what is the nature of a Supreme Spiritual Being?

"Divine Presence" "Supreme Spiritual Being"

KELLEPICS / Pixabay

In the last blog post, I spoke about the existence of gods (small-g plural), ghosts, and spirits. I concluded based on my own experiences and those of millions around the world that these phenomena are, in fact, real. I also concluded that they aren’t to be messed with in this realm. But what about God, a Supreme Spiritual Being, a Divine Presence or a deity that has the attributes of what we might attribute to God?

Mulholland Drive

EvgeniT / Pixabay

Encounter with a Divine Presence

Many people—myself included, have felt the presence of who or what we might call God. I can testify that it is very different than the presence of a lower spirit or deity. This encounter happened to me at the age of 22 when I lived in Los Angeles. I was walking along Mulholland Drive in the early evening on the top of the mountain-hill that separated the San Fernando Valley from the rest of L.A. It was a mostly empty stretch of two-lane road with switchbacks, with few buildings visible, and the lights of the Valley below me. It was while I was walking that I suddenly *felt* this presence. Felt it in a way that was similar to how I might feel the presence of a person near me before I turn around and actually see them. Except this presence was much larger than me and floating above the switchback I was walking around. This was completely unexpected. For me, the presence I felt was powerful, deeply loving, and brought tears to my eyes. This Divine Presence told me that they loved me, and had wonderful plans for me. I was also told other things too personal to reveal here. This encounter occurred two months before I was scheduled to embark on a nine month cross-country journey, one which would change my perspective on things forever.

Did I feel the presence of the Supreme Spiritual Being? Would I call this presence God? I don’t know whether it would be more insulting to God to say that the presence I encountered was certainly God, or if it would be selling God short to say that I don’t know if it was actually God I was encountering. I do feel confident that the source of this presence was aligned with the greatest force for good in the Universe, and as such, was of the Supreme Spiritual Being. At the same time, I honestly couldn’t say for sure if I felt the presence of God themselves or simply a messenger and/or angel representing God.

Honestly I’m not sure to what extent it matters. I would argue that what was more important in this case was the feeling I had from my encounter with what I believed to be God. If I came away feeling loved and unconditionally loving everyone, and with an overwhelming desire to help humanity in any way I could, then I would consider that to be an encounter with a loving deity. And as such, it really doesn’t matter if my encounter was with an angel, a god of this Earth, a Sun God, or the God of the Universe, nor does it matter if they are separate deities or one and the same. It was, without any doubt whatsoever in my mind, a Divine Presence.

How do we know what is Divine?

The Bible has wisdom about this shared by Jesus in Matthew 7:15-20. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”

This is sage advice. This quote is referenced in the Baha’i Faith, as well as a Japanese New Religion I used to be involved with. Ironically, I ended up leaving both religions because I concluded that the fruits they were producing were not free from corruption.

But are we indeed qualified to make such judgments? It probably depends on our character. However, I have observed that if we are being led down the wrong way, we can be corrected if we are open to being corrected. I have observed this in my life many times.

I have felt guided for much of my life. I have been guided when I’ve felt most receptive to being guided. I believe that God/The Universe has guided me in and out of spiritual paths so that I could learn from all of them. I have made decisions that on the surface appeared irrational yet ended up being the best decisions that I have made. And I’ve made blunders—that is where my course can be corrected, and it has been corrected many times. And I believe that anyone is capable of being guided if they have an open enough heart.

What does this then say about the nature a Supreme Spiritual Being?

My personal experiences incline me to rule out atheism, pantheism or pandeism, since these deny the current existence of spirit. My experiences also incline me to rule out polytheism—polytheism might be real, but the worship of lower gods could lead us astray depending on who we worship. That leaves monotheism, monism, panentheism, and animism.

Let’s start with monism. The idea that everything in the Universe comes from a singular origin might be true, especially since such a singularity is postulated in the Big Bang Theory. However, the notion that the entire Universe grew out of a singularity has not been observed, but simply hypothesized by extending the observations we’ve made about the growth of the Universe to a logical beginning point. There is so much about the Universe we don’t know, and much of the prevailing theory about its development depends on the existence of dark matter and dark energy that we’ve only postulated about, but have not yet actually discovered. We can’t rule out that some other process might come into play that could take the early history of the Universe in a different direction. Notably, some Hindu teachings speak of a cycle of universes beginning and ending. Some scientists dispute the notion of a singularity and postulate a cycled birth and death of universes. As such, we can only say that we don’t know whether Monism is true or not.

It can be argued that monotheism has a decidedly mixed history on this Earth. Few would view Jesus as a deceiver of any kind or being anything but good, but many would argue that the Christian religions have evolved in ways Jesus never intended, and they certainly have a bloody history that would be inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings. But is this a fault of monotheism, or the way that it developed with modern religions? It should be noted that Hindus, as members of a religion that could be regarded as monotheistic, polytheistic, or fit into other categories, are not immune to sectarian violence.

Some would argue that the logic of monotheism combined with a rigid good vs. evil dualism ends up creating an artificial distinction between right and wrong. This dualism  results in people and practices being labeled good or evil, and the feeling that “evil” in this case must be eradicated. Certainly the Old Testament provides many examples of cruel, dehumanizing treatment of people conquered by the Israelites and it actually implies the belief that these atrocities were somehow righteous in God’s eyes. In writing about this, I wonder if the ultimate purpose of this passage of the Old Testament is intended to glorify such cruelty, warn us about the overwhelming desire for “good” going horribly wrong, or if it’s there to actually test people on their perception of good and evil.

As for the encounter I had in Los Angeles, I truly do not know if my encounter was with a monotheistic God, but I had little doubt this Divine Presence was connected with infinite goodness. Maybe that’s what is more important, the infinite goodness rather than than the question of monotheism. Therefore, I will put the question of monotheism on the shelf for now.

There is also the theory of panentheism, the belief that the Divine is within and part of everything in the Universe. Related to this is the belief in animism, the belief that all things in the Universe possess their own distinct spiritual essence. These beliefs wouldn’t necessarily be inconsistent with each other–could something be a part of or the creation of the Divine and at the same time be distinct?  Nor would they necessarily contradict monotheism—it could instead a way looking at the Divine from a different angle.

Logically, wouldn’t the Universe be a better place if we were to treat everything as of Divine Origin, from a panentheistic or animistic origin?  This is no small question. In fact, this is the question of our times. Our disregard for the Earth these days may have much to do with how divine we think the Earth is.

Animism has been treated by many scholars as a sort of “primitive proto-religion.” Yet modern human beings may very well be the primitive ones. Many so-called “primitive” cultures believe that all living things have a soul. For the, the question becomes how to interact appropriately with animals, plants, and other resources that the earth gives us. Many cultures have a belief that since these have a spiritual essence, they must be interacted with respectfully. Some cultures will communicate with the spirit of the plant they are about to harvest, the meat animal they are about to slaughter, or the tree or branch they are about to cut down, and offer an explanation and/or thanks and gratitude. I know that I have sometimes felt this way about things that occur in the natural world, and even with objects made by humans.

While to modern human beings this might seem quite silly, compare and contrast this with the way we treat our planet. Think about the way a coal mining company thinks about a mountain when they think about mountain top removal mining. They don’t see the mountain for its beauty and spiritual essence, they see it only for the minerals that they can mine, and will destroy entire forests and streams in the process. Furthermore, we human beings have started what many scientists call Earth’s sixth mass extinction caused entirely by human activity. This extinction even extends to insects, many of whom are responsible for pollinating our plants and thus providing us with the food we need.

As such, from the standpoint of pure logic, it makes sense that we regard everything that we take from the Earth as sacred, and that we take only for necessary reasons. The wanton destruction of habitat and ecosystems must stop if we have a fighting chance to survive as a species.

Another noteworthy way that we can look at the question of animism is to ask ourselves if it is just living things (as we know them) that need to be treated with such regard. Astronomers are looking at other planets in our solar and wondering about their ability to harbor life. They are seeing some strong possibilities in Mars’s past and perhaps even the present.

Scientists do not yet know how life evolved out of these organic materials on Earth, but the evolution of the first life on Earth happened very early in its history. What if there was little difference spiritually between the first appearance of life on Earth and the organic material that harbored it? A speculative question, most certainly, but it could underline a notion that the difference between life and non-life is smaller than we might think, and that the level of “spirit” in what we consider non-living things may only differ from that of living things in degree and complexity.

And what about a mountain? Mountains are often highly regarded by indigenous cultures and even religions.The Earth is far from being the only celestial body in our Solar System to harbor mountains. Almost all of the tallest mountains are on other planets, and a recent flyby of Pluto has also revealed mountains, as well as other awe-inspiring features.

Artist’s rendering of Jupiter’s moon Io with a view of Jupiter. AlexAntropov86 / Pixabay

Indeed, couldn’t every star in the sky and every planet orbiting them be amazing spiritual phenomena? Our Sun, which formed from the gravitational collapse of matter into a sphere so hot and dense that it initiated nuclear fusion at its core, operating at millions of degrees, has been burning for 4.6 billion years, while a tiny percentage of its mass—less than half of 1%–formed all of the planets and minor planets, moons, asteroid belt, Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud. Many peoples have worshiped the Sun throughout history, and why not?—life would not be possible on Earth without it. Even the Moon has inspired worship throughout the ages.

All of the celestial objects in our solar system and other star systems have a story about how they coalesced into planets, moons, and other objects. How they spun off into their own form when their star formed., What elements they are composed of, what atmospheres they may have if any, and how they came to evolve that way. And the awe-inspiring vistas to be be found on their surfaces. The photos we’ve been able to take on and of other planets have been nothing short of spectacular and awe inspiring.

So at this point, I have an image of the divine that I would consider to be pretty much panentheistic and animistic.

I am convinced there is a Divine Presence everywhere in the Universe. And everything in the Universe has spirit and is sacred.  I believe this is important that we realize this with the challenging times we face before us.

why Mercury retrograde might be real even when it isn’t real

MiraCosic / Pixabay

A little over two weeks ago, astrologers reported that Mercury went into “retrograde”. Mercury retrograde is a period of about three weeks when, from the Earth’s standpoint, the planet appears to be moving backwards. Despite there being no solid scientific evidence of the accuracy of astrology, the phenomenon of Mercury retrograde feels real even to people somewhat skeptical of astrology. Based on my own experience and that of others, Mercury retrograde might be real even when it isn’t real.

Astrology then and now

Complex charts aside, the vast majority of astrology was originally based on a model of the Solar System and the Universe that puts the Earth in the middle of everything. Despite some sun-centric thinkers among the Pythagoreans (a rather fascinating group of people) mainstream Greek philosophy believed that the Universe centered around the Earth. Mainstream Greek philosophy also generally believed the Earth to be spherical in shape and that the Universe revolved around the Earth. Despite this earth-centric error which was disproved with the Copernican Revolution many remarkably accurate calculations were made about the stars and planets.

While astrologers today would not dispute the model of the Universe accepted by mainstream science some of the implications of the old model still exist. As such, the assumption about planets going retrograde is based on a model of the Universe which has now been disproved. Astrologers might claim that the appearance of Mercury from Earth is still the most relevant issue. But can they really argue that the assumptions based on the Earth-centric model of the Universe still hold in the new, science-backed model of the Universe?

Of course there are many types of astrology around the world, and even among Western astrologers, a few have changed their calculations to adjust to a heliocentric Solar System model. In 2015, an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune four years earlier created an uproar on the Internet when it published a scientist’s claim four years earlier that most people’s astrological signs were about one month off due to axial precession.  However, the ancient Greeks had the last laugh on this one because they’d actually discovered axial precession and had taken it into account despite not knowing that the earth wasn’t the center of the Universe. The scientist might have been accurate about sidereal astrology, which is based on the position of the constellations and is most commonly used in Hindu astrology. But most Western astrology has relied on a tropical model based on the position of the planets. As such, claims that the Zodiac had shifted were labeled “false” by Snopes.com, though Snopes did not pass judgment on the accuracy of astrology in that article.

In any case, Western astrology assigns certain characteristics to a pie slice of the Solar System. Each zodiac sign makes up 1/12th of the solar system, though they are no longer the part of the solar system associated with the constellation. Given, though, that the planets are closer to the Earth than the constellations, it would make more sense that the position of the planets would have more of an effect on Earth than the constellations. But back in ancient Greece, no planets beyond Saturn were known to exist.

Comfreak / Pixabay

Still, it’s Greek legends which give life to the constellations, which, like Mercury retrograde, are themselves somewhat of an illusion. They are illusions to the extent that their characteristics are based only on the angle as seen from this part of the Universe. From a completely different point in the Universe, the constellations look very different. So these constellations and planets are based on Earth myths, and specifically Greek legends. (Myths from other parts of the world have been honored with two recent dwarf planet discoveries: Haumea and Makemake.)Yet we are expected to believe that these Greek legends have impact on our personality by virtue of the part of the Solar System we were born in.

Think about it. The Greco-Roman pantheon of gods is, at the most, 3,000 years old.  Most of the planets in the solar system are in the neighborhood of 4,500,000,000 years old. So how is it that a human image of a god less than one-millionth of age of all the planets accurately represent the planet?  The ancient planet that humans call Mercury could care less about the pantheon of gods that humans from a small part of our planet came up with.

The structure of the Solar System

Furthermore, in the way that the Solar System is divided up, there is a certain symmetry to the astrological signs which doesn’t seem to correspond to reality. For example, each of the slices of the Solar System pie are given characteristics of elements–Fire, Earth, Air, and Water— and qualities consisting of either Cardinal, Fixed, or Mutable . Each astrological sign is given a unique combination of elements and qualities, but if you look at them on the chart, they seem to be neatly symmetrical and equally spaced.

Dieter_G / Pixabay

But the more we learn about our Solar System, the more complex and messy it really is. We now know that the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have qualities that make them very different from Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Recent decades of research has pointed to the discovery of a wide array of Trans-Neptunian Objects. Then we have the Asteroid Belt in which its largest known object, Ceres, was once classified as a planet, then an asteroid, but which now has been promoted to “dwarf planet,” the same status as to which Pluto was demoted to in 2006. This shift was based upon the discovery that there might be more than 200 hundred such planets in the Kuiper Belt and 10,000 outside the Kuiper belt.  Many of these have asymmetrical orbits.  (Though it can be argued that the dwarf planets are more similar to the inner planets than the gas giants because unlike the other planets, the gas giants have no solid surface upon one which might stand.)

As such, can astrologers really have an accurate picture of the Solar System, given that we now know it to be far bigger and more complex than the ancient Greeks knew it to be?

Yet many people swear by astrology, and even those who don’t notice some remarkably similar properties identified by astrology.

My personal experience with astrology

I believed in astrology more when I considered myself to be a practicing pagan in the early 1990s. In fact, I astounded pagans and non-pagans alike with my uncanny ability to accurately guess a person’s astrological sign. I remember a party I went to where I guessed the correct signs with six people in a row! Sometimes it was intuition—I remember looking at a woman and my mind saw an image of a lion’s head, so I correctly guessed Leo. Other times, it was me just guessing based on what I perceived their element and their quality to be. Oddly, when I moved away from paganism to a more monotheistic religion, my ability to guess diminished to the point that my accuracy was less than what might be divined by chance.

Devanath / Pixabay

Yet, going back to the 2015 controversy over astrological signs allegedly, having shifted, I remember investigating this claim by reading the sign I supposedly really have. I was born smack in the middle of Cancer, and I have often found its (admittedly vague) description of me to be fairly accurate. So I looked up Gemini, which I supposedly “really” was, and read the description of people under that sign. The first few paragraphs were inconclusive, then later on I found myself saying to myself, “Not really,” “no way,” and finally “hell no!”

So when people report cars breaking down, computers crashing, printers failing, and misunderstandings all over the place during Mercury retrograde, does that mean that this phenomenon is real?

I think the answer is yes and no. I think the phenomenon of Mercury retrograde is real, but not for the reasons astrologers think.

Mercury retrograde and other astrological phenomena are real only because so many people believe it to be real.

My experience is that these thoughts are so powerful that they can even influence people who might not share those thoughts. And so, after I stopped considering myself a pagan and stopped believing in astrology, I discovered after a period of time that this Mercury retrograde thing still appeared to be real. There would be instances where something Mercury retrograde-like would happen, causing me to look online, and then discover that Mercury was indeed in “retrograde.” There were, of course, a few times when this did not happen, and a few times where Mercury retrograde was approaching within two or three weeks but had not yet occurred.

After a while, however, I felt the need to observe this phenomenon and prepare for it, and doing so has often resulted in a lot of positive outcomes. For example, Mercury retrograde appears to be a great time for reflection as well as finishing unfinished business. I have taken full advantage of this time to my benefit. Maybe it is just in my head, but it’s also in the heads of millions of other people.

Like ghosts that humans around the world have seen for millenia, thought waves and their power on the surrounding environment have not been directly observed or quantified by the scientific community. But it doesn’t follow that ghosts or thought waves don’t exist. We just haven’t proven scientifically that they exist. Many people—including many scientists—subscribe to the fallacy that what hasn’t been proven scientifically it doesn’t exist. For this reason, many scientists assume that the Universe is very empty because they think that all that we have thus far found is all that exists.

The value of mystery

We modern humans have become so overconfident in our technological prowess that we have forgotten about the value of mystery. It is okay sometimes to not know for sure whether something exists or not. It is much wiser to base your actions on uncertainty than false certitude. Agnostics seem comfortable with this way of thinking, whereas some atheists’ belief in the non-existence of God is so strong that their fervor and self-righteous thinking begins to resemble that found in fundamentalist followers of religion.

It is better to accept that some things are a mystery rather than express certainty about a belief that is probably at least partially false. It’s fine to believe something but there’s a difference between belief and unfounded certitude. By calling something a belief, you are stating your own sense of what you think is likely true, but you also allow for the possibility of not being 100% correct. The religious people who state with absolute certainty about what will happen to them when they die are making themselves look foolish. They really don’t truly know—they just read something, decided it was the truth, and then closed their minds to the possibility that something else might be true. This in and of itself is sad, but then when they push hard to make other people share that same worldview, disaster can only result.

So is Mercury retrograde real, real in a different way than previously thought, or is it the product of a large number of misinformed people? I’m going to say “quite possibly” to all three statements and then walk away with a smile. Anyone who is honest with themselves and the world around them should do the same.

the holiday season 2018

jill111 / Pixabay

This is a time of year that many people around the world refer to as “The Holiday Season.” In the view of most Western Christians, it is a time when Christmas is celebrated as well as the American Thanksgiving and the Gregorian New Year. I, however, have a slightly different definition of just what consists of the holiday season.

Fundamentally, much of the holiday season is shaped by the period of time around the December Solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the day characterized by the longest night and the shortest days, and the point from which the days begin to grow longer. It is the time after which the last of the fall harvest is collected. In most agricultural societies, it is the time with the least amount of work and the most amount of time for reflecting. It is a time that would naturally lend itself towards spiritual matters.

Most Christians agree that Jesus was not born on December 25th.  Many scholars believe that the Catholic Church in the 300s CE declared December 25th to be the day of Jesus’s birth as an effort to compete against popular religions at the time and draw more people to the Christian religion. Many scholars place the date of Jesus’s birth in either the autumn or the spring. Yet, Christmas as celebrated in December has become the cornerstone for both a religious and secular holiday season. Nevertheless, it is a time of year when many religions celebrate important holidays, not just Christianity. It is worth noting that some common themes often emerge when looking at this holiday season.

The nature of the Winter Solstice has an enormous impact on holidays in several different religions. Yule has pre-Christian and Pagan origins, and some form of worship at the time of the Winter Solstice goes back centuries, if not millenia. In Iran, the Winter Solstice is celebrated as Yalda.

The Hindu celebration on January 14 of Makar Sakranti, also known in some parts of India as Lohri or Pangal, is related to the lengthening of the days of the year, despite being three weeks later than the actual December Solstice. It the celebration of the passing of the sun into Capricorn (according to Vedic astrology—Western astrology would date this at Winter Solstice.) Westerners would find familiar some of the themes of this holiday including dedication to the sun and a time for reconciliation between enemies.

The Hawaii-based Himalayan Foundation, publishers of Hinduism Today, saw a need to have a time for Western practitioners of Hinduism to celebrate during the Western holiday season. They decided to institute the holiday of Pancha Ganapti, a five day holiday festival which celebrates the different aspects of the god Ganesha.

Some African-Americans have also sought to redefine the American holiday season for themselves out the need for a spiritual holiday that would reflect their own history, culture and heritage. Kwanzaa was developed as a result. While not tied with a specific religion or spiritual leader.

Other spiritual events and leaders are commemorated during this time as well. Zoroastrians celebrate the passing of their founder Zarathrusta on December 26th. (Historically, many cultures put as high of an emphasis on the death of religious figures as the date of their birth, as evidenced by the fact that Easter was celebrated before Christmas in the Christian faith.) The Buddhists celebrate Bodhi day on December 8th, the day they believe Gautama Buddha reached enlightenment. Sikhs celebrate the birth of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib on January 5. He lived from 1666-1708 CE, and was the tenth and last human Sikh Guru. He was very influential in the religion’s development. At his death, he declared that the collection of holy Sikh scripture known as the Granth replace him as the Guru for all Sikhs.

Many Jews living in Christian dominated countries have chosen to give greater emphasis on the Jewish Holiday of Hanukkah, which occurs between early and late December. Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean revolt against the Selucid Empire between 167-160 BCE. The successful revolt allowed Jews to practice their religion once again after not being allowed to under the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV, and they were able to rededicate the Second Temple.

Finally, it must be noted that the Islamic calendar may or may not have important holidays during this season. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar whose months are 29 or 30 days and whose years are 354 or 355 days long. Because of the difference in the length of the year between the Islamic calendar and solar calendars like the Gregorian, the dates that Islamic holidays fall will change each year. The “Birth of the Prophet” in Islam fell on December 1 of this year.

The richness of the holiday season combined with the spiritual symbolism of reflection and renewal are among the reasons why I chose the December Solstice as the first day of the year for the Earth Epic Calendar. Its proximity to the beginning of the year to the most widely used calendar in the world is another reason—it makes for an easier transition. But the principal reason I created this calendar is to reflect that incredible amount of gain in our understanding of the world, the Earth and our place within it. I wanted to liberate the calendar from religion, especially when religions date their calendars from the time of their own founding. Religions draw a line between the few hundred or thousand years since their founding and the billions of years prior to that time. I have always known in my heart that such a line was always artificial, and a distortion of our place and heritage on Earth. Only time and God/The Universe will determine whether others choose to pick up on this calendar or not.

Regardless of whether you might choose to take this calendar seriously or not, I truly hope you take advantage of this precious time of year to tune in with this period of reflection, renewal and celebration, in whatever form it may take.

i am no longer a baha’i — and i defy religious labels

Religious symbols (animated)

Religious symbols  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s clear to me that I am no longer a follower of the Bahá’í Faith. Nor do I subscribe to any other religious labels, either.

I’m not sure if I was ever fully comfortable calling myself a Bahá’í in the first place. In some ways I think I moved too quickly in declaring myself a Baha’i back in 2007.  I did so partially because I felt the need to connect with another established  spiritual path after leaving the Mahikari spiritual organization.

I’d been involved with Mahikari for the previous eleven years but had become very disenchanted with the frequency of contradictions, hypocrisies, and incidences of lying, manipulation and coercion that I was witnessing in the Mahikari organization. Near the peak of my frustrations, I picked up a copy of a Bahá’í book that had been in my personal collection for some time. I began reading the Bahá’í books alongside my daily Mahikari readings and found that the Bahá’í writings made a lot more sense to me than Mahikari. But in some ways, I think I might have more running away from Mahikari than running towards the Bahá’í Faith. And now I’m at the point where I find a lot in the Bahá’í organization and even the Bahá’í writings that I simply don’t agree with. I will always respect the Bahá’ís and consider them my friends (as opposed to Mahikari, which I consider  to be a harmful cult) but I do not consider myself to *be* a Bahá’í–either by my definition or the religion’s definition. The specific reasons why I’ll delineate in a future post.

I understand the desire to throw oneself so completely into a practice as to make it part of one’s identity and that was part of my motivation. But now I think that identifying with a religion so much as to say “I am” something–whether it be a Christian,  Buddhist, Bahá’í or Muslim creates two problems: 1) the risk of engaging in identity politics that could lead to identifying non-followers as the “other” and perhaps lead to conflict–even if that’s not the initial intention, and 2) religious identities– even as broad and inclusive as that of “Unitarian”–often keep people from seeing the truth in paths different from one’s own.

Then again, I’ve changed spiritual paths a lot in this lifetime. I make zero apologies for that. I was baptized Catholic mainly to keep the peace in a religiously divided extended family, but grew up in a liberal mainline Protestant church that I still have a lot of fond memories of.  Nevertheless,  I explored a number of religions in college. In the early 90s I was drawn to Paganism  due to the desire to be involved with earth-based spirituality. But I grew frustrated with the Pagan community I’d been involved with as it seemed too amoral and fractured to make any real difference. In 1996 I was drawn to Mahikari because its told a great story that seemed to explain today’s uncertain times quite well and aI had a great desire to get involves in a spiritual path I perceived to be addressing these uncertain times.

These continual changes are not due to indecisiveness. I think having a healthy grounding in multiple religions can give perspectives that someone in the same religion their entire life might not have.  Furthermore, I suspect that I have been guided into and out of these multiple paths by God/the Universe (which I imagine to be one and the same) for the purpose of my spiritual growth.

I’ve sometimes joked that I’m coming out of my “Bob Dylan born-again” phase. I was never a born-again Christian,  but for various reasons, from 1996 until the present I embraced religious paths that were more conservative in their nature (even if considered heretical by conservative American Christians). I was following what I felt drawn and guided to at the time.  I feel that I might not fully understand the reasons for this “conservative phase” of my life until some time in the future–maybe even in a future life. Part of it was based on my desire for a well-defined way forward in these uncertain times in which life on Earth is itself threatened. It also well could be that I needed to learn firsthand what it is like to be in a religion that is more conservative and more restrictive in its nature. One of the reasons for that might be to enable me to help others recover from religions that make them feel like sinners for deviating from religious doctrine.

I find myself moving away from doctrine altogether at this point. My religious beliefs have essentially been Unitarian for my entire adult life, but influenced or altered by whatever other path I was involved with the time.

While my beliefs may most resemble that of the Unitarians, the spiritual community and practice that I’m most drawn to at this point is the Quakers–that is, their “unprogrammed” services. While the vast majority of Quakers identify as Christian, a small minority consider themselves to be “non-Christian Quakers.”  In any case, the focus of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) is more on communing directly with God, and “unprogrammed Quakers” do this through sitting in Quaker meetings in silence unless and until someone feels “moved by the Spirit to speak.”

To my surprise, I found that happening to me at only the second Quaker meeting I ever attended.  Someone spoke a few minutes before I did, and immediately after a sentence popped into my mind.  I sort of meditated on the sentence for awhile and kept running it through my head. Then it occurred to me that the nature of the way it just popped into my mind already fully formed might mean that the idea originated outside of me–i.e. from God. So I stood up and spoke.

I said, “Silence is an open door, rather than a closed door with words written upon it.” Right now, that statement is the most accurate reflection of my feelings about religion and my religious practice at this time.

your boss’s religious exemption and you

First Floor at the Statute of John Marshall, q...

First Floor at the Statute of John Marshall, quotation from Marbury v. Madison (written by Marshall) engraved into the wall. United States Supreme Court Building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The US Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has opened the floodgates for supposedly secular companies to claim a “religious exemption” from rights that employees and potential employees would otherwise enjoy. Suddenly, a new reality is emerging that when a company owner’s religious beliefs conflict with that of their employees, the company owner prevails. That’s bad news for you if you don’t own a company.

 In case you’ve been living under a rock for the entirety of July, here’s an update. In the above court case, the Supreme Court agreed with Hobby Lobby’s assertion that they should be exempt from the Affordable Care Act‘s requirement that companies  providing insurance coverage to its employees include coverage for certain types of contraception. Hobby Lobby, as a family-owned company, was claiming a religious exemption despite not being classified as a religious organization.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was at times quite blunt in her dissent on the 5-4 majority ruling (in which all five voting in the majority were men and three of the four dissenting justices were women).  “In a decision of startling breadth,” she wrote, “the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Think the floodgates haven’t opened?  Think again.

A letter from fourteen people, including the leadership of twelve religious charities, requested a religious exemption from an executive order that would have required all federal contractors to avoid discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in their hiring practices.  I find the letter noteworthy in the coded language they use when trying to defend not hiring LGBT people.  George Fox University recently obtained a religious exemption from the U.S. Department of Education to deny on-campus housing to a transgendered student who had physically, mentally and legally completed the transition from female to male. While GFU is a Quaker educational institution, many Quakers have spoken out vociferously against GFU’s decision claiming that the act of denying on-campus housing violates Quaker values.

I found it interesting that Catholic Charities USA‘s CEO was one of the fourteen charity leaders that signed on to the letter, which was issued one day after the SCOTUS ruling.  I worked at Catholic Charities of Chicago through much of the 1990’s.  For decades, Catholic Charities of Chicago has secured federal and state grants to perform a variety of human services.  When I worked for them, they were very clear that they did not discriminate against non-Catholics or non-Christians, and that this is what enabled them to obtain such grants in the first place.  I can certify as a non-Catholic that I didn’t feel discriminated against and that the organization clearly embraced diversity.  One of my co-workers was gay and it was a pretty open secret.  He never talked about his experience as a gay person at the agency so I don’t know what it was like for him, but it seemed to me that he was highly regarded.

But Catholic Charities of Chicago hadn’t always been that way. Apparently, until the early 1980’s, Catholic Charities employees who became pregnant were required to quit their jobs. The story was that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin–a broad-minded, arguably liberal cardinal who was well-liked and deeply respected by all–eliminated that policy.  And while they didn’t encourage contraception, their AIDS liaison published a pamphlet about avoiding AIDS that said “And as for condoms–well, the Catholic Church doesn’t encourage the use of contraception.”  Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Some aspects of this ruling really stand out for me.

1)  This is not about the right to practice one’s own religion as one pleases, but a decision about who’s religious beliefs should get priority when a company owner’s religious beliefs conflict with that of their employees.

2)  This conflict between Hobby Lobby and its employees would not have surfaced had there been a public option in the Affordable Care Act.

3)  Hobby Lobby is not a religious organization, yet it can claim a religious exemption.

4)  While the First Amendment speaks against government establishing or favoring one religion over the other, there are few barriers that would, in effect, keep private company owners from de facto establishing a religion on its employees..

5)  There seems to be relatively little in the way of a litmus test to determine whether a belief is in fact a religious belief or not.  Christians differ on whether contraception is forbidden by the Bible or not. Many Quakers consider GFU’s decision to be antithetical to core Quaker values.

5)  Given that there is a trend and even a push towards more privatization of the public commons (i.e. schools, utilities, public spaces)  it may not matter whether government establishes an official religion or not if a private and powerful entity is pulling the strings.

In the meantime, Justice Ginsburg’s dissent has been put into song. (Though I don’t believe the phrase “slut-shaming geezers” is hers. She was blunt, but not that blunt.)

 

santa and the stork crossed paths in mid-flight halfway to our house (or, born while i was totally blogging this)

16 Masa’il 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  Cloud Cult, “You Were Born”

A baby boy was born right about the time that I finished the last blog post–about twenty minutes to midnight on Christmas Day.  This surprised me because I heard very little in the way of sound coming down the hallway.  I didn’t actually know until the next morning. I’ve caught only a little glimpse of him at this point–his parents have rarely left their room, but I have heard his crying down the hall from time to time. He has a name, but for the purposes of confidentiality, I will call him Noel in this blog.  Don’t ask me how I got the name–it just sort of came to me.

Here is a little video which I think serves as an appropriate greeting for him.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4VZF8PRvs0&fs=1&hl=en_US]

a new housemate is arriving…boy or girl?

15 Masa’il 167 B.E. (Baha’i calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Beat Pharmacy, “Nature’s Disco”

A few hours ago, I was engaged in an animated Christmas Day phone conversation with my dad in Albuquerque. At the end of the conversation, I put down the phone, stepped out of my bedroom, and saw an inkjet printed sign taped to the bathroom doorway that said “Samantha is in labor.  Please use this bathroom as little as possible.”

My housemate Samantha has been planning a home birth here at the co-op,  We’ve known about this since summer and the time has now arrived. I knew that her due date was this coming Monday, and I knew the chances were high that the child would be born this weekend.  Nevertheless, the sign definitely threw me for a loop.  I still found myself scratching my head, wondering what I should do, as if there was something I could do.

I walked downstairs and I saw some strange but likely beneficial herbs boiling in a large pot, and I knew they were related to the birth.  Then I saw the midwife and said hello to her.  She’d come to a house dinner a few weeks ago so she could get a sense of us and we of her, so I was not the least bit surprised to see her.  Her assistant arrived a few minutes later. They both looked serene, calm, and happy, which eased my nerves. 

As my co-op house’s secretary, it’s my job to copy down the upcoming house meeting agenda from the whiteboard and forward it via email to my house members. Two of them are out of town.   So I started the email, and as I did, I notified them of Samantha being in labor. Then I said, “Now here’s the house meeting agenda.  (How did you like that transition?  Smooth as a Chicago pothole.)”  At the end of the email, I quipped that the arrival of the new housemate wouldn’t likely have an impact on our policies regarding house meeting quorum, because such policies don’t actually exist right not.

I remember earlier in the year, a housemate talked about how she hoped she would be here for the delivery of Samantha’s baby.  I replied, “Well, I don’t think she’s installing bleachers in her bedroom.”  Now that the time arrived, I found myself wondering what a single guy like me should be doing when his housemate is in labor.

I noticed that soft music was emanating from Samantha’s bedroom, and I realized the best thing I could do was tune in with that energy.  So I walked into my bedroom, put on some of my own soft music, turned on only the Christmas lights in my room, lit an incense stick and started doing some writing and praying.  I’ll be going to sleep soon, and my sense is that this house’s population will have increased by one when I wake up tomorrow morning.

three years as a baha’i

17 Qudrat 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Kiltarten Road, “Carol Of The Field Mice”

Three years ago I walked up to the edge of Lake Monona, offered a prayer, meditated a little bit on my spiritual path up to that point, and signed a white card with blue printing declaring myself a Baha’i. 

To be honest, I was actually a bit numb when I signed the card. but looking back, it was a very precious time, a time of anticipation, longing and chain-reaction change.  Some of the best writing I’ve done occurred during that month, and the November air that month often felt charged, as if magic was occurring.

Three years later, I’m at my computer writing with the lights off except for the Christmas lights I have on in my room and the glow of my monitor. I can say that I feel more at home in the Baha’i Faith and more sure about the Faith than I did three years ago. 

The last post I made about the Birth of Baha’u’llah certainly sounds like someone with certitude.  I must confess that sometimes I look at my last post and think, “Am I really that sure about the Baha’i Faith?” 

There has always been a bit of a skeptic within me, and that’s not a bad thing.  I grew up seeing religious conflict within my family when my mom and her sister chose to leave the Catholic Church to the chagrin of their mother.  My mom was always a strong believer in mixing religion with common sense.  She was good about exposing me to religion without indoctrinating me, and I’m grateful for the full freedom my parents gave me to explore and choose my own religious beliefs.  (I also like the fact that Baha’is are obligated to give their children the same level of freedom I had to explore my beliefs.) 

I have certitude about God and the existence of God.  I feel like God has been guiding me through much of my life, and has given me a much more interesting and magical life than I would have dreamed up myself.  Too many wishes fulfilled that were too good to be true, and too many wishes denied that opened up yet other doors.  And far too many coincidences.

But why religion?  Can’t I just have my own experiences and be content with that? 

Of course, many ungodly things have been done in the name of religion, and having contended personally with religious fanatics in my own life, I fully understand why people prefer to say, “To-may-to, to-mah-to, let’s call the whole thing off.”

Nevertheless, I’ve seen too many good things come out of religion.  Religion has challenged me to be the best, most loving and most positive person I can be, and when it hasn’t done that, I’ve left the religion behind and gone elsewhere.

It’s not that religion makes a mess of people, it’s that people make a mess of religion.  Just as we humans made a mess of a whole bunch of things in this life, resulting in starvation, the mass extinction of species, toxins in our air, water, and soil, global warming that threatens to make our planet unlivable, and stockpiles of weapons numerous enough and strong enough to wipe out billions of people.  For a while, I thought that getting involved in politics could make a difference, but I’ve come to believe that this is akin to trying use mud to wash out an ugly stain. Why wouldn’t religion become tainted in such a world?

The path of this Different Drummer has been to look for the alternative to all this.  I’ve wandered off the more traveled path in search of a whisper of gentle voices and hearts beating amid the screaming and the chest-beating. 

The Baha’i Faith seems to fit that bill the best, with its exhortations for humanity to unite and for the religions to agree, for an end to war, racism, prejudice of any kind, and even backbiting, for the equality of men and women, the end to extremes of wealth and poverty, recognition of the unity of science and religion, and for the independent investigation of truth. 

Sure I’ve had my doubts.  Earlier this year, in an effort to be more certain about my beliefs one way or another, I began to really focus on the writings of Baha’u’llah in a way I hadn’t before.  That has made a difference, and I feel stronger about the Baha’i Faith than before. 

So, as I begin my fourth year as a Baha’i, I need to start thinking more about how I can contribute to the Faith and what my appropriate role within it is…

a dream–and a monty python skit–shine lights on my feelings about religion

6 Azamat 167 B.E. (Baha’i calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  Dusty Trails “They May Call Me a Dreamer”

I had an interesting dream the other night.  In this dream, I belonged to a religion that was relatively new–perhaps ninety years old or so–but which was growing very fast and becoming very popular.  It was attracting a lot of attention in the mainstream media and temples were quickly being established all over the country.

However, in this dream, I belonged to a sub-sect which felt that the religion had lost its way and become corrupt.  Our group was led by a short, middle-aged Indian man who was almost completely bald.  He said that our religion had strayed far from God’s intentions and that of our religion’s prophet, and that we needed to return to its origins. 

Our group worked to create change via a series of non-violent civil disobedience actions.  In one such action, we sneaked into one of the temples and gathered behind the stage as the minister was about to begin his religious service.  The minister was a forty-something man with shoulder-length hair, wearing a light blue Oxford shirt with his sleeves rolled up.  As the minister approached the lectern, he began raising his arms and said he was about to do a ritual prayer, the purpose of which was to bring financial prosperity to everyone in the room. 

Just as the minister was about to speak to the congregation, the Indian man who was our leader interrupted the minister, began to speak, and walked out on to the stage with a bunch of people from our group.  He spoke in a very calm, almost matter-of-fact manner about how our religion had lost its sense of purpose and that true change could only come about by tuning in more with God and returning to the writings of our religion’s founder.  The minister of the congregation looked on, dumbfounded as our leader spoke.  Security people from the temple rushed the stage.  As our leader continued to speak calmly, members of our group formed a circle around him, locking arms and sitting cross-legged to keep security away from him.

The rest of us rushed back through the rear of the stage and through the hallways of the temple.  We did this so as to distract the security people, and sure enough, a number of them pursued us rather than try to break up our leader’s speech.  A few of us quickly eluded our pursuers and found a temporary safe haven in the temple’s kitchen.  We looked out the back window of the kitchen and could see see other members of our group being carried out by police.  They were passively resisting arrest by going limp, remaining cross-legged and smiling, making it necessary for two cops to carry each group member by the shoulders.  Eventually, we also saw a white cargo van pull up. We knew that the cargo van was from our organization.  The driver got out, opened the rear doors of the van, and waited for us. 

Three of us took the lead in sneaking our group members out to the van.  I was one of the last ones to leave, and did so just as temple security discovered our hiding place.  I rushed outside, but was surprised to see our leader standing outside the van, smiling and casually chatting with other members of our group.  I don’t know how he managed to get out of the temple without being arrested, or why the police weren’t coming after him and the van, but he always seemed to have a mysterious ability to confound the religious authorities and elude capture.  Indeed, our leader seemed in many ways to be a prophet himself.

Then I woke up from my dream.  As I wrote down this dream, I realized that it spoke volumes about my feelings regarding religion.

As a Baha’i, I believe that Baha’u’llah breathed new life into religion and revealed teachings from God that are most relevant to today.  I also believe that Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses, Abraham and others were also prophets of equal stature to Baha’u’llah–divine souls perfectly tuned in with God and sent by God to create change on earth.  I also believe, though, that there comes a time when religious organizations drift from their original mission, and indeed, there are Baha’i Writings that point this out, too.  My observation of things done supposedly in the name of Christ and Muhammad, as well as my realization of the corrupt nature of the Mahikari organization (whose founder I do NOT recognize as a prophet) reinforces this concern.

In my view, people cause religious organizations to drift from their mission because of misunderstandings of certain teachings and a feeling that certain things somehow MUST be true because it fits within their own view of the world, not because it’s actually true. A desire for power and other idle fancies also may corrupt religious organizations. 

In my dream, my participation with the group of reformers is a reflection my feelings about the corruptibility of organized religion.  I believe in being obedient to God, but obedience to God sometimes means following one’s conscience even if that conscience contradicts the dictates of an organization claiming to speak for God. In this dream, I was seeking a higher sense of spiritual purity and purpose than what the mainstream religion was offering at the time. 

Yet there certainly are people who believe they are following their highest conscience but still actually corrupting the spiritual organization they belong to.  Such corruption can occur among both members of a religious establishment and reformers.

For such reasons, many people choose to eschew religious organizations altogether, considering themselves “spiritual, not religious.”  Where they come from is understandable, but I see problems with this approach, too.

There is little doubt in my mind that humanity has put itself on an ecological, economic, political, religious and spiritual collision course that threatens our well-being–and perhaps our very existence.  It is clear to me that change is necessary, and furthermore, that each of us is responsible for bringing forth that change.  The question in my mind, though, is this:  who is going to be able to bring about such a change?  Until 1993, I thought it might occur once the Republicans were booted out of politics at the federal level.  Then I thought maybe it would be progressive and Green politics. Over time, I began to see that the change that needed to occur was more fundamental than just on the political level.  It was clear to me that it also needed to occur on a spiritual level within every individual, and, as such, spiritual change needed to be promoted.  Hence, my involvement with spiritual organizations.

It is clear to me that change needs to occur, and that people need to come together somehow to create this change.  Spiritual organizations may be corruptible and capable of misleading people, yet without it, can change really occur?  Creating change without unity would probably resemble the gathering of philosophers below:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7u8Bb8_3NY&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

So I continue to struggle with this question.  In the meantime, I continue to absorb the Baha’i Writings.  I finished the Kitab-i-Iqan, and now I’m reading Baha’u’llah’s Eplstle to the Wolf, which I also consider to be a very good book.  For now, I’ve discontinued studying the Ruhi series, as it has become clear to me that the Ruhi series beyond Book 1 is as much about promoting the Faith as it is about learning about the Faith, and for me, I need greater certitude about the Baha’i Faith before I feel I can work to promote it…