The Church and Evolution….

I know you expect this post to be about how the church is very much against the idea of evolution. But really it is going to be quite the opposite. Yes, many denominations within the church, like so many other areas of science, deny evolution of the species as originated by Darwin. The Scopes Monkey trial was evidence of that. William Jennings Bryan put up quite an argument about that and the church has for the most part has stiffly followed it up since then.

But, this post is actually about how the church has practiced evolution over its two millennia.  That is, the church as evolved, some might say devolved,  from its earliest followers strict attention to the teaching of Jesus until today where those very teaching for the most part take a back burner to what we are told we must believe. There were a couple of discrete step in the evolution but for the most part it has been gradually happening throughout its history.

Theology is defined as the Study of religion. From the first people to give us their opinions of what the church means to the present day theologians there have been a myriad of different views of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Like every other realm theology is not all good or all bad. It is just man’s beliefs of the nature of God.

Here are some words about theology from some famous people in our history. I pasted these words here sometime ago and have to apologize that I lost the source.

Thomas Paine the American revolutionary, wrote in his two part work The Age of Reason, “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.

Walter Kaufmann the philosopher, in his essay “Against Theology”, sought to differentiate theology from religion in general. “Theology, of course, is not religion; and a great deal of religion is emphatically anti-theological… An attack on theology, therefore, should not be taken as necessarily involving an attack on religion. Religion can be, and often has been, untheological or even anti-theological.” However, Kaufmann found that “Christianity is inescapably a theological religion

Thomas Paine, who is the founder of much of what this country was founded on said some pretty cynical  things about those who have opinions of what is religion.  As he pointed out above we have very little scientific evidence of what we call Christianity. It seems to have been based on man’s opinions.

Walter Kaufmann had a different take on it. Theology is not religion and in fact much of it is very anti-theological. I will have to study this aspect of religion some more to intelligently speak of these matters….

Those Non-Western Christians…

Anyone who has read much of this blog knows that I take the creeds of the Christian church to have done more harm than good.  Here are some words about that by Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith:

Creeds were always something theologians invented, often to stake out spheres of authority. The vast body of lay Christians knew little about them and cared less. Their faith was embodied in stories, saints’ days, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. But these everyday people constituted, after all, the vast majority.

The priests and theologians always remained a tiny minority. Consequently the recent emergence of “people’s history” is facilitating the recovery of Christianity’s original faith orientation. As the revival of religion and the change in religiousness spread around the world, it becomes clearer why the extraordinary growth of Christianity beyond the West is helping Christianity regain its initial impetus.

These areas lie far removed from Plato’s orbit. To be a Christian in India or Korea or Africa today does not mean to be a Christian à la grec. It means to be what is sometimes called a “postdogmatic” Christian. The content of the faith of non-Western Christians is much like that of the early church, even though the embodied style of their religion often resembles that of their non-Christian neighbors….

Religious people today are more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrines. They are also becoming less patriarchal, as women assume leadership positions in religions that have barred them for centuries, sometimes for millennia. Women are publishing commentaries on the Qur’an, leading synagogues, and directing Buddhist retreat centers. There are now women pastors, priests, and bishops in Christian denominations.

As you can see from these words things are changing at the root level in Christian churches. You might say that you have not seen much of a change but if you were a Christian in the southern hemisphere you would not question what is going on.  Western Christians want to point to the fact that the church is growing so therefore this “emergent movement” really doesn’t have much muscle. The trouble with that belief is that like many of the current beliefs/creeds present in the western church are naive at best or wrong at worst.

Much of South America is made up of Roman Catholics but they are not like the ones you come across in your Sunday visits. They are literally giving the pope heartburn with their non-allegience to many of the things the church hold dear. They are not aligning to all the things they are told to believe. Many of them in fact have embraced liberation theology. I know from the 2008 elections that was a dirty name in this country but not so in other parts of the world.

Yes, Christianity might be holding its own  overall but all of the growth is actually occurring  outside Europe and the U.S and it is a very different Christianity than what we know.  As the quote above says it much more closely resembles the early church than the modern church of the western world.  I personally think that is a good thing.  I kind of like the term post-dogmatic Christians. It has a nice ring to it.  I will be covering some of this in future posts because it will be a critical issue in the post-modern/dogmatic church of the twenty-first century by the emergent movement among others.

Don’t Embarrass God….

Since this is the first post here in 2013 I pray we all make a new years resolution to not embarrass God!!

We followers of Jesus seem to think that our self-proclamation that we are Christians doesn’t affect anyone but ourselves. But in reality making that claim and then not living up the actions necessary to show the world that you follow Jesus embarrasses God. It makes him look bad when everyone who knows you to be a Christian see you doing things that are definitely not Christ like.

The primary way that someone comes to be a follower of Jesus is not by a sudden mysterious urge to read the Bible but instead by observing the good examples of others and asking “what makes this person different?”.  Most simply see the Bible as a very old book written centuries ago that has little to do with the world today.  They learn about Christ through you and how you act!

But the trouble with this is that there is almost no difference between how you, a self-proclaimed Christian lives your life, than anyone else. In fact if we look hard enough we can see that Christians actually take marriage less seriously than non-Christians since statistically Christians divorce more frequently than the population as a whole.

When Christians insist that science is wrong about so  many aspects of life they embarrass God. God continues to give us scientific revelations about life including the recent advances in DNA  but many Christians seem to want to deny scientific findings. As an example some stubbornly insist that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old when even with a cursory look around us we know it to be otherwise. When we effectively ask our guests to our services to check their intelligence at the door we embarrass God. We not only embarrass him we make him irrelevant in the eyes of many around us.  Instead of wanting to know more about this God that we pray to they could care less.

When we squabble incessantly with each other about what we are supposed to believe about him we embarrass God. We are currently divided into over 39,000 different factions each claiming to be the only ones who know the “true” God! How can anyone make any sense of what being Christian means when we can’t even agree among ourselves. More shamefully when we discipline, reject , and shun those in our midst for simply praying with those who might not proclaim exactly the same beliefs as us we embarrass God.

Let’s face it many “Christians” today embarrass God by their actions or maybe more seriously their lack of actions. When we proclaim that being Christian is all about what we believe and nothing to do with what we do.  We embarrass God when we continuously  split over the most petty things.

It will take a paradigm shift in our understanding of Jesus and his messages to turn us around. I think the current emergent movement is just such a thing. How long will the shift take is anyone’s guess.  All I know is that we have to quit embarrassing God by our words and inactions and get on to doing what he told us to do.  That is the only way we will ever point others to Him.

Lets all make a very serious attempt to not embarrass God in this new year…..

A Priest Following His Conscience…..

PriestIt always saddens me to see yet another instance of a Christian church exercising exclusion but that is what this article is all about. This time it is the Roman Catholic church. They stripped  Rev. Bill Brennan, a 92-year-old Jesuit priest (that is him in the picture here) of his duties because he performed a liturgy in with a female priest not sanctioned with the Roman Catholic church. Here are some bits and pieces from the source article for our discussion today:

source:  Priest stripped of duties for celebrating Mass with woman priest – U.S. News.

A Milwaukee-area Catholic priest was stripped of his priestly duties after he presided over a Mass with a woman priest last month in Georgia….

The Catholic Church prohibits women’s ordination, saying it has no authority to ordain women because Jesus chose only men as his apostles….

About 59 percent of American Catholics are in favor of women’s ordination, according to a 2010 poll by The New York Times and CBS, but the Vatican sees the initiative as having the potential to cause a rift in the church….

Brennan, who lives with other retired Jesuits in the Milwaukee area, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he understood the risks when he decided to perform a liturgy alongside a woman priest.

“Sometimes in our lives we have to trust our conscience and bring about the consequences,” he told the newspaper. “I wasn’t trying to show off for the ladies.”….

I have heard of two reasons now why the Catholic church does not allow priests to marry. The first was that King Constantine who hijacked the church in the fourth century to make it a State religion did it so that priests could not pass on their power given by Constantine to their children.  He insisted that he alone had that power and that is would not be inherited.

The second reason now is that all of the apostles were men and therefore Jesus did not intend women to be faith leaders. If you know even the slightest amount of history during this period you know just how little power women possessed in those times. They were for the most part considered property of either their fathers or their husbands. Documents that have been appearing in archeological digs since the 1940’s sheds a seemingly new light on early Christian female leaders. Mary Magdalen comes to mind first but there were several other women leaders in the early church despite the fact that it was generally culturally prohibited at the time.  I’m just a simple guy but this excuse for limiting spiritual leaders to only men seems kind of lame to me standing here in the 21st century.

So here we are with a 92-year-old priest who has given his life for his God being chastised by the church hierarchy for trusting his conscience.  There seems to be an ongoing conflict between American Catholics and the Vatican in recent years and this is one of those cases. But, like most other Christian churches the Roman Catholic church is has a very vertical hierarchy. The person at the top is given predominate power over those below him. That often results in very slow changes from the grass roots level.

It is sad to see the church spend more time excluding others than to welcome the stranger as Jesus taught us. I am hoping that the emergent church movement will eventually correct this anomaly.

Institutional Purity…..

The primary reason there are 39,000+ Christian denominations is that each are trying to maintain “purity” of beliefs. Here is how that logic usually plays out:

” If we allow differences of opinions among us then we will soon reach a slippery slope where we will slide into heresy. For that reason we must be on the constant watch to exclude anyone among us who asks the ‘wrong’ questions or dares to disagree any of our creeds or beliefs.”

I have personally felt the stink of one of these churches. But what these church authorities espousing this view overlook is that they are looking at Jesus through the lens of many others who came before them. Things like their recent stubborn insistence that every word in the Bible came directly from God is putting themselves into a straight-jacket that is almost impossible to wear, and very uninviting to those outside their clique.

Of course institutional purity is not new to the twenty-first century. It has been going on since the time of Constantine in the fourth century and probably even before that. Here are some words from Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith:

 During the ensuing “Constantinian era,” Christianity, at least in its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creeds and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees. Heresy became treason, and treason became heresy. The year 385 CE marked a particularly grim turning point. A synod of bishops condemned a man named Priscillian of Avila for heresy, and by order of the emperor Maximus he and six of his followers were beheaded in Treves. Christian fundamentalism had claimed its first victim. Today Priscillian’s alleged theological errors hardly seem to warrant the death penalty. He urged his followers to avoid meat and wine, advocated the careful study of scripture…

There are countless similar stories from the years following. One historian estimates that in the two and a half centuries after Constantine, Christian imperial authorities put twenty-five thousand to death for their lack of creedal correctness.  And of course we all know that in 1431 Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic. In the twentieth century she became a saint.

Here are some additional words by Philip Gulley in his book The Evolution of Faith about trying to maintain institutional purity:

Some Christians have thus concluded that we are our own worst enemies, that our best option for a viable future lies in our determination to embrace a rigid faith in order to stave off the adulterating influences of other cultures and religions. But I would contend that this has been tried repeatedly throughout our long history and always ends the same suspicion, intolerance, exclusion, division, and, finally, war. No, if the church has a future indeed if our world has a future it will rest in the church’s ability to honor and assimilate the best of each religious tradition,  just as Jesus found virtue in Samaritans, publicans, centurions, and Gentiles. How this good man came to be the focus of a creedalism that ultimately excludes others is a mystery for the ages. The incorporation of other traditions into our own will undoubtedly change us, but for the better, for it will lead us toward one another, which is also and always a movement toward the Divine Presence and the universal grace that Presence represents. 

Inspiring words indeed! We should not be locking and bolting the church door against others beliefs but instead should be embracing them if they celebrate the Divine Presence of Jesus Christ. In other words we should do as he did.  And that is what I hope the coming emergent church will bring about.

Saving Jesus — (Part 4) Science is Not the Enemy…..

This is the fourth post on the book Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus  by Robin Meyers:

One thing every pastor knows is that knowledge is not redemptive. Indeed, sometimes we can know the truth, and it will not set us free….

One of the great divides in the church could be overcome if we got one thing straight: the truth of which Jesus speaks is wisdom incarnate, not intellectual assent to cogent arguments made on behalf of God. …

Having said this, it is not the case that faith is more pure when it is uninformed or when it turns away from critical thinking and sound reasoning as threats to the life of the spirit. Science is not the enemy of faith, but rather its handmaiden. More threatening to the future of faith is the fear of what can be known as well as the search to know more. In fact, the ongoing suspicion that scientific discoveries or rigorous biblical scholarship will undermine faith is a tacit admission that faith is threatened by knowledge, because it is ultimately constructed on weak or faulty assumptions and, like the proverbial house of cards, needs to be “protected” from collapsing.

I am a strong believer that scientific knowledge is a gift from God. He gives it to us as we are ready to receive it. The Gnome project is an example. Many in the church today see science as an enemy of religion. One of the main reasons for that it is a threat to those who want to take the Bible literally and claim that the earth is a mere six thousand years old.  They maintain this position by counting back from Jesus to Adam and Eve. They believe that every generation has been accounted for in the Bible. When they see the overwhelming evidence that the earth is at least millions of years old they counter with “well, that is just God trying to trick us”. Why would God even bother to do that?

Being an engineer I consider myself a scientist and I can tell you first-hand that I felt very much attacked whenever I brought up science in my weekly bible classes. In that church the word “scientist” and “liberal” seemed to have an equal negative bias and I was both! One book that I admire in this area is by Francis Collins entitled: The Language of God. It provides the best argument for the integration of faith and logic since C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity . Here are some of the words about this book on Amazon.  I highly recommend it to anyone willing to possibly admit that science is not the enemy of faith.

It has long been believed that science and faith cannot mingle. Faith rejects the rational, while science restricts us to a life with no meaning beyond the physical. It is an irreconcilable war between two polar-opposite ways of thinking and living. Written for believers, agnostics, and atheists alike, The Language of God provides a testament to the power of faith in the midst of suffering without faltering from its logical stride. Readers will be inspired by Collin’s personal story of struggling with doubt, as well as the many revelations of the wonder of God’s creation that will forever shape the way they view the world around them.

Sheer Christianity….

I came across an article entitled Sheer Christianity in the November 2012 Sojourners Magazine that moved me. I want to tell you a little about it and quote some of the inspiring words. It is by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson who is the general secretary of the Reformed Church of America. I have to admit that I don’t know much about this organization.  Here is a quote that got me to thinking about the issue. The article is basically about another article in Newsweek cover story entitled “Christianity in Crisis”

My sense is that people are leaving organized Christianity because it has left behind the radical message of its founder. It has been a long and continuous struggle….

The church confesses him as risen Savior and Lord. But then, so often, it tries to domesticate him, explaining away those sharp, demanding edges of his compelling words, and finding theological excuses for not following his radical ways.  We call upon people to believe “in” Jesus. But question is whether we “believe” Jesus…..

The more articles I run across about this the more I am surprised that what I discovered several years ago was not as outlandish as I had imagined.  When I sat down over four years ago and concentrated on the words of Jesus I discovered that his messages were not what I was hearing from the church congregation that I then belonged. Twelve years ago, as a condition of membership in that church, I was required to stand in front of the congregation and cite a bundle of various beliefs about Jesus. It didn’t strike at the time but all of those “pronouncement of beliefs” had little to do with the what Jesus told us to do. Instead were just things, mostly man-made, that I was required to believe about him.

From that point on for the next eight years I heard the common theme that I am a miserable person but God loves me anyway. I was told that if I felt like it I could say thanks to Jesus by my actions but those actions were totally optional. At the time that was convenient in that being a Christian, at least in that denomination, didn’t interfere with how I wanted to live my life. About the only thing required was to show up in the pews once in a while with a donation in hand and when I died I was assured that I would go heaven.  Pretty easy stuff, or at least that is what I was lead to believe.

But, as I mentioned above as I seriously studied into the words of Jesus I discovered that, contrary to what my church told me, being a follower of Jesus meant everything changed. I was to live my life as Jesus taught me. His words were very clear about that. The story about the sheep and the goats took on an entirely different meaning than what I was taught all those weeks in the pew. I was told that the sheep were believers and the goats were non-believers.  In reality I learned that, as Jesus said, the sheep are those that take care of the least of these and the goats were those that ignored Jesus’ words. So, as the quote above says many congregations today have domesticated Jesus. How sad is that????

God’s Will…

I live in Indiana which is pretty much a red State.  Senator Lugar, who was our long-time representative in the U.S. Senate was defeated in the primary by Richard Mourdock who proudly announced that he is a loyal Tea Party candidate. His stated view on compromise is when the Democrats finally come to agree with everything Republicans want!  I really haven’t been paying much attention to his campaign but I imagine he is a Christian fundamentalist of one flavor or another.

Here is a quote I just came across :

Mourdock could see both fade after telling a live television audience that when a woman becomes pregnant during a rape, “that’s something God intended.”

Initially I, like probably many others, was shocked by his statement. God intended the rape and pregnancy to happen??? But then I remembered that there are Christians out there that believe that everything that happens in this world is God’s will. I imagine that Mr. Mourdock is one of those people as are many in his Tea Party group.

They say that everything that happens is God’s will as nothing can happen without God wanting it to happen.  Thankfully there are also many who take a different tack in this area.  They, and I am one of them, say that God gave man free-will and all of the pain and suffering in this world is a result of that action, it is not God’s plan but the consequences of man’s decisions.  To put all of the evil that happens in this world on God’s back is insane to me. I’m sure God mourns these actions more than any of us do. God is love and evil is simply no part of his being.

Although God’s will is betrayed as a somewhat dark character in some of the Old Testament stories/myths Jesus Christ gave us a clear personal definition of what God’s will is in the New Testament. He told us it is God’s will that we love God and love each other. That according to Jesus wraps up the total meaning of God’s will. He wants us to love him; he wants us to treat each others as we want to be treated.

Jesus also gave us clear examples of how to do God’s will. It is to be our brother’s keeper. It is to love God, not fear him. Jesus’s opening words to his ministry gave us exactly what God’s will is for the inhabitants of this world:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  – Luke 4:18

God does not will evil to come to us and he certainly didn’t cause a person to rape another in order to create life. Yes, there is evil in this world in many different degrees and forms but it is not from God.

Religionless Christianity???

Toward the end of his life, while in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a well known Lutheran theologian, wrote some tantalizing letters to his friend Eberhad Bethage where he wrestles with what he calls “religionless Christianity.”The letters in question were written in 1944 not long before he was executed by the Nazi’s. What did Bohhoeffer mean by Religionless Christianity?

Here are some of the words from those letters:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience–and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”….

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

I realize that I have picked but a few of Bonhoeffer’s words in his letters but I believe these are at the heart of his dilemma.  To me these words mean that what we do is more important than what we claim membership to.  It seems that Bonhoeffer was looking over seventy years in the future when he said there “even those who honestly describe themselves as religious do not in the least act up to it”.  Bonhoeffer seems to be saying that the word “religious” has taken up a different meaning than when it was originally defined.

Unfortunately the words “Christian” and “Religion” are almost just too entwined to be separated but that is indeed what B0nhoeffer seems to propose and I agree with him in that regard. Religion seems to be more closely linked to a club membership than to the teachings of Jesus. So to be a Christian does not necessarily mean being religious.

In closing I want to paraphrase his last words. It is not a passive religious act that makes a Christian, but the participation in the work Christ left us to do.  Someday the words Christian and religion may come to mean the same thing but that will take work on our part. When we as “religious” people quit insisting on strict adherence to man-made set of  “beliefs” but instead act on the words of Jesus then “religious” will once again come to mean something to the world. Until then I am happy to practice “Religionless Christianity”.

I Believe……

The phrase “I believe” seems to have a lot of weight in today’s world but to me it is a cautionary phrase. We have to distinguish between “I believe” and “I am”. Let me give you an example of that:

“I believe that Jesus told us to take care of the poor.” This seems to be a powerful declaration but is it really?  What if I asked the person making the statement “What are you doing to take care of the poor?” and he said “well really nothing but I do believe that we should.”  I’m sure you can see how the second statement deflates any meaning to the first one. I think that is why so many call Christians hypocrites.

This to me is what is happening in the current day church. Our clergy leaders love to tell us in their weekly sermons that Jesus says this or that. But what seems to be critically missing is the call to actually do anything.  I sat in a pew week after week and heard what Jesus did for us but almost nothing about what we can do for Jesus’ kingdom on earth.  Instead I was told that according to Saint Paul I was nothing but a worthless miserable person who God expects nothing from.

I must admit that it has been more than two years since I sat in that pew but I have gotten on the website I created for that church to read some of the pastor’s recent sermons and they continue to be of the same old thing. “Jesus did it all and nothing is expected of you”. To me that is another way of saying that Christianity is a something-for-nothing religion.  To counteract this type of mentality I go to the red letters in the Bible to see what Jesus said and his message is quite different from those weekly sermons. We have set the bar so low for Christian actions that almost no one fails to get over it.

I do miss the fellowship of those Sundays spent in the pew, there were certainly some good and well-meaning people in that congregation.  But I don’t miss the constant mantra that I am a miserable sinner and Jesus expects nothing from me.  I have come to know Jesus expects a lot from me.  He expects me to give my life to doing what he told me to do. I know that he also gives me the talents and power to carry out his wishes to help bring his kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. I am not a worthless person because God has given me the gifts to make me otherwise.

Now when I hear someone say “I believe….” I almost always say “but what do you do with that belief?? It is easy to say you believe this or that, but it is hard to act on those belief.  James, the brother of Jesus, told us that faith/belief without action/works is dead and therefore meaningless. Don’t say I believe but instead put your energy into actually doing something. I have almost come to think that we should sell all our church buildings and move out into our communities in living out Christ’s words. That is what he really intends….