Why is it worth it to be in a larger denomination

A front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle tells the story of two Lutheran churches that were kicked out of the ELCA several years ago because of decisions to ordain gay pastors. Now the ECLA has changed its tune, is allowing gay pastors, and is asking these free thinking congregations to rejoin them. One of the two churches has decided to return to the ELCA fold. But the other one is not so sure. The pastor, Susan Strouse, explains one reason why:

There's also the question of what the next Great Debate will be, Strouse said. What progressive position will First United take, and will it bring expulsion?
If a congregation has gone its own way for over a decade, having explored progressive values without having to subject itself to the authoritarian control of a denominational theology police, why should they now put their own independence once again at risk by rejoining the denomination? The church in question has seen itself as a place where people who have felt excluded from organized religion could find a home. Would re-joining the ELCA be consistent with that mission?

The Bible without certainty

I ran across a review of a boot titled The Rise and Fall of the Bible that might be worth checking out. The author of the book points out that lots of Americans buy the Bible without actually bothering to read it. In so doing, they confer the status of holy icon to the Bible, something to be revered rather than actually read. Of course, if many of those Americans were to actually read the Bible that they revere so much, the actual details of what the Bible is really like would contradict the image that they have of it as an infallible instruction book. In the midst of its sublime beauty and moral passion one would also encounter its flaws, its contradictions, and its moral failings. For a lot of people, it is better to remain blissfully ignorant.

I am not familiar with the author of the book, Timothy Beale, but he is a Christian who

would rather see his co-religionists embrace the fact that the Bible is full of contradictions and inconsistencies and come to regard it not as 'the book of answers, but as a library of questions,' many of which can never be conclusively resolved.
He also makes the point that the Bible is "poetry, not pool rules."

This is, of course, a point I have tried to make many times myself in this blog. I might have to take a look at this book.

An excerpt from a soon-to-be-published book suggests that humans may construct the concept of God out of an innate human tendency to ascribe intentionality or consciousness to whatever we interact with in the world, even when there is clearly no consciousness behind it.

I'm not sure that this is necessarily a novel idea. It is hardly news that religions have often anthropomorphized nature or otherwise assigned divinity to it (remember the Egyptian sun god Ra?) There has been a lot of speculation about a "God gene", and of course the existence of such a gene (or some inborn tendency for humans to believe in a deity) is itself no proof that God doesn't exist; after all, the existence of our inborn ability to conceive of space and time does not mean that those are merely mental constructs, or the fact that our brains are wired to conceive of light doesn't mean that photons don't exist. Nevertheless, it is an interesting thought to ponder--that humans are inclined to believe in some kind of greater spiritual reality.

There is also a flip side to this, though. Just as the atheist might dismiss belief in God as merely the human tendency to assign consciousness to that which is unconscious, I can imagine the Tillichian theologian offering the same criticism, but from the opposite angle. If we think (a la Tillich) that God is not a being, but rather being itself, then giving God the traits of human--like consciousness and a human-style personality might be seen as a huge theological mistake, as a kind of idolatry. This is not because God doesn't exist, but because one is conceiving of God in a limited sense as a being rather than as the ground and depth of being itself.

"Religious genes"

I ran across an article that an attempt to formulate a scientific model around the evolution of "religious genes".

The article seems to take for granted the existence of these alleged genes--and perhaps such genes do exist, but I am not certain that anyone knows this for sure. In any case, what amused me about this article was this statement:

Even if some of the people who are born to religious parents defect from religion and become secular, the religious genes they carry (which encompass other personality traits, such as obedience and conservativism) will still spread throughout society, according to the model’s numerical simulations.
The article almost had me until I got to that statement. If the author of this model, Robert Rowthorn, thinks that religious people necessarily have the personality traits of obedience and conservatism, then all I can say is that he needs to get out more.

Women Have Overtaken Christianity

I ran across another Danish language article from the Danish national radio network that discusses an interesting phenomenon in Christianity, or at least one taking place in Denmark.

The article, with the title "Women Have Taken Over Christianity", notes that

In a few years, 2 out of 3 priests in Denmark will be women. Women already fill much of the religious life, in some contexts there are only 20% of men left...

Sixty percent of churchgoers in the Western world are women, while women make up 80% when one considers the more spiritual situations like stays at retreats and pilgrimages. This is true for example in the case of pilgrimage priest Elisabeth Lidell's events, where participants in her latest retreat consisted of ten women and a single man.
What is interesting about this is not just the suggestion that women have become more prominent, but rather the implication that somehow there is a softer female spirituality that contrasts with the strong virtues of masculinity, and that this somehow drives men away from church:
Female dominance is changing both the the contents in church and the role it plays in the community. But at the same time men risk becoming homeless in their belief.

"All the old triumphal psalms have gone out of style. Instead we sing saccharine songs where we ask Jesus to "take my little hand in yours." . This is just not something for men," according to the Christian blogger Peter Beliath. He is tired of the way that love, concern, and other feminine virtues fill the churches. He thus wants that there was something more for men to come for.

"Men like something that is solemn and ceremonial. But rituals and the almighty God fill less and less in the churches today," he claims.
That strikes me as sort of an odd complaint. I had this quaint idea that love and compassion were human virtues, not just feminine ones, and that those were virtues that a certain man named Jesus promoted in his own preachings. I also can't help but think that triumphalism is an expression of a kind of tribalism that perhaps we could do with a little less of.

So what conclusions are we to draw from this? Why are women more drawn to churches than men? Do men and women have different spiritual needs?

Conceptions of the Bible

Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge, a UCC pastor and author of the book Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, has written an article for the Huffington Post that suggests that it is pointless to argue about what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, one way or the other. I have felt this way for a long time myself, and not just about what the Bible says on homosexuality, but about any attempt at drawing an authoritative answer from the Bible as if it were a Holy Answer Book. I think that such efforts really miss the point of what the Bible is or should be about.

For one thing, she points out (correctly) that the Bible was written in a particular time and place in history and correspondingly reflects an often mistaken pre-scientific cosmological worldview:

The most important reason, however, that gays and lesbians should never, ever argue about scripture is because the Bible has nothing much to say about homosexuality. We have to remember that this is an ancient book. It was written at a time when people believed the world was flat and that the earth was in the middle of a three-tiered world with heaven above and hell below. It was written at a time when people believed that the whole of human reproduction was held in the sperm of a man and a woman was merely an incubator. Speaking of women, this was a time when they were seen as chattel -- property to be passed along from father to husband, from husband to brother and so on. It was written at a time when slavery was seen as God-ordained and animal sacrifice was the way to cleanse sins.

In short, we cannot extract modern ideas from an ancient book. The writers of the Bible no more understood homosexuality than they understood that a spherical Earth orbited the sun. At most, we have a commentary on same-sex sexual behavior involving lust and abuse, but nothing -- pro or con -- about the modern concept of sexual orientation. We don't take the Bible's word for it that the earth is flat and women only incubate babies and contribute nothing else to the process. Why on earth would we take it as an authority on sexual orientation?

What I particularly like about what she wrote is how she views the Bible:

The Bible remains a holy book because it maps humanity's journey with God, and not the other way around. Because it maps our journey with God, it maps our evolving understanding of how the Holy works in this world. Humanity has moved from seeing God as a harsh judge and lawmaker to a seeing God as full of grace, mercy and love.

We don't learn about God by pulling out tiny details of the book and proclaiming them as true for all time. Instead, the Bible puts us in touch with God when we recognize its overarching message, which can be summarized by 1 John 4:7-8: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love."

If the Bible charts a particular cultural and theological stream of human attempts at understanding God, then sometimes in the details it is going to be just plain wrong . But the value is to be found in the questions and the journeys that the Bible documents, not the answers that it allegedly provides.

Faith and Doubt

James McGrath points out that "it is important to recognize that honest uncertainty is better for you, for one's faith tradition and for the world than unassailable conviction in spite of evidence to the contrary." This is part of an excellent summary he has written of the issues surrounding faith and doubt.

The Invention of Religion

Sadly, today's Non Sequitor comic strip says something that is all too often true about religion, although that need not be the case:

God is naughtier than sex

As a followup to my recent post about how Americans feel a need to exaggerate their religiousness while Europeans are ashamed of their religiousness, I ran across this article from the Danish national broadcast network's website. The original article is in Danish, although you can run it through Google Translate to get an English translation, albeit with some awkward constructions here and there. The title of the article is "God is naughtier than sex", and it describes a Danish man who wrote a children's Bible. Here a cleaned up text of the Google Translate version of the article:

"If I had said something about my marriage or my sex life to the reporter from a newspaper, then it would almost be less taboo than my disclosure that I believed in God." Such is what Sigurd Barrett experienced, when once during an interview he answered "yes" that he believed in God. The day after he could read in a double spread in the newspaper : "Sigurd believes in God!"

Sigurd Barrett finds that Danes are reluctant, almost afraid of the Christian faith, even though 80.9 percent of us are still members of the Church. This is partly why he agreed to make a children's bible. Not because he wants to proselytize or moralize, but because he wants it to be possible to talk about God without people responding nonsensically.

Not least, the kids need to be able to talk about God. Sigurd Barrett believes that it is our duty to speak with them about what faith is. And they should not be scared about wanting to talk with and about God:

"If we as parents put a lid on this impulse of fear to indoctrinate or brainwash our children, I mean really, we deprive them of the opportunity to found a spiritual dimension to their understanding of themselves. Praying a prayer is not an extreme or fanatical action. It is a natural desire to communicate with a higher power," he says.
I think that this once again illustrates the point that just as there is a kind of cultural stigma in the US against not being religious, there is an opposite stigma against being religious in many parts of Europe. By calling attention to this, I am not implying anything about whether being religious is good or bad--but I do think the cultural difference is interesting, and it says less about whether the people in a country as a whole are actually more or less religious than it does about how people in a given country want to present themselves. This also once again raises the question--why do Americans frequently want to make themselves out to be more religious than they are, and why Europeans frequently want to make themselves out to be less religious than they are?

Prayer for victory in war

I ran across this article in the LA Times about a prayer that General Patton asked his chaplain to come up with. The prayer asked God to help give Patton favorable weather during the waning months of World War II, just prior to the Battle of the Bulge. The prayer that the chaplain came up with was this:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.
The article points out,
Throughout history, soldiers have called upon their gods for protection and victory over their enemies. But Patton's now legendary prayer was extraordinary in its presumption and audacity, said Hymel. "There were four other American commanders in the European Theater during that time, and none of them were asking God to fix the weather."
I am reminded of Mark Twain's famous "War Prayer" story, a brilliant anti-war spoof of the very idea of praying for God to help "our" side win. (If anyone is not familiar with this short work of Twain's, I highly recommend it.)

If one assumes that God can control the weather to enable one's own side to win in battle, then the inevitable question is why God is limited to working his magic in that way. After all, why was the horror of World War II, with its millions of senseless deaths, even necessary in first place if a simple prayer to God could have fixed it. If God can determine the fate of battles by clearing up the skies, then surely God could have prevented Hitler from ever taking power, and surely God could have prevented massive horror of the Holocaust.

It is interesting how divine intervention, supposedly a manifestation of God's omnipotence, is actually conceived in rather limited terms. Why appeal to God to help fix the mess that an omnipotent God could have prevented in the first place?