Shuck and Jive

Friday, August 11, 2006

Evolutionary Christianity

"When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?" Psalm 8:3-4

When the pslamist was waxing poetic, this is how she saw the universe. A firmament above (heaven or sky), the stars, moon, sun, all within that firmament, a flat earth, and sheol below. Outside the firmament was chaos, the waters that Elohim separated to form the dome and the earth.

When I was first confronted with this in the first few weeks of my Old Testament survey course in seminary, lights flashed. Finally, I understood what Genesis 1 was about. More than that, I understood how biblical authors could say things like "Jesus ascended into heaven" and what that meant. Heaven was the location of the gods, regardless of which god to whom you sacrificed. From their posts in heaven, they ruled the world. One could imagine this scenario quite literally.

For the early followers to speak of Jesus ascending to heaven, they meant that he was in charge. The scandal of the faith wasn't that Jesus was the son of god. The miracle, the scandal, the big deal is not that Jesus rose from the dead and flew off to heaven. Many figures did that. Caesar was called son of god. The scandal was that Jesus was son of god. This is the question. What is the character of your god? Does your god resemble Caesar or Jesus?

Thus, the scandal. I miss the scandal unless I understand the universe in which these formulations were made.

We do not see the universe as the ancients did, of course. Earth is a tiny spinning marble. Heaven is neither up nor down. Carl Sagan joked that if Jesus ascended at the speed of light he would still today only be a third of the way through the Milky Way.

Scientists tell us that the universe is between 12 and 20 billion years old. Life on Earth originated four billion years ago. Homo habilis (our ancestors) begin using tools 2.5 million years ago. Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago. Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago. I emerged 44 years ago. Michael Dowd has a great website called The Great Story. Check out the timeline!

"What are human beings that you are mindful of them?" This phrase has even more significance in the way we understand the universe today. Our universe is a tad bigger than what the authors in biblical times observed it to be.

And yet, our creeds, our hymns, our theological language is still filled with imagery from the ancient universe.

How do we translate the meaning of Jesus, heaven, God, creation, hope from that ancient universe to this one? I find this one of our most difficult and important challenges.



P.S. In my ongoing concern for Paul Peterson's livelihood, Friday's strip finds our heroes entering into a most peculiar realm. They find themselves at Simple Miracles Pizza at 825 Bates, a block and a half from the Hard Rock Cafe in Detroit. If you are in the neighborhood ask Paul for a simple miracle. He can't do anything too complicated, but you know, little things like cursing an enemy, not a real serious enemy, just someone who annoys you a little, Paul can curse him or her with an upset stomach, hangnail, etc.


  1. I am thinking about Freud's "The Future of an Illusion." I am normally not a big fan of Freud, a man often given to wanting to replace God with himself, but I think that he did tap into--as did Jesus--a somewhat universal desire we all have for an all powerful father-figure (or parent) who can make everything alright when we are feeling "not so alright." Freud essentially gets around to suggesting that we are not made in the likeness of God, but rather that we have created God to bring security and comfort to our lives. You and me, God: We can handle all of this.

    The pslamist that John quotes expresses both a worry and a hope. We are small in comparison to the universe (or the heavens), but it is worse than that. We are small in comparison to government, in comparison to culture and community standards, in comparison to the dictates of religions, in comparison to others--even our neighbors. As John said in church last Sunday, many of us harbor the worry that everyone else is doing great, and it is just us going down the tube. What if God is the God of Job--too busy with the universe to be involved in our day-to-day lives? What if we really are all alone? For the apostles, the message from Jesus was that they were not alone. He loved them, and therefore, God loved them too. And since God was love, every time one of them loved another, they were making manifest God in the world. Pretty good message even if it was built on faulty science--or should I say a worldview that is significantly different from what we know today.

    Jesus apparently used the metaphor of "the Father" many times--although he probably also literally believed in a singular male God too. It is in the externalization of God that he invoked protection for his followers and the people of the earth. It is in the externalization of God that he gave the promise of life everlasting. And it is in the externalization of God that he taught his followers how to pray: "Our Father, who art in heaven . . . "

    It is this last point where I think that we need a real evolutionary leap. Don't get me wrong, I love the comfort and beauty of hymns in church; I even like many of the mantras that constitute formalized prayer. There is some thing both comforting and healing about rituals that make them worth keeping as part of our community experience.

    I feel like I work in a profession in which real prayer happens for me every day. I am a counselor and a teacher, and my most important task is to listen, to really hear another, and to help them feel heard and understood. It is in approaching what Buber calls the I-Thou relationship, that we enter into prayerful connection with others. If I sit by the bedside of someone who is sick, and hear them and comfort them, am I not in prayer. Would I make them feel better by adding a salutation to a God that I posit as removed from us and need of being called into the room?

    I think listening to what is in our own hearts is meditation--another wonderful gift of human consciousness. I choose to think of real, loving contact with others, listening with my whole being to their whole being, as prayer. Prayer, to me, is discovering in others that which makes all of us more fully human.

    What do you think prayer is? To whom are we praying and for what? How does prayer enrich your life? How might it evolve with the rest of Christianity?

  2. Jim,

    These are very good and important questions. Hal Taussig wrote a book, Jesus Before God: The Prayer Life of the Historical Jesus

    In this book, he offers insights regarding prayer today. Not that Hal has all the answers, but he is addressing this question.

    In part, it has been that question, what are we doing when we are praying or what are we doing when we worship that has been on my mind a great deal.

    That is why Hal and Perry Kea are coming to Elizabethton so we can work on these issues.

    I might send your comment to them so they can be thinking on some of the questions that we are engaging.

    In response to your questions, I will offer off the top of my mind some characteristics of prayer:

    1) Prayer should focus us outward toward Life, Universe, Being, God, which are shorthand phrases for all matter and energy and "more" if there is "more"! It helps us see our selves as part of (not separate from) all of existence.

    2) Prayer should help us connect with others. Listening to one another may be the greatest gift we can offer--that certainly is prayer.

    3) As long as we are aware of what we are doing (or not doing) I don't think there is any wrong way to pray. I don't have a problem praying to Jesus, praying to Krishna, saying the Lord's prayer, praying scripted prayers, or most anything for that matter. I know that these are externalizations. As a minister, I try to be skillful and pray as people expect me to (especially in a time of crisis).

    4) I think worship can be a time to experiment with different forms of prayer. I think it is good to use a variety of methods so that each of us can expand our awareness and so that we can meet the needs of all or at least most regardless of spiritual or psychological type.

    5) I don't think we should pray, or meditate (ie. use some form of yoga) for the purpose of getting something out of it. I think we pray so we can remember who we are and participate in the larger reality (back to number 1).

    6) I think that one way Christianity might evolve is to incorporate Eastern Meditation in our corporate worship. I think that they are ahead of those of us in the monotheistic traditions. I am not suggesting we become Buddhists, but that we allow some of those traditions to enhance our own.

    7) Also, "secular" breathing exercises, or relaxation therapy can be helpful to do in corporate worship. I would like to experiment with that.

    8) Mysticism might be helpful. Body prayers, etc.

    9) Perhaps 6, 7, 8 are making the same point. Christianity can evolve by opening itself to other spiritual practices and other secular practices. This is for the purpose of moving beyond externalization which when becomes the exclusive form of prayer continues to foster the illusion that we are separate from God, others, nature, when in fact, we are part of it all.

    Those are some of my initial thoughts. Thanks, Jim!


  3. "How do we translate the meaning of Jesus, heaven, God, creation, hope from that ancient universe to this one? I find this one of our most difficult and important challenges."

    I agree that this is an important challenge, and I think that Christianity has to address it if it is to appeal to people of the modern (post-modern?) world. People like Borg and Matthew Fox and Spong have talked about a new paradigm or a new reformation. How this can really take place is a big question.