Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon - God Is Not One Pt. 2

God is Not One Pt. 2

This morning’s service is the second part of a two-part series. But don’t worry; you won’t be lost. Last week we learned about Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This we I’m going to talk about Hinduism, Buddhism and Atheism. See, it’s all new stuff.

This sermon comes largely from a recent book by Stephen Prothero called, “God is Not One.” He believes, and I tend to agree as I think about it more and more, that different religions are fundamentally different at their core. That’s not just because they believe different things. It’s more foundational than that. Different religions are different because they start from a different question, a different challenge of life, so obviously they will have a different answer.

In a way, comparing different religions is like comparing apples and oranges. They are fundamentally different things because they each respond to a different challenge. True, they respond to core challenges of human experience. But each religion is essentially asking a different question, solving a different problem. So to compare them, as if they all have the same goal is simply a mistake.

Last week I talked about these questions and proposed answers. Sin and salvation were the core problem and answer in the Christian tradition. In Islam, the central problem isn’t sin, but hubris, and the answer is submission. In fact, Islam means submission. Muslims are submitters who seek peace in this life and the next by surrendering themselves to the one true God. The problem posed in Judaism is exile, and the answer is return to relationship with God, and return to a true home. The path to that return is an interweave of narrative law. That’s right, for Judaism the answer is not so much about something that we should believe, but about something that we should do. It’s very different in that way. So today, I will follow that same track, first describing the core challenge or question that the tradition faces, and then the answer that they offer.

Before diving into the question and answer, the theology of Hinduims if you will, we first need to get a little bit of its vibe. When we think about Hinduism, I want you to think big. Think Bollywood films. Hinduism is BIG in every way imaginable.
It is the third largest world religion today with 900 million followers, about 15 percent of the worlds population. It is also the oldest of the major traditions, dating back at least as far as 2500 BCE. And it’s library of sacred texts is overwhelming. It’s oldest and most sacred text the Vedas, dates back to 1200 BCE. And the Mahabharata, contains 1.8 million words, dwarfing the Bible, the Iliad, and the Odyssey combined. As outsiders, we may notice the extreme noise, color and fragrance of Indian temples. And devotees perform feats of pain and endurance beyond compare. Hinduism is BIG in every sense of the word. But perhaps most of all, Hinduism is big in all that it encompasses. It is without a doubt the most diverse world tradition. That is probably due to its very old age and its tendency to incorporate rather than reject new influences. So, more than any other tradition, please take what I have to say about Hinduism with a grain of salt.

Speaking in vast generalities, in Hinduism,the problem to be solved is samsara. Literally samsara means wondering or flowing by, but here we are talking about the cycle life, death, and rebirth, or what we know as reincarnation, over and over again. It’s an endless, and unsatisfying cycle, so the goal is moksha, or release. Moksha is spiritual liberation, freeing the soul from the endless cycle of samsara and reuniting with the eternal spirit of the universe.

There are two important pieces of Hinduism that I want to highlight. The first is Brahmanic Hinduism. Although it’s not the most popularly practiced, it is what Westerners mostly understand as Hinduism. Within the Barhmanic Hinduism we each have an eternal spirit, called Atman. This Atman, or spirit is ultimately indistinct from Brahman, the universal spirit. According to Hinduism, the goal of life is to recognize that simple fact that one’s own Spirit, or Atman is in fact the same as Brahman. The goal is to come to the realization that we are fundamentally one with each other and with the entire universe. And once we realize that interconnection, we escape the cycle of samsara and enjoy moksha. It is this truth that reminded me of our opening hymn. There’s a River Flowin in my Soul, and it’s tellin’ me that I’m somebody. There’s a River flowin’ in my soul.

But what Hindus do mostly is something completely different. They practice devotional worship to seek favor with their god. Hindus go on pilgrimages to sacred cities, rivers, and mountains, places associated with their chosen gods. They also observe a variety of festivals.

There are tons of opportunities to offer devotion to the god of your choice. But the central ritual for American Hindus and around the world is puja. Pujas are something like ancient priestly sacrifices, offering a gift to the gods. If these offerings are made in a temple they are typically lead by a priest. But they can also be given by ordinary people at a home or shrine, with oil lamps and incense sticks lit in front of an icon. The simple act of devotion is by far the most popular religious practice for Hindus.

Just last week, Kimberly LeMon lit our chalice, partly because she had studied sacred dance in the temples of India for two years. While she was there, as a gesture of hospitality some locals built for her an altar to Jesus. They assumed that because she was from American, she was Christian. The gesture seems a little strange from an American perspective. But hopefully we now see, that this is just how Hindus worship their gods. They build temples and shrines to venerate the god that inspires them. In so doing they may find favor with that god, or even better, be granted enlightenment and liberation from the endless cycle of reincarnation.

The next tradition that I want to talk about is Buddhism. It comes from a similar theological world-view, an endless cycle of reincarnation, but it takes a very different turn.
For Buddhists, the primary problem in life is suffering or dukkha. And the obvious goal is relief from that suffering. The final relief from suffering is called nirvana, which literally means blowing out. This is where one of the key differences comes into play. I described Hinduism’s moksha as a union between two eternal souls, the soul of the self and the soul of the universe. In Buddhism the goal is the opposite. The goal is to finally burn off all of one’s karma, a sort of soul residue, so that like a candle, your existence along with your suffering is extinguished.

The Buddha taught that life is suffering, or dissatisfation. Time and time again we don’t get what we want or the things that we love in our lives slip through our fingers. Life is suffering because of attachment. We get attached to material things that are fleeting. We also get attached to disappointments of the past, or anxieties of the future. We are attached to the way things could have been, or the way we didn’t quite make the mark that one time. We even get absorbed in how wonderful life used to be. We get attached to what is not here and now, and we long for a different experience. And thus we are dissatisfied.
The challenge within the Buddhist framework is to live in the present moment. Are you focused on the past or future, or maybe some other place? Or is you mind present in the here and now? That is the primary goal of Buddhist practice, to live in the present moment, free of attachments that only bring dissatisfaction. It’s a big challenge if you take it seriously.
That is where the practice of meditation comes in. Various methods of meditation work toward the goal of stilling the mind. We practiced one form of meditation earlier together, as we sat in silence and followed our breath to still our minds. Later in our closing hymn we will practice another form, called Metta. It’s a practice of extending compassion to the world, starting with ourselves and offering wider and wider circles.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Buddhism as a religion is its utterly disinterest in theological speculation. In fact it warns against it. One of the more popular stories is about a monk who comes to the Buddha with a litany of questions. He wants to know about the soul and death and reincarnation and the cycle of karma and a whole gamut of things that we might traditionally call religion.
The Buddha responds with a question of his own. He says, “If you were shot with an arrow, would you not first remove the arrow before seeking out who shot it or what kind of bow was used. So it is with the teachings of Buddhism. We should first aim at removing the suffering from our lives because that is a far more important than speculating about the theological reasons behind it.
Many religions claim to be a way of life more than a set of beliefs. But it is especially true to Buddhism. As a tradition that eschews theological speculation, some have questioned whether Buddhism is a religion at all. Is it really just a philosophy? Well defining what is and is not a religion can fill volumes. But I’ll leave it to you. Is Buddhism a religion?

I also raise that question because it’s on that many people raise about atheism. Is it a religion?
Following the problem and solution equation that we have used so far, atheism has a particular answer. For outspoken atheists, especially those who have published popular books recently, the human problem cannot be solved by religion because religion is the problem. The solution is to flush out this poison from our system. Several of you have read books by the New Atheists. In the past ten years several very popular books have come out with just that argument.
According to Richard Dawkins, “faith is one of the world’s greatest evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” According to Sam Harris, theology is “ignorance with wings.” According to Christopher Hitchens, organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
These atheist frequently pursue a straw man argument against religion, picking out the most radical and damaged branches of religion as an opportunity to condemn them all. But I think it’s important that we don’t do the same things in return. There is another kind of atheist, the kind that many of you are.
Unfortunately the author of “God is Not One” gives only minor recognition to this group. These are the atheists that do not believe in God. But more importantly, they believe that religious traditions, no matter what they are, should never lead us to demean or exclude, oppress or diminish anyone else, including those who believe in God. These later atheists, the kind that I think many of you are, simply don’t believe in God but don’t express the urgent need to make others agree with you. It’s very much a humanist approach, a belief that the health and wellbeing of people is more important than the religions to which they subscribe. Religion exists to serve humanity, not the other way around.

I want to close our time together addressing the unspoken question. Which of these traditions is best. Like I have explained, comparing religious traditions is a little like comparing apples and oranges. Each tradition aims to answer a different question or life challenge, so comparing them is extremely difficult.
But that doesn’t mean that all religion is good, or even that all religion is acceptable. Some of it is in fact very bad. As we read earlier together, it matters what we believe. Some beliefs build walls and separate us, while other beliefs open our minds and our hearts.
It is often misstated that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want. As a Unitarian Universalist you can have a huge spectrum of different beliefs. But your belief must fall within two basic criteria. It has to make sense, and it has to make a difference. Your core values and religious principles must resonate with what seems true and reasonable to you. And your faith must make a difference; it must make you a better person in the world.
We have two standards within Unitarian Universalism. For the rest of religion, I set only one standard. Your faith must make a difference. Your religion must make you a better person. I don’t mean that it must make you believe in the same politics as me. It likely will not. But it must make you a more generous and compassionate person.
If we take it seriously, the role of faith is to transcend the self, and come more fully into community with our wider world. Each tradition has its own unique way of pulling our concerns beyond ourselves to care for a wider world. The theology involved comes in staggering variety, almost as much variety as the methods of practicing those various beliefs. But if any religion is worth its salt, it must make a difference. It must make its adherents more compassionate and generous people.

Every single faith tradition, including our own has the capacity to build up walls or to tear them down. Not all beliefs are equal. As people of faith, we are called to the difficult task of examining our own beliefs. Which ones make us more loving people, and which ones separate us. We are called to the difficult task of examining our own beliefs. And we are called to engage compassionately with others about their beliefs. And learn from one another in the process.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Sermon - God In Not One - Part One

God Is Not One (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)

For the next two Sunday’s we will talk about what might be a controversial statement. That is, the belief that not all religions are suggesting the same thing. For many years now interfaith dialog and new-age thought have moved in the direction of saying that all religions are suggesting the same theme. The popular metaphor is that there are many paths to reach the top of the mountain, which presumably is God, or the divine. Each religion is simply a different path to the same God.

Well, the atheists amongst us, that’s about 30-40% of you, will certainly say your interested in UUFLB has little to do with following a path to God. That’s just one very small and quick window into how profoundly different religious traditions are.

In his recent book, “God is Not One,” Stephen Prothero pushes this controversial stance that in fact at their core, religious traditions point to profoundly different realities. It is true that some focus on God, but other are completely devoid of that sort of conscious supremely powerful deity. He argues that to fully respect religious traditions of different people, we must accept that they are not all trying to say the same thing. In fact they are saying radically different things. And rather than mashing them up into a Christian mold, and calling them different pathways up the mountain, it behooves us to take the time to understand the real differences between these traditions, if not out of respect, then to understand the world view through which societies and countries function.

In a way, comparing different religions, is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. They are fundamentally different things, because they each respond to a different challenge. True, they respond to core challenges of human experience. But each religion is essentially asking a different question, solving a different problem. So to compare them, as if they all have the same goal is profoundly misleading.

Today I’m going to talk about a few of those questions and answers that the Abrahamic faiths address. That’s Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although they are all monotheistic, often referred to as “people of the book,” as Muslims would say, they each come out of a different society, and answer a profoundly different question about human existence.

Lets start with the most familiar, the religion that vastly predominates in the United States, Christianity. Christianity essentially answers the challenge of sin. Sin refers generally to the human propensity toward wrong-doing. The key is that everyone sins, and if we deny our sinful nature, we are only fooling ourselves. From the very beginnings of time in the Garden of Eden, when Eve chose to defy God and eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, humans have perpetuated a sinful nature. It’s in our theological DNA.

But there is hope. Christianity could be called a rescue religion in this way. Rescue is made possible by the one and only savior Jesus Christ. Sin and salvation, that is the core problem and answer in the Christian tradition. Salvation classically means attaining eternal life in heaven after death. There are a variety of mechanisms and time frames for that coming to pass, but salvation, is about eternal life with God.

And Jesus Christ is the key to this rescue from sin. The person of Jesus has meant different things to different people throughout history. Perhaps the most hotly disputed question has been how divine he was. Is he God incarnate, or was he a really good guy, very holy, but less than God. He also has been understood as a social radical, a freedom fighter, a friend, a healer, a compassionate figure. You can find just about anything if you look hard enough at the person of Jesus. You will most likely find there who you want yourself to be, a reflection of your own highest values.

Jesus means a whole bunch of different things to different people. But his real raise d’etre is salvation. Jesus offers salvation from sin through two different means. Mostly through atonement, his suffering on the cross is understood to atone, or be a sort of payment for the sins of all humanity. Thus, Jesus has paid for our sins. The other way that Jesus offers salvation is through instruction on better living. He is an exemplar of how we might live better lives and to help each other out of the mess of our sinful ways.

So there you have it, Christianity in a nutshell. From sinful human nature to salvation, through the person of Jesus Christ. I’m glad to give this quick summary of Christian theology right now. With Christmas right around the corner we should know what the Christian understanding of it is. Because for Christians, this holiday is very different from what we celebrate as Unitarian Universalists. In a couple of weeks we will talk about how we celebrate the holiday. But for Christians, Christmas is the birthday of THE one and only savior, it is the moment that God came down from the heavens in the form of Jesus Christ to offer salvation to sinful humanity. It is a hugely important religious holiday. It’s like a day at the crux of the Christian question and answer. Chirstmas is a very big deal, and it’s not because of Santa.

In the Muslim world, the problem is a little bit different. The central problem isn’t sin, but hubris. We silly humans think that we are independent, we think that we can do it all on our own. And the answer to that hubris is submission to Allah. Islam is not so much about sin and salvation, as it is about recognizing our limitations and submitting the power of Allah. In fact, Islam means submission. Muslims are submitters who seek peace in this life and the next by surrendering themselves to the one true God.

This sense of hubris being overcome by submission became very apparent to me in Africa. Having spent time in two predominantly Muslims countries, I became accustomed to hearing the phrase ‘Insha Allah,” or “God willing.” Obviously it’s not a unique phrase. I hear Christians use it on occasion. But in the time that I have spent with Muslim communities, it was used constantly. Any time you suggested something that was going to happen in the future, something you were planning on doing, it was followed up but “Insha Allah.” It could have been the simple statement, “I will go buy some bananas at the market today. “Insha Allah!” At the time it drove me a little batty, but now I get it a little better. Their whole religious being is about expressing submission to the will of Allah. Insisting anything will be is almost an affront to that sense of submission.

First and foremost, Muslims practice that submission through the exercise of prayer. Five times a day, they are supposed to stop what they are doing, clean themselves up a bit, and participate in a prayer. But it’s not just any prayer. This is a very specific kind of prayer involving the whole body.

Their hands move from behind their ears to their torsos. They bow forward at the waist, hands on the knees, back flat. They stand up straight again. They prostrate themselves into a posture of total and absolute submission to Allah, planting their knees, hands, foreheads and noses on the ground. Then rise to a sitting position. These prayers begin with Alahu Akbar, “God is Great.” Worshipers themn bless and exalt Allah above all pretenders. They call Muhammad His prophet and messenger.

Of course as in any religion, Muslims practice in differing ways. Some devout people do not participate in prayer five times a day. But around the world many, many do. It’s also worth noting that since prayers are said in Arabic, the majority of the people who say them, don’t know exactly what they mean. They probably have a rough translation of the prayers, but they certainly cannot read the Koran in Arabic as intended. But much like Hebrew is for the Jews, Arabic is a sacred language. The sounds produced through praying in Arabic are inherently powerful and pleasing to God, even without a full grasp of their meaning.

But as I said before, each of these religions answers a particular challenge of the human experience. For Judaism, the central problem that religion deals with is exile, the problem of distance from God and from where we ought to be. In Jewish tradition that problem arises from the very beginning. The experience of the Garden of Eden for the Jews was not so much about the sin of eating the fruit. It was about exile. From the very beginning the result of breaking the rules was exile as Adam and Eve were sent out, sent away from paradise. Over and over in the Bible and modern history the Jews struggle with exile, all the way up into today’s struggle over the right to maintain Israel as a Jewish state.

One of those stories, rooted in the heart of Jewish culture actually informs a much broader community. The story of being slaves in Egypt and the eventual escape with the help of God has had immeasurable impact on American civil rights movements. God, through Moses, enabled the Israelites to flee from the Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. Following that escape of course was a journey of wondering in the desert, in exile for forty years. But they eventually found home again. The quintessential story of exile comes from the history of the Jews, and it has shaped that community to the core.

The problem posed in Judaism is exile, and the answer is return to relationship with God, and return to a true home. The path to that return is an interweave of narrative law. That’s right, for Judaism the answer is not so much about something that we should believe, but about something that we should do. In religious terms, Jews are more concerned with orthopraxy (right practice) than it is in orthodoxy (right belief).

For a long time, especially in early Christian world, Jews were stereotyped and demeaned as a community that was obsessed with the rules. That stereotype is still brought out today as some people discuss the Jewish community. It is true that following rules is important. But those rules are being followed because they are a big part of the answer to coming back into relationship with God. Also the rule following that is most apparent to us as outsiders is that of orthodox Jews. But we should keep in mind that a vastly larger portion of the Jewish community follow rules that we don’t see. They are good Jews by doing good deeds for others and supporting their wider community. They do mitzvah, good deeds, holy work by helping rebuild the world. And it’s not about dietary restrictions or dress-codes, it is about treating people ethically, and obeying God’s commandments to do so.

As for the telling of stories, this is the central piece of Jewish ritual. Over and over again the Jewish community tells the story of their heritage. As we saw earlier, the celebration of Hanukkah is about the rededication of the Second Temple. A moment of return from exile. The biggest Jewish holiday is Passover. The central event of which is a Seder Supper, where families and friends gather to retell the story of escape from Egypt.

One more holiday that I just learned about is Simchat Torah. You see, In Jewish worship services, a portion of Torah is read every week, until the whole thing is read in one year. When they get to the end, there is a holiday of Simchat Torah. It’s a huge celebration of the Torah, the sacred writing, most of which is a collection of stories of the people. What fascinates me is just at the moment when the Torah ends with Deuteronomy, a new cycle is begun with Genesis. If there are multiple Torahs to read from, they simply switch. If there is only one though, the person reading or singing holds the note from the passage at the end, while the Torah scroll is wound backward, all the way back to the beginning of Genesis and a portion is read as the story begins again. For the Jewish people the story never ends. The story that tells them who they are, and the laws that they follow to create community are sacred, they are an answer to the problem of exile that has plagued humanity from the beginning.

As we wrap up this very, very quick tour of Abrahamic faiths, I want to take a moment to mention what we might learn or borrow from them as Unitarian Universalists. Each religion answers a different challenge of human existence. And those challenges are things that we share. My hunch is that the answers have something to offer us as well.

Christianity offers us a sense of humility and the power of forgiveness. In our culture of achievement and appearances, sometimes it is difficult to admit our failures. None of us is perfect, but there is always hope. In Christianity the sense of salvation from through forgiveness from God. But forgiveness can be an incredibly powerful thing when we offer it to one another. Perhaps we can learn something from Christianity, learn that we all make mistakes sometimes, and that we all need to be to forgiven and to forgive one another.

Islam I think offers us an invitation to lose ourselves to something greater. For Muslims recognizing our own limits and submitting to the power of Allah is what religious life is about. But we to can lose ourselves in the healing power of love and a sense of awe and respect of the web of life. This is what sat with me the most from last weeks worship service about Walden. I spoke with the kids about Thoreau losing himself in something greater. He just sat in nature and was able to loose himself, rapt in reverence. So often our individualism and need for control trumps our ability to loose ourselves in a wider love. Perhaps we can take this invitation from our Muslim sisters and brothers and move beyond our independence.

Finally, Judaism, I think is our most kindred spirit in the realm of religious traditions. That’s because much like us, they are more concerned with treating one another rightly, than they are with what you believe about God. Over a very long time, spread across the globe, Jews have found a way to keep their tradition alive. They tell their story over and over, and they do their best to live well. What might it look like for us to do the same, to share our story, until it resonates with the heartbeat of this community. Even more importantly, what might it look like for us to offer to our children a religious heritage, a sense of belonging to a people with a past and a future in this world.