Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

The Wrath of God

Someone I know posted the following quote on Facebook today along with the comment “I couldn’t agree more”

“If God doesn’t punish America, he’s going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Evangelist Billy Graham.

For those who are not familiar with my history, I have a background in religion and philosophy (I trained to be a pastor) and, even though I am no longer a Christian, I know enough about it to write knowledgeably about this.

I have a few thoughts about the above quote about and why I couldn’t agree less with it. The most obvious problem with the quote is its foundation on a belief in an invisible and all-powerful being who controls the universe and has a beef to pick with humanity when they don’t follow his capricious whims. Let’s go ahead and assume that this assumption is correct and that there really is a God who controls the universe. If God does exist, why would anyone in their right mind ever want to treat him with anything other than disdain? If he really is in control then he is the cause of all suffering and pain and sorrow that surround us every day. A lot of people who believe in him try to get around this fact and use a lot of sophisticated arguments about why people suffer and why there is so much sickness and poverty and pain in the world but none of these arguments hold up when pressed. If God exists and he is in any way involved in the course of human existence, he is ultimately responsible for whatever happens and humanity, his creation, should  hold him accountable for all of the pain and misery that surround us. Humanity should not have to cower in fear, waiting for God to get angry and smite something in his wrath. If the above statement were true, then God really is like a drunken parent who forces their child to live in constant fear and uncertainty about what might set off a severe punishment. If God is real, he should already be apologizing to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Secondly, this attitude assumes that certain people know what God thinks about something and that they can speak for him. People who hold themselves up as qualified to speak for the almighty have, time and again, proven themselves to be dangerous and delusional. Believing that God is angry and that he should destroy every living creature in a country is dangerous thinking. It puts the person making the claim on an equal footing with God and declares them worthy of passing judgement on the rest of humanity for whatever perceived grievance that person has against whatever group deemed worthy of punishment. When a person makes a statement like this, they are claiming to be as smart and as justified as God himself in passing judgement on something. From a Christian perspective, this is a huge mistake. Jesus himself said, “Do not judge or you, too, will be judged” (Matthew 7:1) and went on to make it very obvious that those who follow him were to not stand in judgement of others (by the way, judging others was what the religious leaders of his day did and Jesus was calling them out on their bad behavior). It seems unwise to me that someone who claims to follow Jesus would choose to act in such an un-Christlike way.

Third, this attitude entirely dismisses the Christian belief in grace and forgiveness. The entire message of Christianity is that Jesus, who was fully God and fully human, came to earth and was crucified, died and resurrected on the third day as an atoning sacrifice for humanity. God’s grace and forgiveness is central to the faith of someone who claims to be a Christian and statements like the one above fly in the face of that central tenet. Attitudes like the one above are prevalent among most people I know who call themselves Christians and it was my desire to not be associated with that kind of attitude that contributed to me to examining my beliefs in God and Christianity in the first place. Eventually, I realized that God is not real and that those who claimed to follow him were, in reality, following superstitions and myths designed to control the behavior of people through fear and hope in some sort of afterlife or paradise.

There are many people out there who sincerely believe that God is angry and that he wants to punish those he is angry with. They look at events that happen around them and read their belief of a coming judgement into those events. It’s sloppy thinking and even worse theology. I would encourage them to rethink their understanding of God. If he is real, would you really want to affiliate yourself with someone like that?

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I started to write this and it blew up to over 700 words and I was just at an introduction. I realized that to spare people from reading a huge post, I was going to have to make this a multi-part series.

I’ve been asked by a number of people from various backgrounds why I have chosen to follow a Buddhist path. After all, here in the western world, Buddhism is a little outside of the ordinary. It seemed so strange to so many people that I often find myself trying to come up with a good answer as to why I chose this path. The reality is that the experience of Buddhism is so profound that I cannot find good words to answer the “why” question. So, here is a bit of the story about the experience. I hope that it does a good job of answering the “why” question or at least making thimgs a bit clearer.

The problem of suffering had always been one that bothered me. That so many people in the world suffered so terribly and that the world seemed set up to destroy the lives of so many of the people who inhabited it struk me as particularly cruel and wrong. The faith that I grew up with, Christianity, attempted to answer some of these issues but I always found those answers to be lacking. If there really is an all powerful creator who is motivated by love for that creation, his sitting by as horrible things happened so frequently that no one bothers to notice them struck me as heartless and cruel. A promise of a better life in some heavenly realm for those who were lucky enough to pray the right way and believe the right things just didn’t seem to be a viable answer. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that if God exists, when it comes to suffering he is either impotent, indifferent or vindictive in relation to that suffering. If God wants to do something about it but cannot, for whatever reason used to give him an “out”, he’s impotent. If he is able to do something about it but lets things happen anyway, he’s indifferent. If he’s actively participating in the events that lead to suffering and death, he’s vindictive. None of those three options seemed like a very good reason to believe in or worship God. In the end, I came to the conclusion that God wasn’t any of these three things because God was an idea that we came up with as an evolutionary response to the many things that confused our ancient ancestors about the world. That is when I entered a period without faith in anything in my life. This was a hard time for me as I wanted to believe but found the object of belief to be unbelieveable. This period lasted for about 2 years. Throughout it, I kept active in my church and living a life that went through the motions of faith but it was mostly because I didn’t know what else to do.

Eventually, I realized I couldn’t keep living like that so I withdrew from the faith that I grew up with and studied and had, at one point, chosen to dedicate my life to. I cut myself loose and was living a life outside the confines of faith. I was no longer going through the motions of ritual and attempting to feel or experience something that wasn’t there. I had seen other people have deep, meaningful and fulfilling spiritual lives and it had always eluded me. I no longer chased after that. I was “free”.

Except I still wasn’t free. There was still the problem of suffering. I was suffering, my wife was suffering, my kids were suffering, everywhere I looked I saw suffering. Life sucks. That is reality for so many people. Sure, religion wasn’t able to do anything to really deal with the pain and suffering in the world but it still needed to be dealt with. I was just as lost without faith as I was with it. Through all of this, I kept dealing with depression and my own lifestyle issues that caused my weight to keep going up and up. I was miserable, fat, had nothing to believe in and saw very little in life that was worth living for. It was a very dark period of time for me and one that I’m thankful to have put firmly in my past.

How I did that will be covered in part 2.

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Save The Date

It’s time to run up your credit cards to the max and live it up everybody. Apparently, the end of the world is coming very soon. In fact, as early as May 21 2011. I’ve personally seen a number of these types of predicions in different forms over the years. The thing that surprises me about this movement is that they set the date so close to the present day. Usually if you want to drum up a lot of fear and paranoia about something, you want to give yourself a bit more leeway to get the ball rolling. Look how long we’ve been hearing about the Mayan 2012 thing. They’ve been working that date for years now. There isn’t even enough time to put out a straight to video disaster movie about 5/21/2011.

Personally, I find this particular “beware the upcoming apocalypse” trend to be amusing because its a great blend of tools from the impending doomsday arsenal: rapture, numerology, dispensationalism and biblical literalism.

Its stuff like this that puts the “mental” back in fundamentalism.

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I just saw a story about a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey that found that atheists and agnostics scored highest on a survey asking questions about religious knowledge. They were followed closely by Jews and the Mormons were in a solid third place. Here is the executive summary from the Pew Survey Results site.

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

One of the nice things the site does is allow you to take a quiz that is similar to the one that they took and reported on. Just for fun, I decided to take the quiz. Here are my results.

I think I did OK on it overall. I then went on to take the full test used in the survey and only missed one question. It was about what religious group Maimonides belonged to. Once I looked up his name on Wikipedia, I did a head slap for forgetting who he was since I would have been able to answer that one correctly at one time. Once again, I am disappointed in the group that until recently I was a part of. I don’t know about other areas of the world but mainstream Protestant Christianity in America has become so anti-intellectual that I’m ashamed to have been associated with it for so long. Personally, I have always valued learning and understanding the way the universe operates. I know that this is a personality trait that I have inherited from my family as we have some extremely intelligent people in it. Obviously, everyone is different and has different interests and motivations and values. However, I don’t understand the sociological issues that drive mainstream conservative Protestants to devalue education to the extent that they do. I have known some extremely intelligent people in that tradition and learned a lot from them. I went to school with many people whose intellectual bona fides I’d never doubt for a second. Why are these people so much in the minority is what I have always wanted to know. I guess I’m just frustrated and still disillusioned with my past. I wish that American Protestants still valued education the way that they once did. As some point in the 20th century, they adopted an “us vs. them” attitude and it has done so much damage to their credibility and their relevance to society that they may never recover. I hope I’m wrong about that. Christianity does have a lot to offer and even though I don’t consider myself a part of the Christian faith any more, I have no ill will towards Christianity. As Huston Smith once said, only two people in history have been asked the question, “What are you?” instead of “Who are you?” when people encounter them for the first time: Jesus and Buddha. It would be a shame to see the legacy of one of them go away because those who made up that legacy chose to remain blissfully ignorant while the world around them changed.

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The other day, I read a great post by Jack Daw on his Zen Dirt Zen Dust blog. You really should read it. In case you’re not wanting to read anything more than my blog (and I can’t blame you if you do) the very short and condensed version of the article is that when someone practices compassion or charity or peace in the name of something else, in this case Buddhism, they are being deceptive and manipulative. Jack makes a great point that compassion and peace and charity are things that we should be doing regardless of who or what we are or what spiritual or religious path we are on. Whenever we help someone or perform some act in the name of something else, what is it we’re doing? In reality, we’re performing a kind of bait and switch. As someone who has been on the giving and receiving end of this type of action, I truly understand the seriousness of what Jack is saying in this post.

Once upon a time, when I was in college, I took a class that was all about compassionate ministry. This class was concerned with how churches can help the homeless or those in need; usually in urban areas, but also in other areas where there are great needs. The class was led by a very wonderful and compassionate man who cared very deeply for those who were in need. One day, in a conversation, he said that it was his goal to get through life without anyone ever knowing he was a Christian. Saying something like this to a group full of people who so strongly identify with doing things in the name of their religion that they call themselves evangelicals is kind of like farting loudly in a crowded elevator. Everyone notices and nobody likes it. In the ensuing discussion, the teacher tried to make a point similar to the one that Jack makes in his post but at the time those of us who were young and morally certain and obviously dedicated evangelicals just didn’t get it. It’s a frame of reference that is so far removed from the evangelical mindset to be almost in a foreign language. The reason that we were learning about how to help others whs to get them in the door of the church wasn’t it?

A few weeks later, our class was in Washington D.C. and we were spending the day on the street. In January. Looking like homeless people. Smelling like homeless people. During that long and cold day hanging out with a bunch of real homeless people a church group came by to “minister” to us. Their idea of ministering to the homeless was to provide us with bowls of chili that was just a few degrees warmer than the air temperature. Unfortunately, they had run out of spoons so I just got a bowl of piping cold chili. Fortunately, one of the homeless guys was more than happy to share his spoon with me so I was able to enjoy my chilly chili. In addition to food, they were also giving out big warm blankets. This was something we were actually interested in getting because it was January in Washington D.C. and it was freezing outside. Before we got the blankets, we got the opportunity to be photographed receiving the blankets. The group was also nice enough to make sure that the tag bearing their name was visible so that it would show up in the picture. As I received my blanket, I was also the recipient of a speech from a guy telling me that even though he didn’t know my situation, Jesus did and he could make it all better for me if I’d just give my heart to him. I’m not sure what was more offensive: the fact that he thought that this was doing the homeless people on the streets any good or that he believed that if you were homeless it was because you were obviously not a member of his faith. I just mumbled a few things to him and kept quiet about the fact that I was a religion major playing homeless for the day so that I could actually learn what it’s like to have to live on the street in the middle of winter. After the group went off to the next batch of needy people, we sat back down on the lawn of the justice department and tried to keep warm under our new blankets.

After that day, I understood what our teacher had meant about wanting to help others without making a big deal about who or what I am. The fact is that all people in this world are hurting in some way or another. We are all dependent on one another to make it through our lives every day. When someone else suffers, it means that we are suffering too. Compassion shouldn’t be something we do, it should be something we are. Living with the awareness of the suffering of others will naturally give rise to compassion within us. No one group or religion has a monopoly on compassion. No political party, no philosophy, no country, no celebrity, no lifestyle has the ability to claim that they are the sole holders of a way to end suffering. When we try to make compassion a thing that we do to someone else in order to spread whatever message we have, we’re cheapening the value of our actions and really helping no one. Instead of trying to wave our flag or teach the Dharma to others under the banner of compassion or political engagement, we should just be compassionate and let the truth of the Dharma shine through in our lives. That’s the most we can hope for. If I address the pain and suffering of others with the same intensity and passion that I address my own pain and suffering, I will be doing more for them, and for me, than any contrived act ever could.

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A lot of my friends and family are really happy for me and the weight I’ve lost. One of the most frequent questions I get from them is, “How have you done it?” Some of my friends are also overweight and they would like to be able to follow my lead in losing weight. I tell them a lot about what I have done to lose weight; eating less, eating healthier, exercising, treating my depression, etc. but I always leave out anything that has to do with Buddhism or meditation. This is because many of my friends and family members are all conservative Christians and I’m not sure what kind of reaction they will have if they find out that I have abandoned the faith that I once had and am now practicing, to their minds, a  “false religion”. I always feel like I’m not being entirely truthful with them or that I’m even misleading them into thinking that I still share their faith. Obviously, I don’t want to invite a lot of controversy or cause any problems with people who I care very much about but I’m torn about what to do when this subject comes up. How do you tell people who knew you to be a devout Christian at one time and are themselves devout, conservative (politically and theologically) Christians that you are now a Zen Buddhist? I know my parents will immediately drop to their knees and begin a prayer vigil for the safety of my soul. My mother will have an intense and very negative reaction to this news and will not let me hear the end of it for the rest of her life. If I tell the truth, I cause others to suffer. If I keep it hidden, I suffer. What’s the best course of action in this case? How do I come out of the Buddhist closet?

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This Makes Me Sad

I saw this graphic the other day when someone on twitter posted a link to it. I really wasn’t surprised by it but it still made me feel sad to see. As a former Christian, I still have a lot of strong feelings about Christianity and a lot of positive and happy memories of being involved in the Christian tradition for so many years. As someone who went to college to prepare to become a pastor and who had every intention of going on to get a master’s degree in divinity, I am fully aware of the anti-intellectual forces within the Protestant church here in the U.S. (that’s the branch of Christianity that I’m familiar with and that’s what I’m writing about here. If there are other traditions that contradict what I’m saying, I’m happy to learn about it). When I left for college, I was warned by many different people to be careful of too much learning because it could harm me. I got this warning from my family members, my friends and even a pastor. It has never made sense to me why mainstream Protestants feel so hostile toward learning and towards education but it is a fact that a great deal of them do. There are exceptions to every rule and the teachers and many of my fellow students in college were extremely smart and deeply intellectual people with a passion for knowledge and the same frustrations that I had about anti-intellectualism in the church.

Reading Level By Religion Seriousness Legend

When I see the debate between scientific knowledge about evolution versus creationism or intelligent design I cringe on the inside as I see people who I share (or shared) a faith with staunchly deny the realities that are in front of them. Even when presented with arguments from within their own faith tradition that demonstrate that the scientific view is totally reasonable and should be given the attention it deserves, I see Christians willfully ignore and dismiss this because it would challenge them to think too much. Things like reading and writing are not important within the general American Protestant worldview. This graph demonstrates that very well.

I think this was one reason why I ended up leaving my Christian faith. I had grown tired of seeing and hearing so many things that were obviously poorly thought through, if at all. While I was able to associate with some Christians who were very deep thinkers and committed to their faith I just didn’t have the strength to stay involved any more. My political leanings, my ideas on social issues, my desire for scientific knowledge and understanding, my committment to learning and my insistence on experientially verifiable facts was just too much at odds with most of those that I dealt with in the Christian world. Huston Smith, a great writer and thinker about religion who wrote a great deal about Christianity and Buddhism (he wrote the introduction to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind) said that the Buddha and Jesus were the only two people in history that others asked the question, “What are you?” instead of, “Who are you?”. They both had that impact on those around them. There was something so amazing about them that they transcended what it means to be human. Both inspired thousands of years of devoted followers. Unfortunately, only one of those branches (at least here in the U.S.) has embraced intellectualism and learning. Considering that Christianity came out of the Jewish tradition, I would really hope to see it right there next to Jewish on the graph where it belongs. Unfortunately there are way too many factors that have gone into Protestantism that have caused it to appear where it does on this graph.

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