Practical Philosophy

The Spirituality of Softening

The only religions I find worth anything are those that soften people. This is a thing I’d felt for a while, and something I’m sure someone else has put into words before, but when it finally occurred to me it was something of a revelation.

The Christianities I’ve seen in America that turn me off so strongly: they’re aggressive, control-oriented, and strike off into the world to do battle against enemies. But I do, sometimes, encounter a different and much more appealing version of Christianity. This one has baked deep inside of it a sense of wonder, of uncertainty, and of deep humility for the grace of God.

One of the reasons that so many Westerners struggle to respect Islam as a religion is that they don’t see the humble men and women who go to the mosque weekly, pray five times a day, and read the Koran to learn about the forgiveness of God and how to be His humble servant. Instead the Muslims they see most, if not the only ones they’ve ever concieved of, are the strident and confrontational Wahabi-influenced (mostly) men that are likely to become terrorists.

Similarly, though inversely, Buddhism in America (and “the West” generally) is seen as an almost exclusively soft, humble, and inwardly-focused religion. But, where it is the majority religion, it inevitably also has a non-zero number of people who practice, in its name, an aggressive style.

This hardness or softness, it has taken me years to realize, is not simply a result of the religion itself. Rather, it comes from the context in which it is practiced. More martial people will want, and practice their religion with, a more aggressive style. More passive people will tend to bring forth a religion’s humility and caring.

Softness in a spiritual pursuit matters to me because the world has no shortage of aggressive certainty. People are sure that their self, sports team, city, idea, country, religion, or way of life is way better than the others. And they will plead their case with anything from a loud cheer to murder.

Surely, there’s something of a luxury and privilege in the ability to value softness over a more directly survial-enhancing martial style. Some aren’t so lucky to be able to feel safe without joining a violent tribe. But for those of us with the privilege, softening ourselves, and interacting with the world from a place of gentleness, is a prime way to be of service. That’s why I so value spiritual and religious traditions that put their emphasis there.

Softness is kind, generous, and humble. It offers before it asks, and it rarely demands anything. Those traits describe the role I most seek to play in the world. And the fellow-travelers whose religions I find most easy to honor.

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OPW

OPW: Charter for Compassion

I’ve recently decided that I’m gonna play it a little looser around here, which means I can bring back an old feature: Other People’s Words.

The document doesn’t list an author, but it’s pretty deeply related to everything I’ve been trying to say when I’ve used the Life category in the last year. Built from Karen Armstrong’s wish at TED in 2008, I just learned about this document a few months ago when someone posted on reddit that you’d never believe what video was at the URL balls.com (that site has changed since then, but I swear this was there).

Anyway, I can’t find a word misplaced in this document (though the formatting is creative), nor one I don’t agree with. The Charter for Compassion states:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

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OPW

OPW: ‘Radical Love Gets A Holiday’

This last Monday, this country celebrated–to the extent that it celebrates any federal holiday–Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. In honor of the occasion, the New York Times ran an interesting essay by Sarah Vowell that I couldn’t help but agree with.

Here’s what Dr. King got out of the Sermon on the Mount. On Nov. 17, 1957, in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the “loving your enemies” sermon this way: “So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ ”

Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

The Bible is a big long book and Lord knows within its many mansions of eccentricity finding justification for literal and figurative witch hunts is as simple as pretending “enhanced investigation technique” is not a synonym for torture. I happen to be with Dr. King in proclaiming the Sermon on the Mount’s call for love to be at the heart of Christian behavior, and one of us got a Ph.D in systematic theology.

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big ideas

The Triviality of Difference

Everywhere you look, especially as a teenager, the world is full of others. Of people “not like me.” And though teenagers feel this most intensely, few do not feel it regularly.

Just look at the latent antipathy that exists in this country toward Iranians. Or Arabs. Or Mexicans. Or even the French.

Surely these people are different from us. They live in different parts of the world. They look different. They sound different. Put face to face, we’d probably struggle to understand each other fully. And that’s ignoring language.

For all my years, I still don’t understand fully the people I’ve known since I was young. I don’t know my friends. I don’t know my family. Sometimes I don’t even know myself.

There’s a real and meaningful distance that seems to exist between “me” and “you.” And that’s assuming you’re someone I’ve met in some capacity. If we float in the same circles but don’t know each other by name that distance seems bigger still. If we’ve never seen each other, it seems impossible that there’s anything between us. And if we’ll never see each other we may as well give up entirely.

But before we lapse into nihlistic despair at the fact that we’re too different, I’d hope we could consider this. In his wonderful 1989 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the 14th Dalai Lama said:

No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all basically the same human beings. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic human needs and concerns. All of us human beings want freedom and the right to determine our own destiny as individuals and as peoples.

I, at least, find this point indisputable. Surely there are people in the world who think that they want to suffer, but it’s usually in some search for a separate and durable happiness. Religious self-flagellation is the imposition of temporary pain in exchange for long term happiness when God is satisfied with one’s commitment. And though I find the practice unfathomably odd and barbaric, even its practitioners seek long-term happiness.

From the time we first recognize differences amongst people, they become an easy way to understand the world. To see that we exist, as people and persons, because of our differences. That they define us.

And though I’m not foolish enough to ignore all differences, I think it’s terribly important that we see the commonality that exists underneath all the superficial difference. It’s sometimes trendy in the West to evangelize against superficiality. But beyond popular culture and children’s feelings, this evangelization rapidly dies.

And that’s certainly unfortunate. I feel rather certain that if the anti-superficiality crusade went all the way to the fundamental commonality that the Dalai Lamas and others point out to us, we’d live in a much better world.

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american society, politics, world

Of Teddy Bears and Ignorance

By now you’ve probably heard something about a teddy bear in the news. But it seems to me that the way people understood the story had a lot to do with where they heard about it. So in the tradition of this piece, I’ve created two very different interpretations pared down from different news sources.

First we have, edited from Andrew Heavens’s story of last Friday, what I like to call “Crazy Muslims At it Again”:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Hundreds of Sudanese Muslims, waving green Islamic flags, took to the streets of Khartoum on Friday demanding death for the British teacher convicted of insulting Islam after her class named a teddy bear Mohammad.

“No one lives who insults the Prophet,” the protesters chanted, a day after school teacher Gillian Gibbons, 54, was sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation from Sudan.

At least 1,000 protesters shook their fists or waved banners or ceremonial swords and chanted religious and nationalist slogans after leaving Muslim Friday prayers. Banners called for “punishment” for Gibbons, and some protesters burned newspapers that contained pictures of the teacher.

Several hundred protesters made a brief stop at the closed but heavily guarded Unity High School, where Gibbons worked, but did not attempt to go inside. The school was guarded by five truckloads of police in riot gear.

The protesters marched from there to the British embassy where several hundred surrounded the ambassador’s residence, chanting religious slogans. There were no reports of violence.

Gibbons was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs because the class toy had been given the same name as the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

Under Sudan’s penal code, she could have faced 40 lashes, a fine or up to a year in jail. But Gibbons was convicted only of insulting religion.

This is how most people I’ve heard talking about the story see it. This is terribly unfortunate because even Heavens’s piece contains some insight into the role the Darfur crisis may have had in the actions of the government in Khartoum and the loyalist protesters.

The second version of the story is stolen from The Economist’s coverage, and I’ll (verbosely) call it “West Misunderstands Khartoum’s Feeble Attempt to Exploit Religious Row”:

FOR anyone who is labouring to improve Christian-Muslim relations, or stop civilisations clashing, it is a painful setback: a well-intentioned Western woman who has volunteered her services as a teacher in a land stricken by conflict and poverty, only to find herself denounced by a local colleague and incarcerated in horrible conditions.

Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old teacher from Liverpool, was sentenced on Thursday November 29th to 15 days in prison for “insulting religion”, after allowing her pupils at a school in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

When the story broke in the British press this week, it was widely reported that she might face up to 40 lashes, or six months in jail, if she were found guilty on all three of the charges laid against her. The incident happened in September and caused no protest among parents at the time. At one point the affair seemed to be spinning out of control as groups of angry men gathered outside the police station where she was held.

For Muslims in Britain and other democracies, the story was a deeply depressing one: so many of its features, including the fact that it happened in the run-up to Christmas, seemed almost calculated to resonate with British tabloid readers, who may not know much about Sudan or Islam (or any other faith) but have strong feelings about teddies, tiny tots and motherly teachers.

In more elevated western circles, it is becoming commoner to hear the view that Islam itself (rather than any extremist interpretations of the faith) is posing a challenge to western values that must be resisted. And if that view becomes more respectable, so too does a defensive Muslim reaction, which is often tinged with geopolitical grievance.

To observers who know Sudan, the whole affair seems to have become entangled with the broader stand-off between the government in Khartoum and the Western countries, including Britain, that have pushed for the United Nations to intervene in the appalling humanitarian crisis in Darfur. All diplomatic exchanges between the Sudanese government and Western ones, whether they concern refugees or teddy bears, take place against that background.

The Economist’s admirable piece goes on to discuss the role of capital punishment in Islam–worth reading if you’re interested. I should also point to another responsible (if almost as tardy as my own) perspective on this event form Anne Applebaum’s “The absurd Sudanese teddy bear controversy” at Slate.

What the difference between the two stories above makes clear is the painfully high cost the world pays for ignorance. The gap between seeing the “teddy bear row” as another example of Muslims doing crazy anti-Western things and seeing it as a desperate attempt by Khartoum to get as much leverage as it can to prevent outside intervention in Darfur is a big one.

Those who read the story the first way go away more convinced than ever about the massive threat posed to Britain or America by what many like to call “Islamofacism.” Those who read it the second way are essentially aware that the event, though ugly, is a product of the wishes of a fearful government and a few loyal supporters–nothing more.

I do think reporter for the major news agencies–Reuters, AFP, the AP–could do a much better job moderating the coverage of events like this, since their articles are read by the vast majority of laypeople. But I think it would be both unfair and short-sighted to castigate them for their occasional failings.

Mostly, I just wish that everyone–myself included–were more willing to withhold judgments on the things we don’t understand. And the complex geopolitics of Sudan and the diversity of Muslims are two things I certainly don’t understand. Perhaps hoping we can accept before judging is a lost cause, but I’m pretty sure lost causes are the only ones worth hoping for.

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american society, politics, religion

The Two Greatest Commandments

While trolling the internet, I came upon a rather pedestrian claim that in the coming election the liberals will try to “get God” as a way to convince Americans that there are issues more important than ending abortion and stopping gay marriage.

The claim is profoundly absurd, not least of all because by now most Americans are probably convinced that the “war on terror,” or at least Iraq, is more important than most any domestic policy issue. Further, any concern about domestic policy probably begins with a desire to assure–through many possible means–that Americans can afford health care.

The BibleBut as I was composing an answer that would be as close to flame-worthy as possible without actually burning me–a rather difficult task, but one I felt morally obligated to take on–I remembered something from Sunday School. The Two Greatest Commandments–which I’m sure some conservative pundits will be impressed to know, are not “Don’t allow women to have abortions” and “Don’t allow gays to have state-sanctioned marriages”–seemed to me to be one of the many important parts of Christianity that the vast majority of pundits are vainly hoping Christian Americans will forget.

The two greatest commandments, to the befuddlement of my eight-year-old self, are not among the Ten. They were not given to Moses, but come directly from Jesus. I’ve forgotten the exact circumstance in which this occurs, but here’s Matthew 22: 34-40 (NIV):

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Shocking indeed. Conclusive proof that if Jesus was not a liberal (which some argue “Love your neighbor as yourself” suggests), his chief concerns were at least larger than gay marriage and abortion.

And though someone will probably claim that this text is also a compelling argument for the establishment of a church that will become the government’s moral compass, I think the vast majority of this country knows that is unwise.

The two commandments are instead a reminder that all the parts of the Bible which are presently emphasized are less important than love for God and your fellow man. That love, not condemnation, was Jesus’ central message. That politicians claiming to represent a “Christian right” don’t recognize that fact, perhaps even willfully ignore that fact, should be a source of embarrassment and not a point of pride.

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big ideas, politics, religion

Random Reincarnation

I’ve often felt that people are too quick to deny that others’ lives in other parts of the country or world affect their own. They find it easy to vote, think, and act in ways that are largely self-serving.

I can’t fault anyone for this, after all, I often do it myself. It’s exceptionally easy to think selfish thoughts. To think that you should have that really nice car or house. To think that the government should do what is best for people like you. That they should make your schools the best, your taxes the lowest, and your roads the smoothest.

But my own selfish thoughts do not stop me from seeing the problems with this way of thinking. This way of thinking can easily lead to a world in which the rich get richer, the haves have more, and they are willing and able to argue that everyone else just hasn’t worked hard enough.

reincarnation

I think that more people need to recognize that though their life may not be as good as they think it should be, it’s hardly as bad as it could be. If you are reading this online, you’re at least able to read English (arguably the most important language in the world) and afford access to the internet. If these two traits strike you as mundane, you’ve only proven the point.

And so I think we need to be aware of the possibility that there was no necessity to the way our lives have turned out. We’ve merely won the “genetic lottery” as the Oracle of Omaha (that’s Warren Buffet) is fond of saying.

If you can find Buffet’s “genetic lottery” argument plausible, it can have a great effect on your worldview. If you could have just as well been born in a refugee camp in Africa or as a displaced Palestinian in Jordan, your willingness to accept the status quo would change immensely. For one, the fact that millions of people die annually from diseases that we have the ability to treat and prevent becomes a great injustice rather than the way the world works.

But some people seem willfully ignorant of this fact, willing to say that there is good reason that they’re a well-off white American. So I came up with a plan.

I will start a religion whose chief doctrine is reincarnation. Not traditional karmic reincarnation though. This would have to be completely random. Sometime after your death in some random place and time, you will be reborn.

That way, all the strangers whose life isn’t as comfortable as your own won’t be abstract people, they’ll be you. Not the present you, but the past and future you.

Will this unnamed religion ever succeed? I should doubt it. After all, I don’t have the charisma or the nerve to sell people on a concept I simply made up. And I doubt that those who I feel most need this religion would willingly convert.

But that won’t stop me from suggesting it. From asking people to at least consider the possibility.

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american society, religion, ruminations

On Missionaries, Religion, and the Police

This Saturday, two white men in white shirts with holy books in their hands rang my doorbell. I didn’t answer.

I assumed, for lack of a better explanation, that they were missionaries. I wasn’t expecting anyone to ring, and these certainly weren’t men I knew.

At first I thought nothing of not answering. Then I felt bad for having done this. And then, I thought about it some more and decided I had no reason to feel bad for my actions.

My rationalization was this: these men probably had one goal in mind: to share God’s love with me. Maybe they’d just want to tell me who they were, why they were at my door, and how to get to the nearest place of worship if I ever felt the need. That’s the best I can think that it would have gone.

Possibly they’d offer me a book. One that said The Holy Bible on the front. Maybe it would be a Book of Mormon. I can’t tell what their denomination was, having not spoken with them.

Maybe they’d want me to tell them about my relationship with God. Talk about prying!?

But it also made me curious about what they wouldn’t say. They probably wouldn’t have said, “Hello, I’d like to have an earnest discussion with you about God and spirituality.”

Even less likely, they could have asked what I thought of their religion. Why I though that. And then corrected any misconceptions I had and gone on their way.

I find it interesting that never having willingly undertaken this interaction I already think I know how it would go. I also can’t shake the feeling of disappointment that I may well be right.

Wouldn’t it be a trip to have a man knock on your door and, when you open it, say, “Hello, I was wondering what you could teach me. I think you can teach me something, what’ll it be?”

But even as I say that, I recognize another fact. That after that man rang the doorbell, I’d probably call the police.

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big ideas, linkpost

Bob Thurman on Compassion

Bob Thurman is an American Buddhist. At TED2006, he gave a great introduction to the ideas of interconnectedness and compassion. It’s a really good summary of the concepts; he has fun with them rather than dwelling on their nature and substance.

I found this though of personal value, who gives a great synopsis thusly:

It struck me because I’ve always considered how heartbreaking it is to be compassionate if it means taking on another person’s pain. He explains this paradox of how embracing someone else’s pain actually makes us see ourselves differently. And most remarkably, the way to help those who suffer is by having a good time. You have to listen to him to really make sense of this, but in part the key to compassion is that it is more fun (and by this I think he means rewarding) than focusing on only yourself.

The video is embedded below (removed, it broke the layout). The page for the talk (which has it downloadable as both audio and video) is here.

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american society, religion, review

Review: Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp is a documentary that examines the Evangelical movement in the United States. It does this by following a few Evangelicals (I believe they’re mostly Pentecostal) for a time. And on the whole, it does a fairly even-handed job of this, not seeming to judge its subjects, merely to present them.

This may be because the directors felt no need; the film’s chief evangelist (Becky Fischer) is herself somewhat reactionary and off-putting. Her essential claim, stated very early in the film, is that America’s children need to mobilized for Jesus because Muslims around the world are fervently converting their children and arming them for a coming conflict.

To overtly critique the film’s subject, the directors have relied on a single liberal Christian radio talk show host, shown making his own show about the dangers of the evangelical movement and his view that it’s essentially missing the message of Christ.

Visually, the film is very stark. But the subjects are generally lively enough to compensate. The most important players in the drama are children: there’s Levi, 12, who is aspiring to be a preacher. Rachel, 9, who feels moved to tell a twenty-something in a bowling ally that God loves her and is thinking of her, is also particularly memorable.

Overall, the movie paints a pretty useful, if somewhat frightening, portrait of the movement. It seems to gloss over certain aspects of motives and aspirations. The characters feel slightly underdeveloped, all getting enough time on camera, but none really probed or examined in any meaningful way. That is, we see these kids at church and at camp, but with little explanation of their motives for being there.

None the less, we are given a good look at what does occur at such camps. In one striking example, Becky Fischer tells weeping young children that there are fakers among them, and that they need to admit and cease their lying because “there can be no fakers in God’s army.”

This scene and others raise some interesting questions about the most radical elements of the movement. Levi, in some ways the film’s star, is home schooled by his mother in the ways of Creationist science. His book asks him, a middle-school aged child, to explain how global warming is clearly not a real problem.

Perhaps more jarring, is the scene in which a man speaks to the children at camp about abortion. I was shocked, not least of all because most of the children at this camp were between the ages of 8 and 13. This left the man on shaky ground, teaching children who probably don’t even know the biology of reproduction what abortion is and how it is bad.

Regardless of all of this, I couldn’t stop wondering about the future of these people. Repeatedly throughout the film, adults are telling these children that they are the most important generation, and that they can win back America for God. Most of the children shown seem enthused with this idea. I was left wondering how many of the children at this camp actually felt that way. How long those shown would continue to feel that way. Would they all, if revisited in 5 or 10 years time, still be a fervent in their beliefs, or would some become cynical.

Regardless of these questions, there is no denying that Jesus Camp tells some compelling stories, and in a fairly even-handed way. If you’re curious about evangelism (especially its extremes), Jesus Camp makes a good introduction.

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