Category Archives: religion

Aretha’s Amazing Grace

 

Although it was only released in 2018, in 1972 a professional film crew filmed an amazing 2 concerts in a small  Baptist church in Los Angeles, where Aretha Franklin decided to return to her roots as a gospel singer.  The film is called Amazing Grace. This was no mega-church. Franklin had starred as a gospel singer from a very young age. She started out accompanying her father on his traveling religious revival shows and later she began recording songs in his church as the age of 14.

The 1972 concert was delivered at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts a suburb of Los Angeles California, and was backed by the Southern California Community Choir. As the leader of the choir and singer in his own right, James Cleveland said, it was not a concert it was a religious service. To me there is no finer religious music than southern African-America gospel. That is what religion is all about. That is why I like the gospel hour every Sunday during the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Despite the fact that the film was directed by Oscar award wining Sydney Pollack, who appears from time to time in the film, the filming was botched and the words were not properly synchronized with the images. Yet despite that, the night was (in my opinion) a miracle, and a second miracle occurred more than 40 years later when producer Alan Elliot worked out the technical problems and released the film in 2018. In the film there’s even a brief glimpse of a young Mick Jagger catching the Holy Spirit. Apparently Charlie Watts was also in the film, but I failed to recognize him. Perhaps that was because he did not yet show the years of his own heavy abuses.

The cinematography is simple or even amateurish, devoid of tricks or magic. But magic was not needed. The voice was all the magic anyone needed. Let me acknowledge at the outset that not all agreed with my enthusiasm. I saw it with my lovely wife and 4 friends.  Some of our group were not as impressed as I was. But they can write their own blogs. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone Magazine agreed with me.  He wrote, “And here she is, barely saying a word to the congregation, knowing instinctively that her singing is all that matters when the time comes to worship and to preach. That truly is amazing grace. How sweet the sound.”

Some of our group was disconcerted by Aretha’s passivity in front of her father. Why was she so passive? She said hardly a word. It is one thing to let your singing voice do your talking but was there more to it than that. At one point during the performance, her father, leaped onto stage to wipe her face because she was sweating so profusely. Aretha on the other hand was entirely meek and mild. All except her glorious voice. It rang loud and true.

Some of our party were disturbed when thanks to Professor Google we learned that Aretha’s father the Baptist Minister, C.L. Franklin, was ushered into the church to fawning applause. He was treated not as a minister, but a God. And we all know by now what happens when religious leaders are treated like gods. Exploitation or abuse is often quick to follow. Apparently that is what happened with Aretha’s father.

According to Aretha’s biographer, David Ritz, her father, a sweetly smooth talking Baptist Minister had more than a roving eye, particularly for young girls. It was said that the people of his congregation adored him, but kept a close eye on their young daughters when he was around. Ritz claimed in his book Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, that his church services often transformed into bacchanalian orgies. “It was the point where Saturday night merged into Sunday morning and sin met salvation at the crossroads of African American musical culture. High on the Holy Ghost, dancing in the aisles of New Bethel, the saints celebrated the love of Christ,” Ritz wrote. “High on wine and weed, the party people celebrated the love of the flesh.”The Washington Post, reported it this way:  “Ray Charles once visited the church and, despite his own propensity for promiscuous sexual experiences, was shocked, according to Ritz”.

Did an overbearing if not abusive father cow Franklin into submission? I don’t know.  What I know, is that, Aretha Franklin, the legitimate Queen of Soul, had a voice that allowed her to escape any attempt to constrain her. Remember though that I know nothing about music. I just know I liked it a lot. Watching her perform, I agreed with what Travers said, “It’s the closest thing to witnessing a miracle — just some cameras, a crowd and a voice touched by God.”

The congregation and guests were also worth seeing. The guests included the voluptuous African-American singer Clara Ward proudly strutting into the church dressed to the nines and absurdly covered by a heavy mink coat on a hot L.A. night. I enjoyed watching the choir leader who was a close match for Franklin’s rational exuberance and some of the dancers were so good, to use a phrase of W, B. Yeats and Don Henley we could not tell the dancer from the dance. The members of the congregation and choir were often off their seats waving, dancing, and singing with joy.

If you want to see a miracle go see the film at Cinematheque in Winnipeg or a good theatre near you.

Connection between Hopi and Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest

I am still thinking about civilization and whether or Europeans who arrived in the Americas had a monopoly on it, as many of them thought, and as many of their descendants still think.

A few years ago some good friends of ours lived on a Hopi Reservation for about a year. They invited us down to visit but I am sorry to say we did not go.  That was a big mistake. We could have learned a lot. The Hopi, like so many Indigenous peoples of North America have a lot to teach us. Chris and I went on our own a couple of years ago, but frankly learned very little.

I did learn a bit about Hopi culture from watching a television series this winter on PBS called Native America.

In my last post on this subject, I mentioned how Chaco in northern New Mexico was connected with the Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest. Now I want to mention that the Hopi, many of whom now live in Northern Arizona, make pilgrimages to Chaco in northern New Mexico because they want to maintain their connection to places like Yupköyvi (Chaco in the Hopi language). As a result, there may be a connection to the ancient ceremonies of the Hopi back in Chaco and they are in turn connected too with the Amazon Rainforest To the Indigenous people, the Americas was a small world.

Chaco was built in northeast New Mexico between 900 and 1150 and it covered an area roughly the size of modern San Francisco. That is a pretty big city. And of course at that time people had no buses to get around as they do in San Francisco.

There were 12 great houses in the center of Chaco. They were 5 stories high and contained up to 800 rooms. “These were the biggest buildings in what will be the United States until the 1800s.” They also built cave like gathering places throughout the city. At one time they were covered but those roofs have long since collapsed. They are called kivas. The Hopis still use them in Arizona for special ceremonies conducted by men and women.

1,000-year old Kivasare very important to the Hopi. The rituals inside kivas centered on rainmaking, healing, hunting, all to ensure the continuation of life.” All of these were vitally important to the Hopi people. They often smoked pipes as part of the ceremonies. Like Indigenous people of the Canadian prairies, smoking, to the Hopis is a form of prayer. They meditate while smoking. They pray for rain, long life and abundance. Not that different from Christian prayers when you think of it. People pray to get stuff. But Leigh Kuwandwisiwma, a Hopi, said it is more than that. “We pray to the environment,” he says. And they are part of that environment. “We take the time to contemplate the power around us, the bird world, the reptilian world, the animal world, the insect world, are all part of who we are the Hopi People,” he says. It is a very different attitude to nature.

To Pueblo people of the American Southwest and Hopi people some of their modern corn is also sacred. It is their life-blood. Offering it to earth is a sacred offering. As the smoke carries prayers to the winds Leigh sprinkled cornmeal into the fire and it rose as part of the smoke. “It is a ritual that connects the Hopi to their origin story.”

Many North American Native people believe that they emerged from the earth. I accept these stories with respect. I do not accept them as literal reports of what happened, any more than I accept the story of Noah’s ark carrying two of all species on earth in his ark as a literal rendering of what happened. For example, I don’t think there were 2 blue whales on that ark, or 2 mammoths or 2 tigers. The story of Noah’s ark, like the creation stories of North American Native people are important however. They speak a profound truth. It is just not a literal truth. Sometimes those stories are difficult to interpret.  That does not mean we should discard them. That just means we should work harder to interpret them.

“Many Native American people share a belief that they emerged from the earth. Hopi and ‘Pueblo traditions say that the place of emergence is beneath America’s best known natural wonder, the Grand Canyon. 5 million people visit each year, they come to connect with its natural beauty, but Pueblo people have an even deeper connection. This is their birth place.”

I like that story. Imagine emerging from the Grand Canyon. That would be pretty spectacular. It certainly does not seem any less civilized than the creation story in the Bible.

Liberalism: A response to Extremism

 

I recently commented about the recent uncomfortable rise of violence inspired by religious fervor. This is not a new phenomenon. Our history is soaked in the blood.

The people of Europe have paid a hefty price in lives for disputes over religion. It is estimated that 1 million were killed in the Arian schism, another 1 million  during the Carthaginian struggle, 7 million during the Saracen slaughters in Spain, 5 million during the Crusades, 2 million Saxons and Scandinavians were killed resisting conversion to Christianity, and yet another 1 million  killed in Holy Wars against the Dutch, Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots.  The cost of religion is high.

Of course in the Americas estimated again vary but some have suggested that 30 million indigenous people were slaughtered resisting the benefits of Christianity and perhaps 9 million burned as witches. Of cou8rse religion was usually not the sole cause for slaughter, but often it helped.

Much of Europe was devastated by the Religious wars of the 17thcentury. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648. These were often religious wars at least nominally, but not entirely of religion. Of course we have to remember that these wars were fought by Christian countries and Christian princes. They were not wars against he infidels.  After the Reformation the various Protestant   Christian sects and the former universal Church—i.e. the Roman Catholic Church—were all eager for a fight. These were wars of Christians against Christians.

By the time the major wars of the 17thcentury were over, Germany which was the scene of much of the fighting, was ravaged and one-third of its people were killed. In some areas more than half the population were killed. For example the Swedish army alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns during its 17 years in Germany. For decades mercenary armies and armed bandits roamed Germany like a packs of vicious wolves slaughtering people like sheep.

Most of Europe participated in the wars. It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but ended as a political fight over who would control Europe. Huge swaths of Europe had been scavenged bare and much of Europe by foraging armies. Massive damage was inflicted on churches, monasteries and other religious institutions. By the time the war was ending Catholic France joined the Protestant side because it feared the rise of Catholic Hapsburg power. Many of the European powers involved were bankrupted and famine and disease were rampant.

Although calculations vary, some counted the dead this way:  France and Austria lost 80,000 each, Spain 300,000, Sweden and Finland 110,000, German principalities 400,000. Other countries lost lesser people.

When the wars were over, or at least had subsided, most of Europe was understandably sick of religious wars. Nearly everyone agreed a better way was needed. After that with only minor exceptions, Christianity ceased to be an important motivator for mass scale murder. Someone should be thanked for that, but I am not sure it is God.

I would suggest that as a response to all of this slaughter an important philosophy arose: Liberalism. It is not supported enthusiastically in many places these days. That is a pity, because it is the anti-dote to extremism of all stripes.  And by liberalism I do not mean its bastard offspring such as the Liberal Party or even worse, neoliberalism.  But liberalism was a better way. British philosopher John Locke is often considered the father of Liberalism. He advocated for tolerance, which really means respect for others even if you disagree with them. The world at the end of the 17thcentury and then again at the end of the 20thcentury was in short supply of tolerance. It still is.

The Reformation and the problem of religious minorities were central to Locke’s political philosophy because those were the burning issues (literally burning issues) of his times. Until then this was not an issue at all because values were shared. Everyone in Europe was a Roman Catholic. Until then the issue of minority rights did not arise for there were no minorities.

But after the Reformation and the bloody wars that followed in its wake political theorists had to figure out how can we live together in a society when we don’t all share the same values? That is a problem that continues to haunt us today, as can be seen by the recent spate of religiously inspired murders in the last year.

According to University of Manitoba Professor, Steve Lecce, the key question of modern and contemporary political theory is “How should we live together in society when we don’t all share the same values?[1]Where values diverge, as they now inevitably do in any post Reformation society, and in particular in modern societies that include immigrants from around the world, how can we live together in peace and harmony without resorting to might is right or without resorting to the ability of the majority to crush the minority? Liberals say that there are some things the majority or the powerful should notbe able to do. First we need a method of settling disputes fairly. Fair tribunals such as courts of law. The state has to be like a referee or umpire.

This was very important in the Reformation when religious freedom was the critical issue of the time. It is still important. Until the Reformation a common religion bound us all so that this was not an important issue. Religion until then was the social glue that kept us together. After the Reformation, religion became an explosive issue that could blast society apart. And it often did and continues to do. Before the Reformation religion was the basis of societal trust.  After the Reformation religion became an instrument of distrust. We still live in this post-Reformation world.

There were 2 possible solutions to this problem of religion after the Reformation:

 

  • A religion can be imposed by force to achieve religious unity. This was tried with great vigor in the religious wars of the 17th The result was great misery and abject failure.
  • The second possible solution is the radical idea proposed by Liberals like John Locke–toleration. That had never been tried before. It was truly deeply revolutionary. It is important to remember this when modern liberals are often seen as dull and boring theoreticians. They are considered bloodless. Now we should realize that is a good thing. In the 18thcentury this idea was profoundly revolutionary. Many hated the idea of tolerance because they saw it as capitulation to evil.  Liberals said we had to accept differences.

 

Nowadays toleration, a value that was revolutionary in its day, and I would submit, is revolutionary today, can seem like very thin gruel compared to the spicy virtues reflected by much more aggressive and powerful groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the alt-right, Antifa, Donald Trump, and their ilk. It can seem wishy-washy just like–well—liberals. It can seem humble. I think that is a good thing. The classic liberals like John Locke stand for permitting others to have their say. This is much less sexy than threatening to ban them, or build a wall to keep them out, or kill them. However, in a world charged with the most vicious of religious hatreds like that of Europe in the 17thcentury or our current world in the 21stcentury, tolerance is not wishy-washy at all. After all the 17thand 20thcenturies were the two most violent centuries in the past 500 years according to Steven Pinker. [2]Tolerance is the most vital of all the virtues! Liberals have to step to the plate with vigor and confidence. I would suggest that liberals actually represent our only chance for civilization to endure.  At least so liberals believe. And I tend to agree (in a wishy-washy way of course).

In the 17thcentury there were those who feared the worst from this revolutionary new idea of tolerance.  Would this not lead to the destruction of public morality?  Personal morality should never be permitted to undermine public morality, it was widely believed. This in fact is the essence of Conservatism! It is stillthe essence of Conservatism.

Liberals challenge this view. Liberals hold that we can each freely have our own personal opinions and morality without challenging the social order or value of society. Let people disagree. We can all get along provided each of us accepts limits. This will not destroy society. In fact modern liberals believe that the diversity of modern society will strengthen not weaken society. That means that we must put reasonable limits on our religious values too. We can hold them personally as much as we want, as vigorously as we want, but we cannot imposethose values on others. Even the majority should not do that. Real democracy is not rule by the majority. It is the rule of the majority within limits. That’s what liberal democracy is all about. The goal of imposing religious values was rightly discredited after the religious wars of the 17thcentury. We don’t want to go back there.

[1]Steven Lecce, “Right Wing, Left Wing, and In between,” April 14, 2016 at University of Manitoba

[2]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (2012) Penguin Books, p. 51

Slaughter by Divine Right

Things have been getting strange. Nearly every day it seems like the crazies are winning.

For a number of years Myanmar has been wracked by murderous attacks against a Muslim minority group of Rohingya people. Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country with a significant Muslim minority. The UN states that the Rohingya people of Myanmar are among the most persecuted people in the world at this time. Myanmar security forces have driven the Rohingya people  off their land, burned down their mosques and committed widespread looting, arson and rape of Rohingya women.

There have been a lot of mass shootings recently involving religious groups from around the world.   We read about a shooting in a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017 where 6 worshippers were shot and killed while 19 more were injured. The lone gunman opened fire just after evening prayers.

In October 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg Pennsylvania 11 people were murdered and 6 more injured by a gunman. This was the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in U.S. history. The massacre was an unprecedented act of violence against American Jews—but it is by no means the first time that anti-Semitism has manifested itself in deadly violence against Jews in the United States.

In March 2019 there were 2 consecutive terrorist attacks at mosques in Christchurch New Zealand during Friday Prayer. The gunman who came all the way from Australia, launched two consecutive attacks that began at one mosque and continued at an Islamic Centre.  This case was also distinguished by the fact that the gunman live-streamed his first attack on Facebook. 50 people were killed and another 50 injured. These were the deadliest mass shootings in the history of New Zealand. The 28 year old gunman was described as a white supremacist and part of the alt-right movement that many Christians in America support. Just before the shooting he played “Serbia Strong” a nationalist song celebrating Radovan Karadžić who was found guilty of genocide against Bosnian Muslims.

In April 2019, on Easter Sunday, 3 Christian churches across Sri Lanka and 3 luxury hotels were targeted by  suicide bombers in series of coordinated suicide bombings. Approximately 253 people were killed and another 500 people injured. This attack was believed to be in retaliation to the shootings in New Zealand. This is the fact caught my eye. Sri Lankan government officials said the attacks were carried out by Sri Lankan citizens associated with National Thowheeth Jama’ath a local militant Islamist group with suspected foreign ties. The group was  previously known for attacks against Buddhists. The direct linkage between the two attacks was questioned by some experts. Yet these were clearly coordinated slaughters by a group of extremist Muslims apparently in retaliation for the recent attacks of the mosque in Christchurch New Zealand.

Then a couple of days ago, 6 months to the day after the slaughter at the synagogue in Pittsburg, there was another attack near a synagogue in California  where a man shot 4 people and killing one of them.  The suspect who turned himself in posted an 8-page manifesto online in which he boasted about being from “European ancestry” and expressed hatred of Jews.  He even said he had taken inspiration from the New Zealand mosque shooter in March of this year.

What do all of these events have in common? Violence? For sure. But violence of a particular sort. Violence in favor of or against a particular religion.  This is deeply disturbing. Have we entered the era of religious world wars?  They are happening everywhere.  What is happening here?

One of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, seemed to understand it best. As he said in his great poem “The Second Coming” which he wrote nearly exactly 100 years ago:

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

 

The Second Coming!

Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

Although this poem presages a “Second Coming” in the poem it is a nightmare. Just like the Roman World was shocked by the arrival of Christ, Yeats suggests, our world will be shocked and rocked by the new arrival. It will happen he suggest, about 2,000 years after Chris was born. About now in other words. It will be a “rough beast” that slouches toward Bethlehem waiting “to be born.” It will “trouble our sight”.  It will loose another “blood-dimmed tide” and may drown “the ceremony of innocence” once again. As the narrator of the poem seems to fear, it will no doubt wreak havoc and terror.

Is this the terror that is approaching? Is the beast moving its horrifying  “slow thighs?” Things are falling apart and the centre no longer holds. “Mere anarchy” is loosed upon the world. Why “mere” anarchy? The Extremists are taking over. The religious wars are back again. The rest of us are doomed.So it seems.

As I have said elsewhere, when religion leads to hate it is no longer religion. What we have is actually a toxic brew of hate and racism. All of these are inimical to genuine religion, but find fertile ground in the soil of pseudo-religion.

Some people (too many people) seem to believe that they have the divinely granted right to slaughter other people as a result of having been issued a licence to kill by their personal revengeful god. How can this be? Where do we go from here?

Priests and Nuns

 

Priests have been not just been assaulting young girls and boys in their parishes. They have found other victims. They have found nuns.

I heard a former nun speaking on NPR and she demonstrated this phenomenon. She said that when she was a nun she was not allowed to think for herself. She was always taught that priests were superior to her, as was her Mother Superior. It was her duty to do as they directed without question. With hindsight, she believes this was spiritual abuse that prepared the way for later physical abuse.

One day a priest came to visit her in her room, and he started to remove her clothes. She told him, “You are not allowed to do this.”  He continued his actions. He continued to remove her clothes and then raped her. She felt compelled not to scream out. After all she was expected to do as the priest desired.

When the nun reported the incident to her Mother Superior, the superior got so upset that we was shaking violently and jumped on the table shouting wildly. And she was shouting at the nun. The Mother Superior was radically upset at the nun. She was mad at the nun for reporting the incident. Of course she did nothing to help the nun. Somehow it must have been the nun’s fault. The priests could do harm in the eyes of the Mother Superior.

Only years later did the nun realize that this was part of a pattern of abuse in the church. When she learned how some priests had abused young girls and young boys, the nun realized that she had to speak up. She had to challenge the abuse. She realized she had to speak out, even though other members of her church would not support her for that. Everyone believed the nun had done something she should not have done to lure the priest into trouble. It was the victim’s fault.

The woman who interviewed the nun could not understand how this happened. The nun explained to the interviewer that this is what happens often. When powerful men have power over powerless, defenceless, or vulnerable women (or even worse children) some men choose to use that power for their own self-satisfaction.

Such abuse reveals an ugly element of abuse. When the abuser is thought to have authority from God the abuse is even more poisonous. If God sanctions it, the victim feels, it must be all right.

Of course this is problem that is not unique to the Roman Catholic Church. It is a problem in every region where men have authority over women

This is actually what happens in many institutions. For example, this year in Phoenix it was discovered that a man who worked in an institution of seniors, had impregnated a woman who was basically in a vegetative state. When the powerful find themselves in control of the vulnerable, power often leads to sin.

The same thing happens in politics. As Martin Luther King said, the United States is the world’s greatest purveyor of violence. The United States is the most powerful country in the world, and it uses that power to get what it wants, as powerful countries have done since time began. The problem is inequality of power, not who is holding it.

Recently I suggested that maybe it is time to give women the chance to have power over men. I was not really serious about that. I don’t want anyone to have power over others because so often it leads to abuse. What I really want to see is equality, not just a changing of the guard.

Male Dominance: a Dying Ideology

 

There have been more discussions of the ongoing mess in the Catholic Church. Recently the highest Catholic yet was found guilty of sexually assaulting young boys. The mess never seems to stop.

It is my belief that this will never stop until the Catholic Church democratizes and adds women as full members including giving them the right to become priests. The bishops just don’t catch on. Pope Francis called a meeting of cardinals and bishops to discuss the issue in Rome. What took so long?

We heard a leading Catholic bishop from Chicago discuss the issue. He acknowledged that women had to play an important role in the church. He said before he makes any important decisions he always asks for advicefrom women in the church.  The bishop did not realize that this is not good enough. The reason is that he“decides.”  Women can give advice but only men decide.  That is a big difference.

The Roman Catholic Church needs transformation and until male dominance is ended it will never learn. The sickness in the church will continue. It is in its DNA. Male dominance must collapse or the church will.

I still remember seeing a portrait of the board of directors of T.E. Eaton’s and Sons just before they went bankrupt. Each and every member of the board was a man. Not one woman. Most of them, if not all, were also white. No one took into consideration that most shoppers are women. So how could women’s views be important? To me it was not surprising that a company that had been dominant in Canadian retail shopping went belly-up after 110 years in business. Could the same happen to the Catholic Church? Why not?

Male dominance is a dying ideology. It can’t die fast enough. It won’t be missed.

Religious Experience

 

As I said before,  I find Buddhism in many ways to be a surprisingly congenial religion.  Partly this is because it is very different from most other religions, especially the three severe monotheistic religions that were born in the Middle East.

For one thing, Buddha, unlike most religious leaders always wanted the members to think for themselves rather than relying on a charismatic leader. He expected his followers to exercise their own critical judgment. This reminds me of what Nietzsche said, “You repay a teacher badly if you always remain the pupil.”

Buddha believed that he became enlightened when he awoke to the truth that he had found embedded in the deepest structure of existence itself.  He found that truth in himself, and believed that anyone could do the same.  In fact, he believed it was necessary for each individual to experience that himself or herself or the experience would not be genuine. That is why, again unlike other religions, the Buddha did not try to elicit faith. He did not want faith.  He wanted each of us to experience the truth ourselves.  He would be willing to help or guide us to this experience, but he could not tell us the truth.

Carl Jung said that religion was invented by man as self-defence against divine experience.  That sounds shocking.  And it is. Divine experience is hard.  We have to be strong to take it.  As Robertson Davies once said, “most of us are absolutely terrified of a genuine religious experience.”  We would not know what to do with it.

We can have a religious experience anywhere. Even in a church or synagogue, though I would suggest there are much better places, like a forest or a bog. Unfortunately too few of them are experienced in institutional churches these days.  Too often religion interferes with the experience rather than facilitating it. That we have to guard against.

The Religion of Pi

 

https://www.dropbox.com/s/28sagrwvol72b34/Screenshot%202019-01-01%2020.58.10.png?dl=0

In that wonderful book, Life with Pi, Pi is a young Indian boy, the son of a zoo keeper. He ends up on a small boat sailing the ocean with a Tiger, zebra, orangutang and a hyena. An unlikely combination to say the least . Pi says that before the book is over he will make us believe in God.

Pi is many things but today I want to emphasize that he was a syncretist. That is a person who tries to combine different beliefs often by blending them, or merging them, into one. This word is often used in religion. Some people don’t see religions as opposing each other, but rather as different views of the same truth. Fundamentalists usually have great difficulty with this. They see their own religion as superior, and the rest as inferior others. Syncretism is inclusive, or what I have called expansive. It is the religion I prefer.

Pi said, “I am a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim.”  All at the same time! He had no thought that only 1 religion could show the way. He had a lot to learn from many of them. Why exclude any? Pi even said, “Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith.”

Pi had a father who saw himself as “part of the New India–rich, modern, and as secular as ice cream.” He did not have a religious bone in his body. He was strictly business. “Spiritual worry was alien to him; it was financial worry that rocked his being.” Reminds me of Mennonites.

His mother on the other hand was neutral on the subject of religion. She had a Hindu upbringing and a Baptist education, and according to Pi this cancelled both out leaving her “serenely impious.” That is the best kind.

Pi is puzzled by those who think they have to defend God. “As if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless.” What a poor conception of God.  Yet the fanatics of fundamentalism take exactly that position. These people forget the Golden Rule. Their empathy has been shredded by false religion. According to Pi,

“These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, (Indian coins) walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, ‘Business as usual.”  But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily; they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.”

These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out.  The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defence, not God’s, that the self-righteous should rush.

Does this not sound a lot like the Old Testament prophets?

Pi also saw the same source for his ideas: “an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably.”

I actually think the word “love” is a bit strong. I prefer something easier–fellow feeling or empathy or compassion. Seeing oneself in the other.  It is harder to love the other, but it is enoughto see oneself in the other. And that makes all the difference.

In a real sense such a person is “saved.”

Buddhism: A Better Way

 

I recommend a wonderful little book written by Karen Armstrong called Buddha.  I love good small books.

I find Buddhism in many ways to be a surprisingly congenial religion.  Partly this is because it is very different from most other religions, especially the three severe monotheistic religions that were born in the Middle East.

For one thing, Buddha, unlike most religious leaders always wanted the members to think for themselves rather than relying on a charismatic leader. He expected his followers to exercise their own critical judgment. That is unlike almost all religious leaders.

Buddha believed that he became enlightened when he awoke to the truth that he had found embedded in the deepest structure of existence itself. He found that truth in himself, and believed that anyone could do the same.  In fact, he believed it was necessary for each individual to experience that himself or herself, or the experience would not be genuine.  That is why, again unlike other religions, the Buddha did not try to elicit faith. He did not want faith.  He wanted each of us to experience the truth ourselves.  He would be willing to help or guide us to this experience, but he could not tell us the truth.  He could not tell us how to find it. That was our job.

Only then would each of us could become a Buddha.  That is what enlightenment is.  One becomes a Buddha.  For the same reason one should not revere the man, the Buddha, it was rather his teaching, the dhamma (or sometimes dharma)that was important.  The word is used in multiple Indian religions. In Buddhism, dharma means something like  “cosmic law and order” but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha.  Reverence for the man would just interfere with one’s ability to experience the truth.

Similarly, one would not be able to get any help from the gods. Unlike other religious groups again, the Buddhist cannot expect any supernatural help to achieve enlightenment. Buddha believed that these truths embedded in existence were entirely naturalto human beings and could be experienced by any genuine seeker free from distraction.  Buddha therefore refused to make belief in a Supreme Being part of the creed.  One could believe in that if one chose, but it was not a necessary part of the enlightenment.

One of the beautiful aspects of Buddhism that really attracts me is this expansiveness or inclusiveness.  It is willing to accept that there is more than one way to enlightenment.  To someone brought up in the Christian religion that seems impossible. The Buddha just says how heachieved it. There might be other ways.  It is up to each of us to achieve and experience the way on our own.  If belief in a Supreme Being helps us to experience enlightenment so much the better for us.  If it is not necessary that is all right too.

What the seeker sought was peace free from all the travails of life. As a result “the new religion sought inner depth rather than magical control. The Absolute could be found in everything, including oneself.  Buddha was within each of us, all we had to do was find it in ourselves.  As a result, again, unlike many less congenial religions there was therefore no need for a priestly elite.  We are expected to experience the enlightenment directly, without an intermediary.  In fact, that is the onlyway one can experience it.

Prior to Buddha the religions of India were generally extremely ascetic.  One was expected to renounce all pleasure and desire.  In fact according to some sects one was expected to seek out suffering and pain to help achieve enlightenment.  While Buddha realized that often in life we were distracted by our desires and our search for personal pleasures, he did not preach asceticism.  That too could become a distraction.  Instead he advocated a middle way between the two extremes.  We must be free from domination in order to find enlightenment. We have to be truly free.

What the enlightened one would have to achieve would be a genuine compassion for others.  Complete fellow feeling for all creatures of the earth, not just humans. Selfishness would have to be overcome. Concern for others required in other words a complete subjection to the Golden rule.  “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  This is exactly what I have been saying about religions.Especially for laymen who had not experienced yoga training one could not expect that they lay aside all concern for themselves. I would suggest it is impossible in event and not desirable.   However they would be expected not to be imprisoned by self interest.  One would be expected to have genuine fellow feeling for others.  One would have to have the ability to empathize and sympathize with the plight of all other creatures.

To me this is a very congenial religion.

Islam

Let me confess at the outset: I don’t know much about Islam. But I read a book by Wade Davis that had a very interesting story about Islam based on his personal experience. It was not based on versions of Islam from its competitors–the worst possible source for information.

After 9/11 Davis wanted to do a story for an American audience on Islam. He felt they had to understand Islam, before they saw Islam as the “infinite other”. To do that he travelled to Timbuktu a port on the southern side of the Sea of Sand that is the Western Sahara. Timbuktu is a remarkable place. At a time when London and Paris were mud hovels Timbuktu had 25,000 University students!

As Davis explained on the CBC show Ideas in 2018,

“The only reason the ancient knowledge of the ancient Greeks survived to inspire the Renaissance was because it was kept alive in the knowledge of the Great Islamic scholars of places like Timbuktu, Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. There was a trade of knowledge up the traditional route. Remember that until the discovery of the New World 2/3 of Europe’s gold came from West Africa overland 52 days across the Sahara and that was the route we decided to follow to an ancient Salt Mine called Pudeni where the salt was not just a condiment, but profoundly curative. Salt that at one day traded ounce for ounce for gold in that west African trade.”

 

This was an important journey for young men. If they did not complete the journey to the mine they were not allowed to marry. The people believed that the desert honed their senses and in that way they became open to the grace of Allah. The mine itself was a 1,000 km north and they had to travel with a heavily armed escort, which seemed to grow in size everyday.

At the mine Davis met a man who was chronologically younger than him, but physically much older. He was worn out from working in the mine. He was there to pay off a debt he incurred to save the life of a young daughter.  He would have to work in the mine for the rest of his life in order to pay off that debt to a merchant in a form of indentured servitude. He was virtually a slave.  Even in summer he worked when it got so hot in the mine it was said the heat would melt sand. In the 800-year history of the mine he was the only one who had to work summers. It broke his spirit. His entire debt was less than the cost of a dinner for 3 in Toronto so Davis paid it for him, but he never learned whether or not the man found his way back to his family or not.

A little further south Davis encountered a caravan going north. There were 8 young men with 15 camels that consisted of all the wealth of the families. It took 40 days to get to the mine and they had no margin of error. They were completely out of food and down to their last half litre of water and 250 miles from the nearest well. Without food a person can last for up to 2 weeks. Without water a person in the desert will die within a few hours. Yet when Davis came down to their camp, they immediately started a twig fire to brew them a cup of tea honoring the obligation to kill the last goat that keeps your children alive with its milk to feed the wandering stranger who comes into your camp at night. “This is the essence of Bedouin life, because you never know when you’ll be that stranger, cold and hungry coming out of the darkness in need of rescue.  And as I watched this young Mohamed pour me that first cup of tea after all we had heard about Islamic culture in the wake of 9/11, I thought to myself in 50 years or 40 years of doing this kind of travel and field work these are the moments that allow us all to hope.”

Is there a finer example of the Golden Rule than that? Is there a better example of connection, charity, empathy, and fellow feeling than that? Is this not the essence of religion? Or do you think the essence is belief?