Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Fake Religion

"A Gentle Breeze"
- At the Desert Retreat House -


I hear a lot of talk nowadays about “fake news” - stories, postings, tweets and pictures in newspapers, in the social media and even on TV that purport to tell a “true story” but actually promote lies and falsehoods. Fake news is often used as a propaganda tool by various “extremist” organizations because, if something looks like a “real news” story it’s more likely that people will believe in the veracity of what is being reported.

Nowadays, a wise consumer of  the “news” must be careful to look for stories that have been fact-checked and verified by credible sources.

Over this past weekend, as I watched the heart-wrenching, relentless incidences of hate-filled violence perpetrated on the street of Charlottesville, Virginia, it occurred to me that these blatant acts of overt racism and violence were being perpetrated by people who actually professed to be religious, Christian believers. The fact is that members of the KKK are required to be white and they are also required to be Christian.  The official charter of the KKK (as well as other white supremacist groups) states that every member must publicly profess a “belief in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.”

This weekend, vile, hateful racial epithets and acts of cruel aggression pervaded the City of Charlottesville - all performed by people who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As I see it, this is an almost perfect example of “fake religion.” On the surface, these people may “appear” to be religious (they probably go to church and study the bible and they wear crosses on their white-hooded robes) but they are as far from actually being a “Christian” as you can possibly get.

After all, Christians are “followers of Jesus,” people who pledge to live their lives in the “Way” of Jesus whose entire life and teaching was devoted to promoting the dignity of every human being. Jesus taught his followers to love one another and even to love an enemy. He taught his disciples to care for the poor and the needy, to reject no one and even to do good to those who hurt you.

In Charlottesville this weekend, those so-called Christians carrying assault weapons and espousing a blatantly egregious and vile message of hate and division could not possibly be farther from following the Way of Jesus. Like fake news, they professed themselves to be Christians but in fact they were they were “fake Christians.” They called themselves religious but the religion they professed was a fake religion.

As I see it, just as you can apply journalistic standards to evaluate whether of not something purported to be “real news” is actually "fake news,” so also can you apply a common universal standard to determined whether or not those who purport to be religious are, in fact, truly religious. Simply put, that universal standard of evaluation is the “practice of compassion.”

Karen Armstrong, the well-know author and authority on world-religions writes:

Compassion is the key and the core
 in Islam and Buddhism and Judaism and Christianity.
This core element makes them all profoundly similar.

Professor Armstrong also makes this astute distinction between “good” theology and “bad” theology. For me, it’s also a good distinction between “true religion” and “fake religion:”

If your understanding of the divine makes you kinder, more empathic
and impels you to concrete acts of loving-kindness, this is good theology.
But if your notion of God makes you unkind, belligerent, cruel or self-righteous
or if it leads you to kill in God’s name, this is bad theology.

When a so-called Muslim invokes the name of “God” while beheading an infidel and cries out “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) while blowing up a building or when a so-called Christian wears a cross and professes faith in Jesus while denouncing and attacking fellow human beings because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity, you can be sure that “fake religion” is rearing its ugly head.

Those of us are who consider ourselves to be religious people and strive to be guided by the standard of compassion must take offense and resist all the many examples of fake religion springing up nowadays. Now more than ever we are called to promote and practice compassion and to profess a vision of “God” that makes us “kinder, more empathic and impels us to concrete acts of loving kindness” every day of our lives.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Embracing Uncertainty

"Darkness and Light"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

It’s “Back to School” season out here in the region where we live and I’ve been thinking about the “almost ludicrous” way in which we have come to envision the process of education in our culture. We imagine students sitting at desks opening up their brains for teachers to pour knowledge and information into them. We often think about the educational process as an “acquisition of knowledge” and the more “schooling” one gets, the more knowledge one acquires. The ultimate educational goal, of course, is to acquire enough knowledge so as to become an expert in your field.

But of course there is a serious drawback for anyone who seeks to become an “expert” in any field. In fact, the Zen masters teach that the goal of wisdom is not to become an expert but rather to become a beginner, to develop a “beginner’s mind," never limited by a mind full of existing answers but always open to explore many questions:

If your mind is empty it is always ready for anything.
In the beginners mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s mind there are few

This “Back to School” season is probably a good time to rethink what education is ultimately all about. The more you learn and know should lead you to a deeper wisdom about just how much you don’t know and how much more there is to learn about everything in life.

I recall an article in the New York Times about a new trend in some medical schools that are now teaching prospective doctors about the vale of uncertainty in their profession. In fact, many schools now offer a course called “An Introduction to Ignorance” required of all incoming med students. The course is designed to help students realize that, while they may think they are in school to learn all there is to know about the human body, the opposite is probably true. Medicine, like all scientific knowledge is quite limited and filled with more questions than answers.  When you learn to embrace and value uncertainty you see these questions not as roadblocks but as doorways to further exploration.

I enthusiastically read a brief description of this course in “ignorance” that describes the practice of medicine as:

..feeling around in dark rooms,
bumping into unidentifiable things,
looking for barely perceptible phantoms.

As I see it, the process of all “education” (regardless of the field of inquiry) necessarily involves  “feeling around in dark rooms” and “embracing uncertainty” might well be be a highly cherished virtue in any school that is doing what it is supposed to be doing.

It also seems somewhat odd to me that while some “medical schools” are moving toward helping their students to foster a “beginner’s mind,”  many religious people nowadays seem to be striving for a greater degree of “expertise” in their spiritual journeys. In this age where there seems to be so much chaos in the world, many religious people seem to be clinging to their tried and true, sure and certain answers about who God is and what God expects.

And yet, “God” is the ultimate mystery. In fact there is nothing about “God” that can ever be figured out, never any clear-cut, immutable answers.  “God” is the mysterious transcendence that cannot even be named let alone known or defined.

Personally I think every church, temple or mosque along with every seminary and school of religion in the country should follow the example of the various schools of medicine and offer people a course about the value of “embracing uncertainty” on the spiritual quest:  “An Introduction to Ignorance.”

People sometimes feel as if they have failed when their quest for God leaves them with more questions than answers and perhaps even doubts about what they already know. I say they have progressed into the next phase of their journey. They are growing into a “beginner’s mind,” in which there are many possibilities.

Many centuries ago, St. John of the Cross described the spiritual quest in this way:

If a person wants to be sure of the road he treads on,
he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.

These words of Saint John may well be a great motto and a guiding mantra for this “Back to School” season.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Heavy Weight of Fear

"Walking the Way Together"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House -

All the recent talk about “fury, fire and nuclear war” with North Korea has put many people “on edge” over the past few days. I was especially struck by one particular comment I read on Facebook yesterday: “Nuclear war? Now we all have one more big thing to be afraid of every day – one more fear placed on my table. I wonder how long it will take for the table to crack?”

I’ve been thinking about this and wonder if that Facebook comment might indeed be very emblematic of life in contemporary society nowadays - a society where an underlying sense of fear seems to permeate so much of our common life. We are fearful of the next terrorist attack, the next backpack that turns out to be a bomb, and now the “sum of all fears,” a nuclear war with fire, flame and fury unleashed upon the world.  It is indeed like a heavy weight placed upon the table of life, leaving many of us “constantly on edge”, always on the lookout for the next piece of bad news, wondering when the table might collapse under all that heavy weight. This certainly drains the “joy” out of living every day and robs us of a deeper peace. 

I think about something Buddhist teacher and monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said about this constant presence of underlying fear that so eats away at so many of us.

We are always running, running, running,
Even in our sleep we are running.
We run because we are trying to escape from our fear.

As reflect on this wisdom, it makes me wonder if this may help explain why so many people nowadays always seem so busy - busy at work or school, busy at home, even busy on a summer vacation, always on the run. Are people afraid to be fully present in the moment because who knows what the moment might bring - an attack at the mall or at the local school, a nuclear bomb?

There is one single line that is continually repeated throughout the entire Bible, throughout the Hebrew Bible as well as the Christian Scriptures.  In fact, this line appears more often than any other single phrase:

Do not be afraid!

Over the thousands of years of history out of which the various books of the Bible have emerged, this is the one single piece of wisdom has been given to all people of all time. It is an admonition to avoid succumbing to the underlying fear that threatens to poison and destroy the serenity of the human spirit.

Interestingly enough, when I look at the Bible, I find all sorts of things people might rightly fear - plenty of reasons to be afraid. The Bible is written by people who are experiencing war, disease, famine and threats of terror. It is written by people who have suffered great personal disaster, devastation, floods, earthquakes and exile.

The Bible never says there isn’t anything to be afraid of in life, instead it continuously says “Do not be be afraid." Don’t let fear eat away at you, don’t let fear destroy your spirit.

Sitting in exile in a South African prison, unsure of what would become of his life, Nelson Mandela had plenty of reasons to be afraid. It was during this time that he wrote:  

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear,
but the triumph over it.

When I reflect on my own life and on the times in which we live, I am well aware that there are lots of reasons to be afraid - the things that might make us afraid are constantly knocking at the door of our lives. But instead of always running, running, running and rather than being constantly on edge, I simply try to embrace what comes to me each day and at each moment, and when I do this I find an abiding Love standing there at the threshold - a Love that will never let us go.

Love abides and we have one another as we walk along the Way. So, we can live “courageously” and enjoy every moment of what our life has to offer us.