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Thursday, August 30, 2012


I just finished reading Noah Levine's Dharma Punx, which really resonated with me and convicted me at the same time. As silly as it may sound I have come to recognize that for someone whose greatest strength as a spiritual teacher has been breaking stereotypes there have been times, spaces, and places where I have stepped back and been less than my authentic self in order to fit in. I recognize that I need to continue to push the envelope.

I also found Levine's image of God fascinating. It is, of course, fascinating and surprising to find God discussed in a Buddhist book at all. Levine started thinking about God as he worked his recovery program, and was also exposed to God in his study with Hindu teachers. I found his description of God compelling - and interesting personally because I no longer believe in the old white guy with the long beard sitting in a throne beyond the clouds. In fact, I don't believe in a corporeal, or embodied, God at all. As a non-theist, then, what does God look like?

It is easy to get caught in the trap of trying to describe a non-theistic view of God by using a lot of words that don't end up saying very much. Starting points might be that God is the creative energy behind all of life and experienced most clearly in relationship with other human beings and with nature. God is the interconnectedness of everything and everybody, the source of love and compassion, the instinct to reach out to another in their time of need, the ability to be self-sacrificing and to lift others up. Of course, you can't paint a picture of this kind of God that is some kind of portrait of a super-human, but there are images that work. We also might start to conceptualize this vision of God as a feeling of peace or serenity. Most of all, we can feel free to experiment playfully to discover what works for us as individuals.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Supporting Prejudice?

There is perhaps something in human nature that looks for a religion that supports our biases and prejudice. Fear drives us to be suspicious of people who are not exactly like us, so we become conservative, even fundamentalist members of a religion and interpret its scriptures to support our smallness. Jesus becomes the only way; jihad turns into not a spiritual quest but a military one; we are uncomfortable with our own bodies and sexuality so we pay attention only to sexual issues in our religion; we are afraid of not having enough, so we look for reasons to justify depriving others of even what they need to survive; we have been burned by conservative Christians, and so we lump all Christians into one basket and become militant atheists. None of this is spirituality, though much of it is what religion has deteriorated into.

One of the sure tests of authentic spirituality is that it doesn't reinforce our prejudice but rather challenges us to grow in ways that are less than comfortable. If your religious or spiritual outlook never challenges you to grow, what you are really saying is that right now, at this very moment, you know all there is to know, you are completely awakened and enlightened, you are the messiah, you are God - and such delusions indicate a need for emergent psychiatric treatment. Yet, such a religion is just what a great number of people look for because growth is hard and uncomfortable at times. Surrendering our preconceived notions is an admission of imperfection, and the ego does not like to admit its shortcomings. Clergy of all stripes are just as bad when they are unable to admit they don't have all the answers, when they believe their job is to pour right information into the chirping mouths of the faithful while forgetting that when birds feed their young they are really offering them regurgitated nutrition - fine for birds, but hardly appropriate nourishment for human beings.

I want to encourage all people that if your spirituality or religion isn't challenging you need to ask yourself if you are honestly taking all of it into consideration or whether you are picking and choosing the pieces that are easy to swallow and rejecting the rest. If you find that is your practice, I encourage you to engage more fully. If, in fact, you are engaging all that is offered and are still not being challenged, it's time to move on. The God you are meeting is too small for you!

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Difference Between a Religious and Spiritual Christian

It has to be said. People will be offended, and quite honestly I don't give the tiniest little damn if they are. But first, two definitions.

For the purposes of this article, a religious Christian is someone who identifies as a member of any Christian denomination with the possible exception of the United Church of Christ, which has taken great care to buck the Christian religious trend, but not in all of its Churches. A religious Christian is anyone who adheres to any doctrine or dogma that creates in and out groups, that holds that Jesus is the only path to "salvation" (whatever that is), that believes it has a duty to convert people to become Christian, or that seeks to impose their will on anyone at all - or the culture at large.

Also for the purposes of this article, a spiritual Christian is a person who finds value in the the teachings of Jesus but also recognizes that we live in a pluralistic culture. This person categorically rejects doctrine and dogma as human created constructs that often as not have nothing to do with the life and teachings of Jesus and everything to do with human beings' power and control games. They refuse to reject anyone for any reason, and feel compelled to protect the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the at-risk at any cost.

So here's my message: It is impossible to be a religious Christian without also being an unqualified asshole.

You can talk to me all you want about wanting to change things from the inside, about how things are getting better, how I should be patient, and I have a one word response for you: "No!" You see, while you are living inside the institution your money goes to support the politics of hatred and violence. Your church friends are running around being roundly critical and judgmental toward others. Your peers - good Christians all - are doing things like shooting up the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin because God only likes white people. They are also driving around Milwaukee verbally, physically, and sexually assaulting anybody they don't believe conforms to their gender norms; telling abject lies about agencies that provide vital services to poor women like Planned Parenthood - largely because they quite honestly don't like the poor and don't want to help them; seeking to impose their archaic beliefs about birth control on the population at large; trying to return science education to the dark ages; ranting on about "faggots"; and generally doing everything they can to make the world an uglier place, all in the Name of Jesus - a Jesus who would not recognize them were he to return today. You see, if you hang out with these people in their little hate-filled country clubs they call churches and don't denounce them and move away from them, you are part of the problem even as you delude yourself into believing you are working for a solution.

I, for one, can't remain silent any longer.

You see, I had to step outside religious Christianity to Buddhism to get instruction on Christian values like compassion, empathy, loving your neighbor, and not offering a knee jerk response to every situation I encountered. Once I was outside looking in, I could clearly see all of those teachings in the biblical record of Jesus. I could also see how little was made of those essential qualities in religious Christianity. Whether it's small minded bigots like the Episcopal Bishop of Milwaukee, Steven A. Miller, attempting to purge his diocese of gay and lesbian clergy or the head of the largest organized crime syndicate in the world, the Vatican, covering up the rape of untold children by his priests, I just don't see Jesus in the Church any more. Remaining inside the Church isn't working for change, it's being complicit with bigots and felons - and that, in my book anyway, makes you an asshole.

Even the historic black churches seem to spend most of their time oppressing members of their own community and lacking the back bone to take responsibility for their bigotry against the LGBT community and instead blaming the Bible for their small mindedness. The problem is that the Bible doesn't say what they claim it does, but I guess truth has never stood in the way of the Church practicing what it's best at: hypocrisy and oppression. Every once in a while, a group of people inside the church manage to take the first steps in starting a discussion about her poor behavior - only to be greeted by threats of physical assault by other pastors and parishioners, assholes all.

Even worse are the New Agers who have left the Church and now stand on the fringes encouraging people to just think positively and so change their world. Really, asshole? So what you are saying is that those people inside that Sikh Temple brought this tragedy on themselves because their thoughts were somehow flawed? Do you really believe that nonsense, or is it just that you - in a manner strikingly similar to those inside religious Christianity - prefer to believe that you can control the world rather than learning to respond to it in a healthy manner?

You see, religion - and a fair amount of spirituality - has long deceived people into believing that if they just do/think/believe the right things then nothing bad will ever befall them. The problem is that's a lie, and it's the worst kind of lie there is - it's a lie that makes everything the fault of the victim, because those who are emptying the wallets of the faithful are only too quick to say that the faithful obviously weren't doing as they were told.

At this point, I have lost all respect for the Christian tradition I once loved. I still love Jesus, and value his teachings highly. My problem is that I find no trace of either Jesus or his teachings in religious Christianity.