John Dominic Crossan, in a recent column, wrote the following comment that echoes my own view of Jesus:

Jesus confronted the Empire of Rome with the Kingdom of God and his followers later confronted the Roman emperor as Son of God with the Jewish Jesus as Son of God. Today we may like or dislike their choice of theological language, but we should at least recognize that they proclaim God’s opposition to Empire – Egyptian or Roman, British or American – because of its violent injustice.

Jesus's resistance to the Empire of his day (and the alternative Kingdom of God that he offered in response) resonates today just as it did two millennia ago. It is just as important now as it was then, because the evils of Empire continue to plague the world. The names and locations of the Empires have changed over the course of history, but the fact of Empire remains. Within the history of Empires, individual Caesars come and go, but the problem is not with this Caesar or that one, but with the Empire that each one heads. It is important not to make excuses for the evils of Empire. The present-day fiasco in Iraq is not simply due to poor planning, or of not sending the right number of troops, or of incompetent management by a given Caesar. It is, rather, a manifestation of the moral sickness that constitutes Empire, a moral sickness that no one in the ruling political establishment seriously challenges. The American Empire is simply the latest in a long line of such Empires, all of which by necessity rule by dint of, to use Crossan's words, "violent injustice."

This is why Jesus matters to me. The importance of Jesus to my religion overshadows the metaphorical language that is used so often within Christianity to describe him, and it overshadows the rituals of Advent, the Christmas pageants, the mythological birth stories, and the midnight masses. Crossan's point about us not necessarily liking the choice of theological language is important. I often sit through church services and hear language about Jesus that doesn't exactly match my own conception of him, and that phenomenon tends to get ramped up this time of year. But Crossan argues that this isn't the thing that really matters. He elaborates on this point in this way:

...Titles of Jesus like Lamb of God, Word of God, and Son of God are relational metaphors. They are not literal but they are real because we humans can only see by seeing-as, that is, metaphorically. But metaphor is never simply Rorschach. It never means just whatever we need or want. It always requires some integrity of interpretation from the constraints of meaning born of time and place, society and culture.

But among those three metaphors, Jesus as Son of God is very special because that was the title of Caesar on coins and inscriptions, statues and structures all over the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus’ birth. To confess that title of Jesus was to de-confess it of Caesar, that is, to commit your life to peace through justice rather than peace through victory. It still is.
This contrast between Caesar and Jesus is what binds me to the Christian tradition. It was his teachings and how he lived that give Christianity meaning to me--certainly not the details of his birth. The metaphors that were used to describe him matter to the extent that they express the belief in the Kingdom of God.

This is the time of year when his birth is celebrated, and the metaphors are what we must deal with. It can be hard for those who eschew some of the grandiose theological language surrounding Jesus to cope with the language and ritual and myths that surround Advent and the Christmas holiday. Yet I think there is value in celebrating Jesus as the founder of a movement based on the Kingdom of God, a movement that has survived for 2000 years, a movement that we are now participants in.

Because of my discomfort with some of the mythology surrounding the birth event and Jesus himself, I feel torn, wanting to appreciate Jesus the man but not to go overboard in embracing the mythologies too much. I remind myself that the mythological birth narratives of Jesus, which dominate the season of Advent, are only found in two of the four gospels. The first books of the Bible, written by Paul, make no mention of Jesus's birth; his birth was so unimportant to Paul's theology that he never considered it worthy of mention, assuming he knew anything about it. The first Gospel to be written, Mark, also makes no mention of his birth. It is also probably the case that the details of his birth were much more mundane than what were suggested by the later tales of angels, magi, mangers, censuses, flights to Egypt, and so forth. The details of Jesus's birth were probably unknown by the time Matthew got around to writing about it, some 80-85 years after the fact. When Luke wrote of a census conducted by Qurinius, who didn't start governing until 6 CE (long after King Herod's death in 4 BCE), he couldn't go to Wikipedia and check his facts. The facts didn't really matter anyway. The birth narratives were about what Jesus meant to the gospel writers, not about historical truth.

Jesus means many things to many people. As proof of this, consider that Christmas is nowadays deeply integrated in Western society with the engines of consumerism and corporate profits--capitalist virtues that are go hand in hand with the ruling class ideology of the Empire that unleashed and continues to unleash death and destruction in Iraq. How ironic that the holiday celebrating the birth of a man who peacefully resisted the Empire of his day is now intertwined with the economic and social ideology of the modern day Empire.

I believe that Crossan is right--committing your life to peace and social justice is what it means to follow Jesus. As I sit through this season of Advent, and as I pass through another Christmas--a holiday that ostensibly celebrates his birth but which is so mixed up with cultural, social, and economic baggage--the best I can do is to remind myself of this.


In Minna Proctor's book Do You Hear What I Hear?, the author describes a woman named Hannah Anderson, a former Quaker who had converted to the Episcopal Church and became a priest within that church. After some time of straddling the two denominations, the decision to take the leap and convert to her new church is described this way:

...she reports, on her way to Ohio, where she was the keynote speaker for the yearly meeting with Barnesville Friends, she heard a voice. "It was an internal, but very clear voice: It's time. Are you ready? And I knew what it was about." She arrived at the conference, delivered the keynote address, and then told her sponsors that she wouldn't be staying for the rest of the conference, because she was going to go home and leave the Quaker denomination to join the Episcopal Church.

"Some people were hurt by my declaration, stunned, some people even called me a traitor. But I'd heard that call, so I came home and set up a Sunday for baptism. I was baptized along with a twelve-year-old girl and an infant baby. It was glorious."
Since I have a Quaker background myself, and because I have lately been hanging out in a mainline denomination (in my case, the United Church of Christ), the above passage interested me, but at the same time it also appalled me.

Even though I don't attend Quaker worship anymore, I still hold many traditional Quaker beliefs and values. For example, Quakers don't practice any of the traditional Christian sacraments--including the usual Protestant ones, baptism and communion--and while I don't object to these sacraments per se, I also don't particularly find them necessary or important to me or my religious life. What bothered me in this tale of Hannah Anderson's conversion was the sense that her membership in Quakerism and her years of service within that historically Christian denomination counted for nothing when she wanted to become a member of this new church. She had to be baptized.

The impression I get, from doing some internet research, is that Episcopalians (and probably many other mainline Christian bodies) generally don't require you to be baptized into their church for membership if you were a member of another denomination that practiced baptism. The implication is clear; membership in the Quaker body is perceived to be deficient, inferior, or invalid in some sense. While members of other denominations get certain transfer privileges, Quakers do not, and it is irrelevant that you were accepted as a member in the Religious Society of Friends.

As I alluded, I doubt that the Episcopalian church is alone in this attitude. Probably most Christian denominations give great significance to this ritual. This vital importance to the act of baptism is probably an attitude to be found almost everywhere among Christian churches that practice baptism. Baptism is seen not just as a ritual, like lighting a candle or carrying a cross in a procession, but rather as a sacrament, one that carries some sort of special, magical powers. My guess would have been that even the United Church of Christ, a denomination I have become increasingly involved with and which I respect a great deal for its tolerance and progressive outlook, draws the line on this matter--I would have thought so, except that when I had a lunch conversation with my pastor about membership, the subject of baptism didn't even come up. Still, the UCC web sites do talk about baptism, and the ritual is practiced in UCC churches, so it isn't clear to me where baptism exactly fits within the concept of membership within this denomination.

This probably doesn't affect me directly, because I was not born into the Quaker denomination--which Quakers refer to as a "birthright" Friend. Instead, I became what Quakers call a "convinced" Friend in my adult life. I was baptized as a sixth grader in the Protestant church of my upbringing, so I actually qualify (technically speaking) as having been baptized. I say "technically speaking" because later, at least in my own mind if not publicly, I renounced that baptism, when I became a 16-year-old atheist. If you renounce a baptism, can you later take it back? According to the United Church of Christ, it seems that baptisms, like diamonds, are forever:
When we baptize you into our community, we promise that we will never take it back – no matter what you discover about yourself or what others discover about you along life’s journey. We believe that baptism places each of us into the “body of Christ” and lasts forever. Some are baptized as infants, others as adults. Some are sprinkled. Others are immersed. Some reclaim their baptism from a previous church life. For each of us, however, baptism is big enough, strong enough and cleansing enough to last forever. We believe that everyone – old, young, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, physically or emotionally challenged, rich or poor, sure or unsure, lost or found, Democrat or Republican has a place in the body of Christ. Baptism is like a badge that says, “you’re a full member of the church and no one can take that away from you.”
I never had to renounce my renouncement when I became a Quaker, because Quakers consider the baptism to be a ritual with no sacramental meaning, and it is not part of the membership process. Be that as it may, if the UCC considers my baptism as a sixth grader all those years ago to be irrevocable, then it would seem that I would not have to be baptized into the UCC:
Is Re-baptism necessary?

The United Church of Christ recognizes the validity of all baptisms, therefore there is no need for re-baptism. If there is a question about whether baptism has taken place, a conditional phrase may be added as a person is baptized, such as "if you are not already baptized." It is a well-accepted practice, however, for people to renew their baptismal vows in a service of baptismal renewal, such as the Order for Renewal of Baptism in the UCC Book of Worship.
But for those who were born into the Quaker denomination, and who were therefore never baptized, it would seem to me that their membership in the Religious Society of Friends would not mean anything as far as the baptism ritual goes in other churches.


For the first few months that I attended services at a local UCC church, I refrained from participation in the act of communion, which took place once a month (weekly during Advent). Each time that communion was initiated the pastor proclaimed that it was open to everyone, without exception; it didn't matter what you believed or what you had done. I loved that inclusive message, but I still couldn't bring myself to participate. The Quaker in me resisted the idea of participation in such a sacrament.

But during a recent lunch meeting with the pastor, I told her what my feelings were on communion; I said that, coming from the Quaker tradition as I did, I didn't really see the point of it. In response, she just laughed. She was clearly not offended. Somehow, that interchange took the pressure off. It no longer felt like participating in communion would be a dishonest act of affirming something that I didn't want to affirm. The pastor knew what I believed on the subject. The inclusive message of open communion was reinforced by my having informed the pastor about my beliefs. It left me free to go ahead and participate in something that was offered to all attenders, regardless of who they were. So I went ahead and partook of the bread and the wine.

For me, participating in communion has the same sort of value as, for example, participating in a candle-lighting ceremony. It is a participatory act within community worship. It has no special sacramental meaning to me. The fact that the churches I attend do give it sacramental value is just one example of the many ways that I as an attender live on the fringes of Christianity; I often find myself attributing different meaning to certain elements of worship than perhaps the pastor or others in the pews do. That is something I have learned to accept. But since I do like the idea of participatory worship--lighting candles or partaking of the bread and wine--then as long as it is clear that I am not affirming something that I cannot honestly affirm, it somehow seems okay.

A calling

Seventeen has turned thirty-five
I'm surprised that we're still livin'
If we've done any wrong
I hope that we're forgiven
-- John Mellancamp, "Cherry Bomb"

I had lunch recently with the pastor of the church where I have been attending services over the last few months. The pastor wanted to discuss with me the possibility of my joining the church. It surprised me a little that the pastor would initiate this sort of conversation, since the previous congregations where I have worshiped have had a more hands-off approach, leaving the decision to initiate a conversation about membership entirely up to the attender. At one point in our conversation, she asked me what made me decide to start looking for a church to attend.

"I felt something pulling me," I said. "I don't know if it was God or whatever, but I just felt a pull." I shrugged as I said that, because I tend to be an agnostic about whether such things constitute a genuine expression of the voice of God or just--well, something else. She nodded, but otherwise didn't respond to my remark.

There is no question that the "pull" that I felt was real, but I cannot attest as to its source. When I hear people asserting confidently, without the slightest trace of doubt, that God (or the Holy Spirit) told them what to do, or answered their prayers, or caused them to believe something, I am generally fairly skeptical. While I do believe that God calls out to us, I also believe that discerning that voice of God is not a simple process, and there is much danger in claiming to know with absolute certainty that God has told you something. If it were so simple a matter to know God's will, there would not be so much theological disagreement in the world. And many people, convinced with complete certainty that they were carrying out God's will, have done terrible things in the history of the world.

That being said, the best I can say is that if what I am experiencing seems to be pushing me in the the right direction--if the voice I hear is making sense to me--then it might be useful to heed that call, as if it does come from God, whether it really does or not. But I will always be filled with doubt in such matters.

On a birthday many years ago, as I was laying in bed, half-awake, waiting for the alarm to go off, I heard a voice asking me what I was doing with my life. Perhaps it was a half-awake hallucination. Or perhaps it was the voice of God. Or perhaps God speaks to people sometimes through half-awake hallucinations. I have no idea. The message to me was formulated as a simple question--merely, what was I doing? If it was God asking me the question, then I was being asked by God to take stock of my life. Even if it wasn't the voice of God, it was still a good idea to take stock of my life. Either way, I felt it was beneficial to listen to that voice.

In her book Do You Hear What I Hear, Minna Proctor analyzes the concept of a religious "calling". She focuses primarily on a calling as it pertains to those who are "called" to a religious life--priests, for example--but I think that what she says about the process applies to any of us who listen for that "small, still voice" of God. The Bible tells stories of those who received explicit instructions from God--the Apostle Paul, struck blind on the road to Damascus, for example. Some post-biblical figures in history seemed to get very explicit guidance, but for most people who try to listen to this voice, the instructions from God seem muddled at best:

Francis, for example, was told to "repair my church". Others over the centuries came to crave such explicit instructions. In 1835, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know....The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do." Simone Weil, even after concluding that she was not called to convert to Catholicism, suffered a fate that condemned her to never know for sure what she was supposed to do. "The most beautiful life possible, " she wrote, "has always seemed to me to be one where everything is determined, either by the pressure of circumstances or by impulse such as I have just mentioned, and where there is never any room for choice."
Perhaps for most of us, God doesn't want to give us explicit instructions. Maybe we just have to figure it out for ourselves. Perhaps that is why the voice I heard years ago was phrased in the form of a question. Perhaps herein lies the real truth to be found in the biblical myth of Eden: if God gives us explicit and absolute instructions, we'd just feel compelled to do the opposite thing anyway. Perhaps there is also something to the Buddhist idea of the value in seeking understanding within ourselves, rather than simply parroting what we are told--as the Zen saying goes, "if you meet Buddha on the road, kill him". It is one thing to heed the Divine will; it is another thing to internalize it. Perhaps, after all, for many of us, the answers we seek have to be found from within. But this is a scary road to take; it would be so much easier to just have God telling us what to do. In her book, Minna Proctor quotes Isaiah Berlin, who said: "Where there is no choice, there is no anxiety; and a happy release from responsibility."

And it is that anxiety that I struggle with. The reasons for this anxiety are clear: my mortality, and the shortness of my human life--there just isn't enough time to figure it all out. Until a few years ago, I labored under a kind of illusion of eternal youth. Sure, I knew at some level that I was going to die some day in the (distant) future, but at another level I was free to be in denial; I was relatively healthy and I considered myself young. But when I hit my forties--much more quickly than I anticipated--things started to change. My body started to break down: a kidney stone here, a thrown out back there, a sudden spell of dizziness thrown in for good measure. Bicycling up that hill was noticeably harder than it was ten years ago. I started feeling mortal in significant ways. And with this deeper recognition of something I always knew but didn't choose to deal with-- that my days are numbered--the pressure to define some kind of meaning out of my life increased.

Yesterday, I took a good look at myself in the mirror, something I realized that I rarely do. I noticed how much older I looked than I think I realized. In my mind's eye, I guess I try to pretend that I haven't aged quite as much as I actually have, so my glances at the mirror when I comb my hair or brush my teeth tend to avoid looking too closely at the signs of aging. But this time, it was readily apparent that I was middle aged, and it was not an enjoyable moment to see myself that way. My mortality was staring back at me. When I was a child, the world was full of infinite possibilities. I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up--an astronomer, a football player, a Congressman. But as the years passed, decisions were made--career choices, life choice--and all of that took place in the context of what was available to me given my skills, aptitudes, and experiences. My life took a certain course. So many of those years were invested in certain life choices that, perhaps, could have instead been invested elsewhere. You only have so many years on this earth to make certain choices, and you can't rewind your life and try something different if this choice doesn't turn out. I'm stuck with the choices I made, but I am also human, and I sometimes make mistakes. The wisdom I acquire is often thanks to those mistakes, but it means spending many of those precious years available to me just to make that acquisition.

I have less and less time available to me to make decisions in my life. Less and less time to make sense of the world I live in. Less and less time to make my life as meaningful as I can. If God was asking me what I was doing with my life, all I can do sometimes is shrug, throw up my hands, and say, "I don't know." I wish I had a better answer than that.

A lesson in contrasts

Before attending Taizé services this evening, I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant. To keep myself entertained during dinner, I picked up a copy of the free newspaper SF Weekly, and there I found an article about a church in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco that faced strong opposition from the neighbors when it tried to open up a shelter for women and their children. The pastor, fed up with the neighborhood, decided to sell the church property and move to another location. According to an article in the neighborhood newspaper Noe Valley Voice,

Bell first encountered neighborhood ire shortly after he took over as a social activist pastor and unveiled plans to establish a city homeless shelter. He backed down from the plan, but from time to time has operated food and clothing giveaways at the church, located at 1596 Church Street.

Over the years, Bell says the church has been the target of various forms of harassment--from complaints about sidewalk sales and uncovered garbage cans to graffiti-sprayed exterior walls to late-night phone calls that he describes as "racist." Bell is African American and the church congregation is racially diverse.

The decision to sell came after Bell began a $5 million fundraising drive to build the House of Sarah, a temporary refuge for women who would receive drug and alcohol counseling and life-skills training.

"We got so much adverse reaction from the community," he says. "I'm just sick and tired of it. This is just straight-up racism, and I don't feel like dealing with this kind of stupid stuff."

The SF Weekly article points out that many in this neighborhood also objected in 2000 when a different congregation, the Metropolitan Community Church, tried to set up a homeless shelter for gay youth. Perhaps the problem is racism, as the minister says; or maybe it is simply nimbyism.

It is almost certain that the church that tried to set up the House of Sarah in Noe Valley is not anywhere close to me theologically. For example, the SF Weekly article reports that a church billboard proclaims, "Santa Claus, also known as Santa Claus or Saint Nicolas, the famous mythical creature loved by multitudes across the world, is a demonic caricature of our Lord Jesus Christ." Okay, they are definitely not my kind of church. But, be that as it may, without knowing more about it, the church at least seems to take seriously its mission to help others in need, something that also characterized the previous effort by a different church to set up a shelter for gay youths. But the local residents would have none of that.

Just last week, I saw a large number of men, chatting in English and Spanish, hanging out around the church where the Taizé services that I attend are conducted. During the announcements portion of the service, it was explained that the church operates a homeless shelter during the month of December. Tonight, by contrast, I didn't see any groups of homeless men hanging around the church; since it was rainy outside, perhaps they were inside the church shelter. This particular church is not located in Noe Valley, however. It is an Episcopal church, located just outside downtown. A different neighborhood, a different attitude. Meanwhile, Noe Valley, with its chicness intact, will be spared the presence of too many people who are down and out and in need of help.

Tribalism, God, and Love

I was recently involved in a discussion within the comments of another blog in which I argued that Christians should focus less on which theology is "true" and more on how loving people are to one another.

In that discussion, I did not use the word "tribalism", but in a sense, I believe that the "my religion is true and others is false" position that many (but not all) Christians frequently express is a kind of religious tribalism. I believe, first of all, that no one can really capture the essence of the divine mystery that we call God, so to claim ownership to the truth about God is, in my view, highly presumptuous. Secondly, I believe that the implications of this are that there are many paths to God, all of which come out of finite and inaccurate representations of the Divine nature.

One of my favorite chants that is sung at the Taize services I regularly attend is the following: Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est (where love and charity are, God is there.) God is found wherever there is inclusive love. Exclusionary, tribalistic religious impulses are not, in my view, loving. Alan Jones says the following in his book Reimagining Christianity:

The deeper we go in any particular religion, the more likely we are to bump into practices of prayer and compassion and come out into a shared place of respect. Father Bede Griffiths (1906-1993), a Benedictine monk deeply influenced by Hinduism, often used the image of the human hand to illustrate what the great religious traditions had in common. The tips of the fingers represented the religions of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. As you do deeper (by moving down from the tips of the fingers to the palm), you move closer together and enjoy an underlying unity of love and compassion. (p. 126)
When I was asked in the comments section of the above-mentioned blog how I could view the elusive concept of love as any better than theology as a standard for judging other religions, my response was the following:

I am not necessarily saying that it is always wrong to judge a theology as good or bad; what I am saying is that I don't think God cares what a person's theology is per se, but rather how loving that person is. I place primacy on how people treat one another, not what their limited and inevitably incomplete God-concept is. I also don't think that the standards of human behavior are necessarily influenced by theology, although they can be. Atheists can lead perfectly moral and loving lives, for example. I think that it is God, not any particular theology, that is the ultimate source of love.

I don't happen to think that just because the concept of love is culturally conditioned, that means that it is completely invented out of whole cloth by each culture. I don't buy into this kind of cultural relativism. Love is part of the human condition, and always has been. It has understood at some level by people throughout history. There is a thread that runs through the concept of love even if it has differed in the details. That is how people are able to use the same word to describe the concept, even if the concept isn't exactly the same. The biggest reason for changes in the concept of love, I believe, have to do with expanding its definition to make it more inclusive. That is to say that I think that love has traditionally not been consistently applied.

Why is that? I'm not entirely sure, but one reason I consider likely is that it has a lot to do with human institutions, political structures, and economic systems, that serve as impediments to applying love universally. Marcus Borg uses the term "domination system" to describe the social structures of authoritarianism that have developed in human history. These structures tend to invent doctrines and ideologies that justify themselves, to justify in effect the unloving nature of these institutions. Occasionally in history, people have been able to break through those prevailing ideologies of the domination systems--like Jesus did, in his proclamation of universal, inclusive love. The way the concept of love evolves is by making it more consistently applied, and more inclusive, and there have been people, like Jesus, who saw through the cultural lies of their society. The possibility of inclusive love was always there, lying in wait.

Because love is part of the human condition, it is real in our lives. We encounter it constantly. God is infinite and intangible, and our attempts at defining him/her are inevitably going to be inadequate; but love is how God acts in the world, and I believe that is something that we can experience and describe.

When all is said and done, I could probably compress what I wrote above by expressing those seven simple Latin words: ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.


It made the national news when the right wing pundit Dennis Prager posted a blog entry condemning the decision by the just-elected Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim, to carry a copy of the Quran instead of the Bible during his swearing in ceremony on January 4. While I believe that the ridiculousness and bigotry of his objections are readily apparent, the question I have is simply this: what is the point of carrying a religious scripture at all during a formality like this?

One has to wonder how many members of Congress who were later disgraced by scandal or criminal convictions had carried a Bible as they swore an oath during these ceremonies. It seems to me that such oaths are clearly meaningless. A lie is a lie, and it matters not if someone swears to tell the truth while they are lying. Similarly, carrying a Bible also says nothing about the integrity of the person carrying it. Prager and others who agree with him have tried to argue that carrying the Bible during the ceremony is simply an acknowledgment of the privileged place that Christianity allegedly deserves over and above other religions within American culture. This expression of religious intolerance isn't hard to come by, unfortunately. But the question still arises as to what an oath is really supposed to accomplish--Bible or no Bible.

The U.S. Constitution grants people the right not to have to swear an oath in these situations, and in fact two US Presidents, Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover, did not swear oaths but affirmed them instead. Hoover was a Quaker, and Quakers do not believe in swearing oaths. This is based on the teaching Matthew reports that Jesus gave in his Sermon on the Mount:

"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one."
This teaching of Jesus seems to be ignored by most Christians. Few Christians of any political persuasion or religious affiliation seem to have any problem swearing oaths of office. Here we see the irony of the position taken by critics of Ellison's decision to carry a copy of the Quran; in their zeal to promote the allegedly Christian character of the United States, they are insisting that individuals hold a copy of the Christian scriptures while performing an act that Jesus, in fact, specifically proscribed within those very scriptures. The mind boggles.

The meaningless of oaths is in my mind quite evident. They are no guarantee of honesty, and the implication that rests behind them is that without saying that oath, you somehow you might be more likely to lie. Is it acceptable to lie unless you happen to swear you are telling the truth? If not, then why go through the meaningless charade? If you need to say an oath in order to ensure your own honesty, then you've got a problem that a mere oath will not cure. Honesty and integrity are characteristics that must come from the heart. This was the point that Jesus was making, and I think he was correct.

Religious truth

I believe that the quest for religious "truth" is at the same time both a worthy and a vain endeavor. I think it is worthy to the extent that we re-evaluate our God-images and our traditions in the light of newer understandings. Old paradigms may not work for us any more, and in that sense we can adjust our understanding of what is true about God. At the same time, we will never really know the absolute truth about God. We are like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, finite creatures who will never fully understand the absolute truth about an infinite God.

Here is a quote from Alan Jones's book Reimagining Christianity:

Our ignorance is at its most brilliant when it comes to religion. Everyone thinks he knows about God. We don't know a whole lot, and we don't know that we don't know. So what do we know? St. John of the Cross put it simply: "In the end, we shall be examined in love." That's all we need to know--but the trouble is that we have to go through a long process of initiation into the school of love before we find out.
The New Testament epistle 1 John says that "God is love". If God is indeed truly another name for love, then a loving God could hardly judge us finite creatures, we with our limited imaginations, for having the "wrong" set of beliefs about the nature of God, or even for not believing in God at all. If God loves us universally and unconditionally, then it shouldn't matter either to God or to us whether we have the "wrong" beliefs about God. That means it shouldn't matter if we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Mormon, Gnostic, mystic, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha'i, or atheist. What matters is that we love.

The Gospel of Matthew has a passage concerning the judgment day. I do not believe in hell or in a final judgment day; I consider this passage therefore mythological, but in its mythology there is a deeper message that gets ignored by many orthodox Christians. What I find interesting about this passage is what is says that God will judge people on--not on their beliefs, but on their actions. Here is what the passage says:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Although the image of hellfire and damnation in the above passage comes across as rather primitive, I still find it moving in a certain way. For this passage tells us that what we do to the weakest and most vulnerable people, we also do to God, and whatever we do to others we are, in effect, also doing to God. Here we see the synthesis of the two commandments that Jesus gave his disciples: to love God with our our hearts, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I do not choose to judge people of other faiths. I cannot know what goes on between other people and God. That is not for me to say. If others sincerely seek the sacred mysteries through other paths than my own, who am I to judge? If their religion translates into a loving life, who am I to judge their faith? I can reveal to others the truth about God as I know it, but others can also teach me about the truth about of God as they know it. No one has a monopoly on truth, and no religion, no creed, no dogma, can possibly capture all the truth about God. It is better, I believe, that people of faith try to get along with one another and appreciate the multiplicity of paths to God.

The Cosmos and Religion

On my way to church this morning, I happened to catch part of the NPR show "To the Best of Our Knowledge". I was interested to hear that the topic of the show was the relationship of science and religion, in particular science and cosmology--a subject that has been of great interest to me since childhood. I only caught part of the show, and I had to park the car and make into the church before services start, so I missed most of it during the broadcast this morning, but thanks to the miracle of the World Wide Web, I was able to listen to a recording of the broadcast on the program's web site. The entire show, which is a little less than an hour long, consists of three general segments, and featured discussions with several authors.

Among the topics covered, the first segment included an interview with Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams, co-authors of the book The View from the Center of the Universe. It appeared from listening to what they said that they were suggesting that, after a few post-Copernican centuries in which humans have been dethroned from their primary position at the center of the universe, the laws of physics argue for the importance of human life in a way that puts us up front and center once again, even if not literally in the sense of a physical "center". This seems at first glance like an expression of the Anthropic Principle, but without reading the book I am not sure. But it does sound interesting.

The third segment included a conversation with Daniel Matt, author of the book God and the Big Bang. The implications of the universe having its origin in an initial creation event, and the religious implications of this in particular, made for an interesting discussion.

The UCC and inclusiveness

The predominantly gay Dallas megachurch Cathedral of Hope has joined the United Church of Christ, and an AP article on the subject provides some interesting commentary on how this relates to the progressive vision of the UCC. The admission took place after the regional body of the UCC, the North Texas Association, approved the application of the Cathedral of Hope by a vote of 32-9. The AP article reports:

"They are a progressive denomination, and they have taken progressive stands all along," said the Rev. Michael S. Piazza, the cathedral's national pastor and dean. "When they took that vote, it really made it clear that was our home."
This is true, although it is interesting that the vote by the North Texas Association was not unanimous. The reasons why some voted against admitting the Cathedral of Hope are unknown to me, but it perhaps suggests that the UCC, though clearly the most progressive of the mainline denominations, is nevertheless facing some internal divisions on this subject. There may be minority factions within the UCC that are resisting the denomination's overall progressive vision.

That being said, this admission of the Cathedral of Hope may simply be one event among many within a process of realignment within the UCC. Some conservative churches may be leaving the UCC, while liberal churches outside the UCC may be joining up. The AP article points out:
About 140 churches in the 5,700-church denomination left the UCC. The Puerto Rico conference of the denomination, which has about 60 churches, also has decided to depart, though some individual churches may stay, said the Rev. Bennett Guess, UCC spokesman.

That number has been partially offset by 65 churches that have expressed interest in joining, the most since the UCC was formed in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the Evangelical and Reformed Church....

"The UCC is clearly going after a certain niche in American society who are very liberal and have a particular religious vision that includes inclusiveness," said John Evans, associate professor of sociology at University of California, San Diego. "They are becoming the religious brand that is known for this."

Another example of this process can be found in the case of Carlton Pearson's church, which I discussed in an earlier posting.

How this mini-realignment will play itself out in the long run is a big question. While the UCC has led the way on most of these kinds of issues and is overall the most progressive of the mainline denominations, other churches that are moving tentatively in a more progressive direction are also facing these same questions. The Episcopal Church, for example, is dealing with some conservative parishes that are seeking to disassociate themselves with that body's Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, perhaps hoping to co-exist within a parallel episcopal structure. This is a much more complicated process than it what we are seeing in the UCC, because the Episcopal Church is not a congregational denomination, and individual congregations cannot simply come and go quite so easily.

As for the UCC, As I have suggested in the past, inclusiveness can mean many things. A church can be inclusive in the sense of welcoming otherwise excluded people to their table, and this is a good thing. But there are other meanings of inclusive--notably, does a church incorporate a broadly inquisitive approach towards theological questions, or is it only settled in one, orthodoxy way of thinking? Whether one type of inclusiveness translates into a progressive and inclusive approach to theological matters is another question--and like many things in the UCC, I think it probably varies from congregation to congregation. But overall, I think that the defining of the UCC as a "religious brand" of inclusiveness can only be a good thing.

Deciding who is worthy of communion

American Catholic bishops recently approved a document that suggested that Catholics who don't agree with the dogma that their church hierarchy has handed down to them should not take communion in their church. According to this document,

"If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain."
This means that not only are non-Catholics excluded from the central worship event of Catholic mass, but also Catholics themselves if they commit the sin of thinking too much.

The document approved by the bishops synthesizes two aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine that I never had much use for. First, since Holy Communion in Catholic churches has always been exclusionary in nature (in contrast with the open commensality that Jesus himself practiced), this policy simply reaffirms this basic policy that all are not welcome to the table. Secondly, it is also consistent with the general intolerance that the Catholic hierarchy has for free inquiry; Catholics are expected to accept the dogma that is handed down to them. While lay Catholics have a certain amount of private latitude with respect to freedom of thought--more than the hierarchy would wish, to be sure--we have seen what has happened to Catholic theologians who don't toe the line. Just consider the examples of Matthew Fox and Hans Kung. By instituting a policy like this on communion, the church is essentially trying to extend to lay people the same intolerance that it has instituted against its theologians as a matter of formal practice.

It is interesting contrast this exclusionary doctrine of closed communion with the argument for open communion that is laid out in detail by the rectors of Saint Gregory's Episcopal church in San Francisco. Saint Gregory's is an unusual church within the Episcopal denomination; it has developed, with the blessing of the bishop, its own liturgy, one that is distinct from what is found in other Episcopal congregations. Its web site contains detailed expositions of the philosophy that lies behind its various practices, including an explanation of its position in favor of open communion. Among other things, it has this to say:
Jesus...sought out, welcomed, and dined with unprepared, unreformed, unwashed sinners. His action was a prophetic sign suiting his own more radical message: here comes God now, ready or not! And seen against Jesus' contemporary religious background, the presence of obviously unqualified diners was essential to his sign. Perhaps Isaiah's vision of a banquet for all nations inspired his choice: there the prophet says, the pure and impure will share one feast. Nevertheless such dinner company was politically scandalous for a teacher, and many scholars today, following Norman Perrin, judge that above all Jesus' actions it led to his death. He may have expected it would. His message unsettled his contemporaries as much as his chosen meal-sign did, and indeed has stirred up his church at major turning points ever since. We may reckon that he died for both scandals at once....

In our own tragic time of religious bloodshed, deeds of hospitality like Jesus' hospitality have delivered devout Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Bahai and Animist hosts to perfect their own faith through martyrdom, as Christian martyrs have always done. How ironic that among the world's great religions, only Christians keep the table company taboo which Jesus broke to symbolize his teaching, and persistently defied at the cost of his life!

This sharp irony guts otherwise reasonable arguments for banishing the unready, unworthy, untaught, unproven, and unwashed from Jesus' table any longer. Excluding them now despite what we have learned about Jesus-and what religious seekers throughout the world have learned from Jesus-would be worse than foolish. The world cannot credit what we teach about Christ while the church seems every Sunday to betray him.
I have written before that my Quaker background makes me wholly unattached to Christian sacraments. But given that almost all Christian churches, and certainly the mainline ones, practice some form of communion and consider it an important part of their worship, I think it is a worthwhile exercise to evaluate the philosophy that a given congregation has on this subject. Is the church a truly welcoming community, or is it a closed community that only makes available one of its key worship practices to those who pass some sort of test?

Carlton Pearson joins the United Church of Christ

I had not heard of Carlton Pearson before listening to a profile of him on the NPR program "This American Life" last year. His story is a fascinating one. He had been a protege of Oral Roberts, a rising start and a leading African American figure in Roberts's organization. At a certain point, however, he came to question one of the key tenets of the Pentecostal movement that he was associated with. He stopped believing in hell as a place of eternal damnation.

Embracing instead what he called the "Gospel of inclusion", Pearson 's image of a universally loving God was not well received by his colleagues and many of his church goers. His church lost members, and he became an outcast within his own denomination, branded a "heretic" by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops Congress.

The web site for his church, the New Dimensions Worship Center, describes the church as "The Friendliest, Trendiest, Most Radically Inclusive Worship Experience!" It also says,

It is not our intention to convert anyone to our beliefs about the Finished Work of Calvary, but to convince everyone of the absolute unconditional love of God for all of humanity. If by chance you disagree with our stance, by all means live according to your own awareness and convictions, as will we. It is not about whether we are right or wrong, but more about being real. We encourage everyone to live your own reality.
Carlton Pearson has now been accepted as a minister of the United Church of Christ. According to an article in the Tulsa World, Carlson had this to say about the UCC:

"This is a very well-established, historical American church," Pearson said. "It's radically inclusive. I've never seen an organization that fits my theology better.

"I don't know of any church where I'd be more comfortable."

It is expected that his church will join the UCC in the "next several months".

The article also says,

Pearson's universalism, which got him in trouble among evangelicals and in his own Pentecostal denomination, will not be a problem in the UCC, where many ministers are Universalists.

"How the UCC would phrase it would be that God's love will be reconciling for all people, not just Christians," Ashby said. "Universalism in the UCC goes back to the 19th century, when Henry Ward Beecher raised the question, 'If God created us, can't God repair us?' "

He said the UCC has been a leader in liberal causes for centuries, granting voting rights in church elections to women in 1699, fighting slavery 160 years before the Civil War, ordaining a black minister in 1785, ordaining a woman pastor in 1853, taking a stand for the civil rights of gays and lesbians in 1969, and supporting gay marriage in 2005.

I honestly don't know if my theology overall would fit in very well with Carlton Pearson's; my guess is that I am more liberal than he is, but I do like that he embraces universalism and I admire the way he made a break with the intolerance of his original religious background. I think it reflects the inclusive message that embodies the United Church of Christ. One of my favorite television ads was rejected for airing by US television networks. It is known as the "ejector seat" ad. Since I am one who feels like an outsider within the Christian community, I find this ad very moving:

Starting Points and End Points

It has occurred to me that it is possible to imagine coming to a progressive Christian theology from two opposite directions.

The first way is to start from the perspective of orthodoxy and work your way backwards. The second way is to start from scratch and build a do-it-yourself theology.

Both methods have their pluses and minuses. To start from the orthodoxy means that your theology is already complete to start with, and remains complete at all stages of its evolution. There are no holes or cracks to deal with; everything is already filled in at every step. There is always a default answer to any question, and if you don't like that default answer, you can always replace it with a better one. The questions you do like the answers to, or the ones you don't address at all, remain answered with those default ideas of the orthodoxy. You have simply taken a ready-made theological system and just patched over the parts that don't make sense to you. It's sort of like taking a working automobile, and replacing the engine and the radio and a few other parts with different parts. In the end, you still get a running automobile, but it might look different from what you began with.

To start from scratch is more work. You have to build the foundation yourself, and either fill in each crack you find or else leave it as an open question. The reward of this method is that you are liberated from the tyranny of dogma. You accept nothing at face value; you let no one else do your thinking for you. Some of those open, unresolved questions may not bother you because you don't feel a need to work everything out. The potential for uncertainty is seen as a virtue rather than an impedance. And because you are not just rebelling for the sake of rebelling, you are always free to borrow from a preexisting theological precept when it suits you.

Both approaches can come from different directions and, at least in theory, meet in the middle. Both methods can arrive at a progressive theology. Starting from the orthodoxy allows you to benefit from the accumulated wisdom of centuries of religious thinking. Starting from nothing allows frees you from the accumulated dogma of centuries of religious thinking.

My preference has been to start more or less from scratch. Because I was brought up in a fundamentalist environment, Christian orthodoxy left its scars on me, and I preferred not to begin there. I saw the accumulated centuries of Christian wisdom to have become encrusted under the weight of its own mythologies. Christian orthodoxy didn't allow enough room for the innovation that I felt was necessary. Others, however, find comfort in those same mythologies. Different people, different preferences.

I started almost from scratch, but I still borrowed from Christian wisdom when necessary. I also assumed that I would be borrowing from Christian wisdom instead of, for example, Hindu wisdom, because that is the religion where my comfort level lies. I cannot escape my upbringing. Thus it is better to say I "almost" started from scratch, because I did accommodate my own cultural affinity for Christianity from the beginning. So I started with a belief in God, but also with a belief in post-Enlightenment rationalism. I decided that I could not deviate from the latter if I was to pursue a belief in the former. I reviewed scholarly opinion to get a sense of what I could and could not believe about the historical claims of Christianity. I learned about the history of the Bible, and integrated it into my thinking. I saw no reason to accept certain tenets of Christian theology that had developed over the years--the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, or his literal resurrection, for example--but I still built my monotheistic religious system around the life and teachings of Jesus and the relationship with God that I believe he disclosed as a model for others. There may indeed be cracks in my theological system, but they are not filled with what I see as the dirt and grime of old dogma. And that's the way I like it.

When all is said and done, I find myself often having ideas in common with those who started from the orthodoxy and worked in the opposite direction.

Vanity and everlasting value

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them? --Ecclesiastes 3:19-22
Yet another dire forecast of ecological catastrophe made the news a couple of weeks ago: according to one prediction, the world's ocean fish supply will essentially die off by 2048.

This is the kind of forecast that makes me glad that I'll either be dead, or on the verge of death, by the time 2048 rolls around. I won't be around to face a world without ocean fish or polar ice caps. The 1973 movie Soylent Green depicted a future in which the food supplies were so depleted that they had to use human beings to feed the ever growing population. Movies like that used to be considered merely speculative fantasy. Now I'm not so sure.

It isn't like we don't have the capacity to solve our problems. We humans understand concepts like "overpopulation", "ecology" and "global warming", and we have tools to solve them. It used to be that nuclear war was the biggest threat to the future of the planet, but now there is ecological catastrophe looming on the horizon. Of course, as we are all aware, it isn't like we live in a particularly peaceful world either.

Forgive me if I sound like a curmudgeon. I am certainly hoping that the world really doesn't go to pot. But if it does, the tragedy of it all really does get to me. Not just because our descendants will inherit the mess we have made for them, but also because there is a grand, cosmic implication to such a massive failure as a species. We humans are, after all, the product of ten or twenty billion years of cosmic history, going all the way back to the Big Bang, and it would be really ungracious of us not to demonstrate that we deserved the time and circumstances that went into making us. One could argue that it took a lot of work on God's part to help evolve us humans into existence. I do not believe that God ever created by simple divine fiat, but rather by continual acts of offering possibilities to an evolving universe. It was only through a virtually infinite series of such lures of possibilities that the universe evolved into what it is now. This means that cosmic evolution was not a single creative act with a certain outcome, but rather an endless series of acts with uncertain results. It was involved and complicated. And now here we are.

Consider the main points, as seen from the perspective of my interpretation of process theology. Starting with the Big Bang, we can say that God called forth the universe. How this happened, I have no idea, but we do know that the Universe emerged into existence billions of years ago. God did not only call forth the universe, but did so in such a way that it would behave according to certain physical laws, laws that emerged into their present form after the Big Bang. Those physical laws, if they had varied even slightly in one direction or another from what we actually experience, never would have allowed for the conditions necessary to produce life as we know it (the acknowledgment of this fact is known in various forms as the Anthropic Principle, which is sometimes offered as a demonstration of the existence of God.) After a few billion years of cosmic history, stars and planetary systems formed in response to the continual creative Divine call; this process of creation eventually led to the existence of life on a previously barren planet orbiting around an unspectacular star in an otherwise insignificant galaxy. After a few billion years more of further Divine acts of creative lures directed at the biological processes occurring on this planet, among the creatures on this planet there evolved one highly self-conscious species--a species able to contemplate itself and God in ways that no other life form on the planet can.

And what's the thanks God gets for all this effort? Will we destroy ourselves and the beauty of God's creation on this planet?

It is certainly possible that there are other self-conscious life forms on other planets in the universe besides our own. We have no way of knowing this. When I feel despair about our prospects, I find myself hoping that there are other, more successful experiments in consciousness than our own has proved to be. But what if we really are the only beings with this level of intelligence, anywhere in the universe? How tragic would our failure prove to be then?

Tragic, yes--but would the grand experiment of human existence have been a monumental waste, after all that went into our creation? John Cobb argues in his book The World and God that, from the perspective of process theology, our very existence has enriched the Divine experience, regardless of our final outcome as a species. Cobb, who wrote this book in 1969, writes,
Not only does God influence every occasion of experience, but also, he is in turn affected by each. He takes up into himself the whole richness of each experience, synthesizing its values with all the rest and preserving them everlastingly in the immediacy of his own life. Even the miseries and failures of life are so transmuted in the divine experience as to redeem all that can be redeemed....

The Christian not only understands his faith as a continual challenge to do and dare, to take responsibility upon himself, and to venture out beyond the limits laid down by the past; he also finds in his faith the grounds for confidence that what happens matters. Even if man destroys his planet in the near future, our efforts to preserve it are not worthless. Because what we are and do matters to God, our lives are meaningful when we recognize that in the course of history our accomplishments may soon be swept away.
In a way, the tragedy of a death of humanity only mirrors the personal tragedies that all of us face in our own mortalities. Will everything we do be for naught? Is it true, as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, that "all is vanity?"

Cobb also writes,
Perhaps our experiences are retained in the divine memory forever. If so, neither individual death nor the extinction of the human race will be so total a loss as it otherwise appears. Even our little virtues and petty triumphs are not ultimately in vain. And perhaps even our meaningless suffering can be subsumed into a larger meaning within the divine life. If all we do contributes everlastingly to God, otherwise ephemeral values take on importance.
None of this contradicts the tragedy of mortality, or the potential mortality of the human race. I still agonize over the shortness of my life, something that is more apparent to me with each passing day as my hair gets grayer. But it is also in some sense deeply satisfying to consider that my short life, and the short lives of others, has an everlasting value.

Communion and inclusion

I hadn't taken communion since I was sixteen; it had been a point of pride. But last Sunday, I attended a service where I almost had no choice. The service was highly participatory, and all the congregation gathered in a circle around the communion table. There wasn't any way for me to get out of it without seeming rude.

It was one of those churches that not only practiced open communion, it insisted on it. It is a warm and welcoming church, and they tell you when you enter the church as a visitor that you should wear a name tag because you are addressed by name during communion. And, in fact, that was exactly what happened, when the bread was handed to me.

Since communion is a ritual that is so important to most of Christianity, how it is performed does say something about how serious the church is about practicing the radical inclusion that Jesus taught. There seem to be two, completely opposite philosophies--one positive, the other negative. Some churches have a very exclusive philosophy on the subject, and only offer it to baptized Christians, or even worse, such as in the case of the Catholic Church, only members of that particular denomination in good standing are allowed to receive the bread and wine. This idea of exclusive communion is such a perversion of everything that Jesus taught and lived--the man who practiced open commensality with prostitutes and tax collectors.

Before last Sunday, I had attended other services where open communion was practiced, but I never did participate. It was easy enough to decline the offer--I would just sit in my seat and not get up during that portion of the service. But when you and everyone else is are standing in a circle around the table, that option just isn't so easily available. My reasons for having declined in the past were complicated. I grew up in a denomination that saw communion as a shared act by baptized, believing Christians. As an adult far removed from that time in my life, a part of me still looks at Christian church services from the perspective of an outsider looking in; and I just feel, given that my views are outside the mainstream and probably different from those held by most of the people who are in the pews with me, that somehow it isn't right for me to partake of communion. If I partake, I wonder, am I dishonestly affirming somehow that I believe certain things about Jesus? Is is a symbolic equivalent to reciting the Nicene creed? Am I betraying my own beliefs and pretending to be something I am not?

And since I don't have the same beliefs about Jesus that orthodox Christians have, to me communion is like a test you have to pass--a belief test, or a membership test--that I knew I would not pass. For those churches that professed open communion--the ones that tell me it's okay, that it doesn't matter what my beliefs are--in the back of my mind I nevertheless felt like it was somehow presumptuous of me to assume that I belonged in that ritual of communion when I don't see God or Jesus in the same way that they do.

Some of the theology that surrounds communion doesn't really work for me, either--all that talk about the body and blood of Christ. Even for churches that reject out of hand the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, there is still usually some mention of Christ's body and blood. When the focus of the communion is on this kind of theology about Jesus, it doesn't resonate with me; when, on the other hand, it is instead offered simply as an expression of radical inclusiveness and community for all seekers who attend, that's another story.

From an anthropological perspective, one can argue that food sharing at meal time is one of the most essential elements of the human social experience; food sharing is one of the things that separates humans from our ape cousins. Humans in pre-agricultural times were hunters and gatherers; they went out, got food, and then brought it back to the wider community for sharing and eating. So building a ritual around the celebration of a common meal does have the potential of great symbolism--if it is done to promote inclusion rather than exclusion--because it hearkens back to the very essence of what it means to be human.

As an adult, for many years I attended worship at two denominations (Quaker and Unitarian Universalist) that didn't practice communion at all. And I kind of liked that. Because I saw communion as an unnecessary ritual, built around a Christological symbolism that I did not accept and integrated into a theology of exclusivism, I was happy to see the entire practice jettisoned from my worship experience. So to attend progressive Christian denominations that practice communion, as I have done recently, becomes during the communion portion a kind of entrance into a eerily uncomfortable world where I don't quite feel like I fit in. I have felt fortunate that the church I have attended the most often only practices communion once a month. And I have always felt relieved that there is no communion whatosever at the Taize services that I attend on Wednesday nights.

Last Sunday, when I felt compelled to participate in the act, my initial reaction was that I was betraying myself by participating. My long streak of many years of avoiding the communion was coming to an end, and at a church that I was only just visiting. It was like losing my virginity casually, and I had been hoping that if I ever did lose my communion virginity, I would save myself for--well, I wasn't sure what, but it would be in the context of some kind of commitment to something I could be deeply involved with. When I felt the wine go down my throat, it warmed my throat and felt pleasant. My aversion to communion hasn't really changed as a result of that experience, but I also know this: it wasn't the end of the world after all.

Paradigm shifts

I am currently reading Richard Holloway's book Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity. In the following passage from the book, he makes some interesting comments about paradigms, religious and otherwise (alas, he has an unfortunate tendency to avoid inserting paragraph breaks into long passages):

I cannot grudge those who believe in a magical world-view the comfort or excitement in holding that view; but I cannot hold it myself, not because I am a representative faithless skepticism, but because I have inherited a different way of looking at things and it would be dishonest of me to abandon it or exclude religion from its consequential effects. In this area, we have to pick our way through a defile between cultural arrogance and superiority, on the one hand, and honest acceptance of our own cognitive situation, on the other. The miraculous way of looking at things is still held by some people with perfect integrity today, just as it was once possible to hold an honest belief in Ptolemaic astronomy. But once a particular society has shifted to a different scheme of interpretation, a different paradigm of understanding, why is it held to be virtuous or faithful to cleave to remnants of the old world-view in our religious understanding? I can appreciate the argument from preference or cultural weariness here, rather than the claim of faithfulness. Some people just don't like new things: they prefer stage coaches to steam trains, ocean liners to jumbo jets, coal fires to central heating....The stakes shoot up when we enter the religious end of the argument. People might prefer steam trains to diesels for romantic reasons, but it would be wrong of them to claim the virtue of faithfulness for doing so. They are exercising a preference, that's all....

The point is that the scheme of interpretation that presents Jesus as a visitant from a supernatural realm who performed wonders, including raising the dead and walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee, is just that: a scheme of interpretation, a way of responding to events that was congruent with a particular stage of understanding and development. In that world, people regularly witnessed miracles, encountered ghosts, were infested by demons and knew of men who had been turned into wolves during the full moon. That was how people interpreted what was happening around them. (pp. 130-132)
This passage is part of a longer exposition, in which Holloway makes a comparison between the resurrection (as the foundational event in Christianity), and the Big Bang (as the foundational event in the universe). Just as scientists attempt to work their way backwards to try to explain the Big Bang, theologians and biblical scholars can try to work their backwards to the time when the demoralized and scattered disciples of just-executed Jesus transformed their understanding of events to one of optimism and hope. The point that Holloway makes is that, just as the Big Bang was a transformational event that left its aftereffects with us to this day (we are the aftereffects), what really matters from a theological perspective is the transformational power of the resurrection experience (whatever it really happened to be) for those early disciples. I don't believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead; but the reality is that his disciples, in the experience that they had after Jesus's death, had a transformational experience. And it is the power of a transformational experience that lies, in my view, at the heart of religion--not adherence to the literal truth of an ancient myth.

I would argue that, to the extent that religious dogma clings to the adherence of literal acceptance of ancient myths as the foundation of faith, that can only serve as a barrier to the transformational power of religion for many of us who live in the modern world. When a paradigm serves as a barrier to transformation, then many of us must move beyond those old paradigms and forward to new ones.

Moving Beyond the Trinity

In my previous two postings, I discussed the limitations inherent in describing the nature of God. I suggested that, first, any attempt at describing God's ineffable nature is a human effort that is inherently incomplete, and as such it is inevitably influenced by the culture and time from which that description emerges. I then suggested that the this applies every bit as much to the doctrine of the Trinity, which, far from having dropped from the sky as an irrevocable truth, was in fact, like any other doctrine, a human product, a human effort at capturing God's nature--and that it was a product of a particular cosmology and theology that no longer resonates with the modern sensibility.

So where do we go from here? The Trinity is, in my view, a needlessly complicated theology. Some Christian churches have tried to "update" the doctrine in superficial ways without getting to the core problem--using nonsexist language, for example (such as referring to God as Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But this is just window dressing. The fixation remains on the number three, which I often wonder about. Why assign the Godhead three persons--why not seven, or 17? It all seems to me rather arbitrary. Occam's razor alone should tell us that creating an arcane three-in-one description of God's nature as a monotheistic deity simply introduces a complication when none is really necessary.

If we do not believe that God is a divine patriarch who resides in the sky and performs magic tricks from time to time, including impregnating a virgin so that one of the persons of the Godhead and drop down and inhabit the earth for a while (where he performs more magic tricks, including raising himself from the dead)--then for me it would be perfectly fine if the doctrine of the Trinity were laid to rest once and for all. The modern, rational sensibility suggests that God does not operate that way. To me, God is a mysterious, ineffable presence, not a magician-in-the-sky.

Many Christian churches continue to include creedal affirmations about the Trinity as a part of their worship services. These creedal affirmations try to shoehorn modern Christians, and therefore modern Christianity, into ancient cosmologies that many of us simply can't take seriously. There is no doubt that many Christians are attached to the orthodoxy, and believe that these creedal affirmations are essential to the livelihood of their church. But I would argue that there are many others of us who find these affirmations a serious sticking point. There are millions of people who are interested in exploring the sacred mysteries of life from the perspective of the Christian traditions that lie at the heart of our culture and upbringing, but who don't want to have to choose between being unchurched and believing in fairy tales. Many of us refuse to check out brains at the door when we participate in the worship experience. We want to have a rational faith, one that is based on a post-Enlightenment understanding of the world.

We can continue to look to Jesus as the founder of our understanding of God without placing him within a Godhead as a preexisting Son begotten of the Father. The Jesus tradition of building the Kingdom of God, of resistance to Empire, of radical inclusion, of radical universalism, is the foundation of my understanding of God. That does not mean that others who do not follow Jesus are somehow "wrong". Different religious traditions represent different ways of relating to the sacred mystery of the universe. Nor does it even mean that those who continue to believe in the Trinity are somehow "wrong". The problem is not rightness or wrongness, but viability. For me, and I am sure others as well, the old paradigm just doesn't work anymore as a means of connecting with the Divine. For those who hold the Trinity dear as a meaningful paradigm, there is certainly no reason why they should not continue to see God in that way. But I cannot and will not view God in this way.

And that is a source of frustration, as I sit on the edges of Christianity, wanting to participate in a religious community of faith, but unable to fully accept all the trappings that go along with it. The best I can do is find the most inclusive and progressive Christian church I can, and try to tune out the Trinitarian parts of the service when they come up. For the most part, it works for me fairly well. But I also wonder who else besides me would like to see a paradigm shift take place within the Christian tradition.

The Trinity

In my previous posting, I considered the ways in which the doctrine of the Trinity represents a very specific, detailed, and dogmatic way of describing an infinite God who so often defies our finite attempts at capturing his nature in words and symbols. I now want to go a little deeper into how the Trinity represents a human doctrine about Jesus as he relates to God, rather than a divinely revealed truth. Like all human doctrines about God, it has its history and its context. So I would like to specifically delve a bit into how the understanding of Jesus's nature evolved within the writings of the New Testament.

I believe that Jesus never proclaimed himself as divine in his lifetime, but that after his death his perceived status underwent an evolution over time. We can actually see within the pages of the New Testament some of this evolution in understanding of Jesus.

The earliest writings in the New Testament that we have were the letters of Paul. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul proclaims that Jesus "was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead." Interestingly enough, Paul says nothing here about an eternal pre-existent Christ who descended to earth--that idea came much later. On the contrary, Paul writes that Jesus was adopted as God's son at the time of his resurrection. Note that Paul also made no claims in his letters that Jesus was bodily resurrected and walked among the disciples before ascending to heaven. In 1 Corinthians 15, he says that after the resurrection of Jesus

he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
We can see in the above text that Paul uses the same verb--"appeared"--for each experience of the resurrected Jesus, including his own. Thus each encounter with Christ represented, as Paul described it, the same category of experience. Since both Paul and the book of Acts assert that Paul saw Jesus through a visionary experience of the exalted Christ, rather than through having been with Jesus during a period of a bodily resurrection on earth, it is clear here that Paul was stating that the nature of his experience of the resurrected Jesus was the same as that of the other apostles who came before him. It therefore was the experience of an exalted Christ who was in heaven with God--not that of a bodily resurrected Jesus. Paul, as already noted, believed that Jesus was "declared" the Son of God upon resurrection, at which time Jesus was exalted into heaven with God. It appears, therefore, that he never believed that a resurrected Christ walked on earth with the disciples and then "ascended" to heaven.

After the letters of Paul, the next New Testament work to have been written, at around 70 CE, was the Gospel of Mark. Mark makes no mention of any resurrection appearances by Jesus. Thus, for Mark, like Paul, any description of a bodily resurrected Jesus is actually absent. Mark suggests that the disciples would encounter Jesus in Galilee--but the nature of any such an encounter is never described. He only notes that certain women went to the tomb, found it empty, were told that Jesus was resurrected, and fled. End of story. He does, however, move Jesus's adoption by God as the Divine son earlier than Paul did. In Mark's case, upon Jesus's baptism (described in the very first chapter of the book), God proclaims that Jesus is God's son. Thus, for Mark, it is at baptism, rather than at his resurrection, that God adopts Jesus as his son.

Being God's son, in this case, does not mean that Jesus was divine. Jesus is quoted in this gospel as saying at one point, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." In that statement, Jesus clearly distinguished himself from God. This was obviously an embarrassing quotation to later Christians who wanted to identify Jesus more closely with God; thus Matthew, written only some 10-15 years later, and which used Mark as a source, subtly reworded the rhetorical question to say, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good." This subtle change now takes away the distinction that Jesus makes between himself and God.

In Matthew, also, the time of Jesus's declaration as God's son is moved back still earlier. From Paul's location of the event at resurrection, to Mark's location of the event at baptism, we have Matthew locating it at conception. Meanwhile, Matthew is the first Gospel to describe an actual resurrection appearance by Jesus. Luke and Acts, written still later, go into greater detail with respect to describing Jesus's post-resurrection appearances, locating them in Jerusalem instead of Galilee, and also describing an ascension into heaven. The Gospel of John goes even further with respect to when Jesus became God's son--according to the prologue of that Gospel, Jesus was the pre-existing Divine Logos who had always been with God.

From all of this we can see that several things evolved in the understanding of Jesus during the years after his death. Initially, his loyal followers were so taken with his disclosure of the Divine presence that they believed that they had experienced him as having been exalted into God's presence and declared God's son after his execution. Later New Testament writers embellished these claims--placing his adoption as God's son at earlier and earlier points in his life until the Gospel of John took it to the ultimate conclusion and had him pre-existing eternally with God. These embellishments also included the invention of tales of physical appearances on earth after his death and resurrection, which were then followed by an "ascension" into God's presence that obviously was based on three-tiered cosmology. So we went from Jesus being the subject of a mystically experienced exaltation into God's presence after his death to stories of a physical resurrection and later ascension.

This elaboration of the understanding of Jesus over time ultimately led to the development of a fully worked out doctrine of the Trinity. The reality is that this doctrine was wrangled over for some time before it was finally arrived at. Furthermore, there were many competing understandings of the nature and life of Jesus; the one that won out became known as "orthodoxy", while the losing theologies became "heresy". The writings that supported the orthodoxy became part of the New Testament, while those that did not were suppressed. The elaboration of theology about Jesus over time that I described above took place among those writings that were placed into the New Testament by the orthodoxy. Thus the Trinity was not an inevitable result of a straight line progression of ideas, but rather one possible conclusion about Jesus among many--the one that was victorious, and then the victors got to include those books that were the most consistent with that conclusion into their canonical scriptures.

The Bible was written by human beings. The evolution of ideas about Jesus was a human process. Like all human process, it reflects the world in which those humans lived. We in the modern world have the tools for examining that process and evaluating it in the light of our modern understanding of the world. The old three-tiered cosmology of the ancient world no longer applies. The old patriarchal God who rules from atop this three-tiered universe also has fallen by the wayside. The old paradigm simply no longer holds. Instead, perhaps it is time for those who follow Jesus to re-examine the old paradigms. For some of us who believe in God and who are attracted to the Christian tradition, the old creeds and the old Trinitarian formulas just no longer make any sense.

The ineffable God

Is it really possible for finite beings to describe God's infinite nature?

God is often described as an ineffable presence, a sacred mystery, beyond full comprehension or explanation. "Ineffable" is an interesting word. According to an online dictionary, the word "ineffable" means

Incapable of being expressed in words; unspeakable; unutterable; indescribable.
The word "effable" is the opposite of ineffable. But there doesn't seem to be a verb "to eff", except as a shorthand for a common English language obscenity. That's a shame, because it might be interesting to describe the "effing" of God, but the connotation of that expression takes us somewhere else than we we want to go.

The sacred mystery, the deepest meaning of life, can be experienced mystically, but then what do you do when you try to capture that mystery and explain it? You are forced to use words, symbols, myths, and the other tools of the human imagination. And that is where it gets tricky.

That is because as soon as we humans try to capture the essence of God's nature through words and symbols, we immediately lose something in the translation. It is impossible for that not to happen. Our finite language is woefully inadequate for describing God's infinite nature. It will inevitably be incomplete. It gets even worse when we try to elevate our description of God into a creedal affirmation. Then we run the risk of a kind of idolatry--because we also run the risk of no longer worshiping God, but rather our conception of God, and it is that conception of God that is limited and therefor a kind of idol. The ancient Jews understood the danger of idolizing our language about God. As Richard Holloway puts it,
In religious discourse, God is the ultimate symbol. This little word connects us to all the questions we ask, and all the longings we have, concerning the ultimate meaning or its absence. This is why the symbol 'God' is one of the most ambiguous of human inventions. The Hebrews were so aware of the unbridgeable gap between this symbol and what it was intended to connect with, that they were afraid of using it and constantly pointed to its dangers. Since, by definition, God could not be what mortals said God was, they preferred to speak in circumlocutions or descriptive analogues rather than try to name God. This was the reason for their radical fear of idolatry, which is the identification of God with an object, either physical or conceptual. (Doubts and Loves, Richard Holloway, pp 55-56).
How this applies to Christianity is where we get into very specific, detailed creedal affirmations of the nature of God as he or she relates to the life of, and testimonies about, Jesus. When talking about the relationship of Jesus to God, Christian orthodoxy provides us with the doctrine of the Trinity, and in my view, it illustrates a clear example of this problem. Here we have a very specific and detailed set of ideas about God's nature. But that is only half of the problem. The deeper problem is that many Christians believe that this dogma is God's own revealed truth about His nature, and thus is irrevocable and must be guarded against any challenges from those who are labeled "heretics" or non-believers.

The idea that any doctrine is God's revealed truth is a dangerous one, and it is one that I never subscribe to. Any doctrine about God is necessarily colored by the time, the culture, and the prevailing cosmology of those who formulate it. It can never be otherwise. I try, in my own limited way, to understand God's nature as I believe it makes sense to me. I incorporate what I believe to be a modern, rational understanding of nature, and a modern cosmology, into my theology. I don't claim that what I believe is an absolute truth, that it is irrevocable, or that it is anything but my human attempt at understanding God. I know that it is limited by the very nature of my finite, limited language and symbols.

Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity was an ancient attempt by Christian orthodoxy at capturing the nature of God and placing it into a creedal affirmation. Unfortunately, it is one that is has been presented over the centuries as a Divinely Revealed truth, not subject to question lest one be labeled a heretic. Even more unfortunately, it continues to this day to serve as the bedrock of much of modern Christianity, and Christian worshipers in many denominations must affirm their belief in it as part of the worship service. Instead of being ineffable, God is has been rendered "effable" by a creedal formulation in Christian tradition, seen through the lens of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Given that Jesus is the central figure in Christian orthodoxy, I might start with the proposition that the Trinity hinges on the idea of the divinity of Jesus--who is asserted by Christian orthodoxy to be "fully God and fully human". The idea that any human being can also be a person in the Godhead raises serious questions in my own mind. It does not jibe with my understanding of the divine nature. In any case, the creeds say that Jesus is indeed full divine. The Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus is "the Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made." It further asserts that the Son "came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man".

Here we immediately see how this doctrine was a product of its time. The suggestion that one of a supposed trio of persons of the Godhead "came down from heaven" reflects a three-tiered cosmology--where the earth lies between a heaven up above (where God resides), and a hell down below. The three-tiered cosmology itself holds certain notions about God--the idea of God as a patriarchal figure, living above the earth, who has miraculous powers and who can send a part of himself "down" to earth in a supernatural act. In fact, this heavenly magician was able to conceive a human child of a virgin mother! This represents an image of the Divine that defies a modern, rational understanding of the way nature operates. I simply don't believe in that sort of divine patriarch who violates the laws of science to perform magic tricks. I believe that the world is ordered and rational.

My point is that the three-tiered cosmology that lies behind the Nicene Creed has long ago been discarded, but more importantly, the idea that God works in this fashion is something that I reject out of hand. I cannot help but wonder how many potential church goers who believe in God are turned off like I am by the idea of a virgin birth or a bodily resurrection. The old cosmology of the God who intervened in nature in that way has been swept away by the scientific revolutions of the past few centuries. The idea of a physical ascension of Jesus into heaven may have made sense under the old cosmology. But, as John Shelby Spong has pointed out, our modern cosmology tells us that even if Jesus had ascended at the speed of light from the earth 2000 years ago, he would still be flying through space and he hasn't yet left our own galaxy. The modern world cannot possibly take literally old biblical myths like these. Yet the Nicene Creed, or something like it, continues to be recited in churches in the twenty-first century.

Stripped of such mythological literalism, what we are left with, I believe, is a God who is an infinite presence, One who calls out to us--not some external father figure who performs supernatural feats that defy physical laws or who "comes down" to place a part of his Godhead among us. My modern sensibility tells me that God does not send lightning bolts out of the sky or otherwise engage in this kind of miraculous activity; I believe that God works through nature, not outside of it.

So what do we say about Jesus, if he was not part of a divine Godhead? Was Jesus therefore not fully God? To answer that question, I would suggest to start with that the Divine, because she is an infinite presence, lives within all of us as part of the universe that we inhabit. I think that God exists within the world as well as outside of it--God is both immanent and transcendent, in other words. God is therefore everywhere, and eternally issuing calls to us to act in certain ways, and we in response all have the free will to listen to God's call and respond accordingly--or to reject God's call as well. This implies that Jesus was no different from any of us in that he lived as a human being within the world in which God is immanent. Jesus was especially adept at heeding God's call and responding accordingly, and as such he represented an example of divine disclosure through human activity. Did he perfectly express God's will at every point in his life? I don't know the answer to that question for sure, but I would suggest that the divine presence was very strong and evident in his life--so much so, in ways that remarkably affected those around him, that they refused to believe that he was gone from their lives after his execution. There is no inherent reason to believe that the only person in history who had a very strong Divine presence within him. Perhaps all of us, as human beings, have the potential ability to answer God's call just as Jesus did. Perhaps all of us have the potential ability to listen to the call of the God who inhabits the universe, and to disclose the Divine that inhabits us through the way we live our lives.

Am simply creating my own flawed description of an infinite, ineffable God when I describe my theology in this way? Am I just "effing" God when I say these things? Perhaps I am. But I also make no claim that what I am saying is a Divinely revealed Truth that must remain unchallenged for all of time. Instead, I am presenting my own finite attempt at describing the reality of God in a way that makes sense to me, given my own understanding of the natural world. This is the way that I can best describe the God-experience that I have.

The world is full of religions. Many of them represent different attempts at capturing the reality of the infinite, sacred mystery. Can many of them be true at the same time? How is it possible that light can be either a particle and a wave, depending on which way scientists happen to view it? If a scientist looks for wave properties in light, they see waves; if they look for particle properties, they see particles. Are we all like the blind men and the elephant, trying to capture different essences of the Divine nature?

At the same time, I believe that paradigm shifts within a religious tradition do occur, must occur in fact. The Hebrew scriptures tell us of how a people believed that God acted through history. The Babylonian exile, however, forced the Jewish people to re-examine their theology and the role that God played in the world. Later still, persecutions of Jewish martyrs led to the development of the idea of an afterlife. Paradigm shifts are necessary in religious thinking from time to time.