More from Jack Good's book

In The Dishonest Church, Jack Good mentions his experiences at a church-sponsored college, where he learned a great deal about the Bible from an Old Testament professor named Dr. Loren Dow. He learned the sorts of things that scholars know, but which don't necessarily conform to the party line of the orthodoxy. He then describes the reaction to all of this from his classmates. Some of them, disillusioned by what they learned, went on to have professions far removed from any religious calling. But others did go on to become church pastors. He describes what happened to these pastors:

They are well trained and well informed. They, too, shared in Dr. Dow's classrooms. They know that the Bible is a collection of writings composed by more than seventy very human writers. They know that the question of which writings to include in the Bible has been, and continues to be, a matter of controversy. They know that some of the material in the Bible attributed to Moses includes a description of Moses' death, and therefore could not have been written by him. They know that Paul wrote his letters before the Gospels were composed, and that the Gospels were written, in part at least, to argue with some of Paul's ideas. Yet reports I continue to receive inform me that most of these professionals keep all such matters well hidden from their congregations. With a few important exceptions, they continue to finesse all comments on any subject they consider delicate. Somewhat as a politician might, they tread carefully along the edge of truth and falsehood, using words with which they can live in good conscience but which fail to challenge or engage their listeners. They, along with the vast majority of local pastors, have chosen to reject the role of bridge between styles of faith; they selected, instead, the role of sentinel, guarding the laity from any contamination from the truths they themselves carry.
Food for thought.

Creating Progressive Christianity

Jack Good, while discussing in The Dishonest Church the differences between what he calls progressive Christianity and what he calls popular Christianity, mentions the dangers that both forms of the faith can pose:

Popular Christianity at its extreme becomes judgmental and rigid. Witch burnings, inquisitions, and religious wars are too frequently the bloody, tragic results. Progressive Christianity carries another set of dangers: Unless care is taken to see that it is deeply and strongly rooted in an ongoing tradition, it becomes a watery system with few defining commitments, a wide but thin blanket placed over ideas that are often distressingly shallow.
Personally, I think that witch burnings and inquisitions are a vastly more serious danger to the world than a watery religion, but he does raise a valid point. Progressive Christianity could, if not rooted in Christian tradition, simply evolve into another iteration of Unitarian Univeralism.

That isn't to say that Unitarian Universalism is a bad thing. It serves the needs of a body of adherents, and as such offers a legitimate role in American religion. I myself found the UU denomination to be an entry point back into religion after years of atheism. But this is not the direction that I would like to see progressive Christianity move in. It is interesting to consider what happened in the history of the UU faith. Having originated as a liberal strain of Christianity (well, actually two liberal strains--Unitarianism and Universalism), it nevertheless over time became so attached to the idea of free thinking that it divorced itself from the Christian tradition altogether--to the point where only a small minority of its adherents now consider themselves Christian at all. And, despite an ostensible commitment to tolerance and diversity, many UUs are actively hostile to Christianity in any form.

The key is, as Good points out, staying rooted in the Christian tradition. There is, I believe, a body of faithful believers who want to remain within the Christian tradition but who also want to practice a thinking, non-dogmatic version of the faith that accepts modern science and serious biblical scholarship. This is what progressive Christianity should be about, and it is these people who have left many mainline denominations behind because those denominations did not satisfy this need.

The Dishonest Church

I have begun reading a book, The Dishonest Church by Jack Good, that directly addresses my concerns about the "game" that seems to take place in many liberal-to-progressive churches. The game that I describe involves, during worship services, the recitation of biblical myths verbatim as if they were all true, without any associated commentary or critical discussion, even though the clergy or congregation may not take those biblical myths literally.

Good argues that many clergy members, at least within mainline denominations, learn about higher biblical criticism in their seminaries, and thus develop a non-literal interpretation of the Bible; but in many cases, they never relate this understanding to their congregations, perhaps out of fear of rocking the boat. As a result, there is a disconnect in some congregations between what the clergy says in church, and what the clergy actually believes.

It all seems like a case of "wink wink nudge nudge".

I once had a conversation with the then pastor of the UCC church I frequently attend. I mentioned that one reason Christmas was not my favorite holiday was that I didn't believe that the biblical birth narratives that it celebrates were literally true. She said that a lot of pastors don't believe that either. She described a process that takes place in seminaries, after the first semester or so, when many students undergo a crisis of faith as they become disabused of their previous notions about the Bible. This is apparently a well known phenomenon in seminaries.

As Good puts it in his book,

Pastors and other trained professionals of the church often have developed a system of beliefs that is qualitatively different from the faith they communicate to local congregations. Their individual faith has developed, in most cases, after an intense and sometimes painful time of questioning, dismantling, and reconstruction. For reasons that are not clear, these leaders assume that local church members are either unwilling or unable to survive a similar process. So, in an act of dishonesty that threatens to erode the core of the church's mission, they hold one kind of faith for themselves while the literature they produce for the laity and the sermons they deliver assume another, basically different, style of faith for the non-professional.
My feeling is that this process of pandering to the orthodoxy actually can lead to a lot of disillusionment among thinking members of the congregation, and probably has a lot to do with increasing membership in what John Shelby Spong calls the "church alumni society".

I remember when I was in school many years ago, in English class the students and teachers would discuss the actions, motivations, and personalities of fictional characters in the novels and stories we read, as if they were real people. We would draw inferences about the human condition from these stories. The same can certainly take place on a spiritual level from the events and characters depicted in the Bible. But the difference is that, in English class, we discussed the fictional events and characters as if they were real, never pretending that they actually were real; and we always were aware of the fact that these works were constructed by authors, who had intentions that lay behind what they wrote. The ability to look at fiction on these two levels is what makes it so compelling.

Church, of course, isn't the same as English class; the Bible, for one thing, is not all fiction, and it is not secular literature; it is a mixture of history and fiction, theology and mythology, poetry and prose, and sometimes it is difficult to discern what is historically true and what isn't, although in many cases we can make reasonable guesses. Nevertheless, I want to make clear that I certainly can accept that I can see the value in discussing the mythological stories in the Bible as if they were real, just as I did with literature in my old school English classes. I don't have a problem with relaying the biblical myths in that way. But, especially since there are fundamentalists out there who actually take these myths literally, it would be nice every once in a while for progressive clergy to just come out and admit that these stories are myths and to treat them as such. Why not admit, for example, that the Jesus birth narratives didn't literally happen as Matthew and Luke told them? I rarely hear so much as peep to that effect in the churches I have attended. Maybe I'm attending the wrong churches or something; but from Good's book, it appears that this is a fairly common phenomenon.

Finding progressive Christianity

An Episcopal church is located not far from my workplace. It has noontime services on certain weekdays, and it would be convenient for me to pay it a lunchtime visit during the work week, as a way of getting a weekday fix on my spirituality. It is true that conventional, Book of Common Prayer style Episcopal services don't interest me, but I was told in an e-mail exchange with the rector that they don't recite creeds as part of their weekday worship, which resolves one of my biggest objections to Episcopal-style services. So far, so good. However, I still haven't managed to make myself visit, in part because I've fallen into my more ingrained resistance to to the whole ceremony of the Eucharist, which is presumably a central part of that service. But I admit that I also felt a little resistant because of uncertainty over the whole question of how progressive this church is.

It turned out that a co-worker belongs to that church, and she told me that her husband, who regularly attends, doesn't agree with a lot of the church teachings and regularly discusses his objections on certain issues with the rector. This sounded pretty good to me. My coworker also wasn't fazed by my objections to participating in the Eucharist; she said you could just cross your arms and refuse to drink the wine if that was how you felt. Again, so far so good. But then, I read some online sermons by the rector, and that is where I found a sense of disappointment. The rector talked about the resurrection in one of her sermons, and she said some things that I just couldn't accept. For example, she said that "the bedrock" of Christian hope is "the resurrection of Jesus, with all its implications for our own eternal salvation." She added that, even though one might not accept a particular argument for this resurrection that was presented in the New Testament, she asks others to "not distance yourself from it. I ask you to trust in it, to accept it as reliable witness to God’s power and propensity for the great reversal."

Now maybe when she uses the word "resurrection", she means something other than the physical, literal walking on the earth by a risen Jesus. But I didn't get that sense from her sermon, and I must say therefore that I will not just trust as an article of faith something that I consider to be a violation the fundamental understanding of the post-Enlightenment world. Dead people don't physically rise from the dead and walk around and converse with others, as portrayed in the mythological resurrection accounts of Matthew, Luke and John. If this is what she expects someone like me to believe, then I am afraid she will be disappointed. It just ain't gonna happen.

She goes on in that sermon to express the notion that the hope of eternal life is the fundamental core of Christian belief. Once again, this has nothing to do with my faith. I couldn't care less about any focus on life after death. And, frankly, it is a point of pride for me that this isn't what my religion is about. To me, focusing on eternal life, if it exists, distracts from the mission at hand--building the Kingdom of God here on earth. My religion is about my relationship with God and others today, in the here and now. To me, focusing on any alleged "eternal life" would mean to turn my entire religion inside out, make it something that it is not.

Recently, I was thinking about the new pastor at the UCC church that I attend, and in particular his differences from the one he replaced. He tends to be a little more conventional in style than his predecessor, and his sermons are more Bible-focused and delivered more in more conventional ways as well. This made me feel a little bit skittish. Is he more orthodox theologically than I can be comfortable with? I'm not sure. But then I thought about the services since his arrival, and I realized that, despite these stylistic changes, there is still, thankfully, no confession of sins as part of the service (and the word "sin" rarely, if ever gets mentioned), no recitation of creeds (UCC services in general don't do that, as far as I can tell), no talk in his sermons about how we need to be "saved", and in general none of the elements of orthodoxy that would make me run screaming.

It is possible that this particular pastor does believe that Jesus was literally, physically resurrected from the dead. Perhaps, if I were to attend services on Easter day, I would know for sure where he stands on the subject. But at least, so far, he isn't telling the congregation that this is something that they should believe. He has not yet asserted that this belief is the "bedrock" of Christian faith. And for that, I am grateful.

Politics and Religion


After the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Representative Pete Stark's announcement that he is an atheist, a Catholic priest from Fremont, which is in Stark's district, wrote a letter to the editor that was published today. The letter-writer actually argued--I'm sorry to say that I'm not making this up--that, as a matter of principle, elected representatives should have the same the religious affiliation as that of the majority of people in the district they represent. This would mean, of course, that if his position reflected the reality of government, a majority-Buddhist district should only have a Buddhist representative, a majority-Catholic district would have to have a Catholic representative, and a majority-Jewish district would have to have a Jewish representative. And thus atheists should only represent districts where the majority of people are atheists.

That is, of course, a ridiculous conception of the relationship between politics and religion.

Personally, I think the more telling fact about Stark's pronouncement of personal atheism was the revelation that he is also a UU. This says more about the state of the Unitarian Universalist Church than it does about American politics.

Evangelicals and the Kingdom of God

When two leading figures in the Religious Right, James Dobson and Tony Perkins, sent a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals to protest the fact that the Association's policy director, Richard Cizik, was emphasizing the problem of global warming, this highlighted a common misconception about evangelicals. The popular imagination holds that evangelical Christians are the same thing as the Religious Right, that they are all one big happy homogeneous political bloc. The reality is something different--namely, that evangelicals are actually divided among themselves on political matters.

Whence comes this common misperception? The fact that Dobson and Perkins would even have sent such a presumptuous letter to an organization that they don't belong to provides the answer--it is in the interests of the Religious Right to equate their politics with their religion, and to claim to speak for all of Christianity in defining what is "legitimately" Christian and what isn't. Acting as self-appointed pontiffs of the Religious Right, Dobson and Perkins presume to speak for all of Christianity, and thus demand compliance to their conception of what it means to be a Christian. The leadership of the Religious Right has been doing this ever since the days of the Moral Majority, if not earlier, and the news media has largely bought into this stereotype.

But just a few years ago, when George Bush went to speak at Calvin College, an evangelical institution of higher learning, he faced--gasp!--protests from some students and faculty. What's this? You mean all evangelicals aren't die hard conservative supporters of George Bush? How could this be?

I obviously have my theological differences with evangelicals, but I can certainly put aside those differences when it comes to fighting for social justice in the effort to build the Kingdom of God. And, contrary to what many people might think, there are radical voices among evangelicals.

Zack Exley has written an article for In These Times magazine, titled "Preaching Revolution", in which he describes the phenomenon of evangelicals who use two "R" words that have largely been missing from the American political vocabulary, especially in recent decades: "radical" and "revolution". Citing the examples of Rob Bell and Shane Claiborne, Exley writes:

In Grand Rapids, Mich., a 36-year-old evangelical pastor named Rob Bell regularly describes his ministry as “revolutionary,” “radical” and “an insurgency.” Far from alienating people with such language, Bell’s Mars Hill Bible Church draws thousands of new worshipers each year from the mostly conservative and white suburbs of west Michigan.
He also notes,
Bell and Claiborne are two of the better-known young voices of a broad, explicitly nonviolent, anti-imperialist and anticapitalist theology that is surging at the heart of white, suburban Evangelical Christianity. I first saw this movement at a local, conservative, nondenominational church in North Carolina where the pastor preached a sermon called “Two Fists in the Face of Empire.” Looking further, I found a movement whose book sales tower over their secular progressive counterparts in Amazon rankings; whose sermon podcasts reach thousands of listeners each week; and whose messages, in one form or another, reach millions of churchgoers. Bell alone preaches to more than 10,000 people every Sunday, with more than 50,000 listening in online.
One should not, of course, deny the differences that exist between many theologically progressive Christians and these evangelicals. Even those evangelicals who are "anti-imperialist and anticapitalist" nevertheless tend to be conservative on certain social issues, such as sexual morality (although the article does point out that these evangelicals do accept and embrace women in leadership positions), and their views on Jesus, the Bible, and God tend to be quite orthodox. I have serious theological differences with religious orthodoxy, which includes evangelicals of all stripes. But where I find myself in agreement with the "anti-imperialist and anticapitalist" evangelicals is in their rejection of political orthodoxy.

The article points out:

Yet the Revolution is not primarily a reaction to Republican attempts to politicize the church. What sets it apart from mainstream evangelicalism is not a liberal rejection of Republican politics, but rather a more radical rejection of conservatism and liberalism, and anything else that is not the “kingdom of God.”

To the Revolutionaries, what seems righteous or commonsensical to humans does not matter; all that matters is what God wants. Boyd writes in Myth of a Christian Nation: “To the extent that an individual or group looks like Jesus — dying for those who crucified him and praying for their forgiveness in the process — to that degree they can be said to manifest the kingdom of God. To the degree that they do not look like this, they do not manifest God’s kingdom.”

And that is where anticapitalism and anti-imperialism come in. Capitalism doesn’t look like Jesus. Empire doesn’t look like Jesus. In their critique of the political and economic institutions of the “kingdom of the world,” the Revolutionaries are following in the tradition of early Christianity.
This is not mainstream politics. It isn't about Republicans and Democrats. And, despite the amazingly radical nature of the message, it has a following:
The thinking and dreaming of this movement is as utopian as the most far-out sect of antiglobalization anarchists, yet they are living it right at the heart of mainstream America. And they are organizing with unbelievable success, attracting thousands of new participants every week and spawning hundreds of new churches and thousands of new small groups and house churches every year.
This is not the typical impression of Christianity that the mainstream news media portrays. James Dobson would like to present himself as the face of "Christianity", but, in reality, as in so many other ways, Christianity is much more diverse than that.

The closing down of a church

There are several progressive churches in Berkeley, as you might imagine. Some of them are thriving. First Congregational, for example, is a UCC church with several hundred members, and which sponsors lots of activities and events.

However, not all churches thrive. One of them, University Christian Church, a congregation of the Disciples of Christ (DOC), had interested me somewhat over the last few months as I researched progressive faith communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. The church appeared from its website to be progressive, at least in some areas; and as one who is interested in contemplative faith, I was impressed that it regularly sponsored contemplative spiritual events, such as centering prayer on certain weekday mornings. The church was located just a little too far away for me to attend these morning prayer events and still keep my desired work schedule, so I never quite made it there.

I took a peek recently at their web site, and discovered that the church has decided to sell the building, and it is currently conducting no Sunday services. There is a page that contains links to YouTube videos, including one from the pastor who talks about the decision to close down the church. She indicated that they were going to continue the church in a different form--using the proceeds from the sale of the church building towards that goal.

I have to admit that I have somewhat complicated feelings about the Disciples of Christ; I was brought up in an independent Christian church that came from the same historical stream (the Stone-Campbell movement) as the DOC. Although the church of my youth rejected the DOC as too denominational (and possibly also too liberal), my first impulse is to associate churches with names like "X Christian Church" with the fundamentalist environment I grew up in. That may not be fair, but it is a reaction to a religious upbringing that I rejected. The result is that the fact that the DOC comes from the same historical stream as that fundamentalist church of my youth doesn't entirely make me comfortable, even if there are obvious divergences between the independent Christian churches and the Disciples of Christ. I never visited University Christian Church in Berkeley, and thus what I know about it strictly comes from its web site. But I do feel that it is a shame that they had to sell their building. Hopefully they will manage to continue on in some other form after selling the church.

Elaine Pagels and Karen King interviewed on Fresh Air

Elaine Pagels and Karen King have co-written a book on the Gospel of Judas, and they were interviewed yesterday on the Terry Gross NPR program "Fresh Air". The interview can be heard here.

In the interview, the authors make the important point that the common present-day conception of what it means to be a Christian--belief in a certain set of doctrines--was not universal among the early Christians. Once again, we have the fact that there was a great deal of diversity within the early Christian movement. The Gospel of Judas was, in a sense, a polemic by one faction of Christians against another one.

Those in the present day who seek to preserve orthodoxy, because it supposedly came from a single "apostolic" faith, actually defy the historical reality that there never was a single Christian faith. Pagels and King point out that it was the winners in those theological disputes who got to decide what got into the canon, thus creating the myth of a unitary and unaltered Christian dogma that goes all the way back to Jesus and his disciples. Those who wrote books that were later suppressed by Christian authorities were not solitary voices, but represented movements within the faith. At the conclusion of the interview, the further point is made that Christianity as a living faith, has never been a "static thing", in contrast to the idea that you have to belief a certain fixed set of theological propositions.

Social Justice


A few news items have come to my attention today.

First, the City Council of Berkeley, California, voted unanimously to endorse the German-led lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes. The measure is purely a symbolic gesture, although it actually could have had more impact; apparently, the Council considered signing the city on as a co-plaintiff, but it feared that there could be liability issues if they did so.

Meanwhile, Hilary Clinton, ever the moral coward, refused to answer a simple question that was put to her in response to a statement by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When asked if she thought that homosexuality was immoral, she answered, “Well I’m going to leave that to others to conclude.” She certainly wouldn't want to take a stand on a social justice issue, now would she? (Imagine, by analogy, a reporter asking a politician if African-Americans are inferior to whites: "Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude.") This is, of course, the same Hillary Clinton who voted for the war resolution in 2002; who, while thousands of us took to the streets to protest the war, continued to support it; and who, even now, refuses to apologize for having voted for the war.

Politicians are not noted for moral courage. Let's be honest. Even the Berkeley City Council didn't really exhibit any great courage by taking a position that most people in Berkeley probably agree with. The only way we ever get the political establishment to promote social justice is by popular pressure from below. It's one thing to see this at the level of city government. But the higher up the political ladder we go, I believe the more entrenched are the relationships between powerful interests and the political establishment. How many politicians at the national level--Senators, for example--would seriously endorse prosecuting Rumsfeld for war crimes? My guess is that the number would be small indeed. Certainly we would never see Hillary Clinton do that.

Meanwhile, and this is the most amusing item of all, George Bush has actually had the temerity to use the term "social justice" to describe US foreign policy in Latin America. Naturally, he managed to use those words in the same sentence in which he praised the free enterprise system. The irony abounds.

What can we conclude from Bush's misuse of the term "social justice" to describe his policies? My theory is that when right wing politicians try to appropriate progressive terminology for themselves, you know that they are starting to get nervous. In Latin America, there has been a wave of resistance to the political and economic imperialism of the American Empire. Hugo Chavez has taken up the banner as a leading force of opposition to the Bush Administration. Bush may try to ignore Chavez, but he can't ignore the forces that lie behind his rise as an important figure in Latin America. Supporting social justice in Latin America has a long history that precedes Chavez--Latin America, as we might recall, was the cradle of Liberation Theology--and often the movements for justice get in the way of the interests of Empire. Supporting social justice often requires courage. Sometimes it leads to one's death--just remember what happened to Oscar Romero. Or the four American nuns assassinated by Salvadoran death squads. Not to mention what happened to Jesus when he stood up to the Roman Empire.

Politicians may abuse and misuse the concept of social justice to pursue injustice. Let us not let them get away with that. Social justice does not belong to the politicians of the Empire. It belongs to us.

"Saving Jesus"

"Saving Jesus" is the interestingly titled DVD-based discussion group program for progressive Christians who want to explore their understanding of who Jesus was. The DVD features interview segments with leading progressive authors and scholars--among them John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, John Cobb, and Matthew Fox.

A church that I do not normally attend but which is a short walk from my office has been offering the series on weekday evenings. Because I am a fan of most of the authors featured in the DVD, and because this is a subject that interests me a great deal, I was eager to attend. I contacted the church office and expressed my interest, and I was told that I was welcome to join in.

I did feel a little awkward because I was not a member of the church, but for the most part the others who attended have been welcoming. The theme of the second week in the series was the incarnation--which goes to the heart of the question of Jesus's nature. Was he divine? Was he fully human and fully divine? What does it mean to be fully human?

The class includes a period of showing the DVD, followed by a group discussion and then breakout sessions in small groups of 3 or 4, and concluding with another full group discussion. My small group consisted of myself and two women who were, I would guess, in their seventies, or maybe eighties. One of the women stated right up front that she didn't consider Jesus to be God. I said that I agreed. I added that I found a lot of value in what John Cobb said in the video about God's role in each "occasion", as process theology views it. In the DVD, John Spong spoke of divinity as a continuum, where all of us have a little of the divine within us to varying degrees, rather than divinity being a simple either-or proposition where Jesus was divine and the rest of us are not. I offered that I liked that idea, and that perhaps Jesus fit on one end of that continuum because he listened more intently to the divine call in each "occasion" that John Cobb alluded to, and that we all have the ability to listen to that call as well. We also discussed, among other things, what it really means to be fully human--an interesting question, actually. In common language, the word "human" is often a synonym for frailty, limitations, and having the capacity for error ("to err is human".) To say that Jesus was fully human is obviously not saying that. When Spong talks about Jesus as being fully human, he probably means that Jesus expressed the human potential fully.

Attending a group session like this can be an uncomfortable process for me. I never really know what people in liberal churches think about Jesus, and I am afraid that my radical theology will be too out of place. There was almost certainly a diversity of opinion among the people who attended. Certainly there was a generally liberal sensibility, but that still spanned a range of views--probably from those who considered Jesus fully divine and fully human, to those who rejected that notion. The general atmosphere, though, was one of respectful exploration rather than debate, which allowed for people to express themselves honestly.

One of the most reassuring things I took away from the experience was that perhaps I am not as far removed from the thinking of others in liberal churches as I sometimes fear. Unless I attend a meeting like this, I often have little way of knowing where people stand. Pastors at church services I attend often just tell the stories from the Bible without really introducing scholarly opinion about the veracity of those stories, and sometimes it isn't clear to me how seriously people in the pews actually take all the mythology. It was therefore nice to go to a church-sponsored event and hear a member of that church come right out and say that she didn't consider Jesus to be God. Perhaps I am not as much on the heretical fringe as I sometimes think.

"Stay Down Here Where You Belong"

The Dick Cavett Show "Comic Legends" DVD box set includes an episode from 1971 that featured Groucho Marx. On the show, Groucho sings the poignant antiwar song "Stay Down Here Where You Belong", which Irving Berlin wrote in 1914, after the start of the Great War:

Down below
Down Below
Sat the devil talking to his son
Who wanted to go
Up above
Up above
He cried, "It's getting too warm for me down here and so
I'm going up on Earth where I can have a little fun
The Devil simply shook his head and answered his son

Stay down here where you belong
The folks who live above you don't know right from wrong

To please their kings they've all gone out to war
And not a one of them knows what he's fighting for

'Way up above they say that I'm a Devil and I'm bad
Kings up there are bigger devils than your dad

They're breaking the hearts of mothers
Making butchers out of brothers
You'll find more hell up there than there is down below
After singing the song, he compared its message to the pointless and endless war that was then being fought in Vietnam. Later in the same show, he made snide comments about both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and their respective responsibilities for the dead and wounded of that war.

Thirty-six years have passed since that show was aired. And some things just don't seem to change. We still have pointless wars, and presidents who start them.

The so-called God gene

The Sunday New York Times magazine featured an article by Robin Marantz Henig that discussed whether there is an evolutionary basis for religious belief. This idea has been tossed around for a while now in the popular press--there has been talk of the so-called "God gene". For me, there is no contradiction between the notion that religious belief may have evolved within humans and the notion that God exists; I think this would no more refute religious belief than the fact that humans have evolved an organ for perceiving photons refutes the existence of light, or the fact that humans may have evolved some sort of artistic appreciation for poetry and music refutes the existence of poets and musicians.

However, I do take issue with some of the points that are presented in Henig's article. To start with, in order to assert that there is an evolutionary basis for religion, you first have to establish what religion is. And here is where things get fuzzy.

For example: religion does not necessarily entail a belief in a theistic God. Henig acknowleges this early in the article when she refers to "an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science." This clearly expresses a broad definition of religion to include non-theistic religions, such as certain varieties of Buddhism, or panentheisic religions like process theology. But then, throughout most of the rest of the article, it seems to me that she essentially falls back on the assumption that religion really is about believing in a Western-style, orthodox Christian, theistic God, who acts by dint of divine intervention--even when she tries to make generalized, universal statements about religion as a whole.

She writes, for example: "According to anthropologists, religions that share certain supernatural features — belief in a noncorporeal God or gods, belief in the afterlife, belief in the ability of prayer or ritual to change the course of human events — are found in virtually every culture on earth." Such beliefs may indeed be found in virtually every culture, but they are not characteristic of every religion or variety of religious belief; and, within many cultures, theistic beliefs and non-theistic beliefs may even co-exist side-by-side. The key point here is this: "religions that share certain supernatural features" is not the same as saying that all religions share those supernatural features. The mistake that I think creeps into this article is that it conflates belief in those theistic elements with belief in God per se. They aren't necessarily the same thing.

To cite another example, Henig points out that

"About 6 in 10 Americans, according to a 2005 Harris Poll, believe in the devil and hell, and about 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and of life after death. A 2006 survey at Baylor University found that 92 percent of respondents believe in a personal God — that is, a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from “distant” to “benevolent."
She goes on to use the word "universal", based on this survey of Americans, to describe these beliefs. I don't believe in angels or the existence of miracles, and I'm an agnostic on the question of heaven and life after death. Yet I believe in God. So where do I fit in? And if 6 in 10 Americans believe in something, that means that 4 in 10 don't--a substantial minority. And Americans are not the whole world. What do most Danes, or Germans, or Swiss believe? And what about non-Western cultures? The Japanese? (And how do atheists fit into this scenario? She does address this question near the end of the article, a point I will get to later.)

In much of the early part of the article, she reports on the ideas of anthropologist Scott Atran, who asserts that "religious belief requires taking 'what is materially false to be true' and 'what is materially true to be false.'" This is nonsense. Religious belief requires nothing of the sort, and this fallacy apparently informs everything about Atran's research. Later in the article, she focuses on other Darwinian perspectives on how religious belief may have originated. Yet, in all of this "debate" about how religion originated, there is still the problem of defining what religion really is.

She asserts, for example, that "the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion." This is not really true. To cite a historical example, the early Jewish religion did not focus on an afterlife, and made only the vaguest reference to it in the early biblical writings--dead people were sometimes referred to as having gone to Sheol, the realm of the dead--not really much of an afterlife. The book of Ecclesiastes suggests strongly that the author did not believe in life after death. It was only later, particularly in post-exilic times, particularly when martyrdom for the sake of Judaism needed a kind of vindication, that you started to see more of a development of ideas of an afterlife. Even in Jesus's lifetime, the Sadducees did not belief in the resurrection of the dead. As this example shows, there is nothing inherent about a belief in an afterlife for a religion to be meaningful to its adherents.

Indeed, it is not at the heart of my religion at all. To me, religion is about life in the here and now, about my relationship with God and how I live in accordance with that, not about any afterlife that may or may not exist.

Returning to the question of how atheism could even exist, given this supposed universal human trait, Atran's faulty conception of religion as simply another word for superstition is illustrated by his supposed struggle to retain his atheism in a nonatheist world: "Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case." Here, Atran confuses religion with superstition, atheism with rationality--a serious misconception on his part--and he also equates his own propensity for superstition with some sort of universal struggle by atheists to maintain their hold on their belief system. I bet this is news to a lot of atheists, who are quite comfortable in their beliefs and who face no such struggle to hold on to them.

In my own atheist days, I had no trouble resisting any supposed impulse to cross my fingers or knock on wood. I don't believe I was superstitious then, and I don't think I am superstitious now. Religion has nothing to do with Atran's facile conception of it. One can be religious and superstitious, or religious and rational; one can be, as Atran shows, an atheist and superstitious. The real struggle within modern Christianity today is, I believe, the battle between rational religion and irrational religion--between the vestiges of premodern theism and a broader conception of God that is consistent with post-Enlightenment science. Both conceptions of religion are equally possible. One is not "more" inherent to religious belief than the other is.

I think Henig is correct when she says near the end of the article, "No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural." This yearning for the supernatural, this seeking of what Tillich calls the Ultimate Concern, this reaching out towards that which is greater than us--that is, I believe, what religion is really about. Not superstition, not narrowness, not attachment to a set of doctrinal beliefs about the afterlife or spirits in the sky--but rather that which opens us up to the greatest of our ambitions, our hopes, and aspirations. The way this manifests itself varies greatly among different cultures and individuals. Some individuals may also incorporate beliefs of angels, or an afterlife, or a God who intervenes in the world, into their religion. But there is nothing inherent about these beliefs in the nature of religion. And if you are going to make universal statements about religious belief, you need to remove those elements that are optional.

What Would Jesus Drink?

I went to church today, but I didn't feel like partaking of communion, so I just stayed seated during that part of the service. I'm not sure why I felt that way. During Lent, our church has been doing the ritual weekly instead of only on the first Sunday of the month, and, maybe, well, doing it weekly was seeming like a bit much. Or maybe I was just in an ornery mood. I don't know.

But my significant other did go up and partake of the bread and the wine. When she came back, I whispered to her that her breath smelled of alcohol.

"That's not alcohol, that's the blood of Christ," she told me.

"In that case, Jesus has been drinking a little too much." If his blood smelled of alcohol, think of what his blood alcohol index must be! "I wouldn't put Jesus behind the wheel of a car."

She told me with some amusement that she had been downstairs and noticed that in the church office there were several cases of Two Buck Chuck.

Church budgets being what they are, this is not surprising. But given the cult following that Two Buck Chuck has, not to mention its bottom basement prices, it still seemed like an entertaining thought. Now, I guess we know what kind of wine Jesus drinks.

Videos worth checking out

There is a very funny series of videos on YouTube called "Mr. Deity" that spoofs conventional theism in a brilliant way. The characters in the series include Mr. Deity, who is, of course, the Man in Charge; Larry, his harried assistant; Lucy (short for Lucifer), a feisty, attractive woman and Mr. Deity's nemesis; and Jesus, whose name Mr. Deity seems to have trouble getting right. This Mr. Deity uses cell phones, holds press conferences, and manages to give an irreverent perspective that does George Burns one better. It is unfortunate that the Mr. Deity web site provides quotes of praise from someone like Julia Sweeney who is rather hostile to religion, because this gives the wrong impression about who would enjoy this series; in fact, these videos should be quite entertaining to religious progressives, or anyone with an open mind and a sense of humor.

Another interesting YouTube series is God, Inc., which imagines heaven as an impersonal corporation, complete with with departments for marketing, miracles, disasters, and so on. Office politics abounds, some employees have to worry about layoffs, the staff has to submit proposals for approval, the IT department sometimes screws things up, and there is even sexual harassment training. The God character in this series is never actually seen, although his secretary does show up in one episode. It is very well-done; the episodes are only a few minutes long, but I think it has the quality of an actual television series.