Thursday, July 31, 2008

Four Questions for the Jewish Fall Holy Days

Last Thursday, I sat with my rebbe high in the mountains overlooking Boulder, CO. He spoke to me of four questions that define our time; four questions that must be asked and answered, albeit humbly and open-endedly, if we are to live up to and out of the promise of the 21st century.

First, where did we come from, that is to say, what is the cosmological story that speaks to us today? Second, what is the ethic that arises from this story? Third, what are the upaya [Reb Zalman used the Buddhist word for “skillful means”), the mitzvot [acts of godliness that awaken us to the nonduality of life in, with, and as God, and my Jewish take on upaya] that allow us to embody that ethic in lived action? And fourth, what is vehicle or carrying that story, that ethic, and those means beyond ourselves into the community of generations?

It occurred to me as I listened that each of these questions spoke to one of the four fall Jewish holy days. Rosh haShanah, the anniversary of creation, is the ideal setting to ask about and tell the story of our cosmos. Yom Kippur, the Day of At-one-ment, is the perfect setting for discerning the ethic arising from that story. Where better to inquire into the mitzvot, the skillful means for living this ethic then Sukkot, our week-long encounter with impermanence and the “wisdom of insecurity” articulated by Ecclesiastes? And Simchat Torah, the omega and alpha point in the journey of Torah, is the perfect setting for exploring how best to build community rooted in story that can carry the wisdom of the cosmos.

When I shared this insight with Reb Zalman his face lighted up and he gave me the greatest gift a rebbe can bestow, “Yes, that is wonderful! Now see what you can to with it.”

I would have been happy had he left off the last sentence. What can I do with it? I have no community of my own. Indeed, I have not celebrated these holy days with others in years. I lead a solitary life, and spend holy days alone in the forest walking and talking with my Mother, who is the Face of God for me today.

Reb Zalman suggested that we collaborate on a book, fleshing out his questions in the context of these holy days, and inviting essays from creative visionaries who are themselves moved to contemplate these questions. Perhaps this is the way it will happen, I don’t know.

What I do know is that my fall holy days will not be the same this year as they were last year. There are now new questions to ponder, and new interior spaces to explore. What more could I ask from my rebbe?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Al-Qaida and Interfaith- What's Not To Like?

Al-Qaida has finally caught up with the Missouri-Synod Lutherans.

Shortly after the murder of thousands of Americans on 9/11/01, the Rev. David Benke was suspended from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for taking part in an interfaith service at Yankee Stadium for the families of the victims. Now, escaped al-Qaida commander Abu Yahia al-Libi is calling for the murder of Saudi King Abdullah for hosting an interfaith gathering of his own.

To be honest, I have to sympathize. These interfaith gatherings are too much. Every other week clergy people are holding interfaith meetings to assure one another that their respective faiths really don’t mean what they say.

Honestly, if I have to listen to another liberal clergyperson pretend that his or her take on his or her religion is really what that religion is about, I will scream. At least Abu Yahia al-Libi is honest: “equating Islam with other religions is a betrayal of Islam.”

The fact is equating Christianity or Judaism with other religions is a betrayal of those faiths as well. Each of these faiths knows they are the one and only true revelation from God. At least Abu Yahia al-Libi is honest. Of course calling for the murder of the King is a bit over the top, but you have to admire his enthusiasm.

The point of King Abdullah’s conference is to get religions to renounce extremism, but he has to hold the conference in Spain because most of the invitees wouldn’t be allowed into Saudi Arabia unless disguised as diplomats or oil workers. How does the King define extremism, anyway?

And what’s the point of having a religion that isn’t extreme? I’m an extremist. I think anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. I just don’t think it matters that they’re wrong, so I wouldn’t kill them or damn them to God’s private Abu Ghraib. But they're still wrong.

If we must have interfaith gatherings, let’s invite extremists only. At least they’re interesting. Most clergy at interfaith conferences are too polite— “While I suggest that the distinguished imam is wrong in believing that the Qur’an is the Word of God, and in fact follows a false prophet, peace be upon him, and will burn in hell for all eternity, I’m sure we can still find enough common ground to apply for a generous faith-based grant once Senator Obama is elected president.”

No! I say, “Bring on the extremists!” Let someone sponsor a real Battle of the Gods. Let’s hear how God chooses this one, and saves that one, and sticks the rest in a living Hieronymus Bosch hellscape.

We won’t do this, of course, because, if we did, most of us would be so horrified by what our respective religions teach that we would subscribe to Free Inquiry magazine, and spend our weekends at the natural history museum.

Of course I don’t want King Abdullah to die. And I wish we would catch Abu Yahia al-Libi and throw his ass back in jail (or, better yet, let him go hunting with Vice President Cheny), but please let’s not waste another dime on conferences that pretend to solve the problem that the attendees themselves are creating.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Judaism is Dying Redux

My previous post (Judaism is Dying) elicited an email response to which I wish to respond publicly. Here’s the email:

“You are a heretic, but not one who is brave enough to come out and say so. So I am calling you out! In twenty-five words or less per topic tell me what you would do with God, Torah, Israel, etc. in your heretical Judaism.”

Reading this I felt like an aging gunslinger being called out from the saloon by a young’un hopin’ t’ make a name fer hisself by killin’ the old man. So I’m strappin’ on my two six shooters an’ steppin’ out to face— oh, forget it. Here is a brief look at my “heretical Judaism” for the 21st century.

God: God is Reality and the creativity that fuels Reality, keeping it fresh, new, surprising, and awe-inspiring.

Torah: Torah is wisdom. Wisdom comes from science, art, music, myth, and literature. Torah study should be the study of wisdom in all its forms.

Israel: Israel, Yisrael, is one who wrestles with God, i.e. engages Reality in such a way as to find meaning and purpose in life.

Rabbi: Rabbis should be Jana yogis (masters of wisdom through intellect and mind) helping people open up to wisdom through meditation and study.

Cantor: Cantors should be Bhakti yogis (masters of wisdom through the heart) helping people open up to wisdom through chant, prayer, and other devotional practices.

Synagogue: Synagogues should be places of meeting; safe houses for doubt, dialogue, questioning, wrestling with Life, and ecstatic surrender into the One Who lives it.

Mitzvot (Commandments): Mitzvot are historic resources drawn from Jewish and other traditions that help one live with compassion, justice, creativity, fearlessness, hope, and humility.

Shabbat (the Sabbath): Shabbat is a day for purposeless play. If you pray, pray playfully. If you study, study playfully. Play helps us regain our sanity and recover our divinity.

Kashrut: Kashrut means linking all your consuming with your highest ethical and environmental values.

Tzedakah: Tzedakah means earning and using your money in a manner that serves both self and society, person and planet.

OK, that’s eleven bullet points. All these need to be fleshed out, of course, but I think I survived the challenge. Notice I saved one bullet just in case my friend is still moving.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Judaism is Dying

Judaism is dying. Not the Jewish people; not Israel; not Jewish Studies programs or Jewish PACs or Jewish philanthropies; but Judaism herself: the idea that God so loved the Jews that He gave us His one true revelation that we might bring justice and compassion to humankind. This Judaism is dying.

The fact that Judaism is dying doesn’t worry me. It has died before. What worries me is that this time it may stay dead.

In the past the death of one Judaism was followed by the birth of another. The death of the shamanic Judaism of Abraham was followed by the birth of the priestly and sacrificial Judaism of Aaron. The death of sacrificial Judaism was heralded by prophetic Judaism and followed by rabbinic Judaism. Now rabbinic Judaism is dying, and there is nothing to come after it.

Rabbinic Judaism is dying because its foundational idea—that God gave Moses two Torahs on Mount Sinai (one Written, one Oral) over which only rabbis have authority—is dying. Indeed for most Jews it is already dead.

We know it is dying because most Jews, perhaps the majority of Jews, do not take halacha (Jewish law) seriously; and most of those who do pick and choose among the mitzvot (divine commandments) and adapt them to their personal lifestyles. A Judaism of personal choice and convenience is not what the rabbis had in mind.

Rabbinic Judaism is a Judaism not of orthodoxy but orthopraxy, not of one mind but one practice. Conformity of behavior rather than conformity of thought was their concern. “Think what you want, and do what we say” was the unofficial rabbinic motto. But today most Jews do what their rabbi says only if the rabbi says what they want to hear. And if she or he doesn’t, they will change rabbis until they find one who does.

The death of rabbinic Judaism has been coming for quite a while, and a number of Judaisms have contended to replace it. All of them have failed.

Zionism failed because, as it turns out, most Jews have no desire to live in a Jewish state or serve in a Jewish army, and because, having sold its soul to the most Orthodox among us, Zionism has nothing but archeology to offer Jews as an alternative to rabbinic Judaism. Stones a plenty; Tablets, not a one.

Humanistic Judaism failed because it denied God rather than reinvented God. A religion focused on the self alone is too narcissistic to be spiritually compelling. Gathering together simply to gather together gets old very fast.

Reform Judaism failed because by making the self sovereign over God (you decide which of God’s laws to obey) it pulled the rug out from under rabbis altogether. Rabbinic authority rests on the fiction of the Dual Revelation. When the Torah is no longer binding rabbis are no longer relevant, which is why Reform rabbis are more like Protestant pastors than Talmudic sages.

Conservative Judaism, which sought to maintain the rabbinic conceit of the Talmudic sage by insisting that Jewish Law matters, failed because most Jews outside of Orthodoxy just don’t find a religion of law run by a cabal of lawyers spiritually compelling.

Reconstructionism was a true reinvention of Judaism outside the rabbinic frame, but the bold genius of its founder (and my teacher) Mordecai Kaplan was abandoned for a neo-conservatism that substituted leftist social mores and inclusive community (two good ideas in my opinion) for the radical Emersonian/Taoist reinvention of God and Judaism that was the soul of Kaplan’s heresy. Modern Reconstuctionism’s liturgical innovation of using lots of names for God doesn’t substitute for the fact that, without Kaplan, they have no compelling theology of God.

Jewish Renewal, another Judaism I value, failed because it requires a deep commitment to learning— Biblical, Talmudic, Kabbalistic and Hasidic— in which most Jews have no real interest. Rising in the shadow of its real promise is a pseudo (rather than the much needed and intended neo) Hasidism in which everyone is a rebbe and no one is a hasid, where new age platitudes pass for deep introspection, and hand-clapping and table pounding substitute for true ecstasy.

So what’s left? Orthodox Judaism of one stripe or another, of course. Orthodoxy, like other fundamentalisms, succeeds because it believes what it says and what it says is without nuance and therefore immune to irony and self-doubt. But Orthodoxy, too, has failed because most Jews just cannot take it seriously, and it is impossible to run an empire when everyone knows the emperor has no clothes.

So you can see why I am not hopeful about the future of Judaism. For all our poetic genius our liturgies are, by and large, lifeless and stultifying. For all our education we still lack a compelling vision of a postmodern and post tribal Judaism. For all our creativity our worship is, by and large, dull, predictable, and uninspiring. For all our Nobel Prize winning scientists we still promote a pre-Newtonian worldview irrelevant in our post-Einsteinian world.

But I haven’t given up all hope. There must be Jewish heretics out there burning with a new Judaism that will enflame our people with a new, creative, and intrinsically compelling understanding of God, Torah, and Israel. No, I’m not one of them. I’m too old, too jaded, and I’ve read too much Krishnamurti.

Why don’t we hear from them? Because they don’t have the means to unleash their memes. Those with new ideas have no funds, and those with funds are afraid of new ideas.

Instead of funding life support for the dying Judaism of the rabbis, we ought to be funding think tanks for heresies, and training camps for heretics. Sure, most of these will fail, but some might catch on, and even those that don’t may, in their dying, give rise to something even more heretical and enlivening, that we might again exclaim, “Judaism is dead. Long live Judaism!”

Will we? I doubt it. And Judaism will spiral ever faster into obsolescence. Jews will live, but we just won’t remember what for.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Michael Novak, What Were You Thinking?

Monday’s USA TODAY (July 21st, 2008) featured an essay by conservative columnist Michael Novak entitled Reconciling Evil with Faith. I found the essay so outrageous that I am writing a longer than usual blog as commentary. To be fair, you ought to read Mr. Novak's entire essay for yourself.

Michael Novak writes, “One of the oldest accusations against God in the Bible and in every generation since has been that there is too much evil in this world for there to be a good God… Of course ceasing to be a Jew or a Christian does not wipe these evils away… The rejection of God does not diminish evil in the world by a whit.”

Mr. Novak is absolutely correct. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or disbelieve in God, evil continues. But what does this fact tell us? Only one thing: what you believe has no bearing on reality.

Mr. Novak continues: “In fact, the turn of Russia and Germany from more or less Christian regimes to boastfully atheist regimes did not lessen, but increased, the number of humans who have horribly suffered, by nearly 100 million.”

Again I am not certain what this fact tells us. Is it that atheists are more barbarian than theists? Or that theists are less technologically sophisticated than atheists when it comes to murdering human beings? And who said Hitler’s Germany was atheistic? In Mein Kamf Hitler wrote: "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."

Mr. Novak even enlists atheist science to make a point (though again I am uncertain as to what his point is): “Even under atheistic interpretations of science, the vast suffering under ferocious competition for survival, for a vastly longer era than was known, far exceeds the evils earlier generations knew.”

What does this mean? Is he saying that it is better to believe the world is only 10,000 years old as the Young Earth Creationists argue because then suffering is so much briefer? Is he saying that only atheists believe the world is billions of years old? It seems to me that the only difference between the atheist and the theist on this point is one of semantics. Whether one is an atheist or a theist, one cannot deny the facts of suffering. Given these facts we can either say that nature is a bitch or God is a bastard, depending on our theological leanings. Neither interpretation reduces the suffering Novak admits.

Then he goes on to say, “[T]hose who suffer most from injustice and oppression seem to find more consolation and dignity in the Jewish/Christian faith than in any other worldview.” How does he know this? Buddhism, for example, is all about suffering and the ending of suffering? Can it be that Judaism consoles better than Buddhism?

And it gets worse:

“Judaism and Christianity seem very good religions for those who suffer because they bestow on them justice and dignity. The realistic point of Judaism and Christianity is that suffering is a normal part of every human life.” Is this true? Again Buddhism also says that suffering is natural to human experience, but what it doesn’t say, and what Judaism and Christianity to do, is that suffering is caused by God because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Buddhism makes suffering natural; Judaism and Christianity insist it is the act of a wrathful God.

And as far as Judaism and Christianity bestow justice and dignity on those who suffer, just ask the slaves in Christian Europe and America. Ask the colonized peoples of Africa and India. Ask the Palestinians in the West Bank. Ask those tortured by Americans in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. What Judaism and Christianity seem to do is comfort the afflicted by holding out justice in the next world, while giving this world over to the madness of men and women whose god is more sadistic then they are, and who excuses every evil that they do.

And it gets worse still:

“In fact, the poor also delight in the beauties of God’s creation. On balance, even with their acute suffering, the poor also feel blessed. They sense the rapture of sunlight flashing across lake or ocean, and soft breezes at sunset, and the great starry sky.”

This is obscene! The fact that acute poverty cannot rob human beings of their sense of awe, wonder and mystery is a testament to human soulfulness, but is this a defense of faith? Does the fact that Jews in Nazi death camps managed to find some beauty in a rainbow somehow make the evil of Nazism less evil?

And it gets even worse:

“For Christianity, the interpretive key to this world is the cross—the cross on which the Son of God died. For Judaism, it is the long, long exile and pain of the Jewish people. If God has so treated his only son, and also his own people, why should anyone else expect Easy Street?”

I love this! In other words, if God is a sadistic abusive murderous S.O.B., well, what can you expect? If this isn’t an argument for atheism, I don’t know what is!

And it never ends:

“Worse, the world seen by evolutionary biology alone is even more rife with suffering, yet rather more merciless. That world is characterized by raw chance, accident and the death of about 90% of all species that have ever lived. Perhaps earthquakes, tsunami, tornado, disease and famine derive from chance, and signify nothing.”

Yes, maybe they do, but what is the alternative? If earthquakes, tsunami, tornado, disease and famine do not derive from chance (and they don’t, they derive from the necessities of nature) then they are God’s work and thus signify something horrible, evil, and malign. If nature is blind and shit happens, I can live with that. But if, as Michael Novak seems to imply, God is doing this to people on purpose, we should be tearing down every house of worship to this monstrous deity we can find!

I just don’t see what Mr. Novak thought he was doing with essay. If this was a defense of belief, it failed miserably. If it was an atheistic attempt to recruit new members using reverse psychology, it may have succeeded mightily. I don’t see how anyone reading this piece could continue to believe in God at all. At least not the conventional God of mainstream Judaism and Christianity.

He ends his essay with this, “Whether our lives are meaningless, or not, is not a trivial question.” I agree. This is a question worth asking and exploring. But to assume, as Michael Novak does, that science and atheism (which are not the same: science is a methodology, atheism is an ideology) are somehow on the side of meaninglessness, while God and religion are on the side of meaning is just too much to bear.

Evolution does not make life meaningless! Evolution is the way life develops a level of consciousness capable of discovering meaning; it is the way life becomes self aware and moral; it is the way life comes to think about its Source and Substance. Evolution is the way God manifests in time and space. Evolution is the way God gets to discover Herself and say, “Wow!”

To anyone who wishes to think far more profoundly than USA TODAY gives you credit for, I recommend three books:

Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd,

The View From the Center of the Universe by Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams, and

God and the Big Bang by Daniel Matt.

If I could afford it I’d send copies of each to Michael Novak and invite him to think this through again.

Monday, July 21, 2008

God vs. Catwoman

I love comic books. I started reading them when I was a kid, and I never stopped. My favorite comic book heroes are Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and The Shadow. I tell you this lest you think me anti-comic book when I bemoan a new poll ranking the top superheroes of the American comic reading public.

Four things trouble me about the poll. First, I was not asked to participate. Second, none of my heroes made the top ten. Third, the fact that Batman tied for sixth place with Catwoman. And, fourth, that God and Jesus ranked below Batman and Catwoman.

This is scandalous. Clearly the Dark Knight trumps Catwoman in brains, brawn, bucks, and literary depth. If people can’t see the superiority of Batman over Catwoman, I have to question their wisdom altogether. Which brings me to the ranking of God and Jesus.

Whatever your thoughts about Batman, neither he nor Catwoman can resurrect the dead. And as dark as the Dark Knight is, even he pales next to the Jesus of Revelation who wallows in the blood of his enemies in a manner that would make Vlad the Impaler flinch. But are God and Jesus really superheroes?

Before you answer that, it pays to remember that Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, was a god and is today a superhero with a very successful comic franchise and Marvel movie in the works. True Jesus also had a successful box-office run but his film was in Aramaic and he dies at the end which makes a sequel awkward at best (unless of course you happen to be a Christian in which case you are waiting for just that).

So God can be a superhero, but how many people go to the Temple of Thor and worship the God of Thunder any more? Maybe getting your own comic is what happens to gods when they are put out to pasture. Is this what is happening to God and Jesus now that they are listed as superheroes, seven lengths back from Spider-Man?

And it is not just superhero fans who feel that God is somewhat lacking. The two television shows that actually featured God or Jesus (Joan of Arcadia which featured God in various guises, and NBC’s Book of Daniel that featured Jesus as a Rogerian psychologist, “Well, what do you think ought to be done to save your soul?”) were both short-lived. The Jesus show lasted only two weeks! Compare that to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ghost Whisperer, two long lasting shows of the supernatural that never mention God or Jesus. Of course Buffy and Ghost Whisperer have a sexual subtext that God and Jesus lack, so if we want to raise God's standing we might have to forgo the Virgin Birth for something a little more, shall we say, Zeus-like?

So what can we God-lovers do to raise the status of our hero? I think we need to hire better writers and artists to tell his story. A Frank Miller version of Job or an Alan Moore take on Esther could be promising. Or how about a Stephen King version of the Gospel According to John? We could call it The Last Godslinger.

With the right artists and colorists, God might give at Catwoman a run for her money. Spider-Man, however, is probably beyond even God’s reach.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ice Cream is God

Baskin-Robbins is not a place I go for religious insight, but I have to credit them for a true epiphany.

The other day I am talking with a radio producer about doing an interview with me. “In twenty-five words or less,” he said, “tell me your approach to God and religious diversity.” Out of the blue I came up with this:

“Religion is like Baskin-Robbins, and God is like ice cream.” Twelve words!

“OK,” he said, “I’m hooked, now elaborate a bit.” This is what I said:

Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors of ice cream, but even if you taste them all, you still have no idea what ice cream itself tastes like. The flavors mask the actual taste of ice cream. In fact as far as Baskin-Robbins is concerned there is no such thing as “ice cream itself.” If you order ice cream they want to know what flavor ice cream, and if insist that you don’t want a flavor of ice cream but ice cream itself they have nothing to offer you.

When it comes to Baskin-Robbns ice cream I prefer mocha almond. Imagine you and I go to a Baskin-Robbins, and you order strawberry, and I say, “No, that’s wrong. You are wrong to order strawberry. True ice cream is mocha almond; anything else is something else. If ice cream is what you want, mocha almond is what you must get.” You’d think me mad.

Now think of this in terms of religion. Judaism is one flavor, Christianity another, Islam, Hinduism, Paganism, Buddhism, etc are still others. You may prefer one flavor to all the others, nothing wrong with that. But you would be a fool to insist, as I did in my little fable, that only one of the many flavors is the true one.

“What about Stone Cold Creamery where you make your own flavor?” the producer asked.

Well, I said, you don’t actually make your own flavor you just customize an existing one. This is like a Christian who incorporates something from Native American spirituality into her primary flavor of Christianity. You still don’t have ice cream in and of itself.

“OK,” he said, “so what is the flavor of ice cream? What is God?”

Ice cream without any flavor is unknown and unknowable. It has no taste. Sure, I may be pushing the analogy here, but you get the idea. What mystics desire is to taste ice cream itself, to get beneath all the flavors to the thing itself. And when they do they can go back to the 31 flavors with all their preferences in tact and yet know that preferring mocha almond doesn’t make rum raisin and those who love it wrong or damned.

I like this analogy. I don’t know if I will be asked to go on air with it, but at the very least I should get some payola from Baskin-Robbins.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Monkey See, Monkey Sue

Last month a committee of the Spanish Parliament passed a resolution that would give great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) the right to life, freedom from arbitrary captivity, and protection from torture, which gives the great apes more rights than any human declared an “enemy combatant” by President Bush.

In Austria the judicial system is poised to declare a chimp a person. The chimp’s lawyer, Eberhart Theuer, a top banana in Austria’s legal system, said that if he wins his client’s case Europe would have to give great apes the same rights as people. If he looses the case he plans to…. wait for it…. a peel!

All monkeyshines aside, I, for one, am thrilled by these developments. If a corporation can be a person, why not an ape?

Apes are people too, that’s my motto. Chimpanzees and bonobos differ from humans by only 1% of DNA. I believe this means that I am closer to my chimp friends imprisoned in the local zoo than I am to some of my neighbors who, while not swinging from trees themselves seem only too eager to see other humans do so.

Sure there are some differences between the apes and us. Here are some of them:

1. All great apes recognize themselves in a mirror, but few if any worry about the size of their butts.

2. Chimpanzees and bonobos can exchange blood and kidneys with humans, and, like humans, most lack health insurance, but unlike humans, they expect their employers (zoos and the like) to pay for it. Apes are socialists by nature, I guess.

3. Great apes have displayed love, fear, anxiety and jealousy, so they, like us can appreciate the drama of daytime television, but, unlike us, few have televisions.

4. Great apes, like humans, can learn and use language through signs and symbols but lack the vocal anatomy to master speech, which means that, unlike us, they can’t host talk shows on cable.

5. Apes, like us, may be persons with rights, but, unlike us, they won’t be able to sue either other apes or humans. This is a terrible mistake which, when we humans destroy our civilization and apes take over the planet, will be the loophole the apes use to enslave our species.

Of course you might think that if I am pro ape-as-person I must be pro fetus-as-person, and I would be if a fetus could recognize itself in a mirror.

Anyway, in researching for this blog I discovered that the United Kingdom banned experiments on great apes in 1997, but allow experimentation on marmosets, which, if I am not mistaken, are chocolate covered marshmallow cookies. Now this I found troubling. Why experiment on cookies? But I am not scientist so I won’t judge.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Corpse in a Can

Frederic J. Baur, the designer of the Pringles potato chip died recently. While I rarely eat Pringles, I admit to enjoying them when I do. But Mr. Baur has earned my respect not for his chip but for his decision to have his cremated remains stored in a Pringles can.

I can’t tell you why I love this idea, but I do. And it got me thinking: In what kind of container would I like to be buried?

While I understand the egalitarian rationale behind Judaism’s insistence that one be buried in a plain pine box, doing so is boring. Why not put some creativity into it?

So the question becomes: Into what kind of container shall I place my ashes? I am assuming cremation because this allows for the widest range of container options, but I must state unequivocally that I am equivocating on the issue of cremation itself.

I used to be a firm believer in cremation, but I have read recently that cremation is far more damaging to the environment than is traditional burial, releasing gases in the cremation process that contribute to global warming. I am already a major producer of methane gas, so I may not opt for cremation in the end, but for argument’s sake, let’s assume I do. Where would I want my ashes stored?

The first container that comes to mind is the original 1984 version of the Macintosh computer. I owned one of the first Macs to be produced and loved it. Unfortunately I passed it on when the next generation Mac came out, so I will have to look elsewhere for a suitable container.

Books are the centerpiece of my life, so I could have myself buried in a book. Which book? It would be a toss up between Ecclesiastes and the Tao Te Ching.

I watch a lot of television, so maybe I should be buried in one of those. I have an old TV with a built in VCR. I could make a VHS tape about my life and what I believe, and have it play over and over again with my ashes inside the television itself.

Then again, I walk five miles every morning, so maybe I should place my remains in a pair of New Balance running shoes and have strung over an electric power line so that people might wonder who is walking around without his shoes never suspecting that I am still in them. Or how about being buried in an enchilada? I love Mexican food.

The more I think about this the more items I can imagine. Perhaps I should spread my ashes out into a whole host of products and keep them all in a mausoleum where people could come and browse. There would be a souvenir shop next door where you could buy replicas of my ashes in various products. This idea appeals to me the most, and I will pursue it. I can see a chain of Rami’s Remains stores across the country. Our motto might be Don’t Get Left Behind, Choose to Stay Behind.

While I work out the details of my burial, I invite you to add your own ideal burial containers in the comments section of this blog.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I, Black Pervert

“Are you the black pervert whose been stalking me? I’m ready for you this time!”

The speaker was a very round white woman in her late forties or early fifties who, like me, always dresses monochromatically (she in white, I in black), and who, unlike me, always carries a thin plastic grocery bag stuffed with I don’t know what. She’s new to the forest through which I walk every morning, but we’d seen each other three times over the past three days. This was the first time she had spoken to me. It was not the first time I have been mistaken for a black man.

Last week while visiting my parents in Agawam, Massachusetts, my mother, seeming out of nowhere, but which I now think was a near-death confession, told me that when I was a baby people routinely mistook me for African American. Of course no one used that term back in the 1950s.

“I would be pushing you in your stroller,” my mother said, “and people would stop and say, ‘Oh, my, what a cute little colored boy.’ It was true, you were so dark that you looked like a black boy.”

This was a stunning revelation, and I knew it was true: I am black. I had always known I was black. Not just because I like the blues and gospel music; or because my dad is so white that he could pass for an albino; or because he and I are so unalike that there is no way he could be my biological father, but because being black explains why I am obsessed with imitating black preachers, and why I cried inconsolably when Eddie Murphy dressed up as an old Jewish man in The Nutty Professor.

“I’m not black,” I lied to the white woman with the plastic bag.

“Alright, officer, I’ll be careful,” she said deciding that if I wasn’t black I must be a police officer. “But I have this with me just in case!” She reached into the slash pocket in her skirt, and pulled what was sure to be a 22-caliber revolver. My first reaction was to recite the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This is what Jews are supposed to say at the moment they die. Then I remembered I was black, and my mind searched franticly for something black people might say at that same moment. All I came up with was Martin Luther King’s “I Had A Dream" speech. Fortunately she was unarmed, and pulled out a Sprint cell phone instead.

“You keep safe,” I said and turned back to my walk.

“Jesus keeps me safe,” she said.

I love Jesus, and I love people who love Jesus, and I just couldn’t let this moment pass. So a turned back to face her, and right there in the 88-degree heat and near 100% humidity this woman in white and this man in black stood in prayer. "Yes, He does!" I shouted, no longer the middle-aged white Jew but rather the now grown up little black boy in the stroller who had devoted his life to Jesus, "Yes He does!" And the two of us prayed and prayed and came to Jesus.

She seemed genuinely touched that a lonesome black pastor would seek her out in the woods to pray to Jesus. And I found it somehow comforting to hear her call to me over her shoulder as we walked away from one another, "I'm ready for you next time, you black pervert!"

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Jesus for Jews or Rock of Ages

A decade or so ago David Jeselsohn, an Israeli-Swiss antiquities collector, bought a three-foot tall stone tablet inscribed with 87 lines of Hebrew text. Mr. Jesesohn didn’t know exactly what he had, but when he invited an Israeli archeologist to examine it interest in the tablet grew. It took ten years of study, but yesterday the tablet had it global debut as the New York Times featured the stone tablet in an article by Ethan Bronner entitled “Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.”

The gist of the matter is this: Most scholars up to today believe that the ancient Jews awaited a military messiah who would be a defeat the enemies of Israel in battle, and liberate the Jewish people from bondage. Before and after Jesus there have been a number of such figures, all of whom failed.

Jesus, the most successful Jewish messiah of all time, was something radically new and different. Jesus did not see himself as a military figure, nor did he expect the Jews to defeat Rome on the battlefield. Jesus saw himself as the suffering servant of the Lord mentioned in Isaiah 53. He expected to die at the hands of Rome and to be resurrected after three days, and in this way to defeat the kingdom of Caesar and usher in the Kingdom of God.

Because this notion of a dying and resurrected messiah seemed to be a new idea in Judaism, Christians have held that Jesus was unique, and therefore the true anointed of God (messiah means “anointed”). Jews, on the other hand, explained the people’s ultimate rejection of Jesus as messiah by pointing to his failure to lead a rebellion against Rome and thus live up to the Jewish notion of what a messiah is supposed to be.

Jeselsohn’s tablet turns both arguments on their heads. If the tablet is proven to be authentic, and every indication thus far is that is it is authentic and predates Jesus by decades, then the notion that Jews restricted their messianic hopes to a military leader is false. In fact, the tablet seems to show, Jesus’ suffering messiah idea was a long established Jewish option.

This tablet records the words of the Angel Gabriel to a Suffering Messiah called Prince of Princes who, the text is unclear here, may be a Jew named Simon. Gabriel tells the messiah that he will die and be resurrected after three days, and in so doing redeem the Jewish people from oppression. What was hitherto thought to be a unique element of the Jesus narrative speaking powerfully to the authenticity of Jesus as messiah, now proves to be an established Jewish position with which Jesus identified.

This is incredibly important. Not only was the idea of a messiah who would be killed by Israel’s enemies part of Jewish thinking, the detail that he would be resurrected after three days was also well known. Further, the messianic idea associated with the death and resurrection of the messiah had nothing to do with “dying for the sins of humanity,” and everything to do with redeeming the Jewish people.

Will this shake Christianity to its foundation? Not at all. Religions are rooted in their own narratives rather than history. Christians will go on believing as they choose. What this tablet does, however, is offer Jews a way to reclaim a favorite son long ignored.

If Jesus saw himself as one of a line of messianic figures awaiting the right time for God to fulfill His promises to the Jewish people; if he provoked the powers that be to bring about his death; if he believed he would be resurrected after three days; and if he believed that resurrection would announce the redemption of Israel, then he was a Jew through and through, and needs to be honored as a great teacher and martyr not unlike Rabbi Akiba whom the Romans tortured to death some six decades later for his involvement in the messianic rebellion of Bar Kochbah.

I have long been a student of Jesus, seeing him as a God intoxicated Jewish mystic. I am currently co-writing a book about the Sermon on the Mount with Dr. Mike Smith, a Baptist minister (, and I believe strongly that Jews, especially liberal Jews, would benefit greatly by reclaiming Jesus as a great rabbi sage and prophet. I am excited by this archeological find, and hope you will be as well.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Nation of Heretics, Part Two: Cafe and Camp

Yesterday I suggested that the findings of the new Pew Forum poll on religion in America offer those of us devoted to free spiritual inquiry a unique opportunity. The opportunity is to invite Americans into conversation with the wisdom teachings of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Paganism, Native traditions, etc., plus parallel wisdom from science, art, and music, and in this way support the emergence of a truly global wisdom tradition that will serve seekers of all faiths and none.

Let me suggest three ways of doing this, two for adults, the third for teens.

For those adults with the necessary time, energy, desire, and finances, I would suggest enrolling in programs such as the Spiritual Path Institute’s two-year program in Interspirituality. I have been part of this venture since its founding and cannot recommend it too highly. You can check it out for yourself at

For those adults who cannot or have no interest in pursuing a formal education track, I would suggest we establish Wisdom Cafes around the country where people gather to read and discuss the teachings of the worlds Wisdom Traditions. My son and I have been testing this on a small scale throughout Tennessee over the past five years. Our last venture at Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville had 35 participants who came together for two hours each Wednesday evening for twelve consecutive weeks.

To take this to the next level would mean creating a website where people can download an ever-expanding data base of texts and question guided readings, an annual training seminar for people wishing to host Wisdom Cafes, and an annual gathering of Wisdom Café participants featuring some of the leading scholars on the books we study.

I would like to adapt the Wisdom Café idea for teens by creating a Wisdom Camp where high school kids could study Wisdom texts for college credit over the summer. The camp day would be divided in to three parts: mornings would be spent in study and conversation; afternoons would be spent in traditional camping activities featuring martial arts, Chi Gong, cooperative games, swimming, boating, etc; and evenings would be spent in contemplative practice sessions and socializing.

Preliminary investigations have shown how difficult it is to set up a camp from scratch, but there are several camps around the country that are in need of fresh concepts and content. If you know a camp looking to reinvent itself, put them in touch with me.

Obviously I am being quite general here, and avoiding all details. This is just an outreach essay to see if anyone is interested in helping with either project. As always money is the issue. The Café needs writers, web designers, and a marketing program. The camp needs curriculum specialists and, well, a camp. But if we are serious about the future of religion and spirituality, and if we want to take advantage of this unique moment in our nation’s spiritual evolution, we need to talk to like-minded people in our communities and see if we can put something like this together. I would be happy to speak with anyone with the interest and means to take the Café and Camp ideas to the next level.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A Nation of Heretics

Heretics rule! That is the finding of the Pew Forum’s of religious belief in America. Of course that is not how they are spinning the data, but that is the unavoidable conclusion. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis meaning choice; and “heretic” comes from the Greek hairetikos, one who chooses. Americans, even religious Americans, like choice, and that should make their leaders very unhappy.

According to the Pew Forum survey 70% of us say that there is more than one way to attain eternal life. This is huge! The foundational teaching of the dominant religion in America states just the opposite: My way or the very, very, very low way.

The official position of the Catholic Church is that there is no salvation outside the Church. Of course if you ask your favorite Catholic neighbor about this he or she may well deny it. And if she does she is mistaking her belief for that of her Church. Why? Because she just cannot imagine that her Church could be so narrow minded!

The same could be said for most Evangelical Protestants as well. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me (John 14:6), thus making very clear that without faith in Jesus as your Lord and Savior you are doomed. It seems that the vast majority of EPs ignore this doctrine in favor of heresy.

Before you imagine a wave of atheism engulfing the US, take a breath. Nothing could be further from the case: 92% of Americans believe in God. Of course the survey doesn’t ask people what they mean by “God,” so the statistic is fairly meaningless, but still we are nation of believers.

More helpful are the questions regarding Heaven and Hell. 74% of Americans believe in Heaven, and define it as a place where good people go and are eternally rewarded. 59% of Americans believe in Hell, and define it as a place where bad people go and are eternally punished. I find this last idea very tragic as it removes all hope for compassion and redemption after death. But the amazing thing is that the criterion for entry into Heaven and Hell is deeds not faith. Again, this is huge! Martin Luther staked his entire Protestant Reformation on the notion of “faith alone,” deeds are worth nothing when it comes to salvation. But America says, “No!”

Listen to this: 68% of the people polled said, “there’s more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.” That is heresy, pure and simple; and those people who said it are heretics.

Why am I so happy about this? Because it shows that with all its clout, with all its money, with all its ability to threaten people with eternal damnation, organized religion cannot totally defeat the innate skepticism of the American people.

But more than this it means that we who love spirituality, who believe that seeking the Divine unity through reason, intuition, art, music, contemplation, study, etc. have a wonderful opportunity to reach out to people. More on this is my next post.