Appreciating Religion

Birkerts, Sven.  New York:  1994.  ISBN 0449910091, Page 229

The devil no longer moves about on cloven hooves, reeking of brimstone.  He is an affable, efficient fellow.  He claims to want to help us all along to a brighter, easier future, and his sales pitch is very smooth.  I was, as the old song goes, almost persuaded.  I saw what it could be like, our toil and misery replaced by a vivid, pleasant dream.  Fingers tap keys, oceans of fact and sensation get downloaded, are dissolved through the nervous system.  Bottomless wells of data are accessed and manipulated, everything flowing at circuit speed.  Gone the rock in the field, the broken hoe, the grueling distances.
“History,” said Stephen Dedalus, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.”  This may be the awakening, but it feels curiously like the fantasies that circulate through our sleep.  From deep in the heart I hear the voice that
says, “Refuse it.”

John Milton, ‘On His Blindness’

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent.
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask.  But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.  His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Universal Prayer, from  Hope, July/August 1997

So far today, God, I’ve done all right.  I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greed, or grumpy, nasty or self-centered.  I’m really glad about that. But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed, and then I’m going to need a lot of help. Thank you.  Amen.

Yancey, Philip. “The Holy Inefficiency of Henri Nouwen” Christianity Today, 12/9/96, Vol.40, No. 14, Page 80

I once visited Nouwen, sharing lunch with him in his small room.  It had a single bed, one bookshelf, and a few pieces of Shaker-style furniture.  The walls were unadorned except for a print of a Van Goth painting and a few religious symbols.  A Daybreak staff person served us a bowl of Caesar salad and a loaf of bread.  No fax machine, no computer, no Daytimer calendar posted on the wall—in this room, at least, Nouwen had found serenity.  The church “industry” seemed very far away.

After lunch we celebrated a special Eucharist for Adam, the young man Nouwen looked after.  With solemnity, but also a twinkle in his eye, Nouwen led the liturgy in honor of Adam’s twenty-sixth birthday.  Unable to talk, walk, or dress himself, profoundly retarded, Adam gave no sign of comprehension.  He seemed to recognize, at least, that his family had come.  He drooled throughout the ceremony and grunted loudly a few times.

Later Nouwen told me it took him nearly two hours to prepare Adam each day.   Bathing and shaving him, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, guiding his hand as he tried to eat breakfast-these simple, repetitive acts had become for him almost like an hour of meditation.

I must admit I had a fleeting doubt as to whether this was the best use of the busy priest’s time.  Could not someone else take over the manual chores?  When I cautiously broached the subject with Nouwen himself, he informed me that I had completely misinterpreted him.  “I am not giving up anything,” he insisted.   “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Architecture Magazine December, 1999

Percentage of Americans who believe in God or a “universal spirit”: 96
Percentage who believe in miracles: 69
Percentage who believe in hell:   63
Percentage who believe in an afterlife: 53
Percentage of Americans who believe they are God: 3


Merton, Thomas.  Contemplation In A World Of Action. New York:  1971.  ISBN 74123702, Page 158

It is a curious fact that in the traditional polemic between action and contemplation, modern apologists for the “contemplative” life have tended to defend it on pragmatic grounds—in terms of action and efficacy.  In other words, monks and nuns in cloisters are not “useless,” because they are engaged in a very efficacious kind of spiritual activity.  They are not idle, lazy, evasive:  they are “getting things done,” but in a mysterious and esoteric sort of way, an invisible, spiritual way, by means of their prayers.  Instead of acting upon things and persons in the world, they act directly upon God by prayer.  This is in fact a “superior kind of activity,” a “supreme efficacy,” but people do not see it.  It has to be believed.  

Bill McKibben, “Sometimes You Just Have To Turn It Off,” Esquire Magazine, October 1993 Pages 66-7

There are other broadcasts, on wavelengths that do not appear on our cable boxes, other commentaries, which do not appear in the back pages of newspapers. These natural broadcasts are timeless—the sense of the presence of the divine, for instance, that has marked human beings in every culture as far back as anthropologists can go and that we now try unsuccessfully to buy from televangelists or crystal merchants.  These broadcasts are low, resonant only in stillness.  They are easily jammed—we don’t have to be in the woods to hear them, but we have to be quiet.

Harrison, Steven.  Doing Nothing:  Coming to the end of the Spiritual Search. New York: 1997. ISBN 0824516842, Pages 38 and 39

As it turns out, nothing is a surprisingly active place, but it is here that we may discover what we are.  In the resistance to doing nothing, the fear of doing nothing, of being nothing, we begin to discover the parameters of the self.

Sit in a room for one week and do nothing.  What will happen to us?  Will we die from it? Will we become insane?  Why does such a thing as doing nothing cause such fear?

Doing nothing outlines the doer in an unmistakable way.  If we wish to approach our mind, the most direct way is to do nothing.  If we want to go beyond our mind, do nothing.

Robert Wright, Sociobiology The Moral Animal, New York, 1994:  ISBN 0679407731, Page 115

Life is full of cases where a slight expenditure on one person’s part can yield a larger saving on another person’s part.  For example:  holding open a door for the person walking behind you.  A society in which everyone holds the door open for people behind them is a society in which everyone is better off (assuming none of us has an odd tendency to walk through doors in front of people).  If you can create this sort of system of mutual consideration—a moral system—it’s worth the trouble from everyone”s point of view.

In this light, the argument for a utilitarian morality can be put concisely: widely practiced utilitarianism promises to make everyone better off; and so far as we can tell, that’s what everyone wants.

Mill followed the logic of non-zero-sumness (without using the term, or even being very explicit about the idea) to its logical conclusion.  He wanted to maximize overall happiness; and the way to maximize it is for everyone to be thoroughly self-sacrificing.  You shouldn’t hold doors open for people only if you can do so quite easily and thereby save them lots of trouble.  You should hold doors open whenever the amount of trouble you save them is even infinitesimally greater than the trouble you take.  You should, in short, go through life considering the welfare of everyone else exactly as important as your own welfare.

 Merton, Thomas.  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. 1994.  ISBN 1879418142, Page 252

This invisible body of Christ will have no church buildings and no ministers or priests, but its members will not lack for Christian fellowship.  As in the developing secular “global village,” they will encounter each other wherever they go and whatever they do.  They will be identified not by denominational labels, lapel pins, or bumper stickers, but by the spirit in which they live.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education, Macmillan, 1916, Chapter Nine: “Natural Development and Social Efficiency as Aims”

The aim of efficiency (like any educational aim ) must be included within the process of experience. When it is measured by tangible external products, and not by the achieving of a distinctively valuable experience, it becomes materialistic. Results in the way of commodities which may be the outgrowth of an efficient personality are, in the strictest sense, by-products of education: by-products which are inevitable and important, but nevertheless by-products. To set up an external aim strengthens by reaction the false conception of culture which identifies it with something purely “inner.” And the idea of perfecting an “inner” personality is a sure sign of social divisions. What is called inner is simply that which does not connect with others — which is not capable of free and full communication. What is termed spiritual culture has usually been futile, with something rotten about it, just because it has been  conceived as a thing which a man might have internally — and therefore exclusively. What one is as a person is what one is as associated with others, in a free give and take of intercourse. This transcends both the efficiency which consists in supplying products to others and the culture which is an exclusive refinement and polish.

Kyle, David T.  Human Robots & Holy Mechanics: Reclaiming Our Souls in a Machine World.  Oregon: 1993.  ISBN 0963231006, Pages 274-76

Emerging out of our own silence and listening to the Voice, this Other, this Logos, will clearly present choices that will change our work, the pace of our lives, the way we spend our money, and where and how we live.  Let me present some modest proposals that can begin to change the container of our experience in order to hear this Other more clearly:

1.                              Do a media fast and join in silence with friends.  You can start with a media fast as a kind of purification process.  Before vision quests, or significant personal efforts for change, indigenous people prepare themselves by cleansing and refocusing both their body and psyche.  They will fast from food for two or three days, do a ritual purification in a sweat-lodge ceremony, or go alone into nature to be silent for a period of days.  Each of these acts is a means of opening themselves to hear more clearly their own voice and the voice of the Other in nature.  Make a commitment to your spouse or to a friend to not read newspapers, watch television, listen to the radio or stereo for a week or more.  Notice the compulsion and addiction you have for the media.  Notice what you do with your time when you’re not being occupied with the media.  Notice the pattern and level of thoughts when you are not taking in all the visual and auditory stimuli and input.  During those hours when you would watch TV or read the paper, go into the yard or to a park—just sit and listen to natural sounds.  Unhook from the Machine’s world for awhile and notice the wonder of being nourished by the natural world.  You could also walk together with family or friends in the woods or park while remaining silent.  Or sit as a group with friends or family in silence for 45 minutes to an hour, and then share together what you each “heard.”

2.                                Start a small community by inviting friends for dinner and simply having a self-conscious discussion about the Machine and its effects on your lives.  Invite your friends to express their feelings and unspoken desires.

1.                                 Let our individual imaginations join together in creativity.  Come together with a small group of friends or work associates and talk about how to live differently.  Explore how to perform our work in the Machine in a manner that takes the power back from the Machine’s dominance.  Focus on ways that use the power in our local environment to create such things as co-housing, a LETSystem, or a neighborhood community.

4.                                Challenge each other in a spirit of inquiry. Examine each other’s beliefs and assumptions and make them a conscious part of any dialogue.  Watch for and expand on the epiphanal “aha’s” that occur as you converse.

5.                                Sing and chant with each other.  Discover together the power and healing of song in our lives.  All ancient people knew this great gift of sound in their lives.  Let your unique song, the one that each is asked to sing as death approaches be given to you now so that you can draw upon its power and strength for the days ahead.

6.                                Learn to pray and be thankful daily for your life.  Whatever your conception of the Mystery of life, acknowledge your relationship to it.  People that live in balance with the natural world share the value of expressing gratitude and asking for help.

7.                                Respect the living forms that are all around us.  Make relationships to people, animals, plants and physical objects a focus of awareness and respect.  This extends to inanimate objects like tools and kitchen utensils.  Carl Jungdescribes how the tools we use take on a life of their own.  If we mistreat them they find ways to mistreat us.

8.                                If you are in your fifties or older, bring together other women and men of our same age and explore with them how to be initiated into a wisdom that can bring healing and balance to your community.  Take the initiative as elder-leaders to bring younger people together into communal activities described above.


Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth New York: Harper and Row, 1978

Page 1

Superficiality is the curse of our age.  The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.

Page 8

When disciplines degenerate into law, they are used to manipulate people…. Once we have made a law, we have an “externalism” by which we can judge who is measuring up and who is not.
Page 69

Simplicity is freedom.  Duplicity is bondage.  Simplicity brings joy and balance.  Duplicity brings anxiety and fear…. We decide ourselves if we believe we can possess the inward reality without its having a profound effect on how we live.  To attempt to arrange an outward life-style of simplicity without the inward reality lads to deadly legalism.
Page 70

Simplicity begins in inward focus and unity. We cease from showy extravagance, not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle.  Out goods become available to others.  Inwardly modern man is fractured and fragmented.  He is trapped in a maze of competing attachments. The modern hero is the poor boy who becomes rich rather than the Franciscan or Buddhist ideal of the rich boy who voluntarily becomes poor. (We still find it hard to imagine that either could happen to a girl!)  Covetousness we call ambition.  Hoarding we call prudence.  Greed we call industry.
Page 77

Freedom from anxiety is characterized by three inner attitudes…. To receive what we have as a gift from god is the fist inner attitude of simplicity…. To know that it is God’s business, and not ours, to care for what we have is the second inner attitude of simplicity….  To have our goods available to others marks the third inner attitude of simplicity.

Page 78
The Outward Expression of Simplicity
1.  Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status
2.  Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
3.  Develop a habit of giving things away.
4.  Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.
5.  Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
6.  Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
7.  Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later schemes.
8.  If you consent to do a task, do it.
9.  Avoid flattery and half truths.
10. Reject anything that will bred the oppression of others.
11. Shun whatever would distract you from your main goal.

Sine, Tom.  Mustard Seed vs. McWorld.  Baker Books, Michigan:  ISBN 08010-9088-1, Page 23


Mustard Seed

Defining the ultimate

Defines the ultimate
in terms of economic
growth and efficiency

Defines the ultimate
in terms of spiritual and
societal transformation