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Controversies over Christian Faith

February 3, 2016

I found myself compelled to respond to a comment on another blog discussing Progressive Christianity… whether or not it is dying (and should at least be pronounced terminal).

The article, satirizing an anti-progressive one, I found clever and provocative. Discussion was extensive.  After posting a couple comments, I realized the second one is a crucial enough point, in itself, to be worth posting on my own blog.  So here it is, with only minimal editing:

It amazes me how people use the biblical phrase “…faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Exactly what was “delivered”? And when was the “once”? And how was it delivered? And just who were “the saints” referred to? Both scholars and lay people can use canonical Scripture (itself a very dicey concept, but accepted here for sake of argument) to legitimately answer these questions in very different ways.

For example, though less common in recent decades, it wasn’t that long ago that Protestants and Roman Catholics, in general, gave very different descriptions of what WAS that “faith once for all…” Means of salvation, authority of tradition/church leaders, and much more seen very much in opposition. And that’s not even touching arguments within both Protestant and RCC branches, orders, denominations, etc. Shouldn’t surprise us, though….

The reason the NT can be used to argue quite different theologies is that the NT authors themselves were not operating from anything close to a unified, widely accepted, “delivered” set of beliefs or priorities, despite the claim of Jude.

O.K… We Don’t Have the Religion and Politics Thing Figured Out!

January 28, 2016

Lest any of us get complacent, thinking we understand people’s real priorities when it comes to faith in relation to politics, here’s some more news that we don’t (at least most of us).  A Pew Research article presents some interesting polling results, yet again this “silly season” (which seems sillier than any in our memory):

Faith and the 2016 Campaign

GOP candidates seen as religious – except for Trump

I won’t speculate on lessons from the Trump phenomenon here, but I think it’s clear they are many… and mostly disturbing!

Thoughts on Bestselling “The Harbinger”

January 23, 2016

First, this is not intended as a “book review”.  Just a response to some aspects of the message of the book.  I noticed that on Amazon there are over 8000 reviews.  I’d point you there to find some good ones if that’s your interest.  Full disclosure: I haven’t read even one of them there or elsewhere.

I could tell just from the cover where the book was likely “coming from” in terms of theological framework and “America’s future”.  It’s my former bailiwick.  Twenty-some years ago now, but I still keep up on it peripherally.

Anyway, my hunches were confirmed (and not happily, though I admit to enjoying the read on certain levels).  Basically, it says America is in the process of being judged (for departing from God’s ways) and needs to “return to God”.  This idea drives the word “return” to be probably the most repeated word in the book, along with “God”.  Right up there also would be “prophecy”, “harbinger”, and “seal(s)”.  “Seals” refer to objects at the core of the story; and of course, they are famous in Christianity from the “seven seals” of the book of Revelation, ending of the Bible (not insignificantly last, in the psychology of believers).

While I’ve implied disagreement  (and might add concern) with the book’s message, let me quickly “come alongside” with partial agreement.  I do believe America (or any nation) is in line for “judgment” when it does evil things.  But I see that more as natural and people-driven consequences one might put under a broader “law of sowing and reaping” shared by many religions and philosophies.  Not God’s supposedly personal enactment of punishment for misdeeds.  Similarly with personal “judgment”.  And the things I’d view as most evil would often be either unknown to the author, Cahn, or be way down his list.  Seems the decrease of public prayer (probably including the 1962 school prayer decision though he doesn’t name it), continuation of abortion and familiar politically right-of-center issues are key concerns for him, along with materialism and things more broadly recognized as antithetical to spirituality.

Cahn doesn’t spend much time on the personal side of coming judgment. But he does focus sharply on the need to “choose to be saved”, using several familiar Evangelical metaphors like “receiving” God’s gift, “opening one’s heart” “committing one’s life”. And to whom or what?  Interestingly, I never noticed “to Christ”.  Rather, as a converted Jew, Cahn speaks mainly of Yeshua, the Hebrew form of the more commonly translated “Jesus”.  Referring to him, on p. 233, Cahn says, “In the Day of Judgment, there’s no safe ground… no salvation, except in Him who is salvation” [ellipsis and italics his].  He goes on to invoke the “born again” concept taken mainly from the Gospel of John which is, of course, a popular term in American vernacular.

And the nature of personal judgment for not “choosing” Yeshua? Eternal death.  I didn’t note references to eternal punishment or burning in hell, but the picture is pretty stark none-the-less.  This is distinctly a Christian concept relative to the Jewish idea of salvation as primarily in reference to the independence and godly direction of the nation of Israel (or Judah).  In terms of this, Cahn is correct that the Hebrew scriptural quotes he develops so heavily (mainly Isa. 9:10) refer to national judgment for “God’s chosen nation”.

It is not until last couple chapters that he turns the emphasis to personal judgment and the need to avoid it by commitment to God through Jesus.  He spends very little time on explaining the theological linkage needed to jump from national to personal.  Where he does, it is along the lines of the popular idea of the substitutionary atonement accomplished by Jesus’ death.  He of course doesn’t mention (and may not realize) that this view is often seen as problematic even in Christian orthodoxy.

He does develop the linkage of America to Israel as he applies the Isaiah prophecy to current-day America.  It’s not a logically nor theologically argued case as much as a matter of quotes from George Washington and other “founding fathers”.  He fails to even acknowledge the great differences between then and now, in the milieu and popular concepts of God and theology among many of the founding fathers, as deists.  (If one reads things written by even some of the more “traditional” theists such as John Adams, and reads about his education and views, this is readily apparent.)  This linkage is not a valid or helpful one in the view of many of us well studied in both the Bible and history.  The United States is not the first country to often view itself as the “new Israel”.  Great Britain had many citizens and statesmen claiming the same thing before and after this country picked up the concept.  And, to my knowledge, Latter Day Saints believe the same for their true “Church of Jesus Christ” – new Israel, with Salt Lake City viewed as the new Zion.  (LDS readers feel free to correct me if that’s wrong.)

A question that kept returning to me as I kept reading the call for us (US) to “return to God” was, “What does ‘returning’ involve?” “What does that look like?” I never got a clear answer to that.  It seemed to involve, though vaguely, more public acknowledgment of God and more seeking of God for direction, etc.  I presume it would require more leaders with personal commitments to Yeshua as well… reinforcing the linkage between the blessings/cursings pronounced upon Israel with those upon America.  Via the lead character, Nouriel, Cahn calls on everyone to return to God.

But just what one is expected to believe in doing so he never spells out.  Implied, however, is belief in the “standard fare” of traditional Protestantism, and particularly of American Evangelicalism.  I suspect that the largest share of his more than 2 million readers are from this large American group, loosely defined.  Will the book help to stimulate a new wave of conversions to this kind of faith, or of some more general “return to God”?  Ironically, in a broad definition, the increase of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” in recent years may constitute some of which he’s hoping for, though not in the form he’d probably recognize or accept as “returning to God.”

Interesting “Pew” Findings on Spiritual Peace and Well-Being

January 21, 2016

What are we to make of this? A new Pew Research finding is that in recent years, a growing percentage of Americans regularly experience feelings of “spiritual peace and well-being”. More also regularly feel “a deep sense of wonder about the universe”.  The article released by Pew (here) notes that increased reports are coming not just from churched and religious people but also those who claim the “spiritual but not religious” label… and even some atheists.

When you overlay these findings with some seemingly opposite trends, it makes you ponder what may be going on, really.  If Pew’s findings can be taken as broadly true over the country, why the ever-higher (according to virtually every pundit) levels of anger and frustration about “the direction the country is headed” or the dysfunction of government?

Do most people keep their categories separate enough that they can be steaming mad about political issues (often cast in religious terms) or other things only part of the day or week? And during another part, find that inner peace?  Maybe… but one would hope the peace and well-being would spread out enough that people might keep rationality and civility engaged when working for their brand of political solution, lauding their favorite (often flame-throwing) candidate. That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.  But then statistics are funny things…. I’m signing off as it’s now my meditation time.

If God is Love…

September 21, 2015

I like to occasionally post something really big-picture and positive…. hopefully uplifting and stimulating.  After I wrote a reply on the fascinating blog, The Evangelical Liberal, I realized it might make sense as a short post of its own here.  So, with slight modifications for context here it is:

…. I don’t recall what I may have said here before…. I may have mentioned the Process theology approach. It is a sort of “middle ground” perspective between historic orthodoxy (Evangelicalism and broader) and classic liberalism.

That is mainly in its conception of the nature of God and the God-world interaction. Although I don’t know that the Anglican Church ([of the blog author] or Episcopal in my U.S. setting) is much “into” Process formally, it probably is as close to being in sync as about any denomination…. My own, the United Church of Christ, is also, but not nearly as large or world-wide as Anglican.

The Wikipedia article on Process theology can serve as a good summary I won’t try to repeat, even in short form here. Let me just focus on my own “process” (not Process) a moment:

While I’ve know about and been influenced by Process for over 20 years (I’m about to turn 66), I think it’s just been a year or less that I’ve really focused in on what I now think may be the single most important concept (it applies strongly to the Evangelical/Liberal divide): God, as perfect Love, is never and can never be coercive. “He” is not threatening nor punishing. As non-coercive, God does not even interrupt natural “laws” (e.g., with miracles, nor with “creation out of nothing”). His creation of “our world” was out of chaos (Gen. 1), the difference having major implications for the “problem of evil”, etc. (recommended: a great, short book by a top Process guy, David R. Griffin, titled Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith).

The effect of affirming God as only Love (thus non-avenging, non-violent) is to undercut much of “orthodoxy”, including ACTUAL separation from God, need for sacrifice (including Jesus’ as supposedly “substitutionary atonement” or “ransom”), or possibility of eternity in hell. (Jesus did not actually teach any of these, I’m convinced, despite a few Gospel passages that seem to suggest it.)

Process has a more nuanced view of revelation in Scripture and Jesus than does “liberalism”. Importantly, it also reconciles (at least the best I think it can be done to date) divine persuasive action (which can look like “miracles”, as can subtle natural processes science tends to ignore or deny) with natural processes (as seen in evolution).
In other words, God draws us to creative and/or loving actions that further God’s agenda of unity and peace, and God does NOT punish any failings or even willful resistance to that by us. Ahhhh… we can RELAX! (And deal with our own revenge problem when we see people who hurt others, or us, and seem to “get away with it”.) Now, I don’t buy into this just SO I can relax…. Relaxation/peace is the result of this more “real” picture of reality.

This ring any (hopefully beautiful) bells for anyone? (If so, please tell us.)

On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism

August 27, 2015

This article is important… very well put. Good clarification for people who are not themselves literalists (i.e., ideologically driven). True “literalists” (ideologues) will either not understand or not agree with the points… UNLESS they are on the way out themselves, as many are.

And Harris (with some others), as bright as he is, indeed does commit the kind of analytical errors Daniel points out here. A much more helpful and accurate appraisal of the “varieties of religious experience” (ala William James) and religious culture can be found in Ken Wilber and Integral Theory.

Daniel O. McClellan

I recently read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. It was an interesting, albeit laughably uninformed, manifesto against religion, but one aspect of the author’s fundamental argument struck me as particularly poorly conceived and communicated: the notion of “scriptural literalism.” In an effort to marginalize and dismiss the experiences and perspectives of more liberal and progressive religionists, Harris must build a case for the purity of the lived religion of fundamentalists, and the centrality of “scriptural literalism.” That is, Harris insists that those who adhere to the “literal” meaning, or the “letter” of the scriptures, are more pious and genuine practitioners of their faith. Those who reject that “scriptural literalism” are feeding off of secular insights and so are not true practitioners of their religion. “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism,” he insists, “do not open from the inside” (18–19, emphasis in original). Liberal religion is just religion mixed…

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Did I Meet Evangelicals or Emergents at “Seizing an Alternative” Conference

August 22, 2015

I can’t believe I did that! I guess I never got back to answering the question I posed before attending the “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization” conference in early June.  And I gave only one short report on the conference a few days after it.  Sorry!

I’m not going to do much reporting on old “news” now, other than to reiterate that the conference was a unique and particularly important event.  Mainly for the focus on not just the civilizational challenges facing us but what we can do about them… and right away!  The broad consensus seemed to echo what is now coming out of the Federal Government, delivered by President Obama: That the chance to at least potentially make a reversal in lethal trends is quickly slipping away.  We may be the last generation with the chance.  

The consensus, in this setting, was not coming from mainly climate scientists (this was not a technical conference for “insiders” like that).  Rather, some of the brightest and most ethically, compassionately motivated people in the world (China and other nations, not just the US) were sharing out of the insights of their own disciplines, as they interact with others on climate change, ecology, economy, etc.  People like Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson of The Land Institute, Herman Daly (world-class retired economist), John Cobb and David Griffin (world-class retired philosopher/theologians) and many others.

By the way, for any climate-change-deniers you may know, you might make them aware that many of the presenters (and I know particularly so in John Cobb and David Griffin) are extremely skilled in critical analysis and are “skeptics” about the good will of government in many cases.  They are not ones to be snowed if indeed, as people like U.S. Senator, Jim Inhof of Oklahoma claim, there is a massive collusion among scientists that amounts to a hoax… or even just sloppy work.  Deep skills in philosophy/theology are very akin to those in science.  Science emerged from the “Queen of the Sciences” in primarily the 17th century, initially as “natural philosophy”.   Only later did its naturalistic assumptions cause a deep rift with much of religion.  There is no careful and deep analysis, that I’ve ever been able to find (and I’ve looked some), in the “denier” position… just psychological or loyalty (think $, mainly) resistances.

Anyway, to finally answer my own question, I did indeed find a few people at the conference who self-identify as Evangelical.  But very few.  And the only two I can recall are both clearly more progressive and open than most of their counterparts or institutions they are a part of.  One of them, Dr. Thomas Jay Oord, had recently been fired by the school he had taught at for many years, Northwest Nazarene University, over theological issues.

Now, I met only a tiny portion of the 1500 people who attended.  There were about 12 sections with about 70 “tracks” so I imagine there could have been a few Evangelicals scattered around.  However, many of the participants were not religious at all… some from engineering/ecology or other scientific disciplines may actually be anti-religious though willing to work with partners where they can find them.  Overall, not a place I had expected to see many from the more conservative side of Christian faith, and those expectations seemed confirmed.  This is a sad situation.  But I do see many, particularly younger Evangelicals, making moves (often out of Evangelical circles) that are beginning to make a difference.

What are your observations, especially if you also attended?




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