Einstein’s Prayer


Seriously, I’m a little tired of people of faith or no faith pulling quotes out of historical hats to make a point. . .and, Einstein, like just about any other thinker from the past, can be USED by any side of any debate on any subject.

Yet, there is a certain charm and simplicity in this response he sent to a little girl’s Sunday School question, “Do Scientists Pray?”

January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein

from Huffpost and Dear Professor Einstein

Don’t miss that last line.

Most people of faith would not accept “some spirit” and this “religious feeling.”  No dogma; no creed; no scripture; no theology; no personal deity.  As Carl Sagan said, since “spirit” is simply a word for breath (a natural, material thing) then “spirituality” can be a part of a scientific outlook, the awe and wonder and amazement at the universe. . .the delighted curiosity that drives us to seek, to investigate, to ask questions and keep looking, learning, growing.

I think Mr. E  was very kind and gentle to the young girl.  One hopes she grew up to have such a strong but sensitive mind.

Falun for Faith

I’m not interested in mocking or ridiculing people of faith, but I will and I do question the ridiculous.  As a Chaplain-by-Nature I come across 100s of odd beliefs and though I’m never shocked, I’m often amazed at the gullibility of people, and the amazing ability some have to manipulate vulnerable “followers.”  My amazement leads to a strong need to confront the irrationalism and expose the powerful attraction some have to manipulate for their own needs.  I’m also angered by the twisting of minds, especially among marginalized or persecuted groups who may be especially vulnerable to some “New Truth.”

Case in point. . .

Falun Dafa (also known as Falun Gong) is one of the strangest new religions I’ve heard of in years.  That millions of people have fallen for this cultish thing from China is. . .I’m not sure what to say. . .frightening, sad, weird, bizarre. . .ultimately discouraging.

My wife and I were walking in SF today and saw some young Asian women handing out colorful brochures on this.  I asked about the symbol (with the swastika shape in the center):

"Law Wheel"
“Law Wheel”

One woman passionately told me it was all about Truth, Compassion and Tolerance.  Nice things to focus on.  She spoke of miraculous healings and powers but mostly about practitioners in China being tortured (which is of course a very bad thing).  I took her brochure and we walked away.  I said to my wife that this was just like the proselytizing of any evangelical group.  We had a good walking conversation about “how inclusive can we be” in our work and lives?  Can we tolerate intolerance?  These ladies seemed open and tolerant, but of course never said anything about religion or asked us about ours.  Yet, she did say the meditations used some Buddhist ideas, and it sure seemed they had “Found the Best Thing Since Buddha.”  Oh?  We remembered the film Kumare (required for any serious student of spirituality), shook our heads, smiled and felt not a little troubled by the experience.

When I got home I read the brochure, read some of their online material and an interview with the founder, and watched a video of the spinning wheel (hypnotic really) and The Master teaching “the thousand arms of Buddha” exercise.

Here was one hint that my suspicions about the religious nature of this movement were going to be confirmed:

Falun Dafa involves the cultivation of a Falun, or “law wheel.” The Falun is an intelligent, rotating entity composed of high-energy matter. The Falun that Master Li Hongzhi plants in a practitioner’s lower abdomen from other dimensions rotates constantly, twenty-four hours a day. Introduction

(made me curious how the “wheel” is “planted” in that, um, area)

But the most telling is this interview with the “Living Buddha” founder, Li Hongzhi, in TIME.

A few excerpts:

TIME: Have you seen human beings levitate off the ground?
Li: I have known too many.

TIME: What is the final goal?
Li: The ultimate purpose is to enable people to attain the Tao and to complete their cultivation practice. In the end they can free themselves from the worldly state.

TIME: You talk about placing the wheel into the body.
Li: I can use my mind to direct and order things to happen.

TIME: What happens after one attains the Tao?
Li: We have all heard about the Chinese deities. When one completes cultivation, one has special powers.

Since the beginning of this century, aliens have begun to invade the human mind and its ideology and culture.

TIME: Where do they come from?
Li: The aliens come from other planets. The aliens have introduced modern machinery like computers and airplanes. They started by teaching mankind about modern science, so people believe more and more science, and spiritually, they are controlled.

TIME: Are you a human being?
Li: You can think of me as a human being.

TIME: Are you from earth?
Li: I don’t wish to talk about myself at a higher level. People wouldn’t understand it.

I doubt I need to quote more!  Behold Li Hongzhi, the “Living Buddha” (who now has a nice place in NYC–the Chinese Government thinks he’s “evil and deceptive”. . .I don’t tend to agree with that government much), who levitates, heals, installs an energy wheel in the private area, “attains the TAO,” thinks Aliens are Among Us and teaches millions how to “free themselves from a worldly state.”

I’ve been educated today (Chaplains are always open to education!), thanks to some young ladies under a bright umbrella by a pond in San Francisco.  I now know that masses of human beings have once again been mesmerized by another “enlightened spiritual teacher” (how many more do we need as a species?) who came from the Land of Confucius, who once said,

“The one who learns but does not think is lost; the one who thinks but does not learn is in danger.” (Analects, 2:15)


“Asked about serving spiritual beings, Confucius said, ‘If we are not yet able to serve humanity, how can we serve spiritual beings?'” (Analects, 11:11)

Back in Evangelical days we would “test the spirits” with a concern for “cults,” especially Ego Cults.

Now, I would suggest we Test the Thinking, Ask Questions and See what Good for the Human Community comes of this Old Religion or that New Faith.  What are the Ethics?

The Wheel keeps spinning. . .and so does my mind on these matters.

Bible Minded

For those of us who had our brains bible-washed over the years. . .

Most Bible-Minded Cities (NPR)

Disturbing to think how many, in so many cities, are distracted by ancient texts.

Now, for some Real “Good News”. . .

"The Bible of Nature"
“The Bible of Nature”

One of my favorite “Natural Chaplains” is John Muir (alongside Walt Whitman, John Burroughs, Thoreau. . .).

Here’s what Muir said (in My Boyhood and Youth) about the way his preacher father “taught” the “Good Book”:

“In addition to [committing the whole of the French, Latin and English grammars to memory], father made me learn so many Bible verses every day that by the time I was eleven years of age I had about three-fourths of the Old Testament and all of the New by heart and by sore flesh.  I could recite  the New Testament from the beginning of Matthew to the end of The Revelation without a single stop.”

Thankfully for Muir, and for others of us who soaked our brains in scripture for years, something saved him from the tyranny of “God’s Book.”

“Wildness was ever sounding in our ears, and Nature saw to it that besides school lessons and church lessons some of her own lessons should be learned. . .school cares and scoldings, heart thrashings and flesh thrashings alike, were forgotten in the fullness of Nature’s glad wildness.”

Those who pride themselves in “Bible knowledge,” who indoctrinate the innocent minds of children, or pickle their minds in the pure and holy books of any Religion, should heed the voice of the Scotsman crying out in the wilderness:  Prepare Ye the Way of Wild Nature!

National Parks. . .Rational Parks


I posted this on the “Devotions” Page a while back.  Now that I’m teaching another course on the “Wild Spirituality” of Muir and Burroughs, I’ll be referring to this again.  This time with the added wisdom of Emerson:

“The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.  Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” (Nature, 1836)

“Where Did the Founders Go?” 

In a recent introductory class of educated adults I re-framed the World Religions as “Rivers of Wisdom” each with very natural and down-to-earth sources or springs.  I asked students to contemplate the stories of the Founders of the historic religions and how they “met God” or the “Holy” in Nature.  Here’s how I presented this secular perspective for sacred origins.

The Faith Founders (where they went to “meet God”)

-Abraham (and Sarah):  Near Eastern desert; under the Oaks of Mamre

-Moses:  Mountain in Egypt; wilderness

-Buddha:  Forest in India; under the bodhi tree

-Confucius:  Taught under the apricot trees of East China

-Lao Tzu:  Explained the Tao on the open frontier of China

-Zoroaster:  Mountains of Iran

-Mahavira (Jain):  Hills and countryside of India

-Jesus:  The Judean wilderness; mountains; rivers

-Muhammad:  Caves of Arabia

-Guru Nanak (Sikh):  River in the Punjab

The pattern is not hard to see.  The Founders of Faith found their faith in the natural world, in specific locations where Nature set the context for their story (legend, myth) of an “encounter” with the One, the Unnameable, the Named, the Ultimate, the Spirit, the Creator, the God or Goddess.  Or, with themselves.  In any case, the obvious point is:  these people went into Nature and came out with a tale to tell about an experience with Super-Nature (stumbling to put words to their awe and wonder).

What does this all mean?   Where do we take this?  Why would hearers of the story believe the story?  What happens to faith, belief and religion when we tell the very natural, secular story of origins?  Does this present us, nontheist and theist alike, with some common ground, some Rational Parks to add to our National Parks?

Charismatic Chaplaincy

Charism in Greek means “gift.”  (charis:  “favor or grace”).  The grace “gifts” or free, favorable “fruits” of the Spirit.

I've always observed the dove as one of the most nervous and least peaceful of birds
I’ve always observed the dove as one of the most nervous, most vulnerable and least peaceful of birds

I was a part of the charismatic movement years ago and still remember the power of that “direct relationship” with the “Comforter,” the Dove of Peace, the Holy Spirit.  The God of the Universe speaking right to me and through me!  Miracles!  Healings!  Answers to Prayers!  Ecstatic joy and laughter and singing and clapping and raising our arms in praise, praise, praise.  “Father, I Adore You” and “He’s Everything to Me” were favorite songs.  We felt great; blissed out in the divine.  Didn’t think too much, but sure felt great.  And, other than the youthful, childlike exuberance, I now see this as both dangerous and sad.  And at times I can still get angry about the manipulation of young minds.  To be “filled with the Spirit” and KNOW what God thinks and feels. . .well, I get it, I’ve been there, and I think this thinking, or lack of thinking, is quite disturbing and scary.  I realize many are simply doing as they are directed and they innocently mean well.  But the truth is a bit harder to swallow.  To be blunt, I sometimes view this irrationality as a suicide bomb in the brain.  I shudder to think what would have happened if we, in our youthful JesusFreak days, had heard “The Voice” say, “I want you to KILL for Me”!

Here’s my comment on an NPR story about the growing charismatic movement among Latino Catholics:

“Former Pentecostal, then Evangelical, then Philosophy [major], then Protestant Minister, then Freethinking non-theist Teacher. . .and I hear this, and feel both angry and sad. The history of religion begins and ends with an overt or covert, “Do not think. Be skeptical of reason. Believe. Be dramatically emotional in faith. Your leaders will think for you and tell you what God thinks.” The old and new charismatic movement is understandable for its swing away from clerical authority. Yet dangerous in its personalistic authority. I once spoke in tongues, prophesied (speaking with the voice of God) and believed Jesus was my best friend and lord too. It takes many years, experience and a great deal of thinking to grow out of immature faith. If this is the future of Catholic Christianity, a long history of anti-intellectualism and extreme personalistic and otherworldly faith will prevail. Sad and dangerous.”

Chaplaincy should be charismatic!  In the best sense.  I would say that Chaplains give the “gifts” of time, patience, compassion, presence, genuineness, honesty, truth telling and the like.  Then, to draw out and encourage the “gifts” of others can be wonderfully rewarding.  Our natural talents and skills ought to be celebrated.  Our innate, unique contributions to the community are something to sing and laugh and raise our arms to!  In praise of natural Goodness!


Adam's House
Adam’s House*

I’ve heard David Brooks speak and I regularly listen to him on the PBS Newshour and read his column in the New York Times.  He’s a very impressive, thoughtful, moderate Conservative.  And I realize there are Neo-Cons who criticize him for reasonably discussing issues with the dreaded Libs.  I don’t agree with everything he says (can’t think of anyone I agree with 100%), but Brooks sometimes surprises me with insight that we don’t often get from any of our ubiquitous pundits, Right or Left.  Here’s a prime example that applies directly to relevant Chaplaincy.

The Art of Presence 

*Photo:  Adam lives on the street.  I saw him yesterday and we shook hands.  I reminded him of his painting of the house he grew up in.  We put it on the wall of a local church.  A houseless man painting his boyhood house.  Something you only see and know and feel through presence. . .the art of presence.