Theology, Politics and Women’s Rights

Recent pronouncements by  so-called “pro-life” Republican politicians have raised troublesome questions about the very meaning of the term “pro-life”, not to mention the politician’s grasp of basic biology and the distincton between living cells and personhood, and the selective application of their professed love of American “freedom”.

Much has been made of Senator Mourdock’s statement expressing his conviction that even when life begins under the horrible circumstances of rape, it is God’s will at work. In fairness to Senator Mudouck, political commentators have pounced on the statement and twisted it in a variety of ways that dismiss the Senators claim of having wrestled with the subject before arriving at his conclusion. It is hard to tell whether the Senator is unable to articulate a valid theological position accurately, or is  just seriously misguided.

There is legitimate outrage against the religious right’s repeated mysosgynistic assertions concerning abortion, and rape, and the unavoidable impression that they are informed by mostly middle aged and older white male biases that are woefully chauvinistic, ignorant of basic biology and of the  physical, emotional, and economic realities of women’s health and reproductive rights.

But Senator Murdouck’s statement goes to a much deeper issue- one that has plagued leading theologians for centuries: What, precisely, is the nature of the role of the divine in human activity, and what is the place of human free will in the divine plan? Many devout people of different faiths ascribe to a belief that God is a sort of cosmic manipulator or puppeteer, mysteriously controlling all human choices and actions. This is what they construe the omnipresence of the Divine to mean. I believe this is fundamentally a cop-out, making God the scape-goat for human failures. Rape is human action that is a crime legally, and a sin, spiritually. It is a fundamental denial of and act of disrespect for the presence of the divine in every woman. The Christian right would do well to remember that Genesis insists that we are all created by God in the imago dei- God’s own image- male and female. Period.

To say that the Divine (by whatever name we call it) is present in all things, however, is quite different from implying that God is therefore the direct cause of all things. If that were so there would be no room or role for our alleged free-will- in fact that freedom would seem an illusion. Moreover, on the premise of divine omnipresence, the assertion of God’s presence in all life, and thereby the sanctity of life, must include the corrollary- that God must be equally present in all death- even that of  an aborted fetus. This is where the logic of the religious conservative view crumbles in the face of selectivity and emotional preference.

Most spiritual traditions see life as a continuum- whether posited as a present and after-life construct, or a recurring cycle of reincarnation (or as the Greeks called it, the transmigration of souls). But the elements of personhood in that continuum are not universally seen in the same way. In the West, the sanctity of life translates easily into the importance of the individual; whereas in Asian philosophies, all life is sacred, but the individual is of relatively less importance, as our very individuality is impermanent, in a state of constant flux and redefinition, until we experience oneness with its divine Source in final enlightenment. Hence our notions of personhood and its importance are culturally conditioned and inherently limited.

Until recently, both the Abrahamic and the Asian traditions made a distinction between the scientific/medical definition of life, and the spiritual defintion of personhood by agreeing that the soul was the animating force that made the fetus viable. The”quickening” of the fetus, as Christian tradition called, was deemed to take place not at the moment of conception, but closer to the time medical science deemed the fetus viable outside of the womb without extraordinary medical measure and life-support technologies. (Asians concurred with this. In India, the entrance of the soul into the womb is traditionally held to be sometime in the seventh month of pregnancy). The age of viability has, to be sure, gotten younger with the advances of medical technology, but no obgyn would claim a fertilized egg is viable outside the womb for more than a very brief period in controlled laboratory conditions! Prior to viability, it is clearly not yet a person in anything more than a potential sense.

It is both ironic and unfortunate that anti-abortion Christian traditionalists have, in the name of their own religiosity and the political righteousness they’d like to ascribe to it, abandoned a millennial belief in favor of a pseudoscientific assertion that because cellular life begins with conception, personhood must too. Senator Murdouck may be sincere in his fumbling attempts to express a position of faith, or he may have persuaded himself of the righteousness of that position due to social pressures or political expedience. However, the legal thinking ascribed to this position, and the political appropriation of it to force a particular social agenda that is dismissive of the needs of women and their right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, has nothing to do with medical facts or spiritual truths.

Discoveries in Brussels

Having just returned from Brussels and the presentation of our book Reductionism, Globalization and Faith, I am encouraged by the openness and eagerness of those we met to the possibility of using the world’s scriptures as a vehicle for peace instead of for political violence. In one week we distributed three hundred signed copies of the book to members of parliament, commissioners, council members, ambassadors and staff members, and have received numerous emails of thanks and enthusiasm for our message.

One journalist, who  identified himself as an avowed atheist, was nonetheless, firmly supportive of our non-sectarian approach to unity. Feedback from the presentation included a suggestion to develop a curriculum for use in Belgian public schools as a sort of primer on the communalities between religions, and the creation of a follow-up publication in which prayers of all traditions would be collected into a single volume, arranged thematically. Yet others offered volunteer assistance in promoting a deeper understanding of our underlying unity.

What was most encouraging about al this was the very diversity of the people themselves. Greeks and Poles, Germans and Italians, Estonians and Belgians, Spaniards and French, were all equally aware and concerned that religious ignorance and cultural bigotry we on the rise again in Europe, and that these factors are toxic in the hands of ideologues eager to exploit them for there personal agendas. Europe’s history, in this regard, is even darker than America’s, for there is a long list of holocausts, pogroms, purges and inquisitions implemented under the aegis of some sort of religious orthodoxy or purism that has stained European soil with the blood of millions stretching back millennia.

What was equally refreshing, and a stark contrast to the U.S. Congress, was the approachability of people in positions of power. Unlike walking the corridors of Congress, where even interns are dressed in power suits hoping to impress, the European Parliament was a fascinating mix of blue jeans and Prada, and the way someone dressed was no clear indication of their rank or function.

Racism, religious resentments, xenophobia are all alive and well in Europe, and given the economic instability, they represent endemic risks to social progress that can be easily fanned into flame in the current environment. But it was heartening to see a recognition of the need for spirituality- a spirituality that can both transcend sectarianism and still celebrate its rich variety of traditions.

One highlight of our time in Belgium was sharing the book with the staff of the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Christians and  Muslims who had worked there for years had never spoken to each other about matters of faith were suddenly finding common beliefs and seeing each other in a new way.

Time will tell what our next step should be- we are exploring the possibilities of creating a radio program to address these issues openly, as well as writing to expand these themes and delve into them in ways that are both academically well-founded and easily accessible to the average reader. The public school curriculum idea, suggested by someone in the audience, is, among other suggestions and ideas, a very attractive one.

Ironically, I returned from Brussels to my regular work as a medical interpreter on September 11 when the tragedy in Ben Ghazi hit the news. The core of our book was written eleven years ago as a response to the 9/11 tragedy. Though we conceived of FID aver a decade ago, it seems our message is still as timely as ever, if not more so. In our mission statement we identified educating people in positions of leadership, and after years of patient plodding, we are finally achieving that. We appreciate the prayers of all those who have been so supportive- and welcome into that list all those in Europe with whom we met and are now corresponding in Europe.




Seeing the Spirit in all things

I write on the eve of a presentation to the European Parliament in Brussels of the article that inspired the foundation of FID. Our co-founder, Sadig Malki, and I wrote an article following September 11th that addressed the oxymoron of claiming there is only one God but my God is better than yours. The article examines systematically the ways in which cultures throughout history and all over the world have reduced their experiences of the divine to particular formulae, each claiming their formula of choice represents universal truth, and then insisting upon the superiority of their formula over all others.

Our ongoing attempts to grasp the infinite are the engine that has driven both scientific and artistic inquiry for millennia. It is natural that we should want to understand, for we are conscious beings. But our reductionism of the infinite to the knowable often ends up being a reductionism to the comfortable and familiar, and that diminishes us all.

Europe today is of course a largely secular environment, despite being shaped profoundly by the evolution of Christianity and its interplay with Judaism and Islam in particular. Europeans tend to pride themselves on also being shaped by a very rational, Cartesian educational system that at times elevates scepticism to a virtual obligation. There are some who insist with the vigor ot the Age of Reason that science and religion are antithetical. There are others who, deeply programmed by Christian traditions, are loathe to let go of an attachment to the idea of God’s existence, even though they have long since become blasé or indifferent to any active practice of religion. And there are, of course, many who practice their faith tradition quite fervently, but often in a somewhat insular way, as if defensive against the portential threat of its annihilation by the forces of secularism, and the dread of “Secular Humanism”.

When FID was founded over a decade ago, our mission statement proposed as the third point of our plan: “To educate leaders and people in policy-making positions in both the public and private sector, so that the prevailing models of cultural and religious domination can be replaced by mutual acknowledgement and cooperation for the common good.”

Sadig and I have been not only delighted by the genuine thirst shown by people in the European Parliament, but many others in positions of authority here in Brussels, who have received us with great warmth and enthusiasm.

Our thanks go out to all who have shown such support and interest, and may this be the fulfillment and the beginning of a new chapter in our work.

Cults and Culture

It is said that “as you sow, so shall you reap”. That one of our best known sayings is agricultural in nature reminds us that our culture is linked to what we cultivate- both literally and metaphorically. Even if paraphrased as “What goes around comes around” or “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, or “the Law of Karma”, this agricultural metaphor is unmistakeably clear.

Take for example the dueling philosophies of the Democrats and Republicans in American politics. The old saw of “Big Government” vs. “Small Government” has become irrelevant in the reality that any and all government is an enormously expensive proposition, and an necessity in a complex and deeply interconnected global society. People can legitimately disagree about the role of government. But elections are rarely won on philosophical grounds- they become personal. People gravitate to the ideas of candidates, but also to the persona- and to the kind of persona that the voter is likely to most admire and wish to emulate.

Herein the agricultural analogy. What seeds are planted by the images we cultivate? Is it the cult of personality, a sort of Ayn Rand elevation of the individual as the ultimate value? Or is it the culture of empathy, an essential affirmation of community and the understanding that as a nation and a species, “united we stand, divided we fall”?

There has been a cultural erosion in America (and perhaps the world) wherein we have lionized egocentricity. In our opportunistically litigious society, the individual is all important- but the group is not. Have we really persuaded ourselves that we have a right to everything, but a responsibility for nothing? What crop can we expect to reap when the self-centered promotion of personal profit becomes our defining priority?

When viewed spiritually, ego is NEVER the defining value to be promoted- quite the contrary. From Buddha to Jesus,  from Sufis to Tzadiks, the transcendence of ego is at the very core of the experience of the divine. It is also results in an essential empathy for living beings of all types, as co-reflections of our common Creator, our higher Self, our essential being.

We shape our culture by our choice of leaders. We need to reflect on what kind of culture we want to live in, and what criteria do we want to use as measures of individual and collective success? History suggests that the greatest leaders have, as a central characteristic, a gift for empathy. In viewing current candidates and pondering their potential impact on our future, perhaps we should ponder deeply which ones give credible evidence of having a marked capacity for empathy. Empathy for the governed trumps political ideology and religious bias.



The Culture Wars and Marriage

Marriage has long been held to be one of the foundational institutions of human society, both from a socio-economic and spiritual perspective. The reasons for this are clear. The continuity of monogomous marriage is clearly one of nature’s many ways of assuring that a vulnerable species provides a fighting chance for their offspring to grow to maturity in safety. The economic benefits of this are clear- and in today’s realities of the general need for dual income households, are perhaps clearer reminders than ever that single-parenting is an onerously difficult challenge (though certainly not a fundamental threat to a child’s well-being) and not the best way to preserve our species.

Dating back to Biblical times and the dawn of recorded history, it is clear that marriage has been a major vehicle to create not only bonds between two adults, but social, economic and political bonds between their respective families as well. From King David and King Solomon to Henry VIII to today, marriage is a social contract that preserves and increases not only the family lineage, but its property as well, and strengthens the society in which that couple lives.

From a biological viewpoint, it is unquestioned that children need the nurture of parents, and seem to thrive best when that nurture comes from more than one parent. Parents, both consciously and unconsciously, are inevitably role models of caring and teach us how to relate to one another. For good or ill, we do so with varying degrees of success, as our children are quick to point out to us all.

But most societies also recognize a spiritual importance in the institution of marriage, and a need to sanctify the bond between partners to assure their and their offspring’s well-being.  Some claim that institutional religion uses fear of ostracism and damnation as the goad to keep marriages together. Though there is no doubt that fear is a popular weapon in the hands of the religious as well as of the politicians, most people would find it cynical to attribute mere manipulation for institutional self-preservation as the primary force promoting marriage. More humanly, the fear, not of damnation, but of the hell of being alone and lonely, is a major incentive to marry for many, for not many of us are hermits by natural temperament. The opportunities for growth that are inherent to the institution of marriage are among the greatest life has to offer- even if that life is seldom lived out in the airbrushed fantasy of life-long romance. Love runs deeper than romance, and in some cases even replaces it.

Poets, artists, musicians and actors have extolled the boundlessness of love throughout human history. If love is, then, boundless, we must ask ourselves honestly whether or why there should be gender-specific bounds placed upon love. It seems counter-intuitive to proclaim that love sets us free, and simultaneously insist that it can only be permittted between members of the opposite sex. We know, in fact, that this is patently untrue- fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, unquestionably love each other deeply without any social opprobrium. Why then this cultural fear of same sex love outside of the family unit as an unforgivable sin? It is not fear of love, perhaps, but rather, uneasiness about sexual activity itself that seems to fuel this argument. The two should not be equated or confused, whatever our personal comfort levels with the subject may be.

The anthropological factors promoting male-female marriage are historically easy enough to grasp. The Biblical prohibition of homosexuality, for example,  is understandable, in the historical context of the endangered Hebrew minority inhabiting real estate hotly contested and frequently desired by neighboring powers, and the Hebrews’ need to therefor maximize reproductive opportunities in order to survive. The religious, and most especially the Biblically literal, frequently read Biblical prohibitions outside of their historical context, however, and then attempt to impose them as absolutes, no matter how contextual realities may have changed and evolved over time. The devout Christian, Jew or Muslim, for example, romanticizing their love of scripture, may fail to recognize that scripture itself has changed and evolved over the centuries, rendering their literalist/absolutist interpretative tendencies contradictory to the real nature of the scriptures whose spirit they would uphold.

One of the only ontological definitions of God in the New Testament states that “God is love”. If that is true, and we are all basically hard-wired to experience and recognize love when we feel it, then presumably we should celebrate love and rejoice whenever we or others find it. The assumption that a homosexual person does not and cannot do so is not only bigoted, but simply irrational and blatantly untrue.

It is also Biblically unsupported. The Bible celebrates a special love between many Biblical male figures: David and Jonathan, Jesus and John to mention a few. Rather than labeling anyone “homosexual” as a permanent category (especially a negative one) perhaps  the Biblical authors recognized, as Alfred Kinsey did, that our sexuality is complex and variable to some degree, even if our general preference is not.

The point here is that if the definition of sin is that which takes us away from or alienates us from God, but God is love,then how can genuine feelings for love for another, no matter what their gender, not be an opportunity and expression of drawing closer to the divine? And if that love is felt between two people of the same gender, how does that not strengthen us just as much as when it is felt between members of the opposite sex?

It has often been observed that love is not rational. Neither is hate, but the poet says that “The heart has reasons that the head knows not of”. If more of us were comfortable accepting and embracing that reality, our cultures wars over marriage might well cease.




When Cultural Memory and Personal Experience Collide

When we look at political hot spots around the globe, there is almost always a religious component in the conflict- a clash between sects that illustrates the immense power of belief, and the endemic risk that belief imposes on our quality of living.

The dynamic of belief serves as a framework in which we couch our life’s experiences. It gives them context and meaning. But, since the accuracy of our perceptions are often mistaken for truth even though they may often be erroneous, we must learn to step outside the confines of mere belief if we are to become free of conflicts. Otherwise we are doomed to perpetuate them.

Witness the conflicts in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, Iran and Iraq, Africa, Greek and Turkish Cyprus- and countless others where beliefs about the meaning of ethnicity and religious preference draw lines in the sand, ignoring the possibility that anyone with two feet, no matter their faith or race, can cross that arbitrary line without having to relinquish their religion or culture.

The problem is that pain is often a greater reinforcer of experience than joy. There’s a saying that if someone does something nice to you, you might tell ten people, but of someone does something bad to you, you’ll tell the whole world. Sadly, there’s some truth to this. The fact that pain imprints so deeply on us is well know to both politicians and religious leaders, who have used fear- of taxes, poverty, foreign or domestic “enemies” – or of eternal damnation- as an highly effective tool of manipulation of others for their personal agendas. They inevitably do so, moreover, in the name of truth.

And pain has a long memory- all those hotspots I mentioned have been fighting for centuries, or even millennia- dating back usually to some major moment of cultural trauma or conquest, whose p.t.s.d. has bee passed down from generation to generation, with such regularity that the experiential reasons for the belief have long since been forgotten. The hatred and fear of those who differ from one’s chosen group, in time become virturally genetic, and generally unexamined.

Just as in the psychology of the individual, traumatic memories can be healed with the proper kind of self examination and emotional support, so too, can cultural wounds be healed. Even though we may still have a long way to go in America, we have made huge strides to heal the centuries of slavery, misogyny, and homophobia. Northern Ireland has made huge progress in healing the Protestant-Catholic rift; the Balkans have made progress in healing the scars that date back to the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western, the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the Conquest by the Ottoman Turks; and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dating ultimately back to the birth of Islam, show some signs of softening, as Israel herself experiences a growing influx of non-Jewish immigrants, and younger Israelis who are “linked in” with the wider world, eschew the hard-line orthodoxy that has held sway for decades.

As a child of the Civil Rights Movement era, I know from my own experience that giving a name and face to the “other” increasingly broke down my perception of “difference” and the invisible lines that separate segments of society, so that apparent differences of color, nationality, or religion were no longer defining of the person- including of myself. That was enormously liberating.

This  reality has persuaded me more and more over the years that in the final analysis, experience trumps belief- or at least modifies it. Belief, in fact, is the underlying root that eventually morphs (and if we’re not careful, ossifies) into belief. And that is crucial for us to realize, understand and remember. For if belief denies experience, holding onto mere belief- because our parents, teachers, political or religious leaders told us to, requires denying our experience, and when we do that, an essential part of us is stifled. If allowed to be repressed for too long, it grows toxic and eventually resurfaces in the very violence and conflict our belief systems simultaneous decry and promote.

I have no doubt that when Jesus proclaimed “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”… he was not talking about belief, but about an experience that unites us all.


Conservative and Liberal – A Spiritual Prerspective

The cultural clash in the religious world today seems to be increasingly drawn as a battle between so called conservative and liberal theologies. In fact, given the current blend of politics and religion, the distinction between theology and ideology has become quite blurry. Ideologues, no matter what position they hold,  by nature have a very hard time accepting any view but their own, and all the more so when their ideology is sanctified as divinely inspired.

Webster’s Dictionary defines conservatism, among other things, as:                                                                                     a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional          b : marked by moderation or caution <a conservativeestimate>

Likewise, it defines liberal as:                                                                                                    1 b archaic : of or befitting a man of free birth                                                                        2 a : marked by generosity : openhanded <a liberal giver>b : given or provided in a generous and openhanded way <aliberal meal>c : amplefull                                                5broad-mindedespecially : not bound by authoritarianism,orthodoxy, or traditional forms

The tension between these two principles, by rights, should be complimentary rather than oppositional. The question we must collectively ask is: What is it about our relgious beliefs or spiritual practices that most merits conservation, and about what should we be most liberal to secure both our individual and common good?

Orthodoxy, the name with which conservatism is most associated, in its original etymology meant “right (or true) glory (or splendor)”- a definition well worth pondering as a spiritual koan. Bibilcally it could be argued that our true glory lies in the consciousness with with we reflect the image of the divine in which we are created. That belief has been the driving force of much of human creativity throughout our long history. Yet orthodoxy, to some, is the embodiment of all that crushes the soul and dulls the spirit. Misapplied, it becomes merely a forced conformity to convention, denying the infinite variety of expression implicit in the omnipotence of the divine. The grace of God, by definition, is the very essence of liberality- a limitless source of generosity to us all, and has no need of the rigid structures and rules to which the religious orthodox would have us all conform.
Anglican theologians, often priding themselves on having struck a happy medium between Catholicism and Protestantism, famously touted the triad of “Scripture, Tradition, and Reason” as a litmus test for determining the spiritual validity of something. In recent decades, due to rapidly changing social values and new possibilities for which there were no precedents, a fourth component was wisely added: “Experience”. No matter what one’s religious affiliation- or lack thereof- there is much to be said for determining our spiritual choices in the light of whether there is precedent for them in the scriptures we deem sacred, in the tradition that has preserved them, in the gift of reason with which we are endowed, and in the uncensored truth of our own experience.
Conservatism- the force that cherishes the preservation of tradition as a high priority- is not wrong headed in its desire to preserve a vehicle that can lead us effectively to a direct experience of the divine. Nor is liberalism wrong headed in its recognition that the infinite generosity and creativity of the godhead allows for a wide array of circumstances in which that experience may take place. The issue is not which one is right- they both are- but rather, how to discern what truly deserves preservation and what is best understood in and through a fullness that transcends tradition and even reason. That discernment only comes through experience.
To some extent, the false dichotomy of liberal and conservative is a bit like dealing with the hemispheres of the brain. Our left brain is linear, rational, ordered in its thinking- conservative of the structures that allow us to prosper; the right brain associative, intuitive, open to inspiration- liberal in its capacity to make connections, and generous in its sharing of the creativity those connections can unleash. We would all be poorer if we only had access to one and not the other. In fact we would be both emotionally and spiritually half-witted!
Theology is not the source of human civilization, but rather, the by-product. Our cultural diversity and complexity is the result of the unitive genius of a species intent on passing its accrued knowledge and experience on to future generations, and, according to the devout, is a reflection of the infinite creativity of our Creator. Our theologies are just the various frameworks through which we have attempted to pass on our cumulative wisdom, with varying degrees of success. Fortunately, our God-given instincts for survival assure that theologies can be modified or even discarded if found not to promote that survival. As the Book of Ecclesiastes put it, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven”- including both liberalism and conservatism. We need to stop deifying or demonizing either one.

Religion and Homophobia

Today President Barack Obama endorsed same sex marriage. His reasoning was mature, compassionate, honest, and principled. He spoke as a man who, though sharing the dominant culture’s traditional view that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman, evolved in his understanding on the basis of the human dimension of the issue. He was able to let go of his own paradigm enough to allow differing data in, and that data- i.e. the experience of friends and colleagues in committed healthy same sex relationships, and the openness of his own daughters to their friends who are being raised by same sex couples- persuaded him that he needed to alter his own position.

The ideologues of the religious right will fulminate, and probably attempt to use the president’s comments to decry his leadership and paint him as some sort of Godless, deluded Socialist, or something. With the smug assurance of being privy to God’s thoughts, they will quote the Bible to insist that “God says” that homosexuality is “an abomination”, an unforgivable sin (conveniently and selectively avoiding the fact that the Bible also says that eating pork or shellfish is equally “an abomination”). The extreme right, who tends to be both anti-intellectual and anti-scientific, also insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that homosexuality is simply “a choice” inspired by evil and temptation, not a inborn propensity, (and that AIDS is God’s punishment for the sin of homosexuality- even though there are more heterosexual victims of AIDS than homosexual ones). And all this heated rhetoric is couched in religiousity with an spiritual arrogance and superiority that simply uses Biblical passages taken out of context to justify a particular political and social  bias. All of this misses the point, both factually and spiritually.

The question that must be asked of those who claim to be religious or people of faith is, “If you could reduce the message of scripture to a single word, or its teachings to a single precept, what would they be?” Historically most would come up with some variant on “Love” or “The Golden Rule-Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Jesus himself summarizes the essence of Torah to two “commandments”: Love God with  all your heart, mind, and being, and love your neighbor as yourself. What then, does this imply in regards to  either overt or covert homophobia?

If, as scripture claims, we are all God’s children, sprung from a single source, and are created in the image and likeness of God, then the next question to ask is, “How can one love God and hate one’s neighbor- who is created in God’s image?” The reality is, if we hate any one of the triad of God/neighbor/self, we cannot truly love either of the other two, for they are all intrinsically intertwined.

Sincere religious conservatives will counter, “I don’t hate the homosexual, I hate the homosexual act”. That sounds good enough- after all, people can legitimately disagree without having to hate those with whom they differ, and one does not have to like homosexual actions to like a homosexual person. But  twisted faces of hate, the shouts and placards of condemnation of the “sin” of homosexuality, and the hysterical allegations that homosexuality is threatening the institution of marriage or corrupting the very fabric of society, break forth regularly in the evening news and belie the claim. Moreover, however plausible the attempt to disavow their homophobic hatred, this begs the issue of whether hatred itself isn’t in fact antithetical to love- where the one exists the other cannot.

The distinction between who we are essentially (the imago dei) and what we do or how we are is, spiritually and experientially, an important one. But let us not deceive ourselves. Belief- whether religious or political- is not purely rational. In fact, ideological rigidity of any kind eventually causes the ideologue to confront situtations in which belief and experience are at odds with each other. The ideolgue denies their experience and holds to the ideology- a square peg in the round hole choice fraught with frustrations and disappointment. The wise learn from experience and recognize that belief is an organic, evolving thing that changes and grows over time. That is the path toward wisdom.

Swami Vivekananda, the eloquent disciple of the great Hindu saint from Calcutta, Sri Ramakrishna, was credited in the 1890’s with bringing Eastern wisdom to the West. From his work was born the Parliament of the World’s Religions- which has met every four years in a different city around the world  since  it first was convened in Chicago in 1898. Vivekananda was famously quoted as saying, apropos religious ideologues, “Religion is a very good place to start, but a very bad place to end up”.

Religion is a vehicle to a more expansive understanding, not a rigid pursuit of agreement. If true religion opens us to a more universal comprehension, then perhaps President Obama’s courageous ackowledgement of his own evolving understanding should be seen as a model of faith, not of the faithlessness the right so fears.


The Appeal of Fundamentalism

In our increasingly polarized political environment, the political right and the political left often square off over the issue of religion. The Christian right proclaims to all who will listen that they stand for the true values of the Christian faith- equating them increasingly as a litmus test for patriotism.

The religious left- (somewhat of an oxymoron, since to the secular world, religion itself is generally seen as an inherently conservative, if not reactionary movement) – insists that their populist promotion of social justice and care for the marginalized members of society constitutes “true faith”. With comparable rigidity, they tend to cast conservative Christianity- and particularly the varieties prone to Biblical literalism- as an aberration of the truth of Jesus. The intellectual tendencies of the the left also tend to paint the biblical literalist as engaged in an anti-intellectual interpretive approach that is intrinsically self-contradictory, requiring an abdication of all critical thinking. The response of the Right is to see the Left as tailoring faith to convenience, morally too weak to handle the rigors of dealing with the Absolute that true faith requires.

Ironically, similar polarities exist with Islam, Judaism, and even Hinduism, despite the millennial wisdom enshrined in them all. Instead of trying to decide who is “right”, it would be more helpful to the pacification of religious conflict and its political offshoots to take a deeper look at the deep seated appeal of fundamentalism.

To be sure, there is a strong anti-intellectual strain in some brands of religious conservatism. There are those who hold to a rigid interpretation as emotionally comforting, Scripture taken as a rule book, or case study of simple truths, sooner or later is likely to bring the faithful to an emotional abyss when the reality of experience and the interpretation of scripture seem diametrically opposed. But to dismiss the sincerity and integrity of those who devotedly try to live up to the requirements of their understanding of faith would be to discount the entire communion of saints throughout history who have led exemplary spiritual lives in the face of enormous opposition and challenge.

In order to understand the pull of fundamentalism, we need to look beyond the clichés of “people looking for simple answers to complex questions”. We need to take a fresh look at what it is that is truly “fundamental” to any faith. By doing so, we may well be surprised to discover that less separates the religious conservative from the spiritual radical.

The yearning to transcend suffering and achieve lasting peace is arguably innate to our species. Historically it has been demonstrated that, despite our increasingly sophisticated weapons and methods for killing each other, as a species, we have been becoming less violent. This suggests that the underlying message of the world’s scriptures is, in fact, expressive of something fundamental to the human race. Though we may disagree as to the most effective means to pursuit that transcendent and peaceful goal, we should recognize it as a tie that should unite us rather than divide us.