Our Need for Meaningful Questions


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.

Is Religion Magic?


The “new atheists,” as Chris Hedges calls them (When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists), label all religion as superstitious, outdated, magical thinking. They claim to be scientific and rational in their certainty about God and religion, but they are not. Instead, they are, Hedges argues, the preachers of a new religious fundamentalism without God that contrives an ideology of progress by idolizing science and reason as the ways to perfect humanity.

The certitude that God cannot be real and, therefore, cannot possibly love us is not scientific but ideological. It is a belief, not a verifiable fact or hypothesis. In this ideology, there is then no divinely given value to human or any life, leaving only whatever value we choose to assign it based upon our current notions of what is good and worthwhile. Such belief can make it seem expedient to determine that some human lives have no value worth preserving because they have become impediments to achieving progress toward the goal of a better, greater humanity. Such greater-good ideologies, therefore, lead to culture clashes, identity politics, ruthless preemptive strikes (wars of choice) upon peoples considered threats or impediments (evil doers or sub-humans), and even genocide.

In their scorn for religion, the new atheists and their fans who accept their ideology fail to distinguish between magic and religious faith. Indeed, they insist there is no valid distinction to be made. Are they correct? My reply has to be, “No, but.” But what?

The claim that science and reason disprove God is unscientific and unreasonable, as were the old claims that science and reason proved God. What the atheistic ideologues do is attack the obvious foibles and dangers of religious fundamentalism then claim thereby to have discredited all religion. To me, that ploy seems analogous to condemning abusive relationships, then claiming to have discredited love.

It’s easy to debunk creationism as pseudo-science and poor biblical interpretation, but so doing does not thereby discredit biblical faith in our Creator or faith’s view of humanity’s stewardship of the earth as God’s creation. Showing that Intelligent Design is fake science (as just a somewhat more sophisticated brand of creationism) does not offer any reasonable comment on biblical and theological discussions of creation and providence. Neither does discrediting biblical literalism say anything at all about a biblical understanding of the nature, value, and purpose of human life. Science is morally neutral, and reason depends much more upon culture, privilege, and (yes) emotion than many who adore it would care to admit.

But is there a valid distinction between magic and religious faith? Rejecting the pronouncements of the opponent does not by itself validate the belief the opponent has feebly attacked.

What is magic? I’m not talking about stage magic which is entertainment by skillful deception. Neither am I talking about fictional, fantasy magic which is for fun and escape but sometimes, as in the Harry Potter novels, also offers insights into human nature, relationships, social conditions, and even theology. I’m talking about “real” magic which seeks to conjure supernatural power (demonic or divine) and use it for human purposes of security or power. When infused into religion, this magic offers means for supposedly gaining control over the power of God. Therefore, religious rites, rituals, sacred writings, doctrines, mystic or charismatic experiences, mission efforts, ministries, and salvation formulas stand always in danger of being degraded into magic.

I cannot by any means make God do anything. I cannot guarantee God’s aid in my chosen undertakings or draft God into the service of my success.

When I am asked if I believe in the power of prayer, my frankest answer would be, “No, I trust in the love and compassion of God, and therefore I pray.” Prayer is not a means for making God do anything; it gives us neither power over God nor an effective way of appropriating God’s power in the service of our will or desires. Do I believe in praying, meaning believe prayer worthwhile and, for me, necessary? Yes. Do I believe further that God responds to our prayers? Yes, although I cannot program the response. Do I believe God works through prayer to enable me to meet life more in Christ’s way and to be healed, changed, and equipped for service? Yes. But there is no magic in prayer. I cannot by any means make God do anything. I cannot guarantee God’s aid in my chosen undertakings or draft God into the service of my success.

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Planting Stones


The following excerpt comes from the opening of Abraham J. Heschel’s book, God in Search of Man: a Philosophy of Judaism (published 1955), in the first section of chapter 1, called, “To Recover the Questions”:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.

Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions. The moment it becomes oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in.
. . .

There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.

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The Prophets on Religious Practice and Social Injustice


This post is the second of four written for students on an alternative spring break with the Farm Workers Support Committee here in South Jersey and in eastern Pennsylvania.

There have always been attempts to keep concerns over social injustices separated from religious practice. The “powers that be” have always expected the prevailing religion to support their administration of power, defend their divine right to privilege, and sanctify their programs and social structures.

Israel’s prophets rejected all such notions. For them, worship was never to be separated from God’s will for justice and compassion among the people, and it was the particular responsibility laid upon rulers and people of means to right wrongs and correct injustices.

To the privileged in the north kingdom of Israel, the prophet Amos declares for God:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV)

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