Shuck and Jive

Monday, April 13, 2015

Believing In God

I believe in God.
I don't believe in God.

Those statements seem crystal clear, don't they?  You either do or you don't.  You believe in God or you don't believe in God.  You are a believer or a non-believer, a theist or an atheist, religious or non-religious.  Never the twain shall meet.

I find this polarization unfortunate and simplistic and I challenge the either/or.  I think that both statements "I believe in God" and "I don't believe in God" could be true for the same person. Once we start to parse the statements, "I believe in God" and "I don't believe in God" things become far less clear.  The words "believe" and "God" require definition.    These words mean different things to different people.  In fact, they can mean different things to the same person depending on how and when we use these words. 

Let's start with the word "believe."  What does the verb "to believe" mean?  I am not interested in the proper use of the verb as if that can be determined.  I am interested in the way it is used by those who use it.  We may object that we shouldn't use the word in a certain way.  Fine.  Still we do.

1)  The verb believe is at times used as a synonym for assert or affirm or declare--as in assert, affirm, or declare as a fact.   For example, in my eight points, I wrote that I believe in evolutionary theory.  I affirm, as fact, evolution.  I believe North Dakota borders Montana. I believe Earth is a sphere.  I believe in the existence of protons.   In this sense of believe, believers affirm, assert, or declare the existence of God (in whatever definition they assume for God).

2)  The verb believe can be used to express an opinion that may or may not be shared widely.  "I believe that 9/11 was an inside job" or "I believe Sarah Palin would make a great president."  It can be used to express a hope or a fear:  "I believe that marriage equality will be the law in all fifty states by 2017." My eighth point expressed this use of the verb when I stated that I believe that industrial civilization is headed for a long descent.  It is an opinion of what I think will happen.   This sense of believe may have some urgency about it.  That I believe in this long descent means that I think we should prepare for it and take it more seriously than we seem to be doing.

3)  It can also reflect a commitment.  The synonym might be trust or even love.   We might say, "I believe in you."  We mean, "I trust you" and "I am committed to you."  In point two I stated, "I believe in higher criticism of the Bible."  Higher criticism obviously exists.  I am declaring its existence as a fact.  But I am also stating that it is a good thing to use.  I have a commitment to using higher criticism as an approach to the Bible.  I trust it to deliver good results.  This is similar to the way I believe in evolutionary theory as well.  I have a commitment to using it to better understand life including human life and of course, religion and theology. 

4)  It can also reflect a value even if what is being valued is not real, or is fictional, mythical, or highly abstract.  "I believe in love."  We may have a debate over whether or not love exists or what we mean by the word, but still value it.   "I believe in Harry Potter."  In this sense I am saying I value what this character communicates as a way of being in the world.  Adults can say, "I believe in Santa Claus."  They are "believing in"--that is valuing and making a commitment to--what the Santa Claus mythos represents: generosity, joy, human kindness, etc.   To say, "I believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" may involve my commitment to, trust in, and value of, the totality of what this particular collection of symbols means for me.  It doesn't necessarily mean I believe that these entities exist. That is not the point.  To believe in this sense is to embrace a particular way of engaging life, a Christian way in this case.  I believe in, that is I trust and love what these metaphors imagine. 
In summary, the verb believe can mean to affirm as fact, to state an opinion, or to express one's love for and commitment to X.  The verb believe can be used as a combination of the above ways or in a particular way that excludes the other(s).

I think the reason the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has avoided making its leaders and members subscribe to a list of "beliefs" or essential tenets is because to do so would emphasize the affirmation or opinion aspect of believe over the more relational, trusting, and commitment aspect.  Nonetheless, we still can't seem to get beyond the notion that belief is about affirming the existence of external realities.  If that is the best we can do, we should jettison belief altogether and become belief-less or do more work to communicate the relational aspect of the verb to believe.

When Hemant Mehta titled my piece and I approved the title, "I'm A Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn't Believe in God" he was responding to what I had written: "I don't believe in God as a supernatural agent or force."   No, I do not affirm the existence of a supernatural being, nor am I committed to such an entity.  But as a Christian I do trust, love, and am committed to--that is I believe in--what the symbols of faith invite me to be in this world.   I do believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I do believe that the Bible is "God's word to me" and I do believe in Jesus called the Anointed.  All of those beautiful and powerful symbols beckon me to a particular way of living.  All of this is God. 

I don't believe in God.
I believe in God.


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Christianity's Misplaced Scandal

...but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles… 
(I Corinthians 1:23)

I am certainly no apologist for Paul.   I can never be certain what Paul really meant.   I do think that Christianity has for the most part misplaced the "stumbling block" or the "skandalon" regarding how we might speak about Jesus's execution.   The execution of Jesus is a theological scandal and should be a scandal that we proclaim.  However, the scandal is light years away from substitutionary atonement or other supernatural shenanigans that "Christ crucified" has often symbolized.

Paul, like Jesus, and like all thinkers around the first century of the common era, lived in a supernaturally charged geocentric universe.   Stuff happened because unseen agents intruded into the world.   Various divine actors were given credit and blame for everything from the rise and fall of kings to pregnancy.   Paul, Jesus, all the apostles, Caesar and Cicero were products of this world, even as they may have doubted aspects of it.   

We no longer live in that world.  Stuff happens not because of the will of divine agents or The Divine Agent, but because of natural processes.   As one sage quipped, "Darwin put 'God' out of a job and Galileo put 'God' out of a home."    Much of modern theological work is a less than impressive attempt at shoring up a god of the gaps.   Supernatural theism has no relevance in a modern universe.  
 Simply put, there is nothing for this god to do.
The only thing that keeps supernatural theism afloat today in churches and elsewhere is a combination of fear and power plays.  The most common responses to my guest post in the Friendly Atheist could be categorized as follows:
  1. "You should be afraid of going to hell."  (That has been the more mild way of stating it).
  2. "You need to be removed from your position as minister."  (Again, mildly put).
Fear and power plays.   Google "John Shuck Presbyterian" and you will get an eyeful.   We even had demonstrators on the sidewalk screaming at my parishioners that their minister is going to hell and they will join me if they listen to my false teaching.   

I find this fascinating.     

So much fear.

What really fires people up is that I state clearly that I am a Christian.  Not only a Christian, but I am a proud Christian minister.   Proud to be one.  Because I am proud of the gospel, the good news, the scandal, even as I do a poor job of living it.  Nonetheless, I will try to proclaim it and will do so until I am dead, retired, fired, defrocked or whatever else could happen to a person.  

So what is this scandal?   What is Christianity when we finally banish supernatural theism into the dustbin of history?  

Let me give it a whirl. 

To reiterate:  proclaiming the scandal of the executed Jesus is not proclaiming supernaturalism in a modern world in which supernaturalism is no longer meaningful.   We don't need to be proclaiming the existence of a divine being or that Jesus is the incarnation of this divine being.   It is pointless to try to get people to believe in divine beings in general or that we are in an intimate relationship with the "real" divine being.   Divine beings are meaningless.  They are the product of a pre-modern world.  Many Christian churches continue to push supernatural theism as the definition of Christianity.  This is Christianity's misplaced scandal.   It is a losing effort.  

The scandal then and now is on the meaning and the message of Jesus.   The scandal is not that Jesus was Son of God as if supernaturalism was the point.  
The scandal was that Jesus, the precocious peasant, was Son of God as opposed to the imperial claim that Caesar was Son of God.  
There were sons of gods all over the place because a supernaturally charged world was filled with that kind of imagery.   To translate the language of supernaturalism to our time is to ask what values do we hold as we live in this world?   The challenge of faith is not whether or not to believe in the existence of a god.  Instead the important questions are these:  Who/what is "God" for you?   How do you name God?  Whose side will you take?   To whom will you give your heart?  For whom and for what will you live and die?   To believe in God is to give one's heart to a particular way of being.  
  • Do I believe in God as if that means do I believe in the existence of a supernatural being, God?  No.
  • Do I believe in God as if that means do I put my trust in a way of living in this world that is for me as a Christian, the way of Jesus?  Yes.  
That was the scandal for the first century followers of Jesus.   They proclaimed the way of Jesus best exemplified the way the world should work, to use a metaphor, the kingdom of God.   Jesus took his stand with the executed not the executors.  Normalized civilization, the Roman Empire, required too much collateral damage to maintain its peace.  Jesus and those with whom he died were the collateral damage.   

Jesus took his stand with a peace "not of this world," that is to say not of the normalcy of civilization.  He took his stand with the makers of peace through justice.   Jesus stood with the marginalized and the oppressed.   He blessed them.  

This I think is true for Jesus the historical person, whoever that might have been, and for the layers of legendary material attached to him.  The layers of legend and meaning that we continue to produce today is a way of articulating this liberating impulse for our time.      

The trickle-down economists, the three-piece-suit wearers, the climate change deniers, the oh-so-polished politicians who massage their Bibles as they take away healthcare, housing, and food for the poor, and then beat the drums for one war after another to maintain some fantasy of "infinite growth" and profit for corporations are those who Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians chapter 1:20-31:
Where does that leave the expert?  Where does that leave the scholar?  Where does that leave the pundit of this age?  Has not God shown the world's wisdom to be foolish?  Since in the larger scheme of God's wisdom the world did not come to acknowledge God through its own wisdom, God decided to save those who embrace God's world-transforming news through the "nonsense" that we preach.  At a time when Jews expect a miracle and Greeks seek enlightenment, we speak about God's Anointed crucified!  This is an offense to Jews, nonsense to the nations;  but to those who have heard God's call, both Jews and Greeks, the Anointed represents God's power and God's wisdom; because the folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are.   
Consider your own situations when you were called, my friends.  Not many of you were considered wise in the eyes of the world, not many of you were people of power and influence, not many of you were descendants of the nobility; but God has chosen people the world regards as fools to expose the pretensions of those who think they know it all, and God has chosen people the world regards as weak to expose the pretensions of those who are in power.  God has chosen people who have no status in the world and even those who are held in contempt, people who count for nothing, in order to bring to nothing those who are thought to be really something, so that no human beings might befall of themselves in the presence of God.  It is God's doing that you belong to the people of the Anointed Jesus.  God has made him our wisdom and the source of our goodness and integrity and liberation.  So, as scripture says, "If you have to take pride in something, take pride in what God has done."  The Authentic Letters of Paul:  A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning.
This passage is one of the most powerful indictments of privilege in Western literature.   I have to say with regret that I am far too often more on the side of the "wise" of this world than on the side of the "fools" for the Anointed.    

The scandal, the offense, and the nonsense of the gospel is the same today as it was in the first century.   
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. --Jesus
If you wish to criticize my Christianity, fine, do it.  But don't criticize me for not affirming supernatural theism.   Criticize it where it counts: 
  • for my failure to pick up my cross daily for the poor and the houseless, 
  • for my support of unjust and unsustainable systems, 
  • and for my lack of courage to preach this "nonsense" to the privileged.   
  For that, I stand indicted.