Dissection of a creed

In the current issue of The Fourth R, a magazine published by the Westar Institute, Patricia Williams provides an introduction to many of the elements of the Quaker faith, which she believes are consistent with the work of the Jesus Seminar. One of the points she discusses is the subject of creeds. She writes:

The emphasis on experience results in the rejection of creeds. Quakerism has none. Quakers mistrust rational argument divorced from experience.
This is a part of my Quaker background that I still carry with me. I don't like creeds, and I remain silent when I attend worship services that include them as part of the program. By the same token, I am always a little curious to see what kinds of creeds are included in church programs--in particular, those that attempt to broaden the appeal and move away from insisting on stricter interpretations of Christianity.

Last Wednesday evening, while attending Taizé services at a local progressive church, I saw some copies of the previous Sunday morning service program, so I picked one up so I could take a look at when I got home.

I was curious about the "Affirmation of Faith", which seemed like a modified version of the Apostles' Creed--and, quite frankly, an improvement over it as well. I tried Googling some of the phrases in this affirmation and could not find them, so I don't know if this particular creed is unique to this church or not. I thought it might be interesting to dissect this creed a bit and analyze what parts of it I could agree with, and which ones I have trouble with or could not accept at all.

The creed begins:
We believe in the Creator God, universal and just, who made the world and abides with us.
For the most part, I like this opening statement. In a nutshell it summarizes what I think are three important Divine attributes: creativity, immanence, and justice. A fourth attribute, transcendence, is also implied, I believe, by asserting both that God is universal and that God "made" the world. The part about "making" the world is where it might get a little tricky, however, because it can suggest Divine omnipotence, which I would take issue with. I prefer to think of God as the most important participant in the creative processes of the world, rather than as One who simply "made" the world. But I think it is possible to give that statement a broad enough interpretation that people with diverse views of God's creative power and role can probably affirm it. Missing from this statement about the Divine nature, curiously enough, is the word "love", although in 1 John it is asserted that God is none other than love itself.

What I particularly find interesting about this section of this creed is that it begins with an assertion, not about God the Father, but simply about God. It is possible that one reason for this may have been to avoid using gender-specific language. In any case, though, it also has for me the added benefit that it has essentially broken this creed free from a strictly imposed Trinitarianism. This opening statement says nothing in itself that would be objectionable to unitarian monotheists, since, from my perspective, it simply seems to be making assertions about God as a whole, without reference to one of the three Divine "persons" or "hypostases" or whatever term you want to use for it.

The creed continues,
We believe in Jesus, his Son, the redeemer, who was conceived by the Spirit, born of a woman, traveled among nations, healed, taught and suffered, and raised up disciples to follow him.

We believe that he challenged the principalities and powers of the world, was crucified, died and was buried;
This section corrects one of the glaring flaws in the historic creeds--it actually talks about what Jesus did in his life! Moreover, I particularly like that it says that he "challenged the principalities and powers of this world", which I think is a key point of his ministry.

Some of the other wording is more traditional and orthodox--in particular, the bits about being the redeemer and being conceived by the Spirit, and the proclamation that he is God's Son. Both of those can be interpreted in different ways, of course, and in fact were interpreted in various ways at various times in Christian history. To assert that he is God's Son says nothing about his alleged role in the Godhead; nor is there is an assertion of eternal pre-existence contained in that statement. Certainly Trinitarians would agree that Jesus was God's Son, of course. I found it interesting as well that it says that Jesus was conceived by the "Spirit", rather than the more formal Christian title "Holy Spirit", as if to further loosen the strictly orthodox Trinitarian straitjacket a bit.

Personally, I think that Jesus was conceived not by any Spirit, but by a man and a woman, like the rest of us were--but I also think that he was what Marcus Borg calls a "Spirit person", so if one wanted to recite this creed, I suppose that one could argue that, metaphorically speaking, he was conceived by the Spirit. I'm not sure, to be honest, that I am comfortable with calling him the Son of God, however; to me, that title carries with it a lot of Trinitarian baggage, even though of course it goes all the way back to the Gospels and precedes the development of full fledged Trinitarianism. I also think that all of us are, in our own ways, children of God, and in that sense, Jesus was like the rest of us.

The creed continues,
and on the the third day that he rose again, offered hope to his companions, rejoined the Creator and will be forever our guide and our light.
Now we are getting into definite metaphorical territory. I don't believe that Jesus was literally, physically resurrected, on the third day or any other day, although one could again give this a broad interpretation by saying that his disciples experienced him in some fashion after he died, and in that capacity he offered hope to those who experienced him. The business about "rejoining" the Creator does seem to allude to Jesus having pre-existed in some fashion with God. Admittedly, this idea of his pre-existence can be found in the prologue to the Gospel of John, but I see that as a later development of an evolving Christology, and more mythical than something that I would literally believe.

The creed finishes in this way:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the church unified, the fellowship of humanity, the communion of saints, the resurrection of all, and life everlasting. Amen.
This section, like its antecedent in the equivalent section of the Apostles' Creed, addresses several topics, and almost seems a little disjointed. First it talks about the Holy Spirit and its relationship to the church and the world, but then it quickly goes on to talk about the afterlife. I am in agreement with the part about the the fellowship of humanity, of course. On the other hand, I am an agnostic about the afterlife. I don't think I could honestly affirm that last bit about life everlasting, even with the broadest of interpretations. Not only do I not know what to believe about life after death, but I just think it isn't that important.

Ultimately, like all creeds, I think this one is problematic. Still, I also think, as creeds go, it is better than most, and given that the church in question is a creedal church, some kind of creedal affirmation is probably to be expected.

Ultimately, though, I think that creeds are as much a hindrance as a help, insofar as they can be a means of excluding or gatekeeping. If people have to cross their fingers while they recite a creed, or if they have to undergo mental gymnastics in order to justify in their own minds what they are affirming, then what's the point? As a record of people's historical attempts at wrapping their minds around the Christian faith, I can see that they have value; but, in my view, they should never serve as a test of faith.

Abbie Hoffman

In my previous posting, I commented on The Pursuit of Happyness, a film I could not bring myself to see because of its apparent celebration of Wall Street values. After I wrote that, I thought about Abbie Hoffman, who once, in 1967, protested against American corporate injustice in a typically Hoffmanesque way: he threw money down to the traders from the galley of the New York Stock Exchange, and then watched them scramble to pick up the bills. Wall Street greed was never spoofed more effectively. Abbie Hoffman knew how to speak truth to power in ways that were both hilarious and evocative.

If he hadn't taken his own life, he would be in his seventies now. Because he died prematurely, he is forever frozen in time as a much younger man. The last images we have of him are from a time when he was middle aged. And the funny thing is, in those images that we have, he bore an uncanny physical resemblance to Jesus. Or, at least, to one particular image of Jesus.

Cynthia (Reverend Mom) has written an entry in her blog in which she presented several images of Jesus, including this one, which is an artist's rendering of what he might have looked like, "given his ethnic background and recent paleoanthropological studies":

And the funny thing is, he kind of resembles Abbie Hoffman from late in his life:

Abbie Hoffman was a remarkable social activist, although of course he was quite human, which meant that he was also a flawed, complex person. One thing he did have in common with Jesus, though, besides his looks, was that he spoke truth to power. Jesus overturned the moneychangers at the temple in Jerusalem, while Abbie Hoffman threw money at the contemporary moneychangers in the American temple of capitalism.

I think we could use more people like Abbie Hoffman.

The Pursuit of Happyness

Although I usually like to watch movies that are filmed in my city of San Francisco, I could never bring myself to go see The Pursuit of Happyness, despite the generally positive reviews. I felt uncomfortable with the idea of a film that, from all accounts, seemed in some way to be a glorification of the prevailing corporate mythology that says that every poor person can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try hard enough. The fact that the main character became a stock broker, a profession that epitomizes and idolizes our profit-driven, corporate dominated economic system, only seemed to add to my wariness. Perhaps it was unfair to prejudge a film without seeing it, and perhaps the film had its virtues, but it is also certainly legitimate for a consumer to take into account what one hears about a film before deciding whether to spend money to see it.

Well, now I have found some agreement with my concerns from someone who actually did see it. Episcopal bishop Marc Andrus of San Francisco has written this in his blog after having watched the movie:

But there are some overarching problems with this good film. The character is smart (he solves the Rubik's Cube rapidly, impressing an HR man with an investment firm), and diligent, even indefatigable. With no critique of our economic system and the increasing gap between rich and poor in this country, the film becomes an unquestioning update of the Horatio Alger stories.

For those of us within the Christian Church, a move like “The Pursuit of Happyness” can encourage “band aid” behavior at best, and at worst a blaming attitude towards all the poor who don’t have the moral gumption and smarts to rise.

It'll All Be Moot After The Rapture

The Mad Priest is mad, I tell you! Mad!

He claims to be shunning me now because I suggested that this posting by John Shuck should be nominated for the funniest religious blog posting of the year.

Silly priest. Everyone knows that Mad Priest of course has the funniest religious blog this side of the afterlife.

Religion and Social Justice

I am not an Episcopalian, but I have visited Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, a majestic church that sits atop Nob Hill. I even attended an Evensong performance there once--although I have to say that I didn't like it. I was interested to have run across this blog posting by Rev. Warren Cromley, retired rector of Trinity Episcopal church in San Francisco. Rev. Cromley pulls no punches--he calls for the Dean of Grace Cathedral, Alan Jones, to resign. What interested me in particular was the reasoning he gave for this position. Among other things, he writes:

Now my beef with Jones is the lack of a social justice aspect to his preaching, teaching and ministry. He has never made a public statement supporting LGBT rights. He said in a meeting where I was present that isn’t it too bad we have to categorize people by sex? Now he has hired a number of gay and lesbian clergy and lay staff at the Cathedral, and that is good. He remains silent on the human and legal rights of LGBT in church and society. While he has allowed same gender people to hold religious services of commitment in the Cathedral, he has never spoken publicly supporting the rights of same gender people to marry.

A number of years ago he wrote an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle on abortion. He carefully stated both sides of the issue showing knowledge and sympathy for those advocating freedom of choice and those opposing abortion. He failed to tell us readers what his position was. I do not know to this day.

Recently he refused to follow his Bishop, Marc Andrus, in marching to San Francisco’s Federal Building protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have not heard of his making a statement condemning those wars.

He has never marched in the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco along with many members of the Cathedral who do march. This year Bishop Marc Andrus will be the first diocesan Bishop to march in the parade. Jones did not participate this year either.

By putting Jones’ name on these issues, I bring to the foreground that these issues are seldom spoken or written about by Episcopal clergy and lay people in public. I suspect that fear of losing money from conservative Christians and lack of passion for painful issues are at root of this silence. Jones is no different from most Episcopalians who care more about the so-called spiritual life than justice for the poor, the disenfranchised and an end to the wars.
I don't know Alan Jones and I can't comment on these specific criticisms. But I can say that I believe that a spiritual life that lacks a social justice component is an empty faith. In my religious wanderings, I have discovered churches and religions that focused a lot on personal self improvement, to the point where the religion was essentially all about "me". To cite an example, New Thought denominations like Unity and Religious Science, which have been around for a long time, well before the modern-day "prosperity gospel" emerged, are almost entirely devoted to promoting personal prosperity (in every sense of the term, not just financial).

I have nothing against personal transformation and self-improvement. But I think that this should not be the be all and end all of religion. I want to stress that I also think that religion should not be reduced merely to secular politics. Social justice, I believe, should flow naturally from spirituality. I believe in social justice as an expression of God's inclusive love.

Judaism and Christianity have always been religions of social justice. Marcus Borg, in his book Reading the Bible Again For the First Time, writes of the laws that are spelled out in the Pentateuch:
These laws also include some of the most radical legislation in human history. For example, no interest is to be charged on loans to fellow Israelites. Especially striking are the regulations for the sabbath year and jubilee year. Every sabbath (seventh) year, all agricultural land is to be returned at no cost to the original family of ownership. These laws reflect Israel's origin in Egypt as a radically oppressed and marginalized people. Their purpose was to prevent the emergence of a permanently impoverished class within Israel.
Borg goes on later to say,
This is the world of Egypt and the world of empire--the world that Moses Knew. Israel's "primal narrative" is the story of radical protest against and liberation from such a world, and it affirms that radical criticism of and liberation from such societies is the will of God. Moreover, the radical economic legislation of the Pentateuch was designed to prevent such a world from reemerging. Indeed, early Israel (for roughly the first two hundred years after gaining the promised land) was a remarkably egalitarian society, one with universal land ownership and no monarchy. The message of the Pentateuch was that God's people were to leave the world of Egypt behind. (emphasis added)
This same social justice message lies at the very origins of Christianity. Jesus, of course, also lived the message that God opposed the world of Empires; and as a result of his nonviolent resistance to the greatest Empire of his day, he was executed by it.

In 1975, John Cobb wrote an essay about Pure Land Buddhism that expressed some of his concerns about that faith from the perspective of Christianity. Pure Land Buddhism, in particular Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, can have some resonance with Christianity because of its doctrine of grace, and it is a variant of Buddhism that I myself find interesting. One of the concerns he raised had to do with the social justice message of Western religions traditions that he felt had less of a history in Pure Land Buddhism. I don't know if Cobb later revised his critique after he wrote that essay, but I do know that after he wrote this article he continued to be interested in pursuing a dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, and at one point he wrote an article titled "Can a Christian Be a Buddhist, Too?" Cobb wrote in his 1975 essay that
the idea of salvation in the Bible is by no means limited to the inner achievements of individuals. It often refers to what happens to the Jewish people as a whole. On Jesus' lips the "Realm of God" that constitutes his vision of salvation refers to a world in which God's will is done.

Through Christian history there has been a tension between the aim at realizing justice and righteousness within history and personal salvation either in this life or after death. In the twentieth century the social gospel and the liberation theologies have continued the prophetic emphasis on concrete historical change. Hence, when, as a Christian, I state my belief that God is calling us today to repent of those practices that are leading to the destruction of the Earth and its inhabitants, I find myself in a supportive tradition.
Cobb makes an important point here: there is a tradition in Christianity that aims at "realizing justice and righteousness within history." This is something that should not be forgotten. This does not mean that other faiths, like Buddhism, cannot ground themselves in social justice; I will mention that many peace activists, for example, are Buddhists. But the social justice component of Christianity is something valuable and important. Like any tradition, it should not be trapped in the past, but rather should evolve. Modern social justice movements have extended the principles of inclusive love that are grounded in Jewish and Christian history so that they also include women, minorities, gays and lesbians, and anyone who is denied full equality within the Kingdom of God. This is taking radical Christian inclusion to its ultimate conclusion, and when any form of Christianity focuses solely on personal spirituality without taking into account the broader community and social justice, it rejects not only the best of its heritage but, I think, it also plays safe at the expense of God's Kingdom.

UCC Continues Its Support of Marriage Equality

According to this news release posted on the United Church of Christ web site,

Two years after becoming the first major denomination to support same-gender marriage equality, the UCC General Synod took no action on Tuesday, June 26, on a pair of resolutions meant to revisit, and in one case overturn, the action.

Prothero's Straw Man

Stephen Prothero, whose review of the book Reading Judas I recently critiqued, has written an article for Newsweek in which he argues that all religions are not the same.

Whoa, stop the presses. You mean to tell me that Islam isn't the same as Christianity, which isn't the same as Buddhism? Who knew?

The reality is that Prothero is simply setting up a straw man, and in so doing I think he misses the point. The real gist of his article seems to be to get in as many digs against "multiculturalism" as possible. For example, his article drips with expressions like "according to the multicultural form of wisdom" and "you would think that multiculturalists would warm to this fact." This jibes nicely with the language he used in last Sunday's review of Reading Judas, in which he wrote, "In this case, Pagels and King massage the multicultural sensibilities of their readers." Ah, I sense a trend here: "multiculturalism" is apparently his favorite bugbear.

Prothero accuses these "multiculturalists" (he never exactly specifies who they are or cites examples of their views) of trying to

flatten out diversity by pretending that the differences between, say, Judaism and Taoism are more apparent than real. How fulsome is religious diversity if all the religions are essentially the same, and a little interfaith dialogue can talk it all away?
I don't know who is claiming that Judaism and Taoism are the same religion. Perhaps there exist some who believe that, but my familiarity with pluralism suggests something different than what he spends so much effort refuting. The issue is not that all religions are the same, but that each religion represents a different effort at capturing some aspect of a common transcendent and universal reality. The aspects that are captured are culturally and historically conditioned. Capturing different aspects of the Ultimate, not to mention human fallibility, thus leads to the differences we see between the faiths. So it is not that the faiths are the same--obviously they are not--but that each takes a different path via a different aspect of a deeper, universal and shared Truth.

In his article Prothero uses the metaphor of mountain climbing to suggest that various religions are neither climbing the same mountain nor using the same tools. But another metaphor addresses the subject better--the famous story of the blind man and the elephant. In this metaphor, the elephant is the transcendent reality, and each religion is,effectively, a different blind man, where one religion is based on the trunk, another on the leg, and so forth. Each man obviously comes away with a different conception of the elephant, because each has perceived just one aspect of the animal; but the elephant is still unitary nonetheless.

The problem here is that Prothero is so focused on attacking "multiculturalism" that he misses the forest for the trees. The point isn't that the world's religions are the same. I certainly don't believe that they are. But one can still conceive of a religious pluralism that can accommodate and value these different approaches to transcendence.

Starhawk on Iraq

The Newsweek-Washington Post web site "On Faith" asked its panelists this question:

Some political leaders say we need to get out of Iraq now. Others say we are obligated to stay and try to restore civil order and authority. What's the moral position? Is there one?
The answer I liked best came from Starhawk. I will not repeat her entire answer here, but this is part of what she wrote:

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say that insanity is repeating the same acts and expecting different results. Having utterly failed to provide even minimal order and security to date, the Bush administration wants to stay on. Why? Iraq still has one of the world’s largest oil reserves. The proposed Iraqi oil law, one of the so-called ‘benchmarks’ of progress, would turn over control of the majority of Iraq’s oil resources to foreign corporations, with contracts highly favorable to corporate interests and no protection for Iraq’s workers or future generations. There is no morality in profiteering from the death and destruction of war.

The majority of Iraqis want us to go. Our presence exacerbates the sectarian divides, and fuels the fury of the insurgents. We can serve no moral purpose by continuing an immoral aftermath to a deceitfully conceived, ineptly conducted, failed and immoral war.

A moral course of action might be to declare a day of national penitence, when all of us—war supporters, and those of us who opposed the war but failed to stop it—fall on our knees and beg the forgiveness of the Iraqi people and the world at large. Better yet would be to remove the architects of these policies from every position of power so that they can devote the rest of their lives, and the fortunes they have gleaned, to works of restitution—changing the bedpans of wounded soldiers, for example, or educating Iraqi orphans.

Barring that, at minimum we can learn from this devastating mistake, and vow that the headiness of military power will never again seduce us with dreams of empire. We can return to being what the vast majority of Americans want to be: a real democracy, of worth, not wealth, that cares for its people and for those beyond its borders, that spreads freedom by example, not by the power of the gun and the bomb, that cherishes the children of all nations. Then the dead could know that their lives were not given in vain.

Diversity versus Pluralism

As I was reading Stephen Prothero's New York Times review of Reading Judas, by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, I was curious what axe he was going to grind. He doesn't really tip his hand until about halfway into the review, where it becomes apparent what his gripe is, and then he devotes the remainder of the review to his complaint that this book about the Gospel of Judas "makes early Christianity look like contemporary American religion — more pluralistic, more wild and more contested than most imagine." It is hard to know what to make of this objection. Does he actually believe that early Christianity was homogenous? That would seem to be what he is implying, although he never really comes forward with a justification of that position.

At face value, his objection to the book would seem strangely misinformed, given that it is patently clear that early Christianity was diverse. And one could even make the case that it was more diverse nearly two millenia ago than modern American Christianity is today, since many of the early Christian theologies that were stamped out by the prevailing Roman orthodoxy in the first centuries of Christianity (such as Ebionism, Arianism, and Gnosticism) remain absent from the official pronouncements of large mainline denominations of today, which instead continue to overtly preach the orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism of late fourth century Roman Christianity.

The fact that most of the various competing theologies were stamped out by the orthodoxy suggests that one could make a distinction between diversity and pluralism. By this I mean that diversity describes the existence of differences; pluralism, on the other hand, is an ideological or theological respect for (or even a celebration of) those differences. Early Christianity was diverse, in that it comprised a collection of competing theologies. But given the lack of respect for this diversity that existed, at least within the proto-Orthodox Christianity that eventually triumphed over the others, one could argue that "pluralism" was missing from early Christianity. Perhaps "pluralism" in this sense is a modern, post-Enlightenment Western concept, and if that is the basis of Prothero's objection, then I think he might have a case. But I am not sure that he is saying that. It seems that he prefers orthodoxy to diversity, and in this regard he thinks that he speaks for all of America.

Prothero specifically goes on to say that he doesn't much care for the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Judas, and he suggests that "Most Americans will rightly prefer Luke’s Jesus, whose heart breaks over the oppression of women and the poor." Well, I might not like the portrayal of Jesus in Judas either, but he assumes that we have to choose between Luke and Judas. But do we? Is it really a matter of either-or? Who is to say that Luke's portrayal of Jesus is ideal or even 100% correct, or that what most Americans prefer is relevant to the discussion anyway? Personally, I don't care much for the way Luke whitewashed some of of Jesus's humanity that was expressed in his main narrative source, the Gospel of Mark. Whereas Mark had Jesus suffering over his impending death, Luke had Jesus facing his crucification with remarkable calm and ease. Which Jesus is more human, more real to us? I would suggest that Mark's was. So should I then have to choose between Luke and Mark? Why are there four gospels instead of one, anyway?

There are lots of things in the Bible that I don't like the portrayal of. I don't like the way the Bible sometimes portrays God as a tribal, warlike, genocidal deity. I don't like the way Christ is portrayed as exacting a future bloodthirsty revenge on the world in the Book of Revelation. I don't like the sexism found in the writings of someone who went by the name of Paul in the pastoral epistles. I don't like the anti-Semitic pronouncements in the Gospel of Matthew.

In an earlier posting, I commented on Jack Good's idea that the Bible should be seen as a kind of family album of a community of faith. According to this metaphor, then, the Gospel of Judas could be said to represent the pictures of the "black sheep" in the family that were thrown out of the album. They represent a part of the community of faith that some would prefer to forget and write out of the family history.

Another point is worth considering. While Prothero rightly praises Luke's Jesus for his concern for the oppression of women and the poor, we can see how much oppression of women and support for powerful economic interests has been perpetuated by certain elements of Christianity, despite the fact that Luke is firmly entrenched in the Christian canon. The Bible is a collection of many voices, and within its diverse messages one can find justifications for lots of things. The diversity genie is already out of the bottle. It is a fact of religious life. Maybe what we need to do is to look at the diversity of voices and recognize the evolutionary struggles with faith and theology that people throughout history have had to cope with, and from that history we can learn the lessons necessary to build a better understanding and a better world.

Wisdom from Other Religions

In his book Ocean, the author Kenneth Tanaka writes of the Four Marks of Existence that characterizes Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. He summarizes them as BIIG:

Life is a Bumpy road
Life is Impermanence
Life is Interdependent
Life is Good

In certain ways, I think that these ideas are consistent with process theology. For example, the notions of impermanence and interdependence fit in very well with the focus that process thought has on existence as an endless stream of interrelated processes and events. The notion that life is good is consistent with the belief in process theology that, in essence, God thinks that life is good--which is why God creatively evoked the evolution of conscious life as part of his/her continual offers of initial aims throughout the course of cosmic history. The notion that life is a bumpy road is, I would think, fairly consistent with everyone's empirical experience. We all know just from living day to day that life is not easy.

Process theology comes out of the Christian tradition, of course, and I am not suggesting that I am trying to a create a syncretism between Buddhism and Christianity. But I do think that interfaith dialogue can often result in acquiring wisdom from other faith traditions. There is much that is interesting within Buddhism, and I in particular have found Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, which is not well known in the United States, to have some intriguing ideas which remind one of Christianity--at least in its notion of grace.

In a San Francisco Chronicle interview, the Jodo Shinshu architect Sady Hashida, who designed a Buddhist center in Berkeley, has this to say about Buddhism:

The basis of suffering is attachment. When you can't get that BMW or the house in the suburbs or that relationship with a particular person, there is disappointment. It creates envy and jealousy. Of course, even if you get the BMW you could wreck it, or if you buy the house it could burn down. Again, anguish and suffering occurs.

What Buddha teaches is that this suffering is a part of human existence. That doesn't mean we don't strive for material things. It's just that we understand that at some point they will no longer be there. Everything is impermanent.

It seems to me that this is a good thing to consider whether that house in the suburbs or that BMW is really as important as we thought it was. Maybe there is some value in living simpler.

The prevailing global culture seems to be predicated on making everything that we want instantly available to us, where we want it, when we want it. We humans are basically spoiled children. There is no consideration of the consequences of this need to satisfy everything we want.

Consider the example of food. We want to be able to eat any vegetable or fruit 365 days a year, and, thanks to globalization and various agricultural technologies, we mostly can. The result is that our food tastes worse--perhaps the most obvious example being the tomato. Most tomatoes that are commercially available are picked green and then gassed with ethylene so that they have a red color. So the tomatoes we usually eat are not actually picked when they are ripe. The best tomato I ever ate was in a mountainous region in the south of France. I didn't remember until I ate that tomato that that they are actually quite a delicious food.

We live in our nice suburban homes with their manicured lawns. We drive miles to work every day, even when we could bicycle or take the bus instead. And farmland disappears in the face of suburban sprawl, while the greenhouse gases from the cars we drive are damaging the earth in serious ways that will effect the lives of our grandchildren.

As we look at the vast environmental consequences of our endless quest of making everything that we want instantly available to us, when we want it, maybe we should ask ourselves if our attachments to these things are part of the problem. How can we live simpler?

I ask this question not as one who judges, because I myself am also guilty of being spoiled and selfish. But it is helpful that we sometimes at least think about these things.

Religion, Empires, and War

The current issue of Sojourners magazine contains an article that begins with the sentence: "History does not tend to be kind to Christian theologians who demand war."

Discussing the unfortunate example of Catholic neocon George Weigel, who vociferously supported the Iraq war in 2003, the author points out that Weigel still doesn't offer any regrets for this position, instead blaming the current morass in Iraq on poor post-war planning and a bizarrely bigoted and patronizing assertion of "the Arab Islamic political culture whose 'irresponsibility, authoritarian brutality, rage, and self-delusion' has caused them to refuse 'the foreigner's gift' of political freedom that we have brought them."

It would be easy to dismiss Weigel as a right wing lunatic, but his justifications for the war in the first place demonstrate how easily religion can be seduced into an unholy alliance with Empire. Weigel's argument boiled down to this: whenever the President decides to go to war, then the war is justified and the church should support it. You might think I am caricaturing his position, but I am not. His 2003 justification for the war essentially came down to these two points:

1) the president has access to privileged information, and 2) the president, by virtue of his office, exercises a "charism of political discernment" not shared by leaders of the church.
We of course now know just how much the President lied in justifying the war. The "privileged information" argument is, and always has been, a canard. Cavanaugh puts it this way:
If the church does not have an independent process of discernment to bring the gospel to bear on matters of war and peace, then any hope that the Prince of Peace will be heard over the din of self-interest and fear will be lost. History is already littered with the wreckage caused by Christian capitulation to reasons of state.
Christian capitulation to reasons of state goes way back, all the way back to Constantine. But I think it is important for people of faith, regardless of whether one is a pacifist or a subscriber to a doctrine of "Just War", to consider Clauswitz's famous dictum that war is an extension of politics by other means. If we focus just on war, and war alone, without looking at the underlying politics that leads to wars like this taking place, then we can never really prevent war. There was an underlying political and economic culture that led to the US invasion of Iraq. It is a culture based on Empire and on corporate interests, and as long as these twin pillars of American and global political culture continue to thrive unabated, the sickness and evil of wars like the one in Iraq will continue.

I would argue that the twin pillars of Empire and corporate interests are ingrained in the American political landscape. The solution to the problems that led to the Iraq war are not found in giving us a kinder, gentler Emperor, but in dismantling the Empire system altogether. I am reminded of some recent comments by blogger and antiwar activist Bruce Gagnon, who answers the question of which Democratic candidate he supports, using a series of rhetorical questions of his own:

My answer is quite simple. Listen closely to them and tell me which of them are talking about the permanent war economy.

No, I'm not saying which of them want to bring the troops home from Iraq. I'm saying which of them are mentioning that we've been taken over by the military industrial complex.

Which of the Democratic Party presidential candidates are calling for substantial cuts in military spending (say maybe 50%)? Which of them is offering a plan for the conversion of the military industrial complex to environmentally sustainable production?

Which of the candidates is putting the pieces together and telling the public about Pentagon plans to permanently occupy the Middle East, invade Iran, fight in Africa to control their oil, and militarily surround China?

Which of the candidates is laying out the weapons industry's plan to move the arms race into space - what the Pentagon says will be the largest industrial project in the history of the planet Earth? Which of the candidates for president has been critical of Bush's deployments of "missile defense" systems in Poland and the Czech Republic that will be used to help create a U.S. encirclement of Russia and will likely lead to a new arms race?

Which of the candidates is mentioning that military satellites in space are used to spy on the people of the U.S. and around the world?

Which of the candidates for president has said anything critical about the Navy's new plan to convert their ships to nuclear propulsion due to the rising cost and increasing scarcity of fossil fuels? Which of the candidates is telling us that this plan will cost more than $800 million to convert one ship to nuclear power?

Which of the candidates is talking about the fact that the U.S. military is the biggest polluter in the world?
These are rhetorical questions simply because none of the candidates are talking about these issues. Bearing in mind that the leading candidate for the Democratic Party nomination, Hillary Clinton, voted for the war, and that she is now lying about her reasons for having supported it, it seems clear to me that the culture of Empire infects both parties. As for the other pillar of American political culture, corporate interests, just remember that Clinton was on the Board of Directors for Wal-mart for several years before her husband entered the White House.

Jim Wallis, in response to Jerry Falwell's death, has written
Ralph Reed said that Jerry Falwell presided over the “marriage ceremony” between religious fundamentalists and the Republican Party. That’s still a concern about the Religious Right for many of us, and should be a warning for the relationship of any so-called religious left with the Democrats. But perhaps in the overly partisan mistakes that Jerry Falwell made - and actually pioneered - we can all be instructed in how to forge a faith that is principled but not ideological, political but not partisan, engaged but not used.
I think Wallis is sort of right and sort of wrong on this. In criticizing Falwell's marriage with the Republican Party, Wallis says that religion should be principled but not ideological. I think he might be confusing being ideological with being attached to a particular party in the American Empire. I think you can be strongly ideological, have a strong faith, and stand outside the political culture of Empire and corporate interests as an independent voice that speaks truth to power. Speaking truth to power does not mean you aren't ideological; Martin Luther King , Gandhi, Cindy Sheehan, and Abbie Hoffman, each in their own ways, spoke truth to power, but did not sacrifice their principles by hitching their wagons to the forces that exercised political power--and they were deeply ideological.

In the Cavanaugh quote that I cited earlier, he argued that the church should offer an "independent process of discernment". The key word here is "independent". As long as Empires and ruling classes dominate the political landscape, I believe that followers of Jesus must remain true to Jesus's message and life--a life that he sacrificed because of his nonviolent resistance to the Empire of his day.

Observing Others

The current issue of Creative Transformation includes an article by Paul Nancarrow titled "On a Whiteheadian Liturgical Spirituality." The article discusses ways of experiencing a liturgical spirituality from the perspective of process theology. These are ways "to deepen the experience of liturgy as a proposition, a lure to feeling the presence and purpose of God."

The author provides a long list of suggestions, and it includes such ideas as "be attentive", "locate yourself in the worship space", "join in the congregational passages", and so forth. He writes,

The flow of action from one moment to another in a ritual celebration lures worshipers' feelings towards certain kinds of combinations--connections of thoughts, emotions, memories, and intentions that an old Anglican prayer calls "the beauty of holiness." The liturgy is a lure to holiness, which forms and empowers worshipers to go forth from the liturgy and live in holy and just and peaceable ways. (Emphasis added)
I think this is all wonderful, but what caught my attention in particular was that one of his suggestions was "observe the people around you." The reason this struck me is that I found myself doing just that last night while I attended a Taize service.

The service was in some ways a little disappointing. The individual who usually leads it was away, and I presume he is involved in developing the program, because the nature of the texts that were included in the service seemed different--more traditional and more explicitly focused on orthodox Christian doctrines than usual. What I found myself paying more attention to on this occasion was the people in the service--the way they went to the cross on the floor to place a candle, the way they knelt to pray there, even the way they walked back to the pews. The earnestness, the sincerity, the depth of meaning that the service gave to them somehow gave the service more meaning to me.

Nancarrow writes,
Engage in a little "spiritual people-watching." As you notice who is with you, remember that each of them is a subject, each brings his or her own needs and gifts and concerns and baggage and aspirations to this liturgy. Be attentive to how people move, how they sound, how they participate. Look at the people around you and be mindful of the relationships you share, especially the relationships created and embodied in this very liturgical action. As a child, I was taught that it is not polite to stare at people in church; but I think now that paying attention to people in church is not only a matter of courtesy, it is a practice of building up communion in the social environment of prayer.

Where's the commandment about driving a hybrid?

The Vatican has published a list of 10 Commandments for drivers. They are:

1. You shall not kill.

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.

4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.

5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.

6. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.

7. Support the families of accident victims.

8. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.

9. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.

10. Feel responsible toward others.

Except for maybe #6, I'm having a hard time seeing what is so car-specific about most of those commandments, which I would think could apply to a host of life situations (for example, shouldn't we protect the more vulnerable party in all circumstances, not just on the road? And isn't killing supposed to be avoided off the road as well as on?) And I hate to say this, but #3 sounds like it came right out of a horoscope or a fortune cookie.

And where's the commandment that says, "When feasible, try to use alternate forms of transportation that will reduce your carbon footprint"?

I suppose I shouldn't make light of this subject. Cardinal Renato Martino was quoted as saying,"We know that as a consequence of transgressions and negligence, 1.2 million people die each year on the roads. That's a sad reality, and at the same time, a great challenge for society and the church." He has a point. I have personal experience with this, since my mother died in an automobile accident. I have written on other occasions about how society on the one hand takes this vast carnage on the roads for granted as the price of living in the modern world, and on the other hand how it reacts with extended national horror to other tragedies where far fewer people die. There is a bit of a discrepancy going on there.

But personally, I think it might be more valuable as an act of social responsibility to look at the social consequences of how the people of Western cultures, particularly the US, are so wedded to their cars that they have managed to wreak havoc on the environment, both by creating suburban sprawl and in producing greenhouse gases. I say this even though I am a bit of a hypocrite; like everyone else, I drive sometimes more than I should. But I also believe that this is both a matter of individual and social responsibility, since communities can do more to promote such alternatives as public transportation and bicycling. And given the moral consequences of what we are doing to the Earth,
I would much rather that religious leaders focused more on the environmental consequences of automobile driving.

The Bible as a Family Album

Jack Good has written an article for the current issue of Creative Transformation (a publication that explores process theology) that discusses the concept of the Bible as a kind of family album. He points out that the Bible is often divided into passages without any due respect for their context. He writes,

Seldom is the Bible encountered as a unit. It is sliced and shredded. Sentences are lifted out of context. Ideas that have no relationship to one another are matched to buttress some thought the reader brings to the text. No wonder there is so much confusion about its role and authority!
I tend to agree. It seems to me that nothing in the Bible was written in a vacuum; its passages were always the product of a cultural and historical context. Later biblical writings took into account the earlier ones. The Bible reflected a community's ongoing dialogue with itself and with God. Reading individual passages of the Bible without taking into account these contextual and evolutionary factors, I think, often leads to missing the depth that underlay those writings. Fundamentalists are often fond of quoting some individual passages of the Bible to make various sorts of definitive theological pronouncements, but that is a meaningless approach to the Bible both because it ignores the multifaceted and evolutionary nature of the Bible, and because it treats individual Bible verses as if they were atomic, self-contained units.

In response to this, he suggests that conceiving of the Bible as a family album offers a way out of this problem.
Just as a family might try to preserve its basic ideals by passing on to future generations their history, descriptions of its movers and shakers, and samples of its creative efforts, so the Jewish community built the biblical canon. The community of faith was attempting to preserve itself by preserving and passing on its understandings of its unique role in human history.
He argues that viewing the Bible this way offers certain advantages:
  1. * The Bible is seen as a forum for debates rather than a platform for firm positions.
  2. * The reader learns to look for development in basic concepts
  3. * Both ethical low points and ethical advances are accepted as parts of one's tradition.
  4. * The focus shifts from God to the community.
  5. * Scripture becomes open-ended; family albums are never finished.
  6. * One approaches scripture, then, seeking self-identity rather than specific guidance.
He elaborates on all those points in his article, which I will not quote in detail here. But one passage that I appreciated was his elaboration on the first point in the list:
The reason that even the devil can quote scripture is that biblical writers tended to take many positions on many subjects. The reader is an observer of long-standing family arguments. What is the nature of God? How may severe suffering be explained? What is the role of women? Biblical writers do not settle such issues so much as they define the questions and the boundaries of discourse. Reading the Bible as a family album means no reader should feel tempted to read only those passages with which she already agrees; all biblical writers who comment ona particular issue become relevant.

Maybe I Should Just Give Up

If I hadn't discovered Marcus Borg, I probably never would have set foot inside a Christian Church. In his books, I discovered that there was a way of seeing Christianity that was not tied to certain dogmas that I simply rejected out of hand. Given that Marcus Borg was so popular in certain circles, I imagined that there must be a vast reservoir of free thinking, rational individuals within progressive Christianity, people with whom I might not agree on every detail but who, like I, sought to fulfill their spiritual desires without giving up their intellect, who didn't share the mind numbing premises of conservative theology.

I am beginning to think that this was all wishful thinking.

The more contact I have with real world liberal Christianity (as opposed to the esoteric world of progressive thought found in books by Borg, Crossan and others), the more it seems to me that, when push comes to shove, it may not be that different from conservative Christianity after all. While it is true that liberal Christians generally reject wholesale biblical liberalism, as far as I cant tell most of them still adhere to an awful lot of what I would call magical thinking. I think that, in my desperation to find some place within the Christian community where I could belong, I may have been in denial about this. I have been bouncing from congregation to congregation, church shopping and trying to find something that would work for me, because I wanted so much to believe that I could find a home somewhere if I just looked hard enough. I've been searching for the ghost of Borg and I am not sure it can be found anywhere in the real world.

When I compare myself to liberal Christians, I think about the beliefs that many of us have had in our lives. Some of those beliefs ultimately we come to consider untenable, leading to a crisis that demanded a resolution and a new set of beliefs. For example:

  • - Age when I stopped believing in Santa Claus: 7
  • - Age when I stopped believing that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead: 16
  • - Age when conservative Christians stop believing that Jesus was physically resurrected: never
  • - Age when liberal Christians stop believing that Jesus was physically resurrected: never
From the above example, I see that liberal Christians and conservative Christians hold one very important belief in common, and it is a belief that I do not share.

It largely does boil down to the resurrection, and this was what made me so cranky at Easter time. My experience has been that the vast majority of liberal Christians are just as stuck on believing in this as a literal, historical event as conservative Christians are. And not only do they believe that, but many of them also seem to believe that it is an essential tenet of the faith. This goes even further than merely relegating my views to that of "acceptable but second class", which is mostly what I have grudgingly felt that I had to put up with up to this point. "Acceptable but second class" would mean that my views were tolerated but ignored, that clergy would never suggest in their sermons that Jesus's resurrection was anything but a literal, historical truth, but that I was welcome anyway to participate in the church life of a congregation where my views were never brought into play or given respectability.

But no, saying that the physical resurrection is an essential tenet of the faith goes much farther than that. Instead of "acceptable but second class", my views are deemed instead "unacceptable". To say that the resurrection is an essential tenet revokes even my second-class status, because instead of allowing my views as a sort of minority report within the faith, never talked about or acknowledged but at least tolerated, my views are instead considered contrary to the very essence of the religion and therefore not to be tolerated at all.

So I am left out in the cold altogether. And if I can't even make an alliance with liberal Christians, then I've got nothing. I might as well be a Buddhist.

I wrote around Easter time that the whole resurrection thing was making me cranky. I'm still feeling cranky, probably more so.

My goal is not to insult liberal Christianity, but what I am about to say will probably offend. Unfortunately, I cannot help but get this off my chest. I cannot believe that otherwise thinking, adult human beings who go about their lives on a daily basis as if we live in a rational, ordered world that obeys certain physical laws suddenly throw their brains out the window when it comes to literally believing in an extraordinary fairy tale about an event that supposedly took place two millenia ago. I expect conservative Christians to believe such things, because, after all, that's who they are. But liberal Christians believe this stuff too.

Credulity becomes a hallmark of faith. This whole belief in miracles is so, so, so pre-Enlightenment, so God-of-the-Gaps. It isn't what my religion is about. I believe at the core of my being that God doesn't intervene in the world through extraordinary means. Post-holocaust Jews can give you 6,000,000 reasons why it isn't so. To me, it is wishful thinking to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead in any literal, historical sense, a product of a belief system that was outdated a few centuries ago with the rise of the Enlightenment. In a post-Enlightenment era, the continued belief in the resurrection can only be justified out of desperation from a notion of the God of the gaps, which itself has become repudiated. This belief in a physical resurrection is, in my view, a case of wishful thinking overcoming reason and common sense.

When I first began writing this blog, I felt caught in the middle between the orthodox Christianity found in mainline churches, and the lack of Christian focus found in Unitarian Universalism. I felt dubious that I could find a religious community that would work for me. But, pushed by a need to connect with God, I decided to try looking in mainline churches anyway, to see what I could find in some obscure corner somewhere. Maybe this quest for something that could fulfill me in Christian denominations was based on a little wishful thinking of my own.

So maybe I was being delusional. And yet, I'm not quite at the point where I have given up on Christianity entirely just yet. I am willing to continue to give things a try. But I am feeling a sour taste in my mouth right now, frustrated, and not sure what to do about it. I wish it were so simple that I could just give up the core of my beliefs and latch on to a religion that offered me the answers, and all I had to do was assent to those beliefs, sign on the dotted line, and I'd be in. But it doesn't seem to work that way. I simply can't do that.

Contemplative Peace

Wednesday, 7:25 PM. On the sidewalk, I waited for the light to change, about a block from the entrance to the Episcopal Church. A woman walking in the same general direction as I was stood there at the intersection next to me, holding a conversation with no one in particular, at least no one who was visible to the naked eye. In the city, you get used to people who do that.

When I entered the church, the evening light shone through the stained glass from outside, and when I picked up the program, I considered not taking a candle with me to my seat. It seemed pointless, since, this time of year, when the days are long, I could read the service program perfectly well without the aid of one; but after some hesitation, I took one anyway. I somehow felt that doing so was a way of honoring the process, or at least a way of committing myself to it. I started sniffing and realized I wanted to blow my nose, but when I took out the tissue and started to do so, the noise echoed in the cavernous chapel. The pianist way up at the front was playing a prelude that filled the building, but still, I was sure that everyone inside could hear the noise I was making. I didn't want to draw attention to myself, so I stepped outside for a moment. Then I went in and sat down.

I still had a few minutes to kill, so I picked up a copy of the Book of Common Prayer from the back of the pew in front of me, and flipped through its pages. I read through the catechism, and read about baptism and the Eucharist and what the difference was between a sacrament and a sacramental rite. Most of what I read didn't particularly resonate with me. My train of thought was interrupted as I heard the speaker begin to read the opening words from the program. I put the book away and began to listen.

One of the first chants, sung magnificently, was in Latin. A woman sitting almost directly behind me made a comment about the chant. I realized that this was the same woman I had seen on the street. I then got up and moved to a pew across the aisle.

I felt like I had done something bad in a way, but I didn't want my contemplative experience interrupted by someone making inappropriate comments in the middle of my own reverie. I worried briefly that I would still be able to hear her speaking from my new seat, but if she spoke again, I never heard her. In my new location, a young couple was sitting in front of me. The woman of the couple sang audibly and clearly along with the chants. Usually, you don't hear the rest of the congregation singing very audibly; people generally sing the chants quietly, if for no other reason than because the cantor sings so magnificently you really want to hear her instead of the congregation. But the woman in front of me also had a nice voice. I sang along with the chants, too, but quietly; I was embarrassed that anyone would notice what a terrible singer I was.

Because this is an Episcopalian church, the Taize service naturally has to have a climactic element. However, instead of the Eucharist, as in ordinary Episcopalian services, the climax instead is the "veneration of the cross". This consists of a period of three sung chants, during which time people who want to can come up and light a candle and place it on a cross that lies on the floor. Many people do that, and then kneel there and pray for a while. However, this is a purely optional activity, and many others stay seated and simply participate in the chants from the pews. I myself am one of those who always stays seated.

Although normally, the veneration of the cross is supposed to happen after the 10 minute period of silence, on this night, for some reason, some individuals started going up during the silence. One of the people who did so was the woman who had been sitting behind me. As I watched her and considered the sincerity and the meaning that this activity gave her, I felt ashamed of myself for having moved away from her.

But this was a time for communion with a forgiving God, and the shame passed. I felt God's peace settling in.

It is hard to know exactly when this feeling of calm arrives. It is a gradual process during the early part of the service. However, there is no question that the ten minutes of silence accelerate the process that had already begun. What precedes the silence is a kind of preparatory exercise, I think. For me, then, the climax of the Taize experience is not the veneration of the cross, which the most explicitly Christian part of what is frequently a somewhat eclectic service, but rather the silent meditation. By the time the meditation ends, I feel much more at peace with the world.

I sometimes recite mantras to myself during the meditation, but this night I didn't feel like it. Maybe all the little acts of disorder was responsible for that: a woman speaking to no one, or various people going up to the cross at an unexpectedly early point in time. Even sitting behind that couple and hearing the woman sing so clearly was a kind of disruption of the usual Taize experience for me. So instead of mantras, I just sat there and took in the beauty of the church. The Quaker in my should despise ostentatious church buildings, but in fact I don't. Just the opposite. I looked around and took in the scene in a way that I couldn't do during the winter months when it was dark. In my contemplative state, I felt attuned to the depths of the church. Colors seemed more colorful, and depths seemed deeper. I pondered God as the Ultimate depth that underlay everything.

By the time we recited the version of the Lord's prayer that is used in the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer (a wonderfully inclusive version), I felt slightly more ready to face the world than I did when the service started. After the final chants, no one seemed to want to get out of their pews. They just sat there for a while.

As I walked out the door, the man who leads the service gave me a friendly greeting. He probably recognizes me by now, although we've never spoken other than exchanging greetings. The service is lay-led, and the rector is usually not present, but on this evening he came by at the end and was also standing near the door. He said hello to me as well. And then I walked out into the San Francisco dusk.

Karen Armstrong on anti-Muslim bigotry

Karen Armstrong wrote an article for the April 27 edition of the Financial Times that served as a important rebuttal some of the pervasive Islamophobia that dominates so much interfaith discourse in the West these days.

She reviews a few books on Islam, one of which, by the Islam-hating author Robert Spencer, epitomizes many of the smears against that faith that are so commonly subscribed to. Thus, among the things she wrote in that article, her response to that book in particular is noteworthy:

Like any book written in hatred, his new work is a depressing read. Spencer makes no attempt to explain the historical, political, economic and spiritual circumstances of 7th-century Arabia, without which it is impossible to understand the complexities of Muhammad’s life. Consequently he makes basic and bad mistakes of fact. Even more damaging, he deliberately manipulates the evidence.

The traditions of any religion are multifarious. It is easy, therefore, to quote so selectively that the main thrust of the faith is distorted. But Spencer is not interested in balance. He picks out only those aspects of Islamic tradition that support his thesis. For example, he cites only passages from the Koran that are hostile to Jews and Christians and does not mention the numerous verses that insist on the continuity of Islam with the People of the Book: ”Say to them: We believe what you believe; your God and our God is one.”

Islam has a far better record than either Christianity or Judaism of appreciating other faiths. In Muslim Spain, relations between the three religions of Abraham were uniquely harmonious in medieval Europe. The Christian Byzantines had forbidden Jews from residing in Jerusalem, but when Caliph Umar conquered the city in AD638, he invited them to return and was hailed as the precursor of the Messiah. Spencer doesn’t refer to this. Jewish-Muslim relations certainly have declined as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this departs from centuries of peaceful and often positive co-existence. When discussing Muhammad’s war with Mecca, Spencer never cites the Koran’s condemnation of all warfare as an ”awesome evil”, its prohibition of aggression or its insistence that only self-defence justifies armed conflict. He ignores the Koranic emphasis on the primacy of forgiveness and peaceful negotiation: the second the enemy asks for peace, Muslims must lay down their arms and accept any terms offered, however disadvantageous. There is no mention of Muhammad’s non-violent campaign that ended the conflict.

People would be offended by an account of Judaism that dwelled exclusively on Joshua’s massacres and never mentioned Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule, or a description of Christianity based on the bellicose Book of Revelation that failed to cite the Sermon on the Mount. But the widespread ignorance about Islam in the west makes many vulnerable to Spencer’s polemic; he is telling them what they are predisposed to hear. His book is a gift to extremists who can use it to ”prove” to those Muslims who have been alienated by events in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq that the west is incurably hostile to their faith.

The rest is commentary

There is a great story in the Jewish tradition about Rabbi Hillel, who, when told by a potential convert that he would embrace Judaism if Hillel could teach the entire Torah while the inquirer stood on foot, replied, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary. "

Hillel's response, of course, began with an inverted version of the Golden Rule that Jesus taught, but what is perhaps more interesting to me is that second half of what he said: "The rest is commentary."

The commentary is the hard part, isn't it? One essential tenet, so simple in principle, so difficult in the execution. For thousands of years, spiritual humans of many faiths, including Jews and Christians, have tried to make sense of this solitary principle (or something like it) of how we should treat others, and often they have done so badly. The "commentary", found in the Bible and elsewhere, has been an ongoing struggle, a dialogue between the past and the present. Figuring our way out of our prejudices has not been an easy thing for humans to do. The Bible, if one takes the time to really study it in its historical context, provides a remarkable record of an evolving spirituality. Where early scriptures and early prophets frequently expressed a kind of tribalism, both with respect to their conception of Yahweh and of moral behavior, later prophets and scriptures saw an increasingly universal application of the principles that they had been working with, and an increasingly universal God to go with it. Whereas the book of Joshua celebrates a bloody tribalism that expresses itself through genocide, and whereas Elijah, supposedly one of the greatest of the prophets, committed horrible acts of bloodshed, later prophets like Second Isaiah celebrated a universal God and a vision of world peace.

How do we get from point A to point B? In the case of the Jewish people, it wasn't easy. The Jewish states were bit players in the power politics of the region, squeezed between the major powers of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome; the idea of Yahweh as a tribal deity could not survive intact under those difficult conditions without major changes. The Jewish religion had to evolve and adapt, especially, of course, during the Babylonian exile, which in many ways was the coup de grace of the old theology. Instead of dying out, though, Judaism matured.

The fact that it took historical circumstances to propel the evolution of Judaism should serve as an object lesson. Theology is not constructed out of whole cloth; it is always a product of the culture from which it emerges. Thus it is easy for us to look back on ancient people and criticize them for not seriously and universally applying the Golden Rule that they paid lip service to. Their societies were oppressive, militaristic, hierarchical, class-based, violent, and sexist. The genius of Jesus was in his ability to shed so much light on how the world around him did not conform to the Golden Rule; his message of universally inclusive love was a shock to the system, and it got him killed as a result. We can smugly look back now on those societies and remark on how terribly the inhabitants applied the Golden Rule to their social constructs. But then, perhaps we need to consider the log in our own eye first; there is still a lot of oppression going on among us today. We still live in an age of war, of Empires, and of economic exploitation. Maybe some day people will look back on our own society and wonder how anyone professing to believe in the Golden Rule could have tolerated our own forms of capitalist economic exploitation. We are all a product of the societies in which we live.

It's not easy applying the Golden Rule. Understanding the implications has been an extremely slow historical march. I think the most complete way for a faith to fully express the Golden Rule, which is to say put love into practice, is through a theology of universal inclusion. The Golden Rule at its narrowest focus involves how one individual treats another one. But universal inclusion is an application of this same principle in the broadest possible sense. It took the human race a long time to begin to figure out, for example, that, as an ideal, maybe women should be treated as full human beings, equal to men; or that slavery was a bad thing; or that racism and bigotry were social evils. The struggles we are now witnessing inside and outside the churches over equal rights for gays and lesbians is another expression of this.

No, it definitely hasn't been easy. And, more importantly, the "commentary" is still being written. Until the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of is fully realized, we still have unfinished business to conduct, and that means that the commentary is a work in progress as well.

The Role of Questioning

The "On Faith" web site of the Washington Post has posed the following question to its blogging panel of theologians, columnists, and pundits: "What is the place of questioning in faith? Does questioning tenets or traditions make your faith less valid?"

One answer that I liked came from Susan Brooks, who wrote:

Questions are a life-long conversation with God.

In the Protestant liberal tradition, faith is understood as a journey. Questions are indispensable to the journey of faith because they help you illumine the path. A distinguishing characteristic of liberal Protestantism is its strong affirmation of the human reach toward the world, toward one another and toward God through the use of reason in the search for understanding.

It is my belief, as a liberal Protestant, that only when people are truly free to question religious authorities, received traditions, sacred texts and even God that they can truly find faith. A coerced faith is an oxymoron. No one can force you to faith—it is found freely and embraced without duress or it is not found at all.
The answer I found the least interesting came from Susan Jacoby, an atheist who, unfortunately, echoed the misinformed view shared by many militant atheists that assumes religious faith to be incompatible with human reason. She wrote,

Only in the realm of religion is doubt sanctified by being dismissed even when the doubt is well justified by the laws of nature. This is why it is ridiculous to try to argue anyone out of religious doubt or, for that matter, religious belief. People who yearn to believe will believe and will find a way to suppress their doubts.

In the realm of science, by contrast, where various claims must be verified by repeated observation and experimentation, doubt is the engine of progress. Even though theologians tried to stigmatize the heliocentric theory of the solar system, they could not shut up Galileo and Copernicus, or the doubt they unleashed, by declaring, "We believe that God's earth is the center of the universe: Let God (and the Inquisition) help your unbelief."

Ms. Jacoby is committing here a fundamental fallacy that confuses the respective roles of religious faith and scientific knowledge. Religious belief has nothing inherently to do with the laws of nature, and scientific knowledge has nothing to do with religious faith, except to the extent that it informs our theological understanding of God's activity in the world. Religious inquiry and scientific inquiry delve into completely different areas of the human experience. That isn't to say that there are people of faith who make the mistake of confusing the roles of religion and science, and who try to base their faith on the God of the Gaps; but they do not represent religious faith per se, but rather one simplistic expression of it. The straw man that Jacoby knocks down is the same one, unfortunately, that is commonly knocked down by many militant atheists, only made available to them for knocking down in the first place because it is erected by fundamentalists. It would elevate the discussion considerably if we ignored the straw men altogether.

Dissuading people from using their brains and freely questioning dogma is always a danger. In theory, most of the panelists who responded to that question came out in favor, at least to some extent, of people having the right to question and doubt. But the reality is that Christianity has historically had a difficult time dealing with "heresy". I think that religions can most easily let go of the need to enforce orthodoxy and dissuade people from questioning when they embrace religious pluralism and when they lack a theology of divine judgment against people for having the "wrong" beliefs. The result is that the consequences of someone's doubt leading to a full rejection of the faith then becomes not a matter of eternal hellfire, but rather simply the fact that someone has chosen a different path in their life. Which is to say, it's not such a terrible thing that people have different beliefs than we do on theological matters. The search for ultimate meaning is something that different people pursue in different ways; and part of spiritual maturity lies in accepting that.

God is Not an Object

A discussion over in Mad Priest's blog about religious pluralism and the notion of absolute religious truth led me to consider this proposition:

God is not an object.

By this, I mean to suggest that God cannot be characterized in the same way that we characterize others who exist outside ourselves. To be able to make absolute, objective truth statements about God, we would have to stand outside of God as an external observer. But that is impossible. If, as panentheism suggests, everything is contained within God, then there is nothing outside of God.

Our relationship to God is thus subjective and relational. It seems to me that God's ineffability is implied by God's immanence. It also seems to me that absolute, objective statements about God's essential nature are meaningless as a result. The best we can do is make limited statements about God that are inherently incomplete, limited as they are by the subjective nature of our interactions with God. Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, we can only take our subjective glimpses of some aspect of God's infinite nature and try to make sense of them. But they will never represent an absolute truth.

That is how it is possible for multiple religions to offer different paths to the Divine. Religions represent ways of characterizing an ineffable, deeper reality that none of us can observe objectively. Absolute statements about God are meaningless; all we can offer are paradigms, influenced by the ways that God reveals his/her divine presence to us. These paradigms are inherently provisional and limited.

That could seem a bit fatalistic, to say that we can never really know God objectively. Not just fatalistic, but also counter to the aspirations of many people who seek God; many Christians, for example, want to have absolute certainty about God, and insist that there is one truth, or one true religion, that exhibits this religious certainty. One response might be to try to know God as fully as possible subjectively; this is the path of mysticism. Another response is to simply give up on God by characterizing the divine nature as aloof and uncaring.

But I would argue that God's mysterious nature is not due to God being aloof, distant, or uncaring. Just the opposite. Our difficulty in conceiving of the Divine mystery is due precisely to God being so intimately involved with the world; it is this intimacy that prevents us from getting a handle on God's objective nature. It is a truism that people who are the most intimately involved with something or someone are the least able to be objective about that person or thing they are involved with. (Of course, the fact that we are so limited in our nature, in comparison to the infinite nature of God, also limits our ability to understand God as well.)

But there is another point to consider. Because I believe that God is involved and active in the world, that means that even if God's essence is elusive and ineffable, God's activity is manifest to us--through such ideals as love and justice. Far from being fatalistic, this understanding of God suggests that humans can continually endeavor to heed the continuous call offered by the God with whom they are intimately involved. Our collective, historical memory allows us to learn from the past and develop a greater appreciation of the Divine will. History suggests, for example, that the Divine will is for human love to tend in the direction of greater inclusiveness. The mysteriousness of God's nature may be a constant factor in our religious life, but God's activity is evolutionary rather than constant. One imagines that God still holds out hope that we can build the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about, a Kingdom predicated on a love that is as inclusive as possible.

It's not about getting into heaven

Thanks to the Mad Priest for linking to this news item:

The chairman of the liberal Christian group Sojourners says he believes that "Jesus coming was not primarily about getting people into heaven."

The Rev. Brian McLaren says he believes that Jesus came "to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which is God's will being done on Earth."

McLaren says that's why congregations in the "emergent church" movement focus more on social action than trying to convert people to Christianity.

McLaren says that if people are "happy being Muslim, or Buddhist or Jewish or atheist," he doesn't think it's right to try to "shoe-horn them out of their religion" into Christianity.

I wish more Christians would say things like this. I think this is relevant in light the experience I just wrote about visiting a church today, where during the service the small children were told that without Jesus they couldn't go to heaven. While I think there is something to be said for the notion that complicated ideas are sometimes explained to children in a different way than how adults conceive of them, it is also unfortunately the case that many adult Christians believe that faith is largely about having a "right belief" and about that belief then being one's ticket to heaven. To me, on the other hand, faith is about one's relationship with God in the here and now--how we can build a better life for ourselves and others, and as a consequence create a better world, by listening to and carrying out God's will on earth. I say, let heaven take care of itself. If there is an afterlife, I would rather let God sort out the details.

Those intangibles of church shopping

I visited a new church today. It was a small congregation, with maybe 20 adults and four or five small children in attendance. I like a few things about the service. I liked some of the music; I got a good feeling about the minister, and I liked her sermon; I liked that there was no creedal affirmation as part of the service; and I liked that they used a gender-neutral version of the Lord's Prayer, substituting "Mother and Father" for "Father" and "dominion" for "kingdom". I also liked that they offered open communion to all, although I personally did not partake.

And yet, I don't think I will go back. So what did I object to? Two things, one of which turned out to be minor. The minor issue was my annoyance that the person handing out the program said "Good morning" to the people entering the church ahead of me, but said not a word to me, an obvious visitor. It's a small detail, but it festered in my mind a bit as the service progressed; instead of paying fully attention to the service, over time I began to ponder how friendly this congregation really was. Only later on during the passing of the peace I was warmly greeted by everyone did I realize that I had perhaps made an unfair prejudgment based on a sole encounter.

In any case, that lingering doubt prior to the passing of the peace may have colored my reaction to something else that took place in the service. The small children came to the front and were given a short bible lesson, in this case, regarding a story in Luke about Jesus raising someone from the dead. One of the children, a girl of maybe four or five, seemed dubious, and asked if Jesus was a magician. Silently, in my own mind, I was praising this girl for her apparent skepticism. The man giving the lesson, who I might add seemed to be very good with the children, attempted to answer that by saying that Jesus was more than a magician, and then went on to tell the children that without Jesus they no chance of going to heaven. The whole bit concerning miracles was bothering me to begin with, but this single statement about Jesus and heaven pretty much ruined the whole church experience for me. Suddenly, all the progressivism that I was sensing from the church seemed to have vanished.

Now I realize that there is some wiggle room for interpretation of those comments. Some Christians believe in a sort of mild form of religious pluralism, which says that many (or most or even all) non-Christians are essentially "anonymous Christians", Christians without knowing it, that they their way to heaven through Jesus even though they don't know it or believe in it. Although that isn't my take on it, it is a perspective that I can live with. So I suppose it is possible that the man who told those children that without Jesus they weren't going to heaven really meant something along those lines. But if so, the subtlety seemed lost, especially when saying something like that to very small children. I actually can appreciate that the things adults tell small children aren't necessarily things that adults believe (Santa Claus, for example). But what concerns me is that it sure sounded to me like he was telling these children that they wouldn't go to heaven unless they had the right beliefs, i.e., if they weren't Christians. Maybe that isn't what he meant, but that was what I took away from it. And this really stands opposed to what I believe at the most fundamental level; in fact, I think that this kind of theology can be damaging.

Maybe I was jumping to conclusions unfairly. The minister seemed to be an advocate of religious pluralism, and in her sermon at one point she made respectful reference to other religions. But still. When I am trying to explore progressive Christianity at the same time that I am trying to overcome the scars of my fundamentalist upbringing, I become sensitive to certain things. The vibe just wasn't there for me by the end of the service. I didn't even stay for coffee hour. I just walked straight out to my car.

Caught in the Middle

If I don't go to church on Sunday morning, I feel that I've missed something. If I do go to church on Sunday morning, I often find that I don't necessarily want to wait a full week before I go back again.

But there's a catch (and you knew there had to be one); going to church often frustrates me. For the sake of simplicity, I can divide churches that I would consider attending into two broad categories, although this is obviously a gross generalization. In strongly focused, heavily sacramental and liturgical churches, I often enjoy the high symbolism (to varying degrees) but at the same time I can often feel out of place for reasons of theology. In more loosely focused progressive churches that don't stress the symbolism or sacraments so much, I often (to varying degrees) feel more theologically comfortable, but I miss the more focused symbolism that can draw me deeper into a connection with the Divine.

Of course it isn't that simple. Some churches that are big on ritual and sacrament are quite progressive, and some very down to earth churches are theologically conservative. And then there are the intangibles. I once went to an Episcopal service at a church that has a densely theological monthly newsletter, full of ideas about progressive Christianity, which ought to be right up my alley. But the service left me cold, probably for a host of reasons; I thought it was dry, I didn't feel particularly welcomed as a visitor, it just seemed like everyone was going through the motions, and none of the ritual worked for me. That isn't a knock against Episcopalianism per se; I found some enjoyment in attending Saint Gregory's in San Francisco for example, especially their evening candlelit service.

An example of what I mean with respect to feeling out of place with respect to theology is the recitation of creeds. I just can't do it. I know that many progressive Christians have symbolic interpretations of those creeds and have no problem reciting them. But that just doesn't work for me. I have discovered over time that this is less of a problem for me than it once was; I know now I really can just skip over that part of a service, and simply wait silently for the recitation to end. But I feel, when I do that, that I am not fully committing myself to the service, that I am in a sense missing out on the full experience.

Unitarian Universalism would be the ultimate example of the second category of churches: not sacramental, not creedal, theologically open. In theory, the theological openness and commitment to pluralism in such churches ought to appeal to me; but in practice, I feel a lack of spiritual depth when I go UU services. Having attended a UU service in which the word "God" was never once used, and having encountered some negativity towards Christianity among some UUs, I realized that this just wasn't going to work for me either. Again, it is not a knock against UU churches per se; it is possible that if I found the right one, I might like it there.

When I began embarking on this process of spiritual exploration, I felt caught between the Scylla of Christian tradition and the Charibdes of heresy. I still feel that way a year later, although I have found greater clarity on the issues involved, and I feel that I have spiritually grown despite the issues that haunt me; I am more willing to stretch the boundaries of what kinds of church services I will attend. Some of my hangups are, as I freely admit, related to my own baggage and my scars from my religious upbringing. I just can't ignore them. I can't. But trying to deal with them, trying to find God despite my scars, has been a challenge that has kept me occupied.

I said at the beginning of this post that I often want to experience the Divine more than just on Sunday mornings. This could be because of a deep religious longing on my part; or it could be because when I get interested in a subject, I get interested whole hog; I immerse myself in it, I read everything there is to read on the subject and I think about it often. Maybe there is a hole in my soul that leads me to do this every time I take up a new interest; whatever the case may be, I do find myself trying to reach out to God in more persistent and meaningful ways.

Last Sunday morning, I made my way to a certain mainline Protestant progressive church in my area that shall remain nameless (having identified myself to them, I could potentially give away my identity if I revealed its name here.) The church had a lot going for it, and I would go back, but at the same time my spiritual restlessness continues unabated. I don't expect to settle into that church or any other as a single spiritual home. I can imagine myself bouncing around from church to church, possibly perpetually "church shopping", seeking a little of this from one church and a little of that from another. Maybe I just have commitment issues.

As for fulfilling my spiritual needs between Sunday mornings, there are a few options. I have found a quite, contemplative value in attending Wednesday night Taize, for example. But other kinds of services have proven to be problematic. I wrote recently about walking inside Grace Cathedral last Memorial Day with the idea of attending Morning Prayer, before I chickened out because I saw would have been the only attender. There is a follow up to that story.

Last Saturday, I drove to Grace Cathedral again, thinking that I might attend their 3 PM Evening Prayer service. I hoped that there would be more people there this time. Inside, there were the usual tourists walking around, and there were two or three people sitting in the pews of the main chapel. One man was sitting in the corner chapel where the evening prayer was to be conducted. I decided to sit in the pews of the main chapel and watch from a distance. When the service began, I could not hear what was said too well, although occasionally some of the words were audible. At one point, the worshiper and the man conducting the service both knelt. As I watched that, I thought--who'd have known that you were supposed to kneel then? Or, for that matter, that you are supposed to use those little kneely-things? I don't come from an Episcopalian background. I would have had no idea. I had been interested in attending because I ached for some way to reach out to God--but somehow I felt like an idiot, sitting there in the pews, watching a service in which I wouldn't have known what to do. (And I'm not sure how I feel about kneeling in a service anyway, but that's another story.)

There is a fundamental question that underlies all this business of attending churches. What is the point of going to a worship service, anyway? To me, being part of a community worship experience in a structured setting just gives me a spiritual sustenance that I can't find through solitary disciplines, or for that matter through writing blogs or communicating on the internet. It is for me both scary to be part of a group of worshipers, and also necessary. Maybe it is necessary because we humans are social creatures. Yet when I visit a new church for the first time, I would often rather just slink into a pew in the back unnoticed. Attending a morning or evening prayer where I am either the only, or one of just a handful, of worshipers, is an example of something that is a little frightening.

But then, so is this entire process of religious seeking.