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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A calling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lesson in contrasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tribalism, God, and Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Religious truth

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

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

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

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

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