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Faith Demystified – The Root of Religious Discord


Faith Demystified – The Root of Religious Discord

church conflict

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.

DISORDER

 

 

 

Faith Demystified – Richard Dawkins and Atheism


Faith Demystified – Richard Dawkins and Atheism

Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin provided this photo of Richard Dawkins, author of `The God Delusion.’ (AP Photo/Houghton Mifflin)

Richard Dawkins is a world class evolutionary biologist. Lately he has been seen as one of atheism’s greatest proponents. In his 2006 book The God Delusion he contends that there is no god and that religious faith is a delusion. In the same year he founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Dawkins is a radical skeptic, and we need skeptics. Skepticism insures that science is always self-correcting. Without radical skepticism we would be continuously duped by all sorts of falsehoods.

Skepticism is also an antidote to the general puffery of religious doctrines. In religion there is normally no proof of anything. Believers are asked to accept religious teachings on blind faith, or to trust in “divine revelation.” Any doubt, even a healthy skepticism, is often described as a lack of faith. Typically, the faithful are not allowed to asked questions such as, “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” Asking a question like this is seen as an attack on biblical fundamentalism and therefore an attack on faith itself.

Dawkins skepticism is a great defense against uncontrolled religious puffery. And for that we should all be grateful. The only way to answer the question about Cain’s wife is to realize that the creation stories are mythological stories, and not the recounting of historical events.

Skepticism can be taken too far. Ultimate skepticism would be to not except anything without absolute proof. I cannot prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I would certainly expect that to happen. Spirituality begins with the concept that our reality is larger than our grasp. By contrast, Dawkins would say that if he cannot see, hear, or touch something it does not exist.

If I could have a chat with Dawkins I would share with him the following story. An astronomer images a galaxy using visible light. The image produced is real and indisputable. To Dawkins the galaxy is what is captured in that image, and nothing more. The part that Dawkins misses is that there is more to the galaxy that we cannot see in visible light. Images taken in infrared, ultraviolet, or radio waves would show a very different image, with more and different features and aspects of the galaxy. So, Dawkins original view of the galaxy in visible light is correct but not complete. There is more to the galaxy than the original image could depict.

What we see depends upon what filters we choose to use. One could say that Dawkins does not see beyond the mundane world because he lacks the necessary observational tools. Dawkins seems to be a reductionist, saying that the universe is this and no more. That reductionism is every bit as much a bias as is a religious conviction.

Modern cosmology describes a universe that is not only more bizarre than we know, but even more bizarre than we can imagine. Quantum mechanics tells us that a particle can be several places at once. M-theory tells us that there are eleven dimensions of space and time. Hawking radiation means that black holes actually evaporate. Dark energy says that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Under these circumstances a limited field of view means that we will miss much of what is happening. There is a lot of stuff going on out there that we do not understand.

There is more than one possibility in any circumstance. Light is both a wave and a particle. An electron can be several places at once. A storm can be both helpful and hurtful depending on whom you ask. The difference between a wildflower and a weed is that one is wanted and the other is not. Propositions can be true and false at the same time. We need to be very careful when setting the bounds of the universe that we do not leave out many things that do not fit into our reductionist preconceptions. The universe could be both created and non-created. The only difference may be in the filters that we choose.

On another topic I would also like to discuss consciousness with Dawkins. This is one of the frontiers between biology and spirituality. What is consciousness? We might also call this the self, spirit or even soul, although Dawkins would resist these words. Is our consciousness simply the electronic emissions of our gray matter, or could it be something more? Is consciousness something that could be captured and stored outside of the body? Could it be transplanted like a kidney? Imagine the possibility that a consciousness could be transferred from one body to another, or from a body to a computer chip. This is a question that needs to be answered in the near future.

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Faith Demystified- Our Place in the Universe


dalai-lama-science-buddism1

Demystifying Faith – Our Place in the Universe

We are born of the cosmos, and this is not some religious illusion. The iron in our blood and the calcium in our teeth were created in ancient stars that exploded as supernovae, spreading their chemical wealth across the galaxy. We are stardust, and to stardust we will return.

The philosophy of Aristotle, was born in the 4th BCE shaped our understanding of the cosmos for about 2,000 years, even though his cosmology was dead wrong. Aristotle taught that the world was and disorderly and corruptible, while the heavens were eternal and unchanging perfection. Human life as a product of earthly imperfection was then also imperfect and unworthy of the divine. I wish I could have had five minutes with Aristotle to point out to him, “Just look at the Moon and you will see scars!” Even the sun has scars. The heavens are not changeless and static. Rather, they are in a state of constant change that is simply too slow for human mortals to notice.

Aristotelian logic infected Christianity causing all sorts of problems. It created the sense of duality between the pure, spiritual world and the corrupt, physical world. Human sex is dirty, messy, and filled with raw emotions. If you want to birth a god you need to do it through virgin birth, wherein a maiden is impregnated through the ear by the Word of God. And of course, such a god born of woman would need to eschew sex in order to remain uncontaminated.

There is a vast chasm between out folklore about Jesus and his actual life. He may have been married to Mary Magdalene. The anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary in John chapter 12 is clearly a sensuous massage. If Jesus was a much of a prude as we envision him he would have rebuked Mary for offer. It is not beyond the realm of possibility once we discard the Aristotelian cosmology introduced to Christianity largely through the Apostle Paul.

The Hebrews had no such qualms about sex. The Promise Land was often described as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” which is to say breast milk and vaginal fluid.

We are not inferior to the Universe; we are the Universe. It has been said that the astrophysicist if the Universe contemplating itself. We participate in all of its majesty. We are born of stardust, carry the genes of trilobites, drink recycled dinosaur piss, and fuel our cities with dead plants and animals fermented deep underground for millions of years. We are a part of everything that we see, everything that we touch, and everything that we eat and drink.

When we die our flesh returns to the ground to fertilize new emerging life. In about five billion years our Earth will be gone, swallowed by the Sun as it evolves into a red giant. The atoms of our body, forged in stars and supernova explosions, will return to the stars. This is not a matter of religious illusion, but of scientific fact.

It is not just life that evolves. Planets must also evolve to support life. Earth began as a fiery hell in the Hadean period. As the Earth slowly cooled and stabilized, primitive life forms emerged, such as blue-green algae. Early life emerged in an anaerobic environment devoid of oxygen. These early life forms released oxygen into the atmosphere. About 400 million years ago there was enough oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere to sustain life as we know it. We humans are the product not only of the evolution of life, but of a 4.5 billion year old long process to evolve the Earth to sustain life.

Everyone on Earth is more closely related than we can imagine. The Toba extinction event of 75,000 years ago was spawned by a mega-volcano in what is now Indonesia. There were very few humans to survive this bottleneck in our evolution, perhaps no more than 2,000. The result is that all modern humans are descended from the handful of survivors from this event. In our genetic difference, which are mostly cosmetic, we all have a common ancestor from the not-to-distant past. The fact is that we are all cousins. We all belong together.

As Max Ehrmann described in the Desiderata, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

 

Faith Demystified – Prologue


Ghandi

FAITH DEMYSTIFIED

Prologue

The quest for faith is one of the strongest of all human urges. The oldest archeological sites contain evidence of religious awareness. The Neanderthals buried their dead, suggesting that they were aware of their own mortality. The quest for faith includes of the following categories and more:

  • What happens when we die?
  • The world is so big and we are so small. What is our place in the world around us?
  • How do we gain control over our own existence? How can we protect ourselves from forces of evil? How do we deal with the forces that we cannot control?
  • What is the meaning of life? Are we here just to survive to breed and die?

Religion is a human artifact designed to deal with those issues and questions. Questions of faith are truly beyond human comprehension, and so we fill those gaps with a comforting illusion. An organized set of these illusions is called a religion. Religion is an illusion designed to hide a very harsh reality. Illusion is not a bad thing as long as we recognize it as an illusion. The tooth fairy is not just some random nonsense. Rather, it is an illusion to soothe our children as they lose their baby teeth. Instead of mourning the loss of baby teeth, we celebrate it as a sign of growth and blessings.

Likewise, when a 12-year-old girl begins to bleed she might feel like she is dying. In response we create celebrations for rites of passage. We celebrate the passing from innocent childhood to sexual maturity and adulthood.  The reality is that the transition from girl to woman is filled with frightful consequences. Women through history (and prehistory) have been victims of:

  • Oppression and slavery.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Unwanted pregnancies.
  • The excruciating pain and risk of childbirth.
  • Reproductive health issues.

The transition from girl to woman is a terrifying, dangerous, and yet a most glorious event. The illusions created in rites of passage hide these harsh realities from view.

There is perhaps no more sophisticated example of religious illusion than that of a military funeral, or a visit to Arlington Cemetery. To see this illusion you must hold two video clips in your mind at the same time. On one screen, picture the Normandy Invasion. There is blood and body parts being thrown about by exploding ordinance. There is barb wire and machine gun nests and bodies exploding on the beach. There are young men being cut down in the prime of their lives. Many of these men will never hold a woman, or have a child. Their whole life is cut short by this hell on earth.

Now, shift your focus to the other screen. You will see soldiers wearing white gloves and fancy uniforms. You will see chrome polished swords and the finest marching that can be found anywhere. The soldiers form up and march with incredible precision. Each turn and heal click is precisely choreographed. Each participating soldier is physically perfect, strong, young, and handsome. You will not see tattoos, or facial hair, or pot bellies. The soldiers must meet strict height and weight standards. And you certainly will not see any one-legged soldiers there, not even those wounded in battle. The illusion of cleanliness, order, perfection, and precision at the Changing of the Guards ceremony is created precisely to deny the reality of the horrors of war.

The illusion of religion can become a problem when we forget that it is an illusion. Violence and hostility between various religious communities is often spawned by the “My religion is better than yours!” conflict. This conflict even occurs within religious communities, with Christians fighting with Christians of a different brand, or Muslims fighting against other Muslims for the same reason.  When we insist that our religion is the only right path then we will have inevitable conflict with everyone else. My personal experience with Buddhists is that they tend to be peaceable precisely because they realize that their own understanding is not undermined by someone else’s views.

Sometimes we can hold on to our illusions too tightly or for too long. When I taught my son to ride a bicycle he began by using training wheels. Training wheels are an extra set of wheels on the back of the bike that allow the bike to stand upright even when it is not moving. At first the training wheels help, but then soon become a hindrance. A bicycle, by its very nature, is designed to lean right and left. When a bike is up to speed it is not steered by the handle bar, but rather by leaning and tipping the bike.

The moving bike is held up by the physics of gyroscopic stability. The addition of training wheels makes it impossible for a bike to actually perform as a bike. Training wheels are for those bike riders who do not believe in gyroscopic stability. As my son would learn to ride the bike from the street, up a driveway, and on to the sidewalk, the training wheels would hit curbs and other obstructions and cause the bike to crash. Without the training wheels such maneuvers would have been easy. With training wheels these maneuvers became impossible. So the very training wheels that were supposed to hold the bike up actually caused it to crash.

There is much in the Christian tradition that is harmful and cause the same problem as training wheels on a bicycle.  It can be very difficult for some people to let go of their security blanket.

As a pastor much of my job was to support the Christian illusion. Many Christians think that the particular words of a ritual are magical incantations that have the power of a Harry Potter curse. At Christmas time no one wants to hear that Matthew’s Christmas story portraying the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi (three kings) is a total fabrication and tacked onto Matthew’s gospel by later editors. Such an acknowledgement would be like the loss of training wheels. The faithful turn to religion for security, certainty, consistency, and comfort.

As a pastor I had to polish the illusion; that was my job. But here I do not have that constraint. Here like the Masked Magician I will take you behind the illusion. I will show you what happens behind the smoke and mirrors. Here, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I will lift the curtain to show you that the wizard is just an ordinary mortal with a mastery of illusions.

I pledge to you my absolute honesty. I will not try to varnish the illusion, but to lift the curtain so that you may better understand its workings. I do not disparage religion, but only want you to understand how it works. My background is in the Christian religion. But the quest for meaning is a universal phenomenon. All religions share the same journey, each one by its own path.

{This is a prologue to a book I am planning}

A String Theory Vision: Chapter 2


String Theory

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.

THE PROGRESSIVE CHURCH DILEMMA


Troubled Church

Progressive churches are in a dilemma, caught between fundamentalism on the one side and secularization on the other side.  While progressives have dismissed any interpretation of the Bible that is based upon fundamentalism, it can be very hard to decipher what that post-fundamentalist message actually is.

THE MESSAGE

Recently I attended a United Methodist Church (UMC) that had an energetic outreach ministry to drug addicts, homeless people, and a host of others who were in various ways the outcasts of society.  I went to worship because I had heard good things if this incredible ministry.  But the “worship” service had little sense of worship.  In her sermon she made only the most offhanded mention of the scriptures that had been read earlier.  The worship seemed more like a 12-Step meeting or perhaps a self-help lecture from a non-credit adult education program at a high school or community college.  There was no sense of Christian teachings or concepts.  But the biggest void was in the utter lack of transcendence.

Recently I was speaking with a United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor, who said with obvious exaggeration to make his point, that in the UCC it was impossible to speak of Jesus anymore because half of the UCC Pastors are Unitarians and the other half are Buddhist.  The UCC has as its motto that “God is still speaking,”  meaning that there are yet fresh insights emerging from the scriptures on such topics as global climate change and lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (LGBT) issues.

The UCC has been unabashedly progressive for many years.  The conservatives have long ago left that denomination leaving a Church where progressive ideas are the mainstay.

My own home denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has a rather different problem.  While the bulk of that church is progressive, there remains a stubborn rear-guard of fundamentalists who would rather stay and fight then retreat to their own more conservative grouping.  Sometimes I wish that the fundamentalists would have been tossed out way back in the 1930’s when this conflict first heated up the church.  For the last 80+ years the PCUSA has been locked in a tedious and ruinous battle between conservative and progressive camps.  This battle has kept the church from moving forward and has usually generated more heat than light.

But there has been one positive effect of this ongoing battle. Progressives in the PCUSA are forced to turn to the scriptures and our faith traditions in battling the fundamentalists.  In the PCUSA it is not sufficient to pursue a modernist agenda, such as women’s rights, LGBT, global climate change, etc. without appealing to the scriptures and our faith positions.  Thus, global climate change must be addresses as a defense of God’s creation.  LGBT issues must be addressed as a call for justice, acceptance, mercy, and hospitality towards those who are different from us.

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • What does God require of us but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God?
  • What God has called clean let no one call unclean.
  • Judge not that you be not judged.

PASSION AND COMMITMENT

For some reason it is hard to hold people with progressive ideas together.  What can the progressive churches do to hold congregations together in a progressive witness as opposed to spinning off into secularism?  The more conservative churches seem to benefit from an unquenchable fervor that seems rare in the progressive churches.  How can we progressives fix that?

One thing that keeps us from passionate participation is that the progressive agenda is quite broad.  Progressives are free thinkers, not group thinkers.  For example, one of my progressive colleagues that I deeply respect has come out strongly against the Keystone Pipeline.  While I would agree with her on 90% of what she believes in, there are still points of disagreement.  I understand her concerns that the pipeline may lead to more global warming.  Also, a large part of Alberta Canada will need to be strip mined to get at the tar sands.

But on the other hand I want to say that America needs to end its dependence on foreign oil. And, we need to stop buying oil from terrorists. If this Canadian oil is not burned in the US it is likely to be burned in China or some other place with environmental regulations that are much weaker than we have in place.

Our alternative energy sources are not yet in place.  Recently we have seen the virtual implosion of the ethanol industry due to droughts and high corn prices.  We have found that ethanol is a very inefficient way of producing energy, and it also depletes a portion of our food supply in a world filled with famine and drought.

I believe that reasonable people can disagree about the best course of action.  But how can we build a congregation or a denomination if we are about everyone doing his or her own thing in his or her own way?

What can we do as a church that will get people genuinely excited?  To some progressives, being the church means opening a food pantry in the community and sending a medical mission to Guatemala.  And surely both are important forms of Christian service.  But the Church must also be more than just another social service agency.

But food pantries and medical missions can also be a way of building relationships of dependency.  They can create a dichotomy of US vs. THEM.  Instead we need to do mission in a way that builds communities out of diversity.  That is a tough issue.  The takeaway from a medical mission to Guatemala should be in the building of transcultural bridges, and not just in giving vaccines to an indigent people.  In short, these efforts need to be transcendent, lifting us out of ourselves and creating new families and communities not bound by culture, nationality, language or economic circumstances.

POST CHRISTIAN ERA

“The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) in 2008 determined that only 9% of Americans said religion was the most important think in their life, compared with 45% who said family was paramount in their life, and 17% who said that money and career was paramount”

(Wikipedia Article:  Religion in the United States)

It is not surprising that many today find religion to be irrelevant.  The fundamentalists want to drag us back to the 18th Century (pre-Darwin) and the Romans want to drag us back to the 15th Century (the time of absolute world domination by the Bishop of Rome).  Even fundamentalists need to eventually admit that dinosaurs were real, and that the Garden of Eden was just a story.  Many have yet to learn how to take the Bible seriously without having to take it literally.

Neither Billy Graham nor the Pope nor Rick Santorum will ever persuade people to stop having sex, no matter how hard they might try.  And, they will use contraception.  This applies to married and single, young and old, gay, straight and bisexual.  So we might as well get used to it.  No amount of moralizing will ever overwhelm a most basic human drive which is necessary for the continuance of the human species.

In my own small town of nearly 9,000 people, there are only two churches that could be labeled as progressive.  There is a UCC congregation with an average attendance of about 30.  The pastor there refuses to preach.  He will say that he used to be a Baptist fundamentalist, but that he got over it. But he seems unable to describe the subsequent chapters of his faith journey.

There is also an Episcopal congregation with less than 10 people in worship.  There is also a Southern Baptist Church, a Roman Catholic Church, a Seventh Day Adventist Church, and a conservative Lutheran Church (not ELCA).  There is an unbranded Pentecostal church that seems to be like an Assembly of God congregation.  There is another Pentecostal church and another fundamentalist Baptist church.  There is also a Mormon outlet, but I will not count this as a Christian church.

So, in a town of nearly 9,000 people there are perhaps 40 people worshiping in progressive Christian congregations.  I am guessing that in total of all the other churches combined represent perhaps 500 worshippers.

But then again, this is California.  And here if a person wants an intense spiritual experience, he or she is more likely to select a nude hot-tub encounter weekend over a Christian retreat.

THE FUTURE

If the progressive wing of the Christian Church is to survive it must find its message.  But more than that, a church is not just a message, it is an avenue to the divine.  Worship must connect the human soul to the divine or else it is nothing but a self-help class. If people only want advice they can sleep in on Sunday mornings and listen to Dr. Phil or read Ann Landers.

We cannot rely upon an affinity of interests to keep a church together.  Rather, the impetus must come from our connection to the divine.  If we ever lose that we can no longer be a church.

It must take its roots in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and our faith traditions.  That is where we must find our commonality.  Otherwise we simply break up arguing over the Keystone Pipeline or other worldly matters.  We must find our roots.  We must find our passion.  We must be as diligent about our prayer and Bible study as any fundamentalist.  We must be as passionate about sharing our message as any evangelical.  Our ministries of compassion must connect us viscerally to those whom we seek to serve.  And in all things we must find Jesus in our midst, and know that it is through him that all things are made possible.

Divine Paradoxes



Massive Galaxy - Chandra Space Telescope

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.

 

Fractals Geometric Pattern

 

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.

Cosmic Creation and Calamity


I once had a question about volcanoes that launched a spiritual inquiry. Why are their volcanos? They cause so much death and destruction. What purpose do they serve? And, why are they allowed to exist at all? It seems hard to fathom the destructive forces of nature.

We expect to be safe and comfortable in our “normal” lives. Then suddenly we are overcome by a volcano or another natural disaster. Is this any way to run a planet? But as I delved into this issue, it slowly became clear that the forces of destruction are also the forces of creation and regeneration.

Ask anyone living in Hawaii or Iceland about volcanoes. Without volcanoes neither group would have a place to stand. Volcanoes create new land, but they do much more as well. They release water vapor and various chemicals into the atmosphere. They nourish and enrich the soil with their minerals. They bring diamonds to the surface from their birth place deep in the mantle.

Of course, volcanoes are not alone in their destructive power. When I first moved to California my family back in Iowa thought it was very unwise to move to earthquake country. But then I thought about my boyhood days in Iowa. Iowa has tornadoes, thunderstorms, ice storms, blizzards, and flooding. California mostly has earthquakes. I guessed that more people die in Iowa blizzards each year than have ever died in a California earthquake, mostly from shoveling three feet of wet snow off of their driveways.

From this I conjectured that there is no safe place on the planet. There are hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires, avalanches, landslides, killing droughts, crop failures, floods, meteor impacts, not to mention diseases and epidemics all with the potential to do us in.

Where you live determines which perils you will face, but no place is safe. California does not have hurricanes because of its cold ocean, but it does have earthquakes. Life on earth has its perils. And, when we take a big picture view it becomes apparent that these are just a normal part of the circle of life, of the paradox of creation.

Everything is being created and destroyed, and we are living in the construction zone without a hardhat.

And now, here is the rub. Earth is not the only hazard zone in the universe. Space can host as many natural disasters as can our lowly planet. There are asteroid bombardments which I have already mentioned, gamma ray bursts that can fry a planet from thousands of light years away, coronal mass ejections from the sun. There are blowtorch like jets streaming from pulsars that can destroy whole solar systems from a great distance.

The universe was created from the Big Bang. Does that tell you something? Every element except for hydrogen and helium must be produced in stellar furnaces. The iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, and the oxygen that we breathe are all born of stardust.

Once a star produces iron it is doomed. It then explodes sending its detritus across the heavens. New stars and their planets are then formed from the debris. Elements heavier than iron cannot be formed inside of a star. The heavier elements can only be formed by the supernova explosion itself, an explosion which blows the star apart. This exemplifies the paradox of creation.

Even the cells of our bodies are dependent upon past disasters. And speaking of disasters, did you know that disaster came from the Latin for “bad star?”

Some four billion years from now the Andromeda Galaxy will collide with our own Milky Way Galaxy, and we have no idea how it will affect the earth. In the swirling maelstrom we might be ripped from our sun and flung into the cold darkness of interplanetary space. Or, we might smash into our sun or another nearby object. There is no way to predict the outcome of a galactic collision between two galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars.

And, since we are dabbling in classical languages, did you know that the word galaxy comes from the Greek word for “milk?” We all know that our galaxy is called the Milky Way because it looks like milk spilled across the heavens. But what you may not know is that galaxy means “milk,” and is related to such English words as lactose and lactation.

Even if we should survive this cosmic collision with the Andromeda Galaxy, we know the fate of the earth and it is tragic. In some five billion years the sun will swell up into a red giant. It will expand to fill the earth’s orbit. But long before, earth will be nothing but a burnt out cinder, scorched by heat and sterilized by radiation.

Creation and destruction, two names for the same processes. So how can we survive in this ongoing train wreck? The answer is simple and profound. . We are a part of this cosmic maelstrom. We were born to survive. Life is tenacious and so are we.

The Cosmos and the Logos of God


United Church of Cloverdale

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Work of God’s Fingers

Psalm 8:1-9

Greg Bentall

When I was a small boy I loved to sleep out under the stars.  I could spend hours just watching the night sky.  There were stars and planets, satellites and meteors, nebulae and galaxies.  But the sky was more than just a collection of bright lights against a dark background.  To me, the sky was alive.  As I lay in my lawn chair looking up, I would wonder who was looking back at me.  I would probe with my mind, looking for life in the heavens above, and glorifying God’s most extraordinary creation.

The universe is an extraordinary place.  It is the work of God’s hands.  It is magnificent beyond our wildest imagination, and a testimony to the greatness of our God.

John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Tradition, believed that one way of knowing God was to study God’s creation.  Calvin found divine logos in all of nature.  The logos is the word of god.  It is God’s fingerprints to be found in every nook and cranny of the universe.  The logos represents God’s order, God’s laws, God’s pattern laid down for the universe.

John Calvin gave the theological underpinning to all of modern science.  Calvin set the stage for Galileo and all that has followed.

Our planet earth was designed to support life.  It is our habitat that we were given to nourish us in every way, to live together in communities and to develop cultures.  But the greatest miracle of all is our ability to know God our creator.

According to today’s lesson, God has made us a little lower than the gods, and crowned us with glory and honor.  The word used to describe the human condition is elohim, which translates as gods or spiritual beings.  Elohim is a plural noun in Hebrew. It is used often in the scriptures to refer to God, meaning Yahweh.

Thus, our position in the universe is only a little lower than the creator.  And being close to Yahweh, we are able to be in dialogue with God.  God has given us dominion over creation, and put all things under our feet.  We are stewards of creation, and co-creators with God.

The world is more amazing than we can even imagine.  It is a beautiful blue marble full of life.  It is our home and our habitation.  And there is life everywhere.

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When I was in high school, I was taught that all life on earth is solar powered.  Plant use sunlight to produce food through photosynthesis.  Herbivorous animals eat the plants, and carnivorous animals eat the herbivores.

But now we know of life forms that are not solar powered.  There are many life forms that live in the ocean depths, such as tube worms.  They live in depths of the sea where no light can penetrate, under enormous pressure and extreme heat.  They live beside volcanic vents in the ocean bottom.  They live by chemosynthesis, or the production of food from the chemicals spewed out by the volcanic vents.

There are living organisms in the geysers and paint pots of Yellowstone Park.  These organisms can survive in boiling water full of caustic minerals.  There are organisms that live in rocks, deep underground where the sun never shines, digesting rock for food.

There are microorganisms that live in ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic.  And, when the ice sheets break off into the ocean, they provide nutrients that are the bottom of the food chain, supporting many species.

There are life forms that can survive the hottest deserts, the coldest frozen ice sheets, the most intense radiation, and the most extreme environments imaginable.  It is now believed that there are even life forms in magma, the melted rock that forms volcanoes.

And as we continue to find new forms of life on earth, we are better equipped to find life beyond the earth.

Mars almost certainly had life at one point.  I say this because a meteorite of Martian origin was found in the Antarctic.  When this Martian space rock was cut open there appeared to be fossilized, primitive life forms.  The scientific community has not officially embraced this development as “proof” of past life on Mars.

We may even find life living on Mars now.  We cannot expect to find much more than a few bacteria, or perhaps some lichen on a rock.  But finding even the smallest and insignificant life-forms on Mars would be perhaps the greatest discovery in human history.

But there are other bodies in our solar system that have a much greater chance of harboring life, and perhaps much more complicated life forms.  In searching for extraterrestrial life, the guiding rubric is to “Follow the water.”  And there are several bodies in our solar system that are believed to have even more liquid water than does the earth.

Jupiter Moons:

  • Europa:  2.9 times earth’s water and ice
  • Callisto: 27 times earth’s water and ice
  • Ganymede: 36 times earth’s water and ice

Saturn Moons:

  • Titan: 29 times earth’s water and ice and a significant atmosphere

Tidal forces on these moons provide enough heat to create oceans of liquid water.  Europa is covered with an ice cap, similar to the Arctic Ocean on earth.  But below that ice cap there is an ocean of liquid water.  One day we will land on Europa.  We will then release a heated probe that will melt its way through the ice and into that liquid ocean.  On moons such as these we may discover animals as sophisticated and intelligent as squids on earth.

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But looking beyond our solar system there is a virtual certainty that we will discover other life forms.

When I was in high school, we were told that every person on earth could have his or her own star.  But this was wildly inaccurate.  In truth there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each one with hundreds of billions of stars.  This means that everyone now living on earth, along with everyone who has ever lived, or ever will live, could be given her or his own galaxy, each with hundreds of billions of stars.

Space is vast beyond all comprehension.  The closest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri.  Light from that star takes over four years to reach the earth.  If we were to travel to that star, it would take us 80,000 years at space shuttle speeds.

With that much real estate in the universe it is a virtual certainty that there is extraterrestrial life.  There may also be intelligent life that is technologically advanced.  Functionally, we would define an intelligent, technological society as one that has radio telescopes.  Through such radio telescopes it might be possible to send and receive signals, although it might take decades, centuries or even longer for these messages to pass between worlds at the speed of light.

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We live in a time when the latest scientific discoveries are accessible to us all.  Anyone who would characterize television as a vast wasteland does not watch the channels that I watch.  There are some exceptional TV channels that provide windows into all of science.  These channels include:

  • The Science Channel
  • The History Channel
  • National Geographic
  • PBS

The Internet also provides an awesome window on science and nature.  Everything imaginable can be found with ease on the Internet.  For example, did you know that LICHEN, which I mentioned earlier, is a symbiotic organism made up of a FUNGUS and photosynthetic partner that can be either a green algae or a cyanobacterium?

Or did you know that in 1977, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), received a radio transmission that was believed to be of intelligent origin?  Unfortunately this signal was never heard again.

I found both of these bits of trivia with just a few minutes search on the Internet.

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The universe is an amazing place.  God’s fingerprints are everywhere.  And now we have access to know everything that is happening in the scientific realms.  When we study nature and science we are studying the creator, and learning his ways.  We were made a little lower than God, and we were created to know God and to explore and understand God’s creation.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Greg