Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What Just Happened?

After almost two weeks in the middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma and coming back home with two sick children I haven't had much time to watch the news. In fact I heard about the Iranian elections the day before I left, and was shocked when I walked past a newspaper box to see the cover article on Iranian's rioting in the street. I still haven't caught up entirely on what is going on in Iran but I did find this interview (6/24) with Reza Aslan on the Daily Show about Iran to be very interesting (and entertaining).

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Reza Aslan
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

Reza Aslan's No god but God is a great introduction into the history and current status of Islam and I recommend it for anyone that is curious. The future of Middle Eastern countries like Iran have always intrigued me. I'm sure a lot of Americans couldn't care less who they elect or what direction Iran my take but I for on am sitting on the edge of my chair. Of course I probably be more informed if I got more of my news somewhere other than the Daily Show but what can you do, it's infotainment!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Fallible Creature

I hesitate to use the word imperfect when describing the human race because that might imply that there is an example of perfection out there somewhere (i.e. God). Our collective perceptions of God are also susceptible to error because even our mind can make mistakes. So how do we navigate our way through the dark waters of existence? Would following the example of a perfect God help or hinder our progress? Are we even capable of leading ourselves?

[Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell' Accademia, Venice]

If there is anything that I believe 100%, it is that man is a fallible creature. We are capable of making mistakes in everything we do. But we are capable of progress ONCE we learn from these mistakes and choose to never repeat them. Everything that man touches, examines, and ponders can be filled with errors. Errors upon errors within errors. This is why I can not read holy books as the infallible Word(s) of God when they have been memorized, written, edited, and transmitted by fallible creatures. Once we acknowledge that we are capable of mistakes (and that even our perception of a perfect God is possibly erroneous) we are free to explore, seek, and experience life without the chains of guilt, fear, pain, and suffering that we willingly carry.

Acknowledging our erroneous nature (not to confuse that with fallen/sinful nature) stirs up questions of what we once believed were facts written in stone. Could the prophets throughout history been mistaken? Were the authors of the Bible really guided by God's hand? Did the Bible survive it's transmission through history without ANY change at the hands of men? These are but a handful of questions that begin to creep up when we truly understand our fallibility. Choosing to take the leap of faith that "God guided the Bible to it's current state" is perfectly fine to believe in as long as we do not forget our erroneous nature. Taking that leap of faith doesn't cover the Bible's authors and editors with a cloak of infallibility. However, an erroneous Bible DOES NOT mean that it is devoid of universal truths. Billions of people depend on the Bible for daily guidance and should continue to do so, but by allowing ourselves to be guided by the spirit of Love we can navigate past our ancestor's demons into a brighter future for humanity.

Our ancestor's perception of God seems almost alien to that of the modern age. This is especially noticeable within Christianity when comparing the Old Testament and New Testament descriptions of God. How can we even begin to reveal the nature of the Divine by the hands of a fallible creature? Our ancestors had a different perception of the Divine based on where and when they lived. As we learn more about our universe we continue to progress while discarding our outdated perceptions. Through trial and error we slowly begin to reveal the Universal Truths that our ancestors discovered but have been struggling to explain through human words and thought since the dawn of Man.

So where does that leave us? Faith and human reason can collectively take us only so far limited by our fallible nature. We must allow ourselves to be guided by the hand of love found both within ourselves and in the universe around us. If our guide is a perfect and loving God then there is no shame, no folly in following it as long as it guides us to become better people with a brighter future. If it keeps us in the dark scientifically, socially, and ethically then we need to question our guides so that we remain unchained always moving forward, "further up and further in".

Friday, June 26, 2009

Welcome Home

My wife and I have just returned from visiting family in Oklahoma for a week and a half. I haven't traveled much in the U.S. and this was my first time crossing the Mississippi river. I've lived in Tennessee and Georgia my entire life so seeing nothing but open fields as far as the eye could see is a little daunting. No, scratch that, it's more than daunting, it inspires the soul to fear and love it both at once. You can't help but feel incredibly microscopic when facing the overwhelming openness of Oklahoma's flat topography. There were still trees here and there but never have I been thrust into open beneath the heavens before in my life, naked and unprotected with nowhere to run and hide. I both feared and loved it.

[A huge rainbow appeared after it stormed in Okeene, Oklahoma last week.]

To dwell in and experience the grand marvels of nature I believe is an attraction that has been carved into our DNA. We just don't want to do without our air conditioners, McDonald's, and IPods. The yearning to return to our Edenic state runs throughout our history as we progress forward believing, hoping that it can be found at the end of our rainbow. Soon enough we'll find a cure for cancer, soon enough we'll find a cure for death. Man just might be able to recreate the Paradise found in our holy books if we aren't caught up by the Real Deal first. But will we be happy with an external Paradise without also finding an internal one?

We surround ourselves by our progress but we also seek to escape it. Vacation, safari, walkabouts, you name it and someone somewhere is escaping from civilization. There can be a hundred reasons why people escape but I believe the strongest reason is a drive to be in awe of and to become one with nature. Maybe it's our animal instincts calling us back home away from the alien caves and huts we have built around us, or maybe that still small voice can be heard clearer without our man made distractions. Whatever I heard blowing across the windy fields of Oklahoma I believe I can also find at home. If I take a minute to sit, listen, and look within I just might here it whisper "Welcome home, my son, welcome home".

Monday, June 22, 2009

Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 3-Why Do I Behave?

Romans 13:8-10 (NIV)
8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

In What Do Christians Believe, author Malcolm Guite states that the three core elements of being a Christian is a sense of belonging, believing, and behaving. Behavior in Christianity is essential because "what we do is both the consequence and the cause of what we are" which has eternal significance (What Do Christians Believe, Pg. 3). Christians are associated with being kind, compassionate, and overall good people, but unfortunately they're also known for a lot of unchrist-like traits. So how is it that followers of Jesus Christ have earned such a horrible reputation? Our personal behavior is shaped by the other two elements of what we believe and to which community we belong, but does not confine them to these two elements. Yet how we behave is, or at least should be, the very heart to being a Christian.

When studied through a magnifying glass, anyone outside Christianity can sort through a Christian's beliefs and community "values" to selectively pick and choose anything that might sound unchrist-like. In fact you can do this with about any major religion but this does not get to the core as to why believers behave the way they do. The person, not the beliefs themselves, chooses how to act on a daily basis. These beliefs may shape the boundaries of our behavior but only at the digression of the believer. The beliefs and teachings are there as a guide (not a rulebook) to help reform ourselves. In fact, being a Christian means that we acknowledge that we are broken and in need of help and guidance. This humbling knowledge should be enough to encourage us to behave more loving towards one another because we are all the same, we are human.

You don't have to look far to see the broad range of positive and negative perspectives, based on outsider views, of a particular faith. And this is where many make the crucial mistake in equating a person's religion with the person's character. There is just as much violence, prejudice, and hatred found in the Qu'ran as in the Bible that CAN be perceived as a window to a believer's heart. But the skeleton's in Christianity's (or even Islam's) closet should not be taken in as a generalization of the believer's heart. The same can be said of Atheist who don't believe in God are somehow immoral because they choose not to follow the teachings of the Bible. Balderdash! An Atheist can be just as loving, honest, and compassionate as a Christian since the belief in God does not give believers a moral high ground. We each choose how moral we want to be regardless of what we believe. We may choose to follow different guidelines but we all yearn to bring out the best in humanity, "the better angels of our nature."

So how can we as Christians live up to the teachings of Christ without appearing unchrist-like? By seeking to become love incarnate, like the Son! If we are to be a light onto the world we must first put down our banners and trumpets proclaiming our self-righteousness and BE love. Forget fighting over the definition of marriage, forget fighting over abortion, forget fighting evolutionists over the origins of man, forget fighting period! Go out and BE love.

If I find that something I believe limits my love for my fellow man why should I continue believing it? Because God said so in a book? Because the community says we should? We should continuously be questioning our community and our beliefs so that we may have that open window to Christianity's frontier. This, I believe, will help us in our quest to becoming love incarnate. The only problem with this is that man is too fractured, too tribal to seek out Eden. We may never find it but we may come close by doing, by being, by loving. So instead of asking what would Jesus do, let us begin by asking: what would Love do?

Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 1-Where do I Belong?
Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 2-What do I Believe?
Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 3-Why do I Behave?

Read all three back-to-back, here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Psalms 23: A Spiritual Interpretation

Psalm 23

1 Love guides and fulfills my every need.

2 As I'm lead towards my inner Eden
I rest by the waters that flows through us,

3 and my soul is given new life.
We walk down all paths
enveloped in Love.

4 Even though pain and suffering surrounds me
I will not fear it,
for You are within me;
your voice and your wisdom
comfort me.

5 You prepare a table
so that all who come may partake.
Your Spirit is poured over mine;
overflowing and filling those around me.

6 Surely your blessing will follow me
as I will follow you,
and I will dwell within, in my inner Eden,
with You, forever.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 2-What do I Believe?

2 Corinthians 6:14-16 (New International Version)

14Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."

[ A woodcarving of Belial and some of his followers from Buch Belial by Jacobus de Teramo (1473)]

In What Do Christians Believe, author Malcolm Guite states that the three core elements of being a Christian is sense of belonging, believing, and behaving. Belonging in Christianity is being a part of a faith community and not belonging entirely to this world. This community united by one body with Christ as the head is shaped by the other two elements of believing and behaving. Believing "arises within the community of belonging" but because of the variety of differences in expressing beliefs within Christianity has caused communities to splinter throughout history (What Do Christians Believe, Pg. 2). Beliefs define the borders between these communities and at times cause intra-faith strife.

It is sad that beliefs have been the cause of so many wars and filled graveyards as far as the eye can see. The issue is not in the beliefs themselves (beliefs don't kill, people do) but the desire to defend them so passionately that Christians once went beyond killing fellow Christian, we had to torture them first. Why? Because in a cosmic battle between good and evil, good MUST win at all cost. Our egos, not beliefs, cause us to continue collecting eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Our beliefs define the borders between our communities but they should not be lined with razor wire and watched over by armed guards.

One of my core beliefs is the willingness to listen to our neighbors. I mean if we can't look our neighbor in the eye how are we to spread the gospel? If we listen with our eyes and ears shut to what others have to say we might miss a gem of truth that we never would have unearthed within Christianity because we, as Christians, do NOT have all the answers. How's this possible? I've stepped outside of our faith and have found transcendent beauty elsewhere. Either I'm lying, misled, and confused or I might be telling the truth. There is no shame or fear that should keep us away from learning from one another.

If these are just simply beliefs why do we defend them to the grave? Is it because some of us etch our beliefs onto stone tablets with "thou shalt not stray" along the the top? Or do we think that our beliefs are so weak that they need defending? Since our beliefs define our community, our tribe, we feel that we HAVE TO defend them, and because we are tied to our beliefs any attack on them is a direct attack against us. Now it's personal, but there's no need to be defensive. Our beliefs do help to shape the community and the individual but we are not bound and chained to these beliefs UNLESS we let them bind us. I believe that even though the Bible, if read literally, can be read to say that God despises homosexuals that I don't have to also hate homosexuals (although the Christian stance is to hate the sin but love the sinner. Why hate at all?). And even though the Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27), again if read literally, can be read as those of Black African descent being cursed to enslavement we don't have to be bound by this belief (check your history books, racism and slavery were justified by this interpretation). Interpretation of the scripture progresses along with society's progress even though at times it's a few steps (years!) behind. For the individual, moving beyond the confines of the faith community's established borders may create alienation, tension, and even new communities to rise up with new borders. I believe that revelation and religion should be progressive for it to be able to communicate with the modern generation. This does not mean repackaging faith to bring in more faithful but to reexamine our religions as a whole.

By branching beyond our community's beliefs we may find that we have more in common with each other than we thought or could even see behind our borders. I envision my spiritual journey residing on the very edge of the Christian frontier; I consider myself a Christian but those within the community would not agree. But does this really matter? I can not envision a God who would be so fickle about the beliefs of a person and gloss over the contents of his/her heart. If God really did care about the contents of the heart then why do we worry ourselves with beliefs, theology, and doctrine? What I seek is a Godly path without these man-made constraints, fears, and prejudices. What I seek is progress and growth that transcends borders.

Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 1-Where do I Belong?
Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 2-What do I Believe?
Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 3-Why do I Behave?

Read all three back-to-back, here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Lost: What the Hades is Going On?

I am a huge Lost fan, but I'm not a fanatic. I didn't begin watching the show until halfway through the first season, and after a bit of catching up I was hooked. I don't know if it was the polar bears on the island or that one of the passenger on Flight 815 was miraculously healed of his paralysis that initially caught my interest. What does Lost have to do with religion? Outside of a handful of religious references throughout the series Lost doesn't touch much on religion. But it does have a LOT of symbolism scattered throughout the show that has only intensified as more of the mysteries of the Island have been revealed. Since there are far better people in the blogosphere capable of explaining all of the intricate mysteries and theories of Lost I'm posting a list of sites I definitely recommend reading as we approach the final season. If you've never seen Lost and you're interested there is plenty of time to catch up before the start of Season 6 next year. Click here to watch all 5 seasons online at ABC.com.

As you catch up on the episodes there are plenty of sites to help you digest (and theorize) on what the Hades is going on the Island. It does get a bit confusing at times but be forewarned these sites do have a lot of spoilers.
These are just a handful of sites that I recommend reading in a run up to the last season of Lost. Enjoy and Namaste!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 1-Where do I Belong?

1 Corinthians 10:14-22 (NIV)
14Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

18Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. 22Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

In What Do Christians Believe, author Malcolm Guite states that there are three core elements of being a Christian: belonging, believing, and behaving. Belonging in Christianity is being a part of a faith community while also not belonging entirely to this world. This community united by one body with Christ as the head is shaped by the other two elements of believing and behaving.

[Luis Tristán (Toledo, 1585 - 1624), Pentecostes. Museum of Fine Arts, Bucarest, Romania.]

I was born and raised in the SDA church up until my Junior year at Georgia-Cumberland Academy when the seedlings of doubt were planted and I began to question what it meant to be a Christian. I had (and still have) no quarrel or dispute with the church itself but this goldfish began yearning for a bigger tank. Of course any serious questioning whatsoever is frowned upon in the mainstream denominations and the SDA church was no exception. Breaking from the core beliefs in Christianity was incredibly painful on both emotional and social levels. Even though I consider myself a Christian I feel like a Christian in exile, on the outside looking in. Not because of my behavior but because of my change in beliefs. I don't believe that Jesus was exclusively God incarnate but that he resembled the spirit of the Divine, love incarnate. History can only tell us so much about Jesus but I do believe that he did exist and that he was fully man. Even bad behavior is still acceptable to a point as long as you believe. Once you cross that line of right belief there is no turning back.

There are many reason why I reject the trinitarianism view which I won't go into now, but I will say that I find it too limiting and awefully confusing. As a Christian who dared to look outside of the established borders I am now automatically associated with unsaved outsiders looking in. I was not literally exiled for my beliefs but any conversations with "real" Christians bring up that familiar "uh ohh, he's unsaved" look. For those who haven't received that look it's not the best feeling in the world espescially from family and friends. It makes you feel inferior, doomed, and worst of all, lonely. Like a puppy at an animal shelter people pity my situation. Some try to save me by bringing me back into the fold until I attempt to explain (I'm horrible at explaining my spiritual beliefs to other people) that I don't need saving which I'm sure I come across as an arrogant and ignorant soul who doesn't want to be saved. How can you save someone who seeks God on their own and is moving beyond the dualism of saved and lost?

So am I drinking from the Lord's and the Demon's cup? No, I believe that the cup of Love that I drink from is the Lord's cup. If Love is what binds Christians in one body with the Logos am I not considered one of them? My ego yearns for that feeling of acceptance found in a community to quell its loneliness. But I also feel that by seeking out the Source myself I may find a connection, harmony, and state of being that transcends the need to satisfy the ego. I believe that community is a big part of a person's spirituality, or at least for me and I lack that. I still attend church with my family but it is a large church and my wife and I feel a bit disconnected from the congregation. And the pastor's knowledge about my beliefs, or lack thereof, doesn't help much either. So where do I truly belong? It may not be with a particular faith system or it may be with multiple ones at a time. As long as my spirituality can grow I can be anywhere, or everywhere. Wherever I AM that is where I belong.

Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 1-Where do I Belong?
Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 2-What do I Believe?
Inside Looking Out or Outside Looking In?: Part 3-Why do I Behave?

Read all three back-to-back, here.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Evidence Vs. Evidence or The Battle of the Bags

Evidence. When it comes to anything religious everyone (including my dear mama) who tries to prove their views on religion against others has got a bag full of logical, historical, and scientific evidence (I've got my bag sitting next to me right now). These may either strengthen your own argument or used to pull the rug out from under your opponents. But does evidence lessen or increase the validity of the view your supporting? What happens then if the evidence is later disproved, do we come up with new evidence? Does it then render your beliefs outdated and worthless?

[Mesha stele (also called the Moabite stone) - a Transjordan stele (c.850 BC) describing the victories of Moabite king Mesha over the Kingdom of Israel. French scholar André Lemaire suggested that line 31 of the Stele bears the phrase "the house of David" (in Biblical Archaeology Review [May/June 1994], pp. 30–37)]

Prove it. Not only do these two words hint at a disbelief in our fellow man (why should we be quick to take each others words anyway?) but it shows that we're too lazy to look up the information itself. Prove it.

So we each take out our bags of evidence and duke it out, but the point is missed entirely. We can not prove that our views, statements and beliefs on God, religion, and spirituality ring truer based on evidence which may be disproved in the future. Saying that Islam is an evil religion is as false and misleading as saying that a book written and edited by man is inerrant and infallible. One may believe these things but these have no basis on facts. This is not to say that we can't find evidence to support certain claims within the battling communities. If we dig into the ground and we find that Nazareth did not exist during the life of Christ, as some claim based on "evidence", then we are left with two choices: either it did and we move on taking our shovels to go dig elsewhere, or it did not and we should reexamine what we know of Jesus and Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene). Science is man's tool which is used to study these tangible clues to our past. Our science is not 100% foolproof when handling and examining evidence which is why we have theories. Once we have refined our scientific methods a bit more and dig up more clues then we can make boldly say that the Earth does revolve around the Sun or, to stay on topic, that there were other Christianities that sprung up, but eventually died out, along with the proto-orthodox Christianity which won the battle. Losers don't get to write the history books.

This is where faith steps into the battle of the bags. It may not mean a thing to you that Nazareth may not have existed during the time of Christ or that we may have evolved from our Auntie Ida, but to many many people any evidence that contradicts their own bag of evidence is a definite problem. Why? Because evidence shapes how we view the Divine. Again I believe we are missing the point. If we base our faith on evidence we're always faced with the fear of that evidence crumbling from beneath our feet. Why stand on evidence to support your views/beliefs instead of standing on the principles that are at the heart of your beliefs? If your beliefs cause you to be a more compassionate, loving, and reasonable person, why muck it up with evidence like the Mesha stele? Sure it may be a reference to the house of David but it doesn't teach us anything about the historical David. Don't get me wrong, the Mesha stele is incredibly important that it seems to verify the existance of the Kingdom of David but it stops there. It doesn't prove that God exist nor anything else for that matter. Our bags of evidence may be worth their weight in some areas of study but it comes to a point where they become meaningless in others. What does the age of the Earth have to do with my faith in God? Either it's billions of years old or it isn't. What does the character of God as portrayed in the Old Testament have to do with MY love for my fellow man? God can be a loving, benevolent Deity, a bloodthirsty, childish God, non-existent or He may even be a flying spaghetti monster (everlasting praise to His Noodliness); regardless of his character I'm still going to continue loving my fellow man.

Any and all evidence, be they logical, historical, or scientific, in relation to religion should be considered, discussed, and debated so that we may continue to increase man's knowledge of our collective spirituality. But we can not explain away any evidence that disagrees with our personal views. We must face these challenging questions in an ever changing world, and if that means we need to reform our views on the Divine so that we may move forward I'm all for it. Polytheism had it's time in the sun before Monotheism came into town and, if we don't kill each other off in the process, might lead to an even greater spiritual movement.

Evidence, Shmevidence. Let's drop the gloves (and the bags) and find out the truth together.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Piece by Piece

For the last few weeks I've been working on a puzzle in my in-between time on a table set up in the garage, my private Idaho. This is the second puzzle I put together from start to finish that contains more than 100 pieces. So what's the point of putting together a puzzle? To challenge and remind ourselves that no matter how long it takes us to finish it each piece has a specific place in the overall picture. We can not force a piece to fit in a place where it does not belong but we must remember that ALL the pieces do belong. We just have to wait and the spot will reveal itself, piece by piece.

I'm not a puzzle fanatic (did I mention this is only my second puzzle I've ever put together?) but I love the theme of interconnectedness and unity of puzzles as a metaphor for my spirituality. The obvious place to begin a puzzle is to start with the borders, but a border would imply that our spirituality is limited in growth. Some people do put up internal borders which they do not dare cross (homosexuality, other faiths, etc), and this may be fine with them. As long as your comfortable with your spirituality and it truly makes you a better and happier person than go as you were. But for those who cannot stand living in a tiny goldfish bowl, we attempt to tear down these spiritual borders and come face to face with the vast expanse of infinite spiritual growth. I can barely grasp the image of the infinite let alone experience it as others have. What an experience that would be!

But we can not jump from A to C without going through B. A person's spirituality is all about growing, learning, and feeling our way bit by bit, piece by piece, through life's experiences. As we pick up new pieces we study it, learn from it, and implement it into our lives at the right time. I've mentioned before that I've recently began practicing meditating for a few minutes a day. I honestly thought I would feel something, anything, right away: calmer, quieter mind, less stressful, anything. I found out shortly thereafter that mediation is about being mindful of your present state of being, yes these benefits may come later but I must not lose heart just because I did not experience any immediate benefits. I am not ready for that piece yet so until then I will set it aside and continue practicing, continue growing.

My Religious Studies teacher, the inspiring Rabbi Rami, once said, "Too bad the puzzle doesn't come with a picture of the completed work on the box cover." So where do you begin with a puzzle that contains an infinite amount of pieces? At the time of that posting I used this analogy as a way to describe the interconnectedness of all religions but I did not perceive that spirituality can expand infinitely beyond religion. This is where we begin to understand that the deeper you go into your own puzzle the bigger it gets, "further up and further in." All pieces are important even though we may not yet know where they belong in the big picture. Returning to the question, you must first ask yourself what you want out of life. Meaning or purpose? Relationship with God? Peace and understanding with your fellow man? To Love and be loved? Whatever the answers may be, this is your spiritual journey which begins and ends (if it ends at the grave) with you.

When working on a puzzle it is far easier to put together the pieces that stand out and work your way towards the pieces that lack any distinctive traits. The same goes for your spirituality by cultivating that which enables you to grow spiritually: prayer, meditation, study, or simply being a part of a religious community. Once you grasp what you want from yourself and begin your own methods of cultivating your spirit, you can begin adding pieces to your God-sized puzzle. If your foundation, your core, is love for your fellow man you will find that all religions have teachings that express this in a vast diversity of ways. They are independent, though similar, voices that when put together sing the awe-inspiring beauty of our interconnectedness. At first, it is difficult putting together a puzzle, but as you continue to add pieces and step back you can begin to see the big picture spreading out in all directions. So, how far can your puzzle grow?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Symbol, Symbol, What's in a Symbol

As I perused around the Internet the other day for information on Jainism I stumbled upon this unholy demonic symbol. How can anyone dare to call this a religious symbol? Sacred? Holy? For those of us in the West, the Swastika is associated with pure evil and, except for Neo-Nazi groups, no one dares to walk down the street displaying this symbol without drawing an angry mob. But the stigma of this once culturally ubiquitous symbol is held by us Westerners only after its use in Hitler's Germany. What, or should I say who, gives meaning to a symbol? Is it possible for a symbol to hold multiple meanings, and if so how do we deal with that multiplicity?

[The Universal Jain Emblem adopted during the 2500th anniversary of the nirvana of Lord Mahavira]

Symbols have been an integral part of humanity's existence as a means to communicate a broad range of ideas. They can transmit ideas as simple as Stop, Danger! to as complex as E pluribus unum. Yet at the sight of some of our ubiquitous symbols, which have developed different and at times contrasting meanings, can touch the very foundation of our collective souls and stir up a wide range of emotions. Intentionally or not, we bestow these symbols with meaning and the "appropriate" emotion connected with the local interpretation. The burning of an American flag on American soil can stir up hatred towards the flag burners, whereas the burning of an American flag on foreign soil can stir up hatred towards the people (or concept) the flag represents. What I mean by appropriate emotion is just that, the appropriate emotion that is found to be acceptable by the local populace. Mores.

The Universal Jain Emblem is an example where any average Joe from America could mistake this symbol as the banner for some sort of Muslim Nazi group. Why Muslim? Because many people unfamiliar with Eastern script (including myself) could mistake the writing as Islamic because of the widespread ignorance and fear of Islam here in the States. Click here and here for an interesting detailed breakdown of the Universal Jain Emblem.

Not all symbols have multiple meanings but imagine what we could learn from our global neighbors if we educated ourselves in those that do. We would find that the swastika itself is a sacred symbol to over a billion followers if the Eastern religions. In fact the swastika has a long history throughout the world and "by the early 20th century, it was widely used worldwide and was regarded as a symbol of good luck and success" (Wikipedia). Of course it went sour after that, but it seems that we've all but forgotten (at least in the West) what the symbol originally stood for.

We can't turn back the clock and erase the damage done to our collective soul and to the name of a holy symbol, and it may even be associated with Nazism until the end of time. My goal isn't to undo the past but to positively influence the future through encouraging mutual respect and understanding among all cultures, faiths, and nations. I believe it is possible to look past our own interpretation so that we may glimpse into how others interpret the symbols that surround us. By understanding the symbols our neighbors live by we might be that much closer to understanding our neighbors themselves. A Muslim doesn't have to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior to be able to appreciate the love shared that binds Christians together through the act of Christ's sacrifice anymore than either one having to accept, but at least appreciate, the awe-inspiring transcendent beauty of the Buddha's enlightenment. Listening leads to understanding which leads to compassion and mutual respect.

So will it hurt you to listen?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Thou Shalt Cover Thy Mouth

I love to surf the net and randomly select an aspect of a world religion so that I may introduce myself to the awe inspiring diversity of our spirituality. I would love to learn about other beliefs from the practitioners themselves but outside of a local mosque (which I have yet to visit) there isn't much of a religiously diverse community in my town unless I drive into Nashville. What a friend I have in Wikipedia!

[The hand with a wheel on the palm symbolizes the Jain Vow of Ahiṃsā. The word in the middle is "ahimsa". The wheel represents the dharmacakra which stands for the resolve to halt the cycle of reincarnation through relentless pursuit of truth and non-violence.]

Ahiṃsā (Sanskrit : अहिंसा, Prakrit : अहिंसा) means “non-violence”, “non-injury” or absence of desire to harm any life forms. Ahiṃsā is the fundamental principle of Jainism forming the cornerstone of its ethics and doctrine. Vegetarianism and other non-violent practices and rituals of Jains flow from the principle of Ahiṃsā.
What does a religion look like with the principle of non-injury as its foundation? Well, take a look, but don't be too quick to judge. Although sweeping the ground as you walk and covering your mouth to avoid injuring even the tiniest lifeforms sounds a bit extreme (probably on the same level as wiping your bum with your left hand as some Muslims do in Islam) take note that the focus is to become mindful of the sacredness of all life. This is done because injury toward others is a behavior that injures and limits the soul's potential for attaining moksa, the liberation of the soul. Even words can lead to injury so at times it is wiser to stay silent.

What I admire about Ahiṃsā is that it is not done to please the Divine or because it's Divine commandment for humanity to follow but that it is done for 1) the general welfare of society and that 2) harming others harms your own soul. An internal drive to non-injury I believe is more beneficial to spiritual growth than following the commands of an external force. Jainism's approach to non-violence doesn't trump the Monotheistic faiths which asks their believers to internalize this behavior, but that the desire originates from within the soul. I believe the desire to avoid harming one another is essential regardless of where that desire originates.

Understanding the concept is one thing, internalizing it is another, and we're all guilty of failing to internalize this noble practice. But failure should not keep us from moving "further up and further in." Everyday brings us the opportunity to internalize Ahiṃsā by constantly testing us through interactions with our brothers. Without interaction how could we experience love? How can we call ourselves human if we can not face each other, let alone live as neighbors, as we harbor hiṃsā (violence) in the depths of our being? It may be that man is at its core violent in nature, but I pray that this is not the case. So until science cracks the nature vs. nurture question on violence this fallible creature will begin to cover his mouth.