Pushing Muslim Buttons

My eight-year old twin sons are masters at pushing each other’s buttons. In a matter of seconds, one small provocation can transform peaceful playtime into Armageddon.  Usually the dispute is over something unbelievably stupid, like who has the right to a specific Lego piece (out of the thousands of pieces that litter their room). However, the boys have a history – and if the provoked twin gets angry enough, he will haul off and smack his sibling provocateur.

Like many Americans over the past week, I have been somewhat bewildered by the tragic violence provoked by “The Innocence of Muslims” video. How could a cheesy movie trailer provoke such a dramatic response? Well, today I took the time to actually watch the 14 minute trailer. As I suffered through this piece of shlock (a bizarre mash-up of amateur porn and the worst Saturday Night Live video you’ve ever seen), a light-bulb suddenly went off. This video pushes all the Muslim buttons. While I didn’t pick up on all of the slights, I’ve heard enough anti-Islamic rhetoric on topics such as the age of Mohammed’s wife Ayesha to understand why this video would be so offensive to Muslims. Then I thought about how after eight years of history, my sons can be moved to violence by a seemingly small provocation. So how surprising is it that people who have decades of troubled relations with the US would be likely to respond in a similarly disproportionate manner?

David Kirkpatrick’s recent article in the NY Times sums it up well:

Others said that the outpouring of outrage against the video had built up over a long period of perceived denigrations of Muslims and their faith by the United States or its military, which are detailed extensively in the Arab news media: the invasion of Iraq on a discredited pretext; the images of abuse from the Abu Ghraib prison; the burning or desecrations of the Koran by troops in Afghanistan and a pastor in Florida; detentions without trial at Guantánamo Bay; the denials of visas to prominent Muslim intellectuals; the deaths of Muslim civilians as collateral damage in drone strikes; even political campaigns against the specter of Islamic law inside the United States.

Kirkpatrick goes on to quote an Egyptian political scientist, Emad Shahin, who says that the video was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.

I am not in any way condoning the violent responses to the video. The death of diplomat Christopher Stevens and destruction of property has been terrible, tragic, and self-defeating. As Muslim Syed Mahmood notes in his response to the video on YouTube, these responses are exactly what the creators of the video wanted.

However, I am also saddened by much of the response I have seen from Americans to this whole mess. Many of the comments I’ve seen online are as sensitive as these:

  • Other religions get made fun of and teased all the time, Muslims need to develop a thicker skin about it.
  • If your religion is worth killing for, start with yourself.

These kinds of attitudes just contribute to the perception that Americans don’t respect or understand Muslims. It seems we are in a vicious cycle of disrespect and overreaction.

There are certainly other aspects to this story, such as the fact that much of the violence has been the work of a small group of radicals (just as the video itself was produced and promoted by a small group of nut jobs), and that many Islamic countries do have different cultural attitudes towards religion and free speech.

However, although Muslim culture may be different from ours in some ways, we are all human. No one likes to be dissed. We all know what it feels like to be fed up, tired of being insulted. We all know what it feels like to snap.

So just as I keep teaching my boys to learn to control their tempers when they are provoked, I am praying that the voices of reason in the Muslim world will help bring peace and calm back to their countries.  But I also teach my boys to avoid pushing each other’s buttons – to avoid provoking each other in the first place. I hope that more of us in the West will learn that lesson as well.

Posted in Islam, Religion and Morality | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Searchin’ for the Sabbath

Mom – when are we going to have time to do nothing?

My eight-year old son Andrew recently asked this question after we’d been going non-stop for the past 48 hours. Andrew, who loves to read, play Legos, and just goof off with his siblings, was suffering from down-time withdrawal.

He wasn’t alone. After two weeks in Aruba where I actually had time to do things like read and relax with the family, I had been dreading the start of the school year. In particular, I was worried how I’d manage the after-school insanity: the period from 3pm to 8pm in which I morph into a superhuman capable of simultaneously transporting my progeny to various locations across Westchester while feeding them snacks and responding to questions about homework and social life.

My kids are not even all that overscheduled compared to most of their peers. Each child is basically only doing one sport each season. But each of these sports meets at least three times a week. It just takes some basic math to figure out what that means for the whole family: 3 children, each doing 1 sport that meets 3x per week, means 9 different time commitments per week (plus a small number of additional after school activities including play-dates), which leaves us with an average of 2 different after school commitments each day (plus additional time required for transportation, gearing up, etc).

Figuring out the after-school schedule feels like one of those awful word problems:

If Emilie needs to be at martial arts in Eastchester by 4:40 and there is a 12.5% probability of 5-10 minutes of traffic delays on the Hutchinson Parkway and Andrew needs to arrive 25 minutes early at the Ice Hutch to put on his gear for his 5:05 hockey practice, what is the expected average number of minutes that crazy mommy will be late taking Austin to his football practice at Glover Field?

The net result is that we’re only about a week into the school year and I already see symptoms of burn-out in my kids and myself. I do not want to complain. I think sports are incredibly important for kids’ health and character development, and I feel lucky to be able to give them these athletic opportunities. But what we all need is regularly scheduled downtime. We need a sabbath.

Child psychologist and Jewish author Wendy Mogul writes beautifully about the importance of establishing a day of rest in her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee:

There are peak spiritual moments that happen in a family spontaneously. The prescient, poetic observations our children make, the questions they ask as they are climbing out of the bath or playing with their toast, cannot be pumped out of them or choreographed….But the idea of guarding the Sabbath teaches us to increase the odds that we’ll find ourselves in these moments, that they will be prolonged rather than fleeting, and that we don’t have to leave them entirely to chance.

Mogul goes on to describe how she managed, over time, to carve out Friday nights and Saturdays as restful time for her family to be together.

I have had similar conversations about the Sabbath with women from my church. In particular, I’ve heard many of the older women reminisce about how Sundays used to be reserved exclusively for worship. In the past no one would have dreamed of scheduling sporting events on Sundays, particularly not on Sunday mornings.

Well of course, times have changed, and folks have realized that loading up all the sporting activities on Saturdays ended up excluding Jews who wished to keep their Sabbath.  Now, sports are much more inclusive: they are equally inconvenient for people of all faiths.

So how exactly should I go about establishing a Sabbath time for my family? I have four thoughts on this:

1. Set realistic goals

Given the fact that each of my three children is doing a different sport, the chances are good that if we picked one particular day each week to be our ‘day of rest’, we’d end up penalizing one child’s sport over the others, which hardly seems fair.  For our family, it may not be realistic to find an entire day every week that can be entirely activity free. But perhaps we can find an evening, or a half-day once every two to three weeks.

2. Cherish days off from school

This coming Monday and Tuesday the kids are off from school because of Rosh Hashanah. In the past I might have just let this time get filled up with play-dates and errands. But as I was writing this post I realized that I should at least reserve one of these days to be just for the family. This isn’t a perfect solution since working parents typically still have to work on these days, but just giving the kids some downtime not in a clinic or ‘day off from school camp’ can be a gift.

3.  Call for ‘Family Time’ nights to be both homework and activities free

Around the country, school districts are trying to foster downtime by instituting homework-free nights where families are supposed to have more quality time together. However, the last Family Time night I had last spring, we still didn’t eat together because I was shuttling kids to various sports practices. If we are serious about fostering family-together time, then all the after-school demands on children’s time need to be suspended, not just homework.

4. Religious institutions need to make sure they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Given how busy the kids are throughout the week, by Sunday mornings the last thing they want is to go to anything that has the word ‘school’ in it. Ironically, although attending church on Sunday mornings is supposed to be the way our Christian family celebrates the Sabbath, in fact, we don’t actually spend any quality time together in church. We rush around in the morning getting dressed in our church clothes, then we sit quietly (ish) during the beginning of the service, then the kids go off to Sunday school while my husband and I stay and worship, then we separately talk to our friends for a bit at coffee hour and then it’s time for whatever sport activity we have to go to in the afternoon. This hardly seems like a chance to create restful space for ‘peak spiritual moments’ with the kids.

Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe in giving my children a religious education, and have demonstrated that commitment both through attending church regularly and being a Sunday school teacher. But I also wonder if, given the environment that our children are living in, church needs to consider creating occasional alternative worship models that foster more family togetherness.

Well, that’s it for now. I gotta stop writing and get to bed. The boys both have games tomorrow morning…

Posted in Parenting | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Selfish Sainthood

Last week I almost died.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there was definitely a scary moment where I thought things might go poorly. We were still in Aruba, and the kids had decided that they wanted to go ‘tubing’. We had tried this the week before, and it was nothing like the let’s-go-drift-down-a-lazy-river-with-a-cooler-of-beer tubing I was used to. Instead, this was an adrenalin-pumping XTREME experience where a large raft was tied on a long rope to the back of a powerful motor boat which then zoomed at top speed over large waves while the riders held on for dear life and screamed their heads off. Oh yeah, and because we are a family of five, and a raft can only hold four, we  had two rafts tied to the back of the boat (one adult in each, with kids divided between them). This enabled the rafts to occasionally slam into each other when the boat driver did a funky wheely thing in the water.  Really not my thing.

After the first tubing adventure I had come home and read a horrifying article about how all of these beach activities are completely unregulated and how there have been several parasailing deaths in Florida recently. Sharing this information with my eternally optimistic husband, he assured me that if these activities weren’t safe, they wouldn’t still be in business.  I squelched my anxiety, and wanting to participate in a golden moment in our precious family vacation, agreed to go tubing one more time.

For our second outing, the winds were particularly strong, and the boat driver, recognizing us from the previous week, knew we (or rather the rest of the family except me) loved a thrill, so he set off at such high speeds that the wind kept literally lifting the front of my raft several feet in the air so that my son Andrew and I were at a 45 degree angle with our feet sticking up.  At one point our rafts slammed into each other so hard that Andrew slid over and we hit heads. I was completely terrified, but was trying to remain calm since I realize I tend to be overly nervous.

Then all of a sudden on a sharp turn, as our rafts came towards each other again, the wind picked up my raft at such an angle that the entire thing tilted on its side, then flipped over on top of the other raft. Staring down at the water rushing by, I had a scary moment where I expected to get squeezed between or stuck under the rafts or tangled in the ropes. But then I simply let myself go, the rafts passed me by/over me and the next thing I knew I was bobbing in the open water in my life jacket (yes we did at least have those on), watching the boat and the rafts zoom away from me.

Without even thinking I called out in panic for Andrew. He had been on the far side of the raft as it flipped and I had no idea what had happened to him.  I didn’t care about myself – just about my son. Where was he? Was he alright?

Fortunately, in a cartoon-like fashion Andrew had been flipped into the other raft and had landed, rump down between my husband and my daughter. Not only was he fine, the rest of my family thought this was one of the coolest things that had ever happened to them. Except they were worried about me. Soon we had confirmed that everyone was unhurt, the other raft was flipped back over, and the boat driver slowly made his way back to shore.

As soon as we reached the beach, I started to fully process what had happened.  After shaking all over and swearing that I’d never go tubing again, we rode back to our rental house in silence.

Back at the house, I pulled out my Kindle to unwind, and just happened to be on the chapter on ‘Saintliness’ in William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, where James is quoting from the narrative of a near-death experience of a deeply religious person:

The sail slipped through my fingers, and I fell backwards, hanging head downwards over the seething tumult of shining foam under the ship’s bows, suspended by one foot. But I felt only high exultation in my certainty of eternal life. Although death was divided from me by a hair’s breadth, and I was acutely conscious of the fact, it gave me no sensation but joy. I could have hung there no longer than five seconds, but in that time I lived a whole age of delight. But my body asserted itself, and with a desperate gymnastic effort I regained the boom. How I furled the sail I don’t know, but I sang at the utmost itch of my voice praises to God…..

It struck me how different my response had been in a somewhat similar situation. Rather than experiencing a sense of calm at submitting to God’s will and welcoming the prospect of eternal life, I was terrified of losing my or my child’s life. God?  If I’m honest, God didn’t enter my thoughts at the time.

If I’m even more honest, I’ll admit that I found many of the ‘saints’ described by William James to be either annoying, disturbing, or both.  James cataloged people who deprived themselves of all of life’s joys, abandoned all material goods, and cut themselves off from their loved ones  to whom they had an obligation. As James puts it:

The lives of saints are a history of successive renunciations of complication, one form of contact with the outer life being dropped after another, to save the purity of inner tone.

While in theory these saints ought to represent the apex of what a life of faith should be, I found their fixation on abandoning everything to be with God to be, well, selfish. It’s all about their spiritual life, their connection to God, their eternal life. But what about the people who love them, who depend on them. Isn’t the happiness of those people important too?

It seems to me that cultivating a spiritual life is important – but not as an end in itself. It is only important in they way it gives us the strength and focus to be present for those who love us, and to go out into the world and make a positive impact.

So I don’t feel that my response to my tubing accident shows that I’m any less saintly than the ‘saints’ portrayed by William James. I am a parent saint – someone who worships God by bringing more love into the world – by loving God and showing loving compassion to those around me.  As James himself concludes after providing his own critique of and support for, saintliness:

Let us be saints, then, if we can, whether or not we succeed visibly and temporally. But in our Father’s house are many mansions, and each of us must discover for himself the kind of religion and amount of saintship which best comports with what he believes to be his powers and feels to be his truest mission and vocation.

And to that I say Amen, and let’s go head off to the parenthood mansion. That’ll be the one where extreme tubing isn’t allowed.

Posted in Parenting, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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.

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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