Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does God exist? Wrong question!

Here’s the right question: What is your idea of God? If God is an individual distinct from ourselves and the universe, count me among the unbelievers in that idol.

My current definition of God is spiritual reality, and who doesn’t believe in spiritual reality? Who denies the existence of honor and greed, truth and deception, beauty and evil and goodness? These intangibles point to an immaterial universe, a spiritual dimension. That’s God. Of course, there is much more to be said about this ineffable mystery.

In the National Catholic Reporter, Tom Fox quoted S. Elizabeth Johnson as setting three ground rules for the quest to recognize God:
1) God is an ineffable, incomprehensible mystery and we can never wrap our minds around the fullness of who God is.
2) Therefore, every word we use to speak about God is metaphorical, symbolic or analogical. It always means that and more.
3) Therefore, we need many words, many names, many images, many adjectives for God. Each adds to the richness and texture and the greatness of what we mean when we say "God."
I think many who would call themselves unbelievers in God would nonetheless accept this description of spiritual reality.
To a young man deeply wounded by the Christian right and now striking out on a new path, I wrote that he no longer needed to proselytize for atheism as he’d been doing, but in the past he needed to do it to clear his mind of Christian nonsense. Gratefully he saw his situation in a new light and replied, “How deeply indoctrinated into Christianity I had been!!” He added, “Negative voices of hatred and intolerance are damaging to the human condition and that includes atheist intolerance towards healthy spirituality.”

At an arts event someone wanted to know if I believe that a person who rejects God will go to heaven. This question makes no sense in the spiritual paradigm emerging today. The question begs further questions, “What’s God?” and “What’s heaven?”

Some readers will shout, “Who is God?” not “What is God?” to which I reply that both are appropriate + More. God is spiritual reality, much more than any answer to who or what or any other question.

My interlocutor kept referring to God as “Him” but, when I said that was a problem for me, he graciously changed his language. I appreciate that. I prefer “what” and “it” in reference to what we call God, because these non-gendered words free minds from the image of a guy or set of guys that our culture creates with the he-him-his God-talk. When I point out to Christians that God is more than a man or men, they’re not hearing anything they didn’t know before, but religious training prevents their using more freeing language.

A speaker—I forget who—asked the question, "Would we expect that a horse could define a human person?" It’s just as foolish to expect that humans can define the spiritual reality we call God. A strong element in Christianity insists that its definition is correct and superior to any other tradition’s ideas about it—that only Christian ideas come from God. I find this doctrine of revelation small-minded and arrogant.

At the School of Theology many years ago I was introduced to The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous classic of Christian mysticism. To the disapproval of my instructor, I expressed indignation at the author’s consistent use of he/him/his in reference to the mysterious Unknown that so fascinated and enraptured him or her. (It could have been a woman and that would help to explain the author remaining nameless.) She or he, although contemplative, was caught in Christian conceptions, not only the male god but also a preoccupation with sin and judgment. It was disappointing.

It is heavy-handed religionists who restrict the Unseen Order, the Ultimate, and they do it by limiting it to particular images. By trying to foist certain beliefs on others, Christian literalism eliminates the possible good this religion could do. Christianity used to play a positive role in politics—during the civil rights struggles, for instance. Today, it is waning as a positive spiritual force and seems to be losing some of its integrity.

Ex-Catholics, for instance, comprise one-tenth of the U.S. population, many of them specifically identified by Fr. Richard McBrien as women, gays and lesbians, divorced people, and critics of official teachings on sexuality and reproduction. The Vatican's intransigence toward these groups is hastening the exodus of U.S. Catholics from the Church.

Typical headlines in our country read: “Christianity losing ground in U.S,” “Atheism on the Rise in U.S.,” and “We are all Hindus now,” a column by Lisa Miller in Newsweek. She quotes a Pew Forum survey which finds 30 percent of Americans calling themselves “spiritual, not religious,” and 37 percent of white evangelicals (surprising!) saying that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” Miller concludes, “It’s about whatever works.”

I see all this as positive. The evolution of thought on religions and spirituality continues unabated, showing a Larger Purpose in the universe. History’s unfolding directs humanity toward a higher moral consciousness. Humans are both directed by and direct the universe toward this Higher Order.


Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, & John Adams. (related reflections, June 3, 2008)
Deepak Chopra, himself a spiritual leader, wrote about the Dalai Lama,
The most mystical thing about him is also the most ordinary: . . . He’s happy in the midst of chaos and turmoil.

The most inspiring thing [the Dalai Lama] ever told me was to ignore all organized faiths and keep to the road of higher consciousness. "Without relying on religion, we look to common sense, common experience and the findings of science for understanding," he said.
Yes, but missing here is reference to the reality we call God.

I just finished reading David McCullough’s John Adams. Reading it became a spiritual exercise because the great man’s role in forming our nation was attended by affliction and vicious attacks. It led me to reflect on courage and the surprising ways events can play out for good and bad. McCullough quoted words of Adams that “could have been his epitaph.”
Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.
Adams did and the Dalai Lama does what I strive but often fail to do—maintain steadiness and even joy while miserable conditions, my own or the world's, grab my attention. This ability often accompanies the great.

John Adams decried religious conflicts but accepted a “Supreme Being.” He said,
[The universe is] inscrutable and incomprehensible . . . the whole system is under the constant and vigilant direction of a wisdom more discerning than ours.
While Chopra and the Dalai Lama impress me as spiritual models, I am most impressed by Adams’ subordination of human knowledge and wisdom to a higher knowledge and wisdom.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bible study in schools

Ron wrote this in an email:
The other night, I was at a backyard get-together, and several people were talking about how President Obama will be speaking to school children via the internet on the opening day of school next week. Several of them were pretty upset about this, and phrases like "I don't trust that guy," and "I don't want him to be talking to my kids without me being there..."

After this had gone on for a while, someone said something that reminded me of the recent news from Texas that the Bible will now be taught in all grades starting this year, so I asked, "What if the schools here announced they would start teaching the Bible to your kids, and it was a required course?" Amazing, all of those parents and grandparents thought that would be "just fine..." A teacher, with who-knows-what credentials and religious background, teaching your kids religion at a public school, and that would be ok, but a message from the President of the United States asking kids to stay in school and be a success in life is not.
I’m afraid most of that “Bible study” will wander around in the trees without ever getting a glimpse of the forest. I wish the Bible along with scriptures from other traditions were taught in schools to compare our dominant culture’s beliefs and mores in the context of other religions and cultures. I wish the Bible were taught to examine
• its illustration of evolving morality
• its factual history (the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan)
• its religious myth (the abiding theme of my writing)
• its spiritual power to sustain and uplift—e.g.,
You have been my guide since I was first formed,
my security at my mother’s breast . . .” (Psalm 22:11)
• its figurative poetry—e.g.,
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together
with a little child to guide them. (Isaiah 11: 6)
Few teachers understand these things, much less are able to teach them. How many, for instance, are aware that the Israelites of 3,000 years ago committed acts of genocide with no moral reservations and, indeed, attributed them to commands from God?
In Joshua 8:24-27 we read,
[Israel] put to the sword . . . a total of twelve thousand men and women, the entire population of Ai . . . and took for themselves as booty the livestock and the spoil of that city, according to the command of the Lord . . .
Similar accounts can be found in Joshua 10:17-26, Deuteronomy 3:3-7, Deuteronomy 20: 16-18, Numbers 31, and many more passages. Numbers 33: 51-52 reveals "the Lord's" reason for commanding genocide is god-jealousy:
When you go across the Jordan into the land of Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you; destroy all their stone figures and molten images and demolish all their high places.
The "high places" were sacred worship sites for the indigenous people of Canaan.
Deuteronomy 22: 13-29 explicates the treatment of women. If a bride accused of not being a virgin cannot prove her virginity she is stoned to death. A woman has to marry her rapist “because he has deflowered her” but her father gets paid by the rapist for the crime. Pro-lifers who find feminist acceptance of abortion unfathomable should read the Hebrew Scriptures to understand deep-seated resentment against women being treated as property, as tools used for propagation.

The wrath of “the Lord” (his payback for disobedience) comes clear in Deuteronomy 28: 58-62:
“he will smite you and your descendants with severe and lasting blows . . . any kind of sickness or calamity . . . the Lord will bring upon you until you are destroyed.” Only the most reactionary moralist approves of such a God or of the Israelites’ violent, despoiling conquest of a native people. Such has been our evolution in morality and in our religious myth.

Well. I have to correct myself. I wrote the previous sentence yesterday, and today I realize that “the Israelites’ violent, despoiling conquest of a native people” comes painfully close to describing the events in Palestine during the past 40 years. Still, relative to Old Testament morality, we can say unequivocally that humans have evolved in moral sensitivity.

Would that Bible study included these elements.

Tom Stavros emailed this excellent response:
Bible study in schools has been proposed many times. It must include study of other religions as you state. And the instruction has to be impartial and not be part of the science curriculum. To find competent teachers and materials and monitor the process becomes difficult (and usually objectionable to those who are afraid of exposing children to other ideas and/or critique of their infallible bible).

Factual history is minimal in the bible. Religious myth as long as it is clearly identified as myth along with other religions' myths in non-judgmental ways is OK. Figurative poetry again should be taught in a literature class along with other poetry (i.e.—Omar Khayyam, etc.).

Spiritual power should not be expected of the teachers. Just presenting the material should be adequate. Spiritual power should be left to the student. Byron has spiritual power to uplift some but not everyone. This is true of all authors and writing (i.e.—Emily Dickenson, Rudyard Kipling, etc.).

Friday, September 4, 2009

Health justice

Today I diverge from the subject of religions, but not spirituality. I am inspired by the life of Ted Kennedy as a story of redemption, specifically his collaboration with persons who disagreed with him and his personal journey of righting his wrongs by helping the poor and disadvantaged. He wrote in his letter to the pope, “I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith I have tried to right my path."

He said giving everyone in the country access to health care was the political cause of his life. Right now that also is my cause and I’m delighted that 40 plus people demonstrated in St. Cloud to say we need more, not less, government involvement in health care.

Competing for profits works fine for selling stuff, but it doesn’t take care of sick people. We can shop for refrigerators and cars, but nobody shops for health care because we don’t know “the product.” In times of need, doctors don't shop for health care, they rely on the expertise of other trusted doctors.

Our profit-driven system results in 60% of surgeries being unjustified. Among the most frequently performed unnecessary surgeries are hysterectomies, Cesarean sections, coronary artery bypass surgeries, and mastectomies. Conservatives call for tort reform but that wouldn’t address the motive of simple greed in surgeons and hospitals.

While encouraging unnecessary procedures, our profit system denies procedures that are needed. To satisfy stockholders, insurance companies find 1400 ways to “rescind” the policies of people needing care—they simply cancel their policies. Katha Pollitt reports in The Nation that Assurant Health, UnitedHealth and WellPoint saved $300 million between 2003 and 2007 by rescinding at least 19,776 policies. If an insurance company doesn’t dump enough sick people, its stock falls on Wall Street. So says Wendell Potter, who converted from a propagandist for private insurance to testifying in Congress as a whistleblower.

And for-profit companies deny coverage in the beginning. A friend of mine in good health was rejected by three insurance companies. She’s over 60. Was this the reason? What good is health insurance for people who don’t need it?

Then there’s the wasted time and cost of begging insurance companies to pay up. Doctors and nurses spend hours on the phone and in writing trying to get compensation for necessary procedures. While only 3% of Medicare’s premiums go for administrative costs, 10 to 20% of private insurance premiums go for such costs.

In funding efficiency, wait times, rationing, life expectancy, infant mortality, treatment of chronic disease, and use of technology, the World Health Organization ranks our country 37th in the whole world. But we rank first in the amount of money expended. Only in the U. S. can you go bankrupt because you got sick. Over half of our personal bankruptcies result from medical costs.

Loudly-trumpeted are examples of Canadians coming across the border for treatment, but it should be coupled with this fact—the U.S. excels in offering elective surgery for those who can afford it. We lack BASIC, PRIMARY care. We don’t have enough primary-care doctors in the U.S. because specialists earn a lot more. Here we are back to profits again.

This is what our private insurance system has wrought. All systems better than ours have some form of government care. Opponents of proposed reforms like to say we have the best health care in the world. That’s true for the privileged few. Ted Kennedy was one, and the unfairness of that motivated his decades of work to expand care.

One more fact—Minnesota’s health care system really is superb, among the very best in the world. It may be that I’m alive only because of MinnesotaCare—a government system.

What would Jesus say?

Both developed and developing countries around the world grant every human being the moral right to basic health care. Not America, the richest country.

18,000 Americans die yearly because they lack health insurance, reported USA in 2007. A 2009 figure raises that number to 22,000. No other industrialized country lets that happen. Our health care mess accounts for more than half of personal bankruptcies in our country. No other industrialized country lets that happen. Only in America do you go bankrupt because you got sick.

Are Americans crueler than people in other countries?

T.R. Reid, foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and writer about health care, thinks Americans just don’t know how cruel our system is. We in Minnesota don’t know because our system is excellent, among the very best in the world. I may be alive because I live in Minnesota, a state with the "socialist" program of MinnesotaCare.

But thousands elsewhere in our country die for lack of care, when the models of good care exist, some in our own country. What’s the matter?

Certainly Americans in part hesitate to learn from government programs in other countries because opponents of change shout loud lies and use words designed to trigger irrational fears—“socialism,” “euthanasia,” “rationing,” “abortion.” Certainly money from private industries that profit from our dysfunctional system plays a role.

I’m afraid part of our reluctance to learn from other systems is American exceptionalism—the belief that we are best in everything, that we always teach other countries, help other countries, that we have nothing important to learn from them. I’d love to be shown wrong.

Here’s how our profit-driven system rations care:
• It denies insurance to people who obviously need care.
• It cancels the policies of people who, despite a former “clean” bill of health, turn out to need care.
• It wastes hours of caregivers’ time as they beg insurance companies to pay for necessary procedures.
• It focuses on making money. This fundamental law of capitalism works for selling things like cars and mousetraps. But the drive toward CEO and stockholder profits demands culling the expensive unhealthy people.

• It kills 18,000 to 22,000 Americans yearly and accounts for over half of our personal bankruptcies.

I used to think we had to get rid of private health insurance entirely, but T.R. Reid is giving me second thoughts. He points out that some wealthy countries with systems far more effective and efficient than ours have private insurance companies. But they also have strict government regulation.

Kathleen commented,
There is so much misinformation and outright lies being spread about health care. The talk radio "commentators" as well as those with their own TV shows are fomenting such rage in people who think their rights or health care will be impacted. These public figures have a political agenda and get paid millions to promote it. Unfortunately, the health care industry is also spending millions to kill the Obama health plan. Betsy McCaughey of the Hudson Institute, the expert rumor starter, thought up the euthanasia to seniors scenario, which is a total fabrication. But it's working because people believe her after her multi-media blitz! She was also this busy defeating the Clinton health plan.

However, today, I worry about the consequences of the constant barrage of malicious invective by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck. Fox News even published the locations of Democratic (not Republican) Town Hall Meetings. They seem to be encouraging these mob scenes. I worry about assassinations. If a tragedy should occur, will these "entertainers" and their sponsors claim responsibility? No.
Bottom line—we need more government involvement, not less.

For information on better health care, read the findings of T.R. Reid and facts from the World Health Organization.

September 20, 2009
Here’s a correction on health care facts just released by Harvard researchers. The number of people who die annually for lack of health insurance is not only around 20,000, it’s 45,000! A co-author and professor of medicine wrote, "We're losing more Americans every day because of inaction ... than drunk driving and homicide combined."
This certainly is a pro-life issue.

"Anonymous" commented:
45,000 is still a small number compared to the million abortions per year which kill unborn persons DELIBERATELY, not simply by inaction. Now THAT is a pro-life issue.
Do you believe in a consistent ethic of life? When was the last time you Pax Christi people protested abortion in front of an abortion clinic?