Saturday, November 27, 2010

Truth or Metaphor?

At an interview for a pastoral position recently I was asked about my interpretation of the Bible. The question was: “Is the Bible true or metaphorical?”  It is a great question, and I have been thinking about it ever since. 

The short answer I gave at the time was “Yes.” The long answer I gave was that it mattered what was meant by the word “true” and what part of the Bible is being interpreted. 

When Jesus said he was the bread of life, he was not saying he was composed of wheat and yeast. When he said he was the door, he was not saying he was made of wood and hinges. When he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he may or may not have had a real event in mind. In any case it didn’t matter; he was trying to make a spiritual point not quoting a police report.

Pilate asked Jesus, “What is Truth?” For me truth is seldom either/or; it is usually both/and. Facts are true. So are metaphors, symbols and myths. They just communicate truth in different ways.

Does it really matter how truth is communicated? Does it matter if your dinner is served on a paper plate or fine china? I guess for some it does. But for me the food is what is important, not the delivery system.

Is history true? Yes and no. Any historian will tell you that there is no such thing as pure historical fact. It is all a matter of perspective and interpretation. The same event can be viewed from various perspectives. No one sees the same historical event exactly the same.

That is why there are four gospels in the New Testament and four different accounts of what happened at the Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.  Which one is true? The church has confidently proclaimed that all four are true, even though there is no way that the details can be honestly reconciled with one another.

Myths are true. Myth is truth that cannot be stated in historical or theological terms. Allegories and metaphors are true. The Bible has both. Everyone acknowledges that. It is just a matter of which passages you interpret historically and which you interpret symbolically and metaphorically.

In an ultimate sense all theological truth is metaphorical because all talk about God is approximation. Nothing we say about God is true in an ultimate sense. All theological language points to the God that is beyond the ability of our language to describe or our minds to comprehend.

"My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts," says the Lord. "And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” Ultimate Truth is beyond us. As Jack Nicholson said in "A Few Good Men," "You can't handle the truth!" The best we can do is utter earthly truths that point in the direction of Ultimate Truth. Anything more is mistaking the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.

Truth is metaphor. Myth, allegory and symbol are truth. But most importantly, truth is incarnation. Truth is best communicated in human form. That is why God became enfleshed in Jesus Christ. That is why the church is said to be the Body of Christ. That is the truth – no matter how you interpret it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Selfless Self

On a recent car trip from New Hampshire to western Pennsylvania I had time to think. I don’t like to listen to the radio, and we did not bring any CDs. We did some reading. My wife Jude read aloud our morning devotions and some of the newspaper (the section on the new Harry Potter film). Later I silently read the rest of the paper.

But mostly we talked or enjoyed silence. For a couple of hours, while my wife listened to Christian music on her iPod, I enjoyed some philosophical reflection. Because I am basically a selfish person I thought about myself – or more exactly my self.

There are many qualities associated with self. There is self-centeredness, self-esteem, self-employment and self-actualization. There is self-justification, self-involvement and self-knowledge. There is self-love and self-loathing, self-conceit, self-importance and self-satisfaction.

There is even a magazine entitled Self, which can be found on It seems I am not the only person interested in my self.

I find the words “selfish” and “selfless” interesting. Think about the literal meaning of these words. Selfish is about the self. A stylish person has style; a selfish person has self. A selfless person literally has less self. Does that imply that Jesus, the perfectly selfless person, had no self? If he was full of God, perhaps there was no room for self.

In Buddhism the self is seen as illusory - the doctrine of “no-self.” They say there is no one home in this body and mind. The self is just a fleeting constellation of thoughts and feelings that we mistake for an enduring entity.

In Hinduism there are two selves - the little individual self and the “capital S” Self. The big Self swallows the little self like the sea swallows a drop of water. This cosmic Self is understood as our true identity. The spiritual life is waking up to that Self-knowledge.

Christianity never developed the idea of a divine Self masquerading as little individual selves. Instead we are real little selves created in the image of the Other Self who is clearly not ourselves.

The selves can have communion and (in Christian mysticism) union with God. But it is a costly union – both to God and man. The Cross is the self crucified, so that the risen Christ who knows Himself as God’s very Self, may live.

By faith we share Christ’s selfless death and Self-ful (is that a word?) resurrection.  We live in Christ, and Christ lives in us. We are the body of Christ. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”

Me? Well, my self is still selfish. My selflessness appears only for brief visits. But as I peer into the depths of myself, I see the Holy Spirit indwelling my spirit. God is the selfless Self at the heart of my self. And as Augustine said, “My heart is restless, O God, until it rests in Thee.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Let Them Eat Bark

I was reading a story today about Ho rim Ahn, a 14-year-old boy, who is one of the 2900 North Koreans who defected to South Korea in the past year. Somehow these refugees find a way out of their repressive land and into the somewhat less repressive country of China. From there they make their way into a third country and eventually into South Korea where they are granted citizenship.

This boy remarked that his new life in democratic South Korea was much better than his communist homeland. “I feel stronger now. I eat eggs and meat. I no longer have to eat bark,” he said. He was referring to the starvation that the population in his former land is enduring.

The story prompted many emotions in me. One is compassion for him and his countrymen. I will never forget hearing Soon Ok Lee speak a few years ago about her experience in a North Korean prison. Her book “Eyes of the Tailless Animals” is one of the few books that have made me cry. I do not understand why there is not continual outrage at this brutal regime.

It also made me think of the many Americans who do not have enough to eat. They may not be eating bark, but a lot of Americans will not be eating turkey either this holiday season. Charities are suffering a shortage of funds this year that is making the traditional turkey dinner harder to offer to those in need.

The story led me to think of spiritual bark. There is great spiritual hunger in our land, but the hungry often have only bark to eat. It is a depressing experience to go into a Christian bookstore these days. I remember when religious bookstores actually sold books – biblical commentaries, devotional classics, and theological tomes.

Now I go into one of the Christian chain stores and I am bombarded with shelves full of religious trinkets. I go a little deeper into the store and find music. If I go far enough into the back of the store I will find some books, but they are generally thin volumes by religious celebrities.

Further in are shelves of fluffy “practical” books with catchy titles, and rows of Christian fiction. I have read some of them. They taste like bark and have the same nutritional value. If I am lucky I will locate a small section of old classics. 

I know there are good books being written today. I buy them online, but they are not in bookstores. It is not the retailers’ fault. There is no demand for them. People prefer junk food – physically and spiritually.

But the most nutritional spiritual food does not come in books at all. It comes directly from the Source. All we have to do is turn our attention inward or outward to the immanent and transcendent God. This God surrounds us in the cosmos and dwells within us as part of the cosmos. “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

This God was incarnated in Jesus, who said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus calls this “true food” and “true drink.”

This is the same nourishment that we experience when gazing at the billion galaxies in the heavens. The awe we feel is the sigh of a well-nourished soul. I invite you to eat your fill. It is so much better than bark.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently ruled that New Hampshire schoolchildren will still be allowed to say the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Whew! Now I can sleep at night!

The court decision resolves a challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of two atheist and agnostic parents, whose three children were attending New Hampshire's public schools.

The judges ruled that the pledge was constitutional because it is clearly a patriotic act and not a religious act, in spite of the words “under God” in the text.

I am a supporter of both the Pledge and the inclusion of the words that refer to the God of the nations. I am both patriotic and religious. But I don’t think the Pledge of Allegiance really does much to instill faith in God.

If anything, it seems to serve as an inoculation against real faith. The words proclaim that the nation is under God, but the message communicated is that God is a footnote to the flag. The God of civil religion is an “underGod” type of Deity. I wish that God stirred as much passion and sacrifice in the pledgers as does the nation under Him.

Last week I attended the Veteran’s Day parade in our county seat. I was impressed by the hoards of soldiers – old and new – as well as the hundreds of people who lined the streets to pay them respect. The bulging ranks of the Junior ROTC really surprised me.

The ranks of soldier wannabes swarmed with young recruits. I wondered if they really knew what they are getting into, with two wars going on and terrorism waxing around the world.

I guess I have seen too much of the cost of war – things like the traumatic effects of PTSD and crippling combat injuries. But still - the fact that these kids are willing to risk life and limb for their nation stirs me. I wish that the church inspired such sacrifice and courage. 

Is the Christian cause any less important? Of course not! In fact it is far more important! I would say it is infinitely more important. If forced to choose between God and country I would choose God without a blink of the eye. Nations rise and fall; God is eternal.

Then why are teens lining up at the recruiting office yet walking away from the church? What does that say about the way the gospel is being presented – or (God forbid) the message of the gospel itself?  What does it say about the priorities of our nation?

I am glad that children can still publicly profess that America is “one nation under God” in the classroom. But I wish that the hearts of these school children were pledged to the one God more than to the one nation under God. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Disappointed in Humanists

A new advertising campaign by the American Humanist Association has just begun - just in time for the holidays. It is called “Consider Humanism.” You can find out about it on their website: Consider Humanism.

The campaign includes a recent spot on NBC Dateline and print ads in major newspapers like USA Today, the Seattle Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the San Francisco Chronicle. AHA director Roy Speckhardt said the campaign hopes to recruit people to join his organization instead of a church.

I have been greatly enjoying reading Humanist and New Atheist writings in recent months. They have challenged me to discard old religious idols. As Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, would say, “Thank God for atheists.”

So when I first heard about this campaign I was looking forward to some intelligent public discourse on important philosophical issues. What I got was trash talk reminiscent of the dirty political ads that ran during the recent midterm elections.

This Humanist campaign is not worthy of the authors I have been reading. It takes the worst passages from the Bible and the Quran concerning topics like women, slavery and genocide - quotes that promote violence and intolerance - and juxtapose them with the best of Humanist quotations. (See examples on their website.)

Sorry, that is not fair. I could do the same thing on the other side. I could find terrible, hateful quotes by atheists and contrast them with wonderful passages about love and tolerance in the Bible. I could quote Marquis de Sade on women and Nietzsche on race, and contrast them with progressive Christian theologians.

It is not hard to find passages that make atheists look like a bunch of bigots. But what would that accomplish? Such prooftexting – whether Christian or Humanist – proves nothing.

Come on, Humanists! You don’t want to play the same type of propaganda campaign that the so many fundamentalist apologists play. You can do better. I know you can. I have been reading some good stuff by you guys - books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Greg Epstein. Why retreat to philosophical mudslinging?

Take the best of religious quotes from the Bible and the best of Humanist thought. Compare apples to apples. Fight fair, and then see who wins.

I love hearing intelligent atheists do battle with intelligent Christians. This Humanist campaign is meant only to stir emotion and attract the ignorant. If you Humanists want the hatemongers in your organization, please take them. But you will be sorry. Anti-religious bigotry can easily degenerate into violence against holy places and persecution against religious people. Just look at Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and Communist North Korea.

Forget the potshots. Pull the ads. Let’s have some respectful dialogue. That would be more worthy of Humanism.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Older Than Dirt

 Recently I have been pondering my true age. Not my brief human span of sixty years; I mean my real age. In reality I am roughly 13.7 billion years old. I can’t remember exactly. That is pretty old. I am older than dirt.

The oldest rocks on the earth are about 3.9 billion years old by several dating methods. (That is my undergraduate geology major coming through.) The oldest sedimentary rocks include minerals that are 4.2 billion years, just a little younger than the earth itself, which is 4.5 billion years.

Every molecule in my body comes from the earth. The Bible is right when it says that humans were formed from the ground.  It is no accident that the Hebrew word for human being is the masculine form of the word for ground or earth.  As scripture says, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

But I am older than the dust. The earth itself emerged from our forming galaxy, which came from still older beginnings. The elements that make up my body were made in a star astronomers call a Red Giant. I am literally stardust, a fact that I was beautifully and spiritually reminded of recently in a song called “My Soul” by Peter Mayer.

That gives me an entirely different perspective on life. I am not a being that “came into” the world at birth. I am not a creature who lives “on earth” and will one day “depart” this earth at death.

My body came from the earth. My personality was formed from the genetic code of my ancestors coupled with social conditioning. Both are unique creative expressions of God. One day both body and psyche will return to their origins. As Solomon wisely said, “For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.”

I am physically of the earth, but I also share the life of God. That is the meaning of eternal life. That is the life of the eternal Christ, “who was God and was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. “

Christ is my past, my present and my future. Christ is my resurrection. Christ is my hope and confidence. So the next time someone asks me how old I am, I will respond, “Older than dirt.” And see where that conversation takes us. Hopefully it will take us on a journey to our origins.

As the skyward poet says, “And while with silent, lifting mind I've trod / The high untrespassed sanctity of space, / Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” 
Image is the Eskimo Nebula taken by the Hubble telescope

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

After Hereafter

It was a cold, gray, drizzly day. So we decided to take in a movie. We (meaning I) chose to see Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Hereafter.” It was not the most exciting film I have ever seen. Reviewers describe it as “meditative” and “contemplative.” I just found it slow.

I usually enjoy films that deal with spiritual or religious issues in a serious manner; there are so few of them. But this film made an important topic boring. The subject of the film – for those of you who have not seen the film or the previews – is the afterlife.

One of the main characters, a journalist named Marie LeLay (played by C├ęcile De France) gives voice to the central theme the film. She asks her boyfriend, “What do you think happens when we die?" Her atheist boyfriend says that nothing happens, just a black void.

Religious answers are given cameo roles. A boy looking for answers about the fate of his dead twin views a YouTube video of a Muslim talking about the afterlife. He is the stereotypical jidadist, frightening and fanatical. So much for Islam.

He then watches a Christian preacher on YouTube who assures the listener that "if you believe in Christ, you have nothing to fear."  The boy shakes his head in disbelief. In this manner the gospel is summarily dismissed.

Mediums are pictured as charlatans. New Agers are shown as silly, and atheists are portrayed as intellectual snobs. So who has the answer to the hereafter? Not the main character, an authentic psychic played by Matt Damon. Though he can speak with the dead, when asked about the afterlife he repeatedly says, “I don't know."

There are frequent visions of the hereafter – which is pictured as a blurry place with fuzzy light populated by shadowy figures waiting around to talk to the living. It reminds me of the Old Testament Sheol and the Greek Hades.

A dead boy’s spirit speaks about feeling weightless and boundless, and tells his brother (through the medium of Matt Damon) that the afterlife is “pretty cool.” That is about as exciting as the hereafter gets in the film.

After the closing credits began to roll, a pair of young men hurried down our row, eager to exit the theatre. As the first one passed, he looked down at me and remarked, “That was the stupidest movie I ever saw!” I wouldn’t go that far. I have seen stupider movies, like “Dumb and Dumber” for example. But, of course, that movie was not trying to appear profound.

This film shows just how shallow the American concept of the afterlife is. Often when I have talked to people about their understanding of heaven, they make it all about them. They are reunited with loved ones, retired to mansions in the sky, and eternally enjoying themselves with their favorite pastimes.

I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the hereafter any more than anyone else does. But I know what the Bible says. Furthermore I know better than to take it too literally. One thing I am pretty sure of – the hereafter will not be boring or fuzzy.

Furthermore it will not be about me. My self - if I will even have one - will be swallowed up by the glory and presence of God. As the apostle says, “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”