Friday, August 31, 2012

Baptism Means Introduction (Intro to Baptism)

I'm at the homestead for my nephew's Baptism. This is my favorite ritual/sacrament because it boldly, openly expresses the truth that it represents (and in representing, makes real):

Welcome, Tiny. We are your family. We have your back. 

The Christian ritual elements, like the anointing with oils, submersion under water, and lighting of candles, all take a back seat for me. Yes, the sacrament of Baptism is to introduce the baptized into the religious community. In infant baptism, the parents commit to raising the child as a Christian, rejecting Satan and all his empty promises.

But I think the Christian elements are secondary to the community elements. In our case, the gathered family represented several faiths. And while many of us are Catholic - or catholic enough for the baptism to make spiritual sense - most of us were there to show solidarity with Tiny and his parents. Our family is a community for our newest member. 

The big question is, what will all this mean in his lifetime? If you were baptized, what does your baptism mean for you today? I wonder what Tiny's baptism will mean for him in 2038, when he's my age.

By 2038, I think the way we experience and communicate our faith life will have changed dramatically. I predict that divisions between religious sects will continue to melt away, and people will continue to feel free to shop for whatever communities fill them with the most happiness. As always, I hope that religious organizations will invest in this movement, instead of building thicker walls and spreading divisiveness.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Isaac: A Tale of God's Will

I write from New Orleans, which is today preparing for Hurricane Isaac. We are under a state of emergency, which is a technical term meant to temporarily increase responsiveness by reducing bureaucracy. The state of emergency also encourages schools and businesses to close, which means more people leaving the city and/or physically hunkering down. All this combined with the menacing clouds, heavy rain, and powerful winds give our city a sense of waiting. Like the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac, we are suspiciously glancing up to heaven, asking, "what are you doing with that knife?"

Binding of Isaac
At times of emergency we get a chance to re-evaluate what is most important in our lives. What would you evacuate with? Who would you be checking on?

I am lucky to be in my north-Louisiana Eretz Ha-Avot with my family, who I happened to be visiting. Now, during our state of emergency, I witness my family as a basic tool for preparation, coping, and recovery. In front of me sits the group from whom I learned what community is, the group who continues to be my most essential community.

As we prepare for this emergency together we build communities and strengthen networks.  
Our communities are forged around emergencies. Crisis gives us a reason to lean on each other, share our talents, and forget our differences. How often do temporary, petty squabbles keep us from connecting with our neighbors? Storms can wash those differences away. 

In New Orleans we love loudly and we create these communities easily. We don't have the same hangups about our possessions, since so many of us lost everything. Our things aren't a blockage that prevent us from experiencing healthy human relationships (I like to think).  This is the lesson of the lesson of monastic vows of poverty: if an object that you can buy at a store prevents you from a loving relationship, get rid of it. As Merton writes:
The importance of detachment from things, the importance of poverty, is that we are supposed to be free from things we might prefer to people. You can extend that to any limits you like – wherever things become more important than people we are in trouble.  Thomas Merton in Alaska
Perhaps that is the lesson of the Binding of Isaac story: do not be afraid to give up even what is most valuable to you for the sake of God, who is loving relationships.

(On the other hand, we ask exactly what emergency was present? What about Isaac's relationship with Abraham, or Isaac's own freedom? This story begs for interpretation).

Monday, August 27, 2012

Gray Areas

Why Can't Religion Handle "Gray Areas"

Sometimes issues can be cleanly, absolutely divided into good and bad. Most of us know that those days are very rare. I only hold one absolute premise, that it is good for people to do things together. We can build decisions on that premise using flexible, human judgments, without the use of an abacus.

Thomas and his book
But our religious organizations are more strict, bound together by byzantine logical systems - rules, orders, hierarchies of rights and wrongs. These are thought to be tools that simplify ethical decisions. Aquinas' 13th century Summa Theologiae standardized what a lucky few priests learned in university, and the Council of Trent in the 16th century standardized instruction for all priests (essentially creating seminaries). These two events shaped Christianity from the middle ages until the 20th century.

Aquinas and Trent used strict logical systems (partially inherited from Aristotle). These strict logical systems defined theological study as well as religious practice until WWII, existentialist philosophy, the rise of international travel and public literacy led to Vatican II and the death of 3,000 page moral handbooks. More and more, morality was seen less as a standardized list of "If...Then...", and more as a general guide that left relevant decision making to people in their context.

This is a hard transition. Rule are easy, standard, and clear, from the point of view of the establishment. From the point of view of the participant, rules are cold, relentless, an needlessly complex. It takes a deft pastor to minister to the variety of needs and contexts in the community. Professional ethicists, like those in place at catholic hospitals, have a very rough time witnessing the tragic situations of living, complicated patients while ruling according to rules that are distant and arcane.  

Rules remove compassion, which is the cornerstone of religion, and replace it with systems of control and power. To be compassionate is to give up illusions of control and share in another's suffering - to realize that I, too, can be hungry, thirsty, complicated, abused, powerless. (more on this soon, with Nouwen).

Romans treat rules differently than Americans
Context matters, too. Because of our wildly different approach to civic life, rules that make sense in Rome often seem radical in the US. That's because people in Rome don't stop at traffic lights, but we do. So in Rome people consider rules to be distant ideals that we work to achieve, but often fall short of, while in the US we consider rules to be minimum standards that we must achieve. Even the international Code of Canon Law is applied very differently worldwide, often with lots of room for "gray areas".

I'm not saying that what is considered wrong in the US is not wrong in Rome. I mean that "right" and "wrong" - the moral binary - is not a good measure of our lives together.

A better measure is our Goals. We share our goals. We work together to achieve our goals. Our gray areas disappear into collective progress to our goals.

Consider abortion, for example. One might say that life begins at conception, and any form of abortion after that time is gravely wrong. Ethical guidebooks then give a series of "If...Then...":  If preserving the health of the mother is the primary goal, and abortion is an unintended consequence, it is not gravely wrong. But science contradicts with a number of other gray areas: life does not start like a switch, it develops gradually from non-human parts. Like Theseus' Ship, at no single point can you accurately determine the beginning of human life.

When we consider abortion from the point of view of compassion instead of control, working together towards common goals, we realize that we live in a world of gray areas. We all have complicated circumstances, we all experience suffering, trauma, and regret. We are never living up to our full potential in regards to our shared goals. Instead of offering judgment by memorized medieval morals, we should seek to offer comfort and loving community.

Can religious organizations do that?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Prayer

I've come across some really excellent examples of prayer in my research, and I'd like to introduce them to the blog as a weekly ritual. This week's prayer is from Teilhard de Chardin, circa 1937

Teilhard the Adventurer
For some of your servants, Lord, the World, our New World – the world of nuclei, of atoms and genes – has become a source of constant anxiety: because it seems to us now to so mobile, so irresistible, and so big! The increasing probability (to which we conspire to close our eyes) of other thinking planets in the firmament … the unmistakable rebound of an evolution that has become capable, through planetary effort, of governing its own direction and speed … all this seems frightening to a man who, as he still shrinks from flinging himself into the great ocean of Matter, is afraid that he may see his God burst asunder in the acquisition of a new dimension…

Yet can anything, Lord, in fact do more for my understanding and my soul to make you an object of love, the only object of love, than to see that you – the Centre ever opened into your own deepest core – continue to grow in intensity, that there is an added glow to your luster, at the same pace as you plemorize yourself by gathering together the Universe and subjecting it ever more fully to the heart of your being…?

… Lord of consistence and union, you whose distinguishing mark and essence is the power indefinitely to grow greater, without distortion or loss of continuity, to the measure of the mysterious Matter whose Heart you fill and all whose movements you ultimately control – Lord of my childhood and Lord of my last days – God, complete in relation to yourself and yet, for us, continually being born – God, who, because you offer yourself to our worship as ‘evolver’ and ‘evolving’, are henceforth the only being that can satisfy us – sweep away at last the clouds that still hide you – the clouds of hostile prejudice and those, too, of false creeds.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Heart of Matter

Friday, August 24, 2012

Explaining Convergence

What's In a Worldview? 

My entire perspective on spirituality, meaning, and morals is directly related to my worldview, the story (or model, see last post) I use to describe the world. What is your perspective? What is the glass through which you view the world?

Vonnegut on Story Arc
Like any good story, my worldview has a beginning, a middle, a climax, and an end. The beginning is the Big Bang, the rising action is the development of our galaxies and finally the development of life. The end is total community between all matter, what Christians might call  Kingdom of God. That means the climax is right now, the internet age, our radical connectivity.

My universe story is largely influenced by Teilhard de Chardin. The Jesuit priest/paleontologist formulated a part scientific, part mystic evolutionary model in which all of time and space is moving towards each other converging on what he called the Omega Point. Teilhard observed that all physical matter was connected and naturally formed networks (which turns out to be more true than he knew). Likewise, he observed that people like to network and connect, and that the planet in his time (early 20th century) was getting more connected than it was before. Finally, he knew that Christianity was all about getting closer to God, with Jesus the transcendent as a model.

Teilhard imagined the universe in terms of concentric spheres of interconnection. We know we are connected as a planet in terms of geosphere and atmosphere. We know we are connected as living things in terms of ecosphere. We are also connected as thinking, spiritual things in what Teilhard calls the noosphere.

I think this is the holiest, most helpful model for Christianity - we imagine different planes of existence (heaven and earth, God and world, other and us) and we revere those who connect them (mystics, teachers, saints, prophets). Jesus achieves his saving power by being fully connected to all planes simultaneously. Our goal, then, has always been to follow Jesus as closely as possible to bring about the Kingdom of God, or the perfect community between divine and terrestrial planes.

The more we learn about our world the more I am inclined to trust Teilhard. When viewed in large scale we observe that galaxies form clusters, like nodes in a network. Galaxy superclusters are vast assemblages of thousands of galaxies or more. The voids between filaments can be billions of light years across:

Galaxy clusters in red, voids in blue.
Similarly, the internet can be visualized as a hierarchy of connections tending towards merger, or increased levels of connection: 

visualization of the internet, arranged by connectivity

Vive Omega Point!
This is why I say that promoting connection, community, and love is the essential human goal. From data and experience I think we are moving towards each other on all levels, and I think that is a great thing. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Telling Tales About God

Last weekend I had a great conversation with a stranger who, when I mentioned my blog, immediately started talking about narratives: arranging the world into stories with plots, climaxes, and resolutions.

Narratives, metaphors, and models are huge to me. When I say "re-imagine religion" what I mean is adopt a different religious model, a new narrative interpretation of our stories about God.
Religious language is necessarily metaphorical, and any attempt at literalism is nothing short of idolatry. There is a distance between human words and the human experience of God. Therefore, our scriptures are an incomplete and imperfect manifestation of God’s presence in history. When we choose to explain a spiritual experience, the explanation relies on imagery and metaphor because of the gulf between the possible literal meaning of words and the hugeness of our spiritual experience. 

Take Genesis for example. It would be impossible for 3nd century BCE nomads to literally explain the origins of the universe, so they told stories. Storytelling (narrative fiction) is at the heart of the Genesis account of creation. It was designed as a story for telling long before it was written into static words on a page. It was built to be flexible enough to suit a variety of instructional goals in a variety of settings. It is nonsense to treat the words recorded on a page (after numerous translations) as literal and unchangeable in the 21st century. 

Religious literalism congeals the narrative of God into a theory of God at the cost of religious innovation and creative potential. The cure is to recognize the narrativity of our religious stories. 
yes, we all have a right to tell stories

A model is simply a story that is told with a point. When I write of the history of the evolution of humankind into stronger and stronger communities, and I incorporate the internet into that as our climactic moment, I am spinning facts into a narrative. Then I'm merging that narrative with pre-existing narratives from Christianity into a model to promote community and loving interaction. We have a right to tell stories because that's what we've always done. 

In Our Millennium, Genesis is within reach. For the first time in the history of the earth, we have the knowledge and the language to literally explain the origin of the universe without metaphor or fictional narrative. I barely have the language to express how important that is, how this is the most exciting time that has ever existed for humanity, how we are entering into a wholly new era of human history. However, we continue to take factual data and spin it into metaphors - that is a human way to absorb and interpret data. And we continue to find value in religious stories, even though we can show them to be without any factual content. 

I am excited to turn our breathtaking new data into stories. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

No Goals, No Regrets

Some People Hate Setting Goals. 

I was describing my attempt to re-formulate religion according to participants' goals to a coworker who quickly shot me down by saying, "I don't set goals. I don't like regrets, and no goals means no regrets." I did not manage the conversation very well after that.

I've thought about that statement for a week, and I've finally formulated my response. It's kinda zen, so breathe deeply and hold on.

Even if you know nothing about zen except what you see in this glossy picture, you probably think it's about removing clutter from life. Congratulations- as much as zen can ever be defined, it is certainly about removing clutter from life. Clutter comes in many forms: objects, possessions, obsessions, addictions, mindsets, etc. The regret and guilt that is associated with not achieving a goal is a form of clutter that prevents us from living fully, being happy, and doing the things we want to do.

For example, I set a goal of updating the blog three times every week. I really forced some of the posts, and when I read them they feel uninspired. Eventually I missed a week, and the guilt I felt actually prevented me from writing, and it made me irritable at home. In this case, my goal cluttered my life and blocked me from doing the thing I want to do.

I totally get where my coworker is coming from. As much as I love to outline a monthly agenda, point by point, I admit that goal-setting hasn't always been successful for me. I love to walk aimlessly and appreciate wherever it is I end up. I am well practiced at being happy while washing dishes or commuting to work. And I agree one deeply misunderstands religion when one thinks of it in terms of working towards a set of goals (like the Kingdom of God).

We Just Do It.
But when I say that we use religion to achieve goals, I mean it rather differently. We use religion to achieve goals in the same way we use breathing to live. Religions - that is, rituals, community, and narratives - have evolved with us as essential tools for humans. We have evolved to work together, so sharing, communicating, and connecting are human goals in the same way that we have evolved to breathe oxygen, therefore breathing oxygen is a human goal. 
In the future we can imagine humans breathing more efficiently, using whatever air we have available. We even see humans using technology to breathe better - inhalers, SCUBA, nasal strips, spacewalks. But this goal is not something we can plot out and measure with dates and statistics in the same way I can measure the success of my monthly writing goals. Failing to breathe well or improve our breathing according to plan shouldn't fill us with regret and shame.

Likewise, in the future I imagine humans getting better at building community. We use technologies to communicate better - phones, satellites, airplanes, internet. But this goal of total loving community (aka the Kingdom of God) is not a goal we can plot and measure. Failing to improve a certain percentage this quarter should not lead to shame and regret that will clutter our future. Forgiveness is better than self-flagellation.

In summary, what I'd tell my coworker is that we share these particular goals, and that very fact helps us achieve these particular goals. The only penalty for not achieving them isn't regret or shame, it's another day of life as we know it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

American Science is Sexy Again, thanks to Mohawk Dude

Americans suffer from a scientific split personality. On the one hand, we’re the undisputed world leaders in hard science and technology research and development. On the other hand, common wisdom holds that Americans are way behind the rest of the world in science literacy, and several prominent groups are anti-science.  Maybe the jaw-dropping awesomeness of the curiosity rover can renew interest in science, and help us be a generation that forgets these anti-evolution, anti-climate change, anti-science decades in public policy. 

When I heard about the Curiosity Rover landing (read Luke McKinney’s description) I felt proud of our NASA team. Maybe you feel the same wave of patriotism and achievement. Even though the entire NASA program – from its inception, through the space race, to Curiosity – has cost the same as Pentagon’s 2012 budget , the US non-military science program still inspires the world.

Americans win more Nobel Prizes for sciences than any other nationality, including shared prizes for medicine and physics this past year. We publish more papers than any other country, and 31 of the world’s top 100 science universities are part of our allegedly deteriorating education system. And Yanks are well represented at CERN, which is the future of internationally-sized scientific projects. So you shouldn’t believe the hype – America remains at the front of science and technology.

On the other hand, when surveyed, about 40% of Americans believe that people and dinosaurs coexisted, and just over 50% could tell how often the earth revolved around the sun. What’s more, several US states are passing educational reforms that would limit science instruction, in particular disconnecting math, biology, and hard science. Some reforms have wide effects, like when textbooks nationwide are changed due to legislation in Texas.

And don’t think this is just conservative Christians – non-science affects American opinions from nuclear power to genetic engineered foods to detoxing.

For most, the internet has brought a whole new age of collaboration and scientific progress. But the internet can also help very wrong people get together. Everybody reading this – follow the links, watch some old Carl Sagan or read some accessible books like Bill Bryson’s, and get science literate. Then teach other people, and your kids. First, watch the playlist.

We are in a golden age of science, and it is so cool. Don’t let anyone say different. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why We Don't Go To Church

What's Up:
More than any other group, Millennials (those born after 1982) are not participating in religious organizations: we’re not attending church services and not praying regularly. Does this mean we’re a generation of ruined heathens? No.

By studying statistics and conducting interviews I have found that millennials are goal-oriented – we identify short and long-term goals, then attempt to achieve them. But, for a variety of reasons, Religion doesn’t serve our goals like it did for previous generations. We have been quick to replace it and move on without loss.
The Point:
The goal of this blog has been to re-imagine faith and religious experience in the 21st century, looking forward with the help of statistics, interviews, and current events. I've solidified a few points:

1) Discard the strict hierarchy, insofar as it prevents some from full community.
2) Discard our nostalgia so that we are free to evolve as a group.
3) Discard the judgment that often precedes empathy, comfort, and loving relationships, which are the cornerstones of community.

1) Preserve a sense of ritual, remember to recognize the specialness (sacredness) of particular events in our lives so that we can share that specialness together.
2) Preserve serious study and expertise in theology, including sacred texts. This also means the recognition and promotion of leaders to inspire and guide communities.
3) Preserve prayer, both public and private, because communication is the hallmark of the 21st century, and we can do it together.

I hope you can download my manifesto:
It's called "Why We Don't Go To Church." I have summarized why millennials are not that interested in religious organizations, and what millennials and religious organizations should do about it.

If you like it let me know! I'm producing a book-length version that would include all sorts of fancy statistics and charts, biblical references, and theological citations.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Distraction: Really

Why are we distracted in our lives? 

I'm watching the Olympics on TV as I right this, and Usain Bolt just won a gold medal for sprinting. He's breaking all kinds of records. All week we've enjoyed the sports, the sense of pageantry, the ridiculous levels of nationalism. 

But at this very moment a human-made laboratory is being set up on the planet Mars. With the help of many nations, NASA launched the Curiosity rover on top of a rocket from our rock and hurled it, for over a year, at another rock in space. Once there scientists all over the planet - and gathered audiences in Times Square - will wait to hear how well Curiosity executed its complex landing routine. It takes seven minutes for signals traveling at the speed of light to reach our launch center from Mars, so there will be about seven minutes of dead air while we wait.

And I can't find it on any channel!

We are all badly distracted.

Tonight, the Olympics are a distraction from some very real record-breakers. Things are really being achieved by all nations together that, unlike gymnastics, have a lasting impact to our survival as a species.

The Olympics were designed as a distraction. It provides the fiction of fair play, teamwork, and honest, good-spirited competition in a world that is more often motivated by hostility, fear, and an international military complex that promotes distrust. 

In short, the Olympics channel the heart of sports by distracting us from the real problems of our world. They do that in three big ways:

1) The Olympics make us think that our countries are separated into neat categories. Truth is, we work together and fight against each other with more complexity and vigor than the teams, flags, and anthems suggest. The neat NBC narrative is so much easier to understand than the complexity that is transnational athletics, not to mention all transnational cooperation and competition.
Brian Cox deserves a medal!

2) The Olympics make us think that sports and athletics are more than forms of play and fitness. Moving forward in time, the Curiosity Rover setting up a human presence on Mars is a thousand times more important than pommel horse. None of the CERN scientists are receiving gold medals, bouquets, and major network coverage for discovering the Higgs Boson, an epoch-making achievement that will never be repeated, but Andy Murray is really really the best at hitting a ball across a net (today).

3) The Olympics help us forget our own, personal relationship with death by using images of exceptionally fit persons of every ethnicity and gender. I know that I don't look like Ryan Lochte, but I'm heartened to know that his perfect body exists. The truth is, most of our bodies are in bad disrepair. But even Lochte will die, just like me and you. Today, tomorrow, next year, in several decades - it is an inevitable part of living. No amount of training, swimming, or tight swim trunks can do anything but delay our death.

That's all pretty dark: what should we do? 

For starters, let's be more interested in things that last, like once-in-a-lifetime scientific discoveries and truly international human projects. We all have a stake in our species' survival, every nation together. 

international cooperation at CERN
And instead of focusing on athletic feats in competition, can we focus on feats of compassion, connection, and mutual growth? Is there a better way to make our world better than to inspire individuals to run really quickly, no matter the obstacles? 

Pipe dreams, perhaps, but I think this is our future in the new millennium.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Statistics on Millennials and Religion

Millennials are at the heart of a religious statistics war. Some recent studies have suggested that people born after 1982 are less religious than previous generations, while other sources suggest caution in drawing these conclusions.

I want to give some perspective on those numbers, some perspective on our religious watershed moment, and a look to the future.

The StatsWhat a nice chart
A few studies have wrapped in the last year. Some show that millennials are about 5 percentage points less religious than their Generation X counterparts: We pray and attend church less often, we consider religion less in moral decisions, and we have less overall belief in God or the afterlife.

Religious organizations have also been reporting their stats, and they are down as well. Overall, enrollment and participation are down among Catholics up to 5% and among evangelical denominations up to 10%.
The numbers may be deceiving. Some millennials are just graduating from high school, and traditional wisdom (and statistics) show that people grow more religious as they age. However, that’s not necessarily true anymore: The religious views of Gen X have flatlined for the last 10 years, and millennials are less religious than any other group has ever been at any point in their lives.not statisticly relevant
Further compounding the difficulty of drawing conclusions is the act that religious participation is reported badly. Each religious community – church, parish, region, or denomination – is responsible for its own stats. Often these don’t take into account larger demographic trends, like swapping between denominations or the effect of  international immigration.

Importantly, many millennials call themselves "Nones," or "No Affilliation," 83% of whom believe in a higher power and participate in rituals of various kinds. So, while traditional religious structures could be taking a statistical drop, that doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall belief and behavior patterns of millennials.
So the statistics can seriously lie. Safely said, we millennials are in a unique religious statistical position, but our story is far from over.

The Religions
Did you know U.S. Christians are halfway through a classic religious upheaval? A few historical sociologists have suggested that the level of disillusionment with Christianity is equal or greater to that experienced in the late 1960s, which led to the rise of the Evangelical religious right in the 1980s. For example, Catholics are visibly chafing under political disillusionment and the nun rebukes, and are facing a clergy crisis. The Episcopal Church is also splitting at the seams over homosexuality and modernity. Megachurches are for sale across the country.

It’s not just millennials who are struggling to find a place in religion. My own family, proud Christians all my life, are at the end of their ropes and struggling to find some sort of good relationship within their religious community as it fumbles the ball again and again. It is safe to say that the next 10 years will see major religious changes that will affect everyone, not just millennials.
Looking ForwardNOOOO!
At no point in the last century has the future of organized religion in the U.S. been more uncertain. The role of religious organizations is changing dramatically, and they are no longer serving as the mortar of our communities. Adherents are more interested in inspirational messages, engaging activities, and existential exploration – TED Talks instead of Tent Revivals. Will religions change gears quickly enough? Can they bear the drop in membership that is likely looming?

I think that the development of new systems of belief and belonging is tied to the development of new technologies. Six hundred years ago the printing press spurred an uneasy religions landscape into total upheaval. Since most of us millennials grew up with Hubble images, maybe CERN and the Higgs Boson will be our paradigm changer. Stay tuned at