Sunday, January 30, 2005

Accidental Collision with PeaceBang Tragically Averted

There were unconfirmed reports of a miraculous apparition of PeaceBang in my humble parish this morning.

Unfortunately for your amanuensis, I was hunkered down in the library teaching the Loaves and Fishes story to a bunch of fifth-graders when she must have walked past me in the hall, unheralded and unrecognized.

For the uninitiated, the UUA-published "Jesus and his Kingdom of Equals" curriculum faithfully recites chapter and verse of six different versions of the story among the four Gospels, and speculates that it may have had its origin in a nonsupernatural event where Jesus inspired multitudes of strangers to share their food with one another -- which would have been no small miracle in itself. In a nod to UU multiculturalism, I dispensed with the recommended activity (baking bread, a messy and distracting affair in my judgment) and instead compared the story to the Stone Soup folktale. Then, in an attempt to show how conventional Christianity informs UU values, I whipped out a $100 bill with a picture of Franklin on it (that got their attention!), challenged them to identify the subject of the portrait and his theology*, and then had them read this letter from Franklin to one Benjamin Webb, who in 1784 was apparently stuck in France without enough money to pay for a trip home:

Dear Sir,

The account of … your situation grieves me. I send your herewith a banknote for ten Louis d' or. I do not pretend to give such a sum; I only lend it you. When you shall return to your country with a good character, you cannot fail of getting in to some business that will in time enable you to pay all your debts. In that case, when you meet with another honest man in similar distress, you must pay me by lending this sum to him, enjoining him to discharge the debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with such another opportunity.I hope it may thus go through many hands before it meets with a knave that will stop its progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a great deal of good with a little money. I am not rich enough to afford much in good works, and so am obliged to be cunning and make the most of a little.

With best wishes for your future prosperity, I am, dear sir,

your most obedient servant,

B. Franklin.

Throughout the lesson, kids who answered questions correctly got dinner rolls and Swedish fish tossed at them, which made for a very lively and engaged discussion, which is no mean feat when trying to inspire eleven-year-olds. (In some other denominations their Dionysian enthusiasm might be attributed to the presence of the Holy Spirit, but my skeptical UU experience leads me to suspect the sugar.)

PeaceBang, sorry to have missed you. I tried to chase you out the back door after social hour, but you had already vanished, if indeed the account of your apparition was even true in the first place. If you heard a lot of squealing and shouting coming from the library as you passed by, well, consider it namaste. There will be other occasions.


* Letter from Franklin to Ezra Stiles, 9 March 1790:

I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals, and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England some doubts as to his divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any particular marks of his displeasure.

I shall only add, respecting myself, that, having experienced the goodness of that being in conducting me prosperously thro' a long life, I have no doubt of its continuance in the next, though without the smallest conceit of meriting such goodness. My sentiments on this head you will see in the copy of an old letter enclosed, which I wrote in answer to one from a zealous religionist, whom I had relieved in a paralytic case by electricity, and who, being afraid I should grow proud upon it, sent me his serious though rather impertinent caution.

P.S.... I confide that you will not expose me to criticism and censure by publishing any part of this communication to you. I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd. All sects here, and we have a great variety, have experienced my good will in assisting them with subscriptions for building their new places of worship; and as I have never opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Pastor Billy Don challenges tree-huggers

No, it's not what you think. The Southern Baptist preacher Rev. Billy Don Moyers (yes, that's his real name, denomination and title) had a career change some time ago and is now better known as the journalist Bill Moyers. But he still knows how to deliver a fiery sermon when the occasion demands.

Thanks and kudos to fellow blogger "jj" at Social Gospel Today for providing this link to an address Moyers recently gave to the Harvard Medical School, on the occasion of his receiving the school's Global Environment Citizen Award. It's a must-read.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

My Dinner with Philocrites

This afternoon I emerged from the ethereal blogosphere long enough to meet Philocrites, whom I had not met before, for lunch in the tangible world.

We visited a deli not far from 25 Beacon and dined on sandwiches piled high with what was billed as "Rumanian pastrami". We speculated on the possibility that "Rumanian" might be a euphemism for pastrami that was in fact Transylvanian, lovingly prepared by lifelong Unitarians in remote rural villages according to cherished family recipes handed down through countless generations. (Hey, you affirm the unity of God, and you prepare and eat real fresh-carved pastrami. In delicatessens. That's how it is. It's a tradition that predates our humble denomination, and one we should be glad to uphold.) We determined that billing foodstuffs, especially meats, as "Transylvanian" would be a poor marketing strategy, but our characteristically Unitarian quest for truth through critical inquiry led no further down that particular path today.

What I did learn is that Philocrites is not only an inspired blogger, but also a sharp conversationalist, a real nice guy, as well as an old pal of my own church's minister from their seminary days and even before.

Political philosophy? Jesus H. Christ!

GW Bush drew much ridicule during his 2000 campaign when he called Jesus Christ his favorite political philosopher. No doubt the pointy-headed pundits felt smug that he didn’t cite a real philosopher, like Machiavelli or Hobbes or Locke or Rousseau or Malthus, or at least a real spokesman for some version of the American vision, like Jefferson or Hamilton or Lincoln or Wilson.

But after four years, it’s time to take Dubya at his word. Jesus is his favorite political philosopher? All right, then. Where does the thought of Jesus inform the politics of Bush? I have yet to find it.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers. They will be recognized as the children of God.” Bush starts pre-emptive wars, without even sending enough troops to maintain order after his conquests.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you and despitefully use you.” Bush bears false witness on a literally global scale in order to justify naming and attacking supposed enemies he couldn’t otherwise find.

Jesus said, “If you do it to the least of my brothers, you do it to me also.” Bush gives us Ashcroft, Gonzales, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and the suspension of habeas corpus.

Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.” He said, “Do not store up treasures on earth. Wherever your treasure is, your heart will be there, too.” Bush says we should take both what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, and keep it for ourselves; after all, we earned it, and Caesar and God can get by without any extra help from us.

Jesus said, "A good tree can't bear bad fruit, and a bad tree can't bear good fruit. You won’t know them by their appearances, but by their fruits." What kind of fruits does the Bush bear?

Holocaust, Liberalism, Humanism, and God

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The author Aharon Appelfeld, writing in this morning's New York Times, remembers and reflects, and in so doing, subtly asks towering questions about the validity of all religious understanding, whether liberal or traditional, Augustinian or Pelagian, theist or humanist:

The Holocaust stretched over six years. Such long years there probably never were in Jewish history. Those were years when every minute, every second, every split-second held more than it could bear. Pain and fear reigned, but even then, in the midst of hunger and humiliation, the amazement sprouted: "Is this Man?"…

Under conditions of hunger and cold, the body, we learned in the camps, is liable to lose its divine qualities. That too was part of the wickedness of the murderer: not only to murder, but first to humiliate the victim utterly, to exterminate every shred of will and faith, to turn him into a despicable body whose soul had fled, and only then, that degradation complete, to murder him. …

In 1945, the ovens were extinguished. Jean Améry, a prisoner of Auschwitz and one of the outstanding thinkers on the Holocaust, says in one of his essays: "Anybody who was tortured will never again feel at home in the world."

Great natural disasters leave us shocked and mute, but mass murder perpetrated by human beings on human beings is infinitely more painful. Murder reveals wickedness, hatred, cynicism and contempt for all belief. All the evil in man assumed a shape and reality in the ghettos and camps. The empathy that we once believed modern man felt for others was ruined for all time. …

Some entered hell as pious people and came out of it just as pious. That position deserves respect. But most survivors - myself, and especially the young - were outside the realm of faith, and from the first stages of the liberation, we were engaged with the question of how to go on living a life with meaning…. We can barely grasp and internalize the death of one child. How can we grasp the death of millions? …

God did not reveal himself in Auschwitz or in other camps. The survivors came out of hell wounded and humiliated. They were betrayed by the neighbors among whom they and their forefathers had lived. They were betrayed by Western culture, by the Germans, by the language and literature they admired so much. They were betrayed by the great beliefs: liberalism and progress. …

What to hold onto to live a meaningful life? … No wonder many of the survivors went on to Israel. No doubt, they wanted to get to a place where they could leave their victimhood behind and assert responsibility over their fate, a place where they could connect with the culture of their forefathers, to the language of the Bible, and to the land that gave birth to the Bible.

… A doctor who survived, from a religious background, who sailed to Israel with us in June 1946, told us: "We didn't see God when we expected him, so we have no choice but to do what he was supposed to do: we will protect the weak, we will love, we will comfort. From now on, the responsibility is all ours."

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Nature Reverence and Christianity

Okay, I love this topic, and often find myself wrestling with it personally, as a Unitarian Universalist whose theological orientation leans toward Unitarian Christianity. It’s at once very problematic and very important—both generally, and specifically in my own Unitarian Universalist congregation, where I’m a member of our Worship Committee that has been asked to explore better ways to support theological diversity and faith development.

In one of the most widely used UU affirmations, we “covenant to affirm and promote … respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”, and profess that “the living tradition we share draws from many sources”, including not only “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves”, but also “spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature”. (UUs, of course, don’t do “creeds”. These are our “Principles and Purposes”. There’s a difference. Honest. I’ll start another thread to explain the distinction, once I find out what it is.) I first got to thinking about this a few years ago when the pastor of our church (who shared my Christian affinities) delivered a sermon on how to practice nature reverence without ever mentioning the Christian tradition of honoring nature. When I asked her why she mentioned several other traditions but not Christianity, she said it was because she thought Christianity had little to offer.

The basic problem with nature-based spirituality in Christianity is that although Christians may accept that creation is the product of a divine Creator, core Christian values are far more about how we relate to each other and to God than how we relate to the rest of creation. This problem is reinforced and exacerbated by traditional readings of the creation stories of Genesis and the many OT warnings against idolatry.

In Genesis, of course, Adam and Eve were created in harmony with nature but rebelled against God’s instruction to remain so. (That is, unless it was all a deliberate set-up on God’s part—an interpretation that intrigues me.) As punishment, they were banished from their place in Eden (i.e., from a self-sustaining niche in the natural order) and condemned instead to wrest their living from the earth adversarially, by cunning and hard labor. They could succeed in this only because in Genesis 1 mankind was also given “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures, and enjoined to “be fruitful and multiply”—the very first of the 613 mitzvot (divine commandments) of the Torah. Traditionally this “dominion” doctrine has been understood to explain our innate superiority over nature and even our duty to exploit nature for our own ends, and it has become deeply entrenched in the structure of Western culture.

Reinforcing this view for many believers are all the scriptural admonitions against idolatry, most of which were originally directed against the agricultural Canaanites’ fertility cults. Not only are we given the earth, plants, and animals to use any way we please, but at least in ancient Israel, affording them any kind of direct reverence was idol-worship, an abomination. Following this precedent, as Christianity spread, it anathemized and suppressed all the indigenous earth-based religions it encountered. (Indeed, it so happens that a justice at the 1692 Salem witch trials was a member of my very own congregation. He also donated our silver communion chalice, which adds delightfully ironic nuances to our communion services among our members interested in “earth-centered spirituality” today!) The result today is that while Christianity gives us a highly refined sense of interpersonal and social ethics, as well as a personal connection to divinity, it is largely silent as to how to honor our dependence on our environment.

Nevertheless, reverence for nature is not necessarily inconsistent with Christianity generally, even if it may conflict with this traditional scriptural orientation in particular. I view environmental reverence instead as an integral but underdeveloped aspect within the Christian tradition, one that now demands renewed emphasis and development. Condemning fertility rituals as idolatrous may have been perfectly appropriate for a monotheistic tribe competing for its turf, 4,000 years ago, when the total human population was small, its demands upon the land were modest, and hunter-gatherers and primitive agrarian societies were giving way to more sophisticated urban civilizations. Once the agricultural revolution had reliably mastered nature, so that daily survival was no longer in doubt, it made eminent sense that a religion focused mainly on social values might replace ones based mainly on natural forces. Today, though, when the human population strains the earth’s capacity to sustain it, any religion that does not place sufficient value on the health of natural systems is in truth a very real danger to the future of our species.

The least disruptive approach (to conventional Christian sensibilities) to restoring nature reverence in worship is probably to re-interpret the scriptural charge of “dominion”, changing it from a concept of exploitation to one of stewardship. In this model, we see God’s hand in all creation, so our “dominion” requires us to protect and preserve the divine handiwork from prideful human corruption. We revere nature not because it is divine per se, but because as the product of a divine hand it is necessarily superior to anything our own limited and prideful human minds might attempt. This attitude already enjoys a comfortable toehold, as in some of the Psalms celebrating the splendor of creation, or familiar hymns such as All Things Bright and Beautiful, or We Plow the Fields, or For the Beauty of the Earth, or Jean Ritchie’s haunting riff on Genesis 3:8 Now Is the Cool of the Day (which is included, for example, in the new Quaker hymnal “Worship in Song”). Here’s even a sermon I found, "The Christian Challenge of Caring for the Earth", addressing the topic. I find our puniness before the vast majesty of creation expressed especially well in the last few chapters of Job, where God indignantly demands, “Where were you, when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if you have understanding,” and after a further long harangue from God along those lines a chastened Job eventually admits, “I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know”.

Unfortunately, when deployed head-to-head against the deeply entrenched exploitative interpretation of “dominion”, the stewardship alternative seems relatively ineffectual—a sweet sentiment, perhaps, but hardly an unassailable moral imperative on the order of “Let my people go” or “Thou shalt not kill” or “Judge not that ye be not judged”. To raise it to such an exalted level, moreover, risks being accused of precisely the same kind of idolatry that Biblical literalists commit when they for different reasons elevate the letter of Scripture over its spirit. Like the Bible, creation is God’s handiwork, but also like the Bible, it is not God Himself.

Or is it? Is God only a transcendent, personal, patriarchal, dictatorial Sovereign somewhere “out there”, or is God also an immanent, impersonal, pervasive, animating, holy Presence inherent in all things? Marcus Borg and process theologians (among others) have popularized a “panentheistic” understanding of God among the present generation of Christians, but the perception is in fact much older. Consider the example of Samuel Longfellow’s beloved 19th-century hymn God of the Earth, the Sky, the Sea, which finds God’s presence in all things. Reaching back even earlier into an ancient but much overlooked core element of Christian faith, what is the divine presence that we seem to find in quiet natural places if not the all-pervasive Holy Spirit itself? After all, Psalm 23 counsels, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters, [where] he restoreth my soul,” and Psalm 139 asks,

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.

Thus, to those narrow Christians who would argue from Scripture that nature reverence is idolatrous or non-Biblical, I reply, beware that in your zeal for the narrow and exclusive “Word” you do not unwittingly blaspheme the inclusive, omnipresent Holy Spirit. One of the revelations contained in the Bible for those who choose to see it is that revelation is itself a progressive and accretive process over time. We can see now (for example) that reverence for natural cycles, a practice that seemed profoundly idolatrous to a band of wandering monotheistic shepherds 4,000 years ago when it was projected onto a slew of minor deities by bitter ethnic rivals, may well have been merely another culture’s means of apprehending the same divine qualities that later Bible authors and we ourselves apprehend as a legitimate manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Idolatry is far more contextual than it is absolute.

We therefore need to re-examine our suppositions toward idolatry, and not only because some of us find sacredness in nature that is not evident to others. If we believe (and we do) that our One God’s divine presence is everywhere and eternal, then it follows that rival cultures doubtless also have perceived it and felt drawn to it as we do. That other cultures have given it different names than we do and developed different observances to celebrate it is evidence of a different perspective than our own, certainly, but by no means does it prove that their religious perceptions are 100% false while ours are 100% true. As St. Paul says, none of us sees God clearly, for we all look “through a glass darkly;” but (to extend his metaphor) we all see rays from the same divine Light through varying smudges in the dark glass, and other cultures’ smudges reveal certain truly divine rays that may be obscured in our own Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman viewpoint. If we who think of ourselves as “progressive” Christians are not closed to the possibility of truth in other religious traditions, then reverence for divinity in nature is surely one such instance where we may look for it.

What then is true idolatry? It is placing false deities (or false core values) above the One God of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, but many other cultures have given their own partial glimpses of the one omnipresent God many other names. It is not idolatry to recognize that other religious traditions may have received insights into what we see to be our own God that were not clearly revealed to the Abrahamic line of prophets or the Christian apostles and saints. It is not even idolatry to borrow practices and rituals from other religions—if (and this is a critical “if”) we recognize that despite the differences in worship vocabulary we are celebrating the same essential divinity that we know in our own traditions.

More subtly and dangerously, idolatry is also taking the name of the Lord in vain—i.e., justifying and venerating our own selfish motivations by attributing them to God, or otherwise believing falsely that they are divine. This is far too easy to do in almost any situation, but especially so if we are deliberately looking for manifestations of God in untraditional places. If we try to strike out on an uncharted path we must be especially careful to do so with integrity, humility, and caution. Yet although temptation to error is always subtle and always present, it is not uniquely concentrated along this or any other path. I would argue that we are not nearly as likely to fall into this sort of idolatry on a spiritual nature quest as are those who (relying upon Genesis, if they are aware of it) enrich themselves excessively by selfishly wresting more than they need from the earth and damaging it in the process.