Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Requirement of Beliefs

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. John 3:36

IMG_0523I always thought the Christian requirement of belief in Jesus in order to achieve eternal life is a bit strange. There is something about it that just does not seem right. People hold beliefs because they have direct experience that forms or affirms a belief or because that belief was culturally taught or imprinted upon them. A belief is simply something that someone holds to be true or false. A belief is not the same as the thing that is believed in. As such why would God or Jesus require a belief in them in order to satisfy them? It seems suspicious to me.

Put another way, truth is truth regardless of what I or anyone else believes. If God exists why would He demand my belief in Him? It is not as if He would cease to exist if everyone stopped believing in Him.

Moreover, requiring belief without providing evidence is unfair and suspect. Why should anyone be held in contempt because they chose not to believe in something for which they felt they had no evidence to support? To do so seems awfully unfair, arbitrary and spiteful. This seems to be the standard that an alcoholic parent might hold their children to. “Believe that I am an honorable person even though my example shows you otherwise and if you do not believe me to be honorable you deserve to be punished,” sayeth the alcoholic parent. I find it hard to believe that a true and loving God could endorse such an interpretation of John 3:36.

If we are to examine the quotation from John 3:36 with specificity, he tells us that “[w]hoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” He then says, “…whoever rejects the Son will not see life…” The word reject seems strong here. A rejection sounds to be more than a question (although some might interpret it that way). So in this sense there may be room for a person who questions their belief to also have eternal life.

This one passage has been interpreted differently by different Bible versions. Almost all versions speak of a person “believing” in the Son of God. One version substitutes “trusting” which essentially means the same thing. The versions differ, however, in their interpretation of “reject.” The terms vary between reject, doesn’t obey, believeth not, refuses to believe, disobeys, and is not subject to. There is a difference in meaning between the words believe and obey. The former is a mental activity. The latter means to act in accordance with or follow the commands. I suppose one could argue that to obey the Son of God requires a belief in Him but again there seems to be room for interpretation.

But we cannot fully escape the problem that the statement seems to require belief (or obedience) without evidence. These acts could be said to describe faith. But it is a faith under the threat of punishment. The way I normally think about faith is that it is a voluntary activity. It is a gesture of trust and not something that can be threatened out of someone. That would be more like an ego act of self-preservation which I suppose is more in line with the “obedience” interpretation.

I imagine this exploration will be uncomfortable for some Christians. John 3:36 clearly requires a person to hold a specific belief in order to obtain eternal life. It is unclear whether the questioning of the belief is grounds for damnation but that does seem to be a very viable interpretation. It would be difficult to force a person who does not hold a belief to simply change their belief. The mechanics of belief do not seem to work this way in real life. I do not think John would make an exception for someone who simply professes to believe something without actually believing it. Although he might make an exception for someone who convinces himself through psychological repression that he believes something he does not.

Finally, I would not be honest if I did not express a certain distrust in the plain meaning of the passage. I question the motive behind it. Why is John so interested that I believe something that he must threaten me with punishment in order to get me to believe? Why does he want me to hold this belief in my mind (the most personal of spaces). Could there be some ulterior motive? I can think of several historical instances where governments have punished belief in order to keep its citizens in line.

I fear I will not come to any satisfying conclusion on the subject. Obviously the plain meaning of John 3:26 seems at odds with what I actually believe. I am not saying that I do not believe in the Son of God. But I am saying that I question the requirement of believing him for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I am no religious or biblical scholar so of course take what I say for what it is worth. I am simply trying to articulate a question that has stuck in my mind for some time.

 

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Walking Meditation

TreesFor each of the past 36 days I have consistently meditated for 20 to 30 minutes. Usually I do this while walking although I sometimes meditate sitting in a chair.

The method I employ is simple. I focus my awareness on the present moment. In a sense I actively abide in the gaps between thoughts in a state of pure awareness that is not overlaid with chattering thoughts or judgments. That is the intention anyway. It is easier to describe what it is not than what it actually is. For example, it is not thinking or evaluating. I can usually capture it in a pure state for only a few moments at a time. Often I can capture it while my mind is commenting on it but I can sort of marginalize the commentary or allow it to exist in the background. When this happens, I am aware of the commentary but I am also in touch with the present. Sometimes my focus on the present involves observing the blueness of the sky or keying into the sound of a bird chirping or the gurgling of the stream that runs along my walking route. Sometimes I can expand this awareness to take in a wider appreciation of my surroundings. The point is that I know when I am there when I am there. I recognize it.

When I meditate I become aware of three internal minds at work. The first is “the commentator.” Some people refer to this as “monkey mind” but I personally find that term to be annoying. This is the mind that comments on everything (often it comments on the mechanics of meditation) or it flashes pictures of memories and the like. I like to think of the commentator as the mechanical brain. This brain takes in information, stores it and repeats it. It is basically a mechanical function and in a sense is “mindless” ironically. The second mind is “the evaluator.” Some people might refer to this one as the ego. This mind judges, categorizes and assigns value to things. This is the part of the mind that is critical of the self and others. It is also the part of the mind that strives to become better, sets goals and becomes jealous. The final member of the mental trinity is the observer. This is the presence of awareness that sits in the background. It is able to observe the other two minds at work. It is also able to observe itself. This last mind is the one that I  try to maintain contact with while meditating. This mind is essentially passive and tends to become dominated by the other two minds if I do not actively try to keep it awake.

The main pitfall of meditation is a wandering mind. Typically, I get lost in the chattering commentary and I forget that I am meditating. When this happens and I become aware of it I simply bring my awareness back to the present moment. Similarly, I might find myself evaluating something I observe or think about. I treat this the same way. I simply bring my awareness back to the present moment. I try not to judge myself when this happens. To do so would just be another distraction. In the same way, I try not to congratulate myself when I am successfully focusing on the present. Again that is another distraction. These distractions, however, are not bad things. In fact they are they are the means by which I deepen my practice. Every time I become aware that I am distracted and I bring my awareness back to where it belongs I am flexing my “meditation muscle” which is how it becomes stronger.

Every meditation instructor or book I have read on the subject seems to shy away from discussing the benefits of meditation or goals associated with meditation. I understand this is because thinking about the benefits of meditation or setting goals to become better at meditation simply becomes the content of distraction. This does not mean that it is necessarily bad to think about these things when not meditating. However, when actively meditating these thoughts become distraction and should be treated as such. That said, there are many benefits of meditation including improved concentration, strengthened will power, the ability to not be swept away by emotion, a relaxed mood, greater awareness in general and many other things. I have found that the more I meditate consistently the more an indescribable mystery sort of unfolds inside of me. It is as if my general state of awareness is akin to being asleep and meditation is a means of waking. This is difficult to describe to someone who has not experienced it for themselves.

A final insight that I would like to talk about is the concept of the self. I think of it this way. I am not really my body or my mind. I inherited those things and I am grateful for them but I cannot really take credit for them. I had no say in acquiring them (that I am aware of anyway). Similarly, my thoughts and emotions are all products of experience. They are external in origin. This is particularly true with memories, facts and figures and anything I learned. This is also particularly true with the feelings I associate with prior abuse or praise. So I really cannot take credit for those things either (even though in my normal sleeping state I tend to take credit for them). So what part of all this is actually me? The conclusion that I have come to based on my experience meditating is that the only real part of me is that part of me that can choose where to place my attention. I suspect most people (myself included) most of the time squander their attention in the sense that they allow the commentator and the evaluator to run the show. They allow the observer to fall asleep. When I think about it, the ability to direct one’s attention is a very precious thing because it is the foundation for the experience of life. Perhaps it is the most precious thing there is.

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Loyalty

cornMy father always extolled the virtues of loyalty.  Specifically, he extolled the virtue of him being loyal to his employer. He demonstrated this by buying its products when given the choice (for example).  He reasoned that his employer provided him with a living and for that reason he (and by extension his family) should be loyal to his employer.  The company he worked for was bought in the 80s by another larger company and my father lost his job as a result.  He remained unemployed for a couple of years before another company hired him.  During that period I remember him being very irritable and angry. I was young at the time and did not make the connection between the anger he vented on me and my siblings and the fact that he felt betrayed regarding his lack of employment. On one hand this was not an issue of loyalty per se. His employer paid him for the work he did and there was a reciprocal relationship there. Another company purchased his company and replaced the management team. There technically was no breach of loyalty in the scenario. However, there is no denying the fact that he felt betrayed. Perhaps it was the issue of loyalty on a higher level that seemed to be frustrated when he lost his job. Perhaps he felt that the universe was somehow being disloyal or had breached some sort of implied cosmic contract.

My father naturally passed this sense of loyalty on to me. Growing up, I always considered loyalty to be an admirable quality demonstrating one’s personal sense of responsibility and that being disloyal was a sin akin to  irresponsibility.  I connect this idea with the fact that I grew up in a family environment where the sense was constantly impressed upon me that World War II was a golden age for America. The war years were a time when everyone was loyal and patriotic (at least this was the way it had been described to me). This idea implied that the reason the United States of America of my youth seemed to be a declining power could be attributed to its citizens no longer being as loyal and patriotic as they were during the period of World War II.

I remember talking to my uncle (my father’s brother) at my wedding right before the ceremony was about to begin.  At the time I assumed my uncle had the same virtues as my father because they grew up in the same mid western family under the same parents. I remember telling my uncle that I learned the value of loyalty from his generation.  My uncle replied tersely, “loyalty is earned.”  This struck me as a different message than I was accustomed to hearing from my father but I put it aside for the time being.

I always felt a responsibility to be loyal to society at large and the organizations in which I was a member.  I felt that if I followed the rules I would naturally succeed and be rewarded in due time. My experience, however, did not prove this feeling to be true. It seems like every organization of which I was a member declined around me because other people were not as loyal to it as they should have been. That is, they did not take their membership seriously and they were not as loyal as I was. There were many situations where I remained loyal when other people bailed and I went down with the ship of more than a few organizations in my life.  At times I looked at these people who were not being loyal around me who in many cases went on to be more successful and less burdened by my concerns. This made me feel jealous, resentful and somehow guilty all at the same time.

I worked for a law firm for eight years and hated it because I never felt valued by the organization. I wanted to quit throughout these eight years but never did because I was afraid to loose the income I needed to pay for the obligations I had accumulated. And so I existed in a state of limbo where I forced myself to work for an organization that did not value me and that I intensely disliked. I wonder if this idea of loyalty somehow influenced me to stay with this law firm. If true, the fact that I was loyal to someone who did not seem loyal to me in return suggests to me that this strategy is flawed. It seems that loyalty in certain situations appears and feels on some level to be virtuous but is actually a self defeating manipulation. Similar to my father’s employer the law firm eventually laid me off in 2009 during the great recession.  At first I felt liberated but then felt like I had been screwed. All those years of loyalty were wasted years in many respects. I also question what exactly I was being loyal to. Again, there seems to be this larger, universal, contractual sense to loyalty at play here.

Is loyalty for suckers?  In many ways I think my uncle was right.  I suppose I am a sucker if I chose to be loyal to someone  who has not earned my loyalty. There certainly is a place for loyalty when it derives from a reciprocal relationship of mutual trust and respect. But I can see now that loyalty for the sake of loyalty itself (perhaps this in the universal loyalty I touched upon) is definitely for suckers. A person who adopts this philosophy is probably an easy target for any person, corporation or other organization that wants to take advantage of it.

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