Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nothing Hidden, Nothing Complicated

I spent the past few days teaching in at Unity of Tustin, a delightful church in Santa Ana, CA. As the retreat came to a close one passionate man sitting close to me in the front row was clearly unhappy with my level of teaching. He kept asking questions that he said were designed to bring out the “Master Teacher” in me.

Seeing that he was failing to find more to me than there is, he asked if I deliberately keep my public teaching so simple. I tried to explain that all my teaching is simple because I just don’t have the patience or personality for complication.

Honestly, there is nothing that deep about spirituality and enlightenment. Of course there are complicated systems of spiritual talk and practice for those who wish to spend decades learning about enlightenment rather than just waking up to it, but in the end even these, if they are at all legitimate, end up saying the same thing: namely (to quote Jesus quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus) “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as your self.” That’s it.

Of course we have to define “love,” “God,” and “neighbor,” and different teachers will do so in different ways, and some of them won’t use this vocabulary at all, but the point being made will be the same.

For me love is engaging life in a manner that allows living things to flourish to the best of their ability; God is Reality, all that was, is, and will be; and neighbor is all beings and things that Reality manifests. Loving God and loving your neighbor means loving reality, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Loving our neighbors requires upaya, the skillful means by which we can love effectively in the context an ever-changing reality. To do this it is often helpful to consult sacred texts, wise teachings, and authentic sages.

I am not one of these sages. I am a writer, a teacher, and an entertainer. I share what I know is true, what I think is true, and some of the texts, teachings and teachers from which I have learned what I know. I teach only those spiritual practices that I personally practice, and only to the level that I practice. And I try to do all this in a way that is fun, engaging, informative, and, when lucky, illuminating.

And then I go home. I don’t want followers. I don’t want disciples. I don’t want to take responsibility for someone else’s spiritual life. I have enough of a challenge taking responsibility for my own.

So I hope you will continue to buy and read my books, to invite me to visit your communities to teach, and to attend my workshops and retreats, but please do so for the fun of it. If you are looking for enlightenment, you are already lost.

Monday, August 25, 2008

God, My Hero

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.

Five things trouble me about this poll. First, I was not asked to participate. Second, Spiderman was ranked number one. Third, neither of my heroes made the top ten. Fourth, the fact that Batman tied for sixth place with Catwoman. And, fifth, God and Jesus rank 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?

Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, is now a superhero with a very successful comic franchise and Marvel movie in the works. And Jesus and God have both had hit movies in the last few years. But how many people go to the Temple of Thor or worship the God of Thunder any more? Maybe getting your own comic is what happens to Gods when they’re put out to pasture. Is this what is happening to God and Jesus now that they are listed as superheroes?

And it is not just superhero fans who feel that God is somewhat lacking. 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. And the current Saving Grace features Earl, a totally powerless angel who can't even help Grace, who is clearly anorexic and an alcoholic, stop drinking and get herself to a nutritionist. God and Jesus are powerless in these shows. Forget Catwoman, they couldn't even take on a Teletubbie.

Compare these shows to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ghost Whisperer, two long lasting shows of the supernatural that never mention God or Jesus. Of course these shows have a sexual subtext that God and Jesus lack, so maybe we might have to forgo the Virgin Birth for something a little more Zeus-like.

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, Jesus might give at Catwoman a run for her money. Spiderman, however, is probably beyond even God’s reach.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Agony of the Ecstasy or “Except for the Obvious, Mr. Lincoln, How was the Service?”

Matthew Lincoln is a man of faith. One evening last June, Mr. Lincoln attended a prayer service at his church, Lakewind in Knoxville, TN. The visiting preacher, Robert Lavala, was offering private prayers for people in which he touched people’s foreheads thereby initiating the practice of being “slain in the spirit.”

I have seen this many times. People are filled with the Holy Spirit, slip into an ecstatic state, and fall backward to the ground. To keep them from hurting themselves, “catchers” are assigned to help the slain land gracefully.

Chances are Mr. Lincoln has engaged in this kind of behavior before, but this time was to be different. Yes, the pastor was powerful; yes, the spirit came unto Mr. Lincoln; yes, he fell backwards, but no, there was no one there to catch him. Mr. Lincoln fell back hard, and hit his head on the carpeted concrete floor.

This would have been bad enough, but Mr. Lincoln has a pre-existing spinal condition that the fall exacerbated.

Normally one to give generously to his church, Mr. Lincoln and his attorney thought it time for a little pay back. So Mr. Lincoln is suing his church for $2.5 million. The church is liable, his attorney says, because they should have provided catchers for each of the soon to be slain.

Lakewind Church turned as we so often do in times of spiritual crises to their insurance company, which in turn turned as they often do to their lawyers, who as they so often do, turned down Mr. Lincoln’s claim saying he should have noticed that there was no one there to catch him.

There are many challenging issues in this case. For example, it was the Spirit of God that knocked Mr. Lincoln down, so why is suing his church? He should sue God. And why would God slay Mr. Lincoln knowing, as God always does, that there was no one there to catch him, and that the fall would damage him severely and make it impossible for him to care for his disabled daughter as he alleges in his lawsuit against his church? And what is Pastor Lavala’s obligation in all of this? What is his defense, “Pastors don’t slay people, the Holy Spirit does”?

I feel for Mr. Lincoln and worry about his daughter. I also sympathize with Pastor Lavana and Lakewind Church. It seems to me there are no winners here (except of course the lawyers). What is the just thing to do?

Honestly, I have no idea. But I do have a suggestion as to how Mr. Lincoln should invest his money if he wins his case. He should design special clothing for people choosing to be slain in the spirit. It would be like an airbag sown into a shirt, or blouse, or jacket that would deploy when the pastor hits your head (ala, “Oh I could have had a V8”). Not only would this benefit the slain, but it would cut back on the cost of catchers. Everybody wins.

Monday, August 11, 2008

What's Up, Shug? The Dalai Lama vs. Dorje Shugden

Sometimes I find Buddhists, and by Buddhists I mean American Buddhists, and by American Buddhists I mean white American Buddhists, and by white American Buddhists I mean Jews, smug when it comes to the question of God. Having left behind the angry God of the Torah for the god–free psychology of the Buddha, they look down on us theists as throwbacks to more primitive times. So it is refreshing to find out that Buddhism is as mad as any other religion we humans invent. Case in point the Dalai Lama versus Dorje Shugden.

The Dalai Lama, as you probably know, is the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people. The current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva (similar to a saint) who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. I am a fan of the Dalai Lama.

The Dorje Shugden is less well known, and until recently I was largely unaware of him.

There are two views as to whom or what the Dorje Shugden is. One holds that he is a wrathful aspect of Manjushri, a bodhisattva (similar to a Christian saint) of wisdom worshipped as a deity in Tibet. The other holds that he is the angry spirit of a deceased lama. Both views believe that Dorje Shugden is devoted to protecting the Dharma (teachings of the Buddha) and the world. I guess he is angry because both are so threatened.

The current Dalai Lama used to be a fan of Dorje Shugden but changed his mind, now believing Dorje Shugden to be a demonic protector who does not deserve the veneration accorded him. This is not a new battle. The Dalai Lama has taken on Dorje Shugden in at least two other life times (the fifth and thirteenth of this fourteen incarnations). I don’t know what caused the Dalai Lama to take on Dorje Shugden this time around, but I do know it is never a good idea to piss off a god or a demon, especially if they have followers.

Dorje Shugden supporters hound the Dalai Lama and protest at his talks and appearances. They claim that the Dalai Lama is seeking to spiritually cleanse Tibetan Buddhism of Dorje Shugden worship, and is thereby causing millions of Dorje Shugden worshippers needless pain and concern.

The prayer to Dorje Shugden that the Dalai Lama wants to eradicate seems benign enough: “As a devoted practitioner, I request you from my heart to overcome all unfavorable conditions, obstacles, and maras (evils), and increase my life span, merit, resources, good fortune, qualities of scripture and realization, listening, and renown.”

The problem seems to be with Dorje Shugden himself. To the Dalai Lama’s credit, he actually believes that Dorje Shugden worship is demon worship, and wants to end it. To my dismay, the Dalai Lama actually believes in demons. I thought he was all about science and stuff like that. At least that is what his followers, and by his followers I mean his Jewish followers who think they have escaped the irrationality of Judaism by following the Dalai Lama instead, always tell me.

Of course Dorje Shugden isn’t the only angry god on the block. Read the Hebrew Bible; when it comes to wrath Dorje Shugden can’t hold a candle to YHVH. Or read the Christian Book of Revelation where the Prince of Peace is one pissed off deity who makes His Dad look like a wimp.

Anyway, I wish the Dalai Lama well. If he can defeat the angry gods of Buddhism I am going to sponsor a worldwide Jewish tour for His Holiness and see if he can help us out with YHVH as well.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Pot and Potter or Deus ex Ceramica

“Can you have a pot without a potter?” The question seems simple enough, and the man asking the question—some fellow next to whom I was standing in the evolution section of our local Barnes and Noble—seemed quite sincere. So, on the off chance that he really didn’t know the answer, I offered him one: “No,” I said. “You cannot have a pot without a potter.”

I should have known better than to answer. In fact I did, and got just what I expected: a delightful harangue about the heresy of Darwinian evolution. His point was simple: Just as you cannot have a pot without a potter so you cannot have creation without a Creator. Hence Darwin is wrong and Jesus is the only begotten Son of God who died for my sins on the cross and who, if I would only believe in him rather than the Flying Spaghetti Monster would provide me with eternal life in the world to come. (For the curious, belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster only gets you a one time 20% discount at Pasta House.)

It’s a nice argument as such arguments go, but it has a fatal flaw. If you cannot have a thing without its maker, having God only begs the question, Who made God? There is no end to such reductionist logic, and hence the pot—potter argument is both exhausting and useless.

But not wanting to sound snooty (I was wearing an Obama ‘08 button and feared being labeled an elitist), I didn’t offer it. Instead I said, “But of course cannot have a potter without a pot either.” This seemed to catch the man off guard, and I continued:

“Pot and potter define one another. If I told you that I was a potter and you discovered that I had never in my life made a pot, you would rightly think me a liar. A potter without a pot is not a potter, the two go together and are in fact inseparable. Applying this to God, a Creator who never creates is not a Creator. Creation, and by ‘creation’ I mean nature as you and I understand it, is absolutely necessary to Creator. They go together are not really distinguishable. As Spinoza said Deus sive Natura, “God or Nature” it is all the same.”

A word to the wise: When wearing an Obama ’08 button and wishing not to be considered elitist, it is best not to quote Spinoza, and certainly not to quote him in Latin.

The man looked at me, then at my button, and then back at me. Then he said half under his breath, “Go to hail.” For a moment I thought he was turning our attention to the meteorology books next to the evolution books on the science shelf, and I did indeed turn to look to see if there was a book on hail that would be relevant to our conversation. Not finding one I turned back, but he was already gone.

In hindsight I suspect he had said something else, but the fault is all mine nonetheless. I don’t think the man understood my Latin, and my Obama ’08 button is written in Hebrew, so that too was probably undecipherable. Had I only thought to converse with him in Greek, after all that is what he was speaking to me.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Demonization in America

[This is a talk I gave this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Murfreesboro, TN in response to the murder of two people, Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, and the wounding of six others at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville last Sunday.]

We live in frightening times. We live in times when shouting passes for conversation, and reasoned dialogue is too boring to air. We live in times when, in the name of free speech, we allow ourselves to be inundated with hate speech. We live in times when it is not enough to disagree with others, we must demonize them. We live in a demon-haunted time.

Jim David Adkisson, the man who murdered two people and wounded 6 others at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville last Sunday, was slaying demons. He called them liberals, and was fed a never-ending stream of vile lies that told him these demon liberals hate America, hate our soldiers, hate the family, the flag, the fetus, and God. They are out to destroy everything for which America stands. Killing them is a moral imperative.

What Jim Adkisson heard, and what tens of millions of other Americans hear every day is the steady demonization of our fellow Americans. Demonization is the fifth of a five stage conditioning process Dr. Anthony Stahelski of Central Washington University, has identified as the key to turning people into terrorists. The five stages are: depluralization, self-deindividuation, other-deindividuation, dehumanization, and demonization. I believe that our entire culture is in the grip of this process. We are becoming a nation of potential terrorists haunted by demons.

Depluralization removes you from any influences outside your group. What you read, watch on television, listen to on the radio, where you worship have to be all of a piece- each reinforcing the other. It is not that you stop thinking, it’s that you no longer have the capacity to think outside the parameters of the group.

Self-deindividuation strips away your personal identity. What you wear, what you buy, what you eat, drive, drink, think, study, and say is determined by your group. Thinking for yourself becomes impossible, because there is no self left to think at all.

Other-deindividuation strips away the personal identities of people with whom you don’t agree, your so-called “enemies.” They become the mirror opposite of you, thinking, living, and promoting ideas that are not just different, but demonic. They are a threat to everything that is good, decent, and God-fearing. In short, they aren’t us.

Dehumanization explains why your enemies feel so alien: they aren’t really human at all. These subhumans can’t be converted to your ideas; they are incapable of understanding them. And yet they seem to thrive, and to threaten everything you cherish.

Demonization reveals why this is true: the “other” isn’t just subhuman, they are anti-human, they are demons in league with the Devil whose only passion is your destruction. Demonization follows dehumanization the way one end of a Slinky follows the other. Not only are they wrong, they are evil, and evil must be obliterated.

America today is a nation of demons. The “other” is everywhere. It doesn’t matter if we are conservative or liberal, the disease of demonization has infected our body politic and we are rotting from within.

What happened at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church was a symptom of life in demon-haunted America.

This is from a sworn affidavit by one of the police officers who interviewed Adkisson:

“During the interview Adkisson stated that he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets. Adkisson made statements that because he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them into office. Adkisson stated that he had held these beliefs for about the last ten years.”

As any military expert will tell you, it takes time to train a person to kill. Humans are not natural born killers. We cannot just look another human being in the face and pull the trigger. We have to be trained to overcome our compassion and sense of connection with the other, and the easiest way to do that is through dehumanization and demonization.

It took Mr. Adkisson ten years to deny the humanity of his neighbors. How many other Jim Adkissons are there in America?

Hatred has been building in this country for a long time. We are ready to blow.

So what can we do? Not as a nation or a people— those kinds of policy questions are beyond me. What can we do here? What can the Unitarian Fellowship of Murfreesboro do? Three basic choices come to my mind.

First, we can circle the wagons, search people for weapons as they come through our doors, and worry that every new face is potentially that of a terrorist here to do us harm. This might work for a while, but in the end we will stop coming here ourselves.

Second, we can align ourselves more fiercely with liberalism and argue more loudly against the evil right wing pundits, and loud-mouthed media demagogues, as well as your run-of-the-mill gay-bashing, misogynist, racist, and anti-human conservatives. But this only perpetuates the demonization threatening America, and does nothing to end it.

I admit to finding both of these options tempting, but in the end, a third option, the classically liberal option wins out. Instead of closing our doors, we should open them all the wider. Instead of shutting down opinionated speech we should invite our neighbors over for tea and conversation.

Indeed, if we had the money, we should take out a series of full-page ads in the Daily News Journal, one each day for a week, articulating our approach (we have no single opinion) to the most controversial issues of our most uncivil culture war.

When I sat down to prepare this talk I turned first to John Lennon’s song, Imagine. I had thought to build my talk around those lyrics:

Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too
Imagine all the people/Living life in peace

But I didn’t do this. Why, because in the end, John Lennon is wrong. There are things worth dying for. If I am going to die, let me die for something worthwhile.

Let me die because I refuse to demonize African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, women, Muslims, Catholics, or any one else.

Let me die because I insist that the dignity of my gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered brothers and sisters be honored, upheld, and legally enforced.

Let me die because I insist upon reason even when dealing with revelation.

Let me die because I fight and vote to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and resist it being torn to shreds by a government so drunk on fear that it no longer trusts the very values it was entrusted to protect.

Let me die because I dare to love even in the face of white-hot heat.

Let me die because what I stand for is worth dying for.

I’m not saying the victims of Jim David Adkisson are martyrs, though some were certainly heroes. Martyrs die for their faith, these poor people died because of it. They died because Jim Adkisson was infected with the hate that is fast becoming the life-blood of America. Jim Adkisson was as much a victim as those he murdered.

I don’t feel sorry for Jim Adkisson; I feel sorry for America. I can’t forgive Jim David Adkisson; only those he hurt can do that. Nor will I bury my head in the sand and say he is a lonely, troubled, and sick man deserving of pity. He is not. Jim Adkisson is part of the madness that is sweeping our nation. He is not the first to murder the demons he imagines and fears, nor will he be the last. But until you and I act to end the demonization that threatens our country, Jim Adkisson will just be a footnote to the next demonslayer who acts to save America by murdering Americans.