Monday, February 27, 2012

Making Mormons

According to the Huffington Post Mormons have baptized Anne Frank for the ninth time. I guess it didn’t take the first eight times. I know that lots of Jews hate the idea that they can be made into Mormons after they die, but I don’t care. After all I don’t believe in heaven and hell, and I don’t believe that some Mormon dunking himself in a baptismal font for my sake will have impact on me at all. 

But, on the off chance you can make a nonMormon into a Mormon after the nonMormon has died, I want in. The next time a Mormon missionary comes to my door I plan to slip him a sheet of paper with the names of dead nonMormons I want converted to Mormonism. I will focus on those self-righteous pious prigs who spent their lives spewing hate in the name of Love. Take the Rev. Jerry Falwell for example. 

Rev. Falwell died on May 15, 2007, and is certainly in heaven as he was, according to his own reckoning, one of the few real Christians on the planet Earth. Let’s say we now baptize him into the Church of Latter Day Saints—we make him a Mormon, a member of a cult whose members in no way go anywhere but to hell—bam! Jerry Falwell is in hell! He would have no idea what happened or how he got there, and he would have no way of getting out because his faith doesn’t offer posthumous conversions. Is that cool or what?

This could be loads of fun. Just read the obits, find the names of the obnoxious faithful who have died and gone to heaven, and then submit their names for posthumous Mormon Baptism. You might want to let them enjoy heaven for a few days first so they can get all puffed up and conceited about their fate, and then baptize them into Mormonism and send them to hell. This is the ultimate revenge for all their religious bullying.

So start making your list and open you doors to the Mormon ringing your bell.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Keep the Doubt

I am often told to keep the faith. The truth is, however, I prefer doubt. Faith is about clinging to answers that cannot be proven, while doubt is about wrestling with questions that just won’t go away. Of course I have faith in the value of doubt, so maybe I can keep both, but forced to choose I choose doubt.

Doubt is liberating. Faith plucks the fruit of questioning before it has time to ripen; doubt allows the fruit to ripen. This is what spirituality (dare I say religion?) ought to be about: ripening the questions. Yet people’s hunger for answers is so great that faith almost always trumps doubt.

Unfortunately the answers we pluck and eat rarely satisfy. This is because our questions are weak, and our answers to them shallow. In fact what we call answers are simply echoes of our own opinions. This is why I distrust answers: the right ones always turn out to be mine, and the wrong ones always turn out to be yours. Either I’m infallible, or I simply prefer my ideas to any others.

I’m not saying there is no right or wrong answer. I’m only saying I can’t know which is which. So honesty dictates that I admit to not knowing, and keep the doubt rather than the faith.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Education Should Be Upsetting

A few weeks ago I was invited to dinner with several seminarians from a well-known Christian college. Once introductions were over, I asked them, “What has been the most upsetting thing you have learned in seminary so far?” They just stared at me. No one had an answer, and not because there were so many upsetting things that they couldn’t pick just one, but because there weren’t any at all. How sad.

This semester I’m teaching my course on the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. On the first day of class I explain that this course isn’t like Sunday School. We are not going to read the Bible through the eyes of Rashi (1040-1105) or Martin Luther (1483-1546). We are going to place the various texts in their contexts and do our best to understand what they may have meant to the people who wrote them and the people who heard them read, and then see what they might have to say to us today.

I assume (with a lot of evidence to back me up) that the Bible was written by humans over centuries, and that different texts represent different insights, and that whatever the Bible says about God tells us nothing about God and something about the authors who wrote about God. I assume that the Bible is a political document representing the thoughts of their authors and the powers that were when the books were redacted. And I assume that some of these writers and redactors were spiritually awake to a reality beyond tribe, patriarchy, politics, xenophobia, misogyny, violence, etc. and that they managed to seed the Bible with nuggets of genius that we can mine, polish, and live by.

And I know that all of this will be very upsetting to some of my students. But this is what university education is for: sharing well-reasoned ideas that may challenge the status quo thinking. Students and teachers should be upset now and again because their cherished ideas are challenged in a meaningful, compelling, and intellectually rigorous manner that forces them to think a second time, and perhaps even change their minds. I always learn something from my students, though I would never say I learn more from them then they learn from me. If that were so, I shouldn’t be teaching, and any teacher who says that and means that is clearly unprepared to teach whatever it is she or he is teaching.

So it saddens me to imagine these pastors-to-be going through seminary without having their theologies shattered or at least shaken. If all they learn is how to better defend rather than challenge the biases they have, they are wasting their time. And worse, they are doing a disservice to any who come to learn from them.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why I'm Not A "________"

A couple of weeks ago during a Q&A session after a talk I gave I was asked, “Why aren’t you a Christian?” I was intrigued by the question and its corollaries: Why I’m not a Muslim, Hindu, etc. Here are some thoughts on each of these.

Why I’m Not a Christian
Christianity is based on the following proposition expressed so beautifully in the Gospel According to John:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3: 16-18, NRSV)

I can’t accept any of this. First I don’t believe that love, even God’s love, necessitates the murder of one’s child. Second, I don’t believe that God has a son. Third, I don’t believe in eternal life if by this we mean the unending existence of an egoic self capable of belief or disbelief. Fourth, I do not believe that people are saved or condemned by God, and, if God were in the saving and condemning business the criteria God would use for making the distinction would not be based on belief but on behavior. So I can’t be a Christian.

Why I’m Not a Muslim
Islam is rooted in the Shahada, from the verb šahida “he witnessed”: Lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh, Muḥammad rasūlu l-Lāh, There is no god but Allah (God), and Muhammad is the messenger of God. A Muslim is one who accepts this testament of faith and voluntarily submits to the will of Allah as expressed in the Qur’an that Allah dictated to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel.
Again I cannot accept this. First, I don’t believe in a God who dictates books. Consequently I don’t believe Muhammad was the recipient of a divine Book or that the Qur’an is the word of God; for me, all sacred texts are written by people. Third, I cannot abide by the idea of submission to the will of God as expressed in Islam when I am convinced that Islam, like all religion, is a human creation. While I can believe that there is nothing other than God, and that Muhammad was a bearer of this insight, I cannot believe that Islam is what God wants. So I can’t be a Muslim.

Why I’m Not a Hindu
While it is true that the nondual teachings of Advaita Vedanta (an ancient and on-going school of Indian thought) are so close to my own personal beliefs that it is impossible for me to reject them, and that the teachings and practices of Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, and Nisargadata Maharaj are central to my life, still I am not a Hindu.
First I am not a Hindu because I cannot accept the notion of karma and reincarnation central to almost all systems of Hindu thought. Second, I cannot believe the Vedas, the founding scripture of Hinduism, are divine. Third, I cannot abide by the caste system or submit to the authority of gurus. So while I borrow much from Indian philosophy, I cannot call myself a Hindu.

Why I’m Not a Buddhist
Many people insist I am a Buddhist, and I admit that there is much in Buddhism that I find compelling especially the notions of pratityasamutpada (the interdependence of all things in a singular system of ever changing reality), sunyata (the notion that all things are in the process of emptying and no thing is ever permanent), the bodhisattva ideal that elevates the goal of human life to the alleviating of human suffering, and the linking of prajna (wisdom) with karuna (compassion), yet I am not a Buddhist.
I am not a Buddhist because I cannot shake the notion that there is a permanent process reality out of which and into which all things rise and fall, and that there is an atman, a greater Self of which all egoic selves are a part—two ideas anathema to Buddhism. Oh, and I talk about God all the time, something that Buddhists never do.

Why I’m Not a Jew
Of course I am a Jew. My mother is Jewish and her mother was Jewish and her mother was Jewish all the way back to Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Or so I’m told. But I’m tribally Jewish, culturally Jewish, and not so much religiously Jewish. And the reason I’m not religiously Jewish is not surprising.
Judaism as a religion posits a Creator God who chose the Jews, set aside a Promised Land, and revealed both Torah both written and oral, and I can’t believe in any of this. While I personally keep kosher and observe Shabbat, I do so in my own way, and can’t imagine a god obsessed with my diet and how I spend my Saturdays. So while I am proud to be a Jew, my pride is rooted in our history of iconoclasm and our passion for justice rather than our allegiance to rabbinic law.
What I love about being Jewish is that you can be a heretic and still remain in the family; or at least the liberal end of the family. As I understand it the ban against Spinoza is still enforced among the Orthodox.

Why I’m Not Religious
The truth is I’m just not very religious. The reason why is simple enough: I don’t like being told what to do. I have a terrible time submitting to the will of rabbis, priests, preachers, imams, swamis, masters, and gurus of any kind. I like to learn what the world’s religions have to say, but I am not keen on spouting it back as what I have to believe. I find great value in some of the teachings and practices of the world’s religions but not enough in any one religion to bring me into the fold of that religion.
As soon as I admit this another question is raised: Why then am I still a rabbi? There are three ways I can answer this, each is true but only the third is personally motivating.
The first reason I’m a rabbi is that I spent five long years earning that title and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give it up so easily. The second reason is, “Rabbi Rami” is a brand like Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Drew. I’m not yet cool enough to go with my first name only like Oprah, Cher, and Madonna, so I cling to the title “rabbi” and slog on.
I admit to the cogency of these two reasons, and I would be a liar and hypocrite to deny them. But neither is really motivating. What motivates me to remain a rabbi is the sense that I belong to a lineage of rabbis who dared to reinvent Judaism in their own image: Hillel, Jesus, Abraham Abulafia, Isaac Luria, Shabbatai Tzvi, the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Nachman of Breslav, the Alter Rebbe, Isaac Meyer Wise, Mordecai Kaplan, Sherwin Wine, and others. Not that any of these rabbis would agree that the Judaism of the others was Judaism as all, but that each of them refused to play the game as it was handed to them, but invented it anew for themselves and their time.
Nor am I claiming to be of the caliber as these rabbis. I’m not. Nor do I imagine that my legacy is in any way equal to theirs; it is not. Each of them built a movement, and articulated a new Judaism in their wake, while I eschew organizations, have no desire to create a movement, and have no coherent teaching at all. I write books. None of which is divinely revealed.

What I Am
What I am is curious. What I am is an itinerant wanderer through the ideas and spiritual practices of others. What I am is a holy rascal, an iconoclast, an entertainer, a vegetarian who delights in slaughtering sacred cows, and a lover of truth (dare I say Truth?) who wants only to be free and help others be free as well. Being free isn’t the same as being awake, enlightened, saved, or blessed. It is just being free. And for me, at least for now, that is just enough.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Does God Favor Abortion

Is God in favor of abortion? Maybe so. An article in The Tennessean newspaper told the story of a fifteen-year-old unmarried girl pregnant with triplets. The pregnancy was not going well and the girl’s life was in imminent danger. The doctors counseled abortion to save the life of the mother. The girl’s parents and their pastor argued against it. The hospital chaplain was called in, and it was he who wrote the story.

The chaplain’s role isn’t to side with either party, but to bring some comfort to the young girl facing the death of her babies at the hands of her doctors, or her own death with the blessing of her parents. The chaplain encouraged the girl and her family to place the situation in the hands of God, and not let the doctors intervene. He prayed for her, and asked God to do what was right.

God answered his prayers and aborted the lives of these three babies by causing the mother to miscarry. While abortion at the hands of medical professionals was ungodly, abortion at the hands of God was perfectly fine. What does this mean?

At the very least it means that when it comes to abortion the death of the unborn isn’t really the problem. We are talking about an all-powerful God who could have saved the babies and their mother, but chose not to. So the problem isn’t the death of the unborn but the agent of their death. If a doctor does it, it is evil; if God does it, it is good. But why can’t the doctor be an agent of God? Why can’t abortion at the hands of medical professionals be the way God saves mothers whose lives are threatened by the birth of their babies?

Is the best religion has to offer is a passive “turning matters over to God” and a simple acceptance of whatever happens as God’s will?

As a Jew and a humanist I tend to side with saving the life of the mother (though there are exceptions), but this story isn’t about that. It’s about a chaplain trusting God to do what’s right, and yet not having the courage to then argue that abortion isn’t always wrong.

Chaplains often witness such situations. Why is it these acts of God never influence their ideas about God? If they did I suspect the argument over abortion would be far more nuanced and civil.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The War on Christians

There is a world war being waged against Christians by Muslims. Not all Muslims against all Christians, but enough Muslims against enough Christians to put this story on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Christians are being slaughtered simply because they are Christians. And what does the world do about it? Nothing.

Imagine the Newsweek cover story was the War on Jews. It would be a similar story. Those who are waging war on Christians are also waging war on Jews. But there is a difference: Jews have a nuclear-armed Jewish State to defend them if it comes to that. Who will come to the aid of Christians? Where is the nuclear-armed Christian State? Where are the Christian soldiers who can move onward against the enemies of Christendom?

All this was revealed to me today as I sat in a local bookstore reading the Newsweek article when a fellow sitting at the next table leaned to in to clue me in.

America, he told me, isn’t a Christian nation, but a nation of Christians. Our military doesn’t swear allegiance to Christ but to the Constitution. The closest thing Christians have to a Christian Army is the Swiss Guard that defends the Vatican, and they don’t even have rifles, let alone nuclear weapons.

What we need, he told me, is the Christian equivalent of Israel, Iran, and Pakistan: religious states with (now or in the near future) nuclear weapons. If there were such a Christian State whose mission was the defense of Christians wherever they live and are threatened, those who wage war against Christians would have to think twice. The Christian State would resemble Israel in that it wouldn’t be about the spread of its religion but about the defense of its faithful. Christian assassins would eliminate the leaders who order the death of Christians simply for being Christian. Christian drones would circle the skies above endangered Christian communities, and hold those who would kill Christians at bay, or destroy them if they insisted on carrying out their evil plans. But there is no such state, and hence Christians are at risk.

What can we do, I asked him? In the short run America and the formerly Christian nations of Europe should offer all endangered Christians asylum. Just get to a friendly embassy and we will get to you a safe haven in the West. In the long term we must work hard to transform a formerly Christian country back into a fully Christian one. England was his country of choice because it has a state religion, the Church of England, that can be used to transform the country into a nuclear-armed theocracy.

“I wish it could be America that becomes the Christian State, but we are too close to being an Islamic one. Obama is a Trojan Muslim, and sharia law will replace the Constitution within a decade. When that happens unless there is a nuclear-armed Christian State to save them, Christians will die in vast numbers, the jihadists will win, and only Jesus will save us. The problem is there will only a handful left to save.”

This is scary stuff. The war on Christians seems all too real. What do you think we can do about it?