Most people know that eventually, if not now, they will need well-crafted lenses to keep in focus what they want to see in the visible world. Not everyone knows, however, that they will need carefully formulated beliefs to bring into view the unseen, sacred world.

One of the Western world’s greatest philosophers, Baruch Spinoza, understood both. He ground lenses for a living, and he saw an absolutely essential connection between the work of his hands and the works of his mind.

Spinoza’s principal belief came to be that all things, visible and invisible, are in reality attributes of one and only one substance, God. And on the basis of this single, overarching belief, Spinoza derived all the rest of his philosophical system. In believing this to be true, he saw everything else in its completeness.

Anselm of Canterbury saw the things of God by means of a little different belief. It was the belief that a supremely perfect being cannot be thought not to be. But like Spinoza, he understood that if our beliefs are ground accurately enough by our thinking, we can by means of them see into even the deepest nature of reality.

Lenses and beliefs have a lot in common. Both have a value that is instrumental and not intrinsic. Their reasons for being have to do with the purposes they serve, not their own form and appearance. Like lenses, beliefs are meant to be looked through and not at.

Further, both lenses and beliefs must be properly fitted to each individual user. People’s vision requirements vary greatly. And no matter how widely and thoroughly held a particular belief may be in a religious community, not every member will come to understand the religion’s message more definitively by means of it.

For example, the minds of some believers can absorb truth only from very concrete images, e.g. of human-like gods with human-like feelings, most especially of jealousy and rage. To see by means of them, their beliefs must be very concrete, as in: anthropomorphic.

For others, however, only abstract concepts and beliefs will suffice, e.g. of a being omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, supremely perfect.

These differences show why debating which beliefs are and are not orthodox is like wrangling over which frames make for a prettier set of eyeglasses. It is like admiring a particular belief more than the God reflected in it.

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One reason religious institutions have difficulty maintaining credibility is that the questions put to them often have no precedent in their traditions. Questions such as:

Should historical research alone determine for faith whether Jesus, or the Buddha, or Muhammad believed that the end of the world is near, or that homosexuals are abominations in God’s sight, or that abortion is murder?

Does God still intend that husbands and wives should “be fruitful and multiply”? If so, by how much?

Do sexually abused wives and daughters have a religious obligation to honor their marital vows and filial loyalty? If so, for how long?

Is human evolution in divine hands alone, or can medical science and technology be given roles to play in it?

One of my favorites for fellow Christian theologians is: Is Jesus’ atonement for others’ sins applicable throughout the universe or just to people on our own planet?

History has constantly demanded from every religion fresh interpretations and applications of its respective message. New societies, cultures, and even civilizations have their own ways of looking at things, which religious institutions eventually must accommodate. Unfortunately, the accommodating usually comes grudgingly and late.

Believers deserve better. As do increasing numbers of inquirers who, no longer finding credible many of the forms in which religious traditions continue to present their messages, question whether faith itself is any longer a possibility.

There is much about religion that comes down to little more than staggeringly large and detailed systems of rules, laws, and obligations which stifle spiritual growth and well-being almost as a matter of principle. Recasting the best while letting go of the worst in them is needed in every generation.

Vital faith communities must keep on discovering new ways to express the beliefs, patterns of devotion, and principles for action that give energy and meaning to their fellowships. The rationale for saying this is not theological. Rather, it is historical.

It is based on the fact that things have rarely turned out the ways that religions have expected they would and that religious communities have been adjusting to this fact ever since — not always for the better. For instance, what follower of Jesus or Muhammad in their own time would have anticipated that Christians and Muslims, in the name of creating a universal fellowship, would still be squabbling about who their leaders’ rightful successors are?


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In politics, rational discussion may be an idea past its prime. Reasoning together about social issues has become more pretense than inquiry, and its end winning rather than discovering.

But what about in religion? After all, this invitation comes from the Bible (Isaiah 1:18), and the prophet who issued it did so not on behalf of himself, but of God.

There are other ways of translating his key word than by “reason.” “Talk things over,” for one. The prophet himself seems to have meant something like “argue it out.”

By whatever rendering, though, the invitation has a promising sound to it. It suggests that in matters of faith, disputes can and should be approached with an openness to others’ opinions and a hope for peaceable resolution. The idea is to resist the impulse to judge and condemn, and to respect disagreements about divine precepts as normal features of religious life.

Unhappily, however, this not what either Isaiah or his God seems to have had in mind. “Come now…” is not an invitation. It is a summons. And its aim is not to initiate a conversation. It is to convey a demand to accept the divine judgment that has already been passed on us.

There is no hint in this verse that God was envisioning anything like a real give and take. Or that he might have been genuinely open to considering that at least some of his peoples’ actions were not what they appeared to be. Or that it could have been helpful to listen to what they had to say before passing judgment on them.

One of the biggest problems with religion is that it all too often posits a God who is beyond being reasoned with on human terms. We can reason with each other, but with God we are to succumb numbly to his defining our reality on his own terms exclusively.

That doesn’t make for much of an invitation to genuine dialogue. If God has already judged us to be in the wrong, what is there to talk about at all?

But what if God’s mind were not as closed as Isaiah thought it was? What if God genuinely expects to learn more about us by listening to us? Particularly when we question whether his threats are the best way to make us better people.

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

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

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

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

Statements like these do look very much like factual statements, even if about extra-ordinary states of affairs. In reality, however, the extraordinary worlds to which they refer are better described in terms that are more evocative and symbolic than descriptive and literal.

Eventually, but not necessarily now. We can also honor statements like these by respecting their factual import while questioning whether the facts they allege are indisputable facts, e.g.:

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.

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

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

And while many Muslim teachers understand Muhammad’s Night Journey as an actual, physical flight, others regard it as yet another of the prophet’s personally transforming dreams.

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

But in order for the process even to begin, genuine seekers must prepare themselves to ask more questions, reconsider more assumptions, and re-examine supposedly settled issues.

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.

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On the basis of evidence and reason, it’s hard to understand the continuing debate on evolution. The belief that humans have evolved from less complex species of living beings is neither a deception of the devil nor “just” a theory. Its basis is a careful recounting of available facts.

From the perspective of faith, of course, it can be distressing to contemplate that we represent only a late appearing species on a planet densely populated for billions of years with organisms all originating in a murk of randomness. And that life may be only a matter of mutating genes, natural selection, complexity without design, and a relentless focus on just surviving and replicating.

Many religious believers, therefore, too eagerly take any perceived weakness in evolutionary theory as a decisive refutation of the theory as a whole. One undeniable weakness is the fact that evolutionary hypotheses are based on data from only a fraction of the species of living beings existing on just our own planet.

Facts do have a habit of changing, though, and they most certainly could change as biologists continue to discover more forms of life — on other planets, too — than are presently catalogued. But for now, what we have to go on is explained more than tolerably well by affirming rather than denying evolutionary theory.

What isn’t explained so well, though, is a universal yearning for a sense of meaning which it is a principal aim of evolutionary biologists to dismiss altogether. For them, the capacity to yearn for it is not merely another gene-prescribed trait among all the others which enhance adaptability to environmental challenges. It is more likely the work of aberrant genes which eventually will be modified or replaced altogether.

The really serious question for faith to ask of evolutionary biologists is not how they can possibly deny the all too evident signs of purposive design in the world. Rather, it is why they seem so willing to deny the purposiveness of thinking in general, especially when it leads to enraptured wonder as an end in itself.

Some really big ideas have been making their way through human consciousness in the modern era. One is that the back story of human history is a Universal Spirit’s coming to awareness of itself under the conditions of space and time. And there is nothing aberrant about it.

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It raises my hopes whenever I hear about faith communities whose members enjoy a sense of oneness in their beliefs and actions. But as a whole, religious institutions tend to be as divided over what to believe and do as people outside of them are.

One way of dealing with disagreements about faith begins with declaring uniformity to be both a religious virtue and a divine mandate. People who are genuinely faithful, the declarers continue, hold the same beliefs, mean the same things by them, and do what they are told without questioning or dissembling.

On the face of it, there is considerable merit to the idea that believers should be of one mind in what they believe and do. A witness of faith is more credible if those who live by it convey a sense of unity than of dividedness.

But unity does not mean uniformity. It means celebrating oneness in the midst of differences, not sameness in the absence of them.

Insisting that members of a faith community must always think and act in the same ways witnesses only to a suppression of human beings’ God-given capacity to think for themselves. It mires communities of faith in poorly disguised fear, hostility, and guilt.

Every healthy faith community makes room for differences of opinion. Most differences are about what their core beliefs imply for everyday living. But some are about what the core beliefs are themselves.

And even this latter kind of difference can be spiritually renewing.

The kind of “room” in which honest exploration of differences must go on has to be a very special kind of room. And it is. But it is more like the threshold between rooms than it is a room at all.

A growing faith is like standing on thresholds — between the old and the new, between security and challenge, between comfort and anxiety — and deciding all over again, in the company of cherished fellow occupants, whether to step back or cross over.

Jesus once described God’s dwelling as a house with enough rooms for everyone. I like to think of it less in terms of its many rooms and more in terms of its many thresholds. In a heaven truly worth hoping for, we will find ourselves — together — standing before ever fresh opportunities to discover new things to love about God.


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Is it possible to distinguish on our own what is true from what is false in faith? If the founders of some of the world’s major religions are any indication, the answer to this question has to be a grateful Yes.

All of them — Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad — did it by questioning the very foundations of the traditions into which they had been born, with transformational effects. And they showed no reticence in acknowledging and struggling with the questions that others constantly asked them.

What helped them do it so effectively was a deep sense of having been given insight into the sacred not of their own making. But — and this makes for a paradox of the first order — the insight could not have come to them had they not already been asking the questions they could not help asking.

It seems easier, however, for a religion’s founder to keep the questioning going than it does for the religion’s followers. Religious traditions become hostages to the institutions which are created to serve them. Their leaders quickly forget how important the questioning of traditions is to building a credible and a transforming personal faith.

Most especially the questioning of whether their founder’s message is getting transmitted in forms which adequately serve the cause of human good here and now.

Every believer has both the right and the responsibility to ask and pursue every earnest question he or she may have about what people should believe and do in the name of faith. Even so, uncertainty and doubt about what we have been taught to believe and do can seriously impair the ability to give ourselves wholly to a joy-filled relationship with God and with those who share a common faith.

To an honest confrontation with this unnerving possibility, there are two typical responses, one healthy and the other not.

The unhealthy response is to cling unquestioningly either to a religion’s authoritative teachings or to a sceptic’s doubts of any religion’s authoritativeness. And to try to snuff out the inner light that is a sign of the Sacred in all of us.

The healthy response is to articulate confidently the foundations of one’s religion with clarity and conviction, while treating the uncertainty and doubts of sincere inquirers, including our own, respectfully and caringly.

And to have enough courage to keep on asking questions.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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