Monday, May 13, 2019

I went to Dunstan Middle School in Lakewood, Colorado. Two miles down the road was Carmody Middle School. They were our rivals. We referred to them as "Comedy" Middle School. We jeered and mocked them, and they did the same to us ("Dumbstan" Middle School). I attended Green Mountain High School. Our neighboring rival schools were Wheat Ridge and Golden and Bear Creek. Sometimes fights would occur when young men from the rival schools encountered each other.

As I drove around my old neighborhood today, I found myself wondering: where did these antagonistic rivalries come from? Who invented them? We kids seemed to just absorb them via osmosis. You heard others disparage Carmody or Wheat Ridge and you naturally fell in line and did likewise, never really pondering the ridiculousness of it all--that someone was the enemy because their parents bought a house two miles down the road. 

That pattern infused the lives of many of my peers. Broncos vs. Raiders. Chevy vs. Ford. Coors vs. Budweiser. Whites vs. Blacks vs. Hispanics. Christianity vs. Islam. America vs. everyone else. Disparaging jokes about women, about gay people, about people with disabilities. We were indoctrinated into always seeking a "them" that we could look down upon, feel antagonistic toward, make fun of. How and why is this fostered? What is the societal benefit? What is the need within the human heart that this feeds? These were my ponderings today as I drove through my old neighborhood, past Dunstan Middle School.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Today is Palm Sunday, a day that commemorates Jesus's "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem. This was an incredibly subversive action--a bit of prophetic political performance art--as Jesus and his followers reenacted the ancient Jewish ritual of the king's enthronement (for which Psalm 118 was written and used). But, as biblical scholar James Sanders points out, in the case of Jesus, "The messiah has arrived and been acclaimed king. He has been recognized as king by acclamation not from those with power or authority but by a rather scragly crowd of disciples and followers."

The participants shouted "Hosanna!" which was a cry to God for justice and mercy. "Hosanna" was what a person would cry out to the judge when they came into court, a reminder to the judge to be just and fair and merciful in hearing their case. At the triumphal entry, the people were calling out to God to hear their case against the oppressive religious/political/economic system that they were under.

Sanders says, "This enactment of the psalm [118] as a prophetic symbolic act would have been no less blasphemous and scandalous to those responsible for Israel's traditions (and they would have known them well) than similar symbolic acts performed by the prophets in the late Iron Age [such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel]."

So, if you go to church today and see the children waving palm fronds, consider that what they are reenacting is a moment of bold prophetic civil disobedience against rulers and powers and authorities and systems of oppression and the audacious proclamation of a different king and kingdom--a rule and reign marked by fairness, truth, humility, compassion, kindness, peace, inclusion, grace. A kingdom of love. The kingdom of God.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Friday, March 15, 2019

Dear fellow white people. We have a problem. There is a recurrence and spread of a cancer among us: of racism, Islamophobia, white nationalism, bigotry, xenophobia, hatred of immigrants, and gross intolerance. At the extreme end of the spectrum it manifests in shootings--at mosques, at synagogues, at churches.

But there is a much, much larger "middle" of this cancerous spectrum--a seemingly less extreme majority that feeds the most extreme minority.

I read the "manifesto" written by the New Zealand mosque gunman. What made me feel saddened and sickened was that I recognized much of the rhetoric within it. It was familiar. I've heard it on right-wing Christian talk radio programs. I've heard it from conservative pundits on radio and television (just this week, two Fox News pundits have come under scrutiny for their strident anti-Muslim rhetoric). I've seen it posted by friends on Facebook, and heard it parroted during conversations.

Doctors advise women and men to examine themselves for early signs of cancer. To feel their breasts and testicles for that tell-tale small lump that may point to a life-threatening disease.
Men and women of Christian European descent, we have a disease in our midst, and it threatens many lives. We need to examine ourselves, individually and collectively. Do we foster, or tolerate, or propigate harmful right-wing and bigoted attitudes, ideas, and rhetoric against people who are not like us? Do we subtly (and perhaps, we think, harmlessly) feed the monster of hatred in this world? Are we incremental enablers of disgusting violent actions like the mosque shootings in New Zealand, the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, the church shootings in Charleston, the Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin, the youth summer camp shootings in Norway, the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City?

Back in the days of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, a common refrain among non-Muslims was "Why doesn't the Muslim world denounce this extremism?" In reality, Muslims did denounce it--clearly and often. But now the shoe is on the other foot. It is the opportunity of every white person, of every media pundit, of every preacher and politician to denounce in no uncertain terms all forms of rhetoric against non-whites and non-Christians and immigrants and those who are different in whatever way.  And it's time for some deep introspection and sincere repentence for any part we may have played in allowing these ideas, these attitudes, this rhetoric, this violence of thought and word and deed, to exist in our midst.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

It has been called "the treacherous curtain of deference": the obsequious treatment afforded to the person who occupies the office of President of the United States (and likewise their peers from other nations). As we go down the hierarchy from there--to Vice President, Speaker of the House, etc.--we see gradually diminishing levels of deference.

In the military there is a more rigid and utilitarian chain of deference and command.

The latest outrageous news about the Catholic Church is the Pope's admission that sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops has been occurring. Let's be honest, sexual abuse by priests and bishops of nuns, seminary students, children, and laypeople has likely been going on for two thousand years. There is a systemic flaw in the Catholic Church's structural economy that fosters this: a priest is far more valuable to the organization than a nun (or a child).

Also in this week's news, revelations have come to light that Sakyong Mipham, head of the Shambhala International Buddhist organization, has been committing sexual abuse against female students for years. He is not the first Buddhist luminary to be exposed as a sexual predator.

It seems to me that the root enabling factor in so many environments where abuse is endemic is the ludricrous practice (which we humans seem to love to engage in) of elevating certain people above other people. The elevated ones get to wear special hats and outfits, be addressed with honorific titles, be afforded a "curtain of deference", and be able to exert their will upon others--not necessarily because of personal qualities of excellence they possess, but because they inhabit a position in a human-constructed hierarchy.

It's all bullshit, of course.

And worse, it perpetuates all sorts of evil.

One of the things that drew me to the 17th century Quakers was their stubborn insistence on eschewing artificial deference customs. They refused to doff their hats in the presence of supposed social superiors (an expected behavior at the time) or use honorific titles (such as "Lord" or "Your Honor") or speak and act toward a person in a position of authority any differently than they would speak and act toward anyone else. They engaged in a very intentional form of downward leveling, which came from their religious conviction that "there is that of God in everyone". In doing this, they exposed the folly of human hierarchies. They also got into lots of trouble, because the keepers of hierarchies don't like having their systems exposed as edifices of domination and control and ego gratification; enforced by peer pressure, dire warnings of divine retribution, or plain old threat of violence.

So whether your positional title is President, Pastor, Priest or Bishop or Cardinal or Archbishop or Pope, Dalai Lama or Rinpoche, King or Queen or Prime Minister, Ayatollah or Rabbi or Grand Poobah, you won't hear me call you by anything but the name your parents gave you. Your real name. Just like everyone else.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Donald Trump and Mike Pence visited the Martin Luther King Jr. monument today (for 2 minutes). This photo speaks volumes about the greatness and historical stature of Dr. King in comparison to these two interlopers who haven't a clue what MLK was about.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

I've been pondering for several years about what makes one religion better than others, or one sect within a religion better than others. Of course, the lazy fundamantalist answer is "because they're wrong and we're right!" But seriously, what is the criteria?

Is it truth? To make a claim that our religion or sect has "the truth" is to position ourselves as being able to discern the truth where most others fail. That seems the height of hubris. Plus, the fundamentalist wing of every religion claims that they alone have the truth. ISIS adherents claim that they do. White Nationalist Christians claim that they do. Whack-a-doodle religion cults claim that they do. Etc., etc.

Is it meaning or purpose? Is that what makes a religion or sect better than others--that it imparts meaning to life? The problem with that is that, once again, followers of ISIS and White Nationalist Christianity and whacky cults derive a great deal of meaning and purpose from their religion. And many people with no religious beliefs whatsoever lead meaningful, purposeful lives.

Is it doctrine? In other words, how faithfully a sect adheres to "correct doctrine"? Of course, every religion and sect has a different opinion on what exactly "correct doctrine" is. If you look at the faith statement of Westboro Baptist Church, the doctrine they espouse is very traditional boilerplate Christian stuff (Apostle's Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). Yet most Christians shun Westboro Baptist Church for the egregious way they live out their doctrine.

And I think this gets us closer to the best answer I've been able to come up with for what makes one religion (or sect) better than others. It is morality--by which I mean how we live out the "Golden Rule" of treating others the way we would want to be treated (and avoid treating others the way we would not want to be treated). In other words, how does a religion (or religious sect) foster a lifestyle of intentionally seeking to avoid or minimize harm to others. How does it promote and orientation and actions of compassion, mercy, grace, inclusion, fairness, philanthropy, care, empathy, etc. Perhaps that's why the "Golden Rule" has been ubiquitous throughout history across religions and cultures. This is the core rubric of what makes a religion of value: Do the teachings and practices of a religion cause its adherents to be more moral in their intentions and actions, in the "Golden Rule" sense?

William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, wrote that, "True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." This "true religion" that Penn wrote about has no name. It is universal and perrenial and primordial. It can be found, in varying degrees, within or without any other religion or sect. I suppose the degree to which there is (or isn't) evidence of it is the degree to which any given religion/sect is better or worse than others.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

In Memoriam [Ring out, wild bells]
Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1809 - 1892

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Beware the leaven...

When I was a fundamentalist Christian, I often heard it said or implied that morality was impossible apart from God (and specifically, Jesus).  Therefore, folks such as atheists and Buddhists could not be moral or ethical because they didn't believe in God.  Or, if they were moral, it was a fluke or was God at work in them despite their unbelief.  When I say "moral" I mean having a strong  internal sense of what's right and what's wrong, whereas "ethical" implies following an external code of behavior--both are important and ought to reinforce each other. 

In the years since I left fundamentalism, I've found that some of the most ethical, moral people I've met have been Buddhists and atheists.  Conversely, I've witnessed all sorts of immoral and unethical behavior among Christians, including Christian leaders.  My take-away is that within any religion or philosophy we can find examples of both great success and abject failure when it comes to fostering moral and ethical excellence.

In his book, Mere Morality, which is a response to C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, former pastor (now atheist) Dan Barker suggests that the simple measure of morality is the principle of doing no harm.  In other words, the way to be good/moral/ethical is "to act with the intention of minimizing harm" (aka The Golden Rule).  Note that Barker uses the word "act," since it is only by actions that morality can be assessed.  It is not beliefs that indicate morality, it is the things we do and say.  

In 2016, 81% of white conservative Evangelical Christians very publicly demonstrated the nature of their collective morality by voting for (and in many cases actively supporting) Donald Trump, a man who not only lacked the experience, qualifications and temperament for the job of United States President, but who had a long track record of immoral actions: crude, mean-spirited; a serial adulterer, a sexual predator, a pathological liar, a tax cheat, a business fraud, a rip-off artist, a thin-skinned revenge-driven narcissist prone to casting insults, and a promoter of greed and racism and torture and misogyny and xenophobia and homophobia and religious discrimination and mob violence. 

81% of white Evangelical Christians chose a man whose words and deeds were not simply un-Christian, but were anti-Christian; antithetical to the teachings and actions and values of Jesus.  Most white Evangelical Christians continue to support Trump even though his gross immorality (and incompetence) has become more apparent over the last two years.  In doing so they have discredited their witness of Christianity to this generation and to generations to come.  

The world watched and took note: Evangelical Christian's claim to morality and truth and discernment was put to the test and failed miserably.  The result is that, rather than making disciples as Jesus commanded, they have made more atheists (who value morality, truth and discernment).  As the Trump presidency continues to unravel in 2019 the grave self-inflicted damage to Evangelicalism will become more and more apparent.

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is depicted as warning those who came to him to, "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees."  Leaven (yeast) spreads throughout a lump of dough and changes it (we might even say, infects it).  The Pharisees and Sadducees are portrayed in the New Testament as preaching about the necessity for holiness but engaging in all sorts of immoral and unethical and unjust behaviors.  Jesus, their outspoken critic, said that they "strained out a gnat, but swallowed a camel" and gave pious religious tithes even out of their spices, while neglecting "the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness."  The Pharisees and Sadducess are cast in the New Testament as satisfying themselves with a legalistic holiness that made them blind to their own immorality and caused them to become hypocritical and exclusionary and tribal.  

Their most damning action was to conspire against the Messiah because his teachings and examples of acting out one's faith through compassion, inclusion, and fairness posed a threat to their position of civic power.  Though excessively religious, it turned out that their real gods were power and prestige and control.  They chose to align themselves with Herod's and Rome's injustices and abuses of power, in order to protect their own position and impose their influence upon others.  The early Christians believed that the seige of Jerusalem by the Romans in 68 AD, with the resulting slaughter of its inhabitants and destruction of the temple, was a display of God's judgment against the old system of religion married to civic power.

Of course, it didn't take long for the same pattern to manifest within Christianity (particularly post-Constantine).  History shows us that although the power-base of the Pharisees and Sadducess was destroyed in 70 AD (and again in 135 AD), the "leaven" of religiousity in thrall to temporal power (and the resulting hypocrisy) has remained. 

Perhaps, in the not-to-distant future, the cautionary tale of the great destruction Evangelicals did to their movement by embracing Trump will take its place alongside the tragic tale of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Over the holidays I've been reading The Neanderthals Rediscovered by Thames & Hudson. It contains the most current data about who our evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals were, as well as insights about the ancestral species from which Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis developed.

The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described pre-"civilization" humankind in this way: "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." He was only partially correct: early-humans were extremely social, not solitary, and somewhere along the line they began making art and practicing religion.

But Hobbes was right about the "nasty, brutish and short" bit. For most of the two million years of human existence (going back to Homo erectus) the average lifespan was 30 years. I've read estimates that 100 billion humans have walked the earth from the time of Homo erectus, through Homo heidelbergensis to Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. The vast majority of those humans owned very little in the way of personal possessions, understood very little about the workings of the world and cosmos, and lived short hard lives on the edge of survival. I'm reminded that as a 21st century middle-class North American in his mid-50's, I've lived longer, gained more knowledge, possessed more stuff, and experienced more comfort than could have even been imagined by most of the humans who have ever lived.

Such a reminder makes me grateful, and less likely to get tweaked if my Amazon package arrives late or they get my order wrong at McDonald's.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The ACLJ, a conservative Christian legal organization led by Jay Sekulow (who is a member of Donald Trump's personal legal team), is launching a "multifaceted legal campaign" against the teaching of secular mindfulness practices in public schools. 

Excerpt: "The ACLJ argues that the programs constitute Buddhist indoctrination because the mindfulness practices appear to be similar to Buddhist religious practices.... Proponents of secular mindfulness say mindfulness is not a Buddhist practice; it is a contemplative practice used in religious traditions around the world by many different names. Most programs in schools today are based on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a scientifically-validated program developed by clinicians."

Saturday, December 08, 2018

After years of rigorous theological study, I'm more unsure about God than when I began.  I do not claim to know who or what (or even if) God is.  But I'm very grateful to be freed from the narrow cage of fundamentalist certainty.  My decision now is to give myself over to love and compassion and seeking to be aware and engaged in the present moment, and let the rest take care of itself.


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"A mass movement readily exploits the discontent and frustration of large segments of the population which for some reason or other cannot face the responsibility of being persons and standing on their own feet. But give these persons a movement to join, a cause to defend, and they will go to any extreme, stop at no crime, intoxicated as they are by the slogans that give them a pseudo-religious sense of transcending their own limitations. The member of a mass movement, afraid of his own isolation, and his own weakness as an individual, cannot face the task of discovering within himself the spiritual power and integrity which can be called forth only by love. Instead of this, he seeks a movement that will protect his weakness with a wall of anonymity and justify his acts by the sanction of collective glory and power. All the better if this is done out of hatred, for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to respect reality as love does. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies an enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand. He is something unfamiliar. This is not "ours." This must be brought into line — or destroyed.

"Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice and hate which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person. It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever he can, and first of all in himself, the capacity of love and which makes man the living image of God."

 — Thomas Merton (from the chapter Christianity and Totalitarianism" in Disputed Questions)

Friday, September 28, 2018

The thing that is painfully and manifestly clear to me is that, for the Republicans, this was never about getting at the facts.  It was never about listening to what Dr. Ford had to convey, despite the great personal sacrifice she made.  It was not, and is not, about doing the right thing--the thing that is best for the nation and its institutions and its people.  Rather, it is a sustained and unbridled and immoral power grab aided and abetted by Fox News and right-wing talk radio and extremist right-wing lobbying groups and--most tragic of all, Evangelical Christians. 

If there has ever been a more blatant example of a cynical and morally bankrupt strategy playing out for all to see, it was Republicans delaying an Obama Supreme Court nominee confirmation for nearly a year (of a man free from allegations and taint) and now "plowing" through a Trump Supreme Court nomination in a hurry and at any cost (despite considerable red flags and public concern).

And after today it is more obvious than ever before that moderate Republicans (who seem to be a dying breed) are not going to pull things back from the brink.  Sure, politics are ugly and no political party is a paragon of purity, but the Republican Party has lost its moral compass to the point of becoming functionally evil.  I say this as a former Republican.  The only thing that is going to save the U.S. from this slide into the abyss is Americans who aren't Republicans getting out and voting and going into elected public office--especially women and minorities; those who have been ruthlessly cast aside by the Republican Party.  The Republican Party needs to be destroyed by the American people and cast into history's junk pile.  They lost their way and betrayed their founding ideals.

The other thing that is clearer than ever--for all to see--is that Evangelical Christianity has become hopelessly entwined with Babylon, shedding righteousness in exchange for a shot at power; a chance to dictate how everyone else should live their lives (while turning a blind eye to all of the reprehensible behavior among their own leaders and politicians and judges).  Evangelical Christianity, and the political party that Evangelicals have given their allegiance to, is now corrupt beyond redemption, and spiritually enslaved by the perverse purveyors of populist propaganda. 

God isn't going to fix this.  Moderates holding hands across the aisle aren't going to fix this (as admirable as that is).  The Republicans certainly aren't going to fix this.  The only thing that is going to fix this is a tsunami of the common people saying, "Enough!" and wiping the board clean.

"Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
'Come out of her, my people,
so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues...'"

--Revelation 18:4

Friday, September 21, 2018

One of the more bizarre aspects of the charismatic Christian subculture I used to belong to was the practice of claiming that demonic spirits were actively behind things--pulling the strings as it were. This idea originated, primarily, from a very poor understanding of the meaning of ancient apocalyptic biblical texts such as the Book of Daniel--which depicted angels and demons battling as a means of allegorically describing geopolitical events on earth. In the charismatic Christian subculture of the 20th century this was taken to extremes and applied on a national, regional, local and personal level. Things occurred, or didn't occur, because of "spiritual warfare." Humans could engage in spiritual warfare by identifying the appropriate spirit and shouting into empty space "I bind you in the name of Jesus!" (based upon a gross misinterpretation of Jesus' reference to the ancient Jewish rabbinic concept of "binding and loosing" which referred to applying or not applying statutes of the Torah).

In the charismatic church, if something politically or sociologically disagreeable happened, it was likely due to a spirit. On a smaller scale, if an individual began questioning authority or leadership decisions or doctrines within the church, they were accused of having a "spirit of rebellion." If it was a woman doing the questioning, she had a "Jezebel spirit." I was once told by a pastor that I had a "spirit of independence" and I thought, "Hmmm, he's saying that like it's a bad thing." :-) Accusing someone of having or being influenced by a demonic spirit was a convenient way to disparage and dismiss them and claim to have a higher and holier perspective. And, of course, there were a plethora of spirits to blame--one for every situation and malady.  And don't get me started on the countless heartbreaking stories of LGBTQ Christians who were told that their "struggle" was demonic in nature and required deliverance.

I knew a guy back in those days who had anger issues--a real short fuse. He told me one day that at a revival meeting he had been delivered from a "spirit of anger." Of course, it didn't last. Rather than have his character/behavioral issue extracted (exorcised) like a bad tooth or "bound" like innoculating against a virus, what he really needed was therapy, by a professional therapist. I hope he eventually did that and found peace.

I never really bought into the whole blaming imaginary spirits thing, even when I was in the charismatic Christian subculture. I tried it, I played along, but it seemed silly and futile. It increasingly struck me as incredibly superstitious and dualistic and a lazy way to avoid taking responsibility to do something about what was going on in the world or about one's own attitudes and behaviors and words. One of the things that really intrigued me many years later when I began learning about Buddhism was the emphasis on taking personal responsibility and engaging in very practical methods to transform one's own behaviors and thoughts and reactions and perceptions.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Friends Journal review of Presence and Process

I just found out about a lovely review of 'Presence and Process' in the Quaker magazine Friends Journal.

Excerpt: "This is a book that deserves a wide audience among Friends and seekers of all faiths."

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Last night the most corrupt president in U.S. history held a state dinner for (mostly white) Evangelical leaders including Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress and James Dobson--religious leaders who have propagated some of the most harmful and hateful rhetoric against Muslims and against adherents to other faiths (including forms of Christianity unlike their own), against people who are LGBTQ, against non-believers, against women seeking reproductive freedom, etc. Prosperity preacher Paula White--who has made millions bilking the poor--spoke the prayer before the sumptuous meal.

As has come to be expected, Trump boasted unabashedly (and mostly falsely) of his accomplishments. The attendees lavished him with praise. Franklin Graham said, without a hint of irony, that they were "speaking love to power" rather than speaking truth to power.

And I found myself wondering, what would Jesus have done if he were invited to such a soiree? I think surely he would have attended, but I also think he would have caused holy mischief, perhaps overturning a few tables, grabbing the microphone and with pointed finger saying something along the lines of, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees!" Probably would have gotten crucified as a result.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Yesterday I read about a very popular "hip and trendy" Buddhist teacher who has come under investigation after multiple reports from his followers of sexual misconduct. Just before that there was the resignation of Evangelical mega-church pastor Bill Hybels for sexual misconduct. A similar thing came to light recently with the revered leader of a very large Tibetan Buddhist sect. Then yesterday the horrific report was released about hundreds of priests sexually abusing thousands of children in Pennsylvania over a period of decades (and the Church's apparent complicity in covering it up).

There are many aspects to this, but one that I've been pondering a lot is the danger of elevating other humans into positions of authority over our lives. Leadership is valuable but--whether celebrities or politicians or religious leaders or bosses or military officers or coaches, etc.--when we elevate people and give them inappropriate amounts of control and power over us, it is a recipe for abuse to occur.

Every human is susceptible to the moral corruption that comes from possessing power over others without adequate transparency and accountability. This is one of the things I love about the Quakers of old: they were very intentional about trying to level things out. They eschewed elevating people, except those (such as slaves) who needed to be brought up to the same level of worth and empowerment as everyone else. They engaged in radical transparency and sought to give everyone a voice by practicing communal discernment in decision-making. They weren't always successful at it--human nature being what it is--but they genuinely tried.

Jesus challenged the theocratic authorities of his day, and their oppressive holiness codes, which they used to control others and elevate themselves. He sought to "level up" the "unclean" and marginalized people.

In one of the Buddha's best known teachings (his discourse to the Kalama clan) he advised to not give authority to teachers or traditions or scriptures or concepts but instead to test everything for ourselves and see through practical application what works--what leads to "welfare and happiness."

Surrendering our autonomy to people who claim to represent God or have access to higher truths has proven, time and again, to not lead to "welfare and happiness." It should be abandoned. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Concise Post-Christendom Theological Framework

When it comes to theology, the New Testament writings are somewhat fuzzy. The authors of the documents which came to comprise the New Testament were not systematic theologians and the documents they wrote were not intended as theological treatises. The collection of documents which we now call the Bible expresses a variety of theological viewpoints on various topics--more like a family discussion at the dinner table than a single voice.

Jesus and his early followers lived in tumultuous times; in the midst of tremendous political, social, economic, cultural and religious turmoil. In that setting, they experienced a series of remarkable events which left them grasping for language to define what had happened and to describe the ramifications. It all centered around the "Christ event": the life and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As the centuries passed after this "Christ event" and the subsequent passing of his original followers, Christian theology gradually became more refined. The center of Christianity moved gradually westward from Judea to Antioch and Alexandria and Rome and Constantinople.  The many fuzzy bits were interpreted and polished and focused and universalized--with considerable influence from Greek philosophy--into official doctrines. Contentious ecumenical councils hammered out credal statements and excommunicated dissenting bishops. It was a messy process.

Doctrines that took shape over the course of centuries included the Trinity, the nature(s) of Christ, various Atonement theories, Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment for unbelievers, Heaven in addition to (or as opposed to) resurrection, various approaches to Baptism (such as infant vs. adult), Original Sin, Predestination (vs. free will), evolving eschatologies, hierarchical ecclesiological authority structures, etc. The "Constantinian shift" of the fourth century, in which Christianity went from being a persecuted underground religion to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, was a watershed moment that birthed Christendom: Christianity married to Empire (each empowering and legitimizing and shaping the other).

We, in the twenty first century, have received a Christian theology that has nearly two hundred centuries of theological development layered over the kernel of the "Christ event," and over Jesus's earliest follower's (such as Paul's) efforts to sort out the implications of that bombshell. The task of Christians today who are interested in the tangible effects of theology is to scrape away at the "waxy yellow buildup" of all those doctrinal and cultural layers, digging through the strata in order to get to what's intrinsic about being a follower of Jesus.

There are a few areas which I think deserve special consideration as candidates for reevaluation:

Hell - What happens if we eliminate the question of who's in and who's out? Suddenly a tremendous amount of layered on doctrines becomes irrelevant. I have written about Hell in detail elsewhere ( and won't belabor here the reasons why I do not subscribe to the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. Suffice it to say that a large slice of Christendom theology was predicated on the notion that most of humanity would end up in Hell and only a relative few would be "saved." But what if (as I think Paul, John, et al, believed) all of humanity will eventually be reconciled to God? As I have written elsewhere (

"God is omnipresent. That means God is everywhere at once. It is impossible to be separated from God. The Eastern Orthodox church teaches that since God is omnipresent, Heaven and Hell are the same place--in the presence of God. What will make it Heaven for one and Hell for another will be one's orientation towards God.

What if God's view of judgement isn't punitive or juridical, but is instead restorative? What if true justice--God's justice--is all about putting things right; restoring things to the way they ought to be? What if God's ultimate goal is redemption and reconciliation, even if it requires a painful process?

I believe that in the end we will all see God as God is and be confronted with God's Truth, God's Holiness and, most of all, God's Love. There will be no hiding from the pain that we have caused to God, to one another, and to ourselves. People will experience the full realization of the impact of their lives. To be utterly exposed and come face-to-face with oneself as one truly is and with God as God truly is will be, for some, a horrific experience. All that one became throughout one's lifetime which is antithetical to Love and Truth, will be 'burned' away by God's holiness. It cannot remain in God's presence. Our God is a consuming fire. Perhaps for some, after this purgative 'judgement' is finished, there may not be much of themselves left. They will be saved, as Paul wrote, but as if through a fire.

After God's purifying fire removes all that is not of Love and Truth, what will come next is restoration. Love is the motive behind God's judgement and Love seeks to restore. Then, at last--when this work is finished, God will be all in all; God's victory will be complete. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. These will not be anguished confessions extracted from condemned souls about to be annihilated or cast into Hell. What kind of God would glory in that? No, they will be the joyful exaltations of a redeemed and restored humanity." This, I believe, was the vision of Paul and the earliest Christians.

If we accept this idea--that all will be reconciled to God--it eliminates the theological conundrums that people like Augustinian struggled with. For example, Augustine wrestled with trying to find the balance between God's grace and human's free will. He favored the view that humans were born as sinners (due to Adam's original sin being passed on seminally through every generation) and that the only ones who would be saved from Hell were those whom God had predestined (through absolutely no merit of their own) to receive salvation. It was imperative to Augustine that infants be baptized into the church as soon as possible in order to negate the inherited sin of Adam.

Augustine took the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis as a literal historical account (rather than as the powerful mythic Hebrew cautionary tale that it actually is). This resulted in a historical/theological narrative of Adam and Eve's "fall" from innocence and the resulting expulsion from God's grace which, in turn, caused their entire progeny to become a massa peccati (mass of sin) and, therefore, a massa damnata (mass of the damned). Because of humankind's default orientation of depravity and damnation (and, therefore, God's orientation of wrath towards humankind) no person could even *choose* to respond to God unless God enabled them to do so. This, according to Augustine, was grace. And since *all* humans were part of the same "mass of the damned" and under the same penalty, the implication is that God's selection of who would be saved from Hell was random and arbitrary (since no one has merit). Thus developed the doctrine of Predestination, which was later championed by John Calvin, came to America with the Puritans and lives on today in the teachings of folks like R.C. Sproul, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, et al.

And so Augustine and his theological descendants would say that salvation is only by grace, through faith, but that even that faith is a gift of grace. What if this is true, but the gift of grace is given equally to everyone?

Atonement - What if Jesus's death on the cross was not a violent sacrifice required by the Father, but instead a demonstration of Christ's obedience to God's values (whatever the cost) and of God's unstoppable love? Here is a way of looking at it that is different from the popular "substitutionary" atonement theory of our day: Jesus was tortured and murdered by people whose position of power was threatened by his popularity among the hoi polloi and his radical message of inclusion. As a result, these human representative of what Walter Wink calls "systems of oppression," demonstrated the very worst of human nature by having the Son of God tortured and killed. But at the moment of his death Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they don't realize what they're doing." The resurrection of Jesus was the demonstration that God's life and love are greater than the worst, most cynical, evil that humans can do.

Jesus did not have to die. God didn't require it. The awful crucifixion of Christ was not a price required by God to compensate for humankind's sin, but instead was purely an evil act of human conspiracy and murder. The resurrection of Jesus was a demonstration of God's power to restore and redeem and rise above the worst depravities that humans can choose to inflict upon one another and upon the world. God's love is greater than humankind's sin. That is the point of Christ's resurrection.

And what of sin? Augustine and his peers viewed sin in juridical terms. It was transgression against God's perfect will and therefore had to be met with penalty. But what if sin is not the problem, but rather is the symptom? What if sin is simply what results from our failure to "walk in step with the Spirit" (as Paul wrote to the Galatians)? When we are out of sync with God, we miss the mark of what God's loving and inclusive intent is. That is what sin, quite simply, is. Why do we not attune ourselves to God? For many it is because they have been made fearful of a God of wrath who is the antithesis of what Jesus taught and modeled. Is it because we don't realize the boundlessness of God's unconditional love? In our fear, we are alienated from God and from one another and even from ourselves. I believe that the "solution" to this is a revelatory realization of God's unconditional love. In my own life, I become increasingly aware of God's loving nature and intent as a result of engaging in contemplative practice. The more experientially aware of God I become, the less sin and guilt are a problem in my life. It is analogous to tuning in a radio to the frequency that gives a clear signal and, as a result, the static ceases.

So then, what is the point of being a Christian? Is it to escape Hell? No. Everyone will be reconciled to God, sooner or later. The point of following Jesus is to engage in the process of reconciling with God and with one another. The point is to "tune in" to God and be transformed and be agents of gracious transformation in the world. This transformation begins deep inside of us, and that inner transformation then manifests on the outside in our care for all aspects of God's creation. Rather than fear of eternal punishment, or Pharisaical conformity to doctrinal precepts or perpetuation of systems and structures, it is this active, humble care for all of God's creation that marks a Post-Christendom theology.