The Bells of Religious Liberty

Monday, January 16, is Martin Luther King Day.  It’s also National Religious Freedom Day, first proclaimed by President H.W. Bush in 1993.  President Obama’s proclamation of 2010 reads, “On this day, we commemorate an early realization of our Nation’s founding ideals: Virginia’s 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom.”

It guaranteed Virginians the right to practice the religion of their choice and it separated church and state.  Encyclopedia Virginia notes, “The statute influenced both the drafting of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the United States Supreme Court’s understanding of religious freedom.”

Not long ago I watched a PBS documentary First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty.  The program covers the development of religious liberty in our country from colonial times to the early 1800s.  The filmmakers remind us of an astounding fact: “A government without the interlocking authority of religion was utterly unprecedented in Western history and within a generation of its creation, it produced a vibrant religious culture still unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Religious freedom was a revolutionary idea.  And so it remains.

Some people accused President Obama of waging a war against religion, and curiously to me, many of these same folk supported the President-elect who during the campaign promised to enact a ban against Muslim entering the U.S.  Democrats have been accused of having a “religion problem” because not enough of them have it and those who do, don’t understand it the same way as some less-liberal believers.

This week, Breitbart.com posted an article with the rather sensational headline: Pew Report: Religion Plummeted in America During Obama Era.  The implication being that somehow this tragic trend is Obama’s doing.  Read the Pew report for yourself.

Here’s a tidbit of history from First Freedom:  “Somewhat surprisingly in America in the mid 18th century somewhere around 20 to 30 percent, at the most, of European American colonists had any kind of significant relationship with a Christian congregation.”  (Jon Butler, Yale University)

Only 20 to 30 percent.

Not only that, but some of those who came to these shores to escape religious persecution then went on to practice religious persecution.  Baptists and Presbyterians were favorite targets, and so were Catholics.   For instance, prior to the American Revolution, if you were Catholic you were forbidden by law from entering New York.

Religious bans and trends of dwindling interest are nothing new.  Our “religious problem” is context.  We are missing the context of history.  We’re largely illiterate about history.  It’s our political problem as well.

And we tend to forget, or accept, that religious liberty is not only freedom of religion, it’s also freedom from religion.  You don’t have to have a faith.  There’s no law that says you must believe… in anything.

I am not always tolerant toward certain religious beliefs.  I feel conflicted about how much respect I should show to the teachings of some religions.  Is there a line you cross over and become an abettor, an enabler, with teaching you feel are misguided?  I do not have to respect a religion’s teachings.  But I must respect the right for people to follow those teachings.

“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”

– John Adams, founding father, April 8, 1785

We could also begin by going back to our history.  Not just the fun stuff, like war.  I mean peering back beyond the popular images to see the forces and ideas that shaped the men who shaped America, and to read the words, planted like seeds beneath the slogans, which by themselves, out of context, are merely the echoes of the bells of liberty, and not their true ringing.

Share

Joseph Campbell: Matters Fundamental to Ourselves

Today is the 111th anniversary of the birth of mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell. My thinking about Buddhism and religion in general was influenced greatly by his work. From Campbell, I learned that nearly all religious literature is pure mythology, and therefore, one should not take it literally. A simple idea, perhaps, but when you consider how many people in this modern age are literalists when it comes to religion and that they cause a lot of trouble for others because of it, you realize it is a great insight, and extraordinarily relevant.

The title of one of his books, Myths to Live By, suggests that we should not disregard myths, but rather try to understand what these stories are trying to tell us about living. Here, in his own words, from that book, is Campbell explaining the essence of religious mythology:

Joseph Campbell 1904-1987
Joseph Campbell 1904-1987

What I would suggest is that by comparing a number from different parts of the world and differing traditions, one might arrive at an understanding of their force, their source and possible sense. For they are not historical. That much is clear. They speak, therefore, not of outside events but of themes of the imagination. And since they exhibit features that are actually universal, they must in some way represent features of our general racial imagination, permanent features of the human spirit — or, as we say today, of the psyche. They are telling us, therefore, of matters fundamental to ourselves, enduring essential principles about which it would be good for us to know; about which, in fact, it will be necessary for us to know if our conscious minds are to be kept in touch with our own most secret, motivating depths. In short, these holy tales and their images are messages to the conscious mind from quarters of the spirit unknown to normal daylight consciousness, and if read as referring to events in the field of space and time — whether of the future, present, or past — they will have been misread and their force deflected, some secondary thing outside then taking to itself the reference of the symbol, some sanctified stick, stone, or animal, person, event, city, or social group.”

Share

The Need to Win and Flight from Shadow

Later this week (Jan. 31) we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton. I wrote about Merton last year at this time, and I began that post by explaining that he was a “Trappist monk considered a major spiritual thinker of the 20th century. Author of more than 60 books, he was an influential Catholic writer. He also had an impact on the religious culture of America through his embrace of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. He pioneered inter-faith dialogue, engaging with such people as D.T. Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.”

So if you didn’t know why folks interested in Buddhism should be aware of Merton, now you do.

merton-800b2As noted above, he was a prolific writer. I’ve read the biography by Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, but only a handful of Merton’s own writings, those that deal with Buddhism. He explored other spiritual philosophies, yet he never lost his Christian perspective and that’s why I am not in agreement with everything he had to say about Eastern thought. But one of his works I can find little to complain about is his interpretation of Chuang Tzu, the classic Chinese writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

I’ve presented selections from Chuang Tzu in previous posts, and in one from 2011 I included part of Merton’s interpretation of a passage from the “Mountain Tree” chapter. I assume, since the best known translations (by Arthur Waley, Lin Yutang, and Burton Watson) are in prose form, that was how the text was originally composed. But I could be entirely wrong about it. For me, part of what makes The Way of Chuang Tzu unique and interesting is the way in which Merton interprets much of the text as poetry. It also makes for a great introduction to the Chuang Tzu’s somewhat abstruse writings, heavily invested with satire and paradox.

Here are a couple of selections:

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets —
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting–
And the need to win drains him of power.

Flight from Shadow

There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.

So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.

He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping until he finally dropped dead.

He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1969

Share

Joseph Campbell and the Ramparts of Belief

“Belief gets in the way of learning.”
– Robert A. Heinlein

When I quoted the late Joseph Campbell in Monday’s post, I did not realize that today, 2 days later, we would be celebrating the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Few philosophers – in addition to a mythologist, writer and lecturer, he was a philosopher – outside of Buddhism have influenced me as much as Joseph Campbell. When I watched his dialogue with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth as it aired on PBS in 1987, it had a profound effect and certainly changed my life. It finally resolved for me the tension between the metaphysical aspects of religion and my rational mind.

1987 was a largely pre-cable time and the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) still dominated the television landscape. After The Power of Myth aired, a TV executive, with CBS as I recall, said that if the program had been broadcast on one of the major networks instead of PBS, it would have changed the face of religion in America.

Campbell’s central thesis in this program was relatively simple:

“From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be ‘misunderstood mythology’, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact . . .”

In other words, religious stories are just stories, myths, and not history. If more people understood and appreciated this, we could spare the world from much trouble, and free ourselves from the bondage of dogma. Some have taken this message to heart, but there are others who dismiss it as something that undermines their faith.

Faith is a concept used by different persons to designate very diverse attitudes, but most often, we find faith reduced to belief coupled with the misunderstanding that belief makes what is believed fact. Any attempt to clear up this confusion is viewed as a threat, and this insecurity is the cause of most religious controversy and conflict.

Campbell did not articulate his view as such, but the principle underlying his philosophy was essentially the same as Nagarjuna’s Middle Way teachings on the emptiness of views, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan* explains in this way,

The Middle Way is to see things as they are, to recognize the possibility of determining things differently from different standpoints and to recognize that these determinations cannot be seized as absolutes. This is the way that realizes the relativity of specific views and of determinate entities. This becomes practically the central point in the philosophy of Nagarjuna.”

Faith is not belief about experiences but something inferred from them, and various things can be inferred from any one experience. Even while we may acknowledge the fact that faith/belief does not make what is believed fact, faith/belief can greatly influence attitudes and produce undesirable, unbeneficial, and even dangerous actions. A case in point would be the Louisiana teacher who taught her students that the universe was created by God 6,000 years ago and that that both the Big Bang theory and evolution are false. She gave her class a test in which the only correct answers were those based on this literal interpretation of the Bible. When one student gave different answers and then stated he was Buddhist and didn’t believe in God, the teacher reportedly told the rest of the class that Buddhism was “stupid.”

The student’s parents successfully sued the school, with the presiding judge in the U.S. District Court ruling that “School Officials shall not denigrate any particular faith, or lack thereof, or single out any student for disfavor or criticism because of his or her particular faith or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

This case is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, for we know all too well how religious intolerance can lead to violence and war.

Campbell said

We have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Both sides are wrong. Campbell further explained that

Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images . . .”

Buddhism has its share of misunderstandings about mythology. Some tend to dismiss concepts they see as supernatural or metaphysical and fail to appreciate the real messages they convey, while others insist that certain beliefs, such as karma and rebirth, must be taken literally, missing the point that if these ideas are regarded as metaphor, it does not undermine Buddhism’s core philosophy. Then, in addition, there are those who also mistake belief for fact and contend that the sutras and the theology surrounding the sutras are historical and adopt an absolutist stand that their Buddhism alone is true.

Religious philosophy is a system of ideas. It uses words and symbols to refer to what lies beyond the full scope of our knowledge. The nature of God is a continuous debate, and yet, assuming there were a super-awakened being that created the universe, the mind of such a being would be so vast and impenetrable that no one on this earth could possibly know it, let alone claim the ability to interpret His or Her will.

Religion does has practical value when it is practiced without undue attachment to belief and the blindness of faith. In Monday’s post, Joseph Campbell pointed out that yoga means to “join” or to “yoke.” In The Power of Myth, he explained, “The word ‘religion’ means religio, linking back.”  We can say then that yoga and religion have essentially the same meaning, and the same ultimate aim, which is to enter the zone of pure consciousness awake. When we awaken from slumber each morning, we wipe the sand or sleep (rheum) from our eyes. To be awake in the religious sense means to wipe away the sand of dogma from our minds and then go into the world and make our stand not on the ramparts of belief but before the gates of wisdom.

[You] have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God.'”

– Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

The wayfarer that can understand this [the emptiness of views] does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.”

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra

– – – – – – – – – –

* K. Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987

Share

From Human to Holy

You’ve probably heard about or watched video replays of the botched Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, Iranian-American scholar of religion who just published a new book on Jesus, so I won’t waste time going over that. Suffice it to say that the incident helped propel Aslan’s book to the #1 spot on the Amazon Best Seller list.

The book is called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it. I did read a review in the Los Angeles Times. Charlotte Allen says there isn’t much original or new about it. Ground already covered by many other scholars. That may be, but I like that the book’s message is reaching so many people.

What is the message? Basically, that the historical Jesus was not divine, and when he died, he stayed dead. Evidently, Aslan portrays Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary, who was not the half-man, half-god with a virgin birth, who preformed miracles, walked on water, and rose from the dead.

jesus-buddhaThere are many these days who like to draw parallels between Jesus and Buddha. For instance Thich Nhat Hanh’s popular book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, that according to Amazon, has them “walking, hand in hand, down the same path to salvation.” To me, that’s a bit of a stretch, as I see them walking in two radically different directions. Yes, they both taught about compassion, but that is a common religious teaching. In everything else Jesus points to a path that leads out of this world, while the Buddha’s path leads us within ourselves.

It’s when we strip away the layers of mythology from each man that we find real similarities. Like Jesus, Buddha was also a revolutionary. He rebelled against the Vedas, denied the authority of the Brahmin priests, opposed the caste system, and was pessimistic (at the very least) about the existence of gods and the efficacy of prayer.

Even more striking are the parallels in the history of their marketing. What I mean is how a king helped to elevate each of them to a status above that of common mortal.

In the case of Jesus, it was Constantine the Great, a warrior who murdered his way to the throne of Rome by killing the rightful Emperor, Maxentius, and his two sons. Constantine was a Sun God worshipper, who supposedly converted to Christianity, but in actuality never renounced his faith in Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). He convened the First Council of Nice in 325 CE (held in part to combat the Arian heresy), during which the human Jesus was transformed into the Jesus the god, or “Lord of Light,” the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday, and it was decided which books would be included in the Bible.

Similarly, the transformation of the human Gautama into the supermundane Buddha – with the miraculous birth and supernatural powers, who could perform miracles but refused to do so, etc. – was advanced significantly during the reign of the Indian king Ashoka, approximately two and a half centuries after the Buddha’s death. Ashoka was also a murderous warrior, who converted to a new religion, but unlike Constantine, the conversion seems to have taken hold, and Ashoka became a changed man. He, too, presided over a council, The Third Buddhist Council around 250 BCE. The details of what transpired during that event are not well-known but apparently it was convened in order to rid the Sangha of corruption and eliminate certain heresies. At any rate, it was during Ashoka’s rule, and due in no small part to his patronage and his propagation of Buddhism (through the “Rock Edicts”), that Buddha-dharma was established as a major sect in India, the Sangha evolved to the shape that we know it today, and the Buddha was elevated to almost god-like status.

I don’t know if Aslan’s book discusses the role Constantine played in the Jesus story or not. And frankly, how much truth resides any of the stories about Constantine or Ashoka, as in the case of Buddha and Jesus, is hard to determine.

I’m not aware of any biographies that attempt to demystify the Buddha, as Aslan and others have done with Jesus. I recently mentioned Trevor Ling’s The Buddha, which presents the most realistic portrait that I’ve read, but that only amounts to a relatively small section in a work largely devoted to a sociological study how Buddhism developed through succeeding centuries in India and Sri Lanka.

Buddhism has no real need for a central figure with extraordinary powers and super-consciousness. Buddhism works just fine without the mythological Buddha. In fact, Buddhism could survive without a historical Buddha. As Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” That’s because Buddhism is about what the Buddha taught, not that he taught.

I wonder, though, if you take divinity away from Jesus, what survives in Christianity. The very essence of Christianity, as it stands today, is faith in Jesus as presented in the New Testament, the Son of God, the divine Messiah.

I also wonder about the folks reading Aslan’s book. Are they the atheistic and agnostic reading it to find loopholes in the Jesus story, perhaps to confirm suspicions they already harbor? Are they people of faith, who exposed to this information for the first time will take it seriously and reevaluate their beliefs, maybe precipitating a sort of mass revolution in Christian thinking? I’d like to think it is the latter, but I’m not willing to place any bets on it.

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Share