* 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

Monday, December 21, 2015

Selfishness 2

We're in the midst of examining a criticism that "good" people don't focus on their own wants and needs, but focus on the needs and wants of others. Previously, we acknowledged that shame can cause us to think that we are not worthy of having our needs and wants met, and we asserted that if we want to be fully alive human beings, it's important for us to recognize the worthiness of our own vision for our lives and the world around us.

There are a couple of other points we need to consider from critics, however, including the belief that we harm other people by focusing on what we want -- essentially, that everyone cannot simultaneously have their wants and needs met. We should also address the argument that Jesus or some other legendary spiritual leader offers a model of self-sacrificial living. In fact, let's tend to that last point first and then move on to the idea that it costs someone else when we focus on what we most deeply want.

Throughout the history of some religious traditions, suffering has been equated with righteousness or worthiness. This began because the people who engaged in those religious practices were marginalized in their particular society, and they had to do something to explain their suffering in the face of a belief that they were set apart -- "chosen" by their god. Either their god was malicious or powerless, or there was some greater reason for their suffering as marginalized people. Even though some such religious traditions have become more powerful -- even oppressive -- practitioners often still cling to the idea that they are persecuted. Their persecution makes them like a beloved spiritual leader of mythology, and thus their suffering marks them as more holy -- chosen or set apart by their loving god who values their suffering for some reason.

The fact of the matter is that this coping mechanism creates tons more harm than well-being. Liberal and feminist theologians especially have written quite a bit on the damage done by the belief that suffering makes one more acceptable, lovable, or worthy in the eyes of a deity. Self-sacrifice can be a powerful gesture, but only when it is an intentional choice that one makes to nurture a system toward wholeness. Giving up one's personal safety, in and of itself, does not nurture anything. Choosing between what feels safe and what one actually wants for the world -- a personal creative life dream -- can be worth the risk. There is a big difference.

Even when one looks at the example of Jesus, for instance, the model of behavior is not self-sacrificial. There is an abundance of examples in the gospel narrative of Jesus going off by himself for solitude. He chooses to fast on occasion, but he never goes hungry when he actually needs to eat. He reprimands people who don't behave the way he wants them to, and he thinks highly enough of his own ideas that he challenges the rationale of religious authorities. He even chastises his disciples when they don't meet his needs or wants. There are moments in which the Jesus of the gospel narratives is downright arrogant, and there is no reason for us to criticize the self-assurance of someone who has conviction about what will bring wholeness to the world. The lessons of the teachings attributed to Jesus have little to do with self-sacrifice and lots to do with being aware of one's own power to transform one's own life and the lives of others.

Too often, believers seem to focus on one episode at the end of the story, in which religious and political leaders abuse their power with violent retribution toward a person who upsets the status quo. They invent in their heads a Jesus who could have resisted such power, making him a willing sacrifice rather than a victim of oppressive and fear-filled authorities. Yet this behavior is in contrast to the rest of the stories told about the life and actions of a bold and self-confident Jesus who is consistently willing to express what he wants people to do and how he wants people to think.

Anyone who includes self-sacrifice into their religious values is choosing to imagine that their own wants and needs are inconsequential, which is the same thing as denying their inherent worth and dignity. Some religious traditions thrive on telling people lies about being unworthy, unacceptable, and unlovable -- perhaps making their invented deity look all the more magnanimous for deigning to love such wretches. Do you know how people create wholeness when they think of themselves as inherently unworthy, unacceptable, and unlovable? They don't. Why would they? Their self-image is dominated by weakness and powerlessness. This image of humanity is flawed, fear-driven, and useless, except to those that like having an easy time manipulating the masses. That's the one thing to be said for teaching people that they are weak and worthless -- it makes them a lot easier to control.

Contrast that with people who believe in their own inherent worth and dignity -- who believe in their own capability and beauty and creativity. People who recognize personal responsibility in their lives ought also recognize that they have the power to wield that responsibility thoughtfully. This means taking the consequences of one's action into consideration. Powerless people don't have choices, but people who are willing to recognize their own power also recognize the ability to choose actions that nurture wholeness in their lives and the lives of those around them. Really, it's the people who live into an identity of being weak, unlovable, powerless, and unworthy who are harmfully self-indulgent.

There is something that gets in the way of creating wholeness, though, even for those people who recognize their own worth and power and responsibility. Fear. Just as shame convinces us of lies about ourselves, our fear gets in the way of living life as fully as we could. Our fear convinces us that we need certain things in order to be safe, or to prove how lovable or acceptable we are. And we wind up doing the things that placate our fear rather than doing the things we actually want most deeply. Most people don't ever think about what they want for their lives and the lives of those around them because they never get past thinking about what they have to do to be safe, or heard, or respected, or loved, or successful. We don't really know what we want more deeply because we never get past wanting to be free of our anxiety.

From this perspective, the criticism is absolutely true: Everyone cannot go about alleviating their fears without hurting anyone else. Focusing on our anxiety and trying to make it go away as quickly as possible almost always means we hurt someone else in the process. We also hurt ourselves. Letting fear control us is not the same as tending to what we most deeply want. We don't actually get what we most deeply want by indulging our fear. We need a way to get past our fear and anxiety, and get to the heart of what we really want for our own lives and for the world. And we need a way to know when it is our fear talking and when it is something deeper within us that longs for wholeness.

The criticism of selfishness really doesn't hold up when we consider the full implication of intentional people living with integrity to their deepest values. Certainly, when we think of the typical fearful behavior of human beings on reactive autopilot, self-indulgence is harmful. That isn't what we're talking about when we encourage living into a best possible version of oneself, or developing a meaningful creative life dream. If our passion is nurturing the world toward wholeness, we have to be competent at nurturing wholeness in our own lives. Respecting our own needs, valuing our own vision, caring for ourselves -- these are behaviors of personally responsible human beings, and it takes personally responsible human beings to create wholeness.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Selfishness 1

Some people have criticized questions like, "What do I really want?" and "What is my personal creative life dream?" as being too selfish. Their reasoning is that we should focus our attention on other people and not on ourselves. I can only imagine that at some point in their childhood they were reprimanded for being insensitive to what others wanted or needed--for being too focused on their own wants. Children don't have the same capacity as (some) adults to evaluate their wants and needs or bring their actions into alignment with deeper values. Those values are still developing even into adulthood for a lot of people. Let's consider this criticism, though, and see if we are willing to risk being seen as selfish.

The argument, as I understand it from a variety of sources, is that "good" people (which is often synonymous with believers of a particular religious tradition) ought not concern themselves with their own wants and needs, but ought instead to concern themselves with the wants and needs of others. Their reasoning involves a version of some or all of the following points: (1) Good people will be rewarded in an afterlife for suffering here on earth, so demonstrating your goodness by being self-sacrificial in this life will result in your needs and wants being satisfied for eternity. (2) Their scriptures affirm that their supernatural will provide what they need, so they need not worry about their own needs. (3) Insisting on what you want causes harm to others because you can only get what you want at the expense of someone else. In other words, everyone cannot simultaneously have their wants and needs met, so your gain means someone else's loss. (4) The example of Jesus (for Christians) or another legendary spiritual leader reflects a model of self-sacrificial living.

There may be other points offered in support of self-sacrifice and in opposition to selfishness, but these four are the ones I read and hear most often. We should consider each of these arguments in turn, and then consider whether living into a "personal creative life dream" or focusing on what you really want is actually a selfish act. Let's take our time with this over a few weeks rather than brushing past what seems like an important criticism.

First, though, we can brush past the first point. We've already dispensed with the idea of an afterlife. Being self-sacrificial in this life will get you the experience of self-sacrifice in this life. And maybe it will get you a false sense of superiority or piety. Most likely, it will get you a sense of resentment and frustrated entitlement. What it won't get you is your needs met. No one else is responsible for your life but you. It's nice when other people meet our needs and attend to our wants, but it isn't ultimately their responsibility. Likewise, it isn't your responsibility to meet other people's needs or wants. It's nice when you do, and we'll see why it's important that we connect what we want and need with what other people want and need. Meeting other people's needs at the expense of your own, though, doesn't earn you any points with a supernatural, it just creates voluntary suffering on your part. If you're alright with that, that's your prerogative, but it won't result in a better afterlife for you. 

The next point is more concerning, because there is some serious potential for harm in living by a belief that you needn't worry about your own well-being because a supernatural will provide everything you need. What does one say about the people of faith who are starving or going without clean water or dying from curable diseases and treatable health conditions? If all of those people were atheists, then it would be a powerful motivator to believe in a god, but this isn't the case. Some suffering people wind up believing that they must have done something wrong, and that their god is now punishing them. Some people believe that others suffer so that there is someone to care for, as if their god causes suffering in some people's lives so that other people can extend care. If this is the case, believers are doing a pretty poor job of it, and their god operates out of a rather twisted morality. 

While it's true that we don't really need that much to live a happy and healthy life, it's also true that those basic necessities are not guaranteed. The ample evidence indicates that people cannot expect a supernatural to provide for their needs. We are responsible for our own lives. And what people cannot provide for themselves, it falls to other human beings to provide. If people continue to go without food or clean water, that's not on a supernatural who made a promise to provide -- it's on us, the rest of humanity who continue on with more comfortable lives instead of attending to the basic needs of other human beings. More specifically, it's on the people who have the resources to improve the well-being of others on a larger scale, but that's jumping ahead a little bit.

I understand that, for believers, it must seem that there is a supernatural working things out in your life when you get the job you wanted, or when you avoid a nasty traffic collision, or when your child gets a clean bill of health. I attended a graduation recently at which it was said that we were celebrating students' accomplishments, and that they couldn't have done it without God's help. This logical inconsistency made perfect sense to the believers in the room, as if it was the divine will of a supernatural that they should complete the assignments they chose to complete, attend the classes they chose to attend, earn the grades they legitimately earned, and so orchestrate their lives that they complete a degree program. If their god is responsible for those degrees, there is no reason to celebrate their individual achievements. 

Actually, if a supernatural is ultimately going to get its way, despite human action, we have no reason to do anything. Where does one draw the line? If we starve or feast, run late or arrive early, succeed or fail, get mugged or walk the streets safely, exercise or sit on the couch -- why should we take responsibility for any of this if a supernatural always works things out to get what it wants. (Which seems like the very definition of selfish, actually.) Of course, then one must ask why an omnipotent loving supernatural wants so many believers to suffer, but believers usually credit their god with the desirable things and blame something else for the suffering. They've invented a powerful evil counterpart to their benevolent god, to make an even more convoluted explanation of suffering that ends up undermining their very definition of their god. It makes for great horror movies, though, so I'm grateful for that.

Sometimes desirable things happen to us. Sometimes we even cause them, because we work hard or pay attention or otherwise commit ourselves toward a particular outcome. It's not so unreasonable to think that you will get a job for which you're qualified, for instance. If you think it would take a miracle for you to get hired, you must not think very highly of your skills. Sometimes desirable things happen that we don't think we've earned, like a child getting well after a serious illness. Yet, if we've tended to that child and taken them to doctors and done our part to create a healthy environment, we have contributed to that healing. Perhaps it doesn't feel "right" that one person's child should die from a disease and another person's child should live. It's more convenient to pin it on a god and be grateful. When we think we are undeserving of the desirable things that happen in our lives, there is something less healthy at work within us, however.

When things go the way you want them to, and you think, "God was watching out for me," or something to that effect, consider this: Are you actually saying that you aren't worthy of good things happening in your life? Why do you think that? Who is "worthy" of getting into a traffic collision? Who is "worthy" of avoiding it? Who is "worthy" of getting a job they aren't qualified for or receiving a degree they didn't actually earn? Our inherent worth as human beings is not tied to what happens to us or what we accomplish. Some of the desirable things in our lives are things we earn, and it is dishonest to suggest that we didn't. You earned your degrees. You worked to develop your skills. And some desirable things are just luck.

Actually, some desirable things must be just luck even if you are a believer who proposes the existence of a benevolent, loving deity. To think that a god spared you from a nasty traffic collision means that your god didn't spare other people. And it's a sure bet that believers are involved in some traffic collisions. You may even know some believers who have been in traffic collisions. Why would your supernatural allow them to be in a traffic collision and spare you? To teach them a lesson that you don't need to learn? What a strange belief system that requires so many convoluted twists just to make reality seem more orchestrated than it is. 

All impish critique aside, whatever your belief in a supernatural, it is shame that causes us to believe that we don't deserve desirable things. It is shame that causes us to believe that we are unworthy of good things in our lives. It is shame that results in us concluding that we aren't worth our own attention and that we must be content with whatever comes our way (by the grace of a supernatural or just by dumb luck). It is shame that suggests to us that we are unlovable or unacceptable, and that we must do something to earn or prove ourselves lovable and acceptable. The idea that a supernatural will provide what we need, and that we must be content with that, is rooted in shame --  a false belief about ourselves. The idea that we must focus our attention on the needs of others and set our own needs aside is rooted in shame. Shame falsely accuses and convicts us of selfishness when we consider too long our own dreams and desires for our lives and for the world, and shame convinces us to keep our lives small and unassuming, perhaps with a veneer of imitation humility that we simply aren't important enough to make a real difference in the world. Shame is bullshit. 

 If we want to live into our deepest values, we must confront our shame. We must recognize the worthiness of our own vision for our lives and for the world around us -- we must recognize our own worthiness as human beings with amazing capacity for truth, beauty, and creativity. We each have something powerful to contribute to the world, and there is nothing selfish in recognizing that. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Asking the Right Questions -- The Problem of Evil

One last big question religion pretends to answer is: Why is there evil in the world? We might consider "evil" to be synonymous with suffering, for the sake of clarity. Why do people suffer? Religious imagination actually makes this question more complicated that it needs to be.

Some answers offered through religion imagine a whole array of supernatural beings, good and evil, fighting for the precious commodity of human souls. It makes sense that if you're going to invent a supernatural to worship, you would also find it convenient to invent other lesser supernatural beings to answer other troublesome questions. That angels and demons and souls are not real things hasn't stopped religious institutions from perpetuating the idea that human suffering is caused by supernatural activity. Some religious communities even encourage people to invent their own personal stories of encounters with angelic or demonic forces, and the community accepts these inventions as fact in order to bolster a framework that is easily dismantled by thinking through how poorly it aligns with measurable, observable reality.

Other religious answers are less complex, keeping the supernatural involvement down to one entity who controls all things. In such a mythology, one god is responsible for all of the helpful and harmful experiences people have. The question then becomes why a god would cause harm to weaker, less capable beings. Some conclude that a god is punishing and rewarding people for their behavior, but this idea also becomes difficult to maintain unless the god in question is either capricious or outright malicious. In other words, the idea of an omnipotent supernatural punishing and rewarding people only works if the character of that supernatural makes it unworthy of adoration and admiration.

Observing that people who are devout in their practice of a religious tradition suffer just the same as heathens without a religious tradition should be a fly in the ointment. Some religions answer this complication by suggesting that their god tests the faithful by causing or allowing suffering, and that the reward for this testing happens in an afterlife. We've already dismissed the idea of an afterlife, but it is an easy last resort when a religious leader doesn't want to have to answer for promises of reward. Who can call a person to account when there is no way to verify or deny such a promise of posthumous reward for suffering? One can also perhaps bear the suffering of others more easily (or even callously) if one clings to a belief that an afterlife reward awaits those who suffer in their actual real life.

What all of this boils down to is that religions can't satisfactorily answer the question of suffering, but they are all equipped to make something up that can't be verified or falsified. Any valid attempt to refute answers that rely on supernaturals are met with nonsensical replies, like suggesting that one's faith must be strong in order to understand spiritual truths. Or, the oft-abused retort, from New Testament writings, "The wisdom of this world is foolishness to god." So, indoctrination in many religious traditions includes learning rebuffs to protect one from thinking through one's assertions with any sort of integrity to reality. Maintaining a particular religious mythology is more important to some people than finding an answer to human suffering that aligns meaningfully with reality.

One convenient facet of basing answers to suffering on supposed supernatural will or promised reward in an afterlife is that human beings are off the hook. If a god wants someone to suffer, then there is nothing for a human being to do, although perhaps the person experiencing the suffering should be told to straighten up and fly right so that their suffering would end. Likewise, if suffering now leads to reward in an afterlife, there is no reason to address human suffering. Human beings can ignore any suffering of others they find distasteful, confident that those individuals will be well rewarded after they die.

Even more convenient, when religious institutions connect human suffering with their concept of sin, they can justify the mistreatment or oppression of others. When you believe that an individual's suffering is directly tied to that individual's sinfulness or wrongdoing, then the individual can be blamed for whatever harmful experiences happen in their lives. While people within the religious tradition are seen as being tested by suffering, people outside that religious tradition -- experiencing the same suffering -- might be seen as being punished by a god for bad behavior. This allows religious leaders to use religion to encourage the dehumanization of other people. In other words, their answer to human suffering is to willfully cause more suffering.

For this reason, religion cannot meaningfully answer the question it poses regarding the existence of evil or suffering. Even though some religious groups imagine supernaturals that are benevolent and engage in practices that seek to create wholeness, the non-real foundation of their actions is easily corrupted and abused by those who imagine a different sort of supernatural or refuse to address their own culpability. We must look outside religious constructs to find meaningful answers.

Human suffering might be put into two categories: suffering caused by nature, and suffering caused by human action. Natural suffering would include all of the hardships people face that are not caused by human activity: weather events, genetic conditions and many diseases, attacks from wild animals, etc. Nature has certain features that are unpleasant for individuals to experience, but overall contribute to a balanced ecosystem. The suffering of human beings because of natural events has no greater meaning, although people can potentially learn things from the experience. Natural events are amoral -- there is no will or purpose behind them. Natural events are just things that happen, and human beings have to supply their own meaning as they recover and rebuild in the wake of such an event.

We still feel grief and pain at this kind of suffering, and that grief and pain can connect us with other human beings or isolate us. We can better manage our grief, though, when we are honest about the source of our suffering.

Suffering caused by human action is different. Sometimes, suffering is the result of human ignorance or negligence, but people are still accountable for their actions. A person might say that they never knew there was a connection between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, but their actions are still a contributing factor to their suffering. There is some evidence to suggest that even some "natural" events like wildfires are exacerbated by human activity. The answer to this sort of suffering caused by negligence is two-fold. First, we must learn to more accurately predict the consequences of our actions. Second, we must choose to act in such a way that minimizes suffering and increases well-being for the greatest number of people. There is nothing supernatural in any of this. This way of thinking places responsibility squarely on human beings. This is less convenient than most religious responses to suffering, but it is more realistic.

Again, our pain and grief at this kind of suffering is also very real. Recognizing human responsibility is not a way of alleviating that grief. We need one another for that very reason; expressing grief and caring for one another in times of suffering is one of the functions of meaningful, authentic community.

There is another category of suffering caused by human action, however, and this is the most challenging to address because it seems closest to a traditional definition of evil. Some suffering is caused by human beings willfully and knowingly doing harm to other human beings. When a human being uses a weapon to hurt another human being, there is no question of ignorance or negligence. When human beings willfully use chemicals or artillery or biological agents to cause harm, there is no question of ignorance or negligence. There may have been a time when human beings could claim ignorance when they oppressed or marginalized a population, but that time has passed. Human beings have a propensity for willfully and knowingly causing harm to other human beings, and this suffering requires a different response that either natural suffering or suffering caused by actual ignorance or negligence.

We cannot blame supernatural forces for the harm that human beings perpetrate on one another. We must look to ourselves in order to find meaningful answers and solutions. The most succinct answer as to the cause of this suffering is that when people experience fear, they react. Fearful people often create suffering. This may seem overly simplistic, but the solution to irrational fear is rather demanding and counter-cultural. When people are accustomed to reacting to their fear (and justifying or dismissing any harm done as a result of their reactivity), suffering is guaranteed. The only way to address human suffering caused by human fearfulness is to address the root fear. While this would ideally become a societal practice, it's more likely that change will begin (and is beginning) with individuals committed to living more intentionally.

There are countless examples regarding how fear connects to human beings causing suffering. People are afraid of all sorts of things. We fear scarcity of resources and power. We fear being ignored or taken for granted -- being invisible. We fear being oppressed or exploited. We fear being unlovable or unacceptable because we fear being ostracized and cut off and alone. We fear not having our needs and wants met, and we fear being unworthy of having our needs and wants met. Human beings live in an environment of constant fearfulness. It take real work to recognize what fears are driving us, what we actually want, and how we can move toward what we want in a way that creates wholeness. This is the most meaningful answer to suffering that we can possibly embody, and it will take some time to learn to do things differently, especially if we are accustomed to reacting to fear on a regular basis.

As we proceed beyond clarifying the right questions, the goal of dismantling irrational fear, decreasing suffering, and increasing well-being will be a primary topic. For now, it can suffice that we have a viable way of asking questions about suffering that don't resort to religious imagination or the invoking of supernatural will and afterlife rewards. Moreover, we actually have a more meaningful question than Why is there suffering? It is much more potent and evocative for us to ask What fears are prompting me to create suffering instead of creating wholeness? and What am I going to do differently? If a growing number of people are willing to ask the right questions, we can find more meaningful and transformative answers for our lives and for our world.

To summarize the interrelated questions we can meaningfully ask and address in the weeks ahead:

How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?
What am I passionate about? What is my personal life dream that creates greater wholeness in the world?
Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where do I find authentic community? 
What fears get in my way? How can I dismantle those fears and understand what I actually want?
How can I get what I most deeply want and need by creating less suffering and greater wholeness?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Asking the Right Questions -- Community

Another question that religion often seems to answer has to do with people's search for community -- a sense of belonging. Religion answers the questions, "Where can I find community? Where can I feel like I belong?" with caveats. You can find community here, if you believe the things we tell you to believe, or at least claim to. Religions are largely based on a set of beliefs, beliefs that often run counter to reality, and in order to be part of the community, you have to at least pretend to buy into those beliefs. Some people are so desperate for a sense of belonging that it seems like a pretty good deal.

A person looking for a sense of belonging enters into religious community and is told what to hope for in an afterlife, how to find a sense of purpose in service to an imaginary supernatural, and what to believe about the way the world works. It's very convenient to have someone tell you what to think, because then you don't have to go through the trouble of thinking for yourself. Some people appreciate that. So, we wind up with entire communities of people who have stopped thinking for themselves, willingly participating in a joint delusion that their emperor is wearing the latest high couture, because it's easier than wrestling with the messiness of reality.

The relationships people develop in these kinds of religious communities often wind up falling short of authentic connection, because the delusions offer easy responses to any concern that might be raised. People say, "I'll pray for you," because it's easier than actually diving into the muck of someone's pain. People say, "Trust God and it will all work out," because they have given up the capacity for taking personal responsibility in their lives. People say, "Those evil people who don't believe the same things we believe are going to hell," because it's easier to write off people who don't conform than it is to engage with people and learn from different perspectives.

And it's no wonder that people opt for easy, quick-fix answers. If they started trying to figure out the nuances of their religion's beliefs, they'd only confuse themselves. Out of one side of their mouths, religious leaders speak about infinite love, and out of the other side of their mouths, they speak with contempt for other human beings. It's more about power and influence than it is about helping people take personal responsibility for their lives, but because people have what seems like a reasonable substitute for community, they don't question it.

Of course, there are some religious leaders who say exactly what I'm saying here. They see possibilities for their tradition to take a different path that focuses on authentic connection and personal empowerment. Yet, they want to hang on to the same delusional foundations in order to create something different. They still want their communities to believe that prayer changes reality, and that a supernatural can take care of things that people are too weak to handle for themselves. It's hard to build a community of personally responsible human beings when you reinforce the belief that there is ultimately a supernatural who is in control.

Even in liberal religious communities, gaining a sense of belonging often requires conformity. It may not even be about belief in a supernatural or the power of prayer. Some religious groups require that their participants be passionate about fighting back against oppressors -- their version of "evil" people. Some religious groups expect people to use non-judgmental, politically correct language. In order to fit in and find community, people have to meet certain belief standards. While the motives may be noble, the end result is often just another set of trite phrases and pat answers.

Whether a religious community leans toward fundamentalism or liberalism, there is a tendency for individuals to stop thinking for themselves and go along with the herd. Those that don't, leave. This isn't just a feature of religious groups, of course. Groups of human beings tend toward homogeneity and mindless conformity. Religious communities amplify the issue by insisting that they know things that they don't actually know -- and often just plain aren't true. A homogeneous, mindless herd of people who believe that an all-powerful supernatural is on their side and is directing their actions can do a lot of damage.

At the same time, communities need clear identities. It's appropriate for a group to make a claim like, "We are people who first and foremost believe in shaming oppressors and fighting back against oppressive systems." Or even, "We are people who believe that prayer is an effective means of changing reality." If you share that belief in common, then you might find a sense of belonging with like-minded folks. Some groups even claim to be welcoming to everyone, but what this claim of hospitality actually means is, "We welcome anyone to come and be like us, and believe what we believe, and do things the way we do things."

Unlike the question of hope in an afterlife (which is better focused on hope in what we can do in this life), and unlike the question of purpose (which is better framed as one's decision rather than a destiny prescribed by a supernatural), the question of community and belonging is an appropriate question for people to ask. "Where can I find a genuine sense of belonging?" and "Where can I find authentic community?" are important searches that everyone engages in. Too often, though, religious communities require people to take the words genuine and authentic out of those questions, and people settle for a less than authentic community because they fear that there isn't anything else for them. People give up their own sense of personal responsibility, their own sense of self, in order to have a sense of community, because there are plenty of places that say, "You're welcome here, if you believe what we tell you to believe. You can belong here, as long as you do things the way we do things."

This question of community is worth a great deal more exploration, but for now it can suffice to say that the right framing of these questions doesn't leave out the most important words: Where can I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where can I find authentic community? We need connection with other human beings that empower us to live into a best possible version of ourselves, not restrict us to living into a best possible version that someone else imagined for us after reading an ancient text through a particularly warped lens. We need community that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person and allows for people to deepen their own connection to their deepest, most noble selves. Our sense of belonging is most meaningful when we are able to bring our whole selves into that community and find resources to grow and develop as individuals.

As we'll see moving forward, meaningful community includes five important characteristics: (1) mutual self-disclosure, (2) mutually expressed active and unconditional love, (3) mutual hospitality -- or willingness to be of service and to receive from others, (4) mutual honesty in communication, and (5) sincere affirmation. Healthy communities also have the ability to set clear boundaries and to define a central shared purpose or vision, but boundaries and purposes that create wholeness aren't based on delusions. Meaningful community does not require belief in anything beyond humanity. Meaningful community does not need to involve a supernatural. Meaningful community is possible if a group of people chooses to be intentional about putting these ideals into practice.

Before we look more deeply at how we might locate our hope realistically, take personal responsibility for our sense of purpose, and find a sense of belonging and create meaningful community without buying into mass delusions, there is one more basic question that religious pretends to answer. We'll take a brief look at the problem of evil next. In the meantime, don't leave out the most important words in your questions. Finding meaningful answers requires asking the right questions:

How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?
What am I passionate about? What is my personal life dream that creates greater wholeness in the world?
Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where do I find authentic community? 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Asking the Right Questions -- Purpose

In addition to inventing and answering questions about an afterlife, religion presumes to answer questions about purpose. We've seen that we can meaningfully reframe afterlife-focused questions as "How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with the influence I have in the world and with the legacy I leave behind?" We can also phrase questions of purpose without religious assumptions, and answer them more legitimately.

Believers who assume the existence of a supernatural seem to find it perfectly acceptable to ask, "What purpose does God have for my life?" or "What is God's plan for me?" Asking the question in this way accomplishes a few things. First, it suggests that our activities are part of a larger intentional scheme, coordinated by a better-than-human benevolent intelligence. It also removes personal responsibility for determining purpose, since it becomes the responsibility of a supernatural. In addition, it can provide a false sense comfort during challenging experiences to believe that everything is part of a larger plan or purpose that is beyond the individual's ability to perceive.

Before we consider whether framing the question of purpose differently can accomplish more for us, it's worth acknowledging that most people who believe that a supernatural has a secret plan for their lives are also susceptible to influence by religious leaders -- people perceived to have some spiritual authority. For some reason, it's acceptable to think that you are too ignorant to understand what purpose a supernatural might have, but that a professional minister somehow has special insight about what that supernatural wants for your life. This is just another way of abdicating responsibility. As long as someone else is taking responsibility for telling me my life's purpose, I don't have to worry about that. This might benefit some people if the spiritual authority they listen to has their best interests in mind, but it is far too easy for a unscrupulous spiritual authority to manipulate believers who aren't willing to take personal responsibility for their decisions. 

There is something appealing about the whole concept that God has a plan, and your life fits into it in some unique and special way, even though you are just one small piece of the puzzle. It's rather like destiny or fate, but more personal. Thus, when people experience difficult circumstances, they can fall back on this idea that a warm and loving destiny-weaver has a plan, and that everything is going to work out alright. They may even quote a scripture that promises that "all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). That can really make a person feel special and comforted, even if it doesn't seem to connect in any way to practical reality.

Just as everyone searches for hope, everyone searches for purpose. We've seen that the question of hope can be addressed in terms of how we live and how we influence the world toward wholeness. The question of purpose can be directed at us as well, rather than at some unreal external force. This might mean a little more work that just letting someone else tell us what to do, and it might mean a little more honesty when we experience challenges. 

Ultimately, we are the only ones who determine our purpose, whether we recognize it or not. If we listen to a religious leader when they tell us what we should be doing, we are still personally responsible for our decisions. We make a choice, even though it seems easy because someone is telling us with authority what a god wants from us. If we just sit at home with a sacred text and derive from that what our purpose must be, we are still the only decision-makers involved in that process. There is no supernatural guiding us. We have just become so unused to hearing our own inner voice that we think it must come from outside of us. Whether we are honest about our responsibility or we pretend that it's beyond our choosing, we determine our purpose.

This is scary for a lot of folks, especially if they've been taught that they aren't enough. Churches often teach that human beings need some supernatural aid because we aren't enough on our own. They say that we aren't wise enough, or we aren't good enough, or we aren't powerful enough to live purposeful, meaningful lives. They say that we need help from something better than us if we're going to find real meaning and purpose. This degradation of human capability is poison. It prevents people from recognizing their authentic power to make decisions that are personally satisfying and that nurture the world around them. The truth is that human wisdom and goodness and power is all we have, and it is more than enough. 

We find purpose when we take personal responsibility for our decisions -- understanding that we don't control other people, we only control ourselves. When we take the time to determine what is meaningful for us, what we really care about, we can define our purpose with clarity. When we are willing to risk the vulnerability of stepping out of our comfort zone and living into a more ambitious purpose for ourselves and for the world, we nourish our hope as well. This involves asking the question of ourselves, "What do I really care about?" thoroughly enough that we get to a powerful personal statement of purpose. To get there, we have to dig through our irrational fears and the lies that we've accepted about ourselves and other people. This takes some work, and it takes claiming our personal responsibility for our lives. And it has the potential to give us a more authentic sense of meaning and wholeness than abdicating the question of purpose to a supernatural or its representatives.

What about the idea that we are just one small piece in a bigger plan? That idea actually has some truth to it. There isn't a plan per se, but our actions do take place in a larger system. What we do in our lives can contribute to nurturing the world toward wholeness, but we don't do it all ourselves. Other people who have tapped into their purpose also find meaning in contributing their own piece. We don't have to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done in the world. We can recognize the opportunity to take meaningful action in an area that's important to us. We don't have to feel ashamed that what we do gives us personal satisfaction. Purpose and meaning are not supposed to be self-sacrificial. The point is to do something we find personally satisfying and that nurtures the world around us toward greater well-being.

The question we can ask then becomes, "What purpose do I have for my life?" and "How do I live into a personal life dream that creates wholeness and increases the well-being of others?" We don't need supernaturals to tell us what inspires us, or to point out to us what the world needs. We don't need "sacred" texts to set us on the right path. We do have to be honest about our own biases and our own fears, and we need to dig deeper than answers that seem designed to keep us safe. Having a purpose isn't safe. Living into a personal creative life dream is powerful and satisfying, but it requires some vulnerability and risk. That's why we need people around us who can support and encourage us, which leads to another important question about community. We'll learn how to ask that question meaningfully next time. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Asking the Right Questions -- Afterlife

Some people have a problem discarding the idea that a particular book is more sacred than any other. At first glance, discarding a sacred text seems to mean that there is no way to gain authoritative information about some important things. Who decides what's important, though? Many religions make assertions about what questions are important, because those are the questions religious doctrine can answer. But if the questions are nonsense in the first place, the answers can't be very meaningful or valuable. Apart from blindly trusting the assertions of a religious tradition, how do we determine what questions are meaningful? Until we do that for ourselves, we won't really know whether it's safe to discard a potential source of meaningful answers.

One question that religion seems to spend a lot of time on is, "What happens after I die? And how do I make sure that it's pleasant for me?" This is a nonsense question. First of all, after you die, you start to decompose, and possibly you nourish the earth a little bit. That sounds painful, but you won't feel it. Because you'll be dead. Dead people don't have brain activity. It's part of the definition of being dead. No brain activity, no sensation. Once your brain stops functioning, you're pretty much done experiencing anything you're going to experience. Death is an ending.

But what about the soul? Where does my soul go when I die? Another nonsense question. Of course, we would have to define "soul" to know how much nonsense the question is, but there are really only two definitions that make any sense in this context. Sometimes when people say "soul" they mean an spirit or immaterial part of a person. This suggests that people are essentially some sort of ether inhabiting a physical form for a time, and that they continue to exist ethereally after the physical body is used up. The problem with this idea is that rigorous examination has never yielded any evidence that people have such an immaterial component.

Wait a minute, you say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Wrong again. I know it's a clever phrase, and there's some truth to it, but when rational and scientific inquiry has examined a matter over and over again with consistent results, one can draw some reasonable conclusions from that consistency. Ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural entities make for great stories, but they are not part of reality. A part of us does not actually continue to exist once our bodies cease functioning. So the question of where our soul goes is a meaningless question, if by "soul" you mean an immaterial and immortal part of a person.

"Soul" can also mean a person's essence -- not an immortal intelligent part of them that continues to have will after their bodies are used up, but the core qualities and ideals they embodied. In this case, one can say that a person "lives on" in the memories of others. A person can leave a legacy that continues to influence the world long after they have died. People create works of art, initiate or contribute to institutions and organizations, usher in social change. All sorts of things that people do continue after they have died. Just in influencing one's own children, family, and friends, we continue to have influence after we are no longer alive. We don't have any choice about how that influence happens once we're dead, but we might consider that our essence continues to persist in this way.

So nothing happens to an immaterial part of you when you die, but your influence continues in the lives of other human beings. That means that what matters most is not some eternal destiny, but how you influence things in the present tense, while you are still alive and aware and making decisions. The question, then, is not, "How do I ensure a pleasant afterlife?" because there is no such thing. The question is, "How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with the influence I have in the world and with the legacy I leave behind?"

Wait a minute. What about Heaven and Hell? You know that I'm going to say this is another meaningless question if you're asking about your own actual future existence. It makes sense that we would have developed these ideas as a species. We've never really known what to do with death. Some of the most ancient human-created structures that still exist were built as tombs, places to honor the dead and usher them into some sort of afterlife. Whatever beliefs we developed were designed to provide comfort to the living, though. These beliefs do not describe reality. And it doesn't matter how many people believe in something, just believing something doesn't make it true. Heaven isn't going to pop into existence just because a lot of people believe it exists. And you're not going to develop an immaterial immortal essence just by believing hard enough.

Religious ideas do offer us some great metaphors, though. The idea of heaven and the idea of hell are very useful. The problem is that so many people seem incapable of understanding what a metaphor is. When you start taking things literally, you abuse the image. Now, people use the idea of heaven as a spiritual carrot and the idea of hell as a spiritual stick. The metaphors have become tools of coercion. If it's possible to free the idea of heaven and the idea of hell from the literal interpretation that seems so prevalent today, they can still be useful metaphors. If we use them as metaphors, though, it's our responsibility to be clear that we're doing so.

Knowing that a large number of people interpret these ideas literally means that we have to be overly cautious if we want to communicate clearly. Just like we might be sensitive that young children are in the room while Santa Claus is being discussed. It's a shame that our culture encourages people to be rational about believing in Santa Claus, but then discourages rational thought in so many other areas, particularly where religion or consumerism is concerned.

"Where do I go when I die?" should certainly be on a list of meaningless questions. Any resource that seems to make that question important is a resource we can safely discard. That is, unless we find it useful in a more metaphorical sense, in which case we ought to be very clear about how we're using it. A more meaningful question is, "How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?" A resource that seems to speak to that question is worth examining. That doesn't mean every answer is equally useful or credible, but at least we can begin to articulate the question more clearly.

We'll articulate some other big questions before looking at where to discover meaningful answers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Eschatos (for now)

Having concluded the gospel of John, I spent some time considering what to tackle next. The decision was difficult. Continuing with the second third of Isaiah would make a lot of sense, considering that so many believers mistakenly conclude that the book is about Jesus. (The "servant" in the book is more likely an idealized, emotionally mature person in the midst of an anxious society.) The letters of Paul, taken in any sequence, would be useful perhaps, since many of the Christianities that exist today are based more on Paul's flawed thinking than on any of the Christ narratives. Especially with regard to judging people who seem different, Christians frequently rely on the words of Paul to condemn others and spread fear.

However, even these compelling possibilities seem uninspiring, at least for now. Thus, the title "Eschatos" -- last things, endings. I have accomplished several things that I set out to demonstrate when I began this exercise. First, I have shown that meaning can be derived from a text without assuming the historical accuracy of the story in the text. Second, I have shown how one might discard harmful assertions from "sacred" texts in order to bring one's beliefs into alignment with one's deepest values. Third, and perhaps most importantly, I have consistently reflected an atheist/Humanist philosophy that holds human beings in high regard and forms a credible foundation for ethical and moral behavior. I have freely interpreted the text through a lens of my own choosing, as every interpreter does, such that the Bible was brought into alignment with the guiding principle that every person has inherent worth and dignity.

It should be noted that some of the text had to be dismissed or refuted in order to do this. This is because the Bible is a flawed document written by imperfect human beings who often didn't know what to do with their anxiety and fear. Yet, I don't really think anything I have written here will convince someone to read things with an open mind if they're prone to believe in a literal translation of the text. And those who are willing to read things with an open mind don't need my encouragement to do so. In any case, I don't need to continue with this particular project in order to demonstrate how you might first clarify your own guiding principles, and then read whatever text you choose to read with an eye toward deepening your integrity and aligning more intentionally with your deepest, most noble self.

I originally chose the Bible because it's such a strong influence in Western culture, much more so than Buddhist writings, for instance, which might more easily line up with my Humanist assertions. Recently, though, I've been saddened by how flippantly some believers use biblical texts as weapons to harm others. The ideas of bigotry and fear, practices of injustice and hatred, even acts of profound dishonesty and abuse are sanctified by words from this collection of texts that ought have no more importance than any other ancient document.

It is clear that a significant portion of the population interprets the words of the Bible as license to not learn how to think critically, as permission not to develop into fully human vessels of love and light that create wholeness. I find that I am repulsed by words that attribute human worth to the benevolence of a supernatural, not least of all because that imagined supernatural is also used to disguise hate as virtue and fear as righteous indignation. Where I may once have easily interpreted Humanist ideals out of a theistic text, I now find it abhorrent to in any way legitimize words that so many believers use to justify lazy, narrow-minded thinking that keeps people from wholeness rather than fueling a journey toward wholeness.

The idea that there is a supernatural who guards and guides human life is simply wrong. Abdicating one's personal responsibility to the will of an imaginary god is simply irresponsible. Human beings do not derive worth from anything outside of themselves, and they do not need to be cleansed or redeemed by a mystical sacrifice. Human beings have inherent worth and dignity. This means that there is nothing a person needs to do to earn the status of being enough. And there is nothing that can take human worth away from anybody.

Human beings are still flawed. We still give in to our anxiety, and we let our fear make decisions for us. An even more flawed mythology isn't going to help us deal with these issues. What we need is to take responsibility for our own part in the greater system of humanity. Human beings are capable of growing in their emotional maturity. Human beings are capable of developing integrity. Human beings are capable of doing the work of creating wholeness in their lives and in the lives of others. And we don't need a god to do these things. And we don't need a sacred book.

Sacred books and gods are convenient, it's true. But they are also easily abused without dispute. Legitimizing belief in a god for the sake of empowering people to do good things in the world unfortunately opens the door for belief in a god to empower people to feel justified in hatred, fear, and violence. As a species, for the last two thousand years, we have failed to teach people to use their myths properly. Thus, it is better to work to discard the myths and replace them with something more useful and better suited to the task of human development.

There are some tools that are necessary to do a certain job, even though they could be dangerous. We keep those tools around because they are useful, and we take precautions that they are used and kept in a way that maintains a level of safety. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise. Belief in a god is not a necessary tool. For the creation of wholeness, for developing greater integrity, for recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, for growing in emotional maturity, belief in a god is unnecessary. More importantly, belief in a god frequently keeps people from creating wholeness, developing integrity, recognizing human worth, and growing in emotional maturity. When a tool is unnecessary and dangerous, the responsible thing to do is to throw it out.

You can say, "Those people don't believe in the god I believe in. The god I believe in is wonderful." That's nice. You don't need it. If you want the luxury of keeping a tool around because you find it convenient, despite the harmful things so many people do with that tool, I believe it is your responsibility to teach people how to use that tool properly. If you want to hang on to your supernatural, it is not alright that you stand by and watch people do abusive, hateful, fear-driven things in the name of your supernatural. You are responsible for how you allow others to use your tools. If you want belief in a god to remain in public usage, you are responsible for speaking out boldly for what kind of god you're willing for that to be. The people I hear speaking out boldly for their god are only saying things that reflect their fears and anxieties veiled in religiosity.

For me, belief in a god is unnecessary, and sacred texts are unnecessary. These things are too dangerous for me to continue accepting and legitimizing them. Accepting the premise of the importance of the Bible has become a distraction from delighting in life and creating wholeness. I'm grateful for your attention as a reader, and I hope that my words have been meaningful to you thus far. My hope for you is that you find ways to deepen your own connection to your deepest most noble self in everything that you read, and that you continually recognize the truth, beauty, and creativity within you. Live into a best possible version of yourself, and the result will be a better world.

Monday, October 26, 2015

John 21: Second Chances

The postscript to the gospel of John was created with at least one clear purpose -- to redeem a leader in the early Christian movement from an embarrassing episode of disloyalty. There is some debate as to whether this final chapter of John was written by the same author as the rest of the book. At this point, there are only four or five actual complete copies of the gospel of John from the 4th century or earlier, and even among these there are apparent discrepancies. Whoever added this chapter to the end of the narrative, however, apparently felt it was necessary to address some concern in the community.

After the resurrected Jesus character prompts a miraculous catch of fish, he asks Peter to affirm his devotion three times, mirroring the three-fold denial of Peter earlier in the story. The Jesus character then foretells how Peter will die (a detail that could not have been included by the author until after this early sect leader's death), and he also mentions how the author of the preceding 20 chapters will die. The author of this postscript mentions one rumor that is being debunked here, although he does so in a way that reassures the reader that it is alright if a community leader dies.

Symbolism is prevalent here, which is one indication that this is not a report of actual incidents but a story with a metaphorical meaning. The exact number of fish caught is clearly symbolic and not actual, and many people have put forth theories about what that number might signify. There's no point in offering such a theory, however, because there is no way to prove or disprove any clever ideas about the number 153. Fishing and not catching anything until the Christ-figure shows up is also a hearkening back to previous stories, locating the tale within a larger context of Jesus stories. And of course, the three-fold redemption of Peter is highly symbolic, and some commentators have picked apart what fine distinctions might be made between "sheep" or "lambs" and "tending" or "feeding." Maybe the author had some specific nuanced differences in mind, but unless we discover some explanation written by the actual author, we shouldn't put too much stock in a "scholar" who claims to have solved a riddle that doesn't even necessarily exist.

There's no telling what sorts of rumors, myths, and doubts threatened the community for whom this epilogue was written. Obviously, if they were expecting that the leader of their community would remain alive -- at least until a mystical Christ figure returned -- it would have been something of a shock when that leader died. That could have shaken their worldview and their faith. The author of this story may have felt it necessary to remind people that they had made up this business about having a near-immortal leader, and they were simply wrong. It's a fair reason to write such a tale, if one wants to keep a community united in purpose and focused on promoting a particular set of beliefs and values.

It isn't hard to excuse first-century people for believing in supernatural beings and Christ figures that would return from Heaven and make everything wonderful for them. What's a little tougher to grasp is how twenty-first-century people still believe in something like a rapture event, and base life decisions around a delusional (and somewhat narcissistic) conviction. There are people in the United States today who make decisions about politics, finances, and who they are entitled to hate, based on an expectation that we would deem utterly insane if they were expecting Odin or Athena or aliens riding the tail of a comet instead of Jesus. None of that is really what this chapter is about though.

This chapter, should we want to make it meaningful, offers a lesson about the mutuality of second chances, and it suggests something about life that we have a hard time accepting. Regarding the primary interchange between Peter and Jesus, there is the one who has betrayed, and the one who has been betrayed. They both have to do their part in order for reconciliation to occur. The betrayed (the Jesus character) sets aside any animosity or resentment, and the betrayer humbly expresses regret and a renewed willingness to love.

Sometimes we find it very challenging to reconcile, no matter which side of this conversation we find ourselves. When we feel unloved, it feels vulnerable to reach out to someone and ask, "Do you love me?" It seems like a needy, co-dependent kind of question. Yet, in this story, we see it asked in a very straightforward manner, almost as if it is bringing things back into focus. What matters at the end of the day? Let's start there and see how we want to move forward, given everything that has happened. 

And in the story, the response is accepted, with a clear and direct way that it can be demonstrated. You do love me? Alright, here's what you can do to demonstrate that. This isn't quite the same as saying, "Prove it." We all have different things that really speak love to us. Some people appreciate receiving tokens of affection, some people find acts of care most meaningful, and some value words spoken sincerely. The Jesus character is being direct about what means love to him. This means that he knows himself well enough to clearly express what he finds meaningful.

He also gives Peter a chance to reconsider. Are you sure? I don't need platitudes. Just be honest. There doesn't seem to be any shame in the repeated question, although we might imagine feeling shame if we were on the receiving end. Before long, though, the Jesus character is done asking questions. He leaves the matter alone and the relationship moves forward. If Peter had said, "I can't (or won't) do what you want me to," we might imagine Jesus smiling gently and saying, "Alright. I understand." Can we imagine ourselves doing the same?

If we can imagine ourselves in this process, we have a clear example of how to invite reconciliation.

(1) We take the first step toward someone who has done something that we've interpreted as a betrayal or an unloving act.

(2) We bring things back into focus by asking questions foundational to the relationship. "Do you love me?" or "Is there any point to moving forward with us?"

(3) We clearly state what we want or need. "This is what means love/friendship/collaboration to me."

(4) We allow space for the other person's sincere response and trust them to speak truthfully. And we accept the outcome, whether or not reconciliation is possible at this time.

We can still have boundaries and accept people's sincere responses. We can enforce the consequences of having our boundaries trampled and still be loving people. The people who are closest to us are the ones most likely to challenge our boundaries, and sometimes this is even a way that we grow beyond our comfort zone. There is nothing about this exchange, though, that suggests we ought to be naive or willfully oblivious to someone's dangerous behavior. We care for ourselves and for the people around us when we set clear boundaries and allow there to be consequences.

Sometimes we find ourselves on the other side of this relationship -- on the side represented by Peter in the story. We discover that we have acted or spoken in a way that isn't aligned with a best possible version of ourselves. We have treated another person in a way that doesn't reflect our deepest values. Peter is patient, too. He is sad, and yet he doesn't have an angry outburst. He doesn't feel the need to defend himself when the question comes a second or third time. He answers sincerely, and (as far as we can tell) he accepts the terms offered by the Jesus character. "If this is what love means to you, I'm willing to do it."

He can say this, because what the Jesus character wants is not dissonant with what Peter wants for himself. If Jesus had asked him to do something harmful to himself or others, we would see it as manipulation or coercion -- fear-driven behavior. When we set aside our own deepest values in order to prove something to someone else, this is not healthy. When we can see reflected in someone else's request our own vision of a best possible version of ourselves, we can more confidently agree to how love or partnership can be meaningfully expressed and received.

This story is necessary because of Peter's legendary place in the hierarchy of the early Christian sect. There are a lot of traditions about Peter, including that he was the first pope. Where history has failed to leave clear evidence, people have invented traditions, and it simply would not do for the inaugural leader of the Christian movement to have a blemish on his record. The story of Peter's denial of Jesus was too much for people to accept alongside the favorable traditions and legends they had invented around this figure. He needed a redemption story to balance out a widely known story of significant failure.

In our own lives, we need stories of second chances, too. We will inevitably fail in our endeavors and in our relationships. Especially if we are committed to growing and learning how to create the relationships and lives we most want. Learning new things almost always means experiencing some failure before we get the hang of a new way of being. Strong relationships and healthy communities are not defined by a lack of conflict or painless co-existence. Strong relationships and healthy communities are places where failure is safe, because people are willing to clean up messes and seek reconciliation. Being connected to other human beings is going to painful, not all the time, but sometimes. It's important for us to have a way to reconnect when we don't live up to a best possible version of ourselves.

I also said that this chapter suggests something about life we have a hard time accepting. It's about our mortality. The Jesus character tells Peter essentially that he needs to do what's important while he has a chance. We are limited in terms of the time have. The people in our lives who are important to us aren't always going to be here. And it's alright for us to keep living after people close to us have died. We must. But while we have the opportunity, may we do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said in our relationships, and may we do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said to journey toward our own personal creative life dream. We may have a lot of time. We may have a little. The point is to use it well.

Monday, October 19, 2015

John 20: The Influence of the Enlightened

The story of the resurrection event concludes in the gospel of John with Jesus visiting the disciples in an exalted form. As we see in John 20, the post-resurrection Jesus character passes through locked doors unhindered, and a week later the Jesus character returns to convince the skeptic among the disciples that he is real. Remembering that this is a story, we know that it would be missing the point to ask where the resurrected Jesus might have gone for the week in between these visits. Instead, we can follow the rather ancient practice of interpreting the text metaphorically.

If the Jesus character is representative of us, then the resurrected Jesus character is representative of a fully alive, fully self-differentiated, best possible version of ourselves in complete alignment between our deepest values and our actions in the world. We might equate being "exalted" with a state of being unhindered by fears and anxieties, acting with complete integrity, sensitive to others without allowing ourselves to be restricted by other people's opinions and beliefs. Just as the Jesus character passes through locked doors, when we are living into a best possible version of ourselves, there are fewer obstacles that can keep us from being the people we most want to be, full incarnations of our deepest, most noble selves.

The resurrected Jesus character is not only able to be in complete alignment for himself, but he also influences the well-being of the people with whom he interacts. In the same way, we nurture others toward wholeness when we act in accord with our deepest values. Specifically, the exemplar in the story empowers others to live with integrity and purpose, particularly with regard to reactivity and shame. If we interpret sin as the reactive result of anxiety -- what people do when they allow irrational fear to be in the driver's seat -- then we recognize that we have some influence on other people's anxiety and the shame that they might feel after letting their anxiety run away with them.

When we show up as less anxious, more at peace, and in greater alignment with our deepest values, we influence the people around us. Just as anxiety is contagious, intentional calmness can be contagious, too. This means that our ability to act in alignment with our deepest, most noble selves has the potential to influence people away from reactivity. Even when people are reactive and act thoughtlessly on their anxiety, our principled intentional presence can influence people away from useless shame after the fact. We can acknowledge that being anxious is human, and reacting to our anxiety is natural. Yes, there are consequences to our actions and messes to clean up, but we are capable of facing those consequences and seeking reconciliation when things go sideways. Shame doesn't help us with these tasks. When we influence people toward greater wholeness by our own integrity and purposeful behavior, we might allow them to place limits on the influence of their anxiety and shame, and learn to cast vision in their own lives.

Now, the story about Thomas seems to be thrown in just to silence skeptics. Pronouncing blessing on people who believe things without evidence is a way of credentialing nonsense. When readers take the implications of this story at face-value, it affirms everything that is dangerous about religion. Believing something just because someone wrote it down two thousand years ago is naive at best. It lacks integrity to believing what spiritual leaders say just because they say it with conviction or wear special clothing or have authorization from a larger organization. Some things proclaimed on the basis of religious doctrine are quite simply false. Not only is there a lack of evidence to support some of the things people believe on the basis of religion, there is actual evidence to the contrary. Yet some people believe that they will be considered blessed or righteous for believing nonsense, because they read a passage like the story of Thomas and interpret it to mean, "ignore reality; believe what your preacher tells you."

Although it's probably easier just to dismiss this passage as a piece of early Christian propaganda to legitimize faith, we could also interpret this story to suggest that there are always things we do not know. We can guess with some reliability that the things we don't know will be congruent with the things that we can prove about reality, but there are still things that we don't know. In embarking on any journey of personal growth -- one might say personal transformation -- we must take some steps without knowing what lies ahead. To characterize growing into greater integrity and authenticity as vulnerable and risky is a profound understatement. When we build our lives with confident alignment to our deepest values, we may not see all that will be as a result of that intentional act. We move forward with as much clarity as we can have about our deepest values, but there are limits to our clarity. At some point, we have to trust ourselves to step forward into something we can't see clearly in order to become more fully alive -- more closely aligned with our vision of a best possible version of ourselves. If we take anything from the story of Thomas' skepticism, it should be this, rather than an admonition to believe nonsense and call it enlightenment.

The author ends the book of John with a statement of purpose. It's clear that the author has an agenda to convince people to accept his own religious position. The agenda of this commentary has hopefully been equally clear: to position the fictional character of Jesus in this ancient text as a metaphorical exemplar of what we might be if we choose to embrace our potential to radically love ourselves, the people around us, and the world we all share.

The goal of our lives is only determined by us. There is nothing outside of ourselves that compels us to outgrow our anxiety and our irrational fear. In some ways, society prompts us to remain anxious and reactive. However, if we choose to move toward being fully alive incarnations of our deepest, most noble selves, we are capable of embarking on that journey. We have within us the potential to act with integrity and intention. We have within us the ability to influence our lives and the lives of people around us toward greater wholeness. If this is not a compelling message of hope, I don't know what is.

Monday, October 12, 2015

John 20: Our Resurrection and Meaningful Hope

We blew right past a lot of the mythological details in the passion narrative. Some believers focus much more on the details of John 19, and there are legendary tales regarding the mystical powers of the spear that pierced Jesus' side. Since this is rather like spending time dwelling on the actual powers of a harp played by the Norse god Bragi, we've quickly arrived at John 20, which is a somewhat altered resurrection story than what we find in the synoptic gospels. Again, we need not worry about comparing the details of who arrived where first and who said what; these are authorial creations intended to tell a story a certain way. We can turn our attention in other directions.

Most importantly, there is a resurrection. We observed previously that the suffering of the crucifixion was a result of remaining self-differentiated and maintaining integrity in the midst of anxious people who allowed fear to drive them. Here we see that suffering was not the end of the story. The outcome of suffering for the Jesus character is that he rises and assumes an exalted status. Perhaps we too might expect that on the other side of our suffering is a sense of renewed life, not on the other side of the grave, but while we are still alive and walking around.

The persecution we might face for creating a life that aligns with our deepest, most noble selves is painful, but we also gain something greater than that suffering -- namely, the more fully alive life that we create. We gain alignment with our deepest, most noble selves, which is a way of being that allows us to be more fully alive -- as the Jesus character seems to be in the resurrection story of the gospel of John. He is barely recognizable to people who knew him well, just as our way of aligning with our deepest, most noble selves may be barely recognizable to people who knew us when we were less fully alive.

There are a few other details in the story from which we might also draw some meaning. For instance, Mary arrives at the tomb, sees something she doesn't expect, makes some assumptions (based primarily on fear), and runs off in reaction to those assumptions. She finds two other people, who hear her anxious conclusions and run off in reaction to her story. These two people make their own assumptions and -- without fully understanding what is happening -- go home, satisfied with the reliability their conclusions. At this point in the story, none of these characters know what is happening, but they all are convinced that they have a full grasp of the situation. They aren't happy about it. In some cases, they are overwhelmed with anxiety. But they believe that they understand the situation fully.

We don't ever understand a situation fully. We might understand things accurately in part, but we can't know all that there is to know about a situation. There are historical events that contribute to a situation and yet their connection might remain unnoticed. Each person in a situation brings their own perspective and baggage into it, and we can never know fully what goes on in another person's head. Before our anxiety carries us off into Autopilot Reaction Land, it's worth remembering that we don't know all that there is to know. If we can remain curious and ask questions, we might just short circuit our anxiety, even if we still fail to grasp a situation completely.

The second portion of this passage from the first half of John 20 has a lot of mystical implications, which were probably very important to the community for which the gospel was originally written. The dialogue between Mary and Jesus indicates that the community thought some very specific things about a post-resurrection Jesus. These ideas are not based on factual data, but rather on the assumptions of a community -- what made sense to those people at that time. We follow the same process too, often arriving at strange conclusions.

For the community in which this gospel was written, it made sense for Jesus to be unrecognizable and to say, "Don't touch me because I haven't yet ascended." They essentially made things up about what a resurrected person might say, based on their assumptions about the world. Some people today think it makes sense to conclude that wild conspiracy theories have merit, or that alien visitation is a viable explanation for some experience. These conclusions make sense to the people making them, even if they don't hold water under objective scrutiny. People today believe a literal interpretation of biblical stories, even though such an interpretation is incompatible with what is demonstrably true about the world.

Anxiety can make us forget things we actually do know. When we are anxious, our brains find it easier to latch onto any explanation -- even explanations that don't make a lot of sense -- because we want our anxiety to go away. When we think we understand something, we feel like we can have some control. We can put tin foil on our heads to protect our thoughts. We can amass a stockpile of resources in a fallout shelter to prepare for a societal breakdown. We can do something based on what we think we know, forgetting that there are pieces of contradictory evidence we aren't considering.

Sometimes, we hold two mutually exclusive competing ideas in our head without even realizing it. We think that our bosses hate us no matter what we do, yet we keep trying to find ways to please them. We think that our spouses love us, yet we behave as if they are our enemies. We believe that we are part of a religion founded on unconditional love, yet we pronounce hateful judgment on people who seem different from us. Somehow, these contradictions make sense in our anxious mind.

Our anxiety makes us forget what we know about people or about ourselves or about reality, and we go off on some fear-driven tangent without even realizing that we aren't acting in accord with what we believe most deeply. If we are willing to stop and think through our behavior, based on a deeper connection with our clear guiding principles, our actions might more often align with our vision of a best possible version of ourselves.

Now, there's no way to know what the characters in this story believed most deeply. One thing that is clear, however, is that there is some emotional volatility at play. Their anxiety is powerful. Yet, at the end of this particular passage, Mary's behavior is very different from the ending of the gospel of Mark, in which the women run away scared and tell no one what they've seen. Mary finds a sense of hope and runs to share that hope with others.

Obviously, hope is more uplifting than fear. Our hope can still be based on unrealistic or dishonest beliefs, though. In the story, of course, Mary accurately identifies a resurrected Jesus. This is just a story, not a historical account. In our own lives, we might be tempted to invest a lot of hope in things that we know aren't likely to happen. Hope in the impossible is not useful hope. In fact, hope in the impossible is most likely an anxious reaction in disguise. We feel powerless, so we place hope in something beyond our control.

An overwhelming majority of parents think that their high school athletes will have a career in professional sports, when it's obvious that only a minuscule percentage of high school athletes will go pro. Often, we expect that people in our lives are going to change into the people we want them to be. While we will surely influence people, we can't control how they will change as a result of our influence. We might hope for a mystical experience with something supernatural outside of ourselves, but every piece of evidence we have points to the conclusion that what we consider to be mystical experiences happen inside our own brains. We mistake internal chemical reactions that we don't understand for external supernatural experiences -- which we somehow believe we do understand.

It's important for us to share our hope with others, and it's important for us to maintain a sense of reality in the midst of our hopefulness. Realistic hope can prompt us toward actions that align with that dream of what could be. And it's important for us to share our anxiety with others too, if we're conscientious enough to share our anxiety with people who will help us shift out of autopilot and back toward a more intentional approach to how we manage our anxiety. Mary is a great example of connection in this passage. Everything that happens, she runs to tell someone. She isn't a great example of personal responsibility, though. We can forgive a fictional character in the throes of grief for not being grounded and centered. In our own lives, we can strive for a sense of connection with ourselves even as we foster connection with other people.

We can draw a lot of lessons from these short paragraphs, then. First -- even though our integrity may be seen as sedition and anxious people may persecute us for our intentional alignment with our deepest, most noble selves -- when we engage in fully alive lives, our experience might be beyond what we ever dreamed life could be.

Second, our anxiety can convince us that we know things we don't know. It's important for us to remember that we can't know everything. Our sense of curiosity can help us manage our reactivity.

Third, our anxiety can make us forget things we do know. We can become sharper about examining our beliefs and identifying when we are holding two mutually exclusive ideas in our heads. We can choose to follow the belief that aligns with our deepest values and let the other one go as a product of our anxiety.

Finally, hope is important, and it's most powerful when it's balanced with reality. When we hope for things that are impossible, we can't move toward them in any meaningful way. When we hope for things that are possible, we can act in accord with that hope and create more meaningful lives for ourselves and for the people around us.