Wednesday, May 29, 2013

self Promotion

Here’s how my talk went last night: I spoke about something for about an hour, and then invited questions and comments. Based on the questions and comments I cannot tell you what I spoke about. I think I said something about why the Law of Attraction and The Secret make no sense to me, but then someone asked me what I thought about the Law of Attraction and The Secret. I think I spoke about how I didn’t believe in a separate soul, and that when we die we “become” what we already are (the wave returns to the sea that waves it), but then someone asked me what I thought about the soul and the afterlife. Maybe nobody was listening.
What I like most about lecturing isn’t the lecturing itself but the Q&A afterward. Last night’s Qs were weird. The level of New Age babble took me by surprise. I listened to people who claimed to visited by long dead rabbis, spirit beings, light beings, all of whom urged them to get their particular work out to the world.
I don’t blame people for coming to a lecture and trying to lecture. Hey, that’s what I was doing. And I give them credit for doing so uninvited, without a microphone and for free. Honestly, I wouldn’t have flown from Nashville to LA and then driven two hours to Santa Barbara to talk without remuneration. I talk for cash. These folks who lectured for free last night believe in their mission far more than I believe in mine. So kudos to them all.
What saddened me about these folks (and there were other people of a very different caliber as well) is that they needed me to validate them. Maybe that’s what happens when you don’t get paid to talk. The paycheck is my validation.
I can’t say I validated anyone last night, but I did my best not to disrespect anyone either. Who am I to say that God didn’t send an angel to instruct the fellow in the audience to spread the word he received?
And yet I did suggest that if the prophecy one receives is all about oneself and how you are a prophet with a vital message for the world, it probably isn’t prophecy you are experiencing, but acute narcissism.
It takes a big ego to want to get up and talk in front of an audience. But if the talk is all about your ego then the whole thing is merely self rather than Self promotion. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Nothing to Say, No Reason to Say It

I’m flying nonstop from Nashville to LA. Once there I'll rent a car and head north to Santa Barbara where I'm to deliver a talk at UCSB. The topic has something to do with the Five Existential Questions I claim are at the heart of all religion, and which will form the core of whatever future religions we humans may invent: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? How should I live? and Why?
I have no paper to deliver, nothing from which to read, no Power Point presentation. And while the talk is to be based on my upcoming book, Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, I really have no idea what I want to say to the people in the auditorium. 
I’m not recommending this style of presentation—winging it, my son calls it, and I still write papers for publication that can be read at conferences if someone asks me to do so. But the simple truth is I either have too much to say, or can’t think of anything to say at all. So I travel light, step up to the podium empty, and open my mouth to see what will happen.
Of course whatever happens I will manage to make it seem that I'm on topic: people came to hear about the Five Questions and the Perennial Wisdom, and I will not disappoint them. But how I will do this and what I will say is… what shall I say? In God’s hands?
In a sense that's true, and I quietly ask the Mother to assist in my lecture, and give thanks to her at the end, but I don’t really believe I speak for God or that she speaks through me. Evoking and thanking the Mother are simply my way of admitting to myself that I have nothing to say and no real reason to say it. I’m not a prophet or a guru, just a guy who strings other peoples’ thoughts together in ways that I find entertaining and sometimes even insightful. I see myself less a creator and more a midwife.
And I'm not uncomfortable admitting that the Mother I serve is a figment of the imagination. The ultimate reality, Brahman, Tao, YHVH, Allah, is beyond imagining, and while I believe we are all a part of It and that we can and do experience It constantly, I also believe we can say nothing about It because It isn’t an It, an object, but rather the eternal Subject, the I behind all I’s.
So I will see how I break the silence of the I and entertain my audience with the wit and wisdom of It and hope that someone, perhaps even me, might benefit from the exercise.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

I, Smart Ass

I’m a smart ass. That isn’t just my assessment; its what a fellow at church told me this morning after I delivered my sermon. 

Out of curiosity I looked up “smart ass” on A smart ass is “someone who is sarcastic, in a cutting yet witty manner. A person capable of making a remark that could be interpreted as an insult or a joke depending on the sensitivity of the listener and the specific situation. A smart ass is not necessarily a bad person just usually perceptive.”

I am not necessarily a bad person. I could be a bad person, but not necessarily so. That’s nice. But what I really like about being a smart ass is that people don’t know if I am insulting them or kidding them. My friend Bob says that’s how I get away with saying wildly outrageous things about religion to audiences of religious people.

This doesn’t always work. Once during a lecture at Occidental College I made the campus Catholic Priest so angry with comments I made about biblical humor (he said there was no such thing) that he refused to shake my hand or stand next to me in the receiving line.

Anyway, I seek to elevate smart–assery to a fine art, and use it pull the curtain back on the Great and Terrible Oz of Religion in order to free my listeners from the clutches of theological correctness. Another name for this is “holy rascal.” It has become my life’s work. And, since I don’t know if I’m kidding myself or insulting myself at this moment, so I must be really good at it.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Pope Frank: Doing It His Way

The Pope’s comments on the capacity of atheists (and others) to “do good” leaves me confused. The Pope seems to saying three things:

1. All people have the capacity to do good, since all people are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27);

2. Jesus’ death is redemptive for all humanity, whether or not one “believes;” and

3. All good people can “meet” in acts of goodness.

Very heady stuff, but I’m not exactly clear as to what it means. Let’s take up each point in turn.

1. All people have the capacity to do good. That itself is very liberal, as so many Christians believe that only those who are guided by God to the good can do the good. The Pope is saying that goodness is something we humans can discern without the help of God, or at least without believing in God, and I applaud him for that.

2. Is Jesus’ death redemptive for all of us, regardless of believe or lack thereof? This isn’t what the Gospel of John tells us: “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. (John 3:16)…. 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 3:18).

In other words, just because Jesus died for all of us, only those of us who accept the redemption offered by Christ are saved. And, according to Catholic doctrine, that can be done only within the context of the Catholic Church: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: "outside the church there is no salvation.”

So is the Pope saying there is salvation outside the Church, and even outside Christianity? I don’t see that in his statement. Atheists can do good, but without Christ and the Catholic Church salvation is something beyond their reach.

3. The notion that all good people can meet in acts of goodness only means that we can unite on social justice issues we have in common regardless of our beliefs. Nothing all that exciting here.

So what is the commotion? Until Pope Francis clarifies his understanding of redemption and salvation there is nothing to get excited about here. I look forward to his telling us more.

PS: If I have misunderstood Catholic doctrine on these matters, please set me straight in the Comments section. I do not pretend to be an expert in Catholicism (or anything else for that matter).

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New Rabbis?

A recent issue of the Jewish Forward featured an article on new rabbis. The new rabbi is called to be: a scholar, educator, CEO, community organizer, pastoral counselor, chaplain, fundraiser, public speaker, etc., but what about this is “new.” Back in the late 1970s my colleagues and I drew up the same job description, and thought that we too were doing something new. We weren’t then, they aren’t now. And what’s worse, both then and now, is that the “spiritual” is still missing from the rabbi’s job description!

For decades our rabbinical schools and Jewish institutions have secularized the rabbinate in hopes of staying relevant to a largely secularized Jewish community. The problem is that the secular needs of our people are being well met by secular institutions and professionals. What isn’t being met is their need for meaning, wisdom, and spiritual depth. This is the work that rabbis should be trained to do, but are not being trained to do.

One of the things that was supposed to excite readers about the new rabbi was all the work opportunities open to them outside of congregational life: rabbis working as chaplains, social workers, CEO’s of non–profits, and more. I’m happy for new rabbinic grads that there are job opportunities for them outside congregational life, but the reason they need them is that the congregational structure of American Jewish life is failing. Rabbis are entering unusual jobs because the usual ones aren’t there.

You want something new? Try this:

Rabbinical schools should train rabbis to be wisdom teachers, spiritual mentors with the skills to help people make meaning out their lives, and contemplative practitioners who can teach the skills of meditation, prayer, chanting, and the like—skills that people desperately need to survive the madness of an America spiraling downward morally and a planet on the verge of ecological collapse, and that just might keep the worst effects of consumptive capitalism from becoming the norm.

Rabbinical schools should subsidize graduates (not all, but those with promise) and send them out to transform the world rather than get a job. Subsidized rabbis can dare to be bold. Instead of going to wealthy philanthropists to fund a new building project, rabbinic institutions should go to venture capitalists with business plans for transforming the world, and put their best and brightest in charge of these ventures.

There is a real need for rabbis, but not the rabbis we are training. And simply tricking new rabbis into thinking that what they are doing is new rather than training them to actually do something transformative is just mean.