Deal or No Deal

Years ago I took the MIT–Harvard program on negotiation. It was there that I learned the term BATNA, Best Alternative to a Negotiated Settlement. Before entering into any kind of bargaining session you should know in advance what you would do if no agreement can be reached. Then you measure this against the best deal you can get and decide which is better: a bad deal or no deal.

Regarding the six nation negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, the BATNA of Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s once and future Prime Minister, seems to be World War III. Rather than sign on to President Obama’s deal, the Prime Minister came before Congress to argue for no deal and more sanctions, knowing full well that if the deal falls through Russia and China will make new sanctions difficult if not impossible to impose and maintain.

I suspect that what motivates Mr. Netanyahu is an apocalyptic messianism that hopes to push the US to do what Israel alone cannot do: mount a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such an attack will set back the Iranian nuclear program for a few years, far less than the ten years found in the negotiated agreement President Obama is seeking. But Bibi doesn’t seem to care.

Worse still, a post–attack Iran will race for a bomb and claim the moral high ground in doing so. This in turn will start a domino effect among Arab Muslim nations as Sunnis scramble to get a bomb to protect themselves from nuclear armed Shia. Israel will feel all the more threatened, and messianic Jews, Sunnis, and Shia will feel all the more justified in their end–times fantasies, and all the more ready to indulge them. (See USA network’s Dig for one endtimes scenario)

I’m not saying that the Obama deal is the best outcome from the talks with Iran, only that if our BATNA is global destruction, then, contra Bibi, a bad deal is better than no deal at all.

The One and Only Faith

When asked by professor Jules Evens if one could get to God through faiths other than Christianity, the Bishop of London responded:

“You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments.” []

I commend the Bishop on his honesty and clarity: Christianity leads you to the Christian God, other religions lead you to other Gods or other destinations. The assumption the Bishop makes, of course, is that the Christian God is the true God, and hence Christianity is the one true faith. This is merely confirmation bias, the tendency to see as true what one is already inclined to see as true.

My own bias comes from two sources: the Rig Veda: “Truth is one. Different people call it by different names,” and the Tao the Ching: “The tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.”

By itself the Rig Veda’s teaching can lead to a reductionism that makes all religions the same. This is patently false and does a terrible disservice to the world’s religions. Coupled with the teaching of Lao Tzu, however, the message is liberating: all names of Truth point toward something that is beyond naming, no name or path is THE name or path, and in the end freeing yourself from all names and paths is necessary.

No religion, as the Bishop clearly demonstrates, is willing to sacrifice itself in the quest for Truth. And that is why religion is never true, and often a block to finding the Truth.

Je Suis Shams

Iran’s famous poet, Shams of Tabriz (1185-1248) speaks to the heart of what it is to be spiritually independent:

I am not a Muslim
None may call me Christian or Jew
I am not of the East, nor the West
I am neither of earth nor water
I am not of India or China
I am not of the kingdom of Iraq
I am not of this world nor the next,
not of heaven, nor of purgatory.
My place is the placeless,
My trace is the traceless.
It is not the body nor is it the soul,
for I belong to the soul of my love.
If I should win a moment with You,
I will put both worlds under my feet
and dance forever in joy.
O Shams of Tabriz, I am so drunk in the world
that except for revelry and intoxication
I have no tale to tell.

Anna Marie Cox Comes Out as a Christian

MSNBC featured Daily Beast editor Anna Marie Cox this morning regarding an essay she wrote about coming out as a Christian (a link to the essay appears below). I am happy for her, and for anyone who finds peace, grace, and comfort in a religion (providing of course this doesn’t come with a hateful attitude toward others). What follows is not a critique of Ms. Cox or Christianity, but of her essay in particular. And to make sure that is so, I’m critiquing the essay the way I used to critique students’ essays in my various religion classes when I taught at Middle Tennessee State University. What follows are a series of quotes from the essay and my comments to Ms. Cox “in the margins.”

I’ve lately observed conservatives questioning Obama’s faith with more than professional interest. Because if Obama’s not Christian, what does that make me? This is a non sequitur: Why does the faith of another impact your faith at all?

In my personal life, my faith is not something I struggle with or something I take particular pride in. It is just part of who I am. The only place where my spirituality feels volatile is in my professional life; the only time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable talking about my faith is when it comes up in conversation with colleagues. I am curious as to why you feel this way about your colleagues, and how you kept who you are from them. Please write more about this.

I am not smart enough to argue with those that cling to disbelief. By disbelief do you mean believing differently than you? Why assume that anyone who believes differently than you is “clinging to disbelief” rather than simply embracing what they do believe? There is an implicit judgment and bias here that you might want to challenge or at least admit.

If there is a God, then why [insert atrocity]? For me, belief didn’t come after I had the answer to that question. Belief came when I stopped needing the answer. This is, as I am sure you know, the issue of theodicy—how can you believe in God when there is so much evil in the world? Your choice to simply ignore the question sounds like willful ignorance rather than reasoned faith. But then faith needs no reason. Nevertheless this is a question that serious people of every faith and none have wrestled with for centuries, and I hope you will make time to read what they have to say.

What about Bible literacy? Mine is mostly limited to dimly remembered excerpts from the Old Testament we read in my college humanities class and a daily verse email. First, as a professor of Bible your “ignorance is bliss” argument hurts me personally. Second, I know you identify as a progressive Christian so please take care about not referring to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament which asserts a Christian bias progressive Christians do their best to avoid. Third, together with your previous affirmation of ignorance regarding theodicy, I worry that your faith is a way to avoid thinking about the great spiritual issues rather than a way to explore them. I urge you to study a bit more, especially the works of Borg, Crossan, Rohr, Spong, and Bourgeault.

They’ll let anyone in. What you love about Christianity is that “they’ll let anyone in,” but this is true of every religion: if you choose to be Jewish, Judaism lets you in; if you choose to be Muslim, Islam lets you in; if you choose to be Mormon, Mormonism lets you in. But if you choose to be Baptist, Catholicism won’t let you in, and if you choose to be Catholic, Southern Baptists won’t let you in. In other words, every religion lets in those who choose to follow that religion, and there is nothing unique about Christianity in this regard.

Perhaps you mean that Christianity is willing to accept sinners, but this too is not unique. No religion expects you to be perfect before it accepts you. Most promise to perfect you after you join. You seem to be saying that God rejects everyone who isn’t Christian (or a certain kind of Christian), and the big “get” from becoming Christian or the right kind of Christian is that God will now love you. This notion alone keeps many “clinging” to their disbelief. Do you really think God is so narrow?

There is nothing so great I can do to make God love me more… before I found God, I had an unconsciously manufactured higher power: I spent a lifetime trying to earn extra credit from some imaginary teacher, grade-grubbing under the delusion that my continuing mistakes—missed assignments, cheating, other nameless sins—were constantly held against me. What interests me isn’t that you side with St. Paul over St. James (faith alone rather than faith and works), but that you were unconsciously following an imaginary teacher who simply could not love you as you are. There seems to be a pattern of unconsciousness and ignorance in your religious life. Since this imaginary teacher was your own unconscious, I worry that you will do with Christ what you did with your previous God: turn him into a dunning force of self–criticism, and that you will do this unconsciously, and therefore unknowingly. Because I care about my students beyond the classroom, let me add a personal note: please work with a spiritual director who can help you discern the loving God from your dunning one.

What Christ teaches me, if I let myself be taught, is that there is only one kind of judgment that matters. I am saved not because of who I am or what I have done (or didn’t do), but simply because I have accepted the infinite grace that was always offered to me. Your logic is faulty. The judgment that matters is whether or not you have accepted Christ as your Savior. Doing so (for all but those Calvinists who believe in predetermination) is an act of will albeit sometimes disguised as an act of grace. It is something you have done that your mother, “the angry ex–Baptist” and your father “the casual atheist” (and billions of others) have not done. And unless they do so, they are doomed. So much for your notion that Christianity accepts everyone.

My hope is that His love is somewhere underneath the ego and grievances that inspired me to write this. I believe that it is. What I pray is that you can find it for yourself as well. In other words, you hope God will forgive you for writing about your love of God? Am I hearing echoes of the dunning God coming through? Please think about this. And as for your hope that I come to your faith for myself, while I appreciate your concern, I think I will have to pass.

To read the essay go to

And The Award Goes To…

The Jews control the United States. It is completely legal for Muslims to kill apostates who leave Islam and speak critically regarding it. The greatest terrorist threat in the world is the United States (and by extension the Jews who control the United States). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the work of President George W. Bush (and by extension the Jews who controlled him).

When I hear such talk I ascribe it to crazy people living in one extremist subculture or another. I would not associate it with the latest winner of one of Saudi Arabia’s highest awards for “service to Islam.” And I would be wrong.

The holder of these views is Dr. Zakir Naik, a medical doctor and Muslim televangelist from India, who heads the Islamic Research Foundation devoted to spreading “the proper presentation, understanding, and appreciation of Islam.”

Here are just two of Dr. Naik’s pronouncements:

“If bin Laden is fighting enemies of Islam, I am for him…. If he is terrorizing America – the terrorist, biggest terrorist – I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that if he is terrorizing the terrorist, he is following Islam. (Von Drehle, David; Ghosh, Bobby: “An Enemy Within: The Making of Najibullah Zazi”. Time. p. 2. 1 October 2009)

“[R]egarding building of churches or temples, how can we allow this [in Muslim countries] when their religion is wrong and when their worshipping is wrong?” (“Who’s responsible for the stereotypes of Islam?” by Sudheendra Kulkarni; The Indian Express, 1 April 2007)

If this is the fellow the Saudis see as a servant of Islam, and whom the United Arab Emirates called the Islamic Personality of the Year in 2013, we have a problem far greater than ISIS.

Love It or Leave It

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone is causing a huge stir in San Francisco by restricting teachers at four Bay Area Catholic high schools from publically disagreeing with the Church’s position that homosexual acts are “contrary to natural law,” that contraception is “intrinsically evil,” and that embryonic stem cell research is “a crime.”

The Archbishop told The New York Times that “young people are under intense pressure today to conform to certain standards that are contrary to what we believe,” and he wanted to make those beliefs clear with this ruling. Good for him!

Catholic high schools should promote Catholic values. If you don’t like Catholic values, don’t send your children to Catholic schools, but don’t tell the school to stop being Catholic!

Not everyone agrees. As the mother of one freshman put it, “We sent our kids to these schools because they uphold the fundamental principles of our faith of love, acceptance and respect. This language says some people are not OK—and that’s not OK.”

On the contrary, what’s not O.K. is insisting the Catholic Church stop saying some people are not OK. What’s not OK is falsifying Catholic doctrine and dumbing down its “fundamental principles” to “love, acceptance and respect.” What’s not OK is insisting that your religion conform to your values rather than the other way around.

If you don’t agree with the tenants of your religion, leave it.

Does This Spark Joy?

This weekend I read a WSJ article about the Japanese Queen of Clean, Marie Kondo, and her global best seller The Life–Changing Magic of Tidying Up. At the heart of her system is this: When deciding what to keep and what to give away, Ms. Kondo tells us to ask one question, “Does this spark joy?”

That’s it. Does this spark joy? While Ms. Kondo’s primary concern is with clutter, you can apply this question to philosophy and theology as well. I made a list of my core beliefs:

All things are manifestations of a nondual Reality I all God;
Each of us is capable of realizing this Reality directly;
Each of us has a dual nature, the relative ego and the absolute soul;
The extent we focus on the former is the extent to which we cause needless suffering;
The extent to which we realize the latter is the extent to which we are vehicles for compassion and justice; and
Becoming vehicles for compassion and justice is the central task of spiritual practice.

Then I asked myself if each of these sparks joy. And they do. In fact they have consistently sparked joy from the moment I first heard them over forty years ago.

I also hold a host of secondary believes. Most of these deal with why I am right in any given situation and why the other is wrong. These beliefs do not spark joy. Following Ms. Kondo’s advice I will begin to divest myself of these beliefs (as well as a lot of other stuff) that does not spark joy. I suggest you do the same: sift through the stuff you carry within and without and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” The answer, however harrowing, my lead to something quite liberating as well.

The God in the Mirror

In a recent essay for, Rabbi Simeon Maslin argues that when the Bible clearly commands us to do evil in the name of God (killing every man, woman, child, and cow of the Amalakites for example) the Bible is being misunderstood. God, being all-good, would never command such a thing. Humans, being all-fallible, would and would do so in the name of God. But why?

If we know God is good and merciful, why would we seek to excuse our desire to commit evil and cruel acts by referencing God? It makes no sense. If we know God would not command “X” arguments to the contrary would fall on deaf ears. The only reason for claiming God commands something is if God commanding that something is believable. The reason we can believe God commands the slaughter of the Amalakites is that God himself (sic) committed similar slaughters: wiping out all but the family of Noah during the Flood, murdering all the first born sons of Egypt, and drowning the army of Pharaoh at the Red Sea, to name but three.

Rabbi Maslin seems to be writing in defense of God. The fact that God needs defending is itself a bit odd, and suggests to me that what is being defended isn’t God but the defender’s image of God. That being said, the only way Rabbi Maslin and others can pretend that God isn’t as cruel as he is compassionate is to insist that when we read of God’s cruelty we are reading incorrectly. If that is true, then, as my fundamentalist friends never tire of telling me, we are in big trouble: if you question the authenticity of one part of the Bible, you question the authenticity of the entire Bible. The result of such questioning is a rewriting of the Bible in the image of the reader.

That may be extreme, but it isn’t necessarily false, and it does raise the issue of what to accept as godly and what to reject as ungodly when it comes to God. As I see it, it is simply personal preference, and God, once again, becomes a mirror of your own mind.

What to do about this? First, admit that your idea of God is a mirror of your own mind. Whether or not God exists, and whatever that extant God might be, has nothing to do with your imagined God. When slaveholding Christians argued that God commanded slavery they were not revealing anything about God and everything about themselves. The same is true of Christian abolitionists who fought slavery in the name of God. Both sets of Christians quoted the same scripture and came to diametrically opposed conclusions. Why? Because God is what we want God to be, and scripture says what we want scripture to say, and what we want God to be and scripture to say reflects what we want to do. God is cruel when we want to be cruel; God is kind when we want to be kind; our holy books sanction violence when we want to sanction violence, and they sanction compassion when we want to sanction compassion.

While I find Rabbi Maslin’s argument simplistic, I wish it were otherwise: If every believer in every scripture read their scripture and their God as all compassionate the world would be a far better place. It isn’t because they don’t. And, I suspect, they never will.

PC or BS?

The Obama administration is going out of its way to not associate terrorism with Islam. From now on we will speak about violent extremism and violent extremists rather than violent Islamist extremism and Muslim extremists. I’m all for it. Islam is a religion of peace, and anyone who is not peaceful isn’t a Muslim. It is good to know that our president has the power to redefine Islam and to decide who is and who is not a Muslim. And, luckily for us, his power doesn’t end with Islam.

When a violent extremist attacked and killed people at a deli in Paris the president felt it unwise to mention that this was a kosher deli and the attack was aimed at Jews. So he said that the attacker (who by President Obama’s definition cannot be Muslim) “randomly (shot) a bunch of folks in a Paris deli.” Right on, Mr. President. The fact that these folks were Jews is incidental and inconsequential. This violent extremist could just have well as walked into a French bakery and shot a bunch of Parisians looking for some French bread.

Buy why stop here? Why associate such violence with Paris? Certainly most French citizens and Parisians are nonviolent, so we should drop the location of the deli altogether. A violent extremist randomly shot a bunch of folks in a random deli in some random place on the planet earth.

And the beheading of those Coptic Christians from Egypt in Libya? No, no, no. Some random violent extremists lopped off some random heads attached to the necks of some random people from some random country in another random country somewhere on the planet earth.

But why stop there? Why implicate earth in this violence? Most species of life on earth don’t do this. Let’s just say a violent extremist randomly shot a bunch of folks in a random deli in a random place on a random planet , and then some other random violent extremists beheaded some other folks somewhere in the Milky Way.

That works for me. Now back to how we are going to confront violent extremism in our solar system….

Snuff Porn of the Pious

At an interfaith gathering focusing on Judaism and Christianity, one Jewish woman said, “Here’s difference between the two: Christianity’s God punishes the innocent [she was referring to Jesus] before he can forgive the guilty, whereas the Jewish God punishes only the guilty.”

Actually, no. Punishing the innocent to forgive the guilty is also a trait of Judaism’s God. It is called ha’avarah, “transferal.” God can’t simply forgive people their sins, God must vent his (sic) wrath and wreck vengeance on someone, even if the someone is totally innocent. So much for being all-powerful: God can’t even control his own anger.

Here are two examples from 2 Samuel.

In order to marry Bathsheba, King David has her husband, Uriah, murdered in battle. David doesn’t see anything wrong with this until the Prophet Nathan confronts him. Then David repents. God forgives him, but punishment is due. Rather than punish David, God decides to kill the innocent baby born to David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:14–15).

In chapter 24 of 2 Samuel King David takes a census of the people, seemingly at God’s behest. After doing so, however, he feels guilty and begs God to forgive him. God agrees, but punishment must still be extracted. So God demands that David choose among three horrors that God can inflict on the People Israel: seven years of famine, three months of fleeing from enemies, or three days of plague. David waffles, and God settles on the plague and 70,000 innocent Israelites die.

So much for punishing the guilty and sparing the innocent.

These stories suggest that  God has grown more immoral over time: at least when planning to destroy Sodom God learned that killing the innocent along with the guilty was an immoral act, whereas in 2 Samuel God kills the innocent instead of the guilty. This doesn’t sound like progress to me.

Why does any of this matter? Because this Iron Age God is no less active in the imaginations of people today than he was thousands of years ago. Look at the slaughter of innocents by ISIS and you see this God in action. If religion is to evolve it will have to abandon this God, and to do that we will have to stop calling these stories sacred and see them for what they are: snuff porn of the pious.