9/11: Reflections and Projections

Every time I turn on the radio or read newspaper I hear or see moving testimonials from those whose lives were dramatically altered by the events of 9/11/01.  I find these reflections to be fitting tributes, but I also wonder about where we go from here.  In particular, I ponder how fear is shaping us.

I worked in telecom network engineering for a number of years, and the marketing professionals whose job it was to define the value proposition of engineering solutions were always crafting FUD—fear, uncertainty and doubt.  It was not enough to create a case so compelling it inspired belief that one solution was clearly best.  One also had to plant FUD concerning doing nothing or alternative solutions.  Fear, marketing professionals knew, was a more powerful fuel for action than faith.

US policy makers were well versed in the power of FUD in the aftermath of 9/11.  Remember Homeland Security’s urging to have an emergency kit but demurring as to what it should contain?  Textbook FUD.  I may take heat for saying it, but I know road warriors who feel the TSA is a form of government terrorism against the travelling public.  Every trip starts with the inescapable reminder that danger, real or imagined, is present.

I was selected for special security screening once when travelling alone with my daughter.  She was three years old and it succeeded in terrifying her.  She was told to sit in a chair amid a sea of strangers hurrying to collect their things and rushing past while I was pulled aside for the search.  She was afraid to do as she was told, but reluctantly she did, and she sat on the edge of her chair anxiously trying to see what was happening to me.  When it was over, she implored me to tell her what they were looking for or what bad thing I had done.  She was just too young to comprehend random sampling.  To her mind, if they were searching me there was a reason they picked ME.  That confused her as much as being separated from me terrified her.  She had her turn three years later when at six years old she travelled with a 12-year old cousin to visit their grandparents.  I escorted them through airport security and was left untouched while the young girls were patted down.  Again, she was frightened
and perhaps a bit indignant as well.  (I could be projecting the indignation part.)

I also ponder the long-term impact of security screening required for all students, teachers and other workers on public school campuses in my home town.  I am in no way saying there is any place for weapons on planes or campuses or that authorities should not take precautions to prevent their use, but I do wonder about the message we are sending our youth.  Do they hear, “You are safe,” or “Danger is present?”  Do they hear, “You are dangerous so we have to screen YOU?”

More than that, I wonder about our trajectory as a nation.  If our pre-9/11 psyche is one
point, and where we are now is another point defining a line, then where will another
10 years on that line put us?

Join the conversation.  In 10 years will we be a nation guided by faith in ourselves or fear of ourselves?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Good Works: A Jewish Perspective

The last post pondered whether good works are a cause or effect of faith from a Christian point of view.  To appreciate the Jewish perspective, it helps to understand the notion
of shared merit.  Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, there is a “closing of the gates” wherein God makes a judgment on
each person’s life and writes the names of all who have turned to him and lived faithfully in the Book of Life.  It is an
annual opportunity for Jews to reflect on their actions, to make amends for their wrongs, to seek forgiveness from their fellow man first and ultimately to seek atonement with God.

When Jews confess their sins, the vidui in the Yom Kippur liturgy, they confess in community, speaking aloud a long list of sins.  The community aspect of confession is
monumentally important.  It reflects the responsibility that Jews have for one another, so while I myself may not have committed murder, I did share responsibility for my brother’s actions.  Further, if I look deeply within myself, I will find some part of me that identifies with the sin.  My harsh words might have damaged someone’s self-esteem, for example.  In addition to the shared responsibility for sin, Jews recognize a shared responsibility for good works.

That notion of shared merit helps to explain the popularity of the Pharisees among the Jewish peasant class.  Not only were Pharisees generous with tzedakah, or giving what’s fair to those in need, their fasting and other acts of piety accrued merit for the whole community.  This perspective lets us see the Christian parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18) in its original context.

The tax-collector enters the temple racked with guilt for shaking down people in need to line his pockets.  His angst is heightened by the fact that he is not making teshuvah, or turning to God to change his ways.  He knows he will go back out the next day and
shake down more unfortunates.  Without teshuvah, he can’t hope for God’s forgiveness.  Across from him kneels a Pharisee who is moved with compassion for the
sinner.  He thanks God that he was spared tax-collector’s difficult position.  And
then he offers to share his merit—his tzedekah for the tax collector’s taking by force, his fasting for the tax collector’s feeding off his neighbors, etc.  The parable concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”  Ok, which one was justified?  Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament Studies Amy-Jill Levine asserts “rather than” is properly translated “along side.”  In any case, suggesting an unreformed tax-collector could be justified at all would have astonished 1st century Jews.

In the Jewish tradition, Halakhah is the set of laws governing personal deportment.  The
purpose of the laws is not improved health, financial gain or appearance.  Rather, they offer a myriad of daily opportunities to submit one’s will for the sake of honoring God.  Observing Halakhah both strengthens spirituality for the individual through daily practice and earns merit for the community, and hence is at once cause and effect of faithfulness.  In view of shared merit, good works not only benefit a Jew’s fellow man in an earthly way but also lift him up spiritually.

Join the conversation.  What brings you present moment mindfulness for the sake of honoring God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Good Works: Cause or Effect?

Spiritual conversion describes an inner transformation, and good works are the exterior evidence for it.  Do the good works done by sheer
force of will bring about a spiritual conversion, or are they an effortless byproduct of conversion?  This question is a point of contention in New Testament scripture.  Pharisees were the pillars of Jewish life and quite popular among the peasant class.  They were devoted to practicing good works that were widely perceived to benefit all in the community.
Paradoxically, they received New Testament criticism for their commitment to good works.

In the Christian tradition, the cause-or-effect question has a two-part answer.  First, works flow from the natural inclination of one with faith.  God desires relationship, and we act out that relationship in how we treat our fellow man.  Hence, good works inspired by our love for God bring joy to God, our fellow man and ourselves.  Martin Luther wrote that it is “impossible to separate works from faith—yea, just as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.”  By contrast, works done for the sake of correct behavior alone or for the sake of social stature miss the central point of relationship with God, and that is the New Testament warning to the Pharisees.

The second part of the Christian answer lies in the actions we can undertake to develop our spirituality and thereby enhance our natural inclinations towards good works.  The spiritual disciplines which strengthen and prepare us for good works are distinct from the fruits of a strong faith.  The apostle Paul warns the Colossians against following disciplines for their own sake:

If with Christ you died to the rudiments of the world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end.  They are a cause of spiritual strength.  Those who desire the effect of spiritual strength will have great difficulty producing it through sheer force of will without submitting to the process of actual transformation.  It would be like joining a baseball team with the expectation of batting 300 without any practice or training simply because one wills it to be so.  Practice may not make performance perfect, but it does make performance possible.  Thus, spiritual disciplines condition us for good works.

The consideration of good works brings us back to God’s will.  He wants to be in a relationship with you.  He wants you to be a partner in your own re-creation.  He wants to do some heavy lifting for you.  He delights in the fruits of your faithfulness.  We are drawn to do good works not to earn God’s love but because we love him back.

As is often the case, the Twelve Step tradition crystalizes this cause and effect wisdom in a pithy one-liner:  “Fake it ‘till you make it.”

Join the conversation.  What good works do you wish flowed naturally from your faith?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Do Beliefs Matter?

Preoccupation with belief is a distinctly Christian attribute.  Its origins trace to a concept introduced by the first century Jesus movement, namely that belief in Jesus, or more specifically that the person of Jesus was fully human and simultaneously fully divine, confers eternal life in some fashion.  The gospel of John, written significantly later than the other accounts, is the only one to put such an emphasis on belief.  One statement, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” (John 11:25-26) immortalized in canon two startlingly new concepts that thereafter marked Christianity.  The concepts are (1) beliefs have consequences and (2) the possibility of life after death.  

Other religious traditions don’t emphasize belief.  Jews care more about what one does than what one believes.  Whether I am deeply conflicted about what action to choose or I’m steadfast, it’s of no consequence if in the end I chose the right action.  Action matters.  In Buddhism, it’s perception and understanding that matter.  Believing without perceiving or understanding is a construct that has no merit or usefulness in Buddhism. 

Beliefs do influence our choices, however, and thus do have consequences.  Beliefs inform actions which form habits which reflect character.  My understanding of God’s nature influences how I respond to him.  We are responding to God all the time, whether or not we are aware of it.  Especially when we are looking for life change—significant emotional healing or life change—the road we take depends on our understanding of God.  If we are seeking God-help rather than relying solely on self-help, we will ask God to do something for us that we cannot do on our own unaided.  Our beliefs inform how we approach that request.  

The Old Testament recounts story after story of people saved by faith.  The New Testament makes many references to people healed by their faith.  Our faith is what we believe about God’s ability and his inclination to intervene for us.  If we lack belief in God’s power, we can go through the motions of searching ourselves for what needs to change, but we are unlikely surrender our way (that has led to despair) for God’s way (that leads to healing). 

The Twelve Step tradition teaches recovery seekers are not prepared to embark on the Fourth Step moral inventory until they have an understanding of God and also a willingness to trust God based on that understanding.  Significantly, the Twelve Step tradition does not dictate what that understanding should be.  It simply asserts that an understanding and trust are necessary 

Join the conversation.  What is your understanding of God?  What difference do your beliefs make? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Coming to Belief: Physics and Faith

 In the continuing conversation about coming to spiritual belief, examining how we come to scientific belief makes for interesting, and perhaps surprising, comparisons.  We arrive at our beliefs about all kinds of things—the character of friends and coworkers, social systems like workplace culture, and the natural world—via a process akin to the scientific method.  We posit an assumption, make observations, and adjust assumptions as the evidence comes in.  Recent posts reveal I also think this is how many people come to belief in God

The scientific method is not always conclusive, though, not even in science.  Theoretical physicists working on string theory have a knack for formulating hard to test hypotheses that elude scientific evidence.   Some physicists have devoted decades, their whole careers, to developing string theory, which has yet to produce scientific evidence.  

Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert in an essay titled “The Vagaries of Religious Experience” states, “The most fundamental principle of science is that beliefs must be predicated on empirical evidence—things that everyone can see, touch, taste, and measure,” and he uses that test of evidence to invalidate religious belief.  That logic has several flaws.  

First, it misrepresents the nature of scientific evidence.  None of the evidence quantum physicists work with is human sensory perceptible via sight touch, taste, etc.   Quantum physics amply illustrates that some truths are beyond the ability of the human five senses to perceive and are at the edge of the human capacity to comprehend.  Second, some people are more perceptive than others.  CalTech Professor of Physics Richard Feynman was exceptionally perceptive.  He perceived truths that were out of reach for most of his esteemed peers.  Similarly, individuals with a robust spirituality perceive the evidence of God’s action in their lives in ways the less perceptive among us miss.  The perceptive ones are able to detect evidence not obvious to everyone.  No one claimed Richard Fynman’s perceptions were invalid because others couldn’t replicate them, yet spiritual perception does come under this attack.  A third flaw is this view doesn’t appreciate how much scientific work happens before the proof point.  

Mathematician and philosopher Reuben Hersh in What is Mathematics, Really? draws an apt analogy that applies here.  He describes the day-to-day work of mathematicians like the operation of a restaurant, where there is a front, a dining room that is quiet, neat and orderly, and a back, the kitchen where things are not always neat and orderly.  Hersh says the front of mathematics is formal and precise with axioms and rigorous proofs, while “math in back is fragmentary, informal, intuitive, tentative.  We try this or that.  We say ‘maybe’ or ‘it looks like.’” 

The idea that everything in science is proven, or provable, is a front room perception.  That’s not how science really works.  Physicists working on string theory are doing science in back.  They know that operating with tentative beliefs for which there is not conclusive scientific evidence is the only way to perceive some truths.  

So it is with spirituality.  Faith in front appears tidy.  Believers don’t question or doubt or grow.  Those actively engaged in spiritual growth, however, experience faith in back.  Like theoretical physicists, they know that operating with hypotheses for which there may not be conclusive evidence is the only way to perceive some truths.  

Join the conversation.  What’s your experience of the search for truth in physics or in faith? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Coming to Belief in God

Are you ever asked what you believe and why?  Do you ask yourself?  Most of what we believe is based on evidence.  Belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is based on the evidence of experience.  Belief that a friend will keep her word might be based on the evidence of experience with the friend specifically or with people in general.  If I think of faith as belief without evidence, I could say I have faith that my friend will keep her word despite evidence to the contrary.  Furthermore, we all believe some things we can’t prove.  

Some people come to belief in God through a dramatic or miraculous experience.  I once worked with a man who described being an agnostic and hopeless drug addict for many years before Jesus appeared to him and cured his addiction in a single encounter.  It was a memorable testimony of healing and life change.  Many people, especially young people struggling with their faith, yearn for a dramatic sign.  They want decisive evidence on which to predicate belief in God.  Some get it.  Most of us don’t. 

Most of us come to belief in God through a process akin to the scientific method.  The body of modern scientific knowledge has been built using a method of assuming hypotheses, testing them, gathering evidence and concluding whether the evidence supports the hypotheses.  If contrary or inconsistent evidence is observed, then a hypothesis needs adjustment.  We can find God this way, too.  

If a leap of faith isn’t within reach, formulate a hypothesis and make observations.  If you are beginning to explore spirituality, assume God exists and is good.  If you have a robust spiritual life already, focus on some question of faith burning inside you at present.  For example, you might assume God has laid down an abundance of grace that is enough to heal you completely for all time if only you reach out and lay a hand upon it.  Or you might assume that there is meaning in suffering and although it pains God, who is infinitely vulnerable to us, he uses all the loose and frayed ends in our lives even when the meaning of our suffering lies beyond our human ability to perceive or to comprehend.  Treat this hypothesis as a tentative or provisional belief.  Live your life and observe evidence that supports or contradicts the assumption.  

When something in life trips you up, as is inevitable for us all, examine your choices and actions within the framework of your belief.  Do the actions and reactions make sense?  Can you understand the forces at work?  If it doesn’t add up, reevaluate what you believe in light of new experience.  In the absence of inconsistencies or contrary evidence, you might get comfortable with the hypothesis and assume yet another building on it.  Here, your state of belief might be partially evidence-based (a long run of experience without contrary evidence) and partially faith-based (you may desire more evidence).  Don’t conceptualize God’s nature based on what you want to be true.  Rather, develop your powers of observation.  If you seek spiritual growth, give God your provisional trust and give the experiment time to yield evidence. 

Join the conversation.  What do you believe that you can’t prove?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.