the litmus test

.…[H]ere the religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God’s name, it was bad theology. Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammed, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads. In killing Muslims and Jews in the name of God, the Crusaders had simply projected their own fear and loathing onto a deity which they had created in their own image and likeness, thereby giving this hatred a seal of divine approval. A personalized God can easily lead to this type of idolatry, which is why the more thoughtful Jews, Christians, and Muslims insisted that while you could begin by thinking of God as a person, God transcended personality as “he” went beyond all other human categories.

  • Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

an alternative story

[Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren have written a children’s story and companion book of essays on the need for a new story. This is quoted at the outset]:

Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society. Rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story … one so inclusive that it gathers
all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step…. If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.

-Ivan Illich, as quoted in the introduction to The Seventh Story: Us, Them and the End of Violence.

a new transforming yes to religion, family and nation

Three central values were profoundly neglected [by ‘the Left’]: the family, the nation, and religion. Family, flag and religion were abandoned to the right wing and defined by them – as though these themes were unworthy from the beginning of a critical analysis, as though the feelings connected with them were irrational and dangerous, as though an enlightened man [sic] had nothing to do with these realities!

[…]

The time has come for this blindness on the part of the left to disappear. It is not enough to unmask religion as the opium of the people, to bid farewell to the family as a coercive patriarchal institution, and to abandon national consciousness as jingoism or (even worse) well-deserved ridiculousness… The response to these spheres of life – religion, family and nation – cannot be an unproductive, disclaiming, superhuman “No” but a critical, transforming “Yes, but not this kind of religion, family, and patriotism,” full of love of reality.

  • Dorothee Soelle, On Earth as in Heaven: A Liberation Spirituality of Sharing (1993)

what we do

We’re welcome to say whatever we want to about all the things we believe, but any sacred tradition we care to reference will remind us that the surest evidence of what we believe is what we do. Faith without works is . . . not actually your faith, as it turns out. We do what we believe—maybe it’s a relief to even say it aloud—and we don’t do what we don’t. It’s no secret after all….

If what you believe is what you say and do, the guiding provocation runs like this: Show me your receipts, your text messages, your gas mileage, your online history, a record of your daily doings and, just to get things started, a transcript of the words you’ve spoken aloud in the course of a single day, and then we might begin to get a picture of your religious commitments.

– David Dark, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious

bone-chilling precipice

I won’t sugarcoat this: Standing on the precipice of the wilderness is bone-chilling. Because belonging is so primal, so necessary, the threat of losing your tribe or going alone feels so terrifying as to keep most of us distanced from the wilderness our whole lives. Human approval is one of our most treasured idols, and the offering we must lay at its hungry feet is keeping others comfortable. I’m convinced that discomfort is the great deterrent of our generation. Protecting the status quo against our internal convictions is obviously a luxury of the privileged, because the underdogs and outliers and marginalized have no choice but to experience the daily wilderness. But choosing the wily outpost over the security of the city gates takes a true act of courage. That first step will take your breath away.

Speaking against power structures that keep some inside and others outside has a cost, and the currency most often drafted from my account is belonging. Consequently, the wilderness sometimes feels very lonely and punishing, which is a powerful disincentive. But I’ve discovered something beautiful; the loneliest steps are the ones between the city walls and the heart of the wilderness, where safety is in the rearview mirror, new territory remains to be seen, and the path into the unknown seems empty. But put one foot in front of the other enough times, stay the course long enough to actually tunnel into the wilderness, and you’ll be shocked how many people already live out there – thriving, dancing, creating, celebrating, belonging. It is not a barren wasteland. It is not unprotected territory. It is not void of human flourishing. The wilderness is where all creatives and prophets and system-buckers and risk-takers have always lived, and it is stunningly vibrant. The walk out there is hard, but the authenticity out there is life.

– Jen Hatmaker, quoted in Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness