Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Reading the Bible as non-literal truth

Before the comments veered off into the minefield of homosexuality, Chris wrote (Jan. 27, 11:29 a.m.):

"It brings up the point: can there be moderates in religion? You can’t pick and choose, in my opinion, what parts of the Bible you like and don’t like to believe in. You accept the Bible as the word of God – or you don’t."

Yes, there can be moderates in religion, because accepting the Bible as the word of God doesn’t necessarily mean reading it as a science or history textbook – or even as a rule book. You don’t have to take it literally to take it seriously.

If you believe that "word of God" means that it was dictated by the Almighty, with every word perfectly preserved to say exactly what God intended, then yes, it would be hypocritical to pick and choose.

But I, like many Christians, believe that although the Bible was inspired by God, it was written by men – men who, like all of us, were limited by their culture, biases and world view. Reading it from this perspective, we can see evidence not just of God’s self-revelation to humanity but also of humanity’s stumbling attempts to understand God.

We don’t have to try to reconcile the timelines of two creation tales or four gospels, because each story reveals its own truth.

We don’t have to choose which arcane regulations we must follow (or enforce) because we take our marching orders from the overarching theme: that God is with us and calls us to respond with love for God and neighbor.

We internalize the stories of scripture by reading them, by hearing them, by re-enacting them in liturgy. And their wisdom then guides our lives in a way that a rulebook never could.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Faith cast in concrete sinks

In the comments on my last post, jaycee wrote (Jan. 26, 10:03 a.m.):

"The problem with religion is that it is cast in concrete. Folks generations ago who never knew the extent of God’s world or its evolutionary history came up with their best shot on how things came about and how we should get where we’re going, and they’ve successfully imposed it upon successive generations. But we've never bothered to update the manual."

I agree. Concrete is exactly what religion shouldn't be. A living, breathing faith must have the ability to grow, to be open to new revelation. If we believe in a God who seeks us out, who meets us where we are and seeks to draw us ever closer, then we can't assume that there's no more to learn.

Part of the early struggle in Christianity was a tug between those who thought the rules had been set in stone and those who were willing to live into a new faith.

Today many Christians reject the cast-in-concrete approach. They value the discoveries of science and welcome new insights. They are more interested in loving like God than speaking for God. Perhaps they aren't the ones who get the most attention, but they are the ones who will keep the faith alive for future generations.

jaycee added: "The pastor of a Park Road rock & roll church once preached: 'Secularism is the greatest threat to Christianity'. Darn tooting it is, and for good reason!"

I heartily disagree! The greatest threat to Christianity is (and always has been) Christians who don't follow the example of Christ.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Religion makes Charlotte stronger

Will religion sabotage Charlotte's future? That was the provocative topic of community columnist David Walters' column on Jan. 23. Specifically, he worries about "the erosion of belief in science and rationality." He writes: "Our city will need all its smarts in the years ahead; we can't waste precious time and energy fighting fairy tale creationists who want to turn the clock back to pre-Darwinian days of medieval mysticism, or others who bizarrely believe global warming is some sort of 'socialist plot.'"

What troubles me most about this argument is the assumption that science and rationality are wholly incompatible with faith. People are assumed to fall into one of two opposing camps: They are smart or gullible, rational modernists or loonies who haven't advanced since the Middle Ages.

Are there some religious people who fit that description? Sure. Do they stand in the way of scientific progress? Sometimes. Is that all there is to faith? Absolutely not.

There's no contradiction between accepting all the wonders that science reveals about our universe, including our own evolution, and the belief that there is a greater force at the center of it all. Scientists can tell us the how but never the why, the facts but never the meaning.

Frankly, I'm baffled by believers who consider science a threat, as well as by secularists who consider mysticism a threat. They are two different ways of perception, equally enlightening.

So has religion made this "city of churches" backward? Does it threaten our future? That's absurd. Charlotte's communities of faith have given birth to hospitals, Meals on Wheels, soup kitchens and many other services that make this a stronger community. They have been a prophetic voice in the fight for civil rights. They build Habitat houses and travel to disaster areas. They offer hope to individuals lost in addiction or sinking in despair.

They remind their members that there is a higher purpose, a higher calling than selfish striving. They teach love of God and neighbor. Many are teaching the need for a more responsible approach to the environment.

Does that outweigh the anti-science leanings of some believers? I'd say so. I wouldn't want to live in a city that has every technological advantage but has forgotten to care.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Religion's no laughing matter? Ha!

Have you heard the one about the unscrupulous contractor who watered down the paint he was using on the church's steeple? A sudden storm came up, a gust of wind blew him to the ground, and as he looked up in pain and fear, a deep voice boomed, "Repaint and thin no more!"

Do you know the four religious truths all people of faith need to know?
1. Muslims don't recognize Jews as God's chosen people.
2. Jews don't recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
3. Protestants don't recognize the pope as the leader of the Christian world.
4. Baptists don't recognize each other at Hooters.

And then there are those party-loving, far-from-teetotalling Episcopalians: Wherever two or three are gathered together, you'll find a fifth.

Go ahead. Laugh. You know you want to.

The more important something is to us -- whether faith, family or a great cause -- the more essential it is to laugh about it. I don't mean the mocking, derisive sort of laughter, but the chortles that spring from seeing the absurdity that lurks in every human endeavor. It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. It punctures our pomposity.

When joking about such a potentially sensitive subject as religion, of course, it's wiser to poke fun at your own tradition than to rib others. In your own family of faith you're more likely to know where the line is drawn between humor and attack. Laughter turns ugly when that line is crossed -- I was once appalled to hear a Christian make a casual joke about the Holocaust. Hint to aspiring comics: Anything that kills millions of people is not a laughing matter.

Some Muslims have reacted with deadly violence to cartoons and caricatures that they saw as an attack on Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. As British author and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor wrote last month in The Washington Post, "Muslims aren't exactly famous these days for lightheartedness." But that's changing, he wrote, with the rise of Muslim comedians who can poke fun at themselves:

"Earlier this year, I sat in a West London hall watching a heavily bearded Muslim man rip into his audience. Azhar Usman is no fundamentalist; he's an American comedian who tours with two fellow Muslims in a show they call 'Allah Made Me Funny.' Everywhere I looked, British Muslims of all ages -- some women wearing head scarves, some men in suits -- were doing something you hardly ever see: laughing. Here were ordinary, moderate Muslims reveling in a good time, as if in defiance of the extreme voices that overpower theirs in the public square.

"The irony is that 'Allah Made Me Funny' springs from a tradition that stretches back to the days of the prophet Muhammad himself, who by all accounts enjoyed a good laugh; indeed, he had a companion with the honorific title 'jester of the prophet.' It's only recently that Muslims have become sensitive about religious jokes. "

Laughter: the antidote to extremism. What a great punchline!


Care to share a joke about your own tradition?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Miss the right turn? Recalculating...

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it."
-- Isaiah 30:21

It struck me as I was taking my birthday present, a GPS (Global Positioning System), out for a test run. How much easier it would be if believers had a GWPS (God's Will Positioning System) that would give such clear and precise directions for the turns of our lives.

"Turn right in 500 feet to meet future spouse." "Continue in present career for six years." "Donate $50 to Loaves & Fishes food bank in one mile on left."

Instead, discernment is hard. We stumble along, making the best decisions we can, never quite sure if it's the right path -- listening hard after taking a step for that voice that whispers "This is the way." And sometimes we can hear it in the peace that fills us after the decision is made.

"Turn left on I-85 in 0.5 miles," the helpful woman in my GPS advised. I decided to ignore her. "Turn left on I-85," the GPS insisted. No.

I glanced nervously at the little device, half expecting a lecture: "What do you think you are doing? Turn around, you fool! How do you expect to get anywhere if you don't follow directions?"

What I heard instead was one word: "Recalculating." Then Ms. GPS (Graciously Patient System?) gave me another turn, an alternate way to get back on track from where I was.

I thought then of all the times that, oblivious, I miss a turn in my life. Of all the times that, willful, I go left when I know I need to bear right. Of all the times I force God to say -- with a sigh, perhaps? -- "Recalculating."

But that's the encouraging part. It doesn't matter how far we wander off course, the GWPS directs us home from wherever we are. Whether we turn to the right or the left, the voice tells us the way from there. Wherever we are at this moment is the beginning of the right path.

It's an imperfect metaphor, of course. I choose where the GPS takes me, but God is not a tool to guide us where we want to go -- unless the destination we most desire is to be close to God. In my better moments, that's exactly where I want to be.

Driving down the recalculated route, I start humming "Amazing Grace." "... I once was lost but now am found ..."


Where do you hope your life will go? How do you know when you are on the right path?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The ultimate proof of God

Our conversation always comes back to one question
– The Question, I suppose, for any discussion about religion: Does God exist?

Those who have cast their lot with faith tend to get defensive when something so near to their heart is questioned. Those who dismiss faith as delusion become frustrated at the blind credulity of believers. Neither finds the other's arguments persuasive. And even fellow believers disagree over which arguments hold water (Because the Bible tells me so? Mystical experience? Church authority?).

I like what Dr. James Howell of Charlotte's Myers Park Methodist Church wrote in his current series of e-mails on questions about faith:

"God remains hidden, elusive, beyond our grasp – perhaps to drive us crazy, but perhaps so we will seek after God, so faith will be required, so love will yearn for fruition. ...

"If someone attacks the faith, if someone shudders over the very idea of God and religion, we might ask – Why? Often those who are hostile to God have been hurt by the Church, or personally disappointed by God or Christians in some profoundly painful way. Perhaps the first response to doubt is listening; perhaps the truest answer to the absence of faith is love. In the earliest days of the Church, what persuaded skeptics wasn’t the intellectual sophistication of Christianity, but the way the Christians loved, and acted on what they said they believed. The ultimate proof of God isn’t an argument, but love in action."

He adds in a later reflection:

"The most alluring proof of God’s existence for me is the way people who devote themselves to God live transformed, joyful, purposeful lives, their charity and embrace of goodness, their courage in the face of agony. The cure for doubt in our world isn’t entirely intellectual, but rests in the hands of God’s people, who too often lead vapid lives or merely dabble in faith instead of embodying the real thing."

Do you agree? Is there worth in arguing, or is that energy better spent in finding ways to love?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Resolved: Find resolutions that matter

It's a new year, and you know what that means ...

Fireworks! But no, we'll save the debate over the authority of scripture for another day.

Instead, let's talk about resolutions.

Like lots of people, I tend to make too many, piling good intentions so high that they inevitably crash and leave me with an even bigger mess to sweep away. It helps, I've found, to be more discerning -- to whittle down the list to one or two goals. And that very process helps me see which are most important and how they relate to my deepest values.

Take one of the most common resolutions: losing weight. Dropping pounds for the sake of looking like a runway model means nothing to me. But getting in shape by eating better and exercising can also be seen as honoring my God-given body. Better health can help me to better serve others. So if I choose to make this a resolution (as I should), I will approach the effort with a deeper understanding of why it matters.

Just about every resolution has a spiritual component:

Getting finances in order is not a way to afford more electronic gadgets or a bigger house. It is exercising wise stewardship of the gifts God has entrusted to us.

Clearing out clutter creates a more restful, meditative, prayerful space.

Volunteering in the community or helping individuals in need -- caring for "the least of these" -- teaches us how to love and makes this world a more heavenly place.

I'm still praying about my resolutions for 2008. What about you? Do you make resolutions? How do you choose them? How do they connect to your spiritual life?