Friday, February 26, 2010

Religion at Harvard

. . . to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what’s going on beneath and behind appearances . . .
Louis Menand, professor and literary critic making the case for religion as a curriculum requirement at Harvard, quoted in Newsweek (February 22), Harvard's Crisis of Faith

Menand and others argue that university professors who sniff at religion box themselves into “slim silos of expertise,” trying in a “scientistic” approach to submit everything to empirical measurement.

Religion—the world of faith, thought, ethics, and belief—does not submit to scientific experiment, but Barbara Bradley Hagerty found that in experiments it persistently shows its face. Spiritual reality will not surrender the field because it IS “what’s going on beneath and behind appearances.”

Steven Pinker, popular evolutionary psychologist, leads the case against a religion requirement at Harvard. He derides religion by reducing it to superstition, witchcraft, and idol worship, pitching the familiar images of virgins killed on an altar and an angry god appeased. “Faith,” he says, “is believing in something without good reasons to do so.”

Understanding the reasons for faith is precisely the area of knowledge missing in Pinker and other “scientistic” rationalists. By failing to require the study of religion, Harvard remains out of step with its students and with the phenomenal rise of interest in religion as debates about it rage on in media and cyberspace.

I would like rationalists and religionists to reconsider the question, Does God exist? Knowing it's the wrong question could counteract the misleading influence of the Christian groups known as evangelicals, literalists, or fundamentalists. With them in mind, a reader of my book and blog exclaimed:
How MUCH of Jesus' teachings have been misunderstood and ignored!
Instead of absorbing the timeless wisdom of Jesus, the Nazarene, and turning inward to be fed by Spirit from within, many Christians today throw their energy into preaching an only-through-Jesus line, one that he never took and that contemporary understanding cannot support.
In this era of globalization, diversity, and tolerance, theologians increasingly understand that exclusive claims are obsolete. Their work of integrating today’s emerging insights with our 2,000-years of tradition are impeded by the popes, most cardinals, and most bishops, who, after all, are appointed by the popes. National Catholic Reporter editorialized about the toll on theologians from the 25 years of John Paul II’s papacy.
Moral theology of the sort that might raise substantial questions or handle difficult sexual or other life issues is being left to those who regurgitate the party line. . . . More adventuresome and sophisticated theologians are out there, but they’re not going to raise their heads too far above the barricades. . . .
Our best thinkers have seen what happens to careers when the accepted formulae—be it in moral theology or Christology or ecumenism—are challenged. . . . The chill that has been placed on speculation and thinking of the sort that raises discomfiting questions is probably the greatest cause for the lack of theological enterprise in this era.
Well, the hierarchs won’t win. Even at the Vatican there are good minds questioning assumptions of the past. The abusive, despotic hold on Catholic practices and beliefs is a desperate attempt for control in a whirling world.

My own experience tells me that spiritual views are changing as every kind of backlash plays itself out. When I got the first impulse to write God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky in the 1980s, I felt out of whack with most religious persons. Not anymore. Slowly, inexorably, Spirit in Her infinite wisdom effects changes despite the efforts of human institutions to stop them.

Religion in schools
I was speaking to ninth graders in a public school and asked them these questions: If I were teaching a class called World Religions, would it be OK to try persuading you to be Catholic or not Catholic? Would it be OK to tell you about the man Jesus who lived in history? About similarities between Christianity and other religions? To convince you either that Jesus is God or is not God? They got it. They understood the constitutional protection of religious freedom. They knew the difference between learning about religions and pushing certain beliefs.

I’d like to see this kind of religious instruction in schools. If we knew more about other religions, there would be more cooperation and less conflict of all kinds. We’d grow to understand the nature of religion and grow in appreciation of the Mystery. The light of other religions wouldn't preclude love of our own religion but it would illuminate the obviously mythical beliefs such as the virgin birth.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mind and matter again

A comment to Mind over matter came to me by email because it didn't fit into the comment box. It teaches, uplifts, and gives hope for the whole world, not only for our individual lives. I hope you like it as much as I do. Although it could also follow the posts under Science, I decided it begins a new category in my index—Post-Christian.

Sondra's words launch a definite turn in my thought frame—a post-Christian frame for thinking about spiritual reality.


It isn’t a matter of mind OVER matter. Matter is Mind in one of its many forms. Mind, consciousness, is the source of matter. Look around you at the nearest physical object, a chair, or a spoon. It is consciousness expressing itself in the form of the chair or spoon.

In reference to the quotes in Mind Over Matter 2 – Wm. James, Eric Butterworth, and the quote from the bible:
What all these people – and many others throughout the centuries, are saying, couched in the language of their time, and clothed in the extent of their understanding, is:
You Create Your Reality

This, I believe, is the major thing we have to learn in this phase of our ever–expanding awareness as humans. It is the background to all the other things we have chosen to come to physical reality to explore.

The bottom line is:
We are creating all the time. We can’t stop creating. We can’t turn that ability off and on. It’s as much a part of us as the ability to grow fingernails or pump blood. It comes with the package that is us. So the question then becomes: How does this work? How can we get better at creating the life we want, instead of creating by default and accidentally getting things we don’t want?

Jeanette said - “I do not believe we can (or should) fulfill our wishes by believing they will come true.”
I’m guessing you are thinking that the ego–self or the intellect, are all that is involved in the creation/manifestation process. If that were true we would indeed be in deep trouble very quickly. In the same way that we do not and cannot, on a continuous basis, orchestrate and control from our intellect and ego-self our ability to grow hair, digest our food, or heal a cut, so it is not from this outer level that we can control what we want and wish for.

A slight digression here – The ego is constantly getting a bad rap. It is not something separate, tacked on to us and disconnected to the rest of our being. It is the furthest extension of our inner-self, our soul. It is the part of us designed to operate in physical reality. Its job is to assess conditions and send back to the inner self reports and information about what is going on “on the ground,” so to speak. Our larger or deeper self cannot manifest all of itself in physical reality. The inner self is too large. It won’t all fit.

The ego and personality are the working–in–the–field aspects of us. They are an extension of the inner self into physical reality. The ego and personality are the scouts–in–the–field, designed to inform the deeper layers of our being about our current conditions, our assessments of those conditions, the directions we want to go. Sometimes our assessments are good, and sometimes they are not so good. Hence our accidentally manifesting things we don’t really want. We don’t understand that what’s inside (thoughts, etc) are creating external reality for our appraisal. Outer, objective reality is meant to be feedback.

So, to return to before the digression:

Our Whole Being is involved in the life we create, not just our ego and personality. Our inner self certainly has input. Sometimes this input is called Grace. But even with Grace we get into enough troubles. J However, if Grace were the only thing operating, if we got bailed out constantly no matter how faulty our outlooks, aims and choices, how would we ever learn anything? How would we expand into the vast creative possibilities that are ours?

Our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, intents, outlooks – these are the guidance systems that aim our desires into manifestation. As we learn to align them more and more in ways of love, kindness, care, appreciation, we will manifest life in ways that are more and more to our liking. And more in line with the Intelligence that spawned us.

A thought about the movie “The Secret.” It was very materialistically oriented, no question about that. It didn’t go into the deeper aspects of manifestation at all. And I suspect that if it had, it wouldn’t have been so popular. It did make the idea of manifestation and creating reality familiar to a broad spectrum of people. That is its value: introducing many people to the concept.

There's much to learn here.
A reader emailed that she felt lost in Sondra’s writing. I’m guessing the most perplexing part is this:
Look around you at the nearest physical object, a chair, or a spoon. It is consciousness expressing itself in the form of the chair or spoon.
Perhaps it’s less perplexing if I state it in religious language:
The physical universe is God expressing Self.
Keep in mind these synonyms for God (of which none alone is satisfactory):
Source. Mind, Consciousness, Energy.
We know from the mystics—Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, and indigenous—that in our deepest self we are connected with God. Now, if we take this a step further, we realize our participation in the eternal act of creation. I hope it helps to keep this in mind as you reread the rest of Sondra’s message.

Note also her answer to Dave's comment/question and his further comment.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Thanks to my daughter, you can laugh at Jeanette on Facebook girl singer

Man vs. myth again

I wonder how many still imagine Jesus pre-existing up in heaven and coming down to earth to save us. A quick Google search tells of Greek, Egyptian, and Hindu gods and goddesses who lived up in heaven and came down to help humans (echoing the cosmology spelled out in previous post). All of them pre-dated Jesus and Christianity.

Belief in the myth is fading, and it was never taught by Jesus. In a doc’s office, someone grinned over an evangelist canvassing her neighborhood with the question, “Have you been saved?” and her neighbor’s answer, “None of your G*#%& business!”

In God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, I ask,
Saved from what? Eternal damnation? Residence in a condemned neighborhood? Hell-fire? Few people read the ancient phrases literally anymore.
I agree with Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong:
Jesus does not save us from a fall that never happened or restore us to a status that we have never had. He empowers us to be more deeply and fully human and to enter higher and higher levels of consciousness where we finally discover that we live in God and God lives in us. . . .

I think we are headed for the most exciting century in Christian history. I anticipate that most of what we call religion today will die in the next century. Rigor mortis has already set in. Out of that death, however, will come a new beginning. I am glad that I have lived to see the birth pangs. Hard labor is ahead but a new creation is being born and in that new creation God will be newly experienced and newly discovered — not as a Being who lives above the sky, but as the presence that is revealed in the heart of the human.
In church last Sunday we again heard the familiar only-through-Jesus stuff, but the closing hymn in our service urged us to go deeper:
"From shallow waters call us, God, from safety near the shore,
And bid us launch upon the depths where faith is tested more. . .
We cannot fish the ocean’s depth with nets shrunk small by fear. . . "

The song urged us to be open to surprises, to
"launch on unknown seas and cast our nets abroad."

It’s exhilarating to step outside the box of thought placed over us in childhood.

Her Faith Is Mine     February 12, 2016
Since the 1990s I have communicated with German relatives at Christmas time. This last December Eva Igelmund wrote that their tulips were rising from the ground, almond trees were starting to bloom, and birds didn't know if they should stay or go south. I laughed upon reading this, but it also is sad and frightening to see predictions of global warming that I read decades ago come to pass.

In a later email she reported that the forecast for Christmas weekend called for 62 º F. Germany lies at a slightly higher latitude than Minnesota’s, but western Europe is warmed by the Atlantic Gulf Stream. Minnesota reaches temperature extremes because it is in the middle of a continent. Lake Superior is the closest large moderating body of water. Because of Eva's news I was actually glad that winter returned to Minnesota in January after an unusually warm December.

Eva summarized her relationship with religion and in doing so summarized mine. She gave me permission to translate her German words into English. Describing herself as a free spirit, she writes,
Although born and bred Catholic and from earliest childhood interested in spirituality, I began to question as a young child. Or did I perhaps question for that reason?

I read extensively and tried many paths, stayed away from the Catholic Church for a time, but never from God. Since then I have made my peace with the institution, knowing that its officials have the faults and weaknesses of us all.
I live an intense life of faith, celebrating daily worship by maintaining contact with the Creator/Jesus/God/One Source of all Being. From day to day, the face of this power shifts as my moods shift, depending on my experiences and sources of inspiration.

My childhood image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, now gives way to images more diffuse, ineffable, exalted, unbelievably near and trusted, but formless Being. Whatever the form imagined, uniting with it brings solace, power, joy, confidence and hope.
Eva’s words delight me, as they could be my own confession of faith. She states my thoughts and feelings as if she were in my mind. That she says them in German intensifies their meaning for me and the pleasure of having words convey thoughts.

If anyone would like to see Eva’s statement in German, email me. Hit the contact button at 

Monday, February 8, 2010

Man vs. myth 4

I'm responding to emails I’ve gotten on the subject begun with Man vs myth.

How do I bridge Christian faith with universal spirituality? By distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. For a full answer, go to God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky: Cherishing Christianity without Its Exclusive Claims, but you can also find answers by clicking on titles in my index. Try “Christ divine,” “Historical Jesus,” and “Myth.”

I often find myself in the middle of religion discussions, challenged by both sides but also bringing them together. And I feel progress from comments like the following. An atheist said,
I do feel that you have more in common with atheists than with fundamentalists of any religious bent. Evidence and reason matter to you as more than fallbacks to buttress beliefs placed beyond inquiry.
Another atheist shifted from scorning spirituality to valuing it:
Thinking spiritually does not mean giving up critical thinking, nor giving up reason and rationality.
Joy wrote,
I am discovering that educated and thoughtful Christians (and Jews and Muslims) have more in common with atheists than with the Christian right (or Jewish or Muslim orthodoxy). I do see the value of community and ritual and ceremony in religious traditions. But, again, religious dogma is not required to experience community or to create beauty with ceremony and ritual.
I personally cannot participate fully nor find meaning and beauty in community, ceremony and ritual which is based on and honoring faiths I do not believe in. However, I am learning that many can and do, and I can respect their reasoning. That saddens me a bit, however, because I believe it keeps some hearts and minds from becoming educated and thoughtful.
And a religious sister stated she had “no trouble agreeing” that educated and thoughtful Christians have more in common with atheists than with the Christian right. And here’s a response from another religious sister:
I resonate with your confession of belief [in Man vs. myth 2]. Thanks for articulating it clearly.
I couldn’t ask for a better endorsement.
Here’s a general reflection on religion from Ron:
Life evolved over millions or billions of years to where it is now, and will continue to do so. As homo sapiens developed powers of reasoning, a search for ‘why are we here, and how was all of this created?’ became a determination that some higher power was responsible, and that higher power or force field was humanized. A few thousand years ago, writing developed, and stories told around the fire ( after someone figured out how to do that ) were written down and passed along. Fables and myths became fact. Imagine if future generations happen upon a video of one of our soap operas and take it as fact.

Groups of people recognized that capturing this concept of a God and life after death was powerful stuff, and a great and profitable method of crowd control. Fear of death prompts the ease of acceptance of a life beyond existing life, a need to gather every week in a particular place at a particular time, and grovel before a greater power or force field with a need to be constantly reassured that we like it.

The Bible is a great book of fiction, hopes and dreams, nothing more. Jesus may not have actually existed. When you die, you die, and go to that same place you existed before you were born. But, a deep devotion to religion helps make us feel better about the whole prospect. Sorry, that's how I see it. Of course, others think I'm crazy and there “just has to be something to it. . .”
I agree with much of Ron’s analysis but also that there’s “something to it.” If sacred scriptures like the Bible were only great books of “fiction, hopes and dreams, nothing more,” we wouldn’t have wars started by religion. I have had deep conversations with atheists for years and notice they really don't believe in "nothing more." They believe in Something more and their moral commitment to it drives their atheism.

Lance, responding to my statement of belief, wrote this:
I think it is possible that Paul, who said that what he wrote about Christ was revealed by God and not given him by men, borrowed themes from other religions to cobble together a Christ figure whom he conceived as having performed a salvific role on a plane of existence not on this earth, and that subsequent writers used midrash to create an earthly Jesus who was born, who taught and performed miracles, and who was crucified here.
I repeatedly state that Paul “borrowed themes from other religions.” Their myths of dying and rising saviors helped to form our myth of Christ. But I do not agree that Paul and other writers created an earthly Jesus. I believe there was a man behind the myth and state the reasons for my belief in my chapter “The Man Jesus.”

Atheists often argue that no Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. They can’t prove that and I can’t prove that he existed. But whether a historical man underlies the myth of Jesus Christ is less important than understanding the distinction between man and myth. Most Christians believe the myth literally and that’s the problem. The myth says this man Jesus was different from every other human being who ever lived or will live—he had exclusive, exceptional, never to be repeated divinity. This tells persons in other spiritual systems that ours is better than theirs, and it prevents us from finding common ground with them.

We Christians need not be ashamed of our myth of Christ or its origins, but we need to accept it as myth; we need to learn how religious myths work in our lives so that we can stop the exclusive claims and embrace a universal spiritual outlook.

Lance wondered how I can call myself Christian if I don’t believe the myth literally.
If you think Gandhi and Buddha and Joe and Nelly also are manifestations of God, are you any more a Christian . . . than a Gandhian/Buddhist/Joean/Nellian?
It’s an accident of history that I belong to this great religion whose sacred scriptures are the New Testament and whose God-image is Jesus. They are familiar and evocative to me, and I know that Christian language, like all religious language, is properly understood symbolically, not literally.
Thank you all.

The man Jesus was quite a guy, a troublemaker who denounced religious officials, overturned common beliefs, and shook people up with exaggerated speech.
• If your eye gets you into trouble, gouge it out.
• If your hand gets you into trouble, cut it off.

I like and respect this provocative man more than the idol worshipped in church, where up-down language prevails.
• He came down from heaven.
• He descended to the dead.
• He rose from the dead.
• He ascended into heaven.
• He is seated on the right hand of the Father.
• Glory to God on high.
This comes from Hellenistic cosmology, which pictured the universe in three layers—heaven on top (where the gods dwelt), earth in the middle (flat, of course), and under the earth the abode of the dead. Like other Hellenistic gods and goddesses, the mythical Jesus traveled up and down these levels (on a “celestial elevator,” said one of my sources).

Traditional believers imagine Jesus born at the winter solstice of a father in heaven impregnating a human virgin, narrowly escaping death as an infant, dying violently, being resurrected and going back up to heaven. I’ve just described Hellenistic gods, but the only detail in this list that’s true of the man Jesus is that he died violently. Why imagine Jesus as a Greek god?

We can’t recreate the historical Jesus; we can only imagine him. I’m aware that my image differs from that of most Christians, also my beliefs about Jesus. I expect Catholicism in the future will have many groups going their own way, like the group of African Catholic priests who chucked the celibacy rule and the right fringe groups whom John Paul and Benedict have bent over backwards to include. There'll be less and less control from the top despite desperate Vatican efforts to maintain it.

Why should devotion to Jesus follow specifically Roman ways? Catholicism cannot remain a monarchy and withstand the tug of democracy forever. I expect it will go the way of Buddhism and Hinduism, which have disparate beliefs and practices.

A fascinating Catholic way that’s not Roman is the practice of Vodou in Haiti where persons go into a trance and are ridden by a deity. They release themselves completely to the spirit, so that when they come out of the trance, others have to tell them what they did and said. Spirituality foreign to most Americans, but is it wrong? No. Thinking so is our ethnocentric blindness, our desire to make other cultures think and act like us. (I learned that Vodou practice doesn’t really stick pins into dolls.)

In the post-Christian age we’re entering, I expect, not that Christian churches will disappear, but that more and more Christians will surrender their exclusive claims. Gradually they’ll learn to respect the God-images of our religious neighbors and stop insisting that Jesus is the only way to spiritual sustenance.