Katharine Schori sells out

I did not see the live webcast conducted by Katharine Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, but the AP religion writer Rachel Zoll reports that she is now urging her church to "roll back their support for gays -- at least for now -- so the denomination can keep its place in the world Anglican fellowship."

This confirms the worst fears that I have had about Schori in recent days. She accuses those who support social justice on this issue of being "impatient", calling such impatience an "idol". This is nonsense. Were slaves in 19th century America just being too "impatient" when they demanded their liberation? There is no compromise when it comes to the imperative for social justice, to include all of God's children within the greater community of faith. This is not a mere stalling tactic that she is advocating. To "stall" would mean moving neither forward nor backward. But apparently, if I understand this article correctly, she is now actively seeking to roll back progressive, inclusive gains in her church, in order to placate the reactionaries in the Anglican communion. And why? In the hopes that somehow at some distant point those who preach hatred, those whose intolerance of difference and dissent and inclusion, will suddenly reverse themselves and become beacons of inclusiveness? And what are those who are excluded supposed to do in the meantime? How many years should they expect to twiddle their thumbs and remain second class citizens in their church? To take away the promised land from someone who has been to the mountaintop is worse than not allowing them to the mountaintop at all. This is an insult, a slap in the face of gays and lesbians in her church, not to mention their progressive supporters.

The article reports

The Episcopal House of Bishops will take up the proposal for the first time at a closed-door meeting in March. Jefferts Schori said she was also trying to find a way that the House of Deputies, which represents clergy and lay people, could weigh in on the decision without calling a special convention, which would be expensive and time-consuming.
I don't know much about Episcopal politics to know how these two representative bodies relate to what is required for a reversal in policy, or what the odds are that this would even take place. But this illustrates once again why "unity" over "principle" is often a very bad idea.

"The core of most religions is not doctrinal"

An article in the Guardian about the divide in Britain between people of faith and militant atheists contains the following quote:

John Gray, professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, whose book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia will be published later this year, detects parallels between dogmatic believers and dogmatic unbelievers such as Hitchens and Dawkins. "It is not just in the rigidity of their unbelief that atheists mimic dogmatic believers. It is in their fixation on belief itself."

Gray argues that this fixation misses the point of religions: "The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience . . . When they dissect arguments for the existence of God, atheists parody the rationalistic theologies of western Christianity."

Dogmatic atheists and fundamentalists really are two sides of the same coin. Those who vociferously criticize religion usually end up attacking straw men and thus utterly miss the point. Religion is poetry for the human soul. Doctrines are just tools for parsing out that poetry. But one thing about art is that it can never be reduced down to attempts to explain it. Art, like religion, ultimately speaks for itself.

Sara Miles on Communion

Sara Miles, a member of St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in San Francisco, has recently written a book about her experiences as a convert to Christianity, titled Take This Bread. In an interview on the San Francisco Chronicle web site, she makes the following comment:

I think the most important thing for me about St. Gregory's is the practice and the theology of open Communion, which says basically that the altar does not belong to the church. The altar is God's, and everybody is welcome. It is not up to the church to say, "You don't deserve Communion, because you're not baptized or you're gay or you're divorced or you're a child."

The church doesn't own Communion. It's God's meal. That made it possible for me to even take Communion in the first place. It also made it possible for me to look at the church not as a way to divide people from each other, but as a way of joining people together.

Life After Death

Reverend Mom has given an account of her disappointment upon visiting a Unitarian Universalist funeral; while, not unexpectedly, there was no mention of personal immortality or resurrection, perhaps more surprisingly, there was no mention even of the idea of the deceased living on in spirit through the memories of others. She wrote,

Can we relate to the universe as incarnational without a belief in Jesus as the son of God? I believe so, and it would have lent more power to this service which honored a powerful woman. We celebrated her life; what was missing was the celebration of the life-giving force within and among all life that is always creating, that never dies.
I always liked the concept within process theology of "objective immortality", which proposes that all of our experiences live on after we die, objectively, in God's perfect memory. Of course, we also live on in the imperfect memory of others we have affected in our lives. But those around us will, after all, someday die. As the author Anne Lamott puts it, every 100 years or so, the world has "all new people". Unless we are particularly famous, the world will likely forget most of us. But God always remembers us, and in that sense we enhance God's own experience, just by having lived.

Still, it matters to me to think that I have a positive influence on those around me. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but I sometimes daydream about what other people would say about me at my hypothetical future funeral. If I were as good a person as I want to be, then my egoistical self I would like to imagine that people would talk about all the wonderful things I did that touched them in some way. But my other self wonders if they would even have positive remembrances of the impact I have had on them--or if all they would have to say about me were just nonspecific, blandly sentimental nothings. Would I get credit for the things I think I deserve credit for, or would I be the only one to remember them? On the other hand, would they remember things I had done that I have long ago forgotten about?

I have always wanted my life to mean something to the world around me. Am I leaving the world in a better place than it would have been had I never been born? I don't know the answer to that question. There are so many ways that we can have a positive impact without curing cancer or saving people from burning buildings. We don't have to be heroes to make the world better. I know that, at some level; but still, I wonder how I make an impact through the everyday actions of my life. And then there are the things I feel guilty about, sometimes actions that I took long ago, sometimes when I was young and naive and didn't know any better.

The idea that for each and every one of us, that which constitutes our egos, our selves--the subjective collectivity of our experiences and remembrences--is snuffed out at some point when we die--seems like a terrible tragedy for me. At some level, I am open to the idea of an afterlife, but I am not focused on it, and I am not confident in it either. At the very least, we can honor the memories of those who have died before us.

Humpty Dumpty and the Episcopalians

An article in yesterday's New York Times compared the divisions taking place now in the Episcopal Church with divisions that took place among many US churches before the civil war over the subject of slavery. It is an interesting article, and worth checking out. Many US denominations were split over the issue of slavery, and a similar split seems to be taking place, over homosexuality at least within the Anglican Communion, between the generally progressive Episcopal church and the reactionary church leaders in sister churches elsewhere in the world. The divisions over slavery were bitter and many of the denominations that split took a long time to reunify (and the Baptists never did get back together again.)

The article highlights a problem that many Episcopalians face--they seem to value unity above all else. The example of the Civil War was presented as a case in point:

The Episcopal Church is one of the few that did not split over slavery. Churches in the Confederate States did form a separate alliance, Mr. [John L.] Kater said, but the national Episcopal Church met without them and “pretended they were out of the room,” calling out the dioceses’ names for a vote “as if they had just gone to the bathroom.”

“After the war there was a simple reconciliation process, and they were all brought back in as if it had not happened,” he said. “I was taught in seminary that this was the great strength of the Episcopal Church, that when all the other churches divided, it stayed together and this was a sign of its great sense of unity. I think it was shameful, that the church considered that unity was more important than slavery.

I think that last point is critical. This valuing of unity above all else is apparently what led to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Schori, to have essentially sold out the gays and lesbians in her church by signing on to a document that issued an ultimatum to the Episcopal church to change its ways by September 30. Imagine an American church in 1860 that supported equal rights for African Americans being given an ultimatum to rescind its position on the issue by the end of that year. History judges harshly those who buckle under in such circumstances. While up to this point I had had respect for Ms. Schori, it seems to me now that she doesn't have the moral courage to stand up to the reactionaries in the Anglican Communion. Just as the antebellum Episcopal Church considered unity more important than slavery, Schori seems to consider unity more important than standing firmly for the the dignity and equality of all God's people in her church.

We know that this love for unity is a one-sided proposition. The other side couldn't care less about diversity under a big tent, and will happily kick out anyone who doesn't conform to their rigid and morally bankrupt doctrines. As the Times article points out,
The liberals insist that what defines Anglicanism is theological diversity, and the conservatives claim Anglicanism requires a commitment to doctrine. The liberals are saying, “Can’t we all just get along,” while the conservatives are saying, “Can’t we all just get in line?”
This contrast between "getting along" and "getting in line" is clear. The theological fascists within the Anglican Communion, like their like minded brethren in other churches, are primarily interested in crushing opposing viewpoints within their organization, and evicting anyone who thinks different. How can anyone who believes in "getting along" possibly miss this point now? All the conflicting parties have to agree to "get along" if "getting along" is going to work at all. The other side, the theological conservatives, couldn't care less about such a lofty goal. Tolerance has never been the hallmark of theological conservatism.

Unfortunately, this intolerance extends all the way to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The blogger MadPriest has given a clear example of what he correctly calls an alarming example of this; he quotes from an interview with Archbishop Williams in which Rowans said,
The stance of the Anglican Communion is clear: It has never said anything other than that. The ordination of active homosexuals is not acceptable.

It has never said anything other than that the marriage of same sex-couples is not to be admitted.
So much for agreeing to "get along".

I'm not an Episcopalian, and it is not my place to tell them what to do, but it seems absurd to me at this point for progressives within that denomination to hold to the pretense that "getting along" is either desirable or possible within the Anglican Communion. Maybe if they shake the shackles of religious conservatism from their denomination, they might find themselves free to blossom into a remarkably progressive faith that can move forward without having to negotiate at each step of the way with the religious reactionaries.

There are other mainline denominations in the US that are facing similar divisions. Except for the occasional breakaway church, the mainline Lutheran, Presbyterian, and the Methodist denominations continue to pursue official policies of bigotry against gays and lesbians. To my knowledge, the UCC is the only mainline denomination besides the Episcopalian church that takes a progressive stance on this issue. Whether these other denominations will some day split or not over this issue isn't clear to me. The progressives remain hopeful that slowly and steadily they can sway their denominations towards an inclusive policy. However, the Episcopal example suggests that what instead will inevitably happen is a breakup rather than a transformation from within. But what is clear to me is that courageous people of faith in the US before the civil war realized that unity was less important than taking a moral stand for justice. There seems to be a kind of Humpty Dumpty paralysis, a fear that the world will somehow come to an end if a denomination splits. But I suspect that all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put these diverse factions back together again. Sometimes it is better if those who want to get along just leave those who want everyone to get into line. Inclusiveness and exclusion cannot easily coexist under the same roof.

Poverty in the US is on the increase

Tony Pugh of the McClatchy newspaper chain reports that poverty in the US is on the increase. According to his article,

The percentage of poor Americans who are living in severe poverty has reached a 32-year high, millions of working Americans are falling closer to the poverty line and the gulf between the nation's "haves" and "have-nots" continues to widen.
What is particularly interesting about this is that this is taking place during a supposed economic boom:
The plight of the severely poor is a distressing sidebar to an unusual economic expansion. Worker productivity has increased dramatically since the brief recession of 2001, but wages and job growth have lagged behind and the share of national income going to corporate profits has dwarfed the amount going to wages and salaries.
Profits are up, and poverty is also up. This tells us in a nutshell, I think, what is wrong with American society. It seems that, as long as corporate profits are higher, the economy is said to be "booming" and "expanding", and thus we are told that the economy is doing "well"--poor people be damned. As long as we live in a society that serves the interests of corporate profits rather than human needs, then nothing else matters. Is anyone--is any politician, even those who talk a good game about ending poverty--willing to do what it takes to challenge the corporate ruling class? It is clear to me that corporate interests lie at the center of the social and political system of the modern-day American Empire. I would argue that this contemporary alliance between capitalism and politics serves as the analog to the class-based peasant society of the Roman Empire that Jesus lived in. People like Walter Wink and Marcus Borg prefer to use the term "domination system" to describe the kind of rule that Jesus lived under. But I would assert that we have a new kind of domination system today, and it is just as oppressive in its own way.

The Tony Pugh article concludes with a somber note:
"Whether these patterns will continue throughout the first decade of 2000 and beyond is difficult to say ... but there is little reason to think that this trend will reverse itself any time soon."
What are we doing today to bring about the Kingdom of God? And is simply settling for "reversing" a trend what we should be seeking--or should we instead seek nothing short of total social justice?

In Diana Buter-Bass's book Christianity for the Rest of Us, she addresses the question of justice-seeking as a part of the life of a congregation. She points out that the cause of social justice has had little to do with traditional political liberalism:
At the time of the civil rights movement a few white mainline churches, even some southern ones, supported integration and voting rights for blacks. However, they typically did so on the basis of political liberalism, drawing from the language of fairness, equality, and rights. While fairness, equality and human rights are very good things, they are also primarily secular ideals. As shocking as the discovery may be to many American Christians, that secular language is not found in the Bible or in the vast consensus of Christian tradition. Instead, those ideals emerged during the Enlightenment, the liberal philosophical movement that has shaped Western thought for the last three centuries. By the 1960s, Enlightenment liberalism dominated ideological thinking in white mainline churches. During my Methodist childhood, it was hard to figure out what God had to do with what was happening in Mississippi or Alabama. "Justice" had more to do with the courts than with the Bible.

Unlike white Protestants, African-American Christians spoke a different language of justice--one that was deeply spiritual and tapped into the stories of the Bible. King talked of justice as a spiritual journey, as doing the work of God. Although some white liberals agreed with his cause, many found King's religious vision, with its implicit criticism of secular politics, hard to take. At Cornerstone [United Methodist Church] on Martin Luther King Day, political liberalism is notably absent. They celebrate King's vision of diversity and justice as biblical ideals, as part of their spiritual journey. For them, justice is not about backing a secular political agenda--whether that be liberal or conservative. Rather, justice is part of the faithful life of being a Christian; justice is spirituality.
There is, in my view, a contrast between the polite, restrained values of the modern liberalism, and the radical values of social justice as espoused by the such diverse characters as the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Abbie Hoffman. Does that mean that I think one should then reject politics out of hand? No, I don't. I think one can take that view too far and conclude that politics don't matter, or that we can build justice by ignoring politics. I do not believe that. I am deeply interested in what happens in the political arena, and I would not, therefore, agree with the rock band The Police, who, in their song "Spirits in the Material World" claimed that "there's no political solution to our troubled evolution." However, the Police were correct in that song about the corruption of the existing political processes:
"Our so-called leaders speak
with words they try to jail you.
They subjugate the meek;
but it's the rhetoric of failure."
To me, secular political processes may not always be the direct conduit for us as we seek the Kingdom of God. If we consider the corruption of the domination system to be the primary means through which we achieve the Kingdom of God, if we ally ourselves too strongly with it,I believe we are doomed to be corrupted by that very system. To me, we need to seek social justice first and foremost, and let the political chips fall where they may. That means standing outside of the system as voices of conscience who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I am a cynic and a radical. I believe that we can only achieve the Kingdom of God if we seriously look at building a a new social order based on the principles of justice, where human needs instead of corporate profits are what define what we do as a society. The current domination system of our time cannot lead the way to the Kingdom of God, in my view. Only the people at the grassroots, listening to God's call (whether they believe in God or not), can do that. It's a tall task indeed. Jesus died 2000 years ago because he would not bend to the domination system of his day. What are we doing today to honor his sacrifice?

On giving up Lent for Lent

In my previous postings about Ash Wednesday and Lent, I thought I was just being my usual heretical self, and that nothing I wrote on those topics would bear much relationship to what other Christians think. So imagine my surprise to see that Diana Butler-Bass has written a blog entry in which she echoes some of my own sentiments about Lent, even if she comes from a perspective that is more mainstream than my own more radical standpoint. I was particularly entertained to see that she made a similar comment to what I wrote about Lent--namely, that she was giving up Lent for Lent. Here is part of what she has to say:

When I gave up Lent for Lent, it become clear that I needed to give up the idea that certain religious disciplines would bring me closer to God. This belief had plagued me since I was an evangelical teenager struggling with my congregation’s expectation for a “daily quiet time.” Never able to maintain this program of spiritual rigor, I felt like a Christian failure. When I finally admitted that I could not do it, I experienced a new freedom in prayer. Giving up led me to a richer and deeper connection of God in prayer, and led me to practice prayer in ways that resonate with who God has made me to be – unique, meaningful, and transformative. Not a program, but a way of being.

Lent tempts Christians to try to fulfill other people’s expectations of what spirituality should look like, usually related to some sort of religious achievement or self-mortification. But Lent is neither success nor punishment. Ultimately, Lent urges us to let go of self-deception and pleasing others. These 40 days ask only one thing of us: to find our truest selves on a journey toward God.

Giving up Lent for Lent meant giving up guilt. Although I have been back to church for Ash Wednesday many times since I gave up Lent for Lent, that year freed me from spiritual tyranny and helped me understand Easter anew. The journey to Easter is not a mournful denial of our humanity. Rather, Lent embraces our humanity – our deepest fears, our doubts, our mistakes and sins, our grief, and our pain. Lent is also about joy, self-discovery, connecting with others, and doing justice. Lent is not morbid church services. It is about being fully human and knowing God’s presence in the crosshairs of blessing and bane. And it is about waiting, waiting in those crosshairs, for resurrection.

Ash Wednesday

I didn't attend Ash Wednesday services last night.

I have to admit that Ash Wednesday doesn't really mean anything to me theologically. It seems to be mixed up with this whole notion of human sinfulness as it relates to Divine Grace. But I don't want to be reminded that I am a sinner. The emphasis on sinfulness as part of the equation in our relationship with God doesn't really speak to my spirituality. I am not interested in hearing that God loves me despite; I am much interested in the concept that God loves me just cuz.

Is God really Our Parent Who Art in Heaven? Parental love is unconditional and doesn't care a whit about some standard that the child doesn't live up to. Not that I'm saying that we all can't do better. Of course we can. I am a deeply flawed person. I just don't want to be part of a worship experience that rubs it in my face (literally and figuratively). I think God actually finds inherent value in our very being. That is much more affirming for me, than to hear about how I am such a sinner.

Anyway, that's my take on it.

Unity and Diversity

When Christians elevate uniformity, "alikeness," over Paul's dream of unity-in-diversity, shunning, excommunication, heresy trials, inquisitions, schism, crusades, and religious warfare are among the predictable results. As a historian of religion, I never cease to be astonished at the prevalence of this theological mistake--and its tragic consequences. The Christian West has been marked by a twisted insistence on sameness--especially on belief--that has led to a sadly ironic result: vast numbers of people who doubt or reject Christianity on the basis of its hypocrisy. How can a religion that speaks so eloquently of love so brutally destroy its questioners, its dissenters, its innovators, and its competitors?
--Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us
A few months ago, the outgoing pastor of the UCC congregation that I attend held a conversation with me about membership. I mentioned that, with my heretical views, I felt that I was on the fringes of Christian belief, and wasn't sure that membership really made sense for me. What I discovered from her response to that was that there was apparently more diversity of belief in that church than I had realized. I think I still had in my mind the model of a Christian denomination that I had acquired from my fundamentalist upbringing, where membership in a faith community was strongly tied to adhering to a set of "correct" beliefs. The idea of diversity of belief within a self-consciously Christian community was more than a little alien to me.

With respect to disabusing me of this notion with respect to the progressive church that I attend, it didn't really help that theology doesn't get discussed much among the laypeople at that church. At coffee hour after the service, people may talk about their jobs, their landlords, the music they like, or the movies they've seen. Maybe they'll talk a little about denominational politics. But hardcore theological discussions don't seem to come up. Maybe this is because people know that there is a diversity out there and are afraid to go places that might stir things up? Or maybe that just isn't what gets talked about during coffee hour. I'm not sure.

Don't get me wrong. I like the congenial atmosphere of the coffee hour. But when the only theology you run across at the church is what the pastor tells you in his or her sermon, then, knowing as I do that I am on the fringes to begin with, I sort of feel like I am out there swimming alone. God knows I am not looking for heated debates, but at least some indication that an open exploration of issues is more than acceptable might have helped me to overcome the resistance brought on by some of the scars that I carry from my fundamentalist days. Although, come to think of it, I'm not sure anything can be done about those scars.

In any case, this question of diversity ties back to Marcus Borg's concept of the four kinds of faith. He refers to the kind of faith that means subscribing to a fixed formula of belief as assensus. But there are other meanings of faith as well--faithfulness (as in a relationship), trust, and having a vision that defines one's way of being. Assensus is the preferred definition of faith by those of a fundamentalist bent. The problem is that this kind of faith, when it is enforced as a doctrinal standard, results in the sorts of consequences that Diana Butler Bass described in the passage I quoted above. It is a disaster for Christianity.

Diversity and conformity can and do exist in tension with one another. Sometimes the tension snaps in one direction or another. In the case of Unitarian Universalism, the tension resolved itself in favor of diversity and intellectual freedom, often at the cost of Christian spirituality. In the case of fundamentalism, it snapped in the opposite direction, but at the cost of intellectual freedom. What I felt most drawn to was participation within the Christian tradition. But I didn't want to check my brain at the church house door either. This tension has always been a problem for me, from the time I started attending services at a liberal Christian church. Sometimes the tension disappears for a while, but other times it pops up again for me.

The discussions that I had with that pastor on the subject of membership were not at my instigation. I was flattered by the interest in bringing me on board, and felt somewhat reassured by her indications of diversity within the congregation. But, ultimately, I preferred to stay on the outside, at least for now. I am still trying to make sense of it all.

Insiders and Outsiders

The worldwide Anglican Communion has responded to its crisis over social questions like homosexuality by issuing an ultimatum to the US-based Episcopal Church. The American church has, in essence, been ordered to change its ways--or else. Or else what? That wasn't specified, but it is clear that, despite words of reassurance by its Presiding Bishop, the thrust of the ultimatum is an attack on the social justice initiatives in this area by the American church.

When considering these events within that denomination, I am reminded of Robert Funk's book Honest to Jesus, in which the author devotes a fair number of pages to analyzing the characteristics of Jesus's parables. One key point that he emphasizes is that Jesus, over and over again, both through his parables and through his lifestyle of conviviality at an open table, preached a religion in favor of the outsiders in his society. He calls this "the paradox of Jesus--outsiders are in, insiders are out."

He points to several incidents that the Gospels report from Jesus's life that further confirm that this was his stance. In contrast to the ascetic John the Baptist, Luke quotes his Q source as reporting that Jesus said, "For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Funk explains that this "glutton and drunk" epithet is a reference to Deuteronomy 21:18-21, and represents a serious charge levied against a "disobedient and rebellious son".) Similarly, Mark 2:15-16 reports that Jesus attended a dinner party at the house of a recent recruit, and "many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him"--something that, according to this story, angered the Pharisees, who symbolized here the intolerance of religious authorities.

Funk points out that Jesus's identification with the outsiders

throws light on another saying: "I swear to you, the toll collectors and prostitutes will get into God's domain, but you will not." Here Jesus is speaking to religious authorities of some sort--the keepers of the social codes.
We see this gatekeeping by the self-proclaimed "keepers of the social codes" in modern society as well--within elements of the Anglican Communion, as well as in other churches that continue to take reactionary positions on homosexuality.

Funk goes on to cite various examples from Jesus's parables that further illustrate his identification with the outsiders: the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the parable of the dinner party, and the parable of the good Samaritan. Funk concludes,
In a well-ordered society, people know their places. In Jesus' world the few very rich and the many very poor knew their places. The social distance between them was mediated by brokers who dispensed favors bestowed by patrons on compliant peasants and peons. In contravention of the social order, Jesus was socially promiscuous: he ate and drank publicly with petty tax officials and "sinners," yet he did not refuse dinner with the learned and wealthy. He was seen in the company of women in public--an occasion for scandal in his society. He included children in his social circle--children were regarded as chattel, especially females...and advised that God's domain is filled with them.
Somehow, something went horribly wrong in the history of Christianity after Jesus died. Those who claimed to be the followers of a man who opposed gatekeeping turned around themselves and erected their own gates. Those who claimed to follow a man who broke down the walls between insiders and outsiders now defined themselves as the new insiders. They set up an institutional hierarchy, not unlike the institutional hierarchy that Jesus stood in opposition to. While Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was granted to the outsiders rather than the gatekeepers, many of his followers turned that notion inside out.

John Spong wrote in Born of a Woman that,
...life-denying prejudices have been perpetuated throughout history as official "Christian" positions, buttressed by an appeal to the literal Bible. Included on that list would be the rejection of left-handed people as abnormal, the enslavement and segregation of non-white people as sub-human, the violation and murder of gay or lesbian people who are labeled sick or depraved, the repulsion from the sanctuaries of the church including the burial office of those who have committed suicide, and the rejection and excommunication through canon law of divorced persons regardless of the circumstances leading to the divorce. It always seemed strange to me that something called the Word of God became in fact again and again in the life of the church a weapon of oppression. But that is the judgment of history.
Here we are seeing this phenomenon playing itself out again in the debates taking place within the Anglican Church. Who will stand for the outsiders? Clearly not those conservatives within that denomination. It is time for those who follow Jesus to remind themselves that, as in the parable of the dinner banquet, those who are supposedly the least deserving are the ones who will be invited to the table.


In honor of Fat Tuesday, a coworker brought a King Cake into the office today. I had some, and it was delicious.

As several of us sat at the table and partook of the cake, we discussed the subject of giving things up for Lent. One coworker mentioned that she used to give up sugar for Lent, but this year, having just lost her mother, she didn't think she had it in her to give that up for forty days. I joked that I was giving up Lent for Lent. This wasn't entirely honest, since, in reality, I have never celebrated Lent at any point in my life, so I could hardly give up something that I never did in the first place. I grew up in a church that didn't do liturgical calendars, and later as an adult become involved with other churches that also eschewed such things, so I had no real concept of anything related to this time in the church calendar.

In a previous posting, I commented on the fact that Jesus did not fast--that Jesus led a celebratory life of shared meals with the outcasts of his society. In that sense, Jesus was not an ascetic. And yet, he was not an acquisitive, sedentary hedonist either. There was a simplicity to his celebratory lifestyle that defied the simple polarity between hedonism and asceticism. He was an itinerant preacher of the Kingdom of God; he traveled from town to town, and some scholars have compared him to the Greek Cynics, who lived without personal possessions as they used their wit to question the established wisdom of their society. How much he resembled the Cynics is subject to debate, but it does seem to me that in any case he led a simple lifestyle.

The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate the value of simplicity. I am a creature of consumer society as much as the next person is. I have my mp3 player, my computer, and my car. Yet I can't help but consider that there is meaning in how I live my life. I am no Luddite, and I like technology as much as the next person does. And yet, if I allow myself to be swept along by technology without asking it to justify itself at each step along the way, have I become enslaved by it?

As some of us make a decision to give something up for Lent, I wonder if it might be useful to ask ourselves not what we will give up for 40 days, but rather what we could give up permanently. How can we make our lives simpler? When does our addiction to technology or possessions get in the way of our spiritual lives? Perhaps, if I focus less on the spiraling demands of acquisition and more on the quality of my interactions with others, my spiritual life will improve. Maybe there is something to this idea--perhaps we need to celebrate life, but at the same time do so simply and inclusively.

The resurrection

Biblical scholar April DeConick writes in her blog,

Are stories like Jesus' resurrection story useful to a historian? Absolutely. What it tells me is that some of Jesus' followers had visions of Jesus after his death, a psychological phenomenon not unusual. I had vivid dreams, what I would call "visions," of my mother after she died, all suggesting that she was really alive but hidden away by the doctors. It took a couple of years for this to subside. In the ancient Jewish culture, visions of the dead could be interpreted in a couple of ways. The person has seen the deceased "spirit" or "ghost," an interpretation that some of Jesus' followers made of their visions of Jesus according to Luke 24:37. Or the person has witnessed someone's resurrected body, the theological interpretation that became the standard interpretation in the memory of the community. This interpretation was so important that it launched a series of christological questions and formulations, and ultimately led to Jesus becoming God.
I think the internal evidence from the New Testament suggests that this is exactly what took place.

The first New Testament scripture to be written comes from someone--Paul--who did not encounter a physically resurrected Jesus during the period after Easter when the latter supposedly walked on the earth. Instead, Paul encountered Jesus, in a vision, some time after those alleged post-resurrection events depicted in Luke, Matthew, and John. Now here is the key point: Paul saw Jesus in a vision, and he asserts that this is how the other apostles also saw Jesus. Note what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:
he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Note that he uses the same verb each time: "appeared". Paul is making no distinction here between the nature of Jesus's appearance to himself, and Jesus's appearance to the others who preceded him. They are all listed together, undistinguished from one another. Jesus's appearance was of the same order for all of them. In each case, in other words, Paul was saying that Jesus appeared to others in a vision. Paul was not asserting that anyone saw a resurrected Jesus walking around on the earth. His conception of the resurrection, it seems clear to me, was of Jesus having been exalted into God's presence and who could be experienced in a mystical or visionary sense--not of a man walking around showing his crucifixion woulds and miraculously appearing in rooms.

After Paul, none of the rest of the New Testament writings were penned by eyewitnesses to the post-resurrection events depicted in the Gospels. The next New Testament book to be written after Paul was the Gospel of Mark, which was written some 40 years after Jesus died. Like Paul, the author of Mark refers to Jesus's resurrection, but he says nothing about any physical appearances. The Gospel ends with an empty tomb--period. No resurrected Jesus walks around and talks with his disciples in the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel does say that a resurrected Jesus would be found in Galilee--but it doesn't describe what the nature of that resurrection was.

It was only when Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, some time later, that we see the first stories of a resurrected Jesus actually walking around on the earth. By this time, the resurrection had become mythologized. Matthew placed the resurrection appearance story in Galilee, on a mountaintop (Matthew liked to place Jesus on a mountain, in the style of Moses at Mt. Sinai--the Sermon on the Mount being another example.) Luke got more elaborate, and also for the first time placed the resurrected Jesus not in Galilee, but in Jerusalem. (In so doing, Luke dispensed entirely with the bit in Mark about the resurrected Jesus being found in Galilee--but never mind.) John continued in the same vein as Luke.

The resurrection appearances described in the Gospels are clearly mythological, and they are not particularly consistent with one another. Also, Luke has Jesus literally ascending into heaven; this reflected a primitive three-tiered view of the universe that had God residing in the sky literally above the earth, and such an "ascension" makes no sense to the modern scientific paradigm. As John Spong has pointed out, since heaven is literally not a place that someone could ascend "up" to, this means that if Jesus had ascended at the speed of light, he would now, some 2000 years later, still be rocketing through space and would not have even left our own Galaxy.

Mythologies that are not literally true are not therefore false, however, on all levels. A mythology says something deeper about how important matters can be conceived. It is these deeper truths, about what Jesus meant to his early followers, that Christians can find value in. A resurrection myth is no more "false" than a creation myth is false. In both cases, it is the deeper truths that the myths point to that matter.

Also, the notion that Jesus did not literally walk around on earth after his death does not repudiate the Christian faith. Whether Jesus really was exalted into God's presence after his crucifixion is a matter of faith, not history. Christians can believe that Jesus was not bodily resurrected in the manner described by Matthew, Luke, and John, and yet still believe that Jesus after his death was, in the words of Paul, "declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead." I do not believe that Jesus's resurrection was a historical event that could have been recorded with video cameras, had they existed at the time. Faith and history, however, need not clash with another.

Fasting and the Kingdom of God

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Mark 2:18
The Bible says that prior to Jesus's public ministry, he spent 40 days in the wilderness and faced temptation from Satan. The first Gospel, Mark, makes no mention of fasting during that period in the wilderness. Furthermore, according to the above passage, during Jesus's ministry, he did not fast; on the contrary, he celebrated the good life in all its glory. And for him that certainly meant enjoying a hearty meal; when he ate, the prostitutes and tax collectors were welcome to eat with him.

In his lifestyle, he thus clearly stood out like a sore thumb to others in his faith. After all, he had come from a community of people--the followers of John the Baptist--who regularly practiced fasting. So did the Pharisees. Fasting was de rigeur for many of his religious contemporaries. If the biblical story of Jesus in the wilderness has a core of truth to it and is not purely mythological (it certainly does have mythological elements, as represented by the 40 days if nothing else), then Jesus had engaged in some form of ascetic contemplation before starting his ministry. But when he came out of that wilderness, after deep contemplation and prayer about the events that were swirling around him, he apparently changed his mind about a lot of things. What led him to develop the ideas he did is an interesting question. Mark suggests that Jesus went immediately to the wilderness after his baptism, but the actual timing of events may have been conflated somewhat or lost in the mists of time. I can't help but wonder if the arrest of John must have shaken him in some important way. He had been John's disciple. John had baptized him (This was an embarrassing point to early Christians, and the Christian gospel writers felt compelled to introduce clarifications of it. Thus Mark has John falling all over himself saying that he wasn't worthy even to tie Jesus's sandal, let alone baptize him.) But with the arrest of John, the old era was definitely over.

Jesus could no longer be the disciple of a religious leader whose eschatological expectations had led to personal arrest, along with the accompanying failure to bring an end to the old social order. John the Baptist, Jesus's mentor, had hoped (as John Dominic Crossan has argued) that divine intervention would bring and end to the existing Imperial paradigm and usher in God's Kingdom to the baptized. Instead, John's head was handed on a platter to local authorities within that very dominant and oppressive Imperial system that John opposed. The opportunity had arisen for Jesus to step up and take charge. He had a calling

Jesus didn't exactly do things the way his mentor did. He came out of the period of reflection determined to pursue a different agenda. The old paradigm could not work. John had been wrong. The Kingdom of God would not be ushered in by Divine fiat as a result of a series of individual baptisms. Jesus, with his unique take on life, his quick wit, his remarkable manner of story telling that questioned prevailing paradigms, was going to take on the domination system of his time in a different way. The Kingdom of God was already here, he now believed. This Kingdom was within him and others, and rather than waiting on God to usher it in, as John had done, they would usher it in themselves by living in a new way. As part of this new way, Jesus didn't concern himself with fasting and baptism. He was going to lead a new life and teach a new message that would usher in the new Domain of God, and fasting was not part of that.

Many of his followers came from John's community, however, and certain practices did not die out, regardless of what Jesus did. One of the practices that didn't die out was baptism, even if Jesus himself did not concern himself much, if at all, with the practice. Neither did the practice of fasting. Thus both baptism and fasting emerged as important practices in the post-Easter community. Robert Funk, in his book Honest to Jesus, discusses this point. He argues that the early Christians, after Jesus's death, retrojected their own practices of fasting back onto Jesus. Thus Jesus, the non-faster, was sandwiched between the fasters who preceded him and fasters who followed him. But why did Jesus not fast? Early Christians, who did fast, needed to explain away how their own practices didn't jibe with those of Jesus. Thus Mark has Jesus justifying his behavior by saying "The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day." These words don't have a ring of authenticity about them. Here, Mark has Jesus talking about himself with a sort of post-Easter self-understanding. It sounds more like a convenient explanation of why later Christians felt the need not to emulate Jesus's own practices, than of something that Jesus himself would have said. After all, Jesus lived his life as if how he lived mattered. He believed that how one lives one's life is what can bring to fruition the in-breaking Kingdom of God, and he lived by example what he taught. And how he lived excluded fasting.

This process of retrojecting fasting onto Jesus can also be seen when you compare Matthew's account of Jesus in the wilderness with Mark. Matthew, which was written later, specifically adds fasting to what Jesus did there. Mark, by contrast, makes no mention of fasting during that time. Matthew, apparently, had an agenda to make the early Christian practice of fasting more consistent with what Jesus did.

I understand and appreciate that many Christians find value in ascetic spiritual practices, such as fasting. As we approach Lent, the ideas of self-sacrifice, penitence, and so forth, play an important role for many people. I do not denigrate these practices. They are valuable for many faithful people--which probably explains their persistence among the followers of Jesus, despite what Jesus himself did. Jesus didn't need to be so ascetic, but others may find value in it. The more important question, I believe, is not what spiritual practices we do or don't do or which practices are "right" and which are "wrong", but how we translate our relationship with God into building the very Kingdom of God that Jesus himself sought. Perhaps it isn't a matter of slavishly imitating Jesus's methods, which were particular to a time and place; but the goal, of creating a just and loving world that manifests God's Domain here on earth--that goal remains as important as ever.

Just a few days after Evolution Sunday

In a victory of reason over ignorance, according to a news report, "the Kansas state Board of Education yesterday repealed science guidelines questioning evolution". Very appropriate, since Evolution Sunday was just a few days ago.

The Canonical Walls

Thanks to a link from John Shuck, I discovered the blog of April DeConick, a Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University. Her blog tends to have an academic and scholarly focus, which means that it isn't necessarily written at the level of lay people like you and me. I'm not a biblical scholar, I don't play one on TV, and I only have a bare bones knowledge at best of the tools that biblical scholars use. But skimming through the blog, I find it still has some interesting things to say that even people who aren't scholars or professors can appreciate. I suppose the best analogy I can think of is that, just as non-scientists can read Scientific American, we who aren't biblical scholars can peek inside of academia by reading blogs from biblical scholars and thus find a nugget or two of value.

I found this comment in her opening entry to be quite interesting:

Those in the Academy who have not dislodged themselves from their faith operate to defend, justify and explain it in terms they couch "historical" while privileging the New Testament canon and ignoring or dissing the apocrypha. Their personal religious belief in the authority of the New Testament scripture has led them to a common (and erroneous) assumption, that the New Testament texts are the only documents that tell us about the history of early Christianity. This leads to another common (and erroneous) assumption, that these canonical texts are accurate and reliable documents for the study of early Christianity. In this way, the religious walls of the canon have imprisoned the Academy for a couple of hundreds of years, holding us back from an honest historical analysis of early Christianity.

Even though there are some scholars in the Academy who attempt to operate as historians rather than theologians, the theological position is still controlling our discipline. The discipline is still limited by the canon, perpetuating the myth that the religious boundaries of the canon should be the historical boundaries as well. Certainly the New Testament texts are important pieces of the puzzle, but they are not the only pieces. An enormous amount of literature was written by the early Christians in the first two centuries, and all of it needs to be studied critically in order to get a full picture of what was going on. If we only study the New Testament documents, our reconstruction of early Christianity is inherently flawed. Paradoxically we end up promoting as "historical" an "apocryphal" Christianity solely based on the New Testament.
I think what she says makes a lot of sense, and I also think it has some resonance, not just to academicians, but also to people of faith. It seems to me that, just as scholarly inquiry about the origins of Christianity should not be restricted to just what is in the New Testament canon, so can those who care about the events that initiated the Christian movement (which, one would think, means all Christians) might open themselves up to appreciating the diversity of the faith, and therefore the writings, that emerged during that time. The distinction between the canonical and the non-canonical continues to strike me as rather arbitrary. Creating a wall between the biblical and the non-biblical can lead to the bibliolatry of fundamentalism, to an unnecessarily extreme degree of reverence for what is in the canon as having an inerrantly divine origin, as being God's literalwords rather than the words of the human beings who put them down on papyrus.

I am not suggesting that "The Shepherd of Hermas" should be added to the Revised Common Lectionary. But I do think it is worth asking ourselves why it is that the specific collection of writings known as "the Bible" are elevated to the status of a permanent, fixed, immutable set of authoritative and standard writings from which both the Christian liturgy and private personal religious study is drawn. Is it a matter of revering tradition for tradition's sake? Is it because, despite all the troublesome texts (or "sins of scripture", to borrow a term from Spong) in the Bible, it nevertheless contains all the pearls of theological wisdom we ever need to draw from? Or is it because the canon, once established, then becomes part of the ongoing tradition that is relived through ritual and worship, and thus becomes a kind of self-justifying reality of the faith? Christianity is, to be sure, full of relived traditions and rituals that go back a long way in time.

I've been too busy lately on Wednesday nights to attend Taize services, but one thing I liked about the services that I attended was that they not only included biblical readings from the Psalms, but also readings from non-biblical sources--the poetry of Thomas Merton for example, or writings from contemporary religious figures, and once recently they even had a reading from the Koran that celebrated the glory of God. Even the psalms that they use come from interesting, modern translations, such as from the book Opening to You, a Zen-inspired translation, or from the book Psalms For Praying by Nan C. Merrill. And the version of the Lord's prayer that is said at the end of the service comes from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, and is a remarkably interesting form of this prayer which begins with the words, "Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all..." That's a bit different from "Our Father Who Art In Heaven". (Lest anyone wonders about the Christian focus of the service, however, at the front there is a large cross on the floor, with lit candles upon it, and one part of the service involves people going there and placing additional candles or praying at the cross).

The balance between tradition and innovation is a subtle one. If innovation is given free reign, a religion can break from its moorings, lose its ethical basis or its emphasis on the Divine or on social justice, or otherwise lose its way. But clinging to tradition at all costs can make religion rigid and closed, and believers can stop listening to the continuing revelation that God is always offering us. It can solidify dogma at the expense of listening to God's call. There is a balance between tradition and progressive revelation. Where this balance lies is a tricky question, but I have to wonder where a closed canon fits into that.


True Christian hospitality is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church membership. Rather, it is a central practice of the Christian faith--something Christians are called to do for the sake of that thing itself. Hospitality draws from the ancient taproots of Christian faith, from the soil of the Middle East, where it is considered a primary virtue of community. Although it is a practice shared by Jews and Muslims, for Christians hospitality holds special significance. Christians welcome strangers as we ourselves have been welcomed into God through the love of Jesus Christ. Through hospitality, Christians imitate God's welcome. Therefore, hospitality is not a program, not a single hour or ministry in the life of a congregation. It stands at the heart of a Christian way of life, a living icon of wholeness in God.
-- Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For The Rest of Us
It has become increasingly clear to me how important I find congregational hospitality to be. It is important to me first and foremost because I know what it is like to be an outsider. It is also important to me because I believe that radical inclusion lies at the heart of Jesus's message and life. To me, hospitality at the congregational level and social justice at the broader scale are two manifestations of the same phenomenon--inclusive, universal love.

Years ago when I was an active Quaker, while traveling through Nebraska, I visited a Quaker meeting for Sunday worship. At the close of worship, I was almost universally ignored. Finally, just as I was almost out the door, one single person noticed me and said, "Welcome". I appreciated that at least one person there made a belated effort at hospitality, but it was really a case of too little, too late.

I later came to realize that this is pretty typical for Quaker meetings. Probably the only Quaker meeting where I really felt welcomed as a visitor was the first one I visited in the late 1980s, in Colorado. It was an amazing case of beginner's luck. When I moved to California in 1993, I started attending some Quaker meetings in the area. After worship one day at a Bay Area Quaker meeting I had a conversation with a member about transferring my membership from my previous meeting back east. He told me that applicants for membership were treated the same whether they were transferring or applying for the first time. Applying for membership in a Quaker meeting is not a trivial process; they set up a clearness committee, and you have to subject yourself to an interview process. I had already undergone that experience once, but this individual told me that I would have to go through the entire, rigorous process all over again, to prove I was Quaker enough for them. No, thank you. Not all Quaker meetings are quite that unwelcoming, mind you; I had already transferred my membership once before without having to go through that. But it set a certain tone for me. I felt like it was going to be hard to find a new congregational home.

Over the years since that time, I would occasionally attend various Bay Area Quaker meetings for worship, but never for very long at a stretch, because I just didn't find a home at any of them. As a result, my spiritual cravings were not being met and they lay dormant for a long, long time. I stopped feeling religious.

Somehow, something inside of me last year felt the need to reconnect with this spiritual side. I finally decided to take the plunge and step inside a mainline church. I was nervous, really nervous, about taking this step. I was afraid that I was a little too heretical to fit in, and I still had some scars from attending a fundamentalist church as a youth that made me afraid of anything too orthodox. I found a UCC church that interested me, a progressive church, but I was scared about what I might be getting myself into. I drove there one week before services, then chickened out and sat in my car, parked outside, watching people go inside. The following weekend, my girlfriend offered to come with me for moral support. And so we went. And one thing about that visit really stood out--people were welcoming. When the service was over, I was debating whether to go downstairs for coffee when one of the worshipers turned to us and extended us a personal invitation. How could I turn such an invitation down?

Hospitality comes in many forms. To me, any rules that set up barriers to full acceptance are contrary to the spirit of hospitality. That is one reason why I find the concept of closed communion so off-putting.

I recognize full well that superficial hospitality can sometimes be deceiving. Religious cults, for example, may be seductively hospitable to strangers. Sometimes that is what draws people into such cults. The point is that hospitality should not be, as Diana Butler Bass points out, a tactic. It should instead flow naturally from a religious faith grounded in acceptance, love, and universal inclusion. Hospitality alone may not be a sufficient requirement for an appealing and vibrant faith, but it in my view is a necessary one.

Some strains of Christianity evolved all sorts of elaborate explanations to justify exclusionary worship practices. The idea that an activity like communion is a sacrament that can only be available to the ritually initiated is justified on a carefully constructed theological edifice. But I think that Jesus has no use for such edifices:
When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Mark 2:16)
Jesus lived a life of inclusion. That is what hospitality is about.

God, the Bible, and Superman

New Zealand blogger Glynn Cardy, an Anglican vicar who goes by the name of "Lucky Bear", has a wonderful way with words, and he has just posted in the last two days a couple of entries that I particularly enjoyed. The most recent one, titled "Religious Experience and Sacred Writings", addresses head on the problem of finding our way to a well-constructed theological foundation for religious belief. He points out that neither mystical experiences nor sacred writings are in and of themselves sufficient for developing a robust and ethical theology. Mystical experiences, for example, do not necessarily grant us an ethical or theological foundation for producing a religious system. In response to that, some might claim that these required but missing elements of developed theology can be supplied by the holy scriptures. But he rightly points out that this can lead to a naive literalism.: "To fail to bring all our whole self, including our critical and academic faculties, to our reading is to not take the Bible seriously." He also notes that "All sacred writings, including the Bible, are written by people. The authors are people with foibles, as well as insights....Just because sacred writings are old does not mean they are right. Just because church councils have said they are inspired by God does not make them free from error or relevant to our world today."

Mystical experiences may not alone provide any foundation for an ethical system or a theology of social justice. Jesus was, in the words of Marcus Borg, a "spirit person", but he was more than just that. Mysticism alone does not define ethical religion.

I suppose the suggestion that mystical experiences alone are not enough to grant us any kind of definitive window into a single theological truth should be self-evident. It must be recognized that people around the world from a variety of cultures and faith traditions have had mystical experiences, but have interpreted them quite differently; this speaks to the fact that mysticism provides a direct, unmediated window into a Sacred and Infinite reality, while finite human mystics must then try to make sense of those experiences. The way we make sense of such things is colored by our personalities, our cultures, and our preexisting ideas about God and the universe. That is why there are so many religions in the world, and that is how different religions can provide different conduits to the Sacred.

The Bible, as Glynn Cardy points out, is also a human product. Not only were the writers of the Bible human beings, but so were the members of the church councils that decided what went into and what didn't go into the Bible. For a long time, during the early history of the faith, the question of what constituted New Testament "scripture" was up in the air. Early Christian communities created collections of works that they considered authoritative and scriptural at the time, and these collections weren't always the same with each other and in many cases they didn't exactly match what made the final cut. The Didache? The Epistle of Barnabas? The First Epistle of Clement? Modern Christians do not include those works in their weekly lectionary, but some of their predecessors treated those works as scripture. Meanwhile, some works, such as the epistles of Peter, largely made it into the canon on the mistaken belief that they had apostolic authorship. The fact that the first several generations of Christianity didn't have the same definitive canon that modern Christians have doesn't sit well with the idea that the Bible serves as the final arbiter of religious truth. It also calls into question the idea of a rigid delineation between canonical and non-canonical.

The idea that God is more expansive than our finite, human ability to capture Him or Her through interpretations of mystical experiences or through scriptural writings relates to what Glynn Cardy has also written in his other recent posting. He points out that the notion of God as a Cosmic Superman is one of the most common ways that many Christians conceive of God. Ironically, by constructing this Cosmic Superman, a sort of man-of-steel in the sky with great powers, humans have actually provided a limiting way of conceiving of God's infinite nature. As a paradigm for God, it is in some ways comforting to humans, because it imagines God as a Divine Fixer of Things, a controlling intervener, much as we love stories of superheroes in our comic books; but it represents a kind of limiting, anthropomorphic representation of God's infinite reality.

He closes the blog posting with a bit of masterful prose:

In the Bible this moulding of God repeatedly happens, and repeatedly the spirit of transformational love iconoclastically breaks those moulds. God is bigger than anthropomorphic constructs. It is easy to read the Bible and collect all the references to prove that supergod exists. It is also not that difficult to read the Bible and find the ongoing iconoclastic tradition. We need to expel the cosmic superman back to the Krypton of our needy imagination.

Science and Religion

Richard Bernstein has written an article in the International Herald-Tribune that discusses the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. For both of these men, it is not simply a question of having a respectful disagreement with people of faith; instead, they are on a kind of secular crusade of open attack against all forms of religion. According to the article,

But at least a few atheists are now actively, angrily, passionately trying to persuade the religious to their point of view, none more conspicuously than Sam Harris, a graduate student in neuroscience whose book "Letter to a Christian Nation," another recent New York Times best seller, portrays Christianity as a kind of malign nonsense. Harris is engaging in no polite parlor discussion, showing due respect to the views of others. For him, as he puts it, the grievous harm caused by religious conviction "is what makes the honest criticism of religious faith a moral and intellectual necessity."

The mood can be found elsewhere. The New York Times reported a couple of months ago on a conference at the Jonas Salk Institute in California during which participants, who included Dawkins and Harris, called on scientists actively to combat religion, with the physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg delivering this summary of the mission: "Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization."

Sadly, this intolerance by these militant atheists on the one hand, and intolerance of religious fundamentalism on the other, are essentially the opposite side of the same coin. Not only do both groups manifest the same kind of intolerance, but both seem to share the same basic assumptions about what religion is about. Somehow, progressive faith gets lost in the shuffle. For the militant atheists, certain straw men raise their ugly heads and confuse the issue as a result.

The use of straw men by the anti-religionists is clear when they equate religion with scientific ignorance. The article says,
To atheists like Weinberg, Dawkins and Harris and their many avid readers, it is clearly disappointing that in America, unlike in most of Europe, rationalist, scientific ideas have not become the norm. Harris gloomily recites poll figures on this point: 53 percent of Americans, he says, believe in creationism, which to scientists is like believing that the sun revolves around the Earth.
The straw man here, of course, is the assumption that religious people necessarily hold all mythological stories to be literal truths. It is true that Christian fundamentalists are likely to believe in creationism and other expressions of scientific ignorance. But in that case, the point should be to oppose ignorance, not religion per se. This is actually an issue that could serve as the basis of an alliance between rational, thinking Christians and rational atheists, as both groups of people have a stake in promoting good science in American education and culture. But Dawkins and Harris would have none of any such alliance, as they lump rational Christianity together with the irrational, and treat them all together as his enemies.

That isn't the only straw man that crops up. The very next sentence in the article reports,
In what he sees as an illustration of mass self-delusion, 80 percent of the survivors of the Katrina disaster claim that the hurricane and flood strengthened their faith in God — rather than serving as powerful evidence, as it does for Harris, that God does not exist.
Harris in this case assumes, incorrectly, that all people of faith must necessarily hold certain views about the nature of God's interaction with the universe, and that natural disasters somehow "refute" belief in God based on that.

Religion isn't about scientific ignorance or naivety about Divine intervention. Certainly people can be scientifically ignorant and also religious, but that is always secondary to the real function that religion serves, as a kind of poetry for the human soul. Dawkins and Harris simply do not see the value in religion for human beings. That is their right, of course. But to judge others on the basis of what works or doesn't work for them personally shows a dogmatic intransigence and a refusal to comprehend that they cannot speak for the entirety of the human experience. In so doing, they really miss the point in claiming that science and religion are incompatible. The ability of religion to point people's visions upward and outward towards something greater and more magnificent than themselves, to inspire us to a greater purpose and to transform us in the process--that is something that escapes them. What they fail to see is that this is a benefit of religion that science can never accomplish.

As for scientific ignorance, I will only mention that next Sunday will be Evolution Sunday, a day in which many churches around the United States will be celebrating the compatibility of religion and science. This may not fit into the convenient stereotypes about religion that Dawkins and Harris have concocted, but there you are.

Rendering unto the American Empire

Ehren Watada, a conscientious objector in the US military who refused to be deployed to Iraq, had this explanation for his actions in a video statement that he released last June:

"The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis is not only a terrible and moral injustice, but it's a contradiction to the Army's own law of land warfare. My participation would make me a party to war crimes."
He is facing a court-martial for this act of conscience.

I have always been interested in supporting the rights of conscientious objectors. Although the US government recognizes the right of conscientious objection for draftees, it does not seem to recognize that some individuals who joined the military voluntarily may have undergone some kind of religious or moral conversion after joining, or that they may have developed a strong objection on moral grounds to illegal or immoral acts of war by the American Empire.

When draft registration was first instituted by Jimmy Carter, I was part of the very first age group that had to register. I wrote on my registration form that I was a registering as a conscientious objector. There was no place on the form to write this, so I just scrawled it in the margins; you actually only apply for CO status once you are drafted, not when you register, but in this case I wanted to start to build a case in advance, in the event I actually got drafted, and that little note in the margin was part of that. Fortunately for me, it never happened.

Whenever Caesar and God conflict, as they so often do in this era of Imperial wars for oil and profits, I think it is more admirable, even if less expedient, to side with God.

Who is a child of God?

In Diana Butler Bass's book Christianity for the Rest of Us, she relates the story of a woman who came to a Christian church in her adult life after having had a non-religious upbringing. The woman was dying to know if she had been baptized, and invested considerable effort finding out:

She tracked down relatives, made dozens of calls, and finally located the congregation that her grandmother had belonged to when Deanna was a baby. The church secretary told her that the baptismal records had been destroyed in a fire. Deanna was disappointed. But three weeks later, the secretary called back to say that she had tracked down other records. On January 6, 1956, Deanna had, indeed, been baptized. "I was overjoyed," she recalls, "I was a child of God all along and I didn't know it."
I find something very disappointing about that story. What is it in her understanding of Christianity that would lead her to conclude that she would not have been a child of God without a baptism?

I believe that we are all children of God, whether we are baptized or not.

Gatekeepers and outsiders

I stumbled onto a blog by an Episcopal priest whom I mistakenly assumed to be a theologically progressive Christian. I'm not sure where I got that idea from, and I recently discovered after getting into a back and forth discussion in the comments to one of his posting that he was quite orthodox theologically. As a theological progressive of a Borgian bent, I found I shared little common ground with him to form a basis of discussion.

On the surface, the matter being discussed was the question of open versus closed communion (he favored closed communion, which is to say he believed it should only be available to baptized Christians.) But there was a deeper difference that quickly emerged. I am interested in the historical Jesus, and I believe that Christianity, and views about Jesus himself, underwent a process of evolution after his death. This is the distinction between the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus that Marcus Borg frequently writes about. The blogger, on the other hand, committed what I consider a fallacy of retrojecting post-Easter Christianity onto the pre-Easter Jesus. Orthodoxy in this way becomes a self-justifying position; since what we know about Jesus is filtered through the post-Easter writings of the Gospels, we are somehow expected to take these post-Easter filters at face value as our only source of knowledge about him, and not look deeper into the layering process of tradition. (The fact that there was not one Christianity in that post-Easter period, but in fact many Christianities, of which the eventual orthodoxy was just one strand, complicates this point even further, but never mind that.) Thus certain theological notions about, for example, Christian membership, are anachronistically assigned to Jesus himself, even though he and his followers were not "Christians" but devout Jews.

I have stated in the past that I consider closed communion to be a perversion of Jesus's life and teachings of open commensality. The blogger's response was interesting--he simply claimed that Jesus was actually not all that inclusive. Apparently all that eating with prostitutes and tax collectors didn't count for much. Personally, if I thought for a moment that Jesus were as exclusionary as this priest claimed, I would reject all association with any form of Christianity altogether. Better to be a Buddhist than a follower of a Jesus who did not express radical inclusion through his life and teachings.

As I have mentioned on other occasions, communion per se isn't something that matters a great deal to me. I suppose, in part, that is the former Quaker in me coming out. I do often feel obliged to defend the honor of Quakers, who are inevitably excluded from the "Christian community" by proponents of orthodox views on baptism and communion, since without fail the argument runs along the lines that a) one must be part of the Christian community to receive communion, and b) the rite of initiation that puts one in this community is baptism. Since Quakers don't practice baptism, they are implicitly but automatically excluded from this grand ecumenical Christian community. But that isn't really the point. I may or may not choose to take communion at a church service, depending on the underlying approach that the service takes towards the act. If it is all about membership privileges, I don't partake; if it is about community and inclusion, I do.

And the real problem for me is indeed the philosophy of inclusion. What concerns me is the idea of a two-tiered body of worshipers--on the one hand, there are those who have undergone the initiation rite, who get to fully participate in the worship experience; and on the other, there are those who haven't been initiated, who just get to sit and watch from the outside as a second-class worshiper. The most wonderful message you can give to a visitor, an outsider, a seeker, who comes to worship with your congregation is to immediately tell them, "You are completely welcome here. You can fully participate with us." The priest who defends closed communion, in my view, places dogma over inclusion.

To me, universal love means universal inclusion to those who sincerely wish to participate. Denying that you are being insensitive about these kinds of issues doesn't make it not so. For some, it seems clear to me, dogma is more important than compassion.

Maybe I should have been a member of some secret brotherhood that had an initiation rite. Or maybe I should have joined a fraternity when I was in college. Then maybe I would have understood the point of such rites. But I never saw their point. As I see it, baptism can be a fine and admirable voluntary expression, a personal choice by those who want to show their Christian faith in a particular traditional outward way--but I just don't like the idea of it as a prerequisite for full acceptance into a community of faith. I've been an outsider myself too many times in life, and maybe I just identify with outsiders too much. I believe that was what made Jesus such an important figure--I believe that he, too, stood with the outsiders, not with the rule-making authorities and the gatekeepers.

What's a miracle?

In MadPriest's blog, he offers a sermon about the nature of miracles. In his sermon, he implicitly accepts both the divinity of Jesus and the verity of those fantastical Gospel stories of Jesus's acts that most would identify as miracles. But he suggests that these stories about Jesus are actually not miraculous, because for a divine character like Jesus they would simply fall into the category of the ordinary. The real miracles, he contends, take place when ordinary humans bring others into the Kingdom of God.

From my perspective, I don't actually believe that Jesus was a Divine figure, except in the sense that I believe that he was especially and unusually attuned to the God that was within him and, I think, within all of us. I also don't believe that those fantastical stories about him in the Gospels really happened. They were mythological stories, I believe, that emerged in the community of followers in the decades after his death, and were then incorporated into the Gospels, starting with the first one (Mark) that was written some thirty years after he was crucified.

In a sense, though, I agree with MadPriest. These miracle stories about Jesus can easily, especially to modern eyes, reduce the message of the Gospel to a celebration of parlor tricks, which is superficial when compared with the really important work of loving others and building a more just world. But perhaps the ancient readers of the Gospels needed to have some sort of miracle stories incorporated into their mythologies about great figures like Jesus. An absence of such miracle stories would, perhaps, have been interpreted as a kind of refutation of Jesus's divine role, so maybe it was just par for the course to claim that Jesus carried out parlor tricks like turning water into wine. But to the modern mind, I would suggest, these tricks are unnecessary, and can even distract from the real issue at hand.

What, then, is a miracle? If not a parlor trick, is it a grandiose violation of the laws of nature? Or something else?

Jesus spoke a lot about the Kingdom of God. In the tradition of other great Jewish prophets who preceded him, he was a social critic and a promoter of a vision of a Kingdom of God that contrasted with the unjust world that he lived in. The Kingdom of God, he said, was within us. We needed only to bring it to fruition by our actions. Two millenia later, however, we still live in an unjust world. This might lead many to believe that the Kingdom of God is clearly impossible to achieve. There will always be injustice, one might surmise. One could conclude that the only way we would ever see the Kingdom of God achieved is if Divine intervention made it happen. In other words, it would take a miracle to bring it about.

The craving for miracles is an expression of human impatience. We are frustrated with the state of things, we have an objective to change the status quo, and we want it changed now. That is the nature of miracles. They are sudden. Miracles don't percolate, they don't bubble over, they don't take a long time to come to fruition. Miracles are instantaneous.

But perhaps that isn't the way the universe operates. Maybe the real miracles take excruciatingly long times to complete. Maybe miracles aren't instantaneous violations of the laws of nature, but rather the results of long, tedious processes.

Consider the world of nature. The world as we know it is the product of billions of years of cosmic evolution from the time of the Big Bang. Life, a miracle if there ever was one, evolved over eons on this planet. Modern humans emerged some 100,000 years ago, and it has taken us this long to get to where we are now--from foraging for food in the African savanna to watching the Super Bowl on high definition TVs.

Building a just world will not happen in an instant. It is a long, tedious process, much as the evolution of the universe and of life on this planet has been a long, tedious process. We don't always know how what we do influences the world in the long term. We can't know this, really. All we can do is our small part. It would be nice to see the results of our actions, and to see them now. But we build the Kingdom of God, not for the instant gratification of seeing all our dreams realized in the here and now, but because to try to build the Kingdom of God is the right thing to do. Maybe just acquiring patience is the real miracle.

The Bible says that Moses never made it to the promised land. But that didn't stop him from going on the journey with his people. Jesus was executed as state criminal without ever knowing what would result from his ministry. Most of us will never see anything but the tiniest and most immediate effects of our actions. But the reward lies not in the immediate results, but in the longer term processes of which we are a part. And that, to me, is the ultimate miracle.