Images of God

 

Most of what I write about here is very basic. I often feel it’s just Life 101.

And yet, I keep seeing people speaking and acting as if it’s not, so I am drawn to writing a bit.

When people reject God as depicted in religion, as I did in elementary school, we are often just rejecting certain images of God. They don’t make sense to us, so we – often understandably – reject them.

For instance, if we have an image of God as a man with a gray beard sitting on a cloud, it will be seen as quite childish and ripe for rejection. In modern society, even images of God as a separate entity that helps and/or judges us is often seen as relatively immature and something best rejected.

I have to admit, most of the images of God presented by theistic mainstream religions seem a bit childish. So no wonder many reject these images, and in the process reject religion, God in general, and perhaps even spirituality. (Although in Norway, it seems that most reject religion but are open to spirituality and some ideas of God.)

It seems that the better our lives are in a society, the more likely we are to reject old-fashioned theistic images of God. And in places where there is more inequality and larger portions of us live in poverty and under difficult situations, we are more likely to adopt these images. (And that’s fine. It helps us, and it’s very understandable.)

I have two favorite images of God, both of which seem to work a bit better in modern society, and both of which are non-theistic.

God = reality. God = what is, whatever that may be. This includes our physical universe as described by science and perhaps more. We know only parts of reality so we cannot assume we know God as a whole.

God = Big Mind. The consciousness that everything (universe+) happens within and as, and which makes up this consciousness here that my local experience happens within and as.

A benefit of these two is that we can equally well say it, she, or he about God. I tend to it or she since he has been used so much in our culture. Or I may choose one depending on which aspect of reality we talk about.

Another benefit is that we are free to find the validity, helpfulness, and potential shortcomings of any religion or spiritual tradition. They all have some validity to them. They all may be helpful for some people, in some situations, in some ways. And they all have shortcoming and pitfalls.

So if someone asks me if I believe in God, I may say “yes” or “no” depending on who I talk to. I may explain which images roughly apply in my case. I may mention that it’s not really a “belief” but more a pointer and something to explore. Or I may ask which image of God do you mean?

Note: The painting is by Harmonia Rosales. If God can be depicted – mainly by white men – as an older white guy with a beard, so why not also as a black woman? We tend to create God in our own image.

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Born into a religion

 

Many people adopt whatever religion (or lack thereof) they are born into. It’s very understandable and natural. We adopt the religion we are born into because it’s familiar, because there is something of value in it (as there is in just about all of them), and for social reasons (to have a community, to fit in, for support).

And yet, if we say that the religion we happen to be born into is the “only true religion”, then there is some lack of intellectual honesty. How can we know? How can we know unless we seriously explore and experience all of them? How can we know even then?

Of course, if we say it’s the only true one, that’s OK as well. It comes from conditioning. That too is natural and understandable. I do the same in many areas of life, including in ways I am not aware of (yet). And it does come with some inherent discomfort and suffering. It can create discomfort for ourselves since we know – somewhere – we can’t know for sure, and when we see things of value in other traditions. And it can create discomfort and suffering for those around us who do not belong to our particular religion.

I became an atheist in elementary school on my own accord, partly for this reason. It didn’t make any sense to me that people happened to be born into this traditionally Christian culture, adopted that religion without questioning it much, and then saw it as the only true religion and the only path to salvation. To me, even at that age, it smacked of intellectual dishonesty.

I am still an atheist in a conventional sense. I don’t “believe” in any religion, and I don’t “believe in God” in a usual sense.

For me, “God” is a name for reality, life, existence. I don’t pretend I know exactly what that is. I have my own experience, and I am familiar with maps and frameworks that make sense to me based on my own experience and intellectually. And I know very well that those maps are just maps. They are questions about life, myself, and reality. And as maps, they are very much provisional.

I also appreciate the wisdom and guidance offered by the major religions. They often start from real insights and realizations, and individuals through the ages infuse the religions with fresh impulses from their own insights and awakenings.

At the same time, I know that religions…..

  • Are structures that at best initially came from real insights. Have other functions than guiding people to spiritual insights and realizations, and that these are often more important. These may include social regulation, comfort, and a sense of community and fellowship.
  • Have as their main purpose to perpetuate themselves. Although individuals within the traditions may have other priorities, including functioning as experienced spiritual guides for those interested in that approach.
  • Use a “lowest common denominator” approach and at best recommend what tends to work for most people. The suggested practices and paths are often not so much tailored to the individual unless you find a more flexible and experienced guide.

The reality is that few people are interested in a spiritual path, and that’s fine. And that’s also reflected in how most or all religions are set up and function, including Buddhism. There is nothing at all wrong with this.

But it does mean that if we are seriously interested in a spiritual path, we may need to find free spirits within the traditions, or guides who function outside of them.

That’s why I – from the start in my teens – have sought out people like Jes Bertelsen (Danish spiritual teacher), Ken Wilber (for the framework), and later Adyashanti (who does have a solid grounding in one of the traditions).

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Insulted by reality

 

A friend asked on Facebook: “Why are some insulted by ‘happy holidays’?”.

As far as I understand, some Christians are insulted by any acknowledgment that others don’t share their religion. In other words, they are insulted by reality. That’s putting it harshly but also – as far as I can tell – accurately.

John Travolta and Going Clear

 

I’ve been so happy with my [Scientology] experience in the last 40 years that I really don’t have anything to say that would shed light on [a documentary] so decidedly negative,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “I’ve been brought through storms that were insurmountable, and [Scientology has] been so beautiful for me, that I can’t even imagine attacking it.

– John Travolta cited in Huffington Post

I understand where he is coming from, to some extent. As he says, his experience has been good so why bite the hand that [comforts?] him?

At the same time, it seems profoundly irresponsible. If someone are nice to me, but not to others, it’s my duty to learn what’s going on and speak up about it. As Desmond Tutu said: If you are neutral on situations of injustice, you are on the side of the oppressor. 

The Scientology organization obviously treats him well, and it may well be part of an intentional strategy on their part. He is famous, and it’s in their interest to have famous people on their side.

That doesn’t mean that others are treated equally well. Going Clear most likely gets a lot right, partly because a large group of lawyers made sure they can back up their claims. And also since what it describes fits with what so many have reported, perhaps especially after they got a new leader a couple of decades ago.

 

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Religion is politics

 

In a recent letter to the editor in a Norwegian news outlet, a conservative politician is upset about a pro-sustainability statement from the Norwegian church. She says that religion should have nothing to do with politics.

For me, it seems clear that religion is politics. All religions I am aware of are – at their heart – socially engaged, and on the side of the weak, the voiceless, nature, and future generations. And sometimes this gets watered down, or ignored, or even reversed if it’s in the interest of people higher up in the religious hierarchy.

Also, as the New Testament shows, Jesus was a radical. He repeatedly spoke out against the establishment, and for the outcast, downtrodden, weak, voiceless, and those looked down upon by the establishment. He spent his time with prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, and others typically avoided by mainstream society. Today, he would most likely speak out for transsexuals, Muslims, the poor, and also nonhuman species, ecosystems, and future generations.

Of course, this reflects my own bias. I cast religion, and Jesus, in my own image. Religions do have traditionally conservative elements too, such as emphasis on family and stability.

But none of them prescribe silence in the face of injustice, discrimination, or harm to living being.

On the contrary, they prescribe action. And action is political.

When this conservative politician is upset about a pro-sustainability statement from the church, it’s perhaps because it (a) goes against the policies of her own party, and (b) highlights a cognitive dissonance for her between the heart of Christianity and those policies. Again, I know that view reflects my own bias. If I talked with her, I would probably get a more nuanced – and understanding – view.

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Basic images about nature, animals, our body, gender, future generations etc.

 

In our western culture, we have tended to see parts of our world as inferior – nature, animals, our bodies, women, children, future generations – and treated it accordingly. We split the world in our minds, take this imagined split as reality, see one part as less valuable than the other, and then take this imagination as true as well.

There are historical, cultural, philosophical and religious reasons for this.

More immediately, it’s about the images we have in our own minds. Images transmitted from our culture, and that are there whether we consciously agree with them or not.

So it can be very helpful – and illuminating – to explore these images, for instance through the Living Inquiries.

When I bring my body to mind, what images do I see? What words? What sensations are connected to these images and words?

What do I find when I bring animals to mind? Animals vs. humans? Women? Women vs. men? Children? Children vs. adults? Future generations? Future generations vs. our current generation?

I see this as an important part of illuminating the stereotypes we all carry with us, and – at least somewhat – live our lives from, whether we are aware of it or not.

Note: In our western culture, influenced by a certain version of Christianity, we tend to split the world into good and bad, less valuable and more valuable. And the dividing line has been drawn between body and mind, women and men, children and adults, nature and humans, future generations and the current generation, with the former of each of these pairs seen as less valuable, less important, less respectable. And that’s behind many of the troubles we see today. For instance, we couldn’t have developed such a deeply unsustainable way of doing business, economics and production if it wasn’t for images in our minds telling us that (a) there is a split between humans and nature, and (b) humans are more important than nature. This is what has allowed us to pretend, for a while, that we operate separate from (the rest of) nature, and that we can mistreat nature without mistreating ourselves in the same way.

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Images of God

 

In discussions, some people argue for or against a particular image of God, without acknowledging that it’s one of many possible – and existing – images of God. I especially notice this among some atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. It’s unfortunate since it tends to distract from the intended focus of the discussion, and it can also come across as (a) intellectually dishonest, (b) myopic, (c) valuing shock value over accuracy, and (d) lack of interest in sincerely exploring the topic.

For instance, Richard Dawkins often argue against a Christian image of God, and even one particular image of God found among some Christians. (I am not even sure if they would agree with how he represents their views.) Other Christians have other images, as do other religions and spiritual traditions. And some of these are quite compatible with science.

For instance, Daoism and Buddhism, when approached with curiosity and a scientific approach, are very much compatible with science. And if reality – as it is – is called God, then science is one of the ways we can explore God.

This seems very obvious, which is why I usually don’t write about these topics, but I thought I would mention it this time.

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Atheist?

 

This is something that was more important to me in my teens and early twenties, but it came back to me after seeing an article about atheism in the US. (The article was about how atheists is the one group left in the US that’s often seen as fair play for intolerance.)

In some ways, I see that the atheist label fits me.

I don’t subscribe to the idea of God as a person, or entity. Unless we see all of existence – capacity, formless, form – as an “entity”.

I am a-religious, in many ways. I am mildly curious about religion, as a social, psychological and mythological phenomenon. I appreciate the value of what they offer (community, guidance), and sometimes enjoy going to ceremonies etc. I also see the drawbacks of religion, especially how it’s sometimes used as a tool for social control and power, and limits how people see themselves and life. But there isn’t so much more there for me.

I am science oriented in terms of methods and also in appreciating and making use of the content of contemporary science.

I grew up in a religionless family and culture (in Norway), so atheism is natural for me. I became a self-described atheist in elementary school, and even back then criticized religion for often misleading people and being based in having to take what someone else says as gospel.

Also, the Buddhist label fits me, since I have found the pointers there helpful and accurate. And the Christian label fits me, since I do have a strong connection with Christ and the Christ presence. Aspects of many other labels – including panentheism – also fit.

And really, none fit very well. Reality cannot be captured by any label of set of images and ideas. And I find pointers from just about any religion and spiritual tradition, and also many pointers from outside of religion and spirituality, helpful.

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My tradition is the best

 

Why do some think that their tradition or practice is the best?

I can think of a few different reasons:

It’s the typical in-group / out-group dynamic.

This creates a sense of cohesion within the group. We are better than them. We know how things are. We are the chosen ones.

It also makes people feel better about themselves. I am with the right group. I’ll be saved.

It may come from ignorance. People may be misinformed about other traditions, or may not know much about them.

They may have a good point. Each tradition has its strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths may well be stronger than in some other traditions.

It also seems that this attitude may be increasingly more difficult to maintain, for a few different reasons.

We are better informed about other traditions and practices.

We encounter more frequently people from other traditions and practices, and see that they are as smart as us.

It simply looks pretty stupid to think that your tradition is the best (!). Especially considering that most people know that such an assumption is typically (a) used to keep people in the tradition, and (b) is often based in fear and insecurity, and is an attempt to feel better about ourselves.

I have always been eclectic in my approach, and see the value in all the main spiritual traditions and a wide range of practices. They are all medicine for people with different backgrounds, from different cultures, and at different phases in their process. So although I seek out practices that seem the most effective for me, I also realize that they are not inherently or absolutely “better” than other practices out there. And they are definitely not better than what’s possible, and what will most likely be developed in the future.

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Continuing institutions

 

Here is something that was brought more to the foreground during my time at the Zen center:

The main purpose and function of institutions is to keep themselves going, and that also goes for religious or spiritual organizations, including Zen and Buddhism.

That’s of course very good. It provides continuity and stability, and makes the resources, experience, and knowledge in these institutions available to new generations.

The drawbacks are equally obvious: It means that those who are willing to play the game (follow the rules) tend to be promoted and will eventually lead the institutions. And change tends to be slow. There is a certain inflexibility and slowness in taking up new approaches and insights, and adapting to or aligning with current needs and worldviews.

For some, institutions feel a bit confining for a variety of reasons. And one of these is that truth may be more important than institutions or traditions. The teachers I am most drawn to belong to this category. Adyashanti struck out on his own after his traditional Zen training, and Byron Katie was tradition-free from the beginning.  The value in this approach is the ease of drawing from any tradition and teacher, there is freedom to follow what seems most true independent of traditions, and some new perspectives and insights can come out of it – which may even feed back into the traditions. The drawback is of course a possible lack of guidance from traditions.

And although I may have set it up that way here, there is of course no inherent opposition between institutions and truth. Some fit into and continue institutions in an excellent way, and are also sincere in exploring what’s (sometimes more) true for them.

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The Biblical standards for marriage

 

I watched a BBC story on the gay protests at a US fast food chain, and a woman said she wanted to uphold the Biblical standards for marriage. Of course, the Bible mentions several different versions of marriage, and has no one “prescription”. (Even if it did, it came out of and was relevant to that time and culture.) Of course, these are very predictable views from my side since (a) I am from Norway, and (b) in general tend to take a liberal and inclusive angle.

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Born into a religion

 

When we are born into a religion and embrace that religion, how do we explain it to ourselves?

I find three possible assumptions:

I was very lucky. I was born into the right religion for me. It is the right path, whether I see it as the “one true” path or not.

All religions are valid paths to God, so I may as well stay with this one since it is familiar and easily available to me.

Or I do it for social reasons, for acceptance and the social network and support. There may be things that don’t feel quite right to me, but I am willing to live with it since the benefits are greater.

Each of these are very valid reasons. And the last one – doing it for social reasons – is probably the most frequent one, perhaps supported by one or both of the other ones.

In any case, it is good to notice.

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Religions and their commonalities and differences

 

We’re Not the Same…And That’s OK. Stephen Prothero says the leaders of the interfaith movement have a problem: call it the Kumbaya Effect. Instead of grappling with our religious differences, he says they gloss them over, creating a ‘pretend pluralism’ that does more harm then good. Stephen Prothero, author of God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.

The current episode of Interfaith Voices is on why our differences matter. It is an interesting topic, so before I listen to it (if I do!), I thought I would explore it for myself first. I am usually not so interested in religion, so it is good for me to take a look at it.

When it comes to emphasizing commonalities and differences, it seems appropriate and helpful if we emphasize commonalities these days. With increasing connection among people of different religions, emphasizing commonalities helps diffuse tension and ease interactions. Within that context of emphasizing commonalities, there is also a great deal of benefit in acknowledging and looking at the differences among religions.

Ecosystems are more resilient and stable the more diverse they are. And although social systems are not identical to ecosystems, it does seem healthy for humanity to have a wide diversity of approaches to religion, spirituality, and God. Each provide their own unique perspectives, contexts, and insights. There is a richer set of approaches and tools for us to try out. They provide contrasts to each other. There is an incentive for each tradition to clarify and refine their own approach. And there is an opportunity to find apparent universals and commonalities within the diversity. And as in an ecosystem, we don’t know which “species” will show itself fit and thrive in the future.

We can even acknowledge the benefits of the varieties that are apparently not so healthy, such as the ones with weird ideas, views not aligned with science, and fundamentalism in general. They provide a mirror for us, a contrast, an incentive to find alternatives that are more kind, wise, and aligned with reality, and they provide an opportunity for exploring and implementing strategies in relating to them such as working to minimize damage, invite changes, and developing more attractive alternatives.

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Godless society

 

Here is another of those questions easily answered by reality: Can a goodless society be a good society?

Of course it can.

“First of all, I argue that society without God is not only possible, but can be quite civil and pleasant. This admittedly polemical aspect of my book is aimed primarily at countering the claims of certain outspoken, conservative Christians who regularly argue that a society without God would be hell on earth: rampant with immorality, full of evil, and teeming with depravity. Well, it isn’t. Denmark and Sweden are remarkably strong, safe, healthy, moral, and prosperous societies…”

p. 6 – “…their overall rates of violent crime – such as murder, aggravated assault, and rape – are among the lowest on earth. Yet the majority of Danes and Swedes do not believe that God is “up there,” keeping diligent tabs on their behavior… In fact, most Danes and Swedes don’t even believe in the very notion of “sin.” Almost nobody in Denmark and Sweden believes that the Bible is divine in origin. And the rate of weekly church attendance in these Nordic nations is the lowest on earth…”

p. 10 – “When they say they are “Christian” they are just referring to a cultural heritage and history. When asked what it means to be Christian, they said ‘being kind to others, taking care of the poor and sick, and being a good and moral person.’ They almost never mentioned God, Jesus, or the Bible in their explanation of Christian identity. When I specifically asked these Nordic Christians if they believed that Jesus was the Son of God or the Messiah, they nearly always said no – usually without hesitation. Did they believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or that he rose from the grave? Such queries were usually met with genuine laughter – as through the mere asking was rather silly.

From Can a Godless Society be a “Good” Society? on Neatorama.

Life is a test, deceptive and a school

 

hoola_hoops1

There are many views on reality and the world out there, including seeing life as a test, deceptive and a school.

Life may be a test, and we can pass or fail, either permanently (judgment day) or temporarily (reincarnation).

Life is deceptive and full of trickery. God created – or at least allowed – the devil and evil, the devil and evil can be disguised, and it is our task to differentiate the good from the evil, the true from the false.

Life is a school where we are supposed to learn something specific, and then graduate.

All of these stories can obviously be very stressful if we take them as true.

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Going further

 

I am watching a documentary on the history of atheism.

Their aim is excellent: to question beliefs, and specifically religious beliefs.

And if it is taken further, it works even better.

The next step is to question atheism itself, and any beliefs about religions, God, nature and so on. What happens when I attach to these stories as true? Who would I be without the beliefs? What are the grain of truths in their reversals?

What happens when I attach to atheism – or current stories from science – as true? Do they become my new religion? Am I acting differently from believers of other religions?

And why stop there? Why not question any story I attach to as true, even – or maybe especially – those that seems most obviously true?

What happens when I take any story as true? Does it become my new religion?

I need beliefs to function in the world. Stories can be true. I know. Existence is something I can imagine. I am something I can imagine.

Is it true? Can I know it is true? What happens when I take those stories as true? Who would I be without it? What is the grain of truth in their turnarounds?

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The Jesus story

 

From New York Times today:

JERUSALEM — A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

Of course, the Jesus story has parallels with not only Jewish myths, but also myths from other earlier traditions of that time and region.

Some examples are given in The Jesus Mysteries by Tim Freke and Peter Gandi where they outline the following parallels of the Osiris-Dionysus and Jesus stories:

  • Osiris-Dionysus is God made flesh, the savior and “Son of God.”
  • His father is God and his mother is a mortal virgin.
  • He is born in a cave or humble cowshed on December 25 before three shepherds.
  • He offers his followers the chance to be born again through the rites of baptism.
  • He miraculously turns water into wine at a marriage ceremony.
  • He rides triumphantly into town on a donkey while people wave palm leaves to honor him.
  • He dies at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
  • After his death he descends to hell, then on the third day he rises from the dead and ascends to heaven in glory.
  • His followers await his return as the judge during the Last Days.
  • His death and resurrection are celebrated by a ritual meal of bread and wine, which symbolize his body and blood.

Why is it so? The obvious answer is that the Jesus myth picked up elements of existing myths to make it more familiar to the people of the time.

But another answer, as Freke and Gandi points out, is that these stories are about an inner truth more than an outer – historic – truth. They reflect an inner process of growing and waking up.

And that is why similar story elements not only appear in traditions of that place and time, but around the world in many different cultures, and also in dreams and visions of people today.

None of this really touch whether Jesus was a historic figure or not. He may well have been, and the specific events of his life may or may not have followed the lines of the Jesus story as we know it today.

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Michael Dowd in Oregon!

 

jesus_darwin1.jpg

Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow are back in Oregon, giving a string of presentations in early April.

They will be in Roseburg April 9, Eugene April 10, Portland April 12 and 13, and Salem on the 16th.

If you happen to live around here, it is well worth attending. They are both amazing speakers in the area of evolution and spirituality, and Michael often uses the aqal framework to organize his presentations.

If you live somewhere else in the US, you can find their schedule on the Thank God for Evolution website, where you will also find audio and video snippets.

A more fearless theology

 

The Vatican is hosting an astronomy gathering, within the view that the world is one, and the truth of spirituality (or here, religion) and science must be aligned.

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a member of Father Funes’s team and curator of one of the world’s most important collections of meteorites, kept at Castelgandolfo (the Pope’s summer residence), explains.

They want the world to know that the Church isn’t afraid of science,” he said.

This is our way of seeing how God created the universe and they want to make as strong a statement as possible that truth doesn’t contradict truth; that if you have faith, then you’re never going to be afraid of what science is going to come up with.

Pretty smart people, those monks.

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