Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Religion? Spirituality? Who Cares?

In the culture of the USA there is currently a busy discussion of the difference between being spiritual and being religious. The conversation reveals some fairly huge differences of opinion between people who claim a specific religious connection and those who claim to be spiritual but not religious as well as those who claim multiple simultaneous religious connections. Numerous statements in blogs, comments and articles online make it clear that there are people who practice what might be called identity spirituality regardless of their connections with religion. The practice of identity spirituality is quite similar to identity politics with one very notable difference: identity politics is divisive by design while identity spirituality resolves all differences by simply ignoring them.

In order to contrast identity spirituality with identity politics it is necessary for you to understand what identity politics is. The point of identity politics is to recruit members by identifying commonality of political interest. In fact, activists in identity politics don’t so much make recruitment calls as they project an image with which prospects can identify. The identity Latino is deceptively clear in most people’s minds—a person who speaks Spanish and looks white but not Anglo-Saxon. The reality is that neither the appearance nor the speech of an individual will reveal all the people who might properly be identified as Latino, and the projection of the true factors of identity is actually a call for membership. Identity groups are used in polls and surveys, where participants self-identify with demographic groups and answer questions designed to uncover trends and attitudes within demographic identities.

The practice of identity politics not only demands acceptance and respect for a group’s unique identity (example, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) but it also distinguishes the members of the group from individuals who might fraudulently claim the group’s identity without meeting its unique definition. This practice was displayed when Barack Obama first entered the Democrat presidential primaries. He was easily identified as a black man, yet he was scorned by such public figures as Al Sharpton, because he did not have “slave blood.” His racial identity with other black political figures was marred for his lack of identity with survivors of the civil rights rallies of the sixties. Further, identity politics seeks special consideration for itself as compensation both for past injustices and for the insult of having endured past injustice, a state of affairs that is extended by constantly finding ways to demonstrate that the injustice continues. A prime example is the use of the term racist in the context of events and statements where the obvious intent is not to further an important public conversation but rather to receive the benefit of sympathetic support in words, legislative action and voting power that is occasioned by any perception that real racism persists in public life.

Identity spirituality is a very different concept. People who practice identity spirituality shun identification with any group whatsoever. Yet, in common with identity politics, the practitioners choose the relationship based on an identity. Something in the religion or spiritual practice resonates with something in the individual. The defining element is that the practitioner chooses religious or spiritual practices on the basis of their resonance with the identity of the practitioner. It might even be a resonance with the individual’s search for personal identity.  A person who practices identity spirituality is comfortable saying, “I identify with whatever moves me.” Or he might say,I claim that openness, that exploratory urge, the seeking for “the more,” as my spirituality.” Practitioners of identity spirituality are open to anything that feels spiritual to them, whether it is Christian, Buddhist, or even science. They don’t belong to a religion; they collect spiritual ideas that that they appreciate. The individual shapes a spiritual experience the way a sculptor might craft a mobile. That simile was deliberate, because the choices are fluid and elusive, and most practitioners of identity spirituality prefer it that way. Unlike identity politics where walls are deliberately constructed to foil attempts to reconcile differences between groups, identity spirituality simply ignores any walls that exist between religious and spiritual groups and picks and chooses among spiritual components as if the world of religion and spirituality were a giant shopping mall.

This is a point on the plane of all degrees of religious and spiritual convictions where spirituality fades into agnosticism and atheism. It is a place where ideas that claim a sacred element can be merged with completely secular views. Secular thinkers accept that cosmological hypotheses describe the physical beginnings of the universe, a point in time when no human observer could have measured anything, yet they categorically reject any suggestion of a supernatural power. The practitioner of identity spirituality can comfortably merge an astrophysical cosmology with a Buddhist meditation in the lotus position and consider all of it to be her personal spirituality. This blend of mathematics and mysticism is a place where nothing is firm or solid or predictable. It is the place where Eckhart Tolle took all his readers – that place where a person is his own god. Whether a person says that he is his own god or says that he chooses bits and pieces from the teachings of many gods, the ultimate truth of his spiritual or religious experience is that he chooses elements that satisfy him in some way. The experience is all about the person who experiences it. He may not call himself his own god, but he acts in lieu of any god.

Christianity does not recruit adherents on the basis of identity. There may be people who join Christian churches because of some identity factor, but that is not the teaching of the faith.  People who choose to follow Christ are not identifying with him. They are receiving his forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, but they are giving up self, the very thing practitioners of identity spirituality clutch most fervently. To receive Christ is to be indwelt by God himself. Yet through the mystery of the Trinity, God remains on his throne in heaven, in the eternal and infinite perfection of heaven, while living within each of us messy and sinful human beings in the person of the Holy Spirit. Christians don’t identify with Christ; they serve him. They worship him and learn from him and depend on him. This experience is a life, a way of life, that is not in any way confined to a worship ritual or a worship building.

One of the reasons often given for being spiritual but not religious is that religions are too rigid, too organized and too full of hypocrites. Practitioners of identity spirituality visit a worship service and then say, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” consigning what Christians consider to be a time of focus on God to a time of focus on self. They complain about Christians whose religious principles forbid them to engage in contraception, sterilization and abortion, and they complain even more about Christians whose religious principles against participation extend to the funding of such activities for others. They complain that religions in church buildings are old-fashioned and irrelevant to modern life. Then they complain that Christians are trying to impose their faith on others by expressing it publicly outside the worship space. They say that they believe that people are born good, and they don’t want to hear that people are born sinful.

Is this deep disconnect between Christians and the practitioners of identity spirituality really different from the disconnect between Christians and secular thinkers? What do you think Christians have to say to people who are spiritual but not religious? Do you think Christians need to change the way they worship in order to attract more members? Do you think Christians are giving a rich testimony to Christ that wicked people simply reject? Do Christians themselves need to change in some way? Should we take a survey and find out what would entice people to want to be Christians? Why are more and more people saying that they have no use for Christ or Christians or Christianity? Why do statistics show that Christians are the most persecuted people on earth? What might that have to do with our inability to communicate to practitioners of identity spirituality?

Looking for a good Christian book? Read my review of Martin Roth’s The Coptic Martyr of Cairo

Everybody’s Son Looks Like Trayvon

We all pray for justice as a nation waits for the outcome of law enforcement investigations into the death of a Florida teen shot by a man who claims he was under attack. Responding to national concerns, our president has weighed in. You would expect our president to speak words that heal and help. Ordinarily, presidents do not comment on local police work, but the pain of people whose emotions have been played like accordions by media from coast to coast is boiling up over a perception that justice will not be done in Trayvon’s case. This year there has been more usage of the terms “race” and “racist” than I ever heard during the sixties, and the civil rights work of the sixties supposedly ended the need to identify people by race. As the parents of Trayvon Martin grieve the loss of their child, political leaders and the national media are in a feeding frenzy to make this event into an example of racial warfare. Our president had a perfect opportunity to heal and help in this situation, but he failed.

Healing and helping is what the people need. As Christians, we believe this is a chronic need of the whole human race, but we recognize that there are specific events where the need becomes critical. The death of Trayvon Williams is one of those events. When the president felt compassion and empathy with the parents of this teenage boy, he expressed that compassion, and that was the right thing to do. However, the words he chose were not healing and helping; they were divisive. The president focused on the color of his own skin, and identified with the color of Trayvon’s skin. As a nation, we have seen way too much color identification. The president needed to speak words that demonstrate the compassion any parent feels at the death of a child. If he had simply said, “Everybody’s son looks like Trayvon,” a nation of parents would immediately have recognized the common bond of all parents who love their children. Instead, everyone immediately thought, “Oh yes, the president is black, and so was Trayvon.” The tragedy of Trayvon’s death is not that he was black; the tragedy is that he is dead. A child. A mother will never again hold that beloved son in her arms. A father will never again see the dream of a better future for his son. Every parent knows that feeling, and every parent shares the pain when a son dies. If our president wants us all to pull together, then he needs to help by leadership that focuses on the things that pull us together.

One can forgive a father for lashing out, speaking from within his grief to say that he wants an arrest, a conviction and an execution. It is easy to believe that a grieving parent would speak such words. It is shameful, however, for political leaders and media spokespersons to agitate people to join in the same cry. Our president, as the chief executive, as the chief law enforcement official in the federal government, is uniquely positioned to bring healing in the face of a father’s anguish. The father is grieving, and people in his neighborhood are fearful. They all wonder if they can trust the local and state law enforcement officials to bring justice to bear on this situation. They wonder if justice will be done. The president could have spoken words to build up trust in law enforcement. He could have said that he trusts that the local law enforcement officials and the state law enforcement officials will do what it takes to discover all the facts and bring the situation to a just conclusion. If the president said words with that message, a lot of people would have taken comfort and found some peace to await the outcome with greater confidence that justice will prevail.

Two elements complicate people’s reactions to this death. First, there is a state law in Florida that allows a person who feels threatened to respond in kind. The law was passed as a response to legal cases where people were deemed to be criminals when they simply defended themselves. Second, the person who shot Trayvon was licensed to carry a gun. The outcry over the way law enforcement officials are managing the investigation says that the law is an outrage and should be repealed and that all guns should be taken away from private citizens. It is a classic example of the way agitators can turn the discussion of a problem away from the problem to something that is on their agenda. Neither the law that allows self-defense nor the right of citizens to bear arms killed Trayvon. A man killed Trayvon, and the law determines what happens as a consequence of that act. As Christians, we all have opinions about the law authorizing self-defense, and we all have opinions about the right to bear arms. There is a place for these discussions. However, as Christians, we have a pre-eminent concern for truth. Arguing about these two subjects does not further the investigation to find the truth. What is the truth in this situation? We do not yet know. Arguing about the law and the gun take everyone off the real question: Was the death of Trayvon Martin a murder or an act of self-defense? What we need most of all is the truth that will answer that question.

The president also missed a golden opportunity to guide people to patience. If he had spoken words to build trust in law enforcement, he could have counseled patience for the process of investigation to work. Already we have seen that despite initial evidence that looked one way, additional evidence from a different perspective on the story is coming to light. Real investigation takes time. If the people who grieve Trayvon’s death really want justice, then they need to make time for the thorough investigation required for real justice.

Finally, the president failed to do anything to calm the streets. People want to march and shout and demand, and they have a right to do that, but sadly, that kind of behavior is irrelevant to the investigation of Trayvon’s death. The investigation to get the facts will not be assisted or made more professional by the marchers. They need to understand that while they have a right to grieve and they have a right to their opinions, justice is not about opinions. Justice is about truth. What is needed for real justice is the time and effort to get the truth. Our president could have said words that would help people understand that it takes time, but he did not do that.

Our president, to whom people look for leadership in times of crisis, failed to lead. Instead, he practiced identity politics (Trayvon and he have the same color skin) instead of unifying the nation and specifically all parents. Our president failed the country in general and law enforcement in particular by failing to build people’s trust in the process. Finally, he failed to reassure Trayvon’s parents and all the people who grieve with them that justice will indeed be achieved by doing the work it takes to find the truth. They can march if they need to, but they don’t have to march to obtain justice.

As Christians, we need to pray for our president daily, even hourly if that is possible. We need to pray for him to be a strong, effective leader. We need to pray that, if he is tempted to use a situation like this to practice politics, God will give him the wisdom to resist that temptation. We need to pray that he will use his power and influence to calm the people who are agitating citizens to doubt that justice will be done. Even more, we need to pray for Trayvon Martin’s parents, who will never get their son back, whether justice is done or not. If the shooter were arrested and tried and executed in the next twenty-four hours as a response to their grief, without regard for truth or justice, Trayvon would not rise from the dead.

I am praying for the president, and I am praying for all the people involved in investigating this crime. But I am praying most fervently for Trayvon Martin’s parents. This time next year, and this time in 2022, Trayvon’s parents will still miss him. Everybody’s son looks just like Trayvon, especially if he is dead.