The Demise of Institutional Religion

ventIn case you haven’t noticed, institutional religion is on a ventilator and not expected to survive. The reason is very simple, though many experts would make it very complicated because you can’t write a book with only a few sentences.

It doesn’t matter what religion we are talking about, all religion began with a charismatic teacher presenting new ideas – and never intending to start a new religion. Most often they were simply trying to reform the one of which they were a part. The Buddha sought to address problems in what we today call Hinduism, Jesus wanted to reform Judaism and free it from Roman occupation, Muhammad didn’t believe Judaism or Christianity had quite hit the mark. Protestant Christianity started when people thought Catholicism had drifted off point. The New Thought movement started as a place for overly educated people to gather, Baha’i began as a reform movement within Islam, and New Age started so that people who had serious cognitive deficits from drug abuse to have a place where nobody would notice their issues. The important point is that each of these movements began as small gatherings around a teacher or teachers. As they grew, some of the followers of the tradition decided they needed to build a structure to preserve their new tradition. That sounds great in theory. healing wounds institutional religionIn practice that decision to build a structure is always the beginning of the end.

Once you form an institutional structure around a religious movement you have created an organization in which survival of the organization is the primary concern. The religious teachings become secondary at best. The leaders of a religious institution will only too gladly change their official beliefs to gain acceptance from the local governing authority. There is no small irony in that churches under persecution grow while churches that are officially accepted decline, but church officials crave that acceptance. They see it as key to the survival of the institution despite all evidence to the contrary. They seek that acceptance because they crave power, but power corrupts every time.

End_of_Service_BDThe truth is that the death of the institution is good news for religion, but the dying process can be extremely painful. There is a lot to let go of as an institution dies, perhaps most importantly the need to replace one institution with another before we take the time to learn the lessons from the failure of the last institution. We need to trust ourselves and come to see that we are capable to making spiritual and religious choices for ourselves rather than take orders from “on high.” Just as so-called rebound relationships almost always fail, rebound churches do, too. Can we come to see that, whatever our names for the Sacred might be, we don’t need an intermediary to be in contact with it? Stated another way, are we willing to take responsibility for our own spiritual development – especially since nobody else can do it for us?shit happens tatt

If we are willing to take on the sometimes hard work of spiritual growth, seeing others on the path as companions rather than dispenser of truth from on high, the rewards are plentiful. If we chose not to undertake this path, we will just have to have the tattoo with our old religion’s name covered up yet again and replaced with the new one. One day we may learn not to put anyone’s name on our bodies – but I digress.

 

Cabin Fever?

solitary

One of the things I find fascinating about the experience of safer at home during the last several weeks is the number of people who are struggling with perceived isolation. I don’t refer here to people who live alone and cannot go to work. I refer to the rest of us. We have social contact. Perhaps we go to work, or visit with friends and colleagues virtually, we might work virtually, we go to the grocery store and other essential places, and yet to hear some people tell it you would think they were in solitary confinement!

I would like to suggest that if the above describes how you are feeling you would benefit

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from some self examination. If you are partnered, I would ask you to consider that maybe the only reason the two (or more) of you aren’t doing well is because the only time you can tolerate each other is when you are separated most of the time. If that’s the case, it might be time to ask some serious questions about your relationship and consider getting some counseling when this is all over. There are concrete steps you can take to improve things, and at this time you have a great opportunity to begin!

marathonThe third possibility is that you are hiding from yourself. There are things about yourself or your history that you don’t want to consider, and all this time with less to do than normal increases the possibility that they will surface. In normal times, you can keep nearly perpetually active, stopping only to collapse into bed at night and hitting the floor running in the morning. Now, however, when you are alone you may be experiencing anxiety and the need to find something, almost anything, to do. The answer is to engage in some grounding practices and just be present to what you are feeling. Running away isn’t going to help, it’s just going to kick the problem further down the road until you have no choice but to face it. That’s always more traumatic that choosing to face it. Don’t waste this valuable time. It may not come again until fall!

Privilege Comes in Many Forms

Whenever I read about a super model’s experience with body shaming over the course of her career, my initial reaction is sympathetic. I am sure that such incidents are terrible and can have a negative impact on a person’s self esteem. I absolutely believe that when your multi-million dollar career depends on what the scale and the tape measure say you can easily become preoccupied with weighing yourself and checking your measurements. I also know that you have an ability the average person with faced with the same challenges doesn’t have. You can walk away and not worry about having a place to live or enough to eat.

When a waitress at the local nightclub is confronted with those same issues, she can’t walk away because her earnings are barely enough to live on and certainly not enough to invest in such a way that she can retire at thirty-five years old. When the receptionist at the local modeling agency is told she is getting too chubby to represent the agency well, she likely has to remain in her position and lose weight as fast as she can because she needs her job to keep a roof over her child’s head. To be clear, all three women are being treated inappropriately and have the absolute right to be upset and seek to redress their grievances. Only one has the resources to make real choices about how to respond. That is a form of privilege we don’t hear many people talking about, but we definitely need to talk about and recognize privilege in all its forms.

In our culture money is perhaps the ultimate privilege. It does cover a multitude of sins, both our own and those of others. Money affords us choices that the average person doesn’t have available to them. It doesn’t remove the sting of mistreatment, but it does offer many escape routes not enjoyed by the average person.  You will have to excuse me when a millionaire wants to carry on about their struggles, because I am not that interested. I would much rather hear about and address the struggles of the average person. Sorry, Chrissy.

How Do I Justify My Presence?

I came across a very interesting thread on Facebook over the weekend, and really feel compelled to respond to it in a longer form than is possible in a Facebook discussion. Here is the product!

To paraphrase the question raised, “how does a transgender man preaching in conservative Indiana justify his presence in the pulpit using the Gospel?” My answer: he shouldn’t try.

You see, to the extent that we continue to try to justify our very existence, no matter the reason anyone might call our existence or presence into question, we legitimize an illegitimate question. Can you see that? If someone says to me, “you have no right to be here,” and I respond to that nonsense then I make the very question of my right to be here seem legitimate. If someone said to you, “I see you have three arms,” and you started arguing that you only had two arms, you would be giving the question of how many arms you have credence. Rather than argue our arm count, most of us would either walk away or call the local mental health crisis line.

The world is full of diversity, and that diversity has threatened people since humans first crawled out of the primordial sludge. We are psychologically programmed to be suspicious of the different, to interpret it as a threat until we learn otherwise, as a basic survival instinct. Those of us who have learned to use more than our reptilian brain have learned to use reasoning to overcome those instincts when they are faulty. Our friend Bob might be profoundly unattractive, but we learn that doesn’t make him a danger. Despite this knowledge, we tend to want to keep crawling back into the sludge in the hopes that the reptilians among us will come to see that we are okay and admit that truth out loud. Guess what? It ain’t gonna happen, so it’s time to move on.

 

Thanksgiving Thoughts: Screw Your Fussy Food

To tell the truth, I have had more than enough of moderately well off white people telling the rest of the world what it needs to eat. This is made even worse because all of those proponents of specialized diets that may or may not actually be healthier for people don’t realize how much privilege is involved in being able to eat that rather odd-looking, tasteless mess and slapping it on the Internet for all to see.

I think it’s great if you want to run off to the organic grocery store, take your purchases home, and concoct something that I couldn’t even begin to identify but that makes you ecstatic. Good for you! Before you turn on your computer and start telling the rest of the world how they need to shop at Whole Paycheck and search for alternate protein sources for their vegan diet, or only eat raw foods, please consider that the majority of people in this country and the vast majority of people in the world simply can’t afford to eat that way. In fact, a great chunk of the world struggles to find enough to eat, period.

The same social conscience that leads you to elect not to eat meat for the sake of animals is often quite blind to the truth that there are children who go to school hungry every day in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet. Only you can decide if it is more ethical for you to overspend on your exotic diet in light of those hungry children, or if perhaps some of your resources would be better served helping them eat better. Maybe you are one of the very lucky few who can do both! How wonderful!

I’m just saying that before you start waving the flag of privilege you might want to consider how it looks from the outside.

Just say no…

Earlier this evening I browsed an article online that showed television and music stars from the 1970s in a “then and now” photo series. Hence, the title of this post.

Boys and girls, just say no to cosmetic surgery. More than half of the celebrities in the article were not recognizable, yet they all had similarly distorted faces. Two of them looked like they had aged naturally. The rest, though recognizable, clearly had more than a little surgery and other treatments. Their mouths had gotten wider, their cheekbones higher if not evenly so, their necks bore significantly more wrinkles than the rest of their face, and their eyes had become more round. In short, they weren’t fooling anyone.

We all age, and as we do so it shows. The alternative is to look less than human, distorted more than aged, and run the very real risk or not recognizing ourselves in the mirror. I guarantee that will bring less happiness, not more – both to you and old what’s-his-face in the mirror.

Separating Person and Behavior

Many of us have a problem – maybe even most of us have this problem. We confuse the value of a person with their behavior. For example, we know that someone plays for the Chicago Bears football team, and we cannot even begin to understand the abysmally bad judgment that would lead anyone to consider, even for the briefest moment, playing for the Chicago Bears. We decide, therefore, that anyone who plays for the Chicago Bears must be an awful person with whom we could never be friends – and likely never even bring ourselves to be kind towards. This is a classic, if someone silly, example of confusing person and behavior.

Step it up a notch or ten, and consider someone you meet who is a member of the other political party. Now it’s a bit more serious, although as a Green Bay Packers fan I might argue that my first example is much more serious. We could certainly never be friends with a person who belongs to that party. Anyone who belongs to that party must have serious character flaws, and they probably eat babies for breakfast. Maybe a person has a different ethnic background, or went to a different school, or once committed a crime, and we find that we can no longer fairly evaluate their humanity. If this is the the case, the problem is inside us and not in the other person.

If we are going to live anything even remotely resembling an ethical and/or spiritual life, we have to believe that all people have inherent value. In fact, every major religious tradition teaches precisely that. There is nothing any one of us can do to erase that inherent value, though many of us do a pretty good job of covering it up with our poor choices. The task of a spiritual life is to uncover that inherent value by stripping away the detritus we have splattered on it. Going about declaring others to be of no value does nothing but pile more obscurations on our own inherent value. In truth it does nothing to the other person.

Today, before you set out to round up a posse to hunt down the imagined unacceptable other, you would do well to find a mirror and look into it. If you are honest, you will realize you have some work to do in your own house. We all do.

Ah, No.

I don’t want to alarm you, but Hollywood is divided over the friendship shared by Ellen ellen-bushDeGeneres and George W. Bush. I know, you too might well be as scandalized by this news as anybody else with nothing to worry about. You too might be thinking, “If Ellen is going to hang around the W., she can’t be a lesbian any more! We can’t have Ellen befriending a Bush…or at least not that Bush. We’re simply not going to watch her TV show any more, and we are going to have to find a new token favorite lesbian. We might even Rosie-ODonnell-is-cordial-with-Whoopi-Goldberg-after-mean-remarkhave to go back to Rosie O’Donnell! These are desperate times, indeed.

Here’s the problem: That attitude is everything that is wrong with America today.

Let’s just run down the top several problems:

  1. You don’t get to choose anyone else’s friends, period.
  2. It is good, even a desirable thing, to have friends of different political views.
  3. Some are saying George W. Bush is a war criminal. That’s irrelevant (see #1, above) and also simply not true. It’s your opinion. No court has convicted him, and even if it had, he still gets to have friends.
  4. Nobody has appointed any of us the friendship police.
  5. The LGBT community has been far too oppressed to go about oppressing itself, but as groups begin emerging from under oppression they almost always go about looking for others to oppress. Just stop, now.
  6. In America, we are free to believe what we will and to associate with whom we will. You don’t have to like it, but it is the way things are. You can’t choose freedom when it suits you and try to eliminate it when it makes you uncomfortable.
  7. We are more divided than ever before in our history. This kind of nonsense makes it worse, not better.

In other words, check yourselves and your behavior. You are being a huge collection of asses.

The “Potential” Movement

Whenever I receive an email that asks, “do you want to grow, to flourish, to be the best possible version of yourself?” I do two things. First, I check to see that my wallet is still in my pocket. The second is that I delete the email.

Why delete the email? I delete the email because I reject the notion that some person who (1) has never met me, (2) is looking to turn a quick profit, and (3) believes that a preformed, one size fits all program to maximize human potential is either possible or desirable, has anything to offer me.

Determining for any person what will maximize their potential requires establishing a relationship with them over time and thereby coming to really understand their history and their circumstances. It simply isn’t a cost effective way to run a business, so businesses offering to maximize your potential are forced to cut corners to maximize their profits. That’s why you are much better meeting with a spiritual guide or companion to investigate your humanity than a spiritual snake oil salesman.

Too much?

Is it too much to ask that for just a moment we might be honest about fundamentalism? fundamentalitNo matter the tradition, fundamentalism is heresy and an aberration that has nothing to do with the tradition from which it deviated and devolved.

In short, fundamentalist Islam is not Islam. Fundamentalist Buddhism is not Buddhist, fundamentalist Judaism is not Jewish, fundamentalist Hinduism is not Hindu, and fundamentalist Christianity is not Christian. They are all distortions and perversions of the original religion that have moved so far away from anything even remotely resembling healthy religion that they are no longer entitled to claim to be part of those traditions.