Origins in diversity

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

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

God as our Ultimate Concern

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

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

Faith and science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tradition and faith

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

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

Miraculous, but with a little help from human beings.

According to an AP story published today,

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

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

Second grade Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A continuing conversation and dialogue

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

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

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

What makes a community a community?

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

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

The Scylla of Orthopraxy and the Charybdis of Orthodoxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real miracles

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

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

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

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

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