Another view on Panentheism

Here is a quote from the article "Cosmology and the Way of Jesus", by Alan Bentz-Letts, which appears in the September-October 2007 issue of The Fourth R:

In recent times, the Tillichian understanding of the "ground of being," and the panentheism ("everything is in God") advocated by Marcus Borg and others illustrate this shift from a picture of God as a supernatural, largely transcendent being separate from creation to a force immanent in creation, though not identical with any particular part of the universe (and thus in a sense transcendent as well.)

I understand panentheism to affirm that God is an energy flowing through the entire universe, through every particle and piece of that universe, and particularly through the parts which exhibit awareness and life. Such sacred energy connects everything together, is influenced by changes in any individual unit of creation, yet also transcends each individual. God can be said to be "within" each human being, as the energy of body and soul, and yet "beyond" each individual too, stretching to the limits of the universe. While such an energy might seem impersonal, lacking in the qualities of the biblical God, Tillich's insight can be a help here. For when this energy is felt in the depths of our spirit, it is experienced as a divine presence, deeply and inextricably personal.

While no understanding of God is going to be free of all philosophical problems, I believe this panentheist position meets many of the objections raised by contemporary skeptics. (Marcus Borg likes to confront atheists with the question, what kind of God is it that you don't believe in? Most often the response describes a supernatural God separate from creation.)

Feline proselytizers

This is today's Bizarro comic:

This reminds me of an assertion by Xenophanes that John Spong likes to cite: If horses had gods, they would look like horses.

What would a creation myth about a cat God be like? Perhaps instead of resting on the seventh day of creation, a feline Deity would take a catnap every 70 minutes. And after the cat God said, "Let there be light!", the cat God would then proceed to create a windowsill upon which the light would fall and where earthly cats could lie and take their naps. The flora in the Garden of Eden that represented knowledge of good and evil would not be a tree, but rather a catnip plant. Instead of a serpent doing the tempting, it would instead be a human being. The punishment for expulsion from the Garden would be that cats were doomed to suffer hairballs. And so on.

Susan Brooks on Christopher Hitchens

Susan Brooks of the Chicago Theological Seminary has written in her blog a spot-on characterization of fallacies underlying the militant atheism of people like Christopher Hitchens. Among other things, she writes:

The chapters in God is Not Great on biblical interpretation, “Revelation: The Nightmare of the ‘Old’ Testament” and “The ‘New’ Testament Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One,” are so ham-handedly literalist as to make a fundamentalist blush. I looked in the index to be sure I hadn’t missed any encounter with modern biblical scholarship. I looked for some reference to the mind-searching biblical interpretation of “Marcus Borg,” but found instead only an index reference to “Klaus Barbie.” I looked for some engagement with the depth of scholarship and breath of biblical interpretation of “John Dominic Crossan”, but found in the index only a reference to “Crusades.” Feminist theology? Forget it.

The kind of religion Hitchens chooses to make the target of his wrath is indeed violent, narrow-minded and out of touch with the real world. This is why we in the Congregational tradition abandoned it in the nineteenth century in favor of a faith that wrestles with the contradictions and genuine mysteries of human life, that both understands and confronts modern science (Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, anyone?), and that does not understand the power of God as a big puppeteer in the sky pulling all the strings of existence. Grownup faith actually grapples with the contradictions of the finite and the infinite; “When I was an adult, I put away childish things.”

Truth is Discovered and Refined

Here's a great quote from John Shuck's blog:

Truth is not something one asserts and guards, but something one continues to discover and refine. In my view, dogma or doctrine is something that is important as long as we realize that it is not absolute. This approach to the teachings and confessions of the church is one that values these teachings as places where we have been. The confessions are our history. They, like the Bible, which is also part of our history, contain truth. But the Absolute Truth? No, I don't think so.

Panentheism and God's relationship to nature

Here is a quote from Bruce Sanguin's book Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos:

I remember writing an essay in seminary about the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, in which the author writes that we can look under any rock, or break a piece of wood, and find the Christ. My professor wrote back something to the effect that if we can find Christ in the natural world, why do we need the church? I was dumbfounded. His comment expressed the historical ambivalence of the Christian faith in relation to being able to find God, Christ, or Spirit in nature. One cannot emerge from seminary, even a liberal seminary, without picking up this anxiety.

Panentheists, as distinct from both theists and deists, affirm that God is in creation, and that creation is in God. The little "en" between "pan" (everywhere) and "theism" (God) makes all the difference. Unlike pantheism, which asserts that God is everything and everything is God, panentheism gives God--and us for that matter--a little more breathing room. Here's the definition from the Oxford Dictionary: "The belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in God, but (as against pantheism) that this Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe." In the Christian world-view, creation is not absorbed into God, and God is not absorbed into creation. There's still room for genuine relationship. When my wife and I do pre-marriage counseling, we often come across couples who are so "in love" with each other that they do not actually have a relationship . Their mutual absorption is so complete that they can't see the other as a distinct person. It's sweet, but you know they'll get over it. Only as they gain the capacity to "see each other whole against the sky," to use Rainer Maria Rilke's phrase, and not merely as extensions of each other, will they be able to evolve in their love. Differentiation makes authentic relationship possible. Panentheism affirms that God is not just "up above", but also out ahead, in behind, under, and within; distinct, yet never separate.

In Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, Shug, a bar room singer, plays the role of mentor to a young and naive Celie. Both are black women, but Shug, anticipating a postmodernist feminism, has deconstructed the white man's version of the Christian faith. She has learned to do her own theology. She has differentiated from the authoritarian structures of the church, while Celie remains obedient. On one occasion, in a conversation about why they go to church, Celie says that it's obvious: she goes to learn about God. Shug responds that anything she ever learned about God she brought with her into church. One of the things she learned is that God gets "pissed" when we walk by the colour purple in a field, and don't take notice. For Shug, the natural world is a sacred text, infused by divine radiance. To know God in and through the colour purple, or to see Christ under every rock and every stick, doesn't mean that God is purple or that Christ is the stick. Rather, God is in the colour purple, and in the stick, and both the colour purple and the stick are within the one we call God. (pp. 69-70)
It's a long text, but I wanted to post all of that quote, because there is much in it that I like. First, I think it does a pretty good job of explaining panentheism in general, and describing specifically the panentheistic view of God's relationship to nature.

I have occasionally run across the argument that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity provides a paradigm of God existing in relationship--namely, each of the three persons of the Godhead relates to each other--and that this internal and self-sufficient Divine relationship serves as a model for human relationships. But I would argue that the panentheistic conception of God, as Sanguin points out in the text above, already and necessarily involves a relationship between God and nature. There may be arguments for believing in the Trinity, but I believe that the model of Divine relationship already exists, with or without Trinitarian doctrine.

There was recently a discussion in John Shuck's blog about whether one can "find God" through nature alone. I don't know the answer to that question. But I do believe that God does relate to nature intimately, and that God reveals something about him/herself through nature. And the more we learn about nature, the more awestruck we can become about how truly magnificent nature is and how we are all connected to it. As Bruce Sanguin puts it:
Start with an unimaginably dense point of matter smaller than a flea, add 14 billion years, and before our eyes a Monarch butterly wings its migratory way to Mexico.

A supernova explodes in some far-flung corner of the universe. Billions of years later, driving to work, your heart is broken open listening to k.d. lang's cover of Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah.

A tiny planet in the Milky Way galaxy enters into a dance with its sun, and within only a few billion years, a human being sits in wonder as the earth turns away from its solar partner and the sandy arc of beach she's occupying slips into nightfall. (p. 77)
Who cannot consider the long, incredible dance that has taken place between God and the universe, and not be struck with awe that we even exist at all?

Portraits, not photographs

I found an interesting blog entry that compares the four Gospels to portraits, rather than photographs, writing:

What the four gospel writers did was paint a “portrait” of WHO they SAW as this man called Jesus, who became the Christ. Mark was not neutal in His portrait. Neither Matthew nor Luke were neutral as well. And of course John was neither neutral nor objective in His portrait. Why do so many denominations take such an objective stance? Tell me, why is there that need?
Why indeed? The blog then goes on to invite all of us to pick up our brush and paint our own portraits. Religion at its best, in my view, is a creative process--an echo and a celebration of the creativity that pervades the universe and which God plays such an active part in.

Artists have always stood on the shoulder of giants. Every painter is inspired by those who painted before. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are giants, can we stand on their shoulders and paint our own portraits?

God does not play favorites

I have not always been crazy about the pastoral epistles. Written anonymously in Paul's name some time after Paul died, the theological ideas expressed in those three letters has been described by Dominic Crossan as representing a kind of conservative backlash against what he argues is the more radical and inclusive message of Paul's authentic letters. And I think he has a point.

That being said, upon encountering the passage from 1 Timothy that was part of this week's Lectionary, one phrase stood out for me in a positive way:

This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
I am sure that this passage can be interpreted a lot of ways. For example, it could be seen by fundamentalists as another way of expressing the imperative of the Great Commission and, unfortunately, as a justification for religious intolerance. From that point of view, God's vision that everyone be saved will remain unfulfilled unless faithful followers carry out certain tasks to proselytize; and thus it is incumbent on Christians to make sure that this Divine desire gets implemented.

But, as you might expect, I had a different take on that passage when I pondered it as it was being read aloud in church on Sunday. What inspired me was the notion that God does not play favorites; rather, God desires everyone to be saved. Where others might see intolerance in that passage, I saw universalism. The author seemed to me to be suggesting that there is no select group of individuals who God singles out for special favor; on the contrary, the writer suggests that God's favor is universal, and that we are all equally important in God's eyes. This viewpoint is consistent with Jesus's teachings of radical inclusion.

What it means to be "saved" is, of course, another question. To me, as I have stated before, salvation isn't about getting into heaven after we die (although I am open to the possibility of an afterlife), but rather about being accepted into the fullness of God's grace. For me, heaven is at minimum a metaphorical and poetic expression of that desire to be accepted and loved by God in the fullest way possible. I do believe that God's grace is available to us now, regardless of whether there is an afterlife. And the notion that God doesn't play favorites is, for me, one expression of the glory of God's grace, because I believe that this grace is universal. It would not be grace if it had preconditions--if it expected us to do anything to ensure its fulfillment.

Creator or Evoker

I wanted to elaborate on a comment that I recently made in John Shuck's blog:

I often like to say that God "evoked" the universe into being, rather than to say that God "created" it. The reason for that is that I believe that the universe is also imbued with creativity, and that the Divine process of creation is a collaborative act between God and creation. God gets a special role in that process of course.
I think there are some hidden theological assumptions that lie behind designating God as "the Creator". By designating God as the Creator, we assign all creative responsibility to God alone; this seems to reflect a view that conceives of the universe as merely the passive recipient of God's all-powerful creative activity. But suppose that creativity is not the sole province of God, but rather an ongoing collaborative act between God's visionary call and the activity of the universe. Imagine that God does not act by dint of all-powerful will, but rather by calling the Universe forth--luring it and beckoning it onward its through its ongoing evolution. In that case, I would suggest that "Creator" is a misleading designation for God.

A title like God the Evoker doesn't quite seem to have the same degree of awe and mystery associated with it that God the Creator does. In reality, though, any name or title we choose to use for God is going to be inadequate. That's just the way it is for finite creatures like us. But then, after all, coming up with names and titles for God is itself a creative act.

Fuzzy Around the Edges

Someone wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle the other day, weighing in on the subject of Madonna's interest in the Kabalah, which has sparked some controversy in Jewish circles. Declaring that an earlier letter writer's defense of Madonna's "immersion in Judaism" was "patently offensive", this individuals insists that

Judaism isn't an a la carte menu of options. There's an entire body of beliefs, principles and rituals that Jews adhere to. You can't embrace only one aspect and proclaim yourself an "ambassador of Judaism." Shame on Ms. Diamond for letting her sense of celebrity cloud her judgment.
Not being Jewish, I am certainly not an expert on what makes one a Jew. But in general, I think I can safely say that the "all or nothing" argument advanced by that letter writer has been heard all too often before in Christian circles, so there is a very familiar ring about what he was saying. The idea that a given religion is a package that you must either accept as a whole or else reject entirely is often touted by the defenders of the faith who are insistent on maintaining its purity. This seems to be a universal effort by those who would try to put a wall around their religion, regardless of what the faith happens to be; but I would argue that the wall is an illusion.

The history of religion has shown how illusory these walls really are. Religions have throughout history been marked by diversity, by evolution, by splits. This is true of Buddhism, for example--consider the example of Theravada Buddhism versus Mahayana. Mahayana Buddhism in turn has evolved into various sects, including Tibetan, Zen, and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Islam has Shiites and Sunnis. Christianity, of course, has been marked by endless divisions that we are all too aware of. The list goes on. Judaism itself, the mother faith of Christianity, was the product of an evolutionary process in which the "essentials" proved to be a moving target, as demonstrated by a cursory examination of the Bible. Yahweh changed from being seen as a tribal deity to a universal God of all humankind. The idea of an afterlife developed late in pre-Christian Judaism. And so on. And during Jesus's time, Judaism was wracked by an explosion of sects and cults--think of the Essenes, the Zealots, and the followers of John the Baptist to name just three.

Many in the Christian faith would try to argue that, despite the various differences that now exist within the Christian faith communities, there exist certain essentials that act as the determining factors of what makes one a Christian. You can disagree on minor details, according to this viewpoint, but the essentials are unassailable. If you subscribe to those essentials, then you are a Christian. If you don't, then you aren't a Christian. All we need to do is figure out what those essentials are. Simple task, right?

Well, maybe not. I was thinking of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's concept of the language game to illustrate why it isn't so simple, so I did a little internet research. Lo and behold, I found a book that Google has scanned into its web site, titled The Philosophy of Religious Language: Sign, Symbol, and Story, by Dan Stiver. I found a passage that summarizes Wittgenstein's ideas on this subject so well that I want to cite it here:
Wittgenstein used the metaphor of a game to warn against attempts to define the meanings of words too precisely. Contrary to such attempts inspired in part by his own earlier work, he suggested that we can hardly find a common or precise definition of the word "game". Think of the various kinds of games: baseball, football, card games, games with teams, games between only two people, solitaire games, and noncompetitive games. There is not a common essence; rather, there are overlapping characteristics between the games at one end of a spectrum to another. An analogy, Wittgenstein suggested, is the way the strands of a rope combine to form a sturdy rope, but the strands at one end do not reach to the other. He also compared the similarity to "family resemblance", that is to say the way in which members of a family resemble one another but not necessarily in any one particular trait. (p. 65).
I would argue that the so-called "essentials" of the Christian faith are like those strands in Wittgenstein's rope; and thus I believe it is a fruitless endeavor to try to reduce Christianity to a single set of "essentials". The strands of the Christian rope do not reach from end to end; any single strand or even set of strands is intertwined with further strands, which in turn are intertwined with additional strands. But no individual strand is the rope itself. Using another one of Wittgenstein's analogies, Christianity is like a family, with its various elements bearing family resemblances to other elements of the faith, but it is not always the same trait in every case.

I might define what is essential about my faith--the strands that I claim as my own. But is it useful or even legitimate to define who else is and who is not a Christian? Are religious boundaries as discrete as some would believe, or are they fuzzy around the edges? Trying to build a wall around Christianity is, I believe, a vain exercise. I would even go further and suggest that erecting walls is often more about the exercise of power and gate keeping than it is about distilling the truth of Jesus's life and message--which my faith regards as at least in part a celebration of God's extravagant welcome. Defining these walls allows those who are "in" to decide who is welcomed into the community and who is not. But even aside from the philosophical problem of defining Christian essentials, I also believe that Jesus did not erect walls--he broke them down.

The Importance of Doubt

I found a link in Simon Barrow's "Faith in Society" blog to an interesting column by John Cornwell about Richard Dawkins that was recently published in the Guardian. I particularly liked the following quote from that article:

Dawkins is as reluctant as any evangelical fundamentalist to recognise the importance of an element of doubt, or doubt of doubt, in religious faith, or to accept that much of the content of religious faith is metaphorical, poetic and symbolic rather than factual in a scientific sense. He is convinced that faith is in all circumstances absolute, seamless, literal. This implausible understanding of what it means to believe gives his case against religion its sensationalist, emotive edge; by the same token it robs his solution - what do we do about extremism? - of any feasibility.

Dawkins nourishes a disturbing contempt for religious believers. Here are some of the descriptions he applies to them: "malevolent ... vicious, sadomasochistic and repellent ... dodgy, perniciously delusional ... sanctimoniously hypocritical ... cockeyed ... " At the heart of his book, he makes a distinction between what he calls "mild religion" and "extreme religion". But both, he maintains, are equally capable of prompting acts of extremism, such as suicide bombing, in religion's name. "The take-home message," he writes, "is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism - as if there were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion." Then he asserts: "I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called 'extremist' faith. The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism."

Through the excited syntax he is declaring that if you go to church, synagogue, mosque or temple only once a year, you are just as liable to perpetrate fanatical deeds on the basis of faith as an al-Qaida terrorist. Faith, mild or extreme, is a mental state, Dawkins argues, that involves an open invitation to hatred and violence.

While religious belief may be sufficient to explain some extreme acts, it does not explain all extreme acts. Fundamentalism is as likely to be found in the qualitative conclusions of science as in religion. Under Hitler, it was the science-based ideology of racial hygiene that led to the first concentration camps - based on the recommendation that certain groups were in need of quarantine. Stalin's ideology saw the implementation of socio-biological principles based on Lamarck - the inheritance of acquired characteristics - legitimising strategies of enforced collectivisation of agricultural labour, and ruinous systems of agricultural production. Biologists who refused to believe in the inheritance of acquired characteristics landed in jail. It is not religion alone and of itself that leads to fundamentalism and its social consequences, but an insistence from any ideological source that only one set of convictions should prevail.

A silent underground

I am so used to thinking myself of belonging on the heretical fringe of Christianity that it surprises me when I encounter individuals in a faith community who think in ways similar to my own.

It is not always easy to know how other people in a church feel about theological questions. You may sit in a church service with a congregation and sing the traditional hymns and listen to the pastor preach about traditional subjects, and never know that the person sitting next to you doesn't believe in the divinity of Jesus or in the literal truth of the resurrection. After the service, you go to coffee hour and chat about non-theological things like the weather and the parking situation outside the church. You get to know the people on some level, but how often do you actually probe deep enough into their own belief structure to know what they are really thinking? Underneath the veneer of a common faith tradition, there can lie a lot more variety than one might realize.

Last week, I attended a "Living the Questions" DVD seminar that a small progressive church sponsors. A core group of half a dozen or so people from the church regularly attend the sessions. That week's lesson on the DVD included an interview with Marcus Borg, in which he was asked whether it was necessary to believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus in order to be a Christian. He said no. Afterwards, during the discussion period, the pastor clearly felt it was important to discuss what Borg said. She mentioned that this statement could be shocking or controversial in some circles, and she felt the need to clear the air. But no one in the room seemed fazed at all. I was surprised to discover that I wasn't alone on this matter. There really are other people in churches besides me who see religion in unorthodox ways.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. When I attended a "Saving Jesus" DVD seminar (published by the same people who produce "Living the Questions") that was being offered at a different church, I sat in a small breakout group with two lovely, wrinkled women who were probably well in their 80s. One of them, who I presume was a member of the church sponsoring the seminar, said point blank that she didn't think that Jesus was God. Anyone who equates orthodoxy with the elderly and iconoclasm with the young would have quickly been disabused of that notion.

It makes me think that there might indeed be a silent underground of people who are trying to make sense of faith in the modern world, who are no longer satisfied with the old orthodoxies.

At the "Living the Questions" seminar, the subject came up of what Jesus's death meant, if he wasn't literally resurrected to save our sins. The DVD quoted one theologian who suggested that it really had to do with Jesus living an authentic life, a life that can serve as a model for us; and that living such a life can involve serious costs, then and now. The church sponsoring the "Living the Questions" seminar that I attended belongs to a particular Protestant faith tradition that has traditionally held certain ideas about Jesus and salvation, so I asked how the ______ian tradition fits in with a more universal and pluralistic perspective about Jesus. The woman sitting next to me, D., jokingly suggested that their church might not be a good representative of the ______ian tradition. That may be true. Obviously, some congregations are going to have more orthodox thinking in their membership than others, and within congregations there can be diversity of thinking. However, the pastor actually gave a very interesting reply in which she argued that, in fact, the faith tradition of that church did jibe with this understanding of Jesus. In any case, there was something refreshing about the revelation that I was in the midst of a body of progressive thinking people.

Another lesson from this seems clear to me--the importance of adult education in progressive church communities. It seems that there is much unlearning, as well as learning, that needs to be done, as people discover new paradigms in the Christian faith. I think that the "Living the Questions" DVDs serve as a valuable tool in that effort.

Divine Love: Risk and Poignancy

Heather Reichgott asks:

What does it mean to say that God is loving?
Two decades ago, when I was taking tentative steps towards rediscovering a belief in God and therefore reading lots of books on theology, I ran across a reference somewhere (I don't remember where) to a man named W. H. Vanstone. I was deeply fascinated by a description of Vanstone's vision of a God whose non-controlling, self-emptying, and sympathetic love was profoundly affected by the human condition--and I wanted to learn more. I went to bookstores to try to find his books, but apparently all his works were out of print. I subsequently discovered process theology, which took me in a similar but more metaphysical direction than where I thought Vanstone might take me, and as a result I had largely forgotten about Vanstone over the years. However, in retrospect, it is clear to me that reading about Vanstone served as a huge turning point in my spiritual wanderings. And, thanks to the internet, it is fairly easy now to find out of print books, and I recently had a chance to read his small volume The Risk of Love. And I believe that in this book he raises important points about the nature of Divine love.

In the chapter "The Phenomenology of Love" from that book, Vanstone argues first of all that God's love cannot be of such a radically different order from human love that it is beyond our comprehension. Otherwise, he points out, it would make no sense to even use the same word to describe the two phenomena. But what is Divine love, then? While human love may often be limited, Divine love is always perfectly authentic:
If we can describe the form of authentic love, we can hardly look elsewhere for a description of the love of God. If we can say 'what love ought to be', we need enquire no further what the love of God is. (Vanstone, p.42)
The problem is, he argues, that we humans are limited beings and thus not perfectly authentic in our love in the way that God is. So rather than drawing on human experience to describe what authentic love is, he instead proposes three "marks or signs" that describe what authentic love is not.
The first is the mark of limitation. That which professes to be love is exposed as false if it is recognized as limited. (Vanstone, p. 42)
This is an important point that he gets into later in his chapter, "The Self-Emptying of God." God's love is unlimited. It is infinite in scope, it is universal, and it is continual.

He then goes on:
The second mark which denies the authenticity of love is the mark of control. When one who professes to love is wholly in control of the object of his love, then the falsity of love is exposed. Love is activity for the sake of an other: and where the object of love is wholly under the control of the one who loves, that object is no longer an other. It is a part or extension of the professed lover--an extension of himself....

Where the object of love is truly an 'other', the activity of love is always precarious. Between the self and the other there always exists, as it were, a 'gap' which the aspiration of love may fail to bridge or transcend. That which love would do or give or express may fail to 'arrive' --through misjudgment, through misunderstanding or through rejection. Love may be 'frustrated': its most earnest aspirations may 'come to nothing': the greatness of what is offered in love may be wholly disproportionate to the smallness of that, if anything, which is received. Herein lies the poignancy of love, and its potential tragedy. The activity of love contains no assurance or certainty of completion: much may be expended and little achieved. The progress of love must always be by tentative and precarious steps: and each step that is taken, whether it 'succeeds' or 'fails', becomes the basis for the next, and equally precarious, step which must follow.

Love proceeds by no assured programme. In the care of children a parent is peculiarly aware that each step of love is a step of risk; and that each step taken generates the need for another and equally precarious step. (Vanstone, pp. 45-46)
That's a long quote, but I think it is a very important one. To those who are familiar with process theology, the above passage must surely offer some familiar themes. Divine love, as truly authentic love, cannot be controlling. It doesn't always get its way. It allows complete freedom of choice, and may result in undesired outcomes. Thus there is, as Vanstone points out, a poignancy that is inherent to love. And Vanstone's comment about "tentative and precarious steps" echoes the image in process theology of a God who acts one event at a time, by offering a persuasive lure to us according to the conditions that are in place at exactly that moment. Instead of an "assured program" that maps out our exact future in full detail, God responds to us uniquely and fully at each moment in time; and after we then make our choices in response to both the world and to God's offer to us, God must in turn respond to us again, this time in the light of the new conditions that are now in place.

This is not an image of a God who is omnipotent, who has predetermined our future and who controls events by dint of external force. Instead, we have a God who in the words of John Cobb and David Ray Griffin in their book Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition, is defined to be Creative-Responsive love:
Process theology provides a way of recovering the conviction that God acts creatively in the world and of understanding this creative activity as the expression of divine love for the world. The notion that there is a creative power of love behind and within the worldly process is no longer one which can only be confessed in spite of all appearances to the contrary. Instead it illuminates our experience. (Cobb and Griffin, pp. 51-52).
Note the close relationship here between Divine love and creativity. Because God must respond anew to each occasion of experience, God's love is always a creative response to the ever changing conditions that are in place.

Cobb and Griffin describe this process in the following way:
Whitehead's fundamentally new conception of divine creativity in the world centers on the notion that God provides each worldly actuality with an "initial aim." This is an impulse, initially felt conformally by the occasion, to actualize the best possibility open to it, given its concrete situation. But this initial aim does not automatically become the subject's own aim. Rather, this "subjective aim" is a product of its own decision. The subject may choose other real possibilities open to it, given its context. In other words, God seeks to persuade each occasion toward that possibility for its own existence which would be best for it; but God cannot control the finite occasion's self-actualization. Accordingly, the divine creative activity involves risk. The obvious point is that, since God is not in complete control of the events of the world, the ocurrence of genuine evil is not incompatible with God's beneficence toward all his creatures. (Cobb and Griffin, p. 53; emphasis added).
There's that word "risk" again. Vanstone uses this word in the title of his book. Love is not controlling, and it inevitably entails risk.

The third and final mark "which denies the authenticity of love" on Vanstone's list
is the mark of detachment--of self-sufficiency unaffected and unimpaired in the one who professes to love. Love is self-giving: and the self includes the power of feeling as well as power of possession and action. Where love witholds from the other power over the feeling self, there the falsity of love is exposed. (Vanstone, p. 50)
In other words, God is deeply affected by what we do. The idea of God as wholly self-sufficient and unaffected, and thus unchanged, by what we do is inconsistent with the concept of Divine love. God's perfect nature may be unchanging, but God's responsiveness to us means that in certain ways God does change. Note that this dovetails with the notion of panentheism, although I am unaware of Vanstone himself specifically espousing panentheism. As Cobb and Griffin put it,
This divine relativity is not limited to a "bare knowledge" of the new things happening in the world. Rather, the responsiveness includes a sympathetic feeling with the worldly beings, all of whom have feelings. Hence, it is not merely the content of God's knowledge which is dependent, but God's own emotional state. God enjoys our enjoyments, and suffers with our sufferings. This is the kind of responsiveness which is truly divine and belongs to the very nature of perfection. (Cobb and Griffin, p. 48)
The idea that God shares perfectly in all our experiences--"enjoys our enjoyments, and suffers with our sufferings"--adds a huge dimension to Divine love. It means that every time I suffer, God is with me. Every time I feel joy or pleasure, God is also right there with me. The risk of love thus entails poignancy. I believe that the poignancy of risk in Divine love implies Divine pathos: God suffers along with those who suffer. But the upside of risk is also prevalent, and one implication of it is that it brings us closer to God. A while ago, I wrote in my blog about having a conversation with God in which I suggested to God that "we" (that is to say, God and I) might enjoy having some ice cream after a Taizé service. Okay, perhaps a silly example, but my point is that God's companionship and empathy is perfect and all-encompassing; what a comforting expression of Divine love for each of us, to know that God is with us all the way, for all pleasures and pains, both great and small!

I want to conclude by making another point about Divine love. The creative element of Divine love plays an important social role, I believe, in luring and pulling humans towards greater and more inclusive love in our own sphere at all levels of human society. God is constantly calling out to us, in a non-controlling way, to be more loving. The implications of this are huge. Being more loving means being more inclusive and more just. It means not just being individually more loving in our personal relations, but also building a more just society, one founded on inclusion, universality, and equality. It means abolishing oppressive social systems; it means including previously excluded groups--women, minorities, gays--into full equality. It means opposing war, economic exploitation, poverty, and injustice in every sphere. I thus believe that justice is intimately tied to love. You cannot have one without the other.

Deprecatory Talk

Ann Pederson, in her book God, Creation, and All That Jazz, offers this quote from Dorothee Soelle:

Many Protestant denominations deny human beings the power to imitate God in doing justice. Instead of celebrating our participation in creation, Protestantism emphasizes the unchangeability of the world and human sinfulness. Many Protestant theologies have concluded that we cannot change because we are so evil and because we have no power. This deprecatory talk cuts us down and severs us from faith and participation in God's good creation.
I say that it is time that we stop all the "deprecatory talk" and instead celebrate our participation in God's creation. The theological doctrine that claims that humans are "totally depraved" acts as a poisonous rot upon Christian theology. Our imperfections, our finiteness, our failures, do not mean that we are utterly incapable of expressing the Divine spark that lies within us all. Carried to the point of ridiculousness is the notion that nature itself is somehow "depraved", a meaningless concept in the light of what we know about the evolution of the cosmos. The natural world that we inhabit is one that God lovingly and patiently evoked into being as the result of 14 billion years of creative processes.

The negative impact of all this deprecatory talk is immense. Imagine parents for whom their children were never good enough, parents who always had something negative to say about their children. We recognize how damaging such a form of parenting is, and yet we are to suppose that our Father who art in heaven is just such a parent, a kind of "Daddy Dearest" in the sky. Like Mary Tyler Moore in "Ordinary People", whom her despairing son Timothy Hutton wanted so desperately to please but who was never satisfied by anything he did, we are told that God cannot be pleased by anything we do. I'm sorry, but I don't consider such a God to be worthy of human worship.

Let us recognize the human capacity to sin, but let us also not focus on it to the exclusion of the beauty that lies in other human beings as well as that which lies within the the created natural order. I like to think of God as constantly giving us little transcendent hugs, at each moment telling us that God accepts us, warts and all.

Faith and Doubt

The pastor at the church I attended yesterday spoke during her sermon about Mother Teresa. There has been much discussion in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the revelation that Teresa underwent long periods of questioning and doubt. Citing Saint John of the Cross's description of "the dark night of the soul", the pastor suggested that it is likely that most people of faith will undergo similar feelings of spiritual emptiness or an isolation from God at some point in their life. I agree.

It seems perfectly natural to doubt the existence of God. I would argue that God is not a being in the sense that you and I are, but rather a kind of meta-reality, a way of describing that which encompasses, defines, or frames the everyday reality that we experience. You can't talk about God in the same way that you talk about objects or beings in the everyday world that we experience; God is therefore an inherently untestable hypothesis. God is a way of thinking about the world. And ways of thinking about the world are unprovable; they are inevitably fraught with uncertainty.

I think we need to talk about the different kinds of religious doubt. There is doubt--and then there is doubt. Questioning the existence of God is one thing; questioning certain kinds of tenets of a particular faith is another. Many religions incorporate belief in miracles as an essential tenet of the faith, and in the modern world, that is a surefire way to inspire a certain kind of doubt. It is one thing to doubt the existence of a philosophical meta-reality that serves as the ground of being, because that is a kind of poetry that guides our existence rather than something empirically verifiable. It is another thing altogether to doubt the historical validity of purported events that defy our understanding of how the world in the here and now actually works. Miracle stories are legitimately subject to not just doubt, but outright rejection, because they contradict the reality of the world we experience.

All of which is to say that while I think that doubting the existence of God is perfectly reasonable for people of faith, I also think that believing in God is itself also a perfectly reasonable thing to do. On the other hand, I think that it just defies human reason to believe that, for example, Jesus walked on water or was resurrected from the dead. We are all children of the enlightenment. When Christian apologists insist on the literal resurrection as an "essential" of faith, it is no wonder that so many people, assuming that to be religious you also have to be credulous, just throw up their hands and leave organized religion behind them.

The Catholic Church, which is likely to confer the official status of sainthood on Mother Teresa, requires miracles to be attributed to a candidate before they can be considered a saint. It isn't good enough to have fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless; no, in order to be a saint, you also have to be a magician. In practice, this means that some miraculous cure has to have been attributed to the saint candidate; this is because miracle cures are the kind that take place at the microscopic level within biological processes that lie beyond the watching eyes of skeptics. Nobody believes that modern people ever walk on water, because that would be too obvious and easy to disprove, but there is nothing obvious about a miracle cure of a disease. In any case, I'll take take someone who feeds the hungry over performing magic tricks any day of the week; and by that criterion, many people would consider Mother Teresa a saint, regardless of what the Catholic Church's criteria are.

I recently ran across the transcript of an interview with John Shelby Spong. Spong was nice enough to grant this interview to Scott Stephens, but the generally friendly tone of the dialogue stands in contrast to the blistering attack against Spong that interviewer Stephens issued in his own blog. A lot of people have criticized Spong for various reasons, and while I have my own disagreements with him, I think that the real problem that a lot of people have with him boils down to his views on the miraculous. In the interview, Spong says:

...there has been another revolution that changed the whole way that we see the world, and Christianity has got to redefine itself in terms of this new world. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo destroyed the dwelling place of God above the sky, and in effect the theistic definition of God with it. After the destruction of this God, we’ve got to find a new way of talking about God beyond theism. The only alternative to theism that our world seems to know is atheism. We’ve got to find a way of getting beyond that opposition. We’ve got to find a new way of talking about God.
Spong goes on to talk about the people who shaped his thinking, including Tillich, as well as "Isaac Newton, who showed us that the world operates according to very precise natural laws." Spong then says, "There’s not much room in the world for miracles and magic."

I think he is right on that point. I can criticize Spong for being vague on what alternative he proposes for what he calls "theism". I can criticize him for being caught up in obscure, revisionist theories (such as those of Michael Goulder) and then defending them with dogmatic certainty. I can criticize him for sometimes coming across as arrogant. But as much as I may disagree with Spong from time to time, I give him credit for trying to liberate Christianity from the miraculous. To me, that is the most important part of what he has to say. And I think that this is what sets people off the most, because he is quite blunt about this element of his message. While Marcus Borg also leans heavily against the miraculous, he expresses his views in a softer tone. Spong, on the other hand, takes no prisoners.

And yet, on this one point, I sympathize with Spong's approach. As a child, I was always interested in science. I was also taught to believe such things as that the Bible was inerrant, and that Genesis was a literal depiction of the creation of the earth. At some point, something had to give between believing in the rationality of science and believing in the miracle stories of the Bible. It took me a long time to realize that one can believe in science and reason, and also be a person of faith. Rational thinking has always been important to me, and I've never gotten over my resentment that the Christian faith is presented as one that requires one to suspend their disbelief over things that no reasonable person in other contexts would ever believe. For that reason, despite my disagreements with Spong, I still think he has something important to say.

And for me, it is also important not confuse disbelief in the miraculous with doubt about God. The two are not the same thing.

Gratitude as an Essential of Faith

John Shuck, in answer to the question of what the essentials of his faith, offered this:

I suppose if I had to put something on my list regarding the essentials of faith, I would put near the top, gratitude. It seems that the essence of faith is to be grateful. I am grateful for the cicadas as they crescendo and decrescendo. I am grateful for LS, Boy, Girl, Sister, and the rest of my family and friends, church, oh, you know, all of it. I am grateful for breath. Gratitude for life itself is certainly an essential of faith. If our faith leads to gratitude then I think we can handle pretty much anything.
I was struck by this because I've been thinking lately about gratitude as a religious practice. He has subsequently added compassion to his list of essentials, which I also fully agree with, but I do like that the first one he came up with was gratitude.

I suppose one reason I've been intrigued by the idea of gratitude is that it is such a central element of the theology of grace that is found in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (also known as Shin), and I've been doing some reading on this form of Buddhism lately. Contrary to other forms of Buddhism that rely on the "self power" of monasticism and meditation in order to achieve enlightenment, Jodo Shinshu believes that salvation is available to all by the gift of grace--specifically, the grace of Amida Buddha. This act of grace is known as "other power", and rejects the idea of Buddhists applying any effort of their own ("self power") in order to achieve salvation. Worship consists not of efforts towards enlightenment, but rather of expressions of the so-called nembutsu, words that are offered in a spirit of gratitude for the grace that was given to them.

Alfred Bloom, in his book The Promise of Boundless Compassion, writes of Shinrin, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect, noting that "the only basis of religious action for Shinran is the expression of gratitude." He notes further that "for Shinran, gratitude becomes central to religious life, displacing utilitarianism, magic, legalism, and the expectation of egoistic benefits from religion."

Meanwhile, today I picked up a copy of a church newsletter, which contained a dissertation on the subject of prayer. Therein I saw this quote, attributed to Thomas Merton: "If the only prayer you ever say is 'Thank you.' That is enough."

There are many things to say "Thank you" for. In the quote from John's blog above, he presented a wonderful list of things that he is thankful for in his life. I'm sure that each of us has our own, specific items that we would include on our own lists.

From a theological perspective, I think that gratitude is the proper response to Divine grace--to God's unconditional love, regardless of what that means to each of us in terms of "salvation" or an "afterlife." I don't know what will happen to me after I die; all I feel I can do is be thankful for the present day reality of the Divine, of God's unconditional love in the here and now.

One might infer from my earlier posting about how beautiful the universe is that I just happen to have a rather sunny disposition. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I am often cynical, occasionally depressed, frequently resentful, and often outraged. And yet through all of that, I somehow do find myself drawn towards some sense of appreciation for the gift that is life and the beauty that is the world. I find myself uplifted by my sense of the transcendent. I sometimes find myself able to lift my spirits up to God and feel appreciation for having had this chance to live; and even if I regret many of the choices that I've made, I can still thank God for having had the opportunity to have made any choices at all. I consider that there is only a finite number of people who have ever lived, or ever will live--and I happen to be one of them. On the other hand, there is an infinite number of not-people--that is to say, people who don't exist and never did exist, and never will, just potentials for personhood that never had the opportunity to become realized. Out of these infinite possibilities of potential people that I or you or God could conceive of in our imaginations, only a finite number actually come into existence. I made the cut--I was born. It was God's gift of self-emptying and unconditional love that made the world possible--and I got to see it and experience it. And because I didn't die today, I am still able to experience it as I write this.

I know that life is short; and I want so badly to make the most of it. I want to appreciate the moments of beauty that I experience because I know that each moment is too precious not to. I often fail miserably at this endeavor. I don't always appreciate life as much as I should. Mundane concerns and habits of attitude get in the way of these aspirations. But through it all, at some level, especially as I get older and come to appreciate more that my days are numbered, I understand the need for gratitude.

Progressive Presbyterians

John Shuck, a progressive Presbyterian pastor and blogger, has written this about his congregation:

We are to the left of center of most churches in Holston Presbytery. We certainly aren't the most progressive in the country, by any means.
Okay, that comment has got me curious. Since his congregation seems fairly progressive at first glance, that statement makes me wonder what are the most progressive Presbyterian churches in the US.

The main research tool that I have used for finding progressive churches in general is the website for the Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC). I realize that this is a limited tool for at least two reasons: some progressive churches are not affiliated with TCPC, and not every church that is affiliated with it interprets "progressive" in the same way. Regarding the first point, one interesting but small congregation that I know of in San Francisco is not affiliated with TCPC, and yet is every bit as progressive, if not more so, than many of those that are. That particular church conducts sessions based on the "Living the Questions" DVDs, and its pastor is interested in process theology, and is involved in interfaith issues, among other things.

Three Presbyterian churches in my neck of the woods are affiliated with TCPC. Of those three, I would venture a guess that perhaps Sausalito Presbyterian might have a chance of making John's list of the most progressive churches in his denomination. It is pastored by Jim Burklo, a leading figure in TCPC, and one look at the church web site reveals a strong self-identification as a progressive church; according to the web site, the church "measures itself by its deeds than its creeds", and it "drops the dogma that gets in the way of the love that is God." All of which resonates with me.

Coincidentally, just yesterday while visiting a used bookstore I happened across a book by Jim Burklo, Open Christianity. I immediate snapped the book up. It was written a few years ago, when he as a UCC pastor at a progressive church on the San Francisco peninsula. I don't know what led him to switch denominations.

The other two Bay Area Presbyterian churches that are TCPC affiliates (Noe Valley and Seventh Avenue) are more of an open question, as far as I am concerned. Visiting a web site is not the same as actually visiting the church, of course, and I have considered paying both of those churches a visit. I'm sure they are wonderful churches in many ways, but are they progressive? I think the big question is what the word "progressive" really means. Both of these churches are certainly progressive on the subject of sexuality, for example; but that in and of itself doesn't necessarily tell me anything. A church can be progressive on sexuality and still be quite orthodox on other matters of theology, for example insisting on Trinitarian doctrine as an essential of the faith, or on the resurrection of Jesus as a literal, historical fact. While I doubt that anyone would bat an eye over my heretical views over at Sausalito Presbyterian, I'm not so sure whether that would be true at the other two churches. There are, of course, a host of other Presbyterian churches in the area, many of whom I know little or nothing about, and which I am not able to discern much about via their web sites (some don't even have web sites.) One Presbyterian church, Mission Bay, has a very active web presence, and portrays itself as a church for young hipsters. But I'm neither a hipster, nor young, and besides, hip doesn't necessarily equal progressive.

One thing to bear in mind with this whole process is that, a) denominations may have a great deal of theological diversity among their congregations, and b) congregations themselves may have members with quite different views. What matters to me is not that everyone in a congregation thinks like me--an obvious impossibility, and not really desirable anyway since I no doubt have much to learn from other people's perspectives--but whether it is a place where a heretic like me can feel welcome, and where progressive theology is at least respected and openly explored. The aforementioned "Living the Questions" DVDs, for example, represent not a dogmatic teaching exercise, but, as the title suggests, a starting point for personal and group exploration. For me, a church is part of a journey, rather than a destination.

UUs and Christianity

Unitarian Universalist blogger Peacebang has written a very good entry in her blog about the anti-Christian bigotry that is rampant in her denomination and how this bigotry directly contradicts the UU self-image of tolerance and ecumenism. Unfortunately, she chose to prohibit comments to that entry, but I wanted to highlight a couple of of the things that she wrote:

I have a goal in this, and a deep wish. My wish is that someday, even the most angry, Christian-suspicious Unitarian Universalists will be able to hear selections from the Bible, traditional Christian hymns, and the name of Jesus in sermons with just as peaceful a heart and steady blood pressure as they do hearing the poetry of Mary Oliver or segments from the Dhammapada. We cannot be the world religion many of us would love to become and the force for good we want to be if we consistently give the message that “everything is okay but Christianity” or “We will warmly support your spiritual path everywhere but down Jesus Street.”
It's a wonderful image, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

She also wrote,
Those who are admirers of UU principles and goals but have directly experienced our religious prejudices are watching and waiting. From what I have heard everywhere I go, we have a brilliant religious concept with a noble heritage but are failing miserably to live up to our own potential as the deep ecumenists we once claimed to be. How many times have I heard this summer, “You’re a Unitarian Universalist? How nice to have you among us. We always hear that you don’t “do” Christianity.”
(Worse, one woman had heard that UUs don’t LIKE Christians!)
This is all said with a twinkle in the eye, but I know that behind the twinkle is a real and hurtful experience. Or, “You’re a UU? I used to go to the _________ Unitarian Universalist congregation but when I got interested in Christianity they had nothing for me, and I got the distinct impression that I should leave.”
It's a shame that she turned off comments for that posting, since she raises such important points. She said that she had gone over this issue already many times and didn't want to debate anyone over it. But I am really curious what there is to debate. Are there actually any UU's who would deny that what she says is true--that there is hostility towards Christianity within the denomination despite its vaunted claims to pluralism and tolerance? That many UU's tend to stereotype Christianity and thus ignore the diversity of thought that exists within the Christian traditions?

Count me among those who quickly discovered that Unitarian Universalism had nothing for me. And this is despite the fact that I reside on the far left end of the Christian spectrum and am a staunch believer in religious pluralism. Many Christians would deny that I am part of their community whatsoever, because I don't believe that Jesus was literally and physically resurrected from the dead, and this is asserted to be an "essential" of the faith. And yet I find myself more drawn to mainline Christian denominations than to Unitarian Univeralism. Go figure.

Co-improvisers of the creation

I like this quote from Ann Pederson's book God, Creation, and All That Jazz:

Too often Christian tradition has explained the themes of God's creation in static, ponderous categories. Not only did God create the world out of nothing; nothing new has happened since. It is as if God's incarnation in creation and in the person of Jesus the Christ makes no new difference to us. We treat the contents of the faith like the stone tables handed to Moses on Mount Sinai--as unbreakable rules set in concrete. "In the beginning..." becomes the warrant for justifying the status quo, for preserving the "way it's always been." Centuries can pass before the atrocities of on generation are changed by another. We no longer justify the slavery of people for our personal use, but in some traditions women are still not ordained because we have an investment in preserving tradition when change threatens the powers that rule. Simply preserving the past for its own sake can lead to domination. Tradition sanctions the unchanging, eternal truth that defend us from the ambiguity and flux of the world.

But we know that the world does not work that way. Sciences tell us that the world is changing rapidly, that we have developed from a complex, evolutionary history. Many of us will move several times to new locations, will hold different jobs, and will be in a variety of different relationships. Our personal experience tells us that our world demands new skills, new ways of thinking, though we doggedly try to live in the same old ways as if they were divinely ordered. Likewise, we need new rituals and stories to shape our self-understanding. The point of the doctrine of creation, however, is that God continually acts in and through us in new and amazing ways. God's relationship to the world is alive and changing. We are created in God's image, as co-improvisers of the creation. (pp. 5-6)

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

Alexander Kronemer has written an article on Islamic Spain that points out that Spanish society was more religiously tolerant and pluralistic under Islam than much of Christian Europe was at that time. Here are some of his comments:

Islamic Spain lasted longer than the Roman Empire. It marked a period and a place where for hundreds of years a relative religious tolerance prevailed in medieval Europe.

At its peak, it lit the Dark Ages with science and philosophy, poetry, art, and architecture. It was the period remembered as a golden age for European Jews. Breakthroughs in medicine, the introduction of the number zero, the lost philosophy of Aristotle, even the prototype for the guitar all came to Europe through Islamic Spain.

Not until the Renaissance was so much culture produced in the West. And not until relatively recent times has there been the level of pluralism and religious tolerance that existed in Islamic Spain at its peak. Just as the vibrancy and creativity of America is rooted in the acceptance of diversity, so was it then.

Because Islam's prophet Muhammad founded his mission as a continuation of the Abrahamic tradition, Islamic theology gave special consideration to Jews and Christians. To be sure, there were limits to these accommodations, such as special taxes levied on religious minorities. But in the early Middle Ages, official tolerance of one religion by another was an amazingly liberal point of view. This acceptance became the basis for Islamic Spain's genius. Indeed, it was an important reason Islam took hold there in the first place.

When the first Muslims crossed the straits of Gibraltar into Spain, the large Jewish population there was enduring a period of oppression by the Roman Catholic Visigoths. The Jewish minorities rallied to aid the Arab Muslims as liberators, and the divided Visigoths fell.

The conquering Arab Muslims remained a minority for many years, but they were able to govern their Catholic and Jewish citizens by a policy of inclusiveness. Even as Islam slowly grew over the centuries to be the majority religion in Spain, this spirit was largely, if not always perfectly, maintained.

Human Nature

When I was in my early twenties (a long time ago), I had a conversation with my mother and my sister-in-law about human nature. My sister-in-law claimed that there was no such thing as altruism; she believed that any human act of generosity or kindness was always motivated by self-interest, even if it was nothing more than wanting to feel good about what one was doing. I strongly disagreed; I argued that sometimes people commit acts of altruism for no other reason than simply because of an urge to do something for others, without selfish intent or a desire for personal reward. My mother agreed with me; as a parent, she knew all too well that sometimes parents do things for their children--well, just because.

I had heard this sort of argument about altruism, before, back when I was in college; some aficionados of Ayn Rand that I knew had similarly argued that there was no such thing as altruism. However, unlike those with a more religious bent, the Ayn Rand crowd actually thought that selfishness was a virtue, so they were saying that this alleged lack of human altruism was a good thing. In either case, though, the point remained the same--that ostensibly altruistic acts were really motivated, at best, by a desire to feel good about them, or at worst by more insidious motives. Whence comes this desire to feel good was never clarified; if humans were really so selfish, it is hard to see how anyone would feel good about these ostensibly altruistic acts. And more importantly, this line of reasoning confuses cause and effect; the proponents of this point of view fail to understand that feeling good can be an effect, rather than a cause, of the act in question.

Although I never really took this cynical view of human nature very seriously, the fact that it has had a following in certain circles has always bothered me a great deal. I think that in some ways, it is a deeply injurious view of humanity. If you have such a negative view of other people, that cannot help but color one's attitudes in other ways. The fact that it is also found in certain Christian circles is deeply unfortunate. It seems to be integral to some kinds of theological dogma, such that to question this view of human nature would throw the dogmas into serious question. In my view,however, the negative consequences for theology seem apparent.

Altruism is, I believe, an expression of unselfish love. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13,

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Rather than denying that humans are capable of unselfish love, I would much rather have a faith that sought to cultivate the possibilities of love that lie within us all. Sometimes those possibilities may lie dormant; sometimes the worst of our natures come out; sometimes we even commit evil acts. But the possibility of unselfish love lies within us. Love is just as much a part of the universe as selfishness is. Let us celebrate and expand upon human love, rather than deny that it truly exists.

God to Universe: "Just Kidding!"

And God saw that it was Good.
-- Genesis 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25.
Do you have a glass-half-full kind of theology, or are you the glass-half-empty sort?

Do you look at the glory and the splendor of creation in all its magnificent beauty, and marvel at it? Or do you only focus on the existence of suffering in the world and declare that nature is fundamentally flawed?

I would argue that the God who brought this world into existence cares about it deeply and intimately, that God loves it, and that God thinks that the world is pretty darn fantastic, despite its flaws. God evoked the world into existence because God loves it.

What do we mean by nature? Not just the Earth, of course, and that is important to keep in mind. It was once easy to be anthropocentric, as the ancients who wrote the Bible surely were. They had no idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Their eschatological imagery, poetic and beautiful as it sometimes was, certainly has no literal meaning to us now, given what we know now about the vast grandeur of the cosmos and our small part in it. For example, we can marvel at the magnificent vision of Isaiah when he wrote,
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
What a wonderful vision that is, of a future world in which nature itself operates according to different laws than the ones we know. But it is poetry. Lambs and lions don't lie together because that's not the way the world evolved. We can pine for a different world that operates according to different physical laws, but it just isn't going to happen. The world that God evoked into existence via painstaking participation in each moment of cosmic evolution over the past 14 billion years led to the world we now know. And we are just one small part of a much vaster universe that shares the same physical laws as our own. Do we really expect after all that evolutionary work that took so many eons over such a vast and humanly incomprehensible scale, God is suddenly going to say to the universe, "Just Kidding!" and change all the physical laws that have been in place for all that time--especially just so that our little corner of the universe will have lions and lambs living together?

I don't think so. And it would be the height of human hubris to think that it would happen that way.

We can infer certain things about how God operates through our understanding of nature. And nature tells us that God does not wink things into existence like a magic genie. God seems to act through and within the slow processes of the universe that have been in place for 14 billion years. Process theologians would say that God acts as a creative lure in those processes. Regardless of whether one subscribes to process thought, though, it is clear that God is a patient Creator. And we are just one corner of Creation.

In other words, lambs aren't going to be lying with lions any time soon.

But that's okay. Because while a glass-half-empty theologian would cite lions and lambs not living together as proof of a deeply flawed universe, I would look at it quite differently. I think that the universe is overall a beautiful place. And I think that God would have to be a very strange deity indeed to spend so much love evoking our universe into being through a painstaking and continual act of self-emptying love, if he or she thought differently.

I think it likely that God knows intimately well--in fact, cannot help but share in--the suffering that each of us experiences in our complicated world; and I also think it is likely that God's infinitely perfect empathy for each of us means that he/she also deeply mourns each moment of suffering precisely because God understands better than any of us that the greater value that was achieved by evoking conscious beings into the world was accompanied by the greater risk of suffering. The price of pain, difficult as it was, was worth it, but in a deeply poignant way; and thus God mourns when we suffer. And I agree that it was worth the price, even if we as loving beings try to do everything we can to alleviate and prevent suffering. I think that the theological glass is half full.

God wasn't kidding when he/she evoked the universe into being. Everything about this vast universe matters. I have stood on the precipice of a gorge and looked down at the river far below and marveled at how beautiful it was. I have watched birds in flight, and marveled at how beautiful it is. I have made love and marveled at how beautiful it was. I have watched a comet trail in the night sky, and marveled at how beautiful it was. The universe is indeed a beautiful place.