Sunday, September 30, 2012

3 Steps to Balancing Yourself in the Shower

Last week we talked about asking the right kind of questions: "what" and "how". That is, balancing doctrine with creativity, rules with openness, relationship with creativity.

We're all moving forward and religious rituals are holding less and less meaning for us. But a routine can help fill the gap of rituals - centering our day, calming us, and helping us connect ourselves to a bigger context. We want a living, grounded, whole spiritual practice, one that is a positive part of our every day life. And what's more every day than taking a shower? I take a shower in three simple can-do-while-asleep steps (shampoo, conditioner, soap), so let's try a three step, shower based daily meditation.

3 Steps to Balancing Yourself in the Shower

Thats some beautiful shower water.
 1) Where does the water come from? Check out this map to see where the water in your area originates. 65% of it comes from rivers, like the Mississippi River for New Orleans. In NYC, the water is so clean that, since 2007, it hasn't required filtering - it comes from resevoirs upstate, fed by the Catskill Mts. In LA, where people are very aware of their water, showers come from the Colorado River, Owens River, and the Feather River, among several other sources. Those are picturesque images of our relationship with our planet, that we can think of while lathering and rinsing.

2) Who showers? Well, nearly everybody bathes. Water shortage is a critical issue, but if you are reading this, chances are everyone you know strips down and gets wet. Imagine your political opponents using a loofa, or your crush applying acme cream, or a Kardashian peeing. When we bathe our routine connects us to other humans, removing clothing, status, or ideology.

Not a good meditation for some.

3) How many showers? I shower once daily, usually just after waking. I use ingrained routine to finish in fifteen minutes, including a quick shave. Every day I take a shower connects me with every other day I take a shower. I've been busy since the last time my tile floor was cold, but how have I changed? 

This meditation will help you connect yourself to yourself over time, connect yourself to other people you have relationships with, and connect yourself with the larger environmental context. If you take the five minutes to lather, rinse, and repeat every day, you'll have a habit in a few weeks, and every day will be a little more grounded and balanced.

Sunday Prayer

Since we're getting to the meat of Spirituality vs. Religion this week - the use of rules and dogmas - let's start with Karl Rahner.

Not the model for relationship with God.
Rahner's prayer:
Lord, you have abrogated the Old Law,”which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). But you have established rulers in this world, both temporal and spiritual, and sometimes it seems to me that they have diligently set about patching up all the holes that Your Spirit of freedom had torn in the fence of rules and regulations by His liberating Pentecostal storm.
If I look upon the obedience to these laws as a demonstration of homage for Your beloved free Will, which rules over me according to its own good pleasure, then I can truly find you therein. Then my whole being flows toward You, into You, into the broad, free expanse of Your unbounded Being, instead of being cramped within the narrow confines of human orders. You are the God of human laws for me, only when You are the God of my love.
I love the imagery of a liberating, Pentecostal storm

Rahner, on the act of prayer: 

To the question, “Do you pray?” Rahner once replied: “I hope that I pray. You see, whenever I actually notice, in all the big and little moments of my life, how close I am to that unutterable, holy, and loving mystery that we call God, and whenever I place myself there, dealing with this mystery, as it were, in confidence, hope, and love, whenever I accept this mystery, then I pray – and I hope that I do.”

On second thought, I might just cancel the blog and send everyone I know a collection of Rahner.
Have a good week, everyone.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Not "What" You Believe, "Why" and "How" You Love

This past week we've talked about religion by the numbers: How morality is reduced to a textbook, how we treat each other like objects, and how money talks. All these lead to today's topic:
Spirituality Balances What with How and Why

"What do you believe?"

Frankly, this is the only accurate answer.
Have you ever been asked that?  It's a hard question for me. Is my spirituality really a series of assertions?

God - check. Jesus - check. Pope - blank. Charity - check.

No, that doesn't fit at all. I don't believe in God in such a way that I could assert God's existence like a fact, like I was speaking to a census taker. Do you? If I were honest, I'd say that I try to have a relationship with love, in the sense that love can ever be independent of the loving subjects. I believe in a transcendent force of love in the universe? Does that even make sense? Is there a standardized box to check for that?

That's the answer you'd get if you ask "How do you believe?"

Historically, etymologically, the word "Believe" meant "belove". -lieve comes to English from the German word for love, and be- is a verb prefix that intensifies. So believe means something closer to "trust, hold in high esteem, be loyal to, love".

As we have seen before, the scientific revolution changed the way people saw themselves, scientifically and religiously. Suddenly believe comes to mean "think that this is true", with the implication that there is no proof that something is factual. "Belief in God" transforms into "Belief that God Exists".
Purgatory = spiritual DMV

Do you see the difference?  

This language makes us more sensitive to questions of doctrine - heaven/hell checklists - and less open to compassionate, open relationships. We all want more of those loving relationships, and we all could use shorter lines at the DMV. Finding that balance is the difference between healthy, welcoming spiritual communities and judgmental churches.

Next week I want to look at specific ways this seeps into our culture.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Religion is Big Business

pastor Joel Olsteen, at his $10.5 million home.
I recently wrote an article about a sad, sad fact:  
Religious organizations are big business.

How big? Well, in the US religious NGOs are worth $71 Billion in taxes.They received over $100 Billion in charitable giving in 2009. And we all know stories of millionaire pastors, even though the average pastor, priest, or imam makes about $30,000/year.
So it should be no surprise that many religious organizations treat their members like loyal customers, producing literature on how to grow a church by asking members to leave. That's more like American Apparel, not like a spiritual community.

Rent has always been low in the sewer
Let's be perfectly clear: A spiritual community is the people, not the building. On my wall hangs a photograph of a mass for migrant workers, in which all that can be seen by the dim light of a camp lantern is people, a picnic table, and a cheap tablecloth.

Think of the grass dance. It is the first step in a pow wow for Native American tribes. To kick-off a time of spiritual community, dancers prepare the space by literally pressing down the high grass. Take a look below.

If you ever feel like a Consumer at Church, if you feel like a monetary figure, then they're doing it wrong. Sure, organizations need money, political causes are expensive and sometimes church buildings need a new roof, but there is no cost to spirituality.

Since leaving a church in which I was active for a year, the only contact I've had with them is via pledge emails and letters. This week I received a hand-written card on nice stationary. Opening it, I found just another, more sincere call for donations. Not a question, not a pleasant conversation or an invitation to coffee, or even a call to participate or give time. Only an addressed, stamped envelope and a request for funds.

Moving forward, it's too late for many of us to feel like more than a commodity in a religious wal-mart. When we do find friends, communities of people who share ideas, we must be vigilant against the reduction of people to numbers. Remember that it costs nothing to stomp the grass.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Real Housewives is Bullsh**

I experienced two alternatives today.
You know we've been thinking about how we can relate to each other as real, compassionate, whole people, or we can treat each other like nickels that we collect and spend on bus fare.

First, over laundry, I listened to a civil conversation between two men who led organizations that were at odds. On the one hand, Jim Daly, current head of Focus on the Family: a political lobby that, under it's previous founding president James Dobson, was an abrasive, outspoken, intensely divisive Evangelical battalion against marriage equality and abortion. On the other hand, Gabe Lyons leads a seminar series for young people who are abandoning the Evangelical establishment, and who considers FOTF to be emblematic of the problem.

Over their conversation I heard two people who are at odds over a real, divisive issues (the future of Christianity) become friends in a tangible way. Did they change their positions? No, and that wasn't the goal of the conversation. But they came to know each other as people, check each other for pointy tails and horns, and now they can move forward to see about working together to find solutions to the problems that they face together. They learned that they share more in common than they argue about, so a friendship or working relationship would be fruitful.

the most uncomfortable family ever
Then, over dinner, I watched the season finale of Real Housewives of New Jersey. Don't click on that link. It is a reality show about family and friends - mostly the wives and sisters - who fight over nothing, threaten each other, backstab, and speak ill in a context of extreme wealth and luxury. The positive scenes throughout the season just make the inevitable conflict worse because you know that these people are so close, they have so much in common. They have beautiful kids, similar tastes in fashion and food, tons of common (non-show) friends, and a lot of the same family. Half of them even look the same.

But instead of just enjoying their luxurious fashion shows and vacations, instead of celebrating each others' daily successes (like a big business contract) or working together to overcome challenges (like what to do with mom) LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE, they bicker and complain and pull on every cuticle that sticks up until everyone looks pissed and bloody.

That's why they all have crazy-eyes - the whole show is about losing their humanity to be replaced by objects that buy and sell each other escalated by the production team and the fame. They all have the same hair stylist and they get along worse than an LGBT activist and a family values lobbyist. 

It's just entertainment. I get that. But it gives us a vocabulary for being real assholes to each other. In a word, it is a template for being in-human. Because two real people can disagree about big issues over a beer, it's not that hard, there is a language for that.

So please help spread the good news - we aren't nickels to throw into a toll booth. We are people who have a lot in common.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sunday Prayer

Today's prayer is less prayer and more reflection on the emptiness religiosity. I hope it will help us move into the week with a sense of purpose.

Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of "Christian" countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I'm afraid.
Richard Rohr, Breathing Underwater
And I came across this video and have been moved by the contrast between the setting and the content: totally free-form music performed on found objects, set in a classical basilica. It was part of a NYC project to find holiness everywhere. Success?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Buying and Selling Each Other

Last post I used exercise as a metaphor for compassion: that it's easier to do in groups, that it's a habit built over time, and that it's often not very pleasant. Today let's look at that downside. What is the metaphorical equivalent of the person who is deeply unfit?

What causes dramatic, debilitating un-health?

Well, for the billion people worldwide who live in poverty, poverty is the cause. Poverty leads to hazardous jobs, malnourishment, limited access to hygiene and medicine. In the US we are lucky that malnourishment means processed, unbalanced foods, and hazardous jobs means back-breaking labor or mind-bending tedium at sleeping hours.

Another cause is ignorance. Diabetes and obesity plague the US, and they are due to the fact that many of us simply do not know how food interacts with the body.

A third, lucky cause is lack of motivation. Who do you know who started jogging after the first heart attack? How many of us did crunches and pushups on January 2?

This metaphor sucks:  
How does that relate to Compassion? 
It's cheaper, simpler, and easier to treat people like objects than to treat people like people. Treating people like people is like working hard all day, coming home exhausted, and making healthful food for yourself anyway. We should do it, but how quickly do we fall off the horse and buy a $2 bag of grease and carbs and chemicals on the way home? 

So when your network (church) feels like a McDonald's, it's time for a New Year's Resolution to move to a farm.   

Next week let's look at the ways we secretly, mistakenly, accidentally buy and sell each other.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Moral Spaces: Gyms and Churches

Monday I wrote that being "moral" simply means making "virtuous" decisions - decisions that favor long-term goals over short-term goals (assuming our common long term goal of creating loving, compassionate relationships).

Simply make virtuous decisions, I write. Like it's easy.
But it is not easy.

Mine was next to a hamburger place. Not good.
Have you ever had a workout routine? If you're like me, you just started showing up at a gym and lifting weights and doing cardio stuff for a little while regularly through the week.

I went for about 3 weeks. I've been told that this is the cutoff - I am sore, the shiny gym now looks greasy, and I haven't really seen the progress I was looking for. Then, when I slipped and slept late, I couldn't motivate myself back onto the horse. Before long I was deriding exercisers as fit-nuts, beef-heads, and granola-munchers, and I sat on the couch with pride.

I think the same cycle happens when we make bad decisions. We ignore someone in need, or make selfish, callous, or short-sighted goals, and our long term goals turn into sour grapes. Only goody-shoes and hippies do these things, not people with real responsibilities, real jobs, in real life. Has this happened to you? I've used this kind of condescension so many times that I could write this ten different ways. Like when an essay convinces me that I shouldn't donate money because it creates a wellfare state, or when I use insulting, bigoted, or divisive words to seem tougher.

I slip into a rut or self-interest and short-term joys. These get in the way of real, long-term progress towards successes that I really do believe in, in theory.

And there's the rub. If we did everything that we should - in theory  - we would lead amazing lives of peace an compassion. But we aren't such rational animals. Although we might know what good is, and want to do good, and even understand the basic steps to doing good, we very often fail. We are fallible (that's the theology of sin, btw).

We can counteract this with communities, aka peer pressure. Intentional communities are groups of people with a basic common goal, like gym buddies, and like churches. Neighbors push us to do what's right for the group, to follow our stated, long-term goals. These communities can push us to be more "virtuous".

Don't just think of moralistic communities like churches, schools or reading groups. Our public headspace is flavored by a vague moralism, too. But this is evaporating as counter-cultures and alternative groups network worldwide, and grow in strength and confidence. Fifty years ago LGBT rights were extremely underground, opposed by a moralistic master-culture. Today, thanks in part to increased networking, LGBT is a part of our vague national/regional culture.

When I was exercising, I wish I had found some friends and made some commitments. If we were working together I think I would have been more successful in my fitness goals.

Going forward in a world with fewer moralistic intentional communities (aka Churches), look to the peer groups who affect your decisions. How do they affect you? Towards what goals to they push you - obvious and subconscious. When we take a moment to choose our groups, we are setting ourselves up for success.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Unicorns and the Future of Morality

Jesus, that's a lot of stairs.
"The only thing keeping religious people from rape and murder is a magical unicorn. That's what scares atheists."

That's what a friend and I were discussing a few nights ago. And he has a point:  

Is belief in God the only thing keeping Christians from doing immoral things?  How central is divine judgment and afterlife to our morality? If we aren't going to church, who will tell us right and wrong?

Assuming our generation is post-religious, or is relating to religious organizations in a wholly new way, let's ask:

Why haven't we murdered our neighbors?

Because, whether you are a believer or non-believer, a Christian or a post-Christian, a boomer or a millennial, you rely on altruism, compassion, and networks of relationships. Again, this is the basic characteristic and goal of the human species.

Religion is only one source of morality. Our families and community of friends are key sources. But so is mass media, which, while it can be brilliant, is usually commercially-motivated and so rather suspect as a virtuous voice in the moral wilderness.

But the ultimate source of morality can be found by analyzing our lives in terms of our goals.

We all have goals. Maybe our goal is a number with a plus sign for the month. Maybe our goal has a cute name and a birthday, or a piece of fancy paper. Maybe your goal is just to make it to the Fall without melting.

Whatever your goal is, you know what it's like to sacrifice for it. Didn't it feel good to skip the movie so you could reach your money-saving goal? Let's call that Virtue - trading short term goals for long term goals.

And you know the biggest goal - Sharing our life with others in networks of compassion and love.

Like when you take a less sexyfun job so that you can provide for your children. That's trading career goals for the long-term goals of sharing a healthy life with your next generation.

Or when you donate some money or time instead of splurging on high-end cheese. That's trading short-term cheese-based goals with the long term goals of building communities of compassion.

So Virtue doesn't require a judgmental seated deity figure. If you agree with me that Compassion is the point and end of life, we learn to make decisions every day with that goal in mind.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunday Prayer

Last week we have considered the role of compassion in religious experience, which transformed into something like an apology for christian organizations.

But there is no apology. This week we are moving into the topic of why we don't go to church, why the religious organizations are being left behind. 

Hans Kung, the contemporary German theologian/priest (often excommunicated), leads us in prayer:

Living and gracious God, hear our prayer;
our guilt has become great.
Forgive us children of Abraham our wars,
our enmities, our misdeeds toward one another.
Rescue us from all distress and give us peace.
Guardian of our destiny,
bless the leaders and rulers of the nations,
that they may not covet power and glory
but act responsibly
for the welfare and peace of humankind.
Guide our religious communities and those set over them,
that they may not only proclaim the message of peace
but also show it in their lives.
And to all of us, and to those who do not worship among us,
give your grace, mercy, and all good things,
and lead us, God of the living,
on the right way to your eternal glory. 


ps: "Living God" means a god of the future and present, an optimistic, futurist god, not the dusty, nostalgic, ancient god of our ancestors." Let Matt explain:

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Point of Life

Towel Day is May 25
42. No wait... compassion is the point of life.  If your life is to have a point, it will be through your connection with others.

If we have a future, it will be a future together.

There is no future in isolation:
Not for me and you as individual people,
Not for us as groups, organizations and nations
Not for us as living things,
Not for us as members of an environment and context

Isolation is self-delusion, misunderstanding, pride, and fear.
Isolation is stunted growth and blight.

Isolation is pointless because all of our life goals lead through connection. Do you want to run a successful business? You had better learn what customers want, how to work with colleagues and form relationships with other businesses. Do you want to write successful books? You had better understand human emotion and communication. Do you want to be a successful bodybuilder? You had better learn about the physical standards set by other bodybuilders and judges, and you should find a good coach.

And we already know that our survival relies on relationships. We all need the food and shelter provided by others; we form relationships that sustain us and help us grow emotionally; and we all live as part of an environment that we aren't very good relating with (overall).

For me this means giving up on cults of pride and personality, nations, and instead directing our attention to the universal - universal as in cosmic - goal of compassion, relationships of love.That's where my towel is.

We millennials get this, but we don't get the Chrisitanity's century of isolation.  That's why people our age are not attracted by Christian organizations, which insist on judgment and division as prerequisites to relationship.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Three Steps to Compassion

I think that compassion is the point of life.

How can we do it better?  

Being better at compassion - building these relationships - is the key to a successful life by any measure. This last week I've been quoting the christian philosopher/priest Henri Nouwen, who, I think, gives clear,  direct, challenging guidance for compassion. How did Nouwen get good at compassion?  

 First, Henri let go of the mistake of isolation:
"If we cling tightly to our own weaknesses, faults, shortcomings, and our twisted past, to all the events, facts, and situations which we would prefer to cut out of our own history, we are only hiding behind a hedge through which everyone else can see. What we have done is to narrow our world to a small hiding place where we try to conceal ourselves, suspecting rather pitifully that everyone has seen us all along."
Second, Henri stopped comparing himself with others:
"Compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, and destined for the same end."
Third, finally, Henri learned to embrace the faults of others (long, worth reading):
"There is nothing in me that does not belong to them, too. There is nothing in them that does not belong to me, too. In my heart, I know their yearning for love and down to my entrails, I can feel their cruelty. When someone murders, I know that I too could have murdered, and when someone gives birth, I know that I am capable of birth as well. In the depths of my being, I meet my fellow humans with whom I share love and hate, life and death."

Satellites: what miscommunication?
Henri says that everything that happens after - communication, acts of love, breaking organizational barriers of love - comes naturally. Once the spirit of compassion (coughcough Holy Spirit) fills our mind, barriers become challenges that we can feasibly overcome.

With the rise of global communications, we can witness the scope of humanity as a species. Moving forward as our tools and tech continue to improve,  
the challenges to global unity are mindset, not logistics.

We are living in a great time. Take Nouwen's advice and get in the compassion mindset!

Monday, September 10, 2012

How to Act (Be) Compassionate

Do you know the "Loaves and Fishes" story from the Bible? Jesus is a traveling preacher, and a crowd of 5,000 has gathered to hear him. Jesus wants to feed them, but the disciples think that's rather impractical. Then Andrew says...
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”  Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. John 6:9-11
This was the mass reading a few weeks ago, and the teaching afterward really stuck with me (and not because of my name). Think of all the people who had to contribute something for everyone to be fed. Maybe, like the disciples, our talents involve organizing, finding resources, distributing goods. Maybe, like Jesus, we are good leaders and inspiring orators. Maybe, like the boy, we have some insignificant resource to contribute, and instead of casting it aside as worthless, we volunteer our meager resources and someone else makes them great.

The pastor let us think about the ways our careers and work life contributes to our shared goals.
Then he said something surprisingly direct:
Oh, and of course every Christian must feed the poor, literally. Christ is very clear on this point. We have two homeless shelters nearby that need you today. No one should be hungry in a city with Christians.
That simmered in me for a few weeks, then last Thursday we volunteered at Second Harvest. It's a non-religious food bank that serves all south Louisiana. It is the most well-connected, efficient, and effective operation nearby, and I happened to know their head chef. To give you a sense of the scale of the operation, before Isaac he was able to freeze 500 gallons of high-protein chili, made entirely from donated goods and volunteers (by volunteers). He averages about 3,000 meals for kids every week, and the facility distributes about 42,000 pounds of food weekly. These people are serious   rock   stars

Thursday was a special post-Isaac sorting day, since a bunch of stores donated their older stuff (food their insurance would replace anyway). We didn't get to teach or cook, but our meager gifts - three hours, a good back and a basic knowledge of food safety - helped the five in our group process about 4,000 pounds of food, which Chef will use all week.

I could be hanging out here instead!
Compassion lowers me down the hierarchy that I have worked to climb. I am not hungry. My fridge is full. Even my cats eat well. I buy some cheese and alcohol sometimes - luxury goods - and I even eat at restaurants. That's because my family has stable income that is generous enough that we can spend surplus on comfort and entertainment.

We have worked hard and risen a (short) ladder of success to have these things.

Why would I hang out with hungry people and the accessories of hunger, like donated food? Why would we remind ourselves of the things we have worked hard to avoid? Why would I voluntarily experience the downward movement towards poverty when I'm achieving that upward movement towards prosperity?

Because compassion is both the central pillar of human progress and   the fundamental teaching of Jesus. Jesus' humanity is an act of divine compassion. And true compassion is not looking down from a safe, privileged point of view, it is (like Jesus) building a home among hunger and want. 
I'm not there yet. But if  you've ever stopped yourself from doing something insignificant to help feed the hungry, get a shift from Catie:

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sunday Prayer

I recently quoted one of our family favorites, Henri Nouwen. His life and work focused on the meaning of compassion in Christianity - removing the pretension and judgment from his organizations to help them make Christ fully present again. Plus, he's an easy read (and inexpensive)! Here is his prayer:

Dear God,
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.
And what you want to give me is love,
unconditional, everlasting love.

ps: Watch Nouwen's homily. If pastors can be this engaging, this positive and supporting, this loving, they will form communities of love and their organizations will thrive, and the participants in these organizations will also thrive.

Disciplines of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen - 2120 INT from Crystal Cathedral Ministries on Vimeo.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Compassion: The Heart of Christianity

Compassion is the cornerstone of everything Christian. 

Too often we don't think of Christianity that way. Christian organizations foster judgment  that separates good, pious, successful people from immoral, godless people. 

That's not in keeping with the most basic goals of humankind, which is to create loving relationships, networks, and communities. So it's no wonder so many of us don't find a home in Churches!

But don't listen to some TV faux-Christian jerks: Jesus Christ was about compassion, not judgment.

Compassion means recognizing in oneself the potential for the same weaknesses we see in the other; to relate the suffering of the other to one's own potential for suffering. Compassion is to forget our proud success and security, and to visit dark places in ourselves. Compassion is to see the hungry, poor, sick, and know, "I, too, can be hungry. I, too, can be poor. I, too, can be sick. I, too, rely on the help of others."

"Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it."
Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
And that is what Jesus taught, and what Jesus was, because:

Christ is Compassion (Christian means Compassionate)

In the most basic, metaphysical way, Christ (and so "Christianity") is compassion. The name "Christ", Greek Khristós, which is a translation of the Hebrew Māšîaḥ, in English is "Annointed". The title refers to the Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the "messianic" prophesies of the Hebrew bible that would connect the physical, geopolitical reality of the tribes of Israel with their Yahweh.

Likewise, the core of modern Christian philosophy is the concept of transcendence. That is, Jesus the Nazarene was both divine and human, simultaneously. Which is to say that Jesus, God eternal, chose to occupy a distinct, limited time and space, to experience human emotions and shortcomings, and to suffer death. Why would God do such a thing? What does this mean for us, today? 

Well, to me it means that Jesus' entire person is was compassion - experiencing parts of life that we would like to avoid. So not only did Jesus teach about compassion, Jesus' entire mission WAS compassion. So we can boldly say that anything that is not compassionate is not Christian. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Slippery Slope of Religious Logic

marriage equality will lead to bestiality?
Last week I debated the "Slippery Slope" of marriage equality with the Deacon. You're lucky if you're not familiar with this argument. The premise is that any argument about marriage equality that has to do with not legislating morality - free, consenting adults should be able to marry whomever they choose - could also work for polygamy, and maybe even bestiality and pedophilia.

As I type this I can barely stop from punching my own screen.

This sort of thinking has kept religions from social change - and good people from religions - for millennia. This legalist, logical purist righteousness is the shield religious organizations use to prevent change and preserve the structures of injustice from which they benefit.

But the Deacon - who was pushing my buttons for giggles, and isn't actually a homophobe IRL - was persistent. I'm glad he was because it's a common argument in Church groups, and now I have a solid rebuttal that touches some major issues  in modern religious language. In two parts: rebuttal from theology and rebuttal from philosophy

Logic is not a Christian value. Not in the same way that compassion and love are Christian values. But it's the use of Aristotelian logic and reason (via Thomas Aquinas) that keeps Christianity from embracing those Gray Areas. Thomas applied the same type Aristotelian logical thinking that was so helpful in early physics and math (it actually wasn't) to issues of morality, spirituality, and religion.

Thomas is the medieval source of the legalism that plagues Christianity. It is the same legalism that Paul yells at in Galatians, and that Jesus fights in the Gospels (from last Sunday):
And [Jesus] said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.' You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast to the tradition of men." Mark 7:6-8
The "Slippery Slope" fallacy relies on the kind of logical legalism that Jesus and Paul fought against. Christians should be motivated by compassion, not legalism and logic. I think the Gospels make that obvious.

There is another, secular argument against the slippery slope. Context matters, social cues change, and what's right and wrong evolves over time. Hegel might call this the spiral of history. Every year is not like the preceding year: we all change over time, so it is natural that our views evolve. According to this logic, it is perfectly valid to say that a view is "right" this millennium that was "wrong" last millennium. Thus, "right and wrong" are not absolutes built into the machinery of the universe, they are social constructs that evolve with our society.
Today we are not called to judge every conceivable issue, today we are only called to judge the issues that arise today.

I think we've evolved to the moment for marriage equality. I do not think that our path through history will lead us to bestiality, but we have to leave that to our descendents.

Activists, keep raising issues whose time has come!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Original Sin, Tiny, and and the New Millennium

Perfect in Every Way
Baptism, in theory, is about Original Sin. That can of worms is the other reason I love the theology of Baptism - we wrap up all our issues and questions about morality, community, and rituals, insert some cute babies and linen suits and BAM: THEOLOGY HAPPENS.

And it happens to be an area in which our project of re-imagining faith with or without church structures can be particularly fertile.

I didn't get around to talking about Original Sin last week because, frankly, the ceremony has moved away from that kind of language. I read through the prayer book for infant baptism over and again, but I really didn't see the strong language of overcoming sin through cleansing waters or anything like that.

Which was appropriate, since Tiny is perfect in every way, and it's ridiculous to suggest otherwise.

But Baptism is still a major part of the traditional Theology of Sin. The traditional concept (as inherited from Paul through Augustine) is that Adam's sin in Eden is inherited by all people. Only through Baptism and the acceptance of Jesus is that sin forgiven. Thus, traditionally, infant Baptism language has been about asking forgiveness for the infant so that the infant does not go to hell for Adam's sin.

contemporary source
That's ridiculous. But don't throw the baby out with the theology of sin bathwater. This is an area where tons of scholars have been trying to modernize medieval notions. More contemporary sources seek to square a conception of sin with existential angst, the Freudian subconscious, and the context of evil in the world.

Evil is not a medieval notion that we can discard. We do experience hatred and violence and evil today. And its existence continues to make us question our world, even in our new millennium. Evil continues to be a profound truth, even if the notion of babies in hell is no longer credible.
Let's strip that legalism from the idea of sin like we were scraping barnacles off of a boat.  

At it's core, the doctrine of sin is about self-empowering pride that forgets humanity's interdependence and finitude, leading to conflict.

Humans are at once free to set infinite goals of power, wealth, and control, and at the same time trapped in limited bodies, in finite time, and reliant on others in context. The result is anxiety, and temptation towards isolation, estrangement, and self-destructive egotism.

That is the opposite of community building through loving relationships and compassion, which is the goal of  Christianity, and the most profoundly human good.

To reinsert Christian language, "Satan's empty promises" are those of power and control through isolation; God's offer of salvation requires us to reject power and isolation in favor of compassion and community. Baptism allows families to show their mutual dependence, and, by welcoming the infant into the  community, promise that the child will be part of the loving network, too.

I think we can all get behind that message of Baptism. Compassion, networks of loving relationships, are central both to the Christian experience and to the human experience. Moving forward I hope we can remember to keep the baby when we throw out the bathwater.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sunday Prayer

This week's prayer honors Tiny's Baptism last week:

Thanks to Your mercy, O Infinite God, I know something about You not only through concepts and words, but through experience. I have actually known You through living contact; I have met You in joy and suffering. For You are the first and last experience of my life. Yes, really You Yourself, not just a concept of You, not just the name which we ourselves have given to You!

You have descended upon me in water and the Spirit, in my baptism. And then there was no question of my convincing or excogitating anything about You. Then my reason with its extravagant cleverness was still silent. Then, without asking me, You made Yourself my poor heart’s destiny.
Karl Rahner, Encounters with Silence