Friday, September 30, 2022

The Gospel of Ruth

I am presently part of an online Bible Study at our church. I am not the leader, just a participant. So I get to throw in my “two cents” along with all the other two-centers. It is the first time since I retired six years ago that I am participating in a study at this church. God bless the present pastor for welcoming me!

We are studying the Old Testament book of Ruth. Ruth is a favorite of many Christians. It ordinarily presented as a love story about a righteous man who meets a virtuous woman and live happily ever after. While focusing on the romance, the radical nature of the book is often overlooked.

It is one of only two books in the Old Testament that has a woman as the main character. The other book is Esther, which was likely written at about the same time. The Book of Ruth is written from a woman’s perspective. The husbands of Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, are killed off in the opening verses before we get to know anything about them. The other men – except for Boaz – are minor characters in the story.

Because it is written from a woman’s perspective, it is thought by some biblical scholars that the Book of Ruth may have been written by a woman. That would make it unique in the Bible. Of course we don’t know the book’s authorship for sure. The book is anonymous, which is what we would expect if it had been authored by a woman. If it was known to be written by a woman, it never would have made it into the canon.

Not only is the central character a woman, she is a Moabite. Moabites were the historic enemies of the Hebrews. This Moabite marries Boaz, who is the son of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute from Jericho, a “sinner” in the eyes of religious society.  Yet the genealogy at the end of the book informs us that Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David, the greatest Jewish king.

That genealogy in the final sentence of the book is the reason Ruth was written. It reveals that foreigners were an integral part of the history of Israel. In doing so, it challenged the teaching of the Torah, which said that no descendant of a Moabite could enter the temple. Yet David had such ancestors, and his son Solomon built the temple.

The book of Ruth is “protest literature.” It was written at a time when anti-women and anti-foreigner moralists had taken over the government in Jerusalem. It is probable that the Book of Ruth was written in the fifth century BC, when Ezra was purging Israel of all foreigners – Moabites in particular.  Ezra required all Jewish men who had married foreign women to divorce them publicly and send them and their children away.

Nehemiah followed up on Ezra’s reforms with a building program to construct a wall to keep foreigners out of Jerusalem. It does not take much thinking to see parallels to policies popular in American society today. The Book of Ruth was written to challenge the narrative that religious fundamentalists were preaching. It was pointing out that if one looks into the history of Israel one can see that diversity did not threaten Israel but rather strengthened it.

I call the Book of Ruth radical. The etymology of the word “radical” means “root.” We get the English word “radish” from it. The root of true Biblical spirituality is not about building walls to keep people out but drawing the circle wider. It is not about priding ourselves on being God’s chosen people and excluding others. It is about seeing that God’s people have always included all types of people.

That is the root of the gospel of Jesus, who reached out to foreigners and sinners. Jesus declared that a Roman soldier had more faith than anyone in Israel. He said that “sinners” were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the Sadducees and Pharisees, who were the heirs of Ezra. This is the Gospel of Ruth. It is as controversial today as it was when the Book of Ruth was written.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Living in the Moor

This summer my wife celebrated her seventieth birthday, thereby joining me in exploring the eighth decade of our lives together. I have another seventy-something birthday coming up in a few days. The other day we were chatting with a friend about this milestone of life. This friend said her mother used to call this stage of life “living in the more.”

She explained that Psalm 90 describes the human lifespan as “threescore years and ten” (seventy years) and if “by reason of strength” we are granted more, it is an added blessing. She called that additional time “living in the more.”

When she said “living in the more” I thought I heard “living in the moor.” I immediately imagined the moorland of Britain. Sherlock Holmes’ case of The Hound of the Baskervilles came to mind. In that tale a demonic hound was said to inhabit the moors. 

Dr. Watson describes the moor as “gloomy,” “sinister,” “so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious,” “like some fantastic landscape in a dream.” It is an “enormous wilderness of peat and granite,” where squalls drift across the russet face of “the melancholy downs” and “heavy, slate-coloured clouds” trail “in grey wreaths down the sides of the fantastic hills.”

Brrrr! I feel like pulling up my collar and turning down my deerstalker cap just reading about it! In a personal letter to his mother, Arthur Conan Doyle called the moor “a great place, very sad & wild.” In Wuthering Heights the moor is described as “unleashed, mad and dangerous.” Hmm! Perhaps I better go back to the Shire.

When I looked to the dictionary, it defined a moor as “a tract of open uncultivated upland; a heath.” That sounds a bit better. My experience of my seventies is very much like that. It is an uncultivated land filled with possibilities and pitfalls. There are not many roadmaps for this territory. Everyone seems to blaze their own trail. My type of place.

When they age, some people seek to relive their earlier decades, warding off old age by trying to recover their youth. It is the senior equivalent of a midlife crisis, except in our seventies we are not midway to anywhere. No one lives to be 140. 

Others retreat into the past, reliving old memories. Still others spend their later years entertaining themselves with television and small talk until the undertaker arrives. A few reinvent themselves with a “second act” or perhaps a “third act.” Good for them!

The seventies are not without their physical limitations as the body ages. Instead of going to the doctor for cures, more often we go to manage symptoms. Either that or opt for new bionic joints, which are not without their problems. 

So far I have found my seventies to be a time of spiritual adventure and discovery. In retirement the restraints of theological norms and ecclesiastical pressures are gone. I am free to be “unleashed, mad and dangerous.”

Classical India understood the latter part of life to be a time to put aside the concerns of earlier stages of life and dedicate oneself to spiritual concerns. Having spent my whole adult life in religious concerns, I find this stage to be doubly spiritual. Old dogmas fall away in the light of direct spiritual awareness. Prejudices and divisions are seen as petty exercises in egotism. There is no longer any time to waste in fear and anger. The psalmist sang:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away…. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

It is important to number our days. Whether our years be threescore years and ten or “by reason of strength” fourscore years or more, one day they will be cut off, and we will fly away. As the gospel hymn reminds us: “One glad morning, when this life is over, I'll fly away.”  In the meantime I am “living in the moor,” and I have found it to be the Kingdom of God.

Monday, September 5, 2022

The Preacher as Gadfly

Here in New Hampshire we have a healthy population of biting flies. In fact we have a season named after one variety: black fly season. It comes after mud season and before tourist season. In May and June one cannot walk down the street of our village without being swarmed.

But black flies are nothing compared to deer flies and horseflies, which can really take a chunk out of you all summer long. Biting flies hurt! They are a nuisance. For that reason I think they are a good metaphor for a preacher. Good preaching should have a bite! Preachers should function like horseflies in a congregation and community.

There is a well-known adage that the pastor’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I agree, but there is a lot of comforting going on in churches these days and very little afflicting. In this time of declining church attendance, pastors are afraid that if they engaged in prophetic preaching, pew warmers might take their checkbooks and leave. So pastors pamper the remaining church members instead of challenging them.  That is why so many adult church members have not advanced beyond Sunday School faith.

It is time for some prophetic preaching from Christian pulpits. Better yet, some Socratic preaching. Socrates famously said that his role as a philosopher was to be a gadfly, which is a generic term for all varieties of biting flies. He saw his mission as causing discomfort to his fellow Athenians. He was so successful that he was put on trial for “impiety.” He "failed to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges." The Greek word for impiety is asebeia, defined as "desecration and mockery of divine objects" and "irreverence towards the state gods." 

He was also charged with “corruption of the youth of the city-state.” The Greek word is polis, from which we get the word political. It does not take much thinking to see current applications. This reminds me of the charges brought against Jesus by Jerusalem’s religious and political leaders. Both Socrates and Jesus were found guilty of blasphemy and treason and were executed. Both could have escaped execution but chose not to.

Socrates carried out his teaching mission by the now-famous “Socratic Method.” Socrates did not provide answers. He asked questions. Lots of questions. No statement went unchallenged. He questioned every belief of his students and insisted that every assertion be backed up with evidence. This technique exposed a person’s unexamined presuppositions and assumptions. It revealed that most people live by borrowed ideas.  

Practicing this discipline of critical thinking makes us very aware of how many of our cherished beliefs have been unconsciously adopted from our families and communities, rather than tested and proven by reason.  The process of Socratic thinking is much needed in our time when conspiracy theories are rampant in America, especially in Christian churches. 

I find myself using the Socratic Method more and more in my preaching and teaching. By posing rhetorical questions while preaching and asking pointed questions when conversing, I encourage people to question everything in their spiritual and political worldview. In other words, I commit asebeia (impiety) and “corrupt the youth [and elderly] of the state” and church. I "fail to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges."

I question the false gods of all religions, especially my own Christian religion. As I said in a recent podcast episode entitled “Smashing idols,” I demolish false gods, of which there are many in American Christianity. To use the apostle Paul’s term, I “demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God….”

Not the least of Christian idolatries is bibliolatry, which is the deification of Scripture. There is also the divinization of doctrine and church tradition. Finally there is the idolizing of Jesus himself. The God worshipped in many churches is a false god fashioned in our cultural image and likeness. As the gadfly Voltaire famously said, “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.”

The Socratic Method goes against the current trend of American culture. We live in a post-modern and post-truth society. There is no search for truth, just opposing self-interests. There is little self-reflection or self-examination these days. Every discussion degenerates into a debate, rather than being a shared search for deeper truth. Preaching has become polemic, and dialogue is replaced with diatribe.

Amid this decaying American culture I seek to play the role of the gadfly. Be careful! I bite! I preached a sermon recently in our community church entitled “Hiding from God,” showing how churches develop elaborate systems for hiding from Divine Truth. It is the preacher’s task to expose such self-deceptions. 

It is gadfly season in the church. It is time for some preaching with a bite. We preachers are to afflict people so they have nowhere to turn but to the Balm of Gilead, the Living God. 

Monday, August 29, 2022

Footprints in the Soul

The summer drought has uncovered some interesting finds throughout the world. As waters recede, relics long hidden have been revealed. In Europe the lowered Danube River has exposed German WWII ships, complete with 10,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance. The foundation of a 2000 year-old bridge was exposed in the Tiber River near Rome. West of Madrid a 5000 year-old megalith comparable to Stonehenge came to the surface. Of more recent vintage, a receding Lake Mead has produced several human remains, perhaps reminders of Las Vegas’ mobster era.

The most interesting find comes from Texas. The drought uncovered evidence of a lost species: a Texas liberal Democrat! Only joking! Although what they found was almost as rare. The footprints of a 113 million year-old dinosaur were discovered at Dinosaur Valley State Park. The prints of the three-toed Acrocanthosaurus were found in the dry river bed of the Paluxy River, southwest of Fort Worth. They were preserved by sediments of the river.

In his novella (and movie) “A River Runs Through It,” Norman Maclean remembers the people of Big Blackfoot River in Montana. He concludes the book, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

A mountain stream caused MacLean to ponder the “timeless raindrops” etched into stone and write his novel. As I ponder the ancient footprints of dinosaurs, I think of what can be found in ancient depths of the human soul. Some say each soul is unique, formed at birth, which means mine is a mere seven decades old. Others thinks that the human soul is at least as ancient as our species, and probably as ancient as life on earth.

In my experience the spiritual essence found in the depths of my being is older than that. It is eternal. Ecclesiastes wrote: “God has placed eternity in the heart of men, yet they cannot fathom the work that God has done from beginning to end.”

Before there was the idea of God, there was the Nameless. This is what was revealed to Moses in the burning bush. “I am that I am” explained Yahweh, when Moses’ asked God’s name. “Before Abraham was, I am,” said Jesus, thereby exposing himself to charges of blasphemy, which resulted in this execution.

The human soul bears witness to this Divine Reality. For most of our lives this Timeless Truth is hidden beneath the rushing waters of daily life. When a spiritual drought descends upon our lives in the form of the Dark Night of the Soul, the waters dry up and the soul is revealed. At those times we can see the footprints of God etched across its surface.

Our human soul bears evidence of its ancient and divine origin. The soul (if you want to use that term) is older than we are, existing long before our birth. It is older than the human race, older than mammals, older than the dinosaurs that roamed Texas, older than the first one-celled organism that was born from earth’s primeval ocean. Older than the Earth, our solar system and our galaxy. Older than the Big Bang that formed the universe.

Its human form is just the most recent expression of this ancient Reality. Some want to give this Ultimate Reality a name and build a religion around it. Some people want to claim this ancient Truth as their sole possession, with them as the sole spokesmen and apostles. I harbor no such fantasy. This is bigger than my religion or my human race.

I am nothing in comparison, no more than a rain drop in the mud. No more than an eddy in an earthly river. Yet my roots go deep into this ancient bedrock. From it I draw upon the waters of life. This is my life. This alone is real. All else is as transient as footprints in the mud, even if those footprints are hardened into rock that lasts 113 million years.

Dinosaur fossils will melt away in time. Our human species will disappear, as longer-lived species have died out before us. Our names, nations, cultures and religions will be forgotten, but the Nameless One is eternal. To find ourselves in this Nameless One is to find our true selves. That is what the Bible means by being found “in Christ.”

Droughts are difficult times, but they can reveal priceless treasure, if we keep our eyes open. This is what Jesus called the “pearl of great price,” and “treasure hidden in the field.” It is worth all we possess, even our lives, if we are willing to pay that price. Why not? As Jim Eliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Beyond Relationship with God

Many Christians talk about having a relationship with God. Evangelicals in particular speak of the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They usually say this begins when one “receives Jesus into your heart” or “accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior.”

Evangelicals frequently distinguish themselves from mainline Protestants and Catholics by saying that these other groups have religion, but “born again” believers have a relationship with God, and that makes all the difference. The slogan goes something like this: “It is not a religion. It is a relationship” or “It is not about religion; it is about a relationship with God.”

I go one step further. I say, “It is not about religion or relationship. It is about realization.” By “realization” I am referring to waking up to the Spiritual Reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Jesus referred to this as being “born of the Spirit” and “born again,” by which he meant something very different from the evangelical conversion experience. Jesus also called it eternal life, which is likewise very different from popular Christianity’s fantasy of a heavenly theme park.

Mainline and Evangelical Christianity may be fine as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. There is nothing wrong with religion when it is psychologically and socially healthy religion. Likewise there is nothing wrong with having a relationship with God when it is a healthy relationship. But there is more to the spiritual life than a relationship. 

You have heard the saying, “The good is the enemy of the best.” A relationship with God can be the enemy of the best. Jesus invited this followers to go beyond religion and relationship to realization.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night before his death Jesus offered a lengthy prayer, which is often referred to as his High Priestly Prayer. First he prayed for himself, and then he prayed for his apostles. Finally Jesus prays “not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” He is talking about his followers in future generations. This is what he prays for us:

“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

Jesus says we are meant to know the same oneness with God as he knew. Jesus is talking about more than having a closer walk with God. He is speaking of transcending relationship. He is speaking about union with God, which is something Christian mystics – East and West - have always said is possible. Eastern Orthodoxy has long taught this truth, calling it theosis.

Jesus wanted us to have more than a relationship with God or himself. He wanted us to know union with God like he knew it. He promised that we would “participate in the divine nature,” as the Epistle of Second Peter describes it. 

Union with God does not negate a relationship with God; it transcends and fulfills it. It is analogous to Jesus saying he came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. Realization of oneness with God fulfills both religion and relationship.

There is more to the spiritual life than most  churches teach. Christian spirituality is more than religion or relationship. It is realization of oneness with God. Jesus prayed that we might know this oneness. The First Letter of John says that if we pray anything according to the will of God, it will be done. Jesus prayed according to the will of God, and his prayer has been answered. Now it is just a matter of realizing this union with God in our lives. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Death of God Revisited

I recently received the new (July 27) issue of The Christian Century. The cover story is about the end of the Roe era. The other topic highlighted on the cover is “Revisiting the Death of God Movement.” The essay inside is entitled “Is God Still Dead? The Legacy of 1960s Radical Theology,” written by Lloyd Steffen, chaplain at Lehigh University. The issue also contains an autobiographical piece entitled “When My Dad Killed God” by Don Hamilton, son of the Death of God theologian Bill Hamilton. Reading these articles was an exercise in nostalgia.

I remember when God died. The death of God changed my life. It made me into the Christian pastor I am today. When Time magazine published its iconic red and black 1966 cover with the words “Is God Dead?” I was a teenager struggling with my family’s Christian faith. At the time I was in a Methodist-related school taking a Philosophy of Religion class with our school chaplain. He brought the Time article to class, and we discussed what it meant to say that God was dead.

I entered Denison University (at the time a Baptist affiliated college) in 1968 planning to have a career in science. I took an introductory religion course to satisfy the liberal arts requirement. David O. Woodyard, Dean of the Chapel, was teaching the course. He had just published a book entitled Living Without God, Before God.  In the class he surveyed the works of radical theologians Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton, Gabriel Vahanian, and Paul van Buren. The course turned my life around. A year later I had switched my major to Religion.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Death of God Movement brought me to God. The chief concern in the 1960’s was how to do theology in a post-WWII, post-Holocaust era. In the Religion department we thought long and deep about the problems of evil and suffering. We debated Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” We discussed Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl. We read Niebuhr and Barth, Brunner and Buber, Tillich and Heschel. I was hooked. After graduation I went to seminary.

How does the death of God lead a man to a life of professional Christian ministry? For me Death of God theology was the first taste of religion that took existential problems seriously. It offered no easy answers; it was willing to go wherever truth led. It was utterly honest at a time when institutional religion seemed shallow, judgmental and hypocritical. For example, Death of God theologian Bill Hamilton lost his job as a professor at Colgate Rochester Divinity School (a seminary related to my American Baptist denomination) because of his theological and intellectual honesty.

If you are not familiar with the radical theologians of the 1960’s, there is not room enough in this brief essay to fill you in. I will simply say that the Death of God is likely not what you think it is, or what most church people in the 1960’s thought it was. It is about the death of theism, both fundamentalist and liberal varieties. Neither camp has yet come to grips with the obituary a half century later. It was the death of the “god of the gaps,” the demise of a shrinking deity whose only job was to fill in the remaining gaps in the answers science offered about the nature and origin of the universe.

The death of God movement was about going beyond words and ideas, beyond institutional religion and spiritual fads. The death of God led me to the Christian mystics while still an undergraduate. After seminary graduation I was lured into the wilderness of evangelical Christianity for a few decades, but eventually I returned to my spiritual roots to deconstruct my religion and rediscover God beyond God, to use Meister Eckhart’s phrase. I have chronicled this theological journey in my books Thank God for Atheists and Experiencing God Directly.

There is a well-known Buddhist saying: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” This is not really a call to assassinate a spiritual leader. Similarly the death of God is not really about deicide. It is about dethroning idols and intellectually dismantling the religions built around them. One cannot see clearly until one’s idols are dead and buried. This iconoclastic quest led me to the Eternal Christ. That is what the Death of God did for me. 

Friday, July 15, 2022

Galactic Spirituality

The heavens leave me in awe. I am not talking about the celestial abode of a Hebraic male deity sitting on a celestial throne surrounded by angels. I am talking about the scientific images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope released this week by NASA.

The fact that this new telescope is one million miles away is itself amazing. The recent photos taken by this instrument bring me to my knees. Viewing these pictures of nebulae and galaxies has the same effect on me as any religious vision described by Isaiah or Ezekiel. Modern astronomy is a spiritual experience.

The first image unveiled by President Biden on July 11 was revelatory. The deep field image enlarges a portion of sky about the size of a grain of sand when held at arm’s length. Take a moment to demonstrate that for yourself and notice how small this field of view is.

Thousands of galaxies are visible within this tiny segment of the heavens. William Blake could “see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.” We can see galaxies. Every tiny speck in the photo is a galaxy containing a hundred billion stars and countless worlds. If that many galaxies are visible in a field the size of a grain of sand, just imagine how many galaxies there are in the entire universe!

The feeling I get when pondering such wonders can only be described as religious awe. Witnessing stars being born in the in the Carina Nebula is akin to the magi witnessing the Star of Bethlehem. Seeing stars dying in the Southern Ring Nebula is like being present at the Cross. Watching Stephan’s Quintet of galaxies dancing in the heavens is Pentecostal. I feel honored to be part of a generation that can witness this miracle.

Astronomer Carl Sagan famously said that humans are the universe conscious of itself. That quote came to mind when I saw these newest photos. While viewing these images I was the universe conscious of itself. I was not observing distant objects out in space. I was looking in the mirror. These are me. These are us. The Webb pictures are selfies.

Sagan explained that the elements that make up our bodies were literally formed in stars. He called us “star stuff.” He said, “The cosmos is within us.” He sounds more like a mystic than an astronomer.  

Human consciousness emerged from these elements through the same evolutionary process that formed the heavenly bodies. It is the same process that undoubtedly formed intelligent life on other planets. Once again Sagan said, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

When I was younger I used to gaze into the heavens on clear night and feel small. The universe seemed so big, and I felt so small. My lifespan seemed no more than that of a mayfly compared to the 13.8 billion years of the universe. Now when I look into the starry heavens I feel big. I am billions of years old! I feel ageless.  

This human psyche that calls itself Marshall Davis is not ageless. It is a temporary phenomenon, an ephemeral fiction created by the brain, a brief whirlpool in the river of time, a blip in the cosmic drama. My essence – our essence – is as old as the universe. Older than the universe.

I look into the heavens, and I see God. No need to go in search of God in creeds and rituals. God is here now! Look and see. This is cosmic spirituality. Adherents of earthly religions can fight over political turf within nations and among nations, but the God of the cosmos has more galactic things in mind. If you have any doubt about that, just look through the Webb Telescope and watch galaxies collide.