Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Even though I'm now in Missouri, I still enjoy getting the LICC's newsletter and reading Tom's thought's each month. This month Tom had a really interesting column about his experience speaking at a conference of the Ethical Culture Society in NYC--almost all of his audience were avowed atheists. Tom has written for a wide variety of publications and has authored several books about female paleontologists who carried out research that influenced Charles Darwin's work, so he knows about that which he speaks. I so enjoyed Tom's recounting of this experience of expanding dialogue on the relationship between science and religion that I wrote and asked him if I could reprint it here. He eagerly agreed, so here it is:
FROM OUR EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: PREACHING TO THE ATHEISTS
Yours truly recently had one of the stranger experiences in his checkered career. I was invited to speak at a celebration in Manhattan, hosted by the Ethical Culture Society, of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, one of many Evolution Weekend observances in churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship around the world. Having preached in half a dozen Unitarian Universalist congregations and thinking that the ECS was not all that different from UUs, I expected a diverse crowd of progressive, broad-minded, tolerant, well-educated folks. Having written two books about the pioneer paleontologist Mary Anning, I offered to talk about Anning, some of Darwin’s other precursors, and how their faith furthered their scientific discoveries.
Just before the celebration began, I asked someone from the ECS how they differed from the UUs and was told that nearly everyone in the ECS looked down upon UUs as way too religious. As the program began, and the crowd was asked to identify which Society they represented, it soon became apparent that, with the exception of a few UUs I knew and a Catholc from Long Island (whose presence I appreciated), this was pretty much a sanctuary full of atheists. Talk about playng to a tough house.!
Next, the emcee congratulated the ECS for holding “the only celebration of Darwin’s birthday this weekend in a sanctuary.” Then a philosophy professor from one of our finer Long Island institutions of higher learning insisted, astonishingly and without offering a shred of evidence, that Christians had rejected Darwinism because it refuted Genesis and undermined their system of ethics. And then someone did a satiric monologue, affecting a Southern accent to portray Christians who believe in Intelligent Design as idiots. The crowd roared with laughter. I seethed.
Chucking the first page of my talk and winging it, I asked for a show of hands to see what they already knew about Darwin’s precursors. Few knew any one of them, and fewer still had heard of the pioneer paleontologists Mary Anning, Mary Lyell, Mary Buckland, or Charlotte Murchison. Finally I asked who knew where Charles Darwin was buried. Only a few hands went up, disproportionately among the UUs from Long Island.
Taking issue with our emcee, I pointed out that in recent years Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend have been celebrated by many churches, synagogues, Unitarian Universalist fellowships and other houses of worship across the nation and around the world. and that more than 12,000 clergy, including more than 10,000 Christian leaders, have signed a declaration that, “The timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.”
Next I pointed out that for more than half a century, Christians had few objections to Darwin’s evolutionary theory itself. What offended Christians was its illegitimate offspring, Social Darwinism, which claimed the rich were more intelligent and more fit to reproduce than the poor. In its most pernicious and racist form, the Eugenics movement led by Charles Darwin’s cousin, it advocated sterilizing supposedly “inferior” races and classes. When American evangelicals and fundamentalists finally got around to rejecting evolution, it was not because they were bigoted ignoramuses, but rather because, like William Jennings Bryant, they were more progressive and populist than those who preached Social Darwinism. Christians did not reject Darwin because it undermined morals: they saw Social Darwinism as immoral junk science—and they were right.
Opposition to Darwin’s theory continues to flourish today, I suggested, because some atheists keep claiming that evolution is incompatible with belief in God. Scientists and science buffs often cross the line that separates science from scientism: science requires “methodological agnosticism,” seeking natural explanations for natural phenomenon, but claiming that there is no supernatural being because science does detect one is a theological leap that leaves science behind. Too few agnostics and atheists—and too few believers--know that genetic research pioneer Gregor Mendel was a monk or that Charles Darwin was ordained as a priest in the Church of England (as were William Daniel Conybeare and William Buckland) and is buried in Westminster Abbey, where Buckland was the Dean.
Having gently pointed out their religious bigotry and their ignorance of women’s history, which doesn’t happen too often to West Side Lefties, I proceeded to tell them about the profound, paradoxical contribution that their faith made to the work of Mary Anning, William Daniel Conybeare, William and Mary Buckland, and Darwin’s other precursors. Far from hindering their pursuit of scientific truth, their faith helped them to do difficult dangerous geological work on crumbling cliffs and to discover evidence of adaptation to environment in prehistoric life, even as they undermined some non-Biblical notions of their fellow believers, such as the claim that the universe was created in 4004 B.C., a date found nowhere in Holy Writ.
I was right, at least, about these Ethical Culture folks being broad-minded and tolerant: they tolerated me and most seemed to appreciate what I had to say. Not one of them challenged me to a duel at dawn, though we did have a few polite but pointed exchanges over cake and coffee. Here are some things I learned that may help you when talking with unbelievers, whether during your coffee break or in your Easter sermon to visiting skeptical visitors:
*Atheists often think that science disproves religion but don’t necessarily know all that much about science or religion.
*They usually know even less about the history of science and the history of religion.
*They probably think of your religion as a set of abstract beliefs rather than a way of life. The will be confounded—and perhaps intrigued—if you explain that your faith is about your relationship with your Creator and your fellow human beings.
*You probably don’t believe in the dogma and god that they don’t believe in, either.
*They need to hear clearly what you believe, why you believe it, and what difference it makes in your life.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Wright—and many other writers before him—find in Paul, a cosmopolitan thinker who moved Christianity beyond the nationalist confines of Jesus and the Jews. He ignores the concerns of Jesus for Gentiles as depicted in the Gospels and God’s concern for all nations as expressed in the Hebrew Bible. He considers Mark’s Gospel to be the most historical, because it is the earliest—a questionable position since just because something was written first doesn’t mean it is more historically reliable. He also ignores the rich themes of God’s love for all nations as found throughout the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets. Any reasonable rabbi today would reject the idea that the God of what we call the Old Testament is only a wrathful, angry deity, yet Wright—and so many others, do just that and therefore dismiss the majority of what Christians consider to be scripture.
I’ve grown used to flawed pieces of “scholarship” like Wright’s (did I mention he has a book to sell on this subject?), although once I loved these revisionist perspectives. As a religion major in college and as a seminary student, I was taught to love and even revere biblical scholarship. I came out of a tradition that disregarded the role of the mind in the life of faith and that had a deep-seated suspicion of all things intellectual, so discovering what’s called the “Historical-Critical Method” was a wonderful release. I became great at reading commentaries, articles and monographs, but it wasn’t until I went to do doctoral work in the New Testament that I had professors who taught me to question the presuppositions and arguments of scholars. Again and again, they forced me to actually read the Biblical text. This was by no means some sort of fundamentalist literalism, but rather just plain learning to read primary rather than secondary sources. Before you read what scholars say about the Bible, you might want to actually read the Bible yourself.
I began to learn that just like fundamentalists; scholars could be completely unaware of their own philosophical presuppositions about modernity, history, religion and ethics. More often than not, scholars end up where they started out from. Like the rest of us, they find a God, a Jesus or a Paul that matches what they wanted to find in the first place. All of us suffer from this same dilemma, but not all of us are selling books claiming to be the authoritative word on what Christianity REALLY was and should be. A walk through Borders will reveal a table near the religion section containing all sorts of books by leading “experts” who claim to know what Jesus really did or said. These are the same “experts” that make it onto NPR and other showcases for peddling a literary product. It might make for interesting cocktail party discussions, but just because a publisher promotes a book well doesn’t mean a given writer’s argument is worthwhile or even well-considered.
I still love to read good scholarship about the Bible, but I make sure that I actually have read enough of the biblical text to have my own opinion first. I’m willing to change my mind on a particular passage of scripture, but how can that happen, if I never have my own thoughts in the first place. The next time you hear a religious scholar on the radio or see an article by one in a magazine talking about what REALLY happened in the beginnings of Christianity, take a look for yourself about the scriptures they discuss. You may discover that the so-called scholar has never even read for himself the texts he claims to know so much about.
Grace and Peace,
Sunday, March 22, 2009
An example I gave is how our culture has lost its ability to apologize--to take responsibility for our actions and seek to make amends when we hurt others. I was working off of an essay by Karen Gibbs in this week's Time where she notes that from AIG to A Rod to the Pope--no one seems to be able to simply admit a mistake and apologize for it. Instead we get scripted phrases like "I"m sorry if you were offended by what I did/said." In other words, "I'm sorry you were such a thin-skinned weakling to actually be bothered by my actions."
If we are to move out of darkness into light, from death into life--not in some life after this one but right now, one way is to begin with apologizing for what we should apologize for. The good news is that the forgiveness of God is just a heartbeat away.
Grace and Peace,
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
On Sunday, March 1, the First Sunday in Lent, I preached on Mark 1:9-15 which gives Mark's account of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. I spoke of Lent as a time for self-reflection and cleansing in preparation for Easter. I used a quotation by Edna Hong which I found in a nice little book of reflections for Lent called Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. This volume which contains essays from a variety of good authors including Bonhoeffer, Merton, Nouwen, Augustine, Updike, Tolstoy and others took its excerpt from Hong's book The Downward Ascent. She writes:
“Few of us have looked long enough into ourselves to see what seems to us and to others as normally attractive is actually as graceless as a scarecrow and even repulsive. It is an easy matter for the physical eye to spot physical deformity and blemishes in others and in oneself. It is not so easy for the eye of the spirit to spot deformities, although it is easier to see them in others than in oneself. This X-ray look at others is called “naked truth,” “unvarnished truth.” But to spot it in one’s self is not only difficult but painful, and no one wants to take the descending path to that naked, unvarnished truth. . . Yet it is to this path that Lent invites us.”
Looking back on it, the quotation I used on February 22 doesn't excite me much, so on to Feb. 15 when I preached on Mark 1:40-45. Here we are confronted with one of the mysteries of Mark's gospel--what is called "The Messianic Secret." Why was it that Mark's Jesus tells everyone to keep quiet about what he is up to and who he is? I've read quite a few articles and subjects on this subject, but it finally made sense to me when I read Brian McLaren's The Secred Message of Jesus. McLaren writes:
“What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form—as a kingdom “not of this world”—is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose the brutal violence and dark oppression of these principalities and powers, these human ideologies and counterkingdoms—so they, having been exposed can be seen for what they are and freely rejected, making room for the new and better kingdom? What if the kingdom of God must in these ways fail in order to succeed?"
"In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being."
On Feb. 1, I preached on Mark 1:21-28, where a man with an unclean spirit confronts Jesus in the middle of a synagogue service. I took as my starting point the idea that if such an occurrence happened today we would think the person was mentally ill and then went on to talk about how all of us have to be a little crazy to be followers of Jesus. I took the following quotation from John Austin Baker's The Foolishness of God.
“All our thoughts about God are conjectures. . . The change brought about by the first Easter is still not a proof in the ordinary sense. . . It carries conviction only to those who are willing to be the fools of love, who feel in their heart of hearts that, however far their own performance may fall short, sacrificial love is the highest of all values. . . If I cannot accept this, then the whole affair remains an irrelevant enigma.”
On Jan. 25, I preached on Mark 1:14-20 where Jesus calls his disciples. I titled the sermon "The Undiscovered Country" after the famous "To be or not to be" speech in Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1. In it Hamlet contemplates suicide but rejects the idea out of fear of what happens after death--"the undiscovered country." I offered in my sermon that thanks to Jesus we know what happens after deat and therefore what remains undiscovered is what kind of life will we lead on this plane of existence?
But that the dread of something after death,
That undiscover'd country from whose bourne
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolutionIs sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
“Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but, rather to harness and master it.”
On January 11, I preached on the baptism of Jesus which is the custom on the first Sunday after Epiphany. Mark's version of the event occurs in 1:4-11. My sermon title was "God is in the Broken Places" referring to the tearing open of the heavens at Jesus' baptism that mirrors the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus' death. My point was that God is present in the places where the barriers that separate people from one another and from God are being broken down. I used a quotation from Barbara Lundblad, preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It comes from her sermon "Torn Apart Forever."
The torn place is where God comes through, the place that never again closes as neatly as before. From the day he saw the heavens torn apart, Jesus began tearing apart the pictures of whom Messiah was supposed to be-- Tearing apart the social fabric that separated rich from poor. Breaking through hardness of heart to bring forth compassion. Breaking through rituals that had grown rigid or routine. Tearing apart the notions of what it means to be God's Beloved Son. Nothing would ever be the same, for the heavens would never again close so tightly.
Monday, March 9, 2009
1. I think most of us at First Christian have misgivings about how some churches approach political and social issues. We bristle at suggestions that ALL Christians should move in lock-step with one another, but let me assure you such is not the case in regards to Sunday’s vote regarding the death penalty moratorium. The process for having this discussion did not begin with a minister or other church leader declaring by fiat that we all should believe the same thing. Instead, it began as it should in churches like ours with one layperson who felt a strong sense of conviction not only about a particular issue but also about our church’s ability to do something about that issue.
Dave Tushaus, who happens not only to be the chair of the Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Department at Missouri Western but also our church moderator this year, became aware of the moratorium on the death penalty making its way through the state capital and that religious and civic groups around the state were offering their support of it. He brought the issue to the Outreach Committee which discussed the matter and voted to take it to the Administrative Board. The Board then discussed it and voted to take it to the congregation. At each step, church members gave the matter careful consideration and now the entire church membership is asked to do the same.
2. The bill going through the state legislature is a bi-partisan effort and is supported by both by supporters and opponents of the death penalty. It is sponsored by Rep. Bill Deeken of Jefferson City who happens to be a Republican and in favor of capital punishment. He, as well as members of both political parties, supporters and opponents of the death penalty, University of Missouri Law School, the American Bar Association and other groups, has noted that although Missouri is the fourth highest state in numbers of executions, it has a flawed system when it comes to handing down death penalty sentences. There are a number of credible claims of innocence among those on death row including three exonerations of death row inmates, as well as a disproportionate number of low-income and/or African-American death row inmates.
3. A vote in favor of or against a moratorium by a church in St. Joseph could influence the debate at the state capital. Resolutions in support of a moratorium have been passed by religious and community groups across the state, but with the exception of several groups who are a part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, no group has done so in St. Joseph. Our community’s voice matters, because currently our own Charlie Shields is president of the State Senate and will have considerable influence upon the bill. Religious groups in support of the bill include Quakers, Baptists, Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Episcopalians, Community of Christ, Unitarian-Universalists, Jews, Buddhists, and non-denominational Christians, but other than the Catholic diocese, no group in St. Joseph has weighed in on the issue.
4. Each church member is expected to vote his or her own conscience under our way of doing things as a church. Each member also has the option of skipping the vote if he or she chooses. Capital punishment is a difficult issue that can raise emotions. Indeed, several church members have been affected directly by violent crime, so this is also a personal issue. Given these factors, along with the fact that we are truly discussing matters of life and death, it is important that we remember that we are Christians and it is the grace of God that gives us the ability to agree and/or disagree while still treating one another as beloved children of God.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Grace and Peace,
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
This attitude and practice is consistent with the history and practice of our denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, a movement started with the intention of moving beyond the particularism of the denominations of the day towards churches united by a shared experience of Jesus Christ rather than a shared set of beliefs. Our denomination and our church is thoroughly Protestant in the sense that it hold to the idea of the “Priesthood of All Believers”—the idea that each believer has his or her own relationship with God and does not need a mediator or church hierarchy to determine what constitutes faith for that individual. The same is true for matters of conscience. Throughout its history, First Christian Church has lived out these values even pushing the national body to be less restrictive in terms of membership, baptism, etc.
Given our church’s understanding of individual freedom of belief, what happens if the demands of justice ask us to take a stand on a particular issue? For instance, on matters of race, many churches in our denomination, both in the days of slavery and segregation, did not take a stand on the equality of African-Americans citing individual freedom as justification. When there was clear injustice to be found, many (but not all) Disciples of Christ churches chose not to speak out. On the other hand, all of us can think of churches both inside and outside our denomination where particular partisan loyalties are understood to be the “proper Christian point of view.” Many of our members have come to First Christian leaving behind such narrow partisan understandings of the intersection of faith and politics. There must be a middle way between a church that is so laissez faire it is irrelevant to its society and one that is so partisan it has equated being Christian with being a member of a particular political party.
From the prophets of Israel to the word of Jesus, the message of scripture is clear: people of faith must work against injustice. It is worth noting that the biblical concept of justice is different from the way we speak of justice in our legal system and our pop culture. Biblical justice does not necessarily mean punishment and it certainly does not mean revenge; instead, the justice demanded by God, as scripture presents it, is one where those without power are given a seat at the table, those without basic necessities are provided for, those with more than they need learn to share, those who oppress others are called to account and all have an equal stake in the health of a particular community and the entire world. Biblical justice values the inherent worth of each individual as a child of God. God makes very clear that if believers neglect this understanding of justice then God has little or no use for their religious observances. Justice is essential.
Given the demands of God’s justice, how do we proceed as mortal and flawed people? Refusing to do so means casting off the requirements of God. Doing so rashly and without humility puts us in the place of judge—a place only God should occupy. The only way forward, it seems to me, is to approach the issues of our day and time with fear and trembling, but face them we must, otherwise, we risk irrelevance and judgment. We will never get everything completely right, but doing nothing is a non-option. Only with humility and grace can we apply our faith to questions of justice in our community and world.
In this issue of The Dialogue, you will find information about an upcoming congregational meeting that has been called by the Administrative Board to discuss and vote upon a resolution supporting a moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri. There will be an opportunity for discussion and education about the issue this coming Sunday at 9:30 AM in the social room. Both events are chances for us as a church to approach an issue of justice with fear and trembling, grace and humility. This is not a new thing for our church; in the past, First Christian has opposed the nuclear arms race and supported the work of Amnesty International, but it is the first time in some years that we have come together as a church to discuss an issue of justice--our church looks very different than it did twenty years ago. I am looking forward to this attempt at church-wide conversation, because I believe we are up to it. I believe First Christian, in its current form, can be a church that walks between the extremes of irrelevance and partisanship.
I have observed any number of different ways to commemorate Lent from a shame-filled guilt trip to a marathon of self-help. Like so many things we humans do, our Lenten spirituality can become focused upon ourselves rather than upon what really matters: Jesus. The point of Lent is for us to follow Jesus on his journey; even to places his disciples feared to go—places like the cross and beyond. On the way, we learn from Jesus about the cruel nature of our world, the loving nature of our God and all of the things that blind us to seeing the reality of both. We miss the point when we make Lent about us.
Oh sure, there is a certain amount of self-concern that is necessary in Lent, but only insofar as we need to examine our lives for things that keep us from following Jesus on towards Easter. Marcus Borg writes that Lent is a journey into and out of “the land of the dead.” He says that each of us must die to some things if we are to be born again on Easter:
Some of us may need to die to specific things in our lives--perhaps to a behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional, perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad, perhaps to an unresolved grief or to a stage in our life that it is time to leave, perhaps to our self-preoccupation, or even to a deadness in our lives (you can die to deadness.) It is possible to leave the land of the dead. So, the journey of Lent is about being born again--about dying and rising, about mortality and transformation.
This, after all, is what Jesus was talking about when he said those who wish to gain their life must lose it.
The grace of God revealed in Lent is that by journeying with Jesus we can be transformed just as Jesus was transformed on that first Easter. Although we will not have resurrected bodies on Easter as Jesus did—at least not until our time in this life is over—we can become less distracted, less empty, more faithful and more fulfilled people. We can become new people, if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus and don’t get distracted along the way.
It seems to me that now is the perfect time for us to shift our focus away from ourselves and to Jesus’ humility, service and sacrifice. Recent months have demonstrated to us in graphic and painful terms what rampant self-interest and greed can destroy and corrupt. As we reflect upon the damage done to our culture by the greed of a few, we must also admit the damage our own selfishness causes in the everyday worlds we live in. The only way out from such a distorted self-perception is to turn ourselves towards Jesus and follow him onward.
Don’t miss the point of Lent.
Grace and Peace,