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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

I very much wish that there weren’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Growing numbers of people in the Western world no longer believe so. And for good reasons, even if not decisive ones.

There is a distressing sameness about the history of most religious institutions. Typically, they begin with exquisite sensitivity to rapidly changing circumstances. New visions abound of a more adequate theology and a more vital spirituality appearing on the horizon.

But tossed to and fro by “what we have always believed and done,” visionaries lose focus. The more energetically faith seeks relevance, the more desperately its institutions cling to sameness. By way of examples:

The ordering of societies, nations, and institutions by means of hierarchical structures and inequitable distributions of power and resources is a strategy long past its prime. Yet religious institutions remain clergy-dominated, patriarchal, and paranoid about lay involvement’s getting out of hand.

The real strength of religious institutions lies in their ability to mobilize massive resources for serving people in need — the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the homeless and hopeless of the earth. Yet religious institutions pour incalculable amounts of spiritual energy into self-serving projects and enforcement of unquestioning loyalty.

The fact of religious pluralism and the value of religious freedom should inspire religious institutions to be more respectful of each other and more peace-seeking in the world. Yet religious institutions still mock people of other faiths, promote conversion by coercion, and enshrine a false view of human history as unending strife, divinely ordained.

Must personal faith, then, be left to its own resources in order to become a growing faith? Can its vitality be sustained only in spite of, and not with the help of, the institutions which purport to serve its development?

For members of some religious institutions, the answers to these questions may have to be yes, at least for as long as their leaders allow self-interest to subvert their own best insights into sacred truths. But the power these same institutions can marshal, in the interest of resisting change fearfully, is also power to embrace change gladly.

Close to the heart of my own hope for religious institutions is the Protestant Christian idea of the church as always reformed and always reforming (ecclesia semper reformana, semper reformanda). In every religion, the actuality of institutional life falls far short of the “always” in this formula. But “never” isn’t an accurate way of putting it either.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Early in my faith-seeking, I realized how attractive the idea had become to me that the world was created with human beings especially in mind. Later on, my take on the sciences suggested giving up on the idea altogether. Contemplating doing so left me feeling angry and sad.

Then theology came along, and with it the encouragement to look at the idea a little differently. With the help of the eighth Psalm, I began to see that God can still be God and be “mindful” of human beings without being especially mindful of them. God’s mind is on the whole of things, in which we can have an important place without having to be at the center of it all.

This accommodation comes with difficulties, however. For one thing, it can leave people deeply troubled whenever they get a feeling of living in an order of nature whose center is not holding. For another, there is a lot about nature that seems anything but a fit habitat for human beings. She “wrongs” us too often, whether from earthquakes, sunamis, famine, disease, or errant asteroids.

It just may be, though, that her seeming wrongdoing — “natural evil,” as philosophers talk about it — is not in fact something intrinsic to the working out of her natural laws. Our positing of it may stem more from a stubborn refusal to accept her either on her own terms or God’s.

By taking issue with the earth and the universe being just what they are and doing just what they do, we can all too easily lose the capacity to take wonder and delight from them. Instead, we demand participation in the natural order on our own terms, and become mired in feelings of anxiety, and loss when nature fails us.

With all due respect to the Priestly writer’s account of creation in Genesis 1, striving to “subdue” the earth is not the most fruitful way to relate to it. The Jahwist understood the relationship more in terms of “caring” for the earth, tenderly. (Genesis 2) I like his idea better.

Natural evil does not lie in natural things and processes themselves. Like feelings, these are neither good nor bad. They just “are.” When we acknowledge and respect them in their own right, and not for what we want from them, the “evil” attributed to them goes away.


Print Friendly
It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest
Posted in Evil | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment


For at least one listener, my talk went on too long and made a bad impression. She held little back: Life gets overwhelming sometimes, and I just want things boiled down to the essentials, like they were before people became too smart for their own good.

I got it right away that I was one of those “people.” About all I could do was hope that she was not completely right. She certainly was not alone in wanting faith to be simpler than people like me believe it is.

Simplicity and the certitude that goes with it often come down to little more than an intense wishing for things to be either this or that, beliefs to be either true or false, and decisions to be either right or wrong. For no gray areas, no middle ground, no compromises.

Especially in matters of faith. God has told human beings all they need to know, including whose version of the telling is right. And that is all that needs to be said about anything.

But this description does not fit well my listener, who usually entertains new ideas eagerly, and makes good arguments for her own. Her reference to life getting “overwhelming” clearly signals something more than just petulance, or insecurity, or a false sense of self-assurance.

I think it is Complexity Fatigue. Reality is just that: complex. Our theories about it are constantly changing, partly because we are just not smart enough to get them right, but even more because reality seems to relish representing itself to us in ever new ways.

Trying to take everything into account that must be taken into account in order to understand even the physical world, not to mention the spiritual, can exhaust even the brightest among us.

In clinical terms, the only lasting cure for Complexity Fatigue is (a) to relinquish the wish for reality to explain itself in the simplest terms possible and (b) to learn to enjoy the unfolding of new possibilities for understanding. Complexity begets serenity as well as confusion.

In spiritual terms, the cure is to make friends with the paradoxes which a growing faith cannot avoid encountering. The spiritual world is both seen and unseen. Breaking spiritual laws has consequences, but grace abounds. We are alone in the universe, yet embraced by its Creator.

With faith comes weariness — but also peace

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


A substantial majority of people in our society say that they believe in God. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether the God they believe in is directly involved in human affairs or remote from them altogether. Either way, the object of belief still seems to be the all-powerful, all-knowing God of the theistic religions.

But believing that such a being exists is one thing. Trusting with one’s whole heart in such a being is another. To be sure, faith does involve believing something. But it is much more besides. “Trust” says it better than “belief” does.

Many people find it easier to put their trust in a God who is near at hand and in control than in a God who is far off and indifferent. But not everyone does. Recently, a friend of mine put it this way: as mucked up as our world is, I’m more comfortable believing in a God who has nothing to do with it than a God who’s supposed to be in charge of it.

It may be counter-intuitive to think that a God could truly be God who isn’t in control of everything. After all, more than a few believers ask, if he isn’t, what do we need him for?

For others, however, the more cogent question is: if God is in control of everything, what does he need us for? The answer to this question that makes the most sense to me is: for running the show here as best we can while God is off starting up new worlds for others to run, also in his absence.

But this kind of sense doesn’t lead to faith; it leads away from it.

Tradition to the contrary notwithstanding, “being in control of everything” isn’t much by way of describing a God worth glorifying. “Sharing power, out of love” just might be. As might be the idea of a God whose power is sufficient to sustain a world in which everything is bound and knitted together in love.

The corollary of this latter idea, though, is that not even God can keep things together where there is no love. Or: where the only love that exists is God’s, the things formed by it cannot last.

Surrendering control, in the name of love: perhaps this is what being God is really all about.

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


Tucked neatly into John Calvin’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed is an intriguing idea about the proper use of the Bible in the life of faith. I think it can be applied to all religious scriptures.

The idea is this: scriptures are to faith as corrective lenses are to vision. The purpose of both is to help people see things more clearly, in heaven and on earth respectively.

There are at least three ways in which religious scriptures seek to strengthen believers’ eyes of faith. One way is to focus their vision more on the overarching message of a religion and less on its myriad and often conflicting stories. For example, in Judaism knowing which of the many possible routes the ancient Hebrews followed to the Promised Land is not of importance to faith. Knowing the God who finally got them there is.

Another way religious scriptures focus vision is by directing attention toward what is truly ultimate in a religion’s stories rather than to the idols in them which are of human making. At the heart of the Christian story is the image of seeing into God through seeing Jesus. The image leads to idolatry when it morphs into a belief that people can see God only through seeing Jesus.

And the third away is to help believers become a servant people with one voice to a world rife with war. When the lenses of scripture become cloudy or cracked, however, what believers too often see through them is themselves as the warriors rather than as the peacemakers.

This last observation opens out on the fact that all analogies are imperfect, Calvin’s included. What is imperfect about his is its depiction of the Bible as a single set of lenses rather than as a container of many different ones. And as the only set that fits everyone.

There are many verses, chapters, and even whole books in the Bible which obscure rather than clarify the holiness of God. Testing faith by means of them is like testing vision by means of a chart painted over in black.

What is helpful about Calvin’s analogy, however, is its reminding us that in every body of religious scriptures there are verses, chapters, and books through which we can see Divine glory, majesty, power, and goodness with a clarity that can be almost blinding in its splendor.

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


There is pervasive evil in the human spirit. It helps me to think of it the way many theologians do, as an absence of good. But the devastation that human beings inflict on one another also makes me wonder whether the evil in us is a permanent presence rather than a remediable deprivation.

“Moral” evil, as philosophers refer to it, is the result of human freedom’s running amok. There is surely enough of it around to account for a large amount of undeserved suffering in the world. But it cannot account for all such suffering.

“Natural” phenomena such as earthquakes, sunamis, famine, and disease offer a surfeit of reasons to question whether evil is wholly the result of human beings’ less than humane acts of omission and commission. It is nature, and not a misguided humanity, which is at the heart of the problem that evil poses for faith.

In specific, it is natural catastrophes and not human actions, which raise the deeper questions about (a) whether we live in a created order at all, and (b) whether its Sovereign is powerful and benevolent enough to overcome their destructive consequences. Sadly, religious authorities all too frequently respond to questions like these with denunciations for asking them in the first place.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?, God is reported once to have asked. (Job 38:4) Although the question may have been meant only to be humbling, it also comes across as insulting. It strongly implies a discounting of every believer’s right — and in my view, calling — to ask questions in the interest of separating the wheat of truth from the chaff of opinion.

To be sure, believers, inquirers, and sceptics alike are at a disadvantage, when the issue is reconciling nature’s occasional rampages with the idea of a powerful and benevolent deity. The author of the Book of Job was right. We must never forget that we were not present at creation.

We do not even yet see things as a whole. This means that we can neither claim nor deny that were we to see “the big picture,” we would somehow know how and why natural catastrophes are not really “evils” at all.

Even so, because we cannot help asking, we have the right to ask a still deeper faith-question: is this world the best that God could have created?

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