Category Archives: theology

Week 2 of Lent

I hope that gives some of you permission not to like some Scriptures. Frankly, I think many of them are regressive and small-minded. – Richard Rohr (p 53 of the devotional)

I appreciate Rohr’s honesty in today’s meditation from Wonderous Encounters. I grew up in a tradition that taught that all parts of the Bible are without error and speak the very thoughts or words of God in all things. Because this way of thinking was so built into my mind (theologically speaking it was part of my embedded theology), it was extremely difficult for me to question some parts of Scripture. I was to accept all of it – if I rejected any parts of it I was rejecting God. You can see why this was such a serious thing!

In our One Groups (our version of small groups) we are reading through Brian McLaren’s newest book called The Great Spiritual Migration. It has been so refreshing and the conversations enlightening! McLaren echo’s a similar sentiment as Rohr when he writes:

I could leave the genocidal God of some biblical passages behind and honor the generous God revealed in Jesus…the exclusive-we Supreme Being God of conventional religion can be found in the Bible, controlling, excluding, harming, killing, and animating various forms of oppressive human supremacy – religious, racial, political, gender based. But repeatedly, insistently, from Genesis to Revelation, the exclusive-we God is challenged, and a grander vision of an infinitely compassionate, generous, and gracious God rises into view…a God ‘who would never murder or kill anyone.’[1]

Some might argue that there is one, correct way of viewing God (and ironically their way is always the one, correct way), but it seems like nothing in life is static. Life itself is dynamic – that’s what it means to grow! Our view of God has evolved since the beginning of time. Why would we somehow think that would stop now?

  • Perhaps this Lenten season is an invitation to let go of outdated or violent images of God, and exchange them for new, non-violent images of a more inclusive God?

If you have experienced this evolution or change in how you view God (what McLaren might call a shift from God 4.0 to God 5.0), why did this happen? What would you say to someone who is struggling with older, more violent views of God, but want to find new, more accurate ways to see/understand God?

 

 

[1] Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, 121.

Second Sunday of Lent – Rev Bill Schnell

This past Sunday at One Church, Rev Bill Schnell gave a wonderful sermon (you can watch here).

Many things spoke to me, but perhaps one of the things that jumped out at me was the idea that humans use different words to speak about the same thing. Rev Schnell gave an example of a chair. There are multiple ways to say chair in English and on top of that we have different languages – each one with different words that are trying to define or point to the same thing.

  • Could it be that different cultures, religions, and wisdom traditions use different words to all point to the same Ultimate Reality?

For some, this question is challenging because they hold to a belief system that argues it is the one, true system. I was raised in such a tradition, but it now seems to me to be arrogant to think that any one faith tradition could have it all right. Even people within this kind of tradition will usually admit that God is indescribable or beyond comprehension. Doesn’t it seem reasonable then to conclude that God may be working in faith traditions other than one’s own?

Others may struggle with this because they have experienced something that has formed them deeply and have a great desire for others to experience this as well. I get this, but should we discredit the very real experience of people from other faith traditions and ways that tradition has formed them?

I think we can be true to our tradition, while simultaneously being open to people of other traditions.

Let’s take the image of a bicycle wheel. A bicycle wheel has many spokes, but each spoke is leading in the same direction.

  • Could it be that all the wisdom traditions lead us in a similar direction?
  • If all the wisdom traditions lead us along a similar path, why be a part of any one singular tradition?

If we keep with the image of the bicycle wheel, what happens when we take one spoke and follow it for a little while, but then quickly jump on to the next spoke? If we continue to do this we will find that it is not actually taking us anywhere – we restart at the beginning every time.

Perhaps being rooted and grounded in a single tradition allows us to journey long enough and deep enough to find the center point that we have been searching for.

In a similar way, the deeper I go into my own faith tradition, the more I see similarities from people of other traditions (notice how the distance between the spokes decreases the closer to the center you get!). Entering into religious dialogue does not mean watering down our own traditions, rather it opens us up to the beauty and truth found in other traditions as well. For Christians in particular, it may be helpful to remember that Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jew. The very person Christianity claims as its founder was actually a part of a different religious tradition!

Questions:

  1. Do you struggle to be open to truth found in other religions? If so, why do you think this is?
  2. If God is beyond description, why should we even bother trying to describe God?
  3. What words do you use to describe God, Ultimate Reality, Truth, or the Sacred? How do these descriptions hinder or enhance your view of God?

 

Spiritual growth is more about subtraction than addition

If your following along the Lenten devotional by Richard Rohr, yesterday you read that the spiritual journey is more like giving up control than taking control.

I have been thinking about spirituality and the idea that we grow through subtraction and not addition (I can’t take credit for that analogy as I first heard it from Richard Rohr).

This was difficult for me to grasp at first because I viewed people who were spiritual mature as those who could pray, fast, and read boatloads of the Bible. My experience, both personally and what I have seen of others, has led me to believe that you can do all those things and yet not become spiritually mature, i.e., transformed (particularly into greater love).

Perhaps spiritual growth happens more by becoming aware of our false self and letting go of this self – our fears, insecurities, desire to defend, our creation of us-vs-them, shame, anger, etc.

  • Is there something in your life you are invited to give up or let go of?

In today’s reading Rohr writes, God is always much better than the most loving person you can imagine…

For many of us, the good news was what we had to do to get God to love or forgive us. Yet Jesus suggests God’s love is unconditional. I would summarize the Good News as, “You and I are each loved by God.” Our job, our work, is to become aware of this and to walk into this.

  • Is the good news something we have to do, or is it something we simply become aware of and receive?

If Jesus tells us to “Ask and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock and it will be opened…,” perhaps today you might ask for a deeper knowledge of God’s unconditional love for both you and those around you. If you are really bold, perhaps you might ask for a greater understand of this love even towards those whom you dislike.

I invite you to meditation on these texts. Allow them to wash over you as you are reminded of God’s intimate love for you and for those around you.

Romans 8v38-39

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ephesians 3v18-20

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Process theology part 3 – Omnipotence and the problem of evil

Evil is a major problem in our world today. With the increasing number of mass shootings, the threat of terrorism, and the growing environmental crisis, evil is on the forefront of our minds. Many Christians have explained evil in such a way that it ends up blaming God as the cause. Perhaps no question is as pertinent as the question: How can both a good God and evil exist? In this post, I will first explore two of the more common ways Christians have traditionally answered the problem of evil. Then, I will explain how process theology answers this problem. Lastly, I will argue that a process theodicy is indeed a better way to understand how both a good God and evil can exist.

Many people throughout history have asked why there is evil if there is a good God who is in control of everything.[1] Christianity has answered this question in several different ways and the theological name for this has often been referred to as theodicy. Theodicy stems from the combination of two Greek words for “God” and “justice,” and is the way a person explains how there can be a good God in light of the evils of this world.[2] In other words, theodicy is the attempt to give a reason how God and evil are compatible.[3] In his book God, Power, & Evil, David Ray Griffin gives a straightforward summary of the problem of evil by using eight simple propositions:

  1. God is a perfect reality. (Definition)
  2. A perfect reality is an omnipotent being. (By definition)
  3. An omnipotent being could unilaterally bring about an actual world without any genuine evil.
  4. A perfect reality is a morally perfect being.
  5. A morally perfect being would want to bring about an actual world without any genuine evil.
  6. If there is genuine evil in the world, then there is no God. (Logical conclusion from 1 through 5)
  7. There is genuine evil in the world. (Factual statement)
  8. Therefore, there is no God. (Logical conclusion from 6 and 7).[4]

The above argument has been used by many to provide evidence that God does not exist (proposition eight).

a2-the-problem-of-evil300-thumbnail-4

Though Christian theodicy has taken on more than two forms, I will explain what I believe are the two primary ways that Christians have answered the problem of evil. One of the dominant ways that Christians have answered the problem of evil is by arguing that genuine evil does not exist. While no one outright denies evil, those who have found this answer compelling will argue that the evil we see is only “apparent evil.”[5] In other words, the evil that humanity calls evil is only apparently evil from our limited, finite perspectives.[6] Those who argue for this theodicy believe that God is all controlling – meaning everything that happens is controlled and willed by God.[7] The evil we see around us is not genuine evil but rather only apparent evil because it contributes to the overall good.[8] This theodicy is most popular in Calvinism where God is viewed as an all-determining deity. Many very popular and influential Christian theologians including Augustine, Luther, Aquinas, and Calvin have argued some variation of this theodicy.[9]

The second answer to the problem of evil that many Christians have given is what I will call the “free-will theodicy.” This theodicy argues that God and evil exist because God self-limited Godself in order to allow humans to have freedom.[10] One theologian explains this theodicy by writing:

God could have prevented Auswitch, Hiroshima, Wounded Knee, and the current mass starvation in the world. But to have done this to avoid momentary pain and suffering would actually have hindered the realization of the long-term purpose, the development of moral and spiritual qualities through free decisions.[11]

In other words, the “free-will theodicy” argues that evil exists because it is a necessary byproduct of human free will.[12] While the all-determining theodicy believes God directly controls everything that happens, a free-will theodicy does not believe that evil is caused directly by God but is rather the necessary result of allowing free choice to humans. Some traditional theists would even go so far as to declare that suffering exists because it is a needed part of our spiritual journey and suffering brings necessary growth.[13]

Process theologians believe that God’s power is always persuasive and never unilateral power. In this view, evil exists because God cannot stop all evil. One critique that process theology raises against more traditional Christian theodicies is that if God could act unilaterally to prevent evil, than God should. Process theologians argue that traditional theodicies leave God culpable because God does not act to prevent evil even though God could prevent evil. If a parent decided to allow a car to hit and kill their child even though they could have prevented this, we would believe that parent to be culpable.[14]

Omnipotence:

If God’s power is omnipotent power then “it must be the power to determine every detail of what happens in the world.”[15] An omnipotent deity is a deity who has all the power.[16] This is the crux of the problem of evil because an omnibenevolent (all-good) God would not want evil to exist, and an omnipotent (all-powerful) God would be able to create such a world.[17] As mentioned above this has led an unknown number of people to believe that God cannot exist (proposition eight).

The idea of God having unilateral power stems from Greek philosophy.[18] Christianity became a religion of the Gentiles and was heavily influenced by the Greeks – so much so that the New Testament was written in Greek. Process theologians critique the idea of an omnipotent God in many different ways. First, some process theologians such as David Ray Griffin in his book God, Power, & Evil, argue that one can believe that God is indeed omnipotent, but then reinterprets the definition of omnipotence to mean perfect power or greatest conceivable power – though not unilateral power.[19] Another way process theologians understand the idea of omnipotence is that it is not and cannot be an accurate description of God.[20] Thus we should reject this word completely (including proposition two). Process theologians would echo the popular statement by Alfred North Whitehead, one of the founders of process philosophy, by declaring:

“They [classical theist] gave unto God the properties that belonged unto Caesar.”[21]

Process theology stems from the philosophical work of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne who taught that perfect power is always persuasive and never coercive.[22] That is not to say that God chooses to use persuasive power, as some might argue, but rather God cannot use coercive, unilateral power – it is not a choice.[23] Of course some would argue that this places false limitations upon God, but process theologians disagree. Process theologians believe that God’s power is not and cannot be unilateral power, but is rather the greatest conceivable power – the greatest power any one being can possibly have.[24] Process theologians deny the idea that “It is possible for one actual being’s condition to be completely determined by a being or beings other than itself.”[25] Basically, the idea of actual beings having at least some self-determining power while one actual being has all self-determining power is a metaphysical impossibility.[26] As actualities, humans have the power to make choices and thus shape the present and future. If humans have at least some self-determining power, than no single being can have all the power to control them.[27] Griffin argues that if any single actuality or being can be totally determined by another, than that actuality has no power.[28] This metaphysical impossibility has led process theologians to believe that God cannot have unilateral, coercive power, but only the highest conceivable power. The highest conceivable power, which in relationship to all actual beings, must always be persuasive power.

What about evil?

Process theologians suggest that evil is not necessary.[29] God’s aim and lure in the world is always for good, beauty, complexity, and is never for evil.[30] Evil exists because other actualities have self-determining power and have freely chosen not to follow God’s initial aim. Process theologians believe that in order for God to stimulate more complex creatures, the possibility of evil must always be equal to the possibility of good.[31] In other words, God took huge risks by creating more complex creatures. The more complex a creature, the more possibility they have for good or evil. Griffin explains this by writing:

Only in those forms of life to which we attribute a significant capacity for suffering do we suppose there to occur a significant level of enjoyment. Only those creatures that have the capacity for enjoying the higher forms of value sometimes find their experience so miserable that they commit suicide.[32]

Process theologians suggest that “evil is not necessary” but “the possibility of evil is necessary.”[33] In process thought evil does not exist because God wills it or because it is a part of God’s plan. Evil does not exist because it will be used for good, though that can be true at times. Nor does evil exist because God self-limited Godself. God chose to create knowing that in stimulating creation to greater complexity God would risk the possibility of evil. Yet God is not culpable in that God does not stand by and allow evil while being able to prevent it rather God is always working to prevent evil.

 

[1] John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 69.

[2] David Ray Griffin, Evil Revisited (New York: State University, 1991), 198.

[3] Ibid, 211.

[4] David Ray Griffin, God, Power, & Evil (Louisville: Westminster Press, 2004), 19.

[5] Griffin, Evil, 197.

[6] Ibid, 197.

[7] Ibid., 197.

[8] Ibid., 79.

[9] Ibid., 197.

[10] Cobb and Griffin, Process, 74.

[11] Griffin, Evil, 15.

[12] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1993), 74.

[13] Ibid., 73.

[14] Ibid, 59.

[15] Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes (New York: State University, 1984), 11.

[16] Mesle, Process, 28.

[17] Griffin, God, 262.

[18] Mesle, Process, 28.

[19] Ibid., 252.

[20] Cobb and Griffin, Process, 53.

[21] Hartshorne, Omnipotence, 14.

[22] Mesle, Process, 8.

[23] Ibid., 8.

[24] Griffin, God, 261.

[25] Ibid., 264.

[26] Ibid., 265.

[27] Ibid., 268.

[28] Ibid., 268.

[29] Ibid., 69.

[30] Ibid., 69.

[31] Griffin, Evil, 28.

[32] Ibid., 27.

[33] Cobb and Griffin, Process, 69.

Process theology part 2 – attributes of God

God has been given many different attributes as humans wrestle with ways to understand and explain who God is. Several of the most common attributes have been:

  • Impassibility – cannot experience emotions such as pain, suffering etc.
  • Immutability – changeless
  • Omnipresence -present everywhere
  • Omniscience – all-knowing
  • Omnipotence – all-powerful

god

Process theologians argue that these attributes have been falsely given or at least wrongly defined, and that this has led to a grave misunderstanding about God’s interaction with the world and why evil exists. In this post I will explore each of these attributes very briefly from a process theological perspective. (Since omnipotence is the most difficult attribute to see differently, and the attribute that most informs how one answers the problem of evil, I will attempt to explain why process theologians argue that omnipotence is a false attribute while dealing with the problem of evil in the next post.)

Impassibility:

In classical theology God “is not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions.”[1] As I shared in the last post (part 1), at the very foundation of process philosophy is the belief that all of reality is relational, and because all reality is relational, God must also be relational. By definition a relational entity must be able to affect and be affected by others.[2] Central to Christian theology is the idea that God has incarnated Godself in Jesus who suffered and was crucified on a cross. In other words, God suffers in Jesus who hangs upon a cross. How could one suffer and not be changed? It is impossible. Process theologians deny the impassibility of God and instead see God as one who not only affects, but is also affected by others.

Immutability:

Immutability is the belief that God cannot change.[3] Early Christian theologians – influenced heavily by Greek philosophy – believed that God’s perfection must mean that God cannot change. Process theologians argue that God does indeed change because God, like everything else in the cosmos, is relational (see previous post on more concerning this). In essence, God is not the “unmoved mover,” but the “most moved mover.”

Omnipresence:

Omnipresence is an attribute that both process theologians and traditional theologians agree upon. Process theology may differ slightly in that process theology often leads to panentheism. Panentheism is not to be confused with pantheism, and is not exclusive to process theologians as some non-process theologians would also consider themselves panentheists. Pantheists believe that “all things together are God” while Panentheists believe that “all things are in God.”[4] Process theologians tend to view the entire cosmos as part of God, though God is not limited to any one part of the cosmos. In a process perspective the interconnectedness of all things is central, and this includes God’s interconnectedness to all of creation.[5]

Omniscience:

Omniscience, or all knowing, has been traditionally interpreted to mean that God knows everything past, present, and future.[6] Omniscience is an attribute that process theologians tend to keep, but they redefine this (similar to open theists, but with slight variations). Many have understood God to be outside of time. One way to understand this is to think of God as viewing time like we read a book. God can turn the pages from past, present, or future as God looks on from beyond. Process theologians agree with traditional theology in that God knows the past completely and the present perfectly as it unfolds, but differs in that they believe even God cannot yet know the future.[7] Since actualities (e.g., humans) have some self-determining power and are partially self-creative, the future is not yet determined and thus cannot be known as determined.[8] In this regard, process theologians believe that God’s knowledge is omniscient in that it is perfect knowledge – full knowledge of all that can be known including complete knowledge of the past and present, and full knowledge of all future possibilities. One process thinker explains this by writing, “if God has perfect knowledge of the world and of me, God will know exactly what all of the possibilities are and how probable they are. But even with perfect knowledge God could not know what I will choose in the future because that choice has not yet been made and it is a real choice.”[9] Process theologians argue that if God knows the future as determined than real freedom would be impossible.[10] Hartshorne summarizes this by writing, “future events, events that have not yet happened, are not there to be known.”[11]

Next post I will explore the attribute of omnipotence and the problem of evil from a process perspective.

 

 

[1] “Impassibility of God,” Theopedia, accessed June 9, 2016. http://www.theopedia.com/Impassibility_of_God

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] “Immutability of God,” Theopedia, accessed June 9, 2014. http://www.theopedia.com/Immutability_of_God

[4] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1993), 137.

[5] John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 52.

[6] “Omniscience of God,” Theopedia, accessed June 9, 2014. http://www.theopedia.com/Omniscience_of_God

[7] Cobb, Jr. and Griffin, Process Theology, 52.

[8] Ibid., 52.

[9] Mesle, Process Theology, 37.

[10] Ibid., 37.

[11] Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes (New York: State University, 1984), 39.

Process theology part I

Process thought begins with the understanding that everything in the world is relational and changes – nothing stays the same. Eastern wisdom traditions tend to focus much more upon the impermanence of all things, and perhaps there is something there we in the west, can learn from.

Since everything is relational (which I take to also mean interconnected) then everything that happens is influenced by something and the results affect everything else. Every choice we make affects others, some choices, e.g. decided to strap a bomb on our back and detonate it, have a greater affect upon others.

If we start our discussion on process theology (sometimes referred to as process-relational theology) here, where it makes sense to most people, then it is easier to understand how process theology builds upon this at it seeks to understand God. God is affected by others choices and thus God changes. Many religious people may be quick to reject this idea because the idea of the changlessness of God has been such a huge part of our embedded theology.

Biblically, we can find many places where God changes. Probably the clearest example is when God is discussing with Abraham the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. But there are others places. For example, after Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, the people had build a golden calf and God became so angry that he said he would consume them. After Moses stood up for the people, we read, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Ex 32v14). We read of a similar time where Moses influenced God to change God’s mind toward the people in Numbers 14. Clearly, God does in fact change and perhaps we have more influenced upon this than we realize.

intro-to-process-theology-evil-14-728

What I find to be the most compelling part of all this is the idea that everything is relational and influenced by each other. Our environment is influenced by the decisions of ourselves and others. Our families are shaped by the decisions of those within and those outside. Once we begin to understand the relatedness (or interconnectedness) of all things, then we begin to see Reality in a whole new way!

 

 

 

 

The God of Jesus

Who is the God of Jesus?

Unfortunately many view God as a monarchical ruler, but Jesus understood God as Abba – the Aramaic word for father. When a person explores what Jesus meant by Abba, it becomes apparent that it is a vastly different picture of God than many have today.

Theologian John Cobb writes, “But a very important difference between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures of his time was the shift from monarchical language to family relations.”[1]

Let us try to understand what Jesus had in mind when he used the word Abba. While the Christian Scriptures were primarily written in Greek, many believe that Jesus spoke primarily Aramaic and Abba was most likely the word that Jesus himself used when he referred to God. Cobb suggests that Abba is baby talk.[2] It is difficult to be certain of this, but if correct, a more accurate translation may be that of “daddy.” What is most important in understanding Jesus’ use of the word Abba, is that “The normal relation of the father to the infant is one of tenderness and unconditional love. It was unconditional love rather than controlling power that dominated Jesus’ understanding of God.”[3] Jesus did not understand God as ruler or king and in fact never spoke of God in this way, yet it has come to dominate the consciousness of many religious people today.[4]

iStock_000002218181Small

A person’s view of God greatly shapes how they understand the central teaching of Jesus which was that the “kingdom of God” has come. If a person views God as ruler or king then this message will be understood a certain way. If a person understands God as a loving and caring parent, then this message will be understood very differently. The phrase “kingdom of God” has been translated from the Greek phrase basileia theou.[5] Since basileia is best defined as “a politically defined region,”[6] it can be interpreted differently. For example, if a person views God as a monarchical ruler or judge, then basileia would surely mean the region or area where the king ruled. In a similar way it could be seen as God’s empire. This is certainly how many interpret the phrase “kingdom of God” today. If, however, a person looks at the phrase “kingdom of God” with a view of God as a loving parent, then they will arrive at a very different understand. Cobb suggests that if God is seen as a father, then “We might describe a father’s basileia better as the family estate.”[7] Of course, this is still open to different ways of understanding depending on the type of parent who owns the estate.

We come back once again to the view of God that Jesus held. Jesus’ Abba was not a distant, angry, or demanding father who ruled with an iron fist, but was rather a loving and compassionate father who cared for the well being of all things with a particular focus upon those most vulnerable. Thus, “kingdom of God” or the of basileia theou means “the realm, or community, or commonwealth in which God’s will is done.”[8] The invitation is to become a part of that community or commonwealth right now. Two ideas surrounding this must be addressed.

First, Cobb addresses the belief of basileia theou as an eschatological reality. The “kingdom of God” or community is not something that will happen sometime in the future; rather it is a present reality. Second, if the invitation is a present reality to become a part of a community that cares for the well being of all things with a particular focus upon those most vulnerable, this brings with it a change of attitude, perspective, or way of living. This change – often referred to as repentance – is an essential part of the gospel message. Cobb summarizes the Synoptic Gospels well by stating that the heart of the message was: “reorient yourself radically; the basileia theou is at hand.”[9] The good news demands a shift, a change, or a reorientation of how a person lives so that they see with new eyes, but this shift cannot happen until a person understands God as Abba.

If the good news is an invitation to reorient our lives to enter into Abba’s commonwealth here and now, this inherently has affects on the individual as well as the community. Once a person is able to see God as a loving parent who desire’s to see them flourish (and not an angry dictator), they then cease to defend, hide, or pretend. Salvation is not simply extended by an intolerant God because of a blood sacrifice by His Son, but salvation is an invitation to enter into the healing process or to become more whole. Of course this invitation extends to all, but we must first we must experience this for ourselves.

The good news means that each person is a beloved child of God. If God is Abba, or father, then clearly that means we are His children. Cobb addresses the struggle of non-gendered language when referring to God and chooses to use the male masculine pronoun, though he realizes that this is also limiting because God is also mother. Cobb suggests that not using personal pronouns tends to inhibit an understanding of a personal God. This is something I had not previously thought of, but is beginning to make some sense. I don’t have a problem using the pronoun “she” or the word “mother” when referring to God, but I also understand that it is not common or widely accepted. Thus, perhaps a male masculine pronoun may more accurately reflect an intimate parent, limiting as it may be, than refusing to use any personal pronouns.

Realizing that a person is a beloved child of God and that they cannot and do not need to do anything to “become” this is the first of two steps in the gospel message. The second step is to reorient your life according to this truth. In my opinion, the first step is the hardest and since the second is a natural overflow, I tend to focus more upon the first. Realizing that a person is a beloved child of God is the hardest step because so many religious and non religious people alike understand God as a monarchical king who demands perfection. Because none of us are perfect and we have all “sinned” the idea that God demands a payment of sorts to make up for this “flaw” is prevalent in much of Christianity. Concerning this Cobb writes, “The idea that his mission was to die to appease the wrath of Abba was as remote from Jesus as devil worship, and its effect on the Christian world since Anselm has been poisonous.”[10] Theologically this view is called penal substitutionary atonement, and I agree that it is a poisonous view that has done much harm in our world.

God, according to Jesus, was a loving, caring, and personal parent. God was close, not distant, involved not disengaged, and always works through persuasive love and never through coercive power.

[1] John Cobb, Jesus’ Abba, xx.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 23.

The seminarian’s unexpected experience

It’s been five years since I went back to school. The goal was to finish up my undergrad so I could attend seminary. Now, three years into seminary and only 6 classes left, I have experienced some major shifts.

CST

I chose Claremont School of Theology (CST) for several reasons. First, I was attending a Methodist Church so it made sense. Second, I was attracted to Process Theology. Third, I wanted to attend a progressive seminary that was not only open but also inclusive of LGBTQ person’s. Fourth, I saw that CST was engaged in interreligious dialogue and education and felt this was important for any spiritual leader in the future.

The biggest part of that decision was attending a place that was open, diverse, and liberal leaning. I wanted to find a place where I could explore, question, and feel free to challenge and/or change any beliefs I needed to. I know this should be the goal of any religious education, but sadly it is not.

I have gone through a major theological shift since I first went back to complete my Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies five years ago. It seems like an eternity ago, but in the scheme of things five years is not all that long.

Yet, the theological shift has not been the most surprising to me. I had been on a journey for quite some time, and even though I was raised in a more conservative tradition, I had been drawn to people who were pushing the boundaries, asking tough questions, and inviting dialogue. Engaging in theology was not new.

The most surprising experience has been an introduction to contemplative spirituality and the idea and importance of spiritual formation. I had spent several years wrestling through many beliefs and views (my embedded theology) and had largely lived in my head. I think that was necessary for a time, as many of the beliefs I was given as a child no longer made sense to me. I grasped for something that worked and eventually realized that my beliefs, views, and ways of seeing the world will always be changing, evolving, and growing.  I think I’m coming to a point where I’m ok with that, and I think that is largely due to contemplative spirituality.

One of the first classes I took at CST was a class called Spiritual Practices. We engaged in different forms of prayer, meditation, and ways of engaging with Scripture that I had not done before. This opened up a lot for me. I always felt that meditation was for the few “elite” or those monks, and was never all that interested. Then I realized that true formation comes much more from surrender, from mystery, from experiencing wonder, and from releasing my attachment to all things (including my beliefs), than from developing a clear and systematic theology. My spiritual formation classes have become the one’s I have most enjoyed so far, and I look forward to taking a couple more before the end.

I understand that everything forms us. Education forms us deeply, and that has been a large part of my spiritual formation, one I am very grateful for at CST. How one is educated is a part of spiritual formation, and I have been educated alongside of those with diverse views, diverse ethnic and geographic areas, as well as people of different religions than mine. Surely this has all shaped me deeply. My beliefs have shaped me, my experiences have shaped me, my lifestyle (including diet) has shaped me, my friendships have shaped me and the list goes on and on. Yet, at the center of all this is contemplative spirituality, and I am becoming more convinced that this is perhaps the most needed thing in our polarized world of conservative/liberal, religious/non-religious, republican/democrat, etc. At the very least, it is what I seem to most need.

The idea of trying to “convert” others to my way of thinking is less and less interesting. The idea of arguing or debating about the correct doctrine, belief, or religion is less and less interesting. Sure, I still think there are destructive views out there that should be exposed, but what I am finding even more interesting is the idea of becoming a more healthy, whole, and compassionate human and helping others do the same. Instead of seeing different religions as either right or wrong, I see within each system either healthy or unhealthy – mature or immature – ways of being. The healthy or mature ways bring about a more loving, whole, and compassionate human…no matter what religion, belief, or world view they come from. My experience also suggests this to be true. I have met plenty of prickly, judgemental, and self-righteous Christians and some loving and compassionate people who are not Christian.

So, despite a theological shift, the thing that has most surprised me has been a curiosity and formational experience with contemplative spirituality. I went to an education center to realize that education, while being a part of formation, is not the only part or even the main part of spiritual formation.

I plan to write in the near future why I believe contemplative spirituality is so important.

This world is not my home….or is it?

One of the most destructive views, in my opinion, is the belief that we are just passing through this world.

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Why is this so destructive?

This belief leads to the idea that the whole point is to decide if your going to go “up” or “down” after you die. (Up being good and for the special elite. Down being bad and where the vast majority of the human race goes…and somehow this is couched under the idea that this is good news?) Often this idea is said  for one of two reasons.

First, this is said frequently when someone is frustrated with the way things are going or they see so much injustice around them. In other words, behind this view is often the unspoken idea that “this world is messed up and doomed. You all are screwed, but I’m glad I’m not.”

Secondly, people fear the unknown, particularly what happens when you die and they desperately desire certainty. Certainty is likely one of the greatest deceptions and yet greatest draws toward religion for most conservatives.

Not only does this produce a sort of arrogance and an attachment to one’s views (what happens when people die is pure speculation and none of us know), but it is also destructive. Before I share why I think this way, let me first say that I resonate with part of the reason behind this saying. I do think that our beliefs about the afterlife matter. Try telling a mother whose child is about to die that she shouldn’t have any hope or that she may not see her child again – not helpful or hopeful!

Hope is at the core of the Christian story, but it isn’t a hope focused on the afterlife it is a hope focused on this life. 

Again, as a Christian, I think we can have hope for some form of life after death – though I am less and less convinced it will look like streets paved with pure gold, harps, or a burning fire of ceaseless torture. I am much more hopeful than to think that only a select few will enter into “paradise” while the majority suffer. I think we will all be shocked.

In the Jewish tradition there is a phrase called tikkun olam (pronounced tee-KOON oh-LUHM) which means “the repair of the world.” It is this idea that God is working to bring about reconciliation, healing, and wholeness to the entire world and we are invited to be a part (this is how I understand salvation). This goes beyond the overly simplistic idea of individualistic human salvation (very anthropocentric). God is not just working to save humans, but the entire cosmos.

Both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible would seem to support  tikkun olam more than the idea that the world is not my home. Starting in the beginning is a story that speaks poetically about a God who creates a good and beautiful world and then invites humans to continue creating, naming, and tending to this world. Nothing is said of this being “temporary” or there being “another, better place” afterwards. According to this narrative, God takes delight when humans continue to create and continue to bring about order and beauty in this good world.

Interesting to me that those who believe that God created the world and called it good are often so quick to want to leave it behind!

The vast majority of the stories found in Scripture are stories of a God working to help bring about justice, peace, equality, and wholeness in this world. Instead of trying to escape this world or tell everyone how bad, evil, or messed up they are, it seems much more in line with God’s movement to work toward things like sustainability, equality, natural energy, health care for all, businesses that benefit all not just a few, education that encourages forward thinking, and so many other creative ways. Our carbon footprint matters. Our use of water matters. Our diet effects others. Our way of transportation matters. Where we put our trash and if/how we recycle matters. These are all issues of tikkun olam – working to bring about healing and repair. We are not “just passing through,” but are a part of this world and what we do with life in this world matters immensely.

 

 

 

 

 

Progressive Christianity – a critique

This is a post critiquing progressive Christianity.

First off, I don’t consistently label myself as a progressive Christian (mostly because this means different things to different people). While there is diversity within this group, most Progressive Christians would affirm evolution, the humanity of the Bible, they would be LGBTQ inclusive, and would tend not to see Christianity as exclusive. There is a lot more that could be said, but this is a very brief summary that would describe the majority.

Second, it is a critique from within. In other words, it is a critique coming from inside – not to show it is wrong, but to point out what I see as a weakness.  It is a critique to share what I believe is most lacking within.

Progressive Christianity rightly embraces science, critical biblical scholarship, the intellect, and accepts truth wherever it is found.

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My biggest critique?

Progressive Christianity has a tendency to play the same game as conservative Christianity – i.e. it is all about being right, correct, and can be a mere exercise of the mind. As Richard Rohr writes, “it is the same game on the other side of the playing field.”

As one who would best fit within the progressive camp, I think they have a political correctness and an orientation toward social justice, esp. concerning the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, that is often lacking in more conservative groups. Interesting that much of the Biblical narrative is a prophetic critique concerning those who mistake the means for the end – the religious acts (e.g. sacrifices, fasts, prayers, services) for the point. This is never the end point, but only meant to help us to become more compassionate toward others esp. and those on the margins.

As I have journeyed from a more conservative tradition I have found that sometimes (not always) there is still something lacking in many progressive places. Progressives can be passionate for social justice and fight against systemic evil (things conservatives often neglect), yet it is their approach that often doesn’t sit well with me.

Richard Rohr states, “I’ve seen far too many activists who are not the answer. Their head answer is largely correct but the energy, the style, and the soul are not. So if they bring about the so-called revolution they are working for, I don’t want to be a part of it (especially if they’re in charge).”

This speaks to my experience of some within progressive Christianity. If I’m honest, this has also been true of myself on more than one occasion. Progressives can sometimes have the same harshness, egocentricity, antagonistic attitude that comes from the other side.

What then is the answer?

I don’t pretend to have the answer, but something that I am finding extremely important personally is spiritual maturity. A maturity where the ego is no longer in control, and there is little need to defend one’s position – this is no easy thing! (This is also not the same as passivity!)

“Jesus and the great spiritual teachers primarily emphasized transformation of consciousness and soul.” – Richard Rohr.

In other words, both conservatives and progressives are tempted to work from the outside in. If we only legislate our beliefs then it would be better. If we only expose how ignorant the “other side” is then they will see.  If they are just more informed then they would understand.

Actually, seeing is more of a spiritual process that begins from within.

Both conservatives and progressives are often playing the same game.

It’s all about right beliefs.

Conservatives focus on individual salvation, and on having correct doctrine, and progressives focus on knowledge, information or reason – as if this is what brings about enlightenment!

Neither correct doctrine, nor mere knowledge or information will really transform a person. Either side can be harsh, judgmental, egocentric, and arrogant.

What is needed is healthy spirituality, something Rohr says comes more by subtraction than addition. It’s not about more; more Bible, more correct doctrine, more truth, more information, more science, more church, more Christians. All these things can be helpful, but they do not, in and of themselves, create mature, healthy people. It’s about surrender, release, and liberation – primarily from our own egos.

What does this look like?

I think that an enlightened person does not need to constantly defend their beliefs, doctrines, or worldview. Of course they will still believe certain things, but they will hold these beliefs in a very different way – they will hold them lightly. Their ego is not in control. They will work for what they believe in, but don’t feel the need to exclude others, or judge others based upon their beliefs. They will not feel superior, more intelligent, or more correct. They see that God is working in all religions, in all people, in all places. They see life as a gift and it is theirs to simply enjoy. They live in the present moment or the now.

Being conservative or progressive isn’t the point. In fact, it can be a practice in missing the point entirely.

What’s the point?

The point isn’t addition (more), but subtraction (less ego)!