By Daniel B.
Copyright © 2003-2007. All rights reserved.
This blog has been superseded by A Thin Place and no new articles will be added.
This is a journal of the thoughts that pop into my head about God, Jesus, Christianity, Quakers (i.e., the Religious Society of Friends), prayer, and other spiritual questions and issues.
By way of background, I should explain that I was Presbyterian by my upbringing, but have been reading about a number of different faiths for most of my life. The culmination of my studies of the Bible, A Course in Miracles, and other readings and work over the last 14 or 15 years was that I became a Quaker "by convincement" in 2002.
Obviously, everything that appears on this web page reflects only my own beliefs and thoughts, and cannot be attributed to any other person or to any religious organization (including the Religious Society of Friends).
For those who might be interested, it is my intention to set up an email list to which to send installments from this journal as they are published. If you would like to be included on that emailing list, please send me a note to that effect at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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There is a proverb or saying in Zen Buddhism to the effect that a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.
This saying (or metaphor) comes up in several contexts, but the recurring message is that the words or teachings of Zen are not the same as Zen itself. So, it is sometimes said that, when the student finally sees the moon, there is no longer any need for the pointing finger.
I recently gained a new appreciation for this metaphor during a Quaker retreat on "spiritual formation." In a session on learning to listen, the leader of the session pointed out that all of the words we use to describe our spiritual experiences are only metaphors for the experiences, and that the words themselves are often inadequate. To listen to the spiritual experiences of another person, we must therefore learn to look past the metaphors and work to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other person. We must look to find the moon, and not be distracted by the pointing finger.
For many years, I did not use the word "God" in my own discussions of my faith, because the image of the "God" I learned in my youth was not the God I wanted to talk about now. In the Sunday School of my youth, I envisioned God as an old man sitting on a throne in the sky, passing judgments on humans and intervening in events on earth to favor the "good" and punish the "evil." I do not think of God in that way now, either in terms of his appearance or his actions.
A turning point for me was when I realized that other members of my Quaker meeting had the same misgivings about the meaning of the word "God" that I had. When I realized that the word "God" itself was just a metaphor for whatever it is that we revere, and that many people were struggling with their own understanding of "God" and were aware that not everyone else shared their ideas of God, I started using the word again. I decided it was all right to use the word as a short-hand for something that most people knew was more complicated than a single word could easily convey, and that enough people understood "God" as a bundle of ideas and not a fixed thing.
All of which illustrates the problem of communicating between different faiths and different cultures. The words we use for some of the most important ideas in our lives are based in metaphors, and not dictionary definitions. When we hear another person speak of God, or Allah, or the Tao, or Buddha, or even Jesus, we should try to see the moon, not the finger.
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What I call the "Parable of the Dutiful Son" is what most other people call the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" found in Luke 15:11-32.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son can be summed up as follows: A man has two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and leaves home, proceeds to waste his money in an immoral and irresponsible life, and ends up coming home penniless and humble, hoping to work as a servant for his father, but his father greets him with joy and prepares a great feast in his honor, to the displeasure of the older son who remained behind. The younger son represents the sinner, the older son represents the faithful, and the father represents God. The moral of the story is that God always loves us no matter how we have sinned, and those of us who don't sin just have to learn to live with it.
The Parable of the Dutiful Son is more complicated. The facts are the same but the focus of the parable is on the older son who stays behind and why he is resentful.
When the younger son returns and the older son discovers the celebration going on, he becomes angry and refuses to go in. The father comes to plead with him, and the son states that he has been working like a slave for his father, and has never disobeyed him, and yet the father has never given him "even a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends." (15:29.) The father begins his reply by saying, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (15:31.)
This seems terribly unfair. And the father's response, that "we had to celebrate" because the younger son "was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" doesn't really seem explain the unfairness of squandering a fatted calf on behalf of a wastrel and denying the hard-working son even a young goat.
But did the father ever deny his older son a young goat "to celebrate with my friends"? The older son doesn't actually claim that the father ever denied him anything. What angers the older son is that the father never gave him the goat. And the father replies by saying that "all that is mine is yours," which is a round-about way of the father saying that he couldn't actually give the older son anything, because everything already belonged to the older son (i.e., you can't give something to someone that they already have). If the older son never had a young goat to share with his friends, it was because he never asked for one (or just never took one).
And the father described in the parable does not seem like the sort of father who would work his son like a slave. So if the older son worked like a slave, it was his decision to do so, and not his father's.
Taking these observations one step further, I believe that the older son was waiting for his father to die. The older son was dutiful and served his father, but he had more or less put his own life on hold until his father died and he came into his own inheritance. Only after his father died would he begin to live and enjoy himself. Until then, he would be the dutiful son and work like a slave.
So the parable actually does address the "unfairness" of the father's actions, and shows that what seems to be unfair only seems that way because of the actions and decisions of the older son, and not the father. It was the older son who decided to work like a slave, and not the father. It was the older son who decided never to take a young goat to celebrate with his friends, and not the father. It was the older son who decided to live a boring, unhappy life, and not the father. And the father loved both his sons, and the fact that the older son had decided to make his own life unhappy was not going to stop the father from celebrating the return of the younger son.
So the parable is not just reassurance to the sinners in us that our Father still loves us, but also a wake-up call to the slaves in us that our Father also loves us and that everything our Father has is already ours. It is up to us to enjoy our lives, and to enjoy the world and the gifts that God has given to us.
God's gifts and grace are unlimited and are available to all. If we begrudge God's grace to anyone, it is probably because we have begrudged God's grace to ourselves. If we enjoy our lives and the grace and gifts our Father has given to us, we will not be angry or jealous when our Father celebrates the return of one of our brothers, but we will be able to celebrate with our Father and share our gifts with our returning brother.
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In A Testament of Devotion, the Quaker writer Thomas R. Kelley talks about "holy obedience" to God's will. But is it possible to do anything but God's will?
Years ago, I told one of my spiritual teachers that I was "allowing" things to happen as God wished. His response was, "What makes you think you have a choice?"
In this respect, I am reminded of the story of Jonah, who was called by God to go to preach in Nineveh, and promptly got on a boat travelling in the opposite direction. There was a storm, Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish. After three days, the fish spat up Jonah onto dry land, and then Jonah went to Nineveh.
So, God gives us a choice: We can do it the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.
The introduction to A Course in Miracles presents a similar theme, because it describes the Course as "a required course." Only the time at which you take it is "voluntary."
"Free will does not mean that you can establish the curriculum. It means only that you can elect what you want to take at a given time."
So, you can go to Nineveh first, and then get eaten by a fish, or you can get eaten by a fish and then go to Nineveh. But you still end up in Nineveh eventually.
Our choice is not between doing God's will and not doing God's will. Our only choice is whether we are going to be happy about it. We can trust in God and enjoy our lives, or we can be dragged by God along through life, kicking and screaming. That's our choice.
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One of the turning points in my life came one day while doing the lessons from A Course in Miracles. Of course, I can no longer be certain exactly which lesson it was, but it was fairly early in the lessons and I think it was lesson 37, "My holiness blesses the world." That lesson begins with:
"This idea contains the first glimmerings of your true function in the world, or why you are here. Your purpose is to see the world through your own holiness."
The instructions for the day were for four exercise periods of three to five minutes each, during which you would first repeat the idea of the lesson ("My holiness blesses the world.") and then spend a few minutes blessing anything (or anyone) you might see or think about, with your eyes open or shut. (Thinking to yourself, for example, "My holiness blesses this chair.") The lesson also suggested that "It is particularly helpful to apply it silently to anyone you meet, using his name as you do so."
It is that last suggestion that changed my life, because as I went through the day, my holiness blessed the checker at the grocery store, the person who held the door for me (or for whom I held the door) at the post office, the people driving past me on the street, and everyone else I thought about during the day. And everyone changed that day, and no one has been the same since.
It was as though a light had been turned on, or a curtain raised, and I could see people for the first time. Before, I could see their faces, hair, arms, and legs, but now I felt I was seeing the real them, that I could sense their inner thoughts and inner essence. And everything I saw was good. They were all kind, loving, gentle people, true children of God. True, one of them might seem rude or indifferent at the moment, but that was a slip, a mistake, which might happen because they were busy or distracted or preoccupied with some troubling thought. Fundamentally, they were all good people, and I loved them all.
And I'm happy to say that, when I am in my "right mind" (a phrase from the Course), I can still see only the "Inner Light" in those around me (a Quaker phrase), and not the darkness. And I still like to go through the day at peace, surrounded by loving people, and blessing them all with my holiness.
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In "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time," Marcus J. Borg points out a decisive difference between Jesus and the prevailing Jewish culture of his day. The prevailing Jewish culture was based on attaining holiness, which Borg refers to as a "purity system." The ministry of Jesus was based on the compassion of God, which is why Jesus associated with tax collectors, prostitutes, cripples, and other "impure" persons. Borg uses this difference to illustrate the political impact of Jesus's teachings, which contradicted much of the social and economic structure of his times.
This description of Jesus, and the contrast with prevailing Judaism, is consistent with Stephen Mitchell's "The Gospel According to Jesus," but Mitchell makes a slightly different theological point. Mitchell agrees that Jesus's associations with "the wicked" were shocking to the Pharisees, but not for the reason we usually assume. The popular current view (or at least what I was taught in Sunday school) is that Jesus believed in forgiveness while the Pharisees did not. So Jesus was willing to associate with sinners because he wanted to redeem them and convert them, while the Pharisees did not want to redeem sinners and opposed Jesus's efforts. Mitchell says that this is nonsense.
Even the Pharisees believed in forgiveness and believed that God would forgive sinners. However, in order to be forgiven by God, a sinner must first repent. It may also be necessary to do a form of penance, or perform cleansing rituals, in order to be purified again. (Borg suggests that some sinners were beyond redemption, chapter 3, n. 16.) In any event, a sinner might be accepted back into society, and might be forgiven, but first the sinner must repent.
What is shocking about what Jesus did is not that he went among sinners, urging them to repent, but that he went among sinners and did not urge them to repent. He accepted them as they were, no matter how unclean, and ate with them and socialized with them. In this respect, Jesus is like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, because when the son returned after living in sin and degradation and shame, the father did not consciously "forgive" the son and then welcome him home. Rather, the father immediately welcomed his son home and showed his son his love by celebrating his return, without even ever asking if the son was sorry or regretted what he had done.
And therein lies the shock (and problem) of Christianity. We are not asked to love sinners in order that they might repent and be saved. We are simply asked to love sinners. Period. And continue to love them as they sin.
Which is very shocking. (And very difficult.)
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In "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time," Marcus J. Borg begins one chapter with a generalization that surprised me. He said that all great teachers of wisdom teach that there are two paths, the path of wisdom and the path of foolishness. I think that this was an unfortunate generalization, both because I think it is wrong and because it was not necessary to his presentation.
At a very literal level, the generalization is wrong because it describes a one-to-one relationship. One path to wisdom, and one path to foolishness. I don't know that there is ever only one path to wisdom, but even if there were, there would still be millions of different paths to foolishness. (See, for example, the Book of Ecclesiastes for the point of view that everything is foolishness.)
Looking beyond literalness, the generalization still implies a dualism that may exist in traditional Christianity (e.g., good v. evil, God v. Satan, and Heaven v. Hell), but may not necessarily exist in other thought systems. For example, Taoism may divide the universe into competing forces (the yin and the yang), but it does not label one "good" and the other "bad." In fact, much of Taoism is devoted to achieving a balance of contrasting forces, and to eliminating concepts like "right" and "wrong."
Similarly, "A Course in Miracles" differs from traditional Christianity in rejecting the whole notion of evil. What we call "evil" is, according to the Course, nothing but an illusion of our sick or fevered minds. The Course also states that love is so all-encompassing that it can have no opposite. More to the point, the introduction to the Course also rejects the notion of different paths. It states that the Course is a required course, and that "free will" only gives us the opportunity to decide when to take the lessons, but not the curriculum itself. In the thought system of the Course, there is only one path, and our choice is not among different paths, but between taking the one path or none at all. Or, to use the metaphor in a different way, there may be different paths, but only one destination. What others might call the "path to foolishness" is what students of the Course would call a longer and more difficult path to the same destination.
The reason that there is only one destination is God's grace. God's grace only admits of one destination, and that is salvation. We can choose the path we take, but we can't alter the destination.
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From the time I first began to think critically of Christian theology (which would be about the time I was in high school), the idea the Jesus was a "sacrifice" for the sins of mankind made no sense to me, and I was pleased finally to read a theologian who agrees with me. In "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time," Marcus J. Borg discusses different ways of seeing Jesus and talks about the "priestly story" of sin, guilt, sacrifice, and redemption. He also admits that the priestly story is the principal metaphor of the Christian church, which he believes is a mistake for several reasons, one of which is that the story does has no logic to it. "The notion that God's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without that having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible…. To many people, it simply makes no sense…."
And I am one of the people for whom the story makes no sense.
The crucifixation of Jesus is often compared to the story of Abraham and Isaac, but I can't understand how or why God would sacrifice His own Son. To whom was God offering a sacrifice?
A sacrifice is a quid pro quo. In chess (or war), you sacrifice a pawn to capture a knight. In cabalistic religions, you sacrifice an animal to gain the favor of your gods. In each case, there are rules or realities that require that one thing be given up to gain something else. Why was it necessary for God to give up His Son? What rules or realities bind God? Why could God not foregive our sins without killing His own Son?
And what did God accomplish by that sacrifice? What did the life and death of Jesus accomplish that could not have been accomplished in any other way?
Or perhaps the sacrifice was not by God, but by Jesus. (See Hebrews 9:11 and following for examples of this metaphor.) Jesus would then have been sacrificing something valuable to Himself, His own life, in exchange for the salvation of the world. But a sacrifice must be pleasing to God, so we are back to the same question, which is why God would want His own Son as a sacrifice.
And in what way was the life and death of Jesus a sacrifice? If Jesus was resurrected and still lives, then there was no sacrifice at all, because nothing was lost. Or was it the fact that God was made man, and lived and died as a man, that was the sacrifice? But what is so awful about living and dying? The rest of us still live and die, and no one claims that any of us are living and dying for the sins of the world.
If you believe that Jesus was the only Son of God, and that God is all-powerful, then you must also believe that the death of Jesus was part of God's plan and what God wanted. So then you have to find a reason for God to kill His own Son, and the idea of a sacrifice is probably as good as any. Except that it makes no sense.
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One of the traditional Christian doctrines that I have trouble with is the idea of life after death, or "eternal life."
One problem is that a life after death couldn't really be eternal, because "eternal" means "without beginning or end; existing outside of time." But as far as I can remember, my life did have a beginning, at my birth. If I had no life before my birth, then my life can't be "eternal" even if it should continue after my death.
And I have difficulty finding the doctrine of life after death in teachings of Jesus. Jesus spent most of his ministry preaching the importance of this life and this moment, and not concerns about the next day, much less the next life. "Give us this day our daily bread" and "observe the lilies of the field," not "give us the ability to live forever." References to "eternal life" or a "life everlasting" are few and far between, and often seem incomplete or out of place, as though added to the gospels by Paul or other apostles after the death of Jesus. (Unfortunately, most of what is now called Christianity is really based on the writings of Paul--who never met Jesus--and not the teachings of Jesus himself.)
To me, it diminishes the life and teachings of Jesus to say that what he believed and what he taught has nothing to do with our lives on earth, but is only a means to an end, the ultimate end being life after death. I believe that the life and teachings of Jesus are an end unto itself, and that we love God and love our neighbor not in expectation of a future reward, but in the expectation of an immediate, present "reward," which is the Kingdom of God.
This view is also expressed in "The Gospel According to Jesus" by Stephen Mitchell. In the introduction, Mitchell writes that, "When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. He was talking about a state of being, a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world. It is possible, he said, to be as simple and beautiful as the birds of the sky or the lilies of the field, who are always within the eternal Now." Later in the book, in his commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus is asked about "eternal life," Mitchell refers to "eternal life" as "A synonym for 'the kingdom of God': a life lived in such a way that the personality becomes transparent and the light of God shines brilliantly through; a life lived fully in the present moment, beyond time."
In "The Practice of the Presence of God," which is a collection of writings by and about Brother Lawrence (ca. 1611-1691), Abbe de Beaufort writes, "[H]e worried neither about Heaven nor Hell. All his life was utter freedom and a continual rejoicing. He had put his sins between God and himself, as if to tell Him that he was not worthy of His grace, but that did not prevent God from flooding him with it."
The Abbe also wrote, "He did the most perfect thing: he left everything for God, and did everything for love of Him. He had entirely forgotten himself. He no longer thought about Heaven or Hell, about his past sins or about those he was presently committing, after he had asked God's forgiveness for them."
A somewhat similar thought (but expressed in a more secular way) appears "The Lives of a Cell," by Lewis Thomas. In a chapter/essay entitled "On Probability and Possibility," Dr. Thomas writes, "Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise."
So I have come to believe that whether there is a "Heaven" in the traditional Christian sense, or a "life after death," is really unimportant. If I believe in the love and grace of God, and see the world as an expression of his love and grace, then I am content with this world and this moment. What happens in the next moment is in God’s hands.
I hope that, in the last seconds of my life, I will still be immersed in thoughts of the wonder of life and the love of God, and not worrying about what happens next.
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What is the "original sin" that caused God to banish Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden? The common assumption is that it was sex, of which the "apple" is only a symbol. I've also heard sermons that talk about disobedience and irresponsibility, because Adam first ate the fruit that he was forbidden to eat, and then tried to shift the blame to Eve (who in turn tried to shift the blame to the serpent). The problem with all of these ideas is that the story of the Garden of Eden that is found in the book of Genesis in the Bible says nothing about sex (other than nakedness), and never uses the word "sin." So what is the story about? I believe that the story of the Garden of Eden is not really about sin at all, "original" or otherwise, but is a mythic explanation of the emergence of what we call "consciousness."
One of the important differences between human beings and other living creatures is that, as far as we can tell, humans are the only creatures that are "conscious," by which I mean that we know we are alive and we think about our own thoughts. We judge ourselves and feel embarrassment or guilt for when we judge our own actions harshly. As Mark Twain put it, "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."
If humans are conscious and other animals are not, and if the theory of evolution is correct (which is another argument for another day), then there must have been a point at which the human race made a transition between unconsciousness and consciousness. And that point of transition would not necessarily have been at the same time we got opposable thumbs, or walked upright.
According to psychologist Julian Jaynes, writing in his book 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," the rise of what we now call consciousness is a relatively recent development in human history, occurring but a few thousand years ago. He believes it is a product of our bicameral brains, which are divided into hemispheres with significantly different functions. Greatly oversimplifying, the right side of the brain is more intuitive (which Jaynes describes as "god-like"), while the left side of the brain tends to be more logical (which Jaynes describes as "man-like"). What we call consciousness is explained by Jaynes as a break-down between the two different functions of the two different sides of the brain, so that the "man" part of the brain began to experience the "god-like" judgments of the other side of the brain.
It is difficult for us now to envision an entire society dominated by unconsciousness, but that may have been the condition of at least part of some ancient cultures, and it is entirely possible that some of the people who were alive at or after the time of the transition would have noticed something happening. Which brings me back to the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.
The phrase "Garden of Eden" is synonymous with paradise, but what was it really like? The Bible says that God "planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed." Gen. 2:8. But it seems that the man did not have a life of leisure, because the Bible also says that "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it." That’s right, the man had to work. And we know two other things about Eden. First, that God told the man that he may eat of every tree of the garden except "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." (Gen. 2:17) Second, that the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. (Gen. 2:25)
When we read the story of the garden of Eden, what we are reading is a story of life without consciousness. The man and the woman have no knowledge of good and evil, and are never ashamed of anything, not even of their nakedness. They work and live in complete innocence, with no guilt, no shame, no fear, and nothing we could call angst.
All that changed when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for then "the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves." In other words, they felt shame. And when God arrived, they felt fear. And when God asked them what had happened, they made excuses. In other words, they were conscious of who they were and what they had done.
So why did God "drive" Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden? What the author (really "authors") of Genesis are confirming is that consciousness is a very mixed blessing. It brings us understanding of the world around us, and knowledge of good and evil, so that we are more like God. But consciousness also brings us pain. It is why we feel guilt, shame, and remorse. It is why we are often unhappy.
The authors of the Genesis were writing with nostalgia about a time in the not-so-distant past when life was much simpler, and much happier. People lived in the moment, working, loving, and dying. They felt physical pain, cold, and hunger, and sometimes fear and anger, but those were like storms that passed through and were forgotten once the sun appeared again. They never had an "identity crises" or a "mid-life crisis" or regrets about the past or guilt about a mistake they had made. They were childlike, and happy. In retrospect, it must have seemed like living in a beautiful garden, and they must have wondered what happened and why they ever left (or were forced to leave).
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I recently watched the special report on the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay that was broadcast by ABC News on its "20/20" program (Friday, 6/25), and the terrible sadness and sickness of it was almost overpowering to me. I fear not only for our souls, but for our safety.
Nowadays, we say that "what goes around comes around." Jesus said, "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." (Matt. 7:1-2)
In the form of the "Golden Rule," this becomes, "Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6:31)
The idea that there is a reflectivity in the universe appears frequently in the Bible, most often as a warning:
"As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same." (Job 4:8)
"For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind:" (Hosea 8:7)
"According to their way I will deal with them; according to their own judgments I will judge them." (Ezekiel 7:27)
The most frightening version comes from the letter of Paul to the Galatians:
"Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for you reap whatever you sow." (Gal. 6:7)
A teacher of mine sometimes said that "the only way to stop a behavior is to stop the behavior." What does that mean in real life?
It means that we can’t teach kindness by practicing cruelty.
We can’t instill a sense of mercy by acting mercilessly.
We can’t establish a rule of law through lawlessness.
We can’t expect justice by administering injustice.
We can’t create peace through war.
And we can’t stop terrorists through terrorism.
Which brings me to my favorite passage from the Bible:
"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)
In the policies of the Bush Administration, there is no justice, there is no kindness, and there is no humility.
And I am afraid that we will reap the whirlwind.
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As a teenager in the Presbyterian church, I decided that I didn’t understand the meaning of communion. This is my body, broken for thee? Eat of it? Why should we eat the body of Christ and drink of the blood of Christ? It didn’t make any sense to me, and it seemed to be cannabalistic.
And so I stopped taking communion. I couldn’t share in something that I didn’t understand.
Later, when I was in my thirties, I started taking communion again, but not because I understood what it meant. Only because I thought I should share the communal experience.
Then, one Holy Thursday during a Tenebrae service, I decided to try to figure out what Jesus might have meant by the words of the Last Supper. What was he thinking? What was he feeling? Why did he say what he did?
I tried to imagine that I was Jesus, and that I knew what the New Testament accounts said that I knew, meaining that I knew that I would be betrayed, that my disciples would desert me, and that I would be tortured to death. Imaging that, I felt alone and scared. Imagining myself at a Passover seder, an annual celebration that is rich with symbolism (and feeling somewhat melodramatic), I realized that I might have asked my disciples, when they gathered for the same Passover celebration next year and in years to come, to think of the bread that was broken as my body, broken for them, and to think of the wine as my blood, spilt for them, and to remember me as they eat the bread and drink the wine.
In other words, I imagined a plea from Jesus that he be remembered. He was lonely and scared, and he wanted to be remembered. So he asked his disciples to remember him during Passover meals in the future.
And that’s all there was to it.
And, in thinking of Jesus in that way, I saw a great irony in the traditional celebration of the Last Supper, because it is celebrated as a holy event, a sacrament, full of divine meaning. But there was no divine meaning. Jesus was asking for a very human thing: to be remembered. What is callled "holy communion" has all of the theological significance of a group of guys hoisting a beer at a corner bar and saying, "Here’s to Jesus."
Which is a relief to me. It's a relief to know that I haven't missed something or misunderstood something. And it's a relief and comforting to think of Jesus in a very human and very understandable way.
As a result, I still don’t have much use for communion. But every year, before Easter and during Lent, I like to pause, lift a glass of something, and say "Here’s to Jesus."
I like to think that he’d like that.
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I think of prayer, and approach prayer, somewhat differently from most people. Most of the things I hear and read about prayer are about very deliberate words and thoughts addressed to God at specific times, or for specific reasons. (I have read that, for the ancient Hebrews, a "prayer" was a public chant or proclamation to God, while Jesus was the first to suggest that prayer might be private.)
With me, prayer is more like an aside. I'll be thinking about something, really chewing on it or wrestling with it, not thinking of God at all, but then at some point a part of my brain will say, "What do You think, God?" And then I’ll get the answer.
(And, if you don’t mind my saying so, sometimes the answer is a little flip, but I've come to expect that from God because He usually doesn't waste time beating around the bush or sugar-coating it for me. ... But I digress.)
Jesus tells us that God already knows what we need, so praying for what we want is an exercise in redundancy. And Jesus also promised that God will provide what we need.
The great Christian theologian and Phillies center-fielder, Gary Matthews, once said that he believed that all prayers are answered, but that sometimes we don't like the answers.
So we need to distinguish between what we want and what we need.
I once heard a sermon about prayer that drew on the story of the death of King David's first-born son by Bathsheba. (2 Sam. 12:1-23) David had arranged for Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, to die in battle, and then David took Bathsheba as his wife. This "displeased the Lord," and God told David that Bathsheba's son by David would die. According to the Bible, David pleaded with God, fasted, and prostrated himself on the ground for six days. On the seventh day, the child died, and then David got up, washed, went to the temple to worship God, and then ate. His servants couldn't understand why David would fast and weep while the child was alive, but get up and eat once the child was dead. David explained, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said 'Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.' But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me." (2 Sam. 12:22-23)
The preacher used this as an example of the failure of prayer, but it is actually an example of success. David got what he needed, even though he didn't get what he wanted. What David needed was humility and the strength to accept God's will (i.e., the death of his son), and David got those things from his prayers. So David's prayers were answered, even though David didn't like the answer.
I sometimes think of prayer as a "reset" button for our brains. When a computer gets so hopelessly confused and messed up that it doesn't operate properly any more, the solution is to "reset" the system and start all over, with a clear memory and all of the operating priorities back in order. Similarly, prayer is I how lose the crazy thoughts with which I have become obsessed and am able to reconnect with God.
Which is what I usually need.
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I made up my mind years ago about the "conflict" between evolution and what is sometimes called "creationism," and in the process I developed a new way of looking at religion and science and the differences between them. I always expected that someday I would hear or read of someone who had reached the same conclusion, but I never have so I guess it’s time to explain my view and the reasons for it.
What appears to be a conflict between religion and science can be resolved quite easily once you understand that there is no conflict. There is no conflict between religion and science because they answer two completely different kinds of questions. As long as they can’t both answer the same question, they can’t be in conflict.
Science can really only address the question of "how." How were stars formed? How can we predict the movement of the planets? How are diseases transmitted? How do birds fly? And so forth. Science investigates and explains the chemical, mechanical, electromagnetic, atomic, and other processes by which things happen.
Religion can really only address the question of "why," which is a very different question because it goes to the meaning or purpose of the way things are and the things that happen.
Unfortunately, scientists sometimes think that by explaining how something happens, they have explained why it happens, which is where a lot of the confusion and conflict comes from.
To illustrate, consider the "debate" between "creationism" (or another other religious view of the origins of mankind) and evolution. A Darwinist might think that he (or she) has explained "why" man evolved by explaining that a process of genetic mutations and natural selection resulted in the evolution of modern man. But why did the process of natural selection lead to mankind and not some other kind of creature? The Darwinist might reply that natural selection occurs because some animals are better suited to their environment than others. But why was there an environment that lead to the evolution of man and not some other kind of creature? The Darwinist might reply that the climate on earth a million years ago was favorable to the evolution of man. But why was there a climate a million years ago that was favorable to the evolution of man?
I hope you can see where this is going. Every "answer" can be countered with another "why" and, just as a parent eventually tires of answering the repeated "why" of a three-year-old, eventually the Darwinist will have to say either "That’s just the way it was" or "Because I say so." And neither of those is really an answer.
Many scientists will dismiss what I’ve just said with the explanation that they simply don’t have all the answers yet. But that simply means that they don’t yet understand the problem, because it is becoming increasingly clear that science will never know "all the answers." Every new discovery brings more questions and so, the more scientists learn, the more they find how little they’ve learned.
Even more importantly, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are some things that are simply unknowable. For example, one of the fundamental principles of quantum physics is that you can’t know the energy (or speed) of a subatomic particle at the same time that you know it’s location. The more precisely you know a particle’s location, the less you know about it’s energy, and vice versa. This is known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and it’s not something you can solve with better equipment of more sophisticated experiments. It’s a fundamental limitation on what is knowable.
Because there is this unavoidable level of uncertainty, the interaction of atomic particles is often completely unpredictable, and this was a shock to scientists. The classical, Newtownian view of the universe was that it was predictable, almost like a giant machine. If you knew where something was, where it was going, and how fast, you could predict where it would be in the future. If you knew where everything was and where everything was going, you could (in theory) figure out the future of everything. In quantum physics, that predictability fell apart and suddenly the future was very random.
Even the brilliant Albert Einstein tried to reject this aspect of quantum theory, stating that "God does not roll dice." What he (and others) overlook is that our inability to predict the future does not mean that God is "rolling dice." The fact that it looks random to us does not mean that it looks random to God (or even that it is random).
Another example of unknowability is chaos theory. One of the initial discoveries of chaos theory was that sufficiently large and complicated systems (such as, say, the weather, or life on earth) are inherently unpredictable because very small events can have very large consequences over time. The classic example is that it is theoretically possible for the flutter of the wings of a single butterfly to change the atmosphere in such a way that a month or more later a tornado that was going to form, doesn’t (or vice versa).
If small events affect large events in ways that are unpredictable, and the smallest (i.e., molecular) events are inherently unpredictable, what does that tell us about how well scientists can predict the future? Over the short term, and for most of the things we can see, scientists can tell us the rules and can predict what will happen fairly accurately. But over longer periods of time (say thousands of years) and for smaller objects (say the genetic material in cells) things start to get very unpredictable, and there is often no good scientific explanation for why one thing happens and not another.
Now let’s look at the religious point of view. Ignoring the Bible (I’ll get back to that later), a belief that God created man in His image does not require any particular method of creation. If God had a choice of two or three different ways of creating man, who are we to criticize His choice?
So let’s assume that God had a choice between snapping His fingers and having mankind appear instanteously, out of thin air, or having mankind appear slowly, first in the form of protoplasm, then single-celled organisms, then multi-celled organisms, then fish, then reptiles, then mammals, then hominids, and finally homo sapiens (mankind). Do we really care which method God chose?
As far as the Bible is concerned, it contains some very interesting and profound thoughts of some very wise people, but those same people also didn’t understand the chemistry of fire and so the chances of them guessing right on questions of genetics can summed up as "small."
Another problem with the Bible is that there are actually two different creation stories in the book of Genesis. The more familiar story is the one that starts at Chapter 1, verse 1, and describes the creation of the universe in seven days, with God creating "humankind in his image, .. male and female he created them" on the sixth day. Gen. 1:26-27. The other creation story appears in Gen. 2:4-25. In this second version, the earth and the heavens are made in one day, and God created a man out of the dust of the ground, and then created a woman from one of his ribs.
Can anyone really claim that the Bible is "right" when it can’t even tell the same story twice without changing it?
Where does that leave us? Science is interesting, and it’s valuable. It provides better ways of living and interesting toys. So I want scientists to continue to tinker. But scientists are not much more than plumbers or electricians installing new appliances and fixing the shorts and leaks in the universe that God built. As useful as they can be, they can’t tell us why we’re here. They can tell us how we got here, but not why we’re here. When we want to ask questions like "why," we need to talk to God and listen for that still, small voice.
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We have a choice as to whether or not to believe in God. I have chosen to believe in God, and one of the reasons I have chosen to believe in God is somewhat similar to an argument made by the mathematician Blaise Pascal.
Blaise Pascal was a gambler as well as a mathematician, and invented the mathematics of probability so that he could win more often when gambling. He was also a philosopher, and got caught up in discussions of "proofs" of the existence (or non-existence) of God. Briefly, Pascal proposed to his friends that, if an absolute proof was not possible, the mathematics of probabilities would suggest that you should wager your soul on the existence of God, rather than the non-existence of God.
Pascal presented the question of whether or not to believe in God as a kind of a choice, with pros and cons, and the choice you make depends on how you value the pros and cons. If you chose to believe in God, you must follow the dictates of the Christian church and give up the sinful pleasures of a sinful world, but your ultimate reward is a place in Heaven and eternal life after death. If you choose not to believe in God, then you get to enjoy your life without guilt, but you may suffer eternal torment in Hell.
Pascal’s reasoning was that, if there is any possibility of eternal life, no matter how small, the reward of eternal life is so overwhelmingly great that the finite pleasures of a finite life are insignificant by comparison, and you should "bet your life" by believing in God.
My disagreement with Pascal is not so much in the mathematics, but in his assumptions. His assumption was that a belief in God requires giving up pleasures and live a joyless life. I believe the opposite, and that it is the life without faith that is joyless.
My belief in the existence of God has led me to believe that I am loved by God (along with all others), and has also led me to believe that my primary function in life is to be loved and to give love in return, not only to God but to those who are loved by God, which is everyone else. (These are the "two great commandments" taught by Jesus: that we should love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.)
When I have not believed in God, my life has been full of fear. I have been alone and unloved, and my life has seemed short and meaningless. When I have believed in God, I feel that I am part of something large and holy, I have felt loved, and my life has seemed to be both eternal and essential.
The "sinful pleasures" that many believe that God commands we must give up are not really that sinful or that pleasurable. Neither sex nor alcohol are prohibited by the Bible, which only seems to counsel against excess and an excess of almost anything leads to more pain than pleasure. Excessive alcohol produces hangovers, sexual license leads to shame and regret, uncontrolled gambling leads to bankruptcy, gluttony makes us fat, avarice (and "workaholism") makes us tired and lonely, etc. In short, it doesn't look as though God is denying us any real pleasures in life, but only discouraging obsessive or self-destructive behaviors.
So, "Pascal's wager" seems to be no wager at all. If I believe in God, I automatically "win." Why would I want to "bet" any other way?
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In talking about religion and political or social issues, many people are willing to discuss what is the “right thing” to do, but before trying to decide what is right, it might be more important to decide why would would want to do the “right thing.”
Assuming that the “right thing” is something that is (or has been) determined by God in some way and is knowable in some way, it seems to me that there are four different reasons one might want to do the “right thing”:
You should follow God’s laws simply because they are God’s laws, without regard to consequences.
God will punish you in the hereafter if you don’t do what you’re told, or will reward you if you do what you’re told.
God will punish you here on earth by bringing misfortunes on you if you don’t do what you’re told, or will reward you with worldly riches if you do what you’re told. Or, if you prefer a more mechanistic and less anthropomorphic theology, you could say that God’s laws represent fundamental physical and social laws, so “doing the right thing” should produce desirable consequences here on earth.
God will not actively punish or reward you, but has put in you a desire to be at peace with God and your fellow human beings, and you should do the “right thing” in order to achieve spiritual peace and contentment.
Let’s explore through each of these possible reasons and look to see if they make any sense.
There are several problems with the idea that we should obey God’s law (or “do the right thing”) just because God says so, without regard to the consequences.
The first problem is that it seems sort of pointless to spend the time figuring out what God wants us to do, and then do it, when it has no consequences whatsoever. It’s sort of like asking a question and then ignoring the answer. God asks us to do certain things, we do them, and he pays no attention whatsoever to what we do. It’s a great cosmic waste of time and energy.
The second problem is that there is no empirical feedback. If there are no consequences to what we do, how can we ever be sure we’ve got it right? Without any standards to just how well we’ve done in the past, our future actions become increasingly uncertain.
Which makes the concept of “right for right’s sake” very frightening. If you don’t have any standards to decide what is or is not the “right thing” by looking at any consequences, then the decision about what is “right” becomes very arbitrary, and well-meaning people could make all sorts of strange decisions about what is the “right thing,” perhaps deciding to torture heretics.
Obeying God’s law in order to achieve eternal life, or heavenly paradise, or some other reward after death is a little better than simple absolutism, because at least we know why we’re doing what we’re doing.
But it still suffers from a lack of empiricism. If all the rewards (or punishments) come after we’re dead, and no one comes back from the dead to tell us what works or doesn’t work, how can we ever know if we’re making the right choices?
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Daniel B. Evans
P.O. Box 27370
Philadelphia, PA 19118