Monday, December 31, 2007

Pay Dirt: Top 2007 Religious News Stories

The 2007 Top Religion Stories as selected by Religion Newswriters are:

1. Evangelical voters ponder whether they will be able to support the eventual Republican candidate, as they did in 2004, because of questions about the leaders' faith and/or platform. Many say they would be reluctant to vote for Mormon Mitt Romney.
2. Leading Democratic presidential candidates make conscious efforts to woo faith-based voters after admitting failure to do so in 2004.
3. The role of gays and lesbians in clergy continues as a deeply dividing issue. An Episcopal Church promise to exercise restraint on gay issues fails to stem the number of congregations seeking to leave the mainline denomination, while in a close vote, Canadian Anglican bishops vote to nullify lay and clerical approval of same-sex blessings. Meanwhile, Conservative Jews become more open to gay leadership.
4. Global warming rises in importance among religious groups, with many Mainline leaders giving it high priority and evangelical leaders split over its importance compared to other social and moral causes
5. The question of what to do about illegal immigration is debated by religious leaders and groups on both sides of the issue. Some take an active role in supporting undocumented immigrants.
6. Thousands of Buddhist monks lead pro-democracy protest in Myanmar, which is brutally crushed after a week.
7. Some conservative U.S. Episcopalians realign with Anglican bishops in Africa and elsewhere in the global South, initiating legal disputes about church property ownership.
8. The Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote rules on the conservative side in three major cases with religious implications: upholding a ban on partial-birth abortions, allowing schools to establish some limits on students' free speech, and denying a challenge to the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.
9. Death takes evangelical leaders known, among other things, for their television work: Jerry Falwell, Rex Humbard, D. James Kennedy, plus Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, and Jim Bakker‚s ex-wife, Tammy Faye Messner. Other deaths include Gilbert Patterson, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, and Bible scholar Bruce Metzger.
10. The cost of priestly sex-abuse to the Roman Catholic Church in the United States surpasses $2.1 billion with a record $660 million settlement involving the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and earlier settlements this year totaling $100 million in Portland, Ore., and Spokane, Wash.

The survey polled active members of the Religion Newswriters. Of those polled, 80 people responded, for a 27% response rate. The poll was conducted via an electronic ballot from Dec. 7-13, 2007. Respondents were asked to select the top 10 from 20 choices.

Religion Newswriters is the world's only membership association for people who write about religion in the general circulation media. It is the leader in providing tools and training to help journalists write about religion with balance, accuracy and insight. The annual Top 10 survey has been conducted for more than 35 years.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Pay Dirt: Bishop Spong's Christmas Wisdom

The story of Christmas as told by the biblical evangelists has a meaning beyond the rational. It portrays a truth beyond the scientific; it points to a reality that no life touched by this Jesus could ever deny. The beauty of our Christmas story is bigger than literalization could ever produce. For when this Lord is known, when love, acceptance, and forgiveness are experienced, when we become whole, free and affirmed people, the heavens do sing, "Glory to God in the Highest," and on earth there is "Peace and Good Will among Us All."

- John Shelby Spong

Pay Dirt: The Magnificat

The Magnificat
Joy Cowley

My soul sings in gratitude.
I'm dancing in the mystery of God.
The light of the Holy One is within me
and I am blessed, so truly blessed.

This goes deeper than human thinking.
I am filled with awe
at Love whose only condition
is to be received.

The gift is not for the proud,
for they have no room for it.
The strong and self-sufficient ones
don't have this awareness.

But those who know their emptiness
can rejoice in Love's fullness.

It's the Love that we are made for,
the reason for our being.

It fills our inmost heart space
and brings to birth in us, the Holy One.

Merry Christmas to all!!


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Pay Dirt: The Human Perception of God

Larry J. Kluth from Mesa, Arizona, writes: Where was the Christian God before he appeared to Moses and declared that the Israelis were his chosen people? Why didn't the great civilizations of the world, prior to this appearance, know about this God?


Dear Larry,

I'm tempted to follow the old adage attributed to Augustine of Hippo, who, when asked what was God doing before he created the world, responded, "God was creating hell for people who ask questions like that." I shall, however, avoid that temptation.

The Christian God, as you describe this deity, did not appear to Moses. That would be the God of the Jews. The idea that any people are God's specially chosen is a tribal idea that is shared by all tribal entities. We tend to associate that idea with the Jews because Christians have incorporated the Jewish God into the Christian story by proclaiming that we have encountered this God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses in a new way in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

However, it is not God who is ever changing. It is the human perception of God. Of course, God was present among the ancient people of the world. God was called by different names, endowed with different qualities and understood in different ways. Some of these aspects of God are seen as immoral by people living today, such as child sacrifice, the purging of anyone who thought outside the box and the divine blessing of violence.

The human God consciousness is always growing. This is true even in the Judeo-Christian faith story. There is an enormous difference between the God of Moses, who was perceived as sending plagues on Israel's enemies, the Egyptians, the last of which was the murder of the firstborn son in every Egyptian household; the God of Joshua, who was perceived as stopping the sun in the sky to facilitate the slaughter of the Ammonites by Joshua's army; or the God of Samuel, who ordered King Saul to commit genocide on the Amalekites; when that God is compared to the God of Jesus, who said, "Love your enemies."

Please remember that while the experience of God may be a universal experience, the explanation of the God experience is always a human creation shaped by the perceptions of people living in history. Every God explanation, every sacred text and every creedal formula is always time bound and time warped. That is why literalizing religious formulas is so destructive. It is literalized formulas that cause us to believe our limited view of God is the same as God. Out of that view come questions like yours that reveal the absurdity of so many popular religious claims and therefore I thank you for your question.

- John Shelby Spong

Friday, November 23, 2007

Pay Dirt: Pentecostal threats

Cardinals discuss Pentecostal threats
By Nicole Winfield, Associated Press Writer

VATICAN CITY - The Roman Catholic Church must figure out what it is doing wrong in the battle for souls, because so many Catholics are leaving the church to join Pentecostal and other evangelical movements, a top Vatican cardinal said Friday.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Vatican's office for relations with other Christians, told a meeting of the world's cardinals that the church must undergo a "self-critical pastoral examination of conscience" to confront the "exponential" rise of Pentecostal movements.

"We shouldn't begin by asking ourselves what is wrong with the Pentecostals, but what our own pastoral shortcomings are," Kasper told the gathering, noting that such evangelical and charismatic groups count 400 million faithful around the world.

The Vatican has been increasingly lamenting the rise of Protestant evangelical communities, which it describes as "sects," in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, and the resulting flight of Catholics. In Brazil alone, Roman Catholics used to account for about 90 percent of the population in the 1960s; by 2005, it was down to 67 percent.

Kasper's comments came on the eve of Saturday's ceremony to elevate 23 new cardinals. As he did during his first consistory in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI asked the world's cardinals to come to Rome early for a meeting to discuss church concerns.

This year, Kasper briefed the cardinals on relations with other Christians, focusing on the church's relations with the Orthodox, Protestants and Pentecostal movements.

Kasper said the rise of independent, often "aggressive" evangelical movements in Africa and elsewhere had complicated the church's ecumenical task. Nevertheless, Kasper told reporters that "ecumenism is not an option but an obligation."

Kasper opened his remarks by updating the cardinals and cardinal-designates on an important new document approved by a Vatican-Orthodox theological commission that has been working to heal the 1,000-year schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

In the document, Catholic and Orthodox representatives both agreed that the pope has primacy over all bishops — although they disagreed over just what authority that primacy gives him.
The development is significant since the Great Schism of 1054 — which split the Catholic and Orthodox churches — was precipitated largely by disagreements over the primacy of the pope.
Kasper told the cardinals that the document was an "important turning point," since it marked the first time that Orthodox churches had agreed there is a universal level of the church, that it has a primate, and that according to ancient church practice, that primate is the bishop of Rome — the pope.

Kasper said that the Vatican's relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, had become "significantly smoother" in recent years.

"We can say there's no longer a freeze but a thaw," Kasper said.

Tensions between the two churches have been strained over Orthodox accusations that the Vatican is seeking converts on traditionally Orthodox territories, particularly in eastern Europe — charges that Rome denies.

The rift has precluded a meeting between a pope and Patriarch Alexy II, long sought by Pope John Paul II and pursued by Benedict.

Kasper noted that Moscow had "never categorically excluded" such an encounter.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Pay Dirt: God in Creation?

Well, I just returned from a safari in South Africa. It was a very cool experience. And I must say that seeing nature in its finest really makes one reflect about whether all of 'this' could really just be the result of random luck.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not questioning the validity of evolution or that the earth is billions of years old or anything like that. I'm also not suggesting that God intervened periodically to 'create' a new species.

But what I am raising is utter awe about the beauty and complexity of the planet we find ourselves on. I found it so inspiring that it pushes me to believe that all of 'this' was started by God who somehow set all of 'this' in motion and shaped the evolutionary path to allow us to continue to evolve and produce some of the most amazing beauty imaginable.

On the safari, I saw everything from the most beautiful, peaceful scenes to the raw, ugliness of animal carnage. Here are a few examples of what I saw:


Tall beauties...

Brutalities of nature...

Prehistoric wonders...

Living pieces of art...

Overall, a very cool experience! And one that makes me appreciate the wonders of nature all the more!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Pay Dirt: Why Are You Still a "Christian"?

Renee from the Internet writes: I was a Christian once - for about 18 years, or most of my adult life. But then I read the Bible honestly and realized it was mostly evil. I am now Pagan/Hindu and will never be a Christian again. I know you agree that there is much evil in the Bible. You even reject basic Christian doctrines like being born in sin, the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus' blood for those who believe and heaven and hell. How then are you still a Christian? The depiction of Satan in the Bible is far better that the depiction of God. If the Bible reflects God in any way truly, then he is a monster and Satan is a hero for rebelling. Don't you agree? So, why are you still a Christian?

John Shelby Spong responds: Dear Renee, no, I do not agree. Of course, there are parts of the Bible that reflect tribal hatred and portray God as a vindictive ogre. I point them out constantly in this column and in my books. However, that fact does not render the core message of the Bible to be either wrong or irrelevant. The Bible defines God as love in the book of Hosea. The Bible defines God as justice in the book of Amos. The Bible asserts that proper liturgy is not God's desire but proper lives that "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God" are. That is the message of Micah. The Bible stretches the tribal deity of its own limited past into a universal presence in the book of Malachi. The Bible enjoins us to rise to ever new levels of humanity in Jesus' exhortations to love your enemies and to bless those who persecute you. So I study the Bible daily and treasure it as a resource.

In three quick sets of statements, I cherish the Bible because
- It affirms that my life is holy and that all of us were created in God's image.
- It proclaims that I am loved no matter what I do or who I am.
- It calls me to be all that I can be.

Please note the Trinitarian formula, for that is what I mean when I acknowledge God as Father (creator), Son (fully loving life), and Holy Spirit (life giver).

I do not worship the Bible. I do not regard it as the inerrant word of God. I know its content far too well for that to be a possibility. I accept the Bible for what it is, the chronicle of a faith story that grows as people journey through time, seeking to understand their God experience.

The things you call basic Christian doctrines like "being born in sin" or the "vicarious sacrifice of Jesus' blood for those who believe" and "heaven and hell" are not basic Christian doctrines to me at all. They are various theories developed by a behavior-controlling religious institution designated to frighten people or to make them pliable. There is no sense of hell in Paul, for example, and the vicarious sacrifice as the interpretation of the cross appears not to be something that Jesus taught but the message of the Jewish Day of Atonement being literalized and applied to Jesus by a later generation of Christians. Only then did Jesus become the new sacrificed Lamb of God. I have no desire to worship a God who requires the death of Jesus as the means of achieving salvation. Sadism is hardly a Godlike attribute, neither is the victim's masochistic pleasure in being crucified. That idea of salvation is simply not consistent with the message of the Fourth Gospel that the purpose of Jesus was to give life abundantly.

So I suggest that the Christianity you reject is not Christianity at all, but a terrible distortion that we all need to reject. Christianity, as I understand it, is far more than that. I hope you will find someday a church that does not distort Christianity, as your present experience seems to indicate.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Eightfold Path

This is my second entry on Buddhism...this one covers "the eightfold path", which is where I left off my last Buddhism entry. To recap, in the four noble truths, Buddha started with the symptom (life is out of joint), followed with the diagnosis (our drive for private fulfillment is causing life to be out of joint), and then with the prognosis (we can cure this disease by overcoming the egoistic drive for separate existence). His last noble truth was the prescription...the eightfold path.

The eight steps in the path are preceded by one that he doesn't include in his list, but refers to so often elsewhere that is was likely a presupposition here: right association - that is, we should associate ourselves with people that will help us attain illumination (truth-winners) and converse with them, serve them, observe their ways, and imbibe by osmosis their spirit of love and compassion. With that preliminary step in place, here are the eight steps proper:

1: Right views - life needs a map the mind can trust if we are to deploy our energies in the right direction; we need to know what life's problem basically is. As such, right views consist of the four noble truths (I know, a little circular, but I didn't come up with these!).

2: Right intent - this involves making up our hearts as to what we really want...people who achieve greatness are almost invariably passionately invested in some one thing.

3: Right speech - this involves becoming aware of our speech and what it reveals about our character. Instead of resolving to speak nothing but the truth, it is likely more realistic to start by trying to notice how many times per day we deviate from the truth and follow-up by asking why we did so. Similarly with uncharitable speech. Once we do this, we can move on to try to attempt changes in our speech. First toward veracity (habitual observance of truth in speech or statement) and second toward charity.

4: Right conduct - again, we should start by trying to understand our behaviour before trying to improve it...reflect on our actions with an eye to the motives that prompted them. Then move our conduct to selflessness and charity.

5: Right livelihood - if we are intent on liberation, we should engage in occupations that promote life instead of destroying it...occupations that were conducive to spiritual progress as opposed to ones that would impede it.

Note that the third, fourth and fifth steps can be grouped under the heading of morality - with Buddha making it clear that moral ineptitude risks not the wrath of a deity, but the retardation of one's own inner development.

6: Right effort - Buddha laid tremendous stress on the will...reaching the goal requires immense exertion - there are virtues to be developed, passions to be curbed, and destructive mind states to be expunged so compassion and detachment can have a chance. "Those who follow the way" says Buddha, "might well follow the example of an ox that marches through the deep mire carrying a heavy load. He is tired, but his steady gaze, looking forward, will never relax until he comes out of the mire, and it is only then he rests." A low level of volition for this goal won't do. Buddha added some thoughts on timing and balance, having more confidence in an approach involving a steady pull rather than in quick spurts.

The last two steps represent the most distinctive aspects of Buddha's teaching - namely the pivotal importance of meditation (or mental development, or mental cultivation). This involves two things which are described in the last two steps.

7: Right mindfulness - "All that we are is the result of what we have thought. Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." Right mindfulness aims at witnessing all mental and physical events, including our emotions, without reacting to them, neither condemning some nor holding on to others. Through right mindful practice, we begin to see that every mental and physical state is in flux, and habitual clinging to these states is at the root of much of life's problems. We also see that we have little control over our mental states and our physical sensations, and normally little awareness of our reactions. Most important, we begin to realize that there is nobody behind the mental or physical events, orchestrating them. It becomes apparent that consciousness itself is not the light from a light bulb, the on/off is so rapid that consciousness seems to be steady, whereas in fact it is not. With these insights, the belief in a separate self-existent self begins to dissolve and freedom to dawn.

8: Right concentration - while the eighth step, in many ways it comes before the seventh because to undertake mindfulness exercises effectively, one must first learn to focus on'e mind. Buddhism counsels patient, persistent attempts at sustaining one's full attention on a single point, a common one being simply one's breathing. Initial attempts are inevitably shredded by distractions; slowly, however, attention becomes sharper, more stable, more sustained.

It should be noted that concentration does not end when mindfulness begins; in fact, they are mutually reinforcing.

Note: the above was extracted from Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pay Dirt: Why Worship?

From John Shelby Spong's weekly email Q&A:

Chris from Central Texas writes: I attended your recent lectures in Austin and realize I forgot to ask you a question that has been increasingly on my mind: How does the concept of "worship" figure into your vision of a new Christianity? For a long time I have felt that God doesn't need my worship or praise, and to think that God does need my worship and adoration seems silly. (I think that "worship" and "adoration" are different from feeling a sense of gratitude and connection to God.) My church has been having some serious discussions regarding worship changes and I've heard some folks say that worship shouldn't be about us — it's simply about praising God. Well, I think that worship is very much about me and about the other worshipers as well — it's about drawing us closer to God, about the community called the church, about inspiring us to care for others, etc. Creeds that I can't say, prayers of confession that beat people up, hymns focused on atonement messages, and an emphasis on liturgy and ritual over spirituality only impede my relationship to God. Am I just spoiled and self-centered to want a more meaningful and more relevant worship experience?

Spong's reply: Dear Chris, yours is a perennial question. I cannot imagine a God who "needs" worship, or a God who has some innate need to be flattered by the human praise that is so often the content of worship. Listen to the words of such hymns as "How Great Thou Art" and "Almighty, Invisible God Only Wise."

Worship is always a human activity that meets a human need. Whenever one engages in worship, it is not for the purpose of working on God but on the human being who is worshiping. Worship is designed to enhance our humanity: to increase our capacity to live, our ability to love and our courage to be all that God created us to be. If worship makes us "religious" or "righteous" or turns us into being intolerant "true believers," then it has become nothing more than an act of idolatry.

Worship in most of our churches today is a mixed blessing. It is frequently the result not of careful study and critical planning, but of rote and tradition. Much of it is designed to keep us childlike and immature and to make a virtue out of chronic dependency. One of the reasons churches exhort its people to be "born again" is that this will postpone forever the necessity of their growing up.

Worship at its heart is the practice of becoming aware of the presence of God so that we become more deeply and fully human. I judge every worship experience in which I participate by that definition.

- John Shelby Spong

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pay Dirt: Literalism or Myth?

"Augustus came from a miraculous conception by the divine and human conjunction of [the God] Apollo and [his mother] Atia. How does the historian respond to that story? Are there any who take it literally?... That divergence raises an ethical problem for me. Either all such divine conceptions, from Alexander to Augustus and from the Christ to the Buddha, should be accepted literally and miraculously or all of them should be accepted metaphorically and theologically. It is not morally acceptable to say directly and openly that our story is truth but yours is myth; ours is history but yours is a lie. It is even less morally acceptable to say that indirectly and covertly by manufacturing defensive or protective strategies that apply only to one's own story. "

- John Crosssan, The Birth of Christianity, 1998, pg 28 - 29.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Pay Dirt: Harry Potter Quote

I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling...the last of the Harry Potter series. Towards the end of the book, there is a scene where Harry is talking with Dumbledore (who is dead)...Harry isn't sure if he himself is also dead (and in some form of the afterlife) or if this whole scene is some kind of dream he is having. The last interchange between Harry and Dumbledore really struck me...especially the last quote by Dumbledore:

"Tell me one last thing," said Harry. "Is this real?" Or has this been happening inside my head?"

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry's ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

I found this very interesting when thought about from a religious experience perspective. We often say that the religious experiences people claim to have are "just in their heads". Interesting to consider the question "why on earth should that mean that it is not real?". Maybe in our heads is where we experience God???

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pay Dirt: D'Oh! Top Ten (Plus One) Religious Episodes on 'The Simpsons'


D'Oh! Top Ten (Plus One) Religious Episodes on 'The Simpsons'
By Mark I. Pinsky

Bart Simpson once asked his father about the family's religious identity. Homer classically replied, "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity." In 18 seasons of "The Simpsons," nearly 20 episodes of the award-winning animated series have focused almost exclusively on faith, religion, and spirituality, while similar subplots, jokes, and images are scattered throughout 150 other episodes.With "The Simpsons Movie" opening on July 27th (and rumored to explore more irreverent faith-focused storylines), the time is ripe for a list of the top ten (plus 1) episodes dealing with religion. It wasn't easy, but as a repeat viewer and a student of the show, here is my list. Whether you're a die-hard Homer fan, a subscriber to the Ned Flanders school of faith, or even an Apu enthusiast, there's something in this gallery for you.

Homer the Heretic (Christianity) - Oct. 8, 1992
Hapless Homer, a borderline pagan whose faith is largely fear-based, decides that attending church every Sunday is a bad idea. Mostly, he is just lazy. But at one point he uses a theological argument with his despairing wife, Marge, that demolishes the notion of "one true faith." Homer has a great time staying at home while his church-going family suffers for their piety. Then God comes to Homer in a dream, and they work things out. Classic "Simpsons" line: "What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we're just making God madder and madder!" --Homer Simpson

Like Father, Like Clown (Judaism) - Oct. 24, 1991
Written with the help of three rabbis, this episode about Jewish identity dramatizes the debate between tradition and modernity--with a little help from the movie "The Jazz Singer." In the episode, Krusty the Clown is revealed to be a conflicted Jew who wants to reconcile with his faith and his estranged father, who, it turns out, is a rabbi. The show also draws on the early life and career of comedian Jackie Mason, who plays Krusty's dad. This episode should be watched with its sequel, "Today I am a Clown," Dec. 7, 2003, which deals with Krusty's adult bar mitzvah. Classic "Simpsons" line: "Mel Brooks is Jewish!?!" --Homer Simpson, after Lisa lists the many Jews in show business

She of Little Faith (Buddhism) - Dec. 16, 2001
Lisa, for many seasons the exemplar of socially-conscious mainline Protestantism, gives up on Christianity when Springfield Community Church goes commercial and seeker-crazy. After some theological wandering, she decides to become a Buddhist, with the help of Richard Gere. At one point the actor tells Lisa that Buddhism is about harmony, so in order to keep her family happy she can still observe Christmas with them. Still, even Gere becomes exasperated at Homer's co-worker Lenny, a Buddhist who doesn't know who Buddha is. Classic "Simpsons" line: "It's a good thing Buddha teaches freedom from desire, because I've got the desire to kick your ass." --Richard Gere

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star (Catholicism) - May 15, 2005
Thrown out of public school (again), bratty son Bart is sent to Catholic school, where he meets a cool priest, played by Liam Neeson. Homer, seduced by bingo, a pancake supper, and the concept of confession and absolution, decides that he and Bart should convert to Catholicism. Marge panics, and with her minister, Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, and her evangelical next-door neighbor, Ned Flanders, the trio proceeds to refight the Reformation. Lovejoy accuses Homer of being "under the spell of a man in a pointy white hat." But Bart reminds everyone, before bloodshed erupts (again) between the Protestants and Catholics, to remember that they share the same faith. Classic "Simpsons" line: "It's all Christianity, people. The little, stupid differences are nothing next to the big, stupid similarities." --Bart Simpson

Missionary: Impossible (Christianity) - Feb. 20, 2000
Failing to make good on his pledged donation to public television, Homer needs to get out of Springfield ahead of a mob led by Betty White and Rupert Murdoch. In desperation, he jumps on a Christian relief plane on its way to supply and replace missionaries on a South Pacific island. Homer prays to "Jebus," who he says he doesn't believe in, to spare him from the mission. Out of ignorance, incompetence, and an abundance of good will, Homer proceeds to repeat every error made by missionaries to indigenous people in the past five centuries. Classic "Simpsons" line: "I may not know that much about God, but I have to say we built an awfully nice cage for him." --Homer Simpson, after motivating islanders to build a church

Simpsons Bible Stories (Christianity) - April 4, 1999
In this Easter episode, the Simpsons are in church as Reverend Lovejoy drones on with a sermon that puts them to sleep. Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa each dream stories from the Old Testament, based on familiar stories from Genesis, Exodus, Kings, and Samuel. (The dreamt-up tales are like the "Fractured Fairy Tales" from the classic "Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.") Homer and Marge--as Adam and Eve--are expelled from the Garden of Eden. But Marge is optimistic, if unclear, on the concept of Original Sin. When the family wakes, they are alone in church, and as they exit the sanctuary, the apocalypse has begun. Classic "Simpsons" line: "I'm sure God will let us return soon. How long can he hold a grudge?" --Marge Simpson, in her dream where she is Eve

Thank God it's Doomsday (Christianity) - May 8, 2005
Homer and the kids stumble into a movie theater at the mall that is showing a film based on the "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic pulp fiction. "The virtuous have gone to heaven," a character intones, "and the rest of us are left below." Fear struck, Homer buys enough Christian books to calculate the exact time and location of the Rapture and convinces townsfolk to gather with him on a mesa at that moment. But he makes an error, and when the event doesn't happen on schedule, he becomes an object of ridicule. On the right date, Homer is raptured by himself. But without his family with him in heaven, he is desolate. So he convinces God to turn back time and postpone the Rapture. Classic "Simpsons" line: "There's no way in God's heaven that I can get into God's heaven. But maybe he'll let me in if I warn others that the apocalypse is coming." --Homer Simpson, wearing a sandwich board and ringing a bell through the streets of Springfield

Bart Sells His Soul (Religious Superstition) - Oct. 8, 1995
Taking a cue from Faust, Bart sells his soul for $5 to his friend Milhouse. Bart argues that he made a good deal, since the soul is not real--just something made up by people to scare kids, "like the boogie man or Michael Jackson." But he soon realizes he has made a terrible mistake. Automatic doors don't open when he approaches, his breath does not produce condensation on the door of a frozen food compartment, he sees no humor in his favorite cartoon show, and he takes no joy from his pranks. In the end, his soul is saved by his sister Lisa, who explains that the soul is "the most valuable part of you... the symbol of everything fine inside us." Classic "Simpsons" line: Bart: "What if you die in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean?" Milhouse: "Oh, [your soul] can swim. It's even got wheels in case you die in the desert and it has to drive to the cemetery."

Pray Anything (General Religion) - Feb. 9, 2003
Homer becomes jealous of Ned when he thinks his neighbor's prayers enable him to win a $50,000 prize for making a half court, halftime shot at a WNBA game. So Homer tries prayer, beginning with a search for a lost TV remote. Lo and behold, it actually works. Success builds on success, until Homer ends up owning Springfield Community Church--turning it into debauchery central. Naturally, this hubris angers God, who rains down retribution on Homer, who in turn is saved from stoning only by the intervention of Reverend Lovejoy. Classic "Simpsons" line: "From now on, I'll pray till my hands are chapped and bleeding." --Homer Simpson, after finding his remote under the sofa

Homer Loves Flanders (Evangelicalism) - Feb. 24, 1994
For once, Homer eases up on the scorn and abuse he normally heaps on his good-hearted but irritating next-door neighbor, Ned Flanders. But first Homer mocks Communion and transubstantiation (the idea that Jesus is present in the wafer) by mistaking a waffle stuck to Ned's ceiling for the Host. Then he prays for tickets to a big football game, only to have his prayer answered by Ned, who offers him a seat. "Why do you mock me, O Lord?" Homer cries. Still, Homer gradually opens his eyes to the evangelical's prayer lifestyle and the way he lives the social gospel. Yet Flanders finds this unexpected friendship stifling and flees Homer, who stands by him when church members are eager to assume the worst about Flanders's erratic behavior. Classic "Simpsons" line: "Bless the grocer for this wonderful meat, the middlemen who jacked up the price, and let's not forget the humane but determined guys over at the slaughterhouse." --Ned Flanders, when he is saying grace

The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons (Hinduism) - Nov. 16, 1997
Apu, the convenience-store operator, is threatened with the end of his role as Springfield's swinging bachelor, when his mother arrives from India, determined to preside over her son's arranged marriage to a woman from the subcontinent. After failing to convince Apu's mother that her son is already married to Marge, Homer tries to sabotage the ceremony by dressing up as the elephant-headed Hindu diety Ganeesha, with predictably disastrous results. Classic "Simpsons" line: "Do not offer my God a peanut!" --Apu to Homer, when his friend tries to feed Ganeesha

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Four Noble Truths

I just finished a short book on Buddhism, appropriately titled Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak. I hadn't read anything on Buddhism, so even a short introduction was interesting for me.

What struck me on an overall basis was that the original Buddhist philosophy is much more akin to a Dr. Phil-like program as opposed to the stereotypical religious structure I was expecting (and for those of you who are not Dr. Phil fans, this comment was not meant to be disparaging to Buddhism...just that it came across to me more like a life improvement approach than a god-centered religious movement). This may be an incorrrect assessment (given my limited reading on Buddhism) but that is my first impression.

Having said that, I quite liked the basics of Buddhism, so I thought I'd outline some of them here on Prospecting God. In this blog entry, I will outline the "four noble truths" of Buddhism which were supposedly the content for the first teaching conducted by the Buddha. It followed his six-year quest for enlightenment and was a declaration of the key discoveries he had made - they are the "axioms of his system, the postulates from which the rest of his teachings logically derive":

The first noble truth is that life is dukkha, usually translated "suffering". In summary form, the first noble truth is that life (in the condition it has gotten itself into) is dislocated...something has gone is out of joint; and as its pivot is not true, friction (interpersonal conflict) is excessive, movement (creativity) is blocked, and it hurts. The Buddha saw clearly that life as typically lived is unfulfilling and filled with insecurity. It should be noted that this observation was prompted more by realism than by morbidity or a pessimistic outlook on life. He did not doubt that it is possible to have a good time and that this was enjoyable, but he did then ask "how much of life is thus enjoyable?" and "at what level of our being does such enjoyment proceed?". He thought the level was superficial, sufficient enough perhaps for animals, but leaving deep regions of the human psyche empty and wanting. Because of this reality of life, we seek distractions to divert us from what lives beneath the surface...some distract themselves for long periods but the overall darkness is not relieved. He went on to pinpoint six moments when life's dislocation becomes glaringly apparent:

  • The trauma of birth
  • The pathology of sickness
  • The morbidity of decrepitude
  • The phobia of death
  • To be tied to what one dislikes
  • To be separated from what one loves

Two conclusions from the first noble truth: (1) even if one gets what one loves, the delight doesn't last; (2) it is not only the grasped-for world of experience that is impermanent - we, the graspers, are as well.

For the rift (as identified by the first noble truth) to be healed, we need to know the cause, and the second noble truth identifies it. The cause of life's dislocation is tanha - the desire for personal fulfillment. When we are selfless, we are free, but that is precisely the difficulty - to maintain that state. Tanha is the force that ruptures it, pulling us back from the freedom-of-all to seek fulfillment from our private egos. Tanha consists of all those inclinations which tend to continue or increase all forms of selfishness - the essence of which is desire for oneself at the expense, if necessary, of others.

The third noble truth follows from the second. If the causes of life's dislocation is selfish craving, it ceases when such craving is overcome. If we could be released from the narrow limits of self-interest into the vast expanse of universal life, we would be relieved of our torment.

The fourth noble truth prescribes how the cure can be accomplished. The overcoming of tanha, the way out of our captivity, is throught the "Eightfold Path". I'll cover that in my next blog entry.

Note: the above was extracted from Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Pay Dirt: Interesting Quote

From the introduction to Chapter 4 of Hitchens' god is not Great:

In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.
- Heinrich Heine, Gedanken Und Einfalle

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Summary Reflections on Bible Exploration

I've come to the end of my Bible Exploration series. I thought it would be useful (for me at least!) to summarize the key insights.

Many of my friends ask me why I even bothered to address the Bible. My response is that, although my thinking on things theological has evolved greatly in recent years, I still want to have a spiritual dimension to my life. For me, having grown up in the Christian tradition, I envision exploring that spiritual dimension with a Christian bias (although not with the fundamentalist perspectives I was indoctrinated with). As such, I need to be able to "fit in" the critical components of Christianity (i.e. God, Jesus, Bible, etc.) in a way that makes sense for me. So this is my attempt to explain how I see the Bible as being a potentially relevant source of thinking for that spritual dimension I seek.

Here are the key insights from this series of blog entries:

Bible Beliefs
  • The Bible is a human product, containing human words...not the very words of God.
  • It should not be read literally...but there are strong metaphorical messages that contain wisdom we can learn from.
  • Within the context of the previous two points, Christians should understand the Bible as it is the foundational document for Christians, since it captures the experiences of the ancient Israel community and the early Christian community and their responses to God and Jesus, which is important within the Christian religion.
  • For Christians, the Bible can be a mediator to God, as it discloses elements of God's character as interpreted through the Christian tradition.

How the Bible Became a Book

  • There are MANY examples of the Bible being is not the inerrant words of God.
  • The Biblical texts were initially communicated through oral tradition (for tens of years) before they were written down...wording and specifics would have clearly been altered during this process. In terms of the original texts, we don't have them or even copies of copies of copies of the original texts.
  • The texts themselves were copied by hand for hundreds of years...with mistakes and edits happening along the way.
  • The determination of what texts should be in the Bible was made by a variety of church leaders over time...with great debate.

A New Way of Reading/Seeing the Bible

  • When reading the Bible, we should take a "historical-metaphorical" approach, asking "What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?" and "What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?"

Revisiting the Creation Stories

  • The creation stories were written in the 500s BCE, during or shortly after the Jewish exile into Babylon. Some suggest that key elements of the stories were used to emphasize Jewish beliefs...importance of the sabbath to the Jews of the day (as opposed to creation stories starting the sabbath ritual); and an assertion that the God of Israel is the creator and lord of heaven and earth as compared with Babylon and its gods (with whom the Jews were obviously not very happy at that point in time!).
  • The historical understanding of the universe is important context...Ancient Israelites thought of the earth as the centre of the universe and above the earth was the "dome of the sky" with water being above the dome (hence the falling of rain and snow). Thus, the description of creation (e.g. separating the waters so that dry land is below the sky, etc.) reflects their understanding of the nature of the universe.
  • The figurative nature of the creation stories can be seen even through the names of Adam (which comes from the Hebrew word adham meaning "humankind" and coming from the Hebrew word adhamah meaning "ground" or "dust") and Eve (which means "mother of all living").
  • Key metaphorical messages that may make these stories useful or relevant for Christians today include the following propositions: (1) God is the source of everything that is; (2) humans are the climax of creation but at the same time we are small, finite, mortal.
  • Finally, these creation stories set up the rest of the Bible which is, to a large extent, the Christian tradition's story of humankind's state of affairs: the human predicament and the Christian solution.

Plowing through the Pentateuch

  • The Pentateuch captures the story of the "beginning of Israel" as a nation and a people. Its main components include stories about Abraham and his family; Moses and the Jewish exodus from Egypt; Sinai, the covenant and the laws; and the journey through the wilderness.
  • The overarching theme throughout the Pentateuch is "promise and fulfillment". God promises Abraham that he will make of him a great nation. The rest of the story of the Pentateuch is the story of fulfillment of this promise...from slavery to the exodus and to the promised land.
  • While the Jewish exodus likely happened in the 13th century BCE, the completed Pentateuch was not likely written until around the Jewish exile in Babylon in the 500s BCE. At the time of writing (i.e. during the exile), the promise of God that the Jews would be "a great nation" seemed profoundly threatened again, as did their very existence. In this setting, they remembered and celebrated the promise given to their ancestors, the stories of Israel's liberation from a previous imperial power, and the gift of a new land and a new life.
  • In addition, the Pentateuch is Israel's story of radical protest against and liberation from the way Egypt and Pharoah governed human society at the time which included economic exploitation, political oppression and religious legitimation. In that context, the laws in the Pentateuch were written to prevent the emergence of a permanently impoverished class within Israel (i.e. for use in their world several thousand years ago as opposed to for Christians today).
  • The metaphorical interpretation and usefulness of the Pentateuch for today's Christian would be an underlying message that in spite of life's threats and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, when birth and rebirth seem impossible, when powers of empires seem to rule the in a manner that mirrors God's nature will enable us to make it through - living fully, loving unconditionally, being all we can be.

New Perspectives on the Prophets

  • Historical context is crucial if one is to understand these books. These books narrate the history of Israel from the time of occupation of the promised land until the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. During that time, Israel lived as a "tribal confederacy" with no centralized government. Then, around 1000 BCE, a monarchy was put in place with kings like Saul, David and Solomon. When Solomon died in 922 BCE, the united kingdom split into 2 parts: Israel and Judah. Israel lasted until 722 BCE when it was conquered and destroyed by the Assyrian kingdom. Judah lasted until 586 BCE when it was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian empire. Some of Judah's survivors were exiled to Babylon for about 50 years, at which time they were allowed to return to Judah to begin rebuilding their ruined country. So the prophets are writing some 500 years after the exodus, during the time of the split of the kingdom, destruction of the kingdoms, exile and return. It is also important to recognize that during this time period, Israel and Judah had essentially become miniature versions of the ancient domination system that had enslaved their ancestors in Egypt. The victims (the majority of the population) were Israelites, of course, but now the elites at the top were also Israelites...Egypt had been established in Israel.
  • In that context, criticism of the reality of Israel's and Judah's social situation is the core of what the prophets were addressing in these they believed that this could not be the will of God who had liberated Israel from similar bondage in Egypt. In essence, they expressed a passion for social justice and had an anti-establishment message...and added warnings of consequences if the societies didn't take peace and justice seriously.
  • In that context, it also becomes clear that the prophets weren't foretelling Jesus' story as is commonly thought (instead, because the New Testament authors were Jewish and knew the Hebrew Bible well, they echoed the words of the Hebrew Bible in telling Jesus' story, in order to show continuity between Jesus and the tradition out of which they came, making it seem as though the prophets were foretelling Jesus' story).
  • For Christians today, the message of many of the prophets words can still have metaphorical meaning - it can be relevant to the victims and exiles of the domination systems of our time, proclaiming that our identify, value and worth are not grounded in the culture of the day, but in God's regard. The message of the prophets can affirm that God's character, will and justice are different from the justice of oppressive social orders and the solution for exiles of today's world is also a journey of return...a way or path through the wilderness...with the destination being a return to life mirroring God's will.

Gaining Wisdom from the Wisdom Books

  • These books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job) were believed to have been written in the post-exile timeframe...between 500BCE to 300 BCE timeframe.
  • Proverbs generally affirms "Follow this way, and your life will go well."...essentially a book of conventional wisdom (i.e. cultural wisdom, community wisdom, folk wisdom, "what everybody knows", etc.).
  • Ecclesiastes questions conventional wisdom by claiming that the things of life (e.g. wisdom, power, fame, wealth, etc.) do not satisfy and then goes on to establish that bad things happen to good people through no fault of their own. It also emphasizes death...its utter inevitability and randomness...and the fact that there is nothing we can do about it, so we should "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die".
  • In Job, we encounter a story about a righteous man who endures much suffering. His friends try to share conventional wisdom to him to explain his suffering, but Job dismisses that wisdom as worthless. In the end, Job has a discussion with God which also provided him with no answers or explanations for his suffering. The experience, though, did convince him that God is real in spite of our ability to see fairness in the world. Some think that Job wasn't written to address the question "Why do the righteous suffer?" but instead to illustrate a point that God should be seen not as a means but as the ultimate end (that is, religion unmotivated by self-interest).
  • For today's Christian, the wisdom books provide an interesting contrast between secondhand religion (i.e. religion learned from others...Proverbs) and firsthand religion (i.e. religion that flows from the firsthand experience of God...Ecclesiastes and Job). The books also provide a contrast between conventional wisdom and wisdom that is based more on randomness, chance and inevitability.

The Evolving Stories of the Gospels

  • The earliest is almost certainly Mark and the latest is John. The gospels are the product of a developing Christian tradition during the decades following Jesus' death...containing history remembered and history metaphorized.
  • Mark was a wartime gospel, and, as such, Mark emphasizes things like Jesus' suffering, warnings that followers of Jesus would suffer, and the promise of rewards to those who endured without losing their faith. Mark's theme seems to be focused around the "way"...that is, a way of return from exile (where the community found itself at wartime) which focused on dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being.
  • Matthew was written about 10-20 years after Mark. Matthew uses 90% of Mark and adds some material from Q as well as some "original" material to evolve the story of Jesus. Matthew was written at a time when Christian Jews were in conflict with other Jews, so Matthew tries to assert that Christian Jews are faithful to the traditions of Israel...he does this by quoting the Hebrew Bible, drawing parallels to the Hebrew Bible and quoting Hebrew scripture.
  • Luke was also written about 10-20 years after Mark and uses a lot of Mark and Q. But to evolve the story, he also adds a lot of "original" content as well. When Luke was written, Christianity had become a much more Gentile movement so he wanted to show Christianity projected to the whole world - both Jew and Gentile. Luke also has a repeated emphasis on the Spirit of God.
  • John was written about 60-70 years after Jesus's death. John is the most symbolic of the gospels and if you don't try to force yourself to read John literally, you'll find that it is a remarkable book that summarizes how the Christian movement came to understand Jesus...that is, through Jesus you can know what God is like.
  • The gospel stories clearly evolve from the first gospel (Mark) to the remaining gospels (e.g. virgin birth idea, resurrection stories, etc.). Matthew and Luke took Mark's writings and morphed them to meet their needs (i.e. Matthew's need to justify his belief in Jesus as being in line with Judaism; Luke's desire to move Christianity to a movement for Gentile and Jew and to emphasize the spirit). John takes the gospels to their next evolution... a more direct link between Jesus and God.
  • For Christians today, the gospels tell the story of Jesus, through whom we can see what a life full of God looks fully, loving wastefully, and having the courage to be all that you can possibly be.

A Primer on Paul's Writings

  • Paul's letters were the way he kept in touch with the Christian communities he had helped start once he had moved on. Often, Paul's letters are responses to letters he would have received from a community. Thus, it is important to recognize that the letters were not intended to be a summary of his message, but more specifically dealing with issues arising in his communities. In fact, the agenda for Paul's letters was set more by the communities than by Paul...he deals with specific issues raised by them.
  • For today's Christians, Paul's themes included: (1) Jesus is Lord (i.e. he showed what a life full of God looks like and, as such, is Lord...and Caesar is not); (2) Being "In Christ" (i.e. characterized by things like freedom, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control); (3) Justification by Grace (i.e. you don't have to be Jew or live a certain way...justification by grace is the basis for anyone's relationship to is a gift of God, not a human accomplishment); and (4) Christ Crucified (i.e. this represents various messages including Christ was physically crucified; an indictment of the rulers of the age who crucified Christ; a revelation of God's love for us; and a symbol of the path of transformation).

Revelations from Revelation

  • Revelation was written for specific Christian communities in Asia Minor (about the events that the author thinks will happen in his own time) as opposed to being a message for people thousands of years later. In this context, key messages were: (1) Despite appearances to the contrary, Christ is Lord and Caesar and the beast are not; (2) God will soon act to overthrow the rule of the beast and its incarnation in Caesar; and (3) Therefore, persevere, endure, be confident, take hear, have faith.
  • For today's Christians, there are various themes that can be seen in Revelation: (1) Tale of Two Lordships (i.e. the honor and praise demanded by Caesar is offered to God and Jesus instead); (2) Ancient Cosmic Combat Myth (i.e. story of cosmic conflict between good and evil that has been used in many cultures throughout human history); (3) Revelation and Empire (i.e. Rome won't bring peace as it claims...instead Jesus is the light of the world who can bring peace on Earth); (4) Indictment of the Roman Empire (i.e. Revelation personifies Rome as "the great whore" and a ferocious beast, and claims the fact that the economic exploitation will end); (5) Tale of Two Cities (i.e. city of Rome will fall to the kingdom of God...the "New Jerusalem").

Revelations from Revelation

Revelation is the last book in the Bible...although it wasn't the last book to be written, nor did the author know it would be positioned as the "conclusion" to the Christian Bible. It was placed at the end due to its subject matter...that is, "the end". It is interesting to note that Revelation almost failed to "make it into" the was reluctantly accepted in the Greek speaking Eastern church, listed by Eusebius as a disputed book, omitted from canonical book lists made by early church fathers, given secondary stature by Luther, and largely ignored by Calvin.

The book is an apocalypse. Apocalyptic writings flourished in Judaism from about 200 BCE to 100 CE. It was written in the last first century by a man named John. As many as 65% of the verses in Revelation echo or allude to passages from the Hebrew Bible. The book starts with a vision...and this continues throughout ("I saw" is used about 55 times)...using imagery, allusions to the Hebrew Bible, symbolic numbers, etc.

There are 2 ways of reading Revelation:
  • The Futurist Interpretation - the central claim of this way of reading Revelation is simple: it tells us about what will happen some time in the future. This is how most Christians read Revelation.
  • The Past-Historical Interpretation - this approach is based on a belief that we understand the message of Revelation only by setting the test in the historical context within which it was written - that is, emphasizing what Revelation would have meant in the past. This approach sees Revelation as a message to the specific Christian communities in Asia Minor (as referred to at the beginning of Revelation) as opposed to a message for people thousands of years later. The author seems to think the events will happen in his own time as well (he uses phrases like "what must soon take place", "for the time is near", "soon")...and while modern Christians try to overlay "God's time perspective" on these statements, the original hearers of Revelation would not have had that thought. There is also compelling evidence that the author was writing about realities of his own day (e.g. clear allusions to the Roman empire). In this context, key messages were: (1) Despite appearances to the contrary, Christ is Lord and Caesar and the beast are not; (2) God will soon act to overthrow the rule of the beast and its incarnation in Caesar; and (3) Therefore, persevere, endure, be confident, take hear, have faith. Taking this approach recognizes that the Roman Empire did not fall for another 300 years and Jesus did not return accepts that the Bible is a human product, not a divine product without error.

But Revelation is more than mistaken prediction...its larger themes are of interest:

  • Tale of Two Lordships - Roman emperors were given divine titles (e.g. son of God, lord, god, etc.) and there was religious legitimation to the rule of the empire and Caesar. Against this context, John in Revelation proclaims exclusive lordship of God and God as known in Jesus. The honor and praise demanded by Caesar is offered to God and Jesus instead. In summary, Jesus is Lord; Caesar is not.

  • The Ancient Cosmic Combat Myth - this plot is a story of cosmic conflict between good and evil, and has been used in many cultures throughout human history (e.g. in ancient writings, conflicts between the god of light and evil power of darkness, witht he evil power often imaged as a dragon or sea monster; in ancient Near East, stories of god killing the evil seven-headed monster; in postbiblical time, archangel Michael warring with the dragon; and we could keep going up to things like Star Wars with its depiction of good versus evil). John uses similar references in his story.

  • Revelation and Empire - there are remarkable similarities between Revelation and the story of Apollo's birth (from Greco-Roman culture)...when Apollos was born, the ancient monster looked to devour the infant, but Apollo was kept safe and went on to kill the monster. John seems to use that story. By identifying the dragon, he refers to the Roman Empire. Instead of Caesar and the Roman Empire being Apollo, Jesus takes that role and they become the dragon, the beast, the ancient serpant. Rome won't bring peace as it claims...instead Jesus is the light of the world who can bring peace on Earth.

  • Indictment of the Roman Empire - the ancient domination system included political oppression, economic exploitation and religious legitimation...elites of power and wealth controlled societies in their own interests and declared the order they imposed to be the will of God. In Revelation, John refers to all of these features. John personifies Rome as "the great whore" and ferocious beast...seducing, bewitching, claiming religious legitimation, and then ruling through intimidation and violence. In describing "the great whore", John describes the luxury of the empire (e.g. fine linen, gold, jewels, pearls, etc.), including slaves and human lives...and the fact that the economic exploitation will end.

  • Tale of Two Cities - the city of Rome will fall to the kingdom of God...the "New Jerusalem".

So in Revelation, we see an affirmation of the sovereignty and justice of God, and radical criticism of an oppressive domination system pretending to be the will of God. John's vision of the "New Jerusalem" may be the primary reason this book made it into the Bible. It speaks of the reunion of God with humankind, thereby overcoming the exile that began in Eden...there we will see God. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful ending to the Bible.

Note: the bulk of the above has been extracted from Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Primer on Paul's Writings

Next to Jesus, an argument can be made that Paul was the most important individual in the birth of what came to be Christianity. He wrote more of the New Testament than any other person (although scholars think that he likely only wrote 7, 8 or 9 of the 13 letters attributed to him), and was responsible for the spread of the Jesus movement into the Gentile world. While both liked and hated, there is not much debate that Paul was seen as an intellectual. He was also clearly Jewish and a Pharisee.

As a missionary, Paul would typically arrive in a new city and begin his missionary work by going to the Jewish synagogue where he would address Jews, but also Gentiles who were loosely associated with the synagogue. Paul's converts would begin a community life of their own, gathering regularly for worship and instruction and life "house churches". These communities were likely small...well under 100 and more than likely between 10-30. Paul's missionary strategy also had him moving on after a local community had been established.

Paul's letters were the way he kept in touch with his communities after he had moved on. They would be read aloud at a gathering of the community. As such, Paul's letters are "conversations in context" - often his response to a letter he would have received from the community. Thus, it is important to recognize that the letters were not intended to be a summary of his message, but more specifically dealing with issues arising in his communities. In fact, the agenda for Paul's letters was set more by the communities than by Paul...he deals with specific issues raised by them.

For example, Paul writes in I Corinthians "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." An interesting question raised about passages such as this is how much of the passage is Paul's point of view, versus how much is he noting what was written to him by the community. For instance, in this passage, try putting quotation marks around the second sentence (i.e. as if it was what the community had follow the "concerning matters about which you wrote" opening) and then re-read the'll get a very different perspective. But since there are no quotation marks in ancient Greek, we don't really know...although many modern scholars think that the second sentence is Paul quoting from the letter he received from his community in Corinth.

Some of the key themes in Paul's writings are:
  • "Jesus is Lord" - Paul refers to Jesus as Lord frequently. This had both religious and sociopolitical meanings. He was affirming that the "risen Christ" participated in the power and authority of God. He was also affirming that since "Jesus is Lord", "Caesar is not Lord".
  • "In Christ" - Paul uses this phrase (or "in the Lord") 165 times. He uses it to refer to being free, no longer enslaved to the dominion of sin and death...characterized by things like freedom, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control. Life "in Christ" also has a social dimension in that it negates the social boundaries that mark conventional human existence.
  • "Justification by Grace" - Paul contrasts justification by works of the law with justification by grace through faith. Justification is a free gift, not a reward for achievement. In Galatians, for example, justification by grace through faith is the basis for Gentiles becoming part of the community without becoming Jewish through circumcision. Similarly, he makes this point in Romans. For Paul, justification by grace is the basis for our relationship to is a gift of God, not a human accomplishment.
  • "Christ Crucified" - Paul attaches various meanings to this including that Christ was crucified; an indictment of the rulers of the age who crucified Christ; a revelation of God's love for us; and a symbol of the path of transformation.

The New Testament doesn't tell us about Paul's death, but according to early Church tradition, he was believed to have been executed in the 60s. If so, it is interesting that Christianity's two most formative figures were executed by established authority.

Note: most of the above was taken from Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pay Dirt: Christpower


Look at him!

Look not at his divinity,
but look, rather, at his freedom.

Look not at the exaggerated tales of his power,
but look, rather, at his infinite capacity to give himself away.

Look not at the first-century mythology that surrounds him,
but look, rather, at his courage to be,
his ability to live, and
the contagious quality of his love.

Stop your frantic search!

Be still and know that this is God:
this love,
this freedom,
this life,
this being;

when you are accepted, accept yourself;
when you are forgiven, forgive yourself;
when you are loved, love yourself.

Grasp that Christpower
and dare to be

John Shelby Spong. Christpower (arranged by Lucy Newton Boswell Negus). Richmond, VA: Thomas Hale Co., 1975. Reprinted in 2007 by St. Johann's Press, Haworth, New Jersey.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Evolving Stories of the Gospels

First, a little historical context:
  • In 63 BCE, the Jewish homeland was incorporated into the Roman Empire (and administered through "client kings" appointed by Rome)
  • Herod the Great was client king in 37 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. At the time of this death, the kingdom was divided into 3 parts.
  • Jesus was born around 4 BCE.
  • In 6 BCE, one of those parts - Judea - came under the direct Roman rule through governors - the most famous of whom was Pontius Pilate, from 26 to 36 BCE.
  • Jesus was executed around 30 CE.
  • Jewish revolutionary violence simmered throughout the first century, culminating in the catastrophic war of revolt against Rome in 66 CE. During this war, the Romans brutally reconquered the Jewish homeland and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70.
  • The gospels were written between approximately 65 and 100 CE.
The gospels tell the story of Jesus. The earliest is almost certainly Mark and the latest is John. The gospels are the product of a developing Christian tradition during the decades following Jesus' death...containing history remembered and history metaphorized.

Mark was written around 70 CE. It is thought that Mark was a follower of Peter and that much of Mark is based on Peter's teaching. It was written around the time that Jerusalem and the temple were reconquered and destroyed. That event casts a shadow on this gospel...Mark was a wartime gospel. To strengthen those being persecuted in this wartime, Mark emphasizes things like Jesus' suffering, warnings that followers of Jesus would suffer, and the promise og rewards to those who endured without losing their faith. In that context, Mark's theme seems to be focused around the "way"...that is, a way of return from exile (where the community found itself at that point in time)...the path of death and resurrection. When Mark uses the word "repent", he isn't referring to contrition for sin, but returning from exile...that is, dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being. Some interesting tidbits about Mark:
  • He refers to Jesus' mother ("son of Mary") but doesn't mention Jesus' presumed father, Joseph
  • There is no virgin birth story in Mark
  • There is no resurrection appearance...just some startled women who "said nothing to any one"

Matthew was written about 10-20 years after Mark. Matthew uses 90% of Mark and adds some material from Q as well as some "original" material to evolve the story of Jesus. Matthew's content points to a late first-century community of Christian Jews in conflict with other Jews. After the Roman conquest of the Jewish homeland, the survivors sought to consolidate and preserve Jewish identity in spite of the loss of the temple. Soon after the temple's destruction, the Jewish community began to ostracize Jews who followed Jesus as the messiah, claiming they were no longer true Jews. Matthew tries to assert that Christian Jews are faithful to the traditions of Israel...he does this by quoting the Hebrew Bible more than any other gospel ("It is written" is used 40 times). He also parallels the Hebrew Bible's stories and quotes Hebrew scripture many, many times in telling the story of Jesus. He traces Jesus' genealogy back to Abraham, restricts Jesus mission during his lifetime to the Jews, echoes the story of Moses in Jesus (e.g. Herod, like Pharaoh, was claimed to command all male babies to be killed, structured Jesus' teaching in 5 blocks like the five books of Moses, etc.). Matthew also introduces some new concepts that differ from other gospels:

  • He introduces the virgin birth idea. He suggests Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem and then move to Nazareth after spending time in Egypt following a plot by Herod to kill infants (Luke has them live in Nazareth but travel to Bethlehem for a census and then return to Nazareth Egypt trip and no Herod plot)
  • He has wise men visit Jesus by following a star (Luke has neither wise men nor a star, but instead has angels singing in the night sky to shepherds who come to visit)
  • He traces Jesus' genealogy back to Abraham (Luke traces it back to Adam)
  • He makes the "son of man" or Christ claim stronger and more overt than Mark did
  • He seems to have heightened the miraculous in his stories as compared to Mark
  • He emphasized hell more than other Christian writings
Luke was also written about 10-20 years after Mark and uses a lot of Mark and Q. But to evolve the story, he also adds a lot of "original" content as well. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Christianity had become a much more Gentile movement. As such, he wanted to show Christianity projected to the whole world; to show how its center had shifted from Jerusalem to Rome; and to show how gentiles like himself had come to be included in this Jewish religion. He does this by evolving the story of Jesus through various and sometimes subtle means (for example, he traces Jesus back to Adam (father of all men) as opposed to Abraham; he has Roman Pontius Pilate pronounce Jesus innocent; etc. Luke's thematic construction involves a repeated emphasis on the Spirit of God (Jesus' conception by Spirit, Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism, Jesus promising to send the Spirit to his followers, and in Acts - the companion book to Luke - the Spirit descending on the community through speaking in other languages...thereby breaking barriers of Christianity beyond language, nationality, economics, etc.). In the power of the Christ-spirit, all separations were overcome...including between Jews and Gentiles.

John is very different from the other 3 gospels, again showing the evolution of the gospels. John includes differences such as the length of Jesus' public activity (1 year in the others; 3-4 in John), geography (Jesus' public activity occurs in Judea and Jerusalem more than in Galilee), and message (Jesus message is about himself as opposed to the kingdom of God). John was written about 60-70 years after Jesus's death. John is the most symbolic of the gospels...Jesus inaugural scene is the "water into wine" story...symbolizing that Jesus message is about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and the best is saved for last. John is also famous for the "I am" sayings...describing Jesus as Lord, Messiah, King and Son of God (those sayings are part of John's evolution of the gospels). For these sayings, the context of the time is important to note...there was a growing divide between some Jews and Christians, with a push by some Jews to argue that it was heritical to attribute to a human being too close a connection with the Holy God (like was being claimed about Jesus). John wrote to encourage and bolster those being banished because of their openness about following Jesus...and he did so through things like the "I am" sayings. The other gospels didn't say these fact, it wouldn't have made sense, for instance, in Mark where the concept was that Jesus' divine identity was a secret only to be revealed through the cross and resurrection. If one doesn't force oneself to read John literally, it is a remarkable book at summarizing how the Christian movement came to understand Jesus...that is, through Jesus you can know what God is like. That is the message of John.

In summary, Mark started the gospel writings. Matthew and Luke took Mark's writings and morphed them to meet their needs (i.e. Matthew's need to justify his belief in Jesus as being in line with Judaism; Luke's desire to move Christianity to a movement for Gentile and Jew and to emphasize the spirit). John takes the gospels to their next evolution...making a more direct link between Jesus and God. And while there are glaring inconsistencies throughout the gospels, (which illustrates the evolving nature of the gospels), this is not a problem for those who don't see the gospels as having to be interpreted literally and as inerrant words of God. For others, this realization is startling and my experience, they either embrace it or refuse to even consider it.

Note: lots of credit for the content of this blog entry to Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and to Spong's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Gaining Wisdom from the Wisdom Books

The last portion of the Old Testament relates to Israel's wisdom literature - Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job. These books were believed to have been written in the post-exile timeframe...between 500BCE to 300 BCE timeframe. There are 2 other wisdom books - Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, which are not in the Hebrew Bible, but are seen as sacred scripture by Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Christians, but not by most Prostestants. It is thought that these were written between the 200BCE and 100BCE timeframe.

In general, the wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible are concerned with the individual as opposed to Israel's sacred story as a people or with criticism and reshaping of the social order. These books also seem to credit experience for their source as opposed to divine revelation. All 3 books are based on observation - "this is what life is like".

The wisdom books identify one of the two major conflicts within the Hebrew Bible. The first, which we have already discussed, is the conflict between the imperial theology of Egypt and exodus theology, between the royal theology of Israel's monarchy and the message of Israel's prophets. The second relates to the conflict between secondhand and firsthand religion, where secondhand religion is religion learned from others (i.e. Proverbs) while firsthand religion is the religion that flows from the firsthand experience of God (i.e. Ecclesiastes and Job).

We'll start with Proverbs (which tends to be fairly unambigous in its writings about life - secondhand religion) and then move onto Ecclesiastes and Job (which tend to hint at randomness and chance - firsthand religion).


  • First part is made of up wisdom poems - "in praise of wisdom"; the rest is a collection of individual proverbs (likely an accumulation of sayings of generations of wisdom teachers)
  • The wisdom poems often contrast 2 paths: the wise way and the foolish way; the righteous way and wicked way; way of life and way of death
  • The first chapters also introduce the personification of "Wisdom" in female form, commonly called Sophia (i.e. the Greek word for wisdom); there is also a personification of folly through "the strange woman" or "the alien woman" - often portrayed as an adulteress and seductress
  • The collection of proverbs in the rest of the book cover a variety of topics including elegance/humour, children/family, wealth/poverty, rewards of right living, etc.
  • In summary, Proverbs generally affirms "Follow this way, and your life will go well."...essentially a book of conventional wisdom (i.e. cultural wisdom, community wisdom, folk wisdom, "what everybody knows", etc.). Conventional wisdom contains truth - there are ways of living that do lead to dead ends, and some things can make life more pleasant. But there is also a corollary to conventional wisdom - if life fails to work out, you must have done something wrong. This clearly isn't always the case.


  • Title likely refers to its author - Qoheleth (Greek word for Ecclesiastes), which means "wisdom teacher".
  • While the author writes as King Solomon in the first 2 chapters, it is believed that this is for rhetorical effect as opposed to reflecting actual authorship by Solomon...given that the book is believed to have been written around 300 BCE.
  • Some see the book as so pessimistic, they wonder how it got into the Bible. Others admire the book for its honesty and religious vision.
  • There are 2 central metaphors in the book: (1) Vanity of vanities: all is vanity (vanity refers to emptiness, meaningless, etc.); and (2) Chasing after (or herding or shepherding) the wind...that is, an image of futility.
  • The book starts by claiming that the things of life (e.g. wisdom, power, fame, wealth, etc.) do not satisfy. It then goes on to establish that bad things happen to good people through no fault of their own. It also emphasizes death...its utter inevitability and randomness...and the fact that there is nothing we can do about it.
  • And if that is the case, how should we live? "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die" according to the author. Or alternatively, live fully...whatever is present to what it is (try reading Ecclesiastes 3 with that context!). "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart...Enjoy life with the wife whom you love...Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might" - Eccesiastes 9:7-10.


  • Job continues with a radical questioning of conventional wisdom. It was probably written during teh Babylonian exile (around 600BCE or shortly thereafter).
  • The book starts in fairy tale like form..."There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job." It then quickly goes to a meeting in heaven between God and Satan where a wager occurs. In summary, Satan first takes away Job's blessedness on Earth and then goes after Job's own body, but in the end, Job does not turn on God...God has won the wager.
  • There are 2 ways to look at the book although is it pretty much always the first that people assume is the question being addressed by the book: (1) The book addresses the question "Why do the righteous suffer?" with the answer apparently being that some things happen "over our heads" - like a heavenly wager. OR (2) The book addresses the question that Satan asks God "Does Job fear God for nothing?" other words, is there such a thing as religion unmotivated by self-interest...that is, taking God seriously not as a means but as the ultimate end. Think about that - it is a fascinating idea that this might be what the book is trying to get at.
  • In the central part of the book, we see Job's discussions with his friends who try to "comfort" him with conventional must have done something wrong to be facing all this! Job essentially replies that their conventional wisdom is worthless.
  • Then, we see Job's discussion with God...which displays God's wonder (through the nonhuman world of creation) and the absolute difference between the creator and the created. This stuns Job into smallness and silence. While this encounter provided Job with no answers or explanations for his suffering, the experience convinced him that God is real in spite of our ability to see fairness in the world - "I have heard of you with the hearing of the ear, but now my eye beholds you."

(The above was heavily extracted from Marcus Borg's "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time"...I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the Bible)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Pay Dirt: Pope Revises 'Limbo' for Babies

Pope Revises 'Limbo' for Babies
Associated Press

Vatican City - Pope Benedict XVI has revised traditional Roman Catholic teaching on so-called "limbo," approving a church report released Friday that said there was reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven.

Benedict approved the findings of the International Theological Commission, which issued its long-awaited document on limbo on Origins, the documentary service of Catholic News Service, the news agency of the American Bishop's Conference.

"We can say we have many reasons to hope that there is salvation for these babies," the Rev. Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit who is the commission's secretary-general, told The Associated Press.

Although Catholics have long believed that children who die without being baptized are with original sin and thus excluded from heaven, the church has no formal doctrine on the matter. Theologians have long taught, however, that such children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness, a state commonly called limbo, but without being in communion with God.

Pope John Paul II and Benedict had urged further study on limbo, in part because of "the pressing pastoral needs" sparked by the increase in abortion and the growing number of children who die without being baptized, the report said.

In the document, the commission said there were "serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness."

It stressed, however, that "these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge."

Ladaria said no one could know for certain what becomes of unbaptized babies since Scripture is largely silent on the matter.

Catholic parents should still baptize their children, as that sacrament is the way salvation is revealed, the document said.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Pay Dirt: Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"

Continuing with "Is Religion 'Built Upon Lies'?"
Best-selling atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate God, faith, and fundamentalism. (Courtesy:

Dear Sam,
Thanks for your invitation to sup from "a clean glass." You unpack that revealing metaphor in the following way:

I'm asking you to imagine a world in which children are taught to investigate reality for themselves, not in conformity to the religious dogmatism of their parents, but by the lights of truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is.My first thought is: where are all these children separated from their parents? Would they have to be sent away to protect them from the influence of parental dogmatism? And my second thought is amusement at your use of the passive tense: "are taught". By whom? You? Who is teaching these finally liberated children, and on whose authority? And where is this discourse they will enter that is "contingency-free"? I have never heard or read or engaged in one.

That is because I have never met a human being or a human mind that is "contingency-free", and never will. No child grows up without the contingent facts of their family, place, genes, and any number of details that make us who we are. You and I would be very different people if we had different contingent genetics and different contingent histories. This is the experience of being human, an experience eternally different from the dream of your new, unfettered, purely rational "education," where the young are severed from the toxins of contingent culture and faith and family. You echo the later themes of Plato's Republic in this respect, and Socrates' irony still echoes through the millennia. You are not the first person to come up with such an idea, Sam, and I have no doubt that the guardians you will pick to educate the young will be selected in good faith - your good faith, not the children's or their parents'. And I am not the first person to find this project for all mankind absurd in my lighter moments and deeply sinister in my darker ones.

Science, your preferred mode of human understanding, is not contingency-free either. I know of no scientist who would claim so. It is shot through with contingency. It is the consequence of millennia of human thought, logic, experiment, argument, discovery, thesis, antithesis, synthesis - propelled by human curiosity, pride, obsession, and error. What science knows at any given moment is a function of everything it has ever known. And it is built and unbuilt by human minds with human weaknesses. Yes, it can overturn all of it at any moment in theory - but it will still be defined in part by what it has overturned. And such moments of revolution are rare. Much more common is the slow accumulation of insight and evidence until it becomes the coral reef we call science "now".

Science rests as well on some basic elements of faith. You've read your Hume and you know what I mean. A reader came up with a useful list of some of them: our faith that our senses and our memories are (usually) reliable, rather than being hallucinations induced by some unknown outside source; our belief that our short-term thought processes are (usually) reliable (that is, that we are sane at all); our belief that the entire universe didn't whisk into existence a second ago (including all of us, with a complete set of fake memories), and won't whisk out of existence a second later; our belief that other bodies which act like ours contain conscious awarenesses like our own (and that the "intensity" with which they feel sensations and emotions can be judged by the complexity of their behavior); the belief that it is likely that a consciousness is permanently destroyed by the destruction of its physical body and will never be resurrected later in another body (that is, the only thing that makes us think murder is immoral at all).These little puddle-jumps of faith are the foundation for your reason. I think they are justified. But that reason is really, au fond, a belief, an act of faith, an acknowledgment that, as humans, we have no "contingency-free" place from where to start at all and no "contingency-free" place on earth to end up at. We are not gods.

The place you are seeking - this "contingency-free" place where no specifics exist but pure truth and a clean glass - is something we people of faith call heaven. Your search for it is a religious search, even if you are unaware of it. We religious people have known about heaven for ever; but only the truly foolish among us have ever mistaken it for earth, or human life. And when those truly foolish people have attempted to replicate this heaven on earth, they have been responsible for the worst atrocities religion has produced, which is why I fear similar darkness from the world-view you are, with impeccable intentions, enthusiastically proposing. But the glass you and I drink from, Sam, is never clean; it has been drunk from since before our human history; it has passed from lip to lip through vistas of history and pre-history. It has been filled and emptied and filled again, its contents traced in stories and myths and parables and histories and DNA. It is contingent in the way that everything human is contingent.

Can I imagine a world without such human contingency? Yes, I can. I can imagine all sorts of things - flying spaghetti monsters, to use one vivid term now beloved of today's atheists. I can imagine Lucy in the sky with diamonds. I can imagine all the people living life in peace.
But it is important to note that such a world has never, ever existed, and never, ever will. No human society has ever functioned without the large faith that underpins all the little faiths: religion. No society has ever existed without the mature human acceptance of what we do not know and what is greater than we are. No civilization has ever been atheist at its core. No polity has ever been constructed in the absence of faith, or in the absence of a tradition of faith that makes belief in the present possible at all. Earth to Sam: Does this not tell you something? Or is it plausible that human beings tomorrow will become something that in all of human history and pre-history they have never, ever been?

You write: "whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now." Yes--absolutely yes. But now is always and everywhere a function of all that we have ever been. The key contribution of religion is to grapple with that fact at a far deeper level than science, to see human life as an intersection, in Eliot's words, of the timeless with time. Religion at its deepest is the attempt to reconcile this profound human predicament: that we exist in bodies but dream beyond them, that we are caught between the irrational instinct of beasts but endowed with the serene hope of angels. This paradox of humanity--which you would erase into a clean slate--is what religion responds to and has always responded to. The genius of the religious life lived to its fullest lies, in Oakeshott's words,

"in the poetic quality, humble or magnificent, of the images, the rites, the observances, and the offerings (the wisp of wheat on the wayside calvary) in which it recalls to us that 'eternity is in love with the productions of time' and invites us to live 'so far as is possible' as an immortal."
This is drinking from the unclean glass and drinking deeply.

In that context, let me unpack the contingency of my own faith. In my last letter, I wrote of how I experience faith as a gift, something I didn't actually choose. This unchoice can be understood as simply a function of the contingent accident of my birth and upbringing, as you point out and I readily concede. But I do not consider its contingency a mark against it - since there is nothing on earth that is not contingent. For eternal truth to be apprehended by the human soul, it must enter a contingent world, and be refracted and distorted by such an entrance. Contingency is as integral to any human being's faith as eternity. This is a logical necessity for faith to exist at all.

My story is the story of every person of faith--a mix of contingency and eternity. I have tried to explain the eternity, and I understand if it simply baffles the faithless. So let me explain the more comprehensible contingency, and why it actually supports my faith, rather than undermines it. The contingency comes from my family, of course. But it also comes from where I was born and grew up--England. The Catholicism I imbibed was a minority faith in a majority Protestant or agnostic culture. And I can track its origins through history--through my Irish ancestors who held onto it despite cruel persecution, back to the time when England itself was pervaded by the religious faith I still hold. In high school and university, I was able to study the history of that faith--the astonishing cultural wealth and spiritual depth of the Catholic church that kept the memory of Jesus alive for millennia. I was then able to move to a different continent and country and walk into a church that was itself part of that universal inheritance. There is no free place on earth where I cannot find a home. And I know who made that possible. Without that long lineage of faithful preservation, without that dreaded institution, the Church, I would have no cup from which to drink. They passed it, these souls, from person to person, from generation to generation, in one of the most astonishingly persistent endeavors in human history.

The more I discovered about that long endeavor, the more amazed I was by it. Yes, you will cite the terrible parts of its history, parts I have not shied from myself. But you have missed so much more. The more I questioned and asked, the more history and theology I engaged in, the more I used reason to inquire into faith, the more remarkable the achievement of Christianity appeared to me. My reason strengthened and informed my faith. I felt blessed to have been given this gift, amazed at my good fortune. The thought of throwing it away for a "clean glass" that is itself an illusion seems absurd to me.

Why would I want to forget all of that precious inheritance--the humility of Mary, the foolishness of Peter, the genius of Paul, the candor of Augustine, the genius of Francis, the glory of Chartres cathedral, the haunting music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the ecstasies of Teresa, the rigor of Ignatius, the whole astonishing, ravishing panoply of ancient Christianity that suddenly arrived at my door, in a banal little town in an ordinary family in the grim nights of the 1970s in England?

You want to be contingency-free? Maybe you need a richer slice of contingency. There is more wisdom, depth, range, glory, nuance and truth in my tradition than can be dreamt of in your rationalism. In answer to your question, "why not leave all this behind?" my answer is simply: why on earth would I? Why would any sane person abandon such an astonishingly rich inheritance that civilizes, informs, educates, inspires and then also saves? If faith were to desert me, I may be forced to leave. But even then, the wealth of that human inheritance would inform me and make my life worth living. I would cling to and celebrate this cultural inheritance, even if the faith that made it possible has waned for me.

Why would a human being not look at the unclean glass he is born with and ask: what is this that I have been given? Who passed this down to me? Why? Who died to give this to me? Who suffered? Who spent their lives transcribing texts to keep the memory of this man alive? Who built these churches and composed these chants and wrote these books for me to engage long after they have all disappeared from the earth? How does this amazing cultural, intellectual, spiritual inheritance connect with that inchoate sense of the divine that still permeates my soul? Could it be that what I sense in my soul is what Augustine sensed? What Dominic sensed? What John actually saw and loved and rested his head against?

I know this may sound alien to you. So let me put this in a context that might appeal to you, as a rational, empirical person. How do you explain Christianity's enduring power? Is it all a terrible, ugly blight on the human mind that must be thrown out in favor of "truly honest, fearless inquiry"? But wouldn't "truly honest, fearless inquiry" into religious faith begin by asking how Christianity came to exist at all?

Consider the evidence. I do not believe in a flying spaghetti monster. I believe in Jesus of Nazareth as God Incarnate. We have no evidence of a flying spaghetti monster. But we have solid evidence of Jesus' existence. We have a handful of independent historical artifacts that attest that a minor Jewish rabbi in first century Israel was executed by the Roman authorities. We have many Gospels that date from the period after his death testifying to the power of his message. Purported messiahs and crucifixions were not uncommon at the time. But only one of the thousands of Rome's victims is remembered in this way - and not just remembered but worshiped over two millennia later in the most advanced civilization the world has ever known. Does this not intrigue you? Have you never asked in the spirit of "truly honest, fearless inquiry": How on earth did this happen?

As a simple piece of historical inquiry, it's an astonishingly unlikely turn of events. Within a short period of time, not only was an obscure, failed Jewish rabbi remembered, his teachings became the official religion of the empire that had executed him. In the ensuing centuries, his life and teachings inspired many of the greatest minds, souls and talents humankind has ever produced. The collapse of the empire that elevated him did not lead to the disappearance of Christianity. It led to its eventual re-emergence as a vibrant, beautiful, rich experience for millions. Only Muhammad and the Buddha rival the story of this man - a fact that leads me to ask questions of both (particularly Buddhism), but which prompts you to condemn and anathematize all religious claims of any kind.

Even today, as I type these words, I look on my desk and see the sign I bring with me everywhere: his cross. When I go to dinner later, a small cross will come with me, in my wallet. In my study at home, a fourteenth century wooden carving of Jesus stares down at me from the wall. He is alive in me and millions of others after all this time, sustaining, nurturing, inspiring not just me but countless more. Even if you do not believe in him in the way I do, surely you must acknowledge that something very special has been going on here, something truly remarkable, something beyond the norm of much else in human history.

I have a rational, empirical explanation for this. It is that those who saw Jesus saw something so astonishing, so utterly unlike anything that had ever occurred before, that they became on fire with this new truth. They saw God. It was a contingent expression of God - how could it not be if humans were to witness it? But it was also an eternal expression, so that today some will still say: I know this Jesus as well as anyone ever knew him. And Jesus grasped this paradox of contingent-eternity that is the core mystery of the Incarnation. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."

What is your explanation? How do you account for why one person out of the billions who have ever lived had this impact? How probable is it that all these countless followers were all deluding themselves completely? And if Jesus wasn't nothing, what was he in your eyes? What secret did he hold that so many others haven't?

That is an empirical question. And it merits an empirical answer.