The Comforting Illusion: Lifting the Veil on Organized Religion
– by Greg Bentall
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So much of popular religion is simply a collection of ancient superstitions and old campfire stories. Even Pope Francis has told the Church that God is not a “wizard,” and we need to stop thinking that God is a magical being. God is not our ever-present personal nanny, or “fairy godmother,” whose task is to comfort and protect us, and to shield us from any danger, discomfort, or disappointment. We need to live peacefully with those whose faith is different than ours. We cannot and must not impose our religious beliefs upon others.
The Bible is not a book of magic. It contains no magical incantations or secret codes. It is the collected saga of the Judeo-Christian community compiled through the ages.
We need to mature in our faith and in our theology. Old ideas, such as the burning of witches, the Inquisition, the crusades, or colonialism are no longer acceptable. Fundamentalism is the primary obstacle to a mature and enlightened faith.
This book explores religion from a rational, 21st Century, scientific worldview. It incorporates our current scientific understandings and pursuits. The study of the Universe and the use of reason are human faculties that are precious and enlightening, and which must not be abandoned at the door of the Church.
Our goal in life is not to appease an angry god. Rather, the purpose of our respective lives is something that we discover in our spiritual journey. Each one of us has the freedom to pursue his or her own individual spiritual path. We must also grant that same freedom to others whose path may have taken them in different directions from our own.
This book also deals with the current turmoil of politics driven by religious forces. It covers the current culture wars and their effects upon our body politic. It emerges from the intersection of faith, science, and government.
The book deals in depth with about twenty separate topics related to faith, science, governance, and religious practices, and yet merges into an organic whole. I have tried to give the readers insight so that they can make intelligent choices on the spiritual path that best meets their own personal needs and aspirations. It requires that the readers eschew fanaticism, supremacy, and any hostility to those who may have chosen a different path from their own.
When Religion Turns Toxic
When religion turns toxic it can become one of the most destructive forces on the planet. Whether we are talking about the Crusades, Mayan human sacrifice, the Inquisition, the genocidal conquest of the New World, the KKK, the Salem Witch Hunt, Islamic terrorism, or the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, we are talking about hatred justified by religious fanaticism.
Of course not all religion is toxic. There are beautiful expressions of faith that can have world changing effects upon both believers and those whose lives they touch. There are religious beliefs and practices that transcend our ordinary existence, and make us one with the divine, the cosmos, the world in which we live, and our fellow travelers on this journey through life.
Think of Jimmy Carter building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Think of the gentle spirituality of the Dali Lama. Think of Albert Schweitzer, or Saint (Mother) Teresa of Kolcata giving their lives to serve the poor. Think of the divine transcendence of taize worship, wherein Christians and even non-Christians of diverse tribes come together to focus on the God of all. Think of the Baha’i faith, with its nine doorways of enlightenment.
What is necessary then is to understand the signs of toxic religion and to prevent it from developing.
Humanity throughout its history, even its prehistory, has been organized into tribes. Tribes can represent bonds of kinship, race, ethnicity, nationality, lifestyle, religious sects, or other demographic groupings that give us our primary identity. As we are social creatures, tribes are essential to our existence. Our culture and language are of tribal origin. Our tribal membership is an overwhelming factor in how we live, act, think, and believe.
Our tribal memberships give us a place in our community, and this is essential to human life. But the downside of tribal membership is that it can separate us from those who are not of our tribe.
If your tribal religion causes you to hate another tribe then it is toxic. If your tribe is the standard by which all other tribes are to be judged then it is toxic. If your tribe proclaims superiority over all other tribes, then it is toxic.
True spirituality rejects superiority and embraces inclusiveness. It embraces curiosity and the desire to learn about the ways of other tribes. It seeks to understand all science, human behavior, and wisdom gleamed from diverse sources. A mountain may be climbed by many different paths, and yet it is the same mountain with the same summit. The path that we chose may be the favorite path of our tribe, well known by our tribe’s long history. We know each step and handhold from those who have climbed the path before us. But to really understand the mountain we need to know the paths others have climbed.
Absolutist religion is highly toxic. When a tribe believes that it possesses the truth, and that all other tribes are misguided infidels, then there is no room for compromise or even dialogue. The absolutist tribe is ready to punish or even exterminate those who follow a different path. Their opponents are demonized as godless, heathens, infidels. Even related tribes which share most of their beliefs with the absolutist tribe believe are still singled out for contempt that may lead to persecution. Intra-religious warfare between Protestant and Catholic Christians, or Sunni or Shia Muslims can be even fiercer than inter-religious rivalries. Sometimes it is hard to tell the Christians from the lions without a program.
Toxic religion seeks to control others. Freedom of religion begins with freedom from the religion of others. The fanatic believes that they alone speak for God, that they alone can interpret their tribe’s sacred scriptures, and that they have the right to rule over others even by force of law. Those who most demand obedience to the sacred scriptures seem not to have even read them!
The fundamentalist always begins by expounding on the authority of the scriptures. And after doing that, then begin to spout off about their own personal beliefs and prejudices. “Yoga pants are a sin!” That one is a comic example, but others are utterly toxic. “God helps those who help themselves!” says no scripture ever. “Life begins at conception.” The ancients had no notion of conception whatsoever. They knew that a man could plant a seed in a fertile woman that would occasionally lead to new life. But reproductive biology was well beyond their ability to understand.
A serious read of the Christian gospels reveals that Jesus spent a lot of time and energy disputing with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were part of the religious right of his day. These people were hyper religious, self-righteous, fanatical control freaks that somehow believed that they alone could interpret the scriptures or to speak for God. Jesus preferred the company of Roman tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.
Living in Fantasy
If you fail to understand the world through scientific eyes, you will wallow in superstition and expend your energies trying to appease an angry god. We laugh at stories of primitive tribes throwing virgins into volcanoes to prevent eruptions. In truth the volcano is indifferent to human life, and the sacrifice of the virgin is both tragic and wasteful. Volcanism is the result of plate tectonics and not divine displeasure. Throughout our history, and even our prehistory, tribes have made sacrifices, even human sacrifices, to appease their angry gods. We need rain at the right times and in the right amount. We need fertile fields and abundant crops. Our ancestors needed seasonal animal migrations at their appointed times in order to survive. We feel powerless over the forces of nature that can bring storms or fair weather, abundance or starvation.
We may laugh at such primitive views of religion, but in fact we still practice them today. How many times have you heard that God is punishing us due to abortion or gay marriage? Such theories are the modern equivalent of throwing virgins into volcanoes. My standard reply to such absurdities is that if God did not smite the United States over chattel slavery or genocidal warfare against the Native Americans, we can be assured that God is not losing any sleep over gay marriage.
Others believe that God will protect us from all harm. Global climate change cannot happen because God will protect us! Nuclear war? God will prevent that from happening. Destruction of the ecosystem from the variety of poisons that we use to grow our food? God will feed us manna from heaven.
Those who are locked into an anti-scientific world view deny reality. They refuse to accept facts or logic or even common sense. They are sure that the religious mythology that they have been taught is the only way to view the world. Religious mythology becomes a closed loop system that proves itself true and everything outside its narrow bounds as false. It denies the very real and present dangers that threaten to destroy our civilization.
We can survive and even thrive as a species and a civilization but only if we learn to manage the Earth as trustees. We need to lessen the effects of global climate change, nuclear proliferation, pollution, poverty and hunger. We need to work at a sustainable economic system that provided food, shelter, potable water, energy, education, and health care for all of the Earth’s people.
The Christian notion of quickening
When does life begin? This one question has caused more turmoil than almost any other over the past several decades. Some would say that life begins at conception. Others would say that life begins at birth. People fight passionately about this issue. It is hard to strike any sort of a compromise. The belief systems of the two opposing sides have no common ground even to discuss the issue, let alone to formulate some sort of middle-way position.
There is nothing in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures that deals with the issue of when life begins. The science of conception was simply unknown to the ancients. Generally, if a man planted his seed in a woman normally nothing would happen. But on occasion, a baby would be born some nine moons later. What went on inside a woman’s womb was indeed a mystery, or perhaps even magical.
The Nicene Creed gives us insight into early Christian tradition. If only Christians could absorb the insight contained in this ancient creed and thereby find, not a compromise, but rather a common language and point of reference to discuss when life begins.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, Christianity was instantly transformed from a church of martyrdom and persecution into the established religion of the Roman Empire. Before this time there had not an opportunity for the church to come together and to formulate its common doctrine. In the early centuries the church was a persecuted, underground movement. Because of the martyrdom and persecution without, as well as chaos and confusion within, it had no time to stop and codify its message.
Now with the help and blessing of the Emperor, the Christian Church came together in Nicaea in 325 A.D. to begin its life together as the established religion of the Roman Empire. One of the treasures of this First Ecumenical Council was the Nicene Creed.
Contained within this broadly ecumenical creed is one small morsel that provides an early Christian perspective on when life begins. And that phrase is,
And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. (emphasis mine)
The reference to “the quick” refers to those babies that have become perceptively animated within their mother’s wombs. When a mother feels the first kick, the life force of the baby is asserting itself as a life form. Now, for the first time, the mother knows that she is carrying a child, as opposed to just some excess weight. The baby is now developed enough to make its presence known.
First there is an embryo developing into a fetus. The quickening marks the point of transition to a child in utero. With the quickening the child is now a full human being.
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:41)
There is an analogy to this point of transition contained both in Roman Catholic doctrine and English common law that says that a child under the age of seven is incapable of committing a sin or a crime. Before age seven the child is simply not aware of the moral implications of his or her action. For the child, attaining the age of seven marks a transition point. The child is now considered to be morally responsible for his or her own actions.
One could argue that the point of quickening, just like the age of seven, is an arbitrary boundary in a process of continuous development. And I believe that we would all have to agree to that assertion. However, as difficult as it is to set boundaries between one stage of development and another, we can all agree on at least the concept of boundaries. A nursing infant is surely innocent. With a six-and-one-half-year-old boy, or a seven-and-one-half-year-old child, we may well argue about his or her ability to know right from wrong.
The notion of the quickening at least gives us a framework and a common language to talk about when life begins. It may not be the most perfect border between fetus and child, but at least it gives us a starting point.
Quickening in the human child begins somewhere from the 16th to the 22nd week of gestation. This is four to five months, or nearly one-half of the way through the gestation period. This is literally a “middle ground” for our discussion of when life begins.
The Nature of miscarriages
There are approximately 4.4 million confirmed pregnancies in the United States in any given year. Of these confirmed pregnancies, approximately 900,000 will end in a miscarriage, or one in five. Another 26,000 babies will be stillborn. As many pregnancies go unconfirmed, and lead to unknown miscarriages, it is hard to estimate the actual percentage of miscarriages to live births. But estimates range from one in four to even one in three. (For statistics on miscarriages see hopexchange.com).
Miscarriages happen for many reasons such as the failure of the egg to implant, or implanting in the fallopian tubes. If the egg implants in the fallopian tubes this will cause an ectopic pregnancy that if left untreated will be fatal for both the mother and fetus. Other reasons for miscarriages include a lack of proper development of the embryo/fetus, and the health of the mother, including malnourishment.
When the religious right insists that full personhood begins at conception it does not seem to square either with Christian tradition or the science of conception. If full personhood begins at conception, then we should expect that all fertilized eggs develop successfully and emerge as live births. But this is not at all what happens in nature.
I believe it is more logical to consider a fertilized egg as an attempt at birth, an attempt with perhaps a 75% chance of success.
Quickening signals the beginning of viability in the fetus. It is a time when the fetus declares himself/herself to the world. It marks a transition from a lump of tissue to a developing person. A fertilized egg is little more than a genetic blueprint. It is merely an attempt to create new life. The developmental process is an arduous journey with many risks and unknowns.
I have become disillusioned with the Church. The right-wing churches preach ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and fanaticism. Each right-wing sect seems to have its own version of religious supremacy, claiming that God belongs to them alone. The progressive churches seem not to oppose the religious bigotry of the right-wing churches. Perhaps they are too worried about being “nice.”
Why is the progressive voice so silent? The progressive churches seem to have lost their message. They seem to have nothing worth preaching. I long for a progressive voice in the church that offers a faith worth living. I long for a progressive voice to match the great work of Rick Warren and his concept of a “Purpose Driven Life.”
But I cannot find anything close. That is why I have decided to take a sabbatical from church attendance, but not from religious commitment or spiritual discipline.
To my progressive colleagues in ministry I would ask, “What do you have that is worth preaching? How can you lead your congregation to a faith worth living? How do we share God’s love and the joy of the gospel with the world (Pope Francis’ Gaudete Evangelium)?” If I just want to spend an hour getting entertained and feeling good I can stay home and watch Animal Planet.
I have attended church religiously from since I was a small child until I hit age 61. During that time I attended church on average at least 50 times per year. In 1977 I became an ordained minister (I still am), and served the church as a pastor and then sixteen years as a regional church administrator handling finances across multi-state regions of a major denomination. I say this to support what I am about to say regarding church finances.
Most congregations are struggling financially just to keep the doors open. Please do not confuse the local congregations with the televangelists or the mega-churches that are mostly show businesses with salaries and expenses to match.
Average church members give something like 2% of their income to support their churches. Let us not quibble with statistics. Some members do much better and others not as well.
It is becoming harder and harder for congregations to survive. Membership and attendance has been falling since the 1950’s. There is no longer a vast army of stay-at-home-moms who can volunteer their time to run numerous church programs. Expenses keep rising for all purposes: utilities, maintenance, insurance, background checks to keep the children safe, computer systems and more. I would hate to see a church choir sing from photocopied sheet music violating copyright protection, or to see pirated software on the church computers. The two biggest costs of church operation are salaries and occupancy costs, leaving little for supplies and programming. Mission beyond the local congregation gets squeezed even more. This means that the churches have something like 2% of their budgets to feed the hungry, advocate for justice, empower the poor, and proclaim God’s love beyond their walls.
Now let us do the math. Suppose a family has an income of $60,000 per year. And, suppose it gives 2% or $1,200 to its church. The church then gives 2% of that amount, or $24 dollars per family for mission beyond its walls.
As I prepare my income tax return for 2014, I take stock of my annual giving. My wife and I gave a large amount given to our county’s food pantry network, Redwood Empire Food Bank. There was another large gift to Heifer International, a wonderful organization that combats global poverty through self-development programs. There was a large gift given to Planned Parenthood. This was done to support women’s health programs and family planning options. The right-wing of the church and the Republican Party have been waging war on women and families and their right to make their own reproductive choices. There was also a gift to our town’s transitional housing program, the Wallace House.
So, for this year and most of last year, our “church” contributions went directly to the poor and downtrodden. Not 2% of 2%, but more like 5% of 100% given directly to those in need. And, I believe that God is happy with us for this effort.
The Spirituality of String Theory
String Theory or its close cousin M-theory, with their ten or eleven dimensions, is a universe beyond our comprehension. Cosmologists are still struggling with its workings and what it means for our existence. The origin of String Theory was in trying to describe what happened before the Big Bang. Cosmology and theology are drawing ever closer together as both sides seek to answer such basic theological-cosmological questions as:
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
- Are there other worlds like ours?
- Why is there something rather than nothing?
Perhaps the most theological question raised by cosmology today is:
Is there a design for the universe, or is it simply the result of random chances raised to the billion-billion-billion-billionth power in some cosmic roll of the dice?
There are scientists of all stripes on both sides of this divide. Both sides can make elegant and impassioned arguments to support their positions.
The old paradigm of science vs. religion basically required that you had to choose one side or the other. Either you could check the weather forecast or pray for rain. Either you could believe that everything happens by the uncaring forces of random chance. Or, you could believe in divine providence.
In the old “normal-space” view of the universe, we were bound by the three dimensions of space plus one of time. We lived in a series of boxes divided by walls, floors and ceilings representing height, width and depth. Anything that did not fit into such three-dimensional boxes was simply not part of the normal-space universe and could be ignored.
But the three dimensions of normal-space could never capture all that was happening. For example, Chinese acupuncture seems to have no medical connection to our physiology. Perhaps a better way of stating that is that western medicine cannot make that connection. And yet acupuncture seems to be providing health, strength and vitality to its adherents. The skeptic could say that any benefit derived from acupuncture could be purely delusional, caused by wishful thinking or caused by the placebo effect. But let’s not be hasty.
Acupuncture involves the flow of a special energy called “qi “, which travels along meridians of the body. But these supposed meridians appear on any western anatomy charts. The literal translation of qi is wind, breath or gas but is often translated as life force. The equivalent word in New Testament Greek is pneuma, which means air or breath but is usually translated as spirit.
Visualizing String Theory requires the ability to think in paradox, where two seemingly contradictory ideas can be held together with a sense of deeper harmony. Paradoxical thinking requires a more expansive view of the universe than does our ordinary normal-space existence with its notion of certainty. Perhaps there is some efficacy to acupuncture, even if western medicine cannot understand it. This is neither to support nor deny acupuncture, but only to suggest that there is more going on in the universe than we can comprehend with our limited, normal-space thinking.
Perhaps the extra dimensions in String Theory give us the space to allow for dimensions of existence that we have previously thought of as magical, mystical, spiritual or religious. And, here is a radical thought. Perhaps String Theory not only allows for the mystical, but perhaps even requires it.
Energy conduits enter our homes to provide radio signals, electricity, clean water, natural gas, telephone service, Internet access, and a host of other connections to the outside world. These special conduits or channels enormously affect the normal-space boxes in which we live, and provide a host of special powers that would have been seen as miraculous even a few hundred years ago. This analogy may help us to explore the extra dimensions of String Theory. Perhaps one of the String Theory extra dimensions is a channel for qi, a force that we cannot access until we understand it.
As a Christian, and more specifically a Calvinist, I have always found the universe to be a sacred place filled with divine logos. “Logo” is Greek for “word” in standard New Testament usage. But it means more than just the spoken word. It also means order, pattern, or design. When we speak of divine logos, we are speaking about the divine order that pervades all things. It covers the birth of the universe, the mating habits of tsetse flies, the DNA molecule, the Van Allen radiation belts, the formation of the planets, and the life cycles of stars.
To perceive the divine logos in all things is to live in a spiritual dimension. And now, String Theory may allow such a metaphysical statement to be incorporated into an expanded view of the universe. Perhaps there is actually in the physical universe a place beyond normal-space where spirit dwells.
Pope Francis is a wonderful change for the Roman Church and represents a sea change in Church history. He is the first Jesuit Pope. The Jesuit Order was founded by St. Ignatius Loyola as a post-Reformation reform movement within the Roman Church, the “shock troops” of the Counter Reformation.
He is the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere. Since 40% of all Roman Catholics now live in Latin America, it is time that the Roman Church recognizes this new reality. Instead of yet another European Pope from a continent where the church is dying, we now have a pope from a land in which the Church is thriving and growing.
The Roman Church is a global communion. It must never again be just an Italian club, or even a European club.
The Roman Church can never be the “catholic” church until it comes to grips with the last six hundred years of history and admits that there are also Christians in the world who do not accept the Bishop of Rome as their Spiritual Sovereign. The word “catholic,” means “according to the whole.” The Roman Church is not the “whole” Church, but only its largest part of it. Let us pray that Pope Francis will recognize that fact even if his predecessor did not.
And while many of us non-Roman Christians do not accept the Pope as our Spiritual Sovereign, that does not mean that we will not support and pray for him in the leadership of the Roman Church. We can work with him if he is willing to work with us.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, known to his friends and his flock as simply “Mario”, is a truly humble man. In his former life as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he gave up his palace and occupied a small apartment. He gave up his limousine and depended on the bus or subway to get around. He had a profound sense of ministry to the poor, and is known for his saintly acts such as kissing the feet of AIDS patients.
The selection of the name of “Francis” is a stunner in its own right. Let us hope and pray that St. Francis of Assisi will indeed be the guiding force of this new era in the Roman Church.
Francis of Assisi was a humble man of God. He had no use for the church hierarchy and essentially managed to ignore them. Francis was too busy loving Jesus to worry about rank or status or power. Although highborn, Francis gave up all of his worldly goods so as not to be distracted in his spiritual pursuits. He is the patron saint of the animals and of the ecosystem. What a beautiful expression of God’s love as the world is presently in the worst extinction event in 65 million years.
May God bless and guide the new Pope. May he have a long and productive reign. And may he never turn from being a reformer of the Church, a servant of the poor, a genuine man of God, and a humble servant of the Lord.
THE ROMAN CHURCH AND MARITAL INTIMACY
If the Roman Catholic Church really wanted to strengthen marriage, as it says is does, the first step would be to allow married couples to make love freely and as often as they so desire. There should be no rules constraining that joyous intimacy and no fear of unwanted pregnancies.
A celibate priesthood cannot begin to understand the bonds of love that are created by the powerful and joyous encounter of marital intimacy.
The impact of lovemaking is vastly larger than its utilitarian function of mere procreation. If a married couple makes love an average of three times per week over forty years, they will make love six thousand two hundred and forty times (assuming that the predominance of those intimate embraces will have occurred in the couple’s younger years.). And from that love-making the couple will have produced an average of 2.1 offspring. This could best be understood as one successful conception for every three thousand joyous encounters.
I think of my current marriage. My wife and I married in our late fifties. We fell in love and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together in intimate partnership. There was no chance of procreation. There was some child rearing involved as I still had a minor child from a previous marriage, but that is a different issue. I cannot understand why the same opportunity should not be available for same-sex couples as well.
If marriage is only about procreation, then couples seeking to be married should be required to prove their fertility. And then, if there are no offspring within a certain time frame, i.e. five years, the marriage should be annulled.
As the church so erroneously believes that sex is to be reserved only for procreative purposes, it also prohibits any sexual expression for the single, the GLBT community.
Sexuality is God’s gift to us all. It is given to young and old, gay and straight, married and unmarried. How strange it is that a church would make the suppression of sexuality to be seemingly its highest aim. Should not the church focus its energies and its efforts elsewhere?
Should not the Church of Rome spend its spiritual capital where it could do more good? Are there not injustices to overcome? Is there not poverty and oppression? Is the world not filled with violence, and particularly violence against women? Are children not dying of preventable diseases, most of them water-borne do to a global lack of clean water and sanitation facilities? Is there not slavery and human trafficking in the modern world? Are we not destroying the planet by plundering its resources as if there were no tomorrow?
Does not the Roman Church have any better place to focus its time, energy and spiritual capital than in its futile attempts to restrain the expression of sexual love? The Roman Church continues to make itself more and more irrelevant as it continues its backwards march into the Fifteenth Century.
Today in Europe, there are more Muslims in the mosques on Friday nights than there are Catholics in mass on Sunday mornings.
Something has to change.
Paradoxes are common in both cosmology and in theology. Indeed, this shared quality demonstrates how these two seemingly diverse endeavors are really quite similar, if not two sides of the same coin.
A photon can act like either a wave or a particle depending on what is being tested, or what question is being asked.
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics both are needed to describe the universe, and yet these two views of the cosmos cannot live together in harmony. Relativity describes the very large, while Quantum Mechanics describes the very small. These theories clash in such arenas as black holes, where very large massed converge in very small spaces causing the mathematics to break down.
Matter can be thought of as frozen or congealed energy. The rock in your hand feels solid and permanent, but is really only a lump of frozen energy. And it is not permanent at all, but ephemeral. One common understanding of dark energy is that all atoms will be eventually ripped apart and normal, baryonic matter will be no more.
The speed of light is the cosmic speed limit, except that this speed limit does not exist for space itself. The theory of Inflation, first proposed by Alan Guth, requires that at the Big Bang space expanded vastly faster than the speed of light. This means that the universe is vastly larger than our horizon. We can see 13.5 billion light years in any direction, because that is the age of the universe and is as far back in time as we can see. But if we could stand at that horizon, we could see an additional 13.5 billion years further on. Our Universe seems to be paradoxically both bounded and boundless.
Even our Universe may not be all that there is. String Theory and M (or ‘Brane) theory suggest that our Universe is not alone. Rather, the image of our Universe is more like one soap-bubble among countless others.
Theology is impossible without paradoxical thinking. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Unless a believer can fully hold to these paradoxical understandings then they have not understood the incarnation and what it means.
The Holy Bible was written over some 1,400 years by hundreds of human hands. They represent many different viewpoints and cultural epochs. They record the spiritual saga of the Jews and the early Christians, written from a human perspective. And yet somehow there is divine inspiration to be found within.
The Universe was created according to the laws of science. It was formed from the Big Bang, evolved according to inflation, general relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, evolution, genetic mutation, chaos theory, random chance, fractals and a host of other scientific
principles, known and unknown. And yet somehow it was created by God and filled with God’s logos, or divine order that permeates all things.
A good example of this divine logos is the concept of fractals. Fractal math describes how large items can be structured by simple repeating patterns. The architecture of a leaf is a fractal pattern with cells and veins growing out of the repetition of simple patterns. The arrangement of the limbs and branches of a tree are also derived from fractal patterns. Fractal patterns can create vast and elegant constructions from a few simple codes. This coding can be computer code or DNA. Coastal redwood trees can grow to over 360 feet in height. One of the joys of living in Northern California is walking through forests of these giant trees that grow to form living cathedrals. And yet, through the miracle of fractal algorithms, the seeds of these magnificent trees are no bigger than a grain of rice.
John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Tradition, wrote that to study the creation is to study the creator. His words provided the theological foundation for all of modern science. Cosmology links science and theology.
We live in a Universe that is beyond all comprehension. And yet, the paradox is that we can learn to comprehend it. And that might be the ultimate paradox.
I wanted to share with you a statement by the blogger Rachel Held Evans. I love her way of reading scripture. Her blog can be found at www.rachelheldevans.com and is well worth checking out.
As an evangelical Christian, Rachel has shown light on some of the more ridiculous claims of fundamentalism. Particularly, she has shown very clearly how the fundamentalists have tried to usurp the Christian values discussion, and how they are trying to control our courts and legislatures in order to make their distorted values the law of the land.
10:00 PM ET
Editor’s Note: Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger from Dayton, Tennessee, and author of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.”
By Rachel Held Evans, Special to CNN
On “The Daily Show” recently, Jon Stewart grilled Mike Huckabee about a TV ad in which Huckabee urged voters to support “biblical values” at the voting box.
When Huckabee said that he supported the “biblical model of marriage,” Stewart shot back that “the biblical model of marriage is polygamy.”
And there’s a big problem, Stewart went on, with reducing “biblical values” to one or two social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, while ignoring issues such as poverty and immigration reform.
It may come as some surprise that as an evangelical Christian, I cheered Stewart on from my living room couch.
As someone who loves the Bible and believes it to be the inspired word of God, I hate seeing it reduced to an adjective like Huckabee did. I hate seeing my sacred text flattened out, edited down and used as a prop to support a select few political positions and platforms.
And yet evangelicals have grown so accustomed to talking about the Bible this way that we hardly realize we’re doing it anymore. We talk about “biblical families,” “biblical marriage,” “biblical economics,” “biblical politics,” “biblical values,” “biblical stewardship,” “biblical voting,” “biblical manhood,” “biblical womanhood,” even “biblical dating” to create the impression that the Bible has just one thing to say on each of these topics – that it offers a single prescriptive formula for how people of faith ought to respond to them.
But the Bible is not a position paper. The Bible is an ancient collection of letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own.
When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.
Nowhere is this more evident than in conversations surrounding “biblical womanhood.”
Growing up in the Bible Belt, I received a lot of mixed messages about the appropriate roles of women in the home, the church and society, each punctuated with the claim that this or that lifestyle represented true “biblical womanhood.”
In my faith community, popular women pastors such as Joyce Meyer were considered unbiblical for preaching from the pulpit in violation of the apostle Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”), while Amish women were considered legalistic for covering their heads in compliance with his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:5 (“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head”).
Pastors told wives to submit to their husbands as the apostle Peter instructed in 1 Peter 3:1, but rarely told them to avoid wearing nice jewelry as the apostle instructs them just one sentence later in 1 Peter 3:3. Despite the fact that being single was praised by both Jesus and Paul, I learned early on that marriage and motherhood were my highest callings, and that Proverbs 31 required I keep a home as tidy as June Cleaver’s.
This didn’t really trouble me until adulthood, when I found myself in a childless egalitarian marriage with a blossoming career and an interest in church leadership and biblical studies. As I wrestled with what it meant to be a woman of faith, I realized that, despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” from the Bible, any claim to a “biblical” lifestyle requires some serious selectivity.
After all, technically speaking, it is “biblical” for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, “biblical” for a woman to be required to marry her rapist, “biblical” for her to be one of many wives.
So why are some Bible passages lifted out and declared “biblical,” while others are explained away or simply ignored? Does the Bible really present a single prescriptive lifestyle for all women?
These were the questions that inspired me to take a page from A.J. Jacobs, author of “The Year of Living Biblically”, and try true biblical womanhood on for size—literally, no “picking and choosing.”
This meant, among other things, growing out my hair, making my own clothes, covering my head whenever I prayed, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church (unless I was “prophesying,” of course), calling my husband “master,” even camping out in my front yard during my period to observe the Levitical purity laws that rendered me unclean.
During my yearlong experiment, I interviewed a variety of women practicing biblical womanhood in different ways — an Orthodox Jew, an Amish housewife, even a polygamist family – and I combed through every commentary I could find, reexamining the stories of biblical women such as Deborah, Ruth, Hagar, Tamar, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla and Junia.
My goal was to playfully challenge this idea that the Bible prescribes a single lifestyle for how to be a woman of faith, and in so doing, playfully challenge our overuse of the term “biblical.” I did this not out of disdain for Scripture, but out of love for it, out of respect for the fact that interpreting and applying the Bible is a messy, imperfect and – at times – frustrating process that requires humility and grace as we wrestle the text together.
The fact of the matter is, we all pick and choose. We’re all selective in our interpretation and application of the biblical text. The better question to ask one another is why we pick and choose the way that we do, why we emphasis some passages and not others. This, I believe, will elevate the conversation so that we’re using the Bible, not as a blunt weapon, but as a starting point for dialogue.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rachel Held Evans.
- My Take: The danger of calling behavior ‘biblical’ (religion.blogs.cnn.com)
- A Year of Biblical Womanhood: The Long-Awaited Review (pinkbriefcase.wordpress.com)