The Power of Death

Amid the trivialities of our day-to-day life comes that force that slices through it all, grabs you by the throat and brings you to your knees—Death.

With the passing of one of my dearest friends, the power of Death once again overwhelms the Everyday, leaving that gaping hole in the universe.  The mind spins uncontrollably… lost…..gone… Grief floods our very being and saps our strength.  What now?… How can we come to terms with it? …The finality of existence, that feeling of despair slipping into hopelessness… How do we stand up to Death’s power?

The Church has an answer. The Stoics have another. The Hindu sages take refuge in maya—it’s all illusion.

Believe what you can, as Darwin told us. But what’s important is the Universal, that in its extreme sorrow, Death brings us to the same place as extreme joy– the transcendent dimension of existence where we can connect with the Divine.  Through meditation, through prayer if you like, by connecting with others through rituals, the madness of Death becomes something sacred. We circle the wagons, link arms with survivors and feed on the memories of those we loved.  We find our humanity in loss.

But it’s still hard.



Pope Francis on Islam: Is He Delusional?

Pope Francis recently said that he can’t condemn the brutal murder of the Norman priest, Father Jacques, as Islamic terrorism because “It’s not right to identify Islam with violence. It’s not right and it’s not true.”

This unleashed a furor.   On the Daily Express website for example, swarms of furious readers wrote in that the Pope was “blind”, “deluded”, “a nutter”, “an old fool”, “brain-damaged”, “an imposter”, “the antichrist”, “pure evil” “ a “Satinist”… Strong stuff!

So let’s unpack this.

Is it right to “identify” Islam with violence?

Bad choice of words.  What do we mean by “identify with”—that’s a confusing verb for this discussion. Let’s rephrase it:

Do some people who claim to be Muslims resort to violence to enforce their religious views?

Yes, undeniably.

Are they justifying their actions by pointing to what their religion teaches them?

Yes, absolutely.   In the holy books of Islam there are passages that unequivocally support violent acts to further their goals, including killing infidels to spread Islam. See link.

Does that mean that Islam is a religion that encourages violent and terroristic acts? Yes and no.

Yes, if you are someone who believes and teaches others that you must follow every word of the Quran. That is what we mean by fundamentalism: follow the holy text. There are from 1 to 5 % of Muslims in Middle Eastern countries who support the fundamentalism of ISIS.

No, if you believe that you can ignore certain parts of the Quran as outdated. See link.

This brings us to the most important part of the Pope’s recent statements: “Nearly all religions” have a “small group of fundamentalists” so don’t tar Islam with that brush.

Holy Cow! What the Pope is saying here is we have to beware of fundamentalism in any religion, including Roman Catholicism. Wow! What that would mean is exactly what Seven Sacraments for Everyone is getting at: we have to get beyond the slavish adherence to texts written thousands of years ago and to traditional practices that developed over centuries.   What we should be doing is “editing” those texts, looking into our hearts, looking at human experience to search for those transcendent moments that lead us to the Divine, that point us on our way to the Greater Good.   Killing innocent people in cold blood is the antithesis of this path.

Once again, two cheers for Francis!!   But he could have been clearer in his condemnation of terrorism under the guise of religion.


Pope Francis on Marriage: Get it Together, People!

Pope Francis is in hot water with conservative Catholics.   He recently responded to a question on marriage by saying that most (later changed to “many”) marriages were invalid because the couple didn’t understand the sacrament of marriage. They did not, he said, fully comprehend what they had agreed to as they exchanged those vows. His antagonists began piling on, saying that he was making the entire Catholic community wonder if their marriages were legit, and “muddying the waters” of the Roman Church even more than he already has with his liberal attitudes towards gays, divorcees, and others living beyond the pale (their pale, that is). You could almost hear the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as they proceeded to excoriate the Pontiff, as if he were an ordinary Joe off the street instead of the Vicar of Christ.

But Francis is on to something important.   Marriage doesn’t mean as much as it used to. It’s been plutoed. The Pope’s point is that those contemplating marriage are not being prepared properly for its demands, and that’s why there are so many seeking annulments (the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce).   They are too willing to call it a day and go on to the next partner on their dance card.

There are two things going on here. The first is the need to recognize that there are going to inevitably be some bad marriages and those people need to split up.   Maybe it’s nobody’s fault, maybe you can lay the blame at somebody’s feet, but every marriage is not going to be forever. People change. They get married too soon, too young, too unaware, blinded by passion and then one day they open up their eyes to a different person than the one they thought they knew.  They should be able to go their separate ways and start over.

But the second point jives with what Francis is trying to tell us. There is a sanctity in marriage, and not just for the Christian Faithful, but for everyone. Our partners in life, those with whom we beget our children should be our best beloved, and in that deep, ineffable affection and the intimacy of sexual union we find the Divine.  Call it God, call it whatever you want, it’s sacred.  Marriage should  ideally be for the long haul. But we live in a world of refunds, retooling, redecorating, and regifting. We have even invented the word “trial marriage”, an irritating phrase if ever there was one.

Forget for a moment the annoyance you may feel at celibate men of the Church ordering you around in this realm of intimacy and domesticity.  The world would be a better place if marriage were viewed as a sacrament instead of a tax benefit. The Pope is doubtlessly correct that many of us are woefully unprepared to be good spouses. But what is sacramental about the union of two souls, is not what happens in front of an altar as a priest utters some magic words. The sacrament lies deep in the heart of the bride and groom if they really care about each other and are willing to make sacrifices for each other and work together to make the marriage more important than either of their own individual lives. It is that depth of feeling that unites them, and makes them married in a spiritual sense. It is Divine. But you have to work at it.


World War III–It’s Here

World War III has started, folks. Don’t wait for a nuclear weapon to go off or a Gulf of Tonkin incident that will kick things into high gear. It’s here, and has been here since 9/11, first in Iraq, then Afghanistan, and now Syria, Yeman, Pakistan, Bengladesh, Libya, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Mali, Egypt and Turkey. And it’s not just the developing world:  The massacres in Brussels, Paris, Orlando, and San Bernadino were battles in this war.  Future battles are being planned right now.

The sides?

Radical Islam vs. the rest of the world


Islam Type A vs. Islam Types B, C, D, and F

It’s a war without borders, a truly world war, where no one knows when an angry man or woman, prompted by a religious leader, facilitated by social media, lax gun laws or ambitious gun-runners, will kill anyone anytime anyhow.   It can be soldier vs. soldier but doesn’t have to be–any death will do and the more the better.   Get used to it. There is no end in sight.

There will be, however, an end. That will come in one of two ways:

1) we all sink into such a miserable state of endless bloodbaths and fleeing refugees that we heave a collective sigh of despair and swear off all violence forever, every last man and woman of us on this planet


2) we stop listening to leaders and sacred texts that justify killing innocent people in the name of religion.  We recognize that the Sacred does exist in this world, but it can be found in our hearts.  Death itself is sacred.  We know this when we watch our loved ones face its challenges and are taken from us.  Killing in the name of religion, however, is the antithesis of the Sacred, it defines the Dark Side.  It robs the victims of their lives and the killers of their humanity.

We will only come to this point if parents can begin to teach their children that life and death are both sacred, despite what you learned from your religion.  Start teaching!

For more on this see ISIS and the Phoney War 

Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”and the Sacrament of the Group

A terrific book is out there waiting for you: Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, a combat journalist in Afghanistan who found that his experience on returning home from deployment was shared by many others in the military: it was hard to fit back in. He longed for the camaraderie you experience in battle, in a war zone where it’s life and death and each member of the team has to be there to support the other. Psychologically we need a tribe–that’s how we evolved.  Living a successful modern life means we don’t need each other physically as much any more, but the need to forge connections still haunts us.   When we are deprived of those connections we get messed up; when we find them, something clicks and our lives fall into place

The irony is that in peacetime, as affluence grows, we tend to be on our own making money to buy more stuff: we grow apart,we get selfish, we even get mean. But when we’re faced with a common enemy in a combat zone, or back on the home front supporting the troops as the nation did in World War II,  we get that sense of belonging, of  greater purpose. We come together, we share resources and have a sense of the tribe.

Junger is talking about what I call the Sacrament of the Group–a profound, feeling when we’re actively involved with people who are all on the same wavelength, with amplitudes reinforcing each other in what can sometimes be a sublime experience.  You can see this at political rallies, in concert halls, or at the World Cup. As a moment of transcendence it’s a powerful, fulfilling force, but at a more mundane level,  it is the bond of the tribe that Junger is referring to, something we sense day in, day out.  We’re missing this now in an America that is splintered as never before, which is why the vets are finding re-entry so difficult. How do we change that?

As Junger points out, we don’t get there by speaking contemptuously of our fellow citizens. The trolls are out there on the internet, and one of them has even leapt out of his reality TV screen to snatch a presidential nomination based on insults and umbrage. To glory in contempt is to destroy civilization. We should all be teaching our children to respect the dignity of everyone, even those they disagree with. This is a job for the family, schools, and community leaders. The primary campaign of 2016 is a measure of how far we’ve fallen.

We all need to belong to something, but tribes nestle within each other like Russian dolls. We begin with the family, then the neighborhood groups, and the community. Beyond that there is the city, the state, the nation, but ultimately we can’t forget that we are all citizens-of-the world.  Our task for the future is to get used to the idea of belonging  both locally AND globally.

Sebastian Junger appeared on the radio show On Point.   It’s worth listening to.


God Misconceived: Three Real-Life Examples

Imagine this happening where you live:

X kills her two sons ages 6 and 8, smashing their heads with a rock. She explains that God came to her to say the world was ending and she needed to “get her house in order”.

Y attacks a neighboring village with a group of like-minded men. They round up the women they find and force them to return with them. They tell the women that God wants them to be married and they are kept as sexual slaves by their captors.

Z and a group of his friends go into a neighboring village and steal the harvest of the farmers there. They burn the farm buildings and the neighbor’s child dies in the blaze.   Z justifies it all by saying the land belongs to him because God gave it to him and the people who live there have to be driven out.

What is the difference between these examples? In the third, Z could also provide some writings from long ago that in his mind prove what God’s will is. But really, aren’t they the same in the end?  How would any of us react to a neighbor announcing that God wanted any of these things? A call to the nearest police station would result, which is precisely what happened to X, a Christian Texas woman who was judged insane. But if she is insane, why not Y and Z as well? As you’ve probably guessed, Y is an Islamist adherent of Boko Haram or  IS, and Z is a Jewish settler in the West Bank, all doing God’s work.

Why would an unbiased reader condemn all three of these behaviors?    It’s because most of us have a concept of the Good or the Divine Will or Right and Wrong–call it what you like– that rules out killing, stealing, rape.  We don’t need to appeal to God for authority  or look in a sacred text, we know in our hearts what is wrong.   Any outsider would call X, Y and Z delusional, even with the Old Testament as exhibit A.   Did God really dictate the boundaries of that real estate deal in the Middle East way back when? How do we know? If the answer is “we know in our hearts”  that’s what X said as she murdered her own children.   If the answer is “we know because that’s what we’ve been taught” we’re closer to a  way to prevent these sorts of tragedies: better curriculum, better teaching. Start with compassion, not real estate. Start with the here and now and real-live human beings.

Stop the Persecution of the Bahais

Here’s a news item you may have missed: Iran is holding seven leaders of the Bahai faith prisoner. They were arrested back in 2008, convicted of espionage, insulting “religious sanctities” and propaganda against the state.   The Bahais are about 300,000 strong in Iran, with thousands of others in Iraq and Pakistan.   They are persecuted everywhere in the Muslim world, denied work, denied entrance to universities, viewed with suspicion and hatred, and, in a word–dehumanized.


The spying and propaganda charges come from the fear that Israel is using the Bahai community in Iran for its own purposes.  Who knows if this is true in some cases. But the main reason they’re treated badly is the “sanctity” question. The Bahais believe their founders were prophets, here to continue the work begun by Mohammed and Jesus.   But for Muslims, Mohammed was the final prophet.  To announce that you, too, have a direct line to God–well, that’s a big problem.

It’s extremely depressing to go online and try to find out what exactly people have against the Bahais. There are Christians taking them to task for claiming their teachings come from God, and there are Muslims who try to justify their scorn for these people who they see as shills for the Jewish state…delusional, unclean apostates!  Lock them up! Get them out of our country!

Just to remind you: we went through this in our history too.   The early Quakers were persecuted in England and America, Roger Williams,John Wheelwright, and Thomas Hooker were driven out of Puritan Boston to found Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. The Puritans in Boston had the same problem with these gentlemen that the Ayatollahs have with the Bahais: they dare to suggest that they have their beliefs from God directly.   God spoke to their leaders, told them how to live their lives, gave them a moral code. This is blasphemy to the Muslim world as it was to the Puritans.

Why was it blasphemy?

Because God had already spoken to their leaders giving them their marching orders on how to live their lives. Their point of departure is, that we can’t know everything about God, but we can know that He dictated those holy books that are the source of our moral codes, and we can know that our interpretation of those  holy books is the only correct one.

This is all metaphysics, that fancy word that refers to what we know of reality beyond what our senses can tell us–what we believe without evidence. In other words, some very tricky stuff to deal with. Metaphysical arguments are heavy lifting. I fall back on Voltaire who said it all in Micromegas. When he had those two superior beings from outer space visit Earth they brought with them a book with everything known about metaphysics written in it. When the earthling philosophers eagerly opened the book, it was blank.

People take that blank book and write in their own accounts, passed on from their parents and their parents’ parents, and it becomes Gospel. How much better the world would be if we sidestepped the questions of provenance, the “how do you know that?” and focused on the guidelines to living, the moral code, the “how do we get along?” The Bahais, the Mormons, the Quakers, all have a deep respect for the human being.  They all put a premium on world peace.  The sacred is found in compassion, in the seven universal sacraments, not in unanswerable arguments about who God whispered what to when.

Are You Opening Your Children Up to the Spiritual Life?

Homo sapiens is the only species that can really use language.   Some apes have learned to do a little signing, but we are the only ones that can create complex sentences that convey complex ideas.   Our brains are wired to learn a language at a very young age, and if that opportunity is squandered, it becomes infinitely more difficult to learn to speak. There are terrible stories about children locked in closets for years who can only babble and shriek.  If they don’t hear the spoken word at the right time of their lives, it’s a lot harder to acquire a linguistic ability.

We are also the only species that has a spiritual sense, and there may be a window of opportunity to develop it as well. Columbia University Professor of Psychology Lisa Miller points out in her book The Spiritual Child that these days, although an increasing number of parents are identifying as being “spiritual” as opposed to “religious,” many are clueless when it comes to helping their children develop spiritually.   Within a religious tradition their job seems easier: send them to Sunday School, or teach them a catechism, practice rote prayers that have all the stultifying effect of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.  Maybe they’ll  say a prayer of their own now and then.

Maybe not.

Miller argues that spirituality is a dimension of our humanity that, if absent, opens the road  to problems.   She cites studies that show that developing a spiritual sense helps young people avoid depression, addictions, and other pathologies that prey on this generation of children. Her book is chock full of advice for parents on how to foster that spiritual life that seems so important to well-being.   All of us can get on the path to transcendence, with a little help from our parents.

This is the point my book also makes.   OK, so you’re spiritual, not religious, but what are you going to tell your child about death, right and wrong, and living together  peacefully in a world that has gotten smaller and smaller? We all need some guidelines for living, and most of us can sense that there is something beyond the mere desire to eat, drink, and be merry.  There has to be a moral code of some kind that we all live by and that is part of what defines the Spirit.  For the freethinkers out there, it doesn’t have to be a deity in the traditional sense, a Creator-Father, someone to talk to and seek answers from.  By simply seeking the answers to these spiritual questions and opening yourself to the wonder of it all you are partaking of the Spirit.

If we want to save the world, we have to start with our children, and with the allure of the screens pulling at them minute by minute.  Unless parents take the time to teach spiritual intelligence, to  wonder at beauty and ponder the mysteries of life,  future generations will enter adulthood as disadvantaged as someone who never learned to speak.

Pope Francis Does It Again!

In a new “Exhortation” entitled “On Love in the Family” the Pope has broken new ground in humanizing the Catholic faith.   So much of this is desperately needed that it bears repeating, so here’s some of what he had to say:

1) Get it Together, Men! The Pope goes after domestic violence and verbal abuse of women as the antithesis of what a loving union should be.  Absolutely!

2) Not Sex Ed, …Love Ed: he warns about the danger of encouraging adolescents to “toy with their bodies and desires” treating the other person as a means of blithely fulfilling their own needs. They need to be taught that sexual union is based on a profound love, not personal gratification.

3) Treat Gays Kindly: we must respect the dignity of all, regardless of sexual orientation, and treat everyone with consideration

4) Stop Dissing the Divorcees: far from ostracizing those who get divorced, we must encourage them to be part of the community

A lot of this comes down to that best of all Bible passages: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It also emphasizes the need for a serious education, starting in childhood, on what this whole range of mysteries is all about: sexual attraction, marriage, and sexual union.  Too often we’re doing a bad job of this right now.   Mother Jones recently published an article on the “Abstinence Only” sex ed laws in Tennessee, which got their start when the daughter of a legislator in that state came home to announce that her instructor in AIDS prevention had illustrated the use of condoms by rolling one onto a vibrator—with her mouth!

Yes, that would do it.

We desperately need to let our children know that sexual union is sacred and it all ties in with how we treat each other as sexual partners and how we regard the sexual orientation of others. This needs to be taught in the home and taught at school, no matter what you think about God.

On the other hand, there are some things in Francis’s exhortation that are problematic, even for the most devoted Catholics. Take the Pope’s unhappiness with birth control, for example. Francis jumps on the fact that we call contraception “protection,” as if a future child were an enemy.

Semantics can be such a problem.

Even in the most Catholic countries, couples are ignoring the Church’s teaching on this point and using birth control in massive numbers.   If they were not, there would be millions of unwanted babies. The “enemy” if there is one, is not the child, it’s Want, Poverty, Starvation and all the social ills that come with them. The Pope and his men seem unaware of the dangers of the Population Bomb, or if they are, apparently they would address it by having us buck up, strengthen our self-control, and simply refrain more often from sexual activity to avoid the 12-child family.   They are dreaming. We are programmed to procreate–the urge is too great for most to resist.  Without contraception famine, wars over scarce resources, and mass migrations of peoples would overwhelm the earth even more than they already are.

So Two Cheers for Pope Francis, and thank God that Catholics around the world are using their common sense where it’s badly needed to keep Poverty at bay.

The Antidote to Skinheads in Brussels

Once again, is nothing sacred?

Last week the citizens of Brussels wanted to hold a memorial for the victims of the bombings and express their desire for unity.  They gathered at the Place de la Bourse, a central square in the city. They lit candles. They laid flowers. They prayed. They left messages for the victims. About 500 people were present from all backgrounds, including Muslims.   It was a time to mourn. When tragedy strikes, the need to come together is overwhelming.   We feel a deep yearning to reach out to those around us, even strangers.   It’s the Sacrament of the Group, bringing us some measure of solace. Peace was in the air at the Place de la Bourse.

Then into this scene of solidarity and compassion, hundreds of right-wing skinheads appeared. They marched into the square, row upon row of them. Some wore hoods. Some masks. All were in black and many were holding cans of beer. They trampled down the carpet of flowers, they chanted anti-immigrant slogans, and “Death to Arabs.” They gave the Nazi salute. They leered at the news cameras. They had come from football (soccer) clubs from all over Belgium, perhaps 500 to 1000 of them. Some proudly called themselves “hooligans”. These are the men who are drawn to sports because of the possibility of fights, on the field or in the stands. There’s nothing they like better than a brawl.

Those who had gathered for the vigil were horrified. “They’re worse than the terrorists!” one older woman cried. “No, this isn’t possible! Tell me it isn’t true that they’re here!” sobbed one man.

The riot police stood by for a while, but as the situation deteriorated, they moved in. After some extremely tense confrontations, using water cannon, shields and batons, the police managed to isolate the invaders and they were eventually herded out of the area. Some arrests were made.  It was over. “We won!” said one young woman as the vigil resumed. “No we didn’t,” her friend said, “It’s a mess.”

The world is a mess. We thought it was bad in the 60s, now we’re back in the 30s with groups of proto-stormtroopers throwing their weigh around wherever you look. They also are motivated by the Sacrament of the Group, drawing their strength from their comrades-in-arms, but have turned it into something dark, the antithesis of what is sacred.

As we confront terrorism on a daily basis, what do we do about this, the inevitable reaction that many will experience: the hate, the desire to fight back, to lash out at whoever or whatever seems the cause of the problem…?

An excellent article in the Christian Science Monitor shows us the way. A neo-nazi skinhead from Vancouver left all the hate behind him when his daughter was born. “What happened in that moment is that I became connected to another human being for the first time since I could remember.” This is the Sacrament of Birth. It’s a transformative moment that brings out the best in all of us. We’re blown away by the miracle of it all, by the mother’s courage, by the need to take care of that helpless child. That’s the stuff from which to build a new world.

There are seven universal sacraments that bind us to each other by virtue of our humanity.  If we can only make each other aware of what unites us, we’ll have a chance.  The reformed father from Vancouver puts it this way:  “It’s very important for everybody to keep their sense of compassion. If society responds with fear and clamps down, it’s not a nice place to be.”

The reporting from Brussels was translated from Le Monde