The Dalai Lama on Compassion

This morning’s Keynote at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies featured the Dalai Lama. After some opening remarks, he responded to questions by two panelists about the ongoing dialogue between Buddhists and scientists.

In discussing the value of science, one of the points the Dalai Lama made repeatedly is one he has made before: the need to ground compassion in something other than religion. Starting from the premise that all people desire happiness, he argues that, both because many people are “nonbelievers” and because religious faith sometimes leads to suffering, the way to grow compassion is to help people understand that a more compassionate mind leads to greater well-being, whereas anger and fear are bad for health and happiness. Therein lies the value of science in his view: to demonstrate without resort to religion why compassion is beneficial.

The problem with that approach from the point of view of a Christian is that it treats as the ultimate goal happiness in this life. Although I appreciate the desire to find a language all can speak, for me it is far too small a goal to seek happiness in this life, a life that is only a speck when measured against eternity.

The Dalai Lama addressed those who believe in God by asking a challenging question: If one seriously believes everyone is created by one God (or Allah – or whatever name one gives God), then how can one ever give harm to others? If one truly believes one God created us all, then we are all brothers and sisters, and how can one bring harm to one’s brother or sister?

Rarely does the Dalai Lama say something that I find bordering on insulting, but he did so today. Referencing his conversations with the late Wayne Teasdale, a Christian monk, he said that when Teasdale asked him to explain emptiness, the Dalai Lama declined, expressing concern that hearing about emptiness might adversely affect Teasdale’s faith in God. Immediately thereafter, he talked about another Christian who tried to convince him that God exists. Since Buddhism has no concept of a creator God, he listened with respect, but found the explanation “useless.” The idea that a Buddhist could hear about God without his Buddhist beliefs being shaken but that a Christian’s faith would be brought into doubt by hearing about emptiness was strange to say the least.

Notwithstanding that one comment, as usual I found much in the Dalai Lama’s talk I will ponder.


Pause Before Ranting or Gloating

Some people believe that the United States is sliding toward American theocracy. Others claim that the country has been mortally infected by a godless secularism.

Some of the people who hold one or the other of those views have some well-thought out reasons for their positions. Many others, however, believe it because they have read someone else’s only-minimally-partially-accurate account of something or other.

I’ve been reading a lot of commentary in the news the last two days about the Supreme Court’s decision Monday morning in the Hobby Lobby case, which involved whether a Christian family-owned closely-held corporation could be compelled under the Affordable Care Act to provide coverage for certain forms of birth control that operate as abortifacients.

Sadly, much of the commentary on many popular on-line sites is being written by people who neither read the Supreme Court’s decision nor have any understanding of the legal issues involved in the case. Whether one likes the result or not, the reality is that the decision, which was decided on statutory and not on constitutional grounds, was fairly narrow in scope and is probably a correct decision as a matter of statutory interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 statute that had broad bipartisan support and that was signed by President Clinton.

I don’t want to here get into an extended analysis of what is incorrect in the various reports I’ve read of the opinion. My primary point here is simply to suggest that before anyone either jumps up and down with joy over the opinion or wrings their hands in agony – they read the Court’s opinions and/or talk to someone who understands what the legal issues were and what the Court actually decided.

Religious “Persecution” In a Pluralist Society

Yesterday afternoon I delivered the Thirty-Seventh Annual Giannella Memorial Lecture at Villanova University School of Law. Told I could speak on any topic broadly related to law and religion, my topic was What is Religious “Persecution” in a Pluralist Society?

In my talk, I explored the question of how we should think about what we mean by religious persecution in a pluralist society like the United States and whether we should be concerned with the use of the term “persecution” for the kind of issues that have given rise to that label in the United States.

After talking about why I think the term “persecution” is an inappropriate label for many of the instances to which it is applied, I spoke about why I worry about the use of the term “persecution” both with respect to those who utter the words and those who hear them.

My concern is that once someone sees themselves as “persecuted,” their instinctive reaction is to fight and resist. And the fight becomes fierce because a kind of circle the wagon mentality arises and anyone outside that circle is the enemy. And when we are talking in religious terms, the enemy is evil. If I believe I am persecuted, I must fight to defend myself. It is not just that someone disagrees with me, I am being attacked.

The result of language of persecution is demonization of those who disagree. In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss writes,

The myth of persecution is theologically grounded in the division of the world into two parties, one backed by God and the other by Satan. And everyone knows that you cannot reason with the devil. Even when the devil is not explicitly invoked, the rhetoric of persecution suggests that the persecutors are irrational and immoral and the persecuted are innocent and brave. In a world filled with persecution, efforts to negotiate or even reason with one’s persecutors are interpreted as collaboration and moral compromise. We should not attempt to understand the other party, because to do so would be to cede ground to injustice and hatred.

This, then, is the problem with defining oneself as part of a persecuted group. Persecution is not about disagreement and is not about dialogue. The response to being ‘under attack’ and “persecuted” is to fight and resist. You cannot collaborate with someone who is persecuting you. You have to defend yourself. When modern political and religious debates morph into rhetorical holy war, the same things happens; we have to fight with those who disagree with us. There can be no compromise and no common ground.

Not surprisingly, this kind of attitude inhibits the ability to find any kind of common ground – indeed, to even acknowledge the possible existence of common ground.

There is also an unfortunate effect on those who hear the words. First, the more the language of religious persecution is used for things that are not really persecution, the greater the danger of trivializing the real persecution that exists. There becomes a real credibility problem that makes it much harder for people to take real threats against religion seriously. There is a bit of the “boy who cried wolf” too many times reaction. Moreover, many people feel that calling the kinds of things I’ve mentioned as examples here “persecution” cheapens and detracts from “real” instances of persecution around the world.

Second, the more language of persecution is used, the more likely it is the opponents of a broad concept of religious freedom will tend to argue that anything short of persecution ought to be acceptable. It makes persecution that which we seek to avoid, rather than claiming a strong positive space for things that fall short of an acceptable definition of persecution.

Third, people accused of persecution are also likely to go into a fight mode, creating the possibility of backlash that results in an even narrower understanding of what constitutes persecution and what kinds of protection ought to be granted on religious grounds.

For both – for both those who claim to be persecuted and those accused of doing the persecution, the language of persecution ratchets up the “crazy” emotion, creating dangerous polarization. Candida Moss calls the language of persecution “discursive napalm, ” dialogue-ending language – and I think there is much truth in her conclusion that “In the political and religious arenas, [abandoning the narrative of persecution] would allow us to find common ground in debates that are currently sharply polarized. Rather than demonizing our opponents, we could try to find points of agreement and work together.”

The failure to do so risks turning some people off to Christianity altogether. That is a sad and unfortunate result – if people view Christians as cry-babies who rant about persecution, our evangelization efforts will falter; people will be much less likely to be able to hear the message of Christ.

The entirety of my remarks will be published in the Villanova Law Review.

Spiritual and Religious

As I plan for my upcoming Camino, I’ve been checking in periodically on a Camino forum, which has much useful information from people who have already been in pilgrimage. The other day, I noticed a question on the forum that asked how those who had already done the Camino would define the difference between a spiritual or a religious experience on the Camino. The question resulted in many people sharing their understanding of the difference between spiritual and religious.

Given the rise of the increasing numbers of people who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious,” I was interested in how different people distinguish between spirituality and religion.

One person wrote,

A religous experience would be one that brings you to feel closer to God.
A spiritual experience would be one that makes you grow as a person.

Another suggested that

Religious [is an] action , experience, or motivation that is related in some way to a particular faith, be it Christian, Muslim, Jew,…[and] Spiritual – An action, experience or motivation that is metaphysical and about the spirit world, not of a particular faith tradition.

A third opined that

A Religion is an organisation of like-minded worshippers, engaging in various activities organised around the commonality of their beliefs. A Spirituality is any mystical sense of either transcendental or immanent direct connection between the soul or spirit and either the presence of a sublimated reality or manifestatioons of a higher (or different) plane of existence. All religions include a Spirituality, but not every Spirituality is religious.

The second and third say largely the same thing and have some truth to them. The first strikes me as not helpful, as I would argue that any religious experience that brings one closer to God also helps one grow as a person and that, by definition a spiritual experience brings one closer to God (although the person experiencing it may not use the term “God”).

Do others think of the terms in differnt ways?

Praying for Rain

It is no news to anyone that the Midwest, indeed, much of the United States, has been experiencing ongoing drought. (The area affected by the drought is the largest since 1956.) The lack of rain is wreaking havoc on farmland and will effect all of us.

I saw several Facebook comments yesterday that the Council for Secular Humanism was upset at a comment by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that he gets on his knees every day and says a prayer for rain. He is not the only one; while I don’t pray on my knees, I have been praying every day for rain. (And when it rains here in the Twin Cities, I say a prayer that the rain reaches the southeastern part of the state, where my CSA farm is located.)

I confess that I am puzzled by the ire of the Council. Vilsack neither claimed that prayer was the government’s recommended response to the drought nor that anyone else should pray. So the claim that his remark was “just government entangling itself with religions” is a strange one.

It seems to me that the comment of the Council had nothing to do with constitutional concerns and everything to do with simply objecting to prayer.

I understand and accept that some people wish to lead their lives without God. While it is true that I pray for them as I pray for everyone else, their existence doesn’t offend me. And, while I hope, that by my life and example, I am able to show people that living a Christian life is something worth emulating, and I support the right of atheists to live without doing so.

What I do find offensive is the expressed goal of some atheist groups (and individual atheists) to wipe religion out of existence, the view that all of us must give up religion in order for them to be happy. One of my FB friends asserted that “because it’s the 21st Century…people must give up religious superstition, in order to proceed.”

There is an enormous difference between secularism and the kind of militant hostility to religion expressed by many atheists. I do think it is a legitimate subject for discussion the extent to which, for example, religious beliefs ought to have a privileged position over nonreligious beliefs – that is something we can talk about and will not necessarily agree about.

But we need to find some way to live more respectfully with people who disagree even on something so fundamental as the existence of God, because I’m pretty confident that despite anyone’s best efforts at persuasion, there will always be people who are religious and people who are not.

Practicing What We Preach

As virtually everyone knows, Mitt Romney, the almost-certain Republican nominee for President, is a Mormon. Many people in this country have very strong views against Mormonism. And I have heard any number of Christians claim that Mormons “are not really Christians.”

Most of what non-Mormons know about Mormonism consists of things like: Mormons once practiced bigamy…Mormons don’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol…Mormons send their young people around knocking on people’s doors…Mormons believe some funny story about Jesus appearing to someone in the United States.

A recent Pew study reveals some other facts about Mormons that give all of us who call ourselves Christians something to think about These include:

Mormons on average devote about nine times as many hours a month to volunteers activities than do other Americans.

Mormons generally tithe to their churches and donate approximately another $1000/month to non-church charities. (Even Mormons with low income tithe and give more of their income to charity than other Americans.)

In short, as John Diiulio observes in an article in America magazine, “most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practice what they preach about helping the needy.” Another scholar called Mormons “the most pro-social members of American society.”

None of this has anything to do with the Presidential campaign, apart from the fact that Romney’s campaign puts Mormonism on people radar screens in a way it would not be otherwise. But, while they are on our radar screen, instead of criticizing Mormons on their brand of Christianity, it might be worthwhile figuring out what the Mormon church is doing right and what we can learn from them.

Denominational Affiliation

After reading my blog post of yesterday, one of my readers sent me an e-mail that read in part:

[W]hy Catholic, or Baptist or Presbyterian, Evangelical, Pentecostal, etc. Jesus had no affiliation with any of these denominations….His followers were simply called “Christians.” Our attempt at defining Christ through human eyes has led to denominational divisions which are, in a majority of cases, not God glorifying. Will we ever hear the simple response, “I am a follower of Christ,” without the qualifying denominational affiliation? When Jesus called His Apostles it was with a simple “come follow me.” We seem to spend tremendous time and energy “defending” denominational views and positions at the expense of promoting His simple, yet immutable message….Jesus came to establish a kingdom, not denominations/religions.

To a large extent I sympathize with my reader’s comment and think the question he poses is a good one. Christian is a far more important designation for me than Catholic – what is fundamental to me – and defines who I am in the world – is Christ and the reality of his incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

Having said that, I think, “come follow me,” was probably a clearer command when Jesus was standing right there in the flesh talking to his disciples. When they had differences among themselves or weren’t sure what he meant by something, they could ask him about it. (“In the house the disciples again questioned him about this.”) And if they got something wrong, he could correct them. (“We saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

We don’t have that luxury. While we have prayer and the Holy Spirit to guide us, we have to discern answers to questions that are not always so clear. Inevitably, there will be disagreement about how to answer those questions, disagreements about what it means to follow Christ. We can all agree on the broad command (love God, love one another), but we don’t have the same agreement on the answers to a host of more specific questions that have to do with the implementation of the broad command. Indeed we don’t even all agree as to what issues are central to being a faithful follower of Christ.

To the extent that disagreement is inevitable, so to, I think, are different denominations, which get formed when people articulate one or more areas of disagreement on what appear (at least to them) to be matters of fundamental importance to the faith. It is important for people to have communities of faith with whom they can gather (for communal worship or otherwise) and those will, inevitably I think, become formed along something like denominational lines (whether we give them names like Evangelical, Pentecostal, etc or not). And that makes people’s efforts to understand where they “belong” quite natural.

That does not mean to say there is not a tremendous amount of energy wasted “defending” denominational views and positions that seem to me to have little to do with Jesus’ central message – and to that extent, I share my reader’s sentiment (especially since defending one’s own denomination often becomes “my brand is better than your brand” or, worse, “your brand is evil.”) That energy could be better spent preaching the Gospel. Nonetheless, while it is true that “Jesus came to establish a kingdom, not denominations/religions, I think it unrealistic to think we will ever do away with denominational affiliations.

How We Tell Our Story

A recent issue of Commonweal magazine contained a column by John Garvey that is worth paying some attention to.

In a piece titled Telling the Christian Story: Make it Humble & Make it Persuasive, Garvey reminds us that we no longer live in world where there is a single shared overarching culture (“no prevailing mythos, no Christendom or Byzantium or Holy Roman Empire”) and that our sense of identity is much more a matter of individual choice than it once was. As he observes, “people experience a sense of choice about belief, whether the belief has to do with faith, politics, ethics, or aesthetics.”

Many long for a return of the world the way it used to be. However, the reality in which we live has important ramifications, that I think are well summed up in the subtitle of his piece. Garvey elaborates:

the church of the future must understand that the status quo ante can’t be restored….We are on new ground, with no recourse to any common surrounding story; nor, given the scandal in all our churches, to any institutional moral authority. The argument now must be humble and persuasive, and the message must be the basic story itself. Does the church remember what that is? Can it tell the story as a matter of life and death, and make it mean something to people who have no reason to believe that bishops or priests have anything to offer?

Sadly, I fear there are some who will scoff at Garvey’s suggestion, who will deride the suggestion that any humility or persuasion is called for, expecting that people ought to simply accept what the church says because it says it.

But there is a hungry world out there, and a lot of people longing to find something that offers meaning. I always have believed Christianity has something real to offer to the world and its people. I think Garvey’s words are important if we want to “get people to pay attention to what Christianity can mean in particular lives.”

What Good is God?

I just finished reading an advance copy of What Good is God?: In Search of a Faith that Matters, by Philip Yancey. The book, which is scheduled to be published on October 19, 2010, was sent to me by the Hachette Group. Although I haven’t read Yancey’s earlier books, reading this one makes me anxious to do so.

“What Good is God?” is a question, Yancey suggests, that “occurs in some form to every person who experiences pain or death or poverty or unfairness – in other words, to everyone.” The book reflects Yancey’s attempt to answer that question in a positive and hopeful way – to demonstrate that there are reasons for us to dare to hope “that somehow God can wrest permanent good out of this flawed planet and us its flawed inhabitants.”

Over the years, Yancey has spoken all around the world to varied groups and he uses that experience as a way to present his thoughts. He picks ten of his speaking engagements at different places, ranging from Virginia Tech to Mumbai and from the Bible college he attended to China. For each, he gives us two chapters, the first of which presents the story of the place and people he is with and the second of which presents the talk he gave on that occasion. It is an effective way of proceeding.

Each of the parts of the book offers a different gloss on Yancey’s ultimate faith that God is at work in the world, albeit not always in the ways we expect or would like him to be. His powerful encounters with professional sex workers convince him that God’s grace can reach even those who view themselves as the lowest of the low; he listened to numerous “gripping accounts of what happens when a woman rejected by everyone else suddenly grasps that she is not rejected by God.” His experiences in China reveal that, no matter what the obstacles, “God goes where he is wanted,” and “that the kingdom of God grows from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down.” Spending time on the campus of Virginia Tech after the massacre there and in Mumbai, Yancey saw the ways in which church can be a place of comofrt, how “[t]rue healing, of deep connective tissue, takes place in community.”

Some readers will not share Yancey’s hopefulness. Too many want God to answer in ways that make more sense to us, reasoning that if God does not directly and forcefully intervene to prevent suffering, then he is no good at all.

Ultimately, however, I think Yancey is right that God chooses to reveal Godself not by Superman-like stopping of oncomings trains, but by “ordinary people like us….We are the ones called to demonstrate a faith that matters to a watching world.”

Difference and Similarities Among Religions

One of the books I just finished reading in connection with my own writing is Stephen Prothero’s recently published book, God is Not One. Prothero, a serious and highly-regarded scholar of religion, is reacting against those who claim that all religions are essentially the same.

I agree completely with Prothero that it is folly to pretend that there are no differences among religions and that such pretense is dangerous. Like him, I think it is important to have a “realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate.”

Having said that, I think it is important to be careful in determining what differences are significant and what differences are merely a matter of using different terms to refer to concepts that are very similar. One of Prothero basic arguments is that religions are fundamentally different in their diagnosis of the human problem and their prescription for solving it. However, I find the some of the distinctions he draws between religions in this important regard to be overstated.

In distinguishing Buddhism and Christianity, for example, Prothero argues that for Christianity the problem is sin and the solution or goal is salvation, whereas for Buddhism the problem is suffering and the solution is nirvana. However, that distinction ignores the fact that the fundamental delusions we operate under that Buddhism believes cause suffering and the delusions that cause alienation from God (sin) are very similar, if not the same.

Some of the other differences Prothero discusses between religions seem to me to be based on overbroad generalizations and do not seem as stark as he suggests. In distinguishing between Christianity and Confucianism, for example, he says Christianity draws a sharp distinction between the secular and the profane, although he at another part of his book acknowledges that Christianity is also about hallowing ordinary things, calling to mind the Jesuit notion of finding God in all things. In distinguishing Christianity from several other religions, he talks about orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy, using the example of the Creed, which proclaims, “I believe.” But a proper understanding of “credo” would acknowledge that the creed is not simply a matter of intellectual assent but about an embrace of the heart which has as much to do with orthopraxy as orthodoxy. (David Steindl Rast’s Deeper than Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed does a wonderful job elucidating this theme.)

I think Prothero’s book is a good an important book. But I make these points because I think it is essential that, while we not pretend that all religions are the same, we look to find those places of congruence that do exist. That makes it very important to look deeply to be sure things we claim are different are in fact truly different and not merely different means of expressing very similar concepts.