Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Church Without God

An interesting paper has been circling the interwebs. It is by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, "Preachers Who Are Not Believers." Read it in PDF.

Dennett is the fourth person of the atheist quaternity along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens who each published books critical of religious supernaturalism a few years ago.

His is entitled, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

"Preachers Who Are Not Believers" is a paper that describes the journey of five clergy who have grown intellectually beyond the historic dogmatic assertions of their respective cults yet remain active clergy. It is a fascinating and important paper. In response to this paper, the Washington Post "On Faith" column asked its panelists to respond to this question:
What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn't this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?

Read "Preachers who are not Believers," a study by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.
A number of panelists from a variety of perspectives responded to the question. Read them here.

This issue has been on the lectern of my soapbox for some time. One of the reasons the
Jesus Seminar came into existence was because insights from scholarship were not making their way past the pulpit to the pew. A major reason for that is the creeds of the various cults are based on supernatural assertions that are no longer credible. Yet many clergy feel bound by these creeds. They find themselves caught between creed and credibility. Ergo a supposed "crisis of faith."

The problem with the question posed by the On Faith column is that it focuses the issue on the integrity of the clergy. Clergy become the scapegoat for the larger issue which is the demise of supernaturalism and the creeds that continue to uphold it.

Those who think of themselves as defenders of the faith (bullies of superstition) want to make this crisis about bad clergy who "lose their faith." Then they can pick them off and kick them out one by one. Roy Hoover wrote about this in an essay in the Fourth R,
Tradition and Faith In a New Era:
Those who insist upon the unaltered retention of traditional forms of religious understanding and language and who retreat from the challenge posed by the actual world after Galileo want to direct the Christian community into the confines of a sacred grotto, an enclosed, religiously defined world that is brought completely under the control of scripture and tradition; and they want to turn the ordained clergy into antiquities dealers.
Don't let them. Don't give up without a fight.

We are facing huge changes. Our universe is 13.7 billion years old as of the latest tally. Human beings have evolved as has every species on this beautiful blue ball. We were not placed in any garden by any divine being. No god/man came to Earth, walked on water, rose from the dead and sits on a heavenly throne. That is religious fiction. It is metaphor, story, myth, human invention. It is how our ancestors tried to find meaning. Bless their hearts.

We are still searching for meaning. It won't come for us in some imaginary heaven. It will come as we recognize that Earth is home and we have no more pressing religious duty than to care for our fellow Earthlings and for Earthlings who will come after us.

As we are in a period of transition we will wrestle with our inherited language. For some, the term "God" will have meaning. For others it will not. Religion is moving away from its supernaturalistic roots. "God" will be redefined accordingly. We are in the process of redefining meaning.

As the insights of Galileo and Darwin are finally making their way into popular consciousness, churches and religious institutions need intelligent, courageous leaders to provide the space for people to wrestle with the question of what it means to be a human being.

It could and likely will get ugly. Those who cling to their superstitions will be ruthless. There will be inquisitions. There will be heresy trials. I entered the ministry out of concern for truth as naive as that may sound. I discovered that truth was not the same as a supernaturalistic creed. The search and articulation of truth as I understand it is my integrity.

My advice for clergy and for laypeople who are growing out of a childish supernaturalistic past is to stand your ground. Don't let them set the terms or the rules. Don't resign. Be bold. Tell the truth. Don't call it a loss of faith. It is a growth in understanding. It is waking up from sleep. It is gaining sight from blindness. It is resurrection from death to life.

Happy Easter.


  1. The "loss of faith" they talk about sounds very similar to a lifting of a veil. "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see."

    Seems to me the real loss of faith is from those who have turned their god into a fragile, brittle, magic lantern that can't even take a little rubbing.

  2. John,

    Thanks for the link to the paper--I will definitely read it soon.

    I do take issue with this post, though, and here is why: I personally have nothing against the fact that priests and pastors like you have grown out of your "childish supernaturalistic past". It does not bother me. I don't question your ministry. I don't think that you are a bad clergyperson. I don't care if you are a heretic--doesn't bother me! You are doing good things in your ministry--I like that.

    But it seems, to me at least, that you can be rather harsh towards those of us who do still cling to our "superstitions".

    I, like you, do believe that our earth is billions of years old. I, like you, believe that humans have evolved. But I also believe that a God/man did in fact come to earth, did walk on water, was raised from the dead, and now sits in heaven.

    I consider myself to be an intelligent person, and I think that many other intelligent people (people who are much, much smarter than I can ever dream of being) also believe this "religious fiction", and at the same time we have no problems or issues with other intelligent people who do not believe like we do.

    So I guess my question is, why can't we work with each other in our ministries to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and clothe the naked and visit the sick?

    I'm not asking you to put aside your religious beliefs. I'm not trying to be ruthless. I'm not trying to set any terms.

    What about you?


  3. Amen, Andy Olivo. John you sound so bleak and lost :(

  4. Andy,

    Thanks for the comment!

    Of course we can work together to feed the hungry etc.

    I would say, however, that it is a question of power. Conveniently, you happen to believe things that are affirmed in the creed.

    You will never be in danger (at least regarding those things) in terms of your ministerial career, as opposed to all five of the clergy in the paper.

    Of course I accept that you have your views. They are default Christianity. I gladly work with clergy with those beliefs all the time.

    Who I was really referring to when I was speaking of those who "cling to superstitions" are those who will be the inquisition. Part of the creed of the church is to keep the church pure of heresy.

  5. I am thinking that we need to tell children there is no Magic Jesus or Magic Moses on the same day that they learn there is no Magic Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny.

    BUT THEN ...

    Yes, Virginia, there is a Jesus. Yes, Virginia, there is a Moses.

    I have no trouble accepting the creeds as a way of stating my beliefs as long as it is clearly understood that EVERYTHING IN THE CREEDS is to be understood metaphorically and not as if we're talking about real science or real history or real current events.

    A lot of Americans need to grow up!

    love, john + + We are intimately, intricately and infinitely connected by a matrix of unconditional, unlimited and uniting love which is miraculous, mysterious and marvelous.

  6. Let me put it another way:

    I loved SUPERMAN comics when I was around 10 years old. I spent hours and hours imagining I was a Super Person like him. I loved the fantasy and I loved the basic goodness, compassion and justice of the Clark Kent-Superman character.

    I knew it was a fictional story. Metaphor if you will. But it had a lot to do with my values formation, my spiritual formation.

    The Early Church told Jesus stories in order to teach compassion and justice. He was indeed SUPER and we are all called to that kind of Super Living.

    I really do believe that a mature faith needs to embrace reality and let go of the magic. Miracles do happen in very mysterious and rather ordinary ways moment after moment. That's the Good News. Spreading Love. Spreading Loaves and Fishes. Spreading Health Care. Spreading Peace. Spreading Justice. Amen.

    love, john + + "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire." -- Teilhard de Chardin

  7. Thanks John,

    My last sermon is not posted as it was an off the cuff play by play on the story of Lazarus in John's gospel. (Translation: I was on retreat with the presbytery youth and didn't prepare a sermon!)

    Anyway, I mentioned (as I usually do for the sake of honesty) that this story is most likely fiction.

    After the sermon one of my parishioners appreciated what I had to say and wondered why we get so concerned when told that our texts are mostly fiction as opposed to history. We read and enjoy all kinds of fiction. He mentioned Grapes of Wrath as an example.

    I think it just takes getting used to.

  8. John, If I lived in your neck of the woods I would likely be coming to church or at least hanging out at the same coffee stand as you do. I am always thankful when clergy have the courage to speak against the fearful minds who are afraid to even hear a different understanding of faith and religion.


  9. John,

    Thanks for your response.

    And yes, you are right. It is a question of power. And yes, I do happen to be on the side that affirms the creeds. But just because I am on that side does not mean that I want to use that power to suppress anyone who decides to believe differently--that's not a fight that I want to be apart of.

    It seems to me, though, that while you say that the ones who will be the inquisition are on my side (and you are right, sadly), what you are saying could be interpreted as calling for a counter-inquisition to rid the church of all of us who still "cling to the superstitions".

    I don't want to banish you from the Church or from your ministerial position simply because our two faiths don't align--in fact I think that it is probably a good thing that they don't!

    So I guess what I am trying to say is don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Not all of us who are members of the default position want to purge the church of her "heretics". Some of us appreciate and value your opinion and work, even if we don't see eye-to-eye on everything.


  10. And thanks to Tess for her hearty amen, but I would add that most days I would probably fall into the "bleak and lost" camp.

  11. John (Abundancetrek),

    But isn't part of faith letting folks decide what they want to believe about Jesus and Moses and the Creeds?

    Some of us still believe in the "Magic Jesus" of which you speak while at the same time putting aside the santa of the fairytales.

    And there are still some of us who don't see EVERYTHING in the creeds as metaphorical, and I don't think that this has stunted my growth in any way. I believe in science. I believe in history. I also believe in the creeds.

    Again, it seems to be that this could lead to a counter-inquisition on your part. You all want to be accepted and affirmed in the Church (and I think that you should be) but those of us who do not have a "mature faith" just need to do some growing up and leave the world of fantasy behind.

    Why can't there be both?


  12. It seems to me, though, that while you say that the ones who will be the inquisition are on my side (and you are right, sadly), what you are saying could be interpreted as calling for a counter-inquisition to rid the church of all of us who still "cling to the superstitions".

    I see.

    I can't imagine being successful at a counter-inquisition even if I wanted it. In fact, it is the actual opposite of what I am talking about. I am for free exploration. I change my mind every day.

    But I will tell you and my parishioners what I think is true. If I think a piece of literature is fiction, I will tell you it. If my mind changes, I will tell you that, too. If you have a better argument you are free to make it.

    The point of the paper by Dennett and LaScola is to highlight clergy who are in the closet. In fact the authors use the closeted lives of lgbt individuals as a metaphor for clergy who no longer claim the creed as credible.

    What you are suggesting is as likely as gays taking over the country persecuting straight people, making laws that don't allow straight people to marry, get jobs, etc.

    I suppose conceivably someday that could happen but it certainly isn't reality in the present.

    I am not even in your tradition, so it is far from likely that I will have any say in your career.

    I do think that our religious creeds are not credible. To call them superstitious is aggressive on my part, but it comes in handy now and then to make the point.

    I don't think the historical Jesus rose from the dead any more than Elvis did.

    However, the fictional Jesus did rise from the dead in the various fictional accounts and as such these accounts provide interesting food for thought regarding life's meaning.

    That is how I see it today and I may change my mind tomorrow.

    If you don't see it that way, great. How do you see it?

  13. John,

    I'm not saying that you want a counter-inquisition, but I am saying that what you are saying could be interpreted as trying to rid the church of those of us who do not agree with your understanding of the truth.

    And because my interpretation of the truth does not align with yours means that I am not for free exploration? I am. I have explored. And my journey has led me to where I am.

    You have also explored, and your journey has led you to where you are. I'm not bothered by the fact that our journeys have led us in different directions. I'm ok with that.

    And I'm not worried about you doing anything to my career, even if you were in my tradition. I also have no say on your career, but if I were in your tradition then I would in no way try to or want to harm your career.

    All I am saying is that it is a falsity to assume that those of us who hold to a different version of the truth want to purge the church of anyone who disagree with us. Yes, there are some of those folks out there. And yes, they do have the power. But we are not all like they are.

    My version of the truth is different than yours. My version says the historical Jesus did rise from the dead. Yours does not.

    Why can't we just be fellow travelers and agree that maybe the truth manifests itself in different ways for each of us?

    For me the truth says Jesus rose from the dead. For you it does not. For others, they might say that we are both crazy for even believing that there is a "truth". I'm fine with that.

    I'm not calling for an inquisition. You are not calling for an inquisition. I'm not demanding that you believe my version of the truth, and I know that you are not demanding that I believe your version of the truth.

    So why do we have to be enemies? Why can't we be on the same team with different versions of the "truth"?


  14. I'm with Tess. Your faith, if there is any, is bleak and lost. Why do you remain in the Church, call yourself a minister of the gospel if you do not believe, you have no faith? It seems your faith is in man's (and women's) sensibilities and you said yourself your mind changes daily. How can you place your faith in something so transitory. Your witness/story reminds me of the scene in the Silver Chair. Puddleglum, and others are lured into a stupor by the queen of the underground. She is determined to wipe out of their consciousness the idea of Narnia. Puddleglum holds out and ends up plunging his arm in the fire to shake himself awake. He would rather believe in the dream of Narnia then the "reality" of only the underground. He is right of course. There is a world above. There is Aslan. He has faith when all around him says no.

    Where is your faith? Why be a part of an institution you do not believe in? Your argument seems rather hypocritical and arrogant. I've been reading your blog for quite a while John and am baffled when you write such posts, because, honestly, I have no idea why you are a minister when you say such things. I'm not trying to ridicule or judge you, please understand, but trying rather to understand why, why you remain in the church.

  15. Hey Andy,

    No talk of enemies here!

    Peace Friend!

  16. John: I freely confess that I was at presbytery today so if I get a little irascible please forgive me.

    1. Elvis die? Elvis didn't die. He was taken off into space by aliens through area 51. He's doing concerts in a different part of the galixy. This is a proven fact!

    2. You and I disagree about much of what you call superstition and we know it. I see no reason to go through it again.

    3. This is tangential. One of the things that has concerned me about historical Jesus movements going almost all the way back to Reimarus is the attempt to find the real historical Jesus has generally removed the Jewishness from Jesus. I have a REAL problem with this. Jesus was a Jew! He lived in a particular culture. I know the removal by some scholars was to try and differentiate a Jesus that we could be sure was Jesus because this part was not like his culture. If we eliminate the Jewishness from Jesus we will not have the historical Jesus

    So my conclusion has become that beyond finding some clear editing work we are never going to get back past the editors. The texts tell us what the editors told their communities.

    Back to the text at hand: I have no desire to run you out of the church. Live would be much less fun without you. and I learn a lot conversing with you. I try to respect you. But I'm with Andy. I wish you would show the same respect to me even when we disagree.

  17. I should add: I'm not superstitious. Not from my point of view. I believe what I believe I am called to believe. Some of that is personal (internal) experience and some of that is traditional or maybe being part of a church culture.

    And now I'm sounding irascible. I think I better do something more important and go out and walk the dog.

  18. @ Andy + It is harsh I suppose to suggest your beliefs are immature. But I believe that many who hold your beliefs have really not thought about it very much.

    I believe we need to give people permission to let go of the need to believe in a magical Jesus. You have my permission. If you want to continue to believe in a magical Jesus, I will respect your belief even as I will challenge you to be open to a faith in God which I honestly do consider more mature ... as well as amazingly liberating and comforting.

    I find it hard to understand why adults need to believe in a magical Jesus. The real Jesus (as I understand reality) is more than enough for me.

    I find the glorious presence of God in each and every human being. The Kingdom of God is within us. It's a mystery but I believe this strongly -- and often state so with my signature:

    We are intimately, intricately and infinitely connected by a matrix of unconditional, unlimited and uniting love which is miraculous, mysterious and marvelous.

    I recommend that you read QUANTUM THEOLOGY by Diarmuid O'Murchu. Here's an interesting statement found on p 198:

    Principle 3:

    Evolution is underpinned by a deep unfolding structure, characterized by design and purpose, necessitating an unceasing interplay of order and disorder, randomness and creativity.


    Evolution is considered to be the primary context of divine-human creativity in the world.


    Life, in its basic meaning, is blessed and not flawed (as in the original sin approach).

    I am a mystic and I do experience the presence of God moment after moment. I have no problem associating this real presence with Jesus but not a magical Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit, the Living Christ, the Logos, the Wiosdom of God, is present everywhere. This is Amazing Grace. This is the Good News.

    love, john + + "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." -- Albert Einstein

  19. @ Barb + You wrote: "Why be a part of an institution you do not believe in?"


    John believes so much in the institution that he is willing to reform and renew it. I have known John for many years and I can assure you that his love of and commitment to the institution is truly deep, incredibly enthusiastic, and very wise.

    The church needs many more like him. The church also needs many more lay people who are not forced to believe in a magical Jesus when every bone in their body cries out against such immaturity and ignorance. We really do need to give adults far more permission and indeed encouragement to embrace a human Jesus given super powers only by the mythmakers and story tellers of the early church. I love what these early church folks gave us. They were brilliant. They were inspired. They weren't perfect and we question them. They were culturally-conditionjed just like we are today.


    love, john + + "The spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure you are right.” – Judge Learned Hand

  20. John W.

    (And please remember I was at presbytery today grrrr!) I have heard statements like yours about the magical Jesus all my life since I was a seminary student back in the late 70's. What I hear is "one day you will grow up and be like me." I tried being like you. Didn't work for me. I prefer the God who reached out and took me and loved me when I didn't care if I lived or died.

    Nevertheless even though I think you are wrong we did manage to do a lot of good together in the Oneida area, didn't we? So even though I think you are wrong I will work with you for good every single day. Of course you will have to move to Philly if you want to do it face to face. If it makes you feel any better we had snow storms that felt like upstate NY this winter!

  21. @ Bob + You wrote: "I prefer the God who reached out and took me and loved me when I didn't care if I lived or died."

    I hope you can tell me more about that. Are you talking about a personal experience? I would call this is a mystical experience of the real presence of God, or Christ if you will. I have had those kind of experiences. Like you, I needed such experiences. I don't associate these experiences with a resuscitated Jesus of Nazareth but I do associate them with the Living Christ which is far greater -- always has been and always will be -- than Jesus of Nazareth or any particular human being.

    I strongly believe that God reaches out to me, to you, to everybody, with an unconditional, unlimited, uniting love which is miraculous, mysterious and marvelous. The brilliant myth makers and story tellers of the early church associated this with Jesus of Nazareth in wonderful, indeed innovative ways. But it's bigger than Jesus of Nazareth. It's the Logos. It's the Wisdom of God which goes back all the way to the Big Bang and whatever preceded the Big Bang.

    The divinity of Jesus of Nazareth is truly wonderful. He showed us God at work, Love in action. We can do it too. And that's the REALLY Good News. The Kingdom of God is within us. WOW!

    love, john + + "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." -- Albert Einstein

  22. Why do you remain in the Church, call yourself a minister of the gospel if you do not believe, you have no faith?

    If I didn't get asked that question at least once a week I wouldn't be doing my duty.

    I don't know why I should bother, but since you are all here, I will say it all again.

    My answer is always...potlucks.

    I am dead serious.

    The Kingdom of God is one big huge potluck in which every human being on Earth brings what they can and takes what they need. Everyone has enough and there are leftovers.

    Until we learn that lesson we are headed for disaster. Earth will continue to spin for billions of more years. Human beings may not make it through the next few decades. Or we may make it through in a much diminished capacity due to resource wars, ecological disasters, and failure to plan ahead and share Earth's bounty with justice and compassion.

    I believe our institutions, such as the church, have a responsibility and a capacity to make a positive difference.

    In order to get there we need to put away childish things. On one hand I am sorry you folks are offended when I call creeds and doctrines that are no longer credible superstitions, but I call them as I see them.

    What do we do with gods, goddesses, stories, and viewpoints that are no longer credible? We treat them as metaphors or things we used to believe. But if we continue to believe them, they are nothing more than superstitions.

    Another way to put it: a superstition is another word for someone else's religious beliefs. Evangelical Christians seem to have no problem regarding Hindu beliefs as superstitions.

    When they are believed literally, I call them superstitions as well. However seen metaphorically (as with Christian beliefs such as resurrection) they can be true in a psychological, poetic, social, political or other naturalistic way.

    I can think of no more important task before human beings today (that includes human beings employed by the church) than the well-being of our descendants. Much is out of our control. But much if it is part of our responsibility.

    I see no reason to waste our energies on outdated beliefs. I do however see the value in incorporating the wisdom of our ancestors and interpret that wisdom in a context that makes sense today.

    All of it needs to be done with our future in mind. A future spelled out in the poetic promise of our cherished scriptural texts such as:

    "They will no longer hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, thus says the Lord."

    Supernatural language to be sure. Superstition if treated literally. But powerfully true if we internalize that promise and give our lives to it. I live for that promise. Even with evidence to the contrary I have faith in that, enough to put my feeble, imperfect, and snarky energies toward it.

    Another text I live for and I think humanity (including human beings employed by the church) need to make as their number one creed:

    In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation.

    This is our role. This is our calling. This is our sacred trust. Clergy should be reminding the church and the world to take of this holy work. The work of caring for Home.

    Here is a nice summary from Thomas Berry's book, "The Great Work:"

    History is governed by those overarching movements that give shape and meaning to life by relating the human venture to the larger destinies of the universe. Creating such a movement might be called the Great Work of a people. (1) The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner. (3) The historical mission of our times is to reinvent the human - at the species level, with critical reflection, within the community of life-systems, in a time-developmental context, by means of story and shared dream experience. (159)

  23. @John W.

    Appreciate your thoughts. I think we do need a sense of the mystical (thin places?) that touch our lives with life.

    That is the point of this odd celebration we call worship.

  24. Barb asked Why do you remain in the Church, call yourself a minister of the gospel if you do not believe, you have no faith?

    I see nothing in what John has written that suggests he has no faith nor that he does not believe in God. He simply is saying one doesn't need to believe in talking snakes with magical apples a la Snow White's Wicked Witch, magical worlds in other dimensions a la the wardrobe to Narnia or floating deity a la David Copperfield. And he's saying that people with more questions than answers shouldn't feel bullied by know-it-alls or self-appointed bodyguards protecting a chocolate Jesus. If anything, his faith seems stronger than most, simply because he is willing to stay in the fight, even after learning that the stories are really stories after all.

    Why be a minister? Because of people like me, who have no use for a god that created the world in seven days and then went on to be the world's biggest absentee father.

    I am exactly the kind of person that Jesus wanted to see at the potluck. How lucky am I that I still get to have a place at the table!

  25. I do hope some of you will take the time to read the Dennett/LaScola paper and the responses by the various panelists. I would be curious as to your reactions.

  26. A couple of tangential things:

    @Bob The Jewishness of Jesus. Who are you debating? Jesus isn't Jewish unless he walks on water, turns water to wine, rises from the dead and attends a fish fry with his disciples, then flies off to heaven?

    @Barb You wrote:

    He would rather believe in the dream of Narnia then the "reality" of only the underground. He is right of course. There is a world above. There is Aslan. He has faith when all around him says no.

    So is this story about Puddleglum true, Barb?

  27. John W

    Yes I'm talking about personal experience but it isn't as simple as you described it. When I was at the bottom emotionally I discovered that there was a group that I had avoided for 2 years that knew I wouldn't talk with them but were praying for me every day for those 2 years. And one night when I stumbled into their fellowship I had what I suppose was a mystical experience although I'm not sure what that means. I belonged. These people loved me even though most of them didn't even know me. And yes, I know Jesus was there that night. The message seemed to be, "are you ready for my love now?"

    I don't believe in a resuscitated Jesus. I believe in a resurrected Jesus. A very different term. Maybe the best way I can describe the term is that resuscitation means the same body. I believe Jesus had (and has) a transformed body. And I don't believe you can separate Jesus of Nazareth from the living Christ.

    I get very concerned when people talk about outdated beliefs. I think this is perfectly possible in scientific beliefs and related cultural beliefs (example: in the first decade of the 20th century the city of New York saw cars as the way to the end of pollution. The pollution was horse droppings and dead horses. They couldn't see that their new scientific belief had problems of their own.) There are religious beliefs that must go because they do not fit with reality or at least reality as we see it now. No, the world is not carried around on the back of a giant turtle. Nor does it exist under a brass dome (a firmament) which is what the word means in Hebrew.

    But there are beliefs that go beyond science. Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus loves me. Jesus in the Christ. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Will some like John Shuck call these superstitions? Yep. I'm not sure I see or understand the steps from evolution and the scientific method to my beliefs being superstitions but I love John even though I disagree with him (Yes, I love you John S, just the way you are.) And don't change. You are much more fun as you are than you would be if you were like me.

    What bothers me is the accusation that what I believe is of necessity superstition while what John believes is true - at least for now.

    But please, don't tell me when I grow up or evolve I will be like you or John S. The first time I heard this was in 1978. It is an exact quote. I find it offensive. I want to sit down with folks as I have done and examine how we are different and how we are the same and why we disagree. To say I will grow up and be like you (a generalized you not you John W) I experience as a rejection of me, a refusing to take me seriously.

    And I think (I hope) that John S will say I take him seriously. He is a whole lot more fun that Pat Robertson et al and a whole lot more loving too. I disagree with him and I respect him. And you too John W. The few years we had together in Oneida were too short. Of course Oneida 1st kicked me out and you were insufficiently accepted by the Pentecostals in Oneida.

  28. @Bob

    What bothers me is the accusation that what I believe is of necessity superstition while what John believes is true - at least for now.

    As I recall a few weeks back John W. complained at your friend's place that he didn't much appreciate that you (and your friend) didn't consider him (or me for that matter) even Christian!

    You argued, and I think I agree with you, that it is your conviction as you see the Christian faith. John W and I are outside the grid. So be it.

    I think your views are superstitious. Maybe I am right. Maybe not. So be it.

    Doesn't mean I don't love ya! : )

    The only thing, Bob, that infuriates me about you are your views on gays. Other than that, (well maybe reproductive rights, too) but other than those, I think you through your ministry do a great deal of good for the world. I wouldn't want you to change either (except to get it together on gays).

    : )

    I find the theological B.S. mostly just distracting.

  29. @ Bob + My OT professor -- way back in the early 70s -- called the belief in a magical Jesus "Jesus-olatry" and I believe the people who cling to a magical Jesus are indeed idolizing him.

    I do not separate Jesus from Christ. Neither do I separate you or me or anyone else from Christ. That's the real doctrine of incarnation and it is at the heart of all of the great wisdom traditions. Some call it Mysticism or the Perennial Philosophy.

    Christ, the Logos, Divine Wisdom, is everywhere. Always has been. Always will be. Love in action. God is Love. Goes back to the Big Bang and even before that.

    I am glad you experienced Love that day and on many other days. I do believe in the power of prayer and that we are mysteriously connected to a force which can and does heal and transform lives. Many name this force Jesus. I prefer to call this force Love. "Love So Amazing, So Divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all." Jesus revealed this Love in his life on earth and in his death for the cause. The early Christians saw in him Love in Action and told glorious stories and developed a rich symbolic life.

    I never felt like the Pentecostalists rejected me in Oneida. I rarely got there. I prefer silent prayer to noisy prayer. I follow the Keating method of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina and lead or participate in Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina groups. Since 2002. I did various forms of meditation before that including several years of the Jesus Prayer. Finally I heard Jesus say: "You don't need to keep asking for mercy. It's a free gift and I give it to every one whether or not they ask for it." I found a new Sacred Word for Centering after that breakthrough.

    love, john + + We are intimately, intricately and infinitely connected by a matrix of unconditional, unlimited and uniting love which is miraculous, mysterious and marvelous.

  30. I believe the creeds to be literally true but I have no problem writing sermons, and posts on my blog, in such a way that they should be of use and respectful to people without a "superstitious" faith. I also accept that I'm possibly wrong in my beliefs. But I believe the myth is the message and so, whether or not the myth is real or metaphor, is hardly relevant to that message. The problem is that most non-realist Christians tend to be as certain of their non-belief as evangelicals are of their belief. They worry about the reality or non-reality of the myth rather than the message itself. They would probably view my attitude to preaching as lacking integrity. However, if they had my attitude then they would have no problem preaching to a congregation of realists and non-realists. And, let's be honest, every congregation in the world has that mix of members although the types of belief, non-belief and doubt will vary. The churches should accept this fact and stop basing membership on unverifiable professions of "orthodox" faith and simply, as Bishop David Jenkins suggested many years ago now, accept as a Christian anybody who calls themselves a Christian.

  31. @ mad priest + I probably preach exactly like you do and I wonder if I am enabling people to hold on to beliefs which are hard to maintain in the face of so much knowledge to the contrary. But, even worse, I see all those empty pews in so many of our churches and I wonder why we have lost so many. We need to reach out to people (p-reach out) who can't accept supernatural theism.

    I think we can fill those pews with Progressive Christians who clearly identify themselves with a rejection of the Magical Jesus and the Magical Moses. I think adult study groups which allow people to question their literalistic beliefs simply do not go far enough. We need to preach the Good News of the real Christ, the one who has always been around and always will be and is not magical, not supernatural, but natural, real.

    The Early Christians integrated Logos wisdom with Hebrew and Greek and other traditions which included super men and super women. Great Stories! Why literalize these stories and exclude so many from our loving communities because they simply can't go there and why should they have to try to beliece in something which the Early Christains certainly didn't believe as they borrowed myth, symbol, story, ritual from a variety of wisdom traditions?

    In other words, we really have to state clearly that they are stories and not facts. That will open the door to all the people who know this and want to be given permission and encouragement for their enlightened beliefs and values in our churches.

    love, john + + "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire." -- Teilhard de Chardin

    "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." -- Albert Einstein

  32. Thanks to John, Andy, Bob, etc. for a very interesting and respectful discussion. I don't post much, but I do read a lot and enjoy the banter.

    I have a very simple belief that God gave me a brain and I should use it.

    Peace out...

  33. Ah now, Abundancetrek. You are trying to convert me. And in doing so, prove the point I was trying to make.

    We will not get bums on pews if we continue to insist that people who do not believe as we personally believe are intellectually inferior. There is no evidence to the contrary either way. We could both be wrong. Accepting that frees us to be true evangelists of the gospel.

  34. Thanks Mad Priest,

    I certainly agree with you that we should accept as Christian anyone who calls themselves one. Realists and non-realists can all enjoy the same potluck.

    However, there are some a little more Christian than others as witnessed by the five clergy in the closet in Dennett's paper.

    They are in the closet as non-realists because if they were forthcoming they would faces losses of some sort they are not ready to face.

    Our church culture is realist. The polite way to play here is don't ask, don't tell.

    Even Marcus Borg who helped to move many clergy toward non-realism won't help them when the chips are down as per his answer to the On Faith column.

    He writes:

    If a pastor/priest loses his/her faith in the sense of agreeing with "the new atheism" as expressed in the recent bestselling books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, then I think it would be hypocritical for them to continue in their professional role.

    The word from the Lord.

    I don't mind that Borg spins and invents his own panentheistic god and finds a way to say the creed without believing a word of it. I do the same. But then he dumps on those who refuse to play that game.

    As I said this issue is larger than clergy. It ends up being about them.

    I still like that article from Roy Hoover and especially this part:

    One way to think about what this means for the heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I suggest, is to say that it calls for a shift from regarding ourselves as defenders of the faith to regarding ourselves as apostles of veracity. Veracity involves more than truth-telling and intellectual honesty, critically important though they are. Veracity involves what Huston Smith once characterized as "a sublime objectivity, the capacity to see things exactly as they are. To conform one's life to the way things are is to live authentically."3 Such objectivity is "sublime," because it is not directed by defensiveness, righteous causes, political agendas, or self-interest. Such objectivity is an indispensable element of the quest for the humane wisdom that must characterize an authentic faith in the new era that has come into being after Galileo and after Darwin.

    The principal task of an authentic faith is to expose the meaning of the world as it really is and of human life in that world as we really are. Interpreting sacred texts, recovering historical origins, preserving and reflecting upon traditions and doctrines are useful only insofar as they serve the aims of veracity.

  35. But I do love you all, and if the word superstition really rankles you I promise not to use it (At least for the next ten minutes) in regards to those things that folks believe that I really don't think are true.

  36. Well, I would agree with Spong because the new atheists are anti-religion and anti the myth. But I am in a church with Don Cupitt and have no problems with that. Don't ask, don't tell is only a problem for priests who cannot comfortably accept the role of the priest within the myth and cannot accept that they are there to serve the people where the people are and not to get the people to be where they, the priests, are.

  37. You can use the word superstition as long as you use it correctly. Crossing yourself, lighting candles, praying to Mary are superstitions (not that that precludes them from being realities, or invented realities). Believing in a god is not, at this present time, any more of a superstition than believing in parallel universes, infinity or Darwinism (and I mean Darwinism). In fact, belief in god is very similar to quantum theory insomuch as for many realists the god theory explains almost everything very well but it does throw up a few paradoxes that we can't explain.

  38. My disagreement with the "new atheists" assuming they all think the same on this, is that I think there is a place for religion, church, etc. that is not wedded to its founding mythology.

    I respect your role and your understanding of your role as priest. Each of is wearing his own boots, pardner.

    I think that in addition to being priest we need to be prophet. That includes telling the truth not for our own sake but for what we really believe is true.

    Of course, I think (I know) you believe in that role as prophet as well. You are the most gutsy son of a bitch on the web. Each of us is frying different fish.

  39. I agree with you, MP. I am certainly open and in awe of all that Mystery.

    The god you are describing is a far cry from the one who put animal skins on Adam and Eve, who raised the four day old dead Lazarus from the grave, or who answers prayers, punishes and rewards people.

  40. When you discover the truth, John, do let me know and I promise that I will pass it on to you immediately should I discover it first.

  41. "It is my desire, in the office of a Christian minister, to do nothing which I cannot do with my whole heart. Having said this, I have said all. I have no hostility to this institution; I am only stating my want of sympathy with it. Neither should I ever have obtruded this opinion upon other people, had I not been called by my office to administer it. That is the end of my opposition, that I am not interested in it. I am content that it stand to the end of the world, if it please men and please heaven, and I shall rejoice in all the good it produces.

    "As it is the prevailing opinion and feeling in our religious community, that it is an indispensable part of the pastoral office to administer this ordinance, I am about to resign into your hands that office which you have confided to me."

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, sermon of September 9, 1832

  42. A couple of comments

    1: We are starting to fill our pews but most of the new members are from West Africa and some don't speak English. It is an interesting situation. But if you think Presbyterian Evangelical are rigid about maintaining the "superstitions" you need to meet my friends from Africa!

    2. Please understand this is the first time I have said this anywhere or to anyone besides to my wife and a very close colleague. Alan is right about one thing: people don't change their minds about GLTBs from Scriptural argument but from having friends who are GLTBs. I am struggling. There are people I love who are homosexuals and transgendered. I love them dearly but those who know how I read Scriptures in a way that disincludes them. I haven't talked about it because I haven't made decisions. So please pray for me folks. Particularly before I get asked to do a wedding!

    And now Allan can say that I am trying to get myself in trouble!

  43. @MP Oh come on. We talk about truth and falsehood all the time. Why are religious tales and creeds off limits?

  44. I more interested in truth statements from scientists as I spend far more time studying science than theology. As I stated before, it is no interest to me whether religious myth is real or unreal. I would of course take an interest if it was proved one way or another, but I can't think of a way that can done unless we can our existence from outside of our existence.

  45. If you could just fill in the missing words in the above comment, yourselves, thank you.

  46. Question for consideration from a true story:

    A minister created worries by attending the Jesus Seminar and by sharing insights in sermons. A young couple came to him upset. They asked him point blank:

    "Do you believe in the resurrection?"

    He knew pretty well what they meant. They wanted to know if he believed Jesus rose from the dead. Dead body on Friday. Live body popping through walls and eating fish on Sunday.

    The minister believed that the body of the historical Jesus decomposed somewhere in Palestine. He believed the resurrection of Jesus was a fiction. He did believe in what he considered the meaning of the resurrection and its deeper symbolic significance.

    He answered, "Yes."

    Was he lying or telling the truth?

  47. I think your last statement about the couple's question is my point exactly. I would say the minister is being dishonest. He/she knows what the couple is asking yet deceives them with his/her answer for what purpose? To keep them in his/her pew? I don't know. But the answer given seems dishonest - to the minister and especially to the congregants.

  48. He should have just responded, "define belief."

  49. Is this scenario different from the pulpit when we "accept our role within the myth?"

  50. It seems to be some sort of trial rather than a pastoral situation.

  51. "Do you believe in the resurrection?"

    Montana I presume?

  52. So please pray for me folks. Particularly before I get asked to do a wedding!

    I do want to be there when Bob does his first gay wedding!

  53. The point of religious mythology is not that it is true or not in a literal sense. It isn't of course. Myth is only true when it comes alive in our lives. Unless the God "out there" becomes God within, God dies.

  54. By the way, I think the minister was lying.

  55. Coming in late here...2 things.
    First, regarding your question on the parable of the young couple asking their minister he bleieved in the ressurection? I think is is a fair parallel question to ask, "Do we believe in the good Samaritan?" Jesus tells the story as if he's making it up. We have no reason to think that the story is factually true. But there is a tremendous truth in the story.

    The second thing is: here's a link to a video of Daniel Dennett addressing some fo the points in the paper. It's an engaging talk:

  56. @John By the way, I think the minister was lying.

    Dennett would agree with you. He spefically addresses the argument I make about "a larger truth" in the video. He calls it a common "trick." And he's right in the sense of identifying truth in a literal sense.

  57. David,

    Like the Samaritan comparison. Exactly.

    It would be like the question I asked Barb, is the story she recounted of Puddleglum true? Or does she believe it?

    These whole series of questions demonstrate how we have distorted the entire Jesus story by reducing it to a bunch of creedal formulas that we are supposed to believe that have little or nothing to do with either the historical person or even the stories that were later attached to him.

  58. The reason I say the minister was lying (and it is no big judgment here) is that he knew what was being asked. Technically, it wasn't a lie, but he knew what was being asked and chose to answer it from a different perspective.

    It is a deception, nonetheless. People are raised in churches thinking that the key stories of Jesus and the creed are to be taken at face value. That is what makes one Christian.

    Telling the story without coming clean regarding whether or not in the telling of it we mean it at face value or not is the deception of neo-orthodoxy. You will hear this deception from mainline pulpits all over the country a week from Sunday.

  59. It seems to me, John, that although you pay lip service to the myth you really look down your nose at it. If all you are prepared to contemplate is a historical, non-divine Jesus who is a good example of a life worth living then you can do so without any need for a mythological gospel. Are you fearful of letting go completely or, in fact, are you scared of admitting your atheism and cite the myth in the same way as the man in your parable plays with the meaning of the word "belief."

    If any of the above comes across as aggressive, I apologise, as it is not meant to be.

  60. Furthermore, I think you are patronising towards the laity. It wouldn't surprise me if there is a higher proportion of C. of E. churchgoers with a non-realist theology than there are ministers with a non-realist theology. There certainly are in my experience which is reliable as I am so respectful of the non-realists in my congregation that they have no worries about telling me what they truly believe. Of course, it's probably an even higher percentage if I accept that there are still many who dare not own up to their true lack of orthodox belief. And my church is not liberal, just M.O.R. Anglican.

  61. @MP I like the myth. Not only do I like it, I try to live it. I am not sure why you call it a myth. You said you believed the creed literally. So I am not sure if we have that much to talk about. I am talking about those of us who don't believe it literally and what that means. Perhaps I and these five folks in Dennett's paper are the only ones on Earth who have this problem. It could be that John Shuck is simply the problem. If we just got rid of him, all would be well. I don't think so. I think the problem is bigger than me.

    David R. reminded me of how I see the Jesus story--like the Good Samaritan that "didn't happen but always happens" or is designed to help us think about truths.

  62. Patronising to the laity.

    Actually I think I have been empowering to the laity.

    Why should people be afraid of not owning up to an orthodox belief? Doesn't that say something right there?

    Why should not people (laity or clergy) be honest about what they believe or doubt? Why not be honest about texts? Why not call myths, myths?

    Fortunately for me, I serve a church in which I can say that. Not many other ministers can.

  63. I happen to believe that the myth I believe in is real. I use the term "myth" so that I can converse with non-realists as the mythological in post modern understanding can be either real or non real. In fact, on one level its nature is irrelevant. Once you accept that you can stop worrying about wether it is real or not and get on with living and preaching the real or non real gospel.

  64. Well, you're not empowering to the realists in your congregation. My suggestion is that a minister can preach to his or her congregation in such a way as he or she is empowering of both. I never tell my congregation what I think about the reality of a particular text. I give them available options and then teach from the narrative. I learnt how to do this when I worked in Derby and had to take assemblies in a C. of E. primary school where 90% of the children were Muslim. The Christian head teacher and myself managed to do this without one Muslim parent withdrawing their child from assembly.

  65. I suppose you think you could please everyone but you wouldn't please me. I would like some honesty regarding texts. I do think it is important. But no problem. You do you thing your way and I will do mine my way.

    In my sermons I give my view and I invite them to think for themselves. I would guess that our different approaches are based on a combination of context, personal conviction, and personality.

    Furthermore, I think there is a place for inviting people to move beyond where they live spiritually.

    If you grew up thinking that you will go to hell if you don't believe Jesus literally rose from the grave that can have a heavy consequence. In my neighborhood that view is common as dirt.

    There are thousands of churches around me and 50 Presbyterian churches. You can't spit without hitting a church. If folks want the good old time gospel there are plenty of options.

    Thankfully, this congregation (long before me) became something different.

  66. Furthermore, I think there is a place for inviting people to move beyond where they live spiritually.

    There certainly is. But you seem to only want to invite them to move to where you are. I just think that's a bit arrogant because, like me, you may be wrong. I've often found that those evangelicals most insistent on certain beliefs in others are, themselves, full of doubts. Are you a realist mirror image of such people?

    That last bit is not aggressive. but I admit I am being a bit cheeky.

  67. I suppose saying Puddleglum is a fictional character is fodder for you saying Jesus is the same. I suppose we could argue over the historicity of scripture to prove/disprove the walking Jesus, the risen Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, etc. But most likely this will just settle us more securely where we already are. I believe we were created by the Creator, he sent his Son to us, who performed miracles, died and is now alive. I believe the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and is among us now revealing, teaching, rebuking, and comforting. I believe this is for our redemption - returning us to the relationship we were designed for - with God, with nature and with each other. Without that proper relationship we are off-kilter, askew. I believe the role of the preacher is to reveal God's word (in scripture) to others. Scripture and the Holy spirit (which guides us as we read) reveals God's character, our character and how to proceed.

    I am curious Pastor Shuck, have you always (since entering the pastorate) had such doubts? If not when did you start doubting the Jesus taught in orthodoxy and why you have a difficult time believing in the spiritual/supernatural realm?

  68. But you seem to only want to invite them to move to where you are.

    And you don't? You don't ever say anything that you actually might want people to believe or do? You don't have views about life, gays, poverty, atheists, God, whatever, that you might like people to share?

    That is just bullshit. Cheeky back at you.

  69. spiritual/supernatural realm

    Ye gods, there's a new ager on board!
    "Supernatural" is a completely bogus word. It means nothing because what it attempts to describe cannot exist. Because once it exists it is natural. And as for the spiritual, that's just gnostic dualism and, as well as being tosh has proved to be the most dangerous, nasty concept the human race has ever come up with.

    You see, John. Even my renowned tolerance and inclusivity has its limits. I don't allow stupid people in my church and, although I'm happy for you atheists to hang around, I think that stupid ministers should be cast out as quickly as possible before they infect the reasonably intelligent.

  70. Barb,

    I just posted a video by Daniel Dennett that answers the questions you raise. I suggest you watch it (I think it would be good for all to watch) so you can see the larger issue that we are facing.

  71. No, John. I have opinions that I ram down the throats of my people, and I use the myth to back up my opinions. But they are not beliefs in the way you have been using the word up to now. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if your ethical teaching is pretty much the same as mine. Which I think proves the irrelevancy of the preachers personal understanding of the nature of the myth. In other words it's all about content.

  72. I think that stupid ministers should be cast out as quickly as possible before they infect the reasonably intelligent.


    Liked your thoughts on supernatural/spiritual.

  73. In other words it's all about content.

    Yes. I think you can get to that content whether or not you have a myth. I use the myth not to back me up (oh, maybe I do). Put it another way, I like to think I use the myth (and myths from other places) to help us think about how we might live life ethically and so forth.

    Part of that is however, I think, evaluating our own myths.

  74. Thanks, John. Which is why I am only interested in scientific truth. I cannot see how God, if God exists, cannot be ultimately observable. If God is not observable then God does not exist.

  75. my apologies for not being hip to the latest theological definitions. they seem to be redefined with each generation.

  76. Part of that is however, I think, evaluating our own myths.

    Agreed. You should. And you should encourage those you minister to to do so as well. But I think we need to let go of our need for those we minister to coming up with the same answers as ourselves especially when it concerns matters of opinion such as the resurrection of Jesus. It's one thing to tell people that a certain text is a redaction because of reason "x" and another to tell them that Jesus didn't literally rise from the dead because you believe the laws of physics don't allow it. It is unlikely that you will be wrong in the first instance but on the second you could be wrong.

  77. @MP So where do you observe God?


    my apologies for not being hip to the latest theological definitions. they seem to be redefined with each generation.

    That could have come from the mouth of Dan Dennett. Theologians are the great spinmeisters. Clergy are their clientele so they can continue to find ways to explain the illogic of "God" to their parishioners.

    @MP Granted. I think a healthy agnosticism is good if one is truly agnostic or should be in a particular case. I am not agnostic about Apollonius of Tyana raising the young bride from death. I am pretty convinced that didn't happen, that it is literature or if it has some historical core was a mistake (ie. she wasn't really dead). I could be wrong. It is possible that he raised her from death. But so highly improbable that it is not worth considering.

  78. Everything is highly improbable. In fact, everything is as close to being impossible as you can possibly get. The more I read about science the more I am bowled over by the sheer improbability of all things. Once again, it is science that informs my attitude to religious belief not vice versa as is usually the case.

    I don't observe God. What I am saying is that God must be observable. Just because we didn't have the technology to look at stuff on the infrared spectrum until relatively recently didn't mean that it didn't exist or that it would never be observed. In fact, for it to exist infrared had to be ultimately observable.

  79. OK, I just happen to think (and outside of the church I am not alone) that the creeds are fiction as are most of the stories in the Bible and in the Qur'an and so forth. Score 1 for human creativity. Humans created the concept of God. Let's give credit where credit is due.

  80. I would say: Of course I believe in The Resurrection ... and then I definitely would go on to say what I mean by that. The Risen Christ is a myth, a really wonderful myth. Myth is our human attempt to describe what is indescribable.

    I recommend strongly MYTH AND RITUAL IN CHRISTIANITY by Alan Watts. He shows how Christianity often does an excellent job of presenting the great truths of all wisdom tradition often called The Perennial Philosophy. He also points out numerous errors and blames most of them on the official theologians and not the mythmakers. Harvey Cox is also really good at showing how the folk traditions do a much better job at telling and acting out (ritualizing) the Story of Love than do the official theologians.

    I simply have no problem saying the creeds because I see it all as myth or archetypes or metaphors pointing to a greater reality.

    The power of Holy Communion is always its HERE AND NOW dimension, the REAL PRESENCE right now, right here, of LOVE. In other words, it's not only a great story but the story most definitely includes us right now, right here as we love each other with all our heart, soul, strenghth and mind. Eastern Orthodox Christians call this sacrament The Holy Mysteries.

    The TAO TE CHING says: The one who doesn't know, speaks. The one who knows doesn't speak.

    Since I'm still speaking, I don't know.

    I don't know.

    love, john + + We are intimately, intricately and infinitely connected by a matrix of unconditional, unlimited and uniting love which is miraculous, mysterious and marvelous.

  81. I would say: Of course I believe in The Resurrection ... and then I definitely would go on to say what I mean by that. The Risen Christ is a myth, a really wonderful myth. Myth is our human attempt to describe what is indescribable.


    You are one of the few of my PCUSA colleagues who would admit that in writing. I could count on my fingers and toes the number of PCUSA clergy who would say that. I think I am being generous in saying that. There may be hundreds more who feel the way you do, but few would own it. Thank you.

    I really like your mysticism!

    I think what you are doing is to use our Christian mythology to love this planet. (I would add that the madpriest is doing the same).

    When it comes down to it one of the biggest problems with Christianity, in my view, is its escapism--its location of the holy and sacred outside of Earth and of life.

    That is why I find the mythology of creation spirituality valuable.

  82. When it comes down to it one of the biggest problems with Christianity, in my view, is its escapism--its location of the holy and sacred outside of Earth and of life.

    You are right. And the tragedy is that there is little of this in either Testament. Overwhelmingly all the writers of scripture, even Paul and John the gospel writer , both proto-gnostics, emphasise the this worldliness of God's action. Orthodoxy should be about the Kingdom of God on earth now and on earth after the full redemption of the earth. But the Church deliberately pushed aside this central concept of the faith during the later Middle Ages. Replacing a resurrected creation with a gnostic heaven.

  83. John W. reminded me that I should add something. I don't know how to say it. But there is something that I might call religious feeling or spiritual feeling or heart knowledge or intuition that is mixed in all of this.

    It may seem from what I write that I don't have any sense of this. It may further seem that viewing religion from a evolutionary or naturalistic or scientific point of view either misses or threatens that aspect.

    To the first thing, I would add that for me spiritual and heart intuition is a part of my life that I don't talk about much. I find myself close to tears every now and then. I know many others do as well and they call those experiences "God experiences" or something along those lines. Challenging the use of the concept "god" is seen as challenging those experiences.

    To the second thing, I am not sure if the concept of "God" is the most accurate word to describe those experiences. Maybe we have, maybe we haven't come up with language that describes that.

    I do believe that looking at religion and its experiences from an evolutionary perspective will help us both explain these things and treasure them and use them constructively.

    This is the change I have had over the years. I don't think that religion, God, sacred experiences, human consciousness, etc. is outside the natural realm. I don't think we were given an immortal soul or a spiritual existence outside of our material existence. This is my disagreement with perennial philosophy. I think we are of one nature.

    Therefore religion is a human product or more basically a universe product. I don't think this has to threaten religion or our understanding or experience of what we might call spiritual things.

    All the myths, creeds, etc. are part of this on-going evolution. Now that we are knowing beings, we can shape these myths and creeds toward our well-being.

  84. @MP

    Thank you. It is kind of interesting that science with its "materialism" is closer to much of the biblical view than popular escapist "earth is not my home" Christianity.

  85. John, my understanding of the Perennial Philosophy is that it is against any dualism so I do think we are in agreement.

    Is there some kind of mystical connection within this oneness? My experience says Yes and I hear others say so in an endless variety of ways.

    Mystics are almost always called heretical because they find Unity where others (busybodies?!) find Duality.

    love, john + + "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." -- Albert Einstein

  86. Thanks John!

    We are reading the Bhagavad Gita and in the version I have by translators Isherwood and Prabhavananda, Aldous Huxley provides a preface. In it, he defines the perennial philosophy (as he sees it). He seems to say that humans are of two natures (spiritual and material). That is where I got that from. That is why I tended not to think much of it. It seemed to place meaning and value outside of Earth.

    Am I reading it wrong?

    It is on-line here.

    The third doctrine of the Perennial Philosophy, that which affirms the double nature of man, is fundamental in all the higher religions. The unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground has, as its necessary condition, self-abnegation and charity. Only by means of self-abnegation and charity can we clear away the evil, folly and ignorance which constitute the thing we call our personality and prevent us from becoming aware of the spark of divinity illuminating the inner man. but the spark within is akin to the Divine Ground. By identifying ourselves with the first we can come to unitive knowledge of the second.

  87. @John W

    I am totally with you regarding the mystics. They are constantly annoying me because they tell the truth of unity (including unity with those I don't want to be unified with) and therefore expose my dualism!

  88. John S. said I would add that for me spiritual and heart intuition is a part of my life that I don't talk about much. I find myself close to tears every now and then. I know many others do as well and they call those experiences "God experiences" or something along those lines. Challenging the use of the concept "god" is seen as challenging those experiences.

    Interesting. My days are literally filled with those moments. It's almost disabling, and it really does prevent me from talking more openly about a lot of things. But perhaps my silence makes me look wise (one can always hope!).

    Having been raised with little interaction with the concept of God, however, I've never considered those moments or deep feelings as anything other than extreme empathy. Empathy is simply defined as "the ability to understand and share another being's feelings". In other words, what touches you touches me. Connection. That may be as close as I can come to a definition of "God" that I can work with and be a part of. It's certainly what I think of when I sing the songs in church and partake in the various other rituals of religion that have become a part of my life in the last couple of years - a part of my life that I enjoy very much.

    That leads me to think about the reasons Dennett stated for why these ministers choose to stay closeted. His reasons were cold and hard, but understandable. Threatening a person's job drives right down to the base of Maslow's Hierarchy. You are not alone when you lash out against those who attack your work as a minister. That's pretty standard.

    But I think there's much more to it. The ritual is obviously important, and does as much to keep people in place, even when the ritual is self-destructive. Think of the people who sit in the pews week after week listening to someone condemn them to Hell because they're gay!

    If someone told me that, in order to continue this ritual in the church, I need to sign on to some creed that I may not believe, but which when it comes right down to it is fairly harmless (the bodily resurrection comes to mind), I would probably sign my name, knowing that I'm lying. I can only imagine (and empathize with) someone who has spent their whole life in the church.

    Religious ritual is obviously, as Joe Biden would say, a Big F-@&ing Deal!

  89. John and John

    And I would say that duality is a false viewpoint when applied to Christianity or Judaism borrowed from the Greeks, the Zoroastrians and maybe even Hindu thought. Judaism believes in the unity of each human as does Christianity as a decendant of Judaism. There is no split between body, soul and spirit in 1st century (or earlier) Judaism until it borrows from Greek and other forms of thought. The same is true for Christianity. This concept comes at a later date, although for Christianity we can't date it past the 2nd century. The resistance against gnostic thought shows a modicum of resistance to the division of the human.

  90. It is pretty well a given that the creed of Christianity is fiction. The only possibly confirmable statement in the Apostle's Creed is that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

    The rest is either wrong (born of Virgin Mary--a woman named Mary might have been his mother--but "virgin?") or fantasy.

    Some realize it is a fiction and find value in it. They continue practicing Christianity.

    Others realize it is a fiction and find no value in it. They have stopped practicing or never started practicing Christianity.

    Others believe it is not a fiction.

    This third group tries a variety of tactics to keep the first two groups marginalized.

    They say the first & second groups...

    1) Are mean spirited or impolite for bringing up the issue.

    2) Should be out of the club for bringing up the issue.

    3) Are deficient (lack faith, etc.)

    But frankly, the third group is incorrect. From any type of common basis that we have for determining fiction from fact, it is obvious the creed is fiction. There is nothing real there. Humans made it up.

    An important question is: is it that big of a deal? Is it so wrong for the church and its employees to perpetuate a falsehood? What's the harm? Some might argue that it does more harm to pop someone's balloon.

    What do you think?

  91. Snad,

    Thank you for that. Your perspective from someone coming in from the outside is very helpful.

    I thought it was interesting that you would sign on to the harmless superstition (my word not yours) in order to get in even if you didn't believe it.

    Dennett has some thoughts about that!

    Technically, you don't need to believe it. You just need to profess it with the promise that the belief will come. This itself is an interesting little sleight of hand by the institution.

    This sleight of hand is not designed. It arose through selection. It allows the 'memes' (ie. doctrines) to get repeated and passed on. The polite way to deal with it is to say it and not question or think to much about it.

    Eventually, people start to catch on that the jig is up.

  92. There is a fourth group, to which I belong. Those who really aren't bothered if it is fact or fiction. Unfortunately, if you aren't in this group it is very difficult to understand how someone can be.

  93. I have read all this in utter disbelief . So, John if I understand you the bible is a beautiful fiction.

    For someone who beliefs that “god” is manmade why do you fight so hard for some nice poetry you read in a book?

    And from now on I can only read your blog as a book critique, because your “faith” in your “religion” is completely different from any religion that I have ever read in the bible.

    For us Busy body, tattle tales and whatever childish name you use, are committed to serve a real Living Breathing God, the same one you call make believe.

    Wes, the Methodist – Making Clergy Obsolete
    “Our goals are to help people become freer than they were before, and to be transformed. So if becoming a Christian transforms a person’s life for the better, I have no problem with them becoming a Christian. But I also have no problem with it if it means betraying Christianity, if that’s what helps them. And I think many of my colleagues, if they were in this kind of environment [confidential interview], would admit to that. They wouldn’t, though, in front of their bishops.” Tuft’s University Preachers who don't Believe"

    Is that a Christian Statement of faith?

  94. @MP

    Unfortunately, if you aren't in this group it is very difficult to understand how someone can be.



    It is in part because of believers like you that I do what I do and say what I say. It isn't for your sake but for the victims of your "true belief."

  95. It is not all beautiful fiction. Some of it is just fiction. Some of that quite ugly.

  96. @MP

    I was agreeing not to the word "unfortunately" but to the rest of the statement. I, for example, don't understand group four.

    I can't imagine any other field or form of discourse in which that would be OK.

  97. John there is one thing I have to know. Why do you fight so hard for a fairly tale?

  98. Potluck? That was the answer to why you became and still remain a Presbyterian Preacher.

    My question is this...Why do you fight so hard for a fairly tale?

    You have said yourself that "god" man made.

    Before you fight the good fight against people like me. Why have you devoted your life to a fictitious book?

    O never mind.

    May the man made god of your choice bless you.

  99. And may the god you made in your image not do any damage.

  100. I can't imagine any other field or form of discourse in which that would be OK.

    You need to keep up, John.

    And read more science.

  101. Science?

    With science it doesn't matter if something is fact or fiction?

    I'll have to take your word for it as I don't have a degree in science.

  102. If you read more science you wouldn't be so confident about what is fact and what is fiction. At which point you can dream dreams and invent wonderful things like "String Theory" and spend your life believing in it even though you have absolutely no idea if if it is true or not.

    Fact is for people who are unable to think for themselves. It makes them feel comfortable and, all too often, superior.

  103. There are questions about whether String Theory is science. It is certainly an interesting hypothesis but how does one test it?

  104. It has nothing to do with being superior. I doubt it has anything to do with science including string theory. It has to do with evaluating a piece of literature. When I turn on the TV and see a 200 foot dinosaur-like monster crushing cars, I don't think, "Gosh, it must be the news!"

    When Jesus, born of a Virgin, turns water to wine, raises dead people and ascends to heaven, it doesn't take a string theorist to say, "Can you say...legend?"

    Five year olds know this. So what is up? Clerics with robes and authority and theological hocus pocus who won't come clean and continue to give false hope to the superstitious.

    We are paying for this over here with the credulous swallowing fanaticism like its Oxycontin.

  105. MadPriest said "Fact is for people who are unable to think for themselves. It makes them feel comfortable and, all too often, superior."

    Whoops! It looks like Sarah Palin got your log-in information.

  106. This comment has been removed by the author.

  107. John - you said "I thought it was interesting that you would sign on to the harmless superstition (my word not yours) in order to get in even if you didn't believe it."

    It happens all the time in other communities/businesses - amazingly, even ones that don't have very good potlucks.

  108. It has to do with evaluating a piece of literature.

    Ah! You're a Bible-based atheist.

  109. Bible, creed, entrails...I'll be happy to look at whatever you want to conjure up.

  110. Hola!

    I'm a newbie here (though I've long heard of your blog, for its catchy title), who was hat-tipped by Erp, to follow Our Fearless Leader the Priest-Who-Is-Mad.

    John---if I may call you John---it seems to me that, whether or not you believe that which the Creeds call "God", you DO very much believe in The Devil...

    ...and I say this because, again and again and again in your entry/thread, you return to the Father-of-Lies most ignoble perversion-of-Creation: Power-Over.

    Power-Over is what you fear---what you've observed victimize others, what you fear will victimize yourself.

    Ironically, in giving so much attention to Power-Over, you are giving worth to it: worship.

    But what if Power-Over ISN'T the Final Word? Could there be something (Real/Non-Real: like MP, I don't give a damn!) which delivers Power (Over) precisely through being Over-Powered (Under)?

    For me, there IS Something . . . and I call it "The Cross." It doesn't matter one wit whether there was a "God-Man" or an ordinary Type-O mortal who rotted in a tomb (or was torn apart by dogs, as JD Crossan likes to point out!). It's the Principle of the Life-Giving Tree (the Flowering Cross) which is Truly Divine . . . simply because (IMO) it's more inspiring that abstractions like "superstition" or "real vs non-real".

    I really didn't understand the previous citation of Puddleglum, but for me, it's the MOST inspiring (again) tale in Narnia. "God or "No God": it's a choice. You can't prove the existence of God, any more than you can prove God is "only a superstition."

    But POWER-OVER is EVIL. And I choose to believe in something with More Power than Power-Over . . . but could only (logically) WIN the game w/ Power-Over, by losing the game---and thereby overturning it. The Cross. "God's Self-Emptying." Self-Sacrificial Love as the Greatest Truth.

    Whatever you call it, for me---by my choice---This is a HOLY WEEK. No more can Thomas Aquinas "prove" my choice, than can you (or the listed atheist superstars) "disprove" it.

    And, since it would be ill-mannered to end w/o showing some hospitality (in repayment for your hosting my blathering comment), I will conclude: the Episcopal Church Welcomes you! Come as you are---and like ALL of us, do NOT stay that way! ;-)

  111. Thanks for alerting me to the Dennett and LaScola paper. While I disagree with some of their definitions and conclusions, I found it provocative. One person's faith is another person's myth, mystery or metaphor. As far as the meaning of words and literal language: we and millions of other people still talk about the sunrise and the sunset all the while knowing there is no such thing, yet we still use that flat earth geocentric terminology to talk about our experiences. I think we do the same thing with our religious language. Unfortunately while we can talk about sunrises and sunsets without literally meaning it, some people insist on the fact that thge only religious language is literal language.

  112. @JCF Thanks and welcome!

    You have offered a great deal here. I appreciate what you have to say.

    In response:

    First, I am no victim. There are many victims in this world. Real victims who experience needless suffering based on injustice. Jesus certainly was one and through the myth served to represent the victimized. I am a the tip of the pyramid of privilege. I feel that with this privilege comes a responsibility. That responsibility has to in part with naming the "power-over" and using what is at hand to address it. Maybe as you say, I make too much of it, maybe not.

    Second, this post even as I write it and use myself as an illustration, it isn't about me. It is about the larger development within Christianity that makes for these five clergy in Dennett's paper. What is it in the nature of our institution(s) that makes for so much dissembling? Are these five an aberration of an otherwise healthy and good institution or are they symptomatic of a deeper illness that runs through it all?

    Third, I agree you cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. What has evolved within religion itself is the self-protection of making claims that cannot be confirmed or denied. That is religion's trump card. But you can say a lot of things about these claims including pointing out the trump card.

    Fourth, I believe there is something more powerful than power-over as well. We might call it the power-with of human beings who recognize beauty, let go of falsehood, discover creativity, and embrace compassion (and believe in potlucks). The story of the human Jesus is a power-with story. Constantine's Jesus--less so. More with the power-over, I think.

    Fifth, this is a side note. No one should misunderstand the little spat with Madpriest. Every now and again friends have to have a row. MP is a champion. He is one of my heroes and most certainly is on the side of the power-with, probably far more than I.

    Finally, I do love my friends at The Episcopal Church! Electing gay bishops and engaging in all manner of mischief gives the rest of the slower brethren hope! (I say brethren because, frankly, most of the sisters get it).

  113. @John EH

    Thanks for commenting. I think your example of sunrise/sunset is a good one.

    We used to think the sun rose and set, literally. Now we know better.

    We continue to say sunrise/sunset. Why? Why haven't we updated our language?

    One would think our poets could come up with something that is more accurate while yet beautiful.

    Apparently, the benefit of doing so has outweighed the cost.

    So far.

    We continue to use this outdated, false language because it does something for us.

    After all it still looks like the sun rises and sets and maybe it feels good to pretend so?

    I wonder if something similar is going on with language about God.

    God exists in the same way the sun rises and sets.

    In other words, not at all, but it still feels beneficial to pretend.

  114. @John: I suspect there is at least one reason that we hold onto sunrise and sunset. That is any attempt to describe what happens when the earth turns so that one part of the earth has the sun starting to be visible is to have to use too many words. So unless someone can come up with a simple way to say it besides sunrise and sunset we will keep saying it that way. Anyone have a good one word description of "The earth turned and now I can see the sun?"

  115. I heard that John Shuck and MadPriest were having a good discussion down the pub so I thought I would stop in, order a pint, and listen in. Maybe even put in my two cents’ worth.

    I am pretty much with MP regarding the fourth option. The statements in the creeds are comparable to the provisional formulations of science which are the best we can do at the moment. They organize experience and data for us effectively and have ‘truth value’. They are not themselves “THE TRUTH”. A whole complex hypothesis like string theory or dark matter/dark energy might turn out to be incorrect and eventually be discarded, but will still have been very fruitful.

    But religious statements are not meant to be factual in the same way as scientific ones. They are symbolic and mythic – which does not mean they are not true; rather, using image, metaphor and story, they point beyond themselves to realities that can’t be adequately expressed in any other way. Myth is not opposed to fact (and does not mean falsehood); a myth may indeed have factual content (e.g., the historical life of Jesus), but it is not the facts that make for religious truth, it is the greater reality that shines through in the factual experience. These stories and images, properly understood, do not become obsolete as scientific theories do, because they are not propositions about literal truth which can be proved or disproved. They are multi-layered, endlessly fruitful sources of insight and transformation. We aren’t meant to outgrow them any more than we are intended to get over roses or music or the love of little babies. But our relationship to them may change as we go through life.

    Aware that our planet revolves about the sun, we continue to speak of ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’ not because we are ignorant or lazy or superstitious, but because our actual experience is that the sun rises and sets. Human life would be impoverished if we tried to eradicate the poetic, existential reality of sunrise and sunset. We likewise speak of experiencing ‘God’ or ‘the divine’, that which is infinitely greater than ourselves and on which we are dependent, and this language is appropriate and meaningful for many of us even if we don’t believe in an entity called God. Paul Tillich lived in vain if we are still stuck on the notion that the ‘existence’ of God should be an issue over which religious people quarrel. God is not a being, not someone who ‘exists’; God is Being Itself. The moments in which we experience that Being and our participation in and rootedness in it, are those moments John spoke of when the tears well up and the empathy flows.

  116. Hey Mary!

    Welcome! Thank you for commenting. This is really quite eloquent.

    Part of me doesn't want to comment or disagree with anything (and I agree with a lot) because someone's personal statement is well, a personal statement.

    I have a couple of friendly doubts.

    The statements in the creeds are comparable to the provisional formulations of science which are the best we can do at the moment.

    I don't know if I want to put the Apostle's or Nicene Creed up against a theory from physics or biology. Scientific theories are disprovable, creeds are not disprovable. Creeds are meant to be recited and believed.

    You say that in your third paragraph.

    These stories and images, properly understood, do not become obsolete as scientific theories do, because they are not propositions about literal truth which can be proved or disproved.

    A better comparison might be poetry or legend. You mention that too:

    They are multi-layered, endlessly fruitful sources of insight and transformation. We aren’t meant to outgrow them any more than we are intended to get over roses or music or the love of little babies.

    Although from those things we don't require loyalty as we do with creeds.

    It must be a matter of personal taste because I have certainly outgrown them.

    I suppose in a separate bubble of theology with its own self-contained rules, the creeds have as you say, "truth value." But in any type of public discourse, they have little meaning at all.

    You have to enter into this theological world or bubble and be given the mojo of faith to understand this "truth value."

    This is why religions survive it seems. Doubters who look at a creed and say it is pretty much nonsense are branded as faithless so of course they won't get it.

    No one conspires to do this. It isn't designed. Religions have evolved to make these statements of belief or creed that are shrouded in mystery and faith, that "cannot become obsolete" yet are like science and have truth-value.

    You can only say, "OK" or "Thanks, but no thanks."

    The sunrise/sunset analogy is very helpful. And you make the point well even as you are sympathetic to it.

    Calling it sunrise/sunset is likely a leftover of our ability to give agency to things that move or appear to move.

    The creeds are likewise, leftovers from a time in which it might have made sense to conceive of a divine being controlling the events of the universe.

    Now the sophisticated say this divine being is not a being anymore, but the Ground of Being. Which is what, exactly? Another word for the Universe? Does this Ground of Being do anything?

    Human life would be impoverished if we tried to eradicate the poetic, existential reality of sunrise and sunset.

    I agree with the first part completely. We would be impoverished if we tried to "eradicate the poetic."

    Actually, I don't think we need to eradicate anything. Things tend to fade from lack of use. I am speaking now of religious creeds.

    Sunrise/sunset is perhaps poetic. I think it is mostly nostalgic. It is quaint, cute, familiar, like an old blanket.

    But, really, it isn't true, anymore than when a child thinks you can't see her when she covers her eyes.

    Like the little girl playing hide and seek, sunrise/sunset is cute and harmless. So we don't eradicate the behavior.

    Creeds at best are also cute and harmless, except when they aren't.

    The universe is far more interesting than the one from which the creeds were made.

    Our poets are beginning to rise to the occasion of bringing this magnificent story of a 13.7 billion year old universe and the story of evolution life to life.

    I am not for eradicating creeds. Let them fade. Let us find now a new story, a new poetry to fit the universe that we are discovering.

  117. John, a few responses.
    I wrote, “The statements in the creeds are comparable to the provisional formulations of science which are the best we can do at the moment.”

    I meant that they are comparable in that both are provisional. That’s the nature of all human knowledge. Scientific knowledge is never complete or final; religious knowledge is also limited as Paul recognized when he wrote, in his magnificent sermon on love (I Cor 13), “…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”

    Credal statements and scientific statements are not, however, to be put up side by side and tested against each other, as they don’t refer to the same kind of reality or address the same kinds of questions. I believe that reality is one, but we can ask almost an infinite number of questions or make infinitely many statements about any bit of it, from the historical and cultural (Where did the rose tree originate, when did it come under cultivation, how was it transported around the world?) to the sensory and evolutionary (How did the scent of roses evolve, and why? How is the human olfactory system designed so as to enable us to smell a rose?) to the poetic (My love is like a red red rose) to the spiritual (Rosa Mystica, Rose of Sharon) and on and on. The mistake is in confusing different kinds of discourse, and thinking that I should believe in credal statements in the same way as I believe in the heliocentric model of the solar system.

    To speak of ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’ is NOT merely “cute”, nostalgic or childish. It reflects how we actually experience and relate to the world. If you wish to encourage a grounded religious attitude that takes this world seriously, you should consider the vital importance of preserving language which describes our immediate, embodied experience of the world. Dismissing the vocabulary of lived experience in favor of abstract and statistical language is an error often made by scientifically-trained physicians and social scientists and can lead to poor medical outcomes and erroneous ethnographies. It shouldn’t be an either/or, but a both/and; the two realities are not at war with each other, but complementary. As I said before, we know perfectly well that the earth turns on its axis and revolves about the sun, and those facts are useful in various contexts, but for our daily attunement to the lived world it is economical and poetically truthful to say that the sun rises and sets. We ask, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is a most profound prayer, emphasizing that our existence is measured in days, sunrise to sunset, one following another. We do not – cannot -- live in boundless space or experience reality in terms either of light-years or of nanoseconds. In terms of our daily activities we are bounded by the horizon and orient ourselves by the four directions and the vertical axis (height and depth). Even the astrophysicist working out cosmological models that account for black holes still needs this orientation and these boundaries; without them he will likely fail at family life, crack up his car on the way to the lab, and miss the excitement of the Large Hadron Collider finally smashing properly (as it did today! )

    All this is not to argue against cultivating new vocabulary and new ways of imaging the divine, drawing on the cosmological views of our time. I do suggest, however, that keeping the old stuff around is not necessarily childish or superstitious. We differ in how we ‘outgrow’ things or lose interest in them. When I was an adolescent I used to listen to Beethoven symphonies for hours every day. Now my musical tastes have shifted more to chamber music. I don’t therefore dismiss Beethoven’s symphonies as ‘adolescent’ and brag about having outgrown them.

    Much more could be said -- enough for now!

  118. Thanks Mary,

    I appreciate what you have to say. If the creed is like a Beethoven Symphony for you then I don't insist.

    Happy Easter!