September 23, 2012
"Keeping God in Mind."
Sing the Shema. :Hear, O Israel, The Lord is one God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
That was the Shema. Every night, when I put my children to bed, I sing this to them. The Shema articulates the heart of the Jewish faith: a bond between the Divine and a people called to be in relationship with that One God. The practice of singing or saying this prayer at bedtime is based on the idea that the Shema should be the last conscious thought in one's mind before falling asleep, and the first thought in one's mind upon waking.
Ideally, the last thought before death should also be the Shema. There are moving stories of Jews enacting this practice, including that of Rabbi Akiva, often called the father of rabbinic Judaism. According to legend, he died at the hands of Roman torturers while speaking this prayer (for them as well as for himself). Akiva ben Joseph is said to have sought to love God "with his whole soul." Therefore, it is said that in his death, he fulfilled his deepest spiritual desire.
I sing the Shema to my children because they're Jewish. Most of you are not. Why am I speaking about this traditional Jewish practice at a Christian chapel service? While the practice of the Shema itself may not be relevant to your faith lives, there is something relevant about this practice that is vital to Christianity, and is related to our theme for this term.
As many of you know, the theme of this term's Chapel explorations is "Mind." We are approaching a text, present in slightly different forms in both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures, that admonishes us to love God with every part of our being. Our Chaplain discussed the theme last week in terms of the phrase, "Loving God with your mind," and I'm going to continue that theme today.
As a generally over-educated bunch, we are prone to think of "mind" as delineating the intellect. But, there is more to the mind with which we can love God than just our cognitive faculties.
Now, don't get me wrong, I do love the intellect! There are great delights in contemplating the mysteries of existence and meaning with those capacities. It is certainly an important part of what we are here in this academic environment to do.
High intellectual approaches to Christianity have produced great things. The Scholastic movement was responsible for enfolding the wisdom of the great Greek philosophers into Christianity, bridging the gap between the Classical Era and the second millennium of the Common Era. The techniques of analysis and of teaching developed by the Scholastic movement made an immeasurable contribution to the development of every field of academia.
But Scholasticism is also known for its excesses. The somewhat hackneyed joke about the movement is that, at its worst, it encouraged discussions about "how many angels could dance on the head of a pin." Getting caught up in theological minutiae, while it may make for a great Ph.D. thesis, is not, in my opinion, a good way to have a fully-realized life of faith. To do so, I believe that it is also necessary to also have another kind of knowledge of the Divine. Without it, we risk pursuing God with only a part of the "mind" which we have been given by our Creator.
A very different thread from Scholasticism is that of mysticism. I come from a mystical tradition, myself. As Scholasticism was waning, there was a great flowering of Christian mysticism, and my small sect arose at the tail end of that era. The purpose of mysticism is to come to "know" God in a different, transformative, and inherently non-intellectual way, that of the experience of communion with the Divine being.
That thread has been far more prominent in the Eastern Orthodox tradition than in Western Christianity. To pursue theosis, or union with God, is considered a prerequisite for all subsequent pursuit of religious knowledge. This is not to say that mysticism need be inherently anti-intellectual. The idea is that knowledge that is not informed by revelation and grace is lacking. The Quaker tradition asserts that one cannot know the Scriptures without a familiarity with "the Spirit which gave them forth."
Okay, so why am I banging on about mysticism, when it may seem incompatible with the whole idea of "mind"-based knowledge? And how does all this relate back to the Shema?
The title of my talk tonight is, "Keeping God in mind." With the practice of the Shema, the first thought, and the last, is of God. The alignment of one's mind toward God is intended to create an experience of closeness with the One which is both thoughtful and mystical.
While you are here at Dartmouth, deeply immersed in the pursuit of knowledge, where is your mind? How can we keep God in our minds, despite all that is going on in our lives?
Without being monastics, we are unlikely to have God at the forefront of our conscious thoughts at every moment, and that is not a condemnation of us. But can we have God "in mind," despite our need to concentrate our attention on many thoughts and activities that may not seem related to faith? Can we ground our intellectual pursuits, whatever they may be, in our spiritual being? Is it even possible to obey that overarching commandment?
Despair not! I do believe that it's possible. (There are many practices related to prayer that can be a part of this, but that's not what I'm talking about tonight.) I'm talking tonight about something far simpler. There is a simple act of choice that has the capacity to align us with God in all that we think and do. I'm talking about devotion. By electing to devote ourselves to God, all of our thoughts and actions can become grounded in our faith.
With devotion, we see our lives, and all of our gifts, as being given to us by God. They are not owned by us, but held in stewardship. The purpose of our lives is to serve God, obeying His leadings to us, which are revealed to us through Christ, our Inward Teacher. As God's servants, whether we are healing the sick or exploring the movement of the earth's plates or participating in the flow of commerce, all that we do can be part of the flow of Divine Love.
Of course, the choice of devotion isn't a one-shot deal. It's something that we need to constantly renew. We are distractible, forgetful beings, and so we need to keep our commitment in mind, one way or another. Find ways of doing that for yourself, and you will find yourself living a life that fulfills God's requirements.
Like all growing things, turn towards the Light that gives life, and your own will be whole, and real, and as it should be.
Judy Anne Williams