Sunday, January 17, 2010

What's Wrong With Pat Robertson?

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion--its message becomes meaningless.” ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel (God in Search of Man)

My father recently joined a Facebook group called: Dear God: If you really exist please tell Pat Robertson to SHUT THE F**K UP!” Now, my father, like me, is a very mild mannered person who rarely swears. It usually takes something fairly extreme before either of us are moved to utter a curse word. So it was quite startling to see him associated with these particular words. Before this, the most unexpected thing I’d seen him do was actually joining Facebook.

So, what was it that Pat Robertson said that had my Dad resorting to asterisks and expletives? Just this pearl of wisdom and compassion:

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.’ True story. And the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."

When Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the passage quoted above, I doubt he had Pat Robertson in mind. But to his list of religion’s failings—“irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid”—we might now add ‘heartless and cruel.’ Heschel’s critique of religion is not a condemnation, but a call to action. It is a powerful critique because it is made by a deeply religious man—a rabbi raised in a family of Hasidic Jews, a mystic, and a theologian. Heschel’s point is not that religion is wrong, but the uses to which it is put by human beings are too often wrong. God caused water to flow from a rock, but the vessels of religion that we have constructed to capture that stream harden into authoritarian doctrine and the living fountain of faith is stopped up.

I have seen the video where Robertson makes these reprehensible remarks, and I have to say, I think that he truly believes that he is being compassionate. He is not filled with righteousness or hatred. He is not preaching fire and brimstone. In fact, he expresses concern and hope for the people of Haiti. This does not make his words any less troubling, however. He still said what he said. He believes Haiti is being punished by God for making a pact with the devil. But, if he is not intending to be cruel, that still leaves this question unanswered: “What’s wrong with Pat Robertson?”

I’m sure several people reading this can answer that question easily, but I want to suggest something else, as well. I think that the problem with Pat Robertson, and those like him, is that they have constructed their religion in such a way that it becomes a defense against truly experiencing the full impact, the full horror and catastrophe of events like the earthquake in Haiti. To declare such a disaster as God’s punishment is to make an escape from the reality of human suffering. It means you don’t really have to feel the pain, the grief, the fear and the horror, which are inescapable realities for the Haitian people.

For Heschel, religion and love of God meant compassion and action. It meant being affected by the suffering of those around us and doing something about it. He was active in the Civil Rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King. Heschel believed that we should not defend ourselves from the human predicament:

“I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I'm not accommodated. I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I'm still surprised. That's why I'm against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”

In the Christian tradition, the portrait of Jesus is one of a man who did not remain distant or aloof from human misery. We see a man who weeps in the face of death, who reaches out his healing touch to the sick and needy, who responds to those who seek him out honestly with love and compassion. He saves his condemnation for the scribes and Pharisees, those religious leaders who rigidly hold to the form of religion, but have lost its spirit. To others, the so-called sinners, as in the story of the adulterous woman, he speaks with tolerance, forgiveness, and acceptance.

How different is this portrait than the one painted by Pat Robertson! I suppose that if you conceive of an event like the earthquake in Haiti as God’s punishment, then you can’t feel too sorry the victims because that would be to question God, to doubt both his mercy and his justice. But to experience doubt about God in the face of such a tragedy is an honest response. And maybe it’s against that kind of doubt that Robertson’s version of religion is ultimately defended against. It is uncomfortable to consider where a loving God is in all of this and how he could let such devastation occur to a poor and defenseless people. It is hard not to feel that the Haitians have been abandoned by God. And if them, then all of us.

I believe a truly religious attitude must be willing to undergo the painful feelings of doubt and abandonment. To allow such a feeling is to share in an experience that has been sanctified, in the Christian tradition, by Jesus’ own encounter with suffering. In the unspeakable torment of his crucifixion, he confronts the terrifying possibility that he has been abandoned by God, and cries out the opening words of the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It is by allowing thoughts like these, as Jesus did, that we prevent ourselves from offering facile and merciless explanations for occasions of suffering, such as that offered by Pat Robertson for Haiti. The word compassion means ‘to suffer with.’ We cannot defend ourselves against the suffering of others if we are to be able to respond with caring and compassion. And when we consider the outpouring of concern, the expressions of compassion, the relief efforts, the generous contributions of time, money and assistance; when we consider the spontaneous generosity of ordinary human beings, isn’t this where we find the presence of the divine that we had thought to be so absent from the scene? I believe that if we can learn to sit with suffering, if we can allow ourselves to experience doubt and grief, then we truly stay open to the living fountain of divine reality, which reveals itself in the astonishing resilience of the human spirit.

The New Testament offers this assessment of religion: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:26-27).

Today Haiti has more widows and orphans than it did a week ago. They need the care and generosity that is the true spirit of humanity; they need the compassion that is the hallmark of true religion.

If Pat Robertson cannot open himself to this vision of the human spirit, so beautifully exemplified in the life of Jesus and in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, then he should just shut the fuck up.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Pathways of Love

O my friends,
What can you tell me of Love,
Whose pathways are filled with strangeness?
When you offer the Great One your love,
At the first step your body is crushed.
Next be ready to offer your head as his seat.
Be ready to orbit his lamp like a moth giving in to the light,
To live in the deer as she runs toward the hunter’s call,
In the partridge that swallows hot coals for love of the moon,
In the fish that, kept from the sea, happily dies.
Like a bee trapped for life in the closing of the sweet flower,
Mira has offered herself to her Lord.
She says, the single Lotus will swallow you whole.

~ Mirabai (trans. by Jane Hirshfield)

This is my New Year’s resolution: To lose my mind, to dive into the heart, to turn every moment of my life into a song of praise. Like the Hindu poet-saint, Mirabai, I want to be crushed by God, enclosed in His sweet flower, and swallowed whole by the Divine.

Do I sound a little crazy? Does what I want sound impossible, unlikely, extravagant? Then I’m on the right track. You see, I am tired of asking too little of my life and being disappointed if that is all I get. This year I don’t care about losing weight, eating better, or exercising more. I want nothing less than the total transformation of my being. I don’t want to be healthy, I want to be fully alive. I don’t want to have more fun, I want to know the fullness of joy. I don’t want to have better relationships with family and friends, I want to become Love itself.

There is a legendary story about the great Sufi poet and mystic, Hafiz. It is said that when he was still a young man, Hafiz fell in love with a beautiful woman. Desperate to win her love, he went to the tomb of a great Sufi master where it was believed that anyone who could stay awake for forty consecutive nights would be granted his heart’s desire. In his burning love for his beloved, Hafiz completed his forty day vigil, at which point he was visited by the angel Gabriel. He was so overcome by the beauty of the angel that he forgot all about the young woman. When he was asked to name his heart’s desire, he cried out: “I want God!” From this beginning, Hafiz became the God-drunk lover of the Divine who is still so wonderfully present in his ecstatic poetry.

There are two things that I take away from this story. The first is that any path, if followed with devotion and discipline, can become a path to God. In this case, it is the very human realm of romantic and sexual love that draws Hafiz to the revelation of God. But I would suggest that this would also apply to all the great religions as well. I will confess that I am not very picky when it comes to the ways God chooses to reveal himself. I mean, who am I to demand of God that he choose a particular face or dress simply to please my sensibilities?

Not that I think that it is a simple matter of my choosing one path over another. It is not the ego that leads in this, picking the bits and pieces it prefers from some spiritual buffet. No, my experience has been that certain things—moments, ideas, images—are filled with a power that can only be called Divine. I believe that it is in this way that my path chooses me. The individual definitely has a role to play—Hafiz had to stay awake for forty days before God was revealed—but the initial choosing belongs to God. And though it is the Christian path that has chosen me, that in no way precludes me from experiencing the Divine in other traditions as well.

The second idea I take from the story of Hafiz is that the heart of any path to the Divine is Love. And its two faces, as mentioned above, are devotion and discipline. In other words, Love is both a feeling and an activity. As the Hafiz story shows, there is a parallel between the relationships we have with other human beings, and the one we have with God. We are caught by some power that draws us into a relationship with the other and, in response, we take action to strengthen and understand that relationship.

But, just in case we make the mistake of thinking that the Path of Love is something merely sentimental or sweet, Mirabai, in her poem, lets us know that the road is not an easy one. She warns us that “when we offer the Great One our love,” we will be crushed, killed, trapped, and swallowed. Love, she is teaching, is a radical dismantling and de-centering of the ego. Perhaps what she is saying is that through love we return to, and become one with, the source of Love —“The single Lotus will swallow you whole.” In the Christian tradition these ideas are expressed in the words of John: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God,” as well as those of Paul when he says: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

And so it is that I set myself the impossible goal for the New Year of being so completely overpowered by the Divine that all that is unworthy, all that is petty, all that is greedy and grasping and selfish in me is dissolved and I become, in the words of the old song, a fool for Love. I am under no illusion that this is a goal I can reach in this year or even in this life, but that is no reason not to make the attempt. Who knows? Maybe if I am disciplined and devoted enough, I might be able to say with Hafiz (as imagined by Daniel Ladinsky):

“It is all just a love contest. And I never lose.”