Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

The Thinker

Death by religion

Some years back I wrote about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and how I thought it was not only so much crap but dangerous and thoroughly discredited crap as well. It received some modest attention and still gets regular hits.

There are actually a lot of these addictive ideas that are killing us. Arguably capitalism is one of them but there are many others, including communism, fascism, socialism (in its pure form) and today’s topic: religion. Lots of people, mostly atheists, have been saying for a very long time that religion is harmful. They have lots of history to prove them right, as so many wars and so many millions of people have died because of religious conflicts.

Two related stories in Sunday’s Washington Post brought this home to me. One was the influx of foreign fighters into the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including hundreds of people here in America, to fight a religious war. Related to it was a disturbing article about Anjem Choudary, a Muslim cleric based in London who is a propagandist for the Islamic State. This “state” of course is busy overrunning much of Syria and Iraq not to mention beheading people and selling women into slavery. I zeroed in on this part:

Iraq and Syria, Anjem Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.

“We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam,” says the 47-year-old, calmly sipping tea and looking none the worse for having been swept up in a police raid just days earlier. “That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie — you know, Dr. No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”

In other words, none of this peaceful persuasion that Islam is the true faith crap, but lots of war, death and mayhem to make sure we are all compelled to believe his version of the truth. Christians shouldn’t feel so smug, after numerous crusades not to mention the Spanish Inquisition in which we tried (and failed) to make the infidels (read: Muslims) believe our version of religious truth.

There is not a major religion out there, including Buddhism that has not killed to promote its values, despite doing so is arguably the greatest hypocrisy against their religion possible. All these centuries later, despite our vast knowledge and understanding of history, despite technology and the Internet, large numbers of us are utterly convinced that only their religion is correct. They are so vested in it that they will wreak literally holy mayhem to make sure their religion, and only their religion is the only one anyone is allowed to believe and practice.

It’s quite clear what people like Choudary would do to those of us unenlightened enough not to become Muslims: lop off our heads like they are doing to infidels in Iraq and Syria right now or, if a woman, sell her into slavery. This is, by the way, quite similar to what Columbus did to the natives of Hispaniola shortly after discovering America in 1492, and what Cortez and many other conquerors did to the unenlightened natives of South and Central America as well. Killing infidels with the sword often had the desired effect. The natives were soon proclaiming to believe in Jesus Christ while also working as slaves for their enlightened conquerors. Infidels are going to hell anyhow for refusing to be enlightened, so they might as well be dead, is what passed for their rationalization. Choudary doubtless agrees but worse is working to facilitate the transfer of fighters into Iraq and Syria to spread this sort of enlightenment.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the form of religion is. They all seem to have this fatal flaw, which allows zero uncertainty to come between their religion and their actions. I believe this is because the human species is hardwired toward addiction to memes. And the religious meme is a powerful one: it promises us eternal paradise and the absence of all suffering, forever, in the glory of God if we just do precisely what some people say God wants us to do. People like Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida native, who on May 25 became an American suicide bomber for the cause of Islam. He blew himself up in a Syrian café frequented by Syria soldiers. In his farewell video, Abusalha says:

“You think you are safe where you are in America,” he said, threatening his own country and a half-dozen others. “You are not safe.”

Doubtless he is enjoying paradise now with his 72 virgins. That should satisfy his sexual desires for a while. Or, much more likely, he is simply dead, another pawn cruelly used in a much larger game of pointless chess. Chess is a game and on some horrific level these religious crusades are games too. Games may be won, but winning them doesn’t really change anything. Thanks to conquerors like Cortez and the missionaries that followed him, South and Central America today is suitably enlightened, with Roman Catholicism dominating society there. But it is still as infected with evils as any other religiously “enlightened” state. If you need a recent example, try this one. Or this one.

No religion, no matter how universal, will change the fundamental nature of man. It never has and never will. Choudary and Abusalha are ultimately playing the parts of fools, helping to feed chain reactions of generational war, death, trauma and suffering wholly at odds with the religion they proclaim will solve these problems. The religious meme – the notion that one size of religion can and must fit all – that has been proven over and over and over almost to the point where you can’t count anymore as fundamentally false and destructive. Religion in this incarnation is harmful to man, creates chaos and retards the enlightenment these people profess it will bring.

I speak as a cautiously religious man. My own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is creedless so perhaps we have earned an escape clause as a toxic religion. Still, my denomination is hardly free of its own very human evils. A previous minister of my church, for example, was sexually involved with a number of women in our congregation (while married), a scandal some thirty years in our past that still affects our behavior. But Unitarian Universalism at least does not proselytize. We don’t assume our religion is the only correct one. This will occasionally drive others nuts. It resulted in some deaths some years back in a congregation in Tennessee, and more recently a very disturbing takeover of a service in Louisiana by some local antiabortion nuts.

So here’s my new rules on religion and I hope it is a new meme we can spread:

  • I will not consider believing in any religion that assumes it has all the answers about the nature of God and how humans must behave
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that thinks has succeeded when everyone is believing in its version of truth
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that cannot peacefully co-exist with other different faiths
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that has at any time in its past caused religious warfare
  • I will actively do all I can to civilly and peacefully undermine any religion that promotes any of the above
  • I will encourage everyone, including you, who may belong to such a faith to leave it

Such faiths are not worthy of the God you claim to worship and are ultimately far more destructive than helpful. Reflect on it. Pray on it. God will tell you it’s true.

 

 
The Thinker

Why I am not a Christian

It’s curious that after nearly twelve years of blogging I have never really explained my theology or lack thereof. I have given snippets of it from time to time, mostly in critiquing other religions. But I have never really explained myself fully. I thought I might start with why I am not a Christian. I hope to expand my thoughts more on other religions in future posts.

To preface, while I am not a Christian, I am religious. The denomination I most closely align with is Unitarian Universalism, which has its roots in Christianity. It does not require anyone to subscribe to a creed, which is typical of most faiths. I do identify with Christianity because I was raised as a Roman Catholic. So it’s a natural place for me to start this topic.

There are lots of reasons why I am not a Christian, but one emotional reason in particular is relevant. In short, I got way too much Catholicism growing up. It included nine years of parochial school, daily rosaries at home, years as an altar boy, strict attendance at mass every week and regular Catholic education classes until I turned 18. It was overwhelming and stifling. Everything in my life was viewed through the Catholic prism, which was mostly about whether something was sinful or not. When I no longer lived at home, I simply stopped going to church, cold turkey. It was an easy decision for it removed an oppressive weight off my shoulders that simply did not agree with me and was not working for me. And except for an occasional wedding or a funeral, I haven’t been back.

However, my time as a Catholic was not entirely a negative experience. I got an appreciation for the devout, the importance of ritual in life, and the comfort it gives many of certainty in an uncertain world. I will still seek out cathedrals when I travel and they usually feel instinctively holy places. As a denomination, Catholicism has some strengths over other Christian denominations. It’s one of the few denominations that truly cares about the poor and the sanctity of life and puts its money and people where its mouth is. In that sense, it reflects the Jesus one finds in the gospels, and stands head and shoulders above many Christian denominations.

Calling oneself a Christian though is kind of like saying you believe in love. What does love mean? What does it mean to be a Christian? That is open to a lot of debate. If nothing else there is a huge variety of opinions on the matter. My take is that to be a Christian at a minimum you must agree that Jesus was a human manifestation of God. Sorry, I can’t go there.

Early Christians didn’t believe Jesus was God. At least that’s the opinion of the noted biblical scholar Bart Erhman in his book How Jesus Became God. But even a cursory understanding of the history of the New Testament strongly suggests that the gospels grew in their telling. The simple Jesus revealed in the first gospel, Mark, for example, is strikingly different from the mythological one revealed in the last one, John. Moreover, it’s well documented that it took hundreds of years for Christianity to define itself as a faith and the mythological Jesus, part of some trinity, simply was not part of early Christian thought. These Christians ruthlessly suppressed those Christians that did not tow their interpretation. The early Unitarians (who did not believe in the trinity) sought refuge in what is now Hungary and Romania to escape persecution. Many others died for their heresies, hardly Christ-like actions. Christians are still at it. The core of Christianity that is unmistakable from reading the Gospels is that brotherly and universal love should be the center of our behavior, something sadly absent in most Christian denominations.

There is no evidence that Jesus existed. I think that Jesus existed, but obviously I can’t prove it. It’s a reasonable enough inference, since a meme like Jesus is hard to develop without a kernel of truth to it. The Romans left no record of Jesus, nor did anyone else other than the Christians. The hazy view we have of Jesus is through the gospels, which have been rewritten numerous times and errors introduced in translation, point to an interesting and revolutionary man for his time. It’s entirely reasonable to think a contrarian and rabble-rouser like him would be betrayed and crucified. Jesus’s surreptitious behavior after his alleged resurrection though suggests to me he was not God, i.e. not Christ. He seemed anxious not to be seen, except to disciples. That’s hardly a way to convince people that you are God. If he had walked past Pontius Pilot three days after his resurrection, and the Romans had recorded that, now that would be pretty convincing.

Jesus’s divinity aside though, Christians should at least reasonably model Christ if he walked among us. When I was a young and impressionable Catholic, we sang a song that included the lyrics “You will know we are Christians by our love.” Not that there aren’t such Christians out there, but they are a tiny minority of those who claim to be Christian. The vast majority of “Christians” have so wrapped themselves around orthodoxy and warped notions of sin that they no longer see the forest through the trees. You can bet that if Jesus were alive today the whole notion of a prosperity Gospel would leave him gob struck. A devout follower of Jesus would live without possessions and minister among the poor. Know of any Christians like that?

Neither do I. The truth is that this kind of Christianity simply does not work in 2014. Christianity, as imperfectly revealed to us in the Gospels, is obsolete and generally more harmful than helpful. It doesn’t fit in our current reality. Maybe in Saint Paul’s time, when almost all of us lived short and shallow lives and lived at or just above the poverty line, it would have fit the times.

Almost any religion though has some body parts that can be reused when an autopsy is performed. Christianity has some, and those few parts I hold close to my heart, particularly the virtue of universal love and tolerance. But by themselves they don’t make me a Christian.

 
The Thinker

The path to genuine enlightenment

Religious violence is hardly news. Religious violence, such as what is currently going on between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq, should drive millions of people to atheism. No God worth worshipping could possibly approve of any violence in its name, let alone require us humans to use force and murder as a means of spreading the faith.

Religions though really aren’t so much about God as they are about people. Supposedly the purpose of religion is to draw us closer to God. What’s its real purpose? As best I can tell, its real purpose is the largely futile attempt to calm our restless and flawed human souls, something it does imperfectly at best. Sometimes it does succeed in bring some of us to a higher spiritual or moral plain, but overall its track record is pretty poor and its lessons don’t tend to stick permanently. If I had to pick a number, I’d say it works perhaps ten percent of the time, at least in inculcating permanent behavioral changes for the better. What typically happens is we may get better for a while, but then we revert to doing what we do best: being flawed human beings.

It’s worse than that because we all have certain imperfections and angsts, which means that we will be drawn toward religions that accentuate these issues within us. What a lot of us really crave is absolute certainty in an uncertain world, and most religions offer that. You just have to find the religion that most closely aligns with your imperfections and predispositions. But mostly, as I first pointed out a long time ago, we tend to be drawn to the religions we were born into, if any. If we are going to stay with a religion, it will be with one that has the comfort of familiarity and the sanction of our parents.

If you live in Iraq, it’s almost certain that you are a Muslim, but alas what kind of Muslim is what is far more important. Both Shi’ite and Sunni believe there is only one God: Allah. Great, you would think that would make religious life pretty simple. But instead they are arguing, and have been arguing and killing each other for more than a millennium and about something that really doesn’t matter. This is: when Mohammad died, did he intend for the religion to be dynastic (what the Shi’ites believe) or not (what the Sunnis believe). ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is busy killing Shi’ites in areas it has conquered, but really anyone, including Sunnis, that don’t or won’t tow the line on their extreme and puritanical version of Islam.

I’d accuse them of channeling George W. “You are either with us, or against us” Bush except of course both sects have been doing this far longer than our last president has been alive. It’s a cycle of violence that shows no sign of ever being extinguished. Neither side will ultimately prevail. As best I can tell, the only way to really kill this cycle of violence is for everyone Muslim to simply abandon the faith. That doesn’t seem likely.

Of course it’s not just the Muslims that can’t get along with each other. Protestants and Catholics have been murdering each other for centuries. Even before Protestantism emerged, Christianity was rife with religious persecution. My particular religion is Unitarian Universalism. Early in Christian history, the Trinitarians ruthlessly persecuted the Unitarians. The Unitarians (very sensibly I believe) concluded that the notion of God in three parts (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) made no sense whatsoever, so they were killed or persecuted for their heresy. They eventually sought refuge in what is now Romania and Hungary. Within Protestantism, various denominations persecuted minority denominations. The Pilgrims that helped form the United States was but one of them.

The general problem is that humans don’t deal well with people that don’t conform to their beliefs. Of course it’s not just religious beliefs, but all sorts of arguably weird stuff like whether gays should get married or the limits of government that foment our intolerance. It seems we are born to factionalize, and leaders of our factions assume leadership because they have learned the art of persuading followers that their beliefs are the only correct ones.

Given all of this, why wouldn’t you want to be an atheist? Why wouldn’t an atheist go out and evangelize? Curiously, die-hard atheists imitate the tactics of die-hard theists. Mostly what you hear is, “God is total bunk, a fairy tale, just Santa Claus for adults” and they will argue endlessly why this is so with their scorn clear in their voices. They tend to lampoon the religious as intellectually flawed sheep.

Atheism has always struck me as just proselytizing of a different sort. What is the track record of atheism? Does it make for a better world? While the jury is out, we do have the example of the Soviet Union, which was basically an atheist state, not to mention communist China. Its leaders did a wretched job of managing the country or even making socialism work. So I am skeptical that if we were all atheists and that they were in charge that we would end religious violence. For atheism has all the hallmarks of a religion, including its dogmatic certainty, just without God at its center. I am convinced that if we were all atheists, we would find reasons to beat the heads of other atheists. We haven’t seen much of this yet probably because they have not evolved into a large enough force. I can see splits between dogma-driven atheists, who might forbid the teaching of religion, from humanistic atheists.

So the larger problem is not religion per se, but the dogmatic nature of our species in general. We find comfort in being with people like us, be it culturally, racially or spiritually, but it seems best to us when it is all of the above. And all this is because to make sense of our world we have to discern clear patterns, even where they don’t exist clearly and even where the differences really don’t mean anything. We actually worship the necessity of patterns that we can slavishly follow, not God. I contend that the crux of the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite are trivial. And yet century after century they keep killing each other because of their need for certainty and comfort. They seem ill equipped to expand their thoughts to the larger notion that we are all brothers.

So, to channel Bill Maher, I propose a New Rule: put kindness toward all ahead of your religious faith or lack thereof. Realize that our various faiths and beliefs, while often helpful and insightful to those who practice those faiths and beliefs, are not the most important aspect of their lives or of our lives. Our most critical virtues need to be kindness, openness and an understanding that we really all are one.

It’s hard to practice and obviously I am not a saint in this matter. It’s hard for even me to see that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is not as wide as I think. However, if I can practice open listening and tolerance, I am likely to be heard and acknowledged by the other side. And open hearts should open doors of communications and facilitate enlightenment in general. So I too must practice looking and emphasizing for those things that I have in common with people unlike me. I need to practice dialog with people like this, dialog that is respectful and healing.

This, I think, is the path to real enlightenment.

 
The Thinker

Going to the dogs

It was a brief moment today. I was driving to work through a residential neighborhood. As I often do on Tuesdays, I had to wend my way past the trash truck. I give these guys a brake and wait for them to say it’s okay to pass them. Today though the guys on the trash truck were oblivious to me. They were petting a dog.

One of the homeowners had her dog on a leash and was doing walkies along the sidewalk. This dog, like most dogs, is a friendly dog, as was evident by its wagging tail. I didn’t quite catch the breed, but it was smaller than most, and black. The guys hauling the trash, unsurprisingly I am sorry to say, were also black. There were two in the back and one in the cab. The two in the back normally gather trashcans from both sides of the street at once, and the guy in the cab drives.

Today though the crew had gone to the dogs, er, dog. Both of them had stopped the hauling and were petting the dog that was happily making their acquaintance and straining at his leash as if he wanted to sit on their nonexistent laps. The lady at the other end of the leash was laughing. The guys on the street were laughing as they petted the dog. The guy in the cab smiled through his side view mirror at the encounter. I pulled around them cautiously and made my way to work, smiling as well.

That one dog provided a lot of happiness. Moreover, like most dogs, this was a colorblind dog, both physically and metaphorically. Dogs, bless them, have no sense of social class. One friendly human is as good as another to them. Black face, white face, brown face, red face – it just doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is their sense of you and how you relate to them. Everyone in this encounter appeared to be a dog lover, at least for that moment. No one cared if a minute or two of productivity was lost. There was a friendly dog that wanted some attention and was glad to give some attention. At least until that encounter ended, social class simply did not matter. The dog had brought together people who would probably never talk to each other otherwise.

In the gospels we learn that Jesus was a man from Galilee, he was definitely human and that he was also a holy man who many believe was God in human form. Jesus of course spent some years in Galilee and Judea preaching about love and inclusiveness. It’s hard to know where Jesus was in the social class of Judea at the time. If he was truly a carpenter’s son, he could probably be considered middle class for those generally impoverished times. For a while he developed quite a following, at least according to the Gospels, but he also developed enemies. The priests in the temple did not like him because he was so different and because people called him a rabbi. The Romans put him to death. And it appears he drew the scorn of many because he hung out with losers like Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute in the eyes of many, as well as lepers, the homeless and general miscreants. Our understanding of Jesus is of course imperfect. We have only the legend of Jesus, as there is no scrap of evidence that he actually lived, and the original gospels have long ago returned to dust. But Jesus as he is depicted certainly believed in transcending class, and in universal love, and in recognizing our common humanity.

Jesus, in other words, was a man who had gone to the dogs. It would not have surprised me if his family had a dog. For if you have to learn about love and have no other guide, in most cases you can get it courtesy of the family or neighborhood mutt.

I am a cat person more than a dog person, simply because my wife introduced me to cats and I had no pets to speak of growing up except for a family parakeet. I have spent enough time though with dogs to know they are fundamentally different than cats. Cats are Republicans. They want to know what’s in it for them and it’s almost always me first. In general, they will only return affection when they first get some. They may rub at your heels for attention, but their attention tends to be fleeting. If you ignore them for a few weeks, you will probably lose any affection they had for you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are Democrats. Certainly not all dogs are friendly, and many will be affectionate only with their master. But once you have earned their trust, and it usually takes nothing more than a chew toy, snack or just a scritch of their heads, you are part of their tribe. It may be fleeting or it may be permanent. Dogs are all about finding joy in life and in getting in touch with the feelings of creatures around them. Class means nothing to them. Most of the time they will radiate love, particularly with their owner, but often with anyone in their locality. If you don’t look happy they will sense this and come over to you, and darn well try to make you happy. It’s their nature.

Christians are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believe he will descend from heaven through the clouds, with his radiance pouring down across the earth. Then the saved will be saved and the damned will be damned. As for me, today’s encounter makes me think that Christ has already returned. In fact, he’s been here for a long time and you can find him nearby. Just seek out your family or neighborhood dog. Feel their love, feel their radiance, feel the cares of the world recede when you are with them or, as I saw today, see class barriers momentarily disappear. If you want to be more Christ-like, perhaps you could just imitate your mutt more. Be friendly, be open, be loving by nature and if you sense someone is hurting go over and say you want to help them feel better.

We should all go to the dogs.

 
The Thinker

Decking the secular halls

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.

 
The Thinker

The Antichrists have arrived and they are called Christians

Sorry, Jesus. But it appears that most of the people who claim to follow you are more in line with Satan than with God. At least that’s the way it seems lately. Yes, I know my observations are judgmental and you warned us not to judge others. So I’m judging. So are, best as I can tell, most of the so-called “Christians” out there.

The most recent and egregious example is “Pastor” Charles Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina. He wants to exterminate all gays and lesbians, not just shooting them outright but through starvation. He’s got a plan: build two big pens and make each, say, a hundred or 150 miles long. Put all those homos and lezzies inside, one camp for each. Don’t call it a concentration camp. That might be too good for them because at least the Jews in concentration camps got fed, at least some of them, before eventually going to the gas chambers. No, put all our gays and lesbians in big pens and don’t feed them anything. They eventually die. Thus endeth our problem with those sinful gays and lesbians. And his congregation cheers “Alleluia!”

Gah! As if killing gays and lesbians will mean there will never be another gay or lesbian again? Where does he think they come from? In vitro fertilization? Maybe in a handful of cases, but clearly at least 99% of gays and lesbians come from heterosexual parents. Oh but that’s right, he also believes that your sexual orientation is a choice. Like you can turn heterosexual with the right prayer or something. Clearly, science doesn’t matter much to him, but he also probably believes the world was created six thousand years ago as well.

It seems that most Christians here in America are doing the complete opposite of what Jesus preached. If there is one word that defined Jesus it is simply this: love. More specifically, love broadly and universally. How on earth can someone like Charles Worley become a pastor and not get that? Love, love, love! Love people! Love everyone. Jesus was very clear about this. He made this clear in numerous parables, but particularly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the time most Jews in Judea scorned Samaritans. They thought of them as apostates. Jesus went out of his way to make sure his followers understood that they were brothers too. You had to love those who are very different from you, and everyone has the same capacity to love.

Jesus was not about exclusion; Jesus was about inclusion. He hung out with the dregs of Judea: the lepers, the thieves and the prostitutes. About the only thing he hated were the moneychangers at the temple. Jesus was not about hate; Jesus was about toleration. Jesus was not about getting rich, he was only concerned about spiritual riches. In fact, he told us it was hard for a rich person to get into heaven, perhaps because their priorities were misplaced. The currency that really matters, he told us, was your ability to live a compassionate life and thus model what God believes.

How on earth could such an overwhelming message get totally missed? “You will know we are Christians by our love,” we used to sing as a youth when I was a Catholic. Now the Catholic Church is sending goon squads to make sure its sisters spend their time keeping women from getting health care.

This is all so terribly wrong, so antithetical to everything Jesus preached. You can argue about whether Jesus thought homosexuality was a sin or not, but his approach would not be to cast judgment (he specifically said do not do that) but to love them unconditionally instead.

I think it might help if Christians threw away the Old Testament. Trying to resolve the dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments seems to be driving “Christians” crazy, and the Old Testament seems to be winning. “Christians” seem crazily focused on select passages from the Old Testament, like killing homosexuals and adulterers, while selectively ignoring the ones that should bother them, like their self imposed views against polygamy. (Look up how many wives David and Abraham had, just for starters.) There is plenty in the New Testament to throw away too. Paul said we should be kind to our slaves. Doesn’t that imply it’s okay to own slaves? Paul said it was better to marry than to burn. Doesn’t that imply we should avoid marriage to prove we are sufficiently spiritual? Or that marriage, rather than being sacramental, is kind of a moral failing?

I am not a Christian. I am not a Christian in part because I don’t believe Jesus was divine, just very wise. But also I don’t want to be associated with most Christians because like Charles Worley they march off in a completely different direction than the one Jesus tried to lead people toward. However, if I did believe in Jesus’s divinity, I would be a member of the United Church of Christ. It’s one of the few denominations out there that seem to get real Christianity.

Christianity as Jesus preached it is about loving universally, sharing communally, being tolerant, open and accepting and giving your whole heart and soul to all people. You do this so they can be free of misery, to help them find God and to understand Jesus’s true message. Real Christianity is about a welcome table.

So yes, I, a judgmental non-Christian (but in some ways a follower of Jesus) must say simply that most of you Christians are not the least bit Christ-like, but are modeling the Antichrist. You have a twisted and frequently sick theology based on exclusion, hate and misery, rather than universal love and brotherhood. If you want to experience real Christianity, the closest you are going to get to it will be at a United Church of Christ congregation near you. So why not attend a service and get the real Jesus?

 
The Thinker

Never enter hell on a full bladder

While a new year has arrived, there is plenty of evidence that as we begin the second decade of the 21st century, for many of us our minds have not evolved past 33 A.D. That is the year that some Christians believe Jesus died on the cross, was resurrected and later that year ascended into heaven. Since 33 A.D., Jesus has been cooling his heels, presumably at the right hand of The Father, waiting for the moment for his return to Earth. Then, according to the Bible, the faithful get raptured and depending on which Left Behind book takes your fancy all sorts of things that are really nasty will happen to the rest of us. The bottom line is that for us damned either (a) we will descend into Hell for all eternity (not a pleasant prospect) or (b) we die, and not just our physical body but our immortal soul as well. Poof. We turn into nothingness. We are declared a factory reject and discarded like used toilet paper.

As for The Saved ™, it’s off to heaven for all eternity I guess (although some think they will dwell here on earth, which will become an earthly paradise). There life must be wholly spiritual, you are never too far from God or Jesus, you can be pals with St. Jude, harp and lute playing is all the rage, and days beyond count will be spent in rhapsody singing Hosannas. It’s sort of like having an orgasm forever, only better because it’s clean, not dirty and it lasts forever. Remember that cheerleader you nailed behind the bleachers in high school, who threw her legs over your shoulders while you plunged away into her like Superman? Heaven is much better than that.

Now we can put Judgment Day on the calendar. Mark yours now. Put it in your Google Calendar as an all day appointment: May 21st, 2011. At least that’s what Harold Camping of Oakland, California believes and he ought to know because he runs an organization called Family Radio. It is true that the Bible says that no man knows the exact date of the Last Judgment. It turns out that if you study the Bible it’s a solvable problem. A convenient calculator helps with the math. Here’s how he figures it:

The number 5, . . . equals “atonement.” Ten is “completeness.” Seventeen means “heaven.” Camping patiently explained how he reached his conclusion for May 21, 2011. “Christ hung on the cross April 1, 33 A.D.,” he began. “Now go to April 1 of 2011 A.D., and that’s 1,978 years.” Camping then multiplied 1,978 by 365.2422 days – the number of days in each solar year, not to be confused with a calendar year. Next, Camping noted that April 1 to May 21 encompasses 51 days. Add 51 to the sum of previous multiplication total, and it equals 722,500. Camping realized that (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500. Or put into words: (Atonement x Completeness x Heaven), squared. “Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story,” Camping said. “It’s the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you’re completely saved. “I tell ya, I just about fell off my chair when I realized that,” Camping said.

Yep, it’s all there! Camping is a former civil engineer, but he sure has studied his Bible. Apparently, Jesus left little breadcrumbs that enlightened Christians could follow. It’s all so clear now. No point in paying any insurance premiums beyond May 21st. You will need a different kind of currency in the next world, and it has to do with the purity of your soul and how much you grokked Jesus as your Personal Lord and Savior ™.

I should be quaking in my boots because, no, I have not accepted Jesus Christ as my PL&S. Which means if Camping and his amazing math are correct, in 132 days my life of reckless hedonism is over. It’s hell and brimstone for me and my Buddhist wife, my daughter, my cat and my siblings. My father, age 84, will probably make it as he has lived a very virtuous and religious life and presumably my late mother is already there, ready to hold the gate open for him. My Dad ushers at church and attends Mass faithfully. He is Catholic, however, and I’m not sure but I suspect Mr. Camping doubts any Catholics will make it because of the papal infallibility thing. Or something.

132 days. I was thinking that since I put on a few pounds over the holidays, it’s time to take them off. Now I’m thinking it’s time to put more pounds on. If I only have 132 days left, I need to eat plenty of chocolate, and the good kind. I’m talking Godiva and Ghirardelli. I also need some serious debauchery because, alas, my life is sadly absent of fleshly sins. It’s time to put an ad in the Craigslist Casual Encounters section for a sleazy hookup with 420, which I have never tried. In general, I need to refresh myself on the Seven Deadly Sins because I forgot what most of them are and I need to make sure I sample them all. Times a wasting.

I feel so foolish for donating all this money to charity recently. With the end of the year, the pleas arrive in the mail and perhaps anxious for a few extra charitable deductions, I start cutting checks. In December, checks went out to So Others Might Eat, Friends of Homeless Animals and more prosaic places like Washington Consumers Checkbook. I hope they spend my donations quickly because after May 21st apparently it won’t matter. Presumably, all but a handful of those homeless bums and families being fed and sheltered in D.C. in part with our money are damned like me. Homeless cats and dogs may be nice creatures but don’t get to entertain us behind the pearly gates. How can a nice purring fuzzy thing top The Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Hopefully, there is still time for me to accept Jesus as my PL&S, but not according to Allison Warden. Today’s Washington Post shows a picture of the fine looking young woman. She has had her car professionally detailed to make sure we know the date, which conveniently provides a link to the wecanknow.com web site where I am sure all these things are made perfectly clear. According to Warden, it’s probably too late for me. Despite Jesus’s teachings that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”, she says it’s too late for me and probably for you if you are Unsaved ™. So you should definitely join me and consume large quantities of Godiva chocolates while you can.

The sad reality for the Allison Warden and Harold Campings of the world is that come May 21st I will have forgotten all about the end of the world. And the truth is, on May 21st I am infinitely more likely to die from a lightning strike than because of Armageddon. Moreover, even if Jesus did populate the Bible with clues like these, me thinks that Harold Camping’s calculations are probably a bit off.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was 33 when he died, and the year 1 A.D. is an estimate anyhow of his birth, if he existed at all, which we have to take wholly on faith. The number zero did not even exist back then, so maybe he died in 34 A.D. Then there is the minor matter that calendars were all askew back then, we switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, then there are all those leap years, some of which we accounted for and some of which we did not. All those leap seconds over the years must have added up to an hour or two. Moreover, his calculations for all their precision don’t address the time of day when Armageddon is to commence. I’m guessing Christ will split the difference and make it when the sun is at the prime meridian over Jerusalem, as a courtesy to his followers who might want to make one last stop to the bathroom before The Rapture begins. God probably won’t save you if you are taking a crap during the big event.

No matter. Come May 22nd, 2011 Harold Camping will doubtless discover a small error in his calculations so the time and date will be reset once again for the next group of devout suckers. As for me, I will be sleeping in late because that’s what I do on Saturday mornings. Just to be on the safe side though, I will try to hit the bathroom before the sun reaches the prime meridian in Jerusalem. If I am going to hell, I don’t want to do it with a full bladder.

 
The Thinker

Burning Jesuses and other signs of the Apocalypse

Perhaps there is a good reason why Muslims get so upset with depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Of course, devout Muslims, or at least the Sunni sect, generally consider any depiction of their prophet to be blasphemous. Perhaps Muslims were far thinking. Because if they had an idolatrous statue of Muhammad, it too might have suffered the recent fate of a 62-foot “Touchdown Jesus” statue, which was destroyed by lightning on Monday in Monroe, Ohio. It just would both blasphemous and horrific if a 62-foot statue of Muhammad suffered the same fate.

"Touchdown Jesus" in better days

The quirky statue was a landmark in front of the Solid Rock Church of Monroe, Ohio. It both puzzled and entertained residents and travelers on nearby I-75, but no longer. Only a steel frame now remains. Flames created by lightning striking the statue consumed the structure on Monday. Perhaps parishioners can take comfort in that it was never quite a proper statue, as it depicted Jesus only from the torso up. This Jesus appeared to be a giant, because he overshadows his own crucifix. I guess resurrection of the body can do that to a savior.

God must be pissed because according to that secular rag, The Washington Post, there have been a host of burning Jesus statues in recent years. The city of Golden, Colorado, which I visited twice last week, has a 33-foot Jesus statue. Lightning blew off one of Jesus’ arms back in 2007. Perhaps the largest well-known statue of Jesus, the 133-foot Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, suffered the indignity of having Jesus’ eyebrows and fingers singed in a lightning strike in 2008.

You would think that Christians everywhere might be reading something into these events. Jesus must have really been sending a message when actor James Caviezel, who portrayed him in the 2003 film, The Passion of the Christ, was actually struck by lightning while making the film. Most likely devout Christians read his survival as Jesus letting us know that he approved of the Mel Gibson version of his life, because he let Caviezel live. Or perhaps Caviezel was technically dead for a short while, then brought back to life by Almighty God. Wouldn’t this be a miracle in itself? Praise the Lord!

As for burning Jesuses, the co-pastor of Solid Rock Church, Darlene Bishop, is glad Jesus took the hit instead of a nearby women’s shelter. So in a way Jesus does save, or at least may have saved the lives of abused women living in and around Monroe, Ohio. However, we do know that lightning tends to find the most direct conductive path between cloud and ground, and this tends to be the highest metallic structure, which was likely the Touchdown Jesus. While the statue’s steel infrastructure kept it strong, it also made it vulnerable to lightning strikes. So perhaps its destruction by lightning was preordained.

Or perhaps this event could have been avoided had the statue been constructed using sounder engineering principles. For example, the statue could have had a convenient lightning rods protruding from Jesus’ outstretched arms. I guess that would have been unaesthetic. Still, given the $300,000 cost of the statue and the $400,000 cost of the amphitheater, both which were destroyed, a couple nearby lightning rods would have been a sound investment. One hates to think how much tithing may now decrease at the Solid Rock Church with its main recruiting tool just an ugly frame of steel.

All these burning Jesuses could be signs of the Apocalypse. I am starting to think maybe the Apocalypse is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, since many of those thinking the end is near are often the same folks who also do not believe in global warming. If the Apocalypse is just around the corner, then what’s the point? Drive those Hummers! Flick those cigarette butts out the window as well. You might let some Jesus statues burn as well.

For those looking for them, signs of the Apocalypse are now easy to find. We have what appears to be the worst manmade natural disaster unfolding in all its oil-stained glory in the Gulf of Mexico. We have a Negro as our president. We have Greece, where democracy first flourished, quickly devolving into poverty and near anarchy in a debt-induced death spiral. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have formed a joint government in the United Kingdom. Arctic sea ice is receding to levels never recorded in our history books.

So I started thumbing through my Bible. 2 Timothy 3 gives signs so that we will know the end of times:

“Men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up [with pride], lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power.”

This sounds like a few Tea Partiers I know, including Rand Paul. Maybe I should be scared. Maybe God is trying to tell us something, and burning Jesuses as well as all those periodic sightings of weeping Madonnas are just confirmation.

I will be watching warily to see which next statue of Jesus draws God’s wrath. Just between you, me and that good Mormon Glenn Beck, I don’t think that owning gold is going to get me admitted into heaven. Time for me to repent, perhaps for the sin of thinking our world is a rational place. It probably would be, except for all us humans.

 
The Thinker

The Pastor Warren Gambit

I am one of many people who have been puzzling over Barack Obama’s peculiar inaugural invitation to Pastor Rick Warren. Just in case you have been living in a cave these last few weeks, Warren is a jet-setting pastor of the evangelical Saddleback (California) Community Church (a mega-church) and the best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. He befriended Barack Obama a couple years back. Obama even spoke to his congregation. Warren also happens to be against homosexual marriage. Obama has at times sounded both pro gay-marriage and anti-gay marriage. However, he clearly is for civil unions, which he sees as the legal equivalent of marriage, and is opposed to all discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The gay and lesbian community is outraged over Obama’s invitation to Warren to say a prayer at his inauguration. They were among his staunchest supporters during his campaign and feel his invitation was a slap in their faces. After all, Rick Warren had equated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. I am not gay and I sure found those words offensive when I read them. Yet, realistically his words were no more offensive than a lot of other tripe coming out of the conservative Christian community. As I pointed out in this recent post, polygamy is also Biblically sanctioned but I do not hear Pastor Warren sanctioning that.

As I expected, Rick Warren has quickly toned down the rhetoric. Today he asserted that he is not anti-gay, just anti-gay marriage. He has also said he regretted his choice of words when he associated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. His church also removed wording from its website that said gays were welcomed as members only if they first repented for their homosexual lifestyles. It is unclear though whether homosexuals can now become members of the church.

Warren also recently shared the stage with songwriter Melissa Etheridge, a rather public lesbian and who is legally married in the State of California to her lesbian spouse. How much longer her marriage will be legal is an open question, given that people like Warren worked tirelessly to ensure the proposition’s passage. Sharing a stage though gave Etheridge and Warren a reason to talk about their differences on these sensitive issues. Etheridge for one is willing to cut Warren some slack on his past remarks.

I can understand why most in the homosexual and lesbian community would be irate with this invitation. If I had been discriminated and scorned much of my life for my natural sexual preferences and my perfectly understandable desire to have my marital state sanctioned by society, I would be hollering too. Why would our president elect do such a thing?

In the interest of balance, Pastor Warren is not be the only minister Obama asked to speak at the inauguration. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, accepted an invitation to give the benediction. Lowery’s views are far more inclusive than Warren’s. Obama himself said, “It is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.” To gays and lesbians in particular, their rights are more than mere “social issues”.

Obama must have known that by inviting Warren he would raise a ruckus. What is Obama really up to with his invitation? Is he trying to win the respect of those who did not vote for him, and thereby increase his chances of rallying the country on painful changes that will be hard to swallow? Is he telegraphing that his support for gays and lesbians was half-hearted and his appeals to this community duplicitous? Is he making a statement that in the grand scheme of all the severe problems facing this country that gay and lesbian rights are not that important?

While I cannot read his mind, I think I understand Obama’s strategy. Those who are most virulently against extending full civil rights (including marital rights) to gays and lesbians are, in my observation, those who spend the least amount of time interacting with them. Sure, they are among us but unlike skin color, which you cannot hide in ordinary life, it is easy to hide your sexual preferences.

If we are to end the polarization on this issue, those who are opposed to gay and lesbian rights must spend time in civil dialog with openly gay and lesbian people. It is especially important for prominent people on both sides to have civil dialog. By talking to Melissa Etheridge before their appearance at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, as well as sharing a stage with her, Warren had the opportunity to have his beliefs challenged in person and in a way that did not make him defensive. It turns out that Warren is also a big Melissa Etheridge fan, which doubtless helped Etheridge get her views across. While I am sure she is not the first overtly gay or lesbian person he has met, repeated encounters help people like Warren understand that gays and lesbians are not freaks or a special class of sinner but completely ordinary people.

The full enfranchisement that gays and lesbians seek will not occur through noisy in your face confrontations. Such confrontations may feel good, but their effects are likely to be counterproductive and inflame passions on both sides. Such actions are also likely to retard the progress that gays and lesbians seek. Barack Obama is forcing a dance between these two social forces in a way that promotes genuine dialog rather than hate and vindictiveness.

An enemy ceases to be your enemy once you can relate to them. It is through dialog that conservative Christians and others opposed to homosexual rights will eventually be won over. There are far more vitriolic ministers on this issue than Pastor Warren. Warren though exhibits a certain amount of common sense and reasonableness. It is through changing influential minds like his that much larger groups are persuaded. Obama’s timing may be inflammatory, but I think his judgment with this invitation will be proven sound.

Social change is always painful, so this invitation is bound to be painful to many who fight valiantly for full civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. However, it may turn out to be a significant step toward achieving the full enfranchisement that gay and lesbian Americans seek. If America can break the color divide by electing an African American president, can healing the divide between gay and homophobes really be that far away?

 
The Thinker

Materialism in Perspective

Supposedly, the United States is one of the most religious nations in the world. Surveys tell us this is so. It is hard to traverse even a few blocks without running into a house of worship. Since most of us in this country who are religious claim to be Christian, you might expect we would be busy scrupulously following Jesus’ words and deeds. As I recall Jesus preached that possessions acted as obstacles toward knowing and serving God. Jesus told us that if we have things then we should give them away to the poor. Free of the burden of materialism we could concentrate on what matters: loving each other, improving our souls and spreading the good news of salvation. We should all live our lives like Mother Teresa’s. What good is the obsession with the number of coins in our pockets if in the process our souls are damned? The book of Timothy even tells us that “For the love of money is the root of all evil”.

For an allegedly Christian nation, we seem to have a few wires crossed. As much as recent revelations about Mother Teresa shocked me, at least she felt a genuine calling from God. At least she took the words of Jesus not as just good advice, but as a commandment. As for the rest of us, well it is not as if we do not do our share of tithing and charitable work, but it is for most of us a very part time thing. Ideally, instead of demonstrating our values in actual charitable work, we are rich enough where we can just write checks to charities. These checks are not large enough to empty our bank accounts, but measured doses of monetary kindness that allows us to help the poor a bit while making sure we still have our McMansions, SUVs and Hawaiian vacations.

Perhaps Jesus is looking down on us from heaven and saying to himself, “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Here I was busy dying for their sins and they still don’t get it!” Yet arguably, it is due to our material riches that we can lift any of the poor out of poverty. I suspect though that Jesus was not calling us to make the poor richer, but to relieve their misery. He wanted us to lead them and everyone toward beliefs and values that will enrich their souls, not our pocketbooks. I suspect he is hearing something like this from us instead:

Yo! Jesus! Get off my case, big guy! I am a bit distracted now. I am having way too much fun creating my avatar for Second Life. Spiritual rewards are all fine and everything, but heck, they are intangible buddy! I would much rather get my reward right now, while I am alive. An iPhone will do for starters.

Americans really worship at the Church of Mammon. We love money but if we cannot actually possess lots of money, having lots of stuff will suffice. Why are financial markets roiling all over the world right now? Because the American appetite for having our rewards now appears to be insatiable. If the love of money is the root of all evil, then credit cards must be the must be a beeline straight to Hell’s gates. Americans just love credit because it gives us things we want now even though in many cases we cannot really afford them. Until recently, owning our own home was out of reach for many of us who are financially challenged. This uncomfortable fact of life though could be overcome thanks to the cleverness of American capitalism. The mortgage industry invented no money down home loans and adjustable rate mortgages. This gave us the illusion that the financially challenged could become homeowners too. This worked fine until we discovered we had not read the fine print and we were way overextended. We eventually realized that a home loan was not like a charge card and adjustable rate mortgage payments could go up rather dramatically. Uh oh.

In the 21st century, we Americans measure our happiness not by how spiritual we are on the inside, but on how much we can super-size our lives. A station wagon just will not do anymore. We want a Ford Explorer. A three bedroom, one and a half bath ranch house is so 1950s. We want a McMansion, with a three car garage, with an upgraded kitchen (marble countertops please) and cathedral ceilings in the foyer. We will not be denied, even if we have to drive three hours each way to work to afford our lifestyles.

We deal with the hypocrisy between our espoused values and our actual practices by living lives effused in glorious cognitive dissonance. Rather than play lip service to our house of worship which, if we are reasonably devout we may visit once a week, we pay daily visits to our houses of capitalism. From the cup of java from the local Starbucks we grab on our way to work to the hours we spend traipsing from store to store at our local mall, there are endless ways to acquire newer and shinier stuff. Now we no longer have to be bothered to actually go out and buy many things. We can shop from the convenience of our computers. If we do not actually have enough cash on hand to buy what we want, we can plastic it. What possible virtue can there be in putting off for some nebulous future day what we can have right now?

With every passing generation, our obsession with achieving happiness via materialism becomes ever more myopic. Our spending habits are endlessly analyzed and probed by marketing wizards. Every conceivable variation of product must pondered for its potential profitability. Materialism speaks to an inner angst inside us that whispers that happiness is only a purchase away. It is the collection and variety of things in our lives that are our Feng Shui. We want to live in harmony with the environment, providing it is our environment. Living in harmony with nature is clearly a distant second.

In the end of course we die. Since our stuff does not disappear when we die, it appears we cannot take all this happiness with us after death. At least we will have lived a distracted life. Whether we achieved happiness with all our material stuff or merely received its illusion will perhaps be made clear in the afterlife, assuming there is one. If Hugh Hefner’s hedonism is too scary for us to emulate, we can at least emulate Ayn Rand. Like Ms. Rand, perhaps we should explicitly state that the pursuit of wealth and the outsized freedom it buys is our most cherished value. Perhaps like Ms. Rand we should go to our deathbeds with a dollar sign hanging above on the wall next to us. At least this way we would not by hypocritical.

Capitalism of course gives us the means to stay out of poverty. If you have been there, poverty does not so much purify your soul as give you incentive never to be impoverished again. This should be obvious. It explains why millions of Americans are not sneaking into Mexico. Beyond a certain nebulous point though, materialism appears to become a philosophy of life. In its extreme manifestations, it is tantamount to a religion. Ayn Rand appears to be one of its saints. Her religion of sorts, which she invented, was called Objectivism.

Can one be truly both spiritual and materialistic? As I understand the Christianity as it is presented in the Bible, the answer is a resounding “No!” I am not a Christian, but as I have known poverty and have no desire to experience it again, I also know that I will not give up my fundamental possessions. I see no value to a vagabond life living in boxes under highway overpasses. For me having stuff is not evil. In fact, I think we are programmed to move from misery toward comfort. Although materialism does not seem to truly make many of us happy, at least it is a tangible expression of what we imagine heaven to be: a place of comfort. The real world is a tough place. Our degree of materialism is something of a benchmark that shows us how far we have moved from our inner caveman. Somewhere in our DNA are distant ancestors that lived short, squalid lives wrapped up in fear. Materialism is a balm of sorts. It moves these distant but powerful memories further from our sight. That is its value. It is almost a form of therapy.

Yet materialism does not cure the angst so much as momentarily relieve it. This could explain why, like a junkie getting his next high, or Homer Simpson reaching for his next box of doughnuts, we eventually need a new materialistic fix. To cure it we must look deeper into each other and ourselves. Giving away our stuff, as Jesus recommended, is probably not the real cure. Human connectedness, manifested through mutual expressions of love, is likely the cure manifested by our materialistic angst.

It is my belief that anything taken to excess, be it religion or materialism, is fundamentally unhealthy. Moderation in both our materialistic needs and our spiritual demands may be the key that truly move us toward enlightenment. I suggest using materialism as a means to help you enrich your spirit and to help form mutually enriching connections with all life. When used in this way materialism can be ennobling.

 

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