Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Seven Facts Meme

The author of one of my favorite blogs, Katherine, has tagged me for this meme. Here are the rules:

a. List these rules on your blog.
b. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog.

1. When I moved to Nebraska with my wife, I wasn't really that big of a college football fan. I enjoy football, sure, but mostly followed the NFL. So when I came here and was asked who "my team" was, I really didn't have an answer. My father always used to root for Notre Dame, so I threw this out as a reply after some hesitation. Never did I realize that this would brand me as a heretic in this state of "the Big Red."

2. I have a hunch that many Nebraskans secretly feel that Bo Pellini (the new Nebraska football coach) is the next coming of Jesus...or Tom Osborne. And they're probably ambivalent about which option they'd prefer.

3. "Managed care" is actually the corporate front for the coming of the antichrist. Don't ask how I know....

4. I minored in theology as an undergraduate.

5. My favorite religious writer/theologian is Abraham Joshua Heschel. I was profoundly moved by his book "God in Search of Man."

6. I have myself on a "behavior modification plan." If I go without eating fast food, I put that money into savings towards a new set of irons (for golf).

7. My wife and I are looking into having a new deck built, mostly out of fear that our current deck is contributing to high levels of arsenic in our boys' systems. Ooh, and I'd love to get one of those new water heaters that only heats the water when you need it (rather than keeping a big 'ol pot of water hot all day).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

religion, shenpa, vanity, etc.

There is a saying that you should always meditate on what causes you frustration. I've been aware of experiencing frustration when I think about participating more actively in a religion lately, and tonight I had an opportunity just sit with that feeling. I think that what came up is perhaps instructive.

My first image was of sitting down at a local Catholic church, having this new priest that I didn't know preach on how homosexuality is sinful. Reading selected Bible verses as if these were proof that my revulsion to what he was saying was going against God's will.

What's interesting to me about the image is that it assumes a particular kind of relationship to God, to the priest (in this case), and even to scripture. A hierarchical relationship, one filled with judgment, of strictly defined rights and wrongs, even a kind of coercion.

Jeez, no wonder I've been reluctant to get into this church thing.

What interests me, then, is the issue of authority. Participation in a church community simply won't work for me if it is about being told what to think, about simplistic discussions of right and wrong. I much prefer a model that strikes me as characterizing modern Judaism: of valuing scripture but struggling with it, even struggling against it. Give me a church that values doubt, values dialogue, values discussion. Give me a church that challenges the mind and soul, but is willing and eager to be challenged in return -- that sees discussion as a path to greater truth rather than as a threat to established truths.

Give me a church that is open to change. Give me a church that values compassion more than doctrine.

Hmm...that's an awful lot of standards, of "give me's."

I think it important to balance this with a recognition that I am looking to enter a human institution, one that will be imperfect, that will fail, that will disappoint. Such things are inevitable, perhaps even necessary...for in facing these disappointments, we learn about ourselves, we can grow in compassion.

Lord, help me to find a church that is human, an imperfect church that strives to follow You more closely, that challenges me, that humbles me. May I learn to grow closer to You through this church, both through it's wisdom and through it's struggles. May I learn from my struggles with my church to grow in peace, in love, in compassion for others. Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Why believe?

I wanted to begin this particular blog post by stressing that this is not intended as an attack on religion or on religious belief. Rather, it is a reflection of my current struggle with religion, the effects of religion, and the purpose of religion. At it's root, my reflections today stem from the fact that I found myself musing on the question of "what's the point?" [of religious belief] and didn't have a very satisfactory answer.

So here I hope to express my thoughts, my struggles. I hope for feedback, for insights, for the wisdom of those who do me the honor of reading my humble blog.

It occurs to me that there are those who would say that they believe in religion (in whatever form) simply because it is, in their mind, true. Sadly, though, I find this to be an empty response. The truth of a divine Being is ultimately unknowable, transcendent, goes beyond human ideas and concepts. And even if such an idea is accepted (that a religious belief contains truth, albeit limited), then what? To what point do we hold onto this truth? Sadly, I see many downfalls of those who insist that they know "the truth." What's more, I am moved much more profoundly by those who would hold their sense of what is true in humility, who would be much more concerned with compassion and openness and love than in the attainment of "truth." So while the discovery of answers, of "truth" may be meaningful for others, it simply doesn't speak to my heart.

Neither, I should say, does the argument that through belief or faith we attain eternal life. I have a very difficult time believing in a God who would grant entry into heaven based on a kind of theological ACT test. And the notion that belief or faith is primarily about attaining eternal life seems...somehow empty, really. Almost selfish. Again, without intending any offense, I can't find myself basing a decision such as whether to believe based on some idea of what it takes to gain entry into heaven. It simply doesn't speak to me.

Third, there is the argument of transformation. This one is the one that most intrigues me. To my understanding, the argument is that faith is a transformative journey, one that causes us to grow in love, hope, joy. Faith (or perhaps developing a relationship with God) should cause us to grow, to become more like Christ, in the Christian tradition. Here at last is a reason that speaks to my heart.

But still I am filled with doubt, at least insofar as the issue of the role of faith is concerned. It is possible, it seems to me, to grow in love and hope and joy without a particular religious belief system. Many religious belief systems may suffice for this purpose, as could no religious belief system. One can grow in love through an openness to friendship, to life, to experience. I suppose it can be argued that it some vital sense such openness is an experiential relationship with the divine -- but, if so, then why add religious belief structures to it? What additional benefit is gained?

Finally, and I say this with some degree of doubt and even shame, I personally have never had a direct experience of connection with God through prayer, reading scripture, etc. I have had powerful experiences of love and compassion through fellow human beings, and have written about this in the past. But one needn't add another, religious layer of explanation to understand why these were transformative and meaningful to me. And I have tried various forms of prayer: listening, meditative, etc. My experience has been one of silence, and usually I have viewed this as having not been good at it. Now, however, I am left to wonder if there simply isn't a God, or if such a Being has little interest in communicating with me.

So I am left with this question: why believe? If it is not a search for truth, if it is not meaningful to see it as a quest for heaven, if personal transformation is possible without it, if prayer has typically seemed empty....why believe?

Peace to all of you who have been good enough to put up with my ramblings this evening. I covet your thoughts, your experiences, your insights, your prayers.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, they have a name for that feeling of seizing up, of tightening, when we begin to react to something. They call is shenpa (I'm not sure if I'm spelling it right). It's that moment before thought, before even emotion, when we find ourselves reacting, getting stuck in something.

An example: while driving to a meeting yesterday, I pulled up behind a truck with a very unkind bumper sticker on it. I will not spread the harsh words it used, but essentially it was very demeaning towards women.

And there it was. Shenpa. I found myself thinking all manner of unkind things about the owner of that truck, making all manner of assumptions about his motives, his relationships, the likelihood of his acting in an abusive way to his wife or girlfriend.

And I think that, probably, there is some measure of truth in my assumptions about the guy. But the wisdom of the Buddhists here is that I must be careful not to become hooked, to be drawn into these reactions in ways that blind us from compassion, from awareness, from who we are.

I must admit I have similar shenpa reactions when I hear political ads that demonize undocumented immigrants, when I hear people degrade those of differing sexual orientations, even when I begin to think about the scare tactics used by the RNC in political campaigns.

The thing is, I believe that most of these groups (the reactionary ones, in particular) are simply reacting to their own shenpa -- their own fear, disgust, loathing. In so doing, I believe they are blinded. But if I fail to question myself, to find some way of lessening the shenpa's hold on me, then I am in some ways no different than they are. Perhaps my biases are more palatable to me, but they remain obstacles to compassion, love, growth, insight. They inhibit me from interacting with them in ways that promote true dialogue and understanding.