Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

September 1, 2007
Issue 29

Certainly the most exciting news item of the past week for me and I suspect for many, many others, was the revelations found in a new publication of Mother Teresa’s correspondence with a variety of confidants over many decades of her life. The letters reveal a deep disappointment with her spiritual life especially as it pertained to her perceived inability to experience the presence of God. Her confessions are being played out in the media as shocking disclosures that are shaking the walls of Christendom. Certain ardent atheists are having a field day with their claims (ala Bill Maher) that “She was on my side all along!”

The truth is something far more subtle and easily recognizable by millions of religious folk who have experienced similar doubts and anxieties along their own spiritual paths.

Many years ago, I authored a book entitled: “Confessions of a Christian Agnostic”. In it I tried to articulate some of the questions that are inherent in any religious faith but particularly to Christianity. In the intervening time I have received hundreds of letters from folk who enthusiastically identified with the idea of being both faithful and doubtful. This conundrum centered on the conviction that a good deal of Christianity was shaped by archaic understandings and ancient rites that had little to do with the personal quest to follow the teachings of Jesus. Many correspondents took great comfort in knowing there were others within Christianity with similar concerns. Unlike the caricatures of Christians employed by rabid anti-religionists on the one hand and fervent fundamentalists on the other, these spiritual sojourners found great meaning in their Christianity without abiding by outdated doctrines or primitive world views. Following in the path of Jesus…feeding the hungry, serving the poor, welcoming the stranger, working for peace and justice…unencumbered by arbitrary institutional mandates was a liberating and profoundly rewarding spiritual experience.

There are many Christian Agnostics who are distancing ourselves from archaic images of a anthropomorphic God “up there, out there” and aligning ourselves with the teachings of Jesus who often described the divine as being “in our midst”. In every act of compassion, in every gesture of charity and hospitality, in the search for peace, justice and mercy, there is, according to Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven”, the very presence of all that is holy.

In the current debate about the value of religion many fail to understand that faith isn’t always about doctrine and dogma. Many of us find great religious benefit in the way we live rather than what we are or are not supposed to believe. Ancient creeds matter less to us than current compassionate commitments. It is interesting to note that in three of the four gospels found in the Bible Jesus repeatedly requests that we follow him rather than insisting that we believe in him.

It is terribly presumptuous to be sure but I believe Mother Teresa was caught in this paradoxical struggle…discovering that the teachings of Jesus matter more than the teachings about Jesus. Her inability to blindly believe the doctrines about God, as painful as it was for her, did not prevent her from bringing unparalleled assistance to thousands of the poorest of the poor and in so doing accomplish the work of the very God she longed to meet.

These recently revealed confessions, provocative as they may be to some, only acknowledge what many of us have come to know and experience. Old ways of understanding God are giving way to new paradigms of faith that have little to do with bizarre rituals or antiquated ideas and everything to do with how we go about finding the divine in our midst. By her life and with her doubts, Mother Teresa pointed the way.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 28
August 15, 2007

When I was a kid I used to hang out at the local library wiling away my after-school hours immersed in reading stories by Beverly Cleary or thumbing through old Life magazines preserved in massive bindings that required both concentration and coordination to slide from the shelf without dropping and disturbing the dozens of silently engaged readers back when silence and libraries were synonymous.

I used to wonder about the old guys who sat at the long oak tables reading newspapers strung through bamboo poles or paging through magazines in between naps. It seemed to me that no matter what time of day or night it was these old geezers were in residence. I complained to no one but myself as I watched them taking up valuable chair space while depositing mini-pools of drool during their mid-reading slumbers.

Now fifty plus years later, and to no one’s surprise but my own, I no longer have to wonder.

So there I was last week sitting amidst a plethora of periodicals trying to decide which one I would pretend to read when a leggy beauty emerging from a limousine caught my attention. She was on the cover of a magazine called “Vanity Fair” whose current issue is a little larger than the “T” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia. A quick perusal with occasional longer pauses revealed the first 200 or so pages filled with equally beautiful women modeling clothes and other paraphernalia vital for personal happiness. Curiously, nearly all of these lovely ladies draped in Dior or Donna Karan appeared to be anything but happy. Sullen might best describe the overriding posture in the poses presented which, I suppose, has been the countenance determined to best sell expensive wardrobes to folk with expendable income by clever advertising executives, sullen or not.

Carefully clearing away the drool off my chin and vaguely remembering a similar scenario, I continued my scrutiny of the periodical. It was not without a certain sadness that I realized I had come to the end of the pictorial preface and was now faced with the daunting task of actually having to read.

The first article I happened upon was by Christopher Hitchens, an intellectually gifted author and journalist who has recently acquired renewed notoriety and growing prosperity by publishing a book entitled, “God Is Not Great”, a polemic against the evils of religion. The particular article in hand was an account of Hitchins’ recent book tour touting this latest volume and solidifying his reputation as America’s most fervent evangelical atheist.

Hitchins, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and a few less notable others, have tapped into a vein of popular cynicism that dismisses all religions as not just archaic and irrelevant but dangerous. It takes little research to understand where the fodder for such a rationale comes. The headlines are filled with bizarre and frightening examples of religion gone amok. Few can argue that heavenly rewards of perpetual virgins or divine punishment for people who don’t think like Pat Robertson is enough to drive most rational folk over the religious edge. But what Hitchins and the others fail to confront is the very positive elements of religious involvement that have nothing to do with suicide bombers or whacked-out TV preachers.

Religion, at its best, is a search for the sacred in life. The stories, myths, rituals and more are attempts to articulate this holy quest. When people come together to share their gratitude for life, their commitment to health and well-being, their longing for justice and peace…these are religious activities and sacred actions that serve as the very core of civilization. It is only when religionists confuse these proceedings with accurately describing history or objectively defining science that they run the risk of becoming dangerous and destructive.

What I would like to see are evangelical atheists like Hitchins spend less time attacking the bigoted and ignorant straw-men they erect as representatives of religious folk and confront instead the intricacies and subtleties of the spiritual life as it is experienced by millions of others who do not subscribe to bizarre beliefs or xenophobic philosophies.

And I would like him to do it in the next issue of Vanity Fair…but not until I’ve had a chance to peruse the first 200 pages.