Sunday, April 16, 2017

The meaning of resurrection

In my previous Ethical Musings’ post, “Holy Week and Theology lite,” I explained why resurrection without death is incomprehensible. At best, resurrection without death becomes a form of self-help teaching.
So, given that all are dying or dead, what is resurrection?
My answer to that question begins by recognizing two definitions that are inapplicable to resurrection. First, resurrection differs from resuscitation. Resuscitation restores a person to this physical life. The experience may or may not change the individual. In any case, the resuscitated person remains mortal and will die another physical death. The biblical account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, found in John’s gospel, when read literally describes resuscitation rather than resurrection. Simplistic, literal readings of Jesus physically rising from the dead similarly are often closer to resuscitation than resurrection.
Second, resurrection requires external intervention. Nobody has the power to resurrect him or herself. If a person had that power, then the person would not be truly dead or dying. Twelve step programs describe the outside assistance for resurrection in terms of a person’s dependence upon a “higher power,” while concurrently acknowledging the ineffability of that “higher power.” Resurrection, however, does not preclude an individual cooperating with that “higher power.”
Resurrection is the higher power – God, in the vocabulary of many – intervening, often with the assistance of the individual in whose life the intervention occurs, to transform the inauthentic into the authentic. Other persons and things (e.g., a beautiful sunset) may also contribute to the process of resurrection. Resurrection transforms a person’s I-It relationships, in which the person objectifies others and God as a consequence of self-betrayal, into I-Thou relationships, which depend upon the authenticity of self and the other. Resurrection may also be defined in terms of liberation, e.g., the liberation of a person from bondage to an addiction.
The Bible, read mythically as an account of human experience, consistently reports God acting to resurrect the dead and dying. For example, this definition of resurrection provides a useful framework for understanding the account of the exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt, the return of Israel from its Babylonian captivity, the story of Lazarus’ rising from the dead, and Paul’s transformation on the road to Damascus.
Most importantly, this understanding of resurrection makes sense out of what happened on the first Easter, when the spirit or memory of Jesus, persisting after his death, transformed despondent disciples into messengers of hope and new life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Not so steady at the helm

Chaos can be creative. The existence of chaos at the sub-atomic level of the cosmos introduces both novelty and the possibility for beings to have limited autonomy. Novelty and limited autonomy are two important elements of the human spirit as well as two of the ways in which the human spirit emulates the Creator’s spirit. Furthermore, the Creator’s own limited autonomy and capacity for introducing novelty help to explain why the cosmos continues its dynamic evolution
However, chaos can be destructive. Human beings generally function on the basis of patterns, presuming consistency rather than chaos. For example, voters desire consistency in their elected officials. With consistency, a voter reasonably expects the elected officer holder to support policies advocated during her or his election. Similarly, in an uncertain world with continuing threats from terrorists, nuclear armed powers, and aspiring economic competitors consistency allows both friends and enemies to have a high degree of confidence about the likely response to adversarial acts.
The importance of consistency, an essential element of integrity, is one reason why the media and other politicians quickly attack a politician for changing positions. Of course, some changes reflect the availability of new information and other changes result from a politician reassessing known facts. Yet other changes appear chaotic, whether attempts to sail with the prevailing wind of public opinion, indicative of indecision, or otherwise inexplicable.
President Trump’s actions this week indicated major departures from several key elements of his campaign platform. He communicated that he now opposes a border added tax. He is reviewing his stance on immigration. He is looking for a way to revise the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), contrary to his previously avowed intent to move on to tax reform. Most notoriously, he intervened militarily in Syria, a move that he adamantly opposed during the campaign and a move for which he repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting.
Do these changes point to Trump reassessing what he deems to be the best course of action, reassessments attributable to his new view of the world from the Oval Office? Alternatively, are these changes simply the latest expression of the chaos characteristic of Trump the businessman and Trump the president?
The US and the global community benefit when there is a steady hand on the helm in the White House. If this week’s past week’s policy changes by the Trump administration indicate an effort to reduce governmental chaos, then the changes represent a constructive step forward even though I vehemently disagree with some of them, e.g., defunding Planned Parenthood as part of his proposal to repeal and replace the healthcare law. More likely, the changes demonstrate the continuing lack of a steady hand on helm of the US ship of state.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Holy Week and Theology lite

On Palm Sunday, a friend reported that the rector of his parish had preached a sermon, which my friend partially summarized in these words:
He said he had a meeting with a Roman Catholic friend who told him she always felt guilty during Holy Week since she had been taught that it was ‘her’ sins which were the reason that Jesus had died. The Rector said he was a post-Resurrection person who only found joy in Holy Week. It would appear that the Old Testament and theological matters of salvation, atonement, sanctification, etc., do not bother the Rector too much. Apparently spreading the Good News is all that matters in the post-Resurrection church.
Resurrection without death is impossible. Regardless of how a person understands resurrection and death – literally, metaphorically, or mythically – that which is not dead cannot be brought to life.
I agree with what my friend’s summary of his rector’s sermon implies, that is, orthodox Christian theories of the atonement are at best incomprehensible and at worst evil in the developed world of the twenty-first century. Any theological framework that requires Jesus to die in order for humans to participate in Jesus’ resurrection depicts God as a masochist, sadist, or child abuser.
However, that agreement does not mean that I think resurrection is possible without death. If resurrection is possible without death, then the Good News of the gospel is reduced to the self-help message of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, a self-help message characteristic of much popular evangelical preaching, e.g., that of Joel Osteen.
The death that humans universally experience is what twentieth century Christian theologian Paul Tillich described as inauthentic life. The inauthentic life occurs when a person is no longer faithful to him or herself and is therefore incapable of having what twentieth century Jewish theologian Martin Buber I-Thou relationships with other people and with the divine. Instead, in an inauthentic life a person reduces others and God to objects. With respect to God, this reduction easily and generally leads to agnosticism or atheism.
During Holy Week, Christians commemorate on Palm Sunday Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, remember on Maundy Thursday Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples and his command to them that they love one another, and on Good Friday recall Jesus’ crucifixion. In sum, Holy Week encourages Christian self-examination:
·       In what way(s) am I living an inauthentic life?
·       Who do I objectify, viewing and treating as an object instead of entering into an I-Thou relationship with them?
·       In what way(s) do I objectify God, reducing God to a concept that I can describe, perhaps even control, instead of daring to enter into an I-Thou relationship with the Divine, a reality utterly beyond human description or control?
None of us is fully alive, for all are dying if not dead.

In my Easter post, I will explore the concept of resurrection.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Transformation rather than conversion

The theological term conversion has sufficiently troubled me that I have avoided using it for decades. Initially, this avoidance was unconscious but more recently has been intentional.

The English word conversion has today, especially in religious contexts, the overwhelming connotation of a change in a person’s beliefs or thinking. Yet Christianity is about learning to walk the Jesus path ever more faithfully, not about persuading people to hold right beliefs.

Actions speak louder than words. My observation of religious people (including me!) is that considerable disparity often exists between an individual’s avowed theological beliefs/thinking and what that person’s actions indicate s/he actually believes/thinks. While it’s easy to describe that disparity as hypocrisy, the disparity is frequently better understood as the aspirational difference between what a person would like to believe and what s/he actually believes.

Christian evangelical efforts focused on conversion easily produce unfortunate aberrations and coerced conversions. Until the nineteenth century, Christians occasionally baptized non-Christians and then slaughtered the newly baptized before they could commit apostasy. More recently, some evangelically motivated Christians superficially “count coup,” i.e., track the number of individuals who verbally confessed faith in Christ as a result of the Christian’s efforts while ignoring the deeper question of whether any real lifestyle or behavioral change occurred in the new convert.

Consequently, I find that the word transformation more accurately communicates the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, the Biblical word frequently translated as conversion. Having less baggage than does the word conversion, transformation emphasizes a change in a person and their actions as well as in their feelings and ideation.

Emphasizing transformation instead of conversion has shaped my ministry. For example, I am convinced that there is only one God and that many paths lead to God. One reason I subscribe to those views is that persons treading diverse religious paths hold varying beliefs but nevertheless experience similar life-giving and life-enriching transformations.

Those convictions cohered well with my ministry as a Navy chaplain. Historically, military chaplains have had three roles. First, chaplains minister to people of the chaplain’s faith community in as an inclusive a manner as possible. For Episcopal priests, inclusive ministry may include: (1) Conducting a wide variety of Protestant worship services, most of which are arguably some form of Morning or Evening Prayer; (2) Administering Holy Baptism when requested, to include full immersion of a believer who desires that form of baptism; (3) Celebrating Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites.

A chaplain’s second role is to facilitate the free exercise of religion for members of other faith communities. While on active duty, I provided space, equipment, and supplies as needed and upon request for Buddhist, Jewish, Latter Day Saint, and Muslim faith communities to worship and otherwise practice their faith. Memorably, I once had a Jewish sailor ask me to conduct a Passover Seder for him. I explained to him that if I conducted the Seder it would by definition be a Christian Seder. I then added that if he conducted the Seder, I would provide the foodstuffs, publicity, and coaching for him, as well as attend and recruit other attendees to ensure the presence of a minyan.

Incidentally, the last few decades have seen an increase in controversies over the military chaplaincy precisely because some evangelical Christian chaplains have abandoned facilitation in favor of conversion. Sometimes evangelical Christians have implicitly linked career or promotion opportunities to conversion. This move, reminiscent of some coerced conversion efforts in prior generations, seriously undermines the chaplaincy’s constitutional standing by prima facie establishing government support for a particular religion. Analogously, this move also inhibits the interfaith cooperation and communication that depend upon respecting the beliefs of all and honoring the integrity of other faith groups.

A chaplain’s third role is to care for everyone. A Marine whose mother has just died has, in my experience, no interest in religious conversion. The Marine simply seeks an understanding, caring listener. Other times, the person who has sought out the chaplain because of vocational concerns, adjustment issues, family problems, substance abuse, or a host of other difficulties may want to change, but is usually unaware of any theological dimensions of that change. The best chaplains in such situations function as catalysts for transformation rather than as conversion agents.

Widespread adherence to those three roles by military chaplains of previous generations built the mutual respect and trust required for genuine interfaith cooperation and established military chaplaincy as a model for such ministry. Similar patterns of ministry, perhaps articulated in different terms, also frequently shapes chaplaincy in other institutional settings, e.g., hospitals, prisons, and hospices.


Since retiring from the Navy, I have recognized that those three functions equally describe parish ministry at its best. The best parochial priests exercise a ministry that seeks to include as many people as possible while being faithful to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites. Illustratively, in my current diocese, this inclusivity sometimes means adapting ancient Hawaiian symbols and terms. But no parish, regardless of its size or resources, can meet everyone’s perceived spiritual needs. Honoring that diversity by pointing a person to a more suitable alternative – another Episcopal parish, a Roman Catholic parish, or a congregation of another denomination – ministers to that person while respecting his/her dignity and worth. Finally, the Church should care for all. Genuine caring seeks what is best for a person: healing, growth, becoming more whole, and living more abundantly. Genuine caring has no ulterior motive. Transformation, not conversion, best describes Christianity’s goal.