The Thirty-Years War and the War in Afghanistan

For those of you who slept through World History in high school, listen up now: there was no war more brutal and dehumanizing than the 30-Years War that ravaged Central Europe in the early 17thcentury. The number of deaths, the displaced persons, the burned villages, the mayhem, chaos, cruelty–foreign armies pillaging and raping their way across the countryside—the stories surpass the horrors of any modern war.

Why did they fight?  Religion. The Emperor of Austria, raised by Jesuits, couldn’t bear the idea that so many of his subjects had rejected the Catholic Church and become Protestant. He gathered his armies and sent them out to bring the True Religion back, even though it meant destroying much of his empire. The Protestants, knowing that theirs was the True Religion, fought back furiously and both sides were equally un-Christian—it would be more accurate to say inhuman.

Is there anyone today, from the smallest child to the Pope himself, who looks back on that time and thinks that particular war was justified?   Of course not.  We shake our heads in disbelief and ask ourselves how could anyone professing to be a follower of Jesus Christ turn “love thy enemies” into “Onward Christian soldiers”?   The blindness of the participants is shocking to our modern sensibilities.

And yet that’s exactly what is happening once again in Afghanistan and in the Middle East.  Soldiers have been killing each other for decades, civilians have been slaughtered and raped, entire towns destroyed, and all for what?  So that Islam, the “true religion”, may reign supreme, with the Taliban or ISIS or Al Qaeda calling the shots on what the practices of that religion are.   To be honest, the Western World could most likely live with whatever practices these guys came up with if they would just stay in their homelands.  Let them treat their women however they want, we’d say, and let them pray in their mosques, if it were not for the threat those groups pose to our security.   They are determined to launch terror attacks on us, largely because of the United States’ support for Israel vs. the Palestinians, and even if they promised in a peace conference that they would leave us alone, who would believe them?  The road out of this morass is not yet clear.

But if anything is written in the stars, it is that one day our descendants will look back on this era and once again shake their heads in disbelief at how blind people were: “Our forefathers were sure they had found the true religion and must convince everyone of that at gunpoint.  Madness!  We now know there is no true religion other than that based on the sanctity of our humanity and all of its sacraments.”

 

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George Elliot on the Sacraments: What A Way with Words!

I just came across this passage in George Elliot’s first novel Adam Bede written in the year 1859.   In case you’ve forgotten, George Elliot was a pen name for Mary Anne Evans (the pseudonym was to insure that people would take her novels seriously).

Elliott has just described carpenter Seth Bede’s proposal of marriage to Dinah, the pretty young Methodist preacher of the story, but he’s out of luck.  Dinah gently tells Seth her religious duties have to come first—he’s a good man, but she will never marry. Seth is heartbroken, and Elliot, in a beautiful ode to love, lets her sympathy for the poor young man’s unrequited adoration tumble out onto the page, writing that this sort of profound, pure love of a man for a woman is “hardly distinguishable from religious feeling.”   In fact, she writes, all of our deepest feelings of love share this religious quality,

“…whether of woman or child, or art of music.  Our caresses, our tender words, our still rapture under the influence of autumn sunsets, or pillared vistas or calm majestic statues, or Beethoven symphonies, all bring with them the consciousness that they are mere waves and ripples in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty; our emotion in its keenest moment passes from expression into silence, our love at its highest flood rushes beyond its object, and loses itself in the sense of divine mystery.”

That’s it exactly: the divine mystery of the universal sacraments, found in “our emotion in its keenest moment”—the birth of a child, the sexual attraction of our best beloved, the power of the arts, music, and nature transform us from mere primates into something else, something that brings us into the realm of the divine.

The War on Women

If you always thought World War III would begin in the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula, you’d be wrong. It has already started, right here in North America, and it’s a Civil War,  with attackers on one side and victims on the other.  It’s a War on Women, based on the notion some men have, that the female of the species owes them something, that each man is endowed by his Creator with the right to possess a woman who will love him, and him alone, never turning away from him once a bond has formed between them. If she does, if your wife says she wants a divorce, if your girlfriend wants to break up, or if the one you’re pursuing isn’t interested, well, that’s a blow to your manhood that cannot go unpunished.

It’s been going on forever, of course, but lately has taken a turn for the worse. There have been mass shootings at the hands of men who are unable to find women interested in them. There are high school students killing the girls who did nothing more than refuse to go out with them. Men and boys who might never have thought of such a thing have found inspiration in the easy-to-come-by news that other rejectees have taken their revenge with a gun—so why not me too? The theory of Unintended Consequences practically guaranteed this would happen once the Internet was created: so many great ideas out there to be shared—so many dangerous ideas as well, dangerous to the point of mass destruction, and that’s where we are.

Not many people had heard of incels (involuntary celibates) until the Toronto killings in April of this year. Now we know that the Internet is providing an easy way for angry, frustrated men to rant and urge each other on to violence against women. It’s what the Rwandan hatemongers did on the radio before the genocide of the 1990s.  Now we’re facing a kind of gender-cide : “If I can’t have you no one will.”

What can be done about this? We can forbid hate speech and hire regulators to monitor it. No one should be allowed to urge others to kill.   Beyond that, it falls to families, mothers and fathers, to teach their offspring from an early age that Life does not include an entitlement clause.  It’s a sad reality that there are some people who will never find themselves in a relationship with the opposite sex–more than ever, in fact, when you consider the world as a whole.   In China, India, Vietnam, and some other countries the ratio between males and females is way out of balance because of selective abortion of female fetuses.   There are 30 million more males than females in China alone, and competition for a wife is tough.  This is a recipe for disaster.

It also falls to schools to help with a solution.   Every school should be teaching about healthy relationships, the realities of breakups, and how to handle those painful moments. The sexual urge is the driving force of our existence. We want a mate so badly that at certain times in our lives we can’t think of anything else.  Take that urge, the immaturity of young men,  lots of guns, a handy, unregulated social soapbox, and you’ve got something as explosive as nitroglycerin.

 

The Guru and the Evangelist

If you want to get the wheels of your mind a-whirling, try watching Wild, Wild Country and Come Sunday back-to-back on Netflix.   The first is the story of Osha (Baghwan Sri Rajneesh), the guru who wanted to create a paradise on earth in Oregon in the 1980s and the second the story of Carlton Pearson, the Pentecostal preacher from Tulsa who came to the realization that there was no Hell and was booted out of his church as a result of his revealing that….um… secret.

Both these stories are fascinating, and what ties them together are the images of the congregations gathered around their main men by the thousands, listening raptly as they sermonize, philosophize, theologize, and mesmerize. Each of the two flocks is looking for a leader, someone to trust, to tell them what to do, what to believe, and they are convinced they have found them in the person of this hirsute, sanpaku-eyed oracle, and the urbane, telegenic preacherman.   These well-meaning men and women, these votaries of divine love have unburdened themselves of Reason, and filled that spot in their brains with a blind trust in the Master/Minister.   The images of both groups of disciples rapturously chanting, singing, dancing and carrying on in general around their leaders is enough to make a Humanist shake his head in wonder. They are, as the ancient Greeks used to say, ecstatic- ex statis—out of themselves. They’ve arrived at a different place through the power of the group and of their faith in the Beloved Leader. Those same Greeks called it being en-theos (enthusiastic)—having the god within you, and Dionysus never had it as good in ancient Athens as Osho and Bishop Pearson did at the height of their careers.

What is it in Homo sapiens that craves this super-powered mentor-figure? Is it that our self-awareness has revealed the dark places of the universe so clearly that without some strongman to support us, we would drift into a kind of madness? Over and over again we see it: masses of people seeking the answers and finding it in the latest charismatic man-of-words.

But the story of Carlton Pearson shows how far mentor-worship will go: only as far as it doesn’t butt up against a sacred text or two. So when Pearson concludes that a merciful God would never send the victims of Rwandan genocide to hell simply because they had never been “saved” in the Pentecostal sense of the word, he loses his congregation, or a large part of it. The Bible says “Only through Christ” can you avoid the flames of Hell, and that’s the end of it for many people—no asterisks for genocide victims who never hard of Jesus or for little children who can’t talk yet. They too must burn.

Bishop Pearson has opted out of that group.  He’s now editing the Bible and has come up with something called the Gospel of Inclusion.  I’m not sure what that entails, but it’s perhaps what I would call “universalism”—the idea that there is no single path to the Divine, and that divinity can be approached by paying attention to the seven universal sacraments—the peak experiences that are part of being human–no sacred text needed.

Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho) and the Sacrament of the Group

Drop everything and watch Wild, Wild Country on Netflix, the incredible tale of guru Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho), his attempt to create a paradise on earth in Oregon, and how it all went wrong. This should be required viewing at any university’s humanities program.   How could people of good will so bent on creating a world of love and peace end up hated and feared and persecuted by an entire state? It’s a clash of cultures with so many missteps on both sides.

First of all, comes arrogance.   You can’t roll into a place with a chip on your shoulder, claiming you’ve got all the answers, that you’re going to wave your magic wand and presto! all the local yokels will see the light, leave their former ignorant lives and join you in your ecstatic dance around the guru.   It’s not like the Spanish coming to the New World and the natives witnessing the impressive technological marvels this new culture had to offer. No, the Oregonians who lived nearby just saw a bunch of weird people all dressed in red who looked like they were stoned half the time.   It didn’t help when the front-woman for the Rajneeshees was Sheela, who seems to never have spoken about the locals without her lip curling into a sneer.

On the other hand, the county clerk in Oregon seems to have clearly violated election law and gotten away with it scot free.   The law in Oregon said that you only had to be a resident in Oregon for 21 days before an election in order to register to vote.   The Rajneeshees idea to win the election was to bus in street people from all over the country and give them a home in their commune–food and shelter in exchange for work.   They would then be eligible to vote and presumably vote for the representatives that Sheela wanted.   This is a scary strategy—one that any wealthy group could exploit to tip an election, but the law is the law. It was appalling to watch the county clerk with the backing of law enforcement refuse to register the newcomers, calling to mind the denial of voting rights in the South in the 60s.

But the main thing you get out of this 6-part series is just how powerful the Sacrament of the Group is. This need to belong is so strong within us—we want to be part of something, anything that will give our lives meaning.   All these people flocking to gurus in India, and later to be part of a commune in Oregon, agreeing to wear the same color clothing as a badge of honor that now you truly belong to “the master”—wow, to an outsider you look like nothing but automatons who have checked your reason at the door, giving your minds over fully to a con man who has hypnotized you into accepting his will as law.   There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the denizens of the commune as they tell us how happy they were in those days back in the 80s under the guidance of Osho and Sheela, but what it looks like is they were lobotomized by their desire to belong, as so many gang members are today, so many cult members, so many teenagers anxious to conform to the in-crowd at their schools.

There is also a Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. Every human being needs teachers and friends who will guide them and support them as they go through the twists and turns life presents them. It’s not exactly clear what Osho was all about—he certainly had charisma, but in the end was he on some kind of power trip, basking in the adulation his votaries were only too willing to offer?   The moral seems only too clear: never abandon Reason and Humility as you navigate the rough waters of existence.

 

Thomas Carlyle, the Church and the Sacred

An op-ed piece in the New York Times today reminds us of the power of the Church to satisfy the longing to be part of a group–the Sacrament of the Group as I call it in my book.  Writer Margaret Renkl explains that she has periodically given up on the Catholic Church for various reasons I have mentioned in this space in the past, but she is nevertheless still drawn to it.  She misses the congregation, the babies, the prayers for peace, the feeling that you’re on the same track with like-minded people.

She writes:

“I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deep-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something. In time I found my way back to God, the most familiar and fundamental something I knew, even if by then my conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.”

The sacred can be found all around us, of course.  It doesn’t have to start with the idea of a God, or gods, it’s inevitably part of who we are as human beings.    Divinity is simply in us, in our thoughts and actions and connections to the world.   For example, Renkl notes that she often feels that God is more present when she’s taking a walk in the woods than when she is in the church building itself (the Sacrament of Nature).   She also misses the singing at Sunday mass (the Sacrament of the Arts).  Our connections with nature and with the arts are essential parts of our humanity and bring us closer to a sense of the Divine, as do the other sacramental aspects of our human existence.

Renkl’s observations are an echo of the so-called “Clothes Philosophy” of Thomas Carlyle.  It goes like this: clothes determine the appearance of men and women, yet underneath those clothes is a body–a body much more real than coats and dresses.  In the same way  our institutions like the Church are merely “visible emblems” of the spiritual forces they represent.   Even in his day (early 1800s) Carlyle found the Church was worn out and almost worthless, but the Spirit beneath the Church’s “clothes” was still there and needed to be kept alive at all costs.

Where can we go with these kinds of sacred longings if we’re not happy with the churches we grew up with?  How can we keep the Spirit alive?  There are a few alternatives, and they are growing. Places like the Humanist Hub in Boston offer a regular meeting to the non-theists, the “Nones” out there who want to find like-minded people ready to acknowledge the need for the Sacrament of the Group. To the theists I would say, that a humanist’s conception of the Divine is not far removed from yours–it’s two sides of the same coin, or as  Carlyle put it:  “the name of the Infinite is GOOD, is GOD,” .

Peace in the Middle East Can Begin with Apologies

Today a BBC interview with Dr. Izzeldin Abueleish provided a much-needed wake up call to the world.   Dr. Abueleish lived in Gaza with his family in 2009 at the time when the Israeli army was striking back at the Palestinians. Two shells crashed into the bedroom of his house, killing 3 of his daughters and a niece while wounding several other family members.   Since then his mission has been to help end the violence that has engulfed the entire region. For him, a key part of this would be an apology from Israel, something he has not yet received.   Why would this be important? Because, he explains, it would be an acknowledgement that he and his family were not just the detritus of battle, worth no more than the rubble of a fallen building.  They were and are human beings, with all the dignity and value that entails.  This is the lesson that people in conflict forget time and time again. We dehumanize our opponents treating them as vermin or targets instead of  neighbors–real people, human beings.

It would have been so easy for the doctor to slide into a never-ending hatred of those responsible, but, as the old saying goes, hatred is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting your enemy to die. There has to be more, there has to be reconciliation, and for that there has to be a willingness on both sides to seek restorative justice and not retribution. It begins with the stories– the pain, the losses, the fear–all parties listening to the others,  humanizing what has been dehumanized.  Then there have to be apologies. It’s difficult to see why the Israeli government or military or both cannot say they are sorry for what happened to those girls in Gaza that day.  They claim they were firing on militants and maybe they were, but why should that make it more difficult to apologize?  Are they afraid of seeming weak?

Dr. Abueleish turned his back on hatred.  His way of dealing with his loss has been  to establish a foundation that encourages women from the Middle East to study at universities: Daughters for Life.  

He feels that educating young women is one of the keys to finding peace in the Middle East.  One of the keys.  There are so many.  But who can doubt that he’s right and applaud his efforts.

 

G.B. Shaw on Right-Wing Christians

I heard a powerful speaker yesterday at the Humanist Hub, just off Harvard Square. Eugene Scott is a writer for the Washington Post whose specialty is religion and politics. One of the things he said especially struck me: you have to divide American Christians into two camps. In the first group are those you could have a conversation with and perhaps come to some agreements with about public policy. These are thoughtful people, not too happy with Trump, who might be willing to admit that the Bible is not a word-for-word dictation from the Deity.

The second group of Christians are people who will never be convinced to change their thinking on anything. They feel threatened by social change, they like Trump, facts are fake news, and their heads are stuffed firmly into the far-right sands, unable to contemplate the world the rest of us live in. They want nothing less than a return to what they think made America great in the past. They want a Christian nation, a Roy Moore nation, where we fix the problems facing us by putting prayer back in the schools.

This parallels what George Bernard Shaw had to say in a short piece from 1932 called The Black Girl in Search of God, in which he excoriates the hide-bound Christians of his day for not being able to distinguish the fact that there are several “Gods” in the Bible, each an improvement over the one that appeared before it. The God of Noah was a primitive God, an angry God, Who wiped out virtually the entire human race and then was appeased by Noah’s offering of the “sweet savor” of burning flesh.   The God of Job, on the other hand, was on familiar terms with the Devil, was philosophical, argumentative, and tolerant. “People who cannot see the difference between these two Gods cannot pass the most elementary test of intelligence: they cannot distinguish between similar and dissimilars.” Later, the Bible introduces us to the God of Micah and of course Jesus—each more different still.

In his typical style, Shaw does not mince words when it comes to religious extremists: “People whose education in [science and history] is derived from the Bible are so absurdly misinformed as to be unfit for public employment, parental responsibility, or the franchise.” In other words, fundamentalist Christians cannot be expected to vote with any discernment. As Eugene Scott said, you pretty much have to give up on ever trying to convince them of anything: they are blinded by the Bible and Breitbart News.

So where does that leave us? I would hope that the Seven Universal Sacraments would provide some relief from this schizophrenic society outlined by Shaw and Scott. We share common ground in the physical world and we need to find common ground spiritually and politically.

The other place it leaves us is the public schools.  The homeschool movement along with the Christian schools are worrisome.   What is actually being taught there?  If we don’t support public education and create safe spaces where “similar and dissimilars” can be analyzed and discussed, where our citizens can be taught to think instead of simply believe, where we can engage religious fundamentalists in some kind of meaningful dialogue, then we’re going to remain stuck in Trumpland, sniping at each other, lurching from protest to protest, waiting for the next scandal, stupidity, or slaughter.

It’s a lot to fix.

Pope Francis in Myanmar Gets It Right Again

It can drive you crazy how the media takes a story and focuses on the wrong thing.   Take the Pope’s visit to Myanmar, for example.   The headline from all the news outlets was all about how he did not use the word ‘Rohingya” to refer to the Muslim people being ethnically cleansed in that largely Buddhist nation.   The media needs a storyline and they’ve certainly got an important one in the misery of these poor people, now barely surviving in refugee camps.   A solution to the problem is desperately needed, but by focusing on this terminology issue, they diverted us from the most important thing that the Pope said:

“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building.”

What an earth-shaking statement!  The leader of the Catholic Church wants to find common ground with other religions to build a better, more peaceful, more tolerant, more united world!  What a difference from the bad old days when Protestants and Catholics went to war over an argument about the communion bread and the Faithful slaughtered whole cities in the name of the All-Merciful Creator.  If only today’s fundamentalists around the world could buy in to Francis’ statement we’d be halfway to heaven on earth.

The Pope is essentially signing on to what the Enlightenment was all about back when Voltaire told us it’s so easy to get distracted by unimportant things like how you should dress to please God, or what foods God told us not to eat.   If only we could all latch onto the big things, like we’re all searching for a meaning and purpose in life, and religion is a road that gets us there, each religion a different path to the same ultimate place, a place where we recognize the common humanity in each other while honoring the differences.

The Rohingya crisis is a version of the same problem that the United States is facing on its southern border, where over a period of decades or even centuries, poor families have sought a better life in a neighboring country where they can find work.   Are they citizens or not?  We haven’t figured out how to deal with that yet and neither have they.   How much of what is driving this comes from the difference in religions, and how much from simply being different?   Whatever the answer, as the international community works to try to help the situation, let’s hope that Pope Francis’ appeal to our higher selves will not get lost.

At Last a Unified Front on Sexual Harassment!–Or Not Quite…

Weinstein, Cosby, the heads of corporations, …the list goes on and will continue to grow as more and more women come forward to tell their horror stories of powerful men grabbing them or attacking them. Social media now allows the shaming of even the non-celebrities as women all over the world recount their experiences with the male animal.   In my book I described what it’s like for women riding the crowded subways in Japan or walking down the street in Paris or taking a bus in Mexico City: the groping, the comments, the unending harassment. Women are prey in a perversion of what the relationship between the sexes should be: a divine union of two loving people. Let’s hope this is the turning point, where all of our sisters, daughters and mothers can walk down the street or walk into a room without a predator planning his next move.

But not all women are on board with this. A well-known actress in Austria, Nina Proll, has gone on Facebook to tell us that she finds male attempts to “approach” women “enjoyable” (erfreulich) which could even be translated as “delightful”. She asks, “Why do the feminists always insist that women are victims? I don’t understand that.” She goes on further to say that in the 20 years she’s been an actress, she has never been harassed by a man, but that’s presumably because, she says, she takes their “approaches” as a compliment, and not as harassment. The worst thing she’s felt is pity for the men who were making advances. She’d be ashamed to now go “peddling” those stories to the media, “because what kind of society do we want to live in? Do we want to just denounce each other and drag each other to court?” She asks why we can’t just look each other in the eye and say “no” if we don’t like something. Are we going to forbid men from making sexual advances? Or can we be happy that a man is trying to get us into bed? She ends her tirade by saying maybe we should just outlaw sex, then all the problems would go away.

Not surprisingly, some men have been very pleased indeed to see her take this position. Felix Baumgartner wrote “Nina Proll is simply great!”—calling her a “fearless woman” for standing up to the mainstream. You may remember Baumgartner. He’s the Austrian skydiver who, not content with leaping out of airplanes, decided he needed a bigger thrill so sailed into the stratosphere using helium balloons and jumped.

Proll may be fearless but she’s blind to reality. Or maybe she’s like the guy in that old tale from Grimm who didn’t know what it meant to be scared so they shut him up for three nights in a haunted castle with a bloody ghost. My suggestion is that we lock her in a hotel room with Harvey Weinstein overnight and see how fearless she is. Maybe Baumgartner could parachute in and rescue her for his next thrill.

Based on an article in Die Presse