The Daily Muse

Thoughts from an Austin Garden  -- August 2009


Last update -  August 24


From my sister - who lives in a place where they have this thing called rain. I kind of remember that stuff...


August 2 - morning


Something to think about while we wait for the drought to break ... a sermon I delivered at First Unitarian here in Austin this morning.




Part 1 - A Sermon


This is the first of two sermons that I will share with you on the theme of honest religion, a phrase that I have heard in this community and which strikes me as being an essential idea.


Today, I will share some thoughts about why I believe the idea of honest religion is so important, and later this month I will talk a great deal more about what I think an honest religion for the 21st century should look like.


Let me say this strongly right at the outset - I believe that honest religion may be humanity’s best and perhaps last chance of saving itself. More on that in a few moments…


But, speaking of honesty... isn’t it somewhat amazing to many of us that we are still struggling with ideas about faith and religion in the year 2009?


I am taking it for granted that most of us would self-identify as spiritual or religious progressives… and who among us has not wondered to ourselves, honestly, “when will all of that go away?” And when we say “that” we aren’t talking about just old time religion - evangelical, radical, or even reactionary religion – we are talking about religion itself.


Be honest now - How many of you refuse to use the label “religious” when you are talking about yourselves - preferring to use the word “spiritual” instead? Isn’t it more socially acceptable? Doesn’t it just fit more comfortably? I know that in certain circles I have fallen back into that more politically correct stance.


And, don’t we all have secular friends who see religion as the root of all evil and wish it would simply go away  now – this very moment?


In fact, there is a small army of newly assertive atheists out there who have turned their disbelief into a cottage industry where they delight in (and profit from) shadow boxing with fundamentalists.


The truth is that each side in that debate is delighted that the other exists… the atheists of the academy with their arch disdain are the perfect foil for the fundamentalists who are only too happy to have atheists banging at the gates. Likewise, the academics relish in the antics of the fundamentalists - it is all so amusing. But what really drives this debate is fear. Fear driven faith needs visible enemies – and fear works as an effective tool in the market and in politics too. All of this sells a lot of books, gets a lot of votes, and fills a lot of pews.


But is there any real honesty in the current atheist / fundamentalist debate?  Here is a quote from our fellow Austinite, Dr. Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize winning physicist - “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”


Really, Dr. Weinberg – religion is the only thing that makes good people go bad? What about crushing poverty? What about patriotism? What happens when love is betrayed? Or, what happens to good people when someone throws verbal hand grenades at traditions they revere? Seems to me we offer each other all sorts of temptations to shed our goodness. Some actually seem to delight in that sport.


And here is a quote from Jerry Falwell, “If you're not a born-again Christian, you're a failure as a human being.” …You know, I won’t even bother with a retort for that one.


On and on it goes:


The fundamentalists keep insisting that there is an intervening God who orders every hair upon our heads and who wrote the demise of the Do-Do bird into history before there  was such a thing as history or Do-Do birds.


And the atheists insist that all religion – even “progressive” religion is a mirror of fearful, primitive minds that demand fairy tales to deal with the terrors of existence. They say that all we need is logic and reason – that if we would only educate ourselves, the long march of progress will someday purge us of every irrational impulse. Love itself, I suppose, will lie dissected on a petri dish – understood by its chemical code.


Is that honest? Really? Do you want that world - really? Good luck with that mathematical equation that solves everything. My hunch is that mystery will never, ever, curl up its toes and expire regardless of the beauty of our equations or the power of our telescopes.


A point of real interest for us is that some of the new atheists, like the author Sam Harris, hold religious “moderates” up for special scorn - they argue that religious moderates provide cover and context for the radicals.


This is one of the points I’ll concede to Harris, I actually think he’s on to something here. For example, nearly every "liberal" Christian I know feels queasy about mouthing the Nicean creed or one of its watered down versions in church – and yet millions of them do it every Sunday… declaring before their children their faith in 3rd century concepts of the divine that fly in the face of reason, science and common sense. What is honest about that?


When we recite ancient creeds with our fingers crossed behind our backs, we are on our way down that slippery slope where moderation winks and nods at fundamentalism.


So, where does all of this leave us, in this place and in our search for honesty? Do we dispense with all beliefs that cannot be proved by physical evidence? Or, do we just go “spiritual” hoping that new age vagueness will provide the balm that the age old certainties can no longer deliver?


In some ways don’t you feel that we are right back where I began – don’t you just wish all of this - all of it - would simply go away?


I have struggled with this question for years and my answer is - NO. I don’t want religion to go away – in part, because I know that it never will go away and wishing it would is just as delusional and yes, just as irrational as believing that you can date the earth by counting the number of "begats" in the Bible. Sorry, Dr. Weinberg and Mr. Harris it ain’t going to happen.


We see evidence of the enduring allure of religion – even radical religion all around  us. Why? In part, because it is the fate of mankind to suffer and most humans crave the reassurance that we do not suffer in-vain - we need help to make our passage through this world more bearable. And, on the other side of the equation, we also need a way to express our gratitude for the goodness we encounter  everyday, our reverence for the beautiful blue life-giving planet that sustains us,  and our awe at the spiraling mystery of the universe itself. Let's face it, our needs are infinite, and religion has evolved into a complex mirror responding to our every fear and joy. But, just as there is suffering in our lives , there is a dark side to religion that is plain to see especially in times of great stress like these...


Mark Lilla is the author of The Stillborn God, a brilliant book which explores the still prevalent attraction of theocracy – that system which unites the “Kingdom” overhead with the kingdom that collects our taxes. In his book he writes, "When the urge to connect is strong, passions are high and fantasies are vivid, the trinkets of our modern lives are impotent amulets against political intoxication."


What trinkets was he referring to? You’re not going to like this: he’s not talking about cell phones and i-pods, no, he was talking about the bequest of the enlightenment - liberalism, reason, and our notions of progress. He argues, these are impotent amulets when the scales have been tipped and passion and rage are unleashed. Think about the simmering rage in our own nation - the irrational resentment stoked by the angertainment industry of the reactionary right. How does reason reason with that?


Lilla argues that classical liberalism is the exception to the rule - that our progressive little world is the odd man out, that it is imperiled.


So how could I not want religion – that world of passions and vivid fantasies - to go away?


And so, here is the second part of my answer – I don’t want it to go away because I believe that honest  religion is neither an evolutionary dead end or a suicide pact – I believe that honest religion is our last best hope to withstand the ever present threat from that other shore described by Mr. Lilla – where alienation, passion and fantasy are being stoked into a raging fire.


The truth is that honest religion can’t inoculate us from every danger in the world – that is the trouble with all religions that promise ultimate deliverance – ultimately they can’t deliver. But, honest religion can help us help one another through the perils we face - it can help us to become more decent, considerate people, to live our lives more deeply, and hopefully, help us to pass on a better world to our children. And what more could or should we ask of it?


So, how will this work?


Let’s take just a moment to consider the origins of the word religion itself… there are actually two theories about that. One holds that the word religion comes from the Latin, religare which means to bind together – and the other says that it is more closely related to the word religio - reverence.


I think that what we need is a fusion of these two concepts – that only a reverent bond in the form of honest religion can sustain us and strengthen us for the challenges of the 21st century. We need the binding together – the acute awareness of our interdependence – as well as the tempering and humbling force of reverence.


What does this look like in practice here on the ground, in this place? Well, let me be very clear about this - if religion is to be honest it must make demands of us.


I remember having a conversation some years ago with University of Texas Professor, Paul Woodruff, who wrote a beautiful book about reverence. In this conversation he really opened my eyes to the critical distinction between what most of us call spirituality and religion. I had invited him to participate in a taping about “spirituality” thinking that that word would be more acceptable to an academic than "religion" – but, much to my surprise he bristled and said that he rejected spirituality. Taken aback, I asked him why, and he said he felt it was a “conceit that makes no demands of you.”


This is a powerful insight. Don't many of us think of spirituality as a personal adornment or treat it like a commodity - something we add to our shopping baskets at Dr. Woodruff's rebuff helped me realize why spirituality is so popular – it’s because it is, like so much else in our culture, disposable - you can toss it away when it becomes an inconvenience. And what is more inconvenient than something that demands your attention 24/7.


And shouldn’t an honest religion demand our attention? I certainly think so – I don’t think honest religion is something you pull from a bookshelf when you’ve got a few moments to spare or are feeling spiritual. But we need to recognize that paying attention is the most counter-cultural thing we can do in 21st century America. We live in the age of distraction - not the age of information. We have focused entire industries and have created an economy based on distracting each other from what really matters - from life itself. Neil Postman said it best in the title of his classic book, we are "Amusing Ourselves to Death."


If our’s is to be a religion that really binds our world view, holds us together as a community, awakens reverence within us and helps us to embody it - to live it– then, yes, it should demand and focus our attention. But demand our attention to what end?


First and foremost – the test of honest religion should be whether it actively helps us to become better people – to be kinder, more compassionate, more patient, more generous, and more grateful - in short, more virtuous. Now there's a word that rarely rolls off our tongues... virtue. Doesn't it feel odd? Maybe even puritanical? Well, in my estimation, an honest religion should have one great purpose and that is nurturing human virtue-  those qualities of goodness that, when practiced, will cultivate more goodness in the lives of those we touch – a goodness that inspires reverence and awakens a deep gratitude.


Only through human goodness can we be saved – after all, we are the ones who are messing everything up - and now, with our life-giving planet endangered, we need goodness enacted more than ever. This is the real promise of honest religion. My friend, Michael Benedikt, says that God is the Good We Do. I say Amen. That is honest.


An honest religion should also be humble – because none of us will ever be purely good, there will always be a need for humility as well as a well-developed practice of forgiveness and contrition. It is a difficult balancing act, but an honest religion should remind us of our imperfections and help to sustain our aspirations simultaneously.


An honest religion should also make sense - common sense. While our humility should remind us that there are things that we can never know – there is no reason to embrace supernatural theories that fly in the face of first-hand experience. The following quote from Buddha says it better that I could: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”


Another way to say this might be that honest religion should not require theological trampolines. Sure, it should appeal to our heads and, yes, our hearts, but its real business is in helping us to ask better questions and to live better lives not in making up myths about crystals or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.


And, speaking of dancing, I believe that an honest religion should speak to our bodies as well as our heads. Enacting or embodying our reverence is an essential part of honest religion. I recently returned from a long trip to Turkey where the call to prayer echoed across the cities five times a day – imagine that - stopping your busy life five times a day to say thank you. Frankly, I found myself feeling inadequate because I had no way to share my own reverence in that beautiful communal and physical manner.


The most important part of the ritual comes right at the beginning - you stop, stand, clear your head and silently declare your intentions. You then give thanks and praise – wishing peace to those who stand to right and peace to those on your left – you bow, kneel, touch your foreheads to the ground together.


Let me be clear – and honest - about the call I feel in my own heart: I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with brothers and sisters – to share the overflowing gratitude and love I feel for gifts of this world with them. I want to bow, kneel, and pray with them – but when I do, I want to speak in words that that reflect the realities of the world as we see it and experience it every day. Here in the 21st century.


Frankly I long for this kind of honest religion. And I believe that if it existed as a living community – a real binding of brothers and sisters who practiced goodness and shared reverence– it could, by example and deed save the world.


I’ll have a great deal more to say about what honest religion might look like in our lives in my next sermon on the 23rd of this month. But for now, I will close with this thought ...


The real question for those seeking an honest religion is simply this - would we honor it? How would we respond to it if it were to spring to life right here before us? Would we embrace it, or, inconvenienced by its demands, would we come to wish that it too would simply go away?


August 7 - evening


Christmas in August - I am so ready for it!


Silent Night from Fredo Viola on Vimeo

Simply beautiful - enjoy.

Moon After Berceuse (cluster duet with Ike Sturm) from Fredo Viola on Vimeo

August 12 - morning

Good news! The deadline for submissions to Where Wonder Was Born has been extended to November 1, 2009. Please pass the word and encourage others to submit stories about where wonder was born in their lives! Thanks.

August 14 - evening

It is late and I am listening to the frogs serenade each other in the pond just outside my window. There are just a few - the survivors of raccoon raids, I suppose. But, they seem rather care-free at the moment and I am enjoying their trills and calls. I am very tired, and need to get up early tomorrow for my radio program,  but I am also feeling restless, like I need to  give voice to something urgent - I've made a few passing efforts at getting profound, but my words kept falling short. So, I am leaning on an old friend... A short while ago I pulled a well worn collecion of Mary Oliver poems off of the shelf and opened it to one of my favorites, "When Death Comes." Let's listen together...

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

August 24 - morning

Honest Religion: A Sermon – Part Two

Thank you for having me back. Today, I am going to present the second part of a sermon on the topic of Honest Religion. More specifically, what does it mean to live honestly as progressive, reasonable, and religious people in the 21st century?

For those of you who were not here – my last sermon started out with a long vamp on why religion makes so many of us nervous and then detoured into speculation about why it really still matters.

I won’t recount the reasons why it makes us nervous – I think it is safe to say that there is plenty of evidence that religion is indeed a very slippery slope… a quick glance through any newspaper usually provides reasonable proof of the abyss that religion can lead to - right?

But, I do want to briefly revisit why I think religion still matters and, more importantly, why I believe an honest religion may actually be our salvation. Now, I know that the word salvation probably makes you nervous too… but let’s all take a few deep breaths and consider the world around us, and what we might need to be saved from…

Let me begin with a brief confession… I am a worrier. I think we live in extraordinarily vulnerable times… I remember watching President Obama step from his limousine on his inauguration day and frankly, I could not catch my breath. At that moment in our history – with an economy in free fall – two wars under way – and a nation deeply divided – I felt as if the world was standing on one foot on top of a steep precipice… all that it would take was one slight shove and the whole edifice of our modern democratic lives could come tumbling down.

Turns out - I am not the only worrier out there… I’m not the only one who frets about what would happen if the “center cannot hold.”

Here are a few verses from a poem that I am sure most of you know… The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats was written in the gloomy aftermath of the First World War:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats goes on to describe an ominous apocalyptic spirit waking and walking in the world and concludes:

The darkness drops again; but now I know that twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Kind of sounds like a health care town meeting, doesn’t it?

All joking aside…

We live in very fragile times - that bond between falcon and falconer has seemed over-taut for a century… things snap, the center cannot hold… wars, economic calamities, climate change, fundamentalism, terrorism, and assassination all threaten our little island of progress and liberalism and relative civility.

Salvation? Yes, I think we need salvation…

Let’s dig a little deeper into Yeat’s poem. In his book, Reverence, Austin professor Paul Woodruff, uses this poem to illustrate the consequences of a lack of reverence in the world – “mere anarchy,” a cacophony of irreverent voices has disrupted the link between falcon and falconer and the center cannot hold.

We’re not talking about talk show and political cartoon irreverence – which, in Woodruff’s view, can often express a very real of reverence for life, reason and truth. No, we are talking about a nihilistic lack of concern for anything – much less life, reason and truth.

The result of this kind of irreverence in our world is indeed a rising tide where “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Not innocence itself, though that is sure to follow – but the ceremony of innocence – the reverent ritual of innocence. To my ears, that is beginning to sound like the practice of honest religion.

I do not believe that Yeats is talking about the collapse of religious authority in the way that most people think of it… the kind of authority that issues from literal interpretations of sacred books and religious institutions… No, he is talking about something much deeper and more profound.

The ceremony of innocence is the practice of basic goodness which is informed by and infused with reverence. This reverence may be inspired by ancient texts and religious institutions but it goes well beyond strictures and creeds.

If you were here for my last sermon you will recall that I mentioned that there are two competing theories about the origin of the word religion – one being te Latin “religio” or reverence – the other is “religare” which means to bind together.

Both are essential to the honest religion that I hope for – and that is so beautifully expressed in Yeat’s poem – a reverence that binds and holds us together.

Let’s listen to Yeats again – “the best lack all conviction.”

Where is our conviction? What should we hold in reverence?

In our search is for honest religion - don’t we mean a religion of conviction that we feel in our bones, that makes sense to our heads, and speaks to our hearts?

I certainly think so.

But, even more importantly, and the focus of my sermon today - is that an honest religion needs to move beyond the house of our individual bones, heads and hearts. It needs to live in the world that we share if it is to be our salvation from Yeat’s “blood dimmed tide.”

When I was here last I said that an honest religion must make demands of us –
And I believe we must answer those demands with conviction. The ceremonies of innocence those circles of goodness around us, must be widened and become an example to the world.

In my view, there is no certainty in this honest faith except that belief that goodness enacted is God enacted – it means salvation in the here and now – not in some world to come. Though we must act as if that world depends on our every act and breathe, for surely the world of our children and our grandchildren depends on what we do today.

So, here we go – this is the heart of the matter - what does Honest Religion look like when it is enacted? If the ceremonies of innocence are a command performance – how do we perform them?

Here are my ideas- inspired largely by experiences I have had and the deep hunger within me to see the center hold...

First reverence is its essential glue – no ceremony, no belief, no creed, or any other of the human products of honest religion should be our first concern – but cultivating an attitude of reverence should be – only reverence will hold our raging egos and dogmas in check.

Professor Woodruff says it better than I can, “No one owns reverence. It is not cruel or repressive in itself. It does not put down mockery or protect pompous fools. And most important, it cherishes freedom of inquiry. Reverence sets a higher value on truth than on any human product that is supposed to have captured the truth.”

And so reverence also provides that sense of humility that is essential to an honest religion - as I said last time - no certainty that we concoct will ever provide all of the answers – no matter the beauty of our equations or the power of our telescopes, mystery will always – always be with us and so we must be humble – we should never stop inquiring but we should also admit to the limits of our inquiries.

So reverence keeps us humble. But it is also the key to all of the other virtues towards which any honest religion should try to steer us.

Listen to these words from the Analects of Confucious… “Without reverence, courtesy is tiresome; without reverence, prudence is timid; without reverence, bravery is quarrelsome; without reverence, frankness is hurtful.”

Courtesy, prudence, bravery, frankness… to that list let us add compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, humility and dozens more. These virtues are the measure of an honest religion and of human goodness. But only true reverence can counterbalance these human potentials and save us from turning into annoying virtue potentates.

So, honest religion is reverent and humble – it loves inquiry and yet values the limits of what can be known – it sounds like a religion that really values questions and questioning – and yet it demands we move beyond questioning to action - that we embody goodness that we practice the virtues that make goodness and, I would add, God possible.

Because it must be brought off of our book shelves and into the world – an honest religion must also be a communal activity – it is in community that our goodness must be honed, taught, shared, and lived.  There is a very real experience of salvation in connection and the bonds of community. That sense of Religare…

Yes, we grow from listening to and learning from one another as well as holding each other accountable, helping each other towards being better people. But perhaps more importantly, and more practically, we need community for survival.

Here is my worrying side again - these are threatening times – terrible things can happen – we need to be bound together in a practical way to support one another through tough times. Think of how quickly things would become uncivilized if, for example,  the power went out... after 48 hours without air conditioning I don't think Texas would be a very civil place.

I often think about the early days of the great religious traditions – the beginnings of both Christianity and Islam.  The persecuted Christians of the Roman Empire won many of their converts because of the extraordinary way that they took care of one another in the face of terrible persecution. People learned to admire their charity and their compassion long before they bought into their theology. In the early days of Islam – during Mohammed’s exile in Medina, it was the power of the Islamic community which first attracted the admiration of others, not necessarily the utterances of the prophet.

Today, sadly, there are many Christians, Muslims and others who seem to actively advancing a truly irreverent “end times” theology.

Sad to say it, but I think an honest religion should take them at their word. We should be countering them with our convictions – we need a beginning times mentality that looks at every action as an opportunity to widen the circle of virtue and reverence - Yeat’s ceremonies of innocence.

I think that if we took it seriously – an honest religion born today amid a small group of exiles – could inspire thousands if not millions more to work feverishly for a world that is busy being born – not busy dying.

This can happen by bringing reverence and ritual to the small everyday occurrences of our lives – ritual doesn’t imply spectacle – the earliest ceremony of the new born Christian church was the simple practice of sharing a meal.

You’ve heard me say that an honest religion should make demands of us – well, what if it demanded that we share our meals – not retreat to our separate entertainments. What if is asked that we say grace – or simply give thanks before our meals. Could we bring ourselves to do just that?

I made a new friend recently – a really extraordinary young man. Our conversation was intense and went deep faster than most conversations do – as dinner time approached we went out to a stylish local restaurant, and just as I was about to dig into my genuine interior Mexican tacos, he stopped me and asked if we shouldn’t give thanks.

Shouldn’t we give thanks? In that moment he was doing everything I would hope for from another practitioner of honest religion. He was bringing reverence to our table, he was reminding me that we can be better people through the humblest of acts. Wow… it was so refreshing. A breathe of honest religion between sips of Mexican martini! Talk about your ceremonies of innocence!

Finally, I want to pick up a theme I mentioned in my last sermon. In the year 2009, an honest religion must make sense – common sense. I admit that this boundless universe and the universes beyond are beyond my comprehension – that it is filled with mystery – and unanswered questions. Bu my inability to answer all of the questions shouldn’t empower me to leap to super natural and superstitious conclusions.

When our little corner of our universe is imperiled by our own actions – we do not need to beseech or invoke the supernatural – we need to roll up our sleeves and start doing good.

The only miracle we need to believe in is the one that proclaims that we make God happens when we are kind, when we are patient, when we tell the truth – because anything that lifts up life and virtue and quiets the din of anarchy and nihilism allows the falconers voice to be heard and the ceremonies of innocence to continue.

This is not the God of our fathers. We offer this up as an alternative for a God hungry world whose salvation can only be delivered though one simple act of human goodness at a time.

So, when we stop to give thanks – think of all of those who have preceded us stretching back over the millennia. Be thankful for those who brought reverence and goodness to their work, to their tables, their communities, families, and friends.

Be grateful to those who somehow managed to steer us to this moment in time when we have gathered here to ask questions, to search for honesty, to widen the circles of love and beauty.

When William Butler Yeats wrote the Second Coming, he too sensed a kind of end times. But here we are, ninety years later, having survived so much horror since that time, and we are still heeding the falconers call, still longing for the ceremonies of innocence.

Let us move forward confident in a new beginning – a beginning times illuminated by reverence, humility, community, ritual, and common sense.

May our grandchildren read our words and remember our actions and be thankful that through our conviction we did not surrender to the blood dimmed tide.

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