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!

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!

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.

 

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.