Shuck and Jive

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Reimagining God

My heart was strangely warmed when I learned that Lloyd Geering has written another book.   I find him to be one of the most interesting theologians I have ever read.  I have devoted two separate series of sermons to two of his books, one on Ecclesiastes and the other on Evolution.    

It looks like I will need to devote another series of sermons to his latest book, Reimagining God:  The Faith Journey of A Modern Heretic.  Westar is selling pre-orders now and it will be released in November.  I hope to speak with him about it on Religion For Life.

Here is the tease:
Described by the BBC as “the last living heretic,” Lloyd Geering has spent much of his life wrestling with God. Of late, however, he finds himself struggling with the absence of God. The rise of nonreligious, secular culture around the world testifies that he is not alone, that the concept of God has become problematical. Should God be abandoned altogether? Can God be reformed, so to speak?

Drawing from theology, science and his own faith journey—from his call to ministry, through his much-publicized heresy trial, to decades of public speaking, teaching and writing, Geering retraces key developments in the Western understanding of God. He imagines a new spirituality, one that blends a relationship to the natural world with a celebration of the rich inheritance of human culture.
I can't wait!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The BDS Movement Doesn't Look So Bad Now, Does It Presbyterians?

Now we are in the 22nd day of the massacre of Gaza by Israel's military.  Eleven hundred dead.   Seventy percent civilians.   Netanyahu plans to keep on killing calling it a "just war."

Israel has jumped into the deep end of crazy.    This is the scorecard of death as of last week, when the death toll was less than half of what it is today.  

We hear that Israel has a right to defend itself.  Of course it does.  Equally so, the people of Gaza have a right to defend themselves.   Do they not?  There is a back story.  This is not about two equal sides fighting it out.    This is about an occupation, an imprisonment by a powerful nation with advanced weapons over and against an oppressed people who have no escape except death.

The United States keeps this going.  As Illan Pappe, has pointed out:
"Israel has chosen to be a 'racist apartheid State' with U.S. Support."
Each year our tax dollars, three billion of them, are given to Israel to pay for this injustice.  This is what we are getting for our money:

At the Presbyterian General Assembly, I cast my vote to divest from three American corporations who profit from the occupation.  It was a close vote that required a lot of compromise including a statement in which the Presbyterians distanced themselves from the BDS movement:
This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) movement.  
BDS was "the dirty word" this year as "occupation" has been in the past.   Now that Israel has once again shown the world its colors, BDS doesn't sound so bad, does it?   

My Religion For Life interview with Jonathan Kuttab of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and chairman of the Holy Land Trust, was perhaps the most important of the four interviews I conducted leading up to the General Assembly.    I asked him about the BDS movement and this is what he said:    
The movement itself is very clear--a non-violent attempt to respond to this situation of oppression we are in.  Many people feel that Palestinians have the right of armed resistance.  So they pick up the guns; they shoot at Israeli soldiers, settlers, civilians, you name it.  I happen to believe of course in, uh, Sabeel  and other organizations I'm involved with happen to believe that violence is not the answer--that we must seek an effective, non-violent, but real, not just nominal response to the occupation.    
So, of course we want to see peace there and we want to see a just solution.  But if the dominant, powerful party refuses to provide that peace, refuses equality or freedom or liberation, then we must work for it and we call on others to help us in that direction.  That's where boycotts, divestment, and sanctions come in.        
I encourage you to listen to that interview on podcast if you haven't already.   In addition to that, take 35 minutes and listen to his keynote address to Friends of Sabeel in Pasadena, California in April 2013. He lists four signs of hope.  The second being Israel's shift to the right wing.  He says this is a sign of hope, paradoxically, because it is alienating itself from the rest of the world.  Israel's brutality is waking people up.

It is obvious that the dominant, powerful party is not seeking peace.   I cannot support the rockets from Hamas.  I cannot support the Israeli military.   The best course of action is to resist non-violently the occupation. This means for me and perhaps for you, too…
  1. Learning the truth and exposing spin and misinformation.
  2. Countering the myths and misperceptions
  3. Calling up the U.S. President and saying no more military aid for Israel.
  4. Getting involved with the BDS movement.  Here are nine suggestions
  5. Supporting the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the PCUSA.  
Finally, I will close with some bullet points from The Holy Land Trust, of which Jonathan Kuttab is president.  This organization is about peace.  
  • First: all acts of violence and aggression must cease, as well as the language of incitement and hatred used by the political, religious and economic elite as well as the media (locally and internationally). Peace, security, and freedom will never come from killing or terrorizing others. No matter how just a cause might be, violence undermines it.
  • Second: Leaders (no matter what party they represent, what nation they belong to, and what ideology or religion they adhere to) must acknowledge their failure to bringing any sense of peace to the land or to its people (even their own). If they were true leaders–with courage and vision–they would repent publicly, to their peoples and then to others for having failed all these years and decades.
  • Third: Civil society organizations need to acknowledge our own entrapment in the “political illusions” and thus our inability to create any real change at the grassroots level. For years, millions of dollars have been spent in programs, training, and activities that have barely scratched the surface. We have convinced ourselves that we have been creating change by highlighting the few (but limited) activities that take place but have never reached (for whatever reason) the masses on both sides who continue to be swayed by the language of victimization, hatred, and fear. Grass roots organizations now need to develop programs to address these issues–rather than looking into “political solutions” only. Politicians need to follow their communities and not the other way around.
  • Fourth: It is time that a nonviolent movement emerges which transcends political processes and illusions: a movement of Palestinians and Israelis as communities addressing all aspects of injustice in this land; to work together in building a new vision and model for what peace, justice and equality mean in the Holy Land (socially, economically, environmentally, spiritually) and link it with a strategy that breaks down all the physical and psychological barriers that perpetuate hatred, anger and thus separation and violence–even if the removal of such barriers challenges the core political assumptions and ideological beliefs we carry and whose existence we think we need for our own survival.
  • Finally: a core component of the movement will need to focus on working internally and separately within each community in order to create the space for healing and transformation: to address the challenges from within. Peace work is not what happens between two as much as what happens within one.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Can Presbyterians Embrace Evolution?

Linda LaScola is co-author with Daniel Dennett of Caught in the Pulpit:  Leaving Belief Behind.  

This book is about the study they conducted with clergy who are no longer believers.   She will be on an upcoming broadcast of Religion For Life to talk about this book which is the result of a series of interviews with clergy who no longer hold supernatural beliefs.   

She also helped to create the Clergy Project, an on-line discussion for clergy who no longer believe in the doctrines of their churches.

She invited me to make a post on the blog Rational Doubt about my resolution to the General Assembly regarding Evolution Sunday.   I am cross posting it here.


I am a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).    I am happy to be one. Even as I have been quite public that I do not hold supernatural beliefs, the church hasn’t defrocked me. It is a thoughtful denomination.  It is ahead of many other denominations on social justice questions.  It is not opposed to higher criticism of the Bible.  It is not anti-evolution.

It does not however embrace evolutionary science or higher criticism of the Bible.   In my view, it tolerates these academic fields and covers them over with a thick theological veil.    For instance evolution must be addressed (if can be addressed at all) in terms of “God” and “Creation.”   The Bible – no matter what criticism is leveled at it – still is “God’s Word.”

In the meantime, anti-scientific attitudes are creating a serious social problem.  My denomination has historically been a leader in promoting public education and responding positively to social ills.   It should be a no-brainer for the PCUSA to say “yes” clearly and unequivocally to evolution at every General Assembly and “no” to creationism in all of its guises.  The last time the PCUSA addressed evolution was in 2002.   They made this statement:
The 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stated that it 
  • Reaffirms that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. 
  • Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator. 
  • Encourages State Boards of Education across the nation to establish standards for science education in public schools based on the most reliable content of scientific knowledge as determined by the scientific community. 
  • Calls upon Presbyterian scientists and scientific educators to assist congregations, presbyteries, and the public to understand what constitutes reliable knowledge.
It is certainly time for an upgrade especially as our culture is besieged by anti-scientific views.   Mainline churches can assist science educators by adding their voice and influence for science, especially evolution –  as this is where the cultural battle rages.    We need to do this publically and repeatedly.

My resolution to ask the denomination to endorse The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday was solidly trounced by the Theological Issues Committee, 47-2. I wrote about it here  and here. Why did it fail? There were objections to adding a day to the church calendar.  Perhaps if it had come from two concurring presbyteries rather than just me, it would have had more weight.  Fine.  Many reasons have been offered for my resolution’s defeat that I find to be red herrings.   If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.    Nevertheless if any perceived errors were fixed and folks with nuanced political finesse were to submit something similar again, it might get a better showing.   I’ll choose to remain hopeful.     Why is evolution not on our church’s agenda?

What I find distressing is that the most amazing and foundational scientific discovery has gone not only unheralded but also mostly unacknowledged by my beloved Presbyterians.  I get the message that evolution is just not our business.  The problem is the theological veil.  It seems that my denomination feels that it must figure out the evolution problem theologically before it can endorse evolution.    Because church theologians cannot reconcile a scientific process that needs no supernatural design, creation, intrusion or purpose with theological notions of agency, they have nothing to say.    The best they can come up with is this statement:
  • Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.
I’ll let the reader muse over that.    The bottom line is that the church needs to embrace evolution at every opportunity.   As it does so, it can encourage creativity regarding meaning and human flourishing.    Endorse reality first then explore possible meanings.    Embrace evolution now and do the theology in response to this foundational truth.     As we might suspect, once we embrace the world that science is showing us, our theological doctrines will by necessity change.    That is what the church fears and resists.

Nonetheless, I remain hopeful and I remain engaged.   Over 15,000 clergy have signed the Clergy Letter.   That is a sign of hope.   Many creative congregations such as the one I presently serve embrace our grand evolutionary and cosmic story in worship and practice. My hope for my denomination is that it will tear down the theological veil that keeps it from confronting reality. As the veil is removed, we will be able to see our natural world as it is and then use the religious skills we have honed over the centuries to help humanity celebrate and care for Earth with poetry, song, liturgy and community.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Furtherance of Evolution and Anything Homosexual

Here is an email I received today.  It has been a while since I received a nice one like this.  The anonymous author wanted me to share it with my congregation.  Here you go...
Pastor Shuck,
I have been looking at your church’s website and am very disappointed to learn there is such a church in the Tri-cities area.  The main things on your page seem to be the furtherance of the theory of evolution and anything homosexual.  If homosexuality is the norm, there would be no human race at all.  Marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman.  Of course, I understand that the PCUSA does not believe all of the Bible, but only picks and chooses what to believe.  Nothing has changed, and the Old and New Testaments still stand in their entirety.  You, as the pastor, will have to answer for the apostasy you are teaching in your church.  That’s in the Bible too, that the one who leads others into sinning will be punished much more severely.
Read your Bible, Pastor Shuck, if you believe in the Bible. It was the Word of God when it was written and it is still the word of God.  God is watching you and your church.

I am an elder in a tri-cities PCA church, and I am writing this of my own free will and volition.  No one in my church knows of it.  I would hope you would be intelligent enough, with your extensive education and experience, to see the truth and get away from all this apostate teaching in the PCUSA.

Please feel free to share this letter with your officers and congregation.  I sincerely doubt that you have the courage to do so, but I urge it of you.  Share it at least with your session and deaconate.

Okey, fine.  I need to get back to work.  Evolution and anything homosexual need furthering.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why I Voted for Divestment (It's the Occupation)

At the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit this summer, commissioners voted 310-303 to divest from Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorolla Solutions.

I cast one of those 310 votes.

Prior to the General Assembly, I produced and aired four conversations on my radio program, Religion For Life.   I provided equal time for opposing views.   These interviews are available on podcast.   Each guest was articulate and passionate.   While I appreciated and learned a great deal from my two conversations with Rachel Fish, I found Brant Rosen and Jonathan Kuttab to be more persuasive.  I'll let you decide.

My Thursday study group also spent eight sessions with Zionism Unsettled.    My one speech on the floor of GA (102:50) was about Zionism Unsettled and the important work of the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the PCUSA.  I asked the General Assembly to stop demonizing this group and this document.    I am sorry if the authors of this work hurt some feelings.  Someone has to speak truth to power.  

I found it more than odd for three people (Gradye Parsons, Heath Rada, and Linda Valentine) to decide on their own to remove Zionism Unsettled from the PCUSA store when the General Assembly voted specifically not to do that.   Now that this document is on the Presbyterian list of forbidden books sales should increase.   Order it here.

Prior to General Assembly I did my homework.  While at General Assembly I paid attention.  I heard the arguments.  I voted my conscience.  

My vote had nothing to do with Jewish-Presbyterian relations.  It had nothing to do with employees of these corporations.  It had nothing to do with "who owns the land according to the Bible."

My vote had everything to do with the highly militarized nation-state of Israel's illegal, and in my view, immoral occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  I voted not to profit from it.   The occupation needs to end.  The powerful parties (Israel and its ally the United States) need to end it.  

If Israel continues its human rights abuses and collective punishment of Palestinians and if U.S. politicians continue to wring their hands, then the world will make noise and will act.  

Here is one way to take action today.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Problem with Prayer

Those who have objected to my theological questioning regarding "God" often bring up prayer.   The question I am asked is along these lines:
"If you don't believe in God, then what is the point of prayer?"
While it is true that I do not think the universe has an "outside" and therefore, I cannot conceive of any being outside the universe, nevertheless old practices die hard.  Prayer is one of those practices.   I don't have a personal practice of prayer.  I do walk my dogs.

As a minister I am called upon to pray and I do it.   But I do have more questions than answers regarding prayer.

What is prayer?
Does prayer need a god?
What good is prayer?

We should be asking questions about prayer.   Coming up on Religion For Life is my conversation with Two Friars and a Fool about their new book, Never Pray Again.   This advice is from ministers who recognize the problem with prayer.    Better to do than to pray, they suggest.

I was intrigued by this series in the New York Times, "Should Atheists Pray?"  I think the word "should" is odd.  Who is making rules for atheists?  But I get the point.   Does prayer have any meaning and is it worthwhile without a god or without a belief in the supernatural?   There were some good essays on this topic.  I particularly enjoyed reading Hemant Mehta:
There’s a very real downside to praying. It lulls believers into a false sense of accomplishment. We cannot solve our problems – much less the world’s – through prayer. We often see people with good intentions praying for victims in the wake of a tragedy, but prayer is useless without action, and those actions make the prayers irrelevant.
and Hal Taussig:
The urge to pray comes not so much from some divine policing of our behavior as from needs to cry out in pain, roar with joy upon landing a job, or stand still to remember a friend. It doesn’t always come naturally, and sometimes needs mentoring of sorts – but prayer often flows generously and unprompted from human growth and longing.
Two different views.  I see the wisdom of both.

We have inherited a practice that was created in a time when people believed that things happened because of agents and that these agents could be influenced by animal sacrifices, prayers, incantations, and so forth.   Prayer is a carryover of that worldview.  Yet, it is an ancient practice.  Dancing for the gods and for the spirits is in our bodies.   We carry prayer in our muscles and bones even if we don't believe in agents.

I want to be clear.  I do not believe there is a supernatural being called God that answers prayers.   I do not think that any prayer changes anything except perhaps the person praying or the person who may feel better (or worse) for hearing a prayer.   Changing oneself and connecting with another is no small thing.

Obviously, there are people who believe differently than I.  They believe in the power of prayer.  So it is tricky when called on to pray with folks who believe differently than I do.  Part of the supposed success of prayer is that the pray-er believes as well.   I think this is a real challenge for ministers who are leaving a theistic world-view when the role of minister has been defined by that world-view.    This is a huge challenge for those of us who find value in religion.  This is a challenge for the church.  What do we do about prayer?

Should we purge prayer and attempt to become purely rational beings?   To be sure, I am in favor of a bit more rationality.  And yet the emotion of it can be cathartic.   I think it is a way of connecting people and of expressing compassion.

I feel a need to give prayer an upgrade.  This goes for corporate worship, too.   I want the practice of prayer without the belief in the supernatural.   I want Hal Taussig's emotional release with Hemant Mehta's reality check.  I want to pray individually with someone or in a corporate setting without the expectation that we think we are influencing a divine being to do things for us.  Even as a prayer may be addressed to "God" that doesn't mean I am speaking to any being except those in the room.   Prayer is a way of putting on the big screen what is really going on inside us and between us.

I do not take it literally.  But I do take it seriously.

I am hopeful that we will have more conversation about prayer.  What do you think?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

When I'm Gone

Whenever I hear this song I realize again how good it is.

There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't feel the flowing of the time when I'm gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I'm gone
My pen won't pour out a lyric line when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't breathe the bracing air when I'm gone
And I can't even worry 'bout my cares when I'm gone
Won't be asked to do my share when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't be running from the rain when I'm gone
And I can't even suffer from the pain when I'm gone
Can't say who's to praise and who's to blame when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

Won't see the golden of the sun when I'm gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I'm gone
Can't be singing louder than the guns when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

All my days won't be dances of delight when I'm gone
And the sands will be shifting from my sight when I'm gone
Can't add my name into the fight while I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't be laughing at the lies when I'm gone
And I can't question how or when or why when I'm gone
Can't live proud enough to die when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Can We Talk About Science?

An old piece of wisdom goes like this:
"If you don't want to do something, one excuse is as good as another."
Many reasons have been offered as to why the Theological Issues committee soundly defeated my commissioner's resolution regarding The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday.    As I have been thinking about it, all of those reasons are red herrings.

It was a fine resolution: clear, focused and concise.  It was drafted by three members of my congregation who are all science educators.   The committee could have approved it.  They could have amended it and approved an amended version.  They just didn't want to do it.

The response is to keep trying.  Folks are talking about it.

Michael Zimmerman, founder of The Clergy Letter Project that now has over 15,000 signatures and is in my view the most effective organization in regards to helping religious groups acknowledge evolution nailed it in his Huffington Post piece, Evolution and the Presbyterian Church (USA):  Not Quite the Relationship It Could Be.  He wrote:
In late June, members of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) looked into the future of the religion and science debate and blinked. Instead of positively reshaping a manufactured debate that hasn't accomplished anything positive for anyone, they opted to ignore the reality of the situation and responded with platitudes demonstrating just how far we still have to go before even mainstream religions are able to fully embrace science.
Linda LaScola of Rational Doubt wrote about me in her post, Presbyterian Minister and TCP Member Speaks Up for Evolution
I hope he and other progressive clergy are eventually successful in changing antiquated church policies.
And from Panda's Thumb, Presbyterian Church Refuses to Endorse Evolution Weekend, Matt Young writes about his own experience of trying to speak to a Presbyterian Church about modern science.  He was invited to speak, then was uninvited:
They estimated (if I remember correctly) that roughly half the congregation had threatened to quit if the invitation was not rescinded. My colleague was mortified: How could it possibly be that his church could not even discuss modern science? When would they enter the modern era? How could half his church be completely unwilling to listen, to turn a blind eye to a discussion of what should have been an important issue in the church? So my talk, which had been carefully vetted, was canceled in the blink of that blind eye.
To be clear:  the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not anti-evolution.  We included in the rationale of the resolution the 2002 statement:
The 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stated that it 
  • Reaffirms that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.
  • Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.
  • Encourages State Boards of Education across the nation to establish standards for science education in public schools based on the most reliable content of scientific knowledge as determined by the scientific community.
  • Calls upon Presbyterian scientists and scientific educators to assist congregations, presbyteries, and the public to understand what constitutes reliable knowledge.
The resolution was clearly in line with these four bullet points.   The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday would help carry those affirmations forward.   We need to continue to push for science.

As far as Evolution Sunday not being holy or religious or whatever, adding Evolution Sunday would be consistent with other days on the calendar including:
  • Celebrate the Gifts of Women
  • Homelessness/Affordable Housing
  • Higher Education
  • Native American Day
  • Domestic Violence Awareness
  • Children's Sabbath
  • Caregiver
  • Race Relations
  • Criminal Justice
  • Souper Bowl of Caring
and so forth.

If the committee had wanted to do so, it could have endorsed the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday and the sky would not have fallen.   Maybe next time?   Perhaps a couple of presbyteries will send their own pro-science (and in particular, pro-evolution) overtures to the next General Assembly.  I am hoping that conversation will continue and that others will push the PC(USA) to take bolder stands to resist the cultural battle against science.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Shuck and Jive is Eight!

Eight years ago today I started Shuck and Jive.    Here is the first post.  My first post with content was this one in which I asked what the Christian faith would be like if we found the body of Jesus.   Some of the comments were so nasty, I remember deleting them.  That was my introduction to the world of blogging.  I have been controversial ever since.

It feels like a lifetime ago.  Of course from November 2012 to just recently Shuck and Jive was on ice.   I am starting it again as I tentatively put one foot in front of the other, "learning to walk in the dark" to borrow a metaphor from Barbara Brown Taylor's latest book.   I recorded an interview with Barbara for Religion For Life.   It will air sometime in July.  She is as gracious and thoughtful in an interview as she is in print.

Independence Day is a good day to announce that I have been elected to the Coordinating Team of Presbyterian Voices for Justice.

I am honored to be on this team.   PV4J is a marriage between the Witherspoon Society and Voices of Sophia.

I used to post a lot from Witherspoon (along with pics of Reese Witherspoon).  Guess I kinda have a crush.

PV4J is a strong progressive voice in our denomination.  Its General Assembly issue of Network News provided the best help of any magazine for commissioners in regards to preparing for the assembly.   You can follow PV4J on Twitter and love them on Facebook.

Be part of the movement and support the work of PV4J!