Friday, January 29, 2010

An Assemblage of Separate Things: Part 1 - I Don't Know

"We feel that this world is indeed an assemblage of separate things that have somehow come together or, perhaps, fallen apart, and that we are each only one of them. We see them all alone-born alone, dying alone-maybe as bits and fragments of a universal whole, or expandable parts of a big machine."

The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, by Alan Watts. pg.35

When and where does this feeling of separation originate? Or is that the wrong question to ask. We may guess that it arose at the traumatic moment of birth when we are torn away from the comforting womb of our mothers, or even that our sense of separateness developed at a young age. Are we raised to believe we are separate by others who've also been taught the same thing by their parents? How then do we break the chain of illusion and embrace that lost connection of unity?

Growing up in the church one constantly hears about the urgent need to develop a long lasting and strong relationship with Jesus Christ. But we were also told that because of our sinful nature the Divine will always be transcendentally unreachable. Since we are unable to reach towards the eternal, the eternal must then reach down to us. Within Christianity, the bridge between the created and the creator manifested itself as Jesus Christ. It is then through the sacrificial act of Jesus that once again bridged the mortal and the Divine. For many, Christians are united in one body with the Divine. This is all well and good for Christians, but then, which expression of Christianity has it right, or worse, what about everyone else? If God and man alike are desperately trying to reconnect with each other would it not hinder the cause by having one exclusive path to reconnection?

On Thursday during my American Spirituality class we spoke and debated on the concept of "I" and how we regard our identity within an interconnected universe. One of our textbooks for the class happens to be The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts which I have found incredibly intriguing. Alan Watts makes clear that when he speaks of the "I" it is not the same as Freud's structural model of the psyche but how we individually define as "I" when we speak of ourselves. He begins chapter three with an intriguing question: "for what specific sensation do they (us) use the word 'I'?" This is something most of us don't usually give much thought to and simply reduce it to proper grammar ("I have a body" vs. "I am a body"). For example when we point to ourselves saying, in a sense, "this is the real me" we don't point to an ear, toe, or kidney. We tend to point towards our chest or head. Yet if we were to open up the human body we would not see anything that resembles a collective of various elements that make up our "I", just human tissue. Also, the "I" is in a constant state of flux, the "I" of today is completely different from the "I" of yesterday. To give a more personal example, there are those who've stated that I've changed and are clueless as to who "I am" solely based on my change of beliefs. I don't feel any different, nor does my inner-self feel any different since I started my present spiritual journey. But "I" have changed although I Feel the same, but what is it that I am actually feeling and is this feeling a separate element from my "I"?

Questions within questions! And down the rabbit hole my classmates and I went. I understood the concept and theory but what do we make of what it means? A few of my classmates spiraled into a defense of Christianity which brings up my initial musing on the separateness of the sacred and the non-sacred: why are we so bound to erect borders between God and man? Is it our high ideals and descriptions of God? Is it our horrid human nature? Do we need something Good (if one defines God as good) in our lives to balance out the Evil of humanity? What do we fear by questioning these boundaries? The best I can summarize my thoughts after Thursday's class is "I" don't know.

An edited and extended version of this post is up on my class blog, American Spirituality, where my classmates and I will be posting our thoughts on our class readings.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quote of the Day: sine qua non

"But it is true that whenever we develop machinery to the point where it will support large populations at a high standard of living we are then bound to keep that machinery running, or suffer the consequences. But the real hazard in that is not the machinery, but the men who run the machinery...When a population is dependent on a machine, they are hostages of the men who tend the machines."

From The Roads Must Roll by Robert Heinlein.

Friday, January 22, 2010

You Must Believe: Part 4- Do No Evil

"Also, you quote Jesus as being a person who influences you. But Jesus didn't teach us to be good people for the heck of it. He told us God himself loves us & is compassionate, and we should be the same towards others because it is the right thing to do, and God dictates this. He wasn't here to teach us to JUST be better people. He was here to reveal God, and he believed in the God of the Bible as presented by the bible, and made some pretty hefty claims." An excerpt from a dialog with fellow blogger Ben at Discovering God's Holy Plan discussing my beliefs.

Is being a good, nice person good enough? The religious authorities of various world faiths would collectively say no, it is not, you must be a good Jew, Muslim, Hindu, etc. I would then ask, good enough for what, the community, ourselves, God? Does God really use the carrot-and-stick to get us to behave? Do we need an outside force to encourage us to behave? Well at least for most of us, yes, I believe so, but we can learn to outgrow the need for using God as a crutch. We should be able to draw our morality from within even with all of our mortal shortcomings.

I believe our various belief systems, although vastly different and tribal, do share a common goal: they state that there is something wrong with humanity and offer a path to change, reformation, and a higher level of consciousness. The core of Christianity is not just to save oneself but to save the whole of humanity, to elevate mankind out of the muck and mire of sin by bringing about the Kingdom of God. Interchange a few words and you can say the same for Islam and Judaism. The East, however, use a different manner of approaching this Utopian ideal for mankind by looking within oneself and discovering the True Reality hidden beneath the illusion of separation from the divine. In my humble opinion, both ways seek to unite the seeker with the sought: man with God, incarnation with Source.

It is movement, always movement, which I seek. To quote C.S. Lewis, I seek to move further up AND further in. We may bicker with one another over the systems we choose and the "pitfalls" other paths may have, but where does that lead us? It brings our individual journeys to a screeching halt and at times takes us back a step or three. How can we judge the Other (our fellow man with the "pagan" beliefs) and say that they're going in the wrong direction when we have not taken their path?

We should do no evil NOT because we are encouraged to do so by an outside source, nor for personal gain (i.e. heaven), but our urge to do no evil must come from that seed of the divine within all of us, the seedling of Love. We must transcend being more than just a good Christian, Atheist, Sikh, or even just a good person. Being faithful to your tribe is fine, but in my opinion it's limited loving. Worshiping at church, embracing and mingling with fellow believers keeps us secluded. It is easy to do no evil to those we are comfortable with in our bubble. The challenge lies in loving those we are uncomfortable being around. And I'm not talking about "hating the sin and loving the sinner" cop-out some Christians use around homosexuals. I'm talking about total embrace and acceptance of their entire being. Are these standards impossible? I don't know but I'm willing to try. We must reach the point where we fully embrace the Other regardless of the path they're on or the mistakes they've made. We should love completely and universally, we must become Love Incarnate.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Questions within Questions

I love questions. Although I prefer asking them instead of answering since I have trouble relaying my answers without thinking about them for some time. That and of course I'm not the best public speaker. This is why I enjoy taking Rabbi Rami's classes at MTSU, although I noticed a few of my peers, who are new to his teaching methods, were a bit unsure about taking his class.

Yesterday was the first day of class in my last semester at MTSU. This is also the first and only semester I'll be taking more Religion classes than Audio engineering which will hopefully reduce the amount of homework stress and increase the amount of thinking, questioning, seeking. During my first class, The Bible: Origen and Content (I wonder if the Rabbi's misspelling of 'origin' on the whiteboard was a Freudian slip), the Rabbi was his usual comical, friendly self as he introduced himself and skimmed through the syllabus. Due to technical issues with the dvd player in one of MTSU's hightech smartrooms, we 'circled the wagons' and began discussing Rabbi's first provocative question of the semester: What are your thoughts on the Bible? Instead of giving my middle of the road "we can read the Bible spiritually and metaphorically without it being literal and still receive truth" answer I was more interested in the responses from my peers and the possible ensuing conflicts.

I was honestly surprised that more and more Christians were actually questioning the literal view of the Bible than I'd witnessed in previous semesters. There were a few skeptics (either Agnostic or Atheist, I could not tell) and of course since we do reside in the South, quite a few (I'm guessing at least half) Born Again, Testifying Christians. Of these there were a couple who no longer held firm to the Literalist's view and were wrestling with some of the conflicting verses of the Bible. This is when the conversation became heated.

"How is that being Christ-like?" responded one young lady to another classmate's struggle as a new Christian who did not take every word of the Bible literally. She continued stating that to be Christ-like is to believe what Jesus believed and since he (Jesus) believed in the OT Prophets then there should be no doubt to the authenticity and literal interpretation of the text. The Rabbi asked the young lady if that included accepting the view of a flat earth, which she wholeheartedly rejected. The conversation moved onto how one can take the scripture (all scripture) metaphorically while still bearing truth. Question after question, I could tell that about half the class were truly interested seekers, wrestlers while the rest were either unsure what to think or were offended. But why should honest questions be so offensive? Is it because they are challenging, thought-provoking, do they bring us out of the shade of blind faith and force us to wrestle with the question itself? Do we fear that we may learn something new from our struggle which may contradict our previous beliefs? What then do we do with this new knowledge: toss it out and ignore it, learn to live with it, or implement the change into our lives?

Monday, January 18, 2010

You Must Believe: Part 3- Speak No Evil

"Your blog is a journey of you trying to understand and seek God. In many of the posts you have made, and things you have said, I see a lot of my previous 'secular' thinking in it,...what I see is that you are getting confused by other religions, and you are letting them sway and corrupt your own beliefs and journey." An excerpt from a dialog on Christianity I held with Ben at Discovering God's Holy Plan.

In my journey these past few years in seeking the Divine there is one thing I'm certain about: one may hear and see things that challenges the church, but when you speak about them openly you risk being exiled among the "unbelievers". What then do you do if your beliefs have changed: do you keep them bottled up inside, seek counseling from your local pastor to help with your 'lack of faith', or do you speak and dialog with those around you? How can we grow if we don't allow ourselves to seek, to question, to yearn? Where do we run to if our new discoveries challenge the very fabric of our beliefs?

A part of us yearns and reaches out for the Unnameable, yet we have placed warning signs that keep us on the established trail.

"Stay on the Trail. Do not cross. Do not Explore."

We feel there is more to discover, to experience, to love. So why is it taboo to seek? I propose that we should question everything, always, and learn to live with the mystery of the Divine, the Unnameable, the Infinite. The difficulty lies in the fact that we are mortal, fallible creatures who fear everything. So why not explore the known, why not begin, with baby steps, delving into what has already been discovered? In the above quote, Ben, from Discovering God's Holy Plan, expressed a very real fear in many Christians, the fear of being eternally disconnected from the Divine. And for many Christians, fear, not love, keeps the faithful on the established trail. We should not let fear control or even guide us, pulling us by the nose. We should boldly question, fearlessly seek, and plunge ourselves into the Unknown. As Christians, if Christ is within us why should we fear associating ourselves with other God-seekers regardless of where they're at in their own spiritual journey? Let's take it one step forward and ask why should we fear associating with non-God seekers? Is this the will of God, to erect borders to keep the unbelievers out? God doesn't want us to congregate in a church once a week worshiping him, we are to go out live, love, and embrace each other.

Is it blasphemous to ask questions, to seek, to learn from non-Christian sources? And if we have these questions how do we handle them within a community which might ignore them altogether? I believe that our connection between the Divine and our fellow man is based on love, and if we want that connection/relationship to flourish the individual is responsible for nurturing that connection even if the community leans toward another direction. I am not attempting to justify my beliefs but rather to question the concept of exclusive truth and avoidance of challenging questions. How can we discover more about the Divine if we are told there are certain doors we are never to open, certain people and cultures we are never to embrace? Let us seek to move beyond limited learning and loving and into the fields of Universal Love.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Around the Web

There were a lot of things which caught my attention this past week most importantly is the recent news of the devastating earthquake which tore through Haiti on Tuesday. Aid has been pouring in from all corners of the world along with their prayers. There are those, however, who are taking this tragic event to support their own political and religious views. Doug B. over at Groping the Elephant has two responses on this horrific crisis. The first is good ole' Rush Limbaugh "enlightening" his audience how the Obama administration is using this catastrophe for a photo op. Really, Rush, really?

The second response from Pat "Direct-line-to-God" Robertson infuriated me when I first heard it but is typical response coming from him.

I just don't understand how these televangelists, who use natural disasters as a sign of God's displeasure, sleep at night for condemning the innocent who experience the disaster firsthand. Although I personally don't believe that any natural or unnatural suffering is the cause of our displeasing God this is an example of compassionless Christianity to the extreme: collecting funds to save the very people Pat believes deserved suffering.

On a more positive note, it seems that Muslims are more Christ-like than Christians like Mr. Robertson as Aziz Poonawalla reports on CAIR and their fundraiser to help rebuild the churches firebombed by extremists in Malaysia. Muslims helping to rebuild churches destroyed by Muslim extremists over the use of "Allah" by Christians? News like this warms my heart.

Here's a video, via Professor James McGrath at Exploring our Matrix, which I believe sums up my views on the topic of Biblical Inerrancy. Enjoy.

And here's a video which I thought was incredibly creative. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

You Must Believe: Part 2- See No Evil

"What you're doing is dangerous, not only to you but to your children." -A response from a local pastor on a conversation concerning my interest in Islam.

As Christians, how does it look to others when we say we follow a loving way of life while we (as a whole) continue to cling to hateful and bigoted beliefs? We say we follow the words of Jesus "love thy neighbor" but to whom and to what lengths does this Love reach? As Christians, how does it look when we fail to stand up and call out injustice and evil when we see it? Or does this depend on the person's allegiance to Christ? Christianity, at least in the States, has taken on the mantle of moral superiority with its Judeo-Christian values. Yet the title alone is worthless without action. Ignorance coupled with fear acts as a protective bubble against the outside world, yet the outside world is becoming exponentially accessible and we can no longer hide from it, we can no longer claim to be compassionate if we (Christians) fail to act, look away, and even participate unjustly against our fellow man. Nor can Mainstream Christianity in America feign ignorance any longer while we watch new houses of worship being opened by "our enemies" and sit idly by as over 1 Billion of the world's population go hungry. We have access to information and resources, yet we lack the compassion to act. As long as we fear the other, the unknown, we will continue to keep our eyes shut hoping the problem will go away or distract ourselves by more "important" issues (like gay marriage). Hardly ever do we point at ourselves and say "the problem originates within me". We reach for the blindfold and swing at every other target except for ourselves.

The local pastor who stated the opening quote is an exceptional preacher at a great church my wife and I used to attend in Murfreesboro. My wife was troubled by the news that I seriously considered converting to Islam during the summer of 2008 and we went to our pastor for advice in handling an interfaith marriage. Not only did he not know a single thing about Islam (he asked me what century the Prophet Muhammad lived) he had never before in his life had to deal with an interfaith couple. The danger he referenced was not that Islam was evil (though he may privately believe it is) but he feared for my soul and the souls of my children. To the pastor, Christianity is THE WAY to God, and he could not see, nor care to see, any other way to the Divine. He considered Islam evil because to him there is no other way of life outside of Christianity as the ultimate symbol of love. The main difference between our views on Christianity is on the exclusive vice grip on Truth. I have chosen to look beyond any one particular religion in seeking to be a compassionate person.

I believe it is the choice to look past our man-made horizons,including the self-imposed limits found in religion, which leads us to the Unnameable. When we, as humans, try to implement the teaching 'love thy neighbor' we must ask ourselves how much do we allow ourselves to love? As much as the Church says we should love? As much as the Bible says we should love? Should we not love more than what is asked of us? Should we not remove our blindfolds and embrace the other, the unknown, the stranger? If it is ignorance which keeps us from truly loving others may we seek understanding. If it is fear which keeps us in ignorance, then may we seek the strength to break through the shade of Fear and melt into the eternal warmth of universal Love.

Monday, January 4, 2010

You Must Believe: Part 1- Hear No Evil

"It's nice that you call yourself a Christian and follow Christ but that's not enough. You must believe that he died for your sins." -A Response to my claim of being a Christian

I struggle with titles and labels. Not because of their misuse but because they fail to fully express the reality of what they're describing, nevertheless they are necessary in an impatient society (we can not sit around forever describing every detail that makes up a box of french fries to the driver-thru attendant at McDonald's now can we). So when I call myself a Christian each person reacts to that title differently based on their experience, not mine: an Atheist may automatically assume that I believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible dictated by a wrathful God who demands worship on pain of Hellfire; A Muslim might assume that I am ignorant and intolerant of other faiths (especially theirs); and a Conservative Christians might write me off as a unbeliever simply because I fail to hold the same beliefs as they do. Yet rarely do we take time to actually listen to what the other person holds dear to their heart. We apply the assumptions and stereotypes we have onto the other person the very second they describe themselves based on what WE THINK we know instead of what they truly believe.

I personally find it difficult to try and describe what I believe because 1) it challenges the majority belief in my part of the country, and 2) it is difficult to express an ongoing and constantly evolving spiritual journey. I can try and describe to you what I've experienced and felt along the way but if won't do any good if you're not willing to listen. And I mean more than just halfheartedly agreeing to listen, both parties must be willing to at least understand what the other believes and why. Some of us may not have the opportunity to listen and dialog with those with different beliefs because we surround ourselves with those who share our faith. It is natural to surround ourselves with like-minded people, although it is unchallenging to our spirituality. How can we know we truly love God and our neighbor if our neighbor shares the same faith? For those of us who are aware of our community bubble, do we then dare to leave it? If we do, we must also ask ourselves the reason for our departure: to missionize, or to interact and interconnect with our fellow man? Which is easier: attempting to convert the whole of humanity to a single faith, or attempting to understand our brother and learn to live with our differences? I am not calling for a halt to spreading the gospel but to intently listen, interact, and understand our brother's faith as well.