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.


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,” .

Christians Awake! Quit the Cult

The death of Tony Alamo in federal prison this week brought to mind all the damage done in the name of Jesus Christ by charlatans disguised as men of God. Here’s a guy who managed to convince hundreds if not thousands of people that he had a direct line to the Lord and if they would only turn over all their money and assets to the Church he created, they would be able to listen in and salvation would be theirs.

Presto! a cult is founded.

He had a TV ministry back in the late 70s and made a fortune selling, of all things, designer rhinestone jackets to pop stars, jackets that are still being sold online for a hefty sum. Shouldn’t that be a tip-off that all is not right in the New Jerusalem when your spiritual leader is selling both salvation and sequins?

Salvation: it’s what so many are looking for–a way out of the morass that their lives have become, or, perhaps they are just spiritual seekers, looking for a creed, a guru, floating around like chemical ions, waiting for that attraction, that pull that will create a bond to make their lives complete in a blinding flash, and I do mean blinding.

Alamo did a lot of sleazy things, but the worst was using salvation as a threat to get women and girls as young as 15 to sleep with him. He was on the run from the FBI for years and when they finally caught up with him, he ended up with a jail term of 175 years. At the sentencing Alamo is reported to have said “I’m glad I’m me and not the deceived people in the world.”

And there you have it. There are the Tony Alamos and there are the deceived.   But there are also the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, who (we can only hope) will eventually outnumber both groups and combat hubris and ignorance with Humanism.

You don’t need a guru, you need to recognize that the sacred is all around us and does not involve complete surrender to a charismatic leader.   We all feel the need to belong to something—that’s the Sacrament of the Group. We also need people to guide us through life. That’s the Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. But the Tony Alamos of the world represent the dark side of both of those sacraments, when greed, lust, and ego masquerade as Goodness.

It all boils down to this: don’t abandon reason in your search for the Spirit.

New Church’s Motto: It’s Relationships Not Religion

A very moving story appeared in the local paper about a married, Christian couple who started a successful pizzeria years ago. Then she came down with multiple sclerosis.   Their lives became very difficult as she grew worse, but their faith only grew. When she became nearly immobile, they began holding non-denominational church services right there in the restaurant with family members attending. Then word spread and others began to join them.   Currently their congregation is small, but thriving and they’re moving into a larger space.     But what jumped out at you in the article was what her son said about their gatherings. Commenting on the falling membership in churches around the country, he said he hopes to “reinvigorate people’s faith—we’re a relationship, not a religion.”


Isn’t that what it’s all about, when you come right down to it?   And the point is, relationships with other people. This is what brought friends and acquaintances into their services in the restaurant. Her illness required support from others, spiritual support and physical support. That’s something we all need.   It’s what I call the extension of the Sacrament of Death because it’s not just at a deathbed that we need to become caregivers.   We all get sick, and we all need help when we do. Sometimes we get better soon, and sometimes they last a lifetime, but what doesn’t change is our need for courage to get through it, and our need for support when we’re weak and in pain.

Some may argue that as far as relationships go, the primary one is between you and Jesus or God or Allah.  Some may call on the deity or on one of the many saints for help in these crises, and if that works for you, more power to you. But that still doesn’t change the basic need for human-to-human contact and the touch of a hand or a cheering word from someone at your bedside. The Spirit, or if you like, the “Hand of God” works through our fellow human beings and it is through human relationships– compassion, friendship, caregiving and caring–that we can provide and receive some degree of solace in these difficult times.

Some Christians like to remind us that the Bible says “only through Christ” can you be saved, and maintain that these humanistic teachings get us off the track.  More on that later.


The Humanist’s Prayer Chamber


For some reason, the term “prayer chamber” escaped me all these years until last week.  From what I understand, this is where a group of Christians gather to ask God to intercede for someone who is sick or who is going through a crisis. The prayer chamber can also be mustered for something a little more “out there”: one website mentions help with “financial flow” and staving off “witchcraft and apostacy [sic].” On Facebook there is a prayer-chamber page with all kinds of prayers, from the old standby beseeching the Lord to bless you, keep you and make His face to shine upon you, to prayers bellicosely invoking the name of the entire Trinity at once to change the direction of our country. There you can even find a link to YouTube and something called “Prayer Warfare Strategy” with #91 back in November urging us to pray for the presidential election.

Maybe that explains what happened…

Many of our fellowmen and women find this kind of aggressive prayer difficult to take. The freethinker will have little patience with those who so vocally thrust their prayers at us and seem to delight in their personal relation with what to the skeptic is at best a big metaphysical question mark.

However, skeptics take note: a terrific article on prayer in the North Dakota Quarterly was reprinted in the Utne Reader’s last issue.   The author, Cathy Krizik, is an atheist who in some detail describes her allergic reaction to traditional religion and conversations that invoked the Deity.   Prayer for her was “nothing but a Band-Aid to make us all feel better.” But when she was taking a class at an omnifaith spiritual community, she let it slip that she was having surgery for cancer, and, to her horror, her classmates immediately came together for a prayer chamber.

They surrounded her in a circle , and as the prayers began, she resisted. “I felt pummeled by their words….I sloughed off their kindness as wishful thinking….” But as the words and thoughts kept coming, something happened. She was overcome.

“Words became a wave of something I couldn’t name…Their words were medicine. I was being tended to. Lifted up and loved.”

These short excerpts don’t do her justice—it’s a beautifully written piece. Her closing is what is most noteworthy:

“As I drove home…I wondered what was at work in that prayer chamber. Quantum physics? God? Love? And was there a difference?”

Exactly. Who cares what we want to call it? This is the Sacrament of the Group, the power that comes from focusing our energies in a single, purposeful, spiritual direction. It’s there for anyone to experience.   We don’t need to bring in God, or sin. We just need that human-to-human connection, caring and compassion.

What is a Post-Christian?

Great article in the NY Times Magazine this week: “The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing” about Bart Campolo, a star in the world of evangelical Christianity, who left it all behind to become the humanist chaplain at USC in Los Angeles.    Campolo is described as a “post-Christian”—someone who loved everything about the Christian ministry except the Christianity, that is, his focus was on community building, friendship, taking care of those in need, those going through a hard time, and not on the virgin birth, the resurrection, the miracles which some would call magical thinking.  By talking with Greg Epstein (Good Without God), the humanist chaplain at Harvard and head of the Humanist Hub, Bart eventually found his way to his new position in LA.

The article raises the key question: Can we have the benefits of what an old-style religion offers without the supernatural?  We better all hope the answer is a resounding “yes!” because it’s so often the supernatural–that metaphysical quagmire–that creates the zealots, so caught up in the phantasmagoria of paradise, angels, hell, and transubstantiation that all the humanity has been wrung out of our brief lives here on this Earth and we’re left with an electorate determined to create God’s kingdom on Earth with all the bigotry and hatred that too often go with it.

I particularly like the picture at the head of the article. Look at the crowd of college students bonding through laughter at something Bart is saying.  That’s the Sacrament of the Group, creating those invaluable human-to-human connections through humor. They will remember more about their time in that group and that leader than in any classroom they’ve ever been in.



Sam Harris and the Perennial Philosophy

The Perennial Philosophy is the idea that the major religions all have something in common: a belief that a mystic human experience can locate the Divine in the individual soul and provide a sense of oneness with the universe to that individual.   Adherents of this philosophy like Emerson believe that we can rally behind this idea as a way of uniting the world, since traditional religions are really only a variation of this theme.

Sam Harris , however, rejects that idea.   In Waking Up he argues that Christians, Muslims, and Jews maintain that the universe is dualistic. Put bluntly, God is out there and He ain’t in you.   None of this humanistic stuff–God is outside somewhere, and there are punishments in store if you do not do what He says as described in His scriptures.   Harris acknowledges that there have been mystics in all the religions who describe transcendent experiences, but more often than not they are persecuted and driven out of the mainstream religion. Waking Up is all about finding this transcendent experience through meditation, so for Harris this dualism is just one more nail in the coffin of institutional religions. Moreover, the idea that we can unite the Abrahamic religions behind this idea of the Perennial Philosophy is a non-starter, he says, because religions are so different in what they demand of their disciples, there is no way they can unite.   To really call yourself a Christian, for example, you have to believe in the virgin birth. To call yourself a Catholic you have to believe that the Pope is infallible. To call yourself a Mormon you have to believe God has a body of flesh and bone. Believing in these kinds of things is central to identifying yourself as being of that religion.

He’s right, as far as what we might call fundamentalist religionists. But I think he’s missing a bigger picture, and that is, that there is a movement afoot to bypass these beliefs and get to the meat of the matter, which is, in fact something akin to the Perennial Philosophy.   The ranks of the Nones (those checking “none of the above” when asked about their religion) are growing by leaps and bounds.   Even within the mainstream there are many who, when pressed, would say they’re not hung up on the hard-to-believe beliefs like the virgin birth or whether Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead or walked on water. They’re simply looking for community, for some support in raising their children according to a moral code, and for some kind of spiritual experience.

I think the main point to keep in mind is, we’re never going to convert the entire world to one religion. Despite the best efforts of good-hearted Christians, you’re never going to get those billions of Muslims into Sunday School any more than they are going to get Christian children into madrassas. Harris is right, we’re not united, but despite that, we can and must come together as human beings living on an increasingly crowded planet. There is another avenue to a common ground and that is the Seven Universal Sacraments based on human experiences.   Anyone of any faith or no faith can warm themselves in the joy a family feels at the birth of a healthy child. That moment of birth is sacred, and for the parents provides that incredible, ineffable human experience that is very much what the Perennial Philosophy is all about.

Sam Harris and the Seven Universal Sacraments

I finally finished Sam Harris’ latest book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris is one of the smartest guys out there talking about religion and spirituality and his attacks on the major religions from an atheistic standpoint can be viewed on any number of youtube clips.  I have to confess that I wish there were a bit less sarcasm from his followers, and from Harris himself, less chortling and chuckling over how ignorant he thinks his opponents are, but at least he’s not as bad as Christopher Hitchens whose disciples seem to delight in nothing so much as a snide comment designed to humiliate.

Harris continues his attack on organized religion in this book, but also points out the weakness in the arguments of his fellow atheists: they don’t seem to understand spirituality.  He writes toward the end of the book:

“Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism and all other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. … Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms—acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence—our world will remain shattered by dogmatism.

This book has been my attempt to begin such a conversation.”

And that is what my book Seven Sacraments for Everyone is also trying to do, but from a different angle. Self-transcendence, getting away from the ego, is attainable through these seven human experiences, all of which bring us closer to other human beings and that is the same thing as becoming closer to whatever we mean by the Divine.  If we all would recognize that, perhaps there might be a path to greater peace.

Harris’s main point is that we all need to do more meditating and less arguing about what God wants us to do. I’m all for that, since there’s so much difference of opinion on the subject of what God wants us to do.  There’s not much chance there will ever be agreement on God’s commandments to us, but there is agreement on some universal transcendent experiences apart from meditation. If we could only grasp them, elusive though they may be, they would provide a certain guide to the meaning of life.  From the way people are leaving traditional churches, it would seem that many are in the market for this idea.  The Nones are multiplying and I would predict that even among Muslims, the Nones are going to make serious inroads in the near future as the full horror of the death and destruction carried out in the name of Islam becomes clearer.

In Praise of Unitarian-Universalists

It’s time everyone took a closer look at the Unitarian-Universalists, those euphonious UUs, who are more than worthy of our respect and admiration.   Anyone shopping for a new religion should pause and consider the principles they live by.

First of all, the Universalist aspect of it would seem a prerequisite to any deserving approach to a spiritual life. If you don’t accept the idea that different religions could lead to God and salvation (whatever you mean by that), then that would mean God doomed untold millions—billions—of people to hell (whatever you mean by that), people who never had a chance to hear about Jesus, or Mohammed, or whoever you’re betting on. The idea of the Chosen People or the Elect is infuriating. Would the Deity really embrace John Calvin as he entered the hereafter in 1564 but doom a South Sea Islander who died that same year but who never had a chance to hear about Jesus, the Trinity, heaven and hell?

The Unitarian side of the hyphen asks us to reject the idea that God exists as three “persons” (the Trinity) and more specifically, that Jesus IS God incarnated into human form.   This would certainly be a hard pill to swallow for many Americans steeped in the Christology of their home churches. It makes you wonder, would half of our country disdainfully reject a Unitarian who ran for president as they would an atheist (Gallop Poll June 2012)? No Christ—no White House?

But the most important part of the Unitarian belief is that there is some kind of deity out there, a Spirit, with all the ineffable mystery that word contains, a Spirit that is in all of us, that we need to search out in a spiritual quest.   To this end they articulate seven principles, and emphasize six sources of spiritual growth. The sixth, for example, is: “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” Those who attend the UU churches include all those who embrace this sacred Spirit of Life: agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims—it doesn’t matter, as long as you are open to the quest for the Spirit.

Then there’s this from their website: “personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion.”   This is what the Seven Universal Sacraments are all about. Human experience and reason point us in the direction of these seven aspects of life that are truly sacred.

Hirsi Ali, Kali, and the Sacrament of Death

Just finished a terrific book, The Deceivers by John Masters. Set in India in 1825, it’s a kind of secret agent story, uncovering an underground society of “thugs”, a network of hundreds if not thousands of murderers who roamed the roads in India, preying on travelers, killing millions over the centuries.   Masters is someone I had never heard of, but I’m on his second novel now, and his descriptions of Old India make excellent reading. What struck me in this novel is his portrayal of these killers as devotees of Kali, the goddess of Death and Destruction. Their rites and murders are firmly bound up in their religion: what they are doing is pleasing to Kali, they believe, and other Indians in the novel seem to accept that as a legitimate approach to finding meaning in life. Kali must have her way.   We worship her by killing at will.

This week I also heard Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali author who fled to the West, arguing against the doctrine of the radical jihadists who are wreaking havoc in Nigeria, Somalia, and the Middle East. She maintains that their reading of the Koran, which focuses so much on the afterlife, leads to a devaluing of life in the here and now, a blindness to the needs of the individual, and ultimately to dehumanization.   She made the bold statement that any religion that focuses so much on the afterlife is a nihilistic cult of death.   She has repeated this claim previously and it has drawn waves of criticism from all sides, even from atheists. But can there be any doubt that many of these jihadists are in the thrall of the Death Goddess? Christians were in the same mindset several centuries ago. If you look at the Christian art of the Middle Ages where the focus is so much on the bloody wounds of Christ or the torments of hell, what can we conclude but that there is a ghoulish pleasure in contemplating these scenes of torture? With that focus on blood, if we’re not careful, we can begin to “love the Goddess” as Masters puts it.

In Seven Sacraments for Everyone I talk about death as a sacrament, the idea that the arrival of death is part of life, and at that time, whether it is hours, days or years in coming, we become more human as we reach out to those around us for comfort, both from our sickbeds and as caregivers. Our spiritual lives become richer at those moments. Those who are dying need us, desperately. Compassion burns within us and we want to help.

Masters describes the antithesis of this. The gruesome, remorseless way in which innocent men, women, and children were cut down or strangled allows no other conclusion than that the thugs had slipped into the Dark Side.  Instead of compassion, they sought to destroy in the name of religion. Hirsi Ali makes the same point about the radical jihadists. Let’s make it clear we’re not talking about all Muslims. But judging by the numbers of Muslim youths trying to get into Syria, anxious to become martyrs, it’s something to be taken seriously.

Of the many legends of Kali, the one that is needed most at this point is when Kali becomes drunk on the blood of her victims on the battlefield and is about to destroy the whole universe. To stop her, her husband, Shiva, falls at her feet.   In her rage she doesn’t see him and, storming across the battlefield, she steps on his chest.   She then sees him, is filled with remorse, and her anger dies.   Even Kali can experience compassion, it would seem, once she opens her eyes.   Where is the Shiva that will bring her to her senses?