An Episcopal priest reports in his blog that after working for about ten months with a Christian web design and services provider to develop a new web site for his church, the company backed out of its contract:

We've been working for approximately ten months with Elexio to get our parish website up, poured countless volunteer hours into it, and encountered delay after delay in response to our inquiries. And then I get this letter.

It consisted of two pages of legalese and a refund of the $1,900 we've put into this project. My translation of the legalese: Elexio is canceling its contract with us because we violate their policy against serving individuals or organizations that promote "controversial issues." In other words, we are "too gay."
He adds,
We have 30 days to remove our content from the website that they were hosting for us and we were just about to launch.

Why there are many religions

I would suggest the plurality of religions represent different human interpretive frameworks for understanding the Divine. Each interpretive framework represents a partial model, which is informed by time, place, culture, and history. All of the major world religions point in some way to the Divine; like the proverbial blind man and the elephant, each captures some element of a greater reality.

John Hick puts it this way in God Has Many Names:

We have a system for filtering out the infinite divine reality and reducing it to forms with which we can cope. This system is religion, which is our resistance (in a sense analogous to that used in electronics) to God. The function of the different religions is to enable us to be conscious of God, and yet only partially and selectively, in step with our own spiritual development, both communal and individually. (p. 112).
The world religions often emphasize specific, sometimes complementary aspects of an all-encompassing and infinite Transcendent reality; some, for example, might focus on the personal aspects of the Divine, while others emphasize the nonpersonal. Hick suggests that
...we have to accept that the infinite divine reality is only knowable by man insofar as it impinges upon finite human consciousnesses, with their variously limited and conditioned capacities for awareness and response. But once we accept this, then the very plurality and variety of the human experiences of God provide a wider basis for theology than can the experience of any one religious tradition taken by itself. For whereas we can learn from one tradition that God is personal, as the noumenal ground of theistic experience, and from another tradition that God is the nonpersonal Void, as the noumenal ground of its form of mystical experience, we learn from the two together that God is the ground and source of both types of experience and is in that sense both personal and nonpersonal. (p. 110)
In the proverb of the blind man and the elephant, one man senses the trunk, another the legs, another the tusk; all come up with some aspect of the Elephant-nature, and draw conclusions accordingly. But only by putting together all those parts of the elephant's body to you get a complete elephant, which, it turns out, is actually greater than the sum of all those individual parts.

An Archbishop, and a baby in a manger

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was asked on BBC radio if "the baby Jesus in a manger" was "historically and factually true".

His answer, alas, was "I should think so." He then goes on to explain that "the Gospel tells us he was born outside the main house, probably because it was overcrowded because it was pilgrimage time or census time; whatever; yes; he's born in poor circumstances, slightly out of the ordinary."

Of course, when Williams asserts that "the Gospel" says that Jesus was born in a manger, he really means Luke. Since Matthew's and Luke's accounts of Jesus's birth are quite different and irreconcilable, then on what basis can he say "I should think so" when he refers to just one of those two Gospel accounts and then asserts that it was "historically and factually true"? There is no such thing as the Gospel when it comes to describing Jesus's birth--there are two Gospel accounts. He then fudges a little on the matter of the census, as if almost to acknowledge that Luke's invented story of a census pilgrimage was perhaps just a tad questionable, although of course he doesn't come close to coming right out and saying that. In fact, the business of the census was completely ahistorical, and surely someone of Williams's stature in the faith should know that. It doesn't make him a very credible Christian leader or a theologian to treat such mythology as if it were historical truth. This is how religion gets dumbed down.

In reality, we know absolutely nothing about the circumstances of Jesus's birth. The two birth narratives that we have were written some 80 to 90 years, give or take, after Jesus was born. They are mythology, pure and simple, meant to express a theological interpretation of the meaning of Jesus's life and message. The most likely scenario is that Jesus of Nazareth was born--well, in Nazareth. It is entirely possible that he had lowly origins--carpenters were not exactly in the upper echelons of society at that time, and peasant society was having the squeeze put on it by Roman authority. But all of that is reasoned speculation, and the details of Jesus's birth are entirely unknown, and Rowan Williams does a great disservice to Christianity by asserting otherwise.

Incarnation and Religious Pluralism

Another quote from John Hick's book "God Has Many Names" points the way to an incarnational theology for Christians that is consistent with religious pluralism:

Indeed one may say that the fundamental heresy is precisely to treat the incarnation as a factual hypothesis! For the reason why it has never been possible to state a literal meaning for the idea of incarnation is simply that it has no literal meaning. It is a mythological idea, a figure of speech, a piece of poetic imagery. It is a way of saying that Jesus is our living contact with the transcendent God. In his presence we find that we are brought into the presence of God. We believe he is so truly God's servant that in living as his disciples we are living according to the divine purpose. And as our sufficient and saving point of contact with God there is for us something absolute about him which justifies the absolute language which Christianity has developed. Thus reality is being expressed mythologically when we say that Jesus is the Son of God, God incarnate, the Logos made flesh.

When we see the incarnation as a mythological idea applied to Jesus to express the experienced fact that he is our sufficient, effective, and saving point of contact with God, we no longer have to draw the negative conclusion that he is man's one and only effective point of contact with God. We can revere Christ as the one through whom we have found salvation, without having to deny other reported points of contact between God and man. We can commend the way of Christian faith without having to discommend other ways of faith. We can say that there is salvation in Christ without having to say that there is no salvation other than in Christ.
I do find the mythological language that Hick refers to ("Son of God", and so forth) to be problematic because it has been appropriated by exclusivist orthodoxy for so long that it is difficult to use it in any other sense without causing confusion. For that reason, I am simply not comfortable with using that terminology in my own religious discourse. I'll leave it to others to call Jesus "God Incarnate"; I simply won't do that myself. That being said, the important point that I take away from Hick's comment is that the mythological language of incarnation does not have to mean that Jesus was the fully divine spawn of a God who dropped out of the sky to impregnate a virgin. Hick offers an incarnational theology that starts with the premise that Jesus was fully a human being just like us--but one who happened to point the way to a life lived in God's presence. It is not that Jesus was God, but that he had such a close relationship with God (or, as Marcus Borg later put it, he was a "spirit person") that those who choose to follow him can look to his life as an example. Through that example, one experiences a life lived in God's presence. But that doesn't mean that he is the only means of discovering such a relationship with God.

Tomorrow, Christians celebrate Jesus's birth. But rather than celebrating it as the incarnation of the Savior, it makes more sense to me to celebrate it as the birth of a savior who showed a particular path many people are legitimately drawn to. For reasons of upbringing, habit, culture, or whatever, many choose to follow Jesus. And that's a good thing. But it is also a good thing to remember that there are paths that are just as legitimate.

Rethinking the incarnation in time for Christmas

When I reconnected with Christian spirituality two decades ago, probably the two most influential books in my spiritual development at the time were "Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition" by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, and "God Has Many Names" by John Hick. (Since then, my thinking has been further influenced by the writings of Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan.) In subsequent years, I somehow managed to discard my copy of the Hick book, but recently I found a copy of it in a used bookstore and have found myself rediscovering how influential it has been in my thinking.

Just in time for Christmas, then, I offer here a comment that he makes in this book about the Christian idea of incarnation:

...it seems to me necessary to look again at the traditional interpretation of Jesus as God incarnate. Such a reconsideration is in any case required today by the realization that the historical Jesus almost certainly did not in fact teach that he was in any sense God; and also by the fact that Christian thought has not yet, despite centuries of learned attempts, been able to give any intelligible content to the idea that a finite human being, genuinely a part of our human race, was also the infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient creator of everything other than himself. The proper conclusion to draw, as it seems to me, is that the idea of divine incarnation is a metaphorical (or, in technical theological language, a mythological) idea. When a truth or value is lived out in a human life, it is a natural metaphor to speak of its being incarnated in that life. Jesus lived in full openness to God, responsive to the divine will, transparent to the divine purpose, so that he lived out the divine agape within human history. This was not a matter of his being of the same substance as God the Father, or of his having two complete natures, one human and the other divine. Agape is incarnated in human life whenever someone acts in selfless love, and this occurred in the life of Jesus to a startling and epoch-making degree. Whether he incarnated self-giving love more than anyone else who has ever lived, we cannot know. But we do know that his actual historical influence has been unique in its extent.

Bumpy Ride to Bethlehem

A quote from John Spong's book "Born of a Woman":

Everything about the birth of Jesus had to reveal a status higher than that ascribed to John the Baptist. John was, for Luke, a Jewish figure born during the reign of Herod. Jesus was a world figure whose birth was dated from a decree from Caesar. John's birthplace was anonymous. Jesus was born in the city of David to which he was brought by Scripture and divine guidance. So Luke took a census, of which he was vaguely aware, that had occurred, he thought, sometime near the time of the birth of Jesus, and he used it to accomplish his literary purposes. Is it literally probable that any first-century man would have put his near-term pregnant wife on a donkey and forced her to ride sidesaddle for approximately one hundred miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem? As one feminist scholar observed after reading this narrative, "Only a man who had never had a baby could have written that account."

Borg and Crossan radio interview

The December 19 edition of the public radio program "Here On Earth" is devoted to an interview with Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. You can listen to it by going to the web site.

A visual comparison

Two succinct and colorful diagrams that compare the Matthew and Luke birth narratives can be found at the Prophetic Progress blog.

Theological epicycles

Within a posting in Deane's blog that explains how the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew are irreconcilable, there is an interesting comment:

Yet, despite the dramatic differences, conservative Christian interpreters will attempt--in various ways--to provide a 'harmonization' of the two stories. The means by which they attempt a harmonization usually involves saying that each Gospel nativity story 'omits' some of the details of the 'full and real historical story'. For example, as Luke does not mention a flight to Egypt, conservative interpreters argue that--far from Luke having contradicted Matthew--we should understand Luke as having preferred to narrate other events instead, and to have merely 'omitted' the flight to Egypt. So, the 'full and real historical story' can be reconstructed by 'inserting' the flight to Egypt, along with other bits only mentioned in Matthew, into Luke.

This strategy may well result in a technically possible harmonization, if carried out with enough ingenuity. But what emerges is a third story, alongside Matthew's and Luke's, that doesn't sound like either Matthew's or Luke's nativity story. Ironically, the effect of such a harmonization--in a case like the nativity stories--is that the conservative Christian interpreter prefers the story he concocted himself to the biblical accounts of both Matthew and Luke. The attempt at harmonization results in significant changes to the particular structure of the narrative and particular themes which Matthew or Luke each intended to convey. It also requires the addition or subtraction of facts so as to force the two accounts to fit together.
I think these two paragraphs highlight very clearly one of the fundamental failures of conservative theology. The desperation to salvage the literal truth of fundamentally different Gospel narratives forces conservatives to concoct scenarios that are not mentioned in either, just in order to link the disparate narratives together. The glue that they use to join these scenarios together is not found in either narrative. Thus we have the irony that those who claim that the Bible alone is the literally true foundation of their theology are forced to rely on invented scenarios in order to bring together those disparate elements. It's an inherently self-contradictory posture. In order to preserve the literal truth of the Bible, one is forced to do what one ostensibly opposes--going outside of what was spelled out in the narrative itself (in this case, by engaging in a process of creative imagining of what must have taken place but what wasn't specified.) We see this same phenomenon, of course, when conservative Christians try to meld together the two creation stories in Genesis.

These efforts at explaining away the contradictory narratives are akin to the epicycles that astronomers used to explain away the anomalies in the Ptolemaic paradigm.

Not only is the ostensible goal of rescuing the Bible's literal truth dependent on this sort of imaginative glue, but as the blogger points out, these efforts essentially destroy the spirit of each of the individual narratives. In other words, to paraphrase an infamous quote from the Vietnam War, "It was necessary to destroy the Gospel narratives in order to save them."

Crossan interview

I ran across an interesting interview with Dominic Crossan that deals with the subject matter of his latest collaboration with Marcus Borg, The First Christmas.

(Apropos of nothing, ever since I heard Crossan speak in the "Living the Questions" DVD seminars, I find that I have a hard time reading a transcript of anything he says or writes without mentally vocalizing it with an Irish brogue. )

The interview ranges over many topics, and I can't do justice to all that was said there. I would call attention, just to give a flavor of the interview, to one of the subjects, which had to do with the differing birth narratives in Matthew and Luke:

In other words, Matthew and Luke give two different accounts of Jesus’ birth.

Exactly. It’s what any of us do when we write a book. We write the prologue last. A prologue announces exactly what you’re going to do in the book, and then isn’t it miraculous when you do exactly that? So now imagine Matthew. He’s written his gospel, the major point of which is that Jesus is the new Moses. He begins his story, in the gospel now, by having Jesus going up and delivering what we call the Sermon on the Mount, but which he would have called the New Law From the New Mount Sinai.

So when Matthew sits down to write his prologue, he says, “OK. So Jesus is the new Moses. I know, I’ll write about the birth of Jesus, making it parallel the birth of Moses in such a way that anyone with a Jewish background will get that immediately.” The biggest thing about the birth of Moses is that the pharaoh tries to slay all the kids, almost killing Moses. Everyone knows that. So as Matthew makes up his story, he has the king try to kill all the male children of Bethlehem in order to kill Jesus. Any Jew hearing that would say, “Oh, Herod is the new pharaoh? That means the Jewish homeland under Herod, who is collaborating with the Romans, is like the new Egypt? And Jesus flees to Egypt for safety—but in the wrong direction? Moses left Egypt, heading north. Jesus is going the other way, heading south!”

So the details of Matthew’s birth account are very deliberate, and that’s why we insist on the story’s anti-imperial edge. Herod is the new pharaoh—but the official title Rome gave him is King of the Jews. Mark Antony and Octavian brought Herod into the senate and gave him the title, King of the Jews. So for Matthew to proclaim a newborn “King of the Jews” is, well, basically, high treason.

And yet Luke’s birth story is very different…

Basically, the Christmas story as we think of it is 95 percent Luke and five percent Matthew. Really, the only thing that comes from Matthew is the three wise men, and of course we call them “kings,” which is a terrible mistake. They’re not kings; the last thing on Earth they are is kings. They are magi, representing the wisdom of the east coming up against the power of the west. If you really want to cause trouble this Christmas, you might tell the truth and say they’re from Iran. They’re Persian wise men!

Luke is quite different from Matthew. The whole tone is not nearly as dark as Matthew. There’s no slaughter of the innocents in Luke. What happens in Luke is that the announcement is made to the shepherds, and the point here is that both groups that get the message are “outsiders.” It’s made to pagan magicians—that’s what magi means—and Jewish shepherds. And the shepherds are not the nice little guys we often think they were. Shepherds in the ancient world were tough guys who protected their sheep from wolves and thieves. They had weapons; they could take care of themselves. Shepherds were considered dangerous outsiders, and they knew whether the system was just or unjust. So then the angel comes to them and announces that the birth of the Messiah, the just king expected by Israel, and he gives Jesus some fancy titles—Lord, savior, and bringer of peace. Those titles belong to Caesar Augustus, the bringer of peace being the core title upon which the others depended. If Augustus hadn’t brought peace to the Roman Empire, he probably wouldn’t have survived very long.

You’ve written that if you asked anyone in the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus, “Who’s the Son of God, the Lord, the redeemer, the savior of the world?” everyone would’ve known immediately who you were talking about, and it sure wouldn’t have been Jesus.

That’s right—it would have been Caesar Augustus. It’s like the first question they ask on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”—the idiot question everyone is supposed to get right. So, if you applied those titles to Jesus at that time, you’re either dealing with a kind of low lampoon, a silly joke, or you’re committing high treason. You’re saying that the program incarnate in Augustus, which I call “peace through victory,” is not the program willed by God. God’s program, you’re saying, is the one incarnate through Jesus—“peace through justice.” So if you think of Caesar and Jesus as two people running for election, those central competing ideas would be their platforms.

Good news from New Jersey

The New Jersey legislature has voted to abolish the death penalty.

War on Hanukkah

It's nearing Christmas, which means that it is time for the usual cabal of pundits to get their panties in a twist about the alleged "war on Christmas". Aside from the general bigotry towards other faiths that underlies this objection to showing respectfulness towards non-Christians, I have often felt that it had in particular an undercurrent of antisemitism--since the most prominent non-Christian holiday that gets much attention this time of year is Hanukkah.

There may be evidence to bolster this inference, now that the undercurrent of hate just came out into the open. Should we be surprised? On a New York subway, after a Jewish man named Walter Adler responded to another rider's greeting of "Merry Christmas" by saying"Happy Hanukkah", a group responded by making anti-Semitic comments and then engaging in physical violence. According to CNN,

Two women who were with a group of 10 rowdy people then began to verbally assault Adler's companions with anti-Semitic language, Hellerstein said.

One member of the group allegedly yelled, "Oh, Hanukkah. That's the day that the Jews killed Jesus," she said.

When Adler tried to intercede, a male member of the group punched him, she said.

There was a good Samaritan in this incident--a Muslim man who came to the aid of the Jews who were being assaulted.

When some people repeatedly whip up hysteria about how much they resent it when non-Christians are given respectful consideration during this time of the year with expressions like "Happy Holidays", it is inevitable that some people are going to take this message of hate seriously.

The story of the Muslim who came to the aid of Jews who were being assaulted on a New York subway train might give us a bit of an inkling into what religious respect and tolerance really mean.

What are the clergy for, anyway?

The title of this posting is not meant to be a rhetorical question. I have some ideas about the services that clergy provide. But my ideas may not be complete or accurate. I really do wonder--what value is added by the existence of the clergy within faith communities?

For those who are not familiar with Quakers, this might seem like a silly question. But "unprogrammed" Quakers have no paid clergy. I have a Quaker background, and one result of that has been that I carry with me a slight bit of residual discomfort when I attend traditional church services, particularly with the traditional Protestant model of the "preacher". In many Protestant churches, the sermon is more or less the centerpiece of the service. Sometimes, as I listen to a sermon, I look around at the congregation, everyone sitting passively in the pews, all facing in the same direction forward, listening to the words of wisdom delivered from on high, being strictly on the receiving end--and I wonder if this is what Christianity is supposed to be about.

This probably explains part of my disorientation as I attend church services. One might ask, given that I feel this way, why I just don't just settle into a Quaker meeting somewhere; and I don't entirely know the answer to that, except that I some time ago felt increasingly alienated from Quaker culture, and at some level I think I wanted more from a worship experience than just the traditional Quaker silent meeting. It's not that I don't see the value of the clergy; on the contrary, I see quite a bit of value in the roles that they play. The real problem, and I freely acknowledge this, is that I don't know what I want or what I am looking for. I am apparently ceaselessly spiritually restless, and nothing really satisfies. But that's another story.

That being said, what I do like about Quaker meetings for worship is the spontaneity, the improvisation, and the openly democratic nature of the service which can take an unknown direction, as each participant, equally granted the role of ministry, can listen to God and reveal what he or she has heard. It is an invitation to group mysticism. In a regular Protestant church service, on the other hand, there is a division of labor with respect to theological expression--there is the "preacher" who preaches, and the rest of the congregation, who listens. Outside of the sermon, "participation" in the service as a whole is scripted by whoever designed the program for that day, and everyone just follows along with the script; that means means singing along with songs, or reciting words, that have already been written out in advance. I have a hard time not thinking of a worship service as a form of scripted entertainment, albeit one that everyone gets to play a part in.

In a Quaker meeting, on the other hand, everyone is not just a performer, but a potential script writer as well, in ways that may end up surprising and delightful. Of course, that improvisation has its price, and the down side is that not everything that is said in a Quaker meeting is a pearl of wisdom. And if you are expecting entertainment value from a Quaker meeting, you are likely instead to be bored by all the silence.

The reality is, as I said, that I am not stuck in the Quaker mindset; I do see value in paid clergy. Pastors/ministers/priests have training and knowledge that gives them useful insights that can be shared with the community of faith. They offer a unique set of skills--from counseling to biblical exegesis to leadership to teaching. In some kinds of churches, they offer a sacramental role as well. And there are probably some other things that I can't think of.

The teaching function is what comes into play during the sermon. And yet, I think to myself, I don't always want just one teacher. Any one teacher offers just one perspective. Every teacher is inevitably biased in his or her own way, or has his or her limitations and unique set of experiences. So I think I would instead prefer to have many teachers, which would only be possible in the given church paradigm by flitting about among several congregations, taking in a little from this pastor here and a little from that priest there as I visit various churches. Of course, the price in that case is never really settling into a church home. But then, I am not sure that I would ever find a church home anyway.

For a while, I had this idea of identifying a circle of progressive churches that I would rotate through on Sunday mornings, as well as visiting a particular progressive church that holds services on Sunday evenings. This would allow me to taste some variety and experience the teaching value of multiple pastors, hopefully getting complementary experiences that will fill in some of the holes in my spiritual life. I imagined myself being a bit of a church slut. But my general disappointment with the progressive church experience in general has made this plan seem unfeasible. I found it hard to find Protestant worship services that worked for me.

Apropos of the role that preachers play, Kelly Fryer, a Lutheran pastor and blogger, recently referred to the following comment by Nathan Aaseng, a Lutheran pastor who, probably, has a much more orthodox theological perspective than my own:

So here I walk into seminary where preaching is considered not only a good thing, but the crown jewel of a pastor’s existence. I hear that preaching is a great responsibility and a privilege. It is the unique task to which a pastor is called and the primary way in which we are to witness to the message of the Gospel.

This posed a huge dilemma for me. My time in the pulpit is my best chance to communicate the message of the Gospel. Yet I know that preaching is a terrible form of communication. How can I stand up there and use a form of communication that I know to be disrespectful, amateurish, and ineffective?

The way out of this dilemma came to me in a quotation from a book in Dr. Martinson’s Pastoral Care class at Luther Seminary. It has stuck with me, even though I cannot remember which book it came from or even quote it exactly. The gist of it was: “The preacher is the person whom the congregation sends to the Scriptures on its behalf to see if God has a word to speak to them this week.”

Kelly Fryer, who also comes from a more orthodox perspective than my own, writes in response to this:
Instead of teaching pastors to preach, for example, we ought to be teaching pastors to TEACH people how to preach. That includes "sending them to the Scriptures" to listen for a word from God, as you say. It also includes encouraging them to be on the look out for God in their everyday lives...expecting them to NAME the God they meet out there...and giving them opportunities to TELL THE STORY of what happened when they get back together again with their brothers and sisters.
I see value in group mysticism, such as is offered by a Quaker service. I also see value in the teaching role that is afforded by the existence of trained clergy. I see value in silence; I see value in singing. I see value in structure; I see value in improvisation.

What indeed are the clergy really for?

Michael Dowd on science and faith

Michael Dowd is a former evangelical minister who argues that evolution points to the existence of God. Those who are interested in this topic may want to check out his interview on Wired.com.

I liked his answer to this question in the interview:

WN: Won't evolutionary theology leave a lot of scriptural truths behind?

Dowd: God didn't stop communicating truth vital to human well-being thousands of years ago, when people preserved insights on animal skins. God communicates through science. Facts are God's native tongue. Who of us would let a first-century dentist fix our children's teeth? Yet every day we let first-century theologians fill our children's brains.

There's a difference between flat-earth faith and evolutionary faith. In flat-earth Christianity, the core insights -- sin, salvation, heaven and hell -- are understood in the same way as when people first formulated ideas. I still value the same concepts, but interpret them in a radically different way.

Following the trailblazers

New Zealand Anglican priest Glynn Cardy has written another interesting, provocative post in his blog. Here is an excerpt:

Some of Jesus’ theology we might resonate with and some we might be repelled by. A personal daddy god doesn’t do much for me. A three-tier universe doesn’t literally exist. Jesus didn’t come again during his disciples’ lifetime. However the complicated formulae of the Trinity and sanctification devised in the first four centuries of the Church don’t do a lot for me either.

Can I then still call myself a Christian?

I find the description of Jesus by the writer of Hebrews [12:2] as the ‘pioneer’ of our faith helpful. The Jesus of history was a trailblazer, an exemplar, and a model for us. However as with all pioneers of radical social change and thought we need to be selective about what we wish to emulate. He wasn’t perfect. The love he preached and lived in his context might have been, but in our context revision is needed. Indeed in our context there are some things about Jesus that are best ignored.
Maybe it is inevitable that charismatic founders of new movements, as Jesus surely was, become objectified and idealized by their later followers. Jesus is an extreme case, because he was so idealized that he was actually deified by later generations of followers. But the phenomenon certainly exists in lesser forms among other movement founders, including those who initiated sub-movements within the broader stream of Christianity itself.

It is interesting to note how followers within a movement will often resort to appeals to the authority of the movement's founder when engaging in internecine struggles with co-followers over the future of their common movement. For example, adherents of various Quaker sects will argue among themselves over which brand of Quakerism is the truer expression of George Fox's ideals; Lutherans will critique other Lutherans for not following the ideals of Martin Luther or the Augsburg Confession; and Methodists will use Wesley to justify a given theological position.

Amazingly, two people with wildly divergent views can both appeal to the same authority to bolster their position that they and they alone are the true heirs of the the tradition. Isn't it funny how the same Buddha inspired both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism? Or that the same George Fox inspires both modern liberal unprogrammed Quaker meetings as well as theologically conservative Quaker churches that have paid pastors and churches? And so on.

Maybe the diversity in thinking within the Jesus movement that emerged after Jesus's death was inevitable, and maybe not such a bad thing. Once a founder of a movement has died, he or she can exert no control that direction of that movement anymore; instead, such movements tend to take on a life of their own, often in diverse ways. And followers with competing viewpoints inevitably resort to WWSASD ("what would so-and-so do?") as a appeal to authority to justify their position.

George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, once famously posed a rhetorical question that cuts to the heart of these appeals to authority, asking, "You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say?"

What canst thou say indeed? I like what Glynn Cardy had to say about Jesus. It is my desire, as we ponder this season of Advent, to de-mythologize Jesus and return to him his full humanity. He was a wonderful religious pioneer with a fantastic message and life (and a tragic death) that speaks to us profoundly today. And I prefer to keep it at that. I do not choose to deify Jesus simply even though I greatly admire him or what he did.

Does belief in hell make one evil?

The December issue of Harper's magazine contains an article by David Lewis and Philip Kitcher that ponders whether belief in hell makes one evil.

The authors argue (and I agree) that hell is more evil than the worst evil that any human has ever perpetrated.

For God has prescribed torment for insubordination. The punishment is to go on forever, and the agonies to be endured by the damned intensify, in unimaginable ways, the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives. In both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst tyrants have done.
Given that hell is evil, the authors then pose this question. Supposing that certain Christians "accept a God who inflicts infinite torment on those who do not accept Him...are those who worship the perpetrator of divine evil themselves evil?"

The authors suggest that, no matter how loving individual hell-believing Christians are in their ordinary lives, their goodness is tainted by their approval of divine evil. The authors make an analogy with hypothetical neo-Nazi named Fritz, who approves of Hitler even if Fritz himself would himself never persecute a single Jew:
Yet Fritz would approve of the persecution being carried out by the proper authorities. So too with the Christians. Perhaps they would grieve that the punishment was prescribed for us; perhaps they would blame themselves for not having done more. But, in the end, they would worship the perpetrator.
The authors claim that even those religious figures we admire as saints, such as Mother Theresa, "admire evil and are tainted by it."

But does approval of an abstract theological fantasy equate to complicity with evil? People often, in their own minds, approve of certain evils in the abstract that they would never approve of when faced with the concrete reality of their beliefs. For example, many are able to support the evil of capital punishment to some extent because the act of judicially sponsored killing is outsourced to professional executioners whose deeds are hidden from public view. But many of those same people who support the death penalty in the abstract would react differently if they were the ones who had to do the killing. Perhaps, then, the problem isn't so much that people are "tainted" by evil as that they are engaging in the time honored human tactic of compartmentalization.

There are other examples of this sort of compartmentalization. Religious conservatives who oppose abortion because they define it as child murder nevertheless have no problem accepting that God ordered the people of Israel to commit genocide against children (as well as adults) in cities like Ai and Jericho, as described in the book of Joshua. Compartmentalization is a powerful thing.

If hell existed, I completely agree with Lewis and Kitcher that it would indeed be evil. It is certainly unfathomable to me that anyone could believe in such a concept. When I was a teenager with serious doubts about my religion, I asked my mother and one of my brothers how they could accept that my other brother, who at the time was an atheist, would be sent to hell for eternity; their rationalizations were, and remain to this day, abhorrent to me.

A big reason people are able to divorce themselves from the consequences of believing in hell is that hell as a theological concept is so divorced from everyday reality that it makes it easy for people to compartmentalize their beliefs. No one who professes to believe in hell has ever had to listen to screams of a non-Christian loved one as they suffered eternal torment in the lake of fire. It's like the capital punishment proponent who lets others do the actual killing. Hell has been outsourced. Hell as a concept is just useful enough to serve as a proselytizing tool for evangelical Christians, but just divorced enough from reality to allow its adherents not to think about the full consequences of their beliefs. And because hell is built in to some people's neat, tidy belief system, the need to hold onto that belief in this world is stronger than their compassion for people in some remote realm beyond the everyday world.

Biblical literalists are particularly guilty of this process. The need to maintain the house of cards that is their belief system is so strong that they are forced to be in denial about a lot of things. Thus compassion for sexual minorities is trumped by biblical literalism and homophobia, and compassion and understanding for people of other faiths is trumped by a belief that one's own religion is the only true one. In both cases, a virtue like compassion becomes subjugated by a psychological need to hold on to a belief system. (Similarly, this phenomenon plays itself out when rationality and reason are trumped by a belief that the Genesis stories are literally true. )

None of this makes any of these people evil; it just makes them human. As long as abstract beliefs are not challenged by concrete realities, it is easy to hold onto that which makes one comfortable. It gets harder when you actually have to come face to face with the consequences of your beliefs. If you think that yours is the only true religion, but you live in a multicultural community where you see people of other faiths who have found deep and transformational spiritual sustenance from their religious lives, it becomes harder to be so intolerant and arrogant. You then have two choices: you either cling tighter to your intolerant views out of fear, or else the stress on your dogma is so great that you are forced to reorganize your belief system--rarely a pleasant process.

From today's "Bad Reporter" comic

From today's "Bad Reporter" comic in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Religious hatred, today and yesterday

The copyright infringement lawsuit by radio talk show hatemonger Michael Savage against the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) demonstrates an interesting point: those who spread hate can't stand it when others quote their own words back to them to show how hateful they really are.

Aside from what you can find on the CAIR website, the Media Matters web site has also documented some of the things that Michael Savage has said on his radio show. In a broadcast three years ago, for example, Media Matters reports that Savage expressed total sympathy for the idea of having "a nuclear weapon dropped on a major Arab capital"; he called for the forcible conversion of Arabs to Christianity, because "it's the only thing that can probably turn them into human beings;" and, referring to them as "non-humans", he called for something akin to genocidal action against them ("Smallpox in a blanket, which the U.S. Army gave to the Cherokee Indians on their long march to the West, was nothing compared to what I'd like to see done to these people.")

The unfortunate reality is that there is nothing new about spewing this kind of hatred on American radio. In the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin used the airwaves to promote hateful anti-Semitic views. In 1938, for example, as described on the PBS website for the program "American and the Holocaust",

Coughlin published a version of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." A virulently anti-Semitic piece of propaganda that had originated in Russia at the turn of the century, the "Protocols" accused Jews of planning to seize control of the world. Jewish leaders were shocked by Coughlin's actions.

Later that year, the radio priest delivered perhaps his most startling and hateful speech to date. In response to the November 10, 1938, "Kristallnacht" attack on Jews in German-controlled territory, Coughlin began by asking, "Why is there persecution in Germany today?" He went on to explain that "Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted."
Much like Savage and the other modern-day hate-spewers of the right, Coughlin had a big following in the United States. It is said, for example, that he received more mail than President Roosevelt. And an opinion poll in 1938 showed that 25% of Americans agreed with most or all of Coughlin's views.

The value of heresy

Thanks to James McGrath for this quote from Gerald Brenan:

"Religions are kept alive by heresies, which are really sudden explosions of faith. Dead religions do not produce them"

From today's "Bad Reporter"

From the most recent "Bad Reporter" comic in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The Pope, Hope and Justice

It has been reported that the Pope, in his latest encyclical, claims that atheism has led to some of the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" ever known. On the face of it, this would seem like a rather cheeky assertion from a man who just recently beatified a group of priests who supported the fascist side in the Spanish Civil War. Is it possible that the press didn't capture all the nuances in the Pope's encyclical, since it seems rather obvious that religion has also caused a lot of "cruelty and violations of justice"? Could he really be claiming that religion immune from the problems that he identifies with atheism? And besides, does he think that atheism is a single, coherent body of belief? I decided to go to the source and see what he actually said.

Fortunately, the Vatican published an English language version of the encyclical on their website, complete with footnotes. Unfortunately, the encyclical is long and ponderous, and I can't say I had the patience to read large sections of it. I did find the pertinent section, #42, that was referred to in the news media reports. There, I see that the pope makes what seems to me to be a rather strange assertion, claiming that "the atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history." He goes on to assert that atheism was rooted in a protest against Christian theodicy, and thus offered its own moralistic alternative to a Divinely instituted eschatology by creating human-produced Utopian visions that had disastrous consequences.

My first reaction to that assertion is that, while I am sure that theodicy has played a role in some people's atheism over the years, there are almost certainly many other reasons for it as well. And in any case, this doesn't really address the question of why atheism experienced the rise that it did in that point in history, which just so happened to be in the wake of the Enlightenment. The problem of evil has existed a long time before that--just look at the book of Job. So it seems simplistic to reduce atheism to that cause alone.

It seems evident to me from the passage in that encyclical that when the Pope says "atheism", he really means Marxism in particular and all-encompassing social movements in general. But if his objection is to Marxism or other ideologies that seek to establish an ideal world order, why doesn't he just say that? Why does he obfuscate matters by equating atheism per se with political visions of an ideal world (which may or may not be atheistic in origin), as if they were all the same thing? Does he actually think that atheism is a single coherent social movement, or that all atheists have grand visions for building a better world? Similarly, does he think that there are not religiously-inclined people with visions of a creating an ideal world? Obviously, there is no direct correlation between trying to build a new world order and being an atheist, just as there is no correlation between atheism and atrocities--and we all know quite well the atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion. And certainly one can either believe or disbelieve in God simultaneously with either supporting or opposing social justice. One need only look at the example of Catholic-infused Spanish fascism that I alluded to earlier to see how this works. The irony of all of this is that the Pope has in the past also vociferously attacked religiously based social justice movements within his own church, particularly Latin American liberation theology, the very existence of which would not seem to fit into his paradigm of radical social liberation movements being equivalent to atheism. In reality, his problem seems not to be with atheism but with the politics of radical reform. It is well known that the Pope turned against leftist politics during the student revolts of 1968, and it seems clear that, nearly 40 years later, these issues still get his panties in a twist.

The pope claims that "a world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope." While I do think that God plays an active role in building justice, I also happen to think that God does so through human agents who actually do the grunt work of building a better world. If we depend on God to magically bring about a better world from above without our own efforts, we will be waiting a long time. I would argue that God acts through us to build social justice, and that we are the ones who have to actually carry it out. Earlier in this same encyclical, the Pope seems to agree that humans do have a role to play in at least trying to make a better world. He writes,

What this means is that every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future.
But even if an ideal society were not achievable by our efforts, as the Pope suggests, and even if all societies have their flaws, I think we have to set our sights as high as possible. If we set our sights lower, I believe quite simply that we will also achieve less. We should never settle for anything less than our highest ideals, even if we can never achieve them perfectly.

I would argue that magical thinking and hopes for an eschatalogical rescue are not the ways to achieve justice. Later in the encyclical, in section 44, the Pope claims,
To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope
The problem, as I see it, is not protesting against "God", but against complacency. Many atheists who might equate worldly injustice with God do so because they have been taught to believe that "God" is necessarily a theistic power who has the power to shape the world according to his whim and who has done so throughout history; such a God that they do not believe in because they would blame the current state of the world on him, and for that reasons they find such a God unsatisfactory. Whether or not all atheists look at it quite that way is another question. But where the Pope finds hope in the Last Judgment, I find the potential of despair--because it can easily lead to a sense of inevitable failure of human efforts and thus a shirking of responsibility for building a just world. Yet this is not inherent to the notion of God. I personally find the notion of a Last Judgment much less inspirational than the passage from Isaiah that was featured in last week's common revised lectionary:

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.'
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

This is, of course, a well known passage, brilliant and poetic in its imagery. This is certainly an image of hope. This is the standard that we can set our efforts by. Just as God evoked the universe into being via slow, tedious evolutionary processes, we too cannot expect instant results, but we can always look to God's perfect justice as something that calls out to us. The beacon of hope as I see it is not in some mythical Last Judgment of the future, but in God's constant call to us in the present, one that offers us the best possibilities at each moment for building a better world.

Biblical literalism

James McGrath offers an insightful commentary on biblical literalism. In pointing out that there really isn't any way to reconcile Matthew's "three days and three nights" with the fact that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are only two days apart, he notes that there are certainly scholarly interpretations that look at the symbolism associated with the number three. But, as he notes,

for those who claim to be Biblical literalists, scholarly considerations of that sort shouldn't matter. Instead, self-proclaimed "Biblical literalists" should be arguing for the celebration either of Good Thursday or of Easter Monday.

But I have a better suggestion. If you are someone that wants a perfect Scripture that speak inerrantly and with precision, please go elsewhere. Stop trying to force Christianity and the Bible into this mold. It just doesn't fit, and in trying to force it to, you do harm to the reputation of the Bible and its appreciation by those who actually read and study it, in detail, and are genuinely interested in understanding it on its own terms.

Hatemonger files a lawsuit

Right wing hatemonger Michael Savage has sued the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for making audio excerpts from Savage's show available on their web site. These audio clips were posted there in order to provide evidence of the kind of hatred that he promotes on his radio show. One could easily be offended just reading a transcript of the venom Savage spews, but when you listen to him speak those words, it becomes chillingly worse; he is literally screaming as he calls for the deportation of Muslims, "without due process", adding that "you can take your due process and shove it."

The audio clips are available on the CAIR web site.

Doing Christianity

Kay has written an entry in her blog about her frustrations with Christianity. She writes:

You probably know what I’m dreading saying - that I just can’t “do” Christianity right now. Maybe never.

I don’t trust the Bible. I don’t find inspiration within its pages. I find some of it horrendous actually. The more I read the Bible the more I want to run away. Sorry, but it’s true. I’ve tried to change my feelings. I’ve tried to learn to do “proper exegesis,” but it’s not working. It’s like trying to do proper exegesis on a Stephen King novel - I might be able to figure out what Stephen is “really” saying with his story, but in the end it’s still a story.

Yes myths can be “true” and meaningful, but I just don’t find this particular story to be true or meaningful. I’ve tried. You guys know I’ve tried.

What I think is significant about her frustration is that it is not for want of trying. She really wants to find a religious home, but she just can't find one. Oh, how I can relate to that.

There are, of course, people out there who are either indifferent to, or actively hostile to, the Christian faith, and naturally they are not even interested in exploring Christianity in the first place. But then there are also people who are drawn to it and yet find that it cannot satisfy them despite their best efforts. I wonder how many people are out there are like that.

When I first felt a strong urge to reconnect with God a year and a half or so ago, it was like there was a tremendous pull that was drawing me back to organized religion. I wasn't sure that the pull I was experiencing was God speaking to me, but I could easily imagine that it was. It really was like an almost irresistible attraction. I suddenly found myself consuming endless books on religious subjects. I found that I really wanted to go to church. I found myself talking to God.

At first, I told myself that when I went to church I would ignore the language and theology that I didn't much care for, and focus on the fact that I was in a community where the word God was used. I had been God-starved for a long time, and so at first that was enough. The God-starvation explains why I wasn't interested in exploring Unitarian Universalism, even though some might think that would be a pretty good fit for me. No, I wanted to hear the word "God" used in service, not just as part of an intellectual deconstruction expressed with ironic detachment during the sermon by a minister who doesn't want to offend the pagans and Buddhists and ex-Christian humanists in his or her audience, but God as an object of congregational worship. So I was willing to put up with some of the trappings of orthodoxy just so I could worship God in a community of faith. And for a time, that was enough. But maybe reading all those progressive theologians got my hopes up and I started setting the bar higher. Or maybe I found that I just wanted more over time and got tired of settling. I visited several churches, and although I've met nice people and progressive pastors, nothing has entirely clicked for me. So disillusionment set in.

The novelty has worn off. Somehow I am feeling largely disconnected from God, and I'm not entirely sure what I'm looking for in organized religion anymore.

When art threatens dogma

I have to admit that I have been so out of the cultural loop that I had not even heard of the Philip Pullman trilogy upon which the movie "The Golden Compass" is based. But given all the brouhaha from certain quarters in response to the film, I rather enjoyed this comment from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford:

If your ancient, authoritarian, immutable belief system is truly threatened by a handful of popular novels, if your ostensibly all-powerful, unyielding creed is rendered meek and defenseless when faced with the story of a fiery, rebellious young girl who effortlessly rejects your stiff misogynistic religiosity in favor of adventure, love, sex, the ability to discover and define her soul on her own terms, well, it might be time for you to roll it all up and shut it all down and crawl back home, and let the divine breathe and move and dance as she sees fit.

I hate Advent

I hate Advent.

There, I've said it.

I recently finished reading the excellent book The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, and you'd think that maybe after reading that book, I'd approach the whole Advent season with a fresh attitude, and I'd view the mythological stories of Jesus's birth in Matthew and Luke with a view towards such things as resistance against the evils of Empire and celebrating Jesus's ideal of establishing a Kingdom of God on earth based on justice and peace.

You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. As much as I love Borg's and Crossan's interpretation of the birth legends, I just can't get enthused about silently holding onto my private Borgo-Crossanian interpretation in church while the more orthodox interpretations are publicly proclaimed. I don't want to have to keep whispering to myself, "Okay, everyone is reciting and celebrating these mythological birth stories as if they were true, but I know they aren't." Or, "All these Trinitarian formulations are incorporated as part of the celebration, but I would rather focus less on the Jesus-worship and more on Jesus's positive alternatives to the religio-Imperial culture of violence and domination." I don't need to go to church for the purpose of internally vocalizing my own little minority report. I can stay at home for that. The point of going to a church service is to engage in a public and communal expression of worship, n'est-ce pas?

Peace and Security

DKBlog points out that the Apostle Paul made a highly subversive remark in one of his letters against the modus operandi of Roman Imperial power. The context of Paul's remarks were as follows:

Peace and Security' (pax et securitas) was a Roman imperial slogan located on coins and elsewhere that signified Rome's promise to provide peace and security to its citizens. The grand irony of this promise was that it was built on the premise of war. Simultaneous worship of the war god Mars and the peace goddess Pax was part of Rome's split personality. The machine of war was driven by the emperor to spread peace, freedom, and liberty to surrounding nations--sometimes preemptively--to ensure Rome's continued pax et securitas.
I am reminded of what Dominic Crossan has said in his book "God & Empire", noting that Rome believed that it was establishing peace through victory, which is to say through armed force and conquest; this stood in contrast to Jesus's message of peace through justice and non-violence. So where does Paul fit into this? DKblog writes,
In 1 Thessalonians 5.3, the Apostle Paul writes, 'When they say, "There is peace and security", then sudden destruction will come upon them.' Notice the slogan. Paul's message was a political one of warning directed at the audacious claims of Rome's Empire, which had claimed for itself the ability to do things early Christians believed could be done by God alone; namely, usher in an age of peace and security built on justice and equality not the machine of war.
Pretty subversive stuff. No wonder Paul got executed by the Romans.

It is not hard to miss the analogy between ancient Rome's means of establishing "peace" through military power--sometimes used preemptively--and events that are taking place in the modern world.

Evolution Sunday is now Evolution Weekend

Evolution Weekend is February 8-10. The web site for this project provides a list of participating churches. Religious bloggers are being urged to write about the subject during that period as well.

A Legion is not a Mob

Last July, I commented in my blog on how the Bible translation known as the Message sometimes loses important ideas expressed in the original text. One specific example of this was the story of the demons that called themselves "Legion", which the Message Bible badly mistranslates as "Mob". In James McGrath's "Why I am a Christian" blog posting that I cited in my previous entry, he discussed why the word "Legion" is so important to that story. I thought he did such a good job of explaining this by analogy, I want to quote here what he said:

This story from Mark's Gospel is about the casting out of a 'host' of demons who call themselves "Legion". The story is the equivalent of one that could have been told during occupied France during World War II, in which a French exorcist drives out a host of demons from a French man. The demons identify themselves as called "Panzer division" and beg not to be sent out of the country - the latter is exactly what these "Roman demons" beg Jesus in Mark! To make matters funnier, the demons take the role of (anti-)exorcist, invoking a higher power (God) to adjure (a technical term used in exorcism) Jesus not to cast them out. Then, whereas exorcists usually demanded a sign that the demons have left, the demons themselves ask to show they have departed by being sent into a herd of pigs - unclean animals according to Jewish Law. This is the icing on the cake - in the WWII parallel, the German demons would beg to be allowed to leave this French man and enter instead the opera company down the road that is performing Wagner!

Why be a Christian?

I just discovered a fascinating blog from Dr. James McGrath, professor of religion at Butler University. Perhaps I should say that he discovered my blog first, and now I am returning the favor. After perusing a few of the entries in the blog, I wanted to call attention to some things he has written that I like.

One of his entries, titled "Why I am a Christian", contains a wonderful exposition of why he places himself within the Christian tradition even if he doesn't accept all the orthodox dogmas of that faith. He specifically cites Marcus Borg, and for good reason, since he apparently shares with Borg a basic understanding of religious identity in the context of a pluralist understanding of religion. Dr. McGrath writes,

I find very helpful an answer to this question that Marcus Borg has also articulated. I am a Christian in much the same way that I am an American. It is not because I condone the actions of everyone who has officially represented America, or that I espouse the viewpoints of its current leaders. It is because I was born into it, and value the positive elements of this heritage enough that I think it is worth fighting over the definition of what it means to be American, rather than giving up on it and moving somewhere else. In the same way, the tradition that gave birth to my faith and nurtured it is one that has great riches (as well as much else beside), and I want to struggle for an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes those things. And just as my having learned much from other cultures is not incompatible with my being an American, my having learned much from other religious traditions doesn't mean I am not a Christian.
He goes on to say,
Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch. When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves...
Well stated! What I find interesting, although also predictable, is that this posting received negative commentary in another, militantly atheist, blog. I say "predictable" because the kind of religious faith expressed by Dr. McGrath or Marcus Borg doesn't fit into the paradigm of militant atheism, which, as I have argued before, is really just the flip side of religious fundamentalism. Like religious fundamentalists, militant atheists essentially consider fundamentalism to be the only legitimate expression of religionus faith; thus progressively tolerant expressions of Christian faith such as that articulated by Dr. McGrath are derided as illegitimate. I have seen this same phenomenon elsewhere; the problem is that progressive Christianity calls into question the very basis of the stereotypes that serve as the fodder for militantly atheistic attacks on religion. They think all religion is illegitimate, and to prove their point they cite the evils of fundamentalism. It is just easier for them to pretend that progressive religion doesn't even exist--which is why you don't find much mention of Marcus Borg from the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens.

The funny thing is that as much as I admire the perspective of the Borgs and McGraths of the world for choosing to use the label "Christian" to define themselves, I actually don't call myself a Christian. I think of myself as perhaps so much out of the Christian mainstream that I'm not even within the Christian fringe. So instead I just sort of hang around in progressive Christian circles, not really committing to anything because nothing really feels like home. But that's just me. I can fully understand the reasoning behind staying within the Christian perspective even as you accept the legitimacy of other faiths.

Here is a quote from John Spong that appeared in the weekly newsletter of a progressive Christian church in my area:
I do not believe that I contribute to the interfaith dialogue by seeking to master a faith tradition other than my own. While I certainly do not think that God is a Christian, I believe the ultimate pathway to religious unity comes through my willingness to go so deeply into Christianity that I escape its limits. Only then can I bring to the interfaith table the pearl of great price that I believe Christianity has to offer. I hope that all religious people of all traditions will be equally dedicated to discovering the essence of holiness that that their faith tradition possesses so that they can share with me the essence, the pearl of great price that they have received from their life in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. My goal is to enrich the world with the essence of Christianity even as I am being enriched by the essence of other worship traditions.

Advent: Politics, Religion, Prophecy, and Christmas

Those who say that politics should have nothing to do with religion should think about the ancient Hebrew prophets. Consider the case of the prophet Isaiah. He wasn't just a prophet; he was an important figure in Judah's politics, consulted as an adviser by the kings of Judah. And the kings of Judah needed all the advice they could get, because they were facing Empires more powerful than their tiny country, and the very survival of their nation-state was often at stake.

One of the kings who consulted Isaiah for advice was the young King Ahaz, who was caught between a rock and a hard place when he assumed the throne during a major political crisis. On the one hand, his neighboring states Israel and Syria, vassals of the Assyrian Empire, were in open rebellion against the Assyrians, and they were demanding that Ahaz's kingdom of Judah join their little coalition of the willing because those two countries alone couldn't defeat the local superpower. Israel and Syria thus besieged Jerusalem in order to force Judah to join the alliance; if Jerusalem fell, not only would the consequences not be pleasant for Ahaz's personal well being, but the fact was that being dragged into a war against a powerful empire could result in doom for Judah, should they be defeated. Ahaz needed to know--should he wait out the siege, or should he appeal to Assyria for help? Yet appealing to Assyria also could reduce Judah to essentially a vassal state of Assyria, and that didn't seem very pleasant either.

Isaiah, being an ethical prophet of his time, tied Judah's fortunes in the geopolitics of his day to such things as how Judah treated the poor and the orphaned and the widow. Prophets could be such cranks some times. This is not the sort of thing that Ahaz wanted to hear. He was a practical man, and wanted practical solutions, and didn't want to hear about social justice, nor did he believe in his heart that if he just trusted Yahweh, as Isaiah urged, everything would turn out okay. If Ahaz's sense of social justice was inferior to Isaiah's, his theodicy was apparently more advanced. So Ahaz did what seemed to be the practical thing and he wanted simply to appeal for help from Assyria so he could throw off the invaders, believing that he probably could not successfully wait out the siege of Jerusalem.

This pissed off Isaiah, who then offered a sign to prove to Ahaz that he should just wait out the siege and trust God to help him. A child would be born to a young woman, and the child would be named Immanuel ("God is with us"). Who this young woman was is unknown to us today--was it Isaiah's wife, or was it one of Ahaz's, perhaps? In any case, this sign was offered as a way of convincing Ahaz to wait out the siege.

So what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus? Well, nothing, actually. Except--except that the Gospel writer Matthew took a mistranslated Greek version of the passage in Isaiah that refers to a young woman giving birth; the Greek version referred to her as a virgin, rather than simply a young woman. And Matthew then tied that passage to the supposed virgin birth of Jesus. Jesus was thus said to have fulfilled the scriptures, even though his name was Jesus and not Immanuel.

There are several ways of looking at this. One way is to imagine that Hebrew prophecy in the Old Testament frequently consisted of predictions of future events that had nothing to do with the immediate geopolitical events that they were ostensibly addressing. According to this view, Matthew, despite the mistranslation of "young woman", realized that this ancient passage in Isaiah was a prediction of a future event, namely the virgin birth of Jesus.

The problem with that is that Isaiah was clearly addressing King Ahaz, not future generations, and the birth of a child to a young woman was taken to be a sign specifically for King Ahaz to follow a particular course of action. So, taken in a literal sense, Matthew just plain got it wrong, and was using a Biblical passage out of context in order to serve as a proof text to stretch a point. Matthew was hung up on the idea that Jesus fulfilled Hebrew scriptures, and in his zeal he got a little carried away.

There is another way to look at this, though. While it is true in a literal way that it makes no sense to take the passage in Isaiah as a prediction of Jesus's birth, there is a broader sense that we can consider matters. Isaiah was trying to tell Ahaz that "God is with us". Isaiah may have had the mistaken notion that if the poor and the widow and the orphans are treated well, nothing bad could happen to his people. His theodicy was not as well developed on this score as, say, the authors of Ecclesiastes or Job, who realized that just because you live a life pleasing to God, that doesn't mean that bad things don't happen to you. But his heart, as a prophet, was in the right place. As a prophet, it wasn't his job to predict events taking place 700 or 800 years later. Among other things, it was his job to address the social injustice that he saw in his own time. Provisional predictions of divine intervention were the best way he knew how of conveying this point. Isaiah was right about one thing--his nation needed to treat the down and out better than they did.

When Matthew, 800 years later, wrote his Gospel, he was trying to convey in his own way the same basic point that "God is with us". Just as Isaiah interpreted an event in his time as a sign for King Ahaz, Matthew believed that God's presence was made known to us via a new sign, namely the events surrounding the life of a man who was born some 80 years or so before Matthew wrote his Gospel.

When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he was telling us that God is with us. According to Luke 17:21, Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." Similarly, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as having said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you."

If God's kingdom if here within us, as Jesus is thought to have asserted, then indeed, Jesus is saying what Isaiah also said. Rather than focusing on Matthew's overzealous need to interpret Jesus's life in terms of an ancient prophecy that had nothing to do with Jesus per se, perhaps it would be more useful to remind ourselves of the more important point, the point that both Isaiah and Matthew--and Jesus--were trying to convey. What modern Christians can celebrate is this notion that God is with us.

What this means is that God was with us long before Isaiah spoke to Ahaz, God was with us long before Jesus was born, and God is still with us today. The value of Jesus's life is that he believed fully that God was with us and he lived his life according to that belief. His faithfulness in God was absolute. He demonstrated his belief in God's immanence in often radical ways. Perhaps the world is full of signs for people of faith that God is with us. For Isaiah, it was the birth of a young woman in Ahaz's time. For Matthew, it was the birth of Jesus. For all of us living today, can we think about what the signs that God is with us? Is it possible that they are everywhere, if we will only look?

Deconstructing the rapture

From the blog "Experimental Theology" comes an amusing deconstruction of the theology of the rapture, titled "Why the Antichrist is an Idiot". Using the "Left Behind" series as a starting point, blogger Richard Beck points out the absurdity of the notion that events in our near future are being dictated from ancient biblical prophecy. In the "Left Behind Series", the character of the Antichrist is named Nicolae Carpathia:

What bothers me is that Nicolae Carpathia, the anti-Christ, starts following the End Times script to the letter. The Bible prophesies that the anti-Christ will do X. And Nicolae Carpathia does X. The Bible prophesies that the anti-Christ will do Y. And Nicolae Carpathia, monotonously and predictably, does Y.

And I'm thinking, is the anti-Christ a complete idiot?

Because either the anti-Christ is a deterministic automaton, slavishly following the End Times predictions of the Bible, or he's a complete moron. It's really one or the other.

Let's assume he's a moron. Why do I draw this conclusion? Well, first, if I was the anti-Christ I would take the time to read the book of Revelation. Shoot, I'd take the time to get a Ph.D. in New Testament apocalyptic literature. Why wouldn't you? I mean, the opposing team just handed you the play book. At the very least the anti-Christ should sit down and watch the End Times 101 educational video left behind at New Hope church.

Think about it. How could the anti-Christ NOT know he's going to fight a battle at Armageddon? Has he not seen any Hollywood movies? This whole battle is a part of pop-culture. He's got to know.

So you have to figure, on the eve of the battle, that he might think back on his whole life, where each step has been predicted in perfect detail, and wonder, "Hmmmm. Maybe I shouldn't fight this battle tomorrow on the plains of Armageddon. Seems like a bad idea. Maybe I should, well, CHANGE TACTICS! Fight the battle somewhere else. Like Boise, Idaho."
The automaton idea reminds me of that old episode from the original Star Trek series where some of the crew of the Enterprise are forced to reenact the gunfight at the OK Corral. Because the historical gunfight played out a certain way, the crew of the Enterprise were forced to reenact it the same way. One could envision that it is possible that the Antichrist wants to do something different than what is foretold, but God, like the aliens in that television show, makes him do it anyway! In the Star Trek episode, every time Kirk and Spock and crew tried to do something different than what happened in the historical gunfight, the aliens who put them there just forced them against their will to follow the script. When the crew decided they would refuse to show up at the OK Corral at the appointed time, they were just magically whisked there anyway. So maybe the Antichrist is like Captain Kirk in that Star Trek episode--in which case he is apparently just enacting a giant drama for God's personal amusement. (Fortunately for the Enterprise crew, Spock figured out that it was all an illusion and gave everyone a Vulcan mind meld.)

This whole nonsense of the rapture being deduced from biblical prophecy does bring to mind the sort of philosophical problems that can arise when foreknowledge runs up against free will. Both open theism and process theology posit that God does not know for certain how the future will play out, because the universe's free will lies even beyond God's foreknowledge. But even aside from that question, there is the problem that if God spills the beans and tells us what is going to happen, how could that not actually influence the future in some way? This is a sort of time-traveling variant on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle; it seems like it would be impossible to be known by others to accurately predict the future without actually affecting the future that you predict. This business of time travel paradoxes has been fodder for lots of science fiction stories.

The threat of dangerous ideas

Today's New York Times magazine contains an article on the young earth Creation "scientists" who think that the earth is more or less 8000 years old.

While discussing the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, the article says the following:

The museum sends the message that belief in a young earth is the only way to salvation. The failure to understand Genesis is literally “undermining the entire word of God,” Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, says in a video.
That pretty much captures in a nutshell what is going on here. Within a video produced at the Creation Museum, its own proponents admit that creationism is driven by fear. Its motivation is laid out before us--the need to zealously guard a complete system of religious dogma, lest the entire faith collapse like a house of cards.

Of course, we already knew that, didn't we?

This Just In

Don Asmussen's "Bad Reporter" is a comic strip that appears in the San Francisco Chronicle; it uses what could roughly be described as "The Onion" style humor to depict pseudo-headlines.

From yesterday's edition:

Progressive Possibilities

Jim Adams, the founder of the Center for Progressive Christianity, has written an article that is posted on the Center's web site. The article, titled "God, Darwin, and the Church", directly addresses many of the concerns that I expressed in my previous blog entry. Among other things, he offers proposals for what he would like to see take place in progressive church services. I believe that if I attended churches that adopted the approach that he suggests, I would find that a lot of the frustration I have experienced would evaporate.

But before he gets to those proposals for worship, he offers a very simple proposal that lies at the heart of my own faith journey:

In order to survive, let alone grow, progressive churches may need to adopt an understanding of religion that does not emphasize believing propositions that contradict the findings of science.

Yes, yes, yes! This is fundamental to what I believe, and it is something I have expressed repeatedly in this blog and in blog discussions elsewhere. I cannot, I will not, believe in a religion that contradicts the findings of science. Of course, this does lead to the next question: if religious faith isn't about belief in miracles and supernatural interventions that defy the laws of science, then what is religion about? The very next sentence in the article addresses this question by suggesting that a religion need not be about dogmatic faith assertions:

In fact, churches may need to de-emphasize all forms of believing and present Christianity as a way of life rather than as a series of beliefs.

This dovetails with what Marcus Borg has said in his own writings. In his book The Heart of Christianity, Borg defines four different kinds of faith; what he calls assensus represents the sort of faith that is built around believing various assertions of dogma--which he and Jim Adams both say can serve as a hindrance to a mature faith. Borg writes:

For many, Christian faith began to mean believing questionable things to be true--as assenting to the truth of claims that have become "iffy."
Instead, Borg believes that faith should be defined in terms of fiducia ("trust"), fidelitas ("fidelity"), and visio ("a way of seeing").

In Jim Adams's article, he continues with what it means when religion no longer becomes about affirming dogmatic assertions:

In this approach, religion is understood to be the business of trying to make sense out of existence. Existence from a purely logical perspective is, of course, nonsense. As Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winner in particle physics, famously stated, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless." Yet nearly everyone feels driven to find some meaning in this pointless universe.

If a church wants to stay alive, it will advertise itself as a community of people engaged in the task of making sense out of that which is nonsense. Individuals engaged in the task may develop a variety of beliefs. Some may accept conventional Christian doctrines, and others may be skeptics or atheists, but they can pray and worship and think together if they do not feel any pressure to conform their beliefs to a real or imagined standard.

Jim Adams thus argues that progressive churches need to deemphasize the notion that Christianity is a faith rooted in dogmatic assertions, in favor of an emphasis on spiritual practices and discovery.

He devotes a lot of his article to the subject of prayer as a spiritual practice; how can rationalists justify the act of prayer? His response is this:

Since they do not believe that prayer will cause God to intervene and change reality, they think that they would feel foolish asking for what they want. They may need help in discovering that while prayer does not change external reality, the practice can change the reality within a person, and the changed person can have an impact on the world and other people.

Every time I sit in a church service when "intercessory prayer" is discussed, I start to get a little uncomfortable. If the ostensible purpose of that prayer is to somehow sway God to do something that we ask of "him", I then find myself having a hard time involving myself in that part of the worship service. I don't believe in a God who "intercedes" in this way. Frankly, I wish the word "intercessory" were banished from the praying portions of worship services. For me, these prayers are more about listening to God, being in the presence of God, and laying before God our hopes and concerns. But asking God to intercede? I don't think so.

Lastly, but most importantly for the purposes of what I raised in my previous blog entry, Jim Adams makes proposals for how he would like to see worship services in progressive churches altered: "Atheists and skeptics can also find meaning in worship," he writes, "if those responsible for designing worship services do so with atheists and skeptics in mind."

I wish he wouldn't use the term "atheists and skeptics" in this context, because I am not an atheist, and to me a disbelief in the unbelievable is not the same thing as "skepticism"; in any case, what he proposes directly speaks to my concerns. Instead, I would suggest that he broaden the category of people he is referring to, perhaps by simply calling them "rationalists". I would suggest that a rationalist is one who believes in science; and a faithful rationalist is one who believes in science and who also believes in God (or some kind of sacred, transcendent reality) at the same time.

It is almost as if he were directly speaking to me when he gives examples in his article of what he means by designing worship services with certain people in mind. He writes:

In order to worship enthusiastically, however, most of the people who embrace Darwin need fairly constant reminders that they need not take literally the words of the liturgy. The sermon or homily is critical in this regard. Whenever preachers want to comment on a Bible passage or some part of the ritual, they have an obligation to make room for both the conventional believers and the skeptical members of the congregation. For example, if the text includes some mention of Jesus's resurrection, the preacher can say, "For many Christians Jesus emerging from the tomb was an historical event, but the language used by St. Paul, who did not mention an empty tomb, makes more sense to other people. Paul used words associated with dreams and visions to suggest that he and others experienced Jesus's resurrection as an internal realization, an inner glimpse of what Jesus meant to them. Either way you want to take the resurrection, you may find that the story offers insight for your own situation."

A preacher can use a similar approach to a Bible story that has no acceptable parallel in the letters of Paul. In talking about the passage where Jesus calms a storm, the sermon can point out that, while some people take this to be a report of an actual event in the life of Jesus, others think that early followers of Jesus made up the story to reflect their attitudes toward him in the light of their deepest fears and longings. Whichever approach you take, the questions to ask yourself are: What is it about this story that caused people to repeat it and later to write it down? What is there in the story that might help me to understand my own fears and longings?

In most of the ostensibly progressive churches that I have attended, preachers don't say anything like "Either way you want to take the resurrection, you may find that the story offers insight for your own situation." Instead, for the most part they preach as if there is only one way to take the resurrection--literally. And that is where they start to lose me.

Progressive frustration

Even though I have found a church in town whose pastor has beliefs very similar to my own and whose congregation is active in the community and open to studying progressive theology, I find myself still wanting to explore what else is out there. Because that church has evening services, that does make it possible in theory for me to go there in the evening and also somewhere else in the morning, assuming that I am feeling particularly spiritual that day. As to why I would want to look elsewhere at all, well, maybe I don't want to be restricted to just one way of experiencing God, or maybe I am not sure if any one church really serves as a close match for me. Maybe I'm not sure how accepted I'll ever be in any church that I attend, so I hang back and visit multiple churches without becoming too invested in any of them. In any case, I have to say that while I haven't exactly run out of potentially interesting new churches in (or very near to) my city to visit on on Sunday mornings, I'm getting a little exhausted by the process.

I think I sometimes fool myself into believing that my definition of progressive Christianity is similar to everyone else's. But I'm not so sure. As I visit churches that define themselves as "progressive", I can see that while they possess none of the obnoxious and poisonous theology of religious fundamentalism, they also tend to remain on the other side of a dividing line that is important to me when I consider my own beliefs.

My definition of "progressive" is essentially Borgian-Crossanian. I don't take literally any of the miraculous elements of Christian mythologies. I don't believe in a literal virgin birth, or that Jesus walked on water or fed five zillion people with two micrograms of loaves and fishes, or that he was raised from the dead. For that matter, I don't believe that Jesus was God. In a nutshell, to me, an important element of what defines my conception of progressive Christianity is that I do not believe in what I consider to be the fantastical or the unbelievable.

This is the dividing line that seems to separate me from most self-defined progressive churches. While these churches by and large respect other faiths, do not preach a doctrine of hellfire and brimstone, value sexual minorities, and reject biblical literalism--all of which are wonderful virtues that separate them from fundamentalist churches--the sticking point for me is the matter of the miraculous. This is not a minor sticking point for me. I left religion as a teenager, in no small part because I rejected the notion of the miraculous. This continues to define my view of the world today, and I do not take this lightly.

There are many resources for finding churches that define themselves as progressive. The Center for Progressive Christianity is one of them. Another one is a book by Hal Taussig, titled A New Spiritual Home, which I have a copy of but which I have only skimmed through--except that the book has a potentially useful appendix at the end with a huge listing of progressive churches, which I have consulted.

Having visited a fair number of progressive churches on Sunday mornings, I find that most of them seem to reside on the other side of that dividing line of the miraculous that matters a great deal to me. It seems like most pastors at these churches preach as if they really believe that Jesus was raised literally from the dead. And when I hear talk like that, I start to feel turned off. That isn't what my religion is about. I seem to speak a different language. And I think sometimes that I am a fool to believe that I really have anything in common with any Christian community, no matter how progressive they seem to be.

There are some progressive churches that are farther afield that I would consider worth visiting on an occasional basis, although some of them involve going over a major and frequently congested bridge, and the thought of dealing with the traffic getting home doesn't appeal much to me. Is it worth it to go farther and farther away in search of the Holy Grail?

The problem of theology is complicated by a host of other factors, such as how worship is conducted and how friendly the congregation is. As for how worship is conducted, some denominations, regardless of how progressive they are, just won't seem to be a good fit for me personally; progressive Episcopal services, for example, just haven't suited me well in part because they are so focused on the Eucharist as the central element of worship. I don't have a high church upbringing and that type of service in general is not something that works very well for me. Meanwhile, I have visited at least one progressive church where I felt a certain theological kinship but where I did not feel all that welcomed. And so it goes, round and round.

When I started attending churches last year, it was a big adventure for me, attractive for its novelty as much as anything else. But over time, I have to say that the novelty has started to wear off. At first, I told myself that I would just ignore the parts that I heard in church that I didn't feel comfortable with, as long as the church was mostly progressive and otherwise satisfying. I was able to do that for a while. But I think that reading people like Borg, and attending churches that offer "Living the Questions" or "Saving Jesus" workshops, have set my expectations higher, and I stopped wanting to settle.

Sometimes I think I am getting value from this process, but I am becoming less sure. I'm not sure what I am getting by visiting different churches at all.