Category Archives: Contemporary Religion

Perpetual Revolution

in our use of the word “God”

My mentor for 20 years Joe Mathews was a graduate student and long-term friend of H. Richard Niebuhr. “Perpetual revolution” is a phrase and an emphasis that Mathews took from Niebuhr and passed on to me. This phrase was applied to all social structures, but especially to the perpetual revolution in religious forms.

One of Mathews’ favorite spins was about how Spirit cries out, “Give me form,” and how the form that we give to Spirit can never contain the Spirit that cried out for form.  In this same way, what Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” is a perpetual revolution. Such monotheism is “radical” all the way back to Moses and all the way forward to any radical new edition of Christianity.

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Interreligious Relations

ISIS-type Muslims and KKK-type Christians hate one another. They also hate Jews and any other group that seems to reject or despise their particular religious fanaticism. And a whole lot of Jews, Christians, and Muslims are laking in the awareness that these three religious, when true to their origins, have more in common than they differ.

The differences between these three religions are important, and their historical battles in previous centuries were seriousness conflicts that smoked out deep truths and social benefits for the future of our species. But today, the overriding imperative is to honor our common humanity. This honoring includes making allies among the true followers of the Exodus revelation of realism, the Jesus as Messiah revelation of realism, and the Mohammedan revelation of realism. We can picture this companionship as three different spirit explorers staring into same deep pit of Mystery—each one telling us in a different language what they see. Like blind persons touching different parts of the same elephant, these and other vital religious heritages present different pathways to the same overwhelming, inexhaustible Mystery.

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Innocent Suffering

Several Christian theologians, including H. Richard Niebuhr, have used the term “innocent suffering” to provide us with clues to our ethical priorities. What do we mean by this term?

For example, it is certainly true that African American persons in the United States confront an up-hill slope compared to their white brothers and sisters. To even be a candidate for the office of president, Barack Obama had to be qualified way beyond the norm for this job. Though we might not support some of Obama’s policies, we had in him a superbly qualified person: a law scholar; a public speaker of Abraham Lincoln class (many of whose speeches will be remembered for centuries); a talented comedian seldom seen in public office; a person of self control, obvious sanity, and sincere intent to be a positive influence. Had he had any of the flaws or weaknesses of Donald Trump, he would never have been elected Senator, much less President. Can we imagine the response of voters, had Obama said things about women that Trump apparently got away with (at least with millions of voters)? A white man in our culture often avoids sufferings that a black person will almost certainly experience.

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Deep River Crossing

Called to a Next Christianity

Deep river
My home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground

These opening lines to an African American church-song illustrates the depth of Christian awareness that is hidden in many of those old songs. This “deep river” is an allusion to the cross—understood as an inward death to all our temporal idols. And “campground” is an allusion to the resurrection—to the authenticity that is experienced on the other side this “deep-river crossing.” Few church goers, black or white, have probed the depth of this understanding of the cross and the resurrection. Few of us actually view the resurrection as the hidden side of the cross, or see both cross and resurrection as possible experiences in the depths of our own human authenticity.

Oh don’t you want to go
to that Gospel feast
that promised land
where all is peace.

The death/resurrection crossing is a feast, good news, a promised land of living in peace with the WAY IT IS essentially for all human beings everywhere, no matter what their grim or privileged circumstances. These deep meanings of the Christian revelation are missing in most of the living that goes on in the world today. Why is that so? That will be the question of this essay.

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Time?

In both contemporary physics and contemporary religious writings “time” remains a mysterious topic. Nothing is more obvious than time to an elder who has watched babies grow into adults. “How time flies!” is almost an automatic exclamation. Nevertheless, in both our scientific quest for truth and in our interior or contemplative quest for truth, “What is time?” arises as an unusually profound topic.

Contemplative Time

When we look within our own conscious being, we see ourselves living in an ongoing quality we call “now.” Time seems to flow through this now. The past is just a memory taking place now as content in our memory banks. And the future is only an anticipation, taking place now in our guesses about future nows that have yet to “happen.” In our experiences of contemplation or art participation or solitary brooding, “now” continues to be our core experience of time

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Some Easter Poetry

Resurrection is about me!
I always sort of knew that.
Why else would I care about it?

And resurrection is not about life after my death.
Resurrection happens now.
Was that not so for Mary, Peter, and Paul?

So what was it that had died in them or me.
that made a resurrection possible?
What died was who I thought I was,
what I thought reality was,
what I thought thought was,
what I thought WAS was and IS is.

Yes, everything had died!
Is that not what death is?
Gone, gone, gone of everything!

Resurrection is what is left
when everything has died!
Leaving plain me, plain reality,
plain thought, plain plainness.
human essence, profound humanness
Holy Spirit, Body of Christ, the REAL ME.

This grand GIFT
is given at the tomb.
No wonder those women in Mark’s narrative
fled from the tomb in terror
saying nothing at all to anyone.

Let us picture these women in the resurrection story in Mark’s “GoodNews” story. They came to this tomb with spices to honor the body of their mentor. Their male companions had already fled to Galilee. Let us further imagine that these women discovered, instead of one more dead body, that they were now, in their own bodies, the resurrection of Jesus. They were Jesus—not Jesus exactly, but the life that was in Jesus was now seen as their own life.

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Uses of the Word “God”

A Definition of Theology

“God“ is a relationship word—a word of devotion similar to sweetheart, lover, friend, rock, foundation, shepherd, mother, father, and other such words of devotion.  When  we call the Final Mystery “God,” we are making a religious confession.  If we are not making a religious confession, we do not need the word “God.”  We can get along without the word “God” or any word like it, unless we are a self-conscious Jew, Christian, Muslim, or a member of some other religious community that uses ”God” as a devotion word—as a relationship word for the Final Mystery.

Honestly living within today’s culture, we find no heavenly realm of rational meanings that humans can access to make sense of the absurdity of a Big Bang Beginning, or of an evolution from the single-celled organisms that mysteriously arose on this minor planet of a marginal star in one of the hundred billion or so galaxies.  The sheer Mystery of this vast expanse and of the infinitesimal minuteness of  this physical cosmos is not made less Mysterious by presuming a First Cause or an Ongoing Creator of all this wonderment.  As a solution to scientific meaning or contemplative awareness, the word “God” is not needed for any rational solution.
If we call this Final Mysteriousness “God,” we are making an act of will, an act of devotion, an act of commitment, a leap of trust.  Trust of this Final Mysteriousness does not alter the fact that we still know absolutely nothing about this Mystery— nothing with our scientific research and nothing with our contemplative inquiry.  We know things, but all that we know is approximate and changing.

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Washed of Your Era

It was in those days that Jesus arrived from the Galilean village of Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. All at once, as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens split open, and the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove. A voice came out of Heaven, saying, “You are my dearly-beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!  Mark 1:9-11

Faced with such writings almost 2000 years old, biblical interpretation today requires a bit more work than simply reading the stories. It is important to know that most of these biblical stories are not scientific history, but it is needful to do a bit of scientific history to find what these stories meant to their authors. But such history is only the beginning. Here are my four steps for interpreting a passage of biblical writing.

1. Scientific History: What do we know about when and where this text was written, who wrote it, and what probable meanings were being given to the specific words used by this time-bound story teller?
2. Literary Analysis: Was this a poem, a teaching, a fictional story, a historical legend, a theological myth, etc.?
3. Metaphorical Translation: Interpreting any transcendent, two-layer, story-talk with our contemporary, existential, one-layer, transparency language.
4. “Word-of-God” Suggestions: What might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living?

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New Testament Living

How does a viable and vital next Christianity need to be grounded in the originating revelation witnessed to in the New Testament texts? In our contemporary culture we honor or we need to honor both the scientific and the contemplative approaches to truth. How does this affect Biblical interpretation? Following is a four-point summary of the biblical interpretation methods I am promoting.

(1) Scientific History: What do we know about when and where a text was written, who wrote it, and what probable meanings were being given to the specific words used by this time-bound story teller?

(2) Literary Analysis: Was this a poem, a teaching, a fictional story, a historical legend, a theological myth, etc.?

(3) Metaphorical Translation: Interpreting any transcendent, two-layer, story-talk with our contemporary, existential, one-layer, transparency language.

(4) “Word-of-God” Suggestions: What might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living?

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My Contemporary Theologizing

Perhaps I owe the readers of these e-mails (which are also Realistic Living blog posts) some information on who I am as a Christian theologizer. I am certainly not a great scholastic— a theologian in the company of Rudolf Bultmann, whom I consider to be the most important Christian biblical scholar and theologian of the last two centuries. I also include Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoefer in my smallest circle of great recent Christian theologians. All four of these scholarly luminaries lean strongly toward what Tillich calls the “Protestant principle”—by which he means the perpetual critique of all religious and cultural assertions. These four theologians are also “catholic” thinkers in the sense of fully honoring the whole history of Christian expression. I am especially indebted to Paul Tillich and H. R. Niebuhr for my love of history and my perspective on church history.

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