Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Still Away

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Just a quick note to let anyone passing through know that while this blog isn't officially closed, it is (still) on hiatus.

At this blog I casually work with religion and spirituality as ideas, much in the same way some people solve logic puzzles, make creative connections between different conceptual frameworks, or analyze the worlds brought to life through fiction. On what some what call a "heart" level or even a "direct existential awareness" level, it's kind of moot for me. No acceptance, no rejection, no substantial interaction. Even when faced with the sudden revelation of unexpected peril or in the face of an long term struggle.

This blog is kind of an intellectual hobby, but I've just not been interested in speculating about the topics and themes covered here. The only aspect of religion on my radar at the moment is the continued bigotry and xenophobia of the Christian far-right and how such fundamentalism is affecting the public debates and political landscape in the United States. I don't feel like dissecting any of that, though. At least not in the form that is typical of this blog, and perhaps not in any form. Maybe for a just while, or maybe ever.

What is there to say?

It exists as part of a resilient subculture of disgust, paranoia, and a passive-aggressive form of self-pitying and martyrdom the revels in boastful ignorance. Anyone who would seriously question that worldview would already be on the path out of it, and those who don't seriously question it inoculate themselves regularly against any alternative way of thinking about or perceiving the world. And it isn't like either type of fundamentalist would be at this obscure little corner of the world wide web to read anything I might write about their views.

Other topics typical of this blog have simply been more of the same, so even if I had a desire to go through them again, it would just be redundant. If I find the time and interest to once again to share and play with concepts and impressions related to religion and spirituality, I will return. Until then, be well.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Who the hell needs Jesus?

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No really, that wasn't just an eye-catcher title to get you to scan further down. It's a genuine question.

Having run across something online earlier, I spontaneously thought of Christian evangelism and how the approach a Christian uses in sharing their "good news" sums up what they think of God and their faith.

That took half a second, so then in the other half the idea popped into my head of comparing approaches to evangelism in a society that is filled with so many people who are tired of the implications of over-used methods for proselytizing and the responses those methods can elicit. A few seconds into this line of thinking I came up with an idea that I've never heard expressed before.

Now maybe this idea was common in the first decades of the Christian faith, or maybe some theologian wrote such an idea down in a book I haven't read, so I can't claim it is one hundred percent original. I'll work out how I got to the idea and what it could mean for the image of Christianity below, but here it is:

Not everyone is called to be a Christian and that doesn't mean that they are going to hell or that they will face some kind of annihilation after their physical death.

Before I write anything else, understand that I am not writing this out of concern over whether anyone is or isn't a Christian or whether anyone becomes one. I am not promoting Christianity or validating any of its claims by discussing its basic concepts and ideas. Also, the reason I tossed in the "no hell/annihilation" part is because Christians are usually all about what happens after physical death even if they don't emphasize it. If I just said "not all are called to be Christians" people might think I had simply re-discovered generic predestination theology.

So if that is enough for you to chew on, go ahead. But if you are considering a response such as a share or comment, read a little further for additional context and clarification.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Alternatives to debating things like religion and atheism

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Am I open or closed to possibilities beyond my familiar expectations? Do I genuinely respect other ways of understanding the human experience? Can I get beyond certain stereotypes and baggage attached to language associated with (a particular) religion? Rather than asking if religious images, stories, and experiences can be shown to be adequately accurate in a more objective sense, can you see how the teaching and practices help you or others to frame, understand, and process human experiences that are better suited to poetry and ritual than dry, empirical rationalization?

As someone who used to invest time and energy into debating religion, atheism, and the like, I can state that it is really hard to get out of the mindset that there is always one best way to understand everything and that finding and defending this best way must somehow involve a battle of logical-sounding arguments that make you feel smart and superior to those ignorant people who disagree with you.

Even if you perceive yourself to be fair, open-minded, and tolerant of other views, this basic mindset is so prevalent in places like the United States that it can continue to color your perception no matter how fair you try to be.

These topics are emotionally charged, despite how coldly analytic some may wish to claim they are, and that energy bound up with attitudes about related experiences and engagements can take quite a while to dissipate. You can spot this by how aggressive or defensive someone is when discussing religious topics. Especially if this takes the form of emphatically and insistently protesting how they aren't wound up about such topics yet still have all sorts of reasons why they are so certain about their views.

If you can appreciate the questions I began with without feeling a need to start throwing out qualification after qualification, you might actually have those bonds loosened enough to thoughtfully engage with religious topics beyond the normal arguments posing as debates.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking that there some singular way, some right and true way, to understand spirituality and religion, whether this was by rejecting such things or by finding the proper way to practice leading to specific states of awareness, thought, or feeling.  Even when the teachers and teachings said to reject being too rigid about what is "supposed to happen" and so on. There may be broad indicators of going in a good and healthy direction, but this isn't the same as some step-by-step blueprint. Over-identification with a label or specific (ir)religious identity is just as problematic in that you can end up worrying about being a true, good, or proper whatever.

This is one reason why it is challenging for me to try to break down where I am on these thing into something that fits the preconceptions found in debates over religion. This isn't to say my perspective is better than anyone elses. It is just a reminder that there is something beyond the false dichotomies that so frequently dominate discussions of religion.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Where is God? Christians tired of being "misrepresented" need to work harder to show what they believe

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Where you locate God affects how you relate to social justice. One location allows you to keep your religion separate from social change and political discourse, the other insists these cannot be viewed separately.

If you have or choose to read previous essays and speculations published here, you will come to recognize that my views on religion and spirituality are nuanced and fluid. For example, I find the declaring belief or lack of belief in God to be an impediment rather than a useful clarification (at least for myself). And while I rarely use the word much in my personal life, I often use "God" when writing about religion and spirituality as a shorthand for the deeper, grander mysteries of life and existence that transcend a human capacity for (full) comprehension or control.

I eschew adjectives such as "personal" and "impersonal" when it comes to discussions of divinity, with the use of the word "God" revealing an orientation toward understanding and experiencing existence. Neither strictly as an ideal nor as a specific object, but a larger unity underlying and pervading all we are, all we know, all we can be. Again, at least when I'm writing about this stuff or pushed to ask what kind of God might make sense to me. There isn't much need to worry about such depictions or definitions of God for my daily living. In practical terms I tend to leave "God" unfettered by words and overly specific expectations.

So if you're trying to figure out which category my views belong in when figuring out what angle I'm coming from in relation to the topic at hand, it's one of those really open approaches that drives some people with more fixed notions of what God must (not) or can(not) be to distraction. Yet I bring this up for more than honest disclosure about my own take on the idea of something like the concept of God. Because how one thinks about God shapes how one thinks about the value and purpose of formal religion in state-level societies as well as the larger global community.

If I had some need to worry about it, I suppose it would make sense that "God" (used here to represent the central concern or focus of religious notions of spiritual depth and personal transcendence) would be omnipresent yet not limited to any particular place or time. One of those weird sounding ideas theologians and philosophers talk about, this is sometimes rendered as being immanent (it's here with us) and transcendent (it's far beyond us) at the same time. There are ways of discussing how this works, including a kind of split-level monism in which immanence and transcendence reflect differences in perception and thus represent different modes of awareness, but we aren't getting into anything so heavy here. Not today.

But why does it matter where God is "located"? And what does it have to do with how those who identify as Christian behave and how they are perceived?

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.

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