Friday, July 27, 2018

A Crisis of Religious Authority

We are alive in a time when religious authorities, including God, are suspect. 

The first six letters of the word authority spell author.  Who is the author of our religious traditions and texts?  True believers are convinced.  They tell us the author is God.  They say, everything in our scriptural texts ultimately comes from God.  That sounds seductively comforting.  There are no more questions except how to interpret “God’s word.” 

After the Enlightenment, the historical critical method of reading scripture, after Spinoza, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and the convincing explanations of scientists, it has become impossible for many of us to just assert scripture and religion comes directly from God.  If our scriptures originate with God, they appear terribly contradictory, imperfect and outdated.  It also seems that our notions of how God operates in the world, regarding undeserved suffering and evil, and whether there is a God have increasingly come into question.  The old belief that God’s ways are not our ways and we should just accept that fact, seems to no longer be very convincing.  This deterioration of authority has been going on for over 350 years. 

So, how do we, religious people with open eyes, talk about the authority of our scriptures, our religious traditions, our religious leaders and God, without closing our eyes and pretending there are no questions or doubts? 

First, we must be honest.  While, religious authority has diminished over the last three hundred years in some circles, other people continue to assert their faith in the mystery of God and the scriptures.  The matter of religious authority is not settled but in dispute.

Second, here is a way you can check your own views on the authority of your tradition.

 Look at the way you live your life.   What parts of your religious tradition are binding on you?  What parts are not binding?  What parts do you ignore or not think about?   What parts are the most important and cannot be compromised?  What parts do you think can be questioned and/or changed? Who told you, you had the right to make such determinations on your own?

Whether you or I like it or not, authority is not what it once was.  Being religious or not being religious has become an authorized personal individual choice.  Everybody has a right to decide for him or herself what is true and what is not true.

Some would say we are living within a crisis of religious authority.  Others would applaud the demise of religious authority.  Some respect religious authority while others feel suffocated by that same authority.

While we can be envious of religious innocence and certainty, we ought not be na├»ve about our situation.  Let’s face it. 

The real problem is this:  Many of us want to be both modern and religious.  But we are not sure how to do it.

Question:  Has our rebellion against religious authority made us behave better, care more, act with courage, honor and civility toward each other?

P.S.  The Blog is on leave until September 1. Talk to you then.  M.H.

Friday, July 20, 2018

How to be a Mensch

I have often written and spoken and harped about the importance of being a “mensch.” 

It is at the center, for me, of what it means to be a Jew and a human being.

The word “mensch” comes from the Yiddish appropriation of a German word, meaning man or person.  When you say someone is a mensch, you’re saying that person has character, courage, kindness and wisdom.  Another way is to ask yourself, if you were in trouble and needed help, on whose door would you knock and be sure they would let you in?  That person would be a mensch because you could trust he or she would be there for you.

Being a mensch is also not about agonizing whether to act or not.  “Those who agonize do not act.  And those who act do not agonize.”

You become a mensch by acting like a mensch.  It happens through being a person of character, action by action.  You act this way not to get God to love you or because you are perfect.  You act like a mensch to be a human being.  It becomes part of your life.  It becomes a matter of habit.  If you want to be a kind person, do kind acts.  If you wish you could care more, care more.

Theology, religious rituals and acts, hymns, meditation, creeds, confessions, and prayers have their place.  But, the heart of real faith is centered not on what you believe, but on what you do. 

By the way, being a mensch is true for Jews and Christians. Think of the story of the Samaritan who risks helping the person on the side of the road.  And, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is depicted as asking his followers, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and not do what I tell you to do?” (Luke 6:46)

You become a mensch by being a mensch.  This is at the heart and soul of being a religious person. All the rest is commentary.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

All Creatures Great and Small

We humans are creatures great and small.  We are here for a short while, and then, reluctantly, we disappear.  Who are we?  We can be amazingly courageous and caring.  We can sacrifice our own lives for the sake of others.  We can be nice.  We can be mean. We can be selfish and sacrifice someone else’s life so that we may survive.  We have the capacity to act well and not so well.  We love, and we hate.  We care about others but when stressed can become self-centered and self-obsessed

What are we?  We are human creatures or animals.  We are ambiguous and inconsistent by nature.

We are limited, vulnerable, fragile, arrogantly independent and terribly dependent at the same time.  We can be wounded by other creatures.  We are a species that kills its own kind in large numbers through wars and genocides.  We can be courageous and cowardly.  And we remember with plays, books, movies and narratives what we have done, lament the awful terror and madness, and then do it all over again.

We are human animals.  We have been acting like this for a long time.

The Biblical texts compare us to sheep.  We are cute, furry, and independent but not too smart.  We are easily led astray by shiny objects and goals set by unrelenting appetites and desires.  When young or even older, we can be irrational, get lost often and need to be found and to find ourselves.  True for some more than others.  We can be religious and not religious.

We are great and small.  We are here, and we disappear. 

When all is said and done, Joseph Epstein has it right: “All men and women are born, live, suffer and die. We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die, or the times and conditions of our death.  But within all this choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live, courageously or in cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or adrift.  We decide what is important and what is trivial.  What makes us significant is what we do or refuse to do.  We decide and we choose and as we decide and choose, we define our lives.”

Friday, June 29, 2018

Do What You Can Do

Many of us are fixers.  That’s why we went into the helping professions.  We spend our lives ruminating and worrying about all sorts of situations and people we are unable to change.  We want to fix everyone and everything that is crazy, but we cannot.  We have limits and can only do what we can do.

There is a story In the Gospel of Mark about a woman who, just before Jesus is to be killed, brings perfume to adorn his body.  Jesus’ disciples are critical of her, declaring the money she has wasted on the perfume could have been better spent and given to the poor.  But Jesus is critical of his followers and tells them, “Leave her alone.  She did what she could do.  Wherever the Gospel is preached in all the world it will be spoken in her name.”  Besides the fact that we do not know her name, and one rarely hears the gospel preached in her name, Jesus’ advice rings true.

Leave her alone.  She did what she could do.  She could not stop the killing, but she did what she could do.  This nameless woman can help us all to stay sane.

The problem is when I say “I did what I could do” it can feel like a copout.  We are hard on ourselves.  We are messianic.  We accuse ourselves.  We say things like: "You could have done more.  You are lazy.  You had the wrong tactics or strategy.  You didn't care enough.  You could have tried one more time."  We beat ourselves up because we so badly want to fix who or what is broken.  We may even love the one who is broken but cannot fix that person.  It is sad but true.

So, to you and to me, hear this word of freedom:  It’s time to stop.  Like the woman in Mark’s Gospel, you did what you could do.  You are doing what you can do.  Keep on keeping on but enough is enough. Give yourself a break.  Get a good night’s rest and tomorrow, once again, do what you can do.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Why People Bother To Pray

A student once told me, when she prays at night, she wonders if the only one listening is the ceiling.  I get it.  Many people in the world pray, each in their own way.  But what is the point of praying if we are not sure anyone is listening?  And if there is a God listening, why are the answers to prayer so ambiguous, unclear, and inconsistent? As a child of Holocaust survivors whose relatives were murdered in the Nazi Camps, I am puzzled by prayer and what it accomplishes.

Maybe the purpose of prayer is to inform God of how we are feeling or what we want.  But, I assume any God worth his or her salt would already know what we think, feel, want and need.  So, why pray?

The logical response is catharsis and fear.  Prayer allows us to get our concerns and feelings out of our minds and say them to God or the universe?  Or, maybe it’s a matter of habit.  It’s what we do every morning and evening.  So, we don’t even think about it.  We go through the motions.  Or, perhaps we are going through some mental or physical struggle and we feel alone.  Yes, catharsis has its place in prayer.

Maybe, the reason people pray has to do with truth.  It is that place where we speak the truth about our hopes, our yearnings, our dreams, our gratitude, our confessions, our anger, our questions, our struggle, our tears and sighs to deep for words.  There is a human need to express our deepest feelings and to feel someone is listening.  Truth has its place.

I am a person who prays. I pray because it connects me to the Jewish community.  Across the world, Jews say the Shema (Hear Israel, the Lord is God, The Lord is one) two times a day.  When I pray in Hebrew I feel connected to that praying throng and tribe.  I am Jewish, and that fact gives meaning to my life.

The real reason many people pray is because things in the world are not what they ought to be.  Praying to God is letting the deity know, we see what our world is all about and it is not what it should be.  Prayer is a way of coping with what comes along.  Behind every prayer is the tenacious belief that things can be different.  Things, situations, people can change.  So, we pray and importune God, despite the silence of God.

I am not sure what God has to do with all our praying.  The romantic and religious part of me likes to think God is involved in our world interacting with all our prayers in some inscrutable, ineffable, mysterious way. That’s comforting.

When all is said and done, I think we pray because we feel out of control, it keeps us sane and because many of us, Jews, Christians and Muslims, hope against hope someone is listening besides the ceiling.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Everything Does Not Happen for a Reason

Whenever I teach my class dealing with God, suffering and Evil, I hear someone say, “A lot of terrible things happen in the world, but I believe everything happens for a reason and is part of the plan of God.”

At first, such comments sound religious and comforting. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.  Everything is determined through the inscrutable will of God.  You don’t have to think any more and it wouldn’t do you any good anyway because what God is doing is all a secret.  It’s a mystery.

 But if you do think about it, you will see these comments are insulting to God and our respective religions.  In our scriptures, there are many events which occur that are not the will of God.  In fact, God is pictured as quite surprised and upset at what people do. For example, Cain murders Abel.  God does not stop the killing and in fact, is shocked by it.  God does not say, “Don’t worry.  It’s all part of my plan.”  Throughout the scriptures, God is periodically depicted as angry and upset at what people do. 

And if it is true, that everything happens for a reason and is part of God’s will, it would mean God is a cosmic monster who commits all sorts of evil for the sake of some hidden master plan.  It would mean the Holocaust was the will of God; it would mean wars, earthquakes, tornadoes, cancers, heart attacks, everyday tragic accidents, suicides, senseless and undeserved suffering would all be happening for “a reason.”  Such actions would not be the work of a loving God.  It would be the work of a sadistic masochistic architect who kills millions of people for the sake of some grandiose mysterious plan.  This God should never be worshipped. 

But I ask myself, why is the notion that everything happens for a reason so popular?  Because it offers up comfort and declares a rhyme or reason that explains all the absurdity and craziness happening every day.  It makes us feel better if we can think all the absurdities of life as part of some cosmic quilt woven together even though we cannot understand the pattern. 

I get it.  The brain needs and creates patterns whether they are there or not.  But we do not have to capitulate to such ideas.  We know that accidents happen.  We know people carry within them generations of genetically determined diseases.  And we should know, if we depict everything happening as part of the Divine will, we will be teaching people to hate God. 

Near as I can tell, God created a universe in which chance and laws of nature control much of what happens.  We trust God is interacting with human decisions but obviously not in such a way as to stop suffering and evil, deserved or undeserved.  The notion, everything happens for a reason, is wishful thinking, a delusion, causing more and more people to become atheists.

Let’s be honest.  The world can be a dangerous place.  God’s activity in the world is problematic, mysterious and difficult to discern.  So, remember again Whitehead’s warning: “Seek simplicity but distrust it.”  If you are going to have faith, let it be an intelligent, honest and humble faith.  In that way we shall honor and not insult our God.

Friday, June 8, 2018

New York and Sioux Falls

It is often said by outsiders, “I love to visit New York but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  

I grew up in New York City.  I lived on Fulton Avenue and Gates Place near Moshulu Parkway in the Bronx.  But when I was eighteen, I left.   My brother has lived in the City all his life and I have visited him there many times since went away.

My wife and I visited New York this past weekend.  I saw and hugged my brother; we stayed in a comfortable hotel, ate at Barbuto, a Jonathan Waxman restaurant, went to a Broadway show, toured MOMA, made our way to Strand, a massive book store, had wonderful thin pizza many times, did some serious downtown walking, endured hectic cab and subway rides. 

 New York City, particularly the Times Square area, is an exciting, noisy, diverse, complicated, crowded, explosive, adventurous, crazy place.  While in New York we saw a five-hour parade on Fifth Avenue celebrating the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel.   There were thousands of Jews marching in the street singing raucous Hebrew songs in support of the Jewish state.  It is fun to go back and experience the city.

But it is not home for me.  After leaving New York, the Air Force took me to the upper Midwest where I fell in love with the peacefulness and beauty of the place.  For a long time now, I have lived in Sioux Falls, content with its slower and saner pace of life.

As I sit here writing, I think of this small city as relatively quiet, safe, conservative, pretty with trees and an increasing beautiful downtown and of course, the namesake “Falls.”  Our restaurants are not as sophisticated as NYC, but we have wonderful bagels, fine Chinese food, and a growing diversity of eateries. We have several HY-Vees, the Sioux Falls Canaries, the Sioux Falls Storm and Augustana University. 

For all that, I remain fond of New York City, I still have my New York accent, maintain duel loyalty to the Twins and the Yankees, miss the fine Jewish delis, remember my times growing up there, and miss the Jewish presence. 

But, I will tell you something you may find surprising, being Jewish in Sioux Falls means being aware and conscious of being Jewish.  You can’t just blend in.  There are so few of us here that we have learned to care and pay attention to being Jewish. It matters!  So, I like to go back and remember New York, but I am home in Sioux Falls.