Monday, November 25, 2013

What I learned at the King's X show last Saturday night

Rock and roll as an art form is alive and well in 2013, at least at the street level in the clubs.  Saw some AMAZING musicians this weekend.

First up, Deep Sky ~ local (Charlotte) power trio.  Great rockin' tunes, great musicianship/performances, but most importantly, fantastic spirit & energy on the stage

Didn't get into the next act, Blanco Diablo, too much, but they could obviously play & loved the rock & roll, too.

Third (and final) opener was Kings of Spade, all the way from Hawaii, and they were phenomenal!  Can't say enough good things about these cats:  every single band member was top notch, their songwriting is excellent, their stage delivery intoxicatingly exciting, and their deep love of what they're doing was contagious.  These folks are definitely going places, so look to hear more from them!

Finally, King's X took the stage, to the thunderous applause they richly deserve.  Jerry got a special ovation, this being his first tour since recovering from a heart attack and the loss of his home due to Hurricane Sandy.

Set list was really interesting.  dUg said out the outset, “Look, we’ve got fifteen albums.  You’re not gonna hear everything you want to hear, but we promise that we’ll put everything we’ve got into every one that we play for you.”  He was right.  More on that in a moment.  It was really cool to hear some less-familiar tunes (“Flies and Blue Skies” from _Dogman_, for example, and “Vegetable” from _Manic Moonlight_).  Also cool to hear them do a full electric version of “Thinkin’ and Wonderin’ (What I’m Gonna Do)” from _Ear Candy_.

All three of them looked like they were having an absolute blast playing for the crowd.  Ty, especially, really came out of his shell and was laughing and hot-dogging for the audience—great to see!

In fact, it was one of their typically amazing shows … until dUg started holding his side and showing obvious signs of distress.  We found out later that he had to skip the after-show meet & greet because he was rushed to the hospital.  He’s going to need another operation to deal with the hernia for which he already had surgery not long ago. 

But on stage, he was an Olympic athlete, doing everything his body would allow in order to finish the show.  They even came out and played a brief encore, despite his being in obvious pain.  For the encore, at least, he allowed himself to be convinced by the crowd & stage crew to sit down on a stool that Ty dragged onstage from the wings.  For their last tune, they played “Goldilox,” even though it wasn’t on the set list, because—as dUg said—he could play it, but we (the audience) would have to sing it.

And that was a spiritual experience, y’all.  If you want to know what love sounds like, that was it.  You should’ve been there.  And it’s why this band *should* be the biggest name in rock music today.  Unbelievable.

So, rock and roll is alive and well, though we are praying for dUg and hoping he gets the medical care (and financial support) he needs and deserves.  Get out and support live music, y’all—this is an art form we owe it to our children to preserve.

Also, two other things I learned that night:  one, I need to learn how to write riffs, not just songs; and two, I wear my guitar way too high to be as cool as the awesome guitarists I saw that night, who slung ’em low and rocked ’em hard. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On a side note, a brief rant about science, superstition, and Christianity...

Sorry for the interrupt, True Believers ~ we'll get back to the problem of evil shortly, I promise.  Meanwhile, however, I need to share with you a thought that came to me in a recent Facebook, um, let's call it a "dialogue" on the subjects of faith, atheism, and (for some reason) evolution. 

It has long disturbed me that there is a significant number of folks in our society who seem adamant in the belief that their "Christian faith" somehow demands that they steadfastly, and as loudly as possible, deny the veracity of every single fact that has ever been discovered by modern science.  I'm talking about folks who flatly refuse to believe that the Earth could possibly be more than 6,000 years old (despite the fact that the very rocks the Earth is made of prove it is 4.5 billion years old); for that matter, there are folks who flatly refuse to believe that the Earth is anything other than flat (despite the fact that we have built vehicles which allow us to fly up high enough to see, directly, that the Earth is spherical).  I'm not even going to get into the whole dinosaur thing at the moment! :)

Now, I'd be content for the most part to ignore such fringe groups altogether, except for the fact that many of them cite as the foundation for their rejection of tested and proven fact ... Holy Scripture.  Mistakenly believing the Bible to be some sort of academic, "scientific" treatise on biology, geology, astronomy, and history, these folks interpret Scripture so literally that they deny even that they are interpreting Scripture at all ~ and thus they are forced to reject any statement on the subjects of biology, geology, etc., which do not line up precisely with their literal interpretation of Scripture.

Recently on Facebook, someone started a thread that purported to use logic to "prove" faith.  Of course, that in itself involves a massive misinterpretation of what faith actually is ... but what triggered this blog post was the fact that many of the comments posted to that thread  talked about believing in God instead of "believing" in evolution.  Here were folks who were (apparently sincerely) attempting to defend and promote the Christian faith ... but their approach to doing so was to attack, denigrate, and deny the validity of tested and proven scientific fact.

Here's what I have to say to that, and let me direct this point specifically to my fellow Christians:

We have a moral and ethical obligation to develop our whole selves (body, mind, and soul) and devote our entire selves to the service of God in Christ. At our baptism, we take on the responsibility of sharing in Christ's eternal priesthood.

Now, if you wear that label with pride instead of a humble sense of duty, you end up thinking (wrongly!) that faith is all about proving that your team is the winning team, and that is not what God has called us to do, according to Scripture. What's worse, if you boast about being "a Christian" and you reject concrete, observable facts and instead embrace ignorance and superstition, then your testimony, your witness to the world, proclaims that Christianity is ignorance and superstition.
Not only is that a false proclamation ~ Christianity has a long and glorious tradition of deeply intelligent and intellectual theology and philosophy, neither of which in any way contradict known and proven scientific research and evidence ~ but such a (false) proclamation of "faith" turns mere prideful ignorance into a sinful idolatry, doubly sinful because it drives people away from Christ!
If you go down that road, if you make your "faith" the antithesis of fact and set your religion up in contradiction to reality, what account will you make of yourself before the Lord God of Hosts, when you go to your reckoning and He asks why you have profaned His creation by denying all its splendid wonder, tarnished His church with vain superstition in place of sound theology, and worst of all driven people of perception, intelligence, and reason away from His Son?

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Problem of Evil, Introduction & pt. 1 -- On the Nature and Purpose of Our Relationship with God


A central question for many Christians is "how can I resist evil?" Often, such a question gets answered with a passage from Scripture such as this one, from Paul's letter to the Ephesians:

"Put on the armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." -- Eph 6: 11-12

Such passages are all too frequently taken at literal face-value, and the result is one of the most common conceptions of "good vs. evil" in popular theology: the explanation of suffering and "evil" in the world as being the result of a great spiritual war between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness, with each "side" led by a personal, anthropomorphic being. Granted, most Christians are careful to avoid the heresy of dualism by further explaining that the leader of the forces of Darkness, the Devil, is not equal-and-opposite to God, that all things at least started out as part of God's creation. But even so, this explanation is dissatisfying, at best.

Such an "us vs. them" theology is problematic on several levels. To begin with, it is far too simplistic to give us any real understanding of why things happen the way they do in our lives and in our world. Moreover, it focuses our personal struggles against evil on outside agents, rather than on our true, inner selves. And most importantly, it creates the classic dilemma of western philosophy -- the so-called "problem of evil": if God is both all-powerful and all good, why does (or better, how can) He allow evil to continue to exist in His creation?

Obviously, one of those points must give if we are to construct a coherent, consistent, and tenable position. Thus, some folks conclude that God cannot be all-powerful, if evil exists in God's creation; others deduce that God must not be all good (at least not according to our human understanding of the concept of "good"). Few people seem to question the third point, however -- the notion that there is in fact evil in this world, marring God's creation.

But if we are to examine this apparent conundrum from a Christian perspective, we must first look to those basic elements which define our spiritual lives as Christians, and first among those essential elements is our relationship with God through Christ Jesus.

On the nature and purpose of our relationship with God

What kind of God would create a Hitler? Or an Osama bin Laden? Or a Jeffery Dahmer? Do we limit God's omnipotence and say that, since He gives us free will, He is utterly powerless to prevent the evil some of us choose to do? Or do we modify our understanding of God and say that perhaps He isn't entirely benign? Both of those options are theologically repugnant. There has to be some way of reconciling our experiences within God's creation, including all the suffering we see around us, with our understanding of God as almighty and perfect in His love for us.

Perhaps what we need is a better way to frame the discussion. As I mentioned above, the essence of the Christian faith is the covenant relationship between God and us, His children. We are called into that relationship, and whenever we stray from it (which is a good way to understand "sin"), we are called to return to it. And we are given to know that God will always welcome us, as the father welcomes the prodigal son returned home. In fact, one of the best ways to picture our relationship with God is in terms of family: God is the parent, and we are all His children.

Now, would a good parent ever wish for his or her child to suffer? Absolutely not, by definition. On the other hand, though, would that good parent want for his or her child to remain a child forever? Isn't it the parent's purpose, the parent's very reason for being, to help the child grow and mature into the fullness of adulthood? Of course it is. It is the relationship with his or her parents which guides the child through the life experiences which eventually transform that child into an adult. And a good parent wants his or her child to have those experiences, and for that reason--so the child will have the opportunity to learn and grow and develop into a wise and capable adult.

Likewise, living in relationship with God is inherently transformative, as that relationship guides and shapes our understanding of, and our reactions and responses to, the inevitable life experiences we all face in this world. Being in relationship with God does not allow us to remain static and unchanging. On the contrary, it requires -- demands -- that we learn from each experience, whether positive or negative, whether pleasurable or painful, demands that we constantly examine and reevaluate ourselves, our souls, and that we make continuous adjustments in order to live more fully and completely into that relationship with Him. God is always teaching, and in relationship with Him, we are always learning.

Unfortunately, some lessons can only be learned the hard way, through difficult and sometimes painful personal experiences. Consider the hypothetical example of a teenager who gets arrested for shoplifting. The teen's parent has, of course, instructed this child many times over that stealing is wrong. We may assume that the parent has attempted every possible method of conveying the lesson of "thou shalt not steal" to the child. But the child has chosen to steal anyway. Now that act, that choice, cannot stop the parent from loving the child; moreover, as previously mentioned, no truly devoted parent would wish his or her child to suffer, even if the child has been disobedient. But perhaps this parent decides not to bail the child out of jail until the following morning. From the child's point of view, such a decision would be perceived as a punishment -- being forced to pay a penalty for disobeying an order. But from the parent's perspective, we can see that this is likely a necessary experience for this child to have, since the child still (apparently) has not learned that stealing is wrong and ought to be avoided. The parent feels a need to protect the child from suffering (after all, this is a good parent), and will never let the child come to true harm. (God never gives us more than we can handle, even when we're convinced that we can't handle it.) But the need to help the child grow morally and ethically and spiritually is greater, sometimes, than the need to protect the child from all suffering.

So it is in the world of God's creation. Our Lord is not some Divine Punisher who exists solely to enforce some abstract and esoteric penal code upon us and to exact penalties whenever we break an arbitrary rule. Our Lord is rather our loving, nurturing spiritual parent, who loves us so much that He is willing to suffer with us, to ensure that we learn and grow and mature into the fullness of what He made us to become, rather than rob us of the wisdom which can come from difficult experiences by shielding us from all that we perceive as suffering.

All of humanity is God's child, and there are lessons we must learn as a race, as a species, if humanity is ever to outgrow its infancy. One of the most important is that we are all One, regardless of race or ethnicity. At the time when Hitler came to power in Europe, it was actually quite common for many people, including political leaders, to think in racial, racist terms. Different ethnic groups were presumed to have distinct and (biologically) inherent natures, virtues, and flaws. Hitler took that philosophy to an obscene extreme and applied it as the justification for state-conducted, systematic genocide. In time, and indeed we must admit it took way too long, the world, confronted at last with the atrocities to which such a philosophy (taken to its extreme conclusion) led, reacted decisively against such madness, finally and correctly labeling it as "evil."

Does that mean that we must acknowledge Hitler as a good and noble soul? Of course not! But it does underscore the oft-overlooked fact that there is nothing which is outside of God. The entire world learned an indispensible lesson at the bloody hands of Hitler, and though there was much, much suffering, our humanity is a little older and a little wiser for it. It grieves me to a profound depth to consider that we had (and still have) so many chances, so many opportunities, to learn such lessons peacefully, without strife, without bloodshed, yet so often we ignore those opportunities, preferring instead the harsh road of suffering and pain -- for we will learn the things we are here to learn ... if not the easy way, then the hard way.

Taken as a complete whole, God's entire creation is indeed good and beautiful. There is a Greater Plan for us at work within and behind this beautiful creation, a Plan whose purpose is the development, the evolution, if you will, of our very souls. If we see what seems (to us) like ugliness in God's world, it is rather like discovering an apparent contradiction in Scripture: it does not invalidate the goodness of the whole; rather, it calls us to look deeper, beneath the surface appearance of things, to see the true beauty of God's work and the true Wisdom in His teachings. 

That is not to suggest that suffering is not "real"; it certainly is.  To the contrary, it is to suggest that suffering, pain, loss, violence, conflict ~ anything which we would call "evil" or "sin" and rightly condemn as wrong ~ stand not as evidence that God is absent from creation, but as evidence that, from our human perspective, creation is still in progress.  The great work is still, for us, unfolding, often in ways that seem confusing, frightening, painful, even pointless at times, and our confusion, our fear, our pain, and all too often our despair are very real.  As people of faith, we are called to see these apsects of this world as opportunities for God to manifest in the world through us, for our hands to become the healing hands of Christ reaching out to those who hurt, suffer, fear, and despair. 

The good news is that, from the perspective of Heaven, the great wonder of creation is complete:  God spoke, and we know how the story ends, with God's pronouncement that "it is good."  May God grant us the grace and courage to grow into the full measure of spiritual life for which He made us, that we, too, may see the full glory of His work.



P.S. Tune in next time for reflections on the concept of a personal "devil" ...

Friday, September 21, 2012

Is Christianity True?

(Note: the following thoughts are directed primarily to an audience of my fellow Christians, but I invite response, comment, and conversation from any and all who find the matter in the least bit interesting.)

Is Christianity true? Almost as soon as we ask that question, we find ourselves asking related questions about other religions. Are Muslims, for example, given a chance to accept Christ after they die? Is a life devoted to Judaism essentially wasted, without some last-minute conversion? What should the Christian's attitude be toward people who lead good, moral lives but practice non-Christian religions? What is the Christian's mission regarding morally upstanding atheists?

Before we respond to any such questions, we should do well to define exactly what it means for a religion to be "true." What are the characteristics of a "true" religion — indeed, how can we tell if any religion is "true"? And do we assume that, of the many, only one religion may be true?

Simply put, if we wish to determine whether any given religion is "true" or not, we must look to the teachings of that religion. Clearly, a religion based on hatred, intolerance, and the debasement of others cannot be considered (by any sane and rational person) to be a "true" faith. But what about a religion that preaches love, respects the dignity of every human being, and encourages healing and reconciliation in response to evil? It is obviously quite possible for more than one religion to be "true," if by "true" we mean true to the values we (as Christians) learn from Christ Jesus.

Despite what many of my fellow Christians seem to think, it is absolutely not necessary for Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or any of the world's Great Faiths to be false in order for Christianity to be true. Christianity is not somehow rendered meaningless if it does not possess some "divine secret" that is utterly exclusive to Christians and belongs to no one else. On the contrary, if Christianity were completely alien to, and differed utterly from, every other great religion in this world, we should then be more skeptical of it, not less.

The reason I say that is simple: as Christians, we know that Christ is co-eternal and co-creative with God the Father. We know that from the opening verses of St. John's Gospel, among other Scriptures. If Christianity is true, we're talking then about Universal Truth, and we should logically expect to find evidence of that Truth everywhere in creation and at all times and in all cultures throughout human history, right from the very beginning. The things that the Christ-manifest-in-Jesus teaches ought to echo and resonate with the greatest teachings from the entire history of humankind. And they do.

For example, the Christ and the Buddha are widely held to be two of the greatest moral, ethical, and spiritual teachers who ever lived. At the core, their teachings are essentially the same: love God; love each other; treat others as you would be treated; be in the world, but not of it. The differences between them may be summed up by saying that they lived at different times and in different places (i.e., in different cultures). And to this day, no one has been able to improve upon the integrity, the nobility, the spiritual truth of those teachings.

Now, if their teachings were fundamentally different (as opposed to being merely superficially different) — if the teachings differed in their essence — then we would have to decide which one is right and which one is wrong, which one "true" and which "false." But if these two masters are teaching essentially the same things, and if we agree that those things are right and good and true, then we must conclude that God's Truth is God's Truth, even if it appears in the guise of Buddhism. We must then face the fact that God's Truth keeps turning up in our world again and again and again. The names may be different, and the languages, and even the rituals, but these are man-made differences of culture. The Truth behind it all is the same, and it does appear everywhere, at all times, and in all places.

And that's more than just encouraging; it's evidence of a loving God who cares for our well-being, for our evolution and understanding, and who wants us to grow into the full measure of what He created us to be. A God who loves us so fully and completely that He has never once, in the entire history of humanity, left us—any of us, anywhere in the world—orphaned and alone, without any Teachers to guide us. A God who wanted so much goodness for us that eventually He Himself came fully into the manifest world in Jesus so that we could see His face, touch His wounds, and know His Truth.

Jesus Himself was unconcerned with such petty distinctions as nationality, ethnicity, or religious labeling. He freely consorted with Samaritans — who were known for their "unacceptable" worship practices. Jesus was concerned with the truth in people's hearts, and that is where we should look in exploring the question of whether Christianity is true.

It has been said that if Christianity is true, it is true for everyone. Does that mean that everyone has to call it "Christianity"? Was Jesus concerned with whether people were called Jew, Samaritan, or Gentile? That's not "truth"; that's merely a label. If Christianity is true, we should learn its teachings, and we should expect to find the truth of those teachings everywhere we look, regardless of what it's called or how it's packaged on the outside.

Now, does that mean we have to accept anything someone says or does in the name of "religious freedom," and respect that person and that action simply because we respect other faiths? Absolutely not! If Truth is Truth, regardless of what it's labeled, then Wrong is Wrong, no matter how it's packaged. Does seeing the truth in religions other than our own relieve us of the responsibility of combating evil? Absolutely not! But it does mean that we cannot simply take the easy way out and label anything that's different as "evil," just because it's different. That's a cop-out. Truly discerning good and evil is a part of our Christian responsibility, and it's a little trickier than just reading the labels on the packages. But if the Path were easy, the Son of Man wouldn't have had to die on the cross...

On the other hand, if we accept the universal nature of God's Truth and see it not only in Christ's teachings, but also in the basic teachings of the other Great Faiths, how do we deal with Christ's assertion that "I am the way and the truth and the life," and that "no one comes to the Father except through me"?

To understand what Christ is saying in those passages, we must understand what Christ is. As the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Christ is the Word made flesh—God made manifest in the world. If we understand Christ that way, it becomes immediately obvious that no one could ever come to know God fully, in His true, Heavenly existence, without first coming to know God as He is manifest in the created world. The true reality of God is beyond the scope of frail, limited, human understanding; the only way we can hope to perceive God is to discover Him as He appears within and throughout His creation. Likewise, if you cannot see God's grace, love, and healing power here on Earth, how can you hope to perceive Heavenly things?

So of course it's impossible to come to the Father without going through the Son, the Christ. It's impossible to know the First Person of the Trinity—God in His full, divine existence—without first knowing the Second Person of the Trinity—the Godhead made manifest in the world. If you're climbing a ladder, you can't get to the top rung by skipping the ones in the middle.

Problems only arise when we attempt to limit Christ's presence in the world to that brief, 33-year period of time that occurred two thousand years ago. When we attach importance only to the letter of what one man taught in one specific culture at one specific time, rather than to the universal Truth behind His teachings. When we assume that those specific lines of Scripture refer only to the flesh-and-blood man and not to the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

To sum up these rambling thoughts:

1. Christianity's being true does not require other religions to be false.

2. The validity of Christianity is not dependent upon any teaching that is exclusive to Christians and no one else.

3. The essence of Christ's teachings does in fact appear in the basic teachings of the other Great Faiths; the differences may be easily explained by differences in human culture.

4. The fact that the same Truth which Christ taught appears in the other great spiritual teachings is corroboration of that Truth. It is a strength of Christianity, not a weakness, that it shares common teachings with the other Great Faiths.

5. Christ is co-eternal and co-creative with God. Evidence of the Christ's activity in the world cannot be limited to a 33-year window two millennia ago. We should expect to find Christ's teachings throughout creation and throughout human history.

6. None of these ideas subtracts in any way from the majesty, the miracle, or the mystery of Jesus Christ's life, ministry, death, and resurrection. There is not a finite amount of God's Truth in the world. If another faith is true, it does not make our faith any less true.

7. Lastly, it is not enough for us to say that Christianity is true. We as Christians must work to understand what that Truth really means. It is in that struggle that the mysterious, transformative power of Christ takes hold of us, redeems us, and reconciles us to God.

To conclude … The most common concern underlying the question "Is Christianity true?" is this: if we accept that Christianity is true, and that it's true for everyone, does that mean that everyone everywhere needs to be Christian? Do we, as Christians, have a moral or ethical (let alone a spiritual) obligation to make Christians of the people we meet? You can probably tell from this essay what sort of answer I would give to that question.

However, I say a far, far better question to ask oneself is this: why do I need to be Christian? For my part, being a Christian means living in a certain kind of relationship with God; it means understanding the value of every person, regardless of label or category. For me, Christianity is the meeting place of Divinity and humanity, of God and man, and therefore it contains the very purpose of our creation and existence. That is why I need to be Christian. That is what the Truth of Christianity means to me. I look forward to hearing what it means to you.

God bless,


Friday, December 2, 2011

"Sheilaism" vs. Evangelism

"Sheilaism" vs. Evangelism

I was brought up in the Episcopal denomination of the Christian Church. During my formative years, this particular denomination seemed to occupy a place of balance between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism -- a place defined as much by theological reason as by tradition or fundamentalist ideologies. Indeed, the long-accepted metaphor for the structure of the Episcopal Church is that of the "three-legged stool," illustrating the equal necessities of Reason, Scripture, and Tradition to stand.

The point of all that preamble is to establish that my "home church" was always a place I perceived to be a refuge for those who'd been disenfranchised either by the rigid doctrines and preponderance of ritual in the Roman Church or by the rigid dogma and lack of ritual coherence in the more Protestant branches of Christianity. A haven, if you will, for those folks who were too intellectually and spiritually savvy to subscribe to untenable, literalistic interpretations of Scripture on the one hand, yet who embraced the Protestant notion of establishing and maintaining a personal relationship with Jesus Christ without the need for an institutional intermediary on the other, with a nice mixture of formal ritual (especially for "high holy days") and informal, contemporary worship and fellowship. The Episcopal denomination has consequently been, as an institution, a bit more comfortable with theological or doctrinal "uncertainty" than some other denominations. By "uncertainty," I mean essentially "room for individual interpretation," within the contexts of Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

Given that, when I was growing up it was rare, indeed, to hear of "Episcopalian evangelism." As Eddie Izzard brilliantly pointed out in his satirical observations regarding the Church of England, the Inquisition would never have worked in such a context. But in recent years, social and political ... challenges ... have sparked some reactions and consequent changes within the denomination that would have seemed impossible to me a decade ago.

For example, a few years ago, there was an article in the monthly newsletter from my local church which exhorted us, as members of the Church, to be on guard against "Sheilaism." Now, the article defined Sheilaism using a quoted passage from the Very Rev. Peter Cook, who had commented on the so-called phenomenon of Sheilaism in an editorial piece tracing the "failures" which the Rev. Cook sees as having contributed to the current state of the Church (and one can only assume that he does not feel the current state of the Church to be especially positive). Here is the quoted passage:

"Here's how Sheilaism goes: Church beliefs or doctrines are fine, as long as they agree with my own opinion. The bible [sic] is fine, as long as it says what I want to hear, or what relates to me. I believe in God, as long as he's [sic] kind, loving, and supportive, not if he [sic] is judgmental or what I consider vindictive. The only moral ethic we need from the Bible is that we love and are kind to our neighbor; that, and perhaps a list of "social justice" issues to provide an agenda for church programs or church mission. You see, life changes, culture changes, cultural needs change. What the Old Testament or St. Paul says was immoral in their day need not be immoral today." (from The Living Church, 23)

Now, there are several significant problems with that passage. The first and most glaring is that it is a textbook example of the "straw man" fallacy -- a fallacy of logic which involves setting up a fictitious version of an opposing argument in order to tear down that fictitious argument, thus making one's own argument seem stronger than it actually is. It's a fallacy because it allows the writer to dodge the *actual* argument of his opponent.

Folks, the term "Sheilaism" was first coined in the context of a book by communitarian sociologist Robert Bellah, entitled Habits of the Heart: Individualism in American Life, in which Bellah explores the ways in which religion both contributes to and detracts from America's common good. What Sheila (Larson, a woman interviewed by Bellah for his book) actually says of her own religious experience is this:

"I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church, but my faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice."

Obviously, that's a far cry from what the Very Rev. Peter Cook *claims* that Sheilaism is. Of course, I and my fellow Christians can find just grounds for criticizing Sheila's actual statement, but it takes an awfully vivid imagination to leap from what she's saying to the "I like the Bible as long as it agrees with my personal whims" picture painted by Rev. Cook. The good reverend is attempting to criticize an "-ism" that he himself seems to have created out of whole cloth.

However, there are other, even more profound problems with Rev. Cook's comments that thoughtful Christians ought to notice. First and foremost is the disdainful tone with which he dismisses the fundamental Biblical moral ethic that we should "love and [be] kind to our neighbor..." Rev. Cook claims that, if we accept Sheilaism (as he defines it), then that is the only moral ethic we need to take from Scripture.

I cannot help but wonder, what other moral ethic does Christ Jesus charge us with? Does our Lord not explicitly tell us that the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves is second only to that which calls us to love God? Christ tells us plainly that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul; the second is "like unto it," and instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And then Christ goes on to tell us that all other commandments -- indeed, the entirety of the Hebrew Law and Prophets -- rest on these two injunctions. Thus, if one adheres fully to these two commandments, he or she will inevitably live in accord with every other commandment, Divine Law, and moral ethic sanctioned in the Bible. Yet the Rev. Cook dismisses the second of those commandments as if it's not really worth considering.

And he employs the same disdainful, dismissive tone when he mentions that those who practice so-called "Sheilaism" might also draw from the Bible a "list of 'social justice' issues" with which to guide individual or corporate (i.e., church) activity. That is disturbing as well, given the portion of His earthly ministry which Christ devoted to such trivial "social justice" issues as feeding the hungry, tending the sick, and ministering to prisoners, outcasts, lepers, tax collectors, etc. Indeed, one could make a very compelling argument that, unless one devotes oneself to social justice, one is quite likely missing the point of Jesus's Gospel and ministry. Yet the Rev. Cook dismisses the very concept of social justice as if it is negligible, as if it is at best irrelevant to Christianity ... as if it's a bad thing.

Rev. Cook also casually dismisses the notion that cultures -- and thus, cultural needs and cultural definitions of concepts like "morality" and "immorality" -- have changed over time. Let me assure you, cultures do indeed change over time, and those changes include the definitions of culturally-determined values such as what is socially/morally acceptable behavior and what isn't. Anyone who's taken Anthropology 101 can confirm that fact.

In the Hebrew culture that eventually produced the texts of the Old Testament, a man was morally obligated to marry his brother's widow. Such a practice would hardly be seen as acceptable, much less "moral," in our society today. Likewise, the Old Testament is riddled with examples of polygamy, the use of concubines, the owning of slaves, assassination, etc., practices which are both illegal and generally considered to be immoral by our current societal standards. One must wonder if the Rev. Cook is picking and choosing which bits of Biblical culture should be preserved and which should be "allowed" to change...

My point there is not to suggest -- as the straw-man version of Sheilaism would, according to Rev. Cook -- that the defined morality of the Old Testament (or of St. Paul's epistles) should be tossed aside by the modern, "educated" Christian. Not remotely! My point is that if the modern Christian wants to understand what these texts are actually saying about morality, then one must study the texts themselves within the cultural contexts in which they were composed. Once cannot simply take "the morality of the Old Testament" and try to stamp it onto modern American (or any other) culture -- not without doing some cultural translating, first.

Now, why should that be? Is God's Word not eternal and unchanging? Of course it is! However, our human ability to understand God's Word can -- and does -- change all the time (hopefully for the better!). The Bible gives extensive evidence of that fact. There is but One Truth; however, it is revealed in different ways and to different degrees at different times and to different peoples. The Truth of God never changes, but the human capacity to perceive Truth definitely does. Thus, it is absolutely deadly, in a spiritual sense, to lock oneself into a one-sided, literalistic (i.e., fundamentalist) interpretation of morality. Doing so severely restricts the possibility of spiritual growth.

And that is a concept that traditionally makes fundamentalists pretty uncomfortable, because it requires both the Church and the individual to have the courage to say "I do not know, with absolute certainty; this is what I believe to be the Truth right now, but my understanding can certainly change down the road." The intelligent reader will no doubt see the vast difference between that attitude, and the straw-man version, which would say "Well, since I can't know for *certain*, I guess anything goes! Hey, it's all 'moral,' right?" But fundamentalists often have trouble seeing the distinction between those two.

And now there are voices within the Episcopal Church, the refuge for those who would leave behind such rigid and short-sighted misinterpretations of Scripture and theology, who are making it difficult even for non-fundamentalists to hold that distinction clearly in mind. And that is a sad thing, indeed. For it is fundamentalist attitudes, more than anything else, which have the effect of insulting intelligent and spiritually perceptive individuals out of the Church, much to the detriment of the Church itself.

But that is actually a microcosm of the larger-scale troubles that mainstream Christianity is currently facing. Rapid social change (upheaval, really) tends to generate a backlash in the form of the resurgence of fundamentalism, as people struggle to find some bit of surety to latch onto in the context of an unpredictable present (to say nothing of a less predictable future). However, that is the last thing that Christianity as an organized faith needs to give in to just now.

Indeed, the Church needs to redefine its current circumstance, not as a time of unsettling social upheaval, but as a time of unprecedented opportunity to redress those stances and viewpoints which are not tenable, to revise the voice through which it seeks to speak to humanity, to dig in and perceive a greater portion of God's unchanging Truth than has previously been possible, not by rejecting changes outright, but by earnestly seeking to perceive the Hand of God within the constant change that defines our human existence.

So, that's what I think. Let me know what you think!



Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fundamentalist Literalists and Pseudo-Intellectual Atheists Are Actually the Same Species!

Some years ago, I came across a blog entitled "The End of Christianity." Being a Christian myself, I supposed I should check it out.

Imagine my disappointment to discover that this blog, rather than being an astute socio-political analysis of development and likely future of Christendom, in general, and the institution of the Church Proper, in particular, was merely the ranting of a self-righteous atheist who apparently believes that biological science ~ specifically, the study of evolution ~ somehow "invalidates" the entirety of Christian Scripture. I actually laughed out loud, until I saw that not only was this fellow serious, but that there were some thousands of comments from readers who actually bought into his glaringly flawed "logic." My reaction turned from amusement to deep and profound disappointment at the mass-stupidity being displayed.

But I read further, and I discovered that there were also thousands of comments from self-proclaimed "Christians" (yes, I realize the irony of the fact that I fall into that category, too... more on that in a moment) who took the original blogger's stupidity regarding Scripture and heartily returned the favor in regard to science. In other words, these folks tried to claim that "there is no evidence to support evolution" (a false assertion of such magnitude that I lack the hyperbole to describe it accurately) and that "to be a Christian is to take every word in the Bible literally" (a falsehood of equal magnitude to the previous one).

So I posted a few replies and comments of my own, in an attempt at least to introduce some modicum of sanity to the discussion, but I soon realized that conversation was too far gone for me to make much difference. But I did come away from the experience with what I believe to be a valuable bit of insight, one I hope that you might find interesting, as well.

In order to share that insight with you, let me begin by presenting a pair of observations that I first noticed in that blog discussion years ago, and which I have since seen repeated many, many times in subsequent discussions of the same topic ~ observations which tend, I think, to be completely overlooked by many of the who participate most passionately in such conversations.

Observation 1: Many of my fellow Christians claim (either overtly, or tacitly by way of their own interpretations) that the only valid way to read Holy Scripture is literally. In other words, they believe that the words of the Bible must be taken at face value, and that any other way of deriving meaning from the text (such as interpreting Scripture symbolically or allegorically, for example, or examining the historical and/or cultural context in which a particular piece of Scripture was written) is not only invalid, but constitutes a twisting or perverting of God's Word. It's not that folks in this camp reject interpretations of Scripture that differ from their own; rather, these folks deny that they themselves are even interpreting Scripture in the first place ~ instead, they claim that the meaning is clear on the surface of the text.

Of course, when I encounter brothers or sisters in Christ who hold this view, I'm generally disappointed to find out that they typically are not fluent in ancient Hebrew or ancient Greek, the languages in which the texts of Holy Scripture were originally recorded ~ so I end up wondering how, indeed, they manage to take such texts "at face value," having to read them in translation as they do ... but that is beside the point, at the moment.

The point is that for my fellow Christians to claim, as some surely do, that the only conceivable way to interpret Scripture is literally (i.e., superficially, treating the sacred text as if it is, itself, a scientific textbook or a literal history) is an atrocity. To limit Scripture in that way is to heap contempt upon the millions of Christians, past and present, who have dedicated (and in many cases given) their lives to the service of the sublime, Divine Truths which Scripture preserves in symbol, parable, and allegory ~ not to mention heaping contempt upon the remarkable sages who found ways to represent, in the frail and inadequate medium of human language, the keys that allow us, as mere human beings, to enter into the transformative contemplation of God's ineffable Mysteries. "Literalists" who make this claim do unimaginable damage to the soul of Christianity, in essence raping the Divine teachings, degrading them and reducing them to profane absurdities.

Observation 2: There are some atheists who not only seem to think that modern sciences, such as geology, evolutionary biology, astronomy, etc., have "disproven" Scripture, but who also seem to take a great deal of pride in the belief that "science is on their side," so to speak, justifying their rejection of spirituality in general and Christianity in particular.

Now, those self-righteous atheists who mistakenly think, as some surely do, that, as one banner advertisement once claimed, "the major claims of Christianity are demonstrably false" and that modern geological and biological science in any way "disproves" the Bible or Christianity are apparently so galactically stupid that they not only lack any understanding of the major claims of Christianity or of the nature of the Bible, but they also fail to understand the nature of the modern science which they purport to admire in the first place.

These folks have no clue what spiritual texts are or how they work whatsoever, so they treat such texts as if they were intended to be scientific manuals or textbooks from a history class, such as we would teach in our modern culture. They have no concept of abstraction, symbol, or allegory, and they have zero understanding whatever of anything resembling a coherent philosophy. They have bought into the demonstrably false assumption that only those things which are tangible to the five senses are "real," and based on that false presumption they misinterpret Scripture, and then they proudly crow about how erroneous their own misinterpretations (which they mistake for actual Scripture) are.

More importantly, they abuse and pervert the scientific method in the process. The scientific method, the foundation of empirical investigation, is unsurpassed when it comes to examining the tangible, physical world. But it is only useful because of its rigid limitations. And one of those limitations is that only things which can be observed and/or measured tangibly are subject to scientific investigation. One cannot do better than the scientific method when it comes to discovering facts. But science is ~ by its own definition ~ useless when it comes to discovering truth. Abstractions, philosophies, theologies, etc. ~ these are all, by definition, beyond the purview of science.

And here is the key insight from these two observations: both parties, the fundamentalist/literalist Christians AND the self-righteous, materialistic atheists, are making the exact same mistake: they are taking Scripture literally, exclusively literally. Thus, both parties are galactically wrong, and for precisely the same reason. Yet, they remain at each other's throats, each thoroughly convinced of the other's error and of their own rectitude. Unbelievable.

It seems to me that both these "perspectives," if they can be called that, are a gross disservice to the viewpoints which they claim to represent:

Good scientists, for example, are well aware that empirical science by definition does not ~ CANNOT ~ address any question which cannot be tested by empirical (i.e., tangible, material) means. Thus, the question of whether or not god/a god/gods exist(s), for example, is clearly beyond the scope of science; science does not even ask that question, since there's no material way to test it. That question must perforce take us to the realm of philosophy.

Likewise, intelligent, educated Christians are acutely aware of the difference between the allegorical creation story in Genesis and the sciences of geology and biology. The latter concern themselves with facts; the former, with Truth.

And that last distinction may be the most important one, the one that's most often overlooked in our modern, western culture: that facts and Truth are not the same thing.

I welcome your comments, folks ~ let's get our own, and hopefully more enlightened, discussion going here, if we can.



Monday, October 3, 2011

Initiations & Introductions!

The past few years for me have been full of initiations of one kind or another; I thought it fitting that my first blog entry should reflect upon some of the recent initiations I've experienced, as well as touching on the nature of initiation itself...

The more linguistically-minded of you out there no doubt tend to think of "first-ness" when you hear the word "initiation," given the etymology involved. And as I mentioned above, this has been a time of "firsts" for me: In the past four years I have gotten married; I began the process of recording and rough-mixing the raw tracks for my first full-length album of original music; I taught my first online classes; I became a father; I passed through the first stage of the discernment process in the Episcopal Church, in hopes of becoming a priest; and last but certainly not least, I established a presence on the Internet.

Obviously, some of these firsts are more life-altering than others. Yet, they all share the quality of beginning, of taking a preliminary step the consequences of which will expand exponentially with each further step. Each step in a journey may thus be viewed as an act of creation, if one keeps in mind the cumulative impact of each such step. Seen in this light, a first step (an initiatory step) takes on special significance as the beginning point of a new creation.

And what is it that's being created? Well, not to be too melodramatic, but LIFE! At this point, having passed through so many firsts, there's no telling whose life I'll be living tomorrow, to say nothing of next week/month/year! And I have to tell you, that is an exciting feeling--the realization that I am crafting an entirely new life with each decision that I've made and that I'm making.

Which leads to the more traditional implication of the word initiation: the ending of an old way of life and the entering into of a whole new way of living and being. In the "olden days," such life-transitions were inevitably marked by religious ritual and ceremony combined with social acknowledgement (and usually celebration). Much of that sort of thing has faded from the forefront of Western culture, but those of you who are married know that marriage is *definitely* a good example of just the sort of initiation I'm talking about! It's only been a little over four years for me, and I can already see plainly that Christopher-the-Husband is a rather different man that Christopher-the-Single-Guy was. And that's a very, very good thing, in my humble opinion. Growth and evolution are the essence of the natural order of things, and it's exhilarating to feel a part of that natural order.

Of course, the other traditional aspect of initiation involves testing: as soon as the initiate enters his or her new life, circumstances readily conspire to test his or her committment to it. Situations arise which seem to encourage him or her to cast off this new life and return to former habits and practices, to older ways of seeing. That's as it should be--a new way of life is nothing to enter into lightly. And if the person were truly ready for the initiation in the first place, then he or she will see the folly and basic undesireability of returning to the old way of living & seeing.

So, what does all that have to do with the real world? Hey, that's your (the reader's) job to figure out! ;~p For my part, I'm excited about the new lives I've begun. I'm profoundly grateful to my wife for wanting to initiate a new life with me, and I'm humbly grateful to the Source of all life for entrusting a daughter to us, and for continuing to nurture my creativity and sense of wonder.

I look forward to conversing with you, the entire world, and sharing the insights that you bring to the discourse!

As a way of initiating that conversation, here is a brief, desultory introduction to me:

Twenty-Five Random Things About Me

1. I own the entire run of the Marvel comic "Rom," issues 1 - 75, including four Annuals.

2. I use the same brand of guitar strings as Ty Tabor of King's X.

3. Plato is my favorite philosopher.

4. I got my Master's in English (MFA) without ever taking a Chaucer or Milton class.

5. I've been engaged twice, but married only once (got it right the 2nd time).

6. I have a step-dog named Jasper who's the best dog in the universe.

7. I'd rather be a werewolf than a vampire.

8. I'd rather be a socialist than a fascist.

9. In high school, I was a black-belt in Tae Kwon Do.

10. I once saw moonshine actually bleach a brown stone kitchen floor white.

11. I believe that Led Zeppelin owe at least part of their success to The Who.

12. I once got choked up by Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Puff the Magic Dragon."

13. I think "Hudson Hawk" is one of the funniest movies ever made.

14. My closest friends and I can converse for a solid 2 hours using no original language ~ only quotations from films, t.v. shows, and songs.

15. I think grades do more damage to education than any other single factor.

16. The best band I was ever in only played 3 shows before disbanding.

17. I'm seriously exploring the possibility of becoming an Episcopal priest.

18. Even so, I do not think C. S. Lewis is the "end all-be all" of Christian theology.

19. I would love to play Hamlet just once, even though I'm too old.

20. Roller-coasters, womens' purses, and fundamentalists all frighten me.

21. I've never taken an illegal drug.

22. But having 4 wisdom teeth out at once taught me why some people do.

23. I can beat you at air hockey, even if I play left-handed.

24. I was the Star Student for my high school in 1989.

25. I was once complimented by someone from New York City on my ability to swear.

So, that's one or more aspects of me, in a nutshell. We'll get to some more serious topics shortly, so please check back soon. In the meantime,

Peace to your path,