Saturday, November 29, 2008

Paul vs. Jesus

I just finished a book that forcefully argues one of my points in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky—the discrepancy between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul. In How Jesus Became Christian (copyright 2008), Barrie Wilson gives the Jewish perspective on that gap. Vividly he shows the conflict evident in New Testament letters between Paul, whom he dubs “a Jewish dropout,” and the Jewish Christians led by Jesus’ brother James, who continued Jewish practice while upholding the memory of Jesus. Wilson writes,
So the human teacher . . . became elevated quickly into a Christ and then into a God. . . . How did a God come to replace a thoroughly human, Jewish Jesus?
Wilson attributes Christian anti-Semitism to “guilt at having killed off the historical Jewish Jesus in favor of a Gentile God-human.” Jews were witnesses to this “crime,” the only ones who “could ‘blow the cover’ off” the crime, and this explains “the sustained attack on Judaism throughout Christian history,” according to Wilson.

I don’t think guilt explains anti-Semitism; I think it’s the simple human tendency to oppose the other. Christianity persecuted other religious rivals— “witches,” heretics, and Muslim infidels—just as brutally.

I would correct more of Wilson’s assertions. He assumes, for instance, that Jesus was preaching a political “Kingdom,” that he proposed “sweeping away Roman rule.” It’s true that Jewish messiahs were political, but I join the consensus of Christian scholars that Jesus did not follow that line. He awakened awareness of the inner realm of Spirit inside each person; it’s one reason I insist on the word “Reign” instead of “Kingdom.”

Instead of passing on the teaching of Jesus, Christianity taught the myth of Christ broadcast by Paul. This realization I discuss in my chapter, “The Only-Through-Jesus Stance.” Barrie Wilson adds a credible analysis of Acts, providing detail for the scholarly conclusion that the Book of Acts is largely, maybe mostly, fiction.

Acts would have us believe that 2 rival religions—the Jesus Movement and Paul’s Christ Movement—formed a harmonious whole. Wilson and Christian scholars agree it was not so. This is abundantly clear in Paul’s Letter to Galatians and the Letter of James (not in all Bibles) but even clearer in early Christian writings that did not become part of the New Testament.

Wilson accurately underlines the non-historical direction taken by Christianity—away from teaching Jesus’ message to teaching beliefs about Jesus. Despite my differences with some of his assumptions, I appreciate his very-Jewish perspective.

Friday, November 28, 2008

What’s good about the financial crisis

This writing of mine appeared in the St. Cloud Times: “Cutting back is good for planet.”
The current financial crisis could be a good thing if it stops foolish consumer bingeing, which is destroying the planet and its people.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Distinguish religion & spirituality

I swim in contrasting spiritual cultures—with those who are attached to religion and with those who are hostile or indifferent to religion. I reconcile them by keeping in mind an important distinction. Religion and spirituality are not the same thing, but they are often conflated. I think distinguishing between them could ease communication between two communities that chafe against each other.

Spiritual experiences that happen to everyone are called religious, and this conflation of the two deprives those who want to avoid religion of appreciating their essentially spiritual nature. In a discussion with atheists, I asked whether they didn’t prefer kindness to cruelty. Yes, they said, but that’s not spiritual. Not spiritual! It reminds me of a government declaring, “We don’t torture,” and, when given an example of their torturing, simply changing the definition of torture.

In my July 31 blog post, I cited a feature on artist Meinrad Craighead in the National Catholic Reporter, which stated that her “first real religious experience, at the age of seven, was not in the church but in nature, with her dog.” I would change a word in this statement; her experience was spiritual, not religious. Its only connection with church or religion was that religious people receive something similar in church.

I dare say many artists experience the Presence in beautiful nature but would deny that it’s spiritual. And scientists experience wondering awe in contemplating the universe, but many deny that the experience is spiritual because they associate spirituality with religion, which they regard with disgust as naïve and corrupt.

Those of us who see beauty in religion as well as the fraud and foolishness could help to bridge this divide by refraining from language that implies we own spirituality. Christians are prone to taking ownership of all things spiritual. Someone behaves generously and we call it “Christian.” That’s an insult to non-Christians who are just as apt to behave altruistically.

A family establishes mealtimes as the space for deep sharing and a Catholic might call it eucharist. But that puts a Christian cast on it and it could turn off an educated, enlightened family who desire no attachment to religion.

The great theologian Karl Rahner famously termed non-Christians who express a deep spirituality “anonymous Christians.” A Buddhist gently let him know it was insulting by asking how he would feel if he were called an “anonymous Buddhist.”

Given the right language, every human being responds to spiritual matters. This is why we must distinguish between the terms. Atheists are among the most spiritually inclined people I know. It is the reason they see religious nonsense and corruption and react negatively. But most over-react, and they sweep away what makes humans most human, the spiritual sensitivity at our core.

Some of the responsibility for that must be borne by Christians who have attached our brand onto all of spirituality. I urge fellow Christians to step out of our comfortable envelope where everyone uses language that absolutizes our particular brand of spiritual experience. It insulates us, inoculates against awareness of the harm in our language. Let’s step outside that box and stop referring to every experience that enlarges awareness of Transcendence as religious.

Using greater sensitivity in our language, we could join those who disdain religion in our common quest for truth, beauty, and goodness in all their forms. Honor, honesty, courage, cruelty, loveliness, ugliness, nobility, evil, and deception stir every human heart, whether religious or not. EVERYone, even the most despicable torturer, works for some perceived good.

To those who lump all religious people together, know that educated religious do not believe in the god you reject and ridicule. We’re not stupid. Between you and us lies the common ground of TRUTH/BEAUTY/GOODNESS that we could claim together if religion and spirituality were discussed as distinct from each other.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


October 9, 2008
Before I published God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky I had written several times as much on theological questions. One topic was the Trinity. Since a comment came in on that, I’ve decided I need to write some blog posts on it.

Today I’ll just say that the Trinity is not unique to Christianity. There are Buddhist and Hindu trinities, many Hellenistic pagan trinities, and who knows how many other religious ones, among them Goddess trinities. As many thinkers have stated, the universe tends toward three-fold structures: animal, vegetable, and mineral; maiden, mother, and crone; larva, pupa, and butterfly; solid, liquid, and gas; past, present, and future; the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue; and Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Alert readers will discover many more examples.

I expect I will return to this topic intermittently. ********

It stuns me that as early as the second century some Christians understood what many at the beginning of the twenty-first century seem incapable of understanding: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are images and symbols, not facts.

Valentinus was a gnostic leader whom Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in southern France, considered so threatening that late in the second century he wrote five volumes refuting him. Valentinus pointed out that names for God such as judge and king are not the same as what he called "the depth," and his followers understood that depictions in scripture do not capture the incomprehensible, mysterious depth we call God.

The author of the gnostic Gospel of Philip stated that
[names can be] very deceptive, for they divert our thoughts from what is accurate to what is inaccurate. . . . So also with 'the Father,' and 'the Son,' and 'the Holy Spirit' and 'life,' and 'light,' and 'resurrection,' and 'the Church,' and all the rest . . .

Christians ridicule believers in non-Christian deities, but we also worship idols when we treat our religious symbols as if they were concrete objects that might be seen and touched. As if they came from history instead of the imagination. As if they were absolute definitions instead of images. As if discussions about them could produce provable information. As if, when we die, we'll meet a male individual with the name “Father.”

The picture of three gods in the sky is so vivid that theologians envisioned distinct roles for them and had debates about which person did what. Was the Father suffering on the cross along with his Son? Did the Son have a hand in generating the Holy Spirit? Proper forms of prayer were discussed. Should it be to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit or to the Father with the Son and the Spirit? These are trivial questions like "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" that medieval Churchmen are ridiculed for discussing.

Ordinary Christians are more apt to wonder, as did one of my fellows at the School of Theology,
How did the Son feel when the Father told him to die for humans?
After hearing this astounding evidence of naïvete, I started saying more boldly what was rising inside me: God is not three guys in the sky!

Seminarians can be completely caught up in the myth and no one informs them during their training for the priesthood that it is myth. The Church uses the symbolic terms as if they were absolute definitions, with the result that intelligent people think our God-images are God. Unlike the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, we no longer envision “the Lord” as a tribal mascot who orders the slaughter of our enemies, but we also profane the Holy One with our gods.

Social implications of Trinity
(June 14, 2009)
I cherish the memory of sitting in his class at the School of Theology when the renowned Godfrey Diekmann OSB confessed to us that he wondered whether there were more persons in God than three. And it was a confession—he asked us not to spread his surmise, afraid of negative reaction.

I wouldn't be surprised if I were the only student in the class who remembers the moment. It was memorable to me because I was chaffing at the seminarians’ incessant father/son/he/he/him/his talk, exactly as if the ultimate mysterious power of the universe were 3 guys in the sky.
A religious sister with whom I shared this asked what I thought prompted him to say that. I wish I had asked him to elaborate. I can only guess that he was realizing the inappropriateness, the inadequacy, of taking Father/Son/Spirit literally, realizing that the Trinity stands for more than these three names, that it’s not 3 specific entities. This realization is common among theologians, and Godfrey was meditating on it mystically.

My questioner also wanted to know what I meant by saying that other language for Trinity could be “I, you, and others.” It's a way of realizing that, while I relate to you or to anyone else, there are many others. Another image used is that of three matches making one flame. The Trinity is simply an image, a symbol to describe the reality of the universe—all the different units united in one. The All includes the many, diversity united in one whole and the parts relating to each other, never completely separate.

Now we arrive at social implications of the Trinity. All are in the whole enterprise together—what happens in one part of the globe affects every other. Unstable countries roil international waters—Somalia lacks a government and breeds piracy. The U.S. mortgage crisis destabilizes the global economy. The Amazon rain forest cleanses the world’s air, and polluting industries of any one country pollute the whole world. The poor deprived of medical care infect everybody else.

But why 3 and not 4 or more? The universe seems to have 3-foldedness in its structure. For examples and further reflection, go back to the beginning of this post and other “Trinity” posts in my index.

October 4, 2008

If you go to the comments after "Sin-talk" you'll see a good one on the Trinity. I apologize for the doubling of my reply—another example of my bungling efforts in technology. I refer readers to this excellent resource on the Trinity:

also known as Rikki commented:
That was a really good read. That is what I basically had thought anyways, that if the Holy Spirit was a person, she should be a female. Hmm, maybe two guys and a really awesomely beautiful woman in the sky? Haha. I prefer to call her Sophia because I've taken an interest to in the Gnostic teachings.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Catholic bishops on abortion

Not too long ago I resolved to avoid discussing abortion in this space. It’s more political than religious and my primary purpose here is to provoke new reflection about religious beliefs. This political campaign threw me into the abortion issue again. I hope this is my last post on it but, “never say never.”

I agree with the Christian right that abortion is wrong, but radical pro-lifers fail to consider difficulties surrounding the issue and insist it’s black and white, abortion is murder, and we have to vote for candidates who want to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Catholic bishops quoted in the National Catholic Reporter seem to disagree. In an article headlined “Antiabortion imperative more complex than acknowledged,” John Allen writes that most bishops consider abortion a grave evil but "also recognize that a specific court decision or piece of legislation can never be an article of faith . . . there are other ways, perhaps even better ways, to oppose abortion. . . . The desire to deny Communion . . . is held only by a minority of bishops."

Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of Los Angeles countered the perception that abortion must trump other issues for Catholics, saying that fellow bishops insist, “We’re not a one-issue church.”

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk says about “people who want simple answers with complete surety . . . [they] have to realize that these are complicated questions to which bishops may not all have the same answer and that our Catholic faith is not a whole series of black-and-white positions.”

Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., says, “What the church should be focusing its energies on is changing the thinking in order to lead people not to choose abortion.” Now we’re getting somewhere. I hope this means pro-lifers are shifting toward the common ground of reducing the number of abortions, as I’ve noticed the pro-choice side doing.

I wish the two sides would join in campaigning to ensure access to contraception for all women. Right-to-lifers object that some forms of contraception are really forms of abortion. I don’t buy it; it’s a stretch to say that an embryo a few days old is a human individual with rights equal to the mother. John McCain courts the right wing by declaring that life begins at conception but he supports stem cell research—a contradiction.

The Catholic Church undermined its opposition to abortion by also opposing the best way to reduce the rate of abortions—contraception. Dismissing the Church’s unreasonable stand on birth control, the left also dismissed the Church’s valid moral argument on abortion. It is science that changed its rhetoric about abortion. I’m thinking about the striking photo of a baby’s tiny hand sticking out of a pregnant woman’s uterus during surgery. This and other information about the developing fetus put an end to claims that what’s growing inside a woman is merely a blob of tissue.

Pro-choice advocates need to admit that abortion kills babies. I fault them for not facing that reality and for claiming that a woman’s decision whether to abort is her business alone. Society has a stake in this issue as much as in other forms of killing.

There is no reason for pro-lifers to hate Democrats as they do. As I stated in my previous post, Democratic policy could actually result in fewer abortions than recent actions by Republicans. They didn't even try to overturn Roe v. Wade when they had both the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress. At you can read the letter of an Evangelical Christian who believes, “For religious leaders to continue to blame Democrats for Republican actions is wrong.”

And at you can read about Justice Samuel Alito’s reluctance to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Douglas Kmiec, a former official in the Reagan White House who worked on briefs seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, announced his support for Barack Obama: "I believe him to be a person of integrity, intelligence and genuine goodwill. . . . he wants to return the United States to that company of nations committed to human rights."

I agree.
Obviously this post on election day doesn’t aim to influence anyone's vote, but I feel compelled to correct the perception that Catholics are obligated to base their votes on one issue alone.