Ten Religious Words That The Spin Doctors Doctored

10. Gospel– This word almost always refers to writings about the life of Jesus, more specifically, the canonical writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Its original meaning however is much more broad.  It literally means “good news”.  Now for many of us these writings of the New Testament are indeed good news.  Yet, for others, it could be the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the works of Maria Rainer Rilke or the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous.  In other words, what is good news to you, that you use to build your life around.  What is your gospel?  

9. Heretic– The Roman Catholic church has, over the centuries, given this word a new definition.  Its current definition means those who hold unorthodox or controversial beliefs or opinions which differ from that of the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.  However, in its original form, the word, from its Greek roots “hairetikos” to its Latin and early English and French derivations, simply means “able to choose”.  So, a heretic, is one who is able to choose what he or she believes.  A wonderfully democratic term turned slander.      

8. Agnostic– one who believes that truth claims about the existence or non-existence of God are in fact unknowable.  They don’t know.  They doubt. While I am not an agnostic, I believe in God, I think that agnostics have been given a bad rap.  People scoff when they speak of a friend or co-worker that is agnostic, like there is something weak or deficient in such a stance.  Yet, I have faith, but sometimes I have doubt.  When I have doubt, I guess one could say I was feeling agnostic.  Lacking certainty is not always such a bad thing.  And it is certainly not a stagnant thing.    

7. Sin– OK, I could write a tome about this one.  I know some of my more evangelical brothers and sisters will get their panties in a bit of a twist here, sin looming large (I’m thinking of Jonathan Edwards dangling a spider over a boiling cauldron, like God dangling our souls over the pit fires of hell).  But I can berate myself just fine, perhaps too fine in fact and I don’t think God wants to get in on the fun.  Sin simply means “missing the mark”.  In most cases, in our day to day living, it’s simply means we are human. We can dust ourselves off, and continue to strive to do and be better (without shame and guilt).  Just like I don’t want somebody “shoulding” on me, I don’t want someone sinning me to death either.   

6. Religion- I don’t want to beat a dead horse.  I mean, after all, hasn’t this word been bludgeoned enough. But, this word, which has come to represent differences and divisiveness was originally just a verb, religio, meaning “bringing together that which is separated”.  So, all I’m gonna say is, huh?

5. Salvation– OK, first we’ve got all that hell stuff to contend with.  Eternal damnation sounds really scary and I don’t want it to happen to me.  A lot of folk want to give you a formula, words to recite, and then you’re good to go.  You’re saved.  Salvation is then nothing more than a deliverance from sin.  But salvation is  more beautiful and subtle than that, the etymological meaning of the word is health.  In early New Testament readings, it meant to restore you to spiritual good health, to make you whole.   

4. Righteous– This word mostly gets a negative connotation, as we tend to immediately think self-righteous, which obviously no one likes. Being righteous is characterized by virtue and moral soundness and sense of social justice.  A true righteous person is a wonder to behold.

3. Tolerance-Many religious leaders nowadays talk of tolerating those of other faiths, as if that is enough.  I’ve never met a deeply spiritual person who didn’t openly inquire about another’s faith, who looked to appreciate some aspect of it, or its encourage its blessings.

2. Evangelical-Unless you are an evangelical, you are very likely leery just hearing the word.  Yet the word is from the Greek “euangelos”, meaning a messenger or angel bringing good news.  It’s too bad, because I’m not too confident that we can bring this one back to its original, more open and joyous meaning.   

1. Liberal– The religious right, the political right, the conservative whatevers have suceeded in the last several decades in making the word liberal a dirty word.  It permeates all aspects of our public discourse. If you are a political or religious liberal, you are somehow bereft of moral values, ethics, or for that matter, common sense.  This is a terrible injustice. Liberal, liberalis (Latin) means to be free or to be free and let others be free.  It was the founding paradigm of our nation, Thomas Jefferson wrote a declaration about it. We the people need to take this word back and give it the honor it so rightly deserves.

Book of the Day: Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris 

Quote from the Book of the Day: “I find it sad to consider that belief has become a scary word, because at its Greek root, “to believe” simply means “to give one’s heart to”.  Thus, if we can determine what it is we give our hearts to, then we will know what it is we believe.”

Putting the Joy Back in Jihad

What’s so joyful about a jihad? It’s one of those experiences that afterwards we call a blessing in disguise.

The concept of jihad or holy war is embedded in the Quran, but it has, from its earliest beginnings, been fraught with multiple meanings.  Muslims often speak of jihad as both a struggle to submit to God’s will (considered the greatest of  jihads) and a battle against unbelievers (the lesser of the jihads).  Our focus today will be on the greater, the individual’s journey toward purity of the soul.

However, it is important to note that the jihad that points to a battle against unbelievers has more to do with Muslims being commanded to do something that they believe to be contrary to the law of God (which includes the sin of polytheism), or to those that dishonor or defeat the community of the faithful, at which point jihad becomes a duty.

It has never been historically true that Muslims are somehow obligated to wage war against those who do not surrender to Allah.  In fact, during what many call the Golden Age of Islam (from about the 9th to 12th centuries), “Muslims were ruling peacefully over large populations of non-Muslims without expending the slightest bit of effort to convert them or to challenge their beliefs.” (From Peace Be Upon You by Zachary Karabell). 

In addition, there is no Islamic jurist (classical or modern) that offers approval or legitimacy to what we now call terrorism.  The armed struggles of jihads of the past were elaborately regulated by Shari’a law (which simply means holy law, covering everything from fasting and pilgrimage to constitutional and criminal law). For instance, no women, children, or the aged are allowed to be killed (in principle).  You have to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities.  These jihads are considered wars in the traditional sense or political reforms or changes in economic policies, but do not in any way resemble the terrorist acts of the last several decades.  

“The greater jihad is something all devout individuals must wage… against their own desires. The mystics of Islam often spoke of jihad as a “dark night of the soul”, where the striver is faced with his/her demons and must confront them in order to stay on the path toward God.” (Karabell, pg. 126). It is a sense of purging and purifying oneself.  It may involve works such as fasting or penance, but primarily it is cleansing the heart from obstructive thoughts, such as envy, greed, revenge, and selfishness, that move us further away from our truest nature.

Christians recognize this metaphor from the work, Dark Night of the Soul (Our Book of the Day) by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish poet, mystic, and Carmelite priest.  It is used to describe a phase in a person’s spiritual life, marked by a sense of loneliness and desolation.  There has been much scholarly discussion as to whether the Christian was influenced by the Sufi or vice versa, but there is no conclusive evidence in either direction.

Interestingly, the inner turmoil of the soul is referenced by most spiritual traditions throughout the world as a necessary step toward a union with God or for a sense of wholeness.  

The Buddhists have a parallel in their practices called “the Knowledges of Suffering.”  In fact, the Buddhist writer Daniel Ingram speculates that the Dark Night is a common mystical state which is independent of any specific belief system.  He uses the term “maps” for the sequence of mental states:

“The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals.  These maps are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. ”

Jihad is a spiritually powerful word that describes a part of the necessary and well worn path toward a union with the divine; it is the process by which personal roadblocks that threaten our spiritual growth are removed.  By continually and willingly entering into jihad, the gifts of the spirit are manifold, including joy, peace, faith, and clarity.  The soul awakens.

 ” The reason for this has been clearly expounded; for ordinarily the soul never strays save through its desires or its tastes or its reflections or its understanding or its affections; for as a rule it has too much or too little of these, or they vary or go astray, and hence the soul becomes inclined to that which behooves it not.  Wherefore, when all these operations and motions are hindered, it is clear that the soul is secure against being led astray by them; for it is free.  For when the affections and operations of the soul are quenched, nothing can make war upon it.”  (Quote from the Book of the Day)

Tomorrow’s post: Ten Religious Words That The Spin Doctors Doctored

 

Does It Matter What You Call Yourself?

The short answer to that question is no.

Today’s inspiration comes from two magazine articles.  One was a thought provoking piece by Jon Meacham in the April 13th, 2009 issue of Newsweek, entitled “The End of Christian America” and the other was published recently in the January 26th, 2010 issue of The Christian Century with the heading “More people are praying, but religious ties are fraying”. Statistics cited in Newsweek were as follows :

-The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, from 8 to 15%.

-The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76%.

-The number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990, from 1 million to 3.6 million.  Meacham adds, “That is double the number of say, Episcopalians in the United States.” 

These numbers reflect a bending towards a spirituality that is a result of personal and personal soul searching, people looking to develop an inner life that is both meaningful AND practical. Christianity is unequivocally included in the mix, but not unexplored, unquestioned Christianity.  These trends validate what I have experienced over the years with those who form a wide swath of religious affiliations and spiritual practices.  While the idea of “taking what you like and leaving the rest” is an anathema* to many of my colleagues in theology, the notion of freedom is primal to the American psyche.  It permeates our daily living, in ways both conscious and unconscious.  And, at the end of the day, if you don’t buy into some religious idea, no matter how many times you repeat it at church, at some level you’re still not convinced.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  Practicing within a specific faith tradition, being steeped in it, does bring rich gifts that mere dabblers will never enjoy.  I also deeply believe in the need for a faith community that both supports and challenges you on your shared journeys.   However, we need to find people where they are, not where we are.  If one’s job is to help grow a soul (and that is my occupation, present company included) that means listening to hear where people find comfort or courage or meaning.  People want their faith to make sense.  Whether you are a member of a mainstream religious denomination or are an unchurched atheist, taking care of your spiritual health needs to have some pragmatic benefits just like taking care of your physical health does. And that would include using a holistic, even eclectic approach to the care of one’s inner life.

And that is demonstrated in the data listed in The Christian Century, “The number of  Americans who are praying is increasing at the same time that more of them say they have no formal religious affiliation, according to a major polling organization.” While adults who practice daily prayer has risen from 52 to 59%, those who never attend a religious service has also risen from 13 to 22%, an increase of 9%.  Omar McRoberts, a University of Chicago sociologist and researcher, states, “This represents an apparent shift in patterns of spiritual practice and identity away from the familiar institutions.  We are witnessing a decoupling of ‘spirituality’ from ‘religion’. I think we can expect to see yet more novel versions of religiosity appear, in response to changes in spirituality.”

What does all of this mean for the individual and for the community, in the best sense?  It means an opening, it means hope for interfaith dialogue and a loosening of prejudices and opportunites for conversations between the believer, the agnostic, and the atheist.  Where does each of them find spiritual sustenance?  What seems to work and what doesn’t?  It means that those who are Catholic or Lutheran or Jewish, may also incorporate Buddhist meditation techniques in their daily routines.  It means that the atheist may be able to read the Bible with a little less skeptism and a little more curiosity.  It reflects a softening and a turning away from the harsh rhetoric of so many of our so-called spiritual leaders.  And, finally, it allows for expanding notions of what constitutes the Gospel, the good news.

*anathema-Latin for ‘doomed offering’, it presently means a formal church ban, usually including excommunication.

Book of the Day: Thirst by Mary Oliver

Quote from the Book of the Day (actually a poem):
When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees/especially the willows and the honey locust/equally the beech, the oaks and the pines/they give off such hints of gladness.  I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself/in which I have goodness, and discernment/and never hurry through the world/but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.”/The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say/”and you too have come/into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled/with light, and to shine.”

Tomorrow’s post: “Putting the Joy Back in Jihad”

Nun Tuck’s Almanac

Welcome Congregants of the Blogosphere!

You have stumbled upon a brand new blog. It is a sometimes serious, but always real attempt to return religious vocabulary back to its rightful roots. And if the roots are rotten, we’ll creatively reimagine these words so that they work for us now, in the 21st century.  You know many of the major religions as well as secular humanism tout  lofty goals, such as moving towards a harmonious interdependence of the world’s inhabitants (since forever), whilst quibbling over dogmas and dictums.  Here is where they can come and get a soft nudge or a solid knock upside the head, depending on whether they are the feather or the 2×4 variety of person, and we can get comfort or empowerment or meaning or whatever it is we’re looking for.

This almanac will include, but is not limited to:

* Providing you with brief but accurate and researched information about particular aspects of the world’s religions to fodder questions and discussion (will vary daily on how the spirit moves me.)

*Sharing my own personal musings on the sacred journey or anything related to the collective spiritual quest (this could mean outlining various meditation techniques or what it means to be in a faith community or probing the nature of serendipity…).

*Religion is a word that has been used and misused ad nauseum.  Its definition, its meaning, is very simply that which binds us together.  The religion of this blog is: compassion, an openness to others’ beliefs and ideas (or at the very least, let’s not get nasty) and exploring ways to engage in the simple daily practices of spiritual fitness.

Finally, while I am a highly trained theologian, you can try this at home.  I can wax theological with the best of them, using big academics words like hermeneutics and exegesis, and I like to, at times.  But mostly, people’s eyes glaze over.

I am committing to blogging daily while reserving the right to an occasional lapse, for excuses such as : the Sabbath (everyone needs a rest), illness that raises my temperature or upsets my digestive tract, a paying gig, or a TIC (Teenager in Crisis, one of mine).

My oath to you: I will not daunt, I will not proselytize. I take my opinions seriously until I change them, at which point, I take those opinions seriously.

What about the Name?

I am Nun Tuck, because I can’t be Friar Tuck.  I’m a girl, and while I’m not a Catholic and only play a nun on this blog, the Good Friar and I share four important things in common:

1. I too would much prefer the company of a community of outlaws enforcing a little social justice to a band of self-satisfied complacent Sunday morning hypocrites.

2. Now while stealing from the rich to give to the poor may sound to some as Anti-American sentiment (can you say “Bolshevik Plot?”) many of us are sufficiently outraged by the unadulterated avarice of the past several years/decades to think this perpetually populist idea particularly poignant (take that, Peter Piper).

3. Both of us enjoy a full glass or two from the fruit of the vine (not too picky about the vine) served with any generous volume of carbohydrates.  We continue to attempt to live simply and faithfully (lots more on future blogs regarding this) but alas, the flesh is weak.

4. While friendly and gregarious (we are in the business of saving souls after all), we are fiery by temperament.  Friar Tuck was expelled from his order due to a lack of respect for authority, and I chose to leave my childhood denomination as the chasm between the choices made by the church’s hierarchy and true care and concern for its people became too great.  If authority wants to be respected, it has to earn it.

The Almanac is simply a nod to another historic figure, Benjamin Franklin (one to whom I give Rock Star status) and his version of an 18th century blog of sorts, Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Tomorrow’s post: “Does it matter what you call yourself?”

Book Pick of the Day: Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott

Quote from the Book of the Day:  “My Al-Anon friend told me about the frazzled, defeated wife of an alcoholic man who kept passing out on the front lawn in the middle of the night.  The wife kept dragging him in before dawn so that the neighbors wouldn’t see him, until finally an old black woman from the South came up to her one day after a meeting and said, ‘Honey? Leave him lay where Jesus flang him.’ And I am slowly, slowly in my work-and even more slowly in real life-learning to do this.”