Instant Karma's Gonna Get You

Sharon Stone regrets having suggested that the Chinese earthquake was the result of bad karma for oppressing the people of Tibet.

Her suggestion mirrored a fairly commonplace usage of the word "karma", which is to say, as some sort of impersonal force that implements payback for misdeeds. "That's his karma," some people will say, if a not-very-nice person gets his or her comeuppance. Karmic justice is to the present day world what Yahweh's justice was to the Old Testament. Yahweh was said to reward Israel for being good and punish Israel for being wicked. Karma is more or less just like that in the contemporary popular imagination, except without all the theistic baggage, so that you can talk about payback from on high without actually sounding religious.

The author of Ecclesiastes figured out a long time ago that life wasn't always fair, and that our rewards in this life don't really match very well how righteous we are. But all these thousands of years later, people still want to believe otherwise, and with the magic K word they can express this notion without even having to believe in God.

One problem with this concept of national karma, as opposed to individual karma, is that it says that people are punished whether or not they had anything to do with the supposed national sin. Was Katrina simply America's bad karma for foisting George Bush on the world? How many of the Katrina victims even supported George Bush? Similarly, how many of the victims of the quake in China had anything to do with China's Tibet policy?

The Shin Buddhist author Taitetsu Unno writes in the book River of Fire, River of Water:

In Buddhism hell does not exist as a place; it is created by each individual's thought, speech, and action. Hell is the consequence of karmic life for which each person alone is accountable. No one else should be blamed for one's past history, present circumstances, or future happenings. The law of karma is the ultimate form of personal responsibility, and its validity is to be tested through rigorous self-examination and applied to one's own existential predicament. The principle of karma should never be applied to others, as found in such thoughtless expressions as "That's his karma," when another person experiences misfortune. (pp. 158-159; emphasis added).
In other words, "judge not and ye shall not be judged."

Footnote: The common slang expression, "parking karma," refers to the ability to find good parking spots in congested or difficult-to-park areas. My parking karma is generally bad, although I can attribute this to the fact that I live in a city where parking is scarce. There is a measure of both irony and superstition in a phrase like that. It is hard to know what kind of good behavior it would take to earn good parking karma, although maybe the idea is that being a generous and polite driver who doesn't nearly mow down pedestrians on the way to a popular restaurant might earn you enough karma points to win that coveted parking space right next to said popular restaurant.

Freelance monotheism

Karen Armstrong describes herself as a "freelance monotheist". I like this term because I think it comes close to describing me as well. She travels more freely across the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions than I do--I mostly locate myself within the Christian orbit, although, as orbits go, mine is about as close to orthodox Christianity as Pluto's is to the sun. I share her respect for all the Abrahamic faiths, and even if I mostly focus on Christianity, I am a committed religious pluralist.

In a recent interview, she was asked if she liked the question about whether she believed in God. She said "No, because people who ask this question often have a rather simplistic notion of what God is." I absolutely agree; I find that I cannot answer this question in the affirmative without also quickly adding the qualifying statement, "but my concept of God may not be the same as yours." She also described the question of an afterlife as a "red herring." Again, I agree.

The funny thing is that I've never really been a fan of her books. I managed not to finish her book on the Buddha, and I found her book "A History of God" to be a difficult and tedious read, a nonstop swirl of alternative theologies that after a while just became an almost meaningless blur. Still, as a speaker, she is interesting. Her recent interview with Alan Jones as part of the City Arts and Lectures Series is definitely worth checking out. So even if she is not necessarily my favorite author, her honest search for God outside of the restrictive confines of dogmatic religion is something I can relate to.

God , suffering, and long-term plans

NT Wrong provides some insightful comments on blogger Rebecca Lesses's posting about John Hagee's theology of the Holocaust, specifically remarking on the idea of Satan and the book of Job.

Hagee, as you might recall, claimed that the Holocaust was the fulfillment of God's will because it served God's long-term plan for the Jews to form a state in Palestine. This long-term plan was supposedly outlined in the Bible, although one has to know how to interpret the pertinent passages to realize this; and, apparently, when God lays out his plans for history--well, as the saying goes, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Or, in this case, six million eggs.

There are at least three key assumptions that lie behind Hagee's view: first, that God has laid out a script for history; second, that God intervenes directly in world events in order to ensure that the script is followed; and third, any mass slaughter, genocide, torture, or other atrocities that might take place in the service of the divine plan can be dismissed as mere collateral damage.

It is easy to feel outraged at Hagee's crude theodicy, which is predicated on a simplistic interpretation of the meaning of Divine prophecy as found in the Bible. Many people object, and rightly so, to the idea that God would use such unmitigated evil to serve Divine purposes. And yet, as I pointed out in my commentary on the blogversation between N.T. Wright and Bart Ehrman, Wright's vague and incoherent theodicy also involves a "long-range plan" on God's part that does not concern itself with the suffering that individuals undergo along the way to the fulfillment of that plan. Though not as crude or simplistic as Hagee's theodicy, N.T. Wright's theodicy nevertheless also conceives of God as having a "plan" that happens to offer no resolution for those who suffer and die long before the plan is fully carried out.

For example, Wright says to Ehrman that the call of Abraham is

the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery. In other words, I read the story of Israel as a whole (not merely in its individual parts, which by themselves, taken out of that context, might be reduced to ‘Israel sinned; God punished them’, etc.,) as the story of theodicy-in-practice: ‘this is the narrative through whose outworking the creator God will eventually put all things to rights.’ Hence the promises of Isaiah 11 and so forth.
When push comes to shove, how is this really any different from what Hagee proclaimed? Can short term suffering really be dismissed in favor of some far off future solution that won't help the victims who happened to be born in the wrong place and time, but instead will be enacted further on down the road for those lucky enough to be born later, when God finally gets around to "putting things right"?

Some turn to the book of Job for answers to explain away human suffering, but I think that this story offers no answers. For one thing, Job's suffering was really just a special case; he was the object of abuse, basically in order to settle a bet between God and Satan, and his experience provides no explanation for suffering in general--unless one thinks that all instances of suffering are the result of experiments done to us by powerful forces just to see how we will react. The final non-answer from God out of the whirlwind was simply to tell Job, "You aren't me, I can do what I want, so shut up and take your lumps." I think that those who suffered under the Holocaust, as well as all of those who suffer in other circumstances, deserve a better explanation than that. A God who can intervene but who does not do so has some explaining to do.

The question of how much God has scripted out the future of the world, or for that matter our individual lives, depends on how much free will and uncertainty you think exists in the world, and also whether you conceive of God as a supernaturally interventionist omnipotent being. As I see it, there are several questions involved:

First, is the future of human history predictable with absolute certainty? If yes, is that because there is an unbreakable chain of cause and effect, such that, given absolute knowledge about the current circumstances, anyone (even humans) could predict every subsequent outcome? In that case, then God needs only to set up the initial conditions and watch the world unfold according to plan (Deism). (Alternatively, maybe the world has greater free will than that and is not predictable to humans, but predictable to God because he has super telekinetic powers.)

Second, can the future of the world only be predicted in terms of short term probabilities of immediate outcomes of events decided by freely choosing agents? God might know that I will have an 87.3% chance of going to church on Sunday, and a 12.7% chance of staying home and surfing the internet. God might calculate this probability with absolute accuracy--but maybe even to God, it is only a probability. This would also mean that the world thus becomes decreasingly predictable over time as the uncertainty of each possible outcome in turn leads to one or more possible outcomes with varying degrees of certainty, resulting in the distant future being all but unpredictable--even to God. Life in this scenario is not a linear, deterministic chain of cause of effect, but rather an ever expanding decision tree with various probabilities assigned to each branch.

Third, if the universe is not absolutely predictable, can God nevertheless influence events via interventionist course corrections that steer the world back in a desired direction? Or is God only capable of exerting influence via persuasion, without the power to either absolutely predict or deterministically control the outcome of future events (process theology)?

The blogger Simon H writes this about the idea that God has planned out our lives:
When I was a bright eyed young Fundamentalist the passage from Jeremiah was oft quoted during difficult times: "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

This is supposed to give the hearer a feeling of security and comfort - life has been planned out for us. The good times are God's blessing, and the bad times are there for a reason.
But, he suggests (and I agree),
Life is not planned out. It just happens....Process Theology gives me comfort, not because it tells me that God is "in control", but because it says that God suffers with us.
Here, I think, we have two different levels of "control". At one level, the Jeremiah quote suggests God is said to be in control of our personal destinies. This idea of divine control over our individual fates is hardly restricted to Abrahamic religions. The ancient Greek gods were also said to be in control of personal destinies. Oedipus, for example, didn't have any choice about what his fate would be--he was just a victim of fate. Is human life little more than just a Greek tragedy?

At a higher scale, according to Hagee, God is in control of the destiny of entire nations. This level of planning, however, can easily clash with the destiny of individuals. You can trust God to have your fate in your hands all you want, but if you get caught up in the sweep of history, your individual fate may just suffer in service to the greater cause. You might, as Hagee suggests, get thrown into a gas chamber, because God's script for history demands it.

When talking about either nations or individuals, however, the basic idea in both cases is that God scripts out a future for the world. If you believe in free will, this is hard to fathom. If you believe that God doesn't script our lives (or the lives of nations) in absolute detail, but instead intervenes just from time to time, then does that mean there is no script?

I suppose one might believe that God is an improvisational director, who lays out the broad outlines of a plot but mostly lets the actors do what they want. As the Divine Director, maybe God yells "cut!" from time to time, and then intervenes--maybe fertilizing a virgin here, resuscitating a Son's dead body there, curing a sick aunt's cancer because she had enough friends who were willing to pray for her, and so forth. The problem with this is that once you've let the omnipotence cat out of the bag, you are stuck with explaining how it is that God didn't bother to prevent horrible evils like the Holocaust. Hagee's answer is that God didn't prevent it because it actually served God's long-term plans. It also does seem to me that an omnipotent God could surely have created a Jewish state in Palestine without using the Nazis, but in any case, Hagee's point seems to be that nothing happens without God's permission or active complicity--which, it seems to me, is a more logically consistent view to take if you think that God has intervened in history at all. The "free will" defense for the existence of evil , I believe, falls apart as soon as you accept that God intervenes at all. If God didn't intervene to prevent the Holocaust because of "free will", then wasn't God also violating free will all the other times that he intervened?

I think that the desire to believe in an omnipotent God is very strong indeed. It is comforting to think that there is a method to the world's madness, that someone with greater wisdom and authority than us actually is in charge. A Jerusalem Post article from two months ago about Rabbi Harold Kushner describes the negative reaction that he received from many Jews in response to his suggestion that God is not omnipotent:
Kushner committed his gravest offense, as the Orthodox see it, in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He labored to reconcile the twin Jewish beliefs in God's omnipotence and his benevolence with the reality of human suffering, ultimately sacrificing the former to salvage the latter.

Kushner's God is limited in his ability to control the random hazards of life that result in tragedy on a widespread and a smaller scale, like the Holocaust and the death of a child.

It is a view that runs afoul of traditional Jewish teaching about God. The Orthodox, who Kushner says feel obliged to defend every writing by an Orthodox rabbi, accuse him of propounding un-Jewish ideas. Among the top Google hits for "Harold Kushner" is an article from an Orthodox Web site titled "Why Harold Kushner is Wrong."

Given all of that, I have come to my own conclusions about omnipotence and Divine activity. I work from these assumptions:

First, I think the world is characterized by free will. Each outcome, each event, represents the expression of a freely chosen decision.

Second, I believe that there is no overriding script that dictates the course of either national or individual histories. I would instead suggest that God responds to each set of circumstances as they arise and evolve over time. As circumstances change, as the result of the freely chosen decisions, God offers new responses.

Third, I think that the nature of the responses that God offers to each set of conditions is not coercive intervention, but rather the offer of creative possibilities, which are the best possibilities imaginable according to God's perfect values.

I thus see God as always responding lovingly to the immediate conditions of the world, trying to persuade the world to act according to God's overall ideals. But there is no script, there is no omnipotent intervention, no predetermined plan for the coming millenia--just continued improvisational responses by God, rooted in persuasive love at each moment in time. And God's perfect sympathy means that God is with us when we undergo suffering--suffering that God did not cause in order to serve some deeper purpose, and suffering that God cannot prevent.

The human tribe

John Spong frequently uses the word "tribalism" to describe the human propensity for thinking in terms of "us versus them". Yet he also argues that this is behavior we can overcome if we realize our full human potential. He suggests that Jesus, in his own life, demonstrated through his own life and teachings the promise of being what he calls "fully human." For example, in his book Jesus for the Non-Religious, he writes:

The more we sink into tribal attitudes, the more our lives are consumed with hatred; and as a direct result, the less human we become. (p. 241)
How do we become more human, instead of less? He writes:
There is salvation, I believe, in the fully human Jesus who reveals what human life can be, an existence free of tribal boundaries, free of prejudice, free of sexism and free of fear. Such a life will inevitably empower others to step into that promise, and when they do, they will, believe, experience the reality of God. (p. 263)
I was reminded of Spong when I read an article by Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in today's New York Times magazine. The article tries to answer the question, "How are Humans Unique?" With our fellow primates seemingly capable of so many supposedly unique human capabilities, from tool making to forms of language, what is left to make us truly different? Tomasello argues that, even though other primates are commonly conceived of as social animals, we humans exhibit social characteristics of a much more complex order than what our evolutionary cousins exhibit. He identifies three ways that this manifests itself: through a sense of social obligation, through information sharing, and through role playing.

Yet all is not well in this tale of human social cooperation, as we all know:
Of course, humans beings are not cooperating angels; they also put their heads together to do all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside “the group.” Recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to get people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that “they” threaten “us.” The remarkable human capacity for cooperation thus seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the group. Such group-mindedness is a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today. The solution — more easily said than done — is to find new ways to define the group.
In other words, human social cooperation relies, according to Tomasello, on human tribalism. As I see it, the solution to this problem is, as he puts it, "to find new ways to define the group." I interpret this to mean that, rather than trying to abolish tribalism, we would expand it to such an extent that our "tribe" encompasses the entire human race.

Church shopping and church loyalty

I ran across an interesting posting from early April in the "wild and precious" blog, titled "In Defense of Church Shopping". The writer offers her response to the complaint from a pastor that "criticized the concept that churches are 'spiritual service providers.'" She argues, by contrast, that people have every right to take care of their spiritual needs. Furthermore, in response to the suggestion that people should not be concerned about whether they disagree with their pastor, she writes:

The truth is, anybody making this statement is probably a pastor. What is the point of worshipping week after week, listening to a person who preaches the Word and shapes the liturgy, if you have some fundamental disagreements with that person about that same Word and liturgy? Is this a tolerance test? Of course I'll disagree with any other human being from time to time -- we're human, after all -- but to state that agreement with the pastor should not be a criteria for whether one stays active in a church is an unrealistic and, frankly, disingenuous statement. You can bet the person making it, on his/her Sunday off, seeks out a worship service with a pastor they enjoy. (If they go to church at all).
She also offers the suggestion that the term "church shopping " could perhaps be replaced with "church dating":
And, as is true in my dating life (or my desire to have one, is more like it), I'm not really out for a long-term commitment just yet. I need a break from the hard work of that kind of commitment. I do want to just be able to enjoy the date without thinking too much about the future. Which means, next Sunday I may or may not want to spend time with you. I may want to go out with another church next week. Or I may be serially monogomous for a while -- a few months in this church, a few in that.
There is something to be said for this analogy between seeking out a church and dating. During one period of time, before I became fairly disillusioned with my ability to find a church that suited me, I felt like something of a "church slut", willing to flit around from church to church as long as any of them seemed to be in some sense progressive. Nowadays, I am more of a church celibate.

It is very possible that I am consigned to permanent religious singlehood, and that I will never get "married" to a church.

One of the problems is that I think that some people have a built-in concept of loyalty to a church or denomination because that is what they grew up with, but for those of us who are coming in from the cold, the dynamic is different. Those with a built-in history can put up with more disagreement with the pastor or other problems because it is "their" church that they are a part of. It is also easier for such people to be dissidents, radicals, heretics, or troublemakers. For them, there is a brand loyalty, whose role in these matters is sometimes quite significant. But what if you are a radical, heretic, or dissident who comes into a church from the outside? I feel uncomfortable playing the role of the iconoclast for a congregation of which I am at least initially an outsider. It isn't "my" church, I don't have the built in loyalty in the first place, and I don't go seeking out a church in order to be a troublemaker. If I had a history with a given church, it would be different.

I think the question, "Is this a tolerance test?" is a valid one. I don't expect complete agreement with everyone in a church, including the pastor. But if I'm not on the exact same page, I'd like at least to be in the same chapter. I can think of better things to do on Sunday mornings than sit though an experience I don't particularly enjoy.

How to do interfaith dialogue

Dr. Eboo Patel tells the following story in one of the podcasts from the Progressive Religious Voices series:

I was in Australia six or eight months ago at an interfaith conference, and they had lined up this very angry Christian preacher and this very imposing looking Muslim imam in this kind of typical duke-it-out kind of thing that drives me berserk. And the Christian started off, and he just said slanderous, horrible, prejudicial things about Islam. About how the prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, you know, was a murderer and all, things that are very very difficult to hear. How the Koran is a book of death, and how Muslims have done nothing but pillaged and raped throughout their whole history. And, you know, I run an interfaith organization, and I found myself, like whispering underneath my breath, to the Muslim imam, you know, as I was sitting in the audience, "Tell about all the violence that Christianity has done!" And the Muslim imam listens to all of this very calmly. And when the man is done, this Christian turns to the imam, the imam says, "I love Jesus. And I love the Bible. And do not expect me to say negative things about your religion only because you have said negative things about mine. Because there is too much love and mercy in my heart to do that."

And I though to myself, not only is that as beautiful a thing as I've ever seen in my life, but it's such a smart strategy. Why am I going to respond to your bigoted remarks by bigoted remarks of my own? My hope is to articulate what I love about your tradition and to teach you what you might love about mine, and to point to a space where we might work together to serve others.

The Universe, in all its unfolding creativity

The New York Times ran a story about a supernova that scientists observed this January.

Two paragraphs at the end of the article mention the connection between supernovas and us:

Many of the elements necessary for life and its accessories, like carbon, oxygen, iron and gold, are produced in a thermonuclear frenzy during the final stages of these explosions, which then fling them into space to be incorporated into new stars, new planets, new creatures.

“If you’re wearing gold jewelry,” Dr. Kirshner said, “it came from a supernova explosion.”

I am less interested in the relationship between astronomical events and bling bling here on earth than I am on the fact that supernovas are part of the chain of cosmic interconnectedness that make us humans possible at all. I see these massive star explosions as part of the creative unfolding of the universe over time. It was this creative process that contributed to the development, at least on our own planet, of consciousness and self-awareness.

Some might say that the fact that we exist at all is in no need of deeper origin, explanation, or first cause; and while I respect that point of view, it is not my own. When I look at the seemingly unlikely combinations of conditions that made it possible for self-aware creatures to evolve on a rocky little planet in a backward corner of one galaxy among countless galaxies--and who is to say that other self-aware creatures have not arisen elsewhere in the vast universe?--I can't help but marvel at the sheer improbability of it all. Out of all the possible sets of laws of physics that could have arisen out of the Big Bang, the ones that did arise resulted in an incredible chain of being where the explosion of stars over billions of years creates the elements that accumulate on this tiny backwater planet and which in turn lead to the development of life.

Maybe there is not just one universe, of course. There is the multiverse theory, which says that there are countless universes, perhaps all with different laws, and we just happen to have arisen in one in which the physical laws were just right for us to happen at all. In that sense, then, our universe might not be so remarkably improbable in its capacity to produce life, since there would have been infinite rolls of the cosmic dice, and we just happened to be in the one universe among many that came up right. I suppose that is possible, although there may not be any way to know. But even if it is not so improbable that our universe is just right for us to exist, the way that it all takes place still inspires in me a measure of awe. After all, within our universe, whose existence itself may or may not be improbable, a whole series of events had to take place over vast distances and across eons in order for us to arise into self-aware being.

One can see these supernova explosions as simply natural processes, without meaning. But a religious interpretation might instead see these as creative events. Not just creative in the sense that they manufactured new elements, but creative in these sense that those new resulting elements contributed something to the universe beyond themselves. These acts of creation were acts of contribution within the greater unfolding drama. We are deeply dependent on a web of activity within the entire universe. For me, the ultimate source of this creative impulse is found within God.

Religion, to me, is about interpretation and meaning. We can look at what happens in the world and assume it has no meaning at all; or we can imbue it with an interpretive framework, one informed by a sense of awe. I prefer the latter to the former.


Biblical scholar April DeConick has suggested using a new term to describe the variety of forms of Christianity that existed early in the faith's history, prior to the establishment of a firm and dogmatic orthodoxy. The term she proposes is "plurodoxy." I like this suggestion. I think it is an admirable way of getting around the problem of how to describe early Christianity in a somewhat more impartial way without serving the propaganda interests of a prevailing orthodoxy. After all, the very word "orthodoxy" is essentially a tool of theological warfare; it is a means by which the winners in internecine theological struggles can discredit the losers. By calling themselves "orthodox", the winners establish themselves as the standard bearers of Truth, against which all else is measured; thus those who disagree--the heterodox, the heretics--have deviated from this standard and are thus discredited.

There is a kind of grand mythical narrative that is used to reinforce the legitimacy of the winning positions. This narrative of "apostolic" Christianity does not merely hold that its version of Christianity is true and all the others are heretical and false. It goes much further than that in an effort to discredit free thinking dissenters. It essentially assigns legitimacy to itself, and itself alone, by proclaiming the inevitability of its own positions; it argues that one can draw a straight line from Jesus right to the Nicene Creed, that it and it alone derives from the apostolic faith, that everything that preceded the Nicene Creed pointed the way directly and without deviation to what eventually became the orthodox faith.

In fact, this was not the case. Christianity was characterized by diversity from more or less the very beginning. And because of this, historians and scholars are thus presented with a problem. If they are to assume some level of impartiality, they really cannot be parties to this process of discrediting the losers in historical disputes. This would make them passively complicit in a propaganda war. But this raises the question of what terminology to use in place of "orthodoxy". Bart Ehrman, for example, has used the word "proto-orthodox" to describe, prior to the establishment of orthodoxy, early theological positions that resembled later forms of orthodoxy. But this is really only a half measure, and still grants a greater air of legitimacy to certain views that ostensibly evolved into the "orthodox." In fact, all the various competing viewpoints at the time considered themselves "orthdoox". Calling only one of those "proto-orthodox" is a historical anachronism.

In another blog entry, April DeConnick elaborates on why she thinks new terminology is necessary:

Why? Because there wasn't an orthodox Christianity in the second or third centuries from which others deviated and were heretics. This language only works if (1) you have an established historical orthodoxy that dominates the scene or (2) you use it in terms of a theological self-reference, as in my way is orthodox and yours isn't.

Now some of my readers might like the apostolic church and identify with it, and therefore say that there was an orthodoxy and the apostolic church was it. Everyone else is a heretic. Fine, but this is not a historical perspective.
Interestingly enough, one commenter in her blog has objected strenuously to this terminology, more or less admitting that the whole point of using the word "orthodoxy" is to promote one point of view and to discredit the others.

Yet, as April DeConick points out:
As historians we cannot be theologians. The texts tell us the story. And this story was a story of many competing orthodoxies, all who claimed for themselves the "Christian" name. At least in the pre-Constantinian period, the marking of a heretic comes from within each of these orthodoxies, and represents their individual understanding of what it means to be the "real" Christians.
I think that the idea of plurodoxy is an interesting way of trying to capture the reality of competing theologies in early Christianity.

Theodicy pops up yet again on the internet

Peter Singer writes on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" blog site that "Religious people are still unable to provide a satisfying answer to the age-old question of why God allows suffering."

When he refers to "religious people", he apparently means "Christians", and not just "Christians", but specifically conservative Christians, since he devotes something like half of his article to refuting the positions advanced by Dinish D'Souza. Singer raises the fairly standard arguments about theodicy--that suffering is incompatible with a supernaturally theistic God who is both all-powerful and all-benevolent. At no point in Singer's article does he ever show any understanding of the fact that it is possible to believe in a God who is doesn't conform to any other definition than the one he assumes, or more specifically that it is possible to conceive of a God who is not omnipotent.

God and Science

The Templeton Foundation placed a paid advertisement in today's New York Times, asking various academics the question, "Does science make belief in God obsolete?". The answers are found on the Templeton web site.

To my mind, this question seems rather absurd. Science and religion address different questions altogether. Science observes the observable, whereas religion investigates the meaning, depth, and mystery that that lies behind that which is observable. One of the more interesting answers to the Templeton inquiry come from Mary Midgley, who notes that "scientism"--which I think she describes as the notion that science alone offers a monopoly on meaning--is an unjustified claim. She argues that this "scientism" is a world view, just as various religions are also world views:

Of course, those other views differ hugely among themselves. Some center on Godhead; some, such as Buddhism and Taoism, don't use that idea at all. But what they all do is to set human life in a context.
And it is this context that science has no right to claim authority over. This context is is precisely what religion addresses. "Scientism" I would argue, is what happens when science intrudes on the legitimate domain of religion; a pseudo-science like creationism is what happens when a religion intrudes on the legitimate domain of science.

Kenneth Miller, another responder to the Templeton query, points out that a lot of hard line atheism is based on a limited conception of God--a point I have raised in this blog. Miller writes:
As an outspoken defender of evolution, I am often challenged by those who assume that if science can demonstrate the natural origins of our species, which it surely has, then God should be abandoned. But the Deity they reject so easily is not the one I know.
As Marcus Borg says, "Tell me the God you don't believe in, and I probably don't believe in that God either."

This subject dovetails with some of the discussions that have been taking place in James McGrath's blog. James has been trying to convey the point that many militant atheists attack religion based on a limited or narrow conception of what "God" means, whereas in fact the term has a broad spectrum of meanings across religions and within religious traditions. The sort of push back that results from pointing this out is itself interesting. Despite the fact that large numbers of theologians, clergy, and church members have a concept of God that does not conform to some atheists' conception of the term, somehow it is an atheist's limited conception about God that is the right one, and all those religious people are wrong! Chutzpah knows no bounds when it comes to protecting one's paradigms from uncomfortable anomalies.

Ultimately, I have no problem with atheism. I can even understand the basis for being an atheist. I have many doubts of my own about what deeper meaning one can ascribe for the universe beyond that which we can observe. I think that, just as there are many ways of addressing the Mystery--which is to say, there are many religions in the world--it is also possible to respond to the Mystery by simply not addressing it or not assuming that there is any deeper purpose or meaning to our lives. Ultimately, these are personal choices, but these decisions do not depend on what science tells us.

36 hours does not equal 3 days

John Shelby Spong receives a question about the idea that Jesus was resuscitated from the dead in three days. Here is the gist of his answer, which illustrates at least in part why the resurrection stories cannot be taken literally:

The three day designation comes, as you suggest, from the gospels themselves even though if one counts the time in the gospel narratives there is actually only a period of thirty-six hours that elapses between Friday at sundown to Sunday at sunrise. In my way of counting that gives us not three days, but a day and a half.

I think the three-day symbol is just that, a symbol. On three occasions, Mark has Jesus predict his resurrection "after three days." Matthew and Luke, both of whom have Mark in front of them as they write, change Mark's word "after" to "on." "After three days" and "on the third day" do not give us the same day. So there is a dancing, not firm, quality to the use of the phrase "three days" even in the gospels themselves.

Mark tells us no story of the raised Christ appearing to anyone, but he does suggest that they will see him in some manner in Galilee. Galilee is, however, a 7-to-10-day journey from Jerusalem, so that projected appearance in Galilee could not have occurred within the three-day boundary.

Luke stretches out the appearances of the raised Christ for forty days and John, if one treats Chapter 21 as an authentic part of John's gospel, hints that appearances continued for perhaps months.


A discussion arose in Societyvs's blog about whether reverential treatment of the pages of a Torah scroll can constitute a form of idolatry.

I have to admit that I am not comfortable with any form of spiritual reverence that is directed towards a physical object. I frequently attend a Taizé service that includes a period of "veneration of the cross", in which people bow before a cross that lies on the floor, leave a candle, and pray or meditate; I've always felt a little uncomfortable with that part of the service. The services at St. Gregory's Episcopal church in San Francisco include a period when a Gospel book is passed around for people to touch or kiss; I never cared for that either. The Catholic Church has strict rules about what can be done with the Eucharistic Host (none of it should fall onto the floor, for example). In the secular political world, many Americans treat their nation's flag with a similar form of religious reverence, with rules about folding and flying it, and much like a Eucharistic Host it is supposed to never touch the ground. Some people of faith, including Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites, consider the pledge of allegiance to be a form of idolatry, and they therefore abstain from reciting it.

There is a corollary to this, and that is the idolatry not of a physical object, but of words that can are printed in a book--specifically, the words in the Bible. While this can exclude the veneration of any single, specific, physical book in one's possession, it does entail a belief in the infallibility of the words themselves, which can be abstracted from any particular printed form. One can thus spill coffee on one's Bible without feeling that one has done anything wrong, but to actually question that the Bible is literally the word of God is another thing altogether. The word for this form of idolatry is bibliolatry.

John Cobb, in his April column on the Process and Faith web site, refers to this kind of idolatry in his response to a "born again believer" who poses a question about the miracles attributed to Jesus:

It is probable that the questioner brings to the Bible quite different assumptions than mine, and that as I respond to his question, I will lose him. I say this because born again has too often become a code word for a view of the Bible that I consider idolatrous. For process thought to treat any creature, any person, any institution, any writing, as if it were God is idolatry. When one denies the creatureliness, and that means the fallibility, of any creature, one is idolatrous.
If object-worship is a form of idolatry, then isn't it also idolatry to worship a human being? This raises the question of whether Trinitarian Christianity is really a form of idolatry, since it makes a human being out to be God.

There is a flip side to this question, however. If you believe that God is within everything, as panentheism does (and John Cobb, referenced above, is a process theologian and therefore a panentheist), then there is something of the Divine within all of us. However, there is a difference between saying that God is in everything, and saying that somehow any individual object is characterized by divine perfection.

I've recently been reading John Spong's book Jesus for the Non-Religious. He often describes Jesus as revealing to us how we can be "fully human", and that it was through his own "full humanity" that he revealed God to us. This has been for him a persistent theme of late; on the Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" web site, he recently wrote,
I do not believe that Jesus defied gravity to ascend into the heavens of a three-tiered universe to be reunited with the God who lives above the sky, but I do believe that Jesus opened the door to that realm in which life can become so whole and so fully human that we enter God’s divinity and God’s presence in a new way.
What does it really mean to be "fully human"? To be human is to err, as a common adage tells us. If to err is human, then does being fully human mean that you err all the time? Perhaps not, but in any case I would argue that Jesus could hardly have been both "fully human" and "fully divine", given that erring is inherently part of the human condition, and not erring is inherently part of the divine condition. Yet I think what Spong really means when he says "fully human" is that Jesus pointed the way to realizing fully the human potential for experiencing God's presence and thus being the best we can be. When we are most in tune with the Divine, we are realizing our potential. But while realizing the human potential is a worthy goal, and I think we should aspire to it, we should not forget that we humans are not God.

As a panentheist, I may believe that God is within us, but as a panentheist I also believe that God is more than the world as well. God is beyond any physical object, and God is beyond any human attempt at complete understanding. I can understand why someone would treat with reverence and awe a 3000-year old sacred document that was unearthed from an archaeological dig; such an object would be a rare, irreplaceable relic of an ancient time. But the awe in that case is more about the fragility of the natural world and the appreciation that any original copy of a document could survive that long. But to treat with reverence and awe a document produced, say, last year, that just happens to have a copy of the words that were written 2000 or 3000 years ago is another thing altogether. It's just a physical object, and the words printed on them are ultimately just human words, even if they are wonderful words that express deeply meaningful ideas about the sacred dialogue between humans and God.

On the outside looking in

In a comment to a recent posting of mine, Chris suggested that I should consider giving the Unitarian Universalists a try.

My response to that is that I have dabbled in UUism at various times in my life. In many ways I think my outlook and values are a pretty close match for Unitarian Universalism. By that I mean that my iconoclasm, my belief in religious pluralism, and my appreciation of the value of the religious journey in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty, all seem to fit in rather well with those values. Yet, I decided some time ago that it just wasn't the church for me. I respect those who are involved with the UU denomination and I am sure that it is a good fit for a fair number of people. But not for me.

I think there are two reasons for this. For one thing, its proclaimed inclusiveness is a double-edged sword, and I have been primarily interested not so much in eclectic religion as I am in progressive Christianity. This means that UU eclecticism is a bit removed from what I am looking for; I do have some interest in other faiths, to be sure (including, for example, Jodo Shinsu Buddhism), but my main desire has been to orient my worship, week in and week out, around the traditions and spirituality associated with Christianity--albeit in a radically progressive way. That alone is problematic for me, but there is another issue that has kept me away from Unitarian Universalism. Despite its official aspirations of inclusiveness and respect for all religions, I think that in many cases, the reality is something a little different. What I have found is that, for many UUs, all religions are respected as long as those religions aren't Christianity. The UU minister Peacebang, herself a Christian, identifies this as UU Christophobia.

One of her commenters has said a couple of interesting things about this subject:

I marvel at how a denomination that is so proud of its inclusiveness should be so bitter and exclusive to the Christians (or even the theists) in its midst. Yet everybody wants that special Christmas Eve service, and to sing the old carols with the original words. I suppose Jesus, who advocated a radical form of inclusivity based on loving others, is not so radical or his teachings so alarming when he is kept eternally in the manger.
Another comment by the same person:

One of the reasons I was so excited to work in a UU church was the chance to explore and experience truly inclusive worship. To my dismay, that’s not what’s happening. Nobody stays home from church when a sermon on the Buddha is advertised. But they do stay home on the rare occasions that Jesus’s life or teaching is the topic. If they came, they might find healing, because I have never heard Jesus talked about in quite the same enlightening way as I do from our ministers here, when they speak about him at all.

Sometimes I think that “the Church” (whatever that means) is like the stone on Easter morning. Roll it out of the way! Get it off of Jesus and let him out from under it! Give him air, let him breathe.

I was hoping a UU church might be a place where the edifice of Christianity might be rolled away, because Jesus has something loving to say, and we can’t hear him when he’s all covered up.

A long time ago I realized that I felt caught between a rock and a hard place. I feel like I am too Christian for most of Unitarian Universalism and yet too iconoclastic for the progressive Christianity of most mainline churches. Ultimately, when given two choices that are both unsatisfying, I tended to come down on the side of a more focused spirituality grounded in problematic theology rather than an intellectually challenging but spiritually unfocused deconstruction of faith. Thus I started exploring mainline Christianity where I hoped that progressive faith might have taken root. I looked to people like Spong, Borg, and Crossan as inspirations for how progressive Christianity might work for me within these mainline churches. So far, this has not proved to be very satisfying either. Which is why, at this point, I remain one of those whom Spong calls "believers in exile." Up to this point, it seems that I would rather blog about religion than practice it on Sunday morning.

There is a piece of me that still holds out hope for finding some kind of community that I can identify with. But unlike progressive Christians who have some kind of denominational identity that they can hold onto while fighting the good fight, I was brought up in a hopelessly fundamentalist church that I long ago rejected. For me, there is no denominational loyalty to ground my faith in. Thus I am perpetually on the outside looking in. I've done the church shopping thing, but it has all been window shopping. Then again, maybe that is my calling. Maybe religions need people like me, who stand on the outside and who just don't quite fit in.

Religion, Atheism, and Fundamentalism

Liberal Pastor and James McGrath have been making a valiant attempt at trying to engage a militant atheist blogger in a conversation about religion. The discussion is, I think, very instructive in showing just how difficult an endeavor like this really is.

The blogger, a Toronto professor named Larry Moran, demands from people of faith a "sophisticated argument" for the existence of "supernatural beings". Of course, as for who gets to be the arbiter on what makes an argument "sophisticated", you can guess who that might be--the blogger himself.

Like a lot of militant atheists, he wears his ignorance of theology on his sleeve. He stereotypes religious faith, and then admits that he knows nothing about theologians like Borg, Hick, Crossan, Griffin, and others who don't conform to his stereotype, but insists that it doesn't matter because he knows already everything he needs to know about religion, and one of the things he knows a priori is that his stereotypes are true. He seems to be unaware of what panentheism is or how it might differ from pantheism. He insists that religion is defined as a belief in "supernatural beings", and when James McGrath points out multiple reasons why that isn't necessarily true--such as that Tillich characterizes God as being of a different order than mere "beings" and instead considers God to be "Being itself"--Moran responds by calling that mere obfuscation--thus showing a complete lack of interest in really understanding the subject matter that claims to be such an expert on. (A more honest response would have been something like, "I don't get it. How is Being itself different from supernatural beings? Can you clarify or explain this?" But why engage people in a dialogue when you can just attack them instead?)

When James McGrath points out that "religious believers differ even within traditions such as Christianity over issues like whether there are 'miracles', and if so whether they are things that occur in harmony with or as a rupture in the natural flow of the material world," Moran seems beside himself with annoyance over this challenge to his preconceived notion of what religion is all about, saying,

Interesting. Tell me more about those people who call themselves Christians but don't believe in miracles. Do they believe that Jesus died on the cross on Friday and did not rise from the dead on the following Sunday? Do they believe that Mathew, Mark, Luke and John were not telling the truth about Jesus and the stories of miracles?
Those exact words could have been written by a Christian fundamentalist--and yet they were written by an militant atheist. What does that tell you? Like all fundamentalists, Moran the atheist fundamentalist can't conceive of the existence of Christians who are not biblical literalists, let alone those who don't believe in the miraculous. Another blogger chimed in with a similar accusation, saying "At least find a brand new name for your religion?" It is really rather ironic how militant atheists allow fundamentalist Christians to do their thinking for them in determining who does and doesn't get to be called a Christian.

There are other participants in this discussion as well, but you get the point.

Liberal Pastor chimed into the discussion with a great comment about what progressive Christianity means to him. Among other things, he wrote:
For me, it is the way of Jesus that matters: peace, simplicity, inclusive community that ignores cultural barriers, taking a stand against injustice to the point of being willing to pay the price (there are some things that are worth living and dying for), etc.

Was Jesus also wrong about some things? Almost certainly. He was a man. It is quite possible that he shared the end-times views of many people in his day and believed that God was about to intervene. He may have even believed that his actions were going to help usher in that moment. If so, he was wrong, just as countless humans have been through the ages.

It is not a deal-breaker for me, because I don't believe in supernatural deities or humans who can do supernatural miracles or be dead and then come to life again. It is what he got right that matters to me. And I am not alone among Christians. I am where (or in the neighborhood of where) most liberal Christians are, which is why the God argument for us is a bogeyman. It sells books for some scientists and I guess makes them rich, and it fires up the fundies and gives them another excuse to keep the fires of fear raging, but it misses the point. We live in a real world with real problems, and addressing those problems and making the world a better place is what liberal Christians care about.
Naturally, one of the responses he got to this was to question his right to call himself a Christian.

As for the ostensible origin of the discussion, I think that Moran's demand for a "sophisticated argument" for the existence of God misses the point. In my opinion, there is no convincing proof for or against the existence of God, "sophisticated" or otherwise. I don't know who is claiming that there are sophisticated and convincing proofs for the existence of God, but I would not be one of them. I've said this before, and I'll say it again--God is for me a metaphysical framework for giving meaning and depth to my understanding of the world. God is a metareality, an organizing principle for my personal life that describes a deeper level of reality than that which science can measure or describe. By its very nature, the concept of God cannot be "proven" by sophisticated arguments, unsophisticated arguments, or anything in between. I, for one, could not care less if Moran or anyone else chooses not to believe in God. If one finds no arguments that are convincing for the existence of God, that is one's right.

Of course, some people don't buy that. Some think that God is something that has to be "proved" in the same way that phenomena in the natural world can be proved. It's one's right to believe that as well. I take nothing away from people who find the metahphysical framework of "God" to be meaningless in their lives. I say, when it comes to religion, live and let live; theology is interesting, but how we live our lives is more important.

But live and let live does not seem to be the operating principle of fundamentalists, be they atheists or Christians. Pretty much all of the problems with militant atheism came to the forefront in that online discussion--the straw men, the stereotypes, the lack of theological knowledge and the arrogant insistence that theological knowledge is unnecessary, and the additional insistence that anything that doesn't conform to the straw men doesn't really count anyway.

But the fact is that neither militant atheists nor their fundamentalist cousins in the religious world get to decide for me what my religious beliefs are about.

Why concepts of God can and must evolve

From James McGrath's blog:

Progressive Christianity, Liberal Christianity, and many other forms of sophisticated theology recommend leaving behind the image of a God that can be left behind, and adopting instead the language of God as all-encompassing transcendence. This is not "shifting the goal post" or being slippery. It is about redefining our concepts and reformulating our metaphors for the ultimate as our knowledge about the non-ultimate expands and grows. This process will only seem inappropriate to those who share the fundamentalist notion of theology as offering timeless truths and certainties untainted by culture or human limitations. To those who have studied enough theology and/or enough of the Bible and/or enough other subjects will realize that this is a natural process that occurs in all human endeavors. Music must become more daring and dissonant as familiar harmonies become boring. Language must be pushed to its limits as metaphors die. Concepts of God must be rethought and revisioned as symbols that once pointed beyond what we know now compete with science and other domains of knowledge, and lose.

Are all Christians the same?

Sam Harris wants to design a neuroscience experiment that supposedly will reveal something about religious beliefs and the brain. Towards that goal, he has asked people to fill out surveys.

Each of the surveys begins by stating that an interested parties should participate only if one is either "a dedicated Christian" or "an atheist/nonbeliever". Those are the only two categories he cares about. He thus lumps together everyone who identifies with the Christian faith into one category, regardless of whether they are fundamentalists or moderates or progressives, whether they Pat Robertson or John Shelby Spong. Why am I not surprised by that?

Failure of nerve

I have, over the last several months, become increasingly disillusioned with this whole enterprise of trying to find a form of worshipful, progressive Christianity that is both intellectually viable and at the same time spiritually deep. A recent posting by the blogger Pluralist Speaks only confirms my worst suspicions.

It seems that he had submitted an article for publication on a website sponsored by the Episcopal Church. The article, titled "Easter as Myth", said nothing that is particularly startling or unusual to anyone who has read Spong (an Episcopalian), Borg (an Episcopalian), Ranke-Heinemann, or anything published by the Jesus Seminar. And yet, the article was rejected on doctrinal grounds--because the editor "cannot publish and give tacit support on a website sponsored by The Episcopal Church" to the views that the resurrection is an unhistorical myth. It seems that progressive Episcopalians are free to express their views on their own, but God forbid that their views show up on any officially sponsored Episcopal website.

All of which shows that the Episcopal Church, despite all its reputation as a progressive church, is, when push comes to shove, steeped in orthodoxy. Christians in mainline denominations may flirt with progressive ideas. They may dance with Spong and Borg. But when all is said and done, at the end of the dance, they go home with the same old theology. This was pretty clear to me already when Bishop Gene Robinson recently insisted that his being gay had nothing to do with those "essentials" about the Divinity of Christ and so forth. It is all a game, this flirtation with progressivism. You can question the party line all you want, but the church will make it clear that people who hold such views are second class citizens within the theological community, and always will be.

Sure, the scholars may know that the resurrection stories in the Gospels are contradictory and mythological, that they were part of an evolving tradition, and that Jesus could not have literally ascended to the sky because that whole story was based on a primitive three-tiered cosmology that is now known to be false. And the priests in turn may learn in seminary what the scholars know. But this is all a case of "wink wink, nudge nudge". Let's just pretend that none of this is really known, and go on as if mythologies were history.

I think I have been holding out a false hope. What I saw as a burgeoning movement within existing denominations that could perhaps evolve towards a new, rationally supported and demythologized Christianity, turns out to be dead on arrival. Progressive Christianity is largely a sham. Supposedly liberal denominations are just as beholden to fear as the conservative ones are. For both the liberals and the conservatives, there is the same dread that if the church officially sanctions free, open discussion of these issues, then their entire Nicene edifice will come crashing down--and we can't have that, can we?

The rejection of Pluralist's article has been for me a kind of wake up call. It confirms for me that I will always be, as Spong puts it, a believer in exile.

Ecclesiastical authority

Theo Hobson points out that the Church of England seems unable to "reform itself without simultaneously pandering to the reactionaries who don't want reform." He suggests that this "jelly-headedness" with respect to progressive change is built into the very institutional framework of a church that is built around an ecclesiastical hierarchy:

Could it be that there is a fundamental incompatibility between ecclesiastical authority and modernity? Maybe the very idea of an authoritative spiritual hierarchy is irredeemably pre-modern. That is why the reactionaries can't be defeated: they are always more in tune with the logic of the institution than the progressives. The fact is that the feminist movement is ecclesiastically subversive - and the gay rights movement, too. For they both expose the fact that church authority has a different logic to secular liberal principles.
This hierarchy is indeed pre-modern, a relic of an era when absolute monarchies ruled the world, when theological governance simply mirrored the prevailing model for authority found in the secular arena. We've come a long way since then in the secular world, but parts of the theological world are still stuck in the past. The result does seem to be a stodgy conservatism. We've certainly seen this tendency towards resisting progressive reform within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which had a brief flirtation with it under John XXIII but since that time has had a succession of reactionary popes, including the current one, who made a name for himself during his previous job by bullying and harassing progressive theologians within his church.

One of Theo Hobson's commenters pointed out that Rowan Williams, who is a representative of this ecclesiastical hierarchy in England, ignores the fact that "his Church is supposed to have been founded by a radical wandering Rabbi who spent more time talking to tax collectors and prostitutes than he did worrying about whether going with his convictions would lose him his pension fund."

At every turn, Jesus stood opposed to those who set themselves up as the gatekeepers, who presumed to control and define terms of religious discourse. How did it happen that a church that claimed to follow his teachings itself became just another example of the very theological authoritarianism that he resisted? As the Who once put it--meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Rowan Williams bullies Gene Robinson

Gene Robinson, an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, has been ordered by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, "not to preach or preside at a eucharist while he is in England."

This only serves to confirm what I've already suspected, namely that Rowan Williams is an utterly contemptible jerk.

Ascension Day

Sea Raven, in a powerful sermon for Ascension Day in the blog Liberal Christian Commentary, asks the question, Why is “the church” still standing around looking skyward?

Referring to the four pillars of Imperial theology as outlined by Dominic Crossan--piety, war, peace, victory--she pointedly describes how in practice each of these pillars exhibits a moral bankruptcy that serves only to advance the interests of Empire. For example, "piety" is

“Faith” as “belief” in premodern cosmology; “faith” as “belief” in a resuscitated corpse; “faith” as the certainty that one religion (or political system) is the only true and legitimate one; “faith” as following the drumbeat of political expediency
which in turn leads to war, which in turn leads to a Pyrrhic victory, which in turn leads to a promised, but never fulfilled, peace.

This is the time in the church calendar when much of Christendom will be celebrating a mythical event that never actually took place--the supposed ascension of Jesus upwards, without the benefit of a Jetsons-style jetpack, towards some "heaven" in the dome of the sky as conceived by a pre-modern cosmology that we long ago rejected in favor of a Copernican model. Yet, meanwhile, the prophetic Jewish tradition that this selfsame Jesus came from--that of speaking truth to power--becomes muffled in the process.

She poses the question of what really is the meaning of deliverance?
salvation from hell? or liberation from injustice? And what are the radical acts that will ultimately redeem us – meaning buy us back – from the powers and principalities of Empire and restore us to God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion? To choose liberation is to turn away from reactionary retribution. To choose liberation is to radically abandon self-interest and love enemies. Loving enemies means interacting, negotiating, listening, accommodating to the extent possible without losing integrity. To choose liberation is to speak truth to power no matter where it is. To choose liberation is to acknowledge our complicity with injustice, which is nearly impossible to avoid.

The struggle is to learn to let go of the fear that keeps us trapped in the particular human hells of war, famine, disease and death; to trust in the kingdom that is available whenever we enter the silence outside of the theology of Empire: Piety, War, Victory, which brings only an uneasy, ephemeral peace.
Why indeed is the church looking skyward? The real problems that a prophetic religious tradition should be facing are not found in the clouds, but right here on earth.