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Easter Brings Discussions of Jesus Broader than Just Resurrection

April 15, 2017

Did you ever wonder why it’s “news” that the Pope celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday? Or that Christians all over the world were commemorating Jesus’ Resurrection? Oh, well… understanding that one is out of my field of studies, I presume.

My headline points out that, as seasonal creatures, we naturally tend to cycle what’s on our minds in parallel with our cultural and/or religious celebrations.  Whether you’re religious, spiritual-but-not-religious or non-religious and non-spiritual in your interests, you may encounter extra articles, radio or TV pieces and such that deal with Jesus around now.  I hope you take time to read some of them.  Fascinating stuff.

Fascinating on more than one level.  Some of them deal with the question of the existence of an actual historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ.  This makes it fascinating in terms of a puzzle of history.  And a revelation of the difficulties of finding any “objective” history from ancient times or even perhaps today.    

One good article by a solid biblical scholar is in The GuardianAnother, which I’ve commented on under the article, interacting with other commenters, is by psychologist and former Evangelical Christian, Valerie Tarico, found here.  They come from differing perspectives and both cite relevant modern experts and ancient documents, or the interesting lack of them.  Neither is technical nor hard to read so I recommend them both for a broad audience.

Another level of fascination brought out by informed discussions on Jesus and very early Christianity is “watching” the formation of the world’s largest religion (though we are missing much more of the story than the parts we do have).  There are so, so many lessons applicable to today’s situation both in the Middle East, here in America, and everywhere else.  Issues of cultural and ethnic tensions and how they sometimes are transcended, sometimes remain tense for incredibly long periods.  Issues of how the seemingly necessary “myths” of life’s meaning, spiritual “reality”, our destiny and such things are developed and sometimes changed rapidly.

I’ll expand briefly on just the matter about myth-making.  This comes up quickly and often emotionally in discussions of what is historical or not, from Jesus’ very existence, to what he said and did, to how Christianity was actually founded and by whom.  It’s right that it should come up.  Believers (all types of Christians, not just “born again” or literalist types) need to much better understand the reality and process of myth-making in general and in the founding of their faith in particular.   And non-believers or doubters with nagging questions often need to be much better informed on myth-making as well, and on what does stand on solid historical ground regarding Jesus and his early followers, even when much of it cannot be pinned down with specificity.

My own fascination may exist because of an early and quite long education in the Bible and Christian faith followed by a long widely-searching period and then much more study in both formal and self-guided modes in particularly New Testament and related texts and the subject of “Christian origins”.  This last phase has included exploration of the process of myth-making and its relation to cultural and/or nationalistic issues.  I will say categorically,

It is impossible to very deeply understand even one’s own culture–its values, memes, sense of place in the world–overall what drives it, without some examination of the mythology behind it.  This is particularly true for “Christian America”.

The scholar I’ve encountered who has developed the most (in my exposure in English language work) on myth-making within Christianity is Burton Mack (“Who Wrote the New Testament”, “The Christian Myth”, etc.)  He has developed “Social Interest Theory” along with anthropologist Jonathan Z Smith in a lot of detail.  It has strong explanatory power… a key test of the validity and usefulness of any systematic theory.  Some of his work is fairly technical, some of it not.  So I recommend some exploration of him to readers all along the scale of education on religion or Christianity and its formation.

But there are a whole lot of other authors who have made important contributions to this area.  Too many to begin naming them here.  But I do encourage you to look into any author’s credentials and try to identify his or her perspective (religious commitment and in what setting, an anti-religious sentiment, etc.).  This almost inevitably coincides, to varying degrees, with intellectual bias and with reasons a person researches and writes on a given topic.

Pope Francis Acting as a Spiritual Leader Should

April 11, 2017

I’m a progressive Christian. Not a Catholic. But I like a number of things about Pope Francis.  His stand on preserving the earth (so our children and grandchildren survive).  Also his support of immigrants and their needs.

You take your allies where you can get them.  The Pope’s concerns are worldwide, not just in relation to the United States, nor just the Americas.  But his perspective is quite clearly different from that of many in this country (USA) – all the way to the top, our current president.   Note the statement of one US bishop, as quoted by the Washington Post:

“‘The pope makes it a lot easier for me to be a bishop because he’s very clear in his teaching, and [on] this one in particular, he’s trying to awaken the conscience of the citizens of the world,’ Cupich said.”

I don’t agree with the Roman Catholic claim to be the earthly organization representing Christ.  In general, I perceive that organizations are not very good at discerning and applying spiritual realities, whether the words of Christ, the rest of the Bible or holy books of other religions.  But we need them.  And we can celebrate when a leader of one is as courageous and clearly driven by love more than by power, as is this Pope.

I highly recommend the article from which I quoted above, found here.  It also discusses Catholics who differ with Pope Francis on the immigration issue, both here and in other nations, so more than just a “feel good” piece.  Yet it is an uplifting story of the care and courage of a religious leader which we seldom see, whether you agree with him on his exact approach and positions or not.

It is not and should not be only political leaders who exert influence on the matters we elect them to administer.  Francis seeks to improve the immigration problem by encouraging us to love and to serve – attitudes and actions that counter the fear and possessiveness driving much of the reaction to migration, whether it’s legal or illegal.

My Theology Lets me Imagine a Nation of California – Part 2

April 8, 2017

Would a California Nation be “solid as a rock”, like the massive granite, Half Dome? (In Yosemite, California, as pictured.)  I happen to think it would.  I gave a few of the reasons in Part 1.

But let me repeat that I’m not saying it’s necessarily a wise or practical thing to move in that direction.  However, it’s fairly likely that a proposition about it will be on our 2018 California ballot. So I’m featuring the idea to stimulate some thinking about it on a spiritual basis.  (For now, I’m merging the concepts of “religious” and “spiritual”, though I do think there are important separate usages of the terms.)

A key reason for encouraging deeper thought is that recent US elections, beyond just fall of 2016, indicate many people use shallow religious reasons or alliances for voting as they do.  We might say they are quasi-religious reasons in that they seem actually more cultural or economic with a mere veneer of the religious.  This is somewhat the case world-wide, but the USA is more deeply religious than Europe or much of the Western World.  For this and other reasons there is a stronger and more direct effect of religion in our politics than in many countries.

For California voters or US or foreign onlookers who consider themselves Christian (broadly defined, not just “born again” or Evangelical), let’s look at teachings of Jesus and Paul, particularly.  Are there any which might guide throwing our support, or not, to some form of Calexit? I think there are some principles which apply, though neither of these leaders spoke very specifically about political organization, and voting was nearly unknown or irrelevant to their audiences at the time.

Of course, both Jesus and Paul spoke a lot about kingdoms… of this world and of another place and order entirely.  I see both men as operating, in somewhat different ways, within the apocalyptic prophet “movement” of ancient (or “Second Temple”) Judaism.  To oversimplify significantly, they were expecting the direct intervention of God to establish the “Kingdom of God”, both on earth and in heaven …. So a form of theocracy.  With Paul, unlike with Jesus, who remained culturally Jewish all his life, one could say that apocalyptic views that were basically Jewish had become “Christian”.  Paul had incorporated Gentiles, seriously tweaked Pharisaic Jewish theology, and broadened outreach.  The result was that the Jewish Jesus-following sect was universalized as Christianity was “founded.”

I should insert here that my own brand of Jesus-following does not expect any “supernatural” (i.e., miraculous) intervention to establish a Utopian “kingdom” although I believe God has been and will always exert loving influence toward improvements in human governance.  

My explanation of “apocalyptic” in the thinking of Jesus and Paul is important on two counts: First, that it is often overlooked or downplayed in interpreting the Gospels and Paul’s writings, leading to distortions of New Testament theology.  Second, that this is a key example of why it is complex and tricky to apply their teachings to situations within any political structure, and especially to those within a modern democracy.

The distortions produced include seeing Jesus too far removed from political/prophetic involvement.  Contrary to this view, his execution was clearly by Rome (not the Jews) as a threatening figure in terms of political stability.  Although he was not fomenting armed resistance, it was resistance none the less.

As to distortions of Paul, his generally accepting or passive stance toward governing authorities, based largely on Romans 13, can’t (or shouldn’t) be easily translated over to contemporary times.  If one is, as was Paul, expecting the very-soon appearing of Christ and “final judgment”, one tends to be less concerned about challenging or improving political conditions.  So with that super-brief treatment of Paul’s politics, let’s say his input toward a California-US divorce is tough to determine and would perhaps be neutral.

So what about the teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels? (The Gospels cannot be taken to consistently reflect what he actually said or did, according to most biblical scholars and serious students of the New Testament, but we’ll set that matter aside for now and take things as expressed.) What that he is storied as saying might apply to the issue of California exiting the United States?

Again, nothing seems to apply directly.  Much of the reason is this: The political situation of the Israel of Jesus’ time was quite different than ours.  For centuries, the civil governance of the nation had been interwoven with its religion. “Judges” and then Kings had autocratic authority over much, but a great deal of economic and social life was governed by Torah (the legal part of the Hebrew Bible) and administered by the tribal/familial line of priests.  By the time we get to the first century, the “second” Temple of the post-Babylonian Exile period, upgraded magnificently by Herod the Great, was more than a place of animal sacrifice and worship.  Much more.  It was effectively the center of economic activity, record-keeping and administration of much of what made both Judea and Galilee tick. (These were the major regions often referred to in the New Testament).

Again, much of civil as well as religious governance was with the High Priest and administrative, functional layers of priests, under the control of first King Herod (or his sons, Herod Antipas, “that fox”, or Archelaus, by Jesus’ time) and then the Roman local governance.  The latter is seen famously (if in some distortion in the Gospels) in Pilate.  The Romans had been wise enough, since taking direct control of the region in 63 BCE, to allow the Jews their religion and cultural practices and much of their own economic governance.  However, it was always under the oppressive taxation and tight anti-insurgency control of Rome and its vast military.

So one can easily imagine the high level of corruption, particularly because King Herod and his family were inter-married with Roman Gentiles.  As half-Jews, the line was not fully accepted as legitimate kings, nor of course the Romans as legitimate overlords, being non-Jewish and “heathens”.  So the Temple represented and actually was the center of a highly oppressive and corrupt system in which the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

This is the important context for the well-remembered scene, known even by non Bible readers, in which Jesus “cleanses the Temple”.  At the least, this was brief and purely symbolic… a prophetic gesture calling leadership to account for the systemic corruption that clearly broke the spirit of Torah, if not often its letter as well.  At the most, it may have led, perhaps unintentionally by Jesus, to a serious riot or violent protest involving many people and leading to Jesus’ arrest and charge of sedition. (See my posts here and here for more.)

Whatever exactly happened, it seems clear that an important, probably pivotal incident of challenge for a more just and fair economy and implementation of laws took place.  In it, we find a model that is at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity – the tradition of prophets (and earlier, legislators) who call for economic justice and the opportunity for all to thrive.  In my view, elements of this tradition are reflected in the US historically in both conservative and liberal parties and wings of parties, the balance and specific features varying over time.

So how does this relate to theological applications in a possible Calexit? And do Jesus’ teachings give any further guidance?

In my mind one connection is this: If California, as a state, seems clearly to express more of the positive elements of governance expressed by Jesus and elsewhere in the Bible (and the better periods and aspects of Christian history) than does the USA as whole, then Calexit is at least worth examining.

As to anything else specific to be gleaned from Jesus, I would cite his teachings of forgiveness and servant leadership.  Sure, these are generally taken, as they may have mainly been intended, for personal conduct more than civil governance.  But do things need to be fully reversed when “scaled up”? Does a nation absolutely need to use coercion on a broad scale, either internally or internationally, to generally provide for peace and a just set of economic policies? I think not.  At least not in the extreme fashion seen in both the military of the US and in our run-away practices of imprisonment.

Finally, does not Jesus’ call to provide for “the least” (or “underprivileged”, less able) among us apply to some extent, at minimum, to policies of civil government? (Some of this was included in the civil law of Torah in things like gleaning laws, Jubilee, etc.)  I say “some extent” as a word to my more conservative friends who believe the private sector alone is responsible for this social function.  I think it’s abundantly clear that Americans have long treated this as a matter of degree, not an either-or, despite rhetoric from large elements within conservatism.    

So, if the US as a whole should distance itself further and further from sensible policies of social welfare (which appears right now to be happening), and California continues to support and promote such things, this may add justification, on a theological basis, for Calexit.  Similarly with respect to the use of science in critical areas like climate change and ecological civilization.  Of course, science was not a developed area of study apart from theology in biblical times.  But the issue is, to me, more one of submission to the serious pursuit of truth versus denying reality for the sake of short-term aims.

I have not sought, even for myself, to fully develop a wholistic rationale (theological and otherwise) for evaluating a possible exit of California from the Union, but these are some of my early thoughts.

Your thoughts on the subject, whether you’re from California or not, are welcomed!




Greco-Roman Religions and the New Testament

April 7, 2017

This brief article offers some interesting and important facts about the religious environment of the Roman territories, outside of Israel, in which Christianity saw most of its early growth.

Reading Acts

Greco-Roman Religions might be considered “the competition” of early Christianity, but this is not a fair description of how religions functioned in the first century.

A Guardian lares

First, in the first century, religion was rarely a choice. A person owed worship to a god because of a civic or family obligation or because the god is associated with a trade. A person living in the Roman world would not even think in terms of “converting” from one god to another, since gods had various functions; motivations were purely practical.  If one was going to sea, one appeased sea gods. In fact, the idea of choosing to worship a particular god was the attraction of the mystery cult. One might become a worshiper of Mithras by choice, although obligated to also worship other gods.

“The family cult was also the natural point of departure for the veneration of the dead…

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My Theology Lets me Imagine a Nation of California – Part 1

April 4, 2017

Let me be clear right off: This 2-post series is mostly whimsical.  I’m going to indulge my imaginative side. But I’ll interweave some fascinating California (my home state) events with important thinking from a spiritual perspective.  Since I have more new readers recently, first, my spiritual “location”:

I’m a somewhat begrudging “member” of institutional Christianity… of a very progressive sort (having been more traditional/conservative about 45 of my 67 years).  I almost identify more with the “spiritual but not religious” sentiment.  But I know well the positive power of the Christian tradition and of faith communities so I am involved in one.  It is part of the United Church of Christ (Congregational… a progressive branch of a line of churches going way back to the independence-minded folks of America’s founding, who’d departed from the Anglican fellowship and sought “congregational” governance rather than a church hierarchy).

Now, as to a “Nation of California”, with Brexit underway, why not Calexit? Yes, that’s already a term… I’m not inventing it!  A good number of Californians are serious about seeing if California can become its own nation.  I clearly am biased, but just on the merits of being a potentially good nation and neighbor to the remaining 49 states of America and the rest of the world, I think we can and perhaps should imagine prospects and explore the idea. (Not that I’m actually for it, at least at this point, nor do I think Californians are likely to be! But the way things have been lately, that could change.)

A couple more facts: There indeed is a fully legal and peaceful effort to place a referendum on the 2018 California state-wide ballot.  Supporters hope that could lead to actual steps to secede from the US and become a separate nation.  Needing under 600,000 signatures to get on the ballot, out of over 18 million voters, this is feasible. It appears even likely. And polling shows roughly 32 percent support for at least the concept of Calexit. Of course polling this far removed means very little.

Also, support for a referendum on the ballot is far from the same as support for even an attempt at secession.  I will note that the uncertainties and complexities of a possible split are massive.  For example, there is lack of clarity on the constitutionality of the move, as far as I know.  But, in a sad and disturbing US political environment, let’s play a little with the idea.  I’d suggest it can be a potentially helpful “thought experiment”.  And provide some entertaining diversion when the more real-and-present dangers get us down.  And I’ll have some fun introducing non-Californians, and those who’ve not been so lucky as to spend some time here, to my state.

In the second part, I will go more into the Calexit-related issues of spirituality and theological thinking that sync up with the teachings of Jesus and the example of the earliest Christians. But for now, a little more California braggin’ (recall “California dreamin'”) for those not familiar with our great state. The notion of a nation here makes some sense.  We’re certainly large enough: almost 800 miles long by 250 miles wide, with a Pacific coastline of well over that 800 miles.

Our geography includes almost everything seen worldwide from vast flat agricultural valleys (especially the Central and Imperial Valleys) to the snow-clad, very steep Sierra Nevada mountain range… the picture above is Half Dome, from a fall visit of mine to the deservedly-famous Yosemite National Park).

We also have a lot of desert of varying terrain and great beauty.



Then we have thick forests including famous coastal Redwoods (some over 300 feet tall) and inland Sequoias even more massive though slightly less tall. My own Southern California area allows an energetic person to surf in the Pacific, ski in the San Bernardino or San Jacinto Mountains (below)…


… and ride on Ocotillo or Glamis sand dunes in the same day… potentially with no wet suit and no jacket.  I no longer pursue such recreation, but am more than satisfied with incredible hiking, just a couple miles from my door (below), or further afield.


20170326_112434Does outdoor recreation get any better than this (plus much more)?

It’s going to be boring to switch to economics and such for California, so I’ll just say this: At roughly the economic ranking (if we were a nation) of sixth in the world, I think we’d have more than viability… maybe some real influence.  As to our political stance, we are decidedly liberal – about an 18 percentage point edge of registered Democrats to Republicans, with a large independent (or “decline to state” on registration) bunch of voters. We consistently lead the US in high standards for carbon emissions and clean air and water. We also have a highly inventive and techy streak (Silicon Valley), certainly a world leader in that regard.

So one can begin to see that many Californians could get excited by the idea that we might be better off on our own as a nation.  If one were to approach the prospect from a wholistic and spiritual more than a strictly political stance (though the two are inevitably mixed), how might the thinking go? More on that in the next post.

Can a Theology Conference Have Practical Effects?

February 23, 2017

Yes, theologians can be more action-oriented people than you may think! Especially ones that would gather at a place like Claremont….

Claremont School of Theology, that is.  Intertwined with Claremont grad school, and especially its program in “Philosophy of Religion and Theology.”

In some important ways, the “New Frontiers in Theology” conference I was lucky enough to attend last week-end was a follow-up to “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization” of June, 2015 (see here and here).  That was a much larger conference, at neighboring Pomona College, of around 2000 people and was strongly oriented toward action.  It was attended and led by people from many academic fields and streams of activism, oriented around how to save both the planet and quality of life along the way.

Theology, once the “queen of the sciences”, is no longer thought of as impacting science, business or other “practical” things.  But it does! And many of the theologians and philosophers gathered last week-end at Claremont want to take that further.  The single topic that reflected the most urgency was climate change.

The man pictured, Alfred North Whitehead, was on the forefront of bringing together science and theology.  That is, helping re-join the two after a couple centuries in which they had drifted apart and science had claimed the larger influence over most of civilization.  And this was not an “ecological” civilization.  Whitehead was a master mathematician-turned-philosopher with a passion to show how relativity theory and quantum mechanics gave us insights into the nature of reality… God included within that reality (yet existing beyond it, in some sense).

In just that last sentence, you get some picture of why Whitehead, primarily in the 1920s and 30s, began a way of understanding all-that-is (reality) which is important for science, for theology (and religions), and for everything else. His work and that following him by “process” philosophers and theologians is really a new paradigm.  “Paradigm” has become a cliche but its meaning of a way of perceiving and interpreting our inner and outer worlds fits here better than about anywhere else.  Process thought has all along been highly concerned with ecology and the natural environment, as Whitehead so well demonstrated the interconnected nature of everything. He was “on it” a good while before the more well-known physicists and various “New Age” thinkers that may spring to your mind.

So the urgency of climate change…. Why would that emerge at a gathering of mostly theologians (me managing to crash the party)? For one, the legacy of Whitehead in process thinking means that some in philosophy and theology, teaching in our universities and seminaries, follow and highly respect science. They see no separation between these and other disciplines but look for the points of commonality and overlap.  And their ecological interests mean they have been following what many consider the most pressing of science subjects: climate change.

At least one of the presenters, Philip Clayton, has devoted much of his career to the interface of science and theology.  Not surprising he would be one who would most emotively express the urgency of turning current trends around… and very promptly! He has well-informed company in believing a president like Trump may not himself make a critical difference in 4 years.  However, a lack of aggressive action to slow the mechanisms of warming would not likely give us as many as 8 years before an irreversible cycle sets in.  We must continue to act, to press right now! Needless to say, for this and several other theological and ethical reasons, Trump had no fans in the group.

I confess we did not get, at the conference, to the point of creating further strategies regarding climate or social justice issues.  However, many present are activists in various ways or are connected to others in the midst of practical action as well as ongoing research and teaching to raise awareness and further action.  One such organizing structure goes back to the ecology conference of 2015 mentioned above.  It is a sizable network of local and other efforts, centered mainly in Los Angeles:  If you live in or near LA (or want to see what’s happening there), be sure to visit the “Pando Hubs” section. The website is loaded with many, many resources and links for learning and action.

If you are involved in either conceptual (theology, etc.) or “earthy” projects having to do with sustainability and ecology, combating climate change, etc., please share.



Trump Reveals Sad State of our Knowledge of Psychology

February 11, 2017

Character matters. Emotional maturity matters. Especially in a person who runs a country!! I could go on with a number of widely accepted ideas which were discounted in our 2016 presidential election.

Discounted so much that we got a president who I think even his supporters would not describe as having strong moral character.  Nor emotional maturity. Nor a number of other personality traits we say we value for high elected leaders.  I won’t go into the reasons why people in the states that mattered gave him enough votes to win.  (Not even an electoral plurality nationwide, let alone a majority, so at least that serves as an affirmation of the often-seen “wisdom of the crowd” over smaller subsets. In this case, the totality of our voters.)

In practical terms, it matters little that Trump was not chosen by even a plurality. He did become president.  And thus we are served a costly, costly lesson. We have already gotten demonstrations of things that were repeatedly pointed out as warnings before the Republican nomination process concluded and before the general election.   People were either not paying attention or not listening… no doubt a mixture of both.

Voters were warned about, or saw and heard directly, many disturbing behaviors of Donald Trump. While psychologists and psychiatrists generally, for professional ethical reasons, withheld their well-informed analysis, other credible researchers didn’t.  They told us that his life history, publicly available (not speculative depth psychology), fit the description of character disorder “to a T”.  More specifically, narcissistic personality disorder.  And the sociopathic aspect of it was also regularly on public display, along with the extreme self-reference and orientation.

Now the driving forces of this kind of “disorder” (apropos title) go way beyond merely irritating habits or quirky ways of saying things.  And of this a great many Americans seemed to be ignorant. Some may have been generally aware but willing to take a major gamble out of one kind of misconception or another (such as how “horrible” and dangerous Hillary Clinton was or how much Trump could do in creating jobs).  Rather than detail what can be expected from a person with a long-sustained personality disorder, I’ll suggest readers do some quick research.

I’ll merely highlight what pop-level psychology notes as one negative aspect of an insecure ego (or core sense of self): being hyper-sensitive and, in this case, aggressively hyper-reactive to any kind of threat or slight.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out that this kind of trait is a serious, serious problem in a person trying to lead a massive and highly complex government in an even more complex world.

The fact that people had and did not heed more than ample warnings both in the man’s own words and behaviors and from many who worked with or around him, or who researched and spoke about his history is disturbing!  There are numerous reasons they didn’t pay heed – again, I realize.  I focus here on just one: a dismal level of knowledge and respect for even the basics of our culture’s rich, deep knowledge of human personality and its healthy or unhealthy expressions.  And other aspects of human and societal “inner workings”.  We can also pretty precisely analyze just how a demagogue and con artist is able to manipulate people.  But enough targeted people are not “savvy” and don’t care to be.

I will make a single plea.  It is to fellow writers and leaders in churches of all kinds, or in other positions from which to educate about psychological forces and factors – parents certainly included! If your own knowledge of psychology is weak, shore it up.  Then start sharing what you’re learning.  If it is strong or you can call on teachers for whom it is, and you lead a church or education in a church, set up classes such as these:

  • Human development with view to spiritual development (see below)
  • Psychology as applied to political alignments (always at least partially religious) and to social activism 
  • William James’ concept of “religion of the healthy-minded”
  • The nature and results of religious conversion (including its failures)
  • Psychology of religion (including social psychology and sociology)

For my slant on healthy spiritual development, summarizing the work of several key researchers and theorists, you can view my Kindle ebook, “Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey” here. Or read it free if on Kindle Unlimited.

Additional educational options are nearly endless… We’ve needed this all along, but the need is all the more obvious now. Let’s get on with it!