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!

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.

The Sacred Feminine and the Future of Religion

There can be no denying that all of the world’s great religious traditions were designed by men and for men. At the time of their development, women were second class citizens. If we are honest, we have to admit that in most of the world women still are second class citizens. Women are rightly raising up the importance of the Sacred Feminine, which has been ignored far too long and at the peril of both women and men, and calling for its full inclusion in our spiritual understanding and lives.

sacred-feminine-energyWe need to remember that feminine is not the same as female, nor is masculine the same as male. We all carry both feminine and masculine qualities, and the path to wholeness runs straight through the integration of our entire selves and identities. It’s certainly true that the women mystics of all traditions have been ignored through most of history, and that women theologians have often felt they needed to be more masculine than their male counterparts. This truth has left us with a distorted spirituality that becomes even more muddled and confused when we walk into a Christian church and find it occupied not by men, as one might expect in a patriarchal system, but rather by women.

The fact that most churches are occupied more by empty space than by worshipers is evidence than the current system isn’t working for far too many people, regardless of gender. That suggests that learning to listen to the Sacred Feminine alone won’t fix things. We have a much more essential problem at hand that’s going to require a massive overhaul of the whole project, if that is even possible, to fix. We might just have to knock the old structure down completely and start over from the foundation. That’s a possibility that scares the pants off of most people, but our fear doesn’t make it any less necessary to consider. As we consider it, we also need to develop a spirituality that is spacious enough to accommodate all perspectives.

You Aren’t Defective

This post is the first in a series of occasional posts about the future of religion and spirituality in Western civilization.

I have long been of the opinion that, before it is possible to build something healthy to replace something that is in the process of dying, it is important to clear up mistaken notions from the dearly departing tradition. Nothing from the death rattles of institutional religion is more harmful than the idea that human beings are inherently broken.

calvin matt lauerThis belief takes many forms in different traditions, but perhaps the best well known in the idea of Original Sin in Christianity. Less well known, but even more dysfunctional, is the Calvinist Christian notion of the total depravity of humanity, often expressed with the delightful metaphor that we are “worms.” Coming in a close second is Luther’s preoccupation with feces and bowel movements, which led to some very unfortunate metaphors indeed.

All of these beliefs stink. The fact is that the idea that human beings are inherently defective is not only inaccurate, but harmful because it removes all hope. There isn’t any objective support for any of these notions in the scriptures of any tradition, leaving us to conclude that they are projections unfortunately recorded by their authors that caught on. Particularly for those ideas that caught on in the Middle Ages, it’s not hard to understand why they became popular. When everyone around you is dropping dead from one or another plague, it’s easier to hold onto a lousy explanation than to sit with a mystery. What’s more, Neuroscientists tell us that the human mind has a bias toward the negative. It is easier for us to understand and recall the very things which tear us down than those that lift us up.

You can’t have a healthy spirituality if that spirituality doesn’t recognize that its adherents can, in fact, be healthy! A religion that understands its primary task as undercutting the hope of its members is little more than an enemy of those same people. Do human beings make mistakes? Of course we do, some of us quite frequently, but it is in making those mistakes that we learn an grow. That means that even mistakes are good things.

The next time someone tries to peddle you some nonsense about how bad we all are, send them packing. You deserve better. More importantly, you need better.

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.

Truth

The days in which anyone with even a shred of honesty or integrity could say “my religion is the only right one” have been consigned by the advances in human capacity to the waste bin of history. There are no serious or worthwhile conversations to be had from this archaic stance.

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.