Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-- William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Monday, July 18, 2016

"There is a fundamental disconnect between a mind that drinks from the well of silence, and one that relies almost exclusively on language. A healthy and mature mind functions organically and focuses away from itself, while understanding that language can only ever be provisional, dualistic, and self-referential. Religious language--or any language--thus becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns. This relationship between silence, language, and behavior is the same for atheist scientists as religious non-scientists: science is a series of metaphors about what we can measure; religion is a series of metaphors about what we can't. Both can be useful; both can inflict horrors on the world."

-- Maggie Ross, Silence: A User's Guide

Sunday, July 03, 2016

"When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight."
-- Thích Nhất Hạnh

I was already seated when the man and woman came down the airplane aisle and sat directly behind me in the exit row. The man was large, heavily tattooed and was cussing loudly and profusely and saying things like "I just want to punch someone in the face." My first thought was, "What an asshole." But then it occurred to me that this man must be in great inner pain. The outward belligerence was a sign of inward suffering.

As the plane prepared to pull away from the gate a flight attendant walked by and informed the man that he needed to slide his bag fully under the seat. He began to mock and berate her, but she would have none of it. She explained--calmly and firmly as if speaking to a child--that he was seated in an exit row and for the safety of all the other passengers the pathway to the emergency exit needed to be kept clear and if he had a problem with that he could be moved to another seat or removed from the airplane. The man didn't answer, but the woman with him did: "I'm sorry," she explained, "he just learned that his nephew died." The flight attendant expressed sincere condolence but also reiterated that the rules had to be followed. The man was quieter for the rest of the flight, only occasionally eliciting a whispered "Fuck!" I didn't mind. My thoughts had transformed from annoyance to lovingkindness and I tried to keep him in prayer for the remainder of our journey together.

Friday, July 01, 2016

The Emergence of Customized Religion

I had an interesting conversation with a friend today about the future of religion in the Western world, and it sparked these thoughts:

When I was a kid there were four television networks. Then cable TV came along and gave us dozens--and ultimately hundreds--of channels. Then the Internet came and there was viewing on demand. Viewing entertainment became atomized and wildly diverse. Likewise, when I was a kid there were printed newspapers and news magazines. Many are still around but all have diminished greatly now that the Internet has provided us with a plethora of options for obtaining news and information. It used to be that radio stations were the primary source for hearing new music and then you had to go to a record store to buy the recordings (or join the Columbia House Record Club). No you have iTunes and Pandora and Spotify and YouTube, etc. Many other similar examples could be cited, from house shopping to booking travel to getting restaurant recommendations.

What the Internet has given us is disintermediation. The middle-men and gatekeepers and authorities are less and less necessary. They might continue to be around (we still have realtors and travel agents, despite Redfin and Expedia) but they're no longer required, and so their influence is greatly diminished and competition among them for the scraps is fierce.

I think the same goes for religion. It used to be that people tended to remain in the faith of the culture they were born and raised in. Access to travel began to change that, as people were exposed to other options. But now one can easily discover a world of religious ideas and even within a particular religion a multitude of different viewpoints.

One might end up liking and incorporating elements from diverse religious sources. For example, I've been very intrigued by the "secular Buddhism" movement, which has undertaken the excision of speculative and supernatural elements from Buddhism (such as reincarnation, karmic reward/punishment in the next life, supernatural abilities, demigods and demons, etc.) that are not intrinsic to the original core teachings of the Buddha (impermanence, dependent causation, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path, etc.). When those core teachings are uncoupled from the supernatural mumbo-jumbo which (oftentimes) developed at a later date, what remains is a cogent and concise philosophical system and way of life that offers practical results. The "secular Buddhist" movement is akin to movements in Christianity such as the Jesus Seminar and some elements of Progressive Christianity. Similar endeavors have occurred in Judaism and Islam (and, I assume, also in Hinduism, though I'm not sure). The goal is getting to what is intrinsic, practical, applicable and verifiable while eschewing that which is speculative, unverifiable and other-worldly.

It seems that when this is done one of the byproducts is that a greater degree of compatibility and even complementarity between different faiths emerges. I suppose Unitarians and Quakers have been ahead of the curve in this regard.

So, I think in the future we will see many more options in religion and many of those options will be "mix and matchable," customizable, boutique. Hyphenated affiliations will become more common: Buddhist-Christian, Islamic-Hindu, Sufi-Jew, Wiccan-Catholic, etc. (and why stop at blending two?). Stalwart keepers of the old guard will lament the loss of religious exclusivity, and there will always be purists. They will decry the syncretism and consumerism (sometimes rightly so, sometimes wrongly so). But, I believe, this trend--which is already emerging--will become more and more prevalent. Religious monocultures will surrender space to synergistic polycultures. People will take an active and intentional role in crafting their religion. Ongoing evolution of one's faith will be assumed. A world of resources will be readily available to everyone, to enable them to form and practice their own systems of belief and practice. People will tolerate, maybe even appreciate, one another's faith mosaics.

Is this a good thing? Probably in some ways yes and in some ways no. Is this a bad thing? Probably in some ways yes and in some ways no. But I think it is what it is as an emerging trend.