Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Speak for yourself, not others

I've been letting the comments after the last post go on for a few days because it has been an important and interesting debate. One aspect disturbs me, though. There has been a tendency by some posters to insist that they know what other faiths or churches teach better than their own members do. I request that you respectfully allow others to define their own beliefs.

There is great diversity of thought within each faith and within each denomination. It is hard for an outsider to understand the subtleties of any church's teachings, much less how an individual believer interprets those teachings. It's easy to mock or decry a stereotype or an outdated perception.

I feel sure that these conversations will be much more pleasing to God if each of us tells what we believe rather than attacking what we assume to be the beliefs or practices of others. OK?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Who decides who's really Christian?

It's always interesting to see where the currents of controversy carry the comments on this blog. After my last post, the debate entered the choppy waters of who can be called "Christian."

Some expressed the opinion that Catholics, or most Catholics, don't qualify.

My two cents: A Christian is someone who claims to follow Christ. Not someone who professes doctrinal purity. Not a paragon of perfection. Not a member of a particular denomination or a supporter of the right causes.

Of course Catholics are Christian! Their denomination predates the Reformation, you know, so how could only Protestants be Christian? This sort of you're-not-one-of-us hair-splitting drives me crazy -- and drives away those who might otherwise be attracted to what the Church has to offer.

Not all those who claim to follow Christ do so wholeheartedly. Very few come close to his example of compassionate inclusivity and loving concern. So yes, there are bad Christians, failed Christians, broken Christians, incomplete Christians, immature Christians, self-righteous Christians, greedy Christians, hateful Christians -- Christians who do not deserve to wear the name of Christ. There are far worse ways to smear that name than holding unorthodox beliefs.

But they are Christians nevertheless. All of them who claim to be. And the only one who has the right to say otherwise is Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Can only one religion be right?

d.j. wrote at 9:47 a.m. Oct. 24 that "If you want to claim that all religions believe in the same God, you must throw out the beliefs of each of those religions ... ."

But that is only true if you take every teaching of every religion as literal fact, not as human attempts to explain a reality beyond human understanding. I believe that we can see God's hand in the world and experience God's presence in our lives without subscribing to the "right" dogma. That is the point of convergence for different religions.

It is the heart, not the brain, that matters. Love of God and neighbor, not statements of theology. Awareness of the sacred, not literal creeds.

I know that many disagree. Many will say that you can't be Christian without believing that all non-Christians are damned. But that is not the grace I see and experience in Scripture and in the lives of people I know, Christian and non-Christian. God is too big to fit in my pocket.

Yes, there is a solid, true reality behind all our grasping for truth. And we're not the only ones reaching out -- throughout history, God has revealed his nature. As a Christian, I believe that the clearest revelation was the Incarnation of Jesus. But that does not in any way mean (to me) that every dogma that has grown around Christianity is true or that every other revelation of God is utterly false.

Our descriptions differ, our liturgies differ, our theologies differ. The object of our longing is the same.

Other opinions welcome (and probable).

Monday, October 22, 2007

One truth or many truths?

Tuesday's Viewpoint page includes a column ("Find peace within for a nonviolent world") by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists who was recently awarded the U.S. Congress' highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. The exiled religious leader makes a passionate plea for freedom, peaceful resolution of conflict and what he calls "inner disarmament" -- the hard work of examining and setting aside our suspicion, hatred and hostility toward others. He then issues an intriguing challenge to all believers:

"A scientist from Chile once told me that it is inappropriate for a scientist to be attached to his particular field of study, because that would undermine his objectivity. I am a Buddhist practitioner, but if I mix up my devotion for Buddhism with an attachment to it, my mind will be biased toward it. A biased mind never sees the complete picture, and any action that results will not be in tune with reality.

"If religious practitioners can refrain from being attached to their own faith traditions, it could prevent the growth of fundamentalism. It also could enable such followers to genuinely respect faith traditions other than their own. While one can adhere to the principle of 'one truth, one religion' at the level of one’s personal faith, we should embrace at the same time the principle of 'many truths, many religions' in the context of wider society. I see no contradiction between these two."

Neither do I. A believer can be utterly convinced that the religion he follows holds the true revelation of God and yet refrain from insisting that everyone else share that view. Better still, the believer can be a devoted follower of one path but admit the possibility that God's love and grace are expansive enough to bless other paths.

At the very least, even the truest of true believers can choose to support a multicultural, multifaith society where freedom of worship is honored. Coercion and conformity lead to the worst excesses of any religion.

And surely we must acknowledge that the fullness of God is beyond human understanding.

"Today, more than ever," the Dalai Lama writes, "we need to make this fundamental recognition of the basic oneness of humanity the foundation of our perspective on the world and its challenges."

This oneness does not mean uniformity of belief. It doesn't mean beating different faiths into a bland ecumenical mush. It means recognizing our common humanity, respecting one another's beliefs and working together in love. Inner disarmament.

What do you think: Can fervent devotion and radical tolerance coexist?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Day of Grace coming to Davidson

Once I was in a group that was asked who or what had made the biggest difference in our spiritual growth. Some said church. Some said parents or Sunday school teachers or ministers. My honest answer: books.

I have found spiritual companionship and intellectual stimulation in hundreds of books over the years. Many are old friends I've returned to again and again. Occasionally I've had the opportunity to meet the people who brought those books into being -- Henri Nouwen, Madeleine L'Engle, Philip Newell, Margaret Guenther, Morton Kelsey and Scott Peck, among others. It's always fascinating to be able to put a voice to the words on a printed page, to ask questions and to hear what's been stirring their souls lately.

So I was delighted to learn of an upcoming one-day retreat in Davidson by Sister Macrina Wiederkehr. Her book "A Tree Full of Angels" is one of those wise old friends.

Here is one of my favorite passages from that book:

"The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things. We have never learned to gather up the crumbs of whatever appears in our path at every moment. We meet all of these lovely gifts only half there. Presence is what we are all starving for. Real presence! We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment. Yet the secret of daily life is this: There are no leftovers!

"There is nothing -- no thing, no person, no experience, no thought, no joy or pain -- that cannot be harvested and used for nourishment on our journey to God."

The contemplative retreat, "A Day of Grace," will be held Saturday, Nov. 10, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Congregation House of Davidson College Presbyterian Church. Joining that church in sponsoring the ecumenical event are Davidson United Methodist Church and St. Alban's Episcopal Church. The registration deadline is Nov. 1, and forms can be found here.

If you want to learn how to live reflectively -- or be reminded of its value -- this could be a day well spent.

Have books played a part in your spiritual journey?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mysticism and the brain

Thanks, Itzok, for bringing that Oct. 3 article in Scientific American to our attention. I certainly see nothing in it that precludes religious belief, but then, I don't believe that faith can ever be undermined by science. It makes sense to me that if we are spiritual beings, our bodies would have a biological means of having spiritual experiences.

Think about it. We perceive visually with our eyes, which send information to specific parts of our brain, but that doesn't mean that what we see is nonexistent. The biological function serves reality, rather than creating illusion.

As the article concluded:

"Moreover, no matter what neural correlates scientists may find, the results cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Although atheists might argue that finding spirituality in the brain implies that religion is nothing more than divine delusion, the nuns were thrilled by their brain scans for precisely the opposite reason: they seemed to provide confirmation of God’s interactions with them. After all, finding a cerebral source for spiritual experiences could serve equally well to identify the medium through which God reaches out to humanity. Thus, the nuns’ forays into the tubular brain scanner did not undermine their faith. On the contrary, the science gave them an even greater reason to believe."

I said yesterday that I would be more specific about my own experiences, so I'll briefly relate my first conscious encounter with the sacred.

I was young, 3 or possibly 4 years old, and enjoying my swingset on a perfect summer day. As the swing rose and fell, I felt as if I were flying. Happily looking up into the treetops, I saw golden light pouring through bright green leaves.

What happened next is impossible even now to adequately describe. It was as if a curtain had been pulled away. As if I were suddenly in the presence of something -- no, Someone -- far greater than anything or anyone I had ever known. I felt a strange unity with all that is and all that was and all that will be. There was a sense that all was perfect, all was well. That I was just a tiny speck in a vast universe ... but infinitely loved.

Then my mother called me to come inside for my nap. And I clearly remember standing there, frustrated -- wanting to tell her what I saw but not having the words or the concepts to describe it. It was years later, after similar experiences, that I named it an encounter with God. Perhaps you choose to see it as a random firing of neurons.

At the time, I only knew it was awesome.

Whatever it is called, the experience shaped my life, giving me confidence to explore the mysteries of faith and a bedrock trust in the ultimate goodness of God.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The experience that unites

Pardon the interference, but I am going to respectfully request that the debate over belief vs. atheism -- and its accompanying issue of biblical authority -- be put aside for now. Not only is the argument becoming repetitive, overheated and personal, but it is not what I intend the focus of this blog to be.

As the description at the right states, I hope this will be a place where people of differing beliefs can peacefully discuss their experiences of the sacred. That won't happen if the entire conversation centers on whether any belief is ignorant or foolish.

I feel sure we'll get back to battles of intellect and dogma at some point, but for now I'd like to delve into matters of heart and spirit. Because while creeds divide us, experiences of the divine unite us. That's why the mystics in every religion describe remarkably similar experiences, even as their theologians insist there is no common ground.

The common ground is God's presence.

I have encountered this powerful, loving Other at unexpected times, in unexpected places. In prayerful solitude and in noisy crowds. In corporate worship and on the back steps of my home. On a moonlit beach and elbow-deep in dishwater. Holding an infant and standing in a pulpit. Singing with a hundred other voices and chanting softly in an empty sanctuary.

I'll be more specific in my next post. But what about you? Have you felt this presence? What were the circumstances? Has the experience changed you?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Can intelligence and faith coexist?

James Martin -- a Jesuit priest, not the former North Carolina governor -- writes in the International Herald Tribune that you don't have to choose between being intelligent and being religious.

"The heart of the atheist argument over the irrationality of religion," he writes, "is that it is foolish to believe in something that cannot be proven." His response: "Why should we believe that anything our reason cannot grasp does not exist?"


My reason fails to grasp many things, from quantum physics to how a teenager's brain works. The world is not always a rational place, and thank God for that. The irrational, the paradoxes, the surprises that require a leap of faith -- these are all things that give life its vibrancy and meaning.

Yes, intellect matters. Logic matters. I've never trusted any house of worship that required its members to leave their brains at home. But the beginning of faith is the acknowledgement that there is more to the universe than mere reason can comprehend.

That's not foolishness, it's humility.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Just as I am ... but you need work

OK, I'm still trying to figure out how a post about skipping church turned into a battle over the Ten Commandments. Don't think I'm ignoring you, Iztok and d.j. -- I will eventually comment on the concept of biblical inerrancy. All I'll say for now is that I disagree with both of you, although I very much appreciate what you add to the discussion.

Instead, I'd like to respond to another comment made after the last post. Rebecca wrote, "Church is like every other venue in Charlotte -- just another place for me to feel 'less than.' I will never be pretty, rich or connected. ... Don't say try another church -- they are all the same." I have no doubt that Rebecca has indeed experienced church as a place that values only those who are "pretty, rich or connected." And frankly, it infuriates me that some people want to turn what should be a haven for the broken into an exclusive social club.

Years ago, in another city, I was looking for a church to visit and chose one that was the same denomination as the church I grew up in. Dressed up in my Sunday best, I took a seat in the last pew beside a young woman in jeans and a T-shirt. I didn't think twice about her outfit, but the woman on her other side leaned over during the altar call and hissed at her, "If you ever come to this church again, be sure you dress appropriately!" The visitor looked stunned, and left in tears before the end of the hymn.

Irony alert: The hymn was "Just As I Am."

I slipped out to follow her, to tell her we weren't all like that, but she drove off before I caught up to her. I feel certain she never went back; I sure didn't. And she probably never set foot in a church again, no matter what had drawn her there that morning. Why subject herself to such disdain? I only kept looking for a church because I had experienced what it could be, what it should be.

Different Christians will have different visions of what makes a church feel like home. Some love formal liturgy, some love exuberant movement, some love analytical sermons, some love touching stories. There's room for great diversity in worship, in style, in music and, yes, in theology.

But some things are never right. A church that can't welcome the unlovely or the poor or the outcast or the visitor in blue jeans might as well lock its doors. It sure isn't following the example of Jesus.

Feel free to disagree. Or to discuss the Ten Commandments if you wish. No dress code here.