Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ending Violence in our Religions

In the Focus section of today's Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro's newspaper of record) Jerry Leith wrote a letter calling me out by name, and challenging me to stand up against religiously sanctioned violence, murder, and persecution. Amen, Brother Leith! Jerry and I had a brief email exchange, and I would like to accept and expand his challenge in the following ways. Since I have no idea what will happen to this idea, I thought I would share it all with you. If anyone wants to borrow it for their own communities, please feel free to do so. 
I don't have permission to reprint Mr. Leith's letter, but you can find it on line at
After reading Jerry's letter I suggested we expand the issue this way:
First, the examples offered in Mr. Leith are limited to Islam, but all religions have violent elements and extremists who exploit them. I suggest our call for nonviolence be expanded to clergy and laity of all faiths.
Second, he focuses on Imam Bahloul, Rev. Watson, and myself; I suggest we broaden the call to include all clergy in Rutherford County.
Third, he focuses on this-worldly violence alone, and I think it is important to do away with violence in the after-life as well. Believing that God will damn and torture nonbelievers or differently believing believers in the next life makes it easier for lovers of this God to persecute, torture, and murder them in this life.
Mr. Leith generously offered to pay 50% of the cost of an ad in the DNJ. I will pick up the other 50%. Here is the text I propose we run:
“We, the undersigned clergy of Rutherford County, agree to immediately cease all expressions of violence in our religious organizations, theologies, liturgies, sacred texts, and sermons; and urge clergy and laity of all faiths to disassociate themselves from of any organization, religious or secular, that promotes violence in the name of God or as the will of God in this world or the next.”
If this is the ad Mr. Leith has in mind, I am grateful to him and his generosity, and honored to be the first to sign it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nailed It

Controversial filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici claims to have discovered two of the nails used in the crucifixion of Jesus. This is no small matter.

If the nails are those of Jesus, they must contain the blood of Christ. We can test this blood for DNA. If it contains only female chromosomes, as the blood of a baby born of a Virgin must, we will have incontrovertible proof that these nails pierced the body of Jesus. But wait; there’s more.

If this blood is the blood of Christ could we clone Jesus anew? Scientists in Britian have cloned mice from fully developed blood cells. Could we not clone the Lamb? Could the Second Coming be a cloning of Christ?

While you may be disappointed that the Rapture did not happen today as predicted (I am), and that the world didn’t come to an end today as predicted (I am), it could still be an amazing day if today is the day we begin the cloning of Jesus.

I can only say, “Ecce Homo,” Simcha Jacobovici, “Ecce Homo!”

What I Believe

Every once in a while it is good to sit down and clarify what you believe. I did this recently and came up with the following:

1. Everything is a manifestation of the one thing I call God.

2. God is not good; good and bad are human categories about which God cares not one bit.

3. Life is not controllable, but you can learn to navigate it, and do some good in the process.

4. Prayer cannot change God's mind, but it might change your attitude.

5. Religion is a human invention designed to give us the illusion of control from which we can then create a sense of meaning without admitting we are creating it. In truth, we have no control, we invent what meaning there is.

6. Sacred texts always reflect the bias of their intended audience. Don’t be surprised that the Torah’s Jews are God’s Chosen; that the Gospels make Jesus the Christ; that the Bhagavad Gita sees Krishna as God; that the Qur’an holds Mohammad as the final Prophet; or that the Harry Potter series makes Harry rather than Hermione the hero. 

7. Priests, rabbis, pastors, imams, swamis, lamas, and gurus sometimes have your best interest in mind, and always have their best interests at heart. Learn from them, but never turn your life over to them.

8. At its best religion is about personal freedom, social justice, compassion for all living things, and realizing your connection with God. At its worst it is about power and control. Religion is rarely at its best.

9. Human beings can learn to see through propaganda—religious, political, commercial, etc.—overcome its divisiveness, create loving communities, and glimpse the truth through science, art, music, literature, and spiritual practice. We just don't want to.

10. Spiritual practice cuts through self and selfishness, reduces conflict, increases compassion, and reveals the nonduality of God in, with, and as all reality. 

Now it's your turn.....

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Of Gods and Turtles: an Unpublished Interview

I’ve been giving a few interviews lately. This one, I am told, will not be published, so I am publishing it. I am keeping the interviewer’s name out of it as per his request.

Rumor is that you find Judaism too narrow for your tastes, and too small to hold your spiritual experiences. When did you stop being a Jew?
A Jew can’t stop being a Jew any more than a Chinese person can stop being Chinese or a Navaho stop being Navaho. I was born Jewish and I will die Jewish, and I am quite proud of being a Jew. As for Judaism being too small, all religions are too small.

What do you like best about Judaism?
Its pedagogy. Jews are doubters, arguers. We prefer questions to answers, and as soon as we have answers we think it best to question them. We deliberately misread our texts and in so doing reinvent them.

We don’t believe in fixed meanings. Meaning comes from the interaction of story and reader/listener/interpreter—the three are really one.  We have this wonderful phrase, Elu v’elu d’vrei Elohim Chayyim. Roughly translated it means: All opinions, no matter how mutually exclusive, are the words of the Living God if their intent is to search out the truth. I don’t know any other culture that values argument and doubt the way we Jews do. That alone makes me want to be a Jew.

What do you like least about Judaism?

Do you worry about the future of Jews and Judaism?
Worry? No. Worry doesn’t do anything. But I am concerned that Jewish education has shifted to the western model of seeking answers rather than the Jewish model of learning how to sharpen one’s questions. We need an old/new kind of Jewish academy that focuses on questions and hones one’s creative, imaginal, and critical thinking skills. What we’ve got are Jewish schools that teach you the rules of Jewish life rather than how to cultivate the genius of the Jewish mind.

I’ve heard you say you are not only Jewish.
Yes. While I am tribally and culturally Jewish, and Judaism is my primary source of spiritual nourishment and expression, I draw from the wisdom and practices of many religions, especially Vendanta Hinduism and Zen Buddhism.

And you find the same capital “T” Truth is all of these?
No. I find useful insights into how to best live my life, and powerful practices that open me to realities beyond those my normal waking mind can fathom, but Truth with a capital “T” is something else. No system can articulate Truth. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the Truth than can be named ain’t the Real Truth.

Most of your time is spent writing. If the Truth can’t be named, what is the point of writing?
I write because I have no choice. When I don’t write I feel ill.  But I never write to articulate the Truth, only to share my opinions.

What do you feel is the future of the book?
I think digital books will dominate the market sooner rather than later. I’m not one to make a fetish out of paper, though I do own hardcover copies of those books that have defined my life.

Such as?
The writings of Camus, Borges, and Edmund Jabes, Kafka, Nachman of Breslov, Martin Buber, Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, Ramana Maharshi, and Ramakrishna.

You also teach writing and religion. What have you learned from your experiences in these fields?
First, most people can’t write. Second, most people don’t read, which may be why most people can’t write. Third, most people studying the religions of the world are careful to defend their own against any intrusion from the outside. Fourth, some people are curious enough and courageous enough to let their defenses down and actually be touched and perhaps transformed by other religions. These are the people I love to talk with, teach, and learn from.

You work extensively in the field of interfaith. Do you find the same thing to be true there as in the classroom?
Yes. Most so–called interfaith dialogue is really interfaith monologue. True dialogue is unscripted, leaving the partners open to surprise and transformation. Few people are ever changed in what passes for interfaith dialogue today. They are too busy defending their truth to be open to challenging it, let alone changing it.

What about your experiences of the Divine Mother? You have written about this, so it is no secret that you think God is a woman.
God isn’t a woman or man. God is Reality. In Hinduism we speak of God with Attributes and God without Attributes. When I experience God with Attributes my experience is clearly feminine, relational, the voice I hear is that of the Divine Mother. But this is not to say God is a woman. God without Attributes, the most pure manifestation of God is ungendered. It is pure being, pure consciousness, pure bliss.

And you have experienced both?
No. When I experience God, I experience the Divine Mother. The pure Godhead is not experienced for there is no “I” to experience and no “other” to be experienced. All there is, I suspect, is the pure I Am of God, Reality in and of itself.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of humanity?
Both. If people change—if we learn to overcome our intrinsic ignorance, arrogance, greed, fear and violence—I am optimistic. If we don’t, I am pessimistic. While we are good at improving the longevity of our lives, we suck an improving the quality of our living. While we get better and better at distracting ourselves; we suck at improving ourselves.

What about global warming? Do you think we will reverse this trend?
No. It’s too late for that. And, besides, I like my air-conditioning and central heating too much to give them up, and I imagine that when one billion Chinese have these luxuries as well they won’t want to give them up either. The question isn’t can we stop global climate change, but can we adapt to it and survive it? I don’t know the answer to that, but I suggest that millions of us will die while millions also survive.

You don’t think we will switch to alternative sources of energy?
Probably not in time to save our civilization. There comes a moment in the life of every empire when they have to choose to embrace the future or cling to the past. Usually they cling to the past. And when they do they begin a long slow and often bloody decline. The American moment is now. We can choose a green future and reinvent our civilization, or we can cling to our addiction to dead dinosaurs and follow them into extinction. Right now dinosaurs are winning.

So you don’t think we can turn things around?
You know the phrase, “come hell or high water?” Well, they’re both coming, and soon.

So how does that impact your work as a spiritual leader?
I’m a teacher not a leader. I don’t like following others, and I certainly don’t like others following me. But to answer your question, my concern is with cultivating compassion and loving-kindness. No one will survive what is coming alone. If we close our hearts out of fear, we will maximize the horror of what is coming, and those who do survive it will be the most heartless of all. But if we learn to open our hearts and work together in love more will survive, and do so with heart and soul intact.

Don’t you think God will intervene? Have you no hope?
Counting on God hasn’t really worked out so well for us Jews, so I don’t do that. But what I said doesn’t preclude hope. I have no hope that we will avoid the hell and high water that is coming with climate change. I have no hope that we will create a just and equitable society in place of the plutocracy we have now, but I do have hope that we can live our dying with love and compassion.

Last chance. Is there no way we can save ourselves at all?
All right, you want hope here’s hope. I have hope in Yertle the Turtle.

Yertle the Turtle? Like the Dr. Seuss book?
Exactly. Though not in Yertle himself, for he was the king. My hope is in Mack the lowest of things. Dr. Seuss’ story is about a society where the top turtle, Yertle, rests on the backs of all the lesser turtles beneath. Mack, the lowest turtle, complains about this injustice and is told to keep still. Mack burps and topples the entire system. I have hope that some Mack will burp and the whole system will crash.

This sounds like the Tea Party.
Not at all. Tea Party turtles worship the giant tortoise on the top. They worship the system that keeps them on the bottom even as it promises them a turn at the top. Tea Party turtles never burp. The true Macks are those who realize that the entire system is sick, and that maintaining it is wrong. They are mad as hell and just won’t take it any more. Tea Party turtles are mad as hell and just keep taking it. The faux Macks will stay where they are and allow the system to continue to exploit them. The real Macks will burp, and having burped walk away. It’s like a reverse Atas Shrugged.

Ayn Rand’s novel?
Right. In the novel the creators at the top shrug off the world of the takers at the bottom. In the Yertle version the takers are at the top: the wealthy and powerful, the greedy security-military-government-industrial-financial-media complex whose only concern is with maintaining their own power, and who add nothing of real value to human civilization. In the Rand novel the average person cannot live without the genius of the superior folks. In the Yertle version the powerful cannot live without the Macks lower down. When we Macks at last know our true worth we will burp. And when we do—watch out!