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.