Cross to Bear

I was born with a skin disorder which caused me both embarrassing scars and painful rashes.  From an early age, I remember my mom offering words of comfort, saying this disorder was my “cross to bear.”  Despite neither of us being Christian, this symbol of suffering had become part of our language through our Catholic school educations.  I had a recent flair of the disorder and those words came back to me.  My struggle is to see if they still have meaning and if that meaning is comforting.

Christianity was not always focused on the suffering of Jesus on the cross.  In the book Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, a history of Christianity is traced with the thesis that the early church instead focused on the concept of paradise on earth, brought by the incarnation of god as Jesus.  It wasn’t until Charlemagne brought his conquest to the European continent that the focus shifted to the suffering on the cross.  This idea of suffering was used to keep the masses under control.  They were made to feel like sinners, for whom Jesus had to suffer.  And in his suffering, he could understand their suffering under the hands of a new ruling force.  As Brock and Parker put it, “Previously, Christ’s incarnation revealed humanity’s likeness to God and restored humanity’s divine powers as first given in paradise.  To be human was to become divine.  Now, Christ’s incarnation revealed humanity’s mortality and powerlessness and its brokenness and suffering.  To be human was to suffer and die” (pg. 237).

So, in a way, the saying makes sense in my situation.  My disorder, though not a fatal one, is a reminder of the fragility of my health.  And it is that fragility that will, one way or another, lead to my death.  But is this comforting?  First off, I don’t see Jesus as a god nor do I believe in god at all, so the extrapolation that some deity out there understands my suffering is not a consolation.  Secondly, the historical use of identifying with the cross makes me uncomfortable.  It was used to manipulate a suffering people, to make them feel that they deserved the life that had been created for them by Charlemagne.  Then the people transformed it into a comforting symbol, giving them solace in god’s understanding and the implied empathy that goes with it.  Even so, it was a rationalization (if one can call this thought process rational) to deal with a situation that they had no control over.

Again, this makes sense in the context of how my mother used the saying to apply to my condition.  It was something I had little control over.  And what was the point of my suffering?  Because god suffered, I suppose I used to think my suffering brought me closer to god.  Now that I don’t believe in god, is there still value in thinking of my ailment as a “cross to bear?”

From a humanist perspective, I can see how generalizing the suffering of one historical person’s suffering can connect each of us to the suffering of humanity, thus binding us in a shared journey.  I just personally can’t get past how Christian the symbol of the cross is.  I can’t hold the humanist interpretation long enough for it to be useful to me.  Of course, I can see how the idea of a “cross to bear” can be comforting to a Christian.  It’s just no longer of use to me where I am at this point in my life.

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This summer I spent some time at a hospice house.  I love hospice for many reasons, above all because I believe their central goal is to maintain the dignity of each person they take care of.  It fits well with my Humanist views.  One thing strikes me about the culture of hospice.  It is that it is a highly spiritual one.  The nurses and other support staff believe very strongly in an afterlife, which I suppose is highly adaptive when one deals with death and dying on a daily basis.

In this spiritual realm, there is the belief in “visioning.”  Visioning is the concept that people, when very close to their own death, have visions of their loved ones who have died before them.  The nurses described to me seeing patients speaking to their loved ones, reaching out towards them, or sometimes, just simply looking off to one corner of the room.  I have no doubt that people going through the dying process, because of the process itself or perhaps because of the many opiates they are on at times, see and hear people they know who have died.  However, this phenomenon is generally understood to be hallucinations in the medical field.

So why is it that these medically trained staff perceive these patient experiences as visioning instead of as hallucinations?  I think the concept of visioning is very comforting.  It often occurs at a point in the dying process when the person is no longer aware of who is in the room with them.  This disconnect makes them seem so alone.  Of course, we all know death is something we all will experience alone, yet I think that that is one of the things that scares us most about dying.  Thus, if we can imagine that spirits from the afterlife present themselves to the dying person, this alleviates our fear of them (and in the future us) being alone.

But I don’t think that visioning is simply a figment of the observer’s imagination.  And I’m not sure if it’s fair to call it a hallucination.  I think these experiences have more meaning than a hallucination.  I think it makes sense that in those times of altered mental status, our minds would reach deep within our memories to those who have gone through the experience of dying before us.  In a way, these visions are from the afterlife – in the sense of the life that goes on in the memories of one’s loved ones after one dies.

Why is this important?  I think the underlying concept is that experiences, even medical ones such as hallucinations, can have spiritual value.  And I believe this is extremely important to the human experience.  What is life if it doesn’t have meaning?  Death is scary and I think it’s beautiful that the mind can produce images and sounds of our loved ones who have died for us in our moment of need.  The human mind is powerful and can be an amazing resource.

So after much thought, I have decided to go along with the idea of visioning.  Of course, I don’t believe that physical spirits come from heaven to earth, because I don’t believe in heaven or ghosts.  But I do believe that people live on in our memories and it is from there that they come back to us through visions and voices only our mind can perceive.  Visioning is important, not only for the people who experience it, but to those who work with them and love them.  We want the dying to be as comfortable as possible, so why not appreciate what their own mind can do to that end.

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Faith Healing

So I know a lady who had brain cancer.  She lives in a place with excellent health care and got it.  Great chemo, good radiation, excellent neurosurgeon.  But who does she think healed her?  God.  I know it’s none of my business, but it drives me crazy.

I think what bothers me about this scenario is that appreciation for the physicians and science that did the work to cure her is lost.  Or at least I think it is. I may be wrong.  It is possible that she can be grateful to her god and still be respectful towards the people who did the real work, but from the way she talks about it, I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case.

But other than hurting the egos of the involved physicians (which is where I see myself in the future and perhaps why I take this so personally), what really is the harm in believing that her faith has healed her?  After all, we have to admit that no matter what we do medically, many people still die.  And the difference between those who do and those who don’t can’t always be explained by science.  I can understand how comforting it can be to attribute this unknown to the supernatural.  Either god “saved” her or god “brought her home to be with him.”  Much less stark than she “lived” or “died.”

Then there’s this woman who’s been having some weird symptoms for some time now.  They’re getting worse.  And from what we saw in the clinic, she most likely has a serious and degenerative neurologic illness.  She has a young daughter at home.  She wants to be around for her child.  And it doesn’t seem fair.  There’s not much medicine can do to help her.  She’s searched out every specialist, every complementary practice.  It’s not a stretch to imagine she would reach out to her faith.  And who could blame her for it.  Now if she suddenly gets better, it probably won’t be from the medicine, the acupuncture, or the supplements.  But it definitely won’t have been god.  Yet, where does the mind go if one believes in god?  Most likely it was chance, but that’s not comforting is it?

What bothers me is how these faith healers cash in on people’s fears, in their times of need.  They bank on that 20% placebo effect that we see in anything that people believe is going to help them (at least that’s the number I remember hearing in medical school).   Then there’s always the element of chance.  And for the rest, well, it’s easy.  If you didn’t get better, it’s because it’s not part of god’s plan.  Can’t argue with that.

Now I’m not saying that faith in healing is bad.  I’m speaking specifically of those who practice “faith healing.”  The walk-up-on-a-stage-have someone’s-hands-put-on-your-head-shouting-and-“amen”ing-from -the-audience-and-pouf-you’re-healed faith healing. This is the kind of experience that our brain cancer lady had.

For the majority of people who believe in something, I think their faith is often helpful to their recovery from illness and perhaps more importantly to their healing.  Let me take the word “healing” back from the faith healers for a moment.  Healing means more than being cured of an illness.  In fact, one can heal without having been cured.  Healing refers to the whole human experience of having been sick, coming to terms with those limitations and finding a way to come back to living life without fear of pain and death.  This doesn’t mean that we are free from pain or death, but that we adapt our relationship to them and come to peace in the process.  Faith can have a huge role to play in this transformation.  But the process is not limited to those who have faith.

It really comes down to this: healing is important, faith can be an integral part of that healing, faith healing, however, has many potential problems and should be treated with some suspicion.

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Ted Peters in “Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society” said that blasphemy is when good is used for the destruction of others.  His examples include pedophilia amongst Catholic priests and rape.  I think he makes a brave point, particularly in the case of pedophilic Catholic priests.  Using their role as a religious authority figure to the harm of others, particularly children, is blasphemous to not only their God, but to humanity.

What does blasphemy mean to the nonreligious?  I think Peters’ definition makes it a useful term for all of us.  I think religion can so often be a force of good, yet it can be used to the detriment of others.  Just look at how conservative Christians treat the LGBT community.  It’s not just a matter of a difference of opinion.  Their views and their votes do real harm.  I remember growing up in Christian-steeped South Dakota (attending a Catholic high school to boot).  One day, I was reading the comics and came across one that featured a gay character.  This made me feel so uncomfortable that I stopped reading that comic for almost a year.  Where did I learn to feel this way?  Certainly not from my parents – liberal, open-minded and accepting.  It was from Christian culture.  Thankfully, I moved on, met some LGBT folks and grew out of my bias.  For others, however, that culture leaves such an indelible mark that they never progress.

Anti-LGBT propaganda is blasphemous, both from a Christian perspective and from a larger Humanist viewpoint.  If Jesus (the revolutionary rabbi, not God incarnate) lived among us today, I bet he would be sharing his meals with LGBT individuals, for they are the outcast and ostracized of today’s society.  Instead, his followers in Uganda seriously considered assigning the death penalty for those found “guilty” of homosexuality.  And where did the fuel for that fire come from?  From none other than Christian missionaries from the U.S.  Real harm.  Destruction in fact.  What we believe matters because it influences our actions.  And what we believe gets passed down to our children, which means that we are generating ignorant and fearful future leaders of our community.

Situations like this make me wonder if Christianity is good at all.  Tempting though it may be to lay the blame on a religion as a whole, I cannot go this route.  Having studied liberal Christian theology and known many good Christians, I know that Christianity encompasses a broad spectrum of people and beliefs.  That is why I see the anti-homosexuality movement from conservative Christians as blasphemy, taking a good thing and using it to the destruction of others.  There’s no way to reach the truly hardened, but hopefully those on the periphery of the movement can see the harm that it does to innocent LGBT individuals, see the blasphemy, and challenge these notions for themselves and in their communities.  Connecting with these people, instead of lumping them together with the homophobic, may be our only hope to make real change in this country and abroad.

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Paying for magic

Hinduism is a fascinating religion to me.  On the one end of the spectrum, it is as superstitious as it gets, complete with tomes of mythology and idols galore.  On the other end, it’s a simple philosophy of clearing the mind of distraction and being a good person.  How can these two things be the same religion?

I went to a Hindu temple with my aunt today and on the way back she educated me about the basics of Hinduism.  She believes in one all-powerful God.  All the deities we saw at the temple are man-made ways to help people focus on aspects of God.  As you mature, she says, you no longer need these visual aids.  She also warily pointed out, the problem always comes with the man-made parts of religion.  I agree.  And isn’t the greatest man-made element of religion God?

Now for the ceremony itself.  It’s much like a magic show.  There’s some chanting, throwing of rice, waving a bowl of water over a fire and then spraying the audience with the water (remember to give thanks for being sprayed).  The best part is that you can pay ($51) to have special prayers said for your loved ones.  It’s so modern you even get a receipt.

This is what really bothers me about Hinduism – the ceremonies are all conducted in Sanskrit, a dead language only known to the privileged Brahmin class (though it is now being taught in schools).  The best way to keep power is through propagating ignorance.  I remember asking my devout grandfather what had happened during the puja and he replied simply and perhaps a little irritably that he didn’t know.  My faith in religion died at that moment.  What was the point if the most devout man I knew didn’t even know what the rituals meant?  It’s a shame that one of the most beautiful religions’ rituals are lost on its followers.

It’s amazing to me how much a simple, harmless philosophy of life can get dressed up and passed off as a religion.  What happened?  My aunt’s explanation is that religion makes philosophy accessible to the masses.  Perhaps she’s right.  But at what cost?

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Fruit of Paradise

There’s one thing about the Christian creation story that I never understood:  Why is knowledge of good and evil bad?  God says, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” Gen 2:17 KJV.  Now if you believe that Adam and Eve were created to live forever, obviously this warning would hold some water.  But, if you realize that human beings have always been mortal, then is dying part of the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ that God didn’t want them to know?

The story reminds me of the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.”  Is it really?  Regarding death, I think of those families who don’t tell their elderly family member that they’re dying in order to not make them upset.  I can’t see how that’s okay.  It think it’s paternalistic and just plain rude.  I think it’s important to know about death, especially one’s own.

And what of evil?  If we don’t know what evil is, how can we avoid it?  Granted this is all speculation on a fable, so maybe there’s really nothing to argue.  I just thought it was an interesting tid bit that God forbade knowledge.

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Sacred Ground

I remember visiting temples in India when I was a kid.  Out of respect, you take your shoes off before you enter the temple.  This space is sacred and taking off your shoes in Indian culture is a way of showing respect.  When I went to Catholic school and had to be up by the altar as a reader, I remember the overwhelming urge to take my shoes off.

As a humanist, I believe the sacred is housed in each individual.  It’s a part of their worth and dignity.  Weighty words, I know.  But perhaps more relatable than ‘sacred.’  When I’m with people, I try to honor that which is sacred within them.  This means being truly present with them and giving them a certain level of respect.  I never liked the idea of worship, but the respect that goes along with it is something I think that carries over to my idea of the sacredness of the individual.

I don’t want to make this sound too individualistic.  I think when people gather, something special happens.  When two or more gather in their name, there is humanity.  It makes me think of Quaker meeting, which I will be attending this Sunday.  There is something sacred that happens when a group of people sit down in silence in the spirit of peace and honoring their inner selves (where they find the Divine).  Corporate silence is something I think we Humanists (atheists, agnostics) can learn from the Quakers.  Their practice is to speak out of the silence “as the spirit moves them.”  A similar practice of speaking as we are moved to I think would be a wonderful way to share our experience of that which is sacred within us.

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