What God do You Believe In?

Belief in a deity:  it’s a debate that’s often framed in predictable ways.  Either a person believes in God or is an atheist.  Or a person believes in the Christian God or a Muslim God or a Hindu God..  Or perhaps one has made money, power, or prestige a deity.

As I look at the world today, across cultures, people, and beliefs, I find that there’s a problem about faith in a deity that’s often not addressed.  That problem can be presented in the question, “What kind of God do you believe in?”

Most any day I can look at the news and find statements made by a prominent individual presenting a deity I simply don’t know or recognize.  Perhaps the individual is Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell, Jr., Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or some leader from ISIS or a White Supremacist movement.  While these people don’t adhere to the same religion and would insist that their beliefs are very different from each other, they seem to me to believe in the same God.  This deity is filled with anger and judgment, who should be feared, and who will not hesitate to punish people through illness, natural disasters, and eternal damnation.

There are other people in the news who seem to believe in a very different God than this angry, vengeful deity.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, social justice advocate William Barber, and Pope Francis all come to mind.  They seem to believe in a deity who is the embodiment of generosity, equality, and fairness among people.  This is a God who is with people in their suffering rather than the cause of their suffering. This was the deity exemplified  in the life of Mother Teresa of India who saw her mission as caring for the poorest of the poor..

The distinction between these two deities is not just a matter of theology.  These beliefs deeply impact one’s self understanding and relationship with others.  For example, in my book, The Integrated Self, http://amzn.to/2uG5Jmh I discuss research on how belief in a punitive, judgmental deity leads is correlated with anxiety disorders, depression, hypertension, and  coronary disease. On the other hand, belief in a compassionate deity correlates with positive mental health, a sense of wholeness in life, and positive health outcomes.  Further, those who believe in a compassionate deity are more tolerant of others and more accepting of differences.  But those who profess faith in a judgmental deity carry those judgments to others and have expectations that people should adhere to narrow standards.

We generally have the attitude that whatever beliefs a person has is a private matter and should be respected and accepted.  That’s freedom of religion, isn’t it?  I contend that this is a simplistic understanding of freedom religion because beliefs have a very significant impact on society and liberty.  For example, I recently spoke with a pastoral counselor who discussed his work with women from conservative Christian churches.  Some of them have been severely abused and have been told by leaders of their churches to return to their husbands because it is God’s will that they remain married to an abusive husband. This pastoral counselor was confronted by a deacon from one of these churches who insisted that the counselor provide the same advice because women must be submissive to their husbands.  Is that freedom of religion or systemic abuse?

I am a Christian.  My faith is rooted in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  Before all else, Jesus taught that God is one who loves unconditionally and forgives without limit, as conveyed in the stories of the Prodigal Son, the Women with the Lost Coin, and the Good Shepherd.  The teaching of Jesus is clear that the realm of God is here and within us.  The realm of God is not so much about an afterlife, but is manifest in the way we live this life.  The moral teaching of Jesus is that we are to be Good Samaritans and care of the least in society.  Jesus also demonstrated that the way to treat others of differing faiths was with respect, like the Samaritan Woman at the Well and the Roman soldier whose servant was in need of healing.

Ultimately, I contend that if Christians actually embraced the teachings of Jesus, the world would be very different.  Similarly, if Buddhists embraced the words of the Dali Lama who said, “My religion is love,” change would occur.  Likewise, Muslims living by the third pillar of Islam, Zakat, would live with kindness and charity toward all people, great change would be seen. Just as Jews are called to a life of repairing the world: tikkun olam  Indeed, all the great religions of the world have at their heart the Golden Rule, to treat others as you would have them treat you.  None of them are based on judgment and condemnation.

What kind of God do you believe in?  It really does make a great difference for your life and for the world.


Photo credit: Marco Bellucci via Foter.com / CC BY

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Politics and Religion: Pastors’ Perceptions

We gathered around a table for a small group discussion.  The topic of the workshop was professional ethics for clergy.  One of my colleagues shared: “I have a problem I’m not sure how to approach.  A woman in my church, a leader and active member, emailed and said that she just “unfriended” all the church members from her Facebook account.  She said she’s enraged and offended that some church members voted differently from her.  She can’t get past their political views.  Rather than “unfriend” the ones with whom she doesn’t agree, she “unfriended” everyone from the church.  My church is divided, both Republicans and Democrats.  It’s becoming hard for people to be civil with each other because of the political divide.”

Many commentators have pointed out that the nation is more divided now than it’s been in recent history.  There’s ugliness and hatred, harsh judgments, and open hostility today because of politics.  It impacts every part of our lives, including participation in religious and spiritual communities.  What will it take to heal the social breach?

In a different setting, another colleague shared:  “I’m a liberal Democrat.  But my neighbors are all Trump supporters.  I don’t understand their politics because it seems to me that Trump is ruining the country and that these people are going to be hurt badly.  But I can’t say anything because they all think that I’m wrong. So, I just try to be a good neighbor.  In doing so, I realized that several of my neighbors are better Christians than me.  For instance, there was a woman who lives alone who unexpectedly became ill and will be off work for weeks.  My neighbors organized themselves to bring her food, care for her yard, and to do practical things for her.  I didn’t even think about that.”

Her story struck a deep cord in me.  I know that one of my neighbors is a leader in her very traditional Black church which is known to be anti-gay.  Several homes in the neighborhood are gay or lesbian households.  She’s warm and friendly with everyone.  Further, whenever there’s a death in the neighborhood, she goes door to door to collect money for the family to help with funeral costs.  A few years ago, when I spoke to her about what appeared to me to be a contradiction, she told me, “I can’t go against the Bible.  What’s wrong is wrong.  But if God loves everyone, then I need to as well.”  Honestly, I have a difficult time saying something similar about some people and groups with whom I significantly disagree.

Yes, there are deep disagreements about politics and the future of the country.  I’m not trying to ignore those very important issues.  But rather than judging people and treating them badly, we need to find ways to engage in civil discourse about those issues.  Yes, we may disagree.  But we may also find that we have common ground.  Without dialogue, we’ll never know.  What’s really hurting society today is not the disagreement.  Instead, it’s the tendency to view those with whom we disagree as people who do not deserve respect or decency.

Even though I couldn’t disagree more with groups like Alt Right and those who represent the resurgence of various hate groups, I still need to recognize that these individuals are human beings.  When I deny their humanity, I lose part of what it means for me to be human.  When I view them as less than human, I am implying that people are expendable. But that’s not at all what I believe.  Instead, I believe that each human being is fundamentally good even when that goodness is buried deeply and is not apparent to me.

Simply because I hold a different view from others doesn’t make me a better person. Instead, all of us are a mix of positive attributes as well as aspects of ourselves which prevent us from being whole.  At best, some of us may have more insight into our personal limitations than do others.  That doesn’t mean that those of us who may have greater self-understanding are better human beings than others.

Perhaps some of us need to disengage from social media to not feel overwhelmed with messages that are offensive to us.  Perhaps my colleague’s church member had it right:  she went on to say that she wasn’t quitting the church and would still be there for and with others.   She knows that being with other people to build the future is critical. She just can’t maintain a sense of wholeness when confronted by the negativity that often transpires on social media. As my other colleague observed, even people with whom we disagree can be better in some ways than those of us who believe we a right.


Photo credit: Oliver Dunkley via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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To retreat.  The online dictionary first definition of “retreat” is in military terms:  to withdraw from an enemy force as a result of superior power.  While I’m not aware of “an enemy force” let alone “superior power,” I am going to withdraw from my day to day life for about a week.   I’ll be staying at a Benedictine Monastery in Northwest Missouri.  As there is no separate retreat house, I’ll be staying on the Monastery grounds as a friend of the Community.  I’m looking forward to participating in the rhythm of prayer throughout the day:  chanting psalms, singing hymns, and sharing quiet reflection. I also look forward to long walks on the spacious grounds of the monastery.  It’s a beautiful place of solitude in the rolling farmland.

One of my Buddhist friends asked if this would be a silent retreat.  I understood her frame of reference, but this will be far from a silent retreat.  I’ll join in meals and visit with the women who have dedicated their lives to following the monastic tradition of Benedict the Great.  He’s known as the father of Western Christian monasticism.  Benedict understood the life of a monk to be a balance of work and prayer.  As I visit with the members of this monastery, I’m sure that the common topics of conversation will be the spiritual life and what that means to live with reverence in this era of turmoil throughout the world.

Rather than being like a Buddhist silent retreat, I think my time will be more like my understanding of the observance of Jewish Sabbath.  A few years ago, I spoke with one of my students about her Sabbath observance.  She attended a couple of courses I taught on research in psychology which were scheduled from a Thursday to a Sunday.  Because of her religious practice as an Orthodox Jew, she could not attend the Saturday sessions.  I asked if she just stayed in the hotel room.  She explained that her mother traveled with her to the conference location.  After class Friday, they drove to an area where they knew there was an Orthodox community and stayed there. They attended Shabbat service and were invited to join another family for dinner.  Saturday, they stayed where they lodged and visited with each other, talked and prayed.  She told me that she was thankful for the Sabbath rest, the time for prayer and sharing with her mother, and, most of all, time to be thankful.  She explained that Sabbath for her was a time to be thankful for life. She went on to explain that life is the most precious gift we have.

As I think of my own time of retreat, perhaps it’s best to think of this as a week of Sabbath rest.  It’s a time for prayer and contemplation, for reflective conversations, and most importantly, a time for gratitude.  In the midst of daily responsibilities, it’s easy to forget to just be thankful for each moment of our lives.  Yet, our lives are the most precious gift we have received. Truly, just to be alive is something for which we can all give thanks.

(Photo:  Monastery of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adora, Clyde, Missouri.  http://benedictinesisters.org/)

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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