Faith Thinking Aloud

Pause Before Heading into the Woods

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I haven’t given up on this series, “Relearning Christian Faith,” but the next step is difficult because I must navigate between two dangers while trying not to post something that discourages reading it. And the approaching holidays are taking time from writing.

What I’ll try to do is blaze a trail between the philosophical notions that have pushed God away from us by presenting God as absolutely all-everything and so perfect as to be above caring what we do (except, maybe, to condemn us) and the sentimental notions that have caricatured God as our good buddy in the sky or our slightly senile grandpa who smiles at everything and anything we do because we’re just so darn lovable.

On one side lies dense philosophical language that turns most people away (but still asserts more influence over Christian beliefs than we may realize). On the other lie the pretty flowers of Christian-ish slogans and sweet sentiments that offer superficial comfort without confronting the realities of our human sufferings, cruelties, injustices, prejudices, and anxieties. The problems superficial comfort fails to confront and address are not limited to guilt about (1) things I have done but should not have and (2) things I should have done but did not do. Shame (which makes me feel awful about myself, about who I am) and the anxiety about meaning and purpose must also be confronted with hope, but a hope that does not simply dismiss them or gloss over them with easy answers. Does anything really matter? Do my life or human life as a whole have any purpose and meaning? These anxieties need good news that is real and present to flesh and blood; they do not allow simple fixes however pious, and they cannot be answered sufficiently by slogans or encouraging memes.

I’m working on it.

Between a Rock Wall and a Bog

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On the right stands an impenetrable rock wall rising so high it disappears into the clouds. To the left, pretty flowers stick up, but from a soggy marsh. You cannot scale the rock cliff. You cannot walk among the pretty flowers without sinking into the bog. Between the two stands a dense wood with tangled underbrush. You cannot see through the woods, but there is no other way. A path must be cleared.

There is, for many, the God of stone, a rock wall that rises until it disappears above the clouds. This God condemns you for who you are, what you think, and for every failure you hide as well as those shameful failures that stick out in plain sight. There is on the other hand, the God of mush who cares not who you are or what you do but gushes gooey love all over you unconditionally. The Father Almighty or the Grandpa God who never stops smiling and patting you on the head. What a choice! To which could you turn in your time of deep trouble? Before which can you stand as you really are?

Here is the problem I now face in continuing this series of blog posts on relearning Christian faith. How do I clear a path between philosophical apathy (the rock wall that prevailed in Christian theology) and Christian sentimentality (the bog with pretty flowers that prevailed in the churches)? To one side stands the God of the divine attributes, the God who towers above everything human as the very apex of perfection – too perfect to move or be moved, to care about anyone, or to feel anything.

To picture this philosophically conceived God, imagine yourself standing precisely at the North Pole. Any step you take in any direction (backward or forward, to one side or the other) becomes a step southward. That’s the God of the attributes of perfection, the all-everything God who cannot change or even move without being diminished and being, then, no longer God. The God philosophically conceived stands precisely at the summit, the north pole of perfection, so that any deviation would be a step down that would destroy perfection utterly.

The Bible knows nothing of such a God. Not only the great prophets but the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) confronts us with the God who steps down deliberately and decisively for us, to meet us where we are. On the stage of civilization’s history, God enters as the humiliated God of slaves. Why do I say “humiliated”? The pharaoh of Egypt gives us the answer: “Who is Yahweh [rendered as “the LORD”], that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2 NRSV ). Merely to be the god of slaves is to be humiliated because, in the thinking of the ancients (but not only the ancients) the status of the god’s people reflected the power and prominence of the god. The god of slaves is a slave-god.

Throughout the Bible, before even getting to the Christian books we call the New Testament, God steps down again and again to be the God of Israel, to self-identify with the covenant people, to forgive the people who have soiled their God’s name, and to care (actually care!) about Israel’s response. The all-perfect, all-everything God of the philosophers does not and, indeed, cannot step down to meet us, cannot care where we are in life. That Perfect One cannot empathize with the plight of mere humans, cannot feel compassion, cannot feel anything. You might think you have never heard of this God, but you have. In coming blog posts, I’ll show you, and you might be surprised how well known to you “He” is.

This All-perfect One has influenced Christian thought far more than most Christians realize. The Council of Nicaea (4th Century) managed to hang on to the principle of Jesus Christ’s humanity, but just barely and not very effectively. The emphasis fell almost entirely upon the principle of Christ’s divinity, as required by prevailing philosophy and demanded by Emperor Constantine. Emperors do not rule under the principles of humility and compassion.

The people of the churches, the so-called “people in the pews,” countered with God’s love. They held on, clung, to God’s love that came into our world as an infant. But, at the same time, both God the Father and Jesus Christ (enthroned at God’s right hand and coming to judge the living and the dead) were moved further and further away from them, and so they looked for compassion to saints and the Virgin Mary as sympathetic figures who could understand the griefs and pains of human life and who would care enough to hear their cries and intercede for them.

In American Protestantism, we got “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” We got “Love conquers all” and “All you need is love.” We got a grandpa God who winked at misbehavior and far worse. “He’ll always say, ‘I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.’ He’ll always say, ‘I forgive’” (from the song, “He”).

I’m looking for ways to clear a path.

Words, Words, Words

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Language has a reciprocal relationship with world view, a back and forth influence upon the way we see and understand life, other people, the earth, and ourselves. Also the way we understand God. I’m not referring to nitpicking common flaws in grammar and usage but to the perceptions and attitudes we express with words and, by expressing them repeatedly, nurture until they become the way we see, think, and comprehend. As our children learn our language, they are learning also our ways of thinking, our prejudices, and our attitudes.

When we ask, “What is he worth?” expecting an answer in dollars, what are we saying about the person in question and about all human beings including ourselves? How did, “How much money do you think he has?” become synonymous with, “What is he worth?”

Now add the theological component, as people have been doing for thousands of years, accepting and fostering the belief that wealth is a blessing from God and, therefore, an outward sign (or even proof) of God’s favor. Jesus confronted and denounced the deeply entrenched notion that good health, riches, beauty, power, and prestige were all signs that their possessors enjoyed the approval and blessing of God. When he declared, “Blessed are you poor!” Jesus nullified for us the sacrosanct equations between benefit and blessing, between prestige and virtue, between success and merit. He brought God’s judgment upon the self-satisfied, the rich, the powerful, and the religiously superior.

To address the common objection, I must say further that “Blessed are you poor!” does not mean poverty itself is a blessing, let alone a virtue. Jesus is announcing the coming of the complete change he calls the kingdom or reign of God. Something new is coming, and its coming will be a blessing for the poor, the humble, the grief-stricken, and the oppressed because it will transform their lot in life. Smugly, people ask, “What’s so great or good about being poor?” “Nothing” is the correct answer, with one exception: the poor are more likely to be open to the change Jesus is announcing and to welcome it. The rich have too much to lose, too much stake in the way things are. Their wealth and power depend upon keeping in place the systems in society that make them richer and keep the poor folk poor.

My point is two-fold. First, it is that language and the whole complex of our attitudes, prejudices, cherished beliefs, assumptions, and values interact back and forth to intensify and fortify each other. Second, it is that theology can be and has frequently been conformed to the dominant view of life and truth in ways that make the prevailing systems seem ordained and sustained by God.

Here is a very brief account of how the transformation of the language of the followers of Jesus got started as the movement grew.

In biblical thought, to be “chosen” as in selected to be God’s people or called to be God’s prophet does not mean to be made elite; it means to be called out from among the many for the sake of the many because God loves the many. Israel was not chosen for Israel’s benefit only but for the benefit of all peoples. Jesus did not call people into discipleship so they could become the special ones in the know about God but, rather, to equip them to become apostles – people sent into the world to represent the good news (gospel) with which and for which Jesus equipped them. The churches do not exist to increase and enhance themselves but to represent the salvific love and mercy of God in and for the world and, at the same time, to represent the needs, hurts, disappointments, longings, sins, and loves of the world before God.

So, quite early in the development of the movement that started churches (communities of people who were responding to the good news), it became apparent that the gospel needed to reach out beyond Judaism. Paul of Tarsus, a Hellenistic Pharisee, became the great apostle to the Gentiles and labored tirelessly and valiantly to ensure that Gentiles did not first have to become Jews in order to become Christians. Changes have consequences, gains come with losses, and human prejudices run deep and flow into whatever new movement comes into being in this world. Those who were outsiders at first (the Gentiles, meaning all who were not Jewish) became the insiders as their numbers grew and as the Jews became enemies in the eyes of the Roman Empire. More and more, Christianity became a Gentile movement.

It is a long way from Jerusalem to Athens, not in miles, but in world views and so, also, in ways of speaking. This subject will require more than one blog post. For right now, I’ll just state the contrast as simply and directly as I can. In further posts, I’ll illustrate how that contrast works and so how the churches were led further and further from biblical thinking.

Biblical thought and language are relational. The thought and language of the Greco-Roman world were substantialist. That last word, substantialist, is troubling because we no longer think that way and do not even understand the word itself, but we retain much that has been derived from that thinking. So, please do not be turned away by the strange word. There is a further problem as well which has to do with the rise of scientific and technological thinking, but I’ll come to that problem later. For now, it is enough to hear that biblical thought differs significantly from our Western way of thinking, and it will helpful to recognize the difference. I believe it can bring our faith closer to the human heart and to both the sorrow and the joy of everyday human life.

Relearning Christian Faith, an introduction

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I took the subway down to the Village so I could walk all the way up Fifth Avenue to the zoo. It’s one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.
(Jerry in Edward Albee’s play, The Zoo Story)

For the churches of the United States, the times are changing. Indeed, the times have been changing since the mid 1960’s, but it can take a while for long-established institutions to acknowledge change. In Europe, Christendom has long been fading toward oblivion. Here in America no church may be officially, politically established as the state religion, but the traditional Protestant churches were culturally established to such an extent and the evangelical churches grew so much that many if not most Americans believed what was never officially or properly true – that America was a Christian nation. The realization that the vestiges of even cultural Christian establishment are withering here is slower in dawning but can be denied only through withdrawal into tighter and tighter Christian isolation from the rest of our society.

For its first three centuries of life, Christianity was a minority movement, without much of power or prestige. Then came Emperor Constantine followed by Emperor Theodosius (each called “the Great”) who transfigured a servant faith into an imperial religion. No longer was it dangerous to become known as a Christian; rather, it was beneficial for almost anyone and mandatory for men of ambition. Yes, men. Of course women became Christians too, along with their husbands or fathers, and soon everyone or nearly everyone was born and promptly baptized into Christianity (there were still those Jews and in southern Europe especially those Muslims as well). Whole nations became Christian because their kings did so, and from then on, their babies were born into the faith, whatever their parents and grandparents might still believe or what rituals they might continue to practice.

Much about the Christian faith changed with its establishment as the religion of the empire and then, as the Roman Empire crumbled, further established as the heart and political soul of a religious empire called Christendom – the kingdom of Christ on earth which was actually the realm and rule of the church as it sought to manage the power of kings and nobles. Nothing about Jesus of Nazareth fit the faith’s new imperial status. He was everything the Caesars were not, and they were everything he refused to be and warned his disciples never to become, not even (maybe especially not even) when the emperors were doing good. In the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus tells his disciples right after sharing with them the bread and wine of the supper reinterpreted in relation to his suffering which was to begin that night, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (Luke 22:25b-26, NRSV).

In the Greco-Roman world, the benefactor was the great man who enhanced his prestige by giving charity to the poor and common folk who were expected to be deeply grateful and laud him for his goodness. Jesus would have none of that philanthropic stuff. He announced a reign of God in which the first would be made last and the last made first, where the poor would be lifted up and the mighty cast down.

Here is not the place to attempt even a cursory overview of the changes brought about by Christianity’s establishment under Constantine and Theodosius and in the centuries of Christendom that followed. The question is, “Where are we now, and what path are we summoned to walk in faith, and what sort of faith can that be?” Now that Christianity is neither in charge nor well regarded by people outside the church (nor, perhaps, by many within the churches, either), what is our task? Surely, our task is what it has been all along: to be drawn into solidarity with Jesus the Christ and led by the Spirit in living Jesus’ own mission of representing God before the world and, at the same time, representing the world before God. But what does that mean here and now? How are we to stand with him and walk with him in representing God to the world and the world to God? How can we relearn our faith?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
(T. S. Eliot, from his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

As the churches of Jesus Christ and as believers born into Christianity or, especially in America, enraptured into it by religious conversion experience, we certainly have been fixed into formulated phrases. I believe it is high time to spit them out, let ourselves be unpinned from the wall, and relearn Christian faith. This faith we need to relearn is not a set of correct answers to properly stated questions (like a catechism); neither is it an intellectual exercise; it is something that lays claim to us, body, mind, will, purpose, and life. But this faith is not anti-intellectual, either. It was Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine to Catholics) who insisted that faith seeks understanding.

Jesus’ first followers were his students, which is pretty much what the word disciples means. From him, they were relearning life on new terms, and their relearning did not mean merely studying it but learning to live it and share it. They had plenty of questions and much with which to struggle.

God has not given up on the world, God’s deeply loved creation. God will not abandon the world now that the old orders of Christianity are fading. But to walk with Jesus Christ in representing God to that deeply loved but horribly conflicted and corrupted world, even while loving that world ourselves enough to represent it in all its messiness and turbulence before God, we must, I believe, be re-discipled. We must relearn Christian faith.

Invitation

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Today I am starting a new venture in my blog, and I have not yet mapped out its path. In retirement, I have plenty of time to think about my forty years in pastoral ministry, to look over the lessons I taught, especially in confirmation courses, and to re-read my old sermons (yes, I actually do some of that). I don’t believe I’m quite finished yet – finished, that is, with ministry in some form.

The immediate stimulus for this new blogging adventure has come from re-reading Douglas John Hall’s trilogy, Theology in a North American Context. Having finished volumes one and two, Thinking the Faith and Professing the Faith, and begun digging into volume three, Confessing the Faith, I feel the need to bring his teaching and my thinking together, then go forward with something I can press myself to wrestle with. Ever since Jacob, people and congregations have found themselves forced to wrestle with God, and retirement brings no exemption.

It would be wonderful to get responses, whether questions, comments, or objections. But whether or not responses come, I’m going ahead with this project, and I’ll see where it leads me.

I’ve written my first piece in this venture, and I’ll post it soon. Where I’ll go from there, I’ll discover as I walk (I don’t run often these days, especially since popping a calf muscle). I invite you, whoever you are, to walk with me for a while and see what turns up.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet,
And whither then? I cannot say.
(Frodo Baggins in J. R. R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings)

Forgive and Forget?

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“I can forgive, but I can’t forget.” I hear that declaration as a protest against easy forgiveness that waves away the offensiveness of the offense, suppresses the pain of the hurt, and covers the wound without disinfecting it. It’s such a nice little formula: forgive and forget. Does it not sound virtuous, even pious? In the background of my mind, I hear Jeremiah the prophet saying (for God) of the court prophets who served at and for the pleasure of the king, “They heal my people’s wound lightly, crying, ‘Peace, peace!’ where there is no peace.”

Normally, I would look at the bigger problem for people in general and Christians in particular: the shallow understanding of forgiveness. To forgive is not to excuse but to heal, not to deny but to affirm and confront, not to suppress but to expose and seek to mend. Forgiving is painful, and being forgiven hurts, too. Forgiveness heals damaged relationships, and when the relationship cannot be mended, it heals the wound of the injured person doing the forgiving. Too often and for too long, Christians have been asked to see forgiveness as a divine fudging of the records, a transaction the expunges guilt by divine authority. No, forgiveness is a special kind of healing, and when the injury goes deep, more than a religiously applied salve is needed.

Right now, however, I want to look at the second part of the formula, the advice or command to forget. This part continues to be troublesome even after the relationship has been restored well enough to be carried forward. What does it mean to forget? I cannot erase the memory from my brain. What happened did happen, and it hurt. How am I supposed to make myself forget it? Part of me might want to ask also, “Why should I?”

Here I find Hebraic thinking helpful. Language expresses ways of seeing and understanding. Hebraic thinking and speaking do not separate the intellectual from choices and actions. To hear is to respond in accordance with what has been said, not just to perceive sound. If I choose not to act, I have not heard. To know is to understand and care, not merely to comprehend intellectually. To remember is to act upon what is recalled to mind. My mind is a toolbox filled with memories, and which I select for use in a situation can make all the difference.

We retain aspects of this kind of thinking. If you say to me, “You didn’t remember my birthday,” it is not sufficient for me to reply, “Yes, I did, but I just didn’t get around to sending you a card.” When a wife says to her husband, “You didn’t hear what I just said,” the man is unwise to answer, “There’s nothing wrong with my hearing.”

When in the biblical book of Exodus, we read that God saw the sufferings of the Israelite slaves and God “knew,” we are not being told that God had finally perceived what was going on in Egypt, that the information about the slaves had made it through to God’s consciousness. We are hearing that God feels his people’s misery and has entered into their life of slavery. The message is about empathy not the logging of information.

When a psalmist calls upon God to remember God’s own steadfast love in the past and to recall the covenant promises God made to Israel, the plea is for God to choose those memories as the ones upon which to act in the present. I think the same kind of choice applies to forgiving and forgetting. What’s needed is not a memory lapse but a deliberate choice of which memories not to pull out of the toolbox for use.

Practicing anger will make me an angrier person. Practicing self-control will make me a calmer and more reasonable person. What I choose to practice actually changes me and my temperament one choice at a time. Likewise, I can choose what memories to activate for use, what experiences to relive in my mind, which wounds to reopen.

What is precious to me? What do I treasure? What memories do I store, feed, nurse, and keep ready for use to help or hurt, to respect or control the one or ones who gave me those memories? Which wounds do I, perhaps secretly, wish to keep festering? Do my treasured grudges keep me subconsciously gratified? Do I somewhat enjoy self-pity? Has being the one who was wronged become crucial to my identity, my self-understanding?

Like surgery or the cleaning out of a deep wound, forgiveness hurts in order to heal. As forgiveness heals the wound and, if possible, the relationship, forgetting is a repeated act, not of denial, but of refusal to keep reliving the pain so it feeds its poison into the present, refusal to keep the offense handy for use to hurt back or apply guilt to control the one supposedly forgiven. Neither forgiving nor forgetting is supposed to be easy or automatic, but the two are parts of one process of overcoming wrongs done to us.

Naming the Unnamed and Personalizing the Dehumanized

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The photos linked below show actors in a play at the governor’s palace in Williamsburg, Virginia. I requested and received from one of the actors verbal permission to post them online. He seemed slightly surprised by my request because, as I assumed, people post pictures and comments regularly, but it’s still right to ask. I mention that conversation because the man remarked that the actors realize the photos will be put online but don’t appreciate some of the comments posted with them.

After the royal governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, fled the palace as rebellion was surging among the colonists, something had to be done with his slaves. As the war effort required funding and as the slaves were considered valuable property, an auction was held to take care of the matter in a way that seemed most beneficial to the colonists. For the slaves, however, the auction was a grievous atrocity, tearing friend from friend and child from parent, likely not to be seen again. No doubt the children were terrified. One of the characters in the play is a mother who cannot and will not quiet her desperation despite the cautions of trouble her outbursts could bring upon her.

The play exposed the type of tensions that could arise among the enslaved in such a sudden turmoil. One of the men had run away with several others, but they were betrayed and caught because they kept waiting for the other man who had promised to go with them but never showed up. Confronted by his angry friend who had counted on him for courage and who had been whipped for running, he confesses that his fear overcame him. The distraught mother hurts the woman trying to calm and comfort her by reminding her friend that she has no children and so cannot understand the intensity of the distress at losing them. Seeing the hurt she has inflicted, the mother apologizes, but the tensions made the characters persons rather than mere types.

When I spoke after the presentation with one of the actors, he emphasized that each person had his or her own story of life in slavery. Being enslaved, to be sure, is depersonalizing and dehumanizing, and the presentation even showed how it dehumanized the white overseers who processed in almost opposite ways their responsibility for taking the enslaved women and men to auction. One struggled with compassion while the other rejected it as weakness of which the slaves would take advantage.

There was also tension between the comforting woman and the man who had been too afraid to meet his friend who had been running for freedom. He scorned all expressions of hope, such as the proffered assurance the mother would see her children again. The woman felt compelled to offer hope, no matter how slight or even baseless, on the grounds that people cannot live without it. In the end, the man seems also unable to face his future without hope but only shame at having abandoned his friend.

The production was powerful emotionally and intellectually. The audience was summoned to empathy, and the two white overseers displayed the option to feel it or protect against it. Some members of the audience were given cards bearing the known names of the slaves who were sold at auction that day, and we read them so the nameless would be named in Williamsburg. The paper given to me named Sukey Hamilton who was sold earlier when Lt. Governor Fauquier’s estate was settled after 1768. Her name had been found on an inventory (of property).

Photo album on Google Photos:  link

White Begonias and Grape Tomatoes

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That day as a sophomore, I was being quite sophomoric. The professor in our American literature class had made the statement that we see only from our own viewpoints. With a silent, smug, “Well, duh, yeah,” I wrote the words in my notebook: “We see only from our own viewpoints,” followed by the professor’s name. From whose viewpoint could I possibly see but mine?

I wonder how many times I have returned to that professor’s statement as I have grown less sophomoric and somewhat wiser sometimes. The trick, of course, is to become aware of the “just my own” in my viewpoint and so discern the limited, often myopic nature of that viewpoint which is just mine. In truth, I was already on my way even then as a college sophomore, in part thanks to a high school history teacher who had opened my eyes to the viewpoint-determined nature of historical facts. Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean (and named it Pacifico), right? Yup, that’s the answer for the elementary school history quiz. But really? What of the thousands of people who had been swimming, boating, and fishing in it for centuries uncounted?

Indeed, that’s the right word: uncounted. From the predominant European viewpoint, those people did not count. As Mark Twain put it, “The very ink with which history is written is fluid prejudice.” The American mythology of our beginnings as a nation, complete with a huge dose of divine will, purpose, guidance, and protection that yielded our “manifest destiny” and our lingering sense of exceptional greatness, was all our story from our own viewpoint. I must note here that one theologian whose work I am rereading observes that before the republic became an empire, much of the American dream lived in us as hope and aspiration for ourselves and sometimes for the other peoples of earth, not as established fact and belief not to be questioned. As we became more and more an empire, our sense of exceptional greatness hardened into proud certainty, then (especially after September 11, 2001) fearfully and angrily defended dogma.

As I walked around our yard this morning taking photos, I noticed pluses and minuses in the effects of our recent deluge. Our rain gauge had showed about 11.5 inches of rain in five days, with more rain to come (and more still coming). Our grape tomatoes have been splitting as they ripen. There’s a minus. The withering white begonias we had transplanted without apparent success in saving them had taken hold in the downpours and are now thriving. There’s a plus.

Minus and plus, I realized as I brought up the photographic images transferred to my computer are only from our viewpoint. Success means white flowers to contrast with the other colors in the front gardens and tomatoes to eat and share with the neighbors. The split tomatoes, however, can still drop their seeds. Some insects are enjoying the tomatoes’ vulnerability. This realization of different views may be a small matter, but it raises a larger question. Is earth our warehouse of resources to be used and even used up, or do we bear responsibility for earth’s other creatures and for the world itself, responsibility that is not gauged only by our needs, desires, and benefits? Does everything exist just for us? Do animals and plants have worth only according to their usefulness or profitability to us or for their beauty or cuteness in our eyes?

The famous and now notorious Genesis command to the human creatures to “fill the earth and subdue it” comes to us from within the context of human vulnerability to nature and Judah’s reduction to powerlessness by the Neo-Babylonians. No biblical writer ever dreamed of a time when humans would hold the power to destroy all life on earth and even the planet itself. None imagined human capability to pollute the air and the seas. For them, the world belonged to God and not to them. They were appointed by God to serve as caretakers of earth and care givers for each other. Since those ancient, pre-scientific times, we have gained exponentially in knowledge about our world and control over it, but how much have we gained in wisdom? Now that we are seeing the limits of our control and the dangers in our greed, we are growing anxious and defensive.

Now that humanity has “come of age” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s expression), we have lived to see, those of us who will look, technology as a runaway train that might just careen toward our destruction. We have learned to use data and charts to assure ourselves of continued prosperity as more and more people suffer poverty and deprivation. Values-free research combined with our dominant profit motive have left us anxious and increasingly inclined to retreat into entertainments. or narcotics.

I am not suggesting a return to pre-scientific and pre-Enlightenment thinking. We cannot go back to “old-time religion” or a Medieval world of magic and superstition, but are we so fixed in our limited viewpoint that we cannot find in ourselves and our world a sense of wonder? Can we learn a humility that is not self-deprecating or pathetic but is strong enough to stop pretending to be more in control than the human creature can be? Can we stop calling ourselves the greatest long enough to find hope again and take responsibility for our actions in terms of our relatedness to each other, to the other creatures, and to earth itself?

We see only from our own viewpoints. Yes, but how liberating it can be to realize my view comes only from my viewpoint and so is quite limited and sometimes distorted. How much more liberating even it is to learn that I can, like my camera, change lenses and see differently. I cannot see through your eyes, but I can listen to you and defer preparing what I’ll say next to argue my position or one-up you with a funnier story.  Realizing the narrowness of vision from my viewpoint only can open my eyes to the wonders and responsibilities of life that is shared and hopes that can be shared as well.

“Read your Bible!” Authoritarian Bullying

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Printed in white paint, along with some Christian symbols, on the tailgate of a dark pickup truck:

I Corinthians 14:34
WOMEN shall be SILENT
and SUBMISSIVE
READ YOUR BIBLE

Beyond noting that painting this message on his truck suggests an emotionally and spiritually insecure man, I’ll leave it to psychotherapists to explain what might motivate him to so abuse the Bible in this pitiful attempt to bully women. Decades ago I heard some women’s reactions to a man who, Bible in hand, had delivered a similar message in an adult church school class, and as I listened to them, I realized he had done more to arouse feminism than anyone could have done with a feminist message. So maybe if the guy with pickup truck were trying to awaken in more women new opposition to being bullied by the abusive Bible quoting of authoritarian Christians, he might have achieved some success.

The downside (in addition to the sadness of the man’s so publicly airing his insecurities) is that his attempt at bullying reinforces the false notion that the Bible is an authoritarian book intended for use as a club for beating down people who don’t know their (supposed) place in a soul-crushing hierarchy. I notice the sign says, “your Bible” not “the Bible,” I suppose because the assumption is that everybody has one. But whose Bible is this that so readily serves as a club for bludgeoning people? Not mine.

I have been studying Christianity’s Bible since childhood and without it would not be who I am or have the life I have lived, but this fellow’s “your Bible” is not my Bible at all. The Bible is foundational and crucial to my hopes, thoughts, values, and indeed to my whole way of striving to live, but it is not a weapon for me to use against people to subjugate them to my will under false cover of divine authority. Neither is it legitimately an authoritative way to make my opinions and prejudices sound as though they were God’s very own. So, while I’ll continue to read and study the Bible as long as I have eyesight and my wits about me, I will not be instructed or reprimanded by this man’s Bible.

Does the Bible not challenge my thinking, actions, decisions, and ways of relating to other people and to the rest of creation? Yes, it sure does. I do not expect what I read in it to reassure and comfort me when what I need is to be confronted, challenged, and changed. True, there is much in the Bible that offers comfort and reassurance, but even in such green pastures beside calm waters, it is seldom telling me that everything is “well with my soul” and my life. Even its proffered consolations confront me with the truth of an understanding and compassion that burn away pretenses and self-deceptions. Even at their best, my ways are not God’s ways, and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts.

As a Christian, I need to be reminded frequently that Jesus, whom we call the Christ, is never just what the world wants, just what the churches want, or just what I want, either. There is some continuity between my desires and God’s grace, but there is also discontinuity, and if I am going to hear what the Bible’s various witnesses to God’s truth-with-us have to say to me here and now, meeting me as I am and where I am in life, then I must hold the continuity and the discontinuity in tension, realizing that sometimes I need to hear one more strongly than the other.

Picking Bible verses to prove myself right and my ways godlier than someone else’s is an exercise in self-deception. Using carefully selected verses to clobber other people is not only misguided but sinful. The Bible challenges me and my life, not by laying down authoritarian rules, but by confronting me with the truth of God as a self-giving, redemptive love far greater than anything within me.

I have written before about the disconnect between what I have called the two different bibles Christians read and also present to the world. Book for book and word for word, the two are the same, but in effect they differ drastically. I call one the vindictive bible, the other the salvific bible. I’ll not rehash here what I’ve already posted, but for anyone curious, here it is:

I do not know the man in the truck, his hopes and fears, disappointments and experiences of shame, or what has happened in his life to move him to broadcast from the back of his pickup such anger and need for control over women. I do know his painted message bears hurtfully false witness to the truth of the Bible he seems to prize as well as to the liberating and life-giving truth of the Christ he apparently claims to serve.

Our Need for Meaningful Questions

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Two middle school boys were enjoying a laugh and sharing a sense of superiority as they described how a woman had made a fool of herself by just standing in front of people and waving her arms around. Happily unaware of how much they didn’t know, they were describing the church’s choir director. Their judgment was of the type most absolute and self-assured because it was based upon undisturbed ignorance. It occurred to neither boy to ask what the choir director was doing and how it worked. They did not ask because they knew already all they cared to know. Nothing supports certitude so well as unquestioned ignorance.

So-called social media have become our society’s means for sharing thoughts and opinions. Leaving aside the ease with which these media enable the spread of misinformation and deliberate lies and leaving aside also the nastiness and absurdity in many of the comments made in the constant crossfire between left and right, I see a subtler problem in such easy and rapid communication. For inspiration and even insight, we use memes, a word apparently coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to refer to that which is imitated. The meme became an element of culture or behavior passed by non-genetic means, especially imitation, and now refers to supposedly humorous or insightful tidbits passed around the Internet.

I admit that I see memes I appreciate. Some I even “like” on Facebook. But after having scrolled down Facebook’s endlessly replenished succession of postings, I find myself feeling a mental sogginess. Many of the memes I see posted have not even been checked for spelling and grammar let alone for coherence of thought or fidelity to the complexities and struggles of human life. Many pretend to be wise without even being thoughtful. Worse, some pass judgment upon people without any evidence of understanding them. What presents itself as decisive and authoritative is, rather, carelessly dismissive. Suddenly, I am back in the room with two preteen boys pontificating without knowledge about the foolishness of directing a choir.

Because theology continues to be my life’s struggle and quest, I notice especially the pronouncements for and against what people think they know of religious faith. For example:

It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.
God is not real because God cannot be proved.
If it weren’t for religions, we wouldn’t have wars.
Religious people are hypocrites.
All religions are the same.
“Etc., etc., and so forth,” as the king says in the musical.

Consider just the first one: “It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.” I recognize the self-defense here against condemnations from other people or from the speaker’s own conscience, and I sympathize. People who break free from the belief moorings of family or society or just slip loose and drift away get criticized, sometimes condemned, maybe even shunned. But freedom requires good questions asked and pursued if soggy minds and shallow lives are to be avoided.

What is religion, and what is it to be religious? Consider that biblical Hebrew lacks a word for religion. I would take that lack as a hint that we are dealing here with a concept somewhat foreign to the biblical faiths. Most theologians I read use the word religion more often in the negative, in contrast with the life of trust and discipleship lived and shared within communities of faith. The concern of the many and varied books of the Bible is life, not religion, and biblically understood life is created to be relational. The goal is the restoration of our denied relation to God and relatedness with each other and all creation. In contrast, religion has often served in practice as people’s attempts at gaining security from God (or the gods) and as rulers’ means for controlling societies by making the systems in place seem sacred. The God to whom the Bible bears witness cannot be controlled but can be trusted and obeyed in trust. This God disrupts the systems of power, frees captives, cares for the vulnerable, restores the lost, and reconciles the estranged. This God loves the world and will neither give it up nor enslave it.

What is good? This question is not simple, and while simple answers may be helpful (or harmful) as starting points, they will not take us very far without more effort at thinking. Is the good whatever feels good to me? Is it whatever might make me superior to someone else? Is it virtue? Kindness? When he was addressed as “good teacher,” Jesus of Nazareth replied: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God only.” What is goodness, and what would it mean for me or anyone to be a good person?

What is a person? Am I a person all by myself, such that being a good or bad person could be a self-contained matter of me and me alone? Is it possible for me to diminish or even lose my personhood? Can it be regained or restored? Can the way I am a person be changed, healed, forgiven? Can the person I am be known? Understood? Loved? Can I myself know the person I am? Understand the person I am? Forgive that person? Love that person?

Maybe because I am rereading Douglas John Hall’s book, Thinking the Faith,” I am taking extra notice of the superficiality of our social media conversation-by-meme. Hall writes: “Undoubtedly the existence of God, which is presupposed by biblical religion, is a vital concern for many of our contemporaries; but a much more immediate concern is whether our own existence has any purpose in it!” (326)

Learning comes through asking good questions and pursuing them, not by memorizing answers, let alone by picking the correct answer from a short list of choices. Yes, theology is thinking the faith but as such must not become merely explaining or defending doctrines but thinking life. And thinking life is not at all the same as the modern technological drive to make life artificially legible, manageable, and exploitable but is a matter of wonder that engages us with life and all the living with humility, empathy, and gratitude.

We have lived through a time called modern when we took for granted that we could prove or disprove what were presented as facts and that truth would be the sum of all the proven facts. We let ourselves imagine that the existence of God was the religious question we needed to prove, disprove, dismiss, or just ignore. But what (if anything) does it matter that I exist? What does it matter to me that you exist as you, a person distinct from me? What does it mean that you are distinct from me (a person in your own right) but not unrelated to me (not a person of no concern)? What is it to you and to me that God knows and loves each of us and both of us together, and not only us but all people, all creatures, and the whole of creation? The question is not, “How can I be a good person?” but how are we to keep becoming human in relation to God, each other, ourselves, the non-human creatures, and all of God’s creation? Within that overarching question, I may find and keep finding answers for what it means for me to be a person.