The Other Virus

22 Apr

Last week was about as intense as it gets. Caught between a merciless virus and the cessation of social activity, beneath the surface calm lies a persistent tension ready to erupt. The anxiety was underscored by the two main religious mythologies that drive segments of our culture, the Passover and the Crucifixion/Resurrection of Jesus. The Passover evokes images of an angel of death splattering blood on the lintels of Israelites’ homes so that they might escape the wrath of the murdering Pharaoh. The crucifixion of Jesus sets before us a horrifying image of death at the hand of political and economic power. The stories have good endings: the Passover culminates in the Exodus, whereby the Hebrews escape Pharaoh’s chariots of death, and the cross of Jesus is overcome by the new life that emerges. Our problem today is that we are living between the two moments, before the good ending, when the resolution is not yet obvious.

We have been renewed in our awareness of interconnectedness and our capacity to sacrifice and love one another, and this is a very healthy re-discovery. But coupled with this knowledge we also have become painfully aware that there are those at high levels of power who act more like Pharaoh and Pontius Pilate than the caregivers they were supposed to be. Economist Paul Krugman recently articulated the sources of his own concerns, of which there are three. One is the virus itself, destroying the health and indeed life itself of so many. This is accompanied by the total societal upheaval required by attempts to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus. Lastly, this upheaval poses a severe threat to our democratic institutions. It is this last which worries him the most. There will be a vaccine, and the economy will rebound, but once democracy is lost, it might never return and could be lost forever.

Lest there be any doubt, Krugman is referring to Trump, his lackeys, and all Republicans who focus now on gaining power rather than providing service. Although the list is not inclusive, and grows daily, please allow me to support his fears, which are real and tangible.

To begin with the latest, Trump now wants to fire Dr. Fauci because he told the truth about more people dying because Trump procrastinated for political purposes. Trump thought perhaps we should have allowed the virus to rampage and have it over with, regardless of how many would die. Republican elected officials suggest that those dead were old and infirm and would have died anyway, so it’s no great loss, and, by the way, saves a lot of money. No doubt it was and is this attitude working in the minds of those who refuse to expand health insurance. Even Neanderthal, whom we love to denigrate, cared for their sick and wounded. What we have in America is not a clown for a president, but a murderer, not a fiscally conservative party, but a party of death and greed.

Protective equipment for health care workers is doled out by Trump to those governors who are his lackeys, and refused to governors, both Democratic and Republican, who are critical. The economic relief bill puts an inspector general  in charge of overseeing how 2 trillion dollars is distributed, but Trump has fired him.

The Republican senate continues to confirm incompetent Trump nominations for judgeships. The gerrymandered state of Wisconsin, where Republicans get 56% of the representation with only 36% of the vote, refuses to allow -last week- to extend mail-in voting, thereby forcing people to stand in line for hours, wearing masks hoping that they would not become infected. And this supported by the US Supreme Court, 5-4, after McConnell refused for a full year to even allow a vote on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the court. All the while, voters are illegally removed from registration rolls and foreign countries are invited to interfere in our elections, doing so with impunity. Under the leadership of Barr, the Justice Department has just announced that the FBI will be investigated for investigating Trump’s Russia connection.

On and on. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said repeatedly in his pressroom that when a crisis hits us, the true mettle of people will come out. Those who love and are strong will shine. And those who are weak and/or evil (my word) will also be seen for who they are. We have two visions for America. One controlled by the Pharaohs and Pilates of our time, happy to sacrifice the sick and the poor for the sake of the stock market, the other manifest in all those who value service and compassion, strong in their love. There is no confusion on this. The battle lines are clear.

I think that we all know this, and that is why we are ready to explode. Yes, there is a great deal of fear created by the virus. Will we or our loved ones get sick, or even die? The economic aftershock is equally worrying. My business is destroyed. My retirement fund is wiped out. Will we be able to eat and find shelter? And beneath it all is the increasing feeling that not only is our president and his following totally incompetent, but that they also looking out for themselves and not the American people. As such, they too are a virus, dealing death and destruction. With the power that comes in the knowledge that love wins, we cannot allow that to happen.

Andrew Cuomo’s Faith for All

11 Apr

Andrew Cuomo today is a phenomenon. He speaks every day about the coronavirus and his press conferences have become must-see tv. Why? Many reasons, but at heart he speaks to spiritual yearning in all people, a yearning that focuses not on religion and/or God, but on the truth and depth of our common humanity.

The Governor of New York State has become the voice of leadership and compassion during the coronavirus pandemic. His daily talks have become a time to hear the facts, face the reality, and listen to a calm voice of reason, hope and challenge. Beyond the arena of New York politics, about which most Americans know nothing, he has been received by the nation as a man to whom we can relate. He helps us transcend political divisiveness and helps us realize that we are all human beings.

He is a Roman Catholic, but one that many in his church would choose to excommunicate. Under his guidance, New York recognizes gay marriage and has the most humane abortion law to be found in America. It is clear from his presence that he is a man of deep faith, but also one whose faith is not determined by institutional religious authority. One might argue that his ability to speak to everyone is a result of decades of honing his political acumen, but that would be a shallow understanding. At least in these press conferences, Cuomo strikes a deep spiritual chord that resonates with most people.

To begin with, he respects everyone, whatever their religion or lack thereof, whether they celebrate Passover, Easter, Christmas, Ramadan or Kwanza, and you cannot help but feel that his respect is genuine. For public safety, however, public gatherings are prohibited. There is no exception for religious services, weddings or funerals. The kind of flagrant violation of stay-at-home policy exhibited by arrogant ministers in other states is strictly forbidden by Cuomo in NY.

Along with his acceptance of respectful others is a self-confidence that enables honest straight talk, incorporating a stature that can empathize with those who are hurting, both emotionally and physically. Essential to this data-driven attitude is a refusal to speculate, whether about the future of the pandemic or indeed about anything that might be called mysterious or mystical. His boldest statement about mystery asserted that although we are socially distanced we are spiritually connected, but he didn’t know how.

The only use of the word “God” is in the context of describing someone who risks their life for others. “God bless them”. God is also intimated in the phrase “keeping them in our thoughts and prayers”. But in both instances, the phrase seems to be more a term of popular culture than an actual assertion of faith. The closest Cuomo gets to a confession of faith is in his assertion that love wins. Love wins out over fear and anger. It also wins out over economic considerations. And to the calls by right wing voices to let the old and infirm die because they contribute nothing to society anyway, Cuomo responds with scorn and utter disbelief. No one is expendable. Loving and caring for one another is the essence of our humanity. Life is not reducible to numbers. This holds true not only for the elderly and infirm, but also for the outcast of society, the poor and the weak, those who labor for naught and strive in vain. If there is any refrain in his speaking, it is Cuomo’s prophetic insistence that no one will be left behind, that love reaches out to all and compels us to create a just society.

This is a moment, he says, for the world, for our country and state, for us as individuals. “Moment” is a word that he uses often, referring to a time in our lives when great change becomes possible. Stripped of diversions and escapes, we are free to explore our inner angels, to learn, to read, to listen in silence to the silence. The great danger, Cuomo believes, is giving in to the fear of the unknown that awaits us vis a vis both the virus as well as our own future. Too easily reason succumbs to fear and is overtaken by irrationality and panic. It is at this point that he says that this not the NY way, by which he means that this is not the human way, the way of strength, smartness, unity, and…love.

This is a message that reverberates across the country and probably around the world. It does not say, hey look at me and my needs. It says we are all in this together. And it does not say: learn how to do yoga, or meditate, or pray, or become a mystic. It simply says, appreciate the moment, accept the pain, do good, look ahead and celebrate the time when you can be together again with friends and loved ones, and, most importantly, share your love with all.

Many Americans, it seems, hear and understand.

Biblical Billionaires and the Taming of Jesus

6 Feb

Part Three

I have previously argued in Part One that the rich, the powerful, and cultural inertia transformed the radical message of Jesus into merely an echo of existing social mores. The prophetic demonstration of love and equality in Jesus’ family of friends succumbed to the onslaught of established interests. In Part Two, I suggested that the takeover of the nascent movement by the rich and powerful created a theology that supported the existing corruption, rather than challenging it, and that what we think of as basic Christian belief is a product of reactionary forces rather than the revolutionary impetus set in motion by Jesus.

Thirdly, we now go to the evidence. The support for culture is painfully visible in much, but not all, of the later New Testament writing, especially as it pertains to the nature of the church, subjugation of women, obedience to existing authority, and the possession of slaves.

As the first century moved along, ultimately rolling over into the second, the coup described above is amply illustrated in the available documents, texts that are part and parcel of the Christian New Testament. Reference to Paul is here omitted, partly because he is a transition figure and partly because his thoughts are subject to various interpretations. What follows here are quotations that require not much interpretation, straightforward as they are.

From the Epistle to the Colossians, falsely attributed to Paul, written late 1st c.

 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,  since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. Col 3:22ff

From the Epistle to the Ephesians, falsely attributed to Paul, written 70-80

 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Ephesians 5:22ff

 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ;  not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them. Ephesians 6:5ff

From the First Epistle of Timothy, written between 90 and 140.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. 1 Timothy 2:1

 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. 1Tim 2:8ff

The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.    1Tim 3:1ff

 Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. I Tim 6:1 ff

 As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.  1 Tim 6:17f

From the book of Titus, written between the end of the 1st c and the end of the 2nd.

But as for you, teach what befits sound doctrine. Bid the older men be temperate, serious, sensible, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited. Titus  2:1ff

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work.  Titus 3:1

From the first Epistle of Peter, written between 80 and 96.

 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 1 Peter 2:13ff

 On the contrary

It is not the case that the church everywhere shared the opinions of Timothy and others of like mind. We also have the Epistle of James. Scholars debate the authorship, date, and location of this letter. It makes little reference to Jesus and has the tone of a Hebrew prophet. Quite possibly it was written by the brother of Jesus and originated in the church in Jerusalem.

But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.  James 1:9

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.   James 2:1ff

Biblical Billionaires and the Taming of Jesus

6 Feb

Part Two

The time of Jesus was a time when the rich and powerful were utilizing all means at their disposal to become even more rich and more powerful. The government was in on it. Business was in on it. The religious establishment was in on it. Such economic exploitation was not unique to Israel, but it certainty was there as well.

1 Into this scene at about age 28, came Jesus from a small village called Nazareth in the province of Galilee. He and his disciples lived and taught a life that denounced the oppression that dominated society, offering instead the vision of a community based on caring and sharing. Catastrophically, by the end of the first century, that vision had been destoyed and supplanted by an organization ruled by priests and bishops. This type of institution was much more supportive of the existing exploitative system than were the revolutionaries Jesus had created.

2 As mentioned in Part One, the equality of men and women was an essential ingredient in the disciple band, an equality that disrupted the order and power of the existing patriarchy. From the establishment perspective, that had to change, and change it did. The biblical evidence is overwhelming, and includes much more than the reference to Timothy in Part one. We shall see how much more in Part Three.

3 In stark contrast to the inequality in society, Jesus’ family of friends shared, and essential to that sharing was food. The believers that centered on a single household no doubt had meals together, and perhaps some outside the extended family also participated. The practice was later incorporated into the larger congregations, common meals known as love feasts. From Paul we learn that at some of these gatherings the wealthy would neither wait for the poor to arrive nor would they share their food, and certainly not their wine. At some point, the common meal transformed into a commemoration of the assumed “Last Supper” Jesus shared with his disciples prior to the subsequent crucifixion. Soon only the church hierarchy was permitted to celebrate this sacrament, a restriction applicable even today. Such a controlled mystical sharing, as contrasted to the earlier actual sharing of food, presented no threat to the established economic order.

4  The greatest change in the thinking of the early church had to do with Jesus himself. The disciples found in Jesus a model of the person they too could become, and he was a person who preached justice and equality, love and kindness toward one another. To the authorities such people are suspect, and that, no doubt, is why Pilate had him crucufied. But as time went on, the role of Jesus shifted away from the revolutionary to the sacrificial. His death became a propitiation of an angry god, a socially much less dangerous role. Jesus, the one who had wanted to create a just and loving society, a kingdom of God on earth, became the one who had died for your sins, a role much more amenable to the existing culture. Sacrificial lambs do not threaten class and wealth stratification. Prophets do.

5 The same analysis holds for the resurrection of Jesus. The disciples fully believed that the revolutionary who had gathered them into a microcosm of the kingdom was now alive in their midst as spirit. Really alive, inspiring them to continue growing the kingdom. To them, the resurrection demonstrated that the power of evil evident in the crucifixion, the power of Rome, had been overcome by the power of God. Love ruled the universe, not death and destruction. Such conviction was dangerous for the existing order, challenging, as it did, the authenticity of violence as the norm of human life together. The solution for the established order was to transform the resurrection as revolutionary into the resurrection as resuscitation, and by accepting and promulgating this maneuver, the church lost its prophetic vitality and became the promoter of accepted and acceptable cultural norms.

6 As a result of these changes in the supposed role of Jesus, the meaning of his life, death and resurrection was shifted from the present to the future. Instead of the One who gave his life in the struggle to transform society, he became the one who would judge every individual at some future, undetermined time. God in the moment became God at the end of time, a god much more palatable to the existing order.

7 As a consequence, faith, which at first meant participation in the Way of the kingdom, a way of social justice and equality, now degenerated into acceptance of certain doctrines of belief, chief among them being that Jesus had died for your sins. Such faith posed little threat to the establishment.

8 Deviation from this established faith was forbidden. Initially, it was participation in the movement, and not adherance to beliefs, that defined one as a Christian.The earliest church was a varied group, incorporating many different beliefs. Some of these beliefs were forcefully repudiated by the apostle Paul, but he was not alone in this. The narrowing of acceptable belief expanded with time, the losers of controversy declared heretical and the winners declared orthodox. The definition of what it meant to be a Christian became increasingly under the control of the priests, bishops, and even the government. Although it was much later in 325, the definitive Council of Nicaea was ordered by Emperor Constantine, with the charge to force one and all to agree on understanding the divinity of Jesus. Disagreement within the church posed a danger to the unity of the empire, and as such could not be tolerated. We might assume that Constantine’s intervention was not the first of its kind. Empire, whatever its manifestation, cannot allow challenge to its power, and free thinking followers of Jesus represent exactly such a challenge.

9 Part of this containment included a change in how the Word of God was understood. The early church accepted the Hebrew scriptures, but also the words of Jesus, as divine guidance. There was openness to newness, and there were apparently many different perspectives on Jesus and his role, but that openness did not last long. Certain books gradually became accepted canon, and others were declared heretical, the church hierarchy claiming the power to decide those issues. The end result is what Christians call the New Testament, the ultimate Word of God. Because the Word of God was now believed confined to certain writings, it became paramount to understand exactly what that word said, and unsurprisingly, the Word of God was found, not to criticize, but to support the norms of the existing culture.

It is often assumed that Christian belief includes the following: the Bible is the absolute Word of God, Jesus’ death propitiated an angry god, and in this sense he “died for your sins”, he physically rose from the dead, Jesus will come again to judge, faith means belief in certain doctrine, and the Lord’s Supper is mystical communion with Christ. These assumed beliefs are not at all universal nor even a majority opinion in Christian theology. Some progressive theologians would argue that these beliefs do not at all represent the experience of the early church. But now we go one step further and argue that these beliefs are not only contrary to what Jesus intended, but are also the creation of reactionary forces in the culture and most likely also in the church.

Loneliness, Part Two

6 Feb

Loneliness, Part Two

I have written about this many times, but it bears repeating. We are born into the world at a specific time and place, and as we develop we are bombarded with stimuli unique to us. It is both natural and necessary that we organize the stimuli, comparing, contrasting, grouping, cataloguing. In other words, we create an orderly world that we can relate to and deal with. We all do it, inescapably, inevitably, and without malicious intent. But we do it.

The process begins with nerve endings, where biological/chemical reactions send a signal one way or another along varying routes, the message already interpreted and re-interpreted many times before it ever reaches the central processing unit that we call the brain. Not only is the process largely subconscious, it is also largely preset before it ever reaches the sub-conscious at all. Unbeknownst to us, we have created a world of which we are unaware.

It is not a world in isolation from the real world “out there”, but neither is it a true representation of that objective and external reality. It is reality interpreted, siamese twins inseparable, unknown apart. The tragedy is that we are unaware of the inseparability, and quietly and unknowingly we come to confuse our view of reality with reality itself. Yes, there are “facts” on which we all agree, just as we as individuals can learn and grow, but the world that we have created precludes us from experiencing Realty, with that big R.

The result is that we feel as though something is missing, as indeed it is. We sense the absence of connection between what we feel and what we intuit is “out there”. We feel alone, unable to make the connection, unable to overcome the void. It’s not a good feeling, and so we try to fill the void using anything that comes along. Anything. Work, electronic gadgetry, alcohol, shopping, extreme sports. Anything that seems to fill the hole will work, and this includes exclusive clubs like gangs, militias, and narrow-minded religious groups that are based on exclusion and rejection of the “other”. They overcome the void but for a time,  however, and the emptiness returns.

Until something wonderful happens. There are moments in our life when our little world is shattered by a force that seemingly comes from nowhere. That arrival can come at any time, in any place, from any source, and our reaction to it can be goosebumps or tears, Aha! or Thank you. Athletes in the zone experience the force. Those overcome by the starry night feel it. Those who tear at the sight of starving children feel it. But it doesn’t last. The invasion and dismantling of our world is a momentary, fleeting phenomenon. We remember it, but cannot hang on, unless something else happens.

There are two ways that the memory lives on. One is an individual’s growing awareness of being part of a larger whole, realizing that all is one. The other, and these two are not mutually exclusive, is to share it with others. And now we get back to community and human connection. When we are in loving community, be it two or two hundred, or when we are aware of the Oneness of which we are a part, by some magic the moment is extended, and what was initially a solitary experience becomes a shared uplifting. The loneliness of the void is transformed by the power of belonging, caring and sharing, and we are liberated from the isolation of our own world.

If we are lonesome, as surveys tell us we are, there are actions we can initiate. If indeed loneliness has a biological feedback that causes us to be irritable and isolationist, in turn making us more lonesome and more prone to disease and mortality, we must break the cycle. We can be open and open-minded, vulnerable to change and trusting in all that is. Although we cannot demand a moment happen, we can become more welcoming. We can reach out to help those in need. We can become more aware of both the beauty and the pain that surrounds us. We can put ourselves in situations and attitudes wherein our world can be invaded and we can see with a new light. We can allow the light to shine in.

Biblical Billionaires and the Taming of Jesus, Part one

4 Feb

Part One

Given the extent to which people of wealth and power control our culture, we might wonder if the same influences controlled the destiny of the early Christian church and its understanding of Jesus and God. The answer seems to be yes.

From a historical point of view, the religious community described in the New Testament developed in four stages. The first was that created by Jesus himself. We often think of this community as limited to twelve male apostles, but there were women as well. We have the names of six, mention of “the others”, and we are told that they supported and provided for Jesus and his followers. The whole group was based in Capernaum from whence they traveled into the Galilean countryside. We must, therefore, imagine about 25 men and women who were gathered by Jesus and who lived together. The fullness of humanity incarnate in Jesus, the power and mystique of his person and his teaching, impacted them as nothing they had ever experienced before. Through him they had found a new life together, and they wanted to share this good news with others.

And then he was crucified.

Initially, so the story goes, they were terrified, denying that they ever knew the man, lest they too be implicated in the crime of sedition against the Roman Empire. After that initial bout of terror a new experience enveloped them, and so begins the second stage of the communal development. They remembered Jesus and all he had done and said, and came to believe that he was present again in their midst in a new form, the form of spirit. As historians of the 21st century we can say with certainty that the disciples believed that the holy spirit of Jesus infused their community, reinstating the fullness and joy they had experienced in their life together before he was killed, and again inspiring them to share with others what they now experienced.

They shared, they grew in number, and so begins stage three in their development. Let us assume that Jesus was crucified in the year 30 ce, and that Paul was converted to this new faith in 35. When Paul writes his first letter in 45, we discover that there are already in existence many small congregations that have emerged and, further, that there are groups within these churches that don’t agree with one another. A lot has happened since the crucifixion. The church has grown, and controversy has arisen about many matters. Who was Jesus? What did he do for us? How do we know? Who were there as eyewitnesses? Are men and women equal? Do we have to free our slaves? Must I share my property with the less fortunate? How are we to relate Jew and Gentile?

Paul had much to say on these matters, partially but forcefully summed up in his words to the church in Galatia: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free.” Unfortunately, his word did not carry the day, and so we enter stage four, epitomized in the first letter of Timothy, found in the New Testament and written toward the end of the first century. Here we are bluntly warned, among other matters, that women are subject to men, that we must be subject to the governing authorities, slaves must obey their masters, and priests and bishops rule the church.

The first question that comes to mind is: why? why did the history unfold as it did? How did we get from a ragtag group of happy, fulfilled and excited men and women, to an institution that turned its back on every change Jesus tried to initiate, basically reverting to the existing patriarchy/patronage system that pervaded the culture?

What Jesus both incarnated and taught was an alternative to the system that benefitted the rich and powerful, be they in government, business or religion. And, to put it bluntly, they did not like that. The crucifixion is proof. They had to get rid of him. That didn’t succeed as they hoped, inasmuch as the movement spread. The takeover of the movement by conservative forces, however, did succeed, although it took a long time. Questions arise. Was there an intentional plot by them to take over the church? Did the influences that changed the church arise from within the church itself? Or was it the inertia of society that squashed the revolutionary impetus? Whatever the answer to these questions, the fact remains that by the end of the first century, Jesus and the disciples had lost and culture had won. As a consequence, much of what we accept as basic Christian understanding did not originate with Jesus and the disciples, but rather with the interests of the rich and powerful.

Loneliness, Part One

4 Feb

Loneliness, Part One

Although homo sapiens differ greatly, there are a few characteristics that we share in common. One of these is our need for human connections.

A Dec. 11, 2019 article by Lynn Darling in the Journal of the AARP, offers an evolutionary perspective. Back in the good old days of mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers, danger precluded separation from the protecting family. If you wanted to survive, you hung around the group, and when separated, biology kicked in with a feeling of loneliness that encouraged a quick return to your community.

Many factors in modern society separate us from one another. Work calls us to a new state, and we miss our old friends. Individualized electronic devices drive our attention to the screen and away from people. Fear, often warranted, keeps us off the street. The forces of separation are manifold and powerful.

Our evolutionary heritage tries to impress upon us that this separation is dangerous and detrimental to our well-being, and one dimension of our biological reaction to this separation is inflammation. Chronic inflammation subsequently creates and participates in a feedback loop wherein the biological/chemical messengers impact the brain with a negative message that causes the person to be irritable, isolated, suspicious, and fearful of making new friends. A self-defensive posture sets in. One misreads the intent of others, sends signals that repel would-be companions, and creates a distorted view of reality. This vicious cycle, manifest at both the biological and social level, affects every generation and totals 75% of the US population.

It’s not simply a question of whether one is surrounded by others or not, but whether that interaction is meaningful. It is the quality of our human connections that matters, and that quality involves depth, meaning, and purpose. It can be found in a relationship with one other person, or with many, and that quality can be found in a variety of connections at the same time. A person can belong meaningfully and simultaneously to a work team, study group, choir, cycling club, sports team, and so on. But, apparently, according to the surveys, there are tens of millions in the US alone who lack such support.

And there are also millions who do in fact find that support, but in the wrong places. Belonging to a gang offers a sense of identity founded on exclusion and dehumanizing of the “other”. Belonging to a militia or a white supremacist organization can also offer a sense of identity, again founded on exclusion and dehumanizing of the “other”. The same can be said of fundamentalist churches, basing their identity on the belief that they alone have the truth and everyone else is bound for hell.

It is insufficient to be surrounded by people if meaningful interaction is absent. And it is insufficient to have that meaningful interaction if it is based on exclusion of the “other”. Clearly something additional is going on. The need for community is one characteristic that we all share in common, but there are others. We’ll look at that in the next reflection.

The New Matrix for Thinking about Life and God

25 Jan

The New Matrix

For Thinking about Life and God

Memoirs and Reflections

Carl Krieg

At about 8:30 every Sunday morning a horn would honk in front of the house at 114 Gansevoort Blvd on Staten Island, NY, and my mother would make sure my tie was straight and then plunk the fedora on my head. This would have been after a breakfast of eclairs from a bakery at the end of the street where she would stop on the way home from the night shift at Halloran Hospital, where my mother worked as a licensed practical nurse. In the car outside waiting for me was Mr. Frank Monnick and his two children, a boy and a girl, both a little older than I. He was a Sunday school teacher, and off we went to Zion Scandinavian Lutheran Church for Sunday School and then church.

Zion was what we today would call fundamentalist, but then so was everybody else in those days, except for the Unitarians, and we knew enough to stay away from them. Jesus had died on the cross for our sins, and this we knew because the Bible told us so.  It was a cozy world, theologically speaking, without doubt, without confusion, without critical thinking. That all changed when I went off to Dartmouth College at the tender age of 16 in 1959 and took my first religion course in New Testament studies. From there it was off to Union Theological Seminary in New York City and the University of Chicago Divinity School, positions in a church here and there, and an Assistant Professorship in the religion department at Thiel College, Greenville, PA.

And now I am 76, no longer tender, a little more confused, and definitely more critical. It’s hard to know when through the years one thought morphed into another, where the boundary line was between thinking this way and then that.

It’s all very confusing today. Science continues to cross new frontiers. China is building a huge factory to clone cows. Biologists are splicing genes into the appropriate place to cure disease and perhaps create superhumans. Hubble sends pictures of distant galaxies…….

Meanwhile, on the religious turf, fundamentalists who have successfully co-opted the name “Christian”, picket and attack abortion clinics, wail about taking Jesus out of Christmas, proclaim the bible as the infallible word of god, and form the backbone of the Republican party.

I pretty much know what I believe when it comes to differentiating myself from those guys. I’ve spent a lifetime at the task. In my mind, Jesus was not born of a virgin, did not walk on water, and did not leave a tomb empty. God did not dictate the bible, does not interfere in nature, is not omnipotent, does not sit on a throne, and will not cure you of your disease. But put that Hubble picture of outer space in front of me, or try to convince me that reality is a probability curve, or that particles on opposite sides of the universe affect one another instantly, and what to believe becomes a bit more uncertain. Sometimes I think it’s easier to believe in a bearded god sitting on a throne that to believe that stuff.

But believe it we must, at least some of it. We must look at certain realities that force us to re-think basic concepts, no matter who we are or what we believe. Some of it will be from science, some from the social sciences, but all of it impacts us and demands that we respond. Times have changed drastically, the new matrix for thinking and living presenting challenges previously not even known. Facts is facts. We can no longer pretend that they don’t exist. We need to think anew.

What follows is a thinking out loud about thinking anew. It is not a carefully argued scholarly treatise, but rather reflection and memoir, one person putting it together for himself. My comments are both theological and anthropological. I want to look at the facts and understand how they impact the way I think about myself, and that includes understanding how they impact what I believe about god. You may be a secular humanist or you may be a pastor of a church but we will all share the same facts. And we will differ in our response to those facts. The atheist will wonder why I still talk about god, and the church person may very well conclude that I’m not talking about god at all.

We begin with the largest context for this matrix, the universe itself. Who we are and who god is are questions completely recast by the images from Hubble. Moving from the universe, the next smaller context is our own earth and its place in the Milky Way galaxy and the solar system. This is followed by discussion of homo sapiens: the evolving species, characteristics of individual (but not particular) human beings, and then a look at some specific people, namely Jesus and the disciples. In each section, the focus narrows ever more, each new and smaller context being set within those that preceded. Together, they form a new matrix for thinking about self and god.

Part One: The Unfolding Universe

Fact 1: The very big

The universe is incredible, literally. With the help of land-and satellite-based telescopes, mathematics and astro-physics present us with a universe beyond imagination. Start with a star and its planetary system. Add to that a couple of hundred billion comparable systems in a rather limited area of space, and call that a galaxy. Gather a hundred billion or so such galaxies, and call that a cluster. I’m not sure how many clusters or cluster groups there are, but even they are connected by long (!) wispy strings of inter-galactic gas.

When one looks at any object in space, what is seen is the light that has taken a long time to reach us. Sunlight, for example, that warms the earth, actually left the sun about 8 minutes previously. When we look at some galaxy, we can measure the distance to it through light spectrum analysis, and we know that what we are seeing is what was there long, long ago. We are not seeing an object as it now is in our time, but as it was when that light first left it. Back in high school, we all learned that speed x time = distance. Put otherwise, time = distance / speed. We have measured the distance, and we know the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, so it’s simple division to determine the time. And the age of galaxies turns out to be measured in billions of years.

This universe of ours, furthermore, is expanding. Everything is moving further away from everything else. In order to conceptualize this, imagine a blob of raisin muffin dough placed in an oven. As the dough rises, all the raisins become further apart from one another. Just like an expanding universe.

How do we know the universe is expanding? We know the elements that constitute a star. Each of these elements gives off a certain spectrum of light. When the source of any light is moving away from you, the wavelength of that light moves closer to the red light end of the spectrum, a process called red-shifting. And every distant star in the universe is red-shifting, proof that they are moving away, becoming more distant, and that the universe is expanding. Stars have a life; they do not exist forever as a hydrogen to helium fireball. Eventually, their energy becomes manifest as atoms of heavier elements, and the fireball creative process diminishes. A recent scholarly inventory of stars shows that stars are not as bright as they used to be. The universe is expanding and star energy is being transformed into inert elements. The universe is dying.

Why? To begin with, only 4% of the stuff of the universe is what is called ordinary matter. How do we know this? Certain gravitational effects on stars and galaxies can be measured, and the ordinary matter is insufficient to produce the observed effects. The conclusion is that there is more than ordinary matter at play here, and even though we cannot see it, it’s real, and it comes in two forms, matter and energy. So-called dark energy makes up 76% of our universe, dark matter 20%, and we don’t know anything about them other than that they exist.

Why, you might ask, does not all this matter and energy gradually begin to slow expansion and pull the universe back together? The answer is that this unknowable energy is the very force driving the expansion: it is a gravity that is repulsive rather than attractive, an alternative allowed by Einstein’s general theory of gravity. Repulsive gravity! Who knew?!

And what of the beginning, the Big Bang? Here again we use that old formula relating speed, time, and distance. We know how fast the universe is expanding. Suppose then that we put it all in reverse and assume that the universe is contracting. How long would it take for everything to return to the original point from which it all sprang? Answer: 13.8 billion years. The Big Bang happened that long ago, give or take some variation in the rate of expansion in the very beginning.

There are problems that lead to other questions, of course, and that is where, some would argue, it really gets interesting. Inflation of the universe, acceleration of the expansion, more than one universe, multiverses, string theory, a process that led to the Big Bang, Hawking’s belief in self creation out of nothing. Wow!

Fact 2: The very small

It’s hard to imagine how big the universe is, but at least I can understand the immensity. The very small is a different matter. Back in the old days, let’s say high school, we all knew that the atom was like a little solar system. The protons and neutrons made up the center, and all the electrons flew in orbits around the so-called nucleus. I was shocked to learn one day how much of that atom was actually empty space. As an analogy, pretend that there is a speck of dust in the spatial center of Notre Dame cathedral. That speck would represent the nucleus, and the floor, walls and roof would be the orbiting electrons. The rest is empty space. Of course, this space is filled with force fields, otherwise you would fall right through the chair that you hoped to sit on. So it’s not really empty.

Then it was discovered that the electrons could orbit only in certain energy levels. They could get on an elevator and go to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd….floors, but no 1.5 floor, etc. The energy of orbiting electrons was digital, not analog. They could jump from one level to another, but couldn’t stop somewhere in between. Those levels are called quanta, hence “quantum mechanics”.

So far so good. Then it becomes strange. The famous double slit experiment showed that reality was not what it seemed. Set up a “gun” that shoots particles at a piece of cardboard that has two vertical slits in it, and place a wall behind that cardboard. As you start shooting, the sensible expectation is that the particles would go through the slits and make two vertical lines on the wall, corresponding to the two slits. Guess what? That’s not what happens. Instead, as you shoot, something goes through those slits that appears on the wall as a wave pattern, looking something like a bar code that appears these days on everything you buy. What we thought was a particle, is also a wave, a wave that goes through both slits at the same time! Whoa.

So instead of a nucleus with electrons in orderly orbit, the solar system in miniature, we  have a bunch of waves. The question now becomes, how do we get from these waves to concrete objects? As I look out the window at my truck, I do not see indefinite waves moving about; I see a device that I can drive down the road. How do we get from the atomic waves to the macro world of things?

One answer relies on observation. Everything at the atomic level is flying around and then, bam!, I look at it. Suddenly, the very fact of my observing stops the wave in its tracks, and particles now appear that have direction and velocity that can be measured. This theory is called the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Observation stops the wave in its tracks and turns it into an object. Not everyone was happy with this view. Einstein, for one, did not like the uncertainty that the bunch of waves portrayed. How could one be a physicist and measure and predict if nature had no given order? “God does not play dice”, as he famously said. He also wanted the moon to be there whether someone was looking at it or not. Can’t blame him for that. If one were speaking to someone of the Copenhagen persuasion, one could ask if the observation of a mouse counts. Can a mouse “collapse” the “wave function” (we’re using the fancy language now)? Could a camera? Or how about an observer from another universe? Or- I actually saw a video wherein Deepak Chopra claimed that god was this observer. The wave function collapses into the ordinary world because god sees it. Thank god!

Perhaps the most challenging of the quantum phenomena is what’s called particle entanglement. Start with a particle and smash it into two particles. Now change a characteristic of one of the particles and automatically and instantaneously and without causality the other particle is affected, even though it may be on the other side of the universe. Whoa! Wait a minute. Something happens far, far away, with no cause? Einstein referred to that as ‘spooky action at a distance”, and did not like it one bit. A few recent experiments, however, seem to prove it to be the case. With most other laymen, I ask: “Does this not necessitate something moving faster than the speed of light, which is impossible according to relativity? To date, I have not found a convincing answer to that question. Probably because I didn’t understand the answer.

Commentary 1: Confusions and Alternatives

I remember when I first learned about the bizarre implications of special relativity. As one approaches the speed of light, mass increases, approaching infinite mass. And the faster one goes, the more time slows. Well, I thought, a perfect description of god, moving at the speed of light, so time stops for her while it plods along for the rest of us, so she knows everything that did happen and will happen, and she has infinite mass that includes everything. Uninformed thoughts, of course, but it illustrates our desire to find an explanation for god, a place where god can be.

Folks are still looking for that place. The god that I thought about as a kid was the proverbial old man in the sky. That was the place where god lived. It’s really a difficult image to erase. How could it be otherwise? Prayers at meals or at bedtime were always directed toward somebody that could do something, be it bless the food or have Santa bring me a new bike for Christmas. If god can’t DO something, what good is she? I suspect that many of us think of god this way even though we won’t admit it. The god that atheists reject is usually this guy. That’s why when the first Russian cosmonaut circled the earth he reported that he found no god up there. The situation is even more dramatic today. Pictures from outer, outer space, that show us the immensity and beauty of the far corners of our universe, do not capture an image of god. The three tiered universe of biblical times, where heaven and god were up, Sheol was down, and we walked in between, is no longer a tenable option.

There are other options, of course. One is deism, which basically says that god created the universe, got it started, and then disappeared to somewhere else, having nothing more to do with us. Not clear here what difference this god might make. Pantheism, in its most basic iteration, asserts that everything is god. One might ask of pantheism how god differs from matter. The same question can be put to a third option called panentheism, which asserts that god is everywhere, in everything, but also different. God is said to transcend the universe. Just how god “transcends” (differs from) the universe is a bit difficult to figure out. Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians of the last century, tried to describe this transcendent god as the Ground of Being or Being-Itself. I always found it a strain to bridge the gap between Being-Itself and a god who supposedly is active in history.

Another tack is to identify god as the consciousness or mind of the universe. I suppose that there is a certain attraction to this model. After all, we as humans like to believe that we have a mind, a self-consciousness that inhabits our body, a spirit, a soul, so shouldn’t god be the soul of the universe? An offshoot of this approach places god’s consciousness in the evolution of ours. That is, in the history of the universe, the universe has become self conscious, and that self consciousness is manifest in homo sapiens. I suppose that a corollary of this option is that when we die off, so does god.

Another and rather inventive theology comes out of string theory. String theory postulates that everything is made up of vibrating strings, so infinitesimally tiny that, by definition, they can never be observed, only theorized. To make the math “work” (not being a mathematician, I never know exactly what that phrase means), there have to be eleven dimensions. Not just the three that we’ve all come to know and love, plus time- the fourth-, but eleven, hiding right next to us, totally unseen. God, one might say, is hiding in one of these dimensions. There is a certain attraction to this model as well: it literally makes a place for god that surrounds us but transcends us at the same time in the same place. As a bonus, it can never be proven or disproven. No cosmonaut will ever give us a report.

Perhaps god hangs out in one of those extra dimensions postulated by string theory. Perhaps god is the cosmic observer of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory. Perhaps god is the cosmic consciousness that enables the entanglement of particles separated by cosmic scale distances. Perhaps god created the Big Bang. Medieval theologians thought of god as the First Cause, that which started everything. Quantum theory has laid causality to rest, much to Einstein’s chagrin, and replaced it with…what? The random acts of measurement and observation?

For my feeble mind, whether god is in some place, whether god is a Cosmic Person somewhere or Being-Itself everywhere is a question beyond my ability to think. I can’t even understand quantum theory, much less see how god fits into it. It’s a reality  almost impossible to conceive, and particle physicists themselves have no consensus. Finally, it seems, theology shares incomprehensibility with another discipline! Both god and science transcend our ability to comprehend.

Commentary 2: New Directions

The easiest way to react to the apparent infinity of space and the wave nature of reality, is probably just to accept it and wash the dishes. But how can we talk about god? Where can we begin? I’m one of those people that postpones the dishes and asks that question. It’s all very confusing, and I need a simple answer.

As I try to understand the universe and my place in it, instead of beginning with the infinite universe, I, as a person influenced by Jesus, begin with history, and ask a simple question. Where did Christianity begin? and what was that all about? Those are questions that have a historical answer, something I can grab onto.

Some evangelicals might answer by saying:  Christianity began when Jesus was born in a manger, or when god decided to become a man, or when the crucified Jesus came back to life. But the answer is: none of the above. There is a fact that everyone knows but pays little or no attention to. When Jesus was walking around talking to people, (yes, he was a real person) some responded with an enthusiasm that went way beyond the ordinary, and they became the disciples. The male dominated church of later decades and centuries limited those disciples to twelve men, but the record tells us about an equal number of women who also were incredibly taken with Jesus, followed him in his travels, and supported him out of their means. There were about 25 named disciples, men and women who discovered something rather special in Jesus, and if they had never discovered that, no one would have paid any attention to him. He would have gone on to lead the life of a first century Galilean, and that would have been the end it.

The encounter between Jesus and his disciples was the beginning. Their initial experience is the foundation upon which were built the later gospel stories, the edifice of the Christian church, and all the dogma and doctrine, orthodox and heretical, that has occupied theologians for two millennia. It seems to me that we should pay serious attention to that experience. And we’re still talking history, not faith.

What was it?

That question is not as easy to answer as you might think. No reporters, no video cams, not even any books. Well, that’s not totally true. We do have the books that grew out of oral reports and assumed their final form sometime between 60-120 CE, but there are no direct quotes, only intimations of what probably was going on. A lot of people have dedicated their lives to studying these books and intimations. There are always wing nuts who conclude what they want- we can all only hope that we are not counted among them- but the consensus of scholarship leads us to conclude that the disciples’ experience with Jesus falls into two categories: according to their testimony, they discovered what it meant to be a fulfilled human being, and they discovered who god was.

And the key to that discovery, even more impactful than their daily time spent with Jesus, was that after Jesus had been executed, the disciples gathered together and came to a startling conclusion: that the man Jesus who was dead was now alive in their midst as spirit. The idea was not that of a resuscitated corpse. Despite all the hoopla about Jesus walking out of the tomb, that is not at all what those people believed. The disciples, despite the fact that Jesus had been crucified, now believed that he was still alive in their midst, enough so that they were willing to face death themselves in proclaiming this experience as truth.

Not a resuscitated corpse, but also not “just” spirit. Jesus, alive as spirit, was, they believed, a new manifestation of reality that had not been experienced before. There were no tools with which to conceptualize. The later books spoke of appearances and an empty tomb, but they were but pointers to the resurrection, not the thing itself.

What did this experience indicate about god? about the universe? What do we learn here? The resurrection, understood in this way, helped the disciples to believe quite simply that the evil manifest at the crucifixion was not the last word. It was the divine affirmation that love is the essence of all that is, and that god does not act through brute force (after all, Jesus was crucified), but acts through the power of this love. These are two huge statements. And they are statements, now not of history, but faith.

Above all, it is not at all obvious that love wins. In fact, the opposite seems more likely true. If thinking of god philosophically is something of a dead end, thinking of a loving god in a world replete with evil seems to be a road with no beginning. We will discuss this more explicitly in the section on evil. For now, I want to put on the table the faith statement that for Christian theology the resurrection of Jesus means that goodness and love are the driving forces of the cosmos. The point is not that there was a resurrection. The point is that goodness and love drive the universe. When we stare in amazement at the images sent by Hubble or at the elemental particles of the universe, what we see is love at work.

Any other statements about Jesus and god that go beyond what was just said is speculation. The experience of the disciples does not give us license to talk about all those concepts that Christian theology has loved to talk about, of which there are many. For example, from the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us…” For as wonderful and comforting as this may be, it is pure speculation. Jesus ascended into heaven and became the second person of the trinity. Again, pure speculation. Jesus died for our sins. Pure speculation. The disciples did not experience any of this; it came later as people started to reflect on that original experience.

This is not to say that that which is speculated is necessarily wrong, but we should realize that it is speculative in nature. From the resurrection of Jesus, the early disciples came to believe that it is love that in the final analysis guides all that is. Nothing more yet. I’m willing to bet that many humanists would agree.

As I indicated earlier, and I don’t want to argue this, for me personally, believing in god and a universe of love is no more difficult than believing in the expanding universe, a multiverse, reality as a probability curve, or the entanglement of particles.  What science today sets forth as reality is about as bizarre as an active god sitting on a heavenly throne. Of course, there is proof that the science is true. And is there no proof that god is real. Or is there? One might argue that those special moments that we all experience (see below) would lead us to suspect (not prove) that there is a cosmic Thou behind those experiences. Does homo sapiens have a sense of the Holy, an intuition that there is more to life and reality than meets the eye?

Part Two: Earth

Fact

There may be more than one universe; not sure how we’d ever know, other than as a mathematical construct. Sticking to what we do know, the next smaller context would be our galaxy, the Milky Way. We can see via telescopes that galaxies come in clusters, and that some galaxies being the bullies they are, are eating or absorbing smaller neighbors. In fact, our home galaxy is just such a bully, eating another galaxy or two even as we eat our dinner. The whole process, of course, will eventually impact earth in one way or another.

There is another galaxy in the neighborhood that we call Andromeda, and, under the mutual attraction of gravity, there will be a galactic collision in about 2 billion years. The Milky Way and Andromeda will then become one galaxy, more then of a spherical shape than spiral, as we are now. There might even be a third guy that gets pulled into the action. What happens to us? We will either be thrust into a completely new orbit, or we will be instantly annihilated. As if that weren’t enough, we have recently discovered that at the center of every galaxy, including our own, is a black hole. Long dormant, ours seems to be awakening and eating up some cosmic gas all of a sudden. Uh oh.

So there we are, possibly still revolving around the sun if we survive the collision, but a new surprise lurks just around the corner. Stars have histories, as do galaxies and all else in the universe. Our star, which we call the sun, has about 5 billion years to go before it changes into something drastically different. Right now, hydrogen is being transformed into helium and giving off that wonderful sunshine that gives life to the planet. Time will come, however, when that hydrogen will be all used up. Just prior to that, the sun expands big time into what’s called a red giant, the outer edge of which will go beyond earth’s orbit. To put it bluntly, we’ll be gone. Even if we manage not to destroy our home, it will be destroyed anyway. Even if somehow we could create the perfect kingdom of god on earth, it will be absolutely destroyed as the red dwarf expands. Should some future incarnation of us still be around, we’ll be looking wistfully over our shoulder as we fly off to a new location.

Galileo had a different problem in 1666, as Copernicus had had about 200 years earlier. According to the bible, when Joshua was leading the Hebrews against the Amorites, he asked god to stop the motion of the sun and moon to allow extra time for the battle. God obliged, and the Hebrews won. For the medieval christian mind, this was sufficient proof that the earth was the center of the universe and that everything revolved around us.

Copernicus proved otherwise. The earth revolved around the sun. And Galileo said the same, which earned him the name of heretic and house arrest for his life’s reminder. It was not until 350 years later that he was pardoned of his heresy.

Focusing on earth, exclusive for the moment of homo sapiens, there are at least three related issues: the evolution of rocks, plants and animals, the origin of life,  the oneness of everything on the planet, and climate change. When it comes to evolution, the greatest stir among religious circles is the evolution of sapiens, which we will consider later. Unless one is a fundamentalist, there’s not a lot of worry caused by the discovery of parts of North America on the shore of Britain (tectonic plate movement and all that), or by the unique variation of the beaks of finches on the Galapagos Islands (Darwin’s momentous discovery).

Where all that life started, however, is another question. There is no universally accepted scientific explanation for the origin of life, although there are some theories. It all began deep under ice, where protection from uv rays allowed certain chemical processes to take place. Or from the crystalline formations in rock. Or in shallow pools of magic brew, absorbing sunlight and zapped by lightning. Or in deep sea vents where super high temperatures and pressures create new combinations without sunlight. Or perhaps a comet or asteroid brought life here, but that merely begs the question about the origin. So far, then, we do not know how, where or when life began.

The third issue in this section on earth pertains to the oneness of everything on the planet. Just suppose that the life-from-rock theory finally comes up with the proof it needs. We would then be shown to have evolved from rocks! Everything, actually, would have evolved from rocks. It’s at least a fact that all successive life proceeded from some bacterium once upon a time. If that’s not an argument for the oneness of all life on earth, I don’t know what is. It should not surprise us if animals are smart, pass information along generations, make tools, communicate. It should not surprise us if plants like Mozart, if indeed they do.

The last issue is the most immediate. The earth is warming. The earth has warmed before, and it has cooled, and continents have drifted, and sea level has risen and fallen. The issue is complex, the evidence is bountiful, and the conclusion is that we are now in a human induced warming created mostly by greenhouse gasses. There was a warming about 125,000 years ago due to orbital change that impacted the amount of solar energy reaching earth. The last warming period due to a rise in greenhouse gases comparable to what we have today, was 11-17 million years ago. Sea level was 17 meters higher than today, the shape of continents was vastly different, as was the variety of critters inhabiting land and sea.

Granted this is not galactic collision, but it is just around the corner, and the immediate impact will be catastrophic. Perhaps the impact most easily visualized is the rise in sea level, inundating coastlines that are home to hundreds of millions of human beings. Compound that with drought and limited food supply, and the horror of the situation begins to come into focus. This is happening, right now. As we seek to make sense of life and of god, we must accept the fact that the next few hundred years, starting just 12 years from now, will wreak a havoc never before known by homo sapiens.

Commentary

1. Whether caused by galactic collision or the aging of our sun, the earth will be destroyed. That thought should make us a bit more humble. Not literally, of course, but psychologically and metaphorically, many sapiens think of themselves as the center of the universe that will last forever. We need to get over that attitude. We must also realize that whatever utopia we may achieve, should we be so fortunate, it will eventually terminate.

2. Many religious people, fundamentalist or not, believe that god created the Big Bang and then later she created life. But from a theological perspective, we don’t need to keep finding god a job. What was before the Big Bang? Aha! God. What created life? Aha! God. Science is like the automation of industry. It will forever take god’s job away. Just as we need to re-define what a job means for sapiens, we need to do the same for god, if we choose to talk about god. The question about the origin of life is a scientific question. Perhaps they can answer it, perhaps not, but we don’t need to import god as the answer.

3. It’s my own shortcoming that I could never comprehend mysticism. I don’t even know how to define it, other than as an intuitive, non-rational sense of oneness with the divine or with Reality. At any rate, my point is that when I speak here of the oneness of all on the face and in the bowels of earth I am referring to a scientific reality. It may also have a divine transcendental dimension, but our first task is to realize that as sapiens we are one with nature, not the lord over it. We are not made in the imago dei any more than an amoeba. When that Hebrew writer quoted god as saying “go forth and have dominion over earth” it was a bit short-sighted. Better we should be reminded of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

4. While we go about our merry way, catastrophic climate change unfolds before our very eyes. The political will required to reduce human creation of greenhouse gases is monumental and thus far lacking. This is not to say that the task is impossible. The cessation of war is not impossible. Capturing solar energy for all our energy needs is not impossible. Spreading our wealth and resources so that all have the basics of life is not impossible. Whether homo sapiens has the will power to do this good remains to be seen, but the evidence is not promising.

Related Reflection

Environment, Oligarchy and Resurrection

The Problem

Early hominids hunted the wooly mammoth to extinction. In fact, one can trace the path of homo sapiens out of Africa, through Asia and into America by the path of animals that became extinct when humans arrived. Clearly, the issue of environmental stewardship is not new. It’s been around a long time, but the context today is new. Instead of paleolithic tribes we have governments, multi national corporations, often working in tandem with government, and an oligarchic elite that seems to be worldwide. Wooly mammoth step aside: the whole planet is in trouble. Fifty years ago picking up litter along the roadside was de rigueur, lest the observing Native American shed another tear. How naive it seems we were.

Environmental stewardship is defined in Wikipedia as “…the responsible use and protection of the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practices.” Inasmuch as most business on the planet is controlled by a small number of corporations, these are the words that must apply to these biggest of multi-nationals: responsible, protection, conservation, and sustainable practices. Would that they did.

The problem today is monumental. The impact of climate change is manifest everywhere, even as pseudo scientists on the payroll of big oil continue to deny the truth. Estimates are that in 15 years 30% of the globe will be short of fresh water. In the state of Nebraska signs in motels and restaurants warn against drinking the water, laced as it is with chemicals from agricultural runoff. The CEO of Nestle, one of the world’s largest bottlers of water believes that people should have to pay for this precious commodity. Water. Clean air. Waste disposal. 9 billion people. Non nutritious “food”. The list of problems is endless.

The Players

The question is not about who is responsible for having created this situation. In one way or another, we all are. Nor is the question about who is responsible for fixing the mess. Again, we all are. The more urgent question is: who has the power? Rounding up the usual suspects, we find three: government, corporations, and populism.

Speaking from within the American context, the line of demarcation between government and business is quite fuzzy. The “revolving door” moves government officials into corporate positions of leadership, where they can influence their former colleagues, who are waiting their turn at the big money. Corporate lobbies often write the very laws that are supposed to regulate them. The government relies on industry for almost everything. Computers. Missiles. Feeding the army. Fighting wars. Cyber security. Without business expertise, legislators hardly know what to do. Witness the great recession, wherein only the banks understood the financial instruments that they themselves had created. How is an elected government to govern when they don’t understand the problem? How many officials are elected because they do in fact understand the issues? And we know that this situation is not limited to the American scene. The Eisenhower warning about the military industrial complex needs to be updated. The complex to be feared today is the government/corporate symbiosis.

There is, however, another level of complicity. Bankers called to testify before a senate hearing scoff at the questions being put to them. In Russia recently, a Putin critic with populist support was shot down, killed as were many other critics, but at the so-called Mercury Club, representing the leading business interests, the main speaker was critical of both Putin’s economic and foreign policy, but spoke with total impunity. When the US and other governments impose sanctions, they target not only vital interests of the nation involved, but also the interests of the business moguls supportive of that country’s leader. In the shadows of government and corporations there appears to be a group of powerful people who are very powerful indeed. If we ask about who has the power to address the environmental crisis that we face, one answer is government, another is business, and a third seems to lie with the oligarchy that inheres in both.

In the good old days, aristocracy had a sense of longevity and honor- they wanted the estate to last for future generations. The problem with a modern corporate based oligarchy is that it is interested primarily in immediate reward. Accumulation of profit and therefore power is measured in seconds. The definition of environmental stewardship which includes sustainability is a concept alien to modern money makers. It doesn’t have to be that way, but myopia seems to rule the markets.

Part of the problem are the investors. Of course, many of these phantoms are very wealthy people masquerading as hedge funds and the like. Their sole purpose is to make money fast, not build a factory in a town, not plant fields of grain. Other types of investors are somewhat more familiar, if not likable. Pension funds, for example, are charged with getting and maintaining and increasing the amount of money available to future retirees. Insurance companies need income from investments to pay claims. When the US government fined BP for the oil spill, a British pension fund heavily invested in BP lost a great deal of money as the share value declined, and pensioners were hurt. In various entanglements, we are all invested in the destruction of the environment and reap the short term benefits.

Another dimension of the problem is that we have sold our soul to quantification. At this very moment, the EPA has set forth guidelines to regulate the emission of mercury into the air via smokestacks at coal power plants. The coal interests challenged the Agency (while, surprise, the nuclear interests supported the agency!), and brought the issue to the US Supreme Court. The question is not whether mercury in the air we breathe is a good thing or a bad thing; no one would say it is good. The issue before the court is whether the EPA counted the cost of implementing its regulations. It’s not sufficient that we know people will die from bad air. We have to know how many, so that we can tabulate how much money should be spent to remove the mercury. The health and well- being of millions has to have a price tag, otherwise we can’t be sure that the regulations are “worth it”.

Solutions?

But what are we to say to oligarchic power? We could appeal to a sense of morality. Do the right thing, please! Likely not to have much effect. We could use Norway as an illustration of what can happen when the common good takes precedence over profit. But, in the US, at least, socialism has been made into a bad word- even though Bernie Sanders, socialist senator from the state of Vermont is being received by millions who prefer populism over oligarchy. Or we could appeal to a common sense survival instinct. Like- “if you destroy the planet, even you will have no clean air and clean water, and  there will be no one with any money to buy your stuff”. When Henry Ford outrageously doubled the wages of his workers, he knew that a good capitalist relies upon a good market in a healthy environment, and his workers bought Fords. To whatever extent a global oligarchy exists, surely they must understand that the concept of a gated community does not apply to the planet as a whole, and that there is no escape from the destruction. Or not understand.

There is another way. There must be another way. There have always been captains of industry who worked hand in glove (or pocket) with the government. The oligarchy has always been there. But so have the people. Again, speaking from the American perspective, the power of the people has been the corrective voice that steered the ship of state safely between the twin threats of dictatorship and nihilistic chaos. Inasmuch as the US is the most powerful country on earth, it lies within our purview to be the defining influence in environmental stewardship. Common sense would show us the way.

Populism, however, can also go astray. Just because the people choose the path does not necessarily make it the right path.

And that brings us, inevitably and necessarily, to God’s will and those who dare to divine it as best they can. Whoever has the power to influence environmental policy, be it government, industry, oligarchy, or the populace, they need to hear a voice that speaks from the spirit.

Impossible as it may seem, there are those fundamentalist christian voices that proclaim that it is not the responsibility of Jesus’ followers to care for the earth, that when god wants to end it, he will do so. Jesus, it would seem, thought otherwise. Here was a man who reminded all he encountered that the earth was the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof, who incarnated the battle against oppression, be it of peasants or of the land they worked, and who challenged men and women to be what God called them to be, including good stewards of the earth.

Of course, he was crucified. The government did not tolerate sedition. Business liked matters as they stood. The oligarchy recognized an enemy when they saw one. And the people…clamoring, cheering…and then abandoning.

But that was not the end, at least if we can believe the witness of the men and women who became followers of Jesus. Though dead, they knew him to be alive in their midst, and they committed their lives to spreading the good news. And what was that good news? That despite the apparent victory of selfishness and greed ruining our planet, we rest assured that God is love and love ultimately conquers all.

Part Three: Evolving Sapiens

Fact

I am not a scientist, but the general outline of evolution seems pretty clear. Due to a variety of causes, genes in any given species will mutate. Mutations that help a species to survive and multiply are by definition beneficial to that species, helping it to adapt to changing environmental factors. Mutations detrimental to survival will factor into the demise of that species. There is no plan. Changes are due simply to random mutation and adaptation. And that change is a two way street. Any given species can become more complex in its struggle to survive and reproduce, or it can become simpler. Some bacteria have become simpler simply because simple made it easier to survive and reproduce. It all depends on what it takes for survival. Everything is contingent, which is to say that it need not have come into being, and it need not continue in its being.

As of now, no one knows how life began, but clearly it did. How we define life is a subject of controversy, but any definition would have to include the ability to reproduce. After life began, the environment continued to change, so life had to adapt to those new realities. And as life forms found themselves in different environments, they began to evolve in different directions, ultimately becoming plants and animals, fish, feathers and fur, conscious and not-so-conscious, the current panoply of life that surrounds us today even as it continues to change.

Understanding human evolution involves an admixture of fact and theory. The facts include well documented climate changes in Africa where many of the fossils were found, as well as genomes that have been sequenced only within the last decade. We have today the genome not only of homo sapiens, but of Neanderthals and Denisovans as well.

DNA analysis shows us that the humans of today share 99 per cent of their DNA with chimpanzees (or, some figures say 94%), and 50% of their DNA with bananas. How can this be?! From what I can understand as a simple layman, most DNA is instruction on details of life that all life has in common, such as the process by which a cell reproduces. But then there is that 1% difference, and it is in that 1% where the changes are given their unique marching orders. All humans share 99.9% DNA, but we don’t all look alike. Enter that .1% that makes us different from one another. And some of that .1% comes from Neanderthals.

  At some point in the past, a few million years ago at least, some of those great apes experienced a mutation(s) that proved explosive: they developed bipedalism. They could now walk on two legs instead of four. Quite possibly at the same time, the environment was becoming less forest canopy and more open savannah. Some evolutionary theorists suggest that standing upright was a strategic advantage in grassland, enabling our ancestors to see game further away. Be that as it may, the bipedal adaptation continued to create change for millions of years.

The bipedal Homo Heidelbergensis lived in Africa, Europe and Asia as recently as 600,000 years ago. For whatever the reason, most likely climatic, the groups in Europe and Africa developed in isolation from one another. The African group became Homo Sapiens and the northern group became Neanderthal. It was as recent as  50,000-80,000 years ago- although recent finds point to a time about 150,000—170,000 years- that some of the African group migrated north, moving along the eastern end of the Mediterranean and up into what we call Europe. And along the way, they met Neanderthal, big and strong, requiring a large daily intake of calories due to the cold weather, and having a brain bigger in size than ours today. 

The total picture is a bit fuzzy as to where and when the mixing occurred, and whether there were other hominims around, but there is no doubt that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens co-existed on this planet as recently as 30,000 years ago.

And mated. Every human today of non-African descent has some DNA inherited from Neanderthals. Those Homo Sapiens who remained in Africa never met Neanderthal, never mated with them, and therefore have no Neanderthal genetic inheritance. But for those who left, the high probability points to inter-breeding. While that was going on, other ancestors, such as the Denisovan, were evolving in Siberia, China, and Indonesia, and their DNA shows up in southeastern Asians.

The story will most likely always be a bit fuzzy, and new evidence is continually being found. But there is no doubt we have evolved from earlier homo species, that we are genetically bound to them and to one another, and that the process will not stop with us.

Commentary

The impact of evolution on traditional religion is explosive, and falls into two categories. The first is the claim of evolution that everything is contingent, the second is that species mutate. I’d like to analyze them one at a time, but before we do that, let’s listen to the full impact of what evolution has to say. It’s a broadside bombardment.

Commentary 1. The Impact of the Contingency Factor

No Divine Plan

Contingency means that there is no reason why anything has to be. It could as well be as not. There is no upward direction to the change; it just moves on. According to evolution, everything is contingent, and there is no cosmic plan, no teleological dimension. What then is god’s role in all this? If the cosmos has no purpose, it’s pretty hard to say that god has a purpose. That old time talk about god’s plan for salvation is like talking in the wind. How can divine providence control a process that has no direction and no goal?

No Divine Direction

Forced to give up the concept of a divine plan, some believe that god, even if she does not have a plan, has a hope that matters will end a certain way. God wills a direction for earth history, perhaps toward a Kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace and justice. Prominent in the biblical perspective is the promise of the day when the lion will lie down with the lamb, when men will beat their swords into plowshares, when all the earth will be filled with plenty. The question for theologians has always been whether the promise is fulfilled in history, or beyond. But however one answers that question, it is a meaningless issue from the evolutionary perspective: God may have a hope, but the universe has no goal.

No Kingdom of God

There was a time in American history when the predominant theological outlook, called the Social Gospel, was very optimistic about the future. Things were getting inevitably better. Before you know it, the Kingdom of God on earth would be here, at least in preliminary form. But then began the great depression and the rumblings leading to the second world war, and the social gospel optimism was replaced by Christian Realism, under the inspiration of Reinhold Niebuhr. God’s historical kingdom was replaced by an eschatological kingdom that would not arrive until the end of time, whenever that might be. People today continue to look for the end of time and the coming of god’s kingdom, and continue to predict when that day will arrive. Todays historical reality is so depressing for some that the only hope they have is that it will all end.

What has evolutionary cosmology to say to all this? God’s promise of a Kingdom, whether in history or beyond, is null and void. If god does not intervene in the process, how can we affirm that the dream of god will be implemented? This is a radical repudiation of a basic tenet of biblical theology.

No Moral Law

Instead of talking about a divine plan, or a divine hope or direction into the future, others speak of some moral law that has been part and parcel of the universe since the beginning of time. The starry sky above, and the moral law within, and all that. That belief enabled Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, to fight racism with the presumed conscience of the “enemy” as his only tool. But again the questions of evolution: where did this moral law begin? with homo sapiens? with Neanderthal? with the Big Bang? If it does exist, will it last, or will it die out?

Commentary 2. The Impact of the Mutation Factor

No Singular Incarnation

Let’s move on from the scientific assertion that there is no teleological end toward which the cosmic process moves, to the assertion that species evolve. The broadside continues. Given that homo sapiens arose out of the species that went before, mated with Neanderthals, and continues to evolve, what does it mean to say that God was incarnate in Jesus? that Jesus was true man? Was there a Neanderthal Jesus?

No Singular Atonement

It is commonplace in Christianity, even outside fundamentalist circles, to assert that “Jesus died for our sins”. Whether that is an accurate description of what Jesus did is a topic for another day, but for those who want to say that, what does it mean from an evolutionary perspective? Did the Neanderthals need someone to die for them? Or Homo Heidelbergensis? And where is the dividing line? And if we do not say that Jesus died for our sin, but only that we needed him to do something for us, why is it that we need a savior? from what?

No Trinity

Even if one wanted to believe in god, it is highly selective, from an evolutionary perspective, to focus on one person from one planet and place that person into the cosmic godhead. Can we really believe that a man from Galilee is part of a cosmic-and-beyond triune god?

Humans not Special

Inasmuch as all life can be traced back to a common ancestor, what does it mean to be a human being? We homo sapiens like to think that we are the apex of nature, the epitome of self consciousness, and created in the image of god, whatever that might mean. We have a soul, and that makes us special. Really? Is not the belief in human superiority nothing more than a grand Illusion? Everyone knows that golden retrievers are more godlike than we are. And every day a new study shows that other members of the animal kingdom share elements of self awareness that we previously thought unique to humans. The latest news is about ravens.

Looking backwards, where can we mark the dividing line between ape and homo, between Neanderthal and homo? Some say we have something special, perhaps a soul, but did that something special just suddenly become part of a species, say June 3, 762,000 BCE? Did Neanderthals not have this?? How about Heidelbergensis? Was their self consciousness at a lower level than ours today? Who are we, anyway?

And then there’s ET. Modern astrophysics paints a picture (almost literally) of a universe immense beyond comprehension. A universe that is evolving, by the way. Would not god love other creatures in the universe as “he” loves us? Where does Jesus fit into that situation? Did Mars or Venus or planet X have a savior once upon a time? Do they now? Do they need a savior? For what? And how can we elevate Jesus, true homo sapiens from that little planet earth, into the second person of a trinity?

Eternal Souls?

There are some answers to these questions that seem to incorporate evolution. One answer is that there are souls that migrate along the path of evolution. They may initially inhabit an amoeba, then a cat, then dog (I’m a dog person), then homo sapiens. They somehow remain the same, supposedly, but the incarnation differs. There is a certain logical consistency to the idea, and it definitely deals with the issues of evolution, but questions can be asked. Where did the souls come from? Are they older than the Big Bang, or are they a product of that event? Do they pre-date the origin of our universe such that they are part of some eternal cycle?

Eternal Wisdom?

There is another answer that focuses particularly on Jesus. The idea here is that Jesus is just another teacher in the long history of gifted teachers, that he is but one member of a long tradition of those who pass along wisdom that has been around a long time. There are those who believe that this wisdom was not available in the Middle East and that Jesus actually had to travel to India to get it. Others think that it was available in the Hebrew tradition, under the guise of wisdom literature. It’s not exactly clear, however, where this wisdom began. It’s one thing to have an eternal soul that seemingly transcends evolution, but quite another to place your bets on historical figures. Where did the wisdom begin? in our Neanderthal ancestors?

Commentary 3. New Perspective

First of all, a disclaimer. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. Most especially, I am not trying to convince my secular humanist family of friends about anything to do with god or Jesus because, as far as I can see, it doesn’t make any difference what you do or don’t believe. What does seem to matter is whether a person is loving and compassionate or not, both for their own happiness and fulfillment as well as that of others.

Evolution does not create any problems for secular humanism because there is no god to fit into the picture. It’s a different state of affairs for Christian theology.

Earlier, on the issue of whether or not process is teleologically defined and heading somewhere or not, we saw that Christian theology and evolution are contradictory. Either the future will be shaped by god- in history or beyond- or it will not. Theology founded on faith says yes, science says no. I don’t see any compromise. If you take the teleology of god out of the equation (pun intended), and the nature of the universe is not love but neutrality or worse, then the faith of the disciples is misguided and bogus, and you can take down the Christian shingle and close up shop. I’m not ready to do that.

On the other hand, mutation is happening right in front of our eyes. There is no escape. The fact that Jesus was homo sapiens, coupled with the inevitable mutation of homo sapiens, forces us to accept the fact that he, like the dinosaurs, will become a fossil of the past. How does theology deal with that?

In an earlier section I spoke of what we learn from the Jesus/disciple encounter. I also described as theologically speculative any affirmations that go beyond what we learn in that encounter. However, knowing that some statement is speculative does not necessitate its being wrong. So let’s explore a bit and imagine a scenario, a scenario that recognizes that 1) species mutate, including homo sapiens, and so agrees with evolution on that score, 2) but also assumes a teleological end and so on that score rejects the total contingency of evolution. The cosmos changes, but god has an end in view.

An Incarnation?

The New Testament gospel of John, written perhaps 75 years after Jesus  was executed, starts with the following statement of faith: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s pretty highfalutin stuff. Historically, the first century Christians elevated a man they knew, a man called Jesus, into God Himself. Jesus became identified as an incarnation of God, the second person of a trinity, his continued presence in the world seen as the third person, the Holy Spirit.

Now, first century Christians knew nothing about evolution, so we have to cut them a break. But we do, and we need to accept this in-your-face fact as we try to intelligently make sense of Jesus. Or at least I do, since I’m calling myself a Christian. So, God decided we were in trouble, and the Word became flesh and tried to straighten us out. That has a certain logic to it. But what about Neanderthal? and ET? and non-Jews? We can assume, I think, that it’s certainly possible Neanderthal did not live up to his potential as a loving being. Perhaps the Word, then, became Neanderthal flesh and dwelt among them. And the same could hold true for ET. And the same for homo sapiens other than those in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In other words, it certainly seems possible that the Word, as an incarnation of god, could appear in a variety of different times and places, according to the needs and shortcomings of evolving species.

Can we go further? Is that Word, manifest to the disciples as Jesus, still alive? Can I talk to him? Is he my friend? (Remember that old hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus”?) Certainly the disciples believed that he was alive again after the crucifixion. In fact, that’s the heart of their faith and their gospel. Rudolf Bultmann, a 20th century New Testament scholar, created quite an uproar in the Christian church when he essentially said that the rise of the disciples’ faith was itself the resurrection, and that Jesus himself was crucified, dead, gone. In other words, the resurrection was a purely subjective affair. Again, I can see the logic here, but I disagree. From what I can tell, the disciples felt and believed that the spirit of Jesus was alive and well, a spirit that was more than their faith, a spirit that transcended them. Not to say resuscitation of a corpse, that wasn’t it. But, yes, something that was outside of them, a spirit alive. You can see how I keep coming back to those disciples and what they experienced.

Can I talk with my friend Jesus, this homo sapiens incarnation of the Word? I guess it’s okay. I do it. Why not? and Neanderthal? Could she talk with the Word incarnate in her flesh after that incarnation had ended? I suppose so. Why not? The Spirit/Word of God did assume and continues to assume many forms. Jesus is one of them, and I assume there are many.

Divine Providence?

There’s Jesus. Now, how about providence? Going beyond the bare minimum that we learn from the Jesus/disciple encounter, where might speculation lead? I believe that theology works with a teleological view of the cosmos as formed by love and that science does not, and that this difference is basic. I also said that anything more would be speculative, but, hey, speculation can be fun.

When I was at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, we always talked about how god was doing things in history. Read the Hebrew bible- god is commissioning Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and the rest of the prophets, this army and that, all to accomplish his will on the planet. People believe today that god is doing things for them, answering prayer (sometimes) and performing what they call miracles. We want to believe that God is a god of history, active in the world in a manner that is side by side with the natural process of evolution. Traditionally, that activity is called providence. God is doing things. Indeed, God has a plan, a hope, a direction for history that is working out. By and large, this is how so many Christians see god, be it in a small Baptist church in the Bible Belt, or in many of the halls of theological academia.

All of that stands in sharp relief to the science of evolution. But in addition to the attack of evolutionary science on such a view of god, that old problem of evil also rears its ugly head. We’ll talk about evil later, but for now we can say that if god as traditionally conceived is active in history, she seems to be doing a lousy job. Providence stinks. The plan isn’t working. People are suffering unjustly. We need to think about god in a new way.

I begin with the idea that the presence of god is twofold. On the one hand, it is everywhere in the universe. This is the panentheistic perspective described earlier. Unfortunately, we creatures are not aware of this presence as we ought and can be, so god becomes incarnate- whenever and wherever need be, today, long ago, far away- so that our (somebody’s) eyes can be opened to see the nearness of god everywhere. This means that we have a general presence of god throughout the universe, and a special presence that is found only in incarnations (plural).

As far as the special presence is concerned, let’s look at planet earth in recent history. Homo sapiens appears on the scene. She was not quite what she could be, not living up to being a loving and aware animal, so god becomes incarnate in human flesh in order to show what life can be and to challenge us to fulfill our potential. For Christians, that incarnation is Jesus. And this is, indeed, an intervention in history. I have no idea how that happens.

To help understand the general presence, I have two images that I like to use. Imagine yourself in the dark countryside. There is no moonlight, only the Milky Way, that band of light washing across the sky, a ribbon comprised of a hundred billion stars. And you feel both very insignificant and very important all at the same time. You sense something beyond that you are part of. A moment extraordinaire.

For the second image, imagine yourself in a NYC subway, rushing around a corner of the tunnel to meet your train connection. And there, on the concrete floor with a hand outstretched, eyes focused on you, is a wretched woman begging for a coin, a helping hand, a person who cares, and your little private world has been invaded. You continue along just like everyone else, but you know that something has just happened that transcends the normal. We have moments like the starry sky above and the subway beggar all the time. It’s that old panentheistic god knocking on our door.

What’s the relationship between special and general divine presence? between the word incarnate in Jesus and god’s presence everywhere? The disciples help us out on this one. The god they found in Jesus was the same god they experienced in their starry sky/beggar moments. Jesus helped them to understand that those moments did indeed involve the god beyond.

They, and we, learn that god, who is present in the stuff of the world, reaches out to us and challenges us to act.  God does not act in history as an independent agent, (except when god decides it’s time to become incarnate; don’t ask.) There is no daily intervention. Asking god to do something doesn’t work. Instead, god opens our eyes and asks that we do the divine work, that we see what the possibilities are and act accordingly. God was in Jesus showing and enabling us to become loving and aware, calling us to act in history, to become the real us, loving and caring. Providence, as I see it, is not god acting in history in a manner interfering in the natural processes. It is god encountering us and enabling us to see what needs to be done. We should not be asking god to do things. We should be opening our own eyes to see what needs to be done and doing it. The Dalai Lama said the same thing while speaking of Syrian refugees. Forget “thoughts and prayers”. Do something.

Having said all this, I want to repeat what I said in the section about cosmology, and that is that if we begin our reflection with the Jesus/disciple encounter, the line of demarcation between faith and science is that faith sees the cosmos as informed by love, and science does not. That’s basic. But seeing the world as informed by love can be true not only of people of faith, but of people of all convictions, faith and non-faith, round the world. Just recently there was a report about a study that shows how compassion not only benefits the receiver but the giver as well. Seems as though there is something in our genes that rejoices in helping others. As I said earlier, that was the fundamental message of Jesus’ disciples, that the meaning of the resurrection is not a resuscitated body, but the omnipotence of love and compassion, available to all.

Part Four: Sapiens Today

As the perspective narrows and moves from the evolving universe to the current status of human beings, the information becomes a bit less factual and more interpreted-historical-social-anthropological. As a consequence, I am forgoing the fact/commentary format used previously and simply mixing the two.

1 The Possibility of Annihilation

I spoke earlier about the inevitable fate of earth due to galactic collision. The awareness persists but doesn’t exactly haunt us. It’s hard to get upset about an event 2 billion years down the road. There are other possibilities, however, that are much closer to home. We’ve lived with the real threat of nuclear war for over 50 years. Some of us can remember hiding under our school desks and facing away from the windows, practicing our drills just in case. We all know that the US and Russia have the missilized bombs capable of destroying earth many times over, while a number of smaller national arsenals could also wreak horrors.

But the threats are not only galactic and nuclear. There are germs. That’s what finally got the Martians in War of the Worlds. Every year, it seems, headlines warn of a possible epidemic, sometimes a pandemic, that could kill millions. Or the robots are about to take over. As eminent a scholar as Steven Hawking warns of this as a real possibility. And then there are asteroids. Remember the dinosaurs. Climate change operates a little more slowly, at least so far, but the end result is the same.

We live our lives with the threat of instant annihilation hanging over our heads, a mostly unconscious awareness that impacts us in ways yet to be told.

2 Relativism

Limiting ourselves to western culture, it seems that a majority of people have bypassed their dogmatic inclinations and become more relativistic in their judgment, but it’s a complex issue. Most westerners, for example, can accept if not also embrace Muslim neighbors. But obviously not everyone. When asked what he would do if he met an alien, the pope answered that he would baptize her. The younger generation is more accepting of…(you can fill in the blanks) than older generations, and those who are not open-minded tend to long for the good old days when things were more to their liking, even though those days most likely never existed in reality. Policy makers and government leaders are often caught between a rock and a hard place as they try to find common ground.

When issues have an absolute answer, there is not much confusion, but also not much in the way of informed and intelligent analysis. As a relativistic perspective begins to seek in, there is better analysis and that necessitates more confusion, at least initially. The hard question pertains to the end game: are all answers to questions equally valid, or not. Is it always wrong to kill? Sometimes it’s okay? Who decides? Is it the same in all cultures? An absolutest might say that it’s wrong in all situations. A relativist might say that it all depends. An absolute relativist, if you’ll allow me that, might say that anything goes, and that’s okay. It would be really difficult to live in a society that operates on this basis, but that’s exactly what nihilism proclaims. I am an ethical contextualist, believing that the right or good or loving action depends on the circumstances, but I also want to say absolutely that what Hitler did was unequivocally evil. I need help holding together that dialectic. 

3 Meaningful labor

The word “jobs” is basic to our economic and political life. Everybody wants a better job and politicians are always promising that their program will make everyone happy in a rewarding job that they like. Enter automation and robots. The fact is that on a daily basis sapiens are losing jobs to machines, machines who always show up, never demand higher wages, need no health care, do not unionize, and can be easily replaced. Even the whitest of white collar work requiring advanced degrees can eventually be digitized and mechanized. Will we even need doctors when computers perform all the necessary analysis and robots the requisite surgery or cure?

Time it is, it would seem, to describe anew what it means to contribute to society and what it means to receive recompense for that contribution. The welded link between god and capitalism must be broken. As must the so-called prosperity gospel, which manages to turn the teaching of Jesus on its head. He did not offer to the world a vision wherein wealth is a sign of god’s favor. Quite the opposite: the true sign of discipleship is caring for the downtrodden and sharing one’s blessings. Indeed, in Matthew 25 the pathway to hell is greed and neglect of the helpless. Not that I believe in hell, but you get the picture.

4 Undeserved Suffering

It is an undeniable fact that undeserved suffering surrounds us. Natural disasters strike unsuspecting victims, disease incapacitates infants, refugees flee violence of others’ making….the list is endless and heart-breaking. From a purely secular perspective, the suffering can be analyzed, diced and spliced, and some sort of explanation can emerge.

But from a theological point of view, no explanation suffices. The so-called “problem of evil” challenges the strongest faith. How can a loving god permit the horror? Bart Ehrmann, a prominent New Testament scholar, traded his faith for agnosticism because of this problem. Evil in the world becomes a theological problem if you 1) believe in a god, and also 2) believe that this god is both omnipotent and good. If god is good, willing good for all creation, and if god is also all-powerful, then why does god permit life-destroying hurricanes, cancer, tornadoes, etc?

There are a variety of solutions offered. God is testing you. God has a plan that we cannot see. And so on. One answer is to say that, although it may seem that the person in question is innocently suffering, in fact that person is deserving of what happens to them because of something they did in a prior life. Bad karma. It is on the basis of this theory that a  society can accept the poverty of a whole class of its citizens. India, to be exact. It was a variation of this theme that was presented to the biblical character of Job by one of his friends. Inasmuch as the Hebrews accepted the idea that the sins of one generation could bring dire consequences to later generations, the friend thought that Job was suffering the impact of an ancestor’s wrongdoing, an explanation that Job vehemently refused to accept.

I love Job- the image of him shaking his fist at an unjust god captures the rage we feel when we see undeserved suffering. It reminds of my own mother who couldn’t wait to see god face to face so she could give him a piece of her mind. In the movie “Open Range”, Robert Duvall plays the role of a cowboy boss. When one of his men is murdered and another asks Duvall at the grave if he wants to say a few words to god, he answers “I don’t want anything to do with that son of a bitch.”

A few words about Job. The book in the Bible has a prologue and epilogue, with a long poem sandwiched in between. The poem is where the real theological analysis takes place. The beginning and end, the wager between god and the devil, is a later setting inserted by a theologically weaker mind. The poem, on the other hand, struggles with the question of why Job suffers, seemingly without justification.

The prologue has the devil wagering that Job is faithful to god only because god treats him so well, and if the devil were allowed to cause Job to suffer, he would deny god. The bet is on, Job suffers but remains faithful, and he is rewarded tenfold. End of story.

The poem, however, has quite another narrative: the stricken man shakes his fist at god, demanding that he come down and justify his (god’s) actions. The only answer that Job receives – and it is dramatic – is god’s voice coming to him from out of a whirlwind, demanding “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?” Or, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Or, if we acknowledge that the voice in the whirlwind is a literary device used by the author, and not a literal voice, Job’s conclusion is that he has no answer to the question. Why do good people suffer? How can an omnipotent god allow innocent suffering? I have no idea, says Job, I have no idea.

There is another approach. From the Christian faith perspective, there is another way to look at the problem. If we believe Jesus reveals to us who god is, as I do, then we better look there, and not come to the issue with a preconceived notion of what god must be like. And what do we find in Jesus?

Above all else we find a god who loves. And we find a god who does not accomplish the divine will by brute force. There are no thunderbolts from heaven. Jesus presented to his disciples a god who is weak in this world, who accomplishes her will by persuasion and personal sacrifice, love and compassion, invitation and reward. This necessitates, of course, that anthropomorphic descriptions of god found in the Hebrew scriptures must be recognized as metaphorical rather than literal, just as the nature miracles attributed to Jesus (walking on water, etc) must also be recognized as metaphorical rather than literal. God does not act by overt force.

And what of the resurrection of Jesus? Is not that an overt display of divine power and brute force? Only if the event is seen as the resuscitation of a corpse, and that is not what the disciples experienced. They experienced a new kind of spiritual presence, they believed that even though Jesus had been crucified he was yet alive in their midst. And they were so convinced that they were willing to face death themselves in order to tell their story. The empty tomb and the appearance stories are metaphors to describe this reality. The god we find in Jesus is not a god who intervenes with brute force, but one who works in, with and under the given physical reality.

Once we surrender the idea that god is omnipotent, the problem of evil dissipates. If we must believe that god is all-powerful, let us say that in her omnipotence, god decided not to be omnipotent, respecting the freedom not only of human beings, but also the freedom of the natural world to be as it is, tornadoes and all. Or if conceiving of god as thinking person is unacceptable, then we can think of god as Being Itself, the Ground of Being (to borrow terms from 20th century theologian Paul Tillich), a transcendental dimension of all reality- and a god that cannot, by definition, interfere with the reality that is. In either case, whether as Person or as Being, god works with what is, and is not omnipotent.

I believe that when evil befalls anyone, god cries just as we do. The divine compassion knows no limit. God suffers when we suffer. The final word, however, is that god is good. And unjust suffering will not be the last word. This also is at the heart of the Jesus story: the crucifixion was followed by the resurrection. The power of evil manifest so brutally on Good Friday, is not the final determination. The resurrection is. The conclusion is that somehow, beyond our comprehension, god’s love wins, and we all return to god. Our suffering may be unjust, but in the end god makes it right. The alternative is the morally neutral universe offered by cosmology and evolution, which I cannot accept.

5 Secularism

Statistically, the obvious and continuing trend in western culture is away from religion toward secularity. I don’t want to get into a debate about what the word means. Let’s take it the way most people use it. We are increasingly less inclined to talk about god, pray to god, or go to churches that assume the existence of god. God is not seen as controlling events or as being in charge, in any sense of the word. God is not seen as the creator of the universe, the ultimate cause of natural events, nor my companion as I walk the sandy beach of life.

Some religious leaders condemn the trend as alienating people from the source of their being. This may be true, but it’s impossible to prove, and most secularists just don’t care. Trying to shove god down their proverbial throat is bound to alienate them even more.

From what I can see, secularists fall into two categories. Some care about others and the earth, and can rightfully be called humanists. Some do not, and are instead greedy and self-centered. Most religious people, including Pope Francis, it seems, see religious people and secular humanists working together to do good in the world.

Part of my doctoral dissertation concerned the Letters and Papers that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while in a Nazi prison. He was hanged days before the camp was liberated. The main theme of the letters was the secularization of the modern world. He didn’t know what the answer was, but Bonhoeffer knew that the world had come of age, that using god as the answer to unsolvable scientific problems would no longer work, that god could no longer be offered as the answer to human problems, like death, that secularism was a good thing. It kills me, again, to see how fundamentalists have appropriated Bonhoeffer for their own purposes and focused on his earlier works, The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. He was not a fundamentalist, and at the end of his life was on the verge of seeing Christians and secular humanists as both doing the good work of god.

Related Reflections

The Search for New Vocabulary

Part One

Confusion about words can divide rather than unite, and so I wonder: is there a language that both secular humanists and Christians can agree on? When I say humanist, I mean people who are doing good in the world. I do not mean selfish, greedy, or hateful people. And when I say Christian, I mean people who get their guidance from Jesus about how to be whole within themselves and to be loving to others. I do not mean a church that hates gays, that tries to impose its belief system on society, that proclaims that hurricanes are god’s punishment for …well, you get the picture. I am limiting myself to humanists and Christians because they are two groups that I think I understand, and I do not want to presume to speak for other religious thinking.

Paul Tillich was a brilliant man who tried to bridge the gap between theology and philosophy, between secular thinking and religious thinking. God, for example, was conceived as our ultimate concern. And faith was having the courage to be in the face of the threat of non-being. Although the language will be different, Tillich’s program needs to be re-kindled, because we need to speak with each other now more than ever, and the more we learn the more aware we become that Christians and humanists, at the core, are speaking the same language.

Quite possibly, no word creates more division between people than the word “god”. Modern technological advances have devised ear bud gadgets that can help in cross cultural situations by instantly translating one language to another while engaged in conversation. Sounds like a definite gadget to get for the world traveler, but I wonder how such devices would serve certain people when they need to translate the word “god”.

The difficulty arises not only in transcultural situations, but intra-cultural as well. Your definition and understanding of “god” could be quite different from mine, and probably is. The greatest division between people with respect to god, however, is between those who have a belief in a god and those who don’t.

So here’s the situation: the word means different things to different cultures and religions, has different connotations for various persons, and is denied as specious and vacuous by a good percentage of the human population. 

I have a suggestion: let’s strike the word “god” from our vocabulary and substitute the word “love” instead. Granted, we need to work on defining this word, but at least it’s something we can all accept as a basis for discussion.

Christian biblicists will protest, but there is a great deal of material in the Bible itself that points in this direction. A person or group that we refer to as “John”, writing in the second century CE, says quite simply: “God is love. Whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

In the 13th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul extols the virtue of love, and ends with the famous quote: “Faith, hope and love abide. These three. But the greatest of these is love.”

The gospel of Luke relates the story of a teacher who challenged Jesus with a question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus responds: You know the law, love God with all your heart and mind and your neighbor as yourself. The young man asks: and who is my neighbor? Then follows the story of the good Samaritan, probably the most famous of the parables of Jesus. The Samaritan, enemy of the Jews, was the one who proved neighbor to the one who had been robbed and beaten, going so far as to pay for his rehabilitation, all without thought of reward. Question: what must I do to be made whole, to inherit eternal life? Answer: love your neighbor.

Both as a description of god and as a fulfilling way of life, the word is love. That sounds good, but it’s not so simple. The Greeks identified at least seven types of love, and three, in particular, are in common English usage: agape (a ga’ pay), philia, and eros. Starting with the last, I suppose we all know what erotic love is. And philia- brotherly/sisterly love, is also well known. The third, perhaps less familiar, is the word used in John: God is agape, and a life of agape is how life becomes fulfilling. It is given without thought for reward, “pure”, if you will.

The origin of the word “agape” is subject to debate. It was used by Plato, but not much. The early church made it much more common, some believe, because it sounded like the Hebrew word for love. In any case, agape means unconditional love and is applied both to God and to a life inspired by God. Take out the word god, and you have unconditional love. So let’s work with that. My guess is that everyone can at least understand the meaning of unconditional love.

Or can we? John Bennett was president of Union Seminary while I was there and he championed an ethic based on what was referred to as middle axioms. Love was considered a bit abstract and so needed some concepts to bring it down to reality, concepts like justice, freedom, and equality. Following this line of analysis, saying that god is love could be interpreted as meaning that god is justice, for example. On this basis, it’s understandable why many progressive churches today have programs that focus on social justice. Be that as it may, the next question is: what is justice? and I suppose that the first phrase in answering that question is: well, it depends…

The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book on ethics in which he sought to define the highest goal for which one should strive. One was the good: a person should seek the highest good. Another was the right: one should seek to do that which is right. In attempting the good or the right, one must inevitably decide, whatever the issue is, in terms of another criterion: the fitting. Abstract definitions of what is good or what is right remain divorced from reality unless we can understand what is fitting in a given situation. And how do we determine what is fitting? Do I decide on my own? Is it a communal decision? Does it depend on my culture? Is it as simple as: do unto others…?

I think it is. And there are lots of examples of persons who give of themselves without thought of payback. Think of Gandhi, Mandela, King. Think of family members who devote their life to one another, of community members who do the same. Think of Jesus, whose heart went out to his impoverished countrymen, only to be executed by the very empire he sought to change. Think of the unheralded daily acts of people caring for one another. The recent hurricanes and CA wildfires have been the occasions for strangers to step forward and lend a helping hand to people they don’t even know. Yes, it all counts, all selfless love, and it depends on what is fitting in the circumstance.

Does this mean, then, that we are left without any universal standard, lost in a vacuum of absolute relativism, where whatever I think is acceptable, just because I think it? And you think your way, and so on, down the line? and we are all trying to be loving.

Finding that place between total relativism and universalism is not easy, and perhaps not possible. I have always been a contextualist when it comes to ethics: you don’t know what fits until you’re in the situation. At the same time, I am absolutely certain that what Hitler did was wrong. How can I hold these two together? I don’t know.

Facing this dialectic, I come back to the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help a stranger of another culture who had been beaten and robbed. He had no thought of compensation of any type. He bound up the man’s wounds and brought him to an inn, telling the keeper to care for the man and he would pay the bill, regardless of cost. Agape love at its finest. There can be no doubt that the Samaritan did the right thing, the good thing, the fitting thing, the loving thing.

We started by asking if we could replace the word god with the word love. We have seen that both words are not easily defined or understood. And yet, given the importance of finding common ground, I think that at least for the time being, we should give it a try and replace the word god with the word love in the context of humanist/Christian dialogue. Christians can talk about god all they want when talking among themselves, just as humanists can deny god all they want when talking among themselves. But when talking to each other, using the word love, as exemplified by the Samaritan, would be a helpful way to begin the dialogue. If we can agree on love, then will follow the awareness that indeed we have much more in common.

The Search for New Vocabulary

Part Two

This reflection is the second in a series that seeks common language that secular humanists and non-fundamentalist Christians can share. In a previous article, I argued that we can and ought, on the cultural level, replace the word god with the word love. In their churches, synagogues and mosques, religious people are free to still talk about god, and non-religious people can still not talk about god. But we can all use the word love, agape, exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan, to describe a worthy goal that we should all seek. The first entry in a common language is the word love.

The need for this common language is particularly obvious in the season we call the Holidays, which pounces upon us yearly. Our culture used to call it Christmas, but somewhere along the line we realized that we are not a homogeneous people and referring to Christ in our national calendar was a bit presumptuous on the part of Christians. The season is a prime reminder and illustration of our need to go beyond partisan divide and find common language that all can share.

Pursuing that goal, the second concept for which we might find common ground pertains to the actual difficulty we encounter when we try to love. How easy is it to act lovingly in an unconditional way? Are we capable, or does something stand in our way? And if there is a blockage, what might that be? The traditional Christian answer is, yes, there is a blockage, and it goes by the name of sin. Indeed, according to this model, why else would God send Jesus unless we required some kind of saving? Sin and redemption are the twin pillars of traditional Christian theology, and seem to imply that Christians believe that human beings are by nature bad. The myth of Adam, Eve and Eden is interpreted as describing the origin of this malaise, appropriately referred to as original sin, a literal disease that theologians in the tradition of Augustine believe is physically inherited. I have argued that this is not at all what the myth is saying. Nevertheless, it is definitely part and parcel of the Christian perspective that something is wrong with homo sapiens. Such a perspective is not limited to Christianity. Others might name it irrationality or emotionalism, and yet others might blame it on the transition from hunter/gatherer to agricultural society, or on some gene inherited from our Neanderthal ancestors. But in any case, whether we name it sin or some other deficiency, human beings come up short when it comes to exhibiting that agape of which we spoke earlier.

The evidence covers the front page of our newspapers every day. Buddhists in Myanmar brutalize a Sufi minority. Pakistani radical Islamists protest and kill those who cannot idolize Muhammed. Christian evangelists con parishioners and seduce girls. And, of course, it is not only religious people that manifest these evils. And even if we don’t all give in to this draw, we are all capable.

On the other hand, the good angels are hard at work as well, helping hurricane victims, opening doors to displaced refugees, speaking truth to power, caring for one another on a daily basis. The good news just doesn’t get the coverage that the bad enjoys.

But, what’s the problem??

The question of whether we are good or bad and the causality behind that dichotomy is perhaps the wrong question. We might better ask: how do we become who we are? How do we individually evolve in the course of our life? I have dealt with this elsewhere, so allow me here to simply summarize.

As we develop, even in the womb, we are bombarded with stimuli, sensations such as sound, vibrations, movement, and later in life, sight, taste, smells. Inevitably, we develop categories into which we place the stimuli, and, also inevitably, the categories take on a life of their own. We distort the stimuli by forcing them to conform to our predetermined notions of what they should be. Reality is transformed into my reality. To repeat: reality is transformed into my reality. Also, again inevitably, I make the unconscious assumption that others share my perception, indeed, that they ought to share my perception…And now we have big trouble.

This egotism, in the purest sense of the word, happens to us at every level and is inescapable. Too easily, for example, on a personal level, we assume that other persons use words in the same sense we do, when in fact they do not. On the societal level, for example, religious fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whatever, take your pick) believe that everyone else must believe as they do, and they are willing to kill them to prove it. We all come to situations with our own particular frame of reference, a perspective that may be uniquely ours alone.

The issue is not whether we are by nature good or bad. That is the wrong question. The proper question is whether we are aware of our own limitation and blindness, whether we are open to discovery, to learning, to acceptance of others’ life stories. The next issue to consider pertains to how we become enlightened, so to speak, and that will be our next topic. The point for now is to realize that we are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but that we do have a problem.

So we have a second word that we can add to our common vocabulary. Just as god is replaced by love, so sin/evil/badness is replaced by egotism. And egotism is neither good nor bad, but limited and blind. It can be the cause of harmful and selfish behavior if we allow it to be so. But if we realize our conditioning, overcoming egotism can be the door that opens us to unlimited growth.

Jesus was able to challenge persons to overcome their egotism and live a new life. That is what the holidays, indeed our whole culture, need to be about, i.e. learning to realize and accept our limitations and appreciate the stories others can share even as we share our own story. That is the pathway to overcoming egotism with love.

The Search for New Vocabulary

Part Three

Part one of this endeavor to find a language that progressive Christians and secular humanists can share spoke of replacing the word god with the word love. Part two involved replacing the word sin with the word egotism, a human trait that is inevitable and inescapable. A most uncomfortable affirmation. No one likes to hear that they are egotistical. But it is true. We each create a reality unique to us, and we believe it to be Reality with a capital R. That’s the human problem: our reality is always distorted.

Now we ask: what’s the cure?

In a word: liberation. We need to be set free from the confines of our limited and distorted perception, and we, on our own, are incapable of attaining that freedom. We are in bondage, and we lack the ability to escape that bondage. To say that we require assistance is not to say that we have no part to play, because we do. We are responsible for our behavior because even though we need help, the help is always there, challenging the limiting reality that we have created for ourself.

It goes something like this. We create our own reality and are locked into it. We are not free to escape. And then, on occasion, something happens, some event that I call a moment. What is a moment? To begin with, it is not a measure of time, as in…that happened a moment ago. It is, rather, a measure of transcendence, as in …aha!…when something strikes you, something you had not imagined before, and it can be anything. You see a tree for the first time, even though you have seen it a hundred times before. You hold a baby and experience a peace beyond description. A storm, a beggar, a starry night, a thought…moments come in all shapes and sizes. You can’t make them happen, but you can allow yourself to be available so that they can happen. Something happens in the moment, -and it could literally be anything-, such that this happening invades our reality and temporarily sets us free.

In that moment a choice is set before us: to retreat into our private world and return to the darkness in which we feel safe, or to step forth and begin a journey into the light. If we exercise our newly found freedom and exit the cave, we will now require help as we continue on the path, and that help mostly or at least often comes in the form of family, friends, and neighbors who are bound by love. These bonds of humanity are an essential part of the new life.

Our fellow pilgrims perform at least two functions. They will be there to assist in our endeavor to leave behind the confines of closedness. This will involve their being critical of us when we backslide, and we must be willing to accept this help. The second function will be the positive interaction that helps us grow into the new and expanding awareness. Both, critique and comfort, together in love. I’m not saying that this cannot be done on one’s own, but, to quote Joe Cocker, I get by with a little help from my friends.

Moments and community. That seems to be the cure for our egotism, and they are concepts common to both humanists and Christians, words we can agree on.

If we move over into Jesus talk, the same concepts apply. Some of the people that Jesus encountered did not allow themselves to be receptive, while others did. Matthew the tax collector, the various fishermen, Mary Magdalene- these are the people who allowed the transcendent to enter their lives and lead them on a new way. I do believe that Jesus had that power and that that power was rooted in the fact that he himself lived in Reality, big R. Because he was not trapped in his own little reality, he was able to do for others what they needed most, to be set free and encompassed by love. In a more limited way, we can do the same, hopefully always getting better at it as we go along.

What happened between Jesus and his followers could happen anywhere. Perhaps there are thousands like Jesus, on this planet and the next. Who can say? We must never become fundamentalists who claim to be protectors of the whole truth. But what we can say is that what we learn from Jesus coincides with what we learn from looking at the world around us. And that is that love is the key, egoism is the challenge, and moments/community together comprise the solution.

Common Language

The so-called holiday season will soon be upon us, a time when America’s secular/sacred schizophrenia becomes painfully apparent. At Thanksgiving, on the one hand, we seek ways to give thanks for the blessings of life so lavishly bestowed upon us, but at the same time food and football play a large if not dominant role. A month later, most Christians proclaim that Christ should be kept in Christmas, but more time and energy is spent on shopping than religious practice. Other times of life are no different. Non-religious parents will have their newborn baptized. Weddings often manifest a strange combination of religious and secular elements. At the end of life, members of an atheistic family will call in a professional clergyman to conduct the sendoff. Our culture has difficulty living in a sacred/secular world.

Whereas I don’t consider myself personally schizophrenic, I also live in two worlds. On the one hand, I was baptized, went to Sunday school, was confirmed, majored in religion at college, added a few graduate degrees in theology, was ordained, wrote books on Christian theology, ministered at two churches… On the other hand, religiosity makes me uncomfortable. Although I have wonderful friends who are what one might call religious, generally speaking I feel more at home with secular humanists. I like to preach, but not do the liturgy. I find it difficult to lead public prayer.

The question then becomes: how do these worlds come together? Why is society, and individuals therein, forever struggling to figure out how to relate secularity and spirituality? What is the path that enables us to be as one in our celebrations of birth, marriage, end of life, as well as the cultural celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas?

One answer, of course, is that they don’t and cannot come together. Cosmic dualism asserts that there is a spiritual, sacred realm, and a material, secular realm, that these realms are at the least side by side, and at the most, fighting against one another. A side-by-side dualism today would say that yes, we do in fact live in two realms, and that any confusion that you as an individual or society as a whole may have, is simply due to not being clear about where to draw the line between the two. Go to church and be religious; go to work and be secular.

The “fighting against one another” brand of dualism sees the history of the universe as a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The secular, material world is the place of evil, so shun it and cultivate the religious life. There are those even today who see life as a battle between Satan and God.

An alternative to dualism is monism, the idea that there is only one reality. Monism comes in two flavors. The first, more popular in Europe than America, is that the only reality is that presented by a detached, strictly observational science. The natural cosmos is what it’s all about. There is no spiritual dimension.

Most Christians, however, have a different take on the monistic approach, and believe that a divine presence inheres in all that is. God is. And God is everywhere, although hidden except to the eyes of faith. This is where I take my stand. The sacred and the secular co-inhere. The one is in the other. With this as our basis, the questions now become: what language do we use? to whom are we speaking? do we speak directly of God? Let’s assume that we are at a ceremony of some sort, perhaps a wedding, a Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas day gathering, a funeral. Let us also suppose that the crowd is mixed: some Christians, some Jews, some secularists. Is there a language that not only will not alienate anyone but will also communicate to them the depth of the moment? I believe there is.

First, each and every one of us, from the moment of birth if not before, filters incoming sensation and begins to form a pattern of interpretation unique to us. We create our own world, one that is different from the worlds created by others. We have a parochial pattern of interpretation by means of which we comprehend realty. The process is well documented and is inescapable. The problem of course, is that we assume that every one else sees the world as we do, or at least they should.

Second, the world in and through which we interpret reality is broken into on occasion. We have moments in life when we experience life directly rather than through our filter. We can’t make them happen, but we have to be open to allowing them to happen. They don’t last, but we can remember them. Every dimension of life has the potential to become a moment, no dimension more pregnant with potential than any other.

Third, aware of moments, and also aware of their absence, it is easy to develop a sense of loss, of emptiness, of living in a world where something is missing. We find that feeling uncomfortable, and so we find all kinds of ways to fill the void.

Last, it seems as though we all need some form of loving community, whether it be just one other person, or one hundred. It is in community that we have others to lift us and comfort us when we are down, and it is in community that we have others to be critical of us when we forget that we are provincial in outlook after all.

These dimensions of life have direct theological parallels, which we’ll not get into here, other than to say that from a religious perspective, moments can certainly be interpreted as encounter with God.

This language represents a deliberate decision to avoid terminology that is obviously religious, but which points to the spiritual dimension of reality. It speaks of God without speaking of God. It speaks of sin without speaking of sin. It speaks of emptiness and hope by speaking of emptiness and hope. It speaks of loving community by speaking of loving community. As such, it represents a language that can be used in any setting, regardless of who is there. It allows all persons to communicate about the depth of life without using a God-language that would alienate some.

Communities of religious folk will still be gathering to celebrate in ways meaningful to them, and new and increasingly meaningful liturgy will continue to evolve. In addition to that, one can hope that a language will also evolve that will enable secularists and spiritualists to communicate and to celebrate together.

The US Forest Service, in describing a Native American historical site, asks tourists to respect all artifacts and structures inasmuch as “because people once lived here, the place is sacred”. The sacred and the secular cannot be separated. There is one reality. We must continue our search for a language that describes this realty to the fullest.

One world, One Love, One Paradigm

About 15 years ago I was part of a small four person discussion group on the Isles of Capri, FL. Three of us were once-upon-a-time Protestant clergy, with the fourth person being very active in her church. It came as a surprise to all of us one day when we accidentally shared the fact that none of our kids were religious, much less Christian. In retrospect, I don’t know why that surprised us, inasmuch as it was and is common knowledge that the younger generations are not exactly filling church pews. Polls show that so-called Millennials today are substantially less interested in religion than were their parents and grandparents.

It also came as a bit of a sudden awareness one day when I realized that just about all my friends and family were what I refer to as secular humanists. God simply does not figure into their worldview, and thus the appellation “secular”. And each in their own way is doing good in the world. Hence “humanist”. The fact that it came to me as a surprise indicates that I had never thought about it simply because it made and makes no difference. I never had the idea that I had some sort of secret gospel that they needed to hear and nobody ever asked why I believed in some type of God. It just didn’t and doesn’t matter. We each have our own ideas, and that’s fine and dandy.

I think that this situation is pretty common amongst Christians, and perhaps holds true for other religions as well. All the grandparents in the pews have at least some descendants who are really, really good people who live perfectly well without any thought of God. And these descendants reciprocate by accepting these grandparents just as they are, faith in God included. No one judges the other, and life is good.

Unless, of course, one is a fundamentalist, who also go by the sweet sounding but subversive pseudonym “evangelical”. Fundamentalists, who are found in any religion, believe that they alone have the answer to the God question, and if you have any hope of being “saved”, you better come around to their point of view.

In addition to the personal unease caused by having a fundamentalist in your circle of family and friends, there is a social unease as well. They have their own social and political agenda that they strive to impose on everyone. Not only that, but from my perspective as a Christian theologian, the fundamentalists have the wrong idea about what Jesus was all about. Unfortunately, they have been incredibly successful at selling their version of the Jesus story as the only true version. Americans today believe that evangelical Christianity is what Christianity is, and that is a tragedy.

As I ponder all of this, various thoughts swirl about. On the one hand, I become angry with fundamentalists for presenting God and Jesus in what I consider an untruthful manner. Beyond that, I empathize with those Christians who can no longer accept even the traditional God language and who seek other ways to express their spirituality. But perhaps the most persistent thought is that Christians and humanists are, after all, sisters and brothers alike, seeking love, peace, and justice in this world. We share the common humanity of homo sapiens, and that commonness can and must be the basis for a worldview that ultimately unites us even though we may have different ideas.

Although humanists and Christians are one in seeking a better world, there are forces that push us in opposite directions. One such force is found in the church, the other in the legacy of the Enlightenment.

As far as I can see, the church has created division in at least two ways. First, by denying science, it has separated those who accept science from those who don’t. Second, by dividing people into groups, let’s say believers and non-believers, it has separated that which is one.

Looking first at science, let’s begin with the broadest possible perspective, that of the universe. No one recognizes it as a religious concept, but the idea that homo sapiens is created in the image of God is definitely biblical. It is also an idea that is quite commonplace among most people today, religious or not. There may be those who believe in superior alien intelligence, but for the most part I think that we see ourselves as being at the pinnacle of the life pyramid. Certainly Christians see humans as created in the imago dei, the image of God, just a little lower than the angels. To see ourselves in this way is to separate us and our planet from the rest of the universe.

A second level of separation pertains to our relationship with the earth. One creation myth of the Hebrew Bible portrays God as commanding Adam and Eve to go forth and have dominion over the earth. Rightly or wrongly, this command has been interpreted to mean that humans are above and in control of the environment, rather than being part of it. One who thinks s/he has dominion over precisely that which supports her life, lives with a degree of separation that can end only in disaster.

Then come the miracles: virgin birth, walking on water, resurrection from the dead, and so on. These stories were never intended to be taken literally, and to insist that modern persons have to believe all this in order to be a follower of Jesus is an insistence that separates believers in science from believers in God, quantum mechanics notwithstanding.

Through the ages, the church has also separated people from one another. I suppose that the greatest division is that between the saved and the not-so-saved, the sheep and the goats. For centuries, the Roman Catholic church even believed that torture could help a person swing into the saved column. The Protestants believed that those who were saved were saved by God’s grace, but then the question became: how does one get that grace? Is one predestined to it, or does one earn it by free will? Talk about dividing people into groups! You got it? I think I do. But I’m not sure.

The dividing line was not only between saved and not, but between women and men. And clergy and laity. Religious orders of monks and nuns versus the rest of us. The list goes on and can be examined in great detail, but the point is clear: part of the business of the church has been to divide and then perhaps to conquer.

The legacy of the Enlightenment

It’s extremely difficult for us today to imagine the extent and depth of the church’s authority during the Middle Ages, an authority founded on what was believed to be God’s will and God’s revelation. Anything that could not be understood was seen to be the work of God. The legacy of the Enlightenment is that we today utilize observation and experimentation to discover truths of the natural world. We no longer need a god to hold the planets up; we understand the mathematics of orbiting bodies.

A twentieth century theologian by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer began to wonder if the continuing advance of science and technology would eventually put God out of work. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor imprisoned in Germany toward the end of the second world war because he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. While in prison, he managed to smuggle to his friend Eberhardt Bethge what have come to be called “The Letters and Papers from Prison”. One recurring theme of these letters concerns what Bonhoeffer refers to as a “world come of age”, wherein the church must create a “non-religious interpretation of biblical concepts”.

In this world come of age, people no longer require god as a working hypothesis to explain what we do not understand. Of course, Bonhoeffer himself never believed that people should see God that way anyway. But what makes the letters radical is that through the years the gospel has been preached as the answer to human sin, and now even this job is taken away from God because….

Unfortunately, we cannot complete that sentence. It is quite clear that the church in Bonhoeffer’s mind should not be snooping around in a person’s sin so that it can then throw a lifeline of forgiveness and grace. But it is another question whether he was trending toward the idea that there really is no difference between a disciple of Jesus who does good and a secular humanist who does good. In my mind, there is no doubt. Bonhoeffer could see seventy years down the road to where we are today, a place where we are no longer separated into believers and non-believers, but where each and all join hands in the struggle for peace and justice.

6 Inequality

I was shocked about four years ago when I read that throughout all of human history about 75% of all people who ever lived, lived directly or indirectly as slaves for the benefit of somebody else. Outright slavery still exists across the globe, even in our good old US of A, but the more recognized and accepted reality is wealth inequality. The rich are rich and getting richer; the poor are poor and getting poorer. And whatever is left of the middle class is sinking into poverty, gradually, seemingly inevitably. Of course, it relates to “jobs”. The rich control the information that controls the machines; the poor clean the latrines. And the great middle wonders what the hell is going on.

Inequality, and its link to capitalism, is the greatest economic threat on the planet today, and it is getting worse. The god we know in Jesus does not favor such a situation.

The following reflections illustrate the disparity.

Related Reflections

Let Them Eat Cake

“Then let them eat cake.” Whether or not Marie Antionette actually spoke these words is doubtful, but there is no doubt that these five words accurately represented the attitude of the French court towards the nation’s starving millions. Of 23 million Frenchmen prior to the revolution, 10 million subsisted on charity while 3 million begged for a morsel of bread, even as the nobility feasted sumptuously and danced gayly about Versailles. They were totally and willfully oblivious to the plight of the people.

Jumping ahead some 200 years, Indian Prime Minister Modi, who opened the World Economic Forum in Devos, Switzerland recently, has called for the planet to turn from an economy of greed to one of need. A catchy phrase reminding us that greed is one of the seven so-called deadly sins, greed and pride being at the top of the list of the worst characteristics one can have. There is no scarcity of bread in today’s world, but unlike the story of Jesus’ feeding the 5000, todays bread is not distributed. In fact, the bread-wealth of the world is increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer. Oxfam reports that eight men own as much wealth as the poorer half of the world population.

My googling research this week led me to some conservative websites that took issue with what Oxfam was saying. The issue was this: that while it is true that the distribution of wealth is increasingly unequal, there is less worldwide poverty than before. The conservative conclusion, therefore, is that the trickle down theory is working, that all boats are lifted in a rising tide, and that therefore the correct economic policy for helping the poor is to give more tax breaks to the rich, reduce regulation that inhibits their money-making enterprise, and influence (bribe) the government to pass legislation that will further encourage and enable this concentration of wealth and power.

It may be the case that there is less poverty in the world today than there was prior to the French revolution. Perhaps people are now making $1.80 per day rather than $1.50, and surely for them that is a big difference. It is definitely the case that wealth distribution is increasingly unequal. In fact, Thomas Piketty, French professor of economics, in his blockbuster Capital in the 21st Century, argues that this trend is inevitable. Wealth will accumulate faster than an economy can grow unless steps are taken to mitigate the process. To paraphrase, the rich will get richer at a faster rate than workers will get higher wages. That’s how capitalism works.

This seems to be a law of economics, insofar as economics can be said to have a law, but there is a deeper issue that is more basic than wealth accumulation. And that, quite simply, is this: what value do we place on human beings? Should we treat them equally? Ayn Rand, guiding light for many Republican lawmakers, places no intrinsic value in others. Do not love your neighbor; love yourself only. And Robert Mercer, financier of many Republican lawmakers, places no value on human beings except how much money they make. He sees himself as worth thousands of times more than a teacher because he makes thousands of times more money. A welfare recipient has a negative value, for obvious reasons. The same would be true of poor immigrants and refugees. They are worth less than nothing. They deserve nothing.

The US is not alone in this regard. In the news these days are Russian oligarchs, including Putin, who have stolen money from the Russian people and placed it in Western banks and real estate, some of that owned by Trump. As violators of human rights, these oligarchs have had their assets frozen in the US through the Magnitsky act, enacted by Congress under Obama. So they have lots of money, but can’t get to it. Is it any wonder they want that act repealed? any wonder they were willing to sell dirt on Hillary to have the act repealed? any wonder they kill any investigator who gets to close to the truth, starting with Sergei Magnitsky, after whom the bill is named?

It is wrong and now illegal to violate human rights. It is also increasingly clear that unequal distribution of wealth is an economic dead end. What does one do with a bank vault full of money other than protect it from the rats? Once the middle class has been destroyed, you can lend them money on which to survive, but what happens when they can’t pay it back? The Great Recession is one consequence, and we have yet to recover. And there are social implications: poverty breeds disease, crime, discontent, violence, drug use, environmental degradation, social disintegration, -all of which we are experiencing right now in America. The division of the population into the poor and the extremely rich is not only immoral, it is also unsustainable.

It is also sexist. The women of the world have been denied bread throughout all of recorded history. Treated like property to be bought and sold. Traded in political alliances. Perceived as descendants of temptress Eve in the Roman Catholic Church. Never quite as valuable as men in the workplace. Some thing to be grabbed.

Quite like the court of King Louis, much of the world today divides people into two classes, those who have value and those who have less or who have none at all. The result is racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, all curses of the modern world. I cannot end without noting that Jesus lived his life among the outcasts. In his eyes, all are equal.

The World We Create

When it comes to the issues of racism and violence, the question is not whether, but why. Why is it that at least some human beings treat others so horribly?

There are many answers, -psychological, sociological, economic, genetic-, but the final explanation, it seems to me, lies in neuroscience. As we develop, starting with the earliest stages of life, sensation arrives in our neural system and works its way to the brain, which in turn tries its best to make order out of the bombardment with which it is presented. It has certain hard wired tricks that it uses for this purpose, good illustrations of which can be seen on the documentary Brain Games, currently available on Netflix. At the most basic level, the brain assorts sensation into some kind of order, creating a perception, which it then supposes to be reality. Unfortunately, the reality created by the brain does not coincide with reality as it is “out there”.

Once the ball starts rolling, it gathers steam. Using past experiences to create a framework of interpretation, the brain interprets new sensation through this framework, an activity that has the effect of enforcing and strengthening the old illusion. We become more entrenched in our ways. We increasingly believe that our way is the true way. We come to believe that if others disagree with me, they must be wrong. We universalize on the basis of our severely limited experiences. The Yahwist, in the classic myth of Eve and Adam, describes the two characters as eating of the tree of the knowledge of good evil, not to be understood as moral awareness, but as knowledge of all things, good to evil, top to bottom, left to right. Of course, they did not achieve such total knowledge, they only acted as if they did. Our problem exactly.

Once we begin to assume that the bubble we have created for ourself is in fact the way the world is, it becomes a simple matter to view others as inferior. They’re not as smart as I am. They shouldn’t have as much power. I can treat them as I will. At a deeper level, however, people who disagree with us pose a threat to our reality. We may be changing a bit, day to day, but for the most part we have aligned our world and our place in it, and if you challenge that world just by being who you are, then you are a threat to me. Inevitably, then, everyone is a threat to everyone else. Hold that thought for a minute.

How do we escape this impasse? If we are locked in our world, it requires something that transcends that world to break in and liberate us. That something has usually been called God, or the Holy, or the experience of Awe. The Christian message- one among many- is that this God is real and is on our side. That is, it is God’s hope and intent that we should grow beyond that bubble that we have created for ourselves, and God is working to help us do that. So, from this perspective, it’s all up to us to take advantage of this divine intent and seek ever increasing stages of enlightenment. And if you don’t accept God, that doesn’t matter, because, whether you believe it or not, from the Christian perspective, God is working to assist you anyway. But you still have to work to escape that bubble.

If you don’t work to escape that bubble, you will perceive others as a threat, and you will miss out on the wonder of your surroundings. The opposite is infinitely more desirable. Be open to those moments of the Holy. Experience awe. Listen to what others have to communicate. Don’t be so sure that you know everything. Expand your learning. Travel if able. See every moment as teachable, to use President Obama’s terminology.

Sometimes it takes but one person to sit in the front of the bus, or to sit at a lunch counter. One event to change the course of history. One person to stand up and say: “this is wrong”. We can be that person. As a community, be it secular or religious, we can stand up and say those words. Confrontation precedes reconciliation, but the confrontation must arise from love, not from arrogance or retribution.

White America is becoming aware that the majority will no longer be white. That is a major bursting of a bubble, and it is bound to be a long process that will not take place easily. On every level, -individual, town, nation- world views are being challenged and replaced. This is happening not only here but in Europe as well. The danger is always that right wing fascism will play upon the fear and the threat. The hope is that, with the help of God, love and justice and peace will prevail.

Patriarchy

Two images from this past week stand out in my mind. The first was the millions of women marching across the world- all in protest of Trump, his character and his agenda. It truly was a great moment in history. We might add that it was totally non-violent. The second was that of about eight men, all in suit and tie, standing around and smiling while Trump signed an order prohibiting US aid from going to any non-governmental organization across the world that even speaks of abortion. Depending on how one interprets the language, it could be read to prohibit contraception as well. Woman power in the streets, and patriarchal power in the halls of power. Quite the contrast.

My wife, Margaret, is the one who pointed out that the power of patriarchy depends on keeping women busy at home, having and caring for babies, and what better way to accomplish that end than to outlaw contraception and abortion. I’m not sure that the suits hovering over Trump are consciously aware of what they are doing, but they’re doing it just the same. Patriarchy is a mindset that we can only hope most men do not fall into, but it is the mindset of the current power structure in Washington.

It’s a fact- not an alternative fact, but a real one- that the education of girls in developing countries is a major factor in reducing poverty, unwanted pregnancy, and disease. It makes one wonder what sort of insidious plot, conscious or otherwise, those men in the Oval Office were unfolding. Maybe they thought if we keep the world poor and pregnant, we’ll have more workers competing for low paying jobs. And we won’t have to spend as much money on foreign aid, money that we can put into our own pockets. And we’ll keep the religious right people safely on our side.

Ah! the religious right. They, of course, are the trigger for this inhumanity. The Roman church has what it calls natural law at the heart of its morality. God created the universe and instilled in that creation a law by which it operates, a law that must not be violated, because it’s god’s law. And so contraception is a violation of what would happen naturally- a woman could become pregnant. And certainly abortion is a violation of that law. Anyone who knows the evolution of species would know that such divine organization is a fabrication. But if you insist on affirming natural law, would it not be proper, according to this natural law, to care for, feed, provide health care and shelter and education for all? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t invoke god’s law to essentially increase population and put women’s life in danger and then revoke any responsibility for the outcome.

Most Protestant religion does not operate on the basis of natural law, but they do have the bible, and if you look in the New Testament, by golly, it says that women should be quiet in church- and preferably elsewhere- cover their heads, and obey their husband. Wow!! Most of that is accredited to St Paul. References are found in two places, First and Second Timothy, and Paul’s first letter to the wild and chaotic church in the maritime city of Corinth. The fact is that Paul did not write the books of Timothy. They are the words of a patriarchy that re-established itself not more than a handful of decades after Jesus was crucified. Except for fundamentalists, scholars are pretty much agreed that in no way did Paul write these letters, even though someone put his name on them.

The Corinthian verses in question (14:34f) require a bit more attention, but the outcome is the same, as far as I can tell. Paul did not tell women to be quiet in the church and to submit to their husbands! That would have contradicted everything he says elsewhere about the equality of sexes, women praying and prophesying, and, especially, women leading the congregations. Paul wrote about 45 CE to the church in Galatia that “in Christ there is neither slave nor free, male nor female”, a sentiment no doubt initiated by Jesus, who, by the way, had as many women disciples as he did men. Jesus, the early disciples, and Paul were radical and revolutionary when it came to equality between the sexes. It was the later church, just decades after Jesus walked the planet, that re-instated patriarchal oppression and called it god’s will.

For the fundamentalists, this of course means giving up the strange notion that god dictated the bible. God did not, and nobody even in the church believed that fallacy until about 1700. What a tragic blunder that was, and women around the world today pay the price. It is criminal how the person and message of Jesus has been distorted and corrupted. It really is time for the Catholic church and Protestant evangelicals alike to take a second look at the one they claim to follow. Maybe then American policy could become a little more enlightened.

Fundamentalist Sexism

26/80. I have written about these numbers before, but I just can’t get them out of my mind. What are they? 26% of all voters are christian evangelicals and 80% of them voted for Trump. This is based on exit polls on election day. Doing some rough math, that means that 20% of all trumpites are “christian” evangelicals. So about 60 m people voted for trump, and about 12 m of them are these christian fundamentalists.

These numbers are not abstractions; they represent real persons. One sub group of these people is a movement called “quiverfull”. The idea basically is for a patriarchal family, under the absolute dominance of the father, to have as many children as possible in order to create an army for Jesus who can infiltrate society and create theocracy. One black-eyed wife and mother who escaped the system described the tyranny of this type of family, a tyranny that includes brutality, intimidation, humiliation, isolation from society, home schooling, and often poverty. In fact, there are web sites and support groups for those who realize the inhumanity of the system and find the means to escape.

Fundamentalists who believe that the bible is the inerrant word of a universal supreme being like to quote certain verses in the Bible that justify this male dominated family system. The first is from the Hebrew Bible- be fruitful and multiply. Then, in the New Testament, from the book of 1 Timothy, written in the latter half of the first century:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

These words are in fact in the bible, which ought to be our first warning about taking the thing literally. In defense of St Paul, the above quote, although attributed to him, was not in fact written by him but was written after his death by men who believed in male supremacy.

In fact, in his letter to the church in Galatia, probably his first letter, Paul explicitly proclaims the equality of men and women that must exist in the communities established by him. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In proclaiming this equality, Paul is but following the lead of Jesus, the one he seeks to emulate.

If we consider Jesus himself, it is perfectly obvious that he had as many female disciples as male, that the women supported the group financially, and also that they were more in tune with the kind of person Jesus was than were the men. It is most unfortunate that as the first century wore on, the old patriarchy re-established itself, rejecting and leaving behind the new vision of equality inaugurated by Jesus and continued by Paul. One of the tools used by this patriarchy was the promulgation of the idea that Jesus had 12 male disciples, who supposedly and symbolically represented the 12 tribes of Israel, an idea still prevalent today.

That which is of greatest interest, however, pertains to why the evangelicals turn to Timothy and not Galatians. If you are one of those who believe that the bible is inerrant, but one reading asserts equality while another asserts inequality, why choose the latter? There must be something else going on.

Indeed there is. I have written at length about how as we go through life we create a lens through which we see the world, and how when we encounter a person or event that does not fit into that world, we see a threat against which we must protect ourself. That “other” must be dealt with and treated as less than my equal. And so, among the many possible evils, we become racist on the one hand, and sexist on the other. Let us take immigrants into America, but let them come from Norway, not Africa. And if a women wants to be president, lock her up. She’s a crook.

It becomes more convoluted. Racists and sexists need some absolute authority to gird up their sense of superiority. If I am an evangelical, the bible becomes my protection. If the Word says that I as father and white male am superior to everyone else, then so be it. It is common knowledge now that by 2044, white America will be the minority. And so, to protect our whiteness against that, we need a wall to keep out the Mexican rapists. And gerrymandered districts. And immigration laws. And voter intimidation. And because the US is heading toward becoming post male, we need to lock up Crooked Hillary. We need to do whatever we can to keep women “in their place”. And for evangelicals, that old biblical book of Timothy serves the purpose nicely.

Racism and sexism, hand in hand, driving forces of the good ole white boys club paranoia. That club may include Timothy, the early church, the later church, and quiverful patriarchs. It does not include Jesus or Paul.

The Least of These

I don’t know if I’ve just not been paying attention, or if it seemed just too horrible to believe, but last week a sudden realization swept over me. The congressional number crunchers had concluded that the Republican proposal to repeal Obamacare would kick 14 million off the ranks of the insured in the first year alone, followed by another 10 million over the next few years. 24 million Americans who now have the security and peace of mind afforded by health insurance, would lose that under the Republican plan to repeal. Most of them would be on Medicaid, the most destitute and vulnerable of our people.

Now here’s the shock: it dawned on me that that’s exactly what they want to do. Most of us- I hope- have a touch of compassion in our bones, a sense that, indeed, we are our brother’s keeper. The gospel of Matthew has Jesus say: Even as you have done it not to the least of these my brethren, you have also done it not to me. What is he referring to? Answer: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison. Today we might add, providing health care. Compassion for others lies at the heart of all religion as well as secular humanism. I only mention Jesus because practically all of these Republicans claim to be Christian.

The fact is that the philosophy that forms the core of their belief comes from a 20th c woman philosopher named Ayn Rand. Her thought boils down to this: take care of yourself and only yourself. The web site named after her proclaims: You are not your brother’s keeper. Not! Other people have no inherent worth that you must respect except as they help you to attain your goals. What this means is that programs to help the poor are essentially stealing from those who have done well and deserve to be rewarded even more. The more poor people we can kick off the Medicaid rolls, the better off the valuable people will be.

Realizing that there are people who think like this does not come easy to me and does not sit well. The Randers, as I shall call them, really do not want to help the poor, the sick, the hungry, the shelterless. In fact, if poverty leads to crime, the more prisoners we can create, and the more profit for private prisons. If sickness leads to death, well, that person was not contributing to society anyway. Getting poor people off of public health insurance frees up money for corporate incentive. Even Meals on Wheels and lunch programs for school children drains the public coffers for no good; get rid of them.

Deifying fossil fuel and denying climate change fits into this pattern. Oil, gas, and coal are controlled by a handful of powerful people who will fight to the death to maintain their grip on wealth and power. Denying climate change is one way for them to retain their privileged status. On the contrary, solar and wind are decentralized sources of energy, the control of which is scattered across the country, beyond the control of ExxonMobil and the like.

Of course, this Rand attitude is nothing new to the face of the earth. For the Randers, the weak are shoved aside or exploited, never the recipients of compassion. Native Americans, asking for nothing more than the right to roam their land, were decimated by those who wanted and stole that land. Slaves were simply to be used, and then discarded. Non-Aryans were the source of all evil.

The philosophy of Ayn Rand is nothing new, but that does not make it any less horrifying. Whatever the issue may be in our public and political arena, the choice is clear as can be: do we establish our policy on unabashed egocentrism, greed, and decimation of the less fortunate, or do we base it on the Golden Rule, the essence of our religions and our humanism? The question is really quite simple.

Refugees

I had a dream last night. Refugee families were packed up into open containers on pallets and a fork lift was placing them on shelves. The dislocated were crying, the officials performing the operation were confused, and I was horrified. Of course, from my perspective it was “only” a dream, but for those impacted in real life, the darkness of the image doesn’t come close to what’s actually happening to them.

I also watched a brief show about Socrates last night, a man who wrote not a word but whose thought has impacted a whole culture. He was the rock star of Athens at first, questioning the gods and inspiring people to use their reason to question and perhaps answer their puzzlement about the meaning of life. It went well while the Greek city-state was at peace, but when war with Sparta threatened the very existence of his countrymen, his attack on “the old ways” became suspect, and he was sentenced to die. Socrates drinking the hemlock is one of those immortal images we can and should never forget.

What’s the connection between refugees and Socrates? Answer: his unwavering questioning of peoples’ presuppositions and attitudes, a questioning that became known as Socratic dialogue. Applying that method, we ask: what are we going to do with all the refugees streaming into stable countries? Should we let them in? direct them somewhere else? build a wall to keep them out? The Socratic question: why are there refugees in the first place? why do they want to leave their homes and extended families? Well, because there is famine or war or cruel dictatorship in their homeland. Socratic question: why is there famine or war or cruel dictatorship? Possible or probable answers: There is famine because the rains don’t come anymore. There is war because the “other” was sold many weapons and wanted our land. There is a dictator because foreign powers and corporations needed a surrogate to implement their will….

You can see that the interrogation goes on forever. Why don’t the rains come any more?  Could it be global change? Why do companies and nations sell weapons to other countries? Could it be profit? Why do nations and corporations need a surrogate dictator? Could it be because of profit, again? or power?

I am not a political scientist, nor a historian, nor a climatologist- when I reflect upon it, there are many things that I am not. But I am a believer in the Socratic method. We need to ask questions, questions that go beyond the surface and delve into what’s really going on.

It’s not all bad. This week Elon Musk completed a solar powered electrical generating system for the Children’s Hospital of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Completed. In three weeks. Was this a donation? Yes, it seems so. Was this a great investment in advertising? Yes, most likely. Can helping others and good business go hand in hand? Socrates, it seems can lead us to some wonderful levels of awareness- and action.

The applications are manifold. Take health, for example. Some problems- I repeat, some, not all- are subject to socratic investigation. Analyzing a chain of causation can lead to the culprit, and finding the culprit can lead to the cure. I have a reflux problem, and when I eat the wrong foods (many of which I have identified), the culprit is immediately identified. So, Socrates asks, why do you continue to eat them knowing what you know? Ah, his questioning can be uncomfortable.

Especially when it leads us to the edge of our unconscious. You can begin to understand why he was sentenced to death. Human beings do not want light shined on their innermost secrets, unknown even to them. Maybe this is the level at which we must seek to understand our attitude toward refugees. There’s something about them that reminds us of who we really are and are meant to be.

Haiti: A Case Study in Social In/Justice

The problem with Haiti began with the slave trade. People were kidnapped from the west coast of Africa, especially the areas of Guinea, Congo, and Dahomey. One hundred different tribes were represented, with one hundred different languages. The survivors of the ships were forced into the sugar cane fields, and the profits flowed back to France. By the 1780s, Haiti was the prize producer of sugar and coffee in the Caribbean, supplying all of Europe with 40% of its sugar and 60% of its coffee. France used the money to wage war against its European neighbors.

The masters were brutal in their treatment of the Africans. As a consequence, out of the 790,000 slaves in Haiti in the late 1700s, 40,000 had to be brought in every year to replace those who had died. This meant that practically the whole population had recently arrived from various parts of Africa, with no common language or traditions. In the years 1791-1802 the slaves revolted and created the first black republic in the Caribbean. That a disparate group of slaves could achieve such a remarkable form of government in so short a time is a testament to their commitment and perseverance.

Of course, the French were outraged, and enlisted the support of their allies, including the United States of America, to conduct an economic boycott of the fledgling country. Haiti had no choice but to acquiesce to the French demand for reparations for their “loss” in the revolt. The loss, of course, was mainly the value that they placed on the slaves who were now free. The amount was 150 million francs in gold, later reduced to 90, and Haiti was forced to borrow from banks, especially American banks at high rates, in order to satisfy the demand. In 1915, when political turmoil threatened stability in the impoverished country, at the behest of American bankers and investors, the US Marines invaded and occupied Haiti for 20 years. The final payment on the loans was made in 1947, about 150 years after the slaves had created their own country and declared themselves free. In the years since 1947, there have been the dictatorships of Papa Doc Duvalier, Baby Doc Duvalier, an attempt at democracy under the brief tenure of Aristide, another US invasion, and last but not least, a devastating earthquake that killed perhaps 300,000 and leveled Port-au-Prince. People simply struggling to survive continue to leave the devastation by the thousands, creating a refugee problem for the area, including the Bahamas.

The Bahamas itself is a poor country. During our first visit to Spanish Wells, a small island off the northern end of Eleuthera, my wife and I were introduced to a community of perhaps 75 Haitians who inhabit a shanty town built on rented land. Some of the folks are fortunate to have Bahamian residents who use them for manual labor, thus allowing the refugees to have legal but tenuous status. Most, however, are not that fortunate, and live in constant fear of being swept up by the immigration police, placed in holding cells in Nassau, and then deported back to Haiti. Amazingly, it seems to me, the Bahamian government allows the children to attend school on Spanish Wells, and also opens to them the doors of the medical clinic. Some adult men work on the road crew.

How does one define social justice or social injustice in a situation such as this? There seems no question that the injustice side would include the slave trade itself, the impoverishment of a free nation by greedy boycott, crippling interest rates, and the invasion of a free state by an army basically doing the will of the foreign wealthy. Beyond that, the issue is more complicated. Given the difficulties of a poor nation absorbing refugees, a problem endemic in many parts of the world, the reaction of the Bahamas seems to be a balancing act of treating others justly while also treating one’s own citizens fairly. There are no simple answers. Defining social justice is no easy matter.

An individual’s response is also complicated. We live a quarter mile down the road from the Haitians in a small but adequate cottage. We have a nice roof over our head, food to eat, a golf cart instead of feet for transportation. I wouldn’t call it a decision based on deliberation, but we and others have eased into a certain style of life, trying to be of assistance in ways that can make a small difference: a gift of food or propane, a ride to town, a trip to the beach for the kids, helping with homework, tutoring, a birthday cake. Our latest venture, in conjunction with a friend, is the purchase of three computers and an internet connection at the church in the “village”. The students use the computers for homework (as well as games and dreaming on Amazon.com, the new Sears catalogue), and they also utilize web sites to help their elders learn English as well as look at internet images of the Haiti they once called home. One of the most touching moments for me personally was simply to be there while four Haitians, young and old, looked at pictures of their former neighborhoods with longing and a few tears. There is a lesson here for everyone: the gift giving goes in both directions and we get as much love as we give.

Situations like Haiti do not occur in a vacuum, and there are at least two major influences that affect the context. One is God, the other is mammon, money, greed. Googling “social justice”, one is amazed at the length and the detail of the description, which includes everyone from Plato to the UN. Generally speaking, the selfish have one definition, Jesus another. If we would call ourselves Christian, we’d look to Jesus, and Jesus, in turn, would point us to the prophets of the Hebrew bible, who were merciless in their condemnation of injustice.

From Amos we read:

“Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.

And from Ezekiel:

“The Lord’s word came to me: Human one, prophesy against Israel’s shepherds. Prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims to the shepherds: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice. 5 So, shepherds, hear the Lord’s word! 10 The Lord God proclaims: I’m against the shepherds! I will hold them accountable for my flock, and I will put an end to their tending the flock. The shepherds will no longer tend them, because I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and they will no longer be their food.”

Too often Christians have in mind a Jesus who, as a good shepherd, holds a staff in one hand and a lamb in the other. Better we take our cue from Ezekiel. The crucifixion of Jesus by the Roman Empire was the culmination of a life of protest. Jesus lived at a time when the “shepherds” of the people, the wealthy, the aristocracy, the business leaders and the religious leaders, were strangling the peasantry in the pursuit of mammon, and his heart was with the people. I am against the shepherds, says the Lord. I am against the perpetrators of injustice.

Although social justice may be difficult to define, like pornography, “you know it when you see it.” (Supreme Course Justice Potter Stewart). Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, January 22, 2014, helps us to know it a little easier:

“On Monday, Oxfam published a startling report showing that the richest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion.

This leads to the most startling figure in the report: “Our estimates suggest that the lower half of the global population possesses barely 1% of global wealth, while the richest 10% of adults own 86% of all wealth, and the top 1% account for 46% of the total.” Yes, you know it when you see it.

Food to eat. A roof over our heads. Basic medical care. Enjoyment of family and friends. Surely that is God’s will for all people. Surely the pursuit of this end is why Jesus was crucified. Who can doubt that distributive social justice is God’s vision for the planet?

Unnecessary people?

Israeli writer Yuval Harari wrote a book called Sapiens that describes the evolution of the modern human and has been translated into 45 languages. A second book, entitled Homo Deus, analyzes where human evolution might be headed based on current trends, and some of those trends are both disturbing and explanatory of where we are today as a species on planet earth. More particularly, it helps explain the current state of politics in America.

One of his main theses is based on the fact that the last century of global war and mass production required vast numbers of people, both to maintain large armies and to fill the factories. Today, on the contrary, armies are small and volunteer, and combat is mostly by computer-run algorithms, epitomized by the drone. In similar fashion, manufacturing processes are controlled by robotic machinery under the direction of computers. The end result of these two defining characteristics of modern western culture is that the masses are Expendable. Useless. Unnecessary. Unemployable. It’s not that they are stupid, or in any way different from their parents and grandparents, it’s that they cannot compete with the computer.

I have commented before on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the basic premise of which is: do not love your neighbor. Get it all for yourself if you can. I have also commented on how this seems to be the operating philosophy of many Republicans elected to public office, whom I will label Ayn Rand Republicans. If we combine the philosophy of greed with the fact of unemployable people, the end result, among others, is kicking poor people off Medicaid and denying assistance to the ravaged American citizens of Puerto Rico.

It should no longer be a mystery why the Ayn Rand Republicans are so intent on destroying federal involvement in health care. They really do represent the interests of the wealthy who are greedy and see absolutely no use for the down and out of our society. And that includes the poor, the elderly, the handicapped, the infirm. And caring for them costs money. It also includes Puerto Ricans, and that would also cost a lot of money. The island was a prize given the US by Spain after the Spanish-American war in 1898. Since then, the relationship between the US and P.R. has been a roller-coaster, with good times and bad. The current time, a bad time, with P.R. in debt for $70b and its infrastructure totally destroyed by hurricanes, makes it an easy colony to forget at the moment. From an Ayn Rand Republican perspective, the island is populated by unnecessary people, and any money sent to them is money down the drain. (This attitude holds as well for the black inner-city and Native American reservations, but that’s a story for another day.)

The question quite simply is this: is there an inescapable bond between the weak and the powerful, the poor and the rich, the sick and the healthy? People may be unnecessary in the economy, but are they thereby useless? Is our whole society made less by taking health care away from the most vulnerable? Does it do irreparable damage to the soul of our country when we turn our backs on P.R.?

We have one answer staring us in the face, and that is the current Ayn Rand Republican attitude. The strategy is to deny health care and save money to finance tax breaks for the wealthy, and to ignore the ravaged Puerto Ricans. Helping them would unbalance the books.

There is another answer, and that is the realization, not only that others need help, but that we are all made a little less when we walk away from another in distress. This is basic to who we are as human beings. Jesus knew that. He didn’t coddle the wealthy. He offered support to the outcast of society.

The awareness of the bonds of life goes beyond the limits of humanity and includes all things because we are all interdependent. Trees, animals, rocks, clouds-everything- is part of the oneness of all, and if we are blind to that then we are blind to who we are.

Part Five: Individual Sapiens

In an earlier reflection we looked at the question “who am I?” from an evolutionary perspective. Who am I relative to Neanderthals, and what will I (the species) become a millennium or two down the road? For this section, I want to again raise the issue about who we are, but now from more of a psychological point of view. There are laboratories that examine peoples’ behavior, but the conclusions are not as “hard” as looking at stars through a telescope or measuring distance. Examining the operation of our own consciousness is not definitive, and that makes it difficult to separate fact from commentary, as I did early on, so again, as in part 4, there will be no formal separation.

We don’t wake up every morning asking ourself who am I? But every once in a while, it’s not a bad idea, because it is a good question. There are variations of the question who am I? Such as, where do I find meaning? what’s the key to my happiness? am I free to turn my life around if I want to? how aware am I, really? These are complex issues that have occupied some of the best minds for millennia, and to the best of my knowledge, have not arrived at one universally accepted answer. Inasmuch as we are all different, the answer to the questions will be unique to us. What follows, then, will not be the answer to the questions, but suggestions as to how we can frame the questions.

I believe that there are at least four guideposts, or subsidiary questions, that can guide our investigation, and these will be the substance of the next four sections. Those of you who know me well will recognize some familiar themes. First, to what extent am I blinded by my own ego? Second, what is going on when I on occasion find myself “in the zone”? Third, how do other people help me answer the question about who I am? And lastly, with what do I fill my life? No doubt there are myriad other dimensions to our life, but these will form a good place to start.

1 The World we Create

Let’s start with the first question, about our ego. I want to talk about what we normally think of as egotism and parochialism, but without all the extra baggage associated with these words, if that is possible. The expanding universe is a fact. Evolution is a fact. Unjust suffering is a fact. The level of certainty is definitely lower, but I do want to assert that egotism is also a fact. I use it not in the sense that we are selfish, or greedy, or uncaring, but rather in the sense that we each create our own little world where we feel safe, and from which we analyze and understand reality. Most of us like to believe that we are open-minded and reasonable, but, as the bumper sticker says, don’t believe everything you think. It might just be your ego taking over.

Our brain creates order out of chaos

You and I are born into the world in a definite time and at a particular place, and in the course of life we all have a set of experiences that is unique to us. Seems pretty obvious. From the moment when our consciousness begins to develop, our antennae to the environment are registering sensations of all sorts. As the information bombards us, our brain begins to classify and organize what previously was scattered and disjointed. It reaches out, engages the information coming from the “outside”, and takes an active role in creating order out of chaos.

The net result of this process is that, as time goes on, I develop my own “frame of mind”. This frame of mind is quite encompassing in its reach and activity; it is not passive, as though the brain were a blank piece of paper upon which sensation writes its message. It is active. Our frame of mind is a pattern whereby new experiences are analyzed, functioning as a filter through which approaching sensations and ideas must pass. This filter is a network of presuppositions, anticipations, memories and patterns that give shape and order to all incoming sensations. Of course, our frame of mind is affected by what we learn from the outside world. Sometimes the impact can be such that our perception of reality changes, and sometimes we utilize new experience to strengthen and reinforce what we already believe, right or wrong.

Perception is distorted

This interpretive filter is unique to the individual. I got mine and you got yours. People may have comparable experience and may agree on many things, but no two such filters are identical. We each see the world through spectacles that cast a certain hue to reality. We can never be assured that we know anything the way it really is, but only as it appears to us. And the way it appears to us is partly determined by what we are able to see, what we want to see, and what we don’t want to see. As a result, our perception of everything is at some level distorted. Information constantly bombarding us is to some degree made to fit into certain pre-arranged patterns of interpretation, patterns shaped by our very limited experience. This happens whether we are aware of it or not.

We can summarize this process by saying that we all create our own world and crown ourselves king or queen. We shape reality into what we want it to be, making the world out there fit our expectations as best we can. Inasmuch as we all do this, we all live in different worlds. The process is not deliberate; it just happens. We all view the world through particularly shaded sunglasses, and we don’t even know it. A friend once gave me a pair of sunglasses with windshield wipers. Hint taken.

A natural process

This organizing function of the brain is a most natural process. As do most living creatures, we try- and need- to organize our environment, making the pieces fit together in some kind of order. We seek wholeness where there is fragmentation. We crave and also require structure in our life. We don’t want to live in a disjointed universe, where things don’t fit. There is no evil intent: organization along with the accompanying distortion seems to be just a natural process.

We add interpretation to fact

In this process, there is a dialogue between the initial event and the interpretation of that event. The second the interpretation is added to the event, well…it’s just like putting on that pair of sunglasses. What we see is no longer what is necessarily out there, but rather a combination of the event and our interpretation of it. This is how we become blind to our own relativity. It is extremely difficult for us to realize that our interpretation of the event is not actually part of the event itself.

Location in time affects senses

This difficulty appears even at the most basic level of sensation. If we are subjected to the same sensation over and over again, our reaction to it will decline. The strength of the registering synapse diminishes with repetition. Hold something in your hand long enough, and you soon become unaware of its presence. Our location in time clearly affects our sensory capability.

Location in space affects senses

The same is true with respect to our location in space. Take a gray square and surround it with white on the one hand, and surround it with black on the other, and note that the brightness of the gray square will seem to change, depending on whether it is surrounded by white or by black. You and I might argue about the color of the gray square, when in fact it’s the same color but we’re looking at different backgrounds.

So the spatial location of the origin of a sensation, as well as the repetition of that sensation through time, affects how it registers with us. The fact is that I am here and you are there. You are experiencing the event from one coordinate in the space-time continuum, and I from another. We might assume that we would have identical experience of the same event, but we do not. Not even on the level of basic sensation.

Kant’s categories of space and time

Emmanuel Kant was one of the first philosophers to warn us that we don’t experience reality as it is in itself (German: ding-an-sich), and that all we have is our experience of it. It was Kant also who first told us that there are two “categories” that the mind brings to sensation- those of space and time. Modern psychology, in analyzing the sensory process, is confirming what Kant hypothesized centuries ago: simple sensation is subject to different registerings in different minds with regard to differences in space and time. The spatial and temporal location of both the observer and the observed impact the observer’s experience. You and I don’t see the same thing.

Perception interprets data even more

The difficulty of separating our experience of an event from the event itself is also apparent if one considers perception. Sensation tells us something is red. Perception adds to it the shape, and now calls it an apple. In perception, we organize data, throw in some past experience, and come up with something we can deal with.  And, as always, what we come up with depends on who we are.

Memory, confirmation bias, repression and defense mechanisms

There are many other insights from psychology that offer warnings about concluding that our perception of reality is totally accurate. Memory, for example, is quite selective. The past is reconstructed with great distortion, especially when encouraged by a group. It was a horse! It was a mule! (Fiddler on the Roof). How long was that fish you caught? Because remembering is not a simple process, it is against judicial propriety to lead the witness, for in leading the witness, the question supplies a piece of information that had not yet been established. The prosecutor may say something like, “Tell me about the man who was walking down the street”, when it had not yet been established that it was a man, but only a person. If the witness is led into assuming that is was a man, then the reconstruction of the past will indeed begin to work with the concept of a man. It wouldn’t be long before the witness would swear on a stack of bibles that it was a man walking down the street.

And then there is a process called confirmation bias. This refers to the fact that we are always seeking to support and give credence to what we already believe, and that we very seldom look for evidence that will prove us wrong. We want to be confirmed in what we already believe because we have that innate tendency to bring order out of chaos, and not chaos out of order- whether it be wrong or right.

Lastly, Freud has shown that all of us go through life with defense mechanisms. One of these is repression. Oftentimes we cannot deal with our relationships with other people, and rather than allowing our life to become disrupted, we push these difficulties down into our subconscious. Such repressed feelings and emotions are always with us, whether we realize it or not, and mostly, we do not. We come to reality not only with our conscious mind, but with our subconscious as well, quite active and filled with all sorts of presuppositions and attitudes. We bring a hidden agenda to every event, an agenda of which we are unaware.

A second defense mechanism is rationalization. We already know what we want to do, so we very creatively dream up “reasons” why it’s the right thing to do, even though there may be no just cause for believing and acting as we do. Rationalization is the opposite of reasoning, which is logical. Rationalization is illogical, but takes on the façade of reason.

So, from all these examples, from pure sensation which one would expect to be free from distortion, to defense mechanisms at the other end of the spectrum, which are obviously filled with distortion, we have evidence over and over again, that we do not realize that we are relative to our own history.

Finally, these processes clearly happen on a social as well as an individual level. If it is true that we all have our own shade of sunglasses, it is also true that various hues can be grouped into reds, grays, yellows, etc. Persons who share a culture are apt to have more in common with each other than they would with persons from another culture. The same is generally true of those who share the same class, status, role, or gender. Groups share perceptions of reality, despite the fact that each person will see it uniquely. 

A rather fundamental question presents itself: although all this may be true, is it only half the story? We all know that we have changed our minds, have grown, that we respect the opinions of at least some others, and, to a certain extent, realize our own shortcomings. 

Even in Protestant theology, the concept of justification, the initial awareness of god, is followed by sanctification, the process of growth in that awareness. So all is not egotistical. Or is it? I really don’t know. We all seem to grow in our consciousness, but it also seems that we never reach the end of that process. There’s always another dimension of our egotism that needs to be rooted out. As a practical guide, it’s probably best to assume that we are indeed parochial and egotistical, and work as best we can to root out the blindness.

Original Sin!

It is highly unpopular these days to mention anything that even remotely connotes what has been called original sin. You are not bad! You are good! Well…could we say that we all create our own little world and call that original sin? The concept of original sin began with the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Let’s take a peek there, and see what the myth is trying to say.

Here’s the story:

Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

To begin with the obvious, this is a myth, and not a statement of historical fact. Eve, Adam, the tree, and the serpent, are symbolic. The writer, whom we call the Yahwist, was an analyst of the relationship between God and humankind. S/He relates this narrative in order to describe some fundamental dimensions of human life. Further, as we shall see, both the divine prohibition and the temptation of the serpent represent a dialogue that Eve is having with herself. Some cosmic force of evil, embodied in a satan now manifest as a serpent, is not the cause of human corruption. There are only three characters on stage here: woman, man, and God.

The scene opens with Eve, apparently alone in the midst of the garden, pondering her existence. Adam may have been there, but plays no role in Eve’s deliberations. She is alone. Eve is caught in the paradox of a strange prohibition: that which is forbidden is also most desirable. Consider the circumstances: the tree of which humans are not to eat is the tree of the “the knowledge of good and evil”. The phrase in Hebrew does not denote a moral awareness of good and evil, but rather a full and practical knowledge of all matters, from right to left, top to bottom, front to back, good to evil. In other words, the tree and its fruit represent total knowledge of the full range of human experience.

It is commonly assumed at this point that eating the fruit made Adam and Eve “like” God, and that God, in turn, for some unknown reason having forbidden knowledge to them, now cast them out of the garden. This interpretation, however, is not without great difficulty. In the first place, could the Yahwist actually have believed that full knowledge was or is attainable by human beings? This is doubtful. Secondly, why would God prohibit such knowledge, which is not morally bad, but simply extensive? Such a prohibition is inconsistent with the previously given divine command to have dominion over the creation, a dominion which, if exercised properly, would require the “knowledge of good and evil”.

It is impossible that anyone could know and experience everything, even in a state of innocence. The act of eating the fruit, therefore, does not symbolize that Eve attained full knowledge, but that she now acted as if she did. That’s the point. She was no wiser at all. One moment Adam and Eve are innocently open to their environment. The next, they are imposing on their environment their own artificial and self-contained world-views. It is an existential transition that symbolizes the loss of contact with the real world, and the enclosure of Eve and Adam in worlds of their own construction. Eve, alone and pondering her existence, represents a fateful transition from innocent openness to the world to the creation of a little world with Eve as ruler. Her transition is our transition, the end result is our result: we shape reality to suit our taste. We make reality fit our notion of what it should be.

In this sense, the serpent was absolutely correct: to eat of the tree will make you believe you are all-wise. But sadly, of course, we are not. Humankind’s temptation is to assume that our experience is all experience, that our little world is the real world. The temptation is inescapable; we are created tempted. The problem is that we give in to the temptation. Having given in, dire consequences follow. We lose peace with ourselves: Eve and Adam are ashamed. We lose our openness to the universe: they hide when they hear God coming. We lose our respect and love for one another: Adam puts the blame on Eve. Lastly, we lose our harmony with the earth and its creatures: Eve blames the serpent. The consequence of fitting reality to our pattern is the total disordering of human life.

The story of Eve and Adam underscores the fact that we universalize on the basis of our solitary existence. The human being, symbolically incarnate in Eve’s solitary and fateful decision, becomes encapsulated in their own little world, a process of which we are unaware.

There is no tree and God has not forbidden the pair to eat of it. What we have is the Yahwist describing a dichotomy of human existence, a pulling in two directions. On the one hand, there is the desire to be all-wise, tempted not by the devil, not by God, but just by the conditions of life itself. We are bombarded constantly by sensory experience, and we want order. We need order. We want things to fit, so much so, that we would impose order where there is no order. We create our own world.

On the other hand, we ought to know better! This is where the divine prohibition plays its role. We ought to realize that our experience is limited. We ought to realize that our mind is shaping experience to fit preconceived notions. But we don’t. We are inclined to give in to the temptation.

Surprisingly, it was Eve’s very desire for fulfillment that caused her downfall. Rightfully seeking wholeness and meaning in life, she mistakenly begins to fit everything into her little world, thereby losing touch with reality. We want to be whole, but our experience is limited and fragmented, so we try to encompass everything in our framework, and in the process become closed in upon ourselves.

Amazingly, the root cause of human corruption, therefore, is not the pride of “trying to be like God”, which would only call for further clarification. Nor is it sex, or the devil, or predestination by a whimsical god. It is, rather, our very struggle to be human which causes our inhumanity. We create the void because we seek fulfillment. It is our search for wholeness and happiness that is the cause of our undoing because the search takes a wrong turn and we begin to absolutize.

Finally, one last element to consider. Eve’s downfall was precipitated neither by the serpent nor by the fruit, for the temptation was always there. Rather, it was the fact that she was alone that facilitated her giving in to the temptation. Whether or not Adam was physically present is immaterial. The point is that he had no function in the existential deliberations of his partner. Eve, alone, ate. Then Adam. They did not correct one another. They were not critical of one another. The Fall, it would seem, was precipitated by one person being ethically absent from the other. Mythically represented in the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden is the fact that in the struggle of life, human beings cannot stand alone. Striving for wholeness, without the lovingly corrective or supportive presence of another, we fabricate a oneness that does not exist. We create a view of reality that seems good, but does not correspond to the way things actually are. The fruit is eaten. Alone one falls. The absence of human beings one to another, the loss of loving community, is the ultimate source of the misery we impose on one another as we fall into the void. 

If there is any lesson to be learned from the fact that we create our own world, it is that we need continually to overcome our temptation to behave as though our interpretation of realty is reality itself. In part, we are blind. We are provincial. We do live in a box, in the dark. In our little world.

Of course, worlds can and do change, especially as we open ourselves in dialogue in community. We are capable of learning, of expanding our horizons, of challenging our own assumptions. But no matter how much progress we make in this endeavor, we never reach the end of the road. There is always more of our “world” that needs to be unravelled and transformed. That’s what makes life so exciting: we can continually grow into a higher awareness. There is always more to be and to learn and to experience, and that is the essence of life.

Related Reflection

The Pretense of Omniscience

It’s not that we think we know everything. It’s that we think we’re right about everything we believe. In our highly polarized society, almost everyone believes that they have the facts, know what truth is, and anyone thinking otherwise is wrong. Political parties have their “base”, a segment of the population who are similarly aligned on the issues and who are definitely opposed to the base of the other party. So certain are they of their rightness that they are tone deaf to facts that challenge their belief system, just as they are equally susceptible to the ploys of those who would lead that self-certainty into deeper blindness and even violence.

But it’s not only politics. Religious belief is equally polarized and polarizing, and the line of demarcation is not one belief system versus another, but rather the progressive/conservative divide that exists within each system. Progressive liberals within Christianity, for example, accept the validity and relevance of Islam or Judaism or Buddhism, but fundamentalists in any one of those belief systems will not accept the validity of any other.

The myopia is compounded when these systems look at science. For example, a Christian fundamentalist, taking the bible literally, cannot accept evolution, despite incontrovertible evidence in support thereof. I mean, we have proof that dinosaurs existed.

Political, religious, and scientific orientation generally go together. You’re either a conservative in all three, or a progressive. Not absolutely, but usually. I’m quite certain that I would be labeled a liberal in all three categories. My purpose here, however, is not to berate fundamentalists but rather to understand or at least acknowledge that each of us, one and all, thinks that we are right about everything we believe. One could argue that this divisiveness presents the greatest challenge to the survival of democracy, civility, and mutual respect in the world today. Failure to deal with this issue would be catastrophic.

Avoiding catastrophe includes our realization that when it comes to the big issues of life, the grand context of who we are, we are all totally and equally ignorant. Our lives are set on a stage of unsolved mysteries, both scientific and theological. Starting with science:

1 It’s pretty much settled that the universe began 13.7 billion years ago in an event wherein the tiniest speck that contained all the matter and energy that exists today exploded in what we call the Big Bang. What caused that?, what was before the Big Bang, if anything? Why was there a BB in the first place?

2 We have discovered through the effects of gravity that 76% of our universe is made up of matter and energy about which we know absolutely nothing other than the fact that it exists. Nothing! And so we call them “dark”. Mystery number two.

3 Beginning with the BB the universe has been expanding “outward”. It was believed not too long ago that there was sufficient matter in the universe exerting the force of gravity such that the expansion would slow, stop, and then perhaps reverse. Not so. We have discovered that not only is the universe expanding, but that expansion is accelerating. Why do we have acceleration? Is something pushing the universe apart? Perhaps dark energy?

4 Given this expanding and accelerating cosmos, where is it all headed? At least two options present themselves. Perhaps whatever is pushing us apart will change and start pulling us together. A Big Crunch, if you will. There is no evidence whatsoever for this, but it is one logical option. Another is that the cosmos will increasingly disperse and, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, all mass/energy will become equally distributed and the universe will be nothing more than isolated particles of energy flying around. No galaxies, no stars, no me and no you. A new suggestion has come along: that the Higgs boson, which gives mass to particles, could be unstable, and the universe could disappear in a flash. Mystery number four: what is the destiny of the universe?

5 Although the universe is big, it is comprised of tiny building blocks. How tiny is tiny? What is the smallest building block? A relatively new theory in physics, called string theory, postulates that invisible vibrating strings are the smallest units out of which everything is made. Essential to this theory is the idea that beyond the three dimensions plus time, familiar to everyone, there are more dimensions, perhaps a total of 10 or 11 or 26. Unfortunately, neither these strings nor the attendant dimensions can ever be proven to exist, so the questions remain: what is the nature of the stuff out of which all matter is made? and correspondingly, are there other dimensions?

6 One of the great puzzles of quantum mechanics is entanglement. Start with a particle and blast it into two particles. The crazy thing is, if you separate the two, regardless of the distance- it can be the width of the universe- if you change one, you automatically and inescapably and immediately change the other. How is this possible? Nobody knows, but experiments prove that it happens.

The list goes on, but by now we should realize that the pretense of omniscience that we all share is a fool’s game.

The same is true when we try to think about god.

1 The primal question most likely is the simplest: is there a god? There is no way to answer that question.

2 Suppose that there is a god. Where is s/he? Any place in this cosmos? Beyond? Perhaps before the Big Bang, as the creator? Or perhaps in one of those extra dimensions? No answer is definitive, so the question remains: where is this god?

3 Again, assuming that god is real, most religious perspectives assert that god cares for us, loves us, relates to us, that god in some sense is “personal”. Given the galactic extent of the universe as photographed by Hubble, how is it possible to bring together the notion of a cosmic god who is also personal? How are we to think about who/what god is?

4 We can also ask: how is this god tied in to the ultimate destiny of the universe? The universe may end in a Second Law whimper, or in a contraction that results in a Big Crunch and perhaps a second round of Big Bang. Right now it looks like we should put our money on the whimper. But how does god fit into any of this? Inevitable evolution toward higher levels of being, ultimately becoming god? A growing self-consciousness of the cosmos that in fact is identical with god?

The point of all this is that we need to be humble. We do not know the answers to the most basic of questions, and some of these answers are by nature unknowable. There are three takeaways. First, seek knowledge and learn. Talk with others. Be critical of your own logic as well as the logic of others. Be socratic in dialogue.

The second point is to realize that no one should ever assume that they have the answer. This involves a dialectic. When convinced, assert your belief, but always be genuinely open to correction. The statements go hand in hand. We live in a world where we must take stands and make affirmations. We have to act, and we should act on the best evidence available.

But we must also realize that our perception is limited and subject to distortion. And so we must say: Do not be dogmatic. Do not be a fundamentalist, whether in science or in theology or in politics. Realize that time changes all, and that what we think now is most likely not what we thought in the past, and not what we will think in the future. With this attitude, we can all learn from one another and not be threatened by one another, becoming a little more enlightened in the process.. Humility and not arrogant certainty is integral to love and peace, and also a bit more fun.

2 A Zone by any other name…

We all have experiences in our life that go beyond the ordinary, and they go by many names that you have no doubt heard: flow, peak experience, in the zone, Now, non-duality, direct experience, non-reflexive experience, the holy, cosmic Thou. They are spoken of by everyone from sports announcers to Buddhist monks. The different words have specific connotations to their individual proponents, but they all come close to meaning the same thing.

The easiest way to understand them is to look at some possible situations. For example:

You laugh uncontrollably.

You become totally absorbed in the fury of a thunderstorm.

You are shocked by a beggar in the subway.

You discover that a friend has just died, and cannot restrain the tears.

A baby smiles at you, and you reflexively smile back.

You suddenly realize the solution to your problem.

You are captivated by the starry sky above.

You don’t remember scoring those three baskets to win the game.

You feel at one with your surroundings.

The list goes on and on. Every event in our life has the potential to become a “moment”. These are times when we are not analyzing a situation or thinking about an experience, but rather simply living the experience. It is something that happens to us, rather than it being the result of our intention. We are basically passive and not active, whole and not divided, being at one with ourselves and what is happening to us. In the moment we overcome distinctions between ourselves and our experience, not by flying through space and occupying the same place, but by experiencing directly rather than thinking about experiencing. For example, you hear some good music and start tapping your feet. Subconsciously, your body begins to internalize the rhythm. The event was not deliberate; it just happened. In all such events, we are enveloped in a total experience that shatters our private little world. In them we overcome divisions and find a unity not only within ourselves, but also with our experience. There is no hidden agenda, be it conscious or subconscious. We are really all there. And it can happen any time, any place, in conjunction with anything. 

I don’t think that we can make moments happen. You cannot get out of bed in the morning and decide you will have a moment or two that day. I tried it once. It didn’t work. It’s something that happens to us. On the other hand, we can be receptive. We can be open to moments, even though we can’t make them happen. The most self-centered person you can imagine can be invaded by a moment at any time, but it would seem that a person who is open and receptive will experience many more such events than a person who is not. Not only are we incapable of making moments happen, we are also incapable of making them last. Moments come and moments go. 

I find it dismaying that I can’t hold onto moments, but I think I know what happens. Quite simply, it is because our world that we talked about previously re-establishes its hold over us. In its gentlest form, this means that we just start thinking about other things. The fury of the storm abates, and we go back to whatever we were doing prior to its arrival. The baby smiles, you smile back… and then she cries! I hit a great “unconscious” stroke with my #4 iron, and then I start to analyze my swing. Electro-encephalograms on pro golfers show little activity during the swing; those on duffers are all over the place. I imagine that the same would be true of any athlete- or artist, writer, composer, dancer, orator, etc- who is in the zone. We lose the moment by thinking.

Our world regains its control by doing what it does so well: it fits the experience into categories it has already created. We don’t like intrusions, so we tuck them away on the “correct” mental shelf, maintaining our sense of order- even at the cost of accuracy. So, for example, you are encountered by a beggar in the subway, and your world is momentarily shattered, but pretty soon the experience is fit into your interpretive framework. “Oh, yes, starting tomorrow I really must do something about poverty…” One minute you are lost in the intensity of a thunderstorm, experiencing a moment, the next minute you are comparing the storm to others you have seen, analyzing, comparing…We do not like to be out of control: our world regains its footing and the moment is lost.

Lest we fail to appreciate the significance of moments invading worlds, think of Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha-to-be. According to legend, he was a young prince, isolated from the world by a father who wanted to protect his son from experiencing the misery of life. But one day, as he was looking out the window, he saw a sick person, and suddenly realized that people could become ill. Another day, while looking out the window, he saw an old person, and realized that his young, handsome, and princely body would not always be the way it was. And again he looked out and saw a person who had died, becoming aware of death for the first time. In the fourth experience of looking out the window, he saw a monk who had dedicated himself to searching for the truth. These experiences, be they historical or mythological, point to moments in life when the Buddha-to-be realized he was living in a dark mental cave, and vowed to seek enlightenment.

Great moments in history have been formative not only in the history of Buddhism, but for Christianity as well. We read in the New Testament book of Acts about a person named Stephen, who became a follower of Jesus shortly after the crucifixion, and was soon stoned to death because of his faith in Jesus. As Stephen was being stoned, Paul, soon to become the greatest Christian missionary of all time, was standing at a short distance witnessing the event. Paul was educated and trained in Jewish law, and because of his absolute devotion to the Jewish religion, he was a relentless persecutor of Christians. After the stoning, Paul was en route to Damascus, purportedly to arrest more disciples of Jesus, when he had an experience of light in the sky and became blind and disoriented. Paul wrote later that this was, for him, an encounter with the risen Christ. There is no doubt in my mind that as Paul was watching Stephen being executed, and as Paul was experiencing his own persecution of these Christians, some extremely powerful forces were at work within him that later manifested themselves in a literal, physical blindness as well as a disorientation about who he was. Paul’s world had been invaded in a moment, and the real world would never be the same.

This may sound like a theologian talking, but I believe that moments are those times when we bump into the Thou-ness of the universe. We become one with ourselves and with our circumstances, and accept it as a gift. Call it god, or not. We don’t have to name it, just experience it. We don’t have to have faith in it. We don’t have to believe in it. We can just smile about it, knowing that something special has occurred. 

Not all moments are earth-shattering, but they are all important because they have the power to change our lives, to open our minds, to see life in a new way. Perhaps the greatest help in both overcoming worlds as well as enhancing receptivity to moments is community, to which we will turn in the next section. But first some related reflections.

Related Reflections

Binding Moments

Consider the disciples of Jesus, men and women, certainly numbering more than the usual twelve. Individually and collectively, the disciples no doubt experienced many moments both with Jesus and with one another. As one who spoke with authority, who healed with power, who was outraged by injustice, and who was ever filled with compassion, Jesus was constantly encountering the disciples with a realty they had never before experienced to such an extent. In Jesus, they found what it meant to be a fully human being and they discovered God, the one in the other. Furthermore, after the crucifixion, as they gathered together, their mutual support enabled a new and shared moment, and that was that although Jesus had been crucified, he was yet alive in their midst, a presence that could not be understood, only accepted.

Both in and through Jesus and their continuing fellowship, the disciples experienced moments of new reality. The moments didn’t last, but the memory enhanced the creation of a new framework of life-interpretation, a new worldview. And then the trouble began. The immediacy of the family of friends that Jesus had gathered slowly transitioned into an organization. The experience of the first disciples slowly transitioned into the framework that described that experience, gradually but ultimately replacing that experience. The framework for interpretation of the moments became the substitute for the moments themselves, set in stone, hardened into dogma, cause of controversy.

The New Testament itself is replete with differences of opinion and controversy about what to believe and who to believe. Paul, James, John, Mark, Luke, Matthew, Thomas- these names all represent different theologies, varying frameworks of interpretation of the formative moments, and they all come across as possessing the singular presentation of truth.

Once the various frameworks are confused with the formative experience of those moments with Jesus, then some must be right and others must be wrong. In other words, we now have orthodoxy (the winner of the argument) and heresy (lost the argument and often their lives). The confusion of actual experience and framework of interpretation is epitomized by the two great councils of the church, Nicaea in 325 and Chalcedon in 451.

First, in Nicaea in 325, the church gathered in council to deal with this question: Is Jesus fully God, and if so, how? They concluded that, yes, Jesus was fully God, and that was because he was of the same “substance” as the Father. This is the language of the so-called Nicene Creed: “Jesus was true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of the same substance as the Father…” Note the difference from the thinking of the disciples: they described Jesus relationally, the council described him substantively. The disciples had an experience; the council offers a formula. The disciples confessed that something had happened to them; the council tried to explain how it could have happened.

The second council, in Chalcedon, 451, tried to answer this question: How can Jesus be both God and man in one person? Some parties had argued that he was really two separate entities, while others argued that the two natures were somehow mixed up in him. The church rejected both positions, holding that Jesus was one person in whom the two “natures” were neither separated nor mixed. This, supposedly, becomes the irrational paradox that forms the heart of the Christian faith.

But again, notice how different this is from what the disciples had to say. Once more, the later church is looking at Jesus statically, in terms of natures and substances, rather than dynamically and relationally. The disciples related to a person, not a nature or two. In our attempt to understand Jesus, we do well to drop the formulas handed down to us from church councils and focus instead on the Jesus-disciple encounter. The heart of the Christian faith is not believing that Jesus somehow is both God and man in one person, but rather experiencing a newness of life through encounter with Jesus. He is the one who incarnates our very humanity and is also the one who manifests the power of God so as to enable us to escape the confines of our “world”, overcome the void, and join with others in a vision of loving community.

Of course, church councils called and contrived by political operatives never settle the issue. Somebody else always has the “truth” that they cannot forego. It’s the curse of confusing the experience of moments with the ensuing framework of interpretation. The Inquisition, witch burning, and fundamentalism are all results of such confusion.

The alternative seems so simple and so obvious. Everyone experiences moments, some of which are encounters with the divine, whether recognized as such or not. Those who find meaning in the Jesus story can share their own personal stories and can certainly have a framework of interpretation, but must never presume that their framework is the only one. Through dialog and life itself that framework will evolve, but the divine in the moment will always be the divine. The interpretation changes, but the source remains the same. Faith, with its attendant belief system will vary from person to person and will evolve, but the source of that faith, the moments of encounter, will remain the same. However you describe the person and work of Jesus (eternal word, suffering servant, Son of God, Jewish mystic, etc.) is fine as long as you don’t try to impose that theology on everyone.

The maintenance of community, be it in the local congregation or at the height of ecumenism, is not so much dependent on unanimity of belief (the framework) but on commonality of experience. And that commonality of experience is the tie that binds. Having the same theology does not.

Finally, we must recognize that ultimately when we speak of community, we speak of the whole planet. We all experience one God, recognized or not. We have that commonality of experience. The problem is that here again we allow our differing frameworks for interpretation to usurp the rightful role that commonality of experience must play. We will have differences, of course, simply because we are different. But we absolutely must never assume that “we” have the truth and you do not. This holds true between the various religions, but it also holds true with respect to secularism. Religion is not right and secularism is not wrong. The division between Christianity and secularism fades as we realize that each and every one of us experiences moments of encounter with the One. That focus, and that alone, offers the hope of peace and justice for all.

Music Moments

What a mystery music is. A peek at various dictionaries reveals a variety of definition that speak of vibrations, waves of energy that combine with other waves, varying in intensity, combination, tone, harmony and a host of other factors, not to mention lyrics. It is in the composer’s mind before it is even heard, and in the hearers heart without help from the ear.

How often have we listened with others to some good rhythmic music as, inevitably, feet start to tap, heads begin nod, and no doubt, if the performance is live, hands have started clapping. Good music gets into us, grabs hold, and brings us out of ourselves. The urge to get up and dance at the sound of good music is almost irresistible. We dance in the kitchen just as we sing in the shower, because…well, why is that?

The impact of music on us has a lot to do with our personal history. For example, for many of the older generation in the church, singing the old time favorites, like “The Old Rugged Cross”, and “I Walk in the Garden Alone”, today may have words that make no sense theologically, but which evoke memories of good times past.

It goes beyond personal history, however. Even when heard for the first time, a Gregorian chant has a power that cannot be explained or contained.

Such a captivating experience is not limited by the type or setting of the music. Classical, pop, bluegrass, jazz, country, blues, to name common Western music, all have the capacity to release an energy within us, previously pent up, but now free. That release can and does happen to anyone, any time, any place. Music is one of the great equalizers of persons. No matter who you are, you are susceptible to this unfathomed power. What is going on here?

In answer to that question, there is within us, an energy, an awareness, a wholeness, -how shall we name it?- that becomes overcome by facade, inevitably, and to every one. As we slowly come to consciousness in this world, we are bombarded by bits of information that come to us through our experience of the external world. We want and need to organize this experience into some sort of integrated whole that we can deal with, and so our brain begins to organize and classify, to judge and pre-judge, to pay attention to certain detail and not others. This process is not limited to the brain: by the time information arrives there, it has already been filtered at each step on the neural pathway. Because of this necessary procedure, initially benign, we each and all create our own framework of interpretation, our own little world, and my world is not your world. Not only so, but because of the filtering process, my world is not the real world, and the energy-awareness-wholeness is suppressed by the runaway train of our world creation. The facade takes on the appearance of reality, and Reality becomes lost in a sea of judgement.

Here’s where music enters the scene. Whether it’s a moment of foot-tapping at a bluegrass concert, a moment of awe in a cathedral filled with Gregorian chants, or rockin’ to the Stones, the facade we have created is temporarily dissolved, the world we have created is temporarily dismantled. The experience is not the product of rational thought or analysis, but just happens, directly and without reflection. Tapping one’s foot in time to the music is not the result of a conscious decision to tap one’s foot.

Of course, there are many explanations of such moments. It could be that some part of the brain other than the cerebral cortex is making that decision, our “reptilian composer” brain, for example. Or we might say from a perspective informed by Jesus, that the power to dismantle our world is a power transcendent to us. That the One who enables Reality to dissolve our facade is the One who created. That the one who re-ignites our awareness of truth is Truth itself. That the origin of all these moments is the Divine.

If music thus has the capacity to momentarily break into our parochialism and put us in contact with the divine, then music in a spiritual and communal setting should facilitate that process. The problem, of course, is that – and this is especially true of music- it’s different strokes for different folks. Many older persons personally can sing about “The Old Rugged Cross” with gusto, even though they completely disagree with the lyrics. But if they were doing that in the company of a young secular humanist, that younger person might be turned off by their seemingly odd behavior. Many today enjoy what goes by the name of “Christian” music, a genre that leaves many others cold. Just as it is difficult to develop a ritual that appeals to everyone, it is equally difficult to incorporate music that can appeal to all. It becomes that much more difficult when friends and strangers come to visit.

However that issue is resolved, we can rejoice in the fact that music has the power to dismantle the “world” we have created, the power to re-ignite the wholeness that lies within, and the power to dissolve our facade and put us in touch- if only in the moment- with who we really are.

3 How Other Persons Affect Us

The Indian wolf boy. The wolf girls of Midnapore. The Andes goat boy. The Syrian gazelle boy. And more. The Nigerian chimp boy. Ugandan monkey boy. Romanian dog boy. Cambodian jungle girl. Russian bird boy. Ukrainian dog girl.

These are all real people, feral children who, for various reasons, were separated from human beings early in life, and were adopted by families of the animals after whom they  are named. None could speak human language. The bird boy chirped and flapped his arm-wings to communicate. The dog girl growled and walked on hands and knees. The gazelle boy could run 50 mph. After they were discovered, they found it impossible to assimilate into the company of homo sapiens, tried to and did escape, the unlucky ones restrained in insane asylums. Genetically, they might be the species homo, but they are not socialized humans. Yes, we need other people. At the most basic level, we need them to learn how to walk, eat, communicate, and just generally be in the company of others. I’m sure that any parent who has raised infants into children can identify with that process.

This deleterious effect of failing to relate has also been shown in studies with monkeys that were raised in total isolation. Solitary and confined to a cage, they saw not one living thing, not even the hand that fed them. Monkeys that had lived that way for a year or so then had another monkey put in with them, and they had absolutely no idea how to relate. They could not perform sexually, and most distressingly, when they were artificially inseminated and gave birth, they could not relate to their own babies in a nurturing way. Instead, some of them bit their offspring, hit them, threw them around, and even killed them. We are not monkeys. Nevertheless, we are primates, and it would not be too far afield to assume that our behavior might be similar to that of the monkeys. If we were brought into this world and never had the opportunity to relate to another human being, we ourselves could easily become less than human.

There is a second reason why we need other people, and that has to do with the subject matter of the previous two sections: our self-created world, and the zone. On the one hand, we are egotistical and parochial, living in a world of our own. We conflate our interpretation of reality with reality itself, fitting new experience into an already existing pattern of interpretation. On the other hand, those moments when we are in the zone refuse to be confined by our world, breaking in as they do with unexpected presence and power.

And it is from this perspective wherein other persons enter our lives at a second level: they are the source, I believe, of most of the moments that happen to us. Of course they are not the source for athletes who are performing super human feats while in the zone, nor for those creating great works of art while alone in the studio, nor for that solitary moment you experience on a starry night. But fellow human beings, like no other, can challenge our self enclosure at a moment’s notice. People who love us, or who challenge us, or who think thoughts radically different from ours (they could be the same person!),- these are, to use the language of Martin Buber, the Thous who rattle our cage.

People encounter, speak critically, and challenge us, thereby enabling us at least momentarily to become liberated from the world within which we are encased. The importance of human encounter at this level cannot be over-emphasized, and that is why, paradoxically, we fear it so much. We don’t like to be challenged. We are safe and secure in the world of our making, and we resent the threat. So we live with this dialectic: we need to relate to other people, and yet we are also afraid that they may be critical of us. We need to have our worlds challenged and overcome, but it is a most frightening and perhaps painful process. Painful, but enlightening.

Lastly, there is a third dimension to our need for other people, a dimension often referred to as social network. We belong to various groups that socialize us in different ways, but we also find in those groups certain others who are not just acquaintances, but friends. There have been studies that show that longevity is positively related to your social network. If you want to live a long life, get some friends!

Round the world, women live longer than men. Set aside the fact that men are often engaged in dangerous work. Set side also the fact that men often do stupid things. (Google why women live longer than men and see what comes up!) There are biological reasons offered as an explanation, which may or may not be true; estrogen has a positive long term effect on your body, testosterone does not. But there are studies that show that women much more easily than men develop close social networks, persons in whom they can confide and turn to when times get tough. Community, in the deepest sense of the term, is part of what defines us as human, even to the extent of enabling us to live longer.

I’m not sure, in terms of length of life, whether it matters who your friends are. But it does make a difference, in terms of quality of life, what kind of community you belong to. I am fully aware that this is a value judgement. I’m sure that there is honor among thieves (or street gangs, assassination squads, etc), and possibly love as well. But I believe it is more in tune with the universe if the community of which you are a part is a community of love. It is critical for our development as human beings to experience love, which by definition, involves at least someone else. Both the expanse and the intensity of that love depends on who and where we are in life. But caring for one another and sharing with one another is the hallmark of who we really are.

This is but the beginning of trying to comprehend our social nature. There is so much more. Think of young boys and girls raised in war zones. How do they see themselves and their world? or babies born in refugee camps? Who will they grow up to be? or the daughter of a billionaire? what will her self image be? And I might add, how am I affected knowing that those children are experiencing those realities even as I sit and type these words?

I remember a Dartmouth College commencement where Fred Rogers was the speaker. The ceremony took place on the green, surrounded by buildings, birds, and some cars heading down the roads on all four sides. Five thousand buzzing people under the blue sky with distractions everywhere. He started by asking everyone to remember those people in their life who had helped bring them to where they were today. It was as if someone had waved a magic wand over the excited, disparate crowd. Within ten seconds, everyone entered a silence that seemed to last forever. We are social beings.

Related Reflections

Loving-Kindness

Loving-kindness is a wonderful word. The concept that it connotes is found in a variety of source material. In Buddhism, that concept is called metta, and is variously translated as benevolence, amity, friendliness. In fact, a whole type of meditation is based on metta, wherein one begins by meditating upon loving oneself, and, as one gains in this exercise, the field of loving-kindness then proceeds outward, encompassing next a person close to you, then others, gradually, until finally the whole sentient world is loved.

In ancient Israel, the word translated as loving-kindness is chesed, variously used to mean kindness, love, faithfulness, mercy, forgiveness. Initially and most often it is applied to God and God’s attitude/role in the covenant between the deity and Israel, the subject of his love. Inasmuch as Israel, the bride of God, is continually unfaithful in her love affairs with other gods, God’s loving-kindness is a continual forgiveness and reaching out in love. So basic is chesed that if one asks who God is, one could answer “God is chesed”.

In later Jewish thought, keeping the Torah and living a life of virtue meant living a life of chesed, and that in turn was a key element in tikkun olam, repairing the world. Loving-kindness repairs the world.

The Greeks used the word agape to signify unconditional love, a love distinct from eros (sexual) and philia, (brotherly). Agape, applied to both God and human is a concept basic to the early Christian church. It connotes unconditionality and acceptance with no need for or expectation of reciprocity. In many ways, it is the essence of discipleship as well as the essence of God.

In the disciples’ encounter with Jesus they had discovered two things: what it meant to be a human being and also who God was. The medium of those discoveries, if you will, was Jesus’ loving-kindness. He was not filled with hate or indifference or interpersonal blindness. He was filled with agape. He was filled with chesed. He was filled with metta.

The loving-kindness of the man Jesus is the key to our understanding our self and our God, and that loving-kindness is found in both his life and his teaching. Indeed, is there anything about Jesus that is not loving-kindness? Even if a story or teaching is one that was later attributed to Jesus, is there any that is not based on love?

Think of the images we are given. A rich young man asks what he must do to gain eternal life…and the answer is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Zacchaeus the tax collector climbs a tree to see Jesus because he is short…only to be invited down, for Jesus said he would stay at his house that night. A sick person is healed…rise up and go in peace. A father embraces his prodigal son, who was lost but is now alive again. And hanging on the cross, Forgive them; they know not what they do.

Lest we romanticize Jesus as simply a kind man, we must remember that loving-kindness incorporates the refusal to simply accept either the blindness or the brutality that surrounded him. His life and teaching were a call to everyone he met to rise above the social convention of the time and to seek a higher plane. He had no affection for spiritual sloth. Seek the light and let your light shine. Leave behind what culture says you must be, and be born again. Open your eyes. Follow me.

And his attack on the economic exploitation that formed the basis of the domination system was total. If we would understand the full force of Jesus’ life and teaching, we must never forget that the rich and powerful who steal from the orphan and the widow are the antipathy of that Kingdom for which Jesus gave his life. A life of loving-kindness is not a life of quietism, but a life of protest.

As we think of our own life, what else should we focus on beside loving-kindness? What else is there to fill our life with meaning? Nothing. And this loving-kindness is not something that we do in addition to working at our job or taking care of the kids or washing the dishes. It is a level of consciousness and expression that becomes manifest precisely as we live our life. If that level is missing, then we are less than we can be. But if it is there, then the fullness is ours.

Of course, we are different from one another and do not all experience this fulness in the same way. Hindu understanding describes four types of personalities, and therefore four corresponding life-styles or yoga to seek enlightenment. The first is action, wherein acts of love for others is where we find our fulfillment. The second yoga is the way of loving-kindness that is fulfilled in thinking and teaching. Third is meditation. And last is devotion to the deity. They are different paths for different people, with the same goal, all paths of loving-kindness.

Transformation of the world is both our topic for today and our goal in life, and really, the only way to transform the world is with loving-kindness. It changes us and enables us to grow, just as it beneficially impacts the world about us. It is a good word. Perhaps the best.

Mending Wall

BY ROBERT FROST

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

One doesn’t often think of Robert Frost as a poet relevant to today’s political crises, but Mending Wall certainly is. There is so much in these few words.

There are walls, and in them openings appear. We don’t always know what caused the openings- frost, humans, perhaps elves, aka the universe- but there is something that doesn’t love (quite the choice of words) a wall and wants it down, a line twice repeated. The narrator and the neighbor, nevertheless, mend the wall, even though for practical purposes it is unnecessary. Why? asks the narrator. Because, answers the neighbor.

On a personal level, we experience walls that have been fabricated out of the darkness of our minds, separating us from one another. And every once in awhile,  an opening appears, perhaps the work of the elves of the universe, and we have a choice: to reach across the space and become one, or rebuild that which separates. Always the choice.

But sometimes there are cows. Frost knows that given the right circumstances, walls and fences do indeed serve good purpose. The challenge is always in recognizing the right circumstances.

On an international level, again, walls are fabricated out of the darkness of our minds, fear and war often the consequence. Occasional moments opportune for peace arrive, perhaps here also the elves of the universe busy at work, not liking walls as they do. The choice presents itself agin: reach out, or rebuild the wall. Peace or war?

But, as before, sometimes there are cows. In today’s world, what are the cows? When are walls good? When do good fences make good neighbors and not have the opposite effect? There can be no doubt that the planet earth is witnessing a revival of wall mending. France for the French. Germany for the Germans. America without Mexicans. Everyone without Muslim refugees. The walls may be physical or psychological. Borders of all types are effective in keeping out and keeping in.

The problem is that we do not yet know who we are. It’s easy enough to see why people who believe in walls think they do what needs to be done. Troubles are offloaded onto the “other” who must be kept at bay. The blind spot in this approach is that there is no “other”, not now, not ever. We have always been one, whether we knew it or not, and the movement of science/ technology/ economy/cultures points to an inescapable oneness down the road. The question is whether we work with that oneness or against it.

I think that Frost felt this tension a long time ago. I think he was both narrator and neighbor. He knew that where there are cows, good fences make good neighbors. He also knew that mending walls where there is no need for a wall, is an activity that comes only out of the darkness of our minds. He also knew that, ultimately, the universe does not love a wall, and wants it down.

4 Who am I?

Not to be overly dramatic, but we are simply a speck of stardust floating on the infinite sea of the universe, hitching a temporary ride on the train of evolution. The underpinnings of our existence are bizarre antics of elementary particles, and we are surrounded by the unexplained suffering that ensues when the whole system seemingly goes awry. We create our own world, divorcing ourselves from reality, even as we occasionally bump into something that seemingly transcends the everydayness of our existence. Who are we, anyway? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life?

I think it is a fact that humans search for meaning in life. Not everyone agrees. Perhaps there are those of us who have never asked the question, who have never experienced an identity crisis and wondered who they were, but I suspect that we wonder why we are here on this planet. There are some radical solutions to the question. Life has no meaning, so kill yourself. Your heart is restless, said St. Augustine of Hippo, so find your peace in god. These are two answers representing quite opposite ends of the spectrum, but there are less radical solutions.

Our search for meaning coincides with the underlying and perhaps subconscious feeling that something is missing, and we’re not quite sure what that is. I remember quite clearly a particular class at the U.of Chicago Divinity School. Joseph Haroutunian, my dissertation advisor, spoke with humility about his own life journey. Oh, if only I get into that college, then I will be happy. Oh, if only I get into that graduate program, then I will be happy. If only I get that professorship….that promotion…If only she will marry me, then I will be happy. And then I woke up one morning and said to myself, Joe, there’s something wrong…

What’s wrong is that old nagging feeling that something is missing, and we’re not sure what it is. How often do we feel this way? How long does it last? Or is it constant, perhaps lurking in our subconscious? I don’t know. I have used and continue to use the word void to describe this feeling. It’s a questioning, a search, a feeling, an emptiness awaiting fulfillment. I’m not saying that we spend our day feeling down and depressed, although that certainly happens to some of us. Rather, what we do is to escape that feeling of the void by filling in the blank with some thing or activity that occupies our time and attention and covers the hole. That filler can be anything, can last a long time, and is capable of eventually defining our life.

Shopping. Texting. Television. Work. Play. Gambling. Talking. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. On the contrary, they are beneficial and/or necessary, but we must never allow them to take over.

Anecdotal illustration of the search and the escapes is abundant. The Buddha vowed to sit under the bodhi tree until he found the meaning of life, and was successful. I once had a student who tried that, but was not successful. Count Tolstoy contrasted the foolishness and escapism of the Russian aristocracy with the simple acceptance of life that he thought he saw among the peasantry. He himself thought life devoid of meaning, and contemplated suicide. Thoreau believed that most men lived lives of quiet desperation.

Based on our observations in the previous reflections, it seems to me that there are clear guidelines to that search for meaning. Number one, we need to break out of the confines of our distorted perception. We need to grow, open up, become aware, realize our own blindness. Second, become ever more open to moments in the zone. Even if we cannot force them to be, we can work at becoming increasingly susceptible to the magic of the cosmos. Third, reach out to those fellow travelers with whom we share the journey. We do need other people, who care and who share, and the key here is love. Community, whether of two or twenty, seems to me to be the answer to the question of life. Love is who we are. Love is the meaning of life.

Related Reflections

Consciousness

The belief that humankind, created in the image of god, is the center and purpose of the universe, has been smacked down over the last 500 years by three revolutions in human self-awareness. The first was the Copernican discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe. Prior to Copernicus publishing his theory in 1543, the medieval worldview imagined that all the heavenly bodies revolved around earth and humanity, while god pushed them in their orbits through the sky. Today, thanks to Hubble, we gaze in fascination at photos of galaxies in outer space. We are not the center of the universe.

The second blow came from Darwin. Tradition has it that he was so fearful of reaction to his theory of evolution that he postponed printing it. His conclusion was that we were not created by god 5000 years ago, but evolved from species that came before us. Not only were we not the center of the universe, as Copernicus had shown, but we were not the only player in the history of the planet. We came from life that preceded us.

The last blow, with which we are still contending, came from Freud, who showed that we are not even in control of our own mind. Freud exposed the unconscious, and in doing so raised the question of the motivation, meaning and purpose of human activity.

It is fascinating to consider that we understand the 13.7 billion year history of the universe, that every year we observe evolution in action as we create new vaccines to fight an ever-evolving influenza virus, but we have no certainty about the source and nature of human consciousness. There are probably 100 theories about human consciousness, but none are definitive.

They fall into two basic categories. On the one hand are those who assert that human consciousness arises because of some physical process, most often associated with the brain. There is no “mind”, no “I” or “You” that exists independently of human flesh and forms the sense that we are somebody. On the other hand are those theories that proclaim just the opposite, that there is a non-physical mind that is the seat of human consciousness. Science, of course, cannot and does not speculate about non-physical reality, and so is constantly in search of the fleshy source of consciousness.

The search for the fleshy source of consciousness arises in conjunction with many parallel issues, about which our knowledge is limited. Think of anesthesia, comas, sleep, all subjects of investigation and often filled with surprise. How conscious are we while in those states? And what of other animals? Does your pet exhibit consciousness? at what level? How about plants, and even rocks? The theory known as panpsychism posits consciousness at all levels of reality. The list of parallels goes on. What happens to consciousness during hypnosis? In a case of multiple personality disorder, whose consciousness are we speaking of? And more: split brains, differing brain waves, meditative states, just to name a few.

If history is any guide, what happened with cosmology and evolution will most likely happen also with consciousness. God’s hand moving the heavenly bodies around the earth was replaced by gravitational orbits. Humans created in the image of god were replaced by a certain series of species along the chain of evolution. And consciousness? Due not to a mind or a soul, but to a certain function of the brain?

The answer seems to be yes, a certain function of the brain. Two recent studies point in that direction. First, it has been discovered that in the mouse brain, three super large one celled neurons are connected with various parts of the brain, and one of them actually encompasses the whole brain. Originating in the claustrum, a part of the brain shown to be integral to consciousness, this single neuron is in contact with all brain activity simultaneously, and could be the center of consciousness. If humans have this neuron, which they probably do, further study could illuminate the connection between it and self- awareness.

A second study, reported in May of this year, has located a section of the brain where spiritual experience happens, and will be the subject of my next reflection. In general, since spiritual experience is a particular type of consciousness, the study provides further incentive to believe that consciousness is a physical function of the brain.

If it turns out to be the case that consciousness has a physical basis, this in no way denigrates it. All other functions of our body are described physiologically, and we think none the less of them. So, too, should be the case with consciousness. In fact, focusing on understanding the physical will help us clarify the various processes, and could very well lead us to higher levels of consciousness.

Spiritual Experience Located in the Brain

Since the rise of neuroscience, various studies have sought the connection, if any, between the brain and spiritual experience. Sometimes the news headline reads “God spot found in brain”, and sometimes “Whoops, no God spot”. Sometimes it is located in right hemisphere, sometimes the left, sometimes nowhere in particular. The conclusion seems to be that studies are inconclusive and that we need more studies.

And now another disclaimer. Among the many things that I am not, I am not a neuroscientist and have no pretensions about even understanding their language. However, every so often a new study is intriguing and calls for a second look. With that word of caution, an article in Quartz, an online news web site, from May of this year reported the following.

Utilizing fMRI technology, seven scientists from Columbia and Yale (published in Cerebral Cortex, May 29, 2018) have located in the brain the region where spiritual experience is registered.

“Spiritual experience” is defined as human experience in which one feels a sense of wholeness, of being at one with the “other”, a sense of the dissolution of the boundary between self and other, and a sense of union with something larger than oneself. Although they don’t argue that everyone has such experience, they are arguing that for those people who do, there is a place in the brain that registers these experiences, and that this place is the same for all.

The subjects chosen for the study had had spiritual experiences that, although they included religious ceremony, also went beyond religion, and included such triggers as walks in the woods, watching sports events, playing sports, sudden realizations, meditation, etc. The researchers recognized the fact that the triggers of the spiritual experiences were highly individualistic and included a great variety of personal events. Having identified the trigger for an individual, the researchers used guided imagery to help the participant recreate a spiritual experience while they were undergoing an fMRI.

The discovery was that every spiritual experience, regardless of the source, had the same effect on the brain, and the essence of this effect was reduced activity in the left inferior parietal lobe. Reduced activity in this lobe helps overcome the boundaries between the self and the other, and thereby mitigates the effects of being centered around the boundaries of oneself.

So, if I read this article accurately: 1 “spiritual” experience comes in a variety of forms, religious and non-religious, 2 it always diminishes the role of the same lobe in the brain, and 3 this is a lobe that focuses on the self.

One of the reasons that I found this study so interesting is that these findings relate directly to the concepts that I have described above, and also in my book, The Void and the Vision. These concepts are moments, worlds, the void, and community.

Moments. The spiritual experiences described by the researchers are what I have called moments. We all experience those brief and passing times when we are one with our environment. There is no reflection or analysis, only the direct experience of being totally caught up in what is happening, of being in the zone. The study shows that there is no distinction between religious and non-religious spiritual experience. It also shows that there is a type of experience that can be labelled spiritual, that everyone is capable of having such experience, and that these moments are unique to the individual.

Worlds. This same brain that experiences the moment has also created a view of reality unique to itself. Except for the moments, this brain is egocentric. It has fabricated a world that does not fully correspond to reality. There is a great deal of evidence that shows just how much our brain utilizes sensory input to create the world we believe we experience. In the moment, this world is temporarily dismantled and one is now experiencing a reality that transcends our private world. According to this study, the left inferior parietal lobe is the place in the brain where egocentrism is suspended in the moment of spiritual experience, and we feel at one with all. Without this suspension of the brain’s power to create reality, a person is locked into their own little world and divorced from reality.

Void. By definition, the sense of wholeness and connection is missing apart from these transcendental states. We feel something is missing, and it is. The sense of wholeness is missing. Our brain has created a view of reality that is significantly inaccurate and distorted, and time between the moments is time in the void, unless and until that time is encompassed in community.

Community. We need community to overcome our sense of the void, and in this task community performs two functions. First, people help keep our moments honest. If a person has a spiritual experience, the interpretation of it can be commandeered by the ego and a person can be led to wrong conclusions enveloped in a dangerous mantle of self-importance and self-delusion. It happens all the time. There must be critique, and there must be openness to hearing the voice of others.

Second, there is that time to fill between moments, and belonging to a community provides that continuity. The present is nourished by memory of the past and the anticipation of being together in the future.

There is a danger, of course. Just as an individual can succumb to egocentrism, so also can a community become demonic, self-centered and self-serving. The key here is that no community, just as no individual, should ever assume that its view is the only valid view. There must be a community of communities, if you will, wherein each is kept honest by the others. 

The conjoining of scientific and theological concepts both opens and requires new perspective. Gone are the days when we thought that spiritual experience had to be of a religious nature. We now see that there is no biological distinction between a “god experience” and a “secular experience”, provided that they both take us out of self-created reality and lead into new awareness of our oneness with the other.

Gone also are the days when we thought we had to choose between a human nature that was good and one that was bad. The terms good and bad, or sinful and saved, are not helpful, especially given the long and painful history associated with these words. Each individual human brain creates its own reality and automatically assumes that others either see the world the same way, or ought to. This egocentrism is well documented. And now we understand also that all that work of the brain is suspended in certain moments, when our self-centeredness becomes immobilized in the experience of transcendence.

Gone also are the days when we had to choose whether the will was free or not. Will is a process, not a possession, a process that moves between bondage in our self-created world and freedom in the moment. The question thus becomes, not whether an individual has the power within to change for the better, but whether an individual is open to moments that are initiated in encounter with the other. We are not self-contained. We require an other to activate the liberated dimensions of our humanity.

More and more, it seems, new discoveries reveal over and over again, that there exists a commonality shared by all. One dimension of this oneness apparently is that we all have, or can have, spiritual experiences that can be pinpointed in the brain. A corollary is that without these experiences and a community that supports them (this community need not be religious), we are blind to our own blindness.

Part Six: Particular Sapiens

We come now to the most narrow context, particular people. There are two here of special interest, Jesus and his disciples.

Jesus

Tall. Long, light brown hair. Blue eyes. A calming gaze with an outstretched teaching arm. More likely than not, this is how westerners imagine Jesus. Contrast that with the reality. Jesus, like most men of his time, probably weighed about 110 pounds, stood little over 5 feet tall, and would not have lived much past 40. Popular Mechanics recently offered us an image of a swarthy Jesus with curly Afro type hair and a facial appearance that to me seems much like a Neanderthal. Google it and have a look. That, most likely, is the real Jesus. Whatever doctrinal belief you may hold about the man, he was a man, and that’s what he looked like. Personally, it brings a smile to my face to understand that when I talk to or about Jesus, it’s this little Jewish guy that I have in mind.

If that’s what he looked like, what did he do? Or not do? To begin with, I cannot believe that he performed miracles. It’s that old problem of evil. If Jesus or god can perform miracles, then why don’t they do it all the time and alleviate undeserved suffering? Not to mention that miracles contradict “laws” of nature. I know, quantum mechanics and all that preclude any talk of laws of nature. But still, water into wine? walking on water? Besides, the biblical writers never intended those stories to be taken literally. They were metaphors. There is, however, one type of so-called miracle that could very well have happened- the healings. Homo sapiens are psychosomatic beings, and Jesus being the type of person he was could very well have led people from disease to health.

What else did Jesus not do? I cannot believe that god was infinitely angry and wanted some sort of blood sacrifice to satisfy him, and Jesus was the guy. Contrary to what most people think, the institutional church has never had a doctrine that says “Jesus died for my sins”. The first theologian to formulate a theory about how Jesus satisfied god was a medieval man named Anselm. Man, because of sin, owed a debt to god. Since god is infinite, the sacrifice had to be infinite. Since Jesus was not only man, but also god, and since his death was innocent, his death, voila, pays the price. There’s a logic to the theory, but it’s artificial and unconvincing.

Many are convinced that not Anselm but the apostle Paul was the first to believe that Jesus was the sacrifice for our sins. Maybe. Paul was trained in the law, and often seems to think in terms of punishment, but the theologian John Cobb has written an interesting article claiming that when Paul speaks of Jesus’ sacrifice, he is thinking of one who “sacrifices” himself in order to show the way to others, not to satisfy an angry god. Be that as it may, we also need to remember that the writers of the Bible were fallible as well as faithful, and could very well have speculated in the wrong direction.

So let’s do away with the idea that Jesus was a miracle worker who died for our sins. Who was he, then, and what was he like? and how do we know?

Other than the fact that Jesus was a real person, we don’t know anything with 100% certainty. But we do know quite a bit with a degree of certainty less than that. Born in Nazareth (not Bethlehem), he had a mother and father, Mary and Joseph, and siblings, the most prominent of whom was James, who became a powerful figure in the early church. He was an itinerant teacher in Galilee who attracted crowds and who gathered about him a group of disciples who claimed that they found in him a presence they had not experienced ever before. He was a day laborer who perhaps trekked off to Sepphoris, a city four miles from Nazareth where politicians engaged in projects of self aggrandizement  and needed cheap labor. Labor, and money. The Romans and the local leaders continually increased the tax burden on the poor, who lived in perpetual fear of starvation and/or debt. The peripatetic Jesus did not live in happy times.

What we know about the man is gathered from the New Testament gospels, and another gospel that did not make it into the Bible but is viewed by scholars as being of equal value, the gospel of Thomas. None of our sources are pure history, if there ever was such a thing. Stories about Jesus as well as some of his words were gathered orally, gradually transformed into written documents, which, in turn, were utilized in gatherings of the newly formed congregations. Nowhere is there even an attempt to transmit simple fact. It is always “interpreted fact”. The gospel writers were persons of faith writing for a community of faith, and so when we go to them looking for facts, we are bound to come up short-handed.

There are scholars who have spent their lives studying these documents as well as the culture and times of Jesus of Nazareth. One might expect that a consensus image of Jesus would emerge, but that is not the case. Was Jesus a revolutionary Zealot, seeking to overthrow the Romans and their lackeys? A wandering Jewish teacher who was styled after the Greek Cynic philosophers? A preacher who was convinced the end of time was at hand? or convinced that the Kingdom of god was already here? After the intense research of the last twenty years, utilizing new archaeological and historical/sociological findings, I had hoped that we would finally learn who the real Jesus was. Not so. The plot seems only to thicken.

And so I wonder: can we work backwards? Can we look at ourselves and project backwards what Jesus must have been like? Whoa! you say. That’s the biggest danger ever: creating Jesus in our own image. That’s what Ludwig Feuerbach warned against over 100 years ago. “If birds had a god, it would be the perfect winged creature”. God is nothing but a creation of a human mind longing for perfection, he warned. Indeed, the  image of the tall, blond and blue-eyed Jesus was and is some westerners’ idea of perfection. The path of working backwards is treacherous.

But what if there are universals that apply to all homo sapiens and not just to a select few? We have already analyzed various of these universals- creation of personal worlds, experience of moments, the need for meaning and for community. Whether or not there are such characteristics that apply to all homo sapiens is a question fiercely debated. Some say that everything about us is socially conditioned, some say not. I come down on the side of believing that there are some universals. I am also convinced that we must be extremely careful as we try to describe what they might be, and that is what I have tried to do with respect to worlds, moments, community, and the search for meaning. So as I apply these concepts to Jesus, I feel justified in so doing.

There is another presupposition at work here, and that arises out of the evolutionary reality with which we must contend. Later discovery may prove this wrong, but I am here presupposing that we and Jesus are equally homo sapiens, and that we share universal characteristics. This is a question that theology has never asked (to the best of my knowledge), but one that we must recognize. Sometime down the path of evolution, we and Jesus will not be the same species. For the time being, however, I believe we are.

So let us apply these four universal human characteristics to Jesus. Beginning with the creation of personal worlds, what do we find? We have argued earlier that we all create our own little world, seeing our version of reality through the sun glasses we inevitably wear. We are egocentric, parochial,- use whatever word you want. The question now is: was Jesus this way? Of course he was limited in his knowledge simply because he lived two thousand years ago. And he lived in Galilee, not China or North America. So his knowledge was limited. But was his view of reality closed in upon itself? I think not, and this is why Jesus was able to impact others. He lived an open and loving life. He had no self-created world. Others could interact with him and see in him a reflection of who they really were and what they could therefore become. He had the power to liberate others because he himself was free.

If we incorporate our concept of the moment here, we can see that Jesus could become a moment for others. He refused to be contained in their world, thereby challenging them to open up and see reality as it really was. The sick could sense in him a wholeness that made them whole. And in a certain sense, we are all sick.

The concept of the moment can also be applied to Jesus himself. Because he had no limiting worldview, his life was a continual moment. Every occasion for him was an encounter with the cosmic thou. Every person was a being to love. Every tree and rock was an incarnation of the heavenly father. Jesus was the person we strive to be.

And, like us, Jesus was a communal being. He was always reaching out to others, challenging, helping, healing, gathering. This does not deny his and our need for solitude and meditation and reflection, but these are not ends in themselves. It seems to me that Jesus gathered disciples for at least two reasons. One was that the new community he created could be a microcosm of a fulfilling life, a place of love, caring and sharing. The other reason was that he wanted company, folks with whom he could share his life and in turn receive support from them.

Lastly, we can say that Jesus’ life was one of meaning and not emptiness. Every image we have is one of fullness and purpose. He knew not the void.

I cannot conclude definitively that this is the man Jesus was, but it seems to make good sense. Furthermore, this is a person with whom we can all identify. He’s one of us, a little better, no doubt, but one of us just the same. We might ask how he got the power to live without a world, without the egocentricity that seems to plague us all. I don’t know the answer to that. Here we go beyond what I consider fact and dive into the depths of speculation. Was he the Word of god incarnate? Perhaps. The disciples and those who followed them asked that very question. They called him Word, son of god, savior…they knew he was special in their lives, but didn’t know how or why- without speculating. The really good news is that we don’t have to answer that question. All we need do is to live the new life of love available to all. 

The Disciples

A few months ago, I watched two movies on consecutive days, The Big Short and Spotlight. The first was about the so-called great recession and how the big banks knew about- indeed, caused -the bust, the second about the Catholic scandal of priests molesting young boys, as it unfolded in Boston under persistent investigation by Globe reporters. The common theme is that in each case the truth was so contrary to popular belief that, at first, nobody could believe it. The big banks knew- and told no one. The archbishop knew, and told no one. And both succeeded at first because the truth was so shocking and so undermining of the public trust that it simply could not be true. But true it was. That which challenges public perception is ultimately accepted only with the greatest persistence and effort.

It is a fact that the disciples of Jesus were excited, if not also ecstatic. They ran around telling the story about Jesus in a hostile environment with no regard for their own safety. Paul, although he never knew Jesus personally, travelled throughout Asia Minor preaching the “good news” and establishing small communities of faith. These people were not timid about their convictions.

But why? Why were they so excited??

Well, everyone knows the answer to that. God had sent Jesus to die for your sins. Believe that, and be saved. Halleluia! At least that’s what we are told today. Of course, we are also given other explanations for the excitement generated by Jesus. The Jews expected a Messiah, and Jesus fit the bill. Some wanted a warrior to expel the Romans, and saw in Jesus a revolutionary who would do just that. Some, like the writer of the gospel Matthew, saw in Jesus the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. In addition, Jesus healed and exorcised, taught and travelled. These were initial incentives for folks to become excited, but our understanding today is that the real cause was the atoning death of Jesus. Google “gospel”. The “good news” is invariably described as “Jesus died for your sins. Believe and be saved.”

But is that what really happened? The disciples followed Jesus while he was alive and had no thought about his dying for their sins. For whatever the reason, have we come today to accept as true that which is not true? Suppose that, as in the movies, we look beyond that which is commonly accepted as gospel truth. Suppose we shine the Spotlight on the Jesus/disciple encounter in search of what really excited the disciples. What do we find?

It’s simple, really. What the disciples found in Jesus was the person they could become, and they found that very exciting. It’s so easy for scholars and theologians to present Jesus as somebody really, really special. You know, he was a mystic, he had visitations from God, he was charismatic par excellence. Maybe, but I rather see Jesus as one of us, only better. If we create our own ego-centered world, he did not. He was tempted as we all are to live in our bubble, but he did not give in to the temptation. He was tempted to be blind to the presence of God in the world all about him, but he did not give in. He lived totally “in the zone”, in the moment, in full consciousness of God; we succeed only partially. He was a fully loving human being. And yes, that includes the righteous anger that might have happened in the temple with the money changers. So here’s the first cause of excitement: the disciples now knew what it meant to be human, to be fulfilled rather than empty.

But it doesn’t stop there. Because Jesus’ ego did not get in the way, the presence of God could shine through him. He taught about God, yes, but more importantly he presented God. The disciples experienced themselves and God together in their experience of Jesus. Now that’s something to get excited about!

But then he was crucified. Had that been the end of the story, it would have been a cruel joke. But the disciples were convinced that it was not the end. After the murder of Jesus at the hand of the Roman empire, they experienced something that could not easily be described. Jesus, though crucified, was yet alive. As we have seen, this was not a resuscitated body, nor a body walking through walls, nor just their subjective experience, but a newness that transcended their ability to describe. And so we add more cause to their excitement: He is risen! or, to use other words, love wins! peace wins! justice wins!

Love may not win all at once, but it can be the dominant force in some places. This is why Jesus created a family of disciples, men and women, about 25 in number. He wanted to create a microcosm of new life. This, I believe, is why Paul traveled all over, preaching the gospel. Not to tell people that Jesus had died for their sins, but to establish communities that could be a beacon of light for others to emulate. That, no doubt, is why he was so upset when discord arose.

The disciples believed they had discovered in Jesus a reality they had never before experienced. They discovered who they were, they discovered who God was, and they now had a vision for the future, a vision of a kingdom of God, a transformed earth. No wonder they were excited.

Where had this Jesus come from? They really didn’t know. Nazareth, of course, but beyond that? He was sinless, he was truth. That must originate with God. How to describe that? Born of a virgin? Not really. The eternal Word made flesh? Yes, most likely. But “how” is of minor consequence. “That” is what counts. New life is at hand, as Jesus says in the gospel of Mark. Live it.

Of course not everyone became a disciple of Jesus. The vast majority did not. His family thought him crazy and possessed. When I ask why the disciples were excited about Jesus, it’s important to remember that we are speaking of a very small segment of the population.

For the Christian conservative, my explanation for the excitement will fall far short. They will argue that the early Christians, and Paul in particular, really did believe that Jesus had died for our sins, and, to be honest, there are many passages in the New Testament to support that thesis. All I can say is that if Paul believed that Jesus had to die a horrible death in order to appease an angry god and thereby enable “him” to forgive us, then I am forced to respectfully disagree. This, of course, implies that I do not accept the Bible as absolutely inerrant, and I am happy to plead guilty to that charge.

My account of the disciples’ excitement will also not be very convincing to a large segment of secular humanists, and the focal points of their objection are the beginning and the end of the Jesus phenomenon, the birth and the resurrection. It may be, they say, that the disciples believed that the sinless Jesus did come from Beyond, as an eternal Word incarnate, but that doesn’t mean that he did. And they may have believed that he returned to them after the crucifixion, but that doesn’t mean that he did. So maybe they were excited, but on false pretense. There is no way to prove these humanists wrong in their skepticism. And there is no need to do so.

Setting the Jesus story aside, there are many secular humanists who do in fact believe that the universe has a positive moral dimension to it, and therefore no matter who we are, we should be excited about working for peace and justice and freedom in our world. These humanists agree with the conclusion of the disciples but not the cause. These are the atheists that Pope Francis speaks of as working hand in hand with Christians (and others) to do good and create a better world. One can only hope that that is an image we can all get excited about.

Related Reflections

Random Reflections at Christmas

I think it was the martinis. A wintry cocktail hour, mystified by the St Olaf College choir singing Silent Night and one of my old favorites, Beautiful Savior. The combination brought tears to my eyes. When I was a kid, as I mentioned in my introduction to these reflections, I went to church every Sunday, and an integral part of that service every week was the first verse of that hymn, Beautiful Savior, so it’s pretty well established in my subconscious.

Perhaps it was the current state of our politics and economy in the US. It’s upsetting enough to see where our government is headed, but it’s more disturbing to understand how that impacts folks. A huge segment of our brothers and sisters have been left behind, to live in near poverty, with no resources, no job, no hope, and an earlier death.

But the emotions go way beyond childhood environment and the civil dis-ease currently in America. I really do like Jesus. Think about it. Here was a man who loved everyone. Who gave his life to fight an oppressive power and taxation system that tore the heart out of all who struggled to survive. Who reached out to those outcast by the proprieties of society. Who called for justice rather than religious ritual. Who was not afraid of the powered elite. Who taught the love that we all know in our hearts to be true. This man walked the earth. For all we know, the atoms that made him who he was could be recycled in our own flesh and bones.

I learned this week that the nickname for secular humanists is The Happy Human! These are people who seek justice and peace, wherever that path might lead. Who believe in the power of reason to solve problems. Who accept others’ perspective as contributing to the totality of the whole. Who care about the future of our planet and the equality of those who walk it. To the best of my knowledge, all of my family are secular humanists. Whether they like Jesus or not is immaterial. But from my perspective, I know that Jesus likes them.

There was a headline this week that could also bring tears, but for a different reason: “Pope says that priests can forgive abortion”. I admire Francis for trying to bring Christianity -both Catholic and Protestant- out of the dark ages. Here is what he’s fighting: a system that sets one person (or thing) up as the ultimate authority. Catholics have the pope, Protestants have the bible. A system that has intercessory priests who  “forgive” people on behalf of the institution that holds the keys to heaven and hell. About an action concerning which they claim to know god’s will, and pronounce as sinful. Protestant evangelicals who divide the world into saved and not saved, and who pronounce god’s will on abortion and gays, are no better. It does make me want to cry.

That could be why I find it difficult to go to church these days. I can’t accept the bible as god’s literal word, and it upsets me to ask god in prayer to do something particular when there’s so much pain in the world. But I do enjoy meeting up with people; that’s probably why I prefer coffee hour.

We all know that Jesus was not born on Dec 25, but it is a day when we celebrate his life, and that’s not a bad thing because it was a good life. Part of that celebration may include being with family and friends. It may include attending a candle lit gathering of fellow pilgrims. It may include a sense of awe on a star filled night. It might be reflecting in silence and solitude.

Whatever it might be, happy celebration.

What the Hell?

The person selected to be the religious sanction at the opening of the new and offensive US embassy in Jerusalem is a man who believes that all Jews are going hell. And, of course, all Muslims. The defense for the choice was, well, hell, he represents 2000 years of Christian tradition.

Is that what Jesus was all about. Escaping hell?

There are plenty of passages in the gospels that talk about a future judgment. The question is whether these verses go back to Jesus, or whether they are creations of the later 1st century church. As I look at what the early church did with other matters, there is no doubt in my mind that it was the church that talked about hell, not Jesus. Look at what else they did: the equality of men and women among the disciples was transformed into male dominance, the bonds of friendship in the early group were taken over by institutional concerns for order, and the idea of a sacrificial death replaced the mutual love in community. It follows the pattern that they also lost Jesus’ message of love and replaced it with the fear of hell. There are scholars who believe that this fear was also an element in the mind of Jesus. That, however, I cannot believe.

There can be no doubt that staying out of hell has been a prime motivation for Christian civilization for much of its 2000 years. The Roman Catholic church claimed to hold the keys to the heaven door, so you better pay attention to what the priest says. One of the triggers of the Protestant Reformation was the papal selling of indulgences, a get-out-of-purgatory-early card for your departed relatives and yourself, purgatory being the half way house between heaven and hell where you paid the price for your sins, but only for a limited span of time.

Unfortunately, the Protestant churches have been no better. Their idea was that you didn’t have to work your way into heaven, but you better believe that Jesus did it for you. We all know the old line: Jesus died for your sins. Believe that and go to heaven. Are you saved from the fires of hell, brother?

The situation reminds me of a day when I was basking on a park bench on the sunny side of the street in Ouray, CO when two young men spied me as a potential convert, came over, and asked if I’d ever thought about the choice between heaven and hell. Told them that I had and that I’d come to the conclusion that everybody went to heaven, whatever that was. I asked them why they had to have a hell, why not just a heaven- if one wants to believe in an afterlife- and eventually they left, somewhat confused.

I could never understand why universalism has been condemned as heresy. What’s wrong with the idea that everybody “goes to heaven”?

The church, however, is not alone in proclaiming hell for the bad guys. It seems to be pretty much a cultural phenomenon as well. We want to believe that a person has to pay the price for immoral acts; you can’t just get away with it. Not that secularists believe in hell, but there must be some kind of punishment…

No, I think not. And that is what Jesus was all about. We all come into this world innocent and open to what life has to offer. And then we all become egotistical and self-centered. But Jesus’ point is that that is not the end of the story. As far as he was concerned- as I understand it-, God is not judging and punishing, but rather loving and embracing. And I am certain that Jesus did not care whether a person “believed” in God or not. The criterion is being a neighbor to one another, just like the Good Samaritan. Somehow I doubt that being a good neighbor involves telling anybody that they are going to hell.

The Teaching and Person of Jesus

Whatever one thinks of Jesus as savior or Son of God, everyone seems agreed that at least he was a teacher. It’s when we begin to ask exactly what he taught, however, that agreement slips away. From one perspective, what Jesus taught is not unique: love one another, know yourself, help the poor. Such advice somehow seems ingrained in the human consciousness, and so unsurprisingly turns up in a variety of religions and philosophies.

But Jesus, more specifically, was a first century Jew living in what we now call Israel, and it is in this context that specific teachings emerge. But there is no unanimity on what these teachings are. There are modern scholars who believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, preaching the imminent end of the world and the coming judgment of God, and there are those who point to the Kingdom of God on earth as Jesus’ intent.

Aside from his position on the future and the end of time, what did Jesus teach about life in the here and now? Was he a Zealot who wanted armed insurrection against Rome, or was he a pacifist? Should we cooperate with Rome by paying taxes, or not?

In the broadest perspective, it would seem that the teaching of Jesus falls into two categories. The first is a sort of a universal expanded golden rule, good advice, but not unique. The other is specific to his time and place, but also not unique inasmuch as there were contemporaries who represented the various positions on the issues that he may have held.

One reason why it is helpful to limit the discussion to the teaching of Jesus, is because it offers a historical basis for conversation. Christians and secular humanists, as well as any adherent to any other belief system, can accommodate one another by limiting talk to the teaching of Jesus, even though that teaching may be variously understood. This approach is preferred by many who, in the search for universal connectivity, prefer not to speak of Jesus as in any way unique.

No one ought claim that they have universal perspective. We are all parochial, influenced beyond our understanding by our time and place. Christians should never proclaim that Jesus the Christ is the one and only whatever. But what Christians can proclaim, however, is that, for them, the Jesus story makes sense. And the heart of that story, so often overlooked, is that when Jesus encountered those who became his disciples, something very special took place. If we seek to discover the transformative power of Jesus, we must seek to understand what happened when he encountered those who became his followers.

They did not follow because Jesus walked on water. Nor because he advocated armed rebellion. Nor because he was a community organizer. Nor because his teaching, however we see it, was so extraordinary. Why, then, did various common folk become his disciples? What happened?

The answer seems quite simple. When they were with Jesus, they discovered what it meant to be a fully human being. They saw it in him, and they knew that what they saw was a reflection of who they really were and could become. And because Jesus was a truly human being whose humanity was not distorted by the parochialism of his culture, he was also the means by which the disciples could see God both in him and everywhere else. And when Jesus was dead and gone, they felt him to be alive in their midst, such that their fear of death was overpowered by their faith in God and love.

The encounter between Jesus and the disciples was, for them, the locus of personal and world transformation. Certainly, what he taught is part of the awakening, but that event includes much more. Our conversation today, in addition to studying the teaching of Jesus, must also include a discussion of who he was and how his person impacted the disciples.

What Jesus Really Did

Christian fundamentalists believe that the most important event in the New Testament is that Jesus died for your sins. Those to whom this makes no sense believe that what matters most is the teaching of Jesus, epitomized, I suppose, in the Golden Rule- “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I would like to argue that neither the “sacrificial death” nor the “teaching” is what Jesus was really about.

The first concept is rather bizarre, when you think about it, and comes from a primitive notion that an angry god needs to be appeased. It may have been popularized by the apostle Paul, who operated with a legalistic frame of mind, believing that human sin broke the divine law and God needed to mete out punishment, Jesus being the only available and worthy candidate. But as I have indicated elsewhere, I think Paul had a different understanding.

If sacrificial death is bizarre, Jesus’ teaching is rather common. In one form or another, love your neighbor as yourself has been around for a long time in different cultures. It appears in almost all religions and ethical systems, and it has been described as an operating principle in all fields from biology to psychology. That Jesus also taught it is not surprising.

Then what do we have? The focal point of Jesus’ life was not his dying nor his teaching, but his creating a microcosm of how human beings can live together. He created a community of disciples. This is not to say that such community never existed before nor that others have not said or done the same. What we can say, however, is that, from a Christian perspective, the re-kindling of that community love-flame was Jesus’ purpose.

Over 2000 years of church history, literature and art, we have been led to think that this community was comprised of twelve males disciples, representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. In point of fact, we have the names of about twelve women who traveled with Jesus, who attended to the group’s needs, and who supported the group out of their means, Mary of Magdala being the most well known. The core consisted of about 25 men and women, whom Jesus gathered into a family of friends.

When Jesus was a follower of John the Baptizer, he met many of John’s disciples, some of whom, like Andrew, left the Baptist when Jesus left and became disciples of the man from Nazareth. In other words, they started out as friends, and formed the nucleus of a small band that would grow as Jesus wandered the countryside of Galilee, a group that included women as well as men. And when they all went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, we must empty our minds of Da Vinci’s 12 men sitting with Jesus at the Last Supper, and remember that the seder included all members of the family, men, women, and children. According to the crucifixion narratives, it was the women who were with Jesus, and according to the resurrection narratives, it was the women who were the first to realize that something new had happened.

Toward the end of the first century, the so-called Pastoral epistles in the Bible reveal that the concept of community had been replaced by vicarious sacrifice (Jesus died for your sins), the benefits of which were now controlled by a hierarchical church body, and the equality of women and men had been replaced by male dominance. A sad story indeed.

There is one further dimension to the demise of that early family of friends. The community that Jesus had created continued as a community after the crucifixion. It did not die when Jesus died. Instead, the disciples encouraged one another and came to the belief that the spirit of a risen Christ, a holy spirit, was empowering them to remain family.

Unfortunately, the group did not know how to grow, and new generations arose who did not incorporate the bond of affinity present in the earliest disciples. And so equality was lost, males regained dominance, and the concept of a holy spirit inhering in the group gave way to a mechanical understanding as described in the New Testament book of Acts. The spirit descended as a flame on the men and they all started speaking magically in languages that foreigners understood. What a poor understanding of loving spirit.

In short, what we find in the Bible in a complete demolition of what Jesus tried to do. His creation of a community of love degenerated into a hierarchical institution. The equality of the sexes in that community degenerated into dominance by male priests and bishops. The holiness of the communal spirit was divorced from the community in which it existed and was nourished. And, of course, for the evangelicals, the very idea of the community is replaced by the idea of sacrifice.

What then? Was Jesus a total failure? I don’t think so. From a secular perspective, the community of love that Jesus envisioned is the only goal worthy of our human endeavor. It alone fulfills the longing for the meaning in life that we so desire, and it alone guarantees our survival.

From a Christian theological perspective, God is helping us to live in love. It’s as simple as that. The Roman guard was powerless to kill the new community inaugurated by Jesus, just as through the ages “little churches within the church” have continued the vision.

Whoever we are, the communion of sisters and brothers is the power that gives us hope and meaning, and also the destiny that calls us forward. Jesus, and we, know what we are about. And that is love.

The End of Jesus’ Life

The story of Jesus’ last week is part and parcel of western culture. It begins with Mardi Gras, the let-it-all-hang-out festival before the start of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, and ends with what we used to call Easter vacation, when kids got a whole week off from school. Although most of us have heard about Palm Sunday and Easter, the actual events of that week remain clothed in uncertainty. In this narrative, there are two certainties and two only. First, a man called Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Second, his disciples believed that he was raised from the dead, a belief that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The other episodes of this gospel story are subject to question, albeit to varying degrees.

We begin with the entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had spent most of his short-lived career in Galilee, a rural hill country with small villages, but also with the major city of Sepphoris only a few miles from Nazareth. Although the gospels, written in final form between 70 and 110 CE, give the impression that Jesus was well-known throughout the region, that fame may be questioned. We also do not know with certainty what Jesus taught with respect to the occupying force. He is portrayed today both as a pacifist and also as a violent Zealot. The sources are not clear. And so when he and his disciples traveled south and arrived in Jerusalem, he may or may not have been greeted with cheering crowds hoping him to be the Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans. The city had a normal population of about 50,000, a number that swelled to perhaps as high as 300,000 during the festival of Passover, when Jews celebrated God’s intervening power to liberate them from the oppressive hand of Egypt’s Pharaoh.

It’s no wonder that Pilate kept a close watch on events. Normally living in Caesarea, he came to Jerusalem during Passover with his 3,000 soldiers, staying out of sight so as not to antagonize the crowds. He is variously described as cruel and antagonistic on the one hand, and philosophical on the other. Based on information we have, the former seems to be the case, and inasmuch as maintaining order was one of his prime responsibilities, it seems inevitable that he would have used brute force and intimidation to immediately quell any disturbance.

Not knowing exactly what Jesus taught about resistance to Rome, not knowing the extent or type of his reception in Jerusalem, and not knowing when Pilate might have issued the order of crucifixion, it is difficult to understand the exact sequence of events. The historicity is further confused by the fact that the gospels, written as they were when the Christians were seeking rapprochement with Rome, try to blame the Jewish leaders and mob for the execution.

In any case, we know that Jesus was crucified. We also know that his disciples, about 25 men and women, believed that he was still alive with them. That they believed this is as much a historical certainty as the first, although this belief is subject to at least three interpretations. First and foremost is the usual meaning that resurrection is to be identified with resuscitation, such that the dead body came back to life. Here is where the empty tomb stories come into play, although they presuppose that Jesus was first buried. Of the thousands of crucifixions in ancient Rome, only one intact skeleton remains. This is due to the fact that part of the humiliation of this type of execution was to deny burial, leaving the body to be eaten by wild dogs and birds.

A second interpretation is that the resurrection was a psychological event in the disciples: they believed that Jesus lived on even though the body was still in the tomb, or alternatively, eaten, as is more likely.

A third interpretation is that the disciples’ faith in their risen Lord was a result of a subjective appropriation of something non-corporeal that really happened to Jesus. That is, they felt that Jesus was actually alive and among them even though it had nothing to do with the deceased body. It was a new creation, a new level of being, something that old words and concepts could only point to. And so they spoke of an empty tomb and appearances to disciples, not to be taken literally, but to be taken as pointers to the reality that they knew not how to describe.

This last interpretation makes the most sense to me. I do not know the historicity of the events of Jesus’ last days, but I do know that he was crucified. I also have the impression that there was no tomb, much less an empty tomb, but I do believe that the disciples experienced a reality that transcended them and excited them so much they proclaimed it even at risk to their own lives.

How are we to describe the essence of this reality? The cross is a symbol of all the hate and violence that exists in our world. It represents the power of person and principality to destroy our basic humanity. The resurrection, on the contrary, is the sign that love overcomes violence, that love is the ultimate power in the universe, and that we all return to God, the source of this love. That is the message that Jesus and the disciples declared near and far. That is what Easter is all about.

Suppose it was like this…..

Jesus was a man born in the usual way. Mary and Joseph were his parents, and he had some brothers and sisters. His home town, Nazareth, was a small hamlet occupied mostly by poor peasants who eked out a living on small plots of land that were increasingly appropriated by the wealthy. Four miles away, the city of Sepphoris was a bustling scene of government projects that provided day labor for the peasantry, and often Joseph took Jesus with him to the city as they sought to support the family.

Through conversations at home as well as through contacts made in Sepphoris, the young man developed a faith in the God of Israel as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. Above all, this faith was informed by the prophets, who both criticized the powerful who stole from the poor, and who proclaimed a God of justice.

Sympathetic to the plight of his over-taxed and oppressed countrymen, Jesus heard of John, in the wilderness to the east by the River Jordan calling for repentance and righteousness, and baptizing penitents. Jesus became a disciple of John, where he befriended others of like mind. Wanting to be more involved in the life of the people, Jesus left John, accompanied by some of his friends, and started life as an itinerant teacher.

He soon attracted followers. Not everyone, but some. And the question is: why? Why were people attracted to Jesus and why did they follow him?

The answer is quite simple. They did not become disciples because he walked on water, or turned water into wine, because his teaching was so unique, or because he claimed to be somebody special, like a Messiah. They were intrigued at first and committed later because they saw in him what they in essence were and could become.  We are lost in egotism, he identified with the plight of others. We seek meaning in life, he had it. We are blind to the love inherent in all reality, he knew it and lived it. We too easily cut ourselves off from our fellow humans, Jesus reached out and embraced. The special power of Jesus was nothing other than the fact that he was fully human, in the best and loving sense of the word.

Not everyone was open to the person standing before them. We don’t know why, but because of prior experience some of us find it difficult to break loose and become open to newness. Some did, however, and their numbers grew. The innermost circle of Jesus’ family of friends, whose names we have, numbered about 25 women and men. Capernaum was their home base, and they travelled about in Galilee and once down to Jerusalem.

Jesus was drawn to Jerusalem. It was the center of Jewish faith and life, the Temple was there, along with the priestly class, and at the Passover, the pilgrims brought the temporary population to as many as 300,000 people. Some of them had heard of Jesus, and were curious about what he was like and what he had to say. Sensing a trouble-maker and a potential incident, before anything could happen Pilate had his troops take Jesus away to be crucified.

The disciples were terrified. They reconnoitered in the room where they had celebrated the Passover and tried to make sense out of what had just happened. They cried, they embraced, they hid. And then the most amazing transformation took place. In their being together, they came to believe that although Jesus had indeed been crucified, he was yet alive in their midst. They believed that although the body was destroyed and gone, a presence previously unknown to them was inspiring and motivating them. Fear became boldness. Confusion became certainty. Their own empowered humanity emerged into the light of full display, and the koinonia family of friends became the embodiment of the spirit of their Lord.

They shared and celebrated a life together, just as they had when Jesus was alive. Others could not help but observe the joy shared by the disciples, just as the disciples could not help but share what had happened to them. And so their numbers grew. Family, friends and neighbors could sense that the new community had something special, and they wanted to share in it.

One by one, the years went by. Memories of Jesus began to fade, new community members needed to be incorporated, and the initial enthusiasm was soon overcome by organizational challenge. Sayings of Jesus began to be collected, as were accounts of his deeds, orally at first, but then written.

New members brought new ideas, some of which were in conflict with one another, and they brought new questions, the answers to which were not obvious. Missionaries travelled the trade routes and small groups of this new Jewish sect arose across the empire. The most famous such missionary was Paul, who in 50 CE wrote his first letter to a congregation in Thessalonica that he had gathered previously. Other letters were sent to groups in Galatia, Corinth, Philippi and Rome. In the rather short 18 years from the crucifixion of Jesus to Paul’s first epistle, the “good news” of the koinonia family of friends had spread far and wide.

As time went on, the story of Jesus and the disciples changed in character. Personal experience gave way to trying to understand those experiential events. The disciples knew who Jesus was, what he did and what he said. The later adherents to the group did not, and in their search for understanding, they began to develop different theologies. Paul had his own ideas, as did the gospels, and they are not always in agreement. Paul had issues with the Jerusalem congregation, under the leadership of Peter and James, brother of Jesus. He also had issues with certain sub-groups in Corinth, for example, making it quite clear that the early church was not monolithic in either form or belief.

Two issues in particular were uniquely thorny: where did Jesus come from, and what did he do? The first question may have been asked by the disciples, but having an answer was not a prerequisite for living with Jesus. They may have wondered if he was sent by God, but they knew him as a man. As for the second question, there was no thought of a sacrificial death. He lived and travelled with them, teaching, uplifting, challenging. And after his death, he in-formed the family of friends as spirit in a way they had never before experienced.

Somewhere along the way, new converts concluded that Jesus was sent by God, and indeed was God, epitomized in the gospel of John as the Word who, in the beginning, was with God, was God, became flesh and dwelt among us.

But whence the idea that Jesus had died for your sins? Did it arise with Paul? Paul has mostly been interpreted via Luther and Calvin: salvation comes by grace through the belief that Jesus died vicariously for your sins. Believe that and be saved. Did Paul believe that? Many scholars today believe not. Since we are on a voyage of assumptions, let us say that Paul did not believe that. When he talks about sacrificial atonement what he means is that the new life of caring and sharing in the koinonia is exemplified in the extreme when one gives one’s life for the sake of another, as Jesus did for those suffering oppression.

The incredible energy and excitement that propelled Paul all over the empire did not originate in “hey, believe Jesus died for your sins and all will be well”. No, what propelled him was his recognition of how humans can live on the planet, a way of love as manifest in the family of disciples created by Jesus and available to everyone. No doubt many in the history of humankind had lived the life exhibited by Jesus and the disciples, but now the flame had been re-kindled, and Paul, like the disciples, was excited.

Alas, the old ways did not easily surrender, and the consequence of that resistance is revealed and illustrated in the New Testament itself. Read the so-called Pastoral epistles, or the book of Revelation. Equality of all, central to Jesus and his early disciples, is replaced by patriarchy in the church of the later first century. Family is replaced by hierarchy and priesthood. Intimacy is replaced by institutional organization. Loving community is replaced by fantastical and horrifying imagery portraying the end of time. What began as the koinonia family of friends became transformed into something quite different. But we today are writing the latest chapter in the story. We need only remind ourselves that what Jesus had in mind- what God has in mind- is as empowering as ever.

Summary and Conclusion

The news of the day can be all consuming, and we can exhaust all our energy dealing with it. The problem with living life according to the dictates of the day is that we have no broader context within which we understand the details. It’s the old argument for a liberal arts education: we need a broad perspective so that we don’t become myopic. These few pages have attempted to set our sights on an anti-myopic path.

The matrix for understanding who we are begins literally with our place in space. We are small, the universe is huge. Put yourself on the Hubble spacecraft and journey through the galaxy and beyond. Feel small. We also must recognize our place in time: we are a blip in time as evolution marches on. Imagine a fast forward view of the movement from the big bang until your reading these words. And then another fast forward off into the eternal future. The reel begins with the appearance of sub-atomic particles, then hydrogen, cosmic dust, expansion, accretion of matter into galaxies, stars, planets, and us, moving along into the infinite expansion of space-time. That’s the broadest context of the all-enveloping matrix.

On the smaller scales, we experience our homo sapiens destiny on the planet earth. In order to comprehend the daily news, we must realize who we are, and that entails admitting our egotism, moving out of our own heads, holding hands with one another, feeling the pain of our compatriots on the journey, and embodying love as a style of life. If we do not do this, we will never know who we are.

Thinking of god in this matrix is no easy task, but the answer lies not in denying realty, but in transforming old and out-dated concepts, forging new perception, and welcoming the future with open minds and open arms.

The Same Story

24 Jan

The Same Story

Every human being has the same story. We come into the world with some genes, a particular environment, and an unfolding sense of being an individual person.

As we develop, we are constantly bombarded with information that we organize into patterns. Trying to make sense of the onslaught of data that comes our way, we create an order of reality, a mental construct that we are able to understand. And then we utilize this structure to filter future data and also to further refine and delineate the structure itself.

The problem is that the reality that we create is a fabrication that corresponds only partly with the reality that is. Our inevitable tendency to fit information into patterns that we have created inevitably distorts that information. Each and every one of us creates our own private world.

In order to be in touch with reality, we all need to be set free from our world. The door must be opened, the light must come in. Anything has the capacity to set us free. It could be a friend, a stranger, a tree, a sky, a baby, a rainbow- every encounter of our life has the potential to be that event that frees us from our confinement.

The liberation, however, is momentary. Freedom requires continual nourishment  because our delusion resists being dismantled. We are comfortable in our self- made prison. Consequently, we need help in order to continue in the light, and that help can come to us from many directions.

One way is through other people, a process that has two dimensions. First, they can support our growth in awareness. Second, other people can also be critical of our continued confinement, lest we slide back into our old style of thinking and being. Support and critique, both, together.

A second way is working on our own self-improvement. This can happen through study and meditation, for example, and needs to be a life-long process.

What name shall we give to this initial event and ensuing process? Many words have been used. At the top of the list, I suppose, are conversion and awareness. A new word to which I have just been introduced is “woke”, probably a newer version of “awakened”. Inasmuch as the world we create is a confinement, I like the word “opening”, followed by a process of unfolding, sort of like a flower.

What ultimately differentiates people from one another (besides wealth, class, race, etc) is whether or not they have begun the process of becoming open and unfolding. It is not whether they are religious or not, spiritual or not, Christian or Hindu, French or Canadian, black or white, earthling or martian, sapiens or neanderthal. None of that. The only question is: are you woke, sister?

This openness is available to everyone. We are not born evil or sinful, but we are born with a natural desire to make sense of our world, to create order out of the chaos bombarding our senses. The problem is that this desire makes mistakes and then builds on those mistakes. That desire and the ensuing mistakes, however, can and must be reversed.

Some of us will see god as part of this picture. Most particularly, god can be seen as the one who enables the openness and unfolding. Or god can be seen as the creator of the self, perhaps by implanting a consciousness, a soul, spirit, or eternal mind. The point, however, is that it isn’t crucial whether or not one speaks of god, or soul, or spirit, or eternity. What matters is how one lives: open or closed.

How we live is not a constant, such that once you open, you are forever open. No. Being open is not a state of being, but a way of becoming, and we vacillate in that process. Sometimes we got it, so to speak, and sometimes we don’t got it. Confronted with constant abject misery, Mother Theresa confessed to us that her faith in God often succumbed to the surrounding sickness. Martin Luther would go into fits of disbelief as he threw ink bottles against the wall, aimed at his tempter satan. No one is any different. We are not always open or woke or loving. If we have a faith in god, we are not always faithful or believing. But we can try.

Thesis for a New Reformation in the Church

10 Oct

The traditional Christian church with its traditional message and image is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It happened in Europe a long time ago, and is happening now in the US. More and more people who try to do good identify themselves as secular humanists rather than Christians. More and more Christians identify themselves as progressives for whom the traditional gospel story is meaningless.

In order to be true to itself as well as to be relevant to society, the Christian church must strip away everything extraneous and lay bare its raison d’etre. Why is there a church in the first place? There is one circumstance, and one only, one set of events from which all else flows, and that is the simple yet under appreciated fact that something very special happened when Jesus interacted with the twenty-five or so men and women who were his disciples. This is a historical fact, a fact which in and of itself is the foundational core without which there would be no church, no New Testament, no 2000 years of church history, no writing these words today. Had the disciples never been affected by their encounter with Jesus, there would have been no interest whatsoever in his birth, his crucifixion, and everything in between, including his teaching and his life.

What was this special thing that happened?

When the disciples were encountered by Jesus, they discovered what it meant to be a truly loving human being and they felt in contact with the divine. Moreover, when Jesus was crucified and they gathered together, they knew that he was alive in their midst, not as a resuscitated corpse, but as a living spirit of a new order that transcended their ability to understand. They were so convinced of this Living Presence in their community together, that they were willing to suffer death themselves.

Everything else that we find in the church is secondary to this event, including all doctrine, organization, sacraments, liturgy, everything, including the New Testament itself. True, were it not for the reports that we find in the gospels, we would know only from secular records that Jesus existed as a trouble-maker for the Romans. The gospels tell us that Jesus called disciples who followed him, but had the disciples not been affected as they were, no one would have reported it.

Every book of the New Testament, being written decades after the death of Jesus, is nothing more than reflection upon that death and the life that preceded it, reflection upon the disciple-Jesus encounter. It is thinking about the event, but not the event itself, and the thinking, the theology, differs. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, James- everyone has a unique point of view that differs from the others. Son of God, virgin birth, physical resurrection, dying for others’ sins, preexistent word, trinity, sacraments, church, etc., -every belief that has become essential to traditional Christianity is pure speculation after the core event, and that core event is the interaction between Jesus and his disciples.

In seeking to understand what happened in that interaction, we can put ourselves in the place of those people. We are all homo sapiens after all. Whether I am a believer or non-believer, Christian or secular humanist, makes no difference. And if we put ourselves in the place of the disciples, we can imagine our life less than full, perhaps devoid of meaning, trapped in our own small and parochial perspective, when suddenly we are captivated by one who is vibrant in his humanity. One who incarnates the truth of who I am even as he teaches with authority, heals psychosomatic illness with power, throws the money-changers out of the temple with righteous rage, and gathers a family as one who innately knows how to love all. And when he is gone, the family is there, the living embodiment of his spirit.

We can imagine how the women and men of Jesus’ family of friends felt like this. We can imagine how they felt as though they had experienced something that transcended them, something they called God, a God understood through their Hebrew heritage. We might call it something else, but by whatever name, it is the experience of going beyond our parochialism and being all there in the moment to experience that which transcends us.

This is a language we can all understand. The experience that the disciples had when they were with Jesus and later when they were together and infused by his spiritual presence, is an experience available to everyone, each in their own way.

In order to be true to itself, to care for its own, and to be relevant to the world today, the church must set aside all the extraneous discussion that seems to occupy our total attention, and focus on the realty that lies at the heart of who we are, that being the impact that Jesus had on his disciples, an event with which all people can identify.

Does this lead to the demise of the church? Absolutely not. Does the church still have an important role to play? Absolutely. When Jesus called his disciples, both men and women, he created a microcosm of a fulfilled and loving humanity, to which others might look and see what it means to be a human being. Today, as always, the world needs a reminder and an image of what it means to be a caring and sharing community, and that is a function well suited to the church. Other communities can and may exhibit the same  wholeness. The function of the church is not to denigrate the love and happiness it sees elsewhere, but to celebrate it, to reach out to it, and to exemplify that love and happiness in its own being, extending the invitation to share in its community.