At Some Point, You Must Decide

What do we do when our values and our beliefs are in conflict with the decisions our government makes? If we are honest with ourselves and aware of what is going on around us, we will start to notice how often this happens with greater frequency. When we see those situations, we will begin to feel uncomfortable. As I see it, we are faced with three choices at that time. The first is that we can ignore the conflict and pretend it doesn’t exist. As anyone who has tried to solve a problem with denial can tell you, this isn’t a very effective solution to anything. The second is that we can fragment our world and our awareness by saying that our values are one thing and the government is another, with the two never meeting. That’s a false distinction, because government supposedly represents the people. This is little more than another kind of denial, as ineffective as pretending there isn’t a problem. The third is that we can choose sides, either saying that our government is always right or that we trust our own values to guide us toward what is right, regardless of what the government says.

What about when our values conflict with themselves? What do we do in these cases? Suppose we consider ourselves pro-life and one of our friends points out that our support of the death penalty conflicts with a pro-life identity. How do we resolve that conflict? Many people, unwilling to honestly examine their values and beliefs in any but the most superficial way, decide to forego resolving the conflict and insist that those are two completely different questions. The problem is that they aren’t different questions at all, and if we hope to be a moral person of integrity we need to resolve that inconsistency. What about someone who considers themselves pro-life but is opposed to offering free pre-natal care and well baby check ups to all mothers and children who can’t afford them?

Here is the hard part. You will likely never convince someone who doesn’t want to look at the inconsistencies in their values to do so. Nor is it our job to get them to look. Our job is to look at our own values and check their consistency, and then get on with the important work of implementing those values, period. If we waste our time and energy trying to convince people of the error of their ways, we won’t have the time and energy needed to work for the change we hope to see in the world. There will always be people who choose not to deal with reality as you and I understand it. Trying to convert the deluded is a fool’s errand that depletes the energy of the converter and leads to burn out. There is nothing that says we need to reach consensus with the rest of the world before working for change. In fact, striving for consensus only assures that nothing will change, because consensus is very difficult to achieve. Is it ever acceptable for a child to starve while we try to achieve consensus on a feeding program? Is it okay for someone to die of a preventable illness because we can’t agree on how to ship the vaccine? Wouldn’t it be better to fix the problem and allow those who are predisposed to meaningless debate sort things out after the fact?

Faith and Obligation?

If something is an obligation, is doing it really faith or rather fear of punishment? Those of us raised in small-c catholic traditions may recall the idea of holy days of obligation. These were days wherein church attendance was considered mandatory, and failure to attend was considered sin unless you had an officially sanctioned reason for not being in attendance. I want to ask, is it really meritorious to do something with a spiritual gun pointed at your head?

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee recently reminded parishioners that attendance at Mass, even during this pandemic that puts the demographic that comprises the majority of church goers at greatest mortal danger, is mandatory. In other words, “even if it kills you, Grandma, get to Mass.” Do we really believe that any God worthy of the Name would say something like that? Can we see that such statements are nothing more than coercive attempts to get people to do something they might otherwise not do, and for perfectly valid reasons? Is putting butts in the pews worth dying over? Can the Archbishop really feel good about what he has done at the end of the day with this policy? Might it be that the people’s money is more important to him than anything else about them, including their health and safety? If that’s true, could there be a bigger example of mortal sin?

Remember, as much as your particular tradition, Christian or other, claims to speak for God the truth is that it does not. Ultimately all institutions are about self preservation, even if they are loathe to admit it and so seek to blame a Bigger Authority for their irresponsible actions. If your tradition claims to be pro-life but makes decisions that may sacrifice Grandma on the altar of dead Presidents, it’s neither pro-life nor pro-God. If institutional religion is confused as to why it is breathing a death rattle, perhaps we should simply hand it a mirror.

Raise Your Hand if You Don’t Have a Body!

It seems like a silly title, doesn’t it? Despite that, to one degree or another, most spirituality and religion has encouraged adherents to deny that they are embodied and refuse to acknowledge the needs that come with embodiment. Whether it’s fasting, sleep deprivation, celibacy, dietary restrictions, self-inflicted abuse of different kinds, human sacrifice, or any of a number of so-called ascetical practices, religion and spirituality have sought to convince us to deny our physical selves. Some of that was rooted in a particularly perverse dualism that insisted the spirit was good and the physical evil.

I once knew a Pentecostal preacher who told the story of checking into a hotel to fast for forty days and forty nights. He recounted dreams and visions and all manner of spiritual experiences during this time. Delirium, whether caused by low blood sugar or something else, will do that to you but that doesn’t mean delirium is a desired or spiritual state. I have often reflected on the truth that there is little difference between his story and the account of someone on a crack binge beyond a difference in social acceptability. Being out of touch with reality, regardless of the reason, is never an exalted spiritual state.

So why the rejection of the body? For some people, rejecting the body is rejecting experiences that cannot be controlled. For others it is a mistaken association of pleasure with evil. Still others reject the body in search of transcendence, feeling that the body cannot be transcended in this life. I have long suspected that many people become preoccupied with their bodies to avoid facing their shadow, the part of themselves they would rather reject and push away, even deny. That’s as true of people who abuse their bodies as it is those who worship them and can’t seem to leave the gym. If I worry about whether I will inadvertently encounter pleasure today, I likely won’t pay attention to the pain I cause others.

To be human is to be embodied. Denying that truth or wishing it were otherwise doesn’t accomplish anything healthy. A life giving spirituality will offer ways for us to accept the realities of life rather than seek to deny or avoid them. An unwillingness to accept the reality of our circumstances is a curious kind of self-preoccupation that masquerades as spiritual accomplishment. In truth, the spiritual life is better served by increasing the time spent concerned about others and reducing our obsession with ourselves!

Thirty-eight Thousand gods and Counting

Every religion and every subdivision of those religions purports to reveal God to us, and all of them fail. What they reveal instead are gods, middle managers at best, what the Hebrew scriptures called demiurges. I say this because, quite frankly, we imagine God should be our personal errand boy, taking care of this and that, allowing us to manipulate him into doing our bidding by virtue of our having obeyed some rather penny ante behavioral restrictions. It’s done in the name of explaining how God cares for us, but would any God worthy of the name be a micromanager?

The reason I say there are thirty-eight thousand gods and counting is that is approximately the number of Protestant denominations of Christianity at the present time. Leaving out other religions and the various catholic denominations for a moment, each of those thirty-eight thousand has their own particular understanding of their god and believe theirs to be the correct understanding. Some of them concede that some other groups come close to being right while other groups claim to be the one true church. Add on to that number all of the other religions and their subsets and we are left with an astronomical number of gods. They cannot all be correct understandings because they all contradict each other in more or less significant ways. They could theoretically all be wrong, but I suspect most of them are more right than wrong. The problem is that they all look at the local area office demiurge in charge of local affairs rather than God.

I am not arguing for a new Orthodoxy – far from it. I am saying that most all of our God imagery is way too small. In fact, all imagery is way too small. Whether we are arguing for the old man in his workshop creating all that is in seven days from leftover parts or something closer to the Buddhist notion of emptiness, we are quite simply missing the mark and settling for a god who is domesticated and pasteurized. If God is to be the Source and Sustainer of all that is, God simply cannot be stuffed into a meat bag obsessed with whether or not we are touching ourselves. A better vision of such a God would be much closer to consciousness, energy, potential, spirit, being itself, and other terms that reflect the type of being necessary to accomplish what we might call the work of God.

All of this is more than trivia for those of us who are spiritual practitioners. It has implications for everything from how we practice individually and in community to how we engage in service. Prayer in such a vision moves away from reminding daddy of what we need in case he has forgotten to listen to study, reflecting, becoming still and silent, and engaging in concentration practice. Morality in this vision is less about what we do with our reproductive systems and more about what emerges from our hearts and minds. Church in this vision needs a complete overhaul, including a massive dose of humility and a leadership that journeys with rather than demanding compliance.

This is a huge shift, and some won’t be ready to make the leap. For them, daddy god in a meat bag will continue to serve the purpose they can understand until such time as they are ready for more. If they are never ready, that is just fine. The demiurges do have a purpose because, quite honestly, this broader vision of God is part of a continuum that is built upon that demiurge foundation. What’s more, the lines of demarcation between the demiurge and God aren’t hard and fast. They are a huge, porous border that we cross one section at a time. That is how humans learn and grow, unless they close their minds to a bigger and better vision. Those of us who have come to a place on our journey where the old vision no longer fits and may feel patently absurd need this new vision. In fact, many of us have started to arrive there already, and need a format in which we can engage others at similar stations on the path. Shall we?

The Fall of Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Many may be tempted to see the fall of Jerry Falwell, Jr. to be a tragic, isolated incident of one man gone astray. It’s anything but. This isn’t about Jerry sitting in the corner ‘observing” while the pool boy cum business partner frolics on the bed with Jerry’s wife. (As an aside, since these religious right types preach against masturbation they have apparently taken to calling it “observing?”) The age old attempt by Christian religious types to blame the woman, as old as the story of Adam and Eve, rears its ugly head once again as the event is described as Becki Falwell’s affair with a pool boy. In truth, it’s the three of them engaging in consensual sexual activity. If it was people in your neighborhood you might think, “it’s not my cup of tea, but if it makes them happy who am I to judge?” Or, you might think, “where can I get a pool boy?”

I’m less concerned about the fact that Jerry appears to be a cuck who likes to watch than I am about the wider trend he represents in White Evangelical Christianity. (As an aside, I don’t believe that White Evangelicalism has anything to do with Christianity.) Allow me to explain. Jerry’s father was a founder of the so-called “moral majority” around the time of the Nixon administration. While that group no longer identifies by that name very often, it still exists. You know the type. They tend to believe that if something feels good it must be a sin, which is why they don’t buy Q-tips. Back in the day they crawled into bed with political allies in the Republican Party, gradually increasing their political power in America. On the religious side, they became Televangelists and Megachurch pastors. What this latter group has in common is sexual misconduct of epic proportions. A close second is financial misconduct, and coming in a not too distant third is substance abuse. In case you think I am kidding, here is a short list: Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Ted Haggard, Eddie Long, Bill Gothard, Tony Alamo, Bob Coy, Fred Phelps, Dave Reynolds, Robert Tilton, Marc Driscoll, Creflo Dollar, Bill Hybels, and the list goes on and on. Why?

Anything you repress will eventually come out sideways. It’s virtually guaranteed. Basic human needs denied don’t simply go away. If we are convinced that basic needs are abnormal, the shame we feel around them becomes overwhelming. Still they don’t go away. Eventually we act out, and the shame and guilt we feel for acting out intensifies our need to act out, and soon a classic addictive cycle sets in. Maybe the pastor is impregnating most of the Church. Maybe his repressed sexuality emerges in a cocaine induced frenzy with his gay meth dealer. Maybe he finds the only way he can express his sexuality is by flogging little Jerry in the corner while the pool boy bangs his wife – and we keep the pool boy in a diminished, more sexually satisfying state by continuing to refer to him as the pool boy long after he has become our business partner. Maybe the anti-LGBT Bishop is grooming teenage boys in his congregation to become his sex partners on his yacht. Maybe half of the choir tests positive for the pastor’s DNA. If you can imagine it, you can find it.

The problem is this: no spirituality that is based upon a poor understanding of human psychology can possibly be healthy. If our beliefs lead us to try to deny our psyche what it needs, our religion become soul killing. If our religion is constructed in such a way that questions and dissent are not allowed, we (and our religion) are doomed. The products of our religion will be unhealthy at best and outright pathological at worst. In my opinion, the entire prosperity gospel movement is the result of a religion that represses sexuality and pleasure. Those energies get twisted and redirected into the acquisition of wealth, which will never really satisfy the needs that have been repressed, and so there will never be enough money, never be enough external signs of wealth, because inside we are completely impoverished. Pastor needs a mansion, a private jet, a fleet of luxury automobiles, homes around the world, all because these things are justified as necessary to emulate a Jesus who by all accounts was impoverished and homeless. If that doesn’t strike you as odd, perhaps you should stop drinking the Kool-aid.

While I certainly don’t subscribe to a sacred/secular divide, I do believe that it is patently unwise for organizations that claim to be religious to covet power and wealth. In fact, a close, honest, and educated reading of the religious texts of any tradition will reveal that power and wealth are barriers to spiritual attainment, not assets. Wealth and power feed the ego, and the ultimate goal of spirituality and religion is first the development of a healthy ego and then the dismantling of the unhealthy ego. Climbing the career ladder, wealth acquisition, and accumulating power all stand in the way of those crucial spiritual goals. While some segments of the religious landscape believe that setting up their pastor with the trappings of a CEO reflects well on their communities, the truth is that such preoccupations are unhealthy and destructive. We create Jerry Falwells every day through our own skewed priorities and them refuse to look at our role in these tragedies, preferring instead to blame the monster of our own creation. It is time to look a lot closer to home.

Forming my What?

I get a number of emails each day that are sale notices for ebooks. Yesterday I happened to glace at one of the descriptions of a book that read, “…the Church contributes to society by forming the conscience of people.” I almost fell out of my chair! If that’s not a line straight out of medieval theology then I am the Pope. If the Church is going to form the conscience of the people the way she forms the conscience of her clergy, we are all doomed! There are other issues this statement raises that are at least as bad. Are we suggesting that only people who are members of a particular church have a properly functioning conscience, or that only Christians, or religious people, or any specific group are able to have a conscience that works properly?

The truth is that conscience, ethics, morality, and all similar human functions are not in any way dependent on religion, spirituality, or membership in any specific group. There are completely secular people who are quite ethical and very in touch with when they have transgressed their own values. Then there are religious people you wouldn’t want to leave unattended in your home! We need to move beyond the antiquated notion that spending an hour or so in a church building every now and then does anything for us other than perhaps cause callouses to grow on our buttocks. In fact, most churches do a God-awful job of teaching anything that would cause someone to develop a healthy conscience. You would be better to spend your time and money on a good therapist to explore your conscience or lack thereof.

Let’s do away with the notion that being a church member gives you a leg up on anything, any more than joining a golf club makes you a good golfer. In fact, the two are related. You become a better golfer by practicing golf. Your conscience becomes more functional as you practice qualities like empathy, compassion, and generosity. If you don’t put in the work, whether in golf or ethics, you will soon find your balls in a rough patch!

Behavior and Spiritual Credibility

To be completely honest, I have struggled with this issue for years. Living, as we do, in an era where a constant procession of spiritual leaders of all stripes have been outed as serial abusers of those in their charge, I don’t see how we can avoid dealing with the issue and asking the question:

At what point does the abusive misbehavior of a spiritual leader render their teachings invalid?

Craig Bergland

Suppose we attempted to construct a spectrum of abuse that started with a spiritual leader having an adulterous affair with someone not involved with his ministry in any way and progressing to whatever the most horrific offenses we might imagine. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s say up front that consensual sex between non-married adults is perfectly fine. What transgressions are redeemable and what transgressions invalidate a person’s spiritual teachings? It may help to establish some categories of offense for sorting purposes.

Can we agree that any sexual activity involving minors should preclude that individual being allowed to teach? Would it render their teachings null and void? Catholic priests involved in the pedophilia crisis would fall into this category, but so would Rumi due to his pederasty. Many of Rumi’s supposed love poems to God weren’t written to God at all but to Shams, his adolescent protege. To be honest, that turns my stomach more than a little.

Can we agree that teachers who engage in sexual relations with their students have crossed a line? Buddhism in particular seems to struggle with teachers who can’t keep their hands to themselves, assaulting female students during spiritual interviews. Others overtly create situations wherein sleeping with the teacher is presented as being spiritually advantageous, even when the student is married. Perhaps the most notorious example of this in Buddhism is Chogyam Trungpa, who established an entire lineage replete with sexual misconduct. Only recently has anything been done or said about this, but it has been an open secret for almost fifty years. Despite that truth, there is no shortage of former students of Trungpa who still speak effusively about his teachings. What are we to make of that? In the interest of candor, for me, Trungpa’s behavior does invalidate his teaching.

What about with colleagues or the parish secretary? We talk about imbalance of power as being an important factor in determining if a relationship is appropriate, but I suspect that power is much more complicated. There is power in hierarchies, but there are all sorts of power structures in social and cultural settings that muddy the waters. When Jim Bakker had an affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn, there were surely multiple psychological factors at play. It’s hard to know who was being manipulated more, but I suspect there was mutual manipulation at work. Then again, since Bakker’s teachings were vacuous at best, perhaps he is a bad example.

Complicating all of this is the truth that nobody is perfect. All of us make mistakes on a regular basis. That being said, abuse is a mistake of a different stripe. I am not concerned about clergy who fall in love with the parish secretary. I would be concerned about clergy who fell in love with every parish secretary they ever had. I wouldn’t necessarily be concerned about a spiritual teacher who once fell in love with a student. I would be very concerned about a teacher who slept with many or most of his students. These issues are important because we all share a responsibility in ensuring those seeking to develop their spiritual life can do so free from harassment. They are also important because they speak to the character of the teacher, which has a direct impact on the teacher’s ministry and teachings.

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.

 

Why Didn’t God…?

As someone who has been in the religion and spirituality biz for a long time now (cue the old guy jokes), I can tell you that the most frequently asked question in religion is some version of the title to this post. Why didn’t God ______________? You can fill in the blank with anything you can imagine – and people do exactly that. Why did Grandma die, why didn’t God save my puppy, why was I assaulted, why did it rain on my wedding day, why does God allow [everything we don’t like], the list goes on and on. The answers given to that question, sometimes but not always by well meaning people, are almost as numerous as the questions asked. All of them, save the one I am about to give you, are nonsense.

The reason God didn’t do what you wanted or hoped God would do is because you misunderstand the nature of God. It’s not your fault, you got your faulty images from institutional religion. Institutional religion lies to you all the time because it isn’t in the truth business. Institutional religion is in the marketing business. They want to keep you coming back for more and putting money in the collection plate. They try to get you to do that because that’s how they stay in business. Therefore, they will tell you some version of “it’s your fault.” God doesn’t rescue you because you are a sinner, or don’t have enough faith, or love the wrong people, or used to masturbate to a picture of Marie Osmond in a Tiger Beat magazine. These are all wrong answers.

The correct answer is that God doesn’t rescue us, God journeys with us. God isn’t a superhero or a helicopter parent, God is a companion. The vision of God you have been sold is defective.

I will be writing more about this in the near future, but in the meantime you might want to consider every story you ever heard from the scriptures of your religious tradition. If you do, you will find that many of them contradict the teachings of your tradition. You will come to see that institutional religion, and in some cases the authors of scripture, make their living not by telling you the truth but rather by convincing you that their version of God is better than the others. Many times they tell you that right after insisting that there is only one God – a direct contradiction to their marketing campaign. The good news is that you can learn to see for yourself, and clearly!

A Conspiracy Network for Jesus

***COMPOSITE***Remember this guy? Back in the glory days of televangelism he was simultaneously most successful, most derided, and most criminal of the lot – and there was a lot of competition for that title. In a crude distortion of the Jesus story these con artists claimed to be hawking, was eventually betrayed by colleagues in the televangelism racket and lost everything, going to prison for his crimes. Along the way he had an affair with his surgically enhanced church secretary, who later sold her wares in a skin mag,

You might have thought that would be the end of him in pseudo religious circles, but you iwaswrongbakkerwould be wrong. After his release from prison we wrote a book called I Was Wrong, and for a moment I was fooled, thinking he might truly be repentant. He so clearly articulated what he had done wrong and how he found himself in the position to defraud his followers. I ever felt sorry for the little bastard. It seems what he was doing was plotting the next phase of his life – conning seniors in the best place to find them in large numbers, Branson, MO. His message, like his character, has deteriorated even further from his days at the original PTL Club. Characterized by right wing politics and threats of a coming apocalypse, he is the ultimate huckster. Selling everything you can pack into a five gallon bucket to help you survive the coming tribulation – including a five gallon bucket with an attachable toilet seat so you can eliminate your five gallons of broccoli with cheese sauce while remaining in your bunker. The only question that remains would be how to tell the slop he sells from a used toilet bucket.

foodbakkerNow the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission have ordered his to stop selling his latest nonsense that claims to have killed previous versions of the corona virus and so surely will kill this one – complete with a book and DVD, of course. He has forty-eight hours to comply or the fines will begin, no doubt accompanied by his claims of being persecuted. He is the lowest of the low, preying on the very people Jesus told us to protect. Of course, it’s never been about Jesus, has it? Neither for Jim Bakker nor his like in the evangelical, televangelist racket, it has always been about the money.

Have you noticed that televangelists almost never criticize each other? Whether is was harrard_meth_bigJimmy Swaggert masturbating into the panties of a twenty dollar prostitute while he told her how dirty she was, Robert Tilton opening envelopes sent to him with prayer requests and a check but removing only the check, Eddie Long grooming young men to be his sex partners while railing against homosexuality, Ted Haggard blowing his prostitute cum meth dealer, or any of the dozens of other disgusting crimes committed by these frauds, they almost to a person refused to criticize one another. Why?

swaggertThe only reason I can think that a preacher would not be critical of another preacher caught in scandal would be that they all know things about one another that they don’t want revealed. Even a cursory investigation into a few of these people reveals practices that would make Caligula blush. It seems that nearly all of them are profoundly wounded individuals who have spent so much time preaching against the very behaviors that compulsively drive them and have hidden those behaviors behind a code of silence that now compels them to protect one another by maintaining the cover up. The result is that anyone still electing to wade into those waters does so at their own peril – likely at the cost of their bank account.