Friday, June 29, 2007

Do All Religions Lead To God?

A church not far from my home advertises this Sunday’s sermon: “Do all religions lead to God?” I think it is safe to assume that the pastor’s sermon this Sunday will assure his flock that there is only one way to the Father and that is through the Son. Is he right?

Yes, he is. Christianity is a system of thought that leads to a clear end point: realizing the Christian god. If you define God as the Christian god then there is only one way to get to him, and that is through the proper brand of Christianity.

Of course the same logic applies to every other religion. Given the assumptions each religion makes the conclusions each draws happen (surprise, surprise) to support those very assumptions.

Judaism proves that the Jews are God’s Chosen. What else would it prove? Islam proves that the Koran is the only uncorrupted revelation from God. What would you expect it to say? Those who worship Krishna find that their faith proves the holiness of the Gita. Are you surprised by this?

Religions are brands, just like Camel, Coke, and Lexus. Each one argues that it is the best in its category. Can you imagine a church marquee announcing, “If Christ Can’t Help You, Give Krishna a Call.” Or how about a synagogue bulletin with the headline: “Not Feeling Chosen? Tried Feeling Saved.”

In the old days you could be executed for saying things like this. In some places you still can.

So, if I am right, my neighborhood pastor will tell his flock that Christianity is the only way to God. The answer is so obvious that I hope most of his parishioners stay home. They won’t though. Why? Because we love being told we are right, especially when the consequence for being wrong is eternal torment in the fires of Hell.

At the rest of my tomorrow being even hotter than today (is Hell a dry heat?) let me say quite simply that no religion leads to God. The only thing a religion leads you to is itself. Christianity leads you to Jesus, Islam leads you to Allah, Judaism leads you to Yahweh, Hinduism leads you to Krishna or Brahman, etc. God has nothing to do with any of this.

God is what is. And what is is right here and now. To be led to God implies that God isn’t already here. You can’t be led to God or away from God because God is all there is. It is like trying to find yourself. Who is doing the looking?

You can, however, be misled into thinking otherwise. You can be frightened into spending thousands of hours and thousands of dollars searching for That Which cannot be lost. And that religion does quite well.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Five Steps Toward Ending Religious Violence

An email arrived yesterday that asked a very simple question: “What can religions do to free themselves from violence?” I will try to keep my answer just as simple: Nothing.

There is nothing religion can do because religion is a concept, a series of propositions and practices that in and of itself does nothing. If we want to keep religion free from violence we have to address the question “What can people of faith do to keep themselves and therefore their religions free from violence?’ To this I would say five things.

First, people of faith must cultivate humility as the heart of faith. Religiously sanctioned violence arises when people are certain that they and only they have the truth. People of faith must learn to say, “This is what I believe to be so, but I admit that there is no way to prove that I am right.”

Second, people of faith must have the courage to critically investigate the ideas of faith. Critical studies of the Bible, Koran, Gita, etc. can, if done with an open heart as well as an open mind, deepen one’s appreciation for and understanding of the profound teachings found in these and other holy books. Literalism kills the spirit and fans the flames of war.

Third, people of faith must engage in contemplative self–inquiry, tracing the clamor of ego back to the silence of God, that field of pure consciousness in which all things rise and return. Every religion has such practices so there is no need to borrow for another faith or invent some new tool or technique. Nevertheless I would suggest the curious read Ramana Maharshi, Krishnamurti, Toni Packer, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and Gangagi to get a clear idea of what self–inquiry has to offer.

Fourth, people of faith must rid their sacred texts and teachings of xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, God–sanctioned violence, and racisms of all kinds. Insist that we reinforce the prophetic ideals of universal justice and compassion rather than the parochial ideals of spiritual triumphalism.

Fifth, people of faith must enter into dialogue with one another. As the tag line to my One River Foundation affirms, we build community through conversation. It is vital that we hear each other’s voices, stories and experiences. If we focus on our personal practices and experiences rather than the fixed dogmas of our respective faith traditions we will find common ground on which to build a just and compassionate. society.

You may have other ideas to add to my list, and I would appreciate reading them, but this is a start. Though it is not one I expect many will take up any time soon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

God Is Alive... But We Are Dying

In 1965 Time Magazine published an issue whose cover story addressed the question, “Is God Dead?” Today, the cover would read, “Is God Deadly?””

God is alive and well. It is we who are dying by the thousands and tens of thousands in his name. Whether you are a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim, liberal or conservative, the god of violence has his claws in you to one extent or another. You cannot read the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Koran without hearing his voice condoning acts that we would call evil if he did not endorse it.

“Ancient history,” cry the Jews about the genocide of Israel’s Bronze Age enemies. “Future retribution,” cry the Christians about the transformation of Jesus into a war god in the Book of Revelation. “Self-defense,” cry the Muslims about the Koran’s call for jihad and murder of the infidel. The truth is, however, no matter how liberal or moderate you claim to be, no matter how clever you are in spiritualizing the violence of your scripture, these texts are poisoning your soul, and sending us into what may well prove to be a century dominated by religious warfare.

Years ago I wrote an article for Tikkun Magazine in which I distinguished the Torah of Love from the Torah of Fear. The first I claimed represented true contact with the Divine, the second was an all too-human (and most often male) use of a violent god in the service of human domination and exploitation. The Torah of Love speaks of universal justice, compassion, and humility. It honors each person as the image and likeness of God, and promises a future of universal peace where swords become ploughshares, and no one is afraid. The Torah of Fear offers us a world of endless conflict, the Chosen killing the not chosen, and god killing the Chosen for not killing the not chosen effectively.

What is true of Torah is true of the New Testament and the Qur’an as well. They too pass off human depravity as divine sanctity. The world is at war because we still worship at the alter of this barbarous god of death. It is time to stop. Not next year, not next month, but now.

It is time for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy to decry the madness of their respective scriptures, to affirm the human origin of sacred text, and to call on their co-religionists to reject the violence of their scripture and religions, and to seek the God of Love and the life of compassion and justice to which this God calls us.

The effort to free our texts, our faiths, and ourselves from the god of violence and violence of god will be slow and difficult. But there is no alternative.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Three Questions on Faith and Scholarship

The March/April 2007 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review asks four biblical scholars how their scholarship has impacted their faith. I found the article fascinating, and the questions intriguing. Here is my response to each.

What I know about the Bible?

First, the Bible is a human document, reflecting both timeless wisdom and time-bound bias. Second, the Bible speaks in metaphor and should be looked to for wisdom not scientific fact or unchanging sexual mores. Third, the Bible can be read to condone the greatest evil even as it can be read to uphold the greatest good. Hence the Bible is not to be separated from those who read and interpret it; it is a moving target, reflecting what the reader desires rather than what God commands.

How does what I know impact what I believe?

It doesn’t. I try to avoid belief as much as possible, rooting what I know in what I actually experience rather than in some abstract creed or system of belief.

God. There is no one vision of God in the Bible, and I do not take the Bible as theologically binding. My understanding of God is based not on my reading of the Bible, but on my experience of the Divine through contemplative practice. Rather than conforming my understanding to the Bible, my understanding shapes the way I read the Bible.

Chosen People. Scholarship tells me that the idea of chosenness is not unique to Jews. Almost every tribal society feels it is the beloved of one god or another. The fact that the Bible tells me the Jews are God’s Chosen is irrelevant; I don’t believe in a God who choses in this way.

Promised Land. Clearly the Bible claims that there is a Promised Land and it belongs to the Israelites. This is no more surprising that the Book of Mormon supporting the claims of the Mormon faith. What else would it do? I am not convinced by the Bible, and in fact do not believe in a God who values one piece of property over the rest.

So does scholarship influence my faith?

Yes, it frees me of faith altogether. I prefer to investigate What Is rather than what the Bible says there is. I do this through a variety of contemplative practices, and in the end I find the Bible all the more rich once I am free from having to take the Word at its word.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Scopes Redux

Did God create Republicans or are they descended from apes? This turns out to be a major question in the 2008 Presidential race. Why? Because when you start televising the race so early you have to find lots of nonsense with which to fill airtime.

Presidential hopefuls Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo have each come out against evolution. They are not alone. According to a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, two-thirds of Americans believe that the world was created by God within the past 10,000 years. This is nonsense. I have no problem with God as creator, but everything we know about geology, astrophysics, biology, plate techtonics, anthropology, and archeology (not to mention Jerrasic Park) tells us that the earth is older than 10,000 years. If two-thirds of Americans are rejecting science then we as a society are doomed.

But there is hope. The same poll reveals that 53% of Americans do believe in evolution. Of course if you bother to do the math you realize that about 25% of Americans are totally confused and believe in both evolution and the Bible, which wipes out any hope the 53% number may have generated.

If someone asks me if I believe in evolution I am not sure how to answer. I do believe that humans evolved from earlier species, but I do not believe that this was a random accident. I think that the universe by its very nature evolves; that is it is forever seeking higher and more inclusive levels of consciousness. It does so by experimenting with life possibilities.

Alan Watts used to say, “Imagine aliens flying by the planet earth some billions of years ago. They would look at it and keep going: a dead rock among millions of other dead rocks. On their return some billions of years later, however, they would marvel: We were wrong, it is a not a dead rock at all, it is peopling!”

The universe in general and the earth in particular always had the potential for life, and even self-conscious life, and, I believe, cosmically conscious life. It just takes time. And a lot more time than Creationists will allow.

Senator Brownback wrote in the New York Times that “man was not an accident,” and it this conviction that causes him to reject evolution. I agree that we are not an accident, we are an experiment, and that leads me to affirm rather than reject evolution.

Would I vote for a president who rejects evolution? If, like Senator Brownback, he or she was rejecting reason, science and the scientific method, I would have a hard time voting for this person. Someone who believes the Bible is literally true, that the earth is no older than 10,000 years, is someone who ignores reason, evidence, and science when they clearly challenge or contradict faith. I don’t want a president who simply invents a reality and seeks to impose it upon the rest of us. I didn’t vote for such a person in 2000 or 2004, and I won’t do so in 2008 either.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Pope's Other Rabbi (His First One is Jesus)

I am reading Pope Benedict XVI’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth. In it the Pope responds to Rabbi Jacob Neusner’s 1993 book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. The issue between them is Jesus’ insistence on making himself rather than Torah the center of attention. For example, Jesus says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have and come, follow me (Matthew 19:21). Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow God,” or “Follow Torah,” but “Follow me.” No other rabbi does this. The aim of authentic teachers in Israel is to turn Israel toward God and Torah not themselves.

From the Christian point of view, of course, this is precisely what Jesus is doing. Jesus is God and the Word of God. Following Jesus is following God. Rabbi Neusner cannot make this Christian leap of faith, and so respectfully declines to follow Jesus at all.

While I find the distinction clear and compelling, it is also somewhat disingenuous. Rabbinic Judaism is a radical departure from Biblical Judaism and its focus on priestly caste and animal sacrificial resting on a rabbinic invention of the Two–Fold Torah.

The authority of the rabbis rests with their own assertion, found no where except in their own teachings, that 1) God gave two revelations to Israel, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah; 2) that the Oral Torah is necessary for a clear understanding of the Written Torah, and hence takes practical precident over it; and 3) that the Oral Torah was given not to the priests but to the elders, prophets, and sages who ultimately morph into the rabbis.

Is there any real difference between the audacity of the rabbis and the audacity of Jesus? Not in my book. What differentiates the two is the rabbis’ denial that they are in fact inventing a new Torah in their image while Jesus blatantly confesses, “I say unto you.”

What Pope Benedict XVI and Rabbi Neusner have in common is a shared belief that God actually reveals eternal truth to the Jews. Where they differ is over the question of who or what embodies that truth: Jesus or the Two–Fold Torah? If the former, then the latter is irrelevant. If the latter then the former is a deluded narcissist.

Allow me to offer a third voice: God doesn’t reveal eternal truth to anyone. Rather people discover bits and pieces of it over time and record what they find in books. There are truths in the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, and the teachings of the rabbis that are timeless, compelling, and universal. There are also teachings in each that are silly, false, and evil. The job of the faithful is not to get behind one system or another, but to sift through them all to find the truths each contains.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Kama Jewtra

Scott Shay’s new book, Getting Our Grove Back: How to Energize American Jewry, deals with the impending Jewish demographic disaster and how to avoid it. Here is the problem: Jews don’t marry Jews, and even when they do they don’t have enough babies, and even the babies they do have aren’t raised to be serious Jews. Mr. Shay wants to fix that. Good idea.

The first thing I did when the book arrived is to look through the index to find the words “God,” “spirituality,” “religion,” “faith,” “Torah,” and “Judaism.” They were absent. Whatever groove we Jews are supposed to get back, it isn’t the God Groove.

Mr. Shay just wants the tribe to continue not the religion that makes the tribe worthy of continuation. I assume that he assumes that if there is a critical mass of Jews we will once again produce geniuses like Marx, Freud, and Einstein. Maybe so, but we will never again produce genius like Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, or the Baal Shem Tov. If it weren’t for the latter, I suspect the former would not have emerged at all. While I in no way wish to see a return to Orthodoxy, I don’t see the point of a purely secular Jewish people lacking the spiritual iconoclasm that is at the heart of authentic Judaism.

The second thing I did was to see how Mr. Shay’s proposes we counter the demographic doom facing us. I didn’t find anything really new in his suggestions. So let me offer a few suggestions that are new. Judaism aside, here are four things we can do to rebuild the tribe.

1. Rather than spend millions of dollars sending Jewish kids to Israel, let’s spend millions of dollars in stipends to Jewish couples willing to marry, have, and raise as serious Jews five children through the age of 21. Divorce is not an option until all their children are in college.

2. Let’s reinstitute the holiday of the 15th of Av (Jewish “Valentines Day”) making it a day on which parents of any age Jewish children arrange marriages to Jewish children of a similar age.

3. Let’s build state-of-the-art shtetls in major cities throughout the United States where signage is in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and English, and Judaism and Jewish culture in all their forms are the norm rather than the exception. Costs would be subsidized so that Jews of all economic brackets could get in.

4. Let’s add a sex-ed curriculum to confirmation class that focuses not only on health, but also on sexual acumen and a Song of Songs celebration of human sexuality. Let’s make Jews the best sex-partners in the world.

I’m sure you can come up with more ideas for turning the demographic tide. Share them with your local Jewish Federations. Who knows? They may actually listen to you.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Canon Camp

My favorite television channel is CSPAN’s Book TV. They recently aired a panel on religion featuring Christopher Hitchens, author of God is NOT Great, and several other authors of religious books. I am a Hitchens fan. He is bright, concise, cutting, and seemingly incapable of seeing any gray in his black and white world of reason versus religion. His fellow panelists were all gray fellows, ignoring the dark side of religion by insisting on a distinction between religion and those who claim to follow it.

For example, Biblical Judaism promotes genocide against the enemies of the ancient Israelites, but the idea and the god who sanctions it horrify most contemporary Jews. The same can be said of animal sacrifice. Despite official prayers to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of Jews would be appalled at the renewal of animal sacrifice and reject both it and the god who requires it.

Before you accuse me of picking on ancient and long dead practices only, take kashrut and Shabbat. Most Jews do not keep kosher nor do they observe the Sabbath, yet these have been the backbone of Judaism for millennia. What is Judaism: what Jews do or what the ancient texts and traditions say Jews should do?

When I teach Judaism at the university I don’t teach what Jews do, I teach what text and tradition say they should do. Otherwise when speaking of Jewish dietary practices I would focus on the Jewish love of Chinese food rather than the avoidance of pork.

The fact that most Jews ignore most of Judaism doesn’t change Judaism; it simply reveals that Judaism is irrelevant to the lives of most Jews. Hitchens, I suspect, would argue that most Jews are irrelevant to history and only those fanatical few who take it literally really matter. His fellow panelists would argue that it is the very irrelevancy of tradition that makes religion a source of hope in the world.

I would like to offer a third option: revolution. I’m tired of honoring an ancient scroll celebrating god-sanctioned genocide, homophobia, and misogyny. I propose the establishment of a Canon Camp where college educated Jews in their twenties learn to critically study the sacred canon of Judaism (biblical, rabbinic, mystical, and liturgical) with the express purpose of producing a revised canon for their generation in line with the best ethical, historical, social, scientific, and spiritual thinking of their time.

I am too old to do this myself. Far from reinventing Judaism, my generation has mostly opted for the time–honored tradition of whining over the demise of Judaism. But I would be honored to consult with any group of serious twenty and thirty-somethings who would dare to take this on.

In the meantime, I’ll just see what’s playing on Book TV.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Staying Put

What if there is nothing to do in order to awake up to the Truth? What if prayer, meditation, chanting, contemplation, and reading sacred texts were all a distraction? What if the entire religious enterprise was busywork designed to keep you from realizing God here and now?

I suspect this is the case. I could argue my point from experience. I have tried almost every religious discipline, and I have yet to wake up. But that kind of argument is weak. I know too many people who have used these techniques successfully to argue against the tools. I simply have to admit to my own incompetence.

Yet despite my own lack of success I still feel that spiritual discipline is a kind of busywork. Is enlightenment getting something you don’t have, or is it discovering something you already have? If the former then you should expect to work hard to get it. If the latter, then working hard is a waste of time and energy.

I think that Truth is not something you learn but something you recall. It is like forgetting the name of a friend. The more you try to find the name in your memory bank the more it seems to hide. But when you give up and move on to something else, the name pops into your mind seemingly of its own accord. Did you find the name, or did the name find you?

It is the same with God. You don’t find God; God finds you. And God does so only when you stop looking. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book title God In Search of Man is exactly right: God is looking for you, but as long as you are running around looking for God you are never found. It is like a little child lost in a department store. As long as both parent and child are running around looking for one another neither will be found. But if the child is taught to stay put, eventually the parent will find her.

So perhaps the key to religion is learning to stay put. Stay put in your story. Stay put in your confusion. Stay put in your suffering. Stay put in your situation. Don’t try to change anything or be anyone other than you are right now. Just stay put. Of course you can’t make a discipline of staying put for that would be doing something other than staying put, so you have to drop the idea of doing and non–doing altogether, and then drop the idea of dropping the idea.

When you are simply OK or not OK with being OK or not OK with what is and what isn’t, then you are staying put, and then God can find you. And what happens when God finds you? It depends.

I was lost once in a store and when my mom found me she was so happy that she hugged and kissed me. Another time in another store she was so pissed I’d gone missing that she whacked my butt when she found me. So having God find you may or may not a good thing, and you will have to stay put with that as well.

Friday, June 01, 2007

What Is Interfaith?

What is an interfaith service? I use the term all the time, and so do so many of those with whom I study and work. But what do we actually mean by it?

I recently participated in an interfaith service. What made it interfaith was that there were readings from a variety of faiths incorporated into the liturgy of the service. It was, as are most interfaith services I have attended, a “service as anthology” experience. The readings were all very lovely. The choices focused on the least unique aspects of any given faith allowing a casual listener to conclude that all religions basically say the same thing. You would never know from this kind of service that most religions are mutually exclusive and easily given to contest and combat.

Interfaith services of this kind feel good, but are for the most part vapid. It seems to me that the whole point of having different religions is the hope that your religion is right and the others are wrong. There is no point to heaven if no one goes to hell. There is no point to salvation if no one is damned. There is no point to being chosen if everyone is chosen.

If the point of interfaith services is to make us feel good about not all belonging to the same religion, and to give us hope that religions can get along then they fulfill their mission. But I don’t need an interfaith service to feel good about religious diversity, and I am far too jaded about religion to trust the instincts of people of faith to love one another.

I fantasize about holding an anthology¬–type interfaith service where the chosen texts focus on each faith’s condemnation of other faiths, and the extermination or damnation of other peoples of faith. That would be no less legitimate than the more innocuous and standard style of worship, and lots more fun. No one gets excited about “Love your neighbor,” but “slaughter the infidels” might get some conversation going.

I could only offer this type of service once or twice, however, before it got really old, so what would I offer on a more regular basis? I would offer services that focus on Truth and draw from great sages, mystics, and scientists who speak to that Truth.

Of course, as the author of such a service, I would also be the one to decide what is Truth, and it wouldn’t take long before alternative services with alternative Truths would spring up in competition to mine. In time we would have to kill one another to determine whose Truth is really true, so perhaps my suggestion isn’t worth following after all. I’ll have to give this some more thought.