Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Secular Peace-Giving Spirituality



From whence comes peace? One secularist hopes that our common human concerns and needs might provide the necessary human glue for peace:

·       Commonality in our beliefs; commonality in our concept of the world; commonality in our hopes for the future of humanity.

He feels that world peace can be achieved once we identify and discuss our common concerns, and he has a point. We do share many common concerns - peace, happiness, prosperity, and health, among other things. It would therefore seem that cooperation, and not conflict, should provide the common ground for ongoing win-win transactions. This is something we couldn't possibly achieve with a mosquito, whose interest - sucking our blood - is diametrically opposed to ours.

However, we have always shared these common interests, but wars have persisted. In fact, the ancients might have had even more savvy than we. They would marry their daughters off to rival kings. Pretty clever!

There also seems to be another problem. Many leaders have had ambitions - world conquest, for example - that have trumped our shared concerns.

This very evident problem has many thinking in terms of promoting a benign universal spirituality that would pronounce an emphatic "no" against our destructive tendencies.

What would such a spirituality look like? Secularism insists that God must be left out of the picture. After all, God just causes divisions, right? Consequently, the unifying moral code would be strictly pragmatic. It would be based on promoting those behaviors that serve human thriving.

But could such a spirituality win the hearts of humanity? Can humanity be convinced, by virtue of a secular morality, to love and not to enslave? After all, our world has shrunk. We are so interconnected. Will not the subjugation of one people negatively impact others so that all would just want to do good?

Are there any lessons that we can learn from the past? For example, what principles had made this nation great? Alexis de Tocqueville, French statesman, historian and social philosopher, wrote Democracy in America (1835). It has been described as "the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the relationship between character and society in America that has ever been written."

Tocqueville had been well acquainted with the demands for freedom and equality that had arisen from his own French revolution, albeit grounded in the hatred and murder of the clergy. This revolution had confidently sought to push aside anything that stood in its way.  However, with the advantage of decades of hindsight, this had become something that the French wanted to avoid at all costs. Tocqueville, therefore, wrote,

·       The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom.

He therefore appreciated the moral constraints that he found so ubiquitously associated with democracy in the USA:

·       I do not question that the great austerity of manners that is observable in the United States arises, in the first instance, from religious faith... its influence over the mind of woman is supreme, and women are the protectors of morals. There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected than in America or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated...

Continually, he found that the fruitful expression of democracy was inseparable from its underlying Christian roots:

·       In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people.... Christianity, therefore, reigns without obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate.

·       I sought for the key to the greatness and genius of America in her harbors...in her fertile fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in her democratic Congress and in her matchless Constitution. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.

The Founding Fathers could have told Tocqueville the same things. George Washington, our first President, often spoke on the central role of the Christian faith:

·       You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. (The Writings of Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1932), Vol. XV, p. 55, from his speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779)

Even our first Unitarian President, John Adams, affirmed that Christianity was necessary for national welfare:

·       "The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer.

·       And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.

·       Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.” (June 28, 1813 excerpt from a letter to Thomas Jefferson)

·       "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever." (Adams wrote this in a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776.)

Thomas Jefferson, 3rd U.S. President, arguably our least religious President, wrote:

·       "God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?” (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, p. 237)

James Madison, framer of the Bill of Rights and 4th President of the USA:

·       I have sometimes thought there could not be a stronger testimony in favor of religion or against temporal enjoyments, even the most rational and manly, than for men who occupy the most honorable and gainful departments and [who] are rising in reputation and wealth, publicly to declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ; and I wish you may give in your evidence in this way. (The Papers of James Madison, William T. Hutchinson, editor (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1962), Vol. I, p. 96, to William Bradford on September 25, 1773)

Why are we so quick to forget their lessons and observations? Why, instead, are we placing our hope in a new and untried spirituality?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Subjective Spirituality




What do people mean when they say, "I am spiritual not religious?" According to Wikipedia:

·       Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion. Gradually, the word spiritual came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in a religious institution with official denominational doctrines."

As such, "spirituality" has become synonymous with "what works for me." The spiritual person aims at authenticity and genuine encounter rather than a set of sterile doctrines, which they experience as coercive and artificially imposed by external authorities.

In Mama Lola: A Voodoo Priestess in Brooklyn, Anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown confesses her attraction to Voodoo as experiential and non-coercive:

·       No Haitian—certainly not [Voodoo Priestess] Alourdes—has ever asked me if I ‘believe’ in Vodoo or if I have set aside the religious commitments and understandings that come from my childhood and culture. Alourdes’ approach is, instead, pragmatic: “You just got to try. See if it works for you.” The choice of relinquishing my worldview or adopting another in its entirety has therefore never been at issue. (10)

Here, Brown expresses a common sentiment among those who are embracing spirituality. It is not about truth but about experience and the now.

In Soul Retrieval, Sandra Ingerman, a shaman, expresses the same sentiments:

·       As you read this book and wonder whether or not what I am talking about is real, I ask you not to enter into a battle between the right brain [reason] and left brain [intuition]. Simply read the material and experience it!... Does the information that comes from the shamanic journey work? Does the information make positive changes in a person’s life? If so, who cares if we are making it up? (3)

We want results, now! Doctrine doesn’t seem to deliver as quickly as the spiritual realm. In The Secret Ways of the Lakota, Black Elk, a Sioux shaman states, “You don’t have to wait for five years…The spirit comes and takes me somewhere.”

However, critical questions are seldom asked about the nature of the experience. In  Drawing Down the Moon, the late spiritist, Margo Adler, affirmatively quoted another “spiritist”:

·       It seems like a contradiction to say that I have a certain subjective truth; I have experienced the Goddess, and this is my total reality. And yet I do not believe that I have the one, true, right, and only way. Many people cannot understand how I find Her a part of my reality and accept the fact that your reality might be something else. But for me, this is in no way a contradiction, because I am aware that my reality and my conclusions are a result of my unique genetic structure, my life experience and my subjective feelings…This recognition that everyone has different experiences is a fundamental keystone to Paganism; it’s the fundamental premise that whatever is going on out there is infinitely more complex than I can ever understand. And that makes me feel very good.

For this unnamed spiritist, her “subjective feelings” take precedence over all else, even over understanding. Why this disconnect between mind and heart? Adler explained:

·       They had become Pagans because they could be themselves and act as they chose, without what they felt were medieval notions of sin and guilt. Others wanted to participate in rituals rather than observe themselves.

Experience is non-coercive. No one can say that your experience is wrong. It places no guilt-inducing demands on the spiritual practitioner that serious moral thinking might impose. At least, that’s the hope. Instead, it is possible that the more we live in opposition to our conscience, the more we will oppose and detest other sources of authority and tradition.

Adler argued that plurality of experience and lifestyle is preferable to a singular set of truths:

·       Polytheism is… characterized by plurality… and is eternally in unresolvable conflict with social monotheism, which in its worst form is fascism and in its less destructive forms is imperialism, capitalism, feudalism and monarchy.”

If there is one God, there is no choice. This God then is necessarily the author of a singular set of truths and moral codes to which we must conform. As Adler maintained, for the spiritual person, monotheistic truth is experienced as fascistic, imperialistic, and feudalistic, depriving the spiritual person of choice and their self-centered universe. Monotheism is the anti-thesis of the instant gratification of the “me generation” and the “now generation.”

However, the existence of objective and unchanging truths is the bedrock of science and of all learning. Without these truths, there can be no learning, just experiencing. Should we then suppose that spirituality should be absolutely bereft of objective truths?

What happens when spirituality is divorced from questions of truth? It cannot see beyond the now. But why should it? Here are several considerations:

What feels good in the short run might not be good in the long run. Drugs, junk food, and unprotected sex might suggest that forethought is important.

How does this pertain to spiritual matters? For example, Mindfulness Meditation has become fantastically popular in the West. However, many have reported on its long-range downside. Melissa Karnaze reports on 17 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Can Cause You Emotional Harm. For brevity sake, I will list only the first 11:

1.     You start to judge uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as inferior, unreal, or bad. Which gets in your way of actually learning from them, experiencing and healing them, growing from them, and integrating them.
2.     You get good at stuffing anger and other negative emotions. Which might make them go away — temporarily. But hasn’t shown to be very effective.
3.     If and when a traumatic or emotionally painful experience occurs, you don’t fully process it, and cut your grieving process dangerously short.
4.     You have low tolerance for processing grief. So if you start to remember something traumatic, you stuff it down, potentially re-traumatizing yourself.
5.     You expect meditation to fix your problems for you, resolve your relationship conflicts, and make you happy. Each of those things requires hard work, commitment, and realistically, some discomfort. When you look to meditation to save you, you stop putting in the hard work and commitment, and evade the discomfort. Which makes it harder to effectively work toward your goals.
6.     You detach yourself from conflicts in your life, expecting that meditation will get rid of the negative emotions — and fix the problem altogether. The emotions just signal the problem. Even if you ignore the emotions, the problem is still there.
7.     You detach from your partner or loved one when they’re upset or experiencing an emotion you see as undesirable. You wish they’d just meditate it away, calm down, take a walk, get a grip — do whatever it takes to get rid of the emotion. When you invalidate your partner’s negative emotions, you cause serious wounds to both of you, harming trust and intimacy.
8.     You find it difficult to connect to your feelings when you want to be emotionally honest with yourself and others. Because you’ve trained yourself to avoid them. This impairs your ability to be emotionally intimate with anyone.
9.     Your relationships deteriorate, because you lose touch with what interpersonal conflict really means. After all, no one is really experiencing hurt feelings, right? Those feelings aren’t really real; just dissociate from them. Or, “observe” them.
10. You struggle to empathize with others, or understand their pain. If you don’t feel your own pain — you can’t expect to have compassion for another’s pain.
11. You lose your ability to naturally feel upset, sad, or concerned when there’s an issue in your life that you need to address. This puts a damper on healthy discernment. 

Perhaps some of these dangers are exaggerated, but the spiritual person, having divorced himself from reason, will not even bother to research them. He will not ask, “Has mindfulness advanced the human condition?” After all, it is all about the now and experience!

An exclusively subjective spirituality fails to provide the needed guidance. It cannot answer the questions, “Why am I here, where am I going, and what should I do about it.” Instead, subjectivity divorces us from community and a common language, if all we have is our own experiences. It also alienates us from a quest for truth and even what it means to be fully human.

A plane lacking one of its wings cannot fly. If it does get off the ground, it will soon crash. The spiritual person might reject objective spiritual truth as coercive and imperialistic. However, the alternative is far worse.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Does Perfectionism go along with the Christian Life?




Perfectionism can kill, as author Khristi Adams points out:

·       I wanted to be a woman of God so badly. When people would ask me what or who I aspired to be, I always responded, "a woman of God." I would read and quote Proverbs 31, attend women's conferences, and read books on what it meant to be a virtuous woman. In my journey down the road of biblical womanhood, I heard countless messages on feminine virtue, purity, gentleness, and nobility. I remember feeling like an utter and complete failure, unable to achieve any of those things in their completeness. I was devastated further each time I fell short of the "woman of God" standard. Truthfully, I was chasing an image, a fantasy. I was so busy chasing this unattainable ideal that I denied the very parts of me that made me who I was. I listened to those girls as they described an unreachable standard of womanhood, the person they were all hopelessly striving to be. I was heartsick, because they were all so eager to be her, the "woman of God," that they didn't realize that she was already them. I realized that I didn't want to watch them journey down the winding road of shame and disappointment the way that I had.

As Adams correctly points out, this is not only her experience but the experience of many sincere Christians. And understandably so! Christ is perfect, and despite all of our strivings, we will never reach this standard. Result – shame, guilt, despair, and doubts about the entire Christian enterprise.

What then is her answer? Stop aspiring for Christ-likeness:

·       We don't have to aspire to be anyone other than who we already are. From there, God molds us into who he intended for us to be.

Adams is correct that “God molds us.” Any of our spiritual fruit is the fruit of the Spirit, but this doesn’t mean that we have no role to play. There is a place in the Christian life for striving or aspiring. The Apostle Paul affirmed this fact:

·       Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

This doesn’t mean that there was anything uncertain about Paul’s salvation or his heavenly destination. Instead, it shows that striving has a role in our lives.

Peter specified the same thing:

·       But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy." (1 Peter 1:15-16)

We have no option but to aspire! Admittedly, this sounds burdensome, even depressing. As Adams eloquently points out, we have repeatedly tried this and utterly failed. However, failure isn’t our divinely promised inheritance. Does God want us to suffer in this manner? Perhaps we are reading Scripture wrongly? Instead, we are reading Scripture incompletely.

While our Lord’s ultimate goal for us isn’t despair and self-loathing, the road to glory must pass through the valley of the shadow of death, where we are humbled:

·       And he [Jesus] said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3-4)

Humility is the soil through which all of our fruit grows. Jesus’ disciples asked Him for more faith. He answered that great faith is the recognition that we are never deserving of the slightest thing from our Lord:

·       “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'" (Luke 17:10)

Jesus only ascribed “great faith” to two people, both of whom demonstrated uncanny humility (Mat. 8:8-10; 15:28).

How does our Lord humble us? By showing us the extent of our sin and unworthiness:

·       Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every [boasting] mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable [humbled] to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become [humbled and] conscious of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)

He tells us that we have to be like Him and how to do it by following His commands. However, we fail miserably and feel shamed, but this is needful. How? To receive the blessings God wants to give us:

·       "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)

We are not going to humble ourselves to admit our utter destitution if we think that we are truly spiritual and, therefore, deserving. Instead, we have to realize that we are sinners in need of the sheer mercy of God if we are to be exalted.

How do we endure in our humbled, self-despairing condition? By knowing the extent of God’s love for us (Eph. 3:16-20) and His forgiveness:

·       If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

This endears us to Him. Only when we see our pathetic condition can we also come to adore our Savior as we ought. Actually, this is liberating! He has freed me from trying to prove, even to myself, that I am worthy, that I’ve got what it takes, or that I am a superior Christian. Rather, we come to realize that it is all about Jesus, as it should be! He (not we) has become our righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mao, Humanity, and Faith





The way we think is the way we live. Our lives show off our values in sometimes horrific ways:

·       Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China, qualifies as the greatest mass murderer in world history, an expert who had unprecedented access to official Communist Party archives said yesterday. Frank Dik├Âtter, a Hong Kong-based historian… compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years; the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million. 

The extermination of 45 million wasn’t simply a matter of poor judgment. Instead, it had been the result of genocidal values. Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World Magazine, reports that in 1957, Mao stated:

·       I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left. I am not afraid of anyone.

For Mao, people, even his Chinese people, were little more than numbers. In the atheist/communist estimation of things, humans might have risen to the level of “animals,” but still entirely expendable to achieve their great progressive vision.

Mao and others were murderers. Dismissively, we call them “revolutionaries” or “idealists” to dignify their horrors.

But why shouldn’t we regard human lives as the necessary cost to accomplish our ideals? Perhaps a good idea, if achieved, is worth the price, even of the murder of 45 million?

Genocide is never justified! Why not? According to the Word of God, we are endowed with inestimable value, having been created in God’s very likeness. Without this revelation, genocide will always remain an option, however much we deny it.

Only the Bible stands against the degradation of humanity. Today, we remain numbers. We called “wet machines,” and are regarded as just another member of the animal kingdom. We are no more than products of our environment and genetics, lacking freewill, driven exclusively by deterministic forces, which dictate all of our choices. Should we be surprised when we are treated according to our diminished status?