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

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Way

In the quiet of contemplation and the silence of meditation,  the mind seeks rest and the heart to be less a prisoner of anxiety, haste, and stress.  And one thing heart and mind discern in the mindfulness of meditation is how these things infect most of our waking moments.  We go from being anxiously busy here to being anxiously busy there, and even when we have time for being not busy we fill that time with being busy.  Will the Kingdom come through our doing?  I wonder, doubt even that it will.  Seeking a balance between doing and not doing, having and not having; learning to walk the Path slowly, contemplatively, in meditation: walking without hurrying, balanced, on the way toward peace; and seeing what lies here and there, stopping for a time for the pleasure of stopping.  That seems to be the more likely way toward God's Kingdom: Sabbath rest, contemplative, meditative, peaceful, and balanced.

When then a person is mindfully at rest the Kingdom begins to take form.  When we find pleasure in the small ordinary things in life, the Kingdom comes.  When we allow the anxieties of the daily grind to dissipate into a peaceful moment, the Kingdom is.  Being at ease.  Resting.  It is out of such things as these that the Kingdom is built, and when we live without haste and anxiety—at peace—we create a much different world from the "reality" of today, a world less polluted, less violent, and less inherently unjust—relationships less stressed, contentious, and defensive.  Amen.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Which Salvation?

Is salvation individual or is it collective?  In the vast majority of American churches, this question does not even arise.  We are individually saved or damned.  The Bible, however, presents a mixed picture.  In the Old Testament, salvation is collective although individuals can be and often are found wanting.  The concern is with the people of Israel, the nation.  In the New Testament as well, the question of salvation is mixed.  The Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, for example, reflects a collective view of the Kingdom, that is the salvation hoped for in the coming age: give us, forgive us, rescue us.  In the gospels, Jesus is intent on forming a new community that will be the seed for the salvation of Israel.  His focus is on that coming but somehow already present Kingdom, and while he certainly realized that there were those who could not enter the Kingdom even they were more of a group, the hypocritical ruling elite, than actual individuals.

All societies have to work out a balance between the individual person and the collective society, but in general even in our day Asian societies tend to lean toward overt emphasis on the importance of the collective.  Ancient biblical cultures were still less overtly individualistic than are modern cultures, especially in the West.  Salvation, thus, was also much more a matter of the collective society individuals lived within, be it the tribe, the nation, or the church.  Jesus' conception of the Kingdom reflects that balance that leans toward the collective.  We may go to heaven or hell individually (for those who believe in that sort of eternal judgment), but we will enter the Kingdom together as the whole of the human race.

The real point here is that salvation is a complex and nuanced question, much more so than is widely acknowledged in churches today.  It is not only a question of "am I saved," but also one of "are we saved."  And there is no question that the spiritual well-being of the church we attend has a direct bearing on our own spirituality—at least for those who take their faith and their community of faith seriously.  So, if we see salvation as being a state in which we currently live and not just a future destination then it is as much collective as it is individual.  That is to say, the "I" and the "We" in salvation are always in play, always a concern, and always to be taken into consideration.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Theology For Our Day - An Example

It looks like I've fallen into yet another series of sorts, more or less unintentionally—a series looking at Internet as a context for contemporary theological reflection.  Jonathan Merritt has recently posted a good example on his blog, On Faith & Culture, that is entitled, "Sochi Cadillac ad encourages worship at the altar of work and stuff."  His posting critiques a Cadillac commercial that was shown during the Sochi Olympic games and that aggressively promotes a set of materialistic values, which Merritt feels reflects some of the worst aspects of American values including especially materialism and work-aholism.  In the process, Merritt lays the values reflected in the commercial side-by-side with biblical values, and he observes,
In my faith tradition—evangelical Christianity—I’m struck by an absence of preaching, teaching, and talking about these kinds of Biblical ideas. Perhaps it is because materialism has become a respectable sin or maybe it is because we need the wealthy to bankroll our massive ministry budgets and mammoth church building projects.
Evangelical silence regarding materialism and its associated values, he concludes are a sign of how much all of our churches have Americanized the Christian gospel.

Merritt is surely correct in his analysis, but my point here is merely to illustrate a crucial approach to theological reflection in the 21st century.  His subject is a commercial, which is a key form of contemporary communication—a form loaded with values of all kinds packed into neat flavorful, colorful sound and image bites.  His approach is to expose the assumed values of our society to the light of biblical narratives, while his medium is a blog.  Merritt mixes, that is, the ancient and honorable Christian task of exposing culture to the judgment of scripture with a form of communication that did not even exist a few short years ago.  We, of course, still need the more traditional kind of theological reflection that leads to books and retreats, but even those enterprises need to be and inevitably will be informed by e-theological reflection.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Another Context for "Doing Theology"

If the internet provides one crucial context for theological reflection today (as I argued here), then a recent posting by Jay Parini entitled, "Why Vermont is not Godless," suggests another obvious but potent context, the decline of religiosity as opposed to spirituality. In a previous posting (here), I defined spirituality as an inner state and religiosity as being a set of practices.  We feel spiritual; we do religion.  It's an oversimplification to be sure.  Until relatively recently, in any event, the church was the key social and cultural context within which the great majority of theological reflection took place.  In Vermont apparently that is no longer the case.  Presumably, it is also no longer the case in New Zealand (see here).

What seems to be happening is that we are returning to something like the state of the earliest church in the time of the Roman Empire when there was a hodge lodge of religious thinking going on without an effective central agency to exercise control over it.  In the churches themselves, there was a whole range of theological responses to the person of Christ, which flourished for centuries before the Bishop of Rome gained some control of the situation.  In Protestantism, we returned to a similar situation to a degree although most Protestant denominations have sought to exercise control over the range of "acceptable" theological reflection.  Now, control is gone.  It is certainly gone in mainline American denominations such as the PC(USA), which has been one reason many evangelical congregations have fled for places where control remains an ideal.

For those who do not concern themselves primarily with the institutional maintenance of existing congregations and denominations, this is an exciting time.  For those tasked with that maintenance it is a scary, anxious time.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Belief In God - Why All the Sweat?

In a recent New York Times interview entitled, "Arguments Against God," philosophy professor Louise Antony was asked if she thought if it even much matters whether we believe in God or not." She responded,
Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?
From reading the rest of the interview one does not get the impression that Antony is a hard-shell religion hater, and her observations in this answer reflect a real puzzlement about why theists frequently take their theism so intensely seriously.  What's the big deal?  It is a good question honestly asked.  It deserves an answer.

But I'm not sure that there is an answer that is really going to make sense to her.  Earlier in the interview she implies that religious belief systems are all based on rationalizations rather than on rationality as she understands it.  What she considers "reasons" for believing are largely "the result of automatic unconsciousness processing, involving lots of unarticulated judgments."  She apparently feels that beliefs are an inferior way at arriving at truths based on a-rational considerations.  Her puzzlement and views on believing, if I've read them correctly point to a gap in understanding between theists and non-theists concerning the nature of reality that seems almost impossible to cross.  On the theist side of the gap, we make connections that make little sense on the other side.  Let me be clear that I am not talking here about hard-core religious fundamentalists who, in truth reside in another corner of reality much closer to hard-core atheists than to the rest of us.  Both of them live on the other side of another chasm, between dualist/absolutist and non-dualist/relativist ways of thinking, which is if anything wider and deeper than the one between theists and non-theists generally.

So, in any event, it appears almost impossible to explain to Antony in ways that she would comprehend why our faith in God is so important to us or why there is far more at stake for us than a "difference in philosophical opinion."  We can agree with her that we should seek allies among the non-theists when it comes to the struggle for a more just and peaceful society, but be that as it may fundamental questions about the origins and nature of reality are not merely "arcane matters" to us—even those of us who are not intent on defending a seven day creation myth or taking literally cherry-picked dogmas and prejudices from an ancient text that requires a wiser reading than it frequently receives.

It may be that in another entry here I will try to answer Antony's questions about why our faith in God is so important, but before trying such a thing it is important to acknowledge that the answer probably won't be of much help to her.  There is a gap that is really difficult to cross.  What is to be appreciated is that while she doesn't understand theist thinking she is reasonably respectful of it.  That, at least, is a start.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Why do people believe in God?

Why do people believe in God?  There is no direct physical evidence of God known to us now such as would prove God exists like a tree, a universe, or evolution exist.  So, why believe in God?

One answer is that people believe in God because they are socialized into such a belief.  This is certainly true for most Americans.  But, this response begs the question of why people believe in God, because at some point, somehow such belief had to start.  It had to be invented.  So, then, the question is why did people in the past invent God?  And the answer is, "We don't know"—not in the scientific sense of knowing.  There is no documentation, no evidence available to us to answer the question.  We can speculate, but in the absence of even the possibility of evidence our speculations one way or the other carry no weight.  So, while socialization is an explanation for why individuals believe in God, it does not explain why there is such a belief.  We don't know why it exists to be socialized.

Another answer is that people believe in God because they have experiences that they interpret to be divinely inspired.  These experiences are various and include such things as visions and deep spontaneous feelings (of peace, of holy terror, of profound love) experienced while in nature, while meditating/praying, while in group exercises (worship), and even while under stress.  But, again, the fact that people have experiences of God only explains why individuals believe in God.  Such experiences provide no evidence as to where they come from or why they should even exist at all.  Possibly, those who invented belief in God associated certain experiences with a notion of a divine being (or beings) or "spirit-ual" reality of some kind, but if that is what happened why did they make such a connection?  Why did the inventors of belief in God believe in God?  The answer is that we have no way of knowing.

The point here is that for those who put their faith in God faith is exactly that: faith.  It involves received traditions (socialization), personal experiences, pious exercises (worship, meditation, prayer) and reflection on "what makes sense," but at the end of the day it is faith—faith that there is a deeper, divine Reality beyond the socialization, experiences, and the reflection.  That faith can be compelling or it can be mildly interesting, profound or superficial, thought through carefully or blithely accepted at face value; but in all of this it is a faith that "makes sense" to the faithful.  While we don't know, then, why people believe in God, those of us who do have a sense that there is more to reality than what science or the senses perceive, something Deep, Powerful, and profoundly Creative.  For Christians, we sense that we come closest to that Something in Jesus of Nazareth, and we trust that our sense of the holy is so.  We trust in him that it is so.  Amen.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Inter-webs and Theology

The website Digital Book World (DBW) recently posted a review entitled, "Pew: Internet Will Be Like ‘Electricity’ in 2025," which reports on a research publication, "Digital Life in 2025," put out by Pew Research Center "to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web."  It makes the point that as important as the Internet has become to us, it is going to become only more significant, ubiquitous, and seamlessly woven into daily life in the years ahead.  Both the DBW review and the report itself observe that there will be both immense benefits to be gained and serious dangers to be addressed as the Internet becomes ever more a dominant part of our world.

The one thing that struck me personally from reading the review article and skimming parts of the report itself is that the Web has become a setting in which to reflect on important theological subjects raised in its various corners by a variety of sites. If all theology is culturally bound and if it must finally be culturally relevant, then it is not too much to say that the Web has become a cultural medium of immense significance not only for life generally but also for theological reflection in particular.  Blogs like this one thus become a vehicle for theological reflection, and theology itself becomes a more fragmented, helter-skelter, on the fly, piecemeal enterprise.  It is also more 3-dimensional in that we can move around in Web space quickly pulling up links from here and there.  And while we can and should debate pros and cons of Internet as a context and medium for theological reflection, the reality is that we have no choice in the matter.  Theology has to take place in the world in which it finds itself.  It has to use the language, media, and reflect the cultural context of that world.

The ongoing spiritual and intellectual theological enterprise may not change in the ultimate sense, that is in its stretching to understand the incomprehensible and in its quest for the Kingdom, which is the reign of divine peace on this planet.  But surely it is having a significant influence on how we "do theology' in a cultural medium that is the very essence of scientific technology.  The trick for us is to see the Internet and its scientifically-driven ethos as another arena for the work of the Spirit and the task of theology.  I guess that is a prayer.  Amen.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Jesus as a Vagrant: Two Views

"Homeless Jesus" by Timothy P. Schmalz
The website for WCNC, Charlotte, North Carolina, recently carried a news post entitled, "'Homeless Jesus' sculpture sparks controversy," which reports on reactions to a sculpture entitled, "Homeless Jesus,"by Timothy P. Schmalz.  As seen at left, the statue is a lifelike representation of a homeless person sleeping on a bench.  Only the feet of the person are showing, and a close up of the feet shows the wounds of crucifixion on them.  The statue was recently placed in front of St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Davidson, NC, and has evoked two basic responses—positive and negative.  Two other churches were originally approached to display the statue, and they both declined the opportunity.

The rector at St. Albans and two church members, as reported in the posting, all feel that the statue represents an important aspect of who Jesus was.  The rector is quoted as saying, ""It's Jesus representing the most marginalized of society... We're reminded of what our ultimate calling is as Christians, as people of faith, to do what we can individually and systematically to eliminate homelessness," Buck said, "Part of a faith commitment is to care or the needy."  A member of the community, however, is quoted as saying that the statue does not represent who Jesus really is. She said, ""I can't understand why anyone would want this," and argued according to the article that the statue is "an inappropriate message and wrong for the neighborhood." She would rather have a statue that shows Jesus "standing over the homeless protecting them." The article quotes her as saying in conclusion that "Jesus is not a vagrant, Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help... We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy."

This is a debate about Jesus that we have been having for two thousand years.  For some Christians, it was and is the power of Christ that is most important.  For others, it was and is his humility and his actual human weakness that is most significant.  The Christian tradition has insisted that he was both human and divine, but that still leaves us with the question of how we understand a human inhabited by divine power who was at the same time God embodied in human weakness.  In this case, however, I'm not sure we actually have to choose between the two.  Jesus can be for us both the one who is homeless and the one who is a patron for the homeless; he both sleeps on the bench and works through the Spirit to get others off of the benches where they must sleep.  He is weakness inhabited by power and power embodied in weakness.

And, personally, it would be quite a statement if "Homeless Jesus" was placed in the public triangle in front of First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, NY.  Placed there, it would be a still more powerful image of the vagrant Christ to have him sleeping on a snow encrusted bench in the midst of our winter snowscape—cold, alone, and bedded in the snow.  Of such things are our visions of the Incarnation made.  Amen.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

God and Exclusivism—A Trend

In a posting entitled, "COMMENTARY: The rise of the diminished, ordinary God," Mitchell Stevens argues that people today generally don't see God as the all-powerful deity worthy of worship that they once did. He writes, "Many individuals, particularly athletes or those caught in difficult situations, may still say little prayers, but God is also being given less credit for the outcomes of our struggles. The course of human events — wars, finances, love affairs, basketball games — is more and more seen as determined by humans, not by an increasingly ordinary God."  We, thus, no longer look to God to explain happenings in the world.  We attribute events to human behavior rather than divine intervention.  Fewer people feel bound by the demands that religious institutions make on them.  Stevens concludes, "Religion’s supporters can take comfort in the fact that, so far, most minds still find room for some sort of God. But as religion recedes and we contend less and less with the strictures of ancient holy texts, it is an increasingly distant, indistinct, uninvolved, ordinary God."

The argument is an interesting one and worthy of debate, but at one important point it fails.  In the course of his argument, Stevens claims that, "Most today also hold their religious beliefs more lightly than did their ancestors. And we seem less sure of the beliefs we do have: According to a 2007 Pew survey, only about a quarter of Americans are convinced that their “religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.”  Our God, in other words, has grown smaller and become "ordinary" because fewer people are exclusivists.

The assumption is that those who do not believe in an exclusivist religion take their religion less seriously.  Firmly held religion, that is, must be narrow minded.  Thich Nhat Hanh, by this logic, must be somehow less religious or less serious in his religion than was Jerry Falwell.  This is simply not the case.  Quite often those who reject exclusivism exhibit the same depth of commitment to their faith as do those who embrace a one-gospel-saves-all doctrine.  And the fact that three-fourths of Americans reject the idea that their religion is the only path to salvation could well be seen as a mark of a growing spiritual maturity rather than an indication that people take their faith less seriously.  That, indeed, is the key distinction here: the difference between practicing a faith and holding certain beliefs.  The intensity with which we hold certain doctrines, such as the doctrine of salvation, is not in and of itself a measure of the seriousness with which we approach a life of faith.  In Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh goes so far as to make the rejection of exclusivism his first "precept of the Order of Interbeing."  That precept reads, "Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology.  All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."

It may be that today the general public takes God less seriously, but the decreasing prevalence of exclusivism is not a measure of the seriousness with which people take their religion.  That's the point.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Limits of Dialogue?

In some religious circles, interfaith and intra-faith dialogue is considered to be a key way to mitigate the differences between people of different faiths and religions.  If only we listen to each other with open minds and hearts, so the thinking goes, we will break down the barriers of mistrust and misunderstanding between us.  The assumption subsuming this approach to religious reconciliation is that our differences arise out of mistrust and misunderstanding.

What, however, if our differences are at least partly genetic?  Recent research reported in a news posting entitled, "Twins study confirms genetic role in political belief," suggests that this may in fact be the case.  That study found that identical twins show a statistically significant congruence in political beliefs not shared by fraternal twins.  Given the close relationship between political and theological/religious views, it also suggests that our religious orientation as liberals, moderates, and conservatives may also be partly driven by our genetic heritage.  It has to be said that these findings are questioned by some other social scientists and nothing is nailed down or for surely certain.  The idea, based on earlier research, that political views are partly genetically driven was proposed some years previously and greeted with a good deal of criticism.  This latest study serves to reinforce the sense that those who think that genetics are part of politics may be on to something and a good deal more investigation is required.

The claim is not made our views on specific political issues are determined by our genetic heritage or even that our political philosophy is one hundred percent so determined.  Environment and personal experience play a role.  Conservative Hispanic voters, thus, may well vote for liberal Democrats because they represent views on the specific issue of immigration more nearly compatible with Hispanic concerns.  Still, the inclination is to be conservative, which inclination may have a genetic component.

If the same is true for our religious and theological views or inclinations, then our differences are not merely a matter of misunderstanding.  We are different.  Perhaps listening to each other in this case still has a purpose, but it may be a more limited one—still important, but less ambitious.  Instead of breaking down barriers, perhaps the role of dialogue is to put some windows in the walls between us so that we can better understand that the religious "other" is not insane, illogical, stupid, or devilish.  "I still don't see how you can think the way you do, but I do understand that you are not being perverse in how you think.  You have your reasons, as I do mine."  The goal of inter-religious dialogue, then, would not be mutual understanding so much as mutual respect.  That is still a worthy goal, just less ambitious—and maybe more realistic.