December 20, 2005

Disclaimer: I have neither read the Chronicles of Narnia, nor seen the movie. I did once see a youth/amateur stage presentation of The Lion, Witch & the Wardrobe.

Disclaimer#2: I understand from hearing past comments from radio or television, that Lewis claims he did not intend for Narnia to be an allegory of Christianity. To which, if that is the case, I must call B.S.

Now... I have often wondered how the Chronicles of Narnia, or others of Lewis' literary works, would have looked if his views of Christianity were less... well... conservative. The title of this post aside, this could mean liberal or moderate Christian, whether or not they were UU Christians.

What if the message of Jesus (speaking loosely... a lot of what Jesus is purported to have said could fit within a single, broad, liberating "message", in my view) were the means of salvation, rather than the punitive model of substitionary sacrifice? What if the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was the sacrifice he paid for bringing the saving message to the world?

What if wickedness was the result of very specific behavioral, emotional, and intellectual patterns that could be broken, rather than existing as a result of "man's fallen nature", or the devil, or whatever?

What if the Kingdom of God was "within" rather than in a distant, imaginary paradise? What if the power to do good came from that inner kingdom, rather than empowerment from "above"?

How would Narnia be different? I've often toyed with the idea of finding out - by writing a Narnia-style allegory from the perspective of a non-fundamentalist Christian... maybe even a non-"mainstream" Christian.

And now, I'm thinking about doing it in installments... on this blog... Any votes, yay or nay?

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September 28, 2005

St. John the Guru

from - smijer

I'm not sure the Beloved Disciple was quite so 80's. But, it is certainly an interesting exe- or eisegesis.

And the underlying question is a big one to me - how do you find common ground with people taught by their tradition that common ground, theologically speaking, is a bad thing?

I mentioned to a relatively open-minded Evangelical once that her nerves my be helped by some practice of zazen. "No," she said... "if it comes from another religion", she isn't interested. So maybe zazen really was or maybe zazen wasn't a good idea for her. But, assuming for the moment that it really could help - and she had no way of knowing that it couldn't... what kind of barrier is it that causes one to refuse a helpful - to themselves - practice because it is associated with a competing religious tradition?

How do you remove blinders when the blinders themselves are considered Holy?

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August 12, 2005

When I have to explain the UU church to someone new, I'm always a little uncomfortable with describing our non-creedalism. This fantastic post from Jeff Wilson takes care of that.... Listen:

There's a mighty big myth about Unitarian-Universalism that has been circulating for years. It's the idea that in UUism "you can believe whatever you want." That's not how I understand it at all. Truthfully, in UUism "you have to believe what you really do believe, whether you want to or not." Followed authentically (dare I say "religiously"?), this is potentially a far harder, more spiritually refining course than creedal religion. UUism isn't for slackers.

I have never been able to believe "whatever I want." I want to believe that people are always good, that things are getting better, that there is justice in the universe, that I don't have to work at improving the world, that there is a design to the world, that love conquers all. But wanting has nothing to do with belief. Who can believe what they want? In UUism we are called to believe what we believe: to test our beliefs and those of others, to replace fantasy with truth, even when fantasy seems infinitely preferable to truth. If I could believe whatever I wanted, I might well be a theist, since it's much more comforting to think that there is a deity watching out for us, with some sort of plan that makes all the apparent crap in the world make sense. I might want to believe in karma, that all the blessings I've received in my life came because I deserved them through some effort of my own. I might want to believe in the soul, that I'll continue forever in some form and therefore I don't have to be afraid of death or broken-hearted over the loss of loved ones. I want to believe these things. But being a UU, I can't. Because as a UU, I'm committed to living my religious life with complete sincerity, and sincerely, I'm not convinced that any of these things exist.


When I encounter theist UUs, I never think "Oh, he just wants to believe that there is a God." When I encounter Wiccan UUs, I never think "Oh, she just wants to believe in magic." I assume that he has struggled with his beliefs and found that he can't deny the existence of God. I assume that she has wrestled with how the world works, and can't discount that our intentions impact the world and what we put out into the universe comes back to us many times over. I assume these UUs believe different things as UUs because they can't escape the fact that they believe them, not because they merely wish them to be true or find such beliefs fun. That's why even though I don't agree with either perspective, I give both UUs genuine respect.

Let me just wave my hands in the air excitedly and tell you, "that's exactly right!!!"

Then, though I hate to ruin the mood, I have to quibble with what follows:

Believing what you really do believe can be a very harrowing path. It also means that you must allow a certain level of criticism. For example, I have no way of proving that my Universalist convictions are correct. It may be that Hell is real and many people are damned. I could be wrong that complete reconciliation is the end-point of the religious journey. The fact that I cannot prove my intuitions means that I must accept criticism from those who do not share them. If other UUs wish to argue against Universalism, I am committed to hearing those criticisms and to acknowledging that my religious understanding at times rests on faith, not proof. But don't mistake this faith for a stubborn refusal to face reality. It isn't a shield or a comfort: I am a Universalist because I truly believe in Universalism, even if there is evidence to the contrary, even if my non-theism might disqualify me from normative Universalist circles, even if it doesn't make sense. Because I am a UU and must believe what I believe, I must admit to a belief in universal salvation, and admit that I cannot fully support it. Thus to be a UU is to be vulnerable in your conviction and to accept that vulnerability as part of the price of acknowledging your true beliefs.

What does this mean? Is it a mixed signal? How can one believe, much less be firmly committed to, an idea which is contradicted by available evidence, or that doesn't make sense?

I am universalist myself in a sense... I believe that there is hope for the reconciliation of everyone.... even Charles Manson and George W. Bush... But that is because I feel that the balance of the evidence supports that idea; and because it seems sensible that, since their problems result from broken minds and broken ideas, both can be made whole through clinical therapy or critical thinking. In that sense, I'm universalist - tentatively, of course... the evidence isn't absolutely convincing that everyone can come to a place of sound social and psychological being, if only we had the technology. But I feel that the evidence is, on balance, in favor of universalism or near-universalism. Otherwise, I wouldn't believe it.

Where Jeff says that he must acknowledge that his religious understanding is sometimes based on faith, not proof, I don't quite understand this either. Is it a religious understanding if it is based on "faith" in the traditional sense? And if, as it often is with me, his religious understanding is informed more by hope than knowledge... well, what's wrong with calling that "hope" instead of "belief"?

So much for the quibbles. Otherwise... job well done, Jeff. Hope you don't mind me ripping off nearly your entire post...

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July 31, 2005

Shattered Lives

from - smijer

It is my expressed hope that followers of the fundamentalist leaders will come to witness the harm that comes from the kind of thinking espoused by those leaders. I've pointed to examples before. Now, via Tennessee Guerilla Women, I bring your attention to the testimony of one of the founders of the "ex-gay" organization that is currently holding teen Zach Stark against his will. The article by Wayne Besen and the full text of the letter by John Evans are here. From the letter:

We as born again Christians believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. We Basically agree on the fundamentals of salvation. I've been a born again Christian for over 50 years and I've noticed Christians reading the same scriptural passages, yet arriving at different personal interpretations regarding moral issues. Some of these issues that have divided Christians within recent years have been slavery, women's rights, the Charismatic movement and other issues, including divorce.

Within my lifetime, I've known members of my own family being asked to leave churches they had attended for years over issues of divorce and re-marriage, yet later welcomed back when a different interpretation of scripture was explained.


I just returned from the 25th annual Conference of Evangelicals Concerned, a group of gay Christians who know that it is possible to be both gay and Christian. In the past 30 years since leaving the "ex-gay" ministry I have seen nothing but shattered lives, depression and even suicide among those connected with the "ex-gay" movement.

As for Zach, who is being held in Memphis for re-education (or re-orientation as the case may be) by Evan's former organization... The article makes analogy to "Message in a Bottle" in Zach's last blog postings before being sent away. When he returns to see the comments in his blog and the concern around the blogosphere, I guess he'll be singing, "woke up this morning; couldn't believe what I saw; a hundred million bottles washed up on the shore;"

By their fruit ye shall know them, right? When you find your ideals are causing people harm, don't you think it's time you took a step back and did some re-evaluating?

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July 24, 2005

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. - Proverbs 14:12
(Bear with the political intro... this really is a Sunday Churchy post...)

As poorly as Bush's sanctimonious "faith based initiatives" sat with me,

As much as I get the joke about "faith based" foreign policy,

As much as I loathe the Administration's practice of subordinating science to politics,

...the whole "reality-based" meme current in liberal circles never set right with me, either.

I think I may have sorted out why that is. First, a few more words on "faith-based". It's a misnomer, especially the way it is used by the White House, describing funding for religious charities. The qualifying feature of the recipients of these funds is not their faith, but rather the object of their faith: namely religious traditions, mainly those that center on God. There are oodles of organizations and individuals who are guided in their humanitarian work by faith... sometimes it is religious faith, other times faith in the positive side of human nature, or just optimistic faith that work can bring about a better world. They don't qualify. Those who do share only the distinction of having faith in a tradition.

Let us be clear on another point: members of certain religious traditions express faith in "God', or "Christ", or some other supreme being. That's well and good as an expression. But, the truth behind it is that their faith in these beings is perfectly equivalent to their faith in the religious traditions that center on them. Certain individuals profess a "personal relationship" with God, or having "met" or "found" Christ. And those are fine expressions within their tradition. But, the stark truth is that everything they know of God or Christ, or whatever, comes either directly from their religious tradition, or from their experiences in the world interpreted in light of that tradition. Certainly they have those experiences - be it a miraculous seeming reprieve from some horrible fate, or be it a profound sense of peace, joy, comfort, or calling, that they consider direct experiences with God. But absent a religious tradition for interpreting (or even producing) those experiences, they have only the same ineffable experiences all humans have. So, the experiences themselves are only "God" insofar as there is a religion handy for interpeting them as such. I say all of this, because I don't want anyone reading to think that this doesn't apply to them, because their faith is in God rather than in a religious tradition. I hope you, the reader, will acknowledge that your Holy Books and your churches are instruments of tradition. I hope you, the reader, will acknowledge that you believe the Bible to be God's Word, if you do,... because of religious tradition. I hope you will acknowledge these things at least, whether or not you take to heart my suggestion that tradition isn't the best or only source of beliefs and values, and my advice to subordinate tradition to reason and conscience in guiding your views on public policy.

Reality-based. Besides an being unabashed conceit, the term misses the important point of focus. Do liberal politicians and pundits indeed have a friendlier relationship with reality than the Bush administration and its champions? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly when we feel supported by the facts, as best they can be understood, we are very keen on them. But the rest of the time, our relationship with the truth is only as good as our commitment to objectivity, to reason and observation, and to rigorous thinking. To keep this thing brief enough for a sound-bite let's just say that we strive to be the "reason-based" community, OK?

Then, there's this whole other issue - values. On the one hand, we have "traditional" values. On the other, we have "progressive", "humanistic", or "secular" values. It's my personal view that tradition serves much better as a guide to values than it does as a guide to reality. And yet I assert that tradition cannot rightly be the end-all of values. As Emerson stated so forcefully in his great essay, Self Reliance, "He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world." Values must be informed by all of the devices of conscience: tradition, yes as far as it can apply, but more important still are empathy, compassion, hope, and the courage to defy or re-invent tradition when these other qualities conspire to reveal a great fault in it.

The faith-based community, in my experience, puts a lot of stock in the passage of scripture at the top of this post from Proverbs. In effect, what they are saying is that God's thoughts trump "man's" thoughts. Maybe so. But in the final analysis what they are really saying is that tradition, the prime source of human beliefs about God - trumps the rest of human thinking about reality and values. They are trying to convince one another and themselves that a firm enough faith in traditions about God and their Holy Books will allow them to know the mind of God, and to be able to act upon the basis of God's wisdom rather than their own. Unfortunately, since tradition is a human practice, their efforts are undermined. Like it or not, human wisdom is all we posess - we cannot bootstrap ourselves to a share of God's wisdom, even by reading the book tradition holds to be God's Word. So there is a way that seems right to a [person], and maybe the end thereof really are the ways of death (nobody in recorded history has made it out alive, you know)... but that may just be our lot in life. Even the "Godliest" person is following human traditions. Humans just can't avoid the ways of humans... no matter how "saved", "indwelled with the Spirit", or anything else they may become, they are still working from human traditions.

The reason I take such pains to point this out is that there is a huge barrier in religious fundamentalism to the most important task of following reason and conscience even when they seem to be at odds with "God's Word".

And, if we are ever to find a productive dialogue between people of different faith traditions and those whose faith is not placed in religious traditions, one that will advance goodness and leave sanctimoniousness behind, we must all be willing to constantly re-examine our values and the relevance of their sources. We must give religiuos tradition its due and, even those of us who do not rely on it, must acknowledge the good among those who do, but we must all be careful not to overestimate its importance - because to do so is to cause harm.

A couple of weeks ago, Alice posted a link to this story, about a child who is about to be taken away from his family for no other reason than the "tradition-based" legislation of the state of Florida. I discussed this with a conservative religious friend, hoping to persuade him that laws based more on tradition than conscience were wrong-headed. Unfortunately, he was unpersuaded. Perhaps this post will be a more effective effort at persuasion on this point, or perhaps not.

I have known a number of people who lived in families that sucked the very life out of them - families where there was abuse and neglect, and anything but familial love - who stayed for years, or indefinitely, while irreparable harm was being done to themselves and sometimes their children, mainly because they could not square the idea of divorce with their traditional values. There are parents, here in the U.S., and abroad, who have learned only poorly the power of unconditional love, acceptance and toleration towards their children and their children's growing minds, because their traditions taught them that strictness in discipline was the most important parenting tool (in fact, I have at times been guilty of this myself, and the harm from it was no small thing). There are other kinds of harm that come from deifying a faith tradition. There is a kind of cultivated ignorance that "Creation Scientists" have created becaue they feel their traditions threatened by scientific investigations in to the origins of modern life forms. Perhaps this harm is not so great as that which tears children from families or drives gay teens to suicide, but it should certainly be avoided if possible.

We must realize that we are all, religious or not, just people doing our best to understand and solve the problems that confront us. We use the tools at our disposal - conscience, compassion, reason, and tradition. Not one of us speaks for God or has any objective evidence of what God would wish - we only have human tradition. If we keep that in the forefront of our minds, and are careful to lead with consicence and reason, and let tradition follow us - especially when we see harm coming from too much reliance on tradition - then we will be able to build a better place for all of us. This is my call to everyone to come together, whether liberal or conservative, whether "tradition-based" or "reason-based", to introspect on the quality of our values, and to be sure that we are employing all of the tools that we can use to make sure those values are placed well, and that our work truly brings good instead of harm.

I'll just climb down from the pulpit now... take your turn up there if you like, in the comments thread.

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June 27, 2005

You know, it's harder than it looks being the Ecumenical UU - reaching out to people of various faiths and none, to try to find that ever-elusive common ground of values and understanding. It doesn't help that the post of EUU is a self-appointed one. Just who the heck do I think I am, anyway? Isn't it a little presumptious of this x-year old, uneducated nobody, only recently converted from the ranks of those who view all religious activity with more distaste and suspicion than is necessarily healthy, to think that I can help unite people of values, regardless of their faith, behind a common, life- (and spirit-?) affirming agenda?

Well, yes. It would be very presumptious if I really thought of myself as the Ecumenical UU, or thought that I had some grand role to play in this thing. Fact is, I fully recognize my limitations, and the need for smarter and more able people than I to work on the problems that our spiritual and/or enlightment-era ancestors have handed down to us. Even the moniker "The Ecumenical UU" is more of a statement of aspiration than actuality. I fully realize that these problems are institutional, and are much more grand than I will ever wrap my head around. In short, my expectations for my tiny part in the process of bringing people together around good ideas and good thinking are very small. That doesn't keep me from feeling discouraged when I happen across something like this

'agreeing that, among other things, Hell is a place where “all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.”'

Okay, I know we're supposed to be all tolerant and respectful, we're supposed to shut up about people's pious 'devout' beliefs, we're supposed to refrain from telling them that they're lost in the fog. But - but there's a limit. There's a limit, and with the drooling sadism of the Rapture novels and with 'statements of faith' like the above, I reach my limit.
[...]Why aren't they all curled up in little balls sobbing and screaming? Why doesn't that thought blight their lives? Why doesn't it give them nightmares? Why doesn't it torture them so much that they look for a way out and realize it's all a pack of lies?

I've wondered about this myself, before, back in my pre-UU days. Finding OB's stark rendering of those same questions set me to it again. I once again felt a world of separation from the people who believe like the folks at Patrick Henry... and even from the people who are too uncertain of their own moral position to commit themselves to the contrary position - that 'Hell is not a place where “all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.”' That feeling is kind of hopeless. There is a spiral effect... the next thing you know, you wonder if anyone is completely sane.

But, you know, there are a lot more ideas and attitudes than just these that defy explanation. I suspect that many people who live under the doctrine of eternal torment in Hell manage it with the help of some variation of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

My variation of the serenity prayer leaves out the supernatural references, and no small part of the fatalism. But I ask myself a question just as legitimate as OB's, and taken in parallel with hers: Knowing that there are so many people in our culture who think and feel this way, why am I not curled up in a ball, sobbing and screaming... why does this thoughtlessness or heartlessness of my fellow humans not give me nightmares, and blight my life?

The answer is that you can't live in this world without trying to change the things you can, to accept the things you can't change, and at least to have the wisdom to tell the difference some of the time, even if it is only after years of hard experience. Whether it be granted from "above", or learned with maturity, that kind of serenity is necessary to anyone who covets their own sanity. The serenity prayer - with or without its supernaturalistic appellations - is a necessity for me, and I imagine others benefit from some formulation of it, too. So, there's some common ground between myself and those of the religious bent that allows them to approve eternal conscious torture. Just so long as they don't fancy themselves as God's personal dungeon-masters.

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June 14, 2005

Who Says?

from - smijer

I'm building this post because I expect to have to refer back to it often in the future. Rather than working through this issue every time it comes up, I want to be able to post a link back to here each time I mention it, no matter what the context.

Who said, "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled"?

If you are a Christian, you probably believe that Jesus said these words. He may have. You may even believe that his disciple, Matthew, recorded them in the Gospel that bears his name. Possibly, though there is no good evidence that this was the case - the Gospel of Matthew didn't come with a name. The church traditionally ascribes it to him because of some "second century statements of Papias and Iranaeus", however it is apparent that Matthew depends largely on the Gospel of Mark.

So, to a Christian who believes that the Bible is the word of God, there is a strong case that Jesus said those words, based on the testimony of the Bible. The case for Matthew having recorded them is much weaker. The Bible doesn't say so, and church tradition may very easily be mistaken.

You can see that I am getting at the possibility that someone besides Jesus said the words ascribed to him in Matthew, but I want even the most conservative Christian to approach this possibility with an open mind. Knowing how difficult that can be when you are convinced that you already have an authoritative statement from God affirming that Jesus did say them, I want to make one more point before I move on. To the Christians reading this, I want you to consider the possibilty that your belief that the Bible is God's word doesn't stem directly from a faith in God. It is faith, yes. But, there is no direct link between God and the doctrine that the Bible is God's word. No matter how you slice it, the belief that the Bible is God's word comes from humans. Yes, it is possible that the Creator of the Universe could choose to use humans to record his message to the world, and preserve that message over the generations. But the belief that the Bible is an artifact of that event comes from humans. Yes, there are a few passages in the Bible that say that God is the author, but they are only as authoritative as the doctrine that everything in the Bible is true. Again, this is a human belief. I don't expect that anyone reading this has had a direct revelation from God about this doctrine. Still, I'm not trying to dispute the truth of the doctrine. I'm not asking you to give it up. I'm just asking you to bear in mind that it comes to you through human tradition, and approach alternative possibilities with an open mind, which you may be able to do better if you realize that your faith about the Bible is a faith in fallible humans rather than a faith in an infallible God.

Now, I'm going to open this up a little. I'm going to ask a question that parallels the opening question of this post: Who said, "Life, liberty or your pursuit of happiness will not be endangered because someone says a 30-second prayer before a football game. So what's the big deal? It's not like somebody is up there reading the entire book of Acts. They're just talking to a God they believe in and asking Him to grant safety to the players on the field and the fans going home from the game"?

If you don't know, it's probably because you haven't received a popular e-mail chain letter that has made its way around the internet many times. According to that chain letter, it was Paul Harvey who made these comments. Or, according to an alternate version of the e-mail, Samuel Thompson wrote it. In fact, Nick Gholson, columnist for the Wichita Falls Times Record wrote those words. Yet, so prevalent is the notion that they belong to Paul Harvey, that an editor of a popular women's magazine published them and attributed them to a Paul Harvey broadcast.

Yes, the error has been found, and has been posted at popular fact-checking sites like, and Snopes - not to mention the world famous Chain Letter Project. Despite this, most of the people who continue to propagate this e-mail by forwarding it along to their friends and co-workers, continue to think that Paul Harvey said these things, and continue to propagate the false claim through cyberspace.

This legend probably doesn't have the staying power that others do, and will probably die out soon enough. But, if the words of that e-mail survive as part of a tradition, the chances are much greater that they will be attributed to Paul Harvey than to Nick Gholson. And, if an archaelogist happens to find printed copies of the words from today - less than a decade after the words were originally penned - she will be very unlikely to discover the truth behind it. As many copies as she finds dating to today, the likelihood is that they will all bear Paul Harvey's name. Despite the fact that it is extremely easy in the internet age to check the veracity of Harvey's authorship, it is unlikely that the people most interested in those words - most likely to forward them to a friend - most likely to agree with them, will know the truth behind them. And, they were penned in 1999. Six years ago. And, Paul Harvey is still alive.

The oldest surviving manuscript copies of the Gospels date to the second century - about five decades after the Gospels were first written, and about seven decades after Jesus died.

We don't have to ask ourselves why the Gospel authors would lie to acknowledge that we just don't know who really said, "blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled". We don't know how Paul Harvey's name got attached to Nick Gholson's letter - Paul Harvey is a popular and beloved figure in many American households, and it is easy for one who agrees with those sentiments to imagine them said in Harvey's loveable sing-song voice. It doesn't really matter how it happened - we know that it happened. If it can happen now, when discovering the truth is as easy as browsing to the Snopes web page... if an editor from a popular women's magazine fails to do his due diligence and misleads his readers that he "picked up on" the words in a Paul Harvey Broadcast (instead of an internet chain letter), and not get "caught"... how much more easily could it happen when "the words of Jesus" were being disseminated by word of mouth, with virtually no means of fact-checking?

Does it mean that Jesus didn't create the beatitudes? Of course not. It's at least as likely that he did as he didn't. The point is that we should not feel very certain that he did. The point is that no one has any better reason for certainty on that matter than their faith in the human doctrine of Biblical inspiration. And, that goes for any of the words and deeds of Christ found in the Bible. Or, for that matter, the words and deeds of the Buddha in the Pali Canon.

In fact, Robert Price has collected several instances of elaborate legends about the life, work, and words of various historical persons that arose during their lifetimes and persisted after their death, sometimes despite the persons' own efforts to disavow the legends. The fact that these legends died out (in most cases) is an accident of history. The fact that the historical record preserves some efforts to lay them to rest is another happy accident. There are certainly no guarantees that this will be the case. The origins of many such legends are lost to history, altogether.

Again, this doesn't mean the stories of Jesus (or the Buddha, or Mohammed) aren't true. It just means that one should be careful not to be too dogmatic in one's beliefs about them. Those of us who lack faith in the human doctrine of the Bible as God's word have no particular reason to be convinced that Jesus said and did everything that is recorded about him in the Bible. Yet, some of us may see value in some of the teachings ascribed to him... like the Golden Rule... or "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled." With that in mind, we can look for common ground about the value of the Bible without getting too hung up in our disagreements about the human doctrines.

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June 12, 2005

Playing Devil's Advocate

from - smijer

Before I begin with today's installment of the Ecumenical UU, I want to share a thought for the day that was shared with me this morning. The Ecumenical UU found himself waiting ecumenically in the parking lot of the First Centenary United Methodist Chuch, and enjoying a conversation with a very pleasant gentleman who was a parishioner there. It was a long wait, and we had an opportunity to get to know one another a little. My first impression of him was very positive. During the course of conversation, he shared with me a little about his grandchildren, and the kind of world that they were inheriting. He quoted this to me from a calendar, and it struck me as humorous and true at the time. Now, it serves as a good introduction to the eUU column because. Like the subject of today's column, this thought was wise, but not entirely true:

There's nothing wrong with kids today that twenty years won't fix.

I've certainly been an exception to that rule. Nearly twenty years out from being a kid myself, I find that I still think I know it all, I'm still chronically unthoughtful, and I still behave in unnecessarily reckless or dangerous ways. On the other hand, I've improved quite a bit in all of those areas during the last couple of decades. Maybe in another ten years, I'll get there, too.

Certainly, I've also seen a fair number of others who carry relics from their youth through middle and into old age: arrogance, bitter attitudes, dangerous habits, what have you. But there is still wisdom in the saying. The gentle countenance and kindly manner of the man sitting next to me in the church parking lot, probably living through his seventh decade, reassured me that people really do mellow with time and experience, at least some of the time. That's a comfort to know.

My intention all week was to talk about the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel, and to refute the notion, originated by C.S. Lewis, that one could only acknowledge the value in some of those teachings if one submitted to the doctrine of Christ's divinity. But, I'm not up to doing that. I've had a tough weekend, and I don't have the energy and focus to put into a topic like that. I did, however, come across this discussion at One Good Move, borrowed from the famous Butterflies and Wheels, about whether the epistemic or consequentialist question belongs "first" in a discussion of religion. Should one settle the "truth" of a proposition about religion before worrying about its "consequences"?

I expect that people's answers to that question will lie on the side of "truth" when they are more radical - be they fundamentalist Christians or be they militant atheists... and that this group will tend to take the narrowest view of what is "true". I think that people of a more moderate bent, be they nice gentlemen from the parking lot of First Centenary UMC or be they ecumincal UU's who have no belief in the supernatural at all, will take a broader view of what is "true" and try to recognize the consequentialist value even in what is false.

And, I'll say more about this tonight, after I've mentally reviewed my notes and reflected on the subject over the course of the day today.

(to be continued...)

May 29, 2005

Creation Vs. Creationism

from - smijer

No, not evolution vs. creationism, a debate that has no subtext of use to the aspiring ecumenicalist. Instead, I mean Creation - a religious or philosophical doctrine meaning that God created the universe and all life in it. I contrast that notion with Creationism, by which I mean any of a variety of doctrines that struggles against certain scientific views about natural history, out of a religious or philosophical aversion to accepting the conclusions of scienc, often coupled with an aversion to honest admissions of ignorance.

First, a word about Creation. This docrtine, in isolation from any others, will be acceptable, but usually inadequate for most members of Western religions. I admit, I struggled unsuccessfully to broaden that doctrine so that it would include the viewpoint of those members of Eastern religions who believe that the universe is illusory, or that it is an artifice of deceipt. If any such persons are reading, you're invited to share suggestions for ways to improve on my formulation so that westerners and easterners can have meaningful discussions that revolve on this term.

If there are any Unitarians or others who will view this effort as misguided, it will likely be my fellow atheists, or perhaps those who disapprove of God of the Gaps theology. From the former, I ask only indulgence. To the latter, I swear my utmost to avoid turning this viewpoint into such a dubious theological viewpoint. An atheist, wishing to avoid theological misuse of his statement, would have difficulty sincerely stating belief in Creation as I presented in the first paragraph. It is an inescapable reality, though, that the origin of the universe, and even to a degree, the life that lives on Earth and humanity itself, lies within the domain of "Greater Mystery". Going back to my first post, I proposed - for reasons of facilitating discussion, that even those without a belief in God can agree on that tiny kernel. So, substituting the ecumenical usage of the term "God" for "Greater Mystery", I hope that there will be occasion even for us to agree to the doctrine of Creation, though we must be careful not to do so in a way that would leave the false impression that we agreed to a particular religious view of God.

But, don't get the impression that I believe atheists should do all of the compromising on this point. In fact, I'm afraid I must ask the people of faith to do the lion's share. I must ask them to give up any and all form of Creationism that they may cling to. Many already have.

To explain why, I will start with a word about scientific certainty. Scientists and their advocates usually try to be careful to convey the notion that science doesn't provide absolute certainty, and this is a very important and accurate observation, about which many people are unfortunately confused. But, one shouldn't go away with the impression that science is always terribly uncertain either. In fact, science done rigorously and extensively can put some matters far beyond the realm of doubt. Most non-scientists have difficulty relating to that level of certainty without comparing it to things about which they feel absolutely certain (but about which they still, honestly, are not). A trained cosmologist knows that the age of the universe is twelve billion years with about the same certainty that a first-time flyer in the modern world knows that their airplane will transport them to their intended destination: fairly certain, but not absolute. On the other hand, a trained cosmologist knows that the age of the universe must be measured in the billions of years with the certainty an experienced air traveler knows that there will be metal detectors at the airport. But, the well-trained and honest cosmologist knows that the age of the universe is greater than 6,000 years with the same certainty that the air traveler seated in the cabin of the plane has of his knowledge that he is not filming an action movie in Hollywood. That level of certainty is very stark.

Now, that level of certainty about the age of the universe doesn't belong to me. I'm not a cosmologist. It doesn't even belong to an expert solid state physicist, necessarily. Most scientists, and probably most lay people, agree to defer to the experts on the matter of the age of the universe. They recognize that it would be arrogant and foolhardy to insist the age of the universe must be closer to 6,000 than twelve billion. Not so for the young-earth creationist (YEC). The YEC has studied the Bible, about the truth of which he feels absolute certainty. He has used the hermeneutics and exegesis that he is most comfortable with to arrive at the younger age of the universe from his interpretation of the Bible. At this point, he has done no greater crime than to possess more than his share of hubris. But, if he makes a living by finding authentic-sounding arguments and selective data to make his point of view seem "scientific", then he is also guilty of fraud. And, if his insistence on his personal view becomes a wall that must be crossed by those less arrogant or better informed, then he cannot engage in constructive dialogue with the rest of us. This path leads to fundamentalism, and away from a loving and neighborly community - both values that are ostensibly important to most western (and eastern) religions and ethical systems. To the best of my knowledge, none of the Scriptures of the various religions command arrogance of the kind that leads to creationism and fundamentalism, but most of them do exhort their followers to be good neighbors.

YEC's are not the only creationists. Many people, well-enough schooled in cosmology or geology to have glimpse of how certain the antiquity of the universe really is, but without much understanding of biology, subscribe to Old Earth Creationism (OEC)... I believe that OEC, (and some YEC attitudes), result from an unhealthy unwillingness to say "I do not know". If these same folks had the same glimpse of certainty about the bedrock principles of biology as they have about cosmology and/or geology (or the same as most of us have about Newtonian physics within limits of accuracy in familiar regions of our environment), they would drop OEC like a hot rock. But, since they aren't experts, and they are unwilling to defer to those whose work is to study biology, they insist that the universe is old, but that life was created as their interpretation of the Scripture suggests. The ecumenical approach would be to abandon OEC in favor of a statement of honest uncertainty. "The experts believe A, but my interpretation of the Bible is B, and I just can't say for sure." Same goes for the proponent of "Intelligent Design" creationism (ID, or IDC). They are familiar enough with the science that they have to acknowledge the likelihood (or at least possibility) of an old universe, and they have to acknowledge the same for the broad strokes of biological evolution. Yet they insist that the origin of cellular mechanisms, as yet glimpsed only dimly by science, must be the product of God's direct tinkering with cell chemistry. It's the same disease - "I don't know, but I'm working on it" is too unambitious when "scripture, according to my interpration, knew it all the time," is available.

A side note: many YEC's and OEC's adopt the ID moniker, with hopes of catching a ride on that particular bandwagon into the science classrooms of public schools. Not everyone who wears the ID badge is well aware of the science of evolutionary biology, geology, or cosmology. For the record, I'm not prepared, in this post, to defend the notion that "alternative theories" should be excludeded from the science curriculum. I am, however, committed to this view, and I believe and hope that my fellow ecumenicalists who are willing to renounce creationism in favor of the Creation doctrine will also be inclined toward this view, at least upon reflection.

I don't ask lay creationists to give up their theological views about creation, or change their interpretation of scripture to fit with what science has revealed. I ask only that they refuse to put up a "wall of certainty" that insists their view must be superior to the views of the scientific consensus.

At this point, I and my ecumenical friends may have numerous areas of disagreement left about origins... as questions about the origins of such things as sin, sickness, scripture, and of religion itself are still very much up in the air. But, perhaps we've taken that crucial first step, and perhaps we can move forward from there. What do you think?

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Springing Up All Over

from - smijer

Epstein, 28, offers a more seasoned take. Just as believers can learn from humanists, he says, "I do think that there's a tremendous amount that we can learn from religious people. I'm particularly appreciative of the way that they take care of one another . . . I believe that there's a word, the human 'spirit,' that does signify something that we do believe exists, which is an emotional desire to live a good life and to search for sources of inspiration and empowerment."

Cutler acknowledges feeling hostility toward conservative evangelical Christians, but also says: "They were in the Sudan and advocating for intervention in the Sudan long before almost anyone else. I don't think the humanist community can assert itself, unless it's willing to take action."

Go read

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May 25, 2005

Spirit of Life

from - smijer

Fear that not. Be not awed. Know it to be the embodiment of thine own intellect. As it is thine own tutelary deity, be not terrified. Be not afraid, for in reality is it the Bhagavān Vairochana, the Father-Mother. Simultaneously with the recognition, liberation will be obtained: if they be recognized, merging thyself, in at-one-ment, into the tutelary deity, Buddhahood in the Sambhoga-Kāya will be won. -The Tibetan Book of the Dead

I'm in the middle of a kind of conversion experience. Last year, reading this blog, you would have found me expressing a scrupulous antagonism toward all things religious. Today, I find myself increasingly interested in reaching out to people of faith, hoping to find common ground, and help build a cultural ethic that is respectful of religion without the unethical, immoral, violence, political fractiousness, and anti-intellectual baggage that religion sometimes brings, and with a shared commitment to such values as reverence (for life, and also for a mysterious something larger than any one person's individual experience), humility, compassion, brother- and sister-hood, family, and community that many (though not most) religious traditions strive for.

Part of this change is politically inspired. I see my nation increasingly fracturing along religious fault lines. I've been guilty (GUILTY!) of practicing oppositional and confrontational politics and religion, which I've slowly learned does little more than to build walls higher, and alienate people from one another. Certainly, my guilt is a forgivable reaction to the purposeful divisiveness coming from politically powerful religious and political figures who are striving to shut out those who have progressive and secularist views from the national debate. But, by butting heads with them at every opportunity, using the same intemperate language and tactics as they, I discover that I am doing more to assist them in shutting the rest of us out than I am to keep the doors of productive discourse open.

I believe there are unexplored opportunities for reaching out to others - moderates, and those who are extreme because the only "spiritual" leadership they know comes from radicals. I have hope that we can find a common ground with many of our evangelical brothers and sisters, and people of all faiths and none, and build a better society.

One of the first stumbling blocks is language about God. It is so difficult to reach consensus when we do not share even a kernel of shared core beliefs and a common language with which to talk about them. That means that there is a need to add a new dimension to our lexicon of religion...

The first step to achieving this is to find what we can agree on when discussing "God". Being an atheist, if someone mentions to me that "God" wants so-and-so, my first instinct is to grab my wallet and remind them that they have no evidence of God. But, perhaps a more productive approach would be to talk to them about the tiny kernel we agree upon. God, like every other idea, belief, or even fact, is - at the end of the day - an abstraction in our minds. I have a mental concept of a building to which I will be driving in about an hour, where I will sit down at a desk and work in front of a computer terminal. Those things are real, but they are also mental images tied to a set of ideas that imperfectly represent them in my mind. So, whether God is real or not, God is also a set of mental images and ideas imperfectly represented in the mind of the believer.

And, though I don't have a belief in any of the theological concepts that go together in the mind of the believer to form their concept of God, I do have to acknowledge that I can concieve and believe in the fact that the universe I live in is much larger than my individual experience can comprehend. That "Greater Mystery", could - without doing violence to the term - be an understanding of God that even the atheist can share with the believer. After all, believers universally think of God (or the Dharma, or whatever) as just such a greater mystery.

I want to reshape my "Sunday Sermons" for the future from the starting point of shared values and earnestly shared ideas of "God". From now on, I intend for my Sunday post to go in the new blog category of "The Ecumenical UU", and to serve the purpose of building bridges within our culture that will serve traffic no matter what direction it is coming from. I would like to see evangelical types be able to sing with Unitarians the wonderful anthem (with a beautiful and simple melody) called Spirit of Life, and for everyone to sing together - with their own individual ideas about what the Spirit is, but also in celebration of a kernel of commonality between us all in reverence for that Spirit. The lyrics:

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea; move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free; Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

Update: By coincidence, Philocrites has news of Christians moving to embrace philosophical humanism... I hope they will consider folks like me allies.

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February 20, 2005

Carnival of the Godless

Armies of Bible scholars and theologians have for centuries found respected employment devising artful explanations of the Bible often not really meaning what it says. - J.S. Bullion, Jr., courtesy of Pharyngula

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and [that], when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son [is] stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; [he is] a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. - Deuteronomy 21:18-21

To the godless, one thing is quite clear about "fundamentalist" Christians. It's clear to nearly everyone about liberal Christians. That thing is that they do not really base their practices and beliefs on the Bible. Other religious groups who ostensibly take their doctrine from "received" scripture similarly put other influences ahead of scripture in determining doctrine.

If you ask a conservative Christian why they do not follow the Biblical edicts declaring murder to be required form of punishment for everyone from unruly children to "witches" to adulterers, they will likely give you a theological smokescreen worthy of a National Guard tear gas brigade... Inevitably its status as part of the "Old Testament" will be included in their reasoning for rejection of murder as discipline, and kosher on the dinner plate. But, they will continue to wag their fingers about those who violate the Ten Commandments or who ask to have them removed from a court house. Their preachers will still make the weekly fund-raising pitch out of Old Testament scripture, and to most of them, the Old Testament creation story is still to be taken quite literally. No such smokescreens are raised about the features of the Old Testament that they like.

I don't say this by way of criticism. In fact, I think its great when the thing that comes ahead of scripture is conscience, and I really don't mind if parishoners choose to put convenience ahead of scripture... though I hope that they will have conscience enough to put convenience ahead of scripture more on things like what's for dinner, and less on things about feeding my sheep. Furthermore, I think its wonderful that the more liberal congregations are conscious of the fact that they are putting other considerations ahead of scriptural dictates. They may justify this to themselves by suggesting that God is the force behind conscience, and that it is therefore proper to put that particular consideration first, but however they justify it, the fact remains that they are not allowing themselves to become morally corrupt on account of Iron Age ethics.

What is a problem is the conservative smokescreen. The reason is this: the conservative preachers, commentators and theologians argue that it is improper to put anything ahead of scripture. They take their own smokescreens about the old testament "dietary" or "customary" laws seriously, and continue to insist that conscience, when it conflicts with "scripture", is in error. At the same time, even they refuse to prescribe capital punishment for unruly children. The result is that they not only put conscience (in a few cases) ahead of scripture, but they also put prejudice there, and sometimes even more so. It is one thing to consciously pick and choose the scripture that you feel will help you make the most of life. It is quite another to pick and choose scripture without admitting that this is what you are doing, and to use your chosen scriptures to bolster your personal prejudices and to preach to your congegation that these scriptures that suit your prejudice are absolute and must be believed and followed, while quietly ignoring "feed my sheep". Personal prejudice is often nothing more than bigotry against a minority, or disdain of people whose station in life challenges you in some way.

This has been a mini-critique of conservative Christianity. I mean it not so much to tell anyone something they didn't already know about the fundies, but to lay a cornerstone for an eventual argument that the ethical godless should find reason to show solidarity with liberal Christians (and the liberal manifestations of other religions). I also mean it as an answer to the conservatives who would use such solidarity as a club with which to beat down the liberals in their religion. I grew up a member of a conservative religious family, and I distinctly remember the denunciations from the pulpit of "liberal" Christians as being in league with the evil "secular humanists". I didn't understand it then, but I think I do now. And I hope that we can help educate conservative laity about the phoniness and worthlessness of such attacks, and therefore help them resist the efforts their preachers make to convince them that their Bible should come before their conscience.

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