You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Culture and Religions’ category.

This last Sunday, the day on which Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint, Nicholas Kristof wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?”.  (The title is, I suppose, an attempt to be provocative in a cute, bumper-sticker sort of way.)  His argument is that followers of the world’s religions too often take stands that are the very opposite of those of the religious “founders,” and/or become tangled up in being right about beliefs and ideas, rather than being dedicated to the practice of compassion and the pursuit of justice.

Image result for free image of Mother Teresa

Kristof writes, “I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  Perhaps unfairly, the pompous hypocrites get the headlines and often shape public attitudes about religion, but there’s more to the picture. … It is not the bureaucracy that inspires me, or doctrine, or ancient rituals, or even the most glorious cathedral, temple or mosque, but rather a Catholic missionary doctor in Sudan treating bomb victims, an evangelical physician achieving the impossible in rural Angola, a rabbi battling for Palestinians’ human rights — they fill me with an almost holy sense of awe. Now, that’s religion.”

Well, no, Mr. Kristof, that is not “religion.”  That is the fruit of religion.  But in order to have the fruit, you have to tend the tree or plant that produces it.

What inspires “the faithful” to run those kitchens and shelters?  What gives those doctors the motivation and perseverance to do what they do, or provides the strength to the rabbi to keep on fighting for Palestinian human rights?  Why did Mother Teresa do what she did?  Where did Martin Luther King, or Abraham Joshua Heschel, or Dorothy Day find the support and inspiration for their actions?

I am aware that some scientists posit altruistic behavior as something that is “hardwired” in the human brain, and others argue that it is rather a dimension of behavior that owes more to the evolutionary process.  But it is just not the case that people are compassionate and committed to the establishment of justice in human society without a structure that encourages and supports them.

The “doctrine” and “bureaucracy” of religious traditions, which are certainly capable of ensnaring people in grim and self-referential bogs, have come to be intellectually dismissed and widely discarded.  It is fashionable to walk away from religions these days.  But, when not made captive to extremisms or rigid certainties of various kinds, doctrine, “ancient rituals” and religious institutions are the sources or storehouses of inspiration and of ethical discernment,  and the systems of support by which religions plant and nurture acts of goodness, and leadership for justice.

Mr. Kristof,  like so many others,  seems to approach good and just works much like many of us in the U.S. approach food: just go to the store and get the good stuff–never mind about where it comes from, who tends to it, and how it is raised.   But just as we cannot have good food without caring and responsible growers, so we cannot have the acts of goodness we admire and need without loving cultivation.

The cultivation of this human crop involves ideas (even doctrines!), ethical reasoning, teaching, and the life of a community that can and will support compassionate and just action.  Religious traditions, when they are working, have been created to do this cultivation.  Let’s not cut out, or detach ourselves from,  the thinking and support they provide; or, if we do, let’s not wonder that the way of life that results is less loving, and less just.

Advertisements

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”  I’ve heard that this is an Irish proverb, but whatever its source, it gives voice to the attitude that made an interfaith project succeed.

Thinking Together was the name given to a project of the World Council of Churches brought into being by Hans Ucko, Anant Rambachan and a few others.  The idea was to bring together a group of 15-20 scholar/practitioners from 5 of the world’s religious traditions, and from different parts of the globe, for sustained conversation on matters of common concern.  I was honored to be included.

This could have been a recipe for more dry-as-dust academic trading of papers and responses, etc., but it was not.

One of the reasons this effort worked was that the people chosen as participants were 1) deeply knowledgeable regarding their own traditions; 2) knew at least one other tradition other than their own; 3) practiced as faithful members of their own tradition; and 4) had experience in interreligious dialogue.  In addition, each of the participants was able to be critical of their own tradition, as well as comfortable in it.  All were attuned to, and appreciative of, the cultural diversities within their own religious family, and able to navigate cultural differences in engagement with one another.

While this may sound like enough, there were a few participants in the course of the 10 or 12 years of this project who did not work out, and were not invited to return, because they brought conversation to a standstill, or into a knot.

We learned –again– that what was and is needed for thinking together to actually take place is the attitude of the Irish proverb:  We need each other.  In order to live.

This is a basic affirmation, that the Thinking Together group made, even though I’m not sure we ever talked about it directly.  It is the affirmation expressed so clearly in the title of a book by Wesley Ariarajah, one of our number: Not Without My Neighbor.   Each of us believed that our traditions have to have room for our neighbors.  More, we were convinced that unless our traditions can honor and appreciate our neighbors, they are inadequate, not truly realized or rightly understood.

It is only in the shelter of each other that religious people, too, can live and flourish.

One product of our time together has finally been published.  It’s called Religious Conversion: Religion Scholars Thinking Together, edited by Shanta Premawardhana, and  published this year  by Wiley.  See http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118972376.html

045  “Modern Western culture is largely shorn of attentiveness to both habitat and habitus [way or habit of living].  Where we live–to what we are rooted–no longer defines who we are.  We have learned to distrust all disciplines of formative spiritual tradition, with their communal ways of perceiving the world.  We have realized, in the end, the ‘free individual’ at the expense of a network of interrelated meanings.”  – B.C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes

Among the reasons for choosing to live in a tiny village in France, such as Limeuil, from which we returned recently,  might be to reside in a place that still pays attention to where it is, as well as the long-woven patterns of a way of life.  But you don’t have to go to France, or to a quiet medieval village–or to a village in Indonesia or Cameroon– to live in this way (though elsewhere the food, and especially the fruits and vegetables,  may not be as good!)  We all can live in relation to the habitats in which we find ourselves, and with the ways of living we have received and with which we wrestle.

I’m thinking about this in part because we are surrounded by so many people who are living un-rooted lives, with no care for our environment, with no sense of obligation to the communities on which they in fact depend, with disdain for history and little or no concern for the future.  We are tempted to do the same.  And we all live–at least here in the United States–in a media environment that promotes sensation, the latest trend, and variations on the idea that you can reach out and get for yourself everything you need without the hassles of dealing with other people, governments, laws, seasons, etc.  Even our National Public Radio station trumpets the claim that “every story begins with you.”   To my mind this avid embrace of self as all-sufficient, and the discarding of our need for rooting ourselves, are dangerous and profoundly unrealistic.

But I am also struck by how much is to be gained if we were to practice this sort of attentiveness with one another.  Understanding begins when I am invited to enter into your life, and allow myself to spend time in your environment and context, and take time to experience your habitus –your ways of thinking, your community, your practices of living.  When you ask me to cross over for a time into your habitat and habitus, and I do, I enter a little way into your world, your vision, your life.  When I invite you in, the same is true.  As long as we enter with respect, and without crashing around in each other’s “house”, we are both enlarged and blessed.

We can abide with one another, formed by and forming our traditions, taking up our places on the earth.

Like the day of an equinox, memory is half light, and half dark.

I began thinking about memory, and the many ways in which memories shape us, during the commemoration of September 11, 2001.  Many memories were shared that held up loss, violence, and confusion. Other memories illuminated the sense of being spared, and the sweetness of life, of still having loved ones.  One of my own strongest memories of that morning is of my denial:  Going about my business in San Francisco, with Judith at home in NYC, it took about 6 hours for me to stop my programmed movements, and let the realities of what was happening get to me.  What we remember of that day, and of other days, shapes us.

Memories are not just spontaneous events, though they sometimes come to us unbidden.  Memories are also things that all of us use in building an understanding of who we are.

Memory, and specific cultural, ethnic or national memories, are used, as well, as social tools:  Specific memories can be used to incite anger or resistance; to move groups to solidarity and action; to invigorate faith or communal participation; to prompt reflection or invite change.  Which memories are repeated by leaders, and put forward by media, affect how we feel and what we may do in any situation.

In most of our religious communities, there are also practices that call us to remember who we are, or what has been given us.  These usually help us to re-member ourselves as well, that is, to understand again how we are part of one another, of this community, and related to God, or Ultimate Reality.

Unfortunately, we can and do use memories, even religious memories, to reinforce divisions, and to perpetuate the sense of being victims, or outsiders.  We also use them to recall experiences in which divisions have been overcome, and times of being welcome or safe.

Memories of trauma, and of being spared in the midst of violence and chaos, are especially strong; they make a deep, and lasting, mark on us.  Memories of trauma can be so powerful that those carrying them often try various ways to forget, or bury them.  It is common, too, for those who have endured trauma to get stuck in the memories – they “play” them over and over, and continually re-member themselves back into the trauma, until their suffering becomes a controlling (sometimes unacknowledged) part of who they are.

To build relationships, or to overcome conflict, we have to welcome and understand both the darkness and the light that the memories of those involved (and our own memories!) bring and carry.  Dwelling too much in the light, or in the dark, will leave us stuck.

A (true) story from the Summer of 1998 0r ’99:  At lunch time one day, an American Muslim Imam was listening to a Palestinian Muslim Imam say that he would be sure to tell his children everything that had happened to him, and the violence he and his family had endured in the Occupied Territories.  He wanted them to know who had done this to them!  The American Muslim, an African American who had grown up in segregation, insisted that he should not do that.  He could not do that if he wanted to give his children a less hate-filled basis for living.  Islam was about turning from such hatred, not passing it on!  Their conversation was urgent, and deeply engaged.

In the years that followed, that Palestinian Muslim turned away from the hate that his memories of violence had fueled in him.  He took part in dialogue with American Jews and Christians, and preached coexistence and peace.  Then the U.S. government, urged on by certain persons who kept repeating the reports of what this man had done in the more distant past, took away his green card, and deported him.

Memory can be used for darkness, and it can be used for light.

Last night I was checking the voice mail messages, and came upon this one:

…(silence) … click…click…  “Hello, this is Newt Gingrich.  I’m sorry I missed you…. ”

I was shocked on multiple levels by this machine-generated political message on our answering device.

First, I was shocked, as I always am, by the contemporary assumption that it is all right for a company or a politician to invade what I still think of as “my space” with a recorded intrusion.  What happened to privacy?  Do the callers really think that I, or anyone, will sit still while a robot spouts a line?  Do people actually listen to such things?

Secondly, I was shocked that I, pretty near to being a “blue dog Democrat,” would get a call from Gingrich.  I know that there are a lot of Republicans in my adopted state of Florida, but they obviously do not have a list, and are not even checking it once.  Perhaps they are this desperate.

One can only hope that this is the case, because the deeper reason why this message shocked me is that, there, on my phone, was one of the most effective purveyors of violent and demeaning rhetoric to be found in today’s political circus!  I felt that I should wash out the phone, and check myself for signs of infection.

As Thich Nhat Hanh discusses in many of his books, we human beings nurture certain seeds in our hearts and minds by what we take into ourselves.  We can feed and strengthen the seeds of anger and violence that are within us by the TV shows, news and movies that we watch, by the web-sites we visit, by the conversations that we have, by what and how we eat, etc.  I think he is right.  And I think most of us do this unconsciously–that is, without thinking much about it, we are feeding our pet peeves and angers and unreasonable opinions with the “food” that makes them stronger.

What is so disturbing about Gingrich and some of the other “politicians” operating these days, is their feeding of the anger and violence that is lying not far beneath the surface in our society.  They are fanning the fire, for the sake of votes that will give them power.  Many say that this is “just rhetoric” and that such people, if elected, will not really behave as they speak.  But I think we are seeing these days just how untrue this assumption is.

Politicans playing wth anger and violence–and with fear–are not new, of course.  I just think that I, and other people of faith, rooted in traditions that fairly consistently speak of peace, need to find ways to speak out about this.

It’s been noted by many that we humans live as much in a web of words as we do in an ecosystem of air, water, and living things.  Cut off from either the stories and words with which we understand ourselves, or the physical sources of life, we shrivel.

But sometimes the river of words overflows the banks, and inundates a gathering of people.  There is such a thing as too many words.  I just returned from a national “dialogue” event which was nearly swept away by words, so I am once again thinking about this.

In the course of two days, there were to be two presentations, two responses to those presentations, and two text study sessions.  Not an unusual set up, allowing each community to offer a presentation on a topic, and also to lead a study on related texts from their religious tradition.  This time, however, the responders did not respond to what was presented, and one of the text-study leaders took more than the time alloted to give an additional presentation.  So, we ended up with 5 presentations, and one text study.  The sessions devoted to processing all of this input were too short to get to much more than more talk about the concepts, rather than exchange about what they had to do with our lives, or why they mattered to us.  I found it deadening.

Dialogue requires silence as well as words; deep listening, and time to allow what has been said to resonate within, as part of the process of engagement.  This is especially true, I think, in a culture such as ours, so crammed with noise, images and information– a flood of words and pictures that come at us from so many different sources that orientation is distorted and actual communication nearly jammed.

Dialogue does not have to be this way, but it takes careful attention to limit the river of words and allow the other parts of communing to have their place.

I came away craving silence, as I realize that I often do.  And so, I turned again to Rumi:

I see the face that was my home.

My loving says, I will let go of everything for that.

My soul bgins to keep rhythm as if music is playing.

My reason says, What do you call this cypress-energy that straightens what was bent double?

All things change in this presence.  Armenians and Turks no longer know which is which.

Soul keeps unfolding inward.  The body leaves the body.

A wealth you cannot imagine flows through you.

Do not consider what strangers say.  Be secluded in your secret heart-house, that bowl of silence.

Talking, no matter how humble seeming, is really a kind of bragging.

Let silence be the art you practice.

(“I See the Face”, in Coleman Barks, Rumi: Bridge to the Soul (ghazal 122, Furuzanfar’s Kulliyat’e Shams (Tehran: 1957-66)))

Last month, my uncle died.  He was almost 93 years old, and the last, and youngest, of my father’s brothers.  His departure means many things to me, and not just that, now, no one of the generation before me is left on either side of my family.

Times of death and the rituals that accompany it are occassions for liminality.  “Liminality” is a fancy term, given currency by anthropologist Victor Turner and others, to refer to states of being that people experience as they pass over the threshold from one stage of life to another.  In the liminal state, Turner says, one is in-between, “neither here nor there,” one is “betwixt and between all fixed points of classification”.  In this time, one is an outsider, on the margins, in a zone of “indeterminacy.”

A time of death is a passage not only for the one who has died, but for the family and those others close enough to be affected.  It would be interesting, I think, to have a conversation about how this liminal state is experienced, the extent to which it is recognized or dismissed, and how it is articulated in the various religious traditions in which we live.  But that is not my purpose in writing now.

To go to and from the funeral, I had to go through Pittsburgh, PA, where I grew up.  My experience during the trip was of being extremely open to flashes  of my earlier life there.  Going under the Squirrel Hill tunnel, I felt again the thrill of the films of Bergman, Truffaut, Antonioni, Fellini, and those first really free conversations about ideas and feelings.  I saw again the flares of fire from the old steel mills, even though nothing now stands along the river where they were.  When I went through the tunnel toward the South Hills, where I lived in my teens, I felt the presence of my first girl friend in the seat beside me, in the wash of the familiar staccatto visual pattern of the tunnel lights.  I felt that, somehow, a circuit in my life was being completed, or at least re-visited and further incorporated into my being.

I saw my uncle’s hands; the Rock ears; the bushy eyebrows that greet me in the mirror.  Uncle Lenny was there when I arrived into the world, and I always took him for granted; and there we were committing his body to the ground, and participating in a Lenape ceremony led by cousin Art to pray him on his journey to the spirit world, and us on our continuing way in this one.

Leonard L. Rock was a doctor.  A doctor who loved what he did, and loved life.   Especially his four daughters and five grandchildren, and all of us cousins, too.   In the course of his small town practice, he deliverd 4,174 babies, many of whom were present, some with their parents.  At the funeral home, one of the nurses who had worked with him said, “When you heard him start laughing, you knew everything was all right.”

That was his biggest gift to me – his laugh and his delight in life. In our circle I prayed thanks for his laugh, and the joy he gave to me and to the world.  He is becoming one of the ancestors now, Art said, and is with us as we dance the circle of life around the drum, our hearts, the Creator.

 

Here in the U.S., we are in the waning hours of Veterans’ Day, with an appropriate focus on the people who have fought our wars.  My preference, though, is to call it Remembrance Day, because we need to remember not only the people, but also the wars and their history, and so much else.

Memory is endangered by our mass culture, the web, and 24/7 “news” media.  If we watch and listen to television and radio and web-postings closely, we can see “facts” and whole fictional histories being created by skillful (or at least persistent) personalities who simply say certain things often enough.  Constant repetition and a non-stop flow of information are mind-numbing, and can, in fact, erase real memory.  Real memory is the voice of the child who blurts out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

“Zachor”! Remember, and “zecher”, a reminder or remembrance, are important words in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Jewish tradition.  Remembering who we are, and what has been done for us, as well as the relationships with God and others that sustain us, is the basis for grounded living.

In my own Christian life, I treasure Ash Wednesday, and the annual statement of the inescapable truth:  “Remember, from dust you came, and to dust you will return.”

At a zendo in New York City, meditation ended with the ancient Buddhist teaching:  ” Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance.  Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.  Each of us must strive to awaken.  Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your lives.”

Remembrance can surely lead us to wallow in episodes of the past that stir up pain and confusion, or it can serve as a door into well manicured and maintained trophy  experiences of being wanted or prized.  Out of such memories we can continue to feed certain set visions of ourselves or of our society.

But memory also allows us to take a look at what is most deeply true about life and ourselves. In remembering we have an opportunity to enter once more into our lives, and into the deepest truths about living.  Thus, we Christians re-constitute our participation in the Body of Christ, as we remember his life, death and resurrection around the Lord’s Table.  Muslims re-member that they are part of the  faithful Ummah, all equally God’s servants, as they take part in the Hajj.

So, this day tells me that we have yet another area to explore together in our ecumenical and interfaith encounters:  Remembrance and how it functions in fashioning us, in binding and freeing us, and in our truth-telling about being human.

 

This is my first posting in a while.

There are many reasons for this. I could say that I fell into a hole.  I could mention getting used to new responibilities, and a new era in my life.  I could talk about the teaching that I am doing now.  All would be part of the story.

Recently, I went on a journey to see friends in New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis.  I did not know how much I had been missing them until I was with them.  And being with them helped me realize that another part of my story, these days, is making sense of past and future in a time of transition.

It turns out that this business of aging, and moving from era to era, or stage to stage, in life, is something that all we humans do.  It is also something that our religious traditions, and our cultural backgrounds, either help us do, or hinder us in doing.

If our religious traditions are supposed to help us change–and I believe that they are–then here is another part of living that tests whether the traditions in which we are engaged are alive and vital, or not.  If not, we probably have hold of a stunted, or too rigid, or somewhat twisted version of our tradition.  Or we are holding on to pieces of text, or practice, or belief, as if they were life rafts from a smashed up boat, and we in some kind of shipwreck; when we would be better off looking around at what is in our vessels for a new time or situation.

During this time, I’ve been dreaming a lot about houses, rooms, places to stay, light and dark.  I think I may be building some sort of new structure to live in.  Or not.  Maybe it is more like what Rumi describes in his poem, Soul Houses (translated by Coleman Barks):

Who is this king

that forms another king out of the ground,

who for the sake of two beggars

makes himself a beggar?

Who is this with his hand out

saying, Please, give just a little,

so I can give you a kingdom.

He heals.  He enlivens.

He tells the water to boil

and the steam to fade into the air.

He makes this dying world eternal.

His greatest alchemy

is how he undoes the binding

that keeps love from breathing deep.

He loosens the chest.

With no tool he fashions where we live.

Do not grieve for your rusty, iron heart.

He will polish it to a steel mirror.

As as you are being lowered into the ground,

closed away from firends, don’t cry.

He turns the ants and the snakes

into beautiful new companions.

Every second he changes cruelty

to loyal friendship.

Remember the proverb, Eat the grapes.

Do not keep talking about the garden.

Eat the grapes.

From a rough stone ledge

come a hundred marble fountains.

Out of unconditioned emptiness

comes this planet with all its qualities.

Lakewater over there.

Out of one huge NO

comes a chorus of yeses.

Rivers of light flow from human eyes,

and consider your ears, where language

alchemizes into amber.

He gives the soul a house,

then another and another.

He descends into the dirt

and makes it majesty.

Be silent now.

Say fewer and fewer praise poems.

Let yourself become living poetry.

My friend and colleague Lucinda Mosher drew my attention to an article on Huffington Post, by Carl McColman, “Curiosity May Be Hard on Cats, but It’s Great for Interfaith Friendship.”

McColman says, “The youngest member of my family is our one-year-old cat, Margery. She is a most inquisitive creature …[and] gets into everything….  her eager exploration is rather inspiring to me…. every corner of the house represents a new frontier for investigation, learning, and insight. In fact, I think her inquisitive nature is a good model for me — and for all of us, living in this age where (sic) people of different cultures and faiths live as next-door neighbors.”

He describes an interreligious conversation that was motivated not by competition about religious truth, but by desire “simply to learn, to discover, to gain insight on how different traditions understand experience, interpret it, and explain it, in a way that can help to make sense of the interface between human spirituality and the ultimate mystery…. we were all simply inquisitive, seeking in our curiosity and thirst to learn about each other’s faith and experience, more light for understanding and making sense of our own.

“Because of this, we could find joy in our conversation. We came together in a spirit of celebrating diversity and finding wonder in the mysteries of life and language, without needing to fix or solve anything. And this, I believe, is the model for how interfaith conversation and indeed interfaith spirituality can take place in our world….  Every time I relate to a person of another faith with an open and kind heart, rather than any desire to convert or control, I in essence am casting a vote for … a hopeful future. In essence, I am choosing curiosity over competition.”

Along with the importance of such curiosity, though, I hope we will look closely at the dynamic role that such “wonder,” or beauty, plays in our relationships.  It is beauty, I think, that not only provides much of the motivation for the kind of curiosity that McColman describes, but also is a more essential dimension of existence and experience.

What often attracts me, or moves me in relation to other cultures and religions, and the people who live them, is that I see and hear and feel beauty in them.  I have been affected and opened by the experience of beauty in and through the rituals of other traditions; the sights and chants of others at prayer; cultural ways of saying and understanding things that open up whole new dimensions of possibility in them;  experiences of God’s presence never encountered before.

Perhpas this is not surprising for a Protestant Christian such as myself, schooled by the Westminster Catechism to believe that the chief end of being human is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.  Attention to, and delight in, all of the manifestations of God’s glory in the world is both a natural, and a religious, starting point in relating to all of God’s creation.

“We have been placed here, as in a spacious theater, to behold the works of God, and there is no work of God so small that we ought to pass by it lightly, but all ought to be carefully and diligently observed,” said John Calvin, in his Commentary on Isaiah 57:1.  In his Institutes, he speaks of God “enticing us to desire” of intimacy with God in Christ, and of the soul being “ravished” by God’s beauty.  While scripture provides the “spectacles” through which we can properly understand creation, “the undeniable evidence of God’s grandeur lies in the symmetry and beauty of the created world” (p 29).  Creation shines with “God’s restless desire to communicate the divine love and beauty to others” (p. 31).  [For more on this, see the new book by Belden Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality, Oxford University Press, 2011, in which the last citations appear.]

It is, of course, possible, to find the shocking and ugly among people of other cultures and religions, as among people of our own culture and religion.  But  why not let the beauty we find entice us to be curious, and, more, to let such beauty move, re-mold, and delight us?  In coming together  in appreciation of those who differ from us, we understand and connect more deeply with them, and at the same time see more of the beauty with which God has infused the world, for our joy, our learning, and our transformation.