Sunday, August 21, 2011

GOD Part II


But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM."
                                                                               Exodus 3:13-14

Hey. It works for me.

GOD appears to an ancient man in the form of a burning bush--a bush which is in flames but is not consumed. I dig this mythology, don't you? I mean, what better metaphor for the source of all creation than a natural phenomenon which sends forth energy--light and warmth, the stuff from which life comes--and yet does not destroy?

Cooler still is the name of this phenomenon: I AM WHO I AM (which, for you Hebrew scholars out there, can also be translated as "I am what I am" or "I will be what I will be."). God is. In fact, God is the sum total of all is-ness. This is what I mean when I use the word "God." I am not speaking of some force external to myself and the universe which we all inhabit. I do not see God as some old man up in the clouds. I am speaking of existence itself.

(Even if I have illustrated this post with a picture of Michelangelo's God from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. What can I say? I just like the picture!)

Confused yet? But think about it. I'm no physicist, but I remember enough from high school to know that all matter, be it a star in the heavens, a rock, a tree, or the wonderful confection of elements which make up your fantastic brain, Dear Reader, is composed of atoms. These atoms are themselves made up of sub-atomic particles--infinitesimal sparks of who-knows-what kind of energy which combine and relate to form all that there is. To me, this says that all creation is, as the Greeks liked to say, homoousios--of one essence, substance, or being. And I like to call this essence, substance, or being "God."

This is not to say, however, that all things are God. A really smart guy named Marcus Borg likes to use the term panentheism. By this, Dr. Borg suggests that all things are in or part of God. God's nature is therfore encompassing all that is. We would not, for example, worship a tree as God or as one god in many. Rather, we would see God--as the good folks in Alcoholic Anonymous like to say--as the "higher power" which is manifest in the tree but is also infinitely beyond the tree as well. This would also mean that each of us is part of God.

(To get a much better grasp on this I recommend you see Dr. Borg's book The God We Never Knew. I'm not sure I'm doing a very good job of explaining it myself.)

Even a really, really smart guy, Albert Einstein, although opposed to the notion of a personal God, was willing to use the word "God" to mean "the orderly harmony of what exists." By such a definition, I would say that it is impossible to say that God does not exist, as God is the very nature of existence itself.

Some months back I heard a National Public Radio interview with the energetic British atheist Richard Dawkins. In this interview Dr Dawkins actually conceded to Dr. Einstein's definition of God, but added that he doubted Einstein's god was what most of us had in mind when we used the word "God." Dr. Dawkins went on to express his belief that "God," the external super parent, was the result of human imagination. He concluded that this "God" had to be at the end of all creation after matter had evolved into an organism sufficiently advanced to actually have an imagination.

Now far be it for me, a simple parish pastor from Philly, to debate the brilliant Dr. Dawkins; however, I can't help but feel that there is a slight hole in his logic. A phenomenon may exist well before we are aware of it. God as the creative force of all existence was on God's way to creating me long before I ever came into being. God, as I understand God, is the beginning, the source, and the totality of all creation.

This definition, of course, leads us to the ultimate religious question: How do we relate to God? If we reject the idea of God as a being external to ouselves and the universe and see God as "phenomenon of existence," haven't we turned God into an "it?"

Perhaps. Still, I can't quite let go of the notion that God encompasses consciousness, awareness, feelings, etc. That means God encompasses all things which make us human.

What would happen to my own sense of being if I started to relate to the connecting force of all creation as "You?"

Glad you asked. Now, mind you, this has nothing to do with physics, logic, philosphy, or anything else. It's just the way I feel. When I contemplate existence itself, the totality of the universe which includes my own self, the wonder and the mystery of it all, and I think of it as "You," I feel a physical presence with me even when I'm completely alone. Sound crazy? Maybe. But when I think of what I call God as "You," I feel God's arms around me.

Okay. So I'm a religious guy and I can't resist the temptation to anthropomorphize just a little!

In any event, we can't really have a discussion about God unless we can agree on what the word means to us, can we? I've slogged through my complex and doubtless too verbose explanation. What about you? Please feel free to share, and thanks so much for stopping by.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

God..?

Last night I enjoyed a really jolly debate on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight between the brilliant magician Penn Jillette and the unflappable Mr. Morgan on the subject of the existence of God. Mr. Morgan, a good Irish Catholic lad, stuck up for the Divine Being, while Mr. Jillette (who was promoting his new book on the subject) raised the banner for atheism.

Now I like Mr. Jillette. He's a heck of an entertainer and he seems like a pretty smart guy. He's also quite capable of expressing his views in an engaging and articulate way. In fact, I would even go as far as to recommend you read his essay on this encounter on the CNN website. However, as an old religious guy, I couldn't help but feel throughout last night's exchange that Mr. Jillette was interpreting the word "God" to mean something quite different from what I mean when I invoke that divine name.

The late comedian George Carlin once did a stand-up routine in which he described belief in God to be akin to believing in a sort of invisible Santa Clause--someone who is always watching and instantly knows if you've been naughty or nice. This invisible man says he loves you, but he is perfectly willing to send you to a tormenting, screaming, burning, torturous hell if you make any infractions to his rules (Carlin also pointed out that this invisible man always seems to be a bit strapped for cash!).

It can, of course, be argued that Carlin was a confrontational and frequently obscene blasphemer who would say anything for a laugh. Personally, however, I thought he was pretty darn funny, and I thank the Lord for his irreverent wit. You see, guys like Carlin and Jillette (and I'd have to include the "my-heart-is-made-of-knotted-barbed-wire" Bill Maher in that company, too!) keep guys like me honest. They force me to ask myself if I really have something of value to give which can touch people's hearts and make a difference in the world, or am I just a slick snake-oil salesman peddling old fairy tales to a gullible bunch of rubes..?

I cherish my belief system enough to want to speak of it in an intelligent, reasonable, and logical manner. I don't think that my interpretation of God, inspired through the Jewish and Christian scriptures, would violate the reason of a Jillette or a Carlin--or even a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens for that matter. Yet before we can talk about whether or not we believe in God, we have to come to terms with how we interpret the word "God."

No "invisible man" for me. No white-bearded Caucasian angry judge. Rather, I love the God who is transcendent and imminent. I'll try to explain my interpretation--with the help of some folks a lot smarter than I am--in my next post.

Until then, let me know who or what God is to you. I'd love to hear from you. Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Call Me a Dirty Socialist, But...

I had my conversion in 1992.

I didn't answer an altar call. I didn't speak in tongues or weep or ask the preacher to lay hands on me. All I did was check a different box on my Voter's Registration form.

On May 9, 1992, I officially became a Democrat.

(I recall thinking at the time how relieved I was that my recently deceased father had been cremated other than buried, as he surely would've spun in his grave at my act of apostacy.)

My parents, good Christians that they were, had raised us to be good conservatives. They believed in personal responsibility and felt the government should not be responsible for protecting people from their own stupidity. This sounded like a common sense argument to me. Remember, I grew up during the Cold War. We knew the USSR was pointing missiles at our country, and  the Great Socialist Beast was bent on abolishing hard-earned private property and turning everyone into an atheist.

And then came the smiling and charismatic Ronald Reagan. He made us feel good about being Americans. I was proud to cast my first vote in a presidential election for him in 1980. I figured that after the embarrassment of the Iran hostage crisis, Uncle Ron would surely put us all on the right track. I stuck to my GOP guns throughout my college and graduate school days--no mean trick since I did my post-graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, one of the most liberal-leaning campuses in the nation.

And then, in the early 1990's, a weird thing happened to me. I began teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District and had my first real encounter with people living in poverty. This caused me to question things like supply-side economics, defense spending, and the effects of cuts in government social programs. I began to take a real adult look at my own convictions. I discovered that, as good a job as my parents had done in raising me to be conservative, they had done a better job at raising me to be Christian.

And I just couldn't reconcile the economic policies of the Reagan-Bush administrations with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Jesus I had met in Sunday School was a man who:
  • taught love of neighbor (Luke 10:27-28)
  • believd the poor were favored by God (Luke 6:20)
  • advocated redistribution of wealth (Matthew 19:21)
  • disdained accumulating riches for their own sake (Luke 12: 13-31)
  • instructed his followers to be charitable towards everyone (Luke 6:30)
  • was willing to sacrifice his own life, and
  • even paid his taxes! (Mattew 22:17-22 and Matthew 17: 24-27).

It astounds me that today in America there are those in government who would willingly grind our national economy to a screeching halt rather than suggest that anyone sacrifice an additional cent of tax money. This may be good politics, but it is incompatible with the New Testament.

My faith teaches me that the righteous act is not to protect what I have, but to give to those who have less or nothing at all. The image to which Christians look when worshipping is not the image of a king on a throne but rather the image of a man suffering, dying, and sacrificing all that he has out of love for others. It is this spirit of sacrificial love which is the heart of Christianity.

So call me a socialist, but if tax revenues are necessary to impove our schools, care for our aged, tend to the indigent sick, aid the disabled, heal our military veterans, and create dignified employment for our citizens...

...then go ahead and raise my taxes!

That's how I feel. How about you? I'd appreciate your comments, and I thank you for taking the time to read my blog.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Who In Their Right Mind Believes This Stuff?

Have you ever asked yourself that question?

I mean, don't we all get to a point where the whole idea of religion seems a bit ridiculous? Who can buy the notion of Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus walking on the water? What's up with this raising people from the dead jazz? And why should we bother celebrating the stories of ancient people in the first place? C'mon. Nobody celebrates Zeus or Isis or Gilgamesh anymore. Why bother with religion at all? Who believes this stuff, anyway?

The answer, of course, is about 2 billion human beings on the planet--myself among them--who call themselves Christians. Add to this some 1.3 billion Muslims, some 900 million Hindus, some 360 million Buddhists, and about 564 million others (Yes! I counted you Zoroastrians in that number too--don't want to leave anyone out!), and the 850 million atheist/agnostic/non-religious of the world are certainly in the minority.

Obviously, we have a very religious little chunk of real estate hurtling around our sun. The question, I guess, should be why?

Now I can't speak for the other 5.1 billion of you religious folks, but I know I believe, celebrate, and order my personal ethics around the faith of my childhood simply because I want to do it. That's right: I believe because there's something in me that wants the stories of my faith to be my stories. Maybe I can't even explain it, but I know that I'm in love with the story.

One of my favorite movies is the 1994 flick called "Shadowlands." It's the story of the real-life love affair between the Christian scholar and author C. S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Gresham. There's a line in the picture which always rings true to me: "We read to know we're not alone." To me, that means that the stories we embrace, whether historic fact or pure fantasy, give us some sense of meaning and some sense of connection. Something is speaking to the eternal part of us, and we want to grab on to that connection.

Of course, just a desire for connection does not necessarily lead to real faith. We may--and I suspect many do--adopt religious myth as our story because it had been our parents' story. We don't want to throw the society into which we were born under the bus, so we go along with what we were taught. We may question it, but that questioning doesn't seem polite, so we just eventually slink away from the stories and never really examine them. I've got a hunch that the churches may be filled with these sort of passive skeptics.

For my part, however, I find I really love the mythology. Now please understand: we have misused the word "myth" pretty often. I suspect you might be interpreting the word as meaning "something that isn't true but a lot of people believe it anyway." We love to say, "That's just a myth." We're really doing the word a disservice. The best explanation of "myth" I've ever heard is "Things which never were but always are." In other words, when we speak of a myth, we're talking about a story which may not be literally true, but contains within it a universal truth. Therefore, we can't ever say that something is "just a myth." That's like saying, "It was just a nuclear accident." A true myth contains an idea, a situation, or a feeling which resonates beyond time and culture.

To me, the stories of the Christian scriptures hold timeless truths. These may not be literal truths in terms of actual historic events portrayed with ruthless accuracy, but they are true all the same. Actually, the idea that every word in the Christian Bible is literally true is a fairly recent idea. For a really good discussion on this point, I'd suggest you look up a work by the wonderful Karen Armstrong called The Bible: A Biography (Or check out anything else this brilliant lady writes. If you dig religion, you need to know Karen!). It seems rather obvious to me. If you look at the book of Genesis, you'll note that there are two creation stories placed side-by-side. There are also two versions of the Great Flood story--each with details which contradict the other. In the days before Xrox, some Jewish scribe would have to sit down and copy the scrolls by hand. You would think he'd notice the contradictions. In fact, I'm quite sure he did notice them, but he just didn't care. He was copying stories, each of which had their own viewpoints and their own merits. He was not trying to write a literal history or a scientific treatise.

Let me take you through a great mythic story in the Christian New Testament and explain what I dig about it. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John each contain the story of Jesus walking on the water. You'd have to admit that this would be a pretty slick trick if Jesus could defy the laws of physics to do this. Remember, however, that these first century writers were not trying to recount literal history. They were story-tellers who had no problem with combining real people with mythic adventure. It's only us moderns who are hung up on historic accuracy. Anyway...

The story goes like this: Jesus wanted to be alone to pray, so he sends his twelve buddies ahead of him to cross the Sea of Tiberius to Capernum (or Bethsaida, depending on which version you read) by boat.  At night, a storm comes up and blows the boat far from the shore. You must know that in the first century, sailors never wanted to get too far out of sight of land. The story says that the wind was against them. "Wind" was a word which could also be translated as "spirit." So here are these guys--they're in the dark, the spirit is against them, and they are surrounded by water which, to the ancients, was a symbol for chaos. Ever been in that condition yourself? Everything's against you, and you don't know where you are?

At this point, Jesus, their teacher, friend, and guide, comes to them walking in the midst of the chaos.He's not panicked by what's going on around him. The guys in the boat freak out because they think he's a ghost. When you're in deep water and somebody else is calm, sometimes it upsets you even more. Jesus tells them not to be afraid. In Matthew's version, one of the guys, Simon Peter, refuses to believe his friend has come to the rescue and demands proof. If Jesus can walk on water, he wants to know if he can too. Jesus tells him to get out of the boat and come to him. Peter actually is able to do this, but once he takes his focus off of Jesus and considers the strong wind, he begins to sink and calls for help. Jesus reaches out his hand, saves the floundering Peter, climbs into the boat, and the storm abates.

There are probably as many interpretations of this story as there are people who have told it. Personally, I see it as a tale of encouragement when the whole world seems to be screwed up and turning against me. These elements stick out at me:
  • The guys in the boat were never alone. Somebody loved them and came to them in their time of need.
  • The chaos was not fatal. It was going to blow itself out. It always does. It's fear that kills.
  • When Jesus was with them, the storm stopped.
  • Jesus' presence brings the calm and peace because he's willing to engage with those in distress.
  • When Peter loses focus on Jesus, he starts to go under.
  • Focus on Jesus brings peace in the chaos because Jesus is loving, willing to engage, willing to make sacrifice for others, and totally committed to the belief that God's will is for abundant life.
So is that something we can believe in? Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Are You Spiritual or Religious?

Hello, blogosphere! This is my first post. I suppose I should introduce myself. I'm an old religious guy. Well, actually, I'm not that old. I mean, I still have all of my hair (no comb over!) and most of my teeth. I don't have a big floppy gut, and, if you put a gun to my head, I suppose I could still manage to knock off at least ten regulation push-ups. BUT: I don't own an i-pad, I can't figure out how to upload stuff on my computer, I'm definitely not into hip-hop, and I don't have a single tattoo or piercing. Also, I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing on the day John Kennedy was assassinated. That last fact makes me a genuine, card-carrying Baby Boomer.

AND I'm religious. You see, I had those groovy Great Depression/World War II vintage parents. They sent me off to church and Sunday school. I learned my catechism and made my confirmation. I managed to stumble through a weird and circuitous journey of early adulthood, and finally found myself behind the pulpit of Faith Lutheran Church of Philadelphia where I have been telling stories, handing out bread and wine, and sprinkling water on the heads of unsuspecting infants for the last thirteen years.



'Know what? It's actually pretty cool.
But then, I am a religious guy.

So what about you? Are you religious or spiritual or both? I guess I should explain what I mean when I use those terms. Then maybe we can have a conversation.

I suspect that the vast majority of everybody, at one time or another, has asked themselves, "Just what the FREAK is all this about..??!! Am I nothing more than a collection of cells and nerve impulses? What happens when I die? Do I have a consciousness separate from my physical body? What is a soul and do I have one? What or who is God? Does God exist? Am I part of God? Am I part of anything? What is my purpose in life? Do I even have a purpose?"

Now, I'm not a betting man, but if I were I'd be willing to wager that anyone who asks themselves the above questions has a good chance of being considered spiritual. Of course, anyone who DOESN'T ask these questions is probably either A) a religious zombie who thinks he knows all the answers, or B) too friggin' lazy to give a rip about all of this. In either case, I'd suggest to such a one that he read another blog. This one ain't for you.

I think it's interesting (and maybe you don't, but hey! I'm religious, remember?) that the ancient Greeks and the ancient Hebrews each had words for "spirit" which also meant "wind" or "breath." Our spirit was that essence which, like the wind, could be felt but not seen and experienced but not captured in the hand. It was also the thing which gave life. The spirit blew the seeds across the field to provide food. In the book of Genesis, so the story goes, God formed Man out of dirt and "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. (Gen. 2:7)" That's what made the man a living thing.

I suspect all of us want to connect with that breath at some time. We have a longing to feel part of the source of life. Anyone who ponders eternal or ultimate mysteries is a spiritual person. We feel the mystery, but we don't see it and can't describe it. It's like the wind.

Religion, is our attempt to connect with that eternal part of all matter and all living things. If we were to stand on a windy beach and fly a kite (Remember, I'm an old religious guy--we used to do stuff like that when I was a kid. Today kids probably have virtual kites on their smart phones or something!), we could have some connection to the wind. The kite isn't the wind itself, but it lets us relate to it. It gives us a visible symbol which we not only experience, but can share the experience with others. It's our point of reference.

That's what religion, at it's best, should be. Our mythic stories, rituals, and seasons are all a means to connect us to the sacred and mysterious. Also, they are strings which not only connect us to the wind, but let others share in the experience. They build a community. Ideally, this is a community of love, fellowship, and compassion.

At it's worst, however, our religion becomes an end in itself. We yank the kite out of the sky, put it in a shrine, insist our kite design is superior to anybody else's, and rob it of the life-giving lift we invented it for in the first place. I think this happens, unfortunately, so frequently that many of us just turn away from the subject entirely. Who would want to commit to something which seems so lifeless and excludes so many people? It's easier to forget the kite altogether, walk in the wind, and just be "spiritual."

But it might be lonely and confusing that way, too.

On this blog I'm going to try to make sense out of the Christian faith as I experience it. Whether you're religious--any religion will do--or spiritual or nothing at all, perhaps you'll find my thoughts interesting. And, perhaps, you'll share a few of your own.

God bless you, and thanks for taking the time to read this!