God the Father

One of the revised common lectionary Easter readings for this year came from Acts 10:34-43. What struck me about that passage was how remarkably un-Trinitarian it seemed. It might be easy to miss this point because of what I think is a kind of automatic translation process that may easily occur when one hears those words. But I think that in just reading that passage as is, without the interpretive lens of Trinitarianism, it is rather hard to interpret that passage as an expression of Trinitarian theology at all.

The passage presents a speech by Peter, who repeatedly--and I mean repeatedly--distinguishes Jesus from God. For example, we are told that "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power", "God was with him", "God raised him on the third day", and "he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead." In every one of those phrases, Jesus is described as a distinct personage from "God". Jesus is the object of God's actions in all of those passages. Peter did not say that God did these things to himself, or that one part of God did these things to another part of God; he said that "God" did them to "Jesus". God is the subject, Jesus is the object. Two different personages. It would make no sense to phrase it that way if Jesus himself were part of the Godhead.

My guess is that most Christians who read those passages do a quick translation in their heads: they read or hear the word "God" in those verses but in their mind they conceive of the reference as being to the "Father" in a Holy Trinity. I think this is probably a common translation that many Christians make, not just in this passage, but in others in which God is distinguished from Jesus. For example, the hymn in Philippians 2 is often touted as an expression of Trinitarianism. But, in fact, the hymn specifically distinguishes Jesus from God, saying, for example, that "God also highly exalted him." Once again, we have God as the subject, Jesus as the object But most Christians probably just do a quick translation in their heads and conceive of "God" in that passage as "The Father of the Holy Trinity", thus resolving what is an apparent conflict with standard dogma.

Christians take for granted a Trinitarian doctrine that has been taught to them as a given of their faith, despite the fact that the word "Trinity" is not in the Bible and the doctrine of the Trinity was only "settled" (which is to say, imposed) more than three centuries after Jesus's death. But I think it is such an esoteric, not to mention confusing, doctrine, that itself was subject to intense debates over the finest of points early in Christian history (I wonder how many American Protestants could describe what the filioque is off the tops of their heads?), that I suspect that few who pay lip service to it fully understand in all its implications. People have to pay lip service to it, after all, lest they be branded heretics. What happens in practice is that there begins to be a confusion in passages like those between "God" and the "Father in the Holy Trinity". The tendency within Nicene Trinitarianism to give a certain primacy to the Father (itself a difficult concept to make sense of, given the Eternal nature of the Godhead) probably makes it all the easier to make this translation. The Father thus becomes sort of the default character in the Trinity, so that when the Bible says "God", it is just interpreted to mean the Father part of this Triune God.

But in reality, Trinitarianism says that God encompasses the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus when you talk about the Trinitarian God without qualification, you are referring, at least in theory, to all three at once. Yet when we run across verses where the Bible uses the word "God", the term often gets implicitly shrunk to just the Father when it deals with the relationship between Jesus and God. For unitarians, this clearly presents no problem; one could then simply say that what Jesus understood as the Father was another way of describing...God! One need not be a Trinitarian to understand that God was the "Father" to Jesus, just as God is everyone's "Father" (or, Mother, to avoid the use of sexism.) The Lord's Prayer begins, "Our Father", after all, and lots of people not named Jesus of Nazareth have recited that prayer over the centuries. God the Father is thus Father of us all. But that has nothing to do with the Trinity.

(The Biblical references to Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit, such as in the passage above, also raise similar questions. If Jesus is already one of the persons of the Trinity, why does he need to be anointed with another person of the Holy Trinity as well? He's already a "fully divine" presence, according to Trinitarianism. The anointing of the Holy Spirit might be useful for ordinary, sinful human beings, since we aren't God--but seems a little superfluous for Jesus, since he is already has an indwelling Divine nature, and thus would really have no need for another indwelt part of God while residing on earth.)

One of the most interesting examples of how Jesus was separated from God in the Bible can be found in Mark 10, when Jesus says, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." This statement not only distinguished Jesus from God, but also called into question his perfection! No wonder the passage was modified by Matthew, who used Mark as a source.

I often feel like Trinitarianism is one of those things that people believe just because that's what they think they have to believe. It is so ingrained in much of post-Nicene Christian theology that even during the Reformation, it was taboo to question it (and Michael Servetus was burned at the stake by Calvin for just that reason.) Unitarianism can easily be dismissed by the orthodoxy as an "old heresy", as a way of squelching debate on the subject. Maybe it is time for Christianity to, once and for, rid itself of this taboo.

"Largest religion"

According to press reports, the Vatican newspaper has announced that Muslims have surpassed Catholics as the "largest religion." This struck me as rather odd; this would imply that the Vatican does not consider Protestants and Eastern Orthodox believers to be the same religion as they are. Otherwise, the proper comparison for which "religion" is larger would be between Christians and Muslims, not between Catholics and Muslims. And if one is comparing divisions with the faiths, why are Sunni and Shiite Muslims lumped together while Catholics are not lumped with Protestants? None of it makes any sense.

I tried to find the actual article (I could not find it when I looked online) to see if I could get an indication of what was actually said, rather than what was reported second hand by news services. Maybe it didn't actually use the word "religion" in this context. However, I was unable to find the article.

The historical context of theology

Blogger James McGrath uses the example of the Noah story to make the point that theology, including the theology that informs the writings in the Bible itself, emerges out of a historical context. He writes:

In the end, the story of Noah reminds us that we think about theology in historical contexts, with limited human reason, in partial and piecemeal ways. Its challenge to us is that any language that we today use about God will look as inadequate and perhaps even as horrific to future generations of humans, as that in the Noah story does to us.


Thanks to a reference from SocietyVs, I found an article in Maclean's magazine titled "The Jesus Problem". The article discusses some of the debates that have emerged about the future direction of Christianity in the light of modern scholarship about the historical Jesus.

The article mentions Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor who I referred to in my previous posting:

When Gretta Vosper looks at the emerging historical Jesus she sees no rock on which to erect a church. "In trying to capture exactly what he said, we have found, quite by accident, that what he said has little power." But when she weighs up the Jesus legacy in terms of its validity and usefulness for the church today, she considers the entire Gospel tradition — not just the Jesus meek and mild of the scholars and spiritual seekers, but the divine Christ too. It's all part of the Christian heritage in her view. If the liberal church is going to refuse to face the implications of its own beliefs, then what matters is what is in the Bible, what has been proclaimed truth for centuries: "If we say we follow Jesus without clarification, we allow the assumption that we agree with all of his ideas, including the bad ones."
At first glance, this seems to represent the flip side of the "all or nothing" equation that I have objected to for a long time. Vosper's argument here seems little different from what fundamentalists often claim, which is that Christianity is a complete package, that you can't try to forge a theology that is built around the life and teachings of Jesus without also taking the entire orthodox package as is. Her answer, unless I am misunderstanding her (which is possible), is to instead forge a faith that divorces itself entirely from the theological traditions of Christianity while still using the name "Christian" for marketing reasons.

Why does she choose to use the word "Christian" despite having no particular connection to any aspect of the Christian faith traditions?
Because, she replies, her Christianity, like that of the Ebionites, is more a way of acting than a way of belief. "Being a Christian is about taking out of my faith tradition those things that are of value in my effort to live right with myself, with my relationships and with my planet," Vosper says. "And removing those things that are toxic."

Nor is the name essential, at least to Vosper personally, except that maintaining the word Christian is encouraging for other non-theistic churchgoers.
Fair enough. I'm all for removing those things that are toxic from a faith. And I'm not that concerned about her use of the term "Christian". However, I do think that she seems to be arguing for more than just removing the toxicity from faith, since she seems to argue that the entire faith tradition itself is a sort of sick body with inherently toxic elements that cannot be purged without killing the patient. This is what I mean by a rigidly defined, all-or-nothing depiction of a faith tradition. Traditions are more fluid, more dynamic, and more open to evolution than she seems to give them credit for. It is true that liberal Christian churches are often far too coy about biblical and historical scholarship. But I think the solution is to encourage greater honesty about Christian mythology, which has deeper resonance beyond their literal acceptance than Vosper seems to give it credit for.

De-mythologizing and Faith

Last weekend, the Toronto Globe & Mail reported on a Toronto church, affiliated with the large mainline body the United Church of Canada, that offered a different sort of Easter service. Instead of singing "Jesus Christ Has Risen Today", the congregation sings "Glorious Hope Has Risen Today":

Thus, it will be hope that is declared to be resurrected – an expression of renewal of optimism and the human spirit – but not Jesus...
So far, that sounds pretty good to me.

The article goes on to say:
There is no authoritative Big-Godism, as Rev. Gretta Vosper, West Hill's minister for the past 10 years, puts it. No petitionary prayers (“Dear God, step into the world and do good things about global warming and the poor”). No miracles-performing magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life. No references to salvation, Christianity's teaching of the final victory over death through belief in Jesus's death as an atonement for sin and the omnipotent love of God. For that matter, no omnipotent God, or god.
That also sounded good, although the very last sentence gave me pause--I don't believe that God is omnipotent--but no "god" whatsoever? What does this really mean?

Rev. Vosper has written a book titled With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe. I certainly would agree with the sentiment expressed by that title. I don't think it matters, for example, to God, whether we believe in God or what we believe about God; I think God is much more concerned with how we live (and love) than what theologian pronouncements we affirm. And I also agree with much of what the article describes as a summary of her beliefs:
Ms. Vosper does not want to dress up the theological detritus – her words – of the past two millennia with new language in the hope of making it more palatable. She wants to get rid of it, and build on its ashes a new spiritual movement that will have relevance in a tight-knit global world under threat of human destruction.

She says there's been virtually a consensus among scholars for the past 30 years that the Bible is not some divine emanation – or in Ms. Vosper acronym, TAWOGFAT, The Authoritative Word of God For All Time – but a human project filled with contradictions and the conflicting worldviews and political perspectives of its authors.

And yet, she says, the liberal Christian churches, including her own, won't acknowledge that it is a human project, that it's wrong in parts and that, in the 21st century, it's no more useful as a spiritual and religious guide than a number of other books.

She says now that the work of biblical scholars has become publicly accessible, the churches and their clergy are caught living a lie that few people will buy much longer. “I just don't think we can placate those in the pews long enough to transition into a kind of new community that doesn't keep people away.”

She wants salvation redefined to mean new life through removing the causes of suffering in the world. She wants the church to define resurrection as “starting over,” “new chances.” She wants an end to the image of God as an intervening all-powerful authority who must be appeased to avoid divine wrath; rather she would have congregations work together as communities to define God – or god – according to their own worked-out definitions of what is holy and sacred. She wants the eucharist – the symbolic eating and drinking of Jesus's body and blood to make the congregation part of Jesus's body – to be instead a symbolic experience of community love.

I find it hard to disagree with much of that. Yet there is a part of me that wonders if her de-mythologizing of Christianity can go too far. One of her colleagues, a progressive pastor of another church, was quoted as saying, "While I'm somewhat sympathetic to the aims of it all – getting rid of the nonsense and keeping the core faith – I think that there is something lacking in it all. Gone is metaphor, poetry, symbol, image, beauty, paradox.”

If I only wanted an intellectually tinged religion of deconstruction, I'd be a Unitarian Universalist. For me, religion is what inspires us to new heights. I see it as a kind of poetry for the human soul: "metaphor, poetry, symbol, image, beauty, paradox," as the pastor said in the quote above. I don't necessarily want to do away with the metaphors and myths. I just want some recognition that they are metaphors and myths. Let's talk about them as myths, and explore how they can inspire us in the way that all great myths can. I do want us to stop pretending that all the various and sundry mythological accounts are literally true. But let us not take away the poetry from religion either.

"Easter isn't about belief in the literal words of an old fairy tale"

From Glynn Cardy's blog:

At Easter time in church there is a lot of make-believe language. A dead Jesus coming back to life, stones being rolled away, bursting out of hell’s prison, victory over death…

This old familiar language, like a fairy tale, is the container, the shell of Easter. But it isn’t its contents.

The content of Easter is the belief that Christians hold that love is stronger than hate, and hope is stronger than despair. Love and hope is seen in the changes in people’s lives.

Easter isn’t about believing in the literal words of an old fairy tale. It’s about seeing lives changed, joining that movement that wants to colour the world in love and joy.
If this, or something like it, were preached in the churches that I attended, I'd feel a little less alienated from mainline Protestant Christianity.

Easter in the blogosphere

Here is a quote from James McGrath about the Easter of the disciples after Jesus's crucifixion:

Back in Galilee, some time later, the disciples had dreams, visions, encounters that persuaded them that Jesus was alive, that God had taken this individual who mistakenly thought the dawn of the Kingdom of God was imminent, and had made him Lord of that very Kingdom, which was yet to dawn fully.

That was Easter. When it occurred, and how it relates to the conviction that something monumental happened "on the third day", is hard to discern through the tensions and obscurities in the evidence.

Those experiences, rather than anything to do with the tomb, are at the heart of the Christian faith. While the events of the days that followed the crucifixion are shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, the Easter experiences continue to be part of human experience from then until today. And for those of us who have had such experiences, they do not prove anything about what happened to Jesus' body, or an empty tomb. But they do shine light on our existence, and the fact that we inhabit a universe where such experiences are possible fills us with awe, and wonder, and reverence. And it leads us to spend our lives seeking to do justice to the character of the universe and of human existence such experiences hint at.
Here is a quote from Mike L., who comments on the book "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?" by John Spong:
Is Resurrection a myth or a reality? I believe something real happened in the lives of these real people that lead to these important stories. I also recognize that the Resurrection is a myth about a transcendent reality that could not be described through any other means.
And here is a quote from John Shuck's Easter sermon:
The story of Jesus could have ended there. We are sorry for Jesus, but we are making progress. But the story didn’t end there. I don’t know how it happened. But his story became the focal point of a larger story that built around him. It grew. People began to tell each other: Rome doesn’t get the last word this time. Whether those who had the original idea had a spiritual experience, I don’t know. But people began to tell each other that God raised Jesus from the dead. The one that Rome executed, God raised. The Resurrection is God’s yes to Rome’s no.

The history of the church shows us that that story was bought and sold, tamed and distorted. The normalcy of civilization turned it into a way of controlling people through threats of hell and rewards of heaven. The Resurrection changed from a mystery to trust to a fact to be believed.

And yet, we still have echoes of the story’s transforming power in the gospels themselves. Despite the normalcy of the institution and of civilizations, people throughout our history to this day have found hope and power to say no to violence and injustice and yes to sharing, peace, and cooperation.

Easter is over. I survived.

I went to church on Easter. I don't know what I was thinking.

I had been busy on Sundays lately, hadn't been to church in a while, and I had some free time this weekend to go to church. In addition, on Good Friday, I dropped in for a few minutes during my lunch hour at a 3-hour long ecumenical event. At that Good Friday event, I heard a sermon that I liked from a seminarian, so it put me in the mood to experience church on Sunday.

I'd love to attend an Easter service that openly discussed and celebrated the idea that the resurrection events depicted by the Evangelists are mythological. I have a year to see if I can find a service like that. Or maybe I'll just skip church services altogether next Easter.

Process theology, empathy, and justice

I ran across a blog posting by a proponent of process theology who argued that process theology and liberation theology are irreconcilably opposed to one another. More specifically, the blogger disagreed that the God of process theology takes the side of the oppressed on matters of social justice. I was surprised to see this argument, which really does not jibe with what I personally believe about God--and I am certainly a defender of process theology. I believe that the blogger in this case is creating an unnecessary conflict between these two theologies where none need exist, and I believe it is possible to reconcile them.

The blogger cited her own ordination paper, which stated:

Process thought...avoids absolutes; to one extent or another, we are all representative of both the oppressor and the oppressed. God is therefore not on the side of one person or group. Instead, God is continuously offering salvation through grace, defined as acceptance, love, and forgiveness, to all persons.
I think this somewhat misses the point. To suggest that God is equally both on the side of the slaveholder and the slave, equally on the side of the oppressor and the oppressed, equally on the side of the torturer and the tortured, seems to take all moral dimension out of God's creative lure. While the blogger correctly notes that process theology sees God as the source of novelty and as a creative lure in the evolution of the universe, there is nothing in that understanding of God that precludes a moral dimension to God's creativity. Social justice is, in my view, a necessary and important part of the divine creative lure. One of the ways that God seeks to lure the world creatively forward is by luring us towards ever expanding notions of inclusiveness and justice. When we are more loving, when we treat others with justice, we are responding positively to God's lure. When we are less loving, we are acting contrary to that lure. Those who oppress, those who commit injustice, are thus acting in defiance of the Divine lure, and it would be contradictory to assert that God was somehow "on their side" when they so behaved. To assert that God is equally on the side of the oppressor and the oppressed would be to assert that God did not care whether people responded to the Divine lure or not; and if God really felt that way, there would be no point for God to even bother to participate actively in the world.

But, I would argue, God does care care what happens in the world. God does want us to respond to his/her creative lure. And that means that God wants us to act justly and to oppose injustice when we see it. God does take sides.

It is true, as the blogger points out, that process thought views God as continually offering grace, even to those who harm others through the exercise of violence or power. However, that is not the same thing as saying that God is indifferent to the outcome of events that result in oppression. It may be that the blogger is defining "taking sides" to mean that God has excluded certain people from his/her loving concern when they have defied God's will--and she rejects this view (as do I). But this isn't really relevant, as far as I can tell. Yes, God is on everyone's side in a certain sense--namely that God's love is universal and unconditional; but since process thought focuses on processes--namely, each individual action that represents a response to the possibilities offered by God--then God is always taking a position on what decisions people should be making, and taking a position is another way of saying that God takes sides at each moment of decision. God would ideally want people to respond as God is asking us to do. Process thought suggests that God adjusts his/her lure according to ever changing circumstances; what this means in practice is that those who commit injustice are always given new opportunities by God to change their behavior. To the extent that one does change one's behavior accordingly--to the extent that the oppressor stops oppressing--then God is on that person's side. If they do not change their behavior, God does not give up, but instead continually offers new opportunities for change. Thus the sides that God takes are provisional--they depend on what we do.

When individuals or societies willfully chose act in certain ways that are contrary to the way God wants them to act, and when those actions create victims as a result, then divine will and individual will have clashed; by definition, God takes a side on behalf of the victims. A God who did not do would not be a just God.

One of the ways that we defy God is when we hurt others. When we hurt others through institutional or societal means, God's infinite and perfect empathy feels the pain of the victim. This perfect empathy is a key principle of process thought; God, according to this view, feels everyone's pains and everyone's joys. God does not want people to be hurt. Thus, once again, I conclude that God naturally takes the side of those who are hurt by institutionalized injustice. God's interest in greater inclusiveness and greater love involves luring people away from sexism, racism, homophobia, war, violence, and the other ills that plague society. God wants an end to victimization, a victimization that God actually experiences at the same time that the victims themselves do. One of the ways that God can lure us to become more inclusive is to appeal to our ability to feel empathy ourselves for what others feel, even if we feel empathy much less perfectly than God does. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of injustice are all ways of denying our own capacity for empathy. Once we put ourselves in other people's shoes, it is harder for us to dehumanize them by oppressing them.

It is easy, I suppose, to dismiss the importance of empathy as a path to justice. I am reminded of a New York Times op-ed column by Daniel Mendelsohn titled "Stolen Suffering", in which the author (rather derisively) criticized the ability of people to feel empathy for those who suffer from truly horrible tragedies. Mendelsohn claimed that anyone who pretends that they really know what victims are going through--those struck with AIDS, for example, or Holocaust victims--are effectively devaluing the reality of the pain that the actual victims experienced. Mendelsohn writes:

The facile assumption that we can literally “feel others’ pain” can be dangerous to our sense of who we are — and, more alarmingly, who the others are, too. “We all have AIDS,” a recent public-awareness campaign declared. Well, no, actually we don’t: and to pretend that we do, even rhetorically, debases the anguish of those who are stricken.

While it is true that none of us can truly and exactly understand what others are going through--according to process thought, only God fully is capable of that--Mendelsohn's argument effectively devalues the power of empathy. Our limitation lies in the fact that we can only imagine what others are going through at any given moment, because we are all prisoners of our own subjectivity. Yet what gives us the ability to imagine the pain of others is the fact that, even if we don't know what others are exactly experiencing at any given moment, we can extrapolate from our own past and present experiences, and from that, apply our human capacity for empathy, which ennobles the human spirit. It allows us to, in some sense, "feel for" what others go through. Take away our empathy, and our humanity is diminished or even stripped away. Sadism easily results when individuals don't empathize with others.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a landmark essay more than thirty years ago titled "What is it like to be a bat?" Though Nagel is an atheist, his essay has interesting implications for those who believe in God, and for the subject of empathy. The gist of the article was his argument against a philosophical reductionism that saw the mind-body problem as being explained by purely material causes. Where this applies to the question of empathy is that in making his argument, he brought in the fact that each conscious being, whether they be a bat or a human being or a Martian, has a subjective conscious experience that we can only make inferences about:
But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.

We may call this the subjective character of experience.
And Nagel's point is that each of is limited by our own subjectivity, which is to say our extrapolations about what others experience are only imaginatively conceived descriptions. None of us really knows what it is like to be a bat--let alone another human being:

To the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals. On the other hand, it is doubtful that any meaning can be attached to the supposition that I should possess the internal neurophysiological constitution of a bat. Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.

So if extrapolation from our own case is involved in the idea of what it is like to be a bat, the extrapolation must be incompletable. We cannot form more than a schematic conception of what it is like.
I think Nagel makes a valid point. And yet here is the amazing thing: despite our inability to really know what others experience, we still somehow have ability to make a huge leap and act and feel in ways that express a presumption of empathy. Our human capacity for empathy is, as Nagel suggests, incompletable. It is, in effect, a kind of shadow or a dim reflection of God's perfect and infinite empathy. Somehow, though, despite our limitations, we still find ourselves capable of acting as if we can put ourselves in other people's shoes. We try to extrapolate from our own suffering, and somehow we imagine that other people's suffering must be bad, too. To the extent that we do this, we are reacting to the divine lure.

In response to Mendelsohn's op-ed piece, a letter writer to the New York Times had this to say:
Many see empathy as total identification with the feelings and experience of another person. Yet empathy also deals with accepting another’s experience as totally foreign, individualized and unattainable.

When a person exits that cattle car at the National Holocaust Museum, it is impossible for him or her to “know what it was like.” Rather, as human beings, we have a duty to realize how little we know about what it was like.

Our sacred individuality is what makes us human, and interestingly enough, it is also what ties us all together.

Perhaps process theology would say that, ultimately, it is God's perfect empathy, and the creative divine lure that asks us to share in that empathy through acts of justice, that ties us all together.

A pastor moves on

Jim Burko, a leading figure in the Center for Progressive Christianity, is no longer the pastor of Sausalito Presbyterian Church. According to the church's web site, he resigned on 2/29/2008.

I hate it when that happens

The satirical newspaper The Onion offers this headline:

Shroud Of Turin Accidentally Washed With Red Shirt

The text of the article begins:

The Shroud of Turin, an ancient linen cloth believed to bear the image of Christ and considered by many clerics and devotees to be one of the holiest relics of the Christian faith, was inadvertently dyed a light shade of pink after being washed with a red T-shirt, sources reported Tuesday.

"Belief comes naturally and quickly; skepticism is slow and unnatural"

The March issue of Scientific American contains an article by Michael Shermer that cites a study published in the December 2007 Annals of Neurology:

This research supports Spinoza’s conjecture that most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity and that belief comes quickly and naturally, whereas skepticism is slow and unnatural. The scientific principle of the null hypothesis—that a claim is untrue unless proved otherwise—runs counter to our natural tendency to accept as true what we can comprehend quickly.
Shermer is a professional skeptic, and perhaps takes his skepticism farther than I would; I'm not sure that he is necessarily a fan of religion in general, for example. That being said, I think if it is the case that most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity, then he raises an interesting point, one that explains a great deal about the appeal of religious fundamentalism, with its lack of tolerance for ambiguity, metaphor, uncertainty and symbolism. But with Easter just around the corner, I think it also explains how it is that many people can come to believe that 2000 years ago a corpse was resuscitated, walked around for 40 days, and then apparently without even so much as a jetpack on his back was lifted vertically off the earth into the sky into a heavenly realm that is physically located above the clouds.

Alternatives to intercessory prayer

I wonder if people sometimes conceive of unanswered intercessory prayers as a case of God being an unhelpful concierge, as illustrated above in today's Pearls Before Swine comic strip.

Anne Lamott, who has just published her third book on faith, was interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day. She was asked, "I read somewhere that you say two prayers: 'Help me' and 'Thank you.' Which one do you say more often?" She answered,

I say them both equally. I also say a third prayer ... I go, "Whoa!" — in the most California way possible. Sometimes I say it when I step outside or when I look up — like I'm sitting in this hotel, and, I mean, it's like the Sistine Chapel here but in a Southern, Deep South kind of way. I was looking up before you called, and I thought, "Whoa!"
I suppose "Help me" could be used as an intercessory prayer, although I don't think that this is what she meant by it, because later in the interview, she said,
I remember something that really affected me years ago, when Arthur Ashe died. I saw a quote of his that said, "I'm not praying to be healed. I never once prayed to win a tennis match, and I'm not going to tell God what to do now." But, you know, he was just praying for the willingness to trust and surrender — "Thy will be done," and all that. And that really affected me. That is so beautiful, so "money where your mouth is." You don't pray to win tennis matches. You don't pray for them to get your room ready sooner, just because you have a sore throat and possibly tuberculosis.
I think that "Help me", "Thank you", and "Whoa!" all sound like good prayers to me. They are simple, they are honest, and they are to the point.

Intercessory Prayer

Thanks to DKBlog for this quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner on the subject of prayer:

If prayer worked the way many people think it does, no one would ever die, because no prayer is ever offered more sincerely than the prayer for life, for health and recovery from illness, for ourselves and for those we love.

People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have.
This quote summarizes why I have never liked the use of intercessory prayer in church services. I understand that, for many people, prayers for health or healing or the like are really ways of unloading onto God our concerns and fears, rather than serving as a bona fide attempt to convince God to intervene theistically and supernaturally to change the course of events. But even if this is the way some people feel about it, in my experience it is rarely stated that way explicitly in church services, and even the term "intercessory" (which is sometimes used in church) presumes that God will somehow "intercede" on our behalf if we ask "him" nicely enough. On the other hand, as Rabbi Kushner says, if we pray for courage or strength in the face of our fears, frailties, and difficulties, then we often find that in just talking to God we discover something inside ourselves that allows us to better face the world. In that sense, God can be a wonderful shoulder to cry on.

It was 13.73 billion years ago today

A supernaturally theistic God intervenes upon the world from the outside--so to speak, casting lightning bolts from the sky, as in today's Bizarro comic:

A panentheistic God, on the other hand, acts not on the world from the outside, but rather within and through the world, and has done since for the past 13.73 billion years, give or take 120 million years.

It was reported yesterday that scientists have been able to measure the age of the universe to even greater precision, which is where the figure of 13.73 billion years comes from. Which is to say that, from the time that the universe first emerged into a great evolutionary unfolding that we refer to as the Big Bang, I for one believe that God has spent the last 13.73 billion years participating in the universe's continuing evolution and development.

How much more marvelously inspiring I find it to be to consider that God participates creatively in the world by participating through the world, than to imagine a giant super-Father-like figure in the sky who occasionally acts upon it from the outside through the exercise of "his" brute, raw power.

More on progressive faith

The discussion in my previous posting between myself and Bruce Ledewitz was picked up by the blogger XPatriated Texan (XT) of the Street Prophets blog at Daily Kos. I would have left a comment there, but I first had to sign up at Daily Kos, and then I was informed that there is a ridiculous 24-hour waiting period before I could even leave a comment there. In the blogosophere, 24 hours might as well be an eon.

In my blog response to Bruce Ledewitz, I had alluded to his comment that "progressive faith" seems to have two meanings--one referring to those who are theologically orthodox but politically liberal or progressive, and another referring those who are theologically progressive (such as Marcus Borg or Dominic Crossan.) That distinction wasn't really the focus of my posting, since I agreed with him on this point (and I had discussed this earlier in response to a blog posting by Jim Burklo of the Center for Progressive Christianity). However, XT wanted to focus more specifically on the what progressive faith really means. He defines it thusly:

"Progressive Faith" is simply those of us who seek to further the tradition of revelation by reconciling it with reason and science. It does not mean, necessarily, that earlier thinkers were wrong, only that they were not entirely correct.
Where things get interesting in my view is what happens when you actually do seriously undertake the process of reconciling revelation with reason and science. Once you go down that road, I would argue that a paradigm change becomes absolutely necessary. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. I think that paradigm changes are just as much a part of religious history as they are of scientific history. Christians who honor their roots in the Hebrew Bible no longer believe that Yahweh is a tribal Deity, or that dead people go to Sheol. It is almost trite to cite Thomas Kuhn here, but I would argue that the Enlightenment brought on a crisis in the Christian faith that is still being played out, one that can only be resolved by a paradigm change that re-examines the traditional assumptions about a theistically interventionist God and about the more extraordinary and miraculous claims that are often made in the name of faith.

Of course this process of reconciling faith with reason and science means accepting the tools of modern scholarly biblical research. But I believe that in a post-Enlightenment world it also means looking at God in a different way, and at the stories and myths of Christianity's founding traditions with new eyes. The implications for me are that we cannot believe in a world of supernatural theistic intervention that violates the normal physical laws of nature. It means not believing that Jesus's corpse was resuscitated and that he therefore walked around on earth for 40 days after he was crucified. When John Shelby Spong says that "Christianity must change or die," he means that for it to remain an intellectually viable faith, we need to accommodate theology with a post-Enlightenment understanding of the world.

Pastor John Shuck has offered some sage words to offer on this subject. He recommends the book Jesus is Dead by Robert M. Price for this Easter season,
as a service to preachers who are trying to figure out ways to proclaim this mystery and as a service to churchgoers who dread attending another sermon in which the preacher berates people's intelligence by telling them that in order to be a Christian they have to believe that the corpse of the historical Jesus came back to life."
Yay, John! He goes on to say that, as Presbyterian pastor of the Reformed tradition,
I make that extravagantly humble and unprovable assertion in part because our deeply rich, varied, and open-ended tradition is always in danger of being hijacked by those who lack adequate understanding of science, history, and theology.

For instance, if Christians want to make the theological claim that God creates the world, that claim will lack any credibility unless they also affirm evolutionary theory.

If Christians want to make the theological claim that Jesus is alive, that claim will lack any credibility unless they also affirm historical scholarship of the New Testament.
John then lays it out beautifully:
[Price] shows throughout these essays that the "resurrection accounts" are fictions. It is really pretty obvious. The Jesus Seminar scholars concluded the same thing. The more bashful scholars, once you finally get them to move beyond their dissembling, also affirm that, yes, the accounts of the empty tomb are more indebted to creative storytelling than to historical reportage.

It is difficult for many Christians to accept that. A Jesus who is not "historical" cannot be real and worthy of Christian worship, so the argument goes. For some, that is true. Price is an atheist. That is his choice. I don't think one has to make that choice. I do not.

In a similar way, some scientists are atheists. Some are not. Whether or not one chooses to be an atheist or atheist, or a person of a particular covenant or not, is independent of science and history. I simply argue that the church is not served by bad science (ie. creationism) and bad history (ie. false claims for the historicity of the resurrection).

If the church can't take it, it deserves to die. Those of us who proclaim the theological mystery of the Risen Christ would do well to make that claim credible by appreciating true scholarship of Christian origins.
I agree with John that rejecting bad science and bad history lie at the core of progressive faith. So for me, progressive faith isn't just about accepting evolution or the Big Bang theory; it also inevitably must move beyond any literal acceptance of mythological stories about a physically resurrected Jesus walking on the earth. This is not something that I have seen in a lot of churches that describe themselves as "progressive", although there are exceptions, as Jim Burklo and John Shuck demonstrate.

Who gets to define the boundaries of faith?

I ran across the blog of an author named Bruce Ledewitz who promotes something that he calls "Hallowed Secularism". Ledewitz rejects organized religion but sets himself apart from militant atheists of the Hitchens variety, instead advocating a sort of secular spirituality that is disassociated with the dogmas of traditional religion, and which allows itself to conceive of God in metaphorical terms, or at least as a kind of "shorthand way of claiming a kind of meaningfulness and order in the universe." You might think that I would be in broad sympathy with his goals, but in fact he wrote a critique of progressive faith that, unfortunately, reflects a set of assumptions about what constitutes "legitimate" religion that comes right out of the orthodox party line.

I do give him credit for noting the fact that "progressive" religion actually refers to two different kinds of faith--one that is theologically orthodox but politically progressive, and the other which is progressive theologically (and probably progressive politically as well). But when he discusses the latter form of theologically progressive faith, he unfortunately trots out the typical conservative assumptions about the nature of "true" religious faith--characterizing progressive religion as "insubstantial", having "few followers", and--this is where he goes badly off course--he goes on to assert:

It does not work as Christian thought because the empty tomb cannot be regarded as mere metaphor. It does not work as Christian thought because the empty tomb cannot be regarded as mere metaphor. That Christian truth is meant to be historical, even if mysterious. Jesus really must have arisen from the dead. Discovering Jesus’ remains would be a Christian catastrophe.
Naturally, he is just taking for granted the definition of "Christian" faith that certain defenders of orthodoxy proclaim. In particular, in parroting the notion that a Christian faith cannot exist, or cannot somehow be legitimate, without a literal resurrection of Jesus, he seems to have let orthodox Christianity decide for him and the rest of us what kind of religious faith we are allowed to have.

When the pastor of a church that I sporadically attend was conducting sessions based on the "Living the Questions" DVD, I recall when she was concerned about how the people in attendance might react to Marcus Borg's statement on the video that it doesn't matter whether you choose to believe that Jesus was literally, physically resurrected or not. She had no problem with that statement, herself being a fan of Marcus Borg, but she was afraid that some of her congregation in the audience might find that statement unacceptable, or that it simply called into question their fundamental presuppositions about Christianity. Instead, it turned out that no one there seemed fazed by Borg's remark.

The very existence of people like Marcus Borg--who sells a fair number of books, who travels around the country speaking in churches, who blogs on the Washington Post/ Newsweek web site "On Faith", and so forth--calls into question Ledewitz's assumptions about what kind of faith can and cannot exist, and in turn it calls into question his assumption that the only way to find a "hallowed" life when you reject orthodox faith is by rejecting all forms of organized religion. Since progressive religion doesn't fit into his paradigm, he disses it as having no legitimacy or substance. This is a problem not unlike seen with militant atheists, who also casually dismiss progressive faith because it doesn't fit into their own paradigm.

The comment about having "few followers" is rather interesting in and of itself. (I wonder how many followers his "hallowed secularism" movement has.) In any case, this is not a race. There are no winners and losers here, based on who gets the most to sign up. Those of us who choose a path that is meaningful for us may just happen to do so because it speaks to our spiritual condition, not because we want to be on the winning team.

I suppose that the lesson to learn from Ledewitz's remarks is that it isn't just the militant atheists among the non-faithful who seem to have allowed a certain kind of religious dogma decide what is a legitimate form of faith or not.

Religion as a metaphor

Last Sunday's New York Times contained an article by Dana Jennings, a convert to Judaism, who wrote about the recent Pew Trust report on Americans changing their religious affiliations.

I particularly liked it when he said that

religions, if nothing else, are metaphors for how we choose to lead our lives, how we choose to defy the empty cultural whirlwind.

Our lives begin in mystery ... and end in mystery. In between, we try to explain ourselves to ourselves, all 6.5 billion of us who are wedged onto this improbable planet — 6.5 billion potential paths toward the holy.

Judaism is my faith, my road, my metaphor — but my metaphor isn’t any better than your metaphor, and vice versa — which still shocks the 10-year-old country boy who lurks in my heart.

Who's wishy-washy?

Sometimes I stumble across blogs for one reason or another and read them cursorily, perhaps assuming that they are more progressive than they turn out to be. One blog that I discovered to be quite a bit more orthodox than I initially realized has cited a quote from Richard Rorty, a non-believer, as ammunition against religious liberalism. I think the use of this quote by an atheist against liberalism illustrates once again the sort of curious alliance of convenience that sometimes exists between religious orthodoxy and atheists, both of whom often share certain assumptions about what makes a faith "legitimate". Here is what Rorty said:

I'm delighted that liberal theologians do their best to do what Pio Nono said shouldn't be done -- try to accommodate Christianity to modern science, modern culture, and democratic society. If I were a fundamentalist Christian, I'd be appalled by the wishy-washiness of their version of the Christian faith. But since I am a non-believer who is frightened of the barbarity of many fundamentalist Christians (e.g., their homophobia), I welcome theological liberalism. Maybe liberal theologians will eventually produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian any more. If so, something will have been lost, but probably more will have been gained.
Here Rorty shares the assumption that many orthodox Christians also share about what constitutes legitimate faith. Many atheists just seem to defer to the orthodoxy (or, worse still, fundamentalists) when it comes to defining what "real" faith is, and anything that deviates from that is illegitimate and probably just one short step from atheism. As Rorty puts it, such faith is merely "wishy-washy". Of course, orthodoxy by its very nature likes to claim for itself the sole right to determine what form of faith is legitimate. But it is unfortunate that so many non-believers will readily defer to the orthodoxy and implicitly accept its own claims for itself as the sole arbiter of theological legitimacy.

Curiously, John Shelby Spong was then offered up as an example of this sort of "wishy-washy" faith. The idea that Spong, who is one of the more dogmatic proponents of his own brand of progressive Christianity, is "wishy-washy" seems rather curious. One thing he is not is "wishy-washy".

Another curious thing is that, in the comments to that posting, it was put forth that when religious progressives find certain theologies objectionable, they are wrong to oppose them nonetheless, because the very fact that a theology is objectionable is itself an argument for its legitimacy(!) This same argument popped up again in a later posting in the same blog.

God forbid that we have a theology that makes sense to us!