Monday, June 24, 2013

Holy Rascals Conversation

[This is an edited conversation I had with a friend who prefers to remain anonymous. For more on Holy Rascals, please visit our website:]

How should I refer to you? As His Holy Rascalness Rabbi Rami?

No need. I use the title only when invited to state dinners.

And how often has that happened?

It hasn’t happened yet, but it never hurts to be prepared. I was lecturing in New Delhi with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and I was tempted to have myself introduced in a similar fashion, but then I considered all the bad karma that might accrue and went with Rabbi Rami instead.

Do you believe in karma?

No, but I could be wrong. That’s why I am ready to join every religion just on the off chance that one of them might be true. I doubt they are, but just in case.

Where is the integrity in that?

Integrity? I just want to be on the winning team when the final score is announced. I don’t want to be burning in Hell and have the guy next to me say, “Well at least you have your integrity.” He can have integrity. I want the brass ring.

And the brass ring is?

Heaven, Nirvana, the Pure Land, salvation, reincarnation as a rich guy, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, all the marketing promises religions make to entice me to join and convince me to pay.

But there are so many competing rings, how do you know which ones to pursue?

I pursue the ones that agree with me.

So you are the final arbiter of truth?

Of course; who else could there be? If you believe in “this” and not “that” it is because, for whatever reason “this” makes more sense to you than “that.” There is no way to know you are right, you just follow your gut or conditioning, and then deny you are doing so in order to pretend you are not the final arbiter of truth. But you are. There is no escaping it.

So is there no such think as “truth” with a capitol “T”?

I think there is, but I don’t think it can be put into words and marketed to us as a “this” or “that.” You come to Truth when you free yourself from “this” and “that.” And once you’re free from “this” and “that” you’re free to play with “this” and “that” for the sheer joy of playing.

This interview is already veering into rascality. Where did the term Holy Rascal come from?

The phrase came from Sister Jose Hobday, a Native American healer and Catholic nun. After listening to a talk I gave at the Aspen Chapel in Aspen, CO, Sister Jose called out, “He’s a holy rascal!” It stuck.

Do you know what she meant by it?

I suspect she meant that Holy Rascals use the language of the holy—religious language, spiritual language—to unmask the absurdities of religion and spirituality. Holy Rascals aren’t against religion, we only want people to see religion for what it is: a cultural construct that can be a powerful vehicle for meaning making and consciousness expansion, rather than as what religions claim to be: absolute truths.

What does it mean that religions are cultural constructs?

All religions are human narratives carrying the memes and metaphors we use to create meaning for ourselves. We are meaning making animals: we are the way nature makes meaning just as bees are the way nature pollinates flowers. Religion is a primary vehicle for creating, preserving, and perpetuating meaning.

Is nature fundamentally meaningless?

Nature evolves, and because it evolves, nature isn’t fundamentally anything. Nature isn’t a thing but a process that, over time, surprises itself with innovations and mutations, some good some bad. Just as nature becomes conscious by evolving conscious beings, so nature becomes meaningful by evolving meaning–making beings.

Can we create new meanings by creating new stories, new religions? Who would allow us to do that?

No one allows us to do this; it is just what we do.

Why would we do it?

When old stories no longer carry meaning, the need for new meanings arises, and with it come Holy Rascals who meet that need by telling new stories with new characters, or telling new stories about old characters.

So Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha are all fictitious characters?

Fictitious? Not necessarily. Fictional? Almost certainly. For example, I have no doubt that Jesus was an historical figure, but the Jesus that matters is the Jesus we know from Saint Paul and the authors of Gospels both canonical and gnostic, and that Jesus is the creation of these writers. The historical Jesus is not nearly as important as the narrative Jesus. The books that convey the stories and teachings of great spiritual saints and sages are not history books, but storybooks. Does it really matter whether or not the Buddha preached the sutras attributed to him? Not at all: it is the teachings that matter, not their historicity.

As creators of stories, Holy Rascals are also the exposers of stories?

Holy Rascals are spiritual culture jammers who use humor, play, creativity, and critical thinking to reveal the human origins of religions and how religions mask their true origins behind the conceit of divine origins. Our “patron saints” are Mullah Nasrudin, the 13th century Sufi teacher who used humor to free people from irrational thinking, and Dorothy’s dog Toto who pulled the curtain back on the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz to reveal a small man with a large megaphone.

In freeing people from irrational thinking you…

Free them for reality.

In pulling back the curtain, you…

Reveal religious authorities for what they are: men and women with megaphones. Again, religion is a human construct for the creation, preservation, and perpetuation of meaning and meaning making that is all too often corrupted into a fear–based system of control promoting enmity between people, and the economic and political elevation of a privileged religious class.

I think a Holy Rascal is someone who reveals that the Emperor has no clothes.

Without clothes, the Emperor is no longer an emperor. The clothes are the stories the Emperor tells in order to justify being Emperor. This only works if the Emperor can convince us that these stories are really histories. Holy Rascals delight in proving the opposite. A Holy Rascal teaches us how to examine our narratives, how to see the constructed nature of the holy and the sacred, and how to use reason, intuition, imagination, and contemplation to free ourselves from narratives that no longer serve our quest for universal justice, compassion, and meaning, and to shape new stories that will.

Once you reveal religion as story, doesn’t religion disappear?

Not at all. Religions are like any other product. They make claims that promote their brand over and against competing brands. The cool thing about the Jewish brand is that the Jews are God’s Chosen People. The cool thing about the Southern Baptist brand is that it has a monopoly on salvation. If you want to be Chosen, buy Jewish. If you want to be saved, buy Baptist. Every clergy person is marketing her preferred brand. This is why a Methodist can no more discover Krishna is Christ than the marketers of Coke can discover that Pepsi is “the real thing.”

For the record, and just in case a Coca-Cola executive is reading this and wants to send me a case of Diet Coke, I prefer Coke to Pepsi, though I can’t exactly tell you why. Knowing that Coke spins a story to get me to drink Coke doesn’t make me like it any less. But is does keep me from committing jihad against Pepsi drinkers, or damning them to hell for all eternity.

Clergy as “Mad Men.” Do we really need them?

Sure. Clergy are like Dungeon Masters in the Dungeon and Dragons role playing game. If you want to play the game you need a Dungeon Master to weave the story. If you want to play Catholic Mass, for example, your need Catholic priests to turn wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ. No one else can do that. So Catholic priests are essential to the Catholic game. The same is true of other clergy in the context of their respective games.

Calling religion a game seems demeaning.

I don’t think so. All life is a game or a complex of games. The issue isn’t game or no game, but what kind of game you are playing.

There are two kinds of games: finite zero–sum games and infinite nonzero games. The goal of finite zero–sum games is to win at the expense of the other. Tennis, for example, is a zero–sum finite game. The goal is to end the game with you or your team as the winner and your competition as the looser.

The goal of infinite nonzero games is to keep the game going. Playing rather than winning is the point. And nobody can win unless everybody wins. Friendship is an example of a infinite game. The goal of frienship is to keep the friendship going not to end the friendship with one friend winning at the expense of the other.

Religion can be played as a finite or infinite game. When played as a finite game, religion is all about winning and losing, retributive justice, and the in–group triumphing over the out–group if not in this life than at least in the after–life. When played as an infinite game, religion is all about compassion, distributive justice, and seeing to the thriving of all as key to the thriving of any. We humans cannot help but play games. The question is what kinds of games will we play? Holy rascals promote infinite nonzero games.

Of course millions of believers like to play finite, hate–filled games.

No, I don’t believe that. Millions of believers participate in hate–filled, fear–driven, finite zero–sum games, but they don’t know they are playing a game. They’ve been convinced that their story is history, that Coke is true and Pepsi is false—and worse the beverage of the Devil. Once they are helped to see that this is all a game, and a hurtful one at that, they will stop playing. People don’t want to hate, they are simply coerced into believing in a god who wants them to hate.
Do you ever envision the end of religion?

No. People are inherently religious, and religion won’t disappear. Holy Rascals aren’t working to end religion; we are working to shift religion from zero–sum to nonzero, from the finite to the infinite game, from fear to love, and injustice to justice.

What do you envision?

I can’t predict the future, but what I see happening in the present is the emergence of a new seeker class: spiritually independent people willing to cross the boundaries of religious brands in search of narratives that give their lives meaning, and practices that bring those narratives and their meanings alive in their lives.

And where are Holy Rascals among these spiritually independent seekers?

We are behind them pushing; we are ahead of them pulling; we are on the sidelines cheering, and we are among them struggling.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Here We Go Again

Islam is in the middle of a war between Sunni and Shia Muslims; its own version of the Thirty Years' War between Catholics and Protestants in Europe (1618-1648). Only this war will be far longer than thirty years. There was no United States in the 17th century, so we don't know for certain whether or not the US would side with the Protestants, though I imagine we would. But when it comes to the Islamic version of this war, we can proudly say that we are not taking sides, and in fact support both sides.

When we went to war in Iraq we took out the Sunnis and supported the Shia. Now as we start a short march to war in Syria we will take out the Shia in support of the Sunnis. In other words we helped Iran in Iraq and nowAl Qaeda in Syria.

The US aligning with Al Qaeda? You can't make up this stuff.

I know the president says we are only arming rebels we like, but if you think the weapons we are about to send to Syrian rebels will only fall into the hands of New Republic subscribers, you have another think coming.

We are going to war with Hezbollah backed by Iran and Russia. Which means we are siding with Al Qaeda and other Sunni fanatics and the Muslim Brotherhood. More accurately, we are entering into a proxy war with Iran and Russia. This is huge. We are moving into Armageddon country.

This is what End Times believers have warned us about for decades. John Hagee told us the day is coming when Iran and Russia will descend on Israel and seek her complete annihilation. Well, that time is almost upon us. This war in Syria is a not a war but a front in a war that will engulf the entire Arab world. Egypt is already ramping up its rhetoric against Syria which is just another way of saying the Muslim Brotherhood is ramping up for war with Hezbollah which is another way of saying that the war between Sunnis and Shia is escalating wildly.

And who is going to reap the unintended consequences of all of this? Israel.

I don't have a foreign policy suggestion for the President regarding Syria. But I would suggest the following points to the President, to Jews (both American and Israeli), and to the American people as a whole:

To the President I suggest that 1) For every dollar we spend on arming both sides of the Muslim civil war (and we are doing that), he would urge the President to get Congress to spend 100 times that on helping Israel prepare for the jihad that is coming regardless who wins in Syria, and 2) I would ask that the President to push to reinstitute a universal draft as soon as possible: The only thing that will stop the US from going to war in Syria (against Iran, Russia, and Shia Islam) is to make sure that the children of the 1% are as vulnerable to dying there as the children of the 99%.

To Jews I would suggest 1) that we use our lobby efforts to support the two proposals just mentioned, and our communication skills to begin an all out propaganda campaign to convince Americans that having their sons and daughters die defending Israel is a worthy cause, and that all out war with Russia and Iran to save the Jews is somehow in America's best interest. I worry that for all our talk of loving Israel, few Americans are willing to die for her. And 2) that we send our children to train in the Israeli defense force so that they are ready to fight and die for the country we endlessly claim in our homeland.

3. To the American people I suggest that, give the failure to implement my previous suggestions, we all become Southern Baptists and pray that the Rapture will take us into heaven before Iran, Syria, and Russia erase Israel and then America from the face of the earth.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Religion This Week

I’m sitting in LAX reading the NYTimes. On page A8 there is a snap shot of religion at its worst:

Item A: Salvador Court Denies Abortion to Ailing Woman. A woman with lupus is pregnant and her doctor tells her that carrying the baby to term may well kill her. The court denied her an abortion saying that the life of the mother cannot trump the life of the unborn baby. But wait, there’s more. The mother has another young child to care for at home, so her death will impact not only her unborn baby who will born without a living mother and her already born child who will be left motherless. But wait, there’s more. The unborn baby is missing most of its brain and will not survive once born. So the mother’s life is forfeit for a baby whose life is also forfeit. Is this really a moral dilemma? Is a grown woman equal to a brain dead fetus? Somebody’s God thinks so.

Item B: Israel is moving ahead with plan to draft Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews. The fact that Haredi Jews feel they have no obligation to defend their country while their country is obligated to take care of them, and their non-Haredi cousins are obligated to die to protect them is mindless. Read your Torah, people: God is always ordering the faithful into battle, and while there are exemptions, being religious isn’t one of them.

Item C: The Parliament of Papua New Guinea has just repealed that country’s Sorcery Act that made killing witches ubiquitous and legal. The new law will make the killing of witches a capital offense punishable by death. Will this law stop the murder of witches? Of course not. Why not, because witches are convenient. When we want to eliminate someone all we have to do is claim she is a witch and kill her. It isn’t that people will believe in anything, but that people will believe in anything that allows them to do what they want to do. But at least the government is trying to free itself from its religious fanatics.

Add to these items the never ending slaughter of Muslims by other Muslims, and we have to wonder if religion has anything of value to offer. Sure not all religions do evil today, but this is only because they don’t have the power to do so.

If we wait for people to grow beyond religion, nothing will change. If we work to strip religion of power, we have taken a big step toward positive change.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Droning on About the NSA

Here’s why one fellow in my town is against the NSA’s massive surveillance efforts: it's an act against God.

“Listen, God is the only one with the right to know what you’re thinking and saying. God, not the government. That giant NSA surveillance facility they’re building in Utah is a huge Temple of Satan. America is God’s nation, but as we give up our guns and surrender to the gays and the government we are giving ourselves over to Satan.”

I’m not sure about the guns and gays thing, but amen to the rest. You don’t have to be paranoid to worry that the PRISM program is bad for democracy. Sure, Google and Facebook collect more data on me than the NSA, but they want to use that to make money. I can live with that. Go ahead, Google, sell my info to Jockey and let them try and sell me more underwear. I can take it.

But the government doesn’t want my data for money, they want it for power. At some point I will have enough underwear. At no point does the government have enough power.

I agree with Sir Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Again, that last part may be too much, but the temptation to use the info it has will corrupt the NSA and any president who has access to it. Good men and women will go bad if they can convince themselves that going bad is really going good. And they always convince themselves of this.

If Google wants to send an ad to my phone, fine. But the government is going to send a drone to my doorstep—not so fine.

I don’t believe in Satan, but I do believe in the satanic. No, not that ship that sank with Leonardo DiCaprio on it. I’m talking about the capacity of good people to make bad decisions in the name of good ends. This may have nothing to do with Satan, but it will plunge us all into hell. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Apocalypse Now

 I just celebrated my 32nd year as a rabbi.

When I entered rabbinical school I thought Judaism was in need of a major overhaul. Sadly, the very issues I thought were destroying Judaism then are the very issues newly ordained rabbis are worrying about today: lack of relevancy, outmoded theology, illiteracy among Jewish adults…. Nothing has changed.

Of course this is a general Boomer refrain. We protested Vietnam and did nothing to stop the American Empire. We marched against the military–industrial complex only to add media and finance to it. We sang for peace and paid for war after war after war. We ended the draft and created a warrior class of the poor. We invented Earth Day and poisoned the planet beyond repair. We celebrated a post–capitalist society and created banks too big to fail and bankers too powerful to jail. So maybe this is our problem and the kids will do better.

Maybe. But I doubt it. It is too late for reform, and we are too comfortable for revolution. Only apocalypse can save us now.

Religion and Power

It seems to me that almost every time the expanding tragedy of Syria is discussed on NPR commentators rush to deny that religion has anything to do with it. “This isn’t about religion,” they say, “it’s about power.”

This is stupid: Religion and power are inseparable. Look at fundamentalist Jews in Israel and New York State; look at Hindu Nationalists in India, look at Buddhists in Myanmar, look at Sha’i Islam in Iran and Hezbollah, and Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia and Al-Queda, look at the Christian Seven Mountains movement and the Religious Right in the United States. Of course there are religions that lack power and therefore pretend that religion isn’t about power, but give them some power and they will change their tune in a heartbeat.

Not so, I’m told: People just use religious language to stoke the fires of hatred but religion itself is peaceful. 

Nonsense. The fact that religious language is useful to foment hatred suggests that religion is not an antidote to hatred but a catalyst for it. When, for example, the leader of Hezbollah declared last week that Sunni Moslems are Takfiris (apostates), and Hezbollah fighters have a religious obligation to fight them, and those who die doing so will go to heaven, he is using religious language to make it easier for Shi’a Moslems to kill Sunni Moslems in quest of power. This only works if Islam is already inclined in that direction.*

I’m not opposed to religion, but neither am I na├»ve regarding it. If we are to create religions of peace we must put an end to politically correct talk about religions of war.

*I am using this as an example only. I am not saying Islam is more warlike that any other religion.