02 May 2012

Especially for my followers

If you're following my blog and waiting for updates, please note that I've changed my hosting to Wordpress, so the new blog address is http://danbrowning.wordpress.com. Please surf on over there and sign up for updates!

21 February 2012

Immaculate Contraception

Much ink has already been spilled about the recent uproar over the Obama Administration’s decision to require employer-provided health insurance plans to cover contraceptive drugs for women. The initial decision carved out an exception for explicitly religious employers (e.g., churches and other congregations with faith-based objections to contraception), and the follow-up compromise also allows religiously affiliated charities (e.g., hospitals and colleges) to decline to provide contraceptives directly, said responsibility then falling on the insurance companies themselves. By all objective analyses, the latter arrangement would result in a significant overall cost savings to the insurance companies, because it’s cheaper to prevent a woman from getting pregnant than it is to provide her with the necessary medical treatment during and after her pregnancy.

Despite the prior exception and the subsequent compromise, many conservative religious groups have objected to this perceived trampling on their First Amendment rights, most prominent among those groups being the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church (not so much the rank and file). Most of the commentary on either side of this debate has focused on whether the central issue is really the government’s infringement of the free exercise of religion, or whether the central issue is the right of women to equal access to health care and control over their own medical choices.

However, what I haven’t seen much of in the stories and commentary I’ve read is an examination of the beliefs behind the objection to contraception. Yes, this is America, and everyone has a right to their own religious beliefs and practices, no matter how retrograde those beliefs and practices may be. That right, however, does not extend to being able to control the actions of other persons in society, despite what many Presidential candidates wish to claim. Also, if your religious beliefs explicitly contradict the personal liberty and freedom of others guaranteed by law, then you do not have a Constitutionally protected right to act on those beliefs to the detriment of other citizens. [Egregious but illustrative example: My religion requires me to offer a virgin sacrifice at the harvest festival. If I act on my beliefs, the First Amendment won’t save me from being prosecuted for murder.]

But what about this retrograde theology? What explains the religious objections to contraception? Or put another way, why can’t religion and sex get along? I have a theory, and I’ll apologize in advance for its somewhat Freudian roots, but I think that analytical psychology can shed some revealing light on this issue (if you want to know more, go pick up a copy of The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker).

Consider the official (though widely ignored by its membership) Catholic Church stance against birth control. Why is this Church doctrine? Because according to the theological potentates in the Church, God intends sex to be a means of procreation. That’s right, God didn’t give us sex to have fun, God gave us sex to “go forth and multiply.” The Christian Church dating back at least to Augustine, if not implicitly to St. Paul, has said that sex is for procreation, not for pleasure.

It’s important to point out that it’s not just the Catholic Church that believes this. Hints of this theological approach run throughout various evangelical Christian groups, as well as conservative Muslim and Jewish groups. All of these groups view sex as a necessary evil - something that we do so that we can perpetuate ourselves as a species - but we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves too much while we’re doing it.

And as an aside, adherents of conservative religions also condemn homosexual sex acts and find them repulsive, because they are inherently non-procreative. Homosexuals are considered to be sinful because they aren’t having sex for procreative purposes, but solely for pleasure and emotional bonding and expressing love and all of those other reasons that, actually, most of us think of as being pretty good reasons for sex.

But why do such religions reserve sex only for procreation? Because consciously or unconsciously, sex reminds us of our earthly, creaturely, finite, mortal nature. It makes us aware that we’re animals too, and not some set-apart, specially-spiritually-endowed creation. Our difference from “the animals” is one of degree rather than kind. We too are inextricably linked to our bodies. Thus the well-known French phrase “la petite mort,” translated as “the little death,” a metaphor for sexual climax.

Seriously. That’s the problem that religion has with sex. When we engage in sexual behavior, we’re inescapably reminded that we too are animals, and thus that we too have finite lives, and our mortality weighs heavy upon us, and we only allow sex for procreation because it propagates our species, thus continuing our species’ life (if not our own individual lives) infinitely and giving us a measure of immortality through our descendants.

How can we get beyond this? By acknowledging that we are indeed mortal creatures, and that we inhabit physical bodies with all of their foibles and limitations and embarrassments, and embracing all of that messiness anyway, and even rejoicing in it, because that’s the true nature of creation. That’s the deep truth that lies at what could be the healthy intersection of spirit and sex. 

11 January 2012

An Advent homily

Some of you may have heard that my local congregation, for some unfathomable reason, called on me to deliver a homily during the Advent season this year. For those interested in hearing my thoughts for a change rather than reading them, here's a link to an mp3 recording of said homily. (This is my first attempt at podcasting, such as it is, so please let me know if you have any problems accessing the mp3.)

The homily does contain a few references to matters particular to our congregation, but hopefully there's enough good general stuff in there about Mariology, incarnational theology, and Advent to keep you entertained. As always, if you find anything I've said to be useful or helpful, please share it widely with others.

04 January 2012

New Year's Resolutions, part one (a look back)

Before you start making (or breaking!) your 2012 New Year’s resolutions, why not take a few minutes to recall the ones you made at the beginning of 2011, and spend a little while examining whether you made a decent effort at keeping those last year? I know, it’s much easier to set new goals than to go back over old goals and see if we met them. But what’s the point of setting goals if you don’t ever measure your progress against them?

And then there’s that much-derided word, “metrics” – how do you measure your progress, your efforts? How have I measured up? Not as well as I could have, but I do think that compassion was one of the overarching themes I tried to embody in 2011. Trust me, I made plenty of mistakes along the way. Some were public, while others were more private; some were big and some were small. Overall, though, is the arc of my life bending in the right direction? Oftentimes this year it didn’t seem that way, but perhaps there is yet an element of grace in the cosmos that has enabled me to try again this year.

Some of you may have a hard time recalling what you resolved a year ago. Fortunately (or not) for me, I published mine in the Decatur News Online for all to read. Here’s my article from the beginning of 2011. If you haven’t yet made your own resolutions for 2012, perhaps you can draw some inspiration from it. But if this doesn’t hit you in the right place, stay tuned - I’ll have a 2012 version with a similarly focused resolution coming up soon.

Resolutions – Why You Really Only Need One

Yep, resolutions. It’s that time of year when everyone makes resolutions, and probably by this time next week most everyone will have broken at least one or two of them. But don’t let that deter you from making some of your own.

I think it’s a pretty good idea, this inclination toward self-improvement. Too often we become complacent as we get older and we stop learning, stop growing, stop challenging ourselves to be better. We believe that false adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but in fact the most current research shows that even older human brains exhibit neuroplasticity (the ability to grow and regenerate brain cells and neural pathways).

However, let me make a suggestion as to how you might go about implementing your resolutions, whatever they might be (we’ll get to my suggestions about their content in a little while). This suggestion comes from the Buddhist notion of non-attachment that I’ve mentioned in the past.

When you resolve to do something – let’s use the typical goal of weight loss as an example – try not to focus on the end goal itself, i.e. “I resolve to lose ten pounds by the start of swimsuit season.” Instead, focus on the process that will hopefully yield the desire outcome, such as “I will work out three times a week,” or “I will eat healthier meals,” and don’t become attached to the outcome. I think that in the end, this will prove to be a more successful path for you to follow.

But before I go too far down that tangent, let me return to what I really want to talk about – the content of your resolutions, and your spiritual ones in particular. For my part I’m making exactly one resolution this year, but by making this one I think I’m going to address a multitude of my shortcomings.

My resolution for 2011 is this: Be more compassionate.

It really can be that simple. Because when you think about it, being compassionate in all aspects of my life will affect so many of my attitudes and actions. However, please don’t think that I came up with this idea all on my own. I’m actually drawing from a recent book by the Dalai Lama, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths. In his book the Dalai Lama writes:

It is my fundamental conviction that compassion – the natural capacity of the human heart to feel concern for and connection with another being – constitutes a basic aspect of our nature shared by all human beings, as well as being the foundation of our happiness.

Whether one is a theistic religious person, a nontheistic religious person, or a totally nonreligious person altogether, one can find solid reasons to exercise compassion.  For the religious theist, God’s own compassion toward humanity is the primary motivation. For a religious nontheist, laws of karma and causality and the basic equality of all beings provide motivation. And for the nonreligious person, a shared sense of humanity and a deep appreciation of the interconnectedness of all beings can lead one to nurture compassion for others.

What’s more, compassion is a universally acknowledged virtue. In that same book the Dalai Lama cites various versions of what we in the West often refer to as the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), quoting examples in scriptures from Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Daoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam.

A variation on this is the directive to love one’s neighbor as oneself, which is another way to look at compassion. Of course, in order to fulfill this teaching one must begin with a good attitude toward oneself. If you’re filled with self-loathing, applying that same attitude to your neighbor doesn’t really do much good for your neighbor.

Beyond that, I find it most challenging to have compassion on those who don’t really seem to display much compassion of their own. Just as it’s hard to love one’s enemies, it’s hard to be compassionate toward those who are hateful and hurtful. How can I possibly feel compassion for terrorists who bomb and behead innocent civilians, or toward fundamentalists who spew hatred toward those who differ with them?

But that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to be compassionate toward the political figures with whom I disagree, and the drivers on I-285 who persist in cutting me off, and the whack job religious zealots, and everyone else who ticks me off in the coming year.

Because that’s the true measure of one’s compassion.