Category Archives: Realistic Pointers 2015

Do I Want to Be a Christian?

When I first began my work in Christian religious renewal, the people with whom I was working were mostly nominal Christians who were interested in knowing answers to questions like: What do we mean by the word “God” What does it mean to say, “God loves us? What does it mean to call Jesus, the “Christ”? What are we pointing to with by being filled with Holy Spirit? How do we distinguish the true church from its many temporal manifestations and from its massive perversions? And what role does social justice play in a renewed Christian life? That was what I faced and learned to deal with in the nineteen sixties.

Today, in this second decade of the 21st century, many people have no interest, positively or negatively, in these old Christian symbols. If there is some relevant meaning in these old symbols, they don’t care. They even fear that finding some relevant meaning in this confused heritage will justify carrying on with the oppressive forms of Christianity that they have known and now wish to thoroughly avoid. Some of these folk have given up on religion of any sort. Why have a religious practice at all? What good is it? Who needs It? Some of these folk have given up on Christianity, but have moved on to a Buddhist practice or an Islamic practice or a Pagan practice or some other religious practice that they much prefer. Or perhaps some fresh, new therapeutic community or scientific discipline seems to help them well enough to not need a religion.

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Cross and Resurrection

This post is part of a commentary on the last three chapters of the Gospel of Mark

It is fair to say that the symbols of cross and resurrection are as central to an understanding of the Christian revelation as meditation and enlightenment are to Buddhism. Yet both cross and resurrection seem cryptic to many, even weird.

The last three chapters of Mark’s 16-chapter narrative are about the meaning of cross and resurrection as understood by that mid-first-century author and the surprisingly vigorous religious movement of which Mark was a part. I know of no better way to introduce to a contemporary explorer of Christianity the power of these two symbols than with a commentary on the last three chapters of Mark’s Gospel.

Members of a our current scientific culture may be excused somewhat for having a weak understanding of resurrection. Most of us know, if we are honest, that belief in a literal return to life of a three-day-old corpse is superstition. Yet this meaning of resurrection has been paraded as Christian by many. Mark did not see resurrection in this light. Or perhaps we might better say, “Mark did not see resurrection in this darkness,” for a literal return from the dead means nothing deeply religious to Mark or to you or me. If such an event were to happen today, it would be open to hundreds of speculative explanations, none of which would be profoundly or convincingly religious.

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Belief and Faith

Belief, Faith, and the History of Christianity
a dialogue with Harvey Cox

In 2009 Harvey Cox published an accessible, well written book entitled The Future of Faith. I agree with his basic insight that the history of Christian religion can be meaningfully viewed in three overarching periods: (1) the early period before Constantine, (2) the period following Constantine until recently, and (3) a current period that is more like the first period than the second.

Cox characterized that first period as an age of faith, the second period as an age of belief, and our present and future period as another age of faith. Cox is clear that faith is an act of our deep existence and that belief is a matter of images, stories, and doctrines of the mind. I agree that it is important to understand this distinction between faith and belief, and also the relationship between them. Cox’s elaborations using this basic model are convincing and useful; nevertheless, I want to suggest that a still deeper perspective is needed. For example, Cox is clear that faith was not entirely dead in period two, and that the confusion of faith with belief existed in period one. Nevertheless, I will show how easy it is for Cox’s readers to idealize period one and demonize period two. Though Cox does not, some Protestants have virtually claimed that faith died shortly after the Bible was written and was not recovered until the time of Luther. This view of Christian history is deeply wrong.

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So What is Morality?

The essence of morality is not a gut response, but a social construction. Morality is like the custom of stopping at stop signs. At some point our society simply decided that stopping at red lights is the thing we are supposed to do. All morality is like that. If our morality is about marriage being only between a man and a woman, that is just a custom some social group constructed. It has no more authority than that. If morality means not killing people, except in circumstances of self defense, appropriate police action, or declared warfare, that is also something that a society has decided.

We can have gut responses to our moralities. We like them. We don’t like them. We are nauseated by people to violate them. We enjoy seeing people violate them. These gut-responses are not our moralities, but attitudes we ourselves take toward the familiar moralities that our society, community, parents, or peers have taught us. Our superego, as Freud called it, is nothing else than our internalized social moralities, plus the various attitudes we take toward those moralities.

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Interreligious Dialogue, Shallow and Deep

We live in a time in which dialogue with religions other than our own is almost unavoidable.  Such dialogue can be nurturing to us and can also build cooperative relations for social action among the most progressive practitioners of this wide array of very different religions.

The downside of this opportunity is what I call “religion hopping”—jumping from the most shallow portions of one of these grand religious traditions to the next, to the next, to the next, but never following any religious practice to the depths of that profound humanness that valid religions come into being to express.

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Religion and Quasi-Religion

Success with interreligious dialogue and with interreligious mission depends upon an agreed upon definition of “religion.” We must not define “religion” in such a way that Christianity is a religion and Buddhism is not. Therefore, belief in a Person-like Supreme Being cannot be our definition of religion. Let me suggest, therefore, the following definition of religion:

Religion is a temporal, humanly-created, down-to-Earth practice that points beyond itself in expression of an ultimate devotion to that which is Ultimate.

This definition requires understanding what we mean by “Ultimate,” but first a few examples of practices that are an expression of an ultimate devotion to that which is not ultimate. Nationalism is an example of an ultimate devotion to a nation, a reality that is not ultimate. Similarly, humanism is an example of an ultimate devotion to the human, a reality that is not ultimate. Communism is an example of an ultimate devotion to a theory of economic history—again an ultimate devotion to something not ultimate. These three widespread devotions might be called quasi-religions, for what they do takes the place of religion, if religion is defined as an ultimate devotion to that which is Ultimate.

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The Cry for Equity

One of the lessons I have learned from the Old Testament prophets is how poetry is more powerful than prose to uncover the depth of our social ills. So I have attempted to write poems on social topics. I have called these “teaching poems,” for I do not pretend to specialize in the art form of poetry. Here is a poem on a topic that still characterizes the current news media.

I Love Politics

Ronald Reagan was wrong
to make “regulation” a curse word
and create disdain for government,
politics, and politicians.

I say, let us love politics
and piss on the private sector.

Let us make business obey the rules.
and let us create better rules—
stricter rules—and enforce them

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Loving God Means Loving the Earth

Three times Peter denied knowing his mentor.
Hundreds of times Senator Inhofe has denied global warming.
“It’s a hoax,” says he.
Peter feared a fickle population and
the chance of joining Jesus in being tortured to death.
The Oklahoma Senator fears fickle voters and
the loss of campaign cash from the fossil-fuel establishment.

Loving God
means trusting the Final Reality to be doing all things well.
Denying the climate crisis mean denying
the scientific facts
about God’s doings –
denying responsibility for the stronger winds in tornado alley,
for the fiercer droughts and fires in Western places,
for the wilder oceans in New York City subways.
And these clearly undeniable facts
are only the beginning.

As Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets slide into the oceans,
entire Pacific islands disappear beneath the brine,
along with coastlands in Florida and Bangladesh.
Let us also weep for New Orleans.
Yes, even a few Texans know
that it is not wise to mess
with Mother Nature.

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The Glory & Tragedy of Projection

Projection: noun (1) an estimate of what might happen in the future based on what is happening now, (2) the attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects; especially: the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defense against anxiety, (3) the display of motion pictures by projecting an image from them upon a screen.

It has happened that human beings have projected the quality of human consciousness onto a tree or mountain. In these cases it is relatively easy to understand that such projections are projections, not facts. But let us notice how often we stub our toe on some inanimate object, and then take out our wrath on that object as if it had intended to hurt us. We also project the human form of consciousness upon our pets – a type of consciousness that they do not actually possess. Our dogs and cats are conscious beings, and we humans share in the type of consciousness they have, but these other intelligent, mammalian species do not manifest the uniquely human symbol-using, art-creating, language-forming, culture-building form of consciousness.

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Radical Pedagogy

Our job as prophets of Reality, as teachers of religion and ethics, as aware persons of our profound humanness is to tell the truth.  We just tell the truth as we see it, the truth we genuinely believe has been shown to us by that Final Reality that baffles us as it also informs us.  We begin such radical pedagogy from within our own awareness of how Final Reality has revealed to us some measure of truth.  We do not know the whole Final Truth, we only know what has been revealed to us – a measure of truth that makes real for us our commission to speak truth to our times.

As radical pedagogues, it is our assignment to be as clear as we can, honoring all sources of truth – scientific, contemplative, and socially practical,workable ethical insight.   Radical pedagogues just tell the truth, live the truth, keep learning the truth, and stick to doing so.

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