Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why I am religious, not just spiritual

For many years now, the elite tiers in our culture have frowned upon religion -- specifically on Christian religion; we generally give a pass to anyone else. There is a peer pressure to talk about "meditation" rather than "prayer": though religious people may do both, spiritual people are far more likely to meditate. There is a certain peer pressure, a certain gateway-to-acceptance, to identify as "spiritual, not religious." And the opposition to "organized religion" is so well-established that there are long-standing jokes about "Don't worry about us; we're not that organized" -- long-established jokes meant to deflect the long-established hostile environment. In light of that, I wanted to state why I am religious, not just spiritual. 

For Christians it will come as no surprise that spirituality is part of our faith: that spirituality is the heart of our faith. Some of the best-loved Bible passages are spiritual, such as the ancient Psalmist's cry "Create in me a clean heart, O God," or St Paul's reminders that build on Jesus' teachings: that the law is fulfilled by love. 

Yet spirituality alone, without the framework of faith, tends to be wishy-washy. If it can be anything that I want it to be, then it is limited by myself -- and limited to myself. This ultra-subjectivity means that there are no grounded intellectual discussions to be had with someone who shares the same reality, no firm basis for the growth of understanding, no consensus to be formed. My spirituality can guide me, and your spirituality can guide you; but it doesn't generally lead us to organize for the common good.

And it is that shared belief with its result of organizing for the common good that are among the strong suits of religion. Yes: I'm aware of the long line of people eager to bring a catalog of times when religious people have made bad calls. In a healthy religious system, the bad actors are called out by other religious people based on those shared values and shared rules of life. The moral absolutes of the faith empower even the lowest person to take on a corrupt person who has gained power: the standard outranks the person. A good religion makes the bad actors in its ranks accountable to a higher authority, and so puts a stop to them. It is true that bad people exist, and that bad people will abuse whatever kind of power is handy, whether it's religious or political or economic or educational or any other kind they can find. The fact that bad people use power in bad ways is not, rightly, a call to become disorganized but a call to check ourselves and clean house.

The different values and particulars of each religion have led down different paths, so I will speak here to Christianity, while other faiths can ably speak to their own experience. 

Christianity has from its foundation worked kindness toward our neighbors as part of our faith. In the first years when Jesus led Christianity with his own physical presence, he helped peoples' physical needs by healing the sick and feeding the hungry. He met peoples' needs of acceptance by his presence and his practice of hospitality. He met peoples' spiritual needs by teaching, building up their understanding and faith, their compassion and their hope, their sense of connection to their neighbors. He taught as one who has authority.

Still in the early years of the faith when the New Testament was being written, the early Christians were already organizing to get food to widows and to the poor, and organizing to get disaster relief to famine-stricken areas. We know this because the New Testament mentions some of the efforts there. The organization of religious efforts is a blessing to those who receive the generosity and kindness that are the intent of the organization. Down the centuries, churches have fed countless poor, hungry, and bereaved people in their time of need. Churches have organized to create and sustain hospitals and schools, charitable organizations and disaster relief funds. Down to this day, I have seen churches take the lead in disaster relief. A few years ago after hurricane Harvey, I was grateful to receive some free meals dropped off just-in-time by church groups, as I worked at a clothing distribution center, or helped with a cleanup crew in a flooded home. The people of Christ have been there for me, just as I hope I have been there for others.

Jesus left a clear call to those who follow him, a clear picture of how he judges our actions as good: 

"I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me. ... Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me."

I am grateful for the organization of religion so that we can do greater things to help our neighbors. I am grateful for the fellowship of my brothers and sisters in the faith. I am grateful for the shared music and art that enrich our lives. I am grateful for the intellectual heritage of so many great thinkers. I am grateful for the spiritual heritage of so many saints. And I am grateful for Jesus' authority -- which I recall him citing on these occasions: the authority to cleanse the Temple (that is, to purify religion to what it should be), and the authority to forgive sins.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

To everything there is a season: A time for peace?

The book of Ecclesiastes has a well-known and timeless poem:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

I am having trouble reading the times right now. The atmosphere in the U.S. is tense, strained, distrustful. There is a near-expectation that the November election will bring orchestrated riots across the nation, much as it did four years ago. While there may be a certain amount of poor sportsmanship (to say the least) in rioting over election results, that's not at all enough to explain what happened. For the most part I chalked up the 2016 election riots -- or I should say, the susceptibility of many otherwise decent people to join the riots -- to the extreme levels of fear and hatred that had been carefully built by political rhetoric during and after the campaign cycle, both on the part of the politicians and their allies in like-minded media outlets.

Where do extremists come from, if not from extreme levels of hatred and fear? 

We, all of us as human beings, have a blind spot. We assume that not only are our thoughts and feelings justified (never mistaken or manipulated), but also that their scale is justified (never out-of-proportion). Back in the real world though, extreme rhetoric is a prime cause in moving people to be extremely angry, extremely hateful, extremely fearful, and to do extreme things. All the while, the new-minted extremists are fully convinced that they have a justified and proportionate response. A person's response is generally proportionate to something, but to what? In these cases, it has been proportionate to their fear or anger or hatred. But is their fear or anger or hatred proportionate to what is happening?

Imagine that you could measure anger. Maybe 1 point on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to an aggressive driver who cuts you off in traffic. Maybe 10 points on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to a drunk driver who endangered you and your loved ones. Here's the thing: if we're angry at a 10 point level, we start with the assumption that the other person did something 10-point bad. We don't consider "What if they did something 1-point bad and someone else exaggerated it or portrayed it in the worst possible light?" Or "What if it didn't actually happen as reported at all, or if someone is keeping certain facts out of the picture to make a good story better?" It is a natural human bias that the information we already know is the information that matters to us; there are people who abuse that trust. But we're so invested in believing our own reasonableness -- so invested in justifying our feelings and reactions -- that we easily recruit ourselves to defend the integrity of people who withheld vital information, in an effort to prove we can trust ourselves.

We're human: We do not have full knowledge, and information is brokered through notoriously unreliable channels. There are people in a position to manipulate us every time information is passed along. Basically every media outlet on the market is known to keep certain facts out of the picture, to filter information to suit the confirmation-bias of their party. We even find ourselves in the unfortunate situation where a reliable slant creates brand loyalty. It follows that, regardless of our preferred media outlet, our reactions are probably out of proportion to what they would be if we knew all the facts. If we consume mass media, we will quickly encounter areas where people are actively trying to manipulate us, starting with the emotions. The more volatile emotions can act like a hallucinogen: for example, fear distorts both our perceptions and our thinking. So does anger or hatred. Eventually the bias can get to the point where the contempt or fear persists and is the automatic reaction to the targeted person or view.

To mass-create extremists requires the willing participation of mass media outlets, the willing consumption of bias, and the willing justification of an extreme reaction. It also requires a willing disinterest in whether another point of view may have legitimate concerns. Each of those points is an opportunity to turn back the tide on the mass-creation of extremists. It takes discernment and (in these times) some amount of patience and courage. We can try to broaden our sources of information to find the information that is being filtered out. We can actively wonder what piece of the picture we are missing; the additional information may support views we haven't considered yet. We can entertain some skepticism about our own emotions after consuming political media, much as we might after watching a scary movie. We can think twice about justifying extreme reactions. And we can hold the media outlets accountable when they withhold or distort information, or manipulate volatile emotions. 

With the state of information today, I find it helpful to work from the premise that any politicized story is uncorroborated until seeing if the other side has possession of facts that are not being reported through the first outlet. Assuming that any political story is uncorroborated leads to a certain "Schrodinger's Cat" view of the news: any given story may or may not be true. I find myself with a whole zoo full of Schrodinger's cats. I will bet that it is more accurate than some of the certainties on the market.

I hope it is still a time for peace. But as anyone who watches the international scene knows, peace doesn't just happen. It takes willingness. That willingness is eroded by hatred and suspicion and fear. I'd encourage anyone who loves peace to tune out voices that promote hatred, suspicion, and fear. 

A time for peace -- I pray it's not too late.
(Slightly altered version of the lyrics to Turn, Turn, Turn -- based on Ecclesiastes)

Sunday, September 06, 2020

In honor of JRR Tolkien, Professor of Ancient Beauties

This last week marked the anniversary of Professor Tolkien's passing. This graphic is done as a memorial tribute.

 The origins of Smaug, (c) 2020, original done in Inkscape

Tolkien understood something about the act of creation. His creations breathed life back to him as well. Incidentally, please don't over-estimate my artistic skills; the dragon is very closely based on some old drawings by Tolkien himself.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Different Denominations from a Different Angle

Among Christians, our divisions have caused problems. Tonight I am going to mention another angle that I sometimes use to view the problem. This does not look directly yet at questions of faithfulness to God and spiritual vitality, of charity and blessing, of love of God or neighbor. Those are key questions -- in many ways more so than these. Yet I think these other questions deserve a moment since they are so much a part of lived experience, so long as we have the perspective that these are, after all, side-effects of deeper issues. 

Some groups are fragmented to the point that they cannot provide a connection to the joy of life, much less effective cultural leadership. They struggle to provide their people with meaning and guidance. Regardless of a group's persistence, there are other ways to discern if a group is self-sustaining and mature. Here are some criteria that help me gauge a group's viability: 

Standing on its own two feet

A viable group has its own identity: it can explain its own views without the need to oppose others. A viable group seeks to add value to the world and enrich peoples' lives as a servant of God's blessings. A splinter group expresses itself in terms of finding fault with their opponent without seeing a need to present a fully-formed alternative. A splinter group exists to be another's nemesis, and expresses its reason for existing in terms of finding fault, or of being a living critique rather than an independent voice. 

Love of life

A religious group, by its nature, produces a culture. A thriving culture will produce worthy art as a natural expression of love of life. We can see or hear how well a culture is doing by its art, by paying attention to things such as paintings, literature, music, and architecture. A group that produces no art, produces intentionally low-quality works, or produces only what promotes itself or attacks its opponents -- that is a sign of a group that lacks the joy of life that is part of Christianity's legitimate heritage. 

Community and Fellowship

Love of life will also express itself in practices that bring people together, whether through songs or holidays, commemorations or celebrations. An enduring group puts a priority on building connections between people, and on maintaining harmonious relationships. It is a healthy sign when the group teaches people to live well in relationship with others. A less healthy sign is pursuing the outside appearance of harmony by hiding problems, or addressing problems without gentleness and respect. 

Wisdom and scholarship

A mature culture seeks wisdom and pursues it, values it and treasures it. Here it is useful to distinguish between wisdom and its imitations such as quarreling or intellectual sparring. 

Government and leadership

A religious group forms a culture; the most fully-developed faiths have led nations and have given birth to civilizations. Peaceful growth in a flourishing culture requires both stability and meaningful justice. Does the current religious climate produce equitable laws that guide the nation and endure across generations? Does the group have the maturity of thought and character to produce capable leaders? Many of the newer religious denominations have never led a nation, and lack the experience that would bring more breadth and depth to their views. 

There are other criteria that I have also consider, though in our current environment those are seen as on the border between politics and religion. So these are a simplified set of criteria that are on my mind, and I will admit that if a religious group does not meet a certain threshold then I do not see it as fully viable. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Was God sending a subtle message with the location of an event?

Of the events recorded in the Bible, sometimes it looks like God coordinated the time or place of events to reinforce his message. Our lectionary reading for today seems to be one of those times.

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

And they said, "Some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13-20)

This was a teaching moment where Jesus was leading his disciples to the next stage of understanding him. He had chosen his moment; did he also have any particular reason for the place? Our pastor today shared pictures from the ancient site of Caesarea Philippi: particularly, pictures of the headwaters of the Jordan river.

It turns out that Caesarea Philippi was near at least one major source of the Jordan river. The Jordan is where Jesus' cousin John baptized the people, and later had also baptized Jesus. And so Jesus chooses the headwaters of the Jordan river when the disciples are ready for the next step. As Jesus' identity is recognized by the disciples, the water flowing from that spot is baptized in Jesus' identity and carries the healing and forgiveness that only come from him. It leads to an understanding of baptism as rooted in Christ's identity: the cleansing waters that restore us flow from Christ, more than from a particular earthly spot. He is the true origin of the baptismal waters.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The spiritual foundation of the Ten Commandments

"I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." (Exodus 20:2)

Depending on which tradition you follow, that is either the prologue to the Ten Commandments or the first commandment itself. For present purposes, either way it is the foundation on which the others rest. What does that say about God's intentions and the law's purpose? 

In our days we hear a lot of prejudice against religious commandments and following them, with sneers about "blind obedience" or "mindless rule-following", usually complete with God's character being defamed as violent or selfish. Here we see that loyalty to God has a completely different origin. He has already established his benevolence, has already worked to free his people, has already shown his compassion toward them. The Lord is not their oppressor but their liberator. As they stand at Sinai, what he has asked them to do before then has led to freedom and blessing. 

The spiritual foundation of keeping God's commandments is his love and compassion for us, the trust that these laws do not bring chains but blessings. He has shown his faithfulness across the generations that separate them from their centuries-gone ancestors who first trusted him, and he will see their descendants through the centuries to come. 

Sunday, August 09, 2020

COVID as a window to a pre-modern world, and what they valued

In some ways, the COVID world makes the pre-industrial world more relatable. There is more insecurity now than before. Scarcity is something that is far more relatable after seeing months of shortages and empty shelves at poorly-stocked grocers. It is now more heartfelt to be grateful for simply having food, as the steady supply that I took for granted last year now seems a luxury. Even now, with supplies much improved over a few months ago, the stores still lack things that I used to take for granted.

And yet most of human history has been lived with uncertainty about these things. Every vaccine on our vaccination list was probably once an epidemic or an otherwise feared disease. And life went on. Instead of life being defined by possessions or security, it was defined by heart and soul, family, beauty, and a host of spiritual things that were held to be of greater value than food. Having had more experience of scarcity now, I begin to appreciate their point more deeply. I found this to be moving:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
who gains understanding

For wisdom is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold

She [wisdom] is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare to her.

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left are riches and honor. 

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peaceful. 

She is a tree of life to those who embrace her,
those who lay hold of her will be blessed.  ... 

When you lie down you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. 

Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked.

(Proverbs 3:13-18; 24-25)

In comparison, I think our pop culture is not even a parody of what it should be. 

Wisdom and kindness can give our lives a kind of value that a well-stocked pantry cannot: one with honor. The return-on-investment of wisdom is quality of life, depth of life, beauty of life, even (often enough) length of life. It sweetens sleep as it does waking life, deepens friendships, makes the rough places smooth. It is life-giving. Wisdom is the world's foundation; anything built without it will not last, and anything without it will not continue -- and will not be a blessing, and will not give life, and cannot attain to peace. When the rubble of our current mess is cleared away -- however deep the rubble may be -- it will take wisdom to lay the foundation again, and a respect for what is solid and upright and true.