* 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?