About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2013/12/27

Prayer Flags for Broadway

How do you meet with God? How do you recognize God’s presence? How do you discern the divine will?

Ancient people practiced “Phyllomancy”. In sacred groves and under special holy trees they waited and listened. Fluttering leaves announced to them the divine presence and whispered to them sacred tidings. We can find an echo of this practice in the Genesis story from the Garden of Eden: “people heard the sound of God walking in the garden in the form of the daily breeze(RUACH)”. (Genesis 3:8) There is number of other similar instances in the Bible - even Jesus in the Gospel of John famously remarks: “Just as wind (PNEUMA) blows wherever it fancies and you can hear its sound, but cannot fully grasp its paths, so it is with everything of spiritual (PNEUMA) origins.” (John 3:8) Even our languages preserve this inkling: Hebrew RUACH, Greek PNEUMA, just like English SPIRIT from Latin SPIRITUS, all cover the broad spectrum of meanings of wind, breath and spirit.
    I do not think that God is literally present in any meteorological phenomena as complex, stochastic and unpredictable, as they might be. This connection between wind, breath and divine spirit is just a metaphor for the subtle, yet discernible and efficacious divine presence in our lives. It is a marvelous reminder, God is as close to us as the air we breathe.
    In our urban setting we can forget about whispering leaves as the visualization and reminder of this divine mystery. In our climate, leaves are gone for long periods of year, and anyway their shiver would be easily drowned out in the constant din of our cacophonous environment. On Broadway and in our neighborhood we need something clearer and “louder”.
    This Sunday, at the brink of the old and new year, we will connect this old wind-spirit metaphor with the similarly ancient practice of prayer flags. Two years ago we made our first prayer flags and they blew in the wind, filling our neighborhood with their prayers until they were destroyed by the scaffolding and repair workers. On this Sunday we will make our new prayer flags, this time vertical ones. Our new prayer flags will stand on Broadway and 73rd Street sidewalks and visualize, accentuate, and summon again the presence of the divine healing, peace, and grace for our neighborhood and environment.


2013/12/23

Messiah prophecy in paraphrase

Recently I received a challenge to paraphrase Isaiah's prophecy (chapter 11) into a modern idiom, here is my attempt:

Imagine the National Tree which had been cut down; it’s just a stump, its life is gone. But from the root of that tree a new shoot starts to grow and it becomes a strong proud tree again. So do not give up hope! Just like the new branch that grows from the stump of the tree that seemed dead, a new leader will come! This leader will follow closely God’s will, and will possess the fullness of the divine knowledge and understanding. This person will be a good leader, will not take bribes, will not be corrupt but will rule the way God has always wanted - care for the poor and bring fairness for the exploited. The whole world will take notice when he will let the rich and arrogant know their limits!
      That way God will make all things good and safe again. No one will hurt anybody, even all the animals will live together in peace, they will not hunt and kill each other, not even for food. Just imagine! All the animals will be vegetarians and live peacefully together, and a little child will be able to lead them all. Not the ancient sages and scholars, but a child will be so full of wisdom to teach the world about divine rules and plans. There will be no more destruction, plundering, or pollution. Everyone and everything in the entire world will know about God’s peaceful ways. They will know that God permeates everything, even the darkest depths of the outer universe! They will know that all the people have always been an  integral part of God’s plan and of the divine future.

It is not particularly accurate translation or even paraphrase, it misses to translate or even to represent some Ancient Near East cultural and religious phenomena, but I think it is still interesting. And thousands of years later, it remains just a hope. More and more I am convinced that messianic prophecies are aspirational rather than fulfillable. Their function in religion and society is to present an ideal model and mirror to our ugly politicians and leaders.

2013/12/20

Incarnation in Ultra-Deep Field


In September, 2003 astronomers made a courageous decision.
They aimed the current most powerful telescope at what was believed to be absolutely nothing. It was a minuscule piece of sky of a size of a poppy seed held at full arm’s length. This small square was just south of the constellation Orion and in this miniscule field were no known stars or other astronomical objects, only empty nothingness. So they aimed the telescope, opened the shutter and waited. They waited through January, 2004 collecting individual photons. When they processed the image they received this picture - it is called the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF). In it are a few small stars distinguishable by their diffraction spikes, and then ten thousand galaxies! Some of these galaxies are currently the oldest and most distant known objects in the universe, more than 13 billions years old. In addition to those few individual stars every single bright puff or dot is a unique galaxy, each composed from millions to billions of stars. What was originally considered to be an empty piece of the sky the size of a poppy seed actually contains in those galaxies about ten trillion stars. Now extrapolate this finding all around the sky in all directions.
    It is virtually impossible not to be in awe of this enormous and beautiful spectacle of deep space. The Universe is an unimaginably and humblingly LARGE place. We live in one minuscule, tiny littlest corner on even a smaller speck of dust. Now what does it mean for us and for our religion? Suddenly we realize that old religious and dogmatic answers are not satisfactory any longer. We need to search anew for an answer to the ancient incarnation question Cur Deus Homo? - Why God (became) human. We are forced to re-ask the question, to re-formulate it, Why should God become human? Why should God become human, here and now (and two thousand years is “a now” in scales of billions of light-years). Perhaps we need to abandon logic, even theo-logic, and venture beyond mytho-logic into the realms of mytho-poetry. Come this Sunday to seek insight into the simple, almost childish, yet still inspired mytho-poetry of the Gospel of James.

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It was the scholastic theologian Anselm of Canterbury who asked Cur Deus Homo - Why God (became) human. And he even though he found the answer in his deeply feudal and troublesome soteriology (the satisfaction view of atonement). But his asking and his answering were utterly anthropocentric (like so much of theology throughout history anyway). Anselm asked and answered as if there was nothing else but the Earth, and as if God was some kind of a medieval brutal feudal lord.
As we look into the true depth of space and time the mystery or incarnation looms exponentially larger and requires us to ask different and more uncertain questions Cur Deus Homo - Why (should) God (become) human?

2013/12/13

Two Births Of Jesus

Was Jesus born twice?
What a silly question, of course not!
But in the Bible we have two different and mutually exclusive birth stories.
       In one gospel, baby Jesus is born at home in Bethlehem (Matthew), while the other baby Jesus is born away from Nazareth home in the famous Bethlehem stable (Luke). One baby Jesus is visited by shepherds, ancient migrant workers, who are instructed by angels (Luke), while the other baby Jesus is visited by the royal-grade visitors from the East who are led by astrology and instructed by Jerusalem priests (Matthew). One baby Jesus has to escape to Egypt before finding new home in Nazareth (Matthew), while the other baby Jesus returns effortlessly home to Galilee (Luke). One baby Jesus suffers under the heavy hand of the Roman political administration through forced census (Luke), while the other baby Jesus is in mortal danger from the Jewish king Herod (Matthew). One baby Jesus had a “fraternal” grandpa named Jacob (Matthew), while the other baby Jesus had a “fraternal” grandpa named Heli (Luke) and those are not just two different names in otherwise uninfied genealogy, there are two different genealogies which have only few most obvious names in common.

So, does it mean that there were two Jesuses?
What a silly question, of course not!
          It only highlights the reality that the incarnation always has been a miracle. This great divine miracle of love does not have any witnesses only astonished stammering poets who will for ever search for metaphors and struggle to make sense of the “God with us!”
      Come this Sunday to enjoy and join our Sunday School’s playful Christmas Pageant and its search for this elusive miraculous reality.

Two opposite yet complementary takes on the Incarnation.

2013/12/12

Jesus - the pesky child prodigy!

(Renewal - Newsletter article) 
When this boy Jesus, was five years old, and there came a storm, so he was playing at the wade of a brook collecting the streams of water into small ponds. And then he made that the water was instantly pristine. And understand that he did this with a single word!
He also made himself soft clay out of mud and shaped it into twelve sparrows. And it was on the Sabbath day, when he did this. And many other boys were there who were playing with him. But then a Jew saw what Jesus was doing on the Sabbath day, as he was playing. So he immediately ran off and tells Joseph, his father, “See here, that your boy is at the wade and has taken mud and fashioned twelve birds with it, and so has violated the Sabbath.”
    So Joseph went there, and as soon as he spotted him he shouted, “Why are you doing this what’s not permitted on the Sabbath?”
    But Jesus simply clapped his hands and shouted to the sparrows, “Be off!” And those sparrows really took off and flew away chirping.
    And those Jews seeing it they were amazed, they ran and reported to their elders, what they had seen what Jesus did.  
(Text collated from several ancient and modern translations and attempts to capture rather peculiar and folksy Greek original.)

          This legendary story about little Jesus is obviously not from the Bible! It is a famous quotation from The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This non-biblical gospel is rife with primitive anti-judaism and wild interest in sensational miracles. Throughout it Jesus is portrayed as a “wonder-child” a miraculous prodigy with a petulant and subversive streak. These are all signs of late composition and the influences of the popular piety of the late Hellenistic centuries. Infancy stories hardly tell us anything substantial about the historical Jesus and his childhood. On the other hand, they are loaded with important theological themes and they tackle them in their own particular, legendary, fashion.     

          Their most formative feature is an awe of incarnation, utter amazement at the fact that God became human. How could it be? How would it work? What would it look like? In the gospel of Luke we have an account of a 12-year old divine child in the Temple. Infancy gospels take it even further back. How would this divine child look and behave at his school age, and even before? Their answer is highly entertaining and full of self-serving miracles. But their true answer is hidden in plain sight of their legendary narratives; the fact of incarnation, the theme of Advent and Christmas, that God became human, is beyond means of our intellect, beyond the limited powers of our imagination. The story which we celebrate on Christmas has always been and remains an utter approximation and true miracle of divine love. 

          And while those early Christians wondered at a divine child, they unknowingly started something very new. For the first time in human history a little child became a main character in a work of literature (Perhaps with the only exemption of the opening section of Xenophon's Cyropaedia). In these infancy gospels the childhood was lifted up from oblivion. Childhood, its playfulness, its mischievousness, its struggles, its creativity, its bursts of energy were given a central stage. Our culture is what it is, our education and our respect and concern and care for children are taken for granted, because people realized that divine incarnation (God becoming human) included 5-year-old Jesus!

          Particularly in our highly commercialized times the legendary little Jesus of our story can teach us even something more. Children as well as grownups do not need expensive gadgets and toys to trigger their playfulness. Making ponds on a brook, forming birds from clay. Those are almost proverbial simple joys of childhood which verge on true miracles of sheer imagination and unbounded playfulness. These legends invite us to the simple yet blessed joys of Advent and Christmas time.

This Advent and Christmas we will be following different non-canonical infancy gospel, the one ascribed to James. It is perhaps a little less entertaining than Infancy gospel of Thomas, but no less Mysterious, Miraculous, Mythical and and certainly no less Meaningful.



2013/12/06

Mysterious Abstinence

Why did early Christianity get so preoccupied with virginity? Where did this preoccupation come from? Why did early Christians get so heavily invested in celibacy? Why did it take off so quickly and become one of the characteristic features of the early church. And, please understand, I am not speaking about medieval superstitious and manipulative piety, I am not speaking about celibate priests or eremites and monasteries; all of that would come in full force centuries later. But where did this strong interest in celibacy in early church come from? As strange as it might sound, scholars are finding out that it was part of a revolutionary, contra-cultural and subversive movement.
    Just imagine that you live in a society where you are married or given to marriage by your paternal grandfather or even worse, by some distant great grand uncle. And even if you are free of your family clan or you are the head of it, just imagine that you are forced by the imperial laws to marry, and you are severely and legally penalized if you don’t. Just imagine that you are forced by the law to have multiple children and you are persecuted by the state if you decline to procreate. I do not know how about you, but I would be quite unhappy and even inclined to resist, simply on the basis of being under legal pressure.
    That was exactly the situation in the Roman Empire from year 17 B.C.E. and especially from 9 B.C.E.. The Emperor Augustus declared the family and moral laws (Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus) and particularly Lex Papia Poppaea. These laws forced specifically Roman citizens, but indirectly all Roman subjects, to marry and have children.
    This was the societal context. While Ovidius rebelled by highlighting promiscuity, early Christians lifted up virginity and defended celibacy; as I have said, it was their contra-cultural stand. In the name of their religion, they claimed control over their bodies, and they asserted their sexual freedom. It was their rebellion against patriarchal societal mores and inappropriate paternalistic political pressures. As strange as it might sound, it was their religious sexual revolution. (By the way, the radical separatist feminism of XX century, for instance  “Cell 16”, also followed similar, although secular, path!).
    This Sunday the Gospel of James will help us to look at where this ancient virginity and celibacy originated and what it might mean today, concerning our current social and legal pressures and how we can rebel, subvert and change them.
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And I know about underlying influence of Hellenistic Platonism with its stark distinction between body and spirit - the dualism which found its full expression in Gnosticism. 
The miraculous virginal birth at the center of Christmas Story certainly also contributed (regardless being misrepresentation of Isaiah’s prophecy). The Apostle Paul’s eschatological pragmatism, “why to marry if the end is near?” played also significant role. But all of this does not explain this cultural phenomenon of the second and third Christian centuries.