Monday 26 March 2012

The Grammar of God

I call it the Grammar of God. There are three sacred prepositions that in a lifetime of aspiring to live a faith journey or spiritual path have been a major source for me of soul sustenance and courage through light and shadow.

The prepositions are with, for, and in. They are only three small words, but together they add up to an empowerment much stronger than any supplement or other external aid.

One of the basic affirmations of all major religions, except perhaps for a strict form of Buddhism, is that God, the supreme mind and source of the cosmos, is with us. Holy books repeatedly bear witness to this reality. The Jewish and Christian scriptures, for example, remind us of this on almost every page. I think often of the story of God's challenge to a timid, fearful Joshua to become the successor to Moses in leading the Children of Israel into the promised land. He was told: “Be strong and of a good courage. Have I not commanded thee? Fear not, neither be thou dismayed; for I the Lord your God will go with you whithersoever thou goest.”

In the beloved words of the 23rd Psalm the promise is that even when we walk “through the valley of the shadow of death we can conquer fear because “Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff comfort me” - i.e. bring me divine presence and courage. These and dozens of passages like them can become our internal mantras in times of stress. God is with us as we live in trust.

Secondly, we need constant reminding that God is also for us. He so to speak is “on our side” whatever we encounter –especially when we go through trying spiritual and emotional dry spells or crises. Perhaps one of my most favorite chapters in all the writings of St. Paul is Romans c.8, where he asks rhetorically: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He then goes on in very moving, soaring words to say that nothing in all of the entire created order can ever “separate us from the love of God” as expressed in the Jesus story.

The whole underlying message of the Bible is that God acts moment by moment on our behalf. In Her/Him we “live and move and have our being” as Paul is said to have told the crowd in his famous speech on the Hill of Mars (the Areopagus) in Athens. Interestingly, he backs this up by noting “as certain of your own poets have said” and then directly quotes from two Stoic writers well-known at that time. In other words, Pagan thinkers also shared this belief in the divine presence surrounding all humanity and pervading the universe.

The third preposition is to my thinking the most potent and important of all. God is in us. That is what is truly meant by the difficult-sounding term, incarnation (literally, enfleshment). The dominant theme underlying all the major religious traditions in the world is that ultimately the presence or essence of the Divine is embodied in every part and dimension of the whole of creation from the very tiniest and as-yet-unkown particles in remotest space to every human heart. Everything is in the end an expression of the God within.

We can deny this, live as atheists, or some perhaps, God forbid, as criminals, yet this reality abides. God in us, or as Paul puts it, the Christ (principle, power, or consciousness) in us, is there to be acknowledged and nurtured all our lives. For Hindus the word for this reality of the God within is called the Atman. Other faiths express the same reality by other terms. Mystics in every tradition come very close together at this point. Sadly, semantics too often masks this underlying unity. It cries out to be recognized as we move ahead on the road to greater global harmony today.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

American religious expression off the rails

     Two weeks ago I wrote about our experiences with the service industry
in the US and how it is currently considerably more courteous,
enthusiastic and warmly kind than ours in Canada.The inflow of
extremely positive e-mails in response announced that many readers
strongly agree with that assessment. But, there are other aspects of
American culture that are not working nearly as well for them.  For
example, their entire election process is obviously very seriously
flawed. I leave that, however, for political commentators. My concern
here is in a field where I have some claim to expertise, namely
theology and spirituality.
       Looming over  Interstate 65 highway,  just south of Montgomery
Alabama, is a very large billboard. In block letters it says, “Go to
church or the devil will get you.” The message is accompanied by a
stereotypical image depicting  the supposed embodiment—the
personification— of evil itself. There is no hint of subtlety. The
devil is entirely and solidly black. You'd think when it was that
close to the city where in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her
“white” seat on a bus and became the “Mother of the Civil Rights
Movement” another color might have been deemed more appropriate. But
as suggested already, subtlety is not a big feature of  religious
outlook in the truly conservative South or any other region in the
U.S. where ultra-conservative Christians are on the march.
       Driving for three days from Destin Florida north to our home near
Georgian Bay, with the car radio as our main and at times only link
with what was happening everywhere else, we had an incredible,
eye-opening saturation in some of the most dumbed-down, crude and
extremist religious ideas and ideologies I have ever heard in all my
years as an informed observer covering faith issues around the world.
       Not just in Florida but all over the U.S. today fundamentalists hold
what seems at times like a total monopoly on radio stations of every
size.  At times it seemed actually impossible to find a program that
wasn't expounding some obscure verses from the Book of  Revelation or
weighing in once more against gays, abortion, birth control or
President Obama's alleged “war on religion.” Radio, as Marshall
McLuhan often said  is a “hot” medium compared with television. It
hammers away at you demanding that you pay attention.  It can change
people's minds much more effectively than TV Nothing better suits
those who are utterly convinced that they alone are right and also
righteous. The rest of us according to their “Gospel” are captives of
“the father of lies” i.e. a personal devil and we are hell-bound
unless we instantly convert to their literalistic, narrow creeds. The
billboard was eloquent in a number of ways. It revealed a coarse
attempt at coercion through fear—something sadly at work in almost
every religion across the globe.  You must go to church if you want to
avoid something horrible happening to you, it said.  At a deeper level
its foolish, implied assumption that there is a real entity of evil in
an historical, literal sense who is going around trying to “get”
humans shows a naivete almost beyond belief. There is real evil out
there but to attempt to shift blame from our own shoulders or to
threaten people by a hypostatization (turning it into a person) is to
miss the point entirely. Evil is the result of harm caused by human
error or deliberate choice on the one hand or by disease and other
natural calamities on the other. None of the language about the devil
or Satan in the Bible or elsewhere is meant of be taken literally or
historically. Yet this kind of simplistic literalism marked the
outlook of  every firebrand preacher on the air.
       The only thing these demagogues weren't literalists about was Jesus'
words about loving one another and about turning the other cheek. In a
huge hypocrisy to which they seem totally blind they are all fiercely
“pro-life” while vitriolically foaming at the mouth over the need to
risk war with Iran. They are loud in support of Israel but only
because it fits into their scenario for “the last days” and a mythical
Battle of Armageddon. It's nonsense but apparently it “sells.”
       Personally, I look at this kind of  rampant religious expression as
free enterprise gone completely off the rails intellectually,
spiritually and morally as well. I pray it never happens here.

Monday 27 February 2012

Kindness a U.S. retail calling card

Destin, on Florida's “Emerald Coast:

As a proud Canadian myself I am nevertheless compelled to admit that
when it comes to the U.S. and Americans in general I have, like many
of you, at times been guilty of a certain smug sense of superiority.
But, in total honesty we Canadians have a lot to learn from them.
Yes I know that watching the cable news or late night TV could lead
you to believe that in matters of religion or party politics during an
election year our closest neighbors can seem somewhat crazy. 

However, spending the past few weeks down on the Gulf Coast of  Florida,
 we've found that most of the ordinary Americans we've met from all
backgrounds and at every level of  society exhibit a friendliness, a
largeness and generosity of spirit that prevails in spite of  recent
hard times and negative headlines. Whether it's the check-out counter
at Walmart or Publix, the attendant at a car-wash, or the salesclerks
in clothing and other stores, no matter how late the hour or how small
the purchase, the projected mood is one of eager-to-please cheerfulness
 and a  constant warm readiness to engage in a personal encounter
 however necessarily brief.  Publix grocery store displays a sign and
the staff wear a badge which tells you, “Your satisfaction guaranteed,
 no matter what.  Please enjoy our free carry-out service with absolutely
 no tipping.”  I contrast that with the grocery store where we shop at home
 in Canada– the staff rarely make eye contact and many exhibit a silent
 indifference to the customer. When it comes to the policy of returning goods
 for any reason at home, the onus is often on the customer to convince
 the store that the product is defective. It's the opposite here.  Return policies
 are beyond easy with no questions asked.

On New Year's Eve and deep into Kentucky, we turned off  Interstate 75
for lunch. When we came out our left front snow tire was almost flat,
and the air was audibly escaping.  We drove slowly into the hinterland
and found a tire store nearby that was still open. Although  very
busy, they took us right in and examined our flat.  The puncture was
beyond repair,  and they didn't have a match for it. However, they
found a used tire to suit, then rotated the tires so that it was on
the back.  All in all they provided over a half an hour of service,
giving us an adequate spare tire, and making sure that we'd be back on
the road within the hour and still on schedule.  When it came to
paying, they said, “You don't owe us anything.....just remember
Kentucky.”  Surprised at this “Good Samaritan” experience, we gave the
lad who did the work a good tip and had a safe trip the rest of the

Among other experiences too numerous to mention, there was the waiter
who served a large group of us and, when learning Canadians like
vinegar on french fries, ran across to a grocery store and came back
with a bottle.  Somehow, I can't imagine that happening n Canada, but
it's this kind of attitude that makes customers loyal, retains their
business, and generally improves the mood of the day.

Nobody wants Canadians in any job doing it for nothing. But many of
our businesses need a big shift in proper staff training in how to keep
shoppers happy. Walmart does have a clue, and let's hope with the
 increase of competition by the opening of Target, Marshall's and other U.S. chain stores, our own stores will rise to the occasion allowing Canadian
employees in the service industry to shine, and the stores will
benefit from the challenge.

If  kindness to strangers lies near the soul of  true religion—and I
strongly believe it does – we have  experienced it here.

Monday 13 February 2012

When words fail us

Cratylus was a late 5th century BCE philosopher, a contemporary of Plato. In fact, one of Plato's famous dialogues bears his name. Cratylus was obsessed with the study of words and with proper, accurate communication. He eventually became convinced that genuine communication first of all requires careful definition of the words themselves. Despairing of ever being able to define every one of them all precisely, he then one day renounced speaking entirely. Instead, he communicated only by moving his index finger. We can all think of those we sometimes wish would do the same.

Seriously though, was he extreme? Yes, but at the same time instructive as we approach St. Valentine's Day once again. Words, as T.S. Eliot also reminds us, often strain and break under the burden we frequently impose upon them. We know how true this is at some hour of deepest personal grief or when we attempt to comfort others similarly afflicted. But, it is also true in the uniquely human state of being “in love.” Valentine's Day cards generally fall far short of adequate never mind being really close to fully saying what is genuinely hoped for and intended.

However, my deepest concern today is to sound a warning about the dangerous use of words and language when it comes to religion. Millions of believers of all faiths (including some readers of my columns) need to be reminded that God does not write books. Human beings do. Yes, they can be guided and inspired. So too can great poets, dramatists, novelists, musicians, architects and all kinds of other creative spirits down the ages. What makes holy books different in their inner nature from other artistic creations is their subject matter and the intention of their authors/editors.

But, whenever faith communities, be they Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Islamic, or other make the mistake of taking their sacred texts as the ipsissima verba – the very words – which fully express the mind of God, you have bibliolatry. By that I mean the worship of a book rather than worship of God alone.

The results can be deadly as history has proven over and over again and present tensions in many parts of the world underline once more. Words, especially sacred words can sooth and heal and bring new life. But they can also kill and thus bring death and destruction. Extreme fundamentalism, the giving of absolute and final value to specific, time-conditioned, verbal formulae, creeds, or beliefs defies love, reason, and finally humanity itself. That's why St. Paul so long ago famously said: “The letter killeth, but the Spirit gives life!”

In the end, when it comes to trying to speak about God the problem faced by Cratylus emerges powerfully once again. All words are inadequate for the task. Certainly one cannot give any precise, literal definitions of the Ultimate Reality we call God. The world's greatest thinkers have endeavored through the ages to remind us that the truest language of theology is always that of parable, story, myth, poetry, symbolism and allegory.

With that in mind, let me—speaking figuratively or in a parable—send each of you a valentine in advance. It's this: God so loved the world that (S)he created you!

Thursday 2 February 2012

Hitchens was wrong on this

Christopher Hitchens once wrote: “Everybody does have a book in them
but in most cases that's where it should stay!” Though he was a writer
and author with whom I most often than not profoundly disagreed, his
death at 62 just a few days before Christmas leaves a sadly vacant
spot at the table of public discourse in our time. He was forceful in
debate, witty in conversation, and eloquently contrary on a wide range
of conventional opinions. He will be missed.

However, while his atheist manifesto, the book God is Not
Great—presented with all the fervour of an ardent new
convert—succeeded in making many valid criticisms of religion in
general, his central thesis was greatly mistaken. God, the ultimate
source and ground of  not just this universe but of untold,  as-yet
unknown, universes beyond, is not only “great” but greater by a
zillion degrees than anything our limited minds  or technologies can
ever possibly conjure up.

My reason for believing that atheism is today a wholly untenable
position is not because of something I read in the Bible or in the
other religiously-inspired books I have read in my lifetime. It's
because of what modern scientists, the cosmologists, the
astrophysicists, the consciousness researchers, and the theoretical
physicists are saying. I would recommend, for example, The Conscious
Universe by Dean Radin of the Noetic Institute or Science and The
Akashic Field by the Nobel Prize nominee, Ervin Laszlo.
The most amazing thing about the universe as we now know it is the
fine tuning of the physical constants behind the structure and
coherence of  everything else. For example, if the expansion of the
early universe had been one-billionth less than it was, the universe
would have re-collapsed almost at once; and if it had been
one-billionth more, it would have flown apart so fast that it could
have produced only cold, dilute gases. Similarly, a small difference
in the strength of the electromagnetic field relative to the
gravitational field would have prevented the existence of hot and
stable stars like the Sun and hence the evolution of life on the
planets associated with such stars.

Laszlo points out that if the difference between the mass of the
neutron and the proton were not precisely twice the mass of the
electron,no substantial chemical reactions could take place at all. If
the electric charge of electrons and protons did not balance
precisely, all configurations of matter would be unstable and the
universe would consist of nothing more than radiation and a relatively
uniform mixture of gases.

Laszlo notes that the fine-tuning he describes (at much greater
length) involves upward of thirty key factors and a remarkable degree
of accuracy. He concludes, not from faith but from hard and astounding
facts that “a universe such as ours – with galaxies and stars, and
life on this and presumably other life-supporting planets  - is not
likely to have come about as a matter of serendipity, i.e. pure
chance.” In other words, “random fluctuations among individual atoms”
can never provide a scientifically plausible solution.

Frankly, when I consider the amount of  confidence in sheer
coincidence required by atheism in the face of  the latest scientific
findings about the origin and nature of the universe I realize I
simply don't have and never will the amount of faith such a leap
demands. Sorry about that, Hitch.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Message for Desperate Churches

A veteran organist who has witnessed several churches close is one of many respondents to a recent column here headlined “Desperate Churches Lose Message.” He agrees that the growing collapse of faith in general and of Christianity in particular in the western world calls for a truly relevant shift of approach. Specifically, he asks for constructive thoughts on “How desperate faiths can talk about God” in a way that makes sense to today's men and women, including our youth.

That's a fair request and I'll try my best to comment honestly. I serve warning that there will be those who may judge my convictions to be heresy. But one thing I have discovered in a lifetime of writing about spirituality and religion is that one person's heresy is often another man's Gospel!

I believe that the churches are dead wrong to go on preaching about how we are all “sinners” and about the extraordinary (when you stop to think about it) idea that the supreme Mystery we call God somehow has a unique Son who had to die on a Roman gibbet in order to save us all from eternal damnation in a place of torment called hell. They call this “Good News” but it seems to most outsiders to be anything but good or newsy. Nevertheless, this kind of thinking still runs through the theology of every major denomination today.

The dogma that goes back as far as St. Augustine that humans are a “lump of damnation” that needs the shed blood of a Saviour for cleansing or atonement is totally unworthy of a loving Creator and is not even the plain, central teaching of the four Gospels themselves. In them the chief enemy of man is fear. Trust and compassion, not the holding of right beliefs, is the Way of the faithful.

For me, the plainest teaching of the New Testament is at the same time the churches' best “card” to play. It affirms that everyone of us is the bearer of the Kingdom or of the Spirit within. We are each endowed with all the rights and privileges of being the children (sons or daughters) of God. We are spiritual beings and the Spirit of God, the Christ within us, is our ultimate “hope of Glory.” This, I believe is fantastically Good News since it means nobody, whatever their rank, color, looks or station in life is truly unloved or alone in the world.

We belong to the same family. We are one in each other and in God. We have one simple calling—to love God and one another. There is one mission—to live our lives as fully as possible, showing kindness to the planet and others as we champion justice and healing here and abroad.

All religions are not the same but if you examine them closely you'll find that all of them in their own way proclaim this truth of our divine inheritance—the image of God, the Atman, the Inner Light, or a host of other names – so that none of us can claim to be “right” or “more right” than another. Thus, all forms of smug superiority are signs of insecurity and an infantile immaturity doomed to fail.

Here at any rate is where I would begin.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

crisis for the faith

Heraclitus said that “nobody steps into the same river twice.” It was his way of underlining that everything is in a state of flux. Only change itself endures. We are reminded sharply of this on the eve of another New Year. But it's also evident all around us as weather patterns find new extremes, global financial markets are rocked and old regimes collapse as protesters storm the gates. New technologies mushroom up in every field making yesterday's innovations seem old-fashioned, even na├»ve.

Few things, however, have seen more drastic change than overall patterns of religious belief and churchgoing since the end of World War II. In the early fifties, church attendance in the western world was at an all-time high. Even a decade later when I was the minister of an overflowing Anglican parish in a Toronto suburb, almost everybody attended and brought their children with them. New churches were going up everywhere.

Today, many churches are on life-support. Many have been closed. Congregations consist mainly of the elderly. Statistics show that the fastest-growing demographic in North America—including our much more religiously inclined American neighbours—is that of those now reporting to census-takers that they “have no religion.”

The roots of this phenomenon lie closer to home than most church leaders wish to admit. Many still remain in total denial. They attempt to sustain their current orthodoxies by full-blown inertia. It's sad but true that most religious attempts at communication at this historic moment are virtually incomprehensible to modern adults and even less so to the young. The result is a palpable indifference.

No amount of obvious gimmicks – such as the recent fiasco where the Anglican bishops paraded in their archaic robes in front of Union Station handing out invitations to rush-hour crowds begging them to attend services—comes anywhere close to enticing people to go back to something that has not changed since they left it behind. At Halloween it was reported that Evangelical Christians here and in the US were seizing the opportunity to proselytize. The tactic was to “shell out” Bibles or info packs when the kids came knocking. This reeks of desperation.

At this time of crisis for Christianity, a time that is also one of immense opportunity and hope, nothing less is called for than a total rethinking and recasting of the core message to be presented to this and future generations. Old ideas and formulae (dogmas) from distant times have either to be dumped or radically reinterpreted so that they actually connect rather than turn off potential listeners. Concepts and words like salvation, sin, redemption, heaven and hell, eternal life and judgment need to be restated in a wholly transformed modality. Most people see themselves as spiritual beings. It's religion that they can't handle.

Ultimately every religion is a metaphor for God, the sacredness of all creation, and the innate divinity of ever human being on the planet. We need to hear about this from the pulpit. We need to be told about the ongoing evolution of our species to a higher state of being, a maturity of wisdom where we enter into our full inheritance as God's children. None of this possible, however, if a heedless religion keeps speaking a language few if any really understand.