Friday, September 30, 2016

A Cage or a Guide?

"A Way in the Wilderness"

I have been reading Brian Mclaren’s new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, in which he makes this very thought provoking observation:

As I see it, religion is at its best when it leads us forward,
when it guides us in our spiritual growth as individuals
and in our cultural evolution as a species.
Unfortunately, religion often becomes more of a cage than a guide,
holding us back rather than summoning us onward,
a buffer to constructive change rather than a catalyst for it.
This is even more tragic in these times when our culture needs
wise spiritual guidance
and all it gets from spiritual leaders is anxious condemnation and critique
along with a big dose of nostalgia for the lost golden age of the good old days.

Some new statistics have been just released indicating that “religion” in America is in a steady and probably unstoppable decline - more and more people nowadays are rapidly abandoning affiliation with established religions, and this is especially true among younger people.  Furthermore, in spite of the seemingly endless campaigns to get people to return to the religion they have left behind (or never before joined), there seems to be no way to reverse this trend in the foreseeable future. When people leave a formal religion they probably won’t come back and, despite the wishful thinking of church leadership, most younger non-religious folks are unlikely to become part of an established “church” in the days to come.

I wonder if so many people are abandoning religion in America because they see the religion they grew up in (or the religion they never joined) as being more like a cage rather than a guide?  Glib and easy answers about “God” and “faith” have become stale and childish to them, religious laws, rules and rituals are seen as restrictive, judgmental and discriminatory against those who are are different.

I have been a “religious” leader for most of my life and yet, in some ways, I think that maybe it’s a good thing that religion as we have known it is in a free-fall decline.  Maybe now a new vision of religion can emerge from the ashes of the old and religion might become the guide it is capable of becoming?  Today’s society in which so many people seem to be wandering around so aimlessly really seems to need a guide.

I came across this helpful and insightful piece of wisdom written by Rabbi Rami Shapiro:

When it comes to religion
 or for that matter, when it comes to embracing any spiritual path,
there is no security, surety or safety.
There is only the wildness of life lived in the shadow of death.
If your religion provides you with the humility
to know that you do not know,
the wisdom to see past what you claim to know,
and the courage to navigate the unknown
with compassion, curiosity, justice and grace,
then it is as true as any religion can and needs to be

In this era of growing confusion and societal chaos, where prejudice and violence is so visible in our public life, it seems to me that the “primary” task of any religion is to help each of us as individuals and as a culture to  navigate the unknown with compassion, curiosity, justice and grace.”

When it comes to religion there is no safe harbor, no security or surety. Instead, religion should help us to embrace the “Great Mystery” known as “God” as we make our way through the wonderful and sometimes frightening territory of living every day - the wildness of life lived in the shadow of death. And as we navigate our way through the wilderness, religion should help us to hold each other as close as we can as we treat each other with dignity and compassion and work to build a more just society.

I’ve been “religious” all my life and I think it’s time for all of us “religious” people to get out of the cage and boldly walk together into that wonderful, unexplored territory known as “God.” The world may be depending on us more than we may imagine.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Spirituality of Science

"Great Mystery"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I often hear people say that they no longer believe in God, choosing instead to believe in science. Personally I find this to be a false dichotomy - for me, scientific truth and discovery has always taken me to the threshold of mystery and transcendence, it has opened up a vast unexplored world far beyond human descriptions and explanations. In my experience, science has pointed me to “God.”

As I see it, many people who profess that they believe in science rather than “God,” tend to have a fairly myopic understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. They see science as a means of reducing the observable world to tiny bits of controllable, verifiable data; and yet the most prominent scientists of our own day seem to be pointing in the opposite direction. Scientists today study a world of microscopic quarks and explore the worlds of an infinite universe and they are filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the ever-changing complexities of what they observe and the great mystery of what they are unable to explain or understand.  Most scientists are the first to admit how little we actually know or may ever be able to know.

Last evening I was watching a program on our local public TV station about some of the most recent scientific research into time and space - multi universes that defy human imagination,  black holes that are a “billion” light years away now able to be heard colliding with one another through the use of advanced sound recording technology.  The narrator who was explaining some of these most current advances in cosmology was speaking in hushed tones - in obvious awe at these “mind-boggling,” transcendent discoveries.

From my point of view scientific research like this pulls us human beings out of our narrowly myopic views of who we are. It pulls us out of our focus on our tiny little selves, out of our narrow ideas, away from our petty politics, and it invites us us into the transcendent and even mystical reality of our human existence. Science changes our perspective of our place in the universe and brings us to the threshold of the experience of “God.”  

This reminded me of an article I recently read in the New York Times:

We find our lives confined to a tiny narrow strip on earth’s surface,
and so we tend to think of the cosmos as a lofty inaccessible realm
far beyond reach and relevance.
We forget that only a thin layer of atmosphere
separates us from the entire universe.
We are cosmic beings.

Just after sunset yesterday I sat outside and looked up as a star-studded cosmos began to emerge in the clear desert skies of autumn - so awesome, such a great and wonderful mystery. I felt so tiny and yet at the same time so immense; in fact, I felt “cosmic.”  Imagine it, “I” am way more than little tiny “me.”  “I” am one with the universe. Everything and everyone in this entire vast cosmos of complex multiple universes is dynamically interrelated - everything belongs.  We are cosmic beings.

The enlightened Buddha announced:

I saw stars within me, sunrise and sunset, full moon nights
everything within me not without me.
It was my boundary that had been keeping them out,
Now the boundary is no more.
Now I am the whole.

The ancient Taoist Chuang Tzu taught:

The universe and I came into being together,
And I and everything therein are one.

The mystic Sufi Poet, Rumi, once wrote:

The whole universe exists inside you.
God writes spiritual mysteries on our heart
where they silently wait for discovery.

I wonder if the scientists of our own time have become the new mystics, poets and even the theologians of our own age?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Another Name for "God"

"Beauty Ever Ancient Ever New"
- a desert sunrise -

It seems somewhat odd to me that I should write a daily blog on the topic of “spirituality” and yet be so hesitant to use the word “God” in my articles.  The problem is that this word carries so much baggage with it. 

Whether you are a fervent believer or a committed atheist, the word “God" often comes across as the name of a particular person: “Mr. God,” the guy who lives at an address with a heavenly zip code, up there and out there, separated from and in control of everything that goes on in the world down below.  This idea of God as a super-being who lives at a heavenly address is precisely what atheists or agnostics reject and so when the word “God” is used, it sets off all manner of alarms and raises all sorts of “red flags.”

When I use the word “God” I never think of it as a person’s proper name (I also don’t believe that “God” is a separated and supernatural “man in the sky”.) As I see it, “God” is a Holy Presence,  the abiding energy of Love at the core of everyone and everything that “is.” Interestingly enough, in the Hebrew tradition the word “God” is never spoken nor can it be written because “God” is an unfathomable mystery that cannot be contained in letters or limited by a given name.

Throughout the Bible the “transcendent presence” known as “God” is given many names – “God” is called a King or a Father, “God” is also referred to as a Wind and Breath, or as Fire and Flame,  and "God" is also given the name “Love.”  But all these words for “God” are never the proper names of a specific person. They are words that help us “get at” some vague idea of the Great Mystery that we can never contain by giving it a name or an address.

I recently came across an article written by the poet Gregory Orr who suggested that another name for “God” is Beauty:

One of the terms we poets use in our considerable effort
to avoid religious or spiritual terminology is
Of course, no one can define the word or everybody defines it differently
and yet we believe in it.
Beauty is an article of faith among poets.
I think we try to sidestep religion
and ‘Beauty’ is a word we use to do that.

The more I think about it, I really like the word “Beauty” as another name for “God.”

The desert where I live is an exquisitely beautiful place especially in this “autumn season.” Now as the temperatures grow cooler day by day I am able to walk out into the wilderness as I view a morning sunrise over the eastern mountains or bask in the evening light of a rising moon. In this autumn season in the desert,  seasonal flowers are beginning to spring up in my garden and along the trails,  and the air smells so fresh and so clean.   It’s such a beautiful season of the year.

But of course you don’t need to live in a desert to encounter “Beauty” every day. Regardless of where any of us may live, “Beauty” might be revealed in many ways, in the innocent look on a child’s face or maybe in the sound of autumn leaves crushing on the ground as you walk to work or school, or maybe Beauty may be met in the sparkling crystals of ice on a window pain of a winter’s day.  

Beauty is everywhere, always available to all of us who have the eyes to see. We all know Beauty when we encounter it and never have to prove that is is real.  Maybe that’s why I like this word so much as another name for God.

The poet John O’Donohue once said:

The word for beautiful comes from the Greek word ‘to call.’
When we experience beauty we feel called.
The Beautiful stirs passion and urgency in us
and calls us forth from aloneness.
It unites us again with the neglected and forgotten grandeur of life.
Beauty elicits a sense of completion is us.

Today as I re-read this wonderful ode to “Beauty," whenever I came across the word “Beauty” I replaced it with the word ‘God,” and I became more and more convinced that Beauty is indeed another name for God.