Spiritual Growth: Where Do Love and Hate Fit In?

How can we recognize a spiritual person? What might we look for in ourselves as a sign of spiritual growth or maturity? In what way should religious beliefs influence the quality of a person’s life?

As I reflect on these questions, I look to my own spiritual and religious heritage as a Christian. As I consider spiritual growth and maturity, I am drawn to reflect on a passage from the Bible about which we actually know very little: the letter to the ancient Galatian church. There’s no original copy of the text. The oldest surviving version is estimated to date at least 150 years after its original composition. While the text is addressed to a particular group, no one is sure who that group really was other than being a small community in modern day Turkey. Yet, scholars agree that the Letter to the Galatians was most likely written by the Biblical figure called Paul. While it could have been written at any time between 40 and 70 CE, most scholars estimate it was written around the year 50.

As I reflect on this letter in terms of spiritual growth and development, I’m drawn to a particular verse that’s probably familiar to many people — whether or not they are Christians. In the fifth chapter of this letter, Paul writes in verse 22: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Then he makes a bold statement: against such things, there is no law.

When I consider this text, I remember apple trees that grew in my family’s yard. I played in the shade of those trees and would attempt to climb their gnarly branches. They flowered with sweet blossoms in the spring and dropped down small pieces of fruit in early autumn. When the trees were healthy and tended, they quite naturally budded and produced wonderfully tart apples. It was just what they did. I can still remember apple pies made from those apples and how I enjoyed their crisp flavor.

I’ve come to understand spirituality and our growth and our integration as people in much the same way as apple trees bearing fruit: when we care for, tend, and nurture the spiritual dimension of our lives, we naturally bear fruit. Paul listed the fruit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things well up within us quite naturally. No one can stop it from happening if we’re taking the spiritual dimension of life seriously.

While growth is a gradual process, it does occur. We grow in our ability to love, find joy in life, experience peace within our selves, patience with others, and be kind….so on down the list. We transform into becoming the great people we were meant to be.

This kind of transformation makes sense to me. It seems to me that it’s the way it should be. Because of that, I become distressed when I see many purveyors of religion and spirituality not acting out of love, joy, and peace but out of hatred, prejudice, and bigotry.

In the news on any given day, we are confronted with the stories and images of so-called religious people demonstrating hatred, intolerance, and discord. Such attitudes and actions are the antithesis of maturity and spiritual growth.

  • Christian groups in the United States not only oppose marriage equality but state that homosexual people should be killed. A ballot initiative in the state of California is proposing such a measure.
  • Espousing their own form of Islam, members of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda maim and kill other Muslims who do not share their religious views.
  • Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and their rabbis have attacked buses and have used violence to prevent women’s participation in Jewish prayers
  • Buddhist monks have attacked Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka as part of a Buddhist supremacist group called the Buddhist Power Force.

As I read the ways in which religion is used as a façade to draw people into political struggles, I have to wonder: where is the love that is meant to characterize Christian life? Or the sense of justice and equanimity that’s the ethical foundation of Judaism? Or the charity that is the hallmark of Islam? Or the compassion that is central to Buddhist enlightenment?

Some political leaders and media commentators insist that Muslims in Europe and Asia do more to take a stand against terror groups like the Islamic State. But the problem of terrorist groups using religion is not limited to Islam. Instead, it is a pattern found in every major religion of the world. In this global reality, the problem is not with religion. Instead, when politically motivated leaders recruit others to join causes with questionable ethical foundations, they use a façade of religion to draw their followers and turn them into militants for a cause.

It seems to me that the task of discerning authentic spiritual growth and development from a pseudo-spirituality that manipulates people and power is found by examining what Paul referred to as “the fruit” of spiritual living. To the degree that love, joy, and peace characterize the lives of people, to that degree the spiritual dimension of life is taken seriously by individuals. This fruit is manifested in compassion toward all and a sense of justice and equanimity. Such people’s lives are genuinely charitable: giving what they have and of themselves to others. But when people are living lives characterized by the oppression of others, judgementalism, ridicule, and even outright hatred, something is tragically wrong. No matter how they dress, what their title may be, or their level of education, the fruit of the spiritual life is not present in them or their lives.

While we are all on a journey toward wholeness and none of us perfectly embodies the fullness of the spiritual fruits listed by Paul in his ancient letter, yet all religious and spiritual traditions call us to grow toward the same quality of integrated, whole life which manifests good will and compassion toward ourselves and others. The authentic practice of religion and the growth of the spiritual dimension of self lead to lives characterized by love, joy, and peace. It’s as natural as apples growing on trees.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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What Good Is Religion if the Facts Aren’t True?

For some time, there has been significant debate about whether or not the facts in the Bible are true. This debate has been framed in a variety of ways. In the early twentieth century, biblical scholars searched for evidence of the historical Jesus. School boards consider the merits of biblically based creationism and theories of intelligent design. Working groups of scientists and theologians consider whether one can accept the findings of science and remain a person of religious faith. In this debate, the goal seems to be to prove whether the Bible, Christian belief, or tenants of any faith are factually true.

I am a Christian. I am a social scientist – a psychologist. I enjoy and appreciate learning about other sciences including astronomy, evolutionary biology, and physics. Knowing that all life evolved on earth over time is not inconsistent with my faith as a Christian. That’s because I don’t consider the facts of the Bible to be of any particular significance. I believe that the Bible is true, but the facts — well, probably not so much.

Biblical scholars have long demonstrated that there is no evidence to support that a wide variety of biblical figures ever existed including Abraham and Sarah, the other patriarchs and matriarchs, and even less ancient people like Ruth and Job. There’s no evidence that Hebrews were slaves in Egypt or that any pharaoh set them free. The historic evidence suggests that in his life time, Jesus was just one of many wandering Jewish teachers with a message about the coming realm of God, which was due to arrive in what we know today as the first century of the Common Era. Yet, I affirm that the Bible is true. But that truth isn’t in its facts.

I’ve found myself challenged as to how to describe this truth in a sufficient way. Recently, while reading Krista Tippett’s book, Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit, I found a way to describe this truth. While being interviewed by Tippet, V.V. Raman, a theoretical physicist, spoke about the two kinds of truth found in poetry. Poetry can be studied from an analytical perspective which defines the rhyming scheme and structure of a poem. Knowing that a poem is in traditional haiku form or iambic pentameter conveys a certain kind of analytic truth about it. But this analytic truth doesn’t convey the multiple levels of meaning which may be found in the poem or the emotion that the post tried to express.

In a similar way, a scientific examination of life provides us with an analytic understanding of the evolution of life which physicists commonly hold began with the Big Bang. But the truth of science is just one dimension of the larger realm of truth. When the great religions of the world examine life, they convey a sense of the meaning of life, its wonder and mystery. Truth related to meaning and wonder are subjective truths. Religious truth is not based on objective fact but on the subjective experience of life as something mysterious that should be approached with reverence.

My faith as a Christian is inspired by the rich meaning and wonder which my ancestors in faith shared. Whether Noah built an arc, whether animals were on the boat in two pairs each or seven pairs each (the Bible says both things) really doesn’t matter to me. What stories like that of Noah teach me is something of the meaning of life as special, unique, and sacred. It is this subjective reality which is beyond the realm of objective science.

What good is religion if the facts aren’t true? The heart of religion should draw the follower deeper into the truth of the mystery and wonder of life itself. When it does so, religion is indeed very good.

(Originally posted July 29, 2010)

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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On Mother’s Day: A Letter to the Other Side

Dear Mom:

It’s been three years since I last spoke to you or was able to see you. That’s a bit difficult for me to comprehend. From my perspective, a day doesn’t pass without me thinking about you or talking to you in my mind. I know that’s just how grief is. But as I live with grief, I discover many ways that the experience can play tricks on me.

You have no idea how thankful I truly am to have had you and Dad as my parents. Of course there were times when I didn’t understand what motivated your choices and decisions, but as time goes on, I have more perspective on such things. Among the greatest gifts you gave me was the ability to find goodness and appreciate life as it unfolds. While there were times you’d worry about various things, you’d find some hope to continue to help you get through the challenges you faced. You were always determined and looked for ways to move forward in life.

Honestly, the most difficult part for me about your leaving is not being able to talk to you. There are things that happen day in and day out that I’d just like you to know. There are also the funny things that I know you’d appreciate. And politics and current events! I know you’d be excited that Hilary is running again and that Bernie Sanders is in the primary.

This past week, I was talking with a friend whose father died about a year ago. He asked if I thought about you a lot. I wasn’t expecting the question and, well, as you’d say, I became sentimental. I told him that not a day goes by that I don’t think of you. He explained that it’s the same for him. It’s amazing how little things become reminders for both of us of having lost our parents.

Some people told me that with both you and Dad gone that I’d begin to feel like I had a new role as a senior member of the family or that I’d feel like I was an orphan. Neither of those things are true for me. Mostly, I feel like I’m no longer attached or rooted anywhere. Even after you sold our family home and you moved in with us, having you with us made it feel like “home.” I don’t have that same sense of connection even though we still live in the same house as we did when you were with us.

We changed your bedroom a bit. The family pictures and many of your things are still there. But we rearranged the furniture. It’s now a sewing room where Kin makes bow ties to sell online. Knowing how much you used to like to sew and make things, I’m sure you’d enjoy seeing these great creations. I wore one of his ties last weekend for a wedding.

Do you remember how you used to try to make the raisin cake just the way your mother made it? You were also so disappointed that it was never quite like hers. I now understand what you went through. I’ve tried time and again to make some of your recipes. While they generally come out just fine and others complement me on what I’ve made, it’s really just not the same as when you’d cook. Your pie crust will always be a mystery to me as well as the dough you made for sweet breads. Over Easter, I decided to just go for it and pulled out your old recipe books and made the traditional foods. It was one of those times I felt like you were still around coaching through the process.

There’s something really important I’ve learned over the last three years. You may remember that about twenty-five years ago I completed my doctoral dissertation on bereavement. I even used it as the basis for one of my books, Living with Loss. At that time, the prevailing models for bereavement were focused on recovery and assumed that in time people essentially got over the loss. You read my book and complemented my achievement the way you always did, but then said that I’d see that losing someone isn’t really that way. At that point in my life, many friends had died and I had officiated at more funerals than most ministers do in a life time. I thought I knew what there was to know about grief and bereavement. But your words stuck with me. Now, with both you and Dad gone, I know that there will always be something missing in my life and nothing else can really take its place. While there are some times that it hurts, it’s also okay. It’s a reminder of how fortunate I’ve been to have had you as my mother.

I know that you’ll see the flowers on your grave this Mother’s Day and think what a waste it is to cut the flowers only for them to die. Yet, I find that I need to do something to express my feelings and to honor you. But I’ll also make sure that I also take time to water the vegetables in the garden and keep the tomato plants (your favorites) healthy. Most of all, I’ll remember how fortunate I am to have had you as my mother.

With hopes that you and Dad are enjoying an eternity of happiness,

Love always,

Lou

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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