Monday, November 25, 2013

Losing god to find God

My friend Bill, who is sometimes a wise man and sometimes a wise guy, says that Alcoholics Anonymous is the closest thing in our day to what the church was meant to be. I get what he means. There are a number of values in AA (and AA-based 12 Step programs) that the church could benefit from adopting: things like inclusiveness, distrust of human authority and "professionalism", maintaining responsible separation from money and property, keeping simplicity of organization, diligently eschewing celebrity (instead valuing principles over personalities), etc. (

One example came to mind today as I was reading Meister Eckhart and came upon this:

"Man's last and highest parting occurs when, for God's sake, he takes leave of god. St. Paul took leave of god for God's sake and gave up all that he might get from god, as well as all he might give--together with every idea of god. In parting with these, he parted with god for God's sake and yet God remained to him as God is in his own nature--not as he is conceived by anyone to be--nor yet as something to be achieved--but more as an 'is-ness,' as God really is."

It reminded me of the phrase used in 12 Step programs: "God as we understand him." I have a friend named Jimmy who is very involved in AA and he uses that phrase every time he mentions God. At first it really bugged me. It sounded to me like some kind of relativism. But the more I pondered it, the more I appreciated the frank honesty of it. When any person of faith says "God" (or "Allah" or whatever) there is an unspoken and implied "according to my understanding." To admit it openly is to accept humbly that, as Paul stated, "we see through a glass, darkly." Accepting this reality would seem to be a good guard against dogmatism and fanaticism. Thus, Eckhart's example of Paul (or, rather, Saul) taking leave of his conception of god and, as a result, gaining God as a present reality (an 'is-ness') seems apt to me.

On a related note, here's an excerpt from a film about faith and AA entitled "God as we understand Him." My favorite statement is the guy who says, "I didn't join AA to save my soul. I joined to save my ass. And I was around for two years before I realized they were connected."

Saturday, November 23, 2013

“I no longer fear God. I have come to love him, for perfect love casts out fear.” --Abba Antony (251-356 CE)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thoughts on Typhoon Haiyan

It is only a matter of time before some fundamentalist Christian pundit ascribes the devastating Typhoon Haiyan to God's wrath. I don't believe that God punishes people with natural disasters. I do think though, in a very real way, human sin is responsible for the devastation in and around Tacloban.

According to a story in the Huffington Post:

"The 7,000 islands of the Philippines sit in the middle of the world's most storm-prone region, which gets some of the biggest typhoons because of vast expanses of warm water that act as fuel and few pieces of land to slow storms down. Half the storms on an informal list of the strongest ones to hit land in the 20th and 21st centuries ended up striking the Philippines, according to research by Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the Weather Underground.

Humans played a big role in this disaster, too — probably bigger than nature's, meteorologists said. University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy figures that 75 to 80 percent of the devastation can be blamed on the human factor. Meteorologists point to extreme poverty and huge growth in population — much of it in vulnerable coastal areas with poor construction, including storm shelters that didn't hold up against Haiyan."

In other words, typhoons and earthquakes and other natural disasters are an integral part of how our planet functions. They happen and have always happened and will continue to happen. They are morally neutral. We don't need the wrath of God or weather-controlling demonic forces to pin the blame on. But poverty is a global moral issue and our man-made systems and structures that perpetuate poverty are culpable for massive and sustained human suffering. In the days and weeks to come, relief aid will pour into the Philippines--and rightly so--as it did into Haiti and Indonesia and New Orleans. But what will change the underlying systems that leave millions of people impoverished and exposed?

Howard Zinn - A Veteran Remembers

A Veteran Remembers

By Howard Zinn

Let's go back to the beginning of Veterans Day. It used to be Armistice Day, because at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I came to an end.

We must not forget that conflict. It revealed the essence of war, of all wars, because however "just" or "humanitarian" may be the claims, at the irreducible core of all war is the slaughter of the innocent, organized by national leaders, accompanied by lies. World War I was its epitome, as generals and politicians sent young men forward from their trenches, bayonets fixed, to gain a few miles, even a few yards, at frightful cost.

In July 1916 the British General Douglas Haig ordered 11 divisions of English soldiers to climb out of their trenches and move toward the German lines. The six German divisions opened up with their machine guns. Of the 110,000 who attacked, more than half were killed or wounded--all those bodies strewn on no man's land, the ghostly territory between the contending trenches. That scenario went on for years. In the first battle of the Marne there were a million casualties, 500,000 on each side.

The soldiers began to rebel, which is always the most heroic thing soldiers can do, for which they should be given medals. In the French Army, out of 112 divisions, 68 would have mutinies. Fifty men would be shot by firing squads.

Three of those executions became the basis for the late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's antiwar masterpiece, Paths of Glory. In that film a pompous general castigates his soldiers for retreating and talks of "patriotism." Kirk Douglas, the lieutenant colonel who defends his men, enrages the general by quoting the famous lines of Samuel Johnson: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

The supposed moral justification of that war (the evil Kaiser, the Belgian babies) disintegrated quickly after it ended with sudden recognition of the 10 million dead in the mud of France and the gassed, shellshocked, and limbless veterans confronting the world.

The ugliness of that war was uncomplicated by the moral righteousness that made later wars, from World War II on, unsullied in our memory, or at least acceptable. Vietnam was the stark exception. But even there our national leaders have worked hard to smother what they call "the Vietnam syndrome." They want us to forget what we learned at the Vietnam War's end: that our leaders cannot be trusted, that modern war is inevitably a war against civilians and particularly children, that only a determined citizenry can stop the government when it embarks on mass murder.

Our decent impulse, to recognize the ordeal of our veterans, has been used to obscure the fact that they died, they were crippled, for no good cause other than the power and profit of a few. Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches reeking with hypocrisy. Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism.

As a combat veteran myself, of a "good war," against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. At the end of that war, in which 50 million died, the people of the world should have shouted "Enough!" We should have decided that from that moment on, we would renounce war--and there would be no Korean War, Vietnam War, Panama War, Grenada War, Gulf War, Balkan War.

The reason for such a decision is that war in our time--whatever "humanitarian" motives are claimed by our political leaders--is always a war against children: the child amputees created by our bombing of Yugoslavia, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dead as a result of our postwar sanctions. Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Excerpt from Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic by B.R. Rees

"[O]n an evolutionary view of man's origin and development, that doctrine [the Fall], along with Adam and Eve and the Serpent and the Garden and all its other paraphernalia, simply disappears from history and reverts to its proper place in the creation-myths of other religions. ... [Augustine's] teaching on the Fall and original sin was solidly based on the historicity of both events; but what happens if the historicity of the second event [original sin] succeeds as it has done, in surviving the intensive criticism to which the biblical evidence has been subjected since the beginning of the nineteenth century, whereas the first [the Fall] has long lost any claim to be deemed historical? The blunt answer is that the first 'event' is an event no longer and has been deprived ipso facto of its traditional raison d'etre, which was to buttress a theory of substitutionary atonement.

After the Council of Ephesus in 431 ... down to the 'Great Schism' of 1054, only a modified Augustinian doctrine survived in the West and the East showed practically no interest in the subject. In the late twentieth century its survival is as tenuous as the fading smile on the face of the Cheshire Cat, and it could be argued that all that is left behind of the symbolic truth which it once contained is the self-evident statement that there are in our personalities certain inherited, as distict from environmental, features which lead us to want to put Number One first and, not infrequently, to harm other people in doing so.

Against the backcloth of modern biology, physiology and psychology perhaps it would be more honest to stop paying lip-service to this morbid doctrine of 'sin ... accumulating at compound interest' and to consign it to that region of limbo which is reserved for such failed theories as alchemy and phrenology, phlogiston and Piltdown man. This suggestion is not as frivolous as it might appear to be nor is it prompted only by the naive attitude of those who 'reject the doctrine of original sin because the law-abiding citizen will rightly refuse to be held responsible for the crimes committed by his ancestors'. Rather it springs from a strongly held conviction that it is a doctrine which has done the Christian Church far more harm than good. By preaching the absolute necessity to purge man of his inherited sin in order to save his soul, it has provided countless 'well-meaning' individuals with a ready-made pretext for pursuing their diligent campaign for souls without any thought for the mere lives of their victims--witness the heresy trials of the Middle Ages, the ruthlessness of the Crusades, the sadistic horrors of the Inquisition and so on ad nauseam. It has also fostered that obsessive antipathy to the sexual act which marred the thought of the Church from Paul onwards until it was elevated into doctrine by Augustine's stigma on the act of procreation. Even the Mariological doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the 'immaculate conception' often confused with it, though both derive most of their authority from a scatter of dubious texts, 'have something to do with the negative valuation of the sexual act on the part of the Fathers of the Church', as Hans Kung has put it with his usual frankness. Both of them, and especially the second, he continues, 'have become largely pointless as a result of increasing criticism of the Augustinian view'. From this standpoint Augustine has a lot to answer for. What, if anything, can we find to say in his favour in the light of modern theology and science"?

--B.R. Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

I was blown away the first time I read this in the Introduction of Jacob Milgrom's Commentary on Leviticus:

"The basic premises of pagan religion are (1) that its deities are themselves dependent on and influenced by a metadivine realm, (2) that this realm spawns a multitude of malevolent and benevolent entitites, and (3) that if humans can tap into this realm they can acquire the magical power to coerce the gods to do their will. The eminent Assyriologist W.G. Lambert has stated, 'The impression is gained that everyday religion [in Mesopotamia] was dominated by fear of evil powers and black magic rather than a positive worship of the gods ... the world was conceived to be full of evil demons who might cause trouble in any sphere of life. If they had attacked, the right ritual should effect the cure ... Humans, as well as devils, might work evil against a person by the black arts, and here too the appropriate ritual was required.'

The Priestly theology [of Leviticus] negates these premises. It posits the existence of one supreme God who contends neither with a higher realm nor with competing peers. The world of demons is abolished; there is no struggle with autonomous foes, because there are none. With the demise of the demons, only one creature remains with 'demonic' power--the human being. Endowed with free will, human power is greater than any attributed to humans by pagan society. No only can one defy God but, in Priestly [Levitical] imagery, one can drive God out of his sancturary. In this respect, humans have replaced demons. ... Humans can drive God out of the sancturary by polluting it with their moral and ritual sins. All that the priests can do is periodically purge the sanctuary of its impurities and influence the people to atone for their wrongs. ... The sanctuary symbolized the presence of God; impurity represented the wrongdoing of persons. If persons unremittingly polluted the sanctuary, they force God out of his sanctuary and out of their lives.

... The sanctuary stands in need of constant purification lest it be abandoned by its resident god. But whereas the pagans hold that the source of impurity is demonic, Israel, having expunged the demons from its beliefs, attributes impurity to the rebellious and inadvertent sins of humans instead."

Marcus Borg: What Is a Christian?

 "Moreover, believing as 'believing the right things' does not intrinsically lead to a changed life. It is possible to have strongly-held beliefs, even more or less right beliefs, and still be unchanged: fearful, self-preoccupied and self-concerned, angry, judgmental, mean, even brutal and violent. Christian history and the history of other religions are filled with examples. Believing has little transformative power. But Christianity is not about 'right beliefs.' It is about a change of heart. It is about the transformation of ourselves at that deep level that shapes our vision (how we see), our commitment (our loyalty, allegiance), and our values (how we live)."

What Is a Christian?

Saturday, November 02, 2013

I was praying, in silent contemplation,
and I felt a nudge deep within; an invitation
to let everything go;
to release all that I held onto
--desires, needs, fears, defenses, securities, blame, guilt, pain,
facades, assumptions...--
to embrace emptiness.
A twinge of panic stabbed my heart...
That was when I heard the voice of God:
"Don't worry child, I'll still be here."