Shuck and Jive

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Mighty Wind

This killed me. There really is a church called "Mighty Wind." We spotted it on vacation in North Carolina.

The trailer must carry the instruments for the folk singers.

Weather Report

Yes, I do.

Oh, O.K. then.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Remembering Pastor Bob

I read with sadness this morning that my friend and colleague, Bob Campbell, died on July 9th. "Pastor Bob" was a regular commenter on Shuck and Jive. You will find his comments on many of my posts.

Bob was the pastor of the Tully Memorial Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and he blogged at Pastor Bob's Musings.

I first met Bob in 1992 when I was ordained in Utica Presbytery. At the time, Bob was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Oneida, NY. I remember taking an instant liking to Bob and our congregations combined to share in youth events.

Bob had a strong evangelical voice. I was on the opposite end on matters regarding sexuality and was far more liberal theologically. Usually on issues of war, peace, and economics, we shared many concerns. Bob was a good conversation partner because he was respectful and filled with good humor.

When Bob discovered I was blogging he reached out to me and we started a series, "Conversations With Bob" that ran through the summer of 2007. From July 11 through November 10th Bob and I made 90 posts together. We discussed Bible, Jesus, theology, sexuality, and shared our life stories. You can read the conversation by clicking the label Conversations With Bob.

Bob and I had our differences. The conversation came at a pretty rough time. The blog wars were hot and heavy and much of the conversation in the denomination (including mine) was pretty snarky. The series ended when Bob was upset about things that I had said about the New Wineskins, a group that sought to break away from the PC(USA).

But we got back together again. The official "conversation with Bob" had ended but we kept in contact. Bob commented frequently and corrected my "heresies". Bob was always gracious and encouraged me to be a bit more gracious to my opponents as well. I could probably do well to heed his advice more than I have.

Bob was a colleague in ministry and that says a lot in our time.

This is a sad day. My condolences to his wife, Debby, and family.

Thank you Bob, for the conversation. You will be missed, my friend.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Riding the Bus With My Lovely

Once a year I take a trek to see folks in Montana via the bus. It is always an adventure. The first year I even wrote a poem about it that you can read, Riding the Bus With Jesus.

This year I am riding the bus with my lovely.

This is the first blog post I have made while riding the bus. The new Greyhound buses have
on-board WIFI.

Of course, bus travel is one of the greenest ways to go:

Greyhound is proud to be one of the most environmentally efficient travel operators in Australia. Studies have shown that per passenger kilometre coaches use almost 8 times less CO2 emissions than jet aircraft, and for every full coach, there are 16 fewer cars on the road.
If it is good for Australia it is probably good for the U.S. too.

In a low energy future, the bus will be way more and more of us get around. I kind of like it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Solar Living: A Sermon

Solar Living
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton Tennessee
July 17, 2011

“Red Letter Sayings: Ecclesiastes and Jesus”

Cast your bread upon the surface of the waters,
Because after many days you will get a return.

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when
someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.
When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person
have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts
you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs
from you.

Light is sweet.
It’s a joy for the eyes to see the sun.

Congratulations, you poor!
God’s domain belongs to you.

So if a man lives for many years,
Let him rejoice in every one of them.

Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.

Be happy, young one, while you are young,
And let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.

Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.

Therefore banish anxiety from your heart
And cast off the troubles of your body,
For youth and its early vigour are short-lived.

Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to
morning, about your food—what you’re going to eat, or about
your clothing--what you are going to wear. You’re much
better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin.

Translations of Ecclesiastes by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010) and of Jesus sayings by Jesus Seminar’s Scholars’ Version. Ecclesiastes 11:1; Matthew 5:39-42; Ecclesiastes 11:7; Luke 6:20; Ecclesiastes 11:8a; Luke 6:21a; Ecclesiastes 11:9; Luke 6:21b; Ecclesiastes 11:10; Thomas 36:1-2

One of the more interesting philosophers of our era is someone hardly anyone knows. He has written over 30 books, some of them published by Polebridge Press, the publishing company of the Jesus Seminar. Don Cupitt taught at Cambridge in the United Kingdom and was an Anglican priest and has moved on and beyond the Church of England.

His books, especially his more recent ones published by Polebridge, are accessible. They are not technical. They are written for non-specialists who have interest in religious philosophy at a popular and practical level. The sources for his philosophy are the things that people say and the concerns people talk about. It is the philosophy of ordinary speech.

For instance, in his book, Life, Life, Don Cupitt writes about various expressions people use involving the word, “life”.
Such is life.
That’s life.
Life is what you make it.
Life is short.
Life is good.
Life sucks.
Life is what it is.
Life’s a beach.
Live your life.
He found 100s of them. His thesis is that the word “life” and what it signifies has in popular language replaced the word “God”. For the most part, people, even those people for whom God is part of our language, will talk about life more than God. He isn’t making a value judgment on that. He is neither praising nor condemning this, he is simply observing that we in the West have been changing over the centuries. Our concern has slowly been shifting from God and from supernatural things to ordinary things, the stuff of life.

Ours is a religion of ordinary life.

This is what Cupitt has observed as both a philosopher and cultural historian of the West and in his own personal development. When I first heard him speak at a Jesus Seminar conference a few years ago, I found him to be disconcerting and I resisted what he was saying. Then I decided to go ahead and take the plunge.

Religion can be viewed on a spectrum or maybe a spiral with two poles, truth and comfort. Religion sometimes calls us to an unvarnished search for truth. Yet on the other hand, religion also promises comfort and mechanisms to cope. Comfort and truth are not necessarily the same.

When we lived in New York State our kids played with the boy across the street. John was his name. He was a bright kid. He is a bright man. I think he is now a graduate of Tufts University. The story his mother told us is that another little girl I think it was, was talking to John.

They are all around eight, nine, ten at the time. His mother is overhearing. The little girl is sad. She says,
“My grandmother died.”
John, shrugs and says,
“Yeah, well we all die. I’ll die. You’ll die. Everybody dies.”
That is true. Not sure whether or not that is comforting.

Religion has this pull and push, this dance between truth and comfort. It promises two things.
“Come for the truth.”
“Come for comfort.”
Ministers are always, if they have any sensitivity at all, dancing within this tension between truth and comfort. Many ministers for various reasons try to have both and pretend that their comforting fantasies are the truth. These are the ones you eventually read about in the news: minister snaps and is found jogging naked through the public park.

I didn’t find Don Cupitt comforting when I heard him speak. But I did find him truthful. So I thought I ought to read him. This can be said for the work of the Jesus Seminar itself. But the thing about comfort is that it shifts. After a while if we know something isn’t true, it loses its ability to comfort no matter how hard we try to hold on to it. So you might as well go with what you think is true and see what happens.

Anyway, I read a number of his books and found him to be saying many things that do ring true for me. And surprisingly, some of these things have turned out to be oddly comforting.

In particular, I like his concept and practical advice that he calls “solar living”.

I connect solar living to the via positiva in Creation Spirituality, the spiritual path of awe and wonder. Yet solar living is also connected to the via negativa the path of letting go and letting be. I also find that solar living resonates with the philosophy of the historical Jesus as I understand him.

Solar living to use Cupitt’s language means that we “pour ourselves out as the sun.”

The sun simply pours out its radiance. It has done so for billions of years and will do so for billions more until it pours itself out and is no more. As far as we know, it has no regrets or anxiety about it. It has no desire, as far as we know, to pour out forever, even as it will pour out for a very long time.

We, like the sun and because of the sun, have lives to pour out. Cupitt writes from his 27 statements of his religion of ordinary life:
By faith, and without any qualification or restriction, I should let life well up in me and pour itself out into symbolic expression through me. Thus I 'get myself together': we become ourselves by expressing ourselves.
But the thing we know about life is that it is short and it is transient. Cupitt calls solar living, “creative living by dying.” We die every day. We cannot cling to what we pour out. We cannot hold on, but are constantly letting go. Cupitt writes:
In solar living I live by dying because I am passing away all the time. In my symbolic expression I get myself together, but as I do so I must instantly pass on and leave that self behind. I must not be attached to my own life, nor to my own products, or expressed selves. My self, and all my loves, must be continuously let go of and continuously renewed. Dying therefore no longer has any terrors for me, because I have made a way of life out of it.
There is no need to build memorials for ourselves or to navel gaze or to compare our products to another’s products. All is transient. All burns and burns out.

Now we fight this. We resist this. We think that
  • if it doesn’t last forever,
  • if “I” don’t continue,
  • if life doesn’t get resurrected or reincarnated or something,
  • then it isn’t valuable.
Solar living is the opposite of that.
  • The value is its transience.
  • The value is its “now-ness”.
Life is precious because it pours out and does not cling. In this philosophy the joy of life is not eternal as in eternal time, but in the quality of eternal found in the present. Cupitt says:
My symbolic expression may take various forms, as it pours out in my quest for selfhood, in my loves or my work. In all these areas, continuous letting-go and renewal creates joy, which on occasion rises and spills over into cosmic happiness. This 'cosmic' happiness is the modern equivalent of the traditional Summum Bonum, the 'chief end' of life.
You lifelong Presbyterians might recall the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
“What is the chief end of man?”
The answer according to the catechism is
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
In solar living, if "God" becomes "Life" and "forever" becomes "living by dying" or "Now-ness", then man’s and woman’s chief end might be…
To glorify life and enjoy life as it pours itself out.
But Cupitt also says that even the supreme good is transient. He writes:
I, all my expressions, and even the Summum Bonum, the supreme Good itself, are all of them transient. Eternal happiness may be great enough to make one feel that one's whole life has been worthwhile, but it is utterly transient. Let it go!
How does solar living play out in terms of ethics? From the point of view of the late novelist and moralist, Kurt Vonnegut, it is quite simple—that is simple to say. His ethic is this:
You’ve got to be kind.
If we want to say a bit more about it, we can talk about solar loving. That is “loving without clinging or calculation”. We “kiss the moment as it flies”. We might turn here to Ecclesiastes and the historical Jesus. Both seemed to resonate with the philosophy of solar living.
Cast your bread upon the waters.
Give to whomever begs from you.
Be not anxious about what you will eat or wear.
Congratulations you poor!
Life is sweet. It is a joy for the eyes to see the sun.
We recognize the holiness, the sacredness of what is in front of us, behind us, among us. The poet and the artist can help us here. The artist shows us the holy in the every day. She paints for us the ordinary in such a way that we see it as paradise. Because that is what it is. I included in the liturgy the poem by Billy Collins because he captures solar living so well. He falls in love with the highway through Florida, the wren, the dead mouse, the soap.
My heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.
That is the arrow from Cupid, of course, and solar living from Cupitt. Both Cupid and Cupitt are trying to help us fall in love with life as it is now pouring out like the sun.

But someone objects:
What about the suffering? What about Peak Oil, global warming, the debt ceiling, and Michele Bachmann for crying out loud? How can I embrace solar living amidst all of those atrocities?
Yes, yes. But they, too, shall pass. In the meantime:
You’ve got to be kind.
  • Solar living is not selfish living.
  • It is not indulgent living.
  • It is not perfect living.
  • It is pouring out.
  • It is shining like the sun.
  • Like the lamp on its stand.
  • Not anxious, but present.
  • Not needing to convert or convince.
  • Not needing to defend or defeat.
  • It is expressive and emotive and permission granting to self and to others.
Kiss it.

Kiss life as it goes by and pours out.

It is your life.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pluralism and Art

I received the following comment on this post regarding religious pluralism:
Hi there, I'm doing a college assignment on Christian Pluralism. Prior to this class, I was unfamiliar with pluralism in religion. Your site offered me some clarification and I have to say I am inspired with the idea of religious peace, tolerance, and recognition. I need to find a piece of art that exemplifies the pluralistic nature of contemporary Christianity, could you recommend a piece?
How about it, folks? Any ideas for this student?

Atheist Teen at BigTent

I missed the Big Tent. The Big Tent has become the PC(USA) celebration in the off-year when there is no General Assembly. Since I didn't go I don't have much to say about it except to comment on a report by a teenager who went to the tent. This young woman is bright and writes well. She is the daughter of a minister and... gotta love this. She is an atheist.

She gives religion a good comeuppance:

As I walked around the exhibit hall, hid in the corner (figuratively) during worship and stared hungrily at my food as my parents prayed before dinner, I contemplated religion and the toll it takes on the world. Racism, slavery and the notion that women are property are what came to mind.
But the line I liked best:
I certainly was happy, at least, during the sessions of the youth group meetings. They sure know how to make an atheist feel welcome!
That is no small accomplishment.

I found it amusing that the editors felt the need to explain why they published this story.

We found her story to be honest and refreshing, if also a bit disconcerting. We decided to publish it for two reasons: first, there are very few among us who, like this 14-year-old, have not had our own crises of faith and belief -- therefore, Eleanor's story is both descriptive and instructive; and second, Eleanor's experience of Big Tent is exactly what all Presbyterians should strive to create -- an atmosphere of welcome, of acceptance of all people regardless of where they are in life, and of encouragement to continue their faith journey all the way into the loving arms of Jesus Christ.
I found her story to be honest and refreshing as well. I also was pleased that she felt welcomed by her peers and that they didn't try to inject her with a brain-numbing shot of Jesus' blood. Yet while the tone of the editors' comments are tolerant, the message is the same old tired assurance that atheism is just a phase. The editors seem to want to communicate to us:
We want you Presbyterian faithful to know that little Eleanor is having a crisis of faith and will jump into Jesus' loving arms in due time.
What if she doesn't? What if jumping into Jesus' loving arms would be a bad thing for her? Faith is not always a sign of maturity. One person's "faith" is another person's magical thinking. "Faith" can be little more than caving to peer pressure or embracing superstitions from fear or laziness. Faith can also become courage, resilience, integrity, intelligence, and joy. But "the loving arms of Jesus" don't make it so or not so.

It could be that for Eleanor and the millions like her whose number is growing, atheism is what faith used to be. Because institutions (such as the PC(USA)) have been so slow to challenge their own dogmas and do not appreciate even the questions that people like Eleanor are raising, atheism is the faithful choice. Atheism, the denial of the existence of supernatural beings, is a logical, credible, and humane way to exist in this world.

We have a great opportunity right now. Let's challenge the dogmas. Let's ask some questions. Questions that perhaps even Eleanor might be asking.

While I dearly love you folks at headquarters, What Presbyterians Believe does not cut it. If we are going to have any credible communication with anyone outside of our creedal box, we have to get out of the box.

For folks like Eleanor, I will continue my series of What Presbyterians Believe (Except Me). Here are parts one and two. More to come.

As far as Eleanor is concerned, thank you. You may not need us. But the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs you. We do not need you as we want you to be, but as you are. Where ever your life journey takes you, I hope our tent will be big enough.

Friday, July 08, 2011

July 10th Is a Red Letter Day

This Sunday is July 10th. I am on vacation and will be spending it on the beach with family. I'll keep you posted on the sunburn status. I should put on my shades because there is a bit More Light shining on us these days.
We have been working for this day for a long, long time. The "B in our bonnet" has been swatted and our new, improved, revised, and far less grumpy Book of Order goes into effect on Sunday, July 10th!

For the scoop, More Light Presbyterians will tell you all about it!

"This Sunday, Presbyterians from Seattle to Nashville are praising God and celebrating. Our church has moved another step closer to fully embracing the love and inclusion taught to us by Jesus Christ," said the Rev. Janet Edwards, co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, the oldest pro-LGBT faith organization that relates to the Presbyterian Church (USA). "We know God is at work when almost all presbyteries voted more strongly for the welcome and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members than ever before, in the history of the Presbyterian Church."
Here is an idea for nominating committees and PNCs. Sunday (the day the new rule goes into effect) would be a good day to be conscious about nominating an LGBT person for elder or deacon or to serve on a presbytery committee. It would also be a good day to encourage your PNC to choose as your next pastor someone who has been previously excluded from our unjust and wrong policies.

More Light Presbyterians has some new ordination guides to help with any questions or confusion. It is time to live into it and own it. We are only beginning.

Meanwhile, I'll be on the beach and I'll let you know if I spot any dolphins!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Defending God

There is a new trend among apologists to defend the God of the Bible. I am thinking of two books. One by Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster and David Lamb, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist?

I haven't read either, but I have read blog posts about them and the product descriptions and I generally have an idea of their theses. If I am not fair, please call me on it. Apologists in general have a job, that is to defend their beliefs. These beliefs include usually some form of biblical inerrancy and the goodness of God.

For instance, in David Lamb's new book, the author defends "God":

While Yahweh's legal punishments seem violent, they were actually effective means of reducing violent crime and promoting peace among his people. Personally, I'm glad that the God of the Old Testament took extreme measures to care for the poor and the powerless and to prevent bloodshed and war.
In the blog post about the book, the author defends the "eye for an eye" justice system, which was an improvement over "two eyes for an eye." The author writes:
An eye for an eye, therefore, limits the violence, resulting in simple, swift and straightforward justice in a world without an overly complicated legal system.
I'll give the author that one. But that isn't the real problem with YHWH. What are YHWH's problems?

First, he wasn't real. YHWH is a fictional character. He never existed except in the imaginations of those who created him. Once we recognize that obvious truth, we can actually move ahead from the ideologies that trap us into putting halos around bad texts and defending horrendous ideas.

Second, the fictional YHWH chooses as his special friend one ethnic group over another and proceeds to give this group stuff, such as land, forever. That is convenient, especially if you are the chosen ethnic group.

Third, the fictional YHWH is not merely angry, sexist, and racist. He is far worse. He is genocidal. He has to be to justify a chosen group killing others to get their stuff and call it holy war.

When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you in forced labour. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.
That is but one example. Any person with conscience who reads these texts can see that YHWH is not always virtuous. At times he serves as a justification for people to take the property of others.

This puts us people of the book types in a bit of a spot, doesn't it? We who with holy pomp read texts from sacred scripture and conclude each reading with, "This is the Word of the Lord" have some explaining to do. (Full disclosure: I no longer close scriptural readings with that phrase.)

My explanation is this. The Bible and its characters including "God" are humanly created. The Bible is a staple of Western literature and through its stories we gain insights into a particular time in history. The creation of YHWH and God was an ancient attempt to find meaning and place, to justify actions, and to offer supernatural explanations for natural and political events. Neither these stories nor their characters need defense.

That said, there are some wonderful things in the Bible. There is a concern on the part of YHWH for the oppressed, for economic justice, and for the outsider. But not all of it is good. Neither are human beings all good. The Bible is one window into what it means to be human with all of our contradictions. "God" or YHWH is the character upon which the ancients projected themselves. We can grow in understanding of ourselves by wrestling with these stories.

It may not be much of an explanation, but I think it is far superior to pretending that genocide was an OK thing for the Israelis to do because God told them to do it in the Bible and the Bible can't be wrong. That explanation will never let us mature beyond the Bible and its texts of terror. When we find texts in which God does behave badly, we should say it, rather than sugar coat or defend these texts, the characters, or the authors.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Meaning of Life, Part 70

The Religion of Ordinary Life

1. Life

1. Life is everything.
Life is the whole human world, everything as it looks to and is experienced by the only beings who actually have a world, namely human beings with a life to live.

2. Life is all there is.
Our age is now post-metaphysical. The world of life is not dependent upon, nor derived from, any other realm, nor is there any other world after it, or beyond it.

3. Life has no outside.
Everything is immanent, interconnected, secondary. Everything remains within life. When we are born, we don't come into this world, and when we die we don't leave it. There is no absolute point of view from which someone can see 'the Truth', the final Truth, about life.

4. Life is God.
Life is that in which 'we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17:28), within which we are formed, and of whose past we will remain part. Both our ultimate Origin and our Last End are within life. Life is now as God to us.

5. To love life is to love God.
Every bit of our life is final for us, and we should treat all life as a sacred gift and responsibility. We should see our relation to life as being like an immediate relation to God. We are moved and touched by the way all living things, and not just we ourselves, spontaneously love life, affirm it and cling to it.

6. Life is a continuous streaming process of symbolic expression and exchange.
The motion of language logically precedes the appearing of a formed and 'definite' world. It is in this sense that it was once said that 'In the beginning was the Word'.

2. Life And My Life

7. My life is my own personal stake in life.
The traditional relation of the soul to God is now experienced in the form of the relation between my life and life in general. As, traditionally, one's first responsibility in religion was for the salvation of one's soul, so now a human being's first duty is the duty to recognise that I simply am the life I have lived so far, plus the life that still remains to me.

8. My life is all I have, and all I'll ever have.
I must own my own life, in three senses: I must claim it wholly as mine, acknowledge it, and assume full responsibility for the way I conduct it. I must live my own life in a way that is authentically mine. To be authentically oneself in this way - the opposite of 'living a lie' - is the first part of the contribution each of us should seek to make to life as a whole.

9. Every human person has, in principle, an equal stake in life.
This principle is vital to our ideas of justice and of love for the fellow-human being. Murder and other offences against the person are almost everywhere regarded as equally serious, whoever the victim is. The love of God is love and fellow-feeling for 'the neighbour' - or the fellow creature - generalised without limit until it becomes the love of all life.

10. In human relationships, justice is first in order, but love is first in value.
We should esteem love most highly of all; but love itself must be based on justice, not least in parental/filial and in sexual relationships. The work of justice is to clear a level space for love, but love eventually 'kicks away the ladder' and exceeds justice.

3. The Limits Of Life

11. Life is subject to limits. In life, everything is subject to temporality.
In life everything is held within and is subject to the movement of one-way linear time. Life is, as people say, a single ticket: there are no second chances or retakes.

12. In life, everything is contingent.
In life, the one-way linear movement of time makes every moment final and every chance a last chance; but at the same time everything is contingent. This painful combination of finality with contingency is what gives rise to people's talk of luck or fate. More to the point, it also follows that there are no fixed or unchanging absolutes in life. There are no clearly and permanently fixed realities, or identities, or even standards.

13. Life itself, and everything in the world of life, is mediated by language.
Consciousness is an effect of the way language lights up the world of experience, and self-conciousness is an effect of the use of language to talk about itself. Thought is an incompletely-executed motion of language somewhere in our heads.

14. Life goes on, but my life is finite.
The only deaths we need to prepare ourselves for are the deaths of others who are dear to us. We will never experience our own deaths. So we should simply love life and say Yes to life until our last day. There is no point at all in making any other preparation for death.

4. Faith In Life

15. When I have faith in life, love life, and commit myself to it, I have bought a package deal: life with its limits.
Whereas in traditional theology 'evil' was seen as a secondary intruder into an originally perfect world, and therefore as being eliminable, the limits of life, which were traditionally called 'metaphysical evil' or 'evils of imperfection', are essential to life. Unlike God, life is finite and imperfect, and has to be accepted as being neither more nor less than what it is. If I want to refuse the package, the alternative for me is 'passive nihilism' or thoroughgoing pessimism. For the religion of life, apologetics takes the form of an attempt to show that pessimism is unreasonable.

16. The package deal of life cannot be renegotiated
There is nobody to negotiate the deal with. We cannot hope to vary the terms on which life is offered to us.

17. Life is bittersweet, and bittersweetness is greatly to be preferred to pure sweetness.
In the classic iconography of Heaven, everyone is 33 years old, everyone looks the same, and everything is oddly dead, like a plastic flower on a grave. In real life, we love imperfections, irregularities, beauty spots, and signs of frailty or age. The mortal actual is far more lovable than the ideal.

18. We should never complain, nor even feel any need to complain.
Life should be loved purely affirmatively and exactly as it is. Everyone gets basically the same deal, and nothing else is on offer. Any sense of victimhood or paranoia or grievance is out of place, and we should get it out of our systems. Never say, nor even think 'Why me?'

5. Solar Living

19. Life is a gift (with no giver) that is renewed every day, and true religion is expressive, 'solar' living.
By faith, and without any qualification or restriction, I should let life well up in me and poor itself out into symbolic expression through me. Thus I 'get myself together': we become ourselves by expressing ourselves.

20. Solarity is creative living-by-dying.
In solar living I live by dying because I am passing away all the time. In my symbolic expression I get myself together, but as I do so I must instantly pass on and leave that self behind. I must not be attached to my own life, nor to my own products, or expressed selves. My self, and all my loves, must be continuously let go of and continuously renewed. Dying therefore no longer has any terrors for me, because I have made a way of life out of it.

21. Solar living creates great joy and happiness.
My symbolic expression may take various forms, as it pours out in my quest for selfhood, in my loves or my work. In all these areas, continuous letting-go and renewal creates joy, which on occasion rises and spills over into cosmic happiness. This 'cosmic' happiness is the modern equivalent of the traditional Summum Bonum, the 'chief end' of life.

22. Even the Supreme Good must be left behind at once.
I, all my expressions, and even the Summum Bonum, the supreme Good itself, are all of them transient. Eternal happiness may be great enough to make one feel that one's whole life has been worthwhile, but it is utterly transient. Let it go!

6. The End Of The Real World

What people call 'reality' is merely an effect of either power, or habit.

23. The Real: a product of lazy, unthinking habits of perception and interpretation.
The fixity and unchangeability that people like to ascribe to the real world out there is in fact merely the effect upon them of their own lazy habits. They are in a rut of their own making.

24. There is no readymade Reality out there.
There is no readymade meaningfulness out there, and no objective Truth out there. Meaning is found only in language, and truth belongs only to true statements. Because life is always language-wrapped, everything in the world of life is always shaped by the language in which we describe it, and in a living language everything is always changing. It follows that we ourselves, and our language, and our world, are shifting all the time like the sea. Nothing is, nor can it be, objectively and permanently fixed.

25. We ourselves are the only Creator.
As we become critically aware, the objective world melts away. So many supposed features of the world turn out to be merely features of the language in which we describe it. By now, critical thinking has dissolved away objective reality, leaving us with just the human world-wide web, the stream of all our human activity and conversation, and the changing consensus-world-picture that it generates. Our world is our communal, partly-botched work of folk art.

26. Nihilism and creative freedom.
There is no stable real world and no enduring real self. But this situation is not one for despair: it offers us the freedom to remake ourselves and our world. By solar living we can each of us make a personal offering, a small contribution to life, an oblation.

7. Death

27. Passing out into life.
Unattached, but loving life to the last, I am able at the end of my life to pass out into the moving flow of life in general. The only sensible preparation for death is the practice of solar living.

--Don Cupitt, Above Us Only Sky, pp. 4-10

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Meaning of Life, Part 69

“I encounter this in my university students. Every term one or more of them says to me after class, "This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word 'God', because, you see" - here there's usually a pause and a deep breath - "I really don't believe in God." I always respond in the same way: "Tell me about the God you don't believe in." Invariably, it is the God of supernatural theism. I then tell them that I don't believe in that God either. They are surprised, for they know that I believe in God. They're simply not aware that there is an option other than supernatural theism.”

--Marcus Borg, Heart of Christianity, pp. 68-9

Sunday, July 03, 2011

For Your Fourth

One Sunday mornin' In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And they were hungry and they were wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

God, Nature, Fate, Luck, or...? -- A Sermon

God, Nature, Luck, Fate, or…?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 3rd, 2011

Selections from Ecclesiastes

I have observed the activities that God has provided
to keep humankind fully occupied.
First, he made everything just right for its own proper time,
and then he put the everlasting universe itself into the human
But in such a way that people cannot discover
from beginning to end what it is that God has done….

For to everyone whom Luck has blessed with wealth and
it has also given the power to enjoy them,
to accept his lot and find enjoyment in his work.
This is a gift from Nature.
but seldom will a person ponder the meaning of his life
when Luck fully occupies him with gladness of heart….

People say that the righteous, the wise,
and all their deeds are in God’s hands;
but whether things stem from love or hatred,
not a single person will ever know.
Everything they encounter is meaningless
because one Fate comes to everybody—
to the righteous and to the wicked,
to the good, the pure and the unclean,
to those who worship and to those who do not….

Consider the works of Nature and ask yourself
whether anyone can straighten what it has made crooked,
in the days when you prosper, rejoice;
and in the days you suffer adversity, consider this:
Nature is as responsible for the one as for the other,
and manages things in such a way
that we humans have no clue as to how it works….

I have come to realize that nothing is better for people
than to be happy and to do good while they live.
Indeed, it’s possible for all people to eat and drink,
and find satisfaction in everything they do.

Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.

Lloyd Geering, Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), 3:10-11; 5:19-20; 9:1-2; 7:13-14; 3:12-13; 12:13b, pp. 171-192.

This past week in the Kingsport Times-News a letter was written to the editor that made the connection between New York State’s recent action to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples and the floods, tornadoes and wildfires in the West, Midwest, and South. The author of the letter writes:
I believe it is judgment on our nation rained down by God because so many have embraced and accepted this sinful lifestyle.
I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that few if any in this room would agree with the author. If you were the Jesus Seminar and could vote with colored beads on that statement, red, pink, gray, or black, I would wager that all the votes would be black, as in, “No not true.”

Why would you vote black? It could be because of the homophobia. This letter is a textbook example, by the way. Irrational fear. When prejudice is expressed through supernatural fantasies of revenge, it is safe to assume that someone has issues.

The other reason we vote black is that few of us I would guess think that weather events are caused by a supernatural being. Few of us would agree that God sends tornadoes…ever. Whether we are good, bad, or indifferent, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, sunshine, and foggy mornings are not the result of God or gods manipulating the heavens. None of the people we watch on the weather channel is doing theology. Earth and sky are indifferent to our passions.

When I was serving my first church, one Sunday before worship started, I was given a piece of paper. It was a prayer request. It said, “Pray for rain.” I wondered, “What am I supposed to do with that?” I had no idea what was in the mind of the person who made the request. I knew then as I know now that no amount of prayer by anyone anywhere will ever change weather events.

It is pretty useless to engage in an activity like that if you think that you will actually change the weather. Of course, I have learned to look behind requests like that and see in them an expression of concern or anxiety. Rituals that help identify our anxieties and give them voice can help us cope with the struggles of life (including weather events) and help inspire and express compassion and solidarity with one another. That is no small thing. Ritual prayer and worship is thus valuable. Prayer helps the community and the one who prays. However, to expect that prayers, rituals, sacrifices, offerings, or changing our behavior will manipulate God into changing the weather for us is a futile hope.

Someone might bring up that changes in climate are the result of human activity. One could say that the tornadoes and floods and so forth are a judgment on humankind for embracing the sinful lifestyle of carelessly using fossil fuels. That might be closer to the truth. But even then, we are still in the realm of physics and chemistry. We aren’t suggesting that a supernatural being is sending a punishment. The causes and effects are the result of natural laws and Nature is indifferent.

The idea that Nature is indifferent is counter-intuitive. Daniel Dennett, philosopher at Tufts University, suggests that early on in the course of human evolution, we developed the capacity to give agency to inanimate things. Human beings project agency on to animals, deceased relatives, trees, even our cars ("C’mon baby, start for me"). We give to inanimate things or to animals—personality and decision-making power. Our literature is filled with stories in which animals act like human beings.

Dennett suggests that this might be the start of what we would call primitive religion or primitive science. As our ancestors looked at the world, they saw the clouds and the lightning, the sun and rain doing their thing because each had a “will” do to them. There was an agent, such as the sun-god who drove his chariot across the sky each day. Stories were told about how rain falls because some agent wills it. Rituals, sacrifices, and prayers were offered to manipulate the will behind these forces to act in their favor.

A shaman dances for rain and by a stroke of luck, it actually does rain. The shaman makes sure folks remember that, and the shaman gets mojo points. But if he dances for rain and it doesn’t rain…well, if the shaman is quick he will explain that.
“It would have rained, but one of you has sinned. Until we have confession by and punishment of the sinner, then the gods won’t send the rain.”
Suddenly we have religion.

The person who wrote the letter to the editor reflects this ancient primitive religion/science that today we call superstition or magical thinking. A superstition is simply an explanation that has lost credibility. Whatever reason a climatologist has for recent tornadoes it is not because God is angry at New Yorkers.

Let’s fast forward 100s of thousands of years to 300 BCE. This is the period of history that historians of religion call the first axial age. From about 800 BCE to 200 CE the great religions came into being. Within what will become Judaism, it is a move toward monotheism.

Rather than the sun being a god or having agency, God creates the sun. The sun becomes an object as does the moon. This is especially seen in the Bible's first creation story. This story was written around 500 BCE, later than the second creation story. The Hebrew word, elohim, which is actually a plural for “gods” comes to mean God with a capital G. The seasons come and go not because of gods but because God orders it and has fixed it.

When Ecclesiastes writes in 300 BCE, he also uses the word elohim which is often translated God. This God is not YHWH who intervenes and makes covenants. This God does not change weather patterns. In fact, for Ecclesiastes, God has little concern for what we do. Listen:

People say that the righteous, the wise,
and all their deeds are in God’s hands;
but whether things stem from love or hatred,
not a single person will ever know.
Everything they encounter is meaningless
because one Fate comes to everybody—
to the righteous and to the wicked,
to the good, the pure and the unclean,
to those who worship and to those who do not…. (9:1-2)

The translation is from Lloyd Geering’s book Such Is Life: A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes. What Geering discovered is that Ecclesiastes when he uses the term "God" has in mind what we might call "Nature".

In the ancient world, the dome above or the sky also called heaven was where the gods lived. The flat Earth below is where humans lived. The mountains were the pillars that held up the dome. The stars, sun, and moon all moved around the earth.

For Ecclesiastes, God replaces the gods and is in heaven, above the dome. Weather patterns did not happen because of a lightning god. The big God, one God, was in charge, but lightning, rain, and tornadoes, were independent of human behavior. For Ecclesiastes, rain is a mystery. God is in charge but will never let you know why.

When translating elohim, Geering often uses the word Nature instead of God. It makes more sense to us. Listen:

Consider the works of Nature and ask yourself
whether anyone can straighten what it has made crooked,
in the days when you prosper, rejoice;
and in the days you suffer adversity, consider this:
Nature is as responsible for the one as for the other,
and manages things in such a way
that we humans have no clue as to how it works…. (7:13-14)

Of course, modern science has given us somewhat of a clue as to how it works. For Ecclesiastes it was a mystery. Modern science was a long way off. What he learned, however, is what Jesus said a few centuries later, that the rain falls on both the wicked and the just.

For Ecclesiastes, when he uses the word elohim, it is as if he could have just as well used Nature, Luck, or Chance. There is no sense in Ecclesiastes that there is a being who listens and responds to individuals and thus changes things.

Ecclesiastes is thus a counter voice to most of the Hebrew scriptures. If we could go back and witness a debate between Ecclesiastes and the author of Deuteronomy through Kings, we would find two very different points of view. Deuteronomy through Kings, what we call the Deuteronomic History is the story of YHWH’s mighty acts. Everything from weather patterns to opposing enemy attacks is the will of YHWH. There is divine agency behind all of it.

Ecclesiastes doesn’t see it that way at all. For him, there is no rhyme or reason to our suffering or our prosperity:

in the days when you prosper, rejoice;
and in the days you suffer adversity, consider this:
Nature is as responsible for the one as for the other,
and manages things in such a way
that we humans have no clue as to how it works…. (7:14)

Ecclesiastes is saying this natural event or this political event has nothing to do with divine agency. That is significant because that insight is counter to most of the Old Testament Law and Prophets. The Torah, the Deuteronomic history and the prophets were all speaking on behalf of God.
God is punishing you for that. God wants you to worship like this.
says no. There is no divine purpose to life. It just is what it is.

This is why for modern readers, Ecclesiastes is a refreshing oasis. He is ahead of his time. It is incredibly liberating. Liberation is also frightening. It means we have our own decisions to make about what is a meaningful life, how to cope, how to find joy, and how to deal with adversity.

It is the discovery and celebration of the sacredness of what is. That is different and opposed to projecting sacredness onto a being in order for it to be sacred. In the words of Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
When I read the parables of Jesus I see him more like Ecclesiastes than Jeremiah or Isaiah. Jesus has the prophet in him, too, but his wisdom parables reflect a consciousness that has roots in the tradition of the great skeptic, Ecclesiastes.

Where is God?
Where is the Kingdom of God that is supposed to come with great might and power?

Jesus said,
The kingdom of god is in you.
It is a mustard seed that grows to a big bush.
It is a woman concealing leaven in 50 pounds of flour until it is all leavened.
There is no grand plan here. There is no rapture or apocalypse. There is no Divine agency manipulating every event. There is no Angry Santa making a list of the naughty and the nice. There is no Thor sending down lightning bolts on the undesirables.

The Sacred is when the ordinary becomes awe-filled.

Such is Life.

We can, if we choose to do our part to make Life
  • more beautiful than ugly,
  • more gracious than capricious,
  • more simple than complicated, and
  • more loving than hateful.
What is the advice of Ecclesiastes amidst all of this?

I have come to realize that nothing is better for people
than to be happy and to do good while they live.
Indeed, it’s possible for all people to eat and drink,
and find satisfaction in everything they do. (3:12-13)

Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind. (12:13b)


Saturday, July 02, 2011

Thursdays With Bart

We have a book study at our place that meets Thursday mornings. I call it Thursdays with Jesus. We just completed
The Long Descent by John Michael Greer. Before that we set our faces like flint toward Jerusalem and persevered through The Trouble with Resurrection by Brandon Scott.

For awhile we are taking leave of "the book" and will instead watch "the tube".

Our group purchased the set of lectures by Bart Ehrman,

New Testament and Lost Christianities that is produced by The Great Courses.

I am happy to watch these courses from Dr. Ehrman. I like to compare and contrast his viewpoint alongside that of the Jesus Seminar Fellows.

The big difference between the Seminar's Jesus and Ehrman's Jesus is the apocalyptic thing. Ehrman believes that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet and the Seminar doesn't.

those passages that have Jesus predict "the last days" and "the coming of the son of Man" come from Jesus or was Jesus framed that way by those who wrote about him? Ehrman believes that's Jesus. The Jesus Seminar says he was framed.

I tend to think Jesus was not apocalyptic. I think his parables were not about a cataclysmic supernatural future. I like to think of Jesus as more of a poet and a sage than an apocalyptic prophet. Notice I use words such as "tend" and "like". I am not hardcore one way or the other.

For full disclosure, I confess that I don't
like the apocalyptic Jesus. "Apocalyptic" is a nice word for someone who is superstitiously unhinged. Think Tim LeHaye or Harold Camping.

If Jesus was that, at best, he was wrong. The notion that "God" is going to intervene, end the current world, and start a new one is not only wrong, it is ethically wrong. It is not good for us as Earthlings to believe that stuff. It is wrong on so many levels.

Recently a friend responded favorably to a sermon of mine about the ishta devata. He wrote on his Facebook page that he thought it would be cool to wear a t-shirt that says,
"The Historical Jesus is My Ishta Devata."
I would wear it. However, I wouldn't wear it if I believed the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic fruit cake. There is no way that guy gets to be my ishta. I don't need any more of those people (and certainly not my god figure) to have a central role in my life.

The great thing about all of this is that it is never likely to be settled. The reason is that Jesus never wrote anything. The most we have is hearsay. The people who wrote his stories had their own issues and biases. The scholars can interpret the evidence in a number of different ways and have plausible views that contradict each other based on the same evidence.

I see no definitive reason to believe that the apocalyptic Jesus is more or less historical than the non-apocalyptic Jesus. Because of the parables, I find the non-apocalyptic Jesus more persuasive. Plus he makes for a better ishta devata for me.

I am open to having my mind changed.

Thus, Thursdays With Bart.

Join us from 10:30 until noon!