Category Archives: Beliefs

“Jesus is just like you and me”: the radical message of R. W. Emerson.

ralph_waldo_emerson_ca1857_retouched

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine graduating from one of the top religious schools in the country, entering the ministry, and after a few years deciding the job isn’t right for you. You find yourself troubled by public prayer, the act of communion, and most of all by the formality and stiffness of the church service itself.

Well, if you’re 29-year old Ralph Waldo Emerson, you quit your job as a minister at a Unitarian church and chart a new course. You start writing essays and lecturing, you publish your first book, and little by little, you begin attracting attention—and for good reason. It’s the 183os and your message is unlike anything most Americans have ever heard.

You see, Emerson believes that God does not dwell up in the heavens, but is within each of us:

“The highest revelation is that God is in every man.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

On top of that that Emerson also believes that “while Jesus was a great man, he was not God”. In fact, Jesus is just like you and me. He says that:

  • We possess the same divine spark as Jesus.
  • We share the same connection to God as Jesus.
  • We can communicate with God just like Jesus did.

And for good measure, Emerson discounts any biblical miracles involving Jesus as pure fiction.

So given his thinking, which was contrary to the beliefs of every other religious or spiritual leader of his time, it’s surprising that six years after leaving the church, Emerson is invited to deliver a commencement speech to his alma mater. It’s known as the “Harvard Divinity School Address” and in it he talks about faith—and how the church extinguishes it.

The test of the true faith should be its power to charm and command the soul…faith should blend with the light of rising and setting suns, the singing bird and the breath of flowers. But now the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is unlovely, we are glad when it is done…we shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us.

Emerson’s solution is not to improve the church service, but to rely on our inner selves and the grandeur of nature as conduits to the divine. He instructs his audience of graduating religious students to establish their own relationship with God.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone…dare to love God without mediator or veil…trust thyself…that which shows God in me, fortifies me. O my friends, there are resources in us on which we have not drawn.

As you might expect, the speech was not well received, at least not by those in power. Emerson was denounced as an “atheist” and “a poisoner of young men’s minds”. But what he had done bears some resemblance to Jesus’s act of turning over the moneychangers tables in the temple—Emerson saw what he believed was a spiritually bankrupt status quo, and fearlessly tried to disrupt it.

Closing Note: How Emerson communicated with God.

Emerson believed in something he referred to as “lowly listening”, a way to access God within us and get the guidance and comfort we need, through solitude, stillness and reflection. Emerson’s favorite place to do this was out in nature, but it can really be done anywhere you can reach a quiet and peaceful state. In Emerson’s words:

Belief and love—a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe.

The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

For some past stories I wrote on the life and philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, see here or here.

10 truths about Jesus that may surprise you.

Christ_by_Heinrich_Hofmann

Heinrich Hoffmann, via Wikimedia Commons

About once a year, I’ll pick up a book about Jesus in search of fresh insights on the man and his mission. My personal preference is that these books not be tied to any specific dogma or religion, but that they explore the many mysteries and myths that surround Jesus and his life. And I found just such a book in Jesus, the Human Face of God by scholar Jay Parini.

The author identifies himself as a Christian and a regular churchgoer, but he is decidedly a man who looks beyond the Bible for answers. He has done his homework and uses Gnostic and historical texts to look at the misconceptions about Jesus, as well as uncover hidden truths. Below are 10, some of which I knew but that continue to fascinate me, as well as a few others that surprised me.

  1. Jesus never set out to create a new religion. He considered himself a devout Jew with his own ideas on how to reform Judaism, not someone who planned to start his own religion. Even his earliest followers, who called him Rabbi or Teacher, mainly saw themselves as Jews who wanted to modify Judaic practices, not create a separate religion.
  2. According to Jesus, he didn’t perform miracles. Those around him did. Jesus emphasized that he wasn’t the reason miracles of healing occurred, what mattered was the faith of the person being healed. Jesus thought of himself as an instrument of God—who enabled people to be healed through their own belief. For instance, in Luke 17:19, Jesus heals ten lepers and proclaims, “Rise and go, your faith has made you whole.”
  3. Jesus told us a secret: how to access his kingdom. Parini reminds us that in the Beatitudes, Jesus emphasized that the kingdom of heaven was immediately available to those who practiced the same virtues that he did. These include humility, mercy, peacefulness and, of course, love. If you lived your life with these qualities, Jesus said that you too could open the doors of heaven here on Earth.
  4. Post-resurrection, even his closest followers didn’t recognize Jesus. After the death of Jesus, Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb—but does not recognize the resurrected Jesus, mistaking him for a gardener. Neither did several of his other disciples, including two who saw him at the shore (John 21:4). Parini believes there is a subtle teaching here: “We should not expect to recognize Jesus at first, even as he wakens within us.”
  5. His family members may have thought he was nuts. His family appears to have regarded him as somewhat volatile, even mad, and that his ideas were strange. When he was preaching to a large crowd one unidentified family members even yelled out, “He’s out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).
  6. Like President’s Day, the birthday of Jesus was combined with another holiday. Christians didn’t settle on December 25th as Christmas Day until the fourth century. This choice probably had something to do its proximity to the winter solstice—and the fact that it was near a “feast day” celebrating Sol Invictus, the official sun god of the Roman Empire.
  7. Did Jesus really raise Lazarus from the dead? Maybe, maybe not. Parini sees the meaning of the raising of Lazarus as potentially symbolic, not a literal raising of the dead, but a figurative one. It ties into an early-Christian belief that many of the teachings of the Bible were not meant to be taken literally. Lazarus stands in for everyone who follows Jesus and finds himself raised from the “living dead” to a new life.
  8. “Wake up to God…his kingdom is inside you, within your grasp.” The bold line above is Parini’s take on the true meaning of Matthew 3:2, which usually reads: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. He believes the original translators inserted the word “repent” for an Aramaic word that has a very different meaning. Additionally, as several early Christian texts point out, the kingdom of heaven is found not above, but here within our reach.
  9. The letters of Paul come second in the Bible. But were historically first. The first complete versions of the gospels date to the fourth century—a very long time after the events they describe. It is also important to note, that while the letters of Paul appear after the four gospels in the Bible, they represent the earliest Christian documents. The four gospels were written after them. Also curious: Paul makes no mention of either the life or death of Jesus, only his teachings.
  10. To be a follower of Jesus, you don’t have to go to church. To quote Parini: Jesus never meant to found a formal church with rituals and organized practices, to ordain priests, or to issue doctrinaire statements that formed a rigid program for salvation. Other than “follow me,” his only commandment was “to love one another as I have loved you.”

This story originally appeared at my Patheos “Wake Up Call” column, March 25, 2016.

 

A Priest and an Atheist Walk into a Bar. (A Story about Faith.)

Andrew Marx/freeimages.com

Andrew Marx/ freeimages.com

What is the nature of faith? Why do some of us believe that there is a God that watches over us and impacts our lives, while others believe we are alone in the world and left to our own devices?

These are questions I have been pondering since I wrote my last Patheos story on “The Third Man” phenomena. In a nutshell, it was about how certain people in life-threatening situations detect a “presence” around them that they perceive as a guardian angel. I received a few reader comments questioning this assertion, some siding with neuroscientists who believe the effect is not supernatural, but is a function of the brain.

But what does it really come down to? Faith. You either have it or you don’t, and I recently came across an anecdote that cleverly illustrates the issue. It comes the late-author David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech he gave titled This is Water. In it, Foster Wallace tells the tale of two men chatting in a bar, and their different takes on the role God plays in our lives. I’ve paraphrased the story below:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. While they’re old friends, they have very different ideas on God—one is a priest and the other is an atheist. They begin arguing about the existence of God.

The atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I haven’t given God a chance. I even tried the prayer thing. It didn’t work.”

The priest asks with some incredulity, “Did you really pray? When did this happen?”

“Just last month,” replies the atheist. “I got caught away from the camp in a terrible blizzard. I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing. It was 50 below, and so I prayed. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m going to die if you don’t help me’.”

The priest looks at the atheist with a puzzled expression and exclaims, “Well then you must believe in God now. After all, here you are, alive!”

The atheist rolls his eyes and says, “No way, that’s not how it happened. A couple of Eskimos came wandering by and they showed me the way back to camp.”

The same story. Two different perspectives. The priest sees the man’s rescue as an act of divine intervention, while the atheist sees it as sheer happenstance, his own good fortune. Is one point-of-view correct and the other misguided? Or is it possible they both men are correct and that God’s existence is dependent on our belief—if you’re a non-believer, God ceases to exist?

I turned to my spiritual mentor, the late businessman-turned-philosopher John Templeton, for guidance on this issue and found a passage in one of his books that may provide an answer. Templeton believes that spirituality is a personal issue, based on “the unique divine experiences of the individual believer.” He wonders if there isn’t a reason why some believe in a higher power:

Can a person’s consciousness become activated through spiritual practices such as prayer? And can this activation in a person’s consciousness generate greater expressions of spirituality? Could this be what some people describe as “living the spiritual life,” rather than being “religious”?

Perhaps faith is not something we are born with, but something we activate by engaging in practices like prayer and meditation. And those who do these activities on a regular basis find that they are better able to connect with something greater than themselves, a life force that many identify as God.

The atheist did not believe it, but perhaps prayer was the key to his survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, if Templeton’s adage is true, he would need to continue his practice of prayer to make his sense of faith come to life, to become fully receptive to the idea that his encounter with his rescuers on that night was more than just a stroke of good luck.

This story previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 29, 2015.

It’s time to take Mark Twain back from the Atheists.

Mark Twain, famed humorist and writer of the classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is perhaps the most celebrated American author of all time. He is also a favorite of atheists and atheist Web sites, who claim Twain as one of their own. But is their faith in Twain misguided?

I stumbled upon the Mark Twain-atheist connection recently, when I went online to verify that a quote came from the author. I found Twain’s name and writings on one atheist Web site after another (Celebrity Atheist, anyone?) and it’s easy to see why non-believers are attracted to him. The author had a knack for writing sharp one-liners like this:

If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian.

While Twain was raised a Presbyterian, and his funeral was held in the local Presbyterian church, he spent much of his life highly critical of organized religion, especially the Christian religion he grew up in. For instance, Twain wrote:

There is one notable thing about our Christianity…ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

Twain was often equally hostile to the mixed messages he found in the Bible. He saw the books not as the word of God, but as works of pure fiction:

I believe that the Old and New Testaments were imagined and written by man, and that no line in them was authorized by God, much less inspired by Him.

And while Twain claimed to believe in “God the Almighty”, he also went so far as to say, “If there is a God, he is a malign thug”. Yet, what this and the other cherry-picked quotes you’ll find on the atheist Web sites don’t reveal are Twain’s more nuanced statements on the subject. Take this passage:

I am plenty safe enough in his hands; I am not in any danger from that kind of a Deity. The one that I want to keep out of the reach of, is the caricature of him which one finds in the Bible.

Read the first part of that statement and it’s clear that Twain had developed his own concept of the Almighty, one that was at odds with the God of the Old Testament. He appears to have believed in a just and loving God, which is further evidenced by the quote below:

I think the goodness, the justice, and the mercy of God are manifested in His works: I perceive that they are manifested toward me in this life; the logical conclusion is that they will be manifested toward me in the life to come, if there should be one.

So Twain even leaves open the idea of an after-life. In other instances, his tone softens to the point that he actually seems to see the value of organized religion, even if its benefits don’t relate directly to him:

I am not able to believe one’s religion can affect his hereafter one way or the other, no matter what that religion may be. But it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life–hence it is a valuable possession to him.

There’s another interesting fact about Twain, that you also won’t read about on the atheist Web sites. Late in life he spent over a dozen years researching and writing a book about a Catholic saint—the legendary Frenchwoman Joan of Arc. The book is titled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and it was his last major work, completed just a few years before his death. He claimed this book was his personal favorite and his best work, writing:

I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.

What did Twain see in this farm girl turned legendary leader, who claimed to be personally directed by the voice of God and who regularly spoke with angels? Certainly, the core religious beliefs of Joan of Arc were very different from his own, but after reading excerpts from the book, it becomes quickly apparent that Twain holds his subject in high esteem:

She was deeply religious, and believed that she had daily speech with angels; that she saw them face to face, and that they counseled her, comforted and heartened her, and brought commands to her direct from God. She had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not any threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart. She was a beautiful and simple and lovable character.

And therein lies the enigma of Mark Twain. He hated organized religion, saw the Bible as a book of dubious value and while he appeared to believe in God, wrote little positive on the subject. Yet he spent over a decade of his life writing about a women who claimed to be in regular contact with the Divine, and he did not write a single disparaging word about her saying:

She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.

Perhaps Mark Twain is not the man the atheists think he is.

Earlier this month, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, had an exhibit on “Spiritualism, Séances and Sam”. It seems that Twain’s wife was a fan of séances and Twain himself occasionally sat in on the proceedings. Asked to explain Twain’s take on the spirit world, a curator at the museum, Mallory Howard, said: “He was always trying to figure out an answer without ever coming to a conclusion.”

And that possibly explains Twain’s motives best—he was just trying to figure things out. He was a man of contradictions who while quick to deliver a humorous and acerbic barb about religion and God, spent the twilight years of his life studying and writing about Joan of Arc, a woman for whom God was the primary reason and motivation for her existence.

Twain may have been like many of us spiritually-minded individuals, who shun organized religion and find little of value in the Bible—yet believe there is a greater life force, what some people call God, out there. We seek it ourselves and while we may come up short, we admire those who seem to have tapped into this force in such a meaningful and powerful way.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, October 22, 2014.

Life Lessons from the Reverend who was visited by ETs.

Reverend Michael J. S. Carter

Reverend Michael J. S. Carter

What do you do if you’re a man of the cloth and have a UFO-related experience? I’m not talking about a run-of-the-mill flying saucer sighting, but a middle-of-the-night visitation by a gray alien—an incident that’s repeated over and over again, with a changing cast of extraterrestrial visitors.

If you’re the Reverend Michael J.S. Carter of Baltimore, who currently serves as the minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in North Carolina, you try to make sense of the experience. And since you’re religiously-inclined, you don’t go to Google for answers, you turn to various spiritual texts, especially the Bible.

That’s the story behind a slim but oddly fascinating book that Carter wrote titled Alien Scriptures, Extraterrestrials in the Holy Bible, where the author first touches on his strange encounters, and then goes looking for a Biblically-based explanation.

The Alien Encounters: Unwelcome Visitors in the Night.

Carter makes it clear in the book and radio interviews that at one point he didn’t believe in UFOS or extraterrestrials. All that changed one night while he was home sleeping in bed, not in some rural setting but the middle of New York City. He writes of his initial experience:

My room was lit-up with a bluish white light—lit up as if it was daytime. Standing at the end of the bed staring at me was a being with an egg-shaped head and wrap-around eyes. It truly freaked me out. I don’t believe I have ever been that frightened in my life!

Carter’s response to seeing an alien? Like the 5-year old in all of us, he pulls the covers over his head. He then hears a whooshing sound and feels like the temperature has dropped drastically in the room. He pulls down the covers and looks again, but the being is gone.

The visitations continue for several months. The beings who drop in on him have different appearances and while most are the classic “grays”, they include a “green and scale-y, Spiderman-looking” entity. He watches as this ET “simply walks through my window and outside the building. I lived on the 15th floor at the time!”

Searching for Meaning: in the Bible.

It’s unclear what messages the visitors had to pass onto him, though for the most part they leave him with a positive, loving vibe—and he finds himself voraciously reading all the spiritual texts he can get his hands on. He gets special meaning from several passages of the Bible, which seems to reinforce his newfound belief that UFOs and aliens have been around since the beginning of man and may even be messengers sent by God. (Kind of like angels from another dimension.)

For example, Carter calls out the visions of the prophet Ezekiel as illustrated in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 1-28). In this biblical passage, Ezekiel claims to have seen “the likeness of the glory of the Lord”. But a quick read reveals that what Ezekiel actually saw was something odd indeed. Check out Ezekiel 4-6:

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings.

Carter also cites 2 Kings 2:1 where Elijas and his companion Elisha are walking together and “behold a chariot of fire and horses of fires”. To Carter’s way of thinking this is how someone unfamiliar with a UFO, and living in biblical times, might describe one. He also sees the strangely mobile star of Bethlehem as a potential UFO, as described in Matthew 2:9-11:

The star which they saw in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the young child was.

So is the Reverend a kook?

I admit his personal accounts are tip-toeing on the edge of credibility. Yet I came away convinced that something happened to the Reverend. I have written here before how our myths can sometimes come to life in weird and unexplainable ways. The Reverend may simply be one of many who has come up against something he can’t quite explain and attached his own personal meaning to it. Some see angels, he sees ETs.

It’s also interesting to note that Carter believes his encounters with the visitors have been “very positive” and have accelerated his spiritual growth. (They have also brought him some national attention, as he has become a frequent guest on the History Channel program Ancient Aliens.) It has also sharpened his religious and spiritual beliefs.

There is an afterword in the book titled “Lessons from my Contact Experiences on Life and Spirituality”, where Carter offers several compelling insights. I have pulled out my favorite bits and put them in the list you see below.

10 Life Lessons from Reverend Michael J.S. Carter.

  1. I have come to know that what we call “god” is really an Energy…a Spirit…a Source of all Consciousness…and that we are a part of this consciousness.
  2. We can tap into this consciousness, if we are willing to, by just sitting still, through meditation and prayer.
  3. This Energy/Consciousness/Intelligence moves through us, in us, and as us. It is all there is. There is no where we can go where this Source is not present.
  4. Recognizing the connectedness of our planet and the universe is the first step in becoming mature spiritually, or in cultivating an inner life.
  5. We all have a mission that we come to this planet to fulfill. Our younger years may be used in just trying to figure out what that mission is.
  6. Of course, we can choose not to fulfill that mission. But if we choose to accept it, a good part of that mission is to learn to love and to forgive, oneself as well as others.
  7. Thoughts are things. If you think that life is #$@&%*! and then you die, that is just what life will mirror back to you. We attract to ourselves what we are.
  8. All the answers you need are inside of you. Because all that is Consciousness is inside of us.
  9. There are as many paths to God as there are people who walk those paths.
  10. We might see God not as a person, distinct and separate from the material world, but rather as a spiritual reality in which all life participates.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 31, 2014.

Everyone has a spiritual story to tell. What’s yours?

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

Are you familiar with StoryCorps? It’s a nonprofit group that records people telling stories about a key moment in their lives. Over the years, they’ve collected almost 50,000 stories that can be accessed online and at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. You may have heard one of their broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition where they air Friday mornings.

It got me thinking that we all have a story to tell about ourselves, especially as it relates to our spirituality. We all have taken a unique path to get where we are today—and just like those who tell their stories on StoryCorps, chances are there was a key moment or moments in your life that shaped your own personal religious and spiritual beliefs.

Here’s my abbreviated spiritual story:

I was raised in a strict Catholic household and forced to go to church and catechism classes weekly until the age of 16. But the church and Bible did not speak to me in words I could understand. Then, after a gap of over a decade with no religion or spiritualty in my life, I realized there was a hole in me that could only be filled by figuring out the greater meaning of life.

I began reading spiritual and religious books voraciously. I learned to breathe. I had several mystical experiences with nature where I became so tuned-in to my surroundings that I could sense the Divine in every leaf, in the chirp of each bird, in the blowing breeze. I rediscovered prayer. I heard the voice of God inside me clearly directing me to a different life path where I put the well-being of others ahead of my own self-centered interests.

There have been many inspiring personal spiritual stories told in book form, The Last Barrier by Reshad Feild and Hidden Journey by Andrew Harvey, come to mind. They talk of each individual’s very different path to self-discovery and their own version of spiritual truth. And while both offer keen insights, they do not take the place of your own story, the one that is unique to you, the steps you took to get where you are today.

One person telling their spiritual story is Angela Kolias who I met through a LinkedIn Spirituality group. She self-published a book titled Alpha Omega Yoga that tells her own story of self-transformation through drawings and poetry and spiritual insights. She tells us who she is as person by showing us how she got to where she is today, her spiritual progression and growth, and she shares her wisdom with all who read her book. It will also serve as an important artifact in the future for those want to know who Angela is and was, it captures her true essence.

The biggest issue for many of us is that we don’t believe our stories are worth telling. We think they are too small or insignificant. So instead of crafting our own tales, we spend our time looking outside our own lives at the stories of others, oftentimes the rich, the powerful and/or famous.

Yet, we all have had special moments and spiritual experiences in our lives that make us the people we are today. These stories talk to your path in life, your passions, your spiritual explorations, the times when, if only for a fleeting moment, you sensed the presence of a higher power.

What’s your story? What gives your life meaning and purpose? How did you arrive at the spiritual place you now stand? Was there a single moment of enlightenment or many? Look into your past and find the stories that matter most to you. Write them down. Or, like StoryCorps, record them on audiotape. Then, share them with family and friends, with anyone who wants to know who you are and what makes you tick.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 21, 2014.