Why I don't call God "the Lord"

There has been an interesting discussion in another blog over the appropriateness of using the word "Lord" to address or describe God.

It really isn't clear to me why we necessarily need another word for God when we have the word God in the first place. That being said, I admit that sometimes I might use other terminology, such as describing God as simply "the Divine". In a more general terms, I might borrow from Tillich and call God "the Ground of Being". However, those tend to be impersonal; it is difficult to address a prayer to "the Divine", or to begin a prayer with "Dear Ground of All Being". So if we choose to use a different term of address for God, I would prefer to use one that reflects more accurately my understanding of God's nature than the word "Lord" does. In reality, I cringe at the word "Lord"--I don't like it because of what it says about one's conception of God.

The reality is that human understanding of God is necessarily limited and incomplete. Sometimes he best we can do is attempt to get our minds around God through metaphors. In a sense, one could say that the various religions of the world have developed as part of the incomplete and human attempt at understanding God within given cultural and historical contexts--thus we have different religions with different conceptions of God. The English word "Lord" is a clumsy translation from what was written and spoken in the languages of the Bible. Neither Jesus, nor the apostle Paul, nor the writers of the Hebrew Bible ever used the word "Lord". They didn't speak English--the language obviously didn't even exist at the time--so they never could have used that English word. Yet some, even liberal Christians, have justified using the word "Lord" because Jesus or Paul did! To me, that is kind of like the old joke that if the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for us. Obviously, that makes no sense.

English translators from the Middle Ages may have chosen to use a term from the feudal world that they were familiar with. The word "Lord" reflects not only a feudalistic world view, but a sexist and transcendently theistic conception of God. We speak of the "lord of the manor", who is obviously male (the female equivalent would be, of course, the lady of the manor). To lord over someone is to dominate them. What kind of conception of God is it when we use language like that to describe the Divine?

I simply don't view God as not a male authority figure who dispenses favors according to his whims, or who exercises his domineering power to manage or manipulate the world. As a panentheist, I believe that God is a non-authoritarian presence who inhabits the world and who is inhabited by the world. This old concept of the authoritarian, favor-dispensing, omnipotent God who intervenes in nature is what Spong calls a "theistic" conception, rather than a panentheist one.

The use of "Lord" language only reinforces this old stereotype about God that is part of the paradigm that I believe needs to be replaced by a new one. Language does matter. When we use male language about God, we exclude the feminine from our conception of the overwhelmingly fundamental reality of the world, and by extension, we make the feminine gender secondary in how we conceive the world as well. When we use authoritarian language about God, we perpetuate a kind of theism that is meaningless in the context of a modern, rational understanding of the world, and we further perpetuate the idea of authoritarianism as the Ultimate model from which base our human interactions in the world. How can we pursue a world of justice and equality if our concept of the highest and greatest reality of the universe is modeled on an authoritarian image?

I suggest that, as we evolve our conception and understanding of God, it is time to put the Lord language to rest as we build a new paradigm for a religion of the twenty first century.

Thin places

Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, writes about what he calls "thin places". These he describes as "anywhere our hearts are opened." A thin place can be a geographical location, or it can be an activity. I view a thin place as any moment in time in which the boundary between the mundane and the divine for an individual is so thin as to be porous.

Thin places can manifest themselves through those means that humans utilize for mediating the numinous. Perhaps it is often the case that humans cannot directly experience the divine, and thus must rely on means of mediation as their conduit through which the divine is approach; thus they conceive of rituals, modes of worship, meditations, scriptural readings, music, and so on. A thin place can also be a place--a church, a riverbank, a mountaintop.

According to the New Testament, Jesus used the wilderness as a thin place, spending 40 days and nights there. This account also states that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, thus experiencing not just the divine but its very antithesis. The story of Jesus in the wilderness may be mythic, but like many myths it contains certain truths that go beyond the literal description of events. According to this myth, he fasted while he was in the wilderness; perhaps it was a toss up as to whether he was brought closer to God or more distant from the physical suffering that this deprivation caused. The biblical account ultimately assigns Jesus a triumphal role in the wilderness, defeating the temptations brought on during his experience.

Clearly, that New Testament story was meant to illustrate how perfectly Jesus manifested the divine presence within him--a presence that was so strong that he rejected all temptations in favor of living according to that of God within him fully. For most of us ordinary people, though, it is questionable as to whether it is such a good idea to make thin places so difficult. I once hiked alone on a Colorado mountain and wrote my thoughts about God in a notebook; that is as close as I will ever get to the wilderness experience as a thin place.

Perhaps mystics can be defined as simply those who practice the art of nurturing those thin places. Some people can find themselves in the presence of God almost continually in their daily lives. This kind of deep and continuous mysticism is difficult for most of us to achieve.

Borg writes about various forms of worship experience as thin places. Some of the thin places that he lists are "participation in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist", "sermons", "the Bible", "liturgical words", and praying the Lord's prayer. These are clearly Christian thin places. As a religious pluralist, I certainly believe that non-Christian rituals and practices also serve as thin places for the practitioners of other faiths. Borg, as a self-identified Christian, naturally focuses on those that are meaningful to him in his own faith. All of this makes sense to me.

Where I cannot accept Borg's perspective, however, is when he goes so far as to say that "saying the creed together can be a thin place." Borg acknowledges that this is problematic for liberal religionists. Borg admits, "if one thinks that saying the creed commits one's intellect to the propositional (literal?) truth of all its statements, it is impossible for a modern person to do so." Borg, however, claims "affirming all of these to be literally true propositions is not the purpose of saying the creed in the context of worship." In fact, Borg claims that "its primary purpose in worship is not propositional but sacramental: through these clunky words that stumble in the presence of Mystery, God is mediated."

And this is, perhaps, why I cannot, as Borg does, participate in Christian religious services. Borg, as an Episcopalian, somehow manages to reconcile his nonliteral interpretation of the Christian faith with an ability to recite creeds that he admits he does not believe in.

Certainly I understand that one can appreciate, for example, the mythical value of biblical stories without taking them literally. But biblical stories are narratives, and humans have a natural inclination for appreciating the mythical component of narratives. But creeds are not narratives; they are not stories. They are instead affirmations, and affirmations are meant to be taken literally. Their purpose is to state literally a theological doctrine. They exist as a litmus test of orthodoxy. It is one thing to appreciate the Bible on a mythical level; it is another thing altogether to find value in a creed that rings hollow in comparison to one's inner core of belief. I would feel intellectually dishonest in reciting creeds that I didn't believe in.

I am certainly not saying that Borg is intellectually dishonest. He finds value in the creeds in exactly the way that he states--as a means of mediating God, and as a tool by which we "join ourselves with a community that transcends time, all of those centuries of Christians who have heard and said these words."

But I would never choose to restrict myself to joining only with those of a particular faith who recited some set of creedal formulas throughout history--formulas that I reject anyway. I would rather join with the people of all religious faiths throughout history who have striven in their all too human way to understand God or some Ultimate Reality by another name--Christians, Jews, Muslims, Bahais, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. I would also prefer to join not just with the historical community of orthodox Christians, but those early Christian heretics--the Gnostics, the Ebionites, the Marcionites--who rejected the very dogmas of these same creeds, but who nevertheless had just as much right to call themselves Christians. By associating myself with these creeds, I am associating myself with the intolerance that characterized orthodoxy in the early years of Christianity--an intolerance that silenced these alternative Christian voices to the point where only one brand of Christianity got to call itself "orthodox".

I am certainly in favor of appreciating the Christian tradition as the one with which we are the most comfortable, and thus using the Christian myths as a starting point for mediating the numinous. But, in my religious expression, I can only do so if I fully recognize at all times that these are myths. Reciting creeds that I don't accept as literally true for one second crosses a line from recognition of myths towards acceptance of creeds. And given that these same creeds are the basis from which so much intolerance and hostility towards religious pluralism emanates--it is simply impossible for me to incorporate them into my own thin places.

This explains a great deal of the difference between my own perspective and that of Marcus Borg. While I think that his ideas are extremely valuable as a means of incorporating a modern sensibility into a Western religious tradition, from my own perspective Borg ultimately blinks when it comes to the point of making a leap into the unknown. He prefers to remain in his own Christian religious community while hoping to reform it. Certainly that is his right; as a person of faith he is justified in participating in a religous community that works best for his needs, and as a religious pluralist I would never take that away from him. But I would rather make that bold leap into something new. What I refer to as a "post-Christian" religious tradition may have to make the same sort of break from Christianity that Christianity made from Judaism. Trying to shoehorn a new paradigm into an old theology can only go so far. Just as Christianity used the scriptures and some of the concepts of Judaism as a starting point for its own theology and practices, a post-Christian religion can use the Christian scriptures and some of its concepts as its own starting point.

I can only break free from the old paradigm, I believe, if I break free from the old religion entirely. Unlike Christianity a post-Christian paradigm makes no claims to having discovered a kind of absolute truth; rather it claims only to offer a new approach to understanding the same basic Ultimate reality that other religions have also sought to understand. Because it is grounded in a pluralistic and universalist theology, it doesn't see other religions as wrong, but as merely other parts of the great human endeavor to discover God; and this paradigm accepts that even its own understanding is necessarily incomplete. That means, of course, that the old Christian paradigms are also incomplete, just as our own new post-Christian paradigm is incomplete. But that isn't the point. I don't criticize Christianity (or any other religion), but rather simply find it inadequate for my own spiritual needs and my modern understanding of the world, and am thus unable to experience it and its creeds honestly. I wish those well who find solace and comfort in the Christian creeds--or in Jewish practices, or the Five Pillars of Islam. The point is that none of those old methods work for me now, and I believe that we have achieved a level of spiritual understanding that requires something different.

Denominational splits

It only took one day for the fallout to begin in response to the decision by the Episcopal church to select a woman to head their church. The Ft. Worth Texas diocese has voted to terminate its affiliation with the Episcopal church and seek an affiliation elsewhere within the Anglican Communion.

On the one hand, this division between misogynistic and progressive visions of that church represents a microcosm of the deep and essentially irreconcilable divisions that exist between the two paradigms of Christianity that individuals like Matthew Fox have written about. Splits like these are, in my view, inevitable. They may be painful to those who are loyal to their denominations, but I actually think that they could, in a best case scenario, represent a positive first step towards a possible realignment in Western religion. It all depends on whether there are progressive forces in Christianity who are willing to take this process to its logical next steps.

It is interesting to compare how the Episcopal Church is moving towards progressive reform, when the Catholic Church, which shares the Episcopalian belief in apostolic tradition, is stuck in a hopelessly reactionary time warp. The apostolic tradition, which claims that the present church bishops represent an unbroken line of authority going all the way back to the 12 apostles, presents a conundrum for lay people who hope to reform a church, since this means of organization has an inherently authoritarian nature. Under this kind of church government, the authority of the bishops comes not from the membership, but instead acts as its own authority, claiming that its authority comes from God. In the case of the Catholic Church, the hierarchy is now tightly controlled by a pope who carefully appoints reactionary church leaders who think like he does, thus effectively blocking reform now and possibly forever. In the case of the Episcopalian church, progressive bishops arose into positions of authority and were able to institute progressive reforms, both in church policy (by appointing women and gays as priests, for example) and in theology (as in the case of John Shelby Spong.)

The reality is that the progressive nature of recent reforms in the Episcopal church depended on the good graces of those in authority to do the right thing. In the case of the Catholic Church, those good graces are obviously missing. But, in my view, a post-Christian religion should not rely on the good graces of those in authority, but instead, the authority of the church should rest in its congregation.

The question arises as to how to avoid unchecked abuses to arise within a church once you allow each denomination to do whatever it wants. Jim Jones, for example, arose within a church that had no bishops, which vested all of its authority within the denomination. Does this then prove that churches require higher level authority to help regulate their behavior? That is a difficult question to answer, but I think it is worth pointing out that his denomination was his private fiefdom, and did not represent an example of denominational authority being vested in its membership; rather, it was really vested within one charismatic individual, namely Jim Jones.

Quakers, who themselves have undergone several splits within the US, have historically dealt with this question of authority by placing a strong emphasis on its religious culture and its traditions. Those who attend Quaker meetings are quickly immersed in the culture of Quakerism, which appears frequently in the words that are spoken in Quaker meetings for worship. Quaker culture includes its cultural myths, and Quakers often appeal to these myths to justify their actions. For example, there is the story of James Naylor, an early Quaker who was seen as having "gone too far" in his religious zeal, and is cited as an example of the careful balance that Quakers must maintain between individual interpretation of the Light of God and the group dynamic of Quakerism.

You can never, I believe, prevent anyone or any denomination from going off its own way in unpredictable ways. Yet, in general, creedless denominations like Quakerism, Unitarian Universalism, and even Southern Baptists have all managed to maintain their unique cultures, thanks to a group dynamic that exists within each denomination. Within each of these denominations, we have seen historical shifts in theology, as well as disagreements and even divisions within their memberships.

In theory, there is nothing that can prevent a post-Christian movement from undergoing its own splits, divisions, and disagreements. The balance between loyalty and the preservation unity on the one hand, and the different directions that members will inevitably take on the other hand, often seems to be a difficult one to maintain.

Can a post-Christian movement evolve and grow and avoid these problems? Perhaps not. One advantage that a post-Christian theology may have over some denominations is its commitment to a belief in religious pluralism and a belief in combining rational thought with religious expression. In a post-Christian theology, it is not claimed that it is offering an absolute truth, but rather that it is offering one means to communing with the Divine--not the only one, but one that works for us. It accepts that its symbols and myths are just that. Splitting theological hairs over how many angels can dance on the head of pin is unlikely in such an environment.

Would a post-Christian movement have to invent its own symbols, its own means of worship, and its governance? Yes, of course. But such symbols, myths, means of worship, and governances would derive from the membership itself. It would not rely on the good graces of a hierarchy to push along the evolution of its faith. And it would have the benefit of thousands of years of mistakes of Christianity and other religions to help guide it along.

UU Christians

There is an organization within Unitarian Universalism called the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF). At one time, I had heard or read somewhere that about 10% of Unitarians consider themselves Christians. I don't know if that figure is still accurate; more interestingly, the question arises as to how they define "Christianity"--how does it differ from the Christianity of liberal mainline denominations from, for example, the United Church of Christ?

In general, my guess is that the answer differs from person to person, but it would seem that most UU Christians probably reject out of hand the trinitarian language found in mainline churches. Perhaps many as well reject other aspects of Christian language or Christian dogma found in such churches. Perhaps UU Christians are attracted to the openness and lack of dogma that characterizes the UU church. In order to find answers to these questions, I have begun taking a look at the book Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism, just published and available from the UUA online bookstore.

Some UU Christians in that book and elsewhere may use stronger Jesus-language than I admit to being comfortable with. Some even talk about him as their "Lord and Savior"--words I would never choose to use myself. Others may choose a different way of expressing their understanding of Christianity.

I remember years ago, while a regular attender of a UU church in Colorado that was searching for a new full time minister, hearing that some members of the congregation were not happy when a visiting minister used Christian language of some sort during a sermon. The details of the incident escape me now, but I remember being appalled at the time that a church that freely borrowed from other religions wasn't allowed to borrow from Christianity. This was the kind of intolerance that is sometimes found within UUism. I am sure that this is not true in all UU churches, but it appears that it does exist in some locations.

I took a look at the web site of my local UU denomination. It has a page that lists committees and organizations. The list is pretty long, and includes the a host of social justice committees, as well as the Covenant of UU Pagans; but I saw no mention whatsoever of the UUCF. Whether that was an oversight or not isn't clear, but it does suggest that perhaps at my local UU church, you can be a UU pagan but not a UU Christian; at the very least, this denomination may be lacking in any kind of interest in liberal Christianity--whatever that might mean.

"The Most Divisive Issue For America Today"

Senator John Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, gave a speech at the Episcopal Church's convention in Columbus, Ohio, in which he complained about the recent controversies within that denomination on issues relating to homosexuality. Danforth said,

"If the Episcopal church decides that what it is really into is latching on to the most divisive single issue for America today, focusing on that issue as hard ... as we can, then we'll splinter and we'll be even smaller in number than we are now. Then we are going to be viewed by the rest of the country as irrelevant.
I can't help but wonder what kind of speech Danforth would have given at a convention of an American church in the 1850s that debated the subject of slavery. This idea that a church should not tackle an important issue of social justice simply because it might split the church strikes me as an argument for moral cowardice. In fact, American churches did undergo splits prior to the civil war on the issue of slavery--including the Baptists and Presbyterians. How does history judge those churches that refused to take stands against slavery at the time? And what should the voices of conscience done back then--should they have refused to oppose slavery out of fear of splitting their churches?

Relevancy isn't necessarily tied to the size of a church. Some denominations have exerted influence beyond their size--Quakers, for example, have always been a small denomination but have often exerted considerable moral influence on social issues throughout American history. (Ironically, two of the three main Quaker denominations, the Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International, have taken bigoted stands against homosexual rights--which stands in stark contrast to the traditional Quaker opposition to slavery during the 19th century and the Quaker support for the interests of oppressed minorities. Fortunately, other Quakers, mostly found in the Friends General Conference, have taken a more enlightened view on this subject.)

The question of whether Episcopalians should be willing to risk a split over a social justice issue gets to the heart of whether it makes sense for reform-minded people of a denomination to try to pursue reconciliation with the more conservative forces within their churches. This desire to hold the denomination together, when opposite forces are clearly sharing the same denominational roof, has not made sense to me.

In Matthew Fox's book A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity, he asks the rhetorical question "Two Christianities: Time for a Divorce"? Fox is writing from his perspective as a former Catholic who was hounded out of that church by it reactionary inquisition (which was headed up by the man who is now the pope, Cardinal Ratzinger). Fox compares the two kinds of Christianity that are at conflict:
One worships a Punitive Father and teaches the doctrine of Original Sin. It is patriarchal in nature, links readily to fascist powers of control, and demonizes women, the earth, other species, science, and gays and lesbians. It builds on fear and supports empire building.

The other Christianity recognizes the Original Blessing from which all being derives. It recognizes awe, rather than sin and guilt, as the starting point of true religion. It thus marvels at today's scientific findings about the wonders of the universe that has brought our being into existence and the wonders of our special home, the earth. It prefers trust over fear and an understanding of a divinity who is source of all things, as much mother as father, as much female as male. It is an emerging "woman church" that does not exclude men, and tries to consider the whole earth as a holy temple. Because it honors creation, it does not denigrate what creation has accomplished, which includes the 8 percent of the human population that is gay or lesbian and those 464+ other species with gay and lesbian populations. It considers evil to be a choice that we make as humans--one that separates us from our common good--and that we can unmake.
How can such radically different traditions coexist within the same churches? It makes no sense to me, and it appears that it makes no sense to Fox either. He concludes:
For some time, Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, have been trying to coexist within these two traditions. But with world developments being what they are--with the buttressing of the American empire under George Bush by fundamentalist ideology and religious forces, with "faith-based communities" encroaching on the principle of separation of church and state, with the ignoring of issues of poverty and economic justice, it is time to separate these two versions of Christianity.
I believe that only by building a new religious movement, not constrained by a need to compromise with the Old Paradigm for the sake of holding together a divided denomination, can the New Paradigm flourish. It is time for the New Reformation to take hold.

A New Reformation

In my previous post, I cited the 12 theses that John Spong proposed for what he calls a New Reformation of Christianity. Spong isn't the only one who uses that term. Matthew Fox also does, and in fact his most recent book is titled, A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity. Fox includes in his book slightly more than 12 theses--95, to be exact. From what I can tell, on the other hand, Marcus Borg seems to prefer to talk about a paradigm shift rather than specifically making a reference to the Reformation.

What these three individuals have in common is a desire to transform the Christian religious tradition into a new set of traditions. Where Borg and Fox seem to differ is that while Fox seems to be calling for a break between those who espouse the Old Christianity and the New one, Borg seems more inclined to try to find some basis of reconciliation and common ground between the two Christianities.

I think that Fox's viewpoint makes more sense. It isn't clear to me how any kind of reconciliation between such fundamentally different theologies can take place. It is worth remembering that the Protestant reformation was less a reformation of the existing Church than a split from it, and the differences between the New Christianity of the 21st century and the Old Christianity of the past is, I believe, far greater in scope. Borg is right, though, that what we are talking about is a paradigmn shift--and the new paradigm is simply incompatible with the old one.

Do New Christians want to continue to associate with religious bodies that continue to embrace rationally untenable positions on the Bible, the nature of God, homosexuality, and a host of other matters?

John Spong's theses for a New Reformation

John Spong has issued a "Call for a New Reformation", which is available on his web site. This includes 12 theses. I agree 100% with each of these. The theses are as follows:

  1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
  2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
  3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
  4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
  5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
  6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
  7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
  8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
  9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
  10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
  11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
  12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

Social Justice

In the summary of my religious beliefs that I posted earlier, I included the following comment:

The religious life also includes the pursuit of social justice, which implies a belief in making the world a more just, more loving place. That means living one's life on behalf of poor, the oppressed, the suffering, and the downtrodden.
This statement was placed within a long list of theological statements, which might give the incorrect impression that it is not of great importance to my religion. In fact, I believe that this element of religion is absolutely essential.

When examining various religious communities, I think it is important to consider how that community views its social mission, if at all. Many religions have charities or service organizations. There are, for example, many Catholic charities. The Quaker faith has the American Friends Service Committee, a famous organization that won a Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian and war relief efforts. The UU church has the Unitarianian Universalist Service Committee. Various local churches, such as San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church, sees its charity work as an essential part of its mission.

But charity and relief work can only treat the symptoms of social injustice. A commitment to social justice goes further than that; it necessarily seeks to overturn the causes of the problem. It means becoming active politically. And many denominations and individual people of faith have been committed to opposing war, racism, and poverty at the institutional level. For over 350 years, for example, Quakers have been at the forefront of social change, including but not limited to fighting for the abolition of slavery, for women's rights, for prison reform, and so on.

To me, any religious community without a commitment to social justice as an inherent part of its mission is, necessarily, stillborn. It is a stale and useless religion that does not seek to make the world a better place. I say this because I believe quite firmly that we reveal our relationship to God through our service to the community and by working to make a better world.

I would like to stay positive in this blog, and although it isn't really my purpose here to criticize other religious denominations, I do want to cite two examples of religious communities that I feel do not match my own conception of a religious mission of social justice, which is why, in my various searches for religious communities, I felt that they didn't suit what I was looking for.

The first example comes from the world of New Thought religions (this includes Divine Science, Unity, and Religious Science.). Some religious communities seem to be mostly about "me" and simply don't bother with a broader social mission, and I think that this seems to characterize much of New Thought religion. These denominations emphasize personal prosperity as one of the chief goals of their religious faith--not just monetary prosperity, but all the ways that an individual can prosper, although monetary prosperity is certainly a component of that. I will concede that I think that New Thought denominations can have some value to many people in their emphasis on "me"--particularly as it pertains to giving people the ability to live life confidently, which New Though promotes with its use of such things as daily affirmations. I am not against self-fulfillment or confident, positive living; I just think that New Thought overemphasizes this to the expense of a broader focus on the community.

I can't help but notice, by the way, that these religions typically preach that an individual can achieve greater prosperity by contributing more money to the church. In fact, the churches often seems to take on a life of their own and only exist in order to serve themselves. It is my impression that the kinds of service that some of these churches expect their members to provide are first and foremost not to the community at large, but to itself. That isn't to say that I think church members should not contribute their energies to the life of their church--of course they should. But I believe that there has to be an outward focus as an essential component of religious participation.

My other example comes from an offshoot of Unitarian Univeralism. A group of Unitarians--and I have no idea how big this group is--who wanted to place greater emphasis on Christianity formed a group called the American Unitarian Conference. Reviewing its web page shows that one of its goals is to divorce Unitarian religion from politics altogether. While it is true that religious people can disagree with one another on many of the details of politics and social issues, I don't agree with the principle of divorcing religion from politics altogether.

As the Jewish prophet Amos once said, "Let justice flow down like waters." The great religions have always called for a commitment to social justice. This includes, but goes way beyond, the mere giving of alms. Islam, for example, has always placed great emphasis on alms for the disadvantaged--in fact, the zakat, or giving of alms, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Judaism has always had a strong commitment to alms, and Christianity has a tradition of alms giving as well. But I believe we can reveal the divine ourselves not just by giving alms, but by seeking to transform the world to one of equality, justice, and human liberation.

Religious Evolution

I've been reading Reza Aslan's history of Islam, No god but God, and I was interested to read his comments about what happened in the development of that religion after the death of Muhammed. Aslan points out:

...[T]here can be no doubt that Islam was still in the process of defining itself when Muhammed died. By 632, the Quran had neither been written down nor collected, let alone canonized. The religious ideals that would become the foundation of Islamic theology existed only in the most rudimentary form. The questions of proper ritual activity or correct legal and moral behavior were, at this point, barely regulated; they did not have to be. Whatever questions one had--whatever issue was raised either through internal conflict or as a result of foreign contact--any confusion whatsoever could simply be brought before the Prophet for a solution. But without Muhammed around to elucidate the will of God, the Ummah was left with the nearly impossible task of figuring out what the Prophet would have said about an issue or a problem.
I believe his passage reveals some of the problems that arise within any religious community.

The point that Islam was still in the process of evolution after the death of its founder relates very much to the fact that Christianity also underwent evolution--considerable evolution--after the death of Jesus. The Christian community had no canon for several generations after the death of Jesus, and in fact there wasn't just one Christianity, but several--including but not limited to the Ebionites, Marcionites, and Gnostics, and, of course, the version of Christianity that won out over all the others when the dust settled and got to call itself "orthodox". Even the New Testament itself shows some of this evolution in Christianity, from the earliest Gospel of Mark, in all its bare simplicity, to the elaborate Christology of the Gospel of John. Through all of this, Christianity had to work out for itself what became its normative standards of theology and practice. Islam, as we can see, also had to do the same thing.

The battles between competing factions in an emerging religion may have involved all sorts of agendas--personal, political, as well as theological. Who ended up the winners and losers may have had less to do with God's will than with the politics of the time. And, of course, the big question posed in the last sentence of the passage that I quoted above is one that all religions have to face--how to discern the will of God?

It is not an easy question to answer. To me, the history of the world's great religions exposes humanity's struggle to discern the will of God. The great prophets of the world initiated, either willingly or not, some kind of paradigm shift among their followers. But it was then up to the followers to try to make sense of the new paradigm. I say "willingly or not" because while Muhammed was self-consciously a prophetic voice of a new religion, the same was not necessarily true of Jesus. Jesus was a devout Jew, who did not in his life time found a new religion per se; I believe, and I think that serious (that is to say, non-fundamentalist) scholars also believe, that in the case of Christianity, the new religion that emerged after his death went much farther than what he himself preached, and it made statements about his nature and role that he himself did not make. So in a sense, Christianity went much further on an evolutionary path after the death of its founder than Islam did. Yet, regardless of that difference, the point remains that both religions were faced with the difficulties of sustaining a new movement after its founder died.

Perhaps, for the times and places and cultures that these two religions emerged, what happened was inevitable. The codification of dogmas surrounding practice and belief may have been the only possible directions that these religions could take. But in the modern era, the question that I have is whether it is possible for a liberal religion to steer a middle way between dogma on the one hand and a lack of any kind of faith commonality on the other. Going back to the example of Unitarian Univeralism (an example I go back to because it is the prime example of modern religious liberalism as it is most commonly practiced in the US), was it perhaps inevitable that, once creeds were stripped from it, that it would move in the direction that it did, where such an amazing diversity of theologies and beliefs fell under its broad umbrella of practice?

There are other creedless denominations besides Unitarian Univeralism. Quakers, the other faith I know the most about, have traditionally eschewed creeds; what has held Quakerism together has been, perhaps, a commitment to its traditions. Quakers also span a broad spectrum of belief, and not all Quakers are Christians, although most are. Quakers have also split into several groupings, ranging from the conservative quasi-Protestant fundamentalist Evangelical Friends International to the (generally) very liberal Friends General Conference, with the Friends United Meeting being somewhere in between. The tension between these different strands within Quakerism have indeed been the source of conflict over the years. But, for the most part, it has been possible for Quakers of various stripes to hold to their traditions while maintaining a creedless stance.

The reality is that within any denomination, you are going to find at least some disagreement. This is healthy. It makes no sense for a religious liberal to expect other religious liberals to share a kind of theological conformity. But this question of whether you can have a balance between these two tendencies--religious liberalism, while still maintaining some kind of broad commonality of outlook and faith--is a big one for me. Religion as the flawed product of flawed human beings trying in their flawed way to understand God will inevitably produce false starts, disagreements, conflicts. Religious endeavors, like so many human enterprises, have a funny way of taking on their own momentum. And if a religion believes, as I do, in the principle of continuous relevation, then it must by definition evolve over time as the community struggles with new developments, new theologies, new circumstances--and new revelations.

So what keeps people together within a denomination? What makes a religious community? What is the glue that keeps the community members from sticking together despite whatever differences they might have?

Does it make any sense to speculate about the existence of some hypothetical "dream religion"? If I were able to wave my magic wand and create a new religious community of people who were drawn together by the ideas of Spong, Borg, and others, what would come of such a community? Would it measure up to my expectations? Would I find, against my wishes, that it would evolve in certain directions that I disagreed with? Would I be just as dissatisfied with the results of such an endeavor as I have been with those religious communities that already exist?

Religious Community

What I feel at this point in my life is the absence of a religious community in which I can share, with others having a similar theology to my own, the process of spiritual development.

As I mentioned in my introductory posting, Unitarian Universalism doesn't quite suit what I am looking for. UUism is a religion of seekers, where the process of seeking is more important than a common set of beliefs. I certainly respect that, and I think that a religious community should be open to seeking as part of its reason for existence, lest the religion become ossified by dogma. But by the same token, there is simply too broad a range of views within UUism, and this means a lack of the kind of focus that I would wish to have. I am not particularly interested in paganism or Buddhism, for example; they are fine religions for others, but they aren't what I seek from a church. Yet UU services often incorporate many religious traditions, including those that don't interest or inspire me.

What I want is something grounded in the Christian tradition, but which is more post-Christian than Christian. In terms of doctrine, it means rejecting the literal truth of the Bible, rejecting Trinitarian dogma, rejecting intercessionary prayer, and moving beyond a stale repetition of the traditional rituals of Christianity such as baptism. Instead, it looks towards communion with the Divine, using the Christian tradition as a starting point, not because it represents any kind of absolute truth, but because that is the tradition that we are most comfortable with and thus it provides us the easiest way to mediate our experiences of God. It means looking towards Jesus, not as a member of some Triune God whom we must worship, but as a human being in history who lived in a close relationship with God and who thus revealed something important about the divine life, and who inspired traditions that we still carry with us in our heart even if we reject the doctrines that arose around his life by later generations of followers.

What I seek is a kind of modern Unitarian Univeralism, not the intellectually-tinged "we believe in at most one God" of the modern American Unitarian Univeralist denomination, but rather a religion that believes in God which is a unity rather than a Trinity, and one that is Universalist in the sense of believing that no one religion has a monopoly on truth. It would be a religion that fully embraces a belief in God, and which does not reject intellectualism but which aspires to achieve at the same time a spiritual experience out of Sunday services, and which seeks to extend that spiritualism throughout our lives beyond the Sunday service.

Most importantly, what I miss is a commonality of purpose. While UU churches have a commonality of tolerance and a commonality of seeking, what I want is a commonality of faith, and UUism isn't about that. Oddly enough, many religious liberals, the John Shelby Spongs of the world, who might share my viewpoints remain within mainline denominations, and are apparently untroubled by the traditional language and rites, or the fact that these denominations contain conservative elements who have radically different theologies than their own. They perhaps seek to reform their own denominations, or maybe they don't mind the diversity of such radical proportion that exists within their denominations. But for me, none of it makes sense. So many denominations are aligned according to allegiances based factors that go beyond theological agreement. I would love to see a real reformation of modern religion, in which religious liberals from a whole variety of denominations reorganized themselves into a new, modern religious community, and left the religious conservatives to their own devices. Let them have their old Christian denominations; let others build a new one, based on a reformed understanding of God and a theology that reflects a new paradigm about God, Jesus, and the world. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem likely to happen. Which leaves me with the question of how I can satisfy my own spiritual cravings.

The General Tenets of My Religion

I don't have a name for my religion. This is a first pass at expressing the broad theological tenets of what I believe:


There exists an ultimate reality that is greater than the objective, tangible world that we experience. This reality encompasses the world that we sense; the world is contained within it. But this reality also transcends the world. This reality, which is the foundation of existence, and which underlies all of reality, is God.

What is God's nature? God is infinite, and both all-loving and all-knowing. God's actions with respect to our world do not consist of interventions by dint of external force, but rather of continual inspiration for every creature and every component of the world to fulfill their greatest potentials. For us, that includes fulfilling our potentials as fully loving human beings. God's role in creation has always been one of inspiring its unfolding evolution, from the time the universe began up to and including the evolution of life on this planet. God and the universe are thus co-creators of the present world.


There is a measure of the divine in every human being, which some might call a divine spark or an Inner Light. The purpose of religion is to nurture the religious life; the religious life consists of living in accordance with the divine presence that exists within us. This divine presence that we all share manifests itself to varying degrees among different people. Some individuals throughout history have lived so closely attuned to the divine presence that they provided an illustration to others of how to live the religious life, which is to say how to live in the constant presence of God. Jesus was one such individual, but there were many others in the course of history. Many of those who manifested their relationship with the divine acted prophetically in word or deed.


God's infinite nature is difficult for humans to grasp. Our understanding of God is often flawed, and inevitably limited by the culture and the historical era in which we live. Different religions have emerged over history as human, and therefore limited, attempts at understanding God.

Revelation is a continuous process. All individuals are capable of communicating with God and thus receiving divine inspiration. However, because of the inherent limitations of human understanding, revelation is also a flawed process, filtered by the noise of culture, history, and personal biases. Religious communities can both act to nurture continuing revelation and can serve as a check on the unbridled excesses that mask as divine revelation. There is therefore a give and take between individuals and their religious communities as they seek to develop their understandings of God.

Unfortunately, as many religious communities develop canonical scriptures, rituals, and theologies, the limited truths that their foundational revelatory experiences and prophetic leaders expressed about God often became codified into dogma, thus choking the very process of revelation that led to the founding of those religions in the first place. All the mistakes and the human flaws that undergirded earlier revelation before thus left intact, preventing their continuing evolution by religious communities. Despite this ossification of religious revelation, the underlying value of these religions lies not in their dogmas but in their abilities to serve as means for their adherents to discover the religious life and therefore develop their relationships with the divine. Thus, despite the dogmatism of many religions, among their adherents can be found many who have, through their religions, become deeply connected with the Divine in the course of their lives.


Scriptures represent not the words of God, but the words of human beings. They are the expression of the attempts by people and their religious communities at understanding God. They should always be understood in their historical contexts, and are valuable as a historical record of the normative foundations of religious paradigms. Scriptures help religious communities because, by passing on earlier attempts at understanding God, new generations have something to build on, and don't need to rebuild their religions from scratch. In this way, continuing revelation can lead to newer, more fully developed insights about the nature of God and our relationship with the Divine.

Religious Practices

God does not impose rituals upon human beings. Rites and practices, such as baptism, kosher diets, or a pilgrimage to Mecca, are human institutions, not instituted by God. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are useless. Such practices often have great significance for those who carry them out, as they are often useful for individuals as a means of mediating their relationship to God.

We pray to God to be in his/her presence. Intercessionary prayer is not effective.

The Religious Life

To live the religious life, one must live according to our divinely inspired potential. That means, first and foremost, living a life of universal love.

The religious life also includes the pursuit of social justice, which implies a belief in making the world a more just, more loving place. That means living one's life on behalf of poor, the oppressed, the suffering, and the downtrodden.

The religious life is not generally dependent on following specific rules about one's personal lifestyle. It doesn't necessarily mean following absolute strictures about sexual morality or other supposed vices. God expects us to live our lives in the most loving way possible, which also means tolerance for other people's personal lifestyle choices, as long as those choices do no harm to others. God wants us to fulfill our own potentials and to encourage others to fulfill their own potentials as well.


Religious is completely consistent with scientific knowledge, and it accepts the findings of science, including evolutionary biological science.

The Purpose of Religion

Religion isn't about being "saved" or having a desirable afterlife. The purpose of religion is to live the religious life, to be in communion with God during the course of our lives. If there is an afterlife, its nature is probably unknowable to us; it is better to focus on how we can best fulfill the potentials that God asks of us in the here and now, and let the afterlife take care of itself.

A Starting Point

When I was in my 20s, I reacquainted myself with the idea of being religious. I had been raised in a conservative Protestant church, and by age 16 I had pointedly rejected not only the religion I was brought up in, but all religions. Yet, there I was, 27 or 28, tentatively seeking some kind of spirituality. It would have to be a spirituality free of the religious dogma of my youth, so I felt myself initially interested in the possibility of Unitarian Universalism. Yet even the idea of going to a UU church was a little frightening to me--it seems ridiculous now, but at the time I was afraid that even UU services might be too religious. On the other hand, some small bit of religiosity was oddly novel and appealing to me. Sunday after Sunday, I would think about attending a UU church service in Cincinnati, where I was working at the time, or maybe Indianapolis, which was mainly the place I called home. I finally found a notice in the newspaper that a small UU fellowship in Indianapolis was having a guest speaker for its Sunday services--the head of the Indiana chapter of the ACLU. That seemed good enough for me.

Much to my relief at the time, the service wasn't particularly religious. I can still recall the speaker making a funny comment about being being asked about whether his views concerning the ACLU had changed after having been the victim of a mugging. His response was, "No, I was against crime before I was mugged, and I still am." After the service, I met with several of the attenders and found them friendly, and I was interested enough to want to attend again. But, as it turned out, I was about to move out of state for good, and I never went back.

In Colorado, I began attending services regularly. In reality, this novel idea of reconnecting with religion, even in this vague Unitarian sort of way, was so compelling to me that I looked forward to each Sunday. After a while, I began taking classes towards the goal of joining the church, but at some point I backed out. I somehow didn't feel quite at home in that congregation. It is true that I was drawn to the idea of UUism as a process of self discovery and seeking, an idea reinforced after having read the book "Challenge of a Liberal Faith" by George Marshall, which is considered the main introduction to the Unitarian Universalist religion. At that point in my life, that was what I needed--something that gave primacy to seeking rather than dogma. Yet, at the same time, I felt I needed something a little more spiritually focused. I was caught between on the one hand a desire to commune with God, and on the other a feeling that I simply could not accept any religious dogma, especially not Christian dogma. I couldn't bring myself to go to most Christian services, although I frequently read books on Christianity as well as Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. I discussed Christianity with liberal Christians on the computer network where I worked (I worked for a computer company that had intranet message boards, long before anybody heard of the World Wide Web, and such discussions were thus possible at that time for me.) I bought and read books of theology and books on the historical Jesus. I read the Bible. The symbols and canon of Christianity were most familiar to me--they were most like home--and yet I couldn't buy the dogma.

The "dogma", in this case, represented a variety of concepts that I simply could not accept. These ideas that I rejected included the doctrine of the Trinity (which I considered an illogical conception of God); divine ominipotence (which both defies any rational understanding of how the world operates and which makes no sense in the face of earthy evil); the resurrection and the virgin birth; intercessionary prayer (as opposed to prayer for the sake of communing with God); and an emphasis on an afterlife or on salvation.

At about this time, however, I found myself drawn towards the possibility of liberal Quakerism as the means of satisfying my needs I began attending the small Quaker meeting in Colorado, originally with the idea of alternating every other week between attending the Quaker meeting and UU church services, but ultimately I found the Quaker meeting more spiritual--and it had other advantages. The first time I went to that meeting, I was as nervous and uncertain as I had been the first time I went to a UU service. Perhaps one thing that kept me going as well was that its smallness made for an appealing environment where I could be noticed and make a difference. And also the meeting was not particularly Christ-centered, even if some of its members did consider themselves Christian. I also felt closely aligned with many Quaker values concerning social justice and pacifism. I subscribed to Quaker magazines, bought copies of Pendle Hill pamphlets, became extremely active in the local meeting. It seemed like a good fit.

Yet, I eventually left the state of Colorado for Massachusetts, and then I moved on again to California, and somehow in all that moving about I found myself drifting away from Quakerism. Maybe I realized at some point that the lack of much explicit Christ-centeredness in that I found in my first local meeting wasn't necessarily characteristic of all parts of the greater Quaker body, and I felt that there was a tension between these tendencies that made it difficult for me to fully express my own liberal brand of spirituality. Or maybe I just couldn't find a meeting in California that felt like a new home for me.

So where does that leave me today? I have read books by theologians whom I admire greatly--people like John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg, or, to a lesser extent, Matthew Fox. These writers "speak to my condition", to use a Quaker turn of phrase. Yet they are Christian reformists, who belong to Christian denominations and participate in Christian church services. As much as I admire the ideas of these individuals, I cannot participate, as they do, in church services that are steeped in Trinitarian theology and which use the language and symbols of Christian traditions that I simply could not accept. It was wonderful that the Episcopalian Church was broad enough in its theological tolerance that someone like John Shelby Spong could be a bishop; but this same church also had other leaders who came from a quite different, more traditionalist perspective. Being in a church where I would have to constantly defend and justify my right to participate there against attacks from its theological right wing just didn't seem very appealing to me. While I understand that there is a concept that many faithful have of loyalty to a given denomination that allows one to continue to participate as an active member despite the problems--this is a phenomenon we see, for example, with feminist Catholics who grew up in that religion and have to deal with that Church's entrenched patriarchy and sexism--I simply have no basis for such loyalty to a denomination that I have no personal history with. And in any case, perhaps because I did small bit of shopping around before I landed in Quakerism's lap, the idea of this kind of loyalty to a disfunctional religious denomination doesn't really suit my personality.

Perhaps it was just as well that I spent my late twenties and early thirties exploring spirituality in ways that involved a lot of seeking, and in that sense Unitarian Universalism was a good step to take towards that goal. I had a lot of baggage at the time to deal with, and I needed to be free to explore religion and to allow the old scabs of a fundamentalist upbringing heal, without the fear of dogma hanging over my head like a dark rain cloud. And then, after I got past that, maybe it was good to step back for a decade or so and let it all simmer for a while. I had , perhaps, to better understand my own spiritual needs. But now I am again wishing to find some kind of spirituality in my life. And once again, the old conundrums have arisen, as I try to figure out how I can find spiritual community, and how I can find a relationship with the Divine--in a religious life that is intellectually viable without resorting to stale intellectualism, that is spiritually alive without being an empty and anti-intellectual New Age spiritualism, and that is grounded in the Christian religious traditions of the West without the baggage of Christian dogma. It's a tall order to fill. My exploration of this topic is the subject of this blog.