Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Practicing Progressive


Our understanding of God is always from the ground up.

Another way of putting it is that our descriptions of God can only be just that, our descriptions, not God’s. There is a bumper sticker going around that declares: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” The problem with such a pious-sounding declaration is, of course, that God didn’t say anything. We said it for God. Unless you believe, as some folk certainly do, that the Bible dropped down from some celestial kingdom and fell into our laps perfectly translated into the King James English, one must consider the possibility that the book so much of the world reveres is the product of people not too different than you…good folk and not so good folk who sought to describe their understanding of the divine with images and metaphors that made sense in their world.

A friend of mine once said, “If horses had gods, all gods would look like horses.” Our gods are shaped by our worldviews. For instance, if our worldview is that men rule the roost then God will, more than likely, be a man. So what happens when our worldview changes as it most certainly has in the two thousand years since the Bible was completed?

This is where many religions find themselves these days. We can see evidence of this in a myriad of ways. Fundamentalist Muslims who see the modern world as evil, who demand ancient dress codes or entice youngsters to suicidal missions with the promise of eternal rewards are convinced that this is the only way of being a Muslim. Or Christians who make similar demands with ludicrous claims on science and sinister designs on the political process. Conversely, there is a growing movement within Judaism that has many faithful Jews wishing to separate their religion from unquestioned support of Israel. Decades of military conflict and mayhem have convinced them that any claim that God has promised a particular piece of real estate to one particular people is false.

One of the great problems with the presumption that God wrote or dictated a particular body of writings is that there is very little room for open discussion. Such an understanding makes any contextual criticism very difficult indeed. This is, of course, how fundamentalists of any persuasion, understand their holy book: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

While traveling in Morocco a few years back, we took a cab from the harbor in Tangiers to the railway station. Along the way, our daughter, who, praise be to Allah, speaks Arabic fluently, was engaged in an animated discussion with the cab driver. They were, in Moroccan tradition, loudly proclaiming whatever it was they were discussing. We sat in the back seat without a clue as to what was going on. Finally, the driver threw up his hands (a particularly dangerous thing to do in Moroccan traffic) and then patted our daughter on the shoulder and murmured something, offering her a big smile. When we arrived at the train station, we asked her what had transpired. She told us that the driver wanted to know how she could speak Arabic and what she was doing in Morocco. He also wanted to know if she was Muslim. When informed that she was definitely not, the driver pontificated for awhile longer on the benefits of his faith and then, as we saw, patted her on the shoulder and said, “All in good time, my child, all in good time.”

I assume he was being genuinely kind. I assume he really does believe that ultimately all people will come under the Islamic tent, not with fear and trembling but genuinely acknowledging the wisdom of this particular revelation.

On the other hand, I worry that he, like so many Christians I know over here, can’t accept that there are multiple pathways of truth. Why must I become a Muslim or why must he become a Christian? Surely there are other ways of experiencing divine presence than one particular religion.

Until we recognize the inherent destructiveness in our old models of belief that declare our way as supreme and our God as the best, we will continue to engage in the kind of violent foolishness that has brought the world to its currently precarious place.

The way to prevent such instability, it seems to me, is to constantly remind ourselves that the finger we use to point to God is not God, that the lens we look through on our search for the divine, is not the divine. We are working from the ground up using the tools at our disposal to try and express the wonder and mystery of the universe just as our ancestors have done from the beginning of time. “If horses had gods, all gods would look like horses.” The volatile state of much of our world is a vivid reminder of the danger of forgetting this important truth.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

May 22, 2008

It was really scary reading about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s religious beliefs. Ahmadinejad, the current and most discomforting president of Iran, centers his Islamic faith on a Shiite conviction of the imminent return of Imam Mahdi who has been dead for over 1000 years now but is currently in constant contact with Mr. Ahmadinejad. Indeed, Iran’s president declared this past month that the long dead imam is directly involved in the day to day workings of the current Iranian administration. Such claims have caused more than a little consternation among Western observers of Iran who have long worried about the emotional stability of Ahmadinejad but it also is of great concern to the Shiite clergy in Iran who believe they hold a monopoly on any theological decision-making and don’t take friendly to anyone, including even the president, usurping their authority. Some of the clergy’s concern has to do with the perilous state of economic affairs in Iran. Given double digit inflation, high unemployment and a general dissatisfaction among the Iranian people, the Shiite clerics find the president’s attempts to link his current political policies with the long deceased but soon to arrive Mahdi a no-win situation.

Ahmadinejad’s beliefs seem pretty weird to me but waiting for the return of a long dead religious figure certainly isn’t limited to Shiite Islam. There is a very popular movement within Christianity that espouses close to the same image. Some 60 million copies sold of a book series entitled “Left Behind” are frighteningly indicative of similar theological shenanigans only the thesis here is that it will be Jesus who will be coming back to clean up the streets of Dodge. And what a clean up it will be! With all manner of tribulations and trials to come, culminating in the extinction of all those who don’t believe exactly the way the authors of “Left Behind” believe.

Religious weirdness isn’t limited to these bizarre examples, of course. Any time people start making claims that have to do with God doing their bidding, I start shifting in my seat. George Bush’s conviction that God was a primary backer of his illegal incursion into Iraq places our president smack dab in line with a long list of theological crazies. Some of you will remember right after the capture of Saddam Hussein, our president used the occasion as an illustration of what can happen when you go against God…and, not coincidentally, Bush’s idea of God: "I believe, firmly believe -- and you've heard me say this a lot, and I say it a lot because I truly believe it -- that freedom is the Almighty God's gift to every person, every man and woman who lives in this world. That's what I believe. And the arrest of Saddam Hussein changed the equation in Iraq. Justice was being delivered to a man who defied that gift from the Almighty to the people of Iraq."

One can’t help but wonder if the fact that the war has gone so miserably wrong makes claiming God’s unambiguous blessing a little, shall we say, presumptuous?

Of course, George W. isn’t the only president who has had flights of theological fancy. According to his own Chief of Staff, Don Regan, the late Ronald Reagan, the darling of collective conservative memory, relied heavily on his wife’s astrologer before making decisions about the future of the entire world. Regan reported that Mrs. Reagan generated great chaos in the White House disrupting the president’s schedule over and over again because it wasn’t aligned with the stars.

Religious weirdness isn’t limited to Republicans of course…although they do seem to get more than a fair share. The recent blessing of John McCain by Pastor John Hagee is a case in point. Hagee, an influential and very successful evangelical, has made it quite clear God intends for Christians to assist the re-population of Palestine by Jews. His theory is justified by a particularly distorted reading of the Bible, a reading, one would hope, not shared by Mr. McCain. And we need hardly remember the late Jerry Falwell and the still with us Pat Robertson, Republicans to the core, who blamed homosexuals and other pagans for a God-delivered 9-11.

I do confess to being more than a little queasy back in the ‘70s when a certain peanut farmer from Georgia claimed to hear the voice of God while walking in the woods out back of his house. I worried as I wondered what would happen if less sympathetic folk had similar sorts of conversations with the almighty. In the intervening years, I found out.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

Old prejudices die hard and they seem to die even harder for old liberals like me.

Back in my young days, the most obvious sign of a life given over to rowdy rebellion was a blue tattoo usually inked on a bicep just above the rolled up sleeve of a carefully tattered t-shirt. The decoration itself was most often pretty standard with either a heart serving as a palette for the name of a latest affection or an eagle with wings majestically unfurled. In any case, such permanent ornamentation was seen by me and the majority of my social world as indicative of life lived on the margins.

Yes, yes, I know. Some time ago, I was sitting on a park bench, a not uncommon form of recreation for we retired, and happened to notice a young man, in his early thirties, I suspect, thoroughly enjoying the antics of two young tykes who, I further suspected, were his own children. They were having a grand time racing around the sandbox, sliding down the triple bumped slide and being pushed, with great hilarity, back and forth on the swings. It was a picture of paternalistic pleasure to me and, I certainly believe, for the very happy father. The fact that both of dad’s arms, from wrist right up to collar bone were decorated in long brilliantly colored tattoos had me remembering my past biases and reflecting on current perspectives.

This week I read with growing irritation about life for young Saudi Arabian women. Raised in a social system that allows for little private freedom and absolutely no public presence, these women seemed to me to be suffering a life of virtual enslavement. It was particularly hard to find much to admire in the way they were treated and yet they seemed to not only be reconciled to the inevitability of their lives of practical imprisonment but actually welcoming it. In a country where women are not only forbidden to drive but prevented from even showing their face to anyone outside the immediate family, such rationalization is understandable but also profoundly sad.

Trying to gain new perspectives of understanding can be difficult when confronted with cultural differences that go so dramatically against our own deeply held values. In some parts of the world, the continuing practice of female circumcision, a painfully disfiguring and debilitating religious-cultural practice, is justified with arguments based on inherent cultural differences that cannot be comprehended by folk outside that particular culture. Even those of us who pride ourselves on being non-judgmental and ever-accepting find such a rationale difficult to acknowledge as valid. My own struggle to find the best standard for discerning legitimate, if sometimes disturbing, cultural differences boils down, with certain limitations, to the matter of choice. If the person involved had the freedom to choose a particular practice, then I am obliged to try to both understand and accept the practice. If the person is compelled by cultural or other mandatory mores to participate, I am freed to critique, even condemn, the practice.

But even this standard is filled with exceptions. Not too long ago, my wife and I were invited to the home of a middle-aged Nepali couple just outside of Katmandu. The husband and wife were both well-educated and fluent in English which made for a most stimulating dinner conversation. Sometime during the meal, our conversation got around to the subject of courtship and marriage. In Nepal, most, if not all, marriages are arranged by the bride and groom’s families. Often a soon-to-be-married couple has barely met before they officially bind themselves to one another as husband and wife. Brazen American that I am, I asked our hosts if that was the case for them. They glanced at each other, softly smiled, and agreed that it was. Running the risk of becoming the proverbial ugly American, I probed further, asking how they managed marriage without the required, at least in my own culture, affection for each other. They laughed again and went on to describe a long, sometimes awkward, period of relational development that eventually matured into a deep respect and, indeed, love for one another. There was little, if any, choice in the initial arrangement and yet this couple certainly appeared to be as well-adjusted and happily married as any you could find in America and probably better than most.

So the search continues, at least for me, for some kind of standard of discernment as to what should be honored and what should be condemned. Confronted with myriad examples of physical and emotional abuse, of appalling mutilation or painful sexual practices, an attitude of laissez-faire is simply not an option.