Can We Come Together?
December 16, 2011

R.I.P., Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949 – December 15, 2011

(Image from his last article, featured in Vanity Fair)

Believers and nonbelievers both have at least one thing in common: We all feel there’s something broken, something wrong with the world. We may disagree on what that brokenness is, but bickering over that makes no difference in changing or helping what is really broken. It just makes us feel better about our own position.

There are brilliant minds, pure hearts, and strong hands in every camp.

It’s high time we agnostics, atheists and believers work together to address the very real brokenness that is, for instance, poverty and hunger throughout the world.

That is all.

The Sacredness of Wants
November 30, 2011

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I’m learning the sacredness of stating my wants. Not wants as in what I want my life to be, like purpose…and also not wants as in the stuff I think I want. But those things in between the conceptual and the material. Things like relationships and past times and conversations. And also the importance of honing in on what I don’t want.

For example, I really don’t like talking or writing about religion anymore. I’d much rather be wandering in the woods or sloshing in tidepools. I still enjoy occasionally sharing my story or listening to others’. People’s beliefs are precious to them, and what works for them may or may not work for me. But I’m learning that it’s okay for me not to obsess over being right about religion. And it’s okay for me to want to spend my time elsewhere.

Instead of assuming that having wants is selfish, I’m learning that it’s healthy, for myself and others. We all have our personal world. Our own little bubbles that we want to look and feel a certain way. But we do not live in a vacuum. Our bubbles bounce into and stick to each other. We need to hear each others’ stories to help write our own. We depend on each other. But we should not be codependent. Big difference.

My sense of wholeness should not depend on the information I gather from others, but from something that’s beyond all of us. I’m not sure what that is, but it’s something that, while beyond us, also connects all of us and resides deep inside each of us. It informs me of what comes most naturally to me, my individuality, etc. And to operate in that natural individuality that makes me whole, I need and therefore want certain things. But wants can get confused. For example, I may think I want money but I really want the freedom that money can buy.

To prevent the confusion requires absolute honesty with myself, and in turn honesty with others. Clearly stating what I want or don’t want eliminates the need for me to manipulate others. And as I grow older, my focus is getting clearer on what I want. And when I allow myself to be honest, it actually helps others.

So wants, in their truest form, are not selfish. They are essential. And even the process of uncovering what our deepest wants really are, instead of feeling ashamed of them, is sacred.

* image source here

Does Science Show Agnostics are Right?
March 19, 2010

According to this article in The Province, one of the world’s foremost neuroscientists soon will discuss with top theologians how the brain simply cannot comprehend the existence God.

  • “We will never be able to answer the existence of God,” said Georg Northoff, research director of Mind, Brain Imaging, and Neuroethics at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research this week. … “There is a limit because of the way the brain functions…” and that’s the price we pay for consciousness.
  • “I would never deny the feelings (of the faithful),” said Northoff. “But what I would deny is that the content of his feelings, God in this case, exists independent of him. That is something that is beyond his knowledge.”

The article goes on to mention that…

  • “[E]ven a transcendent sense of holiness … ultimately emanates from a big, wet, physical brain trapped in a hard skull.”
  • “The brain is built to focus entirely on the threats and pleasures of its immediate environment … and can never escape to see the larger picture.”
  • “It cannot see beyond its own life without dying. It cannot even look at itself without ending up in a surreal fractal loop of the mind examining itself, examining itself as it examines itself ad infinitum.”

My take: For ages, common wisdom has declared that science itself may not be able to grasp philosophical details…that’s why we have philosophy. But more and more these days science and philosophy are returning to their pre-modern roles, when the division between them was blurry. That division is once again getting more and more blurry as we realize how many philosophical principles, once off-limits to hard science, can be explained — or at least interrogated — by science.

Whether discussing the origin of the universe or the mechanics of belief, scientific methods of inquiry have been applied and have been found beneficial for our collective wisdom. But still that last bastion of philosophy stands firm, awaiting the crash of scientific inquiry: God.

But the whole point of this is not to say that science can reasonably disprove the existence of God or the precious reality of God for individuals. It just asserts a principle we should all confront ourselves with at least occasionally: We cannot know for sure. Either way.

And this doesn’t stop me from searching. It only reminds me that I will be able to see only so far.

Conquerers for Christ
February 28, 2010

“[The natives] are so naive and so free with their possessions… [I can get you] as much gold as [you] need and as many slaves as [you] ask. …Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way…”

— Christopher Columbus, circa 1492

(In a fundraising letter to Spanish royalty, as quoted in A People’s History of the United States.)

Constantine's Dream

I could go on with examples like this of conquests in the name of God. And this is the Christian tradition that founded the Americas, though many Americans may never have heard such words about Columbus, that “great hero.” From Constantine to Columbus, from Gideon to George W., and from Pizarro to Pat Robertson, the list is long. The line of such religious tirades dates back to ancient times and unfortunately that tradition has carried on through today, with determined Christians using the actions of Moses, Gideon, and David to justify their thinking, just as medieval Catholics, like the inquisitors and conquistadors, did. And another thing that both ancient and modern conquests have in common: deep ties to political and economic interests, but that’s another story.

Of course, even the most hardcore fundamentalist crusaders of today would probably not go so far as to dash gentile infants against the rocks and rip open pregnant women, as the Old Testament encourages, but the same principle is at work : Take the land for (our version of) God. And today’s Godly crusaders have focused more specifically on taking over on behalf of Jesus, a cause which, interestingly enough, most direct descendants of Moses, Gideon, and David (Jews) detest.

Haven’t Christians learned anything from the thousands of years of bad reputation that religious conquests have given the church? Why do Christians still take the Great Commission to a level where it was never intended? Why must Christians still adhere to the imperialist tradition of Constantine? Why do Christians still feel a need to vehemently defend their way of life, when so many others in the rest of the world wish simply to be left alone? And why does that defense so often manifest in the form of preemptive strike? Maybe today’s “Christianity” is in fact under attack on some level, but I contend that’s because Christianity has attacked the rest of the world and is merely getting a taste of its own medicine.

Yes, Christianity deserves credit for some of the most precious advances in humanity, including hospitals, the Red Cross, and the preservation of some history and science (as long as it was approved). And apologies have been made for such atrocities as the inquisitions and crusades. But why have today’s Christians just turned from physically violent crusades to philosophically violent crusades? Could Christians ever really take to heart the message that so often gets forgotten…the message that actually gives Christianity a good name that doesn’t need defending:

“Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” (James 1:27)

Some Christians might jump to use that last phrase to justify a defensive position, “…guard against corruption from the godless world.” But I contend that, especially considering the context, the corruption being mentioned there meant the typical way of doing things for that society, especially the way the Romans did things during the time when this letter was written: Imperialism. Greed. Fear of insurrection. Hunger for power. Arrogance.

(By the way, remember that group of people that the Old Testament talked about and suggested killing their children and ripping open their pregnant women? It was the exact same people group Jesus later threw in the face of the religious establishment and used as an example of true religion…the Good Samaritan. He knew the Jewish religion abhorred this people group because the Jewish holy book talked negatively of them, like they were a threat to God.)

The entire message of Jesus was anti-imperialist. That’s why he was killed. He wasn’t killed because he kept himself sinless or because he never cussed or never listened to secular music. He was crucified because he suggested that there was a different “empire,” a kingdom that didn’t need defending. A way of living that spoke for itself.

And I’m guessing a kingdom that speaks for itself probably does not need recruiters like this:

What you didn’t see on TV: Grammy for BEST BELIEFS goes to….
February 1, 2010

“First and foremost, we just want to thank Jesus…”

…Yes, I know I touch a very tender spot with this one. You just don’t mess with the creeds. People throughout the centuries suffered for these statements of faith. People today also suffer for these statements. So I know the Christian creeds are precious to millions and should not be spoken of lightly. And without the devoted guardians of doctrine, the Apostles’ Creed might sound something like this…

Some may think I’m crossing a line here, but my sermon today does not debate the value of the creeds for the Church, but it’s about the value of the creeds for me. For years, I have not been able to honestly confess all the elements of the Christian creeds, even while I was helping lead others in worship. The ability to confess all the items listed in the creeds is like your passport that grants entrance into Christendom, or a VIP badge that gets you a backstage pass to Heaven, or a line you cross that defines you as a pick for the favored team, or whatever example you want to use. But because of this, I have hidden my inability to say all the things those teens did in the video above. I subscribe to some of the thoughts but not all.

Anyway, my quarrel is not with the larger truth that the creeds attempt to protect, but it’s with the value of creeds in the first place and the criteria by which they exclude potential followers of Christ. I know my words would be weak here, so I’ve found someone much older than I, a saint on whose shoulders I stand, who bears witness for me from the grave. He passed on 30 years ago, but he captured his thoughts in writing. One of his books reads me, so let me pass on some quotes from Rev. Leslie Weatherhead, who was sort of another version of C.S. Lewis and one of the legendary English preachers of his day. These excerpts are from his book, The Christian Agnostic:

This is how a man falls in love. he could not write a creed about the loved one at the beginning. He finds someone whose life he would like to share, and, if she is willing to do so, as fellowship deepens, he comes to believe certain things about her. Then he can write his creed, and it is of far more value, and much more his own, than if it were imposed upon him by someone else at the beginning as a condition of belonging to her. In my opinion, the beginnings of the Christian life have much in common with falling in love.

I wonder what the state of the health of this country would be like if, four hundred years ago, a committee of physicians had written down thirty-nine articles and demanded that, for ever after, physicians should prescribe according to them. Yet we have [a list of specific articles which every Christian] declares that he believes….[I do not] sneer at the creeds and ancient statements of what some men used to believe. But they were written down to rebut current charges [of their time], not to impose formulae on future generations. Though not as important as loving, believing certainly matters. it matters so much that, if it has any relevance to the business of living, it must be born in the individual mind, not thrust by church authorities on others.

The Christianity of tomorrow will embrace all truth wherever it is found or however men have come to apprehend it, whether through specifically Christian teaching or through [other religions] or even in the bleak desert of apparent atheism. Many of our greatest minds pass through the latter, feeling that to deny all is nearer the truth than to be identified with those who deny all approaches to truth save their own, and in their narrowness and exclusiveness deny love which is more fundamental than anything else.

Jesus never mentioned the Virgin Birth, neither was it for centuries any part of the missionary message of the church. We still make of prime importance matters about which Jesus said nothing. How can a matter be fundamental in a religion when the founder of the religion never mentioned it? And all this goes, not for the Virgin Birth only, but for a dozen improbabilities about which not even a reverent agnosticism is allowed by the die-hard Scribes and Pharisees of today, and the sad result is that we lose from Christian discipleship some of the ablest minds of our time.

Believing theological dogmas was not Christ’s test of those who sought to be his disciples, and for another very important and fundamental fact, you cannot believe a thing because you are told to believe it.

I do not have truth imposed on me. I do not impose it on myself. Truth is self-authenticating, and when it possesses me, nothing can shake it from its enthronement until some greater truth displaces it or gives it less prominence.

[In quoting Brunner,] “Who can establish criteria to judge whether or not the Holy Ghost is really active in a human heart to which God is only just beginning to reveal himself?”

It is [unfair to] demand that to be a Christian one must “believe” this or that intellectual proposition which has put so many thoughtful and lovable people off. “Must” and “believe” are words that should never go together.

…Otherwise, we end up with something like this…

I have a hunch this is not what God had in mind. So please, believe in and hold fast to your creeds if they give you truth, but don’t exclude me from being called a follower of Jesus if I can’t.