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A House in the Sky

81WS5WQhg3L.jpgThis is one of those books where you have to stop every few pages, look at the front and back covers, searching for something that says “fiction” as you say to yourself, “This isn’t a true story – is it? No, it can’t be true!” Turns out it is true.

So what happens? A little girl from a fractured home grows up and gets the itch to travel. The story is about all of her adventures, which seem harmless enough at first, until her wanderlust brings her into dangerous places. Much to her family’s disapproval, she is able to spend significant time in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, barely skirting death on several occasions.

High stakes adventuring is what Amanda wanted, and so it seemed to her that the ultimate prize would be Somalia. What better place was there to risk it all? This war-torn state is a veritable treasure trove of peril and uncertainty!

She talks an ex-boyfriend into going with her and off they go. Things unravel quickly from there. After only 4 days, they are captured and held for ransom for 15 brutal months. During that time, Amanda is starved, beaten, raped repeatedly, tortured, and in every way abused. In the end, a ransom amount is arranged privately with the families of the two captives and a release is arranged. This book is troubling to read, so it would not be for the faint of heart or the squeamish. What did I learn?

  1. Just Business — From the very beginning, Amanda’s captors constantly proved their devotion to Allah through the vigorous keeping of endless rituals. They also exhibited a genuine care for their fellow Muslim brothers, but the trajectory of devotion to God, which should result in care for other humans, never reached Amanda. Why? Amanda was a business project. Her captors were actually apologetic at times, “Just business, Amanda, nothing personal – your family just needs to pay the ransom” ~boot to the head!~ How is it possible to see another human being in this less-than-human way? That question leads me to my second point.
  2. That Which Your Right Hand Possesses — Repeatedly, Amanda’s captors, almost in gentle ways, told her to get accustomed to the treatment she was receiving, especially the rape. What was their justification for such actions? The Koran. In it, it is ok for sexual relationships to happen with both one’s wives and any woman “That your right hand possesses.” “We possess you, Amanda, so there is nothing wrong with what we are doing to you.” Lovely 😦
  3. Nothing to See Here — At one point in the story, Amanda and her partner manage a daring escape. They flee to the one place they figure they will find a sympathetic and compassionate ear. They burst into a mosque full of worshippers, and cry out for help. In broken Somalian, they explain that they have been kidnapped and abused. The elders of the mosque confer with the kidnappers who arrive breathless and angry a few minutes later. After a short conversation they are handed back over to the kidnappers. Only one woman objects, but she is violently kicked to the side. How in God’s name would you not intervene if someone in such a deplorable condition as Amanda barged into your church service pleading for help? It is inconceivable to me.
  4. You’re Still A Woman and A Slave Even If You Convert — As a survival tactic, Amanda converted to Islam. But it did little to improve her situation – she was after all still a woman, and still a slave, Throughout her captivity, she was told repeatedly of her lowly status. As a good Muslim, she would have to make peace with her station in life. It is the will of Allah. The only improvement offered to her was the promise that if she married one of her captors, they would untie her, let her live in an upstairs room with a window, and have lots of babies.
  5. Ritual Is All That Matters — Amanda as a Muslim now needed to make sure she shaved her pubic hair, but not pluck her eyebrow hair. She needed to preform her daily ablutions. It was critical for her to learn the Koran and pray five times a day. Correct pronunciation of Arabic words in her prayers became critical. Her standing as a good Muslim or a bad Muslim depended on it. She must observe Ramadan, and keep her eyes lowered in the presence of men. These are the things that mattered. Not compassion or mercy or justice. Jesus bumped into a similar sort of situation in his day. He was not amused – see Matthew 23.

This is Amanda’s story. It is not a direct attack on the religion of Islam per se, but it’s impossible not to become skeptical of that particular religion after reading this book. Is what Amanda experienced just a perversion of Islam or just the way it is? Is this what Islam becomes if you are serious about upholding its beliefs? To me it seems like the more one devotes one’s life to Islam, the more justifications there are for what happened to Amanda. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

What about Jesus? For my Muslim friends and indeed for all the world, I say follow him. The more one becomes devoted to Jesus the more the needy are helped, the more equality and value for all humans becomes the norm, the more captives are freed, and the more humanity flourishes. Whatever ones official religion, to follow Jesus is never a mistake. I just finished reading Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, the Christian statesman who in the late 1700’s fought for 40 Years to abolish the slave trade. If ever there was a dramatic counterpoint to this story, it is Amazing Grace. I challenge you to read both books back to back and ask yourself the question, which faith story is the better one to shape your life around.

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The Enlightenments Effect of Religion – Good or Bad?

They agreed that anyone who refused to seek the  Lord, the God of Israel, would be put to death—whether young or old male or female — 2 Chron 15:13

Then when the Sacred months have passed, kill the Mushrikun (Idol worshipers including trinitarian Christians)  wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them and prepare for them each and every ambush. — Surah At-Tauba 9:5

But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! — Matt 5:44

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With the exception of Jesus’ counter cultural words in Matthew 5, the two passages from the Bible and the Quran above are perfect examples of what religion was capable of prior to the Enlightenment.

For some in the religious community the coming of the Enlightenment will be seen as a disaster for faith. I don’t see it that way. Thanks to the enlightenment in the west, Religion was transformed from an involuntary truth to a voluntarily accepted possibility. The movement from involuntary to voluntary transformed how the vast majority of the Western world understands religion today. I believe the shift from involuntary to voluntary is a good one that the entire world should embrace.

As crashing waves slowly erode a shore line, the enlightenments steady pounding of “question everything, believe nothing, human reason above all” began to fracture the steady shorelines of Europe. Nothing could stop this tide. The mantra of “human reason first of all” created healthy (and unhealthy) scepticism which eroded irreversibly so much of what was involuntarily accepted as true in that day, no place was left untouched by this rising tide, most especially religion. The firm shorelines of religion in Europe began to crumble for some very understandable reasons:

There had been a couple hundred years of religious war between Catholics and Protestants which had ended in stailmate with all sides exhausted, and beginning to think “there has to be a better way”. In addition the development of dozens and dozens of denominations since the reformation was enough to cause even the most religious of people that niggling feeling in the back of their mind that the right path to God might be little more than a best guess.  Then it happened, science slipped passed theology in the race for supremacy. God no longer informed us about science. Science informed us about God. Eventually, sufficient amounts of doubt took the fight out of religious zealots. Was there really a need to clobber someone over the head just because they didn’t believe as you did? The answer was becoming increasingly clear: No.

If one wished to journey towards God that trip would have to be a voluntary trip  based on all sorts of information, evidence, tradition and experience. Before the enlightenment, the idea of voluntary religion was unthinkable. Theology was at the heart of knowing. Ones understanding of God was all that mattered everything else in life was just details. People were born into certain systems of belief and these systems were true and unquestioned. To wander from the truth for any reason was dangerous to the community and damning for the soul. Thus responsible leaders both political, military and religious embraced their duty to stamp out heresy and false belief. The eternal destiny of their people mandated aggressive action. The assumption of meta-physical truth being known conclusively is what the enlightenment destroyed.

Many parts of Islam have not yet gone through any sort of enlightenment. Unlike Western religions, Islam is not a voluntary belief system yet, that means it’s adherents  are not free to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their faith. For many Muslim systems, the Quran (and Hadith in some cases) is still the diffinitive truth that must be believed at all costs. Life both now and forever depend on it. Any threat to this belief must be destroyed.

  • Ancient Jews were part of an involuntary system of religion. (Hence the verse above)
  • Middle age & post reformation Christians were part of an involuntary system of religion, (Hence the religious wars in Europe during that era) — Sadly, Jesus’ call to love those in opposition was pushed aside in this era.  The most important thing in order to maintain law and order was to punish someone whose belief system was not in accord with everyone else’s.
  • Many modern day Islamists are still a part of an involuntary system of religion.  (Hence the never ending gruesome news reports coming from many Muslim countries around the world) as long as a belief system remains a compulsory non optional reality, for it’s followers, there will always be bloodshed. Protecting the absolute truth of ones belief system will always be infinitely more important than the life of ones enemy or even ones own life as the seemingly endless line of suicide bombers testify.

Granted, it’s disconcerting for a faith position to be relegated to optional. Jesus for example, claimed that he was “the truth” such definitive statements don’t leave a whole lot of options on the table.  How must a doubt soaked post enlightenment Christian come to grips with this claim? How must he share this claim with others?

Let healthy doubt create humility. What would be wrong with saying “Jesus might be the truth, and this is why I think he is”? Nothing in my estimation. We will never go back to involuntary religion, so the verbal bluster that comes from that era should be dropped. I also think we should take seriously, the words that Jesus gave us about loving those who oppose us. In the post enlightenment scientifically based world it will be impossible to know with clinical certainty existential truth based on ancient historical narrative, therefore we simply can’t have an arrogant swagger when it comes to presenting what we believe to be true. Faith is the confidence we have in what we cannot see, but our senses will more easily grasp what cannot be seen, if everything we do is wrapped in love.  This is good advice for all the religions of the world.

This less dogmatic, more unsure stance will be completely unpalatable for some strong believers who have managed to avoid the doubt that comes with the enlightenment. For me, letting go of some certainty regarding my faith is a tremendous step forward in developing a world of peaceful coexistence, and even peaceful cooperation. Easing up on personal certitude in order to embrace the free will that comes with voluntary religion is infinitely better than the shallow benefits of confidence, conformity, and security that come with involuntary religion.

 

 

 

 

Religion is good, provided it doesn’t actually say anything 

They tell the prophets,

“Don’t tell us what is right.

Tell us nice things.

Tell us lies.

Isaiah 30:10

2700 years ago the people wanted religion, but they wanted it to suit them, to make them happy and comfortable. This is exactly the kind of religion many in our world desire today. Religion that doesn’t actually make any claims, religion that doesn’t actually give directives for life, religion that doesn’t take a moral stance on anything. We want a religion that isn’t hard and doesn’t require sacrifice. Much to be preferred is a religion that just makes you feel good about yourself. Meditate, stretch, breathe, feel good, repeat. The principle deity of “tell us nice things religion” is self. In the end, self is a poor choice for a deity.

Buddhism without Beliefs

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As the West become’s increasingly secular, Christianity get’s increasingly pushed to the margins. This is no surprise as secularism and Christianity are at odds with one another. In the midst of this shift however, I have observed a very curious development. Another religion seems to be thriving, moving from the margins to the centre, to the “mainstream” of our secular culture. The ideas of this religion are taught freely in our public schools and openly in our community centres. Nobody from the secular worldview seems to mind. What is this religion? Buddhism. How does that happen? Stephen Batchelor’s book Buddhism Without Beliefs has been immensely helpful in answering this question.

Buddhism is the preferred religion for secularists for the following reasons:

  1. To start with the Buddha was an agnostic himself. He never taught on God, heaven, or anything metaphysical. These were unknowables to him. After Buddha’s death, his followers created a religion that developed dogma on these and a whole host of issues. According to Batchelor, true Buddhism resists all dogma on that which cannot be known. A return to authentic Buddhism is at its core a return to a “great unknowing”. Secularism can live with that.
  2. Buddhism believes not in moral certainty but rather ethical integrity. Moral certainty creates superiority and guilt. Lists of rules don’t relieve anguish, they cause it. Ethical integrity is arrived at through trial and error. Someones life path has to be figured out on their own, not shaped by a holy book of do’s and don’ts. Secularism can live with that.
  3. Buddhism believes that all anguish comes as a result of craving. Letting go of craving is the key to the centring path. Since nothing lasts and death is certain the most important thing is not to wish for more, or be consumed with greed, or long for a heaven that may or may not be there, it is to live in the moment. To simply be fully present. To be undistracted by past failures or future concerns. Meditation, breathing, mindfulness are all techniques that attempt to help people be fully present. Countless numbers of people in our secular world have chased one craving after another all without fulfilment. Buddhism offers a chance to escape that rat race, without having to commit to any sort of “this is God’s way” kind of teaching. Secularism can live with that.
  4. Rebirth/reincarnation. Buddhism certainly has some thoughts on the after life. However, Batchelor goes to great pains to say that good Buddhists will wonder and puzzle over these things but they will never conclude about them. Secularism can live with that.
  5. Life is not meaningless nor is it meaningful. It just is. Secularism can live with that.
  6. Buddhism is about individual creativity and friendship, not about dogma or the constraints of a group. Western individualism and democracy provide the fertile soil needed for these ancient forms of Buddhism to thrive.
  7. In dealing with negative impulses, and potentially destructive emotions, like hatred, bitterness and anger, Buddhism resist’s any moral judgement on these emotions.  They just are.  The key is to ask questions about those feelings, realizing that they too will pass. Two soft Buddhist encouragements not to act on these impulses would be to realize that living creatures are all one. This belief in the interconnectedness of us all gives the reason for empathy and compassion instead of revenge and violence when we are hurt by people. To hurt a fellow human would be like hurting a part of your own body so revenge is not necessarily wrong it’s just that it doesn’t make sense. The second is self image. In Buddhism, it is important that the self is perceived well in the community, acting out on negative impulses rarely accomplishes that.
  8. Buddhism is about resolve not faith, it’s about doing not believing. Secularism can live with that.

Much good can be said about this version of Buddhism. Embracing a measure of mystery about the divine with a profound sense of humility would probably do us all some good. Living fully in each moment of life, without being distracted, very sound advice. Living a life of strong resolve and calculated discipline, no one would fault that.  Believing that the tireless chasing of one craving after another will only result in anguish, no argument there.

Where Buddhism falters in my estimation is in it’s fundamental understanding of what it means to be human. Buddhism attempts to de-human the human. The be human is to live with dreams, hopes and aspirations. These realities found in the heart of every human are not the great evil as Buddhism seems to suggest (without of course being dogmatic :)) They should not be eradicated with gritty resolve, into the realm of emptiness, where the self is finally un-selfed. Rather they should be redeemed. Christianity is the only story that offers just such a redemption.

To be human is to embrace story, it’s who we are, we all have a story in our heart, fairy tales with happy endings will never stop being told, received, and loved. To be human is to live a story, tell a story, and receive a story. Buddhism has no story, but Christianity is built on the ultimate story, into which all our human stories find their fullest and deepest meaning.

Redeem the human, yes, un human him? No.

Religiphobia

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Horrible things have happened in the name of religion. I am half way through the book A Concise History of the Middle East, and I could easily cite a hundred examples or more of atrocities committed in the name of Jesus or Allah. Before that book I read Great Soul the biography of Mahatma Gandhi, which some could argue is more a chronology of carnage between Hindus and Muslims than anything else.

I understand why religion is creepy at best to many in our western world. I see clearly how charlatans and power mongers embed themselves in religious communities so as to control people and take advantage of noble traits like generosity and grace. I’ve seen how religious institutions grow, gain power and become corrupt. I’ve observed how leaders of religious organizations let success, fame, & popularity go to their head. These leaders become arrogant, pompous, and unloving. I’ve witnessed the stunning transformation of well-meaning religious people who become so fixated on a particular issue or moral standard that love and grace vanish, replaced with violent anger and rage.
Given these realities, is it suitable for us as a culture to embrace a phobia of religion? Religiphobia is a knee jerk negative reaction against anything that even resembles religion. The assumption of a religiphobe is that all things religious or even apparently religious should be continually marginalized, censored, & prohibited.

The problem with religiphobia is that is comes with an unwarranted presupposition against all religions and it fails to take into consideration the truth that every human is innately religious — especially religiphobes.

The unwarranted presupposition against all religions fails to consider what I call simple religion. Take Jesus for example. His conclusion on the whole matter of religion is to love God by loving your neighbor. That’s how Christians are supposed to practice their religion. So if a Christian or group of Christians want to practice the simple religion of loving their neighbor at a community centre or a local school by putting together a program or event that benefits the neighborhood they should be able to do so. But it’s simply not possible when religiphobia is in the air. If one wishes to practice simple religion by opening up his home to share meals and talk about life’s questions. The religiphobes send city inspectors to try to shut it down. For many who wish to practice this form of simple religion they could only do so if they jettison their faith, or masquerade as irrereligous. Even a hint of religion and doors slam tightly shut. Granted, if religious organizations were trying to manipulate people or hurt them that would be one thing. But this is not what the purveyors of simple religion are about. They are about helping make their neighborhoods better as an act of worship to a God they believe in. Why ever would we as a society frown upon that?

Secondly, every human is religious. To quote Yann Martel “Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith…We all go as far as the legs of reason will carry us and then we jump!”  Science can never retrace with certainty where we have come from or where we are going, or why we are here. The deep why’s, the ones that matter in our gut, will always remain unanswered by scientific rationalism and so we jump. All of us jump: some with lab coats on and some without, but we all jump. That’s faith, that’s religion. Everyone who is part of the human race, shapes their life around a story that they are believing. To me it’s culturally poor form to push to the margins certain faiths while at the same time upholding others. Somehow we’ve managed to justify this discrimination by pretending that some of the more secular explanations for why, what and how to live are not faith based. They are all faith-based. Religiphobes are the fundamentalists of this faith.

Perhaps we as a society should relax a little, take a deep breath. There are enemies out there that want to undo us, some in the name of organized religion some not. Practitioners of simple religion are not the enemy.

Where is God Today?

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Psalm 145:5-6
4 Let each generation tell its children of your mighty acts;
let them proclaim your power.
5 I will meditate on your majestic, glorious splendor
and your wonderful miracles.

God is worth worshiping, obeying and praising because God has acted in time and space in human history. When the people of God were delivered from Egypt, they actually experienced the events of God’s miraculous intervention. Do the people of God today experience such things? Not so much. Interestingly, this Psalm was written about 1000 years after the events It speaks of.  We in modern times prefer current events over history. We want the God of today not yesterday. We want the God of the now not the God of the future. This is understandable. The cry of our time is ” live in the moment” but where is God in the every day? Sometimes I don’t know, except to say “to love another person is to see the face of God” True God faith will result in sacrificial love for other people which will make the world a better place. To believe in God is to walk away from self absorption. Though I can’t see God I can see his path and I like it very much.