About Me

Just a person in recovery from years of spiritual abuse at the hands of good, upstanding Christian folks.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Evil: a Primer

I went to see "Paranormal Activity" this weekend. I love a good scary movie and this one didn't disappoint. It's a far cry from the usual, wretched gorefests that Hollywood produces en masse.
The scares were subtle, the monster virtually unseen, and the story not all that implausible in my opinion. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys being creeped out every now and then. Don't take the kids!

With Halloween just around the corner, my thoughts have turned to the dark side of spirituality:
namely evil, including its biblical personifications as Satan or the Devil. This is one topic that liberal theologians are guilty of glossing over, in my opinion. In fact, one of my misgivings with those further to the left than I am is that they don't seem to take evil seriously.

When people do bad things it's not uncommon for progressives to blame poverty or lack of education or mental illness. I suspect that's because it's difficult for a basically good person to think that anyone could willingly and gleefully indulge their propensities for malicious selfishness. That is what I believe underlies most of the truly horrific things we hear about on the news and read of in history books. Mix these two thoughts together: "all that matters is what I want" and "it might be fun to hurt someone else." The result is monsters worse than anything dreamed of by Edgar Allen Poe or Stephen King, because they're real. Think Charles Manson, Josef Stalin, or the man whose name comes up in any discussion of evil, Der Fuhrer.

The other side of the Christian spectrum has its own misconceptions about evil. They look for it behind bushes, peek in the shadows, and dream up wacky conspiracy theories. They read badly written novels about secret Illuminati - New Age cabals trying to outlaw the Bible and teach past life regression techniques to kids. They not only recognize evil's existence, they give it an arcane mystique and blame demons for such earthly woes as mental disease and financial misfortune.

Worst of all, they look for the Devil in all the wrong places. I recall with cynicism one particular All Hallows' Eve, when I was in Bible college, and a group of my fellow students drove to the top of a hillside after dark. There they prayed to "bind the wicked forces that were rampant that night," i.e. Satan and his henchmen, who were surely lurking in plastic masks, bags full of candy and drive-in slasher movie marathons.

It was all very melodramatic, and surely gave those who participated in it the feeling that they were accomplishing something. But when they came down from the hillside and retired to their safe, comfortable dormitory rooms, there was just as much real evil surrounding them as before their little excursion. The problem was they couldn't see it, despite, or because, it was right in front of them.

A few weeks ago I took a drive in the Tennessee mountains, which are especially beautiful this time of year. But marring the lovely colors of Fall and the rustic cabins and farms was the ugly sight of tobacco drying in barns owned by major agricultural producers as well as part-time farmers. This picturesque land, in which the best apples on earth are grown, is used to produce a toxic weed that gets shipped to the giant cigarette factories in eastern North Carolina. There it's turned into a deadly, addictive product that's sold in almost every retail outlet across the USA as well as the rest of the globe.

Go a little further east in the great state of NC and you'll encounter corporate owned pig farms, where swine are crowded together for the entirety of their short lives, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and then slaughtered to feed our ravenous appetite for things that kill us. These unfortunate creatures do leave their mark on the land, though. They produce countless tons of
feces and urine, which agribusiness tries to control by pouring into massive artificial lagoons. But toxins from these giant lakes of crap leech into the water table, poisoning the impoverished residents of the area, who rely on wells for their water supply. To make things worse the overfilled ponds occasionally burst, releasing rivers of raw sewage that flow through yards and fields where children play. Sometimes they even make it to the ocean, where it turns the waters foul and kills thousands of fish.

Saturated fat and tobacco kill millions of Americans every year, and their production isn't only allowed but encouraged by the government. Last year I watched my father-in-law, who smoked most of his life, die a slow, agonizing death as lung cancer ate his body from the inside. People I care about have seemed healthy one day only to collapse the next, dead from arteries clogged by sausage biscuits and bacon eaten in indiscriminate amounts for decades.

Journey back to the mountains I was speaking of earlier. Go just a little south of the part of Tennessee I was in. You'll find yourself in Cherokee, NC, home of a monster casino that was supposed to lift the American Indians who live in the area from poverty yet for some reason never did. I visited it recently, not to gamble but just out of curiosity. I was only able to stay for a few minutes though, because the air was filled with second hand smoke; NC doesn't yet ban smoking in public buildings. In fact the endless rows of electronic slot machines were equipped with ash trays, so that the patrons could destroy their bodies even as they handed their rent and grocery money to a megabucks corporation that offered them nothing in return but false hopes.

The saddest thing about the visit was seeing the throngs of people that were there. Not only was the vast parking lot almost completely full but more vehicles poured in through the entryway by the second. Judging from their dress and language I could discern that most of them weren't the stereotypical well-heeled seniors spending their kid's inheritance. They were people who hold jobs that could provide them and their families with a reasonable standard of living, but for the fact that they were willingly throwing their modest wages away. Maybe their children will learn to eat the Chinese-made ribbons that every patron was given on their way out, so that they would feel like a "winner" no matter how empty their pockets were.

The point of this depressing tour isn't to bash Dixie, the land that I love and that has nurtured me all my life. What I'm trying point out is this: there's no need to look for the Devil in haunted houses, spooky movies or Harry Potter books. Wherever you are, just look around.
You'll see things just as wicked, just as abominable and despicable as the spectacles I've described here. They won't be hiding behind the bushes, they'll be right in your face.

As much as I admire Augustine, he was wrong about evil. It's not merely the absence of good. It's a powerful, active force that corrupts whatever it touches and struggles constantly against God's efforts to redeem His creation. We can no longer afford to pretend it doesn't exist. Nor can we waste time looking for it in the wrong places. If the mission Jesus gave us is to be fulfilled, evil must be recognized, it must be pointed out, and it must be fought. May we be given both the wisdom and courage to do just that. Peace.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Why I Don't Believe in (that) God

I thought that title would grab your attention!

Ever since Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" came out in 2006, I've had numerous dialogues with atheists on the subject of the Almighty's existence. I have noticed a consistent theme in their thinking. They are prone to a fallacy known as "all or none thinking."

This is how it works. They raise legitimate questions about the coherence of the traditional Christian understanding of God's nature. They may wonder how it is possible for anyone to have free will if the Lord knows everything we will ever do. They might also question what sort of God would punish His Son for the sins of others, and through that miscarriage of justice find a basis for forgiving humans of their shortcomings. When the fail to find satisfactory answers to these concerns then they triumphantly proclaim "aha! There is no God!" And off they go on their merry way.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it contains a faulty assumption: that there is only one possible conception of God.

In earlier posts I've discussed how the God of our Lord Jesus Christ has been badly maligned by well meaning theologians in the pre-modern era. It's easy to see how clear thinking, mentally healthy persons would have trouble believing in the God of John Calvin, for instance. Likewise, the deity proclaimed from many (though by no means all) evangelical and fundamentalist pulpits is far from the sort of Heavenly Father I would care to worship.

Any Being that would cast people into everlasting torment for not believing in a gospel they never heard should be relegated to the ash heap of history. The same is likewise true of a God who worries about people of homosexual orientation forming loving, lasting relationships, while ignoring far weightier matters of economic and social justice. These ideas about the nature of the Ultimate say more about the psychological maladies of their inventors than they do about spiritual truth.

If we dispense with these distorted caricatures, however, who or what do we put in their place? This very topic has been the subject of my thoughts, prayers, studies and reflections for the last several years.

I don't pretend to have found Buddha-like enlightenment in any of these matters. But I have reached some conclusions about what I think the true God of the Universe is like, and I want to share them in point by point fashion:

1.) God is in some way intimately related to the Universe, far more so than Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians have long believed. The image of a Cosmic Sovereign sitting high above and well beyond His creation is fraught with philosophical shortcomings. In its place we must develop a conception of a loving Parent, Guide and Friend who is our fellow traveler through time and space.

This God "feels our pain," to borrow a somewhat trite phrase. He rejoices with us in our moments of ecstasy and suffers with us in our times of pain and grief. He either cannot fully control our actions or, as I suspect, could do so but chooses not to.

He sees the evil and suffering which blight this world, and graciously invites us to partner with Him in redeeming it from the curses of sin and mortality. The death of His Son on the cross is an integral part of this plan, in ways that we humans cannot fully fathom. However, we can look upon the death and resurrection of Jesus (yes, I do believe that Christ rose from the dead) as demonstration of both Gods' love for us and the eventual triumph we will share with Him when evil and death have at last been purged from creation.

The question of why this evil exists at all leads into my second point:

2. ) God is not yet in full control of our world. I don't know why, but His ultimate desires for His children have not yet been realized. He struggles both with the forces of chaos and of moral evil on a moment by moment basis. As He possesses unlimited power and all possible knowledge, His final triumph is assured. However, like a boxer trading blows with an able but inferior opponent, he suffers setbacks and temporary defeats in His ages-long struggle.

These forces of chaos and of moral wrongdoing are personified in the entity known in the Bible as Satan, or the Devil. I believe that this archfiend is more than a simple personification, however. He or it is a conscious presence that pervades the Universe and actively resists God's redemptive efforts.

3.) God does not know exactly how the future will unfold, but nevertheless some things about it are certain. For one, it will bring the ultimate victory of the three Divine Persons known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit over the Evil One and his allies. This is the underlying and overarching message of the apocalyptic books of the Bible, including Revelation. The exact day and time of this event is not yet determined, and is partially affected by our actions, or conversely our inaction, as God's agents and co-workers in the redemptive process.

This victory will result in a physical transformation of the creation that will alter the laws of nature, resulting in a remaking of the world into a place of overwhelming peace and benevolence.

It will also entail the redemption of the vast majority of the people who have ever lived. If any are lost it will be a vanishingly small number who, while in full knowledge of their actions and in complete control of their wills, reject the offer of the Divine Persons to participate in this new epoch of unending harmony.

These poor souls are the ones whom Jude 1:13 describes as "raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever."
Their ultimate fate will not be endless torture, but rather a merciful snuffing out of their conscious existence in the Universe.

4.)As a Christian, I believe that God works primarily, but by no means exclusively, through the church to accomplish His redemptive goals. The compassionate Jew or Muslim, the kind Buddhist or Hindu, and all people of goodwill, even those of no particular faith - all of these are God's children and His partners in the redemptive program. They will share in the final victory and the blessedness of the world to come.

5.) This will perhaps be most shocking of all to my more conservative readers, but I say with full conviction that the God I have described in this post is also the Deity described in the Old and New Testaments, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the beloved Son and the eternal Spirit. I see no conflict in holding to both a high view of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the views I have described in the preceding words.

To those interested in pursuing this last line of thought for themselves I recommend the following works by theologians, philosophers of religion and biblical scholars of widely varying church affiliations and educational backgrounds. For the reader's convenience I am listing these in hyperlink form. Clicking on them will lead to their listings at Amazon.com.

Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists

Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality

God of the Possible: an Introduction to the Open View of God

In God's Time: the Bible and the Future

God's Politics

The Openness of God: a Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God

A Wideness in God's Mercy

What does the Bible Really Say about Hell? Wrestling with the Traditional View

The Inescapable Love of God

I trust these resources will be of benefit to those who, like me, seek for the truth. As always, your own thoughts, expressed in a civil and thoughtful tone, are welcome here.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Family History

The following has nothing whatsoever to do with theology, philosophy or the price of eggs for that matter. But it has met with a strongly positive reception among my readers so I thought I'd post it here. Just a little background information about Yours Truly.

My mother grew up during the Great Depression. When she was in her teens he held a job as a janitor which paid 50 cents a week. Her mother would take half of it and buy basics like flour and cornmeal in big cloth sacks. When the sacks were empty she would sew them into dresses for my mother and her siblings.
The other 25 cents was my mother's to keep. On Saturdays she and my aunt (her younger sister) would walk into town. The quarter would buy them movie tickets and snacks to munch on during the shows. They would get news reels, a couple of cartoons, a short feature such as a Three Stooges bit, a chapter in a serial adventure like Flash Gordon and then the main feature. Afterwards they took what was left of the 25 cents and bought ice cream at the drug store.
They raised pigs, from which most of their meat came. They grew vegetables and canned them, so they always had food. Winters were cold and summers were hot, but they survived.
My father's family grew up in the mountains of northern Georgia. They survived by hunting, fishing and I believe a little moonshining. They knew better than to stray too far from the cabin because bobcats and mountain lions prowled the woods. Among their sources of cash were turnip and collard greens, which grew in abundance in the mountain climate. When the crop came in they loaded up the wagon with greens, hitched up the mule and rode into town square, where they sold their produce.
My father was a heathen and a Hell raiser all his 83 years (actually he cut back on the heavy drinking after he turned 75). When I became a teenager I couldn't rebel against him by getting involved with sex and alcohol, as he had long ago mastered those vices and I would never have been able to keep up with him. So I took the only route I could to defy him: I kept my nose clean and joined a church. That really set him off, but he finally came to peace with it when he got into his 70s and calmed down a little.
One of my most vivid memories is when he asked me to buy him a large print Bible; he was about 81 at the time and decided it was finally time to read the Good Book. I sent him a copy along with his usual Christmas gifts of cigars and peach brandy.
He finally passed away at age 83 of a kidney infection that he ignored for months until it shut his body down. When we went to clean up his home I found the Bible, with several well-turned pages in it. It sat next to a stack of pamphlets about Viagra. Apparently his spiritual life wasn't the only thing he sought to resurrect in his sunset years.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Gospel According to Calvin

In the last post we looked at some of the antiquated, neurotic and downright silly ideas that people have had about the nature of God. In this offering I want to expand on that theme a bit. Here we go:

“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation”
-John Calvin

I try to be tolerant. I long to be open-minded. I sincerely want to evaluate all opinions without bias or emotion.

But there is a belief system that sickens me to my core and derails my powers of objectivity almost completely. It is the classic form of Calvinism created by a sick man and held to by his equally sick followers over the last five centuries. To me it contains all that is wrong with the view of God that has dominated Christian theology for over fifteen hundred years.

Christian thinkers, even brilliant and devout ones, are influenced by the political realities of their day. The ancients were no exception to this rule. They saw that the power to do as one willed was the defining characteristic of earthly kings, and integrated this fact into their religious beliefs.

Augustine (354-430) was one of the greatest minds in the history of the church. His works are marked by their depth of thought and the love for Christ expressed in their words. They offer powerful insights into fields as disparate as physics, ethics, aesthetics and rhetoric. Their contributions to theology and philosophy are inestimable.

Like all of us, however, this illuminating thinker was a product of the times in which he lived. As a citizen of the late Roman empire, he modeled his ideas about God on the example set by the Caesars, who ruled with an iron fist. He saw God as a cosmic monarch who used His omnipotence to accomplish His will, including His desires for our salvation. Augustine declared that in His sovereignty God chooses some humans to be His children and rejects all others, consigning them to Hell.

Aquinas (1225-1274), building on this theme of divine fiat, taught that eternal punishment of sinners was perfectly just. After all, in the feudal society in which he lived it was a grave matter to offend the honor of a nobleman, and what greater example of royalty was there than God Himself? The Almighty possesses infinite honor, so an offense against Him merits eternal punishment.

These ideas influenced later writers and scholastics. Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote volumes about the love and mercy of God, yet he also believed that the Lord arbitrarily chose some to go to Hell while only a lucky few would enjoy His mercy. It’s likely that these ideas were largely to blame for the malicious and vengeful tone of his later writings.

The notion of God as all-controlling hyper-sovereign found its fullest expression in the writings of John Calvin. He lived from 1509 to 1564 and much of that time dominating the lives of the citizens of Geneva.

Contemporary thinkers believe Calvin was deeply neurotic and likely suffered from major mental illnesses. Without a doubt he was rigid, dour and intolerant in the extreme. It’s not surprising that such a man would mold the God of love into his own hateful image. His theological ideas were marked by a belief in a cruel, arbitrary and despotic deity and an extremely low view of his fellow human beings.

The key to Calvin’s theology is an obsessive focus on the sovereignty of God.
Like Anselm and Augustine before him, he saw his Maker through the eyes of the monarchial society he lived in, imagining the Creator as the Ultimate King, with total and unshakeable control over the earth.

In Calvinist thinking the Almighty has predestined each of us to behave exactly as He wills. Thus God, through His pawn Satan, caused Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. He did this to glorify Himself, both by damning most of His children to Hell and by forcing a few of them to accept His Son’s blood sacrifice on the cross as payment for the evil deeds they were coerced into performing.

So, according to this great theologian, our Heavenly Father drives us to commit sins through no choice of our own, for which He then condemns us. But to show His merciful side He murdered His beloved son Jesus. This was done to appease His wrath against a few people that He arbitrarily chooses to spare from Hell

This sadistic and twisted plan was, in Calvin‘s mind, a beautiful example of divine mercy. He taught that the people in Heaven should praise God for His benevolence while those in Hell should praise Him for His justice. This guy really needed some Prozac and a good psychiatrist!

Needless to mention, there have been a number of free-thinking people who have objected to this nonsense over the centuries. John Wesley (1703-1791) issued a devastating critique of it in his classic sermon “On Free Grace." Consider his words, which follow:

However much I love the persons who teach it, I hate the doctrine of predestination. It is a doctrine which, if it were true or even possible, one could rightly say to our enemy the devil, "You fool, why do keep strutting around with your arrogance and malice? Your efforts to damn souls are as useless and meaningless as our attempts to save them. Have you not heard that God has taken your work out of your hands; and that he does it much more effectively than you ever could?”

“You, with all your kingdoms and powers, can only assault those humans who resist you; but God can irresistibly destroy both body and soul in hell! You can only entice; but His unchangeable command to leave thousands of souls in death forces them to keep sinning till they fall into everlasting torture. You can only tempt; He forces us to be damned; for we cannot resist his will. You fool, why do you prowl about, seeking whom you may devour? Have you not heard that God is the devouring lion, the destroyer of souls, the murderer of men?”

There are scores of lengthy volumes in print, written by scholars of prodigious intellect, that expose the biblical, philosophical and theological shortcomings of Calvinist thought. But none of them do a better job of pointing out its inherent absurdities than the two brief paragraphs above. In my mind Wesley’s remarks are brilliant. Their brevity and profundity are matched by only a handful of works throughout history.

As mentioned before, the concept of God as an oppressive dictator has its roots in ancient ideas about the proper role of government. It has been enormously influential throughout the history of the church. It is also directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus, who tells us that the role of the strong is to serve the weak (Matthew 20:20-28):

20Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

21"What is it you want?" he asked.
She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom."

22"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"
"We can," they answered.

23Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."

24When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

With the coming of the Enlightenment the old notions about God’s nature centering on His power began to lose their grip on the church. In their place far more Christ-like conceptions emerged, centering around His love. We will explore these next time.

As a concluding thought, I should mention that in this post I have given only a very general treatment of the beliefs and history I have discussed. For those wanting to explore these issues in more depth I recommend the book "Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views," edited by Bruce Ware and available from online merchants such as Amazon. It contains articles by scholars who support Calvin’s views as well as others who are critical of them.

I’ve long believed in the importance in hearing all sides of an argument before deciding one’s own position. Of course this applies to my beliefs as well. For all you know I could be full of BS, so I urge you to put my writings to the test before you agree with them. Peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Why it's Time for a New God

The title of this post is not only purposely provocative, it's also not quite accurate. What I want to discuss is not getting rid of God, but rather dispensing with some silly ideas about what the Creator must be like.

My misgivings with the deity many Christians believe in began during my college days. I attended a conservative religious school. The administration of the institution tried to steer the bulk of the student body towards being pastors or missionaries. One tactic they employed was to make us feel guilty about the "billions of unreached people" who would go to Hell because nobody preached the Christian gospel to them.
I recall the man who taught my New Testament Introduction class saying that God had provided the means for humanity's salvation on the cross, but that He left it up to the church to spread the news of that provision. Thus, anyone who did not hear about Christ in this life, for whatever reason, who be tortured forever to satisfy the "justice" of the Almighty.

Not only would things turn out horribly wrong for those poor souls, but matters would not go well for us at the Final Judgment, if we heard God's call to preach and ignored it. At the very least we would watch as the unsaved were tossed into the Lake of Fire. And Jesus would be forever disappointed with us for letting it happen.

But the hereafter wasn't our only source of anxiety. Like most young people, we were concerned with our futures here on earth. We wondered how we would make a living, who we would marry, and how we would ever repay our student loans with the tiny pay most ministers earn.

Not to worry, we were assured. God was in control, and would care for all of our needs. Our job was to simply step out in faith and we would be miraculously taken care of. To reinforce this message we were told apocryphal tales about cash strapped clergy who the Lord had miraculously provided for. We all knew the story about the pastor whose church couldn't pay him a proper salary, but who received a check in the mail just in time to pay his rent and buy his family some food.

For some reason the man's name and location were never mentioned, so we were unable to verify the account.

Another yarn peddled to us concerned two missionaries lost in the jungle and on the verge of starvation. Weak with hunger, they collapsed to the ground, and as they did one looked up and saw a nearby fruit tree. Struggling to his feet, he picked the sweet produce for him and his companion, and they regained their strength and went about the work of evangelizing the locals.

Exactly who this devoted pair were remained a mystery, but we were assured the story was true.

Needless to say these wonderful tales clashed with reality. The little town the college was in was filled with graduates who had finished school deeply in debt. Unable to raise financial support to be pastors or missionaries, and without marketable job skills, they labored in low paid factory jobs, stocked shelves at grocery stores, flipped burgers or waited tables for their former classmates.
There were no miraculous checks showing up in their mailboxes.

Like all people of faith, our trust in our beliefs was tested from time to time. Particularly tragic was what happened to the Dean of Men's daughter, a lovely young girl named Kimberly, who was traveling in a car that struck a tree at a high rate of speed one sunny afternoon. She flew through the windshield and into the large oak that the vehicle had collided with. She was rushed to the hospital and the entire campus prayed intensely for her recovery. For the first few days after the wreck it seemed that God was listening, as reports came from the hospital that she would be fine.

Then about five days after the accident she slipped into a coma. She was dead within seventy two hours. It seemed the God who routed checks to cash strapped pastors and grew apples for starving missionaries was unwilling to intervene in her case.

Not that this caused any of us to lose our faith, of course. The power of the human mind to rationalize unwanted news is nothing if not astounding. I recall one of my classmates saying that a pair of people had gotten saved after hearing of Kimberly's death. "I can see why God would let her die," he opined, "if it would save two souls from Hell. It was worth it."

One friend of mine chose not to dismiss her doubts so easily, and she approached a professor with her concerns. Instead of addressing the issues she raised he told her that she needed to "surrender her rights to the Lord," including her right to question her faith.

I share these bleak memories with you to illustrate the kind of God that too many people believe in:

1.) One who tosses people into Hell for not believing the correct facts about Him, even if they never had a chance to hear them;

2.) One who has a highly detailed plan for our lives, including our choice of vocations and the exact identity of our spouses;

3.) One who provides for his followers, unless He sees that sacrificing one of them will gain him two additional pawns for His chess match with the Devil;

4.) One who demands we stop thinking for ourselves and blindly trust what we are told by ecclesiastical authority figures.

Over the years I have watched dozens of old friends who believed in this God degenerate into bitter, enraged and pitiful caricatures of their former selves. And it's little wonder that they've turned out that way. Committing one's heart, mind and life to such a deranged Creature is like being married to an abusive, alcoholic spouse.
The victim is worn down by the need to make excuses, to rationalize, and to blame oneself for the failings of their partner.

This goes on year after torturous year, until finally they realize how deeply they have been betrayed. When that dark day arrives there is nothing left but a final plunge into nihilistic despair.

It's said that we all create God in our own image, and I wonder how sick the people were who invented this Cosmic Despot from their fears, hatreds and insecurities. Their twisted view of the Almighty has haunted humanity for too long. It is time for their God to go.

All well and good, of course, but then the question comes to mind of what kind of Being will take his place. That's the topic I will be exploring in future posts. We'll explore how powerful God really is, how He can and cannot intervene in the universe, what Christ's death really means for us, the kind of life Jesus wants us to live, and how we will be judged in the world after this one.

In the meantime I close with a prayer for my old mentors and fellow students. It's based on a quote from Voltaire which I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing for the occasion:

"May the true God of the Universe, who doesn't send people to Hell for other's actions, doesn't micro-manage His children's lives, doesn't treat us like pawns, and doesn't demand that we commit intellectual suicide - may He forgive the pitiful creatures who blaspheme Him."

To which I say a hearty "Amen."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why I'm soft on fundamentalists

A parable of Jesus from Luke 18:9-14:

And he spoke this parable to some self-righteous people who hated and looked down on others. "Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and said these words: 'God, I thank you that I am not as other men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this fellow, a tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all I possess."

"And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying 'God be merciful to me a sinner.'"

"I tell you, this man went down to his house forgiven of his sins, and the Pharisee did not. For anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

This story always comes to my mind when I read comments like those posted recently by a fellow blogger, a Progressive Christian minister who noticed that a nearby conservative church has the message "Christ died for your sins" posted on its sign.
He chose to amuse himself a bit by making fun of the message, using words like "fetishism" and "torture" to paint a caricature of how his fellow Christians interpreted the meaning of the crucifixion.

Even more discouraging to me were the comments posted by those who joined this fellow in ridiculing these good people. The scent of self-righteous smugness was apparent in their words, as they condemned their brothers and sisters in Christ as backwards, ignorant, homophobic and superstitious.

No one suggested starting a dialogue with the members of the fundamentalist church. No one suggested trying to see things from their point of view. They were too busy patting themselves on the back for their enlightened, tolerant ideals to see that they were modeling the same attitudes and actions that they claimed to despise.

It has never ceased to amaze me has we humans can so easily forget one of Jesus' core messages: that it is our own sins and shortcomings that we must be quick to note and to condemn, not those of others. Fundamentalists and neo-fundamentalist Evangelicals love to call Progressive believers heretics. They condemn us as anti-family and anti-American. They say we don't honor the Bible, that we compromise with evil, and that we are out of touch elitists. Sometimes they even push God out of His rightful place as judge of humanity and consign us to Hell.

And how do we react? We raise our noses in the air and talk in superior tones about our critics. We accuse them of being anti-science because they mistrust the theory of evolution. We label them as hateful because they have sincere concerns about the morality of welcoming practicing homosexuals into the church. We make snide remarks about their family trees, we wonder if they drive pickup trucks and live in trailer parks, and we engage in silly paranoid discussions about how many guns they own. All too often we liken them to Hitler, knowing full well that the comparison is not only unjustified but slanderous.

And all the time we are doing this, we forget words like these:

"Condemn not and you will not be condemned."

"Bless those who curse you, do good to those who despitefully use you and persecute you."

"Why do you seek to remove the speck from your brother's eye, and ignore the plank that is in your own?"

"Who are you to judge another man's servant? It is by his own master that he stands or falls. And he will stand, because the Lord is able to make him stand."

"Why do you judge your brother? And why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all appear at the judgment seat of Christ."

"It's easier to point a finger than to look in the mirror." (Okay, that one isn't in the Bible, but I like it so much I tossed it in the mix anyway.

And yes, I know that there are many on the Religious Right who would abolish government aid to the poor, declare Jihad on all Muslims, ban Harry Potter books, forbid the teaching of evolution, imprison homosexuals, etc., etc. if they could.

And I have heard the oh-so-handy rationalization "but it's perfectly okay to be intolerant of intolerance!" proclaimed by liberals and progressives looking for an excuse to indulge their own raging xenophobia.

But I never forget that intolerance, suspicion, groupthink, tribalism and a host of other ills are not the sole province of any one group of people. We are all looking for an excuse to hate and to dehumanize others. If we can no longer do so on the basis on race or sexual orientation, well then, we will simply use the fact that "they" don't believe everything I believe, therefore "they" are the enemy.

The terrifying truth is this: the shadow of Hitler hangs not only over political conservatives and religious fundamentalists. It also looms large over their ideological opponents. All of us - ALL OF US - are potential witch hunters. Let a well-spoken leader assure us of our own superiority, let him or her tell us that we are justified in our fears and hatreds, and we can all be manipulated into becoming a mob, burning, destroying, killing those sub-human - (fill in the blank here with your favorite prejudical term - queer, socialist, tree-hugger; or, if you like, fascist, redneck, homophobe - whatever; all those terms, when spoken in hatred, are spawned from the same dark corner of the human soul).

Jesus knew these things, and that is why he urges us so strongly to be slow to judge others, but quick to examine ourselves; slow to speak, but quick to listen; and slow to become angry, but quick to forgive and to seek reconciliation with all people. This is the way of peace, it is the way of Christ. And, if we are to call ourselves Christians, it must be our way as well. May God help it to be so.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Darwin?

It was with a touch of sadness that I read a pair of letters printed recently in the newspaper. The first was written by a man who was upset at a local natural history museum for hosting a “Darwin Day” celebration. The poor fellow claimed that the theory of evolution is an affront to the Bible and Christianity and should not be taught.

About a week later a response from a local atheist was published. It started out by attacking the previous letter. Not content with this, however, the author went on to launch a assault on all religion, decrying it as dangerous and intolerant. By the end of the piece it was clear that this person thought that all people of faith are filled with hatred and violent impulses. He also expressed his disdain for spiritual approaches to discovering life’s meaning and purpose.

Those two letter writers are far from a couple of isolated cranks. They are combatants in a much larger conflict. Like warring mobs of blood thirsty school kids, folks on both sides of the Evolution/Creation controversy have been trying to provoke their champions into mixing it up for well over a century now.

On one side are the perennially insecure Christian fundamentalists, cheering for Jesus to knock Darwin out once and for all. On the other are hysterical, xenophobic anti-Christian atheists and agnostics, who swing the theory of natural selection like a club, hoping it will deal a fatal blow to the Almighty and clear the way for materialism to reign unopposed.

Sometimes I picture Christ and Darwin standing side by side, looking down from heaven and shaking their heads, wondering what all the furor is over. In all of the attempts to destroy religion or to censor science a simple and most profound principle has been overlooked: that all truth is God’s truth. Believers have nothing to fear from scientific insight. And science has nothing to fear from spiritual beliefs.

I say this with confidence, having studied both the theory of evolution and the creation accounts in Genesis over the past twenty years. I have read books by scientists both critical and supportive of Darwin’s claims, and studied the positions of biblical scholars of all persuasions.

In this debate there are two small and very vocal groups of extremists. On one side are the Young Earth Creationists, represented by the likes of Ken Ham and Duane Gish. These people claim that the Earth is no more than ten thousand years old, and anyone who says otherwise is either deceived by the Devil or an outright liar. They interpret Genesis ultra-literally and try to force science to support their untenable worldview.

In the other camp are militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They claim that evolution destroys all rational basis for belief in God. Dawkins is especially fanatical in his beliefs, saying that religion is not only false but evil. His recent book The God Delusion, which I read with some amusement, paints a caricature of believers as ignorant Bible thumpers, anxious to burn all free thinking persons at the stake.

The tragic part of this silly pissing war is how it drowns out the voices of countless others, those who respect both religion and science, and are trying to find areas of common ground between the two disciplines. Some of the more prominent persons in this group include geneticist Francis Collins, whose book The Language of God finds signs of God’s handiwork in the marvelous things which science has discovered, including the evolutionary process.

Another person of note is Brown University Professor Ken Miller, who wrote the outstanding volume Finding Darwin’s God. Brown defends evolution against the Creationists and Christianity against the off the wall polemics of Dawkins and his ilk. Approaching the subject from a different perspective, physicist and author Paul Davies finds grounds for belief in a Higher Power in the marvelous way the Universe displays a sense of order and rationality.

These men, and others like them, have no quarrel with either Darwin or Jesus. Collins and Miller find in Genesis a beautiful narrative about how God is the ultimate cause for creation. In stories like that of Adam and Eve they see profound commentaries on how humanity is led astray both by pride and the lust of the eye. Davies, while not a member of any organized religion, finds in his studies of the heavens ample proof that there is a Purpose underlying everything we see.

Reflecting once more on the aforementioned letter writers, I see that both of them missed the mark. The Christian fundamentalist is anxious to put God in a box, lest the Almighty and his ways prove too wondrous to comprehend. On the other hand the militant atheist is a bigot, and a small minded one at that. He sees religion through a filter clouded by his own arrogance and closed-mindedness. Both men have my pity. And, looking down from some corner of God’s vast and marvelous universe, I suspect that two other pairs of eyes regard them in the same way, while they wait patiently for the human race to grow up.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

This is Heresy?

One thing I recall with a mixture of confusion and sadness from my fundamentalist days is the endless witch hunt for "false teachers." To explain: among ultra-conservative Christians doctrinal correctness is an obsession. Visit an average religious bookstore and you'll quickly notice a plethora of books raging against the latest "deception" to threaten the church.

In recent years prominent Evangelicals have railed against ministers such as Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, who question the policies of the Religious Right. They have condemned those who seek to find a place in the church for gays and lesbians. Some of the witch hunters even battle among themselves, Calvinist vs. Arminian, Charismatic vs. Cessationist, Post-Tribber vs. Pre-Tribber.

However, some of their most caustic attacks have been launched against those who question their concept of God. I'm not talking here about thinkers on the far left such as Jonathan Spong who openly reject historic doctrines like the Trinity or the deity of Christ. I'm referring to a growing body of moderate pastors and theologians who question the degree to which the Almighty stands apart from the world as an omnipotent and all-controlling monarch.

For centuries Christian theology students have been taught doctrines about God that emphasize His sovereignty, power and unchangeableness. Influenced heavily by the writings of Aristotle and Plato, this notion of the Deity paints Him as in absolute
control of earthly events. In addition He is seen as possessing exhaustive knowledge of the future, including what humans will do before they do it. Further God is described as being absolutely complete in Himself, so much so that He in no way needs His creatures' fellowship or love.

If this God sounds odd to you then you're not alone. Numerous passages in both Old and New Testament describe a Divine Person who is deeply affected by his children's thoughts and actions. He is angered and saddened when they sin, and delighted when they change their ways and seek his face. He alters his plans when asked to do so by Moses or other prophets. On occasion he is even surprised by things that humans do.

It's interesting to watch Bible college and seminary professors from conservative schools dance their way around these passages. Ask them how the Bible should be understood and they will lecture you on the vital importance of literal interpretation. But confront with a God who doesn't match their ideal of a stern, impassive control freak and they use every trick in the book to explain such an unmanly deity away.

I write all of this to prepare you for a letter written by a nice fellow named Bart Campolo. He is the son of Tony Campolo, who is a professor at Eastern College and an early pioneer in the Progressive Christian movement. A self-professed Evangelical, the senior Campolo holds fast to orthodox views of God, Christ, the Bible, etc. while also espousing left of center politicial and social views. He is the author of many, many books, including a personal favorite, "Twenty Hot Potatoes Christians are Afraid to Touch," as well as the critically acclaimed "Red Letter Christians." While I don't agree with everything he says, I have profound respect for the man, who is as sincere and loving a follower of Christ as has ever walked the planet.

Bart, his progeny, is a great guy in his own right, and the pastor of a small church in Cincinatti, called Walnut Hills Fellowship, that ministers to residents of the inner city. The younger Campolo labors tirelessly among the poor, the destitute and the forgotten, showing them God's love in word and deed.

A few years ago he received a letter from a young lady named Sarah. She wrote to him about a nine year old girl who was gang raped, and consequently now hated God for letting that happen to her. Sarah asked Bart how he reconciled his belief in a good God with such horrible tragedies.

Wanting to provide an honest response, Campolo searched his soul, questioning everything he had been taught about Jesus and the Gospel. His internal struggle led to his writing the following letter, a reply to Sarah's:

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for writing to me. Over the past few years, I have become convinced that yours is actually the single most important question in the world. As Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, “Virtually every meaningful conversation I’ve had with
people about God has either started with that question or gotten around to it before long.”

While I am sure my answer will not be as eloquent as his, I will do my best.

First of all, while I certainly believe my most cherished ideas about God are supported by the Bible (what Christian says otherwise?), I must admit they did not originate there. On the contrary, most of these ideas were formed during that difficult time I described to you, when I was suddenly disillusioned by the suffering and injustice I discovered in the inner-city, and did not trust the Bible at all.

At that point, for the first time, I realized that a person’s life does not depend on whether he or she believes in God, but rather on what kind of God he or she believes in. I also realized, for better or worse, that the only evidence I was could rely on was that which I saw for myself.

What I saw then, and still see now, is a world filled with dazzling goodness and horrific evil, with love and hate, with beauty and ugliness, with life and death. In the face of such clear duality, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that there are but a handful of spiritual possibilities:

1.) There are no spiritual forces. The material universe is all. Our lives bear no larger meaning, and those who hope for more hope in vain. In this case, considering that 9-year old rape victim, I despair.

2.) There is only one spiritual force at work in the universe, encompassing both good and evil. This world is precisely as this force wills it to be, and everything—including the rapes of children—happens according to its plan. In this case, again, I despair.

3.) There are two diametrically opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. Satan (or whatever one chooses to call that evil force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl is but a foretaste of the complete suffering that is to come for us all. In this case, of course, I despair.

4.) There are two opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. God (or whatever one chooses to call that good and loving force) is most powerful, and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl - Satan’s doing - will somehow be redeemed and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us. In this case—and in this case alone—I rejoice, and gladly pledge my allegiance to this good and loving God.

I cannot prove or disprove any of these possibilities, of course, based on the evidence of my experience. What I know with certainty, however, is the one that makes me want to go on living, the one I choose for my own sake, the one I deem worthy of my allegiance. I may be wrong in this matter, but I am not in doubt. If indeed faith is being sure of what we hope for, then truly I am a man of faith, for I absolutely know what I hope to be true: That God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing all that He can to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.

This is my first article of faith. I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests otherwise.

This first article of faith was the starting point of my journey back to Jesus, and it remains the foundation of my faith. I came to trust the Bible again, of course, but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in. I especially follow the teachings of Jesus because those teachings—and his life, death, and resurrection—seem to me the best expression of the ultimate truth of God, which we Christians call grace. Indeed, these days I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand him, because I have become so convinced that He knows what He is talking about, that He is who he is talking about, and that He alone fully grasps that which I can only hope is true.

Unfortunately for me, God may be very different than I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day. Perhaps, as many believe, the truth is that God created and predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation, according to His will. Perhaps such caprice only seems unloving to us because we don’t understand. Perhaps, as many believe, everyone who dies without confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior goes to Hell to suffer forever.

Most important of all, perhaps God’s sovereignty is such that, although He could indeed prevent little girls from being raped, He is no less just or merciful when He doesn’t, and both those children and we who love them should uncritically give Him our thanks and praise in any case.

My response is simple: I refuse to believe any of that. For me to do otherwise would be to despair.

Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, God can give my place in Heaven to someone else, and go ahead and send me to Hell.

For better or worse, I am simply not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking Him, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility, because, quite frankly, anything less is not enough to give me hope, to keep me alive, to be worth the trouble of believing.

You can figure out the rest. I don’t hate God because I don’t believe God is fully in control of this world yet. Heck, God is not fully in control of me yet, even when I want Him to be, so how could I possibly believe that God is making it all happen out there in the street? I don’t hate God because I believe He is always doing the best He can, within the limits of human freedom, which even He cannot escape.

On that last point, consider for a moment the essential relationship between human freedom and love, and then consider the essential identity between love and God. If God is love, if He made us for love in His image, then He had no choice but to make us free, to leave us free, and to win us for His Kingdom as free agents (which, evidently, is a long and difficult task). So He did, and so He will.

I don’t hate God because, although I suppose He knows everything that can be known at any given point in time, I don’t suppose He knows or controls everything that is going to happen. I also don’t hate God because I really believe in Satan (and also in my own, moving-in-the-right-direction-but-still-pretty-doggoned-sinful nature).

I don’t hate God because it seems to me that this world is a battleground between good and evil, not a puppet show with just one person pulling all the strings. I don’t hate God because the God I have chosen to believe in isn’t hateable, and because I refuse to believe in the kind of God that is.

Now here is the good news: I may be entirely wrong, but even in my darkest hours, my God of love hasn’t stopped speaking to me. On the contrary, I hear His voice in places I never did before, always saying the same things, one way or another: I am with you. I’m sorry about all the pain. It hurts me too, especially when my little ones suffer. I have always loved you and I always will. Do the best you can, but don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end. Trust me.

And I do. And I hope you will too, sooner than later.

Your Friend,


The above letter was published in a Christian youth magazine. Many of those who read it were touched by Campolo's sincerity and thoughtfulness. They noted how his words paralleled those of the Psalms that deal with the problem of believing in a loving God while living in a world of sorrow.

Not all were so charitable. Word of the piece reached self-appointed witch hunters, who bombarded the publication's editor with demands that it be removed from the organization's web site. They also commented at length on their own web sites about Campolo's letter. The following is a brief quote from one:

I don’t often link to “bad theology” articles in order to bash them, but I’m making an exception here. It is rare for a writer to be this honest about the functional sovereignty of his own mind in determining the object of his worship. In other words, Bart Campolo is an idolater of the first-order.

That is tame compared to remarks penned by other Guardians of the Truth, who openly called Tony and Bart a "father and son team of heretics" and called on them to repent of their false teachings. One site even said that the elder Campolo was a Marxist, due to his not towing the Religious Right's hard-core political line.

Somewhere in all of this they forgot that behind that letter was a man who was trying to make sense of the despair and tragedy he faces in his efforts to bring the message of Christ to the lost and dying. They claimed that their attacks on him were compelled by their love for Jesus. But given their approach that seems unlikely.

No, scratch underneath the paper-thin surface of their self-righteous fury and the truth emerges. Bart Campolo's real sin in his critic's eye was in thinking for himself. He dared to question the patristic, domineering, hyper-masculine God that his detractors created in their own image.

In doing so he challenged their power over their followers. They reacted as reactionaries and despots have throughout the centuries, with pompous insults and baseless accusations.

In observing their behavior I have drawn the conclusion that it is not the heretics we need to fear so much as those who call other people heretics. This doesn't mean that people with differing views should not defend their own beliefs and challenge those of others; far from it. But when a good man is slandered and his work censored, then it is time to call foul on the witch hunters.

I would also submit that Campolo is absolutely correct in saying that it matters what God one believes in. His opponents have dispensed with the God of the Bible. In his place they have substituted a cruel, capricious deity that possesses their own qualities. But I had better stop there, before I engage in the same sort of demagoguery I have criticized them for.

If you would like to know more about Bart Campolo and the work his church is doing, I refer you to their website: www.thewalnuthillsfellowship.org.

And if you want to learn more about the God he - and I - believe in, then I highly recommend the book "God of the Possible: a Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God" by Gregory Boyd, available at Amazon and other book sellers. Peace.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

God, Gay Marriage and the Bible

About a month before last November's election I received a letter from an organization called Focus on the Family. It's a Colorado-based ministry led by James Dobson, who holds a doctorate in psychology and has written several excellent books on spousal relations and child rearing. Unfortunately Dobson is also a highly vocal supporter of the Religious Right, and the letter reflected his distorted views not only on the Bible but also on the real threats American families are facing.

The letter opened with a plea for me to imagine Washington DC under democratic control, which according to the good doctor would be a field day for the "radical homosexuals" and their supporters. Same sex marriage would be forced on the states, and kids would be taught that being gay is normal. Worst of all, liberal judges would use their judicial power to shove their hideous anti-God agenda down the throats of the American people.

Fortunately, according to the letter, there was still time to save our nation from this direct assault on the family. I was urged to help get the vote out for those candidates who honor traditional values and would stand up to the sodomites and their allies - all while shooting defenseless, terrified wolves from helicopters, I assume. I think there was also a request for a financial donation, but I'm not sure. I read the letter with a sad smile, reflecting on how much this apparently sincere man and his supporters misunderstand both the Bible and the real threats to America's families.

Homophobia has been used to rally the troops in conservative religious circles for decades. In recent years the prospect of gay marriage has been lifted up like a hideous specter in fundamentalist and evangelical churches across the U.S. All of this causes me concern. But what really gets my blood boiling is when Dobson and his ilk declare that they are fighting for the Bible against those who hate it and its teachings.

Those who think that the God of Scripture is an impassioned homophobe need to take a closer look at the book they claim such reverence for. Search the text of both Testaments and you will find scant reference to homosexuality at all. What's more,
the few passages that do refer to it are notably obscure in their meanings. There is significant evidence that they have been grossly misinterpreted over the centuries to justify prejudice aganst God's gay and lesbian children.

Space and time don't permit me to go into detail on these matters. I refer interested parties to the excellent book "Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality" by Jack Rogers. Rogers is an evangelical Presbyterian minister who holds a high view of Scripture. In the book he shows that nowhere does the Bible condemn loving, committed, monogamous relationships between same sex partners. In fact, he says that such unions should be blessed and celebrated by the church as Christian marriages, a position I agree with wholeheartedly.

The Religious Right cannot abide such a view. In my opinion that it because homophobia is one of their most potent tools. There is a widespread belief among parents that being gay is somehow contagious, and that their kids may be seduced into renouncing their heterosexuality because of contact with gays. Such fears touch on deepset, primal feelings, including the desire for one's line to be carried on through grandchildren.

There is no evidence whatsoever that these concerns are justified. Homosexuality is not contagious. Despite having gay friends I remain straight as the proverbial arrow, for example. Nor is God terribly concerned about the subject, if the Bible is any indication of the Almighty's mindset. America's families have nothing to fear from the likes of Barney Frank and Melissa Etheridge.

The tragedy here is not simply that Dobson and his cohorts have misidentified gays as a threat to the family. For all their alleged reverence for the Bible, they have ignored an issue that is not only mentioned profusely throughout Scripture but is also a major cause of marital strife and family discord. While remaining virtually silent about homosexuality, Jesus and the biblical writers have much to say about greed, and the oppression of poor and working people.

"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you."

James 5:1-5

"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight."

Luke 16:13-14

" 'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy."

Ezekiel 16:49

"People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness."

1 Timothy 6:9-11

The Bible has a great deal to say about social justice. This includes but isn't limited to giving to charity. It also incorporates addressing unjust economic and social structures, about making sure that those who work receive decent wages, and that the justice system functions without regard to wheather the accused is wealthy or destitute.

But how often does the Religious Right speak up for minimum wage legistlation, for enforcing workplace safety laws, or for universal access to health care? When did Dobson or his sanctimonious friends ever question the morality of letting pharmaceutical firms reap obscene profits off of medicines, while those who depend on those drugs cannot afford them? I've yet to hear them deal with these concerns at all, except to occasionally blame "big government" and laud the virtues of unrestrained capitalism.

The Bible is filled with warnings about greed, with pleas for the marginalized, and with dire warnings about God's wrath falling on those who oppress and exploit the impoverished. Yet despite blatant examples of how these sins are committed gleefully across the United States, those who declare themselves the Bible's chief defenders are silent on these issues, focusing their vitriol solely on two issues: abortion (which will be the subject of a later post) and gay rights.

In doing so they ignore what study after study has shown to be by far the chief cause of divorce and family strife in this country: financial problems. In fairness it must be stated these are often caused by personal irresponsibility, such as out of control credit card use. However, it cannot be denied that the erosion of wages, the destruction of jobs, and the shrinking safety net for the sick and needy are contributing to the breakdown of families across the nation. Why do we not hear Dobson and his organization speaking out on these issues with the same zeal that they show in attacking gays?

Where is the fundamentalist's outrage over the unrestrained greed on the part of Wall Street executives, who have moved jobs overseas to exploit slave labor? Why don't we hear those on the Religious Right preach against predatory lending by the megabanks, and other unethical, greed driven actions that caused the current economic crisis? Where is their moral outrage about the increasing concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, and how that has given the wealthy and powerful undue influence in Washington?

All of those problems are not only threats to marriages and families, they are also clearly in violation of numerous biblical passages. Yet on these matters so-called Bible believing Christians are deafeningly silent.

The hopeful side of me likes to believe that those like Dobson are sincere in their concern for the family and their reverence for the Bible, that they are simply misinformed and in need of gentle correction. But the cynic within, who is all too many times correct, says that their demonization of gays and their neglect of real biblical concerns reveals where their true concerns lie. Perhaps underneath all those professions of love for Christ and for other people is a lust for money and power. I hope that's not the case. But I'm not willing to bet on it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What is a Progressive Christian anyway?

A growing number of 21st century Christians are seeking an alternative to the brand of faith peddled by televangelists and the religious right. The fall of prominent ministers like Ted Haggard, the failure of the Evangelical/Republican alliance, and the challenge of communicating the message of Jesus to a new generation have convinced many that the church in America is in dire need of reformation.

Like the Israelites in ancient Egypt, God’s people today are on an exodus. They are breaking away from a Christianity strait jacketed by insecure, fundamentalist attitudes and worldly ambition. In its place they are discovering a fresh expression of their faith. They are holding fast to the truth of the Gospel, while at the same time being open to insights from science and scholarship.

Many have experienced firsthand the financial misery caused by the unrestrained greed of big business. They’ve seen their nation plunged into a needless war that rooted out no weapons of mass destruction, but has led to the deaths of hundreds of young men and women. They’ve learned that the Republican party and laissez faire Capitalism aren’t the only options available to politically active followers of Christ. They know that military conflict must be morally justified to win their support. It’s not enough to blindly follow our leaders on any course of action they declare is necessary.

There are many terms that try to put a label on this growing awareness in the church. But the one that has garnered the most attention is “Progressive Christianity.” Type that term into any search engine and you’ll find thousands of hits.

Numerous best selling books have been written that try to nail down exactly what this phenomena is. However, like many infant movements it defies tidy definitions. Some see it as a liberalized sort of Evangelicalism that combines orthodox theology with left leaning politics.
Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and Ronald Sider advocate just such an approach.

Others view it as a renunciation of historic teachings about God, Christ and the church. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg and retired Episcopal Bishop Jonathan Spong are vocal spokesmen for this modernist spin on the faith. They and their allies seek to reformulate Christian teaching to eliminate supposedly irrational notions as the Virgin Birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus.

Yet another faction envisions a post modern approach to theology. This camp rejects the notion of objective truth altogether, while favoring an approach to spirituality that is intensely personal and subjective. Well known author Phyllis Tickle develops and defends this view in her many books.

As someone who considers himself a progressive Christian I have my own take on what the term means. My ideas will resonate with some readers and clash with others; all well and good. Like any fallible person I am capable of error. So I am counting on my readers for feedback and, if necessary, correction. Sound proposals can only be made stronger by honest inquiry and civil debate. So the truth has nothing to fear from a fair investigation into its claims.

This is how I define Progressive Christianity:
1.) As an approach to faith which is open to cordial discussion with people outside the church. Progressive Christians are willing to engage in dialogue with persons who hold different viewpoints from their own. They believe in the scriptural admonition to “test all things; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

That doesn’t mean they believe all belief systems are equally valid. But it does mean that progressives are secure enough in their faith to permit it to be tested and even critiqued by people from varying religious traditions, as well as by those who reject spirituality altogether.

At the same time they are willing to examine beliefs and traditions other than their own, taking from those what they find to be true and beneficial, and rejecting what seems to them to be contrary to Christian scripture, tradition and Reason.

2.) As an approach to Christianity that affirms that God’s primary attribute is love. Because of this Progressive Christians reject notions such as double predestination that teach that God arbitrarily chooses some persons to go to Heaven and consigns the rest to an eternity of horrific torture.

They also see God as willing to step away from the reins, so to speak, and permit His children to think for themselves, act for themselves and respond as they choose to His offer of salvation. Some, such as pastor and theologian Gregory Boyd, view the Almighty as a fellow journeyer with us into the future, which is, in its details at least, as unknown to Him as it is to us. Others believe that God possesses foreknowledge in a way that does not interfere with human free will. All are united, though, in their rejection of the obsessively controlling, dictatorial divine puppet master deity posited by John Calvin and others.

A corollary of this is that Progressive Christianity rejects the idea that non-Christians are automatically consigned to Hell after their physical death. Progressive Christians rightly acknowledge that any Being that would do such a thing is worthy only of our abhorrence. They see God as working in the hearts of all people to draw them to Himself, even those who have never seen a Bible, listened to a Gospel sermon or even heard the name of Jesus. Those who strive to live according to the measure of divine light they have been given, however dim it may be, will receive a gracious welcome into the kingdom of God and of Christ.

Rejected also is the idea of unending torment for any of God’s creatures. Progressives accept that either all souls will ultimately be redeemed, or that those who continue to resist the Spirit’s most ardent and tender pleas will be mercifully put to sleep, after having destroyed the image of God in themselves by willful and unrepentant sin.

There is no room in an enlightened faith for the cruel, capricious deity that fundamentalists peddle. Hell, if it exists at all, is a place of correction and rehabilitation., not infinite torture for a finite amount of sin. God is not a monster.

3.) As a belief system that celebrates the joyous fact that all truth is God’s truth. Because of this, Progressive Christians welcome the role Science plays in expanding the borders of our knowledge. The Big Bang, the extreme ages of the heavens and the earth, and even the facts that have been revealed through the fossil record - none of these are seen as a threat to religious faith. Rather they are heralded as testaments to the glory and grandeur of the Creator.

This doesn’t mean that progressives blindly accept whatever the scientific community proclaims, for history has shown that scientists are as capable of error as the rest of us. But absent in Progressive Christianity is a fear of learning about the physical world. Whether truth comes from the Bible, from a great work of art or from a laboratory does not diminish its importance, for all of it aids us in our quest to know the mind of God.

Progressive Christianity likewise rejoices in the ways that scholarship has given a greater understanding of the Bible’s message. Insights gleaned from literary analysis, form criticism and archaeology assist the believer in discerning the truths that biblical passages are trying to convey. They also give us an appreciation and understanding of the mindset of the human authors and the world in which they lived. All of this works to clear our minds of misunderstandings about what God is trying to tell us through His Word.

As with Science, thoughtful progressives do not simply accept claims made by prominent academics about the Bible or church history. On more than one occasion attacks on the integrity of Scripture have been shown to be grounded more in personal vendettas than careful scholarship. As a whole, though, Progressive Christians see modern biblical studies as an ally, not an adversary. They welcome its insights while giving its pronouncements careful consideration.

A faith that engages the world, stimulates the mind, and is consistent with Reason and truth - that is my understanding of what Progressive Christianity is. In posts to come I will be developing these ideas further, exploring what I believe to be true to the best of my very limited abilities. Your thoughtful remarks and civil replies are always welcome. All of us are on a search for truth. Should we not seek it together?