There Will Be a Door

My daughter is a smart three-and-a-half year old.  I have never said anything to her about Jesus.

This may be shocking to some people, but for me I knew there would be a “right” or best time, and that time had not come before last night.

Truth be told, I don’t speak much to her about God either.  It’s not that I don’t want her to have a rich spiritual life, in fact it’s exactly the opposite.  I know this child, and she is a scientist.  She wants to know how, and why, and what the measurements and evidence are.  I love that about her, and I try to do everything in my power to encourage this way of thinking.

For her right now, trying to explain Jesus is too much like making it a fairy tale.  Which, let’s be fair, in many ways it is like a fairy tale.  But I believe(d) one can only begin to hold the concept of the limitations of human expression in the midst of divine truth after much personal experience over many years.  Even then, the holding is delicate, and easily slips through your fingers.  I can’t even fathom going down the road of, “See that sweet baby? He’s the son of God, He loves all people, he was tortured to death as a criminal. Oh, and he rose from the dead. ‘Night, sweetie…..”

Not. Gonna. Happen.  I just kept telling myself, when the time is right, the door will open, and we will walk through it.

Enter my man, Ezra Jack Keats.

We have the classic book illustrated by Keats The Little Drummer Boy checked out from the library this week.  I’ve been reading/singing it to my child every night for three nights.  As soon as it is over she asks to hear it one more time, so we often have at least two consecutive readings before bed.

Last night, as did so many desperate parents, my husband reached for whatever he thought would work. He said to our bed-bouncing top-of-lungs yelping young’un, “Be quiet, sweetie.  The baby Jesus is trying to sleep.”

Without missing a bounce she laughed and said, “Daddy, that’s silly. The baby Jesus lived a long time ago.  He’s not alive any more. He’s like the dinosaurs.”

I can take a hint.

I took a deep breath, because this is one thing I really didn’t want to screw up. Sex, death, and God need to be as close to right as you can get them.

“Well,” I said, “That’s not exactly true.”

She looked at me seriously. I could tell I was supposed to go on.

I opened The Little Drummer Boy.  “Do you see those kings in the story, the grown ups with crowns and money and fancy presents? Doesn’t it seem a little strange that they are going all that way to give a baby those things?”  She acknowledged it was a little strange.

“Some people believe that baby Jesus was God’s way of coming to live with us on Earth. The kings believed that God sent Jesus. They weren’t just going to see a baby, they believed they were going to honor and welcome a part of God to our world.”

Total attention now.

“See how the baby appreciates the little boy the most? That’s how momma and daddy see  God. We believe God loves all people, and that bringing your truest self as a gift is the best thing you can do.”

She’s still listening to me.  I decide to go for it.  I may never get another chance.

“Momma believes Jesus is still alive. Sometimes I talk to him. (She didn’t laugh at me.)  What would you give baby Jesus as a gift do you think?”

With only a slight pause she says with great confidence, “I would give him a dragon kiss!”

I think I must have gotten something right.  Merry Christmas, everyone.

A Somewhat Unexpected Adoration of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is dead at the age of 62.  The world has lost one of the most effective and compelling questioners of the 21st century.

Hitchens was a famous atheist.  Not agnostic.  Atheist.  I am neither famous nor atheist, and yet every time I crossed paths with Hitchens’ provocative arguments, I felt closer to a positive spiritual energy in the universe and farther away from the failures of mankind.

This would probably make Hitchens disgusted, but so be it.

My experience with his thinking was that he was more a fighter for what I think “God” is than some of the biggest name faith leaders of our time.  He wanted people to be intelligent, and self-aware.  He was passionate about the idea of truth, that it could be known and that people have an ethical obligation to strive to know it.  He had an absolute eagle-eye for self-deception and cowardice masquerading as devotion.  While he and I did not see eye to eye about life, I always felt like underneath the language that could divide our positions, he was fighting for higher standards and a better world with a tenacity that rivaled some saints.

I liked his style.

He was intolerant of people who were waiting for a supernatural power to save the world.  He expected action towards that end here and now, and spoke often about humanity’s accountability for making the world a better place.

I can’t defend it, I just feel it.  Christopher Hitchens was a member of a covert group of agents from another dimension (don’t make me say “angels”), getting stuff done and pushing the envelope and fighting like a mad man to challenge common assumptions about life’s most important questions.

Here is an interesting passage I found that represents some areas of overlap I had with his frustrations:

(I’m sending up a prayer for his well-earned eternal rest.  I hope he’s not pissed.)

“About once or twice every month I engage in public debates with those whose pressing need it is to woo and to win the approval of supernatural beings. Very often, when I give my view that there is no supernatural dimension, and certainly not one that is only or especially available to the faithful, and that the natural world is wonderful enough—and even miraculous enough if you insist—I attract pitying looks and anxious questions. How, in that case, I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about? 

Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is. (It is on a par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don’t believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart’s content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is: self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity—so the answer to the first question falls into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities… but there, there. Enough.” 

― Christopher HitchensHitch-22

God, Sex, and Your Lover

……now that I have your attention, let’s talk about sex.

Well, yes and no on that.  Let’s talk about God, sex, and your lover.

A college classmate of mine sent me a link to a recent essay in the Huffington Post, Roger Friedland: God, Sex and Love on American Campuses.  I love that she knew I would be fascinated by this, and I am.  I find the intersection of sexuality and spirituality to be one of the most compelling destinations in human experience.

Friedland is a Professor of Religion and Cultural Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He conducted surveys of students on his campus to find answers to questions about who is doing what with whom and why from a sexual perspective.  He was curious about the perceived change of habits since his own youth, when as he reflects, love was taken almost for granted but sex was something to investigate.

My generation took love for granted; sex was the great uncertainty, the adventure. This new generation has reversed the equation. For them, sex has become ordinary; what is uncertain, frightening, and for an increasing number of them unbelievable, is love.

When you read the HuffPo piece, be aware it is relatively explicit but moves on quickly to questions about the relevance and role of religion to young people’s choices about sex.  Friedland is quick to establish that there is simply no objective and reliable research that supports the idea that belief in God has much of an effect on what people actually do in their sex lives.  For example, students taking “virginity pledges” were almost identical in their sexual experiences with those who did not take the pledge, with the exception of more, ahem, oral experience.

So what difference does belief in God make in all this?  According to Friedman, it makes a monumental difference in a very key area, that being the connection between sex and love.

When compared to those who don’t believe in anything beyond the physical world, young people who definitely believe in God are twice as likely to make love, as opposed to just having sex…….If you want a lover, one of the best places to look is among those who believe in God.

It would be too easy to turn this research into an advertisement for why if one is looking for love they should join a faith-based dating service.  The real show-stopper in Friedman’s musings comes when he proposes that we all think very critically and seriously about what it means for our world that we are chasing sexual social demons at the peril of losing our grip on real love —  not so much love in the Valentine shape of the thing, but love in the God-shape.

We are going down the rabbit hole after something that is not much influenced by our pursuits, and neglecting to secure our commitment to and involvement with love in our spiritual and social selves.

A relation with the divine is one in which you acknowledge your lack of sovereignty and self-control; admit that you are not your own basis, your own source; and depend on an other for your being whom you will never really understand or control. Religiosity and real romance are parallel orders of experience.

Religion is a source of constant disagreement and debate; increasingly for this generation of young people, so is love.  It seems to me that when we lose specific religious convictions, if we still have love as a guiding star our world is generally secure.  The opposite does not hold true.  If we begin to debate the existence and importance of love, all that holds us together is in peril.

Love is an unlikely, even impossible, life course, but nonetheless an essential driver of much that is great in our world. Love is the prerequisite of our kind of history. When we no longer believe in it, we cripple our capacity to make it.

Sex will always be interesting, there’s no denying that.  But I have to agree with Friedman, for sex to be the driving focus of organized religion as it has become in so many cases seems anemic and sad.  There is no end to the list of things that people think “should” be true but that just are not.  Religious organizations need to get serious about what is really at-risk here.

Let’s take our eyes off of people’s underpants and put them back on their hearts, where they belong.

Image credit: Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)

And I Thought Heresy Was So Last Century…

I’m not very trendy or au courant, so I’m often informed of the latest craze well after it has taken root.  I thought I was safe, however, in my general assumption that seriously being accused of being a heretic was in mothballs.  Imagine my surprise in the past 4 weeks to encounter 4 people — that’s one per week folks — being either actually accused of heresy or expressing concern that they would be.  Two of the people I know personally, two are authors of books questioning traditional interpretations of Biblical scriptures.

From Wikipedia:

Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one’s religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion.

I originally planned to steer clear of the recent book getting a lot of press about questions of “what is hell” and “is hell real.”  If you missed it, there is a good AP story about the book, the author, and some of the fall out connected to his public questioning here:  What is hell? Book stirs debate about afterlife – Yahoo! News.

I told a friend of mine who implied it might be good for Esse Diem that I considered it but rejected it as meaningful conversation, as it seems to go nowhere fast.  The people I’ve encountered who believe in hell are not moving, and I can honestly see why:  It’s a great no-lose position.  I actually saw a woman spell it out online:  “If I am right, you will burn in hell and I will be in heaven with God.  If I am wrong, I’m still not going to hell.  Goodnight.”  Except I am editing her closing remark.  It wasn’t that polite and was closer to a parting comment more common on the street.

You have to hand it to her.  That’s pretty solid on the face of it.  True, I win.  False, I win.

Except sometimes, even the most hardcore not-gonna-change-my-minders open up, and I say better late than never:

The Roman Catholic Church has admitted to erring these past 359 years in formally condemning Galileo Galilei for entertaining scientific truths it long denounced as against-the-Scriptures heresy.

Pope John Paul II turned up Saturday for a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help set the record straight on behalf of the 17th century Italian mathematician, astronomer and physicist who was the first man to use a telescope and who is remembered as one of history’s greatest scientists.

Excerpt from Chicago Sun-Times, November 1, 1992, William D. Montalbano

So here we go, friends.  Let’s be absolutely clear about what the position of the woman who holds onto hell with white knuckles really is:  It’s a fear-based insurance policy that claims to be faith-based, but in fact represents an inner terror and insecurity that, to me, is about as far from what God wants for us as you can get.

This does not mean anything goes and nothing matters — far from it.  But I think we so often confuse the concepts of being punished by sin and being punished for sin.  (A side note for anyone turned off by the word “sin” — I know it has a lot of baggage, but it is the best word for describing what is meant by violating a moral code of conduct decreed by a divine entity.  That is all intended here.)

My own understanding of sin in my faith tradition grew exponentially when I started to think as an adult about why a society thousands of years ago recorded some things as sinful and warned heavily against their consequences.  I began running informal experiments on my own life, and lo and behold, there developed a reliable pattern of misery connected to violating the principles of the 10 Commandments.  Note:  Have not tried them all.  Not planning to try them all.  Rest assured, my “study” is complete and everyone is still alive.

I don’t think God punished me.  I think I punished myself by not taking some good advice about how to live a healthy life connected to some core concepts that hold society together.  And I think that is what divine influence in this world wants us to understand — we are important to one another.  We need to take care of ourselves and our neighbors.  We need to focus on systems of justice and love and caring and honor in order to live our healthiest and happiest lives.  When we fall away from these systems, we hurt ourselves.

I’ll close with why I finally decided this is a good topic for this blog.  I believe that what we teach children shapes our world in ways we cannot even fathom.  Ask yourself this question:  If you had never heard of hell, and one day at age 30 someone told you that you should embrace the idea, would you?

Engraved portrait of Italian physicist and astronomer Galilei Galileo (1564 – 1642) sitting at desk and reading book. Engraved by Samuel Sartain from a painting by H.W.Wyatt. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

Lion of the Morning

Some mornings I wake up with a persistent image in my mind.  Sometimes I know why, but more often than not I really do not have a clear understanding of what brings a picture to the forefront of consciousness so soon after sleep.

Today before the sun rose I was rubbing my eyes and trying to see the coffee pot, but all I could see was the face of a lion.

It was a male lion with a scarred face.  It was not at all frightening but it was awe-inspiring.  The photo posted here is the closest thing I could find to what I saw.  My lion’s eyes were less distant and his face was wider.

I spent some time talking with a good friend yesterday about our personal spiritual beliefs, but mostly we talked about how challenging it is to have constructive conversation with our friends and associates about issues of faith and science.  My friend and I have what seem to be very different beliefs about some things, but honestly at the end of the day I still don’t think we are that far apart in what matters.

Case in point from our conversation:

Me:  I feel kind of bad about this, but I stand up all the time and say I believe in the virgin birth and I don’t really.

Friend: You don’t believe in miracles?

Me: I do.  Just not that one.

Friend:  Really.  Why not?

Me: I guess because everyone is so hung up on sex and it would get in the way of the story if there were a guy.  Who’s the guy?  Do we like that guy?  Was he her husband?  As a woman, I see and live a lot of social judgments that get in the way of what is really important.  I think the story of who Jesus was is told with a lot of myth, but that doesn’t make it untrue.  Myth for me actually tells more truth than science sometimes.

Friend:  I believe in Adam and Eve.

Me: You do?  Why?

Friend:  I just do.  I think there is a line of demarcation when God put his spirit into human beings and we became different creatures because of it.

I avoided any talk of apples and snakes.  But I’m kind of down with his point even though I would never say it the way he did exactly.  We are going to keep talking.

And I’m going to keep thinking about my lion.

Image credit: ODP

Recognizing Jesus: Some Thoughts on Faith and Reason

I recently heard a distinguished professor of religion and ethics discuss some of the more complicated elements of the New Testament. He was a fantastic speaker and knew his material so well he needed no notes and spoke almost nonstop for two hours, holding his audience of students spellbound with both his knowledge and humor.

My favorite moment was when he spoke about the body after resurrection.

“And then there’s the question, what is going on with the body after resurrection?   Jesus has a body.  But he seems to walk through walls.   Then he sits down to eat a meal with his disciples.   I guess the food is disappearing and going somewhere….and then he apparently meets up with people who know him and they don’t recognize him.   They don’t recognize him? Hello?  Why not?  Is he wearing Groucho glasses?”

The class fell out laughing, but it’s a serious question.  What does this mean anyway?

Our professor suggested this: “Maybe when you read something in ancient texts, and it doesn’t make any sense, maybe just maybe you’re not focused on what the writer is really trying to tell you.”  Of course, his big maybe was a polite and gentle way of saying that people get into all kinds of arguments about things that are not really the point.

I get nervous sometimes writing about my personal beliefs about God, in part because we do tend to focus on the wrong things. I worry that if express my questions and doubts in a public way that I will be judged, excluded, and distrusted.   I just read about someone I consider to be a very interesting thinker (John Dominic Crossan) who gets a lot of blowback for questioning some “unquestionable” tenets of the Christian belief system.

I don’t know that I am with Crossan or not, as I have not read his work; but I know myself, and from what I have read I am fascinated.  I also want him and anyone else to ask these questions, to talk about history and scholarship, and to facilitate an open conversation.   I think our understanding of history, of ancient cultures and people, of spirituality and religion, and of the human experience is only enriched by our ability to have respectful dialogue about the most mysterious questions.

Mother Theresa had doubts. It’s rational to admit that if she felt this way and struggled, then there is no one who doesn’t hit the wall.  To some extent I think the closer to the teachings of Jesus one tries to live, the more logical it is that doubts and questions will arise.  Is this really how I’m supposed to do it, because this is very often not one bit of fun, and I’m not sure anything is getting better for anyone as a result.  Do I understand this right?  I really, really don’t want to be doing this the wrong way, or it’s all for nothing.  (I think JC had that moment himself, as I recall…..hmmmm…….)

I like the idea from the lecture I attended, and from Crossnan. If it doesn’t make sense, the answer may not be I need to “have more faith.”   Maybe, just maybe, I’m not paying attention to the right thing.  More egos in the religious community need to allow for that very real possibility.

This Easter I’ll be on the lookout for my best understanding of the man we call Jesus of Nazareth.  Note to self:  If I don’t see him, it’s probably not because he’s wearing Groucho glasses.

Image credit: 3oneseven