Thursday, March 13, 2014

Evangelical fundamentalists are guilty of the sin of homosexuality

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Even as they rail against the so-called gay agenda and wring their hands over what they perceive to be the legitimization of immorality, homosexuality remains a source of sin of which for which many who identify as Christians are guilty and for which they have yet to repent. But the gay community and its allies may yet set them free.

I say this for good reason, but there are some reasons that I do not claim. I don't claim to speak for anyone other than myself. Nor do I have any desire to pass judgment over any particular person or set myself up an official arbiter of religious righteousness or holiness, whether for Christianity or any other tradition.

But I do choose to emply the language some Christians use in passing judgment and condemning others for their sexual orientation (and we can expand that to their hangups over gender identity as well) in describing some observations about their perspective and behavior that I find objectionable.

A few words on sin

I find it interesting that sin and salvation can be understood in terms of spaciousness. The Jewish conception of salvation has a direct connection to the imagery of spaciousness, of being in a broad and fruitful place. This imagery can be taken in many ways, including phenomenologically, literally, metaphorically, imaginally, practically, and so on. Similarly, sin is connected to being confined, of being in a pit, or bound in chains, or in a desolate place.

As an offshoot of one of the first century sects of Judaism, Christianity has appropriated much of the imagery of its cultural forebears, at times keeping its original sense and at times modifying it. Dante Alighieri used this same imagery of constriction, for example, for depicting Hell as a place that gradually becomes narrower and more sparsely populated until it reaches Satan stuck in a small, dark, isolated space at the bottom.

Taking in this imagery, it suggests that the more deeply one becomes lost in such limiting and stale space, the more one descends into a barren, joyless, and fruitless existence. Shallow diversions and intense emotional distractions may temporarily seem to liven up this space, but their effects wear off more quickly after each use. A sense of hollowness and a deep malaise lurks when the noise stops. When silence is heard once more in the heart and mind.

The more time one spends in such a space, the more it changes a person. While the effects may not be perfectly consistent or universal, they involve a deep insecurity and sense of being unfulfilled. How these effects are expressed also varies. Some respond to this by denial, oddly enough by trying to fill their lives with noise that gives at least the appearance if not the sensation of being confident and successful. This becomes transmuted into arrogance and greed.

Other coveted virtues yield similar results, with condescension and cheapness masquerading as charity, manipulation, coercion, and gossip as concern, and so on. Unable to experience or express the genuine article, the counterfeits are tainted or corrupted. This perversion isn't necessarily intentional, and may in fact be the result of better intentions. Outwardly things may appear pleasant if not a little artificial or overdone.

Based on my own experiences and the reported experiences of others, this kind of sugar coated hypocrisy has become a stereotype of the evangelical fundamentalist Christian. They are by no means exclusive in having members that fit this mold. It does seem to be related, though, to seeking the kind of noise that covers the unease and gives the desired appearance and sense of self. A kind of noise that betrays a sense of not knowing or being comfortable with what it is they claim to possess.

This noise is manifest as an externalizing desire that transforms that hidden need to possess, to control, what they claim to already have by turning it into concrete expressions. Expressions based on loose perceptions of something they understand only in words and gestures. Thus "Jesus", "Christ", "The Cross", "God", "Salvation", "Heaven", and others are sold as books, music, decorations, and knick-knacks in circular, self-referential theology and diluted liturgy.

Some may end up resembling this stereotype based on imitation and inherited cultural patterns, so the underlying dynamics described aren't meant to reflect everyone who in someway resemble this stereotype. Nor is this stereotype the only outcome of those who find themselves in such a stifling, suffocating space. Rather it seems to be an outcome for those who are trying to convince themselves and others that they really do have the "fruits of the Spirit" (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) when they lack sufficient inner spaciousness, springs, and light to bear them to the degree that they wish to present.

For those who are unfamiliar with or who have an aversion to religious language, as well as for those who recognize it but want to see how it works into the observation I started with, allow me to briefly unpack that imagery a little as I show why this relates to fundamentalist attitudes toward issues such as sexuality and gender identification.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Underinformed Speculation and Elaboration on Buddhist Teachings

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Is there a point to the core Mahayana teachings that people in the West can appreciate today?

First let me tell you that the under-informed speculation and elaboration on Buddhist teachings refers to what I write here when I happen to be pondering such a topic. A perusal of the past eight years worth of material confirms this.

This means I am not here to present myself as speaking with any kind of authority on behalf of the Buddhist tradition as a scholar in the field or a long time fruitful and insightful practitioner who speaks from years of ever-deepening wisdom. It's important to state that up front. If you think I sound ignorant, I probably am.

So what background am I coming from? In my spare time I've read some key sutras, many commentaries on major sutras, summaries of commentaries on important sutras, and summaries and commentaries compiled about the summaries and commentaries of those sutras, and once in a while I actually attempt some form of practice. Plus I've got a little familiarity with materials comparing different traditions such a Christian and Buddhist mysticism and monasticism. If that sounds impressive, you're funny. If you think it is, trust me, it isn't.

So with that introduction out of the way, off we go.

The World of Illusion


So much ink and so many pixels have been used to write about terms such as emptiness for Western audiences and who, including me, have little real appreciation for the unspoken cultural transmission and atmosphere that provides context for such concepts.

And I suspect that many people are intellectually over-dosing on these terms.

I think they are useful and even ingenious, but I can't help feeling that they are what are called skillful means, or tricks to get people to follow the right path and help them overcome obstacles on the path. Allow to me to explain what I mean by using the broad, generic translations of the terms as they are widely known in the English-speaking world.

Emptiness refers to lack of intrinsic existence of phenomena, i.e. things we encounter in our experiences of reality. We discriminate our experiences into different individual "things" (phenomena), divide those phenomena into named categories (taxa), assign properties and qualities to those taxa (traits), and establish causal scenarios in which taxa interact with each other via their traits. We use these causal relationships to understand and explain what we observe. For example, the Earth's gravity pulls the ball back to the ground. Earth and ground are the primary phenomena, and gravity is another phenomenon that acts as a property of the Earth acting on an unnamed property of the ball (its mass) to produce an effect -- the falling of the ball.

Social scientists and psychologists study how we come to have a sense of reality and how it works. By making our taxa and weaving them together into causal scenarios, we have a sense of how things are and how things ought to be. We produce a subjective sense of reality. We use our mental algorithms for shaping and interpreting our perception to augment that sense of reality and similar algorithms to explain and predict what is happening around us based on that sense of reality.

If those latter algorithms seem to correctly predict things more often than not, we assume they are accurate, even though it is possible that we are right sometimes for the wrong reasons or that we are simply selectively seeing things that match our expectations or interpreting our experiences to fit our expectations. Because we have a sense of how thing ought to be as well as a sense of how things are, we feel any disconnect between the two in emotional and moral terms: fairness, justice, rightness, satisfaction, and so on, as well as their opposites such as unfairness, injustice, wrongness, dissatisfaction, regret, longing, and so forth.

"Fine", you may be thinking, "but where are you going with this?"

Fair enough. Here is why it matters to the topic at hand.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

God (and religions) are and are not one, so there

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With Stephen Prothero's book God Is Not One still causing waves in religious writing online, I am going to put forward some thoughts that are probably completely unoriginal.


I haven't had a chance to properly read Prothero's book, but based on summaries, blurbs, and reviews, I get the feeling that while he acknowledges commonalities such as the Golden Rule and the similar experiences of mystics and contemplatives, he also worries that specific differences between theologies, dogmas, rituals, etc are being over-looked or minimized. Those who have used Prothero's book echo this sentiment as well as the belief that treating all religions more or less the same is both disrespectful and dangerous. Dangerous because it obscures differences that can fuel conflict.

Perhaps what I'm going to write here is something covered already in God Is Not One, but is that such a bad thing? Again, I am not writing in response to Prothero but to the conversations online his book has inspired.

First up, yes, there are difference in the narratives of different religions, and different versions, interpretations, and emphases on the dominant narrative within an individual narrative. Yes, such narratives include variation and ambiguity that allows for rituals and texts to be used for different purposes or to come to different conclusions about existential mysteries and daily life. Yes, glossing over these differences is problematic when they are important to particular practitioners or groups of practitioners. So no argument from me here on that score.

Second, there is more to religious commonalities and distinctions than this. Which is where I may disagree with both those who insist that God is one and those who insist God is not.

Let's proceed.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The star fish will always be with you.

[Pixabay]

The title might throw you off, but the topic is about charity, compassion, and religious outreach.

OK, so here's how we get from A to Z.

I was thinking recently about how some religious organizations and groups plan and organize their efforts to connect or engage with the community. The fact is that I tend to be either uninterested or skeptical about such efforts, so I wondered why that should be so and what advice I would offer. Not that my opinion should carry more weight than anyone else's, but to see if I could come up with something other than a complaint.

To be clear, I wasn't thinking of any particular effort, like a bake sale or raffle, just the general idea. And one of the things that occurred to me is the way that people sometimes have a tendency to treat other people as objects to validate their view of the world or as means to an end. In short then, interaction in such situations isn't about the individual as a person, a whole person, but some value attached to that person from the perspective of another party.

To stick with the religious example, from an institutional point of view, it may seem desirable to have more members. There are many reasons for this, but that desire there and we know it. From the perspective of validating one's worldview, there may also be a desire for people to join or convert to your religion or a specific form of that religion. These things may be rationalized as being "good for" the individuals converting and becoming members, yet the tell is in how people are being treated.

For example, how concerned is the institution or organization interested in the overall well-being of the individual versus their loyalty or commitment of the individual to the institution and its rules and requirements? How much pressure is there to conform to the institution's view of the world and its emphasis on how to live regardless of the effect this has on the individual's mental or emotional heath Or social development and fulfillment. Regardless of the individual's doubts, objections, or concerns?

This is a more extreme example, but subtler forms also exist for many institutions, social movements, and self-conscious social categories. My thoughts lead me to consider what effect these subtler forms of objectification/reduction of individuals have and what a different approach might look like.

This caused my thinking to take a bit of a "spiritual" turn.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

What is the value of human life?


[Pixabay]

Do you accept the idea of equality regarding individual humans? If so, why?

There is no trick or gimmick here. Just a question. Upon what basis do you accept the idea of human equality?

I will elaborate.

"Everyone is born equal."

Are they? In what way? Some are more gifted physically. Others may have talents for being social or engaging in activities requiring physical strength or grace. I could go on, but we know this is true.

Beyond just biology, the social position one occupies, the "luck" they have in particular situations, and so on, definitely give some people more of advantage to live a happy and successful life.

Of course, happy and successful can be relative, as some people can feel they are content and enjoy life even if they are living in relative poverty or suffer from severe limitations from participating in the events that their peers find rewarding.

Yet that simple suggests that contentment and happiness as well as notions of success or a "good life" are highly subjective. Just because you can learn to be satisfied or content with your options doesn't make you equal to others. And who says everyone can reach a stable point where they can acquire such acceptance and contentment?

We could try to make equality connected to consciousness, but this too is problematic as people with different mental capacities have differing levels and experiences of consciousness. This isn't to say that these differences are good or bad, but they don't support some baseline of equality.

The concept of human equality is an ideal, but outside of some religious context or axiomatic assertion, what is there that supports such an assertion?

That question leads to a related claim...

Friday, September 6, 2013

Through the eyes to the listening heart

[Pixabay]

Less theology, ideology, and doctrine?

I ran across this book while reading the introduction to a book on Shinto. It's from Joseph Campbell's book Myths to Live By regarding a Western man asking about Shinto. It would seem to have something to say about how people in the Western cultural traditions treat religion (including the more recently imported, the exotic, and the popular varieties):
"You know," he said, "I've now been to a good many ceremonies and have seen quite a number of shrines, but I don't get the ideology; I don't get the theology."

The Japanese (you may know) do not like to disappoint visitors, and this gentleman, polite, apparently respecting the foreign scholar's profound question, paused as though in deep thought, and then, biting his lips, slowly shook his head. "I don't think we have ideology," he said. "We don't have theology. We dance."

That, for me, was the lesson of the congress. What it told me was that in Japan, in the native Shinto religion of the land, where the rites are extremely stately, musical, and imposing, no attempt had been made to reduce their "affect images" to words. They have been left to speak for themselves -- as rites, as works of art -- through the eyes to the listening heart. And that, I would say, is what we, in our own religious rites, had best be doing too. Ask an artist what his picture "means", and you will not soon ask such questions again. Significant images render insights beyond speech, beyond the kinds of meaning speech defines.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Is there room for prayer in modern Buddhism?

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Why such discomfort with the word "prayer" and activities that would fall under it's domain?

This question comes from a re-post on the Dangerous Harvests blog, and for context it is referring to contemporary (convert) Buddhists in post-enlightenment, post-modern societies whose cultural history doesn't have ancient connections to Buddhism. That would include the societies of nation-states such as the from the Americans, Europe, and so on. More directly it implies the more economically powerful or "developed" nations such as the United States of America.

I read the post last night and composed a comment in response. It had to be divided into two longer comments given the character limit imposed by Blogger. I think the reply was very concise but also very dense, so I decided to sleep on it. I still like the tight and compact form I originally composed, but upon reflection it seemed that there was still a little more that could be said to help clarify what I was getting at, so rather than submitting a three-comment-long response I decided my reaction would work just as well as a full length post here.

What follows is an expansion of  and elaboration on the original comment(s), and it's still pretty tightly packed even with some additional exposition and examples added in. My response is based on roughly ten years of observing convert Buddhists online and in print as well as privately studying various forms of Buddhism, and I don't claim any special titles or expertise in the matter. Nonetheless I hope it may help answer the question that was posed. It also provides another angle to my recent exposition on prayer and provides a kind of follow up to some thoughts on contemporary convert Buddhists and God.

 -------------

Well, your own post suggests a large part of the problem, both in something you identify and in the way you try to parse things. This get's a little long so I had to break it into two comments. [Or transfer it to this post instead.]

Buddhism has historically accepted that what modern post-enlightenment folks think of as the material or physical world is only one facet or angle of a larger reality. Focusing on it exclusively as the only reality was considered to be an error refuted by the Buddha.

Thus, when people from such modern societies speak of spiritual beings or places like the Buddha-fields, including Amitabha's Pure Land, there is often an automatic dichotomy set up between symbolizing something and referring to something "real" (i.e. a being or place technically defined as spiritual or supernatural, but that in a way that still treats it as a physical entity that occupies some other dimension with different laws of existence).

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