SCIENCE AND RELIGION: MUST THEY BE AT WAR?

Most modern societies believe that the delivery of better living through science offsets the over-promising of scientific researchers themselves. So why do so many religious communities seem so indifferent and even hostile toward the science itself?

I think the answer lies in an inadequately unexamined religious attitude. One way of describing it is in terms of an anxious respectfulness toward whatever is believed to be a sacred reality. The emphasis here falls on the word, “anxious.”

The carefulness includes maintaining a self-protective distance from the Sacred (as in sitting toward the back in a half empty sanctuary), as a dutifulness bordering on compulsiveness, and as a refusal to question anything about what is regarded as the divinely ordained order of things.

With a religious outlook like this, modern science can only be viewed as edging closer to blasphemy with every hypothesis it puts forward for investigation, even when an investigation fails to confirm it. As one sweat-soaked preacher I heard as a youth put it: “friends, science is the work of the devil.”

Alongside this ancient religious attitude, however, is a very different one. This one is at the same time older, more modern, and wiser. It is an attitude of joyful participation with the Spirit of Life in bringing and sustaining human order out of chaos. It includes a sense that the human environing world is not a fixed order, but rather one that changes constantly, partly because of how we interact with it.

A test case for the comparing of these two attitudes is the ever-present challenge that diseases and infirmities present to human well-being. One way that this challenge was addressed within the framework of the first attitude was to re-iterate that all suffering is divine punishment for sin, those of the afflicted person and those of his/her blood kin.

The way this challenge is met by the second attitude is to seek to overcome suffering with the help of every human and divine power available, in a joint venture of making the human body a healthier habitat for all the generations to come.

Once upon a time, Jesus healed a man born blind by spitting on the ground, making a paste with the spittle, and slathering it on the man’s eyes. Today, gene therapists are injecting genes directly into the eyes in hopes of achieving the same result. Now that’s attitude for you.

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WHAT DOES GOD THINK ABOUT BLASPHEMY?

Here is one of my most treasured statements about the kind of environment that is needed for faith to grow: Let there be no compulsion in religion.

It wasn’t written by Voltaire, or Locke, or Jefferson. It comes from the Quran. (2:257)

Right up there with it on my favorites list is another from the same book: if God had pleased, he would have made humanity one people with one religion. But he has done otherwise, to test you in what he has severally given you. So press forward in doing good. Unto God you shall return and He will tell you then about all you disagree with one another about. (5:48)

People can and do get very testy about religions other than their own. The testiness begins in irritability that they exist at all. It can end in deluded, destructive actions rationalized as just punishments for the other religions’ blaspheming the name of the one true God — one’s own.

Such was the testiness of the Parisian terrorists who screamed about avenging their Prophet’s being insulted by, of all things, cartoons. As if Muhammad’s exalted place in human hearts and history somehow needed cowardly and despicable acts of retaliation by murder to shore it up.

To the many people who disagreed with and ridiculed him throughout his lifetime, Muhammad himself responded not angrily, but benevolently. And he clearly thought that God would, too. Blasphemy only de-humanizes the blasphemer. It does not disgrace the blasphemed.

For millennia, an idea has been poisoning people’s minds that irreverence toward what others deem sacred warrants a death sentence. God himself, it has been alleged, demands nothing less.

But what kind of a god would this be? An anxious, jealous, capricious tribal deity unworthy of any human being’s respect, much less the whole of humankind’s admiration. A figment of the deformed imaginations of rage-filled people whose sense of having a life at all requires annihilating life in others.

What blasphemy is really all about is defaming the image that God has of us. It is about showing contempt toward the divine part of human nature and the sacred worth of every human being in God’s eyes.

Should this kind of blasphemy be punishable by being put to death? No. It does not need to be. Because it is the outward manifestation of a soul that is already dead inside.

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WHEN RESENTMENTS GET THE BETTER OF FAITH

Maybe you know them. A teen-ager who will never walk again following an injury at football practice. A rising star whose prospects plummeted after filing a sexual harassment complaint. A father whose insidious-onset mental disorder robbed him of his marriage and children.

I know them well. For a time, each was consumed by anger and bitterness. And each spoke poignantly of having lost even the remnants of faith.

Surely, these terribly injured innocents had a right to feel at least some of the anger they feel, to cry out “Why me?” and to wonder if they would ever be able to hope again. As does everyone who has been overwhelmed by unexpected and undeserved calamities.

I’m hoping, though, that in the midst of their anger my three new friends will continue to find the strength — from the very faith that once was in eclipse — to look hard at how being resentful and losing faith go hand in hand. At how regaining the latter requires relinquishing the former.

Holding resentments has a powerfully corrosive effect on faith. It does its corrosive work especially by reinforcing a natural but spiritually devastating disposition. In the face of undeserved suffering, it is natural to look for someone or something to blame.

It some cases, blame may well be assignable. But the problem with blaming it is that it will eventually shrink our personhood to the sum total of our injuries.

Faith’s aim is in the reverse direction, away from what has happened to what is newly possible. It fixates not on loss but on hope, not on blame but on forgiveness. Corroded by resentment, faith is also and finally resentment’s conqueror.

When resentments threaten to get the better of faith, what is most important is to stay focused on what is breaking in rather than what has broken down. On mercies tendered gratefully rather than grudges clutched greedily.

Surrounded by his former teammates in the locker room before the final game of the season, a wheel-chair-bound teen-ager is thanking God for “everything good that’s still going on in my life.”

A fired whistle-blower is now heading a women’s advocacy organization.

And a schizophrenic is tutoring fellow patients in math and science, “for when we all get on with our lives.” During our last visit, he said to me: Life isn’t fair. But it’s good. Thank God.

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HOW MUCH DOES GOD REALLY WANT US TO KNOW?

In the Bible there is a story about a tree whose enticing fruit the first humans were commanded by God never to eat. The substance of the fruit was the knowledge of good and evil.

What religious traditions have made of this reference is vastly out of proportion to the influence it actually had on the rest of the Bible, where it was never mentioned again. I think it dropped out of the Bible’s pages for good reason.

Rather than encouraging us to cultivate, commensurate with our finite nature, a mind like God’s, the tree of knowledge story is a call to mindless obedience. Its message is that God wants us to believe and do only what we are told, to ask no questions, and to be eternally grateful for the opportunity to tend our gardens and watch the rest of the world go by.

Permit me for a moment to play the role of the serpent in this story, and ask its original question this way: Did God tell us to do all this? And now permit me to answer it as Eve might today: No, religious authorities told us to do it, and must excuse us for refusing to go along.

In the original scenario, Eve fully affirmed her God-bestowed likeness to the Creator as a being with, most importantly of all, a mind. She fully embraced the risk that God took in giving her an insatiable desire to know the origin and purpose of everything in all creation, even divine commands.

For some, what we most desire to know is summed up in the question: Why is there anything at all and not nothing? For the original readers of this story, as for me, the question is: What is the good and the evil that God sees in things?

The operative word here is “sees,” not “pronounces.” Whatever is good or evil cannot be such merely because God says it is. God says something is one or the other, or a mixture of both, because it really is that. To see things as God sees them is what the search for knowledge is all about.

For many people, asking to know things in this way is something like playing with fire, Prometheus-style. But for beings created in God’s own image, there is true godliness in the asking.

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IS THE WAY OF JESUS THE ONLY WAY TO GOD?

Here is another Bible verse that begins inspiringly and ends troublingly: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6, King James Version) Would that modern translations could vanquish my faith-issues with it. Alas, they can’t.

But let’s begin with the inspiring opening. At least, I have been inspired by it ever since I began struggling in late adolescence with how to be a faithful Christian in addition to being a new church member. I got what God was all about; what I did not get was how to translate my understanding of God into a better way of personal living than I had managed to come up with on my own.

The Ten Commandments didn’t help much. Its jealous God wasn’t the God I had come to know. “Look to Jesus,” a lot of my friends kept telling me. And that helped more.

It was the first part of John 14:6 — the part before the colon —that first showed me what I might find by looking to Jesus in earnest. A lot more study across a lot more years brought me to a slightly different rendering of John’s point. For me, the idea is this: staying on the way toward truth IS life, and Jesus followed that way as closely as anyone I know ever has.

What this means, of course, is that personifying Jesus as “The” way is more than just a little extreme. Jesus became my guide and my friend not because I saw him as my only path to God, but because the God who had already come to me along his own path was the same God who came to Jesus too, much more powerfully.

Sometimes, I speculate about what challenges the long lost original manuscripts of biblical books might present to faith. There is good reason to trust that, for the most part at least, they were copied accurately and faithfully. But, you never know…

One speculation I have is that the first of John’s copyists back then inadvertently reversed the original phrasing of 14:6b, and that the reversal became incorporated into all the copying that followed. Consider this possibility for the original statement: no man cometh unto me, but by the Father.

Or unto the Buddha, or Muhammad, or…

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AND LIGHT WILL DAWN, EVEN IN A UNIVERSE DARK AS DEATH

I have always loved looking up into the night sky. According to my mother, it started as soon as I could hold my neck up by myself.

When city lights began swallowing up the splendor of starry nights, I knew that my eyes alone could no longer support my nightly look-ups. Eventually, though, came the Hubble telescope, and heavenward meditations have not been the same since.

Do you see what I see, way up in that sky? I know that not everyone does, and I do not always see the same things there myself.

Sometimes my night sky is like the one depicted in Archibald MacLeish’s 1926 poem, “The End of the World.” Given the vastness of its subject matter, the poem is startlingly short.

Its setting is a captivating circus performance which is suddenly interrupted by its huge tent’s top blowing off in a high wind. With “dazed eyes,” the audience stares upward at the fully exposed night sky:

There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,

There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,

There in the sudden blackness, the black pall,

Of nothing, nothing, nothing — nothing at all.

The poem was prescient. Many today think that the “end” for everything will be unimaginable and irreversible coldness, lifelessness, and blackness, nothing but blackness.

For me, this kind of blackness is not so much a nothingness as it is an unassuageable loneliness. An infinitely expanding universe eventually must leave our survivors so far from everything else that not even light may reach them anymore.

More often than not, however, my night sky is something suffused with light, not overwhelmed by the darkness of futurelessness. I need poetry to express this night sky, too, this time from the Gospel of John in the New Testament (1:1-5). My rendering of its principal idea is a little different from the Gospel writer’s:

In God was life, and that life is light for all humankind.

It shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overwhelm it.

The true light which gives light to everyone is in the world even now.

In truth, darkness is never “out there” so much as it is in us. The dark moments of our souls’ own making are what turn the universe dark. But the blazing moments of God’s own making turn everything aflame with possibility, forever.

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“…CONCEIVED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT AND BORN OF THE VIRGIN, MARY…”

This is the time of year I get asked a lot about Jesus’ conception. Most of the questions come down to whether you have to believe it was supernatural in order to call yourself a Christian.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke imply an unequivocal answer to this question: Yes. But as for the rest of the New Testament, well…

Mark’s Gospel contains no account of Jesus’ conception and birth at all. John’s Gospel honors Mary, but places no emphasis on her virginity. Paul’s letters refers only once to Jesus’ birth: “of a woman.” (Galatians 4:4)

The emphasis for many of the earliest Christians was not so much on Jesus’ divine origin as on his very human one.

There is, of course, that idea that everything about Jesus’ life perfectly fulfilled Jewish prophecies about a coming liberator. And that led to endlessly quoting the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 —a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son

But what this passage originally referred to in the Hebrew language was a young woman (alma), not a virgin (betula), and a son who would deliver his people from an oppressor in the eighth century B.C.E., not in the first century of a new Common Era.

Matthew and Luke got all of this wrong for two reasons. One was that they read the Isaiah passage in a Greek version which mistranslated alma by the Greek word for virgin (parthenos) instead of by its proper equivalent (neanis).

The second reason was that they did not pay sufficient attention to the original context of Isaiah 7:14. In fact, neither Matthew nor Luke appears to have paid much attention to the details of the whole tradition of Messianic prophecies in Judaism. Had they done so, they might have noticed how infrequently Isaiah 7:14 was used to describe what Judaism’s coming Messiah would be like.

Over the years, a lot of people have gotten upset with me over proposing, and at Christmas time no less, that belief in Jesus’ supernatural origin should be considered more an open than a settled issue. What I myself get upset about is the church’s focusing too little on Jesus’ vulnerability and too much on his mother’s virginity.

What Matthew and Luke do well is to exhibit Jesus’ divinity precisely in his vulnerability. I only wish they had been less preoccupied with sex.

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FAITH AND THE MEANING OF WORK

When I was growing up, I always knew that I could ask my father anything and that he would never lose patience with me. Well, almost always.

I have never forgotten the moment when one of my questions really got to him: Why do you have to work all the time, daddy? His answer startled me: Somebody has to put food on the table, son.

That exchange made an indelible impression on me, and I have been asking the “Why?” question about work ever since. Its first form was very childish — why him?

Or was it all that childish? The Dads in a lot of families I was told about didn’t “work” at all. Some inherited. Others invested. Still others worked only long enough to be able to pay others to do their work for them. Why did my Dad have to work so hard and those others didn’t?

My father was more bothered by this question himself than he let on. Much later, I discovered that he had given a lot of thought to it, from the perspective of the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

In that story, the expulsion was God’s punishment for the first humans’ disobedience. The expulsion itself was only the beginning. Beyond the Garden, all men and women were forevermore to suffer pain, men from work and women from giving birth.

My father’s problem with the story wasn’t that every man had to suffer the consequences of one man’s wrongful act. It was that not all men had to. He didn’t think that was fair, and he wanted no part of a God who did. My mother’s difficult pregnancies and her friends’ easy ones raised analogous questions for her own faith.

For me, the problem with the story is its narrowing of life to earning a livelihood and to producing offspring, and presenting both as ways to regain divine favor. An often drawn implication is that earning more than we need and having more children than we can care for are signs of even greater blessings to come in the next world.

Work can’t have much meaning if it’s only an atonement, or worse still, only a way of “getting ahead.” It can have great meaning if it alleviates the suffering of people who are poor in resources and opportunities. When it is an expression of love.

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ONE OFTEN OVERLOOKED FACT ABOUT RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND WHY IT IS SO IMPORTANT FOR FAITH

What makes it hard for serious religious dialogue to get anywhere is that people who engage in it often take two things for granted that they shouldn’t. The first is that the only way to understand core religious beliefs is as assertions of fact about a higher order of being than ours. The second is that theirs is the only religion whose core beliefs are true.

With regard to the first, core religious beliefs do look very much like claims to truth about ultimate reality. Among other things, they purport to describe important intersections between this world and a greater one, e.g., the creation of the universe in six days; the bliss of Enlightenment; Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem; the final battle between the forces of darkness and light, etc.

The problem is that no one religion makes even this limited list of core beliefs its own. Each agrees with some and denies the truth of others on it, without giving earnest seekers a clear empirical path toward determining the truth of any of them.

And because it does this, each religion inevitably draws its followers into irresolvable wrangles with other religions’ followers about whose beliefs express final truths and whose do not. There is no way out of this morass as long as a religion equates a transforming personal faith with asserting the “right” things about ultimate reality.

There is a way out, however. It begins with the realization that every religion systematically overlooks an important fact not only about its own beliefs, but about every other religion’s beliefs as well.

The fact is this: while thoughtful followers may assent outwardly to their religion’s core beliefs, they are always interpreting and re-interpreting inwardly just what those beliefs will and will not mean for them personally. In other words, they don’t take the “official” versions of a religion’s core beliefs at face value.

One reason they do not is that they know just how fluid and changeable the understanding of core religious beliefs can be. Even the understanding of those beliefs as final declarations about reality.

Understood this way, core religious beliefs merely get in the way of diligent seeking, together, for truth. What doesn’t get in the way is understanding them as expressions of longing, hope, and a commitment to love one another, no matter what.

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WHEN RELIGION BECOMES UNHEALTHY FOR THE SOUL

For some people, religion isn’t something that can become unhealthy. It’s something that is unhealthy, all the time. Freud’s classic statement on the subject was that religion is a “universal obsessional neurosis.” Many mental health professionals still agree with him.

To me, this perspective is something of a caricature, but one which nevertheless contains important truths. There is in fact a lot that is unhealthy about religious beliefs and practices, as well as with the inner life that they seek to shape.

Religious beliefs are unhealthy — in the sense that they are no longer good for us — when we ask no questions about and brook no criticism of them. The beliefs may be true in themselves, but being close-minded about them is injurious to genuine growth in faith.

More than remaining just unhealthy influences, religious beliefs become downright malignant when they are gathered into a belief-system whose principal tenet is that no other belief-system, religious or otherwise, has any truth in it at all. Those who do this kind of gathering are not only obsessional; they are delusional.

The process is subtle but diabolically effective. It begins with a noble affirmation, such as “The Buddha experienced enlightenment about all things spiritual.” Then, the affirmation becomes “Only the Buddha is the truly Enlightened One.” The Buddha himself would have agreed with the first statement, but not the second.

Religious practices become unhealthy — in the sense that they lead both our feelings and our actions astray — when we engage in them for no reason other than we have been told to do so by religious leaders whose authority we do not question.

They become malignant when they take a form deliberately designed to inflict suffering in the service of the religion itself. Some examples: securing conformity to devotional and moral rules by threats of excommunication and damnation; propagating the religion by forced conversion of conquered people; slaughtering those deemed to be infidels.

The inner life that is produced by unhealthy religious beliefs and practices pales by comparison with a truly authentic spirituality. The signs of its unhealthiness are hard to miss: slavish conformity; defensiveness; anxiety masked by false confidence; guilt; shame; joylessness. It’s hard to be around spiritually unhealthy people for very long and have much regard for the religion that has made them so.

Faith-seekers deserve so much more from religion.

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