Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How Atheists Can Pray, Part II

    As well as the potential to be inspired by everyone that’s ever lived, there is our own light from within to inspire us.   We can access our inner light by meditation, using any of various techniques that turn off our mental chatter such as counting our breaths or repeating a mantra.  Mental chatter is the continuous stream of stuff like “What are we having for dinner tonight?”  “I need to check my email.”   Once mental chatter is turned off, insights we weren’t aware of rise to our consciousness.  Nothing supernatural is involved.
    Let’s move to the largest possible picture and consider Ultimate Reality, everything that is and its emergent properties.  (An emergent property is a property that a complex system has, but that the individual members of the system do not have.)    I see Ultimate Reality as being like the Hindu concept of Brahman, an all-encompassing, impersonal force.  All other Hindu gods are regarded simply as personal manifestations of that impersonal force.   Individual devotees then pray to a particular personal deity like Shiva, Vishnu, Kali. 
     Like the Hindus, we can subdivide Ultimate Reality into manageable bits.  As well as matter and energy [because I’m a scientist] I see Ultimate Reality comprising the immaterial like love, theorems, beauty.    Hence, the bits of ultimate reality we can address would include the characters of all people who have ever lived, our own inner knowing,  abstract aspects of Reality like beauty or truth, and the traditional God.
    Let me twist your mind a little.  Consider that the traditional Judaeo-Christian God, the one “who created the world and may from time to time intervene within it” is an aspect of ultimate reality, just like Shiva is an aspect of Brahman.  Imagine for a moment a world where a Heavenly Father makes sure everything works for the greater good of all.   Do you feel comforted when you do this?  I do.  Because we Unitarian Universalists affirm our fourth principle:  “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” we must respect those who pray to a Heavenly Father.
    We can also consider aspects of reality that have nothing to do with gods or persons.  The Native American tradition invites us to consider the Four Directions. According to Tom Barrett, when a Native American prays to the four directions, it is a prayer to the spirits of the world, to life, and to the Great Spirit that encompasses the four directions and everything that is. Everything that is sounds like the concept of  Brahman.   Or we can consider each direction in turn. The powers of the East signify creativity, intellect, spring, and new beginnings; the powers of the South, passion, summer, and adulthood; the powers of the West, healing, fall, and harvest; the powers of the North, wisdom, winter, and old age.  As the year cycles, so do our lives. In any particular aspect of our lives,  we are in one of the four quadrants.  For instance, one might be retired, in the winter of  work life, but in the spring or summer of being a grandparent.
    In conclusion, we can pray any of the four modes without reference to the supernatural.  We say Thanks by being grateful for what we have.  We say Oops when we’re sorry for what we’ve done and make amends.  We say Please when we recall any inspiring person, access our own inner light via meditation, or we consider any aspect of reality in order to reach the insights we need. 
    And sometimes, when we have a direct experience of Wow! of awe and wonder,  we are a prayer.  I close with a poem.  “Epiphany” by Pam Kremer.    The poem states:
    Lynn Schmidt says
           she saw You once as prairie grass,               
           Nebraska prairie grass;
           she climbed out of her car on a hot highway,
           leaned her butt on the nose of her car,
           looked out over one great flowing field,
           stretching beyond her sight until the horizon became
           vastness, she says,
           responsive to the slightest shift of wind,
                                full of infinite change,
                                all One.
                                She says when she can’t pray
                                she calls up Prairie Grass.   

Monday, August 29, 2011

How Atheists Can Pray, Part I

        I HAD to clean out my garage last summer.  I couldn’t put off this odious task any longer. Donna was moving in.  Who knew how much stuff she'd have?  It was June, not too hot, not too cold, perfect garage cleaning weather.  For years, I’d saved stuff I might need some day.  Piles of junk lined the walls.   There was room to put the car in, but just barely.  I needed help. 
    So instead of hiring someone, I thought of my friends named Joanie.  All of the Joanies I know are organized.   At least in my mind, they have a place for everything and everything is in its place.   I visualized my garage as if it belonged to a Joanie.  Tools hanging on the wall, the lawn mower in the corner, the snow tires in the cubbies.
    I moved the car out to the driveway.  Every day I chipped away at the project.   In a couple of weeks the junk was sorted into six piles:  trash, rummage sale, hazardous waste, recycle, giveaways, and keepers.  The job was half done!  I got rid of the piles except for the keepers.  The job was all done!  I couldn’t have done it without my mantra: WWJD or What Would Joanie Do?     
    My blog today is about prayer, and you will see how prayer relates to garage cleaning.
    We can think of four sorts of prayer:  Thanks, Oops, Wow! and Please.  These were conceived with a supernatural being in mind, but what if you “are among the one billion people in the world who identify...as agnostic, freethinker, rationalist, skeptic, cynic, secular humanist, naturalist, or deist; as spiritual, apathetic, nonreligious, “nothing”; or any other irreligious descriptive.”  [Greg Epstein].   What if you think there’s nobody to pray to?
    Let’s consider the four modes of prayer without reference to a “supernatural being ‘out there’ separate from the world ...who may from time to time intervene within it” [Marcus Borg].     First, the Thanks aspect.  We can be grateful FOR things like life, health, friends, sunsets, the Earth without being grateful TO a Divine being who allegedly provided them.  Each night before we go to sleep, we can think of good things that happened that day.
    Next, the Oops aspect.  We can be sorry for the wrong we have done and make amends to those whom we have offended without reference to anyone supernatural.  We can stay away from bad influences and redirect our lives.
    And then the third aspect of prayer – Wow!  Consider our first Unitarian Universalist Source: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder...which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”   That’s Wow! and it’s non-supernatural and Unitarian Universalist. 
    The last aspect, Please, is easy for traditional Christians and other believers.  “Ask and ye shall receive.” is repeated over and over in the New Testament.
     For those of us who aren’t traditional believers,  I’m going to enlarge on my garage  cleaning story to extrapolate to three ways to say Please.    First, we can access a worthy person’s life;  second, we can get in touch with our inner knowing; or third, we can contemplate an aspect of reality.    
       My Catholic background taught me to ask the saints to intercede for me:   “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us...”   Most of us Unitarian Universalists don’t expect a miracle or even an answer from a saint or holy person, but we’re saying please by considering what some good person would do in our situation.   We all can be inspired by worthy lives.
     In other words, instead of channeling the Joanies for their tidiness, we can channel the goodness of a saint’s life.  Maybe some of us have been on a committee with a difficult person.  Listen to what St Therese of Lisieux in the 19th century (1873-1897) said in such circumstances: “How do I react when in my mind's eye, I see the defects of someone who doesn't attract me? I remind myself of all that person's good qualities, all her good intentions.”
    Do you think your life doesn’t matter?  I quote from the Therese website, the Society of the Little Flower. “‘What matters in life,’  Therese wrote, ‘is not great deeds, but great love.’ Therese lived and taught a spirituality of attending to everyone and everything well and with love.  Her spirituality is doing the ordinary, with extraordinary love."    
    Or maybe we think we’re better than people who listen to country western, smoke cigarettes, and shop at Safeway.   To get over that affront to the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we can reflect on this story from the life of  Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester who lived from 1008-1095. According to Richard Finn in The Radical Tradition edited by Gilbert Marcus. “...[Wulfstan’s] steward had sent out invitations to select and rich local dignitaries.  They were sitting at their places, when Wulfstan walked in leading a rabble of poor peasants, as many as he had been able to find, and whom he instructed to sit down and eat.  The steward, in high dudgeon at this, thought it more fitting for the bishop to eat with a few of the rich than with many of the poor.  But Wulfstan got his way.”   We can remember how Wulfstan, a real person, coped with social injustice and inequality in the 11th century and go and do likewise.  
    My next post will cover getting in touch with your inner knowing and contemplating an aspect of ultimate reality. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Win-Win Solution

    One hot afternoon,  I headed for the couch with my magazine, but the dog I’d adopted a few months back was already settled in the good spot next to the cushions.  I reached for his collar to pull him off so I could sit where I wanted.  Bozeman, possibly wary of my abrupt reach and my magazine, responded with a hard stare and a low growl.   Uh-oh.
    This was the first time Bozeman had growled at me and I needed it to be the last.  I did not want Bozeman to learn that he could control humans with growls, nor did I want the growls to escalate to snarling, snapping, or biting.
    What to do?  Doing nothing was tantamount to teaching Bozeman that aggression works. I had to defuse the situation right away.  I lured him off the couch with a treat, installed myself in the good spot, and pondered my options.
    What I had just done, luring him off the couch, amounted to bribery and wouldn’t work in the long run. What if Bozeman decided he preferred resting on the couch to eating a treat?  Score Bozeman 1, UU Clicker 0.
    I could sit on the floor but it is my couch.  Again:  Bozeman 1, UU Clicker 0.   Keeping Bozeman off the couch when I wasn’t around meant I’d have to remember to lay the dining room chairs on the couch every time I left – too inconvenient.  Score:  Bozeman 0, UU Clicker 0.  So far, UU Clicker wasn’t getting any points.
    Doing what some traditional trainers advise, punishing him for insubordination, would put the score at Bozeman 0, UU Clicker 1.  But if I flattened Bozeman with the magazine, a collar jerk, or yelling, he might flatten me with a bite.  I’d have to keep escalating his punishment.
    Also, the next time I reached for his collar, Bozeman would be afraid of another correction, defend himself, and maybe bite me.  Ever after, I’d have to keep a leash on him to protect myself and be ready to give him a good corrective collar jerk for growling at me.  Score diminishes:   Bozeman 0, UU Clicker 1/2.  Even worse, what if punishment taught Bozeman to skip growling and go directly to biting?  I couldn’t harbor an incipient junkyard dog in my living room.  I’d lose my pet and Bozeman, after a one way trip to the shelter, would lose his life. Final score:  Bozeman 0, UU Clicker 0.   Lose/lose.  There had to be a better way.
    That evening, pouring kibble into Bozeman’s bowl, I realized  what I really wanted was for him to get off the couch when asked.  Yes!
    Once I reframed the problem away from what I didn’t want, defending the couch, to what I did want, getting off the couch on request, the solution popped into my head. All I had to do was teach Bozeman to get off the couch by training him to alternate between jumping up onto the couch and jumping off it.  If we could do this simple exercise, we’d both win.
    The next day when Bozeman and I were both calm, I got out my clicker and treats.  At the sight of the clicker, Bozeman perked up, ready to learn. I patted the couch.  When he jumped up onto it, I clicked my clicker then fed him a pea-sized bit of hot dog.  Then I pointed to the floor with a bit of hot dog in my hand, and clicked and treated when he jumped off.  Boze relished this new game.  His tail wagged and his eyes shone with anticipation. We did the on-couch, off-couch routine a few more times. Soon I only needed to use my empty hand to point where I wanted him to go.  Then I added  the verbal commands “Up!” and “Off!”  Bozeman  learned to get on and off the couch on command in just five minutes.
     Now when I want to sit on my couch, I tell Bozeman “Off”.  He hops off with no objections.  I nestle in by the pillows, then I invite him “Up” to cuddle.   Final score:  Bozeman 1, UU Clicker 1.   We both win.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Trinity for Unitarian Universalists

    I’m going to use the image of the Trinity as an example of how thinking in Mythos terms can lead to greater understanding.  (See 8/6/11 post about Logos, Mythos, and the Literalist heresy.)  When one thinks in images or Mythos terms, it doesn’t matter whether something is real in Logos terms.  In the 4th century CE, before the Literalist heresy took hold, Gregory of Nyssa [335-395] wrote the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were not objective facts or Logos, but terms we use to express the way the divine nature adapts itself to human minds. [Karen Armstrong, Battle for God p 69.]  In other words, the Trinity is true the way Huckleberry Finn is true. 
     Back in 1994, when  I first started coming to our fellowship, I took our former minister Art Wilmot’s class on the religious archetypes in the Wizard of Oz.   We learned the Tin Woodman represents love, the Cowardly Lion represents action, and the Scarecrow represents understanding.  Art explained these are three ways of approaching life and they recur in human symbology.
    In a moment of revelation, I realized the Christian Trinity was another manifestation of this same triad.  The Father means love; the Son, action; and the Holy Spirit, understanding. So in the irony of all ironies I came to appreciate the concept of the Trinity at the same time I became a Unitarian Universalist. 
    Professor Lloyd Geering came to a similar conclusion in an article entitled “Christianity Minus Theism.”    He generalizes the concept of Incarnation and suggests, “we are coming to acknowledge a new but secular form of trinity or three-in-one.
    1.  The creativity in the cosmos itself
    2. The human species that cosmic creativity has brought forth
    3. The world of knowledge which our collective consciousness has brought forth.”
    Geering also points out the image of the Trinity says God is dynamic, ie the Persons are in relationship to each other.  In his secular version, the cosmos, human beings, and the world of knowledge are likewise in relationship to each other. 
    You see, throwing away images like the trinity limits our thinking.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Logos, Mythos, and the Literalist Heresy

    As you probably noticed, the world didn’t come to an end May 21, 2011 and probably won’t end December 21, either.   Why not?   I think it’s because the person who made the prediction mixed up what is literal (a calendar) with what is symbolic (the end of the world).  In other words, he mixed up two ways of thinking – what Karen Armstrong (who just spoke at our UU General Assembly) calls Logos and Mythos.   
    I’d best start by defining Logos, Mythos, and what I have named the Literalist Heresy.  Logos, Greek for word, means the kind of logical reasoning we use for the scientific method, legal attribution, and historical analysis.  We Unitarian Universalists are comfortable with Logos Logos brought us penicillin, DNA testing, and put a man on the moon.
    Mythos, on the other hand, we’re not so used to.  Mythos isn’t intuition, which is based on non-verbal cues we may not be aware of, but is thinking in analogy or metaphor.  Mythos is about what something means, not what it is.  For instance, “The fog comes in on little cat feet” means fog comes creeping in the way a cat does.
    You former Catholics and medieval historians have heard of various heresies: the Arian, the Albigensisan, etc.  One error in thinking we’ve seen in the last 300 years since the Enlightenment is what I call the Literalist heresy – that religious truths are true in the same way scientific or historical truths are or that Mythos must be the same kind of truth as Logos.
    For a literary work, thinking in Logos yields patent nonsense. Take Mark Twain’s story of Huckleberry Finn.  The meaning of the story is one young person learning to think for himself about racism and slavery.   What is true in this story is that racism and slavery are moral evils.  Although the events of the novel aren’t real in the Logos sense, in the Mythos sense the message of the book is true.  People who think in Logos would argue that if Huck wasn’t real, then neither was his message.  They would add that cats don’t transport fog particles with their feet, either.
    But in religious matters it seems to matter a great deal whether story or image is “really” true.    For instance, Literalists try to make the Genesis story of the creation scientifically true and thus claim Darwinian evolution didn’t happen.  Biblical literalists force what was intended to be Mythos into Logos and create the absurd hybrid creation science – both bad religion and bad science. 
    These Biblical literalists maintain Mythos like the Genesis story is objective fact and therefore literally true.  They become Fundamentalists. 
    Other literalists maintain Mythos is supposed to be objective fact but it can’t really true in the Logos sense. They become secular humanists.  
    UU Clicker thinks both Fundamentalists and secular humanists miss the point of religious stories. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

About Me

    I’m a lay minister in a midsize Unitarian Universalist church in the Pacific Northwest, a clicker trainer for dogs, and a published writer.  The various facets of my life connect.  The advice, show don’t tell, applies equally to writing and dog training.   Dog training and life work best by reinforcing the positive.  I’ll be blogging about theological issues, dog training, and life.