You make me feel like a natural pool

I am currently on vacation with my family in Aruba. We picked this destination because my husband and I are avid scuba divers and we were hoping to hook our kids into the sport by taking them to one of the best places in the Caribbean for snorkeling (the twins are still too young for scuba). One week into the vacation I’d say we’ve accomplished our mission. We’ve seen an extraordinary array of sea life in waters that are just a few steps from our rental house, and our one day of scuba (with our 10 year-old daughter) and “snuba” (with the twins) was highly successful.

But today we took a day off from snorkeling to explore the major landmarks of the island. We rented a jeep and traversed pock-marked dirt roads and desolate, wind-swept terrain until we reached Aruba’s number one tourist destination: the natural bridge. It wasn’t until we’d all piled out of the jeep and walked a few steps that we saw it.

The rest of the landscape is composed of the same black, jagged rock, but in this one spot the ocean has carved out an arch underneath the rock itself. Unlike the south side of the island where we’d been snorkeling in crystal clear, turquoise waters, the ocean on this side was a deep, almost sinister blue, roiling and crashing against the jagged coastline. As I approached the water’s edge, I was filled with a sense of awe at the overwhelming power of nature and the brutal strength of an ocean that could drill its way through rock to create this bridge and continued to hammer at the coast with unrelenting fury.

The kind of powerlessness I felt at the Natural Bridge reminded me of a passage I had just read in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience where he is discussing the Book of Job (he is quoting here from the author Mark Rutherford)

In Job…God reminds us that man is not the measure of his creation. The world is immense, constructed on no plan or theory which the intellect of man can grasp.

Staring at the crashing waves, I felt this same sense of insignificance and helplessness.

But it was only 10:30am, and it was time to take the kids to the next stop. After a brief clamber around the ruins of an abandoned gold smelter’s building, the next point on our tour was the Natural Pool, located in Aruba national park, where we had planned to eat lunch and take the kids for a swim. I knew nothing about this pool and assumed it was a pure water pool located somewhere in the island’s interior. After a 30 minute skull-rattling ride over terrain that made our 4 wheel-drive jeep beg for mercy, we finally reached a cliff, once again overlooking dark and stormy seas. We walked down steep stairs, I trailing slowly behind, scanning the horizon for a sheltered, turquoise pond where my little children could safely frolic. My husband finally looked back and asked if I was OK.

“Yes” I replied, “but where is this ‘natural pool’?”

“It’s right there!” he answered, pointing straight down to the ocean’s edge. I stared at the crashing waves and finally discerned a section among the black, jagged rocks that was somewhat sheltered from the bone-crushing waters.  To reach it, one had to clamber on slick, algae and barnacle-encrusted boulders.

“OK, in what possible world is that safe to swim in?” I asked.

My husband looked tolerantly at me, knowing I’d grown up in an extremely overprotective environment. Reaching the shore, he ventured over the rocks first and proclaimed it ‘safe’. I remained skeptical until he noted that there was an 8-month old baby enjoying the pool.

A few minutes later, my entire family was swimming in a stunningly beautiful pool, with sea spray occasionally misting over our heads.

Other than a few nicks we got clambering over the rocks, we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I couldn’t believe that we were surrounded on all sides by the murderous waters but remained perfectly safe. After feeling completely overwhelmed by nature at the Natural Bridge, here I felt as though I could laugh at Nature’s power. Yeah, ocean, you may be strong, but I can still swim in ya, so HA!

After swimming at the pool for almost two hours and visiting nearby caves, we returned home around five. I immediately turned around and launched myself on a long-distance run. Over the past two years I’ve become something of a fitness freak, going to the gym or martial arts class 4+ times a week. Without the benefit of either on vacation, I’ve reverted to an earlier form of exercise – running. By 5pm the sun’s blaze has softened and the continuous island breezes remain strong enough to make running quite enjoyable. Each day I’ve been pushing myself to go farther and run longer, just to see if I can. It’s almost like I’m saying to nature “Yeah- I may have had three kids and am about to turn 44 but I can run for an hour straight including 10 minutes in deep sand and still do 30 push-ups when I can get home. HA!”

I have been battling my aging just as I sometimes face waves in the ocean – full-frontal, slamming into them as if to deny their power.

But nature always has the last laugh. Despite all my efforts, my body shows the signs of the (mostly wonderful) life I’ve lived, and even if I look halfway decent given my age, maternal status and insatiable sweet-tooth, the fact is that I know which side of the looks slope I’m on – and it aint the upside. I am just as powerless to stop time as the rocks are to stop the ocean’s merciless erosion. We are both being worn down a bit every day.

As I mulled these depressing truths, I turned and saw one of my darling sons who’d come out to try to give me a hug (after looking at my sweat-soaked form he settled for a long-distance kiss). Then I looked over and saw my devoted husband, who loved me when I was eight-months pregnant with twins and was wider than a refrigerator (I’m not exaggerating – my then 2-year-old daughter found me when I was playing hide-and-seek with her because my belly poked out from behind the fridge). I know that he will love me no matter what. And I realized that my loved ones, who I am so blessed to have, they will continue to touch the world after I’m gone just as my daughter’s touch made gentle ripples in the tidal pool at the Natural Bridge.

My loved ones are my true source of strength, the reason I can really laugh, without fear.

Posted in Nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Teaching sexual ethics to my kids

At the end of this past school year, one of my eight year-old twin sons came home with a ‘memory book’ where he’d written down his responses to a variety of questions.

Favorite movie?……The Avengers

Favorite sport? ……..Hockey

Favorite hobby?……..Legos

So far so good. Then we got to this one:

Favorite song? ….‘Baby got Back’ by Sir Mix-a-lot.

Oh dear.

My husband, who had seen the memory book first, promptly brought this last answer to my attention.

The fact that my young child even knows this song demonstrates a failure of parenting on my part (actually more accurately, it shows my inability to figure out how to properly manage the ‘Cloud’ that automatically passes on every song I buy on iTunes to my son’s  Ipod).  While I’m pretty sure that he likes the song simply because eight year-old boys think anything to do with butts is supremely funny, his response pushed me to spend a good part of the summer thinking about what I should be teaching my kids about sex. I’m not talking about explaining the basic facts of sex. We were already forced to go through that process last year when our fourth grade daughter insisted that our male, neutered cat was about to have kittens  – an experience that validated Eminem’s point:

Of course they gonna know what intercourse is

by the time they hit fourth grade

they got the Discovery Channel don’t they?

Right. But what I’m talking about here is what we should tell our children about the meaning of sex, especially given our faith and commitment to our church.  When is it OK to have sex? With whom? What should our stance be on other forms of sexual activity?

For many Christians, the answers to these questions are clear: sexual intercourse is a holy act that should only be conducted between a man and a woman within the sacred bonds of matrimony, for the purposes of procreation, (and only in certain positions that are considered kosher!)  As Dennis Hollinger puts it in his book The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life:

The classical Christian position on sexual behavior is often summed up through two principles: purity before marriage and fidelity within marriage.

There’s a plethora of Scriptural passages one can turn to justify this position. If you research what the Bible has to say about sex – from the creation story in Genesis where God creates man and woman to be together to Paul’s epistles condemning fornication – it’s pretty clear that the overwhelming message of the Bible supports this traditional view.

However, as I’ve written elsewhere, I do not view the Bible as the inerrant, literal word of God. I view is as a sacred text, inspired by God but written down by humans who were writing in times that were very different from ours.  My views about the Bible are well expressed by John Shelby Spong in his book Living in Sin? A Bishop rethinks human sexuality:

The Bible is a major source feeding the ethical decision-making of Christian people, and its message must be taken by Christians with utmost seriousness. But the Bible itself is not free of contradictions, of expressions of prejudice, and of attitudes that have long been abandoned. The same could be said about the ongoing tradition of the Christian church. Church history also reveals sin, prejudice and misleading appeals to long-abandoned practices. Therefore, arguments that issue from the authority of sacred Scripture or sacred tradition must state what part of Scripture or tradition is being upheld and on what basis that part is retained while other parts are abandoned.

Given this (progressive, reformed Christian) view of the Bible, what should be my guideline for sexual ethics, and what should I teach to my children?

I realized that the answer to this question is another question:

Why should I have a separate sexual ethic that is any different from the ethics that guides the rest of my life?

As I wrote here, the ethic that guides my life is Jesus – his life, his teachings, his entire story.  Jesus himself sums up his ethics perfectly in his answer to the question “what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40

That, in a nutshell, is how I try to live my life (albeit imperfectly!)  What happens if we apply this ethic to sex? What would it mean to think of sex this way? There’s really three parts to this commandment: love God, love your neighbor and love yourself. Let’s see how these three elements relate to sex:

1. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind

This commandment reminds us not to turn sex into an idol.  Given the tremendous power of the sexual drive and the sexualized culture we live in, it’s very easy to spend our days focused on sex in one form or another. This commandment reminds us that making the pursuit of sex the center of our lives is not the path to ultimate happiness.

2. Love your neighbor as you love yourself

This is the classic ‘golden rule’ – treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s pretty obvious how this relates to sex:

  • Don’t give someone else a disease
  • Don’t mislead someone in what you mean by having sex
  • Don’t force sex on someone else
  • Don’t steal someone else’s significant other
  • Don’t create a child you don’t want and you aren’t prepared to care for – because that isn’t treating that future person the way he/she would want to be treated.
  • Don’t pass judgement on other people’s sexual preferences when they don’t impact you.
  • Don’t get yourself into a situation where any of the above are more likely to happen (getting drunk/high where your judgement is impaired)

3. Love yourself

This last element often gets overlooked in the golden rule, but when it comes to sex, it is crucial. As children of God, we should respect ourselves and our bodies and refuse to let them be used in ways that are contrary to our own health and welfare.  We also should recognize that our desires and pleasures are a good part of this creation – not something to be ashamed of or to be suppressed. Loving yourself also means looking for someone to love who will love you back -someone to be your life partner. It is only through this element that we can fully address something that is often seen as missing from the Christ’s ‘agape’ (self-sacrificing, non-sexual love).  As Jonathan Haidt notes:

Caritas and agape are beautiful, but they are not related to or derived from the kinds of love that people need. Although I would like to live in a world in which everyone radiates benevolence toward everyone else, I would rather live in a world in which there was at least one person who loved me specifically, and whom I loved in return.

Finally, in loving ourselves we remember that we are loved by God, even when we fail to abide by even these deceptively simple commandments. Because when it comes to the core human drives such as sex, it’s not always easy to do the right thing. As St. Paul put it so well:

 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)

So much of the power of the Christian message is that even when our humanity makes us slip, Christ never gives up on us, but calls on us to simply pick ourselves up and do better tomorrow.

So that’s it.  This is an approach that is simple, consistent, and Christ-focused. I realize that this ethic leaves the door open for premarital sex, or even casual sex outside of a committed relationship. But it also highlights how a deeply loving, committed, monogamous relationship is superior – it is the end goal. Given that our kids are most likely going to listen to whatever we say and go off and make their own mistakes, it seems like the best we can do as parents is try to give them a framework that they can fall back on. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.

Posted in Parenting, Religion and Morality | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

My Not-So-Systematic Jistian Theology

“So what exactly do you believe?”

“Do you really think Jesus was the son of God?”

“What the heck is a Jistian anyway?”

Over the years, as I’ve told people my story, these questions have come up on a regular basis. While I’ve certainly used this blog to discuss aspects of what I believe, I’ve never taken the time to develop a more thorough written response.

I will note that what follows simply reflects my current views. It’s been about seven years since I got baptized, and I’ve spent that time doing a lot of reading and thinking. But I have not yet had a chance to engage in any formal studies (something I’m hoping to start in the spring).  There’s a good chance that my beliefs will change as a result of these studies, or based on constructive feedback from some of you.

In the meantime, I am writing this as a sort of benchmark of where my faith is at this time. I also hope that it may be helpful to the many people I have encountered who, like me, are looking for some middle path between complete atheism and swallowing traditional Christian doctrine whole.  If nothing else, it shows the process I’ve used to forge that path.

So here’s what I believe:

1. I believe that there is some ultimate meaning and purpose to the universe and our place in it.

This is my initial, and in some ways most important leap of faith. I am not talking here about how the universe or humanity came to exist. Those ‘how’ questions are firmly in the realm of science, and I am in complete awe of how much hard-working scientists have discovered to help answer these questions.

What I’m talking about is why any of this exists. Is there an underlying purpose and meaning to our lives and to the universe? And it is in this normative realm that I find the answers from science to be woefully inadequate. As far as I can tell from my reading of atheist/scientist authors such as Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, all that science can say is that existence is random – the result of dice being rolled enough times for our universe, planet and species to come into being.  Some scientists such as Dawkins argue that we can still give meaning to our lives, but that any meaning we give is personal – just what we decide to create. As Dawkins puts it: “…our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.” While this is beautifully put, such an approach is essentially relativistic: it does not offer any foundation for a more universal meaning that would apply to all of our lives.

Others such as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt try to split the question into two parts. As he puts it in The Happiness Hypothesis, the Holy Question –  ‘what is the meaning of life’ – should actually be broken down into two sub-questions:

  1. What is the purpose for which human beings were placed on Earth? Why are we here?
  2. How ought I to live? What should I do to have a good, happy, fulfilling and meaningful life?

Haidt argues that the two questions can be separated, and one can choose to answer the second question based on scientific evidence (what we can learn based on analyzing human psychology and neurology), while leaving the answer to the first question up for discussion  among scientists and theologians.  He does acknowledge that religion keeps these two questions together – with the answers to the first question guiding the answers to the second.

While this is a marginally better solution than what Dawkins offers (and I think it is actually closer to what Sam Harris is trying to get at in The Moral Landscape – namely that science can give us some compelling answers to what will lead to human flourishing), it still is to my mind something of an intellectual dodge – it still leaves the fundamental question of why we are here either unanswered, or answered with a deeply unsatisfying “just because”.

For some folks, that “just because” answer may be sufficient (Haidt relays his own process of struggling and overcoming just this sort of existential angst in his senior year of high school).  But for others, it’s simply not enough. Folks like me keep pushing, wanting answers to the fundamental question.  It’s kind of like the difference between a good rock climber and a bad one. A good rock climber never looks down. A bad rock climber can’t help herself – she knows that she shouldn’t because she needs to just focus on the path above if she’s ever going to make it to the top, but before she can stop herself she looks down anyway and sees this:

I’m a bad rock climber and I need an answer to that fundamental question, because otherwise I have this overwhelming urge to just let go of the rope.

With that  in mind, I will share my next belief:

2. I believe that this ultimate meaning is God

This meaning/purpose – God -can never be fully grasped, but we can get glimmers of it now and then (what we tend to describe as experiencing the divine). The foundation of my faith is that there is something ‘more’ to existence than what science can or ever will prove. Paul Tillich’s concept of the Ground of Being is pretty much in line with how I think about God – in that it is not a Supreme Being, not some guy in the sky with a white flowing beard. Rather, it is that which suffuses our existence with significance and purpose. And yes, I know one could argue that if God is still ultimately a mystery, how is that any better than folks who just say there’s no meaning at all? But there’s actually a huge difference between believing that there’s no ultimate meaning to existence vs. believing that there is but having the humility not think you have all the answers. In the first scenario, you just give up looking for answers because you think there’s nothing to find. In the second scenario, you commit yourself to continuously searching for enlightenment. To my mind, that continuous searching for enlightenment describes what religion should be (although I fully acknowledge that often it is not).

3. I believe God is good

When I say that ‘God is good’, I mean that God affirms being as opposed to nothingness,  meaning and purpose rather than chaos and meaninglessness. I don’t think this goodness means that life is necessarily always beneficial for any one individual or group at a particular point in time. Rather this goodness is about the universal big picture – that there is some ultimate plan and we all have a role that we can choose to play in it that leads towards affirming life and existence.

4. I am not so sure about many of the other claims made about God

Because I don’t think of God as a being, but rather as something more abstract and foundational to existence, I tend not to think about God’s omnipotence or omniscience, etc. I also find that these claims about God create a host of logical problems (see for example this poem by Karen Owen quoted by Richard Dawkins in the The God Delusion):

Can omniscient God, who

Knows the future, find

The omnipotence to

Change his Future mind?

As I wrote about in my last post, thinking about God as omnipotent can also conflict with any meaningful conception of free will (if everything is part of God’s plan, and God is in control of everything, then in what sense do we have real choice in what we do?). Furthermore, based on my reading of books such as Karen Armstrong’s History of God or Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, I now understand that the current conception of God (supreme being, omniscient, omnipotent, etc)  has developed over time (the earliest Jews were not even truly monotheistic, but saw Yahweh as the top God over the other deities of the time). Bottom line – it seems to me that too often we turn our particular conception of God into a sort of idol – saying that if you don’t believe X or Y about God then you are a non-believer. But how do any of us know for sure what God is like?

5. The Bible is one very important source of insight about God, but is not the infallible, literal word of God.   

For many people of faith, the answer to my question above is “Well, we know exactly what God is like because the Bible tells us, and God gave us the Bible!” Um, yeah, right. As I’ve covered in these posts, the Bible was written by humans over a period of roughly a millennium, recording oral traditions that had already often been passed on for many generations. Even the New Testament is in no way an ‘eye-witness’ account of Jesus’ life: the earliest parts of the New Testament are Paul’s letters – written in roughly 50 C.E. – 20 years after Christ’s death (and Paul never met the pre-Easter Jesus). The four gospels were written after that time – with the Gospel of John written at the end of the 1st century. Yes, the gospels (particularly the synoptic gospels) are based on earlier traditions, but Biblical scholars have identified many areas where insertions and modifications have been made. Not to mention that when we read the Bible today, we are reading it from a completely different perspective than that of ancient writers, and often develop incorrect interpretations as a result. For example, I am currently reading E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism, and he writes how people have misunderstood Jesus’ act of overturning the money changers’ tables in the Temple. In contemporary society we assume this is some sort of condemnation of commercial activity in the Temple, but in Jesus’ time, those tables were an integral part of worship – one had to purchase specific animals to sacrifice to God (based on rules about sacrifice outlined in Scripture). So Jesus’ action had nothing to do with condemning money changing or commercial activity, and most likely had something to do with his eschatological expectations that the end times were near and the Temple would soon be destroyed. Just this one example shows how much modern scholarship (in Biblical exegesis, Biblical archeology, ancient history, etc) has uncovered about the Bible. Given this,  I don’t understand how anyone can simultaneously claim that the Bible is, in its entirety, the literal Word of God and also claim that they are in any way deploying their God-given minds.

What I do strongly believe is that the Bible (or at least many parts of it) is full of tremendous wisdom, poetry and insight, and that it does bear witness to the Jewish and early Christian people’s experience of the Divine. I see the Bible as one crucially important source for identifying those ‘glimmers of ultimate meaning’. For me, the most important glimmer has to do with the story of Jesus.

6. I believe that Jesus – his life, his teachings, and his entire story – shows us the purpose of human existence

As I wrote in this post, I see Jesus as the ultimate manifestation of what God envisions for humanity – what we should strive to be, and how we should view our lives. The description of Jesus as ‘The Word’ (John 1:1) seems spot on  – because it emphasizes that Jesus’ life is a message to all of us. This is more than just saying ‘Jesus was a great teacher’ or a remarkable healer, although he was those things too. I believe that the entire narrative of his life – including his humble origins, his inexhaustible love towards others, the way he emphasized that all of us have the potential for redemption no matter how horrible our sin, his willingness to sacrifice his life, and the way that his spirit touched people after his death – all help us see what we should strive for in our own lives. I feel this way about Jesus in part because of the impact that studying Him has had on my own life (as I explained in my story) but also because I find Christ’s core message in all the major faith traditions, as well as many of the major secular philosophical traditions (see for example Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which shows how loving they neighbor is a core to all the major faiths).  This leads to my next belief:

7. I reject the claim that only people who ‘believe’ in Jesus are ‘saved’

Because Christ’s message is found in all the major faith traditions, and within secular traditions as well, I can not comprehend how people can claim that only those who make explicit belief statements about Jesus are ‘saved’. As I will discuss below, I also am pretty unsure about this whole ‘salvation’ business anyway – but even if I fully embraced the concept of an afterlife – I find this strand in Christianity deeply offensive to anyone who is trying to live a Christ-like life but just happens not to be a conservative Christian.  I can’t see how Jesus would want us to live in a world where his existence led some people to consider themselves superior solely based on a belief, rather than on how they lived their lives.

8. I don’t believe Jesus was literally the Son of God, and I don’t believe most of the supernatural aspects of his story

I think Jesus was born the way we all were (note that the birth story doesn’t even appear in Mark, the oldest gospel, and that many Christian scholars agree the birth story was concocted later to bolster the claims that Jesus was the Messiah). I think he was a human being, not God. I can not accept that any human being – even Jesus – was somehow also divine. As someone raised Jewish, that just feels idolatrous. It also just doesn’t seem consistent with how Jesus even thought of himself: claiming to be the Messiah is NOT the same thing as claiming to be divine. The Messiah was supposed to be a divinely chosen human being who would usher in the end times in which Israel would be redeemed. It is because Israel did not experience any kind of political redemption at the time that most Jews then, and now, believe Jesus was not the Messiah. But to me I think perhaps the problem is that we were expecting the wrong kind of redemption. As a result of Jesus’ life and death, the ethical and theological core of Judaism ended up spreading around the globe in a way that it probably never could have otherwise (at least as long as they required all male adherents to practice circumcision!). The Jewish light did spread to all the nations, thanks to Jesus (and, quite frankly, thanks to the way his spirit touched the Apostle Paul). Which brings me to the next point:

9. I do think something happened after Jesus’ death that can’t be fully and rationally explained

I don’t know if there was a physical resurrection, or whether people literally saw Jesus or just felt his presence, but I think something inexplicable happened in which his spirit touched some of his followers. I can’t explain otherwise why his movement survived his crucifixion. Why in the world would Christ’s followers risk their lives and the threat of suffering the same torturous death as Jesus, unless they had experienced something that renewed their faith and gave them the desire to forge on? I particularly feel this given that Jesus was actually not the only one going around making Messianic claims at the time. There were several others (Simon of Peraea, Athronges, Judas the Galilean, etc) who all garnered a following and purportedly made Messianic claims. But none of them retained a following after their deaths. Why did Jesus’ legacy survive? I’m at least open to the possibility that there was something about Jesus that persisted after his physical demise.

10. I am agnostic about the afterlife

Although I think in some way that Jesus ‘conquered’ death, I am less certain about what that means for the rest of us. As the Coldplay song goes “Where do we go? Nobody knows”. Because there’s no way for us to know what happens after we die, I am not comfortable making this a major part of my belief system. It seems to me that believing or acting in certain ways based exclusively on the expectation of reward in the afterlife is problematic – because there’s no way to confirm whether you made a good bet. There’s no feedback loop. In contrast, if your faith is based on what works in this life, there’s some data to help you evaluate whether your faith leads to greater human flourishing. And I have found that a faith that embraces the existence of some ultimate purpose to the universe, a faith that is modeled on Christ, a faith that acknowledges that I am deeply imperfect but never gives up on my potential to be better – that faith leads to my personal flourishing and can work well for others too.  So I don’t really focus on whether my actions in this life will lead me to be saved or damned in the life to come. I just try to be as good a person as I can, so that I can leave this world a little better than when I came, and a little closer to having God’s Kingdom come to us (rather than us go to it).

I should note that this last belief is unlikely to change as I age. My mother died of breast-cancer when she was 56. Since her untimely death, I have fully recognized that the end can come at any time, and I try to savor each day as the precious gift it is.

11. Most other aspects of orthodox Christian theology are not core to my beliefs

While I find it interesting to study the historical development and symbolism of such doctrines as the trinity, original sin, substitutionary atonement, etc, ) ultimately I tend to find them overly complicated, and the result of either taking the Bible too literally or political dynamics within the historical church leading to the need to establish an official position and label all those that did not adhere to that position as heretics. We live in very different times now (thank God), where folks like me can question these orthodoxies and determine for ourselves what makes sense.

12. A belief system is NOT the most valuable part of religion

Yep, that’s right. I just talked your ear off about all of my beliefs, but actually that’s not where I (or most other people of faith) get their real benefit from religion. Rather, the real benefits of religious affiliation come from being part of a community, participating in communal worship, being prompted to continuously help those in need, and integrating spirituality and prayer into daily life. Where religion really makes a difference in people’s lives is in their heart, not their heads. As Karen Armstrong puts it in The Case for God:

Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.

Jonathan Haidt also covers the various psychological studies that show the ways that people experience positive psychological benefits from religious worship and participation (integrating into a social network, experiencing self-transcendence, etc). Haidt’s review of this evidence leads him to state:

If..perceptions of sacredness are an important part of human nature, then the scientific community should accept religiosity as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature – an aspect that is as deep, important, and interesting as sexuality or language….If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not be believe in God.

This seems to me like the best news of all. Because I see all around me folks who could really benefit from religious participation – if they could find religious communities and institutions that were truly open to questioning and seeking new answers to these age-old questions. I feel lucky to have found such a community. I have to honestly say that I am not sure if my beliefs really qualify me as a Christian, or a Jew. My beliefs are too Christ-centric to still be considered Judaism. But it may cut out a bit too much of traditional Christian theology to be completely Christian. And the more I learn about other faith traditions, the more I find pieces I like in each of them. I have a sneaking suspicion that by the end of my journey I may be a JistianIslamaHinDudist.

Regardless, I feel lucky to have found a church that is open to people like me. This church is a place where I go to ask questions, not just mindlessly receive answers.  And I know I still share one common belief with the rest of my church friends: I can say that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. He is my Lord because he guides my life, and he’s my savior because he helps me never give up on myself.

Posted in Life after Death, Religion and Morality, Responding to Atheist Authors, Spirituality, The Bible | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

James Holmes’ sick neuroscience experiment?

Over the past week I have not been able to shake this one nagging thought: that James Holmes’ study of neuroscience had something to do with his horrific crime in Aurora, Colorado.  Before you think that I am somehow blaming the field of neuroscience for this tragedy, please note that this is not my intent. But I do keep wondering whether James Holmes – clearly a troubled and unstable individual – developed his plan as some kind of sick demonstration to prove one of the most provocative insights from modern neuroscience: that free will is an illusion.

From the (still very few) books that I’ve read on the subject (such as Sam Harris’ Free Will and The Moral Landscape, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion, and Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis) one major theme is that free will as it is commonly understood does not exist. As Harris puts it in his most recent work:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.

The science behind this claim is powerful. From a range of studies over the past few decades, it seems clear that our conscious self is usually the last one to know about choices we have already made. As Jonathan Haidt describes it in The Happiness Hypothesis – we can view ourselves as riders of elephants. As Haidt puts it:

The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

So what does all of this have to do with James Holmes barging into the premier of Dark Knight and gunning down innocent people, and then claiming not to remember anything? I just keep wondering if Holmes, having been inundated with such discussions about free will and the inevitability of most of our actions, decided to take such concepts to their most terrifying conclusion. Perhaps in his sick mind he even hoped that his well-crafted demonstration could serve as the basis for a compelling doctoral dissertation that would somehow save his failing academic career?

Most likely my suspicions about Holmes are totally off-base, but they do raise a more fundamental question: how does belief (or lack of belief) in free will impact behavior? I’ve spent the past few days researching this question, and discovered that:

  1. There’s a lot of new research on this topic, and
  2. All of the research I’ve been able to find shows that when belief in free will is reduced, it tends to have a negative impact on behavior.

For example, in a much-cited study by Kathleen Vohs and and Jonathan Schooler, when undergraduate students read passages that argued that free will is an illusion, they were much more likely to cheat in a subsequent task than those who read different types of passages.  A study by Roy Baumeister, E.J. Masicampo and C. Nathan DeWall showed that when belief in free will was reduced, individuals were less inclined to help others and more likely to act aggressively. Another study by Baumeister (Stillman, Baumeister, Vohs et al) showed that believing in free will was positively correlated with both positive attitudes about ‘future career success’ and actual job performance. And in this study, neuroscientists detected that ‘inducing disbelief in free will’ negatively impacted brain functions related to motivation ). FYI – this page contains a nice summary of these studies and others.

For me, the most disturbing aspect of these studies is that they show the potential dangers of undermining belief in free will while simultaneously highlighting its illusory nature. In all of these studies, simply reading a few passages about determinism (how all phenomena are determined by previous causes) led the study participants to change their core moral attitudes and behaviors.  The individuals portrayed in these studies appear utterly malleable – no better than a basic computer program where the output depends completely on the selected input. This article – which explores how our beliefs in moral agency appear to be hard-wired (and sometimes even irrational) – made me even further despair. Is it true that a concept that lies at the core of any kind of moral life is no better than any other kind of gut instinct?

But the study of the relationship between belief in free will and actual behavior seems be a relatively new field – one where there’s room for a lot more research before any hard conclusions are drawn. In the meantime, as we struggle with the implications of these findings, it seems like faith ought to help. Perhaps free will is one of those things in life for which there is no scientific evidence, but which we simply have to believe in order to make life worth living. After all – isn’t free will at the root of religious belief and practice? I mean, why would God have bothered giving us the ten commandments if we had no control over our ability to obey them?

Unfortunately, I am also disturbed by how the faith community itself sometimes struggles with the concept of free will – for completely different reasons. In reading responses to the Aurora tragedy, I saw discussions like this one . To summarize the arguments here, it goes something like this:

Question: Why would a ‘good’ God let something evil like Aurora happen?

Response: Aurora was caused by one sinful human exerting his free will and making a terrible, tragic choice. The Aurora massacre was not caused by God.

Question: But if God is omnipotent, He could have prevented this human from making this terrible choice, right? (And while He was at it, he could stop the slaughter in Syria, in various locales in Africa, etc). If not, then human free will is a limit on God, and God is not omnipotent.

Response: No, God is omnipotent, and God is good, but God chose not to stop James Holmes (or all that other bad stuff) and we just don’t know why because God is a mystery.

I personally find this last response (which, by the way, is the punchline of the book of Job) to be deeply unsatisfying (please also reference my last post where I talk about when bad things happen in nature and how those bad things usually are part of a natural cycle of life, as opposed to human-generated evil that is just destructive). Anyway, it seems to me that many people of faith feel some level of discomfort with fully embracing the idea of free will and prefer to think that somehow God is orchestrating all our actions (or, as my friend’s child recently put it “Mommy, God is making us all walk around on earth. We’re his puppets and he’s pulling our strings from up in heaven”)

Up until this point I had been thinking that the best way to find truth is to look for those places where faith and science can agree. But when it comes to free will, I am terrified that this approach may point to a rejection of free will. If it comes to that, I think I may have to switch allegiances. Perhaps rather than having faith in God, I will have faith in Free Will instead. I am too scared to live in a world without it.

Posted in Religion and Morality, Religion and Science | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

Where the butterfly landed

I’ve recently written some posts about how I encounter the Divine when I’m out in nature – surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation. I had another one of those wonderful experiences this past weekend as I went on a back-country camping trip with my family in the Catskills, where we got to see views like this one:

I was still basking in the weekend’s glow when I took my hound dog out yesterday morning for her daily run in the woods. As I neared the end of the wooded trail, suddenly an exquisite yellow and white butterfly flitted unevenly across my path. Although I had limited time between dropping off and picking the kids up at camp and needed to get on with my day, I stopped in my tracks, mesmerized by this beautiful creature.  I decided I needed to take a picture of it, and waited patiently for it to land so I could get a good shot. But the butterfly did not cooperate. It flitted this way and that, unable to commit to a landing spot. Just when I was getting ready to give up, it graciously alighted on this:

Yes, that’s right. The beautiful butterfly landed on dog shit.

So, I took the shot (how could I resist?) and made my way home. On the way back I contemplated how when people speak of experiencing God in nature, they typically have in mind the aesthetically pleasing aspects of nature such as golden sunsets on the beach, majestic mountain views, and delicate, exquisitely crafted butterflies.  Dog feces….not so much.  But feces is just as much a part of nature as any of those other things. It’s just that my human brain has evolved in a way to find the former pleasing, and the latter repellent (particularly when my dog does it and I have to pick it up). Our impulse to romanticize nature makes us forget that it contains not just beauty and majesty, but also eviscerated prey, burned-out forests, and earthquakes – all things that are fundamentally threatening to humanity.

Yet as negatively as we perceive these natural phenomena, they all lead in one way or another to new life. The prey feeds those who need to eat, the (naturally caused) forest fires clear out underbrush to strengthen the trees, and animal feces fertilizes the earth to generate new plant life (I swear this butterfly was actually getting something out of the poo too although I’d prefer not to think too much about that). Even the movement of tectonic plates that leads to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes is part of what makes our planet healthy – something I learned from listening to Krista Tippet’s interview with geologist Jelle Zeilinga de Boer. While these natural phenomena often make people ask what sort of God would allow such human suffering, Tippet rightly points out:

…the human leap to such questions reflects a rather narrow perspective on “the creation.” It reveals a general religious tendency that has come under suspicion in our time — to imagine human beings as the center of the universe, as the living beings whose well-being matters, and to whom the rest of nature should conform.

When we claim that some forces in nature are evil because they lead to human death, we are falling victim to this anthropocentric bias. If instead we embrace Paul Tillich’s conception of God as ‘the Ground of Being’ – namely – as that force behind all that exists, as that which affirms the goodness of existence as opposed to non-existence, we realize that God is indeed in all aspects of nature. God can be seen in the natural cycle of death and rebirth – because even though there is destruction, this destruction always affirms existence by creating something new. Even when a star dies and explodes, it leads to the creation of new stars and planets.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the only forces of destruction that don’t ultimately lead to new creation are the ones developed by humans. Afghan tribes massacring each other, nations working to acquire weapons of mass destruction, governments slaughtering their own people, one unstable man loosing rounds of ammo on a crowded movie theater: these are acts of humanity that utterly deny existence, that annihilate life for absolutely no reason, with no regenerative promise. This to my mind is the one place where we can find true evil – in the acts of mankind – that creature supposedly made in God’s image. Only we have developed the consciousness, intelligence and free will to engage in acts that embrace non-being.

I know some folks may look at what happened in Aurora, Colorado as yet another reason to lose faith in God, because any God worth worshiping couldn’t possibly let such evil occur. As for me, such events just make me hope even more fervently that there is God because given our track record, seems to me like us humans could use a little help.

Posted in Nature, Religion and Morality | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A GPS for Life?

As I mentioned in a recent post, I recently went on some hikes with friends from church. The hikes were terrific – I introduced my friends to new trails and we got a chance to get some exercise and celebrate the beauty of God’s creation together.

However, things didn’t go completely smoothly on the first hike. In a fool-hearty move, I picked a trail that I had never gone on before. I had consulted my trusty trail notes and even had a trail map neatly folded in my back pocket telling me which color blazes to follow. But then I started chit-chatting with my friends, and next thing I knew, we had missed the turn-off for our selected trail  and ended up going on a much longer hike than planned.

On my way out of the park after the hike, I was a little tired and ended up turning the wrong way on the road to head back home. The next day I was back in the car, driving up to the Berkshires to visit an old college friend who was briefly in the country from a multi-year stint working in Turkey. Deep in thought about future blog posts, I almost missed the turn off for the highway to her mother’s house where she was staying.

After all of these experiences of getting lost (or almost lost), I had a moment of revelation: I really needed a GPS embedded in my brain that would call out, at every moment of every day:


In fact, the more I contemplated the benefits of such a device, I realize that I could really use something along those lines that would help me address the more fundamental choices I face in life. I am at a life stage where I’m struggling with a number of tough decisions: should I go back to school (once again) to help with my writing? Or should I pursue a career that leverages all the education I’ve already received? Should I cut back on my volunteer work that has really gotten in the way of all the things I quit my other job to do in the first place? Should I stop worrying about a career and just enjoy being a mom during those last few years when my kids will still talk to me?

If I were an evangelical Christian, I would now turn and say ‘well actually, we ALL have that kind of GPS – it’s called The BIBLE’. I’m not making this up – check out this YouTube video that actually makes this metaphor explicit.

Joyce Meyer also seems to subscribe to this concept of the Bible when she confidently states “The Bible has an answer for every question we might ever have” (she also goes on to write repeatedly about how God’s spirit is with us when we go shopping!?)

To my mind, these folks are treating the Bible like some spiritual equivalent of a Magic Eight Ball. Any decision I have to make in my life, big or small, I should be able to turn to the Good Book and get an answer. Well, let me give that a try and see what happens.

Dear Bible: should I try to find a job that leverages my hard-won MBA and existing professional background or pursue my newfound passion writing about religion?

I’m opening the Bible now to a random page…hopefully the Spirit will move me and show me God’s will through The Holy Word:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: You shall eat no fat of ox or sheep or goat. (Leviticus 7:22-23)


OK, let’s try again. Maybe I should turn to Proverbs. After all – that’s full of wisdom – I’m sure it will help me with making this important life decision.

The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands. (Proverbs 14:1)

OK that’s a little ambiguous, but I guess as an aspiring ‘wise woman’ maybe it means that I shouldn’t throw out all of my existing education and work experience. That would be like ‘tearing down the house’, right?  But that really wasn’t the answer I was looking for. Let me try one more time.

Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)

Yes! Finally – the answer I was looking for – one that supports my heart-felt desire to pursue a career writing about faith.

This little exercise demonstrates a truth acknowledged by many Christian scholars: that the Bible can be used to support just about any point you want to make.  As retired Bishop John Shelby Spong notes:

In almost every dramatic confrontation on the key issues in Western history, the Bible has been quoted on both sides of the conflict. For years the Bible was used to justify the prevailing political idea known as the divine right of kings. But it was also used as a powerful weapon in the hands of those who led the revolution against royalty, as Oliver Cromwell’s rebellion attests. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis both appealed to the Bible as support for their attitudes toward black people, and to give moral authority to their different sides during America’s bloodiest war.

It is not at all surprising that the Bible has been used this way, because it is not, as Spong notes, something that dropped ‘out of Heaven fully written’. Rather, as theologian Paul Tillich notes,

….the Bible is a collection of religious literature written, collected and edited through the centuries. (p. 50, Systematic Theology vol. I)

In other words – the Bible is a collection of frequently ambiguous and contradictory texts from different historical points.  How could one possibly take these texts at face value, randomly picking texts to guide one’s life?

In fact when we cherry pick verses of the Bible to lend credence to a given choice, we are essentially doing what neurologists have known humans do continuously: use our prolific analytical capabilities to justify decisions that we have already made based on non-rational, often sub-conscious processes. Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis describes how studies of split-brain patients led scientists to realize that the conscious portions of the human brain regularly concoct explanations for behaviors that were actually driven by completely unconscious (and different) motives. As Haidt puts it:

This finding, that people will readily fabricate reasons to explain their own behavior, is called “confabulation”. Confabulation is so frequent in work with split-brain patients and other people suffering brain damage that Gazzaniga refers to the language centers on the left side of the brain as the interpreter module, whose job is to give a running commentary on whatever the self is doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of the self’s behavior.

And while obviously most of us are not split-brained, Haidt goes on to explain:

…the split-brain studies were important in psychology because they showed in such an eerie way that the mind is a confederation of modules capable of working independently and even, sometimes, at cross-purposes. Split-brain studies are important for this book because they show in such a dramatic way that one of these modules is good at inventing convincing explanations for your behavior, even when it has no knowledge of the causes of your behavior.

So you’re probably wondering at this point (especially after I’ve just quoted extensively from this atheist author) if I’ve tossed my Bible out the window and finally declared myself an atheist. Well, actually, not at all. The Bible is incredibly important in my life, and it does provide guidance for me, but just not in a literal, face-value,  Magic Eight Ball kind of way.

First and foremost, the Bible (along with other major sacred texts) represents a profound witness to human experiences of the Divine.  In that way it is fundamental to my faith, because when I read about Biblical encounters with God – from Abraham to Paul – I find in their experiences something of what I myself experience in moments of spiritual connection.  In particular I find the stories of encounters with the risen Christ –  regardless of whether they happened exactly the way we read about them – to be utterly compelling.

Secondly, real exegesis and scholarly study of the Bible is a spiritual and communal discipline that guides my life, deepens my faith and provides me with a priceless community of others seeking answers to similar questions. I have been truly fed spiritually by the women’s Bible study I have participated in for several years now, and I’m looking forward to beginning schooling where I will have greater opportunities to conduct the kind of scholarly study of Scripture that I have read about in books such as this one.

Finally, I do believe there is an underlying, core message to the Bible – ‘the Spirit behind the word’ as Spong puts its, that represents what God wants for all of us. For me, I believe that this Spirit is manifest in the life and teachings of Jesus – the core of what He was is what we all should try our best to be, recognizing that as flawed humans we’ll always fall short.

So maybe I have my GPS for Life after all.

Posted in The Bible | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Thank Nature AND God for the Higgs Boson

Yesterday when I opened up the New York Times, I was greeted with something truly refreshing: a piece of interesting and good news: the discovery of the Higgs Boson – a long-sought keystone in scientific theories about the nature of the universe. As a pop-physics geek (i.e., I think this stuff is fascinating even though I really don’t understand it) I had been intrigued by progress in this field since reading about it last December when physicists at CERN announced they had identified potential hints of the particle’s existence. As I read about this week’s extraordinary achievement (purportedly the biggest discovery in physics in the last 50 years) I felt some small glimmer of the tremendous excitement that is currently rippling through the ranks of physicists around the world. I promptly turned around and tried my best to explain to my eight-year old twin boys the significance of this discovery:

Boys – there’s been a really exciting discovery today in physics. They think they’ve found a sub-atomic particle that helps explain why there’s matter with mass in the universe!

My boys, preparing to go to the rocketry class they attended this week, responded enthusiastically:

Cool! And we’re going to spray paint our model rockets today, and launch them tomorrow!

And so goes the future of science.

One might think that as a person of faith that I might somehow be threatened by discoveries such as this.  Such major scientific advances help bring humanity one step closer to fully explaining the nature of the universe without dependence on a supernatural Creator. Or as Hawking and Mlodinow put it in The Grand Design, the discovery of the Higgs Boson is part of

…the long process of replacing the notion of the reign of gods with the concept of a universe that is governed by laws of nature, and created according to a blueprint we could someday learn to read.

There’s no question that the discovery of a particle that helps explain the existence of mass in the universe has theological significance (heck, the thing got nicknamed the God particle for a reason). The question of why there is something rather than nothing lies at the root of religious questioning. As the great theologian Paul Tillich put it in his Systematic Theology:

Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. Only those statements are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of being or not-being for us.

In other words – theology is concerned with why anything exists. And the fact that  scientists celebrated the discovery of the Boson with the exclamation ‘Thank you Nature’ was clearly aimed at rejecting any religious answer to that question.

But here’s the thing – I really don’t get why I can’t thank nature AND God for the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Because if I continue reading Tillich, he goes on to say

Man is ultimately concerned with his being and meaning.

Right – well the Higgs Boson and the Standard Model into which it fits helps explain our physical existence (or, more precisely, the physical existence of the universe in which we exist). But does this discovery do anything to help address the meaning of this existence?

From what I can tell, the most common scientific answers to questions about meaning either miss the point or respond in a way that embraces relativism. For example, Hawking and Mlodinow end The Grand Design with this statement:

Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

The problem with this statement is not the science behind it (which, to the degree I can understand it, seems to make a lot of sense). The problem is that the ‘why’ they are answering is not the ‘why’ that many of us are asking. When I ask ‘why do I exist?’ I’m not looking for a lesson in evolution or quantum mechanics. I’m wondering what my purpose in life should be – what should be the guiding principles of my life, what should give me hope in a world that so often seems hopeless. ‘Spontaneous creation’ doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

Richard Dawkins gets the question I’m asking, but his response is that it is up to each of us to define our life’s meaning. As he puts it:

There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.

While I couldn’t agree more with Dawkins that none of us should just unquestioningly accept answers to such fundamental questions, the fact is that his response seems to endorse relativism: the meaning you give your life is yours, the meaning I give my life is mine, and there’s no universal narrative.  I personally think that’s problematic, and my one great leap of faith is that I think there are universal truths about the meaning of all our lives, even if I can not conclusively prove that belief through reason or science.  My faith that there is a universal meaning and purpose to our existence is my faith in God, and underlies my continuing struggle and questioning to better understand that universal purpose.

So when it comes to amazing scientific discoveries like the Higgs Boson – I see no threat at all to my faith. All it does is imbue me with a sense of awe at the complexity and beauty of existence, and the extraordinary capabilities of humanity (well, OK, of the smartest segments of humanity) to uncover the fundamental dynamics of the universe. It reaffirms my belief that we should use our God-given capacity to question and explore the world around us. It makes me grateful for all that has been accomplished and will be accomplished by brilliant scientists. And it supports my continued search for answers to why any of this matters.

So thanks to nature and God for the Higgs Boson – I am eternally grateful for its discovery because it allows me to exist and search for answers to rather different questions.

Posted in Religion and Science | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Sorry, Nature is Closed Today

 I take my dog for a run in the woods almost every day. Although this consumes a significant chunk of the few precious hours I have while the kids are in school or camp, I find it preferable to having my house trashed by an under-exercised, over-energetic hound dog.

This Monday, after dropping the kids off at camp, I drove the 15-20 minutes to my favorite woodland trail in Saxon Woods. As I turned into the driveway up to the parking lot, I passed a car parked right at the entrance. Barreling by with the radio blaring, I almost missed the fact that a man in a park ranger uniform had gotten out of the car and was waving wildly at me to stop.

I stopped, turned off the radio and rolled down the window.

“The park is closed today.” the man said, in a heavy Spanish accent.

“The whole park?” I replied, incredulous. In three years of going to this park, this had never happened. The park is huge – hundreds of acres. Surely there was enough of it to go around?

“Yes – is closed. For filming. They making a movie. All week” was the reply.

I briefly debated just parking my car and making a run for it into the woods. Unless the actors were squirrels, my dog would not bother them, and I have never had any paparazzi tendencies. Who would we be hurting? But being the (mostly) law-abiding person that I am, I turned around and went to a different park.

As I walked along this other markedly less beautiful trail,  I contemplated the irony of the situation. A select number of human beings were denying me access to the beauty of nature because they needed it for their artistic expression.  In the act of creating, they were getting in the way of God’s Creation. It brought to mind one of my all-time favorite paintings by Rene Magritte, “The Human Condition”.

What I always loved about this painting was how it expressed the irony that man, in trying to capture the beauty of nature, just ends up blocking the view.  It captures the frustration I often feel as I try to retain, share or recreate the experience of being out in nature. For example, this past weekend I took this picture from the top of Bear Mountain:

This photo is beautiful (and impressive given that I took it with my Android). But it doesn’t even begin to do justice to what it felt like to be standing on that bare slab of rock with my daughter and (of course) my dog, with the sun warming me with its glow and an oh-so-welcome breeze coursing through my sweat-soaked shirt as I gazed out at this stunning vista stretching out towards the horizon. Even these words don’t do the experience justice. My attempt at expressing what it felt like to be on Bear Mountain, just like Magritte’s painting, is just a pale shadow of glorious reality.

I realize that these musings are an appropriate follow-up to my recent post about the challenge of describing what if feels like to experience God’s presence to someone who has never had that experience. The same thing is true about trying to explain what it feels like to be on the top of a mountain on a glorious summer’s day. I can wax poetic on the subject (to the best of my abilities). I can show you some nice pictures. I can even play a piece of music that evokes the warmth and awe of hiking up a mountain. But you’re still not gonna get it until you do it for yourself. And even when you do, maybe it’ll be a different experience for you than it is for me.

Over the next few weeks I’m going on some hikes I organized with my church. I have no idea how many people will show up. Summer is busy, lots of folks are away or have other commitments. One person expressed concern that there might not be enough people to make the hikes ‘worth it’. But actually, to my mind, it is simply the act of connecting my church community with the glory of Creation that makes it worth it.

And with that, I’ll stop trying to express myself. It’s time to go hiking.

Posted in Nature, Spirituality | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Love the Bully, Hate the Bullying

I recently saw the documentary film ‘Bully‘, which tells the stories of several teens who have been victimized by bullying and, in two of the cases, driven to suicide. The film focused almost exclusively on the perspective of the victims – showing what their lives are like, what sorts of emotional and physical torture they experience on a daily basis, and what impact this treatment has had on their psyche.  The victims’ stories were heart-breaking, and the film’s message –  that bullying must not be tolerated – was laudable. As part of attending the film at the Pelham Picture House, we all got stickers with the word ‘bully’ crossed out – i.e., that we need to eliminate bullies.

While I’m glad that I went to see the film, there was one aspect of it that concerned me: namely, that there was almost no attempt to understand the perspective of the children who were doing the bullying. In particular, I am curious what it does to a child when he or she finds out that she has been labelled ‘a bully’.

You may think: “Well who the heck cares what the bully feels? That kid is a bad kid and we need to stop him!”

But it’s that reaction that – while completely understandable – seems to me to be a key part of the problem.  Because when we label a child as a ‘bad kid’ we are making a claim about that child’s essence. We are saying that at core, that kid is rotten, incapable of goodness.  Labeling a child as ‘bad’ can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the child believes himself to be bad, and gives up on any potential he might have had to be otherwise.

It is in this context that we can appreciate the wisdom of Christ’s teachings about loving your enemy:

You have heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)

I’m pretty sure that of all Christ’s teachings, this one is consistently the hardest for people to embrace. Simply put, it’s counter-intuitive. Yet, in my own experience of being bullied as a child, and in my attempts to help my own children handle bullying, I find further confirmation of the wisdom of Christ’s teachings.

Regarding my childhood experiences: in one sense, I was very lucky since I went to a Quaker school where any form of physical violence was strictly prohibited. Unfortunately, this just led the children to rely on psychological forms of torture that left permanent scars. I was a weird, socially awkward kid and spent much of my school years being simply ignored (when I was lucky) or painfully ridiculed (when I was less so). And of course, I was oversensitive, so any teasing cut me to the quick. My loving parents, wishing to alleviate my pain, taught me that those who were cruel to me were ‘bad kids’ and that I should just dismiss them because some day I would be very successful (as most high school geeks are) and I would get my revenge.

While well-intentioned, I feel that ultimately my parent’s guidance was unhelpful. It left me with no tools to try to understand the situation in a more nuanced fashion – to give some context for the other children’s behavior. It left me as an isolated victim in a sea of mean kids. It also taught me to divide the world into ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people. Whenever I met someone, I immediately tried to classify them into one category or another. This often led me to make unfair judgments about people that I later found out were inaccurate. It also led me at times to live in fear that if I myself had done something cruel that perhaps I, too, was a ‘bad’ person.

The fact is that life is just not that simple. All of us -at all ages – struggle with who we are and how we should behave. The teen years, with the extraordinary physical and hormonal changes they bring, exacerbate these existential challenges. Many of us do things to others that are unkind, and those of us who have learned cruel behaviors from others may be particularly nasty. But that doesn’t mean that any of us are completely evil. Nor does it mean that those of us who are kind, caring and victimized by bullies are always completely good.  If we think of humanity on a spectrum between Hitler and Jesus, most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

The film Bully actually highlights this point in telling of one girl who endured merciless bullying on the bus ride to school. Eventually the girl reached her breaking point, stole her mother’s handgun and took it out on the bus, threatening all the children who had made her life such a misery. The girl was put in juvenile detention for months and then ultimately freed. The film is structured in a way to make us root for this girl, but my takeaway from this particular story was that the line between the oppressed and the oppressor is much more fluid than we tend to think.

In just the last few days, my thoughts on bullying were put to the test when my daughter came to me very upset. She had just encountered a ‘mean girl’ episode where she believed she had overheard two girls talking about her in an unpleasant way. My initial reaction was that of the Mama Bear: how DARE anyone say ANYTHING mean about MY daughter! Ooh, those girls must be just BAD PEOPLE. 

I even started to respond to my daughter in this vein, then stopped myself short. There I was doing it again. I took a deep breath, and said instead:

“Sweetie – first of all – you shouldn’t assume that they were talking about you. Secondly, even if they were, remember that they must be doing this because of their own insecurities. I feel sorry for them that they feel so bad about themselves that they have to talk about others to build themselves up. You’re a strong person – you don’t need to do stuff that. Just try to ignore it, and hopefully next time they will show their nicer side”.

Rather than letting my daughter feel like a helpless victim, I tried to help her develop a sense of compassion for those who were, in theory, her ‘enemies’. She left that conversation much more empowered than if I had just called those girls the choice epithets that had first come to mind.

This experience shows the great wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words:

…we love (all) men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does….(from “Nonviolence and Racial Justice”)

In like fashion, I hope that in all the good discussions generated by this film, we remember that it is not bullies that we want to eliminate, but acts of bullying committed by anyone, at any age.

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Describing the Ineffable

It happened again. I lost my daughter. Not physically (thank God), but conceptually. Earlier this week I was driving my fourth grade daughter to some after-school activity. We were having a  conversation about how  some folks seem pretty self-centered, and treat others cruelly. My daughter couldn’t understand why people would behave that way – she felt like it was obvious that you should be considerate of others and treat them the way you want to be treated.

YES! I cheered to myself All of those years of drilling the golden rule into her adorable little head are finally paying off.

But then I went and messed it all up.

“Yes sweetie” I said to her “Sometimes it’s actually really hard to treat other people kindly – particularly people you don’t like, or who have been mean to you. That’s when I find that it helps to reach out to God, because that Spirit can give you the strength to do hard things. I don’t know if that makes sense to you…”

There was silence from the back of the car, then a matter-of-fact “Nope, Mom, that makes no sense at all.”

Ah, I was back at square one with my atheist daughter.

The good news is that this conversation in no way diminishes how proud I am of her, as she navigates the disturbingly nasty and brutish years of tweendom.  But it did bring up an interesting question, one that was also posed to me recently by an old college friend:

How do you explain what it’s like to experience God’s presence to someone who has never had that experience?

I find this a particularly interesting question because, up until a few years ago, I really hadn’t ever had that experience either. As I’ve written in my story, growing up I really wasn’t spiritual at all, and lived in a home that had very strong ethical values but was pretty much secular.  I would have moments where I’d experience a profound sense of peace or awe inspired by great beauty in nature or music (Mozart’s Requiem still blows me away). But I never felt that there was some higher spirit that I could proactively connect to for guidance or strength. It was just me, alone in the universe.

Then something happened – a switch got flipped – and I felt something. A sense of presence. Something that, when I reached out to it, would soothe my troubled soul, calm my anxieties, fill my heart with light and warmth when I felt hopeless. Best of all – it didn’t require a prescription.

Because I started experiencing this presence while I had been reading and trying to understand who Jesus really was, it seemed only fair to give Jesus some credit for what I now experienced. So I got baptized, and now spend an inordinate amount of time helping out my church, which unfortunately has really gotten in the way of me posting regularly to this blog.

By this point, I’ve probably also now lost all of you secular readers out there who will chalk me up as another one of those religious freaks you kind of shy away from at parties. It’s OK, I really don’t blame you (although actually I’m really quite a fun person to hang out with at parties, so it would be your loss). But this way I feel is quite common. Lots of folks have this sense of divine presence – from Christian evangelicals to Buddhists to folks who are religiously unaffiliated but ‘spiritual’.

And then there are also lots of folks who think all of this spirituality stuff is a crock.

So how do we bridge that gap? I think the first step is by spending a lot less time judging the other side. For example, I don’t think that I am now a superior person just because I’ve found a spiritual side to my life and am actively religious. I was nice before this spiritual stuff happened, and I’m nice now (when I’m not cranky because I’ve been doing too much volunteer work for the church).

However, I do see a burden on the part of those who have faith to try explain what it is that they feel, and why it matters. And it seems to me that often the best way to do that is indirectly, through metaphorical, emotional language or other artistic means (art, music). After all – how do you communicate what it feels like to fall in love (for someone who never has)? How do you communicate what it feels like to have a child? Lose a parent? Have a heart attack?

The most effective way to communicate these things is through metaphor, emotional language or art that helps to evoke the feelings in others that we ourselves experience. Which actually is much of what the Bible does – it uses powerful stories and metaphorical language and poetic imagery to convey what people throughout history experienced of the Divine.  God is a still small voice, a burning bush, a cloud, a choir of angels. Well, except God isn’t literally any of these things – these are just symbols used to convey this experience of the Spirit.

So I guess in the meantime I’ll just keep trying to talk to my daughter about God and spirituality, hoping at some point that it’ll click for her. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s OK too. After all, she came back from participating in a Breakfast Run to feed the homeless this weekend, and couldn’t stop talking about how great it felt to help others and how she wanted to go again. Looks like she’s getting in touch with the Spirit after all. Just don’t tell her I said that.

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