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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Struggle to Leave

The statistics are clear, eighty percent of America isn't in church on a regular basis for reasons other than Weddings, Baptisms, and Funerals. That means that in one sense it's easy to leave church. It's easy to just stop attending, because you can tell a white lie about whether or not you go to church and nobody can really check up on you very easily. In fact, people tell the white lie to researchers all the time. If you believed people's self-reports you would think that forty percent of America is in church on a regular basis. When you compare those figures with actual church provided attendance numbers, however, the truth rears its head.

It's one thing to tell the white lie and respond to anyone who asks why they haven't seen us at church lately by saying that we have been busy, or started going to a church closer to home, or that we are shopping around for a better fit. It's quite another to say that we have been broadening our spiritual experience and including practices and teachings from outside Christianity. The more conservative our Christian background the harder it is to tell people about our new perspective - unless of course you are one of the three people in the world who actually enjoy the concerned looks, the warnings about losing your "salvation," and other similarly uncomfortable but generally ineffective methods used in an attempt to rope people back onto the ranch. Since those who ask have received the same misinformation we did it's a pretty good bet they know how to push our buttons. It becomes especially awkward when churches convince their members they are responsible for each other's "salvation." If you are one of those people, I need to tell you that such teachings are profound distortions of the biblical record that usually use the book of Ezekiel as their very shaky foundation. It's a shaky foundation because Ezekiel (like Daniel, Revelation, and parts of other biblical books) is Apocalyptic literature, and to take such highly symbolic writings and literalize them is to pervert them beyond recognition - and certainly beyond the intent of the author.

The truth is that the only person whose choices you are responsible for is, well, you. A little bit of reason and a short time away from the propaganda machine will help you to realize that it is absolutely impossible to control other people. God knows the church in all its forms has certainly tried to control people through threats of hellfire and damnation, but if those tactics worked then we would be seeing more than twenty percent of America in church, wouldn't we? At one time in history those tactics worked because people simply didn't know any better, but in the twenty-first century they are a thing of the past. Today, at least in the developed world, we do know better. We also have the ability to set boundaries, so when our well meaning friends express their concern we can thank them for their concern and say that we are either looking for or have found a new spiritual home. We don't need to say more if we aren't comfortable, and if our questioners are persistent we can say that we choose not to talk about it with them at this time. They don't have to like it, but they do have to respect it.

Of course, there will be those people we do want to share more with and those with whom we want to avoid the subject altogether. Both choices are perfectly fine, and we can expect our choices to change over time as well. The day really does come when we feel perfectly fine saying that we are Buddhist-Christian (if that's true), or Interspiritual, or whatever words more accurately express what we wish to communicate. I have found the best rule is to trust my own instincts. There are still days I don't want to get into an in depth discussion at the grocery store, so I ask the person if we could schedule a time to have coffee and discuss it. What I do know is that this walk makes sense to me, much more sense that the way institutional religion presents the teachings of Jesus. And, after hearing a discussion decrying the "watering down" of the teachings of the Buddha by the contemporary mindfulness movement recently I have come to the conclusion that Christianity isn't the only control-nut bearing tree in town!


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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hell and Rumors of Hell

Whenever considering the role of spirituality and religion, it seems to me we have to address a primary question about the role of spirituality and religion before beginning in earnest. The question is this: Do spiritual and religious systems describe the way the universe (and by extension God) works, or do they determine the way the world (and God) works?

Traditional religious institutions often behave as if they believe they determine the way the world and God works. One of the more absurd examples of this fallacy occurred when Galileo discovered that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the galaxy. The Church informed him he was wrong and promptly excommunicated him, only to "apologize" some five hundred years later. The fact that the Church held that the Earth was the center of the galaxy did not make it so, all their efforts to prove otherwise (including consigning Galileo to exclusion from the Church and therefore heaven) notwithstanding. The Church also tends to believe it determines what God does as well. Look at the elaborate system of indulgences that were held to shorten the time one spent in purgatory - the sale of which led in part to the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church doesn't have the market on arrogance exclusively to itself, however. How many Protestant Churches have taken it upon themselves to determine what behaviors and personal qualities with disqualify you from heaven? Let's not forget it was the Protestants who ran the Salem witch trials, a charming period in history wherein women were thrown into rivers. If they sank they were not witches, but they were dead, and if they floated they were witches and therefore executed.

It can be easy for those of us raised in institutional religion to believe that the more or less exhaustive (and certainly exhausting) lists of doctrine and dogma do in fact determine the way the universe works. The truth is, however, that they represent the best that human beings have been able to do at different points in history to describe the way the universe works. Let's not forget that the Psalmist's description of the Earth as being flat and supported by four pillars made more than a few people certain that Christopher Columbus would said his Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria right off the edge of the world and into oblivion - or worse, the fires of hell. Of course, he didn't, and what he and those who followed him did when he arrived in the West made Indigenous people wish that the Earth was indeed flat and supported by four pillars. Countless people have been threatened with hell fire and damnation and throughout much of history it has often been an effective thought and behavior control technique. Many who step away from institutional religion struggle with also stepping away from the threats of their former Church. Religious abuse is difficult to overcome, and we need to be clear that such threats are religious abuse and not valid spirituality.

Spirituality, and some religious people as well, understands that spiritual and religious teachings are attempts to describe the world and how it works but does not have the power to force the universe to do anything. If there is a hell, and I don't believe there is, it most certainly wouldn't be the case that St. Peter would meet someone at the pearly gates and tell them that God didn't want to send them to hell but the Church said God had to and God had no choice to obey. I suspect this may be news to more than a few Church types who feel fairly certain they can consign people to eternal damnation through their doctrine and dogma. What's more, since our understanding of how the universe works is growing all the time our spirituality must be fluid and evolving or it will become little more than a museum piece.

Of course there will always be people whose need for certainly outweighs their need for common sense and solid reasoning. They will counter with certain passages from scripture that seem to say that scriptures were written by God and therefore cannot be in error. Holding consistently to that view requires ignoring some pretty glaring inconsistencies that simply wouldn't be present in a book written by any God worthy of worship. That being said, we cannot force anxiety laden people to enter reality because they simply aren't yet equipped to cope with it. Attempts to do so are bound to fail, and leave both sides frustrated. That's no reason for those of us who are ready for the next step in our spiritual evolution to voluntarily pretend otherwise. In fact, doing so creates an uncomfortable level of cognitive dissonance that will compel us to leave institutions we have moved beyond. That doesn't mean we cannot behave with compassion toward those left behind, but it does mean that honesty compels us to move on - and valid spirituality must be grounded in both compassion and honesty!