Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Measuring Faith

Is there a way to determine which religion is true, or is it simply a matter of personal conditioning and bias?

Religions are social, political and economic systems designed to control and align people in service to something greater than themselves. What that something greater is, and what it wants from its adherents differs from religion to religion. But the role of religion itself is pretty much the same in every culture.

While religion is the preserver of some of the wisest human insights into the nature of life and how to live it, and while I would not wish to see the end of religion, I am not pro-religion per-se. I think we can and must distinguish among religions, honoring those that promote the welfare of person and planet, and challenging and even resisting those that do not.

I think we can measure the quality of a religion by measuring the amount of violence it condones. When examining violence we must not restrict ourselves to physical violence only (both violence done to believers as well as that done to nonbelievers). We must also look at social repression and exploitation, and violence done to free inquiry and the ability of the human being to think for him or herself. And do not limit yourself to this world. Some religions are powerless to implement their ideals in this world, and thus project them into an afterlife. Measure the violence inflicted on disembodied souls as well as embodied ones, for what a religion condones in the next life it will condone in this life if and when it has the power to do so.

People are hard-wired for faith. We want, perhaps need, to believe in and belong to something greater than ourselves. A faith that excuses violence and condones injustice, exploitation, and cruelty can be just as compelling to someone as a faith that commands compassion, justice, kindness, and forgiveness, and yet these two faiths are in no way morally equivalent. The second is, to my mind, a higher faith, a more evolved faith, a truer faith.

Because the will to believe is greater than the content of the belief, it is important for us to challenge that content. We need to clearly articulate the universal ethical principles taught by the great sages of all faiths, and then measure religions against these. In this way we offer people a way to think about religion that does not get bogged down in theological fantasy and political correctness.

It doesn’t matter that religions disagree on theological grounds, what matters is the kind of world they seek to create for believers and nonbelievers. Challenging belief honors religion without falling victim to it.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

I, Story

No matter where I am invited to teach, or what topic I am asked to address, someone always raises the subject of reincarnation. I suspect what I think makes a difference to people because they imagine I know something they do not. This, however, is not true. My thoughts on a subject come from three sources: books I have read, teachers with whom I have studied, and my own contemplative practice; all three of which are prone to error. And yet, even when I make this clear, people want to know. So I tell them: reincarnation, like all afterlife scenarios, is a distraction.

We want to believe that “I” survive death because we don’t understand the true nature of the “I” in the first place. By identifying with the temporal “I,” the “I” I see when I look in the mirror, the “I” I take to the psychologist to work through my issues with others, the “I” I try to surrender to God in hopes of winning favor, peace, and immortality, is no more real than a character in a novel or film. The “I” is the creation of a narrative, stories you were told and that you continue to tell to perpetuate the drama of the “I” you think you are.

When you die the narrative ends. For some that is all there is to it. Without the narrative the “I” is gone and that “I” is all you are. For others this ending of the “I” is untenable, and they imagine the character can live on outside the story it inhabits. I disagree with both conclusions.

The “I” I see in the mirror is a narrative fiction of great value, but only within the story that fosters it. But the “I” that knows this is something else. The limitations of language make it difficult to explain in words, but you can experience it.

Who is the “you” who knows this “I?” Who is the “you” who knows you are reading this blog? If you ask these kinds of questions carefully, you will discover a field of awareness that embraces and transcends the narrative “I.” This field is your true self. It is also the true self of everyone and everything else. There is only one field manifesting as infinite “I’s.” This field I call God. This field is you, the real you that includes and transcends the narrative you.

You are not only the narrative; you are also the field of awareness in which the narrative unfolds. To the extent you identify with the story, you are anxious about its end. To the extent you identify with the field, you are curious about but never trapped in the story, realizing that you are unborn and undying.

When you know who you are, you can enjoy the story for what it is. Live in the story fearlessly. Die in it the same way. Just don’t forget it is a story.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

God Matters

Does God matter? The answer you give depends upon the definition you hold. If you believe in a creator God who watches over you, and who rewards you with eternal bliss or damnation, then God absolutely matters. If you believe that God is a product of human imagination and has no corresponding reality outside of human theological creativity, then, no, God doesn’t matter.

I believe that God is reality, both the seen and the unseen, both that which is open to scientific exploration and that which lies just beyond its reach. Does such a God matter? Yes. For without God there would be nothing that you and I recognize as something; indeed, there would be no you and me at all.

But that is like saying atoms matter, cells matter, quanta matter, and the eleven strings of String Theory matter. They do, but not in the way most people use the word “matter” when they ask “Does God matter?” So let’s rephrase the questions: not “Does God matter,” but “Is God meaningful?” Again I would say “yes.” God is meaningful because my sense of meaning comes from my experience of God.

I am not a theologian. What I know about God comes from contemplative practice rather than abstract reasoning or apriori assumptions. Through such practice I have come to see all things as part of the One Thing; like flakes of snow, each manifestation of God is unique and unreplicatable, but they are all snow, all God. I revel in the diversity of God’s nonduality. I know the universal sadness of the melting of the individual, and the universal ecstasy of the ongoing snowing of God.

And more: I realize that you and I are not other, that you and I are linked and responsible for one another and to one another. My experience of God reveals the sacredness of the self without the delusion of sovereignty and separateness.

When I understand the interdependence of all things in, with, and as God, justice, compassion, and humility become axiomatic. God does not command, God reveals.

If I ignore what is revealed I live in constant fear of my own mortality, excusing any act of violence that promises to bolster the illusion of immortality. If I accept what is revealed I am secure in my own finitude, knowing that the “I” I truly am is unborn and undying.

God matters to me because God shows me what is and how to live with it, in it, as it. I cannot think of anything more important than that.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Conversation With God

Just in case you thought Pat Robertson was somehow anti-Semitic in seeing Ariel Sharon’s stroke as divine punishment for the Prime Minister’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, a group of Orthodox Israeli rabbis have claimed the same thing in a letter to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, warning that Withdrawal From Territories May Be Hazardous To Your Health.

According to the letter, “All those who harm the Land of Israel declare war on God and his commands, and face the consequences.” Declaring war on God is no small thing, and perhaps nothing to laugh at, unless, of course, you are God. So I chose to speak to God about this. Here is the transcript of that conversation:

I said to Him, “Lord,” and He replied, “Here I am.”

And I said, “I have harmed Your Land.” And He replied, “Which land?”

And I said, “Your only Land.” And He replied, “All the earth is Mine.”

And I said, “The Land You love.” And He replied, “My love is boundless.”

And I said, “Israel.” And He replied, “Oh.”

And I said, “I have supported the creation of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria to prevent Israel from becoming overrun by Palestinian babies, for, lo, Palestinian women follow Hagar and are fruitful from their youth, while our women follow Sarah and bear children in older age.” And He replied, “Lo?”

And I said, “But now I worry that You will strike me down with clots.” And He replied, “Didn’t I do that already?”

And I said, “Yes, I had thought that a coincidence.” And He replied, “Think again.”

And I said, “Yet, I have survived. Is there such a thing as Double Jeopardy?” And He replied, “Ask Alex Trebeck.”

And I said, “Is it possible to declare war on You?” And He replied, “Is the Pope Catholic?”

And I said, “How can we who are so small declare war on the Infinite?” And He replied, “No, I mean it: Is the Pope Catholic? I forget.”

And I said, “Do you care that I am waging war on You?” And He replied, “The Eastern Church confuses Me, too, ‘cause Istanbul was Constantinople, now its Istanbul, not Constantinople— a long time gone— Every gal in Constantinople lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople, so if you’ve a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting in Istanbul, which may be why the Jews are so few, after all even old New York was once New Amsterdam. Why they changed it I can’t say, people just liked it better that way.”

I tried to get Him back on track, but He just didn’t seem to care. So I’m not going to worry about the rabbis’ warning. I hope Olmert doesn’t either.

(With thanks to They Might Be Giants)

Truth and Consequences

Addressing the controversy over Intelligent Design, Creationism, and Natural Selection, Adam Holden, head of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy,• a nondenominational Jewish day school in Overland Park, Kansas says, “We work very, very hard not to have a conversation where students say, ‘Is this the truth?’ and we say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ because the minute we do that we alienate some of the students and parents in the school.”

God forbid we should alienate people with the truth! Better we should teach our kids lies in order to keep their parents' checks coming!

This may be good politics, but it is bad pedagogy. Education should be rooted in free inquiry in hopes that such investigation will lead to truth. But if inquiry is structured so as to leave vital questions artificially open to doubt, then this isn’t free inquiry at all, but imposed dumbness.

There are of course, things we cannot know for certain, but evolution isn’t one of them. And that is the reason we have to work so “very, very hard” to make it appear that doubting evolution is a legitimate intellectual stance. It isn’t.

But I don’t want to defend evolution. It needs no defense. Reality is reality and if we choose not to live in it, those who choose otherwise will simply dominate and eventually eradicate us. Survival of the fittest and all that Darwinian nonsense. If you really want to insure the survival of a civilization, American or Jewish, stop lying to your kids in science class.

No, I want to defend religion. A religion that insists on denying the facts of science is doomed. The reason people stopped believing in Zeus was that the story that supported him could not withstand the things people knew to be true about life. When the story crumbles, gods die. The only way to perpetuate your religion is to continually reinvent its story. This is the work of midrash in Judaism— new stories cleverly tacked on to older stories that realign the older story with new facts.

We don’t need biblical literalists denying the Age of the Dinosaur; we need biblical creatives who can fit T-Rex into the story. The history of Judaism is the creative retelling of old stories. This is how the rabbis invented the Sinaitic origins of their totally self-serving and wondrously innovative Oral Law. This is how Isaac Luria gave us his kabbalistic cosmology of God’s contraction and the Breaking of the Vessels. They made it up, God bless them! Innovation not imitation is the key. Creating new stories not syndicating old ones is at the root of cultural survival.

It may be, however, that science has out run our religious creativity. If this is true no amount of pedagogical waffling will save us; Yaweh is going the way of Odin. But we don’t know this yet. So please, stop telling our kids that evolution isn’t certain, and start challenging them to rewrite Genesis so that evolution is part of the story.

• This is the actual name of the school. Hyman Brand is a well-respected brand of academy that, despite its name, is open to both boys and girls, and does not compete with Foreskin Brand academies, which are boys-only educational institutions.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I Candy

Which comes first, the seer or the seeing?

You might say the seer comes first, for how could there be seeing if there is no one to see? Or you might say the seeing comes first, for when there is no seeing, there is no seer.

The problem with choosing between these two lies not with the answers themselves, but with the question. The question assumes that one precedes the other, when in fact seeing and seer and even the object seen all arise together. The existence of the “I” that says “I see the table” depends on both the act of seeing and the table that is seen.

We live in a startlingly visual culture. Everything competes for the attention of eye (and “I”). We call this eye-candy, something that catches the eye and holds its attention long enough to kindle a desire in the seer for something that only a moment ago the seer did not desire. We could also call it “I”-candy, something that arouses desire and an “I” to experience it.

Why is this so successful? Because the eye and the “I” arise together, and neither, as Ecclesiastes (1:8) reminds us, is ever satisfied. The eye needs to see, and the I needs to want.

“Want” is a wonderful word. It means both craving and lack. To identify with “I” is to identify with lack, something is missing, and the craving to find what is missing is what the “I” is. Since the “I” is want and wanting, it can never be satisfied, for if it ever were satisfied it would cease to exist.

The solution to unending craving would seem to be the ending of the “I.” While this would work, who would do it? When I say “I will surrender my self and put an end to the craving I,” who is saying that? Who is going to surrender the self? Is that not also me, another more subtle form of “I”? You cannot surrender yourself, you can only be surrendered.

The solution to endless wanting is not the ending of “I” but the recognition that the “I” is craving, and that you are not. You are bigger than the seer, the seeing, and the seen. You are the infinite field in which all this happens. You are all that happens, but all that happens is not all of you. There is seeing, seer, and seen, and the One who knows all three. This One is you.

This is what Bankei Zenji (1622-1693), the great Japanese Zen teacher, calls the Unborn. Right now there is a you greater than the you that is reading this blog. It cannot be objectified, it is the absolute subject, God, to use western language. This is who you are. Know this and you can see without wanting, marveling at the wonder of diversity without getting trapped in the anxiety of craving.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Six Questions for American Jews

This afternoon I read an essay by David Klinghoffer, a columnist at the Forward and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, in which he challenges well meaning Christians to ask Jews six “simple but puzzling” questions regarding the labeling of Christians and other religious conservatives “zealots” and “bigots.” His essay comes on the heals of just such labeling by Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union of Reform Judaism and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. Since I don’t know any Christians who read David’s essays, I thought I would ask myself these questions and see how I respond.

1. Is it not true that Jewish leaders have better things to worry about than the spiritual fate of Sponge Bob Square Pants?

Yes, they do. Where were they when fellow Jew Pee Wee Herman was being harassed and persecuted for his indiscretions? That said, I would ask why so many Christian leaders have nothing better to do that worry about Sponge Bob’s sexual preference? As far as I know sponges reproduce asexually by breaking off bits of themselves to form new sponges. Unless there is an epidemic of asexual reproduction among American youth, I think both Jewish and Christian clerics should leave Sponge Bob alone.

2. If conservative Christians were less politically powerful, would this help or hurt the security of the state of Israel?

Conservative Christians long for the return of all Jews to Israel, and I think their support of Israel is vital. Of course those same Christians long for the slaughter of those newly returned Jews as a prelude to the Second Coming of Christ. The key is not to lose Christian support by condemning their theology, but to ensure that most Jews do not return to Israel so as to perpetuate that support into the long term.

3. Practically, what positive ends could anti-Christian attacks possibly accomplish?

At a time when most American Jews find Judaism less than compelling, the only hope we have of surviving as a distinct people is anti-Semitism. As long as there is a “them” that hates us, there will be an “us” to hate. Since it isn’t PC to harp on Muslim anti-Semitism, and since American Muslims don’t have the clout that the Christian conservatives do, fomenting fear of the latter is a desperate effort to keep Jews Jewish.

4. If evangelicals seek to “Christianize America,” a phrase implying legal coercion, when is the last time anyone tried to Christianize you?

This question is a bit disingenuous. No law is going to bear the title: Christianizing America. Rather certain Christian values will be made into law even though they may violate values held by other American citizens. For example, abortion, even partial-birth abortion, when done to save the life of a mother is a high moral value in Judaism, yet many proposed anti-abortion laws do not carry such a provision. Passing such laws makes upholding this Jewish value a crime. That seems problematic to me.

More problematic, however, is the lack of consistency in the Christian conservative efforts. For example, Christian conservatives are eager to outlaw homosexuality because God calls it an abomination, yet they have compunction regarding the eating of shrimp, which their Bible also calls an abomination. I am not saying that the shrimp lobby is controlling the Christian right, only that if we are going to institute God’s values, let’s do so across the board.

5. How do you explain the fact that “bigoted” Christian political positions mirror the traditional views of your own religion, Judaism?

There is only one explanation: traditional Judaism must be bigoted. If we define bigot as one who hates homosexuals, despises other nationalities such as the Midianites, Canaanites, Amalikites, etc, and who refuses to allow women to testify in court, or initiate a divorce, or touch a man during their menstruation period, then, traditional Judaism is bigoted. Why David would remind us of this, I am not sure, but bigoted or not, at least they are consistent: traditional Jews hate shrimp as well as gays.

6. Have you considered the economics behind these anti-Christian attacks?

What David means is that Jewish leaders use anti-Semitism to motivate Jews to give to their respective causes. True. It may be that anti-Semitism is all they have left to offer. Certainly it is easier to scare Jews with a persecuted Sponge Bob, than it is to motivate them with a compelling vision of a vibrant and creative Jewish future.

So there are David’s six questions and my brief answers. I don’t know if anyone will actually ask me these things, but I am certainly glad I am prepared to answer them. And as for Sponge Bob, just remember that God loves asexuals, too.


Faith is the outer limit of your capacity to question. There are some things you refuse to question, and these things you accept on faith. Faith is less what you hold to be true, and more what you refuse to accept as possibly false.

I believe, for example, that God is that which embraces and transcends all reality, and that creation is to God as a wave is to the ocean: God manifest in time and space. I believe that God manifest contains both natural and moral law, and that we humans are (at this time and in this place) the way God comes to discover and use these laws.

What makes me hold to these beliefs? I could offer all kinds of abstract arguments, but the truth is that what really forces me to believe as I do is the terrible sick feeling I get when I doubt these beliefs. I believe what I do because without these beliefs life seems bleak and meaningless. I cannot question my beliefs for fear of finding them false. My faith is rooted in fear.

This is why violence is systemic to faith. When your faith is challenged you are threatened not so much by the beliefs of the challenger but by the meaninglessness that will overwhelm you if the walls of your faith are breached. To protect your faith you attack the challenger.

Is there a way out of this fear-faith-violence connection? I suspect the fear-faith connection is permanent, but I think violence is something we can overcome by admitting the true nature of faith as the outer limits of doubt.

Admitting the true nature of faith allows me to hold my beliefs lightly. They still protect me from meaninglessness, but acknowledging that I really cannot know if my beliefs are true, frees me from the need to defend them. This in turn frees me to engage another’s faith not in order to attack it but to see where the other's fear is located. Seeing the fear we all share may lead to compassion; empathy may replace enmity, and and we might learn walk our different ways with a shared humility, allowing us to bond without either of us having to bend.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Training Clergy for the 21st Century

I was challenged the other day to imagine a Jewish seminary for the 21st century, and as I did so I discovered a much broader vision, one that sought to train seminarians from different faiths on the same campus.

I imagined a wisdom academy comprising a core curriculum that all students would share even as they pursued specific tracks leading to ordination in one religious tradition or another. These ordination programs would operate much as departments do in universities. The campus would be designed for maximum interaction and dialog among traditions, teachers, and students.

While I would leave the details of each ordination path to the sponsoring religion and religious denomination, the core curriculum would look something like this:

• Physics for Philosophers, Poets, and Mystics. This class focuses on the philosophical and religious implications of contemporary astrophysics and quantum mechanics. Twenty-first century religious thinkers must understand and grapple with the wisdom and insight of science and the scientific method, and this class will help them do just that.

• The Ghost and the Machine: The Origins and Meaning of Consciousness. Neuroscience, the study of the brain, perception, emotion, dream, and consciousness points to what it is to be human. This class examines current brain/mind theories, and their impact on our understanding of religion, faith, mysticism, and contemplative practice.

• Myth, Metaphor, and Meaning. Using the works of Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, and Ananda Coomaraswamy students explore the mythic power of sacred texts and stories, to see how scripture can be taken seriously without being taken literally.

• Interspirituality: The Many Faces of Wisdom. This is an overview of the world’s great religious teachings, looking at where they agree and disagree. Students will get a grounding in world religions to allow them to better work with and learn from them.

• One Into One: A Look at Mystics and Mystical Experience. The teachings of William james, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadata Maharaj, Alan Watts, Wei Wu Wei, Thomas Merton, Rufus Jones, the Beguine Women, Krishnamurti, Rumi and others will be the lenses through which we peer into the nondual reality toward which all mystics point.

• Awakening the Shaman Within: Tools of Contemplative Practice and God-realization. Using the teachings and practices of the mystics, students are helped to fashion a life of contemplative practice, and learn how to create opportunities for meeting the divine in various situations they will find themselves as clergy persons (hospital visits, life cycle events, etc.). This class is repeated each year to help students broaden their knowledge and deepen their experience.

* Hearing the Silence, Seeing the Void: Spirituality and the Arts. Students will be exposed to the great artistic traditions including music, painting, poetry, and calligraphy, as means for spiritual maturation. Students will not only learn about the arts, they will learn to “master” one for themselves.

What kind of clergy would graduates of this program be? What would happen to religion if seminarians were trained together? The questions are intriguing, and the idea worth pursuing. I welcome your input.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ray-ving Lunatic?

When Pat Robertson says Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ selection of Ellen Degeneres, a New Orleans native, to host the Emmy Awards, he is called a crackpot. When Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans, says God sent the storm because He is angry at America for going to war in Iraq and at black America “for not taking care of ourselves,” he is made the butt of jokes. Yet both men are well within the theological mainstream of American religion.

Both the Bible and the Koran make it clear that God uses nature to reward and punish us humans. It is clear that God has no compunction regarding the destruction of a city, a country, or the whole planet. While it may be the norm among liberal believers to imagine that such acts only happened in the past, there is no logical reason for thinking this. I have yet to attend a mainstream liberal or conservative church or synagogue service that does not promote the same vindictive God beloved by Pat and Ray. I have never heard a rabbi denounce God for doing to Sodom what Pat says He did to New Orleans, and, as Pat would have it, for the same reason.

If we laugh at Pat, why take the Bible seriously? If we think Ray has lost his mind, why subject our minds to the same drivel?

What we need is a bold and unequivocal rejection of the biblical God of vengeance (Ps. 94:1). It isn’t enough that liberal theologians snicker at Rev. Robertson’s position; they must denounce it and offer an alternative. I find it idiotic that we liberals can decry such statements when made by contemporary leaders and then kowtow to the same statements when read as Holy Scripture.

We need a new theology, a new understanding of God that respects what we know to be true about the world and ourselves. We need to free God from politics, from piety, from the pettiness that passes for holiness. We need a God who is not at odds with science or reason. We need Spinoza’s God, the source and substance of all reality who doesn’t write books, choose favorites, wage war, or condemn those whom we don’t like, but who reveals the universal ethical principles of justice, compassion, and humility grasped by so few throughout history.

Spinoza was exiled and shunned for speaking the truth. Maybe that’s why we still have to make due with the infantile theology of Pat and Ray.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Speaking Truth to Truth

Edward O. Wilson, biology professor emeritus at Harvard, and author of some of the most insightful books I have ever read, wrote in USA Today (January 16th) that we should accept the fact that religion and science are irreconcilable. We should assign each its sphere of influence, and then find areas for mutual cooperation, such as preserving the environment. I think this is bad advice. To paraphrase Albert Einstein: science without religion is dangerous; religion without science is stupid.

When we had no science, religion passed as science, but once we invented science and the scientific method (“discoveries and the testing of discoveries” as Dr. Wilson puts it), religion became pseudo-science. The solution is not to indulge the pursuit of sacred nonsense, but for religious leaders to stand up and free religion from the need to be science at all.

Religion cannot defeat the truth of science; it can only ignore it. The refusal of the Church Fathers to look through Galileo’s telescope and see for themselves that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the sun revolving around the earth as the bible suggests, did not impact the solar system one bit. Religion can deny truth, even suppress truth, but it cannot make it less true.

Religion needs to embrace science, and to adapt its teachings to reflect the truths that science reveals. Such an embrace is the not the end of religion, but the liberation of it. Free from having to be science, religion can confront science with what science lacks: a moral and spiritual compass.

Science is amoral. It goes where the truth leads it. There is nothing in the scientific method that speaks to right or wrong, good or bad. There is nothing inherent in science that dreams of human holiness or posits the sacredness of life. This is the realm of religion, and it doesn’t need pseudo-science to do legitimize this realm.

Religion must challenge science the way the prophets challenged the priests and kings; it must speak ethical truth to power, and uphold a vision of humanity that places science in service to global justice, compassion, and humility.

As long as religion denies or competes with science, it is mired in defending its own ignorance, and cannot speak its truth. What we need are theologians rooted in science who can adjust theology to reflect reality even as they challenge science to serve humanity.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Klingen to Jesus

Navy Chaplain Lt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt is starving himself to death in front of the White House hoping to get the President to force his commanders to allow him to pray in public in Jesus Name. Another victim of the secular mafia’s war on Jesus? Has the Navy aligned itself with the Anti-Christ? Or is this guy nuts?

I go with nuts. I was a chaplain in the Unites States Air Force for three years. Had I not been seduced by the bright lights and big money of synagogue life, I would still be a chaplain today. I loved the military.

I attended Chaplain Boot Camp at Maxwell AFB, and spent eight weeks with some of the finest, most intelligent and committed men and women I have ever met. They were devoted advocates of their respective faiths, and at no time were any of us told to be otherwise. Yet, the chaplain's job is complex.

A big part of my job was to serve the religious needs of Jewish military personal and their families, and I did this as a rabbi with the full support and encouragement of the United States Air Force. But I was also called upon to address groups that weren’t exclusively Jewish, and to minister to Air Force personnel who were not of my faith. I didn’t do this as a rabbi, I did it as a military chaplain.

A chaplain’s faith has to be strong enough that she can step outside the boundaries of her particular tradition to reach people of very different traditions. There is no need to hide your faith, but you have to be careful not to let it become a barrier between you and the person who comes to you for help and counsel. The chaplain doesn’t have the luxury of preaching to the choir. If you cannot step outside yourself, you cannot be an effective chaplain, and do not belong in the chaplaincy.

Lt. Klingenschmitt wants to reach out to everyone the way he reaches out to his fellow Episcopalians. This is totally inappropriate. It makes him ineffective as a chaplain. If he cannot speak to me of God without imposing his faith upon me then he cannot help me at all. If he cannot pray in a manner that includes everyone in his prayers, then he cannot do his job. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but they are not all Episcopalians either. The chaplain's job is to bring God to soldiers, not just Christian soldiers.

If Lt. Klingenschmitt wants to starve himself in front of the White House, it is his choice. He isn’t the only one starving in DC. But he is dying for ego and not for God. I wish Rev Klingenschmitt well in his ministry, but he does not belong in the chaplaincy.

Patting Down Sharon

It is simply too easy to go after Conservative Christian Evangelist Pat Robertson these days. It is as if he is trying to become the Stephen Colbert of Christian Broadcasting; except he isn’t kidding. On the heals of his call to assassinate the president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez and his warning to the people of Dover, PA that God has abandoned their city because they have embraced evolution, he now reveals that God has struck down Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to punish him for withdrawing from Gaza.

“He is dividing God’s land, and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations, or the United States of America,” Robertson said yesterday on The 700 Club.

I admit that my initial impulse is to make fun of Rev. Robertson; but why? He is not making this up. He is simply making clear to us what the Bible implies. This would not be the first time God kills those who oppose Him. Tens of thousands of people die in the Bible because they refuse to do God’s will. Why should Prime Minister Sharon be exempt from God’s wrath? God’s anger is not simply in the past. It is here and now. As Rev. Pat told us years ago, the killing of thousands of Americans at the World Trade Center was an expression of God's displeasure no less than the crumbling of Sodom and Gomorrah, and for the same reason.

Rev. Robertson is not inventing this. He is simply telling us what the Bible says and its God does. This is my Bible he is reading, the Hebrew Scriptures. This is my God he is citing, the Man of War (Exodus 15:3) that led my people to victory. Either I take my religion seriously, or I don’t. Either I believe in the God who chose the Jews and gave them the Holy Land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates, or I don’t. Either I worship the Lord of Hosts who wages war against those who oppose Him, or I don’t.

That is a very real choice I have to make, and making fun of those who make it plain is simply an act of cowardice. Choose, damn you! Choose! So choose I will.

OK, here I go… I choose………… Damn it! I can't do it! I know I am supossed to choose God, but I can't. I just can't.

Well, I guess that’s it for me, then. I’m doomed. I’m sorry Pat. You did your best. I think I'll just move to Dover and get it over with.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

God in G Miner

It is wrong to exploit another’s tragedy, and I hope no one reading this blog will accuse me of doing so. Yet I saw something on television yesterday that begs for comment.

At the height of her distress, with a camera shoved into her grief, one of the wives of the West Virginian miners lost in the recent Sago mine disaster admitted that it is hard to believe in God.

What do you say to someone whose pain overwhelms her theology? How do you rescue God for this poor woman? You don’t. You can’t. She will work this out for herself, and more than likely she will find a way to reconcile her God with her loss.

But what about the rest of us? What about the millions of video voyeurs who are not personally touched by the tragedy? What can we say to ourselves about God? How can an all-loving and all-powerful God allow such suffering? He can’t.

Either God is not all-loving or God is not all-powerful. Either God is all-powerful and cruel, or God is all-loving and impotent. This is the argument Rabbi Harold Kushner makes in his book When Bad Things Happen To Good People (notice he says “when” and not “why.”) He argues for the second option: God wants to prevent such tragedies, but does not have the power to do so.

While I agree with Kushner that this is the better of the two choices, I think there is a third option that is better still.

Kushner’s theology rests on the assumption that God is separate from creation. I cannot accept this assumption. For me creation is God manifest in time and space. God is the tsunami, the hurricane, the earthquake, and the mine explosion. God is the hundreds of thousands killed on the surface of the earth and the twelve killed beneath it. God is the dead and God is the mourner. And, because God cannot be other than God, all that happens is God’s nature. When the conditions that make for mine explosions are present, mines explode. God cannot change reality. God is reality. Why do bad things happen to good people? For the same reason good things happen to good people: things happen. God is what happens, good and bad.

While those whose lives have been ripped apart must struggle to make sense of their reality, the rest of us should use these horrors to challenge the easy grace of a god we have yoked to piety and politics; a god who rewards and punishes, who has friends and enemies, who prefers one gender, one sexual preference, one people, one patch of dirt over another; a god who is our cosmic concierge.

Making sense is an act of faith. Making excuses is an act of religion. I hope the miner’s wife doesn’t lose her faith, but I hope we all lose our religion.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

W(h)ither(ing) Judaism

How to kick off my blog in 2006? How about with something confessional?

As I walked with God this morning talking about the drama that is my life She made it clear to me that I am lousy rabbi.

I don’t care about intermarriage rates, synagogue membership, conformity to halacha (Jewish law), or even Jewish survival. I care about God-realization, and get more out of Ramana Maharshi than Rabbi Akiva.

I am post-tribal, post-theological, and post-covenantal. I find conventional worship boring, most Torah-apologetics (one can hardly call it study) insipid, and our obsession with tradition a waste of time. I don’t want a second-hand god fashioned by theologians to fit a flat-earth model of reality. I want the One Who is beyond theology, the One Who is you and me and all reality here and now and always. Why settle for reading ancient revelation when God is revealing Herself to us every moment?

Modern Judaism, regardless of denomination, is imitative rather than innovative. It is made for the History Channel rather than CNN. There are no new stories, only clever retellings of old ones. We have replaced hand wringing with hand clapping, but neither gets beyond the jingoism of self. We are hip and ironic, when we used to be radical and iconoclastic. We have made a fetish of the past and reduced our rabbis to priests when they should be prophets.

I would like to turn things around, but I suspect it cannot be done. I am not optimistic about the future of Judaism. I don’t think it will disappear, I just think it will become increasingly irrelevant. It will survive but not thrive; the Jewish creative class is not fed by nor is it feeding Judaism. Rabbis are trained to conform to the past, not innovate for the future.

Where are the 21st century Baal Shem Tovs, the postmodern Martin Bubers and Mordecai Kaplans? We had Shlomo, and we still have Reb Zalman, but whose next?

We have wealthy and generous funders in the Jewish community, but the projects I hear about are so very retro. We are funding 20th century solutions to 19th century problems, while the 21st century is slipping through our fingers.

Maybe I am just out of touch. I hope so. I hate to give up on Judaism. I hate to think that we have nothing more to offer the world, when in fact I believe that the world needs us and our prophets more than ever. I just don’t know what to do about it. If you do, let me know. I could use the boost.