Friday, December 29, 2006

Pay Dirt: Top Religion Headlines of 2006

Top Religion Headlines of 2006 (Source:

From Baghdad to the ballot box, 2006 was a year of upheaval. A prominent pastor and a powerful conservative Christian senator both exited public life (at least for now). The quiet, unassuming Amish world was thrust into the national spotlight. A movie and a cartoon each sparked controversy, and in the case of the latter, violence. Meanwhile, "old" issues--stem cell research, gay marriage--continued to divide. Read through the top faith-related news stories of 2006, as voted on by the Religion Newswriters Association:

1. Protests Erupt Over Muhammad Cartoon - Muslims in many countries reacted sharply--and often violently--to the publication in a Danish newspaper of a series of political cartoons depicting Muhammad. Muslims consider any portrayal of the prophet inappropriate, but were particularly inflamed by a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb as his turban. As the violence spread to such places as Somalia, Thailand, and the Palestinian territories, many publications in Europe and elsewhere reprinted the cartoon in solidarity with the Danish newspaper, further fueling Muslims' anger.

2. Pope Benedict Angers Muslims - Pope Benedict XVI angered Muslims by quoting in a speech from a 14th-century Christian emporer who said that Muhammad was "evil and inhuman." The pope apologized and largely diffused the situation with a trip to Turkey, during which he prayed at a mosque and voiced support for Turkey's bid to become the first majority-Muslim member of the European Union.

3. The Episcopal Church Is Threatened by Schism - The Episcopal Church riled conservatives by electing a presiding bishop who supported the consecration of a gay bishop. Seven Episcopal dioceses refused to recognize the leadership of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected to the top post. Some congregations have left the U.S. church and put themselves under the authority of African or South American bishops.

4. Ted Haggard Admits to 'Sexual Immorality' - The charismatic and powerful evangelical leader Ted Haggard was dismissed as pastor of the influential New Life Church in Colorado Springs and resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals after allegations surfaced of gay sex and methamphetamine use. Haggard has admitted that at least some of the accusations are true, calling himself "a deceiver and a liar," and saying in a letter to his congregation, "There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life."

5. Electoral Setbacks for Christian Conservatives - Candidates backed by Christian conservatives, including Rick Santorum (at right)--the powerful Pennsylvania senator who was one of the most steadfast supporters of the conservative agenda--suffered a series of defeats in the fall elections. An increasing number of Christian conservatives are calling for evangelicals to broaden their focus to include a wider array of issues and voices, or to take a step back from intense political involvement altogether.

6. Religious Violence Grows in the Mideast - As religious voices increasingly called for peace in Iraq, conflicts between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Muslims intensified, and observers fear other nations could be drawn into the conflict. In Lebanon, the Israeli incursion, aimed at curbing attacks by Hezbollah, touched off major strife that is threatening the stability of Lebanon's government, while Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly called for Israel's destruction and continued defying the West by refusing to abandon his nuclear ambitions.

7. The Amish Forgive a Schoolhouse Killer - Pennsylvania's Amish community was thrust into the national spotlight when a gunman entered a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and shot 10 Amish girls, killing five, before shooting himself. Despite their shock and grief, the community reacted by publicly forgiving the gunman, bringing food to his family, and attending his funeral. Children who survived the massacre told of one of the murdered girls, Marian Fisher, who reportedly offered to be the first killed, to spare the others.

8 (tie). 'The Da Vinci Code' Movie Opens - Dan Brown's novel has sparked controversy since its publication, with its claims that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married and had children--and its allegations that the Vatican has covered up these "facts," often violently, throughout the centuries. In the months leading up to the May release of "The Da Vinci Code" movie, Christians were divided over whether to boycott the film or engage with it as an opportunity for evangelism. Most seemed to take the latter route.

8 (tie). Gay Marriage Continues to Divide - In New Jersey, the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to the same benefits as married couples, leaving the legislature to decide what to call the arrangement. In response, the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill legalizing "civil unions" in the state. In the November elections, voters made Arizona the first state to defeat a proposed same-sex marriage ban. At the same time, referendums in seven other states passed, officially outlawing gay marriage there.

10. Pres. Bush Vetoes Stem-Cell Research Expansion - In the first veto of his presidency, Bush said no to a bill that would have expanded stem-cell research. The decision was no surprise: Bush has been consistently opposed to scientific research that involves destroying viable human embryos. The issue also was prominent in the Missouri Senate race, during which Michael J. Fox campaigned in support of a referendum to expand stem cell rearch and for Democrat Claire McCaskill, who backed the proposed bill. Other celebrities joined in on either side of the issue, making commercials that aired leading up to the election, in which McCaskill won and the referendum passed.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Pay Dirt: The Mystery of Christmas

I watched a fascinating 48 Hours Mystery episode on "The Mystery of Christmas". Worth a read of the website summary:

In addition, this morning a good friend of mine pointed out the following article to me which is also a good read:

A Religious Santa Claus Tale: The birth narrative of Jesus shouldn't be taken literally by John Shelby Spong

The birth narrative of Jesus shouldn't be taken literally. Each year, the symbols are everywhere: on radio and television, in newspapers and magazine ads, in store windows, and eventually in our own homes. Sometimes they depict a jolly old elf dressed in red, sometimes accompanied by reindeer and a sleigh. Sometimes they show a manger, a baby, angels singing to shepherds, or wise men following a star. Some of the symbols rotate around the North Pole, the others around a little town named Bethlehem.

Most people do not literalize the story of Santa Claus. He is a symbol--a powerful symbol, but still just a symbol. I suggest that the birth narratives of Jesus, too, cannot be taken literally. They, too, are symbols, a religious version of Santa Claus. Some religious people will be offended by that suggestion. I invite them to reconsider.

The biblical story of Christmas is probably the best known text in the New Testament. These narratives have been part of our conscious life for as long as most of us can remember. We have seen pageants annually; perhaps we have even starred in one. We think we know this biblical content quite well. But do we? How long has it been since we have actually read the biblical text that tells the story of that first Christmas? And how much of our reading is colored by long-standing traditions, a pious imagination, or even those pageants in which we have participated?


The average person would be quite sure that the mode of transportation employed by the Wise Men was the camel. Yet there are no camels in this biblical story at all, not a single one. They have been placed into Matthew's story by our imaginations, as a careful reading of the first two chapters of Matthew, the only place the story of the Wise Men is told, will reveal.

Second, if one is asked where in Bethlehem the birth of Jesus occurred, the familiar and traditional answer would be "in a stable surrounded by a variety of animals." We have seen that picture so often, we are quite sure of it. But we would be wrong again. There are no animals mentioned in the story of Jesus' birth, primarily because there is no stable present in which to house them. The stable is simply not part of the biblical birth story of Jesus. Check it out. Read the first two chapters of Luke. That is the only place in the Bible where details of his Bethlehem birth are given. There is only one word--crib, or manger--around which the stable has been erected in our imaginations.

Third, these two passages in Matthew and Luke are the only accounts of Jesus' birth found in the entire Bible. There is no mention of a miraculous birth for Jesus in the writings of Paul, in the gospel of Mark, or in the gospel of John, as a quick scan of these texts will reveal.

Paul, who is the first author of a book in the New Testament (he wrote between 50 and 64 C.E.), appears to have no knowledge of anything being unusual about Jesus' birth. All Paul says is that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4) and "according to the flesh" he was "descended from the House of David" (Romans 1:3). Paul never mentions the names of Mary or Joseph. The only reference he makes to a member of the family of Jesus was to James, whom he called "the Lord's brother," and with whom he did not get along very well (Galatians 1).

Mark, who wrote his gospel in the early years of the eighth decade of the Christian era (70-75 C.E.), also tells us no story of Jesus' birth. He does, however, have two references to Jesus' family (Mark 3:31-35, 6:1-6), neither of which is flattering. Mark writes that Jesus' family consists of his mother, four brothers (Simon, Judas, Joses and James), and more than one sister, all left unnamed because of the status of women in that time.

This family, led by Jesus' mother, believed Jesus was out of his mind and wanted to take him away. That is hardly the response one would expect from a woman to whom an angel had appeared to tell her that she would be the virgin mother of the Son of God.

Joseph makes no appearance in Mark's gospel, and Mary as the name of Jesus' mother appears only once--and that on the lips of a critic, who asks of Jesus, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (Mark 6:3). Please note that in the earliest gospel, Jesus is a carpenter, Joseph is unmentioned, and Jesus is called the son of Mary. To call a Jewish man the son of a woman had a mildly pejorative quality about it. It was a hint that perhaps his paternity was questionable. But that is all we have in written form from any early Christian source until at least 50 years have passed since the end of Jesus' earthly life.

Mark clearly did not know about the virgin birth tradition. It had not yet developed.

Skipping over to John, written some time between 95 and 100 C.E., we discover that this writer also does not mention the Virgin Birth. It would be difficult to argue that by this late date, the author had not heard of that tradition. Instead, he opens his story with an even more powerful God claim: Jesus was the pre-existent word of God present at the creation. This word of God was simply enfleshed, said the fourth gospel. But that was not achieved by way of a miraculous birth. Indeed, on two occasions this evangelist refers to Jesus as "the son of Joseph" (John 1:45, 6:42).

So in the five major sources of New Testament materials--Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John--only two, Luke and Matthew, mention the Virgin Birth. It is neither the majority nor the universal understanding of Jesus' origins even in the Bible.

When we turn to the actual text in Matthew and Luke, the questions and problems indicating that these stories are not literal history multiply. Matthew, who wrote between 80 and 85 C.E., wrote the first stories of Jesus' birth. He was also the gospel writer most appreciative of and anchored in his Jewish background. Matthew introduced this birth story with a genealogy that grounds Jesus in a thoroughly Jewish past, describing his lineage from Abraham, through David and the kings of Judah, to the exile and finally to Joseph, whom he identified as "the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ" (Matthew 1:16). Provocatively enough, and quite rare in the ancient world, Matthew adds four women to this lengthy genealogy-- all of whom are sexually tainted in the stories about them in the Hebrew Scriptures.

First there is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah who became pregnant by her father-in-law in an incestuous relationship (Matthew 2:1, Genesis 38). Yet Matthew says the line of Jesus came through this woman.

Next, there is Rahab, who was called "the harlot," who assisted with Joshua's invasion of the promised land (Matthew. 1:5, Joshua 2). Matthew also says the line of Jesus came through this woman.

Then there is Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David who in her time was said to have seduced her future husband, Boaz, with the aid of much wine. When Boaz woke up to discover Ruth in his bed, he covered her with his blanket and proceeded to do the honorable thing by marrying her (Matthew 1:5, Ruth 3). The hereditary background of Jesus includes Ruth, according to Matthew.

Finally, there was "Uriah's Wife," Bathsheba, who was first King David's adulterous lover and eventually, after David arranged for the death of her husband, his wife (one among many). She was also the mother of the heirs of David's throne, including King Solomon. Bathsheba, an adulterer, is thus a major player in the line of Judah's kings and Jesus' ancestry (Matthew 1:6, II Samuel 11).

One wonders what he means to imply about Mary, who is the fifth woman mentioned in his genealogy.

Over and over again, Matthew grounds his story of Jesus' birth in the presumed expectation of the Hebrew Scriptures. When he comes to the story of Jesus' miraculous birth, his proof text appears to be Isaiah 7:14. It is a familiar text that reads, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel." Clearly, Matthew developed his story under the influence of that text.

This text, however, has two problems. First, Matthew did not apparently read Hebrew, so he quoted this text from a Greek translation. If he had gone to the Hebrew original, he would have discovered that the word "virgin" is not in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah used the Hebrew word almah, which simply means "young woman." He did not use the word betulah, which means virgin. Isaiah's text announces that the woman is with child, which hardly qualifies her to be a virgin. When Isaiah was translated into Greek, the translators rendered almah with the Greek word parthenos. Only in that Greek word does the hint of virginity enter the text.

The second problem with this text is that when Isaiah wrote it, the city of Jerusalem was under siege from the combined armies of the Northern Kingdom and Syria. Isaiah suggested that the birth of this child would be a sign to the king of Judah that his nation would not fall to these enemies whom Isaiah described as "the tails of two smoking firebrands." A reference to a child born 800 years later would hardly have been relevant to that crisis.

Clearly, the prophet was not referring to either Jesus' birth or to some future messiah's birth.

There are still other problems connected with the stories of Jesus' birth, but these are sufficient to raise significant questions about their historicity--an issue I believe Christians must face. When one adds to that the fact that virgin birth stories were common in the Mediterranean world as part of the mythology of the first century, other concerns surface. A second-century Christian critic named Celsus articulated this concern when he wrote: "Do you think all the other stories are legends, but that your story of Jesus alone is noble and convincing?"

If the biblical stories we identify with Christmas are not history, then what are they? And what do they mean? Why did these stories become so powerful in shaping the Christian world? What are the story writers trying to communicate about God, about Jesus, about human life itself? Those will be the questions I intend to address in this column as the Christmas season unfolds.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bible Exploration

Well, it has been a couple of weeks since I finished my fundamentals framework. Since that time, I've been thinking about what I should tackle next. I've wavered between a few options, but I think I'm going to try to address the Bible in more depth.

I touched on the Bible in my Bible Beliefs entry, and I noted the pivotal importance that your perspective on the Bible (i.e. as either a divine product [God's very words] or as a human product reflecting the experiences and responses of two communities to God and Jesus) has on your approach to Christianity and theology. I also noted the impact that a couple of books had on my understanding of the Bible: Misquoting Jesus (by Bart Ehrman) and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (by Marcus Borg). I am part way through two other books which continue to shed light on the Bible for me: Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (by John Shelby Spong) and The Last Week (by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan). Before I finish this series of blog entries, I anticipate delving into History of the End of the World (by Jonathan Kirsch).

So I'm going to try to provide a synopsis of what I've learned in these books. Here is my outline for this endeavour:

I must admit that this is a daunting exercise for me. I know for certain that it will take me a long time to complete this effort, and, as I start, I'm not even sure I will be able to finish. But as I felt when I started my fundamentals framework, I feel like this is the right topic to dive into next so that I can adequately explain and support my current Christian thinking.

Before I start, let me clarify that I anticipate taking very little credit for the thinking that will lie beneath the blog entries in this series - I am not a Biblical scholar by trade. I fully anticipate leaning heavily on the books I mentioned earlier, and I will attempt to give credit where I can.

I hope this series will be useful to all who encounter it. I will repeat the same three goals (1) I noted when I began my fundamentals framework, since they are equally relevant for this Bible Exploration series:

  • That the blog entries will be "interesting and refreshing" to Christians and non-Christians and will help both to "grapple with points of view they might otherwise have dismissed without serious thought";
  • That the blog entries' content might help "shift logjammed debates into more fruitful possibilities"; and,
  • Somewhat selfishly, that the process of writing the blog entries will help me to "grow in [my] understanding of the subject matter, and enable others to do so as well".

Here we go again...

(1) Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999).

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Transformation: What It's All About

With this blog entry, I have reached the conclusion of my Fundamentals Framework. So in this entry, I'd like to share a few summary thoughts on what I think the core of "being a Christian" is all about and why I have chosen Christianity as my pathway to God.

(1) Christianity for me is, first and foremost, about a personal transformation - a transformation to a life that is centered in God and that is intentional about having a deepening relationship with the Sacred. The result of that personal transformation is growth in love and compassion and life that can be lived more fully.

(2) Christianity for me is also about a social transformation that should lead to experiencing the "Kingdom of God" today...that is, the way life on earth (yes on earth, not heaven) would be today if God was ruler. The result of this social transformation is a focus on justice for the poor and marginalized, an indictment of the religious and political elites and a resistence to oppressive cultural systems of unfairness and dominance.

Why have I chosen Christianity as my pathway to God? Well, for me it is what I have always known...and I am comfortable with it. It works for me in that it affirms the Sacred and experiencing the Sacred, and it shows a path of transformation along with practices and traditions that can assist with that transformation and serve as sacraments to the Sacred. For me, the way I currently see and understand Christianity makes sense to me as a path to God.

Thus far in this blog, I have tried to capture my beliefs about Christianity and, in so doing, clarify my own Christian fundamentals (for a summary see My Fundamental Beliefs - Summary). Through undertaking this endeavour, I feel more comfortable that I can avoid answering "yes" to the questions posed in Mark 8:17-18: "Do you still not perceive or understand?...Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear?". Hopefully, in some small way, my ramblings have also helped others avoid answering "yes" to these questions.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Routines and Thin Places

Christianity is often defined by its routines like worship, prayer, Bible reading and study, attending church, listening to sermons, baptism, and communion. What is their purpose? How do they fit into Christianity? Are they required?

To answer those questions, I'll start with a concept called "thin places". This is a concept from Celtic Christianity (a form of Christianity that flourished in Ireland and parts of Scotland, Wales and northern England beginning in the fifth century). "Thin places" are places where the visible world of our ordinary experience meets or intersects with God, the sacred, Spirit. Occasionally, we do experience God through everything else...those are "thin places".

(1) I think the core purpose of Christian routines is to help us encounter "thin places" where our hearts are opened to experience God and grow in compassion and justice.

In that context:
  • Worship can be a thin place. It can create a sense of the can move us to focus on and experience God.
  • Prayer and daily disciplines/devotions can be a thin place...see my What About Prayer? blog entry for some input on this.
  • Bible reading and Bible studies can be thin can be sacramental (i.e. a bridge to the Sacred)...see my Bible Beliefs blog entry for further thoughts on this.
  • Being part of a church/Christian community and having Christian friendships can be thin places...if they nurture and nourish you while also stretching you at the same time.
  • Sermons can be thin places (in this case, I emphasize "can" be). Often they aren't, but sometimes they can be a thin place which opens our hearts to God matters.
  • Baptism and communion can be thin places as we focus on God by participating in these practices.

When I say these "thin places" help us experience God, what do I mean? I guess I'd say that through these types of Christian routines, we pay attention to God, we focus on topics like compassion and justice, we can deepen our Christian identity, we can be nourished. All these are ways to experience God. It doesn't mean that you have visions or hear voices or get specific direction or a sense of a direction even. But with a view that God is "isness without limits", I think we can "experience" God through these routines, even if only as "centering" activities that allow us to focus on or think through particular issues (sometimes I think this is all they are...but other times, I think you can "sense" God through these routines). I should note that these routines are often seen as chores or requirements for a Christian. I don't see them that way any more...I see them as potential practices that can help deepen our experience of God and lead us to a life of more compassion and justice.

(2) I don't think that Christian routines are requirements, nor do I think that they are always effective - but they can help us encounter "thin places".

In his book The Heart of Christianity, I like what Marcus Borg says about Christian practices: "Christian practice is about walking with God, becoming kind and doing justice. It is not about believing in God and being a good person; it is about how one becomes a good person through the practice of loving God." (1)


(1) Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

What About Prayer?

“Not as in the old days I pray,
God. My life is not what it was…
Once I would have asked for healing
I go now to be doctored,
I would have knelt long, wrestling with you.
Wearing you down. Hear my prayer, Lord hear
my prayer. As though you were deaf, myriads
of mortals have kept up their shrill
cry, explaining your stillness by
their unfitness.

It begins to appear this is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of differences,
the consciousness of myself in you,
of you in me; the emerging
from the adolescence of nature
into the adult geometry
of the mind…
Circular as our way
is, it leads not back to that snake haunted
garden, but onward to the tall city
of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.”

- R. S. Thomas, Twentieth-century Welsh poet

I noted in My ‘More Than’ God blog entry that I think we can interact with and experience God, but that I don’t see God as an interventionalist God – otherwise, there are too many unexplainable non-interventions for a God of love, justice and compassion that I believe God to be. Having said that, I also noted that I don’t deny that there are some paranormal and supernatural happenings which can’t be explained. I don’t know if there is some link between these events and God, but I’m content not to be able to take a position on this one way or another at this point in time.

With that as context, what about prayer? I still think prayer makes sense...although maybe not in the way I used to. I’ve come to think about prayer more as us paying attention to God. There are 3 main types of prayer: verbal, meditation and contemplation.

Verbal prayer often involves petitions and intercessions. Given that I don’t think of God as an interventionalist God, one would think that these types of prayer don’t make sense to me. On the contrary, they do. Why? I can only say that they feel ‘right’ to me. It gives me some comfort, it makes me feel like I am, in a sense, caring for (or thinking of) others. Do I think these types of prayers make any difference? Well, paranormal things do happen. I don’t understand why or how, but, given our lack of knowledge of the supernatural, I’m not certain enough to state unequivocally that prayer never has any impact. But I'm not expecting that these prayers will change the mind or will of an 'out there' God so that he intervenes in the normal course of the universe. And, more importantly, regardless of their effectiveness, I think these types of prayer still have the impact of us paying attention to God or to the concepts surrounding God.

The second type of prayer is meditation, which involves reflecting on an image or phrase or text or idea…dwelling on it. The third type of prayer is contemplation, which is the practice of internal silence…sitting silently in the presence of “isness without limits”. It often involves the silent repetition of a single word or short phrase to give the mind a focus so that the ‘self’ can sink into silence. These are sometimes referred to as 'centering prayers'. These quiet times can be powerful mechanisms to enable a person to solve problems, work through issues and fears and step across barriers. Both of these forms of prayer are more common to eastern religions but seem to be in the process of being re-discovered in western religions.

So, in summary, my thoughts on prayer are as follows:

(1) Verbal (petitionary/intercessory) prayer feels ‘right’ to me – it is part of my process of thinking of and caring for others...but I don’t have an expectation that through these prayers I will change the mind or will of an ‘out there’ God so that He intervenes in the normal course of the universe.

(2) Meditative and contemplative prayers can be powerful ‘centering’ mechanisms that allow us to ‘pay attention’ to God and focus on ‘experiencing God’. I believe these types of prayer can impact and change the pray-er, which can then help the pray-er impact and help others .


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Pay Dirt: A Heretic's Guide to Eternity

From the Foreward to A Heretic's Guide to Eternity:

"Someone recently sent me one of those clever top-ten lists that you always see floating around the Internet. It was entitled, "Top Ten Reasons Beer is Better than Religion." My favorite five out of the top ten are:
  1. No one will kill you for not drinking Beer.
  2. Beer has never caused a major war.
  3. Nobody's ever been burned at the stake, hanged or tortured over his brand of Beer.
  4. You don't have to wait 2000+ years for a second Beer.
  5. There are laws saying Beer labels can't lie to you.

Now I'm not advertising beer, but I am advertising that we who have a sincere faith in God realize that there are a number of downsides to religion...some of which are implied by the humorous beer list. There's a grim historical track record of religious inebriation that, like drunk driving, has taken or ruined too many lives already."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pay Dirt: Interview with Sam Harris

Courtesy of

Sam Harris has been called a heretic – and a very brave man. Harris, author of The End of Faith, believes that religious tolerance is a disaster in the making – but that political correctness and fear of racism make any discussion of his idea utterly impossible. Sam Harris is ecumenical in his fear: the Christian who welcomes Armageddon as the harbinger of Jesus is just as terrifying as the Muslim who yearns for a martyr’s death to guarantee his place in paradise. Both, Harris believes, are driving a muzzled, timid society “to the abyss.” Sam Harris' latest book is Letter to a Christian Nation. It's published by Random House.

Listen to CBC's Tapestry interview with Harris here.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Pay Dirt: United Church Ad Campaign

TORONTO, Nov 7 (Reuters Life!) - The United Church of Canada hopes an ad featuring a can of whipped cream and the question, "How much fun can sex be before it's a sin?" will fill its pews as Christmas nears.

The country's biggest Protestant denomination launched an advertising campaign on Tuesday meant to provoke debate on the "deep and persistent attitudes and images of organized religion."

"In order to get past those stereotypes, we thought we needed an ad campaign that was different, had a head-snap to it, that people would have a second look," Keith Howard, executive director of the campaign, said in an interview.

The C$10.5 million ($9.3 million) campaign targets 30- to 45-year-olds and rotates six images though December issues of Canadian magazines and newspapers as well as Web sites.
One asks, "Does anyone object?" to an image of two plastic toy grooms on a wedding cake. Another features a child sitting on Jesus's knee in the traditional Santa's village of a shopping mall, and asks, "Would you still take your kids?"

"We've had a long tradition of engaging the issues and concerns of the society that we are a part of," Howard said.

The United Church of Canada has a declining active membership of about 573,000, although almost 3 million people have some sort of affiliation with the church. Between 1994 and 2004, membership dropped about 20 percent, according to church statistics.

Last month, the church issued a statement defending federal legislation that allows same-sex marriage.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Revisiting Sin, Salvation and the Afterlife

It’s interesting to me that this blog entry has been so challenging to get my head around; but when you think about it, maybe more than anything else, the concepts of sin, salvation and the afterlife are the most emphasized in fundamental Christianity. Certainly in my Christian upbringing, these concepts were central to everything. I said in one of my first blog entries that if someone had said to me in my early Christian life, that there was proof that there was no afterlife, I would have had no idea why I should be a Christian – getting saved and not sinning SO THAT you could have eternal life was what it was all about.

And a big part of what I grew up with was a guilt factor around sin and a scare factor about salvation and the afterlife. You’d go to church and the congregation would be "preached" at from the pulpit about what awful people we were (i.e. man's fallen nature); we would be asked to think about how we had sinned that past week, month, year, etc.; and we would be challenged about whether we were really saved. And if not, repent…lest you spend eternity in hell. So for me, even though my thinking has changed on a lot of topics (as evidenced in my previous blog entries), I still find it difficult to get out from under the guilt of sin and the scare factor surrounding salvation and the afterlife. So all that to say, this blog entry has been challenging to write.

Let’s start with sin. What is it? Well, most would think of it as disobedience – against God’s commandments and laws. Others would describe sin as being focused on pride or self-centeredness. Others would focus on estrangement or separation from God. Others would say it relates primarily to unfaithfulness (i.e. not loving God with all your heart, mind, etc.). Others would say that sin is not about evil and moral depravity…it is more the actions that result from the survival nature within the human life and is just a part of the reality of humanity’s wholeness (as opposed to resulting from humanity’s fallen nature).

For salvation, most would describe it as “going to heaven” because you’ve believed or done (or not done) what is necessary. As an aside, it’s interesting to me that with such an emphasis in Christianity on faith (i.e. “believe and you will be saved”) and grace (i.e. not works), that everything still seems to come down to WHAT you do (i.e. did you sin and did you get saved). Many would say this isn't the case, but, in my view, the overriding preoccupation in fundamental Christianity is on exactly this topic.

So where am I at on the three concepts of sin, salvation and afterlife topic? Well, let me start with a fourth concept - repentance. From what I’ve read, the Hebrew biblical concept of repentance is more about resolve than contrition. It is about returning “from exile”, reconnecting to God. And in the New Testament, the focus of repentance is on following “the way” of Jesus - that is, the path of transformation (see my blog entry The Way). “The Greek roots of the word combine to mean ‘go beyond the mind you have’…go beyond the mind you have been given or acquired…go beyond the mind shaped by culture to the mind that you can have in/with God. " (1)

In terms of the concept of sin, it seems to me that it is more about mankind’s separation from God (or estrangement from God or lack of centering in God) than it is about disobeying a set of “divine rules”. From the time we are infants, we naturally begin to take on a more self-centered perspective and, by doing so, become less and less centered in God and God’s character (e.g. love, compassion, justice, etc.). If we think of that condition as being in exile from God (or having a life that isn’t centered in God’s character), that is how I would describe the condition of sin. Now, I’m not implying that we should go about doing whatever we like and ignore the implicit moral code that was present in many of the traditional perspectives or teachings on the classic sins. The result of that type of lifestyle would be to continue to hamper one’s ability to be centered in God and God’s character. What I am implying though, is that sin is not about disobeying a set of “divine rules” and suffering the consequences (e.g. eternal damnation).

In terms of salvation, for me it is about a personal transformation that results in a life that is centered in God and God’s character. It is about becoming conscious of our relationship with and connection to God. It is about becoming intentional about deepening our connection with God by experiencing God and trying to center our identity in “the sacred”. “Spirituality is the midwifery process of salvation – it midwifes the process of birthing the new self.” (1) The result of salvation (or the process of salvation, or the process of being “born again”) is a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, love and compassion (or as John Shelby Spong would say a life that fully loves and is fully lived). It is about a life centered in the presence of God.

Finally, the afterlife. I believe there is something after this life. There are enough snippets of thought on the afterlife, as well as experiences and reports of near-death experiences that make me think there is something beyond this life. What will it be like? I have no idea. There are so many versions of what people think it will be like that I don’t see how one can even start to try to decipher which is right. All I know is that we will die. And my hope is that when we do, we die into God’s presence…and if that’s the case, that can’t be a bad thing, now can it?

Will everyone experience an afterlife? Again, I have no idea. But my gut feel is that the answer may be no…I sometimes wonder if the degree to which we “experience God” and achieve a connection to God in this life is preparing some part of our spirit (or soul?) to experience God in the afterlife. I don’t know…just a thought. And if I’m right and some don’t connect with God in the afterlife, I don’t think there is an alternate afterlife experience (e.g. “hell”)…I think there is just eternal separation from God…nothingness...which is how some define hell (although most of the time, there are a set of flames to go with this description).

As an aside, the thing that is really interesting to me is that the concept of the afterlife doesn’t seem to hold the same importance it once did to me within my Christian beliefs. I think that is because I’m no longer scared of “going to hell” if I don’t believe, say and do the exact right things. It’s all up-side...there is a chance I can connect with God both in this life and in the afterlife! Is that just wishful thinking? Again, I don’t know, but I guess that’s part of working out these types of things with “fear and trembling” (or not “fear and trembling” in this case!).

So in summary, where am I at on sin, salvation and the afterlife? If I had to summarize at this point, I think:

(1) The concept of sin relates mainly to mankind’s natural separation from and lack of centering in God and God’s character. It is not about disobeying a set of “divine rules” and suffering the consequences (e.g. eternal damnation).

(2) Repentence is not about contrition and guilt, but about resolving to reconnect to and center oneself in God and God’s character.

(3) Salvation is about a personal transformation that results from a conscious and intentional centering of one’s life and identify in God and God’s character. The result is a life that fully loves and is fully lived; a life that is characterized by love, freedom, peace, compassion and justice.

(4) The afterlife is a great unknown, but I believe there is something after this life, and I’m hoping it is us dying into God’s presence – which would be the ultimate experience of and connection with God.


(1) Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Faith Matters

What do you think of when you hear the word “faith”? defines faith as “belief that is not based on proof”. I would suggest that this is the most common understanding of “faith” today. And certainly within Christianity, the concept of faith means believing a set of Christian beliefs to be true (sometimes interpreted as believing questionable things to be true and ignoring scientifically proven evidence in the process). Interestingly, there are other meanings of “faith” throughout the history of Christianity, which I will touch on later, but for now, let’s deal with the most common understanding of the word, as described above.

The belief-focused understanding of the word “faith” is so prevalent and emphasized in Christianity today that its effect has been that “Christian faith has turned into a ‘head matter’. Faith has become primarily a matter of the beliefs in your head – of whether you believe the right set of claims to be true. That Christian faith is about belief is a rather odd notion, when you think about it. It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads – as if believing the right things is what God is most looking for, as if having “correct beliefs” is what will save us. And if you have “incorrect beliefs”, you may be in trouble. It’s remarkable to think that God cares so much about “beliefs”.” (1)

For me:

(1) While faith should not be about believing things that go against our factual knowledge of the way things are, I do firmly believe that faith is a required component of a Christian life.

Why? Because, ultimately, for me, being Christian means affirming the reality of God (see My More Than God). In addition, Christian faith means affirming the centrality of Jesus (as a disclosure of God and what a life full of God looks like – see Jesus…“My God”, Man), and affirming the centrality of the Bible (not as the literal words of God, but as the foundational document for the Christian tradition – see Bible Beliefs).

Can these three things be proven beyond doubt? No. Can they be disproved beyond doubt? No. All three of these things require some degree of belief (or affirmation) in things that cannot be proven scientifically - that is, there is not "certainty" about these things. Ultimately, though, in my opinion, affirming these three things is central to being a Christian (i.e. these are central Christian convictions). And to hold these convictions requires faith.

I noted earlier that the understanding of “faith” as a set of beliefs is a fairly recent development (i.e. within the last few hundred years). Prior to that time, faith was more a matter of the heart than the head. Two developments led to this change in understanding of faith – the Protestant Reformation (with its focus on beliefs) and the Enlightenment (the birth of modern science and the emphasis on verifiable factuality as being the sole basis of truth).

In Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity (1), he describes four meanings of the word faith from Christian history, three of which are heart-focused and one of which is head-focused (sort of). In highly summarized form, Borg describes the four meanings as follows:
  • Faith as Assensus (this Latin word is closest to the English word “assent”) which is faith as belief – giving one’s mental assent to a proposition. However, it should be noted that, prior to the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, faith as assensus was quite different than today. Before mankind developed such substantial knowledge about so many things, it was more or less effortless to believe in things like the Bible, as there was nothing else to consider as possible alternative truth.
  • Faith as Fiducia (this Latin word is closest to the English word “trust”) refers to radical trust in God (not trust in a set of statements about God, but trust in God himself). The opposite of fiducia would be anxiety or worry. Faith, when viewed as radical trust, has great transforming power.
  • Faith as Fidelitas (this Latin word is closest to the English word “fidelity”) refers to faithfulness to our relationship with God. That is, loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the heart – a radical centering in God. How do you do this? By paying attention to the relationship and by loving what God loves (e.g. compassion and justice).
  • Faith as Visio (this Latin word is closest to the English word “vision”) refers to faith as a way of seeing. That is, the way we see “the whole”…the way we see “what is”. We can see “the whole” as hostile and threatening (i.e. death will get us) which results in a defensive response to life. Or we could see “what is” in an indifferent manner (i.e. the universe is indifferent to mankind – this is the most common modern secular viewpoint). This view usually results in a concern primarily for ourselves and those who are most important to us. The third way to see “the whole” is to view it as life-giving and nourishing. “What is” is filled with wonder and beauty, even if sometimes a terrible beauty. This way of seeing the whole leads to radical trust, and generates a willingness to spend and be spent for the sake of a vision that goes beyond ourselves (i.e. the kind of life we see illustrated in Jesus’ life).

Martin Luther is likely as responsible as anyone for “faith” being central to the Christian vocabulary. But what form of “faith” was Luther’s? Not primarily assensus. “After entering a monastery after being struck by lightning, he went through a decade of agonized terror and ascetic self-denial, seeking to be righteous enough for God. During these years, he had assensus aplenty – and it terrified him. Perhaps because he believed “all of it”, he was filled with fear and anxiety. His transformation occurred through an experience of radical grace that transformed how he saw (visio), led him to see that faith was about trusting God (fiducia), and led him to a life of faithfulness (fidelitas) to God. For Luther, saving faith was not assensus. It was about visio, fiducia and fidelitas.” (1)



(1) Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pay Dirt: Interview with Karen Armstrong

From an interview with Karen Armstrong on CBC's radio show Tapestry on February 19, 2006:

"Lots of the time we are worried about religion. We're thinking about trancendance, going beyond, and what we are trancending to...what is the nature of God, Jesus, and so on. But really it is about what you are transcending from, but what you are going away from which is ego, greed. And once you've lost ego and greed, you should find that you've lost a lot of fear."

"What our world needs now is not more certainty. We've seen too much certainty - political and religious certainty - recently. What we need is compassion to be able to feel with the other."

"I had a very parochial religious upbringing...I was raised Catholic and that was it...I actually didn't even know much about Protestants for heavens sake. And actually this discovery of other religions - Judaism, Islam, Greek and Russian Orthodox and finally Buddhism - showed me what religion could be. It showed me what my own tradition had been trying to do at its best. And then I could reassess my own tradition more kindly and see much more about it than I had been aware of, despite my intensely religious childhood and youth."

Friday, October 13, 2006

Pay Dirt: The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot

In responding to a recent comment on one of my blog entries, I found myself referring to the fact that throughout time (including today), there have been many varied beliefs within Christianity.

Along that line of thinking, I found myself in my local book store tonight flipping through a new book by Bart Ehrman (those who have read my earlier blog entries may recall me referencing one of his previous books, Misquoting Jesus). Ehrman's new book is called The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. Now I haven't read much on the many other gospels (e.g. Thomas, Peter, Judas) or other gnostic writings that have been found in recent centuries, so I sat down and perused Ehrman's book.

What I found was fascinating. I read a gospel written around the second century which purports to describe Judas Iscariot's experience with Jesus. This is one of the gospels declared heretical by Bishop Irenaeus around A.D. 180 in his treatise Against Heresies. It's quite obvious that this gospel isn't like Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, which Irenaeus declared worthy of Biblical status. This gospel includes a description of creation involving a "god" which is many hierarchies below the "ultimate devine"; this creator "god" was the one who created humanity; and part of Jesus' teaching to Judas was that worship of this creator "god" was pointless and that when some humans die, they will have their spirits released to dwell with the "real" God; so the rationale behind Judas betraying Jesus was to let Jesus' spirit go free to dwell with the "real" God...well, something like that anyway.

Now the point of this entry isn't to talk about the validity of this gospel (since I think it - along with the Bible and other texts - says more about the author writing the text and his perspective or "take" on things than anything else). My point here is just to highlight that (especially) in the early centuries of Christianity, there were many VERY DIFFERENT points of view about Christianity. It just so happens that the Rome-based version of Christianity won out at the end of the day (yes, that's how we get to Roman Catholic Christianity), largely due to the wealth and power-base within Rome, no doubt. And that's why we see a more streamlined view of what Christianity is today (although there are still many differing viewpoints within Christianity today) .

So when people talk about today's Christianity (or their version/denomination within Christianity) as being the single truth, I think this is too simplistic a view. There have been, and continue to be, many different beliefs (within Christianity, and obviously between religions). To state that the one set of beliefs that you happen to have been taught is most certainly the correct one would be a somewhat naive belief in itself, in my opinion. This isn't to say that you can't find some truth in the beliefs you have been taught, but I think our real challenge is moreso to determine how to leverage our beliefs to truly experience "the sacred" and undergo a personal transformation...not to be fundamentalist about the correctness of our beliefs and our certainty of their being the single truth.

In any event, for more on the gospel of Judas, its discovery, pictures, expert views, and more, see this National Geographic website.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Way

Okay, so I grew up with a "Jesus is the only way" understanding in terms of the path to God. That's it. No compromise, no if's, and's or but's...Jesus is the way. Take it or leave it. Any other way is the wrong way.

Interesting! What were we thinking (or not)??? The whole notion that God has decided to be known through only one religion is somewhat strange in itself, when one thinks about it. But, fortunately, we (in my case, the Christians) were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to be taught that one way. What about all the others throughout the world who were brought up Hindu or Buddhist or another major religion? Well, too bad for them, right?

Here's an interesting scenario to think through. If you were brought up Christian, think about your experience of coming to know about Christianity. It was more than likely taught to you as truth and you accepted it as such. And did you believe the other religions were also the truth? If you are like many, probably not. But what if you happened to be born on a different continent and were brought up as a Buddhist? Do you think it would have been taught to you as truth and you would have accepted it? Would you believe that other religions were the truth? Similarly, probably not.

And depending on your religious upbringing, it might get even more complicated (or convoluted). I'll stick with Christianity (since that's my background). If you were born a Protestant Christian, you likely thought that the Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians also had it "wrong" to some degree. Not as bad as those from other religions than Christianity, but somewhat wrong nonetheless. And let's say you were raised Pentecostal (or United or Anglican, etc.), you probabaly thought that those other Protestant denominations had it slightly wrong as well. Again, not as bad as the Roman Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on, but still, they didn't have it all right like your denomination did.

Hmmm...isn't that convenient. You just happened to be raised up and taught the exact right teachings about the one pathway to God. Whew!!! What luck...otherwise, you'd be finished. What's that? Your one slice of the religious pie is just a small proportion of the overall religious landscape? Well, again, all the more lucky for you right?

Okay, you get my point. So what do I believe about pathways to God?

(1) The enduring world religions are mediators of the absolute (the sacred) but, like Christianity, are not absolute in themselves.

(2) Christianity, as one of the world's great religious traditions (and my personal religion), is my pathway to God.

By extension, though, this doesn't make each religion the same. Marcus Borg notes the following similarities in his book The Heart of Christianity (1):
  • They all affirm "the more", "the sacred", etc.
  • They all affirm a path of transformation of the self.
  • They all provide practical means for undertaking "the path" or "the way" of transformation.
  • They extol compassion as a primary ethical value of life.
  • They contain a collection of beliefs and teachings.

It is often the last point noted above where the religions are most different - in their specific stories and beliefs, largely driven by the cultures and histories that shaped them.

As a Christian, than, how do we deal with the exclusive language often referenced by fellow Christians? The most famous 'exclusive' reference is "I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). A few thoughts on this:

  • This verse is found in John - the last gospel to be written. This "I am" language isn't found in the other gospels, and is thought by many to be more of an interpretation of the early Christian community than the words of Jesus.
  • What is "the way" being referred to? The way is the path of death and resurrection - dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity...a personal transformation. "The way" is not a set of beliefs about Jesus..."as if one enters into new life by believing certain things to be true or as if only those who know the word "Jesus" can be saved. Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables." (1) Rather, for us, as Christians, "the way" is represented in Jesus - Jesus is "the way" for us...even though not the only expression of the way.
  • This verse should be seen as being written in the language of devotion. As Christians, Jesus is our "way". As such, written as it is, it represents the language of devotion of the early Christian community. It doesn't have to be interpreted as exclusive language.
  • Finally, the historical setting within which this verse was written was "a situation of bitter conflict in which John's community of Christian Jews was experiencing sharp social ostracism from non-Christian Jews. As a result, some of John's community would have been tempted to return to their community of origin. So when John wrote these words, he was thinking not of all the religions of the world, but of the synagogue across the street. He was saying, in effect, 'Stay within the community of Jesus. Don't go back to the way you left behind. Jesus is the way; that way isn't.' " (2)

So in summary, for us, as Christians:

(3) Jesus is "the way". He is the disclosure of what a life full of God looks like. This is who Jesus is for us...and we can say this without saying that God is known only in Jesus.



(1) Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

(2) Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).

Friday, October 06, 2006

Pay Dirt: Interview with Marcus Borg

I came across a series of clips from an interview with Marcus Borg. Very interesting.

Watch the clips here

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Jesus…“My God”, man!

First, let me explain my title. A few years back, a pastor at the church I attended did a series on Jesus. The sermon titles were things like “Jesus, my shepherd”, “Jesus, my healer”, and so on. Our collective favorite title (it still makes me smile now) was “Jesus, my God-man”. It amused us only because a common exclamation we used was “My god, man…” (as in “My god, man, what were you thinking to stick that fork in the electrical outlet?”). So this blog entry is done in fond memory of that pastor…although, he’d likely be rolling in his grave if he read this blog.

Now onto the heart of this blog entry…who is this Jesus we speak about? Was he real and how do we know about him? What was his mission and message, and why was he killed? Was he born of a virgin? Was he raised from the dead? Was (is) he divine - the messiah?

I need to preface this blog entry by giving credit to Marcus Borg (I borrow from his writings a lot in this blog entry). While I have now read a fair collection of writings about Jesus, Borg’s thoughts do sit right with me. I take snippets from others such as John Shelby Spong and N. T. Wright, but their ‘takes’ don't fulfill my thinking as much as Borg’s does. I’ll also say at this point, that I anticipate some will like this blog entry, and some won’t…claiming it is, in places, to wishy washy. My response? So be it. One of the things that is clearer to me today than ever before is that too much certainty can be misleading. So am I certain about what I write here? As certain as I can be…but I recognize and admit that I can’t prove what I write either. Nor, however, can potential critics disprove it. With that out of the way…let’s proceed.

Let’s start with the basics. Was Jesus real? That is, was there ever a historical Jesus? I’m not going to dwell on this question much since even most of the very skeptical Jesus scholars don’t try to argue that Jesus never existed. They may argue about many other things about him, but there is enough evidence (including Biblical writings and other writings about Jesus – such as Josephus) to suggest he did exist that to argue otherwise requires a high degree of skepticism and perhaps a good ‘conspiracy theory’ mind. As with a lot of historical figures, we don’t have the video evidence that we’re used to in today’s age…but we don’t question whether they existed. And I’d add one more thing to think about when discussing this topic…if Jesus didn’t exist, Christianity is a much more incredible phenomenon than ever, isn’t it?

So how do we know about Jesus. Primarily through the gospels in the New Testament. It is important to understand that the gospels were written between 40 and 70 years after Jesus’ death. So some of the material in the gospels goes back to Jesus, and some is as a result of the tradition that developed around Jesus after his death. It is also interesting to note that most biblical scholars believe that none of the gospels were written by any of the 12 disciples of Jesus. With that context, the gospels should be read as the product of a developing tradition. That is, they are a mix of “history remembered and history metaphorized” (1) – so some of the content is history remembered (or material as passed along by eyewitnesses) and some is metaphorical narrative that evolved as the traditions surrounding Jesus evolved in the decades between his death and the writing of the gospels. This is important for many today since much of what they read in the Bible can’t be believed literally. As I noted in an earlier blog though, it is important to remember that a metaphorical narrative doesn’t have to be literally true for it to still speak the truth. On top of that, a metaphorical reading often leads to a richer meaning than a purely literal reading.

In terms of how to think about Jesus, I like Borg’s dual view of the “pre-Easter Jesus and post-Easter Jesus” (1). The pre-Easter Jesus is the historical Jesus…that is, Jesus before his death. The post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death…that is, “the Jesus of Christian experience and tradition” (1). In terms of the pre-Easter Jesus, Borg describes Jesus in five ways (the following is a paraphrased and shortened extract from Borg’s The Heart of Christianity (1) on this topic):

  1. He was a Jewish mystic. Mystics are people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God. Found in every culture known to us, they are also central to the Jewish tradition (e.g. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Elisha and the classical prophets, Paul, Peter, etc.). Whatever else needs to be said about Jesus, he was one of these. According to the gospels, he had visions, fasted, spent long hours in prayer, spoke of God in intimate terms, and taught the immediacy of access to God – something mystics know in their own experience. As a Jewish mystic, Jesus lived a life radically centered in God. His life was so fully lived that this is clear.
  2. He was a healer. Even nonreligious scholars agree that Jesus performed paranormal healings and what he and his contemporaries experienced as exorcisms. More healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in the Jewish tradition. He must have been a remarkable healer. Or at least the experience people had with Jesus caused them to associate that type of power with the one whom they experienced.
  3. He was a wisdom teacher. Teachers of wisdom teach a way, a path, of life. The “narrow way” of which Jesus spoke led beyond the “broad way” of convention and tradition. At the heart of the alternative wisdom of Jesus was the path of death and resurrection understood as a metaphor for an internal psychological-spiritual process. The new identity and new way of being was a life radically centered in God, in the Spirit of God Jesus knew in his own experience. He was not constrained by the religious dogma of the day...he was focused on wisdom beyond that...wisdom related to a way to live life fully, love completely and to fully be.
  4. He was a social prophet. Social prophets were God-intoxicated voices of religious social protest against the economic and political injustice of the domination systems of their day. Jesus was a prophet of the Kingdom of God – of what life would be like on earth if God were king and the kings and emperors of the world were not. As such, he was a radical critic of the domination system of his time that channeled wealth to the few and poverty to the many.
  5. He was a movement initiator. A movement came into existence around him. Remarkably inclusive, it subverted the sharp social boundaries of his day.

But the pre-Easter Jesus was killed…executed actually. Why? Likely because of his social protest and the movement that was building around him. If he was only a mystic, a healer and wisdom teacher, he likely wouldn’t have been targeted. In summary, he was killed “because of his politics and his passion for God’s justice” (1). With that perspective, it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus saw his life purpose as “dying for our sins”. When you think about the concept, it’s a little strange anyway. Why would an almighty God be so limited in his power to forgive that he would have to send his son to die (not to mention that this requires thinking about God as "out there")?

In fact, the whole question of messianic consciousness has always intrigued me about Jesus…even before I embarked on this prospecting journey. I was always intrigued by the fact that in many places within the gospels, Jesus doesn't come out and state that he is the messiah when asked. In fact, if you look at the gospels, the self-claims of messiahship seem to develop throughout the tradition. If you look at Mark (the earliest gospel written…and a gospel which Matthew and Luke would have had as a reference when they wrote their books), when Jesus asks who people say he is, Peter says the messiah, but Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about him. In Matthew, this story “develops” in that Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God. And Jesus replies that Peter is blessed as Jesus’ Father in heaven has revealed this to him. A similar example can be seen when Jesus walked on water. In Mark, the story ended with the disciples confused, not believing and with hard hearts. In Matthew (remember, he would have had Mark’s gospel and written his afterwards), the story includes Peter coming to walk on the water as well and the story ending with the disciples worshiping Jesus and saying “You really are the Son of God”. Similarly, the gospel sayings that would suggest that Jesus thought of himself as the messiah (for example, the “I am” sayings of John) are seen by many scholars to represent the post-Easter Jesus tradition that built up around him and sought providential purpose in his death (as opposed to sayings that Jesus himself said). And as shocking as this suggestion may be to traditional Christians, when you think about it, does a messianic consciousness really matter? Whether Jesus thought of himself as the messiah or not, he still is the messiah for Christians (more on that later).

While we are on the metaphorical language about Jesus’ messiahship, I find it interesting that of all the metaphors used to describe Jesus (e.g. bread of life, true vine, light of the world, lamb of God, word of God, son of God), we have tended to literalize only one of them – son of God. We don’t have any problem seeing the other metaphors for what they are – that is, we don’t think Jesus is literally a vine, bread, lamb, etc. But we do literalize son of God – maybe because it is an easier metaphor to literalize. It is interesting that in Biblical times, the phrase son of God was used to describe many people/nations – nation of Israel, kings, Jewish mystics, and angels. It was seen to infer someone whose relationship to God was very intimate. So we should be cautious when we throw around the 'son of God' metaphor and just assume that we can literalize it.

Let’s move on to the topic of the virgin birth. I find it interesting how many people are truly tied to this as ‘required truth’. John Shelby Spong has an interesting discussion on this topic in one of his books. He talks about how the thinking of the day would have been that all genes would have come from the male. So the virgin birth was a good explanation of how Jesus was conceived as the son of God. However, when knowledge evolved to show that half the genes of a baby comes from the mother, the church had to revise their thinking on this topic and blend in the idea of an immaculate conception of Mary to preserve the purity of Jesus’ heritage. Based on my current understanding and thinking on this topic, I think the idea of a virgin birth is a metaphorical narrative that evolved as the tradition of Jesus developed following his death. If you look at Paul’s writings and Mark’s gospel (our earliest writings after Jesus’ death), they don’t mention the miraculous birth (a rather stunning thing to leave out don't you think?). As the tradition developed, both Matthew and Luke have added virgin birth stories to the Jesus tradition (note though that there are many differences between their birth stories – genealogy, home, birth visitors, Herod’s plot, use of the Hebrew Bible – which makes one think even more that these stories developed over time).

What about the resurrection stories of Jesus? Well, from what I can tell, something must have happened at Easter that had startling and enormous power. Whatever it was, it “reconstituted a scattered and demoralized band of disciples, it turned a denying Peter into a witnessing and martyred Peter, to turn disciples who fled into heroes willing to die for their Lord, it created a holy day” (3)…in fact, it resulted in the whole Christianity movement. So what exactly happened? Was Jesus physically resuscitated or were the resurrection experiences something other than encounters with a physical Jesus? Well I think there were encounters - yes, experiential realities involving Jesus! Based on the language used in the Bible, it would seem to me that the encounters were not with a physical body…they were more like visions or apparitions. Paul notes that he also saw Jesus…and his language was certainly vision-like. As well, in the resurrection stories, Jesus appears and disappears…not something that a physical body does. So what the encounters seem to have been were experiences of the power of Jesus’ spirit – similar to the experiences they would have had with Jesus when he was alive. But the important point is that it does seem that they did have these experiences – so the post-Easter Jesus is not just a tradition but also an experiential reality. “And Christians throughout the centuries have continued to experience Jesus as a living spiritual reality. Those experiences have taken a variety of forms, but at their heart, I believe they are realizations of what Jesus represented...a vision of God (not literally as a human who was inhabited by the divine; but as a human who so fully lived, loved and was, that this experience we have is as close to our ability to describe a God-experience as humans can manage. As a result of these experiences, the post-Easter Jesus “lives” and “is Lord” – the post-Easter Jesus was experienced as someone who was ‘one with God’. That is who Jesus is for us as Christians. Ultimately, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a revelation of “the way” – that is, an internal transformation which results in growth in love, life and being.

So in conclusion, is Jesus divine? Well, my answer is yes. The pre-Easter Jesus can be seen as an incarnation of God. His spirit seemed to be incredibly open to the presence of God (some refer to Jesus as having an extreme “emptiness of spirit” that allowed for a powerful experience of God’s presence). Those who experienced the pre-Easter Jesus did not experience an ordinary person. Spong alludes to Jesus as being an amazing example of how to live life fully and love completely. And the post-Easter Jesus is experienced as someone who is one with God – that is, Jesus is a view into God. I like the analogy of masks – God can be seen through different masks, one of which is Jesus. For Christians, the decisive mask for us is Jesus. He is our decisive revelation of God. And note that this does not require affirming that Jesus is the only adequate revelation of God. But Jesus shows us, as Christians, what a life full of God is like, and is our ultimate sacrament of God. Through Jesus, we see the heart of God.

So, in summary, here are my fundamental beliefs about Jesus:

(1) There was a real, historical Jesus.

(2) Our primary source about Jesus, the gospels, are the product of a developing tradition and include a mix of history remembered and history metaphorized.

(3) I like the dual view of a pre-Easter Jesus and a post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus is the historical Jesus…that is, Jesus before his death (Jewish mystic, healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet and movement initiator). The post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death…that is, the Jesus of Christian experience and tradition.

(4) Jesus was killed because of his social protest and the movement that was building around him, not because he was a mystic, healer and wisdom teacher. With that perspective, it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus saw his life purpose as “dying for our sins”.

(5) I do not think Jesus was born of a virgin. I think the idea of a virgin birth is a metaphorical narrative that evolved as the tradition of Jesus developed following his death.

(6) I believe that something must have happened at Easter, and it must have had startling and enormous power since it resulted in the whole Christianity movement. I think there were Easter encounters with Jesus (experiential realities involving Jesus) and Christians throughout the centuries have continued to experience Jesus as a living spiritual reality. As a result of these experiences, the post-Easter Jesus “lives” and “is Lord” (i.e. one with God) for us as Christians. Ultimately, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a revelation of “the way” – that is, an internal transformation which results in growth in love, life and being.

(7) For Christians, the decisive revelation of God is Jesus (note that this does not require affirming that Jesus is the only adequate revelation of God). Jesus shows us, as Christians, what a life full of God is like, and is our ultimate sacrament of God. As such, Jesus is divine.



(1) Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

(2) Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999).

(3) John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pay Dirt: Augustine Words of Wisdom

"God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere." - Augustine

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Pay Dirt: What is Spirituality?

What is Spirituality?

"Spirituality I define as becoming conscious of and intentional about our relationship to God. I say conscious of because I firmly maintain that we are all already in a relationship with God and we have been so since our very beginning, whether we know that or not, believe that or not. Spirituality is about becoming conscious of that relationship. I say intentional because I see spirituality as being about paying attention to that relationship, being intentional about deepening that relationship and letting that relationship grow. Just as human relationships grow and deepen through spending time in them and paying attention to them, so also our relationship with God grows in this same way."

--from the sermon "Jesus and the Christian Life" by Dr. Marcus J. Borg

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Pay Dirt: Religious Funnies

This is my inaugural "Pay Dirt" entry. In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the phrase "pay dirt" refers to "a useful or profitable discovery or venture". So I will use these "Pay Dirt" entries to capture interesting nuggets I come across.

Today's "Pay Dirt" entry contains a few religious funnies...

"When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me."
-Emo Philips, stand-up comedian

"I don’t believe in atheists."
-Neal Boortz

"When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself."
-Peter O’Toole

Bart: "What religion are you?"
Homer: "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work out in real life, uhh, Christianity."
-The Simpsons, "Homerpalooza"

"The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible."
- George Burns.

"Maybe there is no actual place called hell. Maybe hell is just having to listen to our grandparents breathe through their noses when they're eating sandwiches."
- Jim Carrey

"I admire the Pope. I have a lot of respect for anyone who can tour without an album."
- Rita Rudner

"Where would man be today if it wasn't for women? In the Garden of Eden eating water melon and taking it easy."
- C Kennedy

Friday, September 01, 2006

My ‘More Than’ God

The next stop on my prospecting journey deals with God. As a child, I had the “old man in the sky” image that many people have when they are asked to describe God. My God was a being “out there” who had created the universe. You would praise and pray to God, hoping your prayer would be heard and responded to. Yes, my God was an interventionalist God - well, when God decided to intervene. And when God “decided not to intervene”, we could rationalize this with a variety of reasons like: God is doing this for our growth, or there is a longer term benefit we don’t understand yet.

Why did I think about God this way? Well, first, that is what was “taught” in church. Secondly, since I saw the Bible as literal truth, the many Bible stories that would lead one to this model of God were clearly implanted in mind. Thirdly, I was pretty fortunate in life and was able to attribute at least some of that to the intervening of God to help out along the way. And finally, I didn’t spend much time thinking about or considering this topic.

As I have thought about God over the last few months, it has been surprising to me how difficult it is to describe God. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, I guess, since scholars throughout time have struggled with this very topic. So this blog entry may not do justice to a description of God, but for now, this is where I am at in describing my fundamental beliefs about God…

(1) God is ‘more than’ language can describe…but within that constraint, I like “isness without limits” as a description of God

  • Although this may seem like a bit of a cop out, I thought I should start with this belief. I think God is ‘more than’ humans can conceive of and describe. So human words and language can’t adequately describe God (having said that…I’ll still do what I can in this blog entry).
  • Paul Tillich, one of the most important Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, tries to describe “God” and uses phrases such as: “what is”, “ultimate reality”, “the ground of being”, “Being itself”, “isness”. I particularly like “isness”, but I would suggest God is more than just “isness”…I’ll get to that a little later.
  • Thomas Keating referred to God as “isness without limits” which I personally like as a description. (1)
  • In Exodus 3, the story speaks of a conversation between God and Moses and God describes himself as “I am who I am” interesting description for the author to use.

(2) God is ‘more than’ can be proven with evidence…but even without irrefutable evidence, I believe that God is real

  • Is God real? That’s the question asked throughout the ages. I can only say that my fundamental belief is that God is real. Having said that, I recognize that there is no single proof or piece of evidence that can be referenced to back up that belief beyond the shadow of a doubt. So for me, it’s just that…my belief.
  • So what has led me to that conclusion? Well, I’m sure that my Christian upbringing still has a huge impact on this. That is, I have always believed in a God. And there is no proof that there isn’t a God. And there are enough other factors that make we think that a belief in God is as rational and believable as a belief that there is no God. What factors you might ask? Well, the concept of “God” has been with humanity throughout history and throughout the religions around the world – this makes me think that these experiences point to something being there. Creation itself is so mind-blowing to me that I find it incomprehensible that there is nothing better to explain all of its mysteries and wonders than just matter and space. There seem to be a variety of “ecstatic” (i.e. out of oneself, or outside of one’s ordinary state of consciousness (2)) religious experiences (e.g. visions, shamanic experiences, mystical experiences, near-death experiences, and sometimes just a deep awareness of God’s presence) that seem to point to another layer of reality that leads me to believe there is a God. And it is clear that humanity continues to learn – that is, our scientific worldview is incomplete…we don’t know everything and can’t prove everything that explains all of life’s experience. Even “science” is finding out or understanding more all the time that there seems to point to the fact that there is more than just time and space to existence as we know it. So, in my opinion, we shouldn’t discount the concept of God merely due to a lack of scientific proof…this is too arrogant for my thinking.
(3) God is ‘more than’ just “right here”…God is an encompassing Spirit within which everything is, but God is also more than everything
  • There is a concept known as panentheism (Greek words: πάν ( 'pan' ) =all, en=in and Theos=God; "all-in-God") which views God as both immanent and transcendent.
  • As opposed to the “old man in the sky” concept of God, panentheism suggests that God is the encompassing Spirit in whom everything is…sort of like Tillich’s “ground of all being” and “isness”. This concept has been seen and talked about regularly in Christian circles (although not often referred to by this name). In Acts, God is referred to as the one in whom “we live, move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Psalms 139 says “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” So with this thinking, God is right here (not some distant supernatural being who just sits in heaven from afar and looks down on us).
  • But unlike pantheism, panentheism does not merely equate God with the universe. Instead it holds that there is more to God than just the universe itself. In Marcus Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity”, he uses the phrase “everything is in God, but God is more than everything” (1) to describe this thinking. More about this in the next belief.
(4) God is ‘more than’ just the source of love, life and being…God is also personal, relational and can be experienced
  • John Shelby Spong tries to describe the essence of God in his book “A New Christianity for a New World”. He uses a three-pronged description which I like as a starting point. He says that God is the ultimate source of life; God is the ultimate source of love; and God is Being – the reality underlying everything that is. Spong suggests that we worship God by living fully, by sharing deeply, by loving wastefully, and you must be willing to risk all, abandoning your defenses and your self-imposed or culturally constructed security systems (3)
  • And while I like the description as a starting point, there is something in his description that doesn’t resonate fully with me. I believe that God is more than a source or energy or force. I think Spong would agree, but it doesn’t jump off the page to me when I read his work. I think of God as more of a presence than just a source.
  • In that light, I see part of God’s essence as being personal and relational in nature, and I believe that we can interact with God. As an aside, I know many people don’t like the personal language we use to describe God. Personally, I think that I’m okay with personal language for God mainly because it is human nature to use this type of language to describe things (see belief #1 above on the inadequacy of language!). I would just caution against literalizing the personal sayings or it tends to distort who God really is.
  • As a personal and relational God, it follows that God can be experienced as an experiential reality. That is, God is experienced firsthand rather than a secondhand belief. Some people seem more open than others to experiencing the presence of God. “Some writers on spirituality speak of “emptiness” as a condition of the psyche that makes possible being filled by God. For whatever combination of reasons (genetic inheritance, socialization, spiritual practices, and so on)” some people are so “empty” that they can be more filled with the Spirit. (4) In my future blog entry on “Christian Routines”, I hope to return to this topic.
  • Through this experiencing of God, I think we interact with God and God with us. I don’t see God as interventionalist God – otherwise, there are too many unexplainable non-interventions for a God of love, justice and compassion that I believe God to be. Having said that, I don’t deny that there are some paranormal and supernatural happenings which can’t be explained. I don’t know if there is some link between these events and God, but I’m content not to be able to take a position on this one way or another at this point in time.
  • And while God may not intervene, he is a presence within our lives, and by interacting with God, we get to “know” God (not know about God, but experience God). On a side note, I recently noted that in John’s gospel, “eternal life” is defined as “to know God”…as opposed to an afterlife/heaven which is the typical interpretation of “eternal life” in John’s gospel (especially in the context of John 3:16).
Thus far in this blog entry, I have focused on God as a being and our relationship with God. Before ending this blog entry, I want to touch on God’s character. I won’t try to dive into these characteristics individually here, but I will address them further in future blog entries:

(5) The essence of God’s character is love, compassion, justice, and peace.

  • Through our relational experience with God, the goal is for a transformation at the deepest level of our being so that our lives emulate these characteristics.
Finally, I want to summarize two different models for imaging God which were outlined by Marcus Borg in “The God We Never Knew” (2). I found the models very enlightening in how different people image God, so I thought I would share them here. The two models are the monarchical image of God and the spirit image of God.
  • In the monarchical model, God is imaged as king, lawgiver and judge – a distant powerful being. The effect of this image is a “performance model” for Christian life. Sin and guilt are central to this model with a focus on required repentance and salvation from sin. As a result, the Christian life quickly becomes focused on “meeting requirements” or “measuring up” – the self is perpetually “on trial”.
  • In the spirit model, God is seen as near (as opposed to a distant king), personal and relational. The effect of this image includes creation looking different (it isn’t what God did to create the universe, but what is continuing to happen in terms of the relation between God and creation), the human condition looks different (humanity’s central problem is not sin but estrangement or blindness to the presence of God), and sin and salvation look different (sin isn’t “breaking rules” but more focused on unfaithfulness – that is, making something other than the Spirit central; and salvation isn’t about the future and after death, but focused on something that happens in the present in our relationship with God as Spirit).


(1) Thomas Keating remark referred to Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).
(2) Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).
(3) John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).
(4) Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999)