Friday, February 29, 2008

But I Say Unto You: Rami's Proverbs

While waiting for a meeting to begin, I picked up a book from the office coffee table and started reading. The book is called "Life's Lessons: Words of Wisdom to Help You Lead a Better Life" by Howard Wight. It was a lovely collection of nauseating cliches. I took some notes and began an edited version of my own. Once I started I could not stop. I now opened another blog called "But I Say Unto You" that features by proverbial wisdom. Please feel free to add your proverbs to my own. Here is a sample of what you can find on the new blog:

1. "When you stop doing, you start dying." When you start dying you at last start living.

2. "There is no right way to do anything." There is only the way other people think is right.

3. "Success is about making a difference." So is failure. Everything makes a difference, so stop worrying.

4. "Doing less often means doing more," but only if you don’t know what doing less means.

5. "Time is money." Unless you try to cash your clock at the bank in which case it isn’t.

6. "If you are going to make a difference in the world, make it now," then you can loaf until you die.

7. "Repetition is the mother of learning." Also of madness. You’re call.

8. "Practice what you preach," unless what you preach is wrong.

9. "The best is yet to come." Of course that is what you said yesterday as well.

10. Expecting success only makes failure all the more painful. Expect reality instead.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cui Bono/Who Benefits?

I’m always looking for some foolproof way to analyze theological issues. Most people focus on the dichotomy “True or False:”

The world was created in six days. True or False?
Jesus is the only begotten Son of God. True or False?
A dog has Buddha nature. True or False? (Or “Mu” for you Buddhists out there.)

Assessing theological claims in this way is useless. You either end up with the vapid and vacuous, “Well it may be true for you, but it isn’t true for me;” or with the equally unhelpful and silly, “All beliefs are equally valid.”

If truth is relative to the believer, and all beliefs are equally true because they are equally unverifiable, then truth is just opinion backed by passion and, maybe, bombs and bullets.

I would like something a bit more useful than this, and I may have found it in the Latin phrase “cui bono,” who benefits. Rather than asking if a claim is true or false, ask who benefits from promoting it and believing in it. For example:

The Jews are the Chosen People. Cui bono? The Jews.
Only Born Again Christians go to heaven. Cui bono? Born again Christians.
The Qur’an is the only uncorrupted revelation from God. Cui bono? Muslims.

But so what? Just because some one or some group benefits from a particular theological claim doesn’t make the claim false. Fair enough, but neither does it make it true. True and false are irrelevant if you take the CUI BONO approach to theology.

My thinking is this: Jews are never going to say that the Senegalese people are God’s Chosen; Evangelical Christians are never going to say that Muslims can get into heaven; and Muslims are never going to say the Gospels are the uncorrupted word of God. In other words, all theological claims are self-serving, and than makes them suspect.

If a theology serves the theologian, then it is nothing more than apologetics or propaganda. I am not impressed when a political candidate tells me her plan is the best plan; what else would she say? I am impressed when she can show me what is right and valuable in the other person’s plan, and how she can take those good ideas and build on them to create something even better. This doesn’t happen in politics, and it certainly doesn’t happen in religion. Why? Because religion and politics are winner-takes-all games. There is no room for real cooperation.

So if you ever hear a claim that benefits more than the claimant, (the teachings of Krishnamurti, for example, or Ramana Maharshi) then you may have heard something of value. Until then, stay skeptical, and keep asking, CUI BONO?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Kids Are Alright

A new study on teen literacy released this week has the usual subjects up in arms about the dumbing down of America. But I wonder if we aren't making much ado about a tempest in a croc pot.

While I agree that to have a common culture one has to have shared knowledge of the touchstones of that culture, I wonder if these touchstones are not in perpetual flux. Are the touchstones of 17-year-old Americans the same as those of their parents and grandparents? I came up with two ways to test this out.

Way One: I could take a questionnaire on cultural touchstones written by my college students to see if I would turn up just as ill-informed as they appear on questionnaires written by people my age. Of course to find out I would actually have to leave my computer, get some students to create this thing, and then actually bother to answer their stupid questions. Since I have no intention of doing that, let’s just assume I would fail their dumb test, and move on to Way Two.

Way Two: Check on line for older questionnaires to see how I fare when taking them. This was much easier to do, especially when I couldn’t find any. So for the sake of balance, let’s assume I would pass these questionnaires with flying colors.

This of course leaves us at an impasse. But, for all I know, this may be the way sociological studies work, so I'm not going to get upset about this. On the contrary, I'm going to break the impasse by inventing Way Three: I will imagine what questions might be on ancient questionnaires and see if I can answer them. This is harder than it sounds, so I deserve some serious credit for this scientific research. Here are some of the questions I imagine would be on ancient questionnaires:

1. What did the Mogul hordes actually hoard?

2. Who designed the togas worn to the Crucifixion by Mary Magdelaine?

3. How many people were chained in Plato's cave, and how long did he keep them there?

4. What was the longest running pop song in pre-Israelite Canaan?

5. Which samurai warrior endorsed the best selling Japanese sword of 1246?

If you are like me (and you should be), you can’t answer any of these questions. Does that make you stupid? Should we worry that our civilization is going to hell because you didn’t know that the answer to Question Two is RobesPierre, and the answer to Question Four is “Stay Down Moses”? I don’t think so. These questions are irrelevant to our current culture. So let’s stop asking 17-year-olds about the Bible and classical literature, and focus more on questions that matter to them, like “How many days did Britney Speaks spend in rehab in 2007?”

[By the way, if you do know the answers to Questions 1, 3, and 5, post them here. I didn't know them, and expect sociologists from the ends of the flat earth will be checking this site to find out, and don't want to disappoint them. Thanks.]

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Science and Religion, A Greater Unity

I read Philip Meyer’s essay on science and religion in USA TODAY (February 25, 2008) with a great deal of sadness. “Religion,” Mr. Meyer wrote, “is about the mystery. Science is about figuring out what works in the material world. There is no danger that science will ever deprive us of the mystery.”

Mr. Meyer’s uses the analogy of a circle to explain his position. Draw a circle on a piece of paper. Everything within the circle is the realm of science. Here we use the scientific method where we seek to validate or disprove various ideas and hypotheses. Everything outside the circle is the realm of religion. Assuming an infinitely large piece of paper, as the circle of science and reason grows, the outside mystery remains in tact.

The problem with his analogy and with his reasoning is that he limits religion to the realm of unreason, and, as the circle of science grows, it is saying that the realm of religion is actually the realm of ignorance or the not-yet-known. While Mr. Meyer’s analogy does allow religion to continue, it does so only in the area of that which cannot be known. Religion is reduced to pure fantasy and speculation, forever retreating against the advances of science.

This kind of thinking lumps religion with every pseudo-science and wacko theory people can think of. While some may find it comforting to place Christianity, for example, outside the circle of knowledge, others will be troubled that Christianity is forced to share its realm with astrology, Scientology, ghost hunters, and psychics. As bad as this sounds, it gets worse.

To make his point clear, Mr. Meyer shows how a young earth creationist who believes that the Bible shows the earth is only 6000 years old can get along with a geologist who can prove that some rocks are 3.8 billion years old. All the creationist has to say is that when God created the earth 6000 years ago He made the rocks 3.8 billion years old. Since the geologist cannot prove that God didn’t do as the creationist says He did, the science of geology is no more or less valid than the theology of creationism. This is insane.

If the only criterion for determining what is true is the inability of science to prove it false, then all untestable ideas from astrology to the Flying Spaghetti Monster are equally valid. And while this may salvage religion, the religion it saves is a joke and largely irrelevant to life.

Science and religion can work together. Science can help religion see what is; religion can help science see what it might mean. Meaning and wisdom are the focus of religion, and these need reason no less than science. Splitting religion and science into two camps does a disservice to both.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Pray or Prey: Take Your Pick

I was listening to NPR the other day and learned of a prayer movement called Light the Highway that runs prayer vigils along Interstate 35 from Texas to Minnesota. The group asks God to do away with systemic poverty, drug addiction, and hopelessness, along with other plagues like homosexuality and abortion. I have no idea how much poverty there is along I 35, nor do I know for a fact that it more ridden with drug addicts, gays, lesbians, and nihilists than any other road in America. As for how many people have abortions on the highway, that too is a number I cannot glean. Nevertheless I like the idea of bands of young people praying for bands of drivers traveling from Laredo to Duluth. Here are some reasons why.

First of all, I can’t imagine driving from Laredo to Duluth, so let us pray for those that do. Second, anyone desperate enough to have an abortion while riding in a car needs our prayers. Third, gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, and transgendered people fleeing from Laredo to Duluth in hopes of finding a safe haven from bigotry are sure to be disappointed, so they too need our prayers. But the best reason for supporting this effort is the one provided by Pastor Steve Hill of Heartland World Ministries in Irving, TX: “What would you rather have? A group of young people praying on I-35 or a group of young people dealing drugs on I-35? Take your pick."

You can’t argue with that. In fact the more I pondered the pastor’s logic the more convinced I became of its validity. So I am writing to encourage you to take Pastor Hill’s logic to heart, and use it to garner support of a host of civic-minded projects. Here are some possible programs and the rationale behind them:

1. To promote a program centralizing drug dealing in your city, offer this argument: Which would you rather have? A group of young people dealing drugs on the highway or a group of young people shooting passersby on the highway? Take your pick.

2. To limit the murder rate in your community, try this: Which would you rather have? A group of young people shooting passersby on the highway or a group of young people shooting students in our elementary schools? Take your pick.

3. To support the ghettoizing of homosexuals and homosexual activity, use this: Which would you rather have? A group of homosexual young people fornicating in one well run, well policed, and well-heeled neighborhood, or a group of homosexual young people fornicating in our churches and community centers? Take your pick.

And if all of this bothers you, think of it this way: Which would you rather have? A group of young people getting politically active and working to eliminate poverty or a group of young people standing on the sidelines praying that God do it for them? Take your pick. The logic is unassailable.

Friday, February 22, 2008


According to THIS WEEK magazine (February 22, 2008), “Catholic authorities in Croatia have opened a coffee shop that lets customers pay for drinks with prayers.” The Zagreb café is called Jedro, and its prices range from four Our Fathers for a cappuccino to five Hail Mary’s for a Coke.

Now this is a religion that works. Everybody likes coffee, but fewer and fewer of us can afford the cash prices. So if we can pray instead of pay, who would drink anywhere else?
You gotta hand to those Catholics!

Now I know a good thing when I see one, and I want to bring this idea to America where I plan to expand it beyond thirsty Catholics to include all the world’s religions. So here is my plan. If you like it and want to go in on it with me, just send money. We’ll work out the details later.

Anyway, here is the plan. We will call the franchise Café-au-Pray, and I have already figured out a way to improve the process. Time is money, right?. And it takes time to say those Our Fathers and Hail Marys. By my own reckoning, it takes me ten seconds to say one complete Hail Mary. That means it would take fifty seconds for me to pray for a Coke. Not too long, but every second counts. If I could quicken the process without cutting the price, I could move people through the line even faster. How to do this? Enter the Tibetan Buddhists.

Tibetan Buddhists use a prayer wheel to pray rather than actually saying the words. You just spin the wheel and as the words go round you get credit for having recited the prayer. Cool, right? Yeah, it is.

So this is how it will work: You walk into your local Café-au-Pray and choose your preferred Prayer Wheel from the Wheels of Fortune display. Every major religion would be represented, as well as wheels with prayers from smaller religions if the demographic of the neighborhood warrants it. You choose your wheel, place your order, spin the prayer, and pick up your drink, returning the wheel to its place on the rack for the next person on your way out of the store. What could be easier?

You can actually spin a prayer wheel with the Hail Mary printed on it in two seconds, which means that you could pray for your Coke in ten seconds, a timesaving of 80%. That means we can handle far more customers in far less time than our wheel-less competition in Croatia. Of course people aren’t actually paying in cash dollars so more of nothing is still nothing, but if you send me enough start-up money I’ll see if I can find a way around that.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Final Exam

I was talking with an elderly Christian man the other day who told me, “When you die and go to heaven there is no Pearly Gate with Saint Peter sitting at a welcome desk. No, sir, when you die Jesus comes to you at the last minute and asks one question; he says, ‘Who do you say I am?’ If you answer right and without thinking about it, then you get into heaven. If you hesitate you are damned.”

Of course the conversation quickly turned to what I would answer Jesus. I explained that I thought Jesus was a God-intoxicated Jewish mystic whose teachings often contained the deepest truths when understood in their historical context—first century Roman occupied Palestine—and when you included not only the canonical Gospels but also the Gnostic texts with special emphasis on the Gospel of Thomas.

“Do you think that will satisfy him?” I asked the man.

“The correct answer is, ‘You are my Lord and Savior.’ I have no idea what you just said, and neither will Jesus. I’d pray on that, son.” So I did. And what I got in return was a very different scenario.

When you die Jesus does come to you, and as your last breath leaves your body he does ask questions: four to be exact. The questions are asked in quick succession leaving no time to think, and hardly enough time to respond. Jesus is in a hurry. You are not the only person dying at that moment, and he has to quiz them all. Here are the four questions that I think Jesus will ask:

QUESTION 1: Is the following shape convex or concave: ) ?
QUESTION 2: When you turn your steering wheel to the right with both hands are you pulling the steering wheel or pushing it?
QUESTION 3: When you toss a ball in the air is it going “up” or “out”?
QUESTION 4: When you say, “It is raining” to what does the “it” refer?

I’m not going to supply you with answers to these questions because that would be cheating. Even having the questions in advance may be against the rules, but since that other guy had his I figured it was OK to share. Anyway, I am pretty sure that if you can figure out not only the answers but the deeper meaning toward with the questions point you will be OK. If you can’t, fall back on Lord and Savior. Maybe that other guy was on to something.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dressing as Jews

Lent can be a trying time for Catholics. So I understand why Catholics would invent a Carnival holiday featuring foods forbidden during Lent. In Vilnius, Lithuania where Carnival is called Uzgavenes, it also features a Halloween like atmosphere where people dressed up as and mock Jews and Gypsies.

Yes, the very people who participated in the Nazi extermination of Jews and Roma find mocking their victims a fun way to let off steam after Lent. People also dress up as devils, goats, and monsters, though, regardless of what costume you wear, wearing one at all is called “eiti zydukais,” which means “going as Jews.”

Reducing Jews and Roma to demons, monsters and animals is bad enough. Doing so in a city and a country that murdered most of its Jewish and Roma populations is frightening.
Lithuanians, however, find it fun.

Now, before I get on my high horse and condemn these fun loving Jew and Gypsy murdering folks for wanting a little joy in their lives, let me say that we Jews too have our version of Carnival. It’s called Purim. And we too dress up; most often as characters from the story of Queen Esther. The difference is that we don’t identify, stereotype, and demonize a people in the process. (We have the Bible for that.)

Imagine opening your door to Halloween candy seekers to find a gaggle of kids dressed up in costumes that reflected stereotypes of African Americans or Native Americans. You would be shocked and offended. Or at least I hope you would.

On the other hand, we Americans continue to use Native American names and stereotypes for our sports teams, and this is similar to what happens to Jews and Roma during Uzgavenes.

Europeans almost exterminated Native Americans the way Nazis and their collaborators almost exterminated Jews and Gypsies. Having reduced these peoples to a fraction of their numbers it is easy to promote and then appropriate for other uses a mythic, stereotypical image of them.

In the case of the Native Americans it is the myth of the Warrior that attracts sports teams to Native Americans. We call our teams Chiefs or Braves in the unconscious hope that we will magically appropriate the courage and nobility we assigned to the Amerindian after their slaughter. In the case of the Jews and Roma in Lithuania it is a magical attempt to ward off the feared Other who still haunts their dreams, nightmares, and political fantasies even after murdering millions of them.

What are the Jews of Lithuania doing about this practice? Nothing. They smile weakly and wait for Uzgavenes to pass. Why? Because they know first hand that it is a short step from mockery to murder, and they would rather put up with the former than provide a catalyst for the latter.

How about all of us giving up demonizing people for Lent? And then continue it for the rest of our lives as well? There’s a holiday I could get behind.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Don't Delete My Dalit

I wish I could find just one religion without its violent wackos. I’ve long given up on the Abrahamic faiths, and Japanese Buddhism during World War II rules them out. So how about Hinduism?

Sure it was a Hindu fanatic who killed Gandhi, and who knows how many Muslims have died at the hands of Hindu extremists, but that was then. How about now? Doesn’t Hinduism value ahimsa, nonviolence? So how about it people? Peace anyone?

‘Fraid not. During this past Christmas season Hindu fanatics burned down 55 churches and 600 houses owned by Christians. But, as Ramesh Modi, a leader in the World Hindu Council, which promotes Hindutva or Hinduness, these Christians, really brought the violence on themselves.

Their crime? Illegally converting Hindus to Christianity. Forced conversion is illegal in much of India, but there is no evidence that Hindus are being forced to abandon Kali for Christ. On the contrary, millions of Hindu “Untouchables” doomed to a life of misery by the officially illegal yet culturally unstoppable caste system are freely choosing the Cross of Christ to the cross of caste.

This is not to say the evangelical passions of Christian missionaries do not lead them to vitriolic attacks on Hinduism and Hindu Deities, but this is still not conversion at the point of a sword. Whether dalits (“untouchables”) are becoming Christian because of a genuine love of Christ or because they see it as a way out of an unjust and oppressive caste system is beside the point. People should be free to choose their own religion.

As usual it is hard to separate politics from theology. Like politicians everywhere, using a minority to whip the majority into a mindless frenzy, is often good for business. Just as the political success of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat is attributed in part to its involvement in anti-Muslim violence, so other Hindu groups hope to win votes on the heals of anti-Christian persecution as well.

Defenders of religion will tell me that this is the manipulation of faith at the hands of politicians. They aren’t wrong. But if the faith wasn’t ripe for such manipulation it couldn’t be done. Religion is not innocent in these matters, even if it is not the instigator of them. Even as seemingly inclusive a religion as Hinduism still suffers from the us versus them mentality that poisons all religions.

People are naturally oppositional. But religion should challenge that tendency rather than feed it. Where is a real religion of peace, justice, compassion, human rights, women’s emancipation, and environmental sanity? Unitarian Universalism, anyone?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Apocalypse Soon

We are coming into a time of apocalypse. Gaia is about to shake us to the core, and demand that we get about the work for which she grew us. A scarcity of water and other natural resources is going to plunge our world into war after war. Famine will expand, and plagues will ravage us. This isn’t punishment, but karma. We are about to reap what we have sown. It will be a horrible time, but also a promising one. We are going to be brought face to face with the evil we have created that we might own it and end it. Or, if we don’t, to have it end us.

The word apocalypse comes from the Greek apocalypsis, meaning to unveil. The coming apocalypse will be a great unveiling of our greed, ignorance and fear, and the havoc these wreck on the earth. The apocalypse is a wake-up call, a last chance to realize our true gifts and genius. It is coming to confront us with horror of our own madness that we might, as the Bible says, “turn from evil and do good.”

I believe the universe is intelligent. I believe that evolution is in the service of consciousness. I believe the universe wants to become aware of itself, to love itself, in all its complexity and diversity. And I believe that on this planet we are, among other things, the way our world feels (and causes) injustice and suffering; and because we feel it, we are also the way our world seeks to correct it. The apocalypse may be our last chance to achieve our true potential for it will bring us to the brink of destruction that we might step back and do differently.

The apocalypse grows in proportion to our denial of it. It will widen and deepen until we can no longer escape the world’s pain and our responsibility for it and to it. And if at last we feel the world’s pain as our pain, and if there is time, we will do something to alleviate it. And if there isn’t time? We will do what we can to comfort one another as the planet mourns our destruction and seeks another way to the heart.

Will we face the truth in time? I doubt it. If current events are any guide, rather than cultivate cries of compassion, we will shout ourselves hoarse with cries of war. Rather than open our hands to lift one another out of poverty and injustice, we will tighten them into fists to pound those who are already down, a little further down. Rather than drop the insanity of competing tribes, nations, and religions we will circle the wagons of tribe, nationality, and faith, arm ourselves to the teeth, and make war in the name of our gods and our greed, our ignorance and our fear.

We need to weep, to grieve over our lost potential, and then to see together what we might yet become. But that cannot happen before the apocalypse does, because it will take the apocalypse to wake us up. We cannot avoid our karma, we can only embrace it with fearless love.

Monday, February 11, 2008

What Is Interspirituality?

[Here are my latest musings on the nature of the work I do in Interspiritual dialogue.]

What Carl Jung is to dream, and Joseph Campbell is to myth, Interspirituality is to religion. Just as Jung uncovered and revealed the deep archetypal structures of human dreaming, and Campbell uncovered and revealed the deep psycho-spiritual structures of human mythology, so Interspirituality should seek to uncover and reveal the deep structures of human religion and religiosity.

This is very different from interfaith for which Interspirituality is inevitably mistaken.
Interfaith is a conversation, sometimes benign, sometimes helpful, sometimes necessarily and sometimes unnecessarily confrontational, between people fully ensconced in their respective faiths. The goal is to help one another understand each other’s position, but not to change it or take it to a new level or depth of wisdom. Interfaith “dialogue” is in actuality a series of separate uni-faith monologues, and there is nothing really “inter” about it.

Interspiritual conversations are something else entirely. While articulating and clarifying faith traditions may be the starting point, the goal is to move beyond our respective camps into a place of not-knowing where we explore together what may be true, regardless of what our respective religions say is true. This can only happen among people rooted in their respective traditions who are also dedicated to going deeper; dedicated to the proposition that there is something deeper, and that by sharing with one another we can probe into that deeper unknown to shed light not only on our separate faiths but on the very nature of faith.

This is far more than an exercise in “compare and contrast.” This is something radically different than a series of monologues, “We Hindus believe… We Jews believe…” Interspiritual dialogue has to be done in the spirit of fearless, compassionate, and respectful inquiry. Each participant has to be ready to say— in light of what may come up in conversation— “My tradition may be wrong about this;” “My religion may have to rethink and change this;” or even “My religion knows nothing of this and should adapt what your religion sees that we might see more clearly ourselves.”

There can be no defensiveness, no boundaries, no settling for “we agree to disagree.” Where we cannot see any further we have to humbly wait for the Spirit to show us the next step. That is why Interspiritual conversations must be rooted in silence, not-knowing, humility, and contemplative practice and inquiry, unlike conventional interfaith dialogues with are too often rooted in official dogma and approved chatter.

In Interspiritual conversation participants must be radically open to the other. Not that we find a generic faith that trumps individual faiths, but that we continually point to the fact that religions are like the proverbial blind men describing the elephant. Each has a piece of the picture, but even the sum of the parts does not yield the whole.

I am more than willing, in fact I am compelled, to say that my own tradition, Judaism, is, to borrow the Buddhist phrase, a finger pointing to the moon and not the moon itself. Interfaith dialogue focuses on the fingers; Interspirituality should focus on the moon.

To do this participants in Interspiritual conversations need to learn the core teachings of the various faiths represented in a larger context. Without a larger container for our conversations all we end up with is a potpourri of spiritual platitudes and a pseudo-universalism rooted in the false notion that all religions are saying the same things. All religions, just as all dreams and all myths, draw from the same pool of human needs and nature, but what they do with these is shaped by their unique histories and cultures. Interspirituality needs to direct our attention to that shared pool, identify the needs that are driving things, and then try to articulate the greater truth seeking to speak through the diverse voices of the world’s religions.

This does not negate the notion that there is something divine involved here. But the image is not of God revealing religion to humanity, but of humanity seeking to reveal God through religion. If we assume that our respective faiths are given by God, and are therefore True, Complete, and Perfect in and of themselves, there is no need for Interspirituality at all; interfaith will do just fine. Interspirituality, as I see it, is not rooted in God, Tao, Dharmakaya, Reality but in humanity’s search for This. As such all religions are human in origin and limited by human nature. I realize this goes against the grain of revealed faiths, but unless we can make this Copernican revolution in religious thinking we have nothing to offer but a refinement of interfaith tongue wagging and head butting.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Relics "R" Me

Did you know you can buy Christian relics on eBay? No kidding. You can buy strands of hair from Saint Therese of Lisieux, and bone fragments of Saint Philomena, the 13-year old who was martyred for refusing to marry the Roman Emperor Diocletian. You can even bid on slivers from the Cross and thorns from the Crown.

I admit I was tempted to bid on the latter, but then it hit me that the real money isn’t in buying relics, but selling them. After all the bidding on a saints hair starts at just under fifty bucks, so there really isn’t that much return on one’s investment even if you plucked the hair from Saint Therese yourself. So I’m going to buy one of those books on how to make a million on eBay and start my own relic business.

First off I’m selling chips from the Urim and Thummim, the oracle jewels worn by Aaron the High Priest. Then I’ve got slivers of the original Ten Commandments, the one’s Moses broke in his anger over the people and their worship of the Golden Calf. The big pieces Moses picked up himself, but the little ones he left in the desert for us collectors. And speaking of the Golden Calf I’ve got gold flakes from that as well. And salt that was once the body of Lot’s wife. Salt from different body parts of Mrs. Lot will sell for different prices. I’ve got lots of salt. It’s kosher salt, too: what a miracle!

Most of my relics will sell for well under $50, but I intend to make up in volume what I lose in price. But I will have a few rare items as well. I actually have the actual tunic that Potiphor’s wife ripped off the actual body of Joseph the Hebrew stud muffin (her words, not mine) that worked for her husband. And if hair is your thing, I have almost the entire head of Samson’s hair, both the strands cut off by Delilah and the ones God grew back. I’m not claiming that these strands will give you Samson’s strength, because I can’t afford the FDA screening process, but you never know.

And then there are the few flakes of skin from Miriam’s arm after God gave her leprosy as punishment for dissing her little brother Moses. These I will sell encased in Plexiglas so as to avoid any contamination.

But I think my most treasured relic is the foreskin of Moses’ son Gershom that his wife Zipporah cut off when God was about to kill Moses for neglecting the rite of circumcision. The bidding for this will start quite high I’m sure.

Of course there are skeptics who claim I am manufacturing these relics myself, but that is foolish. How do you manufacture a foreskin? And how to do manufacture shards from the original Tablets? Or salt body parts of Lot’s wife? God made these, so there is no way to fake them.

And anyway, the power of the relic is in the faith of the believer. Which is why the motto for my eBay store will be, “If you’ve got the faith, I’ve got the relic.”

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Millennial Spirituality

In the February 4th issue of USA TODAY Stephen Prothero, whose book “Religious Literacy” deserves a wide readership, writes about the religion of the millennial generation, Americans born between the late 1970s through the 1990s. His somewhat patronizing look at millennial spirituality is at odds with my own experience.

I have been teaching this population for the past few years, and find that millennials are looking for a dogma-free faith that honors diversity and life in this world, something they don’t find in conventional churches and synagogues. As one of my students put it, “I can’t reconcile the narrowness of my birth-religion with what I am learning about other religions. It seems that my religion is afraid of the world, but I’m not afraid at all.”

While it would be easy to dismiss millennial struggles as the vague ramblings and rebellion of youth, I think that would be doing them and religion a grave disservice. My students are serious about religion, even if some of them reject religion. What they desire is Wisdom and a Way to experience it for themselves.

What they are finding in their churches and synagogues is hollow harangues about hellfire and tribal loyalty that just don’t speak to them. What they are offered is a worship service that mistakes emotion for spirituality, vapid poetry for meaningful discourse, and a temporary high for a more transformative mystical experience.

Millennials are not lazy, but they do lack direction and guidance. If priests, pastors, and rabbis could speak to the genuine millennial search for universal wisdom rather than denominational dogma, and transformative contemplative practices rather than cheap thrills or nostalgic musings, many millennials would listen with open minds and hearts.

When asked my students will share mystical experiences they have while painting, or writing poetry, or walking in the woods. They will speak about the shrinking of the “I,” the ending of time, and the sense of connectedness with, and love for and from all things. They may or may not use the word “God,” but the sense of the divine is present in their words and their experience.

Millennials are seekers just like the rest of us used to be (and maybe still are). They find Wisdom in literature, art, myth, poetry, and nature. They understand love at least well enough not to pollute it with violence and eternal damnation. They don’t accept the reduction of myth to fact, of parable to history, of metaphor to science that seems to be the way of conventional religion. They know that Wisdom is universal even as the ways we express it are particular. They know that love leaves no room for hate, and salvation is not limited to some self-proclaimed elect. They see through the lies, if yet the Truth.

The fact that conventional clergy can’t get these people into the pews is a sign of hope not horror. If it were up to me I’d put a warning label on every religious institution saying, “Warning: This institution contains ideas that can lead to insensitivity, violence, fear, and trauma. Use with caution if at all.”

Monday, February 04, 2008

Roamin' Catholics

I often give talks highlighting the differences between Judaism and Christianity. One of the points I usually make is that Jews are not called to convert Gentiles to Judaism, whereas Christians are commanded to convert nonChristians to Christianity.

As soon as I make this point someone in the audience usually raises a hand to interrupt saying, “While that may be true of many Protestants, it isn’t true of us Catholics. Our missions around the world are humanitarian and do not focus on proselytizing.”

I’m not a Catholic, and I find it politick to acquiesce to people who know more about their religion than I do, but now I will have to challenge my Roman Catholic dissenters. On December 14th, Pope Benedict XVI (16) [Why do Catholics insist on using Roman numerals; it makes the pope sound like a Mazda?] said that Catholics should aim to convert people and not limit themselves to good works. So as Roman Catholics are roaming around the planet they should try harder to save souls, and not just feed bodies.

This really shouldn’t surprise anyone. Eight (VIII) years ago the Pope said that Catholics alone have “the fullness of the means of salvation,” so it is only natural that they would want to share that fullness with the rest of us. As Father Agostino di Noia said on Vatican Radio (which, I suspect, only plays music sold by Virgin Records), “The fundamental problem is a pluralistic theology of religion, which essentially states that all religions are equally valid in leading a person to salvation.”

He’s right. If any old religion can get you to salvation, why join one that is still using Roman numerals?

While I can’t prove this, and in fact have no evidence what so ever to back it up, I think the reason that Protestant churches are making so many converts in formally Catholic dominated countries is that they use Arabic numerals. Of course I also think that it is because America is a predominantly Protestant country using Arabic numerals that so many Arabs hate us. If we hadn’t stolen their numbers they might have made it into the 21st (XXIst) century without us have to bomb them into the 12th (XIIth) century first.

One good note to this story is that the new Catholic conversions will be nicer than the old ones. According to the Vatican, today’s Catholics must “safeguard the freedom and dignity of the human person” they are trying to convert. In the old days they gave us Jews two choices: refuse to convert and die now, or convert and die later. Today we have the option of converting now or burning in hell for all eternity. Oh well, VI of I, half dozen of another.