Posted by: dacalu | 29 June 2015

Peter and Paul, Faith and Reason

I had the honor and pleasure of worshiping with the congregation of St. Mary’s, Prestwich (near Manchester, UK) yesterday.  Here is the sermon I shared.

 

Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

 

Readings

Zachariah 4 (“the two anointed ones”)

Acts 12:1-11 (An angel leads Peter from prison)

Matthew 16: 13-19 (“But who do you say that I am?”)

 

Sermon

 

Peter and Paul make an interesting pair.

Peter, first among the followers of Jesus,
	prominent in Jerusalem,
	he was the first Christian insider.
Peter was known for his willingness to act.
Indeed, we often see him speaking up or diving in,
	even when he doesn’t know what’s going on.
We remember Peter for his enthusiasm.

Paul, on the other hand, started as a persecutor of the Church.
	A strict legalist and defender of the religious establishment,
	he was struck blind on the road to Damascus
	and changed everything.
Paul became the ultimate outsider,
	bringing the Gospel to the gentiles,
	challenging the authority of the Twelve in Jerusalem,
	he even claimed the status of Apostle,
	though he had never met Jesus in the flesh.
Two millennia later, he seems a great authority figure,
	but at the founding of the church, this was not so obvious.
At the same time, Paul was the consummate intellectual,
	trained as a theologian and familiar with philosophy.
We remember Paul for his sophistication and knowledge.

What are we to make of the two of them together?
It is, I think, one of God’s little jokes,
	that they were joined in martyrdom
	to found the church in Rome.

Today is the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul,
And I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about faith and reason.
	I am, after all, in town on my way to a retreat
	with the Society of Ordained Scientists.
The Society has roughly 150 members in the UK and the United States,
	all of us trained both as clergy and as scientists.
Faith and reason comes up quite frequently,
	even more so in the US, 
where we seem to be struggling with the question
	as a nation.
 
I don’t think there is any question
	that faith and reason CAN go together.
The question I have for you today
	is can they ever be opposed to one another?
	And what would that mean?
I want you to think of a time when your beliefs
	and your education ran into each other.
	What did you do?
	Did you, like Peter, dive right in with enthusiasm.
	Or did you ponder it deeply
		waiting like Paul, for God to hit you over the head?

Recent surveys, in both the US and the UK,
	suggest that Evangelical Christians, 
along with the general public,
have a high opinion of science and the work it can do.
Likewise, scientists, engineers, and other academics
	commonly report personal faith in God,
	though they are less likely to attend services
	or subscribe to an organized religion.
Despite the rhetoric, we rarely meet anyone without faith 
or without knowledge.
Nor do I think Peter and Paul’s attempts to understand
	the radically new Jesus Christ
	in light of tradition, learning, and common sense,
	were all that different from modern
	confusion on the same issues.
In Christ we are presented with something quite challenging.
We are asked to accept that some things 
are more important than life and death.
We are asked to pray for our enemies, forgive those who harm us,
	give away our wealth, and rely on God for food and shelter.
The Gospel is powerful precisely because it
	works against what we know.
God is attempting to show us something.
 
In our reading from Acts,
	God asks Peter to leave the ordinary rules of the world,
	and simply walk out of prison.
In the Gospel, it is Peter who recognizes the radical otherness
	of Jesus.
Or perhaps, I should say that Peter recognizes
	the radical otherness of the world to which we are accustomed.
	Jesus, after all, is the real world;
	the common sense of our daily lives
		is the illusion.
We are often called to make a leap of faith.
We must make this leap because the world is broken.
	I cannot say whether this is original sin,
		or someone’s fault,
		or just entropy,
	but I know the world is unsatisfactory.
	I know the world is, in some way, corrupt.
And I also know, that attempting to fix that corruption
	with more of the same,
	is doomed to fail.
The world is broken because we don’t understand one another,
	and we don’t understand ourselves.
Jesus’ teaching means something,
	because it is something different.
It aims to break us out of our bad habits.
 
I could stop there.
I could say faith wins out over reason,
	but that would be wrong.
It would be, if you’ll forgive me,
	Robbing Paul to pay Peter;
	giving one his due, but not the other.
I am a priest, but I am also an evolutionary biologist and a historian.
	And I know there is more to the story.

Christ asks us to give up ourselves,
	but not to give up the grace we have already found
	in the world God created.
Peter had to reconcile being a fisher, with being an Apostle.
At the end of the Gospels, he is still a fisher.
Nor do I think he gave that up to be a teacher, preacher, and leader
	in the Church.
Jesus asked him to become a fisher for people,
	and I suspect he continued to fish for fish…
	Why give that up.
Paul became a follower of Jesus,
	but he did not lose his love and learning of scripture.
He did not forget his deep knowledge of Genesis and Isaiah.
He did not lose his understanding of Platonic philosophy,
	which appears again and again in his letters,
	as he reaches out to the educated and uneducated.
In his own words, he seeks to be all things to all people,
	so that some might be saved.

I do not think our modern struggles to understand science
	in light of Christianity – 
	or Christianity in light of science – 
	are all that different from the struggles of Peter
		who wanted the Messiah not to die
	and of Paul,
		who struggles at length to fit spirit, soul, body, and flesh
		into one, complete picture of the world.
Saint Augustine did this, as did Saint Macrina of Capadocia,
Saint Aquinas and Saint Catherine,
Luther, Calvin, and Mary Baker Eddy.
I don’t agree with all of their answers,
	but I recognize their struggle,
	to understand the old creation and the new,
	their lives by birth and their lives by baptism,
	their tradition and their hope.
 
The question is not which to pick – faith or reason.
The question is how do we handle those rare times
	when they do not line up.

What do you do when your love of God,
	and your respect for the teachings of the church
	come into conflict?
What do you do when your hope for God’s Kingdom
	runs afoul of your secular education,
	or popular opinion,
	or cutting edge science?

That is my passion and my Good News to share.
We are, in fact, all struggling with this.
We must get past the mindset that says
	everyone must choose one side or the other.
The most ardent Fundamentalist Christian
	and the most unrepentant Evangelical Atheist,
	are both trying to make sense of the world.
Saint Augustine asks us to bend our 
memory, reason, and will to the love of God.
We want desperately for others to be clearly wrong
	so that we can be clearly right.
	It’s relaxing to think we have successfully navigated the shoals
		to come to our opinion.
	But even if there is exactly one right answer,
		and even if we have found it,
		Jesus did not ask us to conquer,
			but to care,
			even to suffer for the sake of those 
who are in the wrong.
	What then, can we do to help others reason better
		AND have better faith?
	What can we do that honors both 
		Peter’s enthusiasm and Paul’s intellect?
	And their ability, together, to give all of themselves
		to the Church and to God?
 
You know the answer already.
I know you do.
	But,
	perhaps,
	you have not made the connection
		from prayer and liturgy,
	to all the fancy questions of philosophy and ethics.
I want to suggest the rules are the same.
We practice here, who we want to be in the world,
	in our reason and in our society,
	in our human interactions
	and in the things we claim to know.

Be silent – listen for God and listen to people.
	Hear not only what they are saying, but why they say it.
	Listen with your heart.
Read – both the book of nature and book of scripture.
	God has written interesting, useful things in both.
Think deeply, bringing all of yourself
	to the promises and problems you see and hear.
Forgive – yourself and others.
	It’s hard to imagine failing as dramatically
		as Peter, who denied Jesus at his trial,
		or Paul, who held people’s coats
			while they killed Saint Stephen.
	It’s hard to imagine redemption as wondrous
		as their transformation, service as great as
		the two men we credit with founding the Church.
Share peace and food – bring the gifts found here into every interaction,
	from your family to the annoying neighbor and the trying boss,
	from bumbling employee to the tired women ahead of you in a queue,
	and even to those who would actively harm and hinder you.
Bless – when you find something worthwhile, give it away.
 
I forget that I have this opportunity
	to make all of life an extension of this ritual.
I forget that the same rules apply.
Until Peter and Paul remind me
	that my faith and reason work together,
that only by bringing all of myself to this table, 
	can I bring this table to the world.
And so I pray for reasonable enthusiasm and enthusiastic reason.
I pray that the raw goodness in me may be refined,
	properly fitted and accompanied by others, 
who have what I lack.

And I hope that for you, as well.

God bless and keep us,
	and make us whole.

 

 

Posted by: dacalu | 23 June 2015

Astrobiology and Religion

I just returned from the Astrobiology Science Conference in Chicago and was thinking about astrobiology and religion.  How does our exploration of life in the universe relate to our faith?  Here are some very basic questions to get the ball rolling, but I’d love to hear other questions from readers.

Christianity: Does the entire cosmos suffer from sin, just life, or just humans?  Is the whole cosmos redeemed, just life, or just humans?  Is there one Messiah or many?  If one, do we have an obligation to spread the faith to other planets?  If many, how do we pair religions?
Islam: Humans are God’s representatives on Earth (classically “vicegerents”); do we have this responsibility relative to other places, or just Earth?  Are alien life forms responsible for Islam (submission to God) or just humans?  Would alien Islam be the same as human Islam?
Hinduism: Can one be reincarnated as an alien?  If so, what obligations do aliens have in life?
Buddhism: Are their non-terrestrial sentients?  How does the study of life here and the search for life elsewhere shape our attachment/aversion to our own unique location? How can studying these things help us understand the non-duality of self and other.
Judaism: Are aliens kosher? That’s an imprecise way of putting it, but it sums up the central question of how non-terrestrial life fits into our obligations for purity as God’s covenant people?

Posted by: dacalu | 28 May 2015

Applied Faith

This week I had the privilege of worshiping with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at MIT. Here are the words I shared.  I’ll note here that they come in the context of discussions about the the rites of Eucharist and Baptism, whether we can and should change them in certain circumstances (e.g., to be more inclusize), and who gets to decide (i.e., the community, the presider, the denomination…). Though the words stand on their own, they carry that as well.

 

Readings

Micah 6:6-8 (“what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”)

John 21:1-19 (“Feed my sheep”)

 

Sermon


One of my favorite comics (Cowbirds in Love #46 to be precise)
	goes something like this:

“Figure 1: Why did you build a death ray?
Figure 2: To take over the world. (cue maniacal laughter)
Figure 1: No, I mean what mad hypothesis are you testing? Or are you just making mad observations?
Figure 2: Look, I’m just trying to take over the world.
Figure 1: You’re at least going to leave some of the world as a mad control group, right?

Sad truth: most “mad scientists” are actually just mad engineers.”

Our lessons today are all about the fundamentals of Christianity,
	the core of our faith, if you will.
“Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly before God.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Countless commentaries have been written on these passages,
	arguing for mercy over justice – or justice over mercy,
	faith before works, or practicing what you preach.
Being the person I am, I thought of Cowbirds.
	What can I say?
I am not a Christian Scientist,
but maybe I am a Christian Engineer.
(On the side I should say that my Grandfather was a Christian Scientist,
	in the Mary Baker Eddy sense.
	I have great respect for many Christian Scientists,
	but that’s not really what I’m aiming for here.)
Another way to put it would be to ask whether
	my focus is on the truth
		“and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” Jn 8:32
	or whether my focus is on action
		“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these 
who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jn 25:40
Scientists find things out and Engineers get things done.
Many Christians think that faith 
is about finding correct propositions about the world
or at least having the right mindset
Other Christians think faith
	is about accomplishing things in the world.
What do you think?

Both positions leave me a bit cold.
I don’t like faith as science.
	While there is an aspect of observation and hypothesis.
	There is no control group, no fixed parameters.
	I don’t try loving Thea but not Kari Jo to see what the different effects are.
	I don’t compare the Lutheran Eucharistic Prayer
		to the Episcopal to see which one makes better Jesus.
I’ll admit Jesus could be saying:
	Watch the goats and watch the sheep and see which one fares better.
		But truthfully the goats do better by most popular measures,
			so that’s not really helpful 
(despite what some Calvinists tell you).
	God has a soft spot for the chosen people and it usually means
		sacrifice for the sake of others.
Alternatively, Jesus could be saying:
	Feed the sheep and see what they turn into…
	This is, I think, I little closer to the truth,
		but it’s more a matter of curiosity than testing.
	Nowhere are we asked to “not feed” the goats.
		Nowhere are we called to create a control group of outsiders.
		To mangle a popular saying:
			Christians are about all of the sheep, all of the time.
Paul does tell us to “test everything and hold fast to what is good”
(I Thessalonians 5:21).
Still, I think neither truth nor careful inquiry is at the heart of Christianity.
	They are important additives.

Nor do I really like faith as engineering.
	That seems to imply that I have a goal in mind before-hand
		and I’m just using my faith to get there.
Jesus could be saying:
	Be sure that all the sheep are fed,
		but presumably Jesus could have actually fed the sheep himself:
		manna, loaves and fishes, you get the idea.
	So I think a strictly goal oriented approach to faith
		misses out, whether our goal be earthly justice
			(as the liberation theologians propose)
		or purity or inclusion or enlightenment or submission…
	All of these are important, but I think they cannot be all important.
Are any of you familiar with Soylent and Schmoylent
	and the array of drinkable foods that streamline nutrition?
I must admit that I’ve considered it – I still do.
But somehow, I don’t think Jesus would really be happy with
	a werehouse filled with sheep hooked up to IVs.
If that sounds too far fetched, I’d be happy to direct you to Aquinas,
	who feels comfortable telling us about the least possible
	elements necessary for Eucharist and Baptism.
	(He was a Christian Engineer par excellence.)
	Only one kind is necessary (bread or wine) and you can receive visually,
		if necessary.
	Only a drop of water is necessary.
	All of which has led to some very silly rituals of feeding and washing
		that utterly fail to communicate nutrition or cleanliness
		to anyone who is not, likewise, a Christian Engineer.
So I don’t think we are given faith in quite that light.
	The “get the job done” mentality
		is a bit too mercenary.
Once again, Hebrews says we must 
“run with perseverance the race” (Hebrews 12:1).
I do not claim that this future focus is necessarily wrong,
	but it appears to be attached to something else.

The conclusion I’ve come to, this week at least, is that I am
	mostly a Christian technician.
	I carry out the protocols handed down to me.
	Like any good technician, I pay attention and try to improve the protocol.
	I tweak and adjust:
		sometimes it makes things better. Often it has little or no effect.

A big part of the protocol for me IS true curiosity.
And a big part of the protocol IS tinkering for the sake of better results –
	where better results are measured by people loving other people.
But at the end of the day, there is a certain amount
	of entering into the experience,
	following the steps without being entirely sure why,
		or where they lead.

So, when I look at the Gospel,
	I see this.
Jesus is giving Peter something to do.
It’s not a command – what the philosophers call deontological ethics:
	morality as obedience to a standard.
Nor is it, strictly speaking, philosophy – 
done for the sake of coming into harmony with the cosmos.
(Though I suppose there is an element of that.)
It’s something Jesus did, and it worked, and he asked us to keep doing it.

I’m going away for a while; would you water the plants?
I’ll be at a conference, could you check the power levels while I’m gone?

We feed the sheep because we care about the shepherd,
And we feed the sheep because we care about the sheep.

We may not understand how it works – though it’s worth trying.
We may not always see the results – though that shapes our concern.
It’s a protocol; and it works.

[Protocol definition 3.1 from the OED: a procedure for carrying out a scientific experiment or a course of medical treatment.]

And, lest you mistake me – I will add this caveat:
	No one blindly follows protocols.
	No one waters the plants after the house has flooded.
	No one checks the power levels when the CPU is smoking.
	And no one attempts to feed sheep that are throwing up.
Oh, wait.
	Sometimes Christians do.  It is a metaphor after all.
Protocols require some understanding,
	even though they don’t require complete comprehension.
Indeed, they are often the best tool we have
	for learning from those who’ve done it before.

This week I ask you to join me in thinking about Christian protocols,
	why and how we do them.
I ask you to help me remember what we have been asked to do,
	as we live in this strange world
	of nurturing an experiment in progress.
	Or was that carrying out a technological plan?
God can be a bit inscrutable after all.

Let me suggest that every time we
Feed,
Bless,
Heal, 
Forgive, 
Challenge, 
Join, or 
Remember
we are invited into a protocol for making the whole world new.


 

Posted by: dacalu | 13 May 2015

What is Baptism?

A few thoughts on what Baptism means to me.  A second post spells out some of the details for those interested in ecclesiology.

I am a fan of many religions, but Christianity remains closest to my heart and forms the core of my belief, practice, and society. It is dear to me because it both preaches and practices “free lunch.” God loves us without condition, without requirement and without expectation. We call it grace. Judaism and Islam, while emphasizing mercy, chiefly frame our relationship with God as a contract – this in exchange for that. Buddhism and Taoism, while promoting limitless giving of self, see all suffering as the consequence of human disharmony. Christianity unabashedly accepts human powerlessness. God sends both sun and rain to all and we are asked to give without fear or favor and without compensation.

This free lunch is radically counter to biological and social conditioning. It does not fit with the reciprocity so clearly demonstrated in psychology, biology, and economics. Grace must be demonstrated and, for me, Holy Baptism is the first, best, and fullest demonstration of free lunch. If we do not demonstrate grace in Baptism, we will not exemplify it anywhere else.

It is my hope and belief that every member of the community – ideally every member of the world – should never know a time when they were not, with complete clarity and foresight, accepted by God and the Church without expectation. God’s love is unconditional, and yet it must be demonstrated in the incarnate Body of Christ, the Church in this lifetime. Otherwise we will not believe. This is the first and great teaching – you are loved and accepted as you are. We have hopes; we extend invitations; we even make plans; we do not place conditions.

I believe in infant baptism because I think the greatest impact of the sacrament is felt after the event. Let me act so that all I meet know I love them. Let no one fear that they have missed the opportunity for love or, worse still, feel  that they have earned God’s love – or mine. Such “love” is not grace and not, I think, love in any Christian sense.

Some will worry that I am advocating for the baptism of people against their will, or at least without their knowledge. No. This would be tantamount to pouring soup on starving people. It is not a gift if you give it in a way that it cannot be usefully received. I do not accept this objection – the burden is placed on me to give well, not on them to receive well. And the greatest burden will be to share the truly remarkable, sadly unusual unconditional quality of the gift.

Posted by: dacalu | 13 May 2015

Consent and Baptism

Recent Facebook discussions about baptism have inspired me to say a few words about baptism. In particular, I am responding to a recent incident in Orlando, FL. Contrary to popular press, no one was denied baptism; the issue arose, however, whether one could be denied baptism because of objections from the congregation. Members of St. Luke’s Cathedral (Episcopal) were concerned that the child to be baptized was being raised by a same-sex couple.

Without preamble, I will say that what I know of the matter suggests the issue was simple homophobia; congregational objections sound like a post hoc argument to justify that discrimination. Nonetheless, the event helped me identify something I’ve been uncomfortable with in certain approaches to baptism. Please understand I am working through my own thoughts and feelings and claim no expertise on this issue.

What is Baptism?

I will start with a positive statement about how I see baptism. I am a fan of many religions, but Christianity remains closest to my heart and forms the core of my belief, practice, and society. It is dear to me because it both preaches and practices “free lunch.” God loves us without condition, without requirement and without expectation. We call it grace. Judaism and Islam, while emphasizing mercy, chiefly frame our relationship with God as a contract – this in exchange for that. Buddhism and Taoism, while promoting limitless giving of self, see all suffering as the consequence of human disharmony. Christianity unabashedly accepts human powerlessness. God sends both sun and rain. We are asked (though not always expected) to accept it all as a gift. We are asked to give without hope of either favor or compensation. [This is why I take theodicy without flinching and object to carrot-and-stick versions of heaven and hell.]

This free lunch is radically counter to biological and social conditioning. It does not fit with the reciprocity so clearly demonstrated in behavioral economics (see Michael Cialdini’s book Influence) and so compelling as a theory in evolutionary biology (see Ara Norenzayan’s book Big Gods, or Robert Trivers’ 1971 paper for more rigor.). Grace must be demonstrated and, for me, Holy Baptism is the first, best, and fullest demonstration of free lunch. If we do not demonstrate grace in Baptism, we will not exemplify it anywhere else.

It is my hope and belief that every member of the community – ideally every member of the world – should never know a time when they were not, with complete clarity and foresight, accepted by God and the Church without expectation. God’s love is unconditional, and yet it must be demonstrated in the incarnate Body of Christ, the Church in this lifetime. Otherwise we will not believe. This is the first and great teaching – you are loved and accepted as you are. We have hopes; we extend invitations; we even make plans; we do not place conditions.

I believe in infant baptism because I think the greatest impact of the sacrament is felt after the event. Let me meet no one who does not know I love them. Let no one fear that they have missed the opportunity or, worse still, feel pride that they have earned my love or God’s. Such “love” is not grace and not, I think, love in any Christian sense.

Some will worry that I am advocating for the baptism of people against their will, or at least without their knowledge. No. This would be tantamount to pouring soup on starving people. It is not a gift if you give it in a way that it cannot be usefully received.

Informed Consent

Many Protestants argue against infant baptism, citing the belief that the grace of baptism is only communicated when the candidate understands and consents to the rite. I seek to do whatever I can to promote understanding and consent in rituals. Please do not take this as an argument against these wonderful things; they enrich baptism immensely. And yet, in looking at how we treat Christians under the age of 18 and Christians with mental and physical challenges, I am forced to say we have over-emphasized the role of reason and will in our religion. (In particular, I was moved by arguments in the book Developmental Disabilities and Sacramental Access.) Christians have been clear that we are saved by grace and not by works, and yet we lean very hard on works of the intellect and of the will. To make baptism dependent upon true knowledge, correct belief, or even informed consent is to make it less than grace. It makes human labor necessary. [And yes, I recognize this makes me even more of a Predestinarian than Augustine and Calvin.] Few of us, if any, can aspire to true knowledge and correct belief with regard to the sacraments. None of us is completely pure in heart. These are mysteries to be entered into, skills to be developed, and ideals to be pursued, but I cannot make a hard and fast rule – you must have this level of understanding or orthodoxy before you are allowed on the ride. Instead, I ask whether someone’s knowledge, belief, and will are an ornament to the rite. If they are not, we ask how they might become so without sacrificing the primary goal of communicating grace. I encourage people to set conditions on their own participation; I place no conditions myself.

Community Involvement

Many liberal Protestants (in my experience) have taken infant baptism as an opportunity to bind the candidate and their family to the church. I respect this pastoral move. I like sponsor classes (which inform parents and sponsors about what they are agreeing to when they say they will raise the child in the faith). I like using baptism as a chance to talk with all Christians about their sins having been forgiven and about their adoption into the household of God. I also like it when we can use baptism as an excuse to talk with Christians about their confirmation, when they actively chose the faith and committed to the beliefs, practices, and identity of the church. [Upon reflection, this may be my real issue – I see baptism and confirmation as quite distinct. Many theologians and most liturgists do not.] And still, I think these other things must never be allowed to trump, in practice or in appearance, our primary concern for the unconditional acceptance of the child.

What message do we send when we move the baptism from as soon as possible (or the first Sunday after birth) to the first baptismal feast after the parents have attended pre-baptism classes? We presume that the congregation’s timeline (the liturgical calendar or parish calendar of events) is more important than welcoming the child and that the congregation could not be bothered to gather for a special service.

This is not done on behalf of the child. My most generous interpretation is that we want the congregation to be ready for the event. We want them to play an active role in bringing up the child and we want to place it in proper context for them. In other words, we seek informed consent from the congregation. Once we have taken this step, I think it only natural that we ask the congregation for their informed consent and respect their wishes.

I have no trouble thinking of confirmation, reconciliation, communion, and ordination in these terms. They require you to be joined to the congregation and congregational assent is crucial. I honestly believe that if you subscribe to this theology, the congregation should actually have the right to refuse. [I find it hard, but not impossible to imagine situations in which both reconciliation (the rite, not forgiveness itself) and communion (the rite, not society itself) should be withheld.]

I cannot hold this theology of communal consent for baptism. I would prefer to say that the priest is obligated by ordination to baptize anyone who approaches and who would be served by such service. [Someone seeking anything other than grace may not be so served…or they might. This will be a judgment call]. In any case, the only criteria should be whether the child will welcome the rite as a blessing.

The event should be held as soon as it is reasonable to assemble all those genuinely concerned with raising the child.

Such is the state of my thoughts; my actions will continue to follow the rules of the church and the customs of local parishes – after all, my ordination was by communal consent…

Posted by: dacalu | 1 May 2015

Top 7 Redefinitions of Marriage

A friend asked me if the idea of same-sex marriage was the biggest redefinition of marriage in Western history.  With a nod to her and others who seem attached to this trope, here are my top 7 historical redefinitions of marriage, all of which I consider far more significant than the gender of the couple.

1) From Polygyny (multiple wife marriage) to Monogamy

This debate has been going on for millennia. Polygamy is common in the Old Testament and is still legal in one out of four countries, mostly Muslim. It was only outlawed in the US in the late 19th century. Some Christian Churches in Africa still allow and recognize polygynous marriages.

2) From Civil to Religious Marriage (and back)

In Christian marriage, God plays an important role. However you view the history of the institution – whether it’s a sacrament, who makes it happen, whether it’s permanent – if you’re a Christian, you recognize the relationship happens by the grace of God. Anyone who claims that same-sex marriage is the biggest redefinition of marriage in history either assumes that God is fully present in non-Christian marriages or that heterosexuality is more important than the presence of God.

Roman civil authorities handed off marriage registration to the Roman Church in late Antiquity. Protestant Reformers handed marriage back to the civil magistrate, declaring they could only bless marriages, not make them. Civil and Christian marriage are still not separate in the United Kingdom.

3) From Imposed to Consensual

Only in the early Middle Ages did the church start asserting the necessity of consent from both parties. The custom of abducting a bride remained into the early Renaissance and de facto, if not de jure, arranged marriages still occur without the bride’s consent in first world countries. In practical terms, we can look at “age of consent” laws in the US, which affect ability to marry as well as consent to sex.

In England, the age was 10 in 1576. It rose to 13 in Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only in the 20th century has it risen to familiar ages of 16-21.

4) From Legal to Romantic

Love within marriage was considered an impossibly rare blessing until the Western European Renaissance. “Courtly Love” appeared as early as the 12th century, but was mostly a literary ideal, applied to non-marriage relationships. During the Romantic Era (early 19th century) it gets conflated with ideals of marriage. For the vast majority of Christian history and for many non-Christian countries today, marriage is considered a duty. You may grow to love your spouse, but you do not expect to love them beforehand.

5) From Dissoluble to Indissoluble (and back and forth)

The question of getting un-married has been a political hot potato for millennia. Some Roman marriages could be ended by the wife’s family. Others could not. Christians have generally held marriage forms a permanent bond. Such permanence was enforced by law regularly. Standards continue to change about who can dissolve the marriage and under what circumstances. In the UK in 1857 a wife could sue for divorce (arguably for the first time), but only in cases of incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion. No fault divorce – suing for divorce without cause – is a late 20th century development of the US.

In the Roman Church, divorce is still not allowed (though annulment is). Even in the Anglican Churches, religious divorces were not recognized until the 20th century.

6) From Women as Chattel (Property) to Women as Dependents

For most of Western history, wives were owned by their husbands. The 10th commandment is quite clear: you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, or oxen, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. The scribes had no doubt about what they were writing, nor did readers of scripture fail to interpret this as a property relationship (I Cor 7:4). Rape within marriage only became unambiguously illegal in the US and UK in the 1980s and 1990s.

7) From Women as Dependents to Women as Equals

Only recently have women acquired property rights within their own marriages. In 1981 the US Supreme Court overruled the last “head-and-master” statutes, giving husbands unilateral and unquestioned property rights over all “communal property” acquired during the marriage. Courts have gone back and forth, but custody of children was only possible for divorced women in the UK after 1839.

So, if you think same-sex marriage is the biggest redefinition of marriage in history, even in Christian history, you either don’t know your history or you think gender and orientation are more important than number of parties, God, consent, love, permanence, slavery, and equality.

Posted by: dacalu | 23 April 2015

Fact and Myth in Scripture

A friend asked a question about the plain reading of scripture and I thought it was worth sharing along with my initial thoughts.

How do you distinguish between biblical metaphor and biblical reality? If we can safely say the creation is biblical myth, how then can we say Jesus walked on water?

I think we can only call the genesis creation story a “myth” if we understand myth as a story that conveys a fundamental truth.  Myth does not mean false, just as it does not mean “historically factual.” Henry VIII’s divorce and the Continental Congress both come close to mythical status.  They were historical events.  Because they are also myths, they have accumulated a great deal of commentary – some of it helpful, some of it not.

I would put the question like this:

If the plain reading of scripture is not always inerrantly true (unambiguously factual with regard to science and history as well as faith and morals), how do we know when it is and when it isn’t?

The first question to ask is “what is the central message?” (Read Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God for an account of “belief” as giving your heart to something, rather than assenting.)  The first point (of many) to be found in Genesis 1-3 is about our relationship with God.

The second question to ask is “does the Bible (or tradition or reason) tell a conflicting story?” The conflict will always tell you something important.  Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 do not agree on the sequence of events. They are radically different from the the account of creation in John.  This tells us we need to approach them carefully and look for where they agree – God is the source of light, life, and order; God is the context in which all other things make sense. (Read Donn Morgan’s Fighting with the Bible, L William Countryman’s Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny? or really any academic Bible scholarship post 1950.  Walter Brueggemann is one of the most broadly respected scholars.)

The third question is “does science or logic suggest that the plain reading will not work?” If God is a sophisticated author, as I believe is the case, there will be layers of meaning in any text. Logical or physical inconsistency is either a sign that we have misread OR a clue. Teachers often present material that is off in some way to prompt students to react. (Read Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis. Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter and Phil Dowe’s Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking touch on Galileo’s reading of Augustine.)

In more general terms, I recommend Guy Consolmagno’s Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? for a very readable introduction.

As to your specific question – Jesus walking on water – let’s take a look.

What is the central message? Jesus power is greater than the elements. Jesus defies expectations.  Jesus’ power extends to his followers (Peter). Jesus hydrophobicity appears to be secondary.

Does the Bible have conflicting stories? No, and this story appears three times.  The Gospels do not always agree, but on this point they do. Luke does not contain the story, but also does not deny it.

Does tradition or reason (within the tradition) have a conflicting story? No.

Is walking on water inconsistent with physics as we know it? Yes, but note that that’s part of the point of the story. As with the resurrection, we are told that people reacted with surprise and fear. This is understood as a highly unusual event.

So, on the whole, I think the story is true factually as well as mythically.  Scripture is the story of those who followed. For those of us who follow, it is instructive.

Posted by: dacalu | 13 April 2015

What Was Forgiven

Today, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the Anglican Episcopal Student Fellowship at Harvard Divinity School.  Here is the sermon I shared.

 

Collect (summary prayer)

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Acts 4:32-35 (no private ownership among the disciples)

Psalm 133 (“how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity”)

I John 1:1-2:2 (“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves”)

John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas; “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”)

[NB: the NRSV reads “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” While this is an accurate translation, it invites misinterpretation. The Galilean disciples had locked the doors for fear of the people of Judea, the country around Jerusalem, in which they were foreigners. It has nothing to do with the religion of the people in question – Galileans and Judeans, Jesus’ followers and Sadducees and Pharisees all worshiped the God of Israel.]

 

Hymns

We limit not the truth of God (H82 629)

Now the Green Blade Riseth (H82 204)

 

Sermon

 

I love preaching on doubting Thomas.
And I love preaching on skeptical Christianity,
so I looked back and, surely enough, I preached here
on Easter 2 last year.
So I might have to come up with something new to say.
Not that a good sermon does not bear repeating, now and again…

Last time, I preached on what we do not know,
even though some people think we do.
This time, I want to preach on what we do know,
though many think we don’t.
I want to preach on forgiveness,
how and why and to what end it works.
Forgiveness may be the hardest of the Christian disciplines,
and I call it a discipline quite intentionally.
It is a blessing and a gift, a grace and a joy,
but above all, it is something very difficult we strive for,
daily.

What is forgiveness?
It is the other side of metanoia, repentence.
It is granting someone else the opportunity to change their mind,
to change their very self,
in relation to you and to the world.
Forgiveness allows others to change.

It appears most starkly when we forgive our enemies.
We meet it in that context.
Someone has done something awful,
torture and crucifixion come to mind.
The authorities
and the public
in first century Judea
made it quite clear
the kind of relationship they wanted with Jesus.
And Jesus forgave them.

It can be more complicated, though.
Pilate and Herod both wanted something from Jesus,
I can’t be certain what,
though many preachers have speculated.
They were unable to forgive Jesus
for not filling in the other half of a relationship they wanted:
Messiah, or subject, or hero, or politician.
Judas, I think, was unable to forgive Jesus
for not living up to Messianic expectations.
Thomas was unwilling, unprepared I suspect,
for the universe to be other than he thought it was.
We do it all the time;
we curse and lament,
when people don’t conform,
when the universe doesn’t conform,
indeed, when we ourselves don’t live up to our own expectations.
We call it forgiveness when we allow someone else
to be other than we thought they were.
Jesus asked God to forgive
the authorities and the public for not being
good creatures, good children.

It was a sad thing,
but I don’t think it came with the judgmental baggage
so often associated with forgiveness –
the passive aggressive addendum.
It’s okay for you to be what you are,
but you’d be better if you weren’t.
It’s okay for you to change,
but I’d love you even more, if you’d change back.

We meet Jesus after the resurrection,
in this strange space.
Have you never wondered that Jesus does not pull Peter aside
and say “I told you so…”
or perhaps, “what was up with you and Elsie…
“she asked if you were with me
and you said what?”
Have you never wondered that Jesus
does not start the conversation with,
“where were you?”

I don’t think for a minute
that forgiving and forgetting are the same thing.
Hopefully at this point in seminary,
you’ve all dealt with that question already.
Forgiveness that forgets is not love.
Why would you forget something about the person you care for?
Forgiveness means dealing with them as they are,
and accepting, if not approving the choices they made.
Forgiveness requires us to adjust
to this new situation,
this new world,
in which the person we care about has made
a different choice than the one we hoped for.
Often it was a bad choice – and all of us live with the consequences.
Sometimes it was a good choice – we just haven’t realized, yet.
Both are the same.
Both are opportunities for love, listening,
and working for a new equilibrium.

Forgiveness is so difficult, because it is never over.
Forgiveness is never complete.
It is not a fixed state, in which we rest,
but the kingdom come,
a perpetual act of hope.

The story of Thomas makes the most sense in that context.
The juxtaposition of peace be with you,
forgiveness of sins,
and blessed are they who have not seen
and yet believe.

We want to make Jesus comment,
another form of passive aggressive forgiveness;
it’s what we have come to expect from one another.
“Yes Thomas, I’ll give you special treatment
because you are a disciple, but if you were a true disciple…”
We must not take this step.
Thomas’ lack of faith is as nothing
compared to the lack of faith
Peter and the disciples showed in the Passion.
Perhaps in the Gospel of John,
we can claim that John stuck with Jesus to the end;
most accounts say no one did.
In the wake of that betrayal,
what does Jesus do?
He says, “Peace be with you.”
He shows them his hands and his side.
There’s meaning in that.
They saw what was done to him.
It’s not a pretty story.
He gives them a task.
In short, Jesus builds a new relationship.

This is the discipline of forgiveness,
we must learn to keep up with people,
when they fail to be the people we expect.
We must learn to reach out to people,
no matter how far away they seem.
It would be hard enough, just doing this,
but the task is made more complex by ignorance.

We live in a world where few people understand
love and forgiveness.
They know these words,
but they associate them with completely different concepts.
Some think of love as desire, friendship, or abandon –
all worthwhile, but not truly love.
Others think of love as lust, possession, or manipulation.
Some think of forgiveness as balance keeping or strategy.
Others see it as obliviousness or harming the self for the sake of another.
True forgiveness must be demonstrated
to be understood.

It was in showing up after the crucifixion
that Jesus gave us this gift.
It was in arriving without recrimination,
still bearing the scars,
and still wishing them peace,
that he taught us what it means to be Christians.

Desomond Tutu has a great book
called No Future without Forgiveness.
It tells tales of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
in South Africa at the end of Apartheid.
It gives concrete examples.
I could tell you of the constancy of my family and teachers
through my own trespasses,
but I suspect each of us has to work this out
for ourselves.
So many of the things that need forgiveness
are trespasses others do not even recognize,
slights and expectations
that seem so rational when we analyze them
and yet profoundly affect us.
So many of our blessings and hopes
are unique.
We must learn that no one, not even ourselves,
live up to our expectations,
and live with that knowledge.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.”
Our faith in God is a following,
not a staying in place.
I am a skeptic, because I do not trust authorities.
Above all, I do not trust the Lucas Mix of 24 hours ago.
He was a wise and learned man,
but he had some serious blind spots.
Best not to put too much trust in him.
I owe that man, the same trust and faith
I owe to each of you:
To listen charitably, to learn where possible, and to forgive.

The Holy Spirit is too busy working
for us to capture her in one moment.
Jesus is already on his way to Galilee.
Neither he, nor we, can carry the weight of past expectations.
They get in the way of genuine memory,
genuine trust, and hope.

Posted by: dacalu | 5 April 2015

Life without Jesus

Every year in the two days between Good Friday and Easter, I take a serious look at the question of God. Who would I be in a world without God? Or, more to the point, who would I be if God were dead? It is, perhaps, unorthodox, but I think it can be useful. What would be different about my life?

Here I need to make a brief digression. I have come to think of God in two ways. First, there is the God of philosophy, the unmoved mover and sustainer of the universe. I see that God as a fundamental cosmological assertion, a way of looking at the universe. That God answers the question, “why something instead of nothing?” It makes no sense (to me) to speak of myself without this God. It makes no sense to speak of anything. I regularly ask whether this works as a philosophical system, so am not particularly interested in it here. Second, there is the narrative God of the Old and New Testament, the personal God of Israel and, for Christians, Jesus of Nazareth. Today I want to talk about the narrative God. What does it mean to say Jesus is dead? I might even question whether he existed at all. How would I be a different person?

In a very important way, I would not be different. When it comes to the choices I make, how I treat people, what I value, I don’t know that I would change at all. Christianity has helped shape these things. My relationship with God, with whom I talk daily, has helped me become who I am. And yet, I am not that person for the sake of God. I am that person because that is the person I choose to be. These are the things I value and I would continue to value them even If I no longer had God to talk to.

I think God has told me something true in sharing faith, hope, and love. I respect the one who told me; that respect made it easier to learn and the learning increased my respect. And yet, should I discover God was not what I thought, I would still have this thing I discovered. I would still have love. Everything I know, I learned from teachers, many of whom I respect deeply, but that respect never stops me from disagreeing with them. I would not stop using evolutionary biology if my doctoral advisor (in evolutionary biology) decided to stop using it. I did not stop doing Hapkido (Korean martial art) when my teacher died, nor would I have stopped if he had stopped while he was still alive. [For the record the thought of David Haig dismissing evolution or Kwang Sik Myung giving up on Hapkido sounds thoroughly ridiculous to me. Of course, so does God dying. So maybe it’s worth considering.]

This year, as every year, I have come to the conclusion that my life would change very little. I might no longer hold the same positions philosophically. I might no longer advocate for an unmoved mover. I might no longer belong to the Episcopal Church, but most things would not change. I would still count the well-being of others as equal to my own. I would still work for communities to love one another, to reason and work together. I would still study the wonders of the world and work to build institutions that explore, preserve, and serve them.

Would I still love God? Mostly I love God through loving my neighbor. The worst abuses of Christianity, as far as I can tell are those times when, somehow, love of God and neighbor are opposed. The Bible seems pretty clear that they always go together – though I admit others read it differently. That leaves only prayer and worship. I think I would still shout into the darkness, even if I thought nothing was there to talk back. [It’s not as though I always hear a clear answer anyway.] I would still listen – for listening is always rewarded. I might “worship” less. I do not know. Worship makes me feel good. It binds me to others. It orients me.

I would not be a priest. I would not lie to people and say I believed something when I didn’t. I would still be an elder, a community builder, and a counselor. I would still welcome, listen, empower, gather, bind together, and remember whenever I could. I have no doubt I would find a way to be a priest in some fashion or another, even if I were not a Presbyter of the Episcopal Church.

In the last few hours before Easter – I go to sunrise service – I find that my life would not be that different. If I died and found myself confronted with Anubis sitting with a pair of scales (Egyptian judgment), I would tell him a story about a carpenter from Nazareth. I would tell the good news of love. I couldn’t deny reality, but I could still work good in the world – whatever world it is.

On Easter, I will rejoice that the Lord of Love is also the Lord of Life, the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the cosmos. I will rejoice that God’s love overcame human strife. I will consider anew the lesson that even death can be forgiven. But I will not change my priorities. True faith is the faith that continues to love and work through the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. True faith means loving what Jesus loved and doing the work Jesus gave us to do, even if he is dead; I’ve always been suspicious of those who think otherwise. Christianity is not about being on the winning side. It’s about being on Jesus’ side, even when he loses.

Only in this way, does the winning really change the world.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 April 2015

The Point

Yesterday my spiritual director asked me if my Lenten discipline was having the desired effect.  I paused for a moment, confused.  I have chosen daily silence, not just physical silence, but the mental releasing of cares.  As usual, the question provoked thought.  Did my discipline need a goal?  Can it not be silence for silence’ sake?

I began thinking of meditation, in the Buddhist sense.  For Buddhists, tranquil awareness is the goal.  They do not meditate in order to get something else, to achieve peace or enlightenment or insight – though those might be products.  Rather, enlightenment is neither more nor less than true meditation.  They seek to find that all life has become meditative.  Goals get in the way.  In a very real sense, meditation with a goal is no longer really meditation. Because it looks beyond itself, it cannot be wholly centered in the moment.

Christian meditation need not be the same, though I think that contemplation (as in St. Theresa) comes awfully close.  It is a type of prayer that seeks nothing more than tranquil awareness of God’s grace.

In teaching religion, and teaching about religion, few things have been harder to communicate than this idea that we might do things for their own sake.  Consider a chain of desire: I want to go out…because I want ice cream…because I want to satisfy my craving for sugar and fat…  Every chain must end somewhere.  Every chain of desire must have an anchor.  The anchor for this might be “…because I want to be happy” or something else entirely.  Philosophers might critique this as naive.  It is not logically necessary for a chain of desire to be rational or discrete.  I’ll accept that.  Nonetheless, when I attempt to address my desires consciously – when I think critically about what I want and what I want to want – I create rational and discrete chains of desire to convince myself and others.  These chains require anchors.

In Buddhism, tranquil awareness or something very close (perhaps meditation or enlightenment) anchors the chain.  To claim that Buddhists meditate for some other reason misses the point.  Again, I must be very careful here.  I’m talking about a chain of desire – rationally thinking about what we want – not a chain of causes – trying to explain, often scientifically why something occurred.  An individual Buddhist will meditate for any number of reasons – habit, boredom, social pressure.  Still, when I speak of Buddhism in practice and theory, I speak of the chain of desire most commonly used to justify and advocate for specific choices.

Frequently, when talking with others, we assume that their chains of desire must eventually come around to our own anchor.  This leads to rampant miscommunication.  It may be true that your chains always end (or you hope they end) in tranquil awareness while mine end in obedience to God.  Alternatively, yours may end in service to the community and mine in increasing happiness for humans.

One of the major functions of religion is to help us set anchors.  You can, of course, do this without any appeal to the supernatural or authority figures.  You cannot, in my opinion, do so without being profoundly impacted by your community, your history, and the language you use.  You cannot separate your ideas about what exists from your ideas of what you value.  You cannot separate your preferences – both conscious and unconscious – from your behaviors, routines, and rituals.  Science and the major religions all tell us so.  We are incarnate, social, thinking beings.

When you anchor on something, someone who controls that thing (or appears to) controls you.  Atheists often worry that Christians who anchor on salvation will be susceptible to authority figures claiming to control who goes to heaven and hell.  Christians often worry that Atheists who anchor on physical well being will be susceptible to military and civil leaders exercising control over weapons and money.  Both are, to me, very real concerns.  Jesus died because he succeeded in changing people’s anchors; he was a threat to religious and civil powers in Judea.  Martin Luther King, Jr. died for similar reasons.

Today, Christians observe Good Friday in remembrance of Jesus, who judged his life of less import than his message and who was crucified for changing people.  I challenge you to think this day about where your anchors rest, how those anchors give power to others, and just what you’d be willing to give up to follow through.

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