Tag Archives: religion

troubles with god

Oh lordy, trouble so hard

Don’t nobody know my troubles but God

Don’t nobody know my troubles but God

So many people love this song.  It’s a connection with God — life has troubles, and no one can really walk in your shoes, but God can understand, and know, and love you anyway, and there’s always that promise of the next life and Christina Ricci with the wind machine blowing her hair around.

I love this song too, but when I hear it I feel very conflicted.  For years I misheard the lyrics.  I thought it was

Oh lordy, trouble so hard

Don’t nobody know my troubles with God

Don’t nobody know my troubles with God

It’s a tiny change, and now that I know what the words really are I don’t know how I ever heard it that way (the diction really is quite clear), but I liked the song better when I thought it was about a conflict with God.  I thought it was anger disguised as lament.  I thought the singer was feeling the tragedies of life, and carrying that conflict through to the God (or the perception of God) that could allow earthquakes, hurricanes, Holocausts.  The “don’t nobody know” felt terribly lonely, like the singer was carrying around all of that torment and anger without sharing it, and finally letting it out in this song that’s stylistically reminiscent of a type of religious song — for a final bit of irony.

Yeah, I know, project much?

I’ve written before about my own troubles with God (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), or rather, with religion.  Since the fall I’ve been taking classes at the local Buddhist center.  It’s a jump from reading books to actual human participation and it hasn’t been easy for me.  Living as I do in the great American Heartland, there are not a lot of choices for would-be Buddhists in my city.  There is a Unitarian church that hosts a Korean Zen group, and there is a Tibetan Buddhist center, which is where I’ve been taking classes.  Out in the suburbs a group of Lao Buddhists are trying to build a center but are experiencing what can only be described as discrimination (their plans are being held up in zoning meetings for things that are rubber-stamped for churches).

I am finding myself very resistant to a lot of things that go on at the Buddhist center.  If I replace my (long-forgotten) rosary with a mala, for instance, am I engaging in a spiritual practice, or in religious tourism?  And what right do I have, as a member of a dominant culture, to appropriate (colonize?) another culture’s belief system, given the history of the past few centuries?

I know it’s a super-duper cliche:  middle-class overeducated whiny liberal American turns to the Mysteries of the East to find meaning in her wasteland of a materially-comfortable life.

Is that what I’m doing? I hope not.  Then again, my whole life is a liberal cliche.  Do I

  • Get my panties in a knot about locally-raised food?  Check.
  • Live in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in a decayed urban core?  Check.
  • Pontificate earnestly about public transportation?  Check.
  • Spend $10 for a pound of coffee in the hope that the Latin American workers who picked it got a fair wage?  Check.
  • Work at a nonprofit?  Check.
  • Consider myself culturally aware because I lived abroad for two years?  Check.

I’m a freaking parody of myself.  I’m only two steps away from drum circles, dreadlocks, and lots and lots of pot.

This is why I’m suspicious of my own motives when it comes to my interest in Buddhism.  Maybe I should just keep my troubles with God to myself for the time being out of respect for this very old, very developed tradition.




The brahma-viharas, also called the Four Immeasurables, are part of Buddhist spiritual practice.  Meditation practice on the brahma-viharas is intended to inform one’s outlook and in fact one’s actions in the world.

The brahma-viharas are metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha.

I’ve written about metta (lovingkindness) before.  It is a conscious recognition of everyone’s desire to be happy, and a conscious sending out of lovingkindness and goodwill to oneself, to one’s friends, to one’s benefactors, to one’s enemies, and to everyone.  Everyone.

Karuna is compassion.  Meditating and acting to end others’ suffering.  It follows from metta.  This is an easy practice for bleeding-heart me, and I try to approach every aspect of my life from a perspective of compassion.

Mudita means “sympathetic joy.”  Taking genuine joy in the happiness of others, with no envy, no bitterness, no thoughts of deserving or not deserving, no comparing of the measure of someone’s joy to what may be lacking in our own lives.  This one is not so easy.  It’s a deep acceptance that life is not a zero-sum game, that someone else’s happiness doesn’t actually tip some cosmic scale into unhappiness for me, that happiness can beget happiness.

Upekkha is equanimity.  Meeting one’s whole life with acceptance.  Feeling pleasure and joy without trying to hold on to them; feeling sorrow and anger without trying to push them away.  Accepting that nothing is permanent and welcoming everything life brings.  Everything.

Metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha….this seems to me like the right way to live.  It’s a beautiful practice, and in fact the brahma-viharas are one of the aspects of Buddhism I admire the most.  I am working on living the brahma-viharas in every aspect of my life.

My sister-in-law is pregnant again.  My brother did not want another baby, but one is coming.

Metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha….I need them all.

book larnin’

I just finished reading God is Not One by Stephen Prothero, on Leslie’s excellent recommendation.

The premise of the book is that the appealing, friendly, sort of hippy-dippy notion that all religions are “paths up the same mountain” is wrongheaded, insulting, and dangerous.  For me that was a slap upside the head, because it’s something I have rather uncritically believed, even as I strive to ground my ideas about religion in the context of culture.  Having read the book, I tend to agree with Prothero:  each religious tradition represents a unique worldview, and attempts to synthesize all of them into one spiritual stream are either so broad as to be useless, or so biased towards one perspective as to be insulting to the other traditions.

For example:  in my previous post I wrote about the “many paths to God” idea that I was taught as a child in Catholic school.  The idea was that all religious traditions were valid ways to know God, and that the righteous people practicing them would find their way to salvation.  It’s a welcoming idea, one that gave a generation of Catholic kids the warm fuzzies, but it is stuck in the perspective of Christianity:  non-Christians are not actually looking for “salvation” in the way that Christians use that word, and to imply that other traditions will actually lead to the Christian idea of salvation is to erase the actual goals of those other traditions.  I am explaining this very poorly.

Prothero names eight traditions (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, Daoism) as the “rival religions that run the world,” and spends the main part of the book trying to elucidate their worldviews, goals, and practices:  he tries to lay out, in other words, the “big questions” that each religion is trying to answer (not always the same questions), and the prescribed paths to the answers that each tradition lays out.  He suggests that the real way to understanding and coexistence is to understand these differences and diversity through what he calls “religious literacy”–understanding the basics of each tradition.

It’s a fascinating read and it has really opened my eyes.  From the conclusion:

If human beings acted in their families, communities, and nations purely on the basis of greed and power, then economists and political scientists could do a decent job of describing the world.  But people act every day on the basis of religious beliefs and behaviors that outsiders see as foolish or dangerous or worse.  Allah tells them to blow themselves up or to give to the poor, so they do.  Jesus tells them to bomb an abortion clinic or to build a Habitat for Humanity house, so they do.  Because God said so, Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that this land is their land, so they fight for it in the name of G-d or Jesus or Allah.  Call this good news or bad news, but by any name it is the way things are.  So if we want to live in the real world rather than down a rabbit hole of our own imagining then we need to reckon with it.

To reckon with the world as it is, we need religious literacy.  We need to know something about the basic beliefs and practices of the world’s religions. . . . Today we have plenty of Christians doing Christian theology in public, plenty of atheists doing atheology in public, and plenty of perennial philosophers telling the public that all religions are one.  Our airwaves and bookstores are clogged with angry arguments for this religion and against that religion.  On Hardball and other television shows that sound like they were named by adolescent boys, producers regularly pit ideologues on the Secular Left against ideologues on the Religious Right.  So there is no shortage of religious (and antireligious) name-calling.  What is missing is this second way of talking about religion–a voice that sounds more like the old-fashioned news gathering of CBS and the BBC than like the contemporary vituperations of Fox News and MSNBC.  This book has tried to speak in this different voice, offering new ways to enter into the ten thousand gates of human religiosity.

religion, part 4: refuge

I have been flirting with Buddhism for over a decade.

Writing that makes me feel a little like a religious dilettante, and in fact that’s a charge I would be hard pressed to refute.  I am serially in love with belief systems.  Each one I learn about is like a window into another lovely way of looking at existence.  When my friend started practicing Wicca fifteen years ago I read everything I could find about it, and immediately started thinking of my life as a passage from Maiden to Mother* to Crone.  I have read a little about Islam, a little about the LDS Church, a little about Hinduism, a little about Jainism, and quite a lot about Judaism and Catholicism.

What has come out of it for me is the realization that, as I’ve tried to show in the previous posts in this series, religion is inextricable from culture.  Every religion formed as part of one or more cultures, and every culture formed around one or more religions.  It’s a symbiotic development.  For a particularly easy example, all of the foot-washing in the New Testament is more about the dusty desert roads in Judea than it is about a specific action needed for salvation.

Buddhism is no different.  Like the other major religions it has its different schools of thought (Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana), but like the other major religions it developed and evolved with the cultures that surrounded it:

Himalayan India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan.  Extremely diverse cultures, and each gave rise to a unique practice.  I spent a fair amount of time (as a tourist) in Theravada temples in Southeast Asia and never failed to be awed.  Throughout, though, the imprint of the specific local culture was always clear.  The temples in Burma include shrines to nats (local supernatural beings).  Some of the temples in Thailand house massage schools.  In other words, Buddhism is a strong tradition with immutable unifying features (the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Gems) in all of its forms, but it has adapted over the centuries to the cultures to which it was brought.

Is it now adapting to the West?  Is a new practice developing in the United States and Europe, as some authors think?

I have read and read and read about Buddhism.  The core of it speaks to me:  the idea, which I also see in the Judaism of my husband’s family, of religion as practice, spiritual practice without the necessity of God.  As I have mentioned before I have been practicing the metta meditation.  I have tried to proceed respectfully, without cultural appropriation, and have avoided diving into a beautiful and established belief system with the enthusiastic destructiveness of the amateur.

The more I learn, the more I want to know.

*Or, apparently, directly from Maiden to Crone.

religion, part 3: beshert

As I think I’ve mentioned before, my husband is an agnostic Jew.  Just as Catholicism felt like a cultural identity to me, so does Judaism to him, but to a much, much greater degree.  The degree to which Judaism shapes his identity was hard for me to understand at first because he so explicitly rejects the worship of a deity.

Christians* who stop believing in the God of the New Testament generally don’t still self-identify as Christians.  Faith is so intertwined with the Christian identity that to call oneself a Christian without faith is actually sinful; it is to be a whited sepulchre.

This is not at all the case for my husband, I have found.  My husband is Jewish in the same way that I am Polish; I could stop believing in Poland, but that wouldn’t make me Czech.  There is, of course, a very sophisticated theology that goes along with a Jewish identity, with millennia of discourse and holy scriptures, but even those Jews who reject all of that can retain their Jewish identity.**

It took me a long time to get my mind around this.  Jewishness as an identity means a lot to my husband even though Judaism as a belief system does not.  I don’t want to speak for him so I won’t elaborate in detail exactly what that identity entails, but it definitely gives him a sense of belonging.

I met my husband as I was moving farther and farther from the Church in my mind.  While we were dating we started making tentative steps towards a life together, and I worked very hard to understand and embrace Judaism.  I did a lot of reading, I asked him a lot of questions, and I fell in love with many aspects of what I learned.  (It didn’t hurt that I also fell in love with him.)

We started hosting Passover seders for our friends, and we even started having weekly Shabbos dinners.  I learned to say the blessing over the candles in Hebrew and he dug out his Challah recipe.  What was so new and enlightening for me was the realization that unlike Catholicism, which as I mentioned in Part 1 was full of ritual and which was done to you by a priest, so much of Jewish tradition and prayer takes place in the home.  It is a religion that is inseparable from the people practicing it, and as such it can be practiced as a culture without necessarily including a belief in God.  My atheist mother-in-law kept a kosher kitchen for the first six years of her marriage because of the importance of tradition and culture.

When we were engaged, and also when we were first married, I thought about converting.  I wanted to make a unified family and I wanted there to be no question as to the Jewish status of my future children.***  But ultimately it would have been the wrong decision; at bottom I would have been running away from the Church and not to the Jewish faith.  And while Jewishness is embedded in my husband’s cultural identity, religion is not.  Converting “for him” would have been an empty exercise since faith is not important to him, and no conversion ceremony could change my culture of origin.  I respect Judaism very much, and converting for the wrong reasons would not only have been the wrong decision for me, but it would have robbed Judaism of the respect it deserves.

*I’m defining “Christian” very broadly here; I don’t know of any self-identifying Christian sects that would disagree with what follows.  If there are any, and if I’m misrepresenting their beliefs, I sincerely apologize.

**I’m talking specifically about my husband and his family, and based on other people we know and reading we have done, they are not atypical.  Of course I can’t speak in absolutes; I respect everyone’s right to self-identify, and I don’t want to erase people who reject a cultural Jewish identity.

***As it turns out it looks like I didn’t need to worry about that so much.

religion, part 2: lapse

I have a huge amount of respect for the individual priests and nuns I have known over the years.  They are good, caring people who take the core messages of the Gospels to heart.  But the Church as a whole, with its hierarchy and its history and its political influence, is both more and less than its individual priests and nuns.  The Church I see today is not the Church of my childhood.  Maybe the Church of my childhood never really existed; after all, while I was learning about inclusiveness, forgiveness and tolerance at CYO camp,* priests were abusing children and the hierarchy was covering for them.  Women were excluded from power.  Humanae Vitae…well, do I even need to mention it?

By the time I finished college I was very deeply angry at the Church.  It was for all of the usual reasons, some of which I mentioned just now, and I won’t bore you with the details.  I still thought of myself as a Catholic but I no longer attended Mass.  The inclusive, many-paths-to-God teaching I had had as a child (which I still believe) had started to devour its own tail:  if in fact there were many paths to God, then it couldn’t really matter so much which path I was on, could it?  Surely I could love my neighbor and practice tolerance even though I couldn’t any longer stand with the Church as an institution.

Partly I was lazy (who wants to get up early on Sundays in college?), partly I was self-righteously wearing my newly discovered feminism like a merit badge,** but mostly I distanced myself from the Church because I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need the Church to live a meaningful and moral life; and if in fact there many paths to God, I didn’t need the Church as an organized body for my salvation either; and that being the case, I didn’t have to support an institution so deeply flawed.

*We literally sang Kum-Ba-Ya.

**I was a real pain in the ass.

religion, part 1: growing up in the church

I am a lapsed Catholic.    I grew up in the Church of John XXIII and John Paul II.  Many paths to God; ecumenism; guitar Masses.*  It was a strange experience:  traditions that my parents grew up with (like the Latin Mass and the altar at the back of the church) were gone forever, but there was still this great weight of centuries of culture on top of everything.

I got my throat blessed every St. Blaise’s Day to ward off choking, and my grandmother always put out two platters of food for Easter brunch:  one was ordinary, and the other had been blessed with holy water and incense.  I went to church on all of the Holy Days of Obligation.  I did the Stations of the Cross once a year.  I wore a scapular for years. There are pictures of me in a white dress and veil on the day of my First Holy Communion, my grandfather standing beside me bursting with pride.

Religion was something you dressed up for.  You went out of the house and had it done to you by a priest or a nun or a lay Eucharistic minister.  It was an identity and a culture–a strong one, and after Vatican II an extremely mutable one, but not a personal practice.  You didn’t have to understand everything; it was enough to be part of the group and to participate.  To come to Holy Communion with an unblemished soul.  To kneel, sit, stand, and make the sign of the Cross.  To recite the Creed and rejoice in the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I’m not trying at all to make it sound empty.  It was for a long time extremely fulfilling to me.  There is a comfort in ritual:  God, and the priests and nuns, are there holding up the institution whether you are mentally up for it that day or not.  You can go to church and get lost in it.  It is formalized and standardized in order to create a group experience that is meaningful for everyone, even those who aren’t religious scholars or who are dealing with a personal crisis.  The Church is always there, and the Mass is always the same.

*Not all change is good.