Who Are We to Be?

I confess that, watching the political discourse over the last few years I have become increasingly discouraged. I have watched American politics, not as an obsession but as a citizen interested in public discourse, since the late Johnson administration. To my more smart assed younger friends, I should specify that I mean the Lyndon, and not the Andrew Johnson administration. What I have noticed, at every level and in every party, is a loss of any sense of value or integrity. People just seem to feel fine about dishing bald faced lies to the American public if doing so advances their cause, career, or (more likely) lines their pockets.

If we are honest, these are the kind of people we wouldn’t want to invite into our homes for dinner for fear they would steal the silverware. Like a drug addicted child, we would have to exert so much energy monitoring their behavior while they were visiting that we couldn’t possibly enjoy the visit. If we are honest, we don’t have to stretch our imagination too much to imagine a current politician or one of their employees searching through our bank records while ostensibly on a trip to the bathroom.

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his adult like studying and working in the fields of spirituality, religion, and psychology, it is clear to me that a significant segment of our population has come worship power and money above all else. Values such as integrity, truth, loyalty, and dependability take a back seat in these belief systems. Perhaps even more telling is the truth that the worship of power and money arise in a person who is profoundly fearful and lacks a way to understand and process that fear. They become a starving man in front of a tray of food, who takes it and eats it without regard because he knows he must do so to survive – except that most of these people have more than enough to survive. Their starvation is a starvation of soul, and the result is an ego run amok. The result of their strategy is a life chasing something they will never catch.

I don’t care if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Moslem, or a follower of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You might be a Jungian, a Freudian, or a follower of Fritz Perls. Maybe Elkhart Tolle helps you make sense of your world, and Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday makes all right in your world. Whatever it is, the human psyche needs a way to make sense of its world and to find in it something bigger than itself. It doesn’t need to be complicated. The Dalai Lama reminds us the his religion is kindness. Each of us must find a way to care about something other than ourselves at least some of the time. If we can’t do that, we are likely to find ourselves trying to lie, cheat, and steal our way to happiness – and pondering a run for political office.

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.

Behavior Police

If you are one of those people who patrol the Internet looking for things you don’t agree with in the Hope’s of finding someone doing something you don’t agree with so you can “correct” them, I have a suggestion. Just stop. Find a hobby, grab a good book, learn to knit, or buy some rechargeable batteries for your vibrator. Maybe do all of the above plus a few more. There is nothing about policing the choices other adults make that causes you to grow and become more fulfilled. Instead, those behaviors will isolate you from friends, family, and the people you happen to meet because you will develop a negative perspective that looks for what you believe is wrong with the world. A much healthier choice is to celebrate the things that are right with the world.

Why are my religious friends jerks?

osteen megaIt’s a question I hear quite often. People will tell me that they like their “everyday” friends more than their spiritual or religious friends. They can easily relate to the former, but the latter – even for people with advanced formation in things spiritual – are hard to be around. They say or do things that are odd, or they act in ways that seem inconsistent with their beliefs. They are overbearing, intrusive, or engage in any of a number of less than well adapted behaviors. We tend to assume the problem is spirituality or religion. In truth, the problem is your friends and their religion or spirituality.

As I approach the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and enter into my thirtieth westboroyear studying world religions and spirituality, I can tell you without hesitation that none of the great religious traditions contains a teaching that says, in effect, “go forth and be an obnoxious fool.” Despite that, we have more than enough self-identified pious folks doing precisely that. What’s the deal? Who is to blame? Are religion and spirituality the problem, or is something else at work?

The truth is that religion and spirituality aren’t objective truths. There is a lot of wiggle room in both, and both are tied to human development. In other words, they can be understood at the developmental level in which the individual currently resides. It’s trivial eventsperfectly appropriate for a child to believe that Jonah was really in the belly of a whale. It’s problematic when adults believe that to be literally true. We also know that not every adult achieves the ability to process abstract thought. This means that a fair amount of what passes for religion or spirituality in our world today has little or nothing to do with any of the historic traditions.

Whether we are talking about more traditional expressions of religion or the more recently born expressions of spirituality, there are charlatans on every corner. Most of them are out to empty your wallet. Their methods differ, including overtly sexualizing their spirituality, claiming special powers or some advanced level of attainment (especially enlightenment/awakening), self identifying as a guru, seeking to charge people for having lunch with them at their request, and a host of other similar scams. If we just step back for a moment and look at their actions objectively, we can see through them quite easily. If we wouldn’t accept certain behaviors from the person who does our taxes, we shouldn’t accept them from a spiritual or religious leader! The fact that I claim to be following the teachings of a depression surrounded by assholesspiritual tradition doesn’t mean that I actually am following those traditions. Con artists, including those who con themselves, exist in every corner of life.

The truth is that every last human being is spiritual, whether or not they identify as spiritual. Even your “secular” friends are spiritual (in that they are trying to find meaning in life), the difference is they don’t run around carry on about how spiritual they are.  To paraphrase a popular meme about depression, before you dismiss all spiritual and religious folks, be sure you aren’t surrounded by assholes. They often hide in spiritual clothing.