Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

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

Our Wild, Wild Universe – Part Two

I don’t often write about the universe. It’s been ten years since I wrote about the physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Universe. It seems that I cannot get enough of the story, at least when it can be brought down to the terms a layman like me can understand. Some months back Cosmos returned to television, a sort of sequel to the series of the same name hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan broadcast on public TV in 1980. This series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and showed up, curiously enough, on the Fox Network, a network known more for its lowbrow entertainment than this nerdy stuff.

I’m catching up on the series now on Netflix. I find it compelling in a strange way, so compelling that I am putting aside other really compelling shows like House of Cards and Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts to give it precedence. It tickles my curiosity and sense of wonder. The more you explore what we know about the universe, the more wondrous it becomes. deGrasse Tyson does a great job of conveying the immensity and the wonder of our universe. The series is aided by wondrous CGI as well, the sort that was simply unavailable when Carl Sagan hosted the series (although for the time his CGI was quite sophisticated). The combination of CGI, storytelling and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious way of story telling makes it a very compelling series.

It brings out the natural pantheist in me. Natural pantheism is sort of a religion that simply expresses reverence for our universe the way it is. As you finish episodes of this version of Cosmos, you should feel the pull of natural pantheism too. Most of us who are religious tend to appreciate the faiths that we have been brought up in, in part perhaps because its message is much simpler to grasp than the amazing immensity and complexity of the cosmos, to the extent that we can understand it. Traditional religions also tend to concentrate on people and our needs, aspirations and questions. They are human centric. Studying the cosmos as it is, is not human centric at all except of course that we are self-aware creatures. We also have developed a scientific method that allows us to continually gain in understanding of the cosmos and our part in it.

deGrasse Tyson does a great job of explaining how we came to understand how the universe actually works. This too is a compelling story. In it certain scientists like Newton, Faraday and Einstein become something like secular saints, because they each solve great mysteries. In the process they reveal not just what is, but how the master clock works and sometimes how we can work it to our advantage. It’s a story of great detective work spanning thousands of years.

The series is spawning new thoughts within me, particularly in the area of evolution. It is clear to me that evolution does not exist merely here on Earth, but across the universe as well. The universe evolves too, creating more and more complex elements that make life possible. Is there life in the universe, aside from our planet, of course? Now the answer seems simple: yes. Life doubtless exists elsewhere, in many forms. In fact it probably permeates our galaxy and much of the evolved universe. This is because all the building blocks are there, particularly carbon and heat, which is hardly unique to the Earth. In addition, as deGrasse Tyson points out in Episode 11, it is probable that microbial life travels between planets and between solar systems, seeding life itself across the galaxy and the universe. It just happens so slowly and over so many millions of years it is hard for us to see.

To me it gets much simpler. The universe itself is a living creature. The universe does not necessarily think or breathe, attributes that we associate with life but at least to our understanding is something done very quickly. But it is clearly evolving and becoming more complex with time. It is unfolding and through nuclear processes and gravity it is creating the complex, like carbon molecules, from the simple: the collapse of hydrogen gases by gravity into stars and their subsequent explosion. And like all living things, the universe seems destined to die. Like our body though it does not all die at once. It will take billions of years to die as the forces of the big bang move objects further and further from each other. The universe will catch a bad case of pneumonia and then pass on. With the big bang so powerful that no contraction of the universe seems possible, its energy will dwindle out, much like a firework. Whatever happens after that takes us to realms beyond the known laws of physics.

So yes, the universe is alive and it is also a vast system. Systems by nature are complex entities, and the universe is complex almost beyond our fathoming. Systems imply rules and order and some understanding, which if you believe in God suggests your belief is not unfounded. Systems also are comprised of many pieces that interrelate with one another. Our universe interrelates with itself. Forces like the nuclear forces and gravity are the means that enforce an interrelationship. It also means that everything is connected to everything else. We sometimes suffer the illusion that we are alone. We may feel lonely, but we are never alone. We are always intimately connected with everything else simply because we are all a part of everything else.

It is individuality that is an illusion, although as deGrasse Tyson points out not only are we part of a universe so immense that few of us can understand it, there is also a universe within ourselves. Within a breath of air that we inhale, there are more atoms inhaled than there are stars in the universe. If there is a miracle, it is that we have evolved to self-awareness. We have a pretty good idea how it all fits together now, and our part in it.

With life must come death. On the universal level, our life is like the lifespan of a bacterium on a bar of soap: very short indeed. By nature we cannot maintain such complexity for that long and even if we could the universe will shift in ways that would kill us. It’s no wonder then that universe seems cold, heartless and unfathomable. We are destined to die, and die very quickly on a universal time scale. However, we remain part of the fabric of something far more immense and alive: the universe itself.

We are a part of something immensely grand and complex indeed, with our part to play. We have the privilege, thanks to shows like Cosmos, to understand our what it is and our part in it. And that is awe-inspiring and for this agnostic a fitting and satisfying part to play.

 
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

Give ‘em heaven, Kate

Religions are supposed to be about love and finding God. Sadly too many of them, if not most of them, are far more concerned about getting their believers to march in lockstep with them than embracing them in loving ways. The latest somber case in point is the excommunication of Kate Kelly, who believes that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. the Mormons) should ordain women and allow them to direct the church.

Naturally it was an all-male panel of senior bishops that decided on her excommunication. At least they were clear about her real sin: she was promoting her beliefs, which were okay as long as she didn’t actually express them. In his excommunications letter to Kelly, Bishop Mark Harrison wrote: “You are entitled to your views, but you are not entitled to promote them and proselyte others to them while remaining in full fellowship in the church.” These merciful clerics though did open the possibility that she could rejoin the church, providing she repents long enough and consistently tows the line. In other words: shut up already, keep shutting up and keep telling people you were wrong.

Dogmatic religions tend to excommunicate people all the time. Pope Francis recently excommunicated the Italian Mafia. Thus it’s not particularly surprising that Kate Kelly also suffered this fate. Still, to those of us outside this faith, this decision sure smells. What crazy reasoning justifies this belief? Well, Jesus only chose male apostles, hence there must be something unworthy about having women as clerics because men, well, must know better! How condescending this is, particularly given the poor record of male clerics within institutions like the Catholic Church. If I were a Catholic, I would sure want my kid to have a female priest. I might feel safe leaving him or her alone with the priest in the sanctuary.

Kate Kelly is guilty of a number of “sins”. These include understanding the logical fallacy of this argument, understanding that no God worth worshipping would require such a silly restriction, understanding that women are equal in all ways with men and inferior in no ways, understanding that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and understanding that the Mormon Church, like all churches, is an institution made up of flawed human beings and thus can only aspire to be holy, but is not actually holy or flawless. A church is a human institution that aspires to bring people closer to God. Given its imperfect nature, it must from time to time review how it’s doing and see if it fits the current reality.

The reality of the 19th century when Mormonism was founded was that women did not have the right to vote or much else in the way of rights so it’s not surprising Mormon dogma echoed these beliefs. It found what it thought was a foundation from the Bible. These facts were also true when Jesus walked the planet. It was true in Abraham’s time when he had multiple wives and when losing your virginity before marriage would require that you be stoned to death. In two millenniums, we have come to understand that women are equal partners. Thus they have the inherent same rights as men to everything. Kate Kelly is guilty of knocking on the Mormon Church’s door and reminding them of this obvious fact. In short, Mormonism needs a little revising because it isn’t optimally serving the needs of its members, and some of its teachings are undercutting its essential message.

I wish Kate Kelly lived nearby so I could give her a hug. She could use a lot of hugs. I wish I could also get her to see that she is better off without Mormonism as it is currently practiced. Mormonism really needs a dose of Protestantism. It’s largely as cloistered and insular as the Catholic Church was prior to the Reformation. During the Reformation, of course, the dichotomy between the church’s teachings, its actual practices and the needs of its parishioners became too large to tolerate anymore. Protestants discovered that they had power greater than the Catholic Church. When enough people stand up and demand changes, new denominations emerge when existing religions won’t adapt. If enough Mormons stand up with Kate Kelly, and more importantly boycott the faith until its leaders see the light, the Mormon Church will see the error of its ways as well.

Yell like hell, Kate, but do in a loving way that shows your better nature and the truth of your position. Yell outside the gates of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. Yell outside their conclaves. Reach out to every liberal Mormon you can find, and there are plenty of them. Have the nerve to worship separately and call yourself with a new name, perhaps the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Show that you offer a better way. Network. Like Harvey Milk, it will be lonely for a while, but if your cause is just and your work sincere, you will in time triumph. And if the Mormon Church insists on totally denying reality, let it shrivel. It’s better off dead than to be so fundamentally wrong.

I believe that when enough people simply vote with their feet and leave the church that they will see the light. And you, the excommunicated, will be revealed as a woman who had the courage to put the church on a path that actually makes it more inclusive and a better institution.

Yell like hell, but realize that you are actually giving them heaven, and bringing them closer to God.

 
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

A pope for the rest of us

I wish I could be a fly on the wall of the Vatican right now. It’s an incestuous conclave of medieval thinkers who can barely accept that the world is round. Now suddenly it is finding itself thrust into the modern world. If I were Pope Francis, I would consider a personal bodyguard, an official food tester and maybe a bulletproof vest. The rage of institutional clerics in the place must be palpable. I can summon up the one word they must be thinking right now:

Betrayed!

Right now they are reacting like stunned bunnies to the highly unorthodox words coming from their new supreme cleric. I expect that eventually even within the highly servile Catholic Church, where masochism toward Catholic orthodoxy is a virtue, that these forces will challenge Pope Francis. That’s when things are going to get interesting.

Despite all the odds designed to prevent popes like Pope Francis from being elected, there he is channeling a stunning amount of common sense. For the most part, he appears to be someone more concerned about the state of the forest than that every tree in it be perfectly straight. Pope Francis seems to have a true grasp of the purpose of religion.

For clerics in the Vatican it must be like Gollum seeing the sunlight: “It stings! It burns!” Apparently there is more to Catholicism than the metaphorical need to avoid stepping on cracks of the sidewalk. Pope Francis seems to be saying go ahead and step on those cracks. Wander onto the grass as well. Take your shoes off and slip your feet in the stream.

I must say, this former Catholic is quite impressed by this newest pope. His election won’t be enough to make me go and rejoin the Catholic Church, at least not unless Pope Francis totally transforms it. I can’t imagine him going that far. I can’t imagine him suggesting a consecrated host is, well, just bread. Or that gays are not only welcome but should be married in the church. Or that prayer is wasted time and thought. Or that Jesus was a very wise man but not divine. In other words, if he were to transform the Catholic Church into the Unitarian Universalism I actually practice, yeah, I could rejoin the Catholic Church. For one thing, Catholics know how to do stained glass and incense. As a rule, Unitarian Universalists don’t have a clue. We are great at drinking coffee after services, however.

It’s pretty clear though that Pope Francis understands that much of what passes for Catholic thought is silly and/or harmful. Some of these statements from the pope are jaw droppers. Here are some of them:

  • Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.
  • Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.
  • Remember that the Church is feminine.
  • No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community.
  • We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
  • Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.
  • If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem … they’re our brothers.

To me, what is most remarkable about Francis is not that he is opening dialog with atheists or that he is showing tolerance toward homosexuals, but that he gets the bigger picture. Religion is not really about making people believe as the Church believes; religion is about loving broadly and universally. It’s about making human kindness central to everything that we do. Francis seems to be saying that it is through kindness that people connect with God and that God is not so much an abstract external entity, but the loving whole of universal kindness and compassion. By becoming kind people we pick up the godly attributes, we heal ourselves and we help heal others too.

That’s a message that most of us can hear gladly. It’s also reassuring for us to hear his humility and him confess his sinfulness. It’s reassuring to see he practices what he preaches, by embracing a young boy who strays onto the altar with him to eschewing the papal apartment to be with the people by living in a nearby hotel. Real ministry happens person to person. It does not come from being secluded behind the insular walls of the Vatican. Francis seems to be saying that walking the walk is meaningful while talking the talk is not. Implicit in what he is saying is that a lot of what the Church does is counterproductive and sometimes hurtful. It is certainly not Christ-like.

So I may have to see if Pope Francis has a Facebook account, just so I can “like” him. I don’t expect to ever be a Catholic again, but it’s nice to know that the leader of the Catholic Church is a rather ordinary person with a good heart, instead of yet another Stepford pope chained to its orthodoxy and bereft of actual ministerial capabilities.

For every action — and this is a huge change in the Vatican — there is bound to be a reaction. It will be interesting to see if the Church can remain coherent during his time as pope. It could well fracture with some leaving to follow a new true “orthodox” Roman Catholic Church. For many devout Catholics it doesn’t matter too much where the path leads so much as that you stay on it. My time in the Catholic Church convinced me that devout Catholics were just the latter, captured by ritual and process, almost the way someone into bondage is into being controlled. But mostly the Church missing the essence of Jesus’s message. Pope Francis at least sees the larger picture. That’s a refreshing change.

 
The Thinker

God gets revised

Yes, it’s pretty cheeky of man thinking we can revise God. It’s cheeky unless you think that God is largely a creation of man anyhow. I happen to be in that boat. So seeing the book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age by one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist luminaries for sale had me plunking down twenty bucks or so for the hardcover version.

Its author is Galen Guengerich, the senior minister at the All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan. What made this book particularly interesting to me is that I got a preview of it four years ago, when I first attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I got introduced to Rev. Guengerich in a large conference room over two days. Yes, there was so much meat in his seminar that one-day would not do it. Clearly that occasion was on his mind. He even alluded to it this year, during another seminar that he gave. You might say I was there in the beginning of this book. This book is the result of four years of thought.

Guengerich himself is something of a contradiction, but that makes his story all the more interesting. He grew up in a Mennonite community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As a Mennonite community, it was considered moderate, but Mennonites are very much a cloistered religion where you generally entered the faith with birth, married someone in the faith, lived your life in a Mennonite community and died therein. Guengerich eventually left the faith, but not the ministry. It is in the family blood as his father was a minister. His rambling search for a faith consistent with his rational mind and his calling toward ministry eventually lead him into my Unitarian Universalist denomination and to the very prestigious church in Manhattan as its senior minister.

In Unitarian Universalist (UU) circles, he comes close to being a rock star. UUs are uncomfortable with this designation, but he is clearly one of our leading theologians and luminaries. In this book, Guengerich ponders what God is in the scientific age and if so what it means to be religious. His conclusions will seem radical to those enmeshed in a traditional faith, but not so much to Unitarian Universalists. I was not surprised that he still sees the need for religion. However, religion is clearly in decline, at least in the secular areas of the world. More and more people have ditched religion and prefer to be labeled “spiritual”, a bland word that really describes nothing. As a minister that caters to people who are more spiritual than religious, Guengerich sees this type of person all the time. Mostly they consist of people too rational to believe in most of the clearly wacky and antiquated notions of God, and who often have been spiritually wounded by the faith of their youth. However, try as they might this “spirituality” thing isn’t working for them. There is nothing much to lash onto. Many feel disconnected and flighty, carried by currents they don’t understand.

This book was really written for these people, not people “of the book” who find their revelations in the Bible, the Torah or the Quran. Those in the latter group, if they read the book at all, are going to feel offended. It’s not that Guengerich dismisses them or their beliefs. One of the curious things about this book is how respectfully he writes about all people of faith, and how he qualifies his own faith (such as it is) with uncertainty.

One can accept the mystery of holy books full of contradictions, as billions are glad to do, even though it leads to cognitive dissonance. Or one can look at these holy books, put a yellow highlighter to them and see that much of the advice or beliefs are just wrong, or simply don’t work in our modern age. Guengerich does the latter, and systematically but respectfully goes through many of these beliefs and shows why they not only should not be believed, but also are dangerous to believe. He goes through the consequences of people believing in some of these ideas, the wreckage of which is all around us. The Taliban are an overly extreme but not unique example. They would keep women ignorant, cloistered in their houses and covered in all public spaces (well, at least while they have periods).

His conclusion, unsurprisingly similar to mine, is that there is no personal God, but that our universe is worthy of reverence. He pretty much agrees with my independent thesis some years back that God is not a noun, but a verb. He also believes that religion is necessary. It connects us with a higher purpose and gives us the courage we need in an impersonal world to change it, but also to feel real community. The practice of worship, he argues, connects emotion with reason, for we need both to find the courage to make our dispiriting world a better place. To the extent that God exists, he argues, it is through us. As I mentioned some posts back (and I confess I stole this idea from his lecture), we are very much the hands of God. (He says we are the fulcrum, the change agent that makes change possible.) The world can be made a better, more civilized and loving place only through our actions. In congregation and through the practice of worship, we find the stamina and the courage to turn abstract hopes into concrete actions. We become the change agents for the better world that we need.

This conclusion should not be surprising but is not something we routinely think about. You look at how great positive change occurs in the world, and it arrives by practicing faith that typically gets set in houses of worship. It’s how slaves won freedom and found safe passage north. It’s how Gandhi won independence for his country and how Martin Luther King reoriented our moral compass. It’s how suffrage happened and Catholic abuses of indulgences were ended. Without worship space for like minds to come together as people of faith, positive change is much less likely to happen.

Guengerich writes eloquently but sparsely, packing ideas into short sentences that connect well with his larger themes. His one largest theme is gratitude as the basis of faith. Having the gift of life, in spite of its complexities, is still an amazing experience. We exist only because of our utter dependence on each other. Breaking our bonds of connection is suicidal. He says that we need a reverence for our relationships with one another and the natural world. A positive religion for the 21st century will help get us there.

His book is a great read for open minds but is also straightforward, easily readable, and just the right length to keep you turning the pages and to never feel bored. Put it on your Kindle for just $10.67.

 
The Thinker

The hands of God

It’s been four years since I wrote a sermon. There is little reason to write one if you are not a minister, which I am certainly am not. But it has also been four years since I attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Four years ago it was in Salt Lake City. This week it is in Louisville, Kentucky. Unsurprisingly if you attend an event like this you will hear lots of sermons as well as prominent speakers, albeit given in large conference rooms instead of sanctuaries. This sermon is tangentially based on a lecture I attended yesterday. No one will hear this sermon but some will at least read it. Enjoy.

Not long ago I wrote about TheTweetofGod, a Twitter feed that hilariously claims to be thoughts from God himself. Many of the prayerful believe they get personal communications from God. Most of us get the sense that God is distant and at best we hear from him through other channels and rarely get information we need when we need it. Many of the more secular of us, such as me, observe that God seems to be far too busy in other outer worldly tasks than to bother with my pedestrian needs. It is hard for us to reconcile the perfectly compassionate God we were taught with the world we inhabit. In the real world, so many of us live harsh, cruel and often capricious lives. Why does an all-loving God allow evil to happen to people? It’s an eternal mystery and for all their quoting of Bible passages, the arguments by the devout are weak at best. It is entirely rational to see God as absent at best and a figment of our suffering at worst.

Yet we move forward in life, at least those of us do with innate survival skills, aided perhaps in part by our local house of worship. Some of us end up as road kill: victims of suicide, homicide, starvation and various diseases. Most of us particularly if blessed with opportunity and education carve some meaning through career, family and social engagement. Life becomes, if not heavenly, at least somewhat bearable with challenges and happy periods. All of us share the same fate. All of us, if we are honest, can say that any other life that happens after death is unfathomable.

Catholics in particular are comfortable with the notion of saints. Saints are men and women with god-like spiritual powers, whose works on earth seem at least inspired by God. Some of the saints Catholics worship seem to have wizard-like capabilities. They are not God, but seem touched by God in some special way to channel abilities seemingly beyond mortal men. Saints tend to have specializations. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, seemed to be especially in tune with the animals.

In truth most of us have gifts that if we practiced them would make us saintly. Simply practicing compassion to those suffering around us can do much to reduce suffering. Many of these skills are easy to learn, if not innate, and are not difficult to practice on a daily basis. I am a reasonably compassionate person but I will confess it is hard to act compassionately to the homeless people on the streets here in Louisville as I walk to the convention center from my hotel. It’s much easier to be compassionate toward more trusted sources, like my wife and daughter. Given that these skills are easy to acquire, and perhaps innate, all of us are in some ways capable of being ministers. The fundamental skill required of ministry is simply the ability to relate to a person and acknowledge them as a person, no better or worse than ourselves.

Thus, while all of us are imperfect, we are still God-like. We have the ability to combine reason with empathy to reduce not just our suffering but the suffering of those we encounter. We become, in effect, the hands of God in the world. We have the ability to do the boots-on-the-ground ministry that God himself seems unwilling to do directly.

Perhaps this is because God is not some external entity wholly apart from us. Perhaps it is because we are all a part of the body of God whether we acknowledge it or not. Obviously none of us acts with perfect knowledge and perfect empathy, but neither does an individual cell in your own body. And yet just as each cell in your body has functions, so do you. Some of these functions can be used to spread love and reduce misery. At any moment we can choose whether or not we wish to exercise these talents.

If we have an erroneous zone, perhaps it is in thinking that God is some external being, rather than we are the hands of God. Perhaps we discount our own ability to be the hands of God, because we see ourselves as too imperfect, and thus unworthy of divinity. Perhaps we have been trained to wallow in our unworthiness, and thus find it hard to love and trust ourselves. Perhaps we believe because we know of our innate imperfections that we cannot summon our god-like powers. And yet we all have them and can use them at any time we choose to do so. We can put a dollar in the cup of a homeless man. We can pick up a man who has fallen and take him to the hospital. We can nurture a son or a daughter. We can hold the hand of our aging parent as they confess their fears of dying. We can scour our pantry for food that we don’t need so that the poor can have sustenance. We can peel potatoes in a soup kitchen. We can pick up trash from public lots. We can plant trees and remove garbage from our estuaries.

Perhaps God is simply saying to us who want to worship him: I gave you hands, feet, eyes and mouths for a reason: so that you can make your world a better place for you and for all life. All we have to do is choose to engage that part of us, and we can create the paradise that we imagine. We simply have to act.

Amen.

 
The Thinker

Bored of directors

You can only dodge the bullet for so long. Somehow I dodged it for sixteen years.

That’s how long I’ve been attending my local Unitarian Universalist church. And that’s how long I’ve not been on its board of directors. Not that I never did anything more than put money into the collection plate. Over the years I’ve taught religious education, helped with a youth group, took kids on field trips, spent a night in a lockdown so youth could play all night and even went to our denomination’s general assembly. I’ve ushered, helped put together lunches for annual meetings, cleaned up the church kitchen after services, put away lots of chairs and hymnals after services and drank copious amounts of coffee after services too. I’ve attended church auctions, church dinners, facilitated rummage sales, painted walls, cleaned out closets and showed youth how to pray toward Mecca.

That was then. This weekend I find myself on our board of directors, although my three-year term does not start officially until July. I tried to talk them out of it. I said usually directors were chosen from an elite inner circle, not from the next circle in, which is where I saw myself. That’s probably where they saw me too except after sixteen years they could no longer not call me. They had run through the usual suspects too many times. So I am on the board of directors, somewhat unwillingly, but mainly because I could not think of a good enough excuse to get out of it.

In truth I have plenty of other commitments already. This would be one more and anecdotally it was likely to evolve into one of these unappreciated, time consuming and open-ended commitments. The sad truth about non-profit operations like churches is they don’t run themselves. They are complex organisms of relationships. Bill Gates once famously said that trying to manage programmers was like trying to herd cats. Managing churches is like trying to nail Jello to the wall.

There are all sorts of challenges in our church, none of which are likely to get solved no matter how much we flagellate ourselves or how much time I give it. Membership is declining. Our minister of just three years is leaving, for reasons she will not explicitly state, which of course pumps the rumor mill. As I once noted, churches are human institutions, and ours certainly is. We have a long and storied history of settled ministers leaving us for greener pastures or in strange circumstances, and this latest episode is just one more that feeds the fear, is there something intrinsically wrong with us?

Supposedly we have institutionalized trust issues but it seems that we really have ministerial issues. Our first minister was later revealed to be philandering with the congregants he was supposed to be counseling. His replacement left abruptly after less than a year. One of our interim ministers wrote a letter purporting to be from our board of directors endorsing himself for a permanent ministry elsewhere. He was, of course, quickly sacked. The last interim minister complained that we were a surreal congregation, happy enough to listen to sermons but reticent to challenge him on them, something he saw routinely in other congregations. Not that all of our ministers have been bad. Most recently we had a husband/wife pair that spent nine happy years with us.

The Catholics at least have a pragmatic solution to these organizational problems: the priest gets to decide. His decisions may be imperfect, but at least they tend to be final. In a covenantal church like ours everything is done democratically, which means that consensus is usually needed and usually hard to achieve, even though we are quite similar to each other in categories like race, income levels and politics. A building expansion consumed ten years, all but two of which involved in coming to consensus on whether then what to build. Curiously, once we finally broke ground it all went swimmingly: delivered on time and on budget but for a lot more money than had we done it in year one instead of year eight.

All these details and institutional detritus were on display this weekend as I and eight other members of the board huddled at the church for our annual retreat. It’s an opportunity to talk about big picture things, and for new members like me to get acquainted and subsumed in the church issues of the day. You would think that after forty years we’d have a refined governance structure, but we haggled through issues like whether we should micromanage or empower committees, and how to oversee the myriad committees that we have. Some things are clearer: slowly declining membership is probably due to some cliquishness in the congregation but mostly due to the pressure on members to do church work, and then do more church work. If you aren’t on a couple of committees already, you are a considered some sort of slacker. Being a member is more about taking a second, unpaid job than getting spiritually enlightened. It’s not surprising then that many who come through the door don’t want to stay.

So maybe we need to do less as a church, but no one seems to want to give up any programs. They are all vital. No hypothermia project? How can we let homeless people freeze on cold winter nights? No social action committee? Fighting for issues like gay marriage is in our DNA. And yet it is clearly too much and everyone is exhausted, including me, their newest board member, from just listening to it all. The sandwiches for our retreat from PotBelly were at least tasty, but except for sleep spending twenty-four hours on church business was exhausting, as is the stack of action items I received as I am now the board member overseeing education. I will no doubt be petitioned to attend all these related committee meetings, and the monthly board meetings plus follow up on an ever changing list of action items.

I get to do this and a full time job and nurture my wife back to health after her accident and help my daughter transition from degree to productive employee somewhere and monitor a declining cat who needs regular doses of drugs and special cat foods and all the other stuff in life like finishing painting downstairs. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

So what’s the point? The point is to change the world for the better, one small step at a time. It takes a lot of energy to heal a broken society, which is the whole purpose of our church. It is made harder when our own church is rife with purely predictable human dramas and institutional malaise. It seems so pointless somehow, until you see the success of the Alternative Gift Market and that realize families in third world countries are getting cows, which means they have a path toward a better life. It seems pointless except a church brings people together who volunteer to help out at the homeless shelter. It seems pointless except for the youth group bonding for life at a weekend at Chincoteague, or the passing out of sandwiches to the homeless on alternate Friday nights. Then you realize there is a point to all of it, exhausting and inefficient though it may be. And you realize that while being on the board of directors is a hassle and our means are far from perfect, there is some value from all these committees, although it is hard to see while you wallow in organizational mess bordering on chaos.

And so you keep pulling at the institutional oars, though you don’t know if you are going in the right direction, though the efforts seem microscopic in comparison to the size of the problems to be addressed. You hope that your unreasonable faith in what you cherish most highly through your church results in outcomes you will mostly not see that matter and that will leave the world a better place.

So you pick up the phone and dial that member and ask them if they are interested in being in the next ministerial search committee. And you find yourself in your off hours looking at the church’s web logs to see what could be done to bring in new members. And you get in email threads with other directors on the minutia of this stuff. And you keep going, despite frequent deficiencies in both interest and energy. You don’t really know why you do it, but you do it. It is both an expression of your faith and absurdity, but you keep going.

 

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