Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hole in My Soul

Krista Tippett (of NPR’s Speaking of Faith, now called Being) is moderating a discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences in December entitled "Perspectives on the Self." The first session is called; "To Be or Not to Be: The Self as Illusion." That might seem like esoterica to most folks, but it is right up my alley.

What is the soul? What is the self? And how is the immaterial aspect of humans related to the physical. It is the old body-soul debate in new clothing.

After building the Jerusalem temple Solomon stood back and wondered what he had been thinking when he started the project.  "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built?” Solomon knew that it is impossible. His temple project was a failed concept.

It is said that God dwelled in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple, especially the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant. How can this be? How can the infinite inhabit the finite? How can the immaterial indwell the material?  How can the spaceless be in a contained space?

If this is true of religious temples, is it not also true of the human body and soul? How can a soul or spirit inhabit a body? The apostle Paul complicates matters by talking about “spiritual bodies” at the resurrection. What the heck are those? It is like speaking of square circles.

The first time I heard Norah Jones’ song “Creepin In,” I thought she was singing, “There's a big ol' hole that goes right through my soul.” (Actually she says “sole” – as in shoe leather - but I heard “soul.”) I perceive a hole in my soul – a big ol’ hole – and it seems like it is getting bigger all the time, and eternity is creepin in.

The hole is now big enough for me to see through. It is like a built-in Hubble telescope peering into the depths of space. Through this hole in my soul I glimpse the universe and its Creator. It is like one of those wizardly tents in the Harry Potter novels. It appears small on the outside, but when you step inside it is enormous. My soul feels boundless when I step inside.

I am getting much too esoteric here. But my point is important – at least to me. What is the essence of a human being? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience." Furthermore, what does this say about the Incarnation – God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ?

Anyway, here I am pondering my holey soul and the holy God. As I look into the depths I do not see anything that appears to be me. All I see is what is not-me. Where did I go? Perhaps I slipped through that widening hole in my soul.
Image is “The Flame Pierced a Hole through My Soul” by Esther Alinejad. Stoneware, wire, bone ash, and cayenne Pepper.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What to say at the Pearly Gates

If a street evangelist should ask you if you are saved, just answer, “No, and neither are you.” (That is sure to spark an interesting conversation.) The truth is that you are not saved, and neither is the imaginary street preacher. Nor am I. By this I mean that the “I” and the “you” cannot be saved. The “I” and the “you” are what must be lost in order to be saved.

One of the most pervasive misunderstandings concerning the Kingdom of God is that it is populated by little “I”s and “you”s - little “me”s that possess private mansions in the sky in which to store “my” heavenly treasures. The mansion is our Father’s house, and he is our treasure.

There are no “I”s and “you”s in heaven. That would be hell. I can imagine nothing worse than living with this ego of mine for all eternity. I am sick and tired of it already; I cannot wait to shed it!

When one is “born again” (to use another misunderstood concept) the “I” dies in order for eternal life to be gained. “I” and “you” cannot inherit eternal life, any more than flesh and blood can. Only God has eternal life. We only share in it when we are God’s. Salvation is not something that we possess; it is something – or more accurately Someone – who possesses us.

Jesus said that you have to lose your life to gain it, and that you have to lose your soul to save it. The apostle Paul described this condition as being “in Christ.” There is no room for “I” and “you” in Christ. “Christ is all in all.” To be in Christ you have to leave yourself outside. Paul explained, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Picture the clich├ęd Pearly Gates and Saint Pete standing guard – just like in all those newspaper cartoons. You come knocking on the iridescent portal. The apostolic voice asks, “Who’s there?” If this should happen to you, the correct answer is “No one.” Then he will say, “Right answer! Enter into the joy of your Master!”

If Saint Peter were to ask you why you should be allowed into heaven, the proper answer is “I shouldn’t.” Not just because of your unworthiness (which is certainly true) but more importantly because “I”s and “you”s are not allowed in heaven. They must be left outside, like shoes left at the threshold of a mosque.

There are times on earth when we experience this selflessness. There are moments when the boundaries of the self blur and the soul dissolves. At those times we see that the Kingdom of God is not “up there” or “in the future.” We are in the midst of it here and now… when our eyes are open.

It is the unself that is saved. That which is not-you is what survives the dissolution of our mortal frames. Don’t worry; you won’t miss yourself. The self was never yours to begin with. It is just personal baggage that we have picked up along way to help navigate our earthly lives. You will be glad to set down both your body and your self at death.

Then who will we be, if we are not ourselves? We will be the image of God as we were originally created to be. We are mirrors held up to the Eternal One. When he looks at us standing at the gate, he sees the reflection of his Son. Then he will exclaim, “Welcome home, son!” When you hear those words, just say, “Thanks, Dad. It is good to be home.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What I Learned From the New Atheists

I have been reading books by atheists for months. I have been reading the so-called New Atheists – men like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. I have been rereading some of the “old atheists” like Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud. I read the Harvard humanist Greg Epstein and the atheist turned theist Antony Flew.

The most interesting book I read was “Why I Became an Atheist” by former evangelical pastor, John Loftus. The most disturbing was “Bible Stories Your Parents Never Taught You” by Mike Earl. If you want your understanding of Scripture challenged, listen to this free audiobook

Why have I delved into atheism so thoroughly? I did not do it to gather apologetic ammunition for use against atheists. I did not do it to assure myself that I was right and they were wrong. I did it for the sake of truth – to see if perhaps I had been wrong after all.

My doctor insists I get a complete physical examination every year. But I had not undergone a complete spiritual examination in decades. This was a complete examination, including the spiritual equivalents of a prostate exam and colonoscopy, and it was just as pleasant.

At sixty I am not the same man – physically or spiritually – as I was when I became a Christian at age 22. It was time to make sure that the faith I embraced as a young man still rang true to the older man I had become. If God were really nothing more than an imaginary friend, I did not want to waste any more time with the fantasy.

I wanted to find out if the atheists were right, if I had indeed believed an illusion (as Freud calls religion) or a delusion (as Richard Dawkins calls theism.) I wanted to examine my beliefs as critically as possible and see if they passed the test. I wanted to challenge my faith in the light of science, history, and reason as honestly and thoroughly as possible.

In the process I had to come face to face with the terrible things that Christians have done and taught in the name of Christ. I also had to confront the pervasive violence in the Bible done by God’s people at the command of God. I had to look carefully at the doctrine of hell and the question of theodicy. (Why is there suffering and evil in the world?)

I reasoned through the philosophical arguments for God’s existence. I reevaluated the Christian doctrine of creation in light of modern science. I revisited the issues of miracles and prayer. In short, I examined every aspect of Christianity from the perspective of skepticism.

This spiritual exam was painful. It was humbling. In a sermon entitled “Thank God for the New Atheists” Michael Dowd argues that the New Atheists are playing the role of prophets to the Church, much like the Hebrew prophets did for Israel. I think he might be onto something. God may be using those outside the church to speak hard truth to the church. At least they spoke hard truth to me.

I have come through my spiritual self-examination as a changed man, but a stronger Christian. I know that was not the intent of the atheists. They are trying to convince their readers that there is no evidence for belief in God, much less faith in Jesus Christ.

What I learned from the atheists was that unexamined faith is not worth living (to reword Socrates’ famous quote.) Christians can to do better than wear cultural and intellectual blinders and mindlessly parrot the pronouncements of religious authorities. If the gospel is to be taken seriously by thinking people, then we Christians need to do some serious thinking ourselves.

The reason the American church is so theologically, spiritually and morally weak is because we have an uncritical faith. We believe before we think, and often do not think at all. What is needed is an intelligent faith that has thought through the serious questions being asked today. 

What did I learn from atheists? I learned how important it is to question my assumptions, and to doubt everything I hear or read. I learned to sift fact from fantasy. In the end I know that God is real, Jesus is Lord, and that the Christianity is a reasonable faith … for those who use reason faithfully.
Image includes New Atheists, from left to right: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Polly Toynbee, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Martin Amis

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Relax & Enjoy Life

There is a religious war raging in the British Isles. Not between Catholics and Protestants, or between Muslims and Christians. This is between atheists and Christians. The British Humanist Association has been running an Atheist Bus Campaign for almost two years.

It is designed as a response to the “Jesus Said” ads, which feature a series of verses spoken by Jesus. They include banners that read, “JESUS said, “I am the resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me shall live.”

Atheists reacted with their own ads. All across the United Kingdom, buses have advertisements that bear the slogan, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In a further response the Christian Party ran counter-ads that read, “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.”

Both the atheist ads and the Christian Party ads have been the target of lawsuits. Now it is not just a war of words, but a legal war as well.

I have been reading a lot of atheist writings recently, but these ads reveal what atheists really think about religion. They obviously think that if you are a theist then you worry and do not enjoy life. For them, faith means being troubled and joyless.

These atheist assumptions are disturbing. This means that the Christian gospel is not being communicated well. Salvation actually means peace and joy, as well as a number of other “fruit of the spirit.” The fact that Christianity apparently represents just the opposite to British society means that something is clearly wrong – either with the church or with the church’s image.

I suspect that it may mean that Christians are not exhibiting these Godly qualities that attract people to Christ. Humanists look at the church and only see a bunch of unhappy people who cannot enjoy life because they are afraid of divine judgment.

That is exactly the opposite of what true Christianity is about! The gospel means freedom from all fear, doubt, guilt and worry. It is joy in the Holy Spirit. It is deep peace that the world cannot give, to quote Jesus. But this message is obviously not being communicated to Brits.

The other possibilities are that humanists really do not understand Christianity or they are deliberately misrepresenting Christianity.  Both of these are unlikely. My perception is that humanists and atheists know Christianity at least as well as Christians do, and are no more deceitful than the average bloke. 

In any case, believers need to change people’s perceptions of Christianity by truly living our faith. Christians - Inform your face what your heart knows. Practice what you preach. No one cares what Jesus said unless they see that it makes a difference in your life. 

Slogans on the side of buses do not convince anyone, one way or the other. Bus advertisements apparently just result in lawsuits and more ill will. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.”

The best thing that can be done … to use the atheists own words … is relax and enjoy life. “Either God exists or He doesn’t. Relax and enjoy life!” Now that is a slogan both sides can agree on!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Living Silence

To quote the famous sage, Sister Maria of Salzburg, when I am in the mountains I hear the sound of music. I don’t twirl around and sing aloud. (Please get that image out of your mind!) I stand still and listen to the sound of the mountains. At the risk of sounding like Paul Simon, it is the sound of silence.

There is a quality of silence heard only in wild places. It is different than regular silence, like the difference between tap water and spring water – not the kind out of a plastic bottle, but direct from a spring.

When I was a child I used to visit my grandparents who had a cabin in New Hampshire. They had a hand pump in the kitchen that drew water from the lake for washing. But if you wanted a drink, you had to walk down a winding path to a spring and dip a ladle in the water. Jesus called such water “living water.” Living water is running water, as opposed to still water.

The silence in the mountains is living silence, as opposed to the dead silence of human places. You can’t usually hear it near human habitations. There is too much noise pollution, even in rural areas. The only place I hear it is in far into the mountains.

I heard it again last week in the White Mountains of New Hampshire - in Bear Notch, where we stopped to view the patchwork of colors on the valleys below. I heard it earlier at the end of the dirt road where our son and his family live on Mountain Road in South Tamworth. At the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the mountains, one can hear silence.

This is the silence I hear in prayer. It sounds like the voice of God. It speaks. It stirs the emotions. It enlivens the heart. It invigorates the soul. It is nourishment for the human spirit.

Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” I don’t think he was talking about Bible reading. I think he was talking about silence.

The psalmist describes the natural voices of heaven and earth: “They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.”

That is why Jesus often went into the wilderness to be by himself. He was feeding on silence. I need silence. When I don’t have my Minimum Daily Requirement of it, I get “out-of-sorts.” Silence keeps me sane.

It is best when gathered in wild places – mountains, oceans and forests. But a prayer closet provides the next best thing. Right beneath the skin of the soul, divine silence lives.

It is like when you put a seashell to your ear and hear the sound of the sea. When I get to my knees and press my ear to my soul, I hear the silence of the mountains. For a few minutes I dwell in sacred space, and feed upon the silent word of God.
Photo is “Mountain Silence” by Peathor

Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Evangelical by Any Other Name

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” wrote Gertrude Stein nearly one hundred years ago. Juliet said about her Montague boyfriend, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Can we say the same thing about evangelicals?

What is an evangelical? There is a continuing conversation about the meaning of the term. Baptists have struggled with the label for decades. (Read the ABP story of this struggle.) I have used it as convenient shorthand for communicating my acceptance of traditional Christian doctrine, but I have chafed under the unwelcome connotations of the term.

In many people’s minds it is synonymous with the religious right, and I am certainly not that. It smells like fundamentalism to many people. It carries with it an anti-scientific connotation and a Republican social agenda, neither of which I embrace.

I used the word in the subtitle of my book, “More Than a Purpose.” I described my approach an “An Evangelical Response to Rick Warren and the Megachuch Movement.” I wouldn’t use the same words today.

It does not have the meaning it once did. It is both too big and too small. If the term can embrace both Joel Osteen and Billy Graham, then it has become theologically meaningless. If it can include both James Dobson of the religious Right and Jim Wallis of the religious left, then it no longer has social content.

The only thing the term is good for is to engender misunderstanding and emotion. Instead of clarifying one’s position, it confuses it. It prompts emotional reactions that are not conducive to communication and understanding.

Religious and theological labels are misleading. I don’t like them. Apparently neither does God. Moses tried to pin the Lord down with a name, so he would something to legitimize his mission to the Hebrews in Egypt. The frustrated Lord finally shouted, “I am who I am. Tell them, ‘I am’ has sent you!”

So am I. I am who I am. If you want who know who I am, don’t pin labels to me. Talk to me. Don’t call me liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, evangelical or emergent.

Even the word “Christian” is misleading these days, being used to describe people who burn Qurans and picket military funerals while holding signs that read: "God Hates Gays." I have nothing in common with them.

People use labels for other people so they don’t have to listen to them. This past year I have been intentionally listening to a much larger variety of voices. I have listened carefully to people like Muslims and atheists. I thought I already knew who they were. I was wrong; all I had were labels and preconceptions.

The same is true of me. I don’t even know what I am; how can anyone else label me? An evangelical is not an evangelical any more. Neither do they smell so sweet these days.  

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Touching Eternity

I bought my daughter an old pendant this week. I am not talking antique; I am talking ancient – 450 million years old! It is an ammonite fossil embedded in rock, shaped as a pendant. I bought it at the fair at a “gems & minerals” booth for $8.

When I think of ammonites, I am used to thinking of the Biblical people, the descendants of Lot and his daughters. But these ancient denizens of the deep are much more inspiring. When I hold a fossil like this, it fills me with a sense of awe.

It is the same feeling I get when gazing into the heavens on a starry night or when standing on a mountaintop. The time spans of natural history prompt in me a feeling of vastness and spaciousness that I can only describe as spiritual.

I learned from biologist Richard Dawkins (in his book “The God Delusion”) that atheists feel the same thing, which means it is not a religious experience. But it is definitely an awe-inspiring experience.

For me it is like touching eternity. I cannot conceive of eternity with my crude mammalian mind, but I can approach it through natural objects like this fossil. It is my bridge to the infinite.

It is one way I approach God. When I hold a fossil in my hand, I reach back across the eons to the infancy of life on earth. Terrestrial life is young by cosmic standards. This fossil is barely a tenth of the age of the earth, which is only a third of the age of the universe.

Who knows how many universes there were before this universe? One theory of our universe holds that the Big Bang that started it all is just the latest in a string of bangs that may have been pulsating forever.

When I hold a 450 million year mollusk in my hand, my body feels how short my life is. My lifespan is no more than a blink of an angel’s eyelash. Yet God cares for me.

As the psalmist says, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain!”

I bought my daughter a chunk of eternity today. I hope it inspires the same awe in her does in me. It is not expensive, but it is priceless.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Eyes of a Child

Our time in New Hampshire is coming to an end. As I look back on our visit here, one of the dominant features is babies – lots of them. As a pastor I have always been around babies. I was often one of the first people to hold newborns, sometimes even before the grandparents. I have greeted almost every baby in my congregations with a hug and a prayer before they were 24 hours old. Now having been out of the ministry for over a year, I have become baby-deprived. I have made up for it this trip.

During the last two months, I have not only held my own grandchildren almost every day, I have also babysat and visited with a host of other infants and toddlers. It turns out that when your children are having children, all their friends are also having children. So we become honorary grandparents to a cadre of little ones.

There is something about babies that makes the heart glad. There is a deep spiritual dimension to small children. Jesus knew it. He said that adults had to become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God. He meant that children have a natural connection to God. Early childhood is a state before sin has clouded the spiritual vision.

That is why Baptists could not stomach the Roman Catholic teaching that unbaptized infants were excluded from heaven. Jesus says just the opposite. He held them and said to the fully ritualized adults who would exclude them from his presence, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

I don’t want to slight that venerable Christian doctrine of original sin. It is obvious that every adult human is sinful. I just don’t believe that infants are sinful. They have fallen out of the womb into the sinful world of adults, but they do not share that sinfulness … yet. They are “of the kingdom of God.”

Jesus said, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” These tiny humans have a direct link to heaven. That means that we can learn from infants.

Zen calls it our original face. The koan asks, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” If you can glimpse your face before you were conceived, then you see the face of God.

The so-called “fall of man” not only happened long ago to our original human parents. It happens to us. It is universal and unavoidable. It happens when the innocence of childhood ceases. Baptists call it “the age of accountability,” although we have never been able to clarify that idea further.

But whenever that personal “fall” occurs, we spend the rest of our lives are trying to regain our lost state. We seek to get back to the Garden in order to put the fruit back on the tree of knowledge. That is what religion is all about.

But it is futile. Cherubim with flaming swords guard the way. We spend our lives east of Eden. We only see that heavenly realm again at death … or when we look into the eyes of a child.
Photo is our new grandson Jonah Michael Davis

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Outdoor God

I prayed at the opening ceremony of the Sandwich Fair today. It is the 100th anniversary of this traditional country fair in New Hampshire. The early morning ceremony was held at a flagpole on a windswept hill. As I write these words, I still feel the chill of the brisk breeze on my face.  The flag was raised, the anthem was sung, the pledge was made, and a prayer was offered.

I like public prayers. It is the closest I come these days to open-air preaching. I had the opportunity to do some real outdoor preaching this summer. I proclaimed the gospel from a rocky pulpit that had been regularly used for outdoor services two hundred years ago. I can’t wait to do it again.

There was a time in this country when it was common to hear a preacher voice words to, and about God, in the open air. Circuit riders and traveling evangelists would hold camp meetings and tent revivals that would go on for days or weeks. Street preachers would take their stand on the town common and draw a crowd. Now you need a permit.

I was baptized by immersion at an outdoor service at the mouth of a river that opened into the Atlantic. The parson preached a short sermon to gawking sunbathers and swimmers, and then ceremonially dunked me into the cold water. Maybe that is the reason for my nostalgia.

The days of outdoor worship are mostly gone – except for carefully orchestrated and ticketed stadium affairs. In my last parish I insisted on having at least one outdoor worship service each year, but that is all I could muster the support for.

Nowadays God is kept safely within thermostat-controlled boxes. The God preached in these comfortable structures is comfortable as well – a designer deity accommodated to the tastes of those who prefer padded pews.

The God preached these days is a tame divinity – tolerant and accepting, gentle and mild, multi-cultural and ecumenical. He is nothing like the fearsome jealous Jehovah of biblical times. The Father God of Jesus had rough edges. Christ’s parables were not comfortable Aesopic fables.

But the rough-hewn gospel is gone, replaced by a message of self-esteem and family values. The contemporary God of both liberal and evangelical Christianity is definitely an indoor deity.

No wonder the churches are emptying! The God of Churchianity is boring. Where is the excitement and danger? The Bible is an extreme book. The pages are filled with real people living sinfully and confronting a holy God. The Bible is scary and exciting, confusing and awesome (in the original sense of that word.)

The Hebraic God of the Bible is an outdoor God. He is a God of the desert and the wilderness. He is the God of fiery mountain and the parting sea, thunder and smoke. Moses never preached indoors. Jesus was kicked out of the synagogues and took to preaching on mountainsides and from boats.

The Scriptural God could not stand closed places. He scolded David for wanting to confine him to a temple. Likewise the theological descriptions of God in the Bible are wild and unpredictable. He is not a God of systematic theology, much less politically correct ideology.

He cannot be packaged and marketed. He is the God of nomads, pilgrims and prophets. Now we have settled pastors with $100 haircuts preaching on multi-million dollar campuses. What would John the Baptist think?
Photo is sunrise at Mount Sinai

Friday, October 8, 2010


I opened my Bible at random today, and it fell open to these words: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Hypocrisy is one of the sins that Jesus was most adamantly opposed to. Nothing could get Jesus so riled up as the hypocrisy of religious folks.

The word “hypocrisy” is a word picture that depicts a person wearing a mask. It is wearisome to think about all the masks that we wear. I don’t need to describe them all. You know them. You are wearing one now, and you will wear a different one in a few minutes when you do something different with different people.

When Christian theology speaks of the triune God as three “persons,” the word is “persona,” which means “mask.” God wears masks. Joseph Campbell wrote a series of books on the mythology of the world called “The Masks of God.”

We wear masks and worship a God who wears masks. The spiritual life is the process of unmasking - revealing who we are and who God is. The Biblical word for this is revelation, which means “unveiling.”

We peel away masks like chefs peeling onions. The more we do it, the smellier it gets, and the more we cry. When we get to the center of it all, there is nothing. Yet that is the substance of it all.

The Bible opens, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep.” That is what is at the center. Buddhists call it sunyata, or emptiness. But it is full emptiness.

It is the full emptiness of a seed. In every seed there is the plant. Yet when you open the seed, you find nothing. In that nothing is the potential for the plant. In the emptiness of the human soul is the seed of the human being. That is what we find behind the masks.

In the Genesis account God spoke into emptiness, and universe began. Out of nothing – ex nihilo – came everything. When we unmask ourselves, we return to that primordial beginning. When we unmask God, we find the Source. Behind the masks, we find ourselves hiding from ourselves, hiding from God.
Painting is “Sad Masks” by Lidia Simeonova

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Second Coming of John Lennon

This Saturday would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday. His widow Yoko Ono was recently asked by the Associated Press, “One hundred years from now, what do you want people to know about John Lennon?”

She replied, “First of all, I'm not sure if I'm not going to be there. Things are changing in this world so much, and it might be like we're all going to live as long as we want to. And also John might come back. We don't know anything. So I'm not going to answer that question.”

John might come back?! What? How? When? In what form? A resurrected Lennon? Lennon coming in the sky with diamonds? It brings to mind Lennon’s famous quip that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Now Lennon’s widow is trying to make her dead husband into Jesus.

It is more likely she is thinking about cloning John. But who knows? She did not want to elaborate. But she clearly has been giving it some thought. 

Lennon’s famous humanist anthem “Imagine” was based on one of Yoko’s poems. It clearly sketched their beliefs: no religion, no countries, no possessions. No heaven, no hell – no afterlife. Imagine there’s no Lennon.

So I think it likely that she is planning to undergo some gene therapy that allows her to live forever. She probably also has in mind some “Jurassic Park” type of experiment using her husband’s DNA that will return the extinct Beatle to earth.

In any case, it sounds like Yoko has the all-too-human tendency to deny the reality of death – both hers and her husband’s. It is a natural instinct. Some think it is the impetus behind all religion.

I think it is eternity in our hearts. Three thousand years ago, Solomon wrote, “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end.”

There is an instinct for eternity in human beings. Scientists have recently labeled it “the God gene.” If denied the normal religious channels of expression, it will find other ways to make its presence known. I call it the natural revelation of God in the human soul.

According to the Bible, John Lennon is coming back. All of us are. Physical death is not the end. It is called Resurrection Day. “The dead shall be raised.” What that means is anybody’s guess. Yoko dreams of being reunited with her deceased loved one. She’s a dreamer; but she’s not the only one.
Photo is the John Lennon Imagine Memorial in Central Park.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Faith and Being

I enjoy Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett.” This summer the name of the show changed to “Krista Tippett on Being.” The name change from Faith to Being reflects a change in the cultural discussion of spirituality.

In our society the cultural change began with the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon, composed of those who had abandoned “organized religion” and the “institutional church” but still felt a spiritual longing.

But that adolescent rebellion against religious authority has run its course. In its place is a form of spirituality that transcends the normal categories of religion or spirituality.  It bridges atheism and theism; it connects science and faith.

While many churches and denominations are still fighting the old battles of evolution versus creation, people have moved on to the spirituality of science. While aging congregations are still fighting the “worship wars” of contemporary music versus traditional hymns, young emergent congregations are reenvisioning spiritual community.

While baby-boomers are still building “big box” churches and chasing the idols of bigger buildings and bigger crowds, people tired of warehouse religion are thinking outside the box.  Outside the box of religion and spirituality is Being.

I love the word Being. I have loved it ever since I first read Paul Tillich’s Christian philosophy back in the 1960’s. Being is bigger than Faith. It does not exclude faith; it envelops faith. Before there was faith, there was Being. After there is faith, there is Being. During life there is faith and Being; after death there is Being. 

After I die, I will no longer have faith in God. I will be in the Presence of God. In heaven there is no faith; there is no need for faith where there is sight. As the apostle says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

But we also participate in Being now… by faith. Our present experience of the God who is Being is partial. There are glimpses, episodes, and experiences of Being. There is even an underlying awareness of the constant presence of Being.

But my attention wanders from Being into existence. I live between two worlds. But in truth there is only one world – the world of Being – of which existence is a shadow cast into time and space.

But until that day when there is no shadow (because there is no sun) we live in the shadowlands of faith. Conscious of Being, we exist by faith. Faith and Being walk hand in hand until the day dawns.
Image is a cartoon by Saul Steinberg, included in the original edition of the book “My Search for Absolutes” by Paul Tillich.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Older Than God

I am filled with awe these days. Maybe it is colors of the autumn season, but that is not the way I usually respond to fall. I normally begin to settle into a mild case of Seasonal Affective Disorder this time of year. Now I am being affected positively.

Maybe it is the new grandson I have, and the joy of seeing him each day. Maybe it is the daily renewal of old friendships here in New Hampshire. Maybe it is because I have been preaching again recently.

It can’t be the spiritual reading I am doing. I have been reading books by atheists these days, but even they seem to be inspiring holy awe in me. How is that possible?

If I had to name it, I would say that I am experiencing Mystery. I am in increasing awe of the complexity and the beauty of God’s creation. There is a sacredness and holiness in life that speaks directly to my spirit. It is as if the depths of Creation speak to the depths of my soul.

I am connected in a way that cannot be denied or ignored. It is eternal and permanent. It is the Ground that underlies everything. It feels deeper and older than God.

Older than God? What am I saying? How can there be anything older than God? My Christian theology rebels at such a concept. It is impossible. There can be nothing older than God; I know that. It is just older than the human concept of God.

My soul knows that this connectedness is older than me. It is older than humankind. Billions of years before a creature known as Homo sapiens sapiens walked the earth, this Sacred Ground was. I think this was what the prophet Daniel called the Ancient of Days.

Man peered into the sacred depths and saw God. But what he looked into was older than what he saw therein. It is like the woman who saw a picture of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich. The image is in the eye of the beholder. The image of God is in the eye of the worshipper. The true God is older than the imaged God.

Seven hundred years ago Christian theologian Meister Eckhart called this the “God beyond God.” He wrote: “God is ‘No-thing’ – but rather the Being that undergirds all reality – and we must become no-thing to be one with God.”

Twenty five hundred years ago Lao Tzu said, “It is hidden but always present. I don't know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.” That sounds about right. But in the end it doesn’t matter if I understand what I am experiencing. Understanding is overrated. It is more important that I am aware … and awed.
Image is The Ancient of Days, Watercolor etching by William Blake (1794)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Presidential Faith

On Tuesday, September 28, in a backyard in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a teacher’s assistant asked President Obama, “Why are you a Christian?” His response (Click here to watch the video) is the most articulate and clear response he has made so far on the controversial topic of his faith.

First he answered, “I’m a Christian by choice. My family didn’t -- frankly, they weren’t folks who went to church every week.  And my mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew, but she didn’t raise me in the church. So I came to my Christian faith later in life.”

Being a Christian is a choice. It is not something you are born into. Obama was not “born a Muslim” as Franklin Graham said. He was born into a home where his father was a non-practicing Muslim and his mother a non-practicing Christian. But Obama chose Jesus Christ. That makes him a Christian, even by evangelical standards.

He even got the Christian understanding of salvation right. He explained, “And I think also understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes, and that we achieve salvation through the grace of God.” Salvation is by grace. That is the Christian gospel, and the president clearly believes that. 

Obama did not use the opportunity to proselytize, but he did say, “But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people and do our best to help them find their own grace.” Not too bad. That is more than most churchgoers do.

When it comes to other people’s faith, Obama says, “Part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith -- that this is a country that is still predominantly Christian.  But we have Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and that their own path to grace is one that we have to revere and respect as much as our own.  And that’s part of what makes this country what it is.”

I would not phrase it in those words. The idea that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists have “their own path to grace” is a judgment I am not willing to make. I do not presume to know the mind of God on that matter. But I understand the point he is trying to make. He is affirming the religious plurality of America and the importance of respecting everyone’s faith or non-faith. That sentiment I applaud.

In short, the president got it right. And he got it right without a script written by his White House speechwriters. He spoke from the heart on the spur of the moment about his personal faith in Christ while respecting the religion of others. In this regard he was both presidential and faithful. He did much better than the average Christian could do, if asked the same question at a backyard barbecue.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Religiously Dumb and Dumber

A new survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life tells us what we already know – or rather what we don’t know. Americans are profoundly ignorant when it comes to religious knowledge.

The survey had 32 questions that covered the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions. It covered things like whether the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist and whether Martin Luther was part of the Protestant Reformation. On average, Americans got only half of the questions correct. That is a failing grade, even in American public schools.

Of all religious groups, atheists and agnostics scored best. They knew the most about religion, even though they are not religious. (That is fodder for another blog post!) Jews and Mormons were the next most knowledgeable groups.  Mainline Protestants and Catholics were the least knowledgeable. Evangelicals were about average in their ignorance.

Stephen Prothero already told us about this phenomenon in his book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't.” Not only are Americans ignorant of religion, they are also very opinionated when it comes to the subject. Even though they know next to nothing about other religions, they are certain that their religion is right and others are wrong.

Some are certain that all religions are basically the same and equally valid – a view that reveals even greater ignorance of religions. I call it the Lazy Man’s Philosophy of Religion. Prothero addresses this pseudo-intellectualism in his new book, entitled “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter.”

As a lifelong student of the world’s religions, I am aware of how diverse the spiritual traditions of the world are. Even those religions that worship one God do not worship the same God. Allah of Islam is not the Triune God of the Christians or the YHWH of Israel.

When President Obama made the statement (as he did recently on September 11) that all Americans worship the same God by different names, he was revealing his lack of knowledge of theology. His actual words were: “We are one nation under God. We may call that God different names, but we are one nation.”

His motives were commendable; he was trying to unite the nation and express tolerance of Islam. But he only succeeded in giving offense to all religions, including Islam and his own Christian faith. No Muslim would say that Allah is the same God as Jesus Christ or even the Father of Jesus Christ. They call that shirk – idolatry and blasphemy.

Knowledge of religion is now as indispensable as knowledge of language and culture in international affairs. It is essential to know religions in this complex world where wars are enmeshed in religious tensions. Governments are naive if they think they can ignore religion and still have a viable foreign policy.

The teaching about religion has been omitted from public education because of the fear of crossing the line into the teaching of religion. They are not the same. Teaching about religion is legal; the teaching of religion is illegal. The fear of the latter has hindered the former. When even our president makes public misstatements, it is time to address this serious problem of religious illiteracy in America.