13 November 2004

Born again

I'll write about some of the stuff I mentioned in the last post later. First, I must announce to the world what I announced to Tina one recent morning.

"Well, I'm born again." I said over breakfast.

She just blinked. She knows by now that sometimes it's best to wait these things out.

"I'm not kidding. I had a revelation in the middle of the night. Two nights in a row, in fact. Something not to be denied."


"This is going to involve a real change in my life. I have no choice in the matter. You see, the chicken wings came home to roost."

Two evenings previous, I went to happy hour at On the Border with folks from work, and eaten the wings of about 50 chickens.

Digression: In the last couple of years, I'd developed two exceptions to my vegetarianism. First, I would eat meat if it was otherwise going to be thrown away. This makes a certain amount of sense, since I'm a vegetarianism for reasons of compassion. There's no compassionate justification for allowing an animal that's already been killed for food to end up rotting in a landfill, if you're not increasing the demand for meat. Second, I would eat meat when celebrating with friends from work. This makes zero freaking sense, except that a) I wanted to, and b) when I'm out with work friends, Tina's rarely present. Which brings me back to the obscene number of chicken wings I consumed that Thursday evening.

So that night, and the next night too, I spent several hours awake and sweating with really unpleasant tummy pain. I'm not convinced I can blame the second night on the wings, but emotionally, I'm ready to do so.

So: I'm born again. A born-again vegetarian. I'm perfectly happy to be Pavlovian and let the negative reinforcement of abdominal pain condition me to return to my vegetarian ideals.

So to all who read this: keep me honest. I thank you, my tummy thanks you, and the sentient beings I might otherwise devour thank ya kindly.

30 October 2004


Hola, amigos. I know it's been a while since I've rapped at ya. (Readers of The Onion are probably unsurprised that Jim Anchower is one of my literary inspirations.) Anyway, things have been busy lately, what with the re-start-up of the church program year and some traveling, etc. But I wanted to make a placeholder posting, to encourage me to actually write about some of the things that have been bubbling around in my head over the past couple of months. These include:

So anyway, sometime soon, God willing and the creek don't rise, I'll be writing about all or many of those topics. Don't miss the excitement, the danger, the non-stop action.



10 September 2004

Passion without certainty

I think this will be a short post.

I've been thinking a lot about something that's perplexed me since I was a kid. In fact, it's probably the thing, more than anything else, that kept me away from the church--and from any sort of organized religion--for so many years. It's really a question:

Why does religious certainty seem almost a prerequisite for religious passion?

In other words, why do the vast bulk of people who are passionate about their faith--people I've known, and people I've read about--seem to be folks for whom the mysteries of faith are not mysteries, but matters of intellectual certainty?

I'm never going to be one of those people. At times I've thought I was, but it didn't last. And I really don't want to be someone for whom faith holds no mystery. I'm comfortable with ambiguity. I guess that makes me postmodern. I just wish I felt like I had more company.

(In all fairness, I have plenty of company in my own church, which is one of the many reasons I love it so.)

I have a prayer: that all folks like me, for whom faith means relational trust but not intellectual certainty, won't let that stop them from passionate worship, passionate service, passionate discipleship, and passionate evangelism.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

29 August 2004

The Buddha and me

A close family friend asked me the following question in an e-mail:

You are still involved with Buddhism, is this a contradiction of thefaith you are studying? I am ignorant when it comes the philosophies and faith of the Buddhist. Please educate me on this point.

I thought my answer was worthwhile to incude in the blog:

Well, I'm definitely no longer a practicing Buddhist, though I was for three years and I feel that I gained a lot from it--among other things, I don't think I could ever really have been a practicing Christian without being a practicing Buddhist first. The reason for that is also the reason why I don't really think there's a contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity: Buddhism is a set of spiritual practices, but not really a system of beliefs or of faith. It doesn't say anything one way or the other about God or gods. It's completely agnostic.

Buddhism is essentially a set of practices (different types of meditation) to work on training your mind to tend less toward anger, greed, and other sins (the Christian term) and to tend more toward compassion, patience, and other virtues. There are basically two things that would count as "beliefs" in Buddhism--reincarnation and karma. Neither is (in my opinion) essential to Buddhism (meditation works whether you believe in them or not), and I didn't really believe in them for most of the time I was a practicing Buddhist anyway. (Karma, or the law of moral cause and effect, is found in the Bible--Proverbs 11:18 and lots of other places--but with the important caveat that God's grace trumps blind justice.) There are also lots of stories about various people--historical and otherwise--who developed great virtues and great control over their sinful tendencies, but these stories are also not a metter of faith and are much like the parables of Jesus or the stories of the Christian saints.

But despite that I don't think there's anything wrong with Buddhism, I realized two things about it a couple of years ago which told me that it 's not the path for me. First, since Buddhism is essentially all about meditation practice, it takes a lot of discipline to be a good Buddhist and practice consistently. I don't have that discipline. (There's a whole tradition in Christianity that's very similar to Buddhist meditation--contemplative prayer--that I may vary well pursue when I'm older and less flighty. St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Fr. Thomas Keating, etc.)

The second thing was that Buddhism seemed to be missing something I needed. It wasn't until I returned to the Episcopal Church that I found out what it was I was missing--two things, actually. Our rector talks about three aspects of the Christian faith--worship, discipleship/formation, and mission/service. Buddhism is all about discipleship/formation; it has no aspect of worship (being agnostic) or mission (a fact which the Dalai Lama has taken Buddhists to task for again and again).

So I'm not longer a practicing Buddhist, but I keep the things I've learned from it as part of my spiritual equipment, so to speak. :-) And like I said, I think it was only because I had first practiced a spiritual discipline that didn't require belief that I could take the leap of faith and affirm the Christian creeds. Now I can't imagine living outside the context of a faith relationship with God, including worship, thanksgiving, prayer, and service, but six years ago I could never have gotten past intellectual problems with Christian belief. But last year, I could take the leap of faith, jump into Christian, and say "I believe, Lord, help my unbelief."

08 August 2004

Evangelism: too important to be left to the evangelicals

I think I might have quite a bit to say on the topic of evangelism as time goes on. I sense a growing interest in the subject within my church, and it's a topic for the coming year's Christian education curriculum. And ever since I took this course called LifeKeys and it indicated that evangelism might be among my spiritual gifts, I've been thinking about it a lot.

"But wait," you are perhaps saying, "given what you've previously said about exclusivism, pluralism, and salvation, why on earth would you want to run around converting people to Christianity?" Well, just because I don't think being a Christian is a prerequisite for salvation doesn't mean that I don't think being a Christian is a wonderful thing. I myself have undergone--and am continuing to undergo--a conversion experience to Christianity, and I consider myself much the better for it, to say the least.

I think there are many, many people who are "unsaved" for whom an encounter with the risen Christ could be the occasion for their salvation. (See my previous post regarding my belief about the nature of salvation--I reiterate that I don't consider it to be necessarily linked to historical Christianity, but is certainly can be.) I also think that there are many people who are saved but have no connection to any religious community or practice, and that these things can be very valuable aids to living out your salvation and developing your relationship with the divine.

I'm not looking to take people who have healthy, improving relationships with God, Allah, or their Buddha Nature and substitute their working practice with a copy of mine. That's pointless. But for those in search of faith, or possessing faith but in search of practice, an encounter with God in Christ might be just what they need. And I think it's certainly incumbent upon Christians to get out there and make those encounters possible--Great Commission and all that. I think it's a great failing of many in the mainline Christian denominations that we don't do that--either because we don't know how, or because our own pluralism makes us think it's not necessary. But that's a cop-out, and I suspect it's a cover story for lack of courage, because it seems self-evident to me that there's a great need to spread the Good News, whether you're a pluralist or not, for the reasons outlined above. And the wages of apathy will be the continued shrinking of the mainline denominations until they exist only in history books.

There's another reason why liberal Christians need to get on the stick with evangelism. If we leave it to the conservative evangelicals, there will be many who will never be reached. In our postmodern, secularist society, lots of people are simply never going to be conservative, Bible-believing evangelicals. It's just not going to happen. Lots of people simply can't check their brains--and often their hearts--at the church door in the way that many conservative churches require them to. In this day and age, if belief in a literal, worldwide Flood and a literal, eternal Hell are presented as prerequisites for being born again, many people will choose to hold on to the birth they've got now, the one that lets them hold onto science and compassion. And that's the way the Good News is being told by most of those who bother telling it! In my opinion, that's a crime. But it's something that I think at least some of us "mainline, liberal" Christians are starting to realize we can do something about.

Highly recommended: a trip to hell and back

I was thinking earlier this week about how my attitude toward life has changed since the two-year period during which my Bipolar Disorder symptoms were in full big-band swing. That included two winters (1998-1999 and 1999-2000) of severe clinical depression. During those winters, I spent months on end without a moment's happiness, confidence, clarity of mind or desire for human contact. My life has been blessed from childhood until the present, and I certainly can't claim to know true suffering, but within the range of my own experience, this was definitely the bottom. This was the bottom dropped out and dumped me into what lies below. Within the range of my own experience, this was hell.

Then, in March of 2000, my shrink got the drug cocktail right. I wasn't depressed any more. Haven't been since--not in the clinical sense. I visited hell, and then I came back. It went away. It was reversed. I got my "get out of jail free" card, and I blew that popsicle stand. And ever since, I've never (well, hardly ever) lost a strong sense that life is a gift, a blessing, something to be lived to the fullest and something for which no amount of thankfulness would begin to scratch the surface.

Now, I recognize that all of this has a lot to do with brain chemistry, which in my case is still being managed with a combination of lithium and something called risperdal, an antipsychotic. (No, I was at no point actually psychotic.) Also, as I've alluded to previously, as dark as it got during those two deep, gray winters, I never completely lost hope. There was no point when I really believed that it would never get better, and for that I'm immensely thankful as well--it's the reason I'm still alive. But on the whole, I have to count the whole experience as an astonishing blessing. A trip to hell and back may be the second-best thing that's ever happened to me. (Marrying Tina, who's the other reason I'm still alive, is the best.)

But the key is the "and back" part. Like the guy that got turned into the newt in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "I got better." Most people who do time in hell--in various hells of varying depths--never get to come back. When a loved one dies or is otherwise irrevocably separated from you, you don't come back. Not completely. Most people who live in conditions of affliction, extreme poverty, or terror don't get the sort of miraculous reversal that I was blessed with. So I'm not trying to argue that suffering is a good thing--far from it. But paradoxically, suffering, then suffering negated, was a blessing for me.

I know many people who can't believe that suffering could ever be God's will. God may (and does) turn suffering to good, but she never intends that it happen in the first place. As for me, I just don't know. When I look at my life, I don't know if it was God's will that I go through my depressions. Maybe there was no other way to wake me up. When I look at the life of Jesus Christ, I don't know whether it was God's will that he suffer and die on the cross. I certainly don't believe in a vindictive God who desires blood sacrifice, but it seems to me that the Christian story might require that the Passion was a necessity, not just an unfortunate accident that God turned to the great work that is the Resurrected Christ and the life he gives to his followers.

Hmm. I guess the message is that whatever the theological reality behind it (and, as usual, I'm more-or-less content to leave that a mystery), I'm living proof that the experience of suffering can become a blessing. If that has any chance of bringing a modicum of comfort to other folks in the midst of their own private hell, then please spread the word.

12 July 2004

Go Green!! Celtics Forever!! (Er, wait, that's a baskeball team.)

Being of Celtic ancestry, it pleases me to no end that I keep finding out cool things about the Celtic people. Among them:

- We were royally bitched out by no less a figure than St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians. (It's in the Bible!) The "Gal"atians--etymologically related to Gaelic and Gaul, lived in a portion of modern-day Turkey that was conquered in previous times by Celtic folks, but by Paul's day was a Roman province. (Fucking Romans.)

- The French people's most patriotic nickname for themselves--Gauls--is derived from Gaul or Gallia, a Celtic land that once stretched from France through Switzerland to Germany. From this vantage point, the Celts once opened a can of whup-ass on the Roman empire, but eventually the Romans drove them to the fringes of Europe, such as the British Isles and eventually Ireland and Scotland. (Fucking Romans.)

- We fought with King Arthur against the Saxons invading Britain, and kicked their Saxon hineys six ways to Sunday. (You can see a fictionalized yet entertaining movie about this at your local theater.) This, of course, was after the Romans turned tail and ran: after centuries of slaughtering Bretons, they'd decided that they didn't want that grubby little island after all. (Fucking Romans.)

Later, of course, there's a long, proud, brave, sad, and joyous history in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and elsewhere. I'm not much of a history buff. Even religious history is interesting to me only so far as there's a clear relevance to our life today. But there are a lot of good stories about the Celts (some of which may actually have happened), and I may continue to see what other ones I can find.

09 July 2004

Mike and Ann (and Mel)

I was just thinking: I'm sort of a lukewarm fan of Michael Moore. I think he's much more effective when he's focused on shaming people into correcting a specific injustice--such as unfair layoffs or the like--than when he's just shoveling big ol' spoonfuls of steaming propaganda, as in Farenheit 9/11. As to the former, I really am sorry that he makes decent people feel bad to achieve his ends, but while I'm a pretty nonviolent person, I have to say that I believe that public shame and ridicule are valid--not to mention effective--weapons in the fight for social justice. Everybody believes that the ends justify the means to some extent, depending on the ends and the means, and I happen to be just Machiavellian enough to approve of Moore's more focused campaigns to right wrongs.

As to the latter--the heaping helpings of well-mixed fact and bullshit that constitute most of the content of his books and movies--well, they're certainly well-executed, but I find them a bit harder to swallow. Clearly there are people who will be mislead by some of his BS (though I suspect that most of his fans and enemies are savvy enough to take his claims with a certain amount of salt), and clearly this is entirely OK with him. Still, F911 is no more or less full of lies than, say, the latest Ann Coulter book. But despite being almost infinitely more photogenic, Ann apparently can't make a movie worth a damn, or she probably would have made one by now. So tough noogies to Ann. When it comes to art, even artistically presented moo-cow droppings, the left wing wins every time. Ha!

(Er--still waiting for a left-wing religious movie as powerful as that reactionary crackpot Mel Gibson's film from earlier this year...so maybe not every time.)

25 June 2004

Life after life

It occurred to me that, after my last post (in which I minimized the relative importance of the afterlife in Jesus' message) some among my throngs of constant readers might be wondering exactly what I think about life after death.

Well, hmm. As I said in the previous post, It's important to me to take the Bible seriously. So what does Scripture say? It's clear that in Old Testament times Hebrews believed in a shadowed, Hades-like half-afterlife called Sheol. In the New Testament (as I mentioned) little is said on the subject, when compared with other topics. What is said seems to present a variety of points of view, and interestingly much talk about the afterlife--particularly from Jesus--is in the context of parables, such as the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Certainly both Jesus and Paul--especially Paul--were steeped in the Jewish tradition of the Pharisees, and one of the distinguishing tenets of the Pharasaic worldview was belief in the resurrection of the dead. This became an important facet of early Christianity, and is enshrined in the Nicene Creed: "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

So what does all this mean? Well, opinions differ. The authors of the Bible and the creeds weren't writing science, and certainly didn't consider themselves as doing anything of the sort. What they were doing, often in the language of story, was hinting at holy mysteries. The creed itself, in contrast to other statements it makes, uses somewhat mysterious language: we "look for" the resurrection of the dead; we haven't found it yet. Many people feel that they can discern from reading the Bible precisely what is meant by this resurrection of the dead, and exactly what will happen to each of us after we die. I think they're fooling themselves. I think it's a mystery, a holy mystery--one to tell stories, myths, and parables about. One of my favorite stories about the resurrection of the dead was told by Martin Smith, SSJE. Fr. Martin talked about how we and everything that we contribute to God's Creation will certainly live forever in the indestructible memory of God.

So life after death is a mystery? Tell stories about it, but don't hang your hat on any concrete beliefs about it? That's neither very original nor very satisfying. So is there anything that I could say about the afterlife that I really think is solid and "true", like I think gravity and the love of God are true?

For a goodly portion of the time when I was a practicing Buddhist, I believed quite sincerely in the scientific reality or reincarnation. Sentient beings die, and in a relatively short period of time, they're reborn in a new form. To be sure, I thought we were like a flame being passed from wick to wick, where only in the loosest sense could the 57th flame be said to be the same flame as the first. But I was basically an orthodox Buddhist on the subject of life after death. However, by the time I read Stephen Bachelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs (highly recommended), I had already come to the conclusion that the scientific reality of the doctrines of karma and reincarnation were peripheral to Buddhism, and I didn't really believe in them in any case.

Here's what I do believe, "scientifically." Physicists teach us that in this universe, matter and energy are never destroyed. I believe that goes for whatever the heck we really are. The memory of God does not fail. And as my wise wife told me, whether there's life after death or not, we certainly live forever--from our point of view. It's just a matter of whether "forever" extends beyond the moment of our death or not.

Which brings me back to the beginning. There are many ways to interpret the phrase "the life of the world to come," but like I said in the last post, when Jesus spoke of "Kingdom come," he was almost always talking about something that can come into this life: here, now, and for the rest of our lives, if we just let it. And if we choose to live in this Kingdom, we need not fear death, just as we need not fear life. Both hold many mysteries, but none more mysterious than the mystery of salvation: of the call of grace and the response of faith, and the promise of citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

13 June 2004

What is salvation?

At the moment, this is the top hit from Google for the phrase that's the title of this post. Go ahead and read it; it's not too long. I'll wait right here.

Have you read it? Good. Here's what I say about that: Bullshit.

Uh, Mike, did I just hear you call a nice story about a grandma and her grandkids and cocoa and cookies "bullshit"? Yep. Mike, have you been watching too much of the Penn and Teller show of that name on Showtime? Yep.

Anyway, the thing I'm picking on in that nice story isn't the exclusivism (which I've discussed previously), and I've certainly got no problem with encouraging kids to confess Christian faith as long as you're not coercing them into it. (Though one should keep in mind that it's too, too easy to coerce a child. Hence statutory rape laws.) My problem is with this, which is really the bit that attempts to answer the titular question:

"Grandma, do you mean God sent His Son so I won't ever get lost again, like I did last week in the mall?" asked Shane.

"No, Shane, that's not the kind of lost Jesus is talking about," said Grandma. "When these verses tell us we're lost, it means we won't be able to spend forever with God after we die here on earth."

Bullshit. Sometimes I think Jesus spent all that time in his three-year ministry talking about the Kingdom of God just to have his followers as blissfully clue-free as the scribes and Pharisees he contended with himself. The Kingdom of God, aka the Kingdom of Heaven, is not some place we go to when we die if we've confessed to faith in Jesus. Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is within [or among] you." (Luke 17:21) !! Not later. Not after death. Here, now. Belinda Carlisle said, "Ooh, Heaven is a place on earth." This former Go-Go was paying attention! Are most Christians paying attention to the full weight of Jesus' teaching? Sometimes I don't think so.

I think that to claim that salvation is about what happens to you after you die is to seriously miss the point of Jesus' ministry. Jesus preached a Kingdom of Heaven that was constantly trying to break into our living, everyday reality. Salvation is to be handed the keys to Heaven right now. The moment you're born again, the moment you open the door of your heart, you're a citizen of Heaven, and you have access to that Heaven at any time. You may not always remember that--in fact, being human, it's a cinch that we won't--but that door is open. You don't have to wait until you die to go in.

By the same token, hell is a place on earth. Just ask somebody in the depths of clinical depression. Just ask that guy in the hood with the electrodes attached to him at Abu Ghraib. But that's also bullshit. Because I know firsthand that for someone suffering clinical depression, but with a lifeline of Faith, Hope, and Love, hell can't completely take over. By the same token, if that poor guy in the Iraqi prison was saved (by which I don't mean "if he was a Christian"--see a previous post), then although he was doubtlessly terrified out of his ever-loving mind, I don't believe he was in hell. But the high-powered CEO, on top of the world, might be living every moment of every day in hell if he's never opened his heart to the one who stands at the door and knocks, and says "be compassionate, as your Father in Heaven is compassionate".

Anyway, that's my answer to "What is salvation?" It's got nothing to do with dying--although for one who is born again, the day you die can be just another day in paradise (to quote that other '80's pop theologian, Phil Collins). It's about living a life in which the Kingdom of God is within you, and the love and compassion of God is the law of this interior country.

Having said that, I think I'm not going to go back and write all that exegesis I promised in the post on exclusivism/pluralism. I think I've said what I wanted to say about salvation. If anybody reads this and wants me to back it up with more Bible interpretation, let me know.

The Da Vinci Cash Cow

It's been a while since I've been in a real, books-and-mortar bookstore, as opposed to lurking around Amazon.com. But last night Tina and I stopped by our local Barnes and Noble while we had time to kill between dinner and a movie. I wandered, as is my custom, into the Religion section. Holy crap! I was rather shocked and a little dismayed to see what The Da Vinci Code had done to my favorite corner of the bookstore.

Bullshit to the right of me! "Ah," thought I. "A book from the religious right on how The Da Vinci Code is wrong and evil and full of hate and lies. I thought I'd heard that someone had written one of those." (I always thought "lies" was more or less a synonym for "fiction", and everybody knew that, but that's just me.) "Oh look--another one. And another one." There must have been 6 or 8 of them, just counting the ones that were turned cover-out because the book vendors thought they'd be top sellers. The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code! Cracking Da Vinci's Code! Breaking the Da Vinci Code! De-Coding Da Vinci! Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction? (not to be confused with Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code.) The Da Vinci Hoax! (No, all the titles don't have exclamation points, but they might as well.) Boy, it sure is a good thing for these guys and their publishers that Dan Brown wrote that evil, evil book.

Bullshit to the left of me! Then I started to notice the other books of "scholarship" that were newly in abundance. Most of them didn't make direct reference to the Code in their titles, but they picked up on themes in the book and took them out into left field, up over the fence, out through the atmosphere, and for a nice giddy jaunt around the moon. Now, just to be clear, I finished reading the Code a week ago, and I quite enjoyed it as an exciting thriller, though I thought the so-called experts in symbology and cryptology were pretty slow on the uptake in figuring out some fairly obvious puzzles. But they were operating on very little sleep. Also, I had read a bunch about the book on the internet before reading it, and I had probably heard about the use of such things as anagrams and reverse writing beforehand. In any event, there was much in the book (religious history, art history, etc.) that, even given my limited knowledge, I could tell was pulled out of Mr. Brown's left ear, or some such orifice. That's his prerogative as a writer of fiction, and he used that time-honored craft to great effect--it really is a fun read. But now I'm seeing "scholarly" treatises on how Jesus and Mary of Magdala did indeed marry, have kids, and joyfully worship the Goddess together along with the "real" early Christians after the faked crucifixion. It's proved! We've got facts!

Right. Actually, I'm more amused than disturbed by all of this. Good clean fun, for the most part, though I don't have much patience for people (left or right) who take what they know to be bullshit and present it as fact. And I have only slightly more tolerance for people who take stuff based on the thinnest of evidence and present that as the Gospel truth and make a bundle off it from people for whom their message has psychological or emotional appeal. There's fiction--it doesn't claim to be true or meaningful; it's just fun and maybe somewhat thought-provoking. Like The Da Vinci Code. There's myth--doesn't claim to be true (in the historical or scientific sense), but does claim to be meaningful, and many find meaning in it. Like much of religious literature. There's fact--stuff that overwhelming evidence indicates is probably true in the historical or scientific sense. Like, well, most of modern history and science writing. And then there's bullshit--stuff that claims to be fact while being based on scant evidence or on no evidence at all, or stuff that claims the status of myth but hasn't stood the test of time. A lot of the derivative Code books seem to fall into the last category--they present as truth claims that are based on myth or on "history" written before the modern concept of history was formed. (Both the Bible and the Gnostic scriptures fall largely into the categories of myth and premodern "history".) Sometimes these modern "truth" claims are based simply on fiction--whether it was made up in the first, 13th, 19th, or 21st centuries--stuff that people just invented and that doesn't really deserve the status of myth.

It's all fine, but I wish they'd have the good sense that Dan Brown did and call their nonsense a novel. Then all that crap would be in the fiction section instead of cluttering up my beloved religion shelves. ;-)

30 May 2004

The (first) one about exclusivism/pluralism

OK, I said I'd post some thoughts about the Christian exclusivism vs. pluralism, or in other words, Christianity is THE way vs. Christianity is A way. I just spent about an hour looking up a lot of the relevant Bible verses in various translations online and printing them out in context. And now I'm losing steam. There's a lot to address, so I think I'll break it up into multiple posts. I'll start with a summary of my basic position, and go from there in future posts.

My basic position is this: I'm a pluralist. A staunch pluralist. I believe that "salvation" (whatever that is--probably a good topic for a future series of posts, since I keep talking about it without defining it) is available to all humans in all times and places, regardless of whether they've heard about or "accepted" the Gospel of Jesus Christ as transmitted by his human disciples. There are three essential parts to my conviction on this subject.

1) My understanding of God's love, based on scripture, tradition, reason, and my personal faith experience, will not admit of another possibility. God loves us all, and she makes salvation available to us all. I can't believe otherwise.

2) My personal relationships, some quite intimate, with many non-Christians leaves absolutely no room for doubt in my mind that (to speak in Christian terms) the Holy Spirit is alive in their hearts. I'm not saying that they're really Christians and too dumb to know it. They would use other words to describe what I would call the Spirit, or to explain their thoughts, words, and actions, and I think those words are just as valid as the Christian ones I use. But these are just words, and I can't deny the underlying reality they point to--it's what I as a Christian would call salvation.

3) I believe very strongly that it's possible to hold this position and also take the Bible seriously as the inspired Word of God. That's the main thing that I hope to argue in future posts, and I admit it's not always an easy argument. I should clarify that I'm neither a Bible literalist nor an inerrantist, but I do think that as a Christian it's incumbent upon me to take the Bible seriously, to respect it, and to try to hear what God is saying to me through his Word. I'm going to specifically consider the following verses that are usually looked to when discussing this issue: John 14:20, John 3:16-18, Acts 4:12, 1 Timothy 2:3-6, Romans 10:9-15.

I'm also going to consider a verse that's not always mentioned on this topic: Revelation 3:20, which really holds the key to my whole position: In Christian orthodox belief, Jesus Christ is not just the historical human person Jesus of Nazareth; he is also the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, God himself. And God, in this aspect as the Son, stands at the door of our heart and knocks. She knocks on the heart of every one of her children, and all we need to do to dine with her is to hear her voice and open the door. Not become a professing member of the historic human institution known as the Church. Not get baptized. Not even assent to certain beliefs. Just open the door.

I believe that millions of non-Christians throughout history, both those who have heard the human transmission of the Gospel and those who have not, have heard the voice of what Christians call the Son of God, and have opened that door. Through that simple act, according to my faith, they became "saved", thought they didn't become Christians. And I believe that this interpretation is consistent with a high level of respect for Christian scripture. So more later.

Small addition to the post about the Atonement and salvation

It seems advisable, when one's readership is as tiny as mine, to respond to the suggestions of one's readers. Therefore, a brief comment regarding an observation from my friend Jan: my post on the Atonement and soteriology didn't mention the position that salvation is immediate (like a Pop-Tart), but that constant pickle-like activity must be maintained in order to preserve one's salvation, or it will be lost. Maybe that's the "toasted Pop-Tart left out on the kitchen counter on a summer's day" position.

About that, I only want to say that it sounds pretty frightening. I also believe that it would be a position defined as outside of Christian orthodoxy by most of the major historical branches of Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant). But who cares about that? It's definitely the position of some smaller, less-orthodox branches of Christianity (taking orthodoxy, again, as defined by the major historical Christian traditions). And it's also the private position of plenty of individuals who profess to faith in one of the major, "orthodox" traditions. Lots of Christians are privately terrified that they're going to lose their salvation if they don't do X, Y, and Z, and lots of "orthodox" Christian congregations encourage this point of view. And there is, of course, a kernel of "truth" (bearing in mind Pilate's famous unanswered question) to it: If faith is an ongoing, living relationship between the individual and God, can't we choose to let that relationship sour by our own apathy or turning away?

My own position on this is this: It certainly is possible to have a terrible relationship with God if our spiritual practice is weak or nonexistent. And it's not that God doesn't expect anything of us; we are expected to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and to love our neighbors at ourselves--and he means the "get out there and do something" kind of love, not just the "warm fuzzy feeling" kind. But what's at stake is the quality, not the existence, of that relationship. For Christians who are afraid that this is not the case, that there's "stuff" we need to do in addition to having faith, my advice is to read Galatians. It's only six chapters. It'll do you good. And have a cup of warm soup. :-)

08 May 2004

That's me!

Great quote from an Anglican bishop in Georgia (USA):

"I guess I am sort of an orthodox evangelical catholic liberal traditionalist. Perhaps you are also."

Yes! That's me! It's so simple. :-)

Not the one about exclusivism/pluralism

Hi folks, just made a few formatting changes to the blog, and I'm testing them. Posts might have titles now, for instance. Maybe later I'll do a longer one about exclusivism/pluralism (as a Christian theological issue--in other words, is Christianity THE way or A way?).

07 April 2004

Holy Week thoughts about the Atonement

What follows is a somewhat rude post about the Atonement. Please be warned: whatever your point of view, you might be offended at some point if you keep reading. Also note that, although it deals with the theology of salvation, it doesn't tackle the question of Christian exclusivity vs. pluralism. I think I'll have something to write about that issue in a future post, but for the record, I'm a pluralist. Anyway, without further ado:


So it's Holy Week. It's the annual week-long commemoration of Jesus' last week of human life. Also, there's this movie out, which you may have heard about, which is a graphic (some would say pornographic) depiction of Jesus' last hours of human life. Like many Christians, I found the movie both moving and thought-provoking. I find Holy Week, and its services, much the same.

So it's Holy Week, and I've been thinking about the Doctrine of the Atonement. Actually, there are a whole set of intimately connected theological issues here. At the broadest level, there's the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ. Just what is that Good News? Most Christians would say that a large (perhaps the central) part of that Good News is "Salvation". So what is Salvation? Here, it starts to get complicated.

I've actually been thinking about this stuff since I read an article in the Christmas 2003 edition of the Sewanee Theological review. The article, by Ellen T. Charry, is called "On Being an Anglo-Catholic". Among other things, Ms. Charry discusses an ancient controversy regarding the nature of salvation. The theological term for salvation talk is "soteriology", and the two main points of view she discusses are "participation soteriology" (favored by the Greek Orthodox churches and certain prominent Anglican theologians of the past and present) and "atonement soteriology" (favored by the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Churches, and certain prominent Anglican theologians of the past and present). She compares participation soteriology to being pickled--salvation is a slow, ongoing process of "participation in and union with God." Atonement soteriology is being toasted like a Pop-Tart. Christ paid the price for us, and once we opt in to that atonement, "pop!" we're saved.

OK. I personally think that's a bit of a false dichotomy. Whatever the positions have historically been called, the contrast she's drawing is really between a salvation envisioned as immediate and complete, and one envisioned as gradual and growing. The pickle/Pop Tart analogy is apt, but it seems to me that there's room for a doctrine of Atonement (whatever that is--I'll get to it in a minute) in so-called "participation soteriology" if Christ in some way did something to make possible the gradual pickling of all those pickles. Likewise, all those "atonement soteriology" Pop-Tarts, having been immediately and completely toasted, are surely thought to participate in and be in union with God. So I'll just say that I guess I mostly favor the pickles, and move on to a discussion of Atonement, with the claim that it's an important doctrine whether you smell of vinegar or--er--whatever that stuff is on Pop-Tarts.

So anyway, about this so-called Atonement: If indeed God and Jesus did something 2000 years ago to make possible what Christians call salvation, how does that work, exactly? There's an excellent article on this subject in this week's Time magazine (of all places) which lays out three broad positions. The first speaks of the Atonement as a victory of Good over Evil: a mysterious, pivotal change in the universal balance of power and the beginning of the end for the Devil--a point of view current among the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches. The second, "substitutionary atonement", favored historically in the Western churches (Catholic and Protestant) and probably the most familiar formulation of the doctrine of atonement in the West, speaks of Christ's death on the cross as paying in full a debt owed to God the Father by all humans for our sins. This is the main point of view of that movie I mentioned. The third, "exemplary atonement", holds that the significance of Jesus' life, suffering, and death is mainly as an example to us of an ideal life of humility, goodness, love, and sacrifice.

The Time article goes on to say that it's extremely common among modern Christians to mix and match among these theories. Well, I certainly do. I generally find the theology of substitutionary atonement abhorrent. But the other two points of view have a tendency to de-emphasize the importance of the events of Good Friday. (If you don't know what those were, and you have a strong stomach, you can find out at your local multiplex.) I certainly agree with the exemplary model as far as it goes, but I believe that there's more to Jesus than that.

I guess my point of view is closest to the Orthodox position--something mysterious and of universal significance happened when Jesus suffered and died. It wasn't that an angry Father said, "Well, OK, somebody paid the blood penalty for all those sins that were pissing me off, so I guess I'll stop sending everybody to Hell. Too bad it had to be the boy." For me, the most moving faith statement in the Time article was from an Anglican preacher named John Stott, who said "In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?"

Yes, that's it exactly. God, as Jesus, did something remarkable in the Incarnation: he became fully human. Somehow, mysteriously, this bridged a gap that humans, without divine intervention, can't bridge. If you've ever seen an evangelical tract, it probably had a diagram with God up at the top, humans down below, and a gap between them. Then it had the same diagram again, but this time with a cross reaching down from heaven and bridging that gap. At least, every tract I've ever seen, from those creepy Jack Chick ones to more mainstream jobs, had diagrams like that.

So God in Jesus did something special by becoming fully human: he made it possible for the alienation that is our normal state to be overcome, and for us to be in union with God. I believe that, and am content to leave the details of that mystery--well--mysterious. But what does this mean, to be fully human? The Buddha had an answer to that: it means to suffer. Pain, anguish, and suffering are a central part of human life. To be fully human is to experience that. We suffer, and in the Passion of Jesus Christ, God demonstrated that he/she suffers too, right along with us. How could one worship a God who is immune to pain? How could one reach out, in our deepest, darkest anguish, to a God who doesn't--couldn't--understand? In addition to the mysterious universal sea change that I believe was accomplished via the Incarnation and Atonement, in addition to the example offered by the life and sacrifice of Christ, the events of the Passion also provide Christians with a unique comfort--a God who, in the dark night of our souls when we need to reach out for consolation and to ease our pain, has been there.

10 March 2004


I also just finished a course called "LifeKeys" which is sort of a "get to know yourself" course. Readers of this blog are no doubt eager to get to know me (for I am most humble, and therefore loved by all). ;-)

Anyway, here are my LifeKeys:

Life Gifts / Talents (General Occupational Themes from the Strong Interest Inventory; top 10)

General profile: ISC (Investigative/Social/Conventional)

Working with others
Problem solving
Listening and facilitating
Serving others

Spiritual Gifts (top 5)

(Runners up: Knowledge, Hospitality)

Personality Type (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator)

INFJ (Introvert/iNtuitive/Feeling/Judging)

Values (top 8)

Personal development


Justice and opportunity – health care, education
Peace and nonviolence
Freedom of speech and religion

Personal creed

I've been doing some work on a personal creed for my EFM (education for Ministry) class. For the record, here's what I've got so far. Definitely a work in progress. I owe big thanks to my fellow EFMers for most of the thoughts on the last four topics (Creation, Sin, Judgement, and Redemption). The (T, A, C) stuff has to do with the four-source theological reflection methodology taught in EFM, and the letters indicate what factors I think contributed to my beliefs on those topics. T = tradition; A = action (that is, personal experience); C = culture (the one I was brought up in).

I believe that Jesus Christ is:
- Risen, meaning alive in a real and powerful way, despite having lived and died nearly 2000 years ago. That Christ is risen means that He is available to today's Christians as their living Lord and savior, and indeed that He invites us into an ongoing, vital, life-giving relationship with Him. (T, A)
- Fully human, meaning human in every way. I believe Jesus lived, loved, struggled, doubted, experienced the full range of human emotions, suffered, and died, just as any of us do. I believe that His suffering (no more or less than His human joy) was a necessary part of being fully human, since suffering is an intrinsic part of the experience of human life. (T, C)
- Fully divine, meaning one with God in an ineffably profound way, so much so that to speak of Him as the second person of a Trinity, along with God the Creator and God the Holy Spirit, is an authentic and deeply revelatory metaphor for describing who God is. Further, His suffering (no more or less than His joy) is an indispensable pointer to important truths about who God is: that suffering is also an intrinsic part of God's identity. (T, A)
- The Way, the Truth, the (Bread of) Life, and the Light of the World. (T, A)

I believe that God the Creator is:
- The Mother/Father/Creator/Source of the universe, all things, and all individual creatures. The Ground of Being. (T, C)
- Love. (See below.) (T, A)
- A bestower of boundless unearned grace, mercy, forgiveness, salvation, and redemption. (T, A)

I believe that the Holy Spirit is:
- God within us. (T, A)
- The bestower of spiritual gifts giving us the power to work for God's purposes in otherwise impossible ways. (T, A)
- Within us as Fire, or as Breath, or as Living Water according to our need. (T, A)
- The Holy Comforter. (T, A)

I believe that the Love is:
- Patient and kind, not jealous, conceited, proud, ill-mannered, selfish, or irritable. Forgetful of wrongs, unhappy with evil, happy with the truth. Undefeatable and unfailing. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) (T, A)
- Universal and all-forgiving, yet demanding and desiring that the beloved grow in faith, hope, love, righteousness, and wholeness. (T, A)

I believe that humankind is:
- A complicated creature. (T, C, A)
- Created in the image of God, and therefore, through the grace of God, capable of growing toward God in all the ways noted above. (T, C, A)
- An animal with a strong propensity toward temptation and evil, sins committed against God, fellow creatures, and self. (T, C, A)

I believe that creation is:
- The gift of God's continuing activity to renew the world.
- Collaborative, meaning that through God's grace, we can participate in the work of creation.
- Good and miraculous, in God's image.
- Evolving.

I believe that sin is:
- A turning away from God that separates or alienates a person from God.
- Rejection of God's unconditional love.
- Idolatry - conscious or unconscious, meaning putting something that is not God in the place of God.

I believe that judgment is:
- God's assessment of the genuineness of our attempt to live in a way that is pleasing to Him.
- God's business - Jesus commanded that we not judge one another.
- The result or consequences of our behavior toward God and creation.

I believe that redemption is:
- God's act to restore the fullness of His relationship to us.
- Assented to by the individual human, but not earned.
- Being forgiven.

14 January 2004

"Pray, then, in this way"

I remember, when I was young, being told that when Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer, he was giving us a model for prayer, and--in the opinion of the person who told me this--he (Jesus) would have been somewhat exasperated by the way we carved the words into stone (so to speak), institutionalized them, and now repeat them word for word, by rote, nearly every time we pray. Kind of like Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian standing on the balcony and trying to teach people to think for themselves. “You are all individuals!” “We are all individuals!” “I’m not!” :-)

Anyway, whether or not what this person said is true (and I’m not trying to withhold names to protect the guilty, I just don’t remember who told me this) is certainly a matter of opinion. The record of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel certainly reads to me like my forgotten teacher was right; on the other hand, the one in Luke sounds more like the establishment of something specific. Since we are blessed with two Gospel records of the event, I choose to believe that both interpretations are true: Jesus would approve of our use of his exact words (translated, etc., of course) in our daily prayer, but I think he would also approve of our constructing our own prayers along the same lines.

I was reminded of this teaching from my youth when listening to a two-tape recording of a retreat led by Martin Smith, SSJE, whom Mother Blair recently brought to the church for one of our Thursday-evening lectures. He talked about thinking (and praying) about God’s will in terms of “what God yearns for”, specifically in the context of the Lord’s Prayer. I was really inspired by those tapes as a whole, and this idea, combined with my remembered instruction about the Our Father being a model for prayer, led me to work on my own version of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s sort of a really, really loose translation (not that I know anything about Biblical Greek), but it’s more of a “what the Lord’s Prayer means to me.” Credit for the language about yearning goes to Martin Smith, and credit for the core prayer itself, of course, is the Lord’s. The cheapening of the profundity of the original is entirely my own doing, however unintentional.

So, here it is. I hope nobody finds this offensive. I’m certainly not trying to improve on the Our Father—heaven forbid—I’m just trying to pray in the way Jesus taught us, using words that are particularly meaningful to me.

“Pray, then, in this way”

Our beloved Mother-Father,
Not a thing, but the source of all things,
That which points to You is set apart and adored.

May we also come to yearn for
The world that You yearn for,
And may that world become our reality.

Help us to find what we really need today,
And when we do wrong, don’t hold it against us.
Likewise, we won’t hold it against our brother or sister who wrongs us.

Help us to avoid that which will get us in trouble,
And when we do get in trouble, lead us safely home.