Sunday, August 19, 2018

Is prayer magic, mystery, or?

What is prayer? Is it magic, mystery, or something else

Prayer is not magic. Contrary to a widely held misunderstanding, prayer is not a means of manipulating God to produce a desired result(s). No formula, no action, no degree of sincerity in asking God to do something is assured of achieving the desired result.

The occasions on which prayer leads to the requested result are serendipitous. The results are actually attributable to other causes and not to God if the full picture is accurately understood. Concomitantly, chalking up failed prayer to receiving a “No” from God simply avoids the actual, underlying issue of correctly understanding prayer.

Magic, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary is “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces, mysterious tricks performed as entertainment.”

Believing that prayer is a means of obtaining specific results from God has three major theological problems. First, the person praying becomes de facto more powerful that God. God is reduced to the means of gratifying the desire(s) of the person praying.

Second, prayers of this genre (e.g., heal this dying individual, cure this person’s cancer, give me food for my starving child, etc.) are sometimes answered and sometimes not. Consequently, God appears capricious allowing some to die, some to eat, and so forth. If God genuinely loves all people equally, then God would logically act lovingly toward all, thus ending much suffering and death among both Christians and non-Christians.

Third, prayers of this genre typically require God to intervene in the natural order in a way that contravenes natural law. Illustratively, weather patterns are determined by geo-physical forces and other natural factors. God bringing rain to parched portions of California now ablaze with wild fires would requiring altering one or more of those ongoing natural processes.

If prayer is not magic, is it mystery?

Conceiving of prayer as mystery is less problematic than are the forms of prayer more akin to magic than genuine prayer. We advantageously approach prayer as a human endeavor rather than attempting the impossible task of discerning the presence or acts of the ineffable divine.

Thus, prayer may be talking (the verbal activity most commonly identified as prayer), acting (as in performing a loving deed), or meditating (practicing Christian yoga, for example). These acts may be therapeutic for the person praying: talking to God may relieve emotional stress or provide clarity about one’s ideas; acting may redirect the course of one’s life, prove redemptive or restorative, or help to form virtuous habits; meditating has health benefits demonstrated in repeated scientific studies. All of the above may offer signs of God’s presence or activity if we posit that God desires and promotes both human well-being and flourishing.

If God mysteriously acts to promote human well-being and flourishing in ways that (1) do not entail any problems connected to understanding prayer as magic and (2) are not directly discernible by finite humans because of God’s ineffable infinitude, then perhaps prayer becomes dialectical (God’s response to human talking, acting, and meditating) when humans receive gifts of wisdom, courage, and strength to grow in love for God and neighbor. Wisdom may connote what Whitehead called God luring a person toward a particular direction, a direction which is always loving and life-affirming. Courage may signify the assurance of God continuing to lure the person God-ward after that first step, an interpretation that helpfully links courage with hope. And strength may point toward a sufficiently strong luring to overcome human inertia against moving in the God-ward direction, thus linking strength and faith.

Approaching prayer as a mystery rooted in love, hope, and faith coheres with a biblical understanding of God as light, love, or the ground of being and with a twenty-first century scientific worldview.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

For such a time as this

The Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention, which met in Austin a couple of weeks ago and which I did not attend, interested me more for what did not happen that for what actually transpired.

Don’t misunderstand me. Lots of good decisions were made. In no particular order, some of General Convention’s decisions that I applaud include:

·       Readmitting Cuba as a diocese

·       Authorizing use of specific inclusive language at places in some of our Eucharistic liturgies

·       Authorizing the use of same sex marriage rites in all dioceses

·       Indefinitely deferring publication of a new prayer book (I’ve previously argued on this website here and here that any new edition of the prayer book should be electronic, not printed)

·       Support for justice for the Palestinians

Given the controversial nature of some of these decisions, your list of good decisions may vary from mine.

Regardless of one’s opinion of General Convention’s decisions, what deeply concerns me is that the preponderance of the Convention focused on issues internal to the Episcopal Church while largely ignoring the elephant in the room. Even resolutions that appear to deal with external matters (e.g., support for justice for the Palestinians) are important primarily because of these resolutions permit our representatives in Washington, at the United Nations, and elsewhere to take actions on our behalf.

The convention’s agenda represents an excellent example of the urgent supplanting the important. The Episcopal Church is dying. Short-term numbers notwithstanding, the Episcopal Church has hemorrhaged members for decades. That long-term decline is the elephant in the room. Reversing that decline is our most important, though not necessarily most urgent, agenda item. Unlike many other agenda items, no group of advocates has coalesced around reversing our numerical decline. The issue generally languishes unaddressed, in vestry, diocesan, and church-wide meetings.

General Convention did pass a triennial budget that emphasizes the Presiding Bishop’s priorities, one of which is evangelism. However, as I have previously contended on this website, the amount of money programmed for evangelism is insufficient if we really want to make evangelism a genuine priority. Resources are inadequate for us to continue business as usual while prioritizing evangelism.

Obviously, our goal as Christians who live in the Episcopal tradition is not simply perpetuating The Episcopal Church. Our goal is the increase of the love of God and neighbor. Our Presiding Bishop repeats this message over and over in his preaching and other communications. If we collectively are truly to be about God’s business, then the rest of us, our denominational structures, and our budgets need substantial realignment to reflect these two priorities.

Realigning our efforts will inescapably entail sacrificing “rice bowls” and “sacred cows” in pursuit of more effectively and efficiently loving God and neighbor. The issue is not whether a particular effort, program, or theme enhances love for God and neighbor but whether there is a way to produce larger results at a lower cost. Business as usual has failed for decades to reverse our numerical decline. We must change or The Episcopal Church, its dioceses, and their congregations will die.

Unfortunately, most diocesan convention vestries agendas are similar to General Convention’s agenda. These agendas too frequently focus on business as usual and ignore our numerical decline. Even when a diocese or vestry addresses problems, the problems are typically internal (e.g., improving communications or balancing the budget) and ignore the overarching problem of numerical decline.

Color me an optimist. I believe that the arc of history bends not only toward justice but also toward love. Externalities such as terms of address for the deity or the prayer book’s format may change, but individuals and the world as a whole not only need and but also want what Christians claim to offer, that is, experience and knowledge of God’s loving, healing, reconciling, life-giving presence.

Therefore, numerical declines indicate a failure on our part to go and make disciples of all the world. I’m not advocating the type of evangelism practiced by more conservative Christian denominations. One blessing in retiring from the military chaplaincy was no longer daily having to deal with chaplains and laity from those denominations. What I am advocating is prioritizing marketing The Episcopal Church and its message of love in ways congruent with our Anglican understanding and practice of Christianity. This involves hard work, trying new initiatives, risking failure, and de-prioritizing if not abandoning business as usual.

The Presiding Bishop’s sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle afforded the Episcopal Church an unparalleled opportunity to share the message that God calls us to love God and one another. Since that event, the Presiding Bishop has sought to capitalize on the attendant publicity to further market both The Episcopal Church and our message of love.

Most Episcopalians will never have a similar opportunity to market The Episcopal Church or communicate God’s message of love to such a vast audience. We can, however, look for more quotidian methods of incarnating the gospel, of becoming a people in whom and through whom persons experience God’s love. The protest against separating children from parents at a detention center for illegal immigrants by General Convention attendees was one small step in this direction. What can you do today to communicate God’s love to another person? And what can your congregation, your diocese, and our national structures do differently to communicate God’s love more effectively and efficiently?

God has called us for this time. Today is the time for us to set aside the urgent and the comparatively easy (although some ongoing issues are admittedly challenging). Now is the time for us to concentrate on the far more important and difficult task of loving God and others so outrageously and unreservedly that we grow both spiritually and numerically.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

What is truth?

A shepherd and his dog are herding a flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW appears out of a dust cloud. The driver, a young man in an Armani suit, Gucci shoes, and Oakley sunglasses, leans out the window and asks, "If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?"

The shepherd looks at the man, who is obviously not a shepherd, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers, "Sure. Why not?"

The driver parks, whips out his smartphone, uses GPS to obtain an exact fix on his location, gets a NASA satellite to take an ultra-high-resolution photo that he exports to an image processing facility. In a few seconds, he turns to the shepherd and says, "You have exactly 1586 sheep."

"That's right. Well, I guess you can take one of my sheep," says the shepherd. He watches the young man select one of the animals and looks on amused as the young man stuffs it into the trunk of his car.

Then the shepherd says to the young man, "Hey, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my sheep?"

The young man thinks about it for a second and then says, "Okay, why not?"

"You're a consultant," says the shepherd.

"Wow! That's correct," says the man, "but how did you guess that?"

"No guessing required," answered the shepherd. "You showed up here even though nobody called you; you want to get paid for an answer I already knew; to a question I never asked; and you don't know anything about my business . . . 

" . . . Now give me back my dog. "[1]

This morning I want to you to consider a question, a question to which you may already have an answer, even if your answer is more intuitive than the one I offer. There is, however, no charge beyond a few minutes of your time.

Now for the question: What is truth?

Our culture is increasingly shaped by the pervasive idea that truth does not exist, that is, all truth is relative. Like many ideas, this one has enough truth to make it sufficiently credible that numerous persons, and even some scholars, espouse it.

What is the best color or food? Who is the most beautiful, handsome, or loving person? Is socialism or capitalism the best economic system? Does conservatism or liberalism offer the most realistic hope for a good future? These are all questions of opinion and our answers vary widely depending upon our values, tastes, and criteria for weighing alternatives.

Relativism has its place but relativism is not the whole story. Is a traffic light, for example, presently red or green? I want your answer to be the same as mine. Philosophers, theologians, and others call this second approach to truth pragmatism. Unless a person is color blind, everyone agrees when a traffic signal turns red or green. Yet physicists and neuroscientists tell us that the colors red and green do not really exist. What a person experiences as a particular color is in fact that person’s brain processing light waves of a particular frequency and then describing that experience using a mutually agreed upon label.

Pragmatism is essential but has two limitations. First, pragmatism routinely depends upon things that may be at least partially false. People have experienced color for longer than I can guess, but only in the last couple of centuries have we acquired knowledge of both light waves and how the brain processes what the eye sees. For most of us, that discrepancy is not a problem. But sometimes pragmatism unintentionally inhibits scientific advances, as when Einstein and others proposed quantum physics as a corrective to Newtonian physics. Second, pragmatism emphasizes experienced reality, not issues of ultimate reality or truth. On the one hand, I rely upon my legs to walk. On the other hand, I know that my legs are not solid, but comprised of sub-atomic particles to create the illusion of being solid even though my leg consists of more open space than of matter.

Christianity claims God revealed its ideas about ultimate truth. Most importantly, Christianity claims that God has revealed God’s self to us. Claims about first principles or ultimate reality are not unique to Christianity. Other religions and even some philosophical systems, such as Plato’s concept of eternal forms or ideas, represent similar claims. Philosophically, this is known as a correspondence theory of truth, i.e., our concepts correspond to the nature of ultimate reality.

Correspondence theories of truth have a couple of significant limitations. First, the knowledge that humans develop over time using pragmatism has proven that some correspondence theories of truth are false. Theories of a flat earth and of a three-tiered universe with heaven up, hell below, and earth in the middle exemplify such mistakes. Ongoing advances in human knowledge have prompted many people to discard all correspondence theories of truth in favor of relativism, pragmatism, or some combination of the two. Second, the most basic correspondence theories of truth are inherently non-verifiable. Our finite existence and finite perspective preclude any direct perception of whatever infinite ultimate reality may exist. We therefore must respect other claims about ultimate truth, perhaps searching for commonalities to clarify our own thinking.

Christian living requires integrating these three approaches to truth. First, respecting the dignity and worth of all humans entails respecting diversity and varied opinions. Contrary to some fundamentalists, Scripture actually instructs us to practice this form of relativism.[2] Thus, the Episcopal Church and we at St Clement’s repeatedly emphasize that everyone is always welcome and we work prophetically to achieve equal justice and treatment for all.

Second, pragmatism is necessary for daily survival. Paul refers to this approach to truth in today’s epistle reading when he enjoins us to put away falsehood and speak the truth to our neighbors.[3] Unless people agree upon facts – not opinion, but facts – both community life and civil discourse become impossible,[4] an increasing danger in the United States today.

Third, a correspondence theory of truth allows us to understand our experience of a love greater than self, a power we call God. We see and hear echoes of these experiences in the Bible, in the sacraments, and in the lives of God’s people. This is the type of truth of which Jesus speaks when he describes himself as the bread of life, a symbolic rather than literal statement about God and ultimate truth.[5]

May you know the truth and may it set you free for life today and always. Amen.

(Sermon preached the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2018, 
in the Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI)

[1] Source unknown.
[2] E.g., Acts 10:34-35.
[3] Ephesians 4:25.
[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 77.
[5] John 6:35.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Another reflection on my European travels

Portion sizes in both Italy and France have continued to increase in size. And, restaurants now welcome diners to share a course, whether starter, main, or dessert. Sharing courses, while common in the U.S., had previously triggered disdain if not outright opposition from Italian and French restauranteurs. This year I would guess that at as many as a third of the tables in the restaurants where I dined people shared at least one course.

Meanwhile, my anecdotal observation is that Europeans are gaining weight, though they are not yet at the levels of overweight and obesity found in the U.S.

God created humans to enjoy food and wine. One aspect of life in Europe that I have enjoyed in the past is eating a multi-course paired with several different wines, finding myself at the end of the meal pleasantly and comfortably sated but neither stuffed nor inebriated.

Temperance, however, is one of the four Christian cardinal virtues. I find the practice of moderation in all things (a Confucian teaching that helpfully defines temperance) increases my interest in savoring what I consume. Temperance also can help one avoid gaining weight (I was pleased to return from my extended sojourn without having added pounds in spite of having greatly enjoyed the food and wine).

Temperance is an under-appreciated virtue. Hoarders, the greedy, and people who hang on to every item regardless of its serviceability or continued use could all benefit from the practice of temperance. Conversely, those who oppose any consumption of alcoholic beverages, the 19th century Temperance movement that promoted abstinence rather than temperance, gave the word temperance an ugly and lingering negative connotation.

Perhaps most importantly, the Dalai Lama helpfully connects temperance to practicing concern for the environment (Dalai Lama and Sofia Stril-Rever, My Spiritual Journey, p. 137):

As Tibetan Buddhists, we advocate temperance, which is not unconnected to the environment, since we do not consume anything immoderately. We set limits on our habits of consumption, and we appreciate a simple, responsible way of life. Our relationship to the environment has always been special. Our ancient scriptures speak of the vessel and its contents. The world is the vessel, our house, and we, the living, are its contents.