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Is Ecological Civilization the Path to Saving our Planet?

July 11, 2019

Almost everyone is aware of the reality of a rapidly changing climate… the damage it’s already done and the serious threat it carries for our future.  A strong majority also believes, based on lots and lots of solid science, that it is largely human-caused. (There is no good evidence not to believe this, despite the efforts of special interest propaganda and political lobbying.)

Where greater controversy comes is in how and how aggressively to fight climate change. Quickly pulled into the controversy is our idea of building “civilization”. Until recently, “development” (a sort of code word) of civilization has presumed more of the same use of resources, including non-renewable and polluting ones such as fossil fuels.

Of course, there are political moves toward shifting energy sources, particularly for lowering the release of carbon and the greenhouse gas, CO2. What is less visible are efforts underway to shift the broader systems of “civilization” toward sustainability, both short and long-term.

This involves a more thoughtful, planned integration of civilization with ecology… not sacrificing key benefits of development of economies and a better “standard of living” for those who particularly need it, but doing development in ecologically sustainable ways.

One of the leading organizations is the aptly-named Institute for Ecological Civilization or EvoCiv for short (found here). I have used their logo and website home screen graphics above, with permission.

EcoCiv is a natural outgrowth of the emphasis one aspect of progressive Christianity, Process theology, has maintained for decades on ecological issues.  This, and the broader agenda of Process as a movement of sorts, is an ecumenical and interfaith endeavor.  It also has sought collaboration with secular institutions and efforts.

One expression of this I experienced with a degree of awe about 4 years ago… a large conference called “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization”. This was held at the renowned set of Pomona Colleges, adjacent to the Claremont School of Theology (home of the Center for Process studies, etc.).  Some of the awe came from the sheer size and broad representation of the conference… over 1500 people, mostly academics and activists from all over the world, and representing a number of disciplines of science and the humanities, with a prominent presence of Chinese nationals – academics, activists, and even government officials.  I wrote about the conference here and here.

Let me briefly update my remarks in those previous posts about finding very few Evangelicals or people affiliated with Evangelical churches or institutions, such as the many small private colleges throughout the country: I’ve since discovered some active efforts among Evangelicals on climate and ecology issues, generally under terms such as “Creation Care” (existing previously to my belated discovery).  For example, the Lausanne Movement and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) have joined in broadening the Creation Care Task Force which was begun by the WEA in 2012.  The Creation Care page on the WEA website states this:

“After several years of fruitful collaboration the WEA Creation Care Task Force and Lausanne Creation Care joined together to co-lead one unifed creation care network called the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care Network (LWCCN).”

There are other organizational efforts sponsored by Evangelical denominations or non-profits, such as the Evangelical Environmental Network and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. Similarly, Mainline denominations have various active organizations they sponsor internally or support ecumenically, in addition to EcoCiv, such as the Los Angeles County-based Pando Populus.  Also important are ecumenical efforts via various events, conversations and networks such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the World Council of Churches (and the less-resourced National Council of Churches).

Now… the short answer to my title question on ecological civilization: YES! 

And longer: If it is not “the” path to planetary survival, it is certainly a path we must go down! The world, like it or not, has become a highly interlinked, though massive “community”.  This is not just political “globalization”.

This level of community, and the ecological civilization we’re speaking of here, is something deeper, healthier, and more “for the common good” than what is generally meant by globalization (more a trade and international relations term). It also is not meant to imply “Western” civilization, under the implication that “developing” countries should be catching up to what has been developed mainly in Europe and North America… or emulating us overall, though perhaps with greater use of renewable energy sources.

Ecological civilization necessarily works for everyone, not just the elite or those particularly gifted or privileged by social location. For this reason, it will grow out of mechanisms, already designed and operating in certain locations – particularly towns and cities of moderate size – which use informed “citizen cabinets” and deliberative processes to find creative solutions. These are applied at a given level from hyper-local to national and even international.  (It’s certainly a long way from current USA state political processes – with possible exception of Alaska – and USA national politics. But this does not mean it is unreachable! There are serious and viable efforts underway.)

The final point I’ll add here is that people, particularly those pursuing or teaching in higher education, should be aware that an academic discipline (or “sub-discipline”) exists dealing with ecological civilization specifically.  The EcoCiv site describes this briefly here.  This well organized and relatively short article I highly recommend reading. It is in everyday language, so one need not have pertinent academic background.

One of the reasons I celebrate the development of this kind of academic research and application is that it is highly interdisciplinary.  By its nature and vision/goals, it requires integration of areas of study generally kept in separate silos, rarely communicating or seeking out cooperation.  It also serves as a key bridge, on various levels, between the discoveries of research and those who can apply the research, whether in business, governance, religious practices and communities, or wherever.

What can you add from your own related involvements, or knowledge that I, or my readers here, should know about? What inspiration might you offer? Your comments are desired!

Easter Approaching – A Good Time to Explore the Birth of Christian Faith

April 8, 2019

This post from three years ago takes us from the past century of Christian faith to its first century.  This last century was highlighted early by the now-largely-forgotten but then-greatly-followed Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925.

You’ll see below that the same natural-supernatural conflict of 1925 actually sits “between the lines” of the birth of Christian faith in its first century.  There is also the familiar conflict and anxiety over “where is society going?” in both centuries.  I hope you enjoy this re-post as well as the rest of the series surrounding it….

In parts 1 – 3 (here, here, and here), we’ve taken a high altitude look at the often-warring “ways to truth” of supernaturalism and naturalism.  These are represented mainly by traditional Christianity and science.  The passionate competition between them is not always obvious.  Only certain writers and certain issues bring it to the surface.

Among the issues, perhaps the creation–evolution debate is most significant and heated.  The year 1925, nearly a century past now, was a key marker, already well into this great cultural struggle.  That year was the famed “Scopes Trial” (so named for the science teacher defendant, Mr. Scopes).  This “monkey trial” pitted famous secular attorney, Clarence Darrow, against a very popular political and Christian leader who had been three times a candidate for President, William Jennings Bryan.

The issue: teaching evolution in public school.  Technically the anti-evolution case (Bryan) prevailed.  But in effect, “evolution” (Darrow) won.  Apparently the showing of “creationism” wasn’t pretty.  (I’ve not bothered to check how Bryan argued the case.) The main point is that things seem to remain at about the same state in this stand-off, after all this time. Emotions are still often high on both sides – whether on evolution-creation specifically or any of several, sometimes related issues.

Now if 100 years is not really a long time in terms of the progress of paradigms, maybe 2000 years isn’t either!  I’d argue that is the case! Supernaturalism, in our sense here of two distinct tiers or “way things work” within the universe, is older than that.  But let’s use the beginning of Christianity as a meaningful marking point for current-day supernaturalist thinking.

So what caused the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism? This is a massive topic itself, which we can deal with only in broad strokes here, without the scholarship of documentation.  I will say, however, that out of passion to understand, I have spent many hundreds (if not thousands) of hours deeply exploring this subject, particularly in the last decade.  I’m not merely repeating common conceptions which are often misconceptions.  So…

Where did the New Testament (NT) writers get the ideas that went into this new religion?

The answer is complex but it’s accurate to simplify things by saying it was mainly “revelation” and expectation of the “appearance” of the Messiah.  The latter is often called the “return of Christ”.  The more accurate rendering of the Greek is “appearance” or “presence”, and “Christ” is merely Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”.  So the point is “appearance of the Messiah”. Or we might add, for Jesus’ original Jewish followers, “(re)appearance of Jesus as Messiah” (rather than defeated on a cross).

The two key concepts of revelation and Jesus’ victorious status are interlinked, particularly in St. Paul’s case… where we get the biggest influence on Christian theology.  It appears the original Apostles’ expectation was significantly different than Paul’s.  They expected fulfillment of Hebrew scriptural visions of a Jerusalem-centered Kingdom of God blessing the world through Yahweh, the Jewish God, administering Jewish law.  The Messiah was his human “Anointed One” (meaning of “Messiah”).  Paul, not having known the human Jesus, saw him as a cosmic savior.  This involved a very different nature, status and effect of messiahship: breaking down all meaningful Jewish-Gentile distinctions (though still retaining “privilege” of heritage and such).  Paul brought a new focus on inward spiritual transformation by believers’ identification with Christ (Messiah).

Paul makes the point repeatedly that his information about the heavenly Christ (he spends almost no time on the earthly Jesus) came by direct revelation to him.  He declares he did not get it from any human source.  It was about visions and being transported to heavenly places, with him unable to tell if bodily or only spiritually (2 Corinthians 12).

Now it happens that I believe people sometimes do receive “revelations”, often beneficial, and in extraordinary ways.  Maybe visions or auditory messages.  Or the much-studied and very real-seeming experiences of a “near death” or clinical death situation, and other ways.  In believing this I needn’t be a “supernaturalist”.  I don’t have to separate their source out as above-and-beyond the “natural world”.  And I can still allow for “God” (or a universal “mind”) to be involved, utilizing natural processes still little understood by us.  I know they gradually are being better observed and understood.

But St. Paul, like most ancient Jews and pagans, conceived a powerfully intervening God within a dualistic (what I’m calling two-tier) reality.  The most common current view of God is similar.

Although Paul contributed specifics of theology beyond other NT writers, it seems clear that his “founding” contemporaries, the other Apostles, also “inherited” (in Hebrew Scriptures and strong religious traditions) expectations of Messiah’s arrival.  He would be a God-anointed special human (certainly not divine). In the late Greek and early Roman period in Palestine, many candidates were identified and often rooted out and killed by the occupiers. For the Jews, these were desperate times that called for desperate measures.

Back to the other Apostles and followers of Jesus: after resurrection appearances they expected his soon “return”.  And so it has been passed on down to our day.   (In my view, such appearances were visionary only, as actual historical evidence to the contrary is missing and the supposed “evidence” more than dubious, despite what Christian apologists claim… I know, I used to be one of them.)

These other Jerusalem-based leaders, in a similar way to Paul, combined messianic expectations with faith in revelations to remain Jesus followers after his death.  (Paul had his vision a few years, not days or weeks, after Jesus’ death and never spent much time in Jerusalem.)  From indications both by Paul and Luke (in Acts), these initial “Christians” actually remained a mostly-acceptable sect of Messianic Judaism, not an unusual thing at that time.  For simplicity, however, let’s lump their influence together with that of Paul and others as to the emergence of mainly-Gentile Christianity. (There was a fairly lengthy period of it and a distinctly Jewish Christianity existing together.)

To me, a good part of the sorely-needed solution of a 3rd paradigm mediating between naturalism and supernaturalism comes this way: Respecting the roles of both mythology and history. In the case of Christianity, mythology includes quasi-historical accounts supposedly anchoring theology in history.  [More on this later.] “Myth” includes but is not merely fiction… one might say it is a sort of trinity: psychology, anthropology and theology.  For its part, history as a discipline uses rigorous methodology reflecting science though it is not “hard science” and never fully objective.  But it can and should critique that quasi-history portion of any history-based religion such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Recognizing “the power of myth” neither denigrates it nor accords it the supernatural status claimed by Christian concepts of revelation.  By this I mean particularly revelation to authoritative figures such as Apostles or later-recognized prophets, as this became Scripture (divinely revealed “Truth”).  Recognizing myth, however does call us to what is very challenging to even face, let alone do in depth: examine the very founding-and-operating myths of our own views of the world, whether “religious” or “scientific” or some combination.

What we will look at in our next part will be more depth on the “myth of origin” in the story of earliest Christianity… how it seeks to explain things yet has distorted reality in the process.  We’ll explore how the linkage of revelation and authority was necessary and sets views of the world almost as solidly as concrete.

2018 addition: How well does the above line up with what you’ve heard or come to believe about the founding of Christianity and the truth about “the Resurrection of Christ”?

My Community is Creating a Climate Action Plan… Is Yours?

February 9, 2019

I’ve written recently about climate change and theology,  here. I am following that up today and will do so further in days to come. Along with scientists, politicians and others in the public sphere, there are many Christian theologians and other leaders, from progressives to Evangelicals, who teach and lead in activism about global warming and climate change.
(Today’s post is actually “secular”, non-theological.)

I’ve heard more than one expert on climate declare, as I expect you may have, that the debate about the reality of climate change and  its largely  human-driven causes is over. The evidence backing up such statements seems clear and undeniable. (I say this having actively sought out the arguments of “deniers” and found virtually nothing of actual substance there; rather much erroneous thinking, manipulated data.) The focus now must be on ways to slow or end global warming, along with preparations to deal with those effects which may not be avoided despite our efforts.

Much of the time, we as non-governing citizens concern ourselves mainly with what is going on with federal agencies, national legislation and international agreements. I addressed this briefly in this post of last year and 2017 about the Paris Climate Accord.  A key point: while national and global efforts are definitely significant, they need not make or break our success, broadly. Given this, we must be more focused on localized efforts. (And this seems to be happening… read on.)

State level action counts a lot, and probably even more what communities are doing. Naturally, large cities have the most clout. And they are doing a lot. Mayors of large (or any-size) cities are often less partisan, not moored powerfully to national politics. San Diego, CA, near me, has a Republican mayor who has provided strong leadership in this area. I believe most mayors have pragmatic approaches, without heavy investment in state or national level political battles or partisan alignment. What’s key in this? That deliberation, planning and action is coming from a local level, with community involvement. These processes are more easily contributed to and influenced by citizens than are those on state and national levels.

Bringing it now to my own community, Escondido, CA, (north San Diego County): A January meeting of our City Council opened up a deliberative process in new ways, thanks to a newly-elected mayor and a now-progressive majority on City Council. (Note: issues like this are not primarily “conservative” vs. “progressive”, though they often do fall that way… as already noted, no general categorization nor party affiliation necessarily defines an approach or a given politician’s posture.) As reported by The Coast News, Inland Edition, “Climate plan gets warm welcome” (Jan 25, 2019), Escondido has just “… unfurled both a public outreach and carbon emissions inventory to plan how it can comply with the state’s landmark climate law for its updated CAP”. At least on the level of the City Council, the process is being approached in a bi-partisan way.

It has at least some pertinence to mention that Escondido has long voted mainly for conservatives, at all levels, and the prior mayor of eight years was highly pro-business and not one to show much concern for climate change issues. In other words, my community may, hopefully, be representative of many others in respect to a broadening awareness of and action-orientation toward climate change…. and a desire to “come together” for respectful, exploratory dialog toward finding helpful local responses and supporting others at “higher” levels of governance.

Please share your reactions and any stories you may have from your own community or locality.

Does your town or city have a Climate Action Plan (so named in California, or similarly if outside California)? What is the essence of it?

To view the full article referenced above, an interesting read which I referenced only briefly and didn’t fully summarize, you can find it online (at least for now) here:

Special note on the photo: It is fairly local, being one I took of part of Julian, about 40 road miles inland from Escondido, from the top of Volcan Mt. Much of the gorgeous mountain is now SD County owned/managed, with hiking trails, and much of it is Native American owned/managed. If you view the article online, the photo there, interestingly, shows Volcan Mt. from Escondido, the long one on the horizon in the left half of the picture. 

Book Review: “How I Found God in Everyone and Everywhere”

January 23, 2019

What an incredible book! It deserves an in-depth review to bring out some of its brilliance. Brilliance in the dual sense of light and insight, or enlightenment of mind and spirit.

I can’t think of another book as a parallel to the unique angle of this one, in its structure and in its content. “Anthology of Spiritual Memoirs”, in the subtitle, describes the style/content in general. What that phrase doesn’t capture is the beautiful interweaving of each contributor’s personal story and development over decades with their intellectual and professional perspectives… their experiences in their life events and their thought.

The unifying theme, if we can call it that, might be the discovery of a different kind of God than the contributors started out believing (or disbelieving) in. Professionally, some became theologians or religious leaders; others are educators, scientists or physicians. In broad terms, two key commonalities among the contributors are discovering a gracious and deeply “involved” Presence (of God) in life, and continuing to further seek the presence and meaning of this God. Many were not raised religiously.

Co-editor, Andrew Davis, begins the book with an introduction reflecting on spiritual journeying. Succeeding chapter authors give personal and intellectual autobiographies of their journeys — a rare and fascinating angle on noted people you may know. He also breaks out the often-perplexing word to be repeated frequently: “panentheism”, perhaps most simply defined as “God in all and all in God”.

Davis’ co-editor, Philip Clayton, gives background and definition on the term as well, while telling his personal story as an influential theologian. Both of them emphasize that viewpoints on God such as panentheism are not just intellectual abstractions. Rather, our conceptualization of God affects our spiritual experiences, often considered our “relationship with God” or something similar. And it goes the other direction also… our experiences influence our way of describing or imagining God.

This delightful collection of recollections (and interpretations), as one would expect from leading thinkers, goes beyond “God-and-me” to “God-world relationship”, reflecting the title phrase “in everyone and everywhere”.

With its depth of reflection, I expect the book may circulate and percolate most broadly among religious leaders, students and teachers. It’s a truly wonderful resource for them. But the authors make a point of being accessible to most lay readers or “regular folk” as well. You won’t find much technical language here, and what you will is, as I’ve implied, explained pretty plainly and shared within a “real life” context.

There are 13 contributors, counting Davis, who introduces and concludes the collection… too many to highlight individually. So I’ve selected five representing some, though not all of the range of religious affiliation, profession and gender. I’ll not attempt real summaries, just relate some interesting points.

Renowned biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, who’s explored the intersection of science and the spiritual realm, titles his chapter “Rediscovering God in Nature and Nature in God, via India”. The perspectives and practices of both Hinduism/Buddhism and Islam he encountered and participated in there actually led him back to his Christian roots. (He’d already rejected the strict materialism of most of his teachers and colleagues in the physical sciences but couldn’t embrace a religious affiliation either.) Eventually, Sheldrake melded experiences coming from “religious” practices (and a couple drug-induced states) with the worldview of A.N. Whitehead and later Process thinkers regarding matter-spirit relationship to develop a view of a relational (and panentheistic) God explained better as “process” than as “substance” (or unchangeable). For me, and I’d imagine for many with particular interest in science as well as spirit, this chapter alone is worth the price of the book.  

Ilia Delio, professor of theology at Villanova University, writes “The Entangled God of My Heart” for the anthology. She began her career as a neuroscientist studying nerve cell dynamics under an electron microscope. Raised Catholic, through higher education and work she’d “developed two brains: a science brain and a religious brain. Science meant serious study, thought, inquiry, and examination while religion evoked wonder, awe, mystery, and order.” It was encountering Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain” which led her abruptly into a Carmelite monastic life for four years. Then the Franciscan Order afforded her opportunity to study theology at Fordham University. She was surprised to soon learn that “theology was not a matter of feeling or devotion but a science in its own right with methods of inquiry, logical reasoning, structured arguments, and insightful conclusions.” This “… scientific nature of theology converted me from a bicameral mind of science or religion to an integrative mind of science and religion.”

More specific than Delio’s conversion to a science-religion integrative approach was her adoption of the God-concept of Catholic paleontologist and theologian, Teilhard de Chardin. “Indeed, the beauty of Teilhard’s God rests on the dynamism of love. The name ‘God’ reflects the incomprehensible wellspring of love at the heart of an expanding universe”. She says Teilhard described “… love not as a dissipating energy but as energy building up in the universe, manifested in increased consciousness…”. (Teilhard, deceased since 1955, is considered to have described God and reality in a “process” or panentheist way very akin to that of Whitehead and his succeeding developers such as John B. Cobb, Jr., next to be highlighted.) Again, whether one is Catholic, Protestant or neither, this chapter is a delight.

John Cobb just cannot be skipped over. If one has almost any awareness of Christian panentheism, Process theology… or just general theology of the last few decades, such a person has probably encountered the work and stellar reputation of Cobb, professor emeritus at Claremont School of Theology. (Full disclosure: I took a course partially taught by him at his “youthful” age of nearly 70, in the early 1990s, at Claremont…. He still does organizing and speaking. It’s great he was able to contribute to this volume. I loved the chapter, plus learned new, interesting facts about his life, the impact on him of Charles Hartshorne [process philosopher], etc.). However, due to length constraints I will leave my highlight of Cobb here with his chapter title: “God is Compassion and Agape” (Agape, for the unfamiliar, is Greek for the self-giving form of love.)

For me, the most startling chapter in the book was that by Loriliai Biernacki, “Panentheism and Technology: The Immanence of Rage”. Biernacki is professor in Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In her article, she’s touched on an interpretation of the divine in even the matter and emotions of our body-souls that I’d not thought through. Her main illustration is the phenomenon of rage, from road rage onward. Based on her idea of the divine becoming “immanent in matter” she says, “We might say that what is special about panentheism for our times is that it offers a grounded spirituality”. In a similar way to Sheldrake, she points out that only the term, not the concept of panentheism is relatively recent, citing Medieval Indian sources.

Having primed the pump by noting our problem of becoming more and more “embedded in technological alter-selves–in Twitter feeds and Facebook”, she shares an insight about the “rage of fundamentalist religion”. She suggests it may be “… a plea to call back a way of being that remembers embodiment in a greater scheme of life. And in this, religious ideas, even religious dogmas, call forth this older sense of what it means to be in a human body. There is a security, a stability in the old hierarchies that religion offered.” She notes that panentheism provides good balance of immanence (including embodiment, and practices of mystics, charismatics, etc.) and transcendence (emphasized about God in orthodox theism).

Wishing I could highlight every chapter, I’ll end with the one by Marjorie Suchocki. She spent the last phase of her employment at Claremont School of Theology in various roles and is the author of many articles and books. Like many in the general mode of process philosophy and theology, she began her spiritual journey in childhood to young adulthood in Evangelicalism. The issue of predestination and how the presence of God is handled were part of her migration to “process” and panentheism, where she found a comfortable “home base” without ever losing her sense of the intimate presence of God. Just a snippet of the many jewels in her piece: “I had so often experienced an unanticipated infusion of a sense of God’s presence, and always this presence was, at the same time, a sense of irreducible love. God was certain; my thinking about God was inadequate to that sense of presence. Theology is provisional; God is not. Searching for a more adequate way to understand my experience of God and the world, I encountered Whitehead…”.

Another quote from Suchocki brings out the prominence of relationship and of interconnection in the process perspective: After explaining how the influence of God toward one’s good is taken in as an “internal presence”, she states, “This presence of God, therefore is the basis of God’s knowledge: God knows all things relationally. It is also the source of divine power, and again, it is relational power, and empowering power.”

Beyond the theological musings, so core to her life and career (begun relatively late, incidentally, after re-locations and having children interrupted her education), you will read a fascinating and well-crafted spiritual life story that nearly everyone can relate to. Don’t miss it!

I will name the additional contributors, as most readers will recognize at least some of them. If you know about them, you will see the range of backgrounds and belief systems they represent, while all share some crucial perspectives on God and spiritual life. They are Deepak Chopra, Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox, Cynthia Bourgeault, Keith Ward and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.

I really can’t “over-hype” this book. It’s one you can and should
work through in several sittings, and come back to, with reflection. If you’ve read it already or do so yet, please add your reactions in the comments section. I’d love to hear them, and I’m sure the co-editors (or contributors) would as well!

What Does Theology Have to Do with Climate Change?

October 12, 2018

The United Nations released a new and alarming study a few days ago on the rate and effects of climate change.  It came with several calls-to-action.  Scientists want us all to take various and broad-ranging (and not necessarily painful) action because their clear and informed view is this: Determined, systematic action must be taken, right away, to avoid drastic consequences if too little is done.

This won’t surprise people who have been watching the issues, seeing more and more data presented that reveal a rapidly worsening situation.  The report can be found here.

This blog is oriented around theology, spirituality and the natural world. I’ve seldom dealt much here with climate change issues.  However, they are unquestionably theological as well as scientific issues.  And in the current “climate”, I must do my small part to help inform and hopefully inspire action (one of which, critically, is voting in November if you are in the US … on climate change the partisan difference is vast).

I cannot make some of the important points as well as they are made in statements by one of the world’s most significant thought leaders.  He’s a man not widely known as a public figure though he’s long been a prolific writer and speaker, held in the highest esteem by those who have known him and his work over many decades. (I’m very lucky to be one of them.) I refer to retired professor, John B. Cobb, Jr.

The earlier of two short articles, here, was written almost two years ago but is very pertinent right now in relation to the dire warnings and precise prescriptions coming from the United Nations.  Cobb shares how and why he’s “keeping the faith” (in relation to hope for the physical world, not just spiritual belief or practice).

The other article, here, will be fascinating to people interested in the broad economic and biological context of how global warming has developed and continues, and what it will take to at least slow if not reverse it.  Additionally, it’s interesting to see how a brilliant teacher and theologian adjusted his thinking and priorities mid-stream, stemming initially from things his young son learned at church!

Cobb refers to books he co-authored with biologist Charles Birch and prominent economist Herman Daly.  He shares a vital insight into the practicality of both philosophy and theology, summarized in this reference to these two books:

These may be my most valuable theological books, even though they are not what most people would think of as “theological” at all.

Have you read these or similar books? What are your thoughts about them or about the relationship of spirituality, religious beliefs, philosophy, economics, etc., to climate change?


Review of “Destiny of Souls”

September 29, 2018

Destiny of Souls: New Case Studies of Life Between Lives by Dr. Michael Newton is no longer “new”, in terms of date, published in 2000.  But…

… it is significantly new in terms of what Newton explores via his many clients. At least I’m not aware of other works that have built upon or replicated what he has laid out, in great detail, in the book.  Of course, other “past life regression” therapists have done similar work and continue to write books.  Without having read them, I imagine they would tend to confirm core implications of Destiny of Souls”.  

However, Newton’s focus in both this book and his others (one was prior, Journey of Souls, 1994) is what happens in people’s disembodied state between the many incarnations he believes most people have. (This became his focus from early in his long career, though not something he had even believed in when starting out.) One potential boon for us is what it may help us discern about both about our personal soul-life and the nature of life and consciousness more broadly.

In my view, there is valid reason to have some questions about the details of client descriptions or about the author’s conclusions on certain matters.  Some of these issues Newton addresses in various places in the book, though I suspect the “defenses” are missed by many readers, especially the stronger skeptics (generally 1 and 2 star reviewers) who often read only a couple chapters or skip sections.

Finer-point skepticism aside for now, here is why I believe the overall work by Newton, and this book in particular (I’ve not read his others, said to be overlapping) to be very important:

It presents a credible fleshing-out of the dynamics of reincarnation, widely believed in but little understood.

It offers alternative explanations of ideas on both “sides” of the resurrection/reincarnation divide (Judeo-Christian vs. “Eastern”). 

Let me elaborate on these a little (there’s a lot to potentially include). Some background: Reincarnation is a majority view of the “destiny of souls”, taken worldwide.  Even in the “Christian nation” of the USA, polling indicates around 20 – 25% believe in some form of reincarnation, including many who identify as Christian.  Whether you’re a believer or not in reincarnation, there must be some basis for its wide appeal and some reasons why so little is commonly understood about how it actually operates, and toward what ends. Might this book be at least a strong clue and maybe much more? In it we get a lot of specifics going beyond reincarnation as either merely “an endless cycle” or “eventual enlightenment”.  Newton believes he has uncovered many of those specifics and a clearer view of the larger “Plan”.  He believes his data also tell us a lot about the nature of spirit life while not embodied.

Stepping back a bit, at the same time some Christians are at least open to reincarnation, orthodox Christian teaching clearly opposes reincarnation in favor of belief in one human lifetime followed by some form of “final judgment”.  Just how “biblical” is this historic view is a topic for another post (or many).  The Bible, regardless, adds relatively little further information on either the judgment process or life thereafter.

This leads to a lot of presumption, guessing and the creation of an endless stream of “Peter at the Pearly Gates” jokes.  (Actually, these are often quite funny!) More soberly, future resurrection of the body and the nature of soul existence after death is debated within traditional Christianity, along with how one may obtain “eternal life”, etc.  Understandable curiosity leads to the wide speculation, admitted to by most Christian theologians.  Aside from threads in both Hebrew and Christian Scripture that focus on apocalyptic “end times”, ancient forms of both religions, particularly Judaism, focused primarily on this-world issues and claimed little about what happens after.

I’m far from an expert on the contrasting Eastern religions but have become generally familiar.  There are places where some specifics on the nature of reincarnation and spirit-life are described but there is not widespread agreement on specifics… on whether “transmigration” (to non-human species) happens to souls, for example.  Also missing, to my knowledge, is much discussion of what happens between lives, as to any review and learning processes.

These are issues which Newton’s work does focus on.  Precisely because it purports to fill in numerous holes in either “revealed” or more investigative information (such as the many studies of people’s “near death” and “out of body” experiences), this book is both a fascinating read and important for further research.  Many reviewers testify to it helping them greatly in dealing with grief or in gaining a sense of their purpose or direction in life. (I well realize many Christians as well as atheists/skeptics will discount or “disallow” this factor, along with all of Newton’s information, based upon belief systems that differ, but it must be taken as one factor of significance in evaluation.)

  31NbFe6qeBL._SY200_ The late Michael Newton

Now, I happen to be intent on religious and “spiritual but not religious” people, atheists and everyone being in respectful dialog.  We need to find places and ways to cooperate on shared goals for human betterment.  There are problems with every single religious or spiritual view, institutional or personal.  More solid and stable foundations come from common wisdom — principles and insights widely agreed upon.  In one sense, these can be pursued without consideration of differences on the destiny or growth process of souls.  But humanitarian this-world goals cannot be fully separated from the larger picture of how our souls (or “personalities”, for unbelievers in any consciousness beyond this life) came to be, where they are headed and how this all proceeds.

For example, the common, often nagging questions of “What’s my purpose in life?” or “What does this all mean?” have powerful impacts on well-being and the ability for many people to actually be compassionate and active in support of others.  These issues are addressed, with widely varying answers, by religions and many forms of spirituality. Some, such as Buddhism, do so without much speculation on the being of God, or even if such a “supreme being” exists.  This book might be considered to have a similar approach regarding that matter.  For purposes here, I’ll merely say in summary that Newton’s research indicates a complex spiritual world of beings and functions, apparently originated or directed, in some sense, by “God” though God is not a key focus and never really defined or directly encountered in reports by Newton’s subjects.  My own take is that Newton is describing something like a benevolent “field” or “ground of being” within which all aspects of reality and all life forms exist and grow.  (Whether or not he/she/it is “personal” is largely a matter of fine-point definitions.) This would seem to fit within perspectives along a broad spectrum from the Bible to scriptures and beliefs of classical Eastern origin and current more “New Age” thought.

Newton’s interview methods of attaining and recording “between lives” supposed recollections of his many clients over the years are about as “controlled” or careful as I imagine they could be in his setting and on such a matter.  He was very careful to avoid leading questions, or suggestions from his bias or developing theories. His data are not of the same nature as “scientific” data, in terms of experimental design (not pertinent here) or replicability… although a type of replication is possible via the similar work of other researchers.  Actually, such work, in a broad sense, does exist.  Examples are the work of the late American professor, Ian Stevenson (and his successors), internationally, on reincarnation, or the depth case study work of the late Paul Von Ward. The work of famed Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, is also pertinent here, on reincarnation itself (no major articles or works I know of on this specifically) or the likely-related concepts of Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, as well as his depth examinations of alchemy through history.

What’s in a Title? (Of Religious Texts)

August 27, 2018

This post is being prompted by my reading of a review of a new translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (more often called “Old Testament” by Christians), by Dr. Phillip Long, found here.  If you follow such things, his review is worth a few minutes.  I actually don’t keep up on recent biblical translations much, but having read this prompted some thoughts about the importance of how we title things, especially those that are so widely read or referred to.  And, on top of that, given a special sacred and often authoritative status, as is the Bible, whether only the pre-Christian Jewish Bible or the expanded one including the “New Testament”.  My thoughts, below, come from reflections based on my ongoing reading of scholarly works (and others) on the Bible, history of the Ancient Near East, Christian origins and Christian spirituality.  So below is what I posted as a comment on Dr. Long’s blog regarding this newly released translation called “The First Testament”.

I’m glad to see a move away from the title “Old Testament”, but not fully satisfied with “First Testament” either. I’d like to see Christians broadly get more comfortable with what a great many scholars of the Bible have been using for a long time: “Hebrew Scriptures”. Of course, coupling “New Testament” to that is not good parallelism, and “Greek (or Greco-Roman) Scriptures” for “NT” is not quite apropos, either, as “NT” authors were mostly Jewish also, though writing in Greek… so it’s complicated.

But the fact that the big majority of Judaism takes the “First Testament” as the ONLY canonized Bible, the implication of a second or later testament without the qualifier of “Hebrew” seems too disregarding of what actually came via their ancestors. And, at least in some sense, that body of work has been co-opted by Christians in adding to and re-labeling the historical first portion, whether as “first” or “old”.

Another reason I feel including “Hebrew” with “Scriptures” or even with “Testament” is appropriate is to keep from implying (as in “First Testament”) that these scriptures are necessarily the earliest or the only (maybe with NT added in) “Word of God” given to humanity. I know many from India and regions nearby (Hindus and others, including Western scholars or devotees) would like to chime in with a probably-valid contention that at least portions of THEIR scriptures are significantly older and they have a comparable claim to being divine revelations.

I think I’m o.k. with Testament, in that covenant/testament is central there, so if that is kept, right now my preference would probably be “Early Hebrew Testament”, leaving room for a later “new covenant” (Hebrew scriptural term) potentially called something clumsy like “Later Hebrew Testament in Greek”. This might be seen as both more accurate and more suitable to keeping respect for Jewish beliefs that do not recognize the later as “testament” or scripture. Not a “hill to die on” but something to give further thought to.

Jewish-Christian Feuds in the New Testament – Review of “The Reluctant Parting”

June 22, 2018

If you’ve been a Christian for a good while or if you are not a Christian, let me emphasize something about my title above: it does not refer to feuds between Jews and Christians but to quarrels and debates between Jewish groups which followed Jesus as Messiah.  In this, I’m following the book I’m reviewing.

Let me interject this before getting into specifics: I highly recommend this book! It is very readable for those with little background yet meaty for the well-informed.  With that said, I will develop some of the reasons and a broad outline of the book.

The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book, by Dr. Julie Galambush, is far from the only book to focus in on the great variety of Christian beliefs among communities of Jesus followers in the first to early second century.  (But it takes a unique and in-depth approach.) Such communities were almost always partially to fully Jewish.  So it should not surprise us that the New Testament (NT) was written primarily by Jewish authors, for a mostly-Jewish audience (Luke being the main likely exception).  And that group going beyond the “Twelve Apostles” who were reputedly direct disciples of Jesus and may or may not have written any of the NT books.

However, the real significance of this strongly Jewish authorship, and of the heavily Jewish context and content of our specifically “Christian Scriptures” (NT) we almost completely miss.  This is true of almost all Jews as well as Christians.

This is pointed out by both the author and by the writer of the powerful forward, James Carroll, prolific author and former priest.  Author Julie Galambush is in an unusually good position to know of our misperceptions, as both a highly qualified biblical scholar and a Jewish convert, previously having been a Baptist minister.  Carroll points out in the forward that, despite hundreds of years (and thousands of books) of focused historical and spiritual searching, “Jesus remains the hidden man of Christian faith. He is the hidden man of Jewish memory, too…. But Julie Galambush suggests that this hidden Jesus… can have a fresh set of meanings to Christians and Jews alike.  Christians can recover Jesus as their Jewish Lord who preached nothing but the God of Israel.  Jews… can… recognize in him an embodiment – as this Christian sees it, at least – of the longing for God’s reign that remains central to Jewish hope.” (xiii.)

The core thesis of The Reluctant Parting is partially told in the title.  Followers of Jesus-as-Messiah, particularly the large proportion who were observant Jews and wanted to remain so, separated only slowly and painfully from the larger population of Jews who rejected the idea of Jesus having been the expected Messiah.  This fact is fairly widely recognized among Christians – at least those who have read the NT carefully and gained some historical knowledge.

What is very little understood yet critical to understanding the setting and meaning of the NT is that the pain and acrimony of separation we see at various places throughout it involve conflicts specifically within the relatively small “family” of those who did follow Jesus-as-Messiah.  These small communities were geographically spread apart, apparently even in Judea, Galilee and Samaria (current Israel), and in scattered diaspora Jewish communities around the Roman Empire. So conflicts and separations were not just among strangers, but often involved family and neighbors.  The adage that fights are often more intense or bitter the closer are the combatants seems to have been at play significantly in the early decades of the gradual transition out of Judaism.  This affected particularly ethnic Jews but also newly converted Christian Gentiles and the near-Jewish “God-fearers” worshiping among Jews.

The book accomplishes a lot more than Galambush pointing out and illustrating the “insider” Jewish-Christian struggles and separations. I also consider it an excellent introduction to the NT overall.  Like the typical “introduction” text (and most are written in basic textbook style for college or graduate students), it covers all the NT books and their basic groupings.  This one is more readable and interesting than most, I find more so than any I’m familiar with (far from all of them).

What else you’ll find in The Reluctant Parting is a generous amount of well-summarized “backgrounds” material.  This is critical for understanding both the books of the NT and the real-life setting of its original readers and the authors – cultural, political, economic, religious and other conditions and belief systems.  In the process of reading the author’s explanations, one can gain a lot of insight about the establishment and growth of sects in the Ancient Near East (which in the case at point, Jewish Jesus-following, became a separate and major religion).

If you get a copy of this highly insightful, important book, be sure to read both the introduction and the epilogue.  The introduction sets up the issues regarding why the perspective Galambush takes on the NT writings and their setting is highly relevant to our forms of faith today… to our subconscious as well as conscious views toward those of differing traditions and beliefs (particularly Christians toward Jews and vice-versa).  In it she describes Parts One and Two, and how they can be read separately (not recommended by me, for anyone).  She says of Part One that it “… provides an overview of the history of the post-exilic period, and introduces the contents and arrangement of the New Testament, including a brief discussion of early Christian writings that were not included in the Christian canon.” Part Two covers the specific books of the NT.

The Epilogue is “The Image of the Jew in Christian Scripture”.  Here’s one statement of how and why major problems developed and still persist in this area to this day: “One might hope that a sensitive reader could come close to hearing what the authors intended to say, but in the case of the New Testament, the barriers to an ideal reading are very high indeed.” The author goes on to develop the specifics.

The way most Christians have treated the New Testament, if they even read it seriously at all outside of snippets at church, is as a guide to personal salvation and spiritual practice.  They’ve had very little historical sense or interest.  Thus the traditions of centuries of often-distorted Christian theology and attitudes toward ancient (and now modern) Judaism and Jews then and now are just taken in without the moderating and correcting effects of much that is right within the New Testament itself.  But it does take some background and careful reading to discern much of this.  And this is precisely what this book helps provide in an exceptionally clear, interesting and readable way.

A Fascinating Spiritual Memoir: Review of “The Hardness of the Heart”

May 15, 2018

The Hardness of the Heart is an interesting form of autobiography covering a portion of Wade Fransson’s life.  It is the second volume of a trilogy which focuses primarily on his spiritual transformation and maturation.

It covers a couple decades of Fransson’s life and ties periodically back to issues and themes begun in volume one, The People of the Sign, which covers the author’s earlier years.  As you’d suspect from there being three volumes (the last soon to be published), the book goes into a lot of detail. I found the specifics to be engaging and often fascinating.  Whatever one may think of Fransson’s religious beliefs and spiritual emphasis, there is plenty of drama in his life experiences and in the way he describes them.  As a former preacher in the Worldwide Church of God, he knows how to tell a story.  And he does it throughout the book.

The narrative, along with the transparency of a man exploring his own psyche, willing to expose his failings and falterings, keep the theological reflections interesting.  I presume this would hold for most readers even with little religious background or interest.

For readers who do have similar religious backgrounds, there may be special “aha’s”, a feeling of camaraderie, or perhaps an experience of support in growing beyond the boundaries often set by conservative or “literalist” styles of church.

I personally found particular interest in how the author progressed through stages of deeper understanding, confrontation both inwardly and outwardly toward others, and step-by-step withdrawal from the “Church” (basically a small denomination).  This was sometimes painful and always stressful.  The story has an extra layer than that of most who’ve gone through a similar process, as I have myself — Fransson was a minister and missionary of some repute in the Worldwide Church of God when it went through a series of splits.  So this meant not just a quiet, simple withdrawal but a number of wrenching person-to-person tensions and partings.

The frustrations and trials of organizational life don’t end there in this book.  Minister Fransson becomes Corporate Man Fransson, only to encounter a similar set of personal ambition, authority and ethics struggles in some of America’s medium-sized to very large corporations… names you will probably recognize.  This slice of the book I consider perhaps as valuable as the insights on personal development and “demon slaying”.  What you probably realize goes on in corporations you will get an inside glimpse of here; and sadly, it’s not a pretty picture in all too many frames.

There is a further level of self-revelation in The Hardness of the Heart — that of Fransson’s romantic life and family life.  We get to see the slow agony he underwent in the collapse of his first marriage.  This is part-and-parcel of the other elements he develops in greater depth and his inclusion of it certainly fills out the picture of his life… going beyond the “religious” or belief-system and career aspects.  Happily, we see him learn and grow into a readiness and ability to build a deep and harmonious new relationship.  His telling of this process and a suspenseful proposal to the woman he’s come to completely adore (as well as be a true friend to) I found to be a great finale.


The “Strange” Gospel of Judas and its Window into Early Christianity

April 26, 2018

The Gospel of Judas is no longer “new” and is out of the news coming from the popular press.  However, it retains a place of importance, if we keep it in right context.

As radical as its thesis seems to us in this century, this gospel’s revelation just a dozen years ago fits right in with many discoveries in the last 75 years or so, and the great significance they hold for our understanding of how Christianity formed and grew in its first two to three centuries.  In this article, after some important context, I’ll give only a very short review of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and The Shaping of Christianity” by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King.  They both are highly accomplished scholars of the New Testament, early Christianity and its milieu.

So how is it that, after nearly two millennia, discoveries have been made in recent decades which profoundly affect our picture of Christianity’s origins and early nature? Were historians and archaeologists not searching in earlier times? Certainly they were.  And they made important finds in various periods.  Some significant ones were in the latter part of the 19th century, particularly in Egypt, others mid-twentieth century.

Luck (or “providence” or “synchronicity”) may have played a part.

For example, Bedouin explorers happened upon, without knowing what they’d found, the treasure trove we call the Nag Hammadi library (a good number of bound volumes dating to early centuries of the Common Era, buried in a vessel in a remote area of Upper Egypt).  That was 1945. Like the Gospel of Judas, these volumes were in the Coptic of the area, having been translated from Greek originals in many cases.

We can’t very precisely date the Gospel of Judas, but we know something by this title existed during the 2nd century, and with some amount of circulation, because it is named and opposed by the proto-orthodox Irenaeus, writing around 180 C.E.  The assumption (it being very likely) that this is the same book places its composition within less than 100 years of our four Gospels of the New Testament, probably within roughly 50 years of the Gospel of John.

However, in the few-to-several decades that are likely between this gospel and the canonical gospels, and which is roughly a century past the writings of Paul, things changed… a lot in some areas.  Among the most critical of these is increased persecution of Christians, parallel with their increased separation from Jewish (fully or partially “observant”) followers of Jesus in the first few decades after his death.  The latter generally could benefit from a “Jewish exception” the Romans allowed to the typically-required worship of the Emperor, earliest Christianity being primarily a Jewish sect rather than a new religion apart from Judaism.

Returning to the context and importance of the Gospel of Judas, it involves this: As the Romans had begun persecution of certain Christians, particularly leaders, various Christian groups were reacting differently.  According to Pagels and King, this document particularly reveals the internal “family” tensions and acrimony over how to react. Literally, lives were at stake.  Anxiety must have been high, to say the least.  This drives at least much of the emotion and invective found in this short volume.

There were worldview differences in addition to the martyrdom issues driving the counter-narrative of Judas as the most loyal and “getting it” disciple of Jesus.  But a similar kind of hostility is evidenced within the other gospels and epistles of the New Testament, whether toward “the Jews” or other break-away Christians (as seen in 1 John).

Analyzing the content further, as to the beliefs involved, becomes difficult.  This is made worse by there being substantial missing pieces in the manuscript due to physical decay and damage.  Textual damage aside, the range of novel expressions of Judaism, emerging Christianity and pagan or “classical” (e.g., Platonic) religious views makes understanding many documents of this period particularly challenging.  Determining if and how the Gospel of Judas may fit in with the broad range of Gnostic documents we now have (mostly since 1945) is a specialized process with debated conclusions, beyond even summarizing here (and beyond my more detailed areas of study).

Here’s why this relatively short and quite accessible (for non-scholars) book on the Gospel of Judas is of particular importance, in my view: It analyzes this recently-discovered document in relation to the broader religious and societal issues of its period, one in which we have relatively few documents outside of those preserved by the gradually-developed orthodoxy of the late 2nd century and beyond (particularly works that became our New Testament and a number of works largely harmonious with them).

The very fact that only in the last century or so have we discovered numerous “Gnostic” (this label being hard to define or delimit) or other heterodox texts indicates the powerful effect of winning doctrinal battles.  With dominance it was, in that day, possible to almost completely “bury” opposing viewpoints (or force their burial by those hoping to preserve them).  One of the key things strongly confirmed by their unearthing is the broad diversity of early Christianity.

Seeing this reality undercuts the “received” narrative pushed by Luke in Acts of the Apostles (placed right after the Gospels in our NT) that a single and relatively unified “church” developed from the first weeks after the death of Jesus.  Per Luke, this simple Spirit-led development continued at least until the unspecified “ending” he gives to Acts around the time of Paul’s final imprisonment and journey to Rome.  (In this, conveniently ignoring the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and its massive impact on both Judaism and Christianity.)  After Luke’s story, unwritten legend takes over for a lengthy period.  It isn’t until Constantine and his hired “historian”, Eusebius, early 4th century, that anyone picks up on Luke’s beginning and tries to create the picture of continuity of authority and orthodoxy going straight back to Jesus and his original Apostles.  Among other key documents from this over-two-century period is the Gospel of Judas.

If the Gospel of Judas or this work by Pagels and King on it is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend reading their book.  It is well written and moves one along without bogging down in details of a scholarly nature.  Still, it is well footnoted with scholar references as well as good added explanations, so I recommend at least perusing these (special notes section, actually).

The introduction section is strong and certainly not to be skipped.  Then follows four chapters about the setting and contents of the Gospel.  After that is an English translation of the text with notation of the places where some of the text is missing or has been reconstructed, if suitable.

Wrapping up, before “Notes” (see above) and indices is “Comments on the Translation”.  This is not technical, as it may sound, but important commentary that is definitely not to be skipped….  As long as one has read this far, silly to miss the meaty stuff included here.

If you are, like me, doing “catch up” reading (years after publication), or are merely interested in the history and nature of how our most widespread world religion developed in its early days, I think Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity” is worth your time.