We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, May 31, 2013

Caloric Consumption Going Down

Obesity remains one of the gravest public health challenges facing our nation and the world.  Among other things, it places huge demands on our health care system.  So, it comes as good news that according to research done at the University of North Carolina (reported here), "while per capita intake of sugary, calorically sweetened drinks remains high in children and adults, the amounts they are drinking on a daily basis has decreased significantly. Among children ages 2 to 18 years, daily intake totals of calorically sweetened beverages dropped from 616.2 ml/day in 2003 to 460 ml/day in 2010. Among adults, the reduction also was significant, dropping from 536.4 ml/day in 2003 to 441 ml/day in 2010."

Soft drinks are still being consumed at an alarming rate in the U.S., but the trend away from sugary soft drinks is important and, evidently, being encouraged by the beverage industry itself.  This is not to say that the industry has suddenly become a knight in white armor when it comes to the fight against obesity, but at least it is beginning to show some concern for the impact its products are having on our well-being.  We can only hope that the public is becoming more aware of the need to cut back on sugary drinks and, thus, also creating a demand for sugar free products.  Obviously, there is still a long way to go, but it is encouraging that the trend is headed in the right direction.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Be Ready to Explain

In the Laughing Bird Paraphrase, I Peter 3:12-16 reads, "It is unlikely that anyone will be out to get you because of your enthusiasm for doing what is good. But even if some do set out to make you suffer for doing the right thing, you are still on a winner. Don’t be afraid of them, and don’t let them get you down. Stand your ground, and give your allegiance and obedience to Christ before all others. Be ready to explain yourself to everybody who questions why you live with such confidence. Don’t be pushy or aggressive, but never hesitate to give them a quiet and respectful answer. Keep your nose clean so that if things turn nasty, and somebody starts misrepresenting your commitment to doing what is right as followers of Christ, your record will speak for itself. If you have made sure that the mud won’t stick to you, those who throw it will end up wearing it themselves." (emphasis added)

The charge made against mainline churches is that we are too liberal and do not "really" believe.  We have a weak faith—obviously, because we're liberals.  The consequence is that our churches are losing members.  One important issue in a much more complex scenario is that too few members of mainline churches take the advice of the above passage to heart.  We aren't ready to explain our faith.  Most members haven't really thought it through, read a bit of theology, or done some serious Bible study & reflection.  Most aren't interested in "such stuff."  Mainline churches are often very good about service, the doing part of faith, but as good as they are at sharing their faith through deeds, just so weak are they at sharing their faith through personal witness at appropriate times and in appropriate ways.

In the mainline, we need to get over the attitude that "talk is cheap," and we need to reverse the one that holds, "more do and less talk."  In fact, what we too often need is less almost frenetic "do" and more reflection and study—more "talk".  More time spent in Bible study.  More time spent in prayer & meditation.  More time spent in adult study groups learning how to share our faith.  Amen.

Monday, May 27, 2013

What is & what should be "the news"

Today, and it breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news. Today, the news is scandals, that is news, but the many children who don't have food - that's not news. This is grave. We can't rest easy while things are this way.

Pope Francis I,

Address given in St. Peter's Square,
May 18, 2013

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Culture of Encounter

The pope speaking on May 22nd
Source: Vatican Radio
In a papal address (summarized and quoted here) delivered on Wednesday, May 22, 2013, Pope Francis I made the following statement,
"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.” (emphasis added)
On first reading, many media commentators assumed that the pope was asserting the possibility that atheists can be saved without having to become Christians let alone Catholics.  More circumspect readings generally agree that he was not making such a blanket statement.  And the next day, Thursday the 23rd, a Vatican spokesman clarified the pope's position on salvation by saying that anyone who is aware of the Catholic Church and doesn't become a Catholic “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.” (Quoted here)

What is worth noting in his speech, however, is the pope's concept of creating a "culture of encounter" between peoples of faiths and no faith.  He seems to be suggesting that we have the drive to do good created in us as part of our God-given natures.  We should nurture that drive in each other and use it as a point of contact for mutual understanding—for dialogue, that is.  It is not clear what his ultimate goal is in encouraging a culture of encounter grounded in good works.  The Thursday clarification would suggest that he still desires the incorporation of the whole of humanity into "the Church," which apparently means the Catholic Church.  The hope is that he is encouraging something else, which is a culture of pluralism based on understanding growing out of dialogue with each other.  Dialogue in this sense is more than discussions.  It is a process of listening, learning, and reflection leading to reductions in conflict and a growth in peace.

If Pope Francis' goal is to develop a "culture of encounter" as a subtle form of Catholic evangelism, he will fail.  It will become evident over time that his real agenda is aggrandizement rather than dialogue.  If, however, he seeks such a culture as a way to embrace pluralism to the end that ours might be a less conflicted, more peaceful world, he could well play an important role in fostering a more dialogical international atmosphere.  Time will tell.

New Review at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

There is a new book review not posted on Rom Phra Khun Reviews (here).  It is of David Levering Lewis, God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).

Friday, May 24, 2013

Church Decline North of the Border

Religious Affiliation in Canada 2011
Organized religion is generally in decline throughout most of the English-language speaking world, though evidently least so in the American South.  One of the most recent indications of this decline is contained in the data collected by the Canadian 2011 National Household Survey and reported in a recent Religious News Service article entitled, "Canadians turning away from organized religion."  The article states, "Observers noted that among the survey’s most striking findings is that one in four Canadians, or 7.8 million people, reported they had no religious affiliation at all. That was up sharply from 16.5 percent from the 2001 census, and 12 percent in 1991."  Islam continues to be the fastest growing religion in Canada.

Canadian officials have been quick to point out that the 2011 survey was voluntary and so may not reflect current trends in a reliable way, but at the same time the general turn away from organized religion has already been documented in Canada.  These figures reflect a known trend although the change from 2001 to 2011 may or may not be as sharp as they suggest.

So much has been written on this subject that all we really need to say here is, first, that the decline in organized religion does not seem to point to a decline in religious sensibilities as such.  Even in quiet and conservative places like Lowville, NY, it is not unusual to have friends who are openly religious but attend no church.  Second, this decline is being seen more and more in some ecclesiastical circles as offering an exciting opportunity to discover new, less institutional ways to be the church.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Like Beavers, We Build

Yesterday, I attended a meeting of over 100 individuals focused on the subject of homelessness in Lewis County, New York.  The great majority of those attending work either in government agencies or in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and as I listened to speaker after speaker rattle off an array of acronyms and refer to arcane corners of federal and state legal codes, I realized that what I was participating in was not just a meeting.  Laid out before me was a culture—for me, a foreign culture that has invented its own language.  At points, I required a translator!  The keynote speaker drew an unusually large audience not because of his eloquence but because of his knowledge of this culture.  Over lunch members of this housing and homelessness culture exchanged business cards and engaged in some important discussions that strengthened the networks of the culture of those involved in housing and homelessness in the North country of New York.

Walk into a school, any school, and we walk into a culture.  The First Presbyterian Church of Lowville, New York, is most definitely a culture of its own.  Businesses are cultures.  Industries.  Branches of government.  Crime syndicates.  Prisons.  You name it.  It is a culture.

Beavers can't help themselves.  They build damns and lodges.  We build cultures—or, better, we create cultures.  And this drive to create them is built deeply within us.  We need and use culture to protect ourselves, put food on the table, obtain shelter and clothing, and fulfill our most basic human drives.  The so-called "tribal instinct" is an instinct to live together in communities that can exist only as integrated cultures that share a language, values, behaviors, skills, religion, and habits.  We don't just eat.  We create cuisines.  We go to Italian or Thai restaurants, savor particular Chinese or French dishes.

Sociologist speak of the "social construction of reality," a sociological doctrine that holds that we humans construct our own realities at every level.  I saw and participated in one such social construction of reality yesterday.  Central to it was the social construction of a culture to mediate its reality (the "reality" being all of the laws, agencies, and institutions dedicated to addressing issues of housing and homelessness).  Building cultures is what we do.  We can't help ourselves anymore than the beavers out on Beaver Lake can't help but build damns and lodges.  It's what we do.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Bible: Picking & Choosing

If we affirm that the Bible is a human document through which the Holy Spirit speaks with particular clarity and if we reject the notion that it contains the literal words of God, we are left with an important task.  We must discern God's Word to us in the words of the Bible.  In the year of our Lord 2013 and by the grace of God, some parts of scripture speak to us with that particular clarity.  Others, however, we must carefully pack away for a future time when they might speak to another generation in a way they do not to ours.

Take, for example, the passage in James 1:2-8, which states, "[5] If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. [6] But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; [7, 8] for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord." (NRSV)

One can imagine how important this advice concerning doubt might have been to large segments of the early church, but it is advice that is much less helpful today.  In the Age of Science, doubt is necessarily a good thing.  We learn through doubt.  We discard worn out ideologies through doubt.  We keep "the powers-that-be" in bounds through our doubts.  Doubt is a useful tool in many different situations and circumstances.

In an age that encourages doubt, we can see the spiritual value of doubt.  It is a motivation for discovering a deeper faith.  It keeps us from turning even our most cherished beliefs and practices into idols, something religious people are especially prone to do.  Doubt keeps us humble because it reminds us that we are not God.  We do not have all the answers.  Doubt, indeed, is the very foundation of our faith.  Without it, faith as trust is not possible.  Those who are certain their beliefs are true by definition do not live in faith, for faith means trusting in spite of uncertainty—and doubt.

The advice the author of the Book of James gave his (or her?) readers in ancient times is not good advice for us.  We are called to use doubt as a tool in our search for wisdom.  We are called to ask in spite of and in the midst of our doubts.  For us our questions are the path on which we walk toward faith, and we simply do not accept the rigid boundaries imposed on us by the concept of "being double-minded."  We are of one mind in which doubt and faith are yin and yang, intertwined, and inter-dependent.  James' views on doubt were undoubtedly right once and undoubtedly will be right again.  They are just not right for us right now.

Or...in some circumstances...maybe they are right right now.  In the end, it depends on whether the Spirit speaks through James' advice with that "particular clarity" that is the province of the Spirit.  In the Age of Doubt, we do well to doubt  even our doubting from time to time—lest doubt itself become an idol.

God is a Choice We Can Make

In a piece entitled, "Biblical Scholarship and the Right to Know," biblical scholar Bart Ehrman describes his personal journey from a fundamentalist Christian faith through liberal Christianity to a humanistic faith.   He concludes,
"I ended up leaving Christianity and becoming an agnostic not because of my scholarship but because I simply couldn’t understand how there could be a good and powerful God who’s in control of this world given all the pain and misery in it. We live in a world in which a child starves to death every five seconds, a world where almost 300 people die every hour of malaria. We live in a world ravaged by earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and drought and famine and epidemics, and I just got to a point where my previous solutions no longer made sense."
One does not argue with a person who thoughtfully and in good conscience comes to the conclusion that evil is so prevalent in our world that believing in a loving God makes no sense.  Rather than believe that such a God could tolerate evil, Ehrman chooses not to believe.  This is a faith choice, and it is one others make.  It deserves respect.

It is not, however, the only choice thoughtful persons of good conscience make.  Faith in a loving God is also a choice.  It requires only a shift in perspective and in the set of questions we ask.  If, that is, there is no God at all, then how did life come to be on Earth against astronomical odds—and not just "be" but evolve in amazing and intricate ways?  If there be no loving God, then how does one account for the good that so often accompanies evil?  And for each child that starves, how many experience a nurturing love that is so much more than a biological mechanism for preserving the species?  This is not to make little of the suffering but to understand that there is much more to life than suffering even in the midst of suffering.  Ehrman is entirely correct in his assessment of our world, but it is a world also "ravaged" by vast amounts of good, small and large, which surely rivals the evil we see in the world and in many quiet corners of the planet outweighs it.

We have to choose.  Listening to a heart struck by awe at the grandeur of the universe and the beauty of  a lake, struck by the kindness of another, inspired by the story of a Galilean carpenter or an Indian prince, and inspired by the Spirit—listening to a heart touched by these things is another choice.  It makes sense, too.  No choice should be made lightly, and those who still pursue goodness and truth whatever their choice should be respected.  We choose best when we understand that whatever choice we make is a matter of faith and there are real choices we can make.  Amen.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Bible Gap

It is one of the realities of contemporary mainline church life that most theologically trained mainline pastors accept modern critical biblical scholarship and that most members of mainline churches don't have a clue what that means.  There is, then, a wide gap between the biblical understanding of many clergy and many in the pews.  When some mainline folks are introduced to contemporary biblical scholarship, some feel threatened and others liberated.  And on being told that critical approaches to the Bible are centuries old, a not uncommon reaction is, "Why are only hearing about this now?"

One's first inclination is to blame pastors for being timid, hypocritical, and even two-faced.  In the pulpit, they communicate a kind of "soft" literalism that doesn't overtly challenge literal readings of the Bible.  Closer to the mark, however, is the situation that most pastors face most of the time.  Mainline church goers, as a rule, are not all that interested in the Bible.  In most churches, Bible study groups are small and usually limited to the "same old faces," most of whom are among the more conservative members of the church.  Those members who might be most receptive to modern scholarship are also the ones who are least interested in hearing about it.  Mainline churches, furthermore, tend to emphasize doing over talking.  Committed members want to serve the world, and they consider Christian service to be the heart of their faith.  They don't have much patience with "just sitting around and talking."  Other members, again probably more conservative, want to emphasize personal spirituality, which means prayer groups more than study groups.  They are interested in the Bible primarily as a devotional aide, which is not the place for introducing critical approaches to scripture.  Beyond these constituencies in mainline churches is the 50-60% or more of the congregation that sits mostly on the fringes of church life.  Few if any of them are interested in the Bible at all.

This is not to say that mainline pastors can't share critical approaches to scripture with members of the churches they serve.  But, there are conditions required for them to do so successfully.  They themselves have to be willing, able, and committed to exposing their congregation to modern biblical scholarship.  There has to be an important segment of the congregation they serve that wants to know more about the Bible and is willing to listen to non-literal approaches to scripture.  And there needs to be a shared perception that a mature 21st century faith implies a knowledge of scripture that is both critical and faithful.  Such a perception sees literalism as an obstacle to faithful readings of scripture and is committed to using biblical scholarship as an antidote to literalism.  My sense is that there are only a minority of mainline churches today where these conditions exist.  Perhaps mainline pastors can sometimes be faulted for not working to create them.  Perhaps.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hate: Reaping the Fruit

Hate is as all-absorbing as love, as irrational, and in its own way as satisfying.  As lovers thrive on the presence of the beloved, haters revel in encounters with the one they hate.  They confirm him in all his darkest suspicions.  They add fuel to all his most burning animosities.  The anticipation of them makes the hating heart pound.  The memory of them can be as sweet as young love.

The major difference between hating and loving is perhaps that whereas to love somebody is to be fulfilled and enriched by the experience, to have somebody is to be diminished and drained by it.  Lovers, by losing themselves in their loving find themselves, become themselves.  Haters simply lose themselves.  Theirs is the ultimately consuming passion.

Frederick Buechner,
Listening to Your Life, p. 123

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Geography of Hate

Although it is making the rounds online, the major news outlets don't seem to have picked up yet on a map designed by a group of students from Humboldt State University, which displays (here) the intensity of hate in America measured by the use of hate language on Twitter.  The students read a 150,000 tweets containing racial and homophobic slurs and located them geographically on what is actually a set of maps, one for each slur.  One of the things they found was that these slurs tend to originate in places where there is a less diverse population, particularly more often from rural areas than urban.  The result is graphic evidence that we still have a long way to go in overcoming bigotry in America.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


"Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see." (Hebrews 11:1, J. B. Phillips)

In 2013, living in faith means living at odds with the central values that drive our dynamic, knowledge-based, information-hungry world.  In faith, we take heart in things we cannot know.  We find comfort in things for which information is not available.  At the same time, however, faith does not believe.  It is familiar with doubt and with unbelief.  It feels comfortable with them and, in fact, journeyed long with them.  Faith cherishes doubt and embraces unbelief—but only as the platform on which it rests.

"Rests" is the key word here.  Faith is a coming to rest.  It gently sinks below the questions, important as they are.  It humbly puts aside its belief and unbelief alike, slowly drifting below them as well.  Faith comes to rest in a place where the Unknown inspires confidence.  It resides in a land where not-knowing is not ignorance and a lack of information is the beginning of wisdom.  Faith is not built out of research.  Its truths cannot be proven, either from a test tube or by citing verses from a holy book.  Faith is not interested in proof because it gently, quietly, and with profound humility seeks a deeper, quieter world of "rest".  Silence is its best friend.  Meditation is its path.  Dialogue is its joy.  Wisdom is its ultimate goal.  And beyond these things lies the Unseen in which it is fully confident and happily certain.   Amen.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tolerance: the Good, Bad, & Ugly

In a recent posting entitled, "Tolerance: The New American Religion," a Christian Post commentator takes to task Christians who believe in what he believes to be the secular, unfaithful new religion of tolerance.  He assigns their tolerant attitudes to ignorance of scripture, fear, and idolatry.  he concludes, "Tolerance is not love, the Cross is. I think it is time we let God define love and stop relying on Man’s worldly definition."

If anything, the author sounds like a liberal—in the sense that liberals criticize people of his persuasion in pretty much the same way he criticizes them.  Progressive Christians feel that fundamentalists in particular and evangelicals in general are ignorant of the true meaning of the gospel, practice a fear-based religiosity, and turn the Bible and faith into idols.  Liberal Christians have even coined the word, "bibliolatry," to make that last point.

There is no question.  The author of this posting has virtually no clue how those of us who advocate openness to others and a non-dualistic approach to faith understand our faith.  But, that's not my point here.  My point is that both of the warring camps among Christians today tend to treat those in the other camp the way this author treats people of a progressive faith.  Until that changes, postings like this one and any rebuttal of it are a waste of time and energy.  They change nothing.  They may serve to "gin up the base," but that only promotes the failure to understand each other within Christian circles, which brings us so much discredit in society at large.  All too often, we are our own worst enemies.  We are obstacles to the work of the Spirit rather than channels.

There is one point in the author's article on tolerance, however, that I would like to take exception to here.  He is incorrect in his statement that, "The problem with Tolerance is it doesn’t lead anyone to repentance." If we truly value a Christ-like tolerance we are led led precisely and exactly to repentance. Far too often, we fail to practice what we value and what we preach to others, and we do need to repent.  Amen.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Britain's "Street Angels": From Binge to Better

Generally the world doesn't seem to be a particularly happy place, and we can't help but wonder if "the Kingdom" is "just a metaphor" for something that isn't ever going to happen.  But, then, we catch glimpses of its birthing in the most unlikely places.  In Britain, there is a growing movement of Christian folks who go out at night on city streets to be a presence in places where drunkenness and violence have been the norm.  They are called "street angels," and they are linked together through an organization called the Christian Nightlife Initiatives Network.  A news posting on the Aljazeera website entitled, "UK street preachers spread anti-crime gospel," documents the good that the street angels do, good that is reflected in dropping crime rates on and the economic resurgence of the streets they patrol.  They help homeless folks out at night, talk with partying teens, take care of drunks, and represent decency in indecent places in a way that makes a difference.  The movement began in Halifax in 2005 and spread quickly to other communities so that by 2012 there were over a hundred groups operating in various parts of Britain.

The street angel movement reflects the way in which the Spirit manifests itself in its longstanding campaign for peace on earth.  It shows up in unlikely places using impressively ordinary people, such as a ragtag tribal slave people in ancient Egypt or a carpenter's kid in the first century Roman Empire, encouraging unlikely outbreaks of peace in places where peace is in short supply.  Amen.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Gun Control: A Hopeful Development

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords testifying before Congress
In an online news posting entitled, "Senators Discuss Changing Background Checks Bill," reporter Alan Fram observes, "A study by the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics found that gun-related homicides dropped from a peak of 18,253 in 1993 to 11,101 in 2011, down by over one-third. A report by the private Pew Research Center said gun homicides per 100,000 people fell from 7 in 1993 to 3.6 in 2010, a drop of nearly half. Both reports found nonfatal gun crimes dropped by roughly 70 percent over that period."  This in spite of the laxity of our national gun laws, the NRA's promotion of a gun culture, and all of the talk about 2nd Amendment rights.

These figures are still too high.  We still need to develop a wise policy concerning firearms, one that gets beyond fear mongering and finger pointing.  Otherwise, there will be another Sandy Hook, another Aurora, and another Columbine.  Still, we the public seem to be already taking action ourselves to accomplish what Congress can't seem to do—reduce gun violence.  For whatever reason, when it comes to guns we are behaving better.  That's good.  That's hopeful for the future.  Sooner or later the current gun debate will quiet down again, and even if we can't get the national legislation we need to improve the situation we face today it seems likely that all of the publicity and debate that has taken place since Sandy Hook will itself have a further positive impact.  That is a prayer as well as a reasonable hope for the future.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Biblical Literalism: Science Wins Again

Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), is built on the insight that contemporary biblical literalism calls on a form of scientific thinking in its defense of the Bible.  The insistence in a real and literal six-day creation is an insistence in the factuality of the events recounted in Genesis 1-2.  In pre-scientific times, Borg notes that Christians naturally accepted a six-day creation without question.  Why would they question the obvious?  Science, however, has thoroughly discredited not only the Genesis stories but also the whole world view on which it is built.  Those stories are not factual.

They never were "factual," because our modern use of the concept of fact was born out of the scientific revolution.  It is a fundamental component of the scientific way of thinking.  The Genesis accounts come from a time before facts, but biblical literalists today treat them as if they are factual accounts.  They have "repurposed" the accounts to fit into a modern, scientific framework; but then they have been forced to deny the relevant findings of science because science denies the "facts" of Genesis.  In short, biblical literalism draws on the world view of science to defend the Bible but is then forced to deny the findings of science as a consequence.  Science wins, no matter how one slices this loaf of bread.

By arguing for the factuality of the Genesis stories, biblical literalism tends to obscure the theological truths that are still meaningful to us today.  However the universe is being created, we still put our trust in God, Creator of the Universe.  We remained awed by the beauty of that creation and have a far, far better grasp of its unimaginable extent and grandeur.  As I have written here before, the more science discovers about the nature of reality, the better we realize how incredible God's creation really is.  A literal six-day creation doesn't hold a candle to the explosive majesty of the Big Bang nor does it begin to compare with the mind-boggling discoveries of modern-day quantum physics.

Borg really calls on us to get over our infatuation with scientific thinking and see its limitations when it comes to matters of the human spirit and the Spirit of God—and the contents of the Bible.  Facts are not God nor even god-like.  When one paddles quietly through the mists of dawn on a northern lake, one is embraced by realities that have nothing to do with facts.  Science is a tool and nothing more.  Facts are fine in their place, but who cares about the "facts" of the sun rise, the call of the loons, or the grace of a crane gliding in for a landing amidst the soft breezes of the morning?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Beyond "Blood of the Lamb" Theology

The Book of Hebrews offers an extended discourse on the early Christian belief that Jesus on the cross was the ultimate and perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. Hebrews 9:13-14 sates, "(13) For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, (14) how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!" (NRSV)

For many in the 21st century, including some Christians at least, the doctrine of "substitutionary atonement" is off-putting for its emphasis on blood and violence and is difficult to understand even as it reflects ancient ways of thinking otherwise long fallen out of favor.  Indeed, it is cruel to take an animal, force it on an altar, and take its life in the midst of an assembly of people hoping that its death will give them salvation.  The cross was cruel, and according to modern sensibilities we cannot take glory in it or see in it God's will from the beginning of creation.  We can and do still insist that Jesus died because of our sins and even for them, but not as a sacrificial lamb slaughtered to please God's justice (as one theory of substitutionary atonement would have it).  We don't think like that anymore—thankfully not.

Let us not, however, throw the baby out with the bathwater.  While the doctrine reflects ancient religious practices long fallen out of favor among the vast majority of the world's peoples, it still was built out of important theological insights that remain important to us today.  It most especially affirms that God loves the world and not only cares about it but is impacted by its pain and suffering.  God cares.  God is involved, furthermore, in bringing healing out of the vast wellsprings of pain.  God's Spirit is working for the emergence of the Kingdom.

The death of Christ on the cross, according to Hebrews 10:11-18, furthermore, brought all other forms of sacrifice to an end.  That is, in ancient times, Christians did not participate in the bloody acts of religious sacrifice common to their day.  They believed that except for Christ the practice of sacrificing animals on altars was senseless.  In our time, we need but extend that insight to include the death of Christ as well and to affirm that in our own understanding of God's love for humanity there is no room for God sacrificing anyone on a cross.  Jesus, rather, marked a seminal moment in God's ongoing struggle with the human heart, so important for us as Christians that we see in and through Christ the deepest expression of God's love known to us.  He was for us the Son of God.  The cross was an intimate and essential element in the "Christ-event".  Without it there would have been no resurrection, which for us as Christians is the real heart of the good news of our faith.  Amen.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Tasting Enlightenment

Hebrews 6:4-5 in The Kingdom New Testament, N. T. Wright has the text state: "For once people have been enlightened—when they've tasted the heavenly gift and have had a share in the holy spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the power over the coming age—".  In the NRSV, the same text reads: "For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come."
n his translation of

While in the NRSV and other translations seem to present a list of cognate experiences that include enlightenment along with tasting "the heavenly gift" and so on, Wright renders these two verses in a way that turns them into a description of Christian enlightenment.  That is, one who is enlightened is one who has tasted the heavenly gift, the word of God, power over the coming age, and has also had a share in the Holy Spirit.  Let's stick with Wright's rendering for a moment and see where it takes us.

One thought that comes to mind immediately is that in Christianity we don't talk about "enlightenment" that much.  Our thing is salvation.  It may well be, however, that these are two words describing the same thing.  Certainly in Buddhist circles enlightenment is the path to salvation if not salvation itself.

Furthermore, whereas enlightenment is generally thought of as seeing more deeply into the true nature of reality, Hebrews changes the metaphor for enlightenment from sight to taste.  We don't see more deeply but taste more richly (sweetly?), and where enlightenment generally is a matter of looking deeply within ourselves in Hebrews 6:4-5 it is more about experiencing something outside of ourselves.  It is a gift—to mix metaphors.  Enlightenment is thus external to us.  It is received and experienced.  We may infer that enlightenment is God's gracious gift given to those who are receptive to it.  Enlightenment is not insight but, according to the impressively long list of synonyms for "taste," it can imply discernment, perception, and even knowledge—so that, in a way, seeing enlightenment and tasting it are not so very different even if the metaphors imagine different senses.

So, the key question is the source of enlightenment.  In Buddhism, it is something we gain for ourselves by looking more deeply into the nature of reality.  In Hebrews, it is a gift that allows us to discern more fully the nature of reality and especially the nature of the Giver.  God is the source and object of enlightenment.  While Christian imperialists will insist that there is "obviously" a radical difference in these two forms of enlightenment, it is not clear that they are correct.  Each, for example, sets us on a path away from self and in search of ultimate truths that reveal realities very different from what we see and taste superficially.  Each is counter-intuitive.  Each grows out of the discovery of quiet and deep reflection.  In Buddhism, enlightenment is not something to be achieved but is attained only as one puts aside such things as achievements.  So, in a sense, it comes as a gift—one that does not come from one's self after all because "self" does not even exist.

The thing that matters in the end is the search itself.  Enlightenment whether Christian or Buddhist is a precious gift.  It sets us on the path of our salvation.  Amen.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Violence In Us

Violence in human relationship is so utterly destructive because it not only harms the other but also drives the self into a vicious circle asking for more and more when less and less is received.

Henri J. M. Nouwen
Reaching Out, p. 31

Friday, May 3, 2013


“Blue Ocean,” Tadashi Ikai, 2005
Courtesy Asian-Pacific Heritage Month
Unrest is a two-edged sword.  It squirms deep within our spirit.  It shines bright in our curiosity, in our restlessly creative hands, in our deepest desires to know and grow and stretch ourselves beyond where we are.  It can be a beautiful thing, the well-spring of great music, profound poetry, and magical art.

But unrest can be as destructive as it can be creative.  It hurries us past any hope of peace.  It simply cannot stop to listen, to see, or to feel those moments of beauty and love that are built into each of our days.  Unrest is angry, bedeviled, tense, touchy, patronizing and prejudiced, unreasonable, and lives in fear.  It lives in fear of coming to rest.  It goes into the quiet forests of our lives with a shotgun to bring down what lives there.  It pumps trash and filth into the beautiful lakes and quiet shores of our hearts.  It fills our streets with the roar of polluting machinery simply because we cannot come to rest, be still.

So, the most important task we face personally and as a race is to come to rest creatively, to balance the quiet of peace with the squirming source of our growth.  We don't need to "be at peace" so much as to find a way for rest and unrest to live in harmony in our souls.  Restless we must be—but quietly so.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Very First Website

On April 30, 1993, the World Wide Web became available to the general public at no cost.  This event marked a key moment in the history of the Web itself and of the Internet as well.  To celebrate this historic event, the organization that made the Web public, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), has re-posted the earliest known version of the Web's very first website (here).  It is nothing more than black-on-white text with a bunch of links.  There may be still earlier versions, but they have yet to be uncovered.  Check it out, and for more information just search for news on "world wide web first page."

It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years already. All of us who make regular use of the Web remember the first time we logged on. No one could have anticipated how much it all would change our lives.