Friday, January 30, 2015

God Of The Super Bowl

Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday!

And I couldn't care less.

Once I was an avid sports fan, especially regarding boxing and baseball. I would also take in the "big" football games. Now I find myself at that age when sleep is more important than following sports. I have a very stressful and physical job, and trust me, Super Bowl Sunday will find me chilling and enjoying my one day off from work, and in bed by 7 p.m.

But for many others, Sunday is a really big day. Some even think it is a big day for God.

Here I give a hat tip to my cyber buddy Bruce Gerencser. He recently posted about Seattle Seahawk's quarterback Russell Wilson's belief that God was responsible for the victory which got his team into the Super Bowl. I didn't get that from the quotes he provided. Actually, I was really having trouble thinking that anyone other than a hard-shell Calvinist could think such a thing.

He responded to my comment to assure me that he had followed Wilson's wearing of his religion on his sleeve and Wilson does indeed think God had an interest who wins football games. Having not followed Wilson myself, that was good enough for me. Prior to reading Bruce's post, I had no know who the Seahawk's quarterback is.

Now I have just read story that confirmed Gerencser's observation and obliterated any residual doubt I may have had about Wilson, or for that matter, that some folks actually do think God is the "12th man on the field," as Public Religion Research Institute president Robert Jones puts it. Link to this story is here.

Russell Wilson is quoted as saying: "I think God cares about football. I think God cares about everything he created."

I can sign on that.

In a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute it was revealed that 53 percent of those surveyed believe God “rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.”

While I have a problem with using the word reward in this connection, I can sign on the proposition that faith in God provides a performance boost for anyone performing in good faith.

Now that God predetermines everything, including the outcome of sporting events, is a proposition I can't put my name to. I'm not a fatalist and I don't believe God micromanages his creation. Of course I realize I could be mistaken, but that is the way I think about it.

My belief is that faith in God is dynamic. I don't believe faith guarantees never-failing success, wealth, health, or a long life. There are other factors involved, I believe, including our degree of participation, that is to say, our freewill. But I have come to believe in divine guidance. I believe in that inner voice.

I believe that faith can move mountains, as Jesus (IMHO) hyperbolically suggested. But that it is conditioned on our degree of participation. In the game of life I believe those who see the glass half-full have an up on the those who see it half-empty - not because of an old white-haired guy in the sky turning dials and adjusting knobs and levers, but because it is a spiritual law.

And I still couldn't care less about the Super Bowl....

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Back From The Dead

This story has been getting a lot of coverage:

Man finds the family cat lying apparently dead out in the road in a puddle of blood. Man and a friend bury the cat. End of story. At the time. Five days pass and the "dead" cat reappears in the yard of a neighbor - banged up badly and dehydrated, but nonetheless alive. Read the story here.

Guess what I immediately thought of?

You guessed it, the purported resurrection of Jesus.

Absolutely no disrespect intended. I don't pretend to know what happened that day so long ago when Jesus' tomb was found empty and shortly thereafter his disciples started preaching that Jesus had arisen bodily from the dead.

But inasmuch as I don't accept the orthodox version of Christianity, I don't feel obliged to believe it was a miraculous event - even if I do accept that Jesus was a historical person.

For a long time I've toyed with what has pejoratively been referred to as the "swoon theory." I don't think of it exactly that way. But what if Jesus, like the unfortunate cat in the story above (whose name, btw, is Bart), was badly damaged, apparently dead, yet not truly dead? What if Jesus revived later in his tomb, similar to the way this cat recovered and removed itself from the grave?

That would explain the tradition of the empty tomb and also the disciples' apparent firm conviction that the story of Jesus didn't end that sad day on Gologtha's hill. If there were witnesses who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, maybe it was because he was still alive.

I know, the orthodox version, that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, explains it, too.

But even an atheist could accept my explanation. Or the person who feels God doesn't override the laws of nature could accept it. Why, you could even not dismiss the miraculous but still not feel obliged to accept that God raised Jesus from the dead and accept the above suggestion.

Incidentally, Bart's neighbor, who saw him "cold and stiff," believes his return is a miracle from God. And so Jesus surviving crucifixion could be thought of as a miracle, in the sense of being a highly unlikely thing.

Just some thoughts kicking about in my head as I get ready to head for bed.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Evangelists Who Suck

Yesterday I was reading an article about online Atheist evangelists. It certainly is worth a looky-see, so here's the link. Understanding is the great need of our age. Heck, for all ages, truly.

Faith should work for us, whether it is faith in a Creator or faith in the power of luck and coincidence (which is what I think atheism amounts to). I say the worldview we embrace should make us better able to cope with life, with one another, and especially with ourselves. The more strongly we feel the improvement, the more strongly we are moved to share our worldview with others and encourage them to come along for the ride.

That is the rationale for evangelism.

One of the comments from the above referenced article was as follows:

The most arrogant and devisive commentors I’ve consistently experienced are fundamentalist Christians. Of course, that’s not how they SHOULD act, but, alas, the power of pride and bigotry has overtaken many of them. And sadly they are too blind to see their ineffectiveness as “ambassadors” to Christ. I figure God is going to have to raise up another generation of believers that are humble and loving because these past generations pretty much effed it up. Arrogance and pride, indeed.

So believers and nonbelievers can both easily step over the line of common decency in their evangelistic efforts. That is a bad thing. A nonproductive thing.

I wrote about nonbelievers yesterday, but today I want to think about believers. There is indeed a great need for God "to raise up another generation of believers that are humble and loving," which is to say we who believe in God should allow that belief to do its good work in us.

You see, it isn't matter of thinking rightly about things. It is a matter of treating our fellow humans with compassion - because our fellow humans are God's children, too.

In that regard, I feel closer to the simple nonbeliever who just doesn't feel a need to make a leap of faith to belief in a Creator than I do those who do believe but are arrogant and hateful.

While I do believe there is much to be gained by a simple faith in God (and mind you, I don't mean the complexities of the various theological systems), my efforts to share my faith should be accomplished with kindness and love. If I fail in that simple task, my failure speaks against my belief.

But do we need evangelists? Should there be evangelists?

The truth is, we are all evangelists via the way we live our lives and the example we set.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Saintly Zombies?

Saturday morning before I left for work I was online reading about the death of theologian Marcus Borg.

The comments section is usually more informative for me than the actual articles. There one reader praised Borg for having released him from the restraints of biblical literalism.

Just then one of the "difficult to deal with" atheists, that is, a former Christian-turned-atheist, popped up to take issue, and - in my humble opinion - in the most disingenuous way.

One problem which occurred to said atheist was that Matthew 27:52 "has to be taken literally." And he offered this:

ZOMBIES walked around Jerusalem laughing and joking with everyone and buying rounds of beer at the local pool halls for a whole week after Jesus died

And then pithily added, "Only a little child would fall for this nonsense." (Or, I will pithily add, a former-Christian-turned-atheist.)

I think the zombie comment qualifies as a straw man argument. The atheist interlocutor then helpfully added his definition of zombie: "A completely dead corpse which walks."

One wouldn't read Matthew's gospel and get that, but obviously the intent is to shock and offend. Totally unproductive, as that former Christian should know.

But there is more.

The Christian-turned-atheist writes:


1. It is impossible for a person to rise from the dead.

2. If they do rise from the dead after being dead for a long time they would have no skin or eyeballs.

3. So the dead people would have to not only rise from the dead but they would have to eat and drink to maintain their normal functions.

4. Even if a miracle happened and all the dead zombies were able to function without food and water they would still need to talk and use energy – and there is absolutely no way to explain this.

Ah, so there lies the problem. Proposition 1 must be taken as indisputable fact for the zombie smear to begin to make sense.

The problem is, conservative Christians don't operate from that mindset.

Allow God the power to miraculous create or recreate and the difficulty disappears.

Likewise, proposition 2 falls with 1. Proposition 3 is a supposition not required by those who take Matthew 27 as factual history if the resurrected dead saints arose in their glorified, perfected bodies. Proposition 4 would have no force whatsoever for a supernatural-minded Christian. The miracle is the explanation.

Now above I characterized this attack as disingenuous, and I did so because, obviously, a former Christian should understand the above.

Even so, conservative Christians are not forced to interpret the incident as crudely as our atheist friend does. In proof of this statement I will bring up the long late Methodist Bible scholar and commentator, Adam Clarke, who wrote concerning this matter:

Some have thought that these two verses have been introduced into the text of Matthew from the gospel of the Nazarenes; others think that the simple meaning is this: - by the earthquake several bodies that had been buried were thrown up and exposed to view, and continued above ground till after Christ's resurrection, and were seen by many persons in the city. Why the graves should be opened on Friday, and the bodies not be raised to life till the following Sunday, is difficult to be conceived. The place is extremely obscure.

A later conservative theologian , Charles Ellicott, in his still useful commentary wrote this on the passage in question:

It is scarcely, perhaps, surprising that a narrative so exceptional in its marvellousness, and standing, as it does, without any collateral testimony in any other part of the New Testament, should have presented to many minds difficulties which have seemed almost insuperable. They have accordingly either viewed it as a mythical addition, or, where they shrank from that extreme conclusion, have explained it as meaning simply that the bodies of the dead were exposed to view by the earthquake mentioned in the preceding verse, or have seen in it only the honest report of an over-excited imagination.

Both of the above Bible scholars were believers in the miraculous. Yet they felt it necessary to give what others thought about this difficulty. Yes, even conservative Christians can and often do admit that the books of the Bible have suffered at the hands of copyists and editors.

When I was a young Christian this passage troubled me greatly. I tended to lean towards a corruption of the original text. As I became more liberal in my outlook, I started leaning towards the mythical (but symbolically significant) view. Either way, I didn't allow such difficulties to shake my faith. Nor should they shake one's faith.

My main point in this long post is that such crude attacks are pointless. The only generate ill feelings. Further, biblical literalism is no less silly coming from an atheist than a fundamentalist Christian. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

On Not Being A Monster

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who suggested

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.

I was once a monster myself and am determined not to be one again.

Recently I reaffirmed my faith in God. It lay dormant for a long, long time. During that time I aired the bitterness I had accumulated over the years since I kissed faith good-bye.

Well, that's the thing. The bitterness. It grieves me when I look back over the years and think of the hassles I gave "people of faith" (God, how I used to hate that phrase and now I am such myself) during my self-imposed exile. All because I was bitter. I felt God had let me down.

I meant well. I thought I had laid down a load and was trying to help others unburden themselves. Only they didn't feel a burden. Oops.I thought I was fighting monsters but instead had become one myself.

Something I've noticed: It seems to me that the most difficult nonbeliever there is to deal with is the one who used to be a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian. They can morph into monsters, mean-spirited and overbearing. I did.

Besides the sheer discourteousness of a gratuitous attack on a person's religious beliefs, there is the fact that such an approach is almost totally useless. Such attacks only cause the faithful to dig in deeper and promotes return hostility.

Even though I have returned to faith in God I still have an intense dislike for fundamentalism. I honestly believe it is the bad face of religion. Fundamentalists can be monsters with their faith. A worthy goal, it seems to me, would be to help these folks along to a less monstrous approach to spirituality. I doubt that can be done by viciously attacking views they hold deeply and sincerely.

Yes, religion does have an ugly side. But so too does nonbelief. Faith can transform itself into an ugly and abusive cocksureness, but so can reason. That is the monstrous aspect of the matter. From either end I think it is necessary to fight the monster without becoming one.

I like to think the monsters are much in the minority. Love and reason should prevail. Arrogance is totally out of place here. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Heaven Might Be For Real

A peculiar fact about humans is that we sometimes talk a lot - a whole lot - of subjects about which we know little. I'm thinking today of the subject of Heaven.

It's old news by now that Alex Malarkey has come clean that his story of visiting Heaven, as contained in his book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, was a made-up tale. Much money was generated by that book for the reason, I think, people believe and want to believe in Heaven. They long to know what Heaven is like. They lovingly await being reunited with dead loved ones. They look for a less troubled existence, and some even find time to look forward to meeting their Pilot "face to face," as Tennyson so movingly put it in his immortal Crossing The Bar.

Believe it or not I once was a Sunday School teacher. It was a small church and I think now I was much too young, much too uniformed to be doing that. Truth be told, though young I was, I was still better qualified than many of the older members of the church I attended. Christians are "willingly ignorant" about the Bible, and though they express a devotion for their Bibles, relatively few spend much time perusing its pages.

But from my youth I always had my nose in its pages. By the time I was in my late teens I had accumulated an impressive library of theological works. And I put those to use.

I don't remember exactly when but at some point I began to feel a lack of ability to speak about Heaven. That was because, believe it or not, there is a paucity of material in the Bible that describes it. As a Protestant Christian I was bound by Scripture rather than tradition.

Oh, like most Christians, I was familiar with John 14:2, where Jesus explained to his disciples: "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." I even knew and could sing all of Mansion Over The Hill Top. But when it came to scriptural authority I came up short.

What about those Pearly Gates and Streets of Gold? I found those alright. I found them in the closing chapters of John's Revelation. I found them as a description - not of Heaven - but of a refurbished earth and a New Jerusalem. It suddenly seemed to me that the Bible was not teaching about an eternity in the clouds, but rather about, literally, a Heaven on earth.

It was many, many years of study that led me to a revision of my ideas about Jesus. I began to see him (not as founder of a new religion, but) as a teacher of Judaism - an apocalyptic form of Judaism. And as a Jew, Jesus would naturally have thought in terms of God's covenant with Abraham. In his vision of God's Kingdom it was an earthly state, a restored Jerusalem, which he seemed to have in mind.

When I moved away from the Bible as divine revelation from God I also moved away from my views about Heaven, whether as an earthly restored Jerusalem or a "beautiful isle somewhere." In short, it led me into something of an agnostical position concerning it.

I still retain a great interest in the stories of those who have glimpsed something they think of as Heaven as contained in the great body of recorded near-death experiences. But as Malarkey's case demonstrates, there is the specter of fraud lingering about.

I don't think we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We needn't dismiss every such experience. I do think these experiences seem to be highly personalized experiences, and perhaps that is what Heaven might ultimately be: primarily a state of mind.

That isn't a revolutionary thought for me because I think mind is the ultimate reality.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Question Without An Answer

Why? Why do the innocent suffer?

I was moved almost to tears myself when I watched network news coverage of 12-year old Glyzelle Palomar break down into tears as she asked Pope Francis

Many children are abandoned by their parents. Many children get involved in drugs and prostitution. Why does God allow these things to happen to us? The children are not guilty of anything.

It was, I think, appropriate that the Pope not attempt a philosophical answer. As with I suppose all of us who believe in God's existence it is the greatest stumbling block to that belief: How can God allow such suffering?

All Pope Francis could do was give Glyzelle a heartfelt hug. He was moved to throw away his prepared remarks and spoke the words

She is the only one who has put a question for which there is no answer and she wasn’t even able to express it in words but in tears.

I came to that same conclusion after spending years reading everything I could get my hands on concerning the problem of evil. There is no satisfying answer. I've come to believe the human mind is incapable of making sense of the problem in light of a good and all-powerful God.

There are some things to be said, certainly, in this regard. But how unwise it would be to offer such tokens to one whose grief is crushing. The question has no answer that will make complete sense to us.

Perhaps reassurance is the only appropriate response. There is love and it should be given freely.

Something Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote has helped me put things somewhat into perspective:

Without us, God has no eyes, without us, God has no ears; without us, God has no arms or hands. God relies on us. Won't you join other people of faith in becoming God's partners in the world?

No, I don't feel we can answer the problem of suffering. But those of us who believe in the reality of God can have a response - and it is compassion.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Where Does Jesus Fit In?

An explanation of my current thinking about Jesus is due by my promise to my secular friend who was kind enough to inquire where I was headed in my God quest. Specifically she asked among other things my thoughts about a Resurrected Jesus. Other readers might be interested as well so I'm making this post about it.

You know, this is really difficult and awkward. I heard the Jesus story (well at least a very conservative estimate of it) from my parents when I was a child. When I was six I saw a picture of Jesus carrying his cross on the way to his execution in one of the magazines that our denomination put out. That and the story of his death so impressed my young mind that I cut out that picture and taped it to the wall beside my bed.

My family also had a framed holographic picture of Jesus' crucifixion. Looking at it straight on you saw the crucifixion; move slightly to the side and you saw a depiction of his ascension to the heavens. I spent much time pondering that picture.

All these years later Jesus still energizes my imagination and haunts my mind. I do believe he was a historical person. I do believe he was a powerful Jewish teacher and religious leader whose influence has survived through the centuries and impacted other great religious leaders even in our times, such as Gandhi and MLK, Jr. I do think the synoptic gospels especially present us with traditions that date back to him, even if the copies we now have are the results of many hands and many years. I'm not unfamiliar with certain rationalist works that have attempted to undermine the historical tradition of Jesus and the gospels. I just don't find them overly persuasive.

But I haven't as yet been able to find my way back to Christianity. I doubt I ever will. I believe Christianity as we know it owes more to the Apostle Paul than Jesus the rabbi. I think I find myself more impressed with and closer to Jesus' Jewish monotheism than Paul's pagan-influenced mystical religion about Jesus. (That isn't meant as a criticism because I also share sympathy with both religious mysticism and pagan symbolism.)

Often I've thought about searching for a church where the power of the symbols in Christianity are exalted and the more irrational aspects of taking symbols as literal truths is downplayed. Fellowship is nice to find but hard to come by when you are a religious heretic in the eyes of many.

However, I presently find my most meaningful fellowship in the company of other non-dogmatic and open-minded spiritual seekers. For now I'm content to do so. For me morality and moral "oughtness" ties in too well with religion for me to be happy with mere humanism.

Having said that, I would still feel much more comfortable in the company of atheistic humanists than with religious people who use Jesus (or Mohammed or anyone) as an excuse to act harmfully towards their fellow humans.

As touching the alleged resurrection of Jesus, I don't think I have much to offer. If my sense of God and religious sentiments depended solely on the literal truth of that hypothesis, I think I would be in trouble. That calls for a type of faith I don't posses. I don't like a faith that puts too much emphasis on things based on second hand accounts. I'm more convinced by what I can directly examine and experience. I don't mean this as any type of argument, but rather as a statement of where I stand.

So I would not explicitly argue against miracles or the resurrection of Jesus. I don't deny he walked on water, either. It just seems to me that these are easier understood (at least for me!) as symbolic legends than actual events.

If the empty tomb could be demonstrated to be a historical fact (which I don't see how it possibly could), I would sooner think Jesus never actually died in the first place. Someone surviving crucifixion would be almost as "miraculous" as someone actually being brought back from the dead (as in complete and total cessation of life for an extended period of time). The advantage to this is that we have actual verification of folks surviving short-term life cessation, even under amazing circumstances - and none for the lengthy dead coming back.

But as a spiritual guide I find Jesus both inviting and relevant - not as a God-man, but rather as a God-intoxicated man. I quote Jesus often in my daily dealings with people because I do find him relevant and helpful. I only wish my fundamentalist Christian friends would take time to study the gospels in-depth for themselves and find out what Jesus really did have to say. As Gandhi put it: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Grappling With The Concept Of Hell

One of the first real difficulties to present itself to me when I was young Christian was the concept of Hell. In the fundamentalist Christianity I was reared in, this was a literal place brimming with fire and brimstone and which once entered - or perhaps I should say tossed into - was eternal. That is, that one wouldn't die or pass away into nonexistence, but remain conscious and sentient for all eternity.

Not a pretty picture. And very haunting for a child. Besides that, everything my inner voice seemed to tell me rejected such an idea as being part and parcel of the benevolent Creator I believed in.

As a teenager I started seriously studying the various Bible passages that spoke of Hell. It really struck me as odd that the Old Testament did not have a teaching about post mortem torment as I had been taught. A ray of light and hope flickered.

Then I learned from my Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias about a place outside the city of Jerusalem called Gehenna, a place which Jesus often referred to referencing the subject of divine punishment, which served as a garbage dump, fired continuously for incineration.

By around my twentieth year I was gifted by my then wife with a complete set of the writings of the early Church Fathers. I devoured these hungrily.

It wasn't long before I stumbled upon Arnobius, who seemed to teach a form of conditional immortality. In short order I also found other of the fathers who seemed to envision an eventual reconciliation for sinners.

Later still I checked out Augustine's massive City of God from the public library. I began a study of his thinking and was further pleased to find this pillar of orthodoxy admitted: "There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments."

"Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I'm free at last." Well, actually I don't remember saying or think that. But I do definitely remember that I felt fully justified in discarding the common understanding of Hell. And I did, without apology.

Throughout my twenties, as unbelief steadily took hold of me, I discarded the Bible as an authority altogether. Fairly soon my belief in an afterlife was just about completely overthrown, and with that the question of Heaven and Hell as literal places became moot.

Now, these many years later, I am finding my way back to a faith worldview. I am again grappling with and looking more favorable at life after death. (More about these things in future posts.)

I ask myself now if anyone who understands civilization's need to establish a penal system can really object to Hell. Ideally reformation should be the goal sought. I wonder now if, given the existence of God, Hell might seem reasonable after all?

If Hell was the first problem to catch my young attention, the way to avoid it was a close second. I reasoned then that a just God couldn't make "the way" to Heaven much less than crystal clear and then damn those who missed it to an eternity of torture.

In studying that matter as a young Christian I soon took note of the fact that every time the great Judgment Day at the end of time was mentioned, humans were to be judged "according to their works." If so, I reasoned, it wasn't what you know that made the difference but rather how well you lived your life.

Working my way back as a much older man now, I think was on the right track. I suppose that makes me something of a universalist and a religious pluralist.

I tend to believe we humans are hardwired to believe in God and follow a moral code written on our hearts, which to say, our conscience.

Now obviously for some folks something (or some things) go wrong and lead them astray. This "sensus divinitatis" can be drowned out and maybe even obliterated. But the widespread religious worldview seems to suggest this isn't easily done.

I hope the above will serve for those who are interested in knowing as a framework for understanding how I think about the subject.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

God In The Strangest Places, Part 2: The Skeptical Response

It's fascinating. Some of us look around us at the Cosmos we are part of and think somewhat as the Psalmist did: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork." We look and see all about us suggestions that there indeed is an author behind this great work.

Others look about us and think the way scientist Carl Sagan put it: "These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution." Pretty fantastic, sure, and damned unlikely, nevertheless, "The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be."

I had a little fun with my last post. Was finding God in an eggplant a coincidence? Sure it was. Was it a meaningful coincidence? I suppose the answer depends on one's presumptions.

The Sarcasmist had this to say about the incident:

It is very reassuring that when we need him the most, God shows humanity support and encouragement by showing up in a slice of eggplant.

In this same vein Mano Singham at his Freethought Blog made a similar observation:

It never seems to strike these people to ask why their god chooses to reveal himself in such trivial and useless ways instead of, say, growing out the limb of an amputee or revealing cures for cancer.

But that approach misses the whole point of the God believer. Nothing in this amazing universe is trivial. If it is extremely unlikely that what see and experience came about by mere coincidence, this should be testified to by billions of bits of information, big and small.

And let's be honest here. If a well-documented case of an amputee re-growing a limb should be produced, wouldn't nonbelievers still insist it was natural and perhaps a not yet understood principle in nature? (After all, this phenomenon is not unknown in the animal kingdom.)

If a cure for cancer were discovered, would God be given the glory? Suppose that a famous medical researcher experienced a dream which revealed a cancer cure - would the skeptics accept that as proof of God's existence?

Of course not. Because any aspect of nature can be explained as a part of nature.

On the other hand, for the believer in God, there is a divine reason behind nature, a force that permeates every aspect of it, and that is the ultimate explanation.

Again, it comes down to one's presumption. Again I think what Blaise Pascal wrote is relevant:

In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't.

Monday, January 12, 2015

God In The Strangest Places

Wow! What would you do if you cut open an eggplant only to find the word God spelled out for you?

Well, that is exactly what happened last summer to a chef in Louisiana. One Jermarcus Brady, of Gino's Restaurant in Baton Rouge, thought it was a "miraculous image."

The owner, Gino Marion, offered: "You could cut one million eggplants and you'd probably never see that again, it's that rare."

He's got that right!

Then Marion added: "God is within us and he has different ways of showing it in our lives, and this is just one way of showing it."

Now I have to admit, if something like that happened to me, why, it would just blow me away. And being a noticer of synchronicities in my own life, I would think it meaningful.

Just a wacky coincidence you say? Maybe. But I'm also told this grand Cosmos I'm a part of is a coincidence as well, much more extraordinary than finding the word God in an eggplant. Wonders literally never cease.  

Sunday, January 11, 2015

God Is God

The always articulate and engaging creator of the Secular Wings blog often graces my blog with engaging comments. On my recent post about My Pantheism And What Became Of It, she asked me

"I gave in, and admitted that God was God."

Any chance that you will writing about the God in future writings? The Bible God as you once believed? Triune? Heaven? Hell? Resurrected Jesus? etc. Wondering what you mean by God.

Just in case some of my other readers might be curious along those same lines, I thought I would make an answer the subject of my next post, which happens to be this one.

God is a loaded word now, I know. I type it and automatically many will readers conjure up images of the fundamentalist's version, or maybe more accurately, vision, of Yahweh.

Nevertheless, it still serves as a handy shorthand for referring to the Ultimate Reality. I'm also quite comfortable talking about the Logos, the Supreme Mind, (don't care much for the title Almighty, because I think it calls to mind the idea of an anthropomorphic "superman," which doesn't adequately express the way I think about God), the Creator, etc. Emerson's "Oversoul" is nice, I think. Yeah, I really like that latter. But it, too, is subject to misinterpretation. Therefore, I mostly stick with God - as a shorthand for that which the finite mind cannot fully comprehend.

My summary paragraph in my what happened to my pantheism post was

Before I embraced Pantheism I had been a Deist. I was looking for a way to reconcile my feelings about creation with the hard facts of science. A distant and detached God did not do that for me. A metaphorical God, sexed up atheism [here I was using Richard Dawkins' characterization], did not do it. I am returning to my earliest belief [here I mean before my childhood indoctrination into fundamentalist Christianity] - that there is an ultimate reality, or as C.S. Lewis put it in telling of his turning from Atheism to Theism, "I gave in, and admitted that God was God." I had been in rebellion against my deepest intuitions for many years, but now I'm returning. I'm returning to peace of mind and heart.

I chose that particular Lewis quote because after watching a dramatization of his conversion from Atheism to - not at first Christianity, but - a generic Theism, contained in the excellent PBS special The Question of God, I was moved to think about my own struggle.

When, in that dramatization, Lewis knelt by his in bed in his lonely room, clasped his hands in prayer, and, as his own later narration put it, "gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."

I couldn't help but think of how tired I had become of struggling with myself about the God question. And that is how I found peace. Not in being "converted" to anything; no, I had simply came to peace with what I had known in my heart since childhood: I do believe in God and never stopped believing. I tried to, I suppose, I had redefined God almost beyond all practical understanding. But to be honest with myself, I did believe God and do believe in God. I could never embrace the concept that I (and all of us) was a tiny and insignificant part of a huge cosmic accident, that existence was some freak incident coming, literally, out of nowhere, with no ultimate purpose whatsoever.

This has nothing to do with "the Bible God." Indeed, I don't think there is a "Bible God." There are several different visions of God in the Bible. The systematic theologians created the concept of "the Bible God." They ignore and downplay the evolution of the concept of God contained in their sacred literature.

No, what I think about God is that God is the Ultimate Reality, the cause and sustainer of this great morality play we call life.

I believe the various religions and concepts about God, mine included, are all imperfect human attempts to understand that Reality. Imperfect because we humans are finite creatures. I believe there is a Divine Source which waters the thousands of rivers and streams from which the spiritually minded drink and bath.

The word religion is also problematic. But I have found it somewhat indispensable in my efforts to explain what I believe. Here I suppose I must be content to take a quote from Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits which resonates with me:

The foundation of religion is not the affirmation that God is, but that God is concerned with man and the world; that, having created this world, he has not abandoned it, leaving it to its own devices; that he cares about his creation.

I must now leave untouched some the other points that were brought up in the original question. My still developing thoughts about those things will be the subject of future posts.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Gotta Believe!

Just by luck (or something) I found myself here at my desk this morning with the television on beside me. After the local news I switched over to Antennae TV just in time to catch a rerun of Here Come The Brides. I remember that show from its original run when I was kid. Didn't have much interest in it then as it was mostly over my head with its emphasis on the complexities of male-female relationships. But now I enjoy taking in a rerun every now and then.

Anyway, today's particular episode - one I had not previously seen - was A Man & His Magic, (Original air date: 12/4/68), starring the late, great character actor Jack Albertson (how I miss his work!) playing the role of a snake oil salesman and all round smooth-talker, appropriately enough named Merlin, who blew into Seattle in the midst of torrential rain storm. He boldly promised he could stop the rain, which was endangering the town and its businesses with the threat of flood. (By the way, this episode, if you are interested, is available on Youtube and perhaps other internet sources as well.)

Luck was with him and the rain did stop after he had performed his anti-rain ritual, as much to his own shock as anyone else's. The grateful townspeople passed the hat and gathered a donation for Merlin.

Former teenage heartthrob Bobby Sherman played the role on this series of youngest Bolt brother (the major protagonists), Jeremy. Jeremy was young, naive, simple and sweet, and he suffered from stuttering. But in this episode, Merlin actually manages to "cure" him of his stutter.

Merlin had further endeared himself to the town folk with his alcohol-laced "miracle elixir." Hooch has a well-deserved reputation (when not overdone) for being a merrymaker, and the people did indeed "feel better" after taking the elixir.

But as is the nature of life, reality soon sets in. The rains return and Merlin skips. Jeremy is shattered at the idea his miracle man is a huckster and his loss of faith brings back the stutter.

Should I blow a great ending by giving away the ending? Suffice it to say there is some great speech-making at the end on the importance of belief, after the middle Bolt brother (Joshua, played by David Soul) retrieves Merlin and brings him back to face the town. Merlin is eventually redeemed for his ability to inspire people to believe in magic, especially the "magic" inside themselves. Even oldest brother Jason Bolt lectures his little brother about the power of placebo.

Aaron Stempel, the series foil to the Bolt Brothers, serves as the token skeptic. Reasonable to a fault and not willing to suffer fools, he wants Merlin's hide. But in the end the townspeople, as most folks do in life, side with the magic.

All in all, a happy hour (with commercials, ugh!) well spent by me. And I think anyone could benefit from at least considering the moral of this story. Really, you need to see the episode to fully appreciate it. But I'm one who enjoys a good story, parable, or fable rich in meaning.

My cynical non-believing friends will not appreciate this, I'm sure. This type of thinking is "dangerous," they will suggest.

And yet anyone who has ever fallen in love with a special someone knows the power of belief, of hoping one's feelings are not misleading. Anyone who has ever succeeded at a difficult task, the accomplishing of which seemed remote at first, knows what I'm saying.

We need to believe in magic. We need hope to make life tolerable. Without faith, nothing gets accomplished. That is simply because there are no guarantees in life. But failure need not be final. And sometimes what at first seems like failure, in the end might prove not to be. Proper perspective does wonders for life assessment.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Making Of An Unbeliever

The stories we have to tell about how we came to or fell away from our beliefs about God is always a fascinating study for me. Last post I offered a few of my impressions about Ryan Bell, whose journey reminded me a bit of my own. Today I'm thinking of well known media mogul and entrepreneur turned philanthropist Ted Turner.

Once a vociferous critic of Christianity, calling it "a religion for losers," (for which comment he did apologize), Turner has softened towards the subject, if not returned to the faith of his childhood. He even says he occasionally prays in hopes there is "somebody out there." And he said (perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that he doesn't want to go to Hell.

His highly publicized marriage to actress to Jane Fonda was strained - to the say the least - by her decision to become a Christian. In her version of the story she just couldn't stand being smothered by Turner and felt she had to get out in order to go on living happily.

Happily, Turner and Fonda became close again after their wounds healed.

So Turner has softened and as a CNN story states regarding his thoughts about God, "These days, he keeps the door open a crack. He allows for the possibility."

Well and good.

Turner claims to be a skeptic by nature, but it can't be denied that the pivotal season of his faith life came in his youth with the death of his sister, after she suffered a painful death from complications of a rare form of lupus. In his own words, again quoting the CNN story:

She was sick for five years before she passed away. And it just seemed so unfair, because she hadn't done anything wrong. What had she done wrong? And I couldn't get any answers. Christianity couldn't give me any answers to that. So my faith got shaken somewhat.

How often unanswered prayers and the problem of human suffering presents an almost insurmountable obstacle to faith! This was not many years removed from the young Turner who had toyed with the idea of being a missionary.

It's a familiar story. You close the door but then it doesn't want to stay closed. I hope that in the end he finds peace.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

I Recognize That Road

I've been following the story of former Seventh-Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell and his experiment of living for a year without God. After a period of doubt, especially fueled by the feeling that his prayers were pointless, and his yearlong break from God, Bell seems poised to make his break final. (At least for now.)

Now that last comment wasn't meant to be snarky. However, many of us have drifted away from our beliefs about God and the role religion played in our lives, only to return in some form later. I'm particularly sympathetic because unanswered prayer was a real catalyst for my journey out of faith ... and then many years later, for a return back to it.

Also as with me, a painful marriage breakdown figured prominently in Bell's loss of faith. As his prayers seemed to be bouncing off the ceiling and back at him, he also contemplated the impossibility of reconciling science and the Bible, and also the big one: the problem of evil. I know that road so well.

Bell has noticed what it took a little longer for me to fully appreciate, in his words:

Being with the atheists, they can have the same sort of obnoxious certainty that some Christians have, and I don’t want to be a part of that. It feels like I’m stuck in the middle.

That passionate arrogance that I at first found so delicious as I drunk at the wells of the great wealth of infidel literature, after a while filled me up to the bursting. Perhaps it came quicker for Bell because he actually hung out with the skeptics and attended their conventions. I simply dropped out of church and continued to read and think. Watching the God debate unfold over the internet really opened my eyes. I was amazed as I watched atheists parrot the cliches of their superstars, not unlike the way intellectually lazy religious believers repeated, often verbatim, the pop-theology of their heroes.

It remains to be seen how Ryan Bell navigates his way through all this. After all, a year is a drop in the bucket compared to the many years he spent in the faith.

My own journey took me to Deism for a while. Later I went into an agnostic mode, one in which I stayed for many years. But deep down inside there was something in me that never died. If I couldn't go back to biblical faith, perhaps I could merge that something inside with my current more science-based understanding of reality. Voila! My pantheistic phase. (Needless to say the actually jorney was not a neat as I present it here as a retrospective; there jumps and starts and falls back and such.)

When I was in my agnostic phase I was very much impressed with the writings of two atheists in particular, Bertrand Russell and Antony Flew. Both of those men were once believers or at least molded in their youth by the Christian faith. Russell never returned to God, but he seemed never to have found exactly what he was looking for either. Flew, on the other hand, and surprisingly enough knowing his writings as I do, did find his way back. And that really got me to thinking about my own journey.

Blaise Pascal wrote, "In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't." The problems that lead us to doubt can be offset with possible solutions. Yet it seems to take something more to push us over one side of the line or the other.

It was at that point that I began to consider the sensus divinitatis (or sense of divinity) a little more carefully. Overwhelmingly down through history humans have been religious. I don't think that is because of an ignorance that needed to be driven out of the human soul. I think it is there because the Creator placed it there. Certainly it can be stifled, perhaps totally eradicated. But many is the atheist that has made a statement to the effect that they wish they could still believe, but alas, their devotion to reason has shut off that door. Is that wish the religious sense causing discord inside?

I wish Mr. Bell all the best as he travels along his journey. I recognize that road.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Burden

To my non-believing readers and cyber friends:

Horrible, horrible things have been done throughout history in the name of God. I know that some of the most vile, condescending people imaginable practice their odiousness in the name of God and religion.

That behavior tarnishes every one of us who believe in God. The ideas that "religion poisons everything" (Hitchens) and that belief in God is a "delusion" (Dawkins), draw a line in the sand at exactly the wrong place, I believe. Those who practice evil in the name of God are the poisoners and the deluded.

"God said it, I believe it," the battle cry of our religious fundamentalist friends and neighbors. They have so much trouble looking beyond the pages of their cherished scriptures, in the process throwing away the fruit of centuries of human progress. They feel especially threatened by science, even though the majority of us believers don't. The opprobrium due them will hang over the heads of folks like myself, even though we hate witch hunts (literally), inquisitions, holy wars and etc., as much as the nonbeliever, nor can we fathom practicing racism and sexism in the name of ancient sacred tradition.

I am not one of them and their load is more than I could bear.