Monday, March 24, 2014

More Religious Discussions

In the subject line of this blog I state, "General musings about mostly national politics, religion, and how I try to manage my day to day life." I wish this blog could be more about how I manage my day to day life where I dwell on issues where I have some influence and that directly affect me and my family - and that most definitely includes my religion, my community, my job. Then, I would then spend much less time on national politics. Funny how in reality this blog has spent far too much space on national politics and so I changed my subject to reflect this reality over wishful thinking.

National politics is just so much of what the national conversation is all about, at least the conversation I usually pay attention to. And I want to be a part of it, despite the fact that my voice is really a whisper compared to the shouting that is happening all around me. But nonetheless, that whisper, for reasons I can't really explain, gets me going day to day.

But I'm not the only one to be tempted to jump into the political debate, and over the years I've been a part of some lively on-line discussions, and those experiences got me to write this post a few months ago. But believe me, it's true, religion is a major part of my life and I really do enjoy writing and discussing it. But why do I do so little of it? I used to talk religion all of the time. I grew up doing it. I did it on my church mission and I've done it since with plenty of people. Along the way, I've learned that the internet may not be the proper forum for intense religious talk, definitely not in the same way I do political talk. Let me explain while realizing that perhaps some of this is pretty obvious.

First and most important, is that religion mostly transcends vocabulary and language. The Christian faith teaches that the fruit of the spirit is joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.  These are feelings, emotions, character attributes none of which are easy to explain or describe. And my faith also teaches that good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

I once was in a grocery store and this lady taught me another principle that rang true and stayed with me and I have no memory what prompted her to make this point to me, a stranger. She said that it's all about relationships. Religious faith is less about what you know and more about how you feel. Religious faith is less about knowledge and more about one's relationship with God. There's really nothing to argue about when it comes to religion, in fact my faith's scriptures forbids it because really, you are really going to convince me that my personal relationship with God is not authentic? You're going to try to tell me that my emotions and feelings are misguided or wrong? You simply can't do it.

And it's why this post is meant to be somewhat of a complementary post to the one I wrote about political debate. In a free society, our country and economy thrives on lively debate to move the country forward. Scientific papers are peer reviewed, scrutinized every which way for flaws. Political candidates are mercilessly attacked, looking for any possible reason why a person may be unfit for office. Political ideas receive similar scrutiny and abuse. This scrutiny is vital to smooth off the rough edges as we seek to solve our major problems. That post was trying to outline ways we can optimize the discourse without damaging relationships.

To have the most fruitful conversations requires humility, the willingness to abandon our own bad ideas and prejudices while being courageous enough to push our own good ideas forward even in the face of this relentless scrutiny.

But none of this really makes sense when talking about our religious faith. Some time ago, I spent some time enrolled in a martial arts class. The leader of the school said something that again has stayed with me. That religion is really a personal journey that all of us must take on our own. So true. It is a personal journey and to make progress on that journey it has to be done with humility and authenticity - a willingness to be led by and drawn to God. And we can't get there through debate, in fact that's the opposite of what we should be doing.

How we get there comes again from the fruits of the spirit - joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness faith, meekness, temperance. How do we bring ourselves to a state of mind where these feelings are possible? Prayer, meditation, softness, silence. We get there by serving and loving others - even those, especially those, who have injured us. We get there by seeking holy spaces - in our homes, at our churches, in our temples. We get there when we experience beautiful things, in nature, with art or with music.  We get there when we see in every person someone who is literally a child of God with immense worth and then we treat them as such.

A previous Bishop of a past congregation challenged his audience to, when we see a homeless person on the street, to view him as a child of God and then have a prayer in our heart that the homeless person might be looked out for and blessed. I would add, that doing so may prompt us to act on their behalf. Listening and acting on such promptings brings us to God.

The mistakes I've made in the past were mistakes I made when I treated my religious faith more like my political party. When I've tried to prove, either through scripture (ha) or by my bad logic, why my church is superior to yours. How is that possible, when faith is a journey each of us must take and this journey requires individual adaptation.

This point was brought home to me several years ago after I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I loved that book, and I was impressed with the man. What's more I felt like his life, with all of its twists and turns, was blessed and directed by God. I have no doubt about this. What's more, there's no way he or Martin Luther King or other similar religious leaders in world history could have done what they needed to do had they been a member of my particular church. No way that was possible. God worked through them and they were where they needed to be.

Now my church is definitely an unapologetic missionary church,  and all churches really should be, but that does not mean God wants every person to join it. Many people do find strength, joy and peace in my faith and it's my obligation to offer that opportunity to others, but it's always up to them to decide if this is the route God wants them to take. It's a personal journey and only the individual is qualified to make these decisions for themselves.

One last point. There are some who may read this line of reasoning and say, exactly, and this is why churches should stay out of the political space. But I don't agree. I think society's problems demand every resource we have to solve them. We need science, with its peer-reviewed journals and rigorous, provable laws to solve problems. And we've made remarkable advances by doing so, but our limitations are real and science is far from sufficient. We need our art and our music to push beyond the limits of scientific thought and into ideas that transcend logic. But again this is not sufficient.

Religion brings something more to the table. There are certain people born with spiritual gifts who have chosen a more righteous life. Who have sanctified themselves through sacrifice and obedience. Who have a stronger relationship to God than most. These are the leaders of our churches. And especially those churches with large memberships, religious leaders who have large followers who trust and listen to them. These church leaders need a voice in our national conversation. They should be sought out by our political leaders for advice and input. Almost every political issue has deep moral and ethical components that are difficult to parse out correctly without spiritual input.

We get tied up in knots over an issue like abortion because the issue is difficult. When does life really begin, not in the scientific sense of life, but when does a living soul occupy a body? When does a fetus become a person with a right to life. How can we possibly answer this question without some input from our spiritual leaders? How should we think about capital punishment. Is ending a human life something a government institution should be doing? How can we be so arrogant to assume Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist churches have nothing to say about these and other issues? What about gay marriage? Or war? Or poverty?

I'm definitely not saying that churches should have the final say and definitely not the only say. We are a democracy not a theocracy. I also believe size matters. Fringe churches with few followers should be largely ignored while defending even their right and freedom to worship as they choose. I also think certain faiths have more to say about some issues than others, for example, Muslim leaders have a lot of important opinions on the manner in which we've engaged the war on terror. And these leaders should be listened to. And I hope it's obvious that the civil rights movement was most of all a religious movement.

And that, in the end, is what religion is for me. I belong to my faith because I believe in it, with all of my heart. When I attend church service week after week, I feel the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace. I feel motivated to serve within my church community. My own journey is important, my prayers, my scripture study, the personal insights I get when I meditate. These are all my own and are intensely personal. But I listen to what the leadership within my church has to say carefully because I know these men and women have been called of God and have special insights because of their own personal relationship with God. While this is a personal journey, it's not one I have to make without help from others stronger than myself.

And this is what religious faith is in the end. A recognition of our own weaknesses and a desire for support and help from someone infinitely more capable than ourselves. A recognition that without God we are hopeless creatures. I can't walk the path of faith on my own. And that is why our country needs its churches.