To these perennial questions, I offer some answers―not to close a conversation but to broaden one. I do not claim to know anything you don’t know, but if I can help you remember what you already do know, I am blessed.
I’m openly gay and openly Christian. I don’t believe I had a choice in either matter: everything is God’s will. Yet what the Bible has to say about homosexuals hurts and confuses me. Why would God make me only to hate me?
I believe all humans come from God, the source and substance of all life, and that all scriptures come from humans. Scriptures reflect the best and worst within us. When scriptures teach love, compassion, and justice, learn from them what you should do. When they teach fear, hate, and cruelty, learn from them what you shouldn’t do. As a Christian, you know that God is love, and that God loves you as God made you, but don’t expect scriptures or those who preach them to live by the same standard.
After years of trying to conceive naturally, I’m about to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF). My Catholic friends say the procedure is immoral because unused embryos are destroyed. I’m not Catholic, but is that reason enough to reject their argument?
No. The question behind your question is this: Is ethics merely a matter of team loyalty, or are some things universally right and others universally wrong? Even if you assume there is one true ethical system, you still have to decide for yourself which system that is, and different people will decide differently. Proving, as opposed to simply affirming, a universal ethic is difficult if not impossible. All I suggest is this: seriously investigate the ethics of IVF; talk to people knowledgeable in the field who hold differing opinions, and then decide for yourself what is right. Your friends may or may not agree, but for me, the process matters more than the decision.
I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in God, but I am spiritual. Does spirituality require believing in God?
No, but it does require you to think these things through. For me, God is the source and substance of all life; religious means belonging to a specific religion and conforming to its rules and teachings; and spiritual means cultivating an ever-greater awareness of the sanctity of all life, leading to an ever-greater commitment to justice, gratitude, and compassion for all life. The issue isn’t believing or belonging, but rather living in a manner that continually deepens your appreciation of life and your capacity for living it with love.
A friend of mine prays to God for material things like clothes and jewelry. Isn’t prayer supposed to be spiritual rather than material?
The spiritual and the material are each part of the greater spectrum of reality. As material beings we need a certain level of material goods―food, clothing, shelter, etc. As spiritual beings we need a certain level of spiritual goods―love, compassion, friendship, community, etc. Praying for both is fine. Where your friend goes wrong is praying for her needs alone. Pray for the welfare of the world―both material and spiritual―and then live as if the answer to your prayer is you.
Given the notion of Trinity, is Christianity a monotheistic religion? My rabbi says no.
The Trinity doesn’t deny that God is one; it only asserts that this one God can be experienced in three ways: as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is like H2O manifesting as ice, water, and steam: three very different forms of the same substance. Just because different people worship one God, however, doesn’t mean they worship the same God.
Try as I might to avoid being judgmental, I simply cannot get through a day with making judgments. Can you help me with this?
Yes: stop equating judging with being judgmental. Judging is absolutely necessary: Is this food safe to eat? Is this person safe to befriend? Is this idea wise? Is this activity healthy? Being judgmental, however, assumes that those who judge differently are wicked or worse.
Respecting another’s right to judge will keep you from being judgmental, but don’t let it make you passive. Just because people have the right to judge doesn’t mean that every judgment is right. So judge well, respect everyone, and stay engaged to defend those whose rights are trampled by the judgments of others.
The Jewish God, for example, has no son, while the Christian God isn’t God without him. And neither the Jew nor the Christian recognizes Muhammad as a prophet or the Qur’an as revelation, yet the Muslim God isn’t God without them. And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam deny that Krishna is God, while millions of Hindus affirm him as their lord. So do Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus worship the same God?
People worship the God of their imagining, and often these Gods are mutually exclusive. For me, God is beyond our imagining, and while I enjoy talking about God, I’m careful to not mistake what I imagine for what is. To paraphrase the Chinese sage Lao-tzu: the god that can be imagined is not the Eternal God.
I’m thinking about working with a spiritual director. Is this a legitimate practice or just snake oil?
Spiritual Direction is an absolutely legitimate way of discerning the presence of God and heeding the call to godliness. The director-directee bond is central to Spiritual Direction, so choosing the right director is crucial. I suggest working with someone who has had formal director training and is a member of Spiritual Directors International, the professional organization dedicated to establishing and disseminating the field’s best practices and ethical platform. This step isn’t foolproof, but it will be a start.
One for the Road
Here is a question asked of me that I am asking of you:
My best friend asked me to be her maid of honor. The wedding is at her fiancé’s church, and he expects her to follow its teachings, as he does. I find his church’s positions, especially those regarding women, abominable, and worry that my participation will affirm these positions and encourage my friend to surrender to them. Should I warn my friend against this marriage? Should I participate in the wedding or not?