“COME NOW, AND LET US REASON TOGETHER”: IS IT STILL POSSIBLE?

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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HOW CAN A FAITH THAT KEEPS ON GIVING BECOME SO ANNOYING?

I thought she had come to talk about her final paper for my theology class. Instead, she (I’ll call her Polly) began murmuring a series of epithets against her pastor, her church, and even God.

What provoked the outburst was her husband’s conversion — eleven years previously. I was eager to hear more.

All the years he fought me over religion, she said, I tried to be a faithful person like I was raised to be. But nobody — nobody — in my church ever prayed for me the way they did for him, or ever expressed any appreciation whatever for my being there.

And then, her husband — let’s call him Pete — became their church’s success story of the decade. A guy who thought that religion was for people who couldn’t manage to get through life on their own.

By Polly’s account, Pete’s conversion was a made-for-TV one. On a Sunday afternoon, watching cynically from a distance as his 13-year-old-son walked into a fast moving river to be baptized, Pete all of a sudden raced into the swirling waters himself and asked to be baptized too, then and there. He told the minister: God was standing there right beside me on the bank, telling me that he loved me and wanted me.

The story gets even more interesting. Pete’s conversion “took.” According to Polly, he has been a changed man ever since. But for her, it is still a source of annoyance that, as she put it, he draws crowds with his story and mine just doesn’t seem to matter.

The rest of my conversation with Polly focused on two major challenges to faith. She defined the first one herself, and almost immediately: keeping score of the accolades we don’t get for being steady and not dramatic in our faith.

And the second challenge: acknowledging the many and very different ways by which people come to faith. There isn’t just one way.

For people like Pete, it is being made a different person, in the twinkling of an eye. For people like Polly, it is making the way you were brought up your own way, but on your own terms. For people like me, it is eliminating everything that doesn’t make sense about God until something remains that does.

And there are so many more ways besides.

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THE BIBLE, THE LAW, AND MARRIAGE

In theory, American law is never determined on the basis of religious values alone. Nevertheless, religious traditions continue to exert a formative influence on social policy-making, especially on matters of sex and marriage.

Consider, for example, how Jewish and Christian traditions bound us to policies and laws that (1) subordinate women to men, (2) impose unreasonable restrictions on divorce, (3) condemn homosexuality, and (4) threaten to reduce sex to procreation.

They do this on the basis of sacred texts, most especially from the first chapters of The Book of Genesis. Do the texts support the views spun from them? I don’t think so.

First, the very first chapter of Genesis presents being male and being female as equally important human representations of God in the created order. In each, God’s likeness is fully manifest.

Second, although the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis’ second chapter is in an important sense about an indissoluble relationship, it is not about a joyful commitment to mutual nurture. It is rather about a lonely man who wakes up from a divinely-induced sleep enamored more with himself than with his God-fashioned companion.

And it is about a woman whose sexual interest in the only man available is something imposed on her, along with the pain of childbirth, by this same God as punishment (3:16) for having led the man astray among the fruit trees. (3:1-7).

Third, the Old Testament’s condemnations of homosexuality are the product of a desperate search for identity in a land which ancient Israelites conquered only with great difficulty. The Canaanites’ homosexual practices gave the Israelites an excuse — a poor one — to assert their differences from them as evidence of a superiority over them, and thereby to put forward what they believed was a rightful claim to the land.

And fourth, although the Eve of this story is given her name by Adam, and with it the designation mother of all human beings, in her created state she is anything but this. She is an inquisitive, self-assertive, and courageous person whose fecundity should in no way be misconstrued as a validation of her sexuality.

Undoubtedly, religious traditions will continue to have significant impact on the institution of marriage in our society. But normative teachings about marriage are more difficult to defend by the primary sources of these traditions than many of their followers readily admit.

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WHAT’S DIVINE ABOUT THE “GOD PARTICLE?”

I have enough trouble getting electrons, protons, and neutrons straight, much less the physics of bosons. However, I do think I grasp why physicists around the world are excited about newly emerging evidence for a very special sub-atomic particle. Perhaps people of faith should be, too.

Named for the physicist who first posited its existence, the Higgs boson is believed by particle physicists to account for everything in the universe’s having mass. One scientist friend recommended my thinking about it as a sticky kind of stuff that fills space and makes possible a thing-y (rather than a string-y?) kind of universe.

But how did this particular boson come to be called a “God particle”? The answer seems to be that it, and only it, performs the function of holding very, very small things together. Somewhat like God’s sustaining of “all things, visible and invisible” in the created order.

The God in the God particle, however, is not the Transcendent, Creator God who produced the primordial Big Bang. Rather, the boson-God is more like an Immanent Presence in the post-Bang transformation of energy into matter in motion. It is a space-filling particle that binds everything that is still proceeding from the originating Explosion. It keeps the furniture of the universe now in place from disintegrating before or along with our very eyes.

There is a passage in The Book of Colossians that nicely links the Christology of early church teaching with the cosmology of post-boson scientific speculation: “all things are held together in him” (1:17). To be sure, the writer could not leave it at that point with respect to Christ; he made Him agent of the universe’s creation as well. But the writer also left us a very powerful idea of a very present God in the midst of indeterminacy and even chaos.

The close-at-handness of a God so understood is a welcome improvement over the idea of an infinitely high and remote God that has so dominated Christian theology. Ancient Stoics once posited the universe as God’s body. It’s an idea worth contemplating that the Higgs bosons are all His, and maybe even Him.

If the search for these bosons is any indication, people soon may be able to take such an idea to their comfort just as much in science as they always have in religion.

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HOW NOT TO HONOR A RELIGION’S FOUNDER

For all of their differences, many of the world’s religions share at least two important beliefs about their respective founders.

The first belief is that he experienced a uniquely transforming relationship with the Sacred. Whether it was to Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad, the Sacred became present in such a way as to leave no doubt about its existence, nature, and power.

The second belief is that in order to believe their messages wholeheartedly, faith-seekers must experience for themselves what those founders experienced. Its corollary is that when they do experience it, they will no longer want to do anything other than believe, follow, and serve. Anxious searching for ultimate truth gives way to a calm certainty that one has found it.

Both of these beliefs are powerfully captivating. But in them there is also a profoundly difficult problem which cannot be avoided. The problem is that the founders described their encounters with the Sacred, and the Sacred itself, very differently.

Can all of their descriptions be equally representative of what Sacred Reality most essentially is? If not, then which is the truer one? And how would we know?

One way to answer this question is to double down on one’s own religion and to dismiss experiences celebrated in all the others as either misguided or delusional. Another way is to let ongoing traditions about its founder take the place of the founder’s own experiences and beliefs.

There is a better way than either of these. It consists in honoring the unique glimpses into the Sacred that each religious founder’s experiences contain.

The honoring is like relishing a prism’s breaking up of sunlight into the colors of the visible spectrum, while praising the magnificence and the warmth of the sunlight itself. Or it is like becoming attuned to the Sacred’s sounds and silences, and taking delight in being surrounded by both.

Seeking the kind of faith that makes these things possible is very different from striving to be more and more like a particular religion’s founder. Just as it is very different from giving unquestioning loyalty to religious traditions and those who hand them on.

It is, instead, a trusting that the sacred is not only something to be sought, but also something by whom we have already been found. A trusting that we will understand to the extent that we are willing to be embraced.

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BELIEVING WITHOUT SEEING

In religious circles, it’s a familiar story. A proud skeptic, profligate, or atheist all of a sudden sees the light and the room erupts with shouts of praise, thanksgiving, and renewed confidence in the power of the Holy.

In the midst of the uplift, however, for more than a few the feeling of awe is mixed with jealousy and resentment. Along with a sense of having been denied something important. And of guilt over having the mixed feelings in the first place.

When a prodigal son or daughter finally comes to God, not everyone is in a cheering mood.

The spoilers may be loyal members of a faith-community who never doubted either the power or the holiness of the Sacred, but have yet to be acknowledged for their quiet trust and service. Or struggling members longing for an explosion of light and meaning in their lives, but finding only darkness and meaninglessness.

It can be hard to celebrate when the least spiritual among them are moved to the head of the procession without seeming to expend any effort. Are there no laws of moral and spiritual equity at all?

To the always faithful, the message of this story seems to be that loyalty isn’t enough; only being born again counts. To the not yet faithful, it seems to be that honest seeking doesn’t cut it with God; only blatant waywardness does.

“Seeing the light” is a powerful image with which to describe what coming to faith can be like. It suggests that faith is more than a state of awareness to be reached on our own. It is also a state of being-illumined, for which we can only wait. Like the dawn, it comes to us on its own terms.

Our story conveys well the sense of “amazing grace” by which lost sinners are found. But it does not convey well that being loyal, and waiting, are just as much acts of faith as is rejoicing over a dramatic experience of “seeing.”

For this, another story is needed. Perhaps the story of Thomas, who would not believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead until he saw him for himself.

Jesus took Thomas seriously enough to make a special appearance just to him. But then he told Thomas that people who believed without seeing were just as blessed as those who believed on the basis of it.

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DO PEOPLE WEAR SHOES IN HEAVEN?

Recently, a chaplain friend called to tell me about his visit with a little girl dying from an uncontrollable infection. He could hardly get the words out.

When I get my new shoes in heaven, she asked him, will somebody help me tie my laces?

Her words came back to me as this Easter approached, and have had me thinking all over again about two universal visions of the afterlife. One emphasizes the resurrection of the body, the other the liberation of the soul from the body.

Every major world religion affirms versions of both, and struggles with at least three questions about each. One is: what will the journey be like from this life to the next?

Another is: how long will it take?

And along with these, there is the still more vexing question: what will happen to our bodies along the way?

The little girl of my friend’s story believes that hers will remain intact, and God bless her for her hope. And for everybody who has ever sung the spiritual which gives fuller expression to it. When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes, Gonna shout all over God’s heaven.

For me, though, it’s very hard to believe that my slowly deteriorating body is any more fit for heaven than my slow to develop character is. On the latter, there is still so much to do and so little time left in which to do it.

And as for the too, too solid flesh better resolved into a dew, whatever may replace it will have to be very, very different from the star stuff to which its atoms eventually must return. As presently constituted, the human body just isn’t an adequate vehicle for the eternal life of truly spirit-filled people.

In the New Testament, there are all kinds of hints that this was so for the earliest followers of Jesus. Perhaps the most powerful is in John’s Gospel, at 20:17. There, the risen Jesus enjoins Mary not to touch him, for he is on his way to an altogether different kind of existence in an altogether different kind of body.

Paul called it a “spiritual body,” fully aware that the phrase itself conveyed very little about it. How could it be otherwise? The difference between our essence and the vessel which contains it is an infinite difference. Thank God.

 

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BEING RELIGIOUS AND BEING SPIRITUAL: BRIDGING THE DIFFERENCES

One sure way to turn an enlightening conversation into an overheated one is to introduce religion or politics into it. Rather than bringing people together for a common purpose, both tend to push people apart — and keep them there.

I’ve lost a lot of hope that anything will be done about this in the realm of politics. But I still have hope in the power of our spiritual nature to create unity in spite of religious differences, trust in spite of religious ideology, and community in spite of religious self-aggrandizement.

For this to happen, though, our spirituality must be ready to assert itself against the divisiveness of both religious affiliation and religious disaffiliation. Will we allow it to happen?

Traditionally, being religious has meant honoring the Sacred by conforming to the beliefs, devotional practices, and moral teachings of a respected tradition (e.g. Judaism). As often as not, it also has included commitment to a more particular tradition within the encompassing one (e.g. Orthodox as opposed to Reformed Judaism).

A key element in most religious traditions — some would say the defining element — is pledging loyalty to the tradition, its institutions, and its leaders with a minimum of questioning. Today, however, increasing numbers of people are holding to a very different conviction.

For them, honoring what is truly sacred means not conforming to religious traditions and practices unless their worthiness can be demonstrated on their own merits. This conviction is close to the very heart of the distinction between religion and spirituality.

Traditionally, being spiritual has meant seeking and dwelling in immediate experience of the Sacred, and viewing everything in the everyday world in the light of the experience(s). Today, it also means letting conformism give way to fresh disclosures of the Divine Spirit, even and especially when they challenge our most cherished religious beliefs, practices, and doubts.

From the perspective of spirituality, the problem with religion is its unwillingness to loosen the binding it inflicts upon people in the interest of ensuring uniformity. From the perspective of religion, the problem with spirituality is its inability to soften the terrifying falls to earth which so often follow its blissful soaring toward heaven.

But soar we must, and not always from the alone to the Alone. Sometimes, we soar best in the company of those who believe the most earnestly, but never blindly, in religious traditions and community.

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IS VENGEANCE A DIVINE PREROGATIVE?

There has to be a better way of dealing with being wronged than the way of swift and merciless payback. The impulse to retaliate blocks honest assessment of whether a particular feeling of being wronged has any basis in fact. And retaliating mercilessly only escalates the enmity.

One thing that keeps the revenge-motive alive and well in the human heart is, of all things, religion. What I have in mind here is the belief that God is a jealous God who demands from everyone, without having to earn it, unconditional loyalty.

The God of this belief is a God who is as intolerant of being “disrespected” as modern-day gang members are. He exacts the same kinds of tribute for disrespect that they do. Worse still, he often fails to discern rightly who is and is not worthy of his own respect and good will.

There is an Old Testament passage, in 2 Samuel 22, which expresses perfectly this perfectly terrible belief. In delivering David from his enemies, it says, the whole earth shook from God’s anger. Smoke poured from his nostrils and fire from his mouth. Everything on earth was darkened. Lightning, hail, and burning coals pummeled David‘s enemies, all because God “delighted” in David and repayed him for his “righteousnness.”

The larger story of David in the Bible is the story of a man who was about as “righteous” as members of today’s drug cartels. Clearly, something has gone very, very wrong in the theistic religions’ depiction of God as a licensor of vengeance. (22:40)

What I think went wrong was the casting of God’s image in the likeness of the worst rather than the best that is in our own. For people looking for an excuse to act vengefully toward others, there is hardly a better one available than the claim that God does it too, and in spades.

For people earnestly seeking a God worthy of devotion, however, images of a furious God taking vengeance on anyone who displeases him are not only off-putting, but blasphemous as well. A God who is less praiseworthy than the best among us is no God at all.

The truly worthy God of these same theistic religions is the God who eventually changed his own mind and heart about vengeance. Only mortals, he came to see, come to each other all the time with threats. (Hosea 11: 9)

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WHAT SHOULD YOU DO WHEN YOU CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BELIEVE?

A lot of readers have asked me this question lately. They’ve also shared with me two answers to it that they have found especially unhelpful.

One answer goes like this: pray harder for the wisdom to understand the belief in question, and the strength never to doubt it. My own experience with this approach is that it frequently yields a troublesome result. To the extent that the first part of the prayer is answered, to that extent the second is not.

Let me illustrate. Once upon a time I had a hard time understanding what it meant to say that Moses wrote the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I prayed for understanding, and the understanding I got convinced me even more how dubious this belief really is.

A Muslim friend recently shared a similar difficulty. His was with the belief that Allah’s angel dictated the Qu’ran to Muhammad in perfect Arabic. The better he understood the belief, the more he doubted it.

The second answer comes in the form of an injunction: stop calling yourself a believer, because you don’t believe … (fill in your own least favorite doctrine here.)

I do think I would have to stop calling myself a Christian if I thought deep-down that there never was a Jesus, or that the real Jesus was a self-centered glory-hound. But would I if I thought he didn’t believe himself to be God? Well, I do think this, and I’m still calling myself a Christian anyway. Not as good a one as I would like to be, but not because I don’t believe all the things I’m told to believe.

In every religion, which beliefs are necessary for remaining in the fold and which are not has always been a matter for debate. A belief essential for one generation — papal infallibility, for example — may not be for the next.

So what, then, do we do about all the beliefs we can’t believe and our quest for beliefs in which we can believe? One thing is to seek out people who make room for questioning and doubting while striving to live out everything they do believe as authentically as they can.

The other is to stop believing that we have to believe everything in a religion in order to have a vital faith.

 

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