Friday, December 30, 2005

Phil for President

This morning I breakfasted at Waffle House and sat at the counter next to Phil. Phil was talking with Catrina, a Waffle House waitress, about the fact that the US government is sending millions of dollars to Mexico to stem the tide of illegals coming into this country, and how they are using the money to fund drug smuggling instead.

“It’s Bush’s fault,” Phil told Cartina. “If he weren’t so obsessed with Eye-rak he’d realize the real threat is from Meh-hee-ko,” (Phil sounded like Dale Gribble on King of the Hill).

“Yeah Buddy,” Catrina said.

“Damn straight,” Phil said. “You know what I’d do if I was president? I’d pull our troops in Eye-rak back to the Kurds where they love us and let them Mooslems just fight it out amongst themselves. Then I’d send ‘em back in to pick up the pieces. It wouldn’t take that many, and I’d move the rest to the border with Meh-hee-ko.”

“Why don’t you run, Hun?” Catrina said.

“I could to,” Phil said. “Do better ‘n those bastards in Washington. I could come up with a 10-point plan like ol’ Newt did and win the whole country.”

“Five-points is better,” Catrina said. “We can remember five, Hun, but ten is too many.”

“OK, five, then. Let’s see. First, war on terrorism. Well, it ain’t a war on terrorism it’s a war on global Islamo-Fascism. This is a big war that is going to cost losts of lives and run for a long long time. I’d be honest with the people about this.

“Second, I’d institute a draft. Can’t call it that, a-course. Service America I’d call it. Every kid, boy and girl, serves for three years from 18 to 21. They can go into the military, or work as teacher’s aides, or some such thing. Get rid of racism and classism with Service America. They’d earn college tuition for their service plus basic pay.

“Third, education. Forget prayer in school and Intelligent Design in science class. There are certain things a kid’s got to know to be a good and productive American: reading, writing, math, civics, personal economics, basic biology and health, computers, maybe some other stuff. I’d put together a task force of teachers and business people to figure it out. You want your kid to become a Christian in school then send him to a Christian school. Public schools should be for raising Americans.”

“What about Ten Commandments?” Catrina said.

“Makes no sense to me the hoopla about that,” Phil said. “Only four of ‘em are real laws: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t adulterate, don’t covet. And the penalties for all four is death. Does that make sense? I say put something more practical on the wall.”

“And abortion?” Catrina said, “You can’t run without talkin’ about abortion.”

“I would. I would say that this is between a woman and her family and her doctor and her God, and not her president. I don’t think the government should stick its nose in other people’s private lives. Goes for gays too. Leave ‘em alone.”

“Let ‘em marry?” Catrina said.

“Come on, Catrina, you are takin’ me off track. Here: the government should stop marryin’ people altogether. Got nothing to do with the government. Protect the powerless from being exploited and that is that.

“OK, back to my points. What’s next? Oh yeah, number four, Social Security and taxes. Social Security was supposed to be a safety net for the poor. I’d set it up so that anybody makin’ over $50 thousand wouldn’t get Social Security, though everybody would have to put into it. And the amount you get would only bring you up to $50,000 a year. If you can’t live on that you’re a fool. And I’d do a flat tax. Ten percent and no loopholes. The government would have to live with that. Balanced budget and reduce the debt by freezing and then cutting spending.

“Last thing, OK, health care. Simple, offer the rest of the country what senators get in Washington. That’s it. That’s my platform. What do ya think?”

“I’m sorry, Hun,” Catrina said. “I missed most of the last part; the guy in corner there said his coffee was cold. But I’m sure it was good stuff. I’d vote for ya, Hun.”

Actually, Catrina, so would I.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why I Am Not A Christian

Living in the heart of the Bible Belt I am often asked why I am not a Christian. The answer is simple: I don’t believe in the essential doctrines of Christianity. What are these doctrines? According to Christian Research Journal there are fourteen:

(1) Human depravity, (2) Christ’s virgin birth, (3) Christ’s sinlessness, (4) Christ’s deity, (5) Christ’s humanity, (6) God’s unity, (7) God’s triunity, (8) The necessity of God’s grace, (9) The necessity of faith, (10) Christ’s atoning death, (11) Christ’s bodily resurrection, (12) Christ’s bodily ascension, (13) Christ’s present high priestly service, (14) Christ’s second coming, final judgment, and reign.

Let me briefly respond to each one.

HUMAN DEPRAVITY. I believe that people are the image and likeness of God. I believe that God embraces and transcends all opposites including good and evil (see Isaiah 45:7), and that on a lesser scale we do as well. We have an inclination for evil and an inclination for good. We must learn to embrace, harness, and transcend them both.

CHRIST’S VIRGIN BIRTH. Virgins don’t have babies. The notion of Virgin Birth is based on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14: “A young woman shall give birth…”

CHRIST’S SINLESSNESS. If Christ has no evil inclination he is not like me at all and thus cannot speak to my real spiritual struggle.

CHRIST’S DEITY. If all reality is God, as I believe, then Jesus, too, is God. But no more so than you and me.

CHRIST’S HUMANITY. If Jesus is born without an inclination for evil then he isn’t human. You can’t have it both ways.

GOD’S UNITY. God is not one rather than two; God is nondual. There is nothing other than God. If there were then God would be limited, and a limited god is not God.

GOD’S TRIUNITY. Just as H2O can manifest as liquid, solid, and gas so God can manifest as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But why stop at three? God also manifests as Mother, Daughter, Nature, Light, Dark, Good, Evil, humans, animals, plants, etc.

THE NECESSITY OF GOD’S GRACE. I agree that awakening to the Reality of God in, with, and as all things is an act of grace. I just cannot believe that God’s grace is limited to those who believe any specific doctrine. God’s grace is free. Either you accept it or not, but it is available to all.

THE NECESSITY OF FAITH. God desires no allegiance to doctrine or creed. God desires nothing, God is everything. Faith is an abstraction, reality is what matters.

CHRIST’S ATONING DEATH. Sin is rooted in ignorance. If we know that we are God manifest we naturally treat one another with kindness and respect. As history so clearly proves, the death of Jesus didn’t make us any less ignorant or sinful.

CHRIST’S BODILY RESURRECTION. Bodies don’t matter after death. Bodily resurrection, even if true, is irrelevant.

CHRIST’S BODILY ASCENSION. Where did he go? Up to Heaven? There is no “up” or “down” in the universe, only “in” and “out” of various gravitational fields. Heaven is not a place one goes, but a realization of God’s nonduality to which one awakes.

CHRIST’S PRESENT HIGH PRIEST SERVICE. I do not believe in priesthoods of any kind. We are all God; none are more God than others.

CHRIST’S SECOND COMING, FINAL JUDGMENT, AND REIGN. While I admit to longing for a time of universal peace, justice, and love, the return of Christ as it is told to me is a time of violence, torment, and death for billions of people on this planet. I’ll pass.

So that’s it. I am not a Christian because I cannot believe what Christians believe. But then I have the same problem with Jews, Moslems, Hindus, and Buddhists as well.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Gotta A Second?

It’s December 28, 2005 and in the low sixties here in Middle Tennessee. Global warming; ain’t no two ways about it. But, to tell you the truth, I am no longer worried about global warming. I’m worried about global slowing.

Scientists have known about this since 1972, and have been keeping us in the dark by adding leap seconds, twenty-two of them to date, to the atomic clock. But moving the second hand on the dial won’t change the fact that the earth’s rotation is slowing down.

Do you get that?!? Do you know what will happen if the earth slows to a crawl?!? Do you know what that will do to life on this planet?!? Do you?!?

I don’t. But I know it is going to be bad. You don’t have to believe in dinosaurs or melting ice caps to figure out that if the earth stops rotating half of us are going to be stuck in perpetual daylight. It will never get dark. Forget Nick at Night. Forget Elvira Mistress of the Dark. Forget Nightline. (Already did? OK, but remember Ted Koppel.)

Of course some of us will end up in perpetual night. That isn’t so bad. Prime time television all day, late late late late night comedy shows that can run on for months, sleeping in for eternity. But maybe not. Maybe it means that everyone will have to work the nightshift. That can’t be good.

So it doesn’t matter which side of the globe you are on, global slowing is bad. And you can’t fix it by adjusting clocks or driving hybrid cars. The first just masks the problem; the second has nothing to do with it at all and I have no idea why I even mention it except to say that I may be more agitated than I thought I was and I am grasping at straws.

But why would God make a world that slows down? “There was evening, there was morning, a first day—“ Genesis, remember? Why would God lie to us? Why would he set the world a-spinnin’ only to let it run down like a, like a— oh my God!— like a watch!

The Deists were right! God is a cosmic watchmaker who wound our world up and left us to fend for ourselves while it winds down. So that’s it, then. Short of having Superman fly around the earth at super speed (clock-wise this time) and get things back to normal, what are we to do? I have wracked my brain over this and I can’t think of a single thing.

So here’s the straight dope: The earth rotates at about 1000 miles per hour, that’s 2.77777778 miles a second. There are 31,556,926 seconds in a year. So the earth will stop rotating in 11,687,750 years. That’s barely enough time for most of us to pay off our school loans! This is the end.

This New Year’s Eve we will count down from 23:59:59 to 23:59:60 to 00:00:00. That middle step is a sop to our fears. We can change the clock but we can’t stop the slowing. We are doomed. Happy one second closer to oblivion new year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The War on New Year

Just when I thought I could take a break from the Christmas Culture War I am hit by a new wave of religious bias: “Happy New Year.”

Every Wal-Mart greeter, “Happy New Year.” Every Kroger cashier, “Happy New Year.” Every postal worker, “Happy New Year.” Happy New Year, Happy New Year, Happy New Year. But whose new year is it? I’m a Jew. My New Year is Rosh HaShanah in the fall. Wishing me Happy New Year now either means you are very late or incredibly early. Either way it is insulting.

I walked into my Wal-Mart Super Store this morning and the elderly greeter wished me a Happy New Year. I just couldn’t let it go by.

“Do you know whose New Year falls on January 1st?” I said angrily. “Do you have any idea how you are being manipulated into denigrating America and American values? Do you?” She didn’t, so I told her. “It is the Shinto New Year, Shogatsu. Are you Shinto? Do I look Japanese? No. So stop foisting Shogatsu on me. I for one will not shop at Wal-Mart during this Shinto season for this very reason.”

I walked out without buying a thing; I urge you to do the same. And not just at Wal-Mart, but also at any store that is trying to trick you into celebrating Shogatsu.

Of course you may be thinking that January 1st is also the secular new year, but this is a scam. Calling January 1st “New Year’s Day” is a slap in the face to every believing Christian no less so than saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The really special thing about January 1st is that it is the anniversary of Jesus’ circumcision.

Jewish boys (and Jesus was Jewish because his mother was Jewish, though the religion of his Father is in doubt) are circumsized eight days from their birthday. Count eight days from December 25th and you get January 1st. So again Christians are being robbed of their religion in this country, and we who are not Christian are forced to celebrate a holy day that is not ours (unless, of course you are Shinto in which case, “Happy Shogatsu). Outrageous. If I want to celebrate a circumcision I’ll celebrate my own (May 3rd for those who want to send gifts).

We have got to put the foreskin back in New Year’s. How should Christians celebrate Jesus Circumcision Day? The same way we Jews celebrate circumcision: with parties, gifts, white fish, and, to make it uniquely Christian, the ceremonial cutting off of the tip of the Christmas Tree.

So, I am taking stand, and I am asking you to join with me. No more “Happy New Year.” This country was founded on religious freedom and I can’t stand to see it weakened by godless Darwinians who hide the true spirit of the holy day behind the hoopla of a dropping a giant ball (looking suspiciously like the yellow Happy Face at Wal-Mart) on Times Square. No more. Happy Shogatsu!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Sticker Shock

I learn more from people who disagree with me than I do from those who agree with me. My last post talked about what I learned from supporters of Intelligent Design and their philosophy of Teach the Controversy. Today I want to borrow from them again and talk about the power of stickers.

Many school boards are being pressured by ID proponents to place warning stickers on biology textbooks that read, "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." A brilliant idea, and one I wish to borrow and adapt for my own needs.

I would like to propose printing up stickers to place on Bibles that read: "This book contains material on God. God is a matter of faith, not fact. The faith promoted in this book is only one of many possibilities. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

Can you imagine the impact such stickers would have on would-be Bible readers. I am not saying the Bible is wrong, only that there are a few billion people on the planet who disagree with it. Teach the controversy.

Designing and printing stickers on your computer is not difficult. My only question is whether or not placing stickers on Bibles (and other holy books for that matter) is legal. If you want to test this out, you might try sticking them on Bibles in churches, synagogues, bookstores, and hotel rooms. Think of it as a public service. If you do get arrested, let me know. While I won’t send any money to your defense fund, I might blog about it.

Teach the Controversy

While I am not a supporter of Intelligent Design I find their pedagogy compelling. Their argument is beautifully articulated in three words: Teach the controversy. ID may or may not be true (OK, let me honest, it isn’t true), but the controversy it creates is. We owe it to our children to teach them all sides of an issue. So, regardless of its scientific merit, teachers should teach the controversy.

I find this argument convincing, and would like to see it applied to all areas of education, public and parochial. For example, there is as much history behind Holocaust Denial as there is science behind Intelligent Design. I think our history teachers should teach the controversy over whether or not the Holocaust ever happened.

Similarly, there are many people who believe that slavery was good for the Africans brought over to this country. Compare the lifestyles of most African Americans today to that of their contemporaries in Africa. Had their ancestors not been slaves African Americans would not be where they are today. So, slavery was a good thing. Teach the controversy.

And then there is the controversy over the Civil War. The struggle had nothing to do with freeing enslaved human beings and everything to do with states’ rights to treat people any way they damn well pleased. Teach the controversy.

Homosexuality, oral sex, condom distribution in classrooms, clean needle programs, and abortion are all controversial issues. Rather than takes sides, our schools should teach the controversy.

And why stop at public schools? I think churches should teach the controversy over God and atheism. After all evolution is at least a theory while God is only a belief. There are alternatives to God and alternative gods to any religion’s position. Christians should be taught the controversy and given a chance to switch to Islam or Hinduism or Wicca.

There certainly is a controversy between Judaism and Evangelical Christianity over whom God loves the best. The Jews still claim to be the Chosen while Southern Baptists (to cite but one example) believe God has switched allegiance to them. We cannot know for certain who is right? Teach the controversy.

There is no end to keeping an open mind. It is certainly preferable to nurturing an empty one. At least I think so. Teach the controversy.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel

Let’s talk dreidel. Dreidels have fascinated me since I was a kid. I think it is the simple fact of not knowing which face comes up that intrigues me. Not knowing is at the heart of spirituality. Only when we don’t know are we open to the possibility of true knowing.

Playing dreidel on Hanukkah is a way of adding a deeper dimension to the holiday week. Here’s how: As you prepare for the first night of Hanukkah think of eight questions the speak to the direction and quality of your life. They may be private such as “Where am I most blocked in my life?” or relational such as “How might I deepen my connection with Ploni ben/bat Ploni (so-and-so)?”

Be careful how you phrase your questions. Don’t ask empty questions such as “Is there a God?” Ask instead: “How can I know there is a God?” Action oriented questions will send you on a path, and walking that path is your present to yourself this Hanukkah.

Each night of Hanukkah, as you light the candle for that night, focus on one of your eight questions. Then, after the candle is lighted, spin the dreidel and discover what it has to teach you regarding your question.

The four letters of the dreidel: nun, gimmel, hay, and shin stand for Nais gadol hayah sham/A great miracle happened there. The “there” is Jerusalem. If you buy a dreidel in Israel the shin is replaced by a peh for po, “here;” a great miracle happened here.

The four letters also stand for the four dimensions of human experience: body, heart, mind, and soul or Assiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. Understanding the dreidel in this way allows you to use it as a tool for self inquiry.

For example, let’s say you ask “How can I deepen my relationship with my beloved?” You spin the dreidel and up comes the letter nun, Assiyah/Body. More physical intimacy is the answer. How that plays out in your life is up to you, but at least you have a direction.

Or the letter gimmel comes up suggesting you need to be more romantic or more open about your feelings. Or the letter hay comes up urging you to engage more with your mind, listen more deeply, talk more openly, or maybe take a class together. Or the letter shin comes up and you begin to think about how you and your beloved can deepen your spiritual connection by adding more ritual and contemplative practice to your lives.

The dreidel provides the direction for inquiry, not the details of what to do. That is up to you. So think about the questions that matter to you, empty your mind of knowing, and let the spinning dreidel open new directions for the new season.

Happy Hanukkah.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

ID is Religion! Duh.

The verdict is in: Intelligent Design (ID) is religion. U.S. District Judge John Jones made that ruling this week after hours of careful study and testimony relating to the attempt by the Dover, PA school board (since voted out of office) to push for the teaching of ID alongside natural selection in Dover science classes.

Good for Judge Jones! Intelligent Design holds that aspects of life are so complex as to preclude their emergence from natural selection, and must come from an intelligent designer. Trying to avoid the label “religious,” ID supporters claim not to know who or what this designer might be.

Let me help them out. Either the designer is God as mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam assert, or it is an alien race from another universe that seeded this planet with complex beings. If the former, ID is religion. If the later it is science fiction. In either case, ID does not belong in the science classroom.

As I write this an email commentary by David Klinghoffer on the same subject has just arrived. I found his essay so troubling that I have to comment on it as well.

Klinghoffer says, “If ID is bogus because many of its theorists have religious beliefs to which the controversial critique of Darwinism lends supports, then what should we say about Darwinism itself?”

This is nonsense. The problem with Intelligent Design is not the religious beliefs of its supporters, but its lack of scientific credibility. What makes science science is its methodology. The scientific method posits ideas and then tests their veracity. An idea that cannot be tested may be true, but it is not science. You cannot argue with ID. You cannot prove or disprove the notion that there is a Designer behind creation. This does not mean there is no Designer, only that positing one is not science and does not belong in science class.

Klinghoffer: “[C]riticizing Darwin’s theory in biology class is unconstitutional.”

This is insulting. Challenging and defeating current scientific theories is at the heart of science and makes scientists who do so famous. Criticizing Darwin is in no way unconstitutional. What is unconstitutional is teaching religion as science, which is what ID tries to do.

Klinghoffer: “One may choose Darwin or one may choose God.”

Thank you, David; you just made Judge Jones’ case for him. The judge said that ID is a theological position rather than a scientific one. The aim of proponents of ID is to introduce God into the science curriculum. While ID supporters deny this, Klinghoffer has the guts to admit it: it is a matter of Darwin versus God. But which God?

If the ID people simply posit a generic god who designed creation and then left it to its own devices, they are Deists, a popular 18th century position held by most of our Founding Fathers, but no longer in vogue today. If they posit a god who comes with a revealed book, an ethical system, and an afterlife of reward and punishment, then we are mired in theological debate and not scientific study.

Since most ID supporters are Evangelical Christians, and most of them believe that God dooms all nonbelievers to eternal damnation in the fiery pits of hell, I imagine that the Intelligent Designer they have in mind is in fact the God they believe in. If so Jews, other Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and all other left-behind-types may want to take issue with ID not on scientific grounds but on religious ones.

The point is simply this: ID is religion and has no place in the science classroom. Does that make science and God incompatible? Only if you want it to.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Reclaiming Jesus as a God-Intoxicated Jewish Mystic

I am on my way back to Nashville from Elat Chayyim, the Jewish retreat center in upstate New York. As often happens when I teach, I bring to Judaism insights and parallel teachings from other traditions. The sayings of Rabbi Jesus play a growing role in my work. As a Jew speaking to Jews, Jesus’ teachings can relate better to Jewish audiences than similar teachings coming from eastern religions.

This integration of Jesus the Jew into my teaching (as opposed to Jesus the Christ of whom I know nothing) is often a shock to my students. Rarely do rabbis use Jesus to teach to the heart of Judaism. Yet, following the initial shock, there is a sense of relief and gratitude as well. So many Jews are curious about and ignorant of the Jewish Jesus. They have a sense that they could learn much from him, but the guilt that often accompanies that awareness is usually enough to squelch it. But when they listen to a rabbi use Jesus’ wisdom and insight to excavate the deeper realms of Jewish thought they come to me to confess their own interest and request that I do more.

I have tried to find a venue for teaching the wisdom of Jesus to Jewish audiences, but to date I have had no luck. While there are several centers eager to hear about the Jewish Jesus these are not centers of Jewish learning, nor do they attract a lot of Jewish learners.

Yet there is both a growing hunger and a pressing need for this teaching among Jews. The hunger comes from the fact that Jesus spoke to the heart of Judaism: Love of God and neighbor, and opened the table fellowship of the rabbis to all comers. Unlike many Christians who see him as the second Adam, I see Jesus as the second Abraham opening his tent to all who wish to share in the divine feast and learn about the One who manifests the many. As much of mainstream Judaism takes a turn toward tradition, with form once again trumping substance, the simplicity and depth of Jesus’ wisdom brings a welcome balance.

The need has to do with the resurgence of right-wing conservative evangelical Christianity. As Jesus and his message become the captives of the very tribalism he preached against, the intensity of evangelizing Jews will increase. For Jews, the best defense against Jesus the Christ is Jesus the Jew. Ignorance of Jesus is not defense against Christianity. On the contrary, ignorance of Jesus and his teaching leaves the Jew open to interpretations of Christ that can be confusing, misleading, and most seductive.

As we move deeper into the Christmas season, a time when so many Jews feel awkward and even alienated, it is my hope that Jewish leaders will reach out to this prodigal son and make room for Jesus among our most respected prophets and sages. The confluence of Christmas and Hanukkah could be a catalyst for reclaiming Jesus as a God-intoxicated Jewish mystic. This would be a great gift to the Jewish people (and others), and herald a deepening of Jewish wisdom.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Rapture Today

Right now I am sitting my sister’s home in Massachusetts watching as a blizzard dumps two feet of snow on her back porch. It isn’t even winter yet. So much for global warming.

I am not convinced that all the natural disasters our planet has suffered of late has anything to do with the liberal plot of global warming. I think it is all about the coming End Times. To check this out I went to the authority on End Times timing: The Rapture Index (

The Rapture is when God takes all the truly holy people up to heaven¸— naked! — leaving the rest of us to suffer terrifying natural disasters and a war with the Antichrist. Even if we survive these (notice how I include myself among the Left Behind, evidencing a deep humility which— God, are you reading this? — should get me off-planet before the rest of you losers suffer ungodly, well, no, quite godly tortures at the hand of, well, God.

Did I mention that those who are raptured get to go to heaven naked? Just another reason to make sure you diet and exercise religiously.

Anyway, the Rapture Index looks at 45 key signs and determines how close to the End we are. This morning the Index stood at 155. In 2002 the Index reached an all time high of 179, so we may not be in too much trouble; and while I cannot find the magic number that signifies the actual Rapture, I am told that anything in excess of 145 is considered “fasten your seatbelt time.”

Fastening your seatbelts is not only good advice; it is the law. I heard on the radio that one American city disguised police officers as roadside panhandlers. When these fake bums walk up to your car to ask for money they are really checking to see if you are wearing your seatbelt. If you are, I guess they just take your change; if you are not, they fine you big time.

Anyway, panhandlers are not a sign the Rapture Index takes seriously, so it doesn’t matter. Poverty doesn’t matter to the Rapture Index because you don’t need money to be saved, and when you go to heaven you go naked; did I mention that already?

I know I seem to be obsessed with this, and I am. I think the Rapture is Victoria’s secret: God only saves the beautiful people. Did you know that GQ actually stands for God Qualified?

I could be wrong about this. Maybe God wants us naked to weed out any uncircumcised men. While I qualify in this second category, I won’t make the cut if the first counts even a little.

In either case it is just another example of the elitism that I find so offensive in religion. I don’t believe in a God Who welcomes only those who fit some narrow definition of OK. I don’t believe in a God Who condemns the vast majority of humanity to eternal damnation. I don’t believe— whoa, I just noticed that Index is up a point. Snowstorm or no snowstorm I’ve got to get to the gym. Fasten your seatbelts!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Religion: What Is It Good For?

Not long ago I sat on an inter-faith clergy panel discussing the topic: “Religion: What is it Good For?” Seeing as this was a college campus panel, and sensing the resonance to Edwin Starr’s 1970’s musical hit WAR! I was tempted to limit my remarks to “Religion, what is it good for, absolutely nothing!” But I knew this wasn’t exactly true, so I struggled to come up with something equally catchy but more accurate.

When it was my turn to speak I still had not come up with anything, and was as surprised as my audience to hear myself say, “At its worst, religion is the way we keep God and godliness from impinging on our quest for power and control. At its best religion is a map, though not the only map, to becoming a saint, a bodhisattva, a mensch.

“At the heart of religion is the promise that we can become like God, or for those religions that don’t use the term ‘God’ the promise is that we can reclaim and live from our original nature which is intrinsically capable of loving-kindness. The extent to which a religion provides you with a roadmap for personal holiness— acting justly, kindly, and humbly to borrow from the prophet Micah— and assists you in following it, its value is inestimable. The extent to which a religion focuses not on loving-kindness but on partisan bickering and internal battles over dogma and creed it is, in my opinion, useless.”

I would like to report that my remarks were so well received that the entire evening was spent sharing ways in which the various religions represented went about promoting loving-kindness, but I would be lying if I did so. My words were met with a deep and embarrassing silence, and, thanks to the skill of our moderator, we quickly turned to matters of doctrinal differences and got into a cheap debate on who was going where after they died.

Despite my failure to sway the audience, I am still convinced that what I said was true. The only relevance religion has is tied up in its capacity to promote loving-kindness. A religion convinced of its doctrinal truth and purity, and yet one that is unconcerned with raising up followers who do good in the world, is irrelevant to the world. I would rather be wrong in my faith and right in my works, than the other way round.

I said something to that effect later in the discussion and was confronted by an angry Lutheran minister, “That is what you Jews always say. But the Lord is clear it is faith not works that gets you into heaven.”

A smattering of applause quickly gave way to an awkward silence reflecting the imperfect marriage of religious zealotry and political correctness.

I smiled and said, “And yet Jesus says, ‘By their fruits you shall know them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” [Matthew 7:20-21]. And while it is true that Judaism is more concerned with deeds than belief, the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk says, “The righteous shall live by faith,” [Habakkuk 2:4], so the dichotomy is somewhat false. My point is not to pit faith against works, or to claim that either will get you into heaven. My point is that a religion is of value to the world only to the extent that it helps us sow the seeds of loving-kindness in the world. Believe what you wish, just be a mensch and the world will benefit from your having been born into it.”

This was the second time I had used the word mensch that evening, and it suddenly dawned on me that my Bible Belt audience might not be familiar with the word. Thankfully someone interrupted and asked me for a definition. I said, “A mensch is a person who strives to love her neighbor as herself.”

I am convinced that menschlichkeit, the art of living as a mensch, is at the heart of all authentic religion and spirituality. A mensch may be a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Moslem, a Christian, a Jew, a pagan, a secular humanist, etc. What makes a person a mensch is not her religious label, but her focus on loving-kindness. The fact that people striving after menschlichkeit can share with one another different insights and practices derived from their respective traditions and which further the aim of menschlich (mensch-like) living is a plus. It is this plus that can make for fruitful dialogue among the world’s religions; a dialogue we need now more than ever.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I Think I'm Gay. Or Maybe Catholic.

In its frantic attempt to look like it is tackling the horror of pedophile priests, the Catholic Church is targeting homosexual priests and seminarians despite the fact that there is no scientific link between homosexuality and pedophilia.

In the past the Church made a distinction between the sinner and the sin, respecting the person as long as he did not engage in homosexual behavior. The demand for gay celibacy was fair, paralleling the same demand made upon heterosexual men aspiring to or already in the priesthood. The new Vatican policy, however, changes that, making being a homosexual rather than engaging in sexual activity the problem. The distinction between the sin and the sinner is lost.

According to the Vatican gay men are inherently incapable of sexual maturity; have problems with “psychic organization;” have “trouble relating to their fathers;” “are uncomfortable with their own identity; tend to isolate themselves; have difficulty in discussing sexual questions; view pornography on the Internet; demonstrate a deep sense of guilt; or often see themselves as victims.”

This comes from Andrew Sullivan’s essay in the 12/12/05 issue of Time Magazine. Sullivan makes it clear that there is “no serious psychological data” to verify the claims of the Vatican. I have no doubt that this is so, yet I cannot shake the possibility that the Church is right. And if they are, I am gay.

First, I don’t even know what sexual maturity is, but I suspect my laughing at the sexual innuendos on South Park and The Family Guy probably disqualifies me from having it. Second, my psyche doesn’t seem organized at all. My mind jumps around like a wild monkey even during meditation. Third, relating to my dad has never been easy, and ever since I gave up a six-figure income to focus on my writing, things have gotten worse. Fourth, I have no idea who I really am. My identify seems forever fluid and in flux. Fifth, I love to be alone. Sixth, unless I am relating a joke from South Park or The Family Guy— which once again proves my sexual immaturity— talking about sex is often awkward. And as far as guilt goes, I was born Jewish: guilt is a given.

According to the Vatican the only hope I have for not being gay is that I don’t watch Internet porn and I rarely if ever see myself as a victim. Yet the Vatican uses the word “or” in their document rather than “and” so any one of their criteria can disqualify me from the priesthood on the grounds that I am gay.

So I am having doubts about my sexual orientation. I have spoken to several gay friends about this but they aren’t Catholic, so maybe they don’t really get it. To know for sure, I plan to apply to a Catholic seminary and see if they out me. I’ll let you know how this goes.

Monday, December 05, 2005

On My Way To Hell

The man sitting next to me on a United Airlines flight to Denver was on a mission from God. A bumper sticker stuck to the side of his brief case said so. As we settled into our seats the flight attendant came on the overly loud loud speaker to remind us that, “If Denver is not your destination, now would be a good time to get off the aircraft.”

“I guess I should get off the plane then,” my neighbor said, making no move to do so.

I knew what was coming. Two years ago I attended a seminar on the art of evangelizing sponsored by a local Baptist church. There were about 25 people enrolled in the class, and the gist of what we learned was how to find openings in otherwise banal conversations that would allow us to shift the conversation toward the topic of salvation through Jesus Christ. Curious as to whether or not the man had heard the opening and was about to finesse it into a proselytizing moment, I said: “You’re not going to Denver, then?”

“Oh, Denver is on my way, but my final destination is heaven.”

There it was! Of course now I had to deal with the opening gambit. So, I smiled, maintained eye contact, and raised my eyebrows in feigned curiosity.

“You know there is only one way to heaven, and that’s through faith in Jesus Christ. Are you saved? Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

So clumsy! He shouldn’t have hit me with a declarative statement like that. He should have engaged me a bit more in actual dialogue. Amateur.

“I wouldn’t presume to say I am saved,” I said. “In fact I suspect that those who are certain of their personal salvation are actually falling victim to the sin of spiritual pride. I leave salvation up to God. But I do agree there is only one way to heaven. I just don’t think faith in Jesus is it.”

Having taken the proselytizing class I knew I was pushing every spiritual hot button my seatmate had. He reached for his Bible and was, no doubt, about to quote from the Gospel According to John. I could feel him girdling his loins that he might defeat me in spiritual combat, but I wasn’t looking for a fight. I laid my hand on his for a moment and said softly, “Jesus says, ‘Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.’ That’s Matthew 3:36, right? Compassion is the way to heaven. To mistake the messenger for the message is like mistaking the menu for the meal. You will never taste the truth of what God’s offers. I don’t want to argue with you about Jesus, I want to walk with you on his path.”

This line from Matthew should be the hallmark of Christian teaching, just as it is the hallmark of Jesus’ message. The reason it isn’t is that you can’t build a religion around it. You don’t need priests, pastors, rabbis, gurus, imams, or any other clergy person to practice loving-kindness. You don’t need churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, altars, or sacrificial cults to practice loving-kindness. All you need is loving-kindness. This is what makes the way of loving-kindness so frightening to so many religious people.

Religion gives lip service to loving-kindness, but in the end the final arbiter of your fate is not kindness but loyalty to this or that tribe, denomination, ritual, creed, etc. And do not think I am talking only about western religion. The history of every religion is riddled with violence, sexism, jingoism, and xenophobia. No organized religion is free from violence, because violence is intrinsic to the nature of organized religion.

As long as there is a hierarchy to maintain, a power-elite to support, and a populace to control, the propensity for violence— physical, psychological, political— is always going to be present. But none of this pertains to the way of loving-kindness. There is no hierarchy, no privileged elite, no one to keep in line. There is only you and the world you encounter moment to moment. Will you engage this moment with kindness or with cruelty, with love or with fear, with generosity or scarcity, with a joyous heart or an embittered one? This is your choice and no one can make it for you. If you choose kindness, love, generosity, and joy then you will discover in that choice the Kingdom of God, nirvana, this-worldly salvation. If you choose cruelty, fear, scarcity, and bitterness then you will discover in that choice the hellish states of which so many religions speak. These are not ontological realities tucked away somewhere in space, these are psychological realities playing out in your own mind. Heaven and hell are both inside of you. It is your choice that determines just where you will reside.

"You are going to hell,” my seatmate said flatly after I had shared with him the thoughts I have just shared with you, his voice cracking just enough to let me know this is not the fate he would wish for me.

“I know," I said just as flatly, "but without loving-kindness we are in hell already.” Then I smiled, powered up my PowerBook, and quickly typed out the conversation you have just read.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Lion in Winter

I was leaving a Nashville synagogue after teaching an adult education class when one of my students stopped me in the hallway and asked, “Rabbi, my kids want to see the Narnia movie, but I am afraid it will make them Christian. Do you think it is OK for Jews to go to this movie?”

“Of course it is OK. It is a great story.”

“But isn’t it the story of Jesus?”

“Maybe,” I said, “and that is a great story also.”

The woman was stunned. “You like the Jesus story?” she said breathlessly.

“What’s not to like? A people oppressed; a young child raised to free them who grows up to give his life trying to do so. Danger, courage, sacrifice; this is stuff of all great literature.”

“But this is Christianity!”

“No, it isn’t. Christianity, especially as practiced in our neighborhood, is the belief that believing in Jesus as Christ, as messiah, is the only way to avoid eternal hell fire. You can believe, as I do, that Jesus was a great prophet, teacher, rabbi, and Jew, and still go to hell for all eternity. Narnia is going to turn you kids on to self-sacrificing lions, not Christ.”

“I don’t know, Rabbi. I still don’t want this movie to influence my kids.”

“It is your choice,” I said, “but you really can’t keep your kids away from Christian influence. Rather than isolate them, teach them about Jesus the Jew, be open about what Christianity teaches and how Judaism offers an older and, to my mind, more loving understanding of God, life, and how to live justly, compassionately, and humbly. Rather than worry about the culture influencing your kids to be Christians, try influencing them to be Jews.”

Friday, December 02, 2005

If It Looks Like a Tree and Sparkles Like a Tree...

I was teaching at the local library the other day, sitting next to a very stately evergreen tree decorated with twinkling white lights. I made some offhand comment about a rabbi teaching under a Christmas tree and one of the women in the class corrected me:

“Holiday Tree,” she said.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“It is called a Holiday Tree, not a Christmas Tree.”

“You’re kidding,” I said intending to say more, but she cut me off.

“I am not kidding, and it is wrong to call it a Christmas tree. Even here in the Bible Belt we are sensitive to the diversity of our population. Calling it a Christmas tree alienates people who aren’t Christian, people, I might add, such as yourself, Rabbi.”

I don’t understand the phrase “I might add.” It implies that she might not add, but since it is said in the context of actually adding it is misleading and redundant. I didn’t mention it seeing that it probably wasn’t germane, but I am sharing it with you so that you might not make a similar mistake yourself. I restricted my comments to the topic of the tree:

“What holiday is this Holiday Tree celebrating?” I asked her. “The Jews have a tree holiday called Tu b’Shevat that comes in a few of months. It celebrates the first stirrings of spring as the trees slowly come back to life. It is like Easter for trees: winter death giving way to spring resurrection. But we don’t cut them down or decorate them. We actually plant saplings. So if this Holiday Tree has to do with that, we are very premature and off-base.”

“Oh please,” the woman said, “I never heard of this Jewbishwat. It has nothing to do with that.”

“Is there another holiday in December, other than Christmas, that comes with tree decorating? Hanukkah has nothing to do with trees. Nor does Kwanza as far as I know. The Druids may have a tree worshipping holiday around the Winter Solstice, so are we changing the name to be more welcoming to Druids?”

I am certain that if this woman was capable of saying “You asshole” she would have said “You asshole!” In fact she may have said it silently to herself. I wouldn’t blame her. I was being an asshole. Instead she turned very red and said in a staccato voice that sounded like a computer a cheap 1950’s sci-fi movie, “It is a Christmas Tree, everyone knows it is a Christmas Tree, but saying it is a Christmas Tree is rude and offensive, so we call it a Holiday Tree which is much more inclusive and respectful.”

She is wrong on all counts, other than the point that call it what you like, this is a Christmas tree. Saying that the tree is a Christmas tree is not rude or offensive, anymore than calling a Hanukkah menorah a Hanukkah menorah rather than a holiday candlestick is rude and offensive. What is rude is denying the true nature of a thing. What is offensive is stripping the tree of its meaning in order to placate… whom? Is anyone offended by the fact that a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree? Do Christians celebrating Christianity offend anyone? If you are so offended then move to Teheran or the Meah Shaarim section of Jerusalem where Christians and Christmas are quite rare.

What is rude and offensive is thinking that non-Christians are so stupid as to believe that calling a Christmas Tree a Holiday Tree makes it any less a Christmas Tree or any more relevant to those of us who do not celebrate Christmas. It is a stupid and insulting act of political correctness that feeds the paranoia of those Christians who feel they are under siege in this country.

I love Christmas. I love the story (we Jews tell similar ones about Abraham and Moses), I love the music, I love watching shoppers trample one another over bargains (it reminds me of my youth shopping with my family at Filenes’s Basement). I love Christmas Trees. I love the lights, the ornaments, the smell of pine (or Pine-Sol, depending on the kind of tree it is). Unless you have to set them up and take them down yourself, Christmas Trees are a pure delight.

Yes, there are aspects of Christian culture that frighten me, both as an American and as a Jew. Yes, there are trends in this country that hint at a coming dark age and the rise of an American Theocracy. But calling a Christmas tree a Holiday tree is not going to change that. There are real religious battles to be fought, but this is not one of them.

Anyway, have a happy/merry ___________ [Please fill in the blank for yourself so as to feel I really care about you and your unique cultural and religious heritage.]