New Age Woo

I’ve always been interested in religion. I even took a course in comparative religion in university. During that course, I became interested in some Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism. And I enjoyed reading the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi.

But over time, I realized that, no matter how noble the original intentions of any religion are, inevitably all religions become corrupted. And that there’s nothing as dangerous as religious leaders and teachers who seem to feel ennobled by their “holiness”. Many may well be sincere, but even the most sincere can be corrupted.

Yesterday, in my wanderings through cyberspace, I came across Naropa University, a liberal arts school in Boulder Colorado. Initially called Naropa Institute when founded by Chögyam Trungpa in 1974, the school offers a unique “contemplative liberal arts education”. Although it claims to be secular, its programs are heavily influenced by Buddhism. It’s reputation is, however, questionable since its credits are not recognized by any other university.

By BuddhaNU (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]


Chögyam Trungpa is an interesting character. Although revered by many, he clearly suffered from human failings. Here is a excerpt from the Wikipedia story on Trungpa:

In some instances Trungpa was too drunk to walk and had to be carried. Also, according to his student John Steinbeck IV and his wife, on a couple of occasions Trungpa’s speech was unintelligible. One woman reported serving him “big glasses of gin first thing in the morning.”

The Steinbecks wrote a sharply critical memoir of their lives with Trungpa in which they claim that, in addition to alcohol, he spent $40,000 a year on cocaine, and used Seconal to come down from the cocaine. The Steinbecks said the cocaine use was kept secret from the wider Vajradhatu community.

Trungpa’s successor as head of the institute, Ösel Tendzin, was no angel either. He lied about his HIV positive diagnosis and transmitted the virus to at least one of his students. Worse, Trungpa told Tendzin that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, his sexual partners would not contract the virus. (See Controversy.)

There’s more. According the RationalWiki article on Naropa University, one student fell under the spell of her dance instructor, which, it is believed, led to her psychological breakdown and suicide. In response, her parents established the organization Families Against Cult Teachings.

For more interesting reading, visit the blog The Boulder Buddhist Scam, written by a former student.

A Personal Theology – Heresy and Universal Truth

The following is a short talk I gave at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship (KUF) back in 2012:

I really appreciate the opportunity to give my own personal testimony on the Sunday when the theme is “Freethinkers and Heretics”, because I do consider myself as a freethinker or heretic. Probably many of us here do. When I was young, my mother brought me and my sister to church on Sunday. At first, to the United Church in Collins Bay. Later, to the Christian Reformed Church just a few blocks north of here, presumably because the United Church was not sufficiently orthodox. At that time, I thought I should be a Christian. My first act of heresy, then, was abandoning the faith of my ancestors.

When I first started thinking independently about theology, I thought about the concept of “universal truth”. That is, is there a religion that would apply everywhere in the universe and at every point in time. I quickly came to the conclusion that no Earthly religion could possibly make such a claim. Later, in university, I took a course in world religions. And although Buddhism and Taoism appealed to me in theory, in practice they too seemed to miss the mark.”Freethought”, according to the Wikipedia, is the philosophy that opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, and not authority, tradition, or other dogmas. By that definition, I suppose I am a “Freethinker”. But I’m not really comfortable with the term, probably for the same reasons I’m not comfortable with the term “atheist”. Consider the question of “God”: Science doesn’t really tell us that God doesn’t exist.

Following the scientific method, the most we can say is that God is untestable. And if untestable, there’s always the possibility that there is such a thing. That is, to me, saying that there’s no God seems just as dogmatic as saying there is. Which is perhaps a heresy to most freethinkers.But to be clear, although I can acknowledge the possibility that there may be a God, since it is untestable, I find little use in the concept. Even those who do fervently believe in a God can have vastly different opinions about the deity. And so, at a practical level, I believe we must live our lives assuming there’s no such thing, and use our intellect and compassion to guide us. I like the quote attributed to the Italian heretic Galileo: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

The way I see it, science is the best tool we have to understand the universe around us. But scientists themselves are the first to admit that science has definite limits. (Or they should be.) While science can model how something happens, it can’t explain why. For example, why do some things seem to happen just when we need them to happen? Often, I want to know if there’s some specific reason for my existence. And, I think many of us have some vague sense of something just beyond our five senses. I know there are no definitive answers to these questions. But that doesn’t stop me from pondering them and considering the possibilities.

I first learned about Unitarianism in the early 1980’s from an article in the Toronto Star, and later, I started attending Sunday service at the First Unitarian Congregation, when Chris Raible was its minister. After a few years, I moved further away and stopped attending. So for a while, I considered myself a “lapsed Unitarian.” When we moved to Kingston in 2010, Sylvana suggested that we check out KUF, and I readily agreed. And soon thereafter, we signed the membership book. We came for several reasons: First, we wanted our daughter to benefit from the religious exploration program. Second, as newcomers to the city, we wanted to meet new people. Third, I liked the idea of a weekly spiritual retreat.

But finally, I come here to be challenged. To me, the most important avenue to personal growth is to stretch the limits of your comfort zone. I don’t just want an environment where people are unconditionally accepting of my beliefs and values. Although we should be respectful of each others’ beliefs, I believe that you honor my beliefs best by understanding them and expressing your thoughtful disagreement with them if necessary.

Lately, I’ve been participating in a number of UU discussion groups on Facebook. On-line, I see a lot of diversity among UU’s. So much so that, when I offer my point of view, I sometimes feel like a heretic. But the way I see it, the diversity is a real strength of Unitarianism. Many of us approach the great questions of “Life, Universe, and Everything” through spirituality. It seems that fewer of us deal with these questions analytically. Can we use analytical tools in matters of faith? I believe we can. For example, I think the validity and usefulness of the “Golden Rule” can easily be demonstrated empirically. And it’s the one principle that practically everyone can agree on regardless of faith, or heresy. And so, the way I see it, the “Golden Rule” is probably the closest we can get to the concept of “universal truth”.

Cheers! Hans

Where Have They Gone?

Sometimes when I visit my parents, I browse through their copy of The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. Over the past half year, the magazine has echoed discussions going on within that church with respect to LGBT issues. This is not an easy issue for CRC members, and the Banner should be commended for publishing opinion pieces sympathetic to their LGBT members.

Before continuing, some disclosure on my part. I belong to a Unitarian church. Furthermore, I am a member of its board of directors, although I don’t speak on behalf of the church or the board. Over the past few decades, Unitarian congregations (or Unitarian-Universalist in the United States) have been on the forefront of promoting progressive policies towards LGBT rights. Unitarian churches were among the first to bless same-sex unions well before same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada and other jurisdictions.

An article in a recent issue of the Banner caught my attention, called Where Have They Gone, written by an anonymous gay Christian. In the article, the author describes his own struggles with coming out, echoing the experiences of many others in the Christian Reformed Church, as well as other conservative Christian denominations. He points out that many gays end up leaving their church, and even their home towns, after learning how their beloved church deals with them after coming out.

Where do they go? Some of them find a welcome in more progressive churches. Within my own church, there are a couple of people with similar experiences, people who actively contribute to the vibrancy of church life. To us Unitarians, there’s no controversy. Indeed, the first principle of our religious faith explicitly states that we affirm and promote “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”. The third principle also applies: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”. These principles are true for everyone regardless of sex, race, or sexual orientation.

Will the Christian Reformed Church adopt more progressive policies, and accept all LGBT people without any reservations? And will the CRC ever allow LGBT pastors? Judging by past experience, any change will almost certainly be very slow in coming. Only a few decades ago did the CRC allow women to become ministers. This progressive advance (among a few others) did not come without struggle, and even resulted in schism. Many CRC churches couldn’t accept the changes, and split. Twenty years ago, many of these joined the United Reformed Churches. (Not to be confused with the United Church of Canada, a progressive Christian denomination). Recently, my mother’s church hired a woman pastor, and I’ve been told that three families left in protest.

To get back to the questions posed in the previous paragraph, I don’t expect any progressive policies any time soon in the Christian Reformed Church, which bases its theology on the teachings of John Calvin. Compare the first principle of Unitarianism (that is, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”) with the first of the five points of Calvinism: “Total depravity”. That is, Calvinists believe that every person is infused with sin. As the Calvinist Corner website puts it:

“Sin has affected all parts of man. The heart, emotions, will, mind, and body are all affected by sin. We are completely sinful. We are not as sinful as we could be, but are completely affected by sin.”

To many of us Unitarians, this doctrine is absolutely abhorrent and unthinkable. Given that doctrine, it’s not surprising that reformed Christians judge anyone not conforming with their high standards as immoral and unwelcome. But it gets worse. Calvinists believe that all of us are “fallen” not because of any explicit sin, but rather because God wills it. The contradiction is glaring: Gays are shunned, but they were created that way because that’s God’s will.

If the Christian Reformed Church is to become more progressive, it has to do something that’s almost certainly unthinkable to them: They must move away from strict Calvinism. As a start, they must understand why Thomas Jefferson wrote the following words in a letter to John Adams:

“I can never join Calvin in addressing his god… his religion was Daemonsism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin”.

Harsh words, indeed.

To end this essay, LGBT people must know that they don’t have to put up with the regressive attitudes and policies of their conservative Christian church. There are progressive congregations where they will be welcomed unconditionally. If there’s not enough emphasis on God and Jesus in your local Unitarian or Unitarian-Universalist congregation, check out the Progressive Christianity movement.

Cheers! Hans