Faith Demystified – Living Without Religion
I was admitted to the hospital recently. As part of the admittance process I was asked to state a religious preference. I surprised myself by saying, “None.” For the first sixty-one years of my life I participated in public acts of worship at least fifty times each year. I spent seven years in academic preparation for ministry, plus several more years after I was ordained. I spent 20 years as a pastor and regional church administrator. Religion has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. So why would I choose to claim no religious affiliation?
In recent years I have become increasingly unhappy with the Church. Calling one’s self a Christian today seems to indicate a belief in ignorance, bigotry, superstition, fanaticism, and self-righteous zealotry. There was a time when there were progressive voices in the Church that stood against the dark tide of this hateful fanaticism, but those voices have grown strangely silent. Never has it been so embarrassing, or intellectually offensive, to call myself a Christian. That does not mean that I am embarrassed to proclaim Jesus as Lord. I am only embarrassed to be in any way associated with the Church that seems to have lost Jesus all together. There seems to be no Christ in Christian. Those who thump the Bible the loudest seem never to have actually read it. The raw, unbridled ignorance is appalling. The arrogance is stultifying. The self-righteous zealotry is insufferable.
As I contemplated my choice of no religious affiliation at the hospital, I realized that I had made the correct call. What do I need with a religion? As I ran my mental checklist there was nothing that any religion could offer me.
I am aware of my own mortality and of my own health issues. I know that one day I will die, whether that death may come in fifteen days, or fifteen years. I do not believe that I will live twenty more years, and would not wish to do so unless I could be vigorous and productive. Until my death I will live every day. And then die without either sadness or fear. Life is not measured by its longevity. Many live long and useless lives, and die without ever having lived.
I do not need a priestly presence to utter magic incantations, or to perform symbolic rituals over me. For all such things are simply an illusion that gives comfort to the fearful. Life and death are so much bigger than these illusions.
I do not need a shoulder to cry on. In times of illness, loss, or despair I will survive and even thrive. I know how to be strong. I can find comfort without some religious illusion. Life is grand beyond measure. Even death does not dismay. There is nothing sad about death. It is the inevitable end of life. I do not need a grief counselor as there is no grief. And when it comes, death will be a remarkable experience.
I do not need to rail at the unfairness of life, for nothing in life is fair. We all have our obstacles. We all take our lumps. An old proverb says, “I complained that I had no shoes, until I saw the man with no feet
And most certainly, I do not need some hillbilly preacher to come and save my soul, filling my final hours with ludicrous superstition and ignorance in the process. I do not need to be manipulated into faith, or be forced into making a confession. I do not need to work some arrogant preacher’s checklist before I exit my life. Those who would save other people’s souls are nothing but scalp hunters. They think that they have the power over salvation or damnation. They think that they can work their magic with God and in doing so to earn their own divine reward. Surely these are the most arrogant and delusional of all “Christians.”
So spare me all of this religious nonsense. Let me go with a clear head and a sense of fulfillment that comes from a life well lived. Let me study science and all manner of human knowledge. Let me explore the cosmos and learn of its wonders. Let me read great literature and learn what it is to be human. Let me walk and talk with my fellow travelers as we make our way on this journey of life. Let me find God in the eyes of a friend or the face of a stranger. And together may we fulfill our lives.
Faith Demystified – The Root of Religious Discord
Religious discord comes from bumping into belief systems that do not match our own, however illusory our own systems of belief may be. When I was a pastor, there was a young woman who had been baptized and raised Presbyterian. She was marrying a Baptist and joining his church. The problem for me was not that she was leaving the church, the problem was that the Baptists required that she be rebaptized!
The Presbyterians have a view of baptism that made perfect sense to me. Children of believers are baptized as infants. In this baptism both the parents and the congregation vow to raise this child in the Christian faith. This baptism is an act of God, and not human will. In this act God claims the child as part of the community of community. Baptism in the Presbyterian Church is seen as complete and final in and of itself. There is no need to have the baptism “confirmed” when the child reaches the age of consent. We Presbyterians sometimes slip and talk about “confirmation classes” for adolescents, but only because that term is so prevalent in the broader Christian community. What we mean to say is that there are “commissioning classes” for adolescents which signify that the child is now ready to participate more actively in the life, worship and governance of the church. The one new right established at the time of commissioning is the right to vote and hold office in the church.
Baptists have a very different view of Baptism, and it clashes radically with the Presbyterian view. It is not that one side is “right” and the other side is “wrong.” It is just that these two sets of doctrine cannot mesh together.
To join the Baptist Church, this young woman was required to undergo a Baptist baptism. Presbyterian doctrine eschews any form of rebaptism, believing that the first baptism is sufficient for the believer’s entire life.
If this woman from my church did not undergo a Baptist baptism, she would be only a visitor in the Baptist church, and not a full participant. Baptist believe that only believer baptism, entered into by someone old enough to consent to the proceedings, is valid in the eyes of God.
Also, of course, Baptist use much more water than Presbyterians. Baptists generally practice a full body dunking, while Presbyterians simply sprinkle water on the head. I will agree with the Baptists that the very word “baptize” means to dip or dunk. But personally I do not believe that the amount of water used in a baptism is of any more significance than the amount of food consumed during communion, and a church does not need to spread a full meal in order to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
While I fully understood why this young woman needed to undergo a Baptist baptism, it pained me because it felt like it was a denial of her upbringing in the Presbyterian Church. It felt like the Baptists were saying, “Your whole spiritual life as a Presbyterian was not legitimate. Now you must start over as a Baptist, unlearn everything that the Presbyterians taught you, and learn our Baptist ways.” Let me be clear that this message was not coming from the Baptist Church, but playing inside me head.
In summary, there is nothing wrong with the Presbyterian notion of baptism, and nothing wrong with the Baptist notion of baptism. The problem is that when we try to combine them there are discordant notes and emotional turmoil.
As part of this discourse on religious discord, In all honesty I need to raise my personal disdain for the Mormon religion. I am a strong believer in religious liberty, and I would never want to constrain or harm another religious community. I would never discriminate against a Mormon or refuse to vote for them solely because of their religious affiliation. But my personal vexation with the Mormon religion is that it presents to the world a counterfeit version of Christianity. The Mormons have usurped our Christian language, our Christian symbols, our Christian music, and even our Christian sacraments. In places where Mormonism is strong, people confuse the two very divergent religions and hence fail to understand Christianity or its message. It does not help that the Mormons insist on placing the name of Jesus in that religions official title, with the words “Jesus Christ” made bigger than the other words. It feels like they are saying to all of Christendom, “Screw you! We are the real church!”
A good example of this religious divergence is how the Mormon religion practices baptism. The Mormon’s do extensive genealogical research. A large reason for this genealogical research is to create lists of people who are long dead so that these deceased may be baptized. When we hear “baptism,” this sounds like Christian baptism, but in practice this is something very different. Nowhere in the whole history or doctrine of the Christian Church does it talk about baptizing dead people. This is the kind of practice that causes me to say that Mormonism represents a counterfeit version of Christianity. On the outside it looks Christian, but when you dig deeper it seems anything but.
I will cite one more example of religious discord, this time related to Holy Communion (Eucharist). The Presbyterians believe in a free and open communion. Anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as their lord and savior are welcomed to participate. If I think in terms of rules and regulations for a moment, I might also add that the believer should have been baptized. Communion is an outpouring of God’s grace upon the assembled faithful. It is the Lord’s Table and not our own.
Whenever I am worshiping in a Catholic Church there is always a dilemma. I know full well that I am not welcome at a Catholic communion because, first of all, I am not a Catholic. The Presbyterian notion that the Eucharist is open to all of God’s people is shattered.
But furthermore, even if I was a Catholic, I would still not be eligible to participate in the Eucharist. I am divorced, and that is a disqualification. To be restored to the Catholic Church’s good graces, at least in the days before Pope Francis, it was necessary for a Catholic to first pursue and complete the divorce proceedings in the civil courts. And after that, the believer would need to appeal to Rome for an ecclesiastical annulment of the marriage. Such a process could take decades and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
And thirdly, even if I was a Catholic, and even if I was not divorced, there is still the issue of completing all of the pre-Eucharist requirements, such as attendance at Confession. There are sorts of things that need to be done in order for a Catholic to get his or ticket punched so as to be ready for communion. So, the Eucharist is not an outpouring of God’s grace, but rather a reward for loyalty and good behavior granted to Catholics in good standing.
Thus, the Catholic Eucharist turn on its head everything that I as a Presbyterian hold dear. Again, it is not that the Presbyterians are right and the Catholics are wrong. It is just that we have two different and radically divergent versions of what the Eucharist means. Normally, when worshiping in a Catholic Church, I will take communion because I believe in the Presbyterian rules which say that I am eligible, and because I want to share in the Lord’s Table with a larger group of Christians that are beyond my own community.
The sad part of all of this discord is that it really does not mean a thing. It is like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton exchanging insults instead of focusing on policies that actually matter. All of this is a great distraction that keeps the Church from being the Church. None of this is going to feed hungry children, rescue refugees, or free people held in human trafficking.
When the Church cannot come together even over such common themes as the sacraments, what hope is there to talk about science vs. fundamentalism, gay marriage, economic disparities, refugees, or reproductive freedoms?
This article has only dealt with discord within religious traditions. We have not even mentioned discord between various religions.
In short, religious beliefs can create a climate of discord. There are endless disputes over the minutest points of doctrine. There is the obsession with the details of symbolic acts that in reality have no importance. There is the doctrinal rigidity that says that my understandings are correct, and therefore yours are all wrong. Wars have been fought and gallons of ink spilled throughout Christian history just trying to define the Trinity.
Islam was born out of officially Christian territory. An important historical fact was that the nations of Islam generally rejected the officially sanctioned language used to describe the Trinity. Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet of God. But for the Muslim who could not call Jesus the “Son of God,” or embrace any sort of Trinitarian language, the only solution was to reject Christianity and start their own religion.
What Prayer is Not
Prayer is a very powerful tool, but few Christians understand much about it. Churches have not wanted to be honest about prayer. Rather, churches have spent their energy polishing the prayer illusion, often for financial gain. Most churches would no more give up the illusion of prayer than a casino would get out of gaming, or coffee shops stop selling coffee. The prayer illusion keeps churches in business, much to the loss of their members.
Before I can describe what prayer is I must first clear the decks and tell you what it is not. Prayer is not a way to persuade God to give you a better outcome. God is not your fairy godmother, not a genie in a bottle, not the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain. Praying for your Aunt Agnes’s gall stones will not heal her. This is not what prayer is about. It is not how God works. I am sure that many people out there will want to dispute this point. They will cite anecdotal “evidence” that God did indeed heal their Aunt Agnes. Many Christians prefer a comforting illusion over hard reality.
People are easily duped because they really want to believe. It is like when you see an advertisement for a new weight loss formula that guarantees you will lose 40 pounds in your first month. And you think, you have been fat your whole life and someone has finally come up with a solution! It comes with a money back guarantee so what can you lose except for your excess poundage.
But such a naïve and childlike understanding of prayer can also cause much grief and hardship. How do you explain it when prayer fails to get your intended results? In the same way, please do not say that God allowed your loved one to die. God had nothing to do with it. That is not how God works and it is not how prayer works.
There is a story about a man who attended many faith healing services. He noted that he had seen many crutches cast aside, but somehow no one ever cast off an artificial leg. The healer will tell you that if the miracle you are seeking has not happened yet it is because you have too little faith, or have not paid enough into the collection plate. The evangelist will happily give you these reasons as he strives to keep the frenzy going in order to line his own pockets and to advertise his great spiritual “power”.
Only a fool prays for rain when the wind is in the east. (Please adjust as necessary for your own climatological situation.)
This is the reality. Everyone dies. Everyone gets sick. Everyone faces endless tragedies and uncertainties throughout their lives. They lose their loved ones; they lose their jobs, they lose their money; they lose their health. Prayer will not change this, although it may make it easier for the person praying to cope with adversity. Aunt Agnes will not be healed through prayer, and therefore I would never pray for her healing. I do not believe in practicing deception or in polishing the illusion of the genie in the bottle that will come forth to grant three wishes. If you believe in that sort of God all I can say is, “Grow up!”
I will pray with and for Agnes and her family, but not to heal or to preserve her life. I will pray that the family is embraced by God’s love and feel God’s presence in their time of sorrow. Some might tell me that even that is an illusion. But it is a far different order than trying to command the fawning service of God.
There has been a long standing practice in church circles that it was possible to pray someone into heaven. If your uncle of dubious character passed away, one way to insure his place in eternity would be to endow a priest to say mass for your uncle every day. In this way, the priest received a stipend and your uncle just might spend less time in purgatory.
In the world of mega churches and televangelism, prayers can be bought. Some of these charlatans will encourage you to call their prayer line to pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones. When you call they might even say that they will pray for a particular fee. The less transparent “ministries” will simply use your prayer request as an invitation to include you in their fundraising campaigns.
There was a story of an elderly couple who attended a mega church run by a well-known televangelist. They were about to lose their house due to extreme financial difficulties. The preacher asked them to bring in their family budget and he would pray with them. When the preacher saw their budget he told them that there was not enough money in it for Jesus. They needed to greatly increase their contributions in order to prove their faith commitment. In this manner the shyster-preacher tried to scam the elderly couple out of their last dollar. And of course that dollar was not going to Jesus, but to the shyster and his own pockets and his “ministry.”
Prayer never changes God’s mind. You cannot bargain with God, and you cannot gain his support and attention by any form of prayer that you can think of. God does not barter.
Clergy prayers have no special powers. Prayer is not about making fancy speeches or magical incantations. Having the whole church pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones will not change the situation, although you and Aunt Agnes may receive support from your fellow worshippers through prayer. Impossible prayer is still impossible, no matter how much you gussy it up.
Prayer is not about the worthiness of the pray-er. It does not help to recite bible verses, use magical incantations, or flowery language. You do not need to “butter-up” God before you begin because God does not have an ego.
Prayer is not about directing God to do the right thing. It is not about calling for help so that God will notice your plight and then help.
God is not your handmaiden. Instead of holding on to this illusion to get you through times of trouble and stress – grow up and adopt a less infantile notion of God.
- Be as strong as you can.
- Be as knowledgeable as you can.
- Learn to help yourself, your family, and others.
- Learn what real, grown-up prayer is.
- Learn to accept life with all of its chaos and caprice.
- Expect turbulence and learn to swim in it.
- Realize that whatever happens, for good or ill, it is not about you.
- You are not the center of the Universe. You are thinking of God.
Grace is a high theological word. It stands for God’s love of all humanity. It stands for our salvation through God’s often unrequited love of us, and not through our own deeds or worthiness. Grace is the epitome of everything that is divine, loving and inclusive.
The reign of Joseph Ratzinger has been a disgrace in every sense of that word. Grace is a sign of God’s love and compassion to all God’s children. Ratzinger has talked trash to Christians of other Communions. He has asserted that Protestants are merely deluding themselves into thinking that they have “churches.” He has stated that Protestants have no “Church”, no legitimate priesthood, no sacramental ministry, and no hope of salvation.
He rather likes the Anglican Communion, and nearly accepts them as equals. Anglican Priests, even married ones, are welcomed into the Roman Church, and can even bring their wives with them. Apart from that, there is only one other Christian community that Ratzinger could reluctantly accept, and that is the Orthodox Communion. But, according to Ratzinger, the Orthodox Church still has one fatal defect. And that defect could be cleared only if Orthodox Communion would submit to the Bishop of Rome and accept him as its Spiritual Sovereign.
Ratzinger is the only monarch with absolute power. The world has grown and matured since the Fifteenth Century. But Ratzinger just does not get it. Ratzinger is thoroughly grounded in Middle Ages, and has marched backwards towards that future throughout his entire reign. He claims to rule by divine right, much like King James I of England. And this divine right extends not just over the Roman Church, but as spiritual sovereign over all who would call themselves Christians.
Let us pray that the new pope is cut of a different cloth. May the next pope not try to undo all the good works done by the Second Vatican Council, but rather rebuild the whole eucumene.
Despite his pious words to the contrary, he has done little if anything to clean up the mess caused by child sexual abuse in the Church. Rather than punish the perpetrators, he instead rewards them with high-level posts in the Vatican. Bernard Cardinal Law is a good example of such an elevation.
The government of Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See in response to this crisis, and Ratzinger’s handling of it. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny accused the Holy See of obstructing investigations into sexual abuse by priests.
John Calvin and the Reformed Tradition
The Reformed Tradition
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is one of the family of churches that trace their heritage back to John Calvin. John Calvin published his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion in Geneva, Switzerland in 1534. Calvin was a contemporary of Martin Luther, and shared many beliefs with him. But while Luther founded What the Germans would come to call the “Evangelical” movement, Calvin took a slightly different path, and founded what is called the “Reformed Tradition.” Churches in the Reformed Tradition include the Scottish Presbyterians, English Puritans who later split into Presbyterians and Congregationalists, Dutch and German Reformed Churches, and French Huguenots.
John Calvin was a great light of the Sixteenth Century. The Sixteenth Century was arguably the greatest century in human history. It was the age of Reformation. It marked the end of the dark ages in Europe. It also marks the birth of the Age of Discovery, and the final flourish of the Renaissance.
In Calvin’s day, the authority of the church sprang from fifteen hundred years of church tradition and the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Calvin’s theological work was based on a rediscovery of the Bible, and the development of modern theology and biblical studies. In an age when the typical Roman Catholic priest would be illiterate, Calvin taught himself Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, so that he could study afresh the scriptures of the Old and the New Testament in their original languages. He put his fresh ideas to the test as a pastor in Geneva, Switzerland, where he lead a community of faith that became the fountainhead of the Reformed Tradition.
Calvinism speaks eloquently to 21st Century Christians. Modern followers of Calvin are not antiquarians, but pioneers. Calvin’s issues from the 16th Century are not necessarily those of the 21st Century. Calvin is important to us not so much for what he believed, but rather for the way he taught us to think about the scriptures and the journey of faith. The Church is not a museum of ancient doctrines, from Calvin, or anyone else for that matter. Rather, the Church is a base camp on the journey of faith.
The motto of the Reformed Tradition is,
Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda
which translates as,
The Church, having been reformed, always being reformed
But Calvin did not confine his interests to the religious realms. He, like Leonardo da Vinci was a “Renaissance Man”, with broad interests. From this pivotal century in history, Calvin truly became the father of the modern (post 1500) world.
SOLA SCRIPTURA Calvin vs. Luther
One of the amazing theological concepts lifted from this study is that Calvin, even though he was a great biblical scholar, never limited his efforts to understand God to the Bible alone! Calvin always used every faculty and insight that he could discover in order to know and follow the creator. He never had his nose “buried in the Bible,” oblivious to the world around him. He could never engage in any form of biblical “proof-texting.” Revelation to Calvin included science, nature, logic, and the study of human behavior, all of which are part of the created order.
Calvin on the Natural Sciences
Calvin believed that humanity could understand the creator by studying creation. This was a radical notion at the time. Before Calvin, the world was seen as a spooky and unknowable place. Life was at the mercy of chaotic events and unseen forces, such as diseases and storms, none of which could be understood. Hence, pre-Reformation cathedrals often had gargoyles to protect the buildings and their occupants from evil spirits.
Calvin found divine order throughout the universe. To know that ordering of the universe was to know God. In this respect, Calvin gave the theological underpinnings for all of modern science.
The first great test of Calvin’s understanding of nature occurred when Galileo confirmed the hypothesis espoused by Nicolas Copernicus that the world revolved around the sun! and not vice-versa. The Roman Catholic Church branded Galileo a heretic and subjected him to house arrest. Galileo was officially forgiven for his “heresy” some 350 years later! Calvinists, however, understood that Galileo had discovered one of the divine mysteries of the creation, and thereby brought us closer to knowing the almighty Creator.
In 1859 Charles Darwin made his breakthrough discoveries that lead to the Theory of Evolution 1) . Since that time, backward thinking people in the church have condemned him for his discovery. Modern day Calvinist have embraced Darwinism and found therein another demonstration of the divine order of creation.
1) Note: When scientist use the word “Theory,” they do not mean some “guess” as to how the universe works. Rather, “Theory” means an established system or construct. Evolution is not a “guess” but a natural law. It has survived over 140 years of scientific scrutiny. Evolution is as real as gravity. There are many things we still do not understand about gravity, even after Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. But no one would argue against its existence.
SOCIAL SCIENCES Political science and Economics
Calvin on Democracy and Politics
For Calvin, the reformation was as much political as it was religious. Calvin refused to be dominated by tyrants, whether they be secular or religious. He opposed domination by kings, lords, and knights just as vociferously as he opposed domination by popes, bishops and priests. Calvin founded his church on radically democratic foundations. He wrote that the will of God is best discerned by people living together in community, studying God’s word and living out the Gospel together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is only is such a community of faith that divine truths could be discerned and tested.
Calvin wrote his great works on democracy, both civil and ecclesiastical, centuries before John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, or Thomas Jefferson. The American form of government was a civil expression of Calvinism, brought to this country by English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians. The Constitution of the United States is a grand expression of pure Calvinism.
Calvin on the Market Place
Calvin was fascinated by business and economics. He studied the market place and learned its laws. To Calvin, economic laws, such as the “time value of money,” or the “law of supply and demand” are simply part of the created order! He felt that economic laws were as solid and real as was the law of gravity!
He began with a study of “usury”, or the notion that lending money at interest was a sin. He differentiated lending money at interest for investment purposes from the truly usurious practice of lending money at interest to someone who was starving and needed food. He came to understand that money really does have a “time value”, and that interest charged is simply an expression of that concept.
Calvin for the Twenty-First Century
It is exactly such issues that make Calvin an excellent guide for the Twenty-First Century as well as the Sixteenth Century. In dealing with even troublesome issues, true Calvinists will open themselves up to all forms of secular knowledge, the natural sciences, social sciences, wisdom and intellect, as well as the scriptures, in seeking to understand God’s will as expressed in God’s creation.
For the Calvinist, the walk of faith is a pursuit of wisdom and understanding. We study the scriptures, but also avail ourselves of all forms of secular exploration. We study the universe and the human community as God’s creation. In knowing the creation we come to know the creator. We never claim to have captured the truth, but are continuously seeking new revelations. We use all of our faculties and intellect in the pursuit of Truth.