Category Archives: Christianity

Maybe if I Meditated Less…

I could post more here on my blog. 🙂  I have been thinking about doing about a million and one one things here, but just have not had time to follow through on any of them yet, so I am making a small beginning tonight.

The first thing I want to put up here is a list of meditation resources, so that people who stumble on to this page can at least get some actual benefit from it.  As a new meditator, I have basically nothing to teach, but there are lots of links to lots great material, both written and audio that I will get here.  But rather than put those resources in a post (or a series of posts) I am going to put them on a static page so they will always be accessible, for whatever that might be worth.

And speaking of pages, I will be putting up two more, but these two will actually be for you, dear reader. 🙂  Being that this is supposed to be an interactive medium, I am stealing an idea from another website.  But I am not going to link to it, and here is why. 🙂   The person was collecting stories of how and why people “deconverted” from Christianity and what they were doing now.   I won’t link to it because I don’t want to color any stories you might have.

I am going to put up two pages, and you can comment on either one or both of them.   You can tell us “What I Found” if you want to tell a postitive story of your belief system or philosophy or religion.    Or if you are in a negative frame of mind you can share, “What I Left” and say why you left behind a religion or other belief system.  All I ask it that you keep to your own story and not criticize ro flame others for their contributions.  I will reserve the right to remove comments like that and if it gets out of hand, I will take down the experiment in internet democracy. 🙂

Hope to hear from you…and I hope to begin regularly posting again as well.

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Christianity and Hypocrisy

You might think that I am going to write about the political situation here in Wisconsin where (presumably) the “pro-life” Christians voted that we should reinstate the death penalty, while also “preserving” marriage by making sure that gay people cannot have the same legal rights as straight folks in regards to their partner. If you wanted to read something like that, I am sorry to disappoint you.

In my own life, I have been quick to throw around the “H-word” and I have more than once in the run up to this election. Even though I might live in a glass house, I was somewhat secure in using that word, because we in the West have a role model for this.

Now it is true that when Jesus referred to people as hypocrites, he was calling us each to examine ourselves, to remove the log from our own eye, as it were. But it is inescapable that a running theme of the Gospels is “Jesus vs. the Pharisees.” The Pharisees were, of course, a real group within Judiasm of the time, but as with any group not all of them would show the charicature of behavoir that the Gospel writers ascribe to them. But the “Pharisees” that Jesus has a problem with are a part of all of us. Those “Pharisees” go through the motions of religious observance, but their heart does not match those motions. They are “hypocrites” because their insides and outsides do not match, or even worse maybe polar opposites. In many ways, this is simply calling a spade a spade, or at least this is the way I have seen it throughout my life.

Then I heard Pema Chodron give a Buddhist perspective on this. And frankly, I was quite moved.

She was talking about a situation where some habit was getting in the way of your spiritual growth. In Buddhism, any habit (unthinking repetition of a behavior pattern, that is) keeps you from being fully awakened. So let us just say the habit is an addiction to chocolate, just to keep things simple. She pointed out that there are basically three positions you could take in regard to your chocolate habit once you decide that it is a hinderance to you and you need to stop.

The first might be called complete faith or even enlightenment. You stop. For whatever reason, you just know what to do and you do it. Your inside and outside match perfectly and at least in this small area, you have awakened. But not many of us fall into that category.

The next position she calls “half faith.” You know you should avoid chocolate, you know it is bad for you — but that smell. The anticipation of the sweet taste! Temptation! This, says the Buddha, is also the path to awakening. If you are mindful of your struggle — even if you sometimes fail — you will bring an awakened presence to your decision to avoid the sweet temptation. In fact, you might even say that starting from this position, even with its inevitable failures, leads to a “greater” awakening than the first instance, as you have been fully aware of both the temptation and the need for restraint. Most people would not refer to someone trying so hard to “do the right thing” as a “hypocrite,” but sometimes this person’s inside and outside might not match.

The third position is less than half faith. Sometimes much less. This is a person who can, say, intellectually agree with the position that chocolate is a hinderance, but is not going to make a serious effort to actually give it up. If they intellectualize to much — that is to say, if they shoot their mouth off too much about how bad chocolate is — but eats it anyway, we have ourselves a hypocrite. And the Buddha says, this too can be a path to enlightenment.

What? Saying one thing and doing another can be a path to enlightenment? Yes, if it is done with mindfulness (remember too, that we are talking chocolate here, not genocide or something). If you are going to eat the chocolate anyway, do it mindfully. Look at the circumstances that lead you to the craving. Look carefully at the results of your “slips.” See how it feels to say one thing and do another. You can actually look at all those things about yourself non-judgementally and non-moralistically. In really examining your habit, even as you succumb to it, you may find yourself awakening — and moving to the first position.

I can’t speak for him, but I think that if the Buddha was confronted with the Pharisees, he might say something like “Your desire to serve God is admirable, and your strength in carrying out the religious observances can serve you well. But do we not serve God by serving others, as Rabbi Hillel so eloquently pointed out? How do the laws and observances help us serve our people?”

Yes, Jesus was saying essentially the same thing. But you have to admit he set sort of a trap for us. In judging the Pharisees he tempts us to judge — and therefore be judged as well. It is a trap I have fallen into far too many times.

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Where I See Buddhism Working…

This is actually skipping very far ahead of the discussion that I was planning, but sometimes events do actually influence my thinking. 🙂

I talked with a friend of mine today. I have never actually met her in person, just online. She strikes me as a real saint. Works as an EMT and a daycare provider. Has several kids of her own and has taken care of more foster kids than you can shake a stick at, and adopted a few. All this with a lazy slacker husband, who has not worked in a couple of years. Superhuman she is. An angel allighted on the earth.

But she is completely overwhelmed. She feels depressed and unworthy. In fact she is on medication for her “depression.” She prays and reads and goes to a Christian counselor (not that the label matters much) but still gets worse. It is a darn shame actually.

Now, don’t think for a moment that I blame “Christianity” for this, or that I think religion should cure clinical depression. But I could not help but think of the advice she might get from a theoretical Christian friend and a theoretical Buddhist one.

OK, her actual friend told her to pray more. He probably also assured her that God loves her and that her reward will be great in Heaven. I have said similar things in the past and heard them as well. The only problem is that many times it just doesn’t cut through the depression. As one of my commenters pointed out, in its most usual current form, Christianity is an exclusivist religion. I can tell you that one of the most heartbreaking feelings is when someone says or feels something like, “But what if He doesn’t?” I am sorry to say but at that point you can say, “He really does love you” all you want and all the person can see is the gates of Hell in front of them. And in most churches, Hell is very real. So a brick wall has been reached. Often times they feel that their “sins” (as my friend seems to) will keep them from heaven. Which is perhaps the very definition of depression.
Don’t misunderstand, I know there is more the Christian theology than that, and their are lots of other thoughts images and such that can be used. But the road is uphill, I am afraid. But now, let us look at a Buddhist approach.

Same sad, unworthy, overburdened person.

“My friend, you are not unworthy by any means, you are filled with Buddha-nature, your inner goodness or wholeness, or call it the grace of God if you will.”

“No, I am not, am bad, I have sinned”

“But the Buddha says that everything that is alive has Buddha-nature. It can’t be taken away or lost. You have it, snakes have it, plants have it. If it is alive, it has Buddha-nature.”

“Then I must have lost it.”

“You can lose it. It is in every living cell. It is hidden, that is all.”

“Hidden? Where? Somewhere out there?”

I’ll drop the dialogue here. 🙂 It is hidden, the Buddhist would explain, under your ego or wordly mind or some words to that effect. This is the “voice inside your head.” The one that has an opinion on everything, the one that tells you that you should do something else, should be somewhere else, are not working hard enough and so on. The problem is that you take that voice too seriously. Don’t take it seriously, it is just a bunch of thoughts, an illusion. And it is these thoughts that cause our suffering.

It was at this point that my friend interupted me and asked how she could do that, that her head was always full of thousands of thoughts, that the only way to escape them was to take sleeping pills and lapse into a chemical coma. Yes, exactly.

Depression is but an extreme case of samsara, or confusing our thoughts with reality. Thinking that the voice inside our heads is US, instead of our free and clear Buddha-nature (or natural God state, if you want to put it that way).

The Buddha taught a method for quieting those thoughts, and looking beyond the mind and seeing or at least glimpsing the underlying Buddha-nature. Now, I will not claim for one second that the Buddha’s teachings were unique or that other cultures have not discovered the same thing, because they have. But it strikes me that only Buddhism makes it a central part of their religious philosophy. Try asking your priest or minister how to meditate (not pray) . Ask them how to practice mindful watching (or mindfulness, as Tich Nhat Hahn puts it). Perhaps you will get an answer, but most likely not. Maybe even a lecture about the evils of dealing with “eastern mysticism” or something worse.

But Buddhism teaches the actual practice, step by step. How recognize a thought as it bubbles up and how to let it go, to see it as simply a small cloud in a clear sky (as one of the teachings of the Buddha says.) This quieting of the ego is a godsend (no pun intended) to the anxious or depressed person. Which pretty much describes all of us at one time or another.

I was always told in my Catholic education to seek God in the quiet places, but I was never taught how to really be quiet. It is not easy, that is for sure. I would go to those quiet places, but all I would hear was my raging ego: arguing, disputing and frankly, telling me that I was unworthy.

In Buddhist meditation and mindfulness training I am starting to find that quiet place. I have seen glimpses of the Buddha nature. I hope that my friend can find that same quiet place — either by Christian, Buddhist or by whatever means makes sense to her.

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My Problem with Christianity: Part 3 — Heaven

It would be all too easy at this point to rehash the “who goes where” discussion that went with Hell or even to set up a “strawman” Heaven, one of unending golf courses, buffets and the like nestled behind the Pearly Gates where St. Peter stands with his clipboard and so on, but that would be too easy and also miss the point. But even without those things, I still have serious problems with Heaven.

The first is with an afterlife in general. The rationalist in me sees it as just so trite and contrived. What do humans fear most? Death. What does God save us from? Death. How handy. Let’s face it, if human beings did invent (not discover) religion, this is exactly the religion that we would invent, one that promises an end to death. Of course many “religions” that are now considered “false” or paganistic or ancient did in fact promise something like that. Now the fact that other folks say almost the same thing as someone else doesn’t mean both are telling the truth, but neither does it say one or the other is lying. But it is true that many religions promise some relief from death to their followers.

So maybe the whole “escape from death” thing is made up. But of course, maybe not. Might really be an afterlife, none of us alive have experienced it, so who knows for sure. But if there is one, I have to say that God does not seem to have a strong grasp on human psychology in telling us about it.

We have certainly seen a classic examples of this lately as terrorists of all stripes used the promise of “heaven” to give them courage for their awful deeds. Convinced their cause was blessed by God and with a glorious new life ahead of them, they used themselves weapons of death and destruction. Surely not what God intended. This is but the most extreme example of the “mistake” of telling (or even implying) that there is some kind of afterlife. I think it is even a mistake when dealing with things on the positive side.

I am reading a book now, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, by Brian D. McLaren Which actually, and somewhat ironically, covers much of the same ground, from a Protestant prospective as GarRy Wills’s, What Jesus Meant. In a later post, I will compare and contrast the two, but for now, I just want to mention a major point from McLaren’s book.

He points out that when Jesus was talking about the “kingdom of God” that often the next thought or phrase was something like “is here now.” I agree very much with his analysis. One of my favorite moments from the movie “Oh God” was when George Burns tells John Denver, that “things can work out.” And Denver goes hysterical about “have you seen how things are out there…” yadda, yadda, yadda. George listens patiently for a bit, and when Denver is done says “It’s simple. Love and nurture each other instead of killing each other.” Indeed.

McLaren takes a lot more pages to say the same thing, but basically says that the kingdom of God is a world — our world — where people love each other, heal the sick, include the outcasts, make peace instead of war (ok, you can figure out the rest). And we can do that NOW. How? Jesus told us: love our enemies, stop with materialism, be meek, humble and forgive people and so on. The only scary thing about McLaren’s book is that he presents this plan as some kind of unique radical solution. Sorry, just about every other culture has figured this out too — just that no one has really figured out how to do it on a large scale. Even Christians. Maybe even especially Christians.

And unfortunately, one of the reasons is that many Christians still seem to think that the “kingdom of God” is in a far away time and place. McLaren even has quite a discussion in his book about Heaven. He quotes C.S. Lewis at length about the incredible gift that Heaven is to us from God. Which I am afraid dilutes the message, the good news, of the first 9/10ths of the book.

And that good news is that the kingdom of Heaven can be here. Now. It is a gift we can give to each other. Anytime. Like, ummmmm, maybe — now.

Maybe if most Christians were not so intent on looking up to the sky or being Pharisees and nitpicking verses from the Bible trying to guess who will and who will not go up to Heaven and so on, the kingdom of God would actually be at hand.

And that to me, is the biggest problem with Heaven.

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My Problem with Christianity: Part 2 — Hell, Cont.

I have written about it, I have read more about it and I have read and responded to your comments here and there is no doubt about it, it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

I have just finished reading What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills, which I found to be interesting in many ways. First I have to say that it has been one of the few times where someone has discussed the Bible (particularly the New Testament) and when they were done I didn’t wonder what the heck Bible they had read, because it sure didn’t sound like the one that I read while I was growing up.

I agree with very much of what Wills said in his book, especially the notion that Jesus was much more radical than most people give Him credit for. In fact, my first step away from the church was sort of a positive one, in that if I really believed in the Jesus of the Gospel — the sell everything you own and give it to the poor Jesus; the “take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus; that I was no where near doing any of that nor was I likely too. Therefore, to avoid hypocrisy I had to stop calling myself a Christian. Perhaps I will deal with that more fully in another post. Because I did want to get back to Hell. 🙂

In the book Wills titles one of the chapters “Descended in to Hell” but did not mention the supernatural place of eternal punishment even once in that chapter. Wills basically described the Passion and Crucifixion as the “descent in to hell.” One of the nice observations that Wills made in that chapter is basically, no matter how bad things get for you, Jesus has been there. Literally and physically. I can very much relate to this description of Hell. (Wills also gives a very different meaning to the sacrifice on the Cross than the “usual” interpretation, and I will get to that in another post as well.)

Wills never directly mentions the supernatural place of punishment in the book, but alludes to it a bit, so I am not entirely sure where his thinking might exactly lie. But at one point he describes quite clearly and quite succinctly the notion of Jesus as the God of the outcasts. Wills is absolutely correct that Jesus definitely hangs out “on the wrong side of town” with some rather unsavory characters — prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman soldiers and so on. And he also chronicles a number of the insults that were directed at Jesus by others in the Gospels for not only hanging around with such an “unclean” crowd, but also His rather lax attitude for many religious observances.

Wills comes to the conclusion (correct in my estimation) that Jesus comes so that there is no “clean” and “unclean” in either religious observance or in people themselves. He even goes so far (correct again in my thinking) as to say that God has a great affinity for the outcast, the screw-up, the thief and the unclean.

But still Wills seems to intimate that there is a Hell, a supernatural place of eternal punishment. I may be putting words in his mouth, but I did have this impression at the end of the book.

But for me, this is just too schizophrenic. How can God be the God of the “unclean” and still send people to Hell? Some commenters to my previous posts seem to feel that if you don’t act just right, believe just right, or learn the secret handshake, off you go. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. Wills goes on quite a bit about Judas, and how maybe Judas was Jesus’s favorite disciple and theorizes that Judas could well be in Heaven.

However, later in the book, Wills sides a bit with Martin Luther and says that no one can know for sure which way they are going after death. Certainly not a great comfort, but perhaps religion is not about comfort. But again, a bit schzoid. If after directly betraying Jesus, Judas might still be saved, surely the rest of us must be as well.
When I considered myself a Christian, I personally held the belief that Jesus did in fact die for all of our sins, including not believing in Him, rejecting Him and not acting as He did.  That Hell was, in fact, closed. To me, this is only view that makes any logical sense for a loving God. But almost no other Christians see it this way, which is OK.

In my later development, I decided to just drop the idea of a supernatural place completely. It is certainly true that we humans are plenty capable of creating our own hells, we don’t need eternal flames and funny looking guys with pitchforks. And this is where I still stand.

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“Nominally” Religious

Since this is going to be a discussion, feel I need to define the word “nominal” as I generally use it when thinking or talking about religion.

“Nominally” can certainly mean “in name only.” The “only” there is important and turns the word into perjorative. But generally when I use the term, especially when I am actually thinking about things, I do not include the “only” on the end and intend the term quite neutrally. I suppose I could say something like “self-described” but that never seems to flow well, and seems somewhat perjorative as well.
What I am really trying to say when I use something like the phrase, “nominal Christian,” is not that I suspect they are not, but rather that I cannot be positive that they are. The problem, as you might suspect, is partly the person under discussion (whether real or theorectical) and partly the definition of what a Christian is.

Starting with the second part, it is somewhat easy to identify the extreme cases. I think that most folks would agree that, say, Saint Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa were certainly followers of Christ, and therefore Christians, while Madelyn Murry-O’Hare, the famous atheist was not. When you get in between though, things get sticky and vary from group to group. As a Catholic I was occaisionally identified as “not really a Christian” because I did not “accept Jesus as my personal saviour.” On the other hand I have met a couple of Bible thumping fire breathers that seemed so full of anger and hatred that I could not in any way consider them Christian. So, it seems to me that the criteria for “Christian” seems to vary a bit from church to church and person to person, but that does not stop people from identifying themselves as Christian (or not). But of course, God must know who the “Christians” are and are not, but will only sort things out on judgement day, at least according to the common teachings of the church.

Even when a suitable defintion is found, it has to be said that much of what it means to be a Christian is internal. It is clearly not just good works or loving your neighbor, virtually all religious and ethical systems preach that. It also involves some measure of faith and intention for a person to truly be a Christian.

And frankly without knowing a person very, very well it is difficult to gauge the degree to which a person is an actual follower of Christ (whatever that means exactly) and their sincerity in doing so.

So for the purposes of discussion, I often refer to someone as a “nominal” Christian.  I mean by that that they have in some way publically declared themselves Christian, either by simply going to church regularly, having been baptised or raised in a faith or by actually proclaiming it themselves. But as we all know, such public actions do not necessarily indicate anything about the person’s inner life and so on.

So for me, other than a few exceptionally well known spiritual figures and a few close friends, every one else is a “nominal” Christian. They certainly look like a Christian, but I have no way of knowing if they walk and quack like one.

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Before Things Get Too Serious…

I spotted this on a bumper at the library. After doing a double take I cracked up.

Click for Larger Image
I went to the website for this company and found a few more nice ideas. 🙂

Inquire WithinWWBDFun

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