It takes a lot of living to be able to see. “Oh. NOW I see.” How often have we said that during the course of our lives? We don’t see at first because our ideas about how things are, or ought to be, keep us from what is. Our thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, inferences, and convictions get in the way. We have to live past what we think we know in order to know what to think.
Things are not what they seem to be. We think things are one way, and they are another. One of my favorite parables is the parable of the woman and the jar of meal. It’s found only in the Gospel of Thomas, and goes like this: Jesus says: “The Kingdom of the Father is like a woman who takes a vessel of flour and sets out on a long road. The handle of the vessel broke: the flour spilled out on the road behind her without her knowing it and stopping it. When she arrived at the house she put the vessel down and found it was empty.” We think we are doing one thing, and we are doing something else entirely.
It takes a while to figure that out; to know what the deal is, what game is being played, what is going on. You might think, for instance, that church is where people go to learn about God. But, that is not the game. People do not go to church to hear anything they don’t already know about God. Bill Hamilton has been overheard to say, “There hasn’t been a fresh idea about God allowed into the church in 2,000 years.” There have been fresh ideas about God in that period of time, but they have not been permitted to come to church.
For a long time, fresh ideas about God were burned at the stake. That is a very effective technique for keeping the status quo. After the stake was banned, the church had to resort to treating people as though they had been burned at the stake. It ostracized and excommunicated and defrocked people who dared to have a fresh idea about God, and had to content itself with burning books at the stake, or using the stake for kindling to get the books going. So, if you are going to survive in the church, you have to understand what the game is. It is not telling people something they don’t know about God. It takes a while to be able to see that. It takes a lot of living to be able to see. And, a lot of looking. And, a lot of looking again.
We cannot look once and think we have seen, and think we get it, and think we have it down. We have to remember the parable of the woman with the jar of meal. We think it’s one way, and it’s another way. We think we have religion figured out. We think we know how the church should be. But, how standardized does religion need to be? “Compassion,” might be standard enough. You should be able to count on compassion. If you want to add anything else, how about “Awake”? We should be able to count on religion being awake. Or, “Aware.” Same thing. “Aware and Compassionate.” “Awake and Compassionate.” Oh, and one more thing. “Presence.” We should be able to count on experiencing “Presence” in the church, in the religion, we experience, with “Presence” as simply being with that which is present with us. These three tings, “Awake, Compassionate Presence,” may be all we need ever. If there is anything else, it would flow from these three, a Holy Trinity, you might say.
How much does religion need to say about God? How much CAN religion say about God with any degree of assurance that it knows what it is talking about? Very little. Practically nothing. Religion spends most of its time talking about God when it should be working to be god-like. The church should concentrate on being God, bringing God to life in the life of the church, in the lives of the people who are the church, not talking about God.
Doctrine doesn’t have much of a place in the life of the church. You don’t “lead people to God” by handing them a doctrine, or by explaining it to them. Doctrines, and creeds, and books of confession, and catechisms, and attempts to define “what we believe” are practically useless. Scratch “practically.” Doctrines (and all the rest) become blinders, keeping us from seeing what is true. The people of Jesus’ day were sure they knew what to look for in a Messiah, and didn’t “know the time of their visitation.” We can think it’s about one thing, when it’s about another. But, honest conversation is helpful. Speaking from the heart about things that matter. Now, we’re talking! The trick is to keep talking. The trick is to keep every conclusion in the category of “tentative.” We are learning to see, a little at a time.
Religion at its best is about learning to see. The church at its best is where we learn to see. We don’t go to church to be told how it is. We go to church to talk about how we see, and to hear others talk about how they see, and to have our seeing enlarged by the seeing of one another.
Jesus saw things differently. Jesus saw things in a way no one of his day saw them. The foundation of the church is perspective. It’s all about having eyes that see and ears that hear and hearts that understand. It’s all about asking, and seeking, and knocking. It is not about knowing, possessing, defending, explaining, guarding, protecting, expounding. It is about seeing. And the essential ingredient in seeing is seeing how we see things.
We are not in charge of our own seeing. We cannot make ourselves see what there is to see. All we can do is look, and look again. How we see things is just how we see things. Our perspective is not ours to command. Now, our perspective changes, but in its own time. We can lay the groundwork for a perspective shift, but we cannot hurry it before its time. Some perspectives are slow to change, some are instantaneous. It takes a long time, sometimes, for an alcoholic to change her, to change his, mind about beer. And, sometimes, it only takes one more beer too many.
The perspectives that have the hardest time changing are the ones that think they are just fine as they are. And, have something at stake in remaining as they are. With some people, it is as though if they change their perspective they will lose face and be shame-ridden forever, and, somehow, cease to be a human being. “This isn’t how I see things,” they say, “This is how things ARE!”
We lay the groundwork for a perspective shift by having a perspective that takes itself into account. We have to see our seeing. We have to understand that what we see is a function of how we see it; of what we need of it; of what use we have of it; of where we have been and what we have seen that reminds us of it. What is the meaning of a rock? Or, a cow? A rock means one thing to a geologist and another thing to a boy with a sling shot. A cow means one thing to a dairy farmer and another thing to a bull.
What’s the meaning of life? Of God? Of religion? Of the Sacraments? It all depends, don’t you see, on how we see? Ah, but, how SHOULD we see? That, too, all depends on how we see. Do you think Pat Robertson, for example, would ever agree with Pope Benedict XVI, or with Rabbi Fred Guttman, about how we SHOULD see? Or that Osama Ben Laden would ever agree with George Bush about how we SHOULD see? How long would it take, do you think, for these people to begin seeing things in the same ways? Seeing is a function of the stake we have in things being the way we say they are.
The way we live is a function of how we see. And, of course, the converse is also true. The way we see is a function of the way we live. If we would see differently, we have to live differently, yet, how differently can we live given the way we see? And so, we have to see our seeing. Our perspective has to take our perspective into account if we hope to assist our perspective in its own becoming, in its own emerging, in its own development.
A fully developed perspective is an enlightened perspective. It is Enlightenment. It is seeing into the heart of things, and understanding how things are, as they are, right now. And, we live toward that by expanding, and deepening, and enlarging our perspective—our consciousness—on a regular basis. By seeing our seeing and wondering what else there is to see and how we might see what we see differently, and what it is that we don’t see at all.
The things we don’t see at all are the things we have seen for so long that they have disappeared into the background of our lives. Our life-partner, our children, our parents can all disappear right before our eyes. We can look at them and not see them. We know them so well we ignore them completely. Which can lead some people into outlandish behavior patterns, just trying to be seen by those who say they love them. You can make me crazy by not seeing me. If you are going to see me, you are going to have to see your seeing. You are going to have to develop a perspective that takes itself into account. And, to do that, you are going to have to have someone to talk to who can allow you to be who you are.
Where do you go to get permission to see things the way you see them? Who simply listens as you say how things are? Who asks you to say more about a certain thing you see? Who asks you what you mean by what you say about what you see? Who is willing to poke around in what you see with you so that you might see it better—so that you might see things you don’t see at all?
If we hope to see, we have to develop the knack of simply being present with what we think we see without having an emotional investment in it, and we have to spend time with people who can be present with us—who can practice Presence with us—without having an emotional investment in how we see. “The practice of the presence of God” can be the practice of being present as God is present, and it is a necessary step in seeing as God sees, so that we aren’t thinking we are doing one thing, seeing one thing, when we are doing, seeing, another.