The Proper Role Of Religion (According to Me)

A few years ago in my literary travels I came across Karen Armstrong. She is British, and was a nun in the 1960s. She left the convent and has done many things, but most importantly (for me) is that she is a terrific writer. I met her when she signed my copy of The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions. She is creative, inviting, and challenging. I like that.

I recently finished her latest book The Case for God. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but had not thought about blogging about it until I read the epilogue. She states something I’ve felt for a long time, as well as I’ve ever read it expressed:

We have become used to thinking that religion should provide us with information. Is there a God? How did the world come into being? But this is a modern preoccupation. Religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason. That was the role of logos [reason]. Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously within realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life. Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage. Scientific rationality can tells us why we have cancer; it can even cure us of our disease. But it cannot assuage the terror, disappointment, and sorrow that come with the diagnosis, nor can it help us to die well. That is not within its competence. Religion will not work automatically, however; it requires a great deal of effort and cannot succeed if it is facile, false, idolatrous, or self-indulgent.

Frankly, I couldn’t say it any better. I find great frustration in the ways that religion gets misused these days. We use it manipulate behavior (“Do you think God is pleased with what you are doing?”), justify our actions (“God rejoices when an abortion doctor is murdered”), discriminate (“He looks like a good candidate for the job, but I worry that he doesn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus”), or rewrite history (“If the Bible says the world is only 6,000 years old, I don’t care about anything else: that’s what I believe”).

Too often we use faith and religion not to expand our world and increase compassion, but to exclude people we fear or justify our prejudices. That’s wrong. Our faith should not provide us an excuse to retreat into our fears, but a safe place to explore what scares us.

I pray that my faith makes me a better man; that it makes me more compassionate and understanding; that it makes my life more manageable and less fearful. I pray that my faith makes people of other religions respect and care for me, even if they don’t completely understand what I believe.

And I pray that Karen Armstrong keeps writing.

The Justice Chronicles: Volume I

The recent events in Haiti have caused me to think a great deal about the role of justice. They suffered a 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12th and thousands lost their lives. Countless others survived but are in need of basic services (food, water, shelter, etc.) and that has lead to a very public debate.

Organizations like the Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services have raised millions of dollars. President Obama asked former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to spearhead a fundraising effort.

This raises lots of questions to me on the nature of justice and charity. In a previous post I spoke of medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonmides (1120-1190) and his teaching on the “ladder of tzedakah.” Tzedakah is normally translated as “charity” but it means much more. In a sense, true tzedakah is not simply a rich person giving something to a poor person; it’s an act of fairness and justice, an act that works to restore all of us to equality.

More than that, the “ladder” part tells us that there are rungs, or levels; not all tzedakah is the same. Maimonmides taught that this ladder had 8 rungs:

1. Giving begrudgingly
2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
3. Giving after being asked
4. Giving before being asked
5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know your identity
7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

For most people who are giving to the relief in Haiti, it’s really the 7th rung. That’s pretty good particularly given that the people who will benefit from these donations will never have the opportunity to give back, but I wonder if we shouldn’t think more about moving to the 8th rung.

This may be too politically sensitive to discuss directly, so let me get to this at a slant. Going back a century, I think most people are aware of the name Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). He founded United States Steel (now called USX). In building his empire he earned a phenomenal amount of money and when he retired he gave much of it away. In total, he donated approximately $350,000,000 and was instrumental in the building of over 2500 libraries. Even today the <a href="Carnegie Corporation is continuing Andrew’s vision.

Much of the work they do is 7th rung stuff. The people who fund the charity don’t know the people they help and they don’t know the donors. But when Mr. Carnegie was amassing his fortune, did he need to keep it all himself? Did his workers need to live in poverty and work in poor conditions so those of the next generation would have a library? In 1892 Carnegie broke the union that represented his workers. Had he worked with the union and given everyone a living wage, couldn’t that have been 8th rung tzedakah? Maybe Carnegie wouldn’t have been so famous, and maybe we wouldn’t have as many libraries, but workers in the late 19th and early 20th century might have had less poverty, disease, and shortened lives.

Maybe the earthquake in Haiti gives all the rest of us the opportunity to not only provide food and water, but also the tools to allow their economy to grow. Maybe this is our opportunity to make them better able to survive the next earthquake.

I entitled this “Volume 1” in the hopes that I’ll write about justice/tzedakah on a regular basis.

A La Jolla Couple Had a Close Call Yesterday as an Asteroid Passed Within 50,000,000 Miles Of Earth

OK, I’ve been thinking about this post for several weeks, and recent events have pushed me to write this:

It’s time to stop listening to fearmongerers and get better at assessing risk.

As much as I can, I avoid watching local news as it seems to be the worst offender, but yesterday I couldn’t. I was at a nursing home writing up my note on one of my patients and the local news was on in the background. It seems that the night before, somebody (or somebodies) set fire to the teacher’s lounge at an elementary school in Carlsbad. You can read about it here.

It’s a fairly simple story, and as it plays out it will probably be some neighborhood kids who wanted a day off from school (which didn’t happen, by the way). But the local news played it like it was 9/11 all over again. They sent a camera crew who set up base on a hill near the school (higher ground is always a good visual) to report this case of terrorist arson. They talked about how it could have been worse (the fire alarm alerted the authorities who extinguished it in 10 minutes): Imagine if there was no fire alarm? Imagine if the fire spread to somewhere where there was flammable liquids? Imagine if it happened when there were students in the school. Imagine if … You get the picture.

This story goes against the backdrop of the whole Toyota scare. I have a 2006 Prius so I have some interest in this. A few months ago we heard there was a possibility that the floor mats could slide under the gas pedal and cause it to stick and make the car hard to stop. It was the cause of a fatal accident here in San Diego. On my next tune up I asked and they put something under the mat to make sure it didn’t slide. That may or may not have solved the problem for some Toyotas (though not mine). Toyota is trying figure out what’s causing the problem; that makes sense. Yesterday Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said that anyone driving one of these cars should immediately stop driving them until they get them fixed.

The reality is that the risk of a bad outcome is pretty remote. Nevertheless all sorts of news organizations are sending out crews to stake out minivans, asking suburban moms if they are afraid for their children. Nobody wants to sound like they don’t care about their kids so there are miles of film of suburban moms talking about how scared they are. The reality is that there are much greater risks than this.

We are not good at understanding risk.

We are also very susceptible to voices that tell us to be afraid of something we can’t control. A large percentage of us are afraid to fly when in reality the drive to the airport is much riskier. We worry about being robbed when identity theft is much greater (and we are fairly cavalier about giving out personal information).

We obsess over the Dow Jones stock average when most of us don’t contribute enough to our 401(k).

There are many other examples, but the point is clear: news organizations make money by telling us about things we can’t control but can harm us. We are more than willing to hear these stories and make bad decisions based on them. Catastrophic events can do great harm to us, but the chances of them actually happening are remote.

Let’s all understand that there is risk in most of what we do, but ignore those people and organizations who profit from making us afraid.