#74 After the “Death of God,” new gods?


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Image Credit: AllOfUsAreLost / flickr creative commons.

Many in the West associate the “Death of God” with the 19th Century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Some are also aware of the 1960s death-of-God movement (more accurately called the wish-God-was-dead movement?) led by theologians like Thomas J. J. Altizer. The death of God, though it may seem recent, is an ancient phenomenon. Humankind has, in fact, killed God many times.

The 20th Century historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, describes the age of Nietzsche as a time when Western scholars were obsessed with the “origin and development” of almost everything. Biologists dreamt of finding the origin of life, geologists wanted to find the beginning of the earth; astronomers looked for the starting-point of the universe, etc.

In line with this search, author Andrew Lang wrote The Making of Religion in 1898. In his monograph, Lang debunked the view of his contemporary, the anthropologist E. B. Tylor, that animism was the first stage of religion.

Lang based on his conclusion on the religions of ancient, indigenous peoples living in Australia and in the Andaman Islands. Among them, Lang found neither ancestor-worship nor nature cults as Tylor would have expected. Instead, those peoples worshipped a single, powerful and creative High God leading Lang to postulate that a belief in a High God pre-dated animism.

Lang also discovered that belief in high Gods is rare among indigenous people and that the religious practices that develop around those Gods are “rather poor.” Indeed, he wrote, the role of the High Gods in the religious lives of their followers is “very modest.”

In addition, Lang noticed that, among some peoples, the High God became, in Eliade’s words, deus otiosus, or “Unemployed.” Because God seemed indifferent to human affairs, his followers decided that God had left for the highest heaven.

Cut off from daily life and thus, for all practical purposes, irrelevant, the High God was eventually forgotten. In other words, God died. God faded away, and Lang found, disappeared from religious practice, and eventually from myths.

When Nietzsche announced the end of religion, he prophesied that Westerners, having killed God through disinterest and neglect would, henceforth, live in an immanent, godless world. Had Lang read Nietzsche who, twenty years earlier, had proclaimed, through his mouthpiece of Zarathustra, the death of God? Eliade did not think so. Though Lang did not understand the significance of his discovery, according to Eliade, he detected the deaths of High Gods.

Today’s liberal religionists are often half-hearted believers. Their High Gods play a “very modest” role in their lives; they are mostly relegated to a heaven far far away. Worship around those Gods is “rather poor;” sometimes limited to Thoreau-like nature-walks, sometimes nonexistent.

There is tension in such worship.

On the one hand, lightly-held High Gods ought to be applauded if not embraced; those who believe in them never kill or wound or maim or willfully cause suffering in their name. They are often people who lead good, humane lives.

On the other hand, lightly-held high Gods, according to Lang, are ever on the cusp of slipping into oblivion, pushed into realms so distant from the concerns of peoples and people that they disappear from human memory forever.

In other words, these High Gods sit on the razor’s edge of existence. Their precarious nature may explain a puzzling reaction by those with High Gods who play stronger roles in the lives of their worshippers.

Many liberal religionists with nearly-unemployed high Gods are the targets of derision and mockery—for example, Lutheran Garrison Keillor’s frequent jokes on “Prairie Home Companion” about Unitarian Universalists known for welcoming agnostics, atheists, non-theists, and religious skeptics into their congregations.

Why should atheists or agnostics—still relatively rare—turn thin-skinned Theists like Keillor into head-shakers and finger-waggers? More problematic, of course—in some countries atheists and agnostics, though generally harmless and of reasonable moral caliber, are singled out for special punishment or execution. Perhaps because the logical step after agnosticism and skepticism is deus otiosus. Behind the jokes and killing lies fear of the death of God.

This fear is quite understandable. Because, it’s true, agnostics and skeptics sometimes have little comfort to offer to victims of tragedy and suffering. They may advance this bit of advice: your “community” will stand with you. Hmm. Really?

Will “community” be there after the death of your beloved child? “Community” is made up of people with problems and demands and children of their own. The High God, even if nearly unemployed, has no distractions and may walk with you through the months and years of weeping and sorrow. Will “community” be there in the wee hours of the night when cancer is chewing on your bones? The High God, unlike “community,” may be available any time, anywhere.

Among non-Western peoples, the retirement of the High God to the highest heaven, ethnologist Wilhelm Schmidt noted, usually gives rise to a more vivid, more dramatic pantheon of what Eliade called “inferior gods.” According to Schmidt, when human beings forgot their High God, they became involved, on Eliade’s retelling, “in more and more complicated beliefs in a multitude of gods and goddesses, ghosts, mystical ancestors, and so on.” [3]

In the post-God world imagined by Nietzsche, individuals are left alone to fend for themselves as they shoulder life’s soul-breaking tragedies and unavoidable suffering. No wonder most people seek replacement objects of devotion after their High God fades into oblivion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th Century Unitarian whose writings were greatly loved by Nietzsche [4], issued this warning: “A person will worship something—have no doubt that that.” Emerson also wrote, “We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts—but it will out.”

Still, fear of believers in “very modest” high Gods does not justify cynicism, shunning, oppression, or murder. Even when agnostics and skeptics justify this fear by breaking the pattern described by Schmitt and Emerson and, resisting the urge to find new gods to worship, they simply let God die.


#73 Will Her Methodist Faith Help HRC Make a Comeback?


, , , , ,

In a rare glimpse of mettle since she conceded the race to Donald Trump last November, Hillary Clinton showed up for Donald Trump’s inauguration with a smile. She seemed to want to show the world: Hillary Clinton may have been knocked to the mat but she’s not down for the count. That initial smile, though winsome, was too wide to be genuine (the lady doth smile too much, methinks) and quickly turned glum.

By the next day, when Women’s Marches clogged streets in cities across the nation and the world, Clinton had faded from view again except for this tweet:

Thanks for standing, speaking & marching for our values ‪@womensmarch. Important as ever. I truly believe we’re always Stronger Together.

Did she think it would be in bad taste to give a speech, rouse the marchers, and walk alongside the hundreds of thousands of men and women who turned up to express their outrage at Trump’s sexist remarks and behavior (“Keep your tiny hands off my pussy” one sign said) and send a message to him and other elected officials that anything less than 100% respect for women’s rights will not be tolerated? This conundrum did not prevent John Kerry from joining the march.

As she watched the March from her home, was Clinton angry that some (many?) of the marchers had failed to realize what was at stake in the Presidential election until it was too late? Or, was she angry that some (many?) of the marchers had failed to vote? Such pettiness is surely beneath her.

Clinton has overcome body blows before—husband Bill’s affairs, Monica, her health-care plan as First Lady, losing to Obama in 2012. Although few challenges are more painful than career ‘catastrophes,’ with each setback, Clinton found her way to transcend the pain and return to serving the greater good. Will she yet again?

No doubt, her deep faith in God and her lifelong commitment to the United Methodist Church’s social-justice values have helped her overcome these tests. After all, her favorite quote from her beloved John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is this:

Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.

Clinton can still do much good.

Wesley himself could serve as her inspiration for another comeback. Though he remained an Anglican minister—he never granted that his teachings had created a religious offshoot—his controversial teachings led congregations to bar him from their pulpits. He faced ongoing trials and disappointments but he kept on keeping on; by the end of his life, he had earned such widespread respect that some described him as the best-loved man in England.

In recent memory, President Jimmy Carter, a person of great piety like Clinton, resurrected his reputation. After he lost the Presidential election to Ronald Reagan, Carter refused to hide his pain and humiliation by retreating from public view. Within two years of his defeat, he had founded the Carter Center, with a focus on human rights.

Determined to continue working to advance rights and reduce suffering, Carter used his high-level connections to play a helpful role in world events. He made himself invaluable by mediating conflicts in countries like Haiti, Bosnia, and Ethiopia. His name became associated with an ability to resolve messy conflicts between intransigent governments.

Perhaps Clinton has not yet decided what future to craft for herself. What is certain, however, is that the longer she remains on the sidelines, out of view, the harder it will be for her to emerge—like a kid who takes a tumble on a slide, she needs to climb back up the ladder. The Women’s Marches proceeded without her. Will she now have to elbow her way into the circle of leaders responsible for those Marches’ planning and execution?

Professors Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward who have researched career disasters among business leaders found that leaders who fail to overcome these disasters are plagued by two issues: they tend to blame themselves and they tend to revisit the past instead of focusing on the present and the future.

Clinton knows she made mistakes running her campaign. She focused on Trump’s character instead of focusing on issues of concern to the discontented white middle class. She listened to the advice of staffers instead of listening to Bill, a seasoned campaigner who pleaded with her to spend more time visiting rural areas and talk to the kind of folks who had voted for him.

Sonnenfeld and Ward also found that the business leaders who overcome catastrophic setbacks do so if, like Jimmy Carter, they take intentional steps to achieve this goal. These steps, according to these researchers, are the following: decide how to fight back; recruit others into the fight; take steps to recover your ‘status;’ prove to yourself and others that you have the ‘stuff’ to reclaim your place at the top. They stress that the journey must be seen as a fight. Those who disappear into the void choose flight or simply don’t fight back.

Sometimes deciding how to fight back can mean taking a tactical retreat. But, whether one chooses to retreat for a while or begin the fight immediately, it is essential, Sonnefeld and Ward write, to “engage others right from the start to join your battle to put your career back on track.”

Perhaps Clinton is in fight mode and, behind the scenes, engaging her vast network of friends and acquaintances. Perhaps she is focusing on the fact that she won the popular vote and reaching out to key players to help her with her fight to resume the work of doing more good. Perhaps she is plumbing her faith for the courage to take the next step.

But why wait to craft a narrative? Why wait to remind the world of the super-star status she achieved as Secretary of State? Instead, she is allowing herself to be viewed, increasingly, as brooding and wounded. The time has come to start managing her status on social media.

Come out, come out, wherever you are, Hillary Clinton. Don’t miss the next Women’s March; take your place in the lead where you belong.

#72 Trump’s White Evangelical Voters: What Were They Thinking?


, , , , ,


Photo Credit: rhome_music / flickr (creative commons)

Tomorrow, Hillary Clinton is likely to clinch the U.S. Presidency. Before we progressives return to our pre-election routines, we might take a few moments to pause and reflect on the mysterious cadre of white evangelicals who nearly changed the course of the vote. To confirm that Donald Trump’s biggest pool of supporters are white and evangelical Protestants, check out this recent Public Religion Research Institute poll: http://www.prri.org/spotlight/religion-vote-2016/.

Forgetting about these evangelicals for the next few years is an option. To pretend they don’t exist is all too easy—otherwise, we wouldn’t be feeling as if we’ve been yanked out of our can’t-we-all-get-along, rational bubble. We’ve been forced, by some of them, to confront what seems like a new reality of racism, sexism, and more. Many of us are shaking our heads, muttering “I don’t understand my fellow Americans any more.”

Were we aware of such white evangelicals but didn’t realize there were so many? True, most evangelical Protestants don’t live where we live—on the internet or out in the actual world. We tend to maintain a strict wall of separation between “us” and “them,” defriending or refusing Facebook friend requests from those with unacceptable religious or political views. We also tend to live in cities while, since the Civil War (see Casanova in the Reference section), evangelical Protestants, finding the city a “largely foreign, unregenerate, and dangerous environment,” prefer to live in rural areas, hence giving rise to the whole blue state, red state business. Evangelical Protestants, often by choice, remain or settle in the fringes of cities or in the hinterlands, out of the sight and mind of progressive urban folk.

Or, did we pretend they don’t exist because some of their views are alien or so horrid that we, progressive urbanites, can’t fathom that they really really mean what they say when they say it? Were we in denial?

In denial or not, ‘those’ people will return to the public square in a mere two years for the 2018 mid-term elections. As Peter Wehner (a Republican!) pointed out in a NYT op-ed today, “tens of millions of Americans will vote for [Trump] and believe deeply in him. But if these forces are not defeated, what happened this year will be replicated in one form or another…” Clearly, progressives are not the only ones who are worried.

At least two questions should continue to demand our attention and that of moderate Republicans long after we’ve caught our breath, recovered from watching the polls, and are finally able to get a decent night’s sleep.

First question: why did white evangelical Protestants vote for Trump, a candidate who is casual about his religious faith?

The answer: such accommodations are nothing new. Almost 250 years ago, dissenting Baptists allied themselves with America’s deist “fathers” to put an end to the vestiges of established churches in the newly minted United States. The Baptists wanted to practice their own religion and were anxious to cast off any demands that the established church might make of them. In addition, they balked at the idea that their tax dollars should be used by the state to support congregations other than their own. No surprise there. Like most people, they were driven by self-interest.

Today, the problem to be resisted at all cost by some white evangelical Protestants is the perceived destruction of their way of life by liberal intellectuals with their “secular prejudice” (see Casanova). The object of their ire—which causes these evangelicals to lose sleep at night—is the “deestablishment” of their brand of Protestant public morality and the establishment of choice-of-conduct along with pluralistic sets of norms and ways of life.

If asked to explain what the proper brand of Protestant public morality in the United States should look like, they would describe something akin to the traditional gender roles and family structures of the 1950s. This kind of “right living,” in the words of Jerry Falwell, “must be re-established as an American way of life… The authority of Bible morality must once again be recognized as the legitimate guiding principle of our nation.”

Protestant public morality, for some evangelicals (not all!) is under siege; it is under attack; everywhere forces are at work undermining Biblically-grounded right living. Falwell writes: “[We advocate the passage of family protection legislation which would] counteract disruptive federal intervention into family life and encourage the restoration of the family unit, parental authority, and a climate of traditional authority…and reinforce traditional husband-and-wife relationships.”

State and secular civil society, some evangelicals believe, penetrates into their homes, schools, neighborhoods and impose norms and ways of life to which they are categorically opposed. No wonder they have mobilized against these attempts to colonize their communities.

The bottom line: For some white evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, this a time of dire emergency! And desperate times call for desperate measures. Trump may not have roots in their community but he talks their language, understands their values, and promises, with the authority of a messiah (“I am your voice” he says), to mobilize against the forces and communities that threaten right living and the “authority of Bible morality” (Falwell again).

Second, why did white evangelicals buy into Trump’s message to “Make America Great Again” when, by plenty of objective measures, America is already great?

Given the analysis above, the answer to this question may now seem obvious. The United States, for white evangelicals, is certainly not doing better. They tend to be blind, Casanova explains, to the threats of the market. But they are, and they likely will continue to be drawn to candidates who promise to re-establish their brand of Protestant ethics and end, in Casanova’s words, “the legally protected pluralistic system of norms in the public sphere of American civil society.”

By the end of Tuesday, there will likely be cause for progressives to celebrate. White evangelical supporters of Trump, in contrast, will see his defeat as yet another indication of just how pervasive and how intractable are the forces that they believe are arrayed against them.


Peter Wehner. “Is There Life After Trump?New York Times, November 5, 2016, The Opinion Pages.

Jerry Falwell, Listen America!, The Conservative Blueprint for America’s Moral Rebirth. New York: Bantam Books, 1980

José Casanova. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.



#71 Islam, the Imagination, and Human-Caused Climate Change


, , , , , , ,

Green plant growing trough dead soil

Image Credit: Aproximando Ciência e Pessoas / Compfight.com

NOTE: This post is based on an academic talk presented at the American Association of Religion (AAR) conference in late November 2015. Each of the five members of a panel was asked to answer these two questions: 

Q1: Is there a distinctly liberal perspective on climate change?

Q2: If so, what resources can be drawn from this perspective to work toward a healthier planet?

The science is clear—anthropogenic climate change is occurring. Though it may seem fool-hardy to argue with numbers, it is well established that empirical data and computer-generated weather-pattern predictions are refracted through people’s pre-existing scientific understandings and favored representations of environmental processes. Climate-science data and predictions are also refracted through people’s religious framings of reality and are understood differently based on those framings.

Recent research by Kathryn Yusoff and Jennifer Gabrys has, from the perspective of the arts and the humanities, explored the positive effects of the imagination on reducing climate change. Their 2011 article, “Climate change and the imagination,” indicates that the kind of imagination associated with the arts and the humanities can, in important ways, create the conditions for the possibility of material intervention in anthropogenic climate change.

Yusoff and Gabrys define imagination as “a way of seeing, sensing, thinking, and dreaming the formation of knowledge, which creates the conditions for material interventions in and political sensibilities of the world.”

Whereas previous generations of scholars focused on a putative division between the imagination—understood as an internal perceptual faculty—and the world—understood as an external material reality, Yusoff and Gabrys focus on the imagination as a site of interplay between material and perceptual worlds “where concepts cohere,” “forces pull and attract,” and “things, discourses, subjects, and objects are framed, contested, and brought into being.”.

According to their research, the imagination, as a site of interplay, is capable of generating cognitive and affective images of the impact of human activities on the climate in unfamiliar parts of the world; these images, in turn, inspire efforts to develop potential solutions and foster support for these solutions.

Yusoff and Gabrys have identified three ways that temporal and spatial “techniques” of the imagination can help. Together, these techniques can create the underlying framework that communities need to establish a “new” culture better suited to the work of combatting climate change in substantive ways.

Here’s how techniques of the imagination can help establish a “new” culture:

1) the futurity of climate change—here techniques of imagination serve to project toward possible futures and back again, and they assist individuals and communities to identify scenarios, narratives, and contingency plans.

2) adaptive strategies embedded in everyday practices—here techniques of imagination reframe climate change as something “here,” (instead of something “out there,” far from us, and thus not an immediate threat) relevant for everyone and “entangled” with all cultures across the world.

3) critical engagement with the practices of climate science—here, artists and researchers turn to techniques of imagination as they work together to make scientific information accessible to a wide audience, shifting climate science out of the lab in order to “democratize” it.

I will focus on #1, the “futurity of climate change” in which the kind of imagination we deploy in the arts and humanities assists us to envision possible futures if climate change continues at the current rate or worst yet, accelerate.

Yusoff and Gabrys suggest that we imagine ourselves at a future time when the looming environmental apocalypse has taken place.

[Let’s pause here and use a technique of the imagination as Yusoff and Gabrys propose. Can you project yourself into the future? Say 100 years from now?

Imagine. It’s December, 2025.

You’re in a small prop plane, flying just below the clouds.

What do you see? How does the world look?]




Having imagined the ruined condition of our planet (which many of us are complicit in creating), we return to the present.

This “technique” of the imagination helps us better understand the consequences of not altering our current trajectory. It helps us perceive what’s at stake for our children and future generations if we don’t alter our present trajectory.

Upon our return to the present, we navigate the day-to-day with vivid images of an apocalyptic future firmly in mind. As a result, we are more likely to embrace strategies capable of warding off the future that our imagination has enabled us to visualize, even if these strategies require sacrifices on our part.

Let’s now take a look at the work of the Muslim theologian, Martin Nguyen. As far as I know, Nguyen does not label himself a “liberal” theologian, perhaps because he, like many non-Muslim theologians, find the label “liberal” problematic. However, I am going to highlight the ways in which Nguyen’s theological approach can be characterized as “liberal.”

I wish, in part, to honor a Muslim scholar like Charles Kurzman who insists on safeguarding the term “liberal” because, he argues, some strands of Islamic traditions have long defended commitments that parallel those of so-called “Western” liberalism—for example, freedom of thought and the potential for human progress.

But, what do we mean when we speak of a liberal perspective? Such a perspective respects and makes space for the kind of imagination we’ve been discussing. In his book of literary criticism, The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling examines the promise —and limits—of liberalism, challenging the complacency of a naïve liberal belief in progress and the panacea of science, and asserting instead the complexity of human motivation and the inevitability of tragedy.

Only the imagination, Trilling argued, could give us insight into these realms and only the imagination could ground a reflective and considered, rather than a programmatic and dogmatic, liberalism. [This description of Trilling’s views on the imagination and liberalism may be a paraphrase or a quote from a source that I can no longer recall].

Following Trilling, I am going to focus on the “religious” imagination in liberal Muslim theology. This should not be taken to mean that liberal Islam is a “stale and reassuring imitator of Western philosophy.” Liberal or otherwise—Islamic theology is almost invariably rooted in Qur’anic exegesis, in the life of the Prophet Mohammed, and in the lives of his companions and of other early converts to Islam.

And so it is with Nguyen. In his paper, “The Religious Imagination in Muslim Theology: Towards a Reimagined Tradition” (presented at the 2012 Society for the Study of Islamic Ethics conference), Nguyen defines the imagination as the faculty that works in conjunction with our sense perceptions and rationality. Our moments of creativity, daring, insight, and profound connection, he says, spring from this faculty which illumines untried avenues and overlooked connections.

Nguyen traces the role of religious imagination in Islam to the Prophet Muhammed who is reported to have said: “Worship God as though you see Him, for though you do not see Him, He sees you.” This quote is attributed to a trustworthy source—one of the Prophet’s leading companions,ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 644 CE), who eventually assumed the role of Second Caliph.

Nguyen explains that Mohammed’s response invites believers to use their imagination to leap into the future and there, to envision possibilities beyond their current ability to see. They are to picture God before them, the God they hope to see when they cross the threshold of death but whom they will never see in this life.

When they return from this leap, they are to maintain the image of God before them “in all his Might and glory” as they engage in acts of worship and attend to their everyday tasks. Individuals and communities are expected to identify scenarios, narratives, and contingency plans to assist them in securing this imagined day.

In effect, believers are tasked with navigating the present with vivid images of the future firmly in mind.

The “religious” imagination described by Nguyen recalls Yusoff and Gabrys’ techniques of the imagination. Both imaginations make the future vivid and drive individuals and communities to identify and enact plans to avert the undesirable consequences that they now clearly perceive.

According to Nguyen’s analysis of the saying attributed to the Prophet, the imagination is a feature that has been fundamental to Islamic theology from the beginning.

But Nguyen doesn’t stop there. He argues that several of Islam’s most important thinkers also understood the importance of the religious imagination—a faculty to which they referred as khayāl, wahm, or tawahhum. They, too, deployed the “imaginative faculty.”

Having demonstrated that the imagination has played an important role in Islamic thought from its earliest expression by the Prophet, Nguyen argues for its “explicit” reincorporation into contemporary Islamic theology.

The religious imagination, whether implicitly or explicitly, integrated into liberal Muslim theologies like Nguyen’s, is a ready-made resource for combatting climate change if it can be brought into harmony with the “techniques of the imagination” described by Yusoff and Gabrys.

As described by Nguyen, the religious imagination could be used creatively to interpret Islamic teachings in ways that support the “new” zeitgeist of deep concern about climate change among Muslims. This “new” zeitgeist was evident in last August’s “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change,” which was announced as part of a two-day International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul.

The Declaration calls for an end to the consumption of ever-more resources, respect for nature’s “perfect” equilibrium, and recognition of the “moral obligation” to conserve. The Declaration was issued in anticipation of the U.N. Conference on Climate Change currently under way in Paris.

Climate-change scientists and activists have too often neglected the role of religion and its power to cultivate new patterns of living and being among believers. For many Muslims (as for many religionists), life-decisions and everyday choices are refracted through theology.

The imaginative faculty that underwrites liberal Muslim theologies like Nguyen’s has important parallels with the arts-and-humanities imagination necessary to create the “new” culture described by Yusoff and Gabrys. In other words: Yes, there is a distinctly liberal, Muslim perspective on climate change. And yes, this perspective offers resources that could lead to a healthier planet.


#70 A This-Wordly Theology of *Minimal* Transcendence


, , , , , , , , ,

NOTE: A version of this post first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the UU World magazine.


Credit: Yvette T. / flickr

Jerome Stone still remembers the day he got the call that his father had died. He hung up the phone and slumped onto the living room sofa. His daughter, eight years old at the time, asked what was wrong. “Oh, Dad!” she cried, and threw her arms around him.

Stone, a Unitarian Universalist theologian, sometimes tells the story of his daughter’s hug to illustrate his theology. Her hug, he explains, was an unexpected and freely given gift of comfort and love—what religious people call grace.

For him, this gift was not the work of a personal God nor was it a “mere” event. He understands his daughter’s hug as transcendent grace because it came from outside of the situation in which he found himself.

Though technical language and dry prose often mask the personal questions and concerns that drive their work, theologians are inspired by the business of daily living. Stone is no exception.

One of his worries is that Western secularization has undermined our ability to appreciate the sacredness of life’s many blessings. As a result, we are closed off from important resources of grace, which offer us renewal, meaning, and healing.

While Stone wishes us to grow more attentive to life’s transcendent, sacred goodness, he resists the urge to say more about the origin of that goodness. In his view, such explanations are excessive because they can’t be defended.

Stone calls his “this-worldly” theology a minimalist vision of transcendence, hence the title of his best-known book, The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion.

Stone prefers the term “the transcendent” to the word “God.” But this wasn’t always the case.

The son of a Congregationalist minister, he grew up with God-talk. His father understood the Bible as symbolic, poetic, and infused with prescientific understanding, and so, for him, it did not conflict with science.

Stone fondly remembers car rides to Sunday evening services when he and his father would discuss the differences between atheism, deism, and theism. They sometimes chatted about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s views on the over-soul and on the importance of self-reliance even in times of despair.

While in high school, Stone attended a church youth program, including church camp. The general tone, he recalls, was one of attentiveness to doing good and of responsibility to the world: “Instead of oppressive moralism, there was offered a vision of service.”

But as a 16-year-old freshman at the University of Chicago, he had a conversion experience. Until then, his religious life had mostly focused on striving to be morally good and on seeking God’s forgiveness when he failed.

But two Easter services that year, one at Chicago’s Methodist Temple, and the other at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel, led him to begin reflecting deeply on his closely held beliefs. Stone eventually concluded that his and other people’s “ultimate significance” did not depend merely on their actions.

Stone loved many of Emerson’s ideas, but he decided that Emerson had gone too far in his insistence on self-reliance. Stone continued to see the necessity of T through despair, moral or otherwise. Still, he now realized that humans could not always travel this road alone. Nor should we want to do so.

No doubt, striving to be and to do good mattered and should be taken seriously. But unexpected and uncontrolled gifts of help and comfort offered by others and by the world mattered, too.

A balance between self-reliance and other-reliance was not just possible—it was desirable. There was value in being open to transcendent grace, and in receiving it.

By the time he completed his master’s degree, Stone was a Congregationalist minister married to his college sweetheart, Susan, and the father of two children. While serving a congregation to support his family, he pursued a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Chicago.

As he began to write his dissertation, Stone realized that his theology had shifted toward a thoroughgoing “there-is-nothing-beyond-this-world” naturalism. He had lost his faith in a personal God. What to do?

His adviser, Langdon Gilkey, helpfully noted that all of the world’s religions point to something beyond the self. He recommended that Stone focus on theologians who appeal to secular or horizontal (instead of vertical) experiences of transcendence.

Thanks to this suggestion, Stone completed his doctorate and became a college professor. He officially became a Unitarian Universalist after he retired from teaching at Harper’s College, although his theology had long had a deep resonance with Unitarian Universalism.

As his theology developed, Stone never lost sight of his discovery of the importance of grace.

However, he also never lost sight of his pre-conversion views about the value of judgment. Judgment offers the possibility of criticism and challenge. The contemporary world’s loss of resources of judgment is the other concern at the core of Stone’s work.

He worries that Western secularization (in his words, “self-assured secularity”) has led to the loss of any perspective from which to call into question our society’s “attachment to relative meanings,” and our own.

Just as Stone calls for the recovery of transcendent resources of grace, he calls for the recovery of transcendent resources of judgment.

Stone tells another story from his life to illustrate how transcendent resources of judgment fit into his theology. During the late 1960s, it was still legal in Evanston, Illinois, the city where he lived, for property owners to refuse to sell or rent housing to Jews and black people.

To pressure the city council into passing an open-housing ordinance, the black community, together with the liberal white community, organized weekly marches. Pulled by a moral demand to act against Evanston’s discriminatory housing practices—a demand coming from outside of his everyday routine—Stone responded. Though he was a graduate student, teaching full time and raising a family, he juggled his schedule so that he, too, could march.

For Stone, the insistent call to overturn immoral laws inspired him to join the protesters. His daughter’s unexpected hug was a gracious gift of renewal.

Both the challenge and the gift came from outside of the situations in which he found himself. Transcendent resources of judgment and of grace work in tandem, Stone believes, to deepen the human spirit.

#69 How To Read the Qur’an?


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cover of the Qur'an Credit: crystalina flickr creative commons

Cover of the Qur’an           Image Credit: crystalina / flickr creative commons

How to approach the Qur’an? This is a pressing question, given the Qur’an’s powerful influence on decisions and events that impact millions of people around the world.

Many non-Muslims have the (mistaken) impression that the Qur’an is a compilation of Muhammad’s verbatim accounts of what God said to him. Though this may not be a significant distinction, it was not God who spoke to Muhammad, but the angel Gabriel.

More significant: Muhammad himself did not write the accounts of these conversations. He verbally repeated his revelations to his Companions (the earliest converts to Islam which included several family members and close friends). It was they who wrote down what Muhammad shared with them. How long after Muhammad described a given encounters, how faithfully they transcribed his accounts, and whether the scribes heard any particular account directly from Muhammad or second-hand, is not always clear.

Algerian (Muslim) scholar, Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), in his book Lectures du Coran (unhappily, only available in its original French), identifies three key moments in the chronology and epistemology of the Qur’an:

  1. The period of the revelations to Muhammad (d. 632)     610-632 CE
  2. The collecting and putting together of the final version   632-936 CE
  3. The time of orthodoxy                                                 936 CE ->present

Arkoun finds that by the time the polymath, جلال الدين السيوطي, al-Suyûtî (d. 1505 CE), wrote his1500-page analysis of the Qur’an, the table of contents of which included eighty-four categories, he was already treating the Qur’an as an authoritative “as is,”—in other words, as if it had always been a single text with unchanging content. Though, at first glance, al-Suyûtî’s analysis appears exhaustive, a deeper look shows that he focuses on the “external” linguistic features of the Qur’an—its lexicon, morphology, syntax, semantics, rhetoric, and prose style.

In a sense, then, al-Suyûtî takes an approach to the Qur’an that, according to Arkoun, had already become de rigueur in the Islamic world; he builds a fence around it. He does not breach the fence by moving past externalities to explore the Qur’an’s “internal” assumptions, claims and convictions.

Like the majority of scholars of the Qur’an, even to the present, no questions appear or are answered in al-Suyûtî’s treatise about how and why the Qur’an is organized in the way that it is rather than in some other way, about the thought-world that formed and informed Muhammad, about the theological shifts internal to the text, about the layers of Islamic imaginary embedded in this collection of texts written by various people over a period of time, etc.

The upshot, for Arkoun, is this—by the early 1500s, the Qur’an was already being treated—even by scholars like al-Suyûtî—as the fixed, literal Word of God.

Arkoun also finds it significant that al-Suyûtî mentions the name of ‫مُجَاهِدْ بِنْ جَبْر‎, Abû Bakr Ibn Mujâhid (645-722 CE) only once and peripherally. Why is this significant? Because Ibn Mujâhid, born after the death of Muhammad, was, according to Arkoun, responsible for the final changes made to the Qur’an.

By the time al-Suyûtî conducted his analysis, Ibn Mujâhid’s “reforms” as Arkoun calls them, had become so normalized that they did not attract attention and, even for a highly-regarded scholar like al-Suyûtî, they did not warrant evaluation.

Besides Ibn Mujâhid’s reforms, the most significant event with regard to the Qur’an was, in Arkoun’s opinion, the publication in Cairo in 1924 of a standard edition of the Qur’an. From that moment forward, Arkoun writes, the text became intertwined with the problems of everyday life, treated as ahistorical and as an immediate and direct connection to the Word of God whether by government functionary, party activist, schoolteacher, writer, recent convert, or whomever.

He notes that, as late as 1969, when authorized representatives (by virtue of their religious roles or positions at universities) from all of Islam’s communities gathered, their unanimity on the Qur’an—be it on the question of reading strategies, of positions defended, or of ideas developed—was striking.

Even Shi’ites and Karijites, who agree on little else, harbored minimal disagreements with regard to the Qur’an. (Although the Qur’an garners unanimous support, the Hadith, or collected sayings of Muhammad, take different forms which divide Muslims.)

Thus, the Qur’an, the historicity of which has been largely set aside as a topic of reflection, continues to serve as the foundation for various forms of Arabic culture in conversation with the structures of the State and of an expanding society.

But, Arkoun argues, this reading of the Qur’an is based on the idea that each Sura corresponds to a textual unit whose origin can be traced to Muhammad’s Meccan or Medina periods. The truth, in his opinion, is much more complex, and requires study. Work, Arkoun asserts, is also needed on the chronology of the Suras and on the exegeses transmitted in the closed “official” corpus.

Though enough manuscripts and decisive works have been lost that definitive answers may never become available, for Arkoun, Islamic thought, so attached to reading the Qu’ran in its “fresh state of revelation,” can no longer ignore the fruits of historical inquiry.

What difference can such inquiries make? What’s at stake?

Arkoun offers the following example: the word kalâla is used only twice in the Qur’an. One reading of this word would allow wealth to be passed down to a daughter-in-law or a female fiancée. This reading, however, has been rejected in favor of an orthodox reading limiting rights of inheritance to male relatives.

Research on the system of inheritance in place in Arabia during the time of the Prophet in comparison to that of Iraq and Syria during the same period would show, Arkoun predicts, that interpretation of these passages by the first jurists was consistent with a system of inheritance not rigidly tied to the male line.

Arkoun places part of the blame for fixed readings of the Qur’an on Western translators. Intense interest in Islam has led to an acute demand for translations of the Qur’an in all languages. Editors, anxious to keep costs down, re-edit old translations or accept eclectic versions touted as “improved.” Although these offerings are conceived and executed as well as possible—they do not venture outside the limits of classical philology. Western translations thus do not challenge the accepted, orthodox understandings of the text.

If a translator of the Qur’an were to choose instead to pay attention to the historical, social, and cultural background of the text, he or she would need to develop, for each language, a way to capture cultural nuances, and to identify metaphors that correspond to Arabic metaphors. The reticence of linguists to engage in these efforts reinforces the long-standing hostility of Muslims to translations.

In contrast, the Biblical sayings of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic, were quickly rendered into Greek, then Latin, then in the 16th Century into German by Martin Luther and into English by William Tyndale. The Bible’s linguistic code changes with every new translation, Arkoun notes, and its cultural code changes as well, giving rise to new religious sensibilities and reinforcing a sense of the text’s historicity. Successive interpretations and re-interpretations of the Bible have provided space, he explains, for transformation and tension, and thus for reflection and investigation.

For now, according to Arkoun, intensive studies of the Qur’an are limited to descriptive and linear studies of thinkers like al-Suyûtî and their works, or to structural and semiotic analysis of the text.

In either case, areas of scholarship are being neglected. Arkoun calls for studies of the arc of Islamic consciousness in the Qur’an (whether mythical, historical, social, economic, political, philosophical, moral, esthetic, or religious), of the rational and the irrational, of the profane and the sacred, etc.—each, he holds, has a history that has not been explored for its own sake.

Arkoun points out that as long as the distinctions between myth and history, rationality and the imaginary are ignored, as he claims they are, the dominant current of Islamic thought can continue to assume that contemporary reason remains identical to the reason at work in the Qur’an and in the thought-world of the Prophet.

And then, as a result of overlooking important distinctions, the word kalâla, for example, which could be read to allow wealth to be passed down to a daughter-in-law or a female fiancée can continue, instead, to be rejected in favor of an orthodox reading limiting rights of inheritance to male relatives. Clearly this impacts the lives of millions of women.

Who knows what other distinctions with the potential of having a significant, positive impact on the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims could be discovered if research into the areas proposed by Arkoun were to take place.

Arkoun wrote his book on reading the Qur’an three decades ago and his conclusions could be outdated. If you are an expert on Islam, and the investigations for which he called in 1982 have occurred or are under way, please let us know!

Sources: Mohammed Arkoun, Lectures du Coran, Paris: G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1982.

#68 Suffering on Trial


, , ,

Image Credit: Neil Moralee / flickr creative commons

Image: Neil Moralee / flickr creative commons

In my latest article for the UU World magazine, “Suffering on Trial,” I explore how suffering plays a key role in the thought of three theologians—Rebecca Parker (sexual abuse as a child), Theodore Parker (the deaths of most of his loved ones), and Anthony Pinn (African-American slavery). Though each is influenced by suffering, each develops a distinct theology.

Click here to read the article. And let me know what you think!

#67 Which family comes first?


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Credit : Marilyn Barbone / Dreamstine Stock Photos

Credit : Marilyn Barbone / Dreamstime Stock Photos

Theistic religions ask us to put God’s law—a higher, universal law that applies to the human family—above the needs of our immediate family. We feel the tug to care for our families more piquantly than we do the tug to care for strangers. Religions ask us to give the same or higher priority to non-family members or to some abstract “humanity.”

This non-natural demand calls on us to take into account the happiness and well-being of people we don’t personally know. We may be called upon to make sacrifices for the sake of these strangers. Many of us resist giving up something we cherish for the sake of some “Other,” even when we understand the logic of doing so. Truth be told, we are much more likely to comply if such a demand is bound up with the power and authority of religion.

Take, for example, Christianity. In the book of Matthew (10:34), Jesus tells his followers: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”

The author of the book of Luke (14:26) echoes the passage above. (This is not surprising since Matthew is a source for Luke, along with the book of Mark.) In Luke, Jesus says: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus tells those who wish to follow him that they must leave their families and make him (God) more important than parents and siblings. Disciples must be ready to take the Cross—meaning that they must be willing to suffer and to sacrifice to do his will. Doing God’s good work, and heeding God’s moral demands must be given highest priority at all times.

Islam also requires attention to the stranger. According to scholar Reza Aslan, author of No god but God, a focus on higher laws was true of Islam from its earliest beginnings. Muhammad, the messenger of God, was a member of the leading tribes of Mecca called the Quraysh. Breaking custom, he rebuked his tribe (his family) because of its unethical practices.

What were these practices? During Muhammad’s childhood, the Ka’ba housed the many gods of Mecca and the many gods of surrounding areas. Members of the Quraysh family controlled access to this site of pilgrimage. During the pilgrimage cycle, people came from near and far to pay homage to their gods. Vendors from the region capitalized on the influx of visitors by bringing merchandise to commercial fairs. A “modest but lucrative trade zone” formed around Mecca. Eventually, the Quraysh realized that they could charge a tax on all goods brought into Mecca. As a result of this tax, they became yet more prosperous and powerful.

The problem, which Muhammad saw clearly, was that this extreme concentration of wealth altered the social and economic balance of the city and destroyed the tribal ethic regulating the interactions between tribes. The rapid rise in revenues collected by a few Meccan families led to rigid social stratification and “swept away [the] tribal ideas” of egalitarianism that previously existed: “No longer was there any concern for the poor and marginalized… The Shayks of Quraysh had become far more interested in maintaining the apparatus of trade than in caring for the dispossessed.”

More interested in wealth and in the affairs of trade than in the lives of their kinsmen, the Quraysh offered no formal protection to the masses. Since neither orphans or widows had “access to any kind of inheritance,” their only means of survival was to “borrow money from the rich at exorbitant interest rates.” This usually led to enormous debt, which “in turn led to crushing poverty, and ultimately, to slavery.” Muhammad, himself an orphan, was all too aware of this possibility. He was spared this fate solely because an uncle, a member of a clan within the tribe of Quraysh, became his guardian.

When Muhammad revealed God’s messages to the Meccans, he “decried the mistreatment and exploitation of the weak and unprotected.” He also demanded help for the underprivileged and the oppressed and argued that “it was the duty of the rich and powerful to take care of them.” God, he said, “had seen the greed and wickedness of the Quraysh, and would tolerate it no longer.”

As Muhammad’s message spread, those who joined his movement not only changed their religious faith to the worship of Allah, they also cut themselves off from their families and their tribes. In essence, they left their homes, the people they loved, the tribe that gave them protection and identity, in order to join a self-created community without standing—Muhammad’s growing group of Companions.

Like Jesus’ followers, the Meccans who adopted Muhammad’s ideas had to choose: remain with their families even though they could no longer abide their loved ones’ religious or moral tenets, or leave their families of origin and give priority to their adopted family and to Allah’s moral demands.

The costs of leaving one’s tribe to adopt Allah’s laws were exceedingly high because the tribe was the basic, and only community unit. Each tribe had a Hakam, a trusted, neutral party who acted as arbiter during disputes. His rulings set precedent and, collected together, became the “foundation of a normative legal tradition, or Sunna, that served as the tribe’s legal code.” Each tribe had its own Sunna. Indeed, one tribe’s Sunna did not necessarily match another tribe’s. Because each tribe operated as something of a stand-alone community, outside of his or her own tribe, an individual had “no legal protection, no rights, and no social identity.”

Today, the standard objection against higher moral laws is that such laws fail to account for the special bonds we have with loved ones. But, in the story of Muhammad, we see the impact of focusing uniquely on one’s family members and considering “non-family” members as existing outside of the circle of care.

Muhammad demanded that his followers loosen, if not abandon, their special bonds to loved ones if these loved ones hampered them from attending to individuals with “no legal protection, no rights, and no social identity.” Jesus underscored that becoming his disciple required putting service to God ahead of family ties and required sacrifice—taking up the Cross.

Who constitutes the “neighbor” is contested, both in Christianity and in Islam, though it is easier for Christianity to make a case for a universal notion of neighbor than it is for Islam, which includes only fellow Muslims under the rubric of neighbor.

Stories tied to Jesus and Muhammad highlight the tension between doing what is right and good for those we know and love, and doing what is right and good for those we don’t know or don’t love. These religions call into question our “natural” drive to care for our simple family-unit and demand that we broaden our perspective to include care for those who are not like ourselves.

Because balancing the two sorts of moral demands that make claims on us can be confusing under the best of circumstances, religions like Christianity and Islam (as well as other religions) remind us of the importance of remaining—in spite of obstacles—attentive to our “neighbors.” They also offer, as a result of centuries of reflection, argumentation, and refinement, guidance for how best to navigate unclear situations and negotiate complex and intertwined dilemmas.

Most of the religions (in their best instantiations) remind us unequivocally of the rights that others have on our time, finances, and skills even although we will never meet them and never know their names. The religions remind us that first priority is to be given to the support and care of the poor and oppressed even if this means we must shirk the needs of close family members. Yes, guilt and disappointment and frustration will surely follow such decisions, but this is the kind of sacrifice Jesus and Muhammad asked of their disciples.

Whether we are disciples or Jesus or Muhammad or not, do our world views ask as much from us? If not, they warrant a second look.

Resource: Reza Aslan. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Updated edition. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011.

#65 “Duck Dynasty” Phil Robertson’s Theology: Dead or Alive?


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Originally posted January 2, 2014, in Sightings, a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion.

Phil Robertson, patriarch of A&E's "Duck Dynasty"               Image: screen shot

Phil Robertson, patriarch of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” (Image credit: screen shot)

Since a recent GQ Magazine article outed his homophobic and pro-Jim-crow views, left-wing commentators have declared open season on Phil Robertson, the patriarch of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” Robertson, based on his reading of Christian scriptures, considers homosexuality a sin and predicts that homosexuals will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.

In Salon, Joan Walsh pronounced Robertson a “bigoted pseudo-Christian.” Another Salon author, Brittney Cooper, a self-professed “reluctant Evangelical,” took aim at Robertson’s “conservative theology,” denouncing the “violence” that it “does to gay people in the name of God.”

Cooper’s Bible and Robertson’s Bible are the same. However, Cooper’s practice of “hermeneutic [interpretive] consistency” differentiates her from Robertson who likely reads scripture literally (as if a literal reading were possible). Those of us who treasure scripture would do well to emulate a thoughtful and compelling approach like Cooper’s. Hers is a living theology.

For Cooper, the “first and foremost” truth disclosed by the Bible is that “God is love.” Intent on making scripture consistent with this fundamental truth, she rejects passages that contradict it. Cooper acknowledges that the Bible sanctions slavery. But since she is certain that a loving “God is not a racist,” she rejects racist scriptural passages. She agrees with Robertson that the Bible “declares sex between men to be an abomination.” But since she is certain that a loving “God is not a homophobe,” she rejects homophobic scriptural passages.

Robertson would find Cooper’s approach anathema. Literalist Christians consider scripture to be the verbatim transcript of God’s revealed laws, beliefs, and commandments.

Contra Robertson, a living theology, according to Jewish theologian, Michael Fishbane, treats ancient, sacred writings as more than simple and fixed storehouses of information. A living theology, Fishbane writes in Sacred Attunement, includes an intentional, ongoing effort of “adaptation and clarification” of religious texts. This effort helps us remain alert to the traces of transcendence that break through our everyday consciousness and to “sustain (and even revive)” them “in the normal course of life.”

Readers of the Bible who eschew the effort of adapting and clarifying scripture cut themselves off from traces of transcendence. Their theologies are dead.

Also, the unquestioning acceptance touted by such as Robertson is neither coherent nor honest. Though literalist Christians believe that they take scripture at face value, they necessarily, at some level, interpret it.

On some issues the Bible is inconsistent or opaque. Martin Luther, who advocated relying on scripture to decide all issues, discovered that, at times, it is silent on important questions—for example, child baptism. As a result, each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constructs meta-Bibles out of passages we select from the actual Bible. We assemble proof-texts that make sense to us or align with our commitments and values. We downplay Biblical proscriptions that inconveniently conflict with our favored mores—for example, the indifference of many contemporary Protestants to Jesus’ prohibition on divorce. Contradictory passages are set aside (Cooper does this with admirable transparency and clarity of purpose) or hyper-interpreted until they harmonize.

Consider in this regard, Robertson’s likely view that God so loved us that he sent his only Son to die for us on the cross. This is an interpretation of the crucifixion to which St. Paul hints in the New Testament but which did not enter the arc of Christian thought as a fully rendered doctrine until Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) developed the satisfaction theory of Christ’s atonement.

Proof-texting and interpreting the Bible is unavoidable.

In addition, as Fishbane notes, the books of the Bible were spliced together. Varying worldviews and theological commitments are interwoven, sometimes within a single passage. Thus, scripture itself is an example of the work of interpretation and revision; its internal disagreements invite us—nay, prod us—to follow its lead and adapt and clarify. By doing so, we keep scripture and our theology alive.

Fishbane helpfully recommends reading events in the Bible as “theological expressions of primordial truth. The narratives of scripture thus become paradigms of perennial matters bearing on divine presence (both transcendence and immanence), as well as the human response to them.” More generally, “the old words of scripture are spaces for ever-new moments of spiritual consciousness and self-transformation.”

Christians like Robertson resist looking for such spaces and maintain their (imagined) literal grip on scripture. Joan Walsh calls Robertson a “bigoted pseudo-Christian” but she’s wrong about the “pseudo-Christian” part. Robertson is a Christian; his beliefs rest on interpretations at odds with those she prefers. There’s no doubt, though, Walsh is right about the “bigoted” part. Let’s be clear: Robertson’s dead theology is downright ugly.

References and Further Reading:

Magary, Drew. “What the Duck?” GQ, January 2014.

Cooper, Brittney. “Evangelical church’s ugly truth: ‘Duck Dynasty’ and Christian racists.” Salon, December 24, 2013.

Walsh, Joan. “2013: The year in whiteness. From Phil Robertson to Megyn Kelly, peddling white grievance became a bigger, crazier, more lucrative racket.” Salon, December 30, 2013.

Fishbane, Michael. Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008.

Axelrod, Jim. “A&E can’t win on ‘Duck Dynasty’ flap.” CBS News, December 28, 2013.

Fixmer, Andy. “A&E Ends ‘Duck Dynasty’ Patriarch Suspension.” Bloomberg, December 28, 2013.

Photo Credit: Screenshot of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty”

#64 Season of In-breaking Light and Love


, , , , , , ,


Credit: ellenm1 / CreativeCommons.org

Heading toward the final days of the year, the weather turning resolutely nasty, temperatures dipping into the single digits, snow threatening to clog side streets and motorways, ice making commuting a dangerous sport, the sun setting earlier every afternoon, adding the burden of ever shorter and drearier days—Christmas lights suddenly pop up everywhere.

The long autumn darkness that weighed on our spirits becomes the backdrop for bright lights in every shade on the color wheel.

In December, lights blink and twinkle and shimmer, bringing us cheer when the work day ends and we are released into the night. No more mood-dampening darkness; we are bedazzled by trees and bushes festooned with tiny electric stars, street poles decorated with shiny rows of candy-cane red and white, edges of balconies and eaves of houses dripping with brilliant icicles.

When these Christmas lights are taken down in January and placed in storage for another year, the solstice will have passed. The worst will be over and the loveliness of spring will feel within reach. The sky will be lighter when we leave work, and though the winter-weather will worsen, snow will fall more often, temperatures will stay in single digits, the early months of the year, with their gradually lengthening days, will be bearable.


Credit: Martin Beek / CreativeCommons.org

For Christians, the birth of Jesus symbolizes the in-breaking of God’s love, just as it did among an ancient people who, too long trapped in the harshness of Roman domination and the nightmare of the tyrant Herod’s oppression, despaired of goodness and hope.

Many of the Israelites, when love broke into their midst, knew only the life of the subjugated, under the battering ram of a colonial power determined to control them physically and to mould their thoughts, their beliefs, and their ideals. Spirit-crushing poverty was the order of the day, unrelenting misery that we, Westerners, can try to imagine today but which we must fail to understand.

An ethos of meaningless brutality ruled from birth to death. And yet love could not be stopped.

Love that, in the narrative of Jesus’ birth, came in the form of a child, a child who appeared, not at an expected or convenient time, not to a middle-class or settled family.

Love broke through the sordid and violent times of domination in the form of a mother’s love for her child—a love beyond the reach of the most powerful empire the world had yet known.

Love, this story reminds us, can come any time, unbidden, unexpected, and without regard for whether we are ready.

Love this pure, this selfless, this strong, is rare. It is surely the most prized gift in anyone’s life.

Love, in this story, also appears in the more-complex love of a stepfather for his child. Because Joseph’s eyes, like Mary’s, shine with love as he gazes at the newborn Jesus.


Credit: laszlo-photo / CreativeCommons.org

Just as light breaks into and brightens the ever-earlier nights of December, love breaks into and makes bearable the most desperate and dismal of circumstances.

Whether we are Christians or not, blessed light buoys us during these days of dreariness. And blessed love cradles us during days of trial (whether we are the bearer of love or its object).

During this season of light and love, or during any season, may love break into your life like the lights of Christmas. And may you, like the light, be an in-breaking source of love to others.