Monday, March 30, 2009

Beware, the Truth Might Set You Free

Warning: Those that believe that our Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God may need to navigate away from this post which radically challenges this view. Neither I nor the author are attacking the spiritual content of this sacred text but merely illustrating that man is fallible. If you choose to continue, do so in the spirit of the search for historical truth.

There was one book that always caught my eye when I walked past it in the bookstore: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. It has such an intriguing and controversial topic that even though I was tempted to read it I feared my soul might be in danger for reading such heresy. Now, I feel completely moronic for all the fear I had over an incredibly illuminating book. At that point in my life I was afraid to ask hard questions about my religious beliefs. I was afraid of being wrong. I was afraid that the book would make sense, and it did. This book is a basic introduction to the field of textual criticism, a field that most Christians are not familiar with. The very reason for this is noted in the field's name. How many Christians do you know that would take a fine tooth comb through their Bible?

Textual criticism is a branch of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts. Ancient scribes often made errors or alterations when copying manuscripts by hand. Given a manuscript copy, several or many copies, but not the original document, the textual critic seeks to reconstruct the original text (the archetype or autograph) as closely as possible. The same processes can be used to attempt to reconstruct intermediate editions, or recensions, of a document's transcription history. The ultimate objective of the textual critic's work is the production of a "critical edition" containing a text most closely approximating the original.
We do not have the original manuscripts to anything found in our New Testament. All we have are copies of copies of copies of copies. Because we lack the originals the best we can do is look through all the manuscripts we do have and find the earliest and most reliable witnesses (manuscripts) to get a glimpse on what the originals said. There are over 5200 Greek manuscript fragments that have survived the tests of time and collectively share over 200,000 differences. Differences do not mean errors, but they have differences which begs the question: if all 5200 Greek manuscripts contain differences how do we know which set of manuscripts contains the least amount of errors?

I won't go over the process here but Ehrman explains it in his book. This is a scientific way to look at our text and find what was originally said. The main defense that Christians take to textual criticism is that God was in control of the canonization process and the Bible is exactly how He wanted it. This is perfectly fine to accept and live by as long as it is making you a more loving person but looking into the history of the Bible should not offend anyone. If something is found that proves that someone added or changed a line in the original inspired word of God because either 1) they thought what was originally written was wrong so they corrected it or 2) they have a political agenda so they changed a line to fit their theology, wouldn't you want to know about these changes? Do you honestly believe that if 1 person adds a few lines about keeping women as subordinates that this is God's Will? As I said before, if this leads you to your Creator and your acceptance of the Bible, as it is, helps you to become a more loving person then please continue as you were. But the fact that there are anomalies in the manuscripts should be enough for us to take a second look at our holy text.

These are not Atheists and Agnostics with an axe to grind, Christians have been examining the manuscripts for hundreds of years and now we can look at our earliest and best manuscripts to weed out the verses that weren't originally there. In fact, my NIV Bible contains the occasional footnote throughout the New Testament stating that these verses were removed because they were not found in our best witnesses.

So what does this mean for the average Christian? How can one balance the truth found in the Bible with reality? How does this set someone "free"? The freedom I talk about is a freedom from reading the text as literal. I believe that if you read spiritual texts in a literal fashion it suffocates the spiritual message and the ability to Reason. Holy texts should be read in a manner that brings the reader closer to God and His attributes (Love, Compassion, Justice, etc.). It should be a matter of the spirit. Spiritual maturity and growth doesn't care if the world was created 6000 years or 14 billion years ago. This has nothing to do with matters of the heart but with scientific inquiry, and vice versa on scientific issues. If we were to prove (and some say we have) that the Israelites wrote the Old Testament as a collection of tales of tribal morality and myth then this should not affect matters of the spirit.

Books like Misquoting Jesus are not set out to disprove that God exists but to prove that man can make mistakes, and that anything that man handles has the possibility of being fowled up. This is a very challenging topic to millions of people and if you sat and read my entire post without fuming in anger then I applaud you. If you did become angry then there's nothing wrong with you, it is human to get upset when someone challenges your view on reality. I am not saying my view on reality is any more correct than anyone elses, but that analyzing how you see the world is a healthy practice. As Humans, with the God-given ability to reason, let us remember that we are brothers, all of us. Although we are surrounded by difficult questions we should not let our answers to these questions divide us, but that we should transcend our answers and never forget our brotherhood.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

This I Believe...Update

This semester I am taking Judaism, Christianity, and Islam taught by the inspiring Rabbi Rami Shapiro at MTSU. In the course syllabus Professor Rami assigned us two different papers one of which is to write an essay for This i, an "international project engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values that guide their daily lives". We don't have to actually send in the essay to the website (although he encourages us to send it) but we are to follow the same requirements as listed on the site and email it to him. Since I write publicly anyway I thought I would go ahead and send it in, and if I'm lucky and they like it they'll air it on NPR. I know I'm not a talented writer but I enjoy writing, so I write. Parts of my This I Believe essay are taken from my Mission Statement since I consider that the core description of my beliefs.

Update: The text in bold is Rabbi Rami's response to my essay and the text in red is my response.

I loved collecting coins as a kid. My first coin was a prize I found at the bottom of a cereal box . Each box featured a coin from a different country
you can collect. I can't explain it but something about collecting a coin that passed through so many hands and had a minute part in so many lives was awe inspiring. Whenever our town had its semiannual local flea market I made a bee line straight to the coin man's table. He would hand me a coin and I would carefully look it over checking for the date, scratches, and any other interesting characteristics. My meager allowance kept my coin collection small but I cherished everyone I bought. I don't collect them anymore but I still glance at them from time to time and I'm reminded of that childhood spirit of collecting.

Now I collect puzzle pieces, spiritual puzzle pieces. I believe that each one of us is born with a piece of a God-Sized puzzle. This piece represents how we see and interact with each other and with the Universe. Our pieces may look similar but each is personally unique to the bearer like a snowflake or a fingerprint. Whenever I meet someone new I walk away with a copy of their puzzle piece. They may be Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, or even an Atheist, but by understanding their view of reality my love for Humanity increases. There is no border, no end to this God-Sized puzzle
which grows as we find new pieces, and when spiritual travelers cross paths, pieces are traded further enriching each other's journey.

I wish to collect these spiritual puzzle pieces and spend a lifetime putting the puzzle together. The very act of assembling the puzzle is Heaven to me and is more rewarding than any attempts to complete it. Because what else can you do with a finished puzzle then to glue it to cardboard, frame it, and hang it on your wall awaiting 'Ooos and ahhs' from friends and family. Every time I receive a new piece it opens my heart to a new expression of the overall beauty of the Cosmos. I believe at the heart of this puzzle is eternal beauty which flowers outward as eternal love. I choose to call this God, although others may call it by a different name. Little by little, as my puzzle grows, my appreciation and love for God and my fellow Man flowers and blooms.

Rabbi Rami: This is exactly the kind of essay I was looking for, and exactly the kind of thing you should send to NPR's website. No guarantee that they will publish it, but you never know. The analogy with puzzles is wonderful. I used something similar in a book I wrote years and years ago. There I said that each of us is a piece of God's puzzle and it is up to us to take our place in the puzzle. In Zen Buddhism puzzles are called koans. These are problems to mull over rather than solve. They make no logical sense, but the process of examining them is supposed to bring you to enlightenment. Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas in the first logia also talks about riddles which are similar to puzzles.

Me: I guess I would have to read the book first to fully understand what you meant, but until then I'm stuck with the image of God sitting in a bathrobe starring intently at the picture on the puzzle box while stroking his beard. I'm assuming what you wrote had more to do with God's Will for us in his Divine Plan than turning into an actual jigsaw piece and finding where you fit into God's puzzle as He watches his Saturday morning cartoons while eating Cheerios. In a sense, I am also mulling over the vast collected beliefs of humanity, not to try and figure God out but by looking out over the waves of humanity this helps me to ponder the essence of what it means to be human. It helps me to "know myself" by knowing others, and by knowing others I get a glimpse of knowing God.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Mouth Full of Walls

It's always exciting to meet new people you get along and interact well with until the make-or-break question pops up: "so, what do you believe?" Every time I'm asked to describe my beliefs I have a mini-panic attack. First, I find it difficult to put into words what I actually believe, and second, I fear the Walls of Ignorance will shoot up and whatever relationship we may have had may not exist after this conversation. It was bad enough when I was growing up as an SDA speaking to other Christians that viewed us as cult members, but now it's worse as a non-traditional Christian tolerant of other religious views living within the Bible Belt.

So I can either tell them I'm a Christian, but exclude the fact that I don't believe that Christ's death is needed to atone for sins (including that darn Original Sin), or I can tell them what I truly believe hoping that the Walls of Ignorance will stay down allowing us to have an inter-faith dialogue. It is rare to find those that are open-minded enough to sit and listen to your "strange" beliefs without attempting to convert you. I don't force my beliefs on people anymore nor do I want to convert anyone. I enjoy sharing and listening to other beliefs which tells me a lot more about a person's character than basic personal information (martial status, age, location, career, etc.).

But what is it that gnaws away at us when we meet someone with a different belief? It used to bother me that so many Baptists thought I was in an cult. I would defend my faith without ever considering that I might be theologically wrong. I was spiritually trapped in a box and the thought never occurred to me that there might be something more on the outside.

I was afraid to look outside my religious box for two reasons:
  1. Fear of learning "false" doctrines which would taint my spirituality.
  2. Fear that these "false" doctrines are not false at all but may even contain truth which then challenges my perception of reality.
If I even peek outside my box I could either damn my soul or see beauty radiating in all directions for eternity. I overcame my fear and chose to look. Looking does not mean accepting, it means understanding. The choice to accept what your brother believes is up to you and if it makes you a better person, fantastic. That should be the goal in THIS life, striving to become better people. But the path to understanding and loving one another is a two way street. If one person in a conversation chooses to erect mental walls of fear and ignorance then nothing will be gained.

I still get nervous from time to time when I have conversations on faith with other people. This is not stemmed from rejection but from a lack of connection. This yearning to connect with other human beings lies at the core of our humanity and is crucial for our existence. Let us tear down our mental walls and transcend the fear of loving one another.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Splinters of Truth

Christianity is true and not true. Islam is true and not true. Jainism is true and not true. Hinduism is true and not true. Zoroastrianism is true and not true.

[The Flammarion woodcut by Anonymous; the original contained the caption "A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet..."]

All religions are true and not true. (Except for the ones that are completely wacko Jacko like Scientology, just kidding.) I say this because I believe that buried beneath layers of ritual, beliefs, doctrines, and history splinters of Truth can be found. These are truths about the Human Experience and not truths of fact, history, and data. Every religion has something important to say about our short existence on Earth. If we ignore and brush aside our brother's beliefs as mere heresy and devil work we might be throwing away a splinter of truth. As equals we all have something important to say about our time here and ignoring others with a mindset of superiority ("My beliefs are better than yours so I won't waste my time listening to you.") reeks of arrogance, fear, and tribalism. You don't have to accept their "strange" beliefs but at least listen to what they have to say.

The legend, or fact for some fundamentalist, of the Tower of Babel is a tale describing the origins of mankind's diversity. In the tale, humanity unites to build a tower not to worship God but in dedication to the glory of Man. God, being a jealous God, decided to knock over the tower, confuse our languages, and scatter us over the face of the Earth. The historicity of the story is not important, but what does matter is that the story describes the birth of tribalism. Some can even go as far as saying that God wanted to separate us so that we may fight amongst ourselves throughout history and the victors will be granted paradise. That sounds pretty cynical even for a jealous God.

Let's say that God did in fact splinter up humanity into tribes on purpose, what does this tell us about God? For God to be a loving God there must be a lesson that he wants us to learn independently; there must be a reason for dividing us up in the first place other than just as a means of punishment. My favorite expression on this subject is found in the Qu'ran.
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (49:13, Yusef Ali translation)
God made us different so that we may learn, love, and grow with each other in our collected diversity. I don't believe God scattered us during mankind's youth, but we formed tribes and nations while holding onto the thread that binds us: our humanity. Buried deep in our shared ancestry, whether ape or garden, each tribe carried away a piece of universal truth that we have pocketed, idolized, and fought over with groups carrying similar pieces. We have forgotten our collected past that carried the knowledge of our fractured present. If we continue to worship our individual pieces we will never come close to grasping the awe and wonder of the cosmos. One day, I hope we will be able to look past our symbols, religions, and tribes and peer into the depths of the universal waters that binds us to one another.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Too Many Rivers, Only One Boat

"If you respect and love Christianity so much why can't you just stay a Christian?" As I've stated before I have not left Christianity but I've opened my spirituality so that I may include other beliefs. This does not mean that I bow to every other god because I believe if there were a god there would be only One. As I progress on my spiritual journey, I am learning to live with the wisdom of insecurity, and because of this I can not root myself to any river bank. I allow myself to journey down all streams simultaneously.

[The Jonathan's Run Falls in Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania taken by Hubert Stoffels]

I've been told that this is dangerous for me, but especially dangerous for my kids. I do not believe that the souls of my family will be eternally damned by my actions. Right actions and right beliefs do not guarantee you anything especially if you lack love for your brother. I have chosen to raise my children as Christians and when they come of age they are free to follow, or not follow, whatever belief structure they want. All I can do until they fly the nest is act as a moral and spiritual guide.

But what makes free floating among multiple religious beliefs so dangerous? Some may think that if you open yourself up to "other" ideas that your soul may become tainted with unsound, demonic doctrine. It is the Devil's way of leading you astray. If you are not rooted to the riverbank (faith), nor on the right bank (right belief), you are in serious danger of being swept away into darkness. This is what many people believe and it is absolutely fine as long as your roots are grounded in Love and you bear fruits of Compassion, Patience, and Kindness towards your brother. But I do not feel comfortable anywhere on the riverbank but IN the river itself. By letting the river guide me I am less likely to make the errors that fallible Man is capable of making. I do not fear the journey nor the dangers along the river because eventually all rivers end up in the ocean and there I join the transcending unity that binds the universe.

I can not envision restricting myself to one religious tradition. I see too much beauty and truth in so many religions that to deny myself of these other beliefs would be to color with only one crayon while throwing away the rest. I do not focus solely on Religion as my guide but I balance it with Reason. With both in balance I can harmonize body, mind, and spirit as I traverse the river waters racing towards the sea.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Who Will Save E.T.'s Soul?

In my Judaism, Christianity, and Islam class on Tuesday we talked about the Gnostic Gospel of Phillip. It was an interesting discussion on Gnosticism, but what really got me thinking was when the conversation sidetracked to the salvation of alien life. I don't remember exactly how we got onto the topic but it got me thinking: will E.T. be saved?

When I was a young lad (7, maybe 8 years old) I remember being told a very interesting idea on Sin and alien life. In SDA belief, God had placed the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil on every planet with sentient life to test their faithfulness and obedience to Him. Every single planet had passed the test and now continue to live in paradise except for one: Earth. We are the only planet that has fallen and the entire universe is now watching our history unfold.

[Jesus on Mars by Philip José Farmer. I love the monkey in the space suit sitting on Jesus' cross.]

As a young boy fascinated with science (I wanted to be an astronomer when I grew up) this idea that unfallen extraterrestrial lifeforms were watching me both intrigued and scared me. I initially envisioned aliens looking down at us like the doctors that observe a surgery in stadium seats. Since I thought aliens, and God, watched my every move I would periodically stop, look up, and wave hello. It seems silly now but I was 8, what would you do if aliens, and God, were watching your every move?

But what would happen if we did indeed make contact with alien life? What if their religion were completely different than ours? What if they have no religion or have evolved without it abandoning religion completely for science? The list of questions can go on and on. How would this affect mankind's view on God and the universe knowing that we are not alone? Adventists believe that Sin would never leave this solar system to spread like a virus, God simply wouldn't allow it, which means no alien contact.

In Jesus on Mars by Philip José Farmer, an unmanned probe finds an alien ship buried on Mars. And, as the title suggests, a manned expedition lands on Mars and finds an alien race living harmoniously with humans along with Jesus himself. Not only do these Martians (the aliens crashed there escaping from another alien race) believe in Jesus Christ they actually live with him! I stumbled upon this book the other day and I kept wondering if any sentient alien life had religious practices.

If we do come in contact with alien life our religious leaders would be very nervous that the aliens might state views on religion contrary to our own. Of course then the masses will get out their torches and pitchforks calling the aliens blasphemers and demons. Hopefully, if an interstellar war were averted, we will be able to learn something from these visitors before we attempt to convert them, that is if they didn't come here to convert us first. All hail Xenu, the Galactic Lord of the Universe!

(3/27/09): I ordered a used copy of Jesus on Mars by Philip José Farmer (it is no longer in print) and it just came in today. I'm currently reading Calculating God by Robert Sawyer and I'll move on to Jesus on Mars when I'm done.]

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Timeless Hero: Part 4- He Who Split Time

The Legend of Zelda first debuted in Japan on February 21, 1986 and after 22 years and over a dozen games later the franchise is still alive and well along with our timeless (and time traveling) hero, Link. The Legend of Zelda has captured the imagination of generations of gamers with its captivating storyline, mind twisting dungeons, and hours of battling the forces of evil as Link transforms from a humble boy into a timeless hero chosen by the gods. But why did they choose Link? What does the future hold for this warrior-prophet? And what does Link represent not only to the people of Hyrule but to us? In this series I will analyze the religious and spiritual elements of The Legend of Zelda.

[Note: I am not a professional religious scholar but these are just my views on some of the symbolism I've noticed in the game series. I've focused on the plots in A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. I apologize if I've left anything out. Enjoy!]

Part 4-He Who Split Time

For those of you unfamiliar with the Legend of Zelda series, this post might be a bit confusing. For those who are absolute fans I hope you'll get something out of this, but let me start with a brief outline over the issue of time. The chronology of the games is a hotly debated issue among the hardcore fans and there are dozens of time lines and theories that you can get lost in them for hours. So you don't get confused just remember that these are just theories and that the games themselves have the final authority.

Most people agree that Ocarina of Time is the first game in the chronology. In Ocarina of Time, Link attempts to keep the evil thief Gannondorf from accessing the Sacred Realm. Link pulls the Master Sword from the pedestal of time which opens the Door of Time to the Sacred Realm. Unfortunately his very actions cause him to be sealed in the Temple of Time for 7 years while Gannondorf enters the Sacred Realm unabated. Link is kept there until he matures into an adult where he is awakened by Rauru, the sage of Light who informs Link that to stop Gannondorf he must awaken five other Sages. Throughout Ocarina of Time, Link travels back and forth through time to complete certain tasks. The Master Sword is described as "a ship with which you can sail upstream and downstream through time's river...The port for that ship is in the Temple of Time..." Once he defeats Gannon, the sages seal him up in the Sacred Realm and Zelda sends Link back to his own time.

give the Ocarina to me...
As a Sage, I can return you
to your original time with it.

When peace returns to Hyrule...
It will be time for us to say

Now, go home, Link.
Regain your lost time!
where you are supposed to be...
the way you are supposed to be...
Zelda sends him back before Link originally opened the Door of Time. Now here comes the hassle with time travel. Anything related to time travel gives me a royal headache, but this is where the Split Timeline Theory comes into play. The Split Timeline Theory suggests that when Zelda sent Link back to his own time she created a parallel time stream. In the Adult Timeline Gannon is sealed in the Sacred Realm and sometime later, due to the absence of the Hero of Time, breaks out and the gods flood Hyrule to contain Gannon (The Wind Waker). In the Child Timeline, Link is returned to his childhood and warns the princess about Gannondorf's intentions and he is banished to the Twilight Realm (The Twilight Princess).

Ocarina of Time (Adult Timeline) --> The Wind Waker --> Phantom Hourglass

Ocarina of Time (Child Timeline) --> Majora's Mask --> Twilight Princess

Anyone lost yet? This is just dealing with 5 different games I won't even touch rest. My point being is that this one moment to reclaim Link's lost childhood has not only created a parallel time stream but now has created four different possibilities for the protection and salvation of Hyrule. Link's timeless spirit that arises when called can either fail or save Hyrule in both timelines. Without asking why the gods allowed this split in the first place, what makes Link so special to place the fate of Hyrule (even in parallel timelines) in his hands? What is it about Link that binds him to the land?

From controlling time, the weather, even summoning creatures Link is tied to the fate of Hyrule. He is a part of the land, and the land is a part of him. Whenever evil takes over the land his spirit senses this presence and rises to defend her. Link, the courageous orphan left to live among the forest children, sprouts and blooms whenever innocent blood is shed. It may even be that Link's eternal spirit is divine in origin, left behind like the Triforce, as the eternal guardian of the land. Every incarnation of Link's Spirit is the physical manifestation of courage rising up to challenge and to defeat evil. Maybe his spirit became eternally tied to the fate of Hyrule because of the time split, destined to repeatedly save Hyrule from evil until he fixes the split. (It would be fascinating to see a Zelda game where Link traverses throughout the different time periods to finally completely defeat Gannon once and for all) Even though Zelda was gracious enough to return Link to his own time maybe he wasn't meant to enjoy his childhood. Maybe he was meant to sacrifice his childhood so that he may save the world. Every hero must sacrifice something for the greater good. Link had several chances to settle down and raise a family, but he knew that if he did not answer the hero's call no one would have a future.

This ultimate sacrifice to give up ones life is found worldwide in traditions, myths, and religions throughout history. The most well known is that of Jesus, who also sacrificed his life to save the world. Right before his death he was insulted and dared him to step off the cross (Mark 15:25-32). This is beautifully illustrated in The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis where the Devil shows Jesus his life as it would be if he did step down from the cross. Near the end of his alternate life, Jesus realizes that he must die to save mankind and accepted his fate. Both Link and Jesus, raised in humble origins, chose to sacrifice their own lives to save the world and became heroes who split time.

Part 1-The Golden Goddesses
Part 2-The Triforce
Part 3-The Warrior Prophet
Part 4-He Who Split Time
Part 5-The Temples of Hyrule
Part 6-A Link to the Future

Or Click here to read them all back to back

Monday, March 16, 2009

Atheists: God's Emancipated Children

First, I don't believe there is a physical Hell present somewhere deep in the Earth's core. I also do not believe that a God who created every ounce of our reality would damn someone to this place ruled by horned demons just because they didn't have enough faith to believe in Him. It seems pretty harsh for God to damn his own creation for doubting His existences when He makes it difficult to believe in Him due to plagues, genocide, and let's not forget His former associate, the Devil.

[Hell, as illustrated in Hortus deliciarum. By Herrad von Landsberg (about 1180)]

Regardless of who is or isn't on the naughty list you have to give it to the Atheist for really sticking their finger into every religious eye they cross. It's not that they do it on purpose, although some due, but that some people can't understand why someone would NOT believe in a Divine Creator. First, Let's go over the pros and cons about being an Atheist.

  • No need to worry about Hell.
  • More money in your pocket every week you can spend on one of Sam Harris' books instead of spent as offering.
  • Able to sleep in on Sundays.
  • Be able to come to a conclusion using Reason instead of faith.
  • No pointless ceremonies or arbitrary restrictions, so live it up.
  • Sin doesn't exist, try and live as morally as you wish as the law allows.
  • Believers from just about any faith will constantly question you for questioning their beliefs.
  • Without faith, Atheists sound kind of cold and heartless to believers.
  • No life after death since this is the only existence. (This is a quasi-con)
  • No connection with or belief in a Divine Being or Universal Consciousness leaves you aware of the savage suffering this existence can bring; ignorance is bliss.
  • If there is a God, you would only learn of his existence after death.
These are just a few that I could think off the top of my head. I didn't really touch on morality since this is relevant to your local social mores and folkways. Religious believers and non-believers are equally capable of a wide range of morality and immorality because of our shared humanity. If someone justifies a horrendous act against mankind with religion it is still the person that carried out the act. I have read through too many online forum wars fought by the pro-God and anti-God people to have realized that not only had I wasted a few hours of my life but that neither group is spotless enough to "cast the first stone". This post is not about which side is right. In fact, none of my posts are about which group is right or wrong but this is my pursuit to gather wisdom after the dust settles.

What I like about Atheists is that they relentlessly question EVERYTHING. This is not "rebelling" against the Creator that we can not see, but they question why we need to worship or even acknowledge the invisible Puppet Master in the sky. As humans, with a limited mental capacity, it almost seems unfair for a Divine Being to jealously strike down anyone who does not believe in His existence. That's like kicking a 6 week old puppy for chewing on your shoes. If God were to fry anyone it would be those that intended to cause harm on their fellow man for ANY reason. Intentional harm sounds more evil than doubting. If anything, God would send Atheist to heaven for reasoning out how to be moral without using Him as a crutch. I see Atheist as the Children of God who grew up and learned to take care of themselves.

I am not an Atheist because I see too much order and patterns in the Universe for there not to be a Creator (Primum movens or a First Cause God). Whether this God takes the form of an omnipotent Being outside of the universe or as the universe itself (Universal Consciousness), I do not know nor do I think is important. I see an eternal creative force present in everything throughout the universe and from this force out flows eternal beauty and eternal love. It is this eternal love that I recognize as God. Do you need to acknowledge this force to be a moral person? No, we can doubt it all we want as long as we strive to be loving, compassionate, and respectful to one another.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Once a Christian always a Christian

"You never really accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior you just told others you did. A true, born again Christian would NEVER leave the church and would NEVER renounce Jesus Christ as the Son of God," says the true Christian to the ex-Christian.

I've personally heard this several times and it worries me. Not that I'm worried about hell but this view judges your personal spirituality which no living person can truly grasp except you.

Now before I go any further I'd like to state that although I follow Christ and his teachings my view of him is more symbolic than literal. Bottom line, mainstream Christians would not accept me as a fellow believer. Those that learn of this are quick to mark the 23 years of my life as a Christian with their null and void stamps. The fact that I lost faith means that I never really had it.

But how are other people so sure that I never had faith? Although I was never baptized, which is a whole different can of worms, I truly felt the Holy Spirit in my life and I had taken Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Period! You can challenge that all you want but the fact is that I believed I was a Christian just as anyone else believes in their own religious identity. There is no debating this just as there is no debating your own identity. We can go on and on if I acted and believed as a proper Christian but there is no doubting my religious identity during that time.

Can someone stop being a Christian? Yes, and the very fact that they stopped means that they were a Christian at one point. The more startling point about this is the fact that less and less Americans are calling themselves Christian. This notion of once a true Christian always a true Christian means that there are really only a handful of true Christians in each church nationwide. Those that are now leaving the church were never true believers. How can this be? There is no way to measure someone's faith so therefore there is no way in measuring the percentage of people that are wasting their time since one day they will leave the church. I'm not saying that Christianity is a waste of time but that when a "true Christian" judges the belief of an ex-Christian as non-existent from the get go then it appears as if the True Christian is saying, "you wasted your time". I know it seems like I'm writing in circles but my point is that a person's spirituality is sacred and can not be measured, weighed, or tested in any way or form.

The beliefs we hold which makes us patient, kind, humble, respectful, loving, and compassionate towards our fellow man are the best indicators of their worth. Whatever your faith, or lack thereof, may be if you truly yearn to instill these noble characteristics into YOUR life then what you believe (or not believe) is less important compared to the compassionate and loving human being you are now because of those beliefs. Our goal and our spiritual worth is based on the overall transformation we experience from our spiritual journey not what first set us on that path. We are moving forward on the path towards something greater.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Knife to Your Throat and a Sword to Mine...

The topic of religious warfare and fighting is an exhausting topic that I almost decided not to write about it. History has recorded centuries of war, fighting, and even mass genocide caused in the name of the Divine. Millions have fought, bled, and died for a God they have never seen. Secular wars are sometimes disguised with religious symbols to entice the local population to rally behind one banner against the enemy. It has gone on and on and on for centuries and if we don't nuke ourselves in the process might continue for a few more.

But why do we honestly need to fight? Is it out of defense for our religion or out of domination? Why can't we be comfortable with the fact that nobody knows what happens to us when we die? You can believe whatever set of doctrine or theology about life after death but the fact is that nobody knows what happens! Nobody. IF we knew, then we wouldn't be so worried about the afterlife because it would be in our science and medical books.

How is the afterlife related to religious warfare? Religion throughout history dances around the concept that as creatures aware of our own mortality we know death is around the corner. This knowledge of death has haunted our every step. We yearn to get the most out of life because when our time comes, nothing can stop it. Religion soothes us with the thought that this may not be the last of our existence and that a part of us might go on after our bodies are buried. I am comfortable not knowing where I go or even if I have a soul to let go. We can't measure the soul, although some have tried, but billions of people believe we each have one.

But why must we kill for it? Some would say that "they" may kill but we don't. Any violent thought, action, or attitude poisons the very same religions that claim a message of peace. If the world's belief systems are meant to instill peace in your heart and among Mankind then there should be no interfaith fighting IF the adherents truly followed their teachings. Fallible mankind is to blame for religious warfare NOT the religion. Religion is shaped and carved by human hands while human minds interpret their texts to suit their human goals.

This is why I believe religiously-based governments can be very dangerous especially to the minority groups living within the borders. This does not mean that the U.S. is a dangerous nation because it is a "Christian" nation. It is a Christian nation because the majority of its citizens are Christian not because it was founded as a Christian nation. American Gospel by Jon Meacham covers the beliefs held by our Founding Fathers and their struggle to build a truly free nation from a multi-religious multi-cultural populace. A nation built on a secular understanding of freedom and morals is not doomed to becoming an immoral nation. The Founding Fathers understood this when they built our nation on natural, universal morals.

These natural, universal morals are found in all religious traditions and should be used as the ties that bind us closer as humans. You do not have to hate your neighbor just because they hate you or because they hold different beliefs. We are so blinded by pride, fear, and ignorance that we can not even see these ties that bind all of us as brothers. Once we remove these blindfolds not only will we shed mournful tears for the countless of lives lost from religious warfare we will shed hopeful tears for the future we can build together.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Losing My Religion

I was sitting in church last weekend and a thought struck me: how are churches surviving through this recession? I have no idea what triggered it since this thought occurred while I was mesmerized by our pastor's fashionable tie. Whatever the churches are doing nationwide to keep afloat they better do something quick to attract more members since a new poll came out stating that more Americans have no religious affiliation. You can read the results of the ARIS survey here. I was going to make a fancy pie chart but decided that seemed like too much trouble. I am sure John King and his Magic Wall will take care of the pie charts on CNN, but until then here are a few of the numbers.

  • Catholic population has moved from the Northest to the Southwest with California having a higher proportion of Catholics than New England.
  • Northern New England has surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious.
  • Vermont has the highest report of those claiming no religion, 34%.
  • 15% of those surveyed claimed no religion, up from 14.2% in 2001 and 8.2% in 1990.
  • Overall Christians in America has declined to 76%, compared to about 77% in 2001 and about 86.2% in 1990. (1% drop doesn't sound too bad, but it's still a drop.)
  • The Muslim population has grown to .6% in 2008 from .5 percent in 2001 and .3% in 1990.
  • Only a mere 1.6% of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic.
Cool interactive graph found here.

Why are organized religions in the U.S. declining? You would think that during this economic crisis that it would be on the rise but something is causing it's slow decline. Atheist have nearly doubled since 2001 from 900,000 to 1.6 million; so it's not that people are losing faith but that more Americans are not claiming a particular religion. It seems to me that more and more people are shifting away from the organized setting and taking a more personal and private course.

I am one of those 15% of Americans that do not claim any religious affiliation, but I feel that my spirituality has grown significantly in the last few years. As I've stated in other posts I do not consider myself a Christian in the traditional sense, but I do follow Christ and his teachings. I still attend church but I do not claim Christianity as my faith. It is not because I have no use for organized religion but that since I draw my spirituality from several religions I can not see myself exclusively following just one. My story is probably completely different from the other 15% of Americans who do not claim a religion, but the important point is that this group has been growing. It might just be that Americans get more out of personal and spiritual growth outside of an organized faith. Or it may just mean that Americans don't have time for or need faith as much anymore. As this group grows how will this impact the socio-political issues facing America? Will the Religious Right, or the Moral Majority, have a distinct secular political bloc to contend with in future elections?

I personally believe that Catholicism will take off during the next decade as the Hispanic population grows. We might even see the first Hispanic Catholic President take office. The point being that the religious waters are stirring even if it's not in the interest of the religious groups, they are still stirring. These times they are a changin'.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fear is the Mind-Killer

Today, while interfaith talks are growing, people can't even stand the sight of someone being of a different faith. If I feel bad for anyone it's for Muslims and Hindus because some of them literally wear their faith on their sleeve. Christians, at least Protestant Christians, don't have a particular dress that identifies them as Christians. They may wear a crucifix but outside of that there are no external identifiers. But Muslims and Hindus wear traditional religious headgear which, to those that are violently opposed to these groups, are like walking targets.

It is difficult for some religious people on all sides to even sit down and talk to each other let alone become friendly; if anything, one side might try to convert the other. But what is wrong with this picture? Two human beings, brothers, can't even sit down together and talk peacefully. There are HUGE walls of xenophobia that separates the citizens of these United States. We fear those that are unlike us, but why? What is driving this fear? Is it ignorance or something worse?

In the Dune series by Frank Herbert, there is a Litany Against Fear that several characters recite at their most fearful moments.
"I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain."
I have yet to memorize it but it has always stuck with me. I have learned to overcome my fear of strangers and their strange beliefs. I do not consider them strangers but brothers. Even Atheists are my brothers. If we show each other kindness and respect then we can begin to build strong unbreakable bonds. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by listening to what you have to say on any topic INCLUDING religion. Religion should be a topic that bring people closer together, but the sad reality is that Religion is tribal. "My tribe and my tribe only!" This is the ideology of millions of people. I must point out that not all people think this way. There are a lot of religious organization that are talking to one another. There is nothing wrong in learning, speaking, and associating with those different than you. Nothing. Fear is what drives people apart and they have every right to be fearful. There are a lot of fundamentalist groups in not just Islam but in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism that mean to force their views on others with threats of violence. This is the world we live in but this does not mean you have to live on in fear.

Those of us living in the West don't have to face the horrors that are going on in the middle east. And for those that are experiencing pain, suffering, anger, and loss my prayers go out to ALL of you. In the U.S. we have no fear of persecution because of our personal beliefs. We are truly blessed but we still need to cure ourselves of ignorance. Go to the library and really dig into the beliefs of others. I believe removing ignorance will calm down millions (if not billions) of peoples fears. Deep down inside I believe all religions want and yearn for peace, love, and justice. It is those who use the name of God to spread terror that give ALL religions a bad wrap.

Read. Learn. Grow. Talk. Love. Let us together remove the blindfolds of ignorance.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Apples and Oranges...

A Tree and Its Fruit
15"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' Matthew 7:15-23 (NIV)

[A page from Emblematum Christianorum centuria / Emblemes Chrestiens (1584) by Georgette de Montenay. You can find the rest of it here. Caption: At once the unfavourable tree which cannot bring fruit to its cultivator is cast into the burning funeral pyre. Wicked people who profess Christ only with their mouths will be cut down from the bottom of the trunk and fall in the flames.]

Matthew 7 is loaded with all sorts of imagery that seems to boil down to this: what fruit do you bear? This chapter is quoted relentlessly by Christians for a variety of reasons but it is mostly quoted to support their own personal views and beliefs. Even Christian dueling scripture with Christian quote these verses to undermine the views of their opponent. I believe verses 18-20 summarizes the entire chapter; "Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them."

What are your fruits? Do others see you as hateful, mean-spirited, vindictive? Do they see you as loving, patient, and kind? Never mind what you believe or what rituals you partake in, but ask yourself what are the fruits of your character?

Belief, works, or a combination of both mean nothing if you produce spoiled fruit. You can believe all the "right" beliefs and do charitable acts but if it is done without Unconditional and Universal Love then you are just bearing "bad fruit". The fruit of a tree is a sign of life, creation, and rebirth. The good trees that Jesus spoke about are a metaphor for those who bear life-giving and loving personalities. Bad trees that do not produce life sustaining fruit are not worth keeping, so these are "thrown into the fire". This is not a description of Hell for the unbelievers but another metaphor for tossing out your negative attributes. Completely negative people are a drain to the overall spirit of love that Jesus promotes in his teachings. We are to remove the character flaws that do not produce Love, Patience, and Kindness. Any negative attributes that does not produce good fruits we are to throw into the fire lest they might taint and ruin yourself as a whole.

This is not a call for perfection, but for personal reformation. Mankind is a fallible creature bound to make countless of mistakes. We are the only ones consciously aware of our exsistence with the ability to Reason. We must always remember this when interacting with our fellow man. This is what Jesus meant when he spoke of removing the speck of dust from your neighbor's eye while ignoring the plank in your own eye. We bicker and peck at each other as to how we reform ourselves (through beliefs and practices) to the point that we forget that all of us are pursuing personal happiness: Taoist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Wiccan, Atheist. Your religion, or lack thereof, is worthless without a spirit of love. The good fruits you produce are what important not how you produced them. If what you believe causes you to grow in Love, Patience, and Kindness towards one another then these will be apparent in your fruits. The fruit is the cherished most part of fruit-bearing trees, not its roots.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reset to Zero

I remember the first time I shaved my head. I was a freshman at a boarding school and my roommate had just finished shaving his head and suggested I do it too. A part of me wanted to fit in but another part wanted to do it for the thrill of doing something new. Any guy who has lived the dorm life knows what I'm talking about: cheap haircuts. A lot of guys in the dorm either buzzed or shaved their hair off completely not because it was a fad, but because it was cheap and easy. It's the "Ramen noodles" of haircuts, and if you don't understand the analogy then you've never lived in a dorm.

Except for a few occasions I have been shaving my head every 7-9 months for the last decade. At first I did it because it saved me money and it feels so good to shave all that hair off. (Oh by the way, I have a thick curly head of hair that grows back at an astronomical rate.) By my junior year it become a ritual I privately called, Reset to Zero. The title is a tad lame but the ritual became a point where I hit the reset button in my life and began again with a clean slate. I guess it's similar in spirit to the New Year's Resolution where people commit to reforming themselves in some shape or form. Every time I or someone else took clippers to my long curls I would think about what actions, thoughts, or attitudes I would seek to improve from the last few months. As the clippers buzzed away I would envision them taking any negative traits I may have acquired in the past few months with them as they fell. I tried to keep from developing any new bad habits but if I did I would renounce them at my next shaving. By my senior year I would speak very little for the week after I shaved my head as I spent time reflecting and meditating on past events and future plans.

My mother always hated when I'd come home on leave with a shaved head. She always wanted me to get a nice short haircut whenever I came home, but I always seem to ruin her plans ahead of time. Now that I'm married to my wonderful wife, I've found out that she's not too fond of it either. About 2-3 months after I shave my head is when she says my hair is the perfect length. Any longer and my wife grumbles about my hair being too shabby. That's another thing I forgot to mention, I grow my hair out as long as possible (my wife sets the limit now) before cutting it as long as it's not freezing outside.

Some may ask why wait, why use a silly ritual to purify yourself and work towards being a better person on a daily basis? When's the last time you have kept a New Year's resolution all year long? Let's face it, we love our comfort zone and getting off the couch to do a few push-ups is right above waiting in line at the DMV. My ritual head shaving is a time for personal contemplation and renewal; though crude, it isn't that much different than baptism, ablution (in Islam), or ritual purification in a tsukubai in Japanese Buddhism. I'm not equating my haircut to the same level as these spiritual forms of purification, but this is how I purify myself, not of sin, but of sinful actions, thoughts, and attitudes by resetting to zero.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Salvation found in a Video Game?

Video games have come a LONG way from when I played them as a kid. I grew up with an original Nintendo and it's still stashed away back home at my parent's house. Growing up in a SDA home we had limitations on the activities my sister and I could do on the Sabbath. This was to encourage us to put away our daily activities and focus on God at least for one day. We had one NES video game we were allowed to play on the Sabbath called Exodus: Journey to the Promised Land. You played as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt while avoiding magicians and guards. Moses had the ability to "shoot glowing "W"s, which signify the word of God, to defeat enemies and remove obstacles." I don't remember ever getting past level 3 because of those multiple choice Bible questions I could never answer. Maybe I should have spent more time reading the Word instead of shooting it out of a staff.

As I said earlier, video games have come a long way. EA Games is coming out with a video game for the PS3 and Xbox 360 based on Dante Alighieri's, Inferno. I never read through the entire Divine Comedy myself. Finally, an action game where you can fight evil throughout the nine circles of Hell
with amazing and breathtaking graphics! There might be some opposition by some Christian groups but I can't see why this wouldn't be a perfect game to get the Word out to teenage gamers that spend their lives in front of a tv screen 4-6 hours a day. I mean, once they get a taste of how horrible Hell can be they might be inclined to dust off the family Bible and give it a quick glance. If you visit the official website you have to enter in your birth date to verify that you're over 18 and after watching the trailer I understand why.

You play as Dante, not as the poet-philosopher but as a beefed-up veteran of the Crusades. You return to find your love, Beatrice, murdered and her soul kidnapped by Lucifer himself. Armed with Death's Scythe, you fight your way past guards, damned souls, and even "hordes of unbaptized demonic attack-babies (with blades for arms)..." to rescue your damsel's soul. (I wonder if Robin Williams will provide the voice.) My biggest question is who are they going to choose for the boss characters at the end of each level of Hell?

Here's my list on who I think should make the cut.
  1. 1st Circle, Limbo: Socrates- How can anyone resist the chance to go one on one with this philosopher.
  2. 2nd Circle, Lust: Cleopatra- Battling a seductress like Cleopatra (who allegedly slept with over 10,000 men) would be a challenging battle wrought with temptation to give up on Beatrice and stay with Cleopatra.
  3. 3rd Circle, Gluttony: Either Cerberus who guards the gluttons, or a really really fat guy.
  4. 4th Circle, Greed: Bernard Lawrence Madoff, hands down.
  5. 5th Circe, Wrath: Refer to number 7
  6. 6th Circle, Heretics: To avoid calling any religious leader a heretic they might just have a demonic creature as this level's boss.
  7. 7th Circle, The Violent: Probably a beefed up version of Hitler, Gangis Khan, or some other military leader.
  8. 8th Circle, Treacherous: Even though Muhammad might be the most obvious and a well known character in the eighth level Of Dante's Inferno I can't think of any video game developer who would mention him even as a background character. Careful EA Games don't make the same mistakes as others have in the past (see link below).
  9. 9th circle, Hell's Gitmo: Cain, Judas Iscariot, and Satan himself.
Not a very impressive list, but of course EA should be careful with all this religious content flying around they might end up editing their game like Sony's Little Big Planet controversy. Dante's Inferno is set to release December 31, 2009 and to some it might be a great way to ring in the new year by hacking away at unbaptized demonic attack-babies. Before the religious groups get all uppity about another video game with religious content(and very possibly Bible characters other than Satan) they have to understand that this is a horror/action video game. It's made to be as gory, graphic, and as Hellish as possible so that they can sell copies. If anything the religious groups might be offended that this game paints them (or at least the Catholic church) in a negative light in regards to their views of Hell. This type of vivid imagery has been around since the foundation of the Catholic church and is similar to Hieronymus Bosch depiction of Hell in his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (which is a wild piece of artwork I mentioned in my last post).

Although, I'm not sure if the sequels Dante's Purgatorio and Dante's Paradiso would sell as well as Inferno.

"Quick hit the 'B' button to play your harp! Now hit 'A' to praise God!"