Friday, April 10, 2015

How to read the Bible

John Dominic Crossan came up to my little corner of the world this week. He is a highly respected theologian, and for good reason. He is also quite entertaining and his presentation is enhanced by his diminutive stature and Irish accent. And the lecture was free. If you ever have an opportunity like that, take it. He is a founding member of something called the Jesus Seminar, a primary source of material for liberal Christians.

In this instance, he was selling his new book, “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian”. This interested me because reading the Bible is exactly what made me an atheist. Also, reading one of his earlier books got me into the church for 17 years. That was “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time”. In both of these books, he lays out the contradictions of the New Testament and speaks to why they are there. In this recent lecture, he goes further than I've ever heard him go before into problems with the Vatican now and how the message of Jesus was corrupted and altered from the very beginning.

The core of his message is that Jesus and his early followers were non-violent protesters who sought peace through the means of justice. The parallel system at the time, being attempted by the Romans, was peace through victory, using violence. Crossan begins the lecture with some ancient Roman writings speaking of Caesar using much the same language as that used for Jesus, as in “Son of God”, stuff like that. The question for us today is to look at both of those writings and choose which is the better path.

I'm with him to a point with this, but when he says “choose”, he is saying to choose who's claim about being God is true. In this lecture at least, he didn't consider the option that both are wrong. He was more than willing to show evidence that humans changed the words and intentions of Jesus, and not 1,500 years later when Martin Luther said we should read the Bible as the word of God, but immediately, in the book of Matthew. It's blatant cherry picking, but he has so much scholarly knowledge about who did the twisting, how the parables compare, the translation of the words, the dates the redacting occurred, the political reason for the redacting, and on and on, that anyone who would dare attempt to argue with him would be drowned out by such detail.

After the talk, he took questions. I asked about the “still believing” part, because it didn't seem that he really covered that. He said it was a choice, it was a commitment and said it several more times using slightly different words. I felt that the length of his reply showed he knew his answer was lacking in some way. He also relied heavily on his analysis of human culture since the Neolithic period.

He claims that for the last 10,000 years, people have grown steadily more violent. The symbolism of the farmer Cain killing the herder Abel and then building the first city is also significant to this narrative, but how that kind of life is somehow less peaceful than the hunter-gatherer life is not clear. Anyway, he asks us to look at this increased violence, then look at the non-violent Jesus movement and choose what we are committed to. Why I can't choose non-violent Buddhism, I don't know. Why I can't choose the non-violent protests of Occupy Wall Street and choose no god and no church, I don't know.

This is typical for a modern Christian theologians. They can talk all day about flood stories coming from Mesopotamia and how the early Israelites had to incorporate that story and add a rainbow at the end. They are more than happy to find that a letter from Paul they don't like was not written by the same Paul that appears earlier in the New Testament. They won't bother much with how God and man were one in Jesus, and instead focus on the message. And when they're done, they say, "oh yeah, and God's real". I don't understand how he hangs on to that. One of his fellow members of the Jesus Seminar, Robert Price, could not. So we can see two people, equal in scholarly knowledge making different choices.

To me what it came down to is he was asking me to choose between my faith in my fellow humans or faith in the story of a failed non-violent protest that occurred 2,000 years ago. And somehow God fits in there too. What I really meant to be asking was, why does he think the movement failed? Clearly he believes the message of the original stories were severely corrupted. He can no doubt go into great detail about how that corruption happened and the forces at play that ended with Jesus on the cross. And he can see the beauty in living up to the call for non-violence to the point of accepting the verdict and paying the ultimate price. None of that helps me believe anything divine was at work during any of this, no matter what form it actually took back then.

I don't fault him for bringing a new and modern message to Christians who have been handed a corrupted message for generations. A message that has increased in the level of corruption in the last 100 years as it has tried to deal with modern science and philosophy. People who can show a lifetime of commitment to the gospels and a deep love for the tradition can reach far more listeners than I can. But as long as they continue to say that despite all the historical knowledge, they still believe in something that can't be documented, something magical that we are somehow missing today, then they are part of the problem. It's why the movement failed then and why we still have problems discussing religion today.

This lecture, though disappointing, serves as a bookend to my journey of the last 20 years. He said he came to Duluth exactly 20 years ago, and I'm pretty sure that would have been when I first saw him speak at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities. At that time, things were much worse in Ireland, and he drew parallels of the evil empire of Rome and the occupying force of Britain. He didn't use the words himself, but one of the people who asked a question afterward said, “so, if I'm hearing you right, we are the Romans”. John Dominic smiled and bounced up on his toes like a leprechaun and said, “mmm, hmm”.

It is a message we need to get. Christians today aren't the oppressed minority crying out in the wilderness. They certainly have nothing in common with the slaves in Egypt. They often talk like they are, all the while filling their mega-church parking lots with gas guzzling cars that have enough food tucked in their seat cushions to make an actual oppressed minority in the wilderness salivate. But what Crossan is telling them, actually more like hoping they will get it, is they are the ones who are enforcing a peace through violence. Rome co-opted their little community of house churches a long time ago and put the Christian God in charge of anointing Kings and blessing armies. They kept the part about peace, but managed to twist the part about how it is best achieved. They sold them on the lie that they would do just a little bit of violence, in God's name, then it would be better.

Crossan brings a great message, and one I'm all for. If we don't get it, we are doomed to repeat the history of Rome. But I don't think that message will ever be fully transmitted until you say all of the message comes from people. As long as you hold out that somewhere in there is a force that can only be found through faith, you'll never untangle human corruption from the message of love. The problem is, it's all corruption. We all want to love everybody, but as soon as we start thinking about how we're going to do that, we start compromising. As soon as we start compromising, we start feeling guilty. After that, each of takes off in a different direction trying to deal with those feelings, whether it be by eating chocolate, doing yoga or having a string of meaningless relationships.

For some, the way to deal with it is to confess those personal faults once a week and get together with others and sing familiar songs. And there's nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with people who love you despite your shortcomings, with finding people who can listen to your troubles, who can watch you fail and still support you and still believe in you. Religion does not have the corner on the market for that type of community. It also helps to have people around you who will challenge you, who won't let you sink into a pit of despair no matter how many times you've screwed up. That's something a good church leader does. It's also something any good leader does.

Crossan doesn't deal with why the movement failed because he doesn't want to see it as a failure. He says he sees a heartbeat in the Bible, of a coming together as a community, then being corrupted by power and falling apart, over and over. Well, of course he does, because that's been happening since before recorded history. The Bible chronicles some of the times that happened to certain people who carried a tradition with them through success and failure, even through exile and slavery. It's pretty cool. That doesn't inform us at all about their god actually existing.

There may have been times when bonding over their belief in that god helped them. Since before Jesus, there has been plenty of disagreement about that god. It really just got worse after the first century. When Christianity combined with Rome and became the sole purveyor of power in Europe, I can see why some who didn't believe in that power clung to it anyway. They wanted to eat and live near what they called home. Increasingly today, there are fewer excuses for continuing to choose to cling those beliefs.

As I often say at the end of my blogs, all we have is each other. This isn't an exact quote, but John Dominic Crossan basically agreed with me during this talk when he said church isn't a place, it's wherever we gather. Of course he would say that once we get together God appears.  Sorry Dom, that's creating disagreement where none is necessary.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Why the religion debate must be settled

The reason we have a battle going on today between fundamentalists and mainstream religion, is the question of who God is was never settled. This is true in most religions, but it is most obvious in Christianity. Fundamentalists have taken advantage of ignorance to win the debate for the last 1,700 years. The consequences of them winning again are much bigger than they have ever been.

We know the name St. Augustine because he defeated his adversary in debate and gained the favors of the Roman Empire and they proceeded to destroy anyone who disagreed with their theology. They burned their writings, their churches and sometimes the people.

We know the name Martin Luther and we have Lutheran churches because he supported the edicts written a thousand years before him that said we are born sinners and must pay the church to get us into heaven. Today, we know the names Rick Warren, Billy Graham and Ted Cruz.

Augustine and Luther had the advantage of a mostly illiterate populous. Today’s leaders don’t unless we deliberately look away. Augustine and Luther could say they understood the will of God. We can figure that out for ourselves. Augustine and Luther had armies to promote their philosophies. We absolutely cannot allow that to happen this time.

The reason we don’t know as much about the losers of these debates, is, they lost. The winners picked the books that went into the Bible and translated it. For a long time they read it to us like children. Once the dust settled of the fall of the Roman Empire, the story changed from being an argument to a story of how the church fathers had friendly theological discussions and reconciled the differences between Peter and Paul and figured out what Jesus really meant when he first told his disciples to gather swords then later to put them away.

What’s funny is, most people today are much closer to being Pelagianist than they are to being Augustianist. Most people would agree with the writings of Erasmus over Luther, even though beyond the Erasmus B. Dragon joke, they aren’t familiar with the name. The problem is, when you try to read these things, you find their reasons for believing man does or does not have the will to choose a good action over an evil one is rooted in something Adam did or something King David said or how God entered the world through Jesus or all sorts of theological rhetoric.

It’s not too hard to find discussions of Augustine vs Pelagius that are written from the fundamentalist Lutheran or Evangelical point of view. They often end like this one, saying,

Eventually the Council of Carthage (417) condemned Pelagianism. Sadly, this was not the end of it. A concept of semi-Pelagianism surfaced and was addressed in the Synod of Arles (around 473) and the Council of Orange in 529. On occasion, the ideas of the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians still surface today.
I think the reason you don’t find mainstream discussions of this is, that’s not how modern people think. Modern people don’t care about what two people in funny hats argued about 1,700 years ago. They don’t feel at all affected by a conversation between Eve and a snake. Erasmus and Ficino and Pico della Mirandola and other early Christian humanist writers referred to Jesus because that was the philosophy of the day. That was what you learned if you went to University.

Today, we have a wealth of philosophies to draw on. We (and I’m talking about people who live in free countries here) have the ability to evaluate many religions as well as secular philosophies and not lose our jobs or get our heads removed. We don’t do what Augustine did and simply look at babies who fight over food and decide original sin is real, we notice how they aren’t prejudice until we teach them, we ask them to solve problems of unfairness and see that they do it by sharing, we also look to nature and see caring and cooperation in our animal cousins. Love is everywhere and it is good, we’ve figured that out.

Most modern people who go to church don’t want to engage in theological debate because they don’t see a position there worth defending. And they are right. Unfortunately, that gets misunderstood to mean that Pelagius and Erasmus were wrong to say that human dignity is more important than practicing a certain ritual a certain way. The idea of loving your enemy was profoundly expressed by a community in the first century. Erasmus said God gave them the will to choose to do that but ultimately it is human nature to do good. Augustine said they had no choice, it was grace. Why they thought that doesn’t really matter. We have much better reasons today for putting the needs of a single mother above the need to have a consistent doctrine that connects our desire to care to the words of an author from a dead language.

Liberals lose debates with fundamentalists because they don’t play the fundamentalist's game. Both sides walk away feeling they’ve made good points because neither side is listening. Large churches have to accommodate both, or they won’t be large churches. That’s why I say, if you go to church this Easter, and you don’t agree with everything the preacher says, don’t put money in the basket. We treat every other speaker in the world like that. If we don’t like them, we don’t buy their books or pay to hear them speak. Why do we give churches a pass? If you feel that there is something wrong with what your church is doing, speak up. If you don’t, this civilization will go the way of Rome and the way of the European feudal system.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Meeting half way

When I started this blog I wasn't sure what I was looking for, then it became a search for how the philosophy of science began. Lately I have been asking the question about how or even if religion was reformed. What we call the reformation occurred alongside the beginnings of what we call science. It is almost impossible to disentangle the two. On March 24th I went down to Minneapolis to meet Tony Jones and listen to him talk about his new book on the history of how the resurrection has been interpreted. Two days later I went to a lecture on "The True Meaning of Humanism". Tony has been very responsive to my incessant questions, but Randall Poole, the lecturer of that talk, gave me answers without my needing to even ask. He's a professor at a local Catholic college. I wish I'd known about him 10 years ago.

His talk followed a similar arc of history as mine from last November. Although he is coming from a believer's theological point of view, he agreed completely with my theme that the religion practiced today by the fundamentalists is very much like the religion of Augustine in the 4th century and the politics of those two eras also have parallels. Over half way through his talk I was starting to wonder how he was going to get out of it without renouncing his faith. Our themes departed in the Enlightenment era.

He teaches at the College of St. Scholastica and, according to him, it was that saint along with St. Benedict that developed a humanists theology in the early centuries of Christianity. Their teachings survived the brutal, anti-humanist centuries of Roman Catholic rule and began to emerge again in the 13th century.

He mentioned Kant and Locke but did not give them anywhere near the credit I did. In Locke especially, I find concepts and nearly exact phrases that are passed into the Constitutions of the 18th century democracies. I do not find these words or concepts in the Bible. Poole finds human dignity and hope in the words of the humanist Christian writers. That may be true, but I do not see a strong connection to Christ when they write on humanism.

In my talk, I mentioned the myths surrounding Constantine, everything from how he invented Easter to "corporate religion" to writing the entire New Testament. The break from the more egalitarian, inclusive culture of the early Christians to the Church supported by the Roman army actually occurred over centuries. It can be seen in the subtle debates between Peter and Paul and more clearly in the gospel of John. It continued with Marcion and the Arians. Poole points to the debate between Augustine and Pelagius as a pivotal moment.

The problem with all of this is rarely do we progress to higher forms of human dignity via a debate among intellectuals. When Martin Luther King Jr met with President Johnson, they didn't debate civil rights, they debated the timing and political expediency of enacting civil rights legislation. Abraham Lincoln didn't come up with the idea of freeing the slaves, he just knew it was an idea who's time had come. The United States and the French Revolutions weren't invented on paper in a University and then implemented by some sort of international coalition. They were messy affairs involving corrupt people taking advantage of the idealists and the frustrations of a mass of people who were tired of being oppressed by monarchies.

You can see this clearly in the results. The United States, a country founded on freedom, started with classes of people defined by their sex and the color of their skin being denied the right to vote. Many other human dignities were also denied to them that didn't need to be explicitly stated in the Constitution. The difference though, is those founders knew they lived in a changing world. Change was not something invented in the 18th century, although the pace may vary, it is always part of the human experience. They simply recognized the futility of making proclamations that would stand until the end of time. They created a system that has increasingly included more of the marginalized and the disenfranchised with each succeeding generation.

Because of these new ideas, instead of living with the results of power struggles between elites, we actually have a say in how power is distributed. We expect leaders to not only win a debate, but to provide the evidence of how they arrived at their conclusions. We have learned how to study our world so we can better understand ourselves. We can determine what makes it better. We can find and correct wrongs with our systems without needing to go to war or depose a dictator.

Before I go too far down that road, I'd like to finish this installment with an attempt to meet Randall half way. As he said in his talk, in response to an excellent question about inclusivity from a student, he believes he has come more than half way. I see no reason to argue about where "half way" is and plenty of reason to acknowledge that Randall has come further than anyone I know, without leaving his religion.

For my part, I will give him that something extraordinary took place in the first century. Whether it was a single man or a loose collection of authors, a story was created that has endured. In the midst of brutal oppression, it is a story of peace. It's a story of loving your enemies and finding your own power, your own humanity. I mentioned Tony Jones' new book. At his book signing, he read from the conclusion,
What the ruling powers meant for the unclean, Jesus made clean. They threw Jesus over the boundary of socio-moral disgust meaning to silence him, but instead Jesus pulled everyone over the line with him redeeming the previously untouchable, revealing that we're all 'unclean' and tearing down the wall that religion had erected.

There is no question that powerful symbolism is in the gospels. But that's as far as I can go. There is a lot of symbolism that is not mentioned by liberal theologians, like blood sacrifices and apocalyptic visions. One version of religion may have been torn into but as with most overthrows, the power structures remain and it is only new faces occupying them. Leaderless, Utopian communities don't last because it's hard to find people to clean the streets and maintain the plumbing. 

If we're all 'unclean', then no one can be King and no immutable book of law can be maintained. Administrators of justice have to be answerable to everyone else and new knowledge has to be constantly incorporated. Democracy, with all its problems is the best version of that we've come up with so far. Religion never came close to suggesting it as an alternative. 

Randall said early in his talk that we should judge any religion on its humanistic values. He then did an excellent job of judging many Christian leaders throughout history, declaring many of them anti-humanist. He gave me the names of many Christians who were early humanists and influenced others. Eventually they influenced the liberal philosophers and then the modern politicians, leaders of civil rights, women's rights, gay rights and religious reform. 

I look forward to learning more about these early leaders. One reason we know about them is they maintained their belief in the official religion of the state. Those who did not, were not published. There was no such thing as self publishing. There were such things as lists of books that were anathema to the Church. It is no coincidence that things changed rapidly when writing could be copied quickly and cheaply using a printing press. 

I'm sure Randall is aware of all of this and would be able to respond. The talk was recorded and should be available soon. I'll return to it then. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Spring Grove Strawberry Soda

I don't remember where I found this one, but it's from Minnesota, so maybe Menard's. It has that candy strawberry flavor, like one of those strawberry shaped candies with the gooey inside. It has plenty of good cane sugar and red dye #40. It was just on the edge of too much syrup, but still refreshing for a hot day. Check it out at

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Human Flourshing

When I was seeking instead of avoiding a spiritual community 20 years ago I believed there was some value to scripture and to calling for some other worldly powers. I read Michael Lerner’s The Politics of Meaning, a book by a rabbi that applied some very traditional values from Judaism to modern problems in a very politically liberal fashion. I still like that book, but it was the high point of my searching. Every other modern scriptural interpretation has been a dead end that looked a lot like fundamentalism.

John Shelby Spong, Dominic Crossan, C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantiga, Tony Jones, Nadia Bolz Weber, Jonathan Sacks, Phyllis Tickle and pastors at churches that I attended, all have failed rather spectacularly. They may do great things, but their reasons make no sense. Their connection from what they say are decent values to the precepts of Christianity are tangential at best. I’ve never really stopped looking, and I occasionally find someone making a bold statement about non-belief in miracles or the possible non-existence of Moses or that writings of Paul were forged, but never a coherent, positive use of scripture and the stories of the Bible that inspires anything that couldn’t be arrived at easier and better using rational, natural means.

There are some former pastors, like Dan Barker, who can describe how they built community and counseled people in need, but they are former pastors because they got tired of making excuses for parts of the Bible they knew were not true, or worse, promoted bad behavior. Ryan Bell is a recent addition to that list. After being fired from his ministry work for “theological differences”, he took a year to decide if belief in God was right for him. It wasn’t. He recently tried to explain where he is at today by using the term “human flourishing”.

In a recent discussion with Michael Shermer about Michael’s book The Moral Arc, Ryan brought up how Miroslav Volf used this term. I did a little research. Volf seems like a nice guy. He is respected, he went to Fuller Seminary, his published works are highly regarded. I found this essay and that’s where I’ll probably stop. This is how it usually goes. Someone gives you a few words that sound nice, but when you look at their source, the whole story, it’s no different than a tent revival with Billy Graham.

I’ll give Volf some credit for pointing to some flaws in Christianity and religion in general, but those credits have no value when he solves the problems by telling us we must believe in Jesus. This is typical of liberal Christian teachings and sermons. They start out with an analysis of the outdated system and how it doesn’t work for us anymore. We know that, that’s why we’re listening to the new guy. Then it says something about modern philosophy or The Enlightenment and how it reacted to the old system, and makes the case that it failed too.

At this point a transitional theologian like Spinoza or Maimonides might be brought in to sharpen the comparison to Hume or Freud. And the magic moment, back to a common quote from Jesus or some wisdom from the 4th century. Volf wraps up his essay by telling us we must relate God to current ethical issues, make him plausible by showing he is good for us, and we must believe God is fundamental to human flourishing. I’ll go into more of the detail, but once you’ve heard that, do you need to know any more? He’s shown the problems with belief in God, then offered the solution of really, really believing in God.

He starts out talking about hope. He says hope is expecting something good that doesn’t come along every day. For Christians, hope comes from “outside”, not just an extrapolation of what could be based on what we have seen. It is the gift of God’s love. Then he asks, how this is related to human flourishing.

To answer that, he needs to look at the contemporary Western view of human flourishing. He says this is mostly about satisfaction. In the West, this is more strongly pronounced as “feeling happy” in the moment rather than a more stoic sense of having done well in the long run. Volf contrasts this with Augustine who said “human beings flourish and are truly happy when they center their lives on God, the source of everything that is true, good and beautiful.” Augustine says it’s okay to want things, but only if you want “nothing wrongly”. That is, want it in accordance with the Creator.

Well, okay, that was 360 AD or so. That’s how they talked then. Let’s see what happens when he starts applying this to modern times.

Skipping quickly over 1,500 years of history, Volf talks of the “anthropocentric shift” from God to humanism that doesn’t reference higher powers. The moral obligations were retained. Tribalism was transcended, at least in theory. And skipping to the 20th century Volf finds flourishing defined increasingly in terms of the self. He sums up this movement from love of God and neighbor to universal beneficence to experiential satisfaction paralleling it to the diminishing of hope, saying, if hope is love stretching itself into the future of the beloved object, when love shrinks to self-interest, and self-interest devolves into the experience of satisfaction, hope disappears as well.

That’s kinda beautiful. I can get that, because I have some sense of what hope and love are. He’s right, if we center our love only on ourselves, where is our hope? We can hope for a better car, but that’s not very satisfying.

Volf quotes Andrew Delbanco when he talks of what happens when we decouple pleasure from the love of God or hope for a common future. In Delbanco’s words, we are left “with no way of organizing desire into a structure of meaning.” We are “meaning-making animals” says Volf, so this must leave us unsatisfied.

We are only at the beginning of p. 10 of a 24 page essay, and he’s already lost me. I followed the historical movement from God to self, but he never offers anything about meaning coming from anything except God. He left a glimmer of that in the 18th century with a sense of community, but it’s gone as far as he is concerned by the 1960’s. Can he build a way out of this abyss? Let’s see.

He states this with no debate, “The most robust alternative visions of human flourishing are embodied in the great faith traditions.” Although in a moment of honesty, or maybe comic relief, he says, “True, you cannot always tell that from the way faiths are practiced. When surveying their history, it seems on occasion as if their goal were simply to dispatch people out of this world and into the next.” But he sees no alternative, he must look to thinkers from those great faith traditions.

He quotes Al-Ghazali and Maimonides, two major players, one from Islam, one from Judaism. He talks of how these traditions taught that we must know where we fit in with the ultimate reality. I don’t argue with that as a pursuit, even though many people get by perfectly well without even understanding what the equinox is or where babies come from. For these great religious thinkers, there is no escaping God. When quoting Maimonides, to have knowledge, is to know God, perfection consists “in the acquisition of the rational virtues—I refer to the conception of intelligibles, which teach true opinions concerning divine things.” So, knowledge leads to God.

Volf gives a little ground to non-theological intellectuals of the past, but immediately laments that an education formerly included a pursuit of life’s meaning. I think Volf misses that education today is specialized and we can’t acquire the breadth of knowledge that people used to have because there is so much more knowledge to be known. Where it was once normal to understand all that was known about literature, the cosmos and math, by sheer volume, that is no longer possible.

Also, this idea, that we can find our place in the universe by understanding it is an idea that didn’t die because we became more concerned with personal satisfaction, it died because we found out the universe is 13.7 billion years old and much larger than anyone could have imagined. What Volf fails to mention is that we also found out that the particles that were cooked in the first generation of stars are now part of us. We never found the connection he is looking for, but he ignores the one we did find.

The problem is not that science ruined the quest for a connection to the universe by finding we are just a little planet on the edge of just one of many galaxies, the problem was always with the looking for that connection out there. That connection is right here in the faces of people we care about. I make that connection, as Frank Schaeffer puts it, by getting my wife a cup of tea and then going on to the next mundane, simple act of kindness.

Volf only mentions Darwin in terms of the negative influence of the “survival of the fittest”. But Darwin wrote extensively of cooperation in Origin of the Species. In Darwin we find an explanation for how we climbed down from the trees and worked together so intelligence and skill could survive against larger and stronger predators. We found we could look to nature to learn where we came from. Nature wasn’t a frightening and brutish place that we were separated from after all, it was where we belonged. It wasn’t given to us by God, we evolved with it and we are here now because our ancestors had the traits that matched their ever evolving environment. One of those traits was hope for the future. Volf is right, hope is love extended beyond the horizon. Each of us was loved by many people long before we were born. If you care enough to leave this planet in better shape than you found it, then you are part of that chain.

Volf doesn’t mention anything like that. He does give a nod to secular versions of philosophers trying to find a fit for humans within the larger reality we find ourselves. He does this to compare these secular visions to the religious tradition of seeking where we fit in reality. He doesn’t use the word “utilitarian”, but he alludes to the more utilitarian forms of morality that were discussed in the years of the enlightenment, and I have no problem pointing out the problems with that. You can’t simply add up the happiness in a society to decide what is right. If you do that, you miss Martin Luther King Jr’s words that if there is injustice anywhere it is a threat to justice everywhere. But unlike Volf, I don’t have to justify the words of 17th century philosophers like John Locke or anyone from an earlier century. I can evaluate their words and provide reasons for discarding them or building upon them based on everything known today.

Volf instead covers Seneca’s “Cosmic Reason” and Nietzsche’s “higher humans”. Then he returns to his theme about the modern sense of how we fit into culture, saying, “Satisfaction is a form of experience, and experiences are generally deemed to be matters of individual preference.” I don’t think that’s true for everyone but here Volf goes somewhere I didn’t expect. He applies this to his fellow believers.

Even religious people can use their religious experience for personal satisfaction! Not surprising to me, but surprising to hear it from a theologian. By doing this, he says, they transform the “Creator and Master of the Universe” to “Divine Butler” and “Cosmic Therapist”. Volf now brings in the much more liberal Terry Eagleton, who blames this malfunction of religion on the “post-Nietzschean spirit” of the culture. Neither of them ever consider that the religious narrative has failed and can never again provide the type of transcendent experience it once did to those who had no idea what was above the clouds. He just keeps blaming some general decline of culture, and post-modern relativism caused by all these philosophers.

But again, he makes a statement that I completely agree with, “It is a mistake—a major mistake—not to worry about how well our notion of flourishing fits the nature of reality. If we live against the grain of reality, we cannot experience lasting satisfaction, let alone be able to live fulfilled lives.” This is in perfect agreement with The Amazing James Randi, who says, “wouldn’t you rather live in the real world?” Then Volf immediately returns to looking to religion for the solution, to find this “grain of reality”. It seems to never to occur to him that we now know how what we buy in the grocery store affects the farmer in Ethiopia. We know so much more about this “grain of reality” than any time in history. What is sad is he has the resources to meet a farmer from Ethiopia who sees these connections much clearer than I.

This is classic liberal sermon stuff right here. First, talk about the religion of your grandparents and say that’s not the right way. Then throw in some philosophers and show how they failed. Then bring in modern theologian/philosophers and start working your way back to a new way. At this point, I used to be on the edge of my seat, thinking all my time wasted singing hymns and washing dishes for the fundraisers was about to pay off. But as we’ll see, in the end, you walk off wondering if you’ve missed something. At least I did. I was a slow learner. Eventually I figured out there’s nothing there to be missed. What I was missing was the poetry of the cosmos and the beauty of the cycles of nature. And more important that there was a system for discovering the truth about that nature, things that my ministers weren’t integrating into our spiritual education.

Next Volf again tells us something we shouldn’t do, another malfunction of religion. We shouldn’t start with our preferred account of human flourishing and then construct an image of God to go with it, as if we are measuring ourselves for a pair of slacks. Volf knows that this is what Nietzsche says Christianity already did. He disagrees with Nietzsche who said they started out with perverse values and built a structure that supported them, but he agrees that even if you begin with decent, healthy values, it is still the wrong approach to God. He says “[this] divests faith of its own integrity and makes it simply an instrument of our own interests and purposes.”

Of course it does. That’s what people see churches doing and that’s why they are leaving. These are words Richard Dawkins could have said.

This is the point in any modern liberal theology that completely baffles me. He has so thoroughly and eloquently analyzed two major problems with religion. And he’s done it with minimal shaming of anyone in the present. He’s shown how we got here and how the invention of these traditions was a natural process driven by historical dynamics. But his very next sentence, on page 20, is the one where my heart sank. He says, “Let’s return once more to Augustine”. Let’s roll back 1,700 years of progress.


To Augustine, God is not impersonal, it is loving. And to be human is to chose to love. To live well we love both God and neighbor, aligning ourselves with God. That’s how we flourish. He applies these ideas back to the earlier mentioned philosophies and shows how they just can’t work without God. That “tranquil self-sufficiency” of the Stoics or Nietzsche “noble morality” just won’t cut it. He even throws in Augustine’s comment on Epicurus, instead of “Let us eat and drink”, it should be “Let us give and pray.”

I should at this point offer some alternative. The language of morality and flourishing is difficult, and it’s unfair and too easy to simply bash the weaknesses of theology. I’ll give Volf and Jesus some credit for including “the least of these” in their philosophy. Most moral theories don’t talk much about the value of charity and the long term satisfaction of a life of sacrifice. If Christians actually embodied those notions and spent more time doing them rather than conquering land in the name of Christ or torturing those who wouldn’t profess his name, maybe the whole endeavor would have worked out for them.

And I know Christians hate it when we mention the worst aspects as if they are the norm. But when were they at their best? From the 5th to the 14th century they ruled Europe. What advances in democracy happened in those years? Science advanced for a while not in Christian Central Europe but in Baghdad and Muslim Spain because a few Caliphates listened to the few lines in the Koran that talked about acquiring knowledge. What great Christian literature came out of that time? When Erasmus wrote what are considered the earliest humanist writings, he wasn’t praised, he was suppressed. When Jan Hus tried to take it further, he was burned at the stake. When Galileo tried to teach what he observed, he was given a tour of the dungeon in the Vatican. So, why was there a dungeon in the Vatican? Sorry, it’s hard to get any distance from those worst aspects.

And how did we come out of those dark ages? We created nations that had religious freedoms instead of Kingdoms anointed by Popes. We created constitutions with words that can be directly traced to enlightenment philosophers and just barely mention a deist type of creator. We abolished slavery, which is too much to cover here, but there were and still are religious arguments for both sides of that issue. We created systems where you have a right to say that you have a special friend who is telling you something is true, but I have the right to say I think something else is true.

Those are the alternatives I have to offer. Words like “right” and “love” are the highest words we have. Poets have tried to help us express these words forever. You kinda just have to get them when you're young, not just understand them but let them become part of you. If you don’t, you just don’t quite fit. We have enough trouble trying to figure out what is right for a few dozen people in a room, figuring out a caring system for 7 billion is going to involve some arguments. So the question is not “what is the answer”, the question is “how do we deal with the questions”?

I think we can start with simple principles, like don’t step on my toe. If you are on my toe, you need to get off. There is no cultural reason for you to remain on my toe. If you have a toe stepping obsession, you need to work that out, and you need to get off of my toe. From there, we can build to determining which chemicals should be used where and how much, or who gets a bigger slice of the pie and why.

Volf instead, returns to the prophetic tradition, the fundamental movement of ascent to God to receive a message and the return to the world to bring the message to this mundane reality. He offers 3 aspects: 1, We must relate God to current ethical issues. 2, Make God plausible, by showing he is good for us. And 3, Believe God is fundamental to flourishing. And he puts that in italics, you have to “really mean” that God is our hope. That’s it.

This closing message, after all the history and philosophy and admitting the failures, is the same message of Jerry Falwell, Rick Warren, Torquemada, and Oprah Winfrey. It’s your worst High School coach. I know part of any difficult task is to have faith but at some point you have to say, coach, maybe we need a strategy, maybe we should have practiced more instead of listening to that Knute Rockne speech over and over. But if you say that, you become the problem, you’ve shown your lack of faith, so you are now the cause. So you just play along.

Even his first two suggestions seem so transparent, they are about the outward appearance, not the underlying structure that makes a system work. He says to apply this belief in God to current issues. But the Bible is not even a good source for ending slavery, let alone determining what we should do about anthropogenic climate change. I can easily use the Bible to make a case FOR laws against homosexuality. I wouldn’t do that by the way, I’m just saying it’s easy. Making the case for something like living with our Islamic neighbors, that’s not so easy.

When discussing the idea of making it plausible that the love of God is key to human flourishing, Volf shows a strong awareness of non-believer arguments. We non-believers have “railed against God’s nature”, which means “against theistic accounts of how humans ought to live”. He notes that we don’t believe God is good for us. He could be talking about a strident atheist, or someone just complaining about Sunday’s sermon. He notes that this idea that God is good is contested, but says it’s because Christians haven’t done a good enough job of showing God’s goodness. But isn’t that what every organization or philosophy tries to do? To produce results? That’s how you grow an idea, if it appears to be working, people will notice, then some will look into how you’re doing it and you build the next generation of leaders.

What Volf doesn’t address is the 99% of people in human history who were told God made them serfs and servants and soldiers and that’s just the way it is. That’s not a system that can survive outside pressure. It’s not a system that can progress. Of course people have contested these ideas. Through most of history they just had no power to do anything about it. Now that we have that power (and mean everyone, believers and non-believers), people like Volf are struggling to find other ways to get it back.

Volf never suggests that modern systems of listening to voices that traditionally were marginalized have anything to do with how the world is today. He never says that teaching more people math, reading, biology, history and ALL the philosophies has made the world more complicated but also has made it better. He never admits that we just don’t know how best to love our neighbor. We, like Christians since the earliest days, are still arguing about who exactly is our neighbor. He believes this one idea that has been tried a thousand times will finally work, if we just believe. He never considers we might be better off letting thousands of ideas be heard in the hopes that we find more ideas that have merit.

Other liberal theologians (or theologian types) I have written about:
Frank Schaeffer
Brian McClaren
Thich Nhat Hahn
John Shelby Spong
Terry Eagleton
The Shack (a book)
Nadia Bolz Weber
Mere Christianity
Greg Boyd
Tony Jones (mentioned often)
Karen Armstrong
Joseph Campbell

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bruce Cost Ginger Ale

I usually stay away from the crafted ginger ale. It's usually too much ginger. This is not Canada Dry type mixer. But when I saw this one at Cub Foods, I had to try it. Look at the picture, you'll see the unfiltered part at the bottom. You have to give it a light shake, then be careful when you open it. I thought it would be best to put it in a glass. The sweetness was just right and the ginger did not overpower. It was like a sugar glazed bite of ginger. Not sure why, but they put it in the ethnic food aisle.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Everyday Wisdom

This is probably ill advised, but 3 things crossed my path last month and I'm going to combine them into one blog post. I finished Cheryl Strayed's "Wild", the story of a woman who walked 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. I usually don't read books like that, but she grew up near here and I wanted to know about this friend of my friends. Throughout, she acknowledges the greatness of ordinary people she meets and ends with "It was my life - like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred." Then, I saw a great post by Krista Tippet at about a woman who was recently killed in Syria. A woman doing perfectly normal work who we now see as a hero. Then finally, Sam Harris talked for a brief 25 minutes and covered everything that needs to be covered about how we should listen to all the voices and not distort them.

Maybe I should let Cheryl tell her own story. Here she is at the end of the book, reflecting on the years since her hike and what the hike meant to her.

It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn't have to know. That is was enough to trust that what I'd done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn't need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life - like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.”

We know about Cheryl because she wrote a book and an already famous movie star bought the rights. Oh, and Oprah liked it. But at the time of her experience of the hike, she was just another one of us, struggling to find her way. Millions of people we won't know are doing that right now. We probably would not have never heard from Kayla Mueller if she had not been kidnapped then killed while volunteering in Syria. We would not have heard her words that are as profound as any saint or mystic. Words she wrote while imprisoned by terrorists.

I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”

Krista tells us more about her and also talks of the three Muslims that were killed by a man in Chapel Hill North Carolina, apparently after arguing over a parking space. These three also were destined to do great things. We may have never heard of them, but people in their communities most certainly would have. See Krista's post for more about them.

But instead of them doing their good works, the person we will eventually hear from is the killer. People are speculating now. They looked at the killers Facebook page and found many posts about atheist writers, and have suggested this was a hate crime. By extension, some journalists have sad those atheist writers have blood on their hands. So we are having that conversation instead. Instead of building the world we want, we are arguing about motivations for violence and trying to assign blame.

It is obvious that some instances of Muslim violence have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, and I would never dream of assigning blame to the religion of Islam for that behavior. …
What we've built over the past few centuries is a world where we can discuss our beliefs and our aspirations openly. We've built a world where normal everyday people can accomplish amazing things in their spare time. But enough people want to return to a 7th century world or 1st century world, that the rest of us have to deal with them. As Sam says,

...there’s nothing about doubting that the universe has a creator, that suggests that violence in certain circumstances is necessary or even acceptable. And all the people who are comparing these murders to Charlie Hebdo – or to ISIS, as insane as that sounds – are really trivializing a kind of violence that threatens to destabilize much of the world.

If you listen to the audio from Sam, he plays the sound of gunfire that came into a meeting in Denmark where people were simply discussing the Charlie Hebdo murders. A woman is speaking about peace and free speech, then several shots are fired, chairs and desks can be heard scuffling across the floor and something like a pipe falling. It's disturbing, and I'm not easily disturbed. It's probably because it is real and it is in the present. Sam follows that with, "is this the world we want?"

Earlier in the talk, he talks of the differences in the types of violence we are seeing today and how we must be able to distinguish them and to speak out against the types that are dangerous. "The thing that very few people seem able to distinguish, and the distinction that Greenwald and Aslan obfuscate at every opportunity, is the difference between criticizing ideas and their results in the world, and hating people as people because they belong to a certain group, or because they have a certain skin color, or because they came from a certain country. There is no connection between those two orientations. The latter is of course bigotry and I would condemn it as harshly as anyone would hope."

We need to be able to criticize bad ideas and to recognize people quietly doing great things and not be afraid that pointing out either of those will somehow upset someone or lead them to violence.

Cheryl ends her book with a vision of hope for everyone, Sam ends his talk with a call to reasonableness, and Krista ends her blog post with an invitation to challenge ourselves. I'll quote her here:

I will look at their faces, and read their words, and ponder the world they are asking me to help them make. I invite you to ponder with me. How can we — and I use this “we” lavishly and presumptuously, challenging myself as much as you — now be present and supportive of all the beautiful lives which have not been extinguished, as a way of honoring those we have lost and found at the same time?