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 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.