Entertaining angels

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. - Hebrews 13:2
I don't believe that there are literally angels who walk among us. But I sometimes like to imagine that angels exist. It somehow calls out to the sentimental side of me, especially to imagine that there are beings out there whose sole purpose is to go undercover as humans in order to do acts of kindness. How cool that would be if that were true. Maybe that was why I enjoyed a Norwegian movie from couple of years ago, titled Hawaii, Oslo, that was based on this very premise.

In reality, the idea of angels doing good deeds undercover seems impossible to justify theologically and morally, as nice an idea as it sounds in theory. Since angels (or at least the good ones) presumably act on behalf of God, the whole problem of theodicy returns. Considering how many bad things have happened and continue to happen to people in the world, one would have to wonder if angels are in seriously short supply. There seems to be too much to be done and not enough angels to do it. Or maybe the angels are selective in who they help, and when. But then we have the question of why some people are helped by angels and others are not. In any case, there certainly didn't seem to be enough angels in the world to prevent the Nazi holocaust.

It doesn't really matter. I just like the above quote from the book of Hebrews for its mythological symbolism, about the importance of doing good deeds to others. Because, ultimately, when we do those acts of kindness, it isn't about helping angels; rather, we become the angels ourselves.

There is a problem in my case, though. I would make a terrible angel. I am sure that I am just about the most incompetent person in the world when it comes to reaching out a hand and helping people I don't know. I manage to bungle almost every act of kindness to strangers that I try to do.

Last week, while riding the BART train in Oakland, a somewhat older woman in a wheelchair asked me what the next stop was. She seemed a bit gruff at first, but when I answered her question, she gave a polite smile and thanked me. When we got to the stop she was asking about, I was about to disembark to transfer to another train, and she motioned to me to help wheel her off. I had never pushed a wheelchair off a BART train before, and when I pushed her to the door, the front wheels got stuck in the gap between the train and the platform. There was a limited time to get the chair through before the doors would try to close, and I began to panic as I tried to figure out why her chair wouldn't move and as I tried unsuccessfully to push the chair through, and in trying to push the chair that wouldn't budge my leg bumped up against her back. The woman in the chair started yelling at me impatiently. Finally, another passenger grabbed the front wheels and pulled her forward past the gap and onto the platform. I felt like an idiot and apologized to the woman in the chair.

As I walked to the other side of the platform, another woman came up alongside me and complained about how ungracious the woman in the wheelchair had been towards my efforts. I told her that I actually had been of no help to that woman. She smiled and said, "But at least you tried to help her." She then turned left and headed down the stairs, while I continued straight and sat on the bench to wait for the train.

If I were a believer in angels, I might have considered the woman who walked alongside me and tried to reassure me to be one, since she came out of the blue and seemed to want to make me feel better about my failure at helping someone. But she was no angel--just a person like I am. My feeling about my failure to help was this: it does people no good to try to help others and fail. It only does any good if you actually help them. And who was more in need of an angel, anyway--me, or the woman in the wheelchair? The woman who helped me get the wheelchair off the train when it was stuck was much more of an angel to the wheelchair bound passenger than I was.

My usual incompetence with respect to helping strangers most frequently manifests itself via my inability to give useful directions to people when they stop me on the street. Even when I am familiar with the area I almost never know the answer to their question, or, even worse, I sometimes give directions that I later realize to be faulty. I was thinking about this very issue yesterday at lunchtime as I was walking to a restaurant from my car. As if by magic, two young women came up to me asked me where the corner of Portola and Vicente was. I knew this intersection were very close to where I was standing, but I wasn't sure. I looked around for Portola and finally saw a street sign for it up the hill. I pointed it out to them, and that seemed to satisfy them. They thanked me. Maybe they were angels, sent there to make me feel better about my inability to give good directions. But, in reality, I never did tell them exactly where the intersection that they asked about was located. I only gave them some small bit of information that may or may not have led them to where they wanted to go.

My feeling is that part of why I as a human being is put here is to make the world a better place than it would have been had I not been here. And I'm not always sure that I am really doing a very good job of carrying out that mission.

Healing a Broken World

Some church web sites provide the ability to listen to recordings of their sermons. I sometimes peruse web sites from liberal mainline churches, and when I find these recordings, I often listen to them to hear what the churches have to say. One such church, located in Chicago, states on its home page that it "welcomes all who want to thank God, have doubt, or do not believe." This openness to seekers with a variety of beliefs was appealing to me, so I was particularly interested to hear some of the online sermons. However, after listening to one of the sermons online about the subject of the divinity of Jesus, I was disappointed--not because I disagreed with the speaker's Trinitarianism, which I more or less expected, but because it expressed what I felt was an unfair characterization of those such as myself who do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity. I have no problem with Christians who embrace the divinity of Jesus. I have more or less made peace with myself over the fact that I have started attending a Trinitarian church despite the fact that I am not a Trinitarian; I am willing to let that theological difference slide because I find myself able to connect with God in the worship services despite that one difference, and because I am willing to de-literalized and mythologize some of the theological language that doesn't exactly correspond to my perspective.

In the online sermon that I listened to, I do give the pastor credit. He said that he was mostly asking others to consider certain questions that he was posing, and that he was only giving his own opinion in response to those questions. That is fair enough; it is far more admirable than what I would have experienced listening to a fundamentalist preacher who would simply proclaim what he claims to be the final and absolute truth and leave it at that. In any case, my objection is not with what this pastor believes per se, but with what I saw as an somewhat unfair attack on a belief that he rejects.

The sermon title was "What if Jesus wasn't divine?" In answering that question, the pastor asserted that there was essentially only one alternative to believing in Jesus's divinity, at least within Western religious traditions. According to him, this alternative was a belief in the goodness of the human race and an optimistic faith in the ability of humanity to solve the world's problems, perhaps by simply listening to Jesus as a great moral teacher. The pastor then summarily dispensed with this straw man by pointing out that history has shown that the world has indeed proved repeatedly to be a very broken place and humanity has had a poor track record of healing itself from the sins and evils that plague the world through its own efforts.

It is true that in the 19th century, a strain of thought did develop that held an optimistic faith in humanity's future progress, and this no doubt coincided with a characterization of Jesus as no more than a great moral teacher. This optimism about the future evolution of human society was largely shattered by the brutality of World War I. However, the pastor makes the mistake of assuming that there is any inherent connection between denying the divinity of Jesus and having a kind of 19th century optimism in the ever expanding moral progress of human civilization, or that such progress can be achieved by simply and earnestly following the teachings of a great moral teacher.

For one thing, the pastor leaves God completely out of the straw man that he erected. It is possible to deny the divinity of Jesus and still believe in God. Just ask any Jew. The reality is that it is perfectly possible to recognize that the world is broken, that humans benefit from the transformative power of a relationship with God, and that humans have historically shown a less than stellar track record in solving their seemingly intractable social problems, without believing that Jesus is divine. One can believe in a strictly monotheistic God and still believe those other things. Those 19th century optimists who he dismisses were, I suspect, largely secularists, who seemed to have removed God from the picture entirely. But to assume that one must be a secularist if one rejects the divinity of Jesus is obviously not valid. And if you believe that the world is broken and that people as flawed creatures benefit in some way from their relationship with God, then this can be true whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus.

Also, consider that there is the flip side of the equation. Does the pastor think that somehow believers in the divinity of Jesus have any better track record at solving the world's problems than those who don't? It is true that humans on their own have been unable to end wars, oppression and injustice; but how, exactly does a belief in the divinity of Jesus provide the solution to those problems that secularism is unable to provide?

How can we heal this broken world? Religion offers no magic solutions. I am not a naive optimist, and lately I've been feeling more pessimistic than optimistic about the future of the world. But, unless one takes a millenarian view that God will magically intervene in history and bring on an apocalyptic resolution to what is wrong with the world--and I certainly don't believe that--are we supposed to just throw our hands up in the face of the problems of the world and not at least try to make it a better place, to the best of our limited ability? The world will not get better unless we try. As a believer in God, I believe that God calls us to co-create with her the world that we live in, to try make it a better place. We don't always succeed. Often we fail. But the one thing we cannot do is give up. And that is true regardless of what we think Jesus's nature was.

The pastor correctly pointed out that the world was full of moral teachers other than Jesus--he names such historical figures as Gandhi and Marx as examples of this. He then asked the question, why is following Jesus any more worthwhile than following any other teacher? What makes Jesus so special if he isn't divine? That is a valid question. My own view is that, firstly, the question of "divine" versus "non-divine" is a simplistic take on what should not be an either-or proposition; it is not a question of anyone being God or not-God, because I believe that God exists within all of creation, and that all of us are a part of God, even if none of us are "Divine" in the sense of being part of a Godhead. Jesus was important not just because of his teachings, but because he lived according to his teachings to the fullest, and thus revealed by example that presence of divinity that exists and can be expressed in all of us. Secondly, I also believe that Jesus is not the only way that one has to follow; one can find the Divine in many ways, with other teachers and traditions. One can follow in the Jesus tradition, as I do, even though I am a non-Trinitarian, because it is a comfortable and meaningful way of mediating the experience of God that I can relate to. It is a tradition that I know and it works for me. But that doesn't mean that it is the end-all and be-all of how to find God. I think that Trinitarians can and do experience God, just as I believe that I experience God in my own way. I also believe that people of other religious traditions experience God, or the Divine, or the Ground of Being, or whatever you choose to call it, through the means that have worked for them.

Can we heal this broken world? I certainly would like to believe so, even if I think it is a depressingly uphill battle. Do we have to believe in the divinity of Jesus in order to try to heal the world, or even to heal ourselves as individuals? I believe strongly that the answer is no.

God, the Bible, and Pink Floyd

I started reading John Shelby Spong's book Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes. From the title, I fully expected that the author would attempt to peel back the layers of Christian interpretation and instead try to examine the Gospels as Jewish works written in a time in history when Christianity was a sect within Judaism. But I was surprised to discover that Spong would do so from a very specific perspective of a theory about the origins of the Gospels that is perhaps not generally accepted by scholars, in this case one that was developed by a theologian named Michael Goulder.

According to this theory, the gospels were actually works of Christian lectionary meant to correspond to the Jewish liturgical year. In the case of the Gospel of Mark, for example, this meant that the book was ostensibly meant to be read in Jewish religious services over the course of six and a half months or so, from Rosh Hoshana to Passover. The Gospel was written around 70 AD, before the break between Christianity and Judaism had fully taken place, and Jewish Christians would have participated fully in the life of their synagogue and its liturgy at that time. Spong makes a persuasive argument that the various sections of the Gospel correspond neatly to particular festivals and Torah readings that take place during that part of the Jewish liturgical cycle. The catch is that this correspondence requires that you properly synch up the Gospel just so in order for this correspondence to take place--you must begin at Rosh Hoshana, and you must end at Passover. But when you do so, the Gospel does seem to match up well with the Jewish liturgy.

While I admit that Spong makes a persuasive case, I am a little hesitant to completely jump on board with this specific theory. What makes me hesitant is that his methodology reminds me a little bit of a phenomenon from the realm of modern popular culture: the Dark Side of the Rainbow theory. According to this theory, which has found popular expression on the internet, if you synch up the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon at just the right point while watching the movie The Wizard of Oz, the music matches up amazingly well with what takes place in the film.

On web video sites like Google Videos, there are videos of the movie with the Pink Floyd soundtrack. In some cases as I watch the video, I do find that there does seem to be a remarkable synchronicity. In other cases, I don't really see it. The members of the band Pink Floyd have, I might add, denied that they made their album with the movie in mind, pointing out that in 1973, consumer video tapes of movies didn't even exist.

What this all probably illustrates is the power of the human mind to make patterns out of random coincidences.

Is this what Spong is doing here? I am not saying that he is. I think the evidence from the text is not only interesting, but it does make some sense that Jewish Christians of that time would have created just such a lectionary. The theory also proposes an explanation for why the Gospel of Mark, the first of the four canonical gospels to be written, was created in the first place. Many scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas and the hypothetical sayings Gospel of Q predated Mark, and both of these Gospels lacked the narrative content that Mark has, being mostly just collections of the sayings of Jesus. (Spong denies the existence of Q, by the way, which is contrary to the view of most contemporary scholars. ) This leap to a fully narrative-based Gospel could therefore have been spurred on by the need to fulfill a lectionary requirement by early Jewish Christians.

I think that what Spong proposes is interesting, but I'm not sure that I am willing to embrace it. Most of Spong's books, I believe, seem to be consistent with the mainstream of modern scholarship. Even if fundamentalists and conservative Christians may have rejected what he has written, in general his books have--as far as I have been able to tell, anyway--been based on the findings of mainstream biblical scholars. In this book, which he published 10 years ago, he seems to have gone out on more of a limb by attaching himself to a minority opinion. Still, like everything Spong writes, it is well written and interesting.

Getting Right With God

The pastor at the church I've been attending delivered a short sermon Sunday about two contrasting views of how one "gets right with God". One view is rules-based; it proposes that one must do certain things in order to achieve Divine grace, thus making grace conditional. The other view is that God's love is unconditional. It was clear which of those two views she aligned herself with, although she didn't exactly hammer home the point. She mostly left it up to us to think about the differences between those two concepts.

Here's a true story. I grew up in a church that served communion each Sunday, and it was apparently open for any believer, even children who had not undergone a believer's baptism, to participate in. Our family didn't go to church every single Sunday, and somehow I got it in my mind that I was jeopardizing my salvation by missing out on communion during the Sundays that we missed. So at every once in a while as a child--I am not sure how old I was when I started this, maybe six or seven or so--I decided that I needed to make up for all those lost communions. Often when we had grape juice in the refrigerator, I would drink several glasses of it with bread, hoping that by doing so I would sufficiently catching up.

Somehow, I had come to imagine that salvation was dependent on some kind of communion ledger that God kept the books on in heaven, and that by missing some of them my account was unfortunately in the red.

Here's another true story. I had a bike accident when I was seven years old. I was accompanying my father, who was taking an evening walk; I had been pedaling alongside him, and at one point he took a shortcut through a neighbor's yard. Small town homeowners don't take kindly to bicyclists riding on their manicured lawns, so I took a longer route that looped around on a side road. I pedaled as fast as I could so I could catch up with my father. As I rode, I saw an oncoming car, so I decided to slow down; on the old fashioned Sting Ray I was riding, braking meant pushing the pedals backwards. The momentum of my fast pedaling was so strong, however, that it resisted my effort at pedaling backwards, and the momentum actually pushed me forward off the seat; my crotch landed onto the bar below. This was obviously painful, and this in turn resulted in my losing control of the handlebars. They swung to the left, and I swerved right in the path of the car. As I saw the car coming, I prayed to God to save my life. I don't think God anything to do with my survival, but in any case the driver screeched on his brakes, stopped just before hitting me, and I fell to the pavement, breaking my right wrist. My father, who heard the screech, ran from the neighbor's yard--later he said that he ran so fast that he probably broke a world speed record.

I was understandably freaked out. As I, my father, the driver, and his passenger walked from the scene of the accident to my house, I told the others that my arm hurt, and I thought it might be broken. "No, it's just sprained," the driver told me. He was trying to be reassuring, but I just wanted to be told the truth.

I remember sitting in the waiting room at the hospital--either before the X-rays or before having the cast the put on, I'm not sure which--and still shaken up by all that had happened. I had just come out of an experience where, for the first time in my short life, I thought I was going to die. I started crying and told my mother that I was afraid that I would go to hell. My mother told me with utmost confidence that of course I wasn't going to go to hell. I didn't know how she was supposed to know this. I knew she trying to reassure me, but as in the case of the broken arm, I just wanted to be told the truth.

Thus I recall two incidents from my childhood that show how I had managed to internalize a rules-based conception of Divine grace. Where had I gotten such ideas from? I was brought up in what was essentially a rules-based religion that said that God's love was conditional--one must believe in Jesus as one's savior, for example, and if one didn't follow certain rules like that, one was condemned to eternal damnation. Even if I got the details wrong about such things as the role of communion in salvation, the general principle of a rules-based concept of grace was clearly instilled within me.

How wrong it is, I now believe, to instill into children notions like these.

The Wall of Discomfort

In my previous posting, I wrote something that made me realize more clearly the issues that have made me so conflicted about religion ever since I renewed my interest in religion some 18 years ago at the age of 28. In that posting, I wrote

It was this belief in reason, science, and a natural laws that had led me to reject religion in the first place when I was 16 years old; I wasn't about to come around full circle and accept beliefs in miracles, virgin births, and resurrections now, after all this time.
When I was 16, I told my parents that I had become an atheist. This was a difficult decision for me to make, and it had been preceded by a period of questioning. I had one conversation that I recall with a girl a little older than me in the church youth group to whom I expressed my doubts, and whose answers to my questions I found unsatisfying. I can recall one time attending some kind of religious event on the other side of town with my brother and then feeling so frustrated that I just left without telling anyone, walking three miles or so home, by myself, in the dark. This was all a prelude to my break with Christianity.

When I made the decision and told my parents about it, they did not take it well. My mother forced me to go to church. It was a fundamentalist church, an independent Christian church that was part of the Restoration Movement tradition that believed in congregational autonomy and baptism by immersion only for those old enough to decide to be baptized. I had made that decision myself in the sixth grade. As a prelude to baptism, I had attended a series of special Sunday School classes with other people about my age, where we learned about what it meant to be a baptized member of the Body of Christ. When I then stood before the congregation one Sunday morning and responded to the minister's question of whether I would accept Jesus as my personal savior, I was so moved by what was taking place that I was visibly shaking. I know that my shaking was visible because I was embarrassed later when a schoolmate who attended the same church told me he could see my shaking from his pew several rows behind me. (It's funny, but I don't really remember the baptism part of the ceremony at all.)

And there I was, some five years later, telling my parents I was an atheist. But even though 11 was old enough to make a decision to be a Christian, 16 was apparently too young to make a decision to be an atheist, so off to church I was forced to go. Often, though, we were late getting to church, and we only managed to make it to Sunday school (which, in retrospect, I guess must have come after the main service.) That was fortunate for me; adult Sunday School was separate from the ones the children attended, so while Sunday School was taking place I was able to slip out and walk around the streets of the city, alone in my suit (ah, those suits--I hated dressing up for church, even when I was a young believer!), and returned in time to meet up with my parents. I don't know if my parents ever found out that I did that, but if they did, they never said.

The objections that I had to the religion I was brought up in were, in my eyes, a rejection of all religion. This was almost certainly a byproduct of the all-or-nothing theology that I was taught to believe. Either the Bible was all true and inerrant, I was told, or it was all false. The only legitimate Christianity, I was taught, was a conservative Christianity that valued the Bible as the completely true Word of God. There was no picking and choosing allowed. You either believed it all, or rejected it entirely.

There were four main objections that I as a 16-year-old had with the religion I was brought up in.

The first one was scientific and rational. I was interested in science, I had read books about science since being a small child, I and took science classes in school and believed in the scientific method. I could not, for example, reconcile my belief in evolution with the book of Genesis. More generally, I believed in a world that obeyed certain laws of science, and I could not reconcile this with a belief in miracles.

The second objection was soteriological. I could not believe in the doctrine of hell. I had a brother who was an atheist at the time; was I supposed to believe that he would endure an eternity of torment simply because of the beliefs he held during his life? Was I to believe that people who never even heard of Jesus were condemned to hell? God was supposed to be all-loving, and all-forgiving. I was taught that God would forgive any sin, no matter how heinous--even murderers and other assorted ruffians could have the slate wiped clean, the catch being that the sinner just had to accept Jesus as his or her savior. That was a big catch, of course, but the idea that it was even possible for God to forgive anyone no matter what they did struck a chord with me. Forgiveness and universal love were to me the highest virtues, which Christians were supposed to emulate (because, after all, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies), and I found these virtues inspirational. Yet, on the one hand, God was said to have implemented this very forgiveness in the most extreme cases to those who satisfied the belief test; on the other hand, for those who didn't have the right belief, God was said to have imposed a terrible and eternal suffering on people who committed the slightest offense. The latter was justified by Christian apologists as merely Divine justice, but it was not justice; it was punishment that was all out of proportion for the offense, and, worst still, it stood in stark contrast both with God's own willingness to forgive more serious crimes and the universal forgiveness that Christians were taught to carry out. To this day, I still am amazed that there are large numbers of Christians out there who can believe this stuff.

The third objection was that of theodicy. It is a common complaint, of course, as to how an omnipotent God could allow evil to happen in the world.

The fourth objection was empirical. This actually goes hand in hand with the scientific objection that I listed above. I believed at the time that the existence of God should be subject to the same scientific principles that the phenomena that we sense in the world around us are. Since the existence of God was unprovable by empirical means, and because I believed that the burden of proof lay on those who would prove God's existence, I therefore rejected the idea of God.

I basically accept the validity of three of those four objections today, thirty years later. It was only the last of those that I later changed my mind about, when I became interested in religion as an adult, and it was this change that allowed me to rekindle a belief in God. I came to the conclusion that God, as an infinite being who sustains the world, makes philosophical sense as a deeper level of reality. That isn't to say that I don't have doubts about the existence of God, but it does mean that I don't believe that a Divine reality requires any kind of empirical proof. In fact, I have come, at least to some extent, to accept some variant of the "No watch without a watchmaker" argument for God's existence. I believe that a finite (or at least in some sense limited) universe requires an infinite reality to sustain it.

The question, however, is what kind of God this is that I believe in. And that is where those other three objections from my youth come into play. The first and the third objections--the rationality of the world and the problem of theodicy--were resolved quite easily once I discovered process theology and the panentheistic conception of God. Once you come to believe that God is not omnipotent, then miracles can no longer possibly be a part of your theology; and a non-omnipotent God can certainly not be blamed for the existence of evil in the world. This opened up a world of possibilities for me. As for the second of those three remaining objections, the existence of hell can be resolved simply by realizing that the traditional, orthodox Christian conception of atonement and hell is not the only way of viewing things. One can be a universalist who believes that everyone eventually attains salvation; one can believe that there is no afterlife at all; one can be an agnostic on the question of an afterlife and instead focus one's religion on one's relationship with God in this life. There are many possibilities. The point is that one need not believe in eternal torment for nonbelievers to believe in God. In and of itself, this was liberating, because I realized how much more mature my faith could be if it wasn't all about going to heaven.

Last, but not least, I came to view religious scriptures as not requiring an all-or-nothing approach. I realized that it was possible to view scriptures not as being the literal Word of God, but as human records of people's attempts at understanding God. What a form of liberation it was to realize that scriptures can be flawed! With that, it then became clear to me that many different religions might actually be simply different paths to God. At the same time, I realized that, of all the world's religious traditions, I was naturally drawn to Christianity because it was the religion I was the most comfortable with--it is what I was brought up in, it is the prevailing religion of our culture, and many of its values deeply inspired me as a young person.

But what has been scary about all of this for me is that those three objections from my teenage rejection of Christianity that I still believe to be valid continue to form a wall of discomfort whenever I come in contact with Christianity. The rejection of those beliefs that I found abhorrent or unacceptable still sits strongly within me. I do not want to be religious at the cost of my rational self. I do not want to give up my mind in order to please my soul. The aversion to certain aspects of Christian orthodoxy is so strong within me that it has kept me from exploring Christianity for most of my adult life. The reasons why I gave up on Christianity at age 16 were too important, and too integrated into what matters to me, to go back on now. I cannot and will not do that.

I think it only really began to sink in as I have read the works of people like Spong and Borg that it really is possible to be a rational, thinking Christian, and that there are many people out there who have similar views. It made it possible for me to dip a toe into the waters. The wall of discomfort still remains, and it is the reason why I am still treading the waters of Christianity very slowly.

Churches and Personal Belief

When I started this blog, I expressed a general dissatisfaction with existing Christian and Christian-derived religious denominations. I felt that mainline Christianity was too tied to old creeds and dogmas that made no sense in the modern world and which were inconsistent with a rationalistic understanding of the universe. I felt I was not comfortable attending a church that was rooted in ancient myths that I could not accept as literally true. I felt that what was needed was a kind of post-Christian realignment that could emerge out of existing Christian denominations.

And yet, in the weeks that have passed since I first expressed those feelings here, I have started attending services at a denomination of the United Church of Christ. I am now doing what I thought I could not bring myself to do. What happened to change my mind?

For one thing, I came to realize that my lofty goals of seeing the emergence of a new movement were largely pie-in-the-sky. I suppose I could have tried to take initiative myself and organize such a movement by recruiting other people who felt as I did, assuming that very many of these people actually existed and were willing to join such a movement. I could have thus tried to create something new, maybe attending meetings in homes and trying to build a new religious tradition built on a de-mythologizing of Christianity while appreciating its traditions. But that just seemed like a lot of work. And its chances of even getting off the ground, let alone succeeding, seemed remote.

At the same time, I discovered in online blogs and message boards that there were "progressive Christians" who viewed things much as I did, but at least in some instances were able to find homes within some strand of liberal Christianity. I continued to read books by Marcus Borg, John Spong, and others, and felt inspired by their own takes on Christianity. I found particular inspiration in Spong's book Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, which gave me clear insights in how to appreciate the mythologies that developed around Christian origins. From Spong's book I came to view the "resurrection" myths as having developed by Peter, Paul, and other early Christians as the visionary experience of Jesus's presence after he died, and that for them those visionary experiences were "real" without them actually believing that Jesus as a charismatic and deeply loved figure was physically raised from the dead--not unlike, I suppose, how anyone can "feel" the presence of a loved one who has died. It was only over time, as Christianity evolved, that the tales of a literal, physical resurrection developed. When Spong proposed his theories on how the Easter legends may have arisen around the Jewish feast of the Tabernacles (rather than Passover) and developed after the death of Jesus, it all made sense to me.

And thus I was able to listen to Easter stories and proclamations of Jesus's "resurrection" without flinching. Well, at least most of the time without flinching. I could listen to such proclamations and silently tell myself that I could incorporate those statements about a "resurrected Christ" into my own naturalistic understanding of what happened, and that it was okay if I didn't understand these events in the same way as the one doing the proclaiming did. And even as I listened to such proclamations, I felt a tremendous sense of awe and appreciation of the Divine, the same sense of the Divine that I have been feeling a lot of lately, that has been pulling me into a religious direction since this process of personal religious renewal began.

It was this same feeling, this sense of awe and Divine affinity that was drawing me to act in ways that I really didn't want to, towards becoming part of a religious community. Although this was a tremendously strong impulse, my natural response to it was resistance. Going to a religious service I knew nothing about, in a church full of strangers, when I wasn't sure if I could even accept whatever religious dogma they preached, was almost more than I was able to handle. Sure, I wanted to attend a church service, but I was afraid at the same time.

I knew that the United Church of Christ was a liberal denomination--generally considered the most liberal of the Protestant churches, although this does vary from congregation to congregation. In any case, their "God is still speaking" campaign caught my attention. But how to take this leap? Maybe such a grand leap wasn't necessary. I could try attending a UU church service first, and see how I liked it; if I didn't like it, it would at least represent a sort of first step towards going to a church, any church, so that I could at least overcome my generic resistance to attending a service somewhere. I would have gotten my feet wet at the very least.

So, indeed, I did attend a UU service--and it was just as stale and unfulfilling as I remembered UU services to be from my previous experiences. It only served to remind me that I wanted to attend the worship experience of a more spiritually focused religious community. I looked at the UCC web sites, and I looked at the web sites for UCC churches in my city. There was one not too far away. As each weekend approached, I would tell myself that I would attend a service that Sunday, and I felt a growing sense of anticipation. But then on Sunday morning, the anticipation was replaced by reluctance. Two Sundays in a row, I drove over to a local UCC church, parked nearby, and sat in my car--then drove away, disappointed in myself, and also feeling an unsatisfied need for spiritual fulfillment.

I knew I had no choice. I had to answer that which was pushing me to a church. So one Sunday recently, I finally went. It helped that my significant other volunteered to come with me.

What I discovered from attending was that the experience was satisfying in many ways. I liked that they used the word "God" in the church service. I didn't necessarily care for some of the Trinitarian language, but I was willing to let that slide. The people were friendly. I felt welcomed. No one forced me to "accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior." Having never attended a mainline church before, I was surprised by the little differences from the fundamentalist church I had been brought up in--such as the use of the liturgical calendar, the passing of the peace, and the manner that the communion offering was handed out. And even though I did not partake of the communion, that was okay too. I just watched and took it all in.

I think the biggest surprise for me was that I was coming around to accepting the idea that it was okay that I didn't necessarily agree with every last detail of the language or theology that was used. I never thought I would come to that point. I believe that there are a lot of people like that--people who attend a church for a variety of reasons, even if their theologies aren't an exact match with that congregation or that denomination. For all these years, I had always felt that I needed to be part of something where I was completely compatible theologically--or at least, where my rationalistic perspective was the prevalent paradigm. I have such a built in resistance not just to so much of traditional religious dogma, but dogmas in particular that are built around beliefs that I consider fundamentally at odds with my rationalistic understanding of the world. It was this belief in reason, science, and a natural laws that had led me to reject religion in the first place when I was 16 years old; I wasn't about to come around full circle and accept beliefs in miracles, virgin births, and resurrections now, after all this time. But I think my resistance to such beliefs had impeded my ability to accept and enjoy a spiritual experience in a liberal denomination where it was okay if I wasn't at the same place theologically as everyone else. The key point was to figure out what disagreements mattered, and which ones did not. Among the important things for me were the acknowledgement of God, a liberal approach to theology, a commitment to social justice, and a tolerance for my own place as a religious liberal within the congregation.

That is not to say that, at some level, there is still some discomfort with all of this. At the first service I attended, I was filled with a level of anxiety at the same time that I was enjoying the experience. Whether or how I will ultimately overcome these feelings is an open question. But for now, it is working for me as a means of finding the Divine.

Religious Intolerance

I was perusing a book in a bookstore today: Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness, and the Man Who Found Them All, by Peter Garfinkel. The book seems to be partly a travelogue and partly an exploration of the roots of Buddhism. I was a little intrigued by the book, but I also noted as I skimmed that at one point the author dismissed the Western notion of a belief in God as being not just contrary to the Buddhist path of enlightenment, but fundamentally flawed and detrimental to those who believe. Reading those words, I faced another unfortunate example of the reality that Christians who assert that only true believers in Christ can be "saved" aren't the only religiously intolerant people out there in the world.

Tradition and novelty

I found an interesting quote from the book From Jesus to Christianity, by L. Michael White. Commenting on the writings of the early second century Christian martyr Ignatius, he says:

...Ignatius shows little awareness of those writings from the New Testament that would have existed in his day. He shows some limited awareness of Paul and may paraphrase at times from 1 Corinthians, but does not seem to know about the other letters. It is possible that he encountered those Pauline materials for the first time upon arriving in Smyrna. Among the Gospels, he may have read Matthew (see Ign. Smyrna 1.1), although it was not a central fixture of Antiochene Christianity. The scriptures, for Ignatius, are the Jewish scriptures of the Septuagint. On the other hand, Ignatius does seem to know a wide range of early Christian traditions of vaguely recognizable character...
Here we see an illustration of the point that, approximately a century after the death of Jesus, the Christian community had no conception of a New Testament; and when they conceived of "scriptures" at all, they were referring to the biblical books of their parent religion.

Thus early Christianity expressed two tendencies with respect to the question of "scripture". On the one hand, believers respected the traditional scriptures of their predecessors. Yet, on the other, they lacked any foundational canon specific to their own, new faith. Their faith was not frozen permanently into a rigidly defined set of words that they would have to turn to as a definitive source for Christian doctrine. They were, in a sense, making it up as they were going along. Yet they weren't inventing their religion out of whole cloth either; they revered traditional scriptures of their predecessors who operated under a pre-Christian paradigm.

This combination of a) respecting prior scriptures, and b) not being bound by such scriptures--because they were in still in the process of creating those canonical works and figuring out what to revere and give special attention to for their new faith--represented a process that was lost once the canon was fixed. Whatever was gained by closing the canon, much was lost as well. This dual process of respect for tradition and inventing new ones represented a process of creative listening that is lost once the canon is frozen forever in time.

There is something to be said for revering the prior scriptures of a previous time and paradigm; there is value in seeing how prior generations tried to get a handle on God. But once you freeze the process and deny the continuing ability of God to speak to us in ways that are just as significant as they were many centuries ago, you shut yourself out of a dialogue with the divine. The worst consequences of this attitude towards the canon are the sins of fundamentalism, with its attendant doctrine of biblical inerrancy. It makes it possible for fundamentalists to claim that all the doctrines, all of God's word, is found in this set of writings many centuries old that a group of religious leaders decided would constitute a canon. If the canon were not so rigidly closed, the idea of biblical inerrancy as well as other notions of fundamentalism would have been much more difficult to justify, in my view. If you conceive of revelation as a continuing process and the "canon" as merely a developing expression of that process, it isn't clear to me how such a fundamentalist bible-idolatry could even emerge.

Yet a further problem with the closed canon is that even some who accept that revelation continues in the present day may also insist that any new revelation cannot contradict whatever was written in the Bible (or in the case of Roman Catholicism, whatever was expressed as official church doctrine.) This gives a rigidity to dogma, forcing believers to accept the infallibility of whatever certain individuals wrote or thought thousands of years ago. Ignoring the problem of contradictions that exist in the Bible, one of the reasons why continuing revelation is important is that many of the writers of the Bible may have just plain gotten some things wrong. They were human. They tried to understand God in the best way they could. But they didn't quite get it all right. They weren't perfect--any more than the people who chose what books were to become canonical were perfect in that decision.

That isn't to say that I don't think there is also value in the familiarity of a closed canon. By referring to certain known biblical passages and incorporating them into worship, rites develop around those passages that can contribute to the worship experience for many people. But I also think it might be worth considering the ways that humans can open up their dialogue with the divine. The United Church of Christ likes to say that "God is still speaking". The Quakers talk of "continuing revelation". These are valuable ways to consider the ever present process of revelation. Revelation did not end with the closing of the canon, nor was the canon an infallible record of revelation. Rather than shutting out this process of listening to God for new insights, let us revel in it instead.

God, ministry, and church

A blogger who is a Unitarian Universalist minister has written an entry in which she argues that the "humanist" label that her denomination frequently applies to itself is inaccurate. If I understand her argument correctly, she contends that humanism is historically a theistic tradition, while UUism is officially nontheistic in its principles (although many members in the denomination may themselves be theistic.) Instead, by shedding itself of God within its religious philosophy, UUism more closely resembles the nontheistic norms of Buddhism than humanism. Thus she argues that Unitarian Universalism is evolving into what she calls "vague Buddhism". Again, I may not be exactly paraphrasing her ideas correctly, but I believe that is the gist of what she has written.

I can't address this issue with much direct knowledge, since I am not a UU, but I did attend a UU service a few weeks ago, the first one I have attended in a few years. The church was in an interim period between ministers, and this particular service was conducted by its young adult group. The theme of the service revolved around the question of people finding their calling in life, and two individuals, a man and a woman (whose ages I wasn't sure of, but they were probably in their late twenties, give or take), discussed their own journeys as they tried to discover what they wanted to do in life. The man talked about spending some time choosing to sleep on the streets in Southern California as a kind of ministry to the homeless. This was indeed inspirational to hear, and it reminded me of my own comfort in life and the fact that I would not have the courage to undertake such an endeavor. The woman spoke of her re-evaluation of her career choices.

Both speakers told interesting stories. But neither speaker spoke of God. Although I think the word God may have appeared on the walls of the church somewhere in the form of a quotation by a nineteenth century Unitarian, there was no reference to the Divine to be found in the actual service itself. In fact, I found the word "ministry" rather odd when used in conjunction with the social justice work that the one speaker who had spent nights on the street was engaged in. I absolutely think that service to the poor is admirable, and his actions are praiseworthy. We need more people in the world who do those sorts of things, regardless of what their religious beliefs are. But I'm not sure how the term "ministry" describes this kind of work.

I am absolutely not saying that ministry requires religious proselytizing. On the contrary; I am not in the least bit a fan of those religious souls who use services to the poor as a means for them to preach to potential converts, or who expect those they serve to listen to listen their version of the Gospel. I do think, however, for it to be "ministry", it ought to at the very least be an expression of one's religious faith--at least when the word is used from a pulpit, as it was in that instance.

Perhaps I am splitting hairs, and I suppose it is possible to use the word "minister" in a broader sense, but when it comes out of a religious setting, for me it strikes a dischordant tone. Although the religious pluralist in me likes the idea of broadening the term as much as possible so that people of many different beliefs can be considered ministers, the God-believer in me also wants to view ministry in a community of faith as an expression of that faith. I personally think that those who believe in God reveal God's presence through their actions--not by preaching, but by doing. But without this religious basis for the actions, it seems to me to be nothing but a case of doing good deeds, which, wonderful as that is, is not to me the same as ministry. Sure, it is possible that the speaker at that service had a religious belief--perhaps a nontheistic, "vaguely Buddhist" one--that inspired him to act as he did, but he did not speak of what that was, if it existed. And if there was such a religious basis, the fact that it mattered so little to what he did that he didn't feel a need to mention it was, in its own way, quite telling.

None of which is to say that I have anything against Unitarian Universalism, or with Buddhists, or with "vague Buddhists". UUism serves a need for some people. I'm just not one of them.

The absence of God-talk in the service I attended, especially in conjunction with the idea that doing good without any religious impulse behind is the definition of "ministry", left me just slightly cold. I needed something more.

All of this is interesting in light of the book I am currently reading, Leaving Church by Barbara Taylor Brown. She was a pastor in an Episcopal Church who, like those speakers in the UU service I attended, struggled with trying to find her calling in life. However, she was in fact older than those young adults in the UU service, when she underwent some changes in life in pursuit of that dream. Repeatedly, she struggled with the difficulties of living according to what she thought was her calling and her dreams. Things didn't always work out well for her, and she learned the hard way that the grass is often greener on the other side. But at every step of her life, the actions she undertook of helping and ministering to others represented an expression of her theism--her love for God. This is what is absent from Unitarian Univeralism, and this is why I found myself looking elsewhere.

This past Sunday, I attended a service at a local UCC church. It was a small church and a small congregation, but it was also remarkably friendly and welcoming. And it was, for me, a breath of fresh air to hear the word "God" being used in the service. Even if my theology may be a little to the left of what that church teaches, no one forced a theology down my throat either. I might not have been crazy about a reference to the Triune God that came out at one point in the service, but at other points the pastor acknowledged a kind of religiously pluralistic perspective that I found comforting. It was okay if I didn't necessarily agree with everything, she seemed to be saying. But at least, for me, a starting point was an acceptance of a Divine element to one's religious faith.

Experiencing God

I am currently reading Barbara Brown Taylor's memoir Leaving Church. It is an interesting and very well written book about her experiences as an Episcopal priest at a small church, and her decision to retire from that position.

In her book, she writes about the experiences that led up to her becoming a priest. As a small child, before ever going to church, she felt the presence of God. She writes:

As hard as I have tried to remember the exact moment when I fell in love with God, I cannot do it. My earliest memories are bathed in a kind of golden light that seemed to embrace me as surely as my mother's arms. The Divine Presence was strongest outdoors, and most palpable when I was alone.
She described the outdoors as her "first cathedral", when she would lay in the fields and experience God through the natural world. She didn't have a name for her raw, unmediated, unnamed experience; it was only later, when she attended church, that an interpretation was given to her.
Because I was not brought up in church, I had no religious language for what happened in that golden-lit field or in any of the other woods or fields that followed it. I had no picture in my mind of a fantastic-looking old man named God who lived in a heaven above my head. I did not know to close my eyes and bow my head to speak to this God, and I certainly did not know that there was anything wrong with that field or what I experience in it. If anyone had tried to tell me that creation was fallen or that I should care more for heaven than earth, I would have gone off to lie in the sweet grass by myself.
Unlike Barbara Brown Taylor, I never had any experiences like that as a child. I believed in God, but I am pretty sure that was because that was what I was taught. My parents took me to church from a young age. I remember once, as a small child, riding in a car at night with my parents, asking my mother who put the moon in the sky. "God," she answered. I wondered at the time who this God person was who had the ability to place an object up so high.

What I had as a child was theology, not mysticism. Barbara Brown Taylor as a child had mysticism, but no theology. She experienced a Divine presence, but she was too young and too free of cultural baggage and a religious upbringing to characterize what she experienced as an "old man named God". I, on the other hand, had no such direct experience of the divine, and I imagined God as just such an old man. When I was maybe three or four years old, I made drawings of God. I still have one of them in my possession. The drawing depicts an old man with a beard stretching far longer than any human beard would; this God-figure floats in space, surrounded by stars and planets, many of them having Saturn-like rings. Where I got this image from, I don't know. I somehow absorbed a background cultural metaphor about God and took it all quite literally.

For much of my adult life, I either was not religious enough to be interested in experiencing God, or else when I was feeling religious, I felt my desire to experience God was somehow wanting. The problem, I later realized, was that I was trying too hard. I wanted to experience something deep and meaningful and I thought that if I furrowed my brow and concentrated hard enough, with sufficient earnestness and devout intention, I'd somehow get that mystical experience. What I didn't realize was that the experience of God was right under my nose. What drew me to rediscovering religion in the first place, when I was in my late 20s after over a decade of atheism, was this strange feeling I had, a deep and compelling sense of being drawn to something greater, whenever I read a religious text or felt compelled to attend a religious service. It was a feeling unlike any other, and it called me, repeatedly.

What was painful was figuring out what to do with that feeling. I couldn't buy any of the established dogmas. I drifted into Unitarian Universalism, and, finding it not spiritual enough for me, I became a Quaker, in part because I felt that liberal Quakerism gave me room to be what I was without forcing a dogma on me.

Eventually I drifted away from Quakerism, and then from religion in general. Maybe, as much as I liked Quakerism and I liked being a Quaker, I was trying too hard to fit into that mold. I became a Quaker as much out of convenience as out of convincement. I would try hard to find the mystical content of a Quaker meeting for worship; I would sit silently, listen to the voice within, connect with the things that were spoken--and yet, it was almost like work for me to do that. So maybe it is not just the fact that I haven't found a Quaker meeting to call home. Maybe, at some level, I knew without consciously understanding, that I needed to move my spirituality in a different direction.

It took a long time--many years, in fact. But lately, the craving to be within God's presence has returned, and that feeling is back as well. And somehow, now, I recognize the feeling for what it is. It is God's presence.

The presence is comforting, deep, and charged with a quality I can't describe--it is unlike any other feeling that I have; and it draws me forward, it supports me, and it uplifts me. The presence, also, quite clearly, is not that of an old man with a long beard. If anything, I perceive this Divine presence as female. This is not, of course, to say that I think that God is literally a woman--any more than those who use a male metaphor for God generally think that God is literally male. It is simply a case of my experience of God being that of a female presence. We interact with God in the ways that we can, in the ways that make sense to us. We try to name what we experience, but because God is infinite and we are not, and all we can do is make metaphors. I don't believe that my metaphor is more right or wrong than those who envision God as male.

But the most important thing is that I don't feel like I'm straining and working hard at living my religion this time. I feel like I am somehow truer to my core this time around than I was before. I've had a long time to let things simmer inside me, percolate, develop, and now I find myself more at peace with my religious stirrings. They will take me wherever they must, but I won't force things this time. I will just be. I will listen to the Divine presence and see where it takes me. I can't force the world to conform to how I want it to be. And maybe that's okay.

Rendering unto Caesar

The famous statement by Jesus to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar'’s, and unto God the things that are God's" has often been used by some Christians to justify the position that religion and politics are separate worlds that don't mix. One unfortunate implication of this for many Christians has been a belief that following Jesus bears no connection with, and makes no implication of, a commitment to social justice.

I've been reading the book The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, which offers a commentary on the account of Jesus's last week in Jerusalem, as depicted in the Gospel of Mark. Borg and Crossan have argued that Jesus's mission incorporated a committed nonviolent opposition to the "domination system" of imperial Rome. As they point out, Jesus's famous saying only serves to ask another question--what exactly is Caesar's, and what is God's?

My traditional response to this question was to ask those who believed that religious considerations should stay out of politics what they think happens when the realms of Caesar and of God overlap. To suggest, for example, that politics never has moral implications, is clearly nonsense. In fact, almost everyone understands that political policy is rife with moral implications; regardless of where one fits on the political spectrum, issues concerning (to cite a few examples from current political controversies) abortion, capital punishment, war, torture clearly matter on a deeply moral level, which in turn involves a person of faith's understanding of God's will. Obviously, many people have opposing understanding of God's will on these issues, but the point still remains that they believe that God cares about what political decisions are made.

Borg and Crossan, however, make a slightly different point. Rather than arguing that Caesar's and God's realms overlap, they point out that in the Judaism of Jesus's time, it was frequently believed that everything belonged to God. Thus there was nothing that belonged to Caesar, while everything belonged to God. They write:

For Jesus and many of his Jewish contemporaries, everything belongs to God. So their sacred scripturaffirmeded. The land of Israel belongs to God--recall Leviticus 25:23, which says that all are tenant farmers or resident aliens on land that belongs to God....Indeed, the whole earth belongs to God: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof (Ps. 24:1). What belongs to Caesar? The implication is, nothing.
This takes the matter further than I had considered before. And it does raise a valid point.

The danger, of course, in believing that everything belongs to God and nothing to Caesar is that this philosophy can easily turn into a justification for theocracy. In fact, the whole question of the separation of church and state is an important one, because as a result of the rise of the Religious Right in the United States, there has been a concerted effort at breaking down the wall of separation between church and state.

Yet, ironically, it is precisely those wishing to push the country in a more theocratic direction who are the ones with an ideology that is opposed to the social justice message of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets. Indeed, this push for theocracy coincides with the pursuit of injustice--from tax policies that favor the rich, to the suppression of human rights, to the expansion of empire and war overseas.

Thus saying that the everything belongs to God is not the same as endorsing theocracy. In fact, the coinciding of religious authority with political authority was often the source of resentment among prophetic voices in biblical times. The Hasmonean leadership that preceded the arrival of the Roman empire, for example, merged political and priestly authority into the Hasmonean family in ways that rankled many Jews who adhered to the prophetic traditions, and who saw these actions as a perversion of their religious traditions. And Borg and Crossan have argued that the collaborationist religious leadership who were appointed by Roman authorities and who served imperial interests during the time of Jesus were a similar example of this sort of merging of theocratic power with political power in ways that advanced the cause of what they call the "domination system"--instead of Jewish traditions.

Theocracy has less to do with any understanding of the omnipresent role of God in the world, and more to do with the establishment of temporal power for religious authorities. It is a way of creating a religious form of "domination system". Instead of expressing the will of God, it ultimately contravenes it.

The separation of church and state does not imply that religion has nothing to do with politics. Religion has, I believe, everything to do with politics. But its role in politics takes place within the context of individual conscience, and with individuals working together with other people of faith acting independently and freely. This is completely different from formally or constitutionally merging religious and political power.

Theocracy, furthermore, does a disservice to the diversity of religious expression that arises inevitably in human societies. It funnels the the process of understanding God's will into a limited perspective that denies the myriad ways in which human societies have struggled to listen to the Divine voice. It equates, falsely, God's will with a single human interpretation of it. It ignores the incomplete and metaphorical nature of the human conception of the Ultimate reality. It uses an authoritarian conception of God's nature and actions in the world at the expense any appreciation for a co-creative and responsive nature of God's actions in the world, as a justification for the very kind of "domination system" that prophetic voices have endeavored to oppose.

Much of the current "domination systems" in the world can and do exist without theological justification, of course. Economic exploitation and war are tools by which those who control the "domination systems" serve their interests. Public policy that serves the exigencies of the profit motive and the interests of those who control the engines of wealth may have merged with the theology of the Religious Right in American politics, but it need not have done so. The "domination system" ultimately serves as its own justification.

For people of faith, however, the question remains as to how they will address this "domination system" that Borg and Crossan describe. Will they, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, "learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow"? (1:17) Or will they simply sit on their hands and claim that to do so would not be rendering until Caesar the things that are Caesar's?

What is worship supposed to be like?

Last Sunday, I caught part of an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor on Marty Nemko's NPR show. Taylor is a retired Episcopal priest who wrote a book, Leaving Church, about her experiences as a priest and her decision to leave that profession. I was intrigued enough by her comments that I decided buy the book.

What I gathered from the interview was that she has surprised herself over the years in the life changes that she has made, and she suggested that she doesn't know what is yet in store for her in the future. She seems to have certain ideas about the kind of church she would like to be a part of--one in which the roles of ministry are shared among the congregation--or perhaps divvied up would be a better description of it. Nemko suggested a comparison between her ideas and the model of Quakerism. There are certain similarities, although in traditional unprogrammed Quakerism the ministerial roles are not assigned or divided, but emerge naturally in the course of Quaker meetings for worship.

In many ways, I find the kind of model that she suggested for a congregation to be similar to what I have been envisioning--a kind of radically democratic body in which different members of the congregation can assume the responsibility for creating worship experiences over the course of time. Whether this makes sense in the long run is another question; in any case, I don't think that this role should ever be forced on anyone. For some people, the worship experience is passive and quiet, but fulfilling for them. A congregation should never demand more from a participant than they are comfortable with or willing to give. Everyone is at a different place spiritually, and in their ministerial skills. My Quaker background makes me appreciate the idea of everyone as a minister; but I also appreciate the value in other kinds of worship (rather than the traditional Quaker unprogrammed meeting) of having a trained individual with a full time job who carries out special responsibilities in a congregation.

I think that there are many ways of approaching the worship experience. Quaker silence often endows me with a kind of meditative peace. I've never been much for participatory music in church; I am a terrible singer, I don't like singing in public, and I in particular really like standing up and singing a song I don't really know the melody for. My experience with such singing in UU services is that I stand up (because they request that everyone do so), holding the song book, and just looking at the lyrics while everyone else sings. The last time I attended, I dispensed with holding the song book at all, and I just stood up. On the other hand, I often do like listening to performed music at such services.

I believe that worship is supposed to be a participatory experience--hence the idea of participatory singing. And many people really do seem to like the music. I think there are other kinds of participatory worship, some of which are certainly unconventional for Christians--shamanic drumming, for example. I think that varieties of worshipful experiences can in and of themselves be interesting. But others might wish to settle into the same basic pattern week after week for their worship practices.

I'm not sure there is a right or wrong answer. I'm not sure where I would fall into the spectrum of desired worship practices. My Quaker experience has made me much less attracted to rituals, music, and liturgy. But I am not opposed to them in principle either. What makes me more uncomfortable is the use of such practices as the expression of literalized belief in myths. Some traditional Christian practices-- baptism and communion come to mind--are steeped in centuries old myths that Christians have literalized, and I find them the least appealing of the various Christian practices. In general, though, if it is absolutely clear that we are not literalizing the myths, I am more comfortable with at least some of the more regular Christian practices.