Reading the Bible from Wherever You Are

 Reading the Bible from Wherever You Are

Fr. Charles Allen

The Bible is a collection of ancient writings written and read by people who, rightly or mistakenly, experienced life in terms of living together with God. Regardless of what you or I believe, or don't, we can begin to appreciate these ancient writings by asking and exploring the following questions:

1. How did the writer and early readers of this passage experience life in terms of living together with God?

2. What sort of God did they experience?

3. How did this address the "big questions"* we may still ask today?

4. How are this ancient writer's and readers' experiences like and unlike my experience of living together, with or without the word "God"?

5. How does understanding this writer's and readers' experiences help me address my own "big questions"?

There are no wrong answers here. The point is a deeper understanding of your own life, in light of how others have understood theirs.

*Some Big Questions (feel free to add others)

—Do my life and your life and "our people's" lives really matter in this unimaginably vast universe?

—How can they really matter?

—How do we come to terms with our own mortality?

—Why are we outraged when we see injustice?

—How is it that reality (whatever that might be) produces beings that care about what reality might be?

—Is this the final truth about us?—"'We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes'.  (The Selfish Gene, p. ix). ... That was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth ..."—Richard Dawkins, (1981) [In Defense of Selfish Genes,] Philosophy 56:573.

—Or is there more to our lives than blindly preserving selfish molecules?

—What would make life more than this?

An Example:

Genesis 12:1-3: Now YHWH said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

1. How did the writer and early readers of this passage experience life in terms of living together with God?

The writer and early readers of this passage consider themselves to be descendants of Abram (his name was later changed to Abraham).

They now live in "the land that I will show you," and they believe that coming to live in this land justified any violent conquests they may have undertaken. (!)

They have become a nation that still aspires to be a great nation.

They are not totally self-absorbed—they still hope that the greatness they aspire to will be a blessing for all humanity.

They believe this aspiration comes from no less than God, and that it began with Abram's journey away from his homeland.

2. What sort of God did they experience?

In this passage the writer and early readers experience what they call "God" in terms of one who summons them to greatness for everybody's benefit; they trust that this summoner can make that happen, at least eventually.

Their name for God is YHWH, a name that can be written down but not pronounced orally. They associated it with the sentence that can be translated, "I am" or "I'll be" (Hebrew: "Ehyeh," Exodus 3:14).

3. How did this address the "big questions" we may still ask today?

Many of us still can't help believing that somehow our being here matters, that it makes a difference, that the difference we make can be a good thing.

Many of us experience life as a summons to greatness, not just for ourselves but for others.

We wonder:

—Do my life and your life and "our people's" lives really matter in this unimaginably vast universe?

—How can they really matter?

—Is an aspiration to "greatness" worth the harm it can cause?

4. How are this ancient writer's and readers' experiences like and unlike my experience of living together, with or without the word "God"?

Like: Again, many of us experience life as a summons to greatness, a summons to make our lives worthwhile to us and to others.

Unlike: We know way more about how much bigger the world is than we are. This has made many wonder if our lives really matter at all.

Unlike: I am painfully aware of the countless atrocities that have resulted from people following what they took to be a summons to greatness.

Like/Unlike: My understanding of greatness has been re-shaped by the story of Jesus, who appears to win by losing. (Stories about Gautama or Lao Tzu have a similar impact, though they can't be substituted for one another.)

All said, many of us, myself included, still experience life as a summons to greatness, and many of us consider God to be the one who ultimately summons us.

5. How does understanding this writer's and readers' experiences help me address my own "big questions"?

Abram's descendants include Jews, Muslims, Christians, and even the secular movements that grew out of these traditions.

So in a way I am still a character in this storyline.

Like the ancient writer and early readers, I still experience life as a summons to make my life worthwhile to me and to others, and I still trust the summoner to make this happen one way or another, at least eventually.

I know that people have viewed life this way since ancient times, and that this aspiration is responsible for what I consider to be both the highest achievements and greatest atrocities of human history. (Here's a paradox: the most noteworthy protesters against the atrocities this summons can produce are also characters in this storyline. They aspire to greatness which is more consistently humane.)

I know that whatever I accomplish with my life will not make up for the worst that has been done as a result of this aspiration, but still the best I can do is keep working to make my life worthwhile to me and to others.

I am drawn to the way the story of Jesus turns this aspiration to greatness on its head.

How Can We Be Progressivly, Inclusively Biblical?

 Questions to ask yourself (no wrong answers):

Do you read the Bible?

If you do, do you get anything out of reading it?

If you get anything out of reading it, what do you get?

 

Some statements to chew on:

1. "We [GraceUnlimited] listen to the Bible, not as a magical answer book, but as a living Word awakening us to God's movement among us today. We also listen to what the best of current biblical scholarship can tell us about the Bible."

2. "Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in justice."—2 Timothy 3:16. (Note, when these words were written, Christians and Jews had not yet agreed on which writings were actually "God-breathed.")

3. "All Scripture sets forth Christ … What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, not even if taught by Peter or Paul. On the other hand, what does preach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herod does it."—Martin Luther, "Preface to James and Jude"

4. "We must ... take great heede, lest in attributing to scripture more then it can have, the incredibillitie of that do cause even those thinges which indeed it hath most aboundantly to be lesse reverendly esteemed."—Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, 2.8.7

 

Digging deeper:

What if it turns out that the Bible was written by lots of biased people who don't always agree on who God is or what God wants? Would this mean that it can't also be "a living Word awakening us to God's movement among us today"? Would it mean that 2 Timothy 3:16 was simply false?

 GraceUnlimited, like the churches that sponsor us, wagers that it's OK if the Bible's writers turned out to have the same failings we have. It's still a living, useful Word (with a capital "W"). We can look past the writers' failings to learn from how they wrestled with the same God who moves among us today.

Have you ever experienced a moment when a passage from the Bible spoke to you in a new way? If so, what do you imagine was going on when that happened? If not, why not give it a try?

One assumption that Christians and Jews share is this: Recognizing God as God requires taking part in a story that's still unfolding. It has a beginning, and it has an envisioned ending, and we're helping to flesh out the way toward that ending, creatively. But to do that, we need to know how it began. The Bible provides that beginning.

 For GraceUnlimited, the Bible is not the last word, but it's an eye-opening first word, as long as we don't expect it to do what no ancient writing should be expected to do.

 

Some Suggestions:

 —Try following a daily lectionary: http://www.dailylectio.net

 —Check out these resources that follow the readings for the church calendar: http://www.textweek.com

 —Use the sort of study Bible that's used in introductory college-level courses in nonsectarian schools (like Butler, IU, Purdue)—The New Oxford Annotated Bible, or The Harper Collins Study Bible, or The New Interpreter's Study Bible. They represent what most biblical scholars are saying.

 —Avoid relying too much on books like the NIV Study Bible, the NIV Student Bible or the Life Application Bible—they go out of their way to misrepresent what most biblical scholars are saying (alternative facts).

 —Be careful reading translations by individuals—they almost always have a theological bias. That doesn't make them worthless, but you should be aware of a probable bias.

—Fr. Charles Allen  

Night Prayer

Night Prayer

Adapted from A New Zealand Prayer Book, He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa (Auckland: William Collins Publishers Ltd., 1989), pp. 167-186. This is a Christian service of prayer, and we Christians will hear many of its expressions as pointing to God’s communion with us in Jesus of Nazareth: “Light of the world,” “Living Word,” “Beloved,” “Wisdom,” “Pain-Bearer.” In fact, for us the story of Jesus breathes new life into all of these expressions. We trust that this is a good thing, though we have too often used it to do harm. We also trust that it is a good thing when others join us in this service and hear these and other expressions in terms that make sense to them out of their own lives. Others may hear them as pointing simply to God, or hear them as pointing to a Mystery that even the word “God” cannot encompass. And why not? Again, it is an ancient Christian conviction (and not only Christian) that God comes to us on our own terms in order to stretch them and us beyond the limits of business as usual. So hear and speak these words in whatever way makes any sense to you, and expect to be stretched.—Fr. Charles

The people speak the words in boldface.

Approach

The messengers of God guard us through the night,
and quiet the powers of darkness.

The Spirit of God be our guide
to lead us to peace and to glory.

It is but lost labor that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.

(silence)

Our help is in the name of the eternal God,
who is making the heavens and the earth.

God, thank you for all that is good, for our creation and our humanity, for the stewardship you have given us of this planet earth, for the gifts of life and of one another, for your love which is unbounded and eternal.

O most holy and beloved Companion, our guide upon the way, our bright evening star,

We repent the wrongs we have done:

(silence)

We have wounded your love.
O God, heal us.

We stumble in the darkness.
Light of the world transfigure us.

We forget that we are your home.
Spirit of God, dwell in us.

Eternal Spirit, living God, in whom we live and move and have our being, all that we are, have been, and may be is known to you, to the very secret of our hearts and all that rises to trouble us. Living flame, burn into us, cleansing wind, blow through us, fountain of water, well up within us, that we may love and praise in deed and in truth.

Invocation

Eternal Spirit, flow through our being and open our lips,
that our mouths may proclaim your praise.

Let us worship the God of love.
Alleluia, alleluia. (omitted during Lent)

Psalm: The following or some other psalm may be said

Psalm 134 Ecce nunc
1 Behold now, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, *you that stand by night in the house of the LORD.
2 Lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the LORD; *the LORD who made heaven and earth bless you out of Zion.
The psalm concludes with:
Praise to the Eternal, the Living Word and the Giver of Life:
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.

Reading: One of the following or some other reading may be used

Wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and permeates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with Wisdom. She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against Wisdom evil does not prevail. Wisdom of Solomon 7:24-30 

Thanks be to God.

Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your Name: Do not forsake us, O Lord our God. Jeremiah 14:9,22

Thanks be to God.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

Thanks be to God.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 1 John 4:18-20

Thanks be to God.

Hymn

Prayers

Into your hands, O God, I commend my spirit,
for you have redeemed me, O God of truth and love.
Keep me, O God, as the apple of an eye;
hide me under the shadow of your wings.

Preserve us, O God, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with your Beloved, and asleep may rest in your peace.

Song of Simeon

Praise be to God, I have lived to see this day. God’s promise is fulfilled, and my duty done. At last you have given me peace, for I have seen with my own eyes the salvation you have prepared for all nations - a light to the world in its darkness and the glory of your people Israel.

Praise to the Eternal, the Living Word and the Giver of Life:
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.

Preserve us, O God, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with your Beloved, and asleep may rest in your peace.

Lord, have mercy.
Wisdom, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Lord’s Prayer

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth. With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen.

I will lie down in peace and take my rest,
for it is in God alone that I dwell unafraid.
Let us bless the Earth-maker, the Pain-bearer, the Life-giver,
let us praise and exalt God above all for ever.
May God’s name be praised beyond the furthest star,
glorified and exalted above all for ever.

Living Word, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be. The night is dark. Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you. The night is quiet. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace. The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities. In your name we pray. Amen

Blessing, light, and glory surround us and scatter the darkness of every long and lonely night. Amen

Holy Eternal Majesty, Holy Living Word, Holy Abiding Spirit bless us forever more. Amen

The divine Spirit dwells in us.
Thanks be to God.

The God We're NOT Debating: Confessions of a Different Kind of Theist

 

[This is excerpted from a Facebook discussion that happened in 2008.]

I keep reading the “new atheists,” people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I continue to find that the God they don’t believe in is not the God that I believe in. They don’t like it when people like me say that. They continue to insist that people like me don’t really believe in God, that we’re using the word “God” to mean something else, something much less than God, like just an expression of awe and reverence toward a basically uncaring universe, or else a philosophical abstraction that appeals only to a select few.

Well, sorry, but I think the God I believe in is just as “God-like” as God could be. I believe in a God who encompasses and indwells all things, who cares deeply about you and me as you and me, who constantly calls us into love and still loves us in spite of our failure to respond wholeheartedly, and who saves us from futility and oblivion. God does all this for us because God does all this for every creature.

This is not a vindictive God, but this is most definitely a God whose unconditional love stands in opposition to our failures to love unconditionally. God won’t give up on us, but God will not stop insistently luring us away from our own self-centered ways. God is relentless about that, and we may not like it. God may be infinitely loving and relentlessly alluring, but that does not make God “nice” or “convenient.”

I do not know of a concept of God that could be more “religiously” satisfying than that. I’ve heard it preached for decades and have preached it myself, and people are definitely moved by it. It may not produce mega-churches, but it enlivens many faith communities. This is much more than a philosophical abstraction.

There may be all kinds of reasons for viewing God this way, but for me the main reason arises out of the Christian practice of seeing the shape of God’s very life enacted in the life, death and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth—a God who rules the world through enduring its worst and yet refusing to be driven away, returning again and again to embrace and indwell all things and to call them into love. This is a God whose perfected power may look weak, but only to those who define power as total control (as many Christians have done and still do). It culminates in the early Christian affirmation, “God is love, and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them” (1 John 4:16b). Furthermore, like love, this God is not simply personal but interpersonal, as ancient trinitarian creeds struggled to say (with mixed results).

Some would call my version of God “pan-en-theistic” (not “pantheistic”—God is not simply “all things” or “the all”; God is greater than all other things, yet indwells them all, just as they indwell God). There are all sorts of panentheists, some ancient, many contemporary, so I don’t mind the label, even when I’m not sure if any particular type fits me. Labels aside, this is clearly not the all-controlling, petulant, “invisible superman” of popular theism, nor is it the currently uninvolved clock-maker of deism, nor is it modern pantheism’s expression of awe and reverence for a universe that doesn’t look especially caring.

And there is one other thing it is not—it is not a watered-down concept of God. As best I can tell, it comes closer to Anselm’s “that than which no greater can be conceived” than any other concept I’ve explored. It preaches. (I’ve been preaching it, and hearing it preached, for over 30 years.) If we’re going to debate God’s existence, why can’t we debate the existence of this God? That hardly ever happens, and, frankly, I’m baffled.

What about “the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language,” that Richard Dawkins denies?

That God is a caricature of the God I believe in, who encompasses and indwells all things and draws them relentlessly into love. And that Bible is a caricature of the Bible I read and the critical methods I’ve been taught (by observant Christians!) to help me read it. But the God I believe in does seem to be what the writers of the Bible, the priests, mullahs and rabbis were trying to portray in ordinary language of their times and worldviews (which were at least as conflicted as ours). They were, I believe, speaking in grossly anthropomorphic terms about their own awareness of a presence too elusive to describe in everyday terms. Many of them did admit that the language they used was far from adequate.

They were convinced that what they did mattered, what happened to them mattered, that sometimes wonderfully good things happened, and that other times dreadfully bad things happened. And they related all of this to a universally responsive presence which, it at least seemed, was summoning them to speak and act.

They believed that this presence, God, cared for them constantly and responded to them constantly, refusing to let them create God in their own conflicted images. And yes, in working through all that, they often made God look like an immature, sometimes abusive, monarch or parent or spouse. It’s dangerous to quote them out of context, and disheartening that anybody would want to!

But that does not mean that they were not responding to something utterly real and active, nor does it mean that people who still talk that way today are not responding to something utterly real. It just means that people often do a disastrous job of articulating what’s really happening, though of course that’s my view, and evaluation, of why so many still prefer to talk of God in that way.

Is such a God credible in a world that depends heavily on the methods and theories of the natural sciences?

I believe so. In fact, this concept fits remarkably well with many views of the universe that have been inspired by a variety of current scientific theories. These views, like belief in God, go beyond what could be tested by experimental methods. They’re invitations to view all of reality, somewhat figuratively, in terms of some part of reality. As such, they can never be proved or disproved decisively, but there are still observations, experiences, facts, and accepted theories that can count for or against them.

For example, the natural sciences have, I think, made it more difficult, more of a “stretch,” to view the universe as simply a result of miniscule, inert particles bumping into each other like billiard balls. “Subatomic particles” are not particles, and they don’t interact like particles either.

They have also made it more difficult to view the universe as a machine that runs only in predetermined patterns like a clock. Machines, after all, are human artifacts. The universe is not.

True, the natural sciences have also made it increasingly difficult to imagine how there might be any disembodied “stuff” like minds or spirits or souls that could exist independently of bodies. But I don’t have a problem with that, since even the Bible never fully bought into that view of things. “Soul” may simply be a heuristic term for lives that are always embodied in some way or other.

In any case, for the time being, at least, the natural sciences have made it relatively easy to view the universe as a vast network of centers of activity which follow predictable patterns without being fully predetermined—from subatomic “particles” (again, they’re not really particles any more) to complex molecules to cells to organisms to animals to people to … well, who knows what else? Some of these centers of activity (like you and me) are more inclusive than others, and more responsive too.

If that view of the universe is credible, then it is no great stretch of the imagination to consider that there may well be a universally responsive presiding center of activity. Some have even argued that viewing the universe this way requires us to presume that such a center of activity exists. It’s a reasonable argument, but not an airtight one. Others have argued that presuming the existence of such a center of activity would make it easier to make sense of the fact that, despite there being so many other centers of activity, with all their unpredictability, we don’t have utter chaos. That too seems a reasonable argument, without being airtight.

Note: The existence of considerable chaos, conflict and unpredictability is only to be expected in a universe with innumerable centers of activity. It does not count against a universally responsive presiding center of activity. It would count against a universally controlling center of activity (which is one popular idea of God), but that is not what we are considering here. The famous “problem of evil” arises only for people who equate power with control, and thus greater power with greater control. But what if perfect power is not perfect control?

That’s a bit abstract. Is this still the God I believe in?

Maybe not yet. When I say God cares for me deeply, that’s saying a great deal more than “a universally responsive presiding center of activity responds to me.” But this is starting to sound a great deal like the God I believe in. It responds to and presides over me and all that I do as a lesser center of activity who also responds to and presides over still lesser centers of activity (like the cells that make up my body). That’s not the same as caring deeply about me or loving me or saving me from oblivion. BUT it’s consistent with all that.

And it’s more than just consistent. It provides a framework for me to take more seriously those moments in my life when I sense that I am never alone, that I am loved beyond the love of friends or family or self, that what happens to me, or to you, or even to an electron, matters immeasurably in the whole scheme of things, that there is an intimate presence in my life that I didn’t produce. I don’t have to rule these moments out in advance, as Freud or Dawkins might, as pitiable illusions. And it is because of moments like these (call them moments of revelation) that I can use more concrete imagery when talking about a universally responsive presiding center of activity.

It also helps me to take more seriously the conviction that I and many scientists and philosophers share that our efforts to understand the world and ourselves are more than just incidental byproducts of unthinking, self-replicating mechanisms (like Dawkins’s memes, maybe?). I don’t have to explain the quest for understanding away as a pitiable illusion either. (Freud and Dawkins don’t do that, but I’m not sure how they manage to avoid it.)

Frankly, I do not know of a more intellectually satisfying way to look at things than this one. The fact that it’s also emotionally, ethically and religiously satisfying is all the more reason to keep living by it.

But where’s the evidence?

I think I’ve already addressed that, but I know somebody is still going to say that my believing in this God is just as unwarranted as believing in flying saucers or the Loch Ness monster (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster). Why can’t we go out and observe God in God’s native habitat?

But God isn’t the sort of thing you can go out and observe. In fact, God isn’t the sort of thing you need to go out and observe. A universally responsive presiding center of activity would already be here, waiting, if you will, to be noticed. We’re already in God’s native habitat.

I do however say “noticed,” not “observed.” Strictly speaking, you just can’t observe something that is both all-encompassing and all-pervading. It’s both too vast and too intimate to be observed—both at once. To observe something, you have to get some distance from it. If God exists, we won’t be able to get that kind of distance. It’s like trying to observe myself. I can notice myself when I’m observing something else. I can be aware of myself, but strictly speaking, I can’t observe myself. The same applies to God, who, according to Augustine and many contemplative folk, is nearer to me than I am to myself.

Admittedly, God is not as noticeable as we are to ourselves, but that’s partly because, unlike you or me, God’s intimacy is as boundless as God’s vastness. And it’s already tricky enough just keeping track of ourselves! (Try doing it the next time you’re in a heated argument.) If we don’t notice God, that may simply be because we’re not paying enough attention to what’s happening around and in and through us. Or maybe we’ve already bought into a view of reality that encourages us to discount certain features of our experience—like people who can’t admit how much their feelings and concerns shape their thinking and observations.

I believe, in other words, that we can “find” God, not by going out and looking, but by paying more attention to what is already happening right here and at least considering whether there might be noticeable aspects of what’s happening that would be less puzzling if we saw them as responses to a universally responsive presiding center of activity. We begin to know God in the only way such a reality can be known—not by observation, not by logical inference, not by “blind faith,” but by reflective participation in an inescapable reality. And that knowledge is never more than a beginning.

In a way, asking “Does God exist” is like asking “Do subjects exist.” By “subjects” I mean whatever it is about you and me that makes us more than just objects. I mean whatever it is about you and me that makes it crucial to keep distinguishing between what we observe and who does the observing, even when we try to observe ourselves. I mean that “I” statements and “you” statements can never be replaced by “it” statements, not just because it would be inconvenient, but because we’d be missing something real (even if it is, as I suspect, inseparable from some sort of embodiment—a subject is not the same as a disembodied soul or spirit). If any part of what we observe exists, can observers be any less real, or any less crucial to giving a full account of reality?

If you ask me “Where’s the evidence for subjects?” I can’t point to observations or experiments. Deciding whether subjects exist is a matter of deciding how we are going to view the lives we are already living. We already have more “data” for this than we will ever be able to absorb. This is a question of how to view all of reality in a way that does not discount the reality and integrity of the viewer. We begin to know subjects by reflective participation in an inescapable reality.

Similarly, if you ask me about evidence for God, I can only point to the lives we are already living and how we view them. And all I can say is that a panentheistic view of our lives so far has allowed me to honor and integrate far more aspects of my life than any other view. That conclusion can be challenged very easily. Just try reading some current Buddhist philosophers. But the only pertinent challenges would be, like Buddhist philosophy, on the whole-scale terms of how we view the lives we are already living. It’s never a matter of isolated observations. It’s ongoing, reflective participation. And it’s always a beginning, not a final solution.

What do I want people to do with this?

Mainly this: if we’re going to debate God’s existence, could we at least debate the existence of this one? None of the “new atheists” I’ve read deal with this concept of God—nor do they deal with the kinds of reasons that would be relevant to deciding whether this sort of God really exists. There’s plenty of room for debate, if they would just make room for it. I suspect they avoid it because it’s easier to make other concepts of God look stupid or irrelevant.

I’m not looking for quick agreements here. Obviously, I would be delighted if people decided that they could fully embrace this kind of theism. When it comes to how we view our lives, and their contexts, in their full concreteness and entirety, who doesn’t want more company?

But this is such a self-involving subject that I don’t expect that much unanimity. So I think I would be just as delighted if people first saw this as an occasion to consider that there may be other, more inclusive ways to honor and integrate all the aspects of our lives as we take note of them. I mainly want people to be as honest as they can be about everything they are undergoing. I am more concerned about that than I am about the conclusions they are drawing at any point in their lives.

That’s partly because of what I already believe about God, of course. Without claiming infallible inspiration, I’m brash enough to say that God is likewise more concerned about our honesty and integrity than anything else, and that God is honored even when some of us still wonder if such a God exists. God wants us to grow into love, but we can’t do that without honesty and integrity. We would still be responding affirmatively to God’s promptings, even if we could not in good conscience say that we are.

So keep paying attention to every aspect of your life. Be as honest as you can about all of it. If God is there to be delighted, God will be delighted. And so will I.

—Fr. Charles Allen

 *********

Responses

AH: I don't get it. Father Allen is an awesome guy, and I'll never say he's not an intelligent or thoughtful sort. I'm just not sure what he's bending himself over backwards and twisting himself into logical knots to accomplish. It seems like the answer to the question of, "If you're right and nobody believes in a God that we can pretty much prove doesn't exist, what now?" is to redefine his terms and start all over again. "Oh, well, that's not my God. My God doesn't do things or make claims that could be disproven by observing his/her/its hypothetical effect on material reality. My God just loves me." What does he do when you need more than love? Sometimes, in some places, some people need more than love. They need help. They need something or someone who loves them to be effectual about it. What then? I just don't get it. I keep coming back to this. I'd love to get back on board with this whole theism thing, but if these are the best arguments around... they're gonna have to do better than:

* changing the definition of God to one that is more insistently difficult to disprove, but also more completely empty of significance or distinctiveness

* claiming that science can't observe God, even as theists try to placate and convert skeptics, and even as theists leap on every scientific study that does feel supportive (see how excited people who don't believe science knows everything will get about studies about the "power of prayer")

I just don't get it. It's not that I have this huge disgust for theists and that I think they should all cut out of their lives something which is clearly still included for a reason. It's that I wish they would stop acting like that reason has anything to do with "proof" as the experimenting world understands it, you know?

Charles: I'm glad that you think I'm still undeniably awesome. I don't think my definition of God is very new or very original. I find plenty of precedents for it in the Bible and in many pre-modern writers. I think what passes for "theism" in popular terms also had ancient precedents (though it's mostly a 17th/18th Century invention). But I'm not just reinventing the idea: It's always had a complex and diverse history. I don't say that God doesn't do anything except love me. I believe that God constantly presents new opportunities for me and others to live into deeper community than we've realized up to now. I don't believe God ever controls the outcome, but that doesn't mean that God isn't doing something immensely needful. True, a lot of people would stop believing in God if they realized that God isn't going to do magic tricks for them, but if that's why they believe, I'd just as soon they stopped. I am, by the way, very skeptical about studies that claim to prove the efficacy of prayer. Even if they did prove that praying can affect certain outcomes, that could still be due to natural forces that don't fit any current theories. You may find this concept completely empty of significance or distinctiveness. I don't know how to respond to that, except to say that countless people from ancient times to the present have found it to be immeasurably important. Anyway, that's my two-cents worth. Your response may be a familiar one, but it's still thought-provoking, and I'm glad that you find the topic engaging enough to comment on.

AH: "I believe that God constantly presents new opportunities for me and others to live into deeper community than we've realized up to now." How? What activity is this that's happening, and how is it different from "interventionist" ideas of God? It's not that I find the idea of a "more loving than deism says but not actually active" God to be devoid of meaning or emotional importance to the people who include it in their lives. I just think that God lacks significance and distinctiveness, and here's why. If God doesn't do anything but feel affection from some removed or even immanent location, there's still not really any reason to let that affect decisions in the material. Functionally, he's not there except emotionally. I love the Iranian protesters and I care about what happens to them, but my approval doesn't and shouldn't affect their decisions. That's the significance. Distinctiveness comes in finding the character of God. If everything that makes the Judeo-Christian God who he is can be pared away to make him more defensible, then do those qualities really matter? Can the goalposts be shifted infinitely, or is there a line beyond which they can be shifted no further, some quality that must remain part of the definition?

Charles: The "interventionist" idea, as I understand it, is that God, who exists somewhere else, is only involved in the world sometimes, and usually to do a special favor for somebody. I'm working in colloquial terms from the process theism model, where God is always in interaction with everything else, not just sometimes, but all the time. In the process model, God is prompting the Iranians to to find more just and peaceable options for moving forward, and prompting us to find appropriate ways to get involved ourselves. That's much more than feeling affection from a distance. But it's not a magical solution that relieves people from taking responsibility for the impasses they've developed.

DB: It seems the position of the New Atheists is to target the most broadly shared conception a god - sort of the Old-Man-in-the-Sky version, the version which seems to cause the most havoc and discord in the modern world. However, when you get right down to it, most atheists are non-cognitivists with respect to the "form" of a god, that is, any defining characteristics. Dawkins said theology is not a proper subject, for this reason of slippery definitions. Now, I find process theology to be more aesthetically pleasing in general, but I see no reason to accept that conception either. If a god is in everything, then it is both 'love' as well as 'hate' and 'evil'. Politically, the teleology of the New Atheists movement might have its origins in opposing the rise of religious neo-conservatism. Many on the Left felt the country was hijacked for 8 years by religion. I don't like the fact that it has left so much polarization in its wake.

Charles: What Dawkins says of theology is what most natural scientists would say of philosophy in general. The definitions do often get slippery, and even analytic philosophers avoid this mostly by adopting conventions which cannot themselves be justified in analytic terms. Process theism does not say that God is neutrally "in" everything. It says that God is working noncoercively in everything, bringing about deeper degrees of community, encouraging love as opposed to hate. Whether anybody can justify saying anything like that about God is of course another matter, and it partly depends, not just on this or that argument or experience, but upon a whole framework in terms of which everyday experience is interpreted.

DB: Can you distinguish "neutral" from "noncoercive"? If it is noncoercive, how can it "encourage" or "oppose" anything? I'm just trying to understand here - you know I like to question things. How is this not a psychological projection onto the world, as opposed to a real qualia of the world itself? If only believers have access to this truth about a god, isn't this evidence for psychological projection?

Charles: "Neutral" means, in this context, having no influence whatsoever, and in the same context, noncoercive encouragement (or opposition) means having some influence, but without fully determining the outcome. One of the axioms of process thought, you may recall, is that no activity can be fully determined by anything else, not even God (if there be one). But all activities are influenced to varying degrees by others. Can you clarify what you mean by psychological projection? Process thinkers often like to say that the influence of one activity on another is "persuasive," rather than coercive, which does sound like psychological projection. But here persuasion is more of a metaphor for influencing a relatively original activity. Is that what you're getting at?

DB: Scientists, as people, have as much credibility as anyone else by dint of their shared humanity to answer metaphysical questions, which by definition means 'above nature". This pertains to things like our collective desires, ethics and our notion of the Good. The nonmaterial dimension of reality includes the world of ideas, which we all share as humans. I am unaware of any immaterial laws that might be manifest in our ethics, our notions of the Good which changes over time, or our desires which may depend on our culture. So, my answer is that basically, scientists are human too and religious people, who I respect, are equally qualified as anybody else to offer their ideas.

Charles: Well-stated, especially about how scientists as humans deserve as much voice as anybody (and more of a voice than some). I'm intrigued that you are content to say that the appropriate realm of study for science is "matter in motion." I've been toying with writing an essay entitled "The Matter Delusion," because what physicists study nowadays bears very little resemblance to those microscopic billiard balls of 17th century physics, when the phrase, "matter in motion," first came into vogue. So why do we still call it "matter"? Here's a quote from Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos": "Throughout this book we have periodically alluded to the ultramicroscopic constituents of spacetime, but ... we've yet to say anything about what these constituents might actually be. And for good reason. We really have no idea what they are." (pp. 485-486) But we have a very good idea what they are not. They are not the inert particles of Hobbesian materialism. That's why some philosophers have stopped defending materialism and have opted to call themselves "physicalists." But that only shifts the problem, because if you ask them what counts as physical their answers tend to boil down to "what physicists currently study.” And yet that unexamined phrase, "matter in motion," keeps cropping up as if we all know what it means.

DB: Yeah, "matter in motion" is antiquated, isn't it? Well...it's better than "science is what scientists do". Better yet: Science: the study of the natural world. Re: psychological projection. I suppose metaphysical intuition might be better: there is an effort to find a way to fit a noncontradictory definition of a god into the world without having any compelling reason for thinking that is the particular way it is. For example, how can you distinguish between a determined event and an influenced event? What I meant was that we can project an a priori idea on the world without any means of knowing if it is true or false. I suppose I'm looking for some way to falsify the idea in order to know that it can't be false. I am a failed theist: I want to be able to prove it true, but I have never found a cogent reason to believe it is so.

AH: "I am a failed theist: I want to be able to prove it true, but I have never found a cogent reason to believe it is so." Seconded, to all of that.

Charles: First of all, thanks for the first-rate questions from you "failed theists." As I said at the end of my essay, I'm not trying to convert you to anything except paying attention to our already-interpreted experience in all its dimensions. You're already doing that. And your questions ARE provocative for me, as they should be at this level of sweeping ideas. Second, I want to reiterate that we're not talking about specific pieces of "evidence" that would decisively settle our differences. The differences are really about entire worldviews—some in which something rather extraordinary figures prominently (God, the Tao, Sunyata), and others in which certain "ultramicroconstituents" (matter, strings, branes) do all the important work. There are theistic worldviews, nontheistic but religious worldviews (which affirm a sacred dimension but do not use personal analogies to speak of it), and naturalistic worldviews. None of these can be decided by a crucial experiment or bits of evidence (though all those items play a role). We're talking about the very framework with which we interpret the everyday world. I'm opting for a framework which isn't just about God. It's also about honoring our experience of freedom without explaining it away as an illusion. It's about honoring the seeming fact that what we count as "experience" seems to come to us in a variety of dimensions—in wholes and not just in parts. And it's about honoring our craving to ask the big, metaphysical questions even when they can't be asked or answered by a few observations or experiments. If we have differences over what freedom is, what experience is, and what metaphysics is (and whether any of these have any reality), then it follows almost automatically that we're not going to agree about what (or whether) God is. I want to remind everybody of one of my closing statements on "where's the evidence." I'm afraid that's all that can be said. It doesn't settle anything, but as far as my theology goes, we don't have to settle this. People worry about such differences more than God ever does. Here's what I said: "... if you ask me about evidence for God, I can only point to the lives we are already living and how we view them. And all I can say is that a panentheistic view of our lives so far has allowed me to honor and integrate far more aspects of my life than any other view. That conclusion can be challenged very easily. Just try reading some current Buddhist philosophers. But the only pertinent challenges would be, like Buddhist philosophy, on the whole-scale terms of how we view the lives we are already living. It’s never a matter of isolated observations. It’s ongoing, reflective participation. And it’s always a beginning, not a final solution."

Reframing Practically Everything: Process Thought, Nature, God & Evil

A "Process Zen Koan": Before learning process terms, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, you and I are you and I, and God is God; while first learning process terms, mountains are not mountains, rivers are not rivers, you and I are not you and I, and God is not God; after learning and living process terms, mountains are really mountains, rivers are really rivers, you and I are really you and I, and God is really God. (compare here)

Process Thought's Unifying/Diversifying Theme: To be real is to be interactive—newly influenced by others and newly influencing others, issuing in the "novel togetherness" that Alfred North Whitehead called "creativity" (Process and Reality [New York: Free Press, 1978 (1929)], p. 21). (Note: because novelty is everywhere, influence is always partial, never total, and while everywhere, novelty remains immeasurable.)

Where's the evidence? Your every experience supports this: There's always something new about the way others are influencing you, and there's always something new about the way you are influencing others—always. Since we never experience an exception to this, process thinkers dare to argue that even to imagine an exception anywhere would be ungrounded speculation. This is also at least arguably consistent with everything else we know about reality through the natural sciences (more here, here and here). So the simplest presumption, based on our every experience, is that to be real—anywhere—is to be interactive.

This inevitably leads to a fuller statement (slow down and let it sink in—it's not as complicated as it first looks): Reality as such is the interactive relationship between the interactive whole and all interactive parts. (Actually, the interactive whole of reality just is this all-interactive, unifying/diversifying relationship.) And this too can be supported experientially.*

Reframing How We Think of Nature: This, the interactive relationship between the interactive whole and all interactive parts, accounts for what we call matter in some contexts and what we call mind in other contexts (more here), for what we call universal causation in some contexts and what we call freedom in other contexts (more here), even for what we call things/substances in some contexts and what we call properties/attributes in other contexts. This also accounts for the evolution of complexity through natural selection. Natural selection results directly from the self-selective, interactive relationship between the interactive whole and all interactive parts. There is no need for an external designer, nothing beyond this self-selective interactivity, and there are no gaps either, but there is a version of what Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called the "beyond in the midst of our life," i.e., the immeasurable novelty that is essential to being truly interactive (more here). Process thought reframes the supernatural as, let's say, the "ultranatural"—more intensely natural than the semi-repeatable patterns (measurable constancies, "un-novelties") we abstract from nature. Transcendence is everywhere, without exception, naturally.

Reframing How We Think of God: This also accounts for what is happening when past and present God-worshipers (like me) speak of their experienced relationship with God (more herehere and here). In prayer and contemplation they are at least dimly aware of themselves as interactive parts interacting ("dialoguing") with the likewise interactive whole of reality.** They analogically*** attribute immeasurably greater versions of awareness, empathy, responsiveness, purposefulness, love, etc., to the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality, because these are taken to be among the most inclusive versions of being interactive on the worshipers' level. There is nothing unreasonable about this. It would instead be unreasonable to object to this.

Reframing How We Think of Evil: Process theists do not attribute omnipotence to God, the all-inclusive whole of reality, not even analogically, because omnipotence (total control) is not a version of being interactive on any level. God's power is immeasurably greater than any others', but it's still interactive, not monopolizing. The interactive relationship between the interactive whole and all interactive parts provides no guarantees against vast amounts and degrees of purposeless conflict and suffering. Process theists don't ask, "Why is there so much purposeless conflict and suffering?" (they would be surprised if there weren't), nor do they attempt to attribute a prior purpose to it. They instead respond to it empathically with the further purpose of denying it the last word, and so, analogically speaking, does God.****

Reframing How We Read Biblical Portrayals of God: The ancient testimonies of the Bible, while not considered infallible by process theists, historically shape our very ideas of God. They matter vitally, especially in communities, like mine, whose God-talk is not only shaped but awakened by them (more here). Some passages in the Bible have been interpreted to say that God is all-controlling, but process theists argue that on the whole the all-interacting, non-controlling God is a better match for the God referred to in the Bible and addressed in prayer. Starting with Genesis 1, the God portrayed in the Bible has been, and still is, persistently summoning the world from chaos into multiply creative community—over and over and over (more here). Defenders of the all-controlling idea of God, like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, etc., got around this by arguing that, even though the vast majority of biblical passages seem to make God look non-controlling, these should be taken more figuratively than the rarer passages that made God look all-controlling. Process theists turn the tables on that argument: if some biblical portrayals of God should be taken more figuratively than others, why not take the all-controlling-looking portrayals more figuratively? Furthermore, Christian process theists, like me, find the power of the interactive whole of reality most decisively embodied, not in a sacred book, but in a common life whose embrace outlives and undoes utter rejection and devastation, and historically speaking they find that embodied common life begun, in human terms, with Jesus' story of life, death and all-embracingly risen life (Philippians 2:1-13). (Other religious figures or texts may embody complementary ideas—this doesn't have to be a competition.)

To sum up: Process thought basically does an end run around all sorts of traditional oppositons—unity vs. diversity, self vs. others, absoluteness vs. relativity, matter vs. mind, causality vs. freedom, things vs. properties, fact vs. value, immanence vs. transcendence, natural vs. supernatural, secular vs. sacred, nature vs. God, evil vs. providence, etc. Distinctions remain, but these are no longer competitive alternatives, and that's a major part of its appeal. "To be real is to be interactive" reframes practically everything. Try it.

Fr. Charles Allen  

*******

*"The immediate fact for awareness is the whole occurrence of nature. It is nature as an event present for sense-awareness, and essentially passing."—Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, p. 14 (online here). Note: if the whole occurrence of nature is "essentially passing," that means it's also essentially arriving—passing and arriving are complementary ways of describing any occurrence. "The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged to details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted. The details are a reaction to the totality. ... They are interpretive and not originative. What is [experientially] original is the vague totality. ... The primitive stage of discrimination … is the vague grasp of reality, dissecting it into a threefold scheme, namely, 'The Whole,' 'That Other,' and 'This-My-Self.' ... This is primarily a dim division. … There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. ... There is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence. ... We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole."—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), pp. 109-110. Although Whitehead occasionally speaks of "the totality," as the most prominent process thinker he clearly does not mean a fixed totality. "Any relation in which some more or less determinate reality is understood discriminates that object from the rest of the cosmos, contrasts just this part with every other actual and possible reality. Subjects of understanding are aware of reality as such; they are related, at least implicitly, to a representation of the all-inclusive context in which they are set."—Franklin I. Gamwell, Democracy on Purpose: Justice and the Reality of God (Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2002), p. 33.

**"We owe to the sense of deity the obviousness of the many actualities of the world, and the obviousness of the unity of the world."—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), p. 102. "Worship is a consciously unitary response to life. It lifts to the level of explicit awareness the integrity of an individual responding to reality.  … [In worshipping God] the conscious wholeness of the individual is correlative to an inclusive wholeness in the world of which the individual is aware, and this wholeness is deity.  … God is the wholeness of the world, correlative to the wholeness of every sound individual dealing with the world."—Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1967), pp. 5-6. "I hold that the primary use or function of 'God' is to refer to the objective ground in reality itself of our ineradicable confidence in the final worth of our existence. It lies in the nature of this basic confidence to affirm that the real whole of which we experience ourselves to be parts is such as to be worthy of, and thus to evoke, that very confidence."—Schubert M. Ogden, The Reality of God and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1977 [1966]), p. 37.

***Others would call this sort of attribution metaphorical or symbolic. All agree that language is being stretched immeasurably but nevertheless somehow fittingly. According to Aquinas, "a term is predicated analogically of creatures and of God when we know from creatures that it must be true of God too, but also know that how it is true of God must be beyond our comprehension."—Denys Turner, Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 211. In speaking analogically of God, "there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater."—Fourth Lateran Council of the Roman Catholic Church, Canon 2, 1215 CE). "Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generality foreign their ordinary usage; and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap."—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, (New York: Free Press, 1978 [1929]), p. 4. "To assert truly, albeit symbolically, that God is boundless love ... we must be able to assert not only truly but also literally that ultimate reality is a distinct center of universal interaction that, being acted on by all things as well as acting on them, is their sole final end as well as their only primal source."—Schubert Ogden, The Point of Christology (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 145. Ogden provocatively dares to think he is speaking literally when he refers to ultimate reality as "a distinct center of universal interaction." That is certainly speaking less anthropomorphically, but others would question whether this is or needs to be literal.

****"To the question, Why ... the partial disorder and evils in the world? [process theism] has essentially but one answer. It holds that it is not God alone who acts in the world; every individual acts. There is no single producer of the actual series of events; one producer, to be sure, is uniquely universal, unsurpassably influential. Nevertheless, what happens is in no case the product of his creative acts alone. Countless choices, including the universally influential choices, intersect to make a world, and how, concretely, they intersect is not chosen by anyone, nor could it be. A multiplicity of choosers means that what concretely happens is never simply chosen; rather, it just happens. Purpose, in multiple form, and chance are not mutually exclusive but complementary; neither makes sense alone ... Concrete evils and goods simply happen, they are never in their full particularity chosen. Hence to ask, Why did God choose to inflict this or that evil upon us? is to ask a pseudo-question."—Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1967), pp. 58-59.

Disarming Suspicions of Evolution: One Student's Story

This was originally an introductory statement for a panel discussion at the 2012 International Conference of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching

Fr. Charles Allen

This is one story of how a student's suspicions of evolution were eventually disarmed. It's not every student's story, certainly not the story of every fundamentalist or conservative evangelical student. But maybe that's the point. Behind a student's suspicions may lie a story that isn't easily categorized.

I grew up in a household of educators who, like the 60% of science educators, were a bit conflicted about evolution. They didn't have a problem with it personally, but they didn't rise to its defense. That would be rude.

They were actually Southern Baptists, but they didn't believe that the Bible was a flawless answer book. Dad was a professor of educational administration at a state university, and Mom was an elementary school teacher. They took us to church and Sunday school fairly regularly, but they also bought my brother and me a whole library of books on natural history. We had Jewish and Muslim and secular friends too and didn't think they needed converting. Our pastor was tolerant of people like us, and so was our church. It was a FIRST Baptist Church in a southern college town, and those are never typical.

So before I could even read, I accepted a watered-down story of evolution along with watered-down Bible stories, and as I grew older I harmonized everything by assuming that the really established facts were in my science books. The Bible, I assumed, had a lot of facts in it too, but they weren't always clearly or accurately reported. One of my Sunday school teachers was a biology professor, and he would have agreed. My heroes included Jesus, Socrates, Galileo, Moses, Darwin, Muhammad, Einstein, Gautama, Mr. Wizard, Billy Graham and John Scopes. I didn't realize that it might be tricky to admire all these people at once.

But while I was in high school that all changed. Our church called a younger pastor who was finishing his doctorate. He was a scientific creationist who assumed that practically everybody needed converting, not just Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or, of course, atheists, but even most so-called Christians. There were very few real Christians. I considered leaving that church for, maybe, the Unitarians, but he had an engaging way with young people and a library full of books that challenged most of my bland, if tolerant, assumptions. So instead I became a conservative evangelical, suspicious of most scholarship and especially evolutionary science, worried that many churchgoing friends and even my own family were not real Christians.

Now, obviously, that phase didn't last, as you can tell from my collar alone. Episcopal priests led the list of people who might not be real Christians. They couldn't even decide if they were Protestants! I try to imagine what would happen if that young, intolerant evangelical and this current edition of me could actually meet. I suspect it would be traumatic for the evangelical I once was.

But fortunately, my "evolution" out of that intolerant phase was not traumatic. Oddly enough, my creationist pastor played a bigger role than he realized in slowly undermining the worldview he wanted me to promote. He kept encouraging me to investigate things for myself. He made it clear, of course, that he expected me to wind up thinking pretty much the way he did. So I kept investigating things and instead came to realize that I couldn't possibly think as he did.

Even when I gave most of my attention to writers he endorsed, I kept running into problems. They made claims about the Bible that even the Bible didn't seem to make. They insisted that there was no room for disagreement on how to read the Bible, yet they often disagreed with one another. They claimed that reading the Bible would answer all questions, while I found it raising more questions than answers.

By the time these problems came to a head, my creationist pastor had moved on. Our new pastor, to my relief, saw the early parts of Genesis as origin myths, stories telling us that, for all its shortcomings, this world is exactly where we and God belong. He also encouraged me to do my own thinking but didn't expect or even want me to wind up thinking exactly as he did. So I returned to my more tolerant upbringing, though with a far greater sense of how complicated things could be. And I finished college convinced that my theology would be enhanced and challenged to grow if I didn't try to second-guess the peer-reviewed work of other fields, including, of course, biology.

I haven't changed that much since then. I wouldn't even have been too surprised to learn that I had become an Episcopal priest, as I had already grown to love their liturgy. It was a trauma-free transition.

So ... what can we learn from this?

First: students who question or challenge the teaching of evolution may sometimes be on their own peculiar path of critical inquiry. I questioned evolution precisely because I had grown up taking it for granted. I hadn't realized that there were any living science Ph.D.s anywhere who would try to argue that Genesis could be a factual account. There was something exciting and intellectually stimulating about identifying with what I took to be a cognitive minority who, they claimed, were being silenced. It took a while to realize that most of them would have gladly silenced everybody else, given the opportunity. The people who helped me most during that phase were those who encouraged me to keep questioning consistently. I learned that I, at least, was not being silenced by some grand secular humanist conspiracy, but only challenged by friends and faculty who had to be honest about what they did and did not find convincing.

Second: I was not helped by people who spoke of scientific method as if it were a magic spell that could lift us above our own humanity. I was helped by philosophers of science who spoke of the natural sciences in more humanistic terms. Science is not a matter of automatically scrapping a theory the first time something doesn't go as predicted. It's more like what we do with all our promising ideas: we follow where they lead; we may modify them when they take us somewhere unexpected; we may eventually drop them for a different idea when they seem to have grown too cumbersome, but hardly ever without some controversy among our peers. There's nothing wrong with admitting all this. Natural selection, I had to admit, is one of those promising ideas. It's been challenged and modified countless times without getting too cumbersome. Its relevance for understanding all sorts of topics has actually grown. It would be a disaster to stop following where it leads just because of a few isolated puzzles. And it would be a needless distraction to devote valuable time to theories that claim to solve a few of its puzzles by invoking one of the biggest puzzles ever imagined, that is, some sort of superperson working behind the scenes. That's not an explanation, it's changing the subject. And it's not even good theology. (Trust me.)

Finally: I'm saddened by the culture wars that can make biology teachers think twice about teaching evolution. I suspect that an aggravating factor has been the desire for a simple checklist of steps that could settle all our questions. Some people claim to find that checklist in a sacred book; others claim to find it in the book of nature. I suggest instead that only simple questions can be answered by simple checklists, and that we need to wean people away from the temptation to turn every question into a simple one. That's not what people want to hear, especially school boards and anxious parents, and especially in this economy. But that only shows how deep-seated the problem is. It won't go away if we ignore it.

Genesis 1: An Ongoing Dialogue

The writers of the early church knew Genesis 1 couldn't be a literal description.

St. Augustine: "No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. For St. Paul says: 'Now all these things that happened ... were symbolic.' ... What meaning other than allegorical have the words: 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth?'" (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.1-1.2)

Ironically, nowadays, when people loudly insist on reading Genesis 1 literally, they don't really read it literally!

Genesis 1 literally sketches an ancient worldview that looks bizzarre today.

It describes the earth as a lumpy land mass, supported by pillars, surrounded by vast, chaotic waters on all sides, including a huge body of water over our heads that's kept from drowning us by a transparent dome ("firmament"), studded with stars, sun and moon, with "windows" in it that can be opened to let some of the water in as rain.

If you wanted to insist that Genesis is literally true, you'd have to go way further than the Creation Museum. You'd have to defend the idea that we all live under this giant, transparent dome! You'd have to take the blue of the sky as evidence of that huge body of water over our heads! (Scroll down for some images.)

Good luck with that.

It's healthier to follow the example of the early church and read Genesis 1 figuratively.

In other words, Genesis 1 uses the terms of an ancient worldview to say symbolically that from the very beginning, without literally having vocal chords, God was in some sort of communication with a vast, dark, shapeless, fluid mess, summoning it to become a luminous, shapely, creative community. God "spoke" to the chaos creatively, the chaos responded creatively, and that's how we got this intricately interwoven community we call the world, with all its appealing and devastating surprises.

Like those ancient storytellers, we say that's what happened way back then, because we see a version of it it happening now. We keep seeing luminous, shapely, creative community emerging from the vast, dark, shapeless, fluid messiness of everyday life.

It's like an ongoing dialogue.

Nobody controls it—it's not a dialogue if it's controlled—and yet it seems to be going somewhere, no matter how many twists and turns it takes.

It's one of the most basic storylines underlying the entire Bible. We hear it every Sunday in our Eucharistic prayer: God's constant communication summons the world from chaos into community. ("Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being.") The world turns chaotic again. ("But we rebelled against you and wandered far away.") And again God summons the world from chaos into community, over and over. ("And yet as a mother cares for her children you would not forget us. Time and again you called us to live in the fullness of your love.")

For us who gather in Christ's name this storyline is lived as God draws us into the surprisingly renewed and renewing life of an executed criminal, Jesus, who through broken bread and fluid wine still summons us from chaos into the community known as the Body of Christ; the meal itself is both a realization and a summons to community through brokenness and fluidity.

This is God's very being for us: the relentless, self-sacrificing summons from chaos into community.

That's the ongoing dialogue we celebrate every Sunday. It's a concentrated form of the dialogue happening everywhere. It's not a literal dialogue. (Remember St. Augustine?) But calling it a dialogue deepens our awareness, opens us us to the utter mystery of what happens around, in and through us to make us ... us.

Darwin called this dialogue "natural selection." He wasn't wrong. The very nature of things displays a mutually selective process, often devastating, yet issuing in unpredictable forms of community.

But some of us, with these ancient storytellers, call this process, inherent in the very nature of things, a sort of dialogue, and I don't think we're wrong either. We just see things in more expansive and engaging terms.

In Genesis 1 God says this dialogue is not only natural but good. Yes, it can be devastating beyond words, but the dialogue is going somewhere, somewhere good, no matter how many twists and turns it takes.

Let's celebrate that.

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Jesus As an Historical Figure

 

As a Christian my faith is in the ever-present God who lives as Jesus is said to have lived—meeting our conflicts and rejection with an embrace that even death cannot dispel. Why I would believe in such a God I've addressed elsewhere, to my satisfaction if not to everybody's. I keep finding such a God to be inescapably present in ways that provoke immeasurable wonder and joy, and that suffices.

 My faith is not in conclusions historians draw about Jesus. It's in what I take to be the unconditional, "Jesus-like" embrace of the God with whom and in whom I live now. And it's in Jesus not simply as he was but as I experience him now—as God's living, "humanized" presence.

 Still, I do have opinions about Jesus as a past figure for historians to investigate, and they matter:

a) I think he was a real person who provoked all sorts of creatively shaped stories about him.

b) I think he spoke and acted in disconcerting ways that reflected his vision of the subversive nearness of God's reign—already dawning in his words and actions, but soon to arrive universally.

c) I think he was executed because his words and actions seemed politically disruptive.

d) I think that his first followers discovered that even execution couldn't keep him from animating their life in God in new and startling ways, and that some believed they had actually seen and heard him in ways they found difficult to describe.

 I think all these things about Jesus and his first followers. I think they're probably true, historically speaking. And it matters to me. I'm not sure exactly why it matters, or how much it matters, but it matters. If my opinions about Jesus changed, I don't know how that might change my faith in the God I take to be present now—maybe not that much, but I really don't know, since that's not where I am right now.

 In any case, my opinions matter to me, and I feel obliged to defend them, just as I would feel obliged to defend any opinions that matter. It's not that I couldn't possibly be wrong, but when I think I'm at least approximately right I should be clear about that and, just as importantly, about why I think so.

 My more skeptical friends like to ask me why I would even think any of this about Jesus. The only evidence for his existence seems to be material written about him decades after his alleged crucifixion (first mentioned by Paul, not the Gospels). People outside the movement, like Josephus or Pliny or Tacitus, are only reporting what members of the movement told them decades later. There's just not a lot of documentation. And any new information might radically alter our assumptions about what really happened.

 That's all true. But I think the evidence we have is more than enough to support what I currently think happened. Let me illustrate:

 Pretend you're an anthropologist. Imagine that you find a new tribe, a completely oral culture, and the tribal leader tells you this story:

 "When my great-great-grandfather was young he and his friends followed a man they called Peacemaker, who told us to stop going to war. He worked many wonders to show us that the gods endorsed what he taught. But the chief accused him of disloyalty and executed him. Peacemaker could have called upon the power of the gods to kill the chief, or he could have turned into an eagle and flown away, but instead he let himself be killed to teach us not to go to war. My great-great-grandfather and his friends were shunned and called fools, and so they left that tribe and came here to found a new tribe that did not want war. When we get angry, we remember Peacemaker and do not strike others."

 You hear that story repeated with varying details by other members of the community. This is all the evidence you have about a figure called Peacemaker. But it's enough to draw several conclusions.

 First, you would probably discount stories about the wonders Peacemaker supposedly worked or could have worked. Stories like that frequently crop up. They indicate the powerful impact a charismatic figure had. He surely had a powerful impact, but turning into an eagle was not an option. You would also probably wonder when he got his current name. (Did birth name influence his devotion to peacemaking, or did he acquire the name because of his devotion?) And you might wonder if there are some unflattering details about his life and motives that have been omitted from the "official" account.

 But it wouldn't occur to you to doubt that somebody now called Peacemaker really lived some time ago, that he tried to stop his people from going to war, that he attracted a following and provoked opposition, that he was executed, and that his followers were shunned and ridiculed. All you have is the testimony of people who were born after he and his first followers died. You don't have documentation from any other source. But you have every reason to believe that this much of their founding narrative really happened.

 Why? Because a) with varying details, these are the overall contours of the story that would not be forgotten, b) they help explain why these people now live by a rather peculiar and potentially costly ethic, and perhaps most importantly, c) they are parts of the story that would not be invented. None of them are flattering to the people telling the story. Why would a people invent details that make them and their founder look weak and inconsequential to others? It's not utterly impossible that they would do that, but it's inexplicable, and thus highly unlikely.

 Historians call this last reason the "criterion of embarrassment."  This is one of the principle criteria that New Testament scholars use to reconstruct early Christianity. It's not the only criterion, but it helps anchor the others. It doesn't "prove" that certain events really happened, because there aren't any such proofs among historians, but it introduces a presumption. Unflattering details usually have some basis in memory.

 The earliest reports we have about Jesus (via Paul) come from people who seem to be worshipping him. They tell us that this "life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:5) was also an executed criminal. It's hard to imagine that they would be mistaken about that rather glaring fact, or that they would make it up. Why would anybody start to worship an executed criminal? You could argue easily that they've deluded themselves into thinking that he's still around for them to worship, but you'd have a hard time convincing anybody that they would delude themselves about his legal execution. That's too embarrassing to invent, and too glaring not to remember.

 Likewise, the Gospels' stories about his message and actions help explain why he got executed. Some found him politically disruptive. And these accounts are also at least slightly embarrassing. Jesus preached that something universally stupendous was about to happen. What did happen was an execution followed by appearances that any skeptic could dismiss. You could argue (as I would) that this unlikely movement itself was something with universal implications, but it didn't work out the way people were expecting. Jesus' followers did see continuity between Jesus' message and their later experience of his living presence, but they didn't cover up some real, somewhat embarrassing tensions. 

 So I think that Jesus really lived and preached the subversive present/future nearness of God's reign, that this got him executed, and that his followers had to reinterpret his original message in light of what they took to be his subsequent, life-giving presence. My reasons for thinking that are, again: a) with varying details, these are the overall contours of the story that would not be forgotten, b) they help explain why these people now live by a very peculiar worldview (quite puzzling to their contemporaries), and perhaps most importantly, c) they are parts of the story that would not be invented.

 That's where I am now.

—Fr. Charles Allen  

How I Experience the God of Jesus Christ—Fr. Charles Allen

St. Paul was the earliest New Testament writer. He and his early followers identified the God of Jesus Christ as the all-inclusive reality, influencing everything that happens all-inclusively, embodying this all-inclusive influence through the humanly all-inclusive life of Jesus Christ.*

This too is how I identify the God of Jesus Christ, and how I experience God.

Indeed, in order to experience God, it's important to think of God the way that St. Paul and his early followers did.

When I am most deeply aware of myself and my surroundings, I am aware of the all-inclusive influence of all-inclusive reality. People may be aware of this without calling this God. But this is how St. Paul and his early followers thought of God.

When I am open to this influence (that's faith), I experience it as grace and love.

When I am closed or resistant to it, I experience it as judgment.

When I participate in the continuing story of Jesus' overcoming death-dealing hatred through unquenchable and all-reconciling love, my opening to this influence is renewed, deepened and strengthened.

Nothing I have learned about myself and my surroundings through the natural sciences threatens my opening this all-inclusive influence of all-inclusive reality.

Nothing I have learned about how the continuing story of Jesus may first have been told and retold threatens its power to renew, deepen and strengthen my opening to this influence when I participate in this story.

When others call this opening unreasonable or downright stupid, I smile.

When others say that I have reinvented my concept of the God to suit my 21st-century sensibilities, I point to St. Paul and his early followers, and smile again.

 ******

*"For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (1 Corinthians 8:6). "From God, through God, and in God are all things" (Romans 11:36). "God is above all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:6). "In God we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). "In Jesus Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Colossians 1:19-20).

Just Be There

When devastating events occur, those of us who are religious or spiritual often find ourselves asking how it could have happened. People who believe in a loving God naturally want to know how God could have been involved in all this. Those are natural questions to ask, but they’re not always helpful.

My Anglican strand of Christian faith is often accused of being weak on providing explanations, and that’s at least partly true. But that’s because one of our main convictions is this:

An explanation isn’t as important as simply being there.

We worship and follow a God who couldn’t escape a criminal’s execution, just so God could be there with us even in the most devastating circumstances.

That’s not a God who explains much and it’s certainly not a God who promises to rescue us from the world’s suffering.

Instead it’s a God who says, “Just be there. Offer yourself to those who suffer. And I’ll be with you.”

Just be there.

Fr. Charles

Why I Don't Know How to Be Secular

 

Though I admire the courage and thoughtfulness of many secular friends, I don't know how to be secular myself. 

I don't know how to be secular, first, because I simply can't make any sense of the idea that persons like you and me are utterly alien products of the ultimately real.

Not every secular person embraces this idea (John Dewey didn't), but many assume it (for example, Bertrand Russell in "Free Man's Worship"). They assume that, since we are exceedingly rare products of the ultimately real, that very rarity shows that beings like us tell us hardly anything about the nature of the ultimately real. They equate rarity with insignificance.

There's an admirable humility that often accompanies this equation of rarity with insignificance, but if the equation is true, such humility means nothing, ultimately. There's ultimately nothing to admire here.

So I find this, the idea that persons like you and me are utterly alien products of the ultimately real, to be nonsensical. I don't need faith to conclude that. It's not a matter of faith to deny the irrational. 

But I presume more than just a denial of that idea. Some secular friends deny that idea but remain secular. 

I go a step further. 

There is, I would have to say, something like faith involved here, a trust too inescapable to prove, though reasonable nonetheless.  

I trust, not just that we are not utterly alien products, but that we are in fact exceedingly significant expressions of the ultimately real. I can't prove this idea; it does not follow automatically from denying the irrational assumption of our ultimate insignificance. But it seems a reasonable idea worthy of a reasonable trust, a reasonable faith. And I live by that faith without apology. 

I haven't said anything about God yet. But the idea of something like God is implicit in trusting that we are exceedingly significant expressions of the ultimately real. If we are exceedingly significant expressions of the ultimately real, then the ultimately real is exceedingly like us—not exactly or nearly like us, obviously, but the evident unlikeness does not ultimately negate the significant likeness. The ultimately real is significantly expressed through us, though always in ways that exceed our comprehension.

Other traditions might say something like this without using the word "God." People who speak of Brahman or the Tao agree that we are exceedingly significant expressions of the ultimately real. Even Buddhists who awaken to the boundless openness (sunyata) of us and all things view our boundless openness as itself an exceedingly significant expression of the ultimately real—the ultimately real is likewise Sunyata, boundless openness. 

But I do not find these words—Brahman, Tao, Sunyata—to be superior to the word "God," properly interpreted. They are superior to the all-too-popular idea of a temperamental, invisible guy who can be talked into doing amazing favors. But that's not (or not always) the God of Isaiah or Jesus or St. Paul or Hillel or St. Augustine or St. Anselm or Maimonides or Rumi or St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Julian of Norwich or St. Teresa of Avila or Martin Luther or John Calvin or Friedrich Schleiermacher or Karl Barth or Paul Tillich or Rosemary Radford Ruether or Cornel West, not if you pay careful attention to all that these God-intoxicated people said.

They all trusted that, although we are rare and minuscule products of the ultimately real, we are also exceedingly significant expressions of the same. That was essential to the core meaning of their faith in God, and essential to the core meaning of my faith in God as well.

With my secular friends, I reject and even denounce the all too popular idea of a temperamental, invisible guy who can be talked into doing amazing favors. But I can't even imagine rejecting God, of whom you and I, though exceedingly minuscule and rare in this universe, are nevertheless exceedingly significant expressions.

That's why I don't know how to be secular.

Fr. Charles

Reciting Creeds

 

A question came up as to whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing to recite the Nicene Creed at Grace Unlimited's ecumenical worship service. Some strong feelings, all of them understandable, were expressed on both sides. 

This is my initial response. It's not the last word by any means!

Because I started out Southern Baptist, at first I found the practice of reciting creeds repugnant. Now I find it immeasurably valuable in the right sort of setting.

I do not believe that reciting a traditional or updated creed is intrinsically exclusive. It all depends on what people think they are being asked to do when they recite something. Reciting is never the same as 100% agreement. In fact, when it's about God, it can't mean 100% agreement, because all words fall short. 

When I recite the Nicene Creed in the Episcopal Church, or in the ELCA, I don't feel excluded, because I know that I am being invited to enter into critical conversation with that creed even as I recite it. I know I'm part of a community that values a questioning faith. I find immeasurable value in entering into the thought worlds of earlier generations, seeking to understand what they were trying to say and discovering much in common. 

Yes, the people who framed this creed were often petty and vindictive. In other words, they were human. The process was politicized, but what group process isn't? Here's an interesting comparison: When the American Psychological Association declared that homosexuality was not a mental disorder, traditionalists complained that the process had been politicized. One of them even compared it (unfavorably) to the Council of Nicea! They were right to notice that politics was involved. They were wrong in failing to notice that politics had been involved in their earlier assumptions. Politics is involved in any human endeavor, even in the sciences, not just in theology. That doesn't mean that resulting conclusions are automatically invalid or unsound.

I believe that many of the fundamental concepts reflected in the Nicene Creed run deeper than the bishops' predictable pettiness. (One of those concepts, which I find liberating, is that ultimate reality is unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity.) I believe God spoke through this creed and still speaks through it, despite its many, evident flaws. (More here: http://www.graceunlimitedin.org/collected/2015/8/18/a-brief-commentary-on-the-nicene-creed.) That is what reciting the Nicene Creed means for an Episcopalian. It's challenging but not exclusive. It's a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper.

The same goes for the affirmation of faith that we use in Common Worship. That's really intended to be a commentary on the Apostles Creed.   We're not asked to agree with it 100% but to open ourselves "to what we may hear in it for the moment." It can also be challenging, especially to conservatives, but it need not be exclusive.

I would not feel excluded if another faith community invited me to recite a different affirmation with them—AS LONG AS I felt encouraged to question what I was saying the way I feel encouraged to question what I say in the Episcopal Church. I would feel excluded if I felt pressured to take any human affirmation about God as the final word on the subject. 

I experienced that Sort of inclusion when I attended a Unity Church meeting with a dear friend. I recited their Five Principles (http://unityvacaville.net/unitys-5-basic-principles/), even though I did not agree with several crucial points. (Examples: "There is only one Power, which is omnipotent"; or their embrace of the victim-blaming Law of Attraction.) I did not feel excluded. If anything, I was more concerned that I might be closing myself off to what they were trying to say, even though I was a bit repulsed by their terminology. It helped, to know that Unity Churches actually encouraged questions even about their Five Principles. 

I was somewhat amused, incidentally, that they claimed not to have a creed and yet put such great stock in these Five Principles, which looked to me very much like a creed. That's a common phenomenon among religious communities that claim not to have creeds—they actually do, without admitting it. (Another example: Buddhism's Four Noble Truths amount to a creed, even though some Buddhists claim that they have no creeds. They do have a creed, and it's one well worth exploring. They shouldn't apologize for that. It's not a bad thing.)

Reciting any creed, however vague or open-ended, can make some people feel excluded. Or it can make them feel invited to an invigorating, if challenging, conversation. It all depends on how that creed functions in the community. 

On the other hand, when a community claims not to have a creed (that is, a fundamental set of core values), it's either being dishonest or unreflective. All communities have creeds. Some of them are reflective enough to try to spell them out. An even smaller number are self-critical enough to encourage questioning, once a creed has been spelled out. I hope that Grace Unlimited can be counted among that number.

Fr. Charles

 

Interrobang

 

The interrobang is a hybrid punctuation mark that combines an exclamation point with a question mark—exclamation/interrogation. We at GraceUnlimited find it an apt symbol for this adventurous community of faith. Enduring faith enlivens endless questions; endless questions enliven enduring faith. 

The central story that shapes our community underscores this.

Jesus lived a provocative life of all-embracing love, died a disheartening death, only to become more empoweringly alive than ever. His uncontainable life brings God's uncontainable life home to us. The way Jesus lived, died and lives with us is the way God lives, dies and lives with us. That's our central story, and we're not just readers—we're characters. The story's unfinished without us.

Folks, this is an endless mystery! An all-enlivening mystery, but still a mystery. It's not some tidy formula that guarantees success on our terms. It's an unfinished story. It's a story with direction, but it's beyond control. It's not a bunch of pat answers. The God we follow, the God whose life Jesus' life embodies, is inescapable and incomprehensible—both at once. What an adventure!

Inescapable—exclamation

Incomprehensible—interrogation 

Both at once—interrobang. 

May your faith be an adventure. 


 
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Secular Challenges to Progressive Christians

 

Secular Challenges to Progressive Christians

Fr. Charles Allen

These challenges from secular friends are genuine. While my answers to them convince me that the way I am following has as much integrity as any way of living, their challenges are still challenges. They're good for me to revisit as I keep living my life. They keep me honest, I hope. 

Q: Don't you "progressive" Christians believe whatever you believe for the same bad reasons (lack of evidence) that fundamentalists use? Maybe you believe in a nicer God, but where's the evidence?

A: We think our reasons are better. "Nicer" or not, for us God is not just another being we might stumble across, or not. God is sheer being (or "Being," capitalized), the inescapable reality uniquely in, among and beyond us all. In that case, what more evidence do we need for God's reality beyond how we experience being? If we repeatedly experience sheer being as sacred, mysterious, and intimately compelling, evoking our utmost trust and devotion, what more evidence do we need than that? If others don't experience this, there's not much we can do about that. People either experience being this way, or they don't. We admit that if we thought God were just another guy, except for being invisible and having amazing powers, we would need much more evidence than how we experience being. But remember, part of our mission in life is to wean people away from such simplistic notions of God. We experience sheer being as sacred, mysterious, and intimately compelling, evoking our utmost trust and devotion. The more we notice this, the more evident the experience becomes. That's all the evidence we can supply, but we believe it's all the evidence we and anybody else might need.

Q: But doesn't physics show us that what you call "sheer being" is just a collection of fundamental particles (or strings or branes) following fixed patterns?

A: We're okay, even deeply awed, with whatever physics currently shows us, no matter how often its fundamental concepts get drastically revised. But physics confines itself to abstract generalizations about nameless bits of reality. We do not believe that it exhaustively describes reality in all its concrete richness. Some "bits" of reality, like Einstein, Heisenberg and Hawking, are not nameless, and we hold that they are just as real as the nameless bits they describe. Reality as such, "sheer being," is immeasurably more than any system of generalizations (immeasurably more than theological generalizations too!). Physics, chemistry, biology, etc., can actually deepen our realization of how inexhaustible reality is in all its concrete richness. What's our evidence for this? You, me, and every overflowing moment of experience. 

Q: Isn't it dishonest to call "sheer being" God? 

A: It's dishonest if we don't explain what the word means to us and why we think it's faithful to how, say, Isaiah and Jesus and St. Paul and St. Augustine used the word. But we do explain ourselves all the time. I'm doing that right now. The question is, will critics ever pay attention? Some do. Most don't. We're not changing the meaning of the word, just highlighting a central ancient meaning. Many writers of the Bible, and most later readers who preserved these writings as sacred scripture, had already come to identify God with sheer existence or being, the ultimately real, the beginning, way and end of all things (Romans 11:36). They had already come to realize that God can't be just another person with some amazing abilities. They did believe that sheer being was intimately responsive to us all and ultimately good for all. So they kept personal language, but they always qualified it, admitting they didn't know exactly how it could fit in this unique case. We progressive theists stand in that ancient tradition. We believe that it is part of our mission in life to wean people away from magical looking pictures of God as an invisible guy like you and me with amazing abilities. But we don't think dropping or condemning the word "God" is a wise way to do this, because we believe that there is something sacred, mysterious, and intimately compelling about the ultimately real that evokes our utmost trust and devotion. To us it would be dishonest to call this anything but God.

Q: If you admit that the Bible is written by fallible people with conflicting agendas, why do you quote it? Isn't that dishonest?

A: We see ourselves as transmitters of a living tradition that began with ancient writings like those we came to call the Bible. We quote the Bible to show that we are still transmitting the same living tradition. When we speak of communion with God or of dying and rising with Christ, we want to show how in present terms we are experiencing what our ancient ancestors experienced in ancient terms. We don't quote the Bible to settle arguments but to awaken ourselves to sheer being as sacred, mysterious, and compelling, evoking our utmost trust and devotion. It's that awakening that carries authority for us, not merely the fact that somebody long ago said something a certain way. We view the Bible as the unfolding story of fallible and often violent people gradually and intermittently learning to love God through loving others—even enemies. That story is still unfolding, and we are still learning. (We see something like this story unfolding in the sacred writings of other religions too, but it's the truths we glimpse in our story that open us to truths in theirs.)

Q: Why do you pray? Do you really believe that somebody out there will do special favors for you? If not, what's the point?

A: Again, with our ancestors, we believe that sheer being is intimately responsive to us all and ultimately good for all. When we pray, we believe that we are actively participating in this intimately responsive ultimate goodness. Prayer deepens our communion with God, which is already happening, and opens ways for God's goodness to be newly present. Of course, how God's goodness is newly present for each of us depends on what is good for all of us creatures together, with our often conflicting desires. So there is no promise that we or they will get exactly what is desired. All that is promised is that God's goodness will be newly present for each of us, no matter how devastating events turn out to be. Prayer strengthens our trust that God's goodness cannot be eradicated by anything, not even death. 

Q: Don't you know that Jesus is mostly (maybe totally) a made-up character? Doesn't that disprove Christianity?

A: We do recognize that many early stories about Jesus mix fact with fiction. Scholars often disagree about which is which. In the first century world this mixture was an accepted way of making the past come alive in the present. (Google "midrash.") Can we prove that Jesus existed? No. Historically speaking, all we can show (I wouldn't say "prove") is that, starting in the first century, people's lives were utterly transformed by stories of this amazingly embracing person who embraced them even more amazingly after his execution. Again, we recognize that this impact of Jesus on his first followers inspired a whole variety of creative ("made-up") storytelling. For them, as for us today, he was not just a figure of the past but a living presence animating the very stories they wrote. So it's no surprise if many stories about him were embellished to convey how radical his impact was and is. We're not troubled by polemical, mostly self-published writers who argue that he never existed, since they are not taken seriously by the majority of secular historians. (Google "peer review.") If secular historians start taking them seriously, we'll pay more attention, but right now they have about as much credibility as people who deny Obama's U.S. citizenship. We have no reason to doubt that Jesus' all-embracing life among his followers awakened them to the all-embracing life they called God, that his faithfulness to that life got him executed, and that afterwords his followers were surprised to experience him as even more all-embracingly alive. That's the basic storyline that his earliest followers, like St. Paul, preached, and that we still preach today. That's the storyline you'd have to discredit in order to discredit Christianity as we practice it. 

Q: Aren't you progressive Christians like "mafia wives"? Doesn't your support of any version of Christianity simply make it easier for hateful people to keep using "God" and "Jesus" as clubs to clobber people? Could you tolerant, well-meaning, progressive Christians even exist without depending on Christian communities that are hopelessly intolerant, hateful and conservative?

A: I don't take this accusation lightly. I'm part of a 2,000 year old tradition that keeps coming up with ingenious ways to turn a message of all-embracing love into an excuse for hatefulness. And excuses for hatefulness seem depressingly popular. Why not abandon it? The thing is, though, I'm part of other centuries-old traditions ("Western Civilization," the United States) that seem equally adept at turning messages of enlightenment and liberation into excuses for hatefulness. Should I abandon them too? Is that even possible? Could a "culture-free" life even count as human? Could I find a culture that doesn't betray itself, often as not? Show me an empowering tradition, with its inescapable institutions populated with conflicting egos, that does not continually betray its own best insights. I have yet to find one. But some traditions make a regular practice of admitting their betrayals in order to open themselves to renewal. One of those is the Anglican spiritual tradition that I continue to practice. It's flawed but renewable. Is that more than just a way to enable bad behavior? I can't prove that it is. But I haven't found a credible alternative.



 

A Brief Commentary on the Nicene Creed

A Brief Commentary on the Nicene Creed


The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted summation of Christian faith in the world. It was adopted, rejected, revised and finally adopted again by the majority of Christian leaders (bishops) in the 300s amidst a great deal of political infighting (some things never change). If anything qualifies as an official Christian account of who and what God is, and of what Jesus and the Spirit have to do with God, this is it.

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