Wednesday, August 24, 2011

John Stuart Mill Yet Lives

We start afresh in the fall on Saturday, September 17th, discussing a classic in the field of ethics and religion, John Stuart Mill's 1854 essay, Utility of Religion.  It is but 53 pages long, but due largely to the writing style of that age, requires careful reading.

Mill is associated with a form of Utilitarianismknown as the "greatest-happiness principle" that holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason. 

You can read the essay on your computer clicking here 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pagitt -- We End Here

Chapter Twelve looks anew at the ancient -- really ancient -- story of "creation" in the opening pages of the Bible.   In contrast to a traditional reading of the story that points toward the complete "depravity" of humankind, Pagitt says that in "the fall" while our relationship with God and one another changed, our basic humanity did not.  Still created "good," we can still "join in to the good things God is doing in the world.  We are still capable of living as the children of God." (Page 136)

Thus, we are created "in the image of God to be God's partners in the world."  Humanity is "inherently godly, rather than inherently depraved."  As such, our purpose is to love, and to be loved. (Page 138)

Thus, he concludes, "the joy of this proper understanding [that we are godly, rather than depraved] is that we no longer have to feel ashamed of our humanity. It is not a sin to be alive." (Page 144)

Chapter Thirteen takes on the concept that God is our Judge.  Christianity has used the language of the legal system to describe how God works:  God give us laws, we break them and go before the Judge.  A price is to be paid -- a fine, perhaps our life -- and Jesus steps in to pay it in our place.  We walk out of the courtroom grateful to Jesus.  But, says Pagitt, this distorts who God is, and elevates "the Law" above even God.  God is subject to his own rules, so goes the argument.

Pagitt thinks that "sin" is real . . . and something to be death with  in one's faith.  But he calls for a faith that begins not with sin (as does the traditional, God-the-Judge theology of many forms of Christianity) but rather with God -- a merciful, loving, creative God who calls us to partner with God in renewing the world, in loving one another. (Page 156)

On sin:  "Jesus cared about the sin in people's lives because sin kept them from being fully invested in life with God. Sin mattered because it was less than what God wanted for humanity." (Page 158)  Sin is not breaking some code, the rules of God.  And we don't need to be told what it is --  wee know that abuse and hatred, for example, are wrong.   We know it is wrong because it brings disharmony into our relationships.

"Sin isn't a legal problem with God; it's a relationship problem with us." (Page 159)   Judgement, then, is about restoration, reconciliation, redemption, renewal -- NOT about punishment.

Chapter Fourteen carries the idea of "sin" farther, to include Hope. The legal model of sin offers no hope.  It is an unending cycle of sin, confession, forgiveness, and then sin again.  The world is indeed rife with sin -- actions and attitudes that divide, that demonize, that kill.  Christians don't pretend that all is well in the world.  We see it, identify it, and then choose life, and choose hope that sin will not win out.  That is the message of Jesus.

Why do we sin?  That is, why do we so often seem to choose disintegration rather than reconciliation?   Pagitt -- here wanting to incorporate the findings of science and medicine into faith -- says that sometimes there is a biological reason for our behaviors (Page 166) -- alcoholism is a good example.  I personally think that  fear motivates us to be less than we know we can be -- fear of ridicule, or losing something, of being seen as we are.  Fear of "the other" surely is part of the worldwide divisions of race and religion.

Pagitt invites us to a faith that says, despite all evidence to the contrary, healing is yet possible, for ourselves, and for our world.

Chapter Fifteen reminds us that Jesus was indeed Jewish.  And Chapter Sixteen continues to talk about Jesus in his Jewish context.  He notes that the common idea of the "Messiah" to come would be a military figure -- God's warrior to carry on the war between good and evil.  But Pagitt sees in the message of Jesus not violence, but peace.  "The way of Jesus not just to shift the war motif from one kind of war to another, but to see Jesus as the ender of war.  Period."  (Page 191)

Jesus came in the spirt not of Joshua conquering the land, but Isaiah announcing justice for the poor -- a re-integration of society.   To call people to be in partnership with God, to overcome evil not with more evil, but with good.  The hope of faith affirms that in the end the good will prevail, even as in the resurrection the seeming defeat of Jesus was reversed.

Chapter Seventeen -- more about Jesus, this time focusing on the issue of the mix of humanity and divinity in the man Jesus.  The paradox that is a great obstacle to faith for many -- How can a human being also be divine? -- is, says Pagitt, the fault of the Church's early adoption of the Greek view of reality.  That view puts humanity and divinity at odds -- never the twain shall meet.  But the Hebrew mind saw no such conflict.  And that is what Pagitt calls us to consider.  Using an image of St. Paul's, he wants us to see Jesus as the "second Adam."  As the first Adam started disintegration, the second Adam begins re-integration.

"Jesus isn't a superhero, and he isn't just a great example."  (Page 209)  He is both Son of God and Son of Humanity.   Jesus was saying to his followers, "This is what life with God looks like. This is it. And you can live this life too."  (Page 211)

Chapter Eighteen, and the Last, is appropriately about Heaven.  And it should come as no surprise that Pagitt takes issue with the usual, traditional idea that Jesus came to the world to save us, so that we can someday live in Paradise with him and all the other good people for eternity.  (Current right-wing Fundamentalism adds the fun, and diabolical, twist that we good people -- no, the people who believe the right doctrines -- get to RULE over the rest of the earth, with force if necessary.)

For Pagitt the message of Jesus was all about today -- and how we live faithfully today.  As Jesus famously said, "The kingdom of God is within you."  That is, here and now, and more scandalously inside human beings.  Pagitt: "Jesus was proclaiming a holistic reorganization of all that is and all that will be. He was bringing about a new kind of life that was meant to be lived out right away, right here, and forevermore."  (Page 220)

Pagitt echoes some of Crossan's views on the kingdom, namely, that when Christians proclaimed the kingdom of God, they were uttering treason against the kingdom of Caesar.  And when they said that "Jesus is Lord," they were also saying that "Caesar is NOT Lord."  And that got them into trouble.

His conclusion is that understanding the "kingdom of God" not as a place to go someday, but a present reality within -- the presence of God to teach us, comfort us, chide us, and above all else go with us -- has revolutionized his faith, and has made "A Christianity Worth Believing."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pagitt: We continue

More of Pagitt . . .

In Chapter Seven Pagitt argues for “Holism” – the interchangeability of  spirit and matter – kind of like the same-ness of energy and matter that Mr. Einstein liked to talk about, or so I think.   In contrast to a sharp division between the reality of spirit and the reality of matter – and saying that only one of those realities is, well, real – Pagitt thinks that current worldviews tend to unite the two.  Chapter Eight takes that idea farther – that the needs of body and spirit are the same.  When one ministers to the body we minister to the soul and vice versa.  “Connection, interdependence, and integration are woven into the very fabric of creation.” (Page 89)

He returns to (and will carry this out in following chapters) the mistake that the Church made when it opted for the Greek view of body and soul, namely, the complete separation of the two.  The Hebrews, he argues, held them together; the Greeks drew a sharp distinction (and Gnostics added that spirit is good, matter always evil), and Christianity as most of us know it bought the Greek view.

Chapter Nine.   He returns to his conversion story, saying that what drew him to faith was a vision of God with us – sharing our lives, present with us, suffering with us, accepting us so deeply that God became one with us.   But Pagitt soon was schooled in evangelical (and Catholic too for that matter) theology that begins not with God involved with, even in love with humanity, but instead with God separated from humanity.  The rebellion of humanity – its “sin” of wanting to usurp God’s place – caused a great chasm, a gap that only Jesus – through the Church – could bridge. 

But Pagitt – and many of us would say this, I think – never felt separated from God. (Page 97)  And if there was a chasm between God and humanity, why was God unable to close it?   Traditional theology has put God way far away – “King of Kings!” we sing triumphantly in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.   A God perfect, and removed, and feared – “a God I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.” (Page 99)  

Pagitt’s point is that the God that is worshiped in most churches is more like Zeus than Yahweh.  The Jewish God, he insists, is “creator, lover, leader, redeemer, judge, advocate, and mediator.”  (Page 101)

Chapter Ten.  Instead of a God that is “up and out,” Pagitt’s God is “down and in.”  He talks about the inadequacy of language – perhaps this is why we so easily go down the “up and out” path, using the language of “royalty, supremacy, hierarchy.”  (Page 108)   And he knows the fear  that if we abandon that sort of language we may “turn God into little more than a really great guy.”  (Page 108)   And surely language is a barrier – all language is metaphor, and all metaphor is unclear, and subject to misunderstanding.  But language is all we have.

And here he introduces the idea of “sin.”  A tough one for us mainline liberal people.  The conservatives talk about it a lot, and have it defined pretty closely, from swearing to adultery, from missing church to having an abortion.   They can be obsessed with their sinfulness – perhaps another way of being obsessed with one’s self, which in my book may be what “sin” is all about.   But surely God is more concerned about justice for the poor than my typing “WTF.” 

Pagitt understands “sin” to be disintegration.  (Page 112)  It is a “problem of integration,” rather than (the traditional view) “of distance” (from God). Disintegration means “people feeling at odds with themselves and others.”  (Page 112)   Sin is “living in a way that hurts the efforts of God.”

For my part, I empathize with those who espouse the Old Fashioned view of sinning – well-defined, understandable, confessable.  It’s easier to know when I’ve said “damn!” under my breath than it is to know when my apathy toward politics contributes to the misery of poor people.  BUT easier doesn’t mean it’s right.  And Pagitt’s idea of “sin” while harder to grasp intellectually rings true in my soul.  “I don’t want to follow a faith based in fear.  I find it far more compelling – and far more biblical – to live a life in which we are called to join with God, to be like God, to live the Jesus story.”  (Page 115)

Chapter Eleven challenges the classic doctrine of original sin and “the Fall.”  Franklin Graham – Billy’s boy – is quoted here:  “The human soul is  a putrid sore of greed, lust, and pride.”  (Page 124)  Now there’s something to inspire us!  Pagitt: “We need to tell a better story.”  Amen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Christianity Worth Believing, Part Two

Pagitt is all about contextualizing - understanding and articulating Christian faith – any faith – in contemporary culture.  We get into great trouble, he says, when we pull the cultural assumptions and values of the past (the distant past at that) into the present, confusing the eternal, living faith with cultural expressions of that faith.  As Jesus might say, putting new, living, fermenting wine into the stiff and decaying wineskins of the past will not come to a good end.  The wine will be lost, and the skins too.

Says Pagitt: “Every theology is grounded in a culture and a set of culturally based assumptions and concerns.  To hold to these theologies in the fifth century was to be faithful, for they were created as explanations for the understanding of the world at that time. But to hold to those same conclusions today, when the worldview that demanded them has expired, is simply foolish.”  (Page 48).  And “foolish” is a good word for a good deal of Christianity these days.

Chapter Six of the book takes on the foundation of Christian thought and experience – the Bible.  Pagitt wants us to know that it is not a weapon – anyone remember having “sword drills” with their Bible?  Can anyone think of a worse image for sacred writings?! 

Nor is the Bible a reference book, as many want us to think.  Got a question about anything?  Anything at all?  The answer must be in the Bible . . . somewhere.  It may be waiting yet to be discovered, but it’s there!  But of course that is NOT what the Bible is, that collection of diverse and conflicting writings created and re-created over centuries of time. 

“I just don’t think that the Bible is always the best starting point for faith.” (Page 64) Amen to that, especially if the reader is educated and inquisitive, not prone to simply take the word of the biblical authorities, most of whom disagree with one another.

The Bible does not make the claims for itself that its more ardent followers make for it.

Chapter Seven introduces Pagitt’s emphasis on “holism.”  A key concept that reminds me of what some of our previous writers , especially Haught, have been saying is this: “What we interact with in a normal day is not all there is; there’s more going on than we can see.”  (Page 76) Here is the divide we’ve seen before: between those who “believe” only what they can see, touch, measure – the scientific naturalist; and those who “believe” there is more . . . lots more.   Holism for Pagitt helps him understand how body and spirit are really the same . . . energy in different forms . . . Creator-cosmos congruency.  (Page 88)  “That’s just the way things are.”  (Page 78)

“The theology of holism is a theology of invitation, of welcome, of God saying, ‘Look what I’m doing.  Come and join me.’” (page 91)

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Christianity Worth Believing?

A Christianity Worth Believing . . .

That is quite a claim.  And that is the question our group has been asking, in one way or another, all year long.  What is the Christian faith, and can we buy into it?  There are of course lots of forms of this Christianity thing out there, and in the last twenty years we’ve been seeing – thanks to the multitudes of nutty people who do the most outrageous and immoral things in Jesus’ name, and to our media who likes to focus on the nutty in everything – we’ve come to think that Christianity is simply not to be believed.  One thinks of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority that was neither, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker’s excesses, Pat Robertson’s idiotic pronouncements, Jimmy Swaggart’s tearful confession, the egomaniac in Florida burning a Qu’ran.  That’s a short list.

Not to be outdone, the Roman Catholics just this month were stunned when their rockstar priest, Father John Caropi who for years has held massive campaigns around the country, and, until last March, was heard on Catholic radio daily preaching conservative Catholicism, was thrown out.  Seems he has been living in luxury, enjoying certain chemicals not legally obtained, and “co-habitating” a few women.

So we can look at what passes for Christianity and rightly decide it’s not worth the effort.  Lots better things to do with one’s Sunday morning.

Doug Pagitt represents what is becoming known as “emerging Christianity.”   And A Christianity Worth Believing in an introduction to that movement.  He’s practically a local boy – Minneapolis – and begins his book with, “I am a Christian, but I don’t believe in Christianity.”   A good starting point I’d say.  The book is “part memoir, part theological treatise.”   He is exploring “new ways of being Christian, of being spiritual, of following God.”  That, I think, is what our book group has been doing.

Pagitt grew up completely outside of “Christianity.”   His family was not part of any church.  But at age 16, invited to go with a friend to a “Passion Play” (and thinking that this had to do with the sort of passion that 16 year old boys are pretty well obsessed with), he to his great surprise had a spiritual experience – a conversion.  “This is what I longed for, what I needed to be true.  There was a God alongside the tortured and beaten Jesus.” (p 16) 

Thus he entered the world of evangelicalism.  And there he stayed for quite a while.  Not always comfortably, though.  Coming from outside, he looked at the faith as it was practiced around him (and urged upon him) with new eyes.  Some of it made sense;  other parts did not make any sense.  And he became what he calls “a Christian contrarian.”  His personal spiritual experience then combined with his education – in seminary, but also in other venues – and his own questions to start experimenting with new ways of being Christian – new ways of being with God in the world.

The book tells that story.  Along the way he will be interacting with “classic” Christian doctrines, such as the authority of the Bible, to understand them in new ways, in ways that make sense to contemporary culture.

Pagitt believes that we are in the midst of a massive change in culture.  This new culture is not simply tweaking the old.  It is becoming entirely new, in how we think, what we value, what we see as beauty, and the tools we use.  (These are the four markers of culture that he talks a lot about in another book, The Church in the Inventive Age.)  What the “emerging” church is trying to do is to articulate and live out Christian faith in our culture.   Other people we’ve read – Marcus Borg and John Crossan for sure, and folks who are in the Living the Questions DVD series we’re used at church and various places -- are in this same “camp” of folks who see a radical change in process.  

Pagitt is not a theoretian only.  His church, “Solomon’s Porch” is a living expression of this new kind of faith – A Christianity Worth Believing because it is intellectually sound, emotionally satisfying, and ethically grounded in justice.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Fine Sermon: What I Learned This Year

Guys -- Below is the sermon I preached last Sunday -- a "report" on the group this year, or more accurately, my observations from our reading.  It's kind of "What I Learned This Year" -- See what you think!
-- Ralph

A year ago a men’s book group was launched with two purposes in mind.  First to prove that yes, indeed we men could read books and talk together about them.  And these were hard books too!  But the second, more important goal, was to give us a chance to look at faith methodically and in its most basic form.  I called it “Faith from Scratch” – clearing away our presumptions about the Christian faith, even about the very existence of God, in order to figure out just what it was that we each believe.   Of course, you can’t really begin “from scratch” – we come to these questions with boatloads of presuppositions and experiences with faith and life. But we tried to start from the beginning, putting everything on the table.
    And so we read some books. Seven in all.  And we talked.  And we thought about God and the universe and the Bible and Jesus and . . . you get the idea.
    I am grateful for the opportunity to work through these books, and to wrestle with them with some very bright and insightful guys.  Today I report. Not on what the group concluded, but what I have.  So far. 
    We began with the mind – with how the brain works.  Not chemically, but the patterns and functions of the mind – habits of the mind, how we process what comes into the brain through our senses. There is a relatively new field of research called cognitive science that has been exploring the habits of our minds.   A book called Why Would Anyone Believe in God? summarized the latest theories of the mind, and related them to religious behavior.  And it seems that we are hard-wired (at birth, or very early on) to be on the lookout for gods – “agents” seen or unseen that are doing things in the world.  Looking for someone, something to explain some event, we – as individuals and as cultures – are not bashful to find a god in our midst.   The point of the book was that it should be no wonder that we are by and large religious people; it’s practically our default setting.  It was fascinating to think about how we think!
    Armed with a little knowledge of the mind, we next listened to some objections – some very strong objections – to religion in the world.  Sam Harris, in The End of Faith called for just that: the end of all religion in the world.  The Bible and Qu’ran, he said, are mountains of life-destroying gibberish.  Religion, he said, is a living spring of violence.  Citing the rise of terrorism around the world, carried out in the name of God, Harris wrote forcefully that religion – and he here is talking about Fundamentalist religion – threatens our very existence as a race.   It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs.
    In religion’s place Harris proposed a rationalistic, scientific naturalism in which reason would guide individuals and societies to a more just and peaceful world. 
    In response to Harris’ withering attack on all religion, John Haught in  Is Nature Enough? sought  to lay out . . .  a reasonable, scientifically informed alternative to naturalism. A purely naturalistic view of the world, he said, is too limiting.  There are many layers of reality – kinds of experience – that are true, science being just one of them.   Scientific naturalists like Harris were denying, with no solid evidence, whole realms of human experience.
    Haught also started us on a road toward defining authentic Christian faith. Harris had legitimately exposed the atrocities of religion.  But it was a religion of a certain kind.  The mindless, fundamentalist kind.  Haught and others we were to read talked about a very different kind of faith – a faith that was open and tolerant, liberating and compassionate.   Faith that Marcus Borg talked about in his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.
    Marcus Borg is a very popular writer and speaker, one that many of you have seen either in person or on the Living the Questions discussion videos.  He contends that Christianity has been falsely defined by Christian Fundamentalists because of their view of the Bible.  About 150 years ago, reacting to the popularity of Darwin’s theories, and fearing science, Fundamentalists – that was their name for themselves – created a form of faith that was foreign to that which had gone before.  Rigid, judgmental, closed, Fundamentalism elevated the Bible to the place of God.  It took very human, flawed book and made it God’s perfect book; it took a collection of diverse styles of writing – history and legend, poetry and law, to say nothing of story and parable, letters, and wild apocalyptic vision – and made it a single book to be read literalistically.  We say around here that God is still speaking. Fundamentalism says God spoke once for all, a very long time ago, and has nothing more to say.
    Borg, on the other hand, said that the Bible is not a prosaic listing of true statements about God and everything – a recipe for God, a rule book for living, to be read literally.  Instead we read this collection of writings through the “lens” of metaphor, seeking glimpses of God in story and parable.
    With a different approach to the Bible that was new to some of us, we turned to two writers who invited us to look at the Christian faith in a new way.  Jacques Ellul, a French writer and theologian of the 20th century, began where we did in the reading today, with the simple verse, “God is love.”  Love to be genuine, he said, requires freedom.  And so Christianity stands for love, and against any power that seeks to take away personal freedom, be it institutions of the state, or of religion.
    John Dominic Crossan, a contemporary scholar whom many of you have seen on the Living the Questions videos, in his book God and Empire continued the theme that Jesus came not to start yet another oppressive institution (as the Christian church was to become) but a movement marked by love and grace, freedom and sacrifice, as he brought good news not to the rich and powerful, but to the poor and outcast.  Crossan brought his considerable historical and biblical knowledge to his understanding of the man Jesus who became the Christ.
    The last book, by Karen Armstrong, was The Case for God.  In this sweeping overview of religion across the millennia and around the world, she traces how humankind has wrestled with the fundamental questions of religion: Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  How should we live?  And, what is the meaning of death?  Religion’s task was not give us the answers (such answers are not available), but “to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.”
    She, like Borg, makes a strong case that authentic faith – believing – is more a matter of the heart than mind.  It is not giving mere mental assent to a list of doctrines, handing down to us, as if one might earn eternal life by correctly answering all the questions on God’s final exam.  We use our minds, our powers of reason in faith; we bring to it the findings of science, of language, of culture to explore the questions.  Faith is not mindlessly affirming things we know cannot be true.  But at the end of our questions, and in the middle of them too, faith is of the heart, the soul – a trust in our God.  For the answers to the questions we ask, and the God we seek to know, are so far beyond our experience and imagining that all words fail us.   Armstrong encourages us to explore the way of silence – of sitting in speechless awe confronted by the Holy Presence – the Presence we encounter most often in the majestic wonders of nature, but also in the faces of our neighbors.
    That was our journey, from the theories of cognitive science, to the objections of the new atheists, to new ways of reading the ancient text and finding there the radical mission of love and freedom that was Jesus’ then, and ought to be the church’s today.

So.  My conclusions.  So Far.

Humanity, be it by nature or by nurture, is “hardwired” to watch for causation, purpose, reasons for actions in the world.  When the cause of some event is not clear – we immediately look for some explanation, some agency that is behind that event.  We look for gods – and we find them too, gods by many names. That religious impulse doesn’t prove the existence of such gods.  But it helps us understand why our race is so unrelentingly religious.  Religion is likely here to stay.

No one religion is inherently “better” than the rest.  No one religion has a lock on the truth, the only sacred book, the “right” view of God.   No matter how loudly preachers or imams or rabbis tell us differently, all of our religions are noble but inadequate attempts to know the unknowable, to express the inexpressible.

There is good religion, and bad religion.  Good religion, no matter its name, leads its followers to freedom, to kindness, to graciousness and forgiveness, to love, to compassion for others.  Bad religion fosters intolerance, exclusivity and superiority, judgment instead of compassion, fear instead of love, hatred for those who disagree, instead of understanding and humility toward those not like us.

It follows that there are good Christians and very bad Christians.  There are good Muslims and very bad Muslims.  For in the end what matters in religion is not what one “believes” with the mind, but how one lives from the heart.  Correctness of doctrine has nothing to do with the quality of our character.  People can believe the most bizarre things, and yet live truly beautiful, compassionate lives.

Which is why it is possible for people to “believe” nothing at all about God intellectually – agnostics, atheists, humanists, whatever – and live as morally, compassionately, with mercy and kindness as any believer of any religion.  The reading today said, God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  It didn’t say that God lives in people who profess correct doctrine, say the “right” things about God.  No, God lives in anyone who loves – period.

The collection of writings that we call “The Bible” is not an inerrant account of what God is really like or what God says we must do.  It is not a book of science, or careful history, still less a rule book from God. It is a collection of diverse, sometimes conflicting, witnesses to God’s presence in the world of many, many centuries back.  The truth of sacred writings like these does not spring from the bare, literal words on the page but from the interaction of my spirit with the text, a sharing of ancient story and today’s experience.  God is still speaking, any time we encounter the sacred text with an open heart, and mind.

And lastly, and with this I conclude: In that Bible we learn that the essence of Jesus’ teachings and life is that all are welcome to the banquet which is the presence and love of God.  He stood against any powers that oppressed people economically, socially or religiously.  His religion was one of grace and compassion, of inviting people to a new way of faith, challenging the powers of state and religion to become sources of freedom instead of prison-keepers of body and of soul. That was his mission, and that is ours as well, as we continue the journey of faith, growing in grace.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Goodness, but we are current!

As always, Time magazine has come out, just in time for Easter, with a cover story on Christianity, this time on the topic of Hell.  It’s actually more about the pastor of a mega church – Mars Hill Church outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan – and usually the Easter issue of Time has more to do with the resurrection or the Jesus Seminar.   Time must have found out that articles on religion are good sellers around Easter – and Christmas too.

What is fascinating to me about the article are two things:

First, that anyone still believes that the God we worship – you know, the “God is love” kind, the one Jesus likened to a benevolent heavenly Father, who cares for us as his little children – that anyone professing that sort of God (and even the most Fundamentalists among us do) can still think God created or at least tolerates a Hell where people are tortured forever.  And ever.  And ever.    Even a little while would be bad enough.

But alas millions of Christian people do believe in that Hell, and a God who sends people there.  And so when an Evangelical like Rob Bell (the aforementioned mega church pastor) writes a book daring to question such a primitive and horrifying God, a whole bunch of people cry Foul! and declare him to be a heretic.  Such is the state of the evangelical/fundamentalist world of America.

But aside from that, given our reading of Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg, I am taken by the language used in the article.  The writer clearly uses the modern – Enlightenment – ideas of what belief is.   Belief is “traditionally” he says (Armstrong would say only recently “traditionally”) “the key is the acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God, who, for us and our salvation came down from heaven . . . and was made man.  In the Evangelical ethos one either accepts this and goes to heaven or refuses and goes to hell.”

There it is: belief as intellectual assent, the affirmation of a list of statements about God.  Here is logos – rational, thinking language -- rather than mythos – symbolic, experiential language.  

Pastor Bell is daring to approach God through metaphor, reading the Bible not as a prosaic prescription for describing God but instead as poetry, symbol.  And he’s getting into trouble for that from the right.

Let me add a third observation about the article, or rather about something Bell says in it.  Namely:  “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian.  Something new is in the air.”

Marcus Borg, John Crossan, Karen Armstrong would agree, and might say that “something new” is already here, in people for whom faith does not mean intellectually affirming things that are patently false, but is rather experiencing the mystery of the universe that is God – unknowable, refusing to be limited by our language and minds – and in response to that awe seek to live compassionate, gracious lives.

Another recent book answers Bell’s wonderment with a resounding Yes, something very new is happening!   Phyllis Tickle in The Great Emergence (2008) says that every 500 years the followers of Christ – the Church – has undergone a tremendous change.  The last change was the Protestant Reformation.  We are now in the midst of another revolution, she says, out of which will emerge a new faith, a new Christianity.  One that I would think will have a lot to do with what we have been reading about in Borg, Crossan, and Armstrong – and Ellul too.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Case For God Reader's Digest Edition

"For what it's worth," here are my notes on the Armstrong book  . . . what I thought was important, and an attempt to string her argument together.  Maybe this will at least be a review if you have read it, and a quick overview if you haven't.  Sorry this isn't in more polished form, but here it is.

I stopped at the Epilogue -- you can read that for yourelf :)

Introduction – the difference between Logos and Mythos;  “reason,” used for external reality and spiritual, internal, symbolic reality.  Both realities are “real” in the sense that they are both experienced.  But they are used in different arenas.

Logos relies on measuring material things, apply logic to describe, control , and even predict what is happening, really, in the world of the senses.

Mythos relies on non-measurable, internal experiences, using symbol – metaphor – to describe it.  Here control and predictability are far more challenging than in the external world.  And I would say that when practitioners of the spiritual realm – religious people usually – imagine they can by their knowledge and authority in that realm control and predict spiritual experiences they end up doing very bad things, and in the name of God.

“Myth” in common parlance means something that is not true.  But in the religious world “myth” is a true construct – a framework by which we can talk about spiritual realities, spiritual truth.    The story – the myth – that carries the spiritual truth is not historically accurate or scientifically accurate.  But it nevertheless communicates true things about people and life, and even God.

In pre-modern times religion “was not primarily something that people thought but something they did.”  It is a “discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart.”

The modern period applied logos – rationalization – to religion.  Logos and mythos were compared, and the vast accomplishments of science made logos superior to mythos.  Facts overtook symbols in our view of what is true, real, important, and reliable.   And that spawned, ironically, two opposites:  fundamentalism and atheism.

Part I:  The Unknown God

One: Homo religiosus

“Religion is an attempt to construct meaning in the face of relentless pain and injustice of life.”  We are meaning-seeking creatures . . . .
“The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.”

The earliest humans sensed and sought that transcendent mystery – their art is evidence of that.  They created rituals to express the transcendent. 

The second principle of premodern religion: religious discourse was not to be taken literally, but symbolically.  People weren’t expected to “believe” a single creation story.  Rather, there were several that expressed religious truth.

Another universal principle of religion:  “religious truths are accessible only when you are prepared to get rid of the selfishness, greed, and self-preoccupation that . . .  are the source ofo so much of our pain.”

Buddhism:  no doctrinal statements to accept.  That would be abdicating one’s responsibility.    The best way of  to anatta – selflessness – compassion, the ability to feel with the other.   This religion is doing rather than thinking.

Two: God --  Hebrew religion

The Bible:  based on the several creation stories, “From the very beginning there was no  single, orthodox message in the Bible.”  Conflicting images of God in Genesis.
“Revelation would never be something that had happened once and for all, but an ongoing process that could never end.”

Deuteronomists were depicting Joshua conquering Canaan.  They made violence an option in their religion.  Crossan said something similar.

Three:  Reason – The Greeks

Phusikoi – the “naturalists”  based their thinking entirely on the physical world.  Sought to find the underlying order, the laws that governed the universe.  Science – math, astronomy, geometry – these were spiritual exercises.

Mystery Religions:  not something you thought, but something you did.  Initiations were frightening – force the initiates to face their own mortality, experience the terror of death.

Socrates – when people were seeking certainty, he was asking questions.  Said the Phusikoi were not looking in the right place, were not asking the really important questions.  “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Plato – “doctrine of forms.”  Allegory of the cave.

Asistotle – “the life of reason is best and pleasantest, since reason, more than anything else IS man.”  God was important to him, the “first philosophy, but his God was utterly impersonal.

300BCE – Six schools of thought: Platonism, Aristotle, Skepticism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, Stoicism.   In  these philosophy “was a yearing for transcendent wisdom.”

Four:  Faith – Christianity and Islam

Destruction of the Temple in 70  CE.  Judaism, without the Temple and the sacrificial system it promoted, was forced to adapt.  In the "rabbinic Judaism" that was born, “Kindness would replace the temple ritual; compassion . . . was the new priestly task.” Compassion was central to reading the Bible.  Hillel said that everything in the Torah was simply commentary on the Golden Rule.

“Rabbinic Judaism”  -- “the religion of Israel came of age, developing the same kind of compassionate ethos as the Eastern traditions.”   Scripture was not a closed book, but rather miqra, “a summons to action.”

Meanwhile the Christians were getting organized.  They did not intend to start a new religion – they observed the Torah, worshiped in temple.  The experienced the Holy Spirit “as a tanagible, empowering, electrifying force.”

Jesus was the divine presence in their midst.

Resurrection:  not a “simplistic notion of his corpse walking out of the tomb.”  Paul said they would find him in one another, in scripture, in ritual meals.  Jesus was not “God.”

“Faith” – pisteuo --  trust, loyalty, commitment.   Jesus did not claim his divinity to be “believed,”  but instead he sought their commitment to him and to his calling that he shared with them.

Miracles: not surprising to first century people.  Jesus a skilled exorcist, a Hasid.  And his miracles were not central to his message – was reluctant to give signs.

Revelation: unfolding, dynamic.  The Talmuds were commentary not on scripture, but on the Mishnah.

The gospel reached the Greek world where the Logos was a familiar concept.  Early church fathers, educated by the Greeks, sought the Logos in the Bible, and interpreted it allegorically.   Origin said that the contradictions in the Bible were put there so as to make us look more deeply into the meaning of the text.

“The Qur’an has no interest in “belief;”  indeed, this concept is quite alien to Islam.”
Its message was not a doctrine, but an ethical summons to practically expressed compassion.”
Qur’an full of ayah – “sign,” “symbol,” “parable.”  We can speak about God only analogically.

In the early 4t century Christianity began to move toward a preoccupation with doctrinal correctness.  And at the same time some were seeking a spirituality of silence and unknowing.

Five:  Silence – mysticism

Council of Nicea, 325.  Sought to use WORDS to experience God.  But the monastic movement sought God in the silence. 
The purpose of the Trinity in the Eastern church was not to define God but to shut us up – to retreat into silence, to experience God in that silence.  It was to be a means to induct Christians into a wholly different way of thinking about the divine.


Denys:  sought to make us conscious of the limits of language.  The Bible was full of incredible things – not to be believed literally, but to be a means of learning how we are limited when we try to speak of God.

“God is known by knowledge and by unknowing; of him there is understanding, reason, knowledge,  . . . . . but he is not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named.”

As our language fails, we experience an intellectual ekstasis . . . a kenosis that drives us out of ourselves.”  In that place of not-knowing we experience God’s presence.

Six:  Faith and Reason

By the end of the 11th century  people had started to apply reason to their faith.  Anselm sought “to make traditional Christian teaching rationally coherent.”  For him “faith” was still a matter of the heart, though.  “God” was the greatest thing one could imagine – and greater.  The idea of God was innate, and did not need proof.

Islam – Al-Ghazzali – we can glimpse God by cultivating a different mode of perception, deliberately calling to mind the divine presence in every action in life.  The smallest action became a ritual that made God present in ordinary people.  Sufism became very popular as well.

Jews – Kabbalah – mythical, imaginative spirituality.

The Crusades – God was an idol.  “They foisted their own fear and loathing of these rival faiths onto a deity they had created in their own likeness.”

Francis – 1200 – emulated Jesus in every detail.  More literal-minded than the apophatics, but was more practical than doctrinal.

Aquinas – all our statements about God are inadequate.  “Man’s utmost knowledge is to know that we do not know him.”

Before offering “proofs” of God, he said, we must remember that because of God’s absolute unknowability we cannot define what it is that we are trying to prove.”

The primordial question: Why does something exist rather than nothing?
“Pushed to the limit, reason turns itself inside out, words no longer make sense, and we are reduced to silence.”   “Faith” for him was not intellectual assent.  “Faith was the ability to appreciate and take delight I the nonempirical realities that we glimpse I the world.”
All language about God must be analogical.

Along about this time students studied the sciences before theology;  they brought that language to religion – Ockham began to see doctrines as being literally true, and subject to exact analysis and inquiry.   Symbolism for him was out.  There started the rift between theology and spirituality. 
In the 14th and 15th centuries  people began seeking an experience with God through intense emotional states.  This was seen as a sign of God’s pleasure.  They had discarded symbolic language, in favor of analysis, and when this was found to be dry and boring they sought God through mindlessness, through generated experiences.

Eckhart – “For if you love God  as he is God, as he is spirit, as he is person, and as he is image – all this must go!  Then how should I love him? You should love him as he is nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage, but as he is – pure, unmixed, bright “One” separated from all duality . . . “

Julian – Unknowing.  All you an say is “God!” and “Love!”

This polarity created thinking theologians and loving mystics.  Theology had become incomprehensible to all but the highly educated, and arid too.  “Sham” experiences of God were being sought by many.

PART TWO:  The Modern God

Seven: Science and Religion

Columbus, 1492 . . . The Spanish force Jews and Muslims to convert, start the Spanish Inquisition to promote Spanish unity.  In the 16th century  secularization was accelerated by the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.

Martin Luther: “a yearning for absolute certainty that would also characterize religion in the modern period.”   He found salvation in justification by faith alone.  And by “faith” he meant the premodern understanding:  “Faith does not require information, knowledge and certainty, but a free surrender and joyful bet on his unfelt, untried and unknown goodness.”

The printing press put the scriptures in the hand of the common people.

On the Eucharist: is became “only” a symbol – “They were beginning to speak about the myths of religion as though they were logoi.”   “Correct faith was gradually becoming a matter of accepting the proper teachings.”

Copernicus and Galileo – a heliocentric view fostered by the discoveries of science.  The Catholic Church, intent upon self-preservation, turned to strident dogma – away from not-knowing to knowing all, in order to establish certainty and its own power.

In like fashion Protestants too “came to regard scientific rationality as the only route to truth, and would seek a rational certainty that . . .philosophers had long held to be impossible I matters of faith.”

Eight: Scientific Religion

Beginning in 1618, the Thirty Years’ War killed 35% of central Europe – religion was powerless to stop it.  Catholic vs Protestant.

Descartes – sought a truth everyone could agree upon, uniting all in peace.   The experience of doubt was the foundation of his certainty.  “I think . . . therefore I am.”  For him, science was the answer – the discovery of God’s laws should be our pursuit, taking the wonder out of the world.  The scientists could talk about God – only math and physics could do that.  Here was the severing of faith and science.

The universe became mechanical.  Understanding its laws meant that someday “doubt and perplexity would be things of the past.”

Spinoza – Jewish philosopher. God was inseparable from the material world, an immanent force that wielded everything into unity and harmony.

Newton and Gravity.  God was becoming “a rational consequence of the world’s intricate design.”    For Newton, “mystery” was sheer irrationality.

An “atheist” in this time was anyone who held beliefs we disapproved of – deviancy from morality, norms.  Everyone believed that natural laws required a Lawgiver. 

“God had become a mere force of nature.  Theology had thrown itself on the mercy of science.” 
“But the new scientific religion was about to make God incredible. In reduceing God to a scientific explanation, the scientists and theologians of the 17th century were turning God into an idol, a mere human projection.”

Prior to Augustine and Thomas said nature could tell us nothing about God;  now science said nature would tell us everything about God.  But what would happen when a later generation of scientists found another ultimate explanation for the universe?

Nine: Enlightenment

Everyone, including conservative preachers like Cotton Mather, were on board with science – “a wondrous incentive to religion.”  Newton’s laws revealed God’s great design in the universe.  Atheism had been disproven by the discoveries of God’s laws by scientists.

Rise of “Deism” – “sought to bring faith under the control of reason.”

“This emphasis o proof was gradually changing the conception of “belief.””  Thomas Jefferson:  belief is “the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.”

Pietist movement arose in reaction to the marriage of science and religion, the elevation of the mind over emotion.  Zinzendorf said that “faith is not in thoughts nor in the head but in the heart.”

Wesley too emphasized that religion is of the heart.  He said, “Orthodoxy or right opinion is at best but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all.”  

The First Great Awakening caused an excess of emotional indulgence.  A continued tension between head and heart, mind and emotion, science and faith.

Rousseau – said that religion’s God was a “mere projection of human desires.”  Instead he sought “a deity that would be discovered by kenosis, compassion, and the humble contemplation of the majesty of the universe.”

The romantic poets – Nature to be reverenced, it was imbued with spiritual power.  “Romantic poets revived a spirituality that had been submerged in the scientific age.”

As the Enlightenment proper drew to a close, some were wanting to turn back to more emotional, spiritual, intuitive faith, away from a mechanistic, unfeeling God of scientific law.

Ten: Atheism

Rise of Evangelicalism – a return to biblical authority, a religion of the heart rather than the head – felt conviction and virtuous living.  Thus the Second Great Awakening, 1800-35.  

Evangelicals brought with them “an unprecedented literalism” because it seemed more rational that allegorical exegesis.  They adopted Enlightenment’s idea of “belief” as intellectual conviction.

Huge increase in churches, from 2500 in 1790 to 52,000 in 1860!

Eleven:  Unknowing

Th 20th century began with great optimism – Science was rolling back the limits of our knowledge, industry booming, inventions.  “Old certainties were evaporating.”
“But the First World War revealed the self-destructive nihilism that, despite colossal attainments, lurked at the heart of modern Western civilization.”
There followed the Great Depression.  “Modern secular ideologies were proving to be as lethal as any religious bigotry.”    Like all idolatries: Once the finite reality of the nation had become an absolute value, it was compelled to overcome and destroy all rival claimants.   – See Marx, Stalin, Hitler

Albert Einstein’s discoveries and theories – “Newton’s grand certainties had been replaced by a system that was ambiguous, shifting, and indeterminate.”  Scientists were beginning to sound like apophatic theologians – not only was God beyond the reach of the human mind, but the natural world was also terminally elusive.
Einstein’s affirmation of the reality of the mysterious  . . . 

Rise of Pentecostalism – sought “the immediacy of sense experience to validate their beliefs” – through speaking in tongues, being slain in the spirit, healing miracles.  While Evangelicals tried to make a case for a reasonable, scientific and yet Bible-based religion, Pentecostalists relied on personal internal experience.

Fundamentalism – on any stripe religious or not – “rooted in profound fear.”  Liberal Protestants went on the attack against the conservatives, and the Scopes trial placed evolution at the center of the debate.

WW II, the Holocaust – cast more doubt on the existence of an omnipotent God.

Key idea for Armstrong:
The idea of God is merely a symbol of indescribable transcendence and has been interpreted in many different ways over the centuries.  The modern God [the God we 21st century people typically assume, and the one the new atheists attack] conceived as powerful creator, first cause, supernatural personality realistically understood and rationally demonstrable is a recent phenonmenon.
Many feel that the hopes of the Enlightenment [that the world is progressing, science will lead us from darkness to light, our faith is rational and supported by science] died in Auschwitz.  [That is, the Holocaust as the “last straw” in the progression of 20th century disappointments:  WW I, Depression, Stalin, Hitler, WW II.]

Today we have amore modest conception of the powers of human reason.  We have seen too much evil in recent years to indulge I a facile theology  that says . . . that God knows what he is doing, that he has a secret plan that we cannot fathom, or that suffering gives men and women the opportunity to practice heroic virtue.  A modern theology must look unflinchingly into the heart of a great darkness and be prepared, perhaps, to enter into the cloud of unknowing.

Heidegger, Bultmann, Tillich – 20th century theologians who argued that we can say nothing about God – saying anything will of course limit the reality of God.  “We experience the divine in our absolute commitment to ultimate truth, love, beauty, justice, and compassion – even if it requires the sacrifice of our own life.”

“By the middle of the 20th century . . . there was no serene Enlightenment optimism in the rationality of human experience.”  But soon “new forms of religiosity, a different kind of atheism would arise . . .  Despite the fact that unknowing seemed built into our condition, a strident lust for certainty would arise as well.

Twelve: Death of God?

1960s  . . .  dramatic loss of faith by Europeans.   The Secular City  (1965) announced the death of God.  Huge changes in societal norms. 
“Postmodernity” -  skepticism about science, progress, rationality. 

Ordinary people, not just philosophers, began to claim the title of “atheist” – not always because they had studied the arguments but because of the times.  See Lennon’s Imagine. 

God was no longer necessary, but Jesus was popular – he defines what it is to be a man.

At the same time young people sought spiritual experience through eastern religion, drugs – a hunger for mythos.

Rise of “militant religiosity” revealed a “widespread disappointment in modernity.”  Jerry Falwell, literalism, anti-evolution.
In all its forms, fundamentalism is a fiercely reductive faith.  In their anxiety and fear, [they] often distort the tradition they are trying to defend.   Faith becomes idolatry – and always the idol forces its followers to destroy its opponents.

Islam fundamentalism acts just like any other kind of fundamentalism.  Armstrong wants to caution us Christians against giving the religion of Islam too much blame for the actions of the extremists, saying that their motivations are more political than religious.

The new atheism – “a militant form of atheism.”   Starts with Monod what said that “it was not only intellectually but also morally wrong to accept any ideas that were not scientifically verifiable.  He admitted there is no way to prove that assertion – thus admitting (says Armstrong) that even the scientific quest began with an act of faith.

Richard Dawkins – The Blind Watchmaker (1986)   Like Harris and Christopher Hitchens, “religion is the cause of all the problems of our world, the source of absolute evil and poisons everything.”

But Jay Gould “revived the ancient distinction and complementarity of mythos and logos.”  Spoke of two “magisterial,” both valid in their separate areas (science and religion).

Armstrong  very critical of Dawkins, Harris and  Hitchens because of the portrait they paint of Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) – as if all of faith is the faith of the Fundamentalists.   They “present religion at its absolute worst.”  For them “faith is mindless credulity.”   
She accuses them of the Fundamentalist Atheists, guilty of the very things they say faith is guilty of: 

-       Reductionism – reducing the enemy to a simplistic and inaccurate representation – a “straw man” easily attacked.
-       Intolerance – all religion, even Moderate religion, must be eliminated
-       “Show little concern about the poverty, injustice, and humiliation that have inspired many of the atrocities they deplore – they show no yearning for a better world.”  That is, they are so fixated on their own arguments that they have no morality to offer in place of the religion they criticize.
-       “Believe that there is only one way of interpreting reality.  For the new atheists, scientism alone can lead us to truth.”

Postmodernism – “Our knowledge is relative, subjective, and fallible rather than certain and absolute;  truth is inherently ambiguous.”  Postmodern people are suspicious of past truth-claims, and the stories that support them.