History, Suffering, and the Spiritual Journey
Updated: Sep 20, 2017
Who said your spiritual journey didn't include re-learning history? (Or that it was going to be easy?)
No one who went to Seminary, that's for sure.
Or who has studied under the great Masters in India.
Or spent much time in a (decent) Bible Study.
Our collective past is essential to understanding our contemporary moment, and to your own spiritual journey.
When I first was writing my M.Div thesis, (Re)Membering for the Anthropocene Age, I was convinced I was doing the right topic, but some part of me was puzzled that it was my studies in eco-theology led me to piece together the past. Most of the eco-theology I had read was about the environment. Most was, essentially, a conversation between science and religion. One of many innovative bright spots today is the Journey of the Universe, which goes back in time - waaaaay back, to the beginning of the Universe, and retells our collective journey as a sacred story. It is brilliant in how it weaves together core theological questions (Who are we? Where and why are we? What is consciousness? What is life?) with some of the best of modern astro-physics and cosmological thinking with indigenous knowledge with re-interpretations of sacred Scriptures. Thanks to the work done at Yale's Religion and Ecology program, where much of this work is housed, religious communities around the world are re-telling their sacred origin stories as inter-related with our collective Journey of the Universe.
In Seminary, I found myself stumped with the question of suffering. Given the wonder and greatness of the Universe, why is there so much suffering? In Christian theology, this basic question is called theodicy: If God's only son came and died for our sins, Why are we still sinning? Why is there still suffering in the world?
I learned that this question is one of the most important questions that theologians have been asking for millenia. The sufferings of the world fill sacred scriptures; the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible arise from witnessing God's call amidst suffering. Isiah's Prayer, the painting above by artist Marc Chagall depicts the prophet Isiah, who says, " 'Woe to me!' I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." The meaning - and what to do about and engage with - our suffering is one of the questions that spiritual traditions ask. And since the past and the present are deeply intertwined, we cannot talk about present suffering without also talking about the past - and the future. And we must create.
Engaging with colonization, racism, patriarchy, the prison industrial complex, gentrification, abuse of queer people, the destruction of the environment - all of these are critical parts of the spiritual journey. And some of the most important ones. History is a critical part of this. Thus, history is one of the most critical parts of the spiritual journey. Indeed, the real question is not if history is a part of the spiritual journey. The real question is more, which history, how and with whom you engage with it, and to what end. And then - what now? What shall we create together?