Saturday, February 26, 2011

Temperamental Truth(s)

Every Monday evening, a few dozen Emory undergraduates gather to share a meal and discuss religion and related topics.

These students have much in common, as all are committed practitioners and most are leaders in the thirty undergraduate religious organizations on campus. Yet the groups they represent vary widely in terms of composition, mission, practice, for these students are aligned with virtually the entire spectrum of religious traditions.

Every tradition represented at Emory is offered a seat at the table of the Inter-religious Council. There are Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Orthodox and Reform Jews, Catholic and Protestant Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Bahais.

One might expect such a diverse groups to play it safe and stick to points of obvious ethical agreement. Instead, all were invited to share how their tradition has handled one of the most important and controversial questions of our time: does homosexuality result from one's nature or from willful choice?

Last week, we weighed Stephen Prothero's efforts to reinforce the boundaries between religious traditions while calling attention to the diversity and divisions within them. Prothero sharply criticizes the common perception that the world's diverse religious traditions are basically in harmony with one another, providing different paths up the same "mountain" of spiritual enlightenment.

Yet in explaining his personal perspective as a religious studies professor, Prothero provides a more academic formulation of a mystical outlook on the spiritual journey. "This discipline gave me a way to hang in with religious questions without the presumption that any answers were close at hand," he writes. "When, to paraphrase St. Augustine, I became a 'question to myself,' even bigger questions called out to me, and my ongoing conversation with the great religions began."

There are many different ways to define the word mystic . Prothero's quotation captures the sense that mystical truth is "of obscure or mysterious character or significance." There have been mystics who have plumbed the depths of these mysteries in virtually every religious tradition in history.

For mystics like Catholic priest Richard Rohr, the mysterious nature of such insights makes the boundaries between religious traditions untenable. Rohr understands himself to be following the mystical path tread by a long line of "non-dualistic thinkers" who adhere to a wide variety of religious traditions.

I listened to one of Rohr's lectures on the history of mysticism a few weeks ago with a dozen or so women at a gathering called "Praying with the Mystics." The vast majority identified as Christian, but they were more than willing to endorse Rohr's perspective and align with the mystical movement of "non-dualistic thinkers."

Ironically, this commitment entailed an opposition to "dualistic thinkers." A couple of the women shared frustration with their friends and family who weren't able to understand why their religious practices took them outside of the bounds of Christianity proper. Thus, the perspective of the more narrowly bound "dualistic thinkers" was rejected as wrong, creating a new dualism along more ethereal lines.

There are simple and fundamental differences in temperament at work in the divisions between the mystically inclined seekers of esoteric divine truths and those who strictly adhere to the clearly articulated Truth of doctrine.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the world's most popular and widely used temperament assessment tool. Many of you who have taken this test have been labeled with a four-letter code such as "ENFP" or "ISTJ." The last letter in this sequence refers to the kinds of conclusions we tend to draw from the information we process: "Judging" vs. "Perceiving."

For J folks, a decision must be made. The world is seen as black and white, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. Once all the facts are in, the choice will be clear. For Ps like me, there is another side to ever story. We struggle to choose from the many shades of gray based on how the light of perception illuminates our view at any given moment. Both perspectives have distinct advantages and disadvantages, as well as significant biases.

If you're a J, you likely see a mystical affirmation of all religious traditions as sloppy wishful thinking at best, willful delusion at worst. If you're a P, confident assertions of absolute Truth probably make you uncomfortable, and the systematic theologies (or assertions of atheism) of the Js seem rigid and dogmatic. Both tend to reject the other perspective, whether implicitly or explicitly. But then again, most of us come down somewhere in the middle ground between these oversimplified poles.

Last night, a friend who is most certainly a J walked into my living room with a group of friends. He was holding a copy of "GA Voice," a local free gay-rights advocacy publication. This week's issue was entitled "God and Gays" and he shared details which sparked a cordial but heated discussion about the issue of homosexuality in the church.

In a sense, the group present was extremely homogeneous. We are all Christian, male, heterosexual, middle-class, well educated and white. Yet significant differences in temperament contributed to a considerable diversity of perspectives.

For the Js, it was quite simple. The Bible clearly frowns upon homosexual behaviors. For us Ps it is an enormously complex issue, and our counterarguments sought to point out tensions and ambiguities without necessarily carving out a clear position. Others remained on the sidelines or vacilated between these positions.

It was an interesting and enjoyable conversation, but I seriously doubt anybody's mind was changed one way or another and I wonder how much we really learned.

The members of Emory's Inter-religious Council did not engage in this kind of debate. There were no attempts to convince or convert. Instead, each member was given an opportunity to share how homosexuality was viewed in his or her respective tradition.

Js at the table tended to cite Scripture or official positions of religious authorities. Ps were more prone to acknowledge tensions, even contradictions, and describe the variety of perspectives within the community. Many provided both. Yet, nobody was vying for moral high ground or political correctness points.

In this case, I would argue that everyone learned something. At the very least, we all gained a greater understanding of the various ways different religious communities struggle with the issue of homosexuality. Moreover, many of us likely came away with a more nuanced approach.

Stephen Prothero is right. All religions include claims to divine truth and their differences are significant and important, especially if you're a J. And Richard Rorty is right, too. All religions have their mystic Ps who embrace the mysteries of the human experience and hold that divine truth is intuitive and ineffable.

Are you a P or a J or somewhere in the middle? How does this temperamental tendency shape your religious beliefs, practices, experiences and perceptions of other traditions?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A House Divided?

Last week, we observed a case of the kind of mutually reinforcing, proactive pluralism advocated by authors like Karen Armstrong, Huston Smith and Joseph Campbell. The commonalities Jessica and I shared enabled us to identify with one another and affirm each other's engagement in a religious tradition other than our own.

Boston University's Stephen Prothero has made his name (and the New York Times bestseller list) with the opposite approach: emphasizing differences. In his latest book, God is Not One, Prothero frames the above authors' "perennial philosophies" as "the new orthodoxy." He asserts that "The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into the straitjacket of religious agreement."

In Prothero's eyes, such harmonious visions are not only naive, but deadly. "We pretend these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral," he writes. "Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous."

Thus, Prothero has dedicated himself to making us all more religiously "literate" by highlighting important differences which delineate distinct forms of religious engagement.

Prothero forcefully argues that the world's religions are fundamentally different: they not only offer different solutions, they're not even addressing the same problems. Yet in order to defend the appropriateness of the catchall category "religion," he must recognize that they share a common gene pool of general religious dimensions. The "DNA" of each specific tradition lies in the specific forms and relative emphases of these dimensions.

Christianity is distinct, he argues, because of its particular emphasis on faith in doctrine as the means of "salvation" from "sin." However, the strict boundaries Prothero attempts to reinforce between Christianity and other religious traditions begin to atrophy when he turns to address the diversity within the Church.

In just a few pages, Prothero weaves a necessarily oversimplified master narrative of nearly twenty centuries of church history. It is the familiar story of the overnight emergence of one of several early Christianities under Constantine, the subsequent eradication of competing visions and consolidation of ecclesiastical power, and its gradual dispersal through the Great Schism, the Protestant Reformation and modern denominationalism.

Thus, three main branches emerge through violent doctrinal disputes: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. The significant disagreements over church polity and the form and meaning of ritual practice and ethos are minimized.

In his analysis of contemporary worldwide trends, Prothero admits that "Christians identify less and less each year with labels of this sort." So if historical institutional and doctrinal delineations are less determinative, how is Christianity to be defined?

Prothero invokes theologian Harvey Cox's pronouncement of a "post-dogmatic Age of the Spirit" where dynamic spiritual experience increasingly trumps the traditional powers of doctrine and law. He points to the explosive growth of Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism and Mormonism as heralds of this new age, as well as the increasing heterogeneity of the Catholic Church, particularly in the southern hemisphere.

But if the focus on doctrine and belief is what distinguishes Christianity from the world's other religious traditions, how is such distinctiveness to be maintained in the "post-dogmatic Age of the Spirit?"

Prothero closes his chapter with a thinly veiled endorsement of the tradition of Christian mysticism as a form more adaptive to the ambiguities of the post-modern age. Yet he misleadingly frames this tradition as an ancient strain waiting to be revitalized, when folks like Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr have been disseminating the mystic gospel throughout the past century.

Contrary to Prothero's assertion that spiritual universalism emerges from ignorance, These monks' explicit alignment with non-Christian mystics demonstrates that some of Christianity's most rigorous and well informed practitioners endorse such a view.

Furthermore, he fails to mention the increasingly widespread engagement of contemporary Christians in the spiritual practices of other traditions, such as yoga and meditation (an important development we will return to in the future).

Prothero argues that the centrality of experience is the hallmark of Buddhism (and Daoism), not Christianity. But the dissemination of Buddhist philosophy and assertions of Buddhist modernists that Buddhism is not religious but rather "scientific" demonstrate a trend toward an increased focus on doctrine and belief which parallels the increasingly experiential focus of Christianity.

These shifts in emphases emerge naturally from increased exposure of religious practitioners to adherents of other traditions and their practices. When we engage others with an open-minded, we allow the strengths of their practice to challenge our weaknesses. Learning about Jessica's strenuous efforts to "build a fence around the Torah" and align her lifestyle with Jewish law challenge me to be more disciplined in my own practice.

Perhaps the religious literacy Prothero advocates is actually diminishing the differences he emphasizes and making the "perennial philosophy" he denounces as naive increasingly feasible.

"Religious folk worldwide agree that something has gone awry," Prothero acknowledges. "They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it." This move to compare the world's religious traditions assumes that they are internally consistent wholes. The dramatic historical evolution and dynamic contemporary diversity of Christianity challenge such an assumption.

Furthermore, I find it quite common for adherents to traditions which are here assumed to be entirely distinct to achieve widespread and wholehearted agreement on the nature of spiritual problems and enthusiastically compare notes regarding potential solutions. I identify myself as a Christian, yet I feel a greater spiritual affinity with Rumi and Thich Nhat Hanh than I do with many fellow Christians.

If religious traditions are so irreconcilably different, why do so many of us powerfully identify with the spiritual sensibilities of adherents to traditions other than our own? And why do individuals who share a particular religious identification construct their worldviews, commitments and practices in such wildly differing ways?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Telling Our Stories

We understand and define our selves through stories.

We've discussed how passions, people and processes shape and define us. When we share our story, we integrate all of these various influences into a coherent narrative complete with characters, crises and climaxes.

In my "Reporting on Religion" class, former Asia correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor Sheila Tefft challenged our diverse collective of undergrads (and yours truly) to interview one another about our respective religious backgrounds for the purpose of posting on the class blog.

Dr. Tefft didn't give us a whole lot of instruction about how to go about the interview. She didn't need to. We are all adept storytellers. We have been absorbing stories since birth and practicing the art of storytelling ever since we learned to craft complete sentences.

When I sat down with Emory junior Jessica Katz in the crowded Starbuck's wing of the campus Barnes & Noble, she knew right where to begin. Jessica intuitively recognized that her story begins with the story of her parents.

Jessica's parents' Jewish families "weren't religious," but her folks decided to practice Judaism more rigorously when they married. This decision would frame Jessica and her sisters' childhood squarely in the context of the diverse Jewish community of Philadelphia.

While her family did not strictly observe shabbat, they shared a kosher family meal every Friday ("unless the Sixers were in the playoffs") and were regular participants in the community life of their conservative synagogue. She and her sisters each chose to attend a coed Jewish day school which became the central locus of their socialization throughout childhood and early adolescence.

The student body encompassed the entire spectrum of practice, from "ultra orthodox" to reform. This diversity required a sensitivity to stark differences in belief and practice, which meant that theology was generally omitted from the "Jewish studies" curriculum.

Her parents and teachers "never talked about God." She describes the religion of her youth was "all practice and no belief." The rhythmic practices of celebrating the holidays of the Jewish calendar, attending synagogue, eating Kosher, and studying the history and culture of the Jewish people all reinforced a strong cultural identity and sense of membership in the Philly Jewish community.

Jessica observes matter-of-factly that "it's odd to become more religious in college." Yet through her participation in the orthodox student group Meor, Jessica's involvement in the Jewish community has increased while her practice has become more theologically oriented.

After travelling to Israel with Meor, Jessica "realized that there was so much I had never known about religion." "Growing up, practices made me a good Jewish person and member of my family." Now, Jessica sees these very same practices as a means of realizing God's purpose in her life.

When Jessica says, "there's a reason for everything," she means two things. First, that there is a deeper spiritual meaning behind the performance of inherited traditional practices. And second, that "God is involved in your life," molding the faithful through practices, decisions, relationships and experiences. "I used to dismiss it, but now it seems obvious."

These providential processes may not always be clearly interpretable, but Jessica's faith equips her with a profound peace. "Life is more complex, but also more simple. It's easier to understand why it's complex." The ambiguities and perplexities remain, but her trust in God recasts former sources of anxiety as opportunities for gaining wisdom and theological insight.

Still, there are significant challenges. Jessica describes her beliefs as basically in line with Orthodox Judaism, and she struggles to align her practice with the rigorous commitments those beliefs entail. She makes a concerted effort to eat kosher and observe shabbat, but she is willing to give herself some slack under difficult circumstances. "It's tough when you're in college. Over the next few years, I'll sort out which practices I am willing to commit to. I'm constantly thinking about where I am going religiously."

"I'm very thankful to have found religion. I try to learn about other religions too, but I pretty much just think about Judaism. But you know, giving people the benefit of the doubt is a Jewish value."

When it was time for me to tell my story, Jessica lent a keen and perceptive ear, fleshing out my somewhat jumbled narrative with insightful questions.

Although our religious practices and their social context are quite distinct, Jessica and I found more commonality than difference in the way our practice informs and frames daily life. We effortlessly brushed aside centuries of tumultuous history and significant practical and doctrinal disagreements. Indeed, we expressed a strong sense of solidarity in our respective efforts to claim the religious identity we inherited and worship the God of our fathers--shaping and being shaped by traditional practices.

This is exactly the kind of lovey-dovey interfaith dialogue Harvard's Diana Eck catalogs and advocates in her 2001 book, A New Religious America. She argues that "It is vital to the health of religious faith that we appropriate our faith not by habit or heritage alone, but by making it our own within the context of dialogue with people of other faiths."

Of course, the roots of my Protestant Christian faith are anchored in ancient Judaism. Jessica and I can draw upon shared scriptures and symbols to describe our distinct practices. Constructive Jewish-Christian dialogue has been commonplace in America since World War II and the Holocaust. In Eck's eyes, the challenge of this century is to include the entire spectrum of religious traditions in an ongoing substantive national (and international) interfaith conversation.

This is easier said than done, and it is a challenge we will discuss in greater depth in the future.

But the simple act of sitting down with someone and sharing your religious biographies is a simple yet profound way to initiate such dialogue. You can't argue with my story and I cannot dispute yours. All we can do is choose whether to listen.

What's your story? What understanding do you gain from crafting it? How could others benefit from hearing it? How might we all grow--collectively and individually--through the sharing of our stories with one another?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Team Practice

"It's easy to talk about it, it's easy to sum it up when you just talk about practice....We talkin' about PRACTICE. Not a game, not a game, not a game. We talkin' about PRACTICE. Not a game...What are we talkin' about? We talkin' about practice, man. We talkin' about practice. We talkin' about practice. We ain't talkin' about the game. We talkin about practice." -Allen Iverson

As Mr. Iverson eloquently points out, it is easy to talk about it (whatever it is that we're talking about) by simply insisting that what we are talking about is practice...and not a game.

Over the last couple weeks we've approached practice as intuitive action emanating from the desires of "the heart" as well as the tangible maintenance of the brain and body through deliberate what are we talking about, again? Oh, right, practice. Thanks, Allen.

These two seemingly distant ways of framing our discussion about practice share a common focus on the free exercise of the will toward an end, a telos, a goal--be it a healthy functional prefrontal cortex or "getting our hearts right."

Ethicist/psychologist Carol Gilligan has pointed out that, paradoxically, we only achieve this independence through interdependence: “We know ourselves as individual and separate only insofar as we live in connection with others, and we experience relationship only insofar as we differentiate from self."

This week, we mulled over her "ethic of care" and a number of other related readings in a conversation about the moral development of the self in society in Dr. Steven Tipton's "Morality in American Life" seminar. In class, we viewed a clip of a discussion Oprah hosted concerning the meaning of "spirituality" (as opposed to "religion," a distinction we will continue to explore).

Oprah and her panelists frame the issue of spiritual health around the question "who's driving the bus?" Are we experiencing true internal spiritual freedom or being driven by the limiting, "unexamined perceptions" thrust upon us?

The panelists present religious and therapeutic practices as "spiritual tools" which help us to strip away the inhibitions which keep us from "being ourselves," that is, living out of our natural state of inner peace and unity. In this light, institutions, cultural norms, and even our family and friends are primarily perceived as inhibitors which obstruct our self-actualization.

But when I think about the things that I like about myself, I feel gratefully indebted to the positive impact of the many wonderful people and institutions who have shaped me. Rather than serving as mere levers of self realization, they changed me in ways permanent and profound.

Of course, there have been plenty of negative influences as well. And the balance of experience is weighted differently for each of us. No doubt therapy and other "spiritual tools" do help mitigate the damage of trauma and transcend the limitations of our circumstances.

But the reality is that, as often as not, we are not driving the bus. As children, the bus simply pulls up and we get on. We can control how we behave as passengers: whether we follow the rules, how we interact with the other passengers, etc. But we have very limited influence over the shape of the route. Sometimes, the bus crashes, through no fault of our own.

As we grow we begin to learn more about the bus system; we begin to choose which line to ride and where to get on and off. Our drivers may encourage and enable us to take the wheel from time to time. We may even get inspired to build our own bus, strike out on our own route.

Of course, to build a bus, you're going to need help. And once it's running, people are going to want to ride it. Of course then they start getting their own ideas about which way you should turn, who else you should let on, when they will get off, etc. Your becomes their bus too.

We don't really have a choice here. If you try to build the bus by yourself, it will probably be a pretty shitty bus. If you actually get it running but nobody rides it, your bus is pretty worthless. Funding will be tough to come by.

Mr. Iverson appears to grasp this on some level: "Now I know I'm supposed to be there. I know I'm supposed to lead by example. I know that. And I'm not shoving it aside like it don't mean anything. I know it's important. I do. I honestly do." Still, he doesn't seem to understand why: "How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?"

Good question. Not so easy to answer; at least in specific, concrete terms. Instead, we might respond with questions of our own: How did you get so good at basketball, Allen? How many thousands of people coached/played with and against you over the years as you developed as a player? If all those people hadn't been driving and riding the various bus routes which led to basketball stardom, then Allen Iverson would have never driven the lane.

We can't practice alone. Who are the people who have profoundly impacted your life? What are the institutions which have shaped your development? Who's on your bus? Who are you practicing with and how are you helping one another grow?