#43 Countdown to exams, gotta go go go


It hardly seems possible, but a full year has passed since my first post!  Forty-two posts later, the time has come for me to set blogging aside.  With Ph.D. exams scheduled for February, 2010, I must focus on my studies and nothing but my studies.

When I launched this blog, little did I expect the number of visits it has received (more than 5000 to date) nor the number of comments (more than 100).

So thanks.  Thanks for walking with me and for sharing your thoughts.  I’ve enjoyed hearing from you!

I’ll continue to monitor this site so please don’t hesitate to leave more comments.

I may return to blogging sometime in March.  No promises though.  I’ll have to see what kind of demands there are on my time.

Good-bye for now.  May life treat you tenderly.

I leave you with the following prayer, written by one of my favorite authors, the Unitarian minister, A. Powell Davies:

Help Us, O God, in a world so full of what is wonderful, ever changing, ever surprising us with new revelations of life’s power and beauty, to accept with gratitude all that gladdens us, and with fortitude all that brings us grief.

Let us take time to watch the morning and the evening skies, to look often and long at the marvelous earth and all that lives upon it, to be with heart and soul a friend and neighbor and a part of humankind.

Let us rejoice in the heritage bequeathed to us from yesterday, and in the festivals of faith and hope.

Let us look at our world as it is, and seek a wisdom that is not censorious.

Let us look into our own hearts and be brave enough to separate the evil from the good.

Let us be learning always, from all that we see and do, and from all that happens to us.

And if shadows overtake us, let us not dim within ourselves the light that helps others to live.

Give us, O God, to carry with us the kindness that we look for, to be gentle as we wish the world were gentle, and by being loving, to bring closer to fulfillment all that is the fruit of love.


#42 Inviting Jesus to his Birthday bash


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Are you satisfied with a purely secular approach to the Christmas season?  If not, you might consider spending some time reading the New Testament gospels and reflecting on the life and teachings of Jesus that they depict.

Skeptics will resist this suggestion but could soften their stance when they learn that respected thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Buber (yes, the 20th Century Jewish philosopher!) would have nodded their assent.  Both considered the gospels to be sources of immense wisdom.  They had no illusion about the human authorship of the Bible; this did not prevent them from engaging it energetically and with seriousness of purpose.  In so doing, they testify to its importance.  Both adopted unique approaches to Scripture; their approaches offer helpful examples of how we too might to read it.

Although he didn’t consider Jesus to be divine, Thomas Jefferson was inspired by the Biblical Jesus’ message—albeit in its distinctly human dimension.  New Testament verses concerning morality and sin met with Jefferson’s approval but the miracles and Jesus’ resurrection struck him as implausible.  Jefferson decided to extract the passages reflecting his ideas about Jesus from the four Gospels to create a single, unified gospel.  Over a period of several years, he selected passages from six different (hardcopy) Bibles, cut them out (with scissors—yup, the old, old-fashioned way), and pasted them together (with glue) to create his own, integrated gospel.  His Bible selection included excerpts from the King James Bible, a Greek Bible, one in Latin, and two more in French.  He entitled his cut-and-paste Bible:  The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

What follows is the narrative of Jesus’ birth from Jefferson’s Bible.  Because this account only appears in the gospel of Luke, Jefferson relied on uniquely on Luke to redact his version of the nativity:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  Lk 2:1

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)  Lk 2:2

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. Lk 2:3

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David.)  Lk 2:4

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.  Lk 2:5

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  Lk 2:6

And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them at the inn.  Lk 2:7

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS,  Lk 2:21

And when they had performed all things according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.  Lk 2:39

Although this passage doesn’t include the moral teachings so important to Jefferson, it does show that he had no qualms about altering sacred Scripture to make it his own–including the story of Jesus’ birth.

Given when and where he lived, it isn’t surprising that Jefferson considered Jesus, the man, a source of inspiration.  However, it is surprising that Martin Buber, best known for his book of Jewish theology, I and Thou, considered Jesus his great brother.  Buber found much significance in Jesus’ suffering, his self-doubt and his death.  Indeed, Buber wrote:

“From my youth onwards, I have found in Jesus my great brother.  That Christianity has regarded and does regard him as God and Saviour has always appeared to me a fact of the highest importance which for his sake and my own, I must endeavor to understand…  my own fraternally open relationship with him has grown ever stronger and clearer…  For nearly 50 years, the New Testament has been a main concern in my studies.”

In Jesus, Buber found a great son of Israel.  He found the genuine Jewish principle manifest in Jesus’ teachings.  He also felt a strong kinship to the Jesus depicted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke—that is to say, a strong kinship for the plain and embodied man grappling with concrete situations.

For Buber, it was this Jesus, the one who, struggling in the depth of the actual moment, found eternity.  He had the highest regard for the man who lacked certainty about his nature, who experienced shocks to this certainty, and whose last question was ‘Why’?

If Buber had less affinity for the version of Jesus depicted in the gospel of John, this was because John’s Jesus entered the spiritual realm where he was no longer open to attacks of self-questioning.

Buber ascribed enormous importance to passages like the following one from the Sermon on the Mount (in the gospel of Matthew): “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors SO THAT you may become the children of your Father in heaven.” Based on his research, Buber held that until Jesus spoke those words, nowhere else had love for others been described as the path to becoming a child of God.

In Buber’s view, Jesus’ statement rose out of Israel’s faith, it implied it, and yet at the same time, supplemented it.  It opened the door to all those who really love.  Buber celebrated Jesus as the religious leader who challenged human beings, for the first time in our history, to Love our enemies and pray for our persecutors so that we might become what we were meant to be, brothers and sisters to one another.

Should you, like Buber or Jefferson, decide to revisit the Bible during this season of Advent then, like them, you will want to acknowledge the ugly parts of the gospels, or of any other Biblical book for that matter, if that’s what those passages deserve.  Neither Buber nor Jefferson approached Scripture with naive reverence.  They relied on their analytic and critical skills to winnow “the grain from the chaff.”

Jefferson explained his approach in a letter he wrote to William Short, a Unitarian with whom he corresponded about religious matters during the years he worked to create his personal Gospel.  In one of those letters, he said:

“We find in the writings of [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions.  First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.  Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms, and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”

If you (re)visit the gospels, why not start with the gospel of Luke?  Not only does this gospel contain the story at the core of this season’s Christmas celebration, but it is prized for its literary elegance, its great interest in the poor, the “lost,” women, Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles.  Luke’s book has received much praise for what has been called his universalism based on his willingness to be inclusive of a variety of interests and audiences.  Some have even speculated a woman wrote this gospel.

Who knows, after reading Luke’s account, you, like Jefferson and Buber, might discover beauty and truth in the Biblical story of Jesus.  You might even, in this busy and often spirit-draining time of Advent, find a meaning in Jesus’ birth that’s all your own, enabling you to invite him to the bash you’re throwing in his name.  On some level this holiday is universal–there’s something in it for everyone–Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Christians and atheists.

So go ahead, pick up a Bible and find the gospels.  Read a passage.  Or two.  What is there to lose–except the sinking feeling that Christmas is little more than an opportunity for gift-giving and sweets-eating?

References:  Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible:  The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1989); Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith, trans. Norman P. Goldhawk (London:  Routledge & Kegan, 1951).

#41 Christmas doubts–did Jesus exist?


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Some claim that Jesus—whose birthday Christians and plenty of non-Christians are preparing to celebrate—never existed.

The people of Jesus’ time displayed no such skepticism, but for those of us who demand empirical evidence, Jesus is mentioned in several important sources (other than the New Testament).  According to the New Testament scholars Dennis Duling and Norman Perrin, these references describe Jesus as a “wandering artisan” who traveled primarily in southern Palestine and lived in the early decades of what we now call the Common Era.

The principal, extra-Biblical sources about Jesus are Roman, Jewish and Christian.  Works written by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius during the early 2nd Century are of interest because they confirm that Christian missionaries arrived in Rome during the timeframe in which Paul wrote his letter to the Romans.

More helpful on the question of Jesus’ existence are the Jewish sources.  For example, the historian Josephus (37-100? CE) mentions the execution of James whom he calls “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”  Because Christians preserved Josephus’ works through the centuries by hand-copying them, his references to Jesus are suspect—during the copying process, phrases were probably altered or even added to support Christian claims.  However, most scholars agree that Josephus’ brief remark concerning James came from Josephus himself.

Another, longer passage from Josephus is more questionable.  Phrases unlikely to have been written by a Jewish author were woven into the original.  The majority of scholars, however, are of the opinion that this passage was not entirely fabricated.

Here it is, edited to remove the phrases Christian copyists may have added:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man.  For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.  He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.  When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.  And the time of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Josephus, then, confirms the existence of Jesus who, as Duling and Perrin summarized, “gathered followers, taught, worked miracles, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

This should put to rest the most skeptical of skeptics’ questions about whether Jesus of Nazareth actually lived.  A birthday bash celebrating his coming into the world is, quite simply, based on fact.

Granted, questions about the actual day and year remain.   No one knows exactly on what day Jesus was born.  On this point, the sources are silent.

But, really, does it matter whether we’ve got the right date?

Even if you’re a Christmas-celebrating non-Christian, given the short, dark days of winter, isn’t a festive time of twinkling-lights and sweets-galore and family-time perfect right now?

All things considered, if we’re going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, December 25 seems as good a day as any.

Reference:  Dennis Duling and Norman Perrin, The New Testament:  Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History, 3rd ed. (Fort Worth, TX:  Harcourt College Publishers, 1994).

#40 What do Jesus and Reagan have in common?


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According to Jonathan Chait, the author of The Big Con:  Crackpot Economics and the Fleecing of America, “In the conservative mind, the Ronald Reagan presidency lives on in the golden shimmering past, an ideal that Reagan’s successors must strive to approach but can never fully live up to, like the teachings of Christ.”

Although Reagan left the White House in early 1989, Chait describes how, more than two decades later, conservatives invoke Reagan with the fervor of religious acolytes, “seeking to spread his word to the faithful and beyond.”  As Chait tells it, the conservative press treats Reagan as if he remained a living, breathing presence.  They cite him almost daily, asking:  “What would Reagan do?”

Do you recall, during the debates between the candidates vying for the Republican Presidential nomination, how each candidate tried to distinguish himself from the others by claiming to be the most conservative and thus, the most Reagan-like?  In other words, WWRD has become the litmus test for deciding whether a particular issue or individual passes muster among red-state Americans.

So, take your pick:  WWRD or WWJD?

When the Washington Times listed the key lessons Americans learned from Reagan, the list included, most prominently, “lower taxes.”  In an editorial written for the Weekly Standard, William Kristol urged then-President George W. Bush to “start recapturing the Reaganite high ground of tax cuts and economic growth and opportunity.”  Any self-proclaimed conservative today aspires to emulate Reagan and cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes.

Why belabor the obvious, you say?  If you asked that question, then you’ve illustrated how narratives about the lives of public figures can be re-shaped for ideological purposes.  Because the written record, if one wishes to consult it, demonstrates the unthinkable—namely, that Reagan was far from the politician who epitomized conservatism at its purest.

True, Reagan enacted a substantial tax cut during his first year in office and “unapologetically targeted [it toward] the highest income levels.”  But here comes the gotcha moment.  “Panicked by rising deficits,” Reagan’s administration “signed on to the largest tax increase in American history in 1982 and another major tax hike in 1983.” No!  No!  No!  You say.  That simply can’t be!  But it is.  Did you really forget?

Despite the immense quantity of documentation (photographic, electronic and printed) pertaining to the Reagan Presidency, despite the constraining effects provided by the memories of millions of Americans who directly experienced the Reagan era, the life of Reagan is being re-imagined with virtually no protest.

Whether we’re progressives (who hate Reagan) or conservatives (who adore him), we nod our heads whenever Reagan is touted as the “cut-taxes-no-matter-what” President.   Still—if we earnestly wanted to ask WWRD today, the answer might not be that he’d cut taxes—at least, not if we turn to the historical record to formulate a possible answer instead of relying on today’s partly fictional account.

We have, in this re-imagining of Ronald Reagan, an example of how the collective memory of a public figure—in this case, of an American President—can be distorted (by some) for ideological purposes.

By analogy, we might wonder how much the narratives provided by Jesus’ disciples changed during the years that followed his crucifixion.  The earliest New Testament Gospel is the Gospel of Mark; most Biblical scholars assign it a date of about 70 CE at the earliest (a few scholars find evidence suggesting the early part of the 2nd Century).  Mark’s author makes mistakes about Galilean landmarks and customs during the time of Jesus; this supports the conclusion that he never, himself, traveled to Galilee.  Scholars also generally agree that the final portion of the gospel, Mark 16:9-20, which describes the encounter between the resurrected Christ and his disciples, is a later addition.

If two decades have allowed our collective memory of President Reagan to drift in spite of enormous documentary evidence, how did three decades minimum between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Gospel of Mark affect the collective memory of Jesus’ followers?  Note also that, today, skepticism is built into our worldview.  In the early centuries of the common era, belief in demons and magic was widespread, placing few checks on narrative renderings of events.

Until quite recently, most Christians assumed that the Gospels were sources of historical information.  Nineteenth-Century critical scholarship, however, witnessed an explosion of interest in reconstructing the life of Jesus.  Theologians like David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) studied the Gospels, intent on excavating the details of Jesus’ life.  Strauss hoped to write a historically-grounded account for his German audience.  Instead, he discovered that the Gospels contained only a few, truly historical fragments and these were so sparse that he decided it was impossible to reconstruct the personality of the human named Jesus.  The only Jesus accessible through the apostolic testimonies matched post-dated prophecies and proto-messiahs drawn from Jewish messianic literature.  Strauss’ efforts laid the groundwork for the research of later, highly-respected “life of Jesus” researchers like the Nobel-prize winning Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) who agreed with his conclusion about the irretrievability of the details of Jesus’ biography.

Strauss also realized that both supernaturalists and rationalists used faulty approaches when they attempted to construct the life of Jesus.  They read their own opinions about him into the thought-world of primitive Christianity.  Focusing on the passages that supported their views, and from these, they constructed the Jesus they wanted to find.  That Jesus was little more than the reflection of their own psychic faces, reproduced in the ancient, splotchy mirror of the Gospels.  Conservative theologians “found” a picture of the Jesus of conservativism; liberal theologians “found” a picture of the Jesus of liberalism.  Both pictures were, and remain, historically untenable.

Thanks to the research of scholars like Strauss and Schweitzer, the “life of Jesus” approach to reading Scripture was largely abandoned, although it was dusted off in the mid 1980’s and tried again by the (liberal) Jesus Seminar.

What can we learn from the Gospels?  Mostly, we find in them a record of the primitive church’s views about Jesus.  Read through the eyes of his early followers, Jesus rises from the page in the form of a visionary preacher with an apocalyptic message, the bearer of news about the immanent end of time and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Is the absence of solid, biographical information about Jesus necessarily fatal to Christian theology?  Absolutely not.  Some Christian scholars—Paul Tillich, Gordon Kaufman, David Tracy, and Sallie McFague come to mind—acknowledge this absence and move on to develop compelling theologies in spite of it.  Nonetheless, too many theologians working today fail to acknowledge the abyss between the Jesus whose life story has been almost completely lost to history and the Messiah they claim to find in the Gospels.  Non-specialists follow their lead.

The similarity to the Reagan legacy is striking.  The press, right-wing Republicans, left-wing Democrats, and our fallible memories fail to acknowledge the abyss between the Reagan whose actual life was extensively documented, and the so-dubbed arch-conservative who “always” opted for cutting taxes.  Young people who didn’t witness the Reagan era follow their elders’ lead.

WWJD or WWRD, take your pick.  But to which J or R are you referring?  To a Jesus or a Reagan who reflects your own psychic face and who conveniently shares your opinions?  Or are you referring to a Jesus about whom you admit you know little?  Or to an Reagan whose historical record you’ve studied at least a little?

Post-moderns no longer believe that it’s possible to separate fact from fiction.  There is no such thing as “fact” post-moderns like to say; there are only “accounts” refracted through social norms and personal experience.  Perhaps.  But does this mean we should abandon the effort altogether?

There is a difference between the Gold-standard-for-cutting-taxes (wishful-thinking) Reagan and the author-of-the-largest-tax-increase-in-American-history (actual) Reagan.  There is a difference between the Christ-of-Christian-theology (speculative) Jesus and the Jewish-eschatological-preacher-about-whom-little-is-known (human) Jesus. Paying attention to the difference matters.  It saves us from mistaking the one for the other and dishonoring Truth.

And Truth, even if we can only hope to glimpse it imperfectly, is worth the effort, don’t you think?

References:  Jonathan Chait, The Big Con:  Crackpot Economics and the Fleecing of America (New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 2007); James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought:  The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1997).

#39 Getting religious texts to fess up



iStock_000005845392LargeBecause they’re driven to find a few good answers, enquiring readers engage texts actively, whether that text is religious or otherwise.  Pencil in hand, they ask tough questions, follow arguments closely (looking for gaps), and watch for hidden claims and assumptions.  They interrogate texts much like a police officer interrogates a witness.

And in fact, books about religious matters are witnesses—to their authors’ points of view.

To get the most out of the investigative process, consider asking the following questions when you read religious texts (this list was drawn from a book by Alister McGrath):

1. Who is the author?

All writers bring to the page their personal experiences, existential questions, faith commitments, world-views, cultural assumptions, concerns, and agendas.  All of these factors shape an author’s writing, whether he is aware of their influence or not.  That’s why it’s important to learn something about the writer’s background.

2. For whom was the text written?

Most texts were written for specific readers.  Authors make assumptions about their readers’ shared knowledge, questions, and interests.  Trying to understand the audience for which a given text was written is especially important if you don’t belong to that audience.  In this case, you’ll have to make an extra effort to interpret the text—translating the unfamiliar into something familiar to you.

3. What is the historical and cultural context of the text?

Writers live in particular places at particular times in history.  They were shaped by the historical and cultural forces to which they’re subject, and their audiences were, too.  A work about God and evil may approach its subjects differently if it was written before World War II than if it was written afterwards.  Again, interpretation is required to understand how the issues the writer discusses are relevant to your own (contemporary) situation.

4. What religious imagery does the text employ?

Many authors rely on imagery from their faith traditions’ sacred texts.  A reference to a journey across the wilderness in a Jewish or Christian work might be elaborated upon by the writer, but she may also simply expect you to pick up on the allusion to the Biblical book of Exodus.  Be alert for such images since they are intended to enrich and deepen the impact of the written word.

5. What does the writer want you to think?

Writers have goals.  One writer may seek to persuade you of the importance of moving from an agnostic point of view to a theistic one; another might want to demonstrate the superiority of Buddhist meditation practices.  Try to identify those opinions a writer hopes you will adopt as a result of reading his work.  Some use rhetorical techniques like “Watch out, God condemns atheists to hell;” others use reasoned arguments—there are a variety of techniques authors use to sway their readers.

6. What does the writer want you to do?

Many writers want you to change what you do.  If they want to convince you to move from an agnostic point of view to a theistic one, they may recommend specific prayers to help you enter into relationship with God.  If they want to convince you of the superiority of Buddhist meditation practices, they may encourage you to incorporate such practices into your daily routine.  Try to identify what the writer wishes you to do differently.

7. What can you take away from your engagement with the text?

Consider what you learn (not necessarily new knowledge) from what you’ve read.  Did the book or passage help you?  Did it make you angry?  Did it encourage you?  Did it lead you to reconsider a cherished position?

So that you might not be left scrambling to find a passage on which to try these questions, one is provided below.  The author of this excerpt is the Lithuanian-French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995).  During WWII, Levinas served in the French military but his brothers and father were murdered in Lithuania by the Nazi SS.  His philosophical work focuses on ethics—for him, ethics is a fundamental part of our experience when we encounter another human being face-to-face.  This passage comes from the published transcript of a lecture he gave at a colloquium in 1970 on “The Youth of Israel.”  In this lecture, he discussed two passages from the Talmud (Tractate Nazir—pp. 66a and 66b):

Saying Grace in the Third World

Saying grace would be an act of the greatest importance.  To be able to eat and drink is a possibility as extraordinary, as miraculous, as the crossing of the Red Sea.  We do not recognize the miracle this represents because we live in a Europe which, for the moment, has plenty of everything, and not in a Third World country, and because our memory is short.  There they understand that to be able to satisfy one’s hunger is the marvel of marvels.  To return to a stage of indigence in Europe, despite all the progress of civilization, is a most natural possibility for us, as the war years and the concentration camps have shown.  In fact, the route which takes bread from the earth in which it grows to the mouth which eats it is one of the most perilous.  It is to cross the Red Sea.  An old Midrash, conceived in this spirit, teaches:  “Each drop of the rain which is to water your furrows is led by 10,000 angels so that it may reach its destination.”  Nothing is as difficult as being able to feed oneself!  So that the verse “You will eat and be full and you will bless” (Deuteronomy 8:10) is not pious verbiage but the recognition of a daily miracle and of the gratitude it must produce in our souls.

References:  Emmanuel Levinas, “The Youth of Israel,” Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. by Annette Aronowicz, 120-135 (Bloomington, IN:  Indiana University Press, 1990),  132;  Alister McGrath, Christian Spirituality:  An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1999), 138-140.

#38 Multifaith squabble–over love!


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If you imagine that multifaith dialogue is easy, this post will change your mind. Continue reading but be warned that you’ll be asked to tease out the intricacies of an argument between the University of Chicago historian, David Nirenberg, a champion of secularism, and His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, the champion par excellence of Roman Catholicism.

Ideally, when we enter into a dialogue about religious beliefs, we do so with a genuine desire for authentic conversation.  We attempt to understand, as much as possible, our interlocutor’s point of view especially when we find his or her point of view offensive.  But, in the present case, even a brilliant scholar like Nirenberg, who’s written insightful books about the three Abrahamic religions, loses his patience and calls on His Holiness to stop speaking like a Roman Catholic.

Nirenberg aired his differences with the Pope in a September 23, 2009, article in The New Republic, “Love and Capitalism,” in which he reviewed Benedict’s book-length encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate:  On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.”

The problem, for Nirenberg, is not the Pope’s claim to the Truth:  “Popes,” Nirenberg writes, “have the right, indeed the obligation, to teach believers the truth as they are given to perceive it, no matter how controversial.”

No, Nirenberg’s disagreement with the Pope centers around the meaning of the term “caritas,” a word that can be loosely translated into English as “charity” or “love.”

For Roman Catholics, however, caritas doesn’t mean plain old love or sympathy or concern or even charity in the way that most of us might use such words over a glass of beer. Caritas, as used by Roman Catholic theologians, including Benedict, is a technical term with a history that dates back to the 3rd Century Church Father, St. Augustine.

Nirenberg gets the Augustine connection (he quotes Augustine several times), but he doesn’t seem to recognize that Augustine’s usage of caritas has been superseded.  In the 13th Century, the theologian and so-called Angelic Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, redefined caritas.  And Aquinas, it turns out, is the key to an accurate understanding of Benedict’s “Caritas in Veritate.”  Why?  Because since the late 19th century (thanks to Pope Leo XIII), Aquinas’s thought has dominated Roman Catholic theology, including its usage of the technical theological term, caritas.

For Aquinas, caritas is a special virtue—a theological virtue, because human beings are incapable of caritas on their own.  The virtue of caritas requires God’s gracious gift.  It is the most important of the three theological virtues (the other two are hope and faith).  Aquinas taught, and the Pope agrees, that only members of the Roman Catholic Church who participate in its sacramental life may receive God’s gift of the theological virtues, including caritas.

The bottom line, then: if you’re not a Roman Catholic, God will pass you over when it comes to granting caritas.  And without God-granted caritas, you may act in what appears to be a virtuous, loving way, but your actions can never be perfectly virtuous since you, a mere human being, are the source of the virtuous acts.

In his encyclical, Benedict claims that only Roman Catholicism offers the possibility of the kind of universal fraternity necessary for authentic community. But he’s following Aquinas here; only Roman Catholicism offers a path to God-given love (caritas), and God-given love (caritas) is required for universal fraternity.  Only with God-given love are we able to love God first (as the first proper object of our love), and then, and only then, out of love for God, are we able to love God’s creatures—i.e. other human beings.

A bit more familiarity with Aquinas’ thought (called Thomism, another technical term!) is necessary to understand the Pope’s encyclical.  Aquinas (unlike Augustine) has a high anthropology.  According to him, there are some capacities all persons enjoy, whether they are Roman Catholic or not.  For example, he maintained that every person is born with the ability to reason.  Thanks to our natural reason, we can come together and solve problems.

With this brief primer on Thomism, we could have anticipated what Benedict did, in fact, say in his encyclical:  “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.  This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is.”

Like every good book reviewer, Nirenberg is tasked with picking a fight over some point and so he chooses this one:  “The problem is that Benedict is claiming to offer general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (and sometimes of no faith), while at the same time insisting that the only possible answer to those questions is Catholicism.  Such a suggestion might be a plausible prescription for global peace and development in a Catholic world, but the world is not Catholic.”

But Benedict offers general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (including some of no faith) because he believes (following Aquinas) that every human being has reason.  And because we’re blessed with reason, Benedict can issue a global call for us to work together to address global problems.  However (still following Aquinas), fraternal charity, which grows out of caritas or God-given love, is only available to Roman Catholics.  If the rest of the world wants to co-exist in fraternal charity, it must convert and join the Roman Catholic Church.

For Benedict to discuss the global crisis in purely secular terms would be to act without love (in the ordinary sense of that word).  Would it be loving of Benedict to choose silence over sharing with the non-Catholic part of the world the fact (as he perceives it) that there is only one path to fraternal charity?

Nirenberg, however, wants Benedict to set his Roman Catholicism aside and offer global answers “taught in a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them.”  What if Benedict made an analogous demand of Nirenberg?  He’d insist Nirenberg leave his secular commitments aside and offer teachings “taught in a way that seeks” to reflect the Roman Catholic tradition!

Which man has the more loving approach?

At the very least, Benedict engages in authentic multi-faith dialogue.  He doesn’t pretend to set aside his convictions—as if he could!—rather, he shows the full set of cards he’s holding in one hand and extends the other hand in greeting.  We may, like Nirenberg, not like the cards he’s holding, but we can appreciate the fact that he’s showing us what he’s got.

One of the goals of an authentic conversation about religion is to try to understand our conversation partner’s point of view.  For this we must set aside our own religious commitments and adopt a willingness to interpret (i.e. make familiar the unfamiliar) what he or she shares with us.  Nirenberg was tasked with interpreting the Pope’s latest encyclical.  Unfortunately, conversing with an author via his or her book does not offer the possibility of a back-and-forth dialogue.  If he and the Pope had had the opportunity to get together at the local bar and talk over a glass of beer, Nirenberg could simply have asked, “Exactly what do you mean, Your Holiness, by caritas?”  The two could have had a brief discussion about their differing definitions of love.  Then they could have moved on to discuss something more important—the Pope’s central concern of his encyclical—how to solve our global problems.

References:  David Nirenberg, “Love and Capitalism,” The New Republic 240, no. 4868 (23 September 2009): 39-42; Waldo Beach and H. R. Niebuhr, eds, Christian Ethics:  Sources of the Living Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York:  The Ronald Press Company, 1973).

#37 This little light of mine


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5th August 1858: Beacon Hill, Boston, the site of the oldest surviving Black Church and a centre of the abolitionist movement. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

5th August 1858: Beacon Hill, Boston, the site of the oldest surviving Black Church and a centre of the abolitionist movement. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Did some African American slaves prefer suicide, even if they were afraid of dying?  How many chose to end their lives?  How many regretted not having the means to do so? Suicide requires courage, but requires less courage than submitting to torture. Death is not always the worst outcome, what’s worst is suffering that goes on and on, horror without pause. Whereas hope is a leap of faith, courage is an act of will. It is willful courage that is required to face torments one cannot change or escape.

Yet, in spite of the brutality and dehumanization of slavery, African Americans developed a strong tradition of song, often inspired by their religion.

There is no greater testament to the tenacity of the human spirit than the songs of slaves.  We, regardless of our heritage, have much to learn from the ways they dug deep within to discover, beyond their physical and mental suffering, embers of joy and loving-kindness, embers they, with willful courage, turned into light.

Matthew 5:15-16  (Part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount):

15  No one lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
16  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that you may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

This Little Light of Mine (African American spiritual, circa 1750-1875):

This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine.  Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Ev’ry-where I go,
I’m gonna let it shine.
Ev’ry-where I go,
I’m gonna let it shine.
Ev’ry-where I go,
I’m gonna let it shine.  Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Building up a world,
I’m gonna let it shine.
Building up a world,
I’m gonna let it shine.
Building up a world,
I’m gonna let it shine.  Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

References:  “This Little Light of Mine,” Hymn #118 in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1993); Between the Lines:  Sources for Singing the Living Tradition, edited by Jacqui James, 2nd ed. (Boston:  Skinner House Books, 1995).

#36 The luminous gospel of transcendental universalism


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The Reverend Forrest Church died of esophageal cancer last week at the much-too-young age of 61.

His life story continues to speak to us.

Church began his ministerial career preaching the gospel of rational belief—the kind of gospel that limits itself to teachings the human mind can comprehend and experience can confirm.  He surveyed the theological field for its various doctrines and claims about God and laid them on a dissecting table so he could cut them open and discover how they worked.  Did they meet the constraints of rationality?  If no, he’d toss them in the waste bin. If yes, he’d add them to his keeper pile.  This approach challenged him intellectually but left him spiritually dry.

He studied God, but God was absent to him.

He turned to alcohol and used it as a buffer against his emptiness.  The drinking worked—for many years, anyway.  He managed to drink and juggle his hefty duties as senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Manhattan.  He even managed to write several books.

In the late 1980’s, he realized that he needed God’s help to find peace.  Not at home in himself, he began to look for a home in the universe while still sharing the common Unitarian aversion to God-language.  He’d kept his altar crowded with “icons to knowledge” but now he cleared a space for mystery.  While most of his beliefs had not changed, he declared that religion was a human response to the inevitability of death.  This inevitability gave meaning to human love because the more love we found and gave, the more we risked losing.

Eventually, he embraced God-language and used it more readily than his co-religionists liked.  But how could he keep the saving news to himself?   He’d found God and God filled the God-shaped hole he’d harbored and denied for much too long.  God, he proclaimed, was “that which is greater than all and yet present in each.”

He loved God, and God was present to him.

The Universalist strand of his faith tradition, with its promise of shared salvation, held particular appeal for Church, especially when integrated with Emersonian transcendentalism.  Christian became an important part of his religious identity and he adopted the label of Christian Universalist.  As such, he made room in his theology for many religious approaches.  The cathedral of the world became his credo—while there was a single Reality or Truth (God), this reality shone through the many windows of the world’s cathedral.  The windows’ patterns refracted the light into multiple patterns suggesting different meanings.  One Light, many patterns.  One Truth, many meanings.

Church often said that God was “the most famous liberal of all time.”  Every word that describes God is a synonym for liberal, he explained:  “God is munificent and openhanded.  The creation is ample and plenteous.  As healer and comforter, God is charitable and benevolent.  As our redeemer, God is generous and forgiving…God has a bleeding that simply never stops.”

May God, as healer and comforter, heal and comfort his family.

References:  Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology:  Crisis, Irony, & Postmodernity 1950-2005 (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Pres, 2006), 455-459; Forrest Church, The CATHEDRAL of the WORLD:  A Universalist Theology (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2009).

#35 The art of forgiving God


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Yom Kippur just passed, that Jewish day of atonement and of human-granted and God-granted forgiveness.

But what about God’s atonement for God’s sins of omission and of commission?

After all, many of us hold God responsible for the tragedies that plague our world.  “Look God,” we might say, “Take a good look around will You?  See the people weeping over here and see the people weeping over there—why don’t You do something about their troubles?  Why do You allow their sorrows to continue?  You’re God, right?  So You could make the suffering stop if You wanted.”

Some of those who hold God responsible for standing-by and doing nothing, don’t believe in miracles.  When it comes to miracles, they’re deniers.  They’re the ones who would stand on a cliff’s edge on a lovely, starry night, and having asked God for a sign, would continue to wait even after a meteor with a sparkler-like tail swooshed in a majestic arc across a darkened sky.  They would notice the meteor but expect that a scientific explanation would neatly explain why the meteor appeared at this particular time and place.

The miracle-deniers are the ones who, having cursed God for failing to rid us of misery, no longer wait for God’s answer.  They wait even after they notice the letters SORRY tucked among some garish graffiti.

Basically, then, miracle-deniers are demanding miracles from God without believing in them.  Because, wouldn’t the interventions they expect from God qualify as miracles?  Aren’t they asking God to act like a cosmic magician who’s every wish (and ours too) is fulfilled instantaneously and effortlessly?

What if God was like a human agent with intelligence, with the capacity to make decisions, and with some super-powers thrown into the mix?  What if this God was willing to interfere in our affairs?  Then our lives would be either be less predictable than they are now or we would have unmitigated peacefulness.

If God interfered now and again, then events would occur around us, and to us, without any causal explanation.  The cause-and-effect rules we now perceive would become inconsistent and unreliable.

If God intervened every time suffering could occur, then we’d get into car accidents but walk away unscathed.  Parents would always die before their children.  With God’s consistent interference we’d live in what we call paradise, or in the end-time some call the Kingdom of God.

Isn’t it more likely that if an agent-like God is interested in human-affairs, God is sorrowful when we experience pain?  God weeps when we weep.  God suffers when we suffer.  But isn’t it also more likely that the agent-God works tirelessly but imperceptibly through cosmic and human history to help us achieve the goal of becoming what God would want us to be?  As of yet, there is no evidence that any of us are even close to 100% perfect human beings.

If the agent-God could wave a wand and change the course of history instantly, then why not simply ask God for this miracle—to turn all human beings, present and future, into 100% moral beings?  Wars would end instantly.  Crime, too.  Children would never suffer at the hands of others.  No one would starve or go without shelter or medical attention—as fully moral beings, we’d busy ourselves taking care of those in need.

Sit with this miracle for just a few minutes—imagine every single person, you included—100% moral, 100% of the time.

To return to the original question—if God has agency, then God is, in a sense, responsible for the tragedies that plague this world—responsible because God doesn’t step in and bring them to a halt.  Perhaps the agent-God does atone and hopes for our forgiveness.  If God prefers to work tirelessly, but surreptitiously to end our tragedies, then can God be forgiven for this choice?  There’s no good answer to this question.

Here’s the bottom line, then, for those who hold God responsible—it’s up to each to decide whether and how much s/he can forgive God.  Easy formulas are lacking.  Forgiveness, even (or especially) of God likely requires practice (to improve) and patience (to persevere).

#34 Blah blah blah: help or hindrance?


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SilencedIt’s common wisdom that religion is NEVER, EVER a topic of polite conversation.  Talking about religious views supposedly leads to arguments, so if one wishes to avoid the risk of a friendship-ending conflict, one should keep mum.  We are trained at near Pavlovian levels;  if our interlocutor has the bad grace to bring up religion, we either find an excuse to leave, switch to a different topic, or fall back on the conversation-stopper “let’s just agree to disagree.”

Which is a waste, because the imagined conversation between Tillich and Anderson in Post #33 helped identify some of the strengths and weaknesses of Anderson’s empirical theology.

Given the importance of religion in all of our lives (atheists are as impacted by religion as anyone else), shouldn’t we engage this topic at every opportunity?  Doing so would require the conversation partners to be honest about their views, including their concerns and disagreements.  Because how can common ground be discovered (if any is to be had) unless differences are acknowledged?

The Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, in an address delivered at a conference of Christian missionary societies in 1930, did not subscribe to the self-censorship practiced by so many liberal religionists and theologians then and today.  He broached, with frankness but also with hope, the subjects of what Christians and Jews have in common and of where they cannot agree.

This a slightly adapted version of what Buber said to the missionaries (Buber’s words are in italics):

What do Christians and Jews have in common?  To put it in the most concrete way, Jews and Christians have a book and an expectation. The book they have in common is called the Tanakh by Jews and the Old Testament by Christians.

It is the sanctuary itself for Jews but only the antechamber for Christians who walk through it on the way to a different sanctuary—the New Testament.  Still, it is a place they have in common, and in it they may listen together to the voice which speaks in it. They can labor together digging for the speech that is buried there, liberating the living word that is imprisoned.

They also share an expectation for a different reality.  The expectation of Jews is for a coming of what has not yet been. The expectation of Christians is for the second coming.  Their fortunes took separate directions in the pre-Messianic era.  Since then, the Jew is incomprehensible to the Christian; he is the stiff-necked one who refuses to see that God came in the person of Jesus to inaugurate a new and redeemed history.  The Christian is equally incomprehensible to the Jew; he is the presumptuous one who asserts redemption as an accomplished fact in a world which is unredeemed.

This schism, no human power can bridge.  But it does not preclude harmonious cooperation in watching for the oneness coming from God.  Although they expect a different oneness, they can wait together for that which is to come, and in those moments, pave the road for it in joint effort.

— End of adapted excerpt —

Some reading Buber’s words today would find that he simply named the obvious schism between Judaism and Christianity.  Others might have preferred that he had used gentler terms than “stiff-necked” or “presumptious,” or resorted to more round-about language, or not mentioned the schism at all.  Were Buber’s remarks inflammatory?  The missionaries to whom he spoke had no illusion about the abyss separating the two faith-traditions.  And Buber, having demonstrated his willingness to discuss that abyss, could be taken seriously when he explored what the Jewish and Christian communities could hope accomplish in “harmonious cooperation.”  Having openly discussed their differences, when he described his vision of the work they could undertake together, his vision seemed a genuine possibility and mutual enrichment seemed plausible.

So here’s a plea to set aside the old adage of “be polite; don’t talk about religion.”  Whether you’re an atheist talking to a theist or vice-versa, or a Lutheran talking to a Roman Catholic or vice-versa, or a process theologian talking to an Orthodox theologian, or pick-your- group talking to someone from pick-another-group, try to have an authentic conversation.

If you wish to be authentic, you’ll name the schism.  Then you just might have a shot at a more interesting dialogue—the one about harmonious cooperation.

HNFFT:  If you reacted negatively to Buber’s comments, how would you have broached the differences between Jews and Christians?  If you’d have chosen to say nothing at all about them, do you think it’s possible to have an authentic conversation without mentioning disagreements?

Reference:  The address, delivered by Martin Buber to a conference of Christian missionary societies in 1930, is quoted in Samuel Bergman’s Faith and Reason:  An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, trans. and ed. by Alfred Jospe (Washington, D.C.:  B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations, 1961), 96.