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?

Pollyanna Western Christianity

I have noticed something about western Christianity lately. Across all perspectives, from conservative through moderate to progressive, there is an assumption that we all live and always have lived perfect lives. They act as if we are all the family from Leave it to Beaver or from Cosby. Parents are always wonderful, they are never divorced, everybody has plenty of healthy friendships and platonic dating relationships, nobody struggles with addiction or mental illness, unemployment and domestic violence are unknown, nobody is slinging drugs on the street corner or shooting up your street. Therefore, parents are a lovely image for what God looks and behaves like, the Trinity tells us about how God exists in (healthy) relationship, heaven is just like being in church for eternity, and on it goes. They are mystified that their metaphors fall flat.

More than sixty percent of American children experience at least one of ten possible adverse childhood experience or ACE. Around fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, eleven million families (32%) with children under eighteen are single parent families, one in fifteen children are impacted by domestic violence and ninety percent of those children witness that violence – and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite all of this, many if not most Christian teachers and organizations continue to assume that Pollyanna examples based in an almost completely nonexistent worldview speak to anyone. Remember that the Cosby family on television was headed by a serial rapist when everything came to light. If you want to lead with the idea that the love of God is mirrored in the family, you are going to lose more than half of America in the process.

A healthy spiritual life engages reality rather than running from it or hearkening back to glory days that never existed. A healthy spiritual life also addresses real problems in real life, using relevant spiritual teachings that speak to contemporary circumstances. Teaching that God’s love is just like the love of parents when in truth one parent may very well be absent or addicted and the other neglectful simply isn’t helpful! In fact, it is damaging! Much more helpful would be proposing a God who suffers with us when we are transgressed upon and who motivates people to work in the helping professions so children (hopefully) may encounter them when those adverse childhood experiences occur. This would be a good first step, but it is far from adequate. Much work remains to be done as we build religious and spiritual systems that work for the future, but if we don’t do so in a way that speaks realistically to the lives and struggles then our efforts will be in vain.

Complexity and Confusion

I had a bit of an epiphany the other day as I was walking the dog. I have a fair number of epiphanies walking Roxy. My epiphany came in the form of questions: Does the Divine have some sort of communicative disorder? Should we take up a collection for a special education teacher so that the universe can make Itself understood? I feel so bad that we have ignored the special needs of the Source of all that is!

Most religions love to trot out their clergy and theologians with advanced degrees. Here comes The Rev. Dr. Thisandthat to explain it all to us. My aren’t we special! For our part, those of us taking all of this in, we are duly impressed. I am reminded of a story told by a Buddhist teacher about a gathering of spiritual teachers in California some years ago. The gathering was attended by a number of quite respected Insight Meditation teachers, who tend to dress in casual clothing. Also present was a “teacher” who had long, matted hair tied in a knot atop his head and wearing the obligatory robes of an eastern renunciate. In truth he was a westerner who had just come off a months long drug bender. The person telling the story reported that a friend he was with was duly impressed with the externals of the hungover, but payed no attention to the wisdom of the real teachers in the room. That’s human nature, I suppose, but it’s not an effective tendency. Con artists of every stripe are well aware of this tendency and use it to their full advantage. Haven’t we all met that person who looked so good in that dress or suit but turned out to be a huge mistake?

So if the Divine, by whatever name you know It, is the Source of all that exists, why would It require an interpreter with advanced degrees? Does the Divine not know how to make Itself understood? Does God play hide and seek while trying to communicate? How could the Divine overestimate the intelligence of Its intended audience if It is the Source of that same audience? The obvious answer here is that none of those things are possible. We have been convinced by professional clergy and theologians that we need them if we are to understand the deep truths of the Universe. I am here to say that any explanation of anything that comes from God requires no translation. Teachings that do require translation tend to come from humans trying to stay employed. Of course people who study these things are able to tease out nuances that may slip past the nonspecialist, but if someone tries to convince you that they are passing along an as yet undiscovered essential Truth of the Divine, keep your wallet in your pocket.

The principle of parsimony states that things are usually connected or behave in the simplest or most economical way. It’s a principle that seems to be lost on professional theologians, clergy, and common core math teachers. Violating this principle may be for the most part quite harmless, except when someone tries to tell you that you need them to understand God. To be sure, each of us from time to time comes up with some pretty far fetched ideas. That’s why it is important to be involved in a spiritual community that shares and discusses concepts, beliefs, and claims. These communities keep us from drifting too far afield as well as providing us with essential friendship and companionship. If, however, someone shows up at your community gathering claiming to be your much-needed expert guide, send them packing. They represent a kind of thinking you don’t need.

I am not trying to discredit clergy or theologians. They can be an important part of our communities and often provide much needed leadership, but they aren’t perfect. The good ones help us to develop our understanding by using their considerable skills to tease out new ideas as well as helping us progress along the spiritual path. The bad apples try to take our power away and make us dependent on them. It’s important to know the difference and make good choices both as communities and as individuals.

Let’s Be Honest About Religion

I know this is asking a lot, but I wonder if we might have an honest discussion about religion. This project will require laying aside our sacred cows for just a moment and electing to suspend knee-jerk reactions for a bit. I know those things are difficult for just about everyone, but the potential reward is huge.

infinite godBoth God and the universe are infinite. If you don’t believe in God, consider this discussion to be about the Universe. In truth, the two terms might be understood as interchangeable in many ways. We know that the universe is constantly expanding and traditional understandings of God have included the idea that God is infinite. The problem we run into is that the human mind has a hard time wrapping itself around either concept. We might know to answer “constantly expanding” and “infinite” when asked the right questions, but that is a far different thing than being able to conceptualize either idea. For example, when we consider that one-half of infinity is still infinity our minds really can’t conceive what that looks like even if we can recite the correct answer.

Traditionally, we have chosen a religion to attempt to understand God or find meaning in our lives. The problem is that religions are finite and so represent only one view of God. Religions are also more than a little territorial and almost all of them have asserted that they have the only correct view of God. This may have made some sense when the best humans could do in conceiving of God was to posit a very small God existing in a very small universe with only one inhabited planet. We now know that the universe is ever expanding, and so our little regional God with whom we all have a personal relationship, frequently inviting Jesus over for Cheerios (if I were Jesus, I would think bacon and eggs would be the least you could do) is an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating. In fact, if that’s your view then you, too, may be an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating.

let my people go 10 commandWe need to realize that if we are serious about developing a view of God that resembles the reality of God in any way, confining ourselves to one religious or spiritual perspective just won’t get the job done. I have heard people argue that we need to confine ourselves to one religion because the root meaning of the word religion is “to bind back.” We have been bound back by religion since religion was developed. Maybe what needs to happen is for humankind to develop a spirituality that will set us free! If you like to be bound, I can recommend a good dungeon in your neighborhood, but if you want to draw closer to transcendence you might need to consider ask your religious dominatrix to “let my people go,” Moses!

Imagine you had a doctor who decided the only perspective he was going to adopt is that of colds and flu. No matter what your symptoms were, your doctor would diagnose a cold or the flu and send you on your way. How long would you remain their patient? I hope not long! What if your grocery store decided only to sell canned sardines, pickled eggs, and creamed herring while insisting you shop exclusively at their store. Would you listen to them? Why does religion seem to be one of the few areas of life that couples a limited perspective with a demand of exclusivity and manage to stay in business?

The reason is that institutional religion has excelled in thought and behavior control served with a large dose of guilt. For most of history humanity bought into this distorted vision, but the mass exodus of people from houses of worship of all stripes tells us that sales are sharply down and not likely to recover anytime soon. In response, people trying to make sense of their lives have often randomly tried new perspectives, many of which are heavy on flashing lights but short on substance. If you want to believe that you can attract wealth by thinking the right thoughts, for example, you might want to first ask why everyone following those teachings isn’t a millionaire. You would be better off to reject any spiritual or religious system that is constructed to reward greed.

The truth is that if we want to develop a spiritual perspective that works for us, the important first step is to be determined to explore aspects of whatever systems of belief interest you and not allow anyone to try to restrict your exploration. Unless you are a mushroom, those who would keep you in the dark and feed you manure don’t have your best interest at heart. The next step is to allow yourself to make mistakes, change your mind, and change direction. Exploration of every sort involves all of those things. Perfection isn’t the goal, in fact it probably isn’t even possible. Be gentle with yourself and you will be amazed at what you learn! Be bold, you are in charge of your own spiritual life and need answer to no one.

Nobody’s is Bigger

I am coming to see that no one religion can possibly hope to do an adequate job capturing God. Those that believe they can have washed God in some very hot water, indeed, and then thrown God in the dryer on the highest heat setting. How hot is that? That’s hot enough to turn the biggest pair of granny panties ever made into a size zero thong.

Why do I say that? I say that because the finite can never capture the infinite. The best we can do is observe our subject from as many different vantage points as we can while keeping in mind that we will still fall short. Making sense of life – and God – is a task far better suited to spirituality than religion because religion is quite simply too small and too rigid for the job. So relax, and broaden your horizons!

There is a God…but not THAT one!

If we spend enough time in reflection and silence, and by “enough” I am speaking in Prayer-topterms of years rather than days, we will find that the popular understandings of God have little to do with God at all. Those understandings are perhaps a necessary foundation for the next step in the spiritual journey, but they aren’t the goal of that journey.

When we reach that point of having spent that time on the path, we may start to understand that the things most of the world imagines are the concerns of the Divine are in fact nothing more than the projections of our own petty concerns and intolerance. We also notice the things that are dismissed as foolishness are anything but. I can’t teach you these things, you wouldn’t believe me – but I can teach you how to sit and discover them for yourself.

Searching for God

The biggest mistake we ever made was allowing people to convince us that (1) God was outside us, and (2) that they could tell us how to find where God was hiding.

hiding_jesus2Of course, that’s a wonderful racket if you can sustain it, and many people and institutions have done very well for themselves sustaining it, but in the end it has to fail simply because they are telling us to look in the wrong place. God isn’t “out there,” just waiting to pop out from behind a tree once we get it all right. Once we stop saying “fuck,” or going to Wal-Mart wearing something absurd, or drinking too much, or anything else, then surely God will pop out from a really surprising hiding place.

Let me ask a simple question: Can you leave your body? Even if you think you can, and on some level I might agree that some of us can but only in part, the truth is that we remain in our bodies even if we venture out for a walk or a visit with Shirley McLaine. It only stands to reason that if it is possible to find God then God must be accessible to us in our everyday lives where we are living them. If we want to “find” God, we need to look within. That means we have to clear away the things that distract us, not accumulate more of them. That means that any teacher who tells us we need special equipment or a special location in order to succeed is selling us a bunch of nonsense. The teachers we need will help us journey within, because that is where what we are looking for resides.

Religion is not Truth

One name for God might be Truth, with a capital “T.” Some people are mightily turned off by the term God, through no fault of their own and no fault of God’s. Rather, they are turned off by the term God because of the behavior of those who claim to have discovered Truth through their religion. There is no small irony in that!

quote-true-religion-is-not-about-possessing-the-truth-no-religion-does-that-it-is-rather-an-john-shelby-spong-89-12-36Religion can’t be Truth because it developed after Truth – long after it, in Truth. At its best, religion tries to point us toward God, point us toward Truth, which is very useful but not the same as being Truth. You wouldn’t know that by watching many, but not all, religious adherents. They claim to believe in God, but what they really believe in is their religion’s view of God rather than God Itself. A Presbyterian God, or a Roman Catholic God, or a Lutheran God can never actually be God. The best it can hope to be is an image of God, or a picture of truth, or a slice of Truth, and there isn’t anything wrong with that unless you start believing it actually is Truth. That view is like carrying around a picture of your loved one and starting to believe your picture is the person themselves. It seems silly because it is silly, but when it comes to Truth our judgment gets obscured.

Why is this important? This is important because we too easily get caught up in debates about who has the best religion, as if religion has any impact on Truth! Every religion is the equivalent of a third grader doing an artist’s rendering of a Picasso painting. There are some things in every tradition that might give us a slight idea of what it’s trying to depict, but most of it is a confusing (if charming) mess. The Truth is that is you really want to get to Truth, you are going to have to eventually go where religion cannot. You are going to have to move to the direct experience of Truth.