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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IF FAITH IS THE ANSWER, WHAT ARE THE QUESTIONS?

At a critical time in my search for a credible faith, I came across the writings of Paul Tillich. I have never been the same since, because they gave me an answer to a question that I have never been able to stop asking.

The question is: May we question even the most sacred declarations of faith? Tillich’s response was: genuine faith respects the questions as much as it does the answers it tries to give them.

Actually, Tillich put his response a little more abstractly, as theologians tend to do. But this is the heart of it: at its deepest level, our personal faith is best understood as an answer to the questions which make an ultimate difference to us.

For me, what this has meant is that faith involves both trusting in answers and letting things matter enough to ask more questions. Faith’s answers to our questions will change. And our questioning will persist for as long as our humanness does.

More than once, Tillich summed up the questions that were most important to him this way:

(1) Is death truly the end for us? (2) Is forgiveness of our sins and faults really possible? And (3) Does existence itself have any meaning?

My questions have always been a little different from Tillich’s, but the most basic ones are three in number, like his were. Ministers just can’t break out of three-point approaches to things, it would seem.

Maybe, however, I’ve extricated my personal faith at least a little from this kind of bondage to triads. For one thing, I have questions about a lot more religious beliefs than just three. And for another, even these three really come down to ways of asking only one really big question. Its subject still is God:

  • Do we have good reasons to believe that there is a God at all?
  • Is that God truly good?
  • Does that God have anything important in mind for human beings in the grand scheme of things?

For many people, the only faith worth having is a proud faith that gives wholly convincing answers to life’s questions and inspires proclaiming those and only those answers boldly. But there is also a questioning faith whose source is wonder, whose energizing power is curiosity, and whose gift to the world is compassion in the absence of certainty.

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TRUTH, COMMUNITY, AND INTEGRITY IN THE LIFE OF FAITH

At their most mature, faith communities share their deepest convictions about the Sacred, the world, and human destiny with humility and a sense of gratitude. At their worst, they impose their convictions with arrogance and a sense of superiority.

To date, I have met more of the latter than I have the former. And the experience invariably makes me wonder whether faith-seekers would be better off working out their core beliefs on their own.

The game of our-truths-are-better-than-your-truths is one that thoughtful people eventually quit playing, even though religious institutions don’t. The resulting chasm between lonely inquirers and arm-in-arm believers threatens to swallow up the idea of truth itself.

On one side of the chasm are despairing seekers for whom only “my” truth has come to count as truth. On the other side are ideology promoters for whom only unquestionable dogma does.

Is there a way around this chasm? A starting point might be a reminder that truth at the expense of community can save us only partially, and community at the expense of truth may not save us at all.

One time during my seminary teaching years, I brought to chapel with me a guest lecturer who has just finished working over a traditional confession of faith in my theology class. On our way out of the classroom, one of my students said to him, it’s really hard to deal with everything being so up for grabs.

As it happened that morning, the worship service’s Confession of Faith was the very one my friend had just demolished. And yet, there he was, belting it out with greater gusto than anyone around us. Several students and I confronted him about it afterward at coffee hour.

His reply to us went this way: Ever since I became a citizen, one of my greatest joys has been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. For me, affirming a creed is something like that: a thoughtful but not blind declaration of loyalty.

Standing up for a religious belief is not always about putting forward an objective truth. Sometimes, it can be about letting members of a group know that we’re in the struggle for authentic faith together.

Standing up for what one believes can take real courage. Berating others for no longer standing with us may not be. Unless beliefs themselves are expressions of loyalty as well as of truth.

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MORALITY WITHOUT MORALISM

The most frequent complaint that I hear from people who have left their churches is about the hypocrisy they found in them. A less frequent complaint is that the church’s moral teaching is handed down in the form of unchangeable rules that admit of no questioning.

This latter complaint contains a lot worth thinking about. In order to have legitimate force, parochial moral rules must be examinable in the light of ethical principles of universal scope.

One time-honored ethical principle is that the ultimate end of all moral behavior is happiness, and that the best way to reach that end is by way of becoming virtuous.

Everybody understands the first part of this proposition. It’s the second part that modern society is confused about. Wealth, power, fame, and pleasure don’t add up to happiness. Becoming a certain kind of person does.

Not enough people seem to believe this anymore, however, and that is the primary reason why so many people are so unhappy. At least, this is how most of the genuinely happy among them see things.

From Plato and Aristotle all the way through Ambrose, Augustine and Aquinas, human life at its best has been consistently characterized as a state of completeness (or, “perfection”)  and as a process of achieving it (as in “be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” [Mt. 5:48]). The process hinges on developing certain dispositions or habits, which to the ancients meant virtues or excellences of character.

Four virtues in particular came to be viewed as indispensable to the attainment of happiness: moderating our cravings (temperance); staying on task in the face of fear (courage); taking delight in the contemplation of truth (wisdom); and treating people fairly (justice). These four became the cardinal (from the word for “hinge”) virtues upon which all other virtues — such as honesty, fidelity, service, and leadership — turn.

From this perspective, it is not difficult to see why defining morality in terms of unquestioning obedience to a set of imposed rules has become so problematic for so many people. Obedience of this sort may make us compliant, but it will make us neither good nor happy.

Pursuing happiness in the right way is not a matter of pleasing those who make the rules. It is a matter of honoring an ever-deepening fear of losing the best of ourselves if we stop.

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IS “ORGANIZED RELIGION” HELPFUL TO A VITAL FAITH?

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.

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IS IDOLATRY A SIN, OR SOMETHING EVEN WORSE?

As Ancient Israel came to understand it, idolatry is the act of conferring divine status on something that is merely human. The result is the deformation of the gloriously human into inglorious idols.

It is no wonder that the word “false” so easily attaches to the word “idols.” Idols falsify both our human and God’s divine nature.

All kinds of things in human experience can become idols, and we have become more than adept at letting them do this. Consider, by way of examples:

  • Ancestors, parents, lovers, and rulers;
  • Carvings, paintings, sculptures, and ideas;
  • Family systems, conceptual systems, political systems, and religious traditions;
  • Beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, and inflexible codes conduct;
  • Wealth, fame, power, and pleasure.

We can and do worship any or all of these — and not just the carved images referred to in the Second Commandment — as if they were gods. In Paul Tillich’s phrasing, each can become the object of an ultimate concern, and as a result contaminate devotion to what is truly ultimate.

Most fundamentally, idols dishonor what is genuinely worthy of human beings’ highest praise and loyalty, by drawing attention to themselves and away from what they are intended to symbolize. Humanly fashioned symbols for God in the world — e.g. kings, sacred books, religious leaders — become gods in themselves.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all speak of idolatry as something which cannot but bring punishment down on our heads.

And not only on ours, but on our children’s heads as well, even to the third and fourth generation, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god. (Exodus 20:5)

Unfortunately, with this image the distinction between faith and idolatry threatens to vanish from sight altogether. The Holy One of Israel is here an angry, grudge-holding, vindictive demi-god little different from tribal deities whose sole reason for being is to fan the flames of enmity in the human heart.

This strangely out of place scriptural text does little more than reduce Israel’s God to yet another idol. The jealousy whose source is only human sinfulness becomes a defining attribute of the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Obeying the Second Commandment, the prohibition against the worship of idols, is most certainly important to a maturing faith. But not because we have to obey it to keep divine rage under control. It’s to stay human about our own.

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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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ONE GOD, BUT WHICH PROPHET?

Most faith traditions contain beliefs that once were at the very core of their teaching, but are no longer. Beliefs such as: God favors polygamy.

They also uphold beliefs deemed binding upon followers at all times and everywhere. Beliefs such as: To break the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, obey the laws of karma.

It has long been a failing of many faith communities to confuse the first kind of beliefs with the second. They forget that, in the oft-quoted words of James Russell Lowell, “Time makes ancient good uncouth.”

But what if Lowell’s pithy aphorism applied to the second kind as well? And especially to the idea that a religious doctrine can never be changed?

Consider, for example, the doctrine of the triune nature of God. This belief has been at the core of Christian teaching for over 1700 years. But there has been vastly more disagreement among Christians about its status and meaning than ecclesiastical pronouncements have ever admitted.

Acknowledging these disagreements can be especially important to overcoming a particularly dangerous division today, between Christians and Muslims.

For Christians, the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit subordinates the authority of every religious prophet — from Moses all the way to Muhammad — to Jesus. For Muslims, neither Jesus nor Muhammad was a god. Only God is.

Though Church Councils in the fourth century settled on the idea that Jesus Christ is one in essence with God, not all thoughtful Christians did. Many affirmed a likeness in being between Jesus and God that fell short of identity. They did so on the ground that God is one and as such is indivisible in nature.

Few Christians have ever fully understood the Trinitarian controversies in their fourth century context. And among those who have, there has never been agreement that the way the Councils resolved them was the best way. The truth is that one party to the early debates simply got more votes than the other, and then set out to silence the losers by anathematizing them.

What is especially “uncouth” about all this for our time is its leaving Christendom unable to provide the support that Islam needs as it seeks to reaffirm its own doctrinal core to the extremists in its own midst who need it so desperately. Both religions revere the one God that extremists in both know not.

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IS GOD’S MIND CHANGEABLE?

If the first stories in the Bible are any indication, this is a more difficult question to answer than it might seem.

Most of the traditions which are based on them — whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — draw sharp contrasts between the unpredictability and even capriciousness of human minds and the rock-solid unchangeableness of God’s.

The stories themselves, however, may suggest something else. For example, just when the human race was about to drown in a flood, the put-out God who was preparing to send it had second thoughts. Noah’s ark guaranteed that life on earth would start all over and that God would rage no more.

This is the same God with whom Abraham earlier negotiated a better chance for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah to escape punishment for a particularly vile group of sinners in their midst. In an Islamic re-telling of that story, it is the same God with whom Muhammad, encouraged by Moses, would negotiate a more realistic prayer requirement.

And it is this same God whom the prophet Hosea heard to “repent” of thinking about abandoning his people, even for their faithlessness.

But this is also the same God who handed down a law code by which his chosen people and then all of humankind would be judged, both on a daily basis and in final terms. And who promised later to inscribe it inwardly on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). What this promise really comes down to is that one day human obedience to divinely imposed laws will be as unwavering as the Lawgiver himself is.

For a faith based on obedience to divine law, the Law itself is the clearest sign that God never changes in what he expects of us and in what he is willing to tolerate in us. For a faith based on rejoicing over divine grace, however, love is the clearest sign that God never closes his mind to expect great things from us and to forgiving us when fall short.

A god worthy of being called God, or Yahweh, or Allah never changes in desiring the best in every possible world, and in seeking to communicate what that “best” can be in each. But in our world at least, this must be a God for whom openness to change is greater than keeping things as they are, and mercy is greater than judgment.

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