Archive for August 2009
Like many other people today, I watched the funeral service for Senator Ted Kennedy. Like a good many other people, I was struck by the constant references to his faith, and to his drawing inspiration from the gospels and the Hebrew prophets. His long career as a public figure working for the poor, the mentally ill, the physically ill, immigrants seeking to improve their lives, the downtrodden was all inspired by Christian teachings. Similarly, his work for racial desegregation and for a full equality of opportunity for all people, no matter their race, their religion, their political convictions or their sexual orientation bore the unmistakable stamp of his Christian values in general and his Roman Catholic values in particular.
Ted Kennedy called himself a liberal. What he called his liberal values were so intimately tied to his Christian values that it is difficult to imagine anyone being a Christian without also being a liberal. But one need not be a Christian to be a liberal, for liberal values are also at the heart of being Jewish, and Muslim, and Hindu, and Buddhist, and Sikh, and Jain. It is difficult to imagine anyone being truly serious about any of the world’s religions without being deeply committed to the traditional liberal values of protecting the poor against the wealthy, the weak against the powerful, the feeble-minded against the clever, the humble against the mighty, the peaceful against the warlike, the few against the many. It is impossible for me to imagine being a sincere practitioner of any religious tradition without being committed to what Catholics during the Second Vatican Council called the preferential option for the poor. That is, whenever there is a struggle between the rich protecting their vested interests and the poor struggling for a basic livelihood, and fundamental human rights, and dignity, and equality of opportunity, one should always side with the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, the underprivileged. That is the message the prophets of Israel brought. It is what Jesus of Nazareth taught. It is the message of the Qur’ān and the prophet Muhammad. It is a central theme in the teachings of the Buddha. It is what Confucius and his followers repeatedly sought to implement. It is also what humanism is all about. These are the basic values not only of the religious but also of many agnostics and atheists.
A word that many people don’t like to use because they find it too nebulous in meaning is spiritual. Some people use the word to refer to espousing the core values of the world’s religions without necessarily buying in to the rituals and the dogmas of any those traditions. That is one way of using the word, but it is not entirely accurate, for that usage suggests there is a dichotomy between being religious and being spiritual. That is, however, a false dichotomy. While it’s true that people who prefer never to go inside a church or temple or synagogue or mosque can be spiritual, it’s also true that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists can all be spiritual. Just as one need not be a Christian to be a liberal, one need not avoid organized religion to be spiritual. Just as liberalism embraces all the religions, and many ways of thinking that are not at all religious, so does spirituality.
It would not be going to far, I think, to suggest that spiritual and liberal overlap in meaning a great deal. They are not synonymous. But they are close enough in connotation that people who are allergic to one word can use the other without being too badly misunderstood.
I am among those who will miss Ted Kennedy’s tireless crusades for the poor and the powerless. And I am among those who know that the word crusade comes into English from the Spanish and from the Latin word for cross. A crusader carries the cross into his battles. Ted Kennedy did that brilliantly and unfailingly. One need not be a Christian to feel grateful to him for doing that. One need only be spiritual. And in being spiritual, one cannot help also being a liberal.
When Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, or perhaps someone else, played a role in planting a bomb on Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, he apparently felt that he was justified in killing people, since they were deserving for some reason to be punished. When members of al-Qa’eda carried out attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, they were convinced that no innocent people had died. The vary fact that the people who died were either at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center was seen as evidence that the victims were acting against the ways of God and therefore deserved to be punished. The duty of a lover of God, the reasoning seems to go, is to punish those whom God hates and God hates evil-doers. Using exactly that reasoning, the Bush administration initiated the invasion of two sovereign nations, Afghanistan and Iraq, on the grounds that they were harboring evil-doers who were working against American interests, and therefore against God.
The depiction of God as a wrathful deity who punishes all those who displease him is well represented in the sacred literature of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was allegedly because God so despised the people of the land of Canaan that he authorized the Hebrews to invade the land of Canaan with an aggressive brutality that today would be called genocidal. Later, the some of the Hebrew prophets were convinced that the brutal assault on Zion by the Babylonians was a natural expression of God’s anger with the Hebrews for their allowing pagan elements to become mixed with the religious observances demanded by God of his chosen people. The Book of Revelations in the Christian scriptures outlines the suffering that will be inflicted on the enemies of God. The Qur’ān warrants the punishment of apostates and the rough treatment of infidels. The claim is made, at least in Islam, that the god of the Hebrews and the Christians and the Muslims is one and the same. This one God is unambiguously punitive. Those who do evil cannot expect to be treated gently.
The punitive God, however, is by no means the only one described in Jewish, Christian and Islamic scripture. God is also constantly described by the Hebrews as “slow to anger” and “merciful” and “compassionate.” In all three traditions God commands the descendants of Adam to care for orphans, widows, the poor and the powerless. Through (or, for a Trinitarian Christian, as) Jesus, God warns people about to stone an adulteress that the first stone should be thrown by one who is free of sin; no one throws a stone. And Jesus admonishes his disciples not to pas judgment, less judgment be passed on them. John the Evangelist identifies with God as love. The Qur’ān frequently uses the epithets “The Merciful” and “The Compassionate” for God.
It may be less difficult to believe that The Torah, the Gospels and the Qur’ān are all outlining the same characteristics than it is to believe that all those characteristics belong to a single deity. It is difficult to see how the angry, jealous and punitive nature that we read about is some scriptural passages are to be reconciled with the loving, merciful and forgiving nature encountered in other passages. Of course, no one is perfectly consistent, so there is no reason why God could not be as complex and full of contradictions as any human being. The practical problem for human beings arises when they have to decide which of the natures of God they are going to emulate. Should a human being strive to be demanding of perfection and punitive of all who stray into error, or would it be better to strive to be loving and forgiving?
There is no way to answer this question for everyone. Rather, everyone must arrive at his or her own answer. Having arrived at a provisional answer, the next question to ask is whether the answer one has arrived it is divinely guided in some way or whether it comes from other promptings.
If one’s inclination is to be an instrument of divine vengeance and to wield “the terrible swift sword” of God’s wrath, it is worth asking whether one has been chosen to carry out this punitive role or whether one is acting out of one’s own conditioned fear and prejudice. It also worth asking what the consequences might be of being mistaken. What if, for example, one is mistaken in the belief that God wants one to assassinate an abortionist or go to a crowded bazaar and detonate explosives strapped to one’s body? How will one rectify the error? Can one rectify such an error?
If one’s inclination is to be merciful and compassionate and to be an instrument of divine love, it is equally worth asking whether one’s intended actions are truly spirit-led or whether one is acting out of cowardice or moral laziness or a desire to be liked by one’s fellows. And, as in the other case, it is worth reflecting on what the consequences might be of being mistaken. If one were mistaken, would this be an unrecoverable error, one that would lead to certain damnation?
If one cannot be certain of the source of one’s promptings, on which side is it better to err? It is better to err on the side of being too forgiving or on the side of being too harshly punitive? Which sort of error, if an error there be, is least likely to violate the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself and treat others as one would like to be treated?
What seems most likely to me is that most people, if they are acting in an inappropriate way, would rather be remonstrated with and shown a better example to follow than to be stoned to death, shot or bombed. It is difficult for me to see in what way those punishments could be construed as any kind of love. They are certainly hard to see as expressions of love of one’s neighbor. For me, they are equally difficult to see as expressions of love of God. If such actions were to be delightful, or even acceptable to God, then I would have to wonder whether I would be willing to continue my relationship with such a God. I think not.
And because I think I would not be willing to approve of a deity who would require that those who love him mutilate or kill those who are perceived to be enemies of the Good, I am also inclined to think that all passages of scripture in which God commands, for example, that disobedient sons be taken to the edge of town and stoned to death or that citizens of a neighboring country should be put to the sword for their idolatry, are not the words of God at all’ rather, they are the words of frightened, greedy or deluded human beings seeking to justify destructive actions by pretending that those actions have the stamp of God’s approval.
I may, of course, be mistaken. But if I am, it is a mistake with the consequences I am willing to live. And if the mistake is one that forfeits reconciliation with God, I am willing to live and die with that condition.
Where do you stand?
A conception of the world arises in you somehow, no matter how. Is it true or not? you ask.
It might_ be true somewhere, you say, for it is not self-contradictory.
It may be true, you continue, even here and now.
It is fit to be true, it would be well if it were true, it ought to be true, you presently feel.
It must be true, something persuasive in you whispers next; and thenas a final result
It shall be held for true, you decide; it shall be as if true, for you.
And your acting thus may in certain special cases be a means of making it securely true in the end.
The steps outlined above by William James in his collection of lectures entitled A Pluralistic Universe suggest, as he goes on to explain, that we human beings arrive at convictions through a series of steps that are not at all logical. Rather than arriving at our convictions through a series of logical steps, he says, we all tend to climb what he calls the “faith ladder” to a psychological sense of certainty. We become sure that what make makes sense to us, given our own private experiences and the ways we have been indoctrinated, must be true.
The next step after that is often to raise the alarm that those to whom different conclusions make more sense must be in the wrong, and therefore are in need of being corrected. In the most drastic cases, those who prove themselves to be incorrigible and who persist in their erroneous thinking may come to be deemed dangerous and in need of being eliminated. It takes little familiarity with human history to see how much physical injury and death have been inflicted by some people on others out of a conviction that the victims of the violence were holding dangerous views. The irony of the act of inflicting violence on people who are seen as dangerous rarely manifests itself to those who are themselves victims of their own sense of certainty.
What precautions can one take against becoming certain that one is right? There are a few that come to mind. Perhaps you can think of more.
- Be careful of the company you keep. We all have the tendency to keep company with people who agree with us on most matters that we take think are important. This no doubt leads to pleasant social interactions, but it is not the best way to guard oneself against a false sense of security in one’s convictions. Better is to seek the company of a variety of people with different backgrounds and to listen carefully to their accounts of what they have experienced and how they have interpreted their experiences.
- Read widely and actively seek out a diversity of perspectives from the news and opinion media. If you find yourself agreeing with most of what you see on Fox News, try watching Bill Moyers or Now on PBS, or listen to Amy Goodman on NPR. Conversely, if you watch mostly PBS and listen to NPR, broaden your horizons by taking in something like Glenn Beck on Fox News. Read both The National Review and The New Republic. Rather than taking sides on the conflict in the Middle East, seek out both al-Jazeerah and Haaretz.
- Actively seek religious diversity. If your inclination is to stay away from organized religion, try going to a mosque, a church, a synagogue, or a Buddhist or a Hindu temple. Talk to people. Find out what is important to them. Ask questions. If your habit is to go to religious services regularly, try going to the services of a religious organization that promotes views different from your own. Or talk to someone whom you know or suspect to be an atheist or an agnostic. You have nothing to lose but your prejudices and your fearful ignorance.
- Take some courses at a local adult education program or a community college or a university. Learn something new. Look into something you never even knew existed before.
- Try reading some William James. He wrote so many books and essays that it may be difficult to know where to begin. Fortunately, it does not really matter. Everything he wrote is full of intelligence and insight, and he was an excellent stylist. If you get nothing else out of it, you are likely to get some joy out of reading beautifully written English (often liberally sprinkled with German, French, Latin and Greek words and expressions, because he respects your intelligence and knows you occasionally like to read something besides Surfing the Web for Dummies.