If it is true that no one ever sees God directly, then a lot about faith has to be left to the imagination. In order for faith to enliven the soul as well as enlighten the mind, it must have inspiring images at its disposal.

And it does, in spite of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam’s insistence that it shouldn’t. To them, God long ago condemned celebrating imagination alongside of belief and taking as much satisfaction in creativity as from obedience.

The second of the Ten Commandments prohibits regarding anything carved or sculpted out of wood, stone, or metal as a representation (pesel) of God. And also anything looked at in the skies and beyond (temunah).

No explanation is given of why creating images like these was of such concern to God. The Third Commandment prohibits worshipping them, but this is not the same thing as prohibiting them altogether.

It is difficult to take seriously the notion that carvings or sculptures or paintings or drawings — or cartoons — can undermine faith. But mental images may be another story.

Here is one that the world definitely would be better off without. At Exodus 17:4 appears an image of God resolving “to blot out all memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And with him, the people he ruled.

For what reason? The historical answer is because the tribal king’s warriors may have attacked the once wandering Hebrews for, perhaps inadvertently, invading territory his tribe had occupied for centuries. The theological answer is that their attacks got in the way of a divine plan to create a community that would be more favored than any other, forever.

Neither answer yields an image of a god that could possibly represent a being truly worthy of utmost devotion. And yet the image, along with many others like it in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, persists and continues to create its own brand of discord in the search for a credible faith.

But the solution to this challenge is not to excise mental images altogether. It is to confront terrible images with comforting and uplifting ones.

My own most comforting one is an image of God’s suffering the pain of every human being even more than each of its sufferers do. My most uplifting one is of God’s imaging us as one day loving the world as much as he always has.

Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in God | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Where do people go to heal from the abuses that sick churches inflict upon them to save their souls? More than a few go to seminary.

Many of own my students, at least, have told me very disturbing things about growing up in their churches, beginning with stories about being judged mercilessly. They asked too many questions, expressed too many doubts, and failed to live up to their (imperfect) elders’ ideas about what a true believer should be like.

Worst of all, it seemed to their fellow believers, they entertained the possibility that people of other faiths might be loved by God just as much as they were.

By the time these beaten-up students got to my seminary, they were wondering whether they would ever fully recover from their churches’ mistreatment. But they were also hoping that learning more about what religion is at its best would help.

It did help. But it also made their pain worse. It made the incongruities all the more apparent between what their churches stood for and how their churches acted.

One thing, they learned well: if there is in fact only one way toward a transforming relationship with God, as John 14:6 says there is, that way is nevertheless very different from what it has often been understood to be.

The first step on this better way is to leave the judging of others to an Authority more perfect than human beings can ever be. The next steps are toward grace-filled, uncompromising loving and serving without conditions, especially of people who do not love us and who do not serve anybody but themselves.

More and more people today are rejecting the idea that there is one and only one way to salvation. And they are discovering that acknowledging other ways of being religious does not have to diminish confidence in their own way. It only indicates a greater humility about the capacity of any one religion or religious group to discern the mind and will of God for everyone else.

It is not what a religious tradition affirms that can make believers’ lives miserable. It is what that tradition requires them to deny. Honoring Jesus more than Moses and Muhammad, or more than the Brahmins, the Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tsu, does not have to mean loving less those who know enough to honor them all.

Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Belief | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Many people come to faith by putting their trust in what religious leaders tell them. They live praiseworthy lives without ever asking questions about, or experiencing for themselves, the Ultimate source of what they have been told.

Others come to faith the same way, but they grow in it differently.

For them, too, faith begins by giving credence to others’ testimony rather than on the basis of their own experiences. Soon, though, they begin to weigh carefully what they have heard, in the light of everything else they hope and believe is true about the Sacred.

Once this process begins, there is no telling what its outcome will be on the faith which motivates it.

What steadies the first road to faith is the maintaining of loyalties. What steadies the second is the seeking of understanding. Most religious institutions present the first as the straighter and easier road to the spiritual life, even if the narrower one.

The second road is wide, winding, and sometimes dangerous. But for more than a few faith-seekers, it is the only road that will get them where they know they need to go.

In the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts there is a fascinating story about a group of people who most certainly were finding their way on this less traveled road.

Working in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica, Paul becomes besieged by frighteningly hostile responses to his teaching about Jesus. With the threats increasing, he and his disciple Silas are whisked away under cover of darkness to a safer place, a town then called Berea.

Luke refers to Paul’s audience at Berea as “fair-minded” Jews who listened to his message eagerly. But, and this is what makes the story so interesting, they tested what they heard daily in the light of their own scriptures “to see whether it was true.”

The clear implication of this little story is that those who became followers of Paul — Jews and non-Jews alike — were followers of evidence first.

What made them Paul’s followers was the consistency they found between ancient Jewish prophecies about a Savior’s coming and Paul’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry. To be sure, this is not the kind of evidence that can help modern-day Christianity much in making its case to the world.

But an openness to every kind evidence both for and against it just might.

Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Faith Challenges | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


Every religion contains diverse understandings of both the personhood and the message of its founder. This should in no way, however, undermine the integrity and rejoicing with which each religion offers its understandings to the world.

Buddhism, for example, includes portraits of a man utterly subordinating himself to teaching a path to liberation from an endless cycle of rebirth. But its traditions also include images of a land of pure bliss accessed merely by calling upon the name of a divine Buddha who now lives there.

Christianity includes portraits both of a Jesus who was primarily a wise teacher and of a Jesus who was an apocalypse-fixated exorcist and wonder-worker. And it also includes images of a Jesus who possessed before all worlds complete identity with God.

Islam includes traditions about Allah’s one prophet as a self-righteous, sword-wielding purveyor of conquering unbelievers by force. But it also includes descriptions of The Prophet as a self-effacing, loving man who suffered insults with compassion and understanding.

A welcome conclusion to be drawn from facts like these is that religious believers understand the message of their religions in very different ways, not just one. And given the persistence of diverse understandings like these in every religion across vast stretches of time, they should not be forced into any single mold for shaping the faith of any religion.

There is as much pluralistic thinking within each religion as there is between all the religions together. And this is a good thing. Why? Because it is an elegant reminder that faith at its deepest level is not primarily a holding onto beliefs, whether of their particular religion’s founder or not. It is a living out of what is essential to all religion: putting others’ condition and needs ahead of one’s own.

Faithful people make their impression on the world less by what they say about their respective religion and more by their willingness to sacrifice their own well-being for others’, gratefully and compassionately. Their concern is less with holding fast to tradition than it is to holding up the poor, the sick, the dying, the helpless, and the hopeless at whatever place and on whatever road they may be.

When they do this understandingly, they know that what they are doing is a sign pointing beyond themselves to the Sacred Reality that embraces all generations in love.

Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Faith Challenges, Religious pluralism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


A number of things can get in the way of a growing faith. One of the biggest is a sense of obligation to respect authoritative religious teachings, no matter what.

Closely related to it is a willingness to ignore ambiguity, incompleteness, and even flat out contradictions in these same teachings. For some, this is what “taking things on faith” means.

Usually, this attitude involves looking at articles of faith as straightforward assertions of indisputable fact. Such as:

  • Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.
  • Jesus ascended bodily into heaven.
  • Muhammad rode a horse through the sky from Mecca to Jerusalem.
  • The Buddha achieved Nirvana before dying.

These statements do look very much like factual statements. Eventually, however, if faith is to be a growing faith, they will need to be understood as referring to a spiritual world better described in terms that are more evocative and symbolic than descriptive and literal.

Eventually, but not necessarily right now. A better way to begin honoring statements like these is to accept their factual import but to deny that the facts they allege are indisputable facts.

Like all books of the Bible, the first five exhibit the work of human hands. But many sets of hands, and not just one set.

Ascent into the next life, whether Jesus’ or anyone else’s, will have to begin with a very different kind of body than an earthly one, and just what that body will be like is anything but beyond dispute.

While many Muslims understand Muhammad’s Night Journey as an actual, physical flight, others regard it as his personally transforming dream.

And in Buddhism, Nirvana has meant and can mean everything from extinction to everlasting bliss.

Putting other factual claims like these up for discussion, calling for more than just a vote up or down on any of them, and remaining open to fresh disclosures from God in whatever form and from whatever source, is what a growing faith is all about.

It is about asking more questions, reconsidering more assumptions, and holding off on declaring any matter of faith settled for all time.

It isn’t easy to do any of these things. What helps is to trust that the God in whom we want to believe unconditionally will never abandon us in our search for more adequate ways of expressing our trust fully and joyfully.

Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Doubt | Tagged , | Leave a comment


You’ve heard it countless times: “if we make an exception for you, we will have to make it for everyone.” Maybe you’ve even said it to someone yourself.

The thinking behind this statement seems to be that making an exception to a rule somehow annuls the rule’s validity. Or that it will lead to a long, slippery, unstoppable slide into a do-whatever-you-want-to-do amorality, with exoneration for everyone and culpability for no one.

I like to think of it more as saving a place for grace and forgiveness in the midst of holding people and societies accountable for their actions. That’s what transforms moral contexts into spiritual ones.

A little leeway every now and then, with respect both to moral and religious rules, surely can’t be a bad thing. Rules have a habit of surviving the situations which give rise to them, and may no longer be relevant to changing circumstances.

Punishing people for using marijuana for pain relief, by way of example, represents the worst side of an overly legalistic and moralistic mind-set. As does kicking people out of religious communities for not accepting uncritically everything those communities teach.

It is true that there are slippery slopes to navigate in moral and religious decision-making. One of them towers between holding people accountable and respecting some peoples’ incapacity to understand the consequences of their actions.

Most slippery slope arguments, however, ignore the fact that the slipperiest of all of them is the argument that the only way to avoid moral and religious lapses is to give no quarter to rule-violators, and never to entertain the possibility that any rule might ever need to be changed.

What’s slippery about this argument? Primarily this: it leads straightaway to a pitiless, merciless, inhumaneness to human beings who, when out of synch with others’ expectations, need compassion as much as they need correction, and understanding as much as a good talking-to.

Forgiveness is not permission, and it is not exoneration. It is mercy tendered in the face of culpability and destructive self-blame. It proceeds from a love that is respectful of the rules, even as it reveres the persons whose struggles to obey and/or to change them are sometimes agonizingly unsuccessful.

Jesus seemed to be into this way of thinking when he tossed out the idea that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.


Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Forgiveness | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


Does the God of the Old Testament give Israel the right to destroy its enemies as if they are his own? Does the God of the New Testament consign to everlasting fire all who do not honor Jesus as his only son? There are passages in both collections of scriptures which suggest that he does.

I very much wish that there weren’t.

Does the God of the Quran condone, and even encourage, the rape of women — and very young girls — who practice other religions? I have not been able to find passages in this book of recitations which clearly suggest that he does.

And I am praying that my search for them will continue to fail.

The God of all three religions’ scriptures condones slavery. I can only hope that he didn’t also have it in mind for female slaves to be abused sexually. But I have no doubt that the true God, of whom these scriptures sometimes speak falsely, could not possibly condone either slavery or sexual abuse, ever.

Hate-filled passages of religious scriptures stretch almost to the breaking point — or should, at least — the tolerance which otherwise helps to make mutual understanding possible. In their presence, it is very difficult — or should be — to hold onto the deeper truths of the religion whose own scriptures sometimes so viciously undermine.

Truths such as what? Such as these: that what is truly divine is greater than tribal gods eaten up with jealously toward all the other demi-gods. That human beings are created for the purpose of dwelling lovingly toward one another and in the divine presence, forever. That divine love, and its suffering over the conditions of the unloved, can never be deformed into hatred against the unloving. And that divine love never ends and never fails, even if human love does.

To the ISIS fighter who thought he was honoring Allah by raping a 12 year old girl, the approach I have taken here to his religion’s scriptures — and my own — may seem like a pick and choose approach. It is. So is everyone else’s. But for him and others like him, my hope is that the best that is in them will bring into view a God who far surpasses anything that he or they have thus far thought or even imagined.

Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Scripture | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


People who disagree on matters of religious belief and action are finding it harder and harder not to get angrier and angrier with each other.

Is this just a sign of the times? Disagreements are turning into verbal warfare and worse on almost every subject these days. Can we reasonably expect things to be different when the subject is religion?

Maybe not. Even so, the idea of religion as a battlefield collides mightily with the hope that faith can be an instrument for peace.

I see no way of winning the peace in religious conflicts except by relinquishing battlefield imagery altogether. But then what?

For spiritual leaders across the ages and traditions, the path to the truths that really matter has always been the path of inward turning. This is not an easy path. Looking within ourselves leads inevitably to a painful discovery: the anger which contaminates serious spiritual inquiry is rooted in our own unacknowledged fears.

One fear is that our most ardently held beliefs might be wrong. Another is that our opponent already knows this about us.

Anger aroused by disagreements is at its height not when the other’s point of view seems the most flawed, but rather when it seems the most credible. That is when we begin distorting their point of view in as inflammatory a way as possible, and then pour character-assassination on the flames.

Modern psychology refers to this kind of behavior in terms of defense mechanisms and projection. Jesus spoke of it in a folksier way, contrasting the fixation on specks in others’ eyes with the ignoring of logs in our own. (Matthew 7:3)

Is there a way to break through the defensiveness and the fixation? Actually, there are at least two ways.

One is to get deeply enough into others’ religious traditions to experience in them the universality of the spiritual questions they seek to answer. Even as the answers keep us apart, the questions can bring us together.

The other is to declare a moratorium on blaming others for holding “wrong” opinions, and to face honestly our penchant for ignoring the truth the opinions may contain. Believers from very diverse theological orientations, and inquirers who may be skeptical of all of them, deserve to know that learning from one another is a sure way to experience the inner peace for which we most deeply yearn.

Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Anger | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


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.

Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Faith Challenges, Religious pluralism | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


Having relegated us to cosmic insignificance, astrophysicists now force us to deal with a question that cannot be comfortable even to them.

The question is: Could it be that humans on this planet are the only beings in the universe who are conscious of it at all?

Believing that there is a God who is mindful of the universe, and of our mindfulness of it, can offer solace in the midst of struggling with a question like this. But not enough to overcome fully the dreadful awareness that the “it” may be just that — a mindless matrix of matter infinitely extended in space and time to which nothing can ever matter, even itself.

Is it any wonder, then, that we crave assurance that we are not alone in the universe? And that with our own solar system incapable of satisfying our craving, we go to such great lengths to find even the minutest hints of human-like life beyond it?

It has been exciting to follow NASA’s Kepler Mission and its recent discovery of Kepler 452b. This is a planet beyond our solar system — 1400 light-years beyond, to be more exact — that appears to bear a greater similarity to earth than does any other exoplanet currently under investigation. “Similarity” here refers, most importantly, to the possibility of the planet’s supporting life.

There is of course much, much more to unearth about Kepler 452b, if I may extend the referent of this word for the moment, before we dare even to begin entertaining hypotheses — including strategies for calculating probabilities — about what and perhaps who we may find there. But for now, the planet is offering hope, and we owe it one for doing so.

A wonderful thing about hope is that it holds up so well in the midst of turbulent uncertainty. One hope aroused by Kepler 452b, and discoveries like it, is the hope of making contact with higher beings who can teach us how to act more intelligently than we have managed to act thus far in our history as homo sapiens. Sapientia doesn’t mean being a sap.

My hope is a little different. It is for a renewed sense that in every galaxy life forms are stirring, consciousness is emerging, and that the whole universe is becoming aware of itself as and in the mind of God.

Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Religion and Science | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment