“…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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GIVING UP ON BELIEFS WITHOUT GIVING UP ON FAITH

It is a sad fact that religious leaders do not deal well with people who can’t believe what they are told to believe. There are several reasons for the difficulty.

One reason is that many religious leaders do not understand the core beliefs of their tradition well enough to explain them convincingly to anyone else. And if the full truth be told, some religious leaders do not fully believe them themselves.

Another reason is that even more are reluctant to admit that the core beliefs of their tradition have been debated at great length throughout their history. Instead, they put forward these beliefs as timeless truths held by the faithful at all times and everywhere.

And as if this were not enough, they demand unquestioning acceptance of their institutions’ teachings — every last one of them — and then demean those who give even the appearance of wanting to think for themselves.

A third reason that religious leaders have trouble with conscience-driven faith-seekers is that they too often confuse faith with right belief (“orthodoxy”). Having confidence about the truth of certain beliefs is surely part of what it means to have and to hold a meaningful faith. But faith itself is reducible neither to a belief-system nor to the confidence we may feel about it.

But what, then, is faith? Perhaps most importantly, it is a yearning and an experiencing from the heart more than it is a matter of an assenting with the mind. It is a deep sense of an unseen order whose goodness always regulates its power. It is an abiding trust that those who seek diligently what is of all-surpassing worth will be found by what they are most looking for.

Many who are seeking a credible faith today are having to acknowledge that at its end, there may not be a place for them in the religious institutions they know best. There are simply too many religious teachings out there that they can never believe.

And never should. Should anyone any longer believe, for example, that God loves some people and hates others? That any person’s eternal destiny is dependent upon making the right choice in finite time of a religious leader to follow? That human words about the divine can ever fully represent Divinity itself?

Questions like these are expressions of faith, not of unbelief.

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WHEN THE ROLL IS CALLED UP YONDER, WHO’LL BE THERE?

There are two standard religious answers to this hymn-inspired question. The first is: You’ll be there if you have obeyed God’s commandments. This is the answer of Judaism and Islam.

The second answer is: You’ll be there if you accept the Lordship of Jesus in his dying for your sins. Eventually, Christianity transformed this Pauline affirmation into its own.

My father’s favorite Gospel song was about this final roll-call. It belts out confidently: When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there. In one verse, the There is the “other shore” on which the saved of earth shall gather. In another, it is their “home beyond the skies.” Dad loved both pictures.

I, too, want to be “there,” but with a lot more folks than religious traditions tend to make room for. With a whole lot more, in fact: if at all possible, with everybody. With the “everybody” (Adam) of Genesis 1, whom God made in God’s own image.

My spiritual problem is that “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,” I won’t be ready to make the crossing or the ascent. And I don’t think very many others will be either.

Let me explain. Or better, let the song’s writer, James Black, explain. His third verse implies — without his being fully aware of it — a very different answer to the question of who shall be saved than religions in general do. It revolves around having a faith that labors every waking hour in “wondrous love and care.”

I’m still working on this. And the more I do, the more I want to get better at it — with all my heart, mind, and strength.

To get better at it, though, I’m going to have to BE better, and that’s where my readiness problem comes in. I do think that it is in the very essence of God to ensure that “we shall all be changed.” And that the very essence of the change is toward being loving. So there’s hope.

But the change won’t happen in a twinkling of an eye, as Paul thought it would. Given who we are, the journey to that other shore will have to be much, much longer. The good thing is we will never have to make it all on our own.

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SCIENCE, FAITH, AND THE “GOD OF THE GAPS”

Not long ago, scientists were claiming to be on the verge of unlocking the mysteries of the universe and everything in it, human life included. All of the gaps in our present knowledge were about to be closed, and with them the shrinking space within which faith struggles to expand our horizons and our hopes.

It puzzles me why people of faith continue to stumble over this particular challenge. Some try desperately to shout down scientific announcements with reiterations of dogmas that no thoughtful religious person could possibly take seriously in the first place. An example? How about the dogma that the age of our world is measured in thousands rather than billions of years?

Not every person of faith becomes combative in the face of scientific challenges. Some simply crumple with anxiety that the scientists might be right, and give up asking hard questions at all. My favorite hard question is still: Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?

Others give up both the hard questions and the science, and rest content with the kinds of assurances that only tribal mythologies can offer. If our god is better than your god, who cares whether there is a God better than both of them?

The kind of faith for which I continue to seek is a faith open to explore in wonder the fullness of everything observable, thinkable, and imaginable. At the heart of it will be — I am still working on this — a certain kind of trust.

What I have in mind here is an abiding confidence that when the explorations are on the right track, what will come ever more gloriously into view is all-encompassing and transforming Goodness of Being. And that will make all of the seeking and the questioning worthwhile and worth celebrating.

Happily, this generation of scientists is far less certain that their predecessors were about closing out God by closing up gaps in our knowledge. The gaps that have recently opened up are simply too wide for that. Hundreds of billions of galaxies along with our own, with futures yet to be determined. Dark matter. Dark energy. Parallel universes. Unknown laws.

And perhaps the widest gap of all: between neuronal firing in our brains and the thoughts we have about them. Who, and Whose, are we anyway, that we can be mindful of such things?

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FAITH, THE EBOLA CRISIS, AND THE CASTING OUT OF FEAR

Her language was filthy, her face contorted in rage. Momentarily trapped in an elevator with her, my wife and I concentrated on not provoking her further. He’s infected everybody and he knew just what he was doing! , she screamed.

Leroy Howe

Leroy Howe

The “he” was Thomas Duncan, who had just died of Ebola in the hospital across the street from the doctor’s office to which all three of us were heading. When the elevator door opened, she shoved both my wife and me to the side, stormed toward our doctor’s reception area, and treated everyone seated in it to yet another furious fulmination against terrorists pretending to be Liberians.

When we came through the door, she turned her head back toward me, and then I saw it. Her mouth and her face were spewing outrage and blame. But her eyes were fixed in terror. I don’t think I’ll ever forget looking into them.

No one who knows what the Ebola virus can do can or even should be completely unafraid of it. However, being honest with ourselves about just how scared we are goes a long way toward preventing our fears from taking possession of us. It can cure us of the delusion that casting blame and staying angry is the way to keep terror at bay.

As our city continues to calm down at least a little from what has gripped us for the past three weeks, my own thoughts keep returning to what truly spiritual people have told us for millennia about dealing with fear. Its cure is a deepening compassion for people in need, along with the active reaching out to alleviate it. In a word, the cure for fear is love.

Serving the needs of others leaves little room in the soul for fear. From one perspective, therefore, it’s a very reckless endeavor. But from another, it’s a transforming one. I’m still working hard on opening myself more to both.

Here in Dallas there are all kinds of signs that love has been at work in the midst of our Ebola scare. But there are also signs that love has yet to “take” in the hearts of some, especially landlords too fearful to rent to Mr. Duncan’s now possession-less family members.

Sometimes, it’s easier to nurture fear than love. And therein lies the real Ebola crisis that faces us.

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THREE RELIGIONS’ WORST NIGHTMARE

In the early hours of October 28, 312, historians say, a man had a dream that changed one religion possibly forever. Most do not tell us how really, really bad the dream was.

The dreamer was Constantine, and his dream was reported to have been of a sword formed by the first letters of Christ’s name, underneath which were the words, “By this sign you will conquer.” Facing a battle the next day for the imperial throne, Constantine had the symbol painted on his soldiers’ helmets and shields, and they won the battle.

Things have not been the same for Christianity since. What began as an era of toleration for Christians throughout the Empire devolved into centuries-long, State-governed programs of imposing Constantine’s version of the Christian faith upon people by force.

As James Carroll pointed out in his book, Constantine’s Sword, the cross became to Jews a symbol of Christian persecution and to Muslims a symbol of Christian imperialism. Islam’s response was to advance its cause the way that Constantine advanced Christianity’s. Judaism’s was to yearn more fervently for a land in which Jews would forever be protected from both.

Personally, I doubt that Constantine ever had the dream that Lactantius attributed to him. But I’m certain that if Constantine did in fact dream it, he misinterpreted it badly, and at the world’s expense. Truly revelatory dreams work to unite people, not divide them.

They don’t present the cross of Christ as a battering ram for storming the sanctuaries of other peoples’ worship. They don’t present Jews as spiritually and genetically inferior beings deserving to be wiped off the face of the earth. And they don’t present angels reciting messages of hell on earth for anyone their recipients arbitrarily decide to call infidels.

One of the greatest catastrophes that can befall any religion is to mix up the rendering of taxes to Caesar and the rendering of praise to God. In its best years, the Roman Empire was content to ensure the first and leave the second to powers not of this world. In their worst years, Christianity insisted on controlling both, Islam fell quickly into line, and Judaism identified with its aggressors on both sides.

Happily, all three religions have their good years as well as good dreams along with their bad ones, and it is from the former that we ought not to disaffiliate.

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PERSONAL FAITH AND RELIGIOUS FAITH: THE DIFFERENCE

Once, and only once, my father shared with me what he thought faith is. “It’s believing,” he said, “that there is a Supreme Being.”

I never could draw him out further. Perhaps that was for the best. The little that he left me on the subject forced me to think more about it on my own.

The biggest impression that my father’s all too brief statement made on me was that it had to have come from somewhere besides the church. He had given up on organized religion long before he helped bring me into the world.

Dad’s deeply personal profession of faith, almost like a sigh too deep for words, presented two challenges to my search for a credible faith of my own.

One challenge was having to acknowledge respectfully his negativity toward the church at the very time that the church was becoming important in my own spiritual growth.

The second challenge was having to admit that my church-rejecting father was absolutely certain about the one belief I was the most uncertain about, even with my stepped-up church-going. He was wholly unimpressed with my philosophical and scientific “arguments” against the existence of God.

It would take a while before I could become as unimpressed with them as he was. And as church-goers tend to be.

For many of the latter, though, all that needs to be said is that the church has been teaching people what to believe for two thousand years and that people struggling with doubts about God should simply set them aside and come to Jesus. For me, the doubts had to be resolved first.

I still admire the ease with which my father rested his single faith conviction on common sense and intuition, not on religious traditions and intuitions. His was a very personal, but not a religious faith. In his eyes, “religious” faith was believing what others believed, just because they believed it.

I could not agree with my father, however, that personal faith and religious faith are so different that choosing one faith precludes making room for the other. Even so, there is still a lot of him in me. As it was for him, for me the personal deserves priority over the religious.

And so it did for Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad. Their faith is still more important than the religions which honor it.

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