Tuesday, June 27, 2023

My Ancestor, the Witch

Last week a distant cousin, who found me through Ancestry.com, sent me an account of our common ancestor, my ninth great-grandmother. Her name was Margaret Scott (née Stevenson). She was hanged as a witch along with seven others on September 22, 1692. These were the last executions of the Salem Witch trials.

Widowed in the summer of 1671 at age 56, Margaret had little to live on. She was reduced to begging, which made her very unpopular. She was the perfect target for a proverbial “witch hunt.” Twenty-one years later, when in her seventies, she was indicted for witchcraft.

The indictment read: “that Margaret Scott of Rowley in the county of Essex, widow, about the end of July or the beginning of August hath wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously used certain detestable arts called Witchcraft and Sorceries in the town of Rowley, against one Mary Daniell. By these wicked acts the said Mary Daniell was tortured, afflicted, consumed, pined, wasted, and tormented.”

Mary Daniell, age nineteen, testified as follows: “On the 2nd day of the week last past, towards night, I was suddenly taken very ill and went to lie down on a bed, soon after which there appeared to me the shape of some woman, who seemed to look and speak most fiercely and angrily, and beat, pinched, and afflicted me. I saw the first fit the next night after. I was taken very ill again, and felt a great pricking in the soles of my feet, and then I saw apparently the shape of Margret Scott, who, as I was sitting in a chair by the fire, pulled me with the chair down backward to the ground, and tormented and pinched me very much and I saw her go away at the door.”

Other “spectral evidence” was provided by eleven other witnesses of her witchcraft. Based on this evidence she was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.  When the executions were over and while the bodies were still hanging on the gallows, the Reverend Nicholas Noyes, who was the official minister at the trials, remarked, “What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there.”

During the Salem Witch Trials women were accused of being in league with the devil. It was believed that witches signed a book, presented to them by the devil, and were baptized by him in a ceremony, in which the devil said: "Thou art mine, and I have a full power over thee!" Afterwards, supposedly, they partook of a hellish bread and wine communion, administered by the devil. This was called a "witch sacrament."

One would think that such accusations would be ancient history, but they are not. Two weeks ago I received the following comment on a YouTube video, in which I presented the mystical dimension of Jesus’ message. The commentator remarked, “Marshall Davis, you are bringing in the teachings of the pagans and satanist devil-worshiper & through them the devil.”  Sadly this is not the only time I have received such comments from Christians. “Witch hunts” are still going on.

I take comfort in the knowledge that Jesus was accused of the same thing and warned his followers to expect the same type of treatment that he received. The scribes and Pharisees said of Jesus, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” “He has an unclean spirit,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” 

Jesus explained to his followers, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple to be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” Self-righteous religious folks of every generation accuse those who disagree with them of cavorting with the devil.

I gladly stand with my ancestor, Margaret Scott, and against those who persecute people like her – both then and now. I stand with the religious minorities of the world who are persecuted today for their faith. I stand with religious and unreligious minorities in our nation where Christian nationalists (like the Puritans of Salem) seek to make our country into a “Christian nation” and Christianity into the state religion.

Heinrich Heine famously said, "Those who burn books will in the end burn people." History has shown that to be true. It is also true that those who ban books will in the end ban people. We are seeing that happening today. Racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, and religious minorities are being erased from history books and school curricula. It has been over three hundred years since the Salem Witch Trials, but not enough has changed.


Wednesday, June 21, 2023

I, Robot Pastor

There has been a lot written about artificial intelligence recently. Experts are debating the dangers of AI taking over human jobs and possibly eventually endangering the survival of the human race. Think Terminator. It all seems a bit sci-fi to me. But recently one story hit home. It was a news account of a worship service designed and led by an Artificial Intelligence. It happened this month at a convention of German Protestants in Fuerth, Germany.

A chatbot, personified by an avatar on a screen, led 300 Christians in a forty-minute worship service that included prayers, music, and a sermon written by OpenAI's ChatGPT. The experimental service was conceived by Jonas Simmerlein, a theologian from the University of Vienna. The response to the service was mixed. Most participants said that the service was emotionless and boring. But that can also be said of many human-led services! Other people said the worship experience was better than they expected.

Anyway it got me thinking about AI in the church. There are already AI counselors; why not pastoral counselors? A company called X2AI Inc. invented a therapeutic AI named Tess. They describe Tess as a “psychological AI that administers highly personalized psychotherapy, psycho-education and health-related reminders, on-demand, when and where the mental health professional isn’t.”

The Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California has a virtual reality AI named Ellie. Ellie’s body language mirrors that of an actual therapist, responding to emotional cues, nodding affirmatively when appropriate, and adjusting in her seat. She can mimic a human therapist because her algorithm perceives 66 points on a person’s face and reads their emotional state. Sounds like pastoral care to me. Call her robo-pastor.

Preaching bots could have a future in the church. Mega churches already have pastors doing remote preaching to satellite campuses, so people are used to preachers appearing exclusively on screens. There is certainly a shortage of preachers these days, especially for small congregations that cannot afford a seminary trained pastor. Most churches use screens and projectors for music and announcements, so they can just plug a virtual preacher into the presentation.

The technical bugs that were responsible for the emotionless and boring preaching in Germany can be worked out. Even if they are not, I have sat through a lot of emotionless and boring sermons preached by human beings. AI preachers cannot do much worse. At least with Artificial Intelligence you are guaranteed of an intelligent sermon, even if it is artificial. Plus you can program AI to stop preaching on time, which is a great advantage over human preachers.

The Southern Baptist Convention, who last week officially made it illegal for SBC churches to employ a female pastor, can use white, male, cisgender avatars. Progressive churches could choose from a variety of genders and races. Likewise theology can be programed according to preference. Churches can have conservative, liberal, or moderate bots.  Baptist, Catholic, and even Pentecostal bots speaking in robotic glossolalia. Perhaps synagogues and mosques can join in the fun. Inter-faith bots. The possibilities are endless.

But can such virtual preachers inspire us? That is the question. Can they connect us to the Spirit? I guess if God can speak to Moses through a bush and to Balaam through a donkey, then God could speak to us through an AI. After all, is anything too difficult for God? One could argue that God can sneak into an algorithm as easily as entering stubborn human hearts. This is fun to speculate about, although probably a bit sacrilegious. (Sorry if I went too far!)

In the end, true spirituality is not about designing and leading a worship service. It is not about communicating religious doctrine and ethics. Spirituality is about awareness of the divine and communicating that awareness. It is about spiritual consciousness. Perhaps one day AI will be conscious. Then we can have a discussion about robot rights. For the moment that is pure science fiction. Today the most that AI can do is impersonate a boring preacher.

I appreciate the use of technology in ministry, but I prefer sinner-saints in the pulpit over computer-generated avatars. I love the mistakes that real pastors make. I even prefer human heresies over programmed orthodoxy. I love the unpredictable Jesus of the gospels who overturns tables in the temple, insults people, and cries out that God has forsaken him. I prefer that human Jesus to the spiritually correct demigod and milquetoast messiah idolized in most Christian churches.  

When it comes down to it, we need pastors with arms to hold us and tears to cry with us in our time of need.  We need a Christ who weeps at a graveside and badmouths the hypocrites. We need one who can “sympathize with our weaknesses” as the Letter to the Hebrews says of Jesus. For that reason I do not think AIs will take over my profession anytime soon. I am not expecting to see a robo-preacher in the pulpit of our church. Thank God!

(P.S. This blog post was written by OpenAI's ChatGPT chatbot.)

Just kidding! (Or am I?) 


Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Lord is My Gardener

For decades I had a vegetable garden. There is nothing like fresh vegetables prepared while they are still warm from the sun. In recent years a friend kindly let me use a plot at his farm for a vegetable garden. But the last few years my arthritic shoulder has become so painful that I can no longer do the digging, hoeing and weeding. A surgeon wants me to get a shoulder replacement, but for the time being I am insisting on keeping my original parts.

I can’t do the vegetable gardening, but I can do some flower gardening around my house. I am not an expert on flowers. I could not tell you the names of most of them without looking at the little nametags I place in the ground next to them. Truth be told I don’t really care what they are called. It is their beauty I am interested in.

For that reason I often let weeds grow around my house without any feeling of guilt. Weeds have flowers too – blue, yellow, pink, purple. They are beautiful, when you get past the label. I enjoy seeing flowering weeds poking through the gravel around my front door as much as the flowers planted in flower beds. They remind me of the beauty of tenacity. Flowers remind me who I am. I sprang from the earth just like these blossoming plants.

I just started rereading Alan Watts’ book entitled The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. I first read it over fifty years ago, and I find it just as insightful now. Very early in the book he says this: "We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As an ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”

The Bible teaches this same truth. Genesis says that Adam was made from the soil of Eden. The name Adam is both the Hebrew word for human and the masculine form of the feminine word for earth. We emerge from the earth like a baby comes from the womb. According to the biblical creation story God formed us from dirt and breathed into us the Breath of Life. Humans are a union of Divine breath and earthy matter.

We come from this planet; we are not strangers and sojourners on it. God says to the primordial Man, “dust you are and to dust you will return.” The wisdom teacher of Ecclesiastes agrees, saying at death “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” We are earth enlivened by God’s Spirit.  

The apostle Paul goes so far as to say, “You are God's garden.” Genesis says that God planted humans in the Garden of Eden: “Now the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.” God is a gardener. We are God’s plantings. The Lord is my Gardener, I shall not want.

We are like flowers. Yet people too often feel like weeds. People feel like intruders in Eden, hiding from God and one another. Consequently people act like thorns and thistles, not realizing that thorns and thistles are as much divine creations as roses and lilies.

In our ignorance we play the role of noxious weeds by undermining the ecosystem of earth. According to the Bureau of Land Management, “Legally, a noxious weed is any plant designated by a Federal, State or county government as injurious to public health, agriculture, recreation, wildlife or property.” 

That is how we act. We are spearheading a Sixth Extinction, destroying species at an alarming rate and quickly making the earth uninhabitable for our own species. We are orchestrating a climate Armageddon. All because we have forgotten who and what we are.

It is the job of the church to remind people who we are. We are spirit expressed through earth, priceless expressions of divine life. That is what it means to be made in the image of God. That is the good news of the gospel! Yet it seems like the church is proclaiming just the opposite. The church preaches that humans are like thorns and thistles deserving to be gathered up and burned in divine hellfire.

We are divine flowers, not noxious weeds.  Each person is a beautiful expression of God, regardless of the denigrating labels that people attach to others, inferring they are somehow lesser beings. In teaching us how to live, Jesus instructed us to “Consider the lilies of the field.”  One could do worse than meditate on flowers on a warm June day.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Divine Indirection

A friend of mine, Dwight A. Moody, recently wrote a review of an old book that was influential in his life. The book is a collection of sermons by J. Wallace Hamilton published in 1965 and entitled Serendipity. The author was the pastor of the Pasadena Community Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the mid-20th century. I had never heard of the book or the man, yet I am always interested in books that have influenced my friends’ lives.

According to Moody the best thing about this book is its central concept of serendipity. The review says: “Hamilton traces this word and idea to an ancient Persian fable, about the travels of “The Three Princes of Serendip” (the latter being the island now known as Ceylon). The travelers were constantly finding things of value while searching for other things entirely. Hamilton calls it the “principle of indirection” and, throughout the book, illustrates it with story after story from the history of science, exploration, and literature.”

This definition of serendipity as “finding things of value while searching for other things” resonates with me. It describes what happened to me a little more than a decade ago. I had a crisis of faith. Conflict in my Pennsylvania church caused me to question everything I had ever believed about Christianity. The misconduct of Christians made me question the religion that spawned such people. I resigned my position as pastor.

Rather than immediately seek a new position, I took a year off from ministry in 2010 and began a systematic reexamination of my faith. That search was to continue for more than two years, even after I returned to ministry as a pastor in New Hampshire. 

During those years I did a lot of study, prayer and research. I questioned all my assumptions and presuppositions. It led to a radical deconstruction of my Christianity. At the time I thought I might be finished with religion and Christianity altogether.

Yet God has a sense of humor. Serendipity happened. The principle of indirection was at work.  In looking outside of theism I found God beyond theism. The God beyond Church. The God beyond doctrine and dogma. The God beyond God. I saw the Kingdom of God that Jesus had proclaimed, but which the Church had forgotten. That was in the summer of 2012. It was a turning point in my life.

Jesus told the story of a sharecropper who found a treasure while plowing a field. The farmer was simply hoping to eke a living out of the ground but found a life-changing treasure. Jesus called this serendipitous treasure the Kingdom of God. The same thing happened with me.

At first I had no words to describe this discovery because it was beyond words or thoughts. What I recognized as Reality did not fit the categories of traditional Christian theology. Yet this Reality was clearly the message preached by Christ.

As I read the gospels anew, every word of Jesus shone with the Kingdom of God. I reread Christian mystics whose experience seemed to be similar to mine. I started to proclaim this message of Christ from the pulpit. I published these sermons under the title Living Presence: A Guide to Everyday Awareness of God. I wrote a book entitled Experiencing God Directly: The Way of Christian Nonduality in 2013. I continued in fulltime ministry until I retired in 2016.

Then in 2020 the COVID pandemic happened. Like everyone else I was masked and homebound, so I tried recording online talks on YouTube. I initially called them Devotions for a Pandemic. As the pandemic continued I followed it up with a video series called Christian Nonduality and a podcast called The Tao of Christ. I have not stopped.

The response I have received from listeners around the world shows me that I am not the only one who has seen the Kingdom of God. Nearly every day I hear from people who have had the same shift in perspective. I am now invited to be interviewed on other podcasts and YouTube channels. Many of my listeners are Christians who no longer feel comfortable in Christian churches. This situation has been made worse by the radicalization of evangelical Christianity in recent years.

People are disillusioned with the church, but they are still interested in spiritual matters. They are just looking for inspiration elsewhere. Churches across the theological spectrum – liberal, moderate and conservative - are emptying at an alarming rate. Yet at the same time a spiritual revival is going on outside churches.

People share their stories of spiritual awakening with me regularly. A recent email said, “Something amazing and miraculous has happened to myself and a close circle of friends in Asheville NC!” A few days ago I did an interview on this man’s podcast, which will be broadcast soon. I have an online meeting with a group scheduled for this Sunday. 

This is a time of hope. Out of the compost of a decaying church a new Christian spirituality is sprouting. That is resurrection.  That is the Living Christ. This is the Kingdom of God.