Friday, October 13, 2017

Religion and Thinking

Some people have an incorrect view of religion.  They assume that religious people do not think or if they think, they do not think well.  Behind this assumption is the belief that religion has primarily to do with emotion and fear.  The argument goes like this:  People are frightened of death, sickness, accidents, tornadoes, failure, being out of control, you name it. . . Since they feel frightened they invented religion so they could jettison their fears onto an imaginary being called, God.  Variations of this argument come from Spinoza, Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Kafka, Sartre, Dostoevsky and more recently the less sophisticated modern atheists.

This assumption and its supporting arguments are wrong.  Think about it:  For all the faith people have put in God and religion, the world remains a dangerous and volatile place and many religious people know it.  God and religion do not come with any guarantees or cures for undeserved suffering and evil. Praying to God in Synagogue, Church or Mosque will not keep craziness away from your door.  Suffering and evil are part of life and prayer does not stop it. 

People are religious because they care about truth.  If I trust at the heart of the universe there’s a force that is for us and not against us, it’s because I weigh the evidence and conclude, given the amount of order amidst the chaos within our world, given the laws of nature, given all that is here, given our scriptural glimpses, trusting in God is not foolish.  Faith may be risky but such is life. And when faith is mature it knows about the precariousness of life.

Granted, there are some religious people who use their religion as a balm to avoid looking at the craziness of life.  These people have faith but not a very mature faith.  And when religion is perverted it creates atheists and agnostics.  When I read about the god in which Atheists do not believe , I say, I don’t believe in that God either. 

I am a religious person because I care about truth.  Yes, I have emotions, fears and superstitions that can cloud my better thinking.  But when it comes to faith and faithfulness, I am determined to look life in the eye and not be afraid of any question from any person, field, or source.  As a person of faith, I try to think and think well.  I know that I could be wrong.  That's why, I am always asking questions.  But, Religion and thinking are not opposites; they are inextricably linked.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Honesty of the Book of Job

The Book of Job is arguably the most mysterious, confusing, controversial, and puzzling book in the Bible.  Over the last two thousand years, learned commentators upon commentators from a variety of religious perspectives have wrestled with this book.  There are all sorts of theories as to what is going on in these strange chapters.  Here are a few of my thoughts:

Whatever else you can say about the Book of Job, it's a story that lets us know the Biblical writers were aware of the problem of underserved suffering and evil, even if they could not resolve it. 

Job is a good man.  He is not a sinless man but he is a person of character, a religious man.  He fears God and turns away from evil.  Near as we know he is not Jewish.  He is relatively successful.  As Job is going about living his life, God is pictured having a conversation with Satan.  Remember, this is not the New Testament devil.  This Satan is a reporter.  He reports to God on how well religious people are being religious.  He raises questions with God about Job’s sincerity and God agrees some tests would be appropriate.

Suddenly, a messenger arrives: The Sabeans came and stole all your oxen and donkeys killing your servants.  I alone escaped to tell the tale.  No sooner does that occur, another messenger appears:  A fire from heaven burned up the sheep and the servants.  I alone escaped to tell the tale. No sooner does this happen then another servant appears:  The Chaldeans came and killed the servants and stole all your camels.  And I alone escaped to tell the tale. There is a crescendo of terrible news.  Messenger after messenger comes and goes until, the last messenger tells Job: Your sons and daughters were partying and while they were partying a horrific wind came, blew down the house and killed them.  I alone escaped to tell the tale.   Then, the final test:  Job himself is struck with sores all over his body. 

At first, he grieves, accepts his fate as we all must.  God gives, God takes, God be blessed.  Such is life.

Then, his friends show up, grieve with him, after which they try to convince Job he deserved what happened to him.  Job is not pleased. Enough is enough!  And so, begins a theological argument which goes on for over forty chapters. Eventually God shows up, does not explain to Job about the tests, but commends Job and not his friends.  God gives him twice as much as he had before. 

Nothing resolved here.  That’s clear.  In fact, the book does not end with God being depicted as moral or immoral or even wise.  God is amoral.  God is God and does not need to play fair.  God can do whatever God wants with no need to explain.

The Book of Job, written as a response to the Babylonian exile and the breaking of the covenants with Israel, allows the problem of innocent suffering to remain a problem.  It has no satisfactory resolution because there is no satisfying resolution.  Jews, Christians and Muslims are left to defend an unfair God who is indefensible. 

One of the odd things about the Book of Job is its impressive refusal to pull any punches.  Undeserved suffering is a problem and it remains a problem to this very day. 

Job and his wife Mrs. Job are metaphors for all human beings.   They are everyone who has ever lived.  They have no choice but to go on living, have more children, more belongings, more of everything, knowing it can all be gone in the blink of an eye.

This is our world and the Biblical text is honest about it, aware of the craziness of life.  Yet, Job remains our teacher.  The Book of Job would have us look God straight in the eye, hurl our protests and questions in his face, and refuse to accept the injustice of life.  Such is the character of our faith.  There may be no more honest piece of scripture in the Bible than the Book of Job.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Religion and Retirement

 I love teaching and it appears I am doing it well.  So, why am I wrestling with retirement and what does retirement have to do with teaching religion? 

I grew up in the 1960’s.  We knew anyone who was over thirty had sold out to “the system” and was morally corrupt.  Simon and Garfunkel sang “How terribly strange to be seventy.”  Bob Dylan told us, “The times they are a changin.” We were young then and knew we would always be young.  But, we were wrong.  We all got old and here we are looking at each other and wondering what happened?  

I have colleagues and friends who have retired.  Some tell me they are enjoying not going to work.  Retirement for them means withdrawing from their occupation for the sake of privacy, rest and recreation. 

Retirement is a state of mind. It’s only been around for a little over a hundred years.   If you think you’re getting old and if you’re tired of what you’re doing and if you have enough money, I suppose you can withdraw and do something else.  I get it.  I respect it.

But I don’t understand retirement.

My teaching isn’t a job.  It’s a vocation, a calling, a passion if not from God then from my own soul.  There are questions which haunt me, which I am compelled to pursue.  And teaching students to think well, letting them know “attention must be paid” to such questions, is vital. And the pursuit of these questions keeps me alive!

I know, retirement is a very individual matter.  It seems people know when they know, it’s time.  And I know a time will come when I will no longer be able to teach.  Some disease will come along and take my energy and desire. I hope that is some time away.  At that time, I will be able to say to myself about my teaching:  I love what I did and I did what I could do. 

In the meantime, I have tests to grade and classes to get ready for the week.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Let Faith be Faith

Faith means trusting without knowing for sure.  Everyone knows faith is an essential part of religion.  Whether you believe faith is something we conjure up in our heads, is something God creates in us, or faith is more about doing than believing, faith is central.

The problem is our religions are much too certain.  Our scriptures tell us God operates in mysterious morally ambiguous, unpredictable and strange ways.  So, we need to be careful when we think we are certain about the will of God.  The only one who knows the will of God is God. 

So, why do Synagogue/Church liturgies sound so certain?  When I attend synagogue, all kinds of prayers are chanted as if we are all certain what we are saying is true.  But we’re not certain. I cannot tell you how many Christian sermons I’ve heard where the pastor sounds like he or she is certain about the will of God.  But, some of us have questions and doubts.  Some of us know we are overstating our confidence in the verity of our respective beliefs and traditions.  So, why do we do it?

I suspect most clergy think it’s their role to proclaim the truth and encourage people to believe.  Most accentuate the positive about God and downplay the negative.  For example, religious services beseech and implore God to heal those who are ill.  Week after week, prayers are said.  Sometimes, people do get better and God is credited with the healing.  But, what about all those who only get worse, go through painful suffering and then die, despite the prayers? 

In our worship services, there is no place for lament prayers.  There are no prayers where God is questioned concerning God’s methodology.  I suspect the reason such prayers are omitted, despite the fact they are quite scriptural, is the fear they will imply God is unjust and this will cause people to not believe.

But listen, the contrary is true.  When you promise too much to people telling them that God will make sure nothing bad happens to them, that God will heal them, when you have them recite creeds and sing hymns that say the same, when you preach about the will of God as if you know that will, when you proclaim that everything that happens is God’s will, you are preparing people to give up their faith and their God.  You are creating agnostics and atheists.

So, let faith be faith.  Let it be comforting, risky, magical, superstitious, confusing, full of questions and doubts and wondering if any of it is true.  Our worship services need to be honest and not full of high sounding words that lie in the name of God.  You will never get rid of worries and doubts about God.  It’s part of faith.  So, let faith be faith!  Let it be perplexing, tentative, unsure, crazy making, and reassuring.  Let faith be faith and, in that way, we will be honest about what we trust and what we find hard to trust.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Nature has No Conscience

I am not one of those people who look at nature and conclude there is a God.  To admit, there are beautiful and amazing aspects to nature.  The vast variety of birds, fish, animals, flowers, trees, mountains, lakes, oceans can be breathtaking and their multi colors and shapes offer all sorts of opportunities for avid photographers and spirituality seekers.  I grant it all and marvel at its wonder.

But take a good look.  Nature is ambiguous, unreliable and dangerous.  Nature has no conscience.  Along with its marvels, nature produces terribly destructive hurricanes, volcanos, tornadoes, earthquakes, monsoons, avalanches, forest fires, ice storms, not to mention a host of diseases including varieties of cancer, heart and birth defects, rare infections and countless other ailments.  Nature can be gentle and kind and nature can be wild and ferocious.

Yes, we can try to accentuate the positive.  Some will say, the wildness of nature causes us to be grateful, humble and respect the fragility of our existence.  Others remind us, when natural disasters occur it gives us a chance to help.  Still others talk about how God has blessed us with science and technology to survive nature’s craziness and nurse the environment. And there are even some who talk about the innate beauty of nature’s wild ferocity.

But I remain perplexed.  Is the ferocity of nature worth the cost it exacts on human life?  Think of all the physical, psychological and emotional trauma created by natural evil; think of all the damage endured by people as they try to survive nature’s madness.

I say again, nature has no conscience.  The Jewish and Christian scriptures depict water as a symbol for chaos.  God is pictured creating the world by wrestling or struggling with the chaos of nature, separating the waters from the waters, grappling with human nature, sometimes succeeding sometimes not.  But nature is not held up as something to be worshiped. The word “nature” does not even occur in the Bible. 

Like the biblical deity, we are compelled to wrestle with nature, particularly our own nature.  We ought not worship or romanticize nature. 

We have just experienced the wild calamity and terrible damage caused by two hurricanes.  Nature has no conscience.  When we realize this, we will be better prepared to meet nature’s beautiful, fantastic, horrific and ambiguous behavior.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Why People Hate

Why do People Hate?

Hate comes from fear, anger and the belief you or your group has suffered a terrible injustice.  If you believe there’s a conspiracy going on and a certain group has it out for you, it awakens inside you the capacity to hate.

After all, the human brain can be trained.  It can be trained to be kind and caring; it can be trained to hate.  You may remember the song from South Pacific: 

You've got to be taught to hate and fear,

You've got to be taught from year to year,

It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a different shade,

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You've got to be carefully taught!

When all is said and done, hate is a faith.  Hate comes from believing that the people you hate deserve to be hated.  Unlike prejudice and racism, hatred cannot be eliminated by education alone. Bret Stephens says, “Fear is often a function of unfamiliarity.”  When we are unfamiliar with a group, we tend to stereotype that group.

But. fear and hate can be trained out of you by experience. You meet someone from the hated group and discover they are not as dangerous as you were led to believe.  By the way, one of the reasons I teach where I do is so students can meet and experience somebody Jewish and see with their own eyes, Jews are people, human beings, who do not deserve to be hated.  

Wherever you live, do what you can do to stop the hate.

Friday, September 1, 2017

All Beginnings are Hard

It's that time again.  Chaim Potok wrote, “all beginnings are hard.”  Such is the rhythm for those of us who teach.  September means beginning again.  I have walked through this beginning many times.  You would think I would have it down by now.  But there is still a nervous fearful anxious feeling in the pit of my brain, a sense that the wonderful exciting dread time is once again upon us.  Soon, I will have to stand up and talk.

And I am asking myself, what makes for such stress and nervousness?  Is it fear of failure?  Is it fear that I have lost my touch?  Do I wonder if I am getting too old to do this anymore?  Do I wonder if it is fair and right for someone who was Christian and now Jewish to teach Christians about their tradition?  I suppose all of those are factors.  But, I sense it’s something more.

The fact is I love to teach religion.  But teaching religion is not easy.  It’s not just a matter of getting up and talking or sharing information. This is necessary and this I will do.  Teaching religion is teaching young people to think about their faith.  And this kind of thinking is hard work.  Let’s face it: When it comes to religion, many people have not been trained to think. They have been trained to believe.   

And when I stare into their young and mostly innocent eyes, it scares me to have to tell them: God, Jesus, the Bible and religion are a bit more complicated then they might have thought.  My goal is not to hurt their faith but to deepen it.  I do not teach for the tradition, nor against the tradition, but within the tradition.  So, deepening the faith of students involves telling them some things they may not want to hear such as:  The Bible was not dictated by God to the writers.  Adam and Eve were not real people though their story is true.  The notion that everything happens for a reason has some problems.  Not all Christians believe Jesus died for our sins.  Sometimes the best way to express your faith is to hurl questions at the deity.  Judaism and Islam have millions of followers, who believe Christianity is wrong.   

To possess a mature faith means to trust without being afraid of the questions. It also means to think that you could be wrong.

So, here we go again.  All beginnings are hard.  I am excited and apprehensive.  Despite that, I am committed to the notion that a religious person who is not afraid to think and has his or her eyes wide open is closer to the truth.  And wherever the truth is, that’s where God is as well.