The Cosmos and Religion

On my way to church this morning, I happened to catch part of the NPR show "To the Best of Our Knowledge". I was interested to hear that the topic of the show was the relationship of science and religion, in particular science and cosmology--a subject that has been of great interest to me since childhood. I only caught part of the show, and I had to park the car and make into the church before services start, so I missed most of it during the broadcast this morning, but thanks to the miracle of the World Wide Web, I was able to listen to a recording of the broadcast on the program's web site. The entire show, which is a little less than an hour long, consists of three general segments, and featured discussions with several authors.

Among the topics covered, the first segment included an interview with Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams, co-authors of the book The View from the Center of the Universe. It appeared from listening to what they said that they were suggesting that, after a few post-Copernican centuries in which humans have been dethroned from their primary position at the center of the universe, the laws of physics argue for the importance of human life in a way that puts us up front and center once again, even if not literally in the sense of a physical "center". This seems at first glance like an expression of the Anthropic Principle, but without reading the book I am not sure. But it does sound interesting.

The third segment included a conversation with Daniel Matt, author of the book God and the Big Bang. The implications of the universe having its origin in an initial creation event, and the religious implications of this in particular, made for an interesting discussion.

The UCC and inclusiveness

The predominantly gay Dallas megachurch Cathedral of Hope has joined the United Church of Christ, and an AP article on the subject provides some interesting commentary on how this relates to the progressive vision of the UCC. The admission took place after the regional body of the UCC, the North Texas Association, approved the application of the Cathedral of Hope by a vote of 32-9. The AP article reports:

"They are a progressive denomination, and they have taken progressive stands all along," said the Rev. Michael S. Piazza, the cathedral's national pastor and dean. "When they took that vote, it really made it clear that was our home."
This is true, although it is interesting that the vote by the North Texas Association was not unanimous. The reasons why some voted against admitting the Cathedral of Hope are unknown to me, but it perhaps suggests that the UCC, though clearly the most progressive of the mainline denominations, is nevertheless facing some internal divisions on this subject. There may be minority factions within the UCC that are resisting the denomination's overall progressive vision.

That being said, this admission of the Cathedral of Hope may simply be one event among many within a process of realignment within the UCC. Some conservative churches may be leaving the UCC, while liberal churches outside the UCC may be joining up. The AP article points out:
About 140 churches in the 5,700-church denomination left the UCC. The Puerto Rico conference of the denomination, which has about 60 churches, also has decided to depart, though some individual churches may stay, said the Rev. Bennett Guess, UCC spokesman.

That number has been partially offset by 65 churches that have expressed interest in joining, the most since the UCC was formed in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the Evangelical and Reformed Church....

"The UCC is clearly going after a certain niche in American society who are very liberal and have a particular religious vision that includes inclusiveness," said John Evans, associate professor of sociology at University of California, San Diego. "They are becoming the religious brand that is known for this."

Another example of this process can be found in the case of Carlton Pearson's church, which I discussed in an earlier posting.

How this mini-realignment will play itself out in the long run is a big question. While the UCC has led the way on most of these kinds of issues and is overall the most progressive of the mainline denominations, other churches that are moving tentatively in a more progressive direction are also facing these same questions. The Episcopal Church, for example, is dealing with some conservative parishes that are seeking to disassociate themselves with that body's Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, perhaps hoping to co-exist within a parallel episcopal structure. This is a much more complicated process than it what we are seeing in the UCC, because the Episcopal Church is not a congregational denomination, and individual congregations cannot simply come and go quite so easily.

As for the UCC, As I have suggested in the past, inclusiveness can mean many things. A church can be inclusive in the sense of welcoming otherwise excluded people to their table, and this is a good thing. But there are other meanings of inclusive--notably, does a church incorporate a broadly inquisitive approach towards theological questions, or is it only settled in one, orthodoxy way of thinking? Whether one type of inclusiveness translates into a progressive and inclusive approach to theological matters is another question--and like many things in the UCC, I think it probably varies from congregation to congregation. But overall, I think that the defining of the UCC as a "religious brand" of inclusiveness can only be a good thing.

Deciding who is worthy of communion

American Catholic bishops recently approved a document that suggested that Catholics who don't agree with the dogma that their church hierarchy has handed down to them should not take communion in their church. According to this document,

"If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain."
This means that not only are non-Catholics excluded from the central worship event of Catholic mass, but also Catholics themselves if they commit the sin of thinking too much.

The document approved by the bishops synthesizes two aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine that I never had much use for. First, since Holy Communion in Catholic churches has always been exclusionary in nature (in contrast with the open commensality that Jesus himself practiced), this policy simply reaffirms this basic policy that all are not welcome to the table. Secondly, it is also consistent with the general intolerance that the Catholic hierarchy has for free inquiry; Catholics are expected to accept the dogma that is handed down to them. While lay Catholics have a certain amount of private latitude with respect to freedom of thought--more than the hierarchy would wish, to be sure--we have seen what has happened to Catholic theologians who don't toe the line. Just consider the examples of Matthew Fox and Hans Kung. By instituting a policy like this on communion, the church is essentially trying to extend to lay people the same intolerance that it has instituted against its theologians as a matter of formal practice.

It is interesting contrast this exclusionary doctrine of closed communion with the argument for open communion that is laid out in detail by the rectors of Saint Gregory's Episcopal church in San Francisco. Saint Gregory's is an unusual church within the Episcopal denomination; it has developed, with the blessing of the bishop, its own liturgy, one that is distinct from what is found in other Episcopal congregations. Its web site contains detailed expositions of the philosophy that lies behind its various practices, including an explanation of its position in favor of open communion. Among other things, it has this to say:
Jesus...sought out, welcomed, and dined with unprepared, unreformed, unwashed sinners. His action was a prophetic sign suiting his own more radical message: here comes God now, ready or not! And seen against Jesus' contemporary religious background, the presence of obviously unqualified diners was essential to his sign. Perhaps Isaiah's vision of a banquet for all nations inspired his choice: there the prophet says, the pure and impure will share one feast. Nevertheless such dinner company was politically scandalous for a teacher, and many scholars today, following Norman Perrin, judge that above all Jesus' actions it led to his death. He may have expected it would. His message unsettled his contemporaries as much as his chosen meal-sign did, and indeed has stirred up his church at major turning points ever since. We may reckon that he died for both scandals at once....

In our own tragic time of religious bloodshed, deeds of hospitality like Jesus' hospitality have delivered devout Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Bahai and Animist hosts to perfect their own faith through martyrdom, as Christian martyrs have always done. How ironic that among the world's great religions, only Christians keep the table company taboo which Jesus broke to symbolize his teaching, and persistently defied at the cost of his life!

This sharp irony guts otherwise reasonable arguments for banishing the unready, unworthy, untaught, unproven, and unwashed from Jesus' table any longer. Excluding them now despite what we have learned about Jesus-and what religious seekers throughout the world have learned from Jesus-would be worse than foolish. The world cannot credit what we teach about Christ while the church seems every Sunday to betray him.
I have written before that my Quaker background makes me wholly unattached to Christian sacraments. But given that almost all Christian churches, and certainly the mainline ones, practice some form of communion and consider it an important part of their worship, I think it is a worthwhile exercise to evaluate the philosophy that a given congregation has on this subject. Is the church a truly welcoming community, or is it a closed community that only makes available one of its key worship practices to those who pass some sort of test?

Carlton Pearson joins the United Church of Christ

I had not heard of Carlton Pearson before listening to a profile of him on the NPR program "This American Life" last year. His story is a fascinating one. He had been a protege of Oral Roberts, a rising start and a leading African American figure in Roberts's organization. At a certain point, however, he came to question one of the key tenets of the Pentecostal movement that he was associated with. He stopped believing in hell as a place of eternal damnation.

Embracing instead what he called the "Gospel of inclusion", Pearson 's image of a universally loving God was not well received by his colleagues and many of his church goers. His church lost members, and he became an outcast within his own denomination, branded a "heretic" by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops Congress.

The web site for his church, the New Dimensions Worship Center, describes the church as "The Friendliest, Trendiest, Most Radically Inclusive Worship Experience!" It also says,

It is not our intention to convert anyone to our beliefs about the Finished Work of Calvary, but to convince everyone of the absolute unconditional love of God for all of humanity. If by chance you disagree with our stance, by all means live according to your own awareness and convictions, as will we. It is not about whether we are right or wrong, but more about being real. We encourage everyone to live your own reality.
Carlton Pearson has now been accepted as a minister of the United Church of Christ. According to an article in the Tulsa World, Carlson had this to say about the UCC:

"This is a very well-established, historical American church," Pearson said. "It's radically inclusive. I've never seen an organization that fits my theology better.

"I don't know of any church where I'd be more comfortable."

It is expected that his church will join the UCC in the "next several months".

The article also says,

Pearson's universalism, which got him in trouble among evangelicals and in his own Pentecostal denomination, will not be a problem in the UCC, where many ministers are Universalists.

"How the UCC would phrase it would be that God's love will be reconciling for all people, not just Christians," Ashby said. "Universalism in the UCC goes back to the 19th century, when Henry Ward Beecher raised the question, 'If God created us, can't God repair us?' "

He said the UCC has been a leader in liberal causes for centuries, granting voting rights in church elections to women in 1699, fighting slavery 160 years before the Civil War, ordaining a black minister in 1785, ordaining a woman pastor in 1853, taking a stand for the civil rights of gays and lesbians in 1969, and supporting gay marriage in 2005.

I honestly don't know if my theology overall would fit in very well with Carlton Pearson's; my guess is that I am more liberal than he is, but I do like that he embraces universalism and I admire the way he made a break with the intolerance of his original religious background. I think it reflects the inclusive message that embodies the United Church of Christ. One of my favorite television ads was rejected for airing by US television networks. It is known as the "ejector seat" ad. Since I am one who feels like an outsider within the Christian community, I find this ad very moving:

Starting Points and End Points

It has occurred to me that it is possible to imagine coming to a progressive Christian theology from two opposite directions.

The first way is to start from the perspective of orthodoxy and work your way backwards. The second way is to start from scratch and build a do-it-yourself theology.

Both methods have their pluses and minuses. To start from the orthodoxy means that your theology is already complete to start with, and remains complete at all stages of its evolution. There are no holes or cracks to deal with; everything is already filled in at every step. There is always a default answer to any question, and if you don't like that default answer, you can always replace it with a better one. The questions you do like the answers to, or the ones you don't address at all, remain answered with those default ideas of the orthodoxy. You have simply taken a ready-made theological system and just patched over the parts that don't make sense to you. It's sort of like taking a working automobile, and replacing the engine and the radio and a few other parts with different parts. In the end, you still get a running automobile, but it might look different from what you began with.

To start from scratch is more work. You have to build the foundation yourself, and either fill in each crack you find or else leave it as an open question. The reward of this method is that you are liberated from the tyranny of dogma. You accept nothing at face value; you let no one else do your thinking for you. Some of those open, unresolved questions may not bother you because you don't feel a need to work everything out. The potential for uncertainty is seen as a virtue rather than an impedance. And because you are not just rebelling for the sake of rebelling, you are always free to borrow from a preexisting theological precept when it suits you.

Both approaches can come from different directions and, at least in theory, meet in the middle. Both methods can arrive at a progressive theology. Starting from the orthodoxy allows you to benefit from the accumulated wisdom of centuries of religious thinking. Starting from nothing allows frees you from the accumulated dogma of centuries of religious thinking.

My preference has been to start more or less from scratch. Because I was brought up in a fundamentalist environment, Christian orthodoxy left its scars on me, and I preferred not to begin there. I saw the accumulated centuries of Christian wisdom to have become encrusted under the weight of its own mythologies. Christian orthodoxy didn't allow enough room for the innovation that I felt was necessary. Others, however, find comfort in those same mythologies. Different people, different preferences.

I started almost from scratch, but I still borrowed from Christian wisdom when necessary. I also assumed that I would be borrowing from Christian wisdom instead of, for example, Hindu wisdom, because that is the religion where my comfort level lies. I cannot escape my upbringing. Thus it is better to say I "almost" started from scratch, because I did accommodate my own cultural affinity for Christianity from the beginning. So I started with a belief in God, but also with a belief in post-Enlightenment rationalism. I decided that I could not deviate from the latter if I was to pursue a belief in the former. I reviewed scholarly opinion to get a sense of what I could and could not believe about the historical claims of Christianity. I learned about the history of the Bible, and integrated it into my thinking. I saw no reason to accept certain tenets of Christian theology that had developed over the years--the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, or his literal resurrection, for example--but I still built my monotheistic religious system around the life and teachings of Jesus and the relationship with God that I believe he disclosed as a model for others. There may indeed be cracks in my theological system, but they are not filled with what I see as the dirt and grime of old dogma. And that's the way I like it.

When all is said and done, I find myself often having ideas in common with those who started from the orthodoxy and worked in the opposite direction.

Vanity and everlasting value

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them? --Ecclesiastes 3:19-22
Yet another dire forecast of ecological catastrophe made the news a couple of weeks ago: according to one prediction, the world's ocean fish supply will essentially die off by 2048.

This is the kind of forecast that makes me glad that I'll either be dead, or on the verge of death, by the time 2048 rolls around. I won't be around to face a world without ocean fish or polar ice caps. The 1973 movie Soylent Green depicted a future in which the food supplies were so depleted that they had to use human beings to feed the ever growing population. Movies like that used to be considered merely speculative fantasy. Now I'm not so sure.

It isn't like we don't have the capacity to solve our problems. We humans understand concepts like "overpopulation", "ecology" and "global warming", and we have tools to solve them. It used to be that nuclear war was the biggest threat to the future of the planet, but now there is ecological catastrophe looming on the horizon. Of course, as we are all aware, it isn't like we live in a particularly peaceful world either.

Forgive me if I sound like a curmudgeon. I am certainly hoping that the world really doesn't go to pot. But if it does, the tragedy of it all really does get to me. Not just because our descendants will inherit the mess we have made for them, but also because there is a grand, cosmic implication to such a massive failure as a species. We humans are, after all, the product of ten or twenty billion years of cosmic history, going all the way back to the Big Bang, and it would be really ungracious of us not to demonstrate that we deserved the time and circumstances that went into making us. One could argue that it took a lot of work on God's part to help evolve us humans into existence. I do not believe that God ever created by simple divine fiat, but rather by continual acts of offering possibilities to an evolving universe. It was only through a virtually infinite series of such lures of possibilities that the universe evolved into what it is now. This means that cosmic evolution was not a single creative act with a certain outcome, but rather an endless series of acts with uncertain results. It was involved and complicated. And now here we are.

Consider the main points, as seen from the perspective of my interpretation of process theology. Starting with the Big Bang, we can say that God called forth the universe. How this happened, I have no idea, but we do know that the Universe emerged into existence billions of years ago. God did not only call forth the universe, but did so in such a way that it would behave according to certain physical laws, laws that emerged into their present form after the Big Bang. Those physical laws, if they had varied even slightly in one direction or another from what we actually experience, never would have allowed for the conditions necessary to produce life as we know it (the acknowledgment of this fact is known in various forms as the Anthropic Principle, which is sometimes offered as a demonstration of the existence of God.) After a few billion years of cosmic history, stars and planetary systems formed in response to the continual creative Divine call; this process of creation eventually led to the existence of life on a previously barren planet orbiting around an unspectacular star in an otherwise insignificant galaxy. After a few billion years more of further Divine acts of creative lures directed at the biological processes occurring on this planet, among the creatures on this planet there evolved one highly self-conscious species--a species able to contemplate itself and God in ways that no other life form on the planet can.

And what's the thanks God gets for all this effort? Will we destroy ourselves and the beauty of God's creation on this planet?

It is certainly possible that there are other self-conscious life forms on other planets in the universe besides our own. We have no way of knowing this. When I feel despair about our prospects, I find myself hoping that there are other, more successful experiments in consciousness than our own has proved to be. But what if we really are the only beings with this level of intelligence, anywhere in the universe? How tragic would our failure prove to be then?

Tragic, yes--but would the grand experiment of human existence have been a monumental waste, after all that went into our creation? John Cobb argues in his book The World and God that, from the perspective of process theology, our very existence has enriched the Divine experience, regardless of our final outcome as a species. Cobb, who wrote this book in 1969, writes,
Not only does God influence every occasion of experience, but also, he is in turn affected by each. He takes up into himself the whole richness of each experience, synthesizing its values with all the rest and preserving them everlastingly in the immediacy of his own life. Even the miseries and failures of life are so transmuted in the divine experience as to redeem all that can be redeemed....

The Christian not only understands his faith as a continual challenge to do and dare, to take responsibility upon himself, and to venture out beyond the limits laid down by the past; he also finds in his faith the grounds for confidence that what happens matters. Even if man destroys his planet in the near future, our efforts to preserve it are not worthless. Because what we are and do matters to God, our lives are meaningful when we recognize that in the course of history our accomplishments may soon be swept away.
In a way, the tragedy of a death of humanity only mirrors the personal tragedies that all of us face in our own mortalities. Will everything we do be for naught? Is it true, as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, that "all is vanity?"

Cobb also writes,
Perhaps our experiences are retained in the divine memory forever. If so, neither individual death nor the extinction of the human race will be so total a loss as it otherwise appears. Even our little virtues and petty triumphs are not ultimately in vain. And perhaps even our meaningless suffering can be subsumed into a larger meaning within the divine life. If all we do contributes everlastingly to God, otherwise ephemeral values take on importance.
None of this contradicts the tragedy of mortality, or the potential mortality of the human race. I still agonize over the shortness of my life, something that is more apparent to me with each passing day as my hair gets grayer. But it is also in some sense deeply satisfying to consider that my short life, and the short lives of others, has an everlasting value.

Communion and inclusion

I hadn't taken communion since I was sixteen; it had been a point of pride. But last Sunday, I attended a service where I almost had no choice. The service was highly participatory, and all the congregation gathered in a circle around the communion table. There wasn't any way for me to get out of it without seeming rude.

It was one of those churches that not only practiced open communion, it insisted on it. It is a warm and welcoming church, and they tell you when you enter the church as a visitor that you should wear a name tag because you are addressed by name during communion. And, in fact, that was exactly what happened, when the bread was handed to me.

Since communion is a ritual that is so important to most of Christianity, how it is performed does say something about how serious the church is about practicing the radical inclusion that Jesus taught. There seem to be two, completely opposite philosophies--one positive, the other negative. Some churches have a very exclusive philosophy on the subject, and only offer it to baptized Christians, or even worse, such as in the case of the Catholic Church, only members of that particular denomination in good standing are allowed to receive the bread and wine. This idea of exclusive communion is such a perversion of everything that Jesus taught and lived--the man who practiced open commensality with prostitutes and tax collectors.

Before last Sunday, I had attended other services where open communion was practiced, but I never did participate. It was easy enough to decline the offer--I would just sit in my seat and not get up during that portion of the service. But when you and everyone else is are standing in a circle around the table, that option just isn't so easily available. My reasons for having declined in the past were complicated. I grew up in a denomination that saw communion as a shared act by baptized, believing Christians. As an adult far removed from that time in my life, a part of me still looks at Christian church services from the perspective of an outsider looking in; and I just feel, given that my views are outside the mainstream and probably different from those held by most of the people who are in the pews with me, that somehow it isn't right for me to partake of communion. If I partake, I wonder, am I dishonestly affirming somehow that I believe certain things about Jesus? Is is a symbolic equivalent to reciting the Nicene creed? Am I betraying my own beliefs and pretending to be something I am not?

And since I don't have the same beliefs about Jesus that orthodox Christians have, to me communion is like a test you have to pass--a belief test, or a membership test--that I knew I would not pass. For those churches that professed open communion--the ones that tell me it's okay, that it doesn't matter what my beliefs are--in the back of my mind I nevertheless felt like it was somehow presumptuous of me to assume that I belonged in that ritual of communion when I don't see God or Jesus in the same way that they do.

Some of the theology that surrounds communion doesn't really work for me, either--all that talk about the body and blood of Christ. Even for churches that reject out of hand the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, there is still usually some mention of Christ's body and blood. When the focus of the communion is on this kind of theology about Jesus, it doesn't resonate with me; when, on the other hand, it is instead offered simply as an expression of radical inclusiveness and community for all seekers who attend, that's another story.

From an anthropological perspective, one can argue that food sharing at meal time is one of the most essential elements of the human social experience; food sharing is one of the things that separates humans from our ape cousins. Humans in pre-agricultural times were hunters and gatherers; they went out, got food, and then brought it back to the wider community for sharing and eating. So building a ritual around the celebration of a common meal does have the potential of great symbolism--if it is done to promote inclusion rather than exclusion--because it hearkens back to the very essence of what it means to be human.

As an adult, for many years I attended worship at two denominations (Quaker and Unitarian Universalist) that didn't practice communion at all. And I kind of liked that. Because I saw communion as an unnecessary ritual, built around a Christological symbolism that I did not accept and integrated into a theology of exclusivism, I was happy to see the entire practice jettisoned from my worship experience. So to attend progressive Christian denominations that practice communion, as I have done recently, becomes during the communion portion a kind of entrance into a eerily uncomfortable world where I don't quite feel like I fit in. I have felt fortunate that the church I have attended the most often only practices communion once a month. And I have always felt relieved that there is no communion whatosever at the Taize services that I attend on Wednesday nights.

Last Sunday, when I felt compelled to participate in the act, my initial reaction was that I was betraying myself by participating. My long streak of many years of avoiding the communion was coming to an end, and at a church that I was only just visiting. It was like losing my virginity casually, and I had been hoping that if I ever did lose my communion virginity, I would save myself for--well, I wasn't sure what, but it would be in the context of some kind of commitment to something I could be deeply involved with. When I felt the wine go down my throat, it warmed my throat and felt pleasant. My aversion to communion hasn't really changed as a result of that experience, but I also know this: it wasn't the end of the world after all.

Paradigm shifts

I am currently reading Richard Holloway's book Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity. In the following passage from the book, he makes some interesting comments about paradigms, religious and otherwise (alas, he has an unfortunate tendency to avoid inserting paragraph breaks into long passages):

I cannot grudge those who believe in a magical world-view the comfort or excitement in holding that view; but I cannot hold it myself, not because I am a representative faithless skepticism, but because I have inherited a different way of looking at things and it would be dishonest of me to abandon it or exclude religion from its consequential effects. In this area, we have to pick our way through a defile between cultural arrogance and superiority, on the one hand, and honest acceptance of our own cognitive situation, on the other. The miraculous way of looking at things is still held by some people with perfect integrity today, just as it was once possible to hold an honest belief in Ptolemaic astronomy. But once a particular society has shifted to a different scheme of interpretation, a different paradigm of understanding, why is it held to be virtuous or faithful to cleave to remnants of the old world-view in our religious understanding? I can appreciate the argument from preference or cultural weariness here, rather than the claim of faithfulness. Some people just don't like new things: they prefer stage coaches to steam trains, ocean liners to jumbo jets, coal fires to central heating....The stakes shoot up when we enter the religious end of the argument. People might prefer steam trains to diesels for romantic reasons, but it would be wrong of them to claim the virtue of faithfulness for doing so. They are exercising a preference, that's all....

The point is that the scheme of interpretation that presents Jesus as a visitant from a supernatural realm who performed wonders, including raising the dead and walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee, is just that: a scheme of interpretation, a way of responding to events that was congruent with a particular stage of understanding and development. In that world, people regularly witnessed miracles, encountered ghosts, were infested by demons and knew of men who had been turned into wolves during the full moon. That was how people interpreted what was happening around them. (pp. 130-132)
This passage is part of a longer exposition, in which Holloway makes a comparison between the resurrection (as the foundational event in Christianity), and the Big Bang (as the foundational event in the universe). Just as scientists attempt to work their way backwards to try to explain the Big Bang, theologians and biblical scholars can try to work their backwards to the time when the demoralized and scattered disciples of just-executed Jesus transformed their understanding of events to one of optimism and hope. The point that Holloway makes is that, just as the Big Bang was a transformational event that left its aftereffects with us to this day (we are the aftereffects), what really matters from a theological perspective is the transformational power of the resurrection experience (whatever it really happened to be) for those early disciples. I don't believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead; but the reality is that his disciples, in the experience that they had after Jesus's death, had a transformational experience. And it is the power of a transformational experience that lies, in my view, at the heart of religion--not adherence to the literal truth of an ancient myth.

I would argue that, to the extent that religious dogma clings to the adherence of literal acceptance of ancient myths as the foundation of faith, that can only serve as a barrier to the transformational power of religion for many of us who live in the modern world. When a paradigm serves as a barrier to transformation, then many of us must move beyond those old paradigms and forward to new ones.

Moving Beyond the Trinity

In my previous two postings, I discussed the limitations inherent in describing the nature of God. I suggested that, first, any attempt at describing God's ineffable nature is a human effort that is inherently incomplete, and as such it is inevitably influenced by the culture and time from which that description emerges. I then suggested that the this applies every bit as much to the doctrine of the Trinity, which, far from having dropped from the sky as an irrevocable truth, was in fact, like any other doctrine, a human product, a human effort at capturing God's nature--and that it was a product of a particular cosmology and theology that no longer resonates with the modern sensibility.

So where do we go from here? The Trinity is, in my view, a needlessly complicated theology. Some Christian churches have tried to "update" the doctrine in superficial ways without getting to the core problem--using nonsexist language, for example (such as referring to God as Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But this is just window dressing. The fixation remains on the number three, which I often wonder about. Why assign the Godhead three persons--why not seven, or 17? It all seems to me rather arbitrary. Occam's razor alone should tell us that creating an arcane three-in-one description of God's nature as a monotheistic deity simply introduces a complication when none is really necessary.

If we do not believe that God is a divine patriarch who resides in the sky and performs magic tricks from time to time, including impregnating a virgin so that one of the persons of the Godhead and drop down and inhabit the earth for a while (where he performs more magic tricks, including raising himself from the dead)--then for me it would be perfectly fine if the doctrine of the Trinity were laid to rest once and for all. The modern, rational sensibility suggests that God does not operate that way. To me, God is a mysterious, ineffable presence, not a magician-in-the-sky.

Many Christian churches continue to include creedal affirmations about the Trinity as a part of their worship services. These creedal affirmations try to shoehorn modern Christians, and therefore modern Christianity, into ancient cosmologies that many of us simply can't take seriously. There is no doubt that many Christians are attached to the orthodoxy, and believe that these creedal affirmations are essential to the livelihood of their church. But I would argue that there are many others of us who find these affirmations a serious sticking point. There are millions of people who are interested in exploring the sacred mysteries of life from the perspective of the Christian traditions that lie at the heart of our culture and upbringing, but who don't want to have to choose between being unchurched and believing in fairy tales. Many of us refuse to check out brains at the door when we participate in the worship experience. We want to have a rational faith, one that is based on a post-Enlightenment understanding of the world.

We can continue to look to Jesus as the founder of our understanding of God without placing him within a Godhead as a preexisting Son begotten of the Father. The Jesus tradition of building the Kingdom of God, of resistance to Empire, of radical inclusion, of radical universalism, is the foundation of my understanding of God. That does not mean that others who do not follow Jesus are somehow "wrong". Different religious traditions represent different ways of relating to the sacred mystery of the universe. Nor does it even mean that those who continue to believe in the Trinity are somehow "wrong". The problem is not rightness or wrongness, but viability. For me, and I am sure others as well, the old paradigm just doesn't work anymore as a means of connecting with the Divine. For those who hold the Trinity dear as a meaningful paradigm, there is certainly no reason why they should not continue to see God in that way. But I cannot and will not view God in this way.

And that is a source of frustration, as I sit on the edges of Christianity, wanting to participate in a religious community of faith, but unable to fully accept all the trappings that go along with it. The best I can do is find the most inclusive and progressive Christian church I can, and try to tune out the Trinitarian parts of the service when they come up. For the most part, it works for me fairly well. But I also wonder who else besides me would like to see a paradigm shift take place within the Christian tradition.

The Trinity

In my previous posting, I considered the ways in which the doctrine of the Trinity represents a very specific, detailed, and dogmatic way of describing an infinite God who so often defies our finite attempts at capturing his nature in words and symbols. I now want to go a little deeper into how the Trinity represents a human doctrine about Jesus as he relates to God, rather than a divinely revealed truth. Like all human doctrines about God, it has its history and its context. So I would like to specifically delve a bit into how the understanding of Jesus's nature evolved within the writings of the New Testament.

I believe that Jesus never proclaimed himself as divine in his lifetime, but that after his death his perceived status underwent an evolution over time. We can actually see within the pages of the New Testament some of this evolution in understanding of Jesus.

The earliest writings in the New Testament that we have were the letters of Paul. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul proclaims that Jesus "was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead." Interestingly enough, Paul says nothing here about an eternal pre-existent Christ who descended to earth--that idea came much later. On the contrary, Paul writes that Jesus was adopted as God's son at the time of his resurrection. Note that Paul also made no claims in his letters that Jesus was bodily resurrected and walked among the disciples before ascending to heaven. In 1 Corinthians 15, he says that after the resurrection of Jesus

he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
We can see in the above text that Paul uses the same verb--"appeared"--for each experience of the resurrected Jesus, including his own. Thus each encounter with Christ represented, as Paul described it, the same category of experience. Since both Paul and the book of Acts assert that Paul saw Jesus through a visionary experience of the exalted Christ, rather than through having been with Jesus during a period of a bodily resurrection on earth, it is clear here that Paul was stating that the nature of his experience of the resurrected Jesus was the same as that of the other apostles who came before him. It therefore was the experience of an exalted Christ who was in heaven with God--not that of a bodily resurrected Jesus. Paul, as already noted, believed that Jesus was "declared" the Son of God upon resurrection, at which time Jesus was exalted into heaven with God. It appears, therefore, that he never believed that a resurrected Christ walked on earth with the disciples and then "ascended" to heaven.

After the letters of Paul, the next New Testament work to have been written, at around 70 CE, was the Gospel of Mark. Mark makes no mention of any resurrection appearances by Jesus. Thus, for Mark, like Paul, any description of a bodily resurrected Jesus is actually absent. Mark suggests that the disciples would encounter Jesus in Galilee--but the nature of any such an encounter is never described. He only notes that certain women went to the tomb, found it empty, were told that Jesus was resurrected, and fled. End of story. He does, however, move Jesus's adoption by God as the Divine son earlier than Paul did. In Mark's case, upon Jesus's baptism (described in the very first chapter of the book), God proclaims that Jesus is God's son. Thus, for Mark, it is at baptism, rather than at his resurrection, that God adopts Jesus as his son.

Being God's son, in this case, does not mean that Jesus was divine. Jesus is quoted in this gospel as saying at one point, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." In that statement, Jesus clearly distinguished himself from God. This was obviously an embarrassing quotation to later Christians who wanted to identify Jesus more closely with God; thus Matthew, written only some 10-15 years later, and which used Mark as a source, subtly reworded the rhetorical question to say, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good." This subtle change now takes away the distinction that Jesus makes between himself and God.

In Matthew, also, the time of Jesus's declaration as God's son is moved back still earlier. From Paul's location of the event at resurrection, to Mark's location of the event at baptism, we have Matthew locating it at conception. Meanwhile, Matthew is the first Gospel to describe an actual resurrection appearance by Jesus. Luke and Acts, written still later, go into greater detail with respect to describing Jesus's post-resurrection appearances, locating them in Jerusalem instead of Galilee, and also describing an ascension into heaven. The Gospel of John goes even further with respect to when Jesus became God's son--according to the prologue of that Gospel, Jesus was the pre-existing Divine Logos who had always been with God.

From all of this we can see that several things evolved in the understanding of Jesus during the years after his death. Initially, his loyal followers were so taken with his disclosure of the Divine presence that they believed that they had experienced him as having been exalted into God's presence and declared God's son after his execution. Later New Testament writers embellished these claims--placing his adoption as God's son at earlier and earlier points in his life until the Gospel of John took it to the ultimate conclusion and had him pre-existing eternally with God. These embellishments also included the invention of tales of physical appearances on earth after his death and resurrection, which were then followed by an "ascension" into God's presence that obviously was based on three-tiered cosmology. So we went from Jesus being the subject of a mystically experienced exaltation into God's presence after his death to stories of a physical resurrection and later ascension.

This elaboration of the understanding of Jesus over time ultimately led to the development of a fully worked out doctrine of the Trinity. The reality is that this doctrine was wrangled over for some time before it was finally arrived at. Furthermore, there were many competing understandings of the nature and life of Jesus; the one that won out became known as "orthodoxy", while the losing theologies became "heresy". The writings that supported the orthodoxy became part of the New Testament, while those that did not were suppressed. The elaboration of theology about Jesus over time that I described above took place among those writings that were placed into the New Testament by the orthodoxy. Thus the Trinity was not an inevitable result of a straight line progression of ideas, but rather one possible conclusion about Jesus among many--the one that was victorious, and then the victors got to include those books that were the most consistent with that conclusion into their canonical scriptures.

The Bible was written by human beings. The evolution of ideas about Jesus was a human process. Like all human process, it reflects the world in which those humans lived. We in the modern world have the tools for examining that process and evaluating it in the light of our modern understanding of the world. The old three-tiered cosmology of the ancient world no longer applies. The old patriarchal God who rules from atop this three-tiered universe also has fallen by the wayside. The old paradigm simply no longer holds. Instead, perhaps it is time for those who follow Jesus to re-examine the old paradigms. For some of us who believe in God and who are attracted to the Christian tradition, the old creeds and the old Trinitarian formulas just no longer make any sense.

The ineffable God

Is it really possible for finite beings to describe God's infinite nature?

God is often described as an ineffable presence, a sacred mystery, beyond full comprehension or explanation. "Ineffable" is an interesting word. According to an online dictionary, the word "ineffable" means

Incapable of being expressed in words; unspeakable; unutterable; indescribable.
The word "effable" is the opposite of ineffable. But there doesn't seem to be a verb "to eff", except as a shorthand for a common English language obscenity. That's a shame, because it might be interesting to describe the "effing" of God, but the connotation of that expression takes us somewhere else than we we want to go.

The sacred mystery, the deepest meaning of life, can be experienced mystically, but then what do you do when you try to capture that mystery and explain it? You are forced to use words, symbols, myths, and the other tools of the human imagination. And that is where it gets tricky.

That is because as soon as we humans try to capture the essence of God's nature through words and symbols, we immediately lose something in the translation. It is impossible for that not to happen. Our finite language is woefully inadequate for describing God's infinite nature. It will inevitably be incomplete. It gets even worse when we try to elevate our description of God into a creedal affirmation. Then we run the risk of a kind of idolatry--because we also run the risk of no longer worshiping God, but rather our conception of God, and it is that conception of God that is limited and therefor a kind of idol. The ancient Jews understood the danger of idolizing our language about God. As Richard Holloway puts it,
In religious discourse, God is the ultimate symbol. This little word connects us to all the questions we ask, and all the longings we have, concerning the ultimate meaning or its absence. This is why the symbol 'God' is one of the most ambiguous of human inventions. The Hebrews were so aware of the unbridgeable gap between this symbol and what it was intended to connect with, that they were afraid of using it and constantly pointed to its dangers. Since, by definition, God could not be what mortals said God was, they preferred to speak in circumlocutions or descriptive analogues rather than try to name God. This was the reason for their radical fear of idolatry, which is the identification of God with an object, either physical or conceptual. (Doubts and Loves, Richard Holloway, pp 55-56).
How this applies to Christianity is where we get into very specific, detailed creedal affirmations of the nature of God as he or she relates to the life of, and testimonies about, Jesus. When talking about the relationship of Jesus to God, Christian orthodoxy provides us with the doctrine of the Trinity, and in my view, it illustrates a clear example of this problem. Here we have a very specific and detailed set of ideas about God's nature. But that is only half of the problem. The deeper problem is that many Christians believe that this dogma is God's own revealed truth about His nature, and thus is irrevocable and must be guarded against any challenges from those who are labeled "heretics" or non-believers.

The idea that any doctrine is God's revealed truth is a dangerous one, and it is one that I never subscribe to. Any doctrine about God is necessarily colored by the time, the culture, and the prevailing cosmology of those who formulate it. It can never be otherwise. I try, in my own limited way, to understand God's nature as I believe it makes sense to me. I incorporate what I believe to be a modern, rational understanding of nature, and a modern cosmology, into my theology. I don't claim that what I believe is an absolute truth, that it is irrevocable, or that it is anything but my human attempt at understanding God. I know that it is limited by the very nature of my finite, limited language and symbols.

Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity was an ancient attempt by Christian orthodoxy at capturing the nature of God and placing it into a creedal affirmation. Unfortunately, it is one that is has been presented over the centuries as a Divinely Revealed truth, not subject to question lest one be labeled a heretic. Even more unfortunately, it continues to this day to serve as the bedrock of much of modern Christianity, and Christian worshipers in many denominations must affirm their belief in it as part of the worship service. Instead of being ineffable, God is has been rendered "effable" by a creedal formulation in Christian tradition, seen through the lens of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Given that Jesus is the central figure in Christian orthodoxy, I might start with the proposition that the Trinity hinges on the idea of the divinity of Jesus--who is asserted by Christian orthodoxy to be "fully God and fully human". The idea that any human being can also be a person in the Godhead raises serious questions in my own mind. It does not jibe with my understanding of the divine nature. In any case, the creeds say that Jesus is indeed full divine. The Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus is "the Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made." It further asserts that the Son "came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man".

Here we immediately see how this doctrine was a product of its time. The suggestion that one of a supposed trio of persons of the Godhead "came down from heaven" reflects a three-tiered cosmology--where the earth lies between a heaven up above (where God resides), and a hell down below. The three-tiered cosmology itself holds certain notions about God--the idea of God as a patriarchal figure, living above the earth, who has miraculous powers and who can send a part of himself "down" to earth in a supernatural act. In fact, this heavenly magician was able to conceive a human child of a virgin mother! This represents an image of the Divine that defies a modern, rational understanding of the way nature operates. I simply don't believe in that sort of divine patriarch who violates the laws of science to perform magic tricks. I believe that the world is ordered and rational.

My point is that the three-tiered cosmology that lies behind the Nicene Creed has long ago been discarded, but more importantly, the idea that God works in this fashion is something that I reject out of hand. I cannot help but wonder how many potential church goers who believe in God are turned off like I am by the idea of a virgin birth or a bodily resurrection. The old cosmology of the God who intervened in nature in that way has been swept away by the scientific revolutions of the past few centuries. The idea of a physical ascension of Jesus into heaven may have made sense under the old cosmology. But, as John Shelby Spong has pointed out, our modern cosmology tells us that even if Jesus had ascended at the speed of light from the earth 2000 years ago, he would still be flying through space and he hasn't yet left our own galaxy. The modern world cannot possibly take literally old biblical myths like these. Yet the Nicene Creed, or something like it, continues to be recited in churches in the twenty-first century.

Stripped of such mythological literalism, what we are left with, I believe, is a God who is an infinite presence, One who calls out to us--not some external father figure who performs supernatural feats that defy physical laws or who "comes down" to place a part of his Godhead among us. My modern sensibility tells me that God does not send lightning bolts out of the sky or otherwise engage in this kind of miraculous activity; I believe that God works through nature, not outside of it.

So what do we say about Jesus, if he was not part of a divine Godhead? Was Jesus therefore not fully God? To answer that question, I would suggest to start with that the Divine, because she is an infinite presence, lives within all of us as part of the universe that we inhabit. I think that God exists within the world as well as outside of it--God is both immanent and transcendent, in other words. God is therefore everywhere, and eternally issuing calls to us to act in certain ways, and we in response all have the free will to listen to God's call and respond accordingly--or to reject God's call as well. This implies that Jesus was no different from any of us in that he lived as a human being within the world in which God is immanent. Jesus was especially adept at heeding God's call and responding accordingly, and as such he represented an example of divine disclosure through human activity. Did he perfectly express God's will at every point in his life? I don't know the answer to that question for sure, but I would suggest that the divine presence was very strong and evident in his life--so much so, in ways that remarkably affected those around him, that they refused to believe that he was gone from their lives after his execution. There is no inherent reason to believe that the only person in history who had a very strong Divine presence within him. Perhaps all of us, as human beings, have the potential ability to answer God's call just as Jesus did. Perhaps all of us have the potential ability to listen to the call of the God who inhabits the universe, and to disclose the Divine that inhabits us through the way we live our lives.

Am simply creating my own flawed description of an infinite, ineffable God when I describe my theology in this way? Am I just "effing" God when I say these things? Perhaps I am. But I also make no claim that what I am saying is a Divinely revealed Truth that must remain unchallenged for all of time. Instead, I am presenting my own finite attempt at describing the reality of God in a way that makes sense to me, given my own understanding of the natural world. This is the way that I can best describe the God-experience that I have.

The world is full of religions. Many of them represent different attempts at capturing the reality of the infinite, sacred mystery. Can many of them be true at the same time? How is it possible that light can be either a particle and a wave, depending on which way scientists happen to view it? If a scientist looks for wave properties in light, they see waves; if they look for particle properties, they see particles. Are we all like the blind men and the elephant, trying to capture different essences of the Divine nature?

At the same time, I believe that paradigm shifts within a religious tradition do occur, must occur in fact. The Hebrew scriptures tell us of how a people believed that God acted through history. The Babylonian exile, however, forced the Jewish people to re-examine their theology and the role that God played in the world. Later still, persecutions of Jewish martyrs led to the development of the idea of an afterlife. Paradigm shifts are necessary in religious thinking from time to time.

The UCC is turning 50

The United Church of Christ has kicked off its 50 year anniversary celebration.

I attended worship at a UCC church this Sunday. The service focused a great deal on this anniversary, including references to some of the history of the denomination over the last 50 years. The UCC has a justifiably proud history of being at the forefront among mainline denominations of including women, gays, and African Americans into its clergy and leadership. The service began, as always at this church, with the pastor telling the congregation that "no matter who you are and no matter where you are in life's journey, you are welcome here." It is a wonderfully inclusive way to begin a church service. Having had an unsatisfactory church experience when I went elsewhere the previous Sunday, this was a wonderful way to start my Sunday morning.

A new woman heads the Episcopal Church

As I have mentioned in earlier postings, attending conventional Episcopal worship just doesn't do it for me. That being said, I still have a certain interest in the direction and future of the Episcopal church for several reasons. First, some of the leading voices for progressive Christianity come from within that denomination (for example, Marcus Borg). Second, although I normally attend UCC services on Sunday mornings, I also regularly attend Wednesday evening Taize services at an Episcopal church, and while I would never attend that church's Sunday services, the fact that I am a regular at its Wednesday services makes me, in a fashion, involved with that church. Third, there are some other Episcopal churches in my area that offer services that are not based on the Common Book of Prayer, which is to say that they offer alternative forms of worship that I might be interested in attending.

The upshot of this is that I have just enough of a toe dipped into the Episcopal waters to have been interested in the installation of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first female head of the Episcopal church. I thus decided to watch part of the webcast of the investiture ceremony that took place on Saturday. My reaction to the part I saw, which was mostly just from the first half of the two hour event, was generally positive, despite the fact that it incorporated a traditional Episcopal service within it. Admittedly I wasn't too interested in the actual service so much as the pageantry that surrounded it. It featured much of the grandeur and ceremony that I might have expected from such an occasion. Some of staged ritualism struck admittedly me as a bit odd--such as when the Most Reverend Schori appeared outside the entrance to the Cathedral and knocked on the door with her staff--but I what I mostly enjoyed was the grand spectacle, and perhaps I was more tolerant of the worship style and Christian orthodoxy that I glimpsed as part of the event because a) I wasn't actually there in the congregation, so it wasn't like I was a worshiping participant in the event, b) I only watched part of it and could multi-task on my computer while the video was playing, and was able to just stop watching it after a while and thus take the actual worship service portion in just a small dose, c) I enjoyed what I saw of the pageantry, the diversity of musical styles, the dancing performer, the banners, and the use of colors (including the purple in Katharine Schori's attire), all of which gave the event a grand celebratory air, and d) it was a historic occasion for womankind and I was just happy to catch a glimpse this honor bestowed upon a deserving individual.

I didn't watch much past her sermon, but I did like what she said. "The ability of any of us to enjoy shalom," said the Most Reverend Schori, "depends on the health of our neighbors. If some do not have the opportunity for health or wholeness, then none of us can enjoy true and perfect holiness."

UUA and UCC --"Just Friends"

The leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ met recently to discuss issues of common interest between the two denominations.

According to an article on this meeting,

The leaders of two American denominations whose ancestral churches divided 200 years ago met last week to discuss their past and future, but a reunion is not in the works.

The presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) spoke at a forum October 25 sponsored by the Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) in Newton, Mass. The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the UUA, and the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the UCC, discussed ways to bridge theological and historical differences in order to work together on issues of common concern.
I can't imagine the two denominations merging. Although the UCC is sometimes jokingly referred to as "Unitarians Considering Christ", there really is a big theological gulf between the two denominations. The vast majority of UU members do not consider themselves Christians, and I can imagine their revulsion at the idea merging with a denomination where the word "God" is actually used. There are individual UU churches with a Christian focus, and I know of a church in Chicago that is affiliated with both the UCC and the UUA; but, in general, the theological focuses of the two denominations are not particularly compatible, even if both tend to share a commitment to social justice.

The problem with creeds

Most members of the church's hierarchy regard the creeds as the source of the church's unity. However, the fact is that the exact opposite is the case. The creeds actually guarantee the disunity of the church and were consciously intended and designed to do just that. That is a strong statement, resisted by many on first hearing, but history reveals that the primary purpose of any creed is to determine who it is that does not qualify for membership. Creeds are designed to separate the true believers from the false believers. Because creeds set boundaries, they inevitably divide.

--John Shelby Spong, from The Sins of Scripture.
As I reflect on my experience at attending services at an Episcopal church last week, I find myself able to better comprehend in what ways I didn't like the experience. While it is true that the formal ritualism of the procession and recession of the cross didn't do anything for me, I didn't object to it either. It wasn't the practices or the rituals, but rather the overt theology, that I found disagreeable. In some cases the expression of orthodoxy was subtle, particularly in the hymns. It was more explicit in the confession of sins--which I wasn't crazy about--but it was most overt in the creedal recitation of faith. That was where the church really lost me.

I focus so much on the creeds because they get to the essence of what it means for me to be in a Christian community. I will not affirm something that I don't believe. Religious services are for me a means of connecting with God--and a creed that I don't accept diminishes this experience for me.

John Shelby Spong, who wrote the passage above, is a retired Episcopalian bishop. His controversial beliefs illustrate the disconnect between traditions and theology among liberal Episcopalians. I wonder how many religious liberals who attend Episcopal services recite creeds that they don't literally believe. Spong is absolutely right about the fundamental problem with creeds. Many Episcopalians justify their recitations by accepting them as mythological rather than literal. But I agree with Spong that the creeds are in and of themselves designed to divide rather than include. And all the statements of inclusion by any Episcopal church will never change this fact.
Modern parish experience using the "Nicene" Creed suggests that its sectarian sense is intrinsic, and for most people quite conscious. I advise ordinands that if they must use the "Nicene" Creed in their parishes, they might march about waving American and Episcopal Church flags, while their church wardens tear up photographs of the Mormon Tabernacle: these gestures would express the custom's fundamental spirit, and employ beloved Episcopalian paraphernalia lately fallen into disuse.

-- Notes on worship at Saint Gregory's Episcopal Church, San Francisco
My experience in church last week thus left a sour taste in my mouth. I am certainly not opposed to attending non-standard Episcopal services in other contexts. I still love the Taize service that I attend at an Episcopal church on Wednesday nights, in no small part for its more ecumenical flavor, and its uses of texts from many sources, religious and secular. And I am aware of some other Episcopal churches that have non-standard services on Sundays. But by the same token, this experience with the Episcopal church has given me a greater appreciation for the UCC, which views creeds as "testimonies" rather than "tests" of faith. There is no creedal affirmation in the services of either of the UCC churches that I have attended. Rather than turning seekers away, through this approach it is clear that we are indeed welcome. If only more churches would come to understand this.

Theodicy and Process Theology

The revised common lectionary recently passed through the book of Job. I have always found Job to be a difficult biblical book to appreciate, and in many ways I was unsatisfied with its conclusion, which seemed to say that ours is not to question the reasoning or ways of an omnipotent God. God simply tells Job, in response to heartfelt and angry response to his personal suffering, that God is powerful and can do whatever he wants to, and it isn't Job's to question this. Job (and we) are somehow supposed to accept this.

The question of why we suffer--why bad things happen to good people--is one that every believer in God has to wrestle with. As it turns out, Dr. John Cobb, a preeminent process theologian who has a monthly online answer column, discussed the view of process theology with respect the problem of theodicy in his June column this year. Cobb points out that process theology provides a way out of this conundrum:

Process thought softens the question by emphasizing that God does not control what happens. God always confronts a real world that is not of God’s choosing. God works for the best outcome possible, but it may be that none of the possible outcomes are good. All of them may include a great deal of suffering, and this suffering may be most severe with those who deserve it least.
This is not the final answer to the question, however. Cobb points out the inevitable question that this raises: "How can we relate this terrible prospect to any kind of belief in God? If God cannot prevent drastically unjust suffering of this kind, of what use is God?"

I personally think that there is a crucial assumption that lies behind that question. It suggests that religious faith is grounded in having a divine father figure in the sky who will rescue us from our troubles, that God is "useful" to us to the extent that we can manipulate him to do things for us. But I would argue that this represents a childlike image of God, one that will forever restrict our ability to relate to God in a mature manner. Cobb's answer to this question is long, and it involves an explanation of God's role as a creative partner in the evolution of the world and of life.

The first point that Cobb makes has to do with the origin of suffering. The Bible's creation myths include a story that we are all familiar with--of a Fall in the Garden of Eden, imagining a perfect creation that we sinful humans damaged by disobeying God. Process theology, on the other hand, sees the origin of suffering as a product of the evolution of self-conscious beings in the universe. In a universe that evolved over billions of years, God "called" the world to evolve self-conscious creatures. Cobb points out that this creative activity has inevitably involved a trade off:
This calling over billions of years transformed the surface of the earth from barren rock to a rich biosphere productive of innumerable forms of life. This, of course, did not reduce suffering. On the contrary, there was no suffering before the advent of life, but with every advance in sensitivity, suffering increased. The evidence before us is that God aims at the increase of value even when that involves also the increase of suffering.
This is, Cobb is arguing, God's trade off: increased value in the development of self-conscious beings, but also the increased possibilities of suffering. This increase in value continued with the emergence of our own species:
This divine calling finally brought human beings into existence. Our appearance on the scene increased the total value in the world. Most process theologians think the increase was very considerable. It also increased enormously the amount of suffering...
God's role in this as a participant in creation was not simply limited to calling forth the emergence of the human species, however. It also is involved in calling us towards making the world a better place--eliminating suffering whenever and where ever we can. Of course, as free participants in creation, we don't always listen:
...the evidence is that God supports the rise of conscious reflection and complex emotions that humanity brought into the biosphere. But that does not mean God simply observes it from a distance. God has always worked to direct the activities of this new species, through each of its members, away from mutual destruction and toward the broadening of horizons. The pressure on individuals to conform to norms derived from the survival needs of the communities in which they exist is very great. God also supports the aim at survival. But God has called human beings to think of others, even those outside their own communities, even others not yet born. God has had some success. Hundreds of millions now subscribe to teachings of those who have invited them to live out of this wider vision. These official beliefs do have some influence on the lives of many. Sometimes this wider vision breaks through to substantial historical influence as in Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. But as Jesus noted, the established authorities, the rich, and the powerful find it particularly difficult to listen to this call when, as is usual, it threatens the status quo. Children and prostitutes are more likely to do so.
In one sense, then, I think the Garden of Eden story has some validity; to the extent that we listen to God, we reduce at least some of the suffering that exists in the world. Obviously, some suffering has nothing to do with human evil--sickness, old age, death, and even simple accidents all bring suffering to our lives without necessarily an evil intent on the part of people. But at every step, God calls us to eliminate suffering--both by acting lovingly towards our fellow humans, and by taking care of each other when we do suffer for reasons beyond our control.

Cobb in the quote above cites some examples of the great prophets in recent human history who have tried to "let justice flow like water". There have been many other prophets as well, throughout history, including many of the Hebrew prophets whose books are found in the Bible. This is, in my view, what the prophetic tradition is all about--listing to God's call. Fighting for justice is a a way of listening to what God is telling us, and of decreasing suffering.

If this is process theology's explanation for the origin of suffering, and if process theology believes that God cannot control the world, then we can approach the question of what use God is to us in a different way. Cobb says, "God does bear responsibility for human suffering in the sense that apart from God there would be no humans or any other beings capable of suffering. If we share with God the view that the increase of value, despite the accompanying increase of suffering, is a worthy goal, then we can love and worship the God whose creative work has brought us into being." In other words, one of God's "uses" to us is someone we can love because it is God who is the ultimate cause of our having been brought into being. The value of our existence is what we thank God for, despite the suffering.

Cobb further points out that, in process theology, God shares in our sufferings and joys. As he states, "Process thought is distinctive among these theologies chiefly in that it provides a philosophical explanation and grounding for the view that God suffers with us in our suffering -- and also rejoices with us in our joys." Thus we have in God a presence who absolutely and perfectly experiences the fullest possible empathy for what we experience. This means that God is, in my view, the best possible companion. No human being shares in our experiences as perfectly as God does. In contrast to any human being, "It is in and through creatures that God achieves the divine realization of value. Our good is God’s good. Also the factors that make all human empathy imperfect are not found in God."

Ultimately, though, Cobb argues, the idea of God's "usefulness" is itself absurd.
We do not praise and worship God because God is useful to us. We worship because God is worshipful, and we try to serve God out of the love and gratitude that God evokes. We seek to hear God’s call because we know that call is to what is truly and ultimately the good. We know that apart from God our situation is truly hopeless. God is our hope for a better world. We know that whatever happens, all that we have been and now are, will still matter because it matters to God. God saves us from meaninglessness.

God does not prevent suffering, but even suffering can be endured more easily when we know that we are not alone.
Cobb acknowledges that much suffering serves no purpose. I am reminded here of the story of Job, whose suffering was the result of a kind of celestial bet between God and Satan, where Job himself was almost a pawn. On a grand scale, I can be reminded of the pointless suffering of millions of people under the Nazi holocaust. On a small scale, I can be reminded of all the individual hurts that make no sense in our world.

Process theology does not try to make sense of this evil by appealing to Leibnitz's "best of all possible worlds" argument. Individual instances of suffering cannot be explained as being somehow part of God's greater plan. On the contrary, as Cobb points out,
Much that looks evil to us is truly evil, countering God’s purposes in the world. But because of God, much even that is truly evil can also be transformed in a way that wrings from it some good. As we face the onslaught of so much that is truly evil, we must do all we can to find ways to wring from evil such good as it allows. God makes that possible.