In which I rip a supposedly “Christian” meme a new one

This is such an insidious, disingenuous attack on LGBTQ people that I can hardly control my anger. The statement is all about self-justification and self-defense and self-righteousness; it is not at all about being compassionate or even holy.

Evil meme

It sneaks in the assumption that being gay, or being trans, is an action that people choose. That’s bullshit, and everybody knows it. There is no scientific, medical, or psychological support for such a contention.

This mendacious assertion withholds support for who people ARE, under the intentionally duplicitous guise of withholding support for what people DO.

This is no different from faith-healing quacks who say that God is morally opposed to chemotherapy for cancer, or antibiotics for infections, or analgesics for arthritis. There is no known way to relieve the suffering of being trans other than transitioning to the gender one knows oneself to be. There is no known way to change someone from a gay orientation to a straight one, and the only way to relieve the suffering of being cut off from love is to accept and affirm intimate relationships between people of the same sex.

This is nothing more than the discredited “love the sinner, hate the sin” rejection of LGBTQ people, and it stinks, all the more so because it tries to put a sheen of high-mindedness on that judgmental, punitive belief. But it succeeds no better at dressing up the hatred than lipstick succeeds in hiding the filth of a pig.
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Imago Dei, Imago Dust

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen.1:27

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Gen.2:7

Genesis wastes no time: right there in the first chapter, it tells us what it means to be human. We are the very image of the Holy One, the Creator’s ultimate creation. Surprisingly, though, in the very next chapter Genesis apparently tells us just the opposite: we are dirt.

Which is it?

“In the beginning” and “Adam and Eve” are both part of the popular imagination, but it’s when you first get serious and start actually reading the Bible for yourself that you find that these are not the same story, but two different stories of Creation.

We can thank 19th-century German theologians for rigorously examining, then proclaiming, what many had suspected for a long time: there are two stories because there are two authors.

One author’s view of human nature soars to the heavens: we are holy, almost divine, the image of God; the Creator’s final and highest accomplishment; so filled with goodness that God entrusts to us the caretaking responsibility of everything that God has just created.

In contrast, the other author has a very earthy view of human nature: we’re made of dust; we eat things that aren’t good for us; we are so evil that we blame our wives for our own misbehavior, and even kill our brothers when we feel unloved.

Whether we believe that being human means being high and holy, or that being human means being low and dirty, we have a Bible story to support our conviction. We can argue endlessly over which is the “true” or “correct” understanding of human nature. And many of us do, because many of us hold to one belief or the other when it comes to essential human nature.

But it doesn’t have to be a dichotomy, a choice, an “either-or”. Perhaps the final editors of Genesis intentionally included both stories, believing that sometimes one is true, and sometimes the other. In this view, to be human is to see our nature as dual, a blend, a “both-and”. Sometimes we’re the image of God; sometimes we’re just dust that has learned to breathe. Part of each of us is good; part of each of us is evil.

While this approach allows us to account for both Biblical stories, it is ultimately unsatisfying as an answer to, “What does it mean to be human?” because it is not an answer; it is two separate answers, connected by a decision to choose neither.

I would propose taking yet another step beyond “both-and”: our nature lies in the tension between “image of God” and “image of dust”. Both Creation stories – both images – are necessary to understanding our essential nature. But, instead of elements of a mixture, the two stand as separate, independent poles, and we exist in the space between them. A physical analogy: if the two are weights, we exist in the balance between them. A balance is not either weight, nor is it both one weight and the other. And it is certainly not neither weight. The balance’s existence derives from the weights, yet it is not itself composed of the weights.

In other words, we need both Creation stories to understand what it means to be human, because we need the space between them. We were made, and we live, in the dynamic equilibrium that exists between sacred and profane, good and evil, God and dust.


(Adapted from a paper written for an assignment in my Old Testament course at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, in the fall of 2008.) 

Two Nights

This is a reflection paper that I wrote in the fall of 2009 for my New Testament survey class in seminary. I’m posting it now because it came up in a conversation.

Luke is the only canonical Gospel that includes the birth narrative. What are we to make of that?

Psalm 23 declares, “Thou art with me.” An individual woman or man is speaking directly to God about God’s presence with her or him personally. It is, as far as I know, unique in all of Scripture in stating this truth in this way. What are we to make of that?

My own contemplative prayer practice has evolved while I’ve been at seminary. Adapting Thich Nhat Hanh’s breath prayer, I found that I could center myself for worship by repeating silently, “Breathing in, Your spirit enters and fills me. Breathing out, I love.” I began to use it in other settings. When I was walking the labyrinth this summer, it helped me to focus on the spiritual, as it soothed and quieted the mental. Seeking to detach from the physical as well, I switched to something even simpler, with no reference to breath. As I walked, I repeated, and contemplated, a pair of four-word selections from Scripture: “Thou art with me. Thy will be done.”

“Lovely,” I hear the reader ask, “but what has this to do with Luke’s birth narrative?”

The birth narrative in Chapter 2 is one of only two scenes in Luke that takes place at night. The other is Jesus’ last night in this life, on the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

These two night scenes frame Jesus’ life. Their literary function is that they help to unify a long, meandering story: reading about the last night reminds us of, and carries us back to, the first night. But what is their gospel function?

Let’s return for a moment to my contemplative prayer. Its two parts together summarize, for me, the essentials of my faith. The deceptive simplicity of “Thou art with me” actually encompasses complex wisdom about the nature of God and the nature of my relationship with God. Ours is a personal God, addressed directly, and addressed with familiar, rather than formal, pronouns. While this God may be in Heaven, as many gods are said to be, our God is also as immanent as can be – right here with me. Similarly, “Thy will be done” is a nugget whose small size belies the magnitude of its meaning. It is not only an acknowledgement that our God indeed has a will for us, inviting us to learn what it might be; it is also our promise of commitment to serving that will.

Moreover, the two parts of the prayer are interrelated.  To apprehend God’s will can be terrifying – awe-full. Sureness of God’s presence with me is the only thing that can comfort me enough to feel safe in the face of this awe. Going through the prayer in the other direction, it says that, while God’s presence with me may be comforting, it is not enough to give the relationship its full meaning. The second half is the necessary further development – my reciprocation of God’s presence is my acceptance of God’s will and its implications for how I am to live.

The two nighttime scenes in Luke teach lessons similar to those of the prayer. The Nativity, especially with the intimate detail of Luke’s story, is a narrative way of expressing “Thou art with me,” God’s presence is now here, in our human world. On the Mount of Olives, the very last prayer we hear from Jesus’ lips, even as he is fully cognizant of the gravity of the moment, is “Thy will be done.” Ultimately, a relationship with God calls us to whatever is necessary to fulfill God’s intention for humanity.

Just as most of the rest of Luke’s Gospel narrative tells the story that links those two scenes, the rest of his Gospel message explores the implications of the two principles that the scenes represent. It fills in the spaces to help us understand the connections between love and service, between comfort and call, between birth and death, between “with me” and “Thy will.”

An Old Prayer in New Words

Divine Spirit who fills the universe,
Sacred are all your names.
Your Way will be consummated on Earth,
As it already is in your heart,
When we all love one another
As you love all of us.
Please provide for our everyday needs;
Call us to no more than we can do,
And help us to do no less than you call us to.
This we ask, knowing that the beauty of your power
Will surely lead us to your Way.
Amen.

Mythic mystic Christianity: a theology

I was recently asked to write a brief overview of my personal theology. If you’ve read any theology, you probably know that “brief” is among the least frequently used words to describe theological writing. Nevertheless, I took a crack at it. I don’t know if the result – two and a half single-spaced pages – counts as “brief”, but at least I kept it shorter than book length.

Oh, and as you might have guessed from the title, my personal theology is rooted in the Christian tradition. If that’s not your thing, you might find something you like here.

  • I believe in God, the creator of all that is.
  • I believe in Jesus Christ, both God and human, who, by grace, is the source of our redemption.
  • I believe in the Holy Spirit, equally God, present and active within us.

But these statements are not my theology.

My theology is my contemplation, analysis, and understanding of these statements, my “unpacking” of them.

God

God is the creative force that powered – and still powers – bringing the universe into existence. God is a Being, a be-ing, as in the Hebrew name for God, I Am. This being underlies all else; God is the Ground of all being. We creatures – we created ones – are connected with that creative force, making us one with it, and thus with all of creation. And we humans, blessed with consciousness, are able to be aware of that connection. We can know that we are connected not only to all else that is, we can know the connection itself, and through that, we can know that Ground, that Creator, to which we are connected.

We have two crucial sources of knowledge of God: what we experience, and what we learn from others.

I believe the experience is essential. Without experiencing that connection with the creative force that grounds all being – without physically/mentally/emotionally/spiritually experiencing a connection with God in some way – we would not have the frame of reference to make sense out of what we would learn from others about God. This direct, personal experience we call mystic. I believe that everyone is capable of experiencing this connection, though some have not (yet) had the experience, and others have chosen to interpret the experience for themselves as something other than connection with God. One person cannot cause another to have the mystic experience, nor can one person prevent another from having the experience, nor can one person prove to another that she or he has had the experience. The mystic, experiential element of knowing a connection with God is completely individual.

The other source of knowledge of God is what we learn from others. Since we cannot directly share one another’s experience of God, we need an indirect way of communicating. Sacred story, song, sermon, and poem serve this purpose. They may tell of something as corporeal as eating and drinking, or as intangible as dreams and visions. They may be emotionally raw or intellectually rigorous. They may recount past events or prophesy the future. Together, they comprise myth, in its original sense – sacred tellings about God. For Christians, much of our sacred myth is embodied in the Bible. Other ancient and even modern writings, as well as traditions that have defined Christians (and Jews before us) over the millennia, are also part of the body of our sacred myth. It must be stressed that “myth” does not mean something that’s not true – quite the opposite. Myth is how we express truths that we cannot express more directly. Thus, what is important about myth, including our sacred Christian myth, is not its historical accuracy, or its direct commands, or even the precise words used to speak or write it. What’s important is what we can learn about God from these stories, songs, sermons, and poems.

Jesus Christ

What, then, do we do with that knowledge, whether learned or experiential, mythic or mystic? What does it mean for our lives? It is through Jesus Christ that we can approach the answers to those questions. The phrase “Jesus Christ” itself demands unpacking. The one we call Jesus Christ is rooted in ancient tales of a man who had a special relationship with God, but Jesus Christ is more than this man. We need not even know whether such a man “really” lived in the first century, near the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, nor whether he “really” said and did all that has been attributed to him. To focus on his historicity is to focus on the narrative instead of the story; it is to miss the meaning inside the myth. The purpose of myth is to learn about God.

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is perhaps the earliest statement of Christian theology. From it, we learn three things. First, Jesus, the central character in the uniquely Christian part of our myth, was a man in a primarily agrarian society, a society that also included cities, a semi-autonomous society under occupation by a foreign army. From this we learn the context for his teachings. Second, he is the Christ – he has a unique relationship with God – he was created to be the appointed one to speak for God to people, and to speak for people to God. From this we learn the authority of his teachings. Third, he is Lord – he is himself God. He contains God within him, just as God, the Ground of being, contains him. The wall of separation between that which is God, and that which is not God, is shattered by Jesus Christ’s very existence. Our connection with God is not a bond connecting two separate things; our connection is that we are not separate at all. The bond is simply this: that God and we – and by extension, everything that is – are a unity.

In this brief overview, I won’t go into the ethical theology implicit in this understanding of Jesus Christ, except to observe that Jesus’ ethical teachings are grounded in, “Love God. Love others. And those two are a single imperative.” Suffice it to say that all Christian ethics are derived from that.

From our sacred myth, there is a further lesson to learn for our theology of Jesus Christ. We have answered, “Who am I to God? Who am I to others? How am I to relate to God, and to others?” but we haven’t addressed, “Who am I to me? How am I to relate to myself?” This is the question about redemption.

To redeem, at its root, means to take back, to regain possession of something, usually by paying a price. What we regain through Jesus Christ is our lives and ourselves, the essence of who we are; traditionally we call this our soul. The price was graciously paid by God – as Jesus Christ – in living on earth as a human being, with the work, pain, and death that are part of that life. God chose to pay this price, not for God’s benefit, but for ours – hence we call it an act of grace.

In our redemption, in our reclaiming of our souls, we receive the knowledge that we are not weak, isolated, helpless, and alone. Jesus’ lessons of love and unity teach us to know ourselves: as part of a universal whole, even when we feel lonely; as strong in the face of fear, even the fear of death; as loving, even in the face of all the selfish acts we know we’ve committed; and as beloved, connected with all humankind, and with God. We need to hear those lessons from a fellow human sufferer in order for them to touch our deepest selves, and so it was necessary for God to be among us as a human being. For how else could we see with our own eyes that there is no separation between us and God?

Holy Spirit

As God the creator fills the universe, and as Jesus Christ is God with us, it is the Holy Spirit that is God within each of us. We sense God as the creative force. We encounter Jesus Christ. But we feel the Spirit, in some ineffably non-physical way, and this feeling changes us. It makes us more open to God. The Reformed way of expressing it is helpful. Reformed theology asserts that the Spirit is the first to come to us; that the Spirit enters our hearts, and prepares us to receive God. The Spirit readies us for the mystic and the mythic knowledge of God that follow.

Moreover, the Spirit stays with us, a presence within that keeps us aware of our connection with God, even when our minds are too busy and our emotions are too roiled. That awareness can serve many purposes: it can comfort us, it can motivate us, it can inspire us. God the creator is always creating anew; God, through Jesus Christ, is always teaching us about love and unity; but these are so big that we have trouble staying focused on them. It is the Spirit who is with us in day-to-day life, walking every mundane step of our path with us.

Closing observation

The structure of this theological overview parallels the classic Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. However, orthodox Trinitarian doctrine does not, and cannot, truly describe God. It is not literally true that God is three and God is one simultaneously. Our words are inadequate to qualify God, let alone quantify God. Theology is part of our sacred myth, our indirect, linguistic way of telling truth. This overview is nothing more than how I tell you about my own understanding of the truth of God.

The Maturing of Truth

Although it’s now over 5 years old, I’m posting this sermon – my very first – for a couple of reasons. The immediate reason is so I can share some of the ideas in it with a friend in an online conversation we’re having. I had thought I would just link to it on the website of Northside Presbyterian Church, where I preached it, but it seems they have taken down most of the sermon archive, at least anything older than a year. Which leads to my second, perhaps vain, reason: I had expected it would always be there for people to read, or to find in search engines. Since it’s not, I suppose I’ll have to take care of my own immortality.

As is usually the case for junior assistant amateur preachers, I had my first preaching opportunity the Sunday after Easter (it was April 15, 2007), when most church pastors take some down time after the extended build-up through Lent and Holy Week to Good Friday and Easter. The standard Bible passage (“lectionary reading” in churchspeak) for that Sunday is the story of “Doubting” Thomas, the Disciple who insisted on seeing and touching the risen Jesus before he would believe that Jesus really had returned from the dead. (If you want to read it, it’s John 20:19-29.)

While I was somewhat contrarian in this sermon, I didn’t say anything particularly profound about Thomas and his doubt. But I still think the mytho-historical part – which starts about one-third of the way down – is, if not profound, at least thought-provoking.

Without further ado, here ’tis.

The Maturing of Truth

Poor Thomas! To be called Doubting Thomas down through the ages – when the last of his words reported by John are, “My Lord and my God!” What a heartfelt affirmation of belief! Y’know, the other disciples weren’t necessarily any more willing to take the Resurrection on faith. Our gospel reading today tells us, Jesus appeared out of nowhere in a closed room, greeted them, showed them His hands and His side… “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Having seen all that, they believed – they knew – that their understanding of what is True – their understanding of what is capital-T True – had just undergone a radical change.

Thomas wasn’t there at the time. Maybe he was still lost in grief. I mean, he was arguably the most devoted disciple.  In the Lazarus story, in the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus said, “Let’s go back to Judea. Lazarus is dead. Let’s go to him.” Most of the disciples said, “What!? Just recently they tried to stone you there! And you want to go back? Master, are you nuts!?” Or words to that effect. At that time, it was Thomas who said, “Let us go with him. And let us die with him.”

So, this loyal follower, Thomas: his teacher and friend has just been arrested, tortured, killed, and buried. We don’t know for sure where Thomas was that first Easter evening. But it seems pretty reasonable to think that he was grieving.

Then his friends come and tell him Jesus isn’t dead. It probably seems like a heartless joke: “No, really, we saw him.” Thomas says, “Fine. When I also see him, I will also believe it.” And sure enough, when he has the same experience as the other disciples, in the same place a week later, he does believe.

Now, if I were Chuck*, I would probably tie this into a book that he recommended to me – and some of you have read too – Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. It’s based on some major 20th-century archaeological finds, and it tells us that there was quite a dispute between John – the writer of the fourth Gospel – and Thomas, who is portrayed there in a less than flattering light. I’m not saying John’s report isn’t the gospel truth. It’s just… well, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of the relationship between the author and the subject when you read something. But – I’m not Chuck, so this sermon isn’t about Elaine Pagels or The Secret Gospel of Thomas.

No. The point I want to make is that Truth – capital-T Truth – evolves, or matures. … That’s not exactly it, of course. I think… without getting too deep into Plato, I think I can say that most of us agree that it’s in the nature of Truth that it doesn’t change. It’s our understanding of Truth that evolves and … matures. And I don’t mean that just for each individual. For humanity as a whole, the understanding of Truth matures and develops … though not every individual person experiences the exact same development at the exact same time.

Now, I want to set John’s gospel aside for a moment, and kind of tell our story in a more abstracted form. Leaving personalities out of it, the essence of the story of the divine and humanity goes like this. The title of the story is:

The Death of the Deity

The Deity – the Divine One – is seized, humbled, humiliated even – is taken by death – and descends into the underworld (hell, Hades, Sheol, whatever) – the land of the dead. The Divine One?? Dead?? How can this be? What will happen to us now?? Darkness covers the land. Time seems to stand still, as three times, the earth goes around. Nothing changes, nothing grows or develops. But then, just when it seems all is truly lost – a miracle! God returns from the dead! New life for the world! Rejoicing fills the air!

Now, let’s fill in the details of the story. The fertility goddess Inanna is the Queen of Heaven and Earth… Oh, did I mention that this story takes place in ancient Sumer, about 5000 years ago? At least, the oldest known written form of the story – cuneiform on clay tablets – dates back that far. The story is probably much older. OK. The fertility goddess Inanna is the Queen of Heaven and Earth, but not of the Underworld. The Queen of the Underworld, the realm of the dead, is Ereshkigal, Inanna’s sister, and Inanna decides to go visit her. The guardians at the 7 gates of the Underworld, acting on Queen Ereshkigal’s orders, make Inanna strip as she descends – one garment or piece of jewelry at each gate – because anyone, even the Queen of Heaven and Earth, must be naked, humbled, even crouched down to be admitted to Queen Ereshkigal’s presence. And then, as soon as the two meet? Ereshkigal kills Inanna, kills her with one look from her eyes of death; then hangs her body on a nail, where it proceeds to decay. Inanna is truly dead. In her absence – in the absence of the fertility goddess – the earth is barren. Nothing grows. As Queen, Inanna has sort of an executive assistant goddess, Ninshubur. When Inanna has been in the Underworld for three days, Ninshubur, fearing the worst, organizes a rescue mission. Keeping this long story short, suffice it to say that Inanna’s rotting corpse is recovered, she is restored to wholeness and life, and returns to her realm of Heaven and Earth, more powerful than ever. And, the Earth’s fertility is restored. New life for the world.

Or, how about the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, which dates back 3000 years or more, putting it between Inanna and Thomas. (Yes, I haven’t forgotten Thomas.) Demeter is the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Persephone, also a goddess – a young-woman goddess –  is Demeter’s daughter. Sweet, innocent, virginal Persephone is out picking flowers with her friends. She gets just a little ways away from them, and BOOM! Hades, the god-king of the Underworld swoops in, his golden chariot drawn by black horses, and he snatches Persephone. Her screams are in vain as the earth opens up before them, and the chariot disappears into the Underworld, the land of the dead. Now – Hades is in love with Persephone, and he shows it in those peculiar ways that some men still show their love. He kidnaps her, rapes her, and marries her; he makes her his queen, and his prisoner. Meanwhile, Demeter, being a good Mom, wanders around for days, frantically trying to find her daughter. When she finally finds out what happened, she demands that Zeus order Persephone’s release. Zeus demurs. Demeter – goddess of fertility – withdraws her favor from the land, and the world becomes barren. After three years, Zeus relents. The best deal he can make with Hades, though, is that Persephone may only be with her mother for 9 months of each year. The other three months she must spend in the Underworld, as Hades’ Queen. During those three months, Demeter, grieving, brings cold and barrenness to the land again. When Persephone is restored to her mother each spring, Demeter makes the earth fertile once again. New life for the world.

Before I tell you what my point is, let me tell you what my point is not. I am not saying that the story of Jesus of Nazareth is just another Death of the Deity story. I don’t see it as derivative. And I certainly don’t hold with that cynical school of thought that trivializes Christianity by saying that Christianity expropriated the pagan stories and rituals as a way of getting the simple folk to go along.

What I am saying is that our understanding of Truth develops and matures, just as each of us individually, and all of us as humanity, develop and mature. It’s like kids. My younger daughter, Emily, is 7 years old. She’s inquisitive and bright and all, but her ability to comprehend capital-T Truth is of course more limited than her 25-year-old sister’s. And Christine, at 25, though she has a much more mature understanding of Truth, it’s still more limited than, say, that of my Mom’s daughter.

So with humanity as a whole. The Sumerian understanding of the relationship between God and humanity 50 centuries ago seems primitive, child-like, to us today. Greece 30 centuries ago may have had a more developed understanding of that relationship, but from here, we can see that it, too, is not fully mature. It’s not that they or the Sumerians had it wrong – or should I say, it’s not that we had it wrong 3000 or 5000 years ago. It’s the same God, the one and only God, revealing the same Truth to us. It’s we who have changed – we’ve matured into a species who can understand that one Truth in more sophisticated, more subtle, more complex ways.

You can see this progression, this maturing, in today’s scripture readings, too. Writing in the centuries before Jesus’ birth, today’s Psalmist’s understanding of God, and God’s relationship with him, and with his life and death, is more sophisticated than what we find in the Sumerian and Greek myths. It’s also a much more literal – less mature – understanding of these relationships than the disciples had post-Easter. The exact origins of Psalm 118 are not known for sure, but apparently, the Psalmist has just emerged victorious from a military battle that had looked hopeless. That – rather than the disciples’ or our understanding of Christ’s resurrection – surviving that battle is what he’s talking about when he says, “I shall not die, but I shall live…. The Lord…has not given me over to death.”  He’s telling us his understanding at that time of Truth, as God has showed it to him.

Now, I told you I’d get back to Thomas. The Doubting Thomas story is a snapshot of a moment in time – that week between when most of the disciples grew into their new belief, their new understanding of Truth, and when Thomas did. John may have had his reasons to portray Thomas’ slightly slower development as a character flaw. But the Lord didn’t put Thomas down for it – the Lord knew that Thomas’ faith just wasn’t mature enough yet to believe without seeing, and so, He gave Thomas the visible signs that Thomas needed. And, yes, He also gently admonished him to try to continue growing – maturing – in his faith, in his understanding of Truth.

And in Revelation, John of Patmos, within the limits of his own first-century understanding of Truth, John is trying to convey, trying to describe something that even we, in the oh-so-mature 21st century, can only comprehend the dim outline of. It’s like saying, “There’s no easy way to explain this. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

The obvious lesson for a bunch of liberals to try to draw from this is that we are more mature than those other folks, who just haven’t caught up yet in their personal growth. But that attitude is itself immature, like the kindergartner who calls the toddler a crybaby. If we want to follow Christ – and I do – “Follow me” was both the first and the last thing he said to his disciples according to John – if we want to follow Christ, we are called to follow his example in the Thomas story – reach out to people where they are; lovingly show them – in their terms, not ours – show them our understanding of Truth; and so help humanity to keep growing in faith. Amen.

*Chuck Booker-Hirsch was the pastor of Northside, the preacher for whom I was substituting.

Mythic Scripture

 

Minister: The Word of God for the people of God.
People: Thanks be to God.

 

No. The Bible is not the word of God.

There. I said it.

That’s not a remarkable claim, though, until I add this:

I am a Christian.

Gasp! How can that be? Don’t all Christians – evangelical, liberal, orthodox, progressive – believe that the Bible is the word of God? The answer is “no,” and I am Exhibit A.

I’m a Christian, and I know that the Bible is a collection of words written by human beings. Not human beings taking dictation from God, nor even human beings so filled with divine inspiration that the words they wrote are effectively the word of God. Just plain human beings.

In order for these two claims – that I am Christian, and that the Bible is not the word of God – to make sense together, I have to answer two questions: What do I mean when I say I am Christian; and what is the Bible to Christianity if not the word of God?

First, being Christian means believing in God. This is not the place to go into detail of what I mean by “God;” suffice it to say that it means what most people think it means in the general way: God is an “other,” not a human; God is the ground of being, the creative force behind the existence of all that is; God exists spiritually – that is, beyond the constraints of ordinary matter and energy; and finally, people experience God’s existence – and not just with their five senses and their minds, but also by some other means, a means that may be difficult to put into words, but one that is nonetheless real.

Being Christian also means believing that Jesus is Christ – that the man Jesus, described in the Bible, was anointed by God to teach and to lead in God’s name. Jesus is the Christian’s consummate prophet. Even more, a Christian believes that Jesus was himself divine.

Finally, being Christian means believing that God calls people through Jesus Christ to a new way of life. The only rule governing this new way is “love God and love other people.” More specifically, the call is not merely to feeling love, but to acting with love in every part of life.

I call myself a Christian because I believe all of these things.

~ ~ ~

The answer to the second question is more complicated, but can be summarized simply: the Bible is not the word of God; it is an ancient mythology, created and written down by people over thousands of years.

That’s right. I said the Bible is mythology.

Am I saying it’s a fairy tale?
No.

Am I saying it’s pagan in some sense, like Greek or Norse mythology?
No.

Am I saying it’s merely a collection of entertaining stories, with nothing to teach us today?
No.

Am I saying it isn’t true, that it’s not sacred?
No, and absolutely no.

In fact, I’m saying that the Bible is true, it is sacred, and it has much to teach us today.

Myth is deep truth about God and humanity, expressed through story because there’s no more direct way to express it. Other forms of speaking truth are limited to declaration and logic, addressed to the conscious mind. Story offers metaphor, dream, symbol, allegory, and so many other ways of expressing its truth. This is what allows story to communicate directly with the unconscious, the deepest layers of instinct, emotion, and spirit. This deepest communication of deepest truth is what makes mythology sacred.

The Bible is the sacred myth in our cultural heritage.

How could it be otherwise? God is not just a person, in the sense that each of us is a person. God neither exists nor is experienced as a mere logical construct. We can talk about God only in this mythical way, which may seem indirect to our rational, everyday minds, but is in fact a much more direct way to reach the inmost layers of who we know ourselves to be.

Ultimately, to say that the Bible is myth doesn’t diminish it – far from it. This understanding of the Bible as a story created by people at the dawn of human time, passed down through unimaginable generations, across vast distances, and into the deepest levels of the human spirit leads us to see it as more powerful, more meaningful, more sacred than it could ever be if it had been just dropped, immutable and complete, from the sky.

~ ~ ~

The Biblical mythology is the one that speaks to us Christians. It is the primary source that teaches us about the meaning of the beliefs outlined above. Our sacred myth is a way of talking about God and our human selves, about who God is and who we are.

If we pay attention to the mythic story the Bible is telling, rather than how it tells the story, it teaches us about our relationships with God and with one another. The Bible, especially the story of Jesus, teaches us that divine and human can exist together in the same being. The Bible teaches us moral values: awe, honor, respect, love, and more. It teaches us the ethics through which we live out these values: give what you own but don’t need, to those who do need it; keep your promises; give of your heart to comfort those whose hearts are broken; don’t hurt people to get what you want, yet stand up bravely against those who would hurt others. And above all else, our sacred myth teaches us to reciprocate God’s love for us, to trust God, and to deserve God’s trust by actively loving one another.

That’s what it means to be Christian, and that’s what our mythic Scripture means to Christianity.

What’s Theology Got To Do With It?

I first wrote this as a comment for a discussion thread in a group I belong to (the group is the ordained and in-process clergy of the Progressive Christian Alliance). The discussion was about how important theological conversations are as part of our Christian community. Some high-powered Ph.D.-type folks will submit posts that send me scurrying to Wikipedia for an hour. Others, often working ministers, will suggest that – at least among us clergy and maybe-someday-clergy – theological discussions are fun, and have their place, but what we really need to be talking about among ourselves is the practical stuff: how to plant a church, how to feed the hungry, how to fight on behalf of oppressed people, and so forth.

I have my own thoughts on the topic, and as most people reading this know, I’m not shy about expressing my thoughts. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get all adversarial in the online group, sounding like, “I’m right, so Rev. XYZ is wrong because he disagrees with me, and Rev. ABC is partly right because she partly agrees with me.”

Ew. Ick.

So I tried to just say what I feel, and this is what I ended up posting:

I suppose this will sound like I’m agreeing with someone or disagreeing with someone, but that’s not my intention. Read that into it if you want, but really, this is just me, speaking from the heart.

My own call – or maybe it’s more of a dream than a call – is to reach out to people who feel rejected by the church, or by God, or by Jesus, and help them find a way to understand God that lets them believe, and to feel safe doing so. I guess the big churchy word for this is evangelism, although as one raised Unitarian and currently Presbyterian, I’ll admit that the word doesn’t roll – never has rolled – readily off my tongue.

I came to my own faith in mid-life, and it’s been a source of such joy and comfort and inspiration for me that I want to share that, because my hope is that maybe, just maybe, there will be less pain in the world if I do. I’m more empathetic than perhaps is good for me, so I feel the pain in so many others whose paths cross with mine. Part of that is spiritual pain, and I want to help alleviate that.

Of course I know that God calls us to physically help the hungry, the oppressed, the poor. And of course I know that having enough to eat, and being treated decently by others, and keeping warm in the winter go a long way toward relieving pain. To talk about helping people find a relationship, or a closer relationship, with God, is not to dismiss talking about boots-on-the-ground service work.

It’s just that I believe that spiritual healing is important, too. For me, that has meant finding a radically new way to understand faith, God, the Bible, and Christianity itself. I had to tear down almost everything I “knew” before I could start building – or maybe I should say before the Spirit could start building – a life-encompassing, life-changing faith.

But maybe I’ve got it wrong. My spiritual discipline this Lenten season has not been to give something up, but to re-examine this sense of call that has had a hold on me for the past five years — not necessarily to answer all my questions (it’s only 40 days!), but to at least discern a direction, to get un-stuck. I’m in the Presbyterian ordination process, but maybe I’m not called to be a Presbyterian pastor after all. I’ve had the application for ordination in the Progressive Christian Alliance for months, but maybe I’m not called to ordained ministry there either. Maybe I’m not called to ordained ministry at all. Maybe this whole idea of “evangelism” (I can hardly believe that it’s me using that word) is on the wrong track. Maybe what God really wants me to do is to simply work to support my daughter, worship with a congregation, and spend the rest of my time volunteering at the food bank or the homeless shelter.

My point is that I don’t know how to help people find God without theologizing. I don’t know how to bust people loose from the old, broken Christian theologies without knowing what I believe, and how to express it. But maybe theological thinking is the wrong tool for the job. Maybe I just need to be a shining example of Christianity in action, so that people can see that faith isn’t a bad thing, that it’s even a good thing, and in that way, draw them in.

Either way, I’m grateful to have safe places to hold theological discussions, or even discussions of whether theology is necessary. I hope I’ll continue to find those places.

A Christian Offers a Unitarian Christmas Devotional

Christian though I may be today, it’s not how I was brought up. Well, unless you go back to the grade school years, when we attended the local Methodist church semi-regularly. But during the 60’s, my formative middle- and high-school years, I was raised Unitarian. The former pastor of my current Presbyterian church still delights in calling me a “lapsed Unitarian.”

In the past couple of years, some conservative commentators have tried to start a controversy that they dub The War On Christmas. While there are no uniforms, the enemy is readily identified by their use of the greeting “Happy Holidays.” After all, if you don’t say “Merry Christmas,” it proves that you are intent on subverting the True Meaning Of Christmas, and that you’re a persecutor of Christians.

Not surprisingly, this extremist viewpoint has led to a considerable backlash in our pluralistic culture. At first, the Happy Holidays sayers defended their words as a way of expressing warm wishes not only to Christians, but also to people of other faith traditions, or even no faith tradition.

This defense has been insufficient to dislodge the Christmas Warriors from their hardened position, so now this seems to be the year of the counterattack. It is taking the form of a Facebook meme along these lines: “When you say you’re angry at me for saying Happy Holidays, that makes me angry at you. Don’t you know that people celebrated the winter solstice long before the Christian church co-opted the holiday in an effort to win more converts? If you’re going to be that way, just un-friend me now.”

The whole thing makes me sad.

I don’t want to celebrate the emergence of light from the darkness with a war, not even a verbal one. There can be no winner; as soon as we start framing it in terms of who’s right and who’s wrong, who wins and who loses, we’ve already missed the point.

It turns out, though, that the whole dust-up reminded me of how we celebrated Christmas when I was growing up. Part of our family tradition was to read the sacred story together on Christmas morning at the breakfast table, before we ever went into the living room to see the tree and the presents.

As far back as I can remember, we would read the first twenty verses of Luke 2 together, each of us reading in turn. Then in 1962, a couple of years after we started attending the Unitarian church, Nick Cardell, the minister, gave our church and my family the gift of a Unitarian Christmas devotional. Starting then, my family read this devotional each year, right after the traditional story in Luke.

It’s Unitarian, so of course it’s not phrased in exclusively Christian terms; yet it honors and affirms the sacredness of the Christmas story. For me, its universality transcends, and triumphs over, today’s battle of the season’s greeting.

I lost my copy long ago, so I called my Mom to see if she still had it. Of course she did; Mom’s a retired librarian. Her copy is on paper, but rather than ask her to scan it and e-mail it, I asked her to read it to me on the phone, as I entered it into my computer. My eyes misted over as I typed, as they do every year when I hear the sacred story. Now I offer this Unitarian Christmas devotional as my gift to you. May it brighten your days in this Advent time of gathering darkness.

(A brief stylistic note: a product of its times, the devotional is not expressed in gender-inclusive language. I have chosen to present it in the form that I know it from childhood, though I certainly encourage you to translate it into the form of expression that makes it most meaningful for you.)

A Unitarian Christmas Devotional
Nicholas C. Cardell, 1962

Since men first began to have faith in the regular cycle of the year, winter has symbolized not only an end to things, but a new beginning too. It became a reminder of the hope of spring that always lies just beneath the cold and desolate-appearing surface of things.

Man has discovered that there have been many beginnings: beginnings of stars and systems, of planets and life; the beginning of a life each time a child is born. But of all these, the most wondrous and fertile beginning in the family of man was the birth of human love, and with it, the genesis of a dream – the dream of “love as God” over all the world of man.

In each of our lives the dream lives on, and from time to time we incarnate the dream – it becomes flesh and dwells within our lives, full of beauty and truth. And every year we celebrate the hope of its full fruition; of its pure perfection. We honor the birth of a child named Joshua, whom men call Jesus, born we know not when, in a year we choose to call the year One — another new beginning. We know that, as we celebrate that imagined, guessed-at day, the dream is reborn in every infant child. For each one is the hope of the world, a prince of peace. We say Merry Christmas on that could-be day of Jesus’ birth, and celebrate it as if it were also the long-before beginning of the dream.

In the beginning man said, “Let there be love in this life,” and there was love, and man saw that love was good, and there were Buddha and Jesus, Gandhi and Schweitzer; and that was only a beginning – the first day.