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

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Somehow Present & Beyond

There lies in our understanding of One, Creator, Personal God a fundamental tension for us between the Creator and Personal faces of God.  How can this One God be both creator of the whole of the cosmos and all that is in it and yet also a presence that we can somehow sense in a personal way?  Our conception of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ mirrors that tension.  How could a man be at once human and divine?  How can God be somehow like us and yet completely and incomprehensibly unlike us?  And in our understanding of the Bible we are faced again with this fundamental tension.  How can a clearly fallible, human collection of words still somehow reveal to us the Word that connects us to the divine Beyond?  We call the church, the "body of Christ," and yet again how is it that this depressingly human institution can be a vessel somehow of the Spirit?

This tension between realities lies within us as well.  We discover it most painfully in the question of evil and good.  In our experience, these are not two separate categories that can be neatly divided from each other.  Out of one so often emerges the other.  Even in the darkest storm, we say, there is a silver lining.  We are at one and the same time good and not, evil and not.

How can God be both Beyond and Personal is a question that resonates across our human experience.  Maybe someday we will have an answer.  In the meantime, we live in faith.

Monday, July 7, 2014

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" & the "Historical Jesus"

Among the classic patriotic films shown over this Fourth of July weekend, the broadcast on TCM of "Yankee Doodle Dandy,"the movie biography of George M. Cohen staring James Cagney, caught my eye.  In his comments on the film, Robert Osborne noted that the movie took "liberties" with Cohen's life such as having him married only once to a woman named Mary.  In real life, he had two wives neither of them named Mary.  Osborne concluded, however, that if the details were sometimes wrong the overall portrait given by the movie is accurate.

Suppose for a moment that the screenplay for "Yankee Doodle Dandy" survives for a thousand years, long after Cohen is forgotten, and future historians have only it to work with in recapturing his life.  How would they treat the script?  How much of the actual life of the real Cohen would they be able to reconstruct?  Would they be able to figure out that he had two wives instead of one?  Would they be skeptical of the rosy portrayal of his personality?  How many nuances obvious to us would they miss completely?  How accurate would their portrayal of the "ancient" world be if based on this lone screenplay?

If we turn to the long "quest for the historical Jesus" with all of this in mind, we get some sense of how difficult it is to reconstruct the real Jesus from the biblical screenplay, which was never intended to be a history of Jesus in the first place—even less so than YDD was supposed to be a biography of Cohen.  Indeed, the gospels were intended to be tributes to Jesus the Messiah in a way somewhat similar to the musical, which is a tribute to Cohen.  YDD is not biography anymore than the gospels are.  As a tribute, however, YDD still approximates "the truth" about George M. Cohen (in Osborne's view, at least) even if it plays footloose with the biographical details of his life.  Can we say the same about the gospels?  Are they faithful to the truth about Jesus of Nazareth if not the biographical details?  That is our impression—our faith, actually.  Amen.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reflections on Competition

The creation stories contained in Genesis 1-2 affirm a number of things including the goodness of creation including humanity and the idea that the Earth was created to be a garden in which we live in peace with all of life and each other.  The story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3 affirms a less happy fact: it was humanity's competitive spirit, its desire to be equal with God that led to expulsion.  Humanity "had it all" and wanted more.  The story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) confirms this ancient analysis of the human condition: our desire to be better than someone else, to have more than they have lies at the root of our tragic failings as a race.

If we weren't so competitive, we would still be in the Garden.  Jesus made much the same point when it came to the Kingdom of God: those who want to be "first" there must be slaves and servants who are not interested in what they attain but in how they serve (see Mark 10:35-45).  The lesson of the Bible is that we cannot go home to the Kingdom, which is the Garden, until we stop being destructively, greedily competitive.

As an evolutionary tool, competition is important to our race.  We determine leadership through competition.  Our very survival required that we compete with our species and with other human groups for scarce resources.  We obtain and keep territory through competition.  Our young learned the skills they needed to survive (and even thrive) through competitive play, and we continue to take great pleasure in competition.  Placed in this context, the biblical message can be understood to make at least two important points: first, the problem is not competition itself.  We obviously were created with a competitive spirit in the Garden as a part of God's good creation of us.  The problem in Genesis is that we started competing in ways that are counterproductive.  Second, the road back to the Garden (the Kingdom, if you will) takes us away from competition.  It means unlearning the competitive spirit that gets us into so much trouble, causes so much pain.

Just as we abuse God's good gift of a loving spirit by turning it into lust, so we abuse the good gift of competition by turning it into greed.  The antidote for love gone bad is asking and giving forgiveness; the antidote for competition gone bad is seeking to serve.  We are created to be competitive.  The issue is how we compete, which takes us ultimately into the realm of the uses and abuses of power.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


Intolerance is its own reward.