“Ready for the myths? Christmas is near.”

At my first church ago, I opened a Christmas Eve sermon by saying, “It seems every year I ruin somebody’s Christmas.”

That’s because every year, I would talk about the Christmas stories consisting of myths.  The wise men, the star, the angels, the shepherds, the birth occurring in Bethlehem (against all evidence)…

One time, I suggested that the shepherds were not really present at the Nativity; rather, they were a literary device – part of the crafting of the story.  Shepherds were the poorest of the poor.  Yet these lowly were privileged to be the first to hear the news of the Birth.  Injecting shepherds into the story upholds the Old Testament prophecy that the lowly shall be raised up; the oppressing mighty shall be brought down to size.  “Every valley shall be raised up; every mountain and hill laid low.” [Isaiah 40: 4]

An elderly woman in the congregation came up to me after the Christmas Eve service and protested, “Christmas IS the shepherds.” She meant, it’s not Christmas without the Shepherds and the Wise Men and the Star and all of the other props.  She may as well have said, “It’s not Christmas unless it snows” (showing our narrowness in thinking only of the season as it occurs in the Northern Hemisphere).

“Christmas IS the shepherds.

I countered, “Christmas is our relationship with the Child.”

Many believers, however, can not get past the remark – it’s a myth.  They think I’m saying – it isn’t true.  They think I’m saying – I don’t believe the Bible.

One problem is that many people think believing what you’ve always believed is “faithfulness.”  What you believed as a 9-year-old – you continue to believe as a 59-year-old.   That kind of non-movement, they think, means they’re being faithful to the Scriptures.

What happens when new information arises?  Like the Earth not being the center of the universe.

Can they jettison that belief and still believe? Can they adjust?

Jesus’ earliest followers believed He would be a Savior in the form of a nationalist hero who would drive the Roman occupies out of their ancient kingdom.  Instead of manhandling the Romans, however, Jesus gets manhandled BY the Romans.  How does hanging helplessly from a cross help anybody?  But the believers thought about it, and they adjusted their idea of what style of Savior they had in a suffering servant.

Adjusting belief is biblical.

Many people, however, think – giving up a detail of the Scriptures (like Creation in six days) means giving up on the Scriptures – period.

That is one problem when I talk about Christmas consisting of myths.  The main problem, however, is:  Most people simply don’t know what is meant by “myth.”

The famed mythologist joseph Campbell opened his book Thou Art That with an account of an interview over a radio talk show with a host who was combative about myths in religion.  The host began the interview by asserting, “The word myth means a lie.  Myth is a lie.”

Campbell and the radio host went back & forth, when finally Campbell realized – this fellow doesn’t know what neither myth nor metaphor myth IS.  So he asked the interviewer:  “You give me an example of a metaphor.”

The interviewer blithered and blathered, and finally came up with:  “My friend John runs very fast.  People say he runs like a deer.  There’s a metaphor.”

“That is not a metaphor,” Campbell responded.  “The metaphor is:  John is a deer.”

The interviewer snapped, “That’s a lie.”

Thus, the problem.

Many people do not know what is a myth vs. a fact.  A myth need not be a fact in order to be true.  “Mark McGwire could hit a baseball a mile.”  That’s language of metaphor.  It is not factual (not as if he could hit a ball 5,280 feet).  But it is true!  It’s just that the purpose of saying it as a metaphor or myth is two-fold:  For one thing, as a literary device, it hits people harder than mere factuality.  The celebrated paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that we can talk about the Earth in geological measurements of millions and billions of years – we can say the words, we know how many zeroes to put after the numbers – but it doesn’t really hit us in the gut:  not like saying it this way – Imagine the entire length of time of Earth’s existence is the length of your arm.   Now somebody takes a nail file, and swipes barely a shaving from the end of your middle finger of your extended arm.  THAT would erase the entire time of humankind’s existence on the planet.

The Birth story was unremarkable in its factualism.  Jesus was a commoner.  His birth would not have been a matter of record, not as if he were royalty (like today how there’s such a fuss over the birth of a royal child in England).  Thus, we don’t know the date of Jesus’ birth.  If the event occurred with all of the fireworks that accompany the story in the Bible – the bright star suddenly appearing in the sky, the mysterious Wise Men showing up to proclaim the Child as a king, the angels exploding in the night sky, announcing the news to shepherds – why isn’t it mentioned in two of the four Gospels, nor in any of the Epistles?

The truth is, the Birth wasn’t an occasion for notice until AFTER His followers perceived Jesus to be the Christ.  Only then did writers go back and craft a story as if the Birth had been a big deal, and it had been evident from the start that Jesus was the Savior.

The Birth stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are beautifully, poetically told – using myth.  The stories hit us right in the gut.  They are easy to imagine (in a day when people weren’t using drawings to illustrate stories because of strict interpretation of the 2nd Commandment forbidding the making of images).  The stories are easy to picture in one’s mind – they’re easy to tell to others.  Myth serves its purpose!

Unless you think none of it is myth – all of it is factual.  Then faith is on shaky ground.

Do you really believe that the star was there?  A star that nobody had seen suddenly appears as bright as a supernova in the night sky – but only the Wise Men can see it.  King Herod, the king of the Jews, can’t see it.  Nor can anybody else in Jerusalem.

In addition, the star is situated directly over the house where the Holy Family has taken up residence.  The star leads the Wise Men right to the correct address.

If anybody believes that a star which is light-years distant could pinpoint a single house here on Earth, that takes some stretch of belief!  The nearest star to Earth is Alpha Centauri.  It is more than four light years away.  It looks like a dot in the night sky.  Its light no more could pinpoint anything here on Earth than could somebody with a flashlight shine light on the Moon.

Was the star in the story really there?  Defending is as fact damages the truthfulness of the story.  Remember – the job of believers is not just to believe; it’s to share their belief.  In our scientific age, to insist that what is written about the star is factual requires that people suspend knowledge of astronomy.  What kind of religion asks people to check their brains at the church doors in order to become believers?

Do you want to defend the appearance of the shepherds as being literal?  Okay – here are the lowest of the low, tending to their sheep on a winter’s night.  An angel explodes into the night sky with the brightest light.  The angel tells the shepherds of the Birth.  The shepherds seek out the Nativity scene.  When they get there, they visit for a while – and then leave!  Get this.  They’ve just been told that this Baby is the incarnation of God Almighty.  They drop by, take a look – and then leave!  Why – to go back to their stinking sheep?

Do you want to defend the Birth as occurring in Bethlehem?  The Gospel of Luke says that Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem, because Joseph was a descendant of David, and there was a census by the Roman Empire requiring every male to go to the home of his ancestors.  Historians have long known that there was no such census at that time in the Roman Empire, nor was there a requirement when the Empire did conduct a census that men had to go back to the home of their ancestors.

Luke says that the provincial governor over Judea at that time was a man named Quirinius.  But Quirinius took office in 6 AD.  The Gospel of Matthew says Jesus was born during the time of King Herod.  Herod died in 4 BCE.  The Gospels – believed by some to be inerrant – can’t agree on Jesus’ birth.  The claims from one date vs. another span some 10 years!

Bethlehem as the location of the Birth is more than likely a myth.  Placing the birth in Bethlehem reaffirms Jesus’ identity as the Messiah descended (as predicted in the Old Testament) from the blood line of King David, whose hometown was – Bethlehem.

The Holy Family on a wild-goose chase, going from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a (non-existent) census; and Matthew is even worse, sending them from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth.

Either way, Jesus winds up in Nazareth (where his parents are from).  Why not just leave Him in Nazareth all along?  Is that enough to make you lose your faith?

Faithfulness is not a pose of arms crossed, face set firmly, refusing to budge from anything one used to believe.  We adjust.  Some things we must jettison – like belief in Creationism.  Because we get new information.  Recognizing the noble role of myth in the Scriptures rather than thinking we must defend every thing as factual is another dynamic of faith as we leave childhood and enter adulthood.  We adjust.  We grow.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Is ‘sneaky’ the new virtue for Christians?”

It seems a new virtue has arisen among believers in Christianity.  Classic tradition posed four Cardinal Virtues.

The word cardinal has nothing to do with the spectacular red bird.  Rather, the word is rooted in the Latin cardo.  It means hinge.  The concept is:  the hinge on a door.  A door can not function without hinges.  Thus, the hinge is important; thus, cardinal came to mean important.

These important virtues – Cardinal Virtues – were originally posed by ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.  The virtues are:  prudence (good judgment); temperance (self-control); fortitude (strength in the face of adversity) and justice.

This list of cardinal virtues from pagan philosophers got pinched by Church Fathers like Augustine in the 4th Century to be cardinal Christian virtues.

And now – in our own age – a new virtue seems to be entering the list.  Sneakiness!

In my hometown of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania – an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh – borough employees would bring life-sized statues of Mary and Joseph and Shepherds and Wise Men and a manger with Child onto the front lawn of the Municipal Building.  The statues would be arranged into the classic Nativity.

The Municipal Building – and thus, the Nativity scene on its front lawn – stood in the center of the business & commercial district – a main street called Lawrence Avenue.  The Nativity became a beloved feature, a familiar, nostalgic sight for long-time residents and the many who had left town but would return home for Christmas.

Nobody objected to a religious display being placed on the lawn of the town hall, let alone government employees setting it up.  Ellwood City was primarily a Christian community.  It was heavily Catholic, but also Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and a few other denominations.  There was a Jewish population; indeed, some of the stores on Lawrence Avenue across the street from the Nativity were owned by Jewish families.   Whether they and others did not object to the Nativity out of prudence or temperance or some other self-restraint, nobody seemed to object.  It was a small town.  Things could get personal quickly.  And so the Nativity was set up routinely, automatically.

A few years ago, however, the Freedom From Religion Foundation objected.  The distaste in the community towards the objection had something to do with their being outsiders; and outsiders worst of all from the left-leaning city of Madison, Wisconsin.  A law suit was threatened if the municipality did not remove the Nativity scene.

The municipality could not afford the courtroom costs.  And so the borough council – in a split vote – decided to remove the Nativity.  The borough council members who voted to remove the Nativity were blasted as cowards buckling under to non-believers.

Interestingly, the council’s reasons for taking down the Nativity all had to do with not being able to afford a court case.  Never mind that the Nativity had no reason for being placed on the lawn of the town hall in the first place!  A religious display favoring one belief over others on public property and set up by government employees never seemed to strike anybody in the community as improper.  Nobody seemed to perceive a violation of the American tradition of separation of church & state.  Rather, supporters of the Nativity, including the demagogic Mayor, blustered about “freedom of religion.”

Rallies were held in front of the Municipal Building.  Somebody came up with the idea of placing the Nativity figures on the back of a flat-bed truck, and then parking the truck right in front of the town hall.  This was nothing other than “in your face” in the season of peace.

Now – the latest tactic occurred this week.  Somebody – in the dark of night – sneaked onto the front lawn of the town hall and set up a small Nativity scene.  It was discovered the next morning.  People in the community hailed the move as a blow for religious freedom.

Once the Nativity was discovered, the borough manager personally picked up the pieces and brought them into the Municipal Building.  They lay there as a kind of “lost and found,” waiting for the owner to claim them.

Which will be interesting to see.  WILL the owner claim them?

Sneakiness would be attached to that person.  But people in the community are making it into a virtue.  So long as anybody does something “for their side,” they will support it.  Being sneaky about it doesn’t seem to matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Is belief in Santa harmful?”

Is belief in Santa harmful to a child?

KIds are going to find out eventually the truth.  It can only be taken as a setback, feeling duped.

Admitting all of that, I still think that believing in Santa Claus – and then not too many years later NOT believing – is as healthy a process as a young person could go through.

For one thing, it has been shown by educators that a child’s mind needs to soar.  Fantasy is fundamental.  The human mind needs to grow.  Fantasy is an exercise for the mind.  Santa is one such way for kids to find wonder in life.

For another thing, kids can so easily believe in Santa because (aside from being told by authority figures like their parents), the main point of the story is — ME!  Santa is going to visit ME!  Before they worry about how Santa could possibly visit every house on the planet in one evening, the story poses no obstacle for belief, because it isn’t about logistics — it’s about ME!  The focus of the story about Santa is the kid!

This is a boost for the wonder of life and a kid’s place in this life:  Kids find themselves the focus of attention.  Santa is visiting ME!

But eventually they find out.  Whether it’s a sibling or a peer or a parent, somebody tells.

This discovery need not be a disappointment.  It can be occasion to compliment the youngster.  “Hah!  You found out!  Good for you!”

You can go over with the youngster the unlikelihood of Santa being able to visit all of the kids in your town let alone all over the world in one evening.  This is critical thinking.  Kids need to be complimented for critical thinking.

Also – sensitivity.   The me-focus of the story may give way to a youngster wondering about others.  How does Santa visit kids in Europe on the same night he visits ME?  The broadening of one’s concern for others is sensitivity that kids need to be complimented for.

Parents who choose not to tell their kids about Santa – I’m sure the parents are intelligent enough to provide some other ways for their kids to wonder and soar.

But for those who tell the story, perhaps it’s best to remember – don’t just tell the story and then leave your kids to their own devices about finding out and being disappointed.  Their discovery of the truth needs to be praised.

 

 

 

 

“Misleading people – an oddity of religion”

You would think that the proudest role of religion would be – as the guardian of truth.  All religions pose themselves as receptors of revelation from the supernatural.  It’s Informationfrom on high.  Truth (supposedly).

What we find, however, is that religions MIS-inform.

For example, every religion has its version of creation.  Among the Maasai tribe in East Africa, their creation story includes granting them ownership of all of the cattle in the world.  This story becomes the lens through which the Maasai view the world.  Any cow that they see is theirs.  Thus, stealing cattle isn’t stealing – it’s taking possession of what is rightfully theirs.

Such is one way that religions mis-inform.  They are self-centered.  They portray one people as God’s favorites.  The sky’s the limit for these people to behave as they wish, and it’s all written up as God’s will.  The massacres in the Old Testament are evidence enough of the man-made (rather than divine) inspiration of these writings.  The Scriptures are used to justify ego-centrism.  One people are chosen as God’s own; they get a “pass” on how to treat others.

In Judaism and Christianity, further ways for people to be mis-led are the Creation stories.  Confusingly, there are TWO of them, and they are the opposite of one another.  The story in Genesis 1 is the opposite of the one in Genesis 2.  In Genesis 1, God creates all of the ingredients of the universe — light, land, flora, fauna — and in the end — US!  God creates humans – “male and female he created them.”  The man is not created first; the woman is not created second.  They are created at the same time, and they are created in the image of their Creator. (The “image of God” in us is usually described as our characteristic of rational thinking, the ability to reason, including the ability to look at ourselves by standing outside of ourselves, assessing our situation in life:  Why do we exist?  What is our purpose in life?)

Genesis 2, however, finds God creating a man first, then all of the animals, testing to see which domestic beast would be the best helper for the man.  When none suffice, God creates the woman.  She is created out of the man’s rib. (She is made from an accessory of the man, rather than a being created in her own right, as in Genesis 1 where “male and female he made them.”)  Finally, with creation of the woman, God is satisfied that man’s best helper has been found.  The woman is the man’s helper – not his equal.

Out of these two versions of creation, which one have people generally chosen as their way of viewing the world?  The one that promotes inequality!  The woman as subservient to the man.  Even as a last gasp at finding equality in Genesis 2 — where in marriage, the two become one — a seemingly equal partnership — people have interpreted that, too, to be male-dominated.  For centuries, the wedding ceremony (written up by men) made sure that the bride vowed “to obey” her husband

Thus, we see the human nature of religion.  The stories which outright grant a tribe like the Maasai an outlet for their greed are obviously not divinely inspired but created by those from their own circle.  Some literate Maasai crafted a story justifying their possessiveness towards all cattle as being divinely ordered.

Other stories are clearly human in that they claim as divinely ordered the patriarchy that always has been, as in Genesis 2 where the man is given charge over everything.  Their man-made inspiration also pokes through the thin veil of divine inspiration in that they can’t get their act together.  Genesis 1 is the opposite of Genesis 2.  But whoever wrote Genesis 1 is at least a much nicer guy:  Men and women are created equal, and created equally in the image of God.  That was radical stuff in that day.

Why, then, have so many people relied more on Genesis 2, where the man rules over the woman?  And it’s not just men who choose Genesis 2.  Women, too!  Women have been among the most vociferous opponents of women becoming ministers.  Perhaps it’s jealousy at seeing a woman rise in the pulpit.  More likely it’s their own kind of “Stockholm Syndrome,” falling in love with their oppressors out of a feeling of helplessness.  Women have ranked among the opponents of progress for women.  More than once I have heard an elderly woman from one of my churches tell me (whenever I arranged for a female minister to pinch-hit for me in the pulpit), she won’t go to church if a woman is the minister.

Thus, men and women alike have preferred Genesis 2 as the lens through which they look to order a major portion of life – how men and women are meant to conduct themselves – with the man as head of the family; women as subservient; only men as priests.  To this day there are denominations which do not allow women to serve as ministers.

In other words, Genesis 2 where the man is given charge over everything, accomodates the self-centeredness of human nature.  The story was written by humans, and it justifies the worst of human nature (possessiveness – whether it be for cattle or females).

How, then, do those of us in the religion business look to our religion for truth?  Knowing that the Bible is written BY men, not dictated from above, and knowing that these men accommodated the worst of human nature (portraying God as ordering slaughters and justifying slavery and favoring males over females) – how, then, do ministers like me not just trash the whole thing and find another way to make a living?

I stick with it because there ARE divine truths in the Scriptures — “divine” as in truths that endure for all time.  In Genesis 1, for example, we are given two truths that have become pillars of Western civilization: For one, monotheism.  We do not worship nature (trees, oceans, planets, Sun…)  Rather, God stands outside of nature and creates rather than being inside of nature (like the gods in volcanoes and oceans and planets).  For another truth, we are told of the dignity of each person (created in the image of God).  These truths direct our attention to reality (rather than worshipping trees), and they promote human dignity.  Sharing truths like these are among the delights of ministry.

But to say that ministers and other believers just read the Scriptures and discern these truths is too simplistic.  People have mis-read the Bible for most of its existence.  The Scriptures were used to justify racism for almost as long as the Scriptures have existed  (be it in the form of slavery or – after the Civil War – apartheid in the South).  Abolition of slavery has only occurred in the past 200 years, a mere fraction of the long life of the biblical writings.

And the writings of the New Testament – with all of the openings that religious authorities could have found to  promote self-esteem and living to one’s full potential – instead have been interpreted to tell people to accept fate the way Jesus did, to be lowly, to fear their own thoughts (with pride in self as the No. 1 sin), and to seek salvation.  Salvation from what?  From a God Who is waiting to punish them!  There was an advantage for the religious authorities to interpret the Scriptures in these ways:  The populace could be subdued – obedient and frightened.

Religions have been around long enough that they have now had to compete with the humanities.  The humanities are those studies which have humankind as its subject, and humans as the actors:  literature, languages, architecture, anthropology, mythology, paleontology…Thus religions have been studied just like any other subject rather than being considered “untouchable.”

And if we have learned anything about religion, it’s the very human nature of religion — as evidenced by its self-centeredness (like favoring one people over another).   Thus, we have needed to hear from voices other than the entrenched authorities in helping us see the writings in a healthier way.

In the 1800s, there was a feminist Presbyterian, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  She and other feminists thought the Bible was so harmfully misleading, they composed their own version, called The Woman’s Bible.  It appeared in 1895.

One of the classic cases concerned the story of Jephthah in Judges 11.  Jephthah was a gang leader who was recruited to be something like the new sheriff in town. But he finds the opposition to be more than he can handle.  So he vows to God, if you give me victory, I will sacrifice the first thing that walks out of my house when I return home.

Jephthah is expecting a goat or a chicken to walk out of his house. (In those days, in that culture, it was normal for farm animals to take shelter in the farmer’s house.)  But what walks out of the house upon jephthah’s arrival?  His daughter!

Grief-stricken, he informs her of the vow.  She consents, saying, you must never break a promise to God.

Hah!  That’s not the way the Presbyterian feminists wrote it up!  They portray Jephthah’s daughter as protesting, “I will not consent to such a sacrifice.  Your vow must be disallowed.  You may sacrifice your own life as you please, but you have no right over mine.”

Then the feminists give voice to their own idea of religion, using the voice of Jephthah’s daughter:

“Better you die than I, if the God whom you worship is pleased with the sacrifice of human life.  I consider that God has made me the arbiter of my own fate and all my possibilities.  My first duty is to develop all the powers given to me and to make the most of myself and my own life.  Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.”

Stand up and cheer!!!  This is as good a description of progressive Christianity as exists.  Being part of this movement is one reason I’m a minister.

How long would it take men to come up with this kind of interpretation without the voices of women?  Likewise, in addition to hearing from the oppressed, we have needed to hear from scientists.  The Bible, it turns out, can not tie the sandals of science.  So many passages give way to scientific findings.  The creation stories are shown to be just stories rather than factual accounts. Even in the more enlightened of the two creation stories, Genesis 1 (where “male and female he created them” – simultaneously and equal) the story blunders badly when it goes on to explain creation.  Birds are created before land animals.  Fruit trees are created before fish.  Paleontologists would scoff.  The fossil record shows no such stages of creation.  Land animals came before birds;  fish appeared before fruit trees.  Plus, in Genesis 1, the Moon is said to be a light comparable to the Sun.  Any 2nd Grader knows that the Moon is not a light.

The stories are unveiled as simply stories – myths.  But that is precisely the importance of hearing from science.  We adjust in the way we interpret these passages.  They are NOT factual – they are NOT science (much as creationists insist there’s such a thing as “scientific creationism”).  Rather, science helps us see the stories as they are meant to be read:  as myths.

A myth serves the purpose of explaining life.  The stories provide the staging for a truth.  The truth in Genesis 1 is – God is not nature; God creates nature.  That is, we do not worship the ocean.  We are monotheists, if we believe at all.  But the details of God creating light and land and flora and fauna – are simply props.  They are not facts.

Still, how many people are so invested emotionally in religion that they can not concede this discovery? They insist that creation occurred exactly as it’s stated in Genesis 1:  with God speaking (what language did God speak?), and things coming into existence.  And this emotional resistance to new information, they insist, is “faithfulness.”

The influence of these people in the churches is enormous.  And they need not be many.  It takes only ONE person like this serving on a pastoral search committee to blackball somebody like me from being hired by a congregation.  Search committees want unanimity before they go to the congregation with a recommendation.  All  it takes is for one person who reads everything in the Bible as being factually true to veto somebody like me who does not take the Bible literally.  This anti-intellectual element in Christianity is so bold, these people are characterized by paleontologist Niles Eldredge as showing “willful ignorance.”

Still, it must be credited as progress that in latest times of the past two centuries  (compared to the 2,000-year-old history of Christianity) people have been willing to listen to voices other than church authorities in interpreting the sacred writings.

In other words, it is only over time – and listening to far more voices than just our own or just our kind or just in church – giving the humanities time to examine religion – that we get a better, deeper, more intelligent understanding of the Scriptures and of one’s religion.

The struggle, of course, is far from settled; indeed, it’s going through all the more convulsions these days.  We see the worst trashing of the truth now that we are observing the spectacle of these Republican candidates running for President, sucking up to the Religious Right.

What in the world would have induced Dr. Ben Carson to say that  the pyramids were built to store grain?  The Iowa Caucus is what induced him to say that!  He is playing a tune for the  fundamentalists, who are influential in Iowa.

What the pyramids have to do with the issues of a presidential campaign is difficult to imagine.  But – in a way – his statement IS an eye-opener.  The pyramids were used to store grain.  Fine.  He gets that idea from the story in Genesis, chapters 37 – 50.  Joseph warns the Pharaoh that famine will be arriving.  There is a need to store grain.  In the Bible, however, pyramids are never mentioned.  We are told that the grain was kept in “storehouses.”  My guess is that Ben Carson heard from some fundamentalist preacher that the pyramids were built to store grain, and the doctor has held to that interpretation ever since.  Okay.  Fine.  What does it matter?

It would be easy to just dismiss the whole thing.  What does it matter this candidate’s religious beliefs, especially on such an obscure item like where the grain was stored?

Here’s why it matters. Because the candidate himself brought it up, and what he claims simply isn’t true!

Truth matters.  The way a person regards truth matters.  People become so invested in believing their religion, it trumps any other information – like the Governor of Georgia who held a public prayer vigil during a drought, asserting that God is ultimately in charge of the weather.  Now let’s say somebody like Ben Carson gets elected President.  He would be getting new information daily.  But if the information clashed with his religious beliefs, how would he handle it?

As Christopher Hitchens has written, religious people think AIDS is bad – but they think a condom is worse!  He has also written that it is unconscionable for stem-cell research to be restricted by the religious in American government.  How does a President handle information if he thinks his religion trumps everything?

Thus, we see that the peculiar belief of an individual (like Ben Carson believing pyramids were built to store food) isn’t just some trivial, obscure matter  Rather, the issue indicates how a person handles information.  Plenty of information has been available to Ben Carson to clarify his understanding of the pyramids.  But even now, he ignores all.  This is “willful ignorance.”

Is THAT a characteristic we’re looking for in a President?

Religious beliefs tend to undermine people taking responsibility.  If you believe climate change is only the work of God, then there’s not much reason for limiting carbon emissions.  If you believe the preservation of the state of Israel is essential to the return of Jesus, you’re not going to be very open to reports of injustice being committed by the Israeli government.  If you believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and dinosaurs existed alongside of human beings until being wiped out by Noah’s Flood, then you find evolution to be un-biblical and disdain its being taught to kids.  And so you clamor for “scientific creationism” to be given “equal time” in the classroom.  Science itself becomes suspect.

America alone among the developed countries of the world is experiencing this struggle of anti-intellectualism, where science is suspect. It’s because of “the faithful.”   How many members of Congress and candidates for President even boast , “I’m no scientist.”  What they’re saying is, “I don’t TRUST scientists.”  WHY they say that is, they are opposed to what scientists are discovering  –  be it fossil evidence for evolution or a widening gap in the ozone shield showing global warming.

The trashing of science matters, because science is all about discovering truth.  The trashing is all part of an overall trend to ignore information that conflicts with one’s religion.  What it all gets down to is, “Does truth matter?”

The psychologist Scott Peck has written (The Road Less Traveled) that “dedication to reality” is the most important thing a person needs in order to stay healthy. (And not just mentally, emotionally.  Mental health if allowed to deteriorate affects physical health.)

500 years prior to Scott Peck, the same thing was said by Martin Luther.  “It is not healthy,” he said to go against reason or conscience.

And both reason and conscience, in the end, are the most important things in our lives.  “Nothing is holy,” wrote Emerson, “except the integrity of our minds.”

“Dedication to reality” is dedication to a way of living.  It’s a quality of life.  It’s a commitment to the deepest, inner honesty.  A person who is dedicated to truth, even if it’s uncomfortable, is a person who is healthy emotionally and mentally and whom I would trust to manage the government.

By contrast, there are those who perhaps have had the stirring of reason and conscience when given new information – like, on pyramids – but who stubbornly adhere to religious beliefs because they think that kind of “willful ignorance” is faithfulness.

We are seeing what a sad spectacle these people make of themselves – and what a sadder prospect that people will be voting for them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Why is God always too late ?”

Does it seem strange that people are always saying — AFTER a disaster — “our thoughts and prayers go out to you”?

What I mean is:  If people really think “thoughts and prayers” can do any good, because “God is good,” and that’s whom they’re praying to, and they believe God answers prayers,  what seems  strange is that it occurs AFTER a disaster.

In other words, they’re praying to a God Who always seems to be too late!  The Supreme Being seems to be reduced to cleaning up the crash site or the bloodied classroom.

This phrase has gotten to be the ketchup poured over everything:  “Our thoughts and prayers go out.”  But it’s always AFTER a tragedy.  Can’t God get in there BEFORE?  How about a little prevention?  How about making a rifle jam when it’s aimed at the innocent?

It’s always interesting to hear people making excuses for God when tragedies occur.  Why didn’t the Almighty — good as God is — intervene?   Because (we’re told) God grants people freedom of will.

Really?  Then praying for God to intervene doesn’t make sense.  It’s like saying, God grants people free will, but not in this case or not in that case – because God is going to take the controls rather than let continue the “automatic pilot.”  If God intervenes, then free will is taken away.  And so apologists are left with “God is good,” but free will means a person doing evil trumps the power of the Almighty.

God seems to be reduced to cleaning up the mess.  People seem to be reduced to mindless mantras:  “our thoughts and prayers go out.”

Of course, all of this is only a problem because of the child-like (childish?) way that most people think of God.  They think of God (in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick) as “a magnified man in heaven.”

People think of God as being like one of US – only almighty and supreme and always good.

This anthropomorphism transfers onto God our human desires.  We think that God thinks the way WE think.  It’s why there is bewilderment and frustration. WE would have intervened in that matter – why didn’t God?

And when believers claim that God DID act – somebody survived a car crash – it’s always a case of an individual.  But broader, more populous situations don’t get such benefits:  tsunamis in the Pacific, genocide in central Africa…This view that God DOES intervene in individual lives affirms the human-made image of God, because it is so ego-centric:  “Wow – God pulled me out of THAT danger!”  The transference of our own desires onto God results in our egocentricity poking through, thinking that God is so completely aware of my own life.  Meanwhile, a cyclone rips through Bangladesh.

The problem begins with the way many believers imagine God.  The image of God is a disconnect with reality.  Thus, believers continually have to apologize for this way of believing God to be.  They have to apologize for God.  Why didn’t God step in?  If God is almighty and supreme and good and all-wise, why is this the best that God can come up with, letting evil people play their card?  And then when the disaster has struck, “our thoughts and prayers go out.”

It all seems such a disconnect from reality:  the God that people imagine vs. the awfulness all around us.

Some stubbornly stick to their image of God, and call that “faithfulness.”  Others, however, do what believers in the Bible did:  They adjust!

In the Old Testament, there was an idea of the Messiah.  He would drive foreign powers out of the Holy Land and restore the Kingdom of King David.  In the New Testament, the Messiah doesn’t manhandle the Romans; rather, He gets manhandled BY the Romans.  Jesus hanging on a cross wasn’t what people expected from a Messiah.  They adjusted their thinking.  God IS good and mighty – but not in terms of intervening in the events of the day; rather, in terms of making relationships with people.

It is the Spirit of God that works in the world – but not by stopping tsunamis or terrorist attacks.  In such terms, God is powerless.  What other conclusion can we make when we simply look at the awfulness all around us?  Rather, God’s power on Earth is spiritual.  Primarily, it’s the making of relationships.

Believers in the days of the Gospels adjusted their thinking about the Messiah.  They had to.  There was a disconnect between their former belief in a Savior vs. Jesus hanging helplessly on a cross.  They adjusted their belief to match the realities all around them.

The same type of adjustment is needed today, but is resisted by so many believers.  They think sticking to an image of God as good and almighty and all-wise and in control is “faithfulness” in spite of the disconnect with the awful things that go on every day.

Better to understand that God’s power is spiritual – God’s accomplishment is relationships.  Let’s give up the human image of God. It only creates bewilderment.  Belief is the lens through which we view life – by which we explain life.  But this belief in God as being a “magnified man in heaven” only confuses us.  WE would have intervened if we had the power – we can’t understand why GOD isn’t acting the way WE ourselves would.

How many terrorist attacks does it take before people concede that God is NOT going to step in?  Because God’s influence is spiritual, and spirit is not vocal, nor visible, nor violent.  Spirit CAN be ignored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“God is not great”

Seeing so many posts on Facebook over the years that “God is good,” I wondered if this mindless mantra posed as the counterpoint for one of the world’s most famous atheists when he decided to entitle his book God is not great.

Christopher Hitchens came out with his book in 2007.  He lived only four more years, dying at age 61 of esophageal cancer. I didn’t “discover” him until he had already died.  A brilliant journalist, public speaker and debater, Hitchens is one of my favorite characters to listen to at night when I’m lying in bed.  Late at night, I’ll find a video of him on YouTube on my cell phone.   I’ll put the cell phone on the bed stand and just delight in the soundness of his arguments.

Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins keep those of us honest who find our calling in the “religion business.”  There is no doubt that religion IS a business.  Every church has a collection each Sunday and a yearly budget and monthly meetings of the church council bemoaning their financial situation.  Though church meetings begin and end with prayers, the halo disappears as soon as people get own to practicalities.  Much of operating a church is human, not divine.

Atheists like Hitchens carry the issue further.  They maintain that not just the necessities of running a church (including everything from paying salaries to buying candles) but the religion itself is human, not divine.  Religion, they insist, is man-made.

Earlier I mentioned the “mindless mantra” that “God is good” which I see all the time on Facebook and hear in churches.  One time an atheist friend of Hitchens’ — British actor Stephen Fry — was asked, “What if you’re wrong?  What if your life ends, and you are brought before your Maker?  What would you say?”

The interviewer thought he had Fry cornered.

Stephen Fry didn’t blink.  He said, “If I saw God, I would say to him, ‘Bone cancer in children, huh?’ ”

This is why I say “God is good” gets to be a mindless mantra.  Frankly, I think believers say it so often as a way of convincing themselves in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

I read the autobiography of the teenage surfer whose left arm was bitten off by a shark in the waters of Hawaii.  Bethany Hamilton grew up in a fundamentalist family, in a fundamentalist church, and so she holds to the “party line” that the tragedy visited upon her was the will of God.  God had some plan down the road for which a one-armed Stephanie would be better-equipped to lead than a healthy teen.  She keeps the stiff upper lip.  But there IS one point in her writing when she allows herself a moment of genuine grief.  She wrote, I don’t know why God chose this to happen to me.

Then she resumed the rest of the book  with “God is so good.”

I honestly wonder that believers who have had horrible things happen to them – the loss of a young spouse, the death of a child – insist “God is good” as a continual cover for their real feelings.  I can imagine deep down there is resentment – resentment – towards the Almighty.

All these years believers have been faithful, praying the right prayers, expressing the right praises – only to be ambushed by some tragedy.

Some have had the courage to give up the delusion.  Rather than maintaining with stubborn “faithfulness” that “God is good,” they adjust their beliefs to reality.  This is very biblical.  The believers in Jesus were totally mistaken as to what kind of Messiah he would turn out to be.  How could hanging helplessly on a cross save anybody?  But the early believers adjusted their thinking.  They re-imagined a Messiah saving them not by a power play like running the Romans out of the Holy Land – rather, by being powerless:  moving people through his suffering.

A more realistic belief in God – matching the reality of what we see in life – is that God is NOT in control like some divine movie director.  The Holocaust is evidence enough.   The result is – people make excuses for God – why didn’t God intervene?

This, too, is a carry-over from the barbaric portrayals of the gods of ancient times that got foisted onto God.  They were in control of anything that happened – be it weather patterns or loss in battle or illness or famine…People would make excuses as to why the gods didn’t save them.

Rather, it is more a match for reality to admit – God is powerless.  In other words, God’s effectiveness in our lives is not moving mountains – let alone diverting tornadoes or averting traffic jams for people in a hurry.  Rather, to put it in non-religious terms, God’s “job” is — creating relationships.  They go in three directions:  relationships between us and God, between us and others, and a healthy relationship with one’s own self.  Self-esteem, living out one’s potential – these are modern beliefs about the role of God in a person’s life as opposed to the centuries-old beliefs about being mouse-like.

The put-down of religion in the name of humility is one of the things atheists disdain.  Another is the Cross.  Atheists like Hitchens find the Cross to be the worst of religion – that a supreme being would demand the horrendous torture and hanging of an innocent in order for a transaction of forgiveness to be completed.  Why can’t the supreme being simply say, “You’re all forgiven”?  Why does there have to be the torture and execution?

Believers rush to defend God.  “It’s an example of how much God LOVES us – that God would sacrifice His only Son.”  This is one of the motifs in the Bible that Hitchens and other atheists pounce on.  God sacrifices His son; Abraham stops short of the downward gesture of his knife from sacrificing HIS son…Why do human beings have to be sacrificed at all?  What kind of barbaric God is this?

The human kind, they would say.  There is too much of human cruelty in the Scriptures, and it’s portrayed as God’s will (like wiping out every man, woman, child and animal in Jericho).

There are also power plays in religion that are obviously man-made:  like prohibitions about what not to eat, not working on the Sabbath, not having relationships with someone of the same sex, not mixing with people of other races…A priestly class gets to know the rules and thus becomes regarded as a power class in society.  What kind of God IS this – who divides people, who elevates some and puts down others?  This is the best that the supreme, all-wise, almighty can do?  God has to work within the cultural trappings of barbaric peoples?  It sounds more tedious than LBJ trying to outmaneuver the Southern Senators in order to get a Civil Rights bill passed.

Another ingredient of religion that the atheists attack is the obvious self-centered nature of religion.  Every religious people claims THEY are God’s chosen – be they Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Christians…In our day, the self-centered nature of belief is evident in the Facebook posts.  I remember when Tropical Storm Sandy battered the East Coast.  The entire East Coast was being devastated, when a Facebook item appeared.  A believer in New Jersey excitedly posted that the electricity in her house didn’t go out.  “God is so good!”

What kind of religion could make anybody more narrow in vision than that?

A man-made religion, the atheists say.

As I say, the atheists keep us honest.  But there IS one way that their argument falters.  Hitchens and Dawkins and others tend to find a passage in Scripture that is horrendous – portraying God as ordering an atrocity – and then they say, “Is this the word of God?”

Some — fundamentalists, for example – insist “yes,” and for them I have no pity when they get bashed in debates by Hitchens.

But others understand the ancient nature of the Scriptures.  They are more human than divine.

The portrayals of God mimic those of any ancient, barbaric deity.  But these writings ARE set in time.  That is, they ARE dated.  It’s not as if what you read about God ordering the massacre in Jericho is as “inspired” as Jesus embracing the insignificant of society (children).  In other words, the Scriptures change.  The portrayal of God changes.  There IS progress.

The writings of prophets like Isaiah and Joel ring out with the news of a God who is elevating people to levels of dignity worthy of being made in the image of God.  The life and teachings of Jesus carry the predictions of this Good News to completion.  It’s just that even in the more “modern” writings of the New Testament, they still take place in an age of ignorance and barbarism – such that Jesus’ death is interpreted as God’s sacrificing of His only Son.  The cruelty that we find in the Old Testament continues into the New Testament.  But there is progress.

What the atheists fail to do is to give credit to the movement.  There is progress from a narrow God to a universal God – from people schooled in discrimination to people learning to live with others of different races.

What believers, however, fail to do is to give credit that much of the progress we have made in religion was the influence not of the churches – but of people outside of the churches.  Abolition, feminism, gender equality – all of these are influences that picked up support in churches but would not have garnered the majority of society.  It took the un-churched to tilt the scales in favor of progress.

Believers have to give up the narrow, ego-centric the idea that only the church-going are doing God’s work.

 

 

 

 

How 15 minutes of news ruins our judgment

One of the advantages of reading the Harry Potter stories is that young readers learn to suspend judgment.  A character who is thought to be villainous – Prof. Snape – turns out to be a hero.

The dashing, blonde, adventurous professor Gilderoy Lockhard – admired by all – turns out to be a fraud.

News comes at us so rapidly from so many directions these days,  we may become practiced in making instant judgments.  We rush to demonize or to make heroic.

A month or so ago, we heard news of a police lieutenant in a suburb of Chicago who was gunned down while pursuing three suspects.  The police were still investigating – but already people rushed to make a hero out of this veteran of the police department.  In fact, he was supposed to retire that very week.

Posters went up all over the town – social media bristled with praise – his name was placed on a nation-wide list of fallen officers that is maintained in a headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Barely weeks after the news story first broke, police investigators hit us with something all the more astounding:  The officer was not shot in the line of duty.  In fact, he had set up the chase scene as a cover for killing himself!  It turns out he had been pocketing funds from a non-profit organization that he ran whose purpose was to help police recruits.  Both his wife and his son were also found to be involved in the thievery.

As fast as the posters around Fox Lake and the Facebook postings and all else had been put up – that’s how fast everything came down.  The lieutenant’s name was removed from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C.

What I find curious about all of this is:  Let’s say this fraud on the public had not been discovered, say, for 50 years.  In the meantime, let’s say a monument to the fallen hero had been set up in Fox Lake, a sports field was named in his honor, a police station was named after him…

And then after all of these constructs of praise & heroism, somehow it’s found out that he didn’t fall in the line of duty – he pulled a fast one on the public, and had been doing so for YEARS, pocketing money from the non-profit that he ran.

NOW what would be the reaction of the public?  Would they want to raze the monument, re-name the sports field, re-name the police station…?

I also wonder whether some people would protest:  Leave everything as it is – you’re trying to change history.

Does anybody else see in this situation a parallel with the controversy over the Confederate flags flying from state capitols?

Once they were up, some people just couldn’t bear a change. “Leave everything as it is – you’re trying to change history.”

But the bigger issue is – fraud.  Fraud has been committed on the public.  In the case of the Confederate flags, they only started flying from state capitols as a kind of “in your face” to liberals.  Efforts to shake the solid apartheid of the South were met with defiance.  The flags of the defeated side in the Civil War were run up flagpoles in state capitals.  Excuses were made:  It’s our history, it’s our heritage.

But those explanations themselves were the fraud.  The history was injustice; the heritage was segregation.

In this case, it wasn’t a rush to judgment – it was a LACK of judgment – a lack of knowledge about what the flag stood for, what happened under that flag that led people to defend it heart & soul.

It makes me think – an act of fraud, committed by only several people, is easier to react against – easier to “clean up.”  A single memorial could be removed, signs could be taken down, a lone name could be erased from a memorial…But when the fraud is massive, covering an entire region of the country, and it is upheld by politicians and school textbooks and sizable populations, then the “correction” takes years, generations…And it is cause not for a rush to judgment but for a genuine judgment of admiration for those public figures — governors and other officials – who took the step to remove the Confederate flag from state capitals.  They KNEW what it stood for, and THEY knew that everybody else in the South KNEW what it stood for, and they decided it was time to be clear about history and truth.  Rather than continuing with a wink & a nod, they saw no future in propping up a fraud.