

Last week we read of a Jesus who was not happy, so much so that he set out to shock his hearers into change. He clarified the process of important change by reminding his hearers that the message he had to give would go against all the assumptions of familial relationships. It would go right to the heart of society’s normalcy. Today we find him in the very heart of the religious home voicing protest about normal practice. He is hitting right at the heart of the rules that govern normal practice by protesting the hypocrisy of those who create rules for others and flout them, themselves.

At one level this is just about practice meeting ideology or practice meeting ones world view and this happens all the time. We know of people in the church who condemn literalism of the bible and yet discriminate against Gay people, or people who are liberal about abortion yet believe that the world was made in 6 days. There was a Hui just last week in our church where people tried to find a way forward on the issue of human sexuality. The focus was on difference in the interests of unity. Seems a strange way of doing things but that is what we do. It is always easier to create rules for others than it is to find a common way forward it seems. Is that what Jesus is on about here in our text? Is the matter about healing on the Sabbath or is it about the futility of creating rules that don’t work, that don’t fit the practice, or is it about an alternative way of living one’s life? Is the religious life about following the rules or is it about loving one another?

John Bennison in his blog quotes one Mitch Albom who said:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

I gave this address the title of ‘A Spiritual life, Conscientious Objector’ because like last week the challenge to life a spiritual life is somehow imbedded in the call to be a conscientious objector. Jesus is showing the life of a spiritual person as being one who challenges the very heart of things, upsets the status quo and goes direct to the heart of things in his objection.

The word Spirituality and what is understood as Spirituality is often an amorphous and bandied about term that too often connotes the merely religious type, as somehow distinct from those who are not. It’s a little like the artificial distinction sometimes made between what is sacred or secular in a world of human experience that is actually infused with the totality of all things, known and unknown. Jesus calls this inability to see the interconnectedness of things hypocrisy.

Bennison suggests that we might enter this discussion through an understanding of human consciousness and being conscious. He suggests that human consciousness is the awareness of a personal conscience; where conscience is a core dimension with which we have the innate capacity to take account of ourselves. He also suggests that one’s conscience, is not simply about adherence to an external set of beliefs about what is “right” or “wrong;” which can — and do – change, both cross-culturally and over time. Rather, it is something intrinsic within every human being, and is universal when it comes to our common humanity. Ultimately, it has to do with meaning and purpose.

It is also similar to the observation that at the heart of every great religious tradition the same fundamental positions on purpose and meaning are espoused; with ways of wisdom practiced as expressions of those positions. In this sense, the human conscience is not only that spiritual home from which we can wander; but from which we can often lose the way of return, as well. One would have to say that our Christian faith tradition is a good example of just such a journey.

Bennison suggests that there was a time when human consciousness was free of the rule about what was good and what was bad. A time before Human Consciousness became “Spiritualized” he quotes a text from The Gospel of Thomas.


“The (Father’s) imperial rule is within you and it is outside you. … If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Gospel of Thomas, 113:4, 70

It is the bringing forth of that which is within is the catalyst for meaning and not the rules that are created after about what is right or wrong or who is in or who is out.

From what little we know, the historical Jesus was an itinerant 1st century Galilean sage, teacher from Jewish peasant stock. Later he was also sometimes referred to as a “spirit” person. I think this was likely because of the Greek and or Roman experience of the movement. But put another way, he was also a person of conscience, with a keen awareness of the human condition in all its consequence and magnificence.

While his teachings were life changing for his followers, they were also soon affiliated with what quickly became a legendary figure; and to which a messianic title was subsequently attributed by a religious sect that arose in the years following his human demise.

In the decades and centuries that followed, a whole set of beliefs about his divinity overshadowed his teachings. Furthermore, it’s worth noting those teachings now considered most historically authentic were noticeably void of any religious language, but richly and colloquially descriptive of his full humanity. When we examine our own time and culture we see people called ‘progressives’ critiquing tradition, protesting literalism, conscientiously objecting to claims for practice that have no meaning, no link into the unity of humanity.

Central to those teachings was the fundamental notion that there was not only an inherent dimension within every person that was connected to the source of all being-ness; but that it also required an awakening, of sorts, for those who had “eyes” to see, and “ears” to hear. Any notions of such religiously laden ideas like salvation or redemption — that were subsequently overlaid and instituted — originated from a transformative process that first arose within the individual.

Harry Emerson Fosdick the American Baptist Theologian years ago when talking about movements like the ‘progressives’ of today said; “that there is a widespread, deep seated, positive desire on the part of many Christians in all the churches to recover for our modern life, for its personal character and its social relationships, the religion of Jesus as distinguished from the accumulated, conventionalized, largely inadequate and sometimes grossly false religion about Jesus”.

Of course as we know, the early Christian movement quickly constructed a hierarchical structure with ecclesiastical authority, dispensing certain orthodoxies (right belief) and heresies (wrong beliefs). The role for the human conscience as the source of “spiritual” awareness and practice was replaced by conformity to those external doctrines called Church teachings; along with the proprietary claim that personal salvation was mediated solely through the divinity of Jesus, as the Christ.

In contrast, Jesus the wisdom teacher directed his earliest followers to look within themselves, and each other. As such, Jesus was not “the way,” but a companion in the way each person has the capacity to travel, to move, to grow, and develop; given the conscious awareness of that path, and the choice to venture wherever it leads.

So, if consciousness and conscience are the way of being are they actually the “Spiritual” Path we talk about?

Bennison suggests that we look around at the world in which we live with all our faults and foibles and we can perhaps see that we seem to be hard-wired as human beings, but soft-wired whenever we try to describe or imagine ourselves to be so-called spiritual beings. As physical, finite beings, we find it hard to remain unaware of outward human frailties, successes and excesses. But to become aware of anything more — or other — than what is empirical, verifiable and (consequently) believable, is commonly considered to be a venture into the intangible, ethereal realm of “spirituality.” Our soft-wired side can’t seem to stand up to the harsh realities with which we are confronted and challenged in today’s world of disruption, chaos, and sheer seeming madness.

When our “spiritual” side is invoked or employed, it’s typically in some religious context or tradition; that is, as often as not, seen to be in a battle over whose “god” is greater, and whose religious convictions possess the “truth.”

This sort of dualistic approach means that whenever a crack of doubt is introduced into any set of staunchly held beliefs, two options present themselves.

One can shut one’s eyes, squeeze them tightly, and endlessly repeat, “I believe, I believe, I believe _____ (fill in the blank).” The world around us then becomes filled with competing rules, ideals and principles; all representing ways we should behave, as well as what we should think and believe. It is as if the devil perches on one shoulder, an angel on the other, both whispering in our ear. Such religious constructs become morality plays, depicting the battle between the forces of good and evil; typically tinged with the illusory promise of something better when our hard-wired selves ultimately wear out.

The other option is the option I think Jesus is advocating in the synagogue. One can acknowledge a conscious awareness of something new and revelatory stirring within oneself, beckoning one to see with new eyes. However, this spiritual wellspring is not some external divine, but something just as worthy of being revered as sacred; namely, the human conscience. It is the awareness one might liken to an internal “divining rod” of what is right or wrong. And one which supersedes any external moral constructs of right and wrong, and instead instigates compassionate acts for a common good; yielding to a sense of personal purpose, and a kind of conversion or transformation worthy of any reputable “spiritual” quest for a meaningful life.

Right about now if all of this has your head swimming, I want to give you two “secular” examples Bennison quotes. They are examples of transformative power of human conscience, or lack thereof. The first is about the Whistleblower Edward Snowden who was a former security analyst contractor with the NSA. He made the conscious decision to breach the confidentiality agreement he had with the government, flee the country with sensitive documents, and then disclose the evidence government officials were flat out lying to the American public about the massive level of surveillance being indiscriminately conducted on the citizenry.

Snowden violated U.S. law by his conduct, jeopardized military information gathering practices and was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. When asked why he did so, he explained it as a matter of conscience; where his actions were essentially the result of competing external values and the importance he placed upon himself of one over the other. He has said he was willing to accept the consequences of his actions, and that no matter what happened to him, he felt good about what he did. For him, one might say, it was a self-redemptive act.  It gave him a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s also worth noting that two years later, a bill was introduced in Congress to overhaul the Patriot Act, curtailing the metadata collection program exposed by Snowden.

A second example: The late Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL known as the American sniper, was a renowned killing machine; credited with saving his comrades time and again in Iraq. “After the first kill, the others come easy,” he wrote in his best-selling memoir. “I don’t have to psych myself up, or do something special mentally — I look through the scope, get my target in the cross hairs, and kill my enemy, before he kills one of my people.”

When explaining how he’d managed to kill one insurgent from an incredible distance, he was quoted saying, “God blew that bullet and hit him.” Kyle went on to say he performed his duty with the values he held to be most important to him, and with a “clear conscience.”

At the same time, Kyle subsequently suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his military service. The bitter irony is that he himself was shot and killed at point blank range at a shooting range by another troubled veteran suffering from PTSD.

Now, we may all have our own opinions and labels for who is the hero, the villain, the patriot, or the traitor. But once consciously aware of what they were doing or had done, it might be said it became for both of these individuals a wrestling match with their better natures. They struggled to reconcile their hard-wired self with their soft-wired conscience; each in their own redemptive quest.

Our own small lives may not be as dramatic as these examples. But for those of us who may have previously simply relegated the idea of spiritual transformation to the religious life, as opposed to our everyday life might consider what we would identify as our own conscience, when and how we become consciously aware of it, and how we apply it to the manner in which we live our life. Is it good enough to take a position on something that is incongruent with what we believe to be the meaning of human life? Is the diversity we seek and exclusion of another? Is our position of human sexuality Just, inclusive, accepting, non-discriminatory, and is it loving, empowering, encouraging and does it embrace what it means to be human together. Or as Bennison might put it; How does your soft-wired side within inform and direct your hard-wired world in ways that give real meaning and purpose to your life? Jesus brought about a healing by challenging the rules, despite their institutional legitimacy, despite their potential for disruption. He was transforming the spirit of life by his conscious, conscientious objection. Amen.

http://thechristianprogressive.com/ John William Bennison,

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