Anxiety and Grace

John Shuck is a Presbyterian pastor who maintains an fascinating and often provocative blog, and lots of other Presbyterians leave comments there. Because it is a blog community visited by many Presbyterians, the subject of the Calvinist predestination comes up there from time to time.

I was interested to see that one of the suggested benefits of Calvinism is that, because it posits that our eternal fate is predetermined and thus completely out of our hands, we are therefore liberated from the anxiety associated with trying to do whatever is necessary to save our souls. But my experience has been that lots of people--maybe most of us--are rarely liberated from anxiety over high stakes outcomes simply because those outcomes are out of our control. In fact, people often feel anxious over such matters even when the stakes are not so high. Taking the control out of our hands is not a ticket to devil-may-care ease. We care about outcomes because the outcomes matter to us. And what can matter more to us than our eternal fate?

One could argue that various hell-believing versions of Christianity such as Arminianism (and fundamentalism) could inspire religious angst because they leave it up to the believer himself or herself to do whatever steps are necessary to find salvation, thus opening the way to missteps along the way. It may be, as fundamentalists like to say, that the only thing necessary is to "accept Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior" and be baptized. Although they claim that this is an expression of pure or unconditional grace, that isn't really true; there is still a condition, namely that you have the right theological beliefs and commit yourself to them. Frankly, I don't see evidence that a lot of fundamentalists are losing sleep over the fates of their souls. I was once proselytized at my front door by a pair of fundamentalists, whose first question to me after I opened the door was whether I knew whether I was going to heaven. If there were any anxiety behind that question, it was well hidden; but self-doubt is not the hallmark of fundamentalism anyway.

I think the real issue is that all of these various forms of Christianity share a belief in what the stakes are. The stakes are really high--either something wonderful is going to happen to you after you die, or something terrible will happen instead. I would argue that caring about outcomes when there are stakes involved lies at the heart of so much of the human condition. Narrative art forms would not exist, for example, if it were not for this human desire to care about outcomes even when we have no control over them. When the hero of an adventure film gets in trouble, the viewer feels some level of anxiety as he or she watches the story unfold. Even when one expects a happy ending, the uncertainty over the outcome can keep one interested. We are not the script writers of the stories that capture our attention; we are powerless to change the outcome. And yet we watch anyway. We care vicariously about the stakes involving a character who doesn't even exist in real life. This demonstrates just how built-in the human desire to care about outcomes really is.

The gambling industry relies on this very fact. There exists for many gamblers a rush, a thrill, during that time that lies between the placement of the bet and the determination of the final result. This is true at the blackjack table and it is true at horse races. The gambler cannot control the results; yet the gambler feels a very real moment of anxiety as he or she awaits the outcome.

The point I am making here is that Calvinist doctrine of predestination is hardly comforting in any real sense. In fact, the very sense of powerlessness that is built into it can actually be anxiety-producing rather than anxiety-relieving. Having no control over one's destiny can, for some anyway, be worse than at least having the ability to make a difference. And none of this even begins to address the fact that many people object on principle to the kind of God portrayed by the Calvinist idea of the selectivity of Divine favor, or the perception of humanity as being characterized by "total depravity".

The real problem that I see is that religious doctrines that suggest that human souls are in jeopardy unless--regardless of what that "unless" happens to be--all suffer from the same basic problem. I don't care whether the doctrine in question is Calvinist, Arminian, or something else. I think that the real way to take away the anxiety is to stop glomming onto the doctrine of hell altogether. When you believe in a God of universal, unconditional, and fully self-emptying love for each and every one of us, then the problem of anxiety goes away. We no longer have to worry about our fate after we die because we trust that God loves each one of us fully and equally, that God does not bestow favors or punishments to some over others, and that all of us are equally God's children.

This is not just a Christian issue, by the way. Buddhism traditionally has suffered from this problem of anxiety over one's fate after death. Buddhism commonly has dealt with this by concerning itself with people having the right state of mind and right thoughts when they died; the fear was that, regardless of what kind of life they led, if the last thoughts that the person had were wrong, this would negatively impact their karma. You can imagine how much anxiety results from that belief.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (also known as Shin Buddhism), however, rejects this notion. Alfred Bloom writes his book The Promise of Boundless Compassion about how Shinran, the founder of this form of the Buddhist faith, revolutionized the faith with his doctrine of radical grace:

Shinran was deeply convinced that the foundation of the unconditional and non-discriminating salvation of each and every person lies in the work of Amida Buddha, not in the accumulation of our good karma or our mental discipline throughout the process of death. He strongly urged his followers who had faith not to be concerned with the last moment before death...

Since Amida's infinite work provided the basis for the infinite result of salvation, all anxiety was dispelled about the state of one's final moment of life and the apprehension that one might die now having pronounced the nembutsu with his last breath.
Here we have an example of how a true doctrine of universal grace can liberate the religious believer from anxiety. Bloom summarizes the liberating aspects of this form of faith in the following way:
Whenever religion places great emphasis on future realization and gain, the meaning of the present is reduced. Since no one can know the future, we are particularly vulnerable to spiritual oppression. Our anxiety manifests itself in a perennial interest in divination, seeking spirits, or astrology, and , in our modern life, this anxiety is also manifested through insurance salesmen trading on our anxiety about the unknown future.

Shinran's rejection of the last moment theory, and his establishment of the certainty of the assured state, invests the present moment with its own meaning independent of traditional social or institutional religious acceptance. It is this which makes Shin Buddhism a religion of true freedom, freeing the individual to develop his or her own inner potential in harmony with the compassion which freed him. Meaning comes not through the anxious pursuit of salvation or subjection to religious institution, but through responding to compassion which is experienced in all of life and embodying it through mutual community. It is this spiritual freedom that is the still radical and life-revolutionizing message of Shinran's thought for today's anxious and alienated men and women.
The question for Christians is, I believe, this: how can they make Christianity a religion of true freedom? I believe this can never happen as long as the religion places high stakes on the outcomes of our eternal souls. Just as the the radical grace of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism liberated Buddhism, a doctrine of universal, unconditional grace can also liberate Christianity.

Jim Burko's answer to atheists

Jim Burklo, pastor of Sausalito Presbyterian Church and a leading figure in the Center for Progressive Christianity, has written a wonderful blog entry titled "Answers to Atheists". I would like to post one part of the column that I particularly liked:

I've had plenty of encounters with people who are adamant that there is no God. I often ask them which God they don't believe in. Invariably, it's a God I don't believe in, either. So they don't find me to be a worthy partner for an argument. Proving or disproving the existence of God misses the heart of my faith. God is what happens when I am overcome with wonder and gratitude before the transcendent mystery of existence. Some atheists say they have this experience, too, but just don't call it God. Other atheists get peeved at me, saying that I'm not really religious at all. Since I don't believe in a supreme being in the the way they assume religious people are required to do, what I have to say doesn't count!

Within Christianity's long history, I'm hardly alone in my point of view. Christian mystics for two thousand years, and Jewish mystics before them, have described God in terms much different than the theistic, supernatural ones that modern atheists disavow. It's worth noting that the early Christians were considered atheists by many Romans. In the absence of images of their god, people presumed that Christians didn't have a god at all.

Most of the atheists I've met are against religion because they think it does a bad job of explaining reality. In their view, the book of Genesis does a bad job of explaining natural history, and the book of Job does a bad job of explaining the problem of evil, and so on. But I don't find Christianity to be an explanation of anything at all. I find the Bible primarily to be a diverse collection of poetic, metaphorical descriptions of the soul's journey through life. It would never occur to me to go looking for a biology or physics lesson in the Christian religion. Instead, I find in it a language for my heart and for sharing my heart with others. Christianity gives me a rich, ancient, nuanced, flexible, inspiring system of symbols, rituals, stories, music, practices, and images to express my spiritual experience.

What is faith?

I liked this statement from the "Progression of Faith" blog so much that I am quoting it here:

The goal of faith is not to believe the unbelievable. The development of a robust faith cannot not be measured by the level of absurdity in things we will believe to be true.
Yes, yes, yes! In a nutshell, that summarizes in my mind a common misconception about faith. For many people, including both Christians and militant atheists, "religion" is simply another word for believing the unbelievable. A "leap of faith" is defined thus as ignoring one's common sense and accepting as true what no sensible person could possibly otherwise believe.

If that were what religion were all about, then I would have no use for religion myself. But belief in the absurd is not the same as religion. Belief in God is indeed a leap of faith into the unknown; but that is a belief in a deeper, more fundamental reality that undergirds the commonsense everyday reality that we see around us. That is quite different than a belief that certain depictions of miraculous events in the Bible are historically accurate, or belief in the literal truth of the Genesis creation accounts. In my view, the literal resurrection of Jesus falls into that category--something that I cannot believe in, because it is unbelievable. And when Christianity tries to make belief in something unbelievable an essential tenet of the faith--as many Christians claim it is--it makes faith into something it shouldn't have to be. Believe in literal resurrections if you must, but don't tell me that this is essential to my faith in God.

Experience and Reason

Heather Reichgott's latest entry in her theology game poses the following two questions:

How does reason figure into theological reflection?
How does experience figure into theological reflection?
She provides some good working definitions of reason and experience:
Reason is first of all the logic used in philosophy, whether a priori or a posteriori. Secondly, reason is the mode in which we construct arguments that follow in a sensible manner from one sentence to the next. Experience is day-to-day lived reality, of ourselves and of others. (I draw a rather artificial dividing line between experience as what we live today, vs. tradition as what was lived in the past.) Experience includes religious/mystical experiences (Wesley would say this part is primary) but is not limited to it. Information available from science, political theory etc. is discovered by moving back and forth between experience (data) and reason (theory) and theology can use it too.
It seems clear to me that neither reason nor experience provides us with anything approaching religious certainty. Your experience isn't necessarily my experience; your logical arguments may not convince me of anything. If you want certainty, if you want dogmas, then the free inquiry that reason requires will not work well for you--because it may take you in unexpected directions. And this is how it must be, because religion is not hard science (and really, I believe that even hard science cannot do better than give us verisimilitude.) I recall studying August Comte when I was a senior in college. Comte had proposed a theory he labeled positivism, which sought to give the social sciences the same level of objective certainty on political or sociological questions that chemistry or physics give us about hard scientific questions; but as my sociology professor pointed out, social sciences involve human values, and human values cannot be objectively derived via empirical means in the way that scientific theories can. The same, I would argue, goes for religion. (I didn't know it at the time, but that professor probably planted in my mind the seeds of my eventual rejection of an atheism derived from empiricism as the be-all and end of human knowledge, which in turn led to my rediscovery of religion.)

Reading Karen Armstrong's book A History of God gave me a real sense of the problem. The book presents a dizzying array of philosophical and theological developments over the last 4000 years in the three great monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. After a while it all becomes a blur, as philosopher A said this about God, theologian B said something else, and soon you begin to wonder what the point of all this endeavor is, since human reason just seems to go endlessly back and forth about God and cannot ever come up with a consensus about God's nature.

And yet, despite all that, I don't think that religion can do without human reason; nor can it exist independent of experience. And humans have a need to try to make sense of God, even if they cannot arrive at certain conclusions that they all can agree upon. Perhaps the key here is to try to jettison the notion of finding objective truth about God, and instead see reason and experience as tools that are still useful for us in glimpsing some aspect of an infinite and ineffable Sacred reality that we attach ourselves to in our own traditions.

To take this a step further back, I would ask this question: without experience and reason, how can there even be religion? Someone, somehow, has to have come up with this idea that God exists. Where did this idea come from? Heather's definition includes mystical experience as falling under the rubric of experience in general, and I think this is one of the sources of the idea of God. In general, I believe that there are two ways that the idea of God can emerge (there may be others, but these two come to mind):

1 - Someone had a mystical experience of transcendence, applied their human reason to make sense of it, and then told others about it. Maybe the others who were told about it themselves used their own reason or their experiences to further refine the interpretation of this original experience. This process may have gone on for some time, and it may have culminated in someone writing it down--thus giving birth to scriptures.

2 - Someone without a mystical experience reasoned that God nevertheless exists, and then told others about it. Maybe the others who were told about it used their reason to engage in further refinements, as in avenue 1 above.

Avenue 1 is the path of mystics and prophets. Avenue 2 is the path of philosophers. Avenue 1 gives us, for example, Jeremiah or Meister Eckhart; Avenue 2 gives us Plato.

There is, of course, a feedback loop involved in this. The kind of interpretations that we apply to either our own experience of God, or the experience of others, or the simple process of unexperienced reasoning about God, may refer to what others who preceded us have already done. That's where tradition comes into play. The Bible provides one such source that many use to help refine their own later interpretations. This is great, as far as I am concerned, as long as one recognizes that the Bible itself was a product of the same processes that are at work when we ourselves also apply our reason and experience to reflect upon God. Once you deny this about the Bible, you can fall into the trap of fundamentalism.

It is where God and the world intersect that experience and reason become important, I think. (If you think that God never intersects with the world, then perhaps any reasoning about God becomes mostly idle speculation. That's probably why few have any use for deism.) And the way we understand how the universe works influences how we think God interacts with the world. The ancient peoples who produced the Bible had a simple cosmology that made sense to them at the time, but which we now know to be incorrect. But their cosmology no doubt influenced how they saw God's activity in the world. God was seen as residing in heaven "above" the world; God was a patriarchal figure who ruled over us. God was a magician in the sky who could make things happen just by willing them. Here we have a cosmology and a theology that went hand in hand. It also dovetailed nicely with the authoritarian and hierarchically organized societies of many parts of the world; humans in some societies may have had difficulty imagining a non-omnipotent, supernaturally theistic God, because they took for granted a world where power was concentrated in the hands of a ruler or ruling elite.

Our modern cosmology shows us that the world as we know it is the product of billions of years of slow, ongoing processes, going all the way back to the Big Bang. I would argue, then, that we thus can see that God does not work by dint of sudden miracles, as the ancients thought, but rather he or she acts through the ongoing processes of the universe. It is my opinion that miracles or sudden violations of the laws of physics by an external, transcendent Deity don't really make sense in the modern paradigm, and are a product of an old theistic conception that jibed well with an outdated cosmology. This is where reason and experience have led me to conclude that we must have a paradigm shift in our understanding of God, away from the old omnipotent God of miracles.

I have come to another conclusion about the processes of the universe. The Big Bang was itself a kind of creative process; the evolution of stars and the development of planets was a creative process; the evolution of novel life forms was a creative process; and the development of self-conscious beings on a remote planet in one corner of a particular galaxy was a creative process. I thus believe that creativity is an important characteristic of the ongoing processes of the universe through which God acts. Had I not ever heard of the Big Bang, had I known nothing about the history and evolution of the universe and of life on earth, I might not have come to this conclusion about God. Thus reason and experience concerning how the universe operates have led me to draw some inferences about Divine nature.

All of this points to why I believe that Christianity has to move beyond a literal interpretation of some of its myths. How would, for example, a literal resurrection of Jesus fit in with how God operates in the world? Such an incredible miracle contradicts the method of Divine action that I infer through experience and reason--that God acts through the laws of the universe, rather than against them, that the universe proceeds through the continual interrelationship of events and processes that are always taking place. I thus interpret the literal resurrection of Jesus to have been something other than a historical event, but rather a myth that may point to various deeper truths but which cannot be taken literally. On the other hand, the creative impulse that led early Christians to develop these myths around the life and death of Jesus--that does seem perfectly consistent with God's creative role. And we can still apply the creative impulse today, as we develop newer understandings of God that jibe with our experience and our reason.

The way sunlight amuses itself on water.

I have only perused a few sections of the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, but I was so struck by the beauty of the following passage that I wanted to post it here:

The search for God is a reversal of the normal, mundane worldly order. In the search for God, you revert from what attracts you and swim toward that which is difficult. You abandon your comforting and familiar habits with the hope (the mere hope!) that something greater will be offered you in return for what you've given up. Every religion in the world operates on the same common understandings of what it means to be a good disciple--get up early and pray to your God, hone your virtues, be a good neighbor, respect yourself and others, master your cravings. We all agree that it would be easier to sleep in, and many of us do, but for millennia there have been others who instead to get up before the sun and wash their faces and go to their prayers. And then fiercely try to hold on to their devotional convictions throughout the lunacy of another day.

The devout of this world perform their rituals without guarantee that anything good will ever come of it. Of course there are plenty of scriptures and plenty of priests who make plenty of promises as to what your good works will yield (or threats as to the punishments awaiting you if you lapse), but to even believe all this is an act of faith, because nobody amongst us is shown the endgame. Devotion is diligence without assurance. Faith is a way of saying, "Yes, I pre-accept the terms of the universe and I embrace in advance what I am presently incapable of understanding." There's a reason we refer to "leaps of faith"--because the decision to consent to any notion of divinity is a mighty jump from the rational over to the unknowable, and I don't care how diligently scholars of every religion will try to sit you down with their stacks of books and prove to you through scripture that their faith is indeed rational; it isn't. If faith were rational, it wouldn't be--by definition--faith. Faith is belief in what you cannot see or prove or touch. Faith is walking face-first and full-speed into the dark. If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be...a prudent insurance policy.

I'm not interested in the insurance industry. I'm tired of being a skeptic, I'm irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don't want to hear it anymore. I couldn't care less about evidence and proof and assurances. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on water.
When she says that faith isn't rational--because that's what makes it faith--I would probably phrase that a little differently. I would say instead that faith is not empirical, which is not quite the same thing. I think that religion can be rational (or irrational) in certain ways, but that it deals with a greater level of experience that lies beyond mere empirical knowledge.

When I was in college, after having rejected the fundamentalist religion of my youth, I became a dogmatic empiricist. I thought that logical positivism was the be-all and end-all of human reason, and that since God could not be proved by empirical means, one had to reject the idea of God out of hand. I was naively confident in this sort of philosophy of knowledge. Later I came to realize that this belief in logical positivism was in its own way just another layer of simplistic thinking, in its own way as simplistic as the fundamentalism I had superseded. As Karen Armstrong put it in her book A History of God,
The kind of statements to which [logical positivist A.J.] Ayer referred work very well for the objective facts of science but are not suitable for less clear-cut human experiences. Like poetry or music, religion is not amenable to this kind of discourse and verification.
Because religion doesn't restrict itself to the immediate experience of objective facts--God, I would argue, is most certainly not an "object" like any other to which objective facts easily apply--I think the most important point that Elizabeth Gilbert makes is that she is not interested in the insurance industry. Faith is not insurance. Those who claim their belief in God is a surefire ticket to an afterlife have bought wholesale into the insurance model. But as Ms. Gilbert points out, faith necessarily entails doubt. The leap of faith into the unknown necessarily involves an unknown. And it is a poetic leap at that. The leap itself is its own reward, because there is no assurance of where the leap will take you.

What she seeks is what many of us with a spiritual inclination also seek. We just seek God--pure and simple. I can think of no more beautiful religious sentiment than what she said at the end of that passage that I quoted from above: "I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on water."

Opus and Heaven

Sunday's Opus comic dealt with the subject of Universalism. You can read it here, where it will be available online for about a month.

Political theology and the Kingdom of God

Mark Lilla has written an article on religion and politics that made the cover story of yesterday's New York Times magazine. The article poses the question of how Western secularism, which seemed to be riding the crest of a triumphalist wave in the last two centuries, can come to terms with the continued existence of religious fanaticism in various parts of the world. It is a good question, and in response the author offers a history of what he calls "political theology", as it developed in the West.

What is problematic about this article is his unclear definition of what he thinks "political theology is." Specifically, he seems to blur the distinction between fundamentalist views of politics and those of moderates and progressives whose ideologies are informed by their religious faith. This leads to a far too broad definition of "political theology" that doesn't really address the problem that he seeks to address. For example, early in the article, he writes:

Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. (Emphasis mine).
Here he refers in the same breath to, on the one hand, not separating religious questions from political questions, and on the other fundamentalism and "messianic passions". But this is a huge leap--not all who believe that religious questions and at least some political questions are related support theocracy, are fundamentalist, or act as if they are on a messianic mission. Did Archbishop Romero, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan brothers separate religious questions from political questions? Or did their political ideology derive from their faith? This inability to clearly identify the problem is a mistake that hangs over the entire article. Equally importantly--is it possible to accept that some political questions are also religious questions, while believing also that others are not?

He argues that for centuries Christianity was never able to resolve how to translate theology into politics, that the bloodletting that resulted from religious conflict plunged Christian theology into a kind of crisis in Christian political theology that resulted in two attempted philosophical solutions: that of Hobbes the secularist, and that of Rousseau, whose belief in the inevitability of religious faith, according to Lilla, laid the groundwork for 19th century liberal Protestantism.

Whether this overview of philosophical history makes sense or not, it seems clear to me that Lilla's sympathies lie with Hobbes, but he also seems pessimistic about the the ability of humans to establish a truly lasting secular vision like Hobbes proposed. But I think the problem is that Lilla is framing the question incorrectly. In discussing the failures of Christian political theology prior to the rise of the modern secular state, he writes:
One powerful attraction of political theology, in any form, is its comprehensiveness. It offers a way of thinking about the conduct of human affairs and connects those thoughts to loftier ones about the existence of God, the structure of the cosmos, the nature of the soul, the origin of all things and the end of time. For more than a millennium, the West took inspiration from the Christian image of a triune God ruling over a created cosmos and guiding men by means of revelation, inner conviction and the natural order. It was a magnificent picture that allowed a magnificent and powerful civilization to flower. But the picture was always difficult to translate theologically into political form: God the Father had given commandments; a Redeemer arrived, reinterpreting them, then departed; and now the Holy Spirit remained as a ghostly divine presence. It was not at all clear what political lessons were to be drawn from all this.
It is true that from the broad, sweeping theology that he encapsulated in that paragraph, it isn't clear what political lessons to draw. Believing in God per se doesn't tell you what kind of world God wants us to have. Believing that Jesus was a Redeemer doesn't tell you anything either. Yet those in power during centuries of Christianity managed to draw political lessons anyway. And the reason they were able to do this boiled down to questions about power. The relationship between Christianity and the powerful had been sealed upon the arrival of Constantine on the scene, and for centuries it continued unabated. So it's not about merely believing that God has a vision for the kind of world that we should have; it is also about who gets to decide what that vision is.

I would argue that any form of monotheism that believes in a God who cares about the world will necessarily accept that God's opinions impinge on politics. If God embodies an Ultimate reality which serves as the absolute standard of the highest ideals in the world, then this Ultimate standard will necessarily include political conditions into the equation. I believe that it is pretty much impossible for a serious monotheist not to believe that religion and politics are intertwined.

But knowing that God has a will for the world, and knowing what that will is--there's the rub. It is when political power and religious authority coincide that things get ugly. When Divine will is asserted as the prerogative of the state, when it is given official sanction, then we start to have a problem--because Divine will becomes a self-justifying excuse for the exercise of power. That is where Christianity took a serious wrong turn back in Constantine's time. The problem is not with private voices of conscience believing that religious values inform politics, but with the belief that politics should be used to enforce one's own particular brand of religious dogma over others, on the assumption that certain individuals had a direct pipeline to Divine will that they can rightfully impose on others. There is no room for ambiguity and no room for pluralism under that scenario.

There is one other factor that comes into play here; when Lilla talks about mixing religious and political questions, as I alluded earlier, it is possible to distinguish between certain political questions that have a religious import, and others that do not. For example, there can be a distinction in modern secular states between how the state addresses Divine will with respect to private behavior, versus Divine will with respect to collective or public behavior. Governments in the West sometimes meddle in private behavior, especially in matters of sexuality, but also other areas as well--for example, sodomy laws, blue laws, abortion laws, divorce laws, and the like.

When conservative and fundamentalist religious forces organize to establish or preserve such such laws, it is an expression of the presumed right to establish their interpretation of divine will over private individual behavior. Those who set themselves up as the legitimate interpretors of Divine will feel that it is their right to intervene in these mattes. Thus the question of power comes directly into play here as well--a direct pipeline to Divine will grants some people the power to tell other people what to do in their personal lives. Furthermore, built into that position is an assumption about the nature of Divine will with respect to free will--specifically, that God not only does not want people to do certain things, but that God also doesn't want people to have the freedom to choose not to do them. But there is no inherent reason why a believer in God need accept that assumption. One can believe that God wants people to do certain things, but that God also expects people to do them as a matter of choice rather than coercion. Thus there is a specific set of assumptions, a specific kind of theology that is built in to the notion of public involvement in private "moral" behavior--but not all people of faith hold these assumptions. In any case, this attitude clearly ignores the problems of ambiguity, the difficulties in setting absolute standards on the understanding of Divine will, and the matter of pluralism. Yet there are those who are willing to accept the ambiguity of Divine will, and also respect the existence of people with different interpretations of Divine will (as well, I might add, the existence of people of different faiths or no faith at all).

Collective behavior of an organized society as a whole, however, is a different matter altogether. Everyone in modern democratic society theoretically has a legitimate say in collective decisions. That's because now it isn't just about what one person does, but rather about the web of human activity and how it is organized. In practice, however, I believe that most societies in the world today, even those that are ostensibly democratic, are constructed hierarchically, serving the interests of ruling classes and competing oligarchies. This is where the question of social justice comes into play. I may be wrong in my interpretation of Divine will, but I as a citizen of society have a moral right to participate in the fashioning of social policy as my religious faith inspires me, even if society doesn't in practice afford me that many opportunities to do so. Social organization can benefit the few, or it can benefit all. Social justice, however belongs to everyone. We have thus gone beyond matters of private behavior. And people of faith will inevitably use their understanding of Divine will to fashion their belief in how best to implement the goals of social justice.

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, which was his vision of how the world would operate if it acted in accordance with God's will; this stood in contrast to the Empire of Caesar that reigned in his time. If you strip Christianity of its various accretions after Jesus died, it is possible to glimpse the essence of this message. When Jesus talked about rendering unto Caesar versus rendering unto God, it was a bit of clever arguing--because, in the theology of his world, everything belonged to God. There was nothing to render to Caesar, in other words. Thus one can argue that Jesus believed that politics and religion were interconnected. But Jesus's vision of what Lilla calls political theology was one of radical inclusion. And what a world of difference that makes. This is the kind of "political theology" that Lilla does not address in his article. He instead simply lumps all theologically inspired ideologies together, regardless of whether the underlying theologies are inclusive or exclusive in nature.

I believe that Jesus's inclusive vision, if taken seriously, must result in a democratic ideology and a belief in social justice. Democracy is, in my view, the ultimate expression of the belief that God is immanent everywhere and that God's radically inclusive welcome is extended to all. Universal love also implies radical democracy, which stands in contrast to the exigencies of imperial domination and class rule. Thus I would argue that a belief in democracy can perfectly well derive from religious faith.

When Lilla complains that political theology is "an age-old habit of mind that can be reacquired by anyone who begins looking to the divine nexus of God, man and world to reveal the legitimate political order," I think he thus misses the point. I believe that democracy and social justice are the product of this "divine nexus" that he refers to in his article. I believe that this is the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of. The problem is not with a belief in this "divine nexus", but rather with what you believe the nature of this nexus is--is it inclusive and democratic, or exclusive and a self-justifying excuse for the exercise of power over others?

The soul of the torturer

The American Psychological Association has voted down a proposal to ban US psychologists from assisting interrogators in US military prisons "in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights."

The argument that was used to oppose the ban was that the presence of psychologists at these prisons could somehow prevent abuses from taking place. I would argue, however, that it is useful for torturers to have psychologists present in order to give their crimes against humanity a certain veneer of respectability.

One military psychologist claimed that without psychologists participating, people would die. In response, Laurie Wagner, a psychologist from Dallas, argued, "If psychologists have to be there so detainees don't get killed, those conditions are so horrendous that the only moral and ethical thing is to leave." I agree. Psychologists should not be assisting torturers in any way--just as, I might add, medical doctors should not be assisting at executions.

I am reminded of a scene in the remarkable 1969 film "Army of Shadows", about the French resistance during the Nazi occupation. At one point in the movie, the resistance had decided to launch a daring rescue of a comrade who was held in a notorious Gestapo prison in Lyons. Pretending to be pro-German medical personnel, several of them entered the prison with forged transfer papers for the prisoner. The doctor at the prison said that the prisoner had been too badly beaten and would not survive the road trip to any ostensible new destination, and he thus refused to grant permission for the transfer. I was struck by the irony; here was a Gestapo doctor at a torture center expressing concern for the health of a prisoner whose terrible state was directly due to conditions at the very facility where the doctor worked. Here we saw a dramatic illustration of the sort of twisted logic that justifies the use of care providers at a torture facility.

This contradiction was further underscored in a subtle way during that same scene, when one of the French resistance members who was pretending to be a nurse gave the Nazi doctor a crisp, formal Nazi salute and a clearly enunciated "Heil" for the fuehrer. The doctor responded perfunctorily, muttering his "Heil" in response and barely even raising his arm to salute. That was all we ever saw of the doctor character, and yet I couldn't help but project onto him the notion that the contradiction between his life-saving profession and the brutal reality of the world he inhabited had turned him into a lethargic, empty shell of a man. In a sense, it seemed like the director (Jean-Pierre Melville, one of France's greatest) was suggesting that participating in torture injures not just the body of the victim, but the soul of the torturer.

I am sorry that the APA backed out of taking the strongest possible moral stand against participation in the interrogation process at facilities that torture. Psychologists should not allow themselves to be used as tools in the legitimation of torture.

A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

After a Dutch Catholic bishop suggested that Christians should start calling God "Allah", I see that Hal Lindsey has written a response. To be honest, I didn't even know that Hal Lindsey was still alive. I thus had no idea that he was out there in Christian circles peddling more of his usual nonsense. You'd think he'd be hanging his head in shame over all the confident predictions that he made for the end of the world in his now badly outdated 1970's books; those predictions were based on rather fanciful interpretations of Biblical prophecies, about the imminent rapture and the battle of Armageddon, and, well, they were so rooted in the geopolitics of the time that they proved to be completely wrong. But no, right there on that web site where his article is posted, there is even a reference to one of the books from that era. The man really knows no shame. As the Wikipedia article on the rapture points out in describing his 1970's predictions:

Lindsey proclaimed that the rapture was imminent, an idea that he based on world conditions at the time. The Cold War and the European Economic Community figured prominently in his predictions of impending Armageddon. Other aspects of 1970s global politics were seen as having been predicted in the Bible. Lindsey suggested, for example, that the seven-headed beast with ten horns, cited in Revelation, was the European Economic Community, a forebear of the European Union, which at the time aspired to ten nations; it now has 27 member states.
Oh well, 10, 27, what's the difference? As comedian Pat Paulson used to say, "picky, picky, picky."

Personally, I think the idea of Christians in non-Arabic nations calling God "Allah" seems rather ridiculous, since Allah is just another name for God--the Arabic name for God. Muslims refer to God as having 99 names, an allusion to the fact that God is essentially ineffable, infinite, and impossible to truly capture with a single name. Muslims realize that a name is just a name. The name doesn't really matter. Different languages have different names--in English, we say "God", in French, they say "Dieu", and in Arabic, they say "Allah". The Dutch word for "God", as it turns out, is "God". Who knew? Anyway, what matters is the concept that the name refers to. It's sort of like in Algebra, when you use any old letter, like x, to describe a number.

But Lindsey, Allah bless him, thinks that the name you use really does matter. I am not making this up. He writes, for example:
God has many names; most of them are names of praise and worship, rather than names in the sense of a personal name. They include Elohim, El Shaddai, Adonai, Jehovah (YHWH), Shepherd, Judge, Father, Counselor, Comforter, Advocate, or simply "Lord" or "Almighty God." One name that has never been ascribed to Him in Scripture is "Allah."
Funnily enough, another name that has never been ascribed to him in the Bible, which was written in various non-English languages like Hebrew and Greek, is the English word "God". Amazingly, this concept seems to be completely over Hal Lindsey's head.

According to the Wikipedia article on Allah,
Arabic-speakers of all faiths, including Christians and Jews, use the word "Allah" to mean "God". The Muslim and Christian Arabs of today have no other word for 'God' than 'Allah'.
So, according to Lindsey's impeccable logic, Christian Arabs should not refer to God as "Allah" as they have been doing for centuries, since "Allah" doesn't appear in the Bible. What name he thinks they should use isn't exactly clear.

In deference to certain forms of Judaism, I suppose that Christians could refer to God as G_d. I see that word in print a lot, but to be honest, I am not sure how you pronounce that. Do people who write "G_d" still say "God"? Whenever switching to an unpronounceable name, it would be counterproductive to resort to the Prince phenomenon, and refer to the Holy One as "the Deity formally known as God."

Most of the time, when I am in communication with the Sacred, I usually don't address God by name anyway. She knows who I am talking to. At least I think she does.

Why Does God Exist?

From time to time, Glynn Cardy posts answers in his blog to various questions about God from a young girl named Isabelle. The latest question he has answered is, "Why does God exist?" His response includes the following text:

‘Why does God exist?’ or, in my language, ‘Why does Love exist?’ There are a range of possible answers. Maybe it’s because we need God/Love. Maybe it’s because God/Love needs us. Maybe it’s because God/Love has always been and the real question is why we exist. Maybe it’s because loving and living and hoping and dreaming are knitted together and can’t be unraveled. Just like God and us.

He's a mocker, reviler, and blasphemer.

One of my favorite bloggers, John Shuck, was recently attacked in another blog by one of his fellow Presbyterians. In the subsequent piling on that took place in the comments section of the blog entry, one individual described John this way: "He's a mocker, reviler, and blasphemer."

(For some reason, that reminds me of the scene in the 1964 Beatles movie "A Hard Day's Night", when Ringo was asked by a reporter if he was a mod or a rocker. "I'm a mocker," he responded. But I digress.)

All I can say in response to this is, "John, you must be doing something right."

Process Theology and Tradition

My copy of the Summer 2007 issue of the magazine Creative Transformation arrived in the mail today. Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki's article "The Importance of Process Theology" contains a quote that dovetails with the subject of tradition that I wrote about in my previous entry. She writes:

In an age where tradition understood as age-old truths "once delivered to the saints" seem threatened, thus undermining faith, process theology provides an approach to tradition as "creative transformation." Traditions are not static; they live in and through their own transformations. Being faithful to one's tradition, therefore, requires knowing one's tradition in its many forms, and participating in one's tradition by faithful openness to the form toward which God currently calls it. Process theology provides a way of appropriating the past by envisioning a faithful future, thus participating in the tradition's present formation.

Does Tradition Matter?

Heather Reichgott's latest question in her theology game is "Does tradition matter?"

She points out that this question is actually part of a broader topic: what are the respective roles that tradition, the Bible, reason and experience play in matters of faith?

These are the sorts of issues that Protestants might easily agonize over. Does the Bible trump tradition? Are the Bible and tradition equal sources of religious truth? Can tradition ever contradict the Bible? I think therefore that one cannot really answer this question unless one steps back and takes a broader view of the nature of revelation and the nature of religious "truth".

I would begin by offering a few basic working principles that make sense for me.

First, there is not one single tradition of faith, but many.

Second, traditions build on and influence one another. These traditions of faith participate in a constantly evolving dialogue with each other, with previous traditions, with culture, with science, and with God. This is what I might call the dance of theology. To use another metaphor, traditions are like flowing streams that divide and merge with one another over the landscape of history. To make an idol out of an old tradition is like walking upstream to prevent the water from flowing downhill.

Third, there is no real distinction between the Bible and traditions, because the Bible is the written expression of some of these streams of tradition.

We are part of the same process that produced the traditions that preceded us. We are no different from the people who created those traditions, and we are no different from those who wrote the Bible. It is all the same process that we are engaged in--people of faith are all trying to make sense of God. Or at least I think we should be.

Tradition matters for the same reason that the Bible matters. It informs our position in the theological dance. Traditions give us something to work with, so that we are not all starting from square one. But tradition also carries no more or less authority than the Bible does. What tradition (and the Bible) grants us is not authority but insight. The best insights are about the process that produced these traditions. The process is what matters, not necessarily the conclusions that were arrived at. Sometimes those conclusions can be dead ends, or faulty in some way. Or, because there are often multiple traditions at work, the traditions can be contradictory.

John Shuck and another Presbyterian pastor have been conducting a friendly and open debate of a variety of theological issues. At one point, the other pastor stated that the Bible should not be through a modern cultural lens. To me, nothing could be more incorrect. I would argue that you have to view the Bible through a modern cultural lens. The same could be said for the traditions that both produced the Bible and which followed in its wake. As I wrote in John's blog in response to this,

...the Bible is a product of the cultures that it came from. To take ancient writings that reflect their own cultures and times and then elevate those to an idol, and to turn around and refuse to use our own cultural interpretation, is a complete contradiction. The Bible not only reflected the cultures of its writers, but it reflects an evolving sensibility as the cultures changes. Post-exilic theology was not the same as pre-exilic theology. Post-Maccabbean theology was not the same as pre-Maccabbean theology. The Bible is a record of culturally based evolution of theological understandings. To then freeze this process and refuse to participate in the ongoing dialogue with science, history, culture, civilization, and God, which the Biblical writers did, is to be in denial about what took place in the creation of the Bible itself. It is to idolize the Bible without really taking it seriously.
This process of culturally based evolution of theology did not stop with the closing of the canon. Ironically, Protestants who claim to subscribe to the dogma of sola scriptura are in denial about their own use of traditions. Most Protestants who insist on only relying on the Bible nevertheless adhere, for example, to Trinitarian formulas and creeds that were codified as Christian dogma not in the Bible, but by church councils in the fourth century AD.

Many people might like to think that each Christian "tradition" is a single, unbroken line of doctrines that stems from the apostolic faith of Jesus and his disciples. In fact, the Christian faith was diverse almost from the moment that Jesus died. It was only because of the later collusion between Christianity and the power of the Roman Empire that the illusion of homogeneity emerged. There was then said to be one "true" Christian faith that went back to Jesus, while all the other Christianities were "heresies" that had somehow deviated from the original true message.

An ossified tradition kills the very life of a religious faith. It chokes the very creative processes that led to the formation of those traditions in the first place. Instead of worshiping the idol of tradition, it would make more sense for modern people of faith to continue to participate in the evolution of the traditions themselves. Let us take the best of the ancient traditions, but not be wedded to any tradition in its entirety if we can build on it, amend it, correct it, or expand upon it. We are no different from those who developed the traditions that we now look back on. We are trying at limited and finite creatures to understand the infinite Divine reality. Let God speak to us as God spoke to those who preceded us. Let us continue to listen.

A Typical Conversation With God

Imagine this scenario: I am taking an adult class in a certain performance art. I am about to go on stage in front of several people I don't know very well. I am shy and insecure about getting up in front of people. The following is not an exact transcript of what goes on in my mind in this situation, but just a general attempt at representation. The words in bold represent those thoughts specifically directed at God (also known as prayer).

nervous knot in stomach stage fright oh hell I'm going to suck at this look at those people they are good better than me I can't do this but I have to do it I can talk to God about this I feel your presence it'll be okay you love me no matter what I am valuable in your eyes you will sustain me you are with me (warm glow from God) I feel her presence still nervous I can face it better than before I feel her glow
You get the idea.

Eucharist, Schmoocharist

In the comments to Peacebang's blog discussion about UU Christian practices, the subject of the Eucharist came up. There was some discussion about whether Christian worship is somehow incomplete without it.

In response to that, I mentioned that Quaker Christians have managed to do just fine for hundreds of years without celebrating communion. I should make it clear that I don't have any problem with the fact that many Christians desire to include communion as part of their worship service. I think it is great that it means something to them.

I myself wouldn't have such a problem with communion, and might even feel more inclined to participate in the ritual myself, if there weren't so much importance attached to it. All that preciousness makes me defensive. The more its importance gets stressed, the less interested I am in partaking of it. Instead of it being a personal choice, it becomes instead an imperative. And, in religious matters, when I feel like I am being told what I must do, that is when I feel least inclined to do it.

Lutheran mass outing

At this year's assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, 82 LGBT Lutheran pastors have come out. A press release concerning this event begins as follows:

Eighty-two lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Lutheran ministers have chosen to introduce themselves to their denomination and speak out against the policy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that prohibits them from entering into lifelong, loving family relationships.

On Tuesday morning, these LGBT ministers placed their names in a devotional booklet that was offered as a gift to the voting members at the 2007 biennial Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, meeting in Chicago.

Though the ELCA says it welcomes LGBT persons into the life of the church, LGBT ministers are required to remain celibate, without a life partner, for the rest of their lives.

Pastor Bradley Schmeling, who was removed from the ELCA clergy roster on July 2 because of his covenanted relationship with Pastor Darin Easler, stated: "The ELCA policy runs counter to the position of Martin Luther himself who opposed forced celibacy on any individual, especially pastors. Luther believed that celibacy was a gift of God given only to a few and that imposed celibacy produced only unnecessary scandal and hardship."
You can read the complete press release here.

What is the Bible?

Heather Reichgott has started a "theology game", in which she writes a series of blog entries that pose theological questions, offers her own answers, and invites others to blog about the same questions.

Her first topic is "What is the Bible?" The questions under this topic are:

What is the Bible?
How is it the revelation of God (if it is) ?
How does it relate to us (as individuals, as church, as community...) ?
How is it a source for theological reflection?

My answers are as follows:

What is the Bible?

I believe that the Bible is a collection of writings by human beings who strove to understand God. The Bible was not written by God, nor were the diverse authors of the Bible were not in any sense "used" by God to suit Divine purposes. Instead, the Bible is a collection of documents by humans about God. I believe that God did not use people in to write scripture; the authors of the Bible, like the rest of us, were free individuals, rather than merely instruments of Divine will. The authors were no different in a sense from all of us, to whom God speaks and whom God lures through his/her Divine Call. The authors of the Bible were "inspired" in some sense to write what they wrote--just as poets are inspired to write poetry, painters to paint, and prophets to prophesy. But the authors of the Bible were human beings, flawed in their own ways, prone to make mistakes, and products of their culture and time. The authors conducted an ongoing dialogue with one another, with history, and with God, and as such their theologies reflected evolving understandings about God. Furthermore, many of the books in the Bible did not simply pour out of a single author's pen, but were in fact the result of an ongoing editing process. The Pentateuch, for example, was the product of several authors, whose works were interwoven (not always seamlessly) into five books.

Furthermore, the decisions about which books to include in the Bible, which to exclude, and which to censor and suppress, were all human decisions, influenced by all sorts of factors, running the gamut from mundane to sublime, and often influenced by political considerations.

An analogy that I like comes from Jack Good, who describes the Bible as a family album of a community of faith, reflecting the diversity and dialogue and disagreements that characterize any family. Family albums are often sloppily inconsistent; some photos are blurry, some too dark, as the books of the Bible surely are as well.

How is it the revelation of God (if it is) ? I would say that it isn't. It is instead a record of a community of faith that was trying to make sense of divine revelation. It is a record of how Divine revelation was filtered through limited human understanding. It isn't, therefore, "the" revelation of God, and as such is neither comprehensive nor final. God reveals him/herself everywhere at all times, to all people. God is still speaking to us today.

How does it relate to us (as individuals, as church, as community...) ? The value of a historical record of human attempts at understanding Divine Revelation lies in providing us with something to work with. We learn from the mistakes of Biblical writers as much as we learn from their successes. We are not starting from scratch, but rather from a rich and varied history that can serve as a fabric from which we can work through our own communication with the Sacred.

To the extent that we can appreciate the human yearning for the sacred that its authors expressed, we can interpret and channel our own yearning for the sacred as well. To the extent that we can appreciate the evolving theologies that produced the Bible, we can appreciate that dogma is not necessarily cast in stone, thus making us free to continue to re-imagine the Divine as human understanding evolves.

How is it a source for theological reflection? There are many themes that run through the Bible, but I think that two of the most important are the ever-evolving understanding of God's nature, and the expanding concept of inclusive love. The Bible shows us a developing conception of God--from Yahweh, a tribal warrior deity, to a universal God of peace and justice. And the understanding of love became ever more inclusive as well--where more an more people became included in the circle of divine and human inclusiveness. This human inclusiveness and divine love translated strongly into the prophetic tradition of social justice. In this way, the Bible can inspire us as we also struggle for social justice today.

Unitarian Universalism and Christianity

There has been some discussion among UU Christian bloggers about how they practice their faith. The discussion was initiated by Mama G, who is part of a small group of UU Christians who meet in each other's homes.

What I think is interesting about this question is that it presupposes that UU Christians find their denominational worship to be, in and of itself, inadequate for their faith--so they have to supplement what is offered in their church by creating their own form of worship outside of their church. I have to admit that I am baffled by this concept. What is the purpose exactly of going to Sunday services at a church if they are so inadequate as an expression of spiritual fulfillment that you have to go off somewhere else and create your own in order to make up for it? What is the basis of this loyalty to the UU denomination under those circumstances? Is going to a UU church service just a nice social outing, while the real thing, spiritually speaking, is found somewhere else?

When I attended UU services in San Francisco, the one thing that was clear to me was the services were inadequate for me as a means of spiritual fulfillment. I like to come out of a service feeling uplifted in comparison to how I felt going in. A worship service actually means something to me. It is a way for me to connect to God. It is valuable to me in and of itself as a vital means of reaching out to the transcendent. I actually like hearing the word "God" used once or twice in a worship service. If I don't get that from going to church, then I am going to the wrong church and I go look elsewhere for my spiritual nourishment.

So why do UU Christians remain within their denomination, given that their services for worship are inadequate for their purposes? Peacebang, who weighed in on this topic and elaborated on how one can be both a UU and a Christian, suggested that UU Christians have a set of common characteristics that presumably set them apart (and which allow them to remain loyal to their denomination); although she doesn't come right out and say it, the unstated assumption seems to be that these characteristics distinguish it from other varieties of the Christian faith. For example, she says that:

1. UU Christians don’t proselytize or make claims that theirs is the one true faith. They just choose this path for themselves.

2. UU Christians don’t exclude people from fellowship for expressing doubts or irreverent thoughts about the Bible, Jesus or God.

3. UU Christians don’t worry about who’s going to hell and they don’t engage in competetive spiritual development.

4. UU Christians assume that all are capable of taking on leadership, and they share the responsibility of planning, setting up and cleaning up.

In reality, none of these characteristics are unique to UU Christians, but are in fact found among many progressive Christians in mainline denominations, so as a reason for remaining UU, it just doesn't wash. There are plenty of Christians in other denominations who share these same, exact traits. The notion that UU Christianity is an oasis of theological liberalism in a sea of intolerance and exclusivism seems to reflect the UU self-image more than reality. Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and John Shelby Spong are not UUs, to cite three examples. In fact, the existence of intolerance against Christianity that is often found within the UU denomination suggests that this vaunted UU tolerance doesn't quite live up to the hype. The UU self-image notwithstanding, I personally feel that these supposed attributes of UU Christianity listed above really don't serve as an adequate justification for remaining tied to the UU denomination; they just aren't uniquely UU. I can find plenty of progressive Chrisitianity within mainline denominations, in varying ways. There are resources for finding such churches--one can look, for example, at the directory of affiliates on the website for the Center for Progressive Christianity. Admittedly, "progressive" means a lot of things to a lot of people, and it takes some legwork to find a church that is really sufficient for one's spiritual needs. I didn't say it was easy--but it is definitely possible. And for me, it is more rewarding to search for and find a progressive church that is committed to connecting with God, where the form of worship actually connects with the sacred in a way that I can relate to, than to try to invent a spiritual sub-community out of whole cloth because the church I go to is not up to the job.

This does not mean that I do not respect Unitarian Univeralism for what it offers to religious seekers who are not tied to the Christian tradition per se. When I was in my late twenties and making my first tentative steps towards re-connecting with my spiritual side, it was only through Unitarian Univeralism that I was able to do it. The first church I set foot inside as an adult was a UU church; the very notion of walking into a church was so scary at the time, and I was filled with so much baggage from my fundamentalist upbringing, that I never could have made that move in an explicitly Christian environment. For me, Unitarian Universalism was a necessary baby step towards re-establishing my religious self. Eventually, however, I realized that the UU denomination was not for me. It was time to move on.

I have written in the past about my struggles with finding progressive Christianity in my own metropolitan area. I have issues with a lot of what goes on in many worship services, even in many ostensibly progressive Christian churches. That being said, I have found that it is possible to find churches that are progressive, Christian, and committed to theological exploration beyond the boundaries of traditional dogma. I haven't found the perfect church, but perfection is a hard thing to find.

A sore neck and a sore head

I almost always enjoy reading Glynn Cardy's blog. In addition to what he writes there, his sermons are also available online at the web site for St. Matthews, where he is the vicar. I recently read the text of his Trinity Sunday sermon for June 7, in which he speaks of his visit to an old English church in Dartmoor, Devon. There he found, by craning his neck upward and staring at the ceiling, a design of three hares in a circle.

The Trinitarian connections of this design being obvious to a Christian, he then comments on that particular doctrine, along with the problems with the supernaturally theistic and patriarchal metaphors that frequently accompany it:

The Trinity has traditionally been thought of as three personae [faces ] of the one God. The first ‘face’ is called ‘God the Father’. I prefer the name Te Matapuna: the wellspring, source of life. Te Matapuna is less personal than Father but escapes the male-in-the-sky imagery that too many people take literally.

The second ‘face’ is traditionally called ‘God the Son’. Again the title lends itself to a literal belief that the man Jesus is part of a holy triumvirate ruling from the heavens. Rather it is more accurate to say that the earthed essence of the Jesus life is integral to God’s ‘life’. The tears, the love, the passion, the justice of Jesus… are woven into the core of godness. This ‘earthed essence’ is not anthropomorphic. It’s not Jesus sitting in the clouds. It’s not male or female, though with artistic license it can be depicted as either.

The third ‘face’ is called God the Spirit, or Holy Ghost. I like the Spirit metaphor of uncontrollable wind, blowing where she wills. Another Spirit metaphor is weaver and wool – the Spirit weaving her vibrant threads of love and anarchy throughout the creation.

Each ‘face’ of God is, like the hares, of the same divine substance. The Source, the essence of Jesus, and the uncontainable Spirit are one in being three. They are inexplicably connected, and flowing into each other.
As far as the design in that church goes--are the hares in that design really tied to Trinitarian Christian doctrine, as one might think? It turns out that it is not so simple; it seems that this design is a surprisingly common motif, found in different parts of the world. Type "three hares" into Google and you will get a lot of hits, including, for example, this web site. Glynn Cardy goes on to comment more about the symbolism of the hares and the specific association of these animals with various kinds of spiritualities. He suggests that, in fact, the connection between the symbol of the three hares and Christian Trinitarianism is more tenuous than one might have assumed.

And then from this, he makes the following point about Trinitarian dogma:
Frankly I tire of Trinitarian theology and metaphors.

Three-in-one, one-in-three,
Whatever else, it is non-sense to me;
Latin, Greek, Councils and creeds,
How is it relevant to our needs?

I have heard countless sermons on water, steam and ice. In recent years it’s been talk of God-in-community, a happy little heavenly band. I heard the other day of a preacher likening the Trinity to a three-person cycling pursuit team. Athanasius would squirm.

Personally I prefer the ambiguity of a medieval Devonshire roof boss. No one really knows what the Three Hares symbol means – just as no one really knows God. We can make some good guesses, but that’s all they are. High up and almost hidden the symbol is mysterious. Like God. It invites speculation but defies specification. Like God. It is hard to explain. It is known, yet remains unknown. Like God. The Three Hares are not the property of any one religion, church, or culture. They just are. Like God. When you lean back looking at them too long, believe me, you get a sore neck and sore head. Just like with the Trinity.

The peace of God be with you this night and evermore.

I haven't been to that many different kinds of Taizé services, but of the ones I have been to or are aware of, I have found that none of them are as satisfying for me as the one that they conduct on Wednesday nights at Trinity Episcopal in San Francisco.

I have written a few times before about some of the reflections and experiences that I have had during my attendance at these services. Among the things that I particularly like about them are the beauty of the inside of that church, the movingly wonderful singing by the cantor, the sublime melodies of the sung chants, and the contemplative peace that I derive from the ten-minute period of silence in the middle of the service.

But there is another thing that I really like about it, and this is something I haven't noticed elsewhere. I really appreciate the eclectic nature of the readings that are used. Many Taizé services in other churches include readings from the Bible, but the Taizé services at Trinity do something a little different. To begin with, while they do include a Psalm reading in each service, what they use is a non-traditional translation--either Nan Merrill's or Norman Fischer's, both of which strip out the violent imagery from what is found in many of the Psalms. In addition to the Psalm readings, however, Trinity uses a variety of diverse non-biblical spiritual texts that are read aloud. Some texts are composed specifically for the service, and others are lifted from various spiritual writings--usually from Christian sources, but not always. Since I first began attending last year, I have encountered readings in these services from Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and once even from the Koran, just to cite a few examples. In continuing with this non-traditional approach, near the end of every service, there is a recitation of a delightful, gender-neutral and expansive version of the Lord's Prayer that comes from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.

This eclectic approach to spiritual literature matters a lot to me. Without that, I don't know if I would have been interested enough to want to go back. I know of another Episcopal church in San Francisco that conducts Taizé services on Thursday nights, but, from the description of the service that I have read, the readings there only come from the Bible. The same is true of a Taizé service conducted at a Presbyterian church in town. I think Trinity has set my expectations in a certain way, and I think I would find a Taizé service that only contained biblical readings to be too limiting. When I see other churches only incorporate Bible readings in theirTaizé services, I almost feel like saying, "Don't you see what Trinity does? Open up a bit! Expand your horizons!"

This is not to say that an explicitly Christian emphasis is not still a part of the services at Taizé. For one thing, many of the chants themselves are, to one degree or another, overtly Christian. And at the centerpiece of the service is the cross that lies on the floor, on which are placed several lit candles. Immediately after the ten minute period of silence late in the service, there is a period called the "Veneration of the Cross", when individuals can come up and place additional candles on the cross; many of those who do so also kneel to pray or simply to make the sign of the cross. Simultaneous with this activity, three chants are sung; in fact, the veneration is purely optional, and I for one sit in the pews and participate in the chants without getting up. The overtly Christological element of the cross veneration doesn't do anything for me, and indeed it isn't really my favorite aspect of the service; but the fact that it is optional and that it takes place during chants allows me to continue to participate in the service actively without specifically venerating the cross, although I do find myself watching those who do go up to do it. I can derive some spiritual satisfaction sometimes by observing others participate in a ritual that doesn't do anything for me personally.

I have a similar reaction when attending regular Sunday church services elsewhere when communion is offered; I usually do not partake of communion, but the fact that it does mean something to those who do participate allows me to sit there and just take in the procession of worshipers as they receive the bread and wine.

(Which reminds me of other facet of the Trinity Taizé service that, until recently, I rather liked. Taizé had been a Eucharist-free experience. I say "until recently", because there has now been a change. Now, during the veneration of the cross, the priest stands behind the cross, holding a chalice, offering communion to anyone who wants it. It doesn't break the flow of the service at all, and he stands way off in the dark front area of the church, but still, I was in a way disappointed that they felt the need to incorporate this more traditional aspect of Christian worship back into Taizé, especially since this service had been going on for many years without it. This new practice began just a week after the bishop had participated in a special version of the Taizé service; I don't know if the timing is a coincidence or not. I think part of my objection to this has to do with the fact that, as a non-Episcopalian, I don't quite grasp the central place that the Eucharist has in their conventional Sunday worship, and I felt that the lack of a Eucharist in Taizé was for me a pleasant acknowledgment that indeed you don't actually have to have a Eucharist when you worship, or at the very least this seemed like a concession to those of us who feel that way. That being said, because the sacrament is so non-obtrusively conducted, this is a minor matter in the overall scheme of things; I still really like this form of worship.)

I feel lucky in many ways that I have discovered this version of Taizé. Now that I know that not all Taizé services in other churches are like this, I try to appreciate it for its unique qualities. The service is lay-led, and at some point in the future the people currently involved in its planning and execution may move on. Nothing lasts forever, of course, and so I feel especially compelled to enjoy it while this service lasts and is available to me.

At the end of the Taizé service, I usually feel that a kind of peace has descended upon me. The service concludes usually with a closing meditation, and the finally then words are spoken by the officiant before the two last chants:

The peace of God be with you this night and evermore.
Somehow those words represent for me an especially wonderful way for the officiant to close out the service. After those words are spoken, two final chants are sung. The last of these, lately, has been this one, sung in a beautiful melody:
Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness;
And all these things shall be added unto you. Alleluia!
As I walk out into the night air after the service has ended, I sometimes find myself singing that final chant to myself on the sidewalk.

Traditional Anglicanism

What is conservative Anglicanism really all about?

One way to find out the answer to this question might be to turn to a blog that is devoted to the preservation of traditional, conservative Anglican values. There we can find, no doubt, the highest virtues and values of conservative Anglicanism. Thanks to Mad Priest, who has cited a recent blog entry from Greg Griffith, we now know that we can indeed find the answer to this question. Greg Griffith's blog is one of the top vote-getters in the religion category of the Bloggers Choice Awards, so we know it must be a respectable voice for conservative Anglicans. Traditional Anglicanism, it would seem, is all about insulting the looks of women you disagree with and putting up a picture of your trophy wife for purposes of comparison.

I kid you not. Puerile, you say? Offensive, you say? Beyond the pale, you say? Not worthy of serious discourse, you say? Silly you. It was all done in the cause of proving Mr. Griffith's heterosexuality. So far from being offensive, Mr. Griffith, in comparing the looks of his wife to that of a female priest, was merely exhibiting Christ-like behavior.

I'm glad we've got that settled.

Critical Mass

The San Francisco Chronicle's "Finding My Religion" column recently featured an interview with Michael Wiener, an Oakland Catholic priest who favors the use of the Tridentine mass.

I am not a Catholic, and I am not drawn to the Catholic style of worship; so it doesn't directly affect me one way or the other, and I don't have an opinion as to whether one style of mass is generally "better" than another. I know that some people have objected to the Tridentine mass as being less participatory than the newer style of worship. That may be true, but there are many forms of worship and I think that each person has individual needs and preferences and, as a rule, I believe that everyone needs to find out the kind of worship that works best for them. Whether you like having the priest facing the congregation or facing away from you--that just seems to me to be a matter of personal taste. In general, I'm not sure that I believe that there is a "right" or "wrong" answer to this sort of question.

That being said, there is more to the Tridentine mass controversy than just the direction that the priest faces, and that is where things get more complicated. Specifically, there is the question of the Tridentine mass using language that is objectionable to many Jews. In the interview, Father Wiener was asked more than once about the call for the conversion of Jews that appears in the Good Friday prayers, and repeatedly the priest showed a lack of sensitivity on this matter. He did raise the point that even the new-style mass calls for the conversion of Jews and others, which for all I know may be true, although in general the bigger problem that I see is that any such call for conversion--in either an old-style or new-style mass--shows a great lack of respect for Jews and serves as a barrier to interfaith dialogue.

For example, he says:

I don't think there is much to say. That prayer is part of the Good Friday liturgy. And the church doesn't ask for the light of faith only for the Jewish people, there are also other people mentioned. So I don't see any problem with that. I don't think it's bad to ask God for his grace and for help and for assistance.
In other words, he is saying that it is apparently okay to offend Jews as long as you also include other people in your message.

When he was asked if this does not indicate a certain intolerance for other faiths, his response was, "Other religions also have this standpoint. They also think that they have truth. Some Protestant religions also say those same prayers on Good Friday. Besides, I don't see it as intolerance. It's a sign of those who care and love for the souls of others."

He is so wrong on so many levels, it is hard to know where to begin. First of all, "thinking that you have the truth" is not the same as believing that other people's spiritual lives are deficient, that other faiths are not also vehicles towards the truth, or that your way is the only way and that all others must convert to your way for the sake of their souls.

Aside from that, though, he suggests that if Protestants say something that offends Jews, it is also all right for Catholics to do so as well. Huh? Since when is the "other people do it" argument an even remotely valid justification for intolerant behavior? As for the "care and love for the souls of others", Jews have understood quite well what that has translated to over the past 2000 years: pogroms, ghettos, inquisitions, forced conversions, discrimination, and mass murder. They have a right to be sensitive on this subject.

Denying that this is intolerance but instead "care and love" ignores the intolerance that lies at the heart of this stance. To assert that the souls of Jews (and others) are in jeopardy if they don't convert to Father Wiener's religion is itself intolerant. It shows a lack of respect for the value and meaning that Jews derive from their relationship with God. Slapping a veneer of "care and love" on top of an intolerant premise does not obscure the fundamental, underlying intolerance.

Christianity: Without Christ, Without Jesus

Thomas Sheehan's book The First Coming is full of interesting ideas. While I might not agree 100% with everything he says, I find that his provocative notions about turning away from a religion about Jesus and returning to the religion of Jesus resonate with my own theology. And, as a self-described heretic, I like what he has to say about heresy. In his book, he writes:

In the broadest sense, heresy (from the Gree hairesis: taking, choosing, taking sides) is an essential contituent of all hermeneutics (in Greek hermeneia: interpretation, taking something as something). The history of Christianity through the centuries is, in fact, a history of its hermeneutical heresies, not just the heresies that the church has condemned and excluded, but also, and above all, the orthodox heresies, the acceptable takes/mis-takes that have come to constitute mainstream Christianity. Thus, over against the heresy that is Christianity I propose another, one that consists in understanding the message of the kingdom of God without Christ and without Jesus: (1) "without Christ," that is, without interpretations that equate the kingdom of God with Christ's salvific acts (functional christology) and ultimately with his divine person (ontological christology); (2) "without Jesus", that is, not dismissing the prophet, but also not turning him into an idol. "Without Jesus" means without attributing to him any power beyond the natural, human power everyone has: that of being a culturally determined, historically relative interpreter of one's world and one's own life. This means that for all the natural gifts and talents he once displayed, and regardless of whether one chooses to take him as a model for enacting the kingdom, Jesus is ultimately dispensable. He is not irreplaceable--in fact, he demands to be displaced so that one can get to what he is about. Jesus is not the object of the message he preached. The proclaimer of the kingdom gives way to the reality he proclaimed.

"The kingdom of God" is a language, an interpretation of human existence that was preached and lived by Jesus in the past and that can be reinterpreted and lived out by people today. (p.224; emphasis added).
In my previous posting, I discussed the subject of re-imagining Jesus. But perhaps even more important that re-imagining Jesus is the task of re-imagining the kingdom of God that Jesus preached about.