Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Post-theism: A rationale and explanation

Many people find the intersection of science and religion highly problematic. The difficulty harkens back to when everyone read Scripture in a pre-scientific, literal way (except for those who read Scripture allegorically and even they presumed a pre-scientific worldview). However, by the sixteenth century, that started to change. For example, Galileo’s championing of Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe evoked strong ecclesial opposition. The Church, based on its reading of Joshua 10, which says that God caused the sun to stand still for a day so that the Israelites could take vengeance on the Amorites, taught that the earth and not the sun is at the center of the universe. The sun standing still in the sky makes sense only in a geocentric, not in a heliocentric, universe. Not until the twentieth century did the Roman Catholic Church reverse its rejection of a heliocentric universe.

Numerous, apparent contradictions between scientific theory and a literal reading of Scripture exist. Scientific data points towards the earth being millions of years old. Yet the notable Anglican Irish divine, Archbishop Usher, in the early seventeenth century calculated from Scriptural data that the earth is less than five thousand years old. Moses struck the Nile River with a stick and turned the Nile to blood, a chemical impossibility. Later, Moses struck a rock with his stick and a stream flowed from the rock, a geological impossibility. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Luke reports that the sky opened and a dove descended upon Jesus, combining an astronomical impossibility (the sky cannot open) with a biological impossibility (the upper atmosphere has insufficient oxygen for a bird to breathe).

Explanations of the intersection of science and religion fall within four broad categories. Agnostics, those who neither believe nor disbelieve, do not constitute one of those categories as they demur from describing the nexus. First, atheists, like Richard Dawkins, argue that religion is myth and no deity exists. Religious interpretations of life are not only unhelpful but at times actually destructive. This position embodies much faith for it presumes, contrary to the rules of logic, that one can prove a negative. Religion has caused much harm. That tragic fact, per se, makes religious ideas neither true nor false.

Second, fideists (or theists), including high profile contemporary creationists, argue that religion is true and that the supernatural deity omnipotent. Fideists go to unbelievable lengths to preserve their faith in a supernatural deity consonant with a traditional reading of Scripture. True believes have told me, for example, that God created dinosaur bones and the half-life of carbon to test the faith of people. I suspect that fideists similarly dismiss DNA research that links human origins to other primates. Perhaps more importantly, fideists cannot explain why a supernatural, omnipotent God allows so much human suffering. Why does God answer the prayers of the few and not of the many? Why does God heal one of cancer and ignore the entreaties of dozens? Why does God allow the Holocaust, mass starvation from famine, and epidemics that decimate populations? Belief in miracles – supernatural interventions – makes God seem capricious or weak. A God who allows so much suffering and evil seems anything but good and loving.

Third, compartmentalizers keep faith and science apart. Stephen Jay Gould described this as the non-overlapping magisterial of science and religion. Most people probably adopt this approach by default, finding that thinking too deeply about either religion or science produces more headache than insight, more heartache than comfort. Compartmentalization at its best constitutes a na├»ve view of religion and at its worst represents problem avoidance. Religion in order to give life meaning must address the totality of life. Certainly religion and science answer different types of questions, science emphasizing what and how while religion focuses on why. Yet a radically distorted understanding of science invariably leads one to wrong whys, as evident in the creationism movement that seeks to defend God's role in creation as inconsistent with evolution. Deists, those who believe that God was the cosmos’ first cause or prime mover and then has not intervened in the cosmos, constitute a distinct subset of compartmentalizers.

Fourth and finally, post-theists rely upon science and Scripture to push past the idolatrous images of a theistic God to the God about whom humans can say nothing. Nineteenth century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach argued that the God of theism resulted from wishfully projecting an image of human perfection onto a non-existent being. Ana-Marie Rizzuto and others, building on the work of Sigmund Freud, have demonstrated that one’s image of God bears a striking resemblance to one’s dominant parent. These are idols, not God. Post-theism, rooted in the ancient via negative, finds modern spokespersons in Episcopal Bishop John Spong, Church of England Bishop John A. T. Robinson, process theologians like John Hick, and others. Nobody has yet articulated a metaphor or symbol for God that has generated widespread acceptance. All insist that God is integral to the warp and woof of the cosmos rather than a supernatural deity existing outside the cosmos. All passionately believe in God, address the reality of suffering unabated by supernatural intervention, and articulate an approach to life and faith that seeks to build on insights from every field of knowledge.

Change is endemic to the cosmos. Historically, religion has planted a standard, declared, “Here I stand,” and refused to change. This produced a static body of religious knowledge (theology). Defenders of static religious knowledge generally fail to recognize the extent to which their theology incorporates anachronistic elements of other disciplines. For example, Galileo’s ecclesial foes relied as much upon Aristotelian astronomy as upon Scripture, a reliance that all took for granted until someone called the science into question. Similarly, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – for which more scientific data exists than almost any other scientific theory – challenged a biology that presumed species exist independently of one another and that species do not change over time.

I do not know where post-theism will go or how I will articulate my faith in the future. I do know that the time is well past when I could believe in a God who allows great evil and who appears to intervene supernaturally on a seemingly sporadic basis. I know that I cannot compartmentalize my faith from science or other fields of knowledge. My faith must be sufficiently robust to engage life’s most challenging issues informed by the best available insights from every discipline. In other words, I cannot afford to bypass, ignore, or recklessly proceed through the intersection of faith science if my faith is to be dynamic and alive, pointing toward that reality which no words can describe. Any other type of faith leaves me with a dead idol.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Moving toward unity while celebrating diversity

A couple were going out for the evening. They called a taxi and put the cat out for the evening.

The taxi arrived, and as the couple walked out the front door, the cat shot back in. They didn’t want the cat shut in the house, so one person went out to the taxi while the other went upstairs to chase the cat out. The passenger, not wanting it known that the house would be empty explained to the taxi driver, “My spouse is just going upstairs to say goodbye to my mother.”

A few minutes later, the spouse climbed into the cab. “Sorry I took so long. Stupid old thing was hiding under the bed and I had to poke her with a coat hanger to get her to come out!”

The ability to communicate constitutes an essential element of being human. As philosopher Michael de Unamuno says, "Language is the blood of the spirit."

Yet, humans often communicate poorly. The Genesis story about the Tower of Babel is an early attempt to explain why, if people supposedly descended from common ancestors, they speak so many languages and are frequently unable to communicate with one another.[1] Today, evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, semanticists and other experts suggest a far more complex process for the development of language and the thousands of human languages. The Genesis reading is important not as history but because of its confident assurance that anything is possible for humans when we cooperate, when we speak a single language and live and work in harmony with one another.

The reading from Acts, heard with different languages spoken simultaneously, may have sounded cacophonic.[2] However, I suspect that most of us could follow the reading in a language we personally know. The Day of Pentecost, when the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, God with us, is the Day when we celebrate being united by a single language, the language of love manifest in Jesus. Pentecost aims us toward unity in the midst of diversity.

A senior high Sunday school class was studying the Old Testament book of Lamentations. The teacher began by asking his students what kind of book they thought it would be. No answer. Then he asked what “lament” means. Still no answers. Patiently, he tried again. "What does the word `lamentations' mean?" Upon that, one of the teenagers brightened and responded: "I think it means to cover things with plastic."[3]

Some of the personal histories St Clement parishioners have told me recount the story of love between two people, drawn together even though they did not speak a common language. As a chaplain, I heard similar stories from sailors and Marines who married a sweetheart from abroad. Not all such marriages end well, but some do. In those cases, love becomes the common language that unites. Love is God’s plastic which laminates relationships, binding people together.

Ministry as a Navy chaplain also introduced me to clergy and laity from a wide variety of Christian denominations. Pentecostals, as you may know, believe that God gives the Holy Spirit to individual believers as a sign the person is a genuine believer. Proponents of the prosperity gospel teach that God blesses genuine believers with wealth.

Prominent Pentecostal televangelist Kenneth Copeland preaches the prosperity gospel and has recently been in the news. He preaches that if you send him money as an expression of your faith, sometimes described as planting a seed, then God will bless you financially many times over. He is spectacularly successful: he owns three jets and has a net worth of approximately $760 million. On the other hand, his followers do not enjoy the same success, often scrimping on essentials to plant financial seeds with Copeland.

Hopefully, you recognize and reject Copeland’s exploitative pattern of behavior that brazenly ignores three basic theological truths. First, the gospel is not about individuals, the gospel is about us, all of us, all of God's children and all of God's creation. Second, Pentecost is not about individuals but about the community of God's people. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, not of an individual. Third, God's community is characterized by love; Jesus taught that people would recognize his disciples by their love for one another, an idea echoed in today’s gospel reading.[4] Love leads me to share my wealth with the hungry, thirsty and homeless. When the fullness of God's plan for the cosmos is realized, what the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin labelled the Omega point of history,[5] we who are members of one body and drink from one Spirit, will be united with one common language, the language of love.

True prophecy, the prophecy of which Joel spoke in today’s reading from Acts, discerns God at work in the world. The ancient Hebrews recognized that all things were possible when people created in God's image cooperated. The first Christians recognized that God sent the Holy Spirit, God's abiding presence amongst us, to form us into one community of people bound together by the common language of love. In this era of globalization, we see those signs of God at work in the world. So, we gather, hopeful and encouraged, cherishing our unity in Christ's love while celebrating our diversity. Amen.

Sermon preached on Pentecost, June 9, 2019

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Genesis 11:1-9.
[2] Acts 2:1-21.
[3] The United Church Observer, March 1994, p. 55.
[4] John 13:35; 14:8-17.