Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Things That You're Liable to Read in the Bible (2/17/13)

The Things That You're Liable to Read in the Bible
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 17, 2014

Some Mistakes of Moses, Robert Ingersoll                             
Too great praise challenges attention, and often brings to light a thousand faults that otherwise the general eye would never see. Were we allowed to read the Bible as we do all other books, we would admire its beauties, treasure its worthy thoughts, and account for all its absurd, grotesque and cruel things, by saying that its authors lived in rude, barbaric times. But we are told that it was written by inspired men; that it contains the will of God; that it is perfect, pure and true in all its parts; the source and standard of all religious truth; that it is the star and anchor of all human hope; the only guide for man, the only torch in Nature's night. These claims are so at variance with every known recorded fact, so palpably absurd, that every free, unbiased soul is forced to raise the standards of revolt. 

Jesus said,
Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. 
When they find, they will be disturbed.
When they are disturbed, they will marvel,
and will reign over all.

For several years I have structured the worship services on the four paths of Creation Spirituality as outlined by theologian Matthew Fox.    His book that I recommend everyone check out is called Original Blessing.   I explain this anew every now and again as new people find us.  The four paths or in the Latin, vias, are these:

The via positiva—the way of awe and wonder
The via negativa—the way of letting go and letting be
The via creativa—the way of creativity and imagination
The via transformativa—the way of justice and compassion

Think of it as ways to be intentional about approaching Life.    You celebrate, you let go, you create, you do good work.   None of that has anything to do with believing in doctrines.  It doesn’t exclude it, but believing in doctrines is not required.   Just live.

Each season of the year corresponds to a path.   During Winter I acknowledge thevia creativa.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative in Spring.  It is just that during this season we are intentional about looking at this path in the same way that Christians are intentional about celebrating Resurrection at Easter even though as the Avery and Marsh song says, “every morning is Easter morning.”

None of this is new.   You can have eight paths if you like, or seven or twelve.  These four are easy to understand and they provide hooks upon which we can hang our own portraits of experience.    It is a way of looking at life, particularly our own lives.   We step back at the paintings of our lives and see where we have been and are going.    The four-fold path of celebrating life, letting go, creating anew, and shaping what we create toward compassion and justice is the framework for a life’s journey.    

This four-fold path is not about religion.  It is about life.  But, religion is subject to it.   Religion also goes through periods of awe and celebration, letting go of parts that have died, creating new, and transforming what is created toward goodness.    

If you have been listening to my radio program, Religion For Life, you will notice that I have been speaking with various thinkers who are interested in the changes that are occurring within religion.   There are creative spirits running amok.    Phyllis Tickle says that we are in the midst of a great emergence.  It is a rummage sale in which we let go of stuff we no longer use and in the process find treasures.   Diana Butler Bass talked about Christianity after religion.    There is a great creativity happening, in part, thanks to the internet. 
Historians tell us that Christianity spread in the decades after Jesus because the Romans built roads.  They built roads for the military but the roads allowed for travel and trade and with that the exchange of ideas and customs.   Today, the Roman road is the internet.    Information about anything is available instantly to you on your phone.    

If you are interested in the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, you don’t have to go to the library or ask your tweedy professor, you can google it and find a number of translations.  Buddha’s eight-fold path?  Google it.   No longer can ministers conceal the things they learned in seminary.   For those who want to know, it is available.  

I am not celebrating or lamenting the internet any more than I celebrate or lament the Roman roads.  It is what it is.    And it may not last.  It is all pretty fragile, really, and powered as is everything, by non-renewable fossil fuels.    Who knows how all that will shake out, but for now, we have reached a level of information sharing that is unprecedented in our history.  

What affect, if any, does this have on Christianity?     I will speak for myself.  The effect has been profound.    I would say that it is a different faith altogether from the faith of my childhood or my faith even as a young adult.   My understanding of the big ticket items, Bible, Jesus, God, and the meaning of life, are quite different.     This change in my understanding is really just a reflection of the change on a larger scale over the past few centuries from say the time of Columbus and Calvin to today.  

It has been within the last few decades and accelerated with the internet, that these changes are reaching a critical point.  It can be unnerving.    As Jesus said in the Gospel of Thomas, “When they find they will be disturbed.”   In my opinion, this disturbance is necessary if Christianity is going to have relevance.  

This season of Winter, I have been taking a risk to be creative and to revisit religion, faith, and beliefs.    For the season of Lent that begins today, I am specific about looking at the big ticket items, Bible, Jesus, God, and Life’s meaning, from the standpoint of living in the 21st century and taking seriously science.    The disclaimer is that this is all experimental.   This is brainstorming.   This is to spark your own creativity.  You can accept and reject whatever you want.   You can embrace whatever faith you want.  I am good with that.  I am good with you.  I am on your team.  

What about the Bible?  It is a major ticket item for Christianity.    As I will tell my confirmation class this afternoon, they need to read it.   A working knowledge of the Bible is required to understand Western culture.   They need to read it critically.   As a help, I even created a website called Bible and Jive, complete with a synopsis of each book and a quiz.    I put this together in 2008 when we read the Bible critically cover to cover.  I put a lot of work into it, so you should check it out!   

In addition to my Bible and Jive blog, I also suggest you pick up John Shelby Spong’sReclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.    This is an excellent journey through the biblical material.   I am not na├»ve about my confirmation class.  I will tell them to read the Bible, but it is not likely that it will happen.  But they may come back to it when they are 30, or maybe 40 or 50 or 60 or 70.   Sometimes you just have to be kicked around by life a little bit first.

In Calvin’s time, the Bible was considered to be the Word of God.  It was special revelation or communication from God, the sole divine being of the universe.   It told of the creation of the entire universe by God, the history of humankind, the redemption and salvation wrought through Jesus Christ, and the end of time when God would create a new heaven and a new earth.  

Christopher Columbus used the Bible to guide his journey.  He thought the Book of Esdras provided him with Earth’s dimensions, six parts land to one part water.   He thought the globe therefore was much smaller and that he could cross the Atlantic and scoot over to China right quick.    What he read in 2 Esdras 6:42 turned out to be not necessarily so.    

In 1650 at the same time the Presbyterians created the Westminster Confession of Faith, the standard of Presbyterian belief still today, Bishop James Ussher calculated the beginning of creation to be October 23rd, 4004 BC.  At nine in the morning.

I give these pieces of trivia to show that our beliefs need an update.    It isn’t just a tweaking, such as the Confession of 1967, but a major overhaul, including the big items that we treat as taboo: Bible, Jesus, God, Meaning of Life.    The world has changed.   But Christian beliefs are pretty much the same as they were in Columbus’ time.

I don’t go to the Bible to tell me how the universe was formed or how humans came to be.   I don’t go to it for divine messages.    The Bible is a human product as is every other book.    I read it as such.   It is a resource for wisdom.    It contains the creativity of our ancestors.    They tell the story of what they thought given what they knew.   Much of what they thought actually has relevance for today.    But I think it has relevance when it is allowed to be their words as opposed to a word from God.    

The problem is not with the texts of the Bible, but with the theological claims about them.    If we allow these words to be the words of our ancestors, good and bad, wise and ignorant, and make our decisions about what to do with them, I think we actually show our respect for them more than if we just assume that everything they said was God’s word.    

That keeps us from putting halos around texts that are harmful.   Think of the damage that has been done in the name of the Bible, including slavery, the second-class status for women, the oppression of gays and lesbians, creationism, and on and on.   The issue is not with the texts, but with their supposed authority for today.    

That isn’t the sermon for this crowd in this congregation.  You know all of that, of course.   The challenge for you from my point of view is how to shed light on what actually might be helpful and good in the Bible.   How might this resource of human wisdom provide strength for the journey?  How might I encourage you to read it?

Many of the stories and themes touch on the depth of human experience.  

Ever felt like you have been wandering in the wilderness without a sense of purpose or direction?  
There is a story for that.   
Ever been in a position of powerlessness and that the powers of this world were intractable?
There is a story for that.
Ever felt that no one knows the extent of your sorrow or grief and all attempts at comfort were shallow?
There is a story for that.
Ever wonder if there is hope for a new start, a rising sun after a long night?
There is a story for that.
Ever wonder if it is worth standing for principle in an age of cynicism?
There is a story for that.
Ever wonder if the poor and the weak have a chance against the rich and the strong?
There is a story for that.  In fact, a lot of them.

These biblical writers were insightful about many things.   But you have to go there and take the time to hear them out.  That might be the biggest challenge in an age of instant information.  The Bible is a slow-cooker.    It requires critical thinking and it requires that we do some work to understand the background for these stories.  It also requires patience and humility to work through the noise of the text in order to hear its music.

The Bible will have a place in the Christianity that is emerging.   But it won’t be a Bible that is presented as hard and fast rules or as unquestioning dogma.   It won’t be a bullying type of document.  It will be instead a conversation we have with voices from the past who are also in a sense fellow travelers and  have wisdom to share with us should we take time to hear.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Stargazing As A Sacrament (2/10/13)

Stargazing As A Sacrament
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Evolution Sunday
February 10, 2013

Welcome to Evolution Weekend.  The weekend closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday is celebrated in hundreds of congregations around the world as Evolution Sunday.   Evolution Sunday, now Evolution Weekend is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Zimmerman.    His goal is to break down the barrier to learning that has been erected by certain forms of religion that deny science.   He thought if he could get ministers and churches publicly to endorse evolution that perhaps the resistance would decrease.    

Over 13,000 clergy and hundreds of congregations have signed on to support the teaching of evolution in public schools and to declare that evolution is not incompatible with religion.  This is the seventh year that we have acknowledged Evolution Sunday through worship services, classes, and field trips honoring the contributions of science and in particular evolutionary theory to human knowledge.   

Today we will take a field trip to the Bays Mountain Planetarium for a 2 p.m. show called “Appalachian Skies.”   You might consider stargazing as a sacrament.

Is Christianity compatible with evolution?   Many will say no. That is why there are creation museums everywhere.    Certainly it is true that from their standpoint, evolution is a threat to Christian truth.   When someone understands evolution and acknowledges its claims, the truth of Christianity is denied.    So for them, Christianity is incompatible with evolution.  

Someone wrote the following comment on my blog yesterday:
Although not a Christian I fail to see how a Christian could ever agree with evolution, if we evolved from apes at what point did we acquire a soul?  The core belief of a Christian is to believe in a literal Adam and Eve because without Adam and Eve there would be no sin, without the existence of sin there would be no need for Jesus to die on a cross, as I see it Christianity falls apart for a Christian who accepts evolution. 
The commenter touches on the real problem that evolution has presented to Christianity.   Many of us in this room self-identify as Christian.    I would guess since you are in this church that you affirm evolutionary theory and if a non-scientist like me, you understand it as best as you can.    So we don’t really understand what the silly creationists are going on about. 
But they are probably right in that evolution is a major threat to their faith.   As that commenter said, without Adam and Eve and original sin and Jesus dying on the cross to save from sin, Christianity falls apart.    Why doesn’t Christianity fall apart for the rest of us?    I think the reason is that for many of us Christianity has changed, evolved if you like.

There are many variations of Christianity alive today.  While this congregation may have some similar traits to the Presbyterian congregation up the street from us, there are differences.   Think of the similarities and differences between this congregation and a Roman Catholic congregation in Brazil or a Pentecostal congregation in West Virginia.   What differences and similarities might there be between us and Augustine’s Christianity of the 4th century or that of Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, or John Calvin?   What about the Mormon Church of Mitt Romney or our nearby friends at the Unitarian Universalist church.   Similar yet different?      Many Christians don’t call other Christians “Christians.”  

For the coming two weeks on the radio program, Religion For Life, I speak with philosopher, Daniel Dennett.  He said that dinosaurs in one respect have not died out.   You find many of their traits, for example, in modern birds.    Similarly, religions change or evolve, taking on some characteristics of their ancestors and leaving others behind.    At some point we wonder if what we see really fits our definition any longer.   Can what has evolved be called religion?   Or in the case of Christians who care little for Adam and Eve, original sin, and the substitutionary atonement theory.    Is it Christianity?  

These questions are intense and they involve a great deal of skirmish.   Congregations split from one another and new denominations form because of the perception that one group or another has crossed a line and has given up on an essential tenet of the faith.   Eventually new “species” of church develop.    Obviously I am playing.  I am using biological evolution as a metaphor for religious change.    I think that metaphor can be helpful.   

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Greatest Show On Earth:  The Evidence of Evolution, suggests that Plato and the Platonic ideal has made it difficult for us to accept evolution.   Plato’s concept of forms and ideas has been a barrier.  We think of a rabbit, the form of a real rabbit, and the idea of a rabbit.    In evolutionary thinking there is no idea of a rabbit.  There is a rabbit and if you were able to trace its ancestry you find imperceptible changes from one generation to the next until you were able to compare say 100,000 generations and the current rabbit and you would see that they different animals altogether.

I have photos of my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather.    While there are some changes between my great-grandfather and I, we are still of the same species.    What if I had a photograph of every ancestor back to my 1,000 great- grandfather.  Different?  Yes but still the same species.   Back further to my ten millionth great-grandfather?   That “great to the ten millionth” grandfather would look quite a bit different from me, in fact, not even the same species.    Imperceptible changes from generation to generation, yet over generations, different in kind.     Yet what we call “kind” is based on our snapshot of time in the present and how we categorize “kind.”    

That change in thinking away from Plato “for every form there is an idea,” to “imperceptible changes over generations” is changing the way we think about all kinds of things.    We are connected and fluid.  We are related, that is everything on Earth is related.    When you can acknowledge that you and the banana you had for breakfast have a common ancestor we have moved a long way from the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas who had everything in hierarchical order from god to angels to humans to animals to plants to rocks.   

What might this do to Adam and Eve?   Think of Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, 500 years ago.    For these three highly educated men, the creation of Earth had taken place about 5,500 years before them.  Adam and Eve were real people.  There would have been no reason to doubt that.    In fact, Columbus in his trip to China, not knowing that North and South America were in the way, thought the globe was much smaller.   When he was traveling up the coast of what is now Venezuela, he thought he was approaching the Garden of Eden, literally.  

We look back at that and find that amusing.   Their understanding of the world is 500 years different than ours.  Imperceptible changes over time have occurred since then.   Between the time of Columbus and Calvin and our time, the advances in knowledge have been so profound that we hardly appreciate them.    In their time, they are just starting to get their minds around the possibility that Earth was not the center of the universe.    Darwin was yet to come, several centuries ahead.    Chemistry, biology, geology, physics, and cosmology might as well have been science fiction for them.    Of course, our Christian faith will evolve as well and it has.   How we look at the Bible, the concept of God, Jesus, everything will of course evolve and they have.  
The struggles that we have either within ourselves or between us have to do with this struggle between evolutionary thinking and essentialist thinking.     
I remember when my son was about eight and he asked me if dinosaurs were mentioned in the Bible.   Apparently, his friends were having this discussion at school.  I told him no, that dinosaurs were not mentioned in the Bible.  He asked me why and I told them that the people who wrote the Bible didn’t know about dinosaurs.    That is an obvious answer when we look at religion from an evolutionary point of view.    The Bible is not a revealed word from a divine being.   It is a creation of human beings writing their story as they know it from their point of view.  
From an essentialist viewpoint, the Bible, like God is unchanging.   The doctrines are unchanging.    The world must be explained in light of an unchanging Bible.   The idea of looking at religious doctrines as essential tenets makes it difficult for Christianity to change.    
“We must hold on to this.  We cannot let go of that.” 
Yet the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ might be different from one person to the next.   I am sensitive to this.  I understand the angst that change brings.  However, I think if we accept evolutionary thinking, the metaphor of imperceptible change through time, we can navigate this with more grace.

When we apply an evolutionary point of view to Christianity, we see that no doctrine is unchanging or essential.   We can be all along the spectrum without a particular need to classify if some view or another is “Christian” or not.     You can let go of original sin and substitutionary atonement if you like.  You can let go of an inerrant Bible and of Jesus as a divine being.  You can let go of supernatural theism.   You can let go of all of the doctrines and focus on the ethics or the community.   You don’t even need to make conscious decisions about it.  You can notice that it is simply happening.  

You can do all of that and still retain your Christian identity if you wish.   Or you can let that go too.   It is really OK.  You can take a breath and evolve.    We can allow others to evolve as well.    We can all interact and influence and learn from one another in a non-essentialist, evolutionary community.   Or one group may take a different direction and in a different environment will evolve into another “species” of Christian, like the new denomination that is now breaking away from the Presbyterian Church in order to retain certain essentials they perceive as important.  

My biologist friends must be cringing that I am being so loose with their terms.   I am using this fascinating and important theory of biological evolution and seeing through it a way of looking at other aspects of life including our faith.   Again, I am highlighting that imperceptible change over time leads to something quite different but only when seen from the perspective of many generations of change.    

Since this is the season of the via creativa, the way of creativity and imagination, I am taking that seriously and imagining and creating and mostly just noticing how the Christian faith has evolved.   I speak from my experience.    This isn’t just about me.  In being forthright as I can be about my experience, I trust that others will resonate.    

One of the changes I am seeing is the notion of sacrament.   I remember learning in seminary that sacraments, which for those of the Protestant evolutionary stream include baptism and communion, are quote:  “visible signs of invisible grace.”    The water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion are visible things, yet they signify an invisible reality of grace.    They confer belonging, community, embrace, forgiveness, a sense that we count, that we matter, that life is worth taking another breath for, that we can be loved and can love.    There is more to say, but my experience of spending time with communities that practice these sacraments has done that and more for me.  

I’d like to add a sacrament.   Maybe I can secure your vote on this.    I would like to vote in stargazing as a sacrament.   The trick is we have to do it together.   This is that Protestant evolutionary stream speaking, but sacraments are those things we do in community.    We have to stargaze together or watch the moon together.     I think stargazing in silence with others followed by camaraderie, good cheer, and maybe even a song, give us a sense of grace and belonging.    Stars are a visible sign of invisible grace.    I think it is our Christian duty to take sacred time with them.

This amazing universe that science is presenting to us can be overwhelming in a negative way if we don’t put our energies into making it and those who inhabit it sacred.   The beauty of religion is that at its best it does take the time to notice the sacred and to provide rituals for the sacred.   If our religions can evolve out of their doctrines and into the world, into the universe, into life, we can do a lot to help offer a sense of the sacred and a sense of sacred ritual to the beauty that surrounds us and to help us embrace even that which is not so beautiful.

On this Evolution Sunday, I honor the patron saint, Charles Darwin, and I honor the world that he opened up to us.  I honor stargazers and scientists, poets, artists, and music-makers, pastors, priests, and parishioners, all of us, who open minds and hearts to life in all its splendor.