2019-08-24

A "Faith" for Everyone

Faiths are different. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daosim, Confucianism, Sikhism, Jainism, animism and others -- and the variants of these, sometimes numbering into the hundreds -- are all different. This is unavoidable. Religious diversity does raise some problems and challenges for us, but addressing those problems calls for learning how to accept -- and if possible celebrate -- differences rather than suppressing or erasing them.

So when I say, "a 'faith' for everyone," I do not propose to lay out some common core that all, or most, religions have, or should have. Instead, I urge a way of understanding what faith is. This understanding may be shared by everyone, regardless of their faith.

Thus, atheists, too, have (or, as I shall suggest, "do") a faith -- though atheism is not it. Atheism rules out certain faith traditions, but does not itself constitute a faith. In the same way, "non-model-airplane-builder" rules out a hobby but does not itself constitute a hobby. But while a person may not have any hobbies, everyone has/does a faith. The faith of an atheist may not have a name -- but ze does have/do one. Like any faith, it may be weak, middling, strong or any gradation thereof. It may not, however, for a functioning human being, be nonexistent.

Faith is:
  1. Committing to the fullness of our being;
  2. Opening our hearts to the unknown;
  3. A way of interpreting existence.
Before I unpack these, I need to acknowledge a common cultural conception (that is, a conception of what "faith" means that is common in English-speaking culture). According to this conception, faith is a non- (or perhaps ir-) rational conviction of the truth of certain propositions for which the evidence is nonexistent or, at best, weak.

You may want to argue that the meaning of the word is determined by the way that most people use it. So if this conception is indeed common -- if that is the way that almost everyone understands what the word "faith" means -- then that IS what faith means. We can't very well go around employing new and different definitions of words if we expect to be understood when we speak.

In fact, though, people commonly do associate faith with rather more than simply "believing without evidence." Faith is imagined to be personally transformative, to bear some relationship with transcending ego-centric desires, with enabling us to face life's uncertainties and unknowables, and with how we make meaning of our experiences and our lives. These are widely understood functions of faith. Let us understand what faith is by its functions. Whatever, then, serves these functions -- whether it also involves believing without evidence or not -- deserves the name of faith. Let us now take a closer look at each of these functions.

First, as Virginia Knowles writes by way of describing the thought of Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman:
“Religious faith is the act by which we commit ourselves with the fullness of our being, insofar as we are able, to whatever can transform and save us from the evil of devoting ourselves to the transient goods of social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.”
This fits the traditional understanding that the outcome of faith is personal transformation and transcendence of ego-centric desires. This important function may be served without any non- or ir-rational conviction that flies in the face of evidence. Faith is a name for whatever it may be that commits us to the fullness of our being rather than the limited and narrow parts of our being concerned with what Knowles and Wieman call "transient goods."

Second, American Buddhist writer Sharon Salzberg describes faith as "the act of opening our hearts to the unknown." This fits the common understanding of distinguishing faith from reason and evidence. While reason and evidence tell us about what we can know, faith is an approach -- specifically, an open-hearted approach -- to the unknown. Rather than merely believing without evidence, however, faith is a willingness to go forward to take in new evidence and new experience, ever-willing to be transformed. This throwing ourselves into the unknown can feel like leaping -- hence, "leap of faith."

"Faith" names the antidote to ego preoccupations with achievement and with knowing. Faith is the courage to offer up all that we are to the world around us, not knowing what the world will ask or what we will find in ourselves to offer. Faith's opposite is not doubt, but despairing withdrawal.

Third, from theology professor James Fowler: faith is “a way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.” This preserves our very common sense that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. are faiths. They each know, construe, and interpret existence in a particular way.

The common conception of faith as a set of unshakable convictions impervious to evidence does convey, for all its misdirection, one implication that is true: evidence alone is not enough. Evidence is not the same thing as meaning and does not suffice for meaning. Mere phenomena present us with “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James) until interpreted, contextualized, made sense of. Animals -- most notably humans -- must make meaning from the raw phenomenal evidence. There are many various ways to put the same evidence together into a structure of value and meaning, and each way is a faith.

Faith is best understood not so much as something we have or lack, but as something we do and sometimes fail to do. We "do faith" when we commit to the fullness of our being, with hearts open to the unknown and minds engaged in meaning-making.

2019-08-21

We Need a Tribe

Things get difficult sometimes. We need the tribal connections that modern life precludes. Thus we are left often alone, “like a motherless child.” And what we do encounter of other people may be negative: there is a fear of difference in the land that is further tearing us apart. We are in a difficult time – have been, really, for about 12,000 years.

Here’s the thing: we need a tribe. We crave the face-to-face community – groups of up to 150 where everyone knows everyone else, everyone is accountable to everyone else, every one is known, and everyone belongs. We keep each other in line, which meets our need for connection and interaction, which gives our lives meaning. Here’s part of how it works:
“When a person does something for another person – a prosocial act, as it’s called – they are rewarded not only by group approval but also by an increase of dopamine and other pleasurable hormones in their blood.” (Sebastian Junger, Tribe)
Some of us can get that rush from abstract charity, but most of us need that face-to-face contact with those with whom we are devoting cooperative labor.
“Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, for example, which promotes everything from breast-feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding in men. Both reactions impart a powerful sensation of well-being. Oxytocin creates a feedback loop of good-feeling and group loyalty that ultimately leads members to ‘self-sacrifice to promote group welfare,’ in the words of one study. Hominids that cooperated with one another – and punished those who didn’t – must have outfought, outhunted, and outbred everyone else. These are the hominids that modern humans are descended from” (Junger 27).
Yet modern society isn’t tribal. It’s vast, it’s anonymous, it’s full of strangers. We ourselves are cogs in an incomprehensibly large economic system in which disposable producers make disposable products for disposable consumers. This is not the world evolution made us for.

Millions of years of evolution selected us to be social, caring for and protecting the tribe. As Sebastian Junger notes:
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
In the 1700s, the European colonists and Native Americans were never far from each other. The colonists, we know, were commercial and industrious. The indigenous peoples were communal and tribal. Colonial society was wealthier, more advanced. The Europeans had more stuff, more powerful tools, could do more things, and they were always working on getting still more.
They were making "progress" happen. Yet something weird was happening. From time to time a European would “go native” – defect from white society and go live with a native tribe. This never happened the other way around. Not that our European ancestors were terribly welcoming overall, but there were some attempts, say, to welcome Indian children into colonist towns and homes. They never wanted to stay. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
In 1782, six years after the colonists had declared their independence from Britain, Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote,
“Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”
Tribal life was 95 percent of human history, and it meets the needs we evolved to have.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors
“would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.”
Almost never alone. We traded that for more individual autonomy and choice and privacy, for being left alone – being left . . . alone.

Was it a good trade? We gained wealth. We lost our strong tribal connectedness. We pay the price in that loss and in higher rates of depression. The World Health Organization reports that people in wealthy countries suffer depression at up to eight times the rate of people in poor countries.

Consider fraud as an indicator of our modern disconnection from one another. Defrauding these government programs such as unemployment assistance, welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid costs us over $100 billion a year. Insurance fraud takes $300 billion a year. The rich do more fraud than the poor, measured in dollars. Fraud by American defense contractors is estimated at around $100 billion. Securities and commodities fraud – insider trading, kickbacks and bribes, false accounting – and illegal banking practices triggered the recession of 2008, total costs of which have been estimated at $14 trillion.

Hunter-gatherers had the same impulses to seek material gain at the expense of the group, and, indeed, ultimately at the expense of their own well-being – but they lived in small groups where almost everything was open to scrutiny, and tribes devoted considerable energy to monitoring one another to ensure equity. The group’s survival depended on equal resource distribution to keep everyone alive – which was crucial because, unlike in modern society, everyone was needed. It was a lot harder to get away with cheating.

Junger writes that in these communities,
“authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. Males who try to take control of the group – or of the food supply – are often countered by coalitions of other males. This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for.”
Transgressors against the tribe’s norms were punished by public ridicule, shunning, and ultimately assassination of the culprit by the entire group. Infractions commonly punished included freeloading on the work of others, bullying, and failure to share.

People everywhere in all times have faced temptations to dishonesty – but long ago we had social structures that were more deeply connecting and that made cheating more difficult. Modern society is based on hierarchy. Our hunter-gatherer forebears had leaders, but those leaders had to be in a caring and accountable relationship with those they led. Then, about 12,000 years ago, that changed.

The rise of agriculture was a package deal that included domestication of such animals as the cow and the pig and some others, along with the cultivation of crops, most importantly grains: wheat, barley, rice, and maize. Only with the rise of agriculture did the centralized state become possible. Only grain crops have a set annual harvest time and are
“visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’.” (James C. Scott, qtd in John Lanchester, "How Civilization Started," New Yorker, 2017 Sep 18)
Thus reliance on grains made a workable taxation system possible.
“The taxman can come, assess the fields, set a level of tax, then come back and make sure he’s got his share of the harvest.”
That’s what led to the birth of the state:
“complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an √©lite presiding over them.” (Scott, New Yorker)
This system required huge amounts of manual labor, which was often forced. With agriculture came the first slavery. Agriculture allowed support of large standing armies, transforming war from feuds between clans into mass slaughter. No wonder Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.”

2019-08-20

How Can There Be Such Wrong?

Renewal Happens, part 2 of 2

Opportunities for renewal, for starting over, are ever-present. But there's a price for renewal. New beginnings come with loss.

All the things that religion is – the ethics and values we live by, the community bonds and the rituals, the experiences of transcendent wonder – all of that: it’s nothing if it doesn’t make us more alive, if it doesn’t open us to the fullness of everything, if it doesn’t prepare us to say YES to all of life, even the hard parts, even the loss. And renewal does include loss of what was before – just as loss of what was opens the space for renewal.

We have to say good-bye in order to say hello -- that's the cost of renewal. Novelist Daniel Abraham points out:
“The flower that wilted last year is gone. Petals once fallen are fallen forever. Flowers do not return in the spring, rather they are replaced. It is in this difference between returned and replaced that the price of renewal is paid. And as it is for spring flowers, so it is for us.”
Even as our hearts are lifted by new births and babies among us, we carry, too, the grief of absent loved-ones. Edna St. Vincent Millay captures this poignant ambivalence in her poem, “Spring”:
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
“It’s not enough,” says Millay. The bloodroot blossoms now sprinkled across our congregation’s property are so lovely – and far too delicate to bear the weight of the world’s grief.

Sara Teasdale feels the overwhelming inadequacy of spring as she writes in 1917, in the midst of the carnage of World War I. Her poem is called “Spring in War Time.”
I feel the spring far off, far off,
     The faint, far scent of bud and leaf—
Oh, how can spring take heart to come
     To a world in grief,
     Deep grief?

The sun turns north, the days grow long,
     Later the evening star grows bright—
How can the daylight linger on
     For men to fight,
     Still fight?

The grass is waking in the ground,
     Soon it will rise and blow in waves—
How can it have the heart to sway
     Over the graves,
     New graves?

Under the boughs where lovers walked
     The apple-blooms will shed their breath—
But what of all the lovers now
     Parted by Death,
     Grey Death?
In war time – and it is always war time somewhere on this weary world, and tragic loss is never very far away – it can seem a wonder that the grass would have the heart to sway over graves. How can the daffodil and bloodroot blossoms around us dare to shine forth? Do they not know my mother is no more? Have I not told them of my father’s death? Did they not hear of the Parkland shooting? Do the names Michael Brown and Eric Garner mean nothing to them? Have they no inkling of the refugee crisis, or what is happening at our country’s southern border, or in Yemen? Do they not read the paper? How dare the flowers stand there in small and silent beauty?

And yet, they do. There they are – matched in their shameless impudence by the boughs above them budding with fresh leaves, and, above them, the sun that has the effrontery to shine so brightly.

Do none of them know that animals, including human animals, died and are dying – horribly, tragically, and much too soon? Do they not know how much we loved those taken from us?

No. They don’t know. Life, heedless of calamity, refuses to be stopped, though its continuation only means more death.

In the book of Job, Job cries out “Why do I suffer?” After his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have offered their trite moral simplifications, Job is still left crying, "Why do I suffer?"

Finally, God Godself appears in a whirlwind to answer the charge that Job’s suffering is unfair and without basis. It’s not clear, however, that what God proceeds to say can be accurately called an “answer.” God unleashes four chapters of rhetorical questions that invoke the wonders and grandeur of creation. Here’s a sampling from chapters 38 and 39.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?...
Or who shut in the sea,... made the clouds its garment...
Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place...
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?...
Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?...
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?...
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?...
Do you give the horse its might?...
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?”
Does this answer Job’s question? Does this explain why Job suffers? No. It does not. It is, as Millay said, “not enough.” Yet, confronted with the marvel of creation in this way, Job’s complaint is stilled. Job says, "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Humbled and speechless, Job abandons his plea.

But the plea returns. It returns recurrently in our lives as it returned to Sara Teasdale in 1917: how can there be such wrong?

If the wonders of creation seemed to Job to dwarf his own suffering, there are also times when the immensity of the world’s pain dwarfs the green grass of spring, the new leaves, the little flowers. And so it is, and so it is, and so it shall be.

Ours is to be open and present to both sides when they come – the death and the renewal alike -- for, in truth, both sides are always come.

So, yes, stop and smell the flowers, now that it is spring. Work hard and take breaks. Strive to get that hit -- and don’t forget to touch every base.

* * *
See also Part 1: Start Over 'Cause It's Never Over

2019-08-07

Start Over 'Cause It's Never Over

Renewal Happens, part 1

Marv Throneberry, 1933-1994
With baseball season upon us, I am remembering some of the grand tradition of New York baseball. Let us take a moment to fondly remember Marv Throneberry.

Marv Throneberry was first-basement for the 1962 Mets, arguably the worst major-league team ever. Throneberry’s batting was mediocre. Where he stood out -- in a bad way -- was as a fielder and a base runner, where his ineptness rose to legendary heights. As the New York York Times reported in its obituary when Marv Throneberry died:
“In a game against the Chicago Cubs, Throneberry hit what appeared to be a game-winning triple with the bases loaded and two outs. The problem was that everybody in the dugout noticed that he missed touching first base. When the Cubs' pitcher tossed the ball to the first baseman, the umpire called Throneberry out. The inning ended and the runs didn't count. Casey Stengel, the grizzled manager of the Mets, couldn't believe it and began arguing with the first-base umpire. As they exchanged words, another umpire walked over and said, 'Casey, I hate to tell you this, but he also missed second.'"
In sports, you get a new beginning with each new game. The score and mistakes from previous games don’t carry over. In life, though, past practice tends to carry over. We know that each day is a new beginning – but sometimes maybe it feels like the same old, same old. Life can sometimes grow stale. Freshness is all around us – this is always so and especially flagrant in spring – yet we can lose touch with it.

Spiritual renewal – the reinvigoration of our connection to the freshness of life, of each moment – is what spiritual practice is for. Spiritual practices are renewing practices. So if you’re feeling a bit stale – if you need some renewal – if it feels like even when you hit a triple, you still miss a base – or two -- take a look at the list of spiritual practices I’ve compiled online at Voices of Liberal Faith dot org. There you’ll find 185 spiritual practices so far – and the list keeps growing. The list is divided into categories and if you’re looking for a quick shot of renewal, you might look particularly at the practices in the category, “Occasional” or “Worth a Try.” If nothing else, simply take a break – a sabbath – from your usual work.

The formula I recommend for taking quiet, contemplative breaks is one hour a day, and one day a week, and one week a season. Step back in some form to let yourself take in both the big picture and little details you haven’t been noticing – take an hour a day for this – one day a week, the weekly Sabbath – and four times a year, take a whole week to really slow down and step back. One hour a day, one day a week, one week a season.

H/D + D/W + W/S

It's a good a formula for renewal. The discipline of it is helpful in that it guides us to get renewed even when we might not have noticed we were growing stale. After all, just because you’re standing there apparently safe on third base, doesn’t mean you haven’t missed something basic and are about to be thrown out at first, and all the accomplishment of your runs batted in erased.

For some of us, on the other hand, renewal just happens. You get tired, you rest. You get hungry, you eat: you’re refreshed. The day is renewed with each sunrise. And after winter comes the renewal of spring. Renewal just happens. You don’t have to do a particular spiritual practice to experience renewal. So maybe, for you, the only issue us is just to pause to appreciate the wonder of renewal. So let’s investigate that: this natural, recurring, inevitable renewal that just happens.

It’s a grace – a blessing we have done nothing to earn or deserve. It is granted – but we need not take it for granted.
“Life is never a material, a substance to be molded. Life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my obtuse theories about it.” (Boris Pasternak).
As spring’s annual renewal burgeons around us, let not creation play to an empty house. Be there to drink it in the fresh green, the audacious colors of the flowers. To refer again to a figure from New York baseball, it was Yogi Berra who said,
“it ain’t over til it’s over.”
Game 2 of the '73 World Series, 10th inning. Bud Harrelson 
has been called out at home plate though Oakland catcher
Ray Fosse's swipe tag appeared to be off target. Willie Mays,
shown protesting, was on deck. But it wasn't over. Two
innings later, Mays' final hit of his career would win the game.
Author and hospice and eldercare provider Kate McGahan added,
“True, it's not over till it's over. And even when it's over, it just begins again.”
It was 1973 July when Yogi said “it ain’t over til it’s over.” He was then the Mets’ manager, and the Mets were in last place. But it wasn’t over – because it wasn’t over. The Mets would go on to win the division that year, beat the Reds for the National League pennant, and take the World Series to seven games before losing to the Oakland Athletics. THEN it was over. But only until the next spring.

The Roman poet Ovid in the first century wrote:
“As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new.
What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.”
No failure is ever permanent – and this also means that no success is. And that’s a good thing. We can’t be stuck, either in our ashes or on our laurels. There’s always the new day, the new season, the new year. There’s always starting over -- professionally and financially, socially and relationally. Even spiritually, there's always starting over. There's a saying among some Buddhists: Yesterday's enlightenment is today's delusion. There are no permanent accomplishments, victories, or even insights. As author Marty Ruben said,
“What's wonderful about life is you always have to start over. No matter how many meals you've eaten, words you've spoken, breaths, you've taken, you always have to start over.”
* * *
See also: Part 2: How Can There Be Such Wrong