Wednesday, April 28, 2010

PBS- The Buddha

PBS aired a new documentary on the Buddha, narrated by Richard Gere, earlier this month and I missed it the first time around. Luckily someone has posted the entire 2 hour program on Youtube. So if you're interested watch it while it's still available. I'm sure PBS will serve a take down notice to Youtube soon so it won't be up for long.

The Buddha is the first of three religious documentaries which will air this year, the other two being God in America (airing in October) which I wrote briefly upon last week and The Calling (To be announced) a documentary following Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Americans who decided to enter the clergy. I love religious documentaries, especially those which encourages inter and intra faith dialog. Of course if you happen to miss any of these you can always purchase them at the PBS store.

Monday, April 26, 2010

She Who Dies with the Most Toys, Still Dies...

Just finished watching this report on Joyce Meyers and her success as a televangelist.

At first I didn't know how to respond. The questions asked by Cynthia McFadden were straightforward: if you've been blessed by all this success why not give more? Meyers replied "I can't run the rest of this if we give all of it away." Of course you need some funding to keep a ministry or charity afloat but what Joyce Meyers appears to be saying is that because SHE has suffered and has worked hard to help other people SHE deserves prosperity, a reward.

Don't we all?

But that's not how it works. God does not sprinkle blessing on some based on their loyalty and praise, if not humanity would have the system figured out by now and we would all be flying on private jets (I agree, it's too physically demanding to go through the hassle of flying commercial ). What bothered me wasn't the fact that she was justifying that $14 million out of $100 million is enough, but that it seems she truly believes what she's saying. What does this say about those who've worked hard their entire lives and get squat? Have they've been too greedy paying the rent or putting their kids through college while living in a run down trailer park? Or maybe their faith isn't strong enough? Maybe the secret formula to success is

Ironclad faith+ a troubled past+ the willingness to give to God= God showering with blessings with interest.

Now, I'm not poking fun at Meyers traumatic history but it sickens me when prosperity preachers (which she is a prosperity preacher regardless if she scoffs at the term) like her, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, and the other Tele-send-in-your-life-savings-Supervangelists feed off the poor and needy to line their own pockets by convincing the viewers that if you DON'T give to God (and his messengers) He can't bless you.

But then I have to be careful now don't I? I'm falling into the same trap Meyers has fallen into by failing to help my fellow man. I could justify my lack of giving by saying we don't have the money to give, we have school loans to pay off, we just bought a house, and the list goes on and on. But the point of this article isn't to shame those living comfortably (although we should feel grateful if not a bit of shame) to give to the needy but to remind ourselves that even if we gave all, our two mites, the world would not come crashing down, we would not starve to death. But there are those already in that state of absolute dire needy. To those on the verge of death, TV shows and Books about celebrating yourself are beyond superfluous, they're scornful.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

On Christianity and Religious Tolerance

"Those who believe the Ten Commandments is the basis for American jurisprudence are no less adamant than Moses in insisting that there be "no other Gods" before the God of the Bible. The modern idea that formed as a result of more and more immigrants coming to America and bringing their non-Christian religious traditions along with them (and worse than that, some would argue, popularizing them here) that all religious belief systems deserve equal respect really was not the "original intent" (as they call it) of our Founders." Doug B. from Groping the Elephant.

Doug has a great post today on Christianity in America and the paradoxical themes of freedom (in this case religious freedom) and the intolerance and exclusivity of the Christian faith. This is exactly the kind of topic I hope the PBS documentary God in America I wrote about on Thursday will at least briefly mention when it airs in October. How then does the average Bible believin', freedom lovin' American reconcile the two without blowing a circuit? Outside of not giving it much thought or establishing the beliefs in God and the Bible as superseding the universal rights of being human I can't see any other way around it. The rights and beliefs of others more than likely loses out in this battle whenever personal faith is challenged. This is because personal faith is so closely tied to our identity that any attack on the faith is a personal strike against us. This is insanity! And this is why I've departed from Mainstream Christianity to a very Liberal expression of Christianity (if I even continue to call myself a Christian at all is a topic I've written about in the past and something I will touch upon again in the near future). I do not see suppressing the universal rights of our neighbor just to secure my own sense of security in divisive and exclusive beliefs as the core of being Christian. Tolerance is not a Christian ideal but it is a human ideal. At the very least we should be progressing forward and not just meeting the status quo of the Founding Fathers. We should be more loving than Jesus, more compassionate than our scripture, and far surpass the original intent of our very human, and very fallible Founding Fathers.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

PBS- God In America

PBS to air new 6 hour documentary this fall entitled God in America. The program will air over a span of three nights on October 11, 12, and 13 covering the history and impact of faith on the American landscape.

[If this trailer gets taken down by PBS you can also see it here along with more information on the program.]
In my opinion, PBS has always done well on documentaries dealing with religion (I was set to see the Buddha but unfortunately had DVR issues and lost the recording). And from what I could tell from the trailer what they mean to cover is the collective faith of Americans and not exclusively America as a Christian nation, as Palin and friends have convinced themselves has always been since our Deist...err, I mean "Christian" slave-owning founders. I'm sure they'll cover the faith and beliefs of the founding fathers but I'm hoping they'll mention historical revisionism and the heroic painting of the Fathers as Bible-thumpin' Christians. I'm also excited to see that the program will also include Atheism and the growing Spiritual but Not Religious along with the political brawls over separation of Church and State.

What do we mean when we talk about God in America? There are many (see links above) who believe that the words 'God', 'faith', and 'religion' exclusively talk about Christianity, as if the words were interchangeable. Sorry kids, they're not. The problem with this narrow mentality is that if the nation were to accept prayer in school they would have to accept ALL forms of prayer in school (see link above). The fundamentalists would rejoice in the streets until their children come home from school chanting 'gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā'.

Parents: "Jason, where did you learn that demonic prayer."
Jason: "From my new friend at school. He's a Buddhist."
Parents: Gasp!

You can't have your cake and eat it too.

The issue of government funds supporting religious groups (and not to forget the Intelligent Design textbooks poorly disguised as science) is that it would have to be all or nothing. This was the issue the founders of the country faced: to discourage the elevation of any ONE group over the rest preventing the fracture of our diverse nation. Faith is integral in the lives of many Americans BUT when we enter into the public square we can not bludgeon everyone else with our faith, nor should we feel our faith suppressed in the public square (which it's not, especially if you're part of the majority faith. There is no such thing as "Christian persecution" in the States. You want to experience persecution, then go talk to the Arab Christians in the Middle East.). Jon Meacham's book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation is an excellent source which covers the struggle to create a religiously (but not spiritually) neutral public square. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who think the founding fathers were born-again Christians.

Returning to the topic, I hope God in America has time to cover the future of the American religious and spiritual landscape. Even with all of the current religious turmoil in the political and social arenas I feel we as a nation are slowly crawling out of the enveloping darkness of religious tribalism into a new era of enlightenment. Religious historian and author, Karen Armstrong states that we are currently in the second Axial Age, spanning from the era of Enlightenment to today. I don't believe we will ever collectively put spirituality behind us, nor do I think religion is leaving anytime soon (sorry Sam Harris). I don't buy into organized religion but I don't think that religion should disappear, we just need to rediscover our shared humanity. Can we remain religious as members of a 21st century society? Maybe, maybe not, either way there's a lot of baggage we'll have to leave behind.

Oh by the way, for you Lost fans, did you notice Michael Emerson in the trailer banishing someone from a Puritan colony?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Final Stretch...

This is it. I've got two weeks left of school before I finally graduate, I've been in school forever. Since it's crunch time there's going to be a flood of assignments turned in at the last minute by my fellow classmates. In both of my religious studies classes, American Spirituality and The Bible: Origin and Content, Rabbi Rami had us write three blog posts containing our thoughts and struggles with the reading material assigned to us over the semester. I chose to write about Ecclesiastes and Alan Watts intriguing little book entitled, er, The Book. I'm sure most of you have already read these so I encourage you to visit our class blogs and read the postings by some of my classmates.

The Bible: Origin and Content class blog is called Biblical Wisdom which covers a few of the wisdom books in Judaism and Christianity.
  • Proverbs
  • Job
  • Ecclesiastes
  • The Gospel of Thomas
  • The Gospel of Truth (hopefully one of my classmates will be bold enough to write about it)
  • The Gospel of John
The American Spirituality class blog is called, well, American Spirituality which covers books by contemporary spiritual gurus of America from the 50's to the present day.
  • The Book By Alan Watts
  • Remember Be Here Now by Ram Dass
  • The First and Last Freedom by Krishnamurti
  • The Silent Question: Meditating in the Stillness of Not-Knowing by Toni Packer
  • And a few articles on guest speakers and other concepts brought up in class
I think I'm the only one in the class actually excited about the assignment since it's been dead (no dialog or comments by anyone other than myself) since the beginning of the semester. I'm hoping in this final stretch before the end of the semester we'll get some good dialog going, but I'm not keeping my hopes up. If you're interested take a look maybe leave a comment or two and let's see if we can get a conversation started.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Dance of Ecclesiastes: Part 3- In Awe of God

Ecclesiastes 5:7 (NIV)

7 Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.

This is the trouble with translations, the lay reader doesn't know what the original Hebrew meant, or even if it had one singular meaning (which it probably doesn't). I'm using the NIV version of Ecclesiastes 5:7 to make my point even though other versions (like the NRSV) are translated

7 With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God.

In English fear and awe emphasize two very different emotional responses. Although interestingly enough God is described as "the Fear of Isaac" in Genesis 31:42. Both do share a sense of smallness (for a lack of a better word) where one feels themselves humble and vulnerable. So what does standing in awe of God mean? Well that would depend on what we mean when we say God. After reading through Ecclesiastes I couldn't get the concept out of my head that the constant turning, motion, and breathing of the universe and all of reality itself is God. Kohelet probably could only envision God as the anthropomorphic, father figure God, but with a handful of references in Ecclesiastes God may have nothing to do with anything he teaches.

Take a minute (or better yet, take five) and consider the majesty and grandeur of the universe itself. The intricate and interdependent systems which allows the planet itself to breathe (plate tectonics, atmospheric circulation, hydrologic cycle, etc.), the relationship and cosmic systems which births new stars introducing new possibilities for life, or even take a step back and ponder what it means to be aware of it all. Everything. You, me, the computer screen, the people behind you, around you, beside you, the air in your lungs, the microscopic organisms living on your body (in your body), the environment, the complex macro and micro ecosystems, beyond beyond beyond. And finally try to imagine That which ties every single thing together, the interdependent cosmic tapestry which binds All to All.

Some may call the Universe a sign pointing towards a Supreme Being, a Grand Designer. I would argue why bother looking beyond (outside of) the vast and intricate totality of the universe before grasping its enormity and complexity? How is it that religion after religion contain schools of thought which point within ourselves and reality instead of outside of it towards a separate and elevated Creator? And not just within us physically but hiding just behind a thin veil, just beneath the surface where mankind can just barely make out an outline. What is behind the veil, connecting All to All? A cosmic chaotic rhythm, a wild creative force, a dance driving the Universe. Everything is in constant motion, constant change, constant flowing, constant vibration. If you take a minute and let it All soak in you might realize that the universe may not revolve around our microscopic lives. That we merely play a minute but integral part in the immense mechanism which we call the universe.

So what, then, do we do? We dance. We allow the universe to continue humming away without trying to shape and bend it to our will. The dance of Ecclesiastes does not contain esoteric or hidden mysteries, it's just a dance. There are no moves to learn or techniques to master, just a surrendering to the rhythm and standing in awe of it All.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Highway Billboard Wisdom

If any of you are familiar with the strip of I-24 from Chattanooga to Nashville you probably recognize this billboard or at least have driven by a similar one.

"Life is short. Eternity isn't." -God

My initial thought whenever I pass by is what would the people of think if I put up another billboard stating "Everything returns to Me, the compassionate, the merciful." -Allah.
There's nothing wrong with ad wars, right? I mean if Verizon and AT&T can do it why not religions, they're businesses too. My following thought is that the Godspeaks billboard is so entrenched and accepted as the norm that ANY OTHER public message which carries a contrasting religious tone is considered a threat to the majority faith. How Christians handle the mental gymnastics of "equality" within a highly diverse country while proclaiming any other voices as a threat to themselves, our country, and freedom itself is far beyond me. (Someone please explain to me how this is done. Should I reread 1984 and grasp the mechanics of doublethink first?)

(Note: When I looked up and checked out their billboard section all they had was a link to their 2009 Nascar campaign. Hmm. God can put up a billboard but has trouble managing His website on the internets. Fortunately, I was able to find this photo on an Atheist site.)

For those at home keeping score, churches across our Christian nation are increasingly finding themselves with rows upon rows of empty pews and stacks of dusty collection plates. At first this was blamed on the recession: sadly, like grampa at the nursing home, nobody wants to waste gas driving to visit God every Sunday (anyway, there's a game on tv).

But when the PEW survey came out last spring showing that there is a small but growing shift from organized faith to personal spiritual searching outside the control of the clergy, the religions ramped up their ad campaigns. These campaigns have been around for decades but it seems that they've been growing in the last few years. Scientologists, Atheists, and Muslims (oh, my!) have also jumped on the advertising bandwagon. The billboard on I-24 in particular got me thinking in a manner opposite of its original intent. It was meant to deliver, as Sean Prophet at Black Sun Journal describes as "a thinly-veiled threat of eternal torture and damnation". Thin enough to cause you to think about life after death as you careen down Mount Eagle at 80mph (again if you're familiar with this area you've probably also had a near-death experience coming down the mountain). The quote itself can be read in the spirit of Kohelet, the narrator of Ecclesiastes, and many non-religious folks in the South: everyone dies, there's no life after death, so invite a few friends over and have a party. The Universe was fine before we were born and it will continue after we're gone. It may seem eternal from our perspective, and it may be, but all we have are our 80+ years (if we're lucky) so let's enjoy our little blip and not worry about an afterlife which may not even exist. This is where the religious folk confuse the wisdom of Kohelet with hedonism. Ecclesiastes (along with many of us considering ourselves postmodern, progressive, realists, etc.) does NOT say that we should indulge and give in to our every urge, but to just sit back and simply be. All we want to do is sit out on our porch and just breathe. I'm not threatened by eternity, I stand in awe of it. Shouldn't we be that much more grateful for our microscopic existence and not attempt to annihilate one another over God, politics, and resources?

"Life is short. Breathe it in." -God

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Beginner's Guide to the Spiritual But Not Religious: Part 2- The Seven Good Rules

“We each have an obligation to analyze our faith, study our religion, and periodically update our belief system as we grow and learn new spiritual truths, even if those truths come to us from sources outside of our inherited or chosen religion.”-The Truth: About the Five Primary Religions by Laurel.
[Note: I've been meaning to wrap up my review on The Truth but I've been considerably busy with final projects, the kids, and moving into our new home in Chattanooga.]

In Chapter 3 Laurel introduces the reader to the 7 good rules of religion, which if followed will lead mankind into the next spiritual paradigm and guide man back to the divine: Philosophy, Science, Morality, Justice, Inclusiveness, Openness, and Spirituality. As soon as Laurel described the rules I knew she was right, our religions have failed us. A religion is only as good as the people upholding its noble Truths.

Yet where our religions have failed us there are movements within each which have been wrestling with their own faith's failures. A battle for self-identity is being fought within the 5 major religions as future generations carry on the faith. What does it mean to be a Christian, Muslim, or Hindu, and who defines these labels? Can you truly be a faithful Christian and still be open-minded, how much of our traditions must we sacrifice in following these rules? The Seven Good Rules are more like seven noble goals instead of rules for the development of our individual and communal spiritual journeys. Noble goals to which, as Laurel will explain in detail in chapter 4, all religions have failed. So before jumping into the deep end of how they've failed us (which all of them have) let us go over why we feel religion is still important.

Religion began as our early attempt to explain the mysteries of the cosmos and helped to foster the development of civilization and safeguard our tribal survival. The ancient world must have been an extremely fearful environment for our ancestors battling with the wild forces of nature. Religion was the glue which kept communities together (live together, die alone), fed our wildly imaginative and creative impulses, and structured a sense of connection with the world and the divine. We eventually began peeling back the layers of fog blanketing the unknown to discover the actual mechanisms of the universe itself instead of continuously placating the gods to protect us from the elements, praying for blessings to rain down from on high. We discovered that there was not only a structured order to the universe but that we could work within that system to our benefit (navigation, metallurgy, biology, etc). These discoveries began to undermine the truths long held by the religions, which claim divine (or higher) revelation as their sources. Some, like the New Atheists, would say that since we have made long strides discovering the inner workings of the universe we no longer need religion, which was helpful at first but is now keeping mankind from progressing forward. I both agree and disagree that religion is broken and serves to be only as useful as a paperweight. The establishment and traditions of religion have become antiquated and now serves mostly to keep the clergy in power. Period. This is why people feel disconnected and are seeking the sacred outside of the established sacred places.

What has resonated with me the most and which I have found to be the best description of this tension between those inclined towards religion and those towards spirituality is best displayed by this crudely drawn graph.

Human beings crave connection, love, and interaction with each other, but we can't connect if we can't get along. Any religion which strays from these 7 goals are not only attempting to ensure its own survival they are inflicting harm to Man's spirit. The graph above is meant to illustrate that religion only serves to make you a better Hindu, Jain, Muslim, or Jew spiraling inward towards the center. And I have nothing against being a better Insert Faithful Believer Here, but if you're only spiraling inward towards a single faith there will be contention with followers of other faiths. Spirituality, or spiritual growth described as the Saddha Process by Laurel, on the other hand seeks to always grow outward regardless of your religious background. This is why the Seven Good Rules can never be followed by a practitioner of a faith because the clergy will not consider any change which might disrupt their power base. Is religion salvageable or should we follow the advice of the new Atheists and throw the baby out with the bath water? I believe, or hope, we can save religion, but for our religions to survive they (and the men who control it) must be open to radical discovery, radical change, and radical love.