Perpetuating a Stereotype

I recently complained about how the AP religion writer Rachel Zoll presented a distorted image of the views of people of faith in the United States by equating "believers" with the Religious Right and making no mention of the diversity of thought that exists among religious people. Media Matters has now published a study that documents the way that this skewed and inaccurate depiction is generally propagated by the news media. Some of the findings of the study are summarized as follows:

Religion is often depicted in the news media as a politically divisive force, with two sides roughly paralleling the broader political divide: On one side are cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs; and on the other side are secular liberals, who have opted out of debates that center on religion-based values. The truth, however is far different: close to 90 percent of Americans today self-identify as religious, while only 22 percent belong to traditionalist sects. Yet in the cultural war depicted by news media as existing across religious lines, centrist and progressive voices are marginalized or absent altogether....

* Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.

* On television news -- the three major television networks, the three major cable news channels, and PBS -- conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed almost 3.8 times as often as progressive leaders.

* In major newspapers, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed 2.7 times as often as progressive leaders.
The study also points out that
in the news media it is overwhelmingly conservative leaders who are presented as the voice of religion. This represents a particularly meaningful distortion since progressive religious leaders tend to focus on different issues and offer an entirely different perspective than their conservative counterparts.

Science versus Faith

Gregory Farrington, executive director for the California Academy of Sciences, has written a column for today's San Francisco Chronicle, in which he uses the recently opened Creation Museum to explore what he sees as the differences between religion and science. Unfortunately, I don't think he got it quite right, in particular because I think he disparages religion and misconstrues its role with respect to science. Farrington writes,

That's the key difference between the scientific and religious journeys toward truth. Fundamental religion is based on unquestioning faith, science is based on reason that is continually questioning. They are very different paths. Visitors to the Creation Museum must understand that it is not a science museum -- it is a religious museum, whose re-imaginings of geological and biological evidence have no support from the scientific community.
When he says "fundamental religion", I don't think that this was a misprint in which he meant to say "fundamentalist religion", although if it were, what he wrote might be closer to the truth. But from the context of the rest of the column, it is clear that he is making a generalization about religion as a whole. And I would dispute in the strongest terms possible his assertion that "fundamental religion is based on unquestioning faith." I don't know where he gets that idea from--well, actually, I have a pretty good idea. Conservative religion has done such a good job of equating its own dogmatic take on religious faith with faith in general, that many people really do think that religion is about unquestioning belief.

Certainly, some religious elements do promote a mindless version of faith--one based on acceptance of the literal truth of the Bible, or of creeds, or of dogmas that followers are supposed to accept in their entirety, without question. And, furthermore, some of these dogmas spill over into areas that legitimately belong to science, whose methodology of questioning and testing of theories are clearly inconsistent with this brand of religion. But not all religious people buy into that paradigm; for many, questioning is part and parcel of their faith. There is nothing inherent about unquestioning dogma in the definition of religion.

I would furthermore question the assertion that the Creation Museum is, as he puts it, a religion museum; rather, I would call it more simply a museum of misapplied religion, or perhaps one of pseudo-science, or simply one that commits the error of equating religion with bad science. A bona fide religion museum would not intrude on scientific findings, because a bona fide religion museum would not confuse the realms of religion and science. It would understand that religion and science address different realms of human experience. This is one reason why their methodologies are different. Religion isn't about explaining the steps involved in how the universe formed or how life was created, but rather about the transcendent meanings of our lives and how they relate to the the fact that the universe was formed and life was created in certain ways. Some religious perspectives, indeed, overstep their bounds by attempting to answer scientific questions, but religion has proved time and time again to be really bad at that; and when you take the pseudo-science from theology, religion doesn't go away. This illustrates the point that religion's inherent role involves a different set of questions than what that science tries to answer.

I would also go so far as to suggest that it makes sense that the questions that we ask about transcendent meaning can change as our scientific understandings evolve. Contrary to what fundamentalists might tell us, religion has always been an evolving process of the human understanding of this transcendent reality, which we might call God; and, as such, our understanding of immanent reality of the here and now, as it evolves over history, can be one of the inputs into this evolving process. For example, when we discover that the universe has evolved over billions of years, this may influence our view of the way that God acts in the world. There are theological implications to scientific knowledge. How we address the relationship between the world we sense and the deeper Reality behind it depends on our comprehension of the nature of the world we sense. Thus, I think it is fair to say that some aspects of religion can be dependent on science (but not vice versa). This loose dependency does not change the fact, however, that they answer fundamentally different questions.

It seems to me that it is important for progressive people of faith to get out the message that religion need not compete with science--that science and religion, far from being alternate ways of answering questions, are in fact intimately involved with different sorts of questions altogether. Science and faith need not step on one another; on the contrary, they can actually complement each other.

Morning Prayer--or not, as the case may be

Feeling spiritually unnourished from not having walked into an actual church yesterday, I realized that today, being a holiday, would be an extraordinary opportunity to try out a 9 AM Morning Prayer service at Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church located on top of Nob Hill. Besides the fact that lots of people had the day off, I figured that, because this was big cathedral, there might be a some number people who would attend. I figured wrong.

The Cathedral is both a church and a tourist destination, and maybe a dozen or so tourists were scattered throughout the inside of the building, looking around and in some cases taking pictures. Morning prayer was conducted off in the far corner. I looked at the program, and it seemed like something I could partake of, except for the recitation of the Apostle's Creed, but that wasn't a problem; I could just decide not to say anything during that part of the service. But when nine o'clock rolled around, no one was sitting in the chairs. Not a single person. The man conducting the service was reading something aloud, but no one was listening. If I had sat down there, not only would I have been the sole participant, I would have served as a spectacle for out-of-town tourists as they walked by. No thanks.

I am rather curious how many people ever actually attend morning prayer services. And if anyone does, who are these people who can make it to a 9AM service on a weekday? Retired people? The unemployed? Whoever they are, they weren't there this morning.

Going Around in Circles, Redux

Church 1. Denomination: Lutheran. Service time: 10:00 AM. Chance of walking in the door: 10%.

9:50. Ten minutes before the service starts. I park my car up the hill from the church on the corner. Two elderly, well-dressed women are walking in the general direction of the church. I think about the fact that I am wearing jeans. I walk down the hill, turn right, walk a block, turn around, come back.

The church was Celebrating Pluralism Sunday. Today they were holding a joint service with a progressive Episcopalian church located just a couple of blocks away. I don't know if I can handle Lutheranism or not. I'm not sure what I think of that whole "justification by faith" thing, and besides, unlike Luther, I like the Epistle of James. After doubling back, I pass the church again, this time hearing organ music from the inside and seeing two young girls playing in front of the entrance. I walk back to my car and drive away.

Church 2. Denomination: Presbyterian. Service time: 10:30. Chance of walking in the door: 40%. Chance of walking in the door if I hadn't needed to pee: 75%.

10:24. I nearly have an accident as a woman pulling out of a driveway doesn't see me as I pass. I honk long and hard and she brakes, just missing me. I discovered a side street near the church with a plethora of parking. I walk past the church, which calls itself "progressive", almost convincing myself to go in. Problem was, the first thing I'd have to ask someone once I was handed a program was, "Where's your restroom?" Too embarrassing. I walk past the entrance and continue down the hill. I pass a woman in colorful stretch pants and sweater, walking in the other direction. Was she going to the church? I walked a little further and turned around. Might as well head to my car. I see that the woman I had passed did, indeed, go into the church. I look in a window as I pass and see her speaking to another woman, possibly a greeter.

Church 3. Denomination: UCC. Service time: 11:00. Chance of walking in the door: 40%.

10:45. I park a block away. It's a gritty neighborhood, with its share of liquor stores and homeless denizens. From my parked car I see a woman, possibly schizophrenic, taking swings at an imaginary companion as she approaches the door to a residential hotel. The congregation meets in a storefront while their new church is being built across the street. I think about going to a nearby coffee shop to order a drink just so I could use their restroom. No, that's crazy. I walk pass the storefront entrance to the church. The door is closed and it is an overcast day; I can't see inside. I keep walking, and head back to my car.

Restaurant. Chance of eating brunch: 100%.

11:10. I find nearby parking. The woman who co-owns the restaurant recognizes me and says "Hello". I order my usual brunch, from a waitress I haven't seen before. I head to the restroom after placing my order. I read the Sunday New York Times with my meal.

Convenience Store. Chance of buying ice cream for desert: 100%.

Time: unknown. Some idiot straddles the adjacent parking space as he parks his car right in front of me in the small lot. The space next to his, the only one left, is thus barely large enough to accommodate my car. I manage to fit the car in somehow and buy some ice cream. Chocolate chip cookie dough. Comfort food for one who is too skittish to walk inside a new church. When I get home, I open the pint container, and after about 10 bites, still can't find a single chunk of cookie dough. Very, very strange.

Marcus Borg on pluralism

Related to the subject of Pluralism Sunday, which takes place this coming Sunday, here is a quote from Marcus Borg's book The Heart of Christianity:

When a Christian seeker asked the Dalai Lama whether she should become a Buddhist, his response, which I paraphrase, was: "No, become more deeply Christian; live more deeply into your own tradition."...By living more deeply into our own tradition as a sacrament of the sacred, we become more centered in the one to whom the tradition points and in whom we live and move and have our being.

A Christian is one who does this within the framework of the Christian tradition, just as a Jew is one who does this within the framework of the Jewish tradition, a Muslim, within the framework of the Muslim tradition, and so forth. And I cannot believe that God cares which of these we are. All are paths of relationship and transformation. (p. 223)

An uphill battle

The AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll has written an article about the recent spate of books that are hostile to religion by such militantly atheist authors as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately, it appears to me that her article mischaracterizes the issues at stake, by equating "believers" with the Religious Right--as if they were one and the same thing. There is no mention whatsoever in her article of the existence of moderate or progressive Christians.

For example, in order to illustrate how important faith is in American politics, she writes:

Signs of believers' political and cultural might abound.

Religious challenges to teaching evolution are still having an impact, 80 years after the infamous Scopes "Monkey" trial. The dramatic growth in homeschooling and private Christian schools is raising questions about the future of public education. Religious leaders have succeeded in putting some limits on stem-cell research.

And the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a national ban on a procedure critics call "partial-birth abortion" — the first federal curbs on an abortion procedure in a generation — came after decades of religious lobbying for conservative justices.

"It sort of dawned on the secular establishment that they might lose here," said Wilson, who is debating Hitchens on and has written the book "Letter from a Christian Citizen" in response to Harris. "All of this is happening precisely because there's a significant force that they have to deal with."

I'm sorry, but these are not signs of believers' political and cultural might in US politics. They are signs of the political and cultural might of one segment of believers. A politically powerful segment, to be sure, but still just a segment. There is simply no inherent relationship between being a "believer" and being anti-science (which is to say, anti-evolution). Nor is there any inherent correlation between being pro-science and being "secular". One can easily be a strong proponent of evolution and not be a part of the so-called "secular establishment". Believers have a whole range of views on such subjects as stem cell research and abortion. But her article makes no such distinctions. She simplistically treats all believers as if they were part of the Religious Right, without qualification, exception, or explanation.

This is the kind of problem that religious progressives are up against. The identification of religious faith with the Religious Right is so ingrained in many people's minds that even a major wire service's religion writer takes it for granted--and she of all people should know her subject matter better than that. This is, of course, what fundamentalists would have us believe--that "Christian" means their kind of Christian. Unfortunately, the anti-religion bigotry of these militant atheists plays right into this stereotype, and thus both sides of this battle end up sharing many of the same assumptions about what religion is necessarily about. And the rest of us are left out in the cold.

Safe Jesus versus Radical Jesus

Glynn Cardy writes in his latest blog entry, titled "Jesus healed illness, not disease":

Those who believe Jesus was a faith-healer who cured people’s disability have a problem. They have to believe that God physically intervenes to cure some and not others. This belief, however, apart from being irrational and immoral does not critique society at all. The disability is the man’s problem, not the society’s. The cure is fixing the man, not society. ‘There is nothing wrong with society,’ say the advocates of Jesus the faith-healer, ‘What is wrong is the man’s disability’. They paint Jesus as a healer of individuals, not a revolutionary out to change the world. He’s safer that way.

Jesus’ challenge to the lepers and disabled he met was to walk into confrontation. Following him wasn’t going to be all nice, safe, and predictable. It was going to be awkward, hard, and scary. Instead of sitting safe amongst the excluded waiting for some Benny Hinn, Jesus asked them to get up, and hobble along with Jesus into the so-called clean and able community and to challenge their prejudice. They weren’t going to be welcomed there. Sure they might find a few allies but generally they were going to be labelled anarchists, parasites, and told to go far away.
The Rev. Katie M. Ladd writes in her latest blog entry, titled "Recovering the Radicality of Christianity":
As followers of Christ, we are asked to step outside of the preconceived notions of our world and to live in an alternate world, in an alternate way. In this alternate way of life the resurrection is not a superstition, it is a radical invitation to life in the midst of death. Birth narratives are not fairy tales, they are stories of meaning saying to us that life is pulled from barren places as well as from virginal places. Miracles show us that God's power stands outside of the power of the state which proscribes and prescribes.

We need to recover the radicality of the gospel and re-infuse Christianity with it. Until our perceptions of the church change, our understanding of politics is transformed, and we become ready to be changed by the gospel rather than changing it to meet our needs, we will continue to struggle in a futile battle to domesticate the wild and radical message of God. And the hungry will not be fed.

The Pentecost and Pluralism

Next Sunday, churches celebrate the Day of Pentecost.

This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit is said to have been imparted to the Christian Church after Jesus departed. I admit it--I have a bit of a problem with that. I am a religious pluralist and a panentheist, and I believe that God's spirit has been continually available to all people at all times throughout history, regardless of one's religious faith--not just granted as a "gift" specifically to Christians in the last 2000 years.

Christian claims of exclusivity and privilege often play right into this theology of the Holy Spirit. Some would say that God's spirit is deeply concerned about transmitting correct dogma to believers in this supposedly one true religion. The Holy Spirit is also often said to have guided not just individual Christians, but the Church as a corporate body. This leads some Christians to invoke the Holy Spirit as a way of settling theological arguments. If one asks, for example, why we must accept the decisions of various church councils in Christian history, including decisions about the creeds, pronouncements on the nature of God, and the canonization of certain writings into immutable Holy Scripture--well, we are told, it is because the Holy Spirit somehow made sure that the ancient church ultimately made all the right decisions on these matters (after a lot of political infighting, of course, but never mind that). End of discussion. We are somehow supposed to accept this and shut up and not question these things.

But is it the role of God's spirit to guarantee that people, individually or collectively, make the right decisions about sometimes arcane matters of theological doctrine? At the very least, this seems to take free will right out of the equation. God, I would argue, offers us the best choice among those available to us, but the onus is still on us to make those choices ourselves, as free agents in the universe; and we often don't make the choices that God wants us to make. There is a tendency, I think, to grant a kind of power of mind control to God's spirit. This leaves no room for free will.

But the other point is this--do these details of theology--sometimes significant, sometimes quite unimportant--really matter in the larger scheme of things? Does it really matter if people believe that Jesus died for their sins, or that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet, or that there are Four Noble Truths? I would say no. And to claim that God is so particular about people having the "right" theology, especially given our limited ability to comprehend the Sacred Mystery anyway, is, I think, missing the point about God's active role in the world.

I am not saying that theology doesn't matter. Theologies have evolved over history to reflect altered understandings of the Divine Mystery. And that's a good thing. What I am saying is that it is presumptuous to claim Divine privilege for one's own theology, or to dismiss the relationship that people of other faiths have with the Divine.

And I am also saying that it is often the fruits of one's theology that are more important than the content. Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, writes of the developing prophetic vision of Isaiah and others during the so-called "Axial Age" when the world's great religions started to blossom into ethical systems of thought that encouraged compassion as an inherent element of those faiths. She writes:

The pagan gods depended upon the ceremonies to renew their depleted energies; their prestige depended in part upon the magnificence of their temples. Now Yahweh was actually saying that these things were utterly meaningless. Like other sages and philosophers in the Oikumene, Isaiah felt that exterior observance was not enough. Israelites must discover the inner meaning of their religion. Yahweh wanted compassion rather than sacrifice...

The prophets had discovered for themselves the overriding duty of compassion, which would become the hallmark of all the major religions formed in the Axial Age. The new ideologies that were developing in the Oikumene during this period all insisted that the test of authenticity was that religious experience be integrated successfully with daily life. It was no longer sufficient to confine observance to the Temple and to the extratemporal world of myth. After enlightenment, a man or woman must return to the marketplace and practice compassion for all living beings.
If, as I believe, God's spirit speaks to everyone at all times, and if people relate to this divine spirit throughout the world according to the means at their disposal--their cultural upbringing, the conception of God that they were taught to believe, their personal dispositions--then the various religions of the world are simply paths to relating to God's spirit. If the fruits of those religions are found in compassion, then the religion must be doing something right.

This suggests to me that it isn't so much about orthodoxy as about orthopraxy. Maybe God's spirit is more involved with our everyday lives by calling out to us at every moment, by offering us the best decisions for us to make, which will enhance our lives and the lives of others, at every turn. We as free agents don't have to listen to what God tells us, of course.

From a Christian perspective, one can say Jesus was a very good listener to the unique call that God issued to him; but the rest of us may not be such good listeners as he was. We can wait on the God's spirit to guide us. We can pray and listen and hope to understand God's will. But can we ever be 100% sure that we really know God's will?

Much of my understanding of God's role comes from process thought. Bruce Epperly frequently writes lectionary commentaries for the web site Process and Faith. He has produced a beautiful and inspiring take on the Day of Pentecost. He puts it this way when he describes the active role that God plays in the world:
I believe that the theological naturalism that is at the heart of the liberal, mainstream, and progression vision of God and the world does not need to dispel cosmic mystery or deny divine transformational activity. Rather, theological naturalism awakens us to a world in which God is working in all things, inspiring, challenging, luring, and inviting. The omnipresent and omni-active God does not undermine the evolving order of nature, but calls the world to new forms of beauty, liveliness, and incarnation. This call is, for the most part, subtle, but it can be dramatic and surprising.
I agree with this wholeheartedly. To me this suggests something else--namely, that God's creative role, which Christians might assign to God the Father, is indistinguishable from God's role as the One who is constantly "challenging, luring, inviting"--a role that one might assign to the Holy Spirit. What Trinitarian Christians might call God the Creator and God the Holy Spirit, in other words, seem to me to be doing exactly the same thing--in this view, the act of creation is, for God, the act of continually calling out to the natural world. For God, Creating and speaking to us are one and the same activity.

This is one reason why I do not consider myself a Trinitarian. There is no reason that I can see for the separation of roles of the Father and the Holy Spirit, because I see both roles as essentially identical. God participates in the world by acting as a creative lure to us at all times--the creative act and the act of guiding us are one and the same. (As I alluded earlier, I see Jesus's role in this as simply that he as a historical human being listened attentively to the divine lure and acted accordingly.)

Epperly goes on to say:
Just think about the lively and transformative immanence of God, described by process theologians. God is moment by moment urging every occasion of experience toward a beauty and liveliness that fits God’s vision for its local and global companions. While the divine vision is always contextual and takes into account our own decision-making, it always pushes the world toward individual and communal solidarity, beauty, intensity, and creativity.
Here he describes a give and take between God and creation. God calls out to creation, but the specifics of each call are contextual, and they depend on the choices that we have already freely made. The world changes as a result of our decisions, and then God issues new calls based on the new state of the world after the choices were made. There is a constant give and take between God and us.

Epperly also writes:
We don’t need to invoke supernaturalism to embrace the miraculous and wonderful world of God. Rather, we need to redefine such lively and traditional theological expressions in light of a deep naturalism and an even deeper commitment to prayer, contemplation, healing, and justice. While God’s vision for our lives is always contextual in our unfolding personal and global adventure, God’s aim for each moment’s experience and for our lives as a whole calls us beyond what the rationalistic and controlling mind can imagine. God calls, inspires, and energizes us to do great things, whether this means challenging injustice, comforting the dying, or healing the sick through laying on of hands, reiki healing touch, or anointing with oil.
And to me, the central point here is that God "calls, inspires, and energizes us to do great things" regardless of who we are or what religion we belong to or what our theology happens to be. God calls out to all of us. God's spirit, which is simply another name for God's action in the world, is always with us, always has been, and always will be.

Pluralism Sunday

Next Sunday will be identified as Pluralism Sunday in several Christian churches. The Center for Progressive Christianity describes several goals of Pluralism Sunday, one of which is that it is a

time to let your wider community know that your church embraces religious pluralism: it’s an evangelism opportunity for reaching the many people who reject Christianity because they think it claims the only path to God.
There are so many common misconceptions about what all Christians must necessarily believe, and which the general public often believes to be true; and this idea that Christians believe that their faith is the only path to God is certainly one of them. Many Christians do believe this, of course; intolerance and judgmentalism about other people's relationship with God often play into this. But the point is that not all do. Because religious pluralism is very important to my own conception of faith, I am very interested in the idea of Pluralism Sunday.

Pluralism Sunday relates very closely to point #2 of the Center for Progressive Christianity's 8 points:
Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us.
I think there are many possible theological variants on religious pluralism, many approaches that Christians can take on the subject. Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, an Episcopal church that is not affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity (but which seems to be generally progressive in its theology) puts it this particular way as the first sentence in its mission statement:
We believe in One God, known to us in Jesus Christ, also known by different names in different traditions.
Grace Cathedral's theology is one way of phrasing a pluralistic position. There are no doubt other ways of formulating a pluralistic theology as well. What I like about it is that they are completely up front about it. Their mission statement appears on their service programs and on their home web page.

It is possible to recognize the value of one's own faith without denigrating that of others. I think that Pluralism Sunday is a wonderful idea.


Last night I watched on television the movie Fearless, which I first saw in a movie theater some 14 years ago. In the film, Jeff Bridges plays a survivor of a plane crash who was deeply transformed in the moments before the crash. Having assumed that he was going to die, he lost his fear of death, becoming a heroic comforter of his fellow air travelers before the crash and a savior of lives after the crash. While the fearlessness he continued to experience afterwards was liberating for him, it also estranged him from his loved ones. His lack of fear coincided with an emotional deadness. In a way, he had ceased to be fully human.

I have had brief glimpses at the possibility of fearlessness about death. When I was much younger, I once dreamed that I was about to drown. In the dream, I struggled against the water for a while, but then I realized that it was a hopeless cause, and I just gave up. At the point of giving up, I suddenly felt liberated as I lost my attachment to living. It was like the attachment to life had been a kind of trap. I can remember this dream all these years later because it was so deeply real to me at the time, and I felt afterwards that I had learned something about how the instinct for survival can sometimes serve as a straitjacket. Of course, once I resumed my waking life, my survival instinct also resumed at full force. I had no desire to actually drown.

A few years ago, I collided with a car while I was riding my bike. I came out of the accident with some broken bones, but also with the knowledge that, had the timing of the collision been different, I would have died or at least been seriously maimed. The pain was excruciating the first few days after the accident, and you would think that such pain would have made me more skittish, more intent on pain-avoidance. But, in a way, for a while, I felt a tiny trace of liberation. Yes, the pain was terrible, but I had lived through a trauma, and I had found unknown resources to live through that pain. I felt a strange lack of fear of traffic--the opposite of what one might have expected. I remember more than once in the weeks that followed, standing on a curb as a car went by and thinking that it would not have been so difficult for me to have stepped right in front of that car. Of course, I didn't, but it wasn't because I was afraid of the consequences of stepping in front of a moving vehicle. It was a rational choice, rather than an instinctual one--I just didn't want to die.

I can only imagine what people in horrible situations undergo. Tortured political prisoners, for example, must experience unbelievable transformations of thinking about the meanings of their lives. And people who reach the ends of long lives, when their health fails, must certainly undergo a re-evaluation of their attachment to living. I am young enough and healthy enough to imagine that I have a long life ahead of me. But I could be wrong, of course; I could die tomorrow in a traffic accident, just as my mother did a few years ago.

It is easy in the modern world to delude ourselves about our mortality. We think that we can make ourselves safe and secure from the dangers of the world. Modern medicine will give us long lives, and if we are lucky we will find ourselves a nice safe neighborhood to live in where no one will, for example shoot at us. Some people, of course, don't have the luxury of being able to afford sheltering themselves off in a "safe" neighborhood, and may be more aware of their own mortality than others are. But I do think that the longer lifespans that the Western world enjoys has played right into the natural human tendency to live in denial about one's mortality. I know that, until a few years ago when my body started giving me some new health problems, that I had in quite a bit of denial about the inevitable decay that sets in as we get older. Death seemed far off in the future.

I sometimes wish I had that total fearlessness that the Jeff Bridges character experienced in that movie. His own fearlessness liberated him in a moment of crisis; it turned him into a hero during the plane crash. He was able to help other people--but the price he paid afterwards was that he stopped caring about himself, and became addicted to the fearlessness itself. He had lost a piece of his humanity. I wonder if that is really true--that part of what it means to be human, fully human, is to be afraid of our own mortality; and yet at the same time we so often sweep that fear under the rug by living in denial that we might die tomorrow.

Courage in the face of human mortality is something I have struggled with in much of my adult life. I want to know how to make my life meaningful during the short time that I have here on earth. I sometimes tell myself that if I really relinquished my fear of death, if I became truly aware of my own mortality, I would feel compelled to do the most I could to make the world a better place. I could not put my good deeds off until tomorrow, because there would be no tomorrow to do so.

Some people respond to their mortality by believing in life after death. I would like to believe that I will continue to exist in some way after I die, but I cannot be anything but an agnostic on that question. I just feel that I cannot possibly know what happens, if anything, on the other side. Yet even those who believe in life after death still must contend with their biological instinct for survival. The world we live in, the here and now, does matter to us.

For many Christians, this hope of life after death is tied to their faith in Jesus and their belief that he was resurrected from the dead. To me, though, the much more interesting thing about Jesus was not any resurrection that he might have undergone, but his courage in the face of his certain, painful, death. He was not the only person to give his life for what he believed in, of course. Yet another thing is clear; the earliest Gospel, Mark, suggested that he agonized over what was happening to him. Mark (and then Matthew) describes him, for example, as crying out to God on the cross before he dies. Later Gospels whitewashed this depiction of Jesus; this didn't fit into the evolving image of Jesus as fearless superhero. Luke depicts him as being calmer than Mark does, and John has him in complete control over the situation. The fully human Jesus became the fearless Jesus. More's the pity. We can derive more strength, I think, in emulating someone who faced certain death despite their misgivings and their fears. By transforming Jesus into a fearless wonder, they stripped him of his humanity.

And yet. There is something strangely appealing about fearlessness. There is a part of me that would like to be fearless in the face of death, to accept the shortness of human life and to face this shortness with dignity and passion, because I tell myself that this will inspire me to become the best at every moment that I can. Maybe that's a cop out, though. That is where God plays a role--by offering me and everyone else the guidance to how we can be the best we can be. And maybe that's the lesson that people should be deriving from Jesus--not that he calmly faced death like a divine superhero and then gave his followers eternal life, but rather that he faced that death with all-too-human agony and fear--and that it was still okay because he had lived his life up to that point by being fully the best that he could, as God asked him to do.

Did Jesus literally ascend to heaven?

Did Jesus literally ascend to heaven? In my view, the answer is, quite simply, no. Logically speaking, I think it makes no sense that it could have happened as described. As John Spong likes to point out, if Jesus had ascended at the speed of light, he would still be moving through space and he would not have even left our own galaxy. There is simply no way that the act of ascension would transport Jesus from earth to some heavenly realm outside of our current universe of space and time. The point, of course, is that the ascension story as depicted in the Bible presumes a three-tiered conception of the universe (heaven above the earth, then the earth, then the real of the dead below) that is incompatible with modern science. We know more about the universe than the New Testament authors did. And it makes sense to understand these biblical writings in that light.

In an online article on the subject, Marcus Borg points out that Luke actually presents two ascension stories that are mutually inconsistent with one another, thus suggesting that even that author didn't take the whole 40 days thing too seriously. He goes on to make the same general point that Spong has made:

What we do know, of course, is that heaven is not literally "up." Therefore, we legitimately cannot imagine Jesus literally moving upward into the sky on his way to heaven. Something else must be meant.
Clearly the ascension story can only be appreciated for its deeper, non-literal value. As Borg puts it,

And so I turn to the rich metaphorical or symbolic meanings of the story of Jesus' ascension. For Christians in the past and now, it meant and means that Jesus is now with God, indeed "at God's right hand" and "one with God." These affirmations have two primary dimensions of meaning. Like the traditions of ancient Israel and Judaism, they are religious and political, spiritual and social.

First, Ascension Day proclaims the lordship of Christ. To say that the risen and ascended Jesus is "at God's right hand," a position of honor and authority, means "Jesus is Lord." In the first century, when kings and emperors claimed to be lords, this claim had not only religious but also political meaning. To say "Jesus is Lord" meant, and means, that the Herods and Caesars of this world were not, and are not.

Second, because the risen and ascended Jesus is "one with God," he (like God) can be experienced anywhere. Jesus is no longer restricted or confined to time and space, as he was during his historical lifetime. Rather, like the God whom he knew in his own experience, he continues to be known in the experience of his followers.

To use language from Matthew's Gospel, for Christians the risen and ascended Christ is Immanuel--"God with us."

In my view, the non-literal ascension represents the culmination of a non-literal resurrection in a mythological account. I believe that neither the physical resurrection stories, nor the ascension to heaven, were historical events that could have been recorded at the time by video cameras, had they existed. Both events can be appreciated for the deeper truths about the experience of Jesus after his death, as interpreted by his followers (which is to say that experience plus interpretation equals mystical religious faith). These metaphorical stories can convey something of the interpretation of this experience. The early followers of Jesus believed that through Jesus, God is with us. And that is the important point of the biblical message--not that these stories literally happened.

The Bible and Incertitude

Looking at the list of churches in the San Francisco Bay Area that have thus far signed up for Pluralism Sunday (there aren't very many), I ran across an independent Lutheran church that I had not been familiar with. The church is "independent", the web site explains, because in 1995 they were kicked out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) for ordaining a gay pastor.

The most recent newsletter from that church includes some comments about the Bible that I particularly liked:

Reading the Bible closely, it becomes clear that there's no one way of understanding who God is and how God relates to the world. The Bible is the witness of generations of faithful people recording their own understandings of the divine in their own time, place, and culture. This theological pluralism reveals changing, developing, and sometimes conflicting ideas about God. Beware of the person who says: "I've got God all figured out." Not even Jesus was that bold--instead he opted for stories that demanded thought, raised questions, and often went counter to conventional attitudes. To claim a monopoly on the truth, leaving no room for dialogue or input from others, turns the discipline of thinking theologically into a mere exercise in fact-checking.

The Bible itself represents a variety of perspectives, each reflecting different understandings of God. Hebrew scripture is consistent, almost without exception, in claiming that people cannot see God and live. So it's little wonder that the divine is cloaked in mystery. The challenge of thinking theologically is about maintaining a creative tension between ideas that generate dialogue, not absolute certainty. At best, thinking theologically is not about facts, but about wrestling with often abstract ideas and concepts.

Asking difficult questions is at the heart of both theological integrity and spiritual growth. Being satisfied with easy answers is a "cop out". Excessive certitude can be substitute for God and cripple an otherwise dynamic relationship with the mystery of the divine.

Denominational Loyalty and Denominational Pride


A Presbyterian blogger from a self-described progressive church has described her frustrations with the internal politics in two local Presbyteries, including her own. It seems that a body of conservatives in her denomination are more concerned about conformity to a certain rigid standard of orthodoxy, including with respect to homosexuality, than they are in encouraging thoughtful, talented people to follow their calling in the ministry.

I wouldn't necessarily have thought that San Francisco Presbyterians were so conservative and so obsessed with conformity, but I am not a Presbyterian, so there you have it. Her frustration with this problem led her to remark in her blog, "I am afraid that my beloved church will soon end up run by conforming, obedient lemmings, who know how to control and be controlled and mouth the slogans and the pious platitudes, but who cannot say what they believe, why they believe it, or what was the true journey by which Jesus led them there."

This struggle between progressives and conservatives mirrors battles taking place in many denominations, of course. In some cases, such as the Episcopal Church and the UCC, liberals have had in recent years the overall upper hand, even as there still remain substantial pockets of opposition from reactionaries within these denominations. In other denominations, the conservatives have managed to stave off progressive change to at least some degree. For example, mainline denominations such as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans generally allow female clergy, but they continue to discriminate against homosexual clergy.

When I, as an interested outsider who is not affiliated with any mainline denomination, look for a progressive Christian church, I consider both the individual congregation and the wider denomination that it is a part of. When I find a progressive church that belongs to a denomination that, as a whole, remains stuck in the past by holding to less progressive positions on certain issues, then that gives me pause. If I become a part of a given church community, it becomes a part of my identity. I want to be proud of what I have signed on to. But if that smaller community, the congregation, is part of a larger community that I am not so proud to affiliate myself with, then I am not sure how I would feel about that.

Denominational loyalty is a funny thing. Some people are loyal to it because that is what they grew up in, and it feels the most comfortable to them. I know Catholics who fit that description, who disagree with much of the church's teachings, but for them the church just feels like "home" to them. Others may be drawn to a denomination because they find themselves in broad agreement with the church's historical theology. For example, the blogger I cited above describes herself as having "one foot rooted in orthodox Reformed theology", which provides an important basis for her affiliation with the Presbyterian church. I would imagine that progressives who are loyal to a denomination with less-than-progressive positions on certain issues do so with the hope that the church will eventually change. Without that hope, then it surely would be more difficult to stay affiliated.

For me, though, as an outsider with no particular attachments to any denomination, some of those above reasons for denominational loyalty don't apply. In fact, many of these issues can be quite troubling. It is hard for me to feel comfortable attending a progressive church if it belongs to a wider denomination that seems locked into an orthodox Christian mindset, or that preaches discrimination against gays, or that otherwise demonstrates a conservatism that I object to. It would be nice not just to be proud of the local church I attended, but also the wider denomination as well.

Many denominations differ from one another not just over theology but in how they are governed. Are they congregational? Do they have bishops? Presbyteries? For the most part, these details doesn't concern me too much, as long as the denomination is reasonably democratic. What I seek first and foremost is a conduit for exploring progressive Christianity, and to be part of a wider community where mystical seeking is tolerated and encouraged.

More on the pre-Easter versus the post-Easter Jesus

As a follow up to my earlier posting on Marcus Borg's concept of the pre-Easter versus the post-Easter Jesus, I would like to quote something that Borg wrote in The Heart of Christianity, which also defines these terms:

The pre-Easter Jesus is Jesus before his death: a Galilean Jew born around the year 4 BCE and executed by the Romans around the year 30 CE. The pre-Easter Jesus is dead and gone; he's nowhere anymore. This statement does not deny Easter in any way, but simply recognizes that the corpuscular Jesus, the flesh-and-blood Jesus, is a figure of the past.

...the post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death. More fully, the post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian experience and tradition. Both nouns are important. By the post-Easter Jesus of experience, I mean that Jesus continued to be experienced by his followers after his death as a divine reality of the present, and that such experiences continue to happen today; some Christians, but not all, have such experiences. The post-Easter Jesus is thus an experiential reality. By the post-Easter Jesus of Christian tradition, I mean the Jesus we encounter in the developing traditions of the early Christian movement--in the gospels and the New Testament as a whole, as well as in the creeds. (p. 82)
Thus the distinction between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus is the distinction between the Jesus of history, and the Jesus of experience and tradition. When Borg combines both experience and tradition into the post-Easter Jesus, he makes an important point. In order to make sense of any religious experiences, humans are naturally inclined to interpret them. Thus religion, especially religious mysticism, can be said to be the experience of the Divine that is subject to human interpretation.

Jesus, in other words, was both experienced and interpreted after his death by his early followers. The natures of these interpretations were not always the same, however. People are different from one another, and given the likely novelty of the post-Easter experience for Jesus's followers, there may not have been a context with which to explain what they were experiencing. But the problem was that, in a historical era when religious pluralism was not necessarily respected or understood, what followed from all of this was a process of normalization of these experiences into a rigidly defined common faith. It was a process that took centuries, involving the canonization of written works into a sacred scripture and the formulation of the creeds that Borg alluded to. This normalization was hardly a smooth process. Competing Christianities had emerged in the first few centuries after Jesus died, to reflect the different interpretations that Jesus's followers formulated for their experience of the post-Easter Jesus.

The first account of these post-Easter Jesus-experiences that we have comes from Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians that Jesus
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.
Paul here is describing the various experiences of the post-Easter Jesus that he and others had. Paul reports that one such experience occurred in some kind of group setting--perhaps a sort of charismatic, mass mystical experience--although who the "five hundred" were (an obviously rounded number that may not reflect the actual number involved) or what they were doing at the time was not described. What we do know is that Paul drew no distinction in the nature of these various experiences of the post-Easter Jesus. He says very little about what he himself experienced, other than to note in 1 Galatians that he received the Gospel "through a revelation of Jesus Christ". The author of Luke-Acts reports that Paul's experience of Jesus was in the form of a vision that occurred on the road to Damascus, although that account appears to be rather mythologized. In any case, Paul considered the earlier followers who experienced the post-Easter Jesus to have had similar, visionary experiences to his own.

The process of interpreting these post-Easter experiences of Jesus led inevitably to myths and stories that served as a means of understanding them. Hence the emergence of the resurrection appearances that Matthew, Luke, and John wrote about.

Borg makes clear elsewhere in his book that the truth of the Easter experience for Jesus's followers has nothing to do with the resurrection stories in the Bible being literally true:
Because I see the meaning of the Easter stories this way, I can be indifferent to the factual questions surrounding the stories. For example, was the tomb really empty? Was his corpse transformed? Did the risen Jesus really eat a fish? Did he appear to his disciples in such a visible, physical way that we could have videotaped him if we had been there?

For me, the truth of the Easter stories is not at stake in these questions. For example, the story of the empty tomb may be a metaphor of the resurrection rather than a historical report. As metaphor, it means: you won't find Jesus in the land of the dead. As the angel in the story puts it, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" The truth of the Easter stories is grounded in the ongoing experience of Jesus as a figure of the present who is one with God and therefore "Lord." (pp. 54-55)

Barbarians at the Gates

How sad for Jerry Falwell that he died before the rapture was to take place. He assured us that the rapture is imminent--wouldn't it suck for him if the rapture happens, oh, say, this Thursday? If he had just been able to hang on for two more days...

I remember, back in the seventies when I was a teenage fundamentalist, coming across a faux post-rapture newspaper that some fundie Christians had printed; the paper reported with horror on the front page that millions of people had suddenly disappeared. Funnily enough, one of the people this fake newspaper reported to have have disappeared in the rapture was an unnamed President of the United States. The President at that time happened to be Richard Nixon. Make up your own joke here.

Part of the fun of the rapture for fundamentalists would have to be that it would serve as a kind of vindication. Once in heaven, the True Believers could look down on the world that was left behind and say, "Ha Ha", to all those doubters and skeptics they had lived and worked with who didn't buy the fundamentalist line and were now forced to deal with mass disappearances that served as the miraculous proof that the fundies were right after all.

The standard theology that I was taught back in the 1970s was that humanity was hopelessly depraved, and that this depravity was leading to an ever worsening situation that would culminate in the end of the world. This cynical view of humanity and the fate of the world dominated fundamentalist thinking. It saw humanity as being full of sinners and non-Christians who were destroying the world, and at the same time threatening and seducing true Christians with temptations and evil at every turn. According to this view, the world--and certainly Western culture--was becoming increasingly immoral. This always seemed to be especially borne out by changing sexual mores--books and movies were full of sexual depravity, people were having premarital sex, and so on. Christians had to take pains to avoid watching such movies or reading such books, lest they succumb to lustful thoughts. Fundamentalists always seem to have a particular problem with human sexuality.

These true believers saw themselves as an embattled minority, fighting what was in the short run a losing cause that could only be redeemed by direct Divine action. Falwell himself epitomized this view. Among the many offensive things that he did and said, his claim that "pagans", "abortionists", "gays and lesbians", and others whom he disapproved of were responsible in some way for the attacks of 9/11 was certainly one of the worst. But say what you will, it did reflect the prevalent view among his ilk that they lived in a world of human depravity.

The funny thing is, these people now have one of their own in power in the White House. You'd think that this whole "barbarians at the gates" paranoia wouldn't make much sense when one of your minions controls the most powerful country in the world. Their views were, or at least seemed to be in 2004, in political ascendancy in American politics. So how is it that the barbarians were taking over? In reality, the whole idea of Falwell's "Moral Majority" would seem to defy the logic of the impending end of the world. If you believe that the world cannot be redeemed from its evil, that the world is getting worse and is hurtling irrevocably towards its own self-destruction, what is the point in organizing in order to alter the political landscape in a way that you think will make things better? Isn't that a monumentally counterproductive waste of effort? Aren't you just trying to stave off the return of your Lord? But there you have it.

The best thing about my own liberation from the fundamentalist straitjacket was that I was able to view culture in terms of something other than this narrow-minded us-versus-them mentality. Certainly, there is still much of American culture that I don't have much use for. But no longer do I feel like the barbarians are at the gates, that I am constantly having to resist temptation, that the devil is trying to seduce me. Is American culture sometimes, or even often, stupid? Sure. Is the current world situation depressing, what with global warming, war, and the declining bee population? Sure. Are these world problems due to Satan, inherent human depravity, or evils that are tempting me on the road to hell? I don't think so.

So now, after all is said and done, Jerry Falwell has gone the way of all flesh. His hate-mongering continues, unfortunately, without him. Also living on are the eschatological hopes of millions of fundamentalist Christians for a violent end to the world that will usher in their Lord. Jerry Falwell's death should serve as a reminder to all of us that our hope lies not in hatred or bigotry or a hoped-for final act of carnage that would usher in the rule of Christ, but in seeking first the Kingdom of God--a kingdom built on love and universal inclusion.

Truth to Power, Lies to Powerlessness

Well, I see that another surge of visits to my blog has occurred today, thanks to a certain theologically conservative Anglican web site that shall remain unnamed. There was a posting there today from the same individual from that site who, a few weeks ago, found my blog after trolling the internet for views he didn't approve of, then dragged me (a non-Episcopalian) into his feud with progressives in his denomination, then proceeded to launch snide broadsides at not just my opinions but also my character, and then justified his attacks on my character based in part on false claims about what I had said in my blog entry; this new posting today alludes to his earlier attacks against my blog, at the same time dragging me once more into his nasty little denominational struggle. Hurrah.

I guess I should be flattered, since, in his desperation to justify his behavior against me, this time around he has lumped me--an insignificant, anonymous spiritual blogger who is trying to find a religious home, with no influence in the religious world and only a handful of readers--into the same general category as an important and highly public Episcopalian theologian with ties to a powerful right wing front group called the Institute for Religion and Democracy. Yeah, our roles in public discourse and denominational politics, our influence, our significance in the world--readily comparable. That's the ticket.

It is interesting, actually, how speaking truth to power gets compared with speaking lies to the powerless, as if both were the same thing. I guess those who are busy rooting out heresy in the holy war of ideas, and who are surrounded on all sides by dangerous free thinkers who threaten the very core of civilization, are compelled to swing their weapons in a wide swath against all enemies, imagined and real, great and small.

"Silent longing" for Christianity

Reuters reported yesterday that the Pope had claimed that the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere "welcomed the arrival of European priests at the time of the conquest as they were 'silently longing' for Christianity." Naturally, Indian leaders in Brazil were pissed off at the arrogance of such a statement.

As the article pointed out,

Millions of tribal Indians are believed to have died as a result of European colonization backed by the Church since Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, through slaughter, disease or enslavement.
In my view, claiming that people who have another religion imposed on them by force are "silently longing" for it is kind of like saying that a rape victim was really asking for it. But hey, that's just me.

Maybe when you spent much of your professional career rooting out heresy, as the current Pope did before he got his current gig, then the idea there is only One True Religion (your own, of course) becomes so ingrained in your thinking that respect for other peoples, their religious backgrounds, and their autonomy just sort of eludes you. On the other hand, maybe the current Pope is just a dufus. It's hard to know.

Liberating the Jesus spirit

Glynn Cardy, an Anglican priest in New Zealand, has written a series of blog entries on the subject of Easter. His third posting, "The Great Easter Deception", includes the following text:

...The first post-resurrection Christians found the liberating spirit of Jesus wonderful, enlightening, and world changing. However, in time, other Christians, especially some in positions of power, found it frightening. They wanted to restrain and control the Jesus spirit. They were anxious that people would take courage, turn the world upside down, and thus upset the way things are. They were anxious that their power would be reduced.

So what some leaders did was take the metaphorical language about sacrifice [that had been around awhile] and applied it definitively to the Easter stories. They turned Jesus’ death into a once-for-all blood sacrifice to cleanse us of our alleged sin. Instead of the forces of injustice killing Jesus all of us so-called sinners were responsible. His death was de-politicized. If it weren’t for our sin, so the story was re-told, he wouldn’t have had to die.

Jesus was now no longer the confrontational revolutionary prophet but a self-sacrificing lamb. Good Friday was not the Romans killing off a pestilent rebel but the assisted suicide of the forgiving martyr. Easter Sunday was not the days of new hope, determination, and resistance congealing among his followers but a 40-day power display in order to show the benefits of having Jesus forgive us.
It is clear to me, as I study the history of the development of orthodoxy within the early centuries of the Christian church, that this de-politicization of Jesus's message that Glynn Cardy refers to in the above text was accompanied, at the same time, by political maneuvering for power by the leaders of the early Church. Those two processes went hand in hand, because in order for the self-appointed gatekeepers of the new religious order to justify their consolidation of power, it was necessary to strip away from their religious faith any real reference to Jesus's prophetic call on behalf of the powerless in the face of collaboration between secular and religious authority. The taming of the Jesus spirit into a restrained and safe orthodoxy which ultimately triumphed over "heresy" was not a polite, restrained, peaceful affair. It required Machiavellian subterfuge, coercion, and violence--all of which violated the spirit of Jesus's teachings, of course, but then that was the point.

If, as Glynn has suggested, the Jesus spirit has been restrained and controlled, how can we then liberate the Jesus spirit once again? How can we reincorporate what I believe to be Jesus's message of radical inclusion, his rebellious spirit, his prophetic call, his identification with powerless, into a modern faith?

So What's the Point?

In the comments of my previous posting, the following question arose: if Jesus was not literally and physically resurrected from the dead, "what is the point of it all?" Ruth, in particular, went on to say,

My gateway to God is through Jesus (I recently concluded that Jesus' life, death and resurrection (and very little else) provide me with the evidence I need to believe in God - without that, I struggle to believe).

You believe in God though - so I'd be interested to know what makes you believe?
I think this is an important and interesting question. I don't wish to take from anyone else their gateway to God. Each of us comes to believe in God for different reasons. I can offer my reasons, with the understanding that mine aren't necessarily the same as everyone else's.

Sometimes we come to rely on those initial reasons that draw us to God. There is then an implication: if the reason is taken away, then will faith in God then have no point to it? Or can faith in God survive a shock to its system?

What makes me believe in God? Here's an honest answer: I don't entirely know. I just do. As a partial answer, I can give a few reasons, some of them dry and philosophical, and some of the spiritual. To me, the existence of God just makes sense--intellectually, philosophically, and spiritually. I believe that our finite universe requires an infinite Creator to sustain it. I believe in a presence, a comforter, a guide who serves as an infinite, loving, deeper Reality. This belief is not dependent on any historical events that may or may not have taken place--not on anyone having been resurrected, for example; and it is not dependent on my having an afterlife. For me, belief in God is about my relationship with God in this life, and how it defines and guides my relationship with the world.

One of the most important things that draws me to God is the sense of something Transcendent that I feel calling out to me. This transcendent reality is not something that I, as a finite human, can define, but I feel it nonetheless; so I choose to call this reality God and to relate it in some way to the human religious experience. I know that this pull towards the Transcendent is there because I find myself uplifted in curious and yet recognizable ways when I point myself in that direction. It is a pull I cannot deny. Cynics and atheists might dismiss this as pure fantasy or the workings of my brain chemistry or something meaningless and lacking in objectivity. So be it. I don't really care how others might choose to characterize it. I just recognize the phenomenon and try to act on it accordingly.

Sometimes, some Christian preachers and theologians will argue that if Jesus was not the Son of God who was raised from the dead for our sins, then there is no reason to be a follower of Jesus--that one might as well just follow anyone else: Gandhi, Marx, whomever. I never understood the logic of this argument. Followers of Buddha, for example don't have to believe that the Buddha was raised from the dead in order to follow him--to see the value of his message and his life. The value of great religious figures is often simply in what they disclose and in how they show the way for others to follow.

Jesus was, I believe, a unique teacher with a unique message, in his case within the Jewish monotheistic religious tradition; but it is a message which has broken free of its cultural origins--because of what I believe to be its universal resonance. His message, if you strip away the accumulated layers of Christology that developed around him in the decades and centuries after his death, was startling. He preached and lived a life of universal inclusion and radical love; he showed how one can live in an intimate relationship with God; he challenged the traditional social order, favoring those in the lowest rungs of society; he disclosed the in-breaking Kingdom of God that he saw as being all around us and within us; he led a life of nonviolent resistance to an Empire and those religious leaders who accommodated themselves to it--and lived true to that message so completely that he gave his life for it.

What's the point of believing in God if Jesus was not literally, physically, resurrected from the dead? For me, that turns the question around. The question seems to start with Jesus and then work its way to God. I start with the existence of God, and then work backwards to Jesus.

I think furthermore that even without a physical resurrection, there was something about Jesus and his message that led his followers to believe, after he died, that he was still with them, in spirit if not in body. The visions that they had of his continuing presence pointed to the hope that he left behind. He was someone who disclosed incredibly well in his life the Divine spirit that is available to us, and gave his life to it so fully that he ultimately sacrificed his life. The message of hope is that all of us can also catch a glimpse of that divine reality. All of us can work to build the Kingdom of God.

What's the point of believing in God? How have millions of non-Christian monotheists in the history of the world answered that question? How did Jews answer that question in the Old Testament era? Long before Jesus was born, his Jewish ancestors believed in God without worshiping a yet-to-be-born and yet-to-be-resurrected man from Galilee. The afterlife itself was a late development in Jewish thought that emerged in a period of persecution and martyrdom. Even in Jesus's time, not all Jews believed, as the Pharisees did, in an afterlife. As you read the long trajectory of writings that make up the Hebrew Bible, you can see how theologies evolved and competed with one another within the Jewish tradition. Was God the tribal deity of the Jewish people, or was he a universal God of all people? Did God reward the just and punish the unjust in this life? Or was it the case, as the author of Ecclesiastes put it, that "all is vanity"? Or, as many Jews (like the Pharisees) in the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Jesus came to believe, did God reward us in the next life?

The theologies changed; people came to view God and their religion in different ways. And yet the Transcendent reality that the Bible pointed to still remained a reality for many different people, for different reasons.

I can't tell anyone else what the point is, if you don't believe that Jesus was literally and physically resurrected from the dead, in believing in God, or in identifying with the Jesus tradition within a broader spectrum of monotheism. All I can do is speak for myself. I identify with the Christian tradition in the broadest sense--not with the orthodoxy, to be sure, but with the overall traditions of a universal monotheistic conception of God as pointed to by Jesus. My reasons for attaching myself to Christianity may not be entirely logical--I admit that I am a product of Western tradition and my own personal upbringing. But I say, "so what"? I think that we as finite beings can only relate to the Transcendent through filters that are available to us in our limited human ways. As a religious pluralist, I accept that others can relate to this Ultimate reality in other ways, and that's okay. I take what I can work with, what makes sense to me, and I go from there.

And that's why I believe in God, and that's why I stay within the Christian tradition--even if I hover on the edge of it.

The pre-Easter Jesus versus the post-Easter Jesus

Here is what Marcus Borg has to say on the pre-Easter Jesus versus the post-Easter Jesus. This comes from a December 12 posting in the Newsweek/Washington Post online column "On Faith":

I see the pre-Easter Jesus as a Jewish mystic who knew God, and who as a result became a healer, wisdom teacher, and prophet of the kingdom of God. The latter led to his being killed by the authorities who ruled his world. But I do not think he proclaimed or taught an extraordinary status for himself. The message of the pre-Easter Jesus was about God and the kingdom of God, and not about himself.

Rather, I see the grand statements about Jesus – that he is the Son of God, the Light of the World, and so forth - as the testimony of the early Christian movement. These are neither objectively true statements about Jesus nor, for example in this season, about his conception and birth. To speak of him as the Son of God does not mean that he was conceived by God and had no biological human father. Rather, this is the post-Easter conviction of his followers.

Christianity and violence

Chapter Five of Dominic Crossan's book God & Empire serves as a passionately written and convincing refutation of fundamentalist notions of Christ's apocalyptic and violent Second Coming, usually coupled with the notion of a "rapture".

I am very familiar with this dark side of fundamentalism. As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, there were copies of two of Hal Lindsey's books in my house: The Late Great Planet Earth, and Satan Is Alive and Well and Living on Planet Earth. These books were particularly insidious because they, in essence, gleefully looked forward to a horribly bloody act of divine intervention that would punish once and for all the evildoers, sinners, and non-Christians; I say "gleefully" because this carnage would establish the final glorious rule of Christ on Earth. Such a view of Christ as a vengeful killer contrasts wildly with how Jesus lived nonviolently when he was alive on earth.

Just as appallingly, this violent view of a divinely managed end of the world took all responsibility for building the Kingdom of God away from the human race; filled with pessimism about the human condition, it assumed that because of human depravity the world could only get worse, and that therefore a better world could only be constructed via direct, miraculous divine intervention. The fact that such intervention was itself to be carried out in genocidal extremes was a mere technicality.

A generation after Hal Lindsey's outdated and highly specific predictions have been proved wrong by the changes in the world in the intervening decades, apocalyptic fundamentalism continues to thrive, as seen by the popularity of the Left Behind series. Crossan doesn't just pin all the blame for this problem on fundamentalists, however; he sharply critiques the book of Revelation as a source for much of this image of the bloodthirsty Christ.

As Crossan points out,

To turn the nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is, for me as a Christian, to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ.
The message of nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire that Jesus took with him to the cross does not even remotely jibe with the violent images that infest fundamentalist apocalyptic thinking. This serves as an example of how fundamentalism is essentially a perversion of the message of Jesus's life and teachings.

After the Virginia Tech shootings brought on another discussion about gun control, it was interesting to hear some American Christians trotting out what was a purely secular justification for private gun ownership--specifically, endorsing it as a necessary tool to oppose the emergence of oppressive government in the US. When those Christians justify gun ownership along these lines, Jesus's name does not get invoked. It no longer becomes a religiously based moral discussion, but one rooted in the US Constitution and political arguments--which is odd, really, given how much fundamentalists like to invoke the Bible to justify a host of sins, from homophobia to sexism to capital punishment to holy war. But when it comes to Jesus's message and life of nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire--well, suddenly the implications of that for public policy are ignored.

Many Christians have granted all sorts of magical powers to Jesus during his life on earth. He is said to have had command over the laws of nature, for example--he could bring the dead back to life, cure illnesses, cast out demons, predict the future, and so on. For someone whom the creeds say was fully human, that is a pretty impressive list of powers, actually. It seemed like he was a kind of Cosmic Superman living among the mortals. As such, he certainly could have been packing heat on Maundy Thursday. With his magical powers, he could have conjured up some pretty powerful firearms for himself and his Gang of 12. Better still, he could have whipped up weapons that we in our time can only dream of--maybe some phasers like Captain Kirk uses, for example. He could have bagged himself some Roman centurions, maybe assassinated Pilate--who knows, all in the interests of his and the Jewish people's legitimate interests of self-protection and against the oppressive Romans. The thing is, even if you believe that Jesus was a powerful magician--even if you take literally all the miracle stories reported about him in the Bible--Jesus was hardly a fan of the use of violent means to oppose oppressive government. The Roman Empire was indeed oppressive--but he did not resist it violently. He went to the cross and died according to the principles that he lived by, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.

Centuries later, when the Emperor Constantine, who had become a supporter of Christianity, hosted the Council of Nicea, this represented an exciting time for the participating bishops, who had lived through so much persecution, particularly under Diocletian. Now, at long last, they were legitimate in the eyes of the Roman Empire. But was that really a good thing? Now they had become accommodationists with Imperial violence. This same Constantine, who had had his brother-in-law, Licinius, murdered as part of an internecine power struggle within the Empire, was now playing host to a church council, and the bishops were eating it up. The bishops were happy to have the stamp of Imperial Approval, and to use that approval as a means of imposing doctrinal homogeneity. It similarly served the interests of the Emperor to have a homogeneous Christian religion that unified the Empire under Constantine's rule. Thus it was an unholy alliance of mutual interests that led to the Nicene Creed. I am reminded of the way the prophet Nathan spoke truth to power against King David after the latter had had Uriah murdered; but the murderous politics of the Roman Empire were apparently just par for the course. You can't build a state religion without breaking a few eggs.

In the modern era, fundamentalists hope for a carnage-laden end to the world because it will usher in the age of Divine Glory. I would rather seek to build the Kingdom of God through a message of peace, love, and nonviolence, as Jesus taught.

Another Park(ed car), Another Sunday

It was deja vu all over again. I didn't go to church today. As was the case last week, I did drive to two churches. I just didn't go inside either of them. I can only imagine what character flaws of mine this reveals. Perhaps someone trolling the net for heretics will read this blog entry and let me know.

I woke up early enough to make it across the Golden Gate Bridge to a 9:30 service at a progressive Christian church in Sausalito. I've never been to this particular church, but in my mind, this isn't just any old progressive church--it seems like almost a kind of flagship of progressive Christianity, since its pastor is a leading figure in the progressive Christian movement. Before going, I checked its web site to get directions, and for some reason I decided to read the church newsletter that was posted there. There I discovered information about a complication in making the trip; it seemed that a nearby hotel, whose parking lot had been available to church attenders for some time, had decided to revoke access privileges for churchgoers to the parking lot. Parking in Sausalito is rarely an easy proposition and never free, so this really was a complication. The newsletter offered an alternative parking suggestion--going to a city lot on the waterfront down the hill. In addition, it encouraged creative transportation, such as carpooling or bicycling to church. It was a beautiful morning, warm and sunny, and I imagined myself taking a pleasant bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to visit this church, but I wasn't feeling quite that adventurous this day. So I got in my car and drove, already feeling less than enthused. Any obstacle, no matter how slight, can serve as an excuse to scare me away from these things, and I already had found one such obstacle before the trip had even begun.

As it turned out, when I got to Sausalito, I discovered the town to be a hive of activity. I encountered many bicyclists on the road, all decked out in their fancy bike jerseys. I wasn't sure if I had stumbled on some kind of group ride event, or if it is just the case that everyone bicycles in Sausalito on beautiful Sunday mornings, and maybe everyone who does so wears a fancy jersey. (I hate wearing bike jerseys, by the way, because they are all designed for people who are way thinner around the waist than I am.) In any case, the reluctance I was feeling was increasing as I drove past the parking lots. I passed a right turn that I couldn't see a street sign for--was that where the city lots were located? Discouragement was now officially complete. So why was I there? What was impelling me to go on these pointless drives? I found a side street where I could turn around, and went back the way I came, over the Golden Gate Bridge, paying $5 at the toll plaza.

My carbon footprint got a little bigger with that big waste of gasoline. Since I bicycle and take public transit to work, I tell myself I can give myself some leeway occasionally and waste a little fuel, as I did today. Driving around in the sun, listening on my car radio to intellectually stimulating public radio programs like To the Best of Our Knowledge and Philosophy Talk was, in essence, my church service for the morning.

Bur the morning was far from over. I briefly stopped home to use the bathroom. It was 9:30--plenty of time to make a drive from there to the same Presbyterian church where last week I had driven to but not gone inside. The service was at 10:30. I made my way out the door. More carbon for me to waste.

The church is located in a neighborhood where parking is often difficult, but I found street parking just a block away. Once again with respect to this church, the parking gods seemed to be smiling on me, but I knew in my heart I wouldn't go in. After walking down the main neighborhood drag and visiting the bookstore I had discovered last week, I decided it was time to go home.

I walked right past the front of the church at about 10:28. A silver-haired woman with a cane was slowly making herself to the front entrance as I walked by. A young woman came outside to greet her, holding what may have been programs for the service, and called her by name. Somehow this friendliness between them reinforced my decision not to go in. I suddenly felt like a true outsider.

It hit me that there are two things that scare me about visiting a new church for the first time. I am scared that the congregation will not be friendly to me; and I am scared that the congregation will be friendly to me.

As for the first fear--a church is, after all, community, where the people know one another; and partaking of their services as a visitor who is only checking things out makes me feel like an interloper. It makes no sense, but there you are. I felt that way as I watched the young greeter speak to the woman with the cane. They knew each other--and I'm an outsider. That is why I like to have someone along for moral support when I visit a church for the first time; then I have the comfort of someone to lean on and share my discomfort with. I think that perhaps all my years of being a Quaker has contributed to this feeling; Quakers are so typically indifferent to visitors at their meetings, and I always am in the habit now of expecting not to be particularly welcomed when I visit a worship service. I am always pleasantly surprised when that isn't the case, but that sense of dread of somehow not being welcomed stays with me.

And yet a second thing that scares me is the exact opposite of the first one. I am scared of the congregation being friendly to me. Part of me likes the idea of slinking into church in a back pew, quietly not being noticed. For one thing, if I don't like it, I can just slink right back out when it is over. I don't have to deal with the awkward and uncomfortable situation of exchanging pleasantries with people who are welcoming one who didn't particularly like what they saw. If I am just visiting as a process of exploration or curiosity rather than as part of any intention of finding a community to join, then I feel almost like I am just toying with the church, having intruded into a community that I will never become a part of. And on top of all of that, an innate shyness and reserve in new social settings comes to play when speaking with strangers at a church.

It is all the more complicated when I visit a church from a denomination I have never experienced before, which is the case with the Presbyterians. What are the unknown conventions of the church and its form of worship that I know nothing about?

Lack of certainty about what I am getting myself into, lack of certainty about how welcomed I'll be, lack of certainty about how I even want to be welcomed, lack of certainty about whether the service will be a little too orthodox and thus rub the scars of my fundamentalist past, and maybe just plain feeling a little funny about being inside a Christian church at all. These feelings are what often keep me from going inside new churches. Yet something draws me out of my house on Sunday mornings. I often want to experience a religious service on a Sunday morning. But then something also keeps me away.

But I didn't really mind what happened this morning. As I said, I enjoyed the nice weather and listening to the radio--today, that included discussions about the morality of war and what it means philosophically to be an autonomous human being. Oh yes, and the weather--did I mention it was beautiful? Somehow, this hesitation, this going-and-then-not-going, was okay for me today. What will happen on future Sundays is anybody's guess.

Find, and Ye Shall Seek

I have come up with a name for my religious journey: Seekism. Its motto: "Find, and Ye Shall Seek".

Some might deride this as not Seekism, but mere Tongue-In-Cheekism. But they would be wrong. I am quite serious about my religion.

For a long time, I had been dissatisfied with the moniker I chose for this blog, Mystical Seeker. It's just not very catchy or clever--unlike, for example, Mad Priest or Peacebang or all the other clever names out there in the blogosphere. I was feeling like I should have spent more time coming up with a better name; it seems impersonal, and I think other bloggers aren't always sure how to address me--MS, Seeker, Mystical? But I have changed my mind. I decided to embrace the name. I am a seeker, after all. And I embrace mysticism, contemplation and communion with the Divine as ideals of my religion.

As Matthew Fox put it in thesis 7 of his "95 Theses or Articles of Faith for a Christianity for the Third Millenium":

Everyone is born a mystic and a lover who experiences the unity of things, and all are called to keep alive this mystic or lover of life.
So, for any other Seekist who is reading this blog, I say, thanks for joining me on the journey.

More crankiness

This is a blog of exploration and seeking, not of arguing and debate. I have always tried stay positively focused on the values and ideals that are important to me. Arguing with proselytizers or self-proclaimed guardians of truth from the religious right distracts from that goal, and it wears me down quickly. I don't have the time or inclination to waste my time arguing with trolls or with people who are not interested in serious dialog or discussion.

The recent attacks against me in a posting at a right wing Anglican blog came out of nowhere. For the most part, my blog has been barely a blip on the blogosphere's radar screen. Hardly anyone reads it. Suddenly it got a lot of attention from a lot of people, for both good and bad. My guess is that this attention will soon pass and I will go back to being an obscure blogger who often writes entries that are far too long to hold anyone's attention, whose blog lacks the bells and whistles that others have, and who most people on the web don't even pay attention to.

I wasn't about to get dragged into a fight I didn't pick, so while I did read some of the obnoxious comments to the blog posting that attacked me, I certainly wasn't going to go to that web site and participate in those discussions against my will. The comments to the original post covered the gamut from positive to negative. They ranged from insulting (and often blatantly false) personal attacks against me (by the original poster and his staunch defenders), to condescending (by those who consider me a prospective proselyte), to wonderfully supportive (by those kind souls who stood up for me.)

Reviewing the comments, I noted that the original blogger, who had trolled the net and found my post-Easter entry, defended his behavior by trying to have it both ways. He claimed on the one hand he had borne no hostility to me at all when he posted his message; in the next breath, however, he went on to justify the very hostility that he denied having(!)--claiming that my posting "drips with contempt", and further accusing me of being "lazy" and "self-centered". This process of wanting to have it both ways makes it impossible to pin people like this down on anything, and inevitably any discussion with such individuals is slippery and useless.

It is interesting to note that he justified the "lazy" accusation with the lie that I was one of those who "couldn’t drag themselves out of bed before most Christian churches start their Sunday morning services" (namely, 11 AM)--something that, if he had actually read the posting that he quoted almost in its entirety, he would have known to be untrue, since I wrote about showing up in time for a 10:30 service and then showing up in time for an 11 AM service, but attending neither (in fact, I alluded in my posting to the fact that I was up early enough to attend a 10 AM service in the city, but not the remote suburbs where I would have to drive a ways.)

I was curious what other attacks against me have shown up on the net behind my back, so I did a little internet search, lo and behold, I discovered another instance in another blog. After discussing in the comments section of John Shuck's blog some of claims that the gospels had made about Jesus , one of the individuals of a literalist bent who I had responded to in the comments section of a posting there decided to respond in turn to my comment--not in the same section of that blog where I had posted my comment, where I would have seen it, but in his own blog. There he attacked what I wrote and referred to me explicitly by my blogger id, without telling me. Seeing what he wrote there, it was clear that a major element of what I had said had gone right over his head--but of course, I couldn't correct him on it, since I didn't even know that he had written this response. But never mind, it was a convenient way for him to attack me on his home turf in a way without me readily knowing about it, and besides, to go to his blog now and argue with him would be exactly the thing I am trying to avoid--namely, sapping all my time and energy engaging with obnoxious bloggers.

The author of the posting on the right wing Anglican blog that attacked me is not about to apologize for his behavior. People of that ilk rarely do. I've seen plenty of these sorts of Warriors for the Cause of Truth on the internet and elsewhere; knowing that Truth and God are on your side excuses all sorts of actions in some people's minds. Dialog and discussion are simply not possible.

I believe that there are some people who hold conservative views who are nevertheless willing to engage others as equal partners in a friendly and fair dialog. If I sense that this is (or might be) the case, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, at least until they demonstrate otherwise--and unfortunately, some of them do prove otherwise in short order. But I try not to judge people too quickly on that score. For that matter, there are also religious liberals with whom I may have theological disagreements, but I can have friendly discussions with them in a spirit of open and respectful dialog. I encourage and enjoy this kind of discussion, as a matter of fact.

What will clue me in about the pointlessness of further discussion with certain individuals are any of the following: a slipperiness that makes the other party impossible to pin down; a quickness to judge me or what I am saying without sufficient information to make such a judgment; or out and out proselytizing. The former two characteristics are associated with a hostile stance that makes discussion a waste of time anyway, and the latter with condescension, which also makes discussion a waste.

Trolls, unfortunately, are a fact of life on the internet. They justify their behavior by arguing that the internet is a public place where commenting and responding is part of the game--and since anyone can subject public blog postings to response and ridicule, that makes it okay to do so. This attitude that, if you can do it, then it is okay to do it, is a strange one for the self-proclaimed moralists of the Religious Right to be making, but there you have it.

It is always difficult to have your scars rubbed raw. My scars from my fundamentalist youth are something that I will carry with me throughout my life. One of the most difficult challenges for me over the years has been to explore religion despite those scars, and I believe, thankfully, that I have reached a point in my life where I am actually able to do that. So I am handling this whole incident with more ease than I might have many years ago. I guess just knowing that is a valuable lesson that I can draw from this experience.