Tag Archive for: God


How serendipitous! The BBC news agency published an article on Sept. 2nd relating that Prof. Stephen Hawking, in his latest book The Grand Design, has concluded that God was not necessary to create the universe. Among Hawking’s statements: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch-paper and set the universe going”…”The Big Bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics”…and finally, and for me, most importantly, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”

In my August 31st post entitled “Awe…some”, I was offering a different way to think about God, using new language to include God in the discussion with a wide swath of people with variant viewpoints.  It was not the anthropomorphic construct of a Father or Lord with flowing, shimmering robes and a long white beard.  Rather it was “God as the ultimate mystery of things, as the serendipitous creativity manifest throughout the universe…through which new forms and configurations of reality and life have come into being.” (Thank you Gordon Kaufman).

Spontaneous creation says Hawking, Serendipitous creativity says Kaufman.  Scientist, Theologian.  To my way of thinking, the more that one wants to separate these two fields of inquiry, the closer they appear to fuse.  Science and Religion are compatible. They need not be at odds with one another. Whether we are referring to either science or religion, we must be willing to expand our vocabulary, to open our minds to ways of seeing the world, the universe, in ways that to previous generations seemed unimaginable.  This takes both a willing faith to jump into the unknown as well as all of our faculties of reason to make sense of our new discoveries.

The prevalent worldview is that there is only “this”-the space-time world of matter and energy and whatever  other natural forces lie behind or beyond it.  This modern, nonreligious construct has no foundational place for tradition notions of God.  It thus makes the reality of God problematic.  For some, it leads to rejecting the reality of God, or at least to serious doubts about God, and thus to atheism or agnosticism.

And for those who continue to believe in God, it changes how God is thought of.  Many Christians basically accept the modern worldview’s image of reality and then add God onto it.  God is the one who created the space-time world of matter and energy as a self-contained system, set it in motion, and perhaps sometimes intervenes in it.  God becomes a supernatural being “out there” who created a universe from which God is normally absent.  This is a serious distortion of the meaning of the word “God”.

For me, God always points to something greater,  a “More” and an “And” . Why can’t God be Creator, Spontaneous Creation, and Serendipitous Creativity? We can live out of our imaginations. The vision of reality emerging in postmodern physics does not settle our understandings once and for all.  Religion and postmodern science alike both point to a stupendous “More.”  

 People throughout history and across cultures have had experiences that seem overwhelmingly to be experiences of the sacred.  There are also the quieter forms of religious experiences that happen in the dailiness of our lives.  We witness natural disasters and unmitigated tragedies, and we then we see nature growing and returning to burned forest or flood damaged lands. We hear stories of hope and compassion, beacons of light that rise up when the odds would bet otherwise.   While these experiences can’t be quantified, they can be qualified.  Existence refuses to quit creating.  This experiential base of religion is quite strong; it is ultimately what I find to be its most persuasive ground.

In closing, some words from Marcus Borg: “Finally, no story can be told about the truth of God. It can’t be argued or televised.  And witnesses can’t prove it exists.  Yet the truth of God brings peace instantly.  There is only one unchanging truth about anyone and everyone.  None are left outside of the warm assurance and gentle rest it offers, because God’s truth is Love.”


If you like the idea of adventure, if you don’t want to spend your days floating in a tiny boat called “My Knowledge,” and are willing to risk jumping into the vast ocean containing “Infinite Mystery”…then I’ve got a mooring for you.  Here is where God resides, with an anchor weighty enough for firm grounding and yet light enough to change course gracefully.

Today, I wanted to look at an understanding of God as “the ultimate mystery of things, as the serendipitous creativity manifest throughout the universe…through which new forms and configurations of reality and life have come into being.” (Gordon Kaufman, God, Mystery, Diversity.)

Now, before your eyes glaze over and you exit the post, stay with me a minute.  While this idea is different from our  traditional views of God as Lord or Father, we are not talking about mystery here as some far out, non-rational construct.  Harvard theologian Kaufman treads carefully upon the word mystery, stating the word “in its theological employment should be taken as a kind of warning that our ordinary ways of speaking and thinking are beginning to fail us and that special rules in our use of language should be followed.” 

When we start our conversations about God, with an air of mystery, instead of an attitude of already knowing, God can emerge in dialogues with those from many cultures, dogmas, and religions, without fear of judgment. In lieu of God being perceived on the model of property (in other words, something that an authority figure has, that is passed down as a possession to another party, who receives and accepts it), God is liberated from our absolute and exclusionary conceptions that most of us have inherited. 

 Beliefs like: “I ‘get’ God and you don’t”, “God is on my side and not yours”, “God is saving me and not you”, “God is all loving but he doesn’t love certain groups of people”,  etc.etc.) have no sea legs in mystery.  They need walls and divisions to prop them up.  

Without an agenda, God becomes the Vehicle that brings us to newly created ideas and truths that emerge in free conversation with one another.  Conversation and not conversion becomes the paradigm for engagement with one another and a commitment to allowing the process to unfold, trusting that God will be continuously and serendipitously creating; and it is good.   

The beauty of this concept is that God is presented as something that everyone has access to.  The final outcome of any open dialogue is part of the “serendipitous creativity”, and this cannot be encapsulated by one stream of thought, as all participants contain but a fragment of the ‘truth’.  They are fully engaged in working on expanding their consciousness together; with faith that what will emerge (which has no explicit directive) will be something greater, something more.

 This fellowship of commitment to creative communication “about things seen and unseen” must be sharply distinguished from simply a fellowship of a common perspective.  It is certainly more uncertain than a hierarchical approach to truth.  But it allows God and humankind, in Mystery, the constant joy of creative expansion.  This dialectical model “encourages criticism from new voices, and insights  from points of view previously not taken seriously.” (Henry Wieman, The Source of Human Good)



In my last post, I ended the questions “what is worship?” and “who is it for?”

Well, worship is a lot like community farming.  You come together and grow as a group. You have your own individual patch of ground, but what you are cultivating is part of the greater whole.  There is a sense of purpose that is larger, loftier, spiritually speaking, than the albeit satisfying task of raising your own vegetable garden. Both are good, but they are very different. They both feed you, but community farming includes, the community!

Week after week, sowing seeds, tending to the fragile shoots, rooting out weeds in tandem.  As in worship, you develop a kinship with one another over time, in the shared weekly rituals. You are joining forces to rejoice in creation, the Creator, to create.  It doesn’t happen overnight and takes patience. Much of it happens in the darkness of the soil you are tilling and you trust they while you are not in the control of the process; it is worthy of your time and devotion.  In worship, you are growing a soul and that can only happen in relationship.  

The etymology of worship which dates back to the 13th century, Old English.  “Wor” comes from the word worth and “ship” means to shape.  Simply put, worship means to shape worth.  In worship, people come together to affirm, ordain, and revere what they believe to be worthy.  The vast majority of houses of worship in the world (churches, synagogues, and mosques) are worshipping God. Yet while the God they are each pointing to can differ vastly, their concepts of God reflect what they consider as a community to be the most vital, important beliefs to have in life  and instruct their most dearly held values. 

There is joy in devoting yourself to the work, but it can be hard and arduous too. There are big and little sorrows that cry to be heard.  As well, it is good to talk with one another about what’s working and what’s not in your daily efforts, and whether your prayers for rain or sunshine have been answered.  You listen to a trained expert in the field, but then you have to go out and live it each day, gathering knowledge in your heart and mind but bearing the fruit of it only by lived experience.  You find rocks in the garden, stumbling blocks in your own personality, that you would have never known were there, save for the friction that digging deeper and risking the rough and tumble that goes along with being in community.    

When you are in awe of a spectacular sunset or marveling at the vast splendor of  a deep forest, you may indeed have a spiritual experience or a feeling of Unity with Creation.  But it is not worship.  Worship is an outward expression of the love and appreciation we have for the Highest Good it AND it involved a commitment on our part to frame our life around that love and appreciation. Worship may be to God, but it is for us.


There was a hit country and western song some years back with this refrain:

I’m in a hurry to get things done/Well, I rush and rush until life’s no fun/All I really gotta do is live and die/But I’m in a hurry and don’t know why

It seems the popularity of that song could have been the fact that so many people in Western culture (Americans, in particular) can relate to its message.  The “rat race”, the “to do” list, and the attending “road rage” are shared and common images in our culture.  Knowing that others are as out of sorts as we are makes us feel that we are not alone, right? 

In addition, if that’s the way it is, maybe we should just learn to grin and bear it  After all, removing ourselves from the status quo, changing, is scary and a discipline and hard work.  The truth is the “quick, get me a band-aid” balm that we all want so badly in order to continue on our own well-worn path, with its arteries of impulses and ingrained habits, creates such lasting infections of mind, body, and soul that the journey back to any semblance of wholeness becomes treacherous indeed.

We do not need a specialist to tell us that this manner of living is not healthy.  But the questions remains:  what do we do?  There remains a chasm between knowing something is out of whack and doing something about it.  For me, God bridges that ravine.  Developing a relationship with the God of my understanding has given me the wide perspective of eternity and a comfort that I am being cradled in God’s ever and ever presence.  God is the breath that I take and closer than that.  With this knowledge, I can challenge that clamor of my days with the breadth of my life.

Like all relationships, this takes commitment, time, and attention.  The fruit of blending the rushed routine of our everyday self with the person who we are, way down deep, is a kind of spiritual maturity that does not jump at every tugging.  Of course, in order to find a slower cadence in the flurry of daily activities requires us to stop at intervals throughout the day.  In my experience, without time for prayer and meditation, true inner peace cannot be sustained in any meaningful way. 

Once an ongoing sense of the Presence of God has been established in the subtleties that encompass and extend well beyond the epiphany moments of our lives, the roominess of eternity can get good and cozy in our souls.  The erratic pace kept up in averting the eyes from death, is like the proverbial ghost in the closet.  He frightens us less and less, as we come to know him more and more. 

From the lazy river of a timeless spirit, our cup overflows.  We can promote peace, bring mercy, and be comforted.  We can then wholeheartedly ask that “Thy will be done.”  As Howard Thurman states, “the will of God is native to my spirit.  It is the fundamental character of me.  It is the foundation of my mental, physical, and spiritual structure.  It is what I find when I am most myself.  It is what I find when I get down to the deepest things in me.  It is what is revealed when all the superficial things are sloughed off and I am essentially laid bare.”  Then, and only then, can Thy will be done.


John Lennon wrote these lines for his song “Beautiful Boy”.  A bit of wit and concise wisdom, these words have been a refrain of mine for some years. They remind me that my BIG plans for the day, week, month, or year are just that…plans.  As an example, many of us have had similar experiences like this one: you’re about to go for a hike and as you walk out the door, you hear a loud banging sound coming from the washing machine. Water is seeping onto the floor.  You are not going for a hike, you are going to have either fix it yourself or call a plumber, or least get the water to stop running and then go for the hike. 

This is life. We need to be easy in our saddle for when life interrupts our agenda. The little annoyances, which are more numerous,  can be viewed as daily practice drills for developing spiritual and emotional resilience, gaining a modicum of patience, and as a way to avoid the soul’s arch-enemy, complacency.

I, for one, need to be continually reminded of this.  Generally speaking, I consider myself a good-natured, happy sort of person.  When life goes really smoothly for any length of time, my human tendency is, I want it to continue! I don’t want (notice how many times I am using I) to have to deal with unexpected unpleasantness.  Yet it is the perennial curve balls that are a part of life that polish us our edges and hopefully keep us humble and grateful.  There is always grace in  “embracing the whole catastrophe”. 

That includes the REAL (i.e. IMPORTANT) stuff too.  Not just the washing machine, the flat tire; but the sick kid, the dying parent, the divorce… the losses that take our life’s journey as we  had known it and catapult it onto another plane entirely. We are temporarily disillusioned, disoriented, and at times, disheartened.  It is these big things that can and do stop us in our tracks, seize us (for a time) from the endless being busy making other plans.  We are present in a way that only suffering and great change provides.

Now I’m not a believer that everything happens for a reason or that God saves some people in a car crash while letting others die.  I don’t want a Puritanical God who like Jonathan Edwards envisioned, “holds us like tiny spiders over an open pit.”  If there is a tally maker up in the sky counting transgressions, He/She/It has too much time on their hands.  I know that sometimes things make no sense, and that bad things happen randomly and without warning.  I believe God is our co-conspirator in grieving, in healing, and in finding creative ways to make some larger meanings in our life from ALL of our experiences.  I do.  I have witnessed it too many times to doubt it. 

It’s necessary to make plans. It’s good to be busy (as long as we also take some time to just be).  Yet it is those surprising events (in turns gleeful and terrifying), chance meetings, or tiny disasters that change us.  Take courage. If we let them, our life will grow in miraculous ways.

Some food for thought from a great little book entitled “The Right Questions” by Debbie Ford:  “Will I use this situation as a catalyst to grow and evolve or will I use it to beat myself up?”   

When someone whines, “life is just one thing after another”, I always think, yeah, right, life IS just one thing after another.  The difference in whining about it or in simple acceptance is Your REALITY.


I know, I usually end the post with a book and quote of the day, but today I’m switching things up a bit.  I’m beginning with them.  This one’s from Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being:

“Does God stick a finger in, if only now and then?  Does God budge, nudge, hear, twitch, help?  Is heaven pliable?  Or is praying eudamonistically (praying for thing and events, for rain and healing) delusional?…Since God works in and through existing conditions, I take this to mean that when the situation is close, when your friend might die or might live, then your prayer’s surrender can add enough power (mechanism unknown) to tilt the balance.  Though it won’t still earthquakes or halt troops, it might quiet cancer or quell pneumonia…I don’t know.  I don’t know  beans about God.”  

This passage struck me as particularly pertinent to a conversation I was having with a friend today.  We were discussing those that believe in fate and those who label the same events as coincidences, and how they both describe very different ways of seeing and interpreting what happens in the world (on both a public and personal level). While, in the end, we were decidedly fatalists (thinking that some Higher Power has a divine, mysterious, and overarching plan) for the oftentimes messy but nonetheless exquisite Tapestry of Life. Yet we were also in a quandary. 

My Dad had Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) about 10 years ago, an ugly tyrant of a disease. He was willing to be a guinea pig of sorts at the teaching hospitals in the Boston area.  He had faith that either someone would make a discovery that would help him suffer less, or maybe even cure him. If not, it would eventually help someone else.  That’s the kind of person he was, a lover of humanity.  He died, not as gruesomely as some, but still a beautiful soul imprisoned by his very own  body. 

My father was one of the most spiritual people I have ever had the blessing to know in a deep and meaningful way. I say this, not just as his daughter, but as an admirer among many. The faith he has gifted to me can be summed up as this: “S…t happens”, we are ultimately not in charge, and while God is not the Candyman handing out treats and granting wishes, we can be assured that some Good will be created from any and all tragedy. 

I guess you could say that some people are just born optimists, they were genetically predisposed to see the glass as half full.  One could argue that it is simply the more pragmatic of personality types that logically bend towards a philosophy of coincidence.  Both would be missing the larger point: the notion of CHOICE.  Against all odds, we humans can choose to find meaning.  To look at desparate circumstances, and still find a reason to go on, to smile, to grow, that is part of our legacy of being human.  In fact, whether “God sticks a finger in” or not, this paradigm empowers us to do amazing things.

Most Americans say that God helps with them with personal decisions.  In the March issue of The Sociology of Religion, a national survey found that 82% depend on God for help and guidance in making life choices.  Seventy-one percent believe that when good or bad things happen, these occurrences are simply part of God’s plan for them.  In addition, participants with more education and higher income were less likely to report beliefs in divine intervention.  But among the well-educated and higher earners, those who were more involved in religious rituals reported similar levels of beliefs about divine intervention as their less-educated and less financially well-off peers.

We may be given good news about an ailing relative’s healing or we may get a phone call that one we have loved has passed away.  Either way, I believe God, or Higher Power, or  He/She/It, or Whatever is greater than yourself is present, providing strength and comfort.  As to any definitives,  I don’t know.  I don’t know beans about God, either.


Several months ago, I was casually listening to a piece on NPR when I was stirred, no, perhaps more accurately shaken, out of my decidedly complacent Unitarian Universalist perch.  A fellow on the airwaves had lost his religion and feeling very happy and free about it, wanted to share his experience with the rest of us, in the form of a book he had written.  Most of it was pretty standard fare-devout Christian background (Episcopalian I believe-but you could fill in the blanks here- I have heard Catholics and Southern Baptists relate similar tales), followed by feelings of disillusionment, first with their particular brand of religion, and then belief all together. 

Callers ranged from those wanting to cajole him back to some sort of faith, ones who wanted to argue, and a much smaller number calling to say, “Good for you.”  But when one caller asked if this gentleman had ever visited a Unitarian Universalist church or considered the UU faith, he responded, “Unitarianism is like drinking non-alcoholic beer, what’s the point?”

I suppose if this were just one man’s opinion on a talk radio show, I would have just let it slide.  But it’s not.  Over the years, my mother has affirmed, “Unitarian Universalism, it’s not even a religion really; it’s more like a philosophy.” My friends ask if we ever even talk about God in our services, never mind Jesus. 

Mostly, I get condescending little chuckles at social events and the like, conveying a good-natured tolerance of my folly.  Sometimes it’s a small, woeful smile, an “Oh, you’re one of those.”  What they mean, of course, is that I am a member of a loosey goosey, Birkenstock wearing, noncommittal, not as legitimate as their faith, only “kind of” a  church.  And aside from having a liberal bent, I can attest to having none of these attributes.   

As a trained theologian who arrived at my faith by a long process which involved both head and heart, I feel compelled to respond to that off-handed comment.  To infer that there is no meaningful effect on one’s life and the community or no tangible compass by being a member of the Unitarian Universalist faith is simply wrong.  It continues to be perpetuated by the reticence of Unitarians to feel that they are trying to “sell” their faith to anyone combined with the fact that other religions in the U.S. have most successfully evangelized theirs. 

It’s a tenaciously held prejudice, a myth propelled by a shroud of misinformation, which I attempt here to dispel.  It has become abundantly clear to me that the time has come for someone to defend this little known, oft misunderstood faith.  So,  following in the tradition of the early Christian Apologists, remembering Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, defenders of their young faith amidst an onslaught of skeptics and persecutors, (while unlike them, without the fear of being martyred), I hereby humbly submit a Unitarian Universalist Apology to the mainstream Protestants, fundamentalist Christians, and all strata of Roman Catholics of these United States of America.

Theologically speaking, I am going to climb out on a limb here and state that Unitarianism has been around since the first groups of Christians were meeting to worship God and Jesus in their own physical locations and with their own unique emphasis.  This went on for several hundred years in a relatively non confrontational way (amongst the Christians themselves at least) until 320 or so, when the lack of uniformity posed a threat to the social and political order of Constantine I (the first Roman Catholic emperor). His desire was that these “divisions” be quelled.

Citizens were certainly having heated arguments over who exactly Jesus Christ was, what his relationship with God the Father was, and whether he was God or not.  There were a host of variant but equally passionate opinions; there were almost as many ideas about Jesus as there were people to convey them. These discussions were taking place in  local shops, at the bakery, the dinner table; it was the topic of the day.  

The debate took on an increasingly ferocious nature as Arius, a priest from Egypt, and his followers (Arians) believed that Jesus was not coeternal with the Father.  There was a time that Jesus was not.  God was the Eternal One, a Unity unto Himself.  The seeds of Unitarianism planted.  His opponent, Athanasius, a priest also from Alexandria, hostilely disagreed (an influential predecessor to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity).  Not only was Jesus cosubstantial with the Father, so was the Holy Spirit. They all had been around since the beginning of time.

When Constantine demanded coherence and orthodoxy as the Church became an accepted political force, 22 bishops descended upon Nicaea in 325CE to determine an official theology.  Athanasius’ theology won the day. Arius was labeled a heretic (318CE) (a sentiment libeled against Unitarians over the ages).  He was excommunicated, banished, and many say, finally poisoned.

Open and lively discussions were then funneled from a continuous stream of diverse dialogue to a (one size does not fill all) limit imposing creed.   The vague philosophical language being bandied about (substance, cosubstantial, coeternal) were conjured up by the closed circle of bishops and religious authorities. Political power and not spiritual presence was the real motivation for these councils and their formulas. 

Yet the conversation still continues, with heretics still having their say…tomorrow I will share some of the American voices that embraced the Oneness of God and the belief in universal salvation.

Book of the DayA House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker    

Quote from the Book of the Day-“Do you want to know how I believe we are saved?” my grandmother once asked me.  “We aren’t saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.  People who believe that focus on hocus-pocus and avoid having to live out the teaching of Jesus.  We are saved by every person in every time and place that has stood up for what is true in spite of threat.  Like Socrates did.  Like Jesus did.  Like many others have done.”


Today’s word of the day is worship.  It comes from roots of words sprung from the West Saxon and Anglican languages (very close in their etymology) meaning the condition or state (ship) of being worthy, of having honor or merit (worth).  It a primarily used as a verb and involves action.   Traditionally, we think of worship as a noun/verb.  It is something we engage in on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday mornings (depending on our faith) and is something we go to (noun) and do things at (verb).  Worship is usually segregated in our minds to the religious aspect of our lives, communicating about God with other like minded souls.

This notion of worship is good.  It allows us for the continuity of rituals and theological language that may have been a part of our family for generations.  It may be the vocabulary of words for God and talk about God that we have waited for our whole lives, that before this time may have seemed elusive to us. We may feel like we have finally come home.

Sharing our own ideas about God with others and finding that this God that we are talking about is worthy of our time, devotion, effort… and love, can only enrich the Giver and the Receiver, those that hear the words and those that speak them.       

Yet, so much that is beyond our immediate control is worthy of our devotion or at the very least, our recogntion. With the daily reminders of new life sprung from dormant earth in the blessings we call early spring, I join with a multitude of others in nature worshipping.  The forsythias, the daffodils, cherry blossoms, dogwoods, apple blossoms, lilacs, pansies, jonquils, and the bright, bright green on the buds of all variety of trees are worthy of my wonder, my gratitude, and my belief in the continued promise of rebirth  when all seems dark and gray and colorless.

Yesterday in the early morning hours, I was driving past one of the most beautiful farms in all of New England (that declaration must be so) and there was this mist lying low, formed in response from the cold early air and warm ground.

I have been driving past this property almost every day for close to two decades and its ability to inspire has not waned in the least. The light streamed through with celestial rays and even though my children thought I was completely a “noob”  at this moment, I was giddy with worship.

I would like to conclude with a poem that I wrote in 2006:

Saltonstall Farm

God is not a secret/Tucked away in a special person, distant place or thing/Exotic and ethereal/Turn left, make a right, follow due east after the fork.

Instead, wonder everyday in this…

Green Green Green/Ever and spring and sage and pea./ Sprawling fields/Busily breeding/Open to all.

White farmhouse/rambling/black shutters/red barn/A silo/battered tin roof/America’s  young antiquity, new england.

Bovine beauties and their babies/Perennially bask against this bucolic backdrop/Chocolate and cream/Doe-eyed and docile/Sticking together/Telling the weather.

Turkeys race back and forth, back and forth/Zigzagging the country road/Can’t decide…gobble gobble gobble/Which way…gobble gobble gobble/To go…so like us/Imperfect, indecisive; but still moving.

Neat rows of cornstalks line up/Good little soldiers/Giving life for life./The trees, acres of them, pine and oak, maple and birch, frame the scene.

One lone elm sits deep in the middle of the field/Shades the cows, flaunts its splendor.

At Christmas time, lights dress its empty branches/Clothing its nakedness, clad in white light/ Glad tidings for the harried, the weary; the traveler. 

And in the morning, a cool mist hovers low and mysterious over the land.

And in the evening, the moon rises high, casting shadows, sculpting all like a bas relief.

And Always, whispers between created and Creator.

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