Monday, April 17, 2006

a good idea

there is an intelligent and respectful conversation in the comments section of a post over in james’ blog, letters from the sanitarium. the crux of the matter is on what basis we believe homosexuality is right or wrong – where does that belief begin? do you get it from the Bible, or do you get it directly from your connection with God, or do you just think it’s icky and therefore must be wrong? are you a moral relativist who doesn’t really think anything is wrong? or are you working with the idea that the rightness or wrongness of an act is based on how much it hurts someone?

it’s getting pretty thick over there. but what i’m really enjoying is the tone of the conversation – there aren’t any ad hominems (the arguments that attack the character of the person who disagrees with you) and i don’t feel threatened, so i feel a little less scared about expressing the ideas that make up my own unique view of the world. since the medium is electronic, and the conversation has gone on for a few days now, i’ve had a chance to really sit and think about the issues instead of jumping in and babbling for paragraph after paragraph. which is, as you might have noticed, something on which i could improve.

of course, it’s james’ blog, after all, and that’s always been a pretty friendly place for me. so anyway.

what has struck me over the last few days (given the recent holiday) is the beauty of the diverse spiritual practices in the world. some practices (like the folks in the phillipines who nail themselves to crosses every year in acknowledgement of Jesus’ sacrifice) are pretty strange to me. some practices are lovely, moving, and incredibly meaningful for the participants. brian’s father, for instance, made it to a sunrise service yesterday at sunset beach – maybe twenty people on the beach, watching the sun come up, experiencing rebirth and eternal life in whichever way spoke to them at the time – but tied together in a powerful shared belief. it must have been wonderful.

Christian religions have also adopted symbols and worship from older religions, such as the idea of the cup, the bread and the incense used in Catholic services. Those are elements you’ll find in many Wiccan circles, which are meant to be re-establishments of the older religions. Who stole what from whom is, in my opinion, completely irrelevant – what matters is that these practices are sharing symbols.

A quick note on syncretism: MW defines it as "the combination of different forms of belief or practice," Some folks find that OK, others think that sharing things makes them less genuine or culturally relevant. I think both ideas are true. (Can you tell I've got a fair amount of Libra in my natal chart?)

A couple of years back I went to a Baptist church for the first time and as soon as I walked in I had to ask Brian, “Er… what’s that hot tub doing in the front of the church?”

Sheesh. How ignorant. Turns out that the baptismal pool is a place of intense power and meaning for Baptists – when there’s not a river handy, the pool becomes the place where your sins are washed away. And cleansing rituals are common all over the world – because, I think, we all do things we’d rather not have done, and at some point you have to let go of that guilt and move forward into life with the lessons you’ve learned.

Buddhist practices use water to chase away “demons” or what have you. Wiccans use water to anoint their circles (along with “sweeping” the circle, which also cleanses the space.)

I could go on for a long time. Physical acts of obeisance during prayer, birth rituals, marriage rituals, death rituals – they all have their own special and shared elements that contribute to a unique spiritual experience.

I have always thought of truth as a puzzle – where each piece is necessary for the whole picture to be seen. That’s how I see individual perspectives in life. But as far as spiritual practices, I really like James’ food analogy: “Some people prefer Italian and some prefer Chinese, but both foods are nourishing and equal. No one would say that Italian is the only food that one should eaten.” (Although I have to add that Chinese food with MSG makes me ill.)

This concept does not trivialize the matter of spiritual practices. I think this is a really appropriate comparison. All humans must eat. It’s one of those things you can’t get away from, unless you’re seriously mystical and fast on a regular basis. I certainly can’t go without food, ever. Does bad things for my mood management.

And while I do believe that some folks are perfectly fine without spiritual practices, the people I know who are non-religious atheists are acutely aware of the connections they experience between people, animals, and their environment. In my opinion, that’s as legitimate a spiritual experience as any other, if not as outwardly colorful.

(Yeah, yeah, there are always the nihilistic amoral exceptions.)

Brian got an 18-pound ham for Easter. Why? I don’t know, I think it’s a guy thing – gotta get a ham you have to wiggle into the roaster, you know? And I love ham. But you know, in about 48 hours it’s going to get really really old.

I love spaghetti and meatballs – oh just so yummy, especially with a lot of freshly grated mozzarella cheese and a big ol' hunk of garlic bread.

And chocolate? Don’t even get me started. Did anyone notice that this year Nestle came out with dark chocolate mini Easter eggs? Duckie and I got into quite the tussle.

This is a very close approximation to my enjoyment and appreciation of the diversity of spiritual practices – it’s something to be celebrated, not condemned. A good pot-luck dinner is great - you end up with vegetarian green bean casserole, someone brings devilled eggs, there are a coupla different pies, depending on the season, and oh if you're really lucky someone will throw some beer brats on the grill. It's the ones where everyone brings creamed corn that usually fall flat.

Excuse me, I'm getting a little off-track. Food, you know, it does it to me every time.

There’s a concept in Buddhism of a spiritual mentor. One of the best images I’ve run across is from Circling the Sacred Mountain. Robert Thurman is guiding his students through a meditation where their visualization was of their spiritual mentor smiling down on them, directly connecting with their meditation and their quiet thoughts. Right there with them.

This is not, to me, a figurative concept. You may say I take things too literally, but this idea resonated so strongly with me that I have happily internalized it.

Spiritual mentors are everywhere. I had always thought of Jesus Christ as a spiritual mentor, even if I didn’t know what to call the relationship. I went through a period where *shiver* Kali was my spiritual mentor. And a while back I discovered Kwan Yin, the boddhisatva of compassion and mercy. Here’s the picture I have on my bulletin board (from

Kwan Yin had achieved nirvana in her lifetime. She was ascending to heaven when she heard the cry of a child back on earth. That cry brought her back down – she simply could not leave anyone in suffering. So she exists still, here with us, foregoing her own nirvana, until all suffering is ended.

If a person calls on Kwan Yin, she is bound to answer. So if you ever catch me saying, “Kwan Yin, grant me patience!” it most likely corresponds to a particularly inconvenient tamper tantrum (either my own or my daughter’s.)

And taking this literally enables me to open up to compassion and mercy – mercy for those at whom I am angry, and mercy for myself.

I call on Jesus Christ when I feel overwhelmed with anger and my own intolerance of people whose thinking seems completely at odds with my own. Sometimes this has resulted in a discreet backing down during an online argument – or an attempt to frame a discussion in a way that is not hurtful and unkind. I understand that Jesus was a Boddhisattva warrior in his own right and could kick some serious hind end when the occasion called for it, but I have not yet connected with that aspect of his mentorship.

So for me, the question “What would Jesus do?” is completely relevant to my life and my actions. There are, of course, other beliefs that I don’t share with mainstream Christianity, but I like it we don’t agree on everything. For certain Brian and I don’t agree on everything. (Like, for instance, the wisdom of buying an 18-pound ham.)

There's this book that Duckie's Unckie Todd got me a long long time ago called "Goddesses." I can't find it online otherwise I would link it. It's an illustrated book with worldwide goddesses arranged alphabetically (so it's an oblique tool for alphabet studies, too.) It has Athena, Benzai-Ten, Chang-O, Diana, etc. Pele, Oya, Venus, Juno, the Wawalak, all kinds of global goddess figures. Yeah, Kwan Yin's there, too, along with a good portion of the stories about her. (I wish they had included Mary.)

And you know what I really adore about my husband? He thinks it's kinda cool that Duckie loves this book. (I'm especially happy that she doesn't rip the pages anymore.) He thinks it's great that she'll learn a very diverse set of opinions and ideas from mom and dad - and that she's obviously intelligent enough to keep her head above water, when the time comes to teach her how to swim in these sometimes choppy waters.


I loved Dogma. And I loved it mostly for these exchanges:

Rufus, the black disciple that got left out of the Scripture (played by Chris Rock), says: “He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name - wars, bigotry, but especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.”

Bethany (who is having a religious crisis to begin with): “Having beliefs isn’t good?”

Rufus: “I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can't generate. Life becomes stagnant.”

Towards the end of the movie, after God has made an earthly appearance, Rufus says to Bethany, “Are you saying you believe?”

And Bethany says, “No. But I have a good idea.”


SB Gypsy said...

great post. I love the smorgasboard of spiritualism (pick up on this shiny new idea, let that one lie) and resist the BANG-that-peg-into-that-hole (the peg being me) religiosity of most churches. I don't understand people who want whitebread culture - how boring!

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James said...

Thanks for the props in regard to my blog. I always love hearing your two cents on any of my blogs.

I am one who tends to look for Truth where ever it is found. Mostly I am Buddhist but I am also a strong Mystic who believes in an Infinite, Divine Consciousness that is present in all things.

Buddhism teaches us that all things and people are interconnected and thus (as you say) we have to come together no matter what our beliefs or we will destroy ourselves and this lovely planet.

By the way, there is a new convo going on at my "Letters" blog in the third post titled, "A Basic Guide to Buddhism." Would love to see ya weigh in. :)

Kiki said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kiki said...

(sorry, bad typo in previous post...)

I'm one of the atheists you mentioned, who nonetheless has a sense of the connectedness of the whole planet -- people, animals, environment. That was really well put, Andrea, and I appreciate it, since some people have a tendency to dismiss the non-religious/non-spiritual out of hand. To me what is important is to have a moral sense, regardless of the source, and to seek to be a good and kind person who, hopefully, can leave the world at least a little bit better than it was before. We're all in it together, right? But I can see you know that from your thoughtful post. Well-spoken as always.