#57 Did Jesus have to die?


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Participant in the Senakulo in Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines where they dramatize the Passion of Jesus Christ during Holy Week. The event is highlighted by live crucifixions. Photo credit: Tony Oquias Photography

During this, the 40-day Lenten period leading up to Easter, the inevitable question comes to mind:  why did Jesus—said to be the Son of God—suffer and die on a cross?

Rebecca Ann Parker

As.a child, theologian and Methodist minister Rebecca Ann Parker learned that God sacrificed his beloved child for the sake of humanity.  Influenced by this teaching, Parker grew up believing that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was “virtuous and redemptive.”  So completely did she integrate the message of willing self-sacrifice that she forgot she’d been raped by her neighbor.  When she was five.

Most Christians still subscribe to the idea that Jesus died “for the sake of the world.”

Those of you who are not friendly to religion in general or to Christianity in particular may wave away the question of why Jesus had to die.  You think it’s silly (“Jesus was not God, so who cares”) or irrelevant (“who cares”).  But since harmful and life-constricting answers remain popular, why not lend a hand and help formulate a life-enhancing response instead?

Not possible, you say, to find a life-enhacing answer for why the man Jesus had to suffer and die?

Truly, we don’t have the option of giving up on finding such an answer.  There are too many Christian lives on the line to throw in the proverbial towel.  Three in four Americans are Christian.  One in three human beings are Christian.  Which means that millions of today’s kids are, like Rebecca Ann Parker, integrating Christianity’s message that suffering is “virtuous and redemptive.”

While the idea that “Jesus died for my sins” may have become the most commonly accepted explanation, it has never been the only alternative.  Impassioned conversations about Jesus’ suffering and death began almost as soon as his maimed body was lowered from the cross.  In other words, for two thousand years, this question has preoccupied Christians who could not or would not leave it at that.  Internal to the tradition itself, theories and counter-theories have been put forward.

Rebecca Ann Parker explored several alternatives championed by Christian thinkers in Lenten sermons that she preached to the Methodist congregation she served early in her career.  She republished these sermons in her book (co-written with Rita Nakashima Brock), Proverbs of Ashes:  Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us.

What follows are six of the answers that Parker mentioned in her book.  Direct quotes from Proverbs of Ashes appear in Lenten purple.

Anselm of Canterbury

1.            Anselm of Canterbury (Italian, c. 1033 – 1109, Roman Catholic) is the thinker responsible for the Jesus-died-for-your-sins theory of the crucifixion (called “substitutionary atonement theology” by theologians).  Yes, it is the theology that has become, for many Christians, the standard explanation for why Jesus had to die. But a full millenium passed after Jesus’ death before Anselm gave this theory a systematic formulation.

In the beginning, human beings lived in the Garden of Eden, in perfect harmony with God.  But Adam and Eve disobeyed the commandment of God. Because of their sinfulness, God had no recourse but to demand repayment for the harm they caused.  We inherit their sin.  The penalty for sin is death.  God loves us and doesn’t want to punish us.  But his honor has been shamed.  God is torn between love for us and the requirements of justice.  To resolve this problem, he sends his only son Jesus into the world to pay the price we owe, to bear the punishment that all of humanity deserves… In Why did God Become Human? Anselm said, “No one can give himself more fully to God than when there is self-surrender to death for God’s honor.”

Pierre Abelard

2.            Only a generation later, theologian Pierre Abelard (French, 1079-1142, Roman Catholic) challenged Anselm’s view.  Resistance—nay, revulsion—over the substitutionary atonement theory is almost as old as the theory itself!

In his Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans, [Abelard] questioned [the substitutionary atonement theology of Anselm of Canterbury].  “Who will forgive God for the sin of killing his own child?” he asked.  “How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain—still less that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!”

John Calvin

3.            Abelard’s outrage had no impact on the theologian, John Calvin (French, 1509-1564, founder of Protestant Calvinism).  Calvin not only adopted Anselm’s substitutionary atonement theology but he pushed it further.

In his Institutes [of the Christian Religion], [Calvin] said:  “Not only was Christ’s body given as the price of our redemption, but he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in spirit the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man…  He bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” by God’s hand and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God…  Jesus struggled with the assignment to be our substitute.  He prays, “Father, let this cup pass from me.”  But Jesus loves his father and honors the request even though it means a terrible death.  Adam and Eve were disobedient, but Jesus obeys.  “Let thy will, not mine, be done.”  On the cross, Jesus bears the punishment we deserve [for our sins] and we are set free.

Hosea Ballou

4.            The theologian Hosea Ballou (American, 1771-1852, Protestant-Universalist) offered a no-holds-barred critique of Anselm and Calvin’s explanations for Jesus’ death.  Ballou was certain that these explanations were wrong.  He was also certain that they had harmed the life and spirit of the Christian religion.

In his Treatise on the Atonement, Ballou said, “The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries.  The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men have been believed to exist in God; and professors have been moulded [sic] into the image of their Deity, and become more cruel…”

Walter Rauschenbusch

5.            Walter Rauschenbush (American, 1861-1918, Protestant-American Baptist), like many liberal theologians of his time, rejected Anselm and Calvin’s ideas of a wrathful, punishing God.  God, for Rauschenbush, was not a cruel deity who rules us from afar. No. God is among us.

In A Theology for the Social Gospel, Rauschenbush argued against concepts of sin and salvation that “have too much the flavor of the monarchical institutions under the spiritual influence of which they were first formed…  Our universe is not a despotic monarchy with God above the starry canopy and ourselves down here; it is a spiritual commonwealth with God in the midst of us.”  Rauschenbush defined sin as betrayal of the bonds of care among human beings.  The root of sin is not rebellious refusal to obey God, but a deep-seated selfishness…  Selfishness is more than a personal failing.  It is a transpersonal evil, institutionalized in social systems that benefit some individuals while exploiting and oppressing many others.

6.            Twentieth century theologies such as liberation theology drew inspiration from Medieval Christian thinkers—in this case, from Abelard’s moral influence theory.  While this theory’s intentions are well-placed, its results are awful.  Parker rebels against liberation theology’s use of Abelard’s strategy because it makes “acceptance of violence” a way to move perpetrators to repentance.  It assumes that perpetrators have “the empathy and moral conscience necessary to be moved by the suffering of others.”  This assumption doesn’t square with Parker’s experience of being raped as a child.  Plus, Abelard’s strategy “makes every victim an agent of God’s call to repent and accept mercy.  The repentance of the perpetrator becomes “more important than the suffering of the victim.”

Abelard argued against the idea that God was a dishonored lord whose honor was restored by the murder of his own son.  Instead, he said the problem is that human beings see neither their sin nor the mercy of God.  The death of the Son of God brings human beings face to face with cruelty.  Contemplating the suffering of Christ, people will feel remorse and repentance—especially seeing that Christ submitted to violence rather than turning it back on his enemies.  A love so great that it withholds evil for evil reveals the mercy and kindness of God.  Seeing this, Abelard said, human beings would be moved to stop rejecting God and would open their hearts to receive God’s mercy.

Parker’s brief analysis of Christian thought over the past thousand years demonstrates that while the Jesus-died-for-our-sins explanation may have become the dominant explanation, it is not the only explanation.  Not by a long shot.

Parker herself rejects all of the options discussed above.  But where does that leave our effort to find a life-affirming way to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross?

Gordon Kaufman. Photo credit: Harvard Div School

Here’s another approach–one that’s not included in Parker’s book (though it bears some resemblance to the at-one-ment theory she discusses).

The theologian, Gordon Kaufman (American, 1925 – 2011, Protestant-Mennonite), wrote, in his Systematic Theology:  A Historicist Perspective, that, for many believers, there are times when the transcendent God appears distant and uncaring—silent when his help is sought in prayer, absent during periods of suffering.

Taking human form, Jesus, the God-man, suffered one of the cruelest deaths ever devised by humans for humans.  In the dramatic and tragic way in which his Son died, God has signaled to those who would see and hear that even in his silence, even in his seeming absence, he, God, knows the worst that life will ever ask us to bear.

Though silent, God has shouted, through Jesus (according to Kaufman), that he is no stranger to physical or emotional pain like ours.  Seemingly absent, God has shouted, through Jesus, that he is no stranger to tears like ours, to fears like ours.

God came to us in a human-body so that we might recognize him; he declared his love for us in human-language so that we might understand him.

God came, Kaufman wrote, so that we would know that our trials and tribulations are, for him, personal.  In our despair and agony, he’s there in the silence.  In our pleas and weeping, he’s there in the absence.

For Christians trying to make sense of the Easter narrative, Kaufman’s proposal is one way to understand why Jesus had to die.  His is a proposal that does not glorify Jesus’ pain and suffering.  No Christian is stuck with Anselm’s life-robbing substitutionary-atonement theology.  S/he is free to choose a different theology.  S/he is free to develop a new one.

What about you–you who are willing to participate in this Lenten thought-experiment–what do you propose?  Have you succeeded in finding a helpful explanation for the crucifixion of the God-man?  What life-enhancing answer can you offer your three out of four Christian neighbors?

Resources:  Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Proverbs of Ashes:  Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2001); Gordon Kaufman, Systematic Theology:  A Historicist Perspective (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968).

#56 Ode to the “Little Way”


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Powerless and powerful?  At the same time?

You’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer and told you have two months to live.

Powerless, right?

The message of Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is familiar:  “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.”

But what about taking Niebuhr’s prayer a step further.  What if you actually chose the bad things you can’t change?

Without a doubt, you wouldn’t have chosen terminal cancer had been given a choice.  Who willingly chooses cancer?  Cancer chooses you.  But choose it in return and you’re back in control.

One of France’s favorite saints, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, did just that.  Here’s how her version of Niebuhr’s prayer might have sounded:  “God grant me the serenity to embrace the things I cannot change, to choose them as if on my own terms, to choose them as if I wanted them.”

Thérèse, a Carmelite nun, died a drawn-out and painful death from tuberculosis.  She vomited blood.  Bedsores afflicted her.  Her Mother Superior denied her the relief of morphine.  Unable to take a sip of water or swallow a spoonful of food without suffering waves of nausea, she practiced what she called the Little Way—the choosing of what was handed to her.

One of Thérèse’s biographers, Monica Furlong, finds genius in the Little Way:  “to lie dying an excruciating death that took away the little privacies and forms of self-control which are precious to most of us, to endure almost unremitting pain, to have to rely on others for the smallest services…was to have ‘the last shred of dignity’ forcibly ripped away.  What else to do then but to ‘choose it,’ to respond to it out of freedom rather than out of necessity?”

Some interpret the Little Way as the way of subservience, especially for women.  But, as Furlong points out, the Little Way has “an almost ironic quality to it.  ‘If I may have nothing,’ it says gaily, ‘then I will turn reason inside out and make having nothing the most enjoyable of possibilities.’”  In essence, Thérèse charts a way “to live out an impossible situation.”

And so, faced with terminal lung cancer, the Little Way would say, “if I may lose my life to cancer in two months, I will turn reason inside out and choose the cancer.”  Seemingly powerless before the advance of one’s disease, one may choose snatch the cards one’s been dealt and play them triumphantly, powerfully, as if they were “the purest piece of luck.”

Did her practice of the Little Way as she succumbed to tuberculosis make Thérèse a saint?  According to Furlong, “at the time of her canonization Cardinal Vico described how, in the early days of the Catholic Church, people became saints by popular acclaim…  Several centuries had passed without a popular saint.” And yet, Thérèse became such a saint.  In her, ordinary people saw courage and strength.  From her, they drew encouragement to face the bad things in life.  They embraced her as their own.  Indeed, rare is the church in France without a statue of Saint Thérèse.

Often, the Little Way is not the best way.  The Little Way isn’t the best way for the Russians who are pouring into the streets to protest Vladimir Putin’s over-reach.  Many challenges are worth a good fight—like securing hot meals for underprivileged kids in public schools, or seeking refuge in a battered women shelter, or working to prevent contamination of the drinking water in your community, etc.  These are not scenarios that call for the Little Way.

But some scenarios come without options.  They have only one possible outcome.  A bad one.

May you never find yourself power-less.  If you do, the Little Way could return you to a sense of power-fulness.  You could decide to embrace the non-negotiables that life throws at you.  You could put yourself back in charge.

Resource:  Monica Furlong, Thérèse of Lisieux (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1987).

#55 iHeroes, iReligion, and iHistory


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Who, among those blessed with extra cash, doesn’t remember their first Mac?  Or first iPod?  Or first iPhone?  Or first iPad?  Or, for that matter, their first visit to a sleek, modernist Apple store?  Or first appointment at the Genius Bar?

Will Steve Jobs’ death (on Oct. 5) restore us to agnosticism when it comes to electronic marvels?  Many had become faithful converts to the power of high-tech.  We had faith that each invention would be better than the last.  Apple’s product announcements had teleological force—we needed to wait only a little before another brilliant and stylish bit of Apple wizardry paradigm-shifted our lives—yet again.  And we were justified in our faith.  Revolutionary products did arrive.  And life did change.  For the better.

Surely, Jobs belongs on the shortlist of American, if not the world’s, cultural heroes.  Our grandchildren will learn of Jobs in their American history classes.  In general, people are suckers for great men and women.  Early historians understood that we are fascinated by great individuals; these historians did not so much write biographies as produce hagiographies, distorting what could be known about their subjects and adding details to make them appear less prone to human failings than they actually were.  Among the sacred texts, the Hebrew Bible is one of the few that resists burnishing the lives it recounts.  This is a strength of the Hebrew Bible; its authors understood that it is through their faults that we recognize great heroes as fellow human beings.

A close friend of Steve Jobs, Dr. Dean Ornish, understood this too, saying, Steve “was very human…  He was so much more of a real person than most people know. That’s what made him so great.”  Jobs was imperfect like most of us schmoes.  His sister, Mona Simpson, wrote a “fictional” novel, A Regular Guy, whose main character bears many similarities to her iconic brother.  Reviewers of the book noted that it was not an unalloyed portrait.  Even his worst enemy, however, cannot deny that Jobs was blessed with unusual leadership and vision.

He belongs, then, on that list of individuals that the 19th Century Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, used to illustrate his “great man” theory.  This theory views Western history as the playground of men and women who, thanks to their genius-level scientific or artistic talents, or beyond-brilliant military and leadership instincts, or ground-breaking philosophical or spiritual gifts have impacted millions, even billions of lives over the course of their own generations and beyond.  Carlyle speculated that history could be explained by the actions of these “greats.”  He wrote, “The soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.”  Their extra-ordinary attributes, like “the light which enlightens” is not “a kindled lamp only” but rather “a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven.”

The author (Steven Levy) of the 1994 book, Insanely Great, chronicling the birth of the Mac, described the light cast by Jobs:  “He was the most passionate leader one could hope for, a motivating force without parallel.”  A co-founder of Pixar (Edwin Catmull) commented that over the course of the four years during which his company struggled to make “Toy Story,” Jobs never flagged in his determination:  “You need a lot more than vision — you need a stubbornness, tenacity, belief and patience to stay the course…In Steve’s case, he pushes right to the edge, to try to make the next big step forward.”

These traits—Jobs’ vision, stubbornness, tenacity, belief, and patience to stay the course, pushing right to the edge, driven to make the next big step—were surely shared by other “great men and women,” like Winston Churchill or Muhammad or Isaac Newton or Martha Graham, all of whom excelled in the face of outrageous odds and legions of naysayers.

Carlyle also held that the thoughts of “great men and women” were “the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined the outward and actual.”  Religion was not, for Carlyle, defined by creeds or by the houses of worship to which they belonged.  Religion meant, rather, that which these great men or women believed, that they kept close to their hearts, that was “in all cases the primary thing” determining their practical actions.  If one adopts Carlyle’s definition, then the “chief fact” about Jobs, his “primary thing,” his religion, was this: “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” and “don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.  And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

A contemporary of Carlyle, the German philosopher, Hegel, embraced a similar view of the role of superlative individuals in history.  But for him, great people served as vehicles for the progressive unfolding of God-Spirit, or Geist in the world.  Heroes, he wrote, are not agents who act independently of the Whole; rather, they serve as agents for Geist in moving history forward.  This movement, according to Hegel, is inevitable.

Indeed, there will be those who—out of a personal dislike for Jobs, or because they are strongly attached to the notion of equality and thus resist recognizing that some human beings make greater contributions than others—will opine in Hegelian mode that if Jobs hadn’t brought forth an abundance of culture-changing gadgets, someone else would have.  Or they will turn to the common 20th Century position that we are all products of our social space and that the contributions of all “great men and women” would have been impossible without the prior existence of this space.

But the fact that it could have been some other individual produced by our current social space, actually underscores the truth that, regardless of possible competitors, Jobs was the one, the singular channel.

Goodnight sweet prince of tech.  We’ll miss you lots.  We miss you already.

Resource:   Carlyle, Thomas  (Author). On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History. London, , GBR: ElecBook, 2001.

#54 Wrong beliefs about beliefs


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A popular belief among today’s gentle partisans of inter-religious dialogue is that sharing of individual journeys succeeds where other approaches fail.  If only this were the case. Except that our beliefs shape our reaction to the experiences of others.

The sharing of individual journeys sounds promising, at first glance. What counts as success? —More humane views.  What counts as failure? —Arguing about beliefs. At the core of this approach is the assumption that talking about beliefs leads to arguing about beliefs, impasse, raised voices, bruised feelings, and, for all of these reasons, it is worse than a waste of time.

Hence the impetus to find other ways to “do” inter-religious dialogue.

One partisan of the sharing-of-life-journey approach to inter-religious dialogue is the Reverend Peter Laarman.  In Laarman’s view, if I say yes-there-is-a-God and you say no-there-is-no-God, we should avoid talking about why I don’t believe in God and why you believe in God.  Instead, we should talk about how we came to hold these views.  This kind of exchange, for Laarman, would give us the best shot at finding common ground.  It might even change our hearts and minds.  At the very least, it can lead to greater empathy.

Except that gentle and admirable folks like Laarman who recommend sharing-our-journeys as a way to make headway in inter-religious conversation are not taking into account how our beliefs influence our interpretation of experience.  In other words, our reaction to someone’s life journey is largely determined by the beliefs we already hold.

Here are a couple of scenarios illustrating the role of beliefs:  if I believe that God gives men dominion over women, then I will react differently to the life story of a woman whose nose was cut off because she shamed her husband than I would react if I believed that, to God, women and men are equally precious.  If I consider homosexual sex a sin and believe that God banishes homosexuals from his Kingdom, I am likely to react differently to the life story of a gay man whose family shunned him after he moved in with his boyfriend than I would if I believed that God loves all of God’s children, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Still unconvinced that our beliefs influence our interpretation of other people’s experiences?  Let’s take a look at what Laarman wrote in a recent article in Religion Dispatches:

We can see how ineffective our argumentation is by looking at the interminable debate over whether to welcome LGBT persons as full and equal members of congregations—not to mention as ordainable leaders, marriageable people, and members of normal families.  

Every poll and every wise observer points out that gay-affirming folks have not been winning on account of superior arguments, whether arguments from the Bible or theology or science. They aren’t winning on account of their superior debating skills. They’re winning by being present and visible in faith communities: by coming out in ways that clergy and congregations can’t ignore. Gay people are winning because straight people who love and respect them are coming out right along with them.  

The classic instance is the faithful older church woman—a devoted and beloved member of the community—who, at just the right moment in a congregational meeting, stands up and says, “Well, friends, I guess we can argue about all of this until the cows come home. All I know is that ________, my ________, is as dear a child of God as I will ever hope to be.” She then goes on to tell the story of she found out about ________, how they stayed close, and how her heart was changed. Bingo. Are we ready for the vote? 

Sure, those of us who welcome GLBT persons as full and equal members of our congregations would like to believe that sharing-our-life-journeys could change neah votes to yeah votes at a congregational meeting.  But it’s not that simple.  Only in a GLBT-friendly, progressive congregation would the outcome that Laarman describes be a likely one.  Members who believe homosexuality is wrong (for any number of any reasons) will not be swayed by our church lady’s experience with her ____________.

Let’s take a closer look at Laarman’s account of the faithful older woman.  Let’s suppose that another faithful older church woman—also a devoted and beloved member of the community, had said the following at the congregational meeting: “Well, friends, I guess we can argue about all of this until the cows come home.  But I know is that ____________, my ____________, is no longer a dear child of God, because the day he chose to take up with that boyfriend of his, he said his goodbyes to God.”  Then our beloved church member tells the story of how she found out about ___________, how he’d had a good head on his shoulder until his boyfriend came along and led him astray and how heartbroken she was and his parents too.  If God was against these shenanigans—and clearly God was, because sex between men was unnatural—well then, the congregation would be wrong to smile upon what God forbade.  Besides, does this congregation really want to send people like ___________ and his boyfriend the message that what they were doing was okay?  Bingo(?).  Are we ready for the vote?  Not on your life.

Our beliefs are the lenses through which we view the world.  The telling of a personal story will either reinforce what we already believe (because it aligns with our beliefs) or we will discount it because it doesn’t fit what we already deem to be true.

Until our lenses change colors, our views remain the same.  Fortunately, minds, like lenses, can be changed.

No doubt, though, on some issues we’ll have to be inflexible.  Should we give any credence to the belief that homosexuality is wrong in the eyes of God?  No way, Jose.  We don’t BELIEVE it.  In our mind of minds we get it that GLBT persons are full and equal human beings.  God, we believe, doesn’t give a fig leaf whether men are doing it with men or women are doing it with women.  So there.  Beliefs matter.

About such issues we can talk about our life journeys until we’re blue in the face.  The two beloved church members described above, one in favor of welcoming GLBTs into her church and the other against, have about as much chance of finding common ground as Barak Obama and Mitt Romney.

Although we may admire the Peter Laarmans of the world and find them praiseworthy, some issues call on us quite simply to declare:  “Here I stand.  From here I will not budge.”

#53 Grace to the rescue


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Cover by Sandra Lawrence

Summer’s nearly over and the routines of autumn are once again settling over the ever-shorter and cooler days.

Looking for something to read through the coming bevy of chilly nights?  The Naked Theologian, aka moi, has a new column in the Fall issue of the UU World magazine. To read it, click on this link: “Grace to the Rescue” or cut and paste the following web address into your browser: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/186475.shtml

You may not agree with the points of view that I discuss in the column (i.e. those of Henry Nelson Wieman, James Luther Adams, and Jerome Stone). That’s A-okay.  In the end, what matters is participating in the conversation.

To thank the UU World for making space for theology and to encourage more such offerings, post a comment on facebook.com/uuworld or send an email to world@uua.org.

Best of all, discuss the “Grace to the rescue?” piece in your blogs and link the column to the URL provided above. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the points I made in my piece and I’m sure that others would too!
The Church of the Larger Fellowship - Your Online Congregation of Unitarian Universalists.

Starting next Wednesday (Sept. 14), I’ll be teaching a five-session, online course in theology. Its highly creative title is “Theology for UUs.”  The class is offered by the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), which means it’s designed for Unitarian Universalists but is open to anyone.  Session topics:

  1. Early Christianity and its impact on Unitarian Universalism today
  2. Atheism<->agnosticism<->deism<->theism
  3. Religious and secular humanism
  4. Earth-based religions
  5. Process thought and religious naturalism

To sign up and pay the $40 fee (come on, you’re worth it!), click on this link: www.uurgl.com/learn.

Questions?  Comments?  Compliments?  Jokes?  Hey, get in touch!

#52 Prophecies of the end of belief


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Almost as soon as the Puritans set foot in Massachusetts Bay, they began to sound the alarm that godlessness was at hand.  Prophecies of God’s impending demise are as old as the history of European settlements in the United States.  Indeed, the recent book, Prophecies of Godlessness, edited by Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols, offers a fascinating account of America’s death-watch for God—a death-watch that has preoccupied hopeful atheists and deists (and frightened conservative believers) for more than four centuries.

The 1960’s, however, was a watershed decade.  The ever-increasing ability of science to explain reality and the decreasing faith in the inerrancy of the Bible resulted in a crescendo of predictions that God was dead, or might as well be since no one believed any longer.

During this era, social scientists and secular humanists in particular, were certain that belief in God was, at long last, dying and not a minute too soon! According to the scholar of religion, Slavica Jakelic, whose essay covers the sixties in Prophecies, social scientists and secular humanists projected their desire onto the population at large.  America, they maintained (wished), if not the world, was finally coming to its senses.  God, they detected (wished), was—finally—absent from daily life.  Murder by neglect seemed a fait accompli.  Growing religious skepticism and critical questioning had yanked the rug out from under pious belief.  The religions had been shown for what they were—providers of consolation and of meaning for the feeble-hearted and logic-challenged.

Convinced that the country’s religiosity had plummeted, social scientists felt no need to confirm their prophecies of godlessness by gathering empirical data.

When surveys were finally carried out, the data revealed that the number of God-believers in this country has remained amazingly steady for at least three generations.  That’s right.  Go ahead and re-read that sentence if you must.  Today, ninety-four percent of Americans believe in God or in a Higher Power.  Exactly the same percentage as in the 1960’s when ninety-four percent of Americans also believed in God or a Higher Power.


The predictions of social scientists and secular humanists turned out to be wrong. God was (and is) alive and well.

But why?

Quite simply because science offers only certain kinds of answers–data-based answers.  It can’t help us make sense of life’s most important and most intractable questions like, “Why am I here?”  “What is my purpose?”  “What is expected of me?”  “How can I go on now that my partner has died?”  “What is the right thing to do?”  “Why should I do the right thing?”  “What is a good life?”   The list of questions that science can’t answer is long.

Singer-songwriter Johnny Cash wrestled with these questions in his music.  No doubt, this has much to do with its popularity.  His lyrics, set to fitting (and haunting) melodies, capture what many of us experience.  Here are some lines from “Help Me:”

Oh Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile.
I’m tired of walking all alone.
And Lord, help me to smile another smile, just one more smile.
Don’t think I can do things on my own.
I never thought I needed help before.
Thought that I could get by, by myself.
Now I know I just can’t take it any more.
And with a humble heart on bended knee,
I’m begging you please, for help.

Social scientists and secular humanists would surely counsel Johnny’s many fans to focus instead on the so-called sacred texts that are chock full of contradictions.  Or focus on the so-called religious experiences that are born of overactive or diseased imaginations.  Anyone who focuses on the “real” issues will surely turn from God.

Okay, sure, we can try to forget Johnny Cash and his music, but the majority (remember–at least 94%!) of us aren’t going to stop wondering whether we can (or want) to do things on our own.  We aren’t going to stop asking, with a humble heart, on bended knee, for God’s help.  Science and secular society have failed to provide compelling substitutes.  It’s pointless to recommend that we ask science for help when we’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis or the death of a child.  Science can’t help us when we’re struggling every day to get by or to smile another smile or to walk another mile.

No matter.  Some social scientists and secular humanists continue to discount the kind of human predicament described in the song, “Help me.”  They continue to discount the evidence demonstrating that predictions of imminent, nation-wide atheism are without warrant.  They assume atrophy of religious belief where none exists.  They remain attached to the idea of loss of faith and to its anticipated outcome—a godless America.


Truth is that God is not going away any time soon.  In this country, the number of God-believers remains high and stable.  Almost all Americans believe, have believed, and if current trends can be trusted, will continue to believe in God.

Let’s face it.  Prophecies of godlessness fritter away precious time and brainpower.  Though social scientists and secular humanists are unlikely to stop predicting God’s disappearance from human affairs, their time and brainpower would be better spent on issues that relate to the world as it actually operates.

Rather than scoff, they could take an interest in and support the work of theologians who are committed to developing intriguing visions of God—say, a God who calls on us to work harder to secure greater justice and better living conditions for those who have little or none.

Rather than roll their eyes, they could make a point of talking to God-believers, especially those with strong beliefs.  By doing so, they are more likely to make an impact, especially if, when speaking to someone whose God seems to undermine efforts to eradicate suffering and oppression, they explain why they see things differently.  Also, by engaging in dialogue with those whose religious views they do not share, they will be reminded of the humanity of the Other.

So, what’s it going to be, Mr. or Ms. social-scientist and secular-humanist?  More breath-wasting and ink-squandering prophecies that help no one?  Or life-enhancing engagement with theology and religion that could help many?

Resource:  Slavica Jakelic, “The Sixties:  Secularization and the Prophesies of Freedom,” in Prophesies of Godlessness:  Predictions of American’s imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day, ed. Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 156-190.

#51 Society Without God


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The sociologist of religion, Phil Zuckerman, visited the closest thing to Nirvana for those who dream of living in a society without God—Denmark.  Zuckerman’s plan to spend several months in one of the most secular places on the planet was driven by his desire to demonstrate that there’s a link between a general lack of interest in God and the existence of a successful society in which people are happy and help their neighbors.

What did Zuckerman find after living in a typical Danish city and interviewing some 150 Danes and Swedes about their religious views?

  1. 25% believe in a personal God
  2. 10% believe in hell
  3. 7% believe that God the Bible is the literal word of God
  4. 100% identify themselves as Christians

In his book, Zuckerman argues, in part, against scholars of religion who claim that human beings are naturally religious.  Against this assertion, Zuckerman shows that Danes and Swedes do not look to religion or God for answers about the meaning of life and death.

Perhaps more interesting was Zuckerman’s discovery that these questions only rarely crossed the minds of Danes and Swedes.  His contacts simply lacked curiosity about God and about the meaning of life and death.  Indeed, the examples he provided, based on interviews and ordinary day-to-day interactions, reveal that, in Denmark:

  1. Questions about why bad things happen are not central to everyday life
  2. Religion, God, and the meaning of life rarely come up
  3. When asked about the meaning of life, people answered that there is no meaning
  4. When asked what gives them reasons to live, they cited friends and family
  5. When asked about death, they said it was part of life

However, this picture is in tension with several other facts:

  1. The majority of Danes and Swedes pay taxes to the Lutheran Church without complaint
  2. They tend to baptize their children
  3. They get married in Church
  4. They follow the Lutheran teaching of being kind to their neighbors
  5. Tensions exist between the Lutheran population and the growing Muslim population

Zuckerman postulates that, for Danes and Swedes, the religious practices and institutions of the Lutheran Church have become cultural, secular vehicles.  If his assessment is correct, then Denmark’s “cultural” religion—secular Lutheranism—resembles other “cultural” religions such as secular Judaism.

Nylars Round Church

Because hardly anything that appears simple, is simple, a reviewer of Zuckerman’s book, Michal Pagis, raises several thorny questions.  Even hardcore cheerleaders of Denmark’s “society without God” should pause to wonder whether important complexities and tensions remain to be identified.

Many of Pagis’ questions (which appear below) were posed by the intellectually-honest Zuckerman.  Although he attempts to address some of them, he acknowledges that they will require further research to answer:

  1. Are people around the globe less interested in ultimate existential questions than philosophers or religious scholars have long assumed?
  2. What is the connection between secularism and the lack of interest in the meaning of life and death?
  3. How do we explain the fact that novels, poetry, or philosophical texts tackle these questions (and that there is a market for them)?
  4. Why are secular Jews (and other relatively secular Europeans like the French and the Germans) attracted to these questions, but not secular Danes?
  5. Could the long religious monopoly of Lutheranism, and hence the lack of competition among religions have led to a loss of interest in religion among the Danes and Swedes?
  6. Could Denmark’s high degree of social and economic security explain the low interest in religion?
  7. Could the high percentage of independent women and the rise of feminism account for the decline of Christianity in Denmark?
  8. Is it possible that Scandinavian society was never a religious one?

Resource:  Michal Pagis, review of Society Without God:  What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment by Phil Zuckerman, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79:1 (March 2011): 264-267.

#50 Is OCD the source of religion?


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Martin Luther (1483 - 1546)

Martin Luther, the Father of Protestantism, had OCD.  So what?

Robert Sapolsky, the brilliant professor of biology and neuroscience at Stanford, has made his field accessible and entertaining.  But he admits that he sometimes steps beyond his area of expertise–for example, when he prognosticates on Martin Luther, and on the relationship between OCD and religion.  Sapolsky, it turns out, is no fan of Luther or of religion.

The mysterious title of Sapolsky’s essay, “Circling the Blanket around God,” expresses his view of the relationship between religion and OCD.  It refers to the “fixed action pattern” of the dog who, inexplicably, but nonetheless predictably, circles her blanket several times before finally plopping herself down for the night.  A human being suffering from OCD is like a dog circling, Sapolsky writes, except that s/he is unable to stop circling and continues, “exhausted and bewildered.”  Thus, the theistic individual—in Sapolsky’s view—circles the blanket around God, circling around and around, “exhausted and bewildered,” but unable to stop.

By his own admission, Sapolsky offers a single original idea in this essay—namely, the idea that OCD individuals started religious rituals.  Their attempts, he postulates, to reduce their anxiety by performing set rituals “somehow turns into rules for everyone else.”  Somehow.  Somehow?  Although this is an intriguing idea, it is most certainly not original but rather has preoccupied students of religion for some time.  Too bad that Sapolsky doesn’t ask the next, and most important question: what exactly is the mechanism whereby an individual suffering from OCD “somehow” turns his or her anxiety-reducing rituals into “rules for everyone else?”

As an example of a religious figure whose “anxiety-reducing rituals” became “rules for everyone else,” Sapolsky selects Martin Luther.  Luther started his theological career as an Augustinian monk but made his way up the academic ranks until he became a professor, among other things, of the Old Testament.  His distaste for indulgences (a payment paid to Church authorities to shorten one’s time in purgatory) led him to try to reform the Catholic Church.  Instead, he touched off the Protestant Reformation and permanently fractured Western Christianity into its two major families.  Luther, scholars agree, and Sapolsky observes, suffered from a bad case of “scrups,” or in everyday speech, from a terrible, OCD-induced, case of scruples.

Monks were expected to meet higher ethical standards than those that pertained to the lay population.  His religious order required that he set aside time for an examination of his soul; he was expected to identify every immoral behavior or idea.  No matter how petty the behavior or idea, he was to react to them with true sorrow, to repent with true contrition, and to ask God for forgiveness.  These steps were critically important; if not followed to the letter, Luther could not hope to be restored, by God, to a state of grace.  If he were to die unexpectedly, he would, because he was reprobate, be condemned to eternal damnation.

Luther was convinced that he had failed to repent for every single moral breach. Terrified for his soul, Luther sought relief from his OCD-exacerbated scruples.  Nothing worked.  Until he discovered a new way to understand the Bible and salvation.

By then, Luther had embarked on academic studies in theology and, having earned a Ph.D., he served as Doctor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg.  He became such an adept translator of Scripture that his translation of the Bible into German continues to be widely used today.  His painstaking study of Biblical texts eventually led him to develop a novel, but compelling, Scripture-based theology of “salvation by faith alone” (the basic tenet of what would become Protestantism).  Luther believed that, because of his faith in Christ, God would not punish him.

Okay, fine.  But how did Luther manage to convince so many non-OCD-sufferers to adopt his radical message?  By the early 1520s, he had attracted a vast and passionate following, and by the time of his death in 1546, people of all social classes sided with him and with his new creed.

Explanations for this abound.  Some point to the wide dissemination of Luther’s books and pamphlets thanks to the advent of the printing press, others ascribe Luther’s ascendance to the spiritual crisis that gripped Europe during the late Middle Ages or to the disgust engendered by the widespread corruption of the Church hierarchy.

Clearly, OCD or not, Luther managed to convince many other, rational, non-OCD individuals, to adopt his way of looking at the world, God, and human beings.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466 - 1536)

The key observation Sapolsky left out of his essay is this:  no novel theologies can succeed, including ones influenced by the OCD terrors of their authors, if they fail to be persuasive.  Luther and Lutheranism have persuaded, and continue to persuade a significant number of people.  Surely Sapolsky does not wish to impugn the intelligence of the political and religious leaders who took Luther and Lutheranism seriously.  The best minds of the era were conscripted by the Catholic Church to challenge Luther, including the highly esteemed Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus.  Most scholars agree that, for all of his learning, Erasmus had met his intellectual match; his arguments failed to erode Luther’s theological claims in any significant way.  Other, different arguments would be needed.

To dismiss Luther’s theology because Luther suffered from OCD is a deplorable tactic.  There are better, more helpful ways to evaluate Luther’s theology.

Sapolsky’s is a cautionary tale of how data, even when it matches our own opinions, may deserve a second look.  Unless, of course, our own most cherished opinions are too fragile to survive being called into question or too fragile to survive comparisons to other opinions.  If this is the case then they ought not to survive.

Resource:  Robert Sapolsky, “Circling the Blanket for God,” in The Trouble with Testosterone, 241-288 (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1997).

#49 Reporting to God for duty


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When it comes to religion, some of us want to have it both ways:  when deeply religious people do bad things, we are quick to say that their religious beliefs are to blame, but when deeply religious people do good things, we take little to no interest in their religious beliefs, as if those beliefs were irrelevant.

Example?  The recent belief.net blog-post, “God in Wisconsin:  Scott Walker’s Obedience” authored by the scholar of religion, Diana Butler Bass.

In her post, the politically-progressive Bass slams Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s brand of evangelical religion.  For her, the most disturbing part of his conservative Christianity is his no-wiggle-room obedience to God’s commands.  Bass points out that, for evangelicals like Walker, “Once you know God’s direction, no change is allowed.  Doubt opens the door to failure.  Obeying Christ’s plan is the only option.  In this theological universe, hard-headedness is a virtue, compromise is the work of the Devil, and anything that works to accomplish God’s plan is considered ethically justifiable.”

This, she notes, is the same sort of evangelical religion that shaped George W. Bush–and led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  She is of the opinion that President Bush’s obedience to God’s commands was the cause of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In spite of the ugh-producing situation of turning to someone like Walker or Bush to shed light on our own thinking, progressives, please take a deep breath (you may even need to swallow hard) and then ask yourselves this question:  is obedience really the problem here, or is the real problem the commands Walker or Bush claims to obey?  Because if Walker were obeying a different set of commands—say, God’s command that Wisconsin increase its minimum wage, would Bass (or you) object?  Or if Walker claimed to be obeying God’s command to work tirelessly on behalf of legislation to decrease the inequity between the richest and the poorest, would Bass (or you) object?

Most of us can name good people who have done good (defined here as progressive) things.  Yet, tsk tsk tsk, we rarely acknowledge their religious motives for doing that good.  Do we imagine that they were simply good people who would have done good things regardless of their religious beliefs?  Or is it simply that, because they did good things, their religious beliefs raise no red flags and so warrant no scrutiny?

But by overlooking the religious beliefs that motivate our heroes, are we ignoring some fundamental part of who they are?

Corrie ten Boom, raised in the Dutch Reform tradition, once said, “Don’t bother to give God instructions; just report for duty.”  For her, reporting for duty meant starting girls and boys’ clubs in her native Holland and eventually risking her life to hide Jewish refugees during WW II.  The risks were real; she was arrested but managed to survive Ravensbruck concentration camp.

And did you know that Florence Nightingale was a Christian universalist who believed that God wanted her to be a nurse?  In her journal, she wrote:  “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for him alone without reputation.”

Other religious do-gooders include Dorothy Day, John Newman, William Wilberforce, and Desmond Tutu.

Surely these report-to-God-for-duty folks would be troubled to learn that their religious commitment to serving others is being downplayed or ignored.  Surely they would be dismayed to discover that the force of their relationship with God is being excised from their biographies.

Though we may see ourselves as too autonomous or too agnostic to follow commands from God, we can learn something from the doggedness and zeal of those who report to God for duty.  Imagine for a moment that you believed, with as much conviction as a Scott Walker or a George W. Bush or a Corrie ten Boom or a Florence Nightingale that God commanded you to dedicate yourself to raising the average standard of living in the United States.  What if you could proclaim:  “Once I know God’s direction, no change is allowed.  Doubt opens the door to failure.  Obeying God’s plan is the only option.”

With a no-doubt, no-compromise, no-holds-barred, God-on-your-side-for-sure attitude, who knows what you might accomplish!  Would any effort seem too big, any policy-change impossible?

Maybe.  Maybe not.  Still, the point remains that disapprovers of the Walker and Bush brand of conservative religion can’t have it both ways when it comes to linking religious belief with good or bad actions.  Either religious conviction matters or it doesn’t.

If religion influences those with whom we disagree, then we have to allow that religion also influences those with whom we do agree.  To which Corrie ten Boom, Florence Nightingale, Dorothy Day, John Newman, William Wilberforce, Desmond Tutu, and many others would say amen.

#48 Better than milk: Got God




Long time no read!  Her Nakedness has been extra-busy these last few months with pre-dissertation requirements, writing academic papers, and attending conferences. Finally (finally!), full-time research and dissertation-writing are about to begin–with time set aside for blogging.  Look for a “real” post before week’s end.

But you don’t have to wait to read some new work. The Naked Theologian, aka Myriam Renaud, has a piece in the Spring 2011 issue of the UU World. To access it, click on this link: “Got God?” or cut and paste the following web address into your browser:  www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/175437.shtml

Want to support theological conversation in the UU World?  Here’s some ways you can let the editorial staff know that theology matters (even the fully-clothed kind) and that you’d like to see more of it in the World:

1.  Write a letter to the editor:  Christopher Walton, UU World, 25 Beacon Street, Boston MA 02108-2803

2.  Post a comment on facebook.com/uuworld

3.  Send an email to world@uua.org

Magazines look for internet chatter about what they’ve published so please mention the “Got God?” piece in your blogs (even if you don’t agree with my views) and include a link. The more chatter, the better.  So please, chatter away!

Be back.  Real soon.


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