Sunday, October 26, 2014

Climbing Mountains in the Dark (10/26/14)

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 26, 2014

Exodus 19:9-25
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.’

When Moses had told the words of the people to the Lord, the Lord said to Moses: ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows; whether animal or human being, they shall not live.” When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.’ So Moses went down from the mountain to the people. He consecrated the people, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, ‘Prepare for the third day; do not go near a woman.’

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish. Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them.’ Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, “Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.” ’ The Lord said to him, ‘Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord; otherwise he will break out against them.’ So Moses went down to the people and told them.


“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible!”

Growing up we had a black and white television.   But we had two channels from which to choose.   Once per year, The Wizard of Oz would be broadcast.   I watched it, religiously, every year.   

When I first learned to read, I read the disclaimer that ran across the screen at the beginning of the movie.  It said something like:

“Do not adjust your television.  The first part of the film is in black and white, then it will be in color.” 

I was excited about that because I thought eventually it would be in color.  I ran to tell my mother that The Wizard of Oz will be in color.  She said,

“No, Andy, for us it will always be black and white.”

I never got the magnificent special effect of black and white in Kansas then color in Oz until I was in high school and we got a color TV.    

The horse of a different color was always the same color.  The Emerald City was just another shade of gray.  The ruby slippers, the yellow brick road and the green witch were only so in my imagination. 

Yet even in black and white, the great and terrible Oz was impressive. The smoke and the big head and the deep loud thundering voice was good and scary.  The flying monkeys were nightmare fodder.   Who knows, it might have been for the best that we only had black and white television.  Color might have been too much for me.  

L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, and the screenwriters for the film were trying to create mysterium tremendum.  They drew inspiration from the classic of western literature, the account of Moses climbing the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from the Great and Terrible, Yahweh.   A name so great and terrible that you have to call him, “the Lord” instead. 

Another film we watched every year was The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston.  It wasn’t anywhere as cool as The Wizard of Oz, but it was second best.   We can’t even read this text without Charlton Heston in our heads.   And Yul Brynner.

“So it is written.  So shall it be done.”

The narrative goes to great lengths to say that God is so great and terrible, so bright and colorful, that he has to be hidden in a cloud, his color has to be shrouded in black and white, his light hidden in the dark, otherwise people will die. 

This is the ancient way of speaking of the holy and the sacred.  You have to wash your clothes.  You can’t go near a woman.   From a patriarchal point of view, women are the mysterium tremendum.   Sex is messy and icky and certainly not holy.   That is why the western religions are so weird and ignorant about sex but that is a whole other sermon.

You can’t touch the edge of the mountain.  You can’t even touch the people or animals who touch the edge of the mountain.   You have to shoot them with arrows or throw rocks at them until they are dead.   It is as though God is a fatal disease like Ebola.   

Isn’t it strange to watch the politicians grandstanding about Ebola?  How many people died yesterday in this country from gun violence?   If you care about Ebola, let’s do something for the people actually dying from this disease in the countries of West Africa.   Fear is what this is all about.   You can force people to do stuff when you can manipulate fear.  

Religion when it has misbehaved, has controlled people by fear and by creating and repeating stories in which the Great and Terrible God will punish aberrant behavior or thought.   Think of all the religious practices this story has inspired.  Only certain holy people can approach God and only in certain times and in certain conditions.   

Half the population is automatically unclean or unholy, namely, women.     Only in that religious setting can anything like the barbarism of Tennessee’s Amendment One get a hearing.   You have to really despise women to think this is a good idea.   Or you have to be religious and take these kinds of biblical texts at face value.   These attitudes come from centuries or millennia of patriarchy.   

We have to deconstruct these attitudes.  Where do we get them?  The special class of holy people.  The exclusion of others.  The irrational fear of the unknown.   We get these ideas from the Bible when read it at face value. 

Then, of course, the whole point of this story is the “revelation” of The Ten Commandments.   What directly follows this tale is God with his thunderous voice from the smoke-covered mountain giving the people the rules.    These rules are rules not because they are good ideas, not because they have been debated and voted upon and thus approved by the people, but because they come from the Great and Terrible Yahweh.

To be sure, this story is a fiction.  It is likely that not only these ten commandments but all the 600 or so others did arise out of the experience of people over the centuries trying to figure out how to get along.   Nevertheless, they are put in the form of a narrative in which they come from God, who is outside, holy, and beyond,  and thus cannot be questioned.     

There is a genius at work here.  Much like the humbug behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, there were those who benefitted from creating the story of the Ten Commandments in this way and who continue to benefit from telling it.    Those who support conservative, authoritarian religion are the wealthy.   Fox News is both politically and religiously conservative.   Conservative politics and conservative religion are two peas in a pod.  

The first point I am making is the same point I have been making for the past nine years.  Read sacred texts critically.  God did not write the Bible. God is a character in the Bible.   Ask and try to answer who wrote these stories and why?  Ask, why is God portrayed in this way?  Who benefits from that portrayal?

My second point is to suggest that this text does in its ancient way invite us to consider the mysterium tremendum, the holy mystery.   Once critical thinking has knocked down our idols, the mystery is even more amazing.   The mystery is more amazing than all the idols we erect to protect us from the mystery.   One of those idols is the concept of God.   Meister Eckhart:

God is a being beyond being
and a nothingness beyond being.
God is nothing.  No thing.
God is nothingness.
And yet God is something.

Here are some random thoughts I have gathered over the years.

Other people’s ideas about God are great. 
Explore those ideas. 
Learn from them.
Then trash them. 

I love these lines from Robinson Jeffers’ poem, Quia Absurdam:

Guard yourself from the terrible empty light of space, the bottomless pool of the stars.  (Expose yourself to it:  you might learn something.)

That is the via negativa, the way of learning to walk in the dark.   Follow where it leads.   This spiritual, sacred path is the path of exposing yourself not guarding yourself.   It is the path of vulnerability. 

Another metaphor.  Climb the mountain and confront the holy.  
Don’t just read about Moses.   Be Moses.  

Look over the edge. 
Gaze into the void. 
Allow your face to reflect the dazzling light that is shrouded in darkness. 
Doubt everything. 
Read the heretics. 
Swim with the apostates. 
Dance with the atheists. 

They will chide you, mock you and make you think.  They will teach you some new steps.  Then if you still want to set out on a journey toward God, and I hope you will, you will have an adventure for the adventure’s sake. 

Life is change.
Don’t try to make permanent what is impermanent. 
It’s no fun.  And a losing cause.

Take nothing for granted, otherwise life will take it from you.

When I was kid and not watching our black and white television, I memorized Bible verses.   I was a good little church boy.   Of course the joke was that everyone memorized John 11:35.   We memorized that one because it was the shortest verse in the Bible:

Jesus wept.

Had I known about the Gospel of Thomas, in that same spirit of memorizing short verses I would have remembered Thomas 42 where Jesus said:

Be passersby. 

That’s a good one.

The mysterium tremendum.  Did you know that we know hardly anything about the ocean?  We have mapped five percent of it, or something.   Oceanographers claim, and I’ll take their word for it for now, that there are mountain ranges on the ocean floor that are higher than the Himalayas.    There may be critters in the ocean we know nothing about.   I heard all that on NPR.  You should listen to NPR.  Then be critical of it.

How much do we know about our galaxy?  Or about the galaxies beyond our galaxy?  Mysterium tremendum.   Plenty to keep us busy.  Plenty to keep us questioning.  Plenty to keep us doubting, learning, changing.   Yesterday’s truth is today’s superstition.

A few years ago, my predecessors, John and Carolyn Martin, did a weekend with us on Carl Jung.   The image for the weekend was of an iceberg.  You could see a small portion above the surface of the water, and the vast majority, 90 percent of it, was below the surface, in the dark depths of the sea.   It is an image of our conscious and unconscious mind.  The unconscious is the source of our motivations.

The next time someone asks you why you did something, tell them the truth.  Say,

“I don’t know.  Ask my unconscious.  I am in the dark as much as you.”

In my office I have hundreds of books.  I am weighing and counting them preparing them for transport. I don’t know what’s in them.  They look impressive.  But even those I have read, I have forgotten.  A whole wall of mysterium tremendum.     I just carry it around with me hoping I'll learn something.

All right it is time to wrap this up. 

Dorothy kills two witches quite by accident.  She is not a violent person.  She exposes the wizard for a humbug with the aid of her dog, Toto, who pulls back the curtain.  She makes friends and finds a way to return home.

Moses finds a way to follow all those crazy instructions, organizes the unorganized, climbs the mountain in the holy dark, is confronted by thunder and prepares the people to receive the Ten Commandments.   

Dorothy exposes. Moses guards. 

That is the difference between the secular and the sacred, the modern and the pre-modern world.   Both are ways of responding to the mysterium tremendum.  

Guard yourself from the terrible empty light of space, the bottomless pool of the stars.  (Expose yourself to it:  you might learn something.)


No comments:

Post a Comment