THE CONVERSATION I HEARD ONE DAY ON THE GYM FLOOR, OR WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BELIEVE?

By Paul

I try to go to my gym at least four or five times a week.  The idea is to keep the blood flowing through my 69 year old veins, so as to avoid another heart attack (I’ve had two).  So far, it seems to be working pretty well.

The particular gym I go to is part of a local Jewish Community Center.  I’ve heard that about half of the people who attend it are Jews, and the other half are not.  So, when I overhear things while working out, I’m not normally particularly aware of who is saying what.  However, not long ago, I did hear a conversation between two middle-aged women, both of whom, it soon became obvious, were Jewish.  One of the women was telling the other that she and her family did not attend temple anymore.  The other woman said she didn’t either, but both quickly assured each other that it was still important for them and their children to identify as Jewish, and in some sense to follow the traditions.

Now, I pretty much keep to myself while on the gym floor, and prefer not to stand around chatting.  After all, that’s not why I’m there.  So, even if I’d known these women, which I did not, I probably wouldn’t have said anything.  Besides, I’m not Jewish, so in that sense what they were saying was none of my business.

Or was it?  I began thinking later on what it meant to have a religious identity.  These women, and presumably their spouses and children, clearly identified as Jewish, but they went on to say that they didn’t particularly believe in God anymore.  That was interesting, I thought, because I think of myself as having no religion at all, and yet I do believe in God.

Once upon a time, in what now seems like the far distant past, I strongly identified as Roman Catholic.  Indeed, specifically Irish Catholic, if that makes sense.   For me at the time, what this meant was strict adherence to religious dogma, trust and reliance on the hierarchical model of the Church, and a strong belief in and reliance on some of the more devotional aspects of the Church, things like saying the rosary, prayer to the Blessed Mother and the saints, and attendance at such services as Benediction (the reverential viewing of the Eucharist, accompanied by set prayers and hymns, all in Latin at the time).  In fact, these devotional practices somehow took on for me an even greater importance than the Mass itself or the sacraments.  And I think that was not so unusual among old-fashioned Irish-Catholics.

What happened between then and now is a long story.  But it involves a lot of anger and disillusionment on my part, disenchantment at what I came to see as the profoundly uncharitable nature of the Church, and recognition of its doctrinaire rigidity that brings so much unnecessary pain and suffering on so many people.

In the course of throwing off religion, I became for a while what I thought of as an atheist, although it soon became clear to me that this did not suit me very well.  I still, by the way, admire atheists, inasmuch as for me at least they represent the utter no-nonsense view of life as it is lived in the here and now.  I came to see that many atheists appeared to be more moral than some religious people, certainly than many dogmatists and religious fanatics, and that they were willing to face the ultimate questions with admirable honesty, courage, and directness.  I don’t mean to say that I wish I were an atheist.  If I wanted to, I would simply be one.  Still, as I have said, I admired them, and still do.

Does it seem surprising that I – a professed “believer” – would admire someone who professes not to believe?  I hope not, because doubt, and wonder, and an awe that, as it were, strikes one dumb, are basic to what I see as a belief in a Divine Spirit.  And lots of atheist, I think, look at the world with awe and wonder, and yes, probably sometimes with doubt too.  After all – or am I imagining it? – doubt is not limited only to religious believers.  Absolute sureness, with never a moment’s hesitancy or uncertainty, is the property only of total blind faith.  But in this sense, atheists too “believe in” their atheism and perhaps – like many of us – occasionally have their own doubts about what they believe.  Faith does not eschew our need to question.

Still, it was interesting that the two middle-aged ladies in my gym continued to very much consider themselves Jewish, even though, as they averred, they had no faith in God.  Of course, much has to do with people thinking of being Jewish not merely, or solely, as a religion, but as an ethnicity, as being part of “a tribe,” as it were.  For me, too, I still think of myself as Irish-American, since believing or not believing should in principle have little to do with that identity. I still have an interest in Irish history, literature, mythology, and even, fleetingly, the Irish language.  And yet, I have to admit to myself that something has changed for me, that in some sense I no longer feel quite as Irish as I once did.  And I wonder if my gym partners, too, somehow were not protesting just a little too much about still feeling perfectly Jewish either.

I’ve come to my own conclusions about spirituality, and am convinced that it does not necessarily have anything whatsoever to do with religion.  Religion is about organization and laws and rules, things of the earth, human things.  Sometimes, too often in fact, it’s also about control of people, about power and authority.  And in emphasizing these things, religion all too often leaves out that awe and wonder, that inability to define what is ultimately indefinable and unutterable that to me identifies what I think of as true spirituality.

But the wonder about religion, and about identity, has not left me.  Nor the wonder about atheism either, because as I see it atheists are believers in the sanctity of the manifest world, while adherents of spirituality are believers in what is unmanifest.  However, I do not see the two as all that different, because at least for me the Unknowable Unmanifest permeates, pervades, and informs all the known manifestation of the natural world.

So, why talk about all this in the first place then?  Why wonder about religion, atheism, identity, or even spirituality?  There may be as many answers to that as there are people who think about such things.  My take on it is that there has to be some connection, some balance, between whatever your belief may be (and remember, I list atheism as a kind of belief) and how a person acts in the world.  It’s no more enough to only sit in the forest and meditate than it is to go to a church, or simply to deny the existence of a God.  In every case, we have bodies, we live in a physical world, and it is our duty to make the most of that.  Making the most of it, in fact, means fulfilling our own potential as much as possible, and treating others, indeed treating the whole world (I mean the physical planet) respectfully, even reverentially.  I hope no one misunderstands me:  nobody has to be – or should ever be – anyone’s doormat.  Neither should we go looking for trouble, and we ought instead to go about creating as little trouble in the world as possible.

I have the sense that behavior is more important than belief.  Life is not easy for anyone.  Who does not have trials and difficulties to face, everything from sickness and physical suffering to loss of those whom we love?  Who among us can say there are no personal battles to fight, no wars to engage in, many of which are waged right within our own psyches?  I often think of the Bhagavad-Gita in this regard, the great Hindu scripture, wherein at the beginning the blind king, Dhritarashtra, asks his seer to describe to him the scene on “the scared plain” before them.  On one level at least, the Bhagavad-Gita is the story of a battle between two warring royal families.  But metaphorically it describes the battles we all have before us on “the sacred plain” of our lives.  No one, however fortunate we may think that person, escapes these battles.   The Jewish ladies in the gym were talking about one tiny skirmish, but each of us has his own challenges, her own grief, great or small, at varying times in life.

So, belief may be a good thing, as long as we do not use it as a cudgel to beat other people up with.  And, as I said, who does not believe in something, even in his right and ability not to believe?

As I see it, whatever it is you may believe, in the end there are a few essentials that should always be kept in mind:  don’t behave badly, treat others with compassion and respect, and in whatever way possible do everything you can to leave this beautiful planet of ours a better place than you found it.  What more can be asked of us?  What more, in fact, can any of us do?

 

THE EVOLUTION OF PEOPLES, AND WHAT ARE WE DOING TO THE EARTH?

By Paul

I have been reading recently about the myths and legends of the Blackfeet Peoples of Northern Montana and Southern Alberta.  Their stories are not too unlike those of other plains’ peoples, the Crow, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho, especially centering around a reverence for the sky gods.  It’s not hard to see why these people would be so reverential toward the sky.  If you visit these parts of the country, vast horizons extend unobstructed for seemingly endless miles.  And it is not for nothing that even today Montana is called Big Sky Country. 

I am not a trained anthropologist, or even an historian, and so make no claims at being an expert.  As such, my interests are very much those of a layman.  Still, for a long time now I have taken every opportunity to learn and read about traditional American Indian religion and spirituality.  I know, for example, that all of the Plans’ Peoples held ceremonials honoring the Sun, with special festivities occurring each summer in the form of what is commonly referred to today as the Sun Dance.  However, for the Blackfeet at least, dancing is probably the least important part of the ceremony, which lasts for several days, and even the early Europeans who visited and witnessed what was going on called it the Medicine Lodge, rather than the Sun Dance.  The term medicine was not used in the sense that we use it today, that is, as having reference to physical healing through pills and doctors and hospitals.  Instead, medicine was the term early Europeans used to make reference to things which were beyond the ken of everyday life experience, and which in Indian cosmology meant spiritual power.  The Blackfeet themselves call the ceremonial “O-Kan,” a term which seems to have lost its meaning in the mists of history.  However, it appears to be related to other words which connect to the concept of “vision sleep,” a kind of power-dreaming whereby gifted or chosen individuals make contact with spiritual entities that are far beyond the experience of most of us in the ordinary course of our daily lives.  Or, another way of thinking about it is that these visions were ways of enlightening a person’s life, infusing the transcendent into the imminent, and making even everyday acts into something sacred.

Virtually all American Indian cultures understood this in one form or another, and still do, even though many modern Indians also profess a belief in one or another of the various forms of Christianity (depending on which missionaries forced their ways into the history of the people).  I won’t attempt here even the briefest recap of the sad and shameful history of how Europeans, and later on Americans, lied to, stole from, and decimated Indian peoples and their cultures, their religions, their languages, and their ways of life.  That story is too well known.  My interest for the moment is more in what the results have been for all of us, Indians and non-Indians alike.

We know that poverty, lack of educational opportunity, joblessness, and alcoholism are all appallingly endemic on many reservations.  Even so, some Indians escape the cycle and go on to excel in any number of areas of modern life.  It is not all sadness and despair, although there is plenty of that to go around, too.   But in the historical process of so-called assimilation, one of the things which has been most unfortunately lost, as I see it, is that very world view which so many Indian peoples had (and some still have), and which most non-Indians have little or no understanding of.  What I am talking about is the “medicine power” of traditional Indian religions to profoundly connect with and deeply appreciate the natural world around us.  Such religious experience is able to perceive the power of Spirit in all of nature, not just the Sun and his Night-Light wife (i.e. the moon) and their Morning Star son, as in the old Blackfeet legend, but in everything.  This includes animals and insects of every conceivable kind, as well as all of the “standing peoples” such as trees and other plants, and even those things which most of us today might consider inanimate, rivers and streams and lakes and waterfalls, rocks and mountains, the very earth itself.  In my experience, Christianity has entirely lost this ability, if in fact it ever had it.  

I sometimes find myself wondering what America, both North and South, would be like today, if the Europeans hadn’t been so aggressive and so able and willing to wield the power of their new-found technology.  How would American Indian societies have evolved?  Surely, they would have grown and developed in their own unique ways as their histories unfolded, if left undecimated and unobstructed by European aggression.  They would have developed their own kinds of technologies, and they would have changed and evolved in ways which are hard for us now to even imagine.  Would they, for example, have kept that connectivity with the natural world which was the hallmark of so many of their traditional world views?  It goes without saying that this is now nothing but speculation.  Still, my own fantasy, or maybe it’s just my hope, is that they would have found some un-Europeanized way of evolving into the world of the 21st century, which would have honored, or at least not destroyed, so much of the natural world, as we modern Euro-Americans have done. 

On a related topic, I read in another place, too, not long ago that one of the curious, or disastrous, things (depending on your point of view) about human evolution is that it all happened with such lightening speed.  By way of contrast, the various species of ants, that other great social creature, evolved slowly over multiple millions of years.  As such, other species evolved along with the ants, and were able to find ways of coping with the immense strength they displayed, given their ability to organize and to get uncountable numbers of individuals to act as a single unit.  It was for this reason that ants never took over entire ecosystems, precisely because others found ways of defending themselves, and eventually of living in a kind of balanced harmony with them and their unique power.  Not so for human beings.  Only some 250, 000 years ago we were still climbing in trees and doing what we could to escape ground-based predators.  Then, about that time, we began to think about evolving into what we have become today.  But 250,000 years is the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms; less than that in geological ways of thinking.  Imagine, then, the surprise and alarm of all the other species of life on earth when these “very smart monkeys” (as Stephen Hawking has called us) began rapidly taking everything over.  Now, today, there are seven billion of us and counting, and we have infiltrated every conceivable corner of the planet, no matter how remote or inhospitable. 

Would Indians have done a better job of it, had they been able to make a go of things on their own in North and South America, minus the meddling and the decimation of European powers?  Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to that question.   What we do know, and I don’t see how anyone can question this, is that generally speaking we modern humans of the 21st century haven’t done such a bang up job of it.  Yes, of course, there are a lot of things we have done are right, including advances in modern medicine, and the ever-increasing ability of more and more peoples of the globe to choose their own governments.  Still, billions live in poverty, and we continue to make babies at a rate which the world ultimately cannot possibly sustain.  In the meantime, we are destroying the very planet on which we live, with all of its beauty, mystery, and power.  And yet our religions urge us to make yet more babies, merely because someone in a book compiled long ago told an ancient herding people that it was best to increase and multiply.  It may have made sense to them at that time, but who can argue that it makes any real sense for us today?

Humans are smart, but not always wise.  We are inquisitive, but not always respectful.  We are strong, but do not always know how to use and temper the strength that we have.  I suppose it’s possible that Indians might have messed things up royally, as well, had they been given half a chance.  After all, not so long ago the Aztecs were using obsidian knives to rip the still beating hearts out of captured enemies as a sacrifice to the gods, all because these same gods required blood in order to renew and replenish the earth.  Surely, that does not bode well for any people.  But then the Europeans, too, and soon the Americans, were enslaving whole other groups of people, not to appease the gods, but in order to slake their thirst for power and their insatiable greed for “things.”  Neither does this bode particularly well for a people. 

Our all-too-rapid evolution has been equally miraculous and disastrous, both for ourselves and for the world around us.  Will we be able to overcome what my friend and co-blog author, Kevin, calls our technological adolescence?  That very much remains to be seen. 

For the moment, at least, there are still many things we can learn from the Blackfeet, and from many peoples, which could make a difference.  But that will depend on whether or not we are able to overcome our immense hubris and our absolute surety that we are always right.  How humans ever got that trait is something of a mystery to me, but I guess it must have somehow been evolutionarily useful.  Let is hope we can overcome the limitations of that very evolution, or maybe it’s more like evolving even more quickly than we have in the past, in order to become a species that is both smarter and more humble.  If we don’t, may the Sun, the Moon, and all the gods help us, and may we – and the earth – be spared the consequences of our own foolishness, and the pride that comes before the fall.

Balancing Spiritual and Moral Imperatives — “The Good Life”

By Kevin

Grandma called it “The Good Life” – praying and meditating and singing hymns (she used to whistle to “save her voice for the choir”) while working her tail off, whether that meant ironing and house cleaning, or making quilts, or visiting people who were ill or depressed, or stepping into the pulpit to preach the sermon the very Sunday after my beloved grandfather died. It was Valentine’s Day and Grandpa had given Grandma a golden heart locket at breakfast, before they both went out to perform a funeral service as part of their pastoral duties. They always considered it to be a two-person ministry. At the graveside, he threw a handful of dirt into the void, lifted his eyes to Heaven, and said, “Earth to earth and dust to dust… Father into Thy hands we commend this spirit.” And he dropped dead to the ground with a massive heart attack. Until she died at 103, when Grandma spoke of the death of her “Beloved,” she said, “I was sitting right there, just a few feet away when he fell. I rushed to his side and said into his ear, ‘Don’t worry, Honey, everything is going to be all right…’ and it has been…” They both lived profoundly good lives, full of love and wisdom and daily prayer and meditation, balanced by very hard work and acts of selfless kindness and goodness despite their own heavy sorrows – the gold standard for “The Good Life.”

So I understood from a very early age that as much as I might long to devote my life to utter hedonism on one hand, or spiritual and mystical contemplation on Ultimate Love, Wisdom, Peace, Bliss, Beauty, Integrity and Union, on the other hand, inhabiting a physical body comes with very real responsibilities to act and “do good works” in the world. Sometimes those can be as simple as sweeping the floor and doing the dishes. Sometimes they involve profoundly complex social and political interaction. Thank God they can be as fun as dressing up like a clown and playing a slide whistle, or as fulfilling as brushing paint onto a canvas. But I continue to believe that it is equally important to balance action and “good works” with praying, meditating, singing, chanting and dancing for miracles of growth, in our own consciousness and the world’s. And, of course, a healthy dose of hedonism is only natural and right, if one is to enjoy this life. But the older I get the more crystal clear it becomes that balancing spiritual and moral imperatives is the key to living “The Good Life.”

While meditation upon Spirit has become an entirely private matter for me and many others, quite apart from “organized religion,” which I now consider to be an oxymoron, the moral imperative to act in the world has become so profound that it forces many of us out of our comfort zones and toward visible activism. Thank goodness the peace of meditation in the woods balances out the stress of acting in the world, because the stakes could not be higher. Today’s moral imperative to act is nothing less than a life and death matter for all of us. Consider this quote from James Hansen, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in his May 10, 2012 New York Times Op Ed, “Game Over for the Climate:”

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

Hansen laments that President Obama was quoted in a recent “Rolling Stones” interview as having said that Canada will exploit the oil in its vast oil sands reserves “regardless of what we do,” and he ends his Op Ed article with a vision of moral judgment against us by future generations, if we do not act to arrest and reverse Global Climate Change immediately:

“Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.”

The 71-year-old internationally known climatologist and activist for the fight against Global Climate Change is both revered and hated in today’s utterly polarized world, in which so many people choose to ignore the urgent warnings of 98% of the world’s scientists and 100% of the national academies of science, in favor of sticking their heads in the tar sands. It is clear that those of us who believe in science must accept the moral imperative of taking action to support James Hansen and all of the activists who are raising the alarm about the dire impending consequences of Global Climate Change. This is a THE moral and ethical issue our time for people of conscience who believe in responsible stewardship of the Earth and who wish to save as many species as possible from extinction, including our own. A more profound challenge than this fundamental immediate threat to our survival has never confronted the human race before. We must persuade President Obama to use his power and authority to stop the Keystone Pipeline and the Canadian oil sands development. We must make the case loudly and clearly through political and social involvement and all kinds of action that it is time to break our addiction to fossil fuels and develop clean alternative energy sources now. Go to http://350.org and click on “End Fossil Fuel Subsidies” to support the Bernie Sanders/ Keith Ellison bill to do just that. This falls into the category of “good works” and it just happens to be a matter of life and death. So DO it!

Beyond taking whatever actions we can think of to save the planet as a habitat that will support life, if you happen to believe in the unseen world of Spirit and know how to pray, meditate, chant, dance, sing or whistle your way to communion with the Infinite, now would be a good time to humbly and sincerely ask for a miracle of growth in our own individual consciousness and that of the entire world. We must work as hard as we can and then pray and meditate for enlightenment and miracles, so that our efforts to act in service to the moral imperatives in this world might be guided by the Love and Wisdom and Peace of Spirit. If we can do this, then we will be living “The Good Life” regardless of the outcomes, and “…it will be all right.” Now… let’s spend some hedonistic time outside, enjoying this incredibly beautiful Earth and expressing gratitude for its existence, while we still can.