Search This Blog

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Advantages of a Non-theistic Perspective

After a particularly absurd Facebook exchange last week regarding the current escalation of violence in the Middle East, I have come to the conclusion that one of the biggest weaknesses of any theistic religion (by which I mean any religion that posits an "embodied" God with whom one has a "personal" relationship) is, in fact, the very God they posit.

I don't believe that people of average intellectual functioning are able to do a very good job of distinguishing between how they interact with their human friends and their friends' needs and the profound lack of needs that any Divine being would have - especially when we factor in the absurd notion of a "personal relationship" with God. Again, to the average person it becomes difficult to distinguish between the relationship they have with their friends and the kind of relationship - if any - possible with a transcendent being. Try as you might to have God over for Cheerios and coffee in the morning, it isn't going to happen. Try as you might to invite God out for a beer after work on Friday, God isn't going to show up. In fact, it is absolutely impossible - and least in the way most people understand what a personal relationship is - to have a personal relationship with a non-human being. It doesn't matter how many times Jesus made it abundantly clear that God doesn't have a body and is in fact Spirit (cf. JN 10), people hear their pastor carry on about a "personal relationship with Jesus" and immediately they plan a party on Saturday night - a classic example of a concept meant to make people better understand Divinity in fact backfiring and leading to all kinds of deluded thought an action. You see, people feel compelled to defend their friends from attack and so they "defend" God from "attack" by those who understand God differently than they do - but what kind of a God could possibly need defending without ceasing to be God?

To me, one of the most appealing aspects of Buddhism is a complete lack of eschatology - talk about "the end times" - largely because to Buddhism the Universe never was born and will never die, it will just manifest differently as causes and conditions change. No Buddhist who understood the perspective of Buddhism could ever justify firing rockets on the Palestine to defend their homeland because (1) Buddhists recognize the interconnectedness of everything and everybody and so understand that to attack another is in fact to attack oneself, and (2) they also recognize that nations and their borders are human constructs that have absolutely no meaning beyond the egos of human beings. Anyone who has ever stepped across any kind of border, from city limits to national boundaries, knows that nothing changes when one crosses a border. The land on one side isn't any different than the land of the other - especially at the border! Similarly, the belief that a truly Diving being - embodied or not - would give a damn about where humans draw borders is absurd! Even more absurd is the unbelievably stupid idea that any Divine being would be less concerned about life than about boundaries, or would be dependent on human action in order to "allow" said Divine being to complete some sort of Divine plan. Such thinking is so dim witted that it is hard to believe anyone who engages in it could toilet themselves without assistance, primarily because they seem to believe the purpose of religion is to transform God by creating the causes and conditions necessary for God to be able to do whatever God wants to do. Could there be a bigger ego trip than that? It seems it doesn't matter how much Jesus spoke directly to our need to love one another and decrease suffering, apparently that is far too mundane for the average "Christian." It is most certainly a function of an ego run amok to believe that, rather than engage in spiritual practice to transform ourselves and  create peace in our time, we have been placed on this planet to be God's very special assistant.

Buddhism, on the other hand, speaks to self-transformation and the dismantling of the ego. In doing so it speaks directly to the seemingly forgotten Christian virtue of humility. Buddhism  points us within, to the task of uncovering our Buddha Nature which has been obscured by lifetimes of crud caked upon that very pristine nature. We become the change we want to see, we become agents of peace rather than conflict, and we come to see that everything changes and everything dies - even nations. We develop the insight to understand that in killing people to save countries we are only hastening the demise of people in an attempt to avoid the unavoidable - the death of our nation. Every nation whether great or small has died, or will die one day - and the same is true of every person. Attempting to interfere in that pattern will only increase suffering without changing outcomes. Awakening to that reality would go a long way to decreasing the violence in our world.

Friday, November 2, 2012

What's the Message?

I want to start by saying that I don't often write about intensely personal issues that I haven't yet figured out. As a reader, I find there to be few things more irritating that a blog or other piece that raises a question for which it doesn't have an answer. Still, I had a rather odd - and if I am completely honest about it rather unsettling - experience a few days ago that I am still trying to decipher and it got stranger today, so I am breaking my own rule and writing about it.

Way back in the olden days, the 1990s, I was first an Associate and then an Oblate of The Order of Julian of Norwich in the Episcopal Church. It is a semi-enclosed, mixed Order located about twenty minutes west of where I live. Through this time I was also in discernment for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church. When that process fell apart I left the Episcopal Church in late 1999 to accept my first call to ordained ministry. Several months later I also resigned my affiliation with OJN. At that time one had to be a member of the Episcopal Church or a Church in full communion with it to become affiliated with OJN. I could have remained, but there is something about being grandfathered in that has always left me a little flat. If I couldn't be a member of your organization were I to apply today then I don't want to be a member because I applied a couple of years ago. I suspect that comes from being rejected so many times throughout my life - if I am not acceptable for any reason then I will very politely go. For me it's a question of authenticity - I will not pretend to be something I am not. It was a bittersweet departure. I love the Members Regular of the Order, and they were always very kind and supportive of me. When I heard of Mother Scholastica's passing, I cried for days. OJN was one of the few places in my life where I have experienced unconditional acceptance. A while after I left, the Oblates and Associates became ecumenical, which means that had I stayed I would have gone from being grandfathered back to acceptable status. Go figure.

But I digress. Over the past week I have made several trips to Waukesha, where OJN is located, to visit a friend in the hospital. One of our cars is in the shop, so I have been leaving early to take Erin to work and gotten an early start on my day so I was at the hospital early Thursday morning. My friend is recovering from major surgery, so I didn't stay long. I decided since I was only five minutes from OJN I would go to check out new items in the Julian Shop and pray in the chapel for a while. It's such a beautiful, silent space, and it has a special place in my heart as well. I helped in a minor way with the finishing touches when it was built and was present in choir for its consecration. I still remember the incense hanging at waist level - it was glorious. Had I been thinking clearly in 2000, I would never have left - but I was still struggling with having been told by my bishop that I could never be normal because I am an abuse survivor and needed space. Of course I knew he was wrong, but my image of my Church as a place of welcome that believed in redemption had been forever shattered.

As I sat in the chapel in the silence I had a very deep and profound experience that, like all such experiences, is difficult to put into words. I had the feeling that if I stayed there long enough God was going to tell me something that was going to call me to make some dramatic changes in my spiritual life - and I should tell you that I don't normally think that way or use that language, which makes it even more strange. I realized that I was afraid of what it was going to be, and then I realized I had sat in that space before and (metaphorically) run out the door so I wouldn't hear the message. So, you know what I did on Thursday? That's right, I ran out the door. The difference this time was that I knew I would go back next week to hear the rest of it.

Up to this point, it's a little unsettling but not really profoundly so. Then I listened to the CDs I bought while I was there. First, I should re-tell a bit of my history to set the stage. In 1999, when I took my first church, I learned they had a tradition of doing a Lenten book study. Trying to be a good pastor, I asked what they had read the year before so I could have an idea of the kind of thing they had done. They told me they read Thich Nhat Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ. I had no idea who he was and had never heard of the book, but I went out and bought it and it started my Buddhist Christian journey. I love his gathas - little poems to be used while breathing in and breathing out as a meditation, like this one:

Breathing in, I am calming
Breathing out, I am smiling
Breathing in, I am in the present moment
Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment

I remember thinking at the time that if only the people who had tried to teach me contemplative prayer would have taught me something like this, I would have understood rather than struggled! So imagine when I sat down to listen to the CD I bought and could have been hearing what could have been Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings on meditation set in the light of Julian of Norwich's teachings. It was my journey, almost as if I had left and gone on what I thought was a divergent path only to pop in for a visit somewhat expecting to feel a bit out of place only to feel right at home both in the chapel and in the teachings. What is happening here? What does it all mean?

I'm going back on Wednesday.