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Monday, March 30, 2015

Evil and God

An Ethical Musings' reader framed a question about evil in an interesting way, prefacing the question with the observation that people often thank God for having spared them or their property from being harmed by a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado. The reader then asks, "What about their neighbor who did suffer from the natural disaster's destructive power? Did the neighbor receive a just punishment for being bad?"

Incidentally, one of the first sermons I preached happened to be in a farming community during a drought. I argued that praying for rain was a waste of time and effort. More rain in one place necessarily meant less rain elsewhere because only a limited amount of water on the ground evaporated into the atmosphere. Do we have the wisdom to know what pattern of rainfall is optimal? Should we have the hubris to think that God loves us better than God loves those who would receive less rain? Do we think that God will answer our prayers for rain yet ignore the equally (and probably more) fervent prayers of Christians who live in lands parched by multi-year droughts, Christians who with their children and neighbors are not just suffering economic hardship but actually dying because of the drought? The congregation was surprisingly more receptive than I had anticipated, but even then, I knew that their attitude was more one of charity toward a youthful preacher than actual agreement.

Thanking God for sparing (or blaming God for striking) one with any of the evils that result from a natural disaster, disease, etc., as traditional Christian theology teaches, is nonsense. Evil, as the Bible reminds us, happens to both good and bad people, to those who appear to merit punishment and to those who appear to merit something better. In the vernacular, we might say, cancer is no respecter of persons.

Nor would a good, loving God capriciously strike both the just and unjust. Pervasive evil and the apparently innocent suffering egregious injustice have led traditional Christian theologians to insist that justice will be done, if not in this life then in the next.

Consequently, the God of traditional Christian theology resembles an imaginary being more than pointing towards a credible concept of the cosmos' creator. Psychological research confirms philosophical speculation from the last two centuries: people tend to imagine God as a heavenly parent. Persons who have had loving, caring parents tend to see God as a loving, benevolent being that helps them overcome adversity and protects them from evil. Persons who have had more distant, judgmental parents tend to see God as more remote and judgmental. I, for one, want nothing to do with an imaginary being; I do not need an imaginary being in order to feel safe or to thrive.

Nobody has ever articulated a satisfactory explanation of why evil exists. Obviously, much evil results from human actions or inactivity. Human actions are responsible for murder and rape; human failure to act responsibly results in people starving to death in a world that has ample food to feed every human now alive. Humans, however, are not responsible for most cancer, most disease, most earthquakes, and most severe weather.

Process theology rejects the idea of an omnipotent God. In creating the cosmos, God shared power with creation, ceasing to be all-powerful. Whether this is the best of all possible worlds, it is the world that God created and in which we exist. That the cosmos exists suggests the existence of a creator. That people sometimes experience a profound awe, a sense of presence or power of one who is wholly other, suggests that the creator continues to engage with the cosmos.

Seeking God's preferential treatment, especially if doing so will disadvantage or harm others, is immoral, a conclusion that most of us along with the Ethical Musings' reader whose question prompted this post intuitively recognize. Praying for rain, praising God for having spared one from suffering the destructive power of a natural disaster, or beseeching God to cure a person of cancer are all illogical. God is not supernatural (and therefore does not act supernaturally, performing miracles at supplicants' behest) but is present in the cosmos' nature. Indeed, nothing is more or can be more natural than God is.

Far too often, Christian hope for ultimate justice becomes what Marx characterized as the opiate of the masses. We cannot know with certainty if there is another world or in what way ultimate justice may prevail. My doctoral adviser, for example, believed that our life after death existed entirely in God's mind. In short, justice deferred is not justice. Thus, we must persevere in trying to make this life and this world the best that we can.


These more limited claims of process theology cohere better with our knowledge of the cosmos and offer the best explanation of evil that I've seen, much better than the answers found in traditional Christian teachings.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Changing rituals in a changing world

Zorba the Greek tells the story of an uptight Englishman who visits an Aegean island where, after several emotionally traumatic experiences, his last big hope for economic success collapses. Faced with complete catastrophe, he doesn’t cry, whine, or curse God. Instead, he turns to his earthy guide to Greek village life and says, “Zorba, teach me to dance.”

Religious rituals teach us to dance with God. For many Episcopalians, the shape of our Sunday rituals changed dramatically with the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Holy Communion replaced Morning Prayer as the usual Sunday worship service.

Reflecting on my spiritual journey set in the broader context of American culture, two dynamics seem to have had significant roles in bringing the change about. First, I (and many others) sought a greater emphasis on community to balance an unhealthy cultural bias in favor of individualism. Morning Prayer too easily accommodated individualism, permitting attendees to avoid personal interaction. Passing the Peace during Holy Communion at least required attendees to pretend to interact as they mumbled greetings and perhaps shook hands. In the congregations with which I'm familiar, resistance to the Peace has gradually yielded to attendees learning to value a few moments to interact with other worshipers. The ritual of the Peace developed from being an awkward interruption of individual worship to an affirmation (sometimes even a celebration) of our communal identity and worship.

Second, the scientific materialism and philosophical reductionism that permeates our culture has made the inadequacy of words for communicating transcendent realities increasingly apparent. Shifting from Morning Prayer to Holy Communion better balanced the cognitive content of our worship services with greater emphasis on both affect and physical engagement. In addition to the listening, verbal responses, singing, and posture changes called for in Morning Prayer, Holy Communion involves eating/drinking, touch with other people, and movement (at least to and from the altar). Congregations that use incense also enlist the olfactory sense. Drawing people more deeply into the ritual has the potential to draw people more deeply into the transcendent mystery of God's presence.

Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk described the power of rituals to bind a community together and to bind individuals into a community. She memorably illustrated that power with her observations of a Benedictine monastic community.

I repeatedly observed the same power of ritual in my ministry, a binding that occurred more rapidly in transient military communities and more slowly in civilian communities. People acquired the local rhythms through repetition while they concurrently learned the local stories that imbued those rhythms with meaning. Rituals formed individuals into a community, giving their lives meaning.

Paul Tillich insisted that ritual, including the associated story or myth, requires continual reformation and renewal for the ritual to remain vital. I don't foresee an end to ritual. The search for meaning is basic to the human condition. However, I suspect that the Church will mostly shift from a highly stylized form of Eucharist meal toward a more casual, fuller meal format (this is already happening in some places). I expect that the number of people who find traditional Christian theological formulations satisfying will continue to diminish while the number attracted to post-theistic narratives continues to increase.

Acknowledging the pervasiveness and accelerating pace of change has become so commonplace as to be trite. A Christianity that attempts to remain static, desperately clinging to its current ritual forms and theological formulations, is dying. Refusing to change is tantamount to issuing an ecclesial do not resuscitate order.

Thankfully, the patient is not terminally ill. Christianity need not die. But it is like the uptight Englishman in Zorba the Greek after his repeated setbacks. Time is becoming critical. The Church needs to change and to keep changing at a faster pace if it is to stay alive. What will be our next dance, when will we learn it, and who will be our guide?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Feeling good about guilt

Guilt feelings are common. The Church often has a well-deserved reputation for inducing guilt feelings. Yet seldom does the Church help people understand guilt and to deal with it constructively. My most recent sermon addresses the problem of guilt, first analyzing what guilt is, and then offering practical suggestions on how guilt can be a force for good and spiritual growth in one's life (also available at Ethical Musings via this link).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hypocrisy, mercenaries, and Just War Theory

European nations and the United States share a common concern about their citizens going to the Middle East to fight for ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Previous Ethical Musings' posts have addressed the problem of ISIS (cf. What to do about ISIS and ISIS). Contrary to inflammatory rhetoric, the numbers of Westerners fighting for ISIS are relatively small and only a minority of those will want to engage in terrorism upon return to their native land.

Unfortunately, the parallel phenomenon of Westerners going to Iraq, Syria, or another place in the Middle East to fight against ISIS has received little notice. As in the case of those supporting ISIS, numbers are small. Many of them espouse a form of Christian fundamentalism; most have fought in the armed forces of the US or another nation in Iraq or Afghanistan. As with their counterparts who fight for ISIS, some small number of these individuals will engage in criminal behavior when they return to their native land.

Westerners fighting for or against ISIS are indicative of two basic, widely ignored problems, both of which are more troubling than the issues I've seen addressed.

First, these fighters, regardless of the side for which they fight and the rhetoric they use to justify their actions, are marginalized individuals who are misfits in a peaceful society. They reject the possibility of peaceful progress toward a more just world. Among those who are military veterans, many are adrenalin junkies who miss the thrill of action to which they became addicted in the military. In different eras, Western misfits have gone to Russia, China, Africa, and elsewhere and fought for causes they deemed important. Instead of reactively worrying about returnees' potential to cause problems, nation states should proactively work to integrate into the economic and political mainstream those who inhabit the margins.

Second and more broadly, the trickle of mercenaries represents an erosion of the norm, supported by the Just War tradition and international law, that only nation states wage war. When an individual goes abroad to fight other than as part of that the armed forces of her/his native state, then that individual takes upon himself the right to make war and abrogates the larger community's responsibility for waging war.


When government privatizes its coercive power (e.g., by contracting with private companies to operate prisons or authorizing private security guards to arrest people and to use deadly force), government tacitly endorses the principle that it should not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion. Mercenaries represent a step further down a slippery slope that culminates in a society in which might makes right and some will try to grab as much power as they can.