Sunday, April 30, 2017

"We are the first generation of humans who haven’t inherited our spiritual identities. For most of human history, in most cultures, these things have been passed down. But suddenly, in the last couple of generations, people are very likely to have been born without that very deep formation.  So while traditional religious affiliation may be waning, I don’t think spiritual life is waning. Accompanying the demise of inherited tradition is the fact that people who have been born without a lot of formation also don’t have much baggage. They have a lot of curiosity. These generations are searching and are really committed to the integrity of joining inner life and outer life. They haven’t necessarily been given opportunities to do that, but they are looking for it and they know they’re in need of it."

--Krista Tippett

"The greatest accomplishment in life is to be who or what you are, and that is what God wanted you to be when he created you."

--Fr. Thomas Keating

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on 'belief' in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people 'believers', as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity..."

--Karen Armstrong, Confusion by Christians between belief and reason has created bad science and inept religion

“There’s only one thing that’s better than getting what you want: it’s to know that you can be happy whether you get it or not.”

— Adyashanti

Friday, April 28, 2017

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"The one thing God doesn't have is lack.  So, what we can offer God is our need."
--Sufi proverb

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts."
-- The Buddha

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Back in the late 1980's, my wife and young son and I visited the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas. I was a strident creationist and an avid reader of books by "creation scientists" like Henry Morris, Ken Ham and Duane Gish. The raison d'etre of the Creation Evidence Museum was to demonstrate that the "biblical account of creation" as told in the book of Genesis, as well other biblical stories, were scientifically and historically accurate. This meant that evolution was untrue, that the earth was only a few thousand years old and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed (dinosaurs died out as a result of the great worldwide flood but humans and other species survived because they boarded Noah's ark).

I've long since jettisoned creationism as a viable position. What I came to realize is that creationism puts the cart before the horse. It begins with an a priori assumption that what the Bible says is literally (historically and scientifically) true and was written (via divine inspiration) to be understood that way. As I studied more (and learned, as my seminary Old Testament professor used to say, "the story behind the story" of the biblical texts) I realized that the stories in Genesis were not supposed to be taken as literal truth--any more so than Aesop's fables or the myths we make up about American history. The biblical stories were intended to convey viewpoints which were of importance to the writers and original readers/hearers of those texts. They weren't written to be accurate and universally applicable accounts of history and science.

The implication of this is that the Bible and (real) science need not be at odds. And Christians shouldn't have to resort to the disingenuous tactics of Morris, Ham, Gish and the Creation Evidence Museum to try to bend (or misrepresent) science in order to conform it to what the Bible seems to say. It should be the other way around--our interpretation of biblical texts ought to (dare I say?) evolve as we learn more about how the universe works. The Dalai Lama was once asked what would happen if science proved the claims of Buddhism to be wrong. He responded, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Christian fundamentalism does not have this option.

The insistence on biblical literalism as the lens through which to view how the universe works has its roots in the American Christian fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. Christian fundamentalism was a reaction against broad cultural shifts such as the rise of historical/literary criticism (including biblical criticism), Darwin's evolutionary theory (brought to a head in the Scopes "monkey trial"), the fledgling sciences of archeology and paleontology, and the growth of liberal Christian theology. Christian fundamentalists circled the wagons in defense of a view that the Bible was not only inspired but also inerrant and infallible. Therefore biblical accounts--from the virgin birth of Jesus to the resurrection to the various miracles described in the Gospels to the stories in the Old Testament (such as the miracles performed by Moses) to the Genesis account of creation and the flood--were absolutely factual.

Once one accepts this presupposition about the Bible, one has to defend it at all costs. It becomes a battle for the survival of Christianity. The belief of fundamentalist Christians is that if the Bible could be proven to not be literally accurate than the whole Christian faith falls apart (I have heard Hank Hanegraaf--the self-appointed "Bible Answer Man" express this very thing on numerous occasions). The "castle" cartoon included in this post, from creationist Ken Ham, depicts well this Christian fundamentalist fear.

Through the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, this fundamentalist hostility towards science (including climate science) and towards higher education has seeped into conservative politics. Conservative politicians and radio pundits rail against intellectuals such as scientists and college professors who are apparently united in some nefarious scheme to indoctrinate the masses and destroy Christianity. Films such as 'God's Not Dead' and 'God's Not Dead 2' capitalize on the fundamentalist fantasy of bringing down the ivory towers of the academic elite, who are uniformly depicted as motivated by hubris and atheistic hostility to the faith.

The fundamental error of Christian fundamentalism is in that foundational assumption of biblical literalism. In actuality, the application of that literalism by fundamentalists is very selective: for example Jesus's commands to "sell all you have and give it to the poor" and to "put away your sword; those who use the sword will die by the sword" are interpreted in very figurative and nuanced ways by fundamentalists. What is endangered by science is not Christianity but the fundamentalist presupposition about biblical literalism.

So, while there are a great many devout people of faith--Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.--walking alongside agnostics and atheists in today's marches for science, I suspect that there are somewhat few fundamentalist Christians (or political conservatives). They have painted themselves into a corner where to celebrate science is to betray the faith (or party). That is a sad and untenable position to be in. I know because I've been there.


Friday, April 21, 2017

"I'd rather be kind than right."

--The Dalai Lama

Monday, April 17, 2017

"For while the founding figures [of religious movements] were imaginative and creative, imagination and creativity were rarely qualities encouraged in the schools and orders they established.... As their traditions grew into powerful religious institutions, the preservation of orthodoxy became the main priority.  While originating in acts of imagination, orthodoxies paradoxically seek to control the imagination as a means of maintaining their authority.  The authenticity of a person's understanding is measured according to its conformity with the dogmas of the school.  While such controls may provide a necessary safeguard against charlatanism and self-deception, they also can be used to suppress authentic attempts at creative innovation that might threaten the status quo.  The imagination is anarchic and potentially subversive.  The more hierarchic and authoritarian a religious institution, the more it will require that the creations of the imagination conform to its doctrines and aesthetic norms.  Yet by suppression of the imagination, the very cut off at its source.  While religious orthodoxies may survive and even prosper for centuries, in the end they will ossify.  When the world around them changes, they will lack the imaginative power to respond creatively to the challenges of the new situation."

--Stephen Batchelor

"These days, agnosticism is often mischaracterized as an undecided response to a question. And in fact, the term is frequently applied outside of a religious context when describing things for which we haven't yet made an opinion.... Alternately, it's used to express our ambivalence about something, using the term to equate to such sentiments as, 'I don't care,' 'I don't really want to know,' or 'I don't even want to think about it.' But this casual usage of the term betrays its original purpose, an epistemological stance and methodology in which skepticism and empiricism — two hallmarks of the scientific method — takes center stage." 

Why Agnosticism Probably Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection: A Scandalous Reading of a Scandalous Gospel
By Crystal S. Lewis

This Sunday, millions of churches all over the country will celebrate Easter, or as we called it in my Evangelical days, "Resurrection Sunday." The sermons preached in those churches will recount the story of how Jesus died a brutal death at the hands of the Romans before His tomb was discovered empty three days after His crucifixion. Many of those preachers will insist that the resurrection can only mean one thing... that it can only be understood as the event through which "salvation" has come to people who hear the Evangelical Christian message and affirm its truth.

However, my understanding of the empty tomb's relevance changed radically several years ago. My exposure to Church history helped me to realize that throughout my entire life, I had engaged the resurrection through a lens provided by people who were just trying to understand what it meant and why it was important.

It occurred to me that I knew what the crucifixion meant to Paul, Irenaeus, Origen, St. Augustine and even my pastor... but I had never asked myself what the death of Jesus would have meant to the blind man who regained his sight after the Healer's touch. I had never asked myself what it meant to the woman who had been restored to her place in society after being rendered unclean for twelve years by her unstoppable flow of blood. I had never asked myself what the crucifixion meant to the leper who, undoubtedly desperate for human contact, received that and more during a chance encounter with Jesus. I had not asked how little Talitha's family, or Lazarus' family, or the Centurion may have felt to hear that Jesus had died on the cross that day.

I had never divorced myself enough from the traditional understanding of the narrative to see why Peter so desperately wanted to protect Jesus from the centurions in the Garden of Gethsemane... or why the religious people and political authorities so desperately wanted to kill Him. It wasn't until I allowed myself to think outside my theological box that I could see what really died on the cross that day.

When I thought more carefully about it, I realized that each lash of the whip, each nail, and every insult hurled at Jesus while He hung on the cross was a simultaneous assault on a generation of people who had finally started to feel loved… and free… and hopeful. I finally realized that the claim of resurrection by early Christians was arguably not as much a cosmic one as it was the subversion of a system that had been stacked against "the least of these." Finally, I realized what it meant for them to say: “Jesus is not dead.”

Those who claimed that Jesus "had risen" were telling the powerful that despite their attempts to bury hope and equality... despite their efforts to kill the voice of the one who had touched them when no one else would... despite their efforts to entomb the Good News that was being preached to the poor and the radical message of liberty for the captives, the hope of the people would continue to live.

For us, resurrection means that hope is still brewing, even in the most corrupt systems. Resurrection means that love is still powerful in ways that can often only be explained by invoking the transcendent. Resurrection means that nothing can stop the will of a downtrodden people who feel driven by a force greater than themselves-- Not the death of one person. Not the death of a religious ideology. Not even the death of a generation.

And so, on this Resurrection Sunday I celebrate the scandalous Gospel of Jesus Christ-- not because of what it meant to Paul or the church fathers, but because of what it means to the sick, the outcast, the hungry and the voiceless. I believe that like Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, for he has anointed us to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” (Luke 4:18-19) And my prayer is that all Christians, whether they fall on the theologically conservative or the liberal side of God's family, will find the enduring courage live out the resurrection by proclaiming this Good News.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

"Insight into emptiness and compassion for the world are two sides of the same coin.  To experience ourselves and the world as interactive processes rather than aggregates of discrete things undermines both habitual ways of perceiving the world as well as habitual feelings about it.  Meditative discipline is vital to dharma practice precisely because it leads us beyond the realm of ideas to that of felt-experience.  Understanding the philosophy of emptiness is not enough.  The ideas need to be translated through meditation into the wordless language of feeling in order to loosen those emotional knots that keep us locked in a spasm of self-preoccupation."

--Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday

There wasn't much good about that Friday,
when the "powers that be" conspired
to torture and kill an innocent man
in order to "keep the peace."
And God responded to humanity
at their worst
not with the thunderbolts of Zeus,
or the crude weapons of Cain,
but with new life
and new hope
and indomitable.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, a day that commemorates Jesus's "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem. This was an incredibly subversive act on his part, both religiously and politically. It was a bit of prophetic performance art, as Jesus and his followers reenacted the ancient Jewish ritual of the king's enthronement (for which Psalm 118 had been 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 in Jesus entry into Jerusalem 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, often as a result of having fallen behind on their crushing debt obligations (such as from having to borrow money in order to pay the temple tax). "Hosanna!" was 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 terribly oppressive religious and civic and economic systems that they lived 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 and risky prophetic public action against rulers and authorities and systems of oppression. It was the audacious proclamation of a very different kind of kingdom and king; marked by care for the "least of these" and fairness and integrity and compassion and kindness and peace and radical inclusion and grace and love. The kingdom of God.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

"Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life."

--Parker J. Palmer

Thursday, April 06, 2017

"When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it’s attached to everything else."

--John Muir

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

"You can never be free as long as you have an ego to defend."

--Anthony de Mello, S.J.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

"In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for 'finding himself.' If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence." 

--Thomas Merton, Trappist monk

Monday, April 03, 2017

In (Partial) Defense of Mike Pence

I don't like Mike Pence very much. I find him to be sanctimonious, arrogant and disingenuous. More importantly, I find his policy ideas to be regressive, repressive, oppressive and out of touch. But I actually respect him for something that he has taken a lot of heat for lately: Pence purportedly never eats alone with a woman other than his wife. For most of my 30-year marriage I have adhered to a similar rule.

Sometimes this is referred to as "the Billy Graham rule." In the late-1940's when Billy Graham and his (all male) team began traveling the U.S. conducting evangelistic crusades, they developed a code of conduct to avoid scandals that had ruined other ministries. Graham explained in his autobiography:

“One afternoon during the Modesto meetings, I called the team together to discuss the problem. Then I asked them to go to their rooms for an hour and list all the problems they could think of that evangelists and evangelism encountered.

When they returned, the lists were remarkably similar, and in a short amount of time, we made a series of resolutions or commitment among ourselves that would guide us in our future evangelistic work. In reality, it was more of an informal understanding among ourselves—a shared commitment to do all we could do to uphold the Bible’s standard of absolute integrity and purity for evangelists.”

The "series of resolutions" Graham's team came up with involved handling money, sexuality, publicity, and relations with local churches in ways that fostered integrity (and therefore longevity) for their ministerial careers and their organization. If we scan the history of televangelists and public ministries over the last 50 years we can see plenty of shipwrecks caused by lapses of integrity in all of these areas--particularly money and sex. Graham's organization successfully navigated these waters and avoided scandal (at least until Graham's progeny took the helm).

When I was newly married, some 30 years ago, I came across an evangelical Christian teaching about "hedges." The idea was to intentionally build behavioral hedges of protection against common marital pitfalls. I took the teaching to heart. As my career developed, it required a tremendous amount of travel: teaching week-long classes all around the U.S. I stayed in hotels and ate in restaurants. I often felt lonely and depressed to be away from home. I'm an introvert, so that kept me away from the nightlife, but occasionally I would get "hit on" by a student. My rule was that hanging out with groups of students was ok, but I maintained my "hedge" about not dining alone with a female student. I could see far more potential downsides than upsides to doing so.

I also thought of it as a sign of respect for my wife. I would not do anything that could make her feel insecure about my absolute commitment to her.

If I were a public figure, such as a politician like Mike Pence, I would also have to factor in the danger of appearances. Let's face it, the press thrives on scandal--real or imagined. Some translations of the biblical passage of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 say to "avoid any appearance of evil." That particular translation and how to apply it is debatable, but it is well-known among Christians nonetheless. For a public figure--male or female--who claims piety and relies upon the support of a constituency it is wise counsel.

Every person's situation is unique. Every person's experience is unique. Every person's mix of values and concerns is unique. Every marriage is unique. And all of these change over time. There was a time in my life when my "hedge" was very important. It is less so now that I'm older and in a different line of work. But it's still there to some extent. What I saw a lot of on social media and the blogosphere (is that still a word?) was Pence being pilloried based on scenarios exaggerated far beyond the simple revelatory tidbit that he doesn't "eat alone with women" other than his wife. Much of that outrage (I think) was vented without sufficient regard for the fact that this is what Mr. and Mrs. Pence have deemed to be right *for their marriage*. Good for them. Pence's boss, obviously, has followed a very different set of guidelines.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

"What if 'the voice of God' is not a voice at all, but rather vast, serene, loving, present silence?"
--Carl McColman