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.

What Has Happened to Us?

Somewhere along the way, our society has gone to hell in a handbasket. We drink and drug ourselves into oblivion on a regular basis, a horrifying number of us have been sexually assaulted either as children or adults – sometimes both. Corporations are people, kids are bringing guns to school on an almost daily basis, airports get nudie pictures of us as we go through security and we haven’t increased safety, racism is rampant, politicians of all stripes are corrupt, and we aren’t quite sure where Richard Simmons has gone.

second_industrial_revolution_gettyimages-51632462I truly believe that the industrial revolution changed our lives so fundamentally that we have been unable to adjust. From a schedule that was based on the rising and setting of the sun we moved to an alarm clock timetable. From the time we came off the farm, workers have been exploited and abused by corporations – which have now been declared “people,” perhaps the surest sign of judicial corruption we have seen. As we struggled, and failed, to adapt to these changes our stress increased and in many cases came out sideways in the form of abuse, assault, and self-medication that created disinhibition and made it easier to act out.

As a realist, I don’t believe we can put the genie back in the bottle. Nor do I believe that we can continue for much longer with the status quo. I believe we can learn to adjust to some of the changes that have caused us to struggle, but others we will have to walk back. We will need to ask ourselves, and others, tough questions. How much is enough? Can we see that working sixty hours a week destroys our relationships, and no amount of money can adequately compensate us for those losses? Do we realize that our rampant rates of sexual abuse and assault are crippling our relationships? Might we see that sexless marriages are doomed, and that marriages are sexless largely because of the impact of abuse and assault? How can we not see that our love of guns over the safety of our children is not lost on them – nor is our impotence and inability to do anything about it lost on them?spirituality

We have to come to a new spirituality, by which I mean a new way of understanding and making sense of our world. We must realize that self-care and the care of our relationships is a huge part of that spirituality. Selling our souls for a paycheck is creating a world that is polluted, and that in turn is having an impact on our environment and our climate. Those who would hide behind the facade of the flat earth society may be the largest victims of our worship of corporate big daddy, and we need to educate and heal them, too. We need to shift our primary question from “how can I screw you over?” and “how can I force you to comply with my perspective,” to “how can I help you?” We can do this only if we understand how interconnected we really are, and through that awakening come to see that what I do to you, I do to myself. We need to start right now.

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!

Decline, Death, and Family Matters

Nothing brings out skeletons from any family closet quite like decline and looming or actual death of matriarchs, patriarchs, and those in the family who wish they were either. In truth, it doesn’t matter who is close to death and what our relationship to them might be, death brings out the worst in us. You might think that tragedy would lead to unprecedented cooperation and putting aside hurt feelings and personal interest. Sadly you would be wrong. I believe the primary reason for this is that we in the west avoid thinking about death at all costs, so when it shows up we have no idea how to respond. Spiritual leaders really need to shift our consciousness around death, but if you are confronted with a pending loss before that shift occurs you will need some concrete advice.

I have seen conflict arise in a few different areas. The first might be called misdirecting our pain into the physical. We are going to miss Grandma, but if we can snag that mirror that sat on her dresser we will always have her nearby. The problem is that Grandma wasn’t a mirror. Whatever physical item we decide we cannot carry on without isn’t going to help us with the loss of Grandma. Only time and healing will get us through our grief. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to damage our relationships with family members over a physical item or items when what we really need is to process our grief – and those family members we may go to war with over a mirror may well be essential to our grieving process.

The second conflict point I call I’m in charge now. The family patriarch passes and Uncle Ralph decides he is now the patriarch. The problem here is that our roles in a family system aren’t determined by proclamation, no matter how loud. Family dynamics are a much more complex process and take time to play out. In the aftermath of a loss, we would be better to focus on tasks than on roles because the new roles develop over time. In the short term, there are important papers to be found, a bedroom or a garage to be cleaned out, sleeping quarters found for out of town family. We will all be better served by focusing on what we need to do to facilitate our coming together as a family. Big decisions can, and should, wait.

The third conflict point is called Don’t say that! Times of loss or pending loss cause feelings to surface. Not all of those feelings will be happy and comfortable, and when they arise and people begin to speak about them we might be tempted to try to shut that conversation down. While we should always do our best to speak our truth appropriately and with sensitivity, difficult truths that arise in coping and grieving need to be allowed to arise. The experience of processing these thoughts, if handled appropriately, can actually build family cohesiveness. Trying to shut them down can create rifts that may be profoundly difficult to heal.

Finally, avoid the idea that We must do this perfectly. If you are human, you are going to make mistakes. The more difficult and emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely mistakes will occur. Forgive yourself for being human (imagine!), and forgive one another for the same sin of being an imperfect human being. This simple act can bring amazing amounts of grace into a difficult situation. Are you holding on to hurt feelings over relatively small conflicts? What better time to let them go?

Loss is never easy, and loss of loved ones is the most difficult of all losses. Learning to navigate these situations with as much skill as we can helps to make our journey through loss a bit easier. If we find ourselves seeming to over react, we may choose to take a few minutes or longer away from the most intense conversations around our loss. It is absolutely fine to admit that we need a break, a cup of coffee, or a hug. It’s always a good idea to practice effective self-care. The road through loss and grief is a marathon, not a sprint. We should do our best to be good to ourselves at all times.

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.

Guns, Schools, and Selfishness

At a certain developmental stage, young children are appropriately concerned only about themselves and what they want. At that stage, that behavior is appropriate and we would be wrong (and ineffective) if we tried to hurry them out of that stage. We would interfere with their normal, healthy development, and they would suffer consequences at they moved into adulthood.

When we are adults, living in society, and presumably capable of understanding the world in a much broader way than a three year old does, we come to realize that some of the things we might want to do that we cannot do out of concern for the greater good. For example, we might want to drive through a school zone at seventy-five miles per hour, but children might be hurt. We pass laws to make such things illegal, and no reasonable person objects to those laws.

You might think that same logic would apply to questions of gun control given that high number of gun incidents in school zones. You might expect that reasonable people, seeing the danger inherent in the regularity with which shootings and near-shootings* occur at schools in America, would be willing to change our laws to restrict access to firearms even if such changes impacted their perceived right to own as large an arsenal as they might like. You would be wrong, however.

America is well past the point where there is any reasonable argument in favor of the status quo in gun control. What we have isn’t working. Any politician who argues against stricter gun laws is likely in the back pocket of the NRA and is corrupt and needs to be removed from office. Even the most rudimentary understanding of any of the world’s great religious and spiritual traditions tells us that nothing is more important than the health and safety of a child.

The truth is that when we encounter someone who believes that their need to own a gun is more important that a child’s need to life, we have encountered a moral midget who needs to be ignored. If we are to live in a civilized society, we have to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our children. If you feel you need to hunt, I’d suggest you buy a bow and arrow.

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.

Spiritual Practice

So, you say you want to start a spiritual practice? You say that first you just need to read these books, attend this retreat, or sign up for this class?

You’re fooling yourself. You’re also being fooled by the spiritual marketplace that has commodified spirituality and turned it into a cash cow.

Want to start a spiritual practice? Pick one, pick a ten minute instructional video on YouTube, and start. You can learn more along the way, but you need to start today.

But he’s not up there anymore!

crucifix

I can’t tell you how many people, confronted with a crucifix or other image of the crucified Jesus, say to me, “…but he’s not up there anymore!” Of course, part of the reason they are saying that is they can’t deal with the idea that Jesus ever was “up there.” It was a great problem for the people of his time, too.

Here’s the bigger issue: He isn’t up there, you are correct. Now you are up there. Are you ready to talk about that?