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Blind Chihuahua

More to religion
than pleasing
your imaginary friend

The Human Condition
Judgment and Redemption
Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
Christians, Jews, and Muslims
The Language of War
The Grammar of Peace

The Human Condition

For two thousand years we have been talking our way past the event in which we and our Accompanist named ourselves, in which we self-identified, or "came out," so to speak. And in this latter day, the language no longer speaks to most of us. It is moribund, perhaps dead. To those who want to keep it that way, hey, pretend I'm from Mars. To those who are willing to risk a change, I say let the dead bury their dead. Let us attempt to revive the language. The pilgrimage is hard, our progress is doubtful, the end looks grim, and we need to talk.[1]

We need to talk about what grabs us. Each of us is grasped by some higher good, truth, cause, whatever. Something most important, some ultimate concern. Something he or she relies on, depends on, believes in, or trusts. Something which, if threatened, brings anxiety, if destroyed, despair, if affirmed, reassurance. This state of ultimate concern is Faith, a state of being which includes piety, doubt, and unbelief. It is as much a part of our being as Space and Time, which give us a place to be and a while to be there. For shorthand to name what we're ultimately concerned about, a short word, God.

We can have gods — gods like our employers who threaten or disappoint, gods like success who disappear, gods like our nations who may abuse or ignore, gods like truth who are limited by what we can conceive them to be. Or we can have God, the great undefined term, that fishes us out of our desperate situation by the hook of our Faith.

Our situation is the Human Condition of estrangement or alienation from ourselves, each other, nature, and God. Let me give some examples. We are estranged from nature: If I spit on your cheek, you will wipe it off - but you probably don't compulsively pick up other people's litter. If you were more acutely aware of your participation in (the opposite of estrangement from) nature, litter or any kind of pollution of the world would bother you as much as filth on your body. We are estranged from each other - do you know anyone's innermost thoughts and feelings, even those of someone you love? We are estranged from ourselves - do you always know why you do everything you do, and why you feel what you feel? We are estranged from God - what does your participation in God feel like?

You can name other estrangements than these four. Karl Marx noted that we are estranged (alienated) from the work of our hands and minds. How many of us can say after a year's work - look at what I made, isn't it great? Just be careful which estrangements you concentrate on, why, and what you do about them.

The condition of estrangement is necessary for what we call normal life, because without it, you would be dead or institutionalized. If you could not distinguish between your self and what is other than your self, you might mistake an oncoming car for a figment of your imagination, and forget to get out of the way. Better to put you in some safe place if you were in that condition.

This state of estrangement from ourselves, each other, nature, and God is what Judeo-Christians call Sin, and Buddhists call Delusion. It isn't something someone else did. It's who we are. It is ordinary Human Consciousness as we know it and share it. In the allegory of Genesis our Human Consciousness is called the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the apple we ate from the tree.

Ah, the Apple! In eating it, the first people symbolically chose Human Consciousness, a choice we all make after the fact. We act and feel as though we had chosen Human Consciousness. We embrace it, we die rather than give it up, and we teach it to our kids. We each eat the apple, given us by our first and most beloved tempters, Mom and Dad.

Of course, Mom and Dad have to work with difficult material. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, (Book 1, Chapter 7, Mentor Books, New York, 1963, translated by Rex Warner) describes at length how we are born into Sin. Every baby is an egotist, ready to sacrifice everyone else to its desires, like the retarded man who raped his neighbor and then stabbed her to death so that she wouldn't "tell on" him. That is to say, we are born into a condition of estrangement - some of which our parents heal, the rest of which they educate to resemble their own.

Our parents are aided in this project of education by our desire to be good, something planted in us by Providence (which you can attribute to either genetics or God). Because we desire at least to think of ourselves as good, many people think that we actually are good, and use humanism as a basis for moral philosophy. Since the example above or say, the existence of war, undermines their basic premise, I view their arguments with suspicion.

If all this sounds grim, remember that Sin, like Faith, is a state of being, a part of the Human Condition. And if we each learn our particular style of Sin from our parents, we also learn Faith by trusting in their unconditional love, for a while, if we're lucky. After that we discover, "Life's a bitch, and then you die."


Which brings up the Serpent. Believe it or not, there are people in the world who will do bad things to you for no particular reason. They are hooked on acting out of their own willfulness. They really get into this estrangement business. To them, making their estrangement worse feels good. Consider, for example, the employee who sabotages the careers of those with whom he or she doesn't get along, because the exercise of such power makes him or her feel more secure. (I could use criminals as examples, but criminals are not necessarily worse than non-criminals, they're just less socially acceptable.) Such people are going overboard with their attachment to Human Consciousness - they are getting into Human Evil. The tempting serpent is a fine symbol for this phenomenon.

I think that the serpent may also be a cover-opposite in the following sense. The customary interpretation of the serpent is that it represents the devil tempting the original couple to disobey God and obtain knowledge, to develop a consciousness independent of God. But Human Evil is characterized by a demonic will to selective unconsciousness. The story of the serpent in Genesis may thus be an expression of the writer's own Will to Unconsciousness, in which he or she condemns Humanity's receipt of consciousness.

I like to use racism, sexism, and homophobia to illustrate this concept of Human Evil as a Will to Unconsciousness.[2] One variety of white racist tries to assert his self-worth by lynching his victim, because he dis-identifies with him - the black man is "one of them, not one of us." Another type of white racist can campaign tirelessly against abortion, without even thinking of all the black inner city babies who die needlessly from lack of prenatal medical care. Not all white racists hate blacks, some just forget all about blacks as they get lost in their abstractions. And of course, black racists claim that only whites can be racist. In all cases, a will to selective unconsciousness closes the mind of the racist, sexist, or homophobic. They are like sleepwalkers who will do anything, sometimes even lie and kill, rather than risk waking up.

Now in Genesis, when Adam and Eve attain Human Consciousness, God kicks them out of Eden (I told you we'd need to be institutionalized) and into a world where it isn't safe, where things don't always work the way we want them to. This is presented as a punishment,[3] but think about it. For a child to become a fully independent, free, and functioning adult Human Being, he or she has to endure the pain of leaving home, and learning to make his or her way in the world. Only then, when he or she is independent of the parent, can he or she be free to know the parent as the parent is - rather than merely as a granter/witholder of the child's wishes.

The nice thing about the physical world is that we can make our way in it. It is a rational place - much of it can be understood by the methods of science. And when we understand the world, we gain power in it. We do not have to propitiate God to make our universe work. Because of this, we are free to know God as God, rather than merely as the granter/witholder of our wishes. This freedom comes at a terrible price - fire, flood, famine, disease, and other disasters - collectively called Natural Evil by theologians, and our doing nasty things - Human Evil. Our freedom is presented as punishment in Genesis, because it feels that way sometimes. It is called the Fall, and it was so serious that all Creation fell with us.


In short, the Human Condition of estrangement (Sin) and the possibility of Evil in its Human and Natural varieties establish our radical freedom in our relationship with God. That's the bad news. The good news is that our radical freedom is the freedom to know God through our Human Condition of ultimate concern (Faith).

Now to really know something, you must participate in it. Those who really know music are musicians, those who really know chess are chess players, those who really know science are scientists, etc. So when I say we are free to "know God," I mean that we are free to participate in our ultimate concern. And I mean participation as inter-being, as antidote to being estranged, apart from.

Participation in God! An outrageous concept, familiar to Buddhism in which everybody can become a Buddha, but foreign to Christianity! An uncomfortable concept, too, for when Jesus spoke of it ("I am in the Father and the Father in me...") people crucified him. After all, participating in God risks God's participating in us - we might be overwhelmed, annihilated, we might loose control of ourselves - it might feel like Hell! At least our estrangement is familiar, comfortable, protecting from that awful fear. And so we shield ourselves with a little willful misunderstanding, a little Will to Unconsciousness.

But is it too late? Maybe God participates in us already. I would find it hard to say anything good about a god who simply watched me suffer without feeling it with me and through me. Now Jesus called ordinary people his brothers and sisters, children of God, and himself the Son of Humanity. Perhaps he was a person who was conscious of his participation in God and God's participation in him, and who declared this state of consciousness to be possible for us - indeed promised it to us.

I call this participation Grace. When we are made aware of it, it may have the character of Unconditional Love, or of Judgment.

Judgment and Redemption

Grace, or participation in God (or God's participation in oneself — it cuts both ways), can feel bad. After all, participation implies knowing, and knowing God implies knowing something of what God knows about me. If I can't stand knowing certain things about me, if I spend a lot of energy denying those things, if I re-invent my entire perception of the world so I won't have to notice those things - Grace will come as a threat. In our cultures, so many of which are shame-driven, having one's pretenses exposed is the ultimate punishment - so much so, that some of us will face anything except that exposure even when it happens. America's fallen televangelists, all of whom are planning comebacks, are some of our more glamorous examples of how the power of denial can resist ridicule, financial loss, and even jail.

This knowing who you are implied by participation in God — if it is against your will, it feels like Judgment. Now if you experience God's Grace as Judgment, you will avoid awareness of that participation, so as to avoid the terrible feeling of it. This may leave you in a state called Despair, the "outer darkness," but you can probably paper over your awareness of that state, too. Then you can really be bad. To illuminate this point let me now praise a famous atheist.

Albert Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus,[4] a brilliant description of the Human Condition of finitude in Time. In it, he determinedly pursues the question of Life's Meaning without any reference to God, and concludes that it has no meaning - that Life is Absurd. The Absurd Man (the person aware of this absurdity) devotes his life to a continual rebellion against this meaninglessness, and even comes to experience all of life more deeply because of it - to revel in it. Dare I say that experiencing all of life more deeply is indeed participating in it? Dare I say that the book's closing line, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy," signals a breakthrough in spite of Life's Absurdity, a leap of Faith, a glimmer of awareness of one's participation in one's ultimate concern?

On the other hand, many religious people use the three-letter word God to avoid just such awareness! They prefer to think of God as wholly somebody else, who makes decisions about reward and punishment according to predictable rules. This way they can determine who is "saved" by observing who is following the rules. They can allow themselves to feel confident of God's mercy without risk of participation in God. In particular, they can judge others without letting themselves know their own Judgment. Jesus made fun of them when he said, "First remove the log from your own eye, so that you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye!" It's this false rule-based (rather than God-centered) idea of Judgment that enabled the Inquisition to burn heretics, thinking it was in better taste than crucifying them.

This knowing who you are implied by being aware of your participation in God - if the knowing is voluntary, it feels like complete acceptance. After all, you know who you are, God knows who you are, and you are still kept in participation. Another name for this complete acceptance is the experience of Unconditional Love, or Redemption.

Unconditional Love sounds great, but the fear of Judgment is in us all. We all have our little secrets, even from ourselves. And so, we have to ease ourselves into the experience - to stimulate our eros to lubricate the interaction. This activity is called meditation by Buddhists. Christians, Jews, and Muslims call it Prayer.


Now the popular idea of prayer in Christianity is intoning a stream of words. Jesus criticized this practice and instituted what is now called The Lord's Prayer, which has brevity as its most obvious virtue. The idea is to get past the words to the business of prayer - of intentional awareness of our participation in God and God's participation in us. Because our own fear of Judgment (being made to know who we are) stands in the way of our awareness, voluntarily knowing who we are - Confession - is one of the tools we use to help us pray. This Confession goes beyond a mere recital of misdeeds, or of good deeds left undone, or even of a blanket statement covering things we have yet to acknowledge to ourselves. Confession is participation in ourselves - the antidote to self-estrangement.

If we voluntarily know who we are, who do we find ourselves to be? A partial answer is found in the African-American spiritual which asks, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"

Let your imagination travel back in time and space to Jerusalem during the week of the Crucifixion. Where would you fit into the scene? What role would you play? Would you be Peter - ready to pick fights, only to chicken out when the going really gets tough? The soldiers who were just following orders when they drove the nails? Judas - wanting the security of conventional authority more than anything else? Pilate - who was trying to please his bosses by keeping law and order? Herod - earnestly seeking, but when the Truth comes in an unexpected form, throwing it away? The priests - who believed correct doctrine to be more important than compassion? One of the crowd, too self-effacing and too afraid to interfere? Maybe one of the two apostles who gave up on their man and sneaked out of town after the execution was over? You see, at the Crucifixion, we humans came out to Christ as crucifiers.

Of course, the other fear we can have is better called awe, as in awful, because God as the "Wholly Other," the Mysterium Tremendum,[5] is difficult to snuggle up to. Buddhists and Hindus are familiar with awe from the section of the Bhagavad Gita[6] in which Krishna appears to the warrior Arjuna in his pure or "unmanifested" form (rather than as Arjuna's friend and chariot driver) and scares Arjuna so that his hair stands on end. Adoration is a way of using our capacity for love to overcome awe, which for Christians means adoring God's participation in Jesus.

Now for Christians, God as Jesus during parts of his life is easy to love. The baby Jesus who knew our helplessness, who needed our love to survive. The crucified Jesus who experienced our own condition at its most painful by knowing defeat and death without God.[7] The resurrected Jesus who forgives us even though he knows us at our worst, who undoes our evil, and who invites us to participate in him. (Christians would do well to remember that Jesus during his ministry was often hard to tolerate, because he radically challenged our attachment to our estrangement, our Sin - he didn't get crucified because everyone thought he was a nice guy.)

God as Jesus is easy to thank for his forgiveness and his invitation to us to join with him in spite of our being crucifiers. Thanksgiving for God's Forgiveness (God's participation in us in spite of who we are) eases our Confession, and stimulates our Adoration. Lastly we have Supplication - asking God to look after our cares, giving our less than ultimate concerns to God. It is a way of unburdening ourselves of distractions to prayer.

And so we have ACTS, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication,[8] as devices of prayer, not for God, but for us. As techniques, we have speaking, singing, dancing, silence, sitting, and all of the Eastern forms of meditation,[9] and Western forms of contemplation. We also have everyday life.


When we use the language of faith to describe what we have experienced so far on our pilgrimage of life, we bear Witness to the truth as we see it. The activity of Witness has been cheapened by those who put dogmatics before truth, and who believe the truth is so limited that it can be expressed in only one set of words and in only one style. I would like to revive an idea from the Apologists, the earliest Christian theologians: God is one, and Truth is one; therefore, all truth is of God's Truth. This includes the truth of science, of history, of philosophy and logic, and of subjective personal experience (which includes art), as well as the truth of faith. In fact, the various styles of truth help us to correct our religious ideas when we stray from the truth.

Now the point of reviving the dead language of faith is to enable us to talk about our thoughts, emotions, and experiences regarding our ultimate concern. By doing so we can help keep our less than ultimate concerns - the ones we tend to fight over - in perspective. The dispassionate languages of philosophy and psychology can be of help, but we can use the language of faith, with its emotionally charged symbols to express what really gets us.

For example, we all know deep down that we live a heartbeat away from death and a thought away from madness. Since this is too terrible to think about, you probably shove this idea into some dark corner of your mind until accident, loss, or illness brings it roaring out. But hiding from it is the way of self-deception, which is ultimately the way of fear and despair. How to face it squarely, how to find the courage to have the in-spite-of-everything kind of joy that returns after any loss, whether of possessions, loved ones, health, or life?

You could propitiate some invented god, pretending he/she/it may protect you, at least for a while. That's what you get with the language of belief. On the other hand, religious philosophers as far back as Lao-Tzu fought against this idea with the saying, "Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat all creatures as straw dogs."[10] As I said above, the possibility of evil is the price of freedom, which is apparently necessary for soul-making.

You might do better just to ask for a little companionship - which we can help each other to seek with the language of faith. The faith expressed by St. Paul when he wrote, "I am certain of this: neither death nor life ... nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and God's love, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord." Or as Muhammad recited, "And certainly We created man, and ... We are nearer to him than his life-vein." In other words, we can derive strength and comfort from a sense of being constantly and lovingly accompanied. A childish delusion, perhaps, but one shared by such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, and many others as the source of their perseverance, courage, and happiness. It calls us to the radical courage and joy that we all need in order to really do anything - like treating ourselves and each other with the kind of kindness that makes peace.

Buddhist-Christian Dialogue

I hope that these few definitions may help people of faith to translate their particular idioms of faith to one another, be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, or of whatever faith in which people hope to participate in ultimate Truth. I would now like to make a few remarks that may facilitate such dialogue between Christians and Buddhists.

I've heard Christians say that Buddhism has no God and no sense of Sin. I think that Buddhists insist so strongly on receiving awareness of their participation in God that they refuse to name God as separate from themselves and creation. I think they consider the naming of God to be a symptom and a cause of estrangement from God - in other words, they think naming God is itself Sinful (deluded or estranged). The Buddhist concept of Delusion is equivalent to the Judeo-Christian concept of Sin with the shame de-emphasized. The removal of shame from the center of attention makes it easier for the Buddhist to confront his or her Delusion, to Confess.

There are many other things Buddhists and Christians have in common, including a sense of social activism. In comparison to the Christian Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, beginning Zen students vow to liberate all beings. The Ten Oxherding Pictures[11] (which illustrate the process of coming to Enlightenment) show the sage returning to the market square to help the people - and who can forget the Buddhist monks who burned themselves to protest the Diem regime in Vietnam? The Buddhist emphasis on Enlightenment before social activism is similar to the idea that one should learn to swim before diving in to rescue someone else from drowning.

What the Christians uniquely have, that the Buddhists lack, is Scandal. The central scandal in Christianity is the ongoing reaction of humanity, especially religious humanity, to the scandal of the God Who Shows Up As A Human. Jesus Christ, the iconoclast, is made into an icon. His humanism is transformed into theism, and his anti-dogmatic, anti-legalistic, anti-institutionalist teachings are transformed into the dogma and legalisms that support one of the most enduring of all human institutions - the church. The contradiction between the need to institutionalize Christ's message in order to transmit it and the content of the message itself testifies to the power of our estrangement to distort any truth that can be spoken. That we can still hear the message testifies to God's participation in us breaking through our estrangement.

A pale version of this tension endures in Buddhism, which renounces dogma and legalism by incorporating "nots" in so many of its expressions. There are concepts of No-Mind and Non-Action, which any Zen devotee will tell you are not what you think they are. Or are not. Buddhist "nots" are their concession to the power of our estrangement to distort any truth that can be spoken. Therefore nothing is said, and the language of Buddhism becomes a code that takes more years to understand than the reality about which it does not speak. And yet Buddhists have communicated truth from teacher to student for millennia.

I think Christians and Buddhists can enrich each other's experiences of the truth, of our concerns both ultimate and mundane. We differ in details like Reincarnation,[12] which is an Eastern expression of the same anxiety that Westerners express with concepts like Heaven and Hell (which Jesus used to great effect). Nevertheless, we are grasped by the same Truth, in spite of ourselves.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to dialogue between Christians, Jews, and Muslims is what we have in common. We think we know who God is, and that God is just like us, except smarter, more powerful, and sometimes more kind or just. The insistence that God be as wedded to a particular personality as we are is a kind of idolatry, a making of God in our own image. We even imbue our idol of God's personality with our own prejudices, like homophobia, sexism, and racism. It is also idolatrous in that we make our ideas of God's personality more important than God - so much so, that if given a choice between God and our conceptions, we choose our mental images over God. Finally, it is estranged in that by assigning God a specific personality (or personalities) we distance ourselves from awareness of our participation in God. To use Martin Buber's language, God becomes a He instead of a Thou - someone we talk about rather than to. Joseph Campbell summarizes all this in a footnote[13] which I quote here:

This recognition of the secondary nature of the personality of whatever deity is worshipped is characteristic of most of the traditions of the world. In Christianity, Mohammedanism, and Judaism, however, the personality of the divinity is taught to be final - which makes it comparatively difficult for members of these communities to go beyond the limitations of their own anthropomorphic divinity. The result has been, on the one hand, a general obfuscation of the symbols, and on the other, a god-ridden bigotry unmatched elsewhere in the history of religion. For a discussion of the possible origin of this aberration, see Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism.[14]

In other words, we find much to argue about with each other, because we make our concepts of God as small as we are. A more constructive approach might be to view our ideas of God's personality as symbolic devices, as ways we and God choose to interact, and as pointing beyond personality to God. Then we can begin to talk.

And yet it seems Islamic Fundamentalists would silence dialogue with violence. As long as they use the Qur'an to appoint themselves God's avengers rather than choose The Victory, they condemn themselves and their neighbors to war. The Qur'an proclaims as The Victory not a conquest, but a truce - which became a victory through the friendships it made possible. Rather than consider this, Islamic Fundamentalists have persecuted the Bahai since they began Muslim-interfaith dialogue more than one hundred fifty years ago.

The Language of War

Fundamentalism seems to be a religion in itself - the content may change from place to place, but the form is usually the same. The theme is that religion should be a set of opinions that one holds in order to be a member of the in-group, the "saved," as distinct from the out-group, the "lost." The strength with which one holds the prescribed opinions is taken to be a measure of the holder's virtue. In turn, the strength of opinion is measured by the degree to which the holder conforms to certain expectations of behavior (individual and communal), and especially by the extent to which the holder attempts to persuade others to join the in-group, or at least to coerce them into exhibiting desired behaviors. It is this last characteristic, the desire to coerce behavior, that leads Fundamentalists to reach for the blunt instrument of the law - that makes Fundamentalism a political force - in India, the Islamic nations, Israel, and America.

The absurdity of using the law to coerce righteousness is most patent in Hinduism and Christianity. Hindus produced the Bhagavad Gita with its doctrine of involvement in the world without attachment to the world, which stands in stark contrast to the sight of Hindu Fundamentalists attacking Muslims in an attempt to destroy a mosque which they believe stands over Ram's birthplace, or the demands of Hindu Fundamentalists seeking to establish their faith as India's state religion. Similarly, Christ's victory, achieved by allowing his opponents to overpower him, contrasts strikingly with the attempt of Christian Fundamentalists to seize political power in America in order to control sexuality, language, science, and education.

This power seeking is motivated by making the holding of opinions and the following of rules the ultimate concern of the believer. Now if our ultimate concern is God, making anything else our ultimate concern, including our beliefs or our ethical concerns, is idolatry - becoming ultimately concerned with less than ultimate things.[15] Such idolatry sets the believer up for experiencing anxiety when the idols are challenged, because the believer wants more than anything to avoid experiencing doubt, disappointment, and "loss of face" if the idols are exposed. Therefore the believer protects his or her idolatry by attacking those who appear to threaten it. In many countries such attacks take the form of individual and communal violence. In America and Israel they take the form of political power struggles.[16]

Therefore, when I look to the language of faith to speak peace, I mean faith as a state of being, rather than belief, which is an act of embracing opinions. The language of belief has been, to my knowledge, the language of war.

The Grammar of Peace

If I look to the language of faith for the vocabulary of peace, I look for its grammar to a man who, when he lets his hair grow, looks like the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. The Reverend John E. Tompkins is a licensed psychotherapist who teaches a course called, "Teamwork Communications Skills," at my laboratory. I have adapted the material below from his course notes, with his permission. He is also working on a book, currently entitled, The Emperor's New Words: Leadership, Communication, and Self-Propelled Personal Growth. See also!

First, consider the following example: You come home from work to hear your spouse complain, "Your mother thinks she's too good to eat my cooking!" This said in the presence of your mother creates instant conflict. How about an approach a'la Joe Friday - just the facts? Suppose your spouse had said, "I cooked up a nice pot roast for us, and your mother made rice and steamed vegetables for herself." Little invitation to conflict there. Let's look more closely.

In the first sentence, an inference about your mother's inner mental processes is stated as if it were a fact. The underlying external reality, the facts themselves - your mother may be hoping to lower her serum cholesterol by avoiding red meat - are suppressed in favor of the inference. Moreover, the underlying internal reality, your spouse's anger at an inferred insult to his or her culinary skill is also lost in the transmission. And that is serious because your spouse is losing a bit of self. It's easy to do such things in English. Our politicians and press do it all the time, and it's probably even easier in other languages which value indirect forms of expression. Fortunately, there is a way out.

Let us consider that people have observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants. An observation is a statement of observable fact - a description of something that could in principle be photographed. "My computer is on the desktop," for example. "My computer is not on the desktop," describes a situation that cannot register on a photograph, because a photograph can only show a desktop with some books and papers on it - who would guess that I expected a computer to be there? Such a statement is a not-observation. I can use it to imply an accusation - that the person I'm addressing is somehow responsible for maintaining my computer on the desktop, and, in a failure of vigilance, has allowed it to vanish. Such a not-observation might evoke a reaction along the lines of, "Am I your computer's keeper?" and start an argument. So, I try to stay with observations, because we can more easily agree on what is than on what is not.

Thoughts are statements of mental processes, ideas or opinions which are presented as such. For example: "I think I benefit from helping others." The corresponding not-construction is the not-thought, as in, "I don't think she cares." The hearer can only guess what the speaker thinks she does feel.

Similarly, feelings are statements of emotion or sensation presented as such. For example, "I am very angry," or "I feel warm." Not-feelings are statements about what the speaker does not feel, which often contain an "implied should." For example: "I don't feel happy with her leadership." This leaves open what the speaker does feel - respect, awe, disappointment, terror, etc., and implies that the leader should somehow "make" the speaker feel happy. This "implied should" can be read as accusing the leader of failure. Moreover the idea that the leader can make the speaker feel a certain way is dishonest, because it attempts to displace responsibility for the speaker's choosing to feel an emotion onto the leader.

Finally, specific-action wants are statements in which I say what I desire in specific, do-able, observable terms. Such statements describe a feeling of desire concerning a possible reality that can be observed or measured. For example: "I want you to attend our meeting next Tuesday." The hearer can fulfill the want by performing a specific action, which the hearer and the speaker can both observe and acknowledge. Not-wants are statements like, "I don't want you running in the street," in which the speaker states what is not wanted. The implication is that the hearer should try doing random things until he or she meets the speaker's approval.

Now you may notice that we English-speakers make rather little use of these grammatical constructions. We tend to favor other constructions which allow us to "dis-own" our observations, thoughts, wants, and feelings - that is to dis-own (or discard) our true selves. The not-constructions above are part of the repertoire. The rest is supplied by substitution.

Substitution of a thought for an observation is called an inference. For example: "Your mind is obviously elsewhere." This statement contains the inference that the hearer is inattentive, without stating the factual basis for that inference. The hearer might think the previous statement more offensive than an observation like, "I notice that you look away from me when I talk to you." Of course, I can really get someone's dander up with the not-inference, the substitution of a not-thought for a fact, such as "I see that you don't care what I say."

I could also substitute an inference for a want, using an inference-want like, "I want you to listen more carefully." A specific-action want might be, "I want you to look at me when I talk to you." The latter construction is much more helpful to someone from a culture in which attentiveness is signaled by looking away from the speaker. Not-inference-wants are statements in which a not-inference is presented as a future observable, as in, "I don't want you acting bored when I'm talking."

Finally, we come to the ways in which we can evade expressing our emotions, feeling-thought mergers. Here a thought is substituted for a feeling, as in, "I feel taken advantage of." The speaker may feel any of a number of emotions, which are glossed over in favor of the inference "taken advantage of," which in turn glosses over any possible observations that the listener might judge independently. Of course, we can also have not-feeling-thought mergers, as in, "I don't feel appreciated in this group," which use a not-construction to add the accusation of an implied should - in this case that the group should somehow make the speaker feel something, and has failed to live up to its duty.

Mr. Tompkins defines owned messages as ones in which the speaker acknowledges responsibility for (or ownership of) his or her own observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants. Conversely, he defines dis-owned messages as ones in which the speaker evades such responsibility. This evasion is typically expressed in the form of the above not-constructions, inferences, feeling-thought mergers, and inference-wants. Given that Mr. Tompkins estimates that English-speakers typically use about 80% dis-owned constructions, you might imagine that we often misplace the truth itself, as well as our true selves.

I would now like to put all this in the theological context of the previous parts of this piece. I believe that if I acknowledge or "own up to" who I am, I feel God's Presence as accepting and loving - as Forgiveness. Conversely I believe that if I seek to deny or evade who I am, I will feel God's Presence as threatening and punishing - as Judgment - because in God's Presence I must ultimately fail in such evasion. A theologian might call "owning who I am" confession, and say that if I confess, God forgives, and if I deny, God judges. So I try to make owning my observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants part of my spiritual life, and encourage others to do the same. (Note that the statement, "There is no God," is a not-inference.)

Now when I'm in a conversation I forgo classifying statements according to the definitions above. I simply listen for the "nots", the "shoulds" (actual or implied), and the substitutions of thoughts for feelings, or thoughts for facts. I also note the substitution of "you", "we", or "somebody" when the speaker really means "I", and the "but" which implies a "not." The question is now, "How can I use my awareness of owned and disowned speech to help make peace?"

In negotiating situations, I can decode the parties' dis-owned speech for what I think they mean, translate my decoding into owned wording, and test my understanding by speaking my "owned" paraphrase to them. I find that this helps the parties to the negotiation (including myself, if I am one of them) to come to a greater understanding of themselves, as well as each other.

I note that the dis-owned style is deeply ingrained in our culture, including our religious institutions. This is useful when it helps us to communicate in a shorthand that everyone understands. It risks conflict when many of us are using the same shorthand to mean different things.

To illustrate this last idea, consider classifying the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) in terms of "not-want", "inference-want", etc. Then, consider paraphrasing them as owned specific-action wants. Would many of your friends agree as to the paraphrasing? When I tried this I found that my paraphrases were long, culturally and historically relative, individualistic, and difficult for me to remember. I suspect that the disowned style may be God's way of putting me on the spot - in order to understand and keep the commandments (which are memorable and timeless as stated) I must own them.


  1. For my thoughts in this section I owe much to Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith, Harper and Row, New York, 1958, and The Courage to Be, Yale University Press, 1952, and Roshi Philip Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen, Anchor Press, New York, 1980. This section is a condensation and amalgamation of their ideas, with a few of my own. Scott Peck has informed me that they are also similar to ideas he states in A World Waiting to be Born: Civility Rediscovered, Bantam Books, 1993. One might suspect that our ideas have converged because they are expressions of what Harold Bloom calls The American Religion (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992). On the other hand, I suspect Dr. Bloom of some strong misreading of our cultures confrontation with the Gospel.
  2. On the other hand, when one encounters human evil in its collective form - a malevolent crowd of otherwise nice people - it is easy to form the impression of some transpersonal organizing demonic force or personality. Anthony Stevens, in The Roots of War: a Jungian Perspective (Paragon House, New York, 1989), presents an interesting account of the psycho-social mechanisms by which such crowds are gathered. I think each one of us must search his or her heart to find the cause, however.
  3. A perhaps deeper truth is that, considering how we act and think, and the ways in which we abuse the idea of God, viewing the Fall as punishment may be more reasonable than many of us would like to suppose. See "Killing Christ" at this web site.
  4. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage Books, New York, 1955.
  5. For more on these concepts see Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1975.
  6. There are many suitable translations. I use Eknath Easwaran's translation, Nilgiri Press, Petaluma, CA, 1985, as well as the commentary on the Gita by Mohandas K. Ghandi, Living from the Heart, Siftsoft, Pembroke Pines, Fl, 1985. The reference is to section 11, a misleading translation of which was remembered by Oppenheimer as he witnessed the worlds first human initiated nuclear explosion.
  7. Mark 15:34 quotes Jesus last words on the Cross as, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
  8. For this handy mnemonic I am indebted to Rev. Jack Schieman.
  9. See Anthony de Mello's Sadhana: A Way to God, Image Books, Garden City, NY, 1984, for examples of Christian meditation exercises.
  10. Lao-Tzu, Te-Tao Ching, translated by Robert G. Henricks, Ballantine Books, New York, 1989.
  11. See The Three Pillars of Zen, cited above.
  12. Reincarnation is accepted by Jewish Kabbalists, however. See Perle Epstein, Kabbalah, The Way of the Jewish Mystic, Shambalah Publications, Boston, 1978. I also note Jesus' odd pronouncement that John the Baptist was Elijah (Matthew 11:14).
  13. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1973, p258.
  14. Available from Vintage Books, New York, 1967.
  15. Ethical systems suffer from the same incompleteness as systems of axioms in mathematics (see the discussion of Goedel's Theorem in Science and Faith, at this web site). That is, whatever a person's ethics, it is always possible to put him or her in a situation in which his or her actions will be morally ambiguous, at best. (On the other hand, if life were simple enough to fit into a rule-book, it would have no purpose.) Thus, while living ethically is necessary to participate in human societies (we absorb the ethics of our societies to fit in), or to even begin living an authentic life, living ethically as an ultimate concern exposes the ethical person to anxiety and disappointment when he or she of necessity fails to live ethically. It is then that concepts like forgiveness, that transcend ethics, become important or even understandable. "I know that nothing good dwells within me," (Romans 7:18) is the ultimate conclusion of the ethical person. In other words, ethics are a necessary beginning rather than an end in themselves.
  16. Such idolatry is not exclusively the property of Fundamentalists, although they tend to be the most overtly violent. In America, some "politically correct" people are idolatrously concerned with rewriting our history in terms of a limited sense of justice based on race and class.
All this talk about talking, already!

Fundamentalists have stolen the language of faith to help themselves stand motionless against the tide of modern life. Here we attempt to recover the language so that we can talk constructively about going forward. What follows are definitions of some basic concepts.