Sunday, February 22, 2009
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
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:
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.
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
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."
"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."
" '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."
"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.