Religion as Pearls and Ashes

Finding the truly transformative aspects of religion isn’t this hard, but it does take a significant effort!

We humans have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize parts of our lives: to simultaneously hold conflicting sets of worldviews or perspectives.  This is useful because the world Is a complex place.  We need multiple tools and approaches for coping with life and pursuing wholeness.  But this kind of compartmentalization can be extremely frustrating when it comes to discussing and analyzing the relationship between, say, science and religion.  One example is Francis Collins, an atheist/agnostic turned Christian apologist, head of the National Institutes for Health, and a highly regarded scientist in the human genome project.

Collins is a prolific writer on science and religion, with titles like The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  But according to his own words, what ultimately resolved his search is that he was hiking and saw a really striking three-part waterfall.  It reminded him of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God = God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).  Boom, his searching, wondering, and struggle was done.  He was a Christian.

I’d never knock this story as forming part of someone’s spiritual journey.  I recognize he went through a long process of figuring out what he believes and why.  But if you’re then going to become an apologist and make it your point to argue in the public sphere why Christianity is right (and for him, implicitly why other religions are “wrong”) then that story really doesn’t cut it, especially running with the scientist angle!  I completely sympathize when atheists get flummoxed by such a subjective explanation of religious belief.

Some of my own views on religion align with those of two prominent personalities: Leo Tolstoy (not many seem to know he wrote extensively on religion!), and the American physicist Richard Feynman.  Tolstoy described religions using a metaphor – they are each like a sack containing pearls of infinite worth mixed up with and often hidden by a lot of ashes.  In other words, religion comes with its own baggage: all sorts of corruption, in-fighting, violence in the process of creating doctrine, hypocrisy, and forms of “idolatry” that infiltrate scriptures, such as nationalism, tribalism, and sexism.

My own journey resonates with this.  When I read that Jesus says to “knock and the door shall be opened to you” and “search and you shall find” I think of this metaphor.  It makes sense that there’s a lot of sifting and sorting to do.  There are pearls to find, but it’s an ongoing process, not a quick journey that’s over all at once.  Through a lot of searching over a decade or so (questioning my beliefs, exploring contemplative Christianity, living in a couple of monasteries, learning about other religions, being involved in interfaith groups), I came to see some of the pearls within Christianity, and to understand its limitations and the problem areas: the ashes.

During part of Richard Feynman’s career, he was a professor and mentor of graduate students.  Some of his students struggled the conflicts between their religious Christian upbringing and the science they were learning.  Feynman ultimately came to describe the challenge of the science vs. religion debate as one of being able to distinguish and preserve the wonderful moral teachings and inspiration of religion while being able to challenge specific worldviews or claims about objective, scientific reality that they make.  I think this is an especially important point for prominent atheists to engage in.  I think much more progress will be made extending the conversation to the pearls of religion and the many internal tools and teachings they contain to weed out the good from the bad and point to the dangers of hypocrisy and power.  Many atheists are motivated by a humanist desire to decrease suffering related to religious belief, so this could be a fertile ground of exploration.

I believe Sam Harris, despite my disagreements with him on some topics, is one of these.  I love his metaphor of the Moral Landscape, in which he envisions a 3-D map with many different peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to different ways of human flourishing and the valleys correspond to the many ways we can make ourselves and others suffer.  He could contribute to the transformation of religion by focusing more on the peaks of well-being specifically within religious traditions.

As Feynman’s viewpoint alludes to, religion often makes claims about the world or universe that it isn’t qualified to and doesn’t need to make such as the idea that Earth is the center of universe, back in Galileo’s day.  That was (taken to be) an important theological idea then, but come on, it’s not actually essential to Christianity.  Something similar today happens over topics like evolution.

My own experience in the interfaith group Religions for Peace, exposure to monastic interfaith religious dialogue, and love for food has led me to my own metaphor.  Each religion (with exceptions like Scientism) is like a culinary tradition from a nation or region of the world.  Each has many things beautiful, tasty, and wonderful to offer.  While foods are clearly different across the world, they are also the same in many fundamental ways (nutrition, chemistry, aesthetics and creative pursuits, etc) as well.

Each cuisine of the world also has its own types of junk food.  I think the discourse on religion, science, atheism, and ethics will improve as we increasingly recognize that the world’s religions have tremendous and wonderful commonalities, and when we are also keenly aware of and open to talking about their limitations – most especially the ways that they can be and are used (or abused/warped) in ways that cause tremendous pain and suffering.  It’s especially important to have a deep understanding of a religion in order to understand if negative actions or beliefs ascribed to the religion are an integral part of it or are instead a parasite, addition, or perversion of the original teachings and spirit of the religion.

On its own, I recognize that many people will find my food metaphor too simple.  I look forward to getting into more depth on all of this!

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions!

Love

People featured in this post

People featured in this post: bonus points if you know who they all are!

What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more
– Haddaway, What is love (90’s song)

What is love? In this post I’ll tackle this question drawing from some of the world’s greatest thinkers and movers, and will follow up in the next post with a discussion on the relationship of love and religion.

From Mozi (ca. 400 BC), a contemporary of Confucius:
Where do disorders – the world’s ills – come from? They arise from lack of mutual love. The son loves himself but does not love his father, so he cheats his father for his own gain. The younger brother loves himself but not his brother or his father so he cheats his older brother for his own gain.

Robbers and brigands likewise love their own households, but not the homes of others and so rob these homes for their own benefit. State officers, princes, and rulers make war on other countries because they love their own country but not other countries. They seek to profit their country at the expense of others.

This is what the world calls disorder. This all comes from the lack of mutual love.

The ultimate cause of all disorders in the world is lack of mutual love.

For if everyone were to regard the persons of others as his own person, who would inflict pain and injury on others? If they regarded the homes of others as their own homes, who would rob others’ homes? In that case there would be no brigands or robbers! If the princes loved other countries as their own, who would wage war on other countries? In this case, there would be no more war.1

Paul of Tarsus (ca. 40 ad)
The commandments … are summed up in this one command: Love your neighbor as your self. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Do not take revenge, my dear friends. On the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.2

Leo Tolstoy (ca. 1900):
Some people are able to foresee and point out the path of life along which humanity must move: a new theory of life that will change the whole future conduct of humanity and will be different from all that has been before. In this divine theory of life, humanity does not find the purpose of life in fulfilling his or her own desires (the animal theory of life), or in fulfilling the desires of societies of individuals (whether the family, clan, political party, or nation) but only serves the eternal source of life itself. The motor power of this life is love.

It is natural to love yourself. It is natural to love your immediate family, extended family, friends, social group, and fellow citizens. But this love gets weaker – more dilute – the farther out we go from our self. It is possible, though, to have a love that extends to all of humanity. We all have to discover it for ourselves, but there are some who can help others internalize it and experience the depth, richness, and transformation behind it.3

From Lao Tsu, in the Tao te Ching
In nature the softest overcomes the strongest. There is nothing in the world so weak as water. But nothing can surpass it in attacking the hard and the strong. There is no way to alter it. Hence weakness overcomes strength, softness overcomes hardness. The world knows this but is unable to practice it.4

There are many ways, many paths to this type of love. Yet each path is narrow, is difficult. Not enough people tread this difficult but rewarding path. Those who do are filled with the love, strength, and passion of God. This God is not a being, does not give laws or doctrine, and does not belong to any one religion. Wherever this love exists, there God is. God is love.

 

1 Kurlansky, Mark. Non-violence – The History of a Dangerous Idea
2 Romans 12 and 13 (Bible)
3 Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God is Within You (with some paraphrasing and summarizing from yours truly)
4 Kurlansky, Mark. Ibid

Father Coyne: Jesuit priest and scientist extraordinaire!

fr_coyneYesterday I was honored and thrilled to meet Father Coyne, a Jesuit priest, Ph.D. in Astronomy specializing in astrophysics, and retired head of the Vatican’s research observatory located at the University of Arizona in my hometown – Tucson, AZ.   (I realized the Tucson connection when I saw he had a 520 area code for his cell phone).  I met him at his residence at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school right here in Syracuse.

A friend of mine at school told me about a series of lectures on religion at Le Moyne and looking at its website I quickly found Fr. Coyne.  He was on Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous” – one of its few rational religious voices.  He was also interviewed by famous New Atheist Richard Dawkins for a TV show about Darwin, and the full interview is on youtube.  Check it out!

dawkins_coyneFr. Coyne is an ardent and passionate voice for both the (potential) depth of religion and the validity of science, including evolution.  I thoroughly (that’s an understatement!) enjoyed my time with him and I wished we had videotaped our conversation so we could put it on youtube!!  (He did say we might do this another time.)

We talked about a lot of things, but we touched on how earnest many atheists are in their critique of religion and that they have many good points based on ethical and scientific grounds.  We agreed that absent from debates on science and religion are Jesus’ own very anti-establishment and anti-religion views/teachings and his focus on experience and common sense.

We agreed that there is no dualism between the spiritual and the material.  That is, the spiritual is in the material and vice versa.  There’s not separate realms or realities, although it can be useful or inspiring to envision such things.  Here’s my little phrase that sums it up:  “We don’t need the supernatural.  The natural is super enough!”

I tried out a few of my newest thoughts and ideas on him – like my pithy saying above – which were very well-received.  For instance, we talked about faith.  St. Paul says faith is hope in that which is unseen.  For me, that includes the power of love, the depth of the human spirit, and our search for the transcendent or the divine (in a symbolic way but one that can be experienced).  He agreed, and I said I felt a lot of sympathy for those who only know of the word “faith” as belief in doctrine or dogma and criticize it as such.

But along the lines of St. Paul, there’s a huge difference between belief in what’s unseen (we believe in many things that are unseen) and belief in things that scientific evidence is strongly against.

For example, I don’t believe in the virgin birth (of Jesus).

From a scientific perspective it’s just so highly unlikely.  But adding to this, virgin births are  present in the stories and myths of other religions and cultures.  Is Christianity’s virgin birth true while all other cultures’ and religions’ virgin births aren’t?

What I conclude is that virgin births are a very dramatic element that mean “Hey!!  Listen up!!!  This person is very important!!”  And I do believe that Jesus was and is very important.  Hopefully there can be more depth and public discussion of why.  What did he teach?  How is that different from Christianity?

This was just a bit of what we talked about.  It was amazing, though, to talk with someone who thoroughly understood where I was coming from from both a religious and scientific standpoint.  Each of us experience awe, inspiration, and transcendence through both science and religion.

I look forward to getting to know Fr. Coyne more and am amazed and thankful that our paths that unknowingly overlapped for so long in Tucson now “knowingly” overlap in Syracuse, NY of all places!

 

The Man of Steel and the Man of Love

Note: I wrote this in early fall and tried to submit it to the Huffington Post, but to no avail. 

If the flag wasn't enough, the 7-11 behind Superman really makes this patriotic!

If the flag wasn’t enough, the 7-11 behind Superman really makes this patriotic!

This summer’s movie, The Man of Steel, deeply and beautifully focused on Clark Kent’s (Superman’s) struggles and moral development. Christian pastors were invited to free advance screenings and were provided with sermon notes titled “Jesus as the First Superhero”. Was Jesus like an American superhero? Did he endorse violence as a way to fight evil and bring about righteousness?

The Man of Steel and Jesus, the Man of Love, are not the same. Instead of Superman, Jonathan Kent (Clark or Superman’s father) was actually the Jesus figure, and Superman’s task was to deeply learn and embody his father’s spirit.

Accordingly, the Christian Church is like Superman not because it’s the hero that saved the day but because its most fundamental task is to deeply learn, imbibe, and embody Jesus’ spirit. The Superman of this movie did a much better job of it than the Christian Church as a whole.

Clark was different, so he was bullied as a young child. His x-ray vision and super hearing led to panic attacks and he’d run out of class desperately searching for peace from his overwhelming senses. He seemed weak, especially because Jonathan taught him never to fight back. As Clark got older, Jonathan emphasized that how he responded to the hatred, fear, and arrogance of others was his choice and would determine what kind of a man he would grow up to be.

Jonathan was real with Clark about the difficulties of nonviolence. He wanted the bullies to get what was coming to them but knew this was a dangerous path for anyone and especially for Clark. When those with overwhelming power retaliate, it only creates more fear, mistrust, and alienation. Clark would never gain the trust and admiration of humanity this way.

Jesus’ disciples also struggled with issues of violence, retributive justice, and power. They (and their culture) expected the Messiah to be a king who would inflict vengeance upon Israel’s enemies. They wanted Jesus to zap people who failed to show them hospitality and to defend Jesus with the sword. Peter couldn’t bear to have his feet washed by Jesus because he so strongly thought only servants should wash their master’s feet and not vice versa. Jesus rebuked the disciples each time.

Jesus represented a different relationship to power, violence, and status; he likened his way to a narrow gate that few enter but leads to life. The gate that leads to destruction (violence, control, and power over others) is a wide gate that many enter (Matt. 7:13-14).

In the movie, Jonathan risked his life to help others during a tornado. He knew it was dangerous but felt the risk of Clark revealing his powers was too great. Jonathan saved the people but died in the process, teaching Clark what love looks like and that true strength comes from within.

Jesus also seemed to think that his best hope of getting through to the disciples – of showing them once and for all who he was and what he stood for – was to accept his death at the hands of the religious and political authorities. His death would shock them out of their old ways of thinking, making room for a new Spirit to thrive within them. For a few centuries Christianity held on to the spirit of Jesus, represented a radically different way of life based on love, and refused to take part in violence.

Although there’s been a push to equate Jesus and Superman, the movie provides a much stronger case for Jonathan as Jesus, with Superman being similar to Christianity because they share the fundamental task of becoming like Jonathan or Jesus.

Nonviolence and kicking some alien butt
Kryptonians – people from Clark’s planet – arrived at Earth and wanted vengeance on Clark for the past actions of his parents. They broke their promise to spare humanity if Clark turned himself over. Clark, now Superman, fought back and killed the Kryptonian leader with his own hands.

To create the violent plot and justify the massive destruction caused by Superman (his fighting leveled several towns), the Kryptonians had to be portrayed as purely evil, possessing no conscience, and having technology that could quickly and easily wipe out the human race. It reminds me of how war is often framed and justified in public debate…

Superman was nonviolent toward humanity and turned to violence only as a last resort against genocidal invading aliens: a far-fetched occurrence. What would the world be like if Christianity was committed to justice and righteousness based on nonviolence?

Superman’s real strength was reflected in his refusal to retaliate against the arrogance and evil inside humanity. He had imbibed his father’s vision to be a beacon of hope and light. Without this, he could never win the hearts and minds of the whole human race.

Nonviolence and its foundation, radical love, at first make us weak but invite us into the knowledge and experience of a power that gives us strength, passion, purpose, and hope even in the midst of suffering.

Moral training and spiritual practices fuel and nourish us. Deep reflection and contemplation of the life, teaching, and spirit of Jesus is one such practice. Gandhi studied the New Testament daily and was further transformed by Jesus’ love, spirituality, and power despite (or because of?) his rejection of dogmatic Christianity.

Jesus told a parable of two sons that should challenge the traditional dogma of salvation for Christians alone. A father told his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first said yes, but didn’t do it. The second said no, but changed his mind and worked. Jesus used this parable to point out that the religious leaders – those who said the right things and acted righteous – were actually far less righteous than the tax collectors and prostitutes they considered outcasts (Matt. 21:28-32). Gandhi was like the second son because he rejected Christian doctrine but imbibed and lived out the radical love of Jesus.

Jesus also told a parable in which he is the vine and the disciples are the branches drawing life and energy from him. He warns them that if they aren’t truly attached to the vine they “cannot bear fruit” and “cannot do anything” (John 15) – essentially that they would make a mess of the world, as Christianity has often done.

We can still embrace the worldview of a cosmic battle of good versus evil so prevalent in human cultures and religions, but we have to fight in a way that’s pure and increases the goodness in the world. Nonviolence is good, life-giving, and with discipline and creativity it’s practical. In this way, we can all see Jesus as a savior of the world.