Monday, October 29, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual

I have been working through the 3 year Lectionary cycle of the Christian Bible. People ask me why, given that I don’t believe in the Christian God. It’s not a simple answer. It lies somewhere in the people and ideas I discovered along the way. They don’t fit neatly in a box.

"Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate. As I allow myself to experience cosmic and quantum Mystery, I join the saints and the visionaries in their experience of what they called the Divine,..."
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature. 

The God Box

In William R. Herzog II’s book Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God, he summarizes Robert Funk’s and Robert Miller’s work, Finding the Historical Jesus: Rules of Evidence, saying, “The Gospel writers ‘invent narrative context’, provide interpretive overlays, soften hard sayings, ‘attribute their own sayings to Jesus’ and translate Jesus’ words into ‘Christian’ language.” This was acceptable and expected of writers at the time. Anything you wrote was expected to be your perspective on it, not unbiased reporting of what someone else said.  This is especially true in the genre of storytelling. The teller adds their unique voice.

For Herzog, this doesn’t diminish what the Gospel writers were doing. He wants to understand what they were thinking by understanding how they developed their narratives. He isn’t attempting to make a case for or against the existence of a man named Jesus, although occasionally in his books he will make a comment about words having come from such a man. His main goal though is to determine what the words were attempting to teach.

Thomas Sheehan, in his lectures on the Historical Jesus (available on iTunes University), puts this search in a slightly differently light. He says the Old Testament legends are “read into” Paul. Paul’s writings came before the writing of the gospels, despite their order as they appear in the Bible. Paul's words are then “read into” the gospels. Looked at this way, you see their influence and how the story of a man became the story of a god. How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity

He begins his lecture series by saying you might be challenged to rethink Jesus. It’s not his intention, but it is a possible consequence of the study. He uses the name Yeshua ben Josef, because he is starting the history at a different point than the New Testament. He, as well Herzog and most scholars agree that the Gospels alone do not provide a consistent picture of a historical figure. Yeshua, or whomever it was that inspired the Gospels, cannot be accessed through the lens of the Jesus that has been handed down through the centuries.

Much of the effort to reconstruct how this was handed down to us was conducted by well meaning and devout Christians and Jews. This deconstruction and reconstruction has not thwarted the efforts to maintain the relationship between the God of the Bible and humankind. Some young people, called to ministry, don’t survive the education they receive at seminary. Once they learn how the Bible was assembled and the church came to be, the magic is gone. This could explain why those details are not heard from the pulpit. Religious education for the congregations might be offered on a Wednesday evening, but those are not well attended. Perhaps people just aren’t interested and would rather keep the mystery just as it is.

Some can bridge the gap between the literary and the historical. Eugene Peterson, who created The Message Bible, offers us a way to approach this academic exercise of attempting to understand what these ancient authors were trying to tell us. In his interview with Krista Tippet on NPR’s On Being, he talks of metaphor. “A metaphor is really a remarkable kind of formation because it both means what it says and what it doesn’t say. Those two things come together, and it creates an imagination which is active. You’re not trying to figure things out; you’re trying to enter into what’s there.” As a metaphor for metaphor, he refers to the hoop one uses for embroidery. The fabric is us, loose and unfinished, so it is stretched by the hoop then you can work with it, create the needlepoint art. He offers people poetry like the Psalms or sometimes Dickens and says, “just let your mind stretch around it, and see what happens.”

It’s important to note that you don’t leave the fabric in the hoop. At some point you move to a different part of the piece and hopefully you actually finish it and put it to good use. Peterson also said “People ask, ‘How do you mature a spiritual life?’” And he responds that you should eliminate the word “spiritual.” “It’s your life that’s being matured. It’s not part of your life.” The idea is not to get lost in these words, but to move with them and bring them into your life.

For others, the investigation into what’s factually true as opposed to what’s factually false but holds some metaphorical meaning that can be understood leads to a path that can no longer be called religious. Ryan Bell, a pastor who became increasingly liberal in his teaching until he was told he could no longer keep his position as a pastor, took this investigation about as far as it can go. As he put it, he kept learning new ideas, like the forgeries and mistranslations in the Bible or the science and psychology of LGBTQIA+ people and the limitations of inclusiveness that he found in his traditions, even in the words of Jesus. He applied the gospels to teachings of peace and justice and found he sometimes had to skip parts when preaching about them. He kept trying to fit all of this into his “God box”. He knew the ideas were right and he felt Christian teachings should include them, but what he had been taught did not always comport to what he was learning. The God box had to expand with each new thing. One day he realized the box was as big as all of his understanding of the world, and he no longer needed the box.

You might land anywhere along this spectrum. I make no claims here. The overwhelming number of people throughout history who say they have found inspiration in the Bible is not an argument I care to take on publicly. I can only report what I found and hope to engage a few people and listen to their perspectives. My own investigations have taken me through many books on philosophy and history and how they fit in with The Enlightenment and The Dark Ages and that elusive first century. I have almost as many questions as I did when I started. I don’t need to repeat that history, but I’ll connect a few dots, hopefully correctly.

More importantly, I hope to expand your definition of “atheist”, just as pastors and lay people I have met over the last few decades have expanded my definition of “theist”. I’m not sure if this quote is attributed to anyone in particular, but I think it came from Buddhism, “There are as many religions as there are people.” You don’t need to join the church to enjoy a hymn and you don’t need to leave it to be inspired by the exploration of the stars.

So with no particular goal in mind, I’ll start the conversation with a Psalm. You may find “stretching” yourself around a Psalm is perfectly comfortable and is a place you want to return to again and again. If you’re like me, you may it find it hard to see what all the fuss is about. Psalms are frequently drenched in allegory. With “saving horns” and “Cherubs” and “bulls of Bashan” and words that defy translation I wonder what they are talking about. Are they just pleas for mercy and justice, or something more? But sometimes, as in Psalm 40, I can feel the poetic tension pulling toward something we aspire to while knowing we will inevitably fall back. Year A, Week 2

Next in the series

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Superior Hiking Trail Southern Terminus

This isn’t exactly about religion, but I’ll include some Ursula Goodenough quotes to add that flavor to it. Mostly, I’ll be talking about the first 14 miles on the southern end of the Superior Hiking Trail. The first 5 are new within the last few years and then they connect in Jay Cooke State Park where existing trails are now designated as SHT. Much reconstruction has been done since the 2012 flooding. Old guide books will need to be rewritten, but the signage is up and the parking well marked now, so get out there. We live near this park, so we used two cars to make our hikes one way. We split it into two days, but kept a pace of 2 miles per hour, so it could be done in one.

We started at the northeast corner of Jay Cooke State Park and worked back to the Wisconsin border, so I’ll be taking it in that order. The Grand Portage Trail can be done as a loop in this section. It’s part of a much larger historic route used by Natives, then by Voyageurs to get between Lake Superior waters and the Mississippi. Stop at the Visitor Center for your parking sticker or whatever else you’ll need, then head east. On 210 on the park maps, it’s trail point 25. Look for the well marked big lot, skip the little pull offs. From there, walk back to the road, across the embankment and look for the signs. We wanted to take the actual SHT, but you could take the other part of this loop and end up in the same place. Apparently that is also a more challenging hike.

It gets beautiful right away, and you see the river along this section. It’s down river from all the rapids, just calm and peaceful. Cross the highway and start heading up hill. It gets a bit more challenging but it is well maintained. You get the sense of being well out into the wilderness even though you are not far from Duluth. There is a parking lot to the north that locals use to access this and the other loops in this area, so you might see a trail runner and possibly horses, but you won’t likely find the family campers from the State Park. You will hook in to Oak Trail, probably without noticing, but watch for Gill Creek Trail, it is a connector between loops.

"And so I once again revert to my covenant with Mystery, and respond to the emergence of Life not with a search for its Design or Purpose but instead with outrageous celebration that it occurred at all. I take the concept of miracle and use it not as a manifestation of divine intervention but as the astonishing property of emergence. Life does generate something-more-from-nothing-but, over and over again, and each emergence, even though fully explainable by chemistry, is nonetheless miraculous."

Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature 

Remnants flooding in Gill Creek
You’ll get to give back some the elevation you gained as you get through the creek valley and then you get to gain it again. The creek is a raging river in spring time so watch the weather reports, even into June. We went in late August and I would say it was dicey for pumping drinking water. There is a small bridge, but I doubt it is much use in the spring. When you come up from there, you’ll meet up with the Triangle Trail and start to feel like you are in a State Park. From there, you connect for a short time to the paved Willard Munger Trail, then Greely Creek Trail which will take you by the power station dam and finally White Pine Trail. White Pine is nothing spectacular, but it takes you right to the campground. According to my GPS tracker, everything up to here was 6.2 miles.

Yep, we could text from the Park.
The camp sites at Jay Cooke are excellent. Sometimes you have quite a bit of trees between you and your neighbors. It’s all pit toilets, but when the buildings are open in the daytime, they are flush. There is a fire handle type water spigot always available near the Visitor Center. They are working on a shower building, which will probably make the place more popular for campers. It’s already one of the most visited parks in the state.

"Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate. As I allow myself to experience cosmic and quantum Mystery, I join the saints and the visionaries in their experience of what they called the Divine,..."
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature. 

Heading out from the park’s main attraction, cross the swinging bridge headed south and take your first left. The official trail for the SHT is the River Trail where you get eye to eye with some of the big rocks that form the rapids. This is a rocky trail, so it’s not groomed in winter and it’s underwater in spring. You’ll get back up on the Silver Creek Trail pretty quick and get the views from higher up. It’s wide and smooth, made for skiing in both directions. It connects to the Lost Lake Trail and the Bear Chase Trails, where the difficulty factor slowly increases. Park maps show where Lost Lake Trail crosses a stream coming off the St Louis River. It’s the best water source besides the river itself and, well, the plumbing, and has this awesome bridge.

There is a park map at intersection 40, but it’s for winter and the trail you want is not a winter trail so it is in gray. It might not be mowed as well and you’ll feel like you are leaving the park, but that’s the one you want. You’ll come to a sharp corner on the southern end of it and there will be a SHT arrow pointing up a hill back into the narrow single path trail like most of the SHT. This is an excellent section of the trail, with great vistas across a wide valley, great for fall colors. If you do this hike coming from Highway 23, it is about 3 and a half miles to this point. There is a scenic overlook about 3 miles from the highway. You’ll gain over 400 feet of elevation over those miles (going south) and have to pay for them with some trips down to creek beds. 

When you’re through all that, you’ll pop out onto Highway 23. Look to the south for Wild Valley Rd. When you are driving to this trail head you probably won’t see the tiny SHT signs, but the road has a sign for it. It turns into a minimum maintenance road, again, no SHT signs, at least not when I was there. The parking however does have the familiar trail head. As you can see, it’s a half mile from the highway and 5.9 miles to the park visitor center. The road continues on to hunting land, so wear your orange in season if you're going that direction. The 1.9 miles to Wisconsin is a nice rolling hike, with more creek bed valleys (usually dry). It’s a young forest with a few old trees, which is something you don’t see much of on the SHT.

The campsite is great. There is one tent site that is as nice as a State park and a few others if more people join you. There is a nice view down a steep drop off of a stream and no way to get down to it. Get back on the trail and hike a short hike towards Wisconsin to get to it. It’s big enough to deserve a bridge and was a couple feet deep in August, so pretty reliable. It’s a perfect place to begin your exploration of the entire Superior Hiking Trail.

Life, we can now say, is getting something to happen against the odds and remembering how to do it. The something that happens is biochemistry and biophysics, the odds are beat by intricate concatenations of shape fits and shape changes, and the memory is encoded in genes and their promoters. We read the notes, we hear the emergent chords and harmonies, and we marvel at the emergent musical experience.
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature.

 Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, conveyed this concept to an assembly at the United Nations:

I do not see a delegation for the four-footed. I see no seat for the eagles. We forget and we consider ourselves superior, but we are after all a mere part of the Creation. And we must continue to understand where we are. And we stand between the mountain and the ant, somewhere and there only, as part and parcel of the Creation. It is our responsibility, since we have been given the minds to take care of these things.

Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature