Monthly Archives: October 2016

Intolerance and Modern Spirituality: Interfaith Outreach

Intolerance is the single greatest problem I think we face in religion. Intolerance rears its head when Christians preach that Jesus is the only way Home, and anyone whose follows a different path is condemned to hell. Intolerance rears up and screams its hateful hue and cry when secular Muslims misuse the words of Muhammad to preach violent jihad. Intolerance spreads like a cancer when fundamentalists of any cloth or wearing any frock picket and protest in denial of an individual s right to experience love when their sexual choices come in rainbow coloration.

Intolerance itself can be defined in the following manner:

  1. Lack of tolerance; unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect opinions or beliefs contrary to one’s own.
  2. Unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect persons of a different social group, especially members of a minority group.[1]

Intolerance’s playgrounds, ironically enough, are vast and diverse, for intolerance is bred in any petri dish that separates humanity on religious, political, geographical, social, artistic, or historical grounds. The cause of intolerance is difficult to locate, because so many modalities of incoherence feed into it. Yet an evolution in the genus of intolerance can be found if one starts with identity, adds in the three sisters, fear, ignorance and irrationality, peppers in a false sense of separation or otherness, and ignores the divine spark that fuels individual human existence.

Where otherness blooms, hatred spreads. Combating this growth is akin to preventing the spread of invasive bamboo in a mid-American back yard. You can rip each instance of it out, but if you do not dig a canal around the bamboo, or dig an entrenchment before the bamboo reaches across your land, it will shoot across any other plant or bush or grass or flower in its path. In other words, it’s much easier to attack bamboo before it takes root than to pull up each weed as it appears. Bamboo, like intolerance, must be met at the outer gate, before it takes hold of the yard.

The key to fighting intolerance is prevention. It must be fought before the roots that feed it find home in your heart, or in the hearts of those surrounding you. The keys to overcoming intolerance, fortunately, are as varied as the causes of it are varied. After all, the antidote to an unwillingness to tolerate others lies in love and acceptance. The answer lies in unity.

How, though, do we sow unity? One of the best engines for achieving social change lies in our religious institutions. At first glance though, hope for using religion to instill such unity seems like a task brimming with difficulty. Each week, I talk to people about religion in America, and all too often, people express anger and disillusionment towards the church they were raised in, or deny God altogether. Raised by fear-based and shame-engendering teachings, Americans either embrace pulpits that brandish the weapons of disunity and intolerance, or they reject religion altogether. They call themselves spiritual, not religious, and many good souls (far too many good souls) give up on church altogether.

In some ways, I was one of those souls, except instead of rejecting religion, I started the difficult process of trying to form my own ministry. No matter how disappointed I’ve gotten with the actual practices of churches, I still like the concept of church. I have seen the importance and utility of combining with others to fuel social justice and to synergize interfaith growth and dialogue via the sort of collective action that occurs within the walls of a worship center.

Yet when I looked around, I saw nothing that seemed to match my own beliefs. Interfaith ministries, as far as I could tell, did not exist. So I figured I would build one, but I discovered early in the process that there is a tremendous difference between serving others and doing the structural work of church building. The mere process of starting a non-profit requires cutting a swath through an endless sea of paperwork and red tape, and the actuality of creating a sacred space for worship services includes outreach, salesmanship and organizational vigor. I found that I was somewhat grinding my gears.

chalice_2011_cropped

Photo Credit: http://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/chalice_2011_cropped.jpg

That’s when I discovered the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church. One day, I was researching the dogma of the trinity. I realized that the opposite of trinity was unity, and I began to read more carefully about the Unitarian tradition. For some reason, I clicked on UU instead of Unitarian when I got to the search page on Google. That’s when I came to the main UU website.

I had to keep rereading what appeared there, because it was so unique and yet so familiar. Indeed, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I first read the seven Principles that guide UU practice, which focused on the worth of each individual, acceptance and compassion, the goal of community peace, and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.[2] This, I said to myself, is exactly what I believe. And these principles, if applied by individuals when supported by a strong religious institution, would result in the propagation of love, unity and tolerance.

And it was about that time that I read a sermon that had been shared at a UU congregation. In the sermon, the preacher (a woman!) weaved Rumi and Buddha into a discourse on a problem of some sort . . . ironically I don’t even remember what the problem was—which is to say the problem itself seemed almost irrelevant. What impressed me was how the preacher tried to solve the problem, which was by searching for truth across cultural boundaries and within multiple sacred traditions. All I knew at that moment was that I had found a place where I could comfortably serve and contribute.

After all, it was Rumi that gave me the motto for my own religious approach:

Not Christian or Jew or

Muslim, not Hindu,

Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.

rumi_religionNot any religion

or cultural system. I am

not from the east

or the west, not

out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not

natural or ethereal, not

composed of elements at all.

I belong to the beloved,

have seen the two

worlds as one and

that one

call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner,

only that breath breathing

human being.

No matter where I serve, THIS is what I will teach. Because it captures the essence of what human institutions, particularly religious ones, should exalt: the oneness of humanity. We are not other. We are not different. We all bear a spark of the divine. And if we can teach one another to see this divinity in one another, we can all walk one another Home.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/intolerance.

[2] http://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles.




Shame is Not a Good Teacher

Shame is one of the worst emotions we can teach our children to feel. It’s difficult to wade through spirituality without finding shame, though. We see the hint of it, the strong suggestion of it, throughout Christian schooling as well as throughout the Bible. We see it in the story of David and Bathsheba, for example. We also see it embedded in the teachings of Paul in the New Testament. Far too many preachers and ministers take these stories or these scriptures and use the stories to make us feel terrible, and this isn’t a proper or the best use of the Bible.

The great Christian writer and teacher, C.S. Lewis, wrote about this in a 1952 letter. He wrote:

“It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.” Letter November 8th 1952

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7049156

By Scan of photograph by Arthur Strong, 1947 Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7049156

We need more love-based, gentle teachings like those espoused by C.S. Lewis. We need to guide our children to the best path without using the weapons of shame and fear as our artillery against their spirit. When we focus on sinning and the blood of Jesus, we often cause pain and suffering in the exact people we’re trying to help. Basically, we are taught to feel shame when we “sin,” and then we are taught that Jesus died for or sins, and that in turn makes us feel even more ashamed for the mistakes we make as young men and women. Instead of feeling relieved, we feel sad and ashamed, and we carry that sadness and shame out of church into our daily lives. But aside from pain, what does feeling shame really give us?

It’s true that Jesus was crucified. It’s true that David made a big mistake by sleeping with Bathsheba. It’s also true we all make mistakes, both as children and as adults. Taking responsibility for our errors, for the hurts we cause others, can help us make better decisions in the future. But shame mires us in pain—and when we heap the death of Jesus on top of this pain, we end up suffering.

When we hold the image of a suffering man on the cross in our minds while we think about our actions, we end up replaying all our mistakes in a dread-inducing atmosphere. We get mired in sacrificial blood so to speak, rather than moving on to the real task of becoming the best people we can be. Carrying the cross is really not our job, but in effect that’s what we do when we obsess over concepts like sinning and sacrifice.

If we hold onto our mistakes and to the notion that every mistake we’ve made dirties us, we create a sort of hell on earth for ourselves. When we fear dying because we are afraid of what we will face after death because of the mistakes we make when we’re down here in our human shells, we end up afraid of living; we end up afraid of life. Priests and preachers should help guide us, but too many of them use fear as their cudgel.

For example, my children once attended a traditional Methodist church without me. And the kids listened to a lecture from the minister about how your sins down here on earth caused you to suffer judgment back Home. The minister gave a sermon in which he asked the members of the congregation to picture a stack of index cards laid out on a table. Imagine that you’ve died and have gone Home. You go up and even before you visit with your family and your friends, you go before a board or a council and you undergo a life review—all of which is accurate. We do go before a board and go over the good and the bad decisions we made throughout our lifetime, but in reality, the focus is much more positive than negative.

But the minister wanted the focus to be about sinning, so he said, “Jesus is waiting for you, and he will point out all your sins, and then he will show you all the same cards, but with blood smeared all over them. HIS blood. See, he gave up his blood so that all the awful things you do on earth won’t keep you from getting to heaven, but if you don’t atone now, you will have to explain yourselves to Jesus.”

When my kids told me this part of the sermon, I exclaimed, “No! This is fear-based, shame-engendering nonsense. Sure you’re not supposed to hurt others while you’re down here. You’re not allowed to rape or murder, you shouldn’t steal or tell lies to hurt others . . . but no one is waiting for you with blood-crusted index cards. The teaching back Home is much more positive. The aim isn’t to scare you or make you miserable; the goal is to emphasize areas where you did well, where you helped and served others, and to teach you places where you could have done better—all with the intent of helping you learn to do better, to become the best souls you can become.”

My children were a little confused, so we talked about it some more. They asked me what sort of mistakes could result in your getting punished after death, and of course I mentioned that killing, raping or sexually abusing others could get you punished, and as soon as I said that, my eldest asked about sex. About whether having sex could get you in trouble.

I shook my head and said, “Sex is not something to fear. Overall, it’s a positive and lovely thing that brings us joy, particularly when we experience it with someone we’re in love with and who we respect. We live in physical bodies. When religion emphasizes fear of our physicality, of what it causes us to do or to be or to enjoy, this is not good for us. Our bodies are built for certain things, and among those is sexual pleasure. It’s part of our human nature.”

the_kiss

By own photo of the sculpture of Rodin – own photo in the Rodin Museum, Paris, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4145510

“So should priests not be celibate?” My daughter asked.

I shrugged. “Celibacy has been touted as a virtuous accomplishment. In fact, it can also be a perversion of nature. Even though we are animals, and sex is one of the single most important instincts nature has given us, and perhaps the strongest of all of our instincts. It’s impossible to be human without embracing our sexuality, and true happiness and contentment are the rewards of a strong, loving relationship; this includes a sexual relationship.”

“So are you saying we shouldn’t be celibate? That it’s wrong for us to be deprived of sex? I thought you also taught that it’s okay to fast sometimes, Mom,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s good to fast, yeah,” I agreed. “But that’s not the point of celibacy. The point of celibacy is to find purity through deprivation, and fasting is another type of deprivation, but it reminds us that we are able to overcome our instincts, at least for a little while. No one can exist forever without eating, and I don’t know that it’s good to try to exist without satisfying our physical needs.”

“Might make it easier,” my son chipped in, “ Not to have to eat. Then you wouldn’t have to cook, and we wouldn’t be led by our donkey souls into eating so much junk food.”

I chuckled and nodded. “Well, that brings up an interesting point. Hunger is easy for us to understand. When people are starving, their morals quickly evaporate, and they take to stealing, fighting, and rioting to get food. Our bodies tell our brains that we’re in trouble, that we’ll die if we don’t get food soon, and the primitive part of our brains turn loose our most primitive emotions.”

“So are you saying we go crazy if we try not to have sex once we’re adults?” My daughter was trying not to smile.

“Not exactly, no. Maybe celibacy is fine for some people, I dunno. But in general, sex is perhaps our strongest instinct, because it represents how we express our love physically. We need to be able to express our love. We really need it, at least once we’re grown up and mature enough to handle all the emotions that come with it. So sexuality is a very strong instinct, and it’s tied into love. The way it’s taught though is like it’s a bad instinct. Sex is perhaps our strongest instinct, and yet it is to be ignored, restrained from or used as a weapon against us?”

How have you been taught about sexuality?

How would you teach your children differently?


David by Michelangelo; Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna (Own Source, Wikipedia)

David by Michelangelo; Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna (Own Source, Wikipedia).

When I say that we should use gentle, love-based teachings to guide our children and help them make good choices about their sexuality, I’m not saying anything goes. I don’t think we should teach our kids to simply do whatever they wish to do. We should teach our kids to value their bodies. We should teach our kids how to say no, either to other kids, or to adults who don’t respect proper boundaries. We should teach our children how to stay safe, and how to respect the safety and well-being of others.

Indeed, we have a duty to teach our sons in particular that “No” means “No,” and that a women’s body is hers alone to assert control and dominion over. We should teach our children that experiencing sexuality without love and commitment is something that will often leave them feeling empty and unfulfilled. We should teach them that sex is an adult act with adult consequences, such as pregnancy and disease. And we should help guide our children on a path that emphasizes discernment and the other side of free will: consequences.

Everything we do, after all, has consequences. But making the best choices occurs when we are unafraid and not laden with shame or dread. We should accept ourselves as well as seek responsibility for our actions, but we should not fear judgment or carry our mistakes as burdens. We should not feel ashamed, because shame is not a kind or a good teacher.




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