Monday, October 7, 2019

The Complexity of Faith

Sometimes we are given the impression that faith is a simple thing.  Just close your eyes, trust, sing a hymn, and you’re done.  God is at work and nothing bad will ever happen to you.  Trust in the reliability and promises of God and your life will go well.  Everything happens for a reason.  Heaven is waiting.  Faith is simple.  Keep singing the old hymns.  Every day brings new hope.

But it’s not true.  Faith is complicated.  It has to do with trusting without knowing for sure and trusting when trusting makes no sense.  

We have five senses by which we comprehend and decode reality.  Theology, talk about an invisible God, is not simple.  It is complex and it becomes extremely complex when we are living through chaos.  Chaos is the feeling of being out of control or forced to live with little or no order in our lives.

In the scriptures God is pictured as constantly wrestling with chaos, the chaos of nature and the chaos of human nature.  Sometimes God succeeds and sometimes God fails.  Chaos is chaotic and hard to control. It is an inexorable part of life.

Sometimes we need to ask ourselves what it is we are trusting God to do.  Some will assert, God gives us the strength to survive the chaos.  But that is not always true.  Some people do not survive the craziness of life and are swallowed up in its tumult.

All I’m saying is trusting in the providence of God is not easy.  Atheists and agnostics have a point we ought not ignore.  Trusting in God is a risk we take, hoping against hope, God is there and cares about us.

Faith is complex because it occurs despite the chaos of life, in spite of the chaos of life, and to spite the chaos of life.  Faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin.  And there will be times when the doubt side of the coin makes the most sense.

I am not against faith.  I am a person of faith.  But our faith needs to be honest and steeped in integrity.  Faith is not simple.  Faith is complex.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Religions are Fine But Not Divine

Why is there religion and where did it come from?   The world’s religions did not drop down from the sky.  Religions were invented by human beings because they responded to certain vital questions and experiences.

Since human creatures have been wandering on the earth, they have wondered how did we get here, what are we doing here, how shall we live our lives, is there a God or gods, is there life after life?  Great spiritual minds wrestled with these questions. 

These great minds had faith they had received certain true revelations from the beyond in the here and now.  They came to believe the invisible is more important than the visible.  That what does not meet the eye is greater than what meets the eye.  And if you believe you will see the truth.

Stories, rituals, holy people came to articulate the revealed truths.  And from there, religions, scriptures, liturgies, creeds and traditions developed. 

What and if God had anything to do with all of this is hard to say.  Each of us within our respective religions believe our revelation has the truth or at least a proper glimpse of the truth.

Religions are fine but they are not necessarily divine.  If anything, the major religions of the world may be a glimpse of the truth.  But there is so much extraneous material in each religion, it’s difficult to figure out what is true and what is not.

The religious questions which began all this are still with us.  How and if God interacts with these different religious traditions and believers is impossible to say.

Let’s all then be humble and honest about what we trust and remember we could be wrong.  Another religious tradition may be right.  Since our religious knowledge is tentative at best, believe what you want to believe, defend it to the hilt, but respectfully disagree with those who differ.  This seems the better part of wisdom.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Secret and Mystery of the Shofar

Soon, it will happen again.  In a few days during the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the shofar will be blown.  It is always a special and holy moment when the shofar or ram’s horn is blown.

As a boy I remember being mesmerized by the beautiful sacred haunting sound.  It was part of the majesty and mystery of the high holy days.

The Rabbis teach us many reasons for the blowing of the shofar.  Some say it stems from the ram caught in the thicket which Abraham offered instead of his son, Isaac.  Others say it is a cry of repentance on the part of the Jewish people.   Still others say it is reminiscent of the shofar being blown during the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  And there are many other reasons . . .

The one I appreciate the most: the shofar creates the sounds of the victims throughout history wailing their pain, struggle and faith in a desperate attempt to awaken God from his slumber. The shofar is a plea of hope and sanity.  It is a sigh, a cry, and a prayer too great for words.

More than anything the shofar brings Jews across the world together again.  If there is anything Jewish in your soul, you will come to hear its sound.

This year, Rosh Hashanah (literally head of the year), is the Jewish New Year 5780.  It begins a ten day period of introspection and reconciliation with those you have hurt during the past year, leading to the holiday of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when Jews as a community ask God for forgiveness and implicitly forgive God for his silence in their suffering.

Soon, it will happen again. The shofar will sound its eerie notes encouraging us to trust against trust and imploring God to act like God.  It is indeed a holy moment.

Friday, July 26, 2019

A Leap of Faith

Faith is trusting without knowing for sure.  

Our scriptures exhort us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind.  We are commanded to love the deity with all our intellect.  We do not have faith by believing mindlessly, thoughtlessly and without questions.  I cannot believe that we have been given a brain in order to disregard its ability to analyze and question when it comes to God and religion. 

Whatever God is about and indeed if there is a God, he, she, it is invisible, complicated, mysterious, inscrutable, unpredictable and methodologically questionable.  It is not a violation of trust to have such thought or questions.  It is an inherent part of trusting without knowing for sure.

And any God worth the name would encourage such questions and doubts as an expression of our faith.

So, do not feel guilty about wondering if any of this religious stuff is true.  Count yourself as normal and alive.

A friend of mine who works with the poor in the inner city cautions me: There are those whose lives do not possess the privilege of sitting around, thinking and asking questions.  They are the poor whose questions have to do with whether they will have food or shelter or a bed for the coming night.  For them any small bit of good news is a blessing from God.  They do not have time to doubt or the inclination to ask God questions.

Some would say these people live a simple faith, a trust which says, “God is in control, everything happens because God wants it to happen for some mysterious plan or purpose, we are unable to decipher.  Questions and doubts are contrary to faith.   All we can do is trust that God knows best.”

But I wonder, is it possible, these people with the simple faith are not blind or stupid or leaping into the darkness.  Those who continue to trust despite what they see are implicitly by the nature of their faith and trust confronting and accusing God with their own implicit questions, doubts and hopes.  It takes courage and wisdom to have such a faith and to live such a life.  The simple fact is:  there are just different ways of questioning the justice of God.  Their expectations, theology and faith are their way.  And maybe that will have to be enough.  What do you think?

Have a restful rest of the summer.

P.S.  The blog will be on break for the month of August.  Thank you for reading and thinking with me.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Respectful Stubbornness

We live in a world where there are different ways of being religious.  People can decide to practice their religion or have no religion as they each see fit.

But we know, it does not mean everybody therefore gets along.  Religion has to do with truth.  It explains why we bother to get out of bed in the morning.  Our religions tell us how we got here, the meaning of our lives and deaths, the truth about God and how God has or has not been revealed to us.  Religion is not just something made up long ago; some would say it is the truth as revealed by God to each respective tradition.  So, while it sounds harmonic to say we are all part of the human family and we should agree to disagree, it’s not that easy.

I propose we admit that multiple religions mean multiple conflicting revelations.  The world’s major religions have been around a long time and their believers trumpet the revelation they possess and that possesses them.  So, what are we to do?   I suggest respectful stubbornness.

We each confess our religious beliefs, articulate them as clearly as possible, learn from each other where we can but feel free to dispute where we disagree.  This includes those who are atheist or agnostic.  The freedom to respectfully disagree comes from our necessary and inherent religious humility, the sense that we can be self-serving and could be wrong.  Absolutizing our religious beliefs is an act of idolatry. We are, after all, human beings and human beings make mistakes, believe all sorts of crazy things and are sometimes just plain wrong.

 I am a Jew.  I cannot understand myself apart from the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition.  But I have studied and am willing to listen to other religious truths because I know my religious beliefs are tentative and only a glimpse of what could be the ultimate truth.  I hope you will admit the same is true for your beliefs.

We have so much to learn from each other if we can put aside our instinct to guard and protect the purity of our beliefs.  So, I say, maintain your beliefs stubbornly but be open to learn where you could be wrong.  Respectful stubbornness can work.  By the way, this is true for politics as much as religion. 

Friday, July 5, 2019

Writing a Book about Elie Wiesel

I have decided to write a book about Elie Wiesel.  Elie Wiesel is arguably the most important theological writer in the past fifty years.  Wiesel wrote fifty-three books as a witness to what happened during the Holocaust.  In many of these books he grappled with his understanding of God.  I am planning to write a book dealing with Wiesel’s understanding of God during those days.

In his first and most celebrated book, Night, Wiesel declares his problem with the justice of God.  As he says, “I was no longer the accused.  I was the accuser.”  Wiesel wrote his many books in the name of those millions of Jews murdered during the Holocaust.  Their voices had been stilled but their questions could not be silenced.  Wiesel wrote on their behalf and asked questions about the character and methodology of God.  The strange part about Wiesel’s work is he did not see his questions as a sign of unbelief but as part of a commitment to God and God’s promises.

Whenever a writer writes, the blank page or screen stares back and makes him or her wonder if they have anything worthwhile to say.  But this book has been cooking inside me for many years.  So here it goes.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Vacation is Fine, But . . .

I love to travel but I do not travel well.  My circadian body and brain waves know when I have left the comforts of home and they insistently and anxiously enquire as to why I have vacated such a pleasant place.  I explain that it’s called summer vacation.  You travel to northern Minnesota to experience the shimmering beauty of Ten Mile Lake.  You relaxingly walk through the quaint shops and eating facilities of Walker and Hackensack, Minnesota.  In the house you rent, you sit on the deck and stare at the water, listen to the loons communicating with each other, get away from the everyday and come down a bit from the usual tensions of life.  All of this is true.

Vacations are fine but they take you away from the one place where you have some control and comfort.  That place is called home.  Yes, I have travelled throughout the world, from India to Israel to Poland to Slovakia to Montreal.  But, as I get older, I find myself increasingly becoming a homebody.

It is well said that the opposite of faith is control. At home, you feel mostly in control and relatively safe. On vacation, you are less in control and forced to trust without knowing for sure.  Along with all the wonders of the lake are its uncontrollable aspects: the weather cloudy and cool with chances of rain each day, the hungry voracious mosquitoes who inhabit your bedroom and seem to delight in waiting until you go to sleep before they attack,  the low seat uncomfortable toilets with which my becoming older body is less than pleased, and the indigestion and stomach aches which kick in whenever I indulge in a lot of junk food.

And, think about it, the word travel itself originates from the old French word travail meaning “work.”

Vacations are fine but . . .  they are a lot of work.  I give massive credit to my wife for getting everything ready for the trip and organizing the schedule of what to do and where to eat up there.  And, don’t get me wrong.  I love sitting in front of the lake and watching the sun touch the water creating a sparkling diamond effect.  Just plain spiritually beautiful!  But when I come home, I feel my whole limbic system take a sigh of relief and relax.  The work is done, now the true vacation begins.