Monday, October 28, 2019

The End of Theology

 A new book by two Yale theologians reminds me why I fell in love with theology as a new Christian in the 1970’s. The book is entitled For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference by Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun (Brazos Press, 2019). They had me with the opening paragraph:

“Though written in a style of an invitation, this book is a manifesto. Before we begin, we should to tell you, each in our own voice, why and how theology has come to matter to us, and then, together, we should sketch the main thesis of the book: academic theology ought to be, but today largely isn’t, about what matters the most—the true life in the presence of God. The failure of theology to attend to its purpose is a loss for the church and for the world, for theology is uniquely qualified to explore what matters the most. And this is a loss for theology itself—for theology will either refocus itself on what matters the most or gradually cease to matter at all.”

Volf then gives his personal testimony. “I grew up in a place and at a time when we, a small group of teenagers who knew no better, thought that no intellectual endeavor could possibly matter more than doing theology. The time was the early 1970s.” He continues, “As we spent our days and nights (yes, lots of long nights) reading and arguing about all matters theological, we had no idea that out in the wide world of Western academies, where we all wanted to study, theology was in a serious crisis.”

That crisis is what inspired them to write this book. Volf says, “I wrote this book to give myself a reason to keep faith with the dream of the teenager-theologian I once was.” According to Volf and Croasmun Christian theology is in serious trouble.

The authors lament that no one reads theology anymore. Neither Christian laypeople nor ministers, who have historically been the biggest market for theological tomes. According to the authors, today’s clergy consider theology “largely irrelevant for their profession.” The book puts forth external and internal reasons for this decline in theology’s popularity.

Externally less churches are requiring their clergy to be academically trained. This has resulted in the closing of seminaries and the decline in religion departments in universities. Churches do not feel the need for their members – or their pastors - to be theologically literate. Theology is considered impractical. The authors explain: “There is no gain in communicating eloquently and accessibly what has already been deemed arcane and vacuous.” Internally the academic discipline of theology is having an identity crisis. Christian theologians have forgotten their purpose.

I agree that most Christians are not very interested in theology these days, except as ammunition in the culture war. Today’s theology seems to be of two basic types. In its conservative form theology is used as an apologetic weapon to defend the purity of Christian doctrine against heretics. Theology is used to define who is “in” and who is “out,” who is a “true” Christian and who is not. On the other hand, progressive theologians see it as their mission to combat the groupthink of evangelical Christianity and expand our theological parameters in the name of spiritual liberty and academic freedom.

This book attempts to remedy the situation by reestablishing the purpose of theology as they see it, which is “to discern, articulate, and commend visions of and paths to flourishing life in light of the self-revelation of God in the life, death, resurrection, exaltation, and coming in glory of Jesus Christ…” They say, “Flourishing life should be the encompassing purpose that all theologians’ endeavors serve.” They spend the rest of the book unpacking their vision of this “flourishing life.”

They do an admirable job in trying to give new life to the floundering discipline of Christian theology. But in the end this book also caused me to remember why I became disillusioned with theology. For me theology – even theology done well, as in this book - does not live up to its purpose. In the end it is incapable of leading us to “what matters the most — the true life in the presence of God.” In the end it is just words about God and about our life with God.

After decades of pastoral theologizing, I have come to the conclusion that theology does not bring people closer to God or to a flourishing life in God. In fact theology can serve as a substitute for a genuine spirituality. Theology by its very nature as an intellectual discipline keeps us at a distance from God, while giving us the illusion of knowing and saying something meaningful about God.

Therefore I have chosen another way. Rather than seeing theology as knowledge about the divine, even Croasmun and Volf’s “knowledge as their way of participating in God’s grand project of transforming the world into God’s home,” I now see it as a springboard from which to dive headlong into the unfathomable Mystery we call God. Theology is not truth, but it can be a stepping stone – or a diving board – into Truth.

In my way of thinking, theologians’ purpose is to work themselves out of a job. Theology is meant to point us to the God who is beyond theological formulations. Theology can only take us so far. It can start us off in the right direction, and it can be useful at certain critical junctions along the path. But theology is ultimately incapable of bringing us into the presence of God.

To their credit the authors anticipate my reaction, but dismiss it as an extreme approach “intended to delegitimize positive visions of the good life.” They see my approach, known as mystical, apophatic or negative theology, as one end of a theological spectrum. They prefer a more balanced approach. They explain, “Kataphatic and apophatic approaches are both indispensable elements in a carefully and systematically curated dialectical strategy whose purpose is both to articulate the nature of God and to acknowledge through language God’s infinite transcendence of all articulations.”

To many people that sentence may sound like so much theological gobbledygook, and they may be tempted to stop reading my blog right here. They have no idea what the terms kataphatic, apophatic, and even dialectical mean, and they do not care. They do not see it as relevant to their spiritual lives. And they would be right.

That is my point. Theology too easily gets twisted up in words and concepts. I do not need any more words and concepts – even good concepts like these two authors offer. I desire only God. I want what they promised in the second sentence of the book: “what matters the most — the true life in the presence of God.” That is why I originally fell in love with theology. But that is exactly what theology cannot deliver.

So maybe it is good that theology is dying out in the churches. Maybe theology does not need to be renewed by academic theologians. Maybe it needs to die, so that resurrection can happen within Christianity. Perhaps the waning of the theological enterprise is a sign of the maturation of American Christianity, rather than its spiritual demise. Theology is fulfilling its end, which is to die to itself that God may live in us.

As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In this case the death of theology is not to be lamented, but celebrated. It has accomplished its end. Praise be to God! Theology is dead! God lives!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Death & Life on Halloween

One of my daughter’s closest friends was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Halloween night in 2001. Brandi was struck by a drunk driver as she was walking along the side of a road with two friends. The collision threw her body fifty yards, (yes, yards, not feet) and then the vehicle sped away. She was taken off life support twelve days later and died at the age of 19. The driver served only five years in prison for this callous killing. This sweet girl was a core member of our youth group in the church that I pastored in Massachusetts. She is the reason I think about death on Halloween.

On October 31, Americans take a break from their daily routine to symbolically interact with death. Halloween is populated by deathly creatures: ghosts, skeletons, zombies, vampires and other undead beings. Fake tombstones sprout from front lawns, strange creatures wander the streets and knock on our doors, and haunted houses try to scare the willikers out of people.

It is the way our society has developed to cope with the specter of death and thumb our noses at our own mortality. Halloween is rooted in the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the leaner and darker half of the year. In the 4th century Christians baptized the holiday into the new faith of the Roman Empire but retained many of its earlier elements.

Christians call it All Saints Day and All Souls Day and use the days to remember those who have died. Many churches have a time in their service to remember loved ones, especially those who have died in the past year. Often it involves the lighting of candles. Such ceremonies can be very meaningful, as they celebrate the “communion of saints” and our ongoing emotional and spiritual connection to those who have died.

Protestant churches observe Reformation Day on October 31, or Reformation Sunday on the previous Sunday. This year marks the 502nd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the process of Protestants splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. There was a big celebration two years ago for the 500th anniversary. Did you miss it?

Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, thereby starting the ecclesiastical schism. Luther was protesting – in part – the Catholic practice of selling indulgences, which was a way for Christians to get their deceased loved ones released from purgatory early, while at the same time raising money for the church.

A nearby church is advertising that they will celebrate Reformation Sunday this Sunday, explaining that this was “when the Word of God came out of the darkness into light.” The pastor’s sermon is entitled "Biblical Faith Defined - True faith = Changed life” and adding, “Who or what do you put your trust in for eternity?” In other words this church is focusing on the fate of the individual’s soul after death.

At the Sandwich Fair there was a booth manned by a fundamentalist group proclaiming a similar message. We were handed a tract by a young girl explaining that all religions besides their brand of Christianity are lies of the devil. According to them, nearly everyone (except them) is headed for hell. It is just another way to scare the willikers out of people. (What are “willikers” anyway? Gee willikers!) Again it is all about death and what comes afterward.

It is interesting how death-related holidays fascinate people at this time of year, as winter begins its descent on the northern hemisphere. Perhaps that is because so many people used to die during the winter. That still happens. As a pastor I have had to deal with death and people’s attitudes toward death all the time. I had to soothe people’s fear of dying and field questions about afterlife.

Personally I have dealt with the issue by embracing the ancient wisdom to “die before you die.” The New Testament is filled with this teaching. “Reckon yourself dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it.” These verses teach us to experience the reality of our death now, so that we can truly live.

That is what these holidays seek to do in different ways. Too many Americans live in dread of dying, which translates into fear of disease, injury and human enemies. We obsess over protecting ourselves from harm and prolonging our lives at all costs. It fuels the gun control and healthcare debates in our country. It has resulted in a society that hoards weapons, glamorizes violence, and created a dysfunctional pharmaceutical and medical industry.

There is nothing to fear but fear itself. The ghosts and monsters are only smiling children in disguise. Death cannot hurt us. It only destroys the body. You are safe. Dying is a momentary suffering that opens into eternity. The death of the material body awakens us to our spiritual nature.

Awaken to that true nature now and get it over with. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” What he meant was: “Before the universe was, I am.”  Abide in what you were before the birth of the universe. That is what we are. Then, as Jesus constantly reminded his followers, “Do not fear.”

Friday, October 18, 2019

Whole Rest

When I was growing up in the 1950’s and early 60’s, I took piano lessons from a marijuana-smoking, jazz musician named Eddie Greenberg, who lived on our street. Eddie was a secular Jew of the beat generation who made money playing night clubs and giving music lessons to neighborhood children.

Looking back on it, I am surprised my parents entrusted me to his influence for an hour every week during those impressionable years. I am sure it was because his wife was one of my mother’s friends and a member of our Congregational church. Plus their twin sons were among my closest friends and in my Sunday School class.

Today I can barely put two notes together on a keyboard, but Mister Greenberg did succeed in teaching me how to read music, however imperfectly. It is a gift that I have appreciated all my life. From him I learned the types of notes and also, of course, the various types of rests. For some reason the rests always fascinated me.

The eight rest looked like a lightning bolt, and I envisioned it as sounding like the quiet between the lightning flash and the following “boom!” Shorter rests – the sixteenth, thirty-second, and the rare sixty-fourth rests - reminded me of pennants flying from a castle’s tower. The half rests and whole rests looked like seats or benches, inviting the weary musician to sit down for a moment and take a break. They were like little vacations in the middle of the score.

Today this knowledge of musical notation serves me in my spiritual practice. When I sit down to meditate, thoughts are running through my mind like jazz, capturing my attention and carrying me away. After a while I become aware of my entanglement in thought, and I stop and look for the rests.

There are tiny spaces between even the most densely woven inner monologue. To be in the presence of God, all we have to do is dwell in the rests between the thoughts, however brief they are. God is in the rests – even quarter rests or eighth rests. If you pay attention to them, they expand into whole rests, and even whole minutes of divine Presence.

Such rests are respites from the inner noisiness of our lives. When I focus on the whole rest, then that little black box in the score of my inner life becomes a door that opens into a world beyond thoughts. It is a window into the promised land of Sabbath Rest. It is the eye of our soul through which we see God.

As Meister Eckhart said 700 years ago, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” Whole Rest is a place of peace hiding in plain sight in the midst of our busy lives. When I am in Whole Rest, time stops and I dwell in eternity, which is the background of our lives.

The phrase “Whole Rest” has become part of my spiritual practice. I use the phrase in centering prayer. During contemplative prayer, when I notice my mind spinning its meandering melodies, I repeat the phrase “whole rest” and the noise stops, if only for a beat. With practice the beat become a measure, and then a line. Whole Rest becomes a cushion upon which I sit in the Presence of God.

There is a reason why the ancient Hebrews pictured God, not in a graven image but as the empty space between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies of their tabernacle. God was associated with the quiet spaciousness of the Most Holy Place, which itself is a symbol for the innermost sanctuary of our soul. Emptiness and silence are where God dwells. That is why Jesus got off by himself to pray so often.

Whole Rest can be found not only in prayer and meditation, but in all of life. For that reason I always end my time of meditation with a few minutes of sitting with my eyes open, noticing the quiet spaciousness of God in my surroundings. Meditation is not different than regular consciousness. It is simply paying more deliberate attention to what is always present.

I invite you to Whole Rest, to enter the door into silence. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Maybe Jesus took music lessons! Not piano lessons from a jazz musician, of course. But maybe he took lessons on some other instrument from that guy down the street from the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. 

After all, his ancester David, the greatest of Israel’s kings and poets (and author of most of the psalms in our Bible) started out as a harpist. In any case Jesus certainly knew Whole Rest. He called it the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Why I Go to Church

Going to church is not popular these days. That is what every recent study of religious trends in America says. Church is not popular with my generation, which invented the term “spiritual but not religious.”  That phrase meant (and still means) that one has spiritual inclinations, but is not interested in “organized religion” or the “institutional church.”

Neither is church popular with my kid’s generation, nor those generations that followed them. Parents with young children are staying away from church in droves. I saw it for myself last Sunday. After church I went to Moulton Farm in Meredith and saw crowds of parents and children eating cider donuts, picking pumpkins, and taking bumpy wagon rides through the cornfield in the crisp autumn air. So that is where young families spend Sunday mornings!

All studies confirm my anecdotal evidence. The younger you are, the less likely you are to be religious – either privately or publically. Figures say that more and more people are neither spiritual nor religious. I see it in my kids and grandkids. Although they grew up in a parsonage, only one of my three children attends worship regularly and only one of my four grandchildren. And I feel blessed to have that many in church!

So why do I go to church? It is not because I do not see the faults, weaknesses and sins of religion. I know them better than most people, because as a pastor I have seen them from the inside. It is not because I have not thought through the theological and philosophical arguments against theism. A glance at the titles of my books reveals that I have spent a lot of time deconstructing traditional Christian theology.

My religious approach is nontraditional, to put it mildly. My theologically conservative colleagues would privately use much less generous adjectives to describe my present way of thinking. Spiritually speaking, I have traveled beyond the creedal coastlands into deep water. I feel comfortable swimming outside the theological ropes and floats of the evangelical swimming area.

My spirituality is what I call unitive awareness. Historically it has been called mysticism or contemplative prayer. It is about union with God and experiential oneness with Christ. I am more interested in pointing people to their essential unity with God and the universe, than I am convincing people to adopt a religious system of thought.

Therefore it might seem that I am a good candidate for the Church Alumni Association.  Instead I am in worship every Sunday – either in the pew or the pulpit. Why? It is because I experience God in corporate worship in a way that I don’t in private prayer or meditation. For me God inhabits the sacred space in a church sanctuary. God appears in the silence and the music and the words and the laughter and the handshakes and the hugs and rituals of Sunday worship.

The Presence of God is communicated socially. That is why Christians insist on that strange doctrine called the Trinity – God as three persons. What sounds like heresy to strictly monotheistic Jews and Muslims communicates a deeper truth - that God is social in God’s own being. God is communicated through relationships and in relational settings … like in church on Sunday morning.

I slip into the pew, and I experience God instantly. God is in the air. The Presence of God is so powerful that I can taste it. It expands my soul. It fills my heart. It breaks down barriers between my tiny personal self and God. My soul becomes porous to the Holy Spirit. Boundaries fade, and God is all. I think that is what the architecture of the great European cathedrals is designed to communicate. It is communicated to me in small New England clapboard meetinghouses.

Can one experience all that without church? There is nothing stopping us. God is, after all, everywhere. That is the meaning of the term omnipresence. Many people experience the divine in natural settings. This week I went into the White Mountains and experienced the grandeur of autumn in New Hampshire. Seeing the symphony of fall foliage and hearing the sound of clouds moving across the valleys is certainly a spiritual experience.

Likewise aesthetic encounters with art and music certainly have a spiritual dimension, which is why the arts have been used by all religious traditions. But such experiences typically bring us only so far. For most people they are natural openings inviting us into a deeper spiritual life. But we have to be willing to step through that door.

In any case, spirituality not a matter of either/or. Church or Nature. Religion or Art. It is both/and. We can have it all. Spiritual and religious are not mutually exclusive categories. They are complementary. I view neighborhood churches as readily available and affordable resources located in every community, designed to bring us into a richer experience of the Mystery we call God. At least that is how church functions for me. That is why I go to church.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

All is Well

There have been important issues on my mind recently, and to be honest they have upset me. The impeachment proceedings have raised a dust storm of emotions. The other issue on my mind is the climate crisis, due to the impassioned talk by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg at the United Nations recently.

My emotional reaction to these events has disturbed my peace of soul. This has caused me to look again at the role of emotion in spirituality. When praying about these matters I notice that emotions come. It is right and proper that they arise. These are important issues in the life of our nation and our world.

Then the emotions subside, as they always do. One cannot live in a heightened state of stress. That is a recipe for physical and emotional disease. Yet it seems that we do not act to resolve such issues without the motivating power of emotion. But upon further reflection I see a way to act in a socially responsible way without raising our mainsail to a hurricane of emotion.

Max Ehrmann says in his Desiderata, “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” These are expressions of the spiritual virtues of faith and hope. History – whether it involves the government of the United States or the fate of life on this planet – is unfolding as it should. In other words, God is in control.

Furthermore our responses to such events are part of the harmonious pattern of the cosmos. We are one with the universe, and the universe is one with God. We could not be separate from it even if we wanted to. It is all good, as God declared in Genesis at the creation of the world. In fact God declared our human presence in the world to be “very good.” This is still the divine verdict, in spite of human wrongdoing.

We are an expression of the divine in creation. That is what it means to be made in the image of God. When we live out of that self-realization, then we act from the peace of God which is our true nature. Then we are ministers of peace and reconciliation in the world. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” Jesus said.

When we act from our true spiritual nature, we become instruments of peace in the world. The peace within our souls is expressed as actions and words of peace. This in turn influences the world to move toward peace. That is how God works in the world.

When the impeachment circus or the crisis of climate change – or a thousand other problems, big and small - push us to react in fear, anger or distress, all we need to do is notice the Presence of the One who is behind and beneath it all.

The yin and yang of life is part of a deeper unity. Good and evil are resolved in the One who is in control of all things. All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. As the great hymn says, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Funeral for a Planet

Every once in a while someone says something in just the right way at just the right time for it to make a lasting impression on me. This is the case with an article entitled “Time to Up Our Game” by Dr. Susan S. Silbey, outgoing Faculty Chair at MIT. The article was addressed to her fellow faculty members and posted on the MIT website.

She begins the article saying, “we can no longer engage in business as usual at MIT. Time is running out. MIT, the United States, and the world face an existential threat unprecedented in human history. It may already be too late to reverse the catastrophes that wait as the warming climate continues to raise sea levels, acidify the oceans, worsen droughts, wildfires, storms and floods, and accelerate extinction rates….”

This article did not say anything new. What was different was who she was, and whom she was addressing. She was the head of the faculty at one of the premier technology schools in the world, speaking to a faculty steeped in science. She does not believe we can engineer our way out of this global crisis.

She writes: “But here’s the problem. Climate change is a social as much as a technological problem. Even if we accept the unlikely scenario that fusion is on the near horizon, the political, economic, and social obstacles will not produce functioning power plants before the temperatures rise above those catastrophic two degrees Celsius.”

I have accepted the consensus opinion of climate scientists for a long time. How can one not? All the science points to the reality of climate change and its anthropogenic origin. It is also clear to me that climate change deniers are framing their arguments and fudging the figures for ulterior motives, motivated by political advantage or commercial gain.

The problem is that climate change is just one among many crises facing our nation and our world. To many people it does not seem as urgent as some of the others. But when I read her words something changed for me. I could envision my grandchildren and great-grandchildren suffering because of our inaction.  They may not have a future – or at least not a very good one - if we do not take decisive action soon.

My generation is not taking the problem seriously enough because we are not going to live long enough to see the most serious consequences. We imagine we still have the luxury of debating whether climate change is real. We are more concerned about the stock market and whether our party will win the next election. Healthcare costs are more urgent for us than the health of our planet. Gun violence is more important than violence against the environment.

I think that historians will say that we put the most important issue of our time on the back burner because of our short-sidedness and selfishness. I hope I am wrong. Recently Time magazine devoted a whole issue to climate change with the optimistic title 2050: How Earth Survived. I hope Time’s prophecy comes true and that I live to be 100 to see it.

But I doubt that either will happen. The electorate’s response to Jay Inslee, the only presidential candidate to make climate change the central focus of his campaign, reveals our national attitude to the issue. When he boldly proclaimed, “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last generation that can do something about it,” one could hear a collective yawn.  Consequently this clear and prophetic voice dropped out of the race.

Several times during my ministry someone has approached me about planning their own funeral. They felt certain that the time of their departure was at hand, as the apostle Paul described his own approaching death. (Although I noticed they were never certain enough to prepay my honorarium!) I have the same sort of existential dread about the future of our planet. We can see its death throes already in the changes to our weather, just like we notice the signs of declining health in a terminally ill friend.

Recently hundreds of people held a funeral for the Pizol glacier in the Glarus Alps in eastern Switzerland. It is the first Swiss glacier to die in our lifetimes. A memorial plaque erected at the site speaks to our descendants. In what is labeled “A Letter to the Future” it proclaims: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

We know what needs to be done. Will we do it? Or should we start planning a funeral for our planet?  Dr. Silbey asks her colleagues, “If we truly want to make a better world, why have we not embraced this existential threat as the single most important challenge for MIT? Why is climate change not the first and largest item on our agenda?”

Why indeed. It is time to either plan the funeral or save the patient. Personally I have done enough funerals in my lifetime. I vote for healing the planet. How about a healthcare plan for our mother earth? How about a pro-life plan for the million species threatened by extinction? How about a campaign against substance abuse committed against our environment? Our great-grandchildren will thank us.


Although I talk about a funeral for our planet, the truth is the earth will survive no matter what we do. The planet is bigger and older than us and will survive our abuse. It will bounce back. Life on earth will survive. But it won’t be human life. They will be the forms of life that existed for millions of years before Homo sapiens that will continue to swim our oceans and walk our continents after we are gone.

The funeral I speak of is actually a funeral for our species. Perhaps another intelligent species will arise in the distant future that will do a better job caring for this planet than we have. According to the Book of Genesis, God gave us the responsibility to “tend and care for the earth,” and we decided we had more important things to do. Perhaps God will try again with a more faithful species. The Lord is – after all – a God of new beginnings.

Shortly before he died, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking - who was no intellectual lightweight – predicted that the human species has only 100 years left on earth. Having lived as a species for 200,000 years, we will become the agents of our own destruction. Let’s prove him wrong … for our grandchildren’s sake.