Friday, November 25, 2011

Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion?

Would the world be better off without religion? This was the question debated on NPR’s Intelligence Squared the other day, and, like most debates, left me annoyed.

The pro side argued that religious people were happier, more generous, more likely to volunteer for community projects, and more civic minded than nonreligious people, and didn’t care if one was Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. as long as one wasn’t atheist. But if any religion is better than no religion, do religious differences matter at all? And if they don’t, what does that say about the religions themselves?

The con side argued that religion stymied science, dumbed down the human capacity for reason, and imposed outmoded mores on what would otherwise be liberal progressive societies, and didn’t care if you were religiously liberal or religiously fundamentalist, going so far as to call the former hypocrites. One ought to be a fundamentalist or nothing at all. Since this has never been the case historically, insisting that it be so now is silly.

The question I would rather debate is this: Given that religion in one form or another seems to be intrinsic to humankind, what kind of religion is best suited to the 21st century? Of course this isn’t a debate-style question, but it seems better than what was actually being debated.

I would argue for religions that recognize their theologies as myth (stories conveying truths and wisdom in a non literal way); that see science as a corrective to superstition and that continually take the wisdom of science into account in their quests for meaning; that recognize evolution, evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary morality (civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, etc. are something new on the human scene and not intrinsic to ancient religions) as central to the human spiritual unfolding;  that recognize contemplative practice as essential to testing the truth claims of religion; and that essentially see each religion as a unique cultural expression of a universal call to universal justice and compassion, and which, therefore, honor their cultural diversity without mistaking that time-bound heritage for timeless truth.

I don’t think we can do away with religion or religiosity, but we can shape new forms of the religions we have as well as create new religions for a new age.

So for me the answer to the question posed on NPR is this: The world would be a better place without imposing Iron-Age texts and medieval mores on postmodern society, but that in no way means doing away with religion itself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Amish Terrorists: None of the Zippers, All of the Hate

One of things I am most thankful for this Thanksgiving is Amish Terrorists. Yes, you heard me right: Amish terrorists.

Breakaway Amish leader Sam Mullet allegedly sanctioned a band of his Amish brethern to engage in a series of attacks on other Amish: cutting the beards of men and the hair of women as a warning to these Amish not to force their Amish ways on his Amish.

This is sad, no doubt about it, and yet I am thankful to Sam Mullet and his boys Johnny and Lester nonetheless. You see it is my contention that any religion can be corrupted for evil, and whenever I offer this idea someone always counterpunches with the Amish: the Amish always forgive; the Amish avoid the evils of postmodern society by eschewing the technology that makes it possible; the Amish are the exception that disproves my rule.

I wish it were so, but Mr. Mullet—bless his soul—has made my case airtight. If the Amish can be terrorists then anyone can be a terrorist. Which brings me to Herman Cain’s call for terrorist profiling by the TSA.

In the last GOP debate he said the TSA should focus on people who have a higher likelihood that others to be part of a terrorist cell. No doubt he had Muslims in mind, and prior to the gift of Mr. Mullet you might argue that Mr. Cain has a point.

After all if you had to choose between a Muslim man or an Amish man as your more likely terrorist you would choose…. Wait for it…. Yes! You can’t choose! True the Amish fellow couldn’t hide his bomb in a zippered bag in the back of his buggy, but there are plenty of buttoned bags that would do the trick just as well. And while it might be tough for an Amish terrorist to drive his buggy up to something like the World Trade Center, he could wreck havoc with Colonial Williamsburg. So we must beware of the Amish no less than the Muslim, and if we can’t trust the Amish we can’t trust anyone.

So thank you Mr. Mullet. You have restored my lack of faith in humanity. And for that I am most thankful. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution

[This morning while sitting in the Nashville International Airport reading the newspaper a mustachioed Frenchman sitting next to me starts up a conversation. In the interest of space and clarity I’m skipping my part of the conversation. I will also resist the desire to recreate hees speech zo zat you can read zees without hees Frehnch axaunt.]

Occupy Wall Street is a paper tiger. All drums and no message. If you want to change the system under which you Americans suffer you must stop collaborating with it.

First, the 99% should go on strike. Do it the day after your Thanksgiving. No one of the 99% goes to work. Do you think the fat cats on Wall Street can survive even a day without the 99%? Can they brew their own lattes? They will be defeated in moments.

Second, the 99% should boycott all elections except, maybe, the most local. It doesn’t matter which party wins in your system. The only difference between them is which corporations get to feed off the people. Don’t vote. Let the 1% elect their man, they do so anyway. Boycotting the elections says you know the system is stacked against you.

Third, the 99% should refuse to file tax returns. Instead everyone should file for an extension and mail it in on April 15th when your taxes are due. You are not refusing to pay, only filing for a legal extension. And keep filing for extensions until there is no money to feed the beast. Again you are sending a message: the people have the power because the people have the numbers.

Do these things until your demands are met: a minimum living wage, universal single payer health care, publically funded education from pre-school through college, ending corporate welfare and the “corporations are people” nonsense, and removing the influence of money from politics and government.

So, three things: call a general strike on November 25; file for tax extensions on April 15th; and boycott the elections on November 4th.

Will you do it? Of course not. Why? Because you would rather chant than change, and organize drum circles than a revolution. Because the government-military-corporate-entertainment complex keeps you fat, stupid, and afraid. Because given the choice between change and cable, you will choose cable every time.

But who am I to talk? I am going back home to watch the EU dissolve, and wait for America to drag us into a war with Iran and China. Bon chance, mais ami.

His plane to Chicago was called, and he got up and walked away. Who was this mustachioed Frenchman? Obviously I have no idea, but I suspect he would have left me a silver bullet if he could have gotten it passed security. Bon chance indeed!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Promise of Interfaith

Where can interfaith dialogue take us? I was asked this recently, and want to share my answer with you here.

There are many levels of inter-faith dialogue: sharing accurate information and correcting of misinformation about our respective religions; sharing our personal faith journeys; sharing our respective scriptures on a topic of mutual interest; finding common ethical ground and working toward common social goals; etc. All of these are important, and all of them can work toward the creation of a more loving community.

I would like to suggest one more. All our religions are, to borrow a phrase from Zen Buddhism, fingers pointing toward the moon; none of them is the moon itself. I want to get to the point where we can say with the Hindu Rig Veda that “Truth is one, different people call it by different names;” and then, even deeper still, to say with the Taoists, “the tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”

I long for an interfaith dialogue where participants, while steeped in their respective traditions, read these traditions as metaphor and myth pointing toward truths that can be articulated in no other way. I want to be in dialogue with people who not only learn about one another, but from one another; and where the participants can be changed by what they learn.

This kind of interfaith dialogue would be rooted in deep humility. All we could affirm is that we know we don’t know what ultimate Truth or Reality is; all we could say is that real meeting happens when we step out of our scripts and speak together from a place of common questioning rather than uncommon answering.

This is why I put so much effort into interfaith work. I want it to take us through religion and beyond religion to stand together in awe of What Is. At this moment silence reigns, opinions cease, and there is a wordless wonder that leaves us each humbled, hopeful, loving, and courageous.

Can interfaith dialogue bring us to this place? Yes. I have experienced it with the faculty of the Spiritual Paths Institute, with the participants in Father Thomas Keating’s Snowmass Group, and with the participants at my twice-monthly interfaith luncheons at Wisdom House.

I know this kind of encounter is possible. My hope is that more and more people get to experience it.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

I'm A Believer (But Not in the Right Things)

During a wonderful conversation I had this morning it struck me (once again) why I have such trouble fitting in even with interfaith groups: I am not a believer.
I don’t believe religions are of divine origin; I don’t believe theologies tell us anything about God (though they may tell us a lot about the humans who invent and adhere to them); I don’t believe scriptures are written or revealed by God; and I don’t believe the claims a religion makes about itself are anything more than self-serving marketing slogans.
I do believe all beings are manifestation of a singular Reality I call God; I do believe that we can realize this Reality in, with, and as ourselves through a variety of contemplative practices found in all of the world’s religions; I do believe that when we realize the Divine this way we move beyond religion to a state of open-hearted compassion and hard-headed justice and reason; and I do believe each of the world’s religions and all of their sacred texts contain timeless truths, but that these truths have to be culled out from a lot of time-bound bias and religious propaganda.
My beliefs make it impossible for me to hold “the Jewish line” on anything. Certainly I can challenge misinformation about Jews and Judaism, but I cannot personally assert that the Jews are the Chosen People or that the Torah is the one true revelation, or that Israel is the Promised Land (though I can explain why many Jews do believe these things). As the only rabbi in an entire county, however, I am expected to believe things I have long since abandoned. And when I don’t it is very confusing to people.
I love Judaism as a civilization of argument and doubt; I love its iconoclasm; I love its capacity to hold multiple and conflicting meanings on issues of doctrine, practice, text, and life; I love that Judaism is at home with paradox; but what I love about my people and our civilization is so very hard to get across to those who expect all faiths to be fundamentally creedal: We Jews believe “X;” I’m a Jew therefore I must believe “X” as well, and if I don’t I am no longer a Jew.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible,  for a Christian or a Muslim to deny the divinity of Christ or the authenticity of the Qur’an and still be a Christian or a Muslim. But Jews have been denying the truth claims of Judaism for centuries and still cling to being Jews. I refuse to abandon my people or our civilization, but I wish it were easier to explain the nature of the Jewish mindset. 

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

I was going to put this in a comment, but I wanted to make sure you all got to see it, so I am posting it this way.

First, if my previous blog implicated Mr. Leith in my opposition to religious violence in scripture and theology, that was not my intent. This is my issue, not his.

Second, Jerry and I continue to email and he has provided a 13 word declaration that I am hopeful many if not most of the clergy in our country will sign: "We condemn the religious persecution of anyone in the name of any religion."

Jerry and I are already talking about tweaking this a bit, so the final wording may differ slightly, but I urge you to take this declaration to your own clergy and see if you get them to affirm this in public.