Re-imagining Jesus

The following quote is taken from a recent sermon delivered by Jim Burklo, pastor of Sausalito Presbyterian Church. You can go to the web site to read the entire sermon:

There was a rabbi named Jesus who preached and was said to be a healer. He was crucified by the Romans.

There you have it: that's the only really reliable information we have about the historical person named Jesus. It's the only information we have about him that is supported by a first-century source that was not part of the early Christian community. The early Christians, who wrote the four gospels, almost certainly embellished the story of Jesus to create the accounts of him that we see in the Bible. Along with virtually all academic historians who have studied the historical Jesus, I assume that anything we see in the four gospels that refers to something miraculous is probably mythological.

The Jesus Seminar, headquartered up the road from us in Santa Rosa, is a large group of academic scholars of the Bible who have voted on what they think the historical Jesus is most likely to have said and done. They have color-coded the gospels accordingly: red for highly likely, pink for somewhat likely, grey for unlikely, and black for very unlikely that the historically real Jesus said it or did it. Not too surprisingly, very little of the gospels is in red, and not that much is in pink, either.

But the myths in the Bible about Jesus, and the words put into his mouth by his later followers, are still very important and contain much spiritual truth. Just because something didn't really happen doesn't mean it isn't true, in the sense of truth that applies to matters of the heart and soul. The early Christians had important spiritual reasons for coming up with these myths and these words which they attributed to Jesus. The un-historical Jesus is just as important as the historical Jesus. That was true 2000 years ago and it is true today.

Because the story of Jesus isn't over. We get to embellish it, too. That's part of being Christian: we get to figure out who Jesus was, for ourselves.

Now there are plenty of Christians who would argue these points. In the past week, for some reason, I got a flood of hate emails from Christians around the US who objected to Pluralism Sunday, which I coordinated nationally for The Center for Progressive Christianity. They objected vigorously to the idea that other religions might be as valid as Christianity. Their arguments were based on a literalistic interpretation of the Bible. They believe that the Bible effectively dropped down from the sky all at once, as we know it now, with one portrayal of Jesus shown to us intact. Unfortunately there is no factual basis for this assumption. The Bible turns out to be vastly more interesting than they suggest. It has layers and nuances and contradictions, opening up all sorts of interpretive possibilities.

There are plenty of folks who would deny it, but let's face the facts: there are a lot of Jesuses to choose from in the Christian religion. And there is room for even more. Which Jesus do you prefer? That may sound outrageous, even here in a liberal, progressive church. But it really is an okay question to ask. Which image or understanding of Jesus helps you best to come into communion with God? You do have a choice, so why not be conscious about it? And why not be creative about imagining Jesus?

I have mixed feelings about this call for re-imagining Jesus. On the one hand, I think Jim Burklo has put his finger on something--specifically, the evils of dogmatism and orthodoxy, and the need for people to work out their own theological understanding. On the other hand, the assertion that "the un-historical Jesus is just as important as the historical Jesus" raises a lot of interesting questions. Certainly, in the history of Christianity, the importance of the un-historical Jesus--or, as Marcus Borg puts it--the post-Easter Jesus--has been crucial in the evolving dogmas of Christian orthodoxy. Jim Burklo's point alludes to the fact that people were re-imagining Jesus from the moment he died. Maybe it is an inevitable truth that any founder of a significant movement cannot control what they have started once they pass on. I've been reading the book The First Coming, by Thomas Sheehan, in which the author offers his theories on how the religion of Jesus, which concerned the present and future in-breaking of God's immanent Kingdom, evolved into a religion about Jesus; this book dovetails nicely with this question.

But then again, almost from the time after Jesus died, Christianity was not just a religion about Jesus. It was actually several, and Jesus movment soon flowered into multiple Christianities, as different communities and individuals imaginatively spun new understandings of who Jesus was and what he stood for. And imagination played a key role in this process. Each of the canonical Gospels expressed the particular author's imaginative, mythology-laced perspective on what Jesus meant. The Gospel-writers used mythological stories about such things as a virgin birth or a literal ascension into heaven in order to convey, in the words of Jim Burklo, a deeper truth. As Christianity continued to spread, Christians continually churned out among themselves competing ideas about Jesus and his life and message, producing a diverse set of Christianities: Gnostics, Ebionites, docetists, Johannine Christians, Thomasite Christians, to name a few. There was clearly something about Jesus that seemed to inspire a continual process of re-imagining.

Was this re-imagining always such a good thing? It seems to me that, in many ways, the best of what Jesus taught became lost, diffused, toned down, or reversed. The religion that Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God became instead a religion about Jesus. His inclusiveness became replaced with gate-keeping. His opposition to religious authorities became replaced with a religion governed by a new set of religious authorities.

On the other hand, the problem with Christian orthodoxy is that it took what was, essentially, just one mythological re-imagining of Jesus among many, and declared that one to be the Truth. In all the diverse set of re-imaginings that took place, one set was defined as the orthodoxy, while other re-imaginings were deemed heretical. This, in my view, was a critical error, and has taken Christianity down the wrong path.

Perhaps the problem, then, is not that of re-imagining Jesus to our heart's content, but of imposing our own re-imagining and declaring it to be the final truth. It seems to me that is where Christianity went wrong in the first place. I think that there is value in breaking through the mythologies to appreciate the best of Jesus's message for what it was, but I also think that there is an inevitable tendency to re-imagine Jesus, one that cannot be denied. How do we take the best of those competing tendencies, which seem so contradictory: de-mythologizing Jesus, and at the same time re-imagining Jesus? Are there parameters that define how far we should go in our mythologizing?

As Thomas Sheehan wrote in The First Coming,
Christianity took a local and idiosyncratic myth about what allegedly happened one morning in a tiny corner of Palestine, and turned it into a supernatural event that supposedly transformed the ontological structure of the world.

Jesus' message, which had started as an invitation to live God's future in the present, devolved into a dogma about what had happened in the past. What began as a challenge to work God's mercy in the world was reduced to apocalyptic myth. A movement that should have accepted the fact that Jesus was dead, and then gone on from there, ended up trying to hope him out of the grave. (p. 162)
If there is a tension between de-mythologizing and re-imagining, then, like Thomas Sheehan, I admit that I lean towards the de-mythologizing side of things. And yet, I also think Jim Burklo is on to something. Religious pluralism necessarily understands the value of mythologizing, recognizes that all religions tend to mythologize, and sees value in playfully re-imagining religious mythology. Can we maintain a balance between our desire to mythologize and our desire to get at the literal truths that lie behind those mythologies?

Or am I making this all too complicated? Is mythologizing fine as long as we recognize that we are mythologizing? Is the problem not with myth-making, but with literalizing our myths?

The Kingdom of God

I recently found a used copy of Thomas Sheehan's book The First Coming, which was published in 1986. Sheehan was a Loyola professor at the time he wrote the book; he now teaches at Stanford, and, from what I can tell, podcasts of some of his classes are available for free on the internet. Sheehan's book briefly introduces the reader to the issues and history of research into the historical Jesus, and then goes on to offer his interpretation of Jesus's life, message, and death, along with the subsequent development of Christianity among his followers after he died.

I particularly liked his interpretation of Jesus's doctrine of the Kingdom of God. Sheehan depicts the Kingdom of God as having everything to do with God's immanence. God is not just some remote, indifferent transcendent being, but rather is everywhere among us, according to Jesus:

This immediate presence of God as a loving Father is what Jesus meant by the "kingdom." The notion of the kingdom of God (or in Matthew's Gospel, the kingdom of "heaven") simply spells out Jesus' experience of the Father's loving presence that is captured in the word "Abba." As Jesus preached it, the kingdom of God had nothing to do with the fanciful geopolitics of the apocalyptists and messianists--a kingdom up above or up ahead--or with the juridical, hierarchical Church that the Roman Catholics used to find in the phrase. Nor did the term primarily connote territory, spiritual or otherwise. rather, it meant God's act of reigning, and this meant--here lay the revolutionary force of Jesus' message--that God, as God, had identified himself without remainder with his people. The reign of God meant the incarnation of God.

This entirely human orientation of the Father--the loving, incarnate presence of a heretofore distant Sovereign--marked the radical newness of Jesus' message of God's reign. The kingdom was not something separate from God, like a spiritual welfare state that a benign heavenly monarch might set up for his faithful subjects. Nor was it any form of religion. The kingdom of God was the Father himself given over to his people. It was a new order of things in which God threw in his lot irrevocably with human beings and chose relatedness to them as the only definition of himself. From now on, God was one with mankind...

The radicalness of Jesus' message consisted in its implied proclamation of the end of religion, taken as the bond between two separate and incommensurate entities called "God" and "man." That is, Jesus destroyed the notion of "God-in-himself" and put in its place the experience of "God-with-mankind." Henceforth, according to the prophet from Galilee, the Father was not to be found in a distant heaven but was entirely identified with the cause of men and women. Jesus' doctrine of the kingdom meant that God had become incarnate. He had poured himself out, had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but here...

Jesus' message of the kingdom radically redefined the traditional notions of grace and salvation and made them mean nothing other than this event of God-with-man. Salvation was no longer to be understood as the forgiving of a debt or as the reward for being good. Nor was it a supernatural supplement added on to what human beings are, some kind of ontological elevation to a higher state. All such metaphysical doctrines are forms of religion, which Jesus brought to an end. His proclamation marked the death of religion and religion's God and heralded the beginning of the postreligious experience: the abdication of "God" in favor of his hidden presence among human beings. (p. 60-62)
Sheehan goes on to describe when the Kingdom of God would be found:
If we ask about the timing of this eschatological event, that is, when God's kingdom was supposed to arrive, we are faced with an apparent contradiction. According to what Jesus preached, the reign-of-God-with-man at one and the same time had already arrived in the present and yet was still to come in the future. This paradox of the simultaneous presence and futurity of God's kingdom brings us to the core of Jesus' message: the eschatalogical present-future....

The uniqueness of Jesus' message lay in his conviction that in some way the future kingdom had already dawned and that the celebration could begin. The Baptist before him had preached an impending final judgment, but Jesus went him twice better: not judgment, but a gift, in fact the gift of God himself; and not just the impending right here and now. God had already started to reign among men and women. (p. 65)
This explains, I think, why Jesus partied so much. He understood the Kingdom of God as cause for celebration. We had been given a gift, he was telling us--the gift of God among us--and for this he was forever grateful and filled with joy. His life, unlike that of his mentor John the Baptist, was thus full of celebration. He ate and drank with others, and he invited everyone to the party--including those famous prostitutes and tax collectors. No wonder people were drawn to him. His intimacy with God must have been awe-inspiring, and his joy must have been infectious.

The notion that the Kingdom of God is both a present and a future event has important consequences. The present nature of God's Kingdom means that it is available to us now. The future nature of God's Kingdom means that it cannot fulfill its promise, it cannot realize its full potential, until we really do allow the Kingdom into our lives, which means, among other things, building an inclusive world of compassion and justice.

Immanence and Panentheism

John Shuck has been featuring in his blog an open discussion between himself and another Presbyterian pastor. One of the subjects that came up was the matter of panentheism, which is based on the view that God is both transcendent and immanent. The question came up as to whether it is possible to believe that God is both transcendent and immanent and yet not be a panentheist.

The crux of the matter is, what does immanence mean? I would define immanence as referring to God's universal presence. I believe that God is everywhere in the universe; there is no place that God is not. There is no molecule where God cannot be found; there is no point in the space-time continuum where God is absent.

Marcus Borg puts it this way:

The Christian tradition...has throughout its history affirmed that God is both transcendent and immanent, two semitechnical terms that are helpful for thinking this through. The transcendence of God refers to God's "going beyond" the universe, God's otherness, God as more than the universe. God's immanence, on the other hand, means God's presence in everything or nearness to everything. Immanence means to dwell with or within, as its Latin root manere suggests (from which, for example, we also get "mansions"). The immanence of God thus means the omnipresence of God." (p. 26)
Those who reject panentheism, but say they believe in Divine immanence, seem to be defining immanence differently from how I would understand it. They seem to be defining God's immanence as his activity in the world from a position of transcendent authority, rather than as his omnipresence. But I would argue that this is not immanence at all; instead, it is simply another way of describing a transcendent God's activity against a world that is distinct from him/her. It is as if God were an ocean that pushed on a bubble from the outside. It is a doctrine that expresses divine transcendence, which is half of the panentheist equation, but it doesn't conceive of the other half, immanence, at all. To say that a transcendent God acts in the world simply affirms that God's transcendence is not indifferent to the world, as is the case of, for example, the God of deism. But immanence doesn't just mean ongoing Divine interest in the world; it says that God is present everywhere within the world.

If God is everywhere, if there is no place where God is not, then there is nothing in the world that lies outside of God. This implies necessarily that we are thus all contained within God. If we were not contained within God, then we would somehow lie outside of God, which contradicts the view that God is everywhere present. Pantheists equate the world with God, but if one believes that God is more than just the world--if one accepts transcendence as well as immanence--then we have formulated a doctrine of panentheism.

Social Justice cannot afford to wait for consensus

From a transcription of a sermon that Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal church recently preached at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena:

A little while ago, in the only time that the Archbishop of Canterbury ever deigned to see me, we were having a little "chat", and at one point in our conversation, he was explaining to me that, actually what the Episcopal church should have done prior to electing and consecrating me, was that we should have figured all this out theologically and intellectually... We should have come to a common mind, and then passed canons and and then done this thing. And I said to him with as much respect as I could, "Your Grace, it seems to me that all of the great steps that has taken, have been as a result of our doing the right thing, and only then, "thinking" our way to what we did. It's not the other way around. I mean, if we had waited for instance in this country for everyone to have been on the same page about civil rights, there would still be separate drinking fountains, wouldn't there? And if we had waited until women were valued as equal and full members of society and the human race for goodness sakes, all of that discrimination would still exist.
Two things come to mind as I ponder that quote. First, the Archbishop of Canterbury is a moron. And second, social justice cannot afford to wait for consensus.

The Roots of Disillusionment

By way of a link in Mad Priest's blog, I discovered an article by William Lobdell, the LA Times religion writer, who describes how his job covering religious issues over the years contributed to his disillusionment with Christianity and his eventual loss of faith.

The article is rather long, and he goes into great detail describing his conversion to Christianity, his steps towards joining the Catholic Church, his later involvement with evangelical Christian broadcasters, and his growing disillusionment with the hypocrisy that he found in organized religion. I think his odyssey can serve as an object lesson on what happens when naive idealism is misdirected. Part of the problem, I think, was that he made the same mistake that many others who become disillusioned with religion make--they hold a certain set of limited assumptions about what the faith is about, and when their idealism and their thinking minds run smack up against reality, something has to give. Lobdell is an interesting case because his idealism was misplaced from the start, as evidenced by the fact that he was first converted to Christianity at the age of 28 by a conservative mega-church pastor, in a faith community where the Bible was described as "life's instruction manual."

Many progressive Christians, of course, know that the Bible is not "life's instruction manual", and in a way, the flaws in the Bible can serve as a reminder of the all-too-human nature of religious enterprises in general. I'm not sure that Lodbell ever understood that it was possible to be a Christian and yet consider the Bible a flawed document. He never seemed to wrap his mind around the diverse possibilities of Christian theology, and when the conservative Christianity that he knew best collided with reality, he underwent a crisis of faith. Aside from that, Lodbell suffered from an apparent naiveté about the human condition, in which he somehow expected that when human beings come together to form religious institutions, they would leave their human foibles behind simply because they believed in God. He expected Christians to somehow be better people than the rest of humanity.

He was attracted to the best of what Christianity had to offer, writing: "Part of what drew me to Christianity were the radical teachings of Jesus — to love your enemy, to protect the vulnerable and to lovingly bring lost sheep back into the fold." But when he saw how terribly human those who claimed to follow Jesus turned out to be, he became disillusioned. At first, he said that he "compartmentalized" these failings as an "aberration", "the result of sinful behavior that infects even the church." But why the need to compartmentalize at all? You only compartmentalize when you think there has to be a contradiction somewhere.

He complained about cover ups of sex scandals in the Catholic Church, exclusivist tribalism among Mormons, and the greed-infested prosperity gospel found in the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Certainly, many of these problems exist--and I think that exclusionary or intolerant theology, or institutions that are built around power at the expense of Jesus's message, tend to exacerbate the worst human follies. But what about the prophets of social justice? He makes no mention of those Christian saints who worked for peace, who helped the poor, who worked for justice. I can't help but think that he was often just traveling in the wrong circles, and then making sweeping generalizations based on that.

If he had had a more mature faith, he could have weathered the personal crisis that these negative discoveries engendered. But he was, in a sense, trapped in a medieval conception of the Divine. He was taught to believe in an omnipotent God who controlled the world, a Divine magician in the sky who could do miraculous things if believers asked "him" to, and when confronted with the problems of a cruel world, religious hypocrites, and a seemingly indifferent God, he had to know why. The person he turned to for his questions about theodicy, his former Presbyterian pastor, was no help whatsoever:

I met with my former Presbyterian pastor, John Huffman, and told him what I was feeling. I asked him if I could e-mail him some tough questions about Christianity and faith and get his answers. He agreed without hesitation.

The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he's never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?

In one e-mail, I asked John, who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?

He sent back a long reply that concluded:

"My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don't know. And frankly, if I'm totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, 'You, God, are infinite; I'm human and finite.' "

John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn't reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.
The non-answers that he got from that pastor were absolutely, devastatingly, inappropriate. It is hardly surprising that Lobdell left the faith after that. The pastor essentially just recited back to Lobdell the same non-answer that concludes the book of Job--that is to say, he asserted that God is all-powerful, his actions are a mystery, and who are we to question God's ways? Yet the notion that God is in control, or that God is omnipotent, is something that Lobdell and that pastor simply took for granted. Lobdell never expanded his horizons enough to understand where he went wrong.

It is a shame that it had to come to this. As a religion writer, Lobdell should have been better versed on the diversity of thinking within the Christian faith. But that was not to be. He admitted early in the article that he saw his role as religion writer as a way of carrying out what he thought was God's will. It seems almost as if he was effectively using the newspaper as a way of proselytizing the faith as he understood it, and so he always had a built-in bias towards a certain kind of theology. He was, in other words, operating out of a dogmatic mindset from the very beginning.

I can understand the process of disillusionment. I underwent this process myself, at a very young age. Brought up in a conservative Christian faith, and having been taught that there was only one way of conceiving of Christianity, I had a crisis of faith at age 16. It was only when I got to my late twenties that I came to understand that there were other ways of looking at God than what I had been taught. I discovered that it was not an either-or proposition, that there are progressive theologies that reject exclusion and intolerance, that explore new ways of conceiving of the sacred. When I see people rejecting religion altogether because their assumptions about God clash with reality, I know what they are going through, but I also feel frustrated, because I also know that they are working from the same set of assumptions about God that they had before they left the faith, assumptions that they need not have.

The Message

I noticed that Cynthia (Reverend Mom) quoted from the paraphrased Bible translation The Message in her latest blog posting. The UCC pastor of a church I have sometimes attended also quotes occasionally from The Message. I have to admit that I like the blunt, idiomatic language that is often used in this version of the Bible, and just recently I bought a high quality used hardback copy of The Message for about $15 or so, which seemed like a bargain.

There is, however, a part of me that is wary of paraphrased Bibles. My concern goes back to my experience as a teenager with The Living Bible, which my family had a copy of in the house. It was a paraphrased Bible, fairly popular in the early 1970s, and, as I recall, completely biased in favor of conservative, evangelical theology. That's the danger of paraphrases. It is hard to avoid the biases of the translators when they give themselves free reign to write whatever sounds good. I haven't been able to discover, from my random internet research, how scholarly or accurate The Message is considered to be, or what biases might show up within it. Some cursory glances at a few passages shows what can be gained and what can be lost from paraphrases.

Sometimes, I think The Message tries too hard. For example, in the section of Luke that contains the parable of the Good Samaritan, the NRSV has the lawyer asking Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" The Message, on the other hand, strives to make the question more conversational, by phrasing it as, "And just how would you define 'neighbor'?" I like the more succinct way that NRSV phrases the question; it simply has a more direct, memorable punch to it. The story of the Good Samaritan isn't about who we "define" as our neighbor--but about who, quite simply, is our neighbor.

Another example of the problem of this sort paraphrasing can be found earlier in the book of Luke, where Jesus casts unclean spirits out of a madman. When Jesus asks the man his name, the NRSV reports his response as "Legion", which clearly suggests a dig at the Roman Empire, whose troops were organized into legions; the dig becomes bolder when the spirits invade a group of pigs--unclean animals--who then throw themselves down an embankment into a lake and drown. The Message, on the other hand, completely loses the political import of that dialogue, instead changing the response to "Mob". While "Legion" might not be a word used all that much in modern English, I think that most educated people are familiar with the concept of Roman legions.

Another example of a problematic paraphrase can be found in Mark 1. The NRSV has John the Baptist saying about Jesus, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." In The Message, on the other hand, John says, "The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will change your life. I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out." The language that The Message uses is great, and yet...I don't know--I just like the phrase about not being worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. The Message just threw that reference to the sandals out altogether. I'm not sure why--people do wear sandals in the twenty first century.

I don't want to be a stick in the mud about these matters. Indeed, there is something to be said for rephrasing biblical passages that we've all heard a million times. Hearing it said a different way helps to break through the staleness sometimes. It no longer seems trite, but instead it becomes fresh, and we have a chance to reconsider the meaning that is conveyed. I sometimes do like certain kinds of paraphrased translations of Bible passages. In fact, I have in my possession two different paraphrased translations of the Psalms--"Psalms for Praying" by Nan C. Merrill, and "Opening To You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms", both of which offer fresh, innovative takes on the Psalms. The Taizé services I attend regularly include readings from both of those Psalms translations.

The blunt and informal language of The Message sometimes has a nice way of getting to the point. In Luke 10, for example, The Message has Jesus saying "Don't loiter and make small talk with everyone you meet along the way." I can't imagine the NSRV ever using the phrase "make small talk". What the NRSV gains through accuracy, it sometimes loses through its formality.

I think that these kinds of passages in The Message can be fun to read. I would never use this sort of Bible as a primary reference, any more than I would use the Zen-inspired Psalms as a primary source, but it can serve as a kind of secondary creative riff on the Bible, and improvisation isn't always such a bad thing, as long as one recognizes such riffs for what they are.

Letting go

It's hard to let go sometimes.

I dreamed about my dead mother one night last week. She's been dead for move than seven years, but I guess you never get over the death of your mother. She was, in the dream, sitting on a chair, but I could see through her, as if she were a ghost. She didn't say anything--she just sat there, shimmering, fading away, becoming more ghostlike, beginning to disappear. My dream took on a frantic, nightmarelike quality, and I was overcome with horror. Repeatedly I cried out, "Don't go!", each time louder than before.

My dream represented a desire to hold on to something that, in reality, I have no ability to hold on to. Death is, of course, an inescapable part of our lives. Interestingly enough, I once had a similar dream about my father after he died, although that dream did not involve screaming. In that dream, he was walking away from me, ghostlike, and as he kept walking he gradually disappeared.

Letting go is hard. Believing in the afterlife has the advantage that it makes the process of letting go easier--perhaps because in one sense you never are fully letting go if you believe that your loved one carries on a continued existence in some fashion. I do not rule out the possibility of life after death. I would like to believe in some kind of blissful existence in the afterlife. But I have to admit that I am skeptical about the whole thing. I realize that not really believing in an afterlife gives life a certain tragic quality. But it also means that every moment in our lives matter, that every moment is precious.

During the last full moon, it occurred to me, as I looked up in the night sky, that if I live another 30 years (to the ripe age of 77), I will experience another 360 or so full moons. That's all I've got left. Maybe more, maybe less, depending on when I actually die, but in any case not so many. Yeah, okay, full moons aren't so special. Or are they? Just 360 of them left, give or take. Maybe if I think about how few of them are left in my life, they might seem more special.

Someday, after I die, I will be just a shimmering ghost in people's memories, as they get on in their lives without me. I will fade away and will no longer be a part of the web of existence. I won't be making decisions that play into the broader collection of decisions that are made every day in billions of ways. Oh sure, I also won't be a consciously experiencing self, of course; but regardless of that selfish aspect of my disappearance, it also means that I won't be around to matter to the world at large, I won't be adding to the collective set of activities that make up the never ending processes of the universe.

Someday, I will not be able to look up at the night sky and see a full moon. And I won't be able to write about it in a blog either.

Christianity and Truth

Here is wonderful quote from John Shuck's blog:

Christianity is not about possessing or disseminating Truth. It does not have the corner on it. Far from it. Christianity is for me, however, a wonderful way to live, to grow, and to face the struggles of life. My Christian faith has enabled me to find courage in face of fear, to love when I would rather not, to hope when I despair. It is my Christian faith that has opened me to the sacredness of people of other faiths and to those who have none.

More on God as a verb

Greg Griffey has written a wonderful sermon that appears on his blog. I wanted to include here a quote from that sermon:

A prominent Southern Baptist pastor wrote a response to the April 16 events at Virginia Tech, offering his idea of God’s nature – an idea that I once subscribed to. His response consisted mainly of sympathetic gestures, a call for prayer, and an acknowledgment of the ambiguity surrounding the “whys” of such a horrific event. The pastor affirmed our limitations as human beings at understanding the relationship between God and tragedy, then concluded with these words: “But what we do know is that God is still in control.”

Upon reading his concluding remarks on my computer screen, I slammed my hands on my desk, shouting, “NO!, NO!, NO!”. I was infuriated at the idea of a God who is allegedly “in control,” but refuses to inhibit such horrific human suffering. Do we not experience enough pain, I thought, that we have to believe in a God who is in complete control, and at the least allows or permits human suffering?

Theology purporting a God who is in complete control is not new, of course, and it is an idea that continues to permeate much of America’s religious landscape. The religious upbringing of my childhood included a God who grants humanity freewill, and yet still occupies a place of total sovereignty. In other words, there was nothing that God could not do. Life and all it consisted of was uncertain, but we knew one thing for sure: God was in control.

I must admit that believing such a thing theoretically has the ability of granting one a large degree of security. We do not have to understand if God is in control. Right? We do not even have to think if God is in control. Right? And furthermore, worry and concern regarding the environment, war, and the fate of future generations are totally unnecessary if God is in control. Right? When insecurity gets the best of us, all we have to do is remember that “God is in control.” Or do we?

If God is indeed in control, then it appears to me as if God is doing a very lousy job! The difficulty for me arises when we assert that God is in control while also asserting that God is love. For to say that God is in control is to say that God can do whatever God wills and/or wants, including the inhibition of human suffering. And to say that God is in control of tragic events is not saying much about a God who is love!

These days, I prefer to think of God not as a noun, but as a verb; a loving, yet not all-powerful force, in whom we live, move, and have our being. As one Internet blogger suggested, God is “the power that lights the bulb rather than the bulb itself.”And as Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (one of my favorite theologians) implies, maybe this power, this force, is simply a “power of presence.” God is with us – that in and of itself is powerful!

Witch hunters

The Episcopal blogosphere was all abuzz over the last week or so over a posting by Elizabeth Kaeton in her blog. Greg Griffith, one of the cabal of witch hunters at the reactionary Episcopalian blog "Stand Firm", quoted from Rev. Kaeton's blog entry, which included some comments about a female priest who happens to be married to another Stand Firm blogger. As a result of Griffith's broadside, there were calls for Elizabeth Kaeton's head. An excellent summary of the brouhaha can be found here.

I have some interest in this kerfuffle because I once got caught up in that web site's witch hunting frenzy myself. That selfsame Greg Griffith had trolled the net and found one of my blog entries, which he included in a blog entry of his own--the purpose being so that he could use me, a non-Episcopalian, as an involuntary tool in his religious war against progressives. At the same time, he disingenuously smeared my character in the process. Of course, I was just collateral damage. Not being an Episcopalian, I wasn't his main target.

Elizabeth Kaeton later apologized for the comments that Griffith objected to. Griffith, by contrast, has never apologized for having used my own blog posting in the manner he did, nor for his smears against my character.

Amos and Justice

Next week's lectionary readings include Amos 8:1-12, which serves as a stark condemnation of economic exploitation and social injustice. The passage from Amos includes the following text:

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
Amos goes on to say something crucial about the nature of our relationship with God. The prophet writes that those who exploit the poor will find themselves experiencing a metaphorical famine of the spirit:
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.
Those who exploit the poor, according to Amos, will not experience God's presence or God's call.

Bruce Epperly's commentary on the lectionary readings has this to say about the Amos passage:
In a nation where the word “God” is glibly announced in political campaigns and entertainment programs, and invoked to support violence, economic exploitation, empire, sexism, and heterosexism, Amos reminds us that our familiarity with divine language may eventually threaten our experience of God, if we do not connect our words with actions that promote justice and wholeness.
But Epperly points out that this does not mean that God has stopped calling out to all people at all times. God calls out continually, even to those who oppress or carry out social injustice. However, those who do so numb themselves to the Divine call, such that their ability to listen is damaged. He writes:
Although God is present in every moment of experience as the source of guidance and inspiration, our ability to experience God and, conversely, God’s ability to become the center of our lives, is conditioned by our faithfulness and focus. God’s aim toward wholeness is never abstract, but always concretely present in the events of our lives. If we have confused the God of possibility and beauty with gods of our own making and our own prosperity, God’s whisper may be drowned out by the shouting of the false gods of our own contrivance. In the spirit of Paul Tillich, if our “ultimate concern” is finite and self-serving and used as a means of injustice toward others, then when that “idol” collapses, we may have nothing upon which to stand.
As Epperly further points out,
If we don’t experience God in the “least of these” in the human and non-human worlds, we may not be able to experience God when we truly need to encounter God in a healing and transforming way.
What all this boils down to is that you cannot separate the personal, the political, and the theological. Our relationship with God is intimately related to how we treat "the least of these", both on an individual level and at a societal level. Participation in societal exploitation damages the personal and transformational value of faith. Religion is not just about personal transformation or personal "salvation". It is also about social transformation as well. The two go hand in hand.

Spanish fascism and the Catholic Church

NPR ran a story last week about Pope Benedict's impending mass beatification of a group of Spanish clergy who were killed during the Spanish Civil War.

It is true that many in the Catholic Church were killed during the Civil War. But it is also true that the Catholic Church in Spain was a staunch ally of the fascists in Spain. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the Catholic Church played an important role. Or, as an article in the London Telegraph puts it, after Franco came to power,

The Spanish Church was a powerful ally of Franco. Every house and classroom had a crucifix, and priests often wielded more influence than judges or police officers.
The Catholic Church in Spain, in other words, was a key ally of fascist repression in that country--which is to say, it was an enemy of social justice. This is in contrast to those liberation theologians in the Catholic Church who actually supported social justice--but who Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) suppressed back in the 1980s. I am also reminded of the contrast between the pro-fascist Catholics in Spain under Franco, and the faith of Catholics like Oscar Romero in Latin America.

Franco was not only friendly with the Catholic Church. He was also a friendly with Hitler, as this photograph of the two of them together, taken from Wikipedia, illustrates:

Time magazine published this short article in July, 1944, a short time after D-Day:

An Allied observer visited the State Department, graphically illustrated current political trends in Spain with a story about pictures. The pictures were on General Francisco Franco's handsome desk.

A year ago, when the observer visited Franco, there were three of them—a large, autographed photograph of Pope Pius XII, flanked by large, autographed photographs of Hitler and Mussolini. When he called again eight months later the pictures were still there.

But when he went to see Franco less than a month ago, two of Franco's heroes had disappeared. Gone were Hitler and Mussolini. Only the Holy Father remained on Franco's table.

In other words, after D-Day, Franco knew which way the wind was blowing. It wasn't a good idea for him to associate with a loser anymore, even if the loser in question was an old friend with a similar ideology.

Francisco Franco, as an old running gag on Saturday Night Live pointed out, is still dead. But the legacy of his fascist regime is apparently not dead. If Benedict is going to honor those Catholics who died in the Spanish Civil War, will he also apologize for the role that his Church played in supporting the dictatorship?

Directed Creativity

Last night, while attending Taizé meditation, I found myself thinking about a book I've been reading, Jesus and Creativity, by Gordan Kaufman. Kaufman is a Harvard theologian who rejects the idea of a personal God; instead, he sees God as simply another name for the creativity that is manifest in the universe. I am not sure what to make of this idea that reduces God to mere creativity. While I think that creativity is an important part of the divine nature, and while I am not necessarily wedded to the idea of a personal God, there is part of me that feels like creativity alone just isn't enough to capture all that God is.

During the meditative portion of Taizé, I asked God, rather plaintively, "Is that all you are? Are you really nothing but creativity?" I will be the first to admit that God's nature is impossible for me to fathom, and that the idea of God as "personal" may just be a useful but nevertheless limiting model for the ultimate reality. Yet, somehow, in just asking God that question in meditative silence, I felt a strange connection with the divine, as if I were looking God in the eye for just a moment. It only lasted briefly, and then the feeling was gone.

The previous week, during the same meditative part of the Taizé service, I had told God that after the service, she and I were going to enjoy some ice cream together. I had about a half pint left in my freezer; I felt that, if God really shares in all our experiences, then surely God would enjoy that ice cream as much as I would. A week later, though, after asking God if she were nothing but creativity, I tempered my earlier enthusiasm over the idea of God sharing in my pleasures; because I realized that, even if God experiences my enjoyment of the ice cream, God also shares in the suffering I experience that results from unhealthy living. That's where divine creativity comes into play. God doesn't only share our experiences; God also lures us to act in ways that maximize the benefits of our experiences. Thus God can call out to us to present the best options for the choices we make in life. Sometimes the choices we make involve trade-offs. Short term pleasure often brings long term pain. Personal pleasure sometimes hurts other people. Divine creativity isn't about hedonism; it is also about love and wisdom, and it leads us to the best option among the many available to us.

The point here is that this creativity is not just creativity for creativity's sake; it is creativity with a purpose. Unlike Gordan Kaufman, I see nothing awe-inspiring or divine about creativity per se. It is only when creativity is directed towards the highest possible purposes that it becomes worthy of our wonderment. This directed creativity is what process theology refers to as the "initial aims" of each occasion of experience.

Jim Burklo, in the meditation that I quoted in my previous posting, suggested that through our wonderment, "the divine becomes ecstatically aware of itself." I like this idea a lot. The evolution of life, and ultimately consciousness, over the course of billions of years, was a cooperative process between the universe and God; it is through this consciousness that God, who experiences what we experience, is able to experience herself as we see her--as an Other. It is this evolution of consciousness that not only enhances the universe for its own sake, but in essence it also enhances God. Just by being, we are co-participants in God's ecstatic self-awareness.

Divine self-awareness

I really liked this meditation from Jim Burklo, published in the latest edition of the e-mail newsletter of Sausalito Presbyterian Church:

They’re worth the trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, just by themselves. In a dark corner of the building, they glow in their glass tanks, lit from below, like the altar-pieces of a dimly-lit church. They pulse wisps of translucent flesh around gulps of invisible food, and wave delicate tendrils to the slow beat of some strange, silent music.

They are the unheard heartbeats of the sea. They float in the depths, on seemingly aimless trajectories. Perhaps I and the rest of the people in the aquarium were so transfixed by the jellyfish because they dangle in our dreams, hovering in the ocean of the transpersonal unconscious.

They made me wonder. When I climb to the top of the Marin Headlands and look over the surface of the ocean, I see nothing of them. Just as when I gaze transfixed at jellyfish in the tanks, but see nothing of the process by which I contemplate them. Billions of neurons oscillate in my brain, but I can’t detect them. Their tendrils reach out to each other in a delicate tangle that I cannot view as they enable me to think these thoughts. In that salty sea between my ears, strange things pulse. Who, least of all myself, knows what I’ll think or write next?

That which caused my jaw to drop in front of the jellyfish tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, that which boggles me when I think about how I think, is that to which Meister Eckhard, the 14th century German mystical priest, referred when he said: "The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me." Considering jellyfish and the neurons that consider them, I am ushered into a prayerful state of self-reflective consciousness.

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own..." (St. Paul, I Corinthians 6: 19) Through my worshipful awe, and yours, God knows God. My wonderment, and yours, is the dark sanctuary in which the divine becomes ecstatically aware of itself.

The Pope and ecumenism

Just a few days after the Pope approved the use of a Tridentine mass that includes language offensive to Jews, he now has reaffirmed that other Christians don't belong to "true" churches. According to the Associated Press article on this subject,

Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released Tuesday that says other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.

The statement brought swift criticism from Protestant leaders. "It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity," said the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a fellowship of 75 million Protestants in more than 100 countries.

"It makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the reformed family and other families of the church," the group said in a letter charging that the document took ecumenical dialogue back to the era before the Second Vatican Council.

Specifically, the document stated that Orthodox churches are "defective", and that Protestant churches are not churches but merely "ecclesiastical communities", whatever the hell that means.

Admittedly, there is probably nothing new in any of this. Official Catholic doctrine has traditionally looked its nose down on other Christians, which is to say that the church has not seen itself as merely one denomination among many, but rather as the only true church.

Catholic doctrine at one time went even farther than denying that Protestant denominations were "churches". It traditionally went so far as to say that there was "no salvation outside that church", which would have pretty much doomed Protestants to hell. This doctrine, known by its Latin designation as extra ecclesiam nulla salus, has an entire Wikipedia article on the subject, complete with the texts from various papal proclamations throughout history which declare that anyone who wasn't a Catholic was doomed to eternal damnation. For example, Pope Eugene IV said in 1441:
The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her...
Hans Kung has pointed out that the Catholic Church, despite its pretensions of never reversing itself on any doctrinal matters, in fact reversed itself on this point as a result of Vatican II. No longer are Jews, heretics and schismatics automatically consigned to hell--well maybe heretics are, but at least Jews and schismatics are now spared. Even Muslims now get a break. Specifically, Lumen Gentium 16 from Vatican II says:
Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways. There is, first, that people to which the covenants and promises were made, and from which Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Rom. 9:4-5): in view of the divine choice, they are a people most dear for the sake of the fathers, for the gifts of God are without repentance (cf. Rom. 11:29-29). But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Moslems: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day. Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men life and breath and all things (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and since the Savior wills all men to be saved (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too many achieve eternal salvation.
However, this spirit of moving towards greater respect and tolerance and ecumenism only went so far, and in the last 40 years the church seems to have retreated from its reformist impulse. Benedict is now trying to promote his own take on Vatican II: according to the AP article, "
Benedict, who attended Vatican II as a young theologian, has long complained about what he considers its erroneous interpretation by liberals, saying it was not a break from the past but rather a renewal of church tradition." When he denies that reforms lay at the basis of Vatican II, he can easily justify stifling any further reforms and still claim to be consistent with its spirit.

This self-aggrandizing view that other Christian denominations are "defective" or otherwise inferior, has, of course, made any serious effort at ecumenism ultimately impossible, since bona fide ecumenism requires mutual respect, which is clearly lacking in this case. According to the news report, "the
document stressed that Benedict remains committed to ecumenical dialogue," but of course what this really means is ecumenism only on the Pope's own terms. In other words--It's my way or the highway, baby!

This attitude towards other Christians is a manifestation of a deeper problem on Benedict's part, in my view. The Pope, in his recent actions and statements, continues to demonstrate his insensitivity and lack of respect for non-Catholics, whether they be Jews, Muslims, Protestants, or indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere--all of whom he has managed to insult since becoming Pope. He also suffers from an unfortunate hubris that prevents him from apologizing after he has insulted non-Catholics. Combine this with his role in the persecution of progressive theologians within his church before he became pope--people I respect, like Matthew Fox, and Leonardo Boff--and it seems clear that he has no tolerance for divergence from the Pope's hierarchically imposed authority, whether that be found in freedom of theological inquiry with his church, or in religious bodies outside his domain.

This is all a shame, and I say this even though I am not a Catholic, and I admit that there are probably aspects to Roman Catholicism that I don't fully understand or appreciate. But the Roman Catholic Church is such an important and large body within Christianity as a whole, that what its leader does and says really does matter. And it matters to religious progressives when fellow progressives who are members of the the Catholic Church, and who remain loyal to it, suffer the consequences of what the current leadership does. A lot of Protestants were understandably unhappy with this latest pronouncement by the Pope. Yet the Pope need not be bound to this kind of intolerance and disrespect for non-Catholics. The church has changed its views on non-Catholics during the course of its history, and it can change again. Unfortunately, the current Pope appears not to be the one to lead his church out of the wilderness.

God as a verb

Glynn Cardy has been posting a serious of answers in his blog to theological questions that were posed to him by a five year old girl. His latest posting answers the question "Why is God called God, if God is love?"

The answer that he gave was as follows:

Dear Isabelle,

I love your questions!

Words called nouns name an object that we can see – like t-r-e-e names that thing with leaves and branches outside my window. The word G-o-d though names something we can’t see. It names a spiritual power that flows through people’s lives. That power is within, beyond, and between us. It is something we experience, like feelings, but can’t be proved scientifically.

Christians believe that the main feeling and evidence of that spiritual power is love. Sometimes we might meet a person who is so full of goodness that it seems that while she or he is with us that spiritual power called God is with us. This was the experience of people who knew Jesus. He was stuffed full of God.

Some people want to call that spiritual power a ‘Him’ or a ‘Lord’. They make G-o-d into a noun. I prefer to think of G-o-d as a verb: a flowing, moving, loving force. Sort of like the power that lights up the bulb rather than the light bulb itself.

Kind regards,

Bad Samaritans

This Sunday's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary include the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most famous stories in the Bible. Coincidentally, a news story recently broke concerning a surveillance video of a woman who was stabbed in a Wichita convenience store and then was ignored by the other patrons as she lay there dying. The video revealed that customers stepped over the victim, and one even stopped to take a cell phone picture of her.

When considering how something like that could have happened, the first thing that comes to mind is the Genovese syndrome, identified after the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered late one night in 1964 on the streets of New York while her neighbors did little to intervene. Although that event was probably more complicated than it was initially presented by the press, it did point to a phenomenon that can occur when many people are in the vicinity of a person who requires assistance. In that sort of situation, there is often a sense of diffusion of responsibility, in which everyone defers to someone else to act, resulting in no one at all taking responsibility to do anything. That might be part of what happened in the Wichita case, although, quite frankly, what happened in that convenience store went far beyond passive disregard--certainly, stepping over a bleeding person, and taking a picture of the victim with a cell phone camera instead of using that phone to dial 911, seems more like an example of overt callousness.

When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, it was in response to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Of course, everyone is our neighbor, and we are supposed to love our neighbor, which is to say take care of our neighbor in need. Sure, we do get desensitized very easily. One doesn't have to walk past too many homeless people wrapped in blankets in the sidewalk before it becomes just part of the landscape. Nevertheless, a bleeding and dying woman on the floor of a convenience store is not something you see every day. Something there went horribly wrong.

I can't say what was going on in the minds of those customers who stepped over the dying woman. Whether it was neglect due to a sense of diffused responsibility in a group setting, or something more egregious like overt callousness, we can't escape the moral lesson. Tragedies like these can help to remind us that loving one's neighbor is not a responsibility that we can shrug off onto someone else. If we assume that someone else is taking care of our neighbor--metaphorically speaking, if we assume that someone else has already dialed 911--that can easily serve as a cop out, an excuse for us not to act. It may be just plain laziness, but whatever the excuse, everyone succumbing to the same excuse can lead to tragic consequences.

Why religion?

Chris Hedges, in his review of Christopher Hitchens's book God Is Not Great, makes many points in rebutting the hostility that militant atheists express against religion. Much of the review relates specifically to what Hitchens wrote in his book, but I was particularly interested in his general commentary on how religion expresses a fundamental human urge:

God is a human concept. Religion is a way we attempt, always imperfectly, to wrestle with the mystery and meaning of existence. It acknowledges the dark impulses and urges that can overpower us. It struggles to explain the importance and value of the moral life. The question is not whether God exists. The question is whether we concern ourselves with, or are utterly indifferent to, the sanctity and ultimate transcendence of human existence. God is that mysterious force — and you can give it many names as many religions do — that works upon us and through us to seek and achieve truth, beauty, and goodness. God is a verb. God is a process accomplishing itself, not an asserted existence. And God is inescapable.

"By Whatever Name We Call You"

During a church service a few weeks ago, I was introduced to a hymn in the UCC's New Century Hymnal titled "By Whatever Name We Call You". I liked the words in verse 2:

In whatever name we worship, Mystery Divine,
You are only dimly known through ritual and creed.
Though we try to capture you in symbol or in sign,
Only as we let you be, can longing hearts be freed.

"Make my problems go away"

From today's edition of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine:

I found that very sweet and poignant. At the same time, it reminds me a little of what religion is about for me. I think that some people believe in a sort of magical God who can make things better for us, especially if we pray for it. But I don't believe in that sort of God. That isn't the point as far as I am concerned.

Which is another way of saying that I need a hug from God, and not because that would make my problems go away. Maybe I just need a hug from God--anyway.

Fireworks and Prophecy

It's Independence Day. Or rather, Independence Night, which means that fireworks are going off in my neighborhood endlessly, loudly, jarringly, and they will be doing so until well into the night. I won't be getting much sleep tonight. Might as well write in my blog instead.

It's good to know that this is the real meaning of the Fourth of July--a celebration of the right to tick your neighbors off and keep them awake until 3 AM.

But that's not what I am going to being writing about here. Instead, I want to start by talking about prophets.

So let's rewind a few days to Sunday, when I visited a small, progressive church for morning worship. The pastor, during her sermon, asked us to take pieces of paper and write down the answers to some questions. She then asked people to say what they wrote down.

The questions had to do with the subject of prophecy.

Ah, prophecy. We all know what that is, don't we? As any fundamentalist will tell you, prophecy consists of a series of secret, coded messages from God in the Bible about future events that the people receiving the prophecy at the time could not decode because it had nothing to do with them anyway, but which later generations were able to figure out. For example, Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection were said to fulfill various prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures. And of course the Bible also predicts our own future, particularly the rapture and various other details about the Second Coming.

Okay, so maybe that isn't really what prophecy is.

The pastor had returned from a seminar featuring such luminaries as Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. Borg's and Crossan's views on the prophetic responses to Empire and domination systems dovetailed nicely, as it happened, with the day's lectionary reading from the book of Kings about the prophets Elijah and Elisha. These two men with similar sounding names were early figures in a long prophetic tradition in the Jewish faith; and their presence in the lectionary for the week led to the question of what prophecy is all about.

I was keenly interested in this subject. In fact, I was champing at the bit. When the pastor asked for feedback, I kind of wanted to say something--but I kept silent when she asked the congregation for their views on what the word "prophet" meant to us. On my piece of paper I wrote things like "speaks truth to power" and "challenges the established authority". The reason I said nothing was that I was just a visitor, and didn't feel quite comfortable enough to participate in this discussion as an outsider to the congregation.

One thing that prophets are good at is calling attention to hypocrisy. When a people ostensibly hold certain values dear, but don't even pretend to live up to them, a prophet cries out in protest.

Betrayal of values--now this was something that the ancient Hebrew prophets had a lot to say about. Their civilization, after all, was founded by refugees from oppression in Egypt, and in response to what they had suffered, they strove to set up a system that attempted to carry out some form of social justice as they understood it. And yet, the pastor cited the point made by the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann that the Jewish people, after a few centuries, ultimately re-established Egypt in their own country.

The people of Israel had initially rejected the idea of a monarchy; furthermore, economic and social justice was pursued by such means as creating Sabbath Years and a Jubilee Year, both of which acted as checks against the accumulation of wealth and power. I don't know how much those particular economic practices were ever instituted in practice, but any that were implemented were eventually thrown by the wayside over time--as was the original objection to having a monarchy. So, in the face of this ultimate betrayal of the values of a liberated nation, the prophets emerged--participants in an evolving tradition of challenging the status quo.

I think about all of this because, well, today is July 4, and Americans, like the people of Israel before them, established a nation that was founded on high sounding ideals; but also like the ancient Biblical people, we don't do always a very good job of living up to them.

But how seriously did those who founded the nation really even believe in the ideals we associate them with? However much they may have said that they believed in self determination and human rights, it is apparent that they really only believed that it applied to white male property owners and slave holders. Moreover, they actually feared having too much democracy-- they didn't actually trust the rabble too much. Thus they created a system of government where, for example, the people did not directly elect their President or their Senators, and even the bicameral legislature was essentially a way of putting the brakes on popular rule by putting hurdles in the way of any more directly democratic law making process.

Which is another way of saying that they favored self-determination, but primarily for the privileged in society.

We can celebrate these historic individuals today because at least some strides were made in the ensuing years towards actually implementing the ideals that these founders formulated but otherwise so inadequately lived up to. They may not have fully believed their own rhetoric about equality and human rights, but they set up a framework by which we can ostensibly improve on at least some of what they failed to do. Slavery has been abolished--thanks to a bloody civil war--and women finally got the vote less than a century ago. We directly elect Senators now--although we still don't, as the election of 2000 tragically demonstrated, directly elect our Presidents. And that doesn't even begin to address social injustice as a violation of the precepts of democracy, equality, and human rights. I will only mention that we remain the only industrialized nation (that I am aware of) that doesn't have universal health care.

Things are looking rather bad these days with respect to those highly valued democratic ideals. We have a government, for example, that commits torture and spies on its citizens. An unnecessary war of occupation continues to take its toll. We behave like an Empire in the worst sense of the word. To be frank, though, this nation has had a long series of moments in history when it did not live up to its ostensible ideals. Right off the top of my head, I can think of McCarthyism, Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, the Palmer Raids of 1918, Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus, the Trail of Tears, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. The good thing about American society is that there have always been dissidents who have prophetically pointed out that these stains on American history have violated its highest ideals. But there is also another question--why does our country celebrate these ideals so much and turn around and violate them? Is American patriotism all about mindless self-congratulation?

After church on Sunday, I ate lunch by myself at a nearby restaurant. To keep myself occupied, I read the Sunday New York Times over the meal, in which I found the article "Wrapped in the Star Spangled Toga", by Adam Goodheart. Goodheart writes that comparisons between the US Empire the Roman Empire go back to the very founding of the nation:

With few modern examples of successful republics to inspire America’s founders, ancient Rome provided an indispensable role model. Overlooked, however, is that the generation that fought the Revolution was not simply interested in creating a republic. From the beginning, many American patriots were out to build an empire.

In the summer of 1776, an edition of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” referred to “the rising empire of America” on its title page. In the same year, William Henry Drayton of South Carolina gave a speech in which he recalled that the once-mighty Roman Empire, which had lasted a millennium, had been supplanted by the British Empire — which, in his estimation, had lasted a mere decade or so. Now, he continued, “the Almighty ... has made choice of the present generation to erect the American Empire.”

The question was: could America’s republican aspirations flourish in harmony with its imperial ambitions? The two were not necessarily wholly incompatible. After all, Rome’s dominions had spanned the Mediterranean even while it was still ruled by a senate. And the United States did not need to look overseas for territories to conquer: an entire continent stretched westward.

So the founders decided they could have it both ways. Benjamin Franklin himself, during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, would refer to the nation he was helping create as both a “republic” and an “empire.” Franklin’s strongest endorsement of America’s God-given imperial destiny appears today on many conservative Web sites: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” As Mr. Murphy notes, that quotation also appeared on Dick and Lynne Cheney's 2003 Christmas card.

Are the ideals of democracy and justice compatible with the realities of Empire? Can the US be an Empire and still be truly democratic?

Throughout American history, we have frequently behaved like an Empire. There was that insidious doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which provided an ideological justification for land grabs by white settlers, who wanted lebensraum, and who stole the land from the Indians in order to get what they wanted. The Mexican War was another example of a major land grab; it inspired Henry David Thoreau to commit a small act of rebellion against it, and then write his most famous essay on the subject of civil disobedience. Thoreau was thus, in his own way, an American prophet who spoke truth to power. Meanwhile, the land grabs continued, as the US Empire later declared war against Spain, and conquered the sovereign islands of Hawaii.

The pastor at the Sunday service asked the congregation who today's prophets are. That's a good question.

It is a recurrent message in my blog that Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire and that he was killed by it, as people like Borg and Crossan have pointed out, because he sought the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that was in direct conflict with the exigencies of the Empire he lived in. I suppose I beat this point into the ground because I think it is such a significant matter. And the analogies between the current American Empire and the ancient Roman Empire are hard to miss, especially since the people who actually founded the American Empire over two centuries ago saw themselves as creating a kind of new Rome.

This world where Empires are the norm is the kind of "civilization" that Dominic Crossan critiques in his latest book, God & Empire. I believe that until we rid the world of the imperial mentality, we will continue to be far from bringing the the Realm of God to fruition.

Infinite Sacraments

Unprogrammed Quakers reject sacraments, for two reasons. First, all is holy, so separating profane from holy creates false distinctions. Second, the Light needs no external vehicles to be effective. It is internal, already within every person. To act according to it requires only willing cooperation, and willing cooperation does not require ritual.

-- Patricia Williams, from her article "Quakerism and the Jesus Seminar", in the July-August 2007 issue of The Fourth R.
There is a difference in my mind between rituals and sacraments. Rituals can be interesting, meaningful, cathartic, serious, funny, perhaps even vulgar. Sacraments can be many of those things as well, but with a difference: they are also precious. And it is the preciousness of sacraments that I don't care for.

Christians cannot even agree among themselves how many sacraments there are, or what is and isn't a sacrament. Some say foot washing is a sacrament, others say confession. Eastern Orthodoxy views sacraments differently from the Western churches. The Roman Catholic Church says there are seven. Most Protestants say there are two. Quakers say there are zero, which is actually a way of saying that there are an infinite number, because the holy is found everywhere.

A sacrament that has immense significance in many Christian churches is communion, also known in some circles as the Eucharist, also known in some circles as the Lord's Supper. Last Sunday I attended a small progressive church, which celebrated communion as part of its service. I stayed seated during that portion of the service. I did not, however, begrudge those who lined up for the bread and the wine. On the contrary--I appreciated the fact that what they were doing had meaning for them, and it was even rather moving to watch them do it. But it just wasn't for me.

I believe that once acts, rituals, and practices are divided into categories of sacramental and non-sacramental, then those that fall on the sacramental side of the divide take on so much meaning that too much just ends up being at stake. We know that a lot must be at stake, because so much time is spent among Christians debating who is even allowed to participate in communion. Do you have to belong to the denomination and believe all that the church teaches (the most restrictive requirement), do you have to be baptized (thus bringing a second sacrament into the picture), or is it available to all who wish to participate? This matter has great significance to many Christians. Even for those churches that practice open communion, there is frequently an expectation that the participant approach the altar with all due self-reflection and seriousness.

I'm all for self-reflection and seriousness, but when push comes to shove, I think we all need to just relax. It is my belief that nothing is actually at stake in any of this. I think we need to stop making things so damned precious. I would argue that God's grace isn't dependent on following certain rules about who can do what ritual. Rituals are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. I would like to suggest that there is value in finding the holy, in all its myriad forms, throughout our lives, instead of trying to box it in to a fixed set of practices and then giving those practices an elevated level of importance.

Atonement and Divine Justice

The current issue of The Fourth R, published by the Westar Institute, contains an article by Stephen Finlan, which is titled Christian Atonement: From Metaphor to Ideology. Finlan writes:

Popular doctrines of atonement say that Jesus was a substitute victim who took on the punishment deserved by humanity, that we need Jesus to intercede for us with God, and that the anger of God awaits all who dare question this doctrine. These doctrines were foreign to the historical Jesus...However, the major problem with them is not that they do not come from Jesus but rather what they imply about God. Why would God require such extreme intercession as torture and death? Is God so implacable that he demands a victim and so unjust that he does not mind that the victim is innocent? These doctrines also picture a God who is less than all powerful, who is compelled to prosecute offenders and able to rescue them only through a legal fiction in which the innocent is punished in place of the guilty.
I think that what it implies about God is even worse than that. It implies that God's justice is so draconian that he exacts the same, extreme penalty for all offenses, no matter how great or small. It implies that this draconian concept of justice is an absolute standard, untempered by mercy or love (except through a sacrifice). It implies that God cannot be deterred from this course because of his inherent, unchanging attributes, which he must adhere to because this definition of "justice" is inherent to God's very nature. It implies that God is so arbitrary that the barbaric method of atonement that God concocted--the crucifixion of Jesus--will only actually atone for the sins of those who managed to have the right theological beliefs at the moment of death.

Why would anyone want to worship such a God?

The funny thing is that many of the same people who advance this argument about God's absolute and unchanging justice--which demands the ultimate penalty for the slightest offense, and which cannot be tempered by mercy alone because God's "just" nature is absolute--will also defend the Biblical claims of divinely ordered genocide in the book of Joshua on the grounds that God can be as capricious as he wants and does not need to be bound by standards of morality that we might want to assign to him. So on the one hand, God's justice is an absolute standard that he has no choice but to adhere to, and on the other hand God's morality is fickle and it defies any attempt by us to apply an absolute standard to it.

Uh, okay.

The doctrine of atonement depends on a perverse doctrine of God's "justice". But divine justice cannot be separated from divine love, and it is absurd to apply a human word like "justice" to a God who is clearly unjust and unloving by any standard of either term that we might choose to use.

Living the High Life

Thanks to Cynthia for this link to an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about the shameless example of ostentatious wealth from Episcopal Bishop Mark Hollingsworth, Jr., who purchased a home in the tony Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights for the tidy sum of $1.6 million. Even in my city of San Francisco, where housing prices are through the roof, that would be a damn expensive home.

The article compares the lifestyles of bishops from the Catholic, Episcopal, and Methodist denominations in the Cleveland area. The Catholic bishop, Richard Lennon, for example, "said he tries to follow church teaching that encourage clerics 'to set aside every appearance of vanity in their possessions'". Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Hollingsworth. According to the article,

When Hollingsworth was elected Episcopal bishop in November 2003, he, his wife and four children were offered housing by the diocese. A diocesan spokeswoman said in the past the church has bought a home for the bishop and then sold it when the bishop retired.

Hollingsworth's predecessor, Bishop J. Clark Grew, lived in a diocesan-owned condominium, which the diocese sold in 2005 for $207,400.

Hollingsworth chose instead to buy a $1.665 million home with seven bedrooms, seven full and two partial bathrooms and five fireplaces across from a park in Shaker Heights.

If that isn't bad enough, one Episcopal lay leader was quoted as justifying this because--and I'm not making this up--"Others in a high position have done the same thing." To which, I say, well duh. If others do it, then I guess it must be okay.