WHEN LOVE’S REDEEMING WORK IS DONE: AN EASTER MEDITATION

My life in faith began differently from what my church friends were expecting at the time. I received an answer to a question, not a release from guilt.

The question was whether God existed at all. The answer seemed to have come from God directly. It convinced me that he had been taking my faith struggles as seriously as I did, and that he would be with me in all the struggles to come.

By church standards, that wasn’t much of a conversion experience. But it was all I could offer by way of asking to be included in its fellowship. Now, I know that it was more than enough to keep my faith growing for a lifetime.

What was missing, of course, was Christ. To all the church folks I knew back then, God doesn’t come to you except in Jesus and you can’t get to God except through Jesus.

Knowing that I would never believe anything like that, God, I think, adjusted his coming to me accordingly. And he left me to come to Jesus on my own.

The Jesus I came to appeared first after I joined the church and was put to work helping out in the children’s Sunday School. What drew me to him were images coming to mind while leading the younger ones in singing Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Jesus still comes to me the way he did in that first encounter with him. He was a man overwhelmed with the idea and the experience of a Love beyond human imagining, not of an atonement beyond human deserving.

What this meant was that Jesus’ story could never be for me the story of a man who died for us “while we were yet sinners.” These well-intended words of Paul are quickly smothered by a theology based upon the reprehensible idea of an innocent man’s blood appeasing an angry, punitive deity unworthy of the designation Divine.

As I have come to know it, Easter cannot be as Paul thought it was, “evidence” of the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice for the world’s sins. It is instead, a celebration of hope that love will never end. It honors a man in whom the power of such hoping made the end of his life a new beginning for all of us.

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HOW NOT TO TELL THE CHRISTIAN STORY: A LENTEN MEDITATION

One of the most important things that churches still offer the world is a story about human nature and destiny that challenges both reason and moral sensibility to the core.

The story goes like this:

Chapter One. The creator of the universe brought humankind into existence through two finite beings who bore His own image and likeness. In spite of their resemblance to their creator, they dishonored Him by refusing to do what He asked of them. Their predilection to disobedience has been transmitted to all generations, putting the human race at risk for everlasting punishment.

Chapter Two. Instead of giving us what we all deserve, however, God laid our obligations to Him on the shoulders of a single, wholly innocent and sinless man, whose suffering He then deemed a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

Chapter Three. All who believe unquestioningly that Jesus was uniquely chosen by God to atone on a cross for humanity’s perfidy are forgiven their sins and will receive everlasting life. All who do not believe that in Jesus alone the world’s sins are forgiven will remain estranged from God forever.

Epilogue. For further details, consult only the Bible, not the Tanach and never the Qu’ran.

By all rational and moral standards, this is a story about transactions that are anything but worthy of the designation “divine.”

It denies God’s power to set us right with Himself without anyone else having to mediate on our behalf;

It obscures God’s goodness by attributing to him the infliction of unnecessary and unjust suffering upon a man said to be utterly innocent of sins like ours;

It trivializes God’s graciousness by making salvation dependent upon believing an impossible story rather than by trusting an all-surpassing love;

It deforms Jesus’ message about a loving God into an aggrandizing of Jesus himself; and

It reduces Jesus’ personhood to that of a man abandoned by the very God whom he loved with all his mind, heart, souls, and strength.

There has to be a way of understanding the significance of Jesus in world history that does not depend on a story like this, or upon doctrines of the Atonement that are drawn from it.

The best one begins with Jesus’ message about the ultimate source of being, power, value, and meaning as a Love which never fails and never ends.

 

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A MEDITATION ON MULTIVERSES

Then, there was Light. And the Bang, and the Expanding. But what happened before the “Then?”

For some time now, physicists have been telling their story of the universe all the way back to a bare one ten million, trillion, trillion, trillionth of a second from the beginning. They call the gap from there to the beginning the “Planck era.” Impressive.

But even more so is new data that makes possible more reasonable speculations about what happened during the Planck era itself. For me, the most breathtaking of these speculations is the suggestion that “in the beginning” there came into being more than just our own universe.

It is as if that single (?) primordial event (explosion?) sent the space, time, causalities, and substances it threw off into many different dimensions at the same (moment?). The result was a multitude of universes, possibly an infinite number of them, layered in different space/time configurations.

Clearly, language has come close to the end of its tether in these current attempts at describing the origins of things. If by “universe” we already mean all there is, can it make any sense to apply the word to more than one “All”?

Perhaps it can. All the experts now seem willing to try.

Actually, once I talked myself into believing that I know what “infinite” can mean, the multiverse hypothesis didn’t seem all that daunting. I came upon it first while reading the 1709 essay on God’s righteousness and justice (Theodicy) by the philosopher Leibniz, the famous Dr. Pangloss of Voltaire’s Candide.

Leibniz conjectured that our universe is one of an infinity of possible universes held resplendently in the divine mind before it was removed from the realm of abstract possibility and made the only actual universe. All the others remain only possible universes that God elected not to make actual. They continue to exist in God’s mind, but nowhere else.

If Leibniz were alive today, I think he might revise his original theory. Now, he might say, the Actualizer of our own universe is actualizing every possible universe also. And further, in all of those other universes there just might be beings with the same curiosity and wonder about theirs that we have about our own.

What end might all of these universes, and not just one of them, serve? Perhaps the infinite expansion of glorifying the infiniteness of their Creator.

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CAN CORPORATIONS GET INTO HEAVEN?

Until recently, I would not have thought to ask a question like this.

On the face of it, it rests squarely upon what philosophers refer to as a “category mistake.” You have to be a person either to be admitted into heaven or to be told to go elsewhere. It makes no sense to speak of organizations this way.

Here’s why this seemingly nonsensical question has been bothering me. It has to do with the metaphysics of recent Supreme Court deliberations.

In 2010, the Court affirmed the right of organizations to support political candidates, just like real people do. Recently, another case before the Court may make things even murkier, philosophically.

The case involves Hobby Lobby, whose owners claim that government-mandated contraceptive coverage in the corporation’s insurance plan violates their personal religious beliefs. The challenge is based on the 1993 Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, which bars the federal government from actions that unnecessarily “burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

But is Hobby Lobby “a person” in any meaningful religious sense of the term? The Citizens United decision notwithstanding, it’s hard to see how it could be.

As a corporation, Hobby Lobby is first and foremost a legal entity formed, like all corporations, primarily for the purpose of ensuring that its owners will never bear any personal responsibility for its debts. It isn’t a someone who decides to believe things, or who could see himself/herself in jeopardy with God or a religious tradition for not believing the right things.

In a word, Hobby Lobby has no soul, it hasn’t had one from the time its owners created it, and it is never going to get one, no matter how relentlessly its owners insist on its right not to do things that violate the dictates of its conscience.

Things are very different with the corporation’s owners. They do have souls, they believe things, and they may be personally accountable to the God in whom they believe for believing what that God tells them to believe. This, in part, is what it means to have a soul.

Perhaps these folks would be willing to begin accepting full financial responsibility for their corporation’s losses as well as gains. It would certainly make Hobby Lobby a more person-like entity than it now is.

Then, it would be possible to tell him how discriminatory his anti-contraception beliefs are to his female employees.

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FRED PHELPS, RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, AND THE SUPREME COURT

This past week, Fred Phelps, a disbarred lawyer and hate-filled pastor, died. He became especially known for his gleeful consigning to Hell, in the name of his wrathful God, gays, lesbians, and everyone who gave them even the least measure of tolerance and support.

I think Mr. Phelps is in for some real surprises at heaven’s gates. Down here, though, I can only think of him as a man who loved his favorite biblical texts more than he loved the Bible, and who loved his fulminations more than he loved the gospel.

But this is not an anti-eulogy about a universally hated and misguided repudiator of truth. Instead, I want to use Phelps’ passing as an occasion to revisit the moment of his greatest triumph.

On March 2, 2011, The Supreme Court of the United States upheld a ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals about a particularly distressing, distasteful, and repugnant anti-gay protest of Phelps and his followers at a military funeral. Its effect was to declare all such protests permissible under the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

The Circuit Court’s original ruling contained an interesting statement on its final page, recognizing “the sanctity of solemn occasions such as funerals and memorials,” and the permissibility of placing reasonable restrictions on activities that are otherwise constitutionally protected. So long, that is, as “breathing space” is left for contentious speech.

It still doesn’t seem to me that either the Appeals Court or the Supreme Court wrestled sufficiently with the dilemma of affirming both the sanctity of solemn occasions and the importance of breathing space for free speech.

Eight of the nine justices agreed that the distress occasioned by the protests had everything to do with the content of the message they sought to convey, and not at all with assaulting people as they gather for worship in times of bereavement. In essence, they accepted a framing of the dispute as about freedom of speech and not about freedom of worship.

It’s still hard for me to see why self-proclaimed God-fearing funeral picketers were allowed protection under the First Amendment to intrude upon other peoples’ experiencing the comfort that funeral services aim to provide. Funerals are not the place to make grief an occasion for driving home points of disputed theology.

But rest well, Mr. Phelps. Your God is more forgiving than you knew.

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A TIME TO MOURN: BUT FOR HOW LONG?

Grief, the normal reaction to a significant loss, feels anything but normal when it hits. Because this is so, many grieving people try to deaden themselves to its pain by trying too hard to get on with their lives too soon.

This hurry-up strategy rarely works well. Working through grief takes time. How much time? Well, it takes the time it takes, period.

Too many mental health professionals today are still clinging to a misguided notion that grieving a loss is ok, unless it goes on too long. Then, it becomes a “mental disorder.”

In psychiatric terms, when uncomplicated bereavement becomes complicated, it requires professional treatment. Getting exercise, eating well, and reaching out to family and friends won’t any longer do.

Psychiatrists used to give peoples’ grieving at least a few months to stay uncomplicated. Now, if the latest version of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) is any indication, they’re giving it only a few weeks, after which it’s off to the pharmacy, the hospital, or both.

The ancient Preacher of the Old Testament told about the “seasons” of life. There is a time to mourn, he wrote, and there is a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:4) He did not, however, tell us how much time we are allowed for the transition.

In my experience, grief-work takes longer than most who are suffering it would like. But there is a good reason why this must be so.

Letting go of someone or something lost requires — most importantly, I think — sorting out good memories from bad ones. Then, one must decide whether to move on with as many of the good ones that the bad ones do not cancel out. This is no easy process.

In the long run, though, it is easier than putting the loss out of our minds as soon as possible and then deluding ourselves that we are doing well with moving on.

We grieve at all because we have loved, and in strict measure to how strong our love still is. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether who or what we love was worthy of our love. What does matter is that we remain capable of loving, even though it is this very capacity that will continue to make us vulnerable to loss.

And so, we will dance again, and joyfully. But not too soon.

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SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

Many people I know believe that the Ten Commandments are all that anyone needs in order to answer any question about right and wrong. My own view is that these commandments raise more questions than they answer.

Consider this question, for example: how is one to love with one’s whole being a God who according to the Third Commandment is a very “jealous” God?

Jealousy is a character defect, pure and simple. And because it is, it cannot also be a divine attribute. Any God-pretender claiming to have it should never become an object of any human being’s devotion, not to mention affection.

Another question is whether, according to the Tenth Commandment, covetous feelings are as punishable as covetous acts should be. I don’t think so, but I’m not sure Moses would agree.

And still another is why adultery, prohibited by the Seventh Commandment, should be regarded as an offense punishable by death.

These are important questions, but others that are more on my mind these days have to do with another commandment, the Ninth, about not “bearing false witness” against our neighbors. I want to look at it as a higher principle of human relationships in general, but tradition seems so often to get in the way.

The original context of this commandment was ancient Israel’s courts of elders. It was intended to prohibit lying in a judicial proceeding for the purpose of harming others. I wish its correlate had been stated with equal clarity, that we should under all circumstances attribute to others only what we know, and not just think we know, to be true about them.

Elsewhere in the Bible, there is a confusing trivializing of this commandment, seemingly to deal with little more than name-calling. By way of example, Jesus is alleged to have said that whoever calls another a “fool” deserves hell-fire. (5:22)

That this application was confusing even to those who came up with it is evident from the vignettes which also describe Jesus doing the very thing he warned others not to do. Matthew 23 has him calling Pharisees “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” “vipers,” and even “blind fools.”

Surely it was Matthew more than Jesus who was responsible for verbal aggression like this. It not only trivializes The Ninth Commandment. It undermines it altogether. Sometimes, it’s best not to take the new with the old — testament, that is.

 

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ON RAINBOWS, LAKES OF FIRE, AND GOD’S GRACE

In Mrs. Willis’ second grade Sunday School class, the story of the Flood did not sit well with any of us. It was too scary. But more than that, it seemed to be about something terribly unfair.

As I got older, I stopped being scared by the story, but not being angry about it. Peoples’ offenses are very different. One-punishment-fits-all is unworthy of a truly holy God.

The real problem with the story, though, is that its disaster sequences seriously weaken its climax: “…Never again will I put the earth under a curse because of humankind, however evil their inclination may be from their youth upwards…” (Genesis 8:21) Rainbows are the reminder that God repented of what he had done.

It’s easy to miss this seismic shift in theology.We are still missing it. A case in point: Christians’ gleeful recounting of divinely wrought world destruction predicted in the Book of Revelation. When Satan is released after a thousand year captivity, people will be judged by deeds already inscribed in a book of life, and those whose accounts are deficient will be flung into a lake of fire. (Chapter 20)

Clearly, third generation Christians had a harder time with persecution than their mentors did. From his cross, Jesus asked forgiveness for all his persecutors. But the Johannine community of 30 years later got so peeved with their tormentors that instead of praying for them, they consigned them to an anti-Christ of their own devising.

I love Revelation’s image of a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, with God dwelling in it and putting an end to death, mourning, crying and pain. (21:1-6) I can almost see a rainbow spanning the sky as the glorious city descends to meet us here on a glorious new earth.

Then, however, the scene changes again, to all the bad things about to happen to all those who have done so many bad things. (21:8) Just as in the story of the Flood, the divine fury here is undiscriminating. Cowards and liars come off just as badly as murderers do.

It has been an important Christian belief that in the whole of the scriptures God’s Word can be found. But this does not mean that every scriptural passage expresses that Word equally well. For an image of a future with God, I’ll take the rainbow over the lake of fire anytime.

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IS THE BIBLE CONSERVATIVE, LIBERAL, OR WHAT?

It is hard to see how throwing in one’s favorite theology helps very much at getting to the Bible’s meaning, on the Bible’s own terms. Let me offer a couple of illustrations in the interest of trying to make this point convincing.

The first comes from the efforts of the widely followed Conservative Bible Project to put together a Bible with every vestige of theological liberalism expunged. Their methodology is intriguing, to say the least.

For example, at Luke 23:34, Jesus asks God to forgive his crucifiers because they do not know what they are doing.

In light of the Project’s overarching goal, this passage, a favorite among liberals, must be taken out because it shows Jesus in a liberal light.

The formal rationale cited is that the words appear in none of the other Passion Narratives and therefore may not reflect Jesus’ own. But five of the other six last words of Jesus fall into this same category. They remain in the Conservative Bible, however, because they are not tainted with a liberal bias.

Liberals, too, are prone to this same kind of tailoring of the Bible to fit their own theologies. The by now notorious Jesus Seminar achieved no small measure of following for producing a Fifth Gospel, whose tone is decidedly liberal. The Seminar accomplished its task by taking votes from shifting groups of biblical scholars on what passages from the other four and the Gospel of Thomas ought to go into its new version.

There is nothing new about allowing theologies to take liberties with Scripture. By the 140’s, the Marcionite faction in the Roman church offered a Christian canon made up of parts of Paul’s letters and of the Gospel of Luke, and nothing else.

Because the God of the Jews was an evil God, Marcion appears to have believed (wrongly), Jewish scriptures had to be excluded, and with them every Christian book that in any way depended upon them. The process went so far as to exclude every passage even in Paul and Luke that made Jesus out to be a faithful Jew (which, in fact, he was).

One’s theology will always affect the way one looks at the Bible. But the holy and gracious God in the Bible is both holier than the Bible itself is, and more gracious than our theologies will ever be.

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WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT “OBJECTIONABLE” RELIGIOUS WRITINGS?

The right answer to this question is: take a second look at what makes them objectionable to the objector. The wrong answer is: make them unavailable to anybody who wants to take even the first look.

A highly respected publishing house, Penguin India, recently flunked this test. I’m writing about it because it was an important test, involving a scholar with impeccable credentials and the right of serious religious inquirers to learn from her.

Basically, Penguin Books failed its readers by agreeing to recall and destroy copies of a book it published four years ago by an internationally acclaimed expert on Hinduism. The expert is the University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger, and the book is The Hindus: An Alternative History.

It’s a great book, the kind that reviewers like to refer to as “magisterial.”

Except, it would seem, for a small group (“fringe” in the minds of some) in India whose leader found some of its passages personally objectionable. Charges were brought against the book’s publisher, under a section of India’s Penal Code which makes it a criminal (!) offense to deliberately outrage or insult ”religious feelings.”

Happily, like all would-be religious Inquisitors, the instigators of these charges will almost  certainly find themselves chagrined at how many more people will read Doniger’s book than would have had they kept their objections in-house.

I don’t know much about Indian law, so I won’t begin to speculate on just how its makers got themselves into the position of having to defend this particularly odious one. What I do know something about is what can lead people to be so defensive, fearful, and judgmental about religious ideas and their interpretation.

In a word, it’s insecurity. Part of the insecurity comes from worrying about whether they really do believe what they are telling everyone else to believe. On matters of religious faith, one well-trodden but bad way to quell one’s own doubts is to condemn the questions raised by others.

Another part of the insecurity comes from worrying about whether others respect them the way they feel they deserve to be respected. On matters of self-respect, one way to quell inner worries about one’s own respectability is to tear down the reputation of others.

The irony about this particular controversy, as Professor Doniger herself well knows, is that Hinduism has much to teach us about getting over both kinds of insecurity.

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