Monday, August 29, 2005

Life's Purpose

I joined a new online forum today. It looks small but promising. Why did I join a new forum when I'm already entangled in too many? Because I wanted to try something new, and what better way to try it than in a new place? What new thing am I trying? To post messages as clear, concise, and direct as I can make them. No wasted words, no superfluous ideas. Just the nitty gritty. Absolute economy of thought and expression.

I posted three messages there this morning. The first addressed the general issue of crime and punishment and replied to a particular post asking for "one reason" why sadistic murderers should live. Here is what I said:
Should we punish with death a man with cancer for his tumors, a blind man for being unable to see, a man with potent desires to torture and murder and with no conscience to inhibit him from following through for torturing and murdering?
My second post agreed with someone who wrote that he opposed the death penalty because of the harm it did to those who carried it out. I simply quoted Roger Ebert's perfect words on the matter:
The most compelling argument against capital punishment, for me, is not that society should not execute, but that society should not make anyone into an executioner.
Finally, I reponded to the question of the purpose of life with the following:
I believe that my life's purpose is to be happy. And I believe that happiness is being and doing the best that we can be and do for ourselves, others, and the world.

I don't presume to speak for what others should consider to be their life's purpose. But they're welcome to adopt mine if they wish.
I think I'm off to a good start in that forum. I wonder if others will agree. Time will tell.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Middle Way?

I’ve just concluded an unpleasant experience on a message board. I began posting with the hope that we might be able to dialogue about religion and spirituality there in a more respectful and meaningful way than is often the case in online forums. But the moderator accused me, falsely I believe, of relentlessly bashing Christianity and urged me to seek help for my “mental illness.” It’s interesting to observe within oneself the thoughts and emotions that can surface and swirl through consciousness at times like that. I didn’t feel hurt by what he said. But I did feel angry and determined to refute what I considered to be his groundless accusations of Christian-bashing. In fact, I became narrowly focused on this and almost only this for over a day. In retrospect, I think it was pretty much a waste of time and energy, especially when the moderator ended up snipping key parts of my explanations and attacking his expurgated and distorted representations of what remained of them. One of the lessons to be learned from this is, I suppose, to pick your forums quite carefully and to leave, before getting too emotionally involved, if things don’t look like they’re going to work out. I had warning signs of this rather early on, yet I stayed on, hoping that misunderstandings could be overcome and meaningful dialogue pursued. I was apparently wrong.

But toward the end of my brief participation there, an interesting theme was raised concerning my negative comments about Christianity. This is what the moderator wrote:

I tend to doubt that you have any real interest in the goodness and truth in all religions because you seem so consistently to go out of your way to overlook the good and see the bad.

I replied with the following:

Different people take different approaches to religion. Some, like Ibn `Arabi, may look from the outset for what they find true and beautiful in all religions. Others, like Nagarjuna, begin by trying to clear away false or dubious beliefs to make the heart and mind receptive to truth. Alan Watts likened conventional religion to covering a window with blue paint to represent the sky instead of cleaning the window to see the real sky directly. It seems to me that religion might work best for some of us, perhaps for many of us by being a spiritual window cleaner rather than the window painter that the religious traditions, some more than others, seem to be.

But I know that many would disagree with me on this and say that some window painting needs to be done, and, furthermore, that our ultimate fulfillment or purpose is best achieved via a mature and systematic tradition and supporting community. One of the themes I wish to explore is how true this is and how one EVER sees the sky through the
blue paint—i.e., God through the mental clutter of traditional scripture and dogma.

The moderator responded this way:

I worry you are so concerned with cleaning the window that all you can see are the specks, spots, smudges and fingerprints on the glass that you never actually get around to looking through the window. I am sorry if that seems rude, but that is the impression I have of you.

I think that he made a good point. It’s easy to go too far to the negative extreme, just as one can go too far to the other extreme and try to see God through a spiritual window too caked with old paint and smudges. The elusive secret may well be to find a point of harmonious balance between the via negativa and the via positiva. I’m looking for it. I hope that I can find it.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Religion as Cuisine

I recently discovered a message board run by someone who seems very interested in God and religion as a path to God. This person has posted some intelligent notes on his perspective and graciously allowed me to post responses to what he and others on the board have said.

In one of his first messages, he compares religions to cuisines and argues that just as we would no more claim that one cuisine is the only cuisine worth enjoying or that because there are so many different cuisines in the world, we shouldn’t enjoy any of them, neither should we claim that only one religion is true and the rest should be condemned or that because there are so many different religions, we shouldn’t embrace any of them. On the other hand, he takes issue with those who argue that we shouldn’t mix cuisines or the elements of different religions “cafeteria” style so long as the “plate” we come up with is wholesome and nourishing. With some reservations, I agree with what he wrote, and this is how I replied:

I believe that it IS legitimate to doubt any religion that explicitly claims to embrace the one true God who has revealed Himself through the one true sacred text in a world filled with many different notions of God revealed through many different sacred texts. The monotheistic religions seem especially guilty of this, and they compound their guilt by threatening with eternal torment those who don’t accept their “truth” as THE truth.

Nevertheless, some scholars of comparative religion have argued that there is a “perennial philosophy” of shared core beliefs that can be found in all the great religions traditions, and I am drawn to the idea of using these common beliefs or principles as the foundation of my own spiritual path. For it seems to me that those principles on which all of the world’s religions agree are more likely to be true than are those on which they differ. Ken Wilber has identified the following as the seven principles essential to most if not all of the world’s great religions:

1. Spirit, by whatever name, exists.

2. Spirit, although existing “out there,” is found “in here,” or revealed within to the open heart and mind.

3. Most of us don’t realize this Spirit within, however, because we are living in a world of sin, separation, or duality—that is, we are living in a fallen, illusory, or fragmented state.

4. There is a way out of this fallen state (of sin or illusion or disharmony), there is a Path to our liberation.

5. If we follow this Path to its conclusion, the result is a Rebirth or Enlightenment, a direct experience of Spirit within and without, a Supreme Liberation, which

6. marks the end of sin and suffering, and

7. manifests in social action of mercy and compassion on behalf of all sentient beings.

What I am striving to do is construct and follow a spiritual or integral path that encompasses these principles. Thus, I will probably never subscribe to any formal religion, but I WILL try to borrow intelligently from all of the great religions those elements of theory and practice that can be compatibly combined with essential elements of science, philosophy, and other disciplines to yield an approach that works for me. This may not be the best way for everyone to proceed, but it may well be the ONLY way that will work for some of us.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Happy Anniversary

Today is my second wedding anniversary. How blessed I am to be married to my wife! Far more blessed than she is to be married to me, I'm afraid. For not only have I not been as good a husband to her as I SHOULD be, but I have also failed to be as good a husband to her as I COULD be. I love her dearly and have been good to her, but I could have been better and wish that I could be even better, much better than that. For that is what she deserves, and it is something I can never give her. I can never be what she deserves, even if I give her the best of which I am now or ever capable. And so it is with some sadness as well as glowing happiness that I read the following words in the card she gave me today: "I can't imagine a more beautiful life than the one we've built together." For I can imagine a more beautiful life, and I'm quite sure that she can too, and we could have one if only I were capable of more and better than I am. However, while I cannot be more than I am, I can certainly be ALL of the best that I am, and I hope that a year from today, I'll be able to say that I came much closer to it than I have so far.