Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Pollyanna's Original Blessing

The phrase Pollyanna is often used as a term of ridicule for the kind of person who lives with a child-like enthusiasm for life. Such people are told that they need to grow and see the world for what it really is.

Is this true? Do such people need to see the world for what it is?

I decided a while back, what with it being the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, that I would read this version from cover to cover. Like most people of my generation, this is something I have never done. I was reading Genesis 1 and noted that when God takes a step back and looks at his creation he keeps on repeating the phrase “and God saw that it was good”, or as I recently heard someone say “very good indeed”. It got me thinking. Not about the merits of the science of Genesis, I’ve never considered it to be a literal understanding of how the world came to be. No it got me thinking about life and whether, with all its ups and downs it could be considered good. What about violence, war and senseless tragedies? What about germs, disease and famine? What about the pain of our families, our friends, our loved ones?

Is life “very good indeed”?

Some people seem to live with unending tragedy; they seem to experience it far more than the average person. What always blows me away is that it is often these very same people find the most joy in life, even in extreme pain and suffering. These are the kind of people that stand out as beacons to us all. They are often the most joy and hoped filled. They are angels in our midst. They have learnt to balance the good with the bad, the joy with the suffering. They are able to see the goodness in their lives as a generous, if at times mysterious, gift. For them life is a blessing and not a curse; a challenge to rise to rather than a burden to be endured. They affirm life as “very good indeed” despite the sadness that they know only too well, despite the real or imagined threats of violence from natural and manmade sources that are all around everyone of us. They see life as being “very good indeed” because of the gifts that it bestows upon us, the gifts that it gives us that can sustain us through the losses that we all experience in life. It is wrong to mock them as “Pollyanna’s” they are people of genuine faith, who know and experience “Love’s Way”

Such people see life as “very good indeed” not because they do not see the darkness present in life and no doubt within themselves, but because they are able to rise above such challenges and even shine some light upon them. Such light can guide us out of our own troubles if we only took the time to pay attention to how these people live their lives and stopped mocking them as “Pollyanna’s”

It is so easy to see life as a curse as a “vale of tears”. I remember when I was at university reading “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes, written just after the English civil war. I was struck and disturbed by the bleakness of his view. I did not like it, but it has stuck with me ever since and in my darkest moments, a few years later, I probably agreed with his diagnosis.

Hobbes said:
"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre (war), where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

“And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” Gosh that is hard.

For Hobbe’s what is required is an ultimate authority to bring order to wayward humanity and subjugate our anarchic and brutish nature. I see similarities here to the traditional Christian view, at least in the west, of humanities nature; that we are fallen and broken, “rotten to our timbers”; due to Adam’s original disobedience in the “Garden of Eden”, which led to humanity being cast out of paradise and being forced to suffer.
But are we fallen, broken and sinful by nature, rotten to core? Well this has been questioned throughout the history of Christianity, my tradition has certainly questioned it, and is a view not shared by other faiths.

I have always loved what the former Dominican priest Rev Matthew Fox has to say on this matter. In his book “Original Blessing” he wrote.

“Let us take a closer look at this pivotal doctrine of original sin. The concept is not a Jewish one. Even though the Jewish people knew Genesis for a thousand years before Christianity, they did not read original sin into it. As the twentieth century Jewish prophet Eli Weisel points out, ‘The concept of original sin is alien to Jewish tradition. This is strong call a doctrine “alien” that Christians believe they found in Jewish scripture.’”

Fox goes further than this claiming that Christian scholars today agree that “Original Sin” is not to be found in the Bible.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as Jewish guilt, of course. Quite the opposite is in fact true; as many Jewish comedians, who have forged a career out of talking about their guilt, will no doubt testify. This guilt though did not originate in the fall, that’s a whole new kettle of fish.

Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing” claims that blessing runs like a thread through the whole creation story. He says “ ‘Original Blessing’ underlies all being, all creation, all time, all space, all unfolding and evolving of what is.” And quotes Rabbi Herschell who said “Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy”

He does not claim that humanity is incapable of wrong doing, even evil. Quite the opposite, as history has shown. Of course there is human frailty and obvious limitations. There is no denial of sin, just “original sin”. What he is saying is that this brokenness can never outweigh the many gifts that we do have to offer and that life has to offer us.

He says that:

“A theology of blessing is a theology about a different kind of power. Not the power of control or the power of being over or under, but the power of fertility. Blessing is fertility to the people of Israel and to the Native American and other pre-patriarchal religions.”

These teachings are close to the earth, to the cosmos. They are linked to Jesus’s teachings expressed in the Beatitudes “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness; blessed are the peace makers...” There is nothing new in the teachings he is simply saying that we share our blessings by giving of ourselves to others, by being a bright spot in people lives. It is an active, living, breathing way. It is “Love’s Way”.

On Sunday I will be conducting the Baptism of a new child who has recently been born into our community. Water will be used in the ceremony but not to wash away sin, our tradition rejected this concept long ago. No child is born into this world carrying any baggage; I cannot and will not accept that. Instead what we will do is celebrate and bless the life of this child. I will touch her brow, her lips and her hands to bless her thoughts, her words and her deeds and we will all make promises to her and her family to offer her guidance in life.

Life is the greatest gift of them all. It is not a veil of tears; it is not “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.". Yes it has its troubles and challenges and we all experience suffering from time to time. Even so it is a gift, a blessing.

As Rabbi Herschell said “Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy”

We make life a blessing through our thoughts are words and our deeds.

By doing so we make life “very good indeed”

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