WHEN SPIRITUALITY WENT GLOBAL

Many religious believers around the world are absolutely certain that nothing was worth remembering for very long about humankind’s spiritual journey until Abraham, Jesus, or Muhammad came along. My reading of history suggests otherwise.

For decades, I have been contemplating a very brief interval of historical time within which astonishingly powerful spiritual breakthroughs occurred, as if simultaneously, at widely separated points on the planet. Together, they have transformed human existence forever.

The interval I have in mind is the time between 590 and 530 B.C.E. It may have been a little longer; historians have slightly different opinions about the most important birth and death dates of the period. But it cannot have been very much longer.

Here is what holds my attention about these years: during them, the following spiritual leaders attained the height of their powers and influence: Zoroaster in Persia, Lao Tzu and Confucius in China, the Buddha in India, and the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah in Babylonia.

And there is more: while these revered men were making their own monumental contributions to spirituality across the globe, a new philosophical spirit was emerging in Southern Italy (e.g., from Xenophanes and Pythagoras) and Asia Minor (Anaximander). In interestingly different ways, these philosophers challenged ancient Greek polytheism in light of rationally determined ideas about what is truly worthy of human devotion.

To me, this is a staggering sequence of historical convergences. It has made me wonder repeatedly whether we are looking at more than mere coincidence in their emergence.

Karl Jaspers, one of the last century’s most respected philosophers, had a captivating way of referring to this era in human history. In one of his most enthralling books, The Origin and Goal of History, he called it the time when the axis of the spiritual world underwent a permanent and transformational shift. Karen Armstrong makes considerable use of Jasper’s notion in many of her own, much respected writings.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all present their respective messages within historical contexts. Past events and personages pave the way for the life, teachings, and impact of their own especially revered men of God. Each of their efforts, though, eventually ends up the same way, by pronouncing its own story to be the only story worth honoring. Puzzlingly, though, each also proclaims God to be the Lord of all history and not just of a part of it.

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ARE THERE RELIGIOUS ISSUES THAT BELIEVERS SHOULD NEVER DISCUSS?

Recently, Pope Francis declared all over again that his church’s teaching against contraception is not open for discussion. He might have put it another way: there is no point in discussing the issue because the church will not change its position on it, period.

For decades, American Catholics have largely ignored Papal pronouncements on this subject. Even so, they have shown deep reverence toward their Popes, and now to Francis especially.

Maybe they are on to something. Maybe the way to deal with a religious pronouncement which lacks credibility — such as the prohibition of contraception, or of abortion following a rape, or of sex between consenting, loving homosexuals — is simply to pay the pronouncer homage outwardly and then ignore his pronouncements inwardly.

By means of such a strategy, both the incorrigibleness of highly controversial teachings and the demands of conscience would remain intact. And prohibiting further discussion of the matters in question would prevent even fleeting mention of the possibility that in each the integrity of personal faith can be at stake.

Or would it? Certainly not for religious authorities who continue to fulminate against even the slightest infractions of their institutions’ codes of conduct. And certainly not for women and men of faith for whom certain kinds of conduct, sexual in particular, should be beyond the purview of these institutions, as well as of the state, altogether.

Bad things can happen when discussion is ruled out by fiat. By way of further illustration, here is another religious issue, not as widely acknowledged as issues of sexual ethics are, but a more important one to a growing faith. It is at the heart of dialogues occurring all over the world between Christians and Muslims who are seeking common ground.

The issue is Christianity’s teaching that God is three-in-one and Islam’s that God is one and only one.

Staunchly Trinitarian theologians insist that the coming of Jesus Christ brought with it an utterly new and transformational understanding of God. Affirming this new understanding, they say, is a necessary condition for anyone’s claiming membership in the Christian community.

For Islamic theologians talk like this is, purely and simply, blasphemy.

No, but might we have reached a time for traditional Trinitarian teaching at least to be revisited? Not allowing a question like this even to be asked is no way to reconcile warring religious factions anywhere.

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TRUTH, COMMUNITY, AND INTEGRITY IN THE LIFE OF FAITH

At their most mature, faith communities share their deepest convictions about the Sacred, the world, and human destiny with humility and a sense of gratitude. At their worst, they impose their convictions with arrogance and a sense of superiority.

To date, I have met more of the latter than I have the former. And the experience invariably makes me wonder whether faith-seekers would be better off working out their core beliefs on their own.

The game of our-truths-are-better-than-your-truths is one that thoughtful people eventually quit playing, even though religious institutions don’t. The resulting chasm between lonely inquirers and arm-in-arm believers threatens to swallow up the idea of truth itself.

On one side of the chasm are despairing seekers for whom only “my” truth has come to count as truth. On the other side are ideology promoters for whom only unquestionable dogma does.

Is there a way around this chasm? A starting point might be a reminder that truth at the expense of community can save us only partially, and community at the expense of truth may not save us at all.

One time during my seminary teaching years, I brought to chapel with me a guest lecturer who has just finished working over a traditional confession of faith in my theology class. On our way out of the classroom, one of my students said to him, it’s really hard to deal with everything being so up for grabs.

As it happened that morning, the worship service’s Confession of Faith was the very one my friend had just demolished. And yet, there he was, belting it out with greater gusto than anyone around us. Several students and I confronted him about it afterward at coffee hour.

His reply to us went this way: Ever since I became a citizen, one of my greatest joys has been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. For me, affirming a creed is something like that: a thoughtful but not blind declaration of loyalty.

Standing up for a religious belief is not always about putting forward an objective truth. Sometimes, it can be about letting members of a group know that we’re in the struggle for authentic faith together.

Standing up for what one believes can take real courage. Berating others for no longer standing with us may not be. Unless beliefs themselves are expressions of loyalty as well as of truth.

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MORALITY WITHOUT MORALISM

The most frequent complaint that I hear from people who have left their churches is about the hypocrisy they found in them. A less frequent complaint is that the church’s moral teaching is handed down in the form of unchangeable rules that admit of no questioning.

This latter complaint contains a lot worth thinking about. In order to have legitimate force, parochial moral rules must be examinable in the light of ethical principles of universal scope.

One time-honored ethical principle is that the ultimate end of all moral behavior is happiness, and that the best way to reach that end is by way of becoming virtuous.

Everybody understands the first part of this proposition. It’s the second part that modern society is confused about. Wealth, power, fame, and pleasure don’t add up to happiness. Becoming a certain kind of person does.

Not enough people seem to believe this anymore, however, and that is the primary reason why so many people are so unhappy. At least, this is how most of the genuinely happy among them see things.

From Plato and Aristotle all the way through Ambrose, Augustine and Aquinas, human life at its best has been consistently characterized as a state of completeness (or, “perfection”) and as a process of achieving it (as in “be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” [Mt. 5:48]). The process hinges on developing certain dispositions or habits, which to the ancients meant virtues or excellences of character.

Four virtues in particular came to be viewed as indispensable to the attainment of happiness: moderating our cravings (temperance); staying on task in the face of fear (courage); taking delight in the contemplation of truth (wisdom); and treating people fairly (justice). These four became the cardinal (from the word for “hinge”) virtues upon which all other virtues — such as honesty, fidelity, service, and leadership — turn.

From this perspective, it is not difficult to see why defining morality in terms of unquestioning obedience to a set of imposed rules has become so problematic for so many people. Obedience of this sort may make us compliant, but it will make us neither good nor happy.

Pursuing happiness in the right way is not a matter of pleasing those who make the rules. It is a matter of honoring an ever-deepening fear of losing the best of ourselves if we stop.

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SCIENCE AND RELIGION: MUST THEY BE AT WAR?

Most modern societies believe that the delivery of better living through science offsets the over-promising of scientific researchers themselves. So why do so many religious communities seem so indifferent and even hostile toward the science itself?

I think the answer lies in an inadequately unexamined religious attitude. One way of describing it is in terms of an anxious respectfulness toward whatever is believed to be a sacred reality. The emphasis here falls on the word, “anxious.”

The carefulness includes maintaining a self-protective distance from the Sacred (as in sitting toward the back in a half empty sanctuary), as a dutifulness bordering on compulsiveness, and as a refusal to question anything about what is regarded as the divinely ordained order of things.

With a religious outlook like this, modern science can only be viewed as edging closer to blasphemy with every hypothesis it puts forward for investigation, even when an investigation fails to confirm it. As one sweat-soaked preacher I heard as a youth put it: “friends, science is the work of the devil.”

Alongside this ancient religious attitude, however, is a very different one. This one is at the same time older, more modern, and wiser. It is an attitude of joyful participation with the Spirit of Life in bringing and sustaining human order out of chaos. It includes a sense that the human environing world is not a fixed order, but rather one that changes constantly, partly because of how we interact with it.

A test case for the comparing of these two attitudes is the ever-present challenge that diseases and infirmities present to human well-being. One way that this challenge was addressed within the framework of the first attitude was to re-iterate that all suffering is divine punishment for sin, those of the afflicted person and those of his/her blood kin.

The way this challenge is met by the second attitude is to seek to overcome suffering with the help of every human and divine power available, in a joint venture of making the human body a healthier habitat for all the generations to come.

Once upon a time, Jesus healed a man born blind by spitting on the ground, making a paste with the spittle, and slathering it on the man’s eyes. Today, gene therapists are injecting genes directly into the eyes in hopes of achieving the same result. Now that’s attitude for you.

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WHAT DOES GOD THINK ABOUT BLASPHEMY?

Here is one of my most treasured statements about the kind of environment that is needed for faith to grow: Let there be no compulsion in religion.

It wasn’t written by Voltaire, or Locke, or Jefferson. It comes from the Quran. (2:257)

Right up there with it on my favorites list is another from the same book: if God had pleased, he would have made humanity one people with one religion. But he has done otherwise, to test you in what he has severally given you. So press forward in doing good. Unto God you shall return and He will tell you then about all you disagree with one another about. (5:48)

People can and do get very testy about religions other than their own. The testiness begins in irritability that they exist at all. It can end in deluded, destructive actions rationalized as just punishments for the other religions’ blaspheming the name of the one true God — one’s own.

Such was the testiness of the Parisian terrorists who screamed about avenging their Prophet’s being insulted by, of all things, cartoons. As if Muhammad’s exalted place in human hearts and history somehow needed cowardly and despicable acts of retaliation by murder to shore it up.

To the many people who disagreed with and ridiculed him throughout his lifetime, Muhammad himself responded not angrily, but benevolently. And he clearly thought that God would, too. Blasphemy only de-humanizes the blasphemer. It does not disgrace the blasphemed.

For millennia, an idea has been poisoning people’s minds that irreverence toward what others deem sacred warrants a death sentence. God himself, it has been alleged, demands nothing less.

But what kind of a god would this be? An anxious, jealous, capricious tribal deity unworthy of any human being’s respect, much less the whole of humankind’s admiration. A figment of the deformed imaginations of rage-filled people whose sense of having a life at all requires annihilating life in others.

What blasphemy is really all about is defaming the image that God has of us. It is about showing contempt toward the divine part of human nature and the sacred worth of every human being in God’s eyes.

Should this kind of blasphemy be punishable by being put to death? No. It does not need to be. Because it is the outward manifestation of a soul that is already dead inside.

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WHEN RESENTMENTS GET THE BETTER OF FAITH

Maybe you know them. A teen-ager who will never walk again following an injury at football practice. A rising star whose prospects plummeted after filing a sexual harassment complaint. A father whose insidious-onset mental disorder robbed him of his marriage and children.

I know them well. For a time, each was consumed by anger and bitterness. And each spoke poignantly of having lost even the remnants of faith.

Surely, these terribly injured innocents had a right to feel at least some of the anger they feel, to cry out “Why me?” and to wonder if they would ever be able to hope again. As does everyone who has been overwhelmed by unexpected and undeserved calamities.

I’m hoping, though, that in the midst of their anger my three new friends will continue to find the strength — from the very faith that once was in eclipse — to look hard at how being resentful and losing faith go hand in hand. At how regaining the latter requires relinquishing the former.

Holding resentments has a powerfully corrosive effect on faith. It does its corrosive work especially by reinforcing a natural but spiritually devastating disposition. In the face of undeserved suffering, it is natural to look for someone or something to blame.

It some cases, blame may well be assignable. But the problem with blaming it is that it will eventually shrink our personhood to the sum total of our injuries.

Faith’s aim is in the reverse direction, away from what has happened to what is newly possible. It fixates not on loss but on hope, not on blame but on forgiveness. Corroded by resentment, faith is also and finally resentment’s conqueror.

When resentments threaten to get the better of faith, what is most important is to stay focused on what is breaking in rather than what has broken down. On mercies tendered gratefully rather than grudges clutched greedily.

Surrounded by his former teammates in the locker room before the final game of the season, a wheel-chair-bound teen-ager is thanking God for “everything good that’s still going on in my life.”

A fired whistle-blower is now heading a women’s advocacy organization.

And a schizophrenic is tutoring fellow patients in math and science, “for when we all get on with our lives.” During our last visit, he said to me: Life isn’t fair. But it’s good. Thank God.

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HOW MUCH DOES GOD REALLY WANT US TO KNOW?

In the Bible there is a story about a tree whose enticing fruit the first humans were commanded by God never to eat. The substance of the fruit was the knowledge of good and evil.

What religious traditions have made of this reference is vastly out of proportion to the influence it actually had on the rest of the Bible, where it was never mentioned again. I think it dropped out of the Bible’s pages for good reason.

Rather than encouraging us to cultivate, commensurate with our finite nature, a mind like God’s, the tree of knowledge story is a call to mindless obedience. Its message is that God wants us to believe and do only what we are told, to ask no questions, and to be eternally grateful for the opportunity to tend our gardens and watch the rest of the world go by.

Permit me for a moment to play the role of the serpent in this story, and ask its original question this way: Did God tell us to do all this? And now permit me to answer it as Eve might today: No, religious authorities told us to do it, and must excuse us for refusing to go along.

In the original scenario, Eve fully affirmed her God-bestowed likeness to the Creator as a being with, most importantly of all, a mind. She fully embraced the risk that God took in giving her an insatiable desire to know the origin and purpose of everything in all creation, even divine commands.

For some, what we most desire to know is summed up in the question: Why is there anything at all and not nothing? For the original readers of this story, as for me, the question is: What is the good and the evil that God sees in things?

The operative word here is “sees,” not “pronounces.” Whatever is good or evil cannot be such merely because God says it is. God says something is one or the other, or a mixture of both, because it really is that. To see things as God sees them is what the search for knowledge is all about.

For many people, asking to know things in this way is something like playing with fire, Prometheus-style. But for beings created in God’s own image, there is true godliness in the asking.

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IS THE WAY OF JESUS THE ONLY WAY TO GOD?

Here is another Bible verse that begins inspiringly and ends troublingly: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6, King James Version) Would that modern translations could vanquish my faith-issues with it. Alas, they can’t.

But let’s begin with the inspiring opening. At least, I have been inspired by it ever since I began struggling in late adolescence with how to be a faithful Christian in addition to being a new church member. I got what God was all about; what I did not get was how to translate my understanding of God into a better way of personal living than I had managed to come up with on my own.

The Ten Commandments didn’t help much. Its jealous God wasn’t the God I had come to know. “Look to Jesus,” a lot of my friends kept telling me. And that helped more.

It was the first part of John 14:6 — the part before the colon —that first showed me what I might find by looking to Jesus in earnest. A lot more study across a lot more years brought me to a slightly different rendering of John’s point. For me, the idea is this: staying on the way toward truth IS life, and Jesus followed that way as closely as anyone I know ever has.

What this means, of course, is that personifying Jesus as “The” way is more than just a little extreme. Jesus became my guide and my friend not because I saw him as my only path to God, but because the God who had already come to me along his own path was the same God who came to Jesus too, much more powerfully.

Sometimes, I speculate about what challenges the long lost original manuscripts of biblical books might present to faith. There is good reason to trust that, for the most part at least, they were copied accurately and faithfully. But, you never know…

One speculation I have is that the first of John’s copyists back then inadvertently reversed the original phrasing of 14:6b, and that the reversal became incorporated into all the copying that followed. Consider this possibility for the original statement: no man cometh unto me, but by the Father.

Or unto the Buddha, or Muhammad, or…

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AND LIGHT WILL DAWN, EVEN IN A UNIVERSE DARK AS DEATH

I have always loved looking up into the night sky. According to my mother, it started as soon as I could hold my neck up by myself.

When city lights began swallowing up the splendor of starry nights, I knew that my eyes alone could no longer support my nightly look-ups. Eventually, though, came the Hubble telescope, and heavenward meditations have not been the same since.

Do you see what I see, way up in that sky? I know that not everyone does, and I do not always see the same things there myself.

Sometimes my night sky is like the one depicted in Archibald MacLeish’s 1926 poem, “The End of the World.” Given the vastness of its subject matter, the poem is startlingly short.

Its setting is a captivating circus performance which is suddenly interrupted by its huge tent’s top blowing off in a high wind. With “dazed eyes,” the audience stares upward at the fully exposed night sky:

There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,

There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,

There in the sudden blackness, the black pall,

Of nothing, nothing, nothing — nothing at all.

The poem was prescient. Many today think that the “end” for everything will be unimaginable and irreversible coldness, lifelessness, and blackness, nothing but blackness.

For me, this kind of blackness is not so much a nothingness as it is an unassuageable loneliness. An infinitely expanding universe eventually must leave our survivors so far from everything else that not even light may reach them anymore.

More often than not, however, my night sky is something suffused with light, not overwhelmed by the darkness of futurelessness. I need poetry to express this night sky, too, this time from the Gospel of John in the New Testament (1:1-5). My rendering of its principal idea is a little different from the Gospel writer’s:

In God was life, and that life is light for all humankind.

It shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overwhelm it.

The true light which gives light to everyone is in the world even now.

In truth, darkness is never “out there” so much as it is in us. The dark moments of our souls’ own making are what turn the universe dark. But the blazing moments of God’s own making turn everything aflame with possibility, forever.

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