Lost in Santa Rosa

I had signed up a few months ago to hear Dominic Crossan speak at the Westar Institute Fall 2008 session in Santa Rosa. I actually was interested at the time in more than just the Dominic Crossan talk, but I wasn't able to convince myself to invest an entire weekend out of town. But I had decided that I could do the 55 mile drive to Santa Rosa on a Friday night for one hour and a half session from an author and scholar who I respected a great deal, especially since it was dirt cheap to sign up for a single session.

Well, the session was this past Friday, and though my interest in all matters Jesus-y has diminished recently, I had paid for it and I had already asked for and received the day off from work because I knew that otherwise I would not be able to make it up there after work during the rush hour. Since I had done so much planning for it, I figured I might as well go. As it turned out, I got involved in other activities that afternoon and did not give myself as much time as I should have to get there. I had not printed out a map from Google or Mapquest or any other internet mapping site, and I did not bring a GPS device with me, so I had to navigate the old fashioned way, which is to say that I wrote down on a piece of paper the directions from the web site, which seemed simple enough--they said to "stay on Hwy 12 (which joins Farmers Lane) to 4th Street." After realizing I was no longer on route 12 and I also wasn't on Farmers Lane either at a certain point, without knowing quite how I had gotten off the freeway, I realized I was lost in Santa Rosa--a city with a population of over 150,000--and not with a lot of time left to spare. My only bow to modern technology was a cell phone that I had with me, so I called the hotel for directions.

When I finally arrived, barely in time, there wasn't enough time for dinner, so I asked the desk clerk where I could find a hotel vending machine. Dinner thus consisted of some cheesy crackers and a couple of Reese's peanut butter cups. That was enough to tide me over for what did turn out to be an interesting and often entertaining visual presentation of computer projected photographs of Roman Imperial inscriptions, coins, archaeological finds, and other artifacts, narrated by Dominic Crossan.

He spoke about a subject that has dominated much of his popular writing lately, namely the nature of Roman imperial theology. The subtext was only alluded to occasionally during the talk, although it came up more explicitly during the Q&A--namely, that the language used to describe Augustus Caesar (Divine, Son of God, Savior of the World, Bringer of Peace, etc.) is exactly the same as the language that early Christians used to describe Jesus. The point, of course, is that this was no coincidence, that in fact the early Christians were using theological language that the people of that time fully recognized and that was pervasive and culturally dominant--but they were applying it to a completely different individual; and by using such language they were challenging the prevailing Imperial theology of that time, and by extension, the authority of the Roman Empire itself. The prevailing theology of the time, as Crossan pointed out, proceded from Religion to War, from War to Victory, from Victory to Peace. Caesar was worshiped as divine because he brought peace to his people--through military conquest. This theology of peace through victory contrasted with Jesus's theology of peace through justice. Thus the early Christians used the identical language of Roman Imperial theology to present a subversively alternative religious and political vision. As he pointed out, telling people of the Roman Empire of that time that an executed Jewish peasant was to be described in the same language as was used to describe the ruler of the "world" at that time would have led many people to roll over with laughter. And yet, as we know, this is precisely what was done.

Crossan is a funny and interesting speaker who exudes Irish charm. It was a bit far away for an evening trip, and the drive back that night was somewhat long, but I enjoyed the experience enough that I might just have to consider attending more events the next time the Westar Institute holds a session in Santa Rosa. It even may have rekindled a tiny bit of my interest in religious exploration. I'm not sure if that is enough to inspire me to want to actually attend a church, though. I mean, let's not go overboard or get ridiculous or anything.


I started to write this entry on September 12, just before I left on vacation, but I did not finish what I started and left it as a draft. This posting represents a slightly edited version of what I wrote at that time, along with some additional paragraphs tacked onto the end.

I haven't had much to say lately. I am feeling a little disillusioned with this process of seeking out religious communities. I always knew that I was going to deal with theologies that I didn't necessarily feel comfortable with, but the more contact that I have had with ostensibly "progressive" Christian churches, the less satisfied I have become with just making do.

A few months ago, at Pastor Bob Cornwall's request, I wrote an article for a journal that he edits, in which I discussed my religious journey and my experiences visiting various churches. I wrote at the time about my frustrations as a spiritual outsider looking inward, as one who was attracted to the Christian tradition and yet repelled by many of its more orthodox doctrines. What kept me going through all of that, despite the frustration, was a certain spirit of optimism, and maybe a sense that God was calling out to me. There were plenty of new faith communities left to try out, and so many churches seemed open to the ideas of people like Borg or even Spong. I believed somehow that if I kept looking I might find something at least remotely resembling I was looking for; at the very least, the novelty of visiting new churches kept me going for a while. The desire to connect with God was also a strong motivator. Bob himself had suggested to me once, before he solicited the article, that the demands that I was placing on the Christian faith were unlikely to be met, and that I was probably not going to find mainline Protestant churches that were going to offer the kind of theology that I myself was interested in exploring. I knew at some level that he was right. And yet, something kept me going. I was willing to make certain compromises, on the theory that a little bit of moderately frustrating spiritual nourishment was better than none at all. But this was proving to be a decreasingly successful personal strategy.

I could at this point, I suppose, expand my exploration and go roaming out further afield into the suburbs, in ever widening circles of church shopping exercises, but the reality is that the payoff seems dubious, especially given that long Sunday morning car rides aren't my idea of a good time anyway.

I found some of the churches I visited through their affiliation with the Center for Progressive Christianity; and others I found by doing web searches; still others were I found via a list of "progressive" churches contained an appendix of Hal Taussig's book, A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots. There was so much variety in approaches and theologies and congregations, it all started to make my head spin, and meanwhile nothing was really working. One church might have an interesting or progressive pastor, but the congregation was not very welcoming, or else I felt like I was crashing a party to which I was not invited. Other churches had services that were full of orthodox creedal confessions and high Christological language that just didn't work for me.

I had for a while been sporadically attending a small but active progressive church, with a progressive pastor. At one point the church had been offering discussion forums on the eight points of progressive Christianity. I attended one of them, and the subject of prayer came up. I am not a believer in the efficacy of intercessory prayer, and I said so at the meeting. No one argued with me or vocally disagreed with me, but in some sense I felt that I was speaking as an outsider with a different perspective than that of the others. The other members of this congregation were lifelong members of the that church's denomination who were edging into progressive territory, while I was an outsider who came at religious belief from a quite different direction. I realized at that point that no matter how progressive the Christian community is, I was forever standing outside of the Christian faith looking inward. I didn't want to play the role of iconoclast in any case. It was the real beginning of my disengagement with the church shopping process, although attending church during the previous Christmas season, with its celebration of events that I didn't for once second believe literally to have taken place, had also been a contributing factor.

It is hard for me to totally give up on this process. I haven't totally ruled out attending a church from time to time. And maybe my enthusiasm for this project will pick up again--anything is possible. There are one or two relatively progressive churches in my community that I could attend if I really felt the urge. But for the most part, at least at the moment, I am not feeling the urge. This represents a big change from how I felt when I first started this process a couple of years ago; at that time, I felt a really strong urge, as if God herself were calling me to go find a religious community.

While I was on vacation recently, I realized that maintaining this blog, and participating in online discussion in general, had been stressing me out. My vacation certainly had some stresses of its own--temporarily lost luggage being a major one of those--but somehow they were a different kind of stress, because things like lost luggage were vacation stresses; and once I did get my luggage I had the time of my life. I had internet access, but I didn't want to check this blog, write in it, or participate in blog discussions here or anywhere else.

I'm still basking in the afterglow of that vacation a bit, even though I have been back for over a week. What that means for the future of this blog remains an open question.

Origins in diversity

Here is a quote from the Sarah Sentilles book A Church of Her Own:

When people lament the state of religion today--how different it is than "the early church," how modernity has perverted "real" Christianity, how things used to be simpler and more clear--they seem to believe there is a pure version of Christianity that we could get back to. Today's multiple denominations, organizations, and interpretations stem from one early church, they think, and if we could return to that one church, then modernity and all its confusion would disappear. In this version of history, the farther back in time you go the less diversity there is. But, in fact, there was no such thing as "the early church." Tracing Christianity back to its origins, you will not arrive at one, unified community. The first Christians had no New Testament, no Nicene Creed or Apostles Creed, no church buildings, no organized and official hierarchy, and no single understanding of the significance of Jesus. The farther back you go, the more versions of Christianity you will find. Early Christians were wildly diverse groups of people with multiple, conflicting, and contradictory opinions about who Jesus was, what meaning they ought to make out of his life and death, and what was required of people who wanted to follow him. (p. 243)

God as our Ultimate Concern

Wade G. writes in his Evolution of the Mystery blog a really nice summary of Tillich's conception of God as our Ultimate Concern. He closes with the following comment:

But, regarding Tillich's conception of God as I understand it... I find that when my days are going rough, it is soothing to the spirit somehow to take a deep breath and ruminate on all of this. I'm not really sure I can express what my "ultimate concern" or "ground of being" is. I just know, somehow, that it is there - that life is not surface only, but deep. It has nothing to do with anything "supernatural" or anything that contradicts the rules of physics or my own perceptions. The closest word I can think of to express my "ultimate concern", which seems to just about fit, is that very simple one "love." Not love of something particular, but love in it's limitless and mysterious ideal. And maybe that is not far off from what the author of the first letter of John was telling us when he said (in the New International version translation) "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."
This comes very close to my own understanding. Religion for me isn't about believing in miracles, or in the supernatural, or anything that contradicts the laws of nature. It is instead about a sense of awe in response to the depths of meaning, creativity, love, and purpose.

Faith and science

When I was 16 years old and decided that I could no longer accept the religion of my upbringing, one of the issues that came to the forefront for me was evolution. I had been taught that the Genesis account of creation was literally true and that evolution was a hoax. By the time I was 16, I could no longer believe this. And this realization made me angry. Really angry.

I was interested in science at that point in my life, and I resented the way religion could be such a force for ignorance. One member of my family accused me of being bitter and resentful, like that was a bad thing or something. But the reality is that when religions that use faith as an excuse for promoting ignorance, there is something fundamentally wrong going on. Fundamentalist Christianity made me angry at 16, and for good reason.

What I know now, which I didn't know at age 16, was that faith itself does not require taking an intellectually indefensible stance on the subject of evolution. I had to escape from all that brainwashing of my youth to realize this.

Which brings me to the subject of a headline from yesterday's New York Times reads "A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash".

The article describes how a biology teacher in Florida has been trying to teach evolution to students who have been, effectively, brainwashed by evangelical churches into rejecting the science of evolution. The teacher has a difficult task; his job is not to bully his students into submission, because otherwise, he will "lose" them.

But I think that what bothers me about this headline is that the battle here is actually not between faith and science at all, but rather between ignorance and science. One can be a person of faith without being an idiot.

The article mentions that many of this teacher's students have been enlisted as soldiers in the army of the ignorant before they've even set foot in class. For example,

Some come armed with “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution,” a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory. Others scrawl their opposition on homework assignment.
There is something funny about high school students going into the classroom without the intention of learning what the teacher has to teach them. But it gets worse. One local pastor has been deliberately trying to undermine science education by passing out a copy of an anti-evolution book to every graduating senior the previous year. This book has now been circulating among students.

The problem is also exacerbated by the fact that there are teachers in public schools who themselves are part of the problem and who actually teach their students not to believe in evolution. For example, one coworker of the teacher featured in the Times article
tells her students, but evolution alone can hardly account for the appearance of wholly different life forms. She leaves it up to them to draw their own conclusions. But when pressed, she tells them, “I think God did it.”
"I think God did it?" Wow, this is the God of Gaps rearing its ugly head, and this is the sort of thing that gives religion a bad name. But it really has nothing to do with religion per se. The fact is that being a person of faith has nothing to do with thinking this way. One can believe in science and also be a person of faith.

Tradition and faith

From Marjorie Hewitt Suchoki's book God's Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer:

Tradition is like the crest of a wave always pushing beyond itself. Faithfulness to a tradition is not gained through treading water in repetition of some aspect of the past, but through swimming with the crest into fresh interpretations of God's gracious presence with us. The tradition is a living, fluid thing. Thus to use the texts and the tradition as a formative matrix for our knowledge of God is not to find an ironclad rule that determines what we can think. Rather, it is to find commonalities that not only shape how we think about the God we experience, but that also invite the questions born of faith. We know God through God's presence to us, and we interpret this presence through categories given to us through our communities of faith. But the personalization of these categories may in fact be part of their transformation in the ongoing process of a living tradition. Thus there is necessarily a certain openness in what we dare to call our knowledge of God. It is fluid--perhaps like God's own self. (p. 11)

Miraculous, but with a little help from human beings.

According to an AP story published today,

An eye-opening survey reveals widespread belief that divine intervention can revive dying patients. And, researchers said, doctors "need to be prepared to deal with families who are waiting for a miracle."

More than half of randomly surveyed adults - 57 percent - said God's intervention could save a family member even if physicians declared treatment would be futile. And nearly three-quarters said patients have a right to demand such treatment.
What I find interesting about this is that if God can miraculously heal people who are declared to be terminally ill, why do these patients' families want to continue treatment as a means of summoning the miracle? What does God need the physician for? Can't an omnipotent God heal people on his own?

Second grade Christianity

Sarah Sentilles writes this in her book A Church of Her Own:

Many ministers worry so much about the people they will upset if they change the language of the liturgy to inclusive language that they forget about the people who are upset because they don't use inclusive language. So harassed are they by the people who call to complain that the Holy Spirit was called a "She" or the Lord's Prayer called God "Creator" instead of "Father" that they don't have time or energy to think about the people who visit their churches and decide never to come back because they heard God called a man again and again and again. Refusing to use inclusive language, refusing to be creative about the metaphors we use to talk about God, sells our congregations short. And it sells God short. (p. 137)
She makes a very interesting point here. Isn't it possible that clergy members who are so afraid of introducing progressive ideas to their worship services lest they offend certain members of the congregation are not taking into account the people they might attract to their church through those same actions--those whom Spong labels "the church alumni society"?

The above quote, of course, is referring specifically to the use of inclusive language, which is separate from the issue of clergy introducing modern biblical scholarship into their sermons (which was discussed previously in this blog.) Yet both the use of inclusive language and the use of modern scholarship represent essentially twin threats to the established orthodoxy, and are resisted vehemently by religious conservatives. There are, I am sure, pressures on clergy from all directions, not just from the congregational members who might be offended.

Lest anyone think that clergy never get intimidated by conservative pressures, Sarah Stiles documents the case of a female assistant pastor in the UCC (a supposedly liberal denomination) who had to deal with various problems on the job, including sexism directed at her. At one point, twelve members of the congregation circulated a petition demanding a meeting with her, in which a litany of complaints were presented. One of the complaints
had to do with a sermon Eve preached a year and a half earlier in which she had questioned the historicity of the birth narrative of Jesus, something that has been questioned for decades by historians and biblical scholars who have argued that both Mary's virginity and the notion that her pregnancy resulted from divine intervention (the Holy Spirit) are literary devices, not historical facts. A mortal woman becoming pregnant by supernatural forces signaled that the child who resulted from that pregnancy would possess special powers, such as the ability to perform miracles. Rather than a literal fact, the virginity of Mary is a rhetorical device intended to demonstrate the significance of Jesus. "I was basically taking away their happy second-grade Christian theology," Eve said. (p. 112-113)
So it seems clear that clergy run up against serious pressures from congregations if they dare to threaten anyone's second-grade Christian theology. Yet, when balancing that against the number of people they may turn away from church by not offering something a little more advanced, who usually wins out?

My fairy tale is true; your fairy tale is false.

In a comment to my "What Makes a Community a Community" posting, One Small Step writes the following:

Now, yes, many hold to a literal resurrection based on fact. But that is forcing the person to push past the paradigm of natural laws, and as soon as that happens, what standard is used to evaluate the truth of something? All you can do is take it on faith, or one's personal experience with God. It is again an "anything goes." If there aren't limits put on what one is studying, then how do we determine what is and is not something literally true? What basis is used? On the one hand, we'd usually know that if a story contains a man coming back from the dead, people would reject it as a fable, and not be told that they are doing so from a personal "a priori." Yet if they apply the same principle to the Bible, they are? What causes the standard to change?
This raises an interesting important point about credulity. Even most of those who believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus are selective about their credulity. If I went up to them and told them that my friend Bob died, was buried, and three days later came back from the dead and walked down the street, most Christians wouldn't believe me. They would categorically reject my claim as ridiculous. This is an example of the "my fairy tale is true; your fairy tale is false" phenomenon.

I'm not normally crazy about quoting from militant atheists, but in this case I think that one individual, who operates the "Why Won't God Heal Amputees" web site, makes a really good point on this score. This individual offers a set of argument that are fairly commonly used by militant atheists against religion, and as the title of the site suggests, the problem of theodicy plays an important role in those arguments. I don't accept those arguments against the existence of God, as I have stated in the past, because I think that they set up a straw man that is based on the faulty assumption that religion necessarily involves a certain kind of patriarchal, supernaturally theistic conception of an interventionist Deity. That being said, I do agree with these critics of religion on their objection to the miraculous claims that many religions often make; it has always been my interest to seek out a rational religion that is consistent with a post-Enlightenment worldview. I don't believe in miracles as they are typically defined, and I don't believe that being religious requires a belief in them. Thus I agree with the point that is being made in the following quote from that web site, namely that many people who are skeptical about the extraordinary and miraculous claims made by other faiths than their own often turn around and exhibit considerable credulity when it comes to extraordinary and miraculous claims made by their own faith:
No one (besides little kids) believes in Santa Claus. No one outside the Mormon church believes Joseph Smith's story. No one outside the Muslim faith believes the story of Mohammed and Gabriel and the winged horse. No one outside the Christian faith believes in Jesus' divinity, miracles, resurrection, etc.

Therefore, the question I would ask you to consider right now is simple: Why is it that human beings can detect fairy tales with complete certainty when those fairy tales come from other faiths, but they cannot detect the fairy tales that underpin their own faith? Why do they believe their chosen fairy tale with unrelenting passion and reject the others as nonsense?

I am admittedly being provocative when I adopt that person's term "fairy tale" to describe the story of the resurrection of Jesus. I normally would use the word "myth" (rather than "fairy tale") to describe it, because myths have meaning beyond their literal or factual truth, and I actually think the fanciful stories in Matthew, Luke and John of Jesus walking around after his death have mythic value--that they are ways of articulating through stories and metaphor the fact that, after Jesus died, his followers believed that they experienced his presence in some way. I appreciate and respect that aspect of Christianity--as long as one doesn't fall into the trap of literalizing these myths.

I recently attended a church service where the pastor, who regularly deals with people in a congregation with diverse points of view, reacted to one of the lectionary miracle stories in Matthew (where Jesus walks on water) by saying that whether you believe it really happened or not doesn't really matter--what matters is the deeper truth that the story points to. I appreciate what the pastor was saying in that case--and I'm sure that Marcus Borg would say the same thing. But I am coming to realize how hard it is for me to look the other way on this subject. It is important to my personal faith that these myths not be literalized, and it is hard for me to say that it doesn't matter to me whether those stories are true or not. There are a lot of people of faith in this world who feel disenfranchized by organized religion precisely because they don't believe that these mythical miracle stories are literally true, and I fall into that category mysself. True, the congregation in this instance seems to hold together just fine despite whatever differences of theology exist among its participants. I know that there are some more rationalistically oriented skeptics among the membership, and some who appear to be more traditional in their outlook. So I obviously can't speak for others on this score. Others may have no problem with the "it doesn't matter" approach. But for me, while I certain respect the right of other people to take these stories literally, it is not so easy to just sit back and say that it doesn't matter to me whether Santa Clause is real or not.

A continuing conversation and dialogue

Marcus Borg, in his Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, has this to say about what kind of understanding of the Bible results from taking biblical scholarship, and thus the Bible, seriously:

[T]he Bible as a whole...is the developing tradition of two ancient communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement. As such, the Bible is not a divine product that is to be believed no matter how incredible, but a human cultural product that is to be understood. The Old Testament is Israel's story, told by Israel and about Israel. The New Testament is the early church's story, told by them and about them. Together, they tell us how these two ancient communities experienced God, thought about God, and worshiped God, as well as how they thought they should live (communally and individually) in response to God. The Bible's ethical directives and codes of behavior were directly relevant to their lives in their time, not divine laws given by God for all time.

This transformed understanding of the Bible also leads to a quite different perception of its authority. When the Bible is seen as an infallibly true divine product, then it becomes an authority standing over us, telling us what to believe and how to behave, regardless of whether these beliefs or codes of behavior make sense to us. The alternative understanding of the Bible--as ancient Israel's and the early church's witness to their life with God--sees things differently. Within this way of seeing, the significance of the biblical canon is that it affirms that these are the ancient documents with which Christians are to be in a continuing conversation and dialogue. To take the Bible seriously is to seek to understand what our ancestors in the tradition knew of God. (p. 178)

What makes a community a community?

Here is a quote from the book A Church of Her Own, by Sarah Sentiles:

One of the challenges faced by recent divinity school graduates--and the communities they serve--is the disjunction between the theology they learn in school and the theology being preached in and professed by churches. There is a vast difference between what denominations claim as official doctrine and what students learn in graduate school. In many master's programs, students are encouraged to think to the edge of things, to question fundamental beliefs, to critique theological concepts, to recognize the effects of their theological constructs, to challenge the symbols and stories of their traditions. This critical work is understood as part of faith, not separate from it. Many church communities have not been encouraged to do the same. With lazy preaching and simplistic adult and children's education programs, we have done our congregations a disservice. Most congregations can handle--in fact they crave--complicated, challenging theology. This is not easy work. Challenging people's long-held beliefs--and having one's own challenged--can be frightening, uncomfortable, even devastating. What's more, exposing people to a variety of beliefs means making room for people to have a variety of beliefs and raises questions about what makes a community a community. What would a faith community look like that celebrated difference? What is essential? What holds us together? How do we make meaning? (pp. 53-54)

The Scylla of Orthopraxy and the Charybdis of Orthodoxy

John Cobb addresses the relationship of process theology to progressive Christianity in his latest column on the Process and Faith web site. In so doing, he describes what he sees as two primary streams of thought within progressive Christianity. I find this interesting because I don't find myself entirely comfortable with either of these streams.

One of them, which he identifies with Jim Adams and the Center for Progressive Christianity, reacts to the rigidity of conservative theology by virtually rejecting the usefulness of any kind of theology whatsoever. As Cobb puts it, from this perspective

Beliefs are less important than commitment to the common good. People in this stream believe that ethics is far more important than doctrine.
Jim Burklo, who is also associated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, was until recently the pastor of a church that identified itself as being about "deeds rather than creeds". Put another way, this type of religion emphasizes orthopraxy as the alternative to orthodoxy.

The other stream that he identifies, which he associates with Delwin Brown, focuses more on the social gospel. Cobb also makes the important point that this second group "takes theology seriously."

Cobb writes that the first group of progressives, those who have reacted against theology, have not responded very positively to process theology. This is understandable. Those who have little use for constructing any kind of conception of God's nature would certainly not have much use for a metaphysical system like process theology. My own sympathies for process theology probably explain why I don't see the appeal of recently prominent expressions of progressive Christianity along the lines of Greta Vosper's. It probably also explains why I am uncomfortable with John Shelby Spongs' continual denunciations of "theism" without his actually specifying what kind of theology he offers in its place.

Cobb sites an article by Gene Marshall in the May-June issue of The Progressive Christian as another example of this what this stream of thought entails. I fished out my copy of that issue and took a look at the article in question. Marshal writes,
There can be no beliefs about God because God is not an object alongside other objects about which beliefs can be held. God, the God witnessed to in the Bible, is a Presence, a mysterious Presence about which the mind has no information and can have no information whatsoever.
I can see why Cobb objects to what Marshall wrote. I would myself argue that to claim that we can say nothing whatsoever about God is an extreme conclusion to draw from the mere fact that God belongs to a different ontological category than ordinary objects that we experience in everyday life. Yes, I agree that God cannot be completely or accurately characterized by our own finite human imaginations. But I do believe that it goes too far to say that we can say nothing whatsoever about God. This gets back to the Blind Man and the Elephant analogy that I frequently make about human religions. It is not true that the blind man who feels the trunk of an elephant has "no information whatsoever" about the elephant, as Marshall claims; rather, the information that he does have is provisional and limited. The power of progressive theology at its best lies precisely in its understanding of the provisional nature of our God-concepts. It is why our concepts about God evolve over time--because humans are always developing new insights about the nature of their encounters with the Divine.

Cobb also notes a discussion between none other than the aforementioned Adams and Brown in that same issue of the magazine. Adams in that conversation criticizes Brown for suggesting that God could play any sort of role whatsoever in human creation. While acknowledging that Brown "has reduced God's role from designing to nudging, " Adams complains that "he still seems to agree with the creationists, the sworn enemies of evolutionary science, that God intervenes in the functioning of nature."

Again, I can see why Cobb objects to Adams's comments here. For Adams, the idea of Divine participation in the activity world of any sort whatsoever, even non-coercive participation, is fundamentally no different from traditional interventionist theism. He has thus conflated two radically different conceptions of God--the coercive and interventionist God of traditional theism, and the non-interventionist God such as outlined by process theology. (The activity as described in process theology is not really "nudging", I might add, but rather "beckoning". ) Ultimately I think that Adams's objection represents a sort of dogmatic thinking that I might expect from a militant atheist or a religious fundamentalist; but coming from a self-described progressive Christian, it is truly disappointing. In fact, there is more than one way of reconciling a post-Enlightenment understanding of an ordered and rationally operating world with a belief in the existence of God. Adams's insistence that the only way to reconcile God and science in the modern world is by rejecting any concept of divine participation in nature shows a failure of imagination on Adams's part.

Delwin Brown responds to this in the following way:
The crucial issue is, what does it mean to belief in God? What difference does it make to life? What is at stake when people say that God is, or is not? And to answer questions like these we are forced to ask a clarifying question: What do we mean by "God"?

If we are talking about the totalitarian deity so sharply criticized by Sam Harris and others, then I, like them, am an atheist. I do not believe in that God. That concept of God leads to, and supports the continuation of, unjust social hierarchies, blind indifference to modern science, the abandonment of careful thinking, and the privileged manipulation of power by a divinely favored few. And this illustrates my point: The important thing is to ask, what does belief in God mean for understanding and living life.
Even though I have had some reservations about Delwin Brown's formulation of progressive Christianity in his book, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?, I am more sympathetic to Brown's view than I am to Adams's. I just don't see the point in believing in a "God" about whom we have no conception and who seems to make no difference in our lives or in the universe. On the other hand, the biggest problem that I see with the stream of progressive Christianity that believes that theology does matter is that, in practice, I have found that it often accepts many of the premises of traditional Christian orthodoxy too readily, and is too unwilling to take Adams's concerns about modern science to heart. Thus we have many self-described progressive Christians who still believe in Divine miracles or that Jesus was literally resurrected, which is not something that I can go along with. Adams is correct that traditionally conceived divine interventionism is unacceptable to the modern ears of many. The way that I found out of this dilemma was through process theology. Via process theology can we believe that theology still matters, and can we embrace a conception of Divine participation in the world, while at the same time rejecting classically conceived Divine interventionism.

I think that Adams and others who claim that orthopraxy is the sole alternative to orthodoxy ("deeds rather than creeds") are missing the point. Giving up on orthodoxy does not have to mean giving up on theology. A dynamic, living faith can be still about theology without being dogmatic. Giving up on dogmatism, rigidity, and theological authoritariansim doesn't require giving up on language about God altogether. There is indeed a middle ground.

So yes, for me, theology does matter. But the key point is this: for me, the real value in progressive Christianity is not that it offers a final word on these questions of theology, but that it offers a platform upon which a dialogue can be built. For me, religion is a continual act of dialogue by people within religious communities with each other and with God. Rather than giving up on God-talk, we embrace it in an open, dynamic fashion. If theology did not matter, then the dialogue would of course be pointless. But by the same token, this dialogue recognizes differences of opinion that necessarily exist among people of faith. An interest in theology does not necessitate an imposition of orthodoxy. We can have an orthopraxy that is rooted in a theology.

The real miracles

I just got around to seeing the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an amazing true story about a man who became paralyzed and unable to communicate with the world except by blinking one eye. One striking aspect to the movie was that, even though the main character himself was not particularly religious, almost everyone around him seemed to be a believer. He was often told, for example, that people were praying for him, and at one point he was even brought to church more or less against his will.

When I think about the idea that people were praying for him, I wonder what exactly they were praying for. That God would miraculously intervene against the laws of nature and give the man the ability to speak or even move again? Is this what people think God does?

I have never really made my peace with those parts of church services where intercessory prayers are offered for the sick. I understand and appreciate the sentiment that lies behind such prayers, and I know that at some level the idea of laying before God our concerns has great value. But it is one thing to tell God what concerns us; it is another thing to use God as a vehicle for a hope of magical solutions to the problems that plague us as creatures of nature who are limited by the physical world.

The real miracle in that movie, in my view, was not found in anyone's magic, but in the loving concern and attention that was directed to him by those around him, including by a wife who gave him more devotion than some might argue he deserved. Every act of communication on his part required active engagement by another party. There was something profound about the way people would begin a communication with him by reciting letters from the French alphabet, waiting for him to blink in order to signal which letter he wanted to communicate. This is in contrast to the way we normally express ourselves. If I want to say something, I just say it; but for him, the very act of "speaking" required that the recipient of the message look him right in the eye and start a recitation of letters.

To me, every time a human being takes care of another one, that is the real miracle. I think it is of much greater value for people to engage in tangible acts of compassion on a daily basis than to engage in futile attempts at conjuring up imaginary acts of magic by an interventionist Deity.

The blindness of hate

One member of the Knoxville UU church had this to say about the shooter who went on a rampage because he didn't approve of the church's liberal views :

This was a man who was hurt in the world and feeling that nothing was going his way. He turned the gun on people who were mostly likely to treat him lovingly and compassionately and be the ones to help someone in that situation.
It is strange that some people can be so blinded by their own hate that they don't see that they themselves can benefit from the very tolerance and compassion that they abhor in others.

God never gives up

The process theologian John Cobb answers a question on the Process and Faith web site about how easy it is to integrate the ideas of process theology with those of Paul Tillich. He writes respectfully about Tillich and says that he is about 95% in agreement with Tillich's ideas. Yet within that other 5%, he finds several important differences, including this one with respect to the nature of Divine love:

The straightforward meaning is that God acts specifically for the good of creatures and that what happens to creatures makes a difference to God. A Tillichian may say that God gives the creatures their being, but cannot say in any straightforward way that what happens to the creatures makes a difference to God. A Whiteheadian believes that not only do we owe our existence to God but we also receive a call to actualize ourselves in that way that realizes most value in ourselves and in others. A Whiteheadian also believes that everything about our experience makes an everlasting difference in the divine experience. Thus we attribute to God, quite straightforwardly, both agape and compassion. (Emphasis added).
This paragraph highlights the two points that I find particularly appealing about process theology. One is that God's compassion entails constant activity on our behalf, and the other is that what we do matters to God. These are, I think, interwoven, because when we respond to God's call, we not only do it for ourselves, but we also do it for God.

Like Cobb, I think that Tillich's theology has much going for it, and I freely borrow from some of Tillich's ideas, but I cannot embrace it completely. Perhaps this illustrates the problem that I have with Spong, who claims Tillich as a significant influence; as much as I admire much of Spong's work, I also find him frustrating at times as he proclaims the death of "theism" without really clarifying what it is he offers in its place.

What process theology offers, to me anyway, is the notion s that God never gives up on us, and that by the same token we should never give up on God. If God is always calling out to us, then we have a responsibility to listen, to make the world work the best it can. Through my own interpretive lens, as I see it, to the extent that we struggle to overturn the evils of the world--war, sexism, racism, economic oppression--we are listening to God's constant call. Every single one of these "isms" that we struggle with are roadblocks to the full actualization of human beings that God desires. We thus carry out God's will when we expand human justice. And with God calling us forward to the future, there is always hope that we can make a better world, even if we seem to do a fantastic job of mucking it up so much of the time.

But it isn't just on a global sense that what we do matters to God. What we do at each moment matters as well. The little things matter just as much as the big ones. We can't be saving the world 24 hours a day; ever time we give up a seat to an elderly person on a crowded subway train, for example, we are also enhancing someone else's life and thus doing God's will.

The idea that what I do makes a difference to God is for me a comforting response in the light of my own agnosticism (if not outright skepticism) about the existence of an afterlife. Even if I don't continue on in some form after I die, I can still take comfort in the belief that every second of my life enhances the Divine experience, and that every act of love that I commit and which enhances someone else's life also enhances the Divine experience.

The purpose of rituals

The Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" web site recently posed a question to its bloggers about how appropriate it was for Sally Quinn, a Post reporter and a non-Catholic, to have taken communion at Tim Russert's Catholic funeral.

I wouldn't have done what she did. True, I might personally find objectionable that whole theology of exclusionary communion (not to mention the sort of divine magic that surrounds the concept of transubstantiation), but I also think that churches that I am not a part of can do whatever they want, and I'm not interested in crashing a party to which I was not invited. I'm not a Catholic and I don't attend Catholic services, so for the most part it becomes a moot point anyway. But a funeral is not exactly the same thing as a regular Sunday mass, because, regardless of the religious nature of the ceremony, the fact is that in our pluralistic culture it often includes the participation of people from diverse religious backgrounds who wish to honor the person in question. The church might host a funeral, but in our society such an event lies at the intersection of the sacred and the pluralistic secular, and it often involves a community of people who aren't part of the church. The idea of a funeral mass with exclusionary acts of ritual almost seems like a quaint throwback to another era centuries ago when everyone in a community more or less belonged to the same religion. In our multicultural society, it is an anachronism. The result is that you invite lots of people to an event that is emotionally charged and then tell some of them that they can't participate in part of it. So in a sense, I can understand where Sally Quinn was coming from, even if I wouldn't do what she did myself. She wanted to honor her friend by participating in a part of the ceremony which others were invited to but which she was implicitly dis-invited from.

What are you going to do if you are not a Catholic and you have a good Catholic friend who died? You don't refuse to attend just because the ceremony partly excludes you, do you?

I've written in the past about my objections to exclusionary communion, despite the fact that communion is not very interesting to me and I mostly eschew participation in it. But even if I don't participate, I appreciate a church that believes in inviting everyone to the table, that puts no preconditions on who is invited, and thus follows in Jesus's own inclusive footsteps when he ate and drank with everyone who wanted to join him. However, I think that what bothers me about communion, even at churches that open it up to everyone, is that even with an open policy, the rite has so much preciousness about it, and so much theology has traditionally been wrapped up in it--especially with all the language about the blood and body of Christ that usually accompanies it--that it is hard for me to get enthused about participation.

Susan K. Smith, in response to the question posed on the "On Faith" site, wrote this in her blog:

God didn't make denominations. People did, and continue to do, if the truth be told. Ah .... truth ... that is the problem. Everyone is looking for the truth and everybody thinks they have THE truth.

And the truth derived by humans is too often not inclusive and welcoming, but exclusive and divisive.

I am not even sure if all the ritual we religious types ascribe to is Biblical or Christian. Didn't Jesus rail against ritual and legalism, and didn't he get in trouble because he wanted, no, needed, people to understand that religion is so much more about God and less about the wiles of human beings?

Didn't Paul write to Jews who had been released from feeling obligated to follow ritual at the expense of loving relationships with each other that they should stand fast in the liberty the Christ had given them and "be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage?"

It is painful to me that religions seem to value ritual over the needs of people. If we gave a tenth of the attention to the world's suffering people that we give to ritual, the world would be radically different. If we practiced the agape love that Jesus talked about, I doubt that anyone would be starving.

She puts her finger on a problem, I think--the idolization of rituals. When rituals are our idols, they stop being referents to the sacred and instead become ends unto themselves. I'm not against rituals per se. To me, a ritual is something that can point us towards a sense of sacred awe, and as such it is a tool, but merely a tool; and I believe that no single ritual is necessarily more important than any other. For me, lighting a candle can have just as much sacred resonance as eating bread and drinking wine. It is not the ritual itself, but how one feels oriented towards the Divine and the Sacred that matters. Communion, I think, is so often in Christianity an end unto itself, and it is granted so much importance that it becomes an idol. The Quakers understood this a long time ago, which is why they don't bother with it at all. Of course, the Quakers have their own solemn rituals--the act of meditative unprogrammed worship is basically one long such ritual.

A few weeks ago, I attended a mid-week Eucharist at an Episcopal church. Much to my chagrin, I was the only person there. I was later told that more people usually attended, but for various reasons that didn't happen that day. Since it was just me and the priest, I was called into service to read some of the lectionary passages and some of the passages from the Book of Common Prayer. There was a lot of High Christological and Trinitarian language that I didn't much care for, but I decided to just try, best as I could, to let the sacred experience flow over me and not get too caught up in the language. The short sermon, which was directed only at me, involved a discussion of Peter and Paul. It was mentioned that Peter died in Rome and was crucified upside down. As I heard those words, I recalled just recently reading in Uta Ranke-Heinemann's book that there was no evidence that Peter ever went to Rome, let alone died there, and that the legend of him being crucified upside down came from a very late apocryphal work. But I didn't let any of this bother me too much. I had come into this service with the intention of having a spiritual experience, knowing full well that things were going to be said that I might not agree with or that I would be uncomfortable with. It helped that the priest was just so nice, and, not to sound self-centered, but it also made a difference that this entire service was was so focused on me. I was getting full attention, and I was an important part of a sacred experience. Often I like to slink quietly in the back pew during a church service, so this was a big change for me.

Then came the communion part of the service. I couldn't bring myself to beg off, as I probably would have done had I not been the only one there besides the priest. I just felt like it would have been rude not to fully participate. So I did. And here's the amazing thing--I sort of liked it.

In fact, because I rather liked it, the following Sunday, when I attended worship at a progressive Lutheran church, I took communion again. I had been there before, and up to that time I had never gone up to take the bread and wine. But, remembering my strange sense of enjoyment from the Episcopal Eucharist, I went up this time. And I discovered that it didn't do much for me. I went back to this same church a couple of weeks later, and that next time I resumed my old practice of staying seated and watching during the communion part of the service.

The lesson I took away from this is that context is everything, and that the meanings of rituals are not inherent to the rituals themselves but in what they point to and in the interpretations and attitudes that we bring to them. This confirmed my suspicion that, for me anyway, communion, is in and of itself just an act of eating and drinking unless we somehow bring something to it. It only becomes important because we make it so. In my own experience, there were very specific reasons why I liked the Eucharist from the mid-week service that could not necessarily be repeated on other occasions or in other places: I was a fully active co-participant of the entire service with the priest, I was given the full attention of the priest, the priest was warm and welcoming, I was probably just in the right mood for it at that moment--and, last, but not least, quite frankly, I am sure I liked it because the whole thing was rather novel. But novelty soon wears off and only goes so far.

Since the churches I attend are generally progressive, and since progressive churches generally offer open communion, I usually have the option of taking communion when it is offered. (I actually was baptized as a child, so I probably qualify for communion in most churches that restrict it to those who were baptized in some Christian church.) In the future, I may or may not take communion when it is offered to me. But my guess is that in most cases I probably will not.

Wisdom from the past

James McGrath writes in his blog entry titled "Thank God For Blessing Us With A Fallible Bible",

Perhaps, rather than assuming that the difficulties are in the Bible to test our willingness to switch off the minds God gave us, and take a leap of faith (or of gullibility), it could be assumed instead that the difficulties are there to be taken seriously, to teach us.
Isn't there great value in learning not just from those before us who got thing right, but also from those who got things wrong?

A progressive faith is not about constantly re-inventing the wheel. This is a false charge that sometimes gets leveled at progressives by theological conservatives. On the contrary, progressive religion at its best does not simply reject the past, but in fact sees the past dogmas, for right or wrong, as examples of how those who preceded us wrestled with the great questions. They gives us material to work with. Maybe the process is just as important as the final result, especially since the final result may not always have been right. We wrestle with many of the same questions today that others did before us; by seeing how others addressed these questions, we don't have to start at square one. This doesn't mean slavishly adopting everything that came before us, but it does mean that we are not alone. Instead, we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.

If you imagine progressive faith as a creative endeavor, then perhaps it is something like the difference between painting a complete portrait strictly from the imagination versus making changes to one that was already started; or writing a novel completely from the imagination versus improving on an earlier draft. It is just easier to engage in a creative endeavor when the work has already been started; and, just as importantly, you can avoid making the same mistakes if you have studied the mistakes that those before you have made.

There is, then, value in the Bible precisely because it is flawed.

What does a progressive Christian believe?

In his book What a Progressive Christian Believes, Delwin Brown writes about the danger of "absolutizing" belief:

Our concept of God...is always an interpretation, never a straightforward description of what is there for all to see. We certainly believe it to be a plausible interpretation of the world, and in our daily lives, if we are reflective Christians, we test the adequacy of our understanding of God. But it is never provable. For this reason, our view of God, though fundamental, is never, ever a legitimate source of absolute claims or absolute attitudes.

The "absolutizing" of religious belief is a sign of fear, a desperate attempt to hide the fact that our fundamental orientations toward life are always interpretive adventures, always a risk. Critics of religion are fully justified in denouncing its absolutistic expressions. They misunderstand religion, though, when they assume that the absolutistic impulse is essential to it. On the contrary, it is a corruption of religion precisely because religion is a standpoint of faith. All too often, however, Christians, still under the spell of a monarchical deity, illustrate that corruption vividly, and destructively. Christian faith, which ought to banish fear, becomes its mask. (pp. 54-54)
To me, this is a brilliant passage that gets to the heart of what I think a progressive faith should be about. It seems to me that if there is one dividing line between progressive and conservative religion, it is (or ought to be) the question of whether faith is rigidly dogmatic or flexibly adaptive. It seems to me that absolutism goes hand in hand with a certain view of the nature of revelation that is not particularly tenable or historically valid. Whereas more absolutist forms of religion presuppose a naively unidirectional and absolutist conception of revelation that conceives of religious truth as having been disseminated from above and received without error by human beings, progressive religion by contrast understands that theology has always been an ongoing dialogue between members of a community of faith with one another and with God.

I would suggest that the overwhelming evidence from both the Bible and the history of early Christianity shows that diversity and dialogue has always characterized the faith. Instead of understanding this, though, the absolutist form of Christianity makes idols out of dogmas and the humans who formulate them.

Both Delwin Brown and Keith Ward, whose book Re-Thinking Christianity I recently commented on, have done excellent jobs of arguing on behalf of a progressive alternative to an ossified, absolutist Christianity. And yet there is a another aspect to this that concerns me. If it is true that new developments are not wrong simply because they are newer, it is also true that newer developments are not right simply because they are newer. I was thinking about this because both Brown and Ward praise the outcomes of the early ecumenical church councils and implicitly accept them as part of the Christianity that they endorse. I myself am not a fan of where those councils took Christianity. Brown, admittedly, gives rather broad interpretations of what these councils did in terms of theological development; for example, as far as I can tell, he views the incarnation to refer not just to Jesus specifically but to Divine immanence in general. Be that as it may, though, I think this is one area where I differ with a lot of progressive Christianity. Opposing an absolutism directed at a prior theology should not result in a different form of an absolutism directed at later theological developments.

Which is another way of saying that theological developments sometimes, but not always, represent theological progress. Theological development is not a straight line towards ever greater insight; sometimes, it can move backwards. I think that, in principle, progressives understand this.

It seems clear that Christianity underwent a lot of changes after the death of Jesus, changes that in many cases Jesus would not have even recognized as his own faith. He was a devout Jew, and yet eventually he became the basis of an entirely new faith that broke from Judaism. Perhaps the seeds of those later developments were found in his own teachings, and I am not saying there is anything inherently wrong with the fact that this evolution took place. But Christianity also developed in ways that may have contradicted his own teachings in serious ways. Jesus the radical inclusivist was killed by an Empire; later Christianity became exclusive and intolerant, and allied itself with an Empire. Do those represent improvements in the faith, or something else entirely? Many progressive Christians would say no.

And yet, what I wonder is why is so much of progressive Christianity, which is willing to be flexible and adaptive in so many other ways, seems unwilling to question the theologies produced by these early ecumenical councils? Why, for example, is the doctrine of the Trinity seen as off limits for discussion?

Messianic hope

An article in today's New York Times has this headline: "Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah, Resurrection".

A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.
The article mostly focuses on the question of whether supposedly uniquely Christian ideas about Jesus's messianic role were in fact unique to Christianity, or if such ideas already existed within Judaism. It has often been assumed that the idea of a a messiah as a suffering figure who would triumph through his own death--rather than as a political figure who would conquer militarily--was alien to Judaism and purely an invention of Hellenizers who took the Jewish concept of a messiah and altered it for their own purposes. For example, Barrie Wilson turned just such a criticism into a major theme of his book How Jesus Became Christian. Yet here we have a suggestion that this motif in fact already existed within at least one strain of Judaism at the time that Jesus lived. Israel Knohl, a professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University, for example, is quoted in the Times as saying, "What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."

Whether any of this proves to be true in the long run or not, it does provide food for thought. Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at UC Berkeley, points out that Christians might take this in two completely different directions, noting, "Some Christians will find it shocking--a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology--while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism." It is interesting to consider that the first century milieu of Palestinian Judaism was not necessarily as homogeneous as some might have thought. It comes as no surprise that Jesus the historical personage was Jewish, of course; but it is interesting to imagine that even some of the theological interpretations of his life that were supposedly uniquely Christian were in fact also Jewish.

The article only touched on what to me is an interesting implication of what this tablet suggests, assuming of course that the interpretation of the writings on the tablet is correct and that the tablet is not a forgery. I think that the theological implications are fascinating, because this finding points to the idea that a resurrection of a suffering messiah in three days already had pre-existing symbolic and mythological value at the time that Jesus and his followers lived. To affirm that Jesus was resurrected in three days was thus a way for Jesus's followers, after he died, of plugging into a myth and making a statement about what their movement was about and therefore who Jesus was. The truth of myths, after all, lies not in their historical veracity, but in the deeper truth that they point to. The resurrection stories in the New Testament don't agree much with one another, and it is rather hard to get three days and three nights out of a Friday evening death and a Sunday morning resurrection anyway. This is why some have tried to argue that Jesus was actually not executed on a Friday--but that misses the point, because it focused on the details rather than the bigger mythic picture. As one who doesn't believe that those stories are literally true, I think that there is no need to literalize these myths anyway.

The stone tablet says, for example, "In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice." Isn't that precisely the message of hope that Christians are trying to convey when they say, "Hallelujah, Christ is risen"?

Points of contact

My interest in the Christian faith is based on a couple of premises: first, I characterize myself as a monotheist; and, second, I have a tentative and complicated attraction to the myths, symbols, and traditions of the Christian faith. The first without the second would make me a monotheist, but without any particular connection to or interest in Christianity. Those myths and symbols are, as I see it, further expressed in two important ways: through the person of Jesus, and through the canon of scriptural texts that constitute the Christian Bible. Taken together, then all of this leaves me with three basic points of contact with Christianity: God, Jesus, and the Bible.

For me, this isn't about affirming certain propositions of faith. Saying that a point of contact with Christianity is that I believe in God leaves a lot of wiggle room as to what I might think about God's nature. Saying that Jesus is another point of contact says nothing about what my beliefs are concerning Jesus's nature or his relationship with God (it isn't, in other words, dependent on the Trinity, the resurrection, the virgin birth, salvation, or judgment day). And saying that the Bible is a point of contact doesn't say that I think the Bible is inerrant, that it doesn't contradict itself, or that it isn't just plain wrong about some things. Faith for me may not be about affirming what I think about Jesus's nature or God's nature, but, on the other hand, it may have a lot to do with community, spirit, faithfulness, and love.

Which brings me to this quote from Marcus Borg:

That Christian faith is about "belief" is a rather odd notion, when you think about it. It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads--as if "believing the right things" is what God is most looking for, as if having "correct beliefs" is what will save us. And if you have "incorrect beliefs", you may be in trouble. It's remarkable to think that God cares so much about "beliefs."

Moreover, when you think about it, faith as belief is relatively impotent, relatively powerless. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. Believing a set of claims to be true has little transforming power. (The Heart of Christianity, pp 30-31).
This quote comes form a section in The Heart of Christianity in which Borg explores several different meanings of "faith", which he labels assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio. Assensus, Borg argues, has been mis-characterized as being about affirming a set of "right" beliefs. After discussing the other ways of characterizing faith he finally does come around to assensus, but in particular he associates the word with the idea that there are three affirmations that are integral to Christianity: the reality of God, the utter centrality of Jesus, and the centrality of the Bible.

Hmmm. Back to those three points of contact again. How about that?

Peter Rollins writes his book The Fidelity of Betrayal, "While certain beliefs are affirmed as a means of reflecting upon the faith of Jesus, these beliefs can never take the place of, or fully describe, that faith." (p. 136). He also writes:
Instead of forming churches that emphasize belief before behavior and behavior before belonging, there is a vast space within the tradition to form communities that celebrate belonging to one another in the undergoing and aftermath of the miracle, a belonging that manifests itself in communally agreed rituals, creeds, and activities. In the midst of all this these communities can also encourage lively, heated, and respectful discussions concerning the nature and form of belief. (p. 161).
Imagine that--forming churches that don't emphasize belief before behavior and behavior before belonging. Sometimes I do get glimpses of that from various Christian churches; for example, I recently visited a church and was pleasantly surprised to hear one of the deacons tell me something along the lines of, "this is a good church if you are a doubter." If only I heard a message like that more often.

Why religion?

Blogger Wade G. writes in his blog that

despite my non-belief in traditional forms of Christianity and orthodox notions of God, I am drawn to religion for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. I like something about it. I like the language of the sacred and even the term "God" has power for me.
I can so relate to that. I posted a blog entry today, which I later deleted, in which I reflected on my own frustration in being torn between my attraction to Christianity and my feelings of being repelled by its orthodoxy. But I decided that what I wrote was rather boring.

I also like the language of the sacred, but I soon get defensive when that language is literalized and formulated into a belief system with propositions that are supposed to be affirmed as part of worship. In John Shuck's blog there has been a discussion about the membership criteria for joining a Presbyterian church. The question that comes up in my mind is what it means to join a faith community if the requirement is that you be a committed Christian. Is a commitment to Christian faith about affirming a belief in some ancient set of formulas? Or is it more about commitment, relationship, and community? Or is it something else entirely?

Re-thinking Christianity

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, a British progressive Jewish rabbi, wrote an article a few days ago for the Guardian's "Comment is Free" web site, in which she commented on the current divisions taking place within the Anglican church. As a practitioner of progressive Judaism, she has witnessed the divisions within her own faith over such questions as the ordination of female rabbis; orthodox Judaism, for example, still does not recognize the right of women to be rabbis. Thus she offers a perspective as an outsider on what is happening within the prevailing Christian denomination in her country, which is struggling over, among other things, matters of inclusiveness.

She notes, for example, that "Nowhere is the 'glass ceiling' more resilient than in the institutional frameworks of the major religions." Yet she also points out that "Progressive Jews look back on Jewish history and see that Judaism has evolved over four millennia, and that being able to adapt to changing circumstances has been the secret of Jewish survival." She offers this insight as a progressive Jew, as an example of perhaps what Anglicanism needs to consider for itself.

This theme--evolving and adapting to changing circumstances--resonates with me, and it is something I have written about quite a bit. In fact, it is because of my interest in this topic that I wanted to read the book Re-Thinking Christianity, by Keith Ward, which ostensibly is devoted to this very topic. For example, Ward makes this comment in his book:

There are many beliefs in the synoptic Gospels that we cannot share--where the kingdom would be, what it would do for Israel, when and how it would arrive. Christian faith has changed in important ways since the days of the apostles. But that does not mean such beliefs are no more than mistakes. We must try to see what the spiritual reality was to which such beliefs may have pointed, and ask how they might be rephrased in in the light of new knowledge or in the new contexts of our own day. That is why it is important to re-think Christianity. Christian faith needs to be re-thought in each new place and generation. That is something that may be become apparent as the result of a reflective and informed study of the synoptic Gospels and the form of their beliefs about the nature and coming of the kingdom of God. It is part of the essential nature of Christian faith that it should be open to constant change and creative exploration. The history of Christianity is the history of such change, and I have suggested that a fairly radical change was necessary even in the first generation of Christians, as they had to revise their beliefs about the nature of the Messiah and the kingdom of God. It should be no surprise if we find that we have to undertake a similar task in our own day. It can be an encouragement to realise how very radical the change of beliefs was a the very inception of Christian faith. (Keith Ward, Re-Thinking Christianity, pp. 16-17)
Keith Ward thus points out that a certain kind of Christianity that developed after Jesus died is not the same as Jesus's own religion. This is not exactly earth shattering news. Barrie Wilson has written a book, How Jesus Became Christian, in which he bemoaned this very fact, and offered a whole conspiracy theory surrounding it. But there is no conspiracy here, because it is no secret that Christianity evolved. What Wilson complains about, Ward celebrates. Ward sees this evolution as a reasonable and necessary phenomenon, one that set in motion a process that he believes should continue even to this day. Christianity should always be re-thought, he argues.

Yet even as Ward offers a compelling argument for this process, he in almost the next breath seems to waver in his celebration of diversity and evolution and re-thinking in Christianity. He describes himself as orthodox, and in many ways he is, and he is willing to rethink Christianity only up to a certain point. To him, incarnational and Trinitarian theologies seem to be essential parts of Christianity that cannot be rethought, even though he freely admits that these theologies themselves emerged within the Christian community after Jesus died and thus serve as an example of how Christianity was "re-thought" from the very beginning. At one point he seems to reduce Christianity to certain essential beliefs such as that "God...became incarnate, is Trinitarian in being and reconciles the world to the divine in Jesus Christ" (p. 191). It isn't clear to me why he draws a line in the sand around these beliefs when other beliefs are provisional and open to reconsideration. When Michael Servetus rethought Christianity in the sixteenth century and rejected Trinitarianism, wasn't he engaging in just the sort of re-thinking process that Ward wants us all to do?

As an illustration of just how well he understands that many "essential" Christian dogmas do not go back to Jesus himself or his early followers, he makes the point that Protestant sects that think they are restoring the practices and beliefs of "original" primitive or apostolic Christianity as described in the Bible are simply fooling themselves:
Most classical Protestants did not in fact derive all their doctrines from the Bible alone. They accepted the decisions of the first ecumenical councils of the church. They accepted, for instance, that Jesus was fully God and fully man and that the Trinity was three persons in one substance. They also tended to accept some specifically Western doctrines, as formulated by Augustine--that humans are born with original guilt, that the 'saved' are predestined by God and that human free will is compatible with such pre-destination. Many of them accepted a theory of atonement that derived from Anselm, as adjusted by Calvin, that we can only be saved because Jesus died 'in our place', to pay the penalty of death that God's justice required for our sins....

So Protestants did not in fact rely on Scripture alone for their doctrines, as they sometimes claimed. They relied on a number of traditional interpretations of Scripture, interpretations that got more and more specific and exclusive, until in the end some of them relied on Luther, some on Calvin, some on Zwingli, and some on other less famous but equally cantankerous interpreters of the allegedly 'self-interpreting' Scripture. (p. 106)
That is a wonderful quote, and it illustrates the fact that, indeed, modern Christianity in general relies on developments that came about some time after Jesus died, reflecting beliefs or practices that Jesus neither preached nor anticipated. Ward's point is simply that there is nothing wrong with this, and I don't necessarily disagree with him. I also think that there's nothing wrong with an evolving faith, but it also means that those later re-thought doctrines themselves can be just as subject to re-thinking as the earlier ones were that spawned the original re-thinking in the first place. In other words, if we follow the argument that he seems to be advancing in the book, we should not become too attached to any given interpretation, which is why I find it curious that at times he himself seems to just implicitly accept some of these later developments himself.

I think it is the inconsistency of his position, or at least the fact that he didn't articulate the subtlety of his position very well (or at least well enough for me to understand it), that I find the most frustrating. He often seems to contradict himself, and the book itself seems unfocused, as he ranges across many subjects, from merely arguing in favor of re-thinking Christianity to giving his own theology on the afterlife and the Trinity, to exploring the history of German philosophy as it relates to Christian thought. While it it was interesting to read about Hegel and Kant, I had a hard time seeing how it all related to his supposed central thesis.

Perhaps most disturbingly, at one point he seems to argue that the evolution of Christian doctrine should be a purely collective process, and that individuals should somehow defer to the collective wisdom of the Christian community as a whole rather then openly questioning these questions of theology for themselves. It is hard to know how a process of "re-thinking" Christianity could be possible without the input from free thinkers who questioned the prevailing wisdom that everyone is supposed to defer to, and yet he seems to suggest just that when he writes of the superiority of the authority of the apostolic witness, the New Testament, and church tradition over individual questioning of the received dogma:
Such authority is greater than that of personal experience alone, because it covers a greater range of human cognition, it has been subject to continued theological criticism and intellectual enquiry and it includes the experiences of those much more closely united to God than most of us are. (p. 217)
That statement bizarrely seems to undermine so much of his argument elsewhere in the book that it isn't exactly clear what he is really trying to say here. Or is this "wisdom of the faithful crowds" a sort of Wikipedia model for Christian theology? This would also seem to contradict what he says about the problem of repression against minority views, and it not particularly consistent with the fact that some of his own views are somewhat unconventional as far as Christian orthodoxy goes (he is essentially a universalist, for example, and he also offers his own take on Trinitarianism.)

Ward offers some powerful insights in this book, but in certain ways the book is disappointing. While I think he offers some powerful ideas at times, I also think that after having set up any attachment to a fixed orthodoxy as a potential target for questioning, he then at times seems too afraid to take his own advice and make the leap into territory that would actually question orthodox wisdom. Still, he is not dogmatic, and he treats his subject matter thoughtfully and intelligently, and in my view that counts for a lot. I would thus recommend the book, but with qualifications.

It isn't a smear to be called a Muslim

In the second frame of the above Doonesbury comic strip from a few days ago, being called a Muslim is the first item in a list of political "smears".

A CNN story on this subject notes,

The Obama campaign has created a special team to fight rumors like the one about his religion. He goes out of his way to deny it in speeches. His supporters do too. There is a Web site devoted to it, called FightTheSmears.Com.

But what about the underlying premise: why should his being a Muslim matter? Why is it a "smear?"

Tony Kutalyi of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says: "He needs to come out and not just simply say I'm not a Muslim, but again, if I were a Muslim, what difference would it make?"

I went to the "Fight the Smears" web site, and, indeed, it is broken down into sections that address various false statements, with one section dealing with his religion; it includes these words:
SMEAR: Barack Obama is a Muslim
THE TRUTH: Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim, and is a committed Christian.
Contrary to the above, it is not a smear to be called a Muslim, and to suggest otherwise is an insult to millions of faithful Muslims around the world.

Emptying the faith of dogma

From Jim Burklo's blog:

The progressive Christian movement is about emptying the faith of dogma and doctrines that get in love’s way. It is about the practice of individual Christians who are emptying themselves of selfishness and egotism. In prayer, in worship, we are challenged to do what Jesus did, and empty ourselves of old, tired, uptight beliefs. Empty ourselves of judgment and prejudice. So that we can be amazed by the stars. So that we can be filled with the insights not only of our faith, but of other religions as well. So that we can have holy awe when we look at each other in worship, knowing that each of us flickers with a spark of the divine.

When biblical scholarship clashes with theology

Thanks to a link from the blogger NT Wrong, I found a description by James Crossley of his experience presenting a paper to a conference on the current Pope's book about Jesus. The conference attendees apparently included a fair number of Catholic theologians and various high ranking Catholic figures. Crossley noted that "this conference revealed what seems to me (and others) a significant and very interesting tension between theology (probably more precisely systematic theology) and biblical studies (more precisely historical criticism)." He somewhat casually made the rather significant observation that "many theologians wanted historical criticism to give them the answers they wanted for theology and discard views that were not helpful." (emphasis added).

In a nutshell, that captures what I think is a common problem. Considering what is at stake, it doesn't surprise me. When you base a religious faith on dogmatic assertions about historical events, then any research that is done in the service of that theology is inevitably going to start from the dogma and work backwards to find evidence to support it, lest the very foundation of the faith more or less collapse. This approach is not, of course, particularly scientific, but it seems inevitable given what is at stake. Neither the Catholic Church, nor any other church that is similarly invested in the outcome of such efforts, is likely to to lend support to any research that undermines its own tenets. I can think of analogy from the political world, when the CIA was pressured by Dick Cheney a few years ago to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This is not unlike the Catholic Church telling its theologians to go do biblical studies that support the party line. When you have decided the answer in advance, and only seek out the evidence that supports your position, you naturally (big surprise) get the answers you want. Ultimately, religious faith becomes equated with a willingness to affirm belief in spite of possible evidence to the contrary. This is not a very appealing definition of faith for people who like to think of themselves as rational. This one reason why religion ends up being so unappealing to large numbers of people.

I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful book The Fidelity of Betrayal by Peter Rollins. It is a long quote, but I think it explains very well why it is problematic for Christianity to base itself on the literal truth of extraordinary claims about events that allegedly happened as depicted in the Bible:

As soon as Christianity is thought of as something that makes claims to a set of facts that exist in the world, then it becomes subject to a whole range of critiques. This does not in any way imply that we must reject specific claims in the Bible, any more than it implies that we must embrace them; this is another question entirely, one that can be approached in relation to the best evidence that we have. It merely points out that if we take such claims as the "truth" of faith then we predicate that truth upon claims that will always be open to question. Of course within the Bible there are various claims to historical events; the point is that these claims, like all claims, are open to question, and so, if the truth of faith rests upon them, then it is also open to question.

Thus the truth affirmed by Christianity ends up being treated like any other set of factual claims, claims that are provisional and open to being proven wrong. Even if one believes that the various claims within the Bible are wholly accurate, it is always possible that a new discovery in archaeology, history, or biblical scholarship will overturn the current body of evidence. Apologetics, in its attempt to defend the factual claims of the Bible through the use of reason, thus implicitly affirms the very philosophical outlook that undermines its own project, placing the truth of Christianity in the realm of rational reflection and thus into the realm of reasonable doubt and provisionality.

This has the effect of placing the Christian idea of truth upon a very tentative and fragile foundation, one that could not possibly justify an individual's unconditional commitment--one that would not be able to embrace Jesus' statement that one ought to lay one's life down for one's faith. Such an approach to the truth affirmed by Christianity would effectively mean that the believer would have to bow down before the academic researchers who are able to discuss which biblical texts are authentic, when they were written, by whom, and for what purpose. The believer would need to study all the available evidence and ascertain facts such as whether or not the Gospels record the writings of people who were eyewitnesses to the events they mention, and if not, whether they knew the eyewitnesses.

To be a believer would thus require some hefty subscriptions to the latest academic journals in order to see if the truth claims of Christianity could still be regarded as plausible, or even possible. Philosophy journals would become a stable diet for the preacher who would , in fear and trembling, be working out whether belief in Christianity is still rational. Journals dealing with biblical scholarship would become the norm in home groups, and psychological journals would need to be read as an integral part of our devotional meditations (helping us to work out whether our religious experience was likely to have descended form heaven or whether it really welled up from the depths of our unconscious.) (p. 92-94)
From this I think one can infer at least two rather unappealing responses to the problem of these sorts of truth claims. One response would be to ignore any evidence that contradicts the claims. This would seem to be intellectually dishonest, but it would ensure the continued commitment to the faith. Another alternative would be to make one's faith provisional and dependent on the latest findings, as Rollins describes in the above text. That would be intellectually honest but it would take away the possibility of any real commitment to the faith.

To maintain one's intellectual honesty and one's commitment to faith would require that faith not be dependent on these sorts of contingent truth claims. As Marcus Borg likes to point out, it whether or not Jesus was literally resurrected from the dead should not really matter to the Christian faith. What should matter instead is the deeper truths that the story of the resurrection points to. As he writes in his book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary:
Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality. The factual question is left open. A parabolic reading affirms: believe whatever you want about whether story happened this way--now let's talk about what the story means. If you believe the tomb was empty, fine. Now, what does the story mean? If you believe that Jesus's appearances could have been videotaped, fine. Now what do these stories mean? And if you're not sure, or even quite sure they didn't happen this way, fine. Now, what do these stories mean?

A parabolic reading insists that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. An empty tomb without meaning ascribed to it is simply an odd, even if exceptional, event. Only when meaning is ascribed to it does it take on significance. This is the function of parable and parabolic language. Parable can be based on an actual event (there could have been a Samritan who did what the character in Jesus's parable is reported to have done), but it need not be. Indeed, it may be that the most important truths can be expressed only in parable.

In any case, asking about the parabolic meaning of biblical stories, including the Easter stories, is always the most important question. The alternative of fixating on whether they report literally factual happenings leads one astray. And so, as we turn tot he stories of Easter in the gospels, I highlight their meaning as parable, as truth-filled stories. I leave open the question of how much of this happened, even as I affirm that their truth does not depend upon their public factuality. (pp. 280-281).

Intelligence and belief in God

Does disbelief in God correlate with higher intelligence? According to this article, a researcher thinks so:

Belief in God is much lower among academics than among the general population because scholars have higher IQs, a controversial academic claimed this week.

In a forthcoming paper for the journal Intelligence, Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, will argue that there is a strong correlation between high IQ and lack of religious belief and that average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 countries.

In the paper, Professor Lynn - who has previously caused controversy with research linking intelligence to race and sex - says evidence points to lower proportions of people holding religious beliefs among "intellectual elites".

The last bit of that quoted text, which mentions that Lynn has made assertions correlating intelligence with race or sex, makes me quite wary of what he has to say on this subject. I am also suspicious of the suggestion that IQ test results directly correlate with "intelligence", which I think is a concept that is loaded and often difficult to pin down.

That being said, though, I do think there is a way of viewing this subject that is being overlooked, because the idea of God per se is so commonly conflated with specific notions of God as "he" is often conceived. It hardly surprises me that many intellectuals and academics would reject as untenable a pre-Enlightenment concept of an interventionist God as Patriarch-in-the-Sky who miraculously fertilizes a virgin's egg with his Divine sperm, or who causes the offspring of that fertilization process to literally rise upwards into a heavenly realm that is part of a pre-Copernican three-tiered universe, or who in the modern day and age miraculously heals a parishioner's aunt's bad hip because the parishioner asked enough people in church to pray for it. I think that the more educated one becomes, the more likely one is to develop a view that sees the world as governed by consistent and generally predictable physical laws, which doesn't really seem to jibe very well with this traditional and miracle-laden form of theism (which Marcus Borg calls "supernatural theism".) They see this literalized mythology, and I think rightly so, as untenable and inconsistent with the way they understand the universe to operate.

But what does that have to do with the concept of God per se? As Marcus Borg says, "tell me about the God you don't believe in, and I probably don't believe in that God either." So many intellectuals who reject the concept of "God" are really just rejecting a stereotypical concept of God.

Perhaps the idea of a God who is not supernaturally theistic is not everyone's cup of tea. Maybe supernatural theism is easier to work with than the theologies of people like Tillich, Borg, Spong, Hartshorne, or Hick, because it conceives of God in ways that are more analogous with our ordinary experience of other objects and agents in our world, and is thus more accessible to the human imagination. Because an ineffable God as Ground of Being is much more difficult for us to get our minds around than ordinary objects that we encounter in our everyday world, we rely on mythologies as the lens through which we view the Divine. Not that this is a bad thing, but the problems arise when these mythologies are so often taken literally, and God becomes objectified and turned into something within the same ontological category as those objects we encounter in everyday experience.

Peter Rollins, in his book The Fidelity of Betrayal, writes of the problem of objectifying God:
This idea of life as beyond the realm of objectivity can be compared to our experience of light. No matter how wide we open our eyes or how hard we stare we cannot see the light that illumines our world. Just as the light in a room is not seen but rather enables us to see, so our life is not experienced but enables us to experience. Our life does not then exist like objects we encounter on a daily basis; however, it is undeniable that our own life is present to us. This can help us to understand what we mean by saying that God is not a problem to be solved but rather a mystery to participate in. For, like God, our life cannot be understood if we distance ourselves from it and treat it as an object of contemplation. Rather we must explore it indirectly, understanding that it is testified to in the midst of our engagement with the world rather than caught by treating it as an object in our world. God is no more an object in the world than our life is an object in the world. Rather, God is that which grounds our world and opens a world up to us. (p. 115)
Rollins also points out in his book that when faith is identified with the affirmation of creeds or is dependent on the truth of certain historical claims--which is what characterizes so much of Christianity--it lends itself almost inevitably to questioning and the possibility of rejection by intellectuals:
When the truth affirmed by Christianity is thought of as constituting a series of factual claims open to being assessed by intellectual experts, Christianity opens itself up to a corrosive form of doubt that threatens to destroy it. (p. 92)
One of the things that I like about what Rollins has to say on the subject of miracles as violations of physical laws is not that these miracles do or don't happen, but that the whole question is irrelevant. The focus of religion, he believes, should not be on any faith in such miracles, but rather on the transformative power that religious faith introduces into our lives. This is the real "miracle":
The point is not to exclude the idea that miracles can involve awe-inspiring, breathtaking spectacles, but rather to point out that if the event is purely spectacular, involving no real change in the core of one's being, then it is nothing more than a spectacle. Physical changes are natural insomuch as they take place in the natural world. Our medical technology is constantly improving and is able to heal in ways that would have seemed magical only a hundred or two hundred years ago. Vital as such healing is in today's world, such a focus can eclipse what Christianity affirms as the true miracle. It is not something natural (although it will manifest itself in the natural world) but something supernatural. It does not register as an object that can be recorded and beamed around the world on some religious cable channel, or witnessed at a local charismatic healing service. A miracle worth its salt takes place in the world but is not of it. A miracle worthy of the name is so radical that while in the physical world nothing may change, in the one who has been touched by it nothing remains the same. (p. 149)
As long as the concept of God is objectified, and as long as religion is equated with the affirmation of truth claims that intrude upon the magisterium of science, I think it is going to be a tough sell as an intellectual concept in the modern age.