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

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