Atheist Schmatheist

John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister and progressive Christian, has referenced in his blog an article by a man, Robert Jensen, who recently joined a Presbyterian church and has been persecuted by some members of his denomination after publishing his beliefs in a newspaper article.

Robert Jensen describes his belief not so much in a personal God but in God as another name for the deepest mysteries in our life. He writes of the way that he was drawn to participating in a church community to serve certain needs that are often best served by churches. He also describes how he had to face an inquisition within his church, no doubt largely because he had described himself in the aforementioned newspaper article as an "atheist".

I actually don't consider Robert Jensen an atheist, despite his self-description. But that word seems to have served as a huge red flag that set off the conservative element within his denomination. His theology was not acceptable to conservatives to begin with, but to go public with his theology and to use the word atheist was probably just too much. The church's intolerant right wing tried to get him expelled.

From what I can tell it wasn't his own congregation that was the problem--his church is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity. But within his broader denomination, it was another story. As I read Robert Jensen's account, I was struck with the horrible reality of him facing an inquisition like this--having to defend his very right to be a member of his own church.

I think his theology isn't much different from that of a lot of other people who are church members throughout mainline Protestantism--he just made the mistake of writing an article about it in a newspaper. Thus the lesson here seems to be this: you can be a dissident or free thinker, as long as you keep your mouth shut about what you think. What a terrible lesson that is. I am not a Presbyterian, but it seems to me a wonderful thing if a church will accept one who is an earnest seeker, if he wants to be a part of it and feels he has a role to play there.

During the inquisition process, some of those who reviewed his case defended him. Says Jensen, "one person used the image of Christianity as a circle, saying that so long as people could put one toe in the circle -- no matter what doubts they might have -- that was enough for membership." I wonder how many members of mainline Christianity have little more than their own toe within the Christian circle, as defined by the creeds or doctrines of their particular church? There are probably more than one imagines. And there are many others whose toes would be within the circle, but who stepped away from organized religion altogether because they sensed the intolerance and rigidity and the recitation of creeds that made no sense to them--those who became members of what John Spong calls the "church alumni association"?

I mentioned that I disagreed with Jensen's self-characterization as an "atheist". One reason he calls himself an atheist is that he views himself as one who lives as an atheist. Jensen writes:

In that sense, most people in this culture, no matter what their stated beliefs about God, live like atheists. Most of us accept the results of the Enlightenment and the application of the scientific method. We assume that actions in the world are governed by laws of physics that scientists have begun to identify, however incompletely. Whatever our views on the power of prayer, most of us also seek medical help when we are sick and trust in some worldly system of healing -- whether Western medicine or alternative traditions -- that is rooted in accumulated experience and/or scientific experimentation.
I will point out that I think Jensen is implying a dichotomy that really isn't there. He suggests that a belief in a personal God is incompatible with a belief in a world that is ordered and rational and that obeys the laws of physics, and since he accepts a modern scientific understanding of the world, he therefore believes that he cannot believe in any kind of personal Deity at all. Here he accepts implicitly that a personal God is necessarily a patriarchal figure who actively intervenes in the world, either according to His personal whim or maybe in response to our prayers if we pray hard enough or if enough of us pray. But I believe that God need not be reduced to this simple conception.

The point is, though, that he does devote his life towards a deeper, sacred reality, regardless of what he conceives God to be--and he does so within the context of a faith community rooted in Christian traditions. And for that reason, I do not consider him an atheist. Rather than believing in a personal God, he instead conceives of God as another name for Mystery. As long as he is seeking to probe the depths of that Mystery which he calls "God", then he is living the religious life. And if he is living the religious life, then I for one refuse to call him an atheist. It isn't about believing in miracles or divine intervention. It is about pointing one's life towards the depths of the deep, sacred Mystery that undergirds our reality.

And that's good enough for me.

Who needs the Holy Spirit, anyway?

In Marcus Borg's book The God We Never Knew, Borg distinguishes between what he believes to be two different models of God. One, he calls the monarchical model; the other, he calls the Spirit model. Borg makes a point of distinguishing between conceiving of God as Spirit, and the very specific doctrine of the Holy Spirit that is part of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Borg writes that "as a root metaphor for the sacred, Spirit images God as a nonmaterial reality pervading the universe as well as being more than the universe" (p. 72). Borg here is describing panentheism. Borg goes on to write

As used in the Bible (and as used here), its meaning is broader than the specific Christian doctrine of "the Holy Spirit", which sees it as one aspect of God. But in the Bible, Spirit is used comprehensively to refer to God's presence in creation, in the history of Israel, and in the life of Jesus and the early church. Its meaning is sufficiently broad to make it a synonym for the sacred. Spirit "evokes a universal perspective and signifies divine activity in its widest reaches." Strongly associated with God's presence in and engagement with the world (God's immanence), Spirit also points to God's transcendence. It images "God's ongoing transcendent engagement with the world."
It is important to consider this question of immanence and transcendence when we consider the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which holds to a very specific conception. The Holy Spirit, according to orthodox Christian doctrine, is seen as one of the three persons of the Divine Trinity, who the resurrected Jesus promised would be bestowed upon his followers after his ascent to heaven. According to the book of Acts, Jesus told his followers "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Jesus was then lifted "up" into heaven (the author of Acts, like others of his time, imagined a tiered universe in which heaven lay literally and physically above the earth.) The author of Acts then reports,
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Shortly thereafter, the author of Acts reports that the apostle Peter proclaimed, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

That is to say, according to this passage, the Holy Spirit is a "gift", only offered to those who have faith in Christ. So, according to this view, the Holy Spirit, far from being a manifestation of the universal immanence of God, is something that is only available to a select few.

As I see it, there are therefore three important implications of this doctrine of the Holy Spirit. First, according to this view, God's immanence (unlike God's transcendence) is conditional rather than necessary; second, it is offered to the world from the outside; and third, because it is available only to a certain set of true believers, it serves as a kind of legitimation of their doctrinal pronouncements. The theology of the Holy Spirit relies on God's transcendence as being primary, his immanence being thus secondary and dependent. God exists outside our plane of reality, according to this view, and he offers his immanent presence on a limited basis, at certain points in history to certain individuals. Further, this viewpoint suggests that God's immanence is not available to all (although, curiously, the author of Acts has Peter proclaiming the gift of the Holy Spirit as having been foretold by the prophet Joel, who said that God would pour out his spirit on all flesh.) The Holy Spirit, with its limited availability, is given credit for inspiring individuals or religious institutions to discovering certain "true" doctrines, which they then know to be true because they have the authority of the Holy Spirit to back them up.

God's spirit, as referred to in the Hebrew Bible, thus became interpreted to mean, according to many Christians, the Holy Spirit. Even though the writers of the Hebrew Bible who used the word ruach (meaning "wind" or "spirit") had no concept of the Trinity, which is clearly a specific Christian doctrine that came much later, Christians retrofitted their theology onto the words of the Old Testament. When the book of Genesis says, for example (according to the NRSV translation), that "a wind from God swept over the face of the waters", many Christians often translate the Hebrew word ruach in that passage as "spirit", and then further interpret that to mean the Holy Spirit.

If, on the other hand, if you take a panentheist view of creation, then God's spirit as an immanent presence participated in, and continues to participate in, the acts of creation taking place in the world. The spirit is not some doctrinally obscure "person" within a divine Trinity, but rather simply the expression of God's immanent presence working in the world. And because the spirit is available to all of us, doctrinal authority no longer becomes the exclusive province of a select few.

To me, as a panentheist, the divine presence is universal and necessary. I see God as both immanent and transcendent. That means that God's spirit is everywhere--it is not conditional, and it is not available only to a select few, and, it did not only penetrate the world at one or more specific times in history. I also believe that some individuals more closely relate to the immanent divine spirit than others do, that some people, through their lives, disclose what it means to be in an intimate relationship with God's spirit. I believe that Jesus was one such person. But one's relationship with the divine is not an either-or proposition; the spirit of God is available to all of us, although some of us are more adept at relating to her spirit than others are.

From "The Onion"

This headline from an article in the satircal newspaper the Onion reads: Super Priest Can Turn Anything Into Body, Blood Of Christ. You can read the rest of the article here.

Supernatural theism versus panentheism

Marcus Borg, in his book The God We Never Knew, compares two different conceptions of God within the Christian tradition:

The first conceptualizes God as a supernatural being "out there", separate from the world, who created the world a long time ago and who may from time to time intervene within it. In an important sense, this God is not "here" and thus cannot be known or experienced but only believed in (which, within the logic of this concept, is what "faith" is about.) I will call this way of thinking about God "supernatural theism." Widespread within Christianity, it is perhaps what a majority of people (both believers and non-believers) think of when they think of God. Some accept the existence of such a being, and some reject it. But it is the notion of God as a supernatural being "out there" that is being accepted or rejected.

The second root concept of God in the Christian tradition thinks of God quite differently. God is the encompassing Spirit; we (and everything that is) are in God. For this concept, God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, the Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not "somewhere else" but "right here." I will call this concept of God "panentheism". (p. 11-12)
In a previous posting, I mentioned that, after having read John Shelby Spong's book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong clearly rejects "supernatural theism" (which Spong simply calls "theism"), but it wasn't at all clear to me whether he embraced panentheism or not. He mentioned the word "panentheism" once, almost in passing, without saying whether he agreed with it or not. Meanwhile, he used the language of Paul Tillich to describe God as the Ground of Being. He rejected the idea of a personal God. And he wrote a lot of God as being the depths of reality. While he embraced the immanence of God fully, he seemed to reject transcendence out of hand, seemingly equating transcendence with the "theism" that he rejected. Thus it seemed to me that he was in fact taking a position that seemed more pantheist than panentheist.

Borg explains the key difference between pantheism and panentheism in this way:
Pantheism lacks the extra syllable en, which makes all the difference. Pantheism (without the en) identifies the universe with God: God and the universe are coextensive (literally, "everything is God"). Pantheism affirms only God's immanence and essentially denies God's transcendence; though the sacred is present in everything, it is not more than everything. But panentheism affirms both transcendence (God's otherness or moreness) and immanence (God's presence). God is not to be identified with the sum total of things. Rather, God is more than everything, even as God is present everywhere. God is all around us and within us, and we are within God. (p. 32)
If Spong believes in transcendence of any sort, he seems to de-emphasize it to such a degree as to make it irrelevant to his theology. On the other hand, I believe that God is everywhere among us, that God is within us and that we are within God, but that God is also more than the sum of everything that is, that she is a sustaining infinite reality that supersedes the finite universe.

"Not many of you should become teachers"

We all know the difference between being sorry for what one said and being sorry that others were offended by what one said. The first is an expression of genuine contrition, while the second clearly isn't. And the Pope's "apology" with respect to his recent remarks that offended many of the world's Muslims falls into the second category.

Coincidentally, the readings from last week's revised common lectionary included the following text from James 3:1-12:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
Wow, could the timing of this lectionary reading have been more appropriate?

Interestingly enough, the Pope's apparent hostility towards Islam may have a long history, which did not begin with his recent remarks. According to a column published last January in the Washington Times, the a friend of the Pope, Father Joseph D. Fessio, reported in a radio interview that the Pope held strongly negative views on Islam. (One of the pope's alleged assertions was that Islam is inherently incompatible with democracy, a strange complaint to come from the leader and former chief inquisitor of an authoritarian religious institution that has operated a top-down hierarchy and that has suppressed free inquiry and stifled the theological expression of dissidents.) The Washington Times columnist considered this at the time to be a "bombshell" that "has yet to explode because no one wants to touch it." It would seem that the bombshell has finally exploded.

A believer in exile

I have been reading John Shelby Spong's book Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. In many ways, this book serves as Spong's manifesto, a philosophical treatise where he criticizes traditional Christian theology, offers a theology of his own, and suggests certain implications of his theology for prayer, ethics, and worship.

One of the most compelling and important parts of his book is Chapter Two, The Meaning of Exile and How We Got There. Here Spong points out that, contrary to what fundamentalist Christians will tell you, the great Western religions have never been static phenomena that dropped out the sky whole and complete. Judaism, the parent religion of Christianity, underwent important theological changes, long before the birth of Christ; it did not emerge from Moses's time a finished product that then didn't change up to Jesus's time. On the contrary; Spong cites the Babylonian exile as a key moment that introduced a crisis into the Jewish faith, and to which Judaism responded by developing new theological precepts. Although there were further changes that came later, Spong focused on the exile because he used this as a model of what he sees happening in Christianity today--and to bolster his point that modern Christianity is in crisis, he devastatingly shows how much of the Bible was built on a world view that has since been repudiated by modern understandings of how the universe operates. Although Spong doesn't cite Thomas Kuhn, his argument certainly brings to my mind an analogy between what Spong is claiming about Christianity and what Kuhn argued about paradigm shifts in science being precipitated by crises in the previous paradigms.

I believe Spong is correct in his assessment the failures of traditional Christianity to cope with the world as we now know it to be. What Spong hopes to do is rescue Christianity by replacing the old theism with something else. And this is where it gets tricky, and where I find myself in disagreement with him.

Spong admits that he has been influenced by the ideas of Paul Tillich. As such, he wants to replace the old theism that emphasized divine transcendence with something new, a theology that views God as the Ground of Being. What Spong means by this isn't entirely clear to me. He says that critics may call him a pantheist, which he doesn't directly deny, instead only saying that "many theologians, revealing their own limitations, seem to believe that if they can name an idea, they can dismiss it." He also suggests that others might call him a panentheist, but this clearly isn't the case, since panentheists believe in divine transcendence as well as divine immanence, and he clearly rejects transcendence as a divine attribute. He points to God instead as a deeper reality of the world we know. Citing Tillich's definition, he says that

the God to whom Tillich pointed was the infinite center of life. This God was not a person, but, rather like the insights of the mystics, this God was the mystical presence in which all personhood could flourish. This God was not a being but rather the power that called being forth in all creatures. This God was not an external, personal force that could be invoked but rather an internal reality that, when confronted, opened us to the meaning of life itself.
If I understand him correctly, this sounds an awful lot like pantheism. By denying that God has any externality outside of the world, he is essentially equating God with the world, or at least he characterizes God as a deeper reality that underlies it. My experience with pantheists in other contexts is that they consider God to be a deeper reality that underlies the world and unifies it--one analogy being that God is the ocean and we are its waves. The problem that I see is that Spong seems to be committing the fallacy of assuming that a transcendent God is necessarily omnipotent, and since he rejects omnipotence, he rejects transcendence; he should know better, especially since he even goes so far as to cite Alfred North Whitehead as one of the philosophers who hammered a nail into the coffin of traditional theism.

This is the issue that I have with Spong's conception of God. While I agree with his criticisms of fundamentalism and of traditional orthodoxy, and I agree with his criticisms of the idea of God as a transcendent being who acts omnipotently on the world from the outside, I disagree with him that this necessarily implies rejecting the idea of God as a transcendent being. Panentheism, which Spong refers to briefly before ignoring it entirely, agrees with Spong that God is not an external being who acts omnipotently on the world from the outside, but panentheism still sees God as encompassing something greater than just the universe. Instead, panentheism believes that God is both immanent (as Spong believes) and also transcendent--that God is the universe, and also something more. Spong equates a belief in transcendence with a belief in a father-figure God who intervenes in the world from outside by violating the normal laws of the universe. In fact, a panentheistic God (at least under certain understandings of the concept), who is both all of the universe and also external to it, acts in the world as a co-participant and co-creator who operates within the universe. By rejecting transcendence altogether, Spong is throwing out the baby with the bath water.

And yet, despite my disagreement with Spong's rejection of "theism", I think that there is much in what he writes that I can agree with. I agree with him that we cannot appeal to a father-figure God to intervene in the world. I agree with him that prayers to God to intercede on our behalf are ineffective and serve as bad theology. He rightly points out that it is morally unjustifiable to suggest that those who are alone in the world and who have no one to pray on their behalf are therefore not going to receive as much of God's favor as those who are popular or who otherwise have high profiles, and who are therefore more likely to have many who would pray on their behalf. The very idea that God is a favor-dispensing autocrat who will only intervene in certain circumstances if someone is lucky enough to have others who will pray for them is, on the face of it, absurd. What kind of God would act in that way?

We know how much injustice there is in the way fate deals out its blows to the people of the world. Bad things happen to good people. This has been understood for a long, long time--certainly going back at least as far as the book of Ecclesiastes. Spong is right to point out that this has nothing to do with who has received God's favor and who hasn't.

Interestingly enough, Marcus Borg, who describes himself as a panentheist, takes the curious position that intercessionary prayer for the healing of others does work, although he seems to suggest that this is because of some force at work that may not be God's doing. I think Borg is wrong on this score. Thus, even though I agree more with Borg's concept of God than I do Spong's, I am on this question more in agreement with Spong regarding this type of prayer than I am with Borg.

But even here, I differ with Spong. Spong admits never to having had any kind of mystical experience of the divine presence. He says that he has tried, for years, to achieve this kind of experience, writing,
I have always wanted to be a person of prayer. I have yearned to have that sense of immediate contact with the divine. Yet for longer than I have been willing to admit, even to myself, prayers addressed to an external supreme being have had little or no meaning for me.
From this personal experience he then makes the leap that, since he has not experienced the divine presence of a trascendent being, apparently no one else has either. This seems like a highly presumptuous assertion. His experience is not everyone else's, and he should know better than to assert that it is.

I can't address Spong's inability to sense the divine presence in this way. For most of my life, I haven't either. But, in a sense, I think that it was because I was either not looking or I was looking too hard. Recognizing the divine presence and cultivating its experience is not something I really could have ever tried to figure out. At times in the past, I used to be jealous of those who said that they felt the presence of God. But I do believe, over the course of time, that I have experienced it, and lately I feel I have been experiencing it much more often.

I admit that I have little use for the formulaic words and tones of most prayers. The words "Dear God" don't work for me very much as a way to begin a prayer. After all, I know that God is right there next to me and with me and within me. Saying "Dear God" to begin a conversation with God makes as little sense to me as turning to a friend who has been walking with you the entire length of a long journey and starting off a sentence with "Dear Bill". You are with God all along, and God is your deepest, closest presence--so, from my perspective, I see no reason not just say something to her without the formality.

Sometimes a conversation I might have with God is short, referring to something I just thought or said or did. In my mind I sometimes just say something like "Hey, I'm sorry!", or "You're right!", or just a simple "Hey there!" Sometimes I say nothing at all, just feeling the presence, because, after all, God knows what I'm thinking anyway. I find the structure of formal prayers, including formal prayers spoken by others, can often act as a barrier for my ability to relate to the Divine.

Of course, that's just me. Am I limiting myself by doing this? Is it a "better" path to God to use formal prayers? Do others know something I don't? I don't think so, but all I know is that I have to be true to my own spirituality rather than try to emulate what others do in a way that doesn't seem right to me. Certainly I am not saying that my way of relating to God is better or worse than anyone else's. In fact, I am saying just the opposite--I am aware that different people have different people of experiencing the Divine, and it is not my place to judge them or deny the reality of their experiences. What people take away from those experiences, on the other hand, is inevitably colored by their prejudices, their theologies, their cultures, their time in history, and so forth. When they try to name and describe their experiences, that is when things get complicated. As humans, we don't always understand God correctly. All we can do is try.

It is true that I don't feel the divine presence all the time. My mind is often focused on other things, probably most of the time--the details of my work, or the other traffic on the road when I am driving, or the plot of the movie I am watching. Cultivating the experience of the Divine in my life is something that I perhaps I think that may be why I attend worship services--as a way of cultivating my experience of God--even if the actual experiences of those services themselves aren't always completely satisfactory for me.

Looking at the different ways that Spong and Borg view God, and the different ways that they view prayer, and comparing those viewpoints to my own, it seems inevitable that I will never find a religious community that exactly meets my own theology. I may always be a believer in exile.

Christianity and Empire

Here is an interesting quote from Marcus Borg's book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time:

Paul's execution in Rome merits pondering. Was Rome simply mistaken in killing him? Was the execution based on a misunderstanding? Was it due to the decree of a crazed and callous emperor? Was Paul and his message actually harmless to the empire that killed him? Was it all about words--about calling Jesus "Lord" and refusing to give Caesar the same honor? Or was it about something much deeper and more important?

Certainly Paul and his small communities scattered through Greece and Asia Minor posed no immediate political threat to Rome. But did Paul's proclamation of a rival Lord and a rival social vision genuinely and ultimately threaten the imperial vision of life?

We who live after centuries of Christian accommodation with imperial systems are inclined to think that Rome simply made a mistake--that Rome failed to recognize that Christianity is harmless to empire (and maybe even helpful). But what happened to Jesus and Paul should give us pause. Christianity is the only major religion whose two most formative figures were executed by established authority. Accident? Plan of God? Or is there in Jesus and Paul a vision and a program, a message and a mission, that should cause systems of domination, ancient and modern, to tremble? (emphasis added)

Borg's allusion to "centuries of Christian accommodation with imperial systems" is itself quite interesting and also quite true. How Christianity evolved from a small movement of Empire resisters to become the official state religion of that same Empire is itself an interesting question to ponder. (In the modern era, the continued association with certain elements of Christianity with imperial systems continues. The ruler of the most powerful Empire of the present time claims to be a Christian and thus a follower of the religion of Jesus and Paul. Of course, not all of Christianity is guilty of collusion with Empire, and a social justice component has always been an important part of Christianity as well.)

Borg also implies that the mere words of Jesus and Paul seem hardly to have served as much of a threat to imperial Roman power. John Dominic Crossan, in his book Who Killed Jesus?, makes a similar point: the Romans did not concern themselves too much with those who merely said things. On the other hand, they were brutally repressive against those who acted in ways that challenged imperial authority. He cites the example of a different man named Jesus, who, in the year 62 wandered around Jerusalem proclaiming a dire fate for the Temple and lamenting "Woe to Jerusalem". He was brought up on charges for possibly seditious behavior, which could have gotten him executed. As Crossan puts it, "But this is only speech, not action...Roman authority finds it all politically irrelevant, judges the man mad, and lets him go free." The Romans were not so magnanimous with Jesus or with Paul. (Nor were they so magnanimous with John the Baptist.)

The conclusion is clear: Jesus and Paul challenged the prevailing authority of the Empire of their time. I would argue that to follow in the footsteps in Jesus means to challenge the Empire of the present time.

God is waiting for us to act

John Dominic Crossan, in his book Who Killed Jesus?, contrasts the radical visions of John the Baptist with those of his protege, Jesus. Both men were religious radicals who opposed the prevailing socioeconomic and political system of their day, and both men were eventually executed by the Roman authorities for their subversive activities. But Jesus's views were different from those of his mentor's.

John preached a doctrine of what Crossan terms apocalyptic eschatology. This was a belief that God would intervene in the world against the prevailing oppressive system of his time, through a cataclysmic act. John baptized his followers who then would await this moment of divine intervention. But, unfortunately for him and his movement, he was executed. This was "because his apocalyptic vision radically criticized and fundamentally subverted the religious, political, social, and economic basis for Herodian and Roman control of the Jewish homeland." By mobilizing a large group of people opposed to the dominant paradigm of Roman rule, John was a threat, and he was killed for it.

John's death no doubt brought on a crisis among his followers. Waiting on God to intervene appeared to be a failure; Roman rule still prevailed. One of those followers, Jesus, appears to have reacted in the wake of the crisis by developing a new, greatly more active message in response to the worldly corruption that he lived in. In contrast to John's passive and expectant waiting on God bringing on the apocalypse, Jesus lived and preached what Crossan calls sapiential eschatology. According to Crossan, sapiential eschatology

announces that God has given all human beings the wisdom to discern how, here and now in this world, one can so live that God's power, rule, and dominion are evidently present to all observers. It involves a way of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future.
The difference between John the Baptist and Jesus can be summarized in this way, according to Crossan: "In apocalyptic eschatology, we are waiting for God to act. In sapiential eschatology, God is waiting for us to act."

In Crossan's book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, he elaborates on this point by stressing that while apocalyptic eschatology waits for a future Kingdom of God, Jesus's sapiential eschatology believed in a Kingdom of God that resided in the here and now, available for all of us to participate in. "One enters the kingdom by wisdom or goodness, by virtue, justice, or freedom. It is a style of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future.

This points to the power of Jesus's message. In Who Killed Jesus?, Crossan evokes the important social justice component of Jesus's teachings:
Jesus's phrase Kingdom of God evokes an ideal vision of political and religious power, of how this world here below would be run if God, not Caesar, sat on an imperial throne. As such it always casts a caustically critical shadow on human rule. It includes especially an eschatological rejection of the world as it is currently run. But the solution is that we must act now to incarnate God's power on earth rather than that God must act soon to do it for us.

Thus the sayings and parables of the historical Jesus often describe a world of radical egalitarianism in which discrimination and hierarchy, exploitation and oppression should no longer exist. This is his utopian dream of the Kingdom of God, in which both material and spiritual goods, political and religious resources, economic and transcendental favors are available to all without interference from brokers, mediators, or intermediaries.
Imagining a world of radical egalitarianism certainly made him a threat to the Roman authorities, just as his mentor was. And like John the Baptist, he was executed.

Jesus's followers responded to the crisis caused by his death in a different way than how Jesus reacted to the death of his own mentor. His followers came to believe that despite his death, he was still present and living in God's presence. Eventually, this belief became mythologized into tales of a physical resurrection, but originally his followers believed not in a physical resurrection but in simply the ascension of Jesus into God's presence.

So much of Christianity over the centuries has been wrapped up in theologies about Jesus and claims about his birth, resurrection, and presumed divinity, that it has forgotten what it was that he sought to do in his life. His radical message of egalitarianism, of living the Kingdom of God that is here with us if we only choose to allow it, remains as important and valid today as it was two millennia ago. God is still waiting for us to act, to bring about the Kingdom of God, the Dominion of God, the Presence of God. We cannot do this by waiting on God to magically intervene. We can only make God's presence possible through a socially just world by acting ourselves.

Art and religion

I went to a Monet exhibition today at a San Francisco art museum. As I looked at one of Monet's paintings, Road at la Cavee, Pourville, and considered the ways that he took the view of a path between two steep ridges and created an image made out of beautifully constructed triangular forms, an analogy occurred to me:

The Bible is to historical truth what a Monet painting is to a photograph.
Just as the Bible is often not a literal depiction of history in the religious events that it depicts, neither is a Monet painting a photographic record of what it represents. A Monet painting is an interpretation of reality that says something more, and often more beautifully, than a photograph can do, filtered through the imagination of the painter. A Monet painting is a metaphor for the reality that it conveys. And the same can be for how the Bible conveys religious truths and ideas about God. The Bible points to God, but it is filtered through the religious imagination (and biases) of those who wrote the Bible. The Bible is not a photograph of the Divine, or of Divine truth. And yet, just as art can be "true" without literally capturing an exact image of reality, so can the metaphors and images in the Bible be "true" without being literally accurate records of the events that they depict.

Intolerance from the Archbishop of Canterbury

According to the London newspaper the Telegraph, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus the heads of the Anglican Communion, has now come out against homosexuality as being acceptable within his church. This appears to be a 180-degree turn from a position that he used to espouse. What the implications of this are for the Episcopal church in the US is not clear to me. I am not an Episcopalian, and as an outsider the intricacies of that church's politics are not always clear to me. Last summer he seemed to be waffling on this issue at a time of division when a clear moral voice for justice and inclusion was called for, and thus he had already shown himself to have failed the test of moral leadership just by not taking a stand. But now he has gone from straddling the fence to actively taking the side of exclusion and intolerance, and that is a disturbing development. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out among Episcopalians.

It is sad to say that few Christian denominations seem willing to take a positive stand for social justice on this issue. Among the mainline Protestant churches in the US, the UCC is one of the few--perhaps the only one--that has taken a progressive stand on homosexuality. However, the issue is not quite as simple as that, since the UCC is a congregational church, and the views of individual congregations may not always match up with the official stance of the denomination as a whole. Similarly, the congregations and pastors of some other denominations, such as the Presbyterians and Methodists, in some cases may take a progressive stand on this issue, despite the intolerant position espoused in official church doctrines.

Nevertheless, I think that how a denomination officially comes down on an issue of social justice does matter. I am glad to see the UCC continue to be at the forefront of this issue. I am sorry to see that the leader of the Anglican communion appears to have, when push came to shove, backed out of his moral responsibility for social justice.

Pay phones as a social justice issue

Here's an item that I found in the September newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist church in San Francisco:

Following a policy of profit before people, AT&T disconnected our pay phone on July 14, 2006. This phone (415–441–9395) has served many visitors and members and never had vandalism or repair issues. It was especially helpful to persons who needed to call for a taxi during the evening hours when our office is closed.
A letter detailing our reliance on this phone for both service and emergency preparedness was sent to AT&T at 134 Northwest 6th Street, Evansville, Indiana 47708, and many phone calls were made by Nancy Evans to retain the pay phone, all to no avail.

AT&T replied that unprofitable pay phones are being pulled from locations much needier than ours, and had no sympathy with our concerns for safety. However, “customer advocate” Carol Schlachter (yes, that’s her real title) offered us AT&T’s option – a “convenience line” agreement at $75 a month!

We now have a phone with no dial tone. Senior and disabled members have already called the office to complain.
This is an example of something that has been going on for some time. As more people use cell phones, pay phones are being removed by the phone companies. But the fact is that large numbers of people don't own cell phones, and this is particularly true among the poor. Pay phones are not just a consumer commodity; they are a public service. The first sentence of that newsletter item, which pointed out that this is an example of "profit before people", identified the broader problem that lay at the heart of this issue. What is happening to pay phones is just a symptom of a broader phenomenon that affects much of society, in which profits are more important than human needs.