Thursday, December 20, 2007

Solstice thoughts

One of my repeated themes in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky is playing out in my family.

The winter solstice in a mysterious way directs us toward spiritual awareness. My oldest sister died yesterday. She and her husband were the godparents of my niece who is pregnant with child expected on Christmas Day. This is the Paschal Mystery—death giving birth to new life.

I wish readers a blessed and reflective winter solstice, whatever the feast and tradition you associate with it. In connection with my tradition, I invite you to reread Christmas Commercialized on this page.

A Your Turn column of mine in the St. Cloud Times may interest you as well: “Romney wrong about religion, freedom: U.S. should embrace secular spirituality.”

Saturday, December 15, 2007

On abortion

OK, I’ll dive into this issue. Both sides are right.

Scientific advances have personalized the fetus, so that we no longer consider her or him in the womb merely a blob of tissue. But let’s have compassion for the stricken girl or woman unable to nurture the new life growing in her. It would be as wrong to destroy her life as the life in her womb.

Abortion may be murder (depending on when it's done), but it should not be criminalized because banning it does not save any babies—the rate of abortions remains as high in societies that ban abortion as in societies that don’t. But banning abortion kills more women, who use desperate measures to end their pregnancy.

Let’s focus on what we all want—reducing the number of abortions. That means increasing the availability of contraception, and that means supporting Planned Parenthood, which maybe more than any other organization reduces the number of abortions by providing birth control. A stance against abortion loses credibility if it includes a stance against Planned Parenthood.

Recently, Congress made a technical error in writing a new law, which made the price of birth control skyrocket almost 900 percent. Women who were paying $5 to $10 a month now have to pay $40 to $50—impossible for low-income women. If we really want to reduce the number of abortions, correcting this is the place to start.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Buddhist Christian

A lecture by an ordained minister who calls himself a “Buddhist Christian” confirmed my ideas about God and the relationship between Christianity and Buddhism. At St. John’s University, John Butt described his experience of living with Theravada Buddhism in Thailand for many years.

Although Buddhists deny that theirs is a religion, John Butt calls Buddhism a religion. He explains that they have faith. They deny it because they identify faith with belief, as do many Christians—inaccurately.

Faith is trust. As I explain in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, when my professors at the School of Theology separated faith from belief and gifted me with faith as trust, they liberated me. I could let go of anxiety, worry, fear.

And I could see that all spiritual traditions are based in trust. The 8-fold path of Buddhism begins with trust, said Butt. Christians are saved by faith, and Buddhists are saved by wisdom, but they’re the same thing. Both are based in trust.

Buddhists say they are atheists, but this also begs for elaboration. They are indeed a-theists with no belief in a god, no external deity, but they relate to a transcendent Ultimate Reality more beautiful, more powerful, more ALIVE than anything imaginable. Other names for this reality in Eastern spirituality are the Tao of Taoism and Brahman/Atman of Hinduism.

Butt disparaged the small Christian idea of God, the personal and childish image, which he said is destined for extinction because it is inappropriate to the modern world. Buddhists regard it as mere sophisticated animism. I add that Christian mystics and saints have always known that what we call God transcends, infinitely, the puny image worshipped by many Christians.

It was satisfying to have a “Buddhist Christian” affirm me so fully. He went so far as to refer to “the big guy in the sky,” echoing my title.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Christmas Joy

Americans are advised to focus on our marketability and security, but we have all heard and read anecdotes similar to this one: At a 25th class reunion of Yale Law School, half were unhappy or bored with their work as lawyers, despite making comfortably high incomes.

I wish this comment by Bertrand Russell would invade our marketplace: “It is preoccupation with possessions . . . that prevents us from living freely and nobly.”

John Stuart Mill said that those only are happy who are fixed on something other than their own happiness—on the happiness of others or some ideal end. Then, “they find happiness by the way.” Chinese Taoist Chuang-tse described happiness as “the absence of striving for happiness.” The renowned missionary Albert Schweitzer observed that real happiness comes from serving. Michael Lerner and T.S. Eliot observed that joy comes from sacrifice.

William James wrote that to feel vitally alive we need to follow our inner voice, the one saying, “This is the real me.” But “many of us believe in one way and live in quite another.” So said Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of My Grandfather’s Blessings who has done ground-breaking work with cancer patients. “The worst thing in life isn’t death,” she said. “The worst thing in life might be to miss it.” She saw people approaching the end of life, never having really lived.

Remen and others are quoted in World Ark, a magazine by Heifer International I suggest it as a way of finding satisfaction in Christmas buying.

Heifer gives animals we buy to needy families. The gift keeps giving, because the animals keep supplying food and offspring. And a whole community benefits because each recipient family is required to pass on a healthy offspring of their animal to another family. In addition, Heifer trains the whole community in sustainable agriculture. Besides heifers, their catalog offers goats, sheep, llamas, rabbits, bees, and much more.

Piling more material stuff onto kids and grownups who have enough violates the spirit of Christmas. Instead of spending money on gadgets and trinkets that burden our shared home, the planet earth, let’s light up the eyes of loved ones with gifts bringing genuine joy. Words of appreciation. A pledge to perform a needed task. An object we’ve spent hours making. Or, in their name, an animal from Heifer that brings life to a family and community.

December 22, 2014

This gorgeous piece of writing captures my sentiments during December dark and provides welcome relief from frenetic commercialism. The gift of wintersolstice:
. . . darkness to me is alluring; it calls me to turn inside, to be hushed, to pay attention.

The truth is: Darkness draws out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. 

Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths. 

At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled ‘round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.
Maybe we’re most purely and purposefully alive when we turn our backs to — press against — a guzzled-down life that pays no attention, that goes with the flow, that “kills a few hours,” that takes it — all of it, any of it — for granted.
I’ve chosen to quote non-religious passages. Religion inhabits this piece as well, but spirituality does not depend on it. Non-believers can practice sacrament too, knowing it means an outward sign of inward intention:
Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Ditch fast food. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles . . .
Read MORE.   Accept the invitation of December. 

Catherine Young said...
Thank you, Jeanette for that warm and encouraging message.

December 19, 2014

This is a Christmas present to my readers. I’ve been breaking out into chuckles of delight ever since I saw it. Just what I needed!  A message that dispels my morose worries during these dark days at Solstice.

It comes from Michael Beckwith, a trans-denominational minister. He says in Unity magazine that when negatives want to take over,
I highly recommend going to a private place and yelling as passionately as you can:
“I don’t understand why I always have more money than I need!
 Why is everything always working together for my good?
 Why is it that I’m always loved and supported by a friendly universe?
 Why is my life always working?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Holy Christmas

December 25, 2006
There was no feast of Christmas during the first two centuries of the Christian era. Our festival followed the model of pagan festivals observing the sun’s birth on the winter solstice.

This information may stun Christians but it comes from Christian researcher Hugo Rahner, brother of Karl Rahner, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. He wrote that in 354 CE a calendar entry for December 25 listed the birth of Christ along with the birth of the sun.

Following pagan example, Christians bowed to the east to honor the rising sun. Church Fathers accepted this, calling Christ the true sun, the light coming into the darkness, the "Dayspring from on high." Up to modern times, the preferred place for the altar in Catholic churches was the eastern side.

Light imagery, such as “Light from Light” in the Nicene Creed, is sprinkled in our Christian liturgy. References to holiness “from on high” also reflect pagan cosmology, which imagined gods and goddesses living up in the heavens. Sun gods were popular then, and pagans accepted Christ as one of them. They called the Lord’s Day of Christians the Day of the Sun, giving us the name “Sunday.”

During the dark days of December, it’s easy to understand the huge importance of the sun to people with no electricity. As the ever darker days switched to ever lighter days, people rejoiced. Like the pagans of old, we like to light up the night, but their bonfires have given way to our electric lights.

The first celebrations of Christmas did not happen on December 25. They began on January 6, today the feast of Epiphany in the West. That used to be the winter solstice until a calendar adjustment moved it to December 25 and a later adjustment to December 21. This is the reason our Christmas comes a few days after the solstice. Eastern Orthodox believers still celebrate Christmas on January 6.

Not all Christians celebrate Christmas. In American colonial times, Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians opposed the festivities because of their pagan origin. As this history suggests, the date of Christmas has no connection with the day Jesus of Nazareth was born. There is no possible way to know what that was. But believers aren’t the only ones who thrill at the story of an exceptional child born in humble surroundings.

During my childhood, Christ Kindchen, the Christ Child, brought Christmas. (Pronounce the German words with a short i.) When kids in school noticed that the Santas in town were fake, I wondered how they could ever have believed they were real. Our family miracle was much more believable.

We celebrated Christmas through most of January, reveling in Christmas music by singing and harmonizing with piano and radio. In my youth it was still possible to hear the sacred music of the season after Christmas Day, and I miss that.

Why do people stop Christmas music and throw out the tree on the day after Christmas? Apparently there’s no point in celebrating any longer when spending for presents is over. Commerce has spoiled what used to be a sacred time of year. Media reports on Christmas are all about earnings. What a distance we have come from observing the holy course of nature and a holy birth!

I suspect many of us hate the buy-and-spend frenzy but don’t know how to stop it. As more people get sick of the commercial merry-go-round, I hope they will find the courage to withstand materialistic pressures and to give in meaningful ways.

Do we hear outrage over this sacred season being exploited for money? No, we hear complaints about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” As if Christians were the only ones with festivals around the winter solstice!

If we really cherished Christian values, we would joyfully include all religious traditions in our celebration. Spiritual meaning is what makes Christmas taste good.

We can make the good taste last. Let’s stop buying useless junk that degrades nature and reflect on the precious child inside every human being.

November 22, 2007

Now comes the season called Christmas. But how un-Christlike the pressure to buy, buy, buy! As waning light and dormant earth direct us inward, let us withdraw from manic consumerism to treasure the quiet values of Christmas.

Since I heard about the following way to prepare for the feast, I’ve shared it often. Yvonne and Jim Sexton reluctantly agreed to be identified “if good can come about because of it.” Here are Yvonne’s words.

“About seven years ago, while thinking about the commercialization of Christmas and my weariness about the whole season, I decided to try to raise our grandchildren's awareness of the REAL message of Christmas. I floated the idea with Jim and he liked it, so we began what has become a treasured tradition in our family.

“In November we send each grandchild a check for [it could be any amount, say from $5 to $1000]. They are asked to find someone in need and make a difference in their lives. They can choose a project, individual, family, whatever. We encourage them to get personally involved if it is appropriate. Then they are to share their encounters, always respecting privacy of persons if appropriate.

“Every year we have a Christmas party [with] a ritual around this experience. We begin with an opening prayer and a darkened room. A table has been prepared with many votive candles, one for each grandchild. One by one the kids tell their story of searching for a project or person in need.”

Each story is followed by lighting of candle and song. Yvonne adds, “We have 19 grandkids, so this is quite a lovely scene. There are tears shed and it becomes deeply moving.” They finish with a little concert of Christmas carols featuring grandchildren on piano, violin, and viola.

The idea is spreading to other families and schools. A granddaughter at Maple Grove High School described the tradition in an English paper, and her teacher got the story published in a local paper.

The grandchildren know how lucky they are. One wrote, “Thank you, Grandma and Papa, for giving me this opportunity to help those in need.”

Yvonne confessed, “One year I was a little late with the letter and check and I got a call from one of the grandkids saying, ‘We're going to do our special Christmas thing again, aren't we Grandma?’”

A poem by the sixteenth century mystic John of the Cross has graced the Sexton family ritual. It imagines the Virgin “pregnant with the holy” asking for shelter. “Then under the roof of your soul, you will witness . . . the Christ taking birth . . . for each of us is the midwife of God.”

Whatever our spiritual background, let’s liberate ourselves from the dictates of consumerism and give birth to the holy.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Reader response

Most readers of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky whom I hear from agree exuberantly with my content. I have heard from only two readers who disagreed, but the book must be disturbing for those who have never questioned the exclusive claims of Christianity—made in the past.

What the vast body of Christians doesn’t know is that many deeply spiritual, well-educated Christians have abandoned those claims. The Christian right dominates the air waves at this time, but response to my book tells me a new spirit is afoot. Thoughtful individuals embrace the shrinking globe and welcome diverse beliefs. This can’t be done without relinquishing the simple assumptions pervading the faith of our childhood.
I promise I will get back to the subject of prayer.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

How to Pray

I have been asked to write about prayer. How do I pray? What’s my response when I hear, “Pray for . . .”?

If God is not a humanlike individual, an external deity, with whom or what do I communicate? Does it make any sense to appeal to Something for anything?

What we call God is larger than, beyond anything we can imagine, but our minds and imaginations are what we have to work with. Particular images—let’s say an idea of Jesus—work very well for communing with the Grand Power of the Universe. The problem arises when we insist that our image is God and everybody better believe it and pray to the same image. I don’t pray to Jesus, but my weak humanity reaches toward a humanlike being who doesn’t have any gender—my Invisible Partner, my Inner Beloved.

In the famous conversations of Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell, they expressed compassion for one who has no “invisible means of support,” sympathy for one who’s unaware of help available from “hidden hands.”

It was in this context that Campbell said, “Follow your bliss,” a phrase that was popularized and misunderstood. Campbell said that “as the result of invisible hands . . . you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” Goethe said something similar: “the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves all.”

It sounds so easy, and it’s so hard. It requires, in Campbell’s words, enduring “ten years of disappointment with nobody responding to you” and having “the guts to stay with the thing you really want, no matter what happens.”

I think many of us don’t know what we really want. We desire things that produce results opposed to what we really want. The critical thing to remember is that our Higher Power—it’s irrelevant how we imagine that Power—knows what’s best for us. So let’s not be attached to any specific result.

I used to interpret the idea that God knows best as God opposing my own desires. I thank Unity School of Christianity for showing me that’s wrong. My very deepest desires come from the divinity within me, but I may be wrong about how to achieve those valid desires. Christians call the inner divinity “Christ.” Other terms are “Buddha,” “Tao,” and “Self.”

This inner divinity connects us with all persons, all creation, and this is why our intentions for others have an effect. I believe prayer works and write about this in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky.

There’s much more to say about types of prayer and the power of human consciousness, but it’ll have to wait for another time. Next time I’ll pass on some prayers of mine.

November 16, 2007

Large swatches of silence nurture awareness of an invisible Presence and turning toward this spiritual reality is prayer.

However we imagine that reality, connecting with it and trusting its power for good renders our daily concerns more manageable. As we reach toward the indefinable Something, we start to commune with that reality. And after long periods of silent communing with this Holy Source, we notice that our outer circumstances turn out right more often—not necessarily as we might have wished, but ultimately better.

Intentional opening to the Holy One is prayer. A quick acknowledgement that my thought or action just now was less than noble is prayer. Awestruck appreciation of beauty is prayer. Gratefulness is prayer. Trusting that I will be guided in my thoughts, words, and actions is prayer. Claiming my right to good things is prayer.

What? This is prayer? Unity School of Christianity taught me to pray in affirmations rather than pleas. It’s quite a psychological shift. Here are affirmative prayer samples:

Divine order and timing are at work in my life and affairs.
I expect good things and accept all the good that comes to me.

Underlying these prayers is trust—expecting good through me, to me, to my situation, and to the world.

Trust is the heart of faith as well as the heart of affirmative prayer. It saturates the beloved Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and the stories of Jesus healing in the synoptic gospels.

In First Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul advises, “Rejoice always, never cease praying, render constant thanks.” This is not as impossible as it sounds. Poet and educator Maya Angelou says in Unity magazine (September/October 2007), “Now I pray all the time. I pray when I’m walking from here to over to the chair. . . . Mostly I’m thankful.” Jungian analyst Robert Johnson says, “In every moment there is one right thing to do.” Discerning that and doing it, we are communing with the Holy—in prayer.

The apostle Paul and Maya Angelou refer to Jesus, which is their religious context, their way to God. In The Bhagavad Gita, all wisdom and blessing flow through the god Krishna. That my prayers and those of a Tibetan, Muslim, or Inuit don’t go through Isis or Jesus or Krishna is irrelevant.

A cautionary note: In the deepest pool of consciousness connecting us with each other and with divinity, we must surrender totally to Divinity. Unity reminds us,

When we let God free to choose what is best in our present stage of unfoldment, we will be pleasantly surprised—at times even astonished—at the good manifest through us and for us.

Pray for wisdom, for self-respect, for spiritual blessings of all kinds—I mean, trust that they are lighting on whomever—and specific desires may be met. Praying in this way also eases the command to love our enemies because their highest spiritual good includes good behavior toward everybody else.

That I write these things doesn’t mean I achieve them. They are reminders to myself.
I’m sure I’ll revisit this subject of prayer.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

War fear & sharia

Discussing his documentary film on World War II, Ken Burns quoted a veteran who said,
No war is good, but some wars are necessary.
Unfortunately, Americans don’t seem to know this yet. I’m afraid even the Burns film left some viewers associating war with glory.

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas criticized “outrageous statements about America’s inability to succeed” in Iraq, and proceeded to his own outrageous statement:
The ability to successfully wage war against America’s enemies trumps everything else.
It scares me. Few Europeans share America’s naïvete about war because their soil was stained with war’s blood. Will it take the same for our country? Peace activists see Americans giving more urgency to shopping than to countering our government’s war-mongering.

Now we’re demonizing Iran’s Ahmadinejad in a campaign eerily similar to the one against Saddam Hussein. In Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria quoted President Bush “invoking the specter of World War III if Iran gained even the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon.” And he quoted Norman Podhoretz, neoconservative ideologue who claimed
[Ahmadinejad is] like Hitler . . . a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism.
Zakaria commented,
For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.
In fact, the CIA tells us that Iran won’t have nuclear capability for years, when Ahmadinejad may no longer be president.

James Dobbins, a U.S. diplomat to Iran for the first Bush, found Iranians to be “professional, straightforward, reliable and helpful.” Even after W. Bush’s Axis of Evil speech, they offered to cooperate in Afghanistan. But when Dobbins took their proposal to Washington, he said Donald Rumsfeld “looked down and rustled his papers.” No reply was ever sent back to the Iranians, reported Zakaria.

I wouldn’t be so alarmed if I hadn’t watched in horror while our country swallowed the war propaganda duping us into the Iraq war. Before I watched it happening, I dismissed the ridiculous idea of invading Iraq, thinking Americans could not be so stupid. Here we are now.

One more item from Zakaria. He reported on a Wall Street Journal article written by a close adviser to Bush and Cheney who predicted that Ahmadinejad would end the world on August 22, 2006, the night when Muslims commemorate the
flight of the Prophet Muhammad . . . to ‘the farthest mosque,’ usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back. This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world.
Notice the link between Ahmadinejad and Israel. Apocalyptic belief drives U.S. policy in the Middle East more than we’d like. It derives from the Christian right’s weird linkage of Israel with the Second Coming. After Israel finishes the appropriation of Palestinian land, goes the belief, we can look for “the Lord himself” coming down from heaven “at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet” (First Thessalonians 4:16).

Foolish? Yes. But not in the eyes of enough Americans to dispel the danger. What will it take for us to grow in wisdom?

Fear of Sharia
I’m glad there are courageous Muslim women who escape Sharia or Islamic law and, after they’re safe in the West, denounce its inhumane treatment of women, such as stoning victims of rape and enslaving women and girls in marriage. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other Muslim women who speak out do an important service by educating fellow Muslims in the West and in Arabic countries.

But fear of Sharia’s spread in the West is misplaced. Here’s a sample I received in an email:
radical Islamists are working to impose sharia on the world. If that happens, Western civilization will be destroyed. In twenty years there will be enough Muslim voters in the U.S. to elect the President!
I think everyone in the U.S. should be required to read this, but with the ACLU, there is no way this will be widely publicized, unless each of us sends it on! This is your chance to make a difference...!
This kind of fear-mongering foments hatred and mistrust against all Muslims and the same against President Barack Hussein Obama and the ACLU.

The origins of Sharia excess are tribal culture, not the religion of Islam, but ancient habits often take on religious sanction and that happened in Arabic Islam. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, does not practice these excesses, and the most outrageous incidents take place in rare parts of the world.

Islamic law can never take over America because of the counter-influence. Some American Muslims, for instance, are starting to realize that gays exist and are normal human beings. Unfortunately, less healthy influence also happens, such as adopting the American obsession with sex and money. Some Muslim teenage girls have worn a hijab while dressing provocatively on the rest of their bodies.

I do not fear the influence of Sharia on the West, but I fear right wing Christians, who also support male power over females and who support Israel’s elimination of Palestinians from the land of Zion in the nonsensical hope that this will set off the apocalypse, sending good believers to heaven and the rest of us to commence weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fact and myth

A comment on my latest posting reflects misunderstandings so common among Christians that I address it here.

That Jesus lived in Palestine two thousand years ago is accepted as history. That God is a male individual, a father who had a son without the involvement of any female, is myth. It is an imaginative story with inspirational power, not factual history.

Facts are right or wrong; religious myths are symbolic. They must not be confused either with facts or with “myth” in the popular understanding of a worthless, mistaken belief.

A careful reading of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky should help to clarify these distinctions. Please read the book carefully to understand why it is not an insult to say the Christian story is myth. Understanding our own myth as myth will, I hope, facilitate abandonment of our exclusive claims and promote harmony between religions.

With regard to pagan resemblance to and influence on Christian belief, the factual evidence for this is too abundant to summarize in a few paragraphs.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why go to Mass?

In the past week I have spoken to several groups and individuals about God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky and am gratified to learn that I articulate what people have vaguely intuited. Their search for spiritual meaning propelled them past the barrier built by religious authority.

But I received a very good question. If I confess disbelief in a Christian god, don’t I feel odd or even guilty participating in the Mass? How do I justify it? How do I reconcile my informed consciousness with the traditional liturgy? After all, scholarship tells me the Mass is descended from liturgies in honor of Hellenistic pagan gods.

Bear with me while I seem to digress. When I learned that the Bible is not factual history, I tried being an atheist. To overstate my reaction, I thought religion was duping the naïve and I wanted none of it. Then the pain of life threw me into a loving religious fold, the warmth of which overpowered my desire to be intellectually cool. My need kept me in that fold.

I observed the wisdom and goodness of religious people and the efficacy of religious practice, and I realized, with time, that our differences of belief are not so important. Religious beliefs are ways of explaining spiritual reality. From the time of Jesus’ death on the cross, there have been multiple interpretations of it by his followers, multiple spiritual lessons drawn from it, multiple Christianities. Efforts to govern beliefs inevitably fail.

In the words of Elaine Pagels,
Christianity has survived for thousands of years as each generation relives, reinvents, and transforms what it received.” This is no less true of non-Christian traditions—Hindu, Navaho, Dakota, Muslim, pagan, and others.
But aren’t some beliefs right and others wrong? We’re not talking about facts—this is about spiritual nourishment. In Pagels’ Beyond Belief, she writes,
There is no easy answer to the problem that the ancients called discernment of spirits. Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such discriminations and insists on making them for us. Given the notorious human capacity for self-deception, we can, to an extent, thank the church for this.

But she warns against “unquestioning acceptance of religious authority.” We must not evade our individual responsibility of answering the invitation to ask, to seek, to knock. The answers we find differ from those of others at the same rituals, and yet we nourish each other.

My way of reconciling various views is to interpret Christian terms inclusively. “Christ,” “Paschal Mystery,” and “Reign of God,” to name some, reverberate with deeper meaning as a result.

That Hellenistic pagans contributed to our religious practice does not demean either our practice or theirs. It indicates religious kinship. Let us be grateful for it and release the wish to be superior.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ahmadinejad and Desmond Tutu

Check out this excellent article: “Ahmadinejad's U.S. visit was a missed opportunity for us” by Joan Chittister at

I have to correct a detail in my previous blog post. Tutu’s address at Metropolitan State has not yet happened. The speech I quoted was given in Boston in 2002, on which basis St. Thomas banned him. The issue is the same: Tutu’s daring to criticize Israel’s human rights abuses brought him the charge of anti-Semitism.

Inappropriately, according to Jewish Voice for Peace. It reported on October 3 that “St Thomas Justice and Peace Studies program were thrilled when Bishop Tutu agreed to speak at the University" but administrators did a scientific survey of the Jews of Minneapolis, which included querying exactly one spokesperson for Minnesota's Jewish Community Relations Council and several rabbis who taught in a University program" and concluded that Tutu is bad for the Jews and should therefore be barred from campus.”

I add one more detail to maintain scrupulous accuracy. Careful readers will notice an inappropriate quotation mark in the paragraph above. It’s as I found it at This and other sites indicate widespread criticism of St. Thomas’ move. They give me hope that Americans, including Jews, are moving beyond uncritical and unconditional support for the State of Israel. Soon the U.S. government must do the same.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Tutu insulted by St. Thomas

Shame on the University of St. Thomas for canceling Desmond Tutu’s appearance there.

Tutu is a bishop who helped to end apartheid in South Africa. A Nobel laureate, he has won many other prizes for his work in human rights, peace and justice. Why would St. Thomas do this to a man of stellar credentials? Because, like American politicians, it caved in to the Israel lobby. Here is some of what Tutu said at Metropolitan State, where he had to give his address instead of at St. Thomas.

“I have been very deeply distressed in all my visits to the Holy Land, how so much of what was taking place there reminded me so much of what used to happen to us Blacks in Apartheid South Africa.”

“I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at the road blocks and recall what used to happen to us in our motherland, when arrogant, young white police officers would hector, and bully us, and demean us when we ran the gauntlet of their unpredictable whims – whether they would let you through or not. When they seemed to derive so much fun out of our sullen humiliation.

“I have seen such scenes, or heard of them, being played out in the Holy Land. The rough and discourteous demands for IDs from the Palestinians were so uncannily reminiscent of the infamous pass law raids of the vicious Apartheid regime. We saw on those visits, or read about things that did not happen even in Apartheid South Africa. The demolition of homes because of a suspicion that one or other family member was a terrorist. And so, all paid a price in these acts of collective punishment.

“We don’t know the exact truth because the Israelis won’t let the media in. What are they hiding? But perhaps, more seriously, why is their no outcry in this country at the censorship of their media? . . .

“Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten the humiliation of wearing yellow arm bands with the Star of David? Have my Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten the collective punishment? The home demolitions? Have they forgotten their own history so soon? And have they turned their back on their profound noble and religious traditions? Have they forgotten that their God, our God, is a God who sides with the poor, the despised, the down trodden?
“We condemn the violence of suicide bombers. And if Arab children are taught to hate Jews, we condemn the corruption of young minds too. But we condemn equally unequivocally the violence of military incursions and reprisals that won’t let ambulances and medical personnel reach the injured.”

Tutu’s words were exactly what all Americans, including Jews, need to counter the very effective propaganda machine of the Israeli government. As Tutu commented, “The Israeli government is placed on a pedestal where to criticize them is immediately to be dubbed anti-Semitic. As if the Palestinians were not Semitic.”

Obviously Tutu knows and respects Judaism, and I personally find nourishment in Jewish spiritual writings. I am certain that if American Jews knew what is really happening in Palestine, they would not support the State of Israel so unconditionally.

Someday Americans will be ashamed of their tacit support for Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians.
October 11:
We can thank Jewish Voice for Peace for the welcome news that St. Thomas reversed its previous decision to ban Bishop Desmond Tutu. They along with other Jewish voices counter the Israel lobby led by AIPAC. They inform Americans of the facts in Palestine. I hope their leadership will nudge our country toward more compassion for the Palestinians.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Jung and Mother Teresa

What Carl Jung wrote about his father, a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church, applies to Mother Teresa’s forty-year crisis of faith.

In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung wrote that his father “suffered from religious doubts” because he had no direct experience of God. Jung’s attempts at discussion were met by “the same old lifeless theological answers” from his father.
Once I heard him praying. He struggled desperately to keep his faith. I was shaken and outraged at once, because I saw how hopelessly he was entrapped by the Church and its theological thinking. They had blocked all avenues by which he might have reached God directly.
Jung wrote that there’s nothing to do with religious doctrine “but believe it without hope.” The command to believe something in disagreement with their own experience trapped Jung’s father and Mother Teresa into a hopeless corner.

Both doubted the existence of the external deity—the god or set of gods—they were told to worship. Conditioned to regard doctrine as Ultimate Truth, they felt guilty about their inability to believe in these idols. Doctrinaire religion barred them from their natural experience of the Holy, and they descended into the hell of depression.

May my readers escape a similar prison.

Religious fear, August 15, 2008
One of my aims in book and blog is to affirm and encourage those who wrestle with the discrepancy between their inner convictions and what the world wants them to think. Examples are Jung's father and Mother Teresa.

I've mentioned the wariness of religious persons who move past literal interpretations of Church doctrine but do not want to openly break with the Church. Lay people like me have a similar challenge, and not only those who feel attached to the Church. A person I’ll call Bruce asked not to be quoted and identified, afraid that his “name attached to the Catholic quotes” might bring negative reactions from his family.

Beth Blevins, on the other hand, accepts the challenge of expressing spiritual convictions that our exterior culture scorns. She identifies herself as a “technical writer and editor by trade, which requires very linear, logical thinking.” So far, nothing that startles. But her self-description goes on:
I have been a medium since I was a child: seeing angels, spirit guides, and spirits of loved ones who have made their transition.
About two years ago she started having visions, a further step into the non-ordinary.
One morning during prayer and meditation I was guided to stop using my psychic abilities for individuals (giving readings) and begin working on a global level with energy/patterns in the ethers, or the ‘morphic fields,’ as Rupert Sheldrake names them. This meant to spend more time in meditation, ‘holding’ peace and awakening for the planet. As if to emphasize the point, my psychic abilities suddenly stopped! Shortly thereafter the visions commenced.
Her family were Protestant fundamentalists, but her engineer father was psychic also and taught her
early on not to talk about it outside the family. My parents eventually started exploring metaphysics and expanding their view on ‘paranormal’ experiences. In fact, a couple of years before he died, my father confided to me that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him several times!

“So, I might say I’m a paradox of ‘far-left’ brain functioning and ‘far-right,’ or heart-centered, functioning! . . . Now you might understand why I hesitated for more than a year to put the visions up on the web! First, I’ve never experienced anything like them before and they’re pretty ‘out there!’ Second, they require a very different style of writing than I’m skilled at! But it is my assignment (you know how that goes), and procrastination aside, I’m making them available for people to experience!
Read about her visions here and know why Hamlet says,
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Sad, that Jung's father and Mother Teresa were trapped by religious expectations. May you, readers, escape the bonds binding you to crippling beliefs.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Billy Graham

In response to Time magazine’s story about Billy Graham, a reader wrote: “As a Hindu Indian who has been a naturalized American for many years, I have been deeply concerned by the clout and popularity of Graham. To believe that whoever receives Christ as his Savior goes to heaven is quite acceptable to me. To say Christianity is the only way to God and heaven is outrageous.”

This expresses the reason I wrote God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky: Cherishing Christianity without Its Exclusive Claims.

I agree completely with Bradford Smith in Meditation who writes that “a new faith is taking shape in our time.” It recognizes “many equally valid forms” of one universal spiritual impulse and knows that the myth and symbol of a particular religion can have “meaning for a particular seeker” but “a common symbolism” cannot be forced on all.

I believe this inclusive realization is happening under the surface while exclusive Christian claims triumph on the surface of our society.

In God Is Not Three Guys I offer inclusive interpretations of Christian myth and symbol to bolster this “new faith.” The Paschal Mystery, for instance, can easily be harmonized with the spirituality of Hellenistic pagans, who were the rivals and relatives of early Christians. Jesus of Nazareth’s Reign of God can easily be harmonized with the core message of authentic spirituality in all times and places.

But the message that Jesus is the one and only way to eternal peace did not come from Jesus and is not my belief.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Atheist, scientist, & Mother Teresa

Religion and science, evangelism and atheism, are hot subjects in the news. The cacophony of voices would be less confusing if these subjects were discussed in a more inclusive way.

My background roots me in Catholicism., so Christian terms like “Reign of God” and “paschal lamb” reverberate with meaning for me, but Buddhist, Muslim, or Native American terms less so.

Still, I like to step out of the Christian envelope and get a larger viewpoint. Seen from outside, the only-through-Jesus preaching of Christians appears cramped.
It imagines the mysterious Source of everything that is or could be as an individual humanlike person, a “He.” Christian teaching claims that a man called Jesus differs from the rest of creation in being the only son of God.

It's useful to distinguish between religion and spirituality. Religions are various ways of being spiritual, various brands, usually with particular beliefs and practices. The problem develops when we insist that our brand is better than your brand—“we have God’s exclusive revelation and God’s son.”

But this image contrasts with the historical Jesus discovered by scripture scholars. I have more respect for the Jesus who actually lived as a Palestinian Jew two thousand years ago than for the God-image. One of the compliments for God Is Not Three Gods in the Sky that pleases me most is this from a friend: "I like Jesus a whole lot better since reading Jeanette's book!"

Jesus of Nazareth didn’t think he was God and didn’t claim he was dying to save others. He said nothing about abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, or creation spirituality.

At the same time that shrill Islamic extremists and Christian right wingers are competing for dominance, a quiet revolution is brewing.
Underneath the din simmers an alternative way of being spiritual that includes people of religion as well as atheists. We hear that atheists are more unpopular than gays, but the ones I know think more deeply about spiritual matters than do many Christians. They are reflective people likely to care about feeding, housing, clothing, educating and providing health care for all.

And they make sacrifices for their spiritual convictions, bringing on the condemnation of religionists because they don't conform. They have a strong sense of right and wrong. They take risks for peace and justice, volunteer in homeless shelters, and speak truth that is unwelcome to powerful people.

For me the most exciting spiritual thoughts come from scientists. Einstein is one. He did not believe in a personal God but in “something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions.”
I like the way Einstein fused science with religion by saying that “a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” He famously stated, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Oxford professor Richard Dawkins forcefully argues the atheist position in The God Delusion. Interviewed in Time magazine, he said “we need to work on” questions about “the purpose of existence and whether God exists.”
Asked if the answer to the questions could be God, he said
there could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.
That’s God,” answered Francis Collins, a genome scientist and Christian convert.
Beautiful. This is my idea of God. I don’t believe God is an individual person or set of persons, and neither did the premier Catholic thinker of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner. He emphasized that God cannot be merely an individual alongside other individuals.
The ideas of great Christian thinkers resemble those of other spiritualities. This would become clear if we had informed discussions about God in public discourse.

Atheists and Mother Teresa
What have atheists, Mother Teresa, and fundamentalists held in common? They’ve been stuck on the same impossible interpretation of religious language.

Before anyone has heart failure, I hasten to say that I admired Mother Teresa lavishly for the unbelievable depth of her self-sacrifice. But she disappointed me when she fought for regressive and repressive religiosity.

I was reminded of that part of her history by atheist Christopher Hitchens in Newsweek. The author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he reports that Mother Teresa “violently opposed” the reforms of Vatican II and comments, “What could be a clearer indication of a deep need to suppress all doubt, both in herself and others?”

He correctly analyzes the reason for her agony of doubt:
It is the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.
Right on. But Christopher Hitchens, wait! Don’t assume the same of all religious people. In an excellent Washington Post review of God Is Not Great, Stephen Prothero wrote that Hitchens’belligerent atheism “assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery.”
Again, right on! Describing naïvete in religious people, Hitchens exposes his own naïvete by assuming that the empty and literal belief of his description captures all religion and spirituality. As Prothero comments,
If this is religion, then by all means we should have less of it . . . I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.
While irrelevant dogmas and religious rules dominate the airwaves, deep and pure experience with inner divinity flourishes under the surface. I invite atheists and religious literalists alike to give less attention to the Three Guys in the Sky and more to authentic spirituality radiating from within.

Dear Mother Teresa! How I wish she had been able to get past the external deity, the idol, the god, the “He,” the man-like being out there somewhere. And how I wish the same for atheists and all religious people!

Mystics, atheists, & Mother Teresa, August 29, 2008
The news that Mother Teresa doubted the existence of God gave atheists grist for their mill. But I insist that atheists and many Christians share an image of God that leads both groups astray and cannot be sustained in deep reflection—an external deity, a humanlike individual, a separate being. Theist belief in such a god is rightly denigrated by atheists.

Mystics, who experience what is called God more closely than the rest of us, tell us that It is not to be described as any thing or any person. I’ve not seen a better description of It than the one Huston Smith passes on from the yogas of Hinduism. He writes that the “only literally accurate description of the Unsearchable” is to say, “not this . . . not this,” of everything in the universe. “What remains will be God.”

This realization is common among mystic seers, whatever their tradition. In Christianity, apophatic mysticism says God is no thing and every thing. The Tao de Ching begins with the words, “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” In other words, It’s unknowable, indescribable. Those who experience It and try to find words for It fail, but they can’t stop trying.

Mystics experience this mysterious something, but they are conditioned by background, by language and culture. So Christian mystics usually begin with the Jesus image but their meditation transcends this image.

Thomas Merton converted from communism to Catholicism and became a Trappist monk. Toward the end of his life he also became a Zen Buddhist, like Thich Nhât Hanh mingling Buddhism with Christianity. In one of Merton’s works on Zen Buddhism, he expressed astonishment that he had more in common with Zen Buddhists than with members of his own religion. Since Merton, Catholic monastics follow his example of merging traditions.

I wish Mother Teresa had strayed from literal Christian belief. She would not have written, "Jesus has a very special love for you,” and then been assailed with “darkness,” “loneliness,” and “torture” when she looked for God. She would have known that a human figure can lead us to what we call God, but cannot be It.

What I wish for theists like Mother Teresa I also wish for atheists—the direct experience of the something that is the Ground and Source of all that is or could be. I finish with a mystic’s statement I like very much: “It is best to have an intimate relationship with God and best not to insist that she exists.”