Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Religion Is Not a Conspiracy

A writer from Iceland questioned this phrase from a New York Times book review: “the negatives that have made Christianity a byword for tyranny, cruelty and licensed hatred.” She wrote, “The simple exercise of substituting any other institution with a history of ‘negatives’ for ‘Christianity’ in this phrase might have quickly showed up the hurtful error of dismissing the religion of Dorothy Day, St. Augustine, Lutheran World Relief, or the Amish, for example, as a byword for cruelty.” She then offered examples of institutions and categories of people that might similarly be impugned unfairly.

Does our culture automatically assume malignant conspiracies when it comes to religion? And what about progressive Christians?

Recently I began watching a documentary-style film that began with an overlong collage of violent images with no explanatory narrative. Growing impatient, I fast-forwarded to the eventual narration, and was met with a male voice speaking declarative “certainties” oracle-fashion about the destructive conspiracy of religion to control us and take over our innocent and inherently divine planet. I escaped the sermon, turned off less by its criticism of religion than its presumptuous certainty!

It reminded me of a book I read that had many insights, but whose perspective viewed religion as a sinister plot. I began circling loaded words the author chose, highly judgmental words that might sell books but limit understanding. On two pages alone, I found religion associated with these words and phrases with no “ifs ands and buts”: weapon, conformity, self-serving, defensive, false piety, God-manipulation. Oddly, the writer’s eventual conclusions are those of any enlightened religion.

Perhaps what I witnessed in the film and the book was actually anger over a restrictive religion in which the narrators were reared. I too was taught biblical literalism and religious fundamentalism, but I no longer view either as a malicious conspiracy, just a misunderstanding of what sacred texts and religion are about. In truth, I wonder if I would still be writing about the Bible and Christianity had I not been given the zeal of that upbringing!

I do not think of religion as a conspiracy. It was an attempt by people as good as you and me to comprehend the incomprehensible, and to discern and affirm our place in the universe.

Do people use religion to their own ends? Of course, just like they use the computer and government and science to get what they want.

Is religion co-opted and manipulated by “the powers that be”? You bet. Over and over, in human history, you can find evidence of that. You can see patriarchy in the male-dominated church, for example, evidenced as recently as the Anglican Church’s vote that narrowly rejected female bishops.

Can religion make itself a god? Yes, and that’s when we must be iconoclastic—when we must demythologize and deconstruct.

As Christianity began to blend with imperial culture and political power, the Christian monastic movement began. According to Thomas Merton, it saw civilization as a shipwreck that needed to be abandoned, with the hope that those who safely escaped to the shore might reach out to others trapped in the wreckage.

Those we consider founders of world religions—among them, Moses, the Brahmins, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed—all had to contend with the powers that be, religious, cultural, political, and define their spiritual views in those contexts. 

You and I have a similar role, in our own small way. We must step back, step away, gain a contemplative perspective, employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” of both contemporary culture and religious tradition, questioning both our unique personal perspectives as well as our commonly shared views.

Religion is to spirituality what a question is to the answer. One may lead to the other, but the answer may require the reframing of the question.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  This ministry is entirely funded by your donations

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Everybody Has a Story

Prayer was saved for many progressive Christians of my generation by Malcolm Boyd’s landmark book of prayers, Are You Running with Me, Jesus? For Protestants, his book and others like it served as our Vatican II, putting religious expression in the common vernacular. He and I were introduced by a mutual friend the year his courageous coming out memoir, Take Off the Masks, was published. We first came to know one another taking my favorite walk along the Santa Monica shore at sunset.

Malcolm is a great storyteller, and one story in particular has stayed with me in the decades since, one about him on an airplane, sitting next to a self-important man who was sorting through stacks of papers related to his work, infringing on Malcolm’s own space. As I recall, he even told Malcolm how important he was as he asked him to hold a stack of papers for him.

“I don’t look for this sort of thing,” Malcolm tells the story with obvious delight, “But a stranger came up to me at that moment and said, ‘Your writing has changed my life—would you mind autographing a book for me?’” At which the self-important man eyed Malcolm from the corner of his eye, took back his papers, and never said another word to him during the flight!

I have sometimes thought of that story when I meet a stranger, sit next to someone on an airplane, or stand in line with people I do not know. It may occur to me when seeing hundreds pass through an airport, sitting in an audience, or gathering for a cause.

Many of us are so preoccupied with our own stories, we fail to recognize that the person before us, beside us, or behind us also has a rich and complex story.

What I have discovered when I am attentive to another’s story is humbling: they are the stars of their own biographies, and often with good reason. And I have found many have a spiritual autobiography worthy of the telling. I have led workshops and retreats on “Our Lives as Sacred Texts,” encouraging people to look at their own stories as a sacred source, just as they might biblical stories. Using an idea from Matthew Fox, I have encouraged workshop participants to draw their own spiritual maps, imaging barriers they broke through, mountains they climbed, swamps or deserts they traversed, dragons they fought. Or create spiritual timelines, revealing times of growth, change, or conversion.

When you consider how full your life has been, and then multiply that by the billions around the globe, you realize God has filled all of our baskets to overflowing. And that’s an occasion for both listening and thanksgiving.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  This ministry is entirely funded by your donations.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Pragmatic Guide to Prayer

Prayer is unfamiliar territory to many people, even those reared in spiritual communities. Many fear they’re not up to the task, having heard eloquent prayers of others. Some progressive Christians doubt the effectiveness of prayer. So I thought I’d jot down some simple guidelines from my reading and experience to prompt but not limit readers’ personal practice and experience of prayer. Take these suggestions less as prescriptive than descriptive. And if any sound too preachy, just go on to the next!

Prayer takes you to another place. There are many ways of saying this. Prayer may lift you up, take you deep within, broaden your horizon, make you feel close to God and all that is, or all of the above. The vital thing is that, in your spiritual imagination, your perspective changes, enlarging or focusing, withdrawing or connecting, detaching or more deeply involving. And it brings us into proximity with our better selves.

Prayer consists of words, silences, and actions.  Most of us know about words and silences in prayer and meditation, but actions may prove a new understanding. I believe that Martha in the kitchen preparing a meal could be praying as much as Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and pondering his words. And I don’t mean Martha is saying the rosary while cooking, but that cooking itself may be a form of prayer when conscious intention is there, as is true of acts of justice and compassion. To stretch our imagination further, I believe lovemaking may be a form of prayer.

Prayer is presence, mindfulness, and listening. Prayer is a time to be attentive to surroundings, people, feelings, the day’s expectations, God’s hope for you—listening for God and your inner voice in all of them. Repetition of short scriptures (such as “God is love.”) or meditative chants may help one’s focus.

Readings are helpful to praying regularly. What helped me keep to a regular prayer time was the use of reading material that made me want to sit down and set aside time for reflection—that’s why half of the dozen books I’ve written consist of daily meditations. Scriptures, books of prayers or reflections, spiritual or theological or biblical treatises, and even op-ed opinion pieces have proven aids to meditation and prayer. Others may find poetry, art, or music helpful.

Saying the Lord’s Prayer is sufficient. The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples has every ingredient needed in prayer. Having said it daily for most of my adult life, I still wonder at how new meaning comes to familiar phrases, given where I am and what my experience is. I see it less as a prayer asking for things like bread and forgiveness than as a way of aligning myself with the inbreaking commonwealth of God, in particular being gracious as I have received grace. As Thomas Keating has recommended, if one can’t pray anything else, say the Lord’s Prayer.

Less is more. Too many words, too many “issues,” too many confessions, too many requests make prayer burdensome and more of a duty than an experience of God’s grace and love. An abundance of thanksgivings can lighten the load, as long as they are not simply obligatory.

Prayer transforms you, not God. The Desert Fathers and Mothers held this view; prayer is about our transformation, not God’s. When we pray for someone who is ill or in prison or mistreated, I do not believe God “fixes” these things, but that we become better caregivers, liberators, and advocates.

Enjoy being God’s beloved child. Join Adam and Eve walking naked with God unashamedly in the Garden, Isaiah comforted and dandled on Mother God’s knees, and Jesus hearing “You are my beloved on whom my favor rests.” Prayer is the pleasure of basking in the glory of God’s unconditional love, remembering God’s best hopes for us and the world.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Love Force

Mid-October I read in the morning paper about the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, the Taliban shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for encouraging the education of girls in Pakistan, and the death of George Whitmore, an African American whose life was never good after a reckless prosecution and wrongful conviction for murders committed while witnesses actually placed him in a catering hall where he was employed, watching Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech on August 28, 1963.

Not exactly the stuff of contemplation, you might think.

Yet exactly the reason we need contemplation. In Soul Friend, Kenneth Leech echoes Merton and other contemplatives when he writes:

The contemplative is more of a threat to injustice than the social activist who merely sees the piecemeal need. For contemplative vision is revolutionary vision, and it is the achievement of this vision which is the fruit of true spiritual direction. A spirituality of clear vision goes hand in hand with love. To see with the eyes of God is to see truthfully and lovingly. Such a love is not sentimental or naïve: it is a love which undermines oppression and burns away illusion and falsehood, a love which has been through the fire, a love which has been purified through struggle. It is a love which has known solitude and despair.

I’ve been re-reading insights I’ve underlined in books I read long ago. The morning that I saw the above articles, I happened onto one of Mahatma Gandhi’s ruminations in The Gandhi Reader (ed. Homer A. Jack) on satyagraha, variously interpreted as love force, truth force, and soul force, politically expressed in non-violent direct action. “The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth,” Gandhi wrote.

When asked for proof of its existence in history, he replies, “History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.” He uses the illustration of two siblings arguing. If they go to war or sue (for Gandhi, a lawyer, another form of violence) their quarrel will be remembered, but if their love for one another is reawakened and they reconcile, few notice because that’s as it should be. “Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history,” Gandhi explains, declaring that what’s true of families is true of nations.

The next day our newspaper carried an article about studies indicating we retrospectively characterize a week or a time in our lives by its peaks rather than intervening constancy, which to me seems to validate Gandhi’s point.

But I would add that satyagraha is revealed in history when love stands up to the test, such as Gandhi’s challenges to injustice through civil disobedience. This may give us a new way of understanding the cross: Jesus’ love force stood up to “the powers that be,” and the crucifixion interrupted the natural trajectory of truth, love, and soul of the inbreaking commonwealth of God, just as it was subsequently interrupted by the persecution of early Christians who tried to live into that commonwealth. Thus Easter is an affirmation of the triumph of truth, love, and soul and non-cooperation with the forces of violence and death.

I schedule my posts on Tuesday for Wednesday publication, so this was put in final form on election day in the U.S., which means I do not know the outcome. Indeed, the outcome may not be known by the time you read this, given the anticipated closeness of the presidential election and the possibility of contested election results.

No matter. Whoever is elected will have to deal with those who want to make a name for themselves or their party or their ideologies by exploiting division and divisive issues—in other words, making history rather than letting the forces of love, truth, and soul bring reconciliation, mercy, and justice to Washington, D.C. As much as I believe in recovery programs and understand alcohol may easily exacerbate orneriness, I long for the time when lawmakers would end their day having cocktails together and trust working together and compromise without looking to give the latest sound bite to inflame their constituencies, satisfy their contributors, promote their ideologies, and enlarge their egos.

What we need in government—as elected officials and voters—are more contemplatives.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please visit Chris Glaser's website  to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!