God-Talk

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The most ancient shrine described in the Bible was a rock.  As the story is told in Genesis, Jacob founded the shrine because of a dream.  Traveling alone, he fell asleep one night in the mountains, with his head resting on a stone for his pillow.  Perhaps it was one of those bright nights when the stars are thick and close, like a spangled quilt thrown over the earth.  He dreamed he saw a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels climbing up and down.  “This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven” he exclaimed when he woke.  He set up the stone to mark the place and named it Beth El – the House of God.  Another night, on another journey, Jacob tossed and turned in fear that his brother, whom he’d wronged, might kill him.  An angel came in the darkness and fought him.  Jacob survived the fight but limped ever after, and he gained a new name – Israel, which means “one who struggled with God and lived.”

The divine-human encounter is the rock on which our theological house stands.  At the heart of liberal theology is a mysterious glimpse, a transforming struggle, with the oblique presence of God.  “Theology” literally means “God-talk” and derives from theos (God) and logos (word).  But talk of God is tricky business.  The same Bible that tells of Jacob’s marking stone also warns, “Make no graven images of God.”  God may be sighted by a sidewise glance, sensed in a dream, felt in a struggle, heard in the calm at the heart of a storm, or unveiled in a luminous epiphany.  But the moment human beings think they know who God is and carve their conclusions in stone, images of God can become dangerous idols.  In Jewish tradition, God is ultimately un-nameable, and some never pronounce the letters that spell out God’s unspeakable name.

In liberal theology, at the core of the struggle with God is a restless awareness that human conclusions about God are always provisional, and any way of speaking about God may become an idol.  This is why not everyone welcomes talk of God.  God-talk has been used to hammer home expectations of obedience, to censure feelings and passions.  It has been invoked to to stifle intellectual inquiry and to reinforce oppression.  For many people the word “God” stands for conceptions of the ultimate that have harmed life, sanctioned unjust systems, or propelled people to take horrific actions “in the name of God.”

-Rebecca Ann Parker in A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press: 2010), p.23-24

The Immigrant Apostles’ Creed

Rio Grande on the USA-Mexico Border. Image by Bob Palin. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Rio Grande on the USA-Mexico Border. Image by Bob Palin. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

This was posted to Facebook by Neal Presa, the current moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I’m told it was originally written by Rev. Jose Luis Casal.  Fruitful theological food for thought for anyone who cares about USA immigration policies.

Also worth reading on this subject is this sample chapter from Reading the Bible With the Damned by Bob Ekblad:

FOLLOWING JESUS, EL BUEN COYOTE: READING PAUL WITH UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS

And here is the Immigrant Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in Almighty God,
who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home, who fled
his country with his parents when his life was in danger.
When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power. Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.
I believe that the Church is the secure home
for foreigners and for all believers.
I believe that the communion of saints begins
when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.
I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God,
and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.
I believe that in the Resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner
but all will be citizens of the kingdom
where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.

Thoughts on New Year’s Eve

Carina NebulaAbout to turn over another page in the calendar.  Feeling stuck?  Like life and everything else is just going around in circles without ever getting anywhere?

Not technically true.

Consider this: as each day passes, our planet rotates on its axis and moves forward in its orbit around the sun.  Our sun is revolving around the center of our galaxy.  Our galaxy, along with hundreds and millions of others, is being thrust further and further out into space by the momentum left over from the Big Bang.

Technically speaking: it’s a spiral, not a circle.  You’ve never actually been to the same place twice.  Your life is going somewhere.

Taken metaphorically, this gives me food for reflection.

For the past few years, I’ve felt increasingly drawn to elements of Process Theology, expressed by the likes of John Cobb and Monica Coleman, and what is coming to be known as the Evolutionary perspective on Christianity, which I have discovered through the writings of Michael Dowd and Diarmuid O’Murchu.  As a result of this exposure, I find it difficult to espouse with much sincere conviction platitudes like, “God has a plan.”

It might sound especially strange to hear this from a Presbyterian, one of the theological descendants of John Calvin and the Westminster divines, all of whom were famous for their devotion to the doctrine of predestination.  But then again, our Reformed tradition is constantly and consciously reforma, semper reformanda (“reformed, and always reforming/being reformed/to be reformed”).

Absolute labels like Omnipotence and Sovereignty create insurmountable theological and philosophical problems for many people when applied to a theistic deity.  They can be barriers to authentic growth in faith.

Rather than believing in God as an all-powerful outside entity who controls everything according to a preordained plan, I have come to trust in the God who influences all things from the inside according to an evolving vision (or dream as I heard one friend put it), which is Love.  For me, the almighty-ness of God lies in Her infinite adaptability.  The victory of God is in the faithfulness of God.  In other words: God wins because She keeps adapting and never gives up.

Creativity in pursuit of Love is the hand of God at work in the world.

Reflecting on these theological thoughts in light of my opening remarks about the earth, sun, and galaxy, I get the sense that we’re all going somewhere, even though none of us (maybe not even God) is entirely sure where…

Religious Liberalism 101: A Book Review of Paul Rasor’s ‘Faith Without Certainty’

I haven’t done a book review in a while, but I’ve been reading some good ones.  Just yesterday, I finished Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Skinner House: 2005) by Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and college professor who currently works as director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom.

Enemies and allies of liberal theology are similarly inclined to use the term ‘liberal’ as a synonymn for ‘other’.  Until the last year or two, I myself was completely unaware of the historical depth contained within the joint traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism.  Knowing only what I’d been told from my evangelical upbringing, I had always thought that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were ‘loosey-goosey’ and ‘airy-fairy’ liberals who had respect for neither tradition nor truth and adopted an ‘anything goes’ policy in regard to morality and ethics.  I would tell jokes like:

Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist?

A: Someone who comes knocking on your door for no apparent reason.

OK, I have to admit that I still chuckle at that one, even though I know it’s not true.  UUs are deeply committed to their theology and ethics.  If one knocks at your door, you can bet that it’s for a very good reason.  What I discovered is that UUs (as well as other religious liberals) are committed to process over content.  In other words, they’re more interested in how you live than what you believe.  This is beautifully reflected in the UUA’s Seven Principles.  I would love to go into greater detail about them here, but that will have to wait for another blog post.  The UUA, while it represents the largest organized group of religious liberals, is not the only place where they hang out.  There continue to be many of us who try to embody a similar flavor of religion within our respective communities.  What matters is that we who identify ourselves with this label (‘liberal’) must be able to simultaneously hold and share a conscious awareness of who we are and what we stand for in a positive sense.

Given the myriad ways that the term ‘liberal’ gets thrown around without being defined, I’m grateful for Rasor’s concise and readable primer that actually digs into the real roots  and trajectories of the liberal theological tradition.

If you don’t have time to read the entire book, the first two chapters after the introduction will familiarize you with what it is that religious liberals believe and how we came to embrace those values.  Whether you’re out to support or criticize us, it’s important that you know what you’re getting into.  Love or hate us for what we are, not what we’re not.

The remainder of the book lays out some of the challenges and frontiers that liberal theology is currently facing in its ongoing development.  With the arrival of the postmodern era, liberal religion (as a decidedly modern phenomenon) is reevaluating many of its core commitments (in much the same way that evangelical Christians (another modern movement) are also doing via the ‘Emergent Church’ movement).  Hard and fast categories, such as rugged individualism and universal human experience, are being questioned in the light of community, culture, and language.

Rasor is highly critical of his own liberal tradition in relation to issues of race and social class.  Despite its value of diversity, liberal religion continues to exist as a predominantly white and middle-class movement.  While his criticisms are honest and accurate, I wish that he had spent more time with them.  He mentions social Darwinism and the rise of manifest destiny in America, but he says nothing of Eugenics or the Holocaust, both of which were fueled in part by liberal theology.  These massive moral failures demonstrate that no one group, however utopian their ideals, is above the human tendency toward self-justified violence and oppression.  My primary criticism of Rasor’s book is that it seems to minimize and/or ignore these most prominent failures of liberal religion.

On the other hand, I was highly impressed by Rasor’s distinction between liberal and liberation theologies.  These two categories are often associated with one another in the common mind, mainly because of shared emphases on social justice.  However, as Rasor observes, they arise from different historical sources, make use of different methods, and emerge with very different values and convictions.  Liberation theologians tend to hold scripture and tradition much more closely, even as they criticize and reinterpret them.  Not all theological liberals are liberation theologians (and vice versa).  One need only look at the sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to see his deep commitment to the historical orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism.  If anything, I came away from Rasor’s book with an awareness that the construction of a theology that is simultaneously liberal and liberationist would prove to be a most difficult task.  Indeed, evangelicals would probably have an easier time of it, given the place they grant to the Bible in their theological systems.

All in all, I highly enjoyed Rasor’s book during my two weeks of vacation.  I expect that I will keep it on my shelf and refer to it often as a concise introduction to what religious liberals actually believe.

Click here to order this book on Amazon.com

Not Just Another Pretty Picture

Much like the underwater Jesus picture I posted yesterday, this is just another lovely image that I found somewhere online.  I don’t remember where, which means it was probably Facebook.

What you see behind the church is what I like to call “the best view in the galaxy”.  You’re looking out across the galactic core of the milky way.  This is our neighborhood.  It is the slightly larger speck of dust within which the speck of dust that the speck of dust that we specks of dust inhabit revolves around rests.

I’ll leave you to unpack that sentence at your leisure.

I also really like the church in the foreground.  Something about it resonates with where I am in relation to my own spirituality right now.  About a year ago, I made a conscious decision to start verbalizing a shift that had been slowly happening for almost a decade.  The traditional metaphysics of orthodox evangelicalism have ceased functioning as part of my internal theological process.

These days, I consider myself a “recovering evangelical”.  Not because all evangelicalism is evil, but because I can’t handle it responsibly.  I know of many evangelicals who manage to live intelligent, compassionate, and healthy lives within that tradition.  For whatever reason, I could not.

In it’s place, I’ve adopted the label “liberal Christian”.  Some might also justifiably call me a “progressive Christian”, but I prefer the “liberal”.  I’ve written about that choice of words elsewhere on this blog.  I love my church, as well as the Bible, and the symbols & rituals of Christianity.  Jesus continues to be a ubiquitous and central presence in my life, although I’m still figuring out how to articulate exactly what that means to me.

What I like about the above picture is its composition.  The church sits in the foreground but off to the side.  The big picture is the galaxy itself, of which the church is a part.  In the same way, the Christian tradition continues to be a part of my big picture.  It’s a big part, a dominant part, and the part in which I live, but it’s still just a part.

I’ve recently come to accept a series of possibilities that would have scared the hell out of me only a few years ago: There may come a day when Christianity ceases to be a living religion on this planet, a day when the human species goes extinct, a day when this planet is no longer capable of supporting organic life, and yet another day when the sun itself goes dark.

Jesus once told his disciples, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  He was speaking of the great Jewish temple in Jerusalem.  His disciples thought that the temple and the nation of Israel were eternal institutions that would outlive history itself.  God would never allow these things to be destroyed.  Alas, the disciples were wrong.  I can hear Jesus uttering these same words in relation to my congregation, my denomination, my country, my religion, my planet, my solar system, and my galaxy, ad infinitum.

“You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Some parts last longer than others, but everything is is only a part of everything, and it’s all mortal.  This wisdom of Jesus empowered his followers with the faith they needed to survive the razing of their ancestral home.  They were ready for the Diaspora because they believed that, come what may, God would never be thrown down.

These days, I’m settling into a deeper trust that, even though my best ideas about God (including the word itself) will one day pass out of existence, the reality to which that word refers never will.

The New Theism: Shedding Beliefs, Celebrating Knowledge

Re-blogged from evolutionarychristianity.com

Interesting ideas.  Kind of feeling it…

Since April 2002, my science-writer wife Connie Barlow and I have traveled North America virtually non-stop. We have addressed more than 1,600 secular and religious groups of all kinds. Our goal is to communicate the inspiring and empowering side of science to as many people as possible…

(Click to read the full article)

Other Voices on the Quest for a Better Gospel

 

As many of you superfriends and blogofans already know, my personal spiritual journey is one of constant searching for alternatives to the Bad Old Good News that is typically propagated by most traditional expressions of western Christianity (i.e. Roman Catholicism and Fundamentalist Protestantism).

One of the stops on this journey was with my former roommate from seminary (If you thought of Dark Helmet as soon as I said “former roommate,” you get 3 extra points).

Aaron Blue is the founder and Director of the Charis Project, an outreach organization that supports holistic and sustainable community development through orphanages in Thailand.  Click the link above to learn more and support it.

While Aaron’s ecclesiastical roots lie in the early Vineyard movement, his is a theology that defies categorization.  What made me gravitate toward him in seminary is the fact that he doesn’t seem to live by the same rules that everyone else does.  A rather Christlike quality, if you ask me.  Aaron would describe himself as follows: “While everyone else is trying to win the Superbowl, I’m questioning the validity of the NFL.”

Aaron’s journey has taken him in some interesting directions.  We disagree on a lot, but that’s okay with us because we both believe that dogmatic conformity is probably the single worst criterion for evaluating the quality of one’s spirituality.

He keeps a blog of signposts from his metaphysical travels:

In Search of a Shameless Gospel

I recommend starting with this post:

Running from a Shameful Gospel – Part 1

This post is particularly reminiscent of conversations that Aaron and I were having about this time seven years ago.  Those conversations played a big part in helping me talk about the Bad Old Good News in terms that are as ridiculous as the theology itself.  Here’s how I like to say it:

The Bad Old Good News

You were such a horrible person that God had to torture and murder the only person in the world who didn’t deserve it.  If you don’t think this is the best idea ever, God will torture you forever along with most of the rest of the human race.

Another favorite rendition:

Telepathically tell the zombie that he’s your master and you get to live forever.

That kind of “good news” is neither good nor news.  It’s either silly, offensive, or both.  Aaron and I both set off on our separate quests for a better Gospel.  The journey has led us in very different directions, but we continue to share notes.

Aaron Blue

 

A Frame of Reference

Here’s an inspiring passage I found in on pages 19-20 in Douglas F. Ottati’s book, Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species (Geneva: 2006).

Will the mainline churches in America hold together or split apart?  Will liberal Protestants criticize the excesses and the idols of contemporary American culture but also remain open to the lessons and wisdom that nevertheless seem present in the wider society and culture?  Will liberal Protestants simply disappear?  Will the United States find positive, realistic, and responsible ways to exercise power in a multilateral world?  What shall we say and do about racism, sexism, and homophobia; about urban policy, transportation, and education; about matters of war and peace?  Can we ever become stewards of our natural environment?

These are among the important questions we face.  Nevertheless, for Christians and their communities, the more basic question is this: How shall we center a faithful witness?  The function of Christian theology is to help us answer this question, and I propose that we answer it in a single sentence: We belong to the God of grace.

Once we are clear about this, a number of things follow.  First, we live in assurance, refuse to set limits on the extent of God’s faithfulness, and refuse to exclude anyone from the scope of grace and redemption.  We then work for an inclusive church, support a ministry of reconciliation, and invite everyone everywhere to lay hold of the assurance and confidence that come with the knowledge of a gracious God.  Second, we acknowledge the human fault and, without losing hope, maintain a realistic attitude toward the present age and its daunting challenges.  Finally, we affirm that all people have worth, and we commit ourselves to public practices, policies, and leadership that respect persons, pursue equitable opportunities for the poor, and care for those in need.

We belong to the God of grace.  This simple confession will enable us to interpret the many threats and conflicts and issues and promises of our day in a definite theological frame of reference.