Friday, June 20, 2008

Toiling, spinning, and my 401k.

My mom and I had a discussion last night about a book she's reading, The Importance of Being Foolish. The author, Brennan Manning, discusses the need for Christians to turn away from the secular world and the things that distract us from Christ. But instead of the small-scale traditional punching bags like secuar music and television, Manning tells us we need to turn from the diversions of security, power, being liked.

On the one hand, it's easy to say money is the root of all evil, that man cannot serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:24). But what does it mean to serve money? There are the obvious examples of people devoting their whole lives to the collection of obscene wealth. But most people aren't in that sort of financial position. Yet surely Jesus wasn't just talking to the Donald Trumps of the world?

The passage from Matthew (also in Luke 12:22-31) continues with Jesus pointing out that God provides everything for sparrow and even flowers. He says we matter much more than these things to God and so therefore we should not worry about how our needs will be met. How literally should we take this? Should I seriously not worry about going to work and getting paid, trusting that God will feed me and give me shelter? But even animals have to do some work (and plants too, if photosynthesis counts as work) to get food.

Maybe the passages are more about stockpiling wealth. The disciples were instructed not to bring money, extra clothes, or even a walking stick (Luke 9:3, Matthew 10:10 although Mark 6:8 allows the walking stick) on their journeys with Jesus. And he told a parable about a foolish rich man who, instead of giving his excess away, built larger barns in the hopes that he would have enough riches to last the rest of his life (Luke 12:13-21). Is this the same as a retirement plan? Is it wrong to save money for the future?

I'm sure there are people who would answer yes. And I'm sure these people whould argue that a person won't suffer or starve if s/he truly has faith that God will provide for her/him. But the logical end to that argument is that every poor person in the world is suffering simply because they do not have faith enough in God--that it is their fault they are hungry and homeless. I simply can't see God wanting us to purposely court poverty in order to prove our focus on Him. I do think we are called to live simply and give our wealth to those with less. But I don't think ignoring the monetary needs of our lives is the answer; perhaps redefining "need" is a good start.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A New Creed

I read this post last fall and have been thinking about my personal creed ever since. The idea of a personal creed rather than a community creed bumps up against and tussles with my Catholic schooling, my belief of church as community, and my mixed emotions about "cafeteria Christianity". Thus, it's been an incredibly empowering thought, and also an incredibly uncomfortable one.

Sometimes something is said in church that I don't agree with or don't believe. When I went to Catholic school, we were taught that one has to believe the entire creed of a religion in order to belong to that religion (along the lines of the people with bumper stickers that read "You can't be a Catholic and be for abortion."); rejecting one single aspect of a religious group meant you rejected the entire religion. When you're thirteen (or thirty), this is horrifyingly scary because it means that your inability to wrap your mind around the Trinity means you've rejected the entire Church and are therefore going to Hell.

Though I'm far more liberal with what I accept in my religious repertoire these days, I'm still acutely uncomfortable when something said in church doesn't jibe with me, particularly if the something comes from the Book of Worship or from a sermon. In many ways, it's more difficult to reject a tenet of belief than to accept it. Rejection seems more final and divisive, especially when you're surrounded by people who at least outwardly accept the thing you cannot.

Thus, it's empowering and comforting to be able to think, "I don't believe that." It gives a person control over her/his own belief system. Instead of being wracked with guilt, it allows for the fact that belief cannot be forced. Since I've begun thinking about my personal creed, I'm always mentally adding to it or deleting from it. Instead of blindly accepting certain articles of faith, the idea of having my own creed has made me think through them more deeply. The result is that the things I believe are on a firmer foundation because, in giving myself more permission to wrestle with them, I've thought them through.

The idea of a personal creed is uncomfortable at times. How deeply can a person get involved in her/his personal belief system? If a creed is completely personal, what's the point of being involved with a community at all? When does rejecting a belief distance a person from her/his faith community? Does the ability to reject something as "not what I believe" close the door to discussion and furthered understanding? And is there a danger that having a personal creed prevents wrestling with difficult ideas and articles of faith but instead allows for simple rejection of things that are difficult or uncomfortable?

One thing I dislike about a lot of modern religious movements is the emphasis on a "personal God". Instead of working in community, a lot of people are hung up on their own private relationships with God, which I think detracts greatly from the communal aspects and benefits of religion. So there must be a point where ones' personal creed goes too far, where it puts up more walls than it brings down. The trouble is finding that point.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I don't know how you keep on giving

Today at the gym I got stuck watching "The 700 Club". I try to avoid such programs (and their creators) as much as possible, so this was a new experience for me. As far as I could tell, the entire show consisted of Pat Robertson trying to rally people into a frenzy by setting a clock indicating that there are "ten minutes to reach the goal of X dollars!" When only a minute or so remains, someone else has come forth with a new matching funds amount and the clock is reset. The viewer is shown some of the things done with the money (which are of the "giving water to African villages" variety) and constantly reminded that God will bless you if you give money. Stories are told of people who had God work in their lives and give them abundance--but only after they started to tithe their income. One man even "repaid" money he hadn't tithed over the years. Once tithing starts, people get jobs, build new houses, etc.

I cannot say how disturbing I find this mindset. Yes, I believe we are called to give to those who are less fortunate than we are. And I also think that most people are far more fortunate than we think, especially when compared to most of the world. But the idea that giving God a certain amount of money guarantees that I will receive physical, monetary benefits sickens me. I don't dispute that the Bible tells us to give; I do dispute that giving money to others will make it come back to me.

For starters, shouldn't we give out of a desire to see our brothers and sisters live better? If I give money so that God will reward me, isn't my understanding of generosity and faith akin to that of a child who does chores simply so s/he can watch a favorite movie? Shouldn't grown people be a bit beyond such a simplistic concept of reward and punishment?

Secondly, if God will reward me if I give enough money away, what's to stop me from becoming a total Calvinist and asserting the converse--that God is punishing those who don't have riches galore for not tithing. If "The 700 Club" presents me with countless tales of wealthy people who got that way because they tithed their income, even during sparse times, how can I not eventually conclude that my hard-up neighbor just needs to give a little more? And if I tithe but don't reap the supposed rewards, do I feel bad because I'm not giving enough?

Thirdly, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea of excessive material wealth being presented as God's reward. Am I a bad Christian if I don't net a million dollars a year? If my wife doesn't wear a pound of diamonds, does it mean I'm not doing right by my neighbor? If I only have one car am I out of favor with God? The people featured on "The 700 Club" as examples of success found through tithing weren't that bad off to begin with. It seems like a cruel (even more so, given that it's unintended) irony to feature stories about villages with dirty water, people who make a living scavenging garbage dumps for bottles to recycle, and children who can't attend school because they can't afford pencils alongside stories about "struggling" Americans who live in large single-family homes and clear six figures a year working on Wall Street.

After watching "The 700 Club", I wonder if this is really all the image of God some people have. If so, I feel sad for them. How awful to see the Creator of the Universe, the Redeemer, the Awesome Lord as a bank--put some in, get it back with interest. And how sad to only give out of a desire to increase your own wealth. I guess that's what makes me so mad--this show (and presumably an entire culture of Christianity) is encouraging people to limit God to this pathetic bean-counter.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Whereon he thought of himself in balance

"I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see." ~John Burroughs

Finding balance is something people obsess over, particularly this time of year. Every television spot, magazine spread, or newspaper article on holiday plans mentions the need to attain balance. Usually, balance is to come from paring down one's to-do list, taking half an hour to oneself every day, saying no to a few things, etc. Lately I have been wondering about balance and faith.

It seems that being a faithful person adds a whole new dimension in need of balancing to one's life. If a person wants to live in accordance with her/his faith and not totally remove her/himself from the world, s/he has a major juggling act to perform. For example, Jesus tells us that we don't know the day or the hour of his return and that we need to keep a constant watch lest we be caught unprepared. How do I balance that spiritual preparation with the likelihood that I have many years of life left to me? Is it just fear that keeps me from, say, donating all I have to the poor rather than setting up a retirement account? Is what I call "being practical" really a lack of faith in God to provide for my needs?

Then there's the question of how to balance the earthly with the spiritual (something Charlie brings up in the comment to my last post). How far into "the world" can I go while still keeping my faith? Obviously, some people would answer, "Not at all." But outside of ultra-orthodox communities, the question of balance comes up again. How much does the music to which I listen, the non-Christian friends with whom I hang out, the books and magazines I read, etc. influence me? How "in the world" can I be before I am "of the world"?

Then there's Christ's call to be generous and giving. How do I balance that with self-protection--and is self-protection a necessity or a hindrance to living a Godly life? Can I deny my fellow human something because they're taking advantage of me or is such a denial a judgment I am neither called nor qualified to make? Are we really called to give everything? Is it selfish not to? I know we have to keep enough of ourselves back to ensure that we don't hit burnout (rendering us useless to anyone), but where is the line between preventing burnout and placing ourselves in Slot Number One?

Finally, acts of faith require balance. Do I choose to read my Advent devotional or make dinner with my roommate? Do I go to the midweek church service or curl in bed with a good book? Do I pick up an extra Bible study or work a holiday for a friend?

Choosing to live a faithful life while simultaneously living a secular life ensures gray areas aplenty to ponder, and a balancing act that would put any tightrope walker to shame. I know intention matters a great deal, but I am often envious of people in religious communities (like the Amish, Hasidic Jews, even sequestered nuns and monks) because it seems to me that it would be easier to live a life based on faith if you were not also trying to plan for retirement, hold down a job, maintain friendships with non-faithful people, etc. Though I know living in such a community would, I'm certain, present it's own faith issues, I often long for the ease of knowing that everyone and everything around you had the same desire of living a faithful, God-oriented life.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The hundreth sheep

Today at work someone announced her intentions to avoid watching a particular movie because its creator is an atheist. Not because something about the movie itself offended her specifically or went completely against her sensibilities (not even because the movie held no interest or was a shoddy piece of art). Simply because its maker doesn't follow her religion. I kept to myself the observation that if Christians avoided everything that came from a non-Christian, we'd be left pretty high and dry. But the "incident" (which I put in quotes because it was really more of a passing comment than a major deal) really had me thinking about the requirements God makes of us.

It seems so many people are deeply focused on living a detail-oriented Christian life. They listen to Christian music, avoid certain movies, don't drink, don't swear, don't smoke, memorize Bible verses, and protest for the right of Macy's to wish patrons a "Merry Christmas". But such a focus on details often, I think, detracts from living a truly Christian life. Attempting to be pure and blameless in all your actions has a tendency to make a person feel superior to the "heathens" who, say, smoke. And spending so much time and effort on these details pulls us away from the big picture, from seeing the homeless or hungry, from being kind and welcoming to everyone who cross our paths, from truly empathizing with those who don't follow the riles as well as we do.

There's nothing wrong with avoiding alcohol or listening to Christian music. But there is something wrong when that becomes your faith. It limits Jesus, making him some sort of cosmic enforcer of rules, a heavenly Hall Monitor. It also places way too much emphasis on our own powers of salvation: if we do everything right and follow all the rules, we will be saved, but if we slip up and break the rules, we will be damned. There's no room left for being the one-hundreth sheep, the sinner rejoiced over in Heaven.

Not to mention that there's no room left for some really cool movies.

Friday, November 30, 2007

I'm currently (among other things) reading Stars of David by Abigail Pogrebin. Even if you're not into Judaica, it's an interesting look at the vast spectrum of religious observance in America. One passage, from the piece about Leon Wieseltier, struck me:

"Generally in American Jewry, pride exists in inverse proportion to knowledge. So you will often find that the more learned or knowledgeable Jewish individuals are, the less strident and hoarse with self-admiration they tend to be. And the ones who know very little are looking for anti-Semites everywhere, because they need enmity to sustain their Jewishness...They think that the best way to express Jewishness is by fighting for it. And so in this way pride does the work of knowledge, sentimentality does the work of knowledge."

What I find so interesting is that this passage could be applied wholesale to American Christianity. It seems that a lot of people do more Bible-thumping than Bible reading. On one hand, it is sad when a person devotes so much of her or his life to a faith they know little about. On the other hand, it is absolutely infuriating to be preached at by someone whose knowledge of their faith comes from one of the latest "God Shows He Loves You By Making Your Life Comfortable and Prosperous" books. How hard is it to actually read the passages you use so wantonly?

Obviously, this is a major source of anger for me, and I am trying to practice some of the love and compassion that Jesus guy talks about. I don't claim to be a Bible scholar (far, far from it), but I make an attempt to read the Bible and read commentaries so I understand, at least in part, some of the amazingly complex and beautiful book upon which my faith rests. And if a person does that and leaves her or his heart open to new ideas and interpretations, I am honestly OK with most things they will use the Bible to support. I am much more comfortable with the most conservative person who has read and fought with the Bible and arrived at their position after much thought and prayer than I am with a much more liberal person who casually shrugs off Bible verses that contradict her or his positions.

I also had to chuckle at the pert of Mr. Wieseltier's quote about people defining their religion based on opposition. Especially this time of year, it seems that my more vocal brothers and sisters are up in arms over the "War on Christianity". Now, I fully understand that there are places in this world where practicing any religion other than that the sanctioned by the government will land a person in a lot of trouble. But doesn't it seem insulting to a person who practices her or his faith in the face of possible torture and execution to be up in arms about the "discrimination" of retailers saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"? And doesn't it strike anyone that the more accepting a country is of a multitude of religious expression, the better it is for everyone? How does religious tolerance hurt Christianity? And when did a religion have to be fought for in order to be valid?

I think I'm done soapboxing for now. I was just very excited to read a passage that so succinctly described the situation of and problems with American evangelism-style Christianity.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I was hoping we could find a way

Part deux of "Places I find truth other than the Bible":

In high school I dated a Taoist and I also had a very good Taoist friend*. I had honestly never heard of Taoism before I met D and J, so my relationships with them were also a sort of religious education course. So at seventeen, I read the Tao Te Ching and was floored by it. To a kid who is really starting to chafe against a childlike "just because" ideology ("I believe this just because I do"), Taoism's simplicity and seeming lack of dogma was very appealing**. Instead of worrying about lists of rules and requirements (which is how I saw Christianity at the time), Taoism calls for us to be in harmony with the flow of the universe, practice wu-wei (non-action; being still until the right path is revealed rather than actively seeking the path), and stop struggling against the inevitable and constant tide of change. Cool; I could handle this religion.

Of course, Taosim is one of those philosophies that seems exceedingly easy and yet takes a lifetime or more to master, something it holds in common with Christianity. It is easy, for example, to nod in agreement when Matthew 22:39-40 is read in church; it is very hard to practice Jesus' teaching with the co-worker you cannot stand or the driver who splashes you with dirty slush as s/he speeds by. In the same way, it is easy to intellectualize the benefit of "active passivity"--waiting patiently for the right moment instead of trying to force it. How much simpler could our lives be if we went with the flow more often instead of trying to shape events to our desires? Not so easy is the actual practice of this passivity in a world that is constantly telling us, "Go, go!"

Wu-wei is usually translated as "non-action" (though it should be noted that there are dozens of translations of the Tao Te Ching, which makes choosing one translation as iffy a process as choosing one translation of the Bible), though it's a little more complex than simply sitting still. It requires watching the flow of things and going with them rather than fighting against them. Instead of a person running in circles and trying to make events fit her/his desires, s/he should shape her/his desires to the flow of the universe. I think of wu-wei when I think of Jesus' exhortation to always watch for his coming (Mt 25:13, Mk13:32-37). We can't make him come and we don't know when he's coming, so we should be always watchful and ready. It's not a call to complete inaction but rather to one of more thoughtful action.

I can always count on a reading of the Tao Te Ching to soothe my mind, especially when I find myself flustered about what God wants me to be doing in my life. Far too often I become overwhelmed trying to discern the direction in which God is trying to lead me and I wind up spinning my wheels, paradoxically upset that I'm not going anywhere and yet unable to make myself go anywhere. Spending a bit of time on the Tao Te Ching helps me remember wu-wei and its passive action. Just as Elijah did not hear the voice of God in earthquakes and thunder but rather in stillness, I am frequently unable to hear God until I stop running after him and let him come to me.

*Interestingly enough, I met them both at Catholic school (which could be the subject of many posts in its own right), where I also had Muslim, Wiccan, Jewish, Seventh-Day Adventist and atheist friends. Needless to say, our theology classes could get very interesting.

**For a religion whose main text is short, direct, and based on yielding and simplicity, Taosim has a lot of commentary devoted to it. The only two books I actually remember reading aside from the Tao Te Ching itself are Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. This is perhaps one of the more telling things about my approach to religion.