Monday, February 18, 2013

Daniel Dennett on Religion For Life

My conversation with Professor Daniel Dennett was most enjoyable.  He spent over an hour with me so I was able to make two shows out of it.   The podcast of the first show will be up tomorrow and the second show starts Thursday on WETS and Sunday on WEHC.

In the second show he talks about his work with Linda LaScola regarding clergy who no longer hold supernatural views.   They published a paper in 2010 entitled Preachers Who Are Not Believers.   In this paper, they summarize interviews with five clergy who don't believe the creeds but are still ministers.    I highly recommend it.

When the article was published I wrote about it at Shuck and Jive.   Here are a couple of posts that touch on the issues raised in the paper by Dennett and LaScola.
  1. Definition of Religion 
  2. The Code 
If religion is going to evolve and move beyond its supernatural past, we will have to break the code.   We have to discuss the items that the code told us were taboo.   And that is risky.

Friday, February 15, 2013


For those of you who have found this blog via the radio program, welcome!   Please take time to explore and come back often.   You already found the blog.  You will also find sermons, sermon podcasts, upcoming shows, Religion For Life podcasts, my church's website, the blog for our excellent Adult Forum, and a personal blog about my grief over my son's death this past summer.  Check the menu bar up top.

I don't write nearly as frequently here as I used to do on Shuck and Jive.   Many posts there were short, chatty, newsy, and often focused on my denomination's politics.    I now have Facebook for that.     Creative energy that I put into Shuck and Jive now goes into the radio program itself.   This blog seems to be for more reflective pieces.

I have been reflecting for some time on religion, particularly my religion.   The current series on Religion For Life is the future of faith or the future of religion.  I have been speaking with some interesting people on this program.   What I am hearing is that the future of religion will be less about theological beliefs and more about ethical practice.    This obviously won't be everyone's future.   Yet for many, and this number is growing, there is a desire for a meaningful life more than for metaphysical speculation.

I have received some feedback from people who are interested in what I believe.   That is not new.   Heresy hunters in my denomination have been interested in what I believe for some time.   For them, my reflections are a threat to "the faith."   I don't deny that.  My reflections are a threat to a belief system that I think is outdated and is passing away.

Others are interested in what I believe out of anxiety.  They tend to disapprove but are not sure what to do about it.   "He can't say that, can he?  He can't believe that, can he?"  There is a nervousness about a taboo being broken or a foundation that is shaken.  To those, I say don't panic.   This is how positive change happens.   Hang in there.  Trust the process.   Try not to judge.   You can hold whatever beliefs you have as long as you want.   All is fluid.  Nothing is carved in stone.   Consider this reflection "brainstorming" and remember, I am on your team.

There is also an interest in what I believe from those who are on a similar quest.   In my conversations with Daniel Dennett, he noted that religions will either end or mend based on their ability to respond adequately to the modern world, particularly, the transparency available to us through the internet.    Religions did not appear in the era of modern science, but if they are going to survive in this environment and be a positive force for good, they will have to adapt to the universe that science is uncovering.   These people are interested in what I believe because they, too, are interested in what religion might become.  Let us create!
About a year and a half ago, I made a series of posts at Shuck and Jive under the heading "What Presbyterians Believe (except me)."   These posts provide a nice start for my reflection on religion.   Here are the five posts.  I invite you to read them in order:
  1. What Presbyterians Believe (except me)
  2. What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 2
  3. What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 3
  4. What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 4
  5. Religion For [this] Life
I took information from the first post and rewrote it as my first post on this blog under the heading The Clergy Project.    As I read these over, I see that they need revision, focus, and much more reflection.   They were blog posts after all.  But it is a start.

During Lent, beginning this Sunday at my congregation, I will take four of the five Sundays to reflect on the Bible, Jesus, God, and the Meaning of Life.   Sometimes you just have to take on the big questions!  If you have been intrigued by the radio program, and you live in the area, I hope will you come and join us on a Sunday morning.    Send me an e-mail and I'll go for coffee with you!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

We have an Ash Wednesday service tonight.   The youth will be helping with the service.   I guess that is a good thing.   It is never too early, I suppose, to reflect upon one's mortality.   It is just that this year it is too real for me.   All day I have been thinking about Zach.  His ashes are in his bedroom still.      

His short journey is complete.

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.

Yet life goes on.

For Lent: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Our Thursday morning book group, Thursdays With Jesus, will be reading James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree for Lent.   If we dare to explore the meaning of the cross, this book is it.  Join us Thursday from 10:30 to noon.   Here is the podcast of an interview I had with Professor Cone about his book.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Stargazing As A Sacrament--A Sermon (Evolution Sunday)

Welcome to Evolution Weekend.  The weekend closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday is celebrated in hundreds of congregations around the world as Evolution Sunday.   Evolution Sunday, now Evolution Weekend is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Zimmerman.    His goal is to break down the barrier to learning that has been erected by certain forms of religion that deny science.   He thought if he could get ministers and churches publicly to endorse evolution that perhaps the resistance would decrease.    

Over 13,000 clergy and hundreds of congregations have signed on to support the teaching of evolution in public schools and to declare that evolution is not incompatible with religion.  This is the seventh year that we have acknowledged Evolution Sunday through worship services, classes, and field trips honoring the contributions of science and in particular evolutionary theory to human knowledge.   

Today we will take a field trip to the Bays Mountain Planetarium for a 2 p.m. show called “Appalachian Skies.”   You might consider stargazing as a sacrament.

Is Christianity compatible with evolution?   Many will say no. That is why there are creation museums everywhere.    Certainly it is true that from their standpoint, evolution is a threat to Christian truth.   When someone understands evolution and acknowledges its claims, the truth of Christianity is denied.    So for them, Christianity is incompatible with evolution.  

Someone wrote the following comment on my blog yesterday:
Although not a Christian I fail to see how a Christian could ever agree with evolution, if we evolved from apes at what point did we acquire a soul?  The core belief of a Christian is to believe in a literal Adam and Eve because without Adam and Eve there would be no sin, without the existence of sin there would be no need for Jesus to die on a cross, as I see it Christianity falls apart for a Christian who accepts evolution. 
The commenter touches on the real problem that evolution has presented to Christianity.   Many of us in this room self-identify as Christian.    I would guess since you are in this church that you affirm evolutionary theory and if a non-scientist like me, you understand it as best as you can.    So we don’t really understand what the silly creationists are going on about. 
But they are probably right in that evolution is a major threat to their faith.   As that commenter said, without Adam and Eve and original sin and Jesus dying on the cross to save from sin, Christianity falls apart.    Why doesn’t Christianity fall apart for the rest of us?    I think the reason is that for many of us Christianity has changed, evolved if you like.

There are many variations of Christianity alive today.  While this congregation may have some similar traits to the Presbyterian congregation up the street from us, there are differences.   Think of the similarities and differences between this congregation and a Roman Catholic congregation in Brazil or a Pentecostal congregation in West Virginia.   What differences and similarities might there be between us and Augustine’s Christianity of the 4th century or that of Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, or John Calvin?   What about the Mormon Church of Mitt Romney or our nearby friends at the Unitarian Universalist church.   Similar yet different?      Many Christians don’t call other Christians “Christians.”  

For the coming two weeks on the radio program, Religion For Life, I speak with philosopher, Daniel Dennett.  He said that dinosaurs in one respect have not died out.   You find many of their traits, for example, in modern birds.    Similarly, religions change or evolve, taking on some characteristics of their ancestors and leaving others behind.    At some point we wonder if what we see really fits our definition any longer.   Can what has evolved be called religion?   Or in the case of Christians who care little for Adam and Eve, original sin, and the substitutionary atonement theory.    Is it Christianity?  

These questions are intense and they involve a great deal of skirmish.   Congregations split from one another and new denominations form because of the perception that one group or another has crossed a line and has given up on an essential tenet of the faith.   Eventually new “species” of church develop.    Obviously I am playing.  I am using biological evolution as a metaphor for religious change.    I think that metaphor can be helpful.   

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Greatest Show On Earth:  The Evidence of Evolution, suggests that Plato and the Platonic ideal has made it difficult for us to accept evolution.   Plato’s concept of forms and ideas has been a barrier.  We think of a rabbit, the form of a real rabbit, and the idea of a rabbit.    In evolutionary thinking there is no idea of a rabbit.  There is a rabbit and if you were able to trace its ancestry you find imperceptible changes from one generation to the next until you were able to compare say 100,000 generations and the current rabbit and you would see that they different animals altogether.

I have photos of my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather.    While there are some changes between my great-grandfather and I, we are still of the same species.    What if I had a photograph of every ancestor back to my 1,000 great- grandfather.  Different?  Yes but still the same species.   Back further to my ten millionth great-grandfather?   That “great to the ten millionth” grandfather would look quite a bit different from me, in fact, not even the same species.    Imperceptible changes from generation to generation, yet over generations, different in kind.     Yet what we call “kind” is based on our snapshot of time in the present and how we categorize “kind.”    

That change in thinking away from Plato “for every form there is an idea,” to “imperceptible changes over generations” is changing the way we think about all kinds of things.    We are connected and fluid.  We are related, that is everything on Earth is related.    When you can acknowledge that you and the banana you had for breakfast have a common ancestor we have moved a long way from the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas who had everything in hierarchical order from god to angels to humans to animals to plants to rocks.   

What might this do to Adam and Eve?   Think of Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, 500 years ago.    For these three highly educated men, the creation of Earth had taken place about 5,500 years before them.  Adam and Eve were real people.  There would have been no reason to doubt that.    In fact, Columbus in his trip to China, not knowing that North and South America were in the way, thought the globe was much smaller.   When he was traveling up the coast of what is now Venezuela, he thought he was approaching the Garden of Eden, literally.  

We look back at that and find that amusing.   Their understanding of the world is 500 years different than ours.  Imperceptible changes over time have occurred since then.   Between the time of Columbus and Calvin and our time, the advances in knowledge have been so profound that we hardly appreciate them.    In their time, they are just starting to get their minds around the possibility that Earth was not the center of the universe.    Darwin was yet to come, several centuries ahead.    Chemistry, biology, geology, physics, and cosmology might as well have been science fiction for them.    Of course, our Christian faith will evolve as well and it has.   How we look at the Bible, the concept of God, Jesus, everything will of course evolve and they have.  
The struggles that we have either within ourselves or between us have to do with this struggle between evolutionary thinking and essentialist thinking.     
I remember when my son was about eight and he asked me if dinosaurs were mentioned in the Bible.   Apparently, his friends were having this discussion at school.  I told him no, that dinosaurs were not mentioned in the Bible.  He asked me why and I told them that the people who wrote the Bible didn’t know about dinosaurs.    That is an obvious answer when we look at religion from an evolutionary point of view.    The Bible is not a revealed word from a divine being.   It is a creation of human beings writing their story as they know it from their point of view.  
From an essentialist viewpoint, the Bible, like God is unchanging.   The doctrines are unchanging.    The world must be explained in light of an unchanging Bible.   The idea of looking at religious doctrines as essential tenets makes it difficult for Christianity to change.    
“We must hold on to this.  We cannot let go of that.” 
Yet the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ might be different from one person to the next.   I am sensitive to this.  I understand the angst that change brings.  However, I think if we accept evolutionary thinking, the metaphor of imperceptible change through time, we can navigate this with more grace.

When we apply an evolutionary point of view to Christianity, we see that no doctrine is unchanging or essential.   We can be all along the spectrum without a particular need to classify if some view or another is “Christian” or not.     You can let go of original sin and substitutionary atonement if you like.  You can let go of an inerrant Bible and of Jesus as a divine being.  You can let go of supernatural theism.   You can let go of all of the doctrines and focus on the ethics or the community.   You don’t even need to make conscious decisions about it.  You can notice that it is simply happening.  

You can do all of that and still retain your Christian identity if you wish.   Or you can let that go too.   It is really OK.  You can take a breath and evolve.    We can allow others to evolve as well.    We can all interact and influence and learn from one another in a non-essentialist, evolutionary community.   Or one group may take a different direction and in a different environment will evolve into another “species” of Christian, like the new denomination that is now breaking away from the Presbyterian Church in order to retain certain essentials they perceive as important.  

My biologist friends must be cringing that I am being so loose with their terms.   I am using this fascinating and important theory of biological evolution and seeing through it a way of looking at other aspects of life including our faith.   Again, I am highlighting that imperceptible change over time leads to something quite different but only when seen from the perspective of many generations of change.    

Since this is the season of the via creativa, the way of creativity and imagination, I am taking that seriously and imagining and creating and mostly just noticing how the Christian faith has evolved.   I speak from my experience.    This isn’t just about me.  In being forthright as I can be about my experience, I trust that others will resonate.    

One of the changes I am seeing is the notion of sacrament.   I remember learning in seminary that sacraments, which for those of the Protestant evolutionary stream include baptism and communion, are quote:  “visible signs of invisible grace.”    The water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion are visible things, yet they signify an invisible reality of grace.    They confer belonging, community, embrace, forgiveness, a sense that we count, that we matter, that life is worth taking another breath for, that we can be loved and can love.    There is more to say, but my experience of spending time with communities that practice these sacraments has done that and more for me.  

I’d like to add a sacrament.   Maybe I can secure your vote on this.    I would like to vote in stargazing as a sacrament.   The trick is we have to do it together.   This is that Protestant evolutionary stream speaking, but sacraments are those things we do in community.    We have to stargaze together or watch the moon together.     I think stargazing in silence with others followed by camaraderie, good cheer, and maybe even a song, give us a sense of grace and belonging.    Stars are a visible sign of invisible grace.    I think it is our Christian duty to take sacred time with them.

This amazing universe that science is presenting to us can be overwhelming in a negative way if we don’t put our energies into making it and those who inhabit it sacred.   The beauty of religion is that at its best it does take the time to notice the sacred and to provide rituals for the sacred.   If our religions can evolve out of their doctrines and into the world, into the universe, into life, we can do a lot to help offer a sense of the sacred and a sense of sacred ritual to the beauty that surrounds us and to help us embrace even that which is not so beautiful.

On this Evolution Sunday, I honor the patron saint, Charles Darwin, and I honor the world that he opened up to us.  I honor stargazers and scientists, poets, artists, and music-makers, pastors, priests, and parishioners, all of us, who open minds and hearts to life in all its splendor.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

My Babies and Me

Home from the hospital in February 1987.

A few months later.  Summer of 1987 looks like.


The Lord said to Satan:

"Have you considered my servant, Job?"

And thus Job's troubles began.  I am certain Job would have preferred to remain anonymous.  Alas for Job, he was "considered."

Let's consider Job's friends.  They come to comfort him as he sits on a pile of manure scraping his sores with pieces of broken pottery.  Job's friends have been criticized for their inadequate pastoral care, but they shouldn't be.  They are doing their best.  They are offering the best that theology can offer to poor blameless Job.   It is just that from Job's perspective their theology is wanting.

Job, his suffering, and his reflection on his suffering present a crisis for Job's friends.  Job presents a crisis to the entire community.   Because of his suffering and his refusal to submit to the community's theology, he is a threat.   Job should be a good boy and allow his experience to be subsumed under the theology of the community.   He should just repent or be quiet about it.

But Job will not repent.  He will not be silent.

The story of Job is not about Job or God.  The story of Job is about how a community wrestles with a crisis of meaning.   What happens when someone's suffering causes the foundations for meaning to shake?   Job's suffering is a threat to the community's meaning.   Suffering people must be explained away.   Whether this explanation is theological, psychological, or sociological, the explanation must serve to make us feel safe in light of the suffering of others.

Suffering without cause, that is suffering that could happen to me, is unacceptable.  I will invent psychological, sociological, or theological solutions to explain the suffering individual away and therefore retain for myself the illusion that as long as I do x or don't do y, I won't experience that same fate.  Job's friends try to convince Job that God must have had a reason for Job to suffer.   The readers of this wonderful story know the reason.   The reason Job suffered is because God was bored and used Job to make a bet.   Hardly admirable behavior for a deity.  

In modern terms, the reason for suffering is just as fickle.   People make up all kinds of reasons and suggest all kinds of causes for suffering.   Upon examination, suffering is not the result of sin as some Christians have claimed or because of desire as some Buddhists have claimed.  Suffering is not the result of karma as the New Age practitioners claim.   Suffering is not the result of failing to raise your children correctly or for failing to habituate to the seven habits of highly successful people.

Suffering is the result of time and chance.   It is better to be lucky than good.  That answer is hard to take.  We want to blame someone or something for it.   The reason we need to do that is the vain hope that suffering will not be visited upon us if we pray hard enough or believe hard enough or engage in some other pious activity, at least enough.

Job's friends represent the community confronted with a dilemma, a righteous sufferer.   That impossibility required them to blame the victim for his suffering.   They could not give up the idea of a just God.   They could not give up the idea of an intelligence, of an agent who will respond to their prayers.   To keep that belief, the sufferer must somehow be blamed.  His prayers must not have been adequate.   He must have done something wrong.

The truth is a bit more mundane.   Life is time and chance.   The best you can do is ride it out and be kind. 

Remember the story. God has a bet with Satan.   In this wager, God allows Satan to torture Job and bets that no matter what suffering is inflicted upon Job, Job will not curse God.   What a great guy this God is, right?   In actuality, God is a psychopath.    He allows Satan to kill and to torture for his own egocentricity.   Satan has Job's servants, livestock, and family killed by violence, fire, and wind and for good measure, he gives Job a case of boils.     

Job's nameless wife entreats Job to curse God and die.   This is little more than a suggestion for Job to kill himself honorably.   Why Job's wife isn't considered to be a suffering agent alongside Job is likely a result of patriarchal prejudice.   In any case, Job decides not to kill himself.   His three friends come to comfort him and to encourage him to repent of his wrongdoing which they believe is the cause of his suffering.   Neither does Job repent.

Job demands answers.  He doesn't get them.

Finally, God speaks to Job directly from a whirlwind.  In this speech, God does not come clean.  He does not tell Job the truth.  He only speaks about his power.  He is great.  Job is puny.  Therefore Job has nothing to say to God.   Might makes right.   The NRSV has Job respond to God's pompous bluster in 42:1-6:  

Then Job answered the Lord:
‘I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
   I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
   but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
   and repent in dust and ashes.’ 

In this translation, Job, is a cowering sycophant.   This is not Job. This repentance of Job makes no sense given the narrative we have witnessed for the past 41 chapters.   The God of the story of Job is not worthy of repentance.  This God made a wager and never tells Job the truth.   He provides nothing but bluster.   He may be able to put a fishhook in Leviathan, but he can't tell the truth.
Not only does Job's response not make sense, the Hebrew also is unclear.   A translation that makes more sense of the Hebrew and the context is from Jack Miles in his wonderful book, God:  A Biography.  Here is Miles' translation of that critical portion of the story in which Job responds to God's pompous bluster from the whirlwind:

Then Job answered the Lord: 
“You know you can do anything.  Nothing can stop you.   You ask, ‘Who is this ignorant muddler?’ 
Well, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me. 
‘You listen, and I’ll talk,’ you say,  ‘I’ll question you, and you tell me.’ 
Word of you had reached my ears, but now that my eyes have seen you, I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay."

In Miles' translation, Job does not repent.  The truth is that God is less moral than Job.  God has power but no justice.   God may be great, but he is not good.   Job, ever the seeker for justice, knows now that he sees and hears for himself that God is incapable of justice.    Job shames God.  God therefore rewards Job.  That is how the story ends with God learning a lesson.   While God may have won the bet over Satan, he loses the larger wager to Job.   God, the character, grows from his encounter with Job.  It isn't enough to be powerful, he must also be just. Now we have a story that makes sense.

For the author of Job, the idea of philosophical atheism would not be possible.   For that author, there must be an agent who created this world.  The question is whether or not this agent is friendly.   Job's story shows that he is not friendly.  He is fickle.   Confronted with this agent, Job can only weep for humanity, for "mortal clay."

There is no justice in this universe except that which we human beings are able to dispense ourselves.  If there is an intelligence it is no better than time and chance.   The author of Job knew that.   His interpreters, perhaps until Jack Miles, have not known that.    Because of piety ("God must be good"), the church and the guardians of scripture misread the story in the same way that Job's friends falsely accused Job.   In both cases, theology required them to marginalize the human experience of suffering.

That said, Job carries on.  He does not kill himself.     He doesn't not settle for pious answers or for his community's theology.  He seeks truth, faces it, shudders, and lives.

Thus, I consider that Job is my hero.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Zach's Birthday

Zach would have been 26 today.  I remember the night he was born.  I was doing the evening show at KRPM 106 FM.  When I finished the show at midnight I started the drive from Des Moines, WA to our home in Auburn.  On the way I had the radio on and the announcer that followed me announced to the broadcast world that I should get home soon as my wife was going into labor.  I think she actually said that her water broke.   

When I got home, Bev and got right back in the car and went to the hospital in Renton.  Zach was born around 1:30 a.m.  I was 25.   According to legend, Zach was conceived after a Mariners' game.   The Mariners always stunk at baseball but they were good for romance.