30 Apr 2012, 5:21pm
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[holy daze] blessed are the cheesemakers

Easter has passed. Ascension Day (May 17th) has not yet arrived. Right now in the church calendar, Jesus is spending 40 days (and, presumably, 40 nights) on earth, post-resurrection, before ascending bodily to heaven… or Heaven? See, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. So, I googled “what was jesus doing between easter and ascension?” and found this useful pdf which gave me a more useful starting point than, like, reading the entire New Testament. Since it’s three weeks after Easter at the moment, I started with the Jesus sighting (forgive me, I am imagining binoculars) that occurred then — “4th [appearance] to group, to ‘The Eleven’ on appointed Mount in Galilee” according to the pdf. Matthew 28:16-20 and 1Corinthians 15:7b. Here’s those passages from my partner’s copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, College Edition (I sold mine back to the bookstore at the end of our required humanities course) –

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountains to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

…then to all the apostles.

Well, all right. I wasn’t totally sure where to go from there (and to give you an idea of where I’m starting from, it took me a minute to figure out that there were eleven disciples instead of twelve because, oh yeah, Judas probably wasn’t hangin’ out with them anymore), so I backed up and started at the beginning of Matthew. Which, judging by my partner’s heavy annotations, I was probably supposed to read in college. So I suppose I’m deviating already from the script I thought I’d established for this project, but I suppose that’s sort of the point.

Here’s the thing. Us Unitarian folks, we like to think of ourselves as drawing from diverse religious traditions and the works of many spiritual teachers throughout history, including Jesus. The general consensus among UUs seems to be that Jesus was a great teacher or a radical rabbi, walkin’ in sandals in the desert preaching brotherly love and peace and forgiveness and so on. When I think of Jesus, I picture the actor from Monty Python’s Life of Brian who gives the Sermon on the Mount while Brian and co. make tongue-in-cheek comments. (”I think he said ‘blessed are the cheesemakers!’” “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” “Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.” “What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is it’s the meek who are the problem!”)

But the Sermon on the Mount also includes some less-than-meek bits, it turns out. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” et cetera. Yikes? I mean, who hasn’t committed adultery in his/her heart? This is one of the things that has rubbed me wrong about religion my whole life — the idea of sin, the idea that we are broken and in need of fixing or saving. I have preferred to believe that humans are good, generous, kind, et cetera — not that there are not problems in the world (there are many), but that those problems exist because our society and culture has made it increasingly difficult for us to live the way we are “supposed” to be living. I mean, I have been sort of a primitivist.

A friend of mine linked to this interview with Karen Armstrong (whose excellent book The Case for God I read last year), from which I quote below:

What religions emerged during the Axial Age?

From about 900 to 200 BCE, the traditions that have continued to nourish humanity either came into being or had their roots in four distinct regions of the world. So you had Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

You’re saying all these different religions developed independently of each other. But there was a common message that emerged roughly around the same time.

Yes. Without any collusion, they all came up with a remarkably similar solution to the spiritual ills of humanity. Before the Axial Age, religions had been very different. They had been based largely on external rituals which gave people intimations of greatness. But there was no disciplined introspection before the Axial Age. The Axial sages discovered the inner world. And religions became much more spiritualized because humanity had taken a leap forward. People were creating much larger empires and kingdoms than ever before. A market economy was in its very early stages. That meant the old, rather parochial visions were no longer adequate. And these regions were torn apart by an unprecedented crescendo of violence. In every single case, the catalyst for religious change had been a revulsion against violence.

So what was the spiritual message that rejected violence?

First of all, they all insisted that you must give up and abandon your ego. The sages said the root cause of suffering lay in our desperate concern with self, which often needs to destroy others in order to preserve itself. And so they insisted that if we stepped outside the ego, then we would encounter what we call Brahman or God, nirvana or the Tao.

(Underline emphasis mine.)

My belief that it’s not me who’s broken, but my culture, is a pretty egotistical one. Which belief is true doesn’t necessarily matter, I think… the question is really: which belief will better serve me and my culture / my world? Don Miller touches on this in Blue Like Jazz

I told her how frustrating it is to be a Christian in America, and how frustrated I am with not only the church’s failures concerning human rights, but also my personal failure to contribute to the solution. I wondered out loud, though, if there was a bigger issue, and I mistakenly made the callous comment that racism might be a minor problem compared to bigger trouble we have to deal with.

“Racism, not an issue?!” she questioned very sternly. [...]

I was doing a lot of backpedaling at first, but then I began to explain what I meant. “Yeah, I understand it is a terrible and painful problem, but in light of the larger picture, racism is a signal of something greater. There is a larger problem here than tension between ethnic groups. [...] I’m talking about self-absorption. If you think about it, the human race is pretty self-absorbed. Racism might be the symptom of a greater disease. What I mean is, as a human, I am flawed in that it is difficult for me to consider others before myself. It feels like I have to fight against this force, this current within me that, more often than not, wants to avoid serious issues and please myself, buy things for myself, feed myself, entertain myself, and all of that. All I’m saying is that if we, as a species, could fix our self-absorption, we could end a lot of pain in the world.” (pages 40-41)

Earlier in the book he writes a little bit more about what he’s talking about: sin nature.

“I have always agreed with the idea that we have a sin nature. I don’t think it looks exactly like the fundamentalists say it does, ’cause I know so many people who do great things, but I do buy the idea we are flawed, that there is something in us that is broken. I think it is easier to do bad things than good things. And there is something in that basic fact, some little clue to the meaning of the universe. [...] Sometimes, I think, you know, if there were not cops, I would be fine, and I probably would. I was taught right from wrong when I was a kid. But the truth is, I drive completely different when there is a cop behind me than when there isn’t.” (pages 17-18)

But I do think this explanation is missing something: empathy. I think that children’s capacity for empathy can be encouraged, but I am not convinced that empathy itself is something taught. I think it is something fundamental to our humanity, that has helped our species survive and propagate on even the most basic evolutionary level. We don’t do bad things because we will be punished if we do, sure — but also because, on a deep and fundamental level, we feel the hurt of others. (The problem is, as I hinted at above, that our culture rewards sociopathic behavior and places sociopaths in positions of power and leadership.) The interview with Karen Armstrong, to which I linked above, continues this way –

You say one of the common messages in all these religions was what we now call the Golden Rule. And Confucius was probably the first person who came up with this idea.

All these sages, with the exception of the Greeks, posited a counter-ideology to the violence of their time. The safest way to get rid of egotism was by means of compassion. The first person to promulgate the Golden Rule, which was the bedrock of this empathic spirituality, was Confucius 500 years before Christ. His disciples asked him, “What is the single thread that runs through all your teaching and pulls it all together?” And Confucius said, “Look into your own heart. Discover what it is that gives you pain. And then refuse to inflict that pain on anybody else.” His disciples also asked, “Master, which one of your teachings can we put into practice every day?” And Confucius said, “Do not do to others as you would not have them do to you.” The Buddha had his version of the Golden Rule. Jesus taught it much later. And Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, said the Golden Rule was the essence of Judaism.

But what if these teachers were the first to articulate the Golden Rule because, before that, it didn’t need to be articulated? I don’t know enough about the Axial Age to say what other major cultural changes might have been going on. And clearly, my ego continues to resist the idea of sin nature. But my life would be more full, more fun, and more useful to the people, the earth, and the ecologies I care about if I procrastinated less, if I took better care of my health, if I kept in better touch with my friends. So why don’t I do all of these things? Am I broken? If I were, what would it mean to be fixed or saved?

[this entry was originally published on april 30th, 2012, at holy daze.]

24 Apr 2012, 5:18pm
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[holy daze] my year of christianity

Hi, potential readers! I’m starting a project. I probably won’t tell anyone about it for a little while, just in case. But I’ve gotta start from somewhere, with something, so I’m starting with this long, rambling post. Here’s the project: for a year, I’ll be following the Christian calendar. I mean, I’ll be using the liturgical calendar as an entry point to learning about Christian holidays and rituals and history and so on. I know I won’t really do it justice, of course, or get into any kind of real depth, but it will be a start. Then, in a year, I’ll start in on the Jewish calendar. After that, maybe Hinduism. You see where I’m going with this? But first, Christianity.

I’m pretty sure I grew up with some idea that I was a Christian, probably because all of my friends were either Christian and celebrated Christmas or were Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah — and my family celebrated Christmas. When I was a young kid my mom and I went to a Unitarian church together. I graduated from some kind of Sunday School program and received a lovely book with my name, the church’s name, and the date in 1992 handwritten in neat script in the inside cover. The book is called The Big Book for Peace. I flipped through it last night, and I found a few mentions of God and one mention of Jesus, in this context: “If he’d known how to pray properly he would have thanked someone. ‘Take care of her,’ he said to the angel or God or Jesus — whoever watched out for old bag ladies and crazy kids” (page 110). Not exactly staunch conviction.

Later I got really into critical thinking, I guess, and in fifth or sixth grade my friends and I started sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance every morning because the “under God” part didn’t allow for freedom of religion and I thought pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth was weird and we had already figured out that the part about “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” was bullshit. (The fact that we imagined our classroom disobedience made any kind of difference speaks to our still very much alive belief in the American myth of democracy, though.) Middle school made a quiet conformist out of me, though I remember feeling uncomfortable in eighth grade when the Columbine school shooting happened and a friend of mine told me with horror that one of the shooters had asked one of the victims if she believed in God, and upon hearing her affirmative answer, had shot her. I mean, I was pretty sure I would’ve said no.

The year after that, my non-religious parents enrolled me in an all-girls Episcopal boarding high school (yup). A couple of years after that was 9/11 and all of the “God bless America” stuff that was so prevalent right afterwards creeped me out and pissed me off and gave 16-year-old me something to be outspoken and opinionated about. As it so happened, the really cute girl on my soccer team was an atheist, too. We bonded in our lonely, persecuted state (ah, to be 16!), and by mid-November we were in love.

In the meantime, we went to chapel twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays. We stayed resolutely seated during the prayer, but I always stood and sang for the hymns. My favorite hymn was (and remains) “Morning Has Broken.” I also loved (love) the ones with the long drawn-out glorys and hallelujahs. I think probably if I’d been paying more attention I might’ve learned a bit about Christianity and Episcopalianism in particular, but mostly I think I zoned out and/or stared at my hot girlfriend. Things got interesting when our chaplain (a wonderful woman whose brilliance I did not appreciate at the time) started asking students of various faiths to do short presentations about their religious practices during chapel time. Some Muslim students presented on Islam, a Wiccan friend of mine spoke on Wicca, and so on.

Then our chaplain asked my girlfriend and I to present on atheism. For some reason our presentation was the first to be announced in advance, and the art teacher got upset about the idea of a presentation on atheism happening in a sacred space. In the end we gave our presentation — ten years ago, almost to the day! — in the school’s outdoor courtyard, and then we boycotted chapel, just the two of us, until hanging out alone on the school’s front lawn twice a week got more boring than sitting in the pews whispering with our friends.

Anyway, my girlfriend went out of town with her family for a couple of weeks before our presentation, and I put together most of it on my own. It was the first time in my life, really, that I’d been asked to examine my own beliefs (as opposed to, you know, judging the beliefs of others). I read a lot of stuff about morality without religion and atheistic thinkers in history and so on, and I wrote a nice little presentation. And in the midst of all my research, I stumbled across the idea of pantheism (specifically the World Pantheist Movement) and eventually adopted that identity, which I carried, casually, for the next few years. Atheism, examined, didn’t feel quite right.

I went to college at ultra-liberal Reed College, whose official-unofficial motto, emblazoned on t-shirts and water bottles in the bookstore, is “communism, atheism, and free love.” I didn’t think much about it (or religion) until my sophomore year, when I dated one of just a few out Christians on campus. I was a bad influence on him. Before we got together, he wanted to be a minister; while we were dating, he wanted to be a professor of comparative religion; after we broke up, he got back on track for ministry. That’s how hard it was to imagine me as a minister’s wife. It all worked out in the end; he’s an ordained Lutheran minister starting an awesome art-based ministry in Brooklyn now, is happily married to my dear friend, and will be performing my and my partner’s wedding ceremony this summer. Anyway, just as my high school’s chaplain had asked me to examine my atheism, he asked me to examine my pantheism. He prayed every night before bed. I started doing sun salutations and, I dunno, getting really into chanting om in my yoga classes.

We broke up for pretty good reasons mostly unrelated to religion, and I dated a few other folks before pairing up with a hardcore rationalist philosophy major with no patience for mysticism and a tendency to suffer from existential crises related to a lack of objective meaning in the universe. College was everything it was supposed to be — I was exposed to all kinds of new and old ideas, and I tried out many of them. My relationship with the philosopher ended right around the time we graduated, though we are still friends (and he has mostly recovered from the existential crises). At commencement I was seated next to my now-fiancé, but that’s a story for another time.

Growing up, for me, has meant shedding layers of identity that I put on over the years in self-defense, or to be part of a community, or to distinguish myself, or just to try it out. Often I’ve been surprised by what’s peeled away and discarded, and by what lies underneath. God was (is) one of those things I didn’t really know was somewhere in there underneath those layers, but little by little, there God was. At first, God came with a lot of conditions and qualifications, but in the past few years, those too have fallen away. Are falling away.

I’m skipping over a bunch of stuff here. Trying to limit this more or less to my background in Christianity, lest I go on and on and on…

I started going to the huge Unitarian Universalist church in Portland on an occasional and then regular basis. Mostly I snuck in right before the service, wept my way through it, and snuck out at the end. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it felt like something I needed to do. I moved away from Portland a year and a half ago, and eventually I walked into a UU church that I love in my new city. I signed the membership book a couple of months ago. A few Sundays ago we sang “Morning Has Broken” and I wept maybe a little more than usual. (Also, until I googled it just a moment ago, I had no idea that Cat Stevens had recorded a version of the hymn. Enjoy.)

So here we are. There’s probably some reasons for this project hidden in there somewhere, but here’s a few more –

* I daydream about going back to school for a Masters in Religion & Art. A domain name and a Wordpress installation is a lot cheaper.

* I saw the movie Blue Like Jazz recently. It’s set at Reed, which is why we went to see it, and it’s a pretty fair and fun representation of the school and of Reedies, all things considered. I liked it. The same day we planned to see the movie, my partner and I found a copy of the book it’s based on for sale for $3 at the coffee hour at my church, so we picked it up and I’ve been reading it. The book is nothing like the movie, really. Unlike the movie, the book does not have much of a plot (nor is it meant to), but the author, Donald Miller, did audit classes at Reed and does mention the college a bit in the book. The subtitle of the book is “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” which describes it pretty well. Miller has some interesting, thoughtful, and insightful things to say, but one aspect of his perspective has been annoying the crap out of me. He is so dismissive of other religions! Here’s him on Buddhism:

“There were times I wished I was a Buddhist, that is, I wished I could believe that stuff was true, even though I didn’t know exactly what a Buddhist believed. I wondered what it would be like to rub some fat guy’s belly and suddenly be overtaken with good thoughts and disciplined actions and a new car. I would go into real estate and marry a beautiful blond, and when the beautiful blond tilted her head to the side as I talked about socialized education, I could rub the Buddha, and she would have the intellect of Susan Faludi. Or Katie Couric” (page 88).

The sexism doesn’t really win me over, either. I guess I understand what he’s saying. He wants there to be an easy answer to the mysteries of life, a quick solution. He’s sharing the part of himself that doesn’t want to know that things are complex and irrational and unknowable for everyone, even Buddhists. But in doing so, he’s propagating religious misunderstanding (not to mention being kind of a dick). I guess where he is content to return to his own unknowing about Jesus, I want to know more about the other guys’ unknowing. I even want to know more about Miller’s unknowing, and about Jesus.

* Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my very favorite authors, writes in one of her books (Four Ways to Forgiveness, a collection of four beautiful novellas) that “no truth can make another truth untrue.” I feel that, very much, and in fact I think that truths, when true, make other truths truer. If you follow me.

I’ve chosen to use calendars because I’m interested in cycles and seasons and in returning, changed, to where we were. At the end of my project, I imagine I’ll return for my last “year of” to Unitarian Universalism, which has, after all, been the launching-off point and the returning-home point already in my life. I’ll have to make my own UU calendar, with the help of my church community. In my head that’ll be the perfect final chapter, where everything sort of comes together and is reconciled and fulfilled. In life, of course, I have no doubt it will be much more complex.

(all images from The Big Book for Peace)

[this entry was originally published on april 24th, 2012, at holy daze.]