Friday, May 29, 2020

Faith, Religion, Spirituality, & Truth

"How's your faith and relationship with God?"

Born and raised Roman Catholic, once intrigued by the Jesuits and the monastic life, long interested in Buddhism and Taoist meditation, married to a secular Jewish woman, I have to pause when my sister asks that question every once in a while.

It's an interesting question, isn't it? Especially if you don't regularly think about it, but have some grounding in a monotheistic tradition (yeah, like Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, etc.). It began a rather deep conversation, though it had been many years since we'd discussed the idea of "faith." Perhaps it was the passing of both our parents within the past year, or it could have been about coming into middle age with my fiftieth birthday, or perhaps it was linked to this strange reflective pandemic experience we're all having. But we got to talking about that idea of faith and belief, and I've extended it recently with my son as he prepares for college in the fall.

Being born and raised Roman Catholic, with eight years in Catholic school and service as an altar boy in my past, the issue of faith isn't all that complicated for me, regardless of whether I attend services regularly or comment about being a "recovering Catholic" (both of which I have done). I've shared the idea with my son of people being "spiritual, but not religious." And we've talked about the difference between faith and religion, which for me is really just about dogma and ritual. I don't have all the answers when he asks about the differences between Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians et al. In fact, I can talk about the break from the Catholic Church, and I can share some ideas, but I honestly don't know all the details, and he'll find it all on Wikipedia if he's interested.

In terms of faith, well, if you ask me, Jesus is light, and God is love. That may sound glib, and some of it probably is. But light and love about sums it up for me. Where I see love, that is God. In terms of the Bible, my understanding isn't much different than it was during Catechism. Truly, the Bible is the word of God and the revelation of God's reality. But I'm also fully comfortable acknowledging it was written in a much different time, and as such should be read and discussed with that understanding. So, for example, as we've often discussed and acknowledged, the presence of things like polygamy or some of the more extreme rules or directives in books like Leviticus or Deuteronomy aren't exactly what we take literally today. The Bible is also steeped in metaphor and parable with the lessons and messages it contains.

Interestingly, in doing some reading about mindfulness and meditation (Like Pico Iyer's "The Art ofStillness) over the past year, I've been learning more about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who wrote Seven Story Mountain. The Trappists, like the Jesuits or Benedictines always appealed to me, much like the Shao Lin did as I grew up on kung movies. The idea of the devout spiritual practice appealed to me from an intellectual standpoint, though it was obviously not the right path for me.  But what I found really interesting was how Merton was actually quite open to learning about many spiritual paths, and he noted that church and holy books were about doctrine and dogma, and that's not really worth debating with others, but that other faiths had many valuable lessons about the human condition. And, so that incredibly devout Christian spent much time in discussion and contemplation about those different faiths. And, as I pretty much always have, I think that's pretty spot on. 

An example of the value of that: I was just reading a passage from the Dalai Lama the other day, and he talked about how people often ask him about his holiness and sort of expect that he has some mystical understanding, and he really just dismisses that idea. But, and this is interesting, he talked about when he knows people who are suffering, especially when a personal connection asks him or tells him, he said that he "will pray for them." Interesting word choice, don't ya think? We don't often think of Buddhists as praying, but the Dalai Lama does. I'm sure when he prays, he's praying to the same God we do. And, that's probably a pretty important message to remember.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Conservative, but not Republican

Having been born in 1970, and being vaguely aware of the Presidency through Nixon, Ford, and Carter, my political and ideological conscious really came alive with the rise of Ronald Reagan and the politics of the 1980s. Since that time, as I grew from an adolescent to teen to college kid to expat twenty-something to career educator and husband/father, I have thought deeply about the concepts of conservatism, liberal/progressive-ism, and the positions of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and independents. I've caucused with all of them, which probably means I am truly the moderate that I always felt like, and I am reasonably at home in a complex "purple" state like Colorado, where I have been able to comfortably vote for both Republicans and Democrats. Yet, my Midwest upbringing as a Roman Catholic from southern Illinois forms the foundation of my beliefs, and it's increasingly difficult to support either party at the polls. More importantly, however, is my dismay and befuddlement at the recent positions taken by many Republicans, both representatives and party operatives, as well as the average voter. Honestly, it started in the mid-90s to be sure, gathered steam with the messiness of the 2000s, and went completely off the rails in 2016. The heart of my disappointment can be summed up, ironically, with Ronald Reagan's parting words as he left the Democrats:  "I didn't leave my party; my party left me."

Here's the deal: we need to separate the term conservative from Republican. They're simply not.

The inspiration for this reflection has been marinating in my mind for years, but came to fruition a few weeks ago when I read a piece by scholar Bradley Birzer for The Imaginative Conservative. In drawing from and reviewing Robert Nisbet's book Conservatism: Dream & Reality, Birzer thoughtfully asked "Is Conservatism an Ideology?" And many of us who read it while thoughtfully nodding our heads (in agreement with Russel Kirk and in appreciation of Edmund Burke) responded with our understanding of conservatism as a system of beliefs about the world and the nature of existence, as opposed to a platform of dichotomous positions on various political issues (taxes, gun rights, abortion, business regulation, etc.) That is why many people hold to convictions as conservatives but like Reagan understand how the party has left them. It's the conservatism of George Will, of David Frum, of David Brooks, of Ross Douthat, of Andrew Sullivan, of Jack Kemp, of maybe even Rod Dreher. It could have been the conservatism of Paul Ryan or Ben Sasse or Jeff Flake or Marco Rubio or even Linsday Graham (sadly it wasn't and can't ever be now).

A quick run around social media or the news exposes a baffling hodgepodge of Republican, but not conservative, rants and diatribes on our current state of governance. One prime example is the anti-mask and "open the economy" movements. A more disturbing trend is the conspiracy theories floated by people suspicious of the current pandemic. As I reflect on what I see people posting on social media and proclaiming on television, radio, and podcasts, it dawned on me that, for people who profess to be conservatives, they're actually embracing and pursuing rather radical views. And this example is key to the vacuum of consistent conservatism in the GOP. At the heart of conservatism is a belief in and an unwavering commitment to institutions and the stability that institutions establish, provide, and maintain. Science and the church are about the firmest of institutions in contemporary Western life, And thus it is so surprising to see the GOP abandon and literally challenge, condemn, even mock, the very institutional thinking that is the bedrock of society in a conservative view. With the Republican Party's capitulation to Donald Trump, and the ramping up of destructive and dangerous behavior among not only voters but their elected representatives like Vicky Marble and Ken Buck in Colorado, we find the ground zero for the end of conservatism. The party is now ironically and inexplicably absorbed in nothing short of liberal, if not radical, self service. 

It's the capitulation that is so hard to take. The capitulation is the most radical, and most definitely not conservative, action taken by current Republicans. A conservative is, I believe, a rationalist at his core; thus, the idea of submitting to support of a man like Donald Trump would be simply unacceptable to a man of conservative principles and values. The very nature of the justification that took place in accepting and supporting Donald Trump's candidacy and presidency in exchange for SCOTUS picks and hypothetical court decisions, laws, and regulations should have been unacceptable. And, now the misuse and abuse of the concept of liberty among crass Republicans like Vicky Marble and the anti-mask/open-up crowd is nothing short of an embarrassment for a belief system that believes in law, order, decorum, and basic decency/respect for our neighbors. At its core is a political party that rather than being conservative actually embraces and espouses the idea of "shaking things up" in its support of leaders who will simply "tell it like it is." That lack of class and character may have come to represent Republicanism, but it's certainly not the value of conservatism.