Wednesday, November 25, 2020

I sometimes joke that I entered seminary as an evangelical Christian and departed as an agnostic Buddhist. It's an oversimplification, but in large part true. I think of myself as a Buddhist in the sense that I recognize the genius of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and the other practical teachings of the Buddha, as well as the transformative power of meditation, but I don't believe in rebirth or other speculative spiritual components of Buddhism. I think of myself as a Christian in the sense that I try to live my life according to the values and teachings of Jesus--particularly as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount--but I don't believe (any longer) in most of the tenets of the classic Christian creeds. In seminary I learned to appreciate things about all of the world's religions, but I also came to the conclusion that the most honest religious view is agnosticism; to simply be able to say "I don't really know."

Jesus was, I think, a remarkable person who made a significant impact during his life. He lived during a time of tremendous socio-political upheaval, under a repressive religious system that was under a corrupt and tyrannical kingdom that was under an oppressive empire (which also provided benefits like capability of long-distance travel, communications, preservation and transmission of philosophy, religious plurality, and relative peace).

Jesus's teachings, and the movement he led, cut like a laser through the multi-layered systems of oppression in which he found himself. He challenged their authority, pointed out their hypocrisy, and highlighted how badly they had missed the mark in their claim of being God's (or, the case of the Romans, the gods') authority on earth. He taught that every person--no matter their gender or race or illness or socio-economic status or profession or how "other" they are--is worthy of care and kindness, deserving of respect and fair treatment, beloved by God. Clearly, what he taught, and the way he taught it, was profound and powerful to the point of being viewed as a threat to the civic and religious authorities. So they conspired to have him arrested, tortured and killed. And that was the end of Jesus the man.

But the effect of his brief life was so great that people continued to tell stories about him. And, of course, those oral tales and eventual written accounts became more and more exaggerated and weighted with symbolism. In trying to express the significance of his life and teachings, people incorporated popular Mediterranean tropes: surely he was sent from God; like others sent from [the] God[s] in Greco-Roman-Egyption-Persian theologies, he was born of a virgin; he performed authoritative miracles over sickness and nature; yes he was killed, but like Osiris and Adonis and Castor and Romulus and Heracles (etc.) he rose from the dead; he ascended to Heaven, like other Greco-Roman god-men had purportedly ascended to Mount Olympus; and his death carried a sacrificial reconciliatory significance. Jesus gradually became linked to Greek philosophical concepts such as the Logos, and Neoplatonic cosmology, and Manichaen dualism.

Jesus became a mythic figure and an object of veneration (the same fate that happened to the Buddha). The man who told people to follow him (not worship him) became an object of worship. The man who criticized the hierarchical and puritanical Jewish temple religious system became the diety at the heart of a hierarchical and puritanical gentile religious system (with temples of its own). The man who challenged the empire was appropriated and transformed into a god who endorsed the empire.

I could go on, but suffice to say that studying and pondering things like this is how I became a Buddhist who doesn't subscribe to Buddhism and a Christian who doesn't subscribe to Christianity and an Agnostic who has opinions but freely admits "I don't really know."

 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Guest post: Rich Lewis

I'm honored to share a guest post from Rich Lewis, from the blog Silence Teaches Us Who We Are.  Rich is the author of Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self through Centering Prayer published by Anamchara.  This post contains excerpts from Rich's book:

Quaker Silence 

In March of 2014, I experienced a Quaker silent service. The church I attended traced its roots to 1699, though the meeting house where I sat in was built in 1823. The service had no minister. I sat in silence for an hour with one hundred others in a simple room with only benches, windows, and wood floors. 

On three occasions, individuals shared a thought. Then back to silence. I heard the rain gently pummel the windows. I heard human sounds: coughing, sniffing, breathing. I heard the wind blow and wood floors creak. I heard my thoughts. Sometimes I had no thoughts, just the spaces between thoughts. The room became a container filled with peace, love, community. 

When we are silent we are naked before God. We empty our mind of its thoughts and emotions. We let God’s gaze shine directly on us. I do this as part of my daily centering prayer practice but had never done it with a group this large. 

At the end of the service, we prayed for each other. We greeted each other and passed the peace. We are meant to experience silence in community with our God. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, often exclaimed that the most powerful kind of worship is silent worship or what Quakers sometimes call “waiting worship.” 

Because we live and move and have our being in God, whether we realize it or not, we constantly pray (Acts 17:28). I had heard that life is a prayer, but I did not understand how this could be true. Now I understand that I live in God. I am always connected to God. I cannot disconnect, even if I try. God’s presence always remains. Only my own awareness of God’s presence comes and goes, depending on the quality of my contemplation.

Be Open to New Experiences of the Divine 

Richard Rohr wrote that, “Prayer is not about changing God, but being willing to let God change us.” God is not a genie that grants wishes. I need to rethink how I approach God. I need to let go of my desires, dreams, and wishes—and instead, be open to the desires, dreams, and wishes that God has for me. 

In May of 2015, I visited the Won Buddhism Center of Philadelphia. Before I entered the temple area, we removed our shoes. I liked this idea. The first thing I do when I enter my home is take off my shoes. It makes me feel comfortable, relaxes me. Doing this at the Buddhist center, I felt at home. 

We began the service with a five-minute chant. I had never chanted for five minutes straight. It seemed like it would be an eternity. Yet before I knew it, we were done. 

From the chant, we moved to a twenty-five-minute silent meditation. I knew that this would not be difficult. When I practice centering prayer, I do so with my eyes closed. The silent practice that I was asked to participate in was with my eyes open, looking down the bridge of my nose. Similar to centering prayer, we were told to let go of all thoughts. We were told to ignore any itches. Let them pass. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was easily able to meditate with eyes open. The time passed quickly. 

We moved from silent meditation to walking meditation, something I had never done. Fifteen of us formed a circle fifteen feet in diameter. We walked slowly in a circle, our pace extremely slow. I estimate the movement from when I placed my left heel down and rolled it until my toes finally touched the ground was three to five seconds before I performed the same action with my right foot. It took some time to adjust to this snail’s pace. I needed to focus to maintain balance. Within a few minutes, however, I felt comfortable with the pace and began to enjoy it. Like the sacred word in centering prayer, each step I took during walking meditation was an opening to God. We walked one full circle. I do not know how long it took. It was a wonderful experience. I lost track of time and was at peace. I entered the spaces between my thoughts. I was in the Presence. 

The Buddhist temple experience taught me that contemplative prayer, the pure presence of God, can be found in chanting, silent meditation, and walking. God is everywhere. God waits for us to meet Him in the practice that best suits us. I am certain there are many other forms of contemplative prayer that I can practice, where I will also meet the pure Presence of God.

Rich Lewis

Silence Teaches

Silence teaches us who we are. 

When you subscribe to my web site you will receive my Free Centering Prayer ebook. 

 Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self through Centering Prayer published by Anamchara Books is now available!

Saturday, October 03, 2020

 If I still thought along the lines that I did when I was a fundamentalist charismatic Christian I could easily conclude that God was sending judgment upon Donald Trump and the Republican party, except if I actually were a fundamentalist charismatic Christian I would not be able to separate Trump and Republicanism from God's favor, so I would have to instead conclude that it was an attack from Satan.  In other words, whether something was interpreted as being from God or from Satan was very much a matter of personal bias.

Friday, October 02, 2020

 My theological beliefs are such that I don't believe God controls viruses or changes outcomes if lobbied by enough people.  I do believe that God (for lack of a better term) is constantly "nudging" all of us toward goodness, and it is up to us to position ourselves to be able to discern those nudges and respond.  So my prayer for Donald Trump is that this experience (of contracting coronavirus) helps him to become more empathetic and circumspect.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

 I remember in 2008 when Republicans began attempting to smear Barack Obama, and ruin his chances of becoming the Democratic nominee, by attacking his faith. Specifically, they went after Obama's association with the fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and the teachings of Liberation Theology. The media jumped on board, fanning the flames of controversy. Lots of misinformation was thrown around.


I hope the same thing doesn't occur with Amy Coney Barrett, Trump's presumptive Supreme Court nominee. Yes, she apparently is a long-standing member of a somewhat fringe ecumenical charismatic Catholic group called People of Praise. They are a lay community within the Catholic fold. Like many other Catholic lay communities, they seem to have an orientation toward social justice. They are an intentional community--including communal living for some members--with some internal practices that look remarkably similar to socialism. They follow the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola in practicing discernment. Like several other charismatic Christian groups that started up in the late 60's and the 70's and 80's, they are internally hierarchical and practice a form of "shepherding," in which members submit to more senior members for direction in their lives. Although they are non-partisan, they are conservative on matters such as abortion, a wife's submission to her husband, and limiting women's authority within the church (in other words, they're in step with the official positions of the Catholic Church).

They are not a cult. Personally, People of Praise is not a group I would want to belong to. I have experienced first hand, over the course of many years, how damaging charismatic Christian groups like this can be. But at the same time, I think we have to respect a person's religious choices (including the choice of no religion).

So, as much as I don't want Republicans to confirm a Supreme Court Justice mere weeks before the election, I really hope Democrats don't take the bait on this one. By all means challenge her positions, her public statements, her legal and constitutional views. But leave her faith out of it.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

"Abortion" is a word that can make some Christians vote contrary to everything Jesus talked about, because of something he never talked about.

 

 

Friday, August 28, 2020


The prurient scandal surrounding the Falwells causes me to reflect back on the 25+ years I was a fundamentalist evangelical charismatic Christian. 
The culture of fundamentalist Christianity inculcates in its adherents that those in authority (pastors, televangelists, self-proclaimed prophets, etc.) are not to be challenged or scrutinized, lest one be branded as rebellious and ostracized from the church community or be guilty of attacking "God's anointed" and incur the wrath of the Almighty. I was once called a "son of Absalom" for questioning a pastor's authority (Absalom was David's son who committed rebellion against the king and was summarily executed for it). A common epithet applied to a woman who questions authority in the church is that she has a "Jezebel spirit" (named after the wicked biblical queen who worshipped pagan gods and suffered a gruesome death). 
This authoritarian culture within the fundamentalist Christian world results in a serious lack of accountability among its leaders. And then when a leader's transgression does come to light--be it financial or sexual or whatever--the response is "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." In other words, a demand for grace cheapened to the point of worthlessness is called for (unless the fallen one is a women and the matter is sexual, in which case she will never be allowed to forget or rise above her transgression). 
The end result is that the fundamentalist evangelical Christian world is riddled with sin and scandal and cons and scams perpetrated by leaders, and the "flock" gets fleeced over and over again. I've seen it with my own eyes so many times...

Sunday, August 23, 2020

In my faith journey, I've come to the place where I consider myself a follower of Jesus but not a Christian, a Buddhist who eschews ritual along with speculative ideas like reincarnation, a lapsed Quaker who is wary of faith community, an agnostic because I consider it the most honest position, someone who understands and respects and in some ways embraces atheism, a person with a Master's degree in Religion who can say without irony that I'm spiritual but not religious, someone who finds he no longer fits into the categories and silos and sects. This is sometimes liberating and sometimes disconcerting, but it's my journey and I'm happy with it.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

This morning I find myself pondering what's happened here in the U.S. over the last four years. The presidency of Donald Trump is not the thing I find most disturbing (and when I say "disturbing" I really mean "horrifying"); he is an anomaly; a political and sociological and statistical quirk; a polyp in the long intestine of history.

Sure Trump is an awful person, stunted in empathy, morality and intellect, but he would have remained a ne'er do well reality television personality if not for the people who enabled him. And this is the part that truly horrifies me: that politicians and bureaucrats promoted him and swore fealty to him, and carried out his toxic policies, and defended his indefensible actions; that federal law enforcement agents--average men and women--put children in cages, and tried to turn back people arriving on flights from countries that Trump had suddenly and capriciously banned with the stroke of a pen, and brutally attacked U.S. citizens peacefully protesting in U.S. cities (even violently clearing the streets of the U.S. capital so that Trump could have a photo opportunity in front of a church he doesn't attend holding a bible he doesn't understand).

When Trump is gone, his appointees that can be sacked will be sacked, his policies gradually reversed, his behavior scrutinized under legal microscopes for years to come so that he will spend the remainder of his life fighting to stay out of prison. Trust will slowly be rebuilt with our allies around the world. Loopholes will be closed and new laws will be enacted to prevent in future some of the most egregious acts perpetrated by Trump and his administration. His former cronies and sycophants and enablers will write books attempting to exonerate themselves, or become Fox News hosts, or fade into quiet obscurity.

But what will remain will be neighbors and friends and family members who accepted Trump's rank racism and misogyny and xenophobia and corruption. The revelation won't soon fade that an expedient moral equivalency lurked under the skin; a willingness to turn a blind eye to egregious acts and rhetoric and attitudes; a pharisaical moral brittleness that missed the teachings of Jesus by miles; a tribal willingness to welcome authoritarian violence.

Those are the things that are going to haunt me for a long time.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

When I was a conservative Evangelical Christian, I went along with the party line (on any number of issues) because I was constantly given a very warped picture of the world. It was inculcated in me that the "other"--be they liberals or Democrats or academic intellectuals or people from other cultures or people who practiced different religions or people who were in other ways different--were hopelessly (and Satanically) misguided at best, and intentionally nefarious at worst. Thus, there was a constant undercurrent of fear and paranoia and defensiveness about living in the world surrounded by those misguided and/or wicked liberals and Democrats and gays and professors and abortionists and Muslims and Buddhists and Mormons and Wiccans and foreigners and feminists and scientists and secular humanists, etc., etc. I recall being in a Christian rock band and we sang a song with a chorus that went "Foolish hearts, blackened foolish hearts, are destined to die." Yikes. 
In our fundamentalist culture, the wagons were always circled, the walls up, the basic orientation always exclusionary (while we simultaneously spoke and sang about how Jesus loves everyone--except, I guess, for those foolish blackened hearts destined to die, which meant pretty much everyone who didn't believe as we did). The solution was to get everyone to believe the way we believed or, failing that, to at least get them to behave the way we thought they should behave. That was the criteria of any outreach (I recall, a few years ago, I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to go hear a Muslim Imam give a speech at a church on the topic of Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue, and an old friend from my fundamentalist days responded by asking if I was going in order to try to convert the Imam, and if I wasn't going to attempt to convert him then I had no business going). 
The thing we were conditioned to fear most was openness and inclusivity. Acceptance of "the other" (without an agenda to convert them) and learning to listen to and understand and appreciate the viewpoints and experiences of "the other" was considered a dangerous proposition because doing so would weaken the walls of our fundamentalist ghetto and dilute our scrupulous doctrinal purity. We had to be vigilant about not allowing "sin in the camp." The senior pastor of a megachurch I attended for several years referred to seminary (in other words, rigorous theological education) as "cemetery" because he believed that learning too much would kill our fundamentalist faith. That is a pretty typical viewpoint in the fundamentalist Christian world, and it chillingly echoes Orwell's totalitarian slogan in his book 1984, "Ignorance is Strength."
The prioritization of purity and separateness eclipsed empathy and compassion. But we couldn't see that (which, I now suspect, is why Jesus called the Pharisees "blind").
I've been out of that conservative, fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian bubble for a number of years now, but current events cause me to reflect: If I were still ensconced in that environment, I imagine would probably be a Fox News and conservative talk radio devotee. I would, quite possibly, support Donald Trump (in part out of hope that he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who could impose the lifestyle choices I believed to be correct upon the general populace). I would more readily imbibe conspiracy theories and the sketchy claims of prosperity preachers and self-proclaimed prophets. I would tend toward insular protectionist/isolationist ideologies and policies. I would see the larger world as filled with scary ideas and scary people intent on destroying my godly and "right" little world--a world in which the lines were clear and the explanations were simple.
A couple of years ago my wife and I were back in Arvada, Colorado--the place where we both had once belonged to that fundamentalist Christian megachurch. We were doing a little shopping in the neat little "old town" area, and we came upon a store selling Buddhist, Hindu and "metaphysical" goods. We went inside and had an enjoyable browse. The proprietor behind the cash register, it turned out, was a recent immigrant from Tibet, and thus a Buddhist. We had a lovely chat, including some talk about spiritual things. But the thought never crossed our minds to try to convert him, nor--apparently--he to convert us. It was genuinely interesting to hear his perspective and he appeared equally interested to hear ours. As we left the store, my wife remarked to me, "You know, for so many years, I would have been afraid to go into a store like that or to have an agenda-free conversation with a person like that. It's nice to be free."