Once upon a time, I was told, human beings and every other creature of the fields and the air were meant to live happily forever. Their habitat was to be a garden planted by the very creator of the universe.

So what happened? Well, the story says, the human inhabitants of the garden disobeyed its owner, and were promptly expelled from it. And human history has been heading downhill ever since.

One thing about this story that especially troubles me is its description of the primal act of disobedience: seeking to know the mind of God.

I have never felt threatened by seeking this, and I have yet to meet a thoughtful person who does. Acknowledging these facts makes me wonder whether we have this story straight at all. I can’t help thinking that we don’t.

And maybe other people way back then thought so, too. After all, they quietly dropped the reference to the two trees in Paradise from the rest of the Old Testament altogether. Perhaps they realized that we eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it is our created nature to do so, not our fallen nature.

Here’s one way this story might have been told better, with “better” here meaning honoring more faithfully a God truly worth glorifying. In this version, Eve’s confusion would be described as confusion about whether to eat from the tree of life, not from the tree of knowledge.

Why? For one thing, she couldn’t have thought that the divine image in her did not include having a mind of her own. No woman in her right mind would ever think this.

But my story would say that Eve did wonder about how long a life God intended for her. And that wanting more of it for herself and perhaps for her intellectually challenged companion, she aggressed upon the tree of life as if its fruit had to be seized rather than received gratefully.

So it was not for seeking knowledge that Eve and Adam displeased God. It was for their not accepting mortality as an essential part of the created order. In their ungratefulness for finite life as a divine gift, Adam and Eve exiled themselves from Paradise and bequeathed to our genetic code a proclivity for a longing to return that only grace, never feasting, can ever satisfy.

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On the face of it, religious beliefs look very much like assertions of fact. Take, for example, the belief that the universe was created in six days.

However, when we assert something as fact we must offer relevant data and good reasons if others are to trust what we say. And I can’t do either for this particular assertion.

Nor can I do this for other cherished religious beliefs, such as:

  • Our ancestors in heaven hear our prayers;
  • The Holy Land is God’s gift to the Jews;
  • Enlightenment breaks the chain of rebirth;
  • Jesus was raised from the dead by God;
  • Those who do not submit to Allah will suffer eternal fire.

It’s not that these beliefs are untrue or unworthy of affirmation. It’s that they can’t be true or worthy in a factual sense of these words.

None of them describes events that in principle were and are open to direct observation. All of them offer, instead, an inspiring combination of wishing, hoping, and interpreting life experiences in the light of both.

It is a fact that people wish and hope for things, and that religious beliefs give especially powerful expression to our deepest wishes and highest hopes. But while we can observe the wishing and hoping, in ourselves and others, we can’t observe the “for What” of both.

We might have observed, for example, the Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment experience. But we could not have observed his transcending the cycle of death and rebirth. We might have observed Jesus alive and revisiting his followers after his crucifixion. But we could not have observed God’s bringing him back from death.

Religious traditions foster a great deal of confusion about all this. Typically, they demand the kind of assent to their basic teachings that is appropriate only to beliefs that are demonstrably true on the basis of universal experience and reasoning.

With their demands usually come escalating threats of punishments, in this life and beyond, for not believing what they believe believers ought to believe as established fact. The threats leave no room for people who simply don’t “see” what they are supposed to “see.”

But what they are supposed to see isn’t something to be “seen” at all. In every religion, the challenge of faith is to believe without seeing, and not to feel the worse for doing so.

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Grief, the normal reaction to a significant loss, feels anything but normal when it hits. Because this is so, many grieving people try to deaden themselves to its pain by trying too hard to get on with their lives too soon.

This hurry-up strategy rarely works well. Working through grief takes time. How much time? Well, it takes the time it takes, period.

Too many mental health professionals today are still clinging to a misguided notion that grieving a loss is ok, unless it goes on too long. Then, it becomes a “mental disorder.”

In psychiatric terms, when uncomplicated bereavement becomes complicated, it requires professional treatment. Getting exercise, eating well, and reaching out to family and friends won’t any longer do.

Psychiatrists used to give peoples’ grieving at least a few months to stay uncomplicated. Now, if the latest version of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) is any indication, they’re giving it only a few weeks, after which it’s off to the pharmacy, the hospital, or both.

The ancient Preacher of the Old Testament told about the “seasons” of life. There is a time to mourn, he wrote, and there is a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:4) He did not, however, tell us how much time we are allowed for the transition.

In my experience, grief-work takes longer than most who are suffering it would like. But there is a good reason why this must be so.

Letting go of someone or something lost requires — most importantly, I think — sorting out good memories from bad ones. Then, one must decide whether to move on with as many of the good ones that the bad ones do not cancel out. This is no easy process.

In the long run, though, it is easier than putting the loss out of our minds as soon as possible and then deluding ourselves that we are doing well with moving on.

We grieve at all because we have loved, and in strict measure to how strong our love still is. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether who or what we love was worthy of our love. What does matter is that we remain capable of loving, even though it is this very capacity that will continue to make us vulnerable to loss.

And so, we will dance again, and joyfully. But not too soon.

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Many people I know believe that the Ten Commandments are all that anyone needs in order to answer any question about right and wrong. My own view is that these commandments raise more questions than they answer.

Consider this question, for example: how is one to love with one’s whole being a God who according to the Third Commandment is a very “jealous” God?

Jealousy is a character defect, pure and simple. And because it is, it cannot also be a divine attribute. Any God-pretender claiming to have it should never become an object of any human being’s devotion, not to mention affection.

Another question is whether, according to the Tenth Commandment, covetous feelings are as punishable as covetous acts should be. I don’t think so, but I’m not sure Moses would agree.

And still another is why adultery, prohibited by the Seventh Commandment, should be regarded as an offense punishable by death.

These are important questions, but others that are more on my mind these days have to do with another commandment, the Ninth, about not “bearing false witness” against our neighbors. I want to look at it as a higher principle of human relationships in general, but tradition seems so often to get in the way.

The original context of this commandment was ancient Israel’s courts of elders. It was intended to prohibit lying in a judicial proceeding for the purpose of harming others. I wish its correlate had been stated with equal clarity, that we should under all circumstances attribute to others only what we know, and not just think we know, to be true about them.

Elsewhere in the Bible, there is a confusing trivializing of this commandment, seemingly to deal with little more than name-calling. By way of example, Jesus is alleged to have said that whoever calls another a “fool” deserves hell-fire. (5:22)

That this application was confusing even to those who came up with it is evident from the vignettes which also describe Jesus doing the very thing he warned others not to do. Matthew 23 has him calling Pharisees “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” “vipers,” and even “blind fools.”

Surely it was Matthew more than Jesus who was responsible for verbal aggression like this. It not only trivializes The Ninth Commandment. It undermines it altogether. Sometimes, it’s best not to take the new with the old — testament, that is.

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In Mrs. Willis’ second grade Sunday School class, the story of the Flood did not sit well with any of us. It was too scary. But more than that, it seemed to be about something terribly unfair.

As I got older, I stopped being scared by the story, but not being angry about it. Peoples’ offenses are very different. One-punishment-fits-all is unworthy of a truly holy God.

The real problem with the story, though, is that its disaster sequences seriously weaken its climax: “…Never again will I put the earth under a curse because of humankind, however evil their inclination may be from their youth upwards…” (Genesis 8:21) Rainbows are the reminder that God repented of what he had done.

It’s easy to miss this seismic shift in theology.We are still missing it. A case in point: Christians’ gleeful recounting of divinely wrought world destruction predicted in the Book of Revelation. When Satan is released after a thousand year captivity, people will be judged by deeds already inscribed in a book of life, and those whose accounts are deficient will be flung into a lake of fire. (Chapter 20)

Clearly, third generation Christians had a harder time with persecution than their mentors did. From his cross, Jesus asked forgiveness for all his persecutors. But the Johannine community of 30 years later got so peeved with their tormentors that instead of praying for them, they consigned them to an anti-Christ of their own devising.

I love Revelation’s image of a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, with God dwelling in it and putting an end to death, mourning, crying and pain. (21:1-6) I can almost see a rainbow spanning the sky as the glorious city descends to meet us here on a glorious new earth.

Then, however, the scene changes again, to all the bad things about to happen to all those who have done so many bad things. (21:8) Just as in the story of the Flood, the divine fury here is undiscriminating. Cowards and liars come off just as badly as murderers do.

It has been an important Christian belief that in the whole of the scriptures God’s Word can be found. But this does not mean that every scriptural passage expresses that Word equally well. For an image of a future with God, I’ll take the rainbow over the lake of fire anytime.

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Next to the Lord’s Prayer, the most frequently uttered prayer in the English language may be this one:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I first heard the prayer, in this form, decades ago when one of the last century’s greatest theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, concluded a sermon with it.

Niebuhr was long believed to have composed the Serenity Prayer himself, but convincing evidence to the contrary now exists. Even so, his theological outlook provides the right context for its appreciation, then and now.

For Niebuhr, what was wrong with American society was what he called its “self-congratulatory cheeriness.” It fostered a number of beliefs that are both wrong and harmful.

One is that our society provides equal opportunities for all, and that with hard work and a positive mental attitude, success is just around the corner for everyone. With this cheery conviction goes a more disturbing one, to the effect that the more self-enhancing one’s successes are, the more praiseworthy they are.

Niebuhr knew better than to take this attitude as anything other than a delusion. Serenity, courage, and wisdom are anything but the just deserts of a narcissistic culture. They are spiritual gifts which can come only to those willing to acknowledge a Spirit and a Power greater than their own.

With that kind of acknowledgement, life becomes blessed with inner peace, a passion for the Good, and a sense of ultimate meaning in things. Without it, serenity becomes equated only with satiation, courage with aggressiveness, and wisdom with self-aggrandizing shrewdness.

If Reinhold Niebuhr did not in fact pen the Serenity Prayer, it is still true to say that no one understood better than he did why it has to begin the way it does. It begins with a petition to a Power higher than we are because our compulsions and addictions make it impossible to achieve serenity, courage, and wisdom all on our own.

On our own merits, we are not worthy to claim these virtues. Left to our own devices, we are more likely to seek serenity from a bottle, courage from a gun, and wisdom from anyone who never disagrees with us on anything.

Thank God, we are not on our own.

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For many inquiring people, traditional ways of coming to faith are no longer offering the promise they once did. In specific, neither growing up in a religious community, nor seeking a dramatic conversion, is for them.

Is there another way? I believe there is. But first, a few words about these much cherished older routes to life in the Spirit.

One word is that the idea of growing up in a respectable community of always-been, always-will-be believers has a certain coziness about it. But the womb-to-tomb nurture it idealizes too often puts seeking contentment over facing challenges and building consensus over encouraging exploration.

And dramatic as they may be in the moment, decisions for faith made in the dark nights of desperation, or in the heat of hell-fire-and-damnation preaching, or in the ecstatic state of encounter with what may seem Divine at the time, are notorious for their lack of staying power. Most importantly, they do not leave much room for further growth in knowledge and love of God and the world.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, conversion and nurture have tended to be opposed to one another. Distressed over this state of affairs, many religious teachers have insisted that coming to faith requires openness to both rather than to just one. But I find little evidence that combining these approaches is any more effective than is following one of them to the exclusion of the other.

What today’s spiritually hungry most deserve is an altogether different way to faith from these more traditional ones. As I envision it, it is a way of coming to our own conclusions about life, the world, God, meeting the needs of others, and what is to come, on earth and in heaven.

To follow this way, one must be open to learning about and facing courageously as many visions of, and alternatives to, faith as human beings are capable of generating. A faith worthy of the name considers at every step of its development the possibility that one or more of these alternatives — mythological, philosophical, religious, ethical — may make more sense than one’s own considered beliefs do.

A faith truly worth living by is a faith built upon respectful deliberation about the alternatives to it, and not upon petulant insistence that there are none worthy of a true believer’s respect and deliberation at all.

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No one these days escapes powerful uprushes of fear. Economic stagnation, terror threats, high unemployment, government ineffectiveness, collapsing social values, and corruption on a global scale will do that to you. But ratcheting down our fears will not help us very much to cope with an even larger problem.

That problem is despair. Theologians call it accedia, a listless sorrow that can end in a state of soul-killing sloth. It is a deep and abiding sadness over losses too numerous to enumerate, too important to discount, and too searing fully to heal.

John Bunyan referred to sadness like this as a “slough of despond.” For Kierkegaard it was a “sickness unto death.” Today, we settle for calling it a sense of hopelessness.

Actually, though, despair is anything but hopeless. It springs from something quite commonplace, what Freud named the ordinary human unhappiness that plagues us before neurotic misery sets in.

Mostly, we make ourselves unhappy by refusing to accept as inevitable the gap between our aspirations and accomplishments, between what we ought to make so, can make so, and actually do make so. Then we cling to the conviction that we are alone in our misery. Finally, we fall into the delusion that, if we can’t cure our unhappiness, we can at least medicate it by alcohol, sex, drugs, social media, money, pills, bucking for promotions, running for office, or all of the above.

Despair is avoidable, even if the sadness that gives rise to it is not. We make ourselves vulnerable to sadness because we let things and people matter to us. The pain that comes from losing them is inevitable, but it is also endurable, if we resist defining the whole of life in terms of it and anesthetizing it.

To borrow a couple of words from William Faulkner, we can do more than merely endure sadness. We can prevail over it. How? By accepting the nurture of others, who know from experience what the pain of loss and sadness is like. By allowing them to teach us how hope soothes sorrow, love transforms self-preoccupation, and empathy gives way to ecstasy, to the standing outside of ourselves in an enveloping of others with care.

Johann Franck’s words make both for good advice and good hymnody:

Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,

Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,

Come into the daylight’s splendor…

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An early Christian hymn told of a man who emptied himself for others, for which God exalted him as the Jew’s Messiah and the world’s Savior. We  are to empty ourselves for others, as he did.

And that, in brief, is the Christian message. Its meaning is hard to miss, but harder to live out. Self-emptying is not for very many what life is all about. Self-gratification is.

Perhaps, then, more needs elaborating on this subject by God. What has already been proclaimed may not be enough. At least, church teaching seems to say so.

Its saying so has been accompanied almost from the beginning by a very different picture of the Jesus than the Jesus the world actually got. The new picture is of a Jesus who will come again in power “to judge the living and the dead.”

With his final separation of the righteous and unrighteous comes also the end of history and the annihilation of the cosmos. It’s hard to celebrate Jesus’ first coming while contemplating such a frightening picture of his second.

Undoubtedly, Christian faith communities have a long way to go in embodying the true meaning of Jesus’ first coming. Perhaps this is why God keeps holding off on the second. God wants us to get the first one right.

But if we ever do get the first one right, will there be a need for a second coming at all? I hardly think so. At least, surely not a second coming of the sort described above.

There does seem to be something so compelling about the idea of a second coming that Christian theology has not been able to do without it. But there are better ways to bring it to symbolic expression than the way of official church doctrine.

One is to see the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the true second coming. The problem is that the risen Lord ascended to heaven too soon to be the constant, caring presence we need in this life, and not just in the next.

Another way is to see the second coming as faith evoked within us by God’s Spirit. John’s Gospel puts this in terms of the coming of an Advocate (Paraclete) who will lead us into all truth.

I like this idea of Jesus’ second coming. Especially because it does not take away the joy of celebrating his first.

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It is one thing to believe that a collection of religious writings contains all that is necessary for salvation. It is quite another to believe that it answers every question about life in any sphere whatever.

For example, consider our economic life, as illumined by the Bible. One Old Testament text from The Book of Amos defines very clearly a starting point for the reflecting:

Listen to this, you that grind the poor and suppress the humble in the land while you say…“When will the sabbath be past so that we may expose our wheat for sale, giving short measure in the bushel and taking overweight in the silver, tilting the scales fraudulently, and selling the refuse of the wheat; that we may buy the weak for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals?”  (8:4-6)

As texts like these are interpreted today, the emphasis falls on meeting the needs of the poor as the basis of all economic decisions. Policies enacted at the expense of the poor put a society’s relationship with God in jeopardy.

This way of thinking does not line up well with the supply-side economic doctrines that are so prevalent in our time. At their heart is the decidedly unbiblical view that the best way to benefit those who have little is to encourage those who have more to get more still. A pouring down rain supposedly will raise all boats. In reality, it can sink many of them first.

Relentlessly, then, the Bible goes after people who are wealthier than most of the rest of us. But it also goes after people with modest holdings which are acquired by the same method used by the really rich, the method of investing. With annoying consistency, the Bible comes down hard on using money to earn interest. Paying interest is almost as bad as charging it.

There just went homeownership and start-up money, not to mention “getting ahead,” financial independence, and a secure retirement. Of course, it also knocks out fighting wars on credit, which might not be a bad thing.

Many pitfalls await those who point to their Bibles as containing the final word not just on Sonship but on everything else under the sun as well. Bringing life into line with those words is a much more daunting prospect than people who take all of them literally seem ready to acknowledge.

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