Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Where in our lives does religion belong?

Religion is a dicey subject. Along with politics it is known to be one of the two big no no's when trying to keep dinner conversation peaceful and civil.

For most, the word religion means buildings (churches, temples, and mosques), beliefs, books (like the Bible, the Qur'an or the Baghavad Gita), the occasional person or two (like the Pope, or the Dalai Lama), and the rare and occasional saint among us (like Mother Theresa). As for the rest, folks tend to think of religion as personal or private. But can it be that easy? A very important piece often does not get the attention or reflection it deserves. What is the place of religion in the larger scheme of life and society?

For example, should religious people do good? Of course, we say. But even with this first simplest and obvious answer, tough questions already arise. What if an irresponsible couple next door constantly left two little ones unattended for long hours every night? What should Bill and Mary, the caring, prayerful, and faithful members of St. Katherine's do? A great many would say, "My gosh, they should not do anything!" That's the job of the city and city services.

Or supposing there was pending legislation, cleverly designed to block a group of believers from moving into my neighborhood, or having a place of worship here? Should conscientious religious people organize or lobby to prevent its passage? Or aren't religious people supposed to stay the heck out of politics? In dozens of situations like these everyday, the neat lines between religion and secular society is tricky.

But if religion is important, and to a vast many it is, then just how it functions in greater society and in day to day life must be important too. What are the rules? Unfortunately, they are not cut and dried, even in a country like the United States. But one thing we can know for sure, good outcomes have their best chance when energetic religious life and secular commitment to a safe and prosperous societies cooperate.

Last weekend, in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Buddhist believers did what no secular or political figures could. Following intense, and extremely volatile naval skirmishes with nuclear-armed North Korea, Buddhist monks from both North and South met together to honor their ancient founder, and perhaps to remind Koreans everywhere that their oneness is ancient, and their wars are young. In this case believers showed a better way by doing something that even could have global consequences.

On the other side, this past Monday, the vice president of Iraq offered a special, government bonus for newlyweds who were mixed Sunni-Shia couples. These special families to be were given $2,000 (to help start married life), a banquet with music, and even a hotel night for their honeymoon. Is that government meddling? Is that blurring the lines of church and state? Or is it a visionary political act to help dissolve forces that foster conflict, terrorism, and radicalization? This time it was the political side that gave the nudge toward a better, more peaceful society.

Where does religion belong in our lives? The answer is never cut and dried. There is no final, fixed formula. But our best chance every time is when the sacred and secular look upon the other as friend and partner.

Tags: | | | | | |

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Belief and Charity, Rough Times Ahead

We humans are both physical and spiritual. Ideally these should function happily in harmony. Often they don't. This war waged within is eloquently described by many religious greats through the ages, the apostle Paul in Roman's 7:23 ("another law at work in my members ... making me a prisoner"), the Sakyamuni in verse 1 of The Dhammapada ("the wheel of the wagon follows the hoof") and others.

Some of us do "not too bad," hitting an OK balance with the two sides of life, but beyond the occasional "pretty good" individual, the spiritual and secular stay at pretty stark odds. Once we get past the single self, the larger social units pretty much spin out of control. It's very hard to get even a single whole family in order, and with each broader unit the problem exacerbates. By the time we get out to big groupings, like cities and states for example the likelihood of balance between the material and the spiritual is slim. For this reason, "church - state" relations always remain in a tumult. They constantly swing this way and that.

These days a fascinating and important series of issues have arisen in this relationship. The church and not-the-church have gotten themselves tangled up in the world of help. Caring for the poor, the needy, the downtrodden, the disaster stricken is a responsibility both for the state, and for the person of faith. But these often struggle in nature and motivation. One issue I've already treated in these pages is the problems created in the world of global disaster relief by aid organizations comprised of proselytizing believers.

Here's another one that looks very difficult. The Catholic church, and the city of Washington DC are facing what looks like a possible impasse. Tim Craig, Michelle Boorstein, and later Carol Morello did a fine job last Thursday and Friday making the issues clear, and as importantly capturing the heat, the tone, the ignorances and arrogances that are coming to participate in this thorny issue:

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said Wednesday that it will be unable to continue the social service programs it runs for the District if the city doesn't change a proposed same-sex marriage law.

D.C. Council members are hardening their opposition to the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington's efforts to change a proposed same-sex marriage law, setting up a political showdown between the city and one of its largest social service providers.

Progress is being made in planned legislation designed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. "Under the bill, headed for a council vote next month, religious organizations ... would have to obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians." But this puts the Catholic Church in a quandry, "Church officials say Catholic Charities would have to suspend its social services work for the city, rather than provide employee benefits to same-sex married couples or allow them to adopt."

Catholic Charities, serves 68,000 people in the city, including the one-third of Washington's homeless people who go to city-owned shelters managed by the church.

At issue is $18 million to $20 million in city funds for 20 to 25 programs run by Catholic Charities, but the church pointed out that it supplements funding for city programs with $10 million from its own coffers.

So, as we can see, these bodies (the city and the church) are very tightly wed. They have combined intimately to do much good, lots of lives and great work is at stake, lots of money is all tangled up together, but when something unanticipated like this happens remarkably complex issues arise.

Elected officials insulting believers is not a healthy approach to addressing a complicated matter with much at stake, but sadly bluster is all too often the coin of the political realm. Far better would be quiet discreet, reflective and respectful conversation from sincere adherents on both sides of the opinion.

Any sincere Catholic can be only happy for advances that erode bigotry and persecution. Conversely one cannot expect the Church to conform to obligations contrary to its sacred traditions.

I for one hope that a creative solution can be found that allows the pleasant marriage between city and church, that helps so many in need to persist. I think it can be done. Some fiddling about with nuances, structures, divisions on paper, and solution driven thinking can open the way for all sides to remain in the help game in good conscience. The good work and the collaboration should continue. We should not let the careless and the loud make things harden up. There is no creativity for the sake of good when the mind is rigid, and the heart is prideful.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Papal Cynicism

On October 20, Pope Benedict XVI approved a plan wherein the Pope will issue an apostolic constitution, a form of papal decree, that will lead to the creation of "personal ordinariates" for Anglicans who convert to Rome.

John Hooper of the UK Guardian reports:
More than half a million Anglicans are set to join the Roman Catholic church following an announcement from the Vatican today that Pope Benedict XVI had approved a decree setting up a new worldwide institution to receive them.
Gledhill and Owen in the Australian note the obvious in mentioning the simmering accusation against Rome for "poaching":
Anglicans privately accused Rome of poaching and attacked Dr Williams for capitulating to the Vatican. Some called for his resignation. Although there was little he could have done to forestall the move, many were dismayed at his joint statement with the Archbishop of Westminster in which they spoke of Anglicans "willing to declare that they share a common Catholic faith and accept the Petrine ministry as willed by Christ for his Church".
A fine and necessary read on the matter comes from Oliver Lough deriving his analysis and commentary from a gaze at history's best known Anglican to Catholic convert, the great churchman and theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Lough opens his reflections pointedly:
The depth of cynicism behind the Vatican's invitation last month to right-wing Episcopalians "to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony" is best understood through one of Rome's most high-profile converts, a certain John Henry Newman.
And goes on to bring back before the modern reader many of the qualities that make Newman an exciting and enduring figure in Western history:
It would be easy enough to assume that the smells, bells, and reassuringly rigid doctrine of the Catholic Church eventually provided too much of a temptation for the intellectually fraught Newman to resist.

As it happened, the spark of his conversion came from a quite different direction. Poring over an obscure 5th century religious text in 1839, he came to the conclusion, despite himself, that the Episcopalian faith was founded on a series of misconceptions that precluded its ever being a "true" church.

What followed was described by Newman as a "great revolution of mind, which led me to leave my own home, to which I was bound by so many strong and tender ties."

His final conversion was some six years in the making, and came at a time when even the merest hint of "popishness" was still anathema in Britain. As one historian puts it, "to enter the Roman Church was literally to exile oneself from English life."

Newman's slow and painful transformation was an act of spiritual and intellectual bravery so profound that it eventually helped kick-start the gradual rehabilitation of Catholicism into conventional society. It involved not just abandoning much of what he had stood for, but immersing himself in a new and alien creed.

Read the entire commentary here

It may well be that such matters arouse in most the feeling of a dusty and complicated past. I recommend though that no social evolution should bring us to the point when major world leaders should be allowed to act without account, and when courage, integrity, and rigorous devotion of mind become a matter of disinterest.

Unseen Causes in Danger to Water, Untapped Resources for the Protection of Water

This paper was created by commission to be presented at the:
The Fifth Global Forum on Human Settlements
Water and Human Settlements in the 21st Century
November 8 – 9, 2009,
Wuxi, China

Unseen Causes in Danger to Water, Untapped Resources for the Protection of Water
November, 2009

Many may think, “Ah Wuxi, a perfect place for such a conference, because China is a place with severe water resource shortage, and the Chinese government attaches such high attention to the water environmental improvement, that it has made sustainable development a basic state policy.”

But Wuxi is perfect for a different reason.

It is perfect because China is the homeland of “the Old Boy,” the revered and beloved world saint Lao Tzu. Here are his observations:

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle...
Fluid as melting ice...
Clear as a glass of water.
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

From among all saints and seers, perhaps Lao Tzu above all others most fully intuited the eternal and the divine in water.

Importantly in the wisdom of Lao Tzu is that in his few and fleeting words he captures both sides of the truth of water, the nature of the water without, and its mirror in the water within. The great German, Romantic philosopher Novalis said, “Our bodies are molded rivers.”

Al Gore in Earth in the Balance said the same thing (but please do not tell Mr. Gore that Lao Tzu already knew it 2700 years ago, Mr. Gore thinks he discovered it), He said:

Human beings are made up mostly of water, in roughly the same percentage as water is to the surface of the earth. Our tissues and membranes, our brains and hearts, our sweat and tears--all reflect the same recipe for life, in which efficient use is made of those ingredients available on the surface of the earth.

What I would like us to do in the few moments I have to present my thoughts is open ourselves and seek for starting points in the magic and the divine in our quest for a healthy and happy world, and a cure for the global water crisis.

I believe the frame of mind and the way of being that can guide our path toward good outcomes and the rescue of our planet lies in the secret voice in water itself. Loren Eiseley, the great natural science writer and recipient of 36 honorary degrees said, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” (Loran Eisley, The Immense Journey, 1957)

But perhaps the one voice that captures most perfectly what I want for us today is that of D.H. Lawrence, from his 1929 poetry collection Pansies (a play on the French word Pensees). He says, “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes water, and nobody knows what that is.” (D.H. Lawrence, Pansies, 1929)

It is vital that we ponder, remember, and honor that third thing, for if we do, and when we do, we lose our indifference, we could no more hurt water than a loved one, and we could no more ignore the thirst, the deaths, and the suffering of the billion, and the little ones, than we could ignore falling into the grip of thirst ourselves.

Certainly the water crisis is a problem for science. And yes it is a problem for policy makers, city planners, and valiant warriors for the rights of the oppressed. But it's deepest face of horror lies within each one of us, it lies in whatever allows me to walk peacefully through life while 3 million water related deaths each year take the lives children under 14.

It is this frightening indifference in us that must be addressed if we have any hope to effectively engage the current and growing global water crisis conversation.

Wherein lies my blindness, my dullness? What is missing in my life, that allows my sense to be so dull? What am I not seeing, not feeling? For each of us is just a single step different from the factory polluting CEO. I lie to myself if I think otherwise.

If we find that we are aware, alert, and invested in rescuing our planet, our brothers and sisters, and the little ones, we can only be thankful for the unknown and unseen that allows us to be awake with a passion and devotion to the grand and pressing a cause.

The secret to saving water is contained in water itself. It cries out to us – water to water. The dew drop and the rapids try with beauty and power to speak to its own self within us. It knows already the path to its rescue. Chuang Tzu (c.360 BC - c. 275 BC) says, “The sound of water says what I think.”

It is us. We are it. It lives, we live. It dies, we die. The holy Qu'ran says, “By means of water, we give life to everything.” (Qu'ran, 21:30).

Water itself contains the secrets, and reveals to us the way to its own rescue. The first of these secrets was recognized by by Lao Tzu when he points out:
The best of man is like water,
Which benefits all things, and does not contend with them,
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
It is humility, and the contentedness with low places, together with the interior nature to live for the benefit of others that is required at this time to reverse the horrible trends that threaten our fragile environment. The spread of these virtues bode the rescue of water.

Environmental science is vital, it is needed, but the best of it cannot contend with a disordered race whose inner nature wars with our very aqua vita within. It is not the lack of environmental science that has defiled earth's magic, it is an avarice against which Lao Tzu quietly and gently warned, a lack of contentedness with the “low places,” the lack of a natural impulse to live for the benefit of others and not contend with them.

The second secret (also already mentioned) comes from the great thinker and poet D.H. Lawrence, “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes water, and nobody knows what that is.” When I read these words of Lawrence and pause to release the voice of water in me, I think of a couple in love, I think of my own wife and me. A marriage is H2O one part me, and one part the woman I love, but there is a third thing that made us a couple, and nobody knows what that is.

The mystery, beauty, and life giving power of water is the secret of love. Of how two become one to become an ever giving and ever sustaing source of new life.

Humility, contentedness with the low places animated by living for the benefit of all, and the bond of love, care, and respect for the other are the secrets of water that can awaken us to turn back from our careless, violent, and polluting era.

I am 71% water, and so are you. Maybe we have a chance.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Here, Let me get that for ya

Generally, I try to keep Leaves more or less on the serious to semi-serious side. But every so often something comes a long on the lighter side that's worth a look.

These fellows are hard at work making right a mishap.