When art threatens dogma

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

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

I hate Advent

I hate Advent.

There, I've said it.

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

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

Peace and Security

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

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

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

Evolution Sunday is now Evolution Weekend

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

A Legion is not a Mob

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

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

Why be a Christian?

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

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

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

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

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

Advent: Politics, Religion, Prophecy, and Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing the rapture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The threat of dangerous ideas

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

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

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

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

This Just In

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

From yesterday's edition:

Progressive Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progressive frustration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclaimers and Dogmatism

During the "Living the Questions" workshops that I attended in recent months, the pastor occasionally made a reference to the disclaimer that attendees are theoretically supposed to read before they participate. I had not seen this disclaimer; I jumped into the series after it had already started, and I guess the pastor wasn't too worried that I would be disturbed by progressive theology. One of the times when she brought up the disclaimer was after Marcus Borg said on the DVD segment for that session that he didn't think it wasn't a requirement to believe in a literal resurrection in order to be a Christian. She expected that some people would be uncomfortable with a statement like that, and was prepared for some level of unease among the participants. As it turns out, in this case no one in attendance had a problem with what Borg had to say.

I always a little curious about what the disclaimer actually said. As it turns out, Chuck Currie posted it on his blog a few months ago. The opening sentence of the disclaimer refers to the fact that many have "suffered in silence" because of "voices of fear and false certitude claim to profess the unchanging truth of Christianity." I think that this accurately expresses the difficulties of this process. I think many people have internalized the fears that have been imparted to them their entire life by by those "voices of fear and false certitude." Wrestling with or overcoming these fears cannot be easy for everyone.

Here is the entire disclaimer:

“Living the Questions” is a study for the countless people of faith who have suffered in silence as the voices of fear and false certitude claim to profess the unchanging truth of Christianity. It’s purpose is to provide a resource for the discussion of what is already believed and practiced by many faithful people still holding on within institutional religion while harboring a conviction that what most churches teach isn’t the whole story. It may even be helpful for those who Jack Spong calls “believers in exile” – those who have left the church because of its refusal to take their questions or life’s situation seriously. It is not intended to spell out new doctrine or create new dogma but to serve as a catalyst to perhaps crack open the door to the future.

To make the implicit explicit, this study is not for:

  • those whose personal faith requires them to believe that the Bible is the inerrant and inspired word of God.
  • those who believe that the doctrines set forth by the early church are sacrosanct and not to be questioned.
  • those whose eternal salvation depends on their unswerving commitment to the above.
  • those who believe the reason the mainline churches in Europe, North America, and Australia/ New Zealand have been losing members and influence for generations is because they haven’t been teaching “orthodox” Christianity or preaching the true Gospel.

Please be aware that the issues and concepts discussed in the DVDs and written material will challenge many people’s worldview and understanding of the divine. For some it will be radically new information. For others, it will be an affirmation of what they’ve known deep down for a long time. Both facilitators and participants will want to be prepared for anxiety, conflict, and the need to be patient with those who are struggling.

Clergy and Progressive Christianity

From a United Methodist Church minister's blog, I found a profound and regretful reflection on how his own timidness had prevented him from introducing progressive theology to his congregation. Among other things, he writes:

In my younger days, I was saddled with Jesus saying that it would be better to have a large stone tied around my neck and that I be cast into the lake than for me to tear down the faith of the little ones. I used that teaching to defend my unwillingness to challenge any of the "little ones".

I was wrong; and now at the age of 66 and now standing on the edge of retirement I have come to understand that my fear had more to do with my own need to be "acceptable" and the ill-founded concern for the advancement of my "career", than the fear of being thrown in the lake.

In 1 John 2 the writer delineates three stages of Xn growth: (1) little children, (2) young adults, and (3) mature Xns. So often I and a vast number of educated United Methodist ministers (who ought to know better) have opted to retard the growth of our "faithful" by preaching a harmless, self-centered, salvation gospel to the static congregations in our charge. When the struggles of the"young adults" have arisen, we, for the most part, have smoothed them over and put the children back into their beds. We have ignored the yearning of so many of our faithful to understand the "mysteries of our faith" that are reserved for those who are mature.

My fear to share my understanding of the "mysteries" is rooted in my own cowardice; and perhaps for my own selfish concern for my "career". So much for fear.

Religion without carrots

Here is a quote that I really like from a blog called "Magdalene's Musings":

Tonight a really bright woman at a bible study said: "I don't know why we would bother believing in God and Jesus if we didn't believe in heaven and hell." Her point was, religion makes sense in a context of earning credits and erasing debits, in a context of reward and punishment. This is straight out of the "believing in Jesus" theology. I think this is a total misreading of the gospels. I believe in Jesus, but I also believe Jesus... and this would not change if he appeared in my den right this minute to inform me that, yes, the Jews had it right, and after death there is basically, Sheol, nothingness, or, to spin it as well as possible, the bosom of Abraham. Heaven and hell are abstractions that may or may not exists. I don't actually think it matters if they do or don't. They have nothing to do with why I believe.

Christianity has to be able to hold up without the afterlife carrot. Otherwise, it's no different from anything else in our capitalist, reward/ punishment society. I happen to think it's damned different. It's about doing what's right whether or not you get a cookie at the end. Doing what is right is its own reward. Living with a Kingdom mentality requires going beyond what will benefit us, even in eternity.

The Jesus Seminar

I've noticed something very common that takes place when individuals like Marcus Borg or Dominic Crossan are brought up in online discussions. It seems that very often someone will respond, not by referring to either of those individuals as independent scholars and theologians in their own right, but rather by making sweeping statements about the Jesus Seminar, as if somehow the Jesus Seminar were a homogeneous school of thought, of which the likes of Borg and Crossan were merely a pair of interchangeable representatives.

I think that this mischaracterizes the Jesus Seminar, and it also reduces the individuals who participate in it to stereotypes rather than independent thinkers in their own right. The people who happen to participate in the Jesus Seminar don't all agree with one another--for one thing, if they did, all those notorious votes that they take on the authenticity of Biblical passages would have unanimous outcomes. And when Marcus Borg writes a book, it is clear that he generally isn't doing so specifically as a representative of the Jesus Seminar, but rather as a representative of himself.

Whenever someone responds to what Borg or Crossan has to say on a topic with one of those, "Oh, those Jesus Seminar folk," it is really a way of pigeonholing them while avoiding the points that either of these authors raises. If someone disagrees with Borg or Crossan, it is frustrating when he or she doesn't address what those authors have to say on their own terms.

God, Omnipotence, and the meaning of Power

Chris Baker has written in his blog a review of the book Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It: Why We Suffer and How We Can Hope, by Gregory Knox Jones. The book, which I was unfamiliar with, addresses the problem of theodicy from a point of view not dissimilar from that of process theology. In introducing what Jones has to say on the subject, Chris writes,

It can rightly be asked how a limited God, a God who allows suffering to happen not for some mysterious reason that humans can never discern, nor for our own good or for any of the other reasons offered up in our formal and informal theodicies, but because God cannot do all things; it can rightly be asked how such a God who lacks the power to initially prevent suffering, to forcibly restrain the forces that cause suffering, can effectively respond to suffering.

It has been suggested to me (by a former minister turned atheist) that we must choose between an omnipotent God who refuses to prevent suffering and an impotent God who is powerless to act in the face of suffering. This, I suggest, is a false dichotomy, and the sort of false dichotomy at work in the minds of many Christians who feel threatened by the statement that there are some things that God can’t do.
This is a very important point. To me, this false dichotomy comes from an all-or-nothing outlook on religious faith. Many people want God to be a divine magician, an all-powerful ruler in the sky who just can wish away problems by sheer dint of Divine will. They want simple, clear, and easy solutions, which an omnipotent God can offer. Without omnipotence, they take the other extreme and conclude that faith in God is worthless. They ask themselves, "What's the point of such a God?"

But a God who is not omnipotence is not really "powerless". It is just a different kind of power that we are talking about. Chris summarizes Jones's arguments in this way:
Jones asserts that not only is God’s power limited, but that power which God does have is quite unlike we often suppose it to be. Jones is wont to wax poetic on the power of God, saying in one of my favorite lines in the whole book, “God is the most powerful force in the universe, bringing order out of chaos and making life possible.” But this power is not the brute power to override other wills and impose particular outcomes on situations. Rather, it is what he calls “the power of persuasion."

Jones sees God at work in the world trying to influence situations and bring about the best outcomes, not trying to override the respective wills of each actor. This view of God’s power is quite compelling, in part because it makes sense of things that many of use experience. Many of us have felt the presence of God in our lives. Many of us have “heard” without hearing the “still small voice” of God. Many of us have felt an inexplicable sense of calling, a calling that often takes us far from where we thought we would go in life. In these Jones sees the power of God working to bring about the best in the created order.
It can be tough for many people to move away from a spirituality of the God who will magically wish our problems away, to accepting the God who acts as the still small voice in our lives, a deep and abiding presence who calls out to us and who lures us forward at each moment. There are no magic solutions in such a spirituality. But for me, anyway, it makes for a richer and more evocative spiritual framework.

Does what we believe about God matter?

The SFGate web site published an interview with Shalom Auslander, a former Orthodox Jew and author of the book Foreskin's Lament. As the headline for the article says, Auslander "left Judaism but God came with him." Which is to say that he is not practicing the faith anymore, but he still has at some level a belief in God--or at least some kind of God, a remnant of his upbringing that he cannot shake. He seems unable to move beyond some of the conceptions of Divinity that he came to believe in his childhood--conceptions that are one-sidedly negative. Whether that is the fault of the Orthodox brand of faith he was taught, or just his own imagination, is not something I can say; I am hardly an expert on Judaism, and even less so on Orthodox Judaism. But regardless of what led him to hold onto this negative concept of God that he can't shake loose from, he doesn't seem to have evolved his theology beyond that level. For him, first and foremost, God is simply One to be feared. And he sees organized religion as an inevitable expression of this Divine negativity. For example, he says,

I appreciate having been raised with the idea that there is something beyond us, though I do wish that thing wasn't a violent psychopath. I like the idea that this — my TV, my Xbox, my car, my house — is not all there is. When I speak with or hear from or read sensible people who are becoming interested in religion, what I hear most of all is a longing for that, a sense that their lives would be better, or fuller, with something to live for beyond the 2008 BMWs. So they go to church or join a synagogue, and I don't blame them. But then the upward spiral of belief begins, and three weeks later they're trying to convert me and refusing to eat in my home, and three months later they want to start a war. It's an awful shame that we haven't come up with something better.
While I see the humor in that remark, I can't help but wonder what circles he travels in if everyone he meets who discovers religion of one sort or another becomes intolerant or militant about their faith. As far as the idea that God is to be feared, this comment of his is rather telling in response to whether he has ever questioned the existence of God:
Intellectually, sure. And, intellectually, it makes no sense. Not to me, anyway. But I can't get the guy out of my head. I would love to. All I know of God is brutality and vengeance; somehow, the idea of a kind and loving God seems even more difficult for me to believe. Too easy, I guess. But I'd love to have a weekend with my wife, a nice hotel room, a bag full of ecstasy and the certainty of an atheist that nobody is watching.
All he knows of God is brutality and vengeance? Where did he get that idea from? I may not be an expert on Judaism, but I am pretty sure that this is not an accurate depiction of how most faithful Jews view God.

Auslander clearly does have a sense of humor. For example, he rebelled against his faith in one way by eating nonkosher food, and when asked, "Did you enjoy this food, or was this more about rebelling against your upbringing?" he replied,
If you've ever had a Slim Jim, I think you know whether I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it about as much as I enjoyed the explosive diarrhea that followed. But I was alive, dammit. I was alive!
Meanwhile, one of his more serious comments came in response to the question about the difference between being "observant" and being "religious":
Observance has to do with physical acts. Anyone can do those. I can light Sabbath candles, wear a yarmulke, fast on the Day of Atonement and never once think about God. I have known people who do just that. I, personally, am not observant. Being religious, I think, is being aware of God — thinking, struggling, wondering. In that regard, though he arrives at an atheistic conclusion, Richard Dawkins is religious — I'd bet he thinks about God at least as much as the Pope does. I might skip the candles, uncover my head and have a cheeseburger on the Day of Atonement, but I think about God non-stop. There is a small part of me that hopes that if there has to be a God, and if He has to watch what we're doing here on Earth, and if He must come to some conclusion about us when we die, I hope that awareness — even in the form of doubt or questioning — trumps rote observance any day.
I feel that the importance of rituals isn't so much inherent in those actions per se, but rather in the attitude that one brings to those rituals. Rituals are, I think, just tools for connecting people with transcendence and holiness, but they have to be treated respectfully in order to serve that purpose. Additionally, my view is that our actions toward our fellow humans should trump either awareness of God or rote observance. I think that rote observance--regardless of whether you are an observant Jew who eats kosher, or a Christian who takes communion, or a Muslim who prays facing Mecca, or whatever--is all great as a means of experiencing the Divine in the particular way that is offered by one's faith. But unless you express your faith in a way that translates meaningfully into how you treat other people, I have to wonder what the point is. As much as I think Richard Dawkins is arrogantly mistaken in his views about religion, my feeling is that God doesn't give a rip about Dawkins's opinions on theology or how much he is "aware" of the concept of God, but God does care how Dawkins treats other people in his life. And I think the same goes for all of us, not just individually, but how we treat others in society as a whole. Religion at its best has a transformative power to orient our souls towards something greater than ourselves. At its worst, it plagues us with negativity and narrow-mindedness. As for the rituals that are part of religious practice, as the prophet Amos said,
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Auslander is caught in a religious no-man's land, between religious practice and religious faith. What is left is a kind of useless vestigial religion, one that he doesn't practice but which still haunts him. Fortunately for him, he is able to use this condition as a source of humor, and he was able to write a book about it. For his sake, though, I would hope that at some point he is able to leave the no-man's land and find a place of comfort, whatever that might mean for him in terms of beliefs or lack of beliefs about God.


This quote is taken from part of a comment that John Shuck left in his own blog:

To equate the main dogmas of Christianity with any of kind of reality save mythical and symbolic is incredible... Is the Apostle's Creed credible on any level except myth?

The choice we have is to...

1) reject Christianity as absurd,
2) regard Christianity in a mythical, symbolic framework,
3) remain absurd.
I choose option #2.

As I noted in response to this, these three options correspond to what Marcus Borg describes as the three stages of faith: "pre-critical naivite" (option 3), "critical thinking" (option 1), and "postcritical naivite" (option 2).

John's use of the word "incredible" is interesting. His fellow Presbyterian, Jim Burklo, makes the point that belief in the incredible plays a large role in many people's lives--that's why we have Las Vegas.


What's with the suits, anyway?

When I was a child, the only time I ever wore my Sunday best was on Sunday mornings, and I could never wait to take the things off and change into real clothes when we got home from church. Last year, before attending my very first mainline Christian church service as an adult, I sent an email to the pastor, asking if I would look out of place wearing jeans in church. She told me no. And while people tended to dress up there more than I did, I never did feel out of place.

So when I visited a progressive church, as I did this past Sunday, and I was greeted by two men at the front door in suits and ties, I had this flashback to the church I grew up in where everyone dressed to the hilt. Maybe the whole men in suits phenomenon is a Marin County thing. I did notice that everyone in the pews was pretty dressed up there. The pastor, on the other hand, wore a jacket but no tie, and no robe. Too bad, actually, because I like pastoral robes.

I was impressed with what the pastor said in his sermon. He came right out and said things that would have gotten him in trouble in a lot of churches, and which resonated very much with my own thinking. He spoke positively about religious pluralism, and about how he viewed Christianity as not being about the acceptance of dogma. This was stuff I could agree with. But when all was said and done, I still wasn't sure what to make of the greeters in their suits and ties.

That evening, to make up for the weird vibe that I had felt from being ignored at coffee hour after the morning service, I attended worship at a different progressive church that holds evening services. The church had more traditional elements, musically and otherwise, within its style of worship, than the morning church did. The pastor spoke in her sermon of the afterlife in non-dogmatic ways. She spoke of the evolving ideas of the afterlife in Jewish thought--how at one time it was thought that people went to Sheol when they died, and how it was only later on that the idea of a resurrection after death had developed, and even during Jesus's time, there was at least one party, the Sadducees, who did not accept the idea of resurrection. Having attended this church several times, I was becoming familiar with the music and the structure of service. It was almost beginning to feel familiar in a comfortable way.

And almost everyone there was casually dressed. Not a suit jacket to be found anywhere, nor a tie.


The Newsweek-Washington Post web site "On Faith" asked the question, "Can the Use of Torture Ever Be Justified?"

Almost all the panelists answered no. Two respondents, however, expressed their support for torture: Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide and now a born again Christian; and Cal Thomas, a right wing columnist.

I thought the most interesting comment came from C. Welton Gaddy's response:

It’s a tragic commentary on our times that questions about the efficacy of torture are even asked.
Indeed. How did we come to the point where this question could even be broached in the first place? It is bad enough that two twits from the religious right actually answered it in the affirmative. The very fact that this is even coming up for discussion is the real tragedy.

The Three Minute Coffee Hour

When I walked out of the chapel at the end of the service, the pastor recognized me from the time I had visited a few months ago, and he shook my hand and welcomed me back. He invited me to to downstairs and stay for coffee. I said, "Sure."

Downstairs, I wandered around and looked at the bulletin board, the paintings on the wall, fidgeted, looked at the paintings on the wall some more. Small clusters of people were talking to one another and paid no attention to me. If I were more outgoing than I am, I might have tried to initiate a conversation with someone. But that's not my personality, especially when I'm a guest in a mostly unfamiliar environment. The pastor would probably have spoken with me when he got around to arriving, but I didn't feel like waiting any more awkward moments for that. After about three minutes, I went upstairs and left.

Rick Steves

I once watched a Rick Steves travel show on PBS in which he recommended visiting a church while traveling in a foreign country as one good way to immerse yourself in the experience of that country. I found the comment interesting at the time, and I probably had it in the back of my mind when I visited some night church services in Copenhagen this spring.

What I didn't realize was that Rick Steves happens to be an active Lutheran. I ran across this bit of information from an article, taken from the ELCA news service, that appears in the current issue of The Progressive Christian.

Redubbing Jesus

Watching bad movies that are re-dubbed for comic effect can often be quite entertaining. Woody Allen once redubbed an entire Japanese movie with his own dialogue, and gave it a new title, "What's Up Tiger Lily?"

I just recently discovered a satirical re-dubbing of several scenes of an old Jesus movie that is quite funny. Amazingly, the re-dubbing was done by members of an evangelical church called Vintage 21. Apparently the idea was to spoof the stereotypes that people have about Jesus, but I don't think you have to have a particular theology in order to enjoy the videos. I don't know what the name of the film was that they used, but it is interesting to note the appearance and demeanor of this Jesus, right down to his hair that is perfectly in place and his beard neatly trimmed. This Jesus must have just been to the barber before making his way to the Temple.

There are four videos in all. I think all of them are humorous, although my favorite one is #3. I also enjoy the dialogue between the Roman soldiers in #4. Check the videos out:

The Year of Living Biblically

I have not read the book The Year of Living Biblically, in which A.J. Jacobs writes about his experiences trying to spend an entire year living according to rules spelled out in the Bible. However, some internet research into examples of what he thinks it means to "live Biblically" provides an example of how taking the Bible literally and taking it seriously can be mutually contradictory.

I honestly don't know if the point the author is making is to mock some of the evidently absurd (by our modern standards) rules that are found in the Bible, or if he is trying to make fun of biblical literalism, or if he just thought this would make an entertaining premise for a book. The problem that I see is that if he is mocking literalism (which is, after all, an easy target), he seems to do so by being ridiculously literal himself in ways that make you wonder if he gets the point.

For example, Jacobs explains on his web site that he carried out the Biblical requirement to stone adulterers by throwing pebbles at "a grumpy seventysomething man" whom he "met in the park." The grumpy man was presumably an adulterer, and somehow Jacobs felt that by throwing pebbles at him he was able to live up to the letter of the biblical law while not actually having to kill him, which of course would have been problematic.

Obviously, this is a highly legalistic approach to this project. He satisfied his self-imposed requirements by living up to the letter of the text, rather than its spirit. But it also seems to me--and perhaps I am wrong about this--that a rule of punishment like that was meant to be carried out by society within the context of a legal system. So unless he could actually recreate ancient Jewish society from more than 3000 years ago as part of his project, then the context necessarily to live out that principle is just plain missing. Throwing pebbles at someone is thus neither faithful to the letter nor the spirit of that rule.

I think furthermore that any attempt at treating Biblical laws from that era as a personal rulebook really misses the societal and justice-driven goals that lay behind at least some of those laws; for example, if he did this for seven years instead of just one, how exactly would he be able to carry out on a personal level the dictum of societal debt forgiveness every seven years, which was an effort at redressing discrepancies in accumulated wealth? Again, without recreating ancient Israel, he cannot.

But the real point of a law like the one about stoning adulterers, harsh and brutal as it obviously is to our sensibilities, would seem to be to make it plain that this ancient society didn't want its people to commit adultery. So the best way for him to implement the spirit behind a rule like that would be for him to--well, to not commit adultery. But that wouldn't have been as entertaining and maybe he felt he could not write a book about what he didn't do.

As Rabbi Hillel once allegedly said, the Torah can be summarized quite simply as this: "That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary." If he really wanted to live a year biblically, all he needed to do was to live out this version of the Golden Rule. But I guess that wouldn't have been as much fun for him.

God's Freedom

Heather asks, "What does it mean to say that God is free?"

I am having a little trouble wrapping myself around that question. I am not a philosopher, as would be obvious to any philosopher who might read what I'm about to write; and I think that this is a very philosophical question.

I think part of the problem for me is also that I think of freedom as a worldly, human concept, while we humans are of a wholly different order of being from God. So how to apply this concept of freedom to God? I view each human being as an agent of free will in a complex web of events, space, time, and, of course, other humans who are also agents of free will. Our free agency constantly runs up against limitations imposed on us by our finiteness, by the opportunities available to us, by previous events, and by those other free agents that we interact with who have their own aims and their own agendas. But God is not just another agent among other agents. God, to me, is not a being but a sort of metaphysical framework that defines being itself.

If freedom is defined to be the ability of any single agent to do whatever it wants to do, then some limitations in our own freedom cannot be overcome. We are limited either because of physical reasons (I may want to be able to flap my arms and fly to the moon, but the laws of physics act as a constraint on my freedom to do so) or because actions have consequences (I may want to eat nothing but chocolate all the time, but the consequences of doing that make it impractical to do so.) We just can't do whatever we want all the time. Only in our dreams and hallucinations are there are no limitations and no consequences to our actions--and the bummer about that is that our dreams are mostly outside of our conscious control. And the problem with dreams is that they just don't matter anyway. Freedom is meaningless unless there are consequences to our actions. So the very existence of consequences that constrain our freedom is also what give freedom its meaning.

Some limitations can be surmounted by ingenuity; humans may not be able to flap their wings and fly, but they can build machines that take them into the air. Some of us have more freedom than others; rich people can afford to do things that the poor can only dream about--thus we have the basic fact that the rich have more freedom than the poor. And some limitations on our freedom--those imposed on us by other free agents who get in our way--can be overcome by brute force. Physical coercion is a means of achieving freedom at the expense of the freedom of others. Economic systems are social constructs that can also be used to grant greater freedom to some (the ruling classes and the wealthy) that necessarily come at the expense of others (the oppressed classes and the poor).

The upshot of all of this is that I find it difficult to answer this question: what does it means for anything to be free? Is freedom, as Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin put it, just another word for nothing left to lose? Is freedom, as I alluded earlier, the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want to? Given the complex web of free agency that constitutes the world, how can anyone really be 100% free except at the expense of the freedom of others?

And then there's one more question that nags at me as I ponder the question of freedom, either human or Divine: what causes us to want to do something? Sometimes the motivations for our actions are fairly rational; other times, however, we want to do something, well, just because. No rational reason, no explanation--just because. Sometimes the basis of this willy-nilly nature to free choice is just that we are by nature capricious or driven by questionable agendas, but sometimes it is because we are frequently plagued with uncertainty as we try to make decisions; we have limited or incomplete knowledge with which to decide. So we are often just not afforded the opportunity to be completely rational about our decisions. For us, part of freedom includes the freedom to err and the freedom to change our minds.

None of this would apply to God. If God is perfect, and if God has infinite knowledge, then what choice does God have in making decisions? God always makes the only decision that he/she possibly can make--the right one, of course. Is rote conformance to a set of rules about decision-making the same as being free? What would be the difference between God's activity in this sense and a hypothetical infinite computer that was programmed with a set of perfect decision making algorithms and which had an infinite, complete, and accurate database of data to work from. Is God just a giant computer that carries out the "morality" algorithm to perfection? Computers don't have free will; they just follow the algorithm.

If God can never not make the right decision, then is God acting according to free will?

One of the things that has interested me about Whiteheadian process thought is that, first of all, it views free will as an inherent attribute built into the very fabric of the universe, and, second, it incorporates God into a metaphysics of free will by giving God a very special role in the exercise of that free will in the universe. According to process thought, each of the complex maze of events that take place in the history of the universe involves at some level a kind of free will. Thus there is no real question of where human free will comes from; it did not emerge out of nothing, but rather is an extension and expansion of the free will that is inherent to nature. And God's very special role in this is to coax those free choices forward according to Divine Will.

In a Newtonian universe, one could have argued that free will was purely an illusion, that each and every event, including the choices that we make, was actually just predetermined by every event that preceded it, through an endless chain of cause and effect that goes back to the creation of the universe. However, in the world of modern physics, determinism was called into question. Einstein famously objected to this with his statement about God playing dice. But the genius of Alfred North Whitehead, in my view, was in his ability to incorporate the indeterminate universe of modern physics into a metaphysics that incorporated both free will and God. God acts, according to Whitehead, by persuasion, not by coercion, thus granting the universe a complete measure of free will for itself.

Combine two ideas--that God acts not by coercion but by persuasion, and that God always makes the perfect decision--and we see a huge consequence for the whole concept of intercessory prayer. Trying to coax God into making a decision to act in a certain way because we ask him/her to do so doesn't make sense to me. This is because, as suggested above, God always makes the perfect decision, regardless of what we ask God to do; and second, because (according to this view) the very actions that God takes are not of the same order as the actions that we take as agents in the physical universe. As I mentioned above, I don't see God as a being, but as a framework for being itself. God's active role in this view is to serve as a purposeful lure upon the actions that we make, rather than to simply perform as another agent among many (albeit a very powerful one). This does not, by the way, mean that I think that intercessory prayer in the sense of laying before God our fears and hopes for better outcomes in the world is meaningless. On the contrary, I think it is extremely valuable as a means of being in God's presence and listening to what God has to tell us. But I do believe that God's activity in the world is not of the same order as our own activity, and those actions that God takes are not determined by what we ask God to do.

More on Interfaith Dialogue

As a follow-up to my previous blog entry, it turns out that another blogger who was appalled by Kendall's attitude has written to David Rosen with some interview questions about the Christianity Today article. I thought the first two questions, and their answers that Rosen gave, were quite interesting:

We didn’t agree with Christianity Today that the two of you “model a warm friendship”. In our opinion RT Kendall failed to show you the curiosity and respect we expect to see in a friendship or friendly dialog.

Were you surprised at how your exchange with RT Kendall went?

Not at all. I know where he is coming from and what to expect.

Did you expect him to show more interest in your views and spend less time trying to convert you?

Regrettably no. As much as I have a genuine affection for RT Kendall, a fundamentalist mind-set by definition doesn’t really want to discover the spiritual world of another for its own sake, but is only interested in what is perceived as relevant to the fundamentalist’s own world and goals.

When interfaith dialogue isn't a real "dialogue"

A recent interview in Christianity Today, which concerned the subject of Jewish and Christian interfaith dialogue, has spawned some interesting commentary from a Jewish woman's blog and an article by John Spalding at the Revealer web site.

The interview subjects were co-authors, one Jewish and one conservative Christian, of a book titled The Christian and the Pharisee. The conservative Christian author, R. T. Kendall, expresses a set of disturbing (but not surprising) attitudes towards the Judaism of his dialogue partner, Rabbi David Rosen. Kendall, for example, saw the interfaith dialogue not as a forum for a mutually respectful interchange of perspectives, but as an opportunity for proselytizing his "dialogue" partner. I put the word "dialogue" in scare quotes here because this to me not the basis for a true dialogue. Kendall said such things as

I don't see this as only dialogue. I had one sincere desire, and that was to present the gospel to David with the love I feel for him so that the Holy Spirit would arrest him like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.
If I'm right, you will go to hell when you die.
When you have an ulterior motive of proselytizing, then in my view that is not being respectful towards one's dialogue partner. That is especially not the case if you think the other person is going to hell on account of their beliefs. Unfortunately, Jews have been subjected to this kind of attitude from Christians for the last two millennia. They know the score quite well.

To me, though, another interesting thing about this "dialogue" was the cluelessness on Kendall's part as he insisted on characterizing Rosen's faith in terms of his own faith paradigm; he never really seemed to recognize that Rosen had a different set of working assumptions about his faith that did not revolve around Kendall's own concepts of justification and salvation--and he blithely spoke to Rosen as if Rosen himself had these assumptions. I think that this is a byproduct of his dogmatism--where he seems unable to step outside of himself and understand and appreciate that his paradigm isn't the only one out there. This is especially a problem among some conservative Christians when they discuss Judaism, because it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that since Christianity emerged out of the historical Jewish faith, both religions are just different ways of solving the same theological "problem" that Christianity identifies with respect to personal salvation and justification before God. But that isn't necessarily so.

Spalding's comments on this aspect of the "dialogue" were quite accurate:
Clearly, Rosen’s grasp of Christianity far exceeds Kendall’s understanding of Judaism, and whereas Kendall is hell-bent on getting Rosen, who is the president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, to heed the Holy Spirit and accept Christ, Rosen tries patiently to get Kendall to understand the paradigmatic differences between their beliefs.
What you get is a simple repetition of standard conservative Christian talking points. But talking at people isn't the same as talking with them.

But there is more to this whole problem of interfaith dialogue, I think. I would argue that many conservative Christians make the mistake of equating their own paradigm with the Christian framework as a whole. I'm just inventing terminology here--maybe there is a better way of putting this--but by that I mean that the conservative Christian paradigm (heaven, hell, justification, sin, atonement, and so on) is not the same as the overall Christian framework that consists of a broadly interrelated and intertwined family of theologies that have their origin in the life and teachings of a man named Jesus. Each of the world's major faiths--such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism--has its own overall framework, but within each framework there exists a broad spectrum of theological paradigms. There are, to be sure, tolerant and respectful paradigms, and there are also intolerant ones. Inter-religious dialogue is not really possible as long as one adheres to an intolerant paradigm. But what I call the paradigm is not the same as what I am calling the framework. The frameworks can hold dialogues with one another, even if some of their individual paradigms cannot.

I do believe that the hope for inter-religious dialogue can be found among those who are open and tolerant within their respective faith frameworks. (This is true of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others--it doesn't matter what framework you start from.) It cannot happen between those who are stuck in their own dogmatism, who think that their way is the only right one, or who disrespectfully use dialogue as a tool of proselytizing rather than as a means of mutual respect and understanding.

Kinda sorta church window shopping

As the church service was breaking up today, I had a brief but warm conversation with a woman who had been sitting near me. She asked me if this was my first visit (it was), if I lived in the neighborhood (I didn't), and if I was church shopping. I paused at that question, and then answered, "Kinda sorta".

Perhaps church window shopping would have been a better term for it.

Actually, it was nice to go out on a positive, friendly note like that, so I didn't stick around for coffee hour. I had been feeling a little awkward and uncomfortable during the service, as I often do when I visit churches. Why add to all of that by feeling awkward and uncomfortable during coffee hour, standing around like a doofus, cup in hand, and waiting to see who would give me the time of day. So I slipped out the door, went downstairs, left the building, and found a place to have lunch on the main commercial drag a block or so away.

At most Christian services, even those at churches that consider themselves progressive, there is a lot more Jesus-y language (which is to say, expressions of outright Jesus worship) than I am comfortable with. This church was no exception, although it wasn't overdone by any means.

I was surprised, given that this was a Presbyterian church, that they used the UCC's New Century Hymnal. I actually like the New Century Hymnal, which includes hymns from a variety of Christian traditions, so to me that was a positive point. Instead of using pews, chairs were arranged in two facing semi-circles. Another small progressive church in town that I have attended also does that same thing, and I think that there is something to be said for that kind of arrangement, since it tends to break down hierarchical differences between the clergy and the congregants and gives a more participatory feel to the experience. Like some other churches of a comparable size that I have visited (I think there were maybe 25-30 adults and perhaps half a dozen children), there was a "kids time" in the service when someone (in this case, the pastor) brought the children forward and gave them a small lesson before they were sent off. This church actually had more small children than other equivalently small churches I have visited.

Much to my dismay, I happened to attend this church on a day when they were doing communion. I just have a mental block against communion, one that I am just not prepared to deal with. I don't mind watching people going up to the altar to partake of this rite--I actually can find it rather moving to watch, since it generally does have meaning for those who participate--but I just don't choose to do it myself. But it turned out that this was yet another one of those churches that enlists everyone into the process. Specifically, the bread is passed from person to person, after which time the participants go up to take the wine. This is more or less the reverse of what St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church does--at St. Gregory's, it is the wine that is passed from person to person, after the bread is handed to you by the priest. However, unlike St. Gregory's, which throws you to the wolves by not giving you a program and not telling you what the protocol is, at the church I visited today both the program and the pastor explained what you are supposed to do. At the church I visited two weeks ago, which also had everyone get into a circle for communion, the pastor additionally gave instructions on how to opt out of communion if you so chose to for any reason. Today, I got no such instruction today, but I found out that it was easy to opt out; as the person to my left started to hand me the bread, I just whispered "no thanks", and he then just gave the bread to the next person to my right.

After everyone stood in a circle for period of time, holding hands, the passing of the peace took place as we returned to our chairs. This made the passing of the peace a shorter affair than some I have experienced elsewhere; during that time I was given cursory acknowledgment as a visitor by those who shook my hand, but was only greeted by maybe four or five people before I made it back to my seats and it was all over.

There were things about the church that I did like. The sermon was nice, and I appreciated the expressions throughout the service of inclusiveness and the emphasis on God's love. But as with most Christian services, even at progressive churches, some of my inner discomfort at Christian orthodoxy inevitably introduces a little bit of uneasiness. It's just me, I know--I still have issues from my conservative Christian past. Combine that with the awkwardness of being a visitor in an unfamiliar environment, and I begin to ask myself why I even bother with the kinda sorta church shopping experience. Okay, I've crossed another one off my list--what's the point?

I think that sometimes I can tolerate things like Trinitarian formulations and references to a literal resurrection and other elements of orthodoxy that don't really fit me well, and other times I just am not in the mood to deal with it. Maybe lately I've felt less in the mood.

There is a fine line between being ignored at a church and having so much attention paid to you as a visitor that you feel uncomfortable. And, to be honest, I don't know what I am looking for. I actually found a church recently where I am in very much sync theologically with the pastor; and the people who attend there are nice. But the fact is that I am just not prepared to call any church "home". Some of that is due to the theological baggage I carry, and some of it is the Groucho Marx phenomenon--do I want to be a part of a church that would have me as a member? And sometimes I feel like being a church slut, someone who wants to try out different churches, to see what else is out there, who doesn't believe that any church is ever really going to be a true home for me anyway, so why not play the field a bit, even though the field frustrates me and sometimes leaves me cold. Occasionally I window shop, kinda sorta, giving myself a little taste of something different, always wondering what will really satisfy me.

Nazareth's Abu Ghraib moment

If, as two of the four Gospels report, Jesus was born shortly before the death of Herod the Great, then very early in his infancy his family would have experienced a defining moment of Roman Imperial oppression that would have burned a deep hatred of the Roman Empire into the hearts of Galileans.

I am not referring to the "slaughter of the innocents" that Matthew claims took place under Herod. That story, clearly a mythological reference to the Exodus and the Pharoah, has no historical basis, and was instead invented to make a theological point that Jesus was the new Moses. I am instead referring to the actual historical events that took place after Herod died, when a rebellion rose up against his son, Archelaus, who had taken over from his father as ruler. The Romans responded to that rebellion in typical Roman Imperial fashion--with cold-blooded brutality. As Richard Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman put it in their book The Message and the Kingdom,

Revolution against the civil order, no matter what its motivation, was a capital crime. The governor of Syria, Quntilius Varus, immediately proceeded southward from Antioch at the head of two legions, accompanied by the mobilized forces of the Hellenistic cities and of the region's other loyal client kings. By autumn, the Roman armies had swept through many of the towns and villages of the country, raping, killing, and destroying nearly everything in sight. In Galilee, all centers of rebellion were brutally suppressed; the rebel-held town of Sepphoris was burned to the ground, and all its surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. (p. 20)
Sepphoris, only four miles from Nazareth ("an hour and a half's walk", as Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan put it in The First Christmas), was burned to the ground by the Romans when Jesus was only a baby. But did Nazareth, where Jesus lived, itself escape Roman wrath? Probably not. Borg and Crossan point out:
Josephus does not give any detailed description of what happened around Sepphoris in 4 BCE, but we can apply to Nazareth what happened when the Syrian legions under Vespasian marched southward against the next rebellion in 67-68 CE. At Gerasa, or Jerash, on the other side of the Jordan from Sepphoris, Lucius Annius "put to the sword a thousand of the youth, who had not already escaped, made prisoners of women and children, gave his soldiers license to plunder the property and then set fire to the houses and advanced against the surrounding villages. The able-bodied fled, the feeble perished, and everything left was consigned to the flames"

For Nazareth, in 4 BCE, either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. "They make a desert and call it peace."

Jesus grew up in Nazareth after 4 BCE, so this is our claim. The major event in his village's life was the day the Romans came. As he grew up toward Luke's coming-of-age at twelve, he could not not have heard, again and again and again, about the day of the Romans--who had escaped and who had not, who had lived and who had died. The Romans were not some distant mythological beings; they were solders who had devastated Nazareth's backyard around the time of his birth. (p. 77)
This would have been a sort of Abu Ghraib moment for Jesus and his fellow Galileans. They had first hand experience with the brutality of Empire. But they also had first hand experience with the failure of open rebellion against Rome. Herein lay the genius of Jesus's way of rebellion against Imperial authority; for what he proposed was a program of nonviolent resistance, in contrast to the more violent forms of resistance that others favored.

Borg and Crossan suggest that Jesus's father could have been one of the victims of Roman brutality during the suppression of the rebellion at that time. That is pure speculation, of course, but it is an easy inference to make. The absence of a living father would have been consistent with the myth of a virgin birth, of course, although the virgin birth story itself was, in my view, not invented to explain the absence of a father but to give a mythological underpinning for the proclamation that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord. Nevertheless, it is true that Mark 6:3 has people saying the following about Jesus:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’
One could argue that "Son of Mary", rather than "Son of Joseph", would have been a strange thing to say in a patriarchal culture unless there was no living father. The patriarchal assumption is further reinforced in that passage by the fact that the brothers were identified by name, but the sisters were not. (And if Jesus had lots of siblings, as Mark suggests, and if Joseph had died shortly after Jesus was born, which is of course pure speculation, then Jesus would have been the youngest child of a fairly large family containing five boys and at least two girls).

Whether or not Jesus's father was murdered or enslaved by the Romans, the important point still remains that the people of Nazareth would have experienced a bitter resentment towards Roman Imperial oppression.

It is my contention that Jesus understood that the solution to the problems of Empire in those times lay not in finding a more benign Emperor, but rather in dismantling the entire Imperial system that lay at the heart of the brutal oppression that the people of Galilee experienced. The replacement of Augustus Caesar with an Emperor Obama or Empress Hillary would not have solved the problems of his time. By analogy, what the world needs today is not better Emperors, but an end to Empires altogether. I believe that it needs radical, systematic replacement of a worldwide order based on military power and corporate profits with one based on the principles of the Kingdom of God--where all are included and cared for, where an ephemeral "peace" is not established by military force, but rather by compassionate inclusiveness and respect for all people, where no one rules by dint of force, but rather where all the people have an equal say in the political and economic decisions that affect their lives.


This quote from The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan is rather long, but I liked what it said and felt like it would be difficult to distill it down to something shorter:

Eschatology is about the divine transformation of our earth. It is not about some mass immigration from a doomed world to a blessed heaven. Rather, it is about the end of this era of war and violence, injustice, and oppression. It is about the earth's transformation, not about its devastation. It is about a world of justice and peace.

How will this transformation of the world come about? To say the obvious, it has not yet happened, despite the passage of two thousand years. It is not yet accomplished. Does this mean that the Christmas stories are a pipe dream? That they (and the New Testament as a whole) are another example of failed eschatology, of hope become hopeless?

It depends upon how we think the new world is to come about. Two very different understandings, two different eschatologies, are found in the history of Christianity as well as in modern scholarship. We call the first one "supernatural eschatology," or "interventionist eschatology." Within this understanding, only God can bring about the new world. It can happen only through a dramatic divine intervention. All we can do is wait for it and pray for it. Many twentieth-century scholars argued that this is what Jesus and the earliest Christians expected. It has also been found in popular Christianity through the centuries. In our time, it is especially virulent in the violently destructive scenarios imagined by those who expect the second coming of Jesus in the near future.

We call the second one "participatory eschatology," or "collaborative eschatology." Put simply, we are to participate with God in bringing about the world promised by Christmas. Rather than waiting for God to do it, we are to collaborate with God.

There is a third option as well--namely, letting go of eschatology. This view is also found among Christians. Some do not see a connection between the gospel and a transformed earth. For them, Christianity is only about individual salvation, whether in this life or in a life beyond death. This world may be seen as a pleasant place or a dreadful place, but Christian hope is not about the transformation of the world.

We reject both the first option and the third option. We do not imagine that God will bring about a perfect world through divine intervention someday. We do not imagine a supernatural rescue of the earth. And we find the third option to be a betrayal of much of the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament. The Christmas stories are not about a spectacular series of miraculous events that happened in the past that we are to believe in for the sake of going to heaven. Rather, they are about God's passion, God's dream, for a transformed earth.

We affirm the second option, participatory eschatology. Participatory eschatology involves a twofold affirmation: we are to do it with God, and we cannot do it without God. In St. Augustine's brilliant aphorism, God without us will not; we without God cannot. We who have seen the star and heard the angels sing are called to participate in the new birth and new world proclaimed by these stories. (pp. 240-242)