Sunday, September 18, 2016


I have reached the 6 month milestone for my sermon helper, and, with the help of some good coffee, I've come once around the lectionary cycle. I hope to set a little faster pace over the next 6 months so I can relax and enjoy the summer next year as I complete the project.

Here are a couple "best ofs" if aren't following the calendar.

Central Christian themes, and an alternative view 
Responds to the slam on philosophers, and offers a beautiful interpretation of the the symbolism of “bread” from William Herzog
Shows how the Old Testament just can’t be reconciled to the New.
Where I try to fix the fundamentalist interpretation

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Naturalization of teleological language. Say what?

I’ve been tracking Bart Campolo lately and finding him well worth a listen. In a section of this podcast, about 10 minutes long, so many things are tossed around, it could take hours to develop. It’s a rapid exchange. Bart was passionate about his desire to incorporate the many voices he hears on campus while Tripp was trying to explain the value of the language of the traditions he holds so dear. Both were pointing in the same direction, but many differences need to be worked out before they can really work together toward that same goal. Or maybe there’s a third way.

Listen to the whole thing, or jump to around 20 minutes in and try to catch up. I took their words for the next 15 minutes and made these “study” questions. Some of them get expanded on later, but mostly they are left unanswered. I hope the two of them get together for more.

Questions that depend on belief

Did the human technologies of eating together, singing together and performing rituals develop naturally, through evolution, and then get incorporated into religion, or were they developed by inspired religious leaders?

Did all of that get associated with a supernatural explanation at a time when the only explanations we had were supernatural, or do they actually have a supernatural origin? Is there another explanation?

Questions that could be separated from the belief question

Did science emerge from monotheistic assumptions then move through secularization, removing the supernatural aspects?

Since we are now developing more natural explanations, is theological language being “naturalized” to apply to our teleological relationship to creation?

How are these two sets of questions related?

How does our language hold our beliefs in place?

How do we develop the language to serve the need of bringing people together to lead happier and more productive lives?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Volf and the roots of pluralism

Part II (scroll back for part I) (Part III is on hold for the moment, maybe forever, I thought some other bloggers were going to be writing about this chapter, but that didn't materialize)

Next, I'll quote many of the same quotes Volf used when discussing Roger Williams. Williams was a Puritan from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A few of you will remember that was long before the revolution, and even longer before Jefferson ever said anything about separation of church and state, even before slavery, but it is far removed from Columbus too. I think this would have been an amazing century to be alive, to experience the new thoughts forming around how we should govern ourselves.

Williams was the pluralist, an idea that had roots with the Anabaptists, but had little other expression throughout history. He was pluralist only when it came to politics though. He was just as excluvists as his rivals, John Cotton and John Winthrop, when it came to religion. In the end, Williams and his followers were branded the dissenters and were “purged”. A fairly peaceful purging as purges go. They founded Rhode Island. The basis of the exclusivists argument was that people needed to be compelled to follow the precepts of the government or God would be displeased and the government couldn't function. Williams agreed with “Thou shalt not kill”, but said the first few commandments were about human duties to God and that government had no business with them. He did not see this as a contradiction with the idea of being religiously exclusive.

John Winthrop wrote about the “city on a hill” they had created. That city would watch over and govern the purity of religious observance. Flogging and mutilation or even death were punishments for disobedience. This was the state's job. Williams, on the other hand, wrote “The Bloudy Tennant for Persecution of Conscious”, and defended his position.

"Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the Word of God."

For its time, this is a radical argument for freedom of conscious. It says there is a marketplace of ideas, and it is with ideas he will fight for his god, not any other type of a sword. If that is not clear, perhaps this excerpt from a letter will help,

"First that forc’t Worshpp stincks in Gods nostrils. 2 That it denies Christ Jesus yet to be come, and makes the Church yet National, figurative and Ceremoniall. 3 That in these flames about Religion, as his Matie his Father and Grandfather have yielded, there is no prudent Christian way of preserving peace in the World but by permission of differing Consciences."


"It is directly contrary to the nature of Christ Jesus, his saints and truths, that throats of men should be torne out for his sake. Who most delighted to converse with greatness sinners."

English from 4 centuries ago can be tough, but I'm sure he means Jesus conversed with sinners, so why shouldn't we. When he founded Rhode Island, he put these ideas into his State's Constitution. Historians today agree that he wrote from his heart. His convictions were what he truly felt, not mere means to social ends. He was just as excluvists, religiously, as Winthrop or Cotton. The content of faith as they saw it is what made the difference, not the firmness of their faith.

Or, as John Plamenatz of 20th century Oxford said, "Liberty of conscience was born, not of indifference, not of skepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith. The reasoning was not, because faith is important we must impose it, but because faith is supremely important all human beings must be allowed to live by the faith that they hold true."

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Discussion of Volf's pluralism

In chapter 4 of Miroslav Volf's “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World”, he attempts to make the case that exclusivist religion can be compatible with pluralist politics. I'm not sure how many blogs it will take to cover this somewhat lengthy chapter. I'll begin with an overview.

The words “exlcusivist” and “pluralist” seem to make their own case against “compatible”, but his argument is thorough and compelling, complete with historical precedent. Even if he is wrong, I think the discussion of the possibility is worth the effort. Any attempt to address the current problems of fundamentalism, Christian or otherwise, deserves consideration. A program of elimination of religion or quarantining it is similar in exclusionary tactics to a program of converting everyone to believe in a particular god. A truly pluralist society consists of people with open minds, willing to engage any reasonable argument.

I have already laid several land mines for myself in that opening paragraph and I can see the jaws clenching and the eyes rolling. To allay some of those fears of hearing the same old arguments, Volf begins by noting the Puritans left the religious persecution of England, only to set up their own exclusive system in America. A seeming contradiction. He later explains how pluralism had roots in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and how the exculsivist and pluralist factions had to part company. He admits that there are limits to the use of reason by fundamentalist. That it is often used only to defend their own preconceived notions and breaks down when challenged. He quotes Popper and Rousseau. He admits not all who embrace exclusivist religion will go along with his ideas. He asks very little of the pluralist society and demands much from his fellow Christians.

When considering the possibility that religion can continue to some extent in the forms we see it now, it's important to take a broad perspective. We are decades into a movement sometimes called the Christian Right, but it is a recent phenomena and it's dominance is starting to wane. Before that, sociologist were pretty well agreed that science would continue to advance and religion would fade. Further back, people like Thomas Jefferson expected the world to move toward some form of the Unitarianism, akin to religion but without all the miracles. He was wrong about that, but he did pretty well with shaping democracy, so I'll cut him some slack. 500 years before that Aquinas attempted to reconcile Greek rationalist thought with his faith. There were other failed attempts, but the important point is that the dominant view of religion changes throughout time and we can influence that view.

In a rare moment for Christian theologians, Volf presents Peter Berger's steps toward the gradual disappearance of religious exclusivism. He contends social pluralism naturally leads to the affirmation of religious pluralism. When religious people mix with other ideologies, they experience a degree of “Cognitive contamination”. Certainly any cult leader who keeps his minions isolated knows this.
Whether this contamination is other religions or not, it eventually becomes secularism. This phenomenon could also be observed in the recent acceptance of homosexuality in America. As more and more people came to know a gay person personally, they found out they weren't so bad. The steps are:

1 Live with others
2 Learn to appreciate them
3 Realize their ways of living aren't utterly false
4 Their truth is as good as yours

Volf points out at least one flaw in Berger; not everyone makes that last step.

This is where Volf's theology steps in, providing a way to live between steps 3 and 4. He notes that the three major monotheisms and even Buddhism contain ideas not only that their god (or in Buddhism's case their ideology) is the only one, and the right one, but also that you should not be arrogant about this. If you are right, and of course you are, you should not need to boast. God will give you the strength and wisdom you need to endure the unbelievers and to convert them. Indeed, you should not fear hearing the ideas of others, you should apply the golden rule and treat those ideas with respect, just as you would expect your ideas to be treated, knowing that in the end you will prevail.

I would like to interject at this point, that Volf, throughout the entire book is notorious for ignoring large swaths of history. He never mentions the dozens of other versions of “do unto others”. I can't tell if this is purposeful or if he is actually unaware that Jesus did not invent that.

He shows a strong grasp of world history, so it is to hard understand how he could miss certain details or why he thinks them unimportant. He covers the unique aspects of Judaism and Christianity, and how they ended up being religions that grew beyond their tribal beginnings. He calls them “world” religions. Christianity for instance took a stand of consciousness against imperialist Rome. Those ideas lived on and have been adapted and used by many revolutionary cultures and oppressed groups. I would have liked it Volf did not slide past the harsh versions of that, when Christianity later partnered with empire and brutally oppressed and enforced its exclusiveness. He may think it would hinder his argument to do so, but I think it hinders his argument to not do it.

I am not suggesting that he, or anyone, meld their precious ideologies into some grand philosophy that is a mix of all human knowledge. I would like to see that, but I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime. What Volf suggests, and I would accept as a minimum, is that religions find an interpretation of their ideology that allows for co-existence with other ideologies. If they can do that, I'm fine with them hanging on to hope of a second coming, or for implementation of as many as their purity laws as they can find agreement for. As long as they maintain values of peace and order while attempting to achieve those ends, the rest of us can continue to work toward those shared values in our own ways. Hopefully we can all find ways to form partnerships and move toward those shared values.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Comparitive Theology

I've been to church a couple times recently. One was an old friend I went to visit. He decided to move the Luke 11 passage a week ahead of the lectionary. The other is a new pastor at my wife’s church who wanted to meet me. He says only Lutherans and Catholics use the lectionary anymore. I also heard a podcast that pulled one line out of the lection.
The old friend, Roger, started out with an old theme of his, the franchise. By taking the words of Jesus and making them into a formula, and claiming that these particular words must be read and understood to get to heaven, we “make Jesus small”. We wrap him in tradition and ritual and hide the light that we say he brings. If Jesus is the heart of creation, Roger posited, then we should find him there. He pointed out that Einstein found mystery and zoologists find cooperation in the animal kingdom. We should look for the commonality of mystery and cooperation in religion, not claim we have the keys while others don’t.
Near the end of his sermon, he said that Paul (from the Colossians passage), says Jesus is in us. I had to read to the whole thing over again, passed all the parts about how glorious Jesus is and his blood sacrifice and the part about evil deeds. It’s there. It’s between a couple commas at the end. I’m glad there are preachers who can find these things and make a theme out of them, but sometimes I wonder how that affects the parishioner’s view of the Bible.
The tidbit was from Cass Midgley, in the “Everyone’s Agnostic” podcast was “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Cass quotes it slightly differently and seemed to imply this says parents can do just as well as God does for their children. It came after his guest, Tony Woodall had just discussed how he would never send his children off to be tortured if they had broken the rules a few times. Tony is a preacher, but he sees the problems with fundamentalist ideas, like hell. I agree with that, I'm not so sure the verse fits that discussion.
This whole section 11:9-13 is about asking and you will receive. And pointing out how children have no problem asking, and parents don’t give them snakes or scorpions instead of eggs or fish. The Matthew version of this, at 7:11, is in a section about giving and receiving and the golden rule. It is contained in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. It fits there a little better. Matthew was written before Luke, so maybe that’s where he got it. In either case, it's a claim of something that is undelivered. The examples are people giving to each other and nurturing their children, then it just adds on that God can do it even better, because he's God.
It's a great podcast by the way. The bit I mention here comes after the 2 hour mark.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Return to the Shack

Somehow, this podcast came up in my Facebook feed. I read “The Shack” a while ago and thought the interview might be interesting. The length of it was a bit intimidating, but, I know where the “off” button is. It takes about 7 minutes before the interview starts, but it was fascinating from the get go. Paul Young, the author of “The Shack” moved to New Guinea when he was 1 year old. His father had gone from lumberjack to missionary in a few short years. Paul learned the native language as his first language and became an invaluable asset for translators.

The details of his life are full of interesting facts like that. His life journey is also quite a trip. His fundamentalist upbringing was as rocky as any, including abuse and bullying, and then add the strange cultural identities of an aboriginal lifestyle crossed with Christian missionary. By time he was in his twenties, he was leading a double life. He came clean to his wife and spent the next 11 years working it out while he wrote “The Shack”. The child in the book who is kidnapped and killed represents his lost innocence and the shack is a symbol of the things he kept hidden for so long.

Then they start talking theology. It is an unusually respectful conversation, with each side making standard arguments, with a few modern twists, and each allowing the other to speak and acknowledging their points. Cass, the interviewer, takes the time to point out the creativity of Paul’s writing, despite their ideological differences. If you want to skip to those parts, go to the 50 minute mark or so.

The two of them have a similar but distinct take on the idea of arriving at theism via atheism. Paul quotes Brian McClaren, “Every movement towards an authentic relationship with God has to go through atheism.” Cass sees the cry from Jesus, “God, why have you forsaken me”, as a moment of atheism. He says, if there is a god out there, he is begging the world to ignore him. Whenever we try to define the ineffable, we fail. We come to seeing how the help comes from each other. God does not favor nations, and we should stop appeasing the celestial dictator. We should turn our energies to one another. If we did that, he thinks God would applaud those efforts and say “Well done good and faithful servants.”


The interview ends around 1 hour and 15 minutes, and with no introduction, Cass brings in his friend Tony Woodall to discuss it. Tony is a Christian turned atheist, turned theist again. He is currently a working preacher, very willing to question his beliefs, but also committed to them. Cass attended seminary after he quit believing in God, so the two are able to quote scripture easily as well as bring in their own narratives.

Cass asks for Tony’s opinion on something Paul Young said. Paul said that the evolutionary explanation of humanity and morality is “too easy”. He said, “There is a god that created us, knowing we’d make a mess, then climbed in it with us in order to begin to reveal the truth of our humanity and the centrality of relationship.” He says that is something we need to get to know, and the idea that there is no source of meaning is too easy. Cass tried to counter that in the interview, then follows up with Tony, saying that creating a narrative from the imagination, that is, a story of God, is easy. Facing a meaningless universe and trying to find purpose in our lives, that’s hard.

Tony’s response is to not try to sort that out at all. He says, “It was a good first conversation. The two of you have not yet spent enough time together to get to know each others' opinions.” Cass is tickled by this response. And what a great observation it was. How much better would such encounters with two people from differing worldviews go if they thought of it as getting to know each other instead of as a chance to sell their ideas and change the others mind?


The discussion continues to be lively, with Cass building on the symbolism of dying. In movies or books, and especially in spiritual writing, death or near death symbolizes change. Cass talks about how too often, people don’t seek change. They stay only around and with people that are like them and agree with them. He includes himself in this, and says if we do it, we are not going to grow. It’s saying, “I’m here, waiting for others to catch up”. When we get that way, when we think we’re right and are waiting for others to come in line with who we are, we want to build a wall. I think it was Tony who added, when we decide that the others' agreement is required for us to walk with them in community, the wall is already there.

Cass provides a possible way to break down those walls. When we die to the thinking that things are going to start working, that we have ideas that can fix the world, these ideas of religion and politics that we've argued about for thousands of years and have had only rather modest success, when we just let go of that and accept that others will remain others and things are going to break and it’s just going to be like this for as long as we live, when we say say “yes” to the moment, what happens is, someone drops by, something funny or interesting passes by on whatever media is playing, we encounter something we didn't plan for. When we stop looking for and expecting happiness, we are surprised that it comes anyway. It will likely come from things that we don't expect and wane from the things that made us happy before. If we cling to those new things, try to recreate those new experiences, we will put ourselves right back into the old pattern. So the answer is not firing our politicians or closing our churches. We don't even need to agree on everything. We just need to do the thing that humans have done for 200,000 years, care for each other.

That's what I got from this podcast anyway.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Secular Humanism and The New Atheists

I've listened to all Ryan Bell's podcasts so far, and this one I've listened to 3 or 4 times. Philip Kitcher is a philosopher with an interesting theological story of his own, and as he says, "is probably further left than Bernie Sanders". By that he means that he thinks every human being is worthy of being given a chance to find out what their talents are and to pursue them. I will address that in a separate entry. Before they get to discussing that, Ryan and Philip discuss the "New Atheists".

That discussion starts around 20 minutes. Ryan applauds Philip for going to great lengths in his book to NOT create a straw man of religious thinkers. His book speaks to "refined" believers. I think that's great and I hope to find some time to read his book. I have no problem with the idea of a "refined" believer.

What I didn't care for, was that Philip had to expand that to putting down people who speak to "unrefined" believers. As he says, "Some of the religious believers I know are completely different from the way the religious believers are portrayed in the books of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, even my good friend Dan Dennet who I think of as the best of the so-called New Atheists." He goes on to describe a couple of these believers that he thinks well of, but he does not describe what Dawkins or Hitchens are addressing. Of believers, he says he "will not caricature them." He seems to have no trouble caricaturing New Atheists.

He does not mention, and maybe he doesn't know, that those authors and others have, on regular occasions addressed this criticism and pointed out that they are referring to specific behaviors of people. Behaviors that are real and commonly observed. Pointing out behaviors that are common is different than making caricatures. They are addressing those particular behaviors of those particular people, because they are dangerous behaviors. I can't imagine Richard Dawkins having a problem with someone running a soup kitchen or being a good Godmother (one of Philip's examples).

Christopher Hitchens famously had a problem with Mother Teresa, but he never complains about her helping people. On the contrary, he complains that she generated a significant amount of income for the church and used very little of it to help people.

Ryan goes on to talk about a universal human attitude of wonder that is seen in mathematicians or authors as well as religious people. To me, Dawkins is actually an excellent example of someone who does the very thing Ryan says he should do. You can pick on him for not knowing about Paul Tillich or the details of Augustine's writings, but those are not his central themes. He came to his anti-religious evangelism by way of biology. His discussions about evolution brought fundamentalists to him, he did not seek them out. Once they discovered him, his response was to do what he had been doing all his life, to educate people about what he knows about how the world works.

Perhaps Ryan and Philip have a problem with that part of the education that includes telling people that what they are currently think is wrong. Unfortunately, they did not mention anything specifically that anyone said or wrote, so I can't evaluate exactly what they have a problem with.

So that's what Phillip and Ryan DON'T do. They do spend 10 minutes trying to explain what can be salvaged from religion. They do quite a bit of qualifying of their remarks; Ryan says believing in supernatural agents is not intellectually responsible, but he sees value in the impulse behind the search for meaning. Phillip states the transcendent doesn't exist, but some people believe it does and can express those feelings with poetry and allegory that can inspire all of us. He doesn't agree with using religion to get there, but he respects it.

They seem to be describing these things with the implication that atheists in general and the authors they mention specifically, don't see this stuff. Phillip begins this segment with a particularly off-the-mark statement, saying there are some believers that see their traditions as important although they aren't attached to any particular detail, but they see that it, "points in the direction of a part of reality that atheists just dismiss completely."

I don't know how he can make that generalization about what anyone dismisses. He certainly has no data to back it up. Atheists I know and atheist material I read and view is very interested in what lies beyond our limited human understanding. Science is the pursuit of the unknown, by definition. Neither Ryan or Philip explain what is wrong with wanting evidence before adding something to the known. Nor do they describe how someone could dismiss the unknown, but be interested in learning. Neither one explains what this "part of reality" is that is being pointed to.

After I left religion, I found I was much more open to thinking about how the mind works, or how our ancient ancestors came to cooperate instead of fight, or what forces must there be that cause a tiny root to make a nearly microscopic decision to grow in this or that direction and that supports a huge tree. I find myself freer to explore those parts of reality because I'm not thinking about an alien intelligence from 14 billion years ago or one currently hiding in the clouds and wondering how or if they are affecting my life. I'm not trying to find an alternative method to discover truth, when the existing ones are working quite well.

I don't think religion is going away soon, but if it does, the world isn't going to miss the poetry and the allegory of religion because it is going to be replaced by a much more beautiful compendium that does not require knowing what it means to "wash your hands of" something, or what a "cross to bear" is. Instead the beauty that is actually seen everyday will inspire us to be stewards of that very beauty. We won't have an abstract notion of "neighbor" that we then re-translate into meaning our cousins across the oceans, we will instead understand that "we are all related" is a truth about biology and we are much more closely related than any religious tradition ever imagined. We won't wonder why we are here, we will accept that we are and we will make a purpose for our existence.