Saturday, July 20, 2013

There's Nothing to Forgive

I recently had the experience of - well, in order to keep this from getting too personal let's make it theoretical.

Imagine you have a neighbour you've lived next to for over 20 years. The relationship isn't good. Over the years you've done things to tick him off, and he's done the same. You finally decide you are tired of the resentments and grudges you are holding, and it's time to forgive him.

So you sit down with a pencil and sheet of paper and write out a list. Twenty years ago he did this - I forgive him. Fifteen years ago I did that, and I forgive myself. Twelve years ago he did that; now I let it go. Last year he did this, but I forgive him. Just last month I did that, and I forgive myself.

You finish the list and wait for the feeling of euphoria that is supposed to come with forgiveness, but nothing happens. You think maybe you didn't do it right, and try again. Still the same result. It just somehow seems that all those things that happened over the years aren't such a big deal.

I was trying to figure this out when someone explained it to me in a way that made it all make sense. She said there are four steps to forgiveness.

Step 1 - forgive the other person
Step 2 - forgive yourself
Step 3 - be grateful for the entire experience

So far so good. But I was totally unprepared for the final step.

Step 4 - realize there is nothing to forgive, because you chose the experience.

You chose to move next to your neighbor those many years ago, and stay in that location. Over the years, stuff happened. From where he was emotionally, he did things to irritate you, things to which you responded. And you did things to annoy him, to which he reacted. Now it's time to just let it all go. But there's nothing to forgive.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Muhammad's Last Sermon

A reader recently emailed me with a question. His fiancee is Muslim, he said, so he's been learning as much about Islam as he can. When he asked her about violence associated with the life of Muhammad, she had never heard of it and read him the following quotation from Muhammad's last sermon:

"All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. White has no superiority over black, nor does a black have any superiority over white (none have superiority over another) except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim, and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves."

Before getting to Muhammad's last sermon, I'm sure the reader knows that according to Islamic law he will need to convert to Islam before he can marry his fiancee. That's not in itself a problem - raising your right hand and proclaiming I testify there is no God but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God to win the love of your life doesn't make you a convinced Muslim anymore than saying I accept Jesus into my heart as my Personal Savior makes you a good Christian, but it does illustrate in my viewpoint a lack of equality. Muslim men can marry Christian girls with the stipulation that the children are raised Muslim, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men.

(By the way, has anyone ever asked Anthony Weiner whether he converted to Islam before marrying Huma Abedin? What's that nice Jewish boy doing there in the mosque with his right hand raised to the sky? Again I have no problem with that - a man has to do what a man has to do - but it would be interesting if the former congressman's weiner tweets weren't his only secret).

Back to Muhammad's final sermon. This Wikipedia page notes that the reference to equality between Arabs and non-Arabs and blacks and whites is first seen from sources writing in the 9th and 12th centuries CE, 200 and 500 years after Muhammad. It is impossible to know where these writers received this information, since it was not recorded by earlier historians. It also goes against both the Koran (which states that Arabs are the best of creation and non-believers are the worst of creation) and the earliest biography of Muhammad in which Abu Bakr traded a non-Muslim black slave in order to set free a Muslim slave who was not as dark in skin. It is impossible to know whether the quote about ethnic and racial equality is from Muhammad, or whether someone later made it up.

It's similar to the famous story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. When his father asked who cut down the tree, Georgie replied, "I did it Father. I cannot tell a lie."

It's a great story but it never happened. Later biographers introduced the story into their accounts of Washington's life to embellish his personality. I suspect the same happened with those who wrote biographies of Muhammad.

I did find this quote from Muhammad's final sermon quite interesting as quoted in Wikipedia:

O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under Allah's trust and with his permission. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well, and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.

The above was a direct quotation from Muhammad's first biography as written by Ibn Ishaq - with a few notable exceptions. The original version reads as follows:

You have rights over your wives, and they have rights over you. You have the right that they should not defile your bed and that they should not behave with open unseemliness. If they do, God allows you to put them in separate rooms and to beat them but not with severity. If they refrain from these things, they have the right to their food and clothing with kindness. Lay injunctions on women kindly, for they are prisoners with you having no control of their persons. You have taken them with the trust of God, and you have the enjoyment of their persons by the words of God.

Why would the Wikipedia article leave out the parts about beating your wives, and their being prisoners with no control of their persons? It's a rhetorical question of course - it is information the Muslim writers do not want you to have. At least my reader's fiancee will be fortunate enough to have a spouse who does not take her Prophet seriously when it comes to dealing with marital conflict. 

Abundance and Prosperity

My brother-in-law recently passed. In many ways Marty's life was different than mine. He was a master craftsman, and I can scarcely hammer a nail. I've traveled the world, and I don't know if Marty had a passport. He was a legendary Little League coach, and I've not been able to hold a favorite team (until Bryce Harper came along, that is). Marty drank more than I do, and in the end it was complications from liver failure that took him away.

Because my residence has a few more square feet than Marty's did, and my bank account might contain a few more dollars, and I'm still here and he is gone, one could conclude that my life has been more abundant or blessed or prosperous than his. If so, that person would be making a serious miscalculation.

Marty knew how to have fun. The night before his death, his family said he was laughing and joking and talking about baseball. I've never hung out at a bar with friends - one of his favorite pastimes - in my life. I spend most evenings watching Judge Judy and reading a book.

I arrived early at the church for the memorial service, and was sitting in one of the front pews when I noticed a woman in jeans and a spaghetti-strap blouse come up to slowly examine the montage of photos collected there. Her clothing made her stand out from the somber attire worn by most of the other mourners. After the service was over I walked outside and noticed her standing alone. I greeted her and said I was Marty's brother-in-law. She said she lived in the apartment next to his for the last six months. "We all used to go out partying and drinking almost every night," she said. "We had some wild crazy times."

I told her I was glad she had come to the service. "I had to," she replied. "I couldn't have stayed away."

If any of my kids are concerned that I too might be on the lookout for women wearing spaghetti-strap blouses to party hearty, have no fear. I wouldn't even know how to do it. At least not half as good as Marty. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Freedom and the Koran

My last post reminded me of another conversation during my visit to Tunisia. It was after the Arab Spring, when hopes of change were still sweeping the Middle East, and I was in a taxi driving past a large mosque. Pointing towards it, the driver said to me, "We all want freedom. Let those who want to pray go to the mosque, and let those who want to drink go to the bar."

"There's only one problem with that," I replied. "Muhammad said you can't go to the bar. As soon as people are drinking there, others will tell them that is not allowed."

As he thought about my comment I continued, "Freedom is the most important word in the world. But the Arabic word for freedom, al-huriyah, isn't mentioned in the Koran a single time."

I repeated this conversation the following day to a merchant in the Old Souk. "Of course Islam is not about freedom," he responded. "It is about al-faraid (obligations). Muslims are commanded to obey the orders of Allah. There is no freedom in Islam."

Leaving Islam by Reading the Koran

In Tunisia a few years ago I met a young man who told me that, although born into a Muslim family, he no longer believed in Islam. When I asked how this had happened, he replied it was through reading the Koran.

Intrigued, I asked for more details. He said that as he read the Koranic descriptions of Allah as al-hakim (the Wise One), al-'aleem (the All-Knowing One), ar-rahman and ar-rahim (the Compassionate and Merciful One), it occurred to him that this sounded a whole lot more like someone 1400 years ago attempting to describe God than it did God describing himself. Allowing himself to do something that 97% (my guess, not a statistic) of Muslims never dare to do, which is question the sources of Islam, eventually led him away from the religion.

Thinking about this afterwards I realized that many Christians, including the thousands who dedicate their lives to persuade Muslims to leave Islam for Christianity, would appreciate this young man's story. How many of them, however, have the courage to do the same thing he did? How many can read the early chapters of Genesis and conclude, "This sounds a whole lot more like some man looking up at the sky thousands of years ago and imagining how the universe came into existence than it does God dictating how he made the world."

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Does Biblicism Really Honor the Bible?

Biblicist Christians (those who think the Bible is literally and historically true in everything it says) believe their position is the only one that truly honors the Bible. Is it possible, however, that they actually detract from the value of the text by turning it into a book of magic tricks with God as the master magician?

Here's an example, the familiar story of the Three Wise Men who came to worship Jesus. The gospel of Matthew records that a group of men in the east saw a star they identified as the star of the newborn king of the Jews. They were astrologers (astrology is condemned in the Old Testament, by the way) who believed that individuals had their own stars (not a Biblical teaching), and that destiny could be determined from these stars (again, not to be found in the Bible).

Even from the beginning, the story raises interesting questions. How many other stars had the astrologers seen that they identified as stars of newborn kings and gone to present gifts? Had they the previous year seen the star of a newborn Persian king and travelled to Persia to honor him? Had they ever seen the star of an infant king in India, and gone there to pay homage to him? Was this how they spent their summer vacations, or was the trip to Jerusalem unique? We'll never know.

At any rate, the astrologers knew that Jerusalem was the capital city of the Jews, so they came to Jerusalem to find and present gifts to this young king. Note that the Bible says nothing at all about their following the star to Jerusalem, as believed in Christian tradition. They simply saw a star in the sky, identified it as the star of the king of the Jews, and traveled to Jerusalem to honor him. It was only after the Roman ruler Herod sent them to Bethlehem that the star again appears in the Bible, guiding them to the very bed where Jesus was lying.

Imagine that you live in Apartment C, on 45 Oak Street in Philadelphia.  How could a star possibly guide anyone directly to your apartment from Washington DC? It was a miracle, Christians reply. God actually brought this star down from its home millions of light years away in the universe to make it hone in on Jesus' bedroom. It was the opposite of those giant lights you can see at the County Fair. Instead of shining into the night, this one beamed down from the sky.

To the uninitiated, it sounds more like a magic trick than a miracle. The Biblicist insists, however, that it really happened as another piece of divine evidence given to prove the uniqueness of the birth of Jesus.


A local evangelical church recently hosted a debate between two competing groups of Christian scientists on the subject of creation and evolution. The first group, called Reasons to Believe or RTB among its devotees, is a "progressive creationist ministry that promotes day-age forms of old Earth creationism". They believe that God specifically created various forms of life over a long period of time. God made the dinosaurs in a special act of creation, they say, and then much later God made the first couple Adam and Eve. In this way they try to reconcile the Biblical account of the book of Genesis with modern science.

The second group represents main-stream secular evolutionary theory with God thrown in at the beginning to start things off. They believe, as do non-religious secular scientists, that life evolved from a simple-cell organism billions of years ago. They accept the big-bang theory to describe the origin of the universe, but advocate intelligent design - things didn't just happen by chance, but God was there to get them going and guide them along.

The leader of the second group caught my attention when he said he believed in "the historicity of Adam", although not in the sense of RTB. In other words, he believes in a historical person named Adam with a wife named Eve, although he does not believe this couple was specially created by God as the first human couple on earth. The scientist then went on to give his "personal testimony", as it is known in evangelical churches. He was a hard-partying young scientist whose life was falling apart until he had his come-to-Jesus moment. The love and forgiveness of Jesus flooded his heart with joy and peace and changed his life forever, he said. The result was he was now both an evangelical Christian (hence the belief in Adam) and an evolutionary biologist.

It didn't make sense to me, and I raised my hand when the moderator called for questions. Addressing the born-again evolutionist I asked, "It seems to me that your scientific beliefs about evolution are no different than your secular coworkers at the university where you teach. But somewhere along the line you realized, "Oh crap, now I'm an evangelical Christian. I have to believe in a historical Adam who sinned to explain Jesus dying for the sins of mankind." At that point you threw all your scientific reasoning out the window and took a position based solely on faith."

The question brought chuckles from the audience, probably due to my use of the expression "Oh crap" in church (I was going to say something else, but thought better of it). The scientist replied that belief in a historical Adam had nothing to do with his initial conversion experience. It was the love of Jesus, he repeated, that attracted him and changed his life. It was only later that he came to believe in a historical Adam.

Other people had other questions and I couldn't follow up on mine, but it seemed to me that he both side-stepped my question and added fuel to my argument. The fact that he later decided to believe in Adam made it even more clear that it was a decision based not on scientific evidence but religious dogma. He was attracted to Jesus, and began to follow him. Later, as he came to understand the teachings of the church, he learned that Jesus died to pay the price for mankind's guilt. Since guilt for sin did not fit in his evolutionary training and worldview, he had to believe as an evangelical that at some point in mankind's evolutionary development he became guilty. He therefore chose to believe - based purely on faith and not on science - that there really was an Adam who once lived and sinned, and that somehow his sin affected everyone after him with the result that Jesus had to die.

I still don't understand how he can reconcile the two. Wouldn't it make more sense to see Adam and Eve not as a historical couple but as an allegory representing the close relationship people can have with God? Is it possible their leaving the garden of Eden was not a punishment from God, but their stepping out into the real world to face life with all its tragedy, beauty, and mystery? And could the serpent, rather than being a  historical Satan as interpreted thousands of years later, actually have been the friend who reminded them there was much more to knowing God than they already knew?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Was it God or Was it Fear?

Someone, I'll call him Exhibit A, recently attended a trade fair with his boss, Exhibit B. Their job was to manage the booth advertising the products of their company. Since it took two people to effectively run the table, they were inseparable all day long.

As proceedings were winding down, Exhibit A noticed a former co-worker, Exhibit C, walking across the hall towards the exit. Exhibit B blamed Exhibit C for a contract that had been lost when he still worked for their company, and the two men were not on speaking terms.

Exhibit A had not been involved in the original dispute and had nothing against Exhibit C. He wanted to walk up to him and say Hi, but immediately felt the discomfort of being on the horns of a dilemma. If he did so his boss would become angry with him, and Exhibit B's rage was both volatile and toxic.

And so Exhibit A did what any self-respecting religious person would do - and God knows I'm one of them. He sent up a Hail Mary Prayer to the Magic God in the Sky, asking for a miracle. Please God, he said, Give me a chance to say Hi to Exhibit C. And pretty please, don't let my boss know about it.

The answer came into his mind just a few seconds later. The bathroom! He excused himself, telling his boss he had to use the restroom. He crossed the hall but instead of entering the mens room ducked to the left, darted out the exit, and Voila! Exhibit C was just about to get into his car. Exhibit A ran up to him, they exchanged greetings, and Exhibit A got back to the booth without his boss having an inkling of what had just taken place.

Exhibit A told me the story as proof that God answers prayer. I don't want to take away from the mystery of the moment - maybe he is correct - but isn't it possible that something else was going on? Wouldn't it have been much more emotionally healthy for Exhibit A to simply excuse himself from the table for a minute and greet Exhibit C in the presence of his boss, no matter what his response? It might have been followed by some unpleasant moments and a long silent ride home. But it wouldn't have been the end of the world.

Monday, July 1, 2013

How to Ace a Polygraph

This began as an email to a friend, but I thought I'd expand it to include a larger audience. I think the steps are applicable to any potentially stressful situation, from interviewing for your first job at McDonalds to initiating a break-up in a relationship, or orally defending your PhD thesis.

Step 1 - Take four deep breaths, breathing in your nose and out through your mouth. Feel the air going into your nose, and out through your lips. Observe your chest expand as you inhale, and contract as you breath out. Notice the short space of time between each breath. Do this right now, before you read the next paragraph.

What were you thinking about as you were breathing? The answer is Nothing, because it is impossible to think about anything else while being aware of breathing. It's easy to think about things while breathing - we do it all day long - but you can't think about something else while you are conscious of your breathing. As you wake up on the morning of your polygraph, practice the above exercise.

Step 2 - From the moment you get out of bed until you leave the house, be aware of each thing that you do. Taste the toothpaste as you brush your teeth. Feel the brush running through your hair as you comb it. Feel your stockings against your legs as you put them on, and notice the touch of your shoes against your feet. Feel your feet against the stairs as you come down the steps, and really taste that first sip of  coffee as it crosses your lips. This awareness will keep your mind from doing what it desperately wants to do, run to fearful anxious thoughts. If your mind does take off in that direction, pull it back to the present.

Step 3 - Continue this focused awareness on your way to the test location. Notice the colors of the cars as they pass you. Feel your hands on the steering wheel. Follow the lyrics or melodies of the songs you are listening to. Stay in the present, remembering to pull your mind back if it lunges off to anxious thoughts about the upcoming test.

Step 4 - As you sit in the waiting room, affirm positive qualities to yourself one after the other. For me it would be the form of I am Christ and I am confidence, I am Christ and I am strength. For a more evangelical Christian it could be in the the prayer, The spirit of God is within me and I am wisdom. For a Buddhist it might be, I am the Buddha and I am success. For someone else it could be, I am connected with the universe and I am freedom. Or you don't need a preamble at all - you can just repeat, I am peaceful, I am strong. You can also eliminate negative emotions by repeating, I remove fear, I reject anxiety. I think you get the point. By the way, you can begin this step even earlier to replace Step 3 if you like.

Step 5 - When you are called into the examination room, repeat Step 1 (well, your breaths can be through your nose this time, but be aware of them). Greet the examiner politely, without trying to please or humor him or her (in my experience, they have always been male). If he asks if there is anything you want to share before the test, allow a few seconds for any thoughts to come into your mind and if they do express them to him (Hopefully it won't be, I killed my mother-in-law last week, or Three men in black suits followed me into this building and I think they are after me!).

Step 6 - At the end of the text the examiner will probably ask you to wait while he leaves the room. Again relax, be aware of your breathing or the beating of your heart, perhaps notice the surroundings in the room. Pull your mind back if it begins asking itself how you did, or whether your answers were correct.

Step 7 - If the examiner comes back and says he needs to ask you a few more questions, or some parts of the exam were inconclusive, don't panic! Just say OK, and be aware of your breathing as he begins his questions. If he tells you they need to repeat the examination at a future date, again don't worry. It will just give you the opportunity to practice all the above steps on the second day! And I am sure you will do fine.