Her language was filthy, her face contorted in rage. Momentarily trapped in an elevator with her, my wife and I concentrated on not provoking her further. He’s infected everybody and he knew just what he was doing! , she screamed.

Leroy Howe

Leroy Howe

The “he” was Thomas Duncan, who had just died of Ebola in the hospital across the street from the doctor’s office to which all three of us were heading. When the elevator door opened, she shoved both my wife and me to the side, stormed toward our doctor’s reception area, and treated everyone seated in it to yet another furious fulmination against terrorists pretending to be Liberians.

When we came through the door, she turned her head back toward me, and then I saw it. Her mouth and her face were spewing outrage and blame. But her eyes were fixed in terror. I don’t think I’ll ever forget looking into them.

No one who knows what the Ebola virus can do can or even should be completely unafraid of it. However, being honest with ourselves about just how scared we are goes a long way toward preventing our fears from taking possession of us. It can cure us of the delusion that casting blame and staying angry is the way to keep terror at bay.

As our city continues to calm down at least a little from what has gripped us for the past three weeks, my own thoughts keep returning to what truly spiritual people have told us for millennia about dealing with fear. Its cure is a deepening compassion for people in need, along with the active reaching out to alleviate it. In a word, the cure for fear is love.

Serving the needs of others leaves little room in the soul for fear. From one perspective, therefore, it’s a very reckless endeavor. But from another, it’s a transforming one. I’m still working hard on opening myself more to both.

Here in Dallas there are all kinds of signs that love has been at work in the midst of our Ebola scare. But there are also signs that love has yet to “take” in the hearts of some, especially landlords too fearful to rent to Mr. Duncan’s now possession-less family members.

Sometimes, it’s easier to nurture fear than love. And therein lies the real Ebola crisis that faces us.

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In the early hours of October 28, 312, historians say, a man had a dream that changed one religion possibly forever. Most do not tell us how really, really bad the dream was.

The dreamer was Constantine, and his dream was reported to have been of a sword formed by the first letters of Christ’s name, underneath which were the words, “By this sign you will conquer.” Facing a battle the next day for the imperial throne, Constantine had the symbol painted on his soldiers’ helmets and shields, and they won the battle.

Things have not been the same for Christianity since. What began as an era of toleration for Christians throughout the Empire devolved into centuries-long, State-governed programs of imposing Constantine’s version of the Christian faith upon people by force.

As James Carroll pointed out in his book, Constantine’s Sword, the cross became to Jews a symbol of Christian persecution and to Muslims a symbol of Christian imperialism. Islam’s response was to advance its cause the way that Constantine advanced Christianity’s. Judaism’s was to yearn more fervently for a land in which Jews would forever be protected from both.

Personally, I doubt that Constantine ever had the dream that Lactantius attributed to him. But I’m certain that if Constantine did in fact dream it, he misinterpreted it badly, and at the world’s expense. Truly revelatory dreams work to unite people, not divide them.

They don’t present the cross of Christ as a battering ram for storming the sanctuaries of other peoples’ worship. They don’t present Jews as spiritually and genetically inferior beings deserving to be wiped off the face of the earth. And they don’t present angels reciting messages of hell on earth for anyone their recipients arbitrarily decide to call infidels.

One of the greatest catastrophes that can befall any religion is to mix up the rendering of taxes to Caesar and the rendering of praise to God. In its best years, the Roman Empire was content to ensure the first and leave the second to powers not of this world. In their worst years, Christianity insisted on controlling both, Islam fell quickly into line, and Judaism identified with its aggressors on both sides.

Happily, all three religions have their good years as well as good dreams along with their bad ones, and it is from the former that we ought not to disaffiliate.

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Once, and only once, my father shared with me what he thought faith is. “It’s believing,” he said, “that there is a Supreme Being.”

I never could draw him out further. Perhaps that was for the best. The little that he left me on the subject forced me to think more about it on my own.

The biggest impression that my father’s all too brief statement made on me was that it had to have come from somewhere besides the church. He had given up on organized religion long before he helped bring me into the world.

Dad’s deeply personal profession of faith, almost like a sigh too deep for words, presented two challenges to my search for a credible faith of my own.

One challenge was having to acknowledge respectfully his negativity toward the church at the very time that the church was becoming important in my own spiritual growth.

The second challenge was having to admit that my church-rejecting father was absolutely certain about the one belief I was the most uncertain about, even with my stepped-up church-going. He was wholly unimpressed with my philosophical and scientific “arguments” against the existence of God.

It would take a while before I could become as unimpressed with them as he was. And as church-goers tend to be.

For many of the latter, though, all that needs to be said is that the church has been teaching people what to believe for two thousand years and that people struggling with doubts about God should simply set them aside and come to Jesus. For me, the doubts had to be resolved first.

I still admire the ease with which my father rested his single faith conviction on common sense and intuition, not on religious traditions and intuitions. His was a very personal, but not a religious faith. In his eyes, “religious” faith was believing what others believed, just because they believed it.

I could not agree with my father, however, that personal faith and religious faith are so different that choosing one faith precludes making room for the other. Even so, there is still a lot of him in me. As it was for him, for me the personal deserves priority over the religious.

And so it did for Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad. Their faith is still more important than the religions which honor it.

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I used to think that referring to psychiatrists as shrinks reflected disrespect based on ignorance. And now?

Well, consider for a moment the root word, psyche. It means “soul.” It does not mean what modern psychiatry means by it: “mind.”

The soul is our humanness at its most grounded, like roots reaching deep into the earth, making stable growth possible. But it is also our humanness at its most upward-surging, like branches reaching toward the clouds, making discontent inevitable with conventionality, conviviality, and compliance.

If our atoms are the stuff of stars, our souls are the stuff that aspirations are made on.

This is what most modern psychologies miss, as they reduce the psyche to a cache of mental disorders and a syllabus of disapproved behaviors. Across the centuries, philosophers and spiritual leaders have known better.

They have known that the psyche cannot rest content until it finds its rest — and here the symbols spin in many different directions — in the cessation of the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth; or in being embraced by what is Good, Beautiful, and True; or in union with God in a kingdom which has no end; or in a peace which passes understanding, free from inner turmoil and from apprehensiveness about the future; or in a joy beyond all capacity for utterance …

And they have also known that there is no way to such rest except through the dark forest of fear, lust, anger, sadness, guilt, and shame that will submit readily neither to repression, medication, nor good intentions. We come out of this forest — a kind of madness — either changed creatures or not at all.

But must we make our way through it all on our own? The Buddha did. But Socrates had his daimon, and the Psalmist walked through his own valley of the shadow of death with the assurance of a Divine Presence near.

Perhaps we do or do not seek a companion in the dark forest on the basis of what we already expect to find on the far side, e.g., nothingness; or the communion of saints; or a making ready for yet another life journey; or …

One thing has become very clear to me about soul-shepherding. It is that for it to work, the shepherd must become more like a shaman than a shrink.

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Recently, the eminent astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, revealed as if for the first time that believing in God serves no useful purpose. His reason for saying so was that appealing to science is a better way of explaining things than appealing to God is.

As a religious believer, I know I am supposed to quake at pronouncements like this from people who know a lot more facts than I do about the universe. And then defend the faith with every theological resource I can either find or make up. If faith can’t illumine the how and the why of things, Hawking teases, why bother with it at all?

Here are two reasons why.

First, faith is a matter of trusting in spite of explanations more than it is a believing on the basis of them.

It is true that every religion has its tales to tell about the origins and operations of things, and that the best of them offer captivating images of how an unseen ordering is at the heart of the whole process. As explanations, however, most of them require a sacrifice of the intellect that thoughtful people cannot make.

What myths do best is not to tell us the meaning of things, but rather to express our yearning for it. They are not about what is and why, but rather what is worthy of our highest hopes and striving. They do not picture what is out there so much as they express what is deepest within us, affixed to our wishes, moral sense, and sighs too deep for words.

And second, science is a matter of describing how things happen within the universe more than it is an explaining of the universe itself.

It is true that talking about what might going on out there — literally, “cosmology” — is exciting. When the talk turns to explanations, however — to “cosmogony” — things become murkier. The explanations are as many, varied, and insusceptible to proof as myths are.

What cosmology does best is not to tell us where it all came from, but to express our yearning for grounding in it. It is not about what happened back then, but about what and whom we should trust to make things happen next. They do not picture origins so much as destinies, ours more than the cosmos’, and God’s more than both.

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This past week a reader began her e-mail to me with this question, added a story to go with it, and gave me permission to share both.

I’ll begin with the story: Cindy and Jack (not their real names) grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same parish school, and were married by the priest who baptized both of them as infants. But their marriage didn’t work, and they divorced three years later.

Now, they are feeling doubly condemned by their church, first for the divorce and second for wanting to re-marry in the church, to new partners. The first condemnation added little to Cindy’s and Jack’s own self-condemnations for marrying long before they were “ready.” But the second, in Cindy’s words, plunged them into a spiritual despair from which they are seeing no way out.

And now, the question. Under the laws of their church, Cindy and Jack’s divorce had already made them unworthy to receive communion, and would also consign their re-marriages to the status of illegitimacy — to “living in sin” Unless…

Unless they were willing to seek an annulment of their first marriage. Annulment would accomplish two purposes: (1) it would declare their first marriage invalid and therefore never-existent as a marriage, and (2) it would express the forgiveness of their church for the sin of ending it.

For Cindy and Jack, the possibility of receiving only this kind forgiveness made their despair even worse. Why? Because it would require them to deny the very existence of a relationship that they knew would hold sacred value for them all the rest of their lives, even though they had found themselves unable fulfill its sacred obligations.

Cindy expressed her anguish this way: Our love was real, our vows were genuine, and our weakness destroyed both. But it’s not as if we never married at all. We did marry, in every sense of the word.

My anguish for this couple is a little different. It includes an intellectual reaction to the idea that bringing to an end by divorce what was never a marriage to start with is somehow a sinful act. This is an idea that on many levels just doesn’t make sense.

But my anguish goes much deeper than this. I anguish over Cindy and Jack’s missing out on God’s love because of church laws that claim precedence over it.

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Of all the controversies roiling religious communities today, one of the most vexing is over the role of beliefs in the life of faith.

Many believers are holding onto traditional teachings as the only way they know to take a stand against relativists and pluralists everywhere. Others insist that non-negotiable beliefs are the principal source of divisiveness in the world, and weaken the credibility of all belief-systems, religious or not.

Adding to this unhelpful debate among religious believers is the substitution of labels for careful thinking. Self-proclaimed “conservatives” gloat that their own fellowships, unquestioningly loyal to their scriptures, creeds, and moral codes, can only prosper while those of the “liberals,” who believe anything they want, can only decline.

In turn, liberals fulminate against the oppressiveness of tradition as such and, substituting relevance and activism for sound theology, summarily dismiss conservatives as narrow-minded, mean-spirited enemies of authentic faith.

Beliefs do and should matter to any religious community. They are really, really important. But not so important as to undermine respecting and caring for the people who hold them, even and especially when others’ beliefs are seriously at odds with one’s own.

When beliefs become more important than the believers who hold them, at least three things tend to get lost sight of with respect to the beliefs themselves.

The first is that the most carefully considered and passionately held religious beliefs are only partial views of the sacred realities to which they point. A big reason why this is so is: us. We believe what we want to believe more often than we believe what we know we ought to believe.

The second is that what any religious community considers the vital center of its beliefs means different things at different times to the different people who share its common history. In every religion there are many traditions. One thing this means is that there are many ways to be a believer on any religion’s own terms.

And the third is that for personal faith to thrive, faith communities must respect both the God-given right of people to ask probing questions about core beliefs and the fact that there is a vital center of belief to be discovered on the far side of all genuine questioning and doubting.

From religious communities whose members see these things clearly, hardly anyone could wish to disaffiliate.

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Sometimes, disappointments reach a point beyond the power of faith to explain or rectify. Recently, a friend of mine put it this way: I was brought up believing in a God I could always count on, no matter what. But when I needed him most, he wasn’t there for me. I won’t reach out anymore.

The sadness and anger to which his words gave voice still resonate in me. They won’t let me go because I think there is more to them than my friend is at present willing to share.

What I would like to know more about are the other people in my friend’s life who mattered greatly to him and disappointed him. I don’t think God was the first. I think God is more like the last in a series. The last straw, perhaps.

Sometimes, God’s seeming non-responsiveness in a particular crisis is all that it takes to turn naïve belief into cynical doubt, expectation into rage, and hope into despair. The real tragedy begins when the doubt, the rage, and the despair become all but irreversible.

One thing I know about my friend’s giving up on God is that the process began long before the final crisis. It began with the formation of what might be best called a wishful spirituality. My friend’s beliefs express wishes more than they do judgments based on perception and logic.

Maybe someday he will open up a little more about what he believes “counting on God” really involves. I have a hunch that it involves clinging to a very childlike image of God. This God is not so much a “very present help” in times of trouble as he is the Guarantor of a life free from troubles at all.

One thing I do know about my friend is that he has not as yet allowed the logic of his disappointment and anger to have free reign. He still holds too much against God to believe that there is no God for him to be disappointed and angry with.

I’m hoping that somehow he and many others will come to see more clearly the naivete of believing that pain and loss should play no part in any God-sustained universe. And the even greater naivete of believing that we can better cope with both if God is out of the equation rather than in.

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Very young children believe that rules for living originate from an unseen order of things, and that they hover over us threateningly, with no let-up. Violators of them can expect severe punishments which bear little discernable relationship to the nature of the violations themselves.

Later on, children typically look upon rules as either created or negotiated by people like themselves. Punishments for breaking them should be appropriate to the intention of and the harm caused by the particular violation. Kids grow up!

Would that it were so with the religions which seek to serve them. Even today, a great deal of what passes for religion amounts to little more than coercing peoples’ assent by scaring them to death.

The scare tactics take this form: Unless you do/don’t do … then something very, very bad will happen to you. Just what this “something” is becomes a major part of the teachings of every religion. Here are a few images of “It”:

Experiencing poverty, disease, infirmity, failure, and hopelessness in this life;

Being re-born at a lower rung on the social or even biological hierarchy;

Burning in the flames of hell forever;

Dissolving into the Nothingness from which we have come.

One way to look at these notions is as attempts to clarify the “unseen order” of the very young child’s world-view. The best indicator that this is so is their lack of clarity about how general punishments like these are warranted in every case of individual wrongdoing in widely different circumstances.

Consider an illustration from my own religious tradition, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The whole populations of these two cities, the story goes, were destroyed by fire because some of the men in Sodom committed homosexual acts. The offenses allegedly committed in Gomorrah are not defined at all.

Homosexuality aside, did the wives and children of these men deserve this fate? Little children might think so. But when grown-ups do, it is appropriate to call their thinking not child-like, but downright childish.

Human development theorists generally agree that doing and not doing things for the sake of avoiding punishment represents only the first step in the process of moral growth. Religious leaders should know, too, that the fear of the Ultimate is not the basis of wisdom. It is only a first step in a developing understanding what wisdom most truly is.

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To most of the civilized world, the severity of American society’s antagonism toward criminal offenders is astonishing. It suggests an “eye for an eye” moral code which higher order ethical thinking rejected long ago.

And it calls into question our notion that rehabilitation is the primary goal of our criminal justice system. Yes, this notion may be impossibly idealistic in the cases of truly hardened criminals. Against these, society rightly puts its own need for protection first.

But are all convicted criminals deserving of being locked up and the keys thrown away? Or of being looked upon as persons incapable of change? Spiritual leaders throughout history have not thought so.

Many in our society, however, continue to believe so. Ever since the Nixon administration, we have been in a “War on Crime.” And ever since the Reagan administration, an additional “War on Drugs.” In both, we have largely replaced the goal of rehabilitation with the goal of locking up as many wrongdoers as we can — suspected as well as convicted — and for as long as we can.

And so, with only 5% of the world’s population, we now boast of having 25% of the world’s incarcerated criminals. The numbers are largely the result of legislative and judicial acts which in themselves are morally reprehensible.

Consider, for example, the imposition of sentences two to three times longer than in peer countries for the same crimes. Or mandatory sentencing guidelines that have resulted in longer jail sentences for drug possession than for rape and murder. Or letting white offenders sail and everybody else sink.

Making matters even worse is that sometimes, all it takes for law enforcers to ruin peoples’ lives is just to arrest them. Never mind accusations withdrawn and charges dropped. These count for little in a culture which, captivated by images of warfare, is all too ready to turn fellow human beings into enemies and then demonize them.

One of the most important discoveries of a maturing faith is that there is a spiritual center in every human being. And that within that center there is a Power to change for the better which is always available to those who seek it.

From this perspective, the keys on which our society should properly depend are not to prison cells but to transformed lives, in prisons and out of them.

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