IS “ORGANIZED RELIGION” HELPFUL TO A VITAL FAITH?

Growing numbers of people in the Western world no longer believe so. And for good reasons, even if not decisive ones.

There is a distressing sameness about the history of most religious institutions. Typically, they begin with exquisite sensitivity to rapidly changing circumstances. New visions abound of a more adequate theology and a more vital spirituality appearing on the horizon.

But tossed to and fro by “what we have always believed and done,” visionaries lose focus. The more energetically faith seeks relevance, the more desperately its institutions cling to sameness. By way of examples:

The ordering of societies, nations, and institutions by means of hierarchical structures and inequitable distributions of power and resources is a strategy long past its prime. Yet religious institutions remain clergy-dominated, patriarchal, and paranoid about lay involvement’s getting out of hand.

The real strength of religious institutions lies in their ability to mobilize massive resources for serving people in need — the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the homeless and hopeless of the earth. Yet religious institutions pour incalculable amounts of spiritual energy into self-serving projects and enforcement of unquestioning loyalty.

The fact of religious pluralism and the value of religious freedom should inspire religious institutions to be more respectful of each other and more peace-seeking in the world. Yet religious institutions still mock people of other faiths, promote conversion by coercion, and enshrine a false view of human history as unending strife, divinely ordained.

Must personal faith, then, be left to its own resources in order to become a growing faith? Can its vitality be sustained only in spite of, and not with the help of, the institutions which purport to serve its development?

For members of some religious institutions, the answers to these questions may have to be yes, at least for as long as their leaders allow self-interest to subvert their own best insights into sacred truths. But the power these same institutions can marshal, in the interest of resisting change fearfully, is also power to embrace change gladly.

Close to the heart of my own hope for religious institutions is the Protestant Christian idea of the church as always reformed and always reforming (ecclesia semper reformana, semper reformanda). In every religion, the actuality of institutional life falls far short of the “always” in this formula. But “never” isn’t an accurate way of putting it either.

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IS IDOLATRY A SIN, OR SOMETHING EVEN WORSE?

As Ancient Israel came to understand it, idolatry is the act of conferring divine status on something that is merely human. The result is the deformation of the gloriously human into inglorious idols.

It is no wonder that the word “false” so easily attaches to the word “idols.” Idols falsify both our human and God’s divine nature.

All kinds of things in human experience can become idols, and we have become more than adept at letting them do this. Consider, by way of examples:

  • Ancestors, parents, lovers, and rulers;
  • Carvings, paintings, sculptures, and ideas;
  • Family systems, conceptual systems, political systems, and religious traditions;
  • Beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, and inflexible codes conduct;
  • Wealth, fame, power, and pleasure.

We can and do worship any or all of these — and not just the carved images referred to in the Second Commandment — as if they were gods. In Paul Tillich’s phrasing, each can become the object of an ultimate concern, and as a result contaminate devotion to what is truly ultimate.

Most fundamentally, idols dishonor what is genuinely worthy of human beings’ highest praise and loyalty, by drawing attention to themselves and away from what they are intended to symbolize. Humanly fashioned symbols for God in the world — e.g. kings, sacred books, religious leaders — become gods in themselves.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all speak of idolatry as something which cannot but bring punishment down on our heads.

And not only on ours, but on our children’s heads as well, even to the third and fourth generation, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god. (Exodus 20:5)

Unfortunately, with this image the distinction between faith and idolatry threatens to vanish from sight altogether. The Holy One of Israel is here an angry, grudge-holding, vindictive demi-god little different from tribal deities whose sole reason for being is to fan the flames of enmity in the human heart.

This strangely out of place scriptural text does little more than reduce Israel’s God to yet another idol. The jealousy whose source is only human sinfulness becomes a defining attribute of the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Obeying the Second Commandment, the prohibition against the worship of idols, is most certainly important to a maturing faith. But not because we have to obey it to keep divine rage under control. It’s to stay human about our own.

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BEING RELIGIOUS AND BEING SPIRITUAL: BRIDGING THE DIFFERENCES

One sure way to turn an enlightening conversation into an overheated one is to introduce religion or politics into it. Rather than bringing people together for a common purpose, both tend to push people apart — and keep them there.

I’ve lost a lot of hope that anything will be done about this in the realm of politics. But I still have hope in the power of our spiritual nature to create unity in spite of religious differences, trust in spite of religious ideology, and community in spite of religious self-aggrandizement.

For this to happen, though, our spirituality must be ready to assert itself against the divisiveness of both religious affiliation and religious disaffiliation. Will we allow it to happen?

Traditionally, being religious has meant honoring the Sacred by conforming to the beliefs, devotional practices, and moral teachings of a respected tradition (e.g. Judaism). As often as not, it also has included commitment to a more particular tradition within the encompassing one (e.g. Orthodox as opposed to Reformed Judaism).

A key element in most religious traditions — some would say the defining element — is pledging loyalty to the tradition, its institutions, and its leaders with a minimum of questioning. Today, however, increasing numbers of people are holding to a very different conviction.

For them, honoring what is truly sacred means not conforming to religious traditions and practices unless their worthiness can be demonstrated on their own merits. This conviction is close to the very heart of the distinction between religion and spirituality.

Traditionally, being spiritual has meant seeking and dwelling in immediate experience of the Sacred, and viewing everything in the everyday world in the light of the experience(s). Today, it also means letting conformism give way to fresh disclosures of the Divine Spirit, even and especially when they challenge our most cherished religious beliefs, practices, and doubts.

From the perspective of spirituality, the problem with religion is its unwillingness to loosen the binding it inflicts upon people in the interest of ensuring uniformity. From the perspective of religion, the problem with spirituality is its inability to soften the terrifying falls to earth which so often follow its blissful soaring toward heaven.

But soar we must, and not always from the alone to the Alone. Sometimes, we soar best in the company of those who believe the most earnestly, but never blindly, in religious traditions and community.

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ONE GOD, BUT WHICH PROPHET?

Most faith traditions contain beliefs that once were at the very core of their teaching, but are no longer. Beliefs such as: God favors polygamy.

They also uphold beliefs deemed binding upon followers at all times and everywhere. Beliefs such as: To break the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, obey the laws of karma.

It has long been a failing of many faith communities to confuse the first kind of beliefs with the second. They forget that, in the oft-quoted words of James Russell Lowell, “Time makes ancient good uncouth.”

But what if Lowell’s pithy aphorism applied to the second kind as well? And especially to the idea that a religious doctrine can never be changed?

Consider, for example, the doctrine of the triune nature of God. This belief has been at the core of Christian teaching for over 1700 years. But there has been vastly more disagreement among Christians about its status and meaning than ecclesiastical pronouncements have ever admitted.

Acknowledging these disagreements can be especially important to overcoming a particularly dangerous division today, between Christians and Muslims.

For Christians, the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit subordinates the authority of every religious prophet — from Moses all the way to Muhammad — to Jesus. For Muslims, neither Jesus nor Muhammad was a god. Only God is.

Though Church Councils in the fourth century settled on the idea that Jesus Christ is one in essence with God, not all thoughtful Christians did. Many affirmed a likeness in being between Jesus and God that fell short of identity. They did so on the ground that God is one and as such is indivisible in nature.

Few Christians have ever fully understood the Trinitarian controversies in their fourth century context. And among those who have, there has never been agreement that the way the Councils resolved them was the best way. The truth is that one party to the early debates simply got more votes than the other, and then set out to silence the losers by anathematizing them.

What is especially “uncouth” about all this for our time is its leaving Christendom unable to provide the support that Islam needs as it seeks to reaffirm its own doctrinal core to the extremists in its own midst who need it so desperately. Both religions revere the one God that extremists in both know not.

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IS GOD’S MIND CHANGEABLE?

If the first stories in the Bible are any indication, this is a more difficult question to answer than it might seem.

Most of the traditions which are based on them — whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — draw sharp contrasts between the unpredictability and even capriciousness of human minds and the rock-solid unchangeableness of God’s.

The stories themselves, however, may suggest something else. For example, just when the human race was about to drown in a flood, the put-out God who was preparing to send it had second thoughts. Noah’s ark guaranteed that life on earth would start all over and that God would rage no more.

This is the same God with whom Abraham earlier negotiated a better chance for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah to escape punishment for a particularly vile group of sinners in their midst. In an Islamic re-telling of that story, it is the same God with whom Muhammad, encouraged by Moses, would negotiate a more realistic prayer requirement.

And it is this same God whom the prophet Hosea heard to “repent” of thinking about abandoning his people, even for their faithlessness.

But this is also the same God who handed down a law code by which his chosen people and then all of humankind would be judged, both on a daily basis and in final terms. And who promised later to inscribe it inwardly on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). What this promise really comes down to is that one day human obedience to divinely imposed laws will be as unwavering as the Lawgiver himself is.

For a faith based on obedience to divine law, the Law itself is the clearest sign that God never changes in what he expects of us and in what he is willing to tolerate in us. For a faith based on rejoicing over divine grace, however, love is the clearest sign that God never closes his mind to expect great things from us and to forgiving us when fall short.

A god worthy of being called God, or Yahweh, or Allah never changes in desiring the best in every possible world, and in seeking to communicate what that “best” can be in each. But in our world at least, this must be a God for whom openness to change is greater than keeping things as they are, and mercy is greater than judgment.

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ASKING ABOUT EVIL: AN IMPERATIVE FOR FAITH

There is pervasive evil in the human spirit. It helps me to think of it the way many theologians do, as an absence of good. But the devastation that human beings inflict on one another also makes me wonder whether the evil in us is a permanent presence rather than a remediable deprivation.

“Moral” evil, as philosophers refer to it, is the result of human freedom’s running amok. There is surely enough of it around to account for a large amount of undeserved suffering in the world. But it cannot account for all such suffering.

“Natural” phenomena such as earthquakes, sunamis, famine, and disease offer a surfeit of reasons to question whether evil is wholly the result of human beings’ less than humane acts of omission and commission. It is nature, and not a misguided humanity, which is at the heart of the problem that evil poses for faith.

In specific, it is natural catastrophes and not human actions, which raise the deeper questions about (a) whether we live in a created order at all, and (b) whether its Sovereign is powerful and benevolent enough to overcome their destructive consequences. Sadly, religious authorities all too frequently respond to questions like these with denunciations for asking them in the first place.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?, God is reported once to have asked. (Job 38:4) Although the question may have been meant only to be humbling, it also comes across as insulting. It strongly implies a discounting of every believer’s right — and in my view, calling — to ask questions in the interest of separating the wheat of truth from the chaff of opinion.

To be sure, believers, inquirers, and sceptics alike are at a disadvantage, when the issue is reconciling nature’s occasional rampages with the idea of a powerful and benevolent deity. The author of the Book of Job was right. We must never forget that we were not present at creation.

We do not even yet see things as a whole. This means that we can neither claim nor deny that were we to see “the big picture,” we would somehow know how and why natural catstrophes are not really “evils” at all.

Even so, because we cannot help asking, we have the right to ask a still deeper faith-question: is this world the best that God could have created?

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THE SPIRITUALITY OF RELIGIONS’ FOUNDERS

Across the grand sweep of history, transformational events can occur as if in an instant. One sequence of such events worth contemplating has been referred to as an axial shift in humanity’s thinking about ultimate reality.

What I have in mind is an astonishing infusion of mental and spiritual energy into human consciousness that may have taken place across no more than a sixty year period. As if part of a concerted effort, sages as different as Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, and the Hebrew Prophets all helped bring the spiritual awakening to expression. Early Greek philosophers were involved also. And none may have known anything about any of the others’ contributions.

Although I keep looking for a credible explanation for this epochal breakthrough in the experience of transcendent realities, I also believe that by its very nature it will defy our best efforts to discover one. Why? Because there is too much about it to fit neatly into any single belief system or conceptual scheme.

This does not mean, however, that it is beyond understanding altogether.

One thing that seems especially clear about it is how strongly it calls into question those religious authorities who themselves demand unquestioning loyalty. All of the sages and philosophers of this remarkable period subjected all kinds of religious beliefs and practices to severe scrutiny and assessment on both logical and moral grounds.

By way of examples, Confucius relegated to the status of superstition revered practices designed to appease the spirits of departed and yet still-meddling ancestors. The Buddha challenged Hindu Brahmins’ claims that only they had the capacity fully to understand the divine-human relationship. Zenophanes deemed belief in Homer’s gods a mainstay of error. And the list goes on.

To me, the legacy of the Axial Age has been ambiguous almost from its beginning. It offers to each of us the possibility of a spiritual awakening beyond all present imagining. But with it comes the knowledge that experiencing its fullness may require leaving behind much of what we have been told previously about spiritual realities.

Before us are truths that, through the experiences of great spiritual leaders, are available to us, too. But so also are their over-zealous followers, who demand loyalty to their leaders more than to the truth. Jesus once summed this up by asking why people called him, rather than God, good.

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WHAT’S DIVINE ABOUT THE “GOD PARTICLE?”

I have enough trouble getting electrons, protons, and neutrons straight, much less the physics of bosons.  However, I do think I grasp why physicists around the world are excited about newly emerging evidence for a very special sub-atomic particle. Perhaps people of faith should be, too.

Named for the physicist who first posited its existence, the Higgs boson is believed by particle physicists to account for everything in the universe’s having mass. One scientist friend recommended my thinking about it as a sticky kind of stuff that fills space and makes possible a thing-y (rather than a string-y?) kind of universe.

But how did this particular boson come to be called a “God particle”? The answer seems to be that it, and only it, performs the function of holding very, very small things together. Somewhat like God’s sustaining of “all things, visible and invisible” in the created order.

The God in the God particle, however, is not the Transcendent, Creator God who produced the primordial Big Bang. Rather, the boson-God is more like an Immanent Presence in the post-Bang transformation of energy into matter in motion. It is a space-filling particle that binds everything that is still proceeding from the originating Explosion. It keeps the furniture of the universe now in place from disintegrating before or along with our very eyes.

There is a passage in The Book of Colossians that nicely links the Christology of early church teaching with the cosmology of post-boson scientific speculation: “all things are held together in him” (1:17). To be sure, the writer could not leave it at that point with respect to Christ; he made Him agent of the universe’s creation as well. But the writer also left us a very powerful idea of a very present God in the midst of indeterminacy and even chaos.

The close-at-handness of a God so understood is a welcome improvement over the idea of an infinitely high and remote God that has so dominated Christian theology. Ancient Stoics once posited the universe as God’s body. It’s an idea worth contemplating that the Higgs bosons are all His, and maybe even Him.

If the search for these bosons is any indication, people soon may be able to take such an idea to their comfort just as much in science as they always have in religion.

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WHEN SPIRITUALITY WENT GLOBAL

Many religious believers around the world are absolutely certain that nothing was worth remembering for very long about humankind’s spiritual journey until Abraham, Jesus, or Muhammad came along. My reading of history suggests otherwise.

For decades, I have been contemplating a very brief interval of historical time within which astonishingly powerful spiritual breakthroughs occurred, as if simultaneously, at widely separated points on the planet. Together, they have transformed human existence forever.

The interval I have in mind is the time between 590 and 530 B.C.E. It may have been a little longer; historians have slightly different opinions about the most important birth and death dates of the period. But it cannot have been very much longer.

Here is what holds my attention about these years: during them, the following spiritual leaders attained the height of their powers and influence: Zoroaster in Persia, Lao Tzu and Confucius in China, the Buddha in India, and the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah in Babylonia.

And there is more: while these revered men were making their own monumental contributions to spirituality across the globe, a new philosophical spirit was emerging in Southern Italy (e.g., from Xenophanes and Pythagoras) and Asia Minor (Anaximander). In interestingly different ways, these philosophers challenged ancient Greek polytheism in light of rationally determined ideas about what is truly worthy of human devotion.

To me, this is a staggering sequence of historical convergences. It has made me wonder repeatedly whether we are looking at more than mere coincidence in their emergence.

Karl Jaspers, one of the last century’s most respected philosophers, had a captivating way of referring to this era in human history. In one of his most enthralling books, The Origin and Goal of History, he called it the time when the axis of the spiritual world underwent a permanent and transformational shift. Karen Armstrong makes considerable use of Jasper’s notion in many of her own, much respected writings.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all present their respective messages within historical contexts. Past events and personages pave the way for the life, teachings, and impact of their own especially revered men of God. Each of their efforts, though, eventually ends up the same way, by pronouncing its own story to be the only story worth honoring. Puzzlingly, though, each also proclaims God to be the Lord of all history and not just of a part of it.

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THE BRAIN, CONSCIOUSNESS, AND GOD

How does the brain form consciousness?

Note the form of this question. Neuroscientists aren’t asking whether the brain does it; they take this for granted. They only want to know how.

And this is what makes their work a major challenge to faith. For if consciousness is only a by-product of brain functioning, can it make sense to believe in a Divine consciousness? In a God “mindful” of human beings?

Not without asking what sort of brain the Divine must have, and neither scientists nor theologians show much interest in pursuing this matter (pun intended) further. Except, perhaps, in the direction of imagining something like a computer whose power is on an order of magnitude approaching infinity.

But the trouble with this analogy will always be that it cannot tell us who programmed the computer’s Artificial Intelligence originally.

It may be that, from a faith perspective, neuroscience’s brain-consciousness challenge should simply be declared beyond the pale of intelligible discourse. And then, that all parties return immediately to fine-tuning the mind-body problem on a purely human scale.

Contrary to the materialistic view of modern science, the question still remains of how to explain the very real interactions between purely physical and purely mental phenomena. Or in the phrasing of the founder of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, between material and thinking substances.

From the perspective of faith, the even more important question remains of how to discern divine influences on turning mentally-formed moral choices into physically embodied moral actions.

But the question of the formation of consciousness itself also remains, for consciousness transcends both brain and mind. In human beings, it is at the very least the body’s awareness of itself, and the mind’s reflection upon both itself and its embodied condition.

What might consciousness be like in God? Even if this is truly beyond reason to determine, as I strongly suspect it is, it still may be possible to imagine at least some of its contents. As for instance, God’s appreciation of his work as the world’s creator and sustainer. And even more, God’s hopes for the world’s future.

Or in the phrasing of the Priestly writer in the Old Testament, and God saw all that he had made, and it was good.

As science continues to ask how the brain forms consciousness, perhaps faith will find it equally interesting to ask how consciousness forms the brain.

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