It took a long time, but human beings finally began to understand that there can be only one Being worthy of unconditional devotion and loyalty. What is truly sacred — “perfect in power, in love, and purity” — cannot be the capricious tribal deities of times past. Only the Deity is holy.

Would that we were this far along in our understanding of human society. From the standpoints of both biology and theology, of our genetic code and of the will of the Deity we seek, we are in essence members of one species and one human family.

In actuality, however, we are sundered into warring factions whose mutual enmity may yet destroy the world just as surely as nuclear warheads can. The sad fact is that for many, the very idea of “one world” is an idea conjured up by people whose real purpose is to wipe everyone else off the face of the earth.

With respect to faith, there does seem to be something incongruous about believing that God is one and then having to acknowledge that there are still many forms of faith (= religions) on earth. If there is in fact only one God, logic seems to demand, shouldn’t there be only one faith and not many?

This kind of logic has been in evidence for at least as long as organized religions have. The conclusion to which it leads is most often this one: Yes, believing in one God does in fact imply that only one form of faith is the right one — ours.

But wouldn’t it make just as much sense to reason that since God is one, and there are many faiths, no one faith can be the right one by itself? Should there be anything surprising about the fact that human beings, who choose not to get along on so many other things, make faith just one more source of dividedness?

Genuine faith, though, is too deeply embedded in our souls to leave us content with ideological distortions of it. It yearns too deeply for connectedness with what is truly sacred to be satisfied with religions which cut people off not only from each other, but from the Deity in whom they all live, and move, and have their being, together.

For now, though, many faiths will have to do.

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Theology is both an off-putting word and a perplexing enterprise. Its dense definitions and seemingly unfathomable doctrines make it hard to appreciate just what service it renders either to faith or the search for it.

And yet, its subject matter is nothing other than faith seeking deeper understanding — of God, the world, and human destiny. At its best, theology is about the seeking, and not the possessing.

It is about:

  • expressing religious understandings of things in ways that help people in different times, places, and cultures grasp their meaning for their own circumstances and situations;
  • evoking a sense and a remembrance of the God truly worthy of devotion, above all the false gods created in distorted imagination and failing hope;
  • challenging ill-formed and self-serving religious platitudes and pieties which threaten in every age to keep the human community a mélange of endlessly warring tribes; and
  • reminding religious institutions that raising questions and thinking hard about the Sacred is an essential part of what it means to live by faith with integrity and a sense of inner peace.

In most religious traditions, faith is characterized as accepting certain beliefs, acting in certain ways, and by means of both hoping to get into a right relationship with the Divine. Where the traditions tend to err is in presenting the faith that is in them as an end product rather than as something still emerging.

My own emphasis, as a theologian and a writer about faith, has been not so much on the “what” of faith as on the “how” of coming to it and growing in it. It is on helping people to decide for themselves what they can and cannot believe, and not on conveying explicit beliefs and asking for assent to them on the spot.

Most importantly, it is on listening to people’s questions rather than on pointing them to the so-called orthodox answers to them.

The kind of faith that I write about is not something that people either have or do not have. It is something that they — and myself especially — are in the process of assessing, gaining, changing, losing, and hopefully re-gaining, throughout life.

Faith is born in the fear of being seen by God, and of what God will see in us. Good theologies help make it grow into a yearning to see God face to face, no matter what.

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For people struggling with questions like these, religion might seem the best place to look for answers.

But what kind of answers are they likely to find there? Most likely, answers that reflect the outlook of only each religion by itself, conveyed with an authoritativeness that aims to dissolve doubts with dogmas.

Trust and obey, there is no other way…

Two things are almost always missing in this kind of answer. One is a respect for what reason and conscience can bring to faith-questions. The other is a refusal to acknowledge that the most helpful answers are often those whose truth must be experienced for oneself.

Even so, the experiencing as well as the discovering generally go better with the support of soul friends who know the struggles first hand. And who also know what it is like to receive from religious leaders and caustic doubters alike exhortations that offer little help and smother further conversation.

One way to ensure that an answer to someone’s faith-question will not be genuinely illuminating is for it to be delivered too soon and with over-confident flourishes. What works better is patient and respectful listening, especially for why the particular question is of concern to the particular person now asking it. It also helps to consider more than one way of answering it.

This is a process of resisting giving answers. Instead, it encourages people to keep looking for the answers that will make the best spiritual sense to them, on their own terms. Sometimes the best way to do this is to raise even more questions.

And to let go believing that we have right answers when we don’t.

Listening carefully to people as they struggle to express hard questions of faith is just as demanding as listening compassionately to people as they struggle with any other life-issue. What makes it so demanding is the very compassion that makes the listening possible in the first place.

It is a good thing to want to alleviate distresses about faith — in ourselves as well as in others — as quickly as possible. But not if it means opting out of the hard work of thinking about and assessing religious beliefs and practices in the light of our own experiences.

And of facing the possibility that the path to a lasting faith may turn out to be anything but what we expected.

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Why do religious institutions do so many things to undermine the very purposes which give them life?

Initially, they present themselves as vehicles for sharing inspiring visions of a Spiritual Community whose members offer respect, encouragement, and love to all. Soon, however, they begin setting themselves apart from anyone who expresses difficulty aligning their actions with their visions.

To the question of why this keeps happening, religious traditions and the human sciences offer different but nevertheless instructive answers.

Religion’s answer is that there is something morally deficient in human nature. And because there is, we (believers and inquirers alike) will tend to corrupt the best that is in every religion by the worst that is us. Only an infusion of divine power can change things for the better, both in us and the institutions we create.

Science’s answer is that there is something in our genetic code which prescribes being suspicious of and antagonistic toward people who are not like us. And because there is, we build social organizations for the purpose of serving our own interests above everyone else’s. Only mutating genes can give the human species any hope for transcending the tribalism which now threatens its very survival.

What makes religion’s answer instructive is its choice of the words “deficient” and “tend.” We corrupt our institutions — political as well as religious — not because we are corrupt to the core but because we are not yet the creatures that we are meant to be. And because we are not, we tend to think and act from our deficiencies rather than our possibilities.

What makes science’s answer instructive is the conviction it embeds that even what may seem the most intractable forms of social organization are subject to a higher biological imperative built into our genes and alleles. The imperative is to change when environmental challenges demand that we do.

To be sure, there is a blind randomness about this imperative: adapt or die. But there is also hope. Biologically as well as philosophically, the “ought” implies the “can.”

Unless we bring human life on this planet to an inglorious end by our own malfeasance, the next stage of human history seems destined to include a universalizing of human consciousness. In both our souls and in our genes exists the capacity to discern its necessity and to actualize its possibility.

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There is a very large difference between getting angry and being enraged. Being blind to the difference is damaging to the soul.

Anger is a normal reaction to feeling deprived of something important to surviving and thriving. Rage is a frequent but unhelpful reaction to believing that something important has been withheld or taken from us.

Anger generates energy to meet as many of our own and others’ needs as we can, ourselves. Rage activates fantasies of destroying those whom we imagine are denying us our just due.

It is easy to understand how anger turns into rage on the human level, even on a global scale. Our present day operating values — acquiring, consuming, hoarding, and closing off as many accesses to others’ happiness as possible — are creating societies with decreasing numbers of deprivers and increasing numbers of those they deprive.

But what about anger and rage on a spiritual level? Consider, for example, the idea of Satan as merely a Deceiver, working his seductions in the pure light of day. And how this Satan turned into a Prince of Darkness shouting enraged curses from all over an unseen underworld.

The Deceiver gets angry from time to time at people who do not believe his lies, especially the one about getting everything they will ever want in life. But he just tells the lies again in different words, and bides his time.

But the flaming at the mouth Satan is something else. In truth, this idea is about something that is not our business at all. It is about an angel who got thrown out of heaven and who should be spewing his obscenities to God, and not to us, for doing it to him.

This Satan we can endure. In Martin Luther’s words, his doom is sure; one little word will dissolve him. Or at least a phrase. Mine is: take it up with God, Beelzebub.

As for our own rage, Dylan Thomas once wrote that it may be best saved for death and for blindness. “Though wise men at their end know dark is right, because their words had forked no lightning, they do not go gentle into that good night.” And neither, Thomas hoped, did his father look gently upon becoming blind.

But worse than blindness in the eye is blindness in the soul. That dying of the light, too, is something to rage against.

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For many people, faith is about believing what they are told to believe, with no questions asked. For me, it is about searching for the best and not just the accepted in every religious tradition.

It is about bringing our own best judgment to what others ask us to believe for their own reasons. This means that coming to genuine faith involves asking questions — a lot of questions. The most helpful answers will be those we discover for ourselves, after struggling honestly with others’ answers to the very same questions.

A life-long member of a small but lively church, distraught over the possibility that her best friends may leave it over the issue of homosexuality, is told: You just have to trust that our leaders are telling us what God is telling them, that we should leave. A father of two severely troubled teen-agers, painfully second-guessing his decision to divorce their mother, is comforted with the proclamation: You don’t have to worry about your sin if you trust in the Lord; he already paid the price for it in full on the cross. A staunchly pro-life advocate, still in shock over an unexpected pregnancy at age 44, is advised by her Catholicism-bashing good friend: Abortion is your decision and yours alone to make.

Any one of these affirmations might be true for any struggling believer at one time or another. But it would have been better had these particular strugglers been listened to more, and encouraged to seek answers that make the most sense to them on their own terms.

About this approach, though, one pastor I know raised an important question: But shouldn’t a genuine believer answer someone’s faith-question the way their own religion answers it? To me, this listening approach says that whatever answer the questioner comes up is ok, as long as it is sincere.

No, sincerity is not enough. But neither is insisting that a religion must present its message the same way at all times and everywhere. No religion has anticipated and provided for every changing circumstance across history, and none ever will.

If our faith is to grow, we must be ready to question and disagree about what religious ideas and beliefs can mean in and for different times, places, and circumstances. Hopefully, in the process we will have the support of fellow strugglers who understand. We deserve them.

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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, negotiated 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 expecting great things of 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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One thing I find especially encouraging in the Bible is the infrequency of its allusions to unforgivable offenses. In fact, they come down to one kind of action only, “blaspheming the Holy Spirit.” Mark’s Gospel defines this as attributing the effectiveness of Jesus’ exorcisms, and possibly his ministry, to the power of Satan.

The discussion of an unforgivable sin seems to have arisen in the first place because scribes had traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee to accuse Jesus both of being possessed by Satan and of driving out other demons by Satan’s own power. When Jesus asked the scribes, in response, how Satan can drive out Satan, they dropped the whole subject.

Would that everyone else had as well. But at least by the mid-second century, Christians finally began easing off from their own morbid fascination with unforgivable sin. A powerful sign of the permanent shift in this attitude is evident in the Apostles’ Creed of that time, which gives expression to a strong belief “in the forgiveness of sins.”

Forgiveness is not of some sins. Nor is it of all sins except one. Forgiveness is forgiveness of all sins, period. Although I still meet people who are absolutely convinced that they have done something truly unpardonable, I do not know anyone who has actually committed the sin that Mark referred to and that the Apostles’ Creed does not.

If there is no unforgivable sin, though, there certainly are sinful actions serious enough to put the integrity of a relationship with God and one’s neighbors in jeopardy. My own list of these is becoming shorter and shorter, but the things on it are bothering me more and more, e.g.: denigrating other people according to their beliefs, affiliations, income, gender, ethnicity; celebrating having more while others have less; treating the created order as something there for the taking.

But there is nothing in any offensive or harmful act, even an act like one of these, that is powerful enough to keep separated those who commit it from those who are willing to forgive it. Where sin is, grace also abounds, especially as the forgiven reach out to forgive others.

If there is a loving God at all, as I believe there is, that God will always love us more than we love our sins.

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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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Surely it is time to get beyond extolling a god who, above all else, has to be feared. But coming to terms with this kind of deity has a long history, and letting go is not easy.

In ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome, religion rarely rose above a sense of apprehensiveness toward the sacred powers believed to control human destiny. In a word, the Holy was something to be appeased more than loved.

Israel’s efforts to offer an alternative frequently faltered. The God she worshipped was too often that jealous god who condemns to the third and fourth generation the children of all who disrespect him (Exodus 20:5). This was the Lord toward whom fear, wrongly understood, was thought to be the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).

And much of the history of both Christianity and Islam is the history of badly handling the terror of being found wanting in the eyes of such a god. Both religions all too easily displace it onto people declared to be hated by God even more than he hates their oppressors. Today’s ISIS tirades, along with their Western anti-Muslim counterparts, are only the latest chapters in sordid stories of spiritual derangement.

Fearing God is most typically associated with awareness of wrongdoing and anticipation of punishment. What makes it rise to the level of terror is the degree of the guilt feelings which accompany acknowledging the wrongdoing. When the guilt and/or the fear reach intolerable levels, the result is usually some form of spiritual flagellation, either of oneself or of others upon whom one’s own defects are projected.

But the Wisdom figure of the Book of Proverbs spoke of the fear of God in very different terms than these. The words cited above are only half of the text. The second half was this: … and knowledge of the Most Holy One is understanding. Understanding. Not terror, not guilt, not hate, but rather compassion, hope, and a sense of universal fellowship — religion at its best and not its worst.

Among people of wisdom, the fear of God is a profound acknowledgment of and respect for the fundamental difference between God and human beings — all human beings — in the order of Being and Value. It is a sense of profound awe in God’s presence. And of relief that the world’s future does not depend on only the likes of us.

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