The Sweet Life

Lughnasa                                                                      Monsoon Moon

CBE (1)Discovering an odd phenomenon. My feelings bubble up with less filtering. I don’t feel depressed, not labile. Not really sure how to explain this, though it may be a third phase change? Or, maybe just me, for some reason.

At the MIA last week, for example, there was the strong feeling of grief in the Asian collection. Warm feelings for my friends in Minnesota were also strong. On the way home I was happy on the road. Noticeably. Kate triggers a powerful, more powerful than ever feeling of love. When I watched a TV program in which the main character’s mother died suddenly of a stroke, I was right with him emotionally. Yesterday, at the Bat Mitzvah of Gwen Hirsch, I kept shoving back the occasional tear. Her initial struggle with being upfront, her beautiful voice and the clear joy with which she overcame her fright, so evident when she carried the torah scroll around the sanctuary, made it appear she was becoming a different person, right then. Her transition/transformation was breathtaking and so sweet.

Ruth at DomoIn fact, there’s another example. Over the last few months I’ve been using the word sweet a lot. Our dogs are sweet. Ruth. The folks at Beth Evergreen. Minnesota friends. The loft. My life. I seem to see sweetness more now. I haven’t lost my political edge, my anger at injustice or a willingness to act, but the world has much, much more nuance now at an emotional level.

This change in my inner life has made me more resilient, I think, more able to identify the emotions, accept them, learn from them, respond or not, and move on. Enriched. It’s as if there’s more color in my day to day. Who knows? It might be a phase or I might be melancholy, my feelings are usually closer to the surface then, but I don’t think so. This feels like a permanent change.

Seeing the holy soul, my mussar practice for this month, accentuates this. I saw Gwen’s holy soul yesterday and it was a thing of beauty. I see the hosta struggling with a dry spell, but I know their holy soul makes them strong even in this sort of adversity. Gertie’s blind eye and painful rear quarter, her missing teeth have not dimmed her holy soul, it moves her into a bouncing, happy girl in spite of them.

slash from beetle killed lodgepole pine

slash from beetle killed lodgepole pine

I can, too, see the holy souls with damaged personas. Occasionally, I’ll see an aggressive dog or one that cowers, yet beneath those defensive outer layers, the warm and kind dog soul is still visible although it might be hard to reach. People, too. The young boy with violent tendencies, with a stubbornness that might be on the spectrum, with the sweetness for those who are sick, his holy soul is, even at this young age, hidden, so hard to find. Or, another, her reason so tortured by ideology, her essential kindness most often blocked by bitterness. Or a lodgepole pine dying of pine beetle infestation. Even as its needles turn brown and it begins to dry out, its holy soul keeps it upright as long as it can. We can never err when we search for the holy soul in others.

Look insideI see my own holy soul, now claiming more space, taking back some of the aspects of my life I had given over to achievement, to striving. This is strange because it comes as I’ve begun to reach for achievements I’ve blocked for decades. The work of submitting my writing feels both unimportant and necessary. I’m immersed in a community, Beth Evergreen, which encourages the growth and expansion of my holy soul. This is true religion, with the small r, the connecting and reconnecting of our inner life with the great vastness, our part in it highlighted, made clear at the same time as our limitedness.

 

 

 

 

Moral Minyan

Summer                                                                             Monsoon Moon

justice

Suggested to the woman who organized the immigration talk that perhaps the Beth Evergreen Social Action committee should be doing this kind of work. She passed my e-mail on to the Rabbi and to the chair of the Social Action committee. Lengthy response from the Social Chair chair amounts to, we do small things because they’re not political. Sigh. Same ol, same ol. Heard this all the time as a clergy in the Christian church, less so in the UUA. Say the word politics and you’ve touched the third rail.

Uncharacteristically, however, I intend to stay back from this conversation. I’ve got Jewish Studies Sunday Sampler and 6th grade religious school to prepare for. Perhaps the slight nudge will create a larger conversation. Hope so.

justice2

Kate and I are going to a protest at the Aurora ICE detention center next week. It’s led by the Moral Minyan*, a project of bendthearc. Family separation, though attenuated by the court ruling last week, remains a reality. Immigration is a distinctive American good, mixing our polity with new citizens from all over the world. It’s always been fraught with tension, with nativism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and, our record as a people with regard to persons of color is still miserable, but that French gift, Lady Liberty, with the poem by Emma Lazarus, represents the ideal toward which many of us strive. I believe most of us.

This notion that only a certain kind of person, usually white, can be a good U.S. citizen is racist at its core. The obvious rejoinder is the facebook meme of Indians confronting immigrants on the Mayflower. As Valentina said Tuesday night at Beth Evergreen, “Immigrants work hard. Immigrants pay their taxes, raise families.” Immigrants contribute to our national well-being and always have. In fact, immigrants created our nation.

justice obama

This current politics of meanness, of grudge-settling, of honoring foreign strongmen over our own government BY OUR PRESIDENT, the unleashing of the American id typified by the Charlotte rally and the way too many video clips of various individuals calling out persons they suspect of being “illegals” or “terrorists”, makes us all smaller. He who shall not be named is spending the capital accumulated since World War I which made this country a superpower. Shame on him.

Justice theodore-parker-bend-the-arc-email1

Parker was a Unitarian clergy, an abolitionist, and an activist who kept a loaded gun at his desk in case slave catchers showed up. Be like Theodore.

 

*In Jewish tradition, acts of public prayer require at least 10 people to gather to form a minyan.

In this moment of political crisis, we’re calling on progressive Jews across the country to gather to form Moral Minyans for acts of public protest, solidarity, and organizing as part of a national network of Jewish Resistance.

People who become leaders of Moral Minyans have a variety of skills and experience levels. We provide trainings and support for activists in our network who are organizing their Jewish community in living rooms and in the streets.

 

Concentration Camps, in the U.S., Right Now

Summer                                                                      Monsoon Moon

florenceSad. Mad. Incredulous. Shocked. Mystified. Hurt. The Florence Project. Kate and I went to Beth Evergreen last night to hear Valentina Montoya*. She’s a mental health attorney for the project, which means that her clients are not only caught in the detention trap, but have serious mental illness as well.

Reading about family separation, shaking our heads, how can they? That’s one experience. Hearing Ms. Montoya talk about children in detention, five month olds, toddlers, blind children, physically and mentally disabled children, children who have no apparent medical care or educational opportunities, children who know their parents as mama and daddy, but don’t know their given names, children separated from their parents with no tracking or identifying system in place, one four-year old boy, for example, who refused to change his clothes because he was afraid his parents wouldn’t recognize him, that’s another.

florence2Ms. Montoya became too emotional to talk. Several times. She answered question after question from this audience of maybe 75 people, all outraged, most wanting to do something. Kate stood up and asked what kind of medical care did these children receive? Ms. Montoya said no particular medical care was available. That means diabetes goes untreated. Other chronic conditions, too. Another asked what kind of education the kids were getting? Ms. Montoya said, “The kids speak Spanish; all the guards and caretakers speak English.”

This was an especially poignant topic for Beth Evergreen. As Renee said, “I’m a child of holocaust survivors. I’m uniquely qualified to call these what they are, concentration camps.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s true. No Zyklon B. For now. But, as Renee said, “If they can come for them, they can come for me. Maybe next, maybe three, four down the line.”

Here’s a thing I’d not paid attention to in the news reports. The families separated in Florence, Arizona, a distant, isolated location for an ICE detention facility (not an accident) are asylum seekers. That means they came to a U.S. port of entry and, as required by our law, asked for asylum. These are legal immigrants who have fled horrific conditions of gang violence, local drug cartels, domestic abuse, government oppression and seek refuge here. Let me say that again, these folks are LEGAL immigrants.

The bad elf, Jeff Sessions, has done everything he can to undercut the law by, for example, offering a biblical rationale for family separation, trying to defund basic legal orientation services. DHS lawyers raise jurisdictional issues in immigration proceedings to obfuscate and extend detention proceedings.

florence4Part of the problem for legal projects like Florence and Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocates is immigration law itself. It’s a hodgepodge of laws, rules, exceptions that have accreted like barnacles over the years, making it an area of the law for which even its specialists can claim only partial knowledge. That means even willing pro bono lawyers are often not competent to help. This makes it even easier for mendacious buffoons like Trump, Sessions and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Michele Nielsen to throw forks and knives into the wheels of justice.

It was, all in all, a heart rending evening. Unimaginable suffering. Detention is different from prison. In prison you know when you’re going to get out. Detention is indeterminant. Until Sessions quashed it, each detainee used to get a bond hearing every six months. That hearing at least offered a review of your circumstances and a possibility of release. With that bond hearing eliminated, there is no legal requirement for a time certain when your case will be heard. If at all. This out Kafka’s Kafka. And, it is definitely, a first step toward Nazi area solutions for folks we don’t like.

 

valentina-150x150*Valentina Restrepo Montoya was born in Boston to Colombian-immigrant parents. She earned her J.D. from Berkeley Law, where she advocated on behalf of asylum seekers, latinx workers, latinx tenants, and indigent defendants in criminal cases. Valentina clerked for The Southern Center for Human Rights, where she investigated language access to adult and juvenile courts. After law school, she joined The Southern Poverty Law Center, dedicating herself to litigation against The Alabama Department of Corrections for providing constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care to prisoners, and not complying with The Americans with Disabilities Act. Prior to joining The Florence Project, Valentina was an assistant public defender in Birmingham, Alabama. She enjoys playing soccer, reading The New Yorker, practicing intersectional feminism, and rooting for The New England Patriots.

In My Dreams

Summer                                                                   Monsoon Moon

AbrahamSacrificesIsaacIcon_smThe strange things that come to me before I drop off to sleep. Thinking about Lycaon, the anti-hero protagonist of Superior Wolf. He sacrifices his own son, Nyctimus, at a once every four year festival, the Lykaia, to Zeus Lycaeus (Wolf Zeus). Stray thought then. Sounds like Abraham and Isaac. Oh. Wait. Abraham was a polytheist before his covenant with G-d.

moloch william blake

Moloch william blake

What if? What if the Abraham and Isaac story recorded a very different intention than the one we Westerners, long infected by the idea of monotheism, have imputed to it? What if the context was one of child sacrifice? In other words, the religions around Abraham, perhaps even his own previous to the covenant, might have required child sacrifices. I know about Moloch who certainly did.

In the context of gods requiring child sacrifice, the story would read more like this. This new God requires sacrifice, his beloved son Isaac. Nothing new there. Many gods require the sacrifice of children. Yes, it’s always fraught with heartache and pain, but that’s just what Gods do. What’s new here is that this God relents, aborts the sacrifice and accepts an animal in place of a human child.

In this reading then Abraham’s new God evolves from a ruthless eater of human flesh to one who says, no, we no longer do that. The story becomes one of triumph and joy, this new god is better, much better.

Learning to Teach

Summer                                                                 Woolly Mammoth Moon

Tu B'shevat Seder, 2018 Religious School, CBE

Tu B’shevat Seder, 2018 Religious School, CBE

I’m neck deep, ok maybe in over my head, in lesson planning, something I’ve not done before. I realized though that I did do a lot of educating over my twelve years at the MIA and I do have good facilitator, process skills. Even so, I’m having to learn about a key moment of Jewish development, the b’nai mitzvah, oddly, a marker of the very same transition Ruth is in right now. There’s as much culture as theology here, a cultural milieu with which I have little familiarity. But I’m picking it up.

Yesterday I finally got an organizational handle on what I was doing. That’s the moment when a lot of study and thinking begins to sort itself out into recognizable components. In this instance it was a religious school year long calendar, each class for which Alan and I are responsible indicated by date. In other columns there are holidays that occur in a particular month, September, for example, has Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot; middah of the month, for example, again, September is hitlamdut or curiosity; a column with one of Maimonides 13 articles of faith for each month. There are also Hebrew letters for each class day, a progression throughout the year that will follow the kabbalist’s tree of life and links to the parsha (Torah portion) for each week.

20180315_080213With these elements identified lesson planning will be easier because content can be plucked from any of the columns to enhance a particular class. There’s another move in the process, integrating the b’nai mitzvah curriculum developed by a national organization called Moving Traditions with those classes for which Alan and I have to develop our own lesson plans. Once how we do that is decided and dates for the b’nai mitzvah classes show up on the calendar, we should be able to move fairly quickly to a plan for the year.

I love this stuff, the pulling together of disparate complexities into one whole. This is a big challenge and I like that, too. Not to mention that I really enjoy the people at Beth Evergreen.

Choose Life

Summer                                                              Woolly Mammoth Moon

Installing solar panels, 2015

Installing solar panels, 2015

Here’s a surprisingly existential sentence from economic journalist, Annie Lowrey, “The way things are is really the way we choose for them to be,” she writes. Her new book, “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World” (Crown),is considered as part of a New Yorker article, “Who Really Stands to Win from Universal Basic Income?”

UBI is an interesting idea, made more interesting by Nathan Heller who offers a good summary of its possibilities and pitfalls, and I recommend the read; but, I’m much more taken by that single sentence of Lowrey’s. Lowrey is, as Heller says, a policy person, so her comment in this instance refers to our economic reality. Our economic life is not a divine endowment from a class loving God, rather it is the sum of choices we make as a people, choices reflected in our laws, our deference to the wealthy, our moralizing (Calvinist driven in large part) of personal income and wealth (more, better person, less, worse person), even the choices we make as consumers. In sum we live in a created society, one that we can choose to recreate or even uncreate.

IMAG0912Why are we so reluctant to recognize that racism, sexism, homelessness, income inequality, white fear are the result of decisions we’ve made collectively and individually? I think the answer lies in ideas Arthur Brooks identifies as the bedrocks of conservative thought. Below is a portion of that article, Republican or Conservative: You Have to Choose.* NYT, June 25, 2018. Though it may surprise readers of this blog, I have considerable sympathy for these ideas.

They challenge the Lockean idea of a social contract among independent actors, a notion at best abstracted from common life. They challenge the fabric of a liberal political worldview. I agree that we are not wholly autonomous individuals. Heidegger’s notion of thrownness underlines this point by reminding us that our life begins in a particular time, in a particular place and in particular circumstances over which we had no choice whatsoever. Brooks says something similar, “…individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations.” To this point, I’m with him. There are unique realities that shape us.

IMAG0913But, to sacralize that unique reality, “…conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed.” says Brooks, serves to deny its perniciousness, its damning of so many to lives of desperation, marginalized from both economic and cultural blessings. Once we emerge in the era, the family, the town or neighborhood or rural place, the religious or areligious space gifted to us, the nation of our birth, once we are over being thrown into circumstances beyond our volition, we gain the power of choice.

It is decidedly not the case that though thrownness may come first, as Brooks says “The order comes first.” that “…individual freedom is an artifact of that order.” No. Order is neutral, neither a moral good, nor a moral constraint. If the order into which we are born nourishes lives, lifts people into their best possible existence, then, yes, let’s sustain it. If, however, the order into which we are born is itself pernicious, damning us to poor education, inadequate nutrition, a lifetime of social doubts about our worth, then we must recognize the truth of Lowrey’s wonderful encapsulation of the liberal perspective: “The way things are is really the way we choose for them to be.”

 

*”Conservatives said we…think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Individual freedom is an artifact of that order.
The practical upshot is that conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.
Membership in these institutions is not established by rational choice. We are born into them most of the time and are bonded to them by prerational cords of sympathy and affection. We gratefully inherit these institutions from our ancestors, we steward them and pass them along to our descendants.”

The Emersonian Turn

Summer                                                                     Woolly Mammoth Moon

winter solstice yalda-night-persian-calligraphy

winter solstice, Yalda night, Persian calligraphy

Well, it’s incremental. Down from 14:59 to 14:58 today but the needle has begun to move. By the end of the month daylight will have decreased to 14:56, but, by the end of July, to 14:16. August 13:05. September 11:49. December 21 9:21. That’s for Colorado, of course. Other locations will vary. A lot. But the trend is the same. And, on top of this mountain, welcome.

Started working on lesson plans, a first for me. My task involves the 6th graders of our religious school. Rabbi Jamie has a worksheet I’m using with four columns: Hebrew, Torah, Middah, and Mitzvah. Guess what? The first column is in Hebrew. That makes it a challenge for me. But, in this wonderful age of quick information access I can plug in the word to google’s task bar and get at least a clue quickly.

Glad I learned the quote, “Confusion is the sweat of the intellect.” After yesterday’s work on the lesson plans the metaphorical sweat came easily. It’s no easy feat stepping into another tradition, even one with which I have some familiarity. Yet, it is also rich, resonant.

Not a Jew, but a reconstructionist. That realization about my comfort level at Beth Evergreen has given me a broader insight. It’s a little strange, so bear with me, please.

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

I love definite, strong connections to the past, both Christianity and Judaism offer that to their adherents. So does travel. And reading. Among my favorite places to visit are ancient ruins like Ephesus, Angkor Wat, the Great Wall, sites of ancient Rome, Pompeii, Bath, Delphi, Delos, Cahokia, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, even the castles of North Wales like Conway and Dinas Bran, encyclopedic art museums, and worlds created by writers like Ovid, Homer, Dante.

This could make me a conservative, a thinker and an actor with a preference for things as they were, a reluctance to change what works. But, oddly, it has had the opposite effect. I find in the ancient world a panoply of human possibility, ways of coping with this odd gift, life. How we think today, how we feel, has its roots in this vast web of life’s journey. We don’t have to experience everything as brand new, don’t have to figure everything out for ourselves. Others have loved, have doubted, have feared, have wondered, have hoped. So can we.

thoreaus_quote_near_his_cabin_site_walden_pondBut, and I might call this the Emersonian turn, we cannot use the offerings of the past without remembering his introduction to Nature: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”

When we wittingly or unwittingly chain ourselves to the experience of others, especially those others from the distant past, we disrespect both them and ourselves. We disrespect them by claiming their authority as if something we had earned. We disrespect ourselves because we cheat ourselves of the present, of our own deep intuition, of our own revelations.

When we recognize though that those previous generations did behold God (bracket content) and nature face to face, that they did have an original relation to the universe, that they did create poetry and philosophy of their own insight, that they did create their religions by access to their own revelation, we learn an important, perhaps the important, lesson. We too live in this world with the same faculties, the same powers of observation and discernment that they had.

Gawain and the Green Knight

Gawain and the Green Knight

It was not those who had a religion of revelation to them that blinded us though. It was men, yes mostly men, of institutions, who tried to make the words of the past govern us. Those who declared scripture inerrant and infallible meant they knew what it meant, once and for all, and we had to obey. Well, I call bull shit on that. Those original beholders of God and nature opened themselves, in their present moments, to the awe and wonder all round about them. What a thing of beauty! Think how the mere record of their lives has effected us down to this day.

It is, though, the record of their lives. Only that. In our present, in this sacred moment, we have the same opportunity that they had, we have the same responsibility that they had. Think how the mere record of your life might effect others as distant from us in tomorrow as those are in yesterday.

Open up. Lighten up. Dance to the music of our time. Rip back the cloth from the temple gate in your life. Peak inside. Tell us what you see. We need to know.

Remember this. Always. “In the coming world they will not ask me—Why were you not Moses? They will ask me—Why were you not Zusya?” Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol

Reconstruct. Remember.

Beltane                                                                    Sumi-e Moon

UNESCO and European Union undertake to reconstruct the cultural heritage of Timbuktu

UNESCO and European Union undertake to reconstruct the cultural heritage of Timbuktu

Had an insight the other day about Beth Evergreen. The reason I like it there, feel comfortable there, is that I’m a reconstructionist at heart. Not a Jew, but a reconstructionist.

If I’d known about the concept when I started my reimagining project, I’d have called it reconstructing faith. Now, I do and I think of it that way. Reimagining and reenchanting are still part of this journey for me, but reconstructionist thought captures me in a particular way.

reconstruct scrollHere’s the key idea, from Mordecai Kaplan: the past gets a vote, but not a veto. That is, when considering tradition, in Kaplan’s case of course Jewish tradition, the tradition itself informs the present, but we are not required to obey it. Instead we can change it, or negate it, or choose to accept, for now, its lesson.

This is a powerful idea, especially when considering religious thought, which too often wants us to turn our backs on the present, get out a prayer rug, put our butt in the air toward the future and stretch out our hands in submission to the past.

LiveWhich brings me to another realization I had this week. Just like environmental action is not about saving the planet, the planet will be fine, it’s about saving humanity’s spot on the planet; the idea of living in the moment is not about living in the moment, it’s about remembering we can do no other thing than live in the moment.

In other words, this moment is all we have and all we will ever have. There is no way to be in the past or in the future, not even for a bit. We only live in the present. Living in the moment is not a choice, it’s a necessity by the laws of physics. What is important is realizing that, remembering it. Which goes back, come to think of it, to sharpening doubt.

ichigo-ichie_6The past is gone, the future is not yet. Always. We can be sure, confident, only of this instance, for the next may not come. To be aware of the moment is to be aware of both the tenuousness of life, and its vitality, which also occurs only in the moment. To know this, really know it in our bones, means we must have faith that the next moment will arrive, because it is not given. Not only is it not given, it will, someday, not arrive for us. That’s where faith comes in, living in spite of that knowledge, living as if the next moment is on its way.

 

Beginner’s Mind

Beltane                                                                               Sumi-e Moon

20180315_080258Odd things. First, a small group of folks at Beth Evergreen, mostly qabbalah students like myself, report seeing me as an artist. A visual artist. This is based on my last two presentations, the first being Hebrew letters with quotes relating to their deeper meanings and the second, last Wednesday, that used the sumi-e zen practice of enso creation. Now I’m far from a visual artist, I have two very good ones in my immediate family, Jeremiah Miller and Jon Olson, but to be seen even modestly in their company is a real treat.

repair2Second. Damned mower wouldn’t start. As I said earlier. Put in fresh gas. No joy. Hmmm. You Tube. You Tube, that Chinese patron saint of the do it yourselfer. Looked up mower won’t start. Found a video of a guy. One with a small wrench who showed how to take apart the carburetor, poke wire into various holes and then, voila, vrrooom. Didn’t look too hard.

Took the mower out, put it on the deck so I could reach the carburetor easily, found a wrench, took off the cap, got out my wire, poked the holes in the thingy four or five times and put the cap back on. Oh, I forgot. I did the video one better. He said you had to drain the tank or gas would flow out. I’d just changed the gas and don’t like siphoning. Yuck. Gas not taste good. Thought of surgical clamps. Got a vise grip, tightened it down on the fuel line and Bob’s your uncle, no drip!

fix itBest of all, when I yanked the starter cord after closing the carburetor back up, the mower started. To those of you with a mechanical gene this no doubt sounds trivial, probably very trivial, but to me. Wow. I fixed it myself.

I mention both of these because they relate to each other. I like to challenge myself, see if I can do something I previously thought I couldn’t do. Exercise was one such challenge, now over 30 years ago. Still at it. So was Latin. No good at language. So? I’ll give it a try anyhow. Then in my recent melancholic phase I realized I needed more touch, more tactile experience in my day. That led to the sumi-e work and prompted me to see the non-starting lawn mower as an opportunity.

beginners mindI’m not an athlete, not a Latin scholar, not a very good visual artist and definitely not much of a mechanic, but I have an amateur’s capacity. Trying these things makes my heart sing, keeps life vital. I suppose, going back to yesterday’s post, you could say I have faith in myself. Not faith that I can do anything I try, that’s just silly, but faith that if I try I can learn something new, maybe introduce something important to my life.

Who knows, maybe someday I will be a visual artist. Nah. Probably not. But, you never know.

 

 

Remember the Shark

Beltane                                                                           Sumi-e Moon

  • I know how well you have succeeded in making your earthly life so rich and varied, that you no longer stand in need of an eternity. Having made a universe for yourselves, you are above the need of thinking of the universe that made you.
  • On every subject, however small and unimportant, you would most willingly be taught by those who have devoted to it their lives and their powers. … How then does it come about that, in matters of religion alone, you hold every thing the more dubious when it comes from those who are experts?
    • Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 1799

AbrahamSacrificesIsaacIcon_smFaith. The middah of the month for Beth Evergreen. Emunah. Last night at MVP, the mussar vaad practice group, we talked about emunah. Rabbi Jamie and Marilyn said that in the early days of mussar classes at Beth Evergreen, some time ago, the middah that caused the most consternation was this one.

I can see why. Faith is a word often used, but little understood. Faith is also a word often abused both by religion’s adherents and by religion’s cultured despisers. (Friedrich Schleiermacher) Faith is a sine qua non inside any mega-church in America. Either you have faith or you don’t. Black and white. It was true for me as a clergyman in the Presbyterian church. When I could no longer claim with authenticity that I had faith in God (whatever conception of God I was using at the time), I could no longer serve in that role.

Religion’s cultured despisers, a term coined by Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1799 in his book of the same name, often use faith as a straw concept with which to flog the irrational religious. Faith makes people blind. Faith makes people malleable to cult leaders. Faith makes people believe in a magical world. Faith blots out a person’s capacity to see the world as it is.

universe has your backOne of us in the group last night said, “The universe is for me.” I have other friends who believe the universe is a place of abundance, or, as author Gabrielle Bernstein titled her book, “The Universe has my back.” I don’t buy it. This abundant universe will kill you. It will kill you. This is not a matter of faith, but of oft repeated experience. The universe offers up all we need to live, then takes it all away.

I don’t believe the universe gives a damn. The problem for me is placing a value judgment on the actions of this vast context into which, thank you Heidegger, we were thrown. I don’t believe the universe is out to get me; nor do I believe it has my back. I’m a part of that universe and I can choose to live into my part, follow the tao as it manifests in my life, or I can resist it and struggle, but in either case the universe will keep on evolving and changing. Maybe what I’m saying here is that I’m not willing to shift the religious notion of God’s agency to the universe, no matter how construed.

If the universe is, as I believe it is, neutral to us and our lives, or, said another way, if we are no more privileged than any other part of the world, the cosmos, then what can faith mean? What is there in which to have faith?

nightdiving_titleTurns out quite a lot. Another of us last night told a story of night diving. A favorite activity of hers. She said she turns off her diving light and floats in the night dark ocean. While she’s in the dark, she imagines a shark behind her. The shark may kill her in the next moment, but until that moment she is keenly alive. This is, for me, a perfect metaphor for faith. Each day the shark is behind us. A car accident. A heart attack. A lightening bolt. A terminal diagnosis. Yet each day we float in the dark, suspended between this moment in which we live and the next one in which we are dead. And we rejoice in that moment. There is faith.

SharkThis is the existentialist abyss of which Nietzsche famously said, “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Living on in spite of its direct glare, that’s faith. This sort of faith requires no confidence in the good or ill will of the universe, it requires what Paul Tillich called the courage to be. I would challenge that formulation a bit by altering it to the courage to become, but the point is the same.

Here’s the interesting twist. Doubt and faith are partners. As a quote Rabbi Jamie offered last night says, they live in the same apartment building. Here’s the big learning I got last night. Doubt is the true sine qua non for faith. And to the extent that we have doubt, I would identify doubt with awareness of the shark, we have faith. There is, and this is the aha for me, a frisson between doubt and faith that makes life vital.

sacred tensionSo. My practice for this month involves, in Rabbi Jamie’s phrase, sharpening my doubt. I will remember the shark as often as I can. I will recognize the contingent nature of every action I take, of every aspect of my life. And live into those contingencies, act as if the shark will let me be right now. As if the uncertainty of driving, of interacting with others, of our dog’s lives will not manifest right now. That’s faith. Action in the face of contingency. Action in the face of uncertainty. Action in the face of doubt.

I want to sharpen doubt because I want to taste what it feels like to live into doubt, to choose life over death, to have the courage to become. If I only use the automatic responses, make money, achieve fame, watch television, play with my phone, immerse myself in the needs of another, or several others, then I blunt the bravery, the courage it takes to live. I do not want a life that’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. I do not want a life that is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5)

I want a life that flourishes not in spite of the uncertainties, the contingencies that are all to real, but because of them.