A visit to a different church

Last Sunday, I decided to venture out into unknown territory and experience firsthand a religious service of a denomination that was largely unknown to me. I attended services at an Episcopal church.

I wouldn't have attended this church, except that after having discovered its web site I found myself attracted to its progressive ideals, as expressed particularly in its monthly newsletter and its statement of inclusion. What I feared, on the other hand, was just how creedal or otherwise theologically orthodox the actual service would be. The only way I would know was to see for myself. Accompanied by my significant other for moral support, I decided to do just that.

The one thing I didn't really think about prior to attending the service was Episcopalian ritualism, which turned out to be quite unlike what I was used to in the various Protestant denominations I had attended. I think the Protestant in me was turned off almost instantly by these rituals. One such set of rituals was the procession of the cross--where a group of robed individuals, one of whom bore a large cross, walked to the front of the church--and the later recession of the cross at the end of the service, when the cross was taken back in the opposite direction. These had such a formalism about it that was unlike what I was used to. That doesn't mean that they are wrong. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for others, and vice versa. This could not be clearer in the case of this service. During the recession of the cross, I watched the faces of the robed men and women who proceeded back towards the rear of the chapel. What they were doing seemed to mean something to them. I almost felt guilty about the negative vibe that I was probably issuing silently from my unhappy face. By the last fifteen minutes of the service, I was squirming and seriously considered quietly slipping out the back. What meant so much to the parishioners meant nothing to me. I sang none of the songs. I recited none of the recitations.

Almost from the beginning, I felt unconnected to the service. I clearly differed from the majority of those in the pews (which were nearly full) in what I was attracted to in a worship service. Everyone else sang the hymns and they recited their creeds as the service proceeded. They were a dressed up group of people, in their suits and so forth, except for one very casually dressed woman in a sweatshirt who had many piercings on her face; she sat by herself in the back row, but she did partake of the Eucharist. (The communion was open to all, but I did not participate.)

Other than reading books by the progressive Marcus Borg and the provocatively anti-theistic John Shelby Spong, I was mostly ignorant of the Episcopal denomination. Not only does the web site for this church proclaim a progressive and inclusive message, but its monthly newsletter drips with interesting forays into theologies that seem removed from the orthodoxy that I have so little use for. And yet, the service itself was so traditional. So orthodox. There seemed to be such a disconnect between the progressive, ecumenical, pluralistic theology that the church seemed to espouse, and the deeply traditional way in which its services were conducted.

Not only was there a Trinitarian creedal affirmation that I refused to affirm in the middle of the service, but there was also recited confession of sins. This focus on the idea of humanity's "sinful nature" represents a Christian theological emphasis that I never felt much attraction for. Not that I think that people aren't flawed, that there is not wrongdoing in the world; but to emphasize the idea of human "sinfulness" to the point that it becomes an important element in worship services is simply not my cup of tea.

The disconnect that I perceived between progressive theology and deeply traditional forms of worship is something that I can't quite fathom. I am aware that many people are attracted to the ritualism of this kind of worship. Many find the conventional patterns of worship comforting as they are repeated week after week. Many may have grown up in the Episcopal church and simply feel the most comfortable with this style of worship. But for me, it was clear from the beginning that I was not at home in this kind of experience. I would rather be in a progressive church that is not bound to including the old orthodoxy within its worship practices--where progressive theology expresses itself in how the worship itself is conducted. Some people would feel lost without those familiar creedal affirmations; some feel that the religious community would lose its bearings if the creeds were taken away. But I feel otherwise.

I have nothing but respect for those who find meaning in forms of worship that do nothing for me. This was one such case of just this situation. The church I attended clearly works for a lot of people. It just didn't work for me.

The Sins of Scripture

I often have to take John Shelby Spong with a grain of salt. I think that his critiques of religious orthodoxy are often right on the mark, but at the same time, I think that he is often guilty of the very dogmatism that he condemns in religious conservatives. He asserts that his own Tillich-influenced theology is the be-all and end-all of enlightened responses to Christian orthodoxy, essentially dismissing out of hand other progressive points of view like those of Matthew Fox or the various process theologians. He is often given to flights of theological fancy, sometimes in direct conflict with the consensus of biblical scholars. For example, he rejects the two-source hypothesis of the synoptic gospels, and thus rejects the idea that there is a Q document. He asserts with absolute confidence that the apostle Paul was gay, and that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. That isn't to say that he might not be right in these matters, but I often find his dogmatism off-putting.

And yet, that being said, he often can be inspiring in his pleas for a more just Christianity. He writes passionately, and his books are rarely boring.

I am currently reading his book The Sins of Scripture, in which he highlights the ways that certain biblical passages have been used to justify a variety of human evils. He minces no words, and he makes no excuses for those problematic passages; he comes right out and condemns those parts of the Bible that offend. The Bible, Spong argues, is most definitely not an infallible guide.

Here is an interesting passage in the book that I particularly like:

We are not fallen, sinful people who deserve to be punished. We are frightened, insecure people who have achieved the enormous breakthrough into self-consciousness that marks no other creature that has yet emerged from the evolutionary cycle. We must not denigrate the human being who ate of the tree of knowledge in the Genesis story. We must learn rather to celebrate the creative leap into a higher humanity. Our sense of separation and aloneness is not a mark of our sin. It is a symbol of our glory. Our struggle to survive, which manifests itself in radical self-centeredness, is not the result of original sin. It is a sign of emerging consciousness. It should not be a source of guilt. It is a source of blessing. We do not need to be punished. We need to be called and empowered to be more deeply and fully human and to develop the godlike gift of being able to give ourselves away freely in the quest for an even deeper sense of what it means to live. Jesus did not die for our sins. Jesus demonstrated in an ultimate way that it is by giving that we receive and by loving that we enhance life.

Guilt, judgment, righteousness, orthodoxy, creedal purity: these are the products of a religion of control in which we hide in fear. They are attempts to build security. None of these boundary marks is life-giving. All are methods of seeking righteousness when that for which we yearn is love.

Magic God No Longer

Here is a quote from an article published in the current issue of Creative Transformation, a quarterly magazine devoted to process theology:

Process theology has been multi-faceted in its gifts to me. My natural tendency to question is honored. My respect for science is now a part of my theological beliefs. My need for a faith that is pluralistic and ecumenical is encouraged. The technical aspects keep me interested in pursuing truth. The gift of process theology has transformed every aspect of my thinking and experience. The greatest gift, however, is my belief about the nature of God. It is the character of God that has been most transforming for me. No longer do I have an "Abracadabra" God. Magical thinking about God's power has been replaced with a relational God luring the creation towards transformation.

Some days it would be easier to go back to the traditional theism I learned growing up. The sermons would be clear. The words I choose would not have to be analyzed. I could preach on any text and God's great nature would shine out. When someone asked "why," I could smile condescendingly and tell them they just need to have more faith. But alas, I cannot return to my former way of thinking. Magical thinking has wreaked havoc on the church I love. As I consider the mainline church, what is woefully underrepresented is the intellectual Christian who has more questions than answers and who suffers, as I did, from the incongruence of traditional theism and the human encounter with the divine.

-- From the article "Process from My Perspective: The Magic God No Longer", by Betty Bradford.

Justice and Love, Part Deux

In a previous posting, I suggested that love and justice are far from being mutually contradictory attributes of the religious life. On the contrary, I argued that they are complementary, that in fact justice flows naturally from love.

As I thought further about this, I remembered something that Abbie Hoffman once said. In a television documentary made some twenty years ago, he was asked if he agreed with the sentiment expressed by the Beatles song "All You Need Is Love". His response was a definite no; he said he disagreed with what he called "Beatle politics", asserting that what we needed was not love, but justice.

Abbie Hoffman was a political activist who often fought for justice, sometimes in creative ways. As much as we can applaud many of his efforts in this area, I also think that he was wrong in this case, when he argued that love and justice were not the same thing. As Matthew Fox wrote in On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear,

We must develop our capacity for outrage and adult anger, it appears, from purifying our own love. For the relation of love and anger is inextricable. Anger is as sure a signal of love as smoke is of fire. Where one's capacity to become outraged at injustices is smothered and barely smolders, so does one's capacity for loving justice. It follows then that the development of the prophet in each of us waits for the development of the mystic in each of us. With growth in our powers to love life will advance our urge to share it and to wrestle with its enemies. Adult anger is not buckshot anger, exploding in every direction at slight provocations. It is finely aimed and honed anger arising from a care for the beloved, not from an overly sensitive or hot-headed reaction to inconveniences. One's care for life fully lived can surely hone one's capacity for anger so that it finds a productive and creative channel in which to accomplish its work, which is a great work: facing down life's demonic and powerful evil spirits and principalities. To develop in love of life, to enjoy it more fully, to allow our mysticism its rightful preeminence is to develop as a prophet too.
Outrage at injustice, as Fox points out, can thus be a natural expression of love. A universal and embracing love naturally seeks justice for those who are oppressed by a social, political, and economic system that is operated for the benefit of the few. This is the prophetic vision.

Love is a life-affirming vision, as are creativity and humor. Thinking further about Abbie Hoffman, one cannot help but appreciate the sense of humor that he brought to his own vision of justice. Hoffman was Jewish, although I am not aware of him having been religious. He was a complicated and flawed human being, as we all are. But as a social activist he often could express his opposition to injustice in ways that were creative and life affirming--one might even say prophetic. His use of humor as a tool of resisting a system of oppression and war was often brilliantly refreshing. In 1967, for example, he organized a protest in which he and others threw money onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; also in that year he organized a levitation of the Pentagon during a mass antiwar protest in Washington. This was at a time when the Pentagon was operating an immoral war of aggression in a foreign country--much as it is doing today. During the Chicago Seven trial, Hoffman, who was facing what were essentially trumped up charges lodged against him and other dissidents in the aftermath of the 1968 demonstrations outside the Democratic Party convention, responded with his trademark humor that exposed the ridiculousness of the system. He blew kisses to the jury, he entered the court in judicial robes, and so forth. When charged with contempt for these actions, he responded to the court by saying:
But when the decorum is oppression, the only dignity that free men have is the right to speak out. Furthermore, you said we do not honor your authority, but we recognize that authority as illegitimate in the same way that the authority that decided the political decisions in that heavy week in August in 1968 was illegitimate and did not represent the will and the desire of the people.

So we cannot respect an authority that we regard as illegitimate. We can only offer resistance to such illegitimate authority.
Resistance to illegitimate authority has always been a prophetic message--a message carried out by Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Jesus, and other prophets throughout history. In responding creatively and artistically to a system of war and oppression, Hoffman was, in his own way, acting as a kind of prophet of life, as all of us can and should do. That is because each of us, as Matthew Fox pointed out, can be a prophet. Was Hoffman a radical? Yes, he most certainly was. Matthew Fox writes, "The word 'radical' receives rather bad press these days, but whatever be its emotional connotations, it is perfectly apt for our purposes. In fact, it is as innocuous as 'radishes' (which derives from the same word) or 'roots' (coming from the Latin word radix meaning root). " Fox also quotes William Sloan Coffin, who once said, "A liberal is a person who thinks other people need help, and a radical is one who knows we're all in trouble."

Fox suggests that a radical response is necessary in the face of the mysteries of life:
The understanding of prayer as a radical response to life suggests the following lesson. That a new commandment has been given to us: thou shalt love your life with all your strength and energy, growing daily in appreciation of the joys of life; and you shall allow and aid where possible your neighbor to love his and do the same, using common norms of justice to determine life's priorities. Live to make life livable; fighting when necessary, learning by whatever means possible, having a good time when you feel like it, respecting life's mysteries in an active, not a passive manner. In short--love life--and do whatever you want.
Abbie Hoffman died a premature death. It was thought to be suicide, although there are those who dispute this. If Hoffman indeed had killed himself, this would have represented succumbing to a kind of despair that was the opposite of love and life-affirming prophecy. I do recall seeing him quoted, before his death, complaining about the way universities had become "hotbeds of campus rest". But whether this was cynicism or despair, I don't know, and perhaps those who deny that he killed himself are correct. Either way, we can still remind ourselves that the fight for justice is a necessary component of the prophetic lifestyle. At his funeral, according to the New York Times,
Rabbi Norman Mendell said in his eulogy that Mr. Hoffman's long history of protest, antic though much of it had been, was "in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
Where Hoffman was mistaken was in separating this from "Beatle politics". All you need is, indeed, love--because love impels us to seek justice.

What does "inclusive" mean?

A lot of churches make a point of stressing that they are "inclusive", and I often wonder what that means. It could mean, for example, that a church can be inclusive theologically--meaning that it welcomes seekers and people of diverse beliefs who want to participate in the worship experience. Or it can mean that it accepts people who are rejected by many other Christian churches--specifically, and usually, this pertains to members of the GLBT community.

I certainly think it is great whenever a church welcomes gays and lesbians--not just welcomes them, I might add, but will accept them into its clergy. This is a necessary component of inclusion; but this is not, in my view, a complete expression of what I consider inclusiveness to be. If a church continues to stress Christian orthodoxy in most areas, then I, as a non-orthodox believer in God, who is attracted to Christian tradition but who rejects literal belief in many Christian myths, will not feel either welcome or comfortable attending services there.

Sometimes churches might say that they are open to "doubters", "skeptics", or "seekers". I am not necessarily comfortable with the terms "doubter" and "skeptic", although I think it is fair to say that I am a "seeker". A "doubter" or "skeptic" presupposes, in my mind, that there is a standard of orthodoxy against which one is judged to comply with or not--and if one doesn't comply, that means that one doubts or is skeptical. But the problem with that is that I have my some of my own beliefs, beliefs that I consider logical and reasonable and proper. I feel that am no more a "doubter" of the orthodoxy than those who hold orthodox positions are "doubters" of my beliefs. In other words, I happen to think that my beliefs are just as good as the orthodox ones. We both simply have different, though perhaps at times overlapping, opinions.

I ran across a San Francisco church that has published a statement of "inclusiveness". Here is one portion of what its resolution says:

Whereas we recognize that along with the blessings the church has brought to many, inside and outside the institution, the church has also often reflected the prejudices of society including racism, sexism, homophobia and religious exclusivity. The church has too often been unjust and self-righteous rather than loving and inclusive. Fear, prejudice and discrimination are part of a history of oppression within the church and society that distorts our relationship with ourselves, with God and with other people, and diminishes the humanity of both oppressors and oppressed.

Therefore we resolve to make explicit our welcome to all people. To women, men, children and youth. To people of all colors. To lesbian and gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, and straight people. To single, married and partnered people and to all families, however constituted. To people of all cultures, classes, ages and abilities. To people of all faiths and to all questioners and seekers journeying more deeply into the Holy. [Name of Church] welcomes you.
This is a wonderful statement, because it includes "people of all faiths", "questioners", and "seekers journeying more deeply into the Holy". While I don't consider myself a "questioner" for the reasons cited above, I think that the inclusiveness towards other belief systems is something I approve of.

I had a brief e-mail exchange with a member of the clergy from that church. I specifically asked about whether the church included the Nicene Creed in its services. The answer that came back was no, which pleasantly surprised me. It was suggested in the response that we should talk further, by e-mail or on the phone. I have to admit that this intimidated me a bit, because I am strictly looking around at what's out there right now, and I didn't want to give the impression that I was ready to commit to any denomination. But after some thought, I decided that I didn't want to ignore that sincere effort at reaching out to me. I wrote back with a lengthy description of where I was theologically. I also stressed that I was "church shopping" right now--probably a mistake, since after several days I haven't heard any response to what I wrote. When push comes to shove, I sometimes feel if I am too explicit with where I am theologically and what my concerns are about committing to a church or finding a church home, I am likely to be written off. I am thinking that this was what happened in this case.

This continues to illustrate the frustration that I feel in my encounters with mainline Christianity. I know that there are people out there in the mainline churches who feel as I do. There are also clergy who feel as I do. And yet, I feel that it is hard to wade through the maze of denominational practices, theologies, congregational styles, and differences in clergy, to make sense of where I would fit in. I feel so out there in left field when it comes to Christianity, and yet I am trying to find ways to connect to God despite these difficulties. And it is a hard road for me.

Love and Justice

Matthew Fox, in his book On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear, writes of justice as the prophet's goal. He says:

I suggest that love today means before all else justice. Justice is the direction given to love. For the only way to love God is to love one's neighbor; but the only way to love one's neighbor (apart from "being in love", which limits one's understanding of neighbor) is by justice. Very simply, he who says he loves his neighbor but ignores justice is a liar. And he who says that he loves God, whom he does not see, but hates his brother, whom he does see, is a liar.
Fox makes an excellent point. Love and justice are not two, separate Divine attributes, and they are not separate expressions of the Divine will. Justice flows naturally out of love. Prophecy expresses outrage at injustice because injustice is contrary to love. Social justice is the inevitable goal of the prophetic mission. Prophets seek to overturn the social institutions that oppress, because that is what the calling of divine love requires.

Fox also points out that we are all called to be prophets:
Everyone called to prayer, to life in the spirit, is called to prophecy, and the projecting of our personal prophetic vocation onto "heroes" is nothing less than a surrender of our spiritual life. A prophet might serve as a model, but in the spiritual life there are no heroes. Each adult person is alone before his or her unique prophetic possibility and response to life's enemies. Every adult has a prophetic vocation.
This is an important point. We should not delegate the prophetic calling of social justice to a selected few. We all can serve as prophets. But then the question arises: what is my prophetic vocation?

On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear

At a church book sale, I paid twenty five cents for a used copy of an old book by Matthew Fox, On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear. The book, which was written in 1972, represents one of his very early writings, and I was surprised when I looked it up on Amazon.com that it appears to be out of print, and it has no user reviews on that web site. Fox is a prolific and popular author, and I would have thought that this book would be in print, although, as far as I can tell, it seems to predate his more fully formed Creation Spirituality.

The book is full of quotable passages, and in my view ought to be considered a spiritual classic. The book is certainly a product of its time, and yet in many ways one finds how little has changed in the US with respect to religious and political questions in the intervening years. For example, Fox writes at one point:

It may dismay some that our generic understanding of prayer does not contain an explicit reference to God. The difficulty in talking of God today is that the name, paraded for centuries as the Father of western culture, has lost its meaning within that failing culture. Believers who claim an ancestry to the Israelites might do well to imitate their modesty in the face of Yahweh, whose name the Jews refused to employ more than once a year and whom they refused to address directly. For the Jew, one's name is a sacred trust. To know one's name is to have power over that one. Rightfully, then, they were cautious in pronouncing God's sacred name, for no one holds power over God. Contrast this respect for a name to the use of "God" in American culture, where self-anointed president and pundit alike invoke and preach him. We should not forget that we are a people who have altered the name of God by putting him on our coinage with all the ambiguity that "In God We Trust" implies.
The situation that Fox describes in American culture is even more true today than it was when he wrote it.

Jesus, poverty, and wealth

This week's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary include a passage from the Gospel Mark that I consider one of the most remarkable in the New Testament:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'"

He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth."

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
This passage was deeply influential to me as an early teen. I remember once speaking to my Sunday School teacher about it when I was in the eight grade. I asked him, semi-rhetorically, if these passages meant that one could not really be a Christian if one were rich. I can still picture in my mind's eye the way my teacher shook his head in response to my query. Like a good conservative Christian, he had no problem with reconciling being rich with being a Christian. I don't remember anymore the reasoning that he gave me for his position, but I do recall that I didn't really accept what he told me at the time.

Rereading the passage above now, though, several interesting points emerge. First, Jesus takes the humble position of denying that he is "good", and he clearly differentiates himself from God. Mark was the first of the four Gospels to be written, and this passage was clearly so embarrassing to the later Gospel writers who used this as a source. In particular, Matthew, which was written some ten years or so later, and which incorporated almost the entire Gospel of Mark within it (sometimes verbatim, sometimes with changes), clearly didn't like the way Jesus denigrated himself in that verse. So Matthew changed Jesus's words to say, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good."

Secondly, Jesus went further than just condemning rich people. He told the rich man not to live a comfortable middle-class existence, but to sell all his possessions and follow him. He was asking the man to become an itinerant like himself.

As a 13-year-old Christian, I was not prepared to do anything like that. I don't think that, at that point in my life, I knew what to make of that. I focused more on Jesus's statement that rich people, for all intents and purposes, were excluded from the Kingdom of God. To me, ostentatious wealth was, in effect, stealing from the poor. Once you provided yourself with food, shelter, the basic comforts of life, and a modicum of pleasures, what else was necessary? I was not a poor child. I was well fed and well taken care of by my parents. I lived a modest middle income existence. We certainly were not a rich family by any means either, or even a very well off one. I knew many of my schoolmates who lived in more upscale neighborhoods than my own. I did not consider Jesus's radical statements about selling all one's things, but I did believe that when I became an adult, I would live a relatively simple life.

In contrast to that, we have all sorts of Christians who preach a kind "prosperity Gospel". This phenomenon made the cover of Time magazine a few weeks ago. One megachurch pastor of this prosperity Gospel is Joel Osteen, whose church services are held in a former sports arena each week before a crowd of many thousands of parishioners, and whose services are broadcast to hundreds of television stations. Osteen is a charming and entertaining speaker who is himself quite wealthy. He has certainly benefited personally from the prosperity Gospel, and one cannot imagine him selling his possessions and following Jesus as Jesus asked that man in the passage above to do.

In many ways, variations of this Gospel of prosperity have been with us a long time. New Thought denominations, such as Unity, Religious Science, and Divine Science, have long used the word "prosperity" in their teachings; they believed that this prosperity was achieved through positive thinking and through tithing to their churches, although their definition of prosperity was broader than just to refer to economic wealth.

Even more traditional Christianity has often been used as a means toward, if not a justification of, ostentatious wealth. Just consider how much the Protestant work ethic has, when practiced, led to enormous payoffs for its adherents.

We may give out our Nobel prizes to the Mother Teresas of the world, but few of us actually walk the talk. We call them saints, those people who live the simple life and who devote themselves to helping the least fortunate. We admire them as we revel in our own comfort. Where I live, in San Francisco, there is something called the Night Ministry, led by a pastor who walks the dark streets of the poorer neighborhoods in town. Volunteers for this ministry provide phone counseling services to people in distress throughout the early morning hours. This is Christian ministry at its best.

But does God want us to be uncomfortable in order to enter the Kingdom of God? Does self sacrifice just for its own sake make sense? Or does God want us to build a society in which all of us are modestly comfortable, rather than one in which a few are very well off while others live in poverty? Why did Jesus tell that rich man to sell his possessions?

John Dominic Crossan argues in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography that Jesus founded a revolutionary movement of rural itinerants who were
on a mission to rebuilt peasant society from the grass roots upward. Since commensality is not just a technique for support but a demonstration of message, they could not and should not dress to declare itinerant self-sufficiency but rather communal dependency. Itinerancy and dependency: heal, stay, move on.
In this kind of lifestyle, it made no sense to own possessions. In fact, the peasant itinerants who followed Jesus depended on the hospitality of those they visited. They depended on generosity, but behind that generosity lay a principle of commensality. Jesus's vision was a radically egalitarian one. If those they visited did not welcome they, then these missionaries needed to move on. That is why in Mark 6:11, Jesus tells followers that if they are not welcomed, they should "shake the dust" off their feet.

We no longer live in a peasant society, but poverty remains with us. Does the life of the itinerant make sense anymore? Peasants may have shared their food and shelter with itinerant preachers two thousand years ago, but most of us live in an urban society now, and we fear strangers knocking at our doors--for good reason. It is a dangerous world out there. So how can we best implement Jesus's ideal ethic of radical egalitarianism under present conditions? For Jesus, the lifestyle he led and asked others to lead was a means to an end--the end being social justice. What means are available to us now?

At thirteen, I may have envisioned my future adult self as living the simple life. As an adult, I know I haven't exactly lived up to that ideal. It is hard to escape the Western capitalist ethic of consumption and the acquisition of wealth. It is hard for any of us not to want to acquire a better income. As an American, I live in a society with a very porous social safety net. I would worry about how I could get by if I lost my job. I worry about having enough money for retirement. If I give away all my material possessions, how would I managed to survive into old age? Not to mention the fact that I like having my computer, my comfy bed, my television set, my cable TV. I am relatively comfortable, and I like it. The way I saw it when I was thirteen was that I also wanted everyone in the world to be able to share equally in the bounty of plenty that our world had to offer; the point was not for me to be poor, but for me not to be rich--me, and everyone else. I wanted to see a world where each person had available to them a modestly comfortable lifestyle, rather than one in which some people were very rich while others were very poor.

What happened to the radical poverty of the Jesus movement after he died is another interesting question. When Jesus was arrested, his followers fled. They were understandably afraid of the consequences of being associated with a radical religious leader who was executed for having opposed the earthly Kingdom that he lived in, in favor of the Kingdom of God. The execution of a leader in those times easily brought on a crisis in the movement. In the case of the Jesus movement, the followers probably went back to their jobs in Galilee, back to making a living. Their movement seemed shattered. There was no need to continue on. But something else took hold even after they fled Jerusalem; they were deeply affected by Jesus in ways that his death did not crush. It was only after some of them came to believe that Jesus after his death was exalted into heaven that the movement took a new phase. The crisis brought on by Jesus's death led to something new, a sect of Judaism that became the origins of a new religion.

This new religion continued to be a movement that, for a time at least, offered a radical critique of the wealthy. The author of Luke and Acts reports that the early Christian followers of Jesus lived a communal lifestyle after the Pentecost: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." It is hard to know how the Christian movement evolved away from this kind of theological socialism, but it is worth noting that the epistle of James, written many years later, still expressed a strong negativity towards the rich:
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.
James also wrote in the same epistle:
Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
It is my guess that the preachers of the prosperity Gospel don't get around to emphasizing these words from the New Testament very often. Within the New Testament can be found radical language that resists against a social system in which a certain percentage of people control enormous sums of wealth while others live in poverty. Today we still have this same kind of injustice in our society. How can we in the modern world pursue the dream of social justice in ways that make sense in the contemporary economic and political system in which we live?

Church shopping on the internet - examples

I think the following sample of some church web sites for some mainline congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area illustrates both the usefulness and the limitations of using the web as a church-shopping tool. These web sites interested me because they came from churches that seem to represent pockets of progressivism--whatever that means. One of the questions that continues to arise for me is that when a church calls itself progressive, is that because of its theology or because of its politics, or both? Many evangelicals, for example, are committed to social justice, but they are theologically conservative. (For the record, I want a church that is committed to both social justice and that accepts open, inquiring minds about theological matters.) And this is one question that is not always resolved to my satisfaction when I look at a church web site.

The other obvious limitation, which I pointed out in my previous posting, was that there are intangibles that clearly cannot be discerned from a web site--the chemistry that you feel when you interact with the members, how you relate to the pastor, how you like the services, and so forth.

Among the churches in the sample below, many of them seem attractive to me (in theory) because they seem to be progressive in a way that I define it; some don't interest me so much; and some are just a little too far away from me to visit on a regular basis with my 18 year old car that has over 200,000 miles on it. I do not wish to disparage those churches that do not interest me; to say that a church is not a good fit for me is not to say that there is anything wrong with that church, and presumably it is a good fit for those who are involved in the life of that church. I also realize that churches don't always have the resources to put a lot of effort into their web sites, and in many cases they are simply doing the best they can in trying to create a web presence.

In any case, here is a sampling of church web sites that I have taken a look at, for better or worse. Note that I have not actually visited any of the Sunday services at the churches that I describe below. All the information I glean is strictly from the web sites. Here they are, in no particular order:

College Heights UCC, San Mateo, CA. The main web page for this site says, "At College Heights Church, there are no right angles, no right answers, and no righteous dogma." Wow. When I read that, I was immediately intrigued.

The Who We Are page on this site includes a wonderful quote from Jim Burklo, a former pastor of the church and a member of the Executive Council of the Center for Progressive Christianity. The quote includes this statement about a progressive church: "Let it open to all who seek the kind of relationship with God that Jesus had, no matter how they sort out the myths from the facts of Jesus' life story." I note that they talk about the relationship with God that Jesus had, rather than about a relationship with an allegedly divine Christ. I like that wording. The page also says that the church is, "small caring community of independent thinkers that support each other on his or her own spiritual journey with a zest for life and a quest for knowledge." Phrases like "independent thinkers" and "spiritual journey" all ring true for me. The How We Worship page suggests that there are some creative practices in their Sunday worship. Of course, it is possible that what all of this means in practice would not actually appeal to me. The bad news--this church is some 20 miles away from where I live.

Congregational Church of San Mateo (UCC), San Mateo, CA. This church is larger than the College Heights church. It also seems to be similarly progressive. Some of the wonderful things that they proclaim under the heading of Guiding Principles are:

"Christian" means we perceive in Jesus the divine qualities of love, peace, joy, and justice. It does not mean we think Jesus is the only path to God.

"Christian" means we eagerly explore the Bible for its spiritual wisdom contained in symbol, metaphor, and history. It does not mean a literal or heavy-handed approach that uses the Bible to prove we are right or righteous.

"Christian" means we have a specific tradition and history to which we are drawn. It does not mean we are constrained from exploring other traditions and creating new ideas that will themselves become history for later generations.

All I can say is--Wow.

Unfortunately, like the College Heights church, it is situated a little bit too far away from me.

Sausalito Presbyterian Church, Sausalito, CA. This church is pastored by the same Jim Burklo who was quoted above. He appears to have switched denominations, from UCC to Presbyterian. The web site has an Our Beliefs page that emphasizes its affiliation with the Center for Progressive Christianity. It says that the church:
  • Measures itself more by its deeds than its creeds.
  • Welcomes people of all kinds and backgrounds as partners in the spiritual journey.
  • Takes the Bible seriously because it doesn't have to take it literally.
  • Keeps the faith but drops any dogma that gets in the way of the love that is God.
Not only am I impressed by this, by I am also impressed by the pluralistic and non-dogmatic philosophy expressed in the statement of faith:
  • Jesus Christ is the foundation to our path to God, but we recognize that He represents one of the many ways to know God.
  • We recognize the faiths of other people who have other names for the pathway to the Divine. We welcome and love people of all races, cultures, classes and abilities. We don't believe in converting anyone from one set of beliefs to another.
  • We invite everyone to join in our worship, our communion, and our extended SPC family. Everyone includes believers and agnostics, conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, homosexuals and heterosexuals, females and males, the despairing and the hopeful and any other descriptor that may fit you.
  • We believe that the way we treat one another and other people is more important than the way we express our beliefs.
  • We are a spiritual community. We strive for justice and peace among all people, and bring support and hope to those that Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.
  • We find more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty, more in the questions than in the answers.
  • The web site also includes many sermons by the pastor, which are helpful in evaluating the church.
The church is on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from where I live, though, and so it lies essentially out of range for me.

First Congregational Church of Berkeley (UCC), Berkeley, CA. This church, which is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, describes itself on its web page as a "progressive Christian church". It appears to be remarkably vibrant and active, with a large congregation. It has listed as an upcoming event a "town meeting" on the subject of "What does it mean to be a 'progressive' Christian church?". The church has regularly scheduled speakers, it has a Wednesday thrift shop, and lots of activity groups. However, the question of what they mean by a progressive church is an interesting one. The web site didn't necessarily emphasize the specifics of its outlook towards theological questions. I was able to get a better answer to this by perusing some of the sermons that the include online. Some examples of a few statements taken from a sermon reassured me:
I said last week, that for me, the Bible contains words of truth for my life, but is not the literal word of God. Marcus Borg speaks about the Bible as "a sacrament of the sacred, a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced." That describes how I understand its authority in my own life.
As the Bible has become more of a means through which the Spirit of God is revealed, I have discovered that it has become less and less of the infallible Word of God and more of a lens through which the Spirit is revealed. Years ago I learned a Haiku about seeing that has always stayed with me. "Since my house burned down, I know can see the rising moon." For me it means that once things, even beloved things are out of the way, we might be able to see more clearly, more deeply the way of wisdom in our own lives.
Those statements speak volumes, and overall, I get a very positive impression. Unfortunately, for me, the church is across the Bay Bridge from where I live, and thus a little too far away for regular attendance. I also don't know in practice whether I would feel at home in such a large congregation. I would not know about that unless I became a regular attender, which does not seem likely, because of its distance from where I live.

Noe Valley Ministry (Presbyterian), San Francisco, CA. This church describes itself on its web page as a "progressive Presbyterian church", and it is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity. The church does seem committed to social justice issues. However, it is difficult to for me to determine where the church really stands on matters of theology. I turned to some of the sermons that are online, and found the sermon from Easter of this year. The pastor said, "Now, I am not a teacher or a pastor who demands that any of you believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ." I appreciated this commitment to openness and free inquiry, although the pastor also made it clear that "I believe in the literal Resurrection of Jesus Christ." It is difficult for me to really determine from the web site how theologically open the church really is; if the church really is not committed to rigid orthodoxy, that doesn't seem to be emphasized on the web site, although that doesn't necessarily mean anything.

Saint Gregory's Episcopal, San Francisco, CA. This church, which is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, may just have the most unusual Episcopalian worship services you will ever find. Its Sunday morning services include elements borrowed from many traditions, full of bright costumes, umbrellas, and dancing by the congregation. That's right--if you attend, you are going to dance (they teach you the steps before that part of the service.) The web site has some photo slide shows that show pictorially and describe in detail each phase of 8 AM and 10:30 AM morning service. Communion is shared, with the cup passed from person to person, and it is open to all. Audio recordings of the sermons are available online. I have to admit that, while traditional Episcopalian services are too creedal and too filled with orthodoxy to suit me, this particular church definitely interests me.

Seventh Avenue Presbyterian, San Francisco, CA. The church is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, but the web site doesn't give many clues to the church's views on the Bible or theology. Neither sermons nor newsletters are available online. The church does clearly have a social justice mission. The church also emphasizes a certain kind of inclusiveness: "We feel strongly that all people of God are welcome regardless of gender, race, age, physical ability, sexual orientation, political party, educational achievements or financial resources." While that is certainly a positive statement, it doesn't say much about how welcome theological seeking would be within the life of the congregation. So when the church defines itself as progressive, are they primarily referring to its social justice mission? Or do they also mean theologically progressive?

This same ambiguity shows up in its statement on membership: "Many people who have said YES to our community have come from non-Christian backgrounds or no faith-tradition at all. Recently, we have welcomed persons who have been raised as atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, and Muslim as well as those whose faith was formed within one of the many Christian traditions (i.e.: Roman Catholic, Assembly of God, Episcopal, MCC, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.)." To say that people in the community have in the past been involved in diverse traditions doesn't necessarily say anything about how diverse their views are in the present. The only real suggestion of openness outside of orthodoxy that I could find on the web site is an adult education class next February on the noncanonical Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Overall, then, it is unclear from this site how much the church welcomes a questioning, nondogmatic view of the Bible. Perhaps they do, but I can't tell from the web site alone. The only way to really know would probably be to attend. I do note that the church does conduct Taize services every other Wednesday night, which I think is a point in this church's favor.

St. Peters Episcopal, San Francisco, CA. The web site proudly proclaims on its main page that the church is an affiliate of the Center for Progressive Christianity. The nature of the services is not indicated, so without any further information my guess is that they are conducted in a typically traditional Episcopalian manner, presumably based on one of the rites from the book of common prayer. The one sample sermon that they have on the web site includes a reference to something that the Gospel of John reports Jesus as having said, and then begins a comment on it with the phrase "if he said that"--that is to say, if Jesus said what the Gospel of John claimed he said. Thus the sermon conceded that John's gospel might not have been historically accurate in reporting something Jesus said. This scores points with me, and it is a good sign in my view that the theology is indeed progressive and doesn't take a literalistic view of the Bible. There is a "links" page that includes links to the Gospel of Thomas, and some contemporary writers as diverse as Deepak Chopra and Karen Armstrong. I'm actually not sure what to make of the Deepak Chopra link, which perhaps suggests a little New Age-iness, but perhaps I am reading too much into that. Without knowing more about the nature of the services, though, I can only assume at this point that they would, like most Episcopalian services, involve some orthodox creedal affirmations that I would not be comfortable with, but theologically they give something of an impression from the web site of being open and progressive. Again, probably the only way to know for sure would be to attend services or to talk with the priest or members of the congregation.

Saint Mary's Episcopal, San Francisco, CA. This church is not affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity and probably would not have caught my attention, but I noticed that they have a Sunday evening service that they called "Saint Mary's unplugged". This service does not conform to the usual Episcopal rites, and is thus an alternative form of worship: "Readings are taken from the Old Testament, the appointed gospel and related works. Spiritual texts from other traditions and contemporary writers are desirable. During Communion, the community gathers in a circle around the altar. Alternative or original Eucharistic prayers are used. New music is welcome in addition to well-known hymns and/or folk songs." The web site also says, "We value ecumenical and interfaith worship, a good sense of humor, ease with spontaneity, intellectual challenges, and fluidity with children in the service. We gladly welcome visitors!" I am intrigued.

(I note also that Saint Mark's Episcopal in Berkeley, CA has a Sunday night service where "throughout the year we use alternative liturgies at the 7:30pm service, drawing upon the rich resources of the worldwide Anglican Communion as well as ecumenical sources." So it appears that it is not unheard of for Episcopal churches to offer alternative forms of worship during service times other than Sunday morning.)

Church shopping on the internet

The best way to find out what a church is like is to attend a service. But I am not too crazy about reckless experimentation. I am afraid I might waste a Sunday morning attending a worship service that I don't really enjoy, when I could have gone somewhere else instead. Maybe the church I visit pushes certain dogmas that I strenuously object to. I ran screaming from a theologically conservative church when I was a teenager; having rediscovered the idea of going to church as an adult, the last thing I need to do is reopen old wounds.

That's where the internet comes in so handy. I don't know what people used to do for their research. I guess they just took chances and church-shopped willy nilly; or maybe they found out about churches through acquaintances and gave them a try. It must have been an arduous process of sorts. But for me, my Sunday worship experience is too precious to waste on such adventurism. I value too much the spiritual high that comes from attending a meaningful worship experience to risk going to a service that instead deflates my spiritual expectations.

One problem with the internet is that church web sites vary widely in the kind of information they give. What I look for are some signs, some clues, of progressive Christianity and tolerance of my own heterodoxy. If they are affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, that is a good starting point. Another good sign is some expression of inclusiveness and theological openness. On the other hand, if I see words like "we believe that the bible is the inerrant word of God", or "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God", or "everyone who doesn't believe the right things is going to hell", then I am not likely to be interested. If the church seems promising, I also like to see descriptions of what worship is like, and perhaps also some sample sermons--either text or audio.

Of course, it is only if I dip my toe in the water and actually visit a church do I really know for sure what I might be getting myself into. The web site only points the way; the actual experience may not meet expectations. But it is scary enough for me to go to a strange church; there is so much theological baggage that I carry, and I am highly sensitive to any hint that a church pushes a little too far in a certain direction. The important point is that even if a church seems good in theory, only by interacting with the congregation would I know if it is a good fit.

It was via the internet that I discovered the church that I've been attending the past few weeks. I knew it was affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, and it was also affiliated with the UCC, which is generally a very progressive denomination; but otherwise I wasn't entirely sure what I was getting myself into. I was so nervous about it that I went by myself and parked outside the church one Sunday morning, then turned around and went back. When I finally got the nerve to attend a service, it turned out to be as inclusive and theologically open as I had hoped, and the people were remarkably friendly. Whew.

On keeping God under control

This quote comes from a blog entry written by Glynn Cardy, the vicar of St Matthew-in-the-City, a church in Auckland, New Zealand:

Proponents of Christianity throughout the ages have tried to keep God under control by creating fences out of the Bible, the Creeds, synods, clergy, hymns, and liturgies. Yet, we need to be aware of who and what we are dealing with. For God continually breaks out of our constructs and language - popping up in others’ holy texts, speaking through social and political outcasts, refusing to favour any one race, religion, or sexual orientation, and generally being a darn nuisance to those who like decency and order. Be aware, this God is not safe.


One of the most moving, inspiring, beautiful worship experiences I have ever had was a Wednesday night Taize service at an Episcopal church. The Taize service was Christian based but drew from other, non-Christian sources, and thus was not focused on theology or dogma but on the mere experience of worship and being in the presence of God. I was curious about what this church's regular Sunday services would be like. The church is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, and its web site indicates that its liturgy "comes from many sources, and that "we try very hard to be as inclusive in our language as possible." That sounds pretty good, although they do add that "traditional liturgy is still a great part of our service." That is also fine--I don't necessarily mind a little traditional liturgy, especially if it is mixed with more non-traditional forms.

But then I took a look at a scanned image of the program for one of its Sunday services, which was located on the web site. I admit that I've never actually attended a regular Episcopal service, but what I saw looked very much like I imagined an Episcopal service to be, and not in a good way. In particular, what I did not like was the section titled "Affirmation of Faith", in which the attenders were expected to rise and repeat the following: We Believe in God the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. We believe in God the Son, Who lives in our hearts through faith, and fills us with his love. We believe in God the Holy Spirit, who strengthens us with power from on high. We believe in one God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I could never stand up and say those things. I do not believe in that Trinitarian formulation, and for me to say it would be dishonest; and for me to listen to the rest of the congregation saying it in this context would make me uncomfortable. This kind of affirmation of a creed is not what I want to experience in a religious service.

My admittedly limited experience with the United Church of Christ has so far been free of this kind of direct and formal recitation of creeds (although Trinitarian formulations have cropped up in some of the hymns, particularly the doxology.) Somehow I am able to put up with it in the doxology, but I feel that affirming it as a formal statement of faith is another thing altogether. The official position of the UCC seems to be that the creeds are "testimonies, not tests of the faith." I come from a non-creedal tradition (Quakerism), and in that context I am not crazy about creeds at all; but I can deal with creeds if they are framed in that sort of way. I can accept the concept that creeds reflect the historical understanding of those who went before us. Indeed, I see them in that sense as "testimonies"--and I am happy that they are not considered by the UCC to be tests of faith. What I just do not want is anyone expecting me to include a recitation of them as part of a worship experience, as if I believed them.

Is nature perfect?

Thanks to the internet, anyone can sit at their computer and read the texts of, or even listen to, sermons from far flung churches that one has never attended. I listened to an interesting and thought provoking sermon by an Episcopalian priest in San Francisco, which I enjoyed; but I did give pause when I heard him issue this quote from Thomas Merton: "In nature," according to Merton, "everything is doing the will of God perfectly at every moment."

According to this view, everything both animate and inanimate in the natural world--from dogs to trees to stars--are the perfect expression of divine will. This means, for example, that every action an animal takes manifests divine will; but it also implies, to me anyway, that even the form that nature takes is the perfect expression of divinely willed creation. Birds have wings and fish have fins, in other words, because it is perfect that it should be so.

As profound and inspiring as this view is, I disagree with it.

If nature truly reflects God's will perfectly, a question immediately comes to my mind--are we, as human beings, not also part of nature? After all, we obey the same physical laws as dogs and trees do. We hunger, we thirst, and we break if we fall. We die as every living thing does. We share the same basic genetic framework that all living creatures do. We evolved on this earth as descendents of the first living forms billions of years ago, and we participate in the planet's ecology. We are, in other words, integrated fully into the natural world. To claim that we humans are not included in Thomas Merton's statement about nature, I would argue, is to suggest that we stand apart from nature, that we are not part of nature. And yet we are indeed part of this natural world in multiple ways--in every way, really. And if we humans are integral part of nature, then Merton's statement implies that we must also be carrying out the will of God perfectly at every moment. And I don't think that many who believe in God would accept that. And that is one way in which I think Merton's statement breaks down. How can we say that the rest of nature perfectly expresses divine will while we, who are also part of nature, do not?

The answer that some would offer would be to say that humans are different from the rest of nature because we have free will and the rest of nature does not. To me, though, this offers a problematic and arbitrary solution, because it creates a distinction between categories of "nature"--that which obeys divine will and that which does not. In addition, humans are an integral part of nature, and we interact with the rest of nature continuously. When hurricanes strike, when wild animals kill or maim people, or when any other calamity of "act of God" takes place that results in human suffering or death, are we to believe that these events represent the perfect expression of divine will? Does God will shark bites?

This gets into the question of theodicy, of course. If we ask ourselves if God wills everything that happens, even those that seem to be quite evil in the short view, we are left with the idea that Leibnitz came up with, that we live in the "best of all possible worlds"--that God, through his infinite wisdom, knows that all the evil that appears in our complex world nevertheless has a greater overall purpose, that God in his wisdom knows to be the best. Even if something seems bad, according to this view, God actually knows that overall everything that happens has a greater purpose and is for the best.

One problem with the "best of all worlds" theory is that it doesn't do the individual victims of evil much good to know that somehow their suffering will have some greater abstract benefit for the universe. And when one applies this theory to human evil, one would have a very hard time arguing that something as horrible as the Nazi Holocaust could ever be justified as an expression of divine will.

There is another way out of this dilemma, however. Instead of claiming that anything in the universe represents the perfect expression of Divine will, one could instead assume that free will is an inherent characteristic of everything that exists in the universe. If every event that takes place in all of creation is, if only in some small sense, a kind of act of free will, then that means that, first of all, humans and nature both share both this same free will as part of their basic natures. It means that neither "nature" nor human beings are necessarily the perfect expression of the divine will. This is the view of process theology.

Under this view, God calls out to each moment in time (Whitehead called this an "occasion of experience") , offering the best possible action in response to the events that preceded it. Nature, to an unknown degree, has complied with God's will over the course of the evolution of the universe, when it chose to do so. But God didn't control the outcomes of any of the individual events in the continuing process of creation. God and the universe are, in essence, co-creators.

That doesn't mean that inanimate objects are conscious. Obviously, humans have a consciousness and rocks do not, so in that sense we are obviously different in how our free will manifests itself. It does mean, however, that free will, even at the most rudimentary and primitive level, is essential to every level of the universe. Nature is not a perfect expression of divine will, but instead a free co-creator with God. God guided the evolution of the universe, in all of its glory--the Big Bang, the creation of the universe, the evolution of life on earth, and the arrival of homo sapiens--but did not control it. The difference between acting as a guide and a controller is that in the former case, the nature doesn't always carry out divine will--in other words, it imperfectly expresses God's will. Thus our human capacity to not carry out God's will is built into the very fabric of the universe. Free will is everywhere, and God doesn't always get her own way 100% of the time.

Yesterday's New York Times ran an article that commented on the Nobel Prize that was awarded to Smooth and Mather for their work on researching the Big Bang. The article pointed out that the universe has actually become more complicated for scientists to explain and understand then it was back when those two physicists did the pioneering research that earned the Nobel Prize. It turns out that there is some sort of dark energy that is causing the universe to expand at a faster rate than it ought to be; but what is interesting about this is that there seems to be a lot less of this dark energy than physicists think there ought to be if any exists at all. The thing is, if there really were as much of this dark energy as they think there should be, the universe would never have produced the conditions that would have allowed the universe to evolve life.

So this confirms that the universe is, in an odd sort of way, exactly consistent with the conditions and physical laws necessary for life, despite the improbability that it should be so. Are we, seemingly insignificant and small creatures on a tiny little planet within a vast universe, the result of a universe whose laws were produced with God's encouragement and guidance just so that we would result? Or is it the case, as seems to be the position taken by the author of the New York Times article, that every moment in time creates a new set of parallel universes where each possible event has occurred, and we just happen to be living in one in which the Big Bang produced the conditions ripe for life, while billions of other parallel universes exist without life? While the former allows for the possibility that God lured the universe to evolve in a certain way, the latter says that there are infinite universes and at every decision point, every possible decision is being made in some parallel universe somewhere.

While there has been some controversy lately on whether string theory is valid science, it is interesting to note that the Times article also points out the following implication of string theory:

By one reckoning, the number of conceivable universes, each with a different dose of dark energy, is so vast that it is "measured not in the millions or billions but in googols or googolplexes." Why we find ourselves in, say, universe number 110,310,077,252 would again be a tautology: if we weren't we wouldn't be here to ask.
But again, this seems to take for granted that there are parallel universes. What if there is just one--the one we know and live in? The answer as to why we exist in a particular conceivable universe among a dazzling array of possibilities could lead one to suggest that perhaps there was a divine purpose that led the universe to evolve in the way it did. Of course, relying on scientific understanding to make a theological statement is very dangerous territory, and what we think to be a scientific truth today may turn out to be a disproved falsehood tomorrow. But it does make one wonder. On the one hand, perhaps the universe is able to produce human beings on this planet because of a divine influence from the beginning--one that was not completely accepted at each stage of the way, but still accepted enough that the very physical laws were able to result in our evolution. On the other hand, was this same free will that is inherent to the universe, which prevented divine influence from being absolutely obeyed in every instance, the source of our own incomplete manifestation of Divine will?

The Big Bang and Genesis

The physicist Michio Kaku has written an article for the Wall Street Journal that comments on the most recent Nobel prize that was awarded to John Mather and George Smoot for their work on the Big Bang. Kaku points out that one of the principle architects of the Big Bang theory, George Gamow, was never awarded a Nobel prize for his work. This miscarriage of justice may have been because of his playfulness that didn't quite match some people's expectations of what a physicist was supposed to be like. Writes Kaku:

Some have argued that no one could take him seriously because he was an amateur cartoonist who wrote children's books (e.g., the classic "Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland" series, which were the first to inspire generations of schoolchildren, myself included, to the wonders of quantum physics and relativity). Others have said it was because he was too colorful a figure, notorious for his practical jokes. He once added physicist Hans Bethe's name, without his permission, to a paper written by him and his student Alpher, so it could be called the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper. He was also famous for his silly limericks. He once wrote: "There was a young fellow from Trinity / Who took the square root of infinity / But the number of digits / Gave him the figits; / He dropped Math and took up Divinity."
Gamow and some of his students proposed back in 1948 that the Big Bang was so hot that it left behind a background radiation as a kind of afterglow that is still with us today. This prediction was later borne out by radio astronomers in 1965, who then won a Nobel prize for their discovery. This discovery was a key proof of the Big Bang theory, a theory still accepted by scientists.

Kaku, in his article, pointed out that "this echo from the Big Bang makes up a significant fraction of the static you hear on the radio. Says Kaku,
It's a disgrace that Gamow and his students never got the Nobel. But perhaps they got something even more important. Prizes come and go. But the ultimate testament to their monumental work comes out every night, when the residual radiation they predicted fills up the entire night sky, bathing all of us with the glow from Genesis itself.
I am always a little weary when anyone conflates Genesis with the Big Bang theory. As John Shuck has pointed out in his blog, Genesis has no literal scientific value, because it was constructed from a cosmology that prevailed during the time that Genesis was written but that we know to be untrue. Figuratively speaking, we can talk about Genesis as having theological value. Genesis makes general theological statements that may still ring true to us in some way--statements about God's creative role in the universe--but its scientific merit is nonexistent.

As Marcus Borg writes in his book Reading the Bible Again For The First Time,
To the extent that there is a literal affirmation in ancient Israel's creation myths, it is simply this: God is the source of everything that is. As one of my seminary professors said several decades ago, "The only literal statement in Genesis 1 is 'God created the heavens and the earth.'"
(p. 72)
Borg also points out in the same book that the creation story, with its refrain after each day that "God saw that it was good", is also a theological statement about the nature of reality. Says Borg, "against all world-denying theologies and philosophies, Genesis affirms the world as the good creation of the good God. All that is is good."

These are the theological truths that can be gleaned from Genesis--but theological truths are not the same as scientific truths. The Priestly authors who wrote chapter 1 of Genesis knew nothing of the Big Bang; their cosmology was primitive and fundamentally wrong by contemporary scientific standards.

It is true that the background radiation leftover from the Big Bang lives with us as a constant reminder of the initial phases of the creation of our universe. But, I would argue, the creative process in which God participates is still with us today. God did not stop creating at the moment of the Big Bang. And in a sense, all that preceded us, including not just the Big Bang but everything that followed it, is still with us in some sense, has left its legacy with the universe. Everything that came before has influenced in some way all that came after. If the world is in constant creation, as I believe it is, then every act of creation is incorporated into every creative act that follows it.

It is therefore not just the case that the echoes of the Big Bang are still with us. Our own legacy lies before us, influenced by every action we make.

My Religious Life

When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to church a lot. Not just Sunday mornings, but sometimes Sunday evenings.

I had a friend, who happened to be a Roman Catholic. I mentioned to him once that I went to my (Protestant) church on Sunday evenings, and he expressed some interest in attending with me. But then I let it be known that I also went to church on Sunday mornings, which he found a little strange. I realized that he probably thought of Sunday evening church as something you did instead of going in the morning.

Lately I've been reflecting a lot on my religious experiences as a teenager. Just before I underwent a crisis of faith at age sixteen, I was more than a little religious. I was a lot religious, although my faith was theologically immature, and somewhat fundamentalist; then again, my theological immaturity was probably matched by my emotional immaturity, which was rather high at that time in my life.

I was already pretty religious by the time I reached my sophomore year in high school, thanks to family influences; but then I had a friend from grade school days whose family had recently transferred from another church to mine, and he was quite active in the church youth group for teens, a group that I had heretofore barely known to have existed. He would participate in the youth group activities that took place on Sunday evenings, and through him I became acquainted with this youth group and started going to Sunday evening services.

I liked the evening services at that church because they seemed to be somewhat less formal and stodgy than those conducted on Sunday mornings, which were so solemn, complete with a minister who droned on like a college professor when he spoke.

My friend once invited me to an autumn leaf raking activity at an old woman's house; the youth group did this one Saturday afternoon as a volunteer activity. I thought it was a great way to participate in an act of Christian charity, so I agreed to participate. How disappointed I was to discover that the young people who did this work earned some kind of "points" by participating; by earning enough points, they could win valuable prizes, or something like that, and apparently that was at least in part the motivation for their participation. I had no idea that there was any selfish aspect to this charity work; I thought they were just doing it because it was a good thing to do.

A little piece of my idealism died when I learned that.

The youth group had a Halloween weekend sleepover in a large cabin somewhere in the woods outside of town, chaperoned by the director of the youth group. I wasn't sure I really wanted to attend, but when I told my mother about it at the last minute she put together a sort of a costume for me to wear and so off I went. We did the usual wholesome church youth group sorts of things--bobbed for apples, told ghost stories. I slept in a sleeping bag, shivering much of the night because I underdressed, wearing a t-shirt in an unheated cabin in late October. I also didn't have a pillow; the next morning I woke up feeling dizzy, apparently from having slept with my head flat on the ground. But it wasn't a miserable experience altogether for me. We held a Sunday morning service. It was outside, as I recall, and we sat there in our blue jeans and autumn coats. A girl who was part of the youth group delivered a sermon based on the love chapter of Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians. I loved this "service" for its informality, in stark contrast to the dullness of what I experienced in normal Sunday services. I loved most of all that I was attending "church" in my blue jeans rather than in a suit and tie.

When I later started having doubts about religion, I had a conversation with the same girl who had delivered that sermon from 1 Corinthians. She was a grade ahead of me in school, I think. I told her about the doubts I had been having, and she gave me her answers, but they were unconvincing to me. I started to say, "The idea of Jesus doing such and such--it..." "Jesus isn't an it,", she replied. Uh, I was talking about the idea of Jesus being an "it", not Jesus himself, I felt like saying, but didn't, because even if she was missing the point, she really wasn't answering any of my other questions to my satisfaction anyway. My doubts about the doctrines of hell and salvation, about the contrast between biblical literalism and science and reason--the answers she gave to me just didn't work. It was shortly after that that I announced to my parents that I had become an atheist.

Before that crisis of faith happened, though, I was religiously active, and not just in my own church. Down the road from my house was a Baptist church that held a Saturday night coffee house for young people. Teenagers sat downstairs on the floor of the coffee house and sang songs and prayed and talked about God and Jesus. There was one guy, who was a couple of years older than me, who played guitar, and he played songs, including at least one that he wrote, that I remember being quite catchy.

My church, which was a restoration movement independent Christian church, was theologically very close to the Southern Baptists on most points. So attending this Baptist coffee house for teenagers wasn't a big deal to me. I also attended Baptist church that sponsored the coffee house at least a couple of times. They might have been evening services--I'm not sure. I remember singing a hymn once and getting my timing off and starting to sing the next verse a little too early, meaning that my own, not very good singing voice was the only one heard, a second or two before the rest of the congregation joined in. I was so embarrassed over that incident that I still haven't gotten over it to this day--when I attend a church, I am afraid that my singing voice, which I am not proud of, will stand out in some way. I also remember once having a conversation after services with the minister, who asked me if I had been baptized. I said yes, I had. He said that he didn't mean to embarrass me by the question. I actually had not been embarrassed; I was proud to say that I was a baptized Christian.

The youth group in my church staged a play my sophomore year. I somehow got stuck with, or maybe volunteered for, a small part that had just one line. I was feeling out of sorts and regretted having taken on even that small part. I didn't feel very accepted in the group. I was kind of nerdy, kind of an outcast, and in addition I was probably having my theological doubts by that point. The day of the play, I tried to get out of doing the one line part. One of the girls in the cast had a phone conversation with me and explained that even though I just had one line that had no importance to the plot, they couldn't do the play without my participation, because it would throw off the cue for the next line. So I went. My mother asked me if I wanted her to come watch. I said no. Before the play started, the girl who had convinced me on the phone to come asked all the boys in the cast, one by one, for a good luck kiss on the cheek. I was embarrassed about doing that, but didn't want to insult her, so I complied along with the others. Immediately after doing that, I was even more embarrassed. During the play, I slightly bungled the line when I delivered it, but apparently not enough to throw off the next actor to speak. After the play, all the cast but me gave each other hugs and were very pleased and excited. I was depressed, feeling completely excluded from that post-performance joy, feeling more alone and excluded from this group than ever.

When in my early twenties, I ran across that girl who had convinced me to participate in the play--she was of course an adult woman at this point. She worked a teller in a bank in my home town. I was living there for about a year after my college graduation. She recognized me, and although she wasn't necessarily terribly friendly--we weren't exactly friends in high school--but she was cordial enough. She asked me if I remembered her. I did, and then said her name--except that I got the last name slightly wrong. Ah, embarrassed again! She corrected me, and added that it wasn't her last name anymore now that he she had married. Many years later--maybe six or seven years ago--I ran across her comments in a class reunion web site message board. She mentioned being divorced. I didn't bother to contact her or respond to anything she wrote. I have no idea if she even still remembers me . I kind of hope not.

When I was in my mid to late twenties, after years of atheism, I got my first inkling that maybe I was more interested in religion than I had realized, when I bought a copy of Elaine Pagels's book The Gnostic Gospels. After a while, I became actively interested in religion, becoming a Quaker in the process. This was more than fifteen years ago. But then, about ten years ago, my interest in religion seemed to die down. Partly this was because I had not found a religious home to suit me after moving to my current California location. It has only been recently that my interest in religion has been rekindled.

And one thing I have realized is that this interest in religion is both deep and persistent. Just going to church on Sunday mornings doesn't entirely satisfy my religious cravings. As when I was a teenager--when I attended church twice a Sunday and went to a Saturday night coffee house and participated in activities of the church youth group--I find myself involved mentally and spiritually in religion more than just on Sunday mornings. That was what brought me to attending a Taize service on a Wednesday night this week. That is why I write a religious blog. That is why I read books on religion almost every day of the week. That is why I study the weekly lectionary readings in advance of the Sunday services. That is why I read other people's religious blogs.

Am I drawn to religion in this constant, persistent way because it fills some kind of emptiness in my soul? Is it a crutch to make up for a life that is missing some kind of complete fulfillment? Or am I drawn to religion in this way because something inside me, something in my upbringing or genes or whatever, has made me at some deeper level a religious person? What has held me back for so many years has been the problem of religious dogma, and finding a religious home. I have suddenly discovered in the past few months, though, that there are pockets of religious liberalism even within the mainline churches, that it is possible to find religious satisfaction in ways that don't force me to check my mind at the church house door. And now that I know this, I find myself deeply craving to experience spirituality, and to connect with God, often.

Maybe this is a passing fancy. The last time I became more spiritually focused, the religion faded away after a while from my life. But the circumstances were a little different, because I was more limited in where I was seeking religious sustenance. I know now that more options are available to me. Where this will all lead, I do not yet know.


I attended a Wednesday night Taizé service tonight at a San Francisco church. It was an amazingly wonderful experience. The service was conducted in candlelight, and included a mixture of singing and readings. The singing was performed by a cantor, who rang out certain repeated phrases in a beautiful voice. The readings included some non-conventional texts, such as a passage from the Q'uran, a paraphrased version of psalm 51 translated by Nan Merrill, and a version of the Lord's Prayer that comes from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer. This version of that prayer is:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be.
Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen
I came away from that service feeling calm and refreshed.