Thursday, May 31, 2007

What Would You Die For?

My last blog got a bit of email regarding my assertion that I would not die for Judaism. Here are four selections worthy of further comment:

1. A life is not worth living without beliefs worth dying for. Honestly I cannot think of a single belief for which I would die. Given the right circumstances I would die to save the lives of family and friends and even strangers, but I wouldn’t die to save an idea. Why? First of all because I am not sure my ideas are right. Why die to uphold something that is false? Second, if all the people who thought some great idea were killed for thinking it, there would be no one left to think it and the idea would die. Ideas are only good if they are embodied in living bodies.

2. You insult millions of Jewish martyrs by not willing to be martyred yourself. Why is that true? How does my choosing differently than others insult them or their choice? And if choice isn’t allowed then martyrdom is meaningless.

3. When push comes to shove, you really aren’t a Jew if you aren’t willing to die for being a Jew. Given this logic there is no way to know if you are really a Jew unless someone threatens to kill you for claiming you are a Jew. Honestly, though, if someone put a gun to my head and threatened to pull the trigger if I claimed to be a Jew I would most likely claim to be a Rotarian.

4. You insult every brave American soldier in Iraq who was willing to die for their country. This argument, while totally tangential to my own, just bugged me. First of all the country wasn’t in danger from Iraq. Second, soldiers aren’t willing to die for their country, they are willing to kill for it. Dying is a risk not a reward. If dying were the point they could stay home and shoot themselves. On the contrary, soldiers do everything they can not to die for their country.

But I can top all of these critics by saying that while I may not being willing to die or kill for Judaism, I am willing to suffer eternal damnation on its behalf. After all there are many more millions of people who believe I am going to hell for being a Jew than there are people wishing to send me there sooner rather than later. Of course that fact that I don’t believe in hell may make my choice a bit easier, but still this has to count for something.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why Do People of Faith Fight?

Why do religious people fight? It seems to me that the root cause of inter–religious warfare is to determine whose religion is the right religion. Think about this for a moment. How do you know that your religion is true and another’s false? You can’t find any objective criteria for proving truth claims made by any religion. There is no way to know if Immaculate Conception, Virgin Birth, and Original Sin are true or not. You either believe in these things or you don’t. Believing doesn’t make it true any more than not believing makes it false. So how do you know what you believe is worth believing?

There are two classic answers to this question: Either you get lots of people to believe as you do, or you kill even more people for not believing as you do. Ideally you do both.

What intrigues me is how you get people to kill for their religion. I have tried to get people stirred up enough about what I hold to be true that they might consider a march on Rome or Jerusalem or Mecca, but nobody takes me seriously. I can’t even get one of my stronger students to challenge the Dalai Lama to an arm wrestling contest. What am I doing wrong?

Is it that I believe less strongly than others? No, I am adamant about what I believe. I am certain I am right, or at least that others are wrong. Seriously, I have no doubt that Jesus is not the Son of God, Mohammed is not the Seal of the Prophets, and Torah is not the Word of God or the Jews God’s Chosen People. While I find great wisdom in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I deny the basic truth claims of each, and would not die or kill for any of them. But then I wouldn’t die or kill for my ideas either.

Maybe that is the problem. I’m not willing to kill for what I believe, and have no desire to see anyone die for what I believe. Unless you are willing to kill and die for your beliefs no one takes you seriously.

While I can’t bring myself to do either of these things, perhaps I can get behind the idea that people who disagree with me will spend eternity in hell. I will work on this for a while and see if I can stomach condemning people to endless torture after they die. I suspect I will fail. Maybe I’m just not mean enough to be a real person of faith.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

God's Babble

I find that lots of what passes for reasoned discourse in religious settings sounds like babble to me, but when it comes to actually babbling in church I’m all for it. Holy babble or speaking in tongues is real. It is a legitimate method for shifting from mochin d’katnut (narrow mind) to mochin d’gadlut (spacious mind).

When it comes to judging religious practices my concern is simple: does it work? Does it help me achieve a higher and more compassionate and just level of consciousness? Speaking in tongues does.

This past Sunday, millions of Christians celebrated Pentecost, the Christian parallel to the Jewish Shavuot. Where Shavuot recalls the giving of Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai, Pentecost recalls the Holy Spirit inspiring the disciples of Jesus to speak in other tongues. For most Jews and Christians these are memorial days, that is they mark a time in history. But for some in both communities these are times of divine revelation.

Jews stay awake all night on the evening of Shavuot to purify and prepare themselves to receive Torah. Christians in many churches will surrender to the Spirit and speak as the Apostles spoke in languages they do not understand. For both groups the experience not only affirms the truth of their tradition’s history, but also takes that history out of the past and into the present. Revelation is not once and for all, but on–going.

I have spoken in tongues, and it is a wondrous experience. It sounds like babble to the outer ear, but the inner ear knows otherwise. Simply giving myself over to the out–pouring of sound, I felt God’s Presence surround and infuse me. I didn’t choose the “words” I spoke, and made no attempt to decipher them. The message of God’s presence was not carried by what I said, but by the very fact of how I said it.

Dr. Andrew Newberg in his fascinating study of the biology of religious experience, Why We Believe What We Believe, uses neuroimaging to show that speaking in tongues decreases frontal lobe activity, and leaves the speaker with a sense of being spoken through rather than speaking. This is precisely what I felt.

Speaking in tongues is not the same as meditation. When speaking in tongues I never lost a sense of separate self as I have in meditation, but I did loose a sense of willful self: not I, but God in me best describes the experience.

Most Christian churches do not accept speaking in tongues, but millions of Christians will continue to do so. We are hardwired for the experience of spacious mind. We long for it. We need it no less than we need food, water, and shelter. Try it yourself and see.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Pope, The People, and Purification

The pope traveled to Brazil recently where he called the brutal evangelizing of millions of indigenous people purification, and said that the indigenous Indians had been “silently longing” for Christianity.

Really? Were they silently longing for the destruction of their culture, their autonomy, and the deaths of millions of their people? And what evil was purified by the forced conversion of millions of native peoples to Catholocism? Was giving up human sacrifice of some Indians worth the destruction of almost all Indians? Was loosing self–determination a good thing? Does humanity somehow benefit when the cultural diversity of our species is depleted? Maybe it does. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all purified of our cultural differences and became Catholic? No more pesky Jews or angry Muslims. No more Hindus, Buddhists, or Zoroastrians. No more atheists and freethinkers. The purified world of the pope is simple, unified, and, not surprisingly, run by him.

Of course not everyone was happy with the Pontiff’s view of Catholic hegemony, and the pope did admit that “the memories of a glorious past cannot ignore the shadows that accompanied the process of evangelization of the Latin American continent.” Leaving aside the fact that Latin America is not actually a continent, and only the Catholic conquerors would call the invasion of the New World “glorious,” can we really sidestep the horrors of European colonization by claiming it was a shadow phenomenon?

Jesus urged his followers to carry the Good News to the world. His message was that God loves you, not that God wants your gold. To make sure people understood that his emissaries were not invaders Jesus instructed them to carry nothing with them on their journey: “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money” (Luke 9:3). The pope’s glorious memory has nothing to do with Jesus, and the Catholic armies that invaded the Americas came not to preach but to pillage. They didn’t heal or purify, they raped and robbed. They came with swords and left with the wealth and the freedom of an entire civilization in their sacks. This may have been glorious for the conquerors, but not for the peoples they conquered.

Of course historians can point to similar genocidal invasions by Israelite, Muslim, and Protestant armies as well, but at least when the Queen visited Virginia recently she didn't call the genocide of Native Americans purification. Gotta love those Germans.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Religion At Its Best

I am not anti-religion; I only want to look into the nature of religion. People mistake an honest examination of religion with being anti-religion, which in and of itself tells you something very important about the nature of religion: it fears honest scrutiny. Why? Because at its heart religion is nothing but a series of propositions enforced by fear.

Think about this for a moment. Why do some people suffer from Original Sin and others do not? Is it ignorance on the part of the billion plus people who do not suffer, or conditioning on the part of the billion plus that do? Why do Jews and Muslims think God is displeased if they eat pork? Is this because they know God’s dietary predilections, or simply the product of thousands of years of enforced conditioning? Why do Tibetan Buddhists think there is merit in spinning a prayer wheel? Why do Hindus offer flowers and fruit to Ganesha, the elephant-headed God? Yes, devotees can invent sophisticated reasons to make these actions meaningful, but these are mere glosses. With or without a good reason you had best do the action because if you don’t something bad is going to happen to you or those you love. Religion is at root magic, but it could be so much more.

Religion could be a laboratory for investigating meaning, and realms of consciousness that materialist science refuses to consider. It could be a school for timeless ethical teachings freed from time–bound bias and bigotry. It could be a community where people support one another in times of pain and celebrate with one another in times of joy without blaming or theological clucking of tongues.

Religion is all this to some extent, but it is hampered by fear and conditioning. I don’t want to do away with religion I want to do away with fear and conditioning. I don’t want to do away with God I want to do away with theology. I don’t want to do away with clergy I want to do away with exploitation of the laity. And when there is no fear, no conditioning, no theology, and no exploitation there is a chance that you and I might peer directly into Reality as it is—and that is religion at its best.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


I can’t shake the notion that President Bush has hired George Orwell as his speechwriter. In a news conference held in the White House Rose Garden (I guess some people are promised a rose garden after all), the President commented that we can expect the coming months in Iraq to be bloody ones. American and Iraqi casualties will rise. And that, surprisingly, is the good news.

I always thought that winning a war meant our casualties go down while the bad guys casualties go up. But in the lexicon of Bushspeak the more attacks on Americans the more our strategy must be succeeding. By that logic we won’t have won until we have run out of soldiers to send into the field. Is anyone buying this nonsense?

The point of the surge as I understood it was to overwhelm the enemy and clamp down on violence, not to give the enemy more of us to shoot at and bomb with no lessening of violence. While I was not in favor of the strategy, I did recognize it as a legitimate idea.

As far as I can tell it isn’t working out the way I thought it was supposed to. Violence is up. American casualties are up. Al¬–Qaeda is thriving. How is this winning?

Bush is positioning himself for a no–lose response to General Petraeus’ report on the war this coming September. If Petraeus reports that violence is down, the insurgency is weakening, the civil war is lessening, and peace is coming then the President can declare victory for his strategy. If Petraeus reports that violence is up, the insurgency is strengthening, the civil war is intensifying, and peace is years away then the President can again declare victory for his strategy by claiming we are pocking at the eye of the enemy so, of course, they are stirred up. The President can’t lose. But the American people can.

This is why I suspect George Orwell is writing George Bush’s speeches and talking points. If you want to know what is going on in America today don’t rely on CNN, Fox News, or even NPR. Pick up a copy of Nineteen Eighty–Four.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Voting Christian

Forget about voting Democrat or Republican in 2008, I’m voting Christian. This way I know I am voting for a person of character, and, even better, a white male person of character. The Democrats are pitting gender and ethnic groups against one another. There is Senator Clinton, a white woman, and New Mexico Governor Richardson, a brown Hispanic, and Senator Obama, a Hawaiian. If I want to see a woman as president I have to vote against other groups I would like to see as president as well, like Hispanics and Hawaiians. So, rather than choose along gender, race, and ethnic lines, I will choose along religious lines. And since there are only Christians running, I will vote for the most Christian among them.

I thought it would be easier to vote for the Best Christian than to vote for the person with the best ideas. I find it impossible to discern where any candidate stands regarding war, poverty, immigration, energy, terrorism, homeland security, and the like. No one seems to gives a straight answer on any of these issues, but they are all pretty sure they are Christians. As it turns out, however, this isn’t so clear either.

Simply saying you are a Christian isn’t good enough. Mitt Romney says he is a Christian, but Rev Al Sharpton put the kibosh on that. Fred Thompson says he is a Christian, but uber-Christian James Dobson says no. Hillary Clinton claims to be a Christian, but most Evangelicals I know are not even sure she’s American. John McCain is trying to prove his Christian bona fides by showing how pro-fetus he has been in the Senate, but it doesn’t seem to be working among most Christians.

Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says a true Christian is one who puts Jesus first and turns away from his or her own desires. But it is hard to believe that anyone who desires to be President of the United States has put away his or her own work in favor of Jesus, so maybe there are no real Christians running for office.

If this is true I am back where I started: do I vote for a woman or a Hawaiian? I just don’t know.

Monday, May 21, 2007

"Shumail the Shemale" or "Penis Politics in Pakistan"

This is going to get a bit complicated, so let’s take it slow.

Point One. Shumail Raj, a 31¬–year–old Pakistani male, used to be a female. Sixteen years ago she underwent sex reassignment surgery, and has signed a sworn statement to the Pakistani court that she is, and has been for most of her life, a he. A court-appointed panel of Pakistani doctors, however, denied his claim and said that he is a she.

Point Two. Shahzina Tariq, 26, has been a woman all her life. While her gender consistency may be laudable in Pakistan, just being a woman comes with its share of grief. In Shahzina’s case the trouble comes in the form of one of her uncles who wants to sell her off to pay for his gambling debts.

Point Three. To save Shahzina from a life of sexual slavery, Shumail and Shahzina got married a year ago. It seems that while an uncle can sell of his brother’s daughter, he cannot sell another man’s wife. And there’s the rub: is Shahzina another man’s wife, or is she another women’s partner?

Point Four. Given that the Pakistani court has ruled that Shumail, penis or no penis, is in fact a woman, and recognizing that same sex marriage is contrary to Islam, and seeing as how Shahzina’s father wants her marriage to Shumail annulled because it does violate said religion, it seems that Shahzina is once again for sale.

What is interesting of course is the fact that no one, not even Shahzina’s dad, is upset about selling his daughter into prostitution. Interesting but not surprising. When women are seen as chattel this is what happens.

So what shall we make of this? Is it simply an example of Islam’s madness? I don’t think so. The problem is not Islam but the medieval tribal mores that pass as Islam. While the case is extreme, the idea behind it, women as property, is not alien to strains of Orthodox Judaism or Fundamentalist Christianity. The problem Islam faces is trying to function under scrutiny of modern media. If there were reporters sharing the dirty sexual secrets of biblical Jews and medieval Christians we would find the same insanity.

It takes religion a long time to outgrow its tribalist mindset. Liberal and secular Judaisms and Christianities are very late on the scene, and Islam has yet to undergo such a revolution.

So we have two choices. We can invoke the Prime Directive and keep our liberal democratic noses out of another civilization’s business, or we can uphold a universal ethic and shine the harsh light of truth on all tribal insanities wherever they appear. I hope we opt for the latter. And in the meantime somebody please find a way to help Shumail and Shahzina move to Boston.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Priests or Prophets

I gave a speech this weekend that stirred quite a bit of controversy. It wasn’t that I said something new, only that I said it to people who were nowhere near ready to hear it. I spoke about the need to free religion to be what it is meant to be, a finger pointing to Reality rather than what it has become, a self-referential system of doctrines and creeds pointing only to itself.

So many people told me I had insulted them and their religion, that I began to wonder why something I say could have so much power. After all it isn’t that they believed what I was saying. When I suggested that taking the Bible literally made it impossible for us to hear the Word of God speaking in myth and metaphor, no one who was angry with me agreed with me. So why get upset?

If I were attending a speech where the speaker spoke passionately about how 2 + 2 equals 5, I wouldn’t get upset. I would simply determine that the speaker was wrong and ignore him. I wouldn’t feel that my beliefs were challenged or that my faith in mathematics was threatened. So why, if I suggest that the Virgin Birth is not biology but mythology, speaking not to a weird genetic miracle but to the fact that the birth of Jesus is the birth of the extraordinary, do I find the devout so incensed?

When I attend a talk, as I did recently, where the speaker insisted that every time God is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible Jesus is intended, I don’t believe him, but I don’t get angry with him either. My faith is too strong to be shaken by someone else’s belief. On the contrary, I am so certain of what is so, that I relish the opportunity to hear what others hold to be just as true. It seems to me that the proper response of people of faith to the insights of other faiths should be curiosity, not vitriol.

Yet after my talk, no one said to me, “I found what you said to be totally false, but it was interesting to entertain the idea for a moment,” No one said to me, “You know I hold a totally different view of things, and your comments helped me realize how strong my faith truly is.” All I got was, “How dare you!” and “You have insulted by faith and my God.” Honestly, any god that can be insulted isn't really God.

My suspicion is this: people who are upset by my humor and my message are people who are not very certain of what they believe, or if what they believe is true. They want a speaker to either affirm their beliefs or say something so innocuous as to leave their beliefs untouched and their minds untroubled.

I want to trouble your mind. I want to confound your theology. I want to point out that the Emperor has not clothes, and that God has no religion. And I want to hear speakers and read authors who will do the same for me. Religion shouldn’t be comforting but discomforting. This is the difference between priests and prophets. The priest offers comfort, the prophet only discomfort. I am finished with priests. I seek only prophets.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Walking Israel

[I wrote this last November while sitting on the steps overlooking the Western Wall of the Jerusalem Temple.]

I have just prayed at the Wall, slipping a number of tiny prayer sheets into the cracks in hopes that…

Wait a minute; this can’t be right. I don’t believe God is a being separate from the universe who hears prayers and grants or ignores our heartfelt requests. I believe God is the Source and Substance of all reality who manifests as and transcends creation.

I believe the power of prayer is its capacity to shift my consciousness from Mochin d’Katnut, narrow mind, to Mochin d’Gadlut, spacious mind; from selfishness to selflessness; from the part and partial to the whole and holy. I pray not to be heard, but to hear; not to be present to God but to be revealed as God, the One Who is all things.

I don’t believe in chosen peoples and promised lands. I don’t think God plays favorites or deals in real estate. But I do believe—no, I know, I experience— that there are certain places on this planet that hold deep promise for personal and planetary transformation and renewal. Israel is one of these places.

When I walk the streets of Jerusalem and allow the city to work her magic, shifting me from narrow mind to spacious mind, I walk with Solomon and feel the call to wisdom; I walk with Jesus and feel the call to love; I walk with Mohammed and feel the call to surrender.

When I walk the Baha’i Gardens of Haifa, I walk with Baha’u’llah, the 19th century Persian prophet, and hear the call to universal justice. When I walk the winding streets of Safed, I walk with Cordovero (1522-1570) and hear the call of the Ineffable.

For me, Israel is all about walking with God and God’s prophets. I am less concerned with the Israel of Ben Gurion and more with the Israel of Ben Abuyah (yes the first century heretic and iconoclast, there is nothing more Jewish than that). For me Israel is more about the Wall, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Garden Tomb, and the Shrine of the Book than it is about politics, warfare, or the rapture.
The promise of modern Israel is the hope that it can live up to the promise of timeless Israel.

I believe that humanity is the early hours of a spiritual renaissance, and I come to Israel to hear the clock tick. I come here to be reminded of the new covenant promised by God in Jeremiah, a covenant written on our hearts revealing a God within calling us to godliness without.

I walk streets with diverse people some praying for the old times, others for the end times. I pray for the new times. So I walk and I listen and I hope that my next step will be my first step in God, with God, as God.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Religion Is Made Up

Religion is made up; all religion, not just other people’s religions.

Religion is made up. God didn’t choose the Jews, have a baby, or ask Mohammed to recite.

Religion is made up, but Reality is not. Yet religion trumps Reality in the hearts and minds of millions, maybe billions of people.

Religion is made up, but Truth is not. Yet religion blasphemes Truth with self-serving tales of power and exploitation.

Religion is made up. Once you know this it is hard to be religious. You just can’t justify all the rules and ruckus. I know because I keep trying. I keep telling myself religion matters. But it doesn’t.

You know what matters? Love matters. Compassion matters. Justice matters. Peace matters. Humility matters. Nature matters. Truth matters. Reality matters. You matter.

So what do I do when I know religion is made up? First I remember that all philosophy and literature is made up as well. Second I remember that just because Plato invented the dialogues of Socrates, and Shakespeare invented Hamlet and Lear doesn’t mean that Socrates, Hamlet, and Lear don’t speak Truth. Fiction may preclude fact, but in no way does it obscure Truth.

Religion is made up. At its best its stories have the potential to capture our imagination and feed our souls by revealing the best to which we humans can aspire. At its worst it can strip us of our humanity and invite us to make real the darkest fantasies we can conjure. Torah, Gospels, Qur’an, and Gita contain insights of such power, grandeur and wisdom that we say them come from God. They also contain the obscenely violent, misogynist, and xenophobic rants of fearful frightened men climbing to power over the dead bodies of their enemies.

We can’t free religion of either genius or madness, but we can free ourselves from mistaking them both for the Word of God. How? By realizing that religion is made up. No one goes to war over the meaning of Hamlet. No one kills another to decide whom Shakespeare loved best.

If we admit that religion is made up we can enjoy it without being abused by it. If we admit that religion is made up we can honor myth without having to flatten it into fact. If we admit that religion is made up we can shake off the fear and violence it sanctions and address its one timeless message: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.