Monday, March 27, 2017

To Tell the Truth


To telI the truth: that’s the essence of Good Stories. The phrase marvelously carries a double meaning [see Note 1 below] that swirls into one—but only by sincere seeking, by grace, and in the fleeting moment of translation. In addition to the obvious expressive act, telling can mean discernment; for example, “I can tell how a story is true.” And most magnificently, truth is told and discerned in the embodied life. Increasingly, when I really want to know whether to believe something or someone, the key comes through integrity. It’s the old acid test of walking the talk.
In addition to the goal of Good Stories, to-tell-the-truth focuses the mission of schooling, of religion, of home and office. And as writ across the face of America, we have a long path ahead because we’re finding ourselves far too much mired in “fake news,” intentional distortions, and downright lying. 
Of course, to tell the truth pushes us to the edge of capacity. It’s a wonder that a single word is spoken in court. If one is seriously attentive to the injunction to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” who can presume to such knowledge? Especially if the book of Job has been taken to heart, we must admit our inability to know at a deep level that plumbs into human suffering and into the nature of justice.
And yet there resides at the heart of human nature, sometimes in hiding, the need to know. The pathway toward truth is perilous, especially in the shadows from the tower of ego-inflated presumption; but equally, if not more, in the chasms of despair, fearful of reaching enough light to live by. Regarding the former, most anyone who has spent much time near the temples of religion or in the ivy halls of academia can testify to the arrogant and oppressive crusades by persons who act and proselytize as if they possess THE truth. Margaret Atwood and many others have long tried to caution us: "The true story is vicious / and multiple and untrue…”
How easy, then, to collapse into despair after colliding with persons unworthily holding positions of authority who manipulate, lie, and corrupt. The illusion of making and accepting fake-news must be dispelled in order to know that becoming great (again?) cannot be approached until persons live out the contrite confession that goodness comes before greatness and that goodness depends upon sacrificing the oppressive ego, the intolerant ambition, and the arrogance of imposing THE truth.  
It’s in good stories that the capacity to tell the truth is forged. As noted in recent postsMartin Buber and Karen Armstrong urge us to re-see the stories of the Bible in order to gain discernment, to receive continuing revelation, as well as life-affirming insight. Even the beginning of Genesis can be re-seen and understood in a liberating way. Perhaps the two contradictory creation stories invite humans to search for continuing revelation in addition to prescriptions to live by.
Given all the troubles, why do we strive for the truth? For many of us, a driving force is expressed in the line: “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” Sometimes a familiar phrase opens up through a newer translation as when Jesus was telling those who “had claimed to believe in him. ‘If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you’ ” (Jn 8:31-32, The Message, 1993, NavPres).
Should we then conclude that if we do not know the truth, we remain in captivity? The answer appears to be “Yes, but...” If we do not strive toward the light, we remain in darkness; and although freedom might look like the obvious choice, there’s a big reason why persons might not choose to move toward knowing. Remember the saying: Ignorance is bliss? Knowledge carries with it the responsibility to act. As phrased in James:
As it is, you are full of your grandiose selves. All such vaunting self-importance is evil. In fact, if you know the right thing to do and don’t do it, that, for you, is evil. (The Message, 1993, NavPress). 
The consequences of failing to live into the light saturate the stories from the Bible, the message of the Qur’an, and perhaps define any sacred text.  For example, Muhammad Asad’s translation and commentary, The Message of the Qur’an, features a phrase “give the lie.” This wording and the referenced activity connects with “deny the truth.” Asad elaborates on this in his notes to Surah 74 (see especially Note 4 on p. 1229).

After elaborating the tragic consequences of the patriarchs in Genesis, Karen Armstrong concludes with the poignant truth about knowing:
But the inescapable message of Genesis is that blessing and enlightenment are not achieved by acquiring facts and believing doctrines. Genesis gives us, as we have seen, no coherent theology but seems to frustrate our desire for clarity at every turn. Instead, knowledge means self-knowledge and an understanding of the mystery of our own being. We also have to recognize the sacred mystery of our fellow men and women. . .Other human beings remain as opaque and mysterious as God—indeed, they can reveal to us the essential mystery and otherness of the sacred (pp. 118-119, In the Beginning).
To tell the truth depends on knowing truth [duh], especially in the engagement with its mysterious sacred side. Our susceptibility to fake-news comes, I believe, in the limited range of knowing. How much of love can be known by only reading romances? As the varied tales of beauty and beast invite us to see, it’s so easy to skim along on a surface level as if that’s all there is. The treasure of knowing, the revelation of and transformation into real beauty, comes through the crucible of personal experience. Book learning, like news reports, has much value but the refined gold gets tempered in the risky spaces of life, especially where passion leads.
Every seeker of truth needs a practice of truth-telling. My path, very surprisingly, opened up into natural horsemanship, into story telling, and in the strange interconnection of these two. Those of us who attempt “True Unity” [see Note 2 below] in horsemanship embody approximation. Only in fleeting immediacy is the gift of balance experienced with the thrill and grace of presence. Truth continually realigns from being ahead or behind, tilting left or right, lifting too much up or down, as well as holding between the arrogance of presumption and the diminishment of selfhood joined in relationship. To tell the truth brings exhilaration linked inextricably with humility.
        It is humanly impossible to sustain perfect alignment with the dynamic acrobatics of a spirited horse in dressage; but by grace and by devoted discipline, the presence of true unity is tasted, giving a breath-stopping glimpse. For me, this encounter links to the magic of good stories, the “once-upon-a-time” dimension, where “the two worlds touch.” As Mircea Eliade articulated the gift of myth [see Note 3 below], this experience redeems the profane world through contact with the eternal, the sacred. And that’s how we tell the truth.

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Note 1Merriam-Webster gives a baker’s dozen, including:
1 :  to let a person know something :  to give information to * I’ll tell them when they get here.
3 :  to find out by observing * My little brother has learned to tell time.
11 :  to see or understand the differences between two people or things * Can you tell right from wrong?
12 :  to see or know (something) with certainty * It’s hard to tell if he's serious.
Note 2“True unity” is one of the key terms associated with “natural horsemanship” and other approaches to the human-horse connection that aim at increasing a respectful relationship. Ray Hunt is often referenced (Think Harmony with Horses: An In-Depth Study of Horse/Man Relationship. Bruneau, ID: Give-It-A-Go Books, 1978), and the term is used in Tom Dorrance’s title (True Unity: Willing Communication between Horse and Man.  Bruneau, ID: Give-It-A-Go Books, 1987). More extensive background on “natural horsemanship” can be found in: Miller, Robert and Rick Lamb. The Revolution in Horsemanship and What it Means to Mankind. Guilford,CN: Lyons, 2005; and Miller, Robert.  Natural Horsemanship Explained: From Heart to Hands. Guilford,CN: Lyons, 2007. An example of my application of natural horsemanship to teaching-story can be seen in:
http://dochorsetales.blogspot.com/2016/03/good-stories-move-us-from-literal.html. 
Note 3. From http://www.bytrentsacred.co.uk/index.php/eliade-sacred-and-profane/2-sacred-time :
“Eliade introduces his phrase illud tempus, to refer to the time of origins, the sacred time when the world was first created.
Religious man accessed illud tempus whenever he ritually recited his cosmogonic myth, thereby reactuating the creation of his world. In various cultures, this gave an approach to the healing of the sick, for by being taken ritually to the time of origins, the sick could be reborn without their sickness.
More generally, religious man needed to enter sacred time periodically because sacred time was what made ordinary, historical time possible.”

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Going Where Teaching's Only What's Already Known

Daffodil in decaying leaves and snow.
Why does the good book begin not with one account of creation but with two? Why open with apparently contrasting, even contradictory, stories of our beginning and our nature? Karen Armstrong says that the stories in Genesis “seem to be warning us against any simplistic conception of the divine, which must always elude our limited comprehension…[God] frequently appears to be as ambiguous, contradictory, and dubious as they [humans] themselves” (p. 13, In the Beginning). 
In E.A. Speiser’s examination of Genesis, “the point here is not whether this account of creation conforms to the scientific data of today, but what it meant,” “not whether the statement is true or false, but what it means” (p. 9, The Anchor Bible Genesis). In his introduction, Speiser focuses the point: “The history of the biblical process is ultimately the story of the monotheistic ideal in its gradual evolution” (p. xlix).
Might it be that we are given the two accounts because the dissonance offers us the engagement with our distinctive human inheritance: the capacity for wonder. We are meant to search out our meaning, “my beloved, . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Martin Buber on Genesis: “The perception of revelation is the basis of perceiving creation and redemption” (p. 10, On the Bible).   And it is in story that we build the capacity for the work of wonder in the play of making meaning out of likeness, of parabolic instead of literal, out of that which acclimates to our evolving consciousness.
Why tell good stories? 
Among the varied reasons, a favorite of mine muddles around the paradox of powerful teaching: “You can’t teach persons something they don’t already know.” Paradox might be the proper container for our genetic complexity because it contains opposites. Since teaching, at first glance, is directed at what isn’t known, how does it also depend on what is already known? 
The function of analysis, with breaking into opposites as a prime example, drives toward deeper understanding. If we wish to further our knowledge of teaching, then, exploring this mystery of the paradoxical known/unknown promises tracking of the secret. And, after the analysis, if we believe that the whole is greater than the parts, we’ll need story to restore our broken Humpty Dumpty because all the king’s men and horses in the academy’s hegemony of scientific analysis can’t put the world of genesis together. But story can. On story’s terms. And that includes the holding of paradox and the love of parable.
  Idries Shah plays with all this. In Seeker After Truth, Shah blends several sources in order to discuss “How to Learn What is Already Known” (pp. 92-94).
  • Referencing al-Ghazzaii: “The question of divine knowledge is so deep that it is really known only to those who have it.” So the paradox has to do with a very special kind of knowing.
  • Bahaudin’s eighth counsel: “Be prepared to find that certain beliefs are correct, but that their meaning and interpretation may vary in accordance with your stage of journey, making them seem contradictory to those who are not on the Path.”  Capacity for paradoxical thinking includes tolerance for changing meanings and for apparent contradiction.
  • It also requires going alone and being rejected. Shah takes the tolerance for ambiguity on into dealing with invisibility and being devalued: “true mystical teachers may be ‘invisible’ to some people in the sense that such people cannot realize their worth. .  . What they are teaching, and its methods, may be imagined to be some mundane activity, even” (p. 93). Remember the teaching, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24).
We could simply say that the answer is that there is no answer. As T.S. Eliot eloquently and perhaps frustratingly put it: “Except for the point, the still point,/ There would be no dance, and there is only the dance” (Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”). Paradox, for one who chooses to engage it, means searching without full closure. It affirms the process, the longing, and therein builds understanding, that and tolerance.

Good stories give the playground, the stuff for exploring. Not THE answer. For a human who gives answers denies the authentic source and displaces the inner direction of the secret. Good stories help us laugh in the human condition. Good stories model the character of loving, of losing, of redemption.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

From Garden Dark to Beautiful Beasts


Karen Armstrong opens her consideration of Genesis not with the Garden but with an exploration of Jacob’s wrestling because that’s the model for our engagement with divine revelation. We have to yield to the struggle of imagination and surrender our craving for arrogant certainty. The window into that which surpasses, that which includes love and hope, opens of necessity by parable, by likeness; how else can we see into that which is greater than immature sight? And it’s in narrative, in good stories, that we practice the work/play of parable. Armstrong says:
“The biblical authors force us to make an imaginative effort. They imply that it is a hard struggle to discern a sacred reality in the flawed and tragic conditions in which we live and that our experience will often be disconcerting or contradictory. Like Jacob, we will have to wrestle in the dark, denied the consolations of final certitude and experiencing, at best only transient, elusive blessing” (In the Beginning, p. 6).   
As noted in the previous blogMartin Buber urges us to re-see the biblical narratives so that we experience continuing revelation. It’s like learning to see in the dark, in what has become dark due to repeated looking without seeing further. Without the active searching advocated by Armstrong and Buber, the light goes out; or perhaps our doorway, our capacity to see, closes when we fail to exercise the gift. 
Christian teachings call for maturity: “put away childish things” (I Corinthians 13); and the teacher demands that we advance in understanding of parable (e.g., Matthew 15). Maturity in understanding shows up in “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness” (Jeremiah 9:24). If sacred text such as the Qur’an contains multiple layers of meaning, and it does, how do we learn to see further? 

I believe that our work/play with good stories builds capacity. For example, our literary inheritance offers many fabulous tales on the beauty-and-beast theme. A first level of experiencing these stories usually has a magical transformation in which the beast changes form, as when a kiss breaks an enchantment and the frog turns into a prince charming. In the “Marriage of Gawaine and Dame Ragnell,” upon the knight’s kiss the hideous woman is then seen as the most beautiful maiden.
But if we learn to penetrate to a deeper understanding, we might begin to glean from the texture of relationship shown in the tale. When might realize that in true allegiance between knight and ruler as well as between beloveds, only when persons incarnate sovereignty is the vision gained to perceive the higher level of beauty. We recite easily the bromide about “only skin deep,” but do our footsteps follow the divine when they beckon beyond our comfortable materialism? Can we attract leaders with vision of compassion? We might begin to see as ugly  instead of attractive our own desires as well as other persuaders who value appearance, riches, and worldly fame. 
Our spiritual and literary inheritance tries to guide us. After Nasrudin is shunned at the banquet when wearing shabby clothing and then honored when he returns fashionably attired, he puts the food in his jacket pockets while saying, “Eat, coat, eat!” In response to his shocked host, the teacher replies, “It’s my coat you welcomed to the feast, not me.”
Since Adam and Eve left the Garden, we’ve been destined to journey in the shadows of the tree of knowing good from bad. When Psyche left the castle garden to go in search of Love, she had to develop capacity to see in the dark. Her naïveté prevented her from seeing the treachery of those she presumed to love her. Her footsteps led her over and again past her failures to see. She had to learn to look with the vision of belief and to trust the resources coming from the divine source. That’s the stuff of sovereignty. It’s developed step by step, task by bigger task. And often enough, we’ll feel defeated, especially as Rilke translates Jacob’s wrestling into our choosing to engage “constantly greater beings."
Back to the “Marriage” story, Gawaine also models the progression. He proved the nature of service, trusting the leadership of the authentic rule, looking beyond the superficial that was labeled “ugly” by material, habitual, conventional sight. He leaned into the divine relationship, and on into the kiss that is made when one acts not for worldly praise but for the Word. Then the eyes open to see further into truth and beauty.


When we grow stronger in translating good stories and parables, when the Word lives in our politics, our work, and our inner being, then we gain capacity to see further in the dark, step by step into the light.