Enter Into Mercy

“What is the future of organized religion? Whatever it is, I hope that we will have the courage to stop rewarding and confirming peoples egos and calling it morality, ministry or church. I hope that we will have lower expectations of leadership and the institution and therefore less need to rebel against it or unnecessarily depend upon it. True leadership is quite rare in my experience and cannot be “ordained” or created by title, office, or costume. Many people are upset with the Church because they expected too much from it. Accept it for what it is and for what it isn’t.

More than anything else I hope that the future church can be a people who have entered into Mercy and allow others to enter too. I once saw God’s mercy as patient, benevolent tolerance, a form of grudging forgiveness. Now it is apparent to me that Mercy is a divine understanding, a loving allowing, a willing “breaking of the rules” by the One who made the rules, a loving wink and smile, a firm and joyful taking of our hand—while we waste time clutching at our sins and gazing at God in desire and disbelief.”

–Richard Rohr, Radical Grace

Beyond Names and Forms

“God” is an ambiguous word in our language because it appears to refer to something that is known. But the transcendent is unknowable and unknown. God is transcendent, finally, of anything like the name “God.” God is beyond names and forms. Meister Eckhart said that the ultimate and highest leave-taking is leaving God for God, leaving your notion of God for an experience of that which transcends all notions.

The mystery of life is beyond all human conception. Everything we know is within the terminology of the concepts of being and not being, many and single, true and untrue. We always think in terms of opposites. But God, the ultimate, is beyond the pairs of opposites, that is all there is to it.

–Joseph Cambell, The Power of Myth

Belief, Ctd

While I was putting together the “Faith” post of this series I was thinking a bit more about the last post regarding “belief” and I think there’s a bit more to say on the issue. First is my observation (please correct me if I’m wrong here) that the “center of gravity” for the American religious perspective is found in possessing the correct beliefs about God. Granted, there is a vast range of perspectives, but the majority of religious participants are of the “true believer” variety. American Christianity seems to be a quest for immortality or “eternal life in heaven after we die.” We agree to a set of particular beliefs and at that given moment we are forgiven and heaven bound. If those beliefs are questioned or threatened in any way, it creates severe panic in the mind of a true believer. The phrase, “maybe I’m wrong,” doesn’t last long in the mind of a true believer because if it lingers, a crisis will ensue.

Right belief fuels the evangelical impulse. We need more people in churches because when more people join the club, our system of right belief feels more validated, allowing any possible slivers of doubt to be ignored. “How can so many be so wrong?”

Right belief fuels tribalism. It’s what makes the unending arguments over all doctrinal varieties go round and round. “We won’t go to that church because they believe ______.” It pits one group against the other, fostering the comfort of belonging to a tribe while also ushering in the inevitable violence between the different tribes of “true believers.” After all, if right belief is the north star, there can only be one right belief system.

The religious life that is rooted in right belief is ultimately rooted in fear. We become afraid of what God thinks about us. We fear that our loved ones don’t believe the right doctrine. This fear hangs on the idea of God as a stern judge who has been offended by our existence. A God who needs some kind of appeasement. And we’ve now replaced ritual sacrifices of the ancient world with the modern notion that if we think the right thoughts about God, he will spare us from some form of eternal punishment (which again, oddly begins when we die.)

While I agree very much with Wilber’s assessment of belief, I also learning to have compassion for those who camp out at this stage of religious life. The human experience brings with it many uncertainties that threaten our sense of stability. We thirst for constants, safety, reliability in the midst of an ever changing world. We can all relate to that desire regardless of our religious perspective. So instead of attempting to take a wrecking ball to “right belief” (as if that were even possible) I’m convicted that we must do our best to embrace the need for others to remain faithful in this way. It is not about being combatant with “true believers” but about being compassionate. Being compassionate and empathetic to those who you may disagree with is essential. After all, they just might be right. 🙂

Sotomayor and Affirmative Action

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This is a great excerpt of the Rachel Maddow show from last night. First, listen to Obama sounding more like he did during his campaign. That wasn’t a speech, but a passionate sermon. He seems to have lost this rhythm a bit since he’s been in office and I think he’ll need to bring back that kind of passion if he wants to get any movement on the health care issue.

Secondly, Pat Buchanan doesn’t hold back at all, which is both disturbing and refreshing. He is a man who the world has passed by. Here is Conor Clarke on the clip as he helps fill in for Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish:

“At the heart of Buchanan’s critique is a sense that anyone who was a benficiary of affirmative action in the past cannot be well-qualified today. I don’t think this argument can stand scrutiny.

That’s because one’s qualifications in the present are a function of one’s opportunities in the past. There are very talented white children born in the lap of luxury on the upper west side of Manhattan, and there are equally talented Hispanic children born in poverty in the south Bronx. It should surprise exactly no one, except possibly Pat Buchanan and Michael Goldfarb, to learn that they will not get the same SAT scores. An affirmative action system that corrects for this lack of balance is not taking a “less qualified” person and putting her above a “more qualified” person. It is giving equally qualified people the same opportunities. This is liberalism 101, not rocket science.”

Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation, Part 1

This post will kick off a little blog series I want to do on the sixth chapter of Ken Wilber’s book A Sociable God – Toward A New Understanding of Religion. The chapter is titled “Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation.” In this chapter Wilber sets out to make some important distinctions between these four religious elements, ordering them in what Wilber might refer to as a “healthy hierarchy.” What I take Wilber to mean by this term is that while we may rank these different religious elements in order of their “authenticity,” all of the elements bring with them very necessary functions. In the same way a ladder is useless without its lower rungs, we need all the rungs to work properly with one another to provide a sturdy, reliable way up.

First we’ll take a look at the religious element of belief. Here is Wilber’s assessment:

“Belief is the lowest form of religious involvement, and, in fact, it often seems to operate with no authentic religious connection whatsoever. The “true-believer” – one who has no literal faith, let alone actual experience – embraces a more-or-less codifeid belief system that appears to act most basically as a fund of immortality symbols. This can be mythic-exoteric religion (e.g., fundamentalist Protestantism, lay Shintoism, pop Hinduism, etc.), rational-scientism, Maoism, civil religion, and so on. What they all have in common, when thus made a matter of “true belief,” is that an ideological nexus is wedded to one’s qualifications for immortality.

I believe this generates a peculiar, secondary psychodynamic: since one’s immortality prospects hang on the veracity of the ideological nexus, the nexus as a whole can be critically examined only with the greatest of difficulty. Thus, when the normal and unavoidable moments of uncertainty or disbelief occur (magic: is this dance really causing rain? mythic: was the world really created in six days? scientistic: what happened before the big bang? etc.), the questioning impulses are not long allowed to remain in the self-system (they are threats to one’s immortality qualifications). As a result, the disbelieving impulse tends to be projected onto other and then attacked “out there” with an obsessive endurance. The true believer is forever on the make, looking for converts and battling disbelievers, for, on the one hand, the mere existence of a disbeliever is one token less in the immortality account, and, on the other, if the true believer can persuade others to embrace his ideology, it helps to quiet his own disbelieving impulses. It is not the the rightness or the wrongness of the opposing view but the peculiar passion with which it is opposed that belies its origin: what one is trying to convert is one’s own disbelieving self.”

When reading this I immediately imagine the over-zealous street preacher who is fervently doing his best to convert the sinners of world. When one reflects on how ineffective the approach of street preaching is nowadays, it’s hard to imagine that converting lost souls is ultimately the true objective. While it maybe the reason found on the surface of the mind of the street preacher, something about this approach tends tip off 99.9% (a generous estimate) of anyone within earshot otherwise. The street preacher is, in the end, always ineffective because something deep inside ourselves tells us that he can’t be trusted. And that makes perfect sense because he ultimately doesn’t trust himself. To repeat Wilber’s line, “…what one is trying to convert is one’s own disbelieving self.”

For this street preacher, his religious perspective is rooted in the idea that one can possess the correct idea about who God is while at the same time waging war on the “lost” who have the wrong idea. It is a quest for certainty and a war on doubt. That is ultimately the difference between belief and faith. Belief burns doubt at the stake while faith makes doubt a trusted friend.

But the element of religious belief can be a benefit. Wilber writes:

“On the more benign side, belief can serve as the appropriate conceptual expression and codification of a religious involvement of any higher degree (faith, experience, adaptation). Here, belief system acts as a rational clarification of transrational truths, as well as the introductory, exoteric, preparatory “reading material” for initiates. When belief systems are thus linked to actual higher (authentic) religiousness, they can be called, not because of themselves but because of association, authentic belief systems.”

Wilber stops short of giving us any concrete examples of this in the book but I think the metaphor of the ladder works well here. If all you have is the lower rung of the ladder, then the ladder ceases to be of use. But if your ladder has the higher rungs as well as the lower rungs, the lower rungs then prove valuable, but only because the higher rungs are in place. In the same way, belief by itself is useless and often times harmful. Only when belief links to or provides a clearing for the more authentic stages does it have value.

Next up: Faith.