* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Work Does not Equal Punishment: Genesis 3 Revisited

I concluded my reinterpretation of Genesis 1-2 with:
No person is an isolated being.  We are at our very core relational.  We are in constant relationship with the natural world around us, and we are in constant relationship with one another.  These connections are as vital to us as physical nourishment.

[Chapter 3]

Yet we don’t always honor that connection.  We don’t always honor the truth and beauty and creativity within us.  A story could be told about a serpent and a certain tree, but as evocative as they can be, stories are also subject to interpretation.  Even though our stories are all essentially the same, we manage to focus on points of distinction rather than commonalities.  Our connection to one another and to ourselves becomes compromised.

Although this may not be a desirable thing, it’s certainly natural.  When we don’t honor the truth and beauty and creativity within ourselves and others, it can always be traced back to fear.  Most often, we fear that which we consider different from ourselves more than we fear the familiar.  When we believe our fears, it becomes easy to forget about our infinite creativity and beauty.  When we believe our fears, it’s difficult to be truly inspired.

And when we realize how easily we have given ourselves over to fear, we often feel shame.  Fear and shame are unpleasant enough feelings that we invent all manner of coping mechanisms, many of which only serve to keep us further from simple awareness of the truth and beauty and creativity at our core.  In truth, we can never know enough or do enough to overcome our basic need for connection with ourselves, with one another, and with the natural world.  It isn’t possible for life to be entirely comprised of pleasure, but neither is it entirely comprised of pain.  There is pain and there is pleasure, and we are capable of embracing both as natural parts of life.

The greatest rewards are experienced when we are willing to put forth honest effort to bring about satisfying results.  Our connection with ourselves, with others, and with the natural world requires a bit of work, but this work is not punishment for some wrongdoing.  Work, in one form or another, is simply one essential ingredient toward fulfilling experiences.  We may imagine a paradise where perfectly ripe fruit falls from trees to land at our feet, animals all get along peacefully, and there is no danger of disease or injury, but such is not the reality of our lives.  In all honesty, most of us would get bored of that before very long anyway.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Does the Bible Need to be Rewritten?

Short answer: no.  The Christian community appreciates the Bible just as it is, some even preferring outdated or inaccurate translations in favor of more familiar language.  Translations of the Bible improve in accuracy as scholars learn more, and translations also evolve with the language of human cultures.  Paraphrases opt for accessibility over accuracy and use more contemporary language to tell the same stories, seeking to preserve the same meaning and spiritual honesty of scriptures without being precise about the best English translation of the ancient Greek and Hebrew.

As you may have surmised from my reinterpretation of the first two chapters of Genesis, I've launched a bit of a paraphrase project.  I don't know how far I will take it, but it could be of some value to articulate the purpose for it.  Obviously, I'm not going for a literal translation.  Rather, I am aiming for spiritual truth.  This means that there may be some dialogue along the way that helps to refine a thing or two, which is why I think this interactive venue is ideal for a project like this.

Why the Bible?  I believe that the same core spiritual truths can be found in the writing other religions hold as sacred.  Even though I've studied many of these books, I'm still most familiar with the Christian Bible.  I am at least in part a product of my environment, and that environment is a largely Christian-influenced culture.  I hope that anyone who wants to can gain some insight from what I write, regardless of their beliefs or their level of familiarity with the book.

What's the point?  While the Bible doesn't necessarily need to be rewritten for Christians to be happy with it, I also think that its words get frequently misused by people that want to cite an unquestionable authority.  For some, quoting scripture is tantamount to quoting God, and no one can really argue with God.  But words can be twisted around and taken out of context and interpreted to suit a particular agenda.  My goal is to draw forth spiritual truth without claiming to quote the actual words of an almighty being, to develop and encourage a deep understanding of human spirituality outside of organized religion.

Isn't that disrespectful?  While I do consider myself to be post-Christian in my thinking, I still believe that spirituality has a place in human culture and relationships.  If people choose to express that faith in terms of a particular religious system, my hope is that they would do so with honesty and thoughtfulness.  Perhaps my take on things will challenge or inspire someone to take a closer look at personal beliefs, but my goal is not to insult or denigrate anyone's choice of spiritual expression.  

On top of that, the most likely people to consider a personal interpretation of the Bible to be disrespectful are those who hold the Bible to be higher than any other spiritual authority.  What better place to begin a dialogue aimed at deepening spiritual integrity?  My sense is that people with less attachment to the Bible as the only source of spiritual knowledge will have less reason to take issue with a recontextualization of its words.  I may be wrong, but I'm willing to take that chance.

So, next week, I'll delve a little further into Genesis and see where it all winds up.  Any dialogue that emerges will hopefully sharpen us all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What Matters Most: Genesis 1-2 through a new lens

We are here in this time and place. We don’t truly know much about what happened in the beginning, although there are some plausible theories. We know more about human history, but even that has been recorded by biased hands. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how we got here; what matters is that we are here. Any number of beliefs can satisfy personal desires for an origin story, but none of them can change the facts of where and when we are. And we are here in this time and place.

And this is an inspiring time and place. There is truth and beauty everywhere we might choose to settle our gaze. There is truth and beauty and inspiration in the brightness of day, with its vibrant color and crisp detail. And there is truth and beauty and inspiration in the depth of night, with its myriad stars and evocative darkness.

There is truth and beauty and inspiration in the oceans, with their mysterious depths and rhythmic tides. And there is truth and beauty and inspiration in the skies, with the bright blue of midday and the full spectrum of sunrises and sunsets. There is truth and beauty and inspiration in the solid ground, whether it is red clay or shifting sand, angular stone or mist-shrouded marshland.

There is truth and beauty and inspiration in the vast variety of plant life around us, from gargantuan redwoods to dandelions, bearing fruit that is pleasing to taste and flowers that are pleasing to gaze upon. They have the capacity to nourish us, to heal us, and to teach us if we are willing to see and learn.

There is truth and beauty and inspiration in the seasons and the weather, whether in the white cold of winter or the red heat of summer, in the midst of windless calm and in the midst of the fiercest storm. And there is truth and beauty and inspiration in the creatures with which we share the planet, whether they be birds that soar across the expanse of the sky or creatures that glide on currents far beneath the surface of the water. There is truth and beauty and inspiration in the domesticated creatures we care for and the creatures who thrive in the wilderness, even the lizards and insects in our own backyards.

There is truth and beauty and inspiration in the people we encounter, whether we share with them a moment or a lifetime. In every human being there is a glimpse of what some call the divine: the very essence of truth, beauty, and creativity. Each person therefore has value by possessing that spark which is common to all of humanity. And when we are willing to see the divine in others, we are more likely to see our own honest, beautiful, and creative selves.

It is also important to rest, to remember the value of rejuvenation. Just as nature needs time of dormancy and the rejuvenation of water, so do we need times of stillness and rejuvenation for our bodies and our minds. We offer our best and receive the greatest satisfaction from life when we intersperse our experiences of activity with rest.

We are not here in this place and time to suffer or to cause suffering, but rather we are here in this place and time to respond to the truth, the beauty, and the inspiration which is all around us, to find our own unique voice and speak with boldness and love, to be truth, beauty, and inspiration for one another.

No person is an isolated being. We are at our very core relational. We are in constant relationship with the natural world around us, and we are in constant relationship with one another. These connections are as vital to us as physical nourishment.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Freedom of Religious Thought

When I wrote a recent article Why Christians Should Back Down on Gay Marriage, I addressed some of the fallacies underneath the biblical reasons that some Conservative Christians offer against same-sex marriage.  Although I didn't address any social or political arguments directly, I did receive some feedback about why some Christians believe that their rights are being threatened in the gay marriage debate.  The fear is essentially, "By seeking the right to marry, homosexuals are trying to take away our right to define marriage the way we want to."

Since I've seen and heard this kind of thinking in multiple places, I want to address it seriously.  People everywhere have the freedom to believe whatever they want.  There are limitations on how those beliefs can be legally expressed, but no one can take away your freedom to believe something.  If I believe that Barry Manilow is the greatest singer in the world, no one can deprive me of that belief.  I can listen to Barry in the privacy of my own home, on my iPod at the gym, and while I'm driving around town, and there's no problem.  When I decide that I can play Barry at 2 a.m. loud enough for the whole neighborhood to enjoy him, suddenly there's a problem.  Other people have rights and freedoms, too.  I don't have the freedom to make other people listen to Barry Manilow just because I believe he's the greatest singer in the world.  (This is all hypothetical, you understand.)

If I define marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman, that really only has an impact on my life.  It informs what my relationships will look like, and it might inform the people with whom I form close friendships.  But I don't get to decide what everyone else's marriage will look like.  I may think everyone should eat 13 servings of vegetables a day, but that doesn't mean I get to weigh in on everyone else's diet. If someone else defines marriage or their ideal diet differently from me, what impact does that actually have on my life?  As long as they aren't forcing me to live my life by a different set of beliefs, they don't actually threaten my beliefs at all.

There can still be an impact when I witness someone living out a different belief than I have.  If I see someone eating a diet that I consider unhealthy, or when I see someone allowing their children to behave in a way that annoys me, or when I see someone in a different kind of relationship than what I have, my beliefs may be challenged.  Beliefs can be challenged without actually being threatened.  Vegans don't actually threaten the diets of carnivorous people, but they may present a challenge to people who don't give their food choices much thought.  When beliefs are challenged, two things can happen: A person either develops deeper conviction or broadens their view of what is acceptable.  Either result is growth.  So challenge is a good thing.

No matter how deep one's conviction, though, one person's belief does not grant power over how another person lives.  That really is alright.  Vegans don't really threaten butchers, Atheists don't really threaten the church, and homosexuals who want to marry don't really threaten the heterosexual lifestyle.  Everyone has the right to believe what they choose to believe, and the freedom to live out that belief in their own lives, as long as doing so doesn't harm anyone else. 

Although I don't plan to make same-sex marriage a frequent issue for this venue, it's obviously a huge issue in the U.S. touching on religious freedom, tolerance, and human rights.  Should you want to read up on it yourself, a profound amount of information on all sides of the argument is available at http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_marr_menu.htm.

Who am I and What Is This All About?

Having kept up a personal blog for a few years, I'm now branching out for a couple of reasons.  First, my other blog is intended to focus on personal lessons and my life as a composer.  I know that other people get something from reading what I've learned, and I plan to keep it up.  Although there have been some spiritual topics on there, I want to keep it to primarily personal lessons and more about my life as a composer, which I get distracted from writing about when something "more interesting" comes to mind.

Second, I've been told by several people on different occasions that the way I see and express spirituality has value to them.  One person actually said, "Your ideas would be a gift to any faith community."  After a recent blog post confronting Christian opposition to gay marriage, several people told me that I had put their own thoughts more clearly and eloquently than they could have done for themselves.  Assuming that people aren't just being flattering, I believe it's important for me to continue to do something meaningful with that kind of feedback.

My purpose in The Divine Self is to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us, to foster intelligent and open dialogue, and to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life.  It's no small task, but I also know that I'm not the only person doing it.  At a very basic level, I want to develop even more clarity about my personal beliefs and get even better at articulating them.

So, what are my beliefs and what qualifies me to engage in these lofty goals?  I was raised as a Christian, a mix of Methodist and Southern Baptist, and I worked in some area of ministry from the age of 15 through 36.  I minored in religion in college and worked with a wide variety of denominations as a musician, and I was in the candidacy process for ordained ministry.  However, my personal beliefs had already begun to outgrow the Christianity I saw being practiced around me when I was in my early 20s, and I started a long journey of religious exploration.  I researched other world religions, the history of religion, I read theologians from the Christian church, and I wrestled with making sense of it in my own life.  I found my way to Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell and to a whole collective of hard-core atheist thinkers.  They didn't actually convince me of anything; they just echoed my own conclusions from a different perspective.

Technically, I am an atheist.  I believe that there is no intelligent external being, watching over or guiding our lives, waiting to reward or punish as appropriate.  I believe that human beings don't need to be saved by anyone and they don't need to be fixed.  At the same time, I believe that people are more than just their flesh and blood, that there is a very important connection with other people and with the world that is easiest to understand in spiritual terms.  So I am an atheist and a theologian (and not the first, I dare say).

To be clear, I don't want to convince anyone away from spiritual beliefs that are important to them, I just want to encourage people to live in harmony with the beliefs they claim.  Which is the same thing I want for myself: for my beliefs to be in harmony with how I live. 

Now that those cards are out on the table, I am eager to see what unfolds in this new endeavor and where this journey leads.