Tag Archives: christian doctrine

Heresies and Drumheads: Evangelicals and Trump through the Lens of Star Trek

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The German theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where a scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:

“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

themiddle

There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

Picard

Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

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“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion.

They were and many of their theological and ecclesiastical descendants still are true believers. That has been demonstrated over and over again in regards to biblically and theologically challenged yet politically fanatical American Evangelical Christians who have willingly surrendered any pretense of following Christ to paying obeisance to President Trump; a would be dictator who plays to their perpetual sense of victimhood in order to cement his power over them and to use them as his willing foot soldiers.

What Trump has done has turned the Gospel on its head, the Christian faith has become a political bludgeon to support laws and policies that are in diametric opposition to the message of Jesus. Sadly, a large majority of Evangelicals and their leaders have become Trump’s willing accomplices.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a retired admiral who turned an investigation involving a Klingon exchange scientist into a witch hunt aboard the Enterprise. That episode is well worth watching especially because it anticipates what is going on in the United States today, where a President, his party, and a reactionary fear filled cabal of religious followers has declared war on all who oppose them.

At the end of the episode Lieutenant  Worf comes to Captain Picard’s office. He is apologetic about having believed and cooperated with the Admiral. The dialogue is striking and should be heeded, especially by Evangelical Christians and others who have with open eyes sacrificed their faith even as they tear up the Constitution thinking that they are defending it.

WORF: Am I bothering you, Captain?
PICARD: No. Please, Mister Worf. Come in.
WORF: It is over. Admiral Henry has called an end to any more hearings on this matter.
PICARD: That’s good.
WORF: Admiral Satie has left the Enterprise.
PICARD: We think we’ve come so far. The torture of heretics, the burning of witches, it’s all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, it suddenly threatens to start all over again.
WORF: I believed her. I helped her. I did not see what she was.
PICARD: Mister Worf, villains who wear twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged.
WORF: I think after yesterday, people will not be as ready to trust her.
PICARD: Maybe. But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf, that is the price we have to continually pay.

And that is true and despite the certitude of the true believers that we do live in the uncomfortable middle.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion, star trek

UPDATE: It Depends on What Your Definition of “Christian” Is…

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This article was updated Sunday 23 November to clear up some grammar issues, and in doing so I have provided some updates to let you know what is currently happening, and to better enhance my arguments.

My friends, last week I had something occur that was so troublesome that I had to report it to certain Federal law enforcement authorities as well as a nationally known advocate for religious liberty issues.

Since the Feds are still doing their investigation I have to wait to post the article. I spoke with and I am in contact with the head of that group. Like me he is waiting to see what the investigators report. As things stand right now I expect that it may be sometime in December before I can publish in any detail what happened.

Conceivably this could end up getting some media attention because it involves a military member, civilian or contractor working for a military command that deals with IT issues. It is an organization which has been accused of hacking people and organizations across the political spectrum. Stupidly the individual did not think that I could look up his IP address and in this case track it down to the exact base, command and building where it originated.

The individual used the government network to post demeaning and harassing posts about my religious beliefs on this site under a pseudonym. What they said,their pseudonym and e-mail moniker left no doubt that they are some kind of politically minded and motivated right wing Christian intent on shouting down their opposition.

I cannot go into any more detail but it is troubling. If the comments had come from a civilian network I would blow it off as the work of a crackpot. The person may be a crackpot, but I figure that based on where this message originated it was someone working for the military who has a Top Secret security clearance. Why such a person would be attacking me, a senior Navy Chaplain and combat vet about my religious beliefs from a military network is beyond me.

But then maybe It all depends on what your definition of being a “Christian” is, and based on the religious-political hyperbole of the Christian Right, I don’t think I am a Christian anymore. But then being a “Christian” really does depend on what your definition of being a Christian “is” to use the words of former President Bill Clinton.

I am not a Christian if it means…

Elevating your interpretation of the Bible over Jesus…

Using your interpretation of scripture to damn other people to Hell or anywhere else, including Mississippi, even if there are equally valid interpretations from other Christian sources…

Elevating partisan political issues above the commands of Jesus…

Being more concerned with maintaining your political power than caring about people…

Demonizing anyone that disagrees with whatever pet doctrine that you hold dear, even if that doctrine was condemned by other Christians throughout history to be heretical…

Accuse others of the most horrible, unbelievable and false conspiracies and then claim that God told you to do it…

Claim a right or privilege for yourself based on your Christian Faith, and the use the police power of the state to enforce it, all the while denying the same rights to others…

When you are criticized by the very people that you condemn to Hell, or use economic boycotts against, or use the power of the state to condemn claim that you are now the victim of persecution…

The funny thing this is not new.

Such behavior by Christians goes back over a millennium.

In 1054 the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox split over one word in the Nicene Creed that described the precedence of the Holy Spirit.

The Protestant Reformers elevated their interpretation of scripture over the Roman Catholic instance on scripture being interpreted through Church Tradition and the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

The Radical Reformers insisted on believer’s  or adult baptism over infant baptism…

Early Pentecostals, as well as some today, insisted that unless one had been baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of “speaking in tongues” that you were not a Christian…

Sadly, the trend continues as every new Christian sect insists on its own version of “the truth” being absolute truth. History shows that nearly every time such religious absolutists gain control of a civil government that they either by legislation or fiat make their religious law the law of the land.

Among these various denominations and sects these doctrinal issues are still officially in place, even if many church members don’t understand. The only difference is now that many of these people, who I would say are sincere in their beliefs have come together under a political banner, condemning secularists, atheists, and other non-believers to ensure that the Christian franchise remains on top.

This was the whole intention of the Manhattan Declaration of a few years back. Throw aside centuries or actual theological and doctrinal differences in order to keep political power, yes that is the Christian way.

After the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the empire a theological dispute between Trinitarian and Arian Christians became political. Whenever an Arian Emperor was in charge Trinitarians were persecuted, and when Trinitarian emperors were in power the payback was hell.

The Cathars in France were exterminated in military crusades by the Roman Catholics.

The early reformation led by John Huss in Czecheslovkia was not only condemned theologically but led to a series of wars as the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire sought to suppress it.

Martin Luther united with the “anti-Christ” Roman Catholic Church to exterminate the “enthusiasts” and Anabaptists during the Peasant’s Revolt.

Ulrich Zwingli executed his former students who had become Anabaptist and been re-baptized to demonstrate their new faith by “re-baptizing” them until they drowned in the Rhine River.

John Calvin ran a religious theocracy in Geneva where any dissent was punishable as heresy. and his government routinely executed “heretics” who did not hold his truth.

The Roman Catholic Church ran the Inquisition in conjunction with with the Spanish crown, as well as other Catholic monarchies, condemning anyone who strayed from the Catholic faith to persecution, imprisonment and often death.

Of course there was the Thirty Years War in which nations with state religions, Protest or Catholic launched wars of brutal extermination against each other, wars which devastated Germany and which the ruins of castles along the Rhine testify to even today.

The Anglican Church in conjunction with the British crown made Catholicism an act punishable by death, and persecuted other dissenters from the state church including early English Baptists, and the Calvinist dissenters who eventually came to the new colonies as the Pilgrims and Puritans….

The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had the exclusive rights to the franchise, and persecuted early Baptists and Quakers often executing them, and in the case of female dissenters accusing them of witchcraft…

Sadly many in the Christian Right under the sway of a Neo-Calvinist political theology called “Seven Mountains” or Christian Dominionism are working at the local, state and federal level in this country to institute a theocracy in this country, with them, like their Puritan and Genevan ancestors having the franchise….

I could go on as there are plenty of other examples that I will not cite here. However, forgetting doctrine and even forgetting Jesus to keep power is nothing new for Christians.

Be assured that if all the groups that the now supposedly politically unified Christians now oppose were wiped out and no longer existed, that these same people would start fighting each other again to gain the exclusive franchise of a state religion. That is the unalterable nature of humanity. That is the unalterable nature of religion, that is the unalterable nature of life.

If you are a “true believer” in any of these Christian traditions you may disagree with me. But in your heart you know that I am right because you know that you are right, and if you are right then no one else is. Thus your power and status must be maintained regardless of the cost. That my friends is the nature of the political Christianity which is more grounded in politics and power than it is in Jesus. Eric Hoffer wrote about people that he called the “True Believers”:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Disagree with with me if you want, but since I paid a lot more attention to church history, systematic theology and philosophy in seminary than most people do I can whip this stuff out without even looking at my notes.

The fact is that once an external enemy is defeated, those within the politically motivated Christian churches turn on themselves. Christians of different denominations or are different must also be defeated, humiliated and destroyed.

That my friends is the truth of history. That is the ever present witness of supposed Christians who value their political power, their economic position, and their place and status above all others. Alliances between various Christian sects are almost always temporary, never once have Christian sects who have united to face down what they think is an existential threat to themselves  have maintained their unity after the threat is eliminated.

And so it is… For such people it is not about a truth, nor is it about really about faith, nor is it about love. Those are ruses used to justify the naked brutal power and domination that they strive to achieve. Power and domination that is only satisfied when the ones seeking it have eliminated all opposition, even that of former allies.

That is why I say that it is all about “what your definition of Christian is.” 

So if my belief and trust in Jesus is not enough for the true believers… I am okay with that.

If the fact that I am baptized, confirmed and even ordained is not enough for the true believers… I am okay with that.

If the fact that I have had a “born again” experience where faith in Christ became real is not enough… I am okay with that.

If my belief which is grounded in scripture, tradition and reason is not enough for the true believers is not enough… I am okay with that.

If I do not use the name of Jesus to bludgeon non-believers and  if I do not ally myself to the Christian true believers who seek their political power and are willing to make temporary alliances with  those that they despise in the process…. I am okay with that.

If all of that means that I am not a Christian…

Then I am not… and I am okay with that.

I guess that if valuing the rights of Christians above all others and forcing others to follow whatever version of the Christianity is allowed by the state means to some to be a Christian then I am not a Christian… and I am okay with that.

If being a hateful, self righteous person who despise all that do not believe like them,mor do not meet their slitmus test of what it is to be a Christian then I am not a Christian… and I am okay with that too.

If those are the things that are now what are the marks of being a Christian, then I do not want to be one… I am okay with that.  I would rather follow Jesus than be labeled that kind of Christian.

After all, in the end it is about what God thinks, and not what your definition , or my definition of what being a Christian is.

I guess that Bill Clinton was really on target when he said that it all “depends on what your definition of is is” especially for politically minded Christians. People who have sold their souls to maintain political power but who don’t give a wit Jesus. Who don’t care about what their churches actually teach until they eliminate external opposition; and who then can concentrate on eliminating  the “heretical” Christians who were at one time their allies.

That is the ugly truth of “Christian” history.

Condemn me if you want. But before you do please take a look at history, especially the history of other Christians who once they eliminated external threats persecuted other Christians that did not believe just like them.

As far as me, I am now no longer on the defensive. I am taking the offensive against people who value their privilege, power and place in society more than they do the simple command of Jesus. That command of Jesus, to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself matters more than political power.

As far as me, I will fight and protect the rights of the same people that condemn me to Hell. I do this  because as an American who believes deeply in the ethos of our Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal” and because of my office and oath to the Constitution that am demands that I defend them.

I am obligated to give them the protections and freedom that they refuse to give others. That being said, when they decide to mock me, attack me or threaten me using government equipment on taxpayer time, I will not play the victim. I will use every legal and moral option available to me to expose those that do for what they are.

So I cannot say anymore about what is happening regarding what I mentioned up front, but I will update you when I can.

You cannot believe how much that I want to expose those that attack me using the freedom that I by my service and oath strive to protect. But at some point I will.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Fallacy of Reductionist Fundamentalism: You Cannot be Competent in God

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Today is a day for something a bit more theological in nature. A couple of days ago I wrote about the dangers of reductionist fundamentalism. One of the issues that fundamentalists of all stripes wrestle with is the issue of certitude. For them life has to be bounded by certainty. For them, whether in the matter of origins, or how life came about, in the matter of faith and morals, how life is lived in the present; or how the world ends, life must be certain. In fact, fundamentalism in all its forms inculcates believers that there is only one way of thinking, one way of knowing, one way of understanding things that are unknowable. 

Because of this need for certitude, Christians, Moslems, Jews and others of various persuasions have attempted to define the beginning and the end, as well as to dictate what is acceptable to believe, or acceptable behavior. However, this actually says more about their insecurity than reflects the strength of their beliefs. I can speak to this need for certitude from a Christian point of view, and from my study of other faiths make what I think is informed commentary.

But for people who supposedly believe in God, the reality is that in presuming certitude in what we think that we know  is actually a denial of faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “a God who would let us prove his existence is an idol.” Bonhoeffer was right, not only do those that presume to know exactly how creation came about, how the universe will end or say with unrequited certitude what constitutes proper belief or behavior in the eyes of God make an idol of their God, they also, whether they intend to or not, put themselves in the place of God.

According to the writer of the Book of Hebrews, “faith is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” That writer, who I think is Priscilla (see Acts Priscilla and Aquila) understood that faith was not the same as empirical knowledge, otherwise it would not be faith. To understand faith in a modern sense it means that faith is something that we admittedly cannot prove. That is why it is faith.

I am admittedly a skeptic. I am. Christian, I do believe, but I doubt as much as I believe. In fact for nearly two years I lived as an agnostic, a priest praying that God still existed, thus is believe but even now doubt. That being said I have seen things that cannot be explained by science or anything rational, and there are physicians that I have worked with that can attest to those things. That being said I think there are a lot of events claimed by some as “miraculous” that are explainable and are not miraculous at all.

The fact is, whether it it about creation and the questions of origins, an exact definition by which to judge absolute truth for living or belief, or the manner of how creation will end; every single statement of such absolutes is contradicted by the fact that we live as Bonhoeffer wrote, and I like to call “the uncomfortable middle. Bonhoeffer wrote in his book Creation, Fall and Temptation that:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them.”  

The reality for Christians is that we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history, traditions as well as limitations in terms of scientific knowledge. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, though some Christian Fundamentalist make that claim. Because of that, the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. The Bible, of we actually believe it, is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring. As Hans Kung so rightly wrote:

“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

Does that mean that we fully comprehend the nature of Christ, or the doctrinal formulation of the Hypostatic Union which defines Christ as being fully human and fully God? Or does it mean that we fully comprehend or understand the doctrine of the Trinity encapsulated in either the Nicene or Athanasian Creed? Certainly not, none of those doctrines are provable by science, or for that manner even history, for there were and are people who consider themselves Christians who do not believe and who reject those doctrinal formulations. Thus for Christians to attempt to argue such matters as fact to those who do not believe is not productive at all. We must understand that faith in the living Christ is not in a doctrine but  a promise that we believe, by faith, is given given by God through Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than living with difficult questions or honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction “true believers” become even more strident and sometimes even violent when confronted with issues that question immutable doctrine.

I wish it were otherwise but Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. Doctrinal certitude is comforting. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end.

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty and insecurity than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

themiddle1

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are at best expressions of faith. We were not there in the beginning  and we will not be present at the end, at least in this mortal state. We do live in the uncomfortable middle. Our faith is not science, nor is it proof. That is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures where as Paul the Apostle says “If Christ is not raised your faith is worthless”  and we “are to be pitied among men.” (1 Cor. 15:17-18)

We are to always seek clarity and understanding. However it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines about God and that is not heresy, it is an admission that God will not allow us to put hi m in our theological box. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

With that I will close for tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Distant Origen: The Danger of Doctrinal Certitude While Living in the Uncomfortable Middle

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“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where a scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:
“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

themiddle

There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

Picard

Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

vasily-surikov-christ-healing-the-man-born-blind

“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion. They were and are true believers.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a special investigator who turned an investigation into a witch hunt on the Enterprise. Picard told Worf, who had initially been taken in by the investigator:

“But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay.”

And that is true.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Uncomfortable Middle: The Challenge to the Certitude of Unprovable Doctrine

holy-saturday

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I was watching an episode of Star Trek Voyager tonight, one called Distant Origin where a scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is a contrarian to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:

“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaberation so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people.

There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine. This is the magnetic attraction of funamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Anne Rice and the Exodus

Anne Rice

There is an exodus occurring in American Christianity.  This is not new. George Barna has reported a lot about disturbing trends in American Christianity, particularly Evangelical Christianity.  These trends span denominational lines and having watched them and seen a lot of anecdotal evidence myself over the past 20 or so years I believe that they are now having a cascade effect with visible effects.  Before the effects were covered over as mega-churches, seeker-friendly churches, the so-called “church growth movement” carved out rather large chunks out of denominational churches of all types.  The common charge leveled against “traditional” denominational churches by the new non-denominational start-ups was that they were out of touch with people, hypocritical, immersed in promoting “boring” doctrine and not keeping up with the times in their worship style, preaching or service format.  The new churches more often than not minimized the major doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, for all practical purposes reduced the Bible to a pop-psychology manual that Christians were to use to get all they wanted from God, particularly health and wealth but also self-esteem and just plain old feeling good.  Those that taught anything that deviated back toward orthodoxy usually focus on things like eschatology or on moral issues, the “culture war” and align themselves closely with political movements and parties, sometimes becoming more focused on winning the political war  than actually proclaiming the Gospel.

As a result much of the Christian landscape is dominated by churches that understand little of the Christian faith, no longer see value in practicing things like Baptism or Holy Communion and while they preach about “Biblical absolutes” in regard to abortion, an admittedly abhorrent practice and homosexuality they seem to gloss over other many moral issues including divorce, sex outside of marriage, materialism, greed and avarice, so long as those practicing them are on “our side.” Likewise they are prone to give people who actually oppose the Christian faith a pass if they fall on the same side of the political aisle.  We are simple selective literalists.

As Barna’s studies have shown Evangelical Christians have worse rates of divorce, teenage sex outside of marriage and other moral problems than those that do not claim to be Christians.  Likewise the lifestyles of many of the leaders of the Evangelical movement are prone to gross material excess and every year we see some Evangelical leader or leaders involved in some kind of sexual, financial or sometimes criminal activity.  To me it seems that American Christianity is doctrinally impoverished, politically intolerant and morally bankrupt.

So Anne Rice announces that she is leaving Christianity but not Jesus and catalogued a list of things that she found that she could not live with inside the church.  Since she announced this she has been the talk of the town. To those cynical to organized religion, though why we call any religion in America organized is beyond me, this is a boon.  For those defending the faith it is also a boon as they have an identifiable “traitor to the faith” to go after rather than some amorphous concept or idea.  Real heretics are so much more fun to go after.  I have been amazed but not surprised at the number of articles condemning Rice.  Most even if they don’t say it in the article they basically articulate the same thing that many of the early Church Fathers stated in regard to heretics and schismatics that left the church for the various heresies of the day almost all of which denied the nature of Christ, either his deity or humanity.

Rice has not done that. She has not denied the deity or humanity of Christ, his message of salvation or anything. She has protested and repudiated the outward actions of Christians and the institutional Church.  Now whether one agrees with her assessment is another matter but she has not necessarily denied Christ.  Her story is not yet completed, she may reconcile again with the Catholic Church or another Church.  To condemn her at this point would be similar to condemn Francis of Assisi when he walked out of the church.

In fact to condemn Ms Rice at this point is to miss the point of her protest.  Her protest is that the Church does not live the Gospel.  Her critics almost universally attack her for her support of homosexuals.  However a large part of that support is because her son is homosexual and to condemn her as a mother to that has lost one child at the age of 6 and is widowed for protesting the treatment that her son and other homosexuals have received from Christians is unfair to her and to them regardless of what one believes about homosexuality.  It seems to me that homosexuality is about the only unpardonable sin to many American Christians and that is the biggest criticism that I see in what her critics have written. They may talk about her separating herself from the Church and thus Christ but it really seems more to be about why she did so.   We Christians will tolerate about every sort of perversion and unfaithful action of people in the church to include leaders so long as it is not homosexuality. Divorce, no problem; gluttony, not an issue; murder, as long as it is state sanctioned; materialistic greed as long as we can link it to our own and the church’s prosperity; discrimination against people based on gender, race or religion, no problem so long as it is the name of national security or in the interest of our political party or church organization.  The argument against her is a red herring to divert people from the real issue which is the dismal state of the church, in belief and practice in the United States.

You see the argument used against Ms. Rice that by separating herself from the Church that she has separated herself from Christ and is “in schism” itself is disingenuous.  Every church body in this country can be accused of being in schism from someone and that includes the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox who to this day believe the other to be in schism.  Likewise for Protestants, especially those in independent churches to call her into question is hypocritical, many of those churches were born in schism and have few discernible beliefs or practices that link them to historic Christianity except that they “believe in Jesus.”  Protestantism itself is a “protest” against the Church and its practices, the Catholic Church to be sure but nonetheless at its heart a protest that is little different from that of Ms. Rice.

You see that is the problem with American Christianity. We want to selectively apply scripture and the teachings of the early Church to other Christians that we don’t agree with and that is something that we all do to one degree or another and it does not matter if we are conservatives or liberals, Catholics or Protestants, seeker friendly or traditionalist. No matter who we are or what our theological stance we all somehow ensure that we exclude someone else or some group from the Kingdom of God and to make it more fun we can all find something in Scripture or tradition to buttress our position.  As much as we want it to be the issue is not belief or doctrine, but practice and just who we allow the grace of God to extend to.

I don’t think that it is right to single Ms. Rice out after all let’s be truthful if a person has left a church for any issue including doctrine they are in schism.  If a person has been part of a church split at the local or the denominational level where they have left their “mother church” they too are in schism.  If someone leaves their church for a season or forever they have done the same thing that Ms Rice has done and I don’t see anyone out there making this point or going after all of us that are in schism from someone.

Let’s face it there are in the United States alone anywhere from 25,000-40,000 distinct denominational groups depending on your source. David Barrett lists 34,000 separate faith groups in the world that consider themselves to be Christian (David B. Barrett, et al., “World Christian Encyclopedia : A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World,” Oxford University Press, (2001)) In fact, many consider themselves alone to be the only “true” Christian church. Now if you ask me that sounds like a whole lot of schism going on and just looking at the numbers there are a lot of people outside the walls of someone else’s church and therefore outside of the grace of God.

So with all of this in place I have to go back to some of my original statements of how we got to where we are and why Ms. Rice’s “defection” is symptomatic of a far bigger problem for American Christianity. We have over the past 40 years or so since the societal revolt of the 1960s been collectively as Christians been laying turds in our own punchbowl. We have renounced any semblance of coherent doctrine because “doctrine is boring.” Thus when we look at the most popular preachers in the country we see that one, T.D. Jakes holds a position on the Godhead (Jesus only modalism) which has been condemned by the church for like 1700 years or so. The there is Joel Osteen who seems like a nice guy but seems to have no recognizable Christian doctrine in his preaching, except that God loves us. I have no problem with that but that isn’t all that there is. Of course there is Rick Warren and before him Bill Hybels both of whom have taken the non-denominational identification to new heights.  I won’t even go into morality as I mentioned that in a recent post about the marital problems of another big time preacher, Benny Hinn who has promulgated more heresy than I can list.  On the Catholic side we have a church that despite official statements seems to still be protecting criminals and sexual predators and silencing those in the Church who raise their voices in protest to include the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schoenborn the driving force behind the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.

For better or worse the church in the United States has become the “Church of What’s Happening Now.”  We have tossed out the riches of 2000 years of faith, replaced them with religious mumbo jumbo that most closely aligns with our special interest and when people go from church to church or drop the faith completely we wonder why?

As a military Chaplain I have had a unique perspective on the state of Christianity in this country. My experience of how people classify themselves religiously nearly mirrors what is seen in the work of the Barna Research Group and the American Religious Identification Surveys of 2001 and 2008, by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. What I have seen in almost 20 years of being a chaplain is both a decline in those that identify themselves as Christians and those that while they identify themselves as Christians have no consistent practice or identification with any particular denomination or group. The numbers claiming “No Religious Preference” and “Christian No Denomination” seem to go up every year.  Likewise the numbers identifying themselves as Wiccan or any number of other more earth based or eastern religions is increasing.  Many of these young men and women were raised as Christians or had some kind of “Christian” experience before going off to what they are now.

Barna notes that “There does not seem to be revival taking place in America. Whether that is measured by church attendance, born again status, or theological purity, the statistics simply do not reflect a surge of any noticeable proportions.” (“Annual study reveals America is spiritually stagnant,” Barna Research Group, Ltd., at: http://www.barna.org/) and that “evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994….less than one out of five born again adults (18%) meet the evangelical criteria.” (“Annual Barna Group Survey Describes Changes in America’s Religious Beliefs and Practices,” The Barna Group, 2005-APR-11, at:http://www.barna.org/ )

The American Religious Identification Survey 2008 notes other troubling facts for American Christianity.  Among them:

The percentage of American adults that identify themselves with a specific religion dropped from 89.5% to 79.9%:

Americans who identify themselves as Christian dropped from 86.2 to 76.0 — a loss of 10.2 percentage points in 18 years — about 0.6 percentage points per year.

Americans identifying themselves as Protestant dropped from 60.0 to 50.9%.

Catholics declined from 26.2% to 25.1%

The Catholic population in the Northeast fell: From 1900 to 2008, it went from 50% in New England to 36%, and from 44% to 37% in New York state. Apparently to immigration, it rose during the same interval from 29% to 37% in California, and 23% to 32% in Texas.

Religious Jews declined from1.8% to 1.2%

The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca. According to Religion Link “Specifically, the number of Wiccans more than doubled from 2001 to 2008, from 134,000 to 342,000, and the same held true for neo-pagans, who went from 140,000 in 2001 to 340,000 in 2008.”

Finally 15.0% (14.1%) do not follow any organized religion. There are more Americans who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. (Cathy Grossman, “Charting the unchurched in America,” USA Today, 2002-MAR-7, at: http://www.usatoday.com/life/dcovthu.htm)

The ARIS survey noted the following about those that left or switched churches:

About 16% of adults have changed their identification.

For the largest group, the change was abandoning all religion.

Baptists picked up the largest number of any religion: 4.4 million. But they also lost 4.6 million.

Roman Catholics lost the greatest number, 9.5 million. However, they also picked up 4.3 million.

Those are just the numbers. To look within we have to look at behaviors and we find that American Christians on the whole are very similar to those with no religion whatsoever. Rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and other social indicators often show that American Christians differ little from and sometimes are in worse shape than their non-Christian neighbors.

If we look at reasons for people leaving the faith Barna has the answer. To put it in Padre Steve terminology “we don’t treat people well.”  Barna notes: “Based on past studies of those who avoid Christian churches, one of the driving forces behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church context. In fact, one Barna study among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.” (http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/362-millions-of-unchurched-adults-are-christians-hurt-by-churches-but-can-be-healed-of-the-pain)

Instead of condemning Anne Rice maybe we as Christians, Churches and Church leaders need to get over defending ourselves and get ourselves and our churches right with God, one another and our neighbors. Maybe Anne Rice is a prophet and we should thank her even if we don’t agree with all that she says. Maybe we should stop referring to her as a traitor to her faith.

Maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right when he wrote from prison:

Religious man] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a “secular” life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. He may live a “secular” life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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