Pastor quits church--and his $600,000 salary

The New York Times reports that the pastor of a famous church, a "renowned bastion of liberal theology and social activism on the Upper West Side of Manhattan" has resigned from his job after just nine months on the job.

I don't know anything about the internal politics of the congregation that led to his early departure, but I did find it interesting to note that the pastor, who described himself as a "progressive Christian" in his resignation letter, was making over $600,000 a year, "including a $250,000 salary and a housing allowance." What I also found interesting was the statement from the article that "experts on American churches said the pastor’s compensation was well above average among pastors nationwide, but within the range of packages for senior pastors of similar major churches in other big cities."

Wow. $600,000 is within the pay range for senior pastors of major churches in big cities? Major progressive churches?

I'm more familiar with the opposite problem--I've seen churches that are small and which can't even afford to pay their pastors full time salaries. I am certainly in favor of pastors being fairly compensated for their work, and I realize that New York is an expensive city to live in, but even given all of that, I am finding it hard to see how a salary of $600,000 a year is compatible with a progressive social vision. The fact that "other churches do it" hardly seems like a justification. This is not about market economics, and I think that other considerations besides the going rate should be in play here. Instead, it might be useful to ask what is consistent with the vision of a religion whose founder once famously said something about wealth and camels and the eyes of needles.

The poetic imagination

I have mentioned PZ Myers before as one who often pontificates about a subject about which he knows little--namely, religion--and in a recent screed he continues, unfortunately, to display his lack of knowledge in this matter.

In this case, Myers boldly asserts that "Christian faith is at odds with science". The reason, he asserts, is because science and religion both try to explain the nature of reality, and while science uses the right tools,

Religion, on the other hand, uses a different body of techniques to explain the nature of the universe. It uses tradition and dogma and authority and revelation, and a detailed legalistic analysis of source texts, to dictate what the nature of reality should be.
As I've stated before, I would suggest that there are two fundamental flaws with this sort of argument to start with. First, while some some religions do (incorrectly) step outside of their appropriate magisterium (to borrow a term from Gould) to try to describe the nature of physical reality, not all religions do, and certainly not all forms of religion do. Second, Myers commits the fallacy of assuming that attempts to describe physical reality somehow lie at the core of what religion is all about. In addition, his comments about "dictating" what the nature of reality by means of "tradition and dogma and authority and revelation" show that he gets his understanding of what religion is in terms of a certain kind of Christian orthodoxy. There is a whole world of theology that does not conform to his stereotype, but he simply doesn't seem to care.

Myers comes across as an intolerant and misinformed buffoon, or at least he does so when he steps out side of his area of expertise (biology) and attempts to tackle a subject about which he knows nothing. Unfortunately, he attempts to tackle this subject often, and as such he serves as the poster boy for everything that is annoying about militant atheism.

I understand that a lot of people don't "get" religion. Sometimes I don't get it myself. But there is a difference between not getting something and attacking that which you don't get. I wonder if those who are mired in dogmatic scientism just lack a certain poetic or artistic imagination. Otherwise, there would surely be a better appreciation of the poetic impulse that really lies behind the religious spirit. Religion at its best unleashes a part of our souls and a way of looking at things that, far from "dictating" anything to us, actually liberates us. Scientism just doesn't seem to understand this.

Unity was more important than truth

The text of a brilliantly scathing open letter from John Shelby Spong to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, can be found here. Spong does an excellent job of documenting a whole litany of examples of Williams's failures of moral leadership on matters of sexuality and women's rights, as Williams continually capitulated to the religious right within his denomination. Spong points out that, for Rowan Williams, "unity was more important than truth." The final four paragraphs of this letter are as follows:

You continue to act as if quoting the Bible to undergird a dying prejudice is a legitimate tactic. It is in fact the last resort that religious people always use to validate "tradition" over change.

The Bible was quoted to support the Divine Right of Kings in 1215, to oppose Galileo in the 17th century, to oppose Darwin in the 19th century, to support slavery and apartheid in the 19th and 20th centuries, to keep women from being educated, voting and being ordained in the 20th and 21st century.

Today it is quoted to continue the oppression and rejection of homosexual people. The Bible has lost each of those battles. It will lose the present battle and you, my friend, will end up on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of morality and the wrong side of truth. It is a genuine tragedy that you, the most intellectually-gifted Archbishop of Canterbury in almost a century, have become so miserable a failure in so short a period of time.

You were appointed to lead, Rowan, not to capitulate to the hysterical anger of those who are locked in the past. For the sake of God and this Church, the time has come for you to do so. I hope you still have that capability.

I think that Spong really highlights the problem of favoring maintaining denominational unity at all costs, even at the cost of standing in the way of moral and social progress. Spong in his letter makes a historical analogy with slavery at one point, and it is an interesting one. Some American denominations were split into two over the issue of slavery during the mid-eighteenth century. When we look back at those divisive times, it is clear that taking a clear moral stand against slavery was the right thing to do, even at the cost of denominational unity. Why should anyone allow the march of moral progress today to be dragged down by obstructionist reactionaries?

Watering Down

As a followup to my previous posting on Sean Carroll, I ran across another blogger who essentially agreed with Carroll's comments on the supposed incompatibility of religion and science. I found one particular comment by the blogger particularly interesting:

It continually amazes me that theologians like John Haught or scientists like Francis Collins can get away with a definition of “religion” that is completely at odds with how most real non-Ph.D-holding humans practice their faith in the real world. To enforce a compatibility between faith and science, you have to water down “faith” until it becomes a vague deism that doesn’t permit its god to interfere in the working of the universe. And that’s simply not the way that most people construe their faith.
The above quote is pretty muddled in several ways, but one thing I find particularly fascinating is the assertion that any definition of God that precludes omnipotent interventionism is a case of "watering down" faith. How this constitutes a "watering down" isn't exactly clear, but the presupposition seems to be that there is only one legitimate way of conceiving of religion, one that amazingly seems to resemble that of conservative Christians, which involves a certain idea of omnipotent interventionism by a powerful deity. I'm not exactly sure where nontheistic faiths like Buddhism would fit into this strange definition of religion; maybe the blogger in question doesn''t consider Buddhism to be a real religion either, for all I know, since it doesn't involve a "god interfering in the working of the universe". The quote further confuses the issue in its reference to John Haught as a deist; in fact, John Haught, expresses views that are strongly influenced by process theology,which is radically different from deism, since the former entails divine creative activity in each present moment as a lure towards the future, whereas deism sees divine activity as having only taken place as a single creative act in the distant past.

Perhaps most telling is the comment from the above quote that "that's simply not the way most people construe their faith." What's funny about this is that it presumes some sort of dichotomy between a supposed common people's religion of supernatural interventionism and a different theology produced by the ivory tower. I don't know who all those people are who purchase books by progressive theologians, but I somehow doubt that all of them hold Ph.Ds. In fact, I am not a Ph.D-holding human, and yet my views on religion come pretty close to those of John Haught's. So how is it that the above blogger, who incorrectly lumps disparate theologies together under the label of "deism", gets to decide what is and isn't a legitimate conception of faith and God? And how is it that anything that deviates from this standard constitutes a "watering down" of religion?

It is not uncommon that those who disparage religion on the basis of certain stereotypical notions about what religion supposed is, when confronted with theologies that don't conform to those stereotypes, have little choice but to deny that these alternate theologies are legitimately religious at all. Thus the irony: people who are not religious and who are even hostile to religion have set themselves up as the authorities on what is and isn't "religion".

What we see here is an example of the "everyone knows" argument that I talked about previously--supposedly everyone knows what a religion really is. To emphasize the point, it is suggested that a religion is defined by whatever the majority of religious people do--note the comment from the above quote on how "most people construe their faith." Most? Again, even if we exclude from consideration nontheistic religions like Buddhism, and even assuming that the author has some kind of accurate mathematical estimate of what "most people" believe about their faith, the problem is that "most" is not "all", and "most" don't get to decide what the remainder believes about their own faith. Religion is not defined by whatever some purported majority considers their own faith to be about. There is a lot of variety of thinking out there in the world of religious faith, religion is more diverse than some people give it credit for, and the interest in these subjects is not confined to academia.

The "everyone knows" argument

Sean Carroll joins the list of scientists who write about the relationship between science and religion in ways that suggest that they understand little or nothing about the latter. Specifically, he has recently argued in a Discover magazine blog that science and religion are incompatible. The reason, he claims, is that

Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.
So there you go. Carroll goes on to assert that "we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including those mentioned above — Jesus died and was resurrected, etc." Religion always makes claims about the physical world, right? How does Carroll know this to be the case? Has he studied theology enough in depth to actually know that his generalization about religion is true? I think we can summarize his explanation for how he knows this generalization to be true by, essentially, the "everyone knows" argument. Everyone knows, Carroll argues, that this is what religion is.

In fact, many religions frequently do make assertions about the physical world, but I think Carroll goes wrong on two scores. First, he asserts that religion is the domain of people who "believe in a supernatural being called 'God' who created the universe, is intensely interested in the behavior of human beings, and occasionally intervenes miraculously in the natural world." Aside from the fact that his references to Divine omnipotence don't jibe with the existence of non-theistic religions, and aside from the fact that his assertions about divine omnipotence don't jibe with process theology or other theologies that he has probably never heard of, the basic problem is his assertion is that religions always make claims about the physical world. Secondly, even among those religions which do make such claims, Carroll makes the mistake of assuming that the claims themselves are the essential core of what makes a religion "religious".

Carroll, like many others who make similar assertions, uses the "everyone knows" argument as essentially an excuse, since it serves to justify his own lack of knowledge of a subject that he pontificates about--by arguing that such knowledge is unnecessary. I do give Carroll credit, because he does not come across as overtly hostile towards religious people, at least not in the same way that PZ Myers does. Myers defends his own ignorance of religion with his so-called "Courtier's Reply" argument. According to Myers, atheists are like the child in the story of the Emperor's new clothes who calls religious people on their supposedly untrue and fantastical claims; and thus those who suggest that such atheist objections are not grounded in a knowledge of the variety of theologies that exist are merely like the courtiers in that story who claimed that elaborate knowledge of clothes was necessary to appreciate that the Emperor really was wearing clothes. Myers's "Courtier's Reply" argument is rather strange, coming from an academic, since I seriously doubt that he as a biologist appreciates it when people who are ignorant of biology pontificate on the subject (and as a strong proponent of evolution, he in fact encounters such ignorance all the time from creationists.) The real problem with Myers' "Courtier's Reply" argument is that he presupposes that "God" is analogous with clothing, and that since "everyone knows" what clothes are, everyone also "knows" what the meanings of religion and God are as well. After all, all nouns and concepts in the English language work according to the "everyone knows" principle, right?

The reality is that I am in agreement with Sean Carroll on the point that any time that a religion makes extraordinary claims about the physical world it is stepping into territory that rightfully belongs to science. If he had said that science is incompatible with irrational, unreasonable religion, I would have been in agreement with him. There is indeed a lot of religion out there that, unfortunately, embraces irrationality. But in insisting that religion isn't religion if it doesn't make such claims, he does a great disservice to the many people in the world who are engaged in a religious faith, in religious traditions, and religious communities, who don't accept such claims and who don't make those claims themselves. Religion is much more about things like meaning, metaphor, purpose, story, and how we fit into the greater universe that we inhabit. Those claims about the physical world that do crop up, I would argue, are secondary to the definition of religion because they serve the deeper purpose of religious faith.

There seem to be two sets of people who simply refuse to understand the depth and varieties of religious faith and how faith can be grounded in reason--religious fundamentalists, and certain anti-religion atheists in the scientific community. Maybe that's because the latter are essentially fundamentalists in their own way.

We value diversity, and by the way, this is what you should believe.

I suppose it is going to seem like I am picking on a particular church that I have never even visited, but it isn't really my intention to do that. What I really am trying to do is illustrate by example why it is that certain restless and unaffiliated souls like myself who are alienated from Christian orthodoxy but who have an interest in radically progressive Christianity see weirdly mixed messages coming from some churches that seem to proclaim openness to free theological inquiry on the one hand, but then on the other hand define themselves in strictly orthodox terms.

The example I am going to cite here is a church in San Francisco that has a very active web presence and a dynamic pastor who is well respected in his denomination. I have never met the pastor, but I believe that he is well liked by many of his peers and those in his congregation. Here is a brief sample what four Yelp reviewers had to say about this church:

"I'm jewish---and i love going to mbcc."

"We continue come for the community, the openness, the friendships, the intelligent discussions, and the encouragement to follow our own journeys of discovery with God."

"I love to see a place where i can come as i am, and not feel like the place is bound and limited by religious traditions that limit my own personal ideas and beliefs."

"MBCC is not about vestments and pageantry and rigid orthodoxy. The focus here is on building a community of faith where everyone is welcome. "

A lot of people clearly love this church, although to be honest I don't know how much of that is in response to the apparent informality of style found in its worship services (for example, people drink coffee during the services, from what I gather). Still some of those comments about "rigid orthodoxy" and "personal ideas and beliefs" make it seem theologically open. But is it really open to diverse and free theological inquiry?

To find out more, I visited the web site. Proclaimed at the top of the main page is a statement that the church honors "diversity of thinking"--also also taking pains to add that it is "grounded in Christ". Of course, what it means to say that a church is "grounded in Christ" is the $64,000 question. Two people can ground their faith in Jesus's life and message while having quite different views about whether he was divine, for example, but that may or may not be what this church means in this case. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I concede that the emphasis on diversity of thinking seems like a good sign. So then I click on the "about us" link on that page, and see on the resulting page the following quote from a member:

at MBCC I see evangelicals and liberals, ex-conservatives and post-fundamentalists, theologians and even agnostics, holding each other, side by side, embracing our uncertain world and being embraced by the undying love of God.
This sounds even better, suggesting that this is a church that really does embrace diversity of thinking. Or does it? On that page I see a link that says "read more about our beliefs here". I click on that link (I'm now three levels deep in the web site), and here is where all that attention to diversity that was indicated earlier just completely disappears; because here, on this page, I find that, in fact, despite all that lip service that it had paid elsewhere to diversity, "our" beliefs boil down to the same old standard creedal affirmations of orthodox Christianity that I for one do not accept. For example, "our" beliefs include the assertion that Jesus is "fully human, fully God", that God is Triune in nature, that "through Jesus' death and resurrection God triumphed over sin"--and last, but certainly not least, that that Jesus will actually return to earth some day in at some future date.

Having dug deep into the web site I have thus discovered what all this talk about diversity really means. It seems to mean that a diversity of thinking is welcome, and oh, by the way, here is a list of things that you are supposed to believe, and they are quite orthodox. What does this alleged diversity thus consist of? Your guess is as good as mine.

This, I think, is the problem that many of us "believers in exile" (to use John Spong's term) see in Christian churches. I am not opposed to participating in a church that defines itself specifically as a faith community built around the message and teachings of Jesus; on the contrary, if I wanted to participate in an eclectic spirituality that did not focus on Jesus in particular, I would choose the path of Unitarian Universalism. I am interested in the way that Jesus preached and lived--a way grounded in a compassion, in inclusiveness, in overturning the established theological and political order, in the in-breaking Realm of God, but this does not mean that I accept all the dogmas about Jesus that emerged within the Christian churches over the centuries after he died.

The problem is that there is a middle ground between eclecticism and orthodoxy, one that views how we interpret Jesus as a much more open question than that was allegedly "settled" by ecumenical councils held centuries after Jesus died, and which focuses more on how we can transform our lives by following Jesus than on whatever theological spin you want to put on Jesus's nature. I believe I am not alone in being someone who is interested in Jesus, his life, his message, and their resulting implications for today, and who are also interested in progressive theologians like Borg, Crossan, Spong, Fox, Pagels, Hick, and Cobb. And I believe I am not alone in embracing an intelligent reading of the Bible without taking at face value some of the mythological claims found there. I see a lot of churches that talk a good game about diversity; but when push comes to shove, it seems that in many cases diversity really means "think what you what but this is what you really should be believing." If they are really going to tell us what "we" believe by laying out a set of orthodox dogmas, then they should not advertise themselves as encouraging diversity--because they don't.

As I mentioned, I don't mean to pick on this church specifically, because I find this often in quite a few ostensibly progressive Christian churches. I am not sure that this particular church that I am discussing identifies itself as "progressive". In fact, it is possible that it does not use that label, and I'm not sure that I saw that word appearing anywhere in its web site. But in its lip service to diversity and inclusiveness, it speaks much of the same language that progressive Christianity speaks. You can put a hip veneer on orthodoxy by taking away the pews and serving coffee in the service, but underneath that veneer it is still orthodoxy. And it is precisely this orthodoxy that has driven some of us into exile in the first place.

What does it mean to say there is no God?

Here is a great quote from Cynthia, "Reverend Mom":

But for me, saying "there is no God" is like saying "there is no mystery" or "there is no transcendence".... And as Marcus Borg has been known to say as well, the God that most atheists denounce, I don't believe in either. Jillette names the God of religious belief as omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent but as most folks who don't believe in God or believe there isn't one, he doesn't go any further to try to conceive of a God who isn't any of those things--because if God isn't any of that, then it is argued, God isn't God. Just who gets to decide what or who God is? It's all of us, not just church fathers or seminary professors or theologians. Does that mean the mystery disappears? Of course not. How could the mystery of being and breathing and living and dying just disappear because someone believes there is no God? That's just one way of defining the mystery amongst countless others. And when you think about it, it's not very original.

I really like this quote from the blog "Aspiration Towards Inspiration":

I want, when I say “Christian,” for people to think of the teachings of Jesus… how he healed the sick and welcomed those who society spit at… how he forgave the unforgivable and ate with those that most people of his day would not even look at. I’m tired of “Christian,” meaning pamphlets with hellfire and gay-bashing. I’m tired of it meaning Bush-supporter and anti-evolutionist. I want it to mean “follower of Jesus” again.

I think that the idea of Jesus as a salvational figure is not useful. It becomes a shallow selling tool and, if it is even true, it is horrible motivation for being a Christian. As far as I’m concerned, one’s motivation for being Christian should be selfless… it should be about a profound connection with Jesus’ message and a will to live a certain way of Life—one in which the primary goal is to better Humanity, to help those in need, and to reach out to other beings in order to maximize the meaning that each derives from existence.

Church democracy

In a previous post, I referred to two Christian denominations that seem to have a lot in common with one another but which are governed according to two different models--the Catholic Church, which uses a top-down model, and the Episcopal church, which is more democratic in structure. Although I belong to neither church, I made no secret of my sympathies for a more democratic approach, because, first, I believe that theology can best flower to its full potential when it is liberated from authoritarian control, and secondly I believe that church decision-making rightly belongs to the people and not to a self-appointed hierarchy. Part of this viewpoint stems from my understanding of religion as something other than an unchallengeable dogma handed down to humanity on a from above, but rather as a continual human process of grappling with the ultimate meaning of our lives in the framework of an deeper cosmic framework. The key word in that conception, I think, is process. Process means that theology is always in flux, it is always about dialogue, discovery, change, communication, struggle, and a recognition that any and all of us can be prophets. Hierarchical control never serves those ends.

Democracy has its problems, to be sure; but if you see theology as an ongoing process, then real theological growth and reform can only happen if members of a religious community are free to engage in an open dialogue with themselves and with God. The authoritarian model of a magisterial thought police and the use of a denominational soviet-style politboro to select a leadership lends itself to both theological rigidity and to abuses against those who don't toe the party line. ( Just ask Matthew Fox and Hans Kung about that.)

That being said, democracy is clearly no guarantee of tolerance and theological openness in a religious community. There can be reactionary forces within a denomination or church who will use the procedural methods of that very democratic process to resist progressive change; these same forces will operate to persecute or hound progressive theologians and clergy, and promote exclusionary or oppressive doctrines towards women , sexual minorities or others. Sometimes, the tyranny of the majority prevails. But I would take the possibility of failure in a democratic process over the tyranny of a hierarchy any day of the week.

One clear example of this problem can be found in the very Episcopal Church that was the subject of my earlier posting. Despite its generally progressive reputation, it certainly has its own powerful and organized reactionary elements, as do many other Protestant denominations. It has a process for selecting bishops which, though fairly democratic, also has its checks and balances and procedural rules that can end up biting progressives in the ass. This came out recently when organized opposition successfully opposed the nomination of Kevin Thew Forrester for the position of bishop of the diocese of Northern Michigan--because he was apparently deemed too heretical for certain tastes. (A San Francisco Episcopal rector gives a pretty good analysis of this situation here and here.)

In this particular case, the usual suspects from the Episcopal Right were very much involved in opposing Kevin Forrester. Greg Griffith, for example, of the Stand Firm web site, launched a predictable broadside against him. (Griffith, I might recall, once quoted extensively from one of my own blog postings in order to attack progressives in the Episcopal Church, even though I am not an Episcopal myself. Griffith also once engaged in a sexist exercise of displaying his wife as a trophy and comparing her looks to that of a more progressive female Episcopal priest--thus showing how low these people will sometimes sink to pursue their agenda.)

Obviously, this problem exists not just within Episcopalian politics. The Presbyterian Church, to cite another example, has also had its own thought police who have busily rooted out heretics. Robert Jensen, who was not even a member of the clergy, faced an inquisition from members of his Presbyterian church for having unorthodox views and having the temerity to publicly express them.

You don't always get what you want as an end result in a democratic process. Christianity has been a two thousand year long journey among humans, and the broader religious project itself goes back to the very emergence of modern humans tens of thousands of years ago. Maybe the point is that religion is not about the end result, but the journey. Religions have had a history of getting things wrong--it just seems to come with the territory. The Bible is a pretty good reflection of sometimes flawed morality that lies side by side with the most sublime beauty. Maybe there is value in the communal self-examination that takes place in the debates, even if they sometimes end up very badly at times. There has been a struggle within religious history for greater inclusiveness versus greater exclusion, and a struggle between those who seek to dethrone those who wield power versus those who insist on maintaining their control. Sometimes religion takes a few steps forward and then a few steps back. Jesus sought to subvert the religious authoritarianism of his own time, and yet the core message of inclusiveness that Jesus preached was largely subverted in the centuries after his death as new hierarchies and new acts of gate keeping emerged to define who was "in" and who was "out". Instead of "scribes and pharisees", we have seen magisteria, consistories and inquisitions. Meet the new boss--same as the old boss. So is the Jesus project some sort of failure? I don't think so. Many people remained inspired by his core message over the centuries, despite all that has gone perverse. We see in the modern world many Christians who have taken the principles of inclusiveness to their natural next steps, in ways once not thought possible--and thus we see female and gay clergy, for example, in many denominations.

The Jesus project thus goes on, but I think real change must come from below, from the grass roots of religious communities. Humanity is still trying to grope its way towards the Divine. It has taken us millenia to get this far. We still have a long way to go.

Beyond a theology of physical resurrection

Here is a quote from a book I am currently reading:

Sadly, the church has been declaring all those who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be heretics every since. This includes thoughtful, committed Christians who do not believe that Easter has anything to do with the resuscitation of a corpse or believing things you know are not true in order to get rewards you secretly doubt are available. We don't live in a three-story universe anymore, and the disappearance and reappearance of corpses should be left behind with the ideas of demon possession, slavery, and the subordination of women.

-- Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus From the Church, p. 89

Catholicism and Episcopalianism

To be honest, I had not heard of Father Cutie (pronounced "coo-tee-ay") until recently, although he was apparently something of a media celebrity in South Florida and in the Spanish speaking community. He made the news because of his decision to leave the Catholic Church for the Episcopal church because he wanted to be able to be able to pursue both his religious calling and his natural human desire for romantic companionship, two things which, in the strange world of Catholic doctrine, are somehow considered contradictory. He decided that enough was enough, and now he is an Episcopal priest.

In the context of that news event, South Florida newspaper ran a story that tried to compare and contrast the Catholic Church with the Episcopal Church. I have never belonged to either of those churches, so the best I can do is make what are probably less than fully informed comments. The joke has always been that the Episcopal Church is "Catholic Lite", but, as the article points out, there is more to it than that. Nevertheless, it is true that a lot of ex-Catholics do end up being Episcopalians, because there would seem to be at least some similarities that would make an ex-Catholic feel somewhat more comfortable in that church than in more openly Protestant churches.

The question of sexuality is obviously one important question that impinged on Father Cutie's experience. It seems clear to me that the Catholic Church has historically held a view that deemed celibacy to be in some sense a purer way of life than one in which sexuality played a part. This unfortunate undercurrent (or sometimes overcurrent) of hostility towards such a significant part of human physical existence goes back at least as far as Augustine, but it can also be found in such non-canonical writings from early Christianity as the Acts of Paul and Thecla. The idea that such a basic part of our physical natures can somehow come into conflict with a higher calling reflects a kind of dualism about the physical and the spiritual, and in fact a hostility towards the physical.

Father Cutie is a famous example, but really he is just the latest of a long line of refugees, both famous and not so famous, from the Catholic hierarchy's intransigence on such matters as celibacy, homosexuality, the role of women, and freedom of theological inquiry. While the Catholic Church remains stuck in the dark ages in its views on women, for example, the Episcopal Church now has a female presiding bishop. The contrast is rather stark. The problem as I see it is that such medieval Catholic doctrines are not likely to be reformed any time soon. As one former Catholic priest quoted in the Florida newspaper article puts it,

"The Catholic Church is monarchical; we're democratic," says the Rev. Robert Deshaies, a former Catholic priest and current rector at St. Benedict's Episcopal Church in Plantation. "It's basically about how the church is governed."
The leader of the Catholic Church appoints like minded people to choose his successor. The closest model that I can think of for how the Catholic Church handles papal succession is the old Soviet system, in which the politburo picked new leadership when the old ruler died, with membership in the politburo itself being hand selected by the leadership. It is true that out of the Soviet politburo system there did eventually emerge a reformer like Gorbachev, just as the Catholic system produced a reformer like John XXIII; and yet, this is perhaps that is where the analogy breaks down, because theological doctrine, unlike Stalinist orthodoxy, is much more immune to economic and political pressures, and furthermore recent popes seem to have taken careful steps to make sure that only like minded people inhabited the halls of church power. The point is that as a non-democratic institution, the people within the church are essentially powerless to effect real progressive change; power flows hierarchically from above, rather than democratically from below, and I can't imagine women becoming priests, let along pope, any time in the foreseeable future.

It seems that some Episcopal churches do try to offer themselves as a refuge for people who don't fit into the Catholic Church. The website for Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco, for example, mentions a group called Sophia in Trinity, which describes itself as "an inclusive community welcoming all those on the margins and especially those marginalized by the Roman Catholic Church: LGBT people, those that are divorced, remarried, those who witness to reproductive rights, all seeking justice and equality and the integrity of creation." Of course, that doesn't help much if you don't live in San Francisco, and I don't know how many similar communities exist elsewhere, especially in small towns.

It also seems that some Episcopal churches are more Catholic than others. The newspaper article reports,
Even in the American church, differences have emerged. "High Church" Episcopalians insist on Catholic-style liturgy, with bells and candles and incense. Their "Low Church" brethren have less formal worship, often like that in an ordinary Protestant church.
Indeed, I once attended a service at one Episcopal church service that was quite "High Church"; it wasn't my style, and I walked out about ten minutes into the service. Had I had a Catholic background, however, my guess is that I might have felt more at home there.

All of this raises some interesting questions in my own mind about the role that loyalty plays in all of this. I know that there are many progressive Catholics, people who object to specific policies or theologies of the church but who remain loyal to it nonetheless. I admit that I don't really understand it; a church that has egregiously offensive views on gays or women and which is not open to popular change from below is not something that I would choose to be a part of. Of course, I wasn't brought up Catholic either, so clearly some kind of loyalty issue is going on that I don't understand.

More on Christian terrorism

It is reported that that Scott Roeder, Dr. Tiller's assassin, "was a subscriber to Prayer and Action News, a magazine that advocated the justifiable homicide position, said publisher Dave Leach, an anti-abortion activist from Des Moines, Iowa." The New York Times reports that Leach had this to say this about the murder:

“To call this a crime is too simplistic,” Mr. Leach said of Dr. Tiller’s death.
It is clearly inaccurate to characterize this crime as nothing more than the lone act of a madman. Rather, it is the expression of a movement that advocates terrorism as a tool for advancing its aims.

Spong on prayer

Here's another Q&A from John Shelby Spong. While one may or may not exactly agree with defining God as "a force present in me and flowing through me", I think that he is right that much of intercessionary prayer seems based on the idea that God is "a person", albeit a really powerful one, who resides outside of the world and who can manipulate the world if we ask him nicely.

Elmo Hoffman, via the Internet, writes:

I have read much of your work and met you once at Stetson University in Deland, Florida, at a pastor's conference. It was the same venue where I also met Marcus Borg. I am a retired civil trial lawyer and a late-life seminary graduate, now an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, although before seminary I was a lifelong Presbyterian (USA) from the same time frame and section of North Carolina as you. My question, which gives me a great deal of trouble, is: What is your basic understanding of petitionary prayer? I believe you have said, "A God who would save the life of one prayed-for cancer-stricken child and not another would be a monster." This makes sense but gives me a great deal of trouble in considering petitionary prayer. (I have read your book Honest Prayer — I find no answer to this problem there.)

Dear Elmo,

Thank you for your comments and for your question. Your question on petitionary prayer is almost always the first question that comes up wherever I go to lecture. People can talk about their understanding of God until the cows come home, but nothing really changes until they translate their understanding of God into their prayers. More than anything else, our prayers define our understanding of God. So to talk about prayer, we have to define who the God is to whom we pray. To say it differently, "Who do we think is listening?"

Most people, quite unconsciously, approach the subject of prayer with a very traditional concept of God quite operative in their minds. This God is a personal being, endowed with supernatural power, who lives somewhere outside this world, usually conceptualized as "above the sky." While that definition has had a long history among human beings, it is a definition of God that has been rendered meaningless by the advance of human knowledge. This means that for most of us the activity of prayer does not take seriously the fact that we live in a vast universe, and that we have not yet come to grips with the fact that there is no supernatural, parental deity above the sky, keeping the divine record books on human behavior up to date and ready at any moment to intervene in human history to answer prayers. When we do embrace this fact then prayer, as normally understood, becomes an increasingly impossible idea and inevitably a declining practice. To get people to embrace this point clearly, I have suggested that the popular prayers of most people is little more than adult letters written to a Santa Claus God.

There are then two choices. One says that the God in whom I always believed is no more, so I will become an atheist. People make this decision daily. It is an easy way out.

The other says that the way I have always thought of God has become inoperative, so there must be something wrong with my definition. This stance serves to plunge us deeply into a new way of thinking about God, and that is when prayer itself begins to be redefined. Can God, for example, be conceived of not as supernatural person, but as a force present in me and flowing through me? Then perhaps prayer can be transformed into meditation and petitionary prayer becomes a call to action. The spiritual life is then transformed from the activity of a child seeking the approval of a supernatural being to being a simultaneous journey into self-discovery and into the mystery of God. It also feeds my sense of growing into oneness with the source of all life and love and with what my mentor, Paul Tillich, called the Ground of All Being. It would take a book to fill in the blank places in this quick analysis, but these are the things that today feed my ever deepening discovery of the meaning of prayer.

– John Shelby Spong

Christian terrorism

Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, says that Dr. Tiller deserved to be killed. According to Terry, Tiller "deserved a trial of his peers, and a legal execution"; thus his disagreement with the murderer was only over the means, while he at the same time shared with that murderer the same overriding goal of ending Tiller's life. Terry claims that he supports peaceful actions, but supporting peace is contrary to issuing public calls for anyone's death.

The irony of calling yourself "pro-life" and yet calling for anyone to be killed is obvious, but the deeper question is how anyone who uses such hate-filled rhetoric can avoid a measure of responsibility for drumming up the atmosphere of hatred that served as the inspiration for the killer to pull the trigger. Terry is not alone in drumming up hatred against Dr. Tiller; the former state Attorney General, Phill Kline had pursued a vendetta against Tiller when he filed trumped up charges against Tiller, all of which Tiller was later acquitted of.

In essence, the acts of hatred and persecution leading up to the murder of an abortion doctor form a spectrum of acts of intolerance by certain elements on the Christian Right. There are those intolerant Christians who blame all of Islam for the terrorist acts of some Muslims, but in fact there are intolerant Christians as well who will resort to acts of violence in order to pursue their goals. All religions can have their share of extremists.

On the other hand, I would remind those atheists who might see this act of terrorism as an example of how "religion poisons everything" of what Dr. Tiller was doing when he got shot--he was serving as an usher in a Lutheran church.