Friday, October 26, 2007

Fact and myth

A comment on my latest posting reflects misunderstandings so common among Christians that I address it here.

That Jesus lived in Palestine two thousand years ago is accepted as history. That God is a male individual, a father who had a son without the involvement of any female, is myth. It is an imaginative story with inspirational power, not factual history.

Facts are right or wrong; religious myths are symbolic. They must not be confused either with facts or with “myth” in the popular understanding of a worthless, mistaken belief.

A careful reading of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky should help to clarify these distinctions. Please read the book carefully to understand why it is not an insult to say the Christian story is myth. Understanding our own myth as myth will, I hope, facilitate abandonment of our exclusive claims and promote harmony between religions.

With regard to pagan resemblance to and influence on Christian belief, the factual evidence for this is too abundant to summarize in a few paragraphs.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why go to Mass?

In the past week I have spoken to several groups and individuals about God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky and am gratified to learn that I articulate what people have vaguely intuited. Their search for spiritual meaning propelled them past the barrier built by religious authority.

But I received a very good question. If I confess disbelief in a Christian god, don’t I feel odd or even guilty participating in the Mass? How do I justify it? How do I reconcile my informed consciousness with the traditional liturgy? After all, scholarship tells me the Mass is descended from liturgies in honor of Hellenistic pagan gods.

Bear with me while I seem to digress. When I learned that the Bible is not factual history, I tried being an atheist. To overstate my reaction, I thought religion was duping the naïve and I wanted none of it. Then the pain of life threw me into a loving religious fold, the warmth of which overpowered my desire to be intellectually cool. My need kept me in that fold.

I observed the wisdom and goodness of religious people and the efficacy of religious practice, and I realized, with time, that our differences of belief are not so important. Religious beliefs are ways of explaining spiritual reality. From the time of Jesus’ death on the cross, there have been multiple interpretations of it by his followers, multiple spiritual lessons drawn from it, multiple Christianities. Efforts to govern beliefs inevitably fail.

In the words of Elaine Pagels,
Christianity has survived for thousands of years as each generation relives, reinvents, and transforms what it received.” This is no less true of non-Christian traditions—Hindu, Navaho, Dakota, Muslim, pagan, and others.
But aren’t some beliefs right and others wrong? We’re not talking about facts—this is about spiritual nourishment. In Pagels’ Beyond Belief, she writes,
There is no easy answer to the problem that the ancients called discernment of spirits. Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such discriminations and insists on making them for us. Given the notorious human capacity for self-deception, we can, to an extent, thank the church for this.

But she warns against “unquestioning acceptance of religious authority.” We must not evade our individual responsibility of answering the invitation to ask, to seek, to knock. The answers we find differ from those of others at the same rituals, and yet we nourish each other.

My way of reconciling various views is to interpret Christian terms inclusively. “Christ,” “Paschal Mystery,” and “Reign of God,” to name some, reverberate with deeper meaning as a result.

That Hellenistic pagans contributed to our religious practice does not demean either our practice or theirs. It indicates religious kinship. Let us be grateful for it and release the wish to be superior.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ahmadinejad and Desmond Tutu

Check out this excellent article: “Ahmadinejad's U.S. visit was a missed opportunity for us” by Joan Chittister at

I have to correct a detail in my previous blog post. Tutu’s address at Metropolitan State has not yet happened. The speech I quoted was given in Boston in 2002, on which basis St. Thomas banned him. The issue is the same: Tutu’s daring to criticize Israel’s human rights abuses brought him the charge of anti-Semitism.

Inappropriately, according to Jewish Voice for Peace. It reported on October 3 that “St Thomas Justice and Peace Studies program were thrilled when Bishop Tutu agreed to speak at the University" but administrators did a scientific survey of the Jews of Minneapolis, which included querying exactly one spokesperson for Minnesota's Jewish Community Relations Council and several rabbis who taught in a University program" and concluded that Tutu is bad for the Jews and should therefore be barred from campus.”

I add one more detail to maintain scrupulous accuracy. Careful readers will notice an inappropriate quotation mark in the paragraph above. It’s as I found it at This and other sites indicate widespread criticism of St. Thomas’ move. They give me hope that Americans, including Jews, are moving beyond uncritical and unconditional support for the State of Israel. Soon the U.S. government must do the same.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Tutu insulted by St. Thomas

Shame on the University of St. Thomas for canceling Desmond Tutu’s appearance there.

Tutu is a bishop who helped to end apartheid in South Africa. A Nobel laureate, he has won many other prizes for his work in human rights, peace and justice. Why would St. Thomas do this to a man of stellar credentials? Because, like American politicians, it caved in to the Israel lobby. Here is some of what Tutu said at Metropolitan State, where he had to give his address instead of at St. Thomas.

“I have been very deeply distressed in all my visits to the Holy Land, how so much of what was taking place there reminded me so much of what used to happen to us Blacks in Apartheid South Africa.”

“I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at the road blocks and recall what used to happen to us in our motherland, when arrogant, young white police officers would hector, and bully us, and demean us when we ran the gauntlet of their unpredictable whims – whether they would let you through or not. When they seemed to derive so much fun out of our sullen humiliation.

“I have seen such scenes, or heard of them, being played out in the Holy Land. The rough and discourteous demands for IDs from the Palestinians were so uncannily reminiscent of the infamous pass law raids of the vicious Apartheid regime. We saw on those visits, or read about things that did not happen even in Apartheid South Africa. The demolition of homes because of a suspicion that one or other family member was a terrorist. And so, all paid a price in these acts of collective punishment.

“We don’t know the exact truth because the Israelis won’t let the media in. What are they hiding? But perhaps, more seriously, why is their no outcry in this country at the censorship of their media? . . .

“Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten the humiliation of wearing yellow arm bands with the Star of David? Have my Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten the collective punishment? The home demolitions? Have they forgotten their own history so soon? And have they turned their back on their profound noble and religious traditions? Have they forgotten that their God, our God, is a God who sides with the poor, the despised, the down trodden?
“We condemn the violence of suicide bombers. And if Arab children are taught to hate Jews, we condemn the corruption of young minds too. But we condemn equally unequivocally the violence of military incursions and reprisals that won’t let ambulances and medical personnel reach the injured.”

Tutu’s words were exactly what all Americans, including Jews, need to counter the very effective propaganda machine of the Israeli government. As Tutu commented, “The Israeli government is placed on a pedestal where to criticize them is immediately to be dubbed anti-Semitic. As if the Palestinians were not Semitic.”

Obviously Tutu knows and respects Judaism, and I personally find nourishment in Jewish spiritual writings. I am certain that if American Jews knew what is really happening in Palestine, they would not support the State of Israel so unconditionally.

Someday Americans will be ashamed of their tacit support for Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians.
October 11:
We can thank Jewish Voice for Peace for the welcome news that St. Thomas reversed its previous decision to ban Bishop Desmond Tutu. They along with other Jewish voices counter the Israel lobby led by AIPAC. They inform Americans of the facts in Palestine. I hope their leadership will nudge our country toward more compassion for the Palestinians.