An Agnostic Christmas December 26, 2011Posted by Matt in Christianity, Christmas.
Tags: Christianity, Christmas, church of christ, experience, hopeful agnostic, Jesus, The Episcopal Church
It’s no secret to those who know me or who read this blog that I’ve undergone a period of spiritual change over the past few years. This is most visible in our change in churches, from the Church of Christ to the Episcopal Church, but for me the transformation runs far deeper than the denomination with which we associate. It goes from the morality espoused to the attitudes expressed to the very theological foundations upon which everything is built.
As I’ve said in the past, I came to the realization a long time ago that my idea of God had evolved a great deal and that the classic theistic description was no longer tenable, that I could no longer say I believed in that idea of God. Please note that this doesn’t exclude God altogether, far be it from that, but it does mean that the commonly taught descriptors of God no longer worked, so I was forced to recalibrate, to rethink my personal theology, so earlier this year I decided that the best phrase to describe my current philosophical state was “hopeful agnosticism.” Though I’m pretty unclear and questioning on the theistic version of God, I do wholeheartedly believe in something bigger than myself, working through and embodied by people throughout history. It’s a force of love and compassion, of mercy and radical forgiveness, one that permeates the fabric of reality and dwells in all people and things.
The Christmastime idea of Incarnation bothered me for a while, especially when looking critically at the evidence and coming to the conclusion that it may well be a myth meant to later bolster the claims of Jesus’s followers, because I had trouble accepting it and, truth be told, I still don’t accept it as fact, but I recognize something there in the experience of Christmas, particularly as embodied in our services at St. Timothy’s. There is something quite beautiful about the story of Christmas and, whether it happened or not doesn’t really seem to matter. What matters is the effect the story has on you. I can tell you that sitting in a pew at our church during the Christmas Eve mass is one of the most wonderful and moving experiences I’ve had, and in the end, isn’t that what really matters? Once we get past the sniping at each other over the factual nature of the account, isn’t the real meaning found in the effect it has on you?
That’s what I think at least. You can keep your reams of studies attempting to prove the unprovable, to know the unknowable. I’ll rest on the experience, the mystical knowing beyond knowing.
The Lord’s Army? October 17, 2011Posted by Matt in Christianity.
Tags: Christianity, Islam, Jesus, The Lord's Army, Vacation Bible School songs, violent imagery
Tonight I walked into a room of our house and found my young daughters sitting in the floor, singing a song they no doubt learned in a Vacation Bible School in times past.
I may never march in the infantry.
Ride in the cavalry.
Shoot the artillery.
I may never fly over the enemy
But I’m in the Lord’s Army.
It only took a moment for the imagery of the children’s song to settle with appalling clarity in my mind. Soon, pictures of Constantine’s cross-shaped sword and the atrocities of times past danced through my head.
So, the first thought I had was of the, as my priest would say, “anti-Gospel” idea of spreading the teachings of Jesus by the might of the sword.
Secondly, I thought to myself, “What would the parents teaching these songs to their children think if a Muslim kid sang the same song?”
Your God vs. My God September 8, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: 9/11, Christianity, Islam, love, peace, reactions, vengeance, violence
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Yesterday the obligatory post regarding the spiritual implications of 9/11 and its aftermath appeared on our church Facebook page. There were a few responses, religious reactions and spiritual questions, including at least one that characterized the God of Islam as one of wrath and vengeance and the God of Judaism/Christianity as one of love and mercy. Naturally, I had to insert my two cents:
I think we have to be careful not to paint all of Islam with the same brush. There are ways of interpreting their holy scriptures that portray a God of wrath and ways that show a God of peace. The same can be said of the Hebrew Bible (now there’s some divine vengeance!) to perhaps an even greater extent than the Quran. And that doesn’t even touch the violent hallucinations contained in the book of Revelation.
In the end, it seems to be a good time for reflection on ourselves and how we can best serve our world, while always being respectful and mindful of our differences.
More on Fundamentalism July 18, 2011Posted by Matt in books, Christianity.
Tags: Christianity, fundamentalism, hell and damnation, Sword of the Lord
Our friend Barbara from church loaned me a book yesterday called Sword of Lord that I’ve found to be quite interesting. It’s a memoir of a man who grew up in a fundamentalist church that in many ways mirrors some of the things I remember hearing as a kid-teenager-young adult. Check out this excerpt:
A fundamentalist was set apart from “the world.” We were definitely going to Heaven when we died, and those with different views on Heaven, Hell, God and Satan, sin and salvation were definitely going to Hell, which was more than a shame because Hell involved eternal torment, literal flames, and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Our job was to tell people about Jesus so they could avoid going to Hell. The only way to get saved was to ask Jesus into your heart. Just that one little sentence, spoken sincerely aloud or in your heart, and you were going to be okay forever, headed for Heaven. Most Catholics, however, were going to Hell because they were counting on the Pope or a confession to a priest or the benevolence of Mary or their own good works to save them rather than the blood of Jesus. Communists were going to Hell because they didn’t believe in God at all. Many but not all Democrats were going to Hell, not because they were Democrats but because many of them didn’t believe the Bible or understand the right way to get saved. Most liberals and modernists wre going to Hell for the same reasons. Non-white people generally were going to Hell simply because they were more likely to live in remote, non-Christian places such as Africa, Asia, or South America where they would not hear about Jesus dying for them on the cross and so they would be lost. Virtually everybody in Europe was going to Hell because there were very few genuine Christians in any European country. And it only stood to reason that almost everybody living behind the Iron Curtain in China, the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, or Cuba was going to Hell.
From my limited and immature child’s point of view, Heaven was therefore populated almost exclusively by white people who lived in the United States, along with the original disciples of Jesus, an uncalculated number of genuine Christians who had lived throughout the ages, and many but not all of those mentioned in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
We Need a Myth May 12, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, music.
Tags: Christianity, Jesus, Marcus Borg, myth, Okkervil River, We Need a Myth
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Each week I have the habit of perusing the newly released albums on Amazon and downloading one, or occasionally more, of them that interest me. This week’s choice was the latest from Austin indie rock band Okkervil River, a hyper-literate outfit with poetic lyrics and interesting instrumentation that I’ve been a fan of for several years. On this latest download, I was particularly taken with one song that I think fits within the context of my own theological views quite well. It is entitled “We Need a Myth” and the lyrics are as follows:
We need a myth
We need an amethyst bridge
We need a high hanging cliff
Jump, fall and lift
We can make it
We need a myth
We need a path
Through the mist
Like in our beds
We were just kids
Like what was said by our parents
What we’re after is just this
We need a myth
I feel my heart’s like a fist
I want words spilling out
From the blessed lips
Of any prophet or goddess
I need a myth
Brought back to life by a kiss
Scrape away grey cement
Show me the world as it was again
In a myth
A red ribbon to reconnect
The lady’s head to her neck
And to forget that her throat
Was ever slit
What we’re after is just this
And I’m sick
Of all these picture books that try
To steal some reflections for their light
But desperate measures point to desperate times
Which is why
We need a myth
We’re cut adrift
We need a mass uplift
The world is trembling and weeping
And at the point of believing
In a myth
The sun that shines on my head
The moon that lights me to bed
Were two identical twins
In a myth
I heard the voice of a friend
On Lethe’s banks
“Before I forget
We need a myth
As we lean in to kiss
To get two nails
Through the wrist
To get covered in blood
And to get covered in spit
And to forgive.”
And if all we’re taught is a trick
Why would this feeling persist?
And with the truth closing in
I must insist
We need a myth.
Like the band so succinctly puts it, we do need myths. Myths are the stories that power our lives, that give us meaning, that push our thoughts and actions into certain directions. I love the way that Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg put it when I saw him speak several weeks ago:
A myth is a story about the way things never were but always are.
A myth then is something that is profoundly true, but not necessarily factually true. It is a story that carries great weight and meaning without the constraints of historical accuracy. The important thing for us to understand is that there is nothing at all wrong with the term myth, even when used in relation to our religious beliefs. Perhaps we would discover even more meaning in stories like Creation or in Jesus’s miraculous birth if we looked at them in terms of their stories and their meaning, rather than as real, historical events. Our scientific, post-Enlightenment world has a tendency to dismiss the idea as nonfactual and thus meaningless in today’s world, but perhaps it is time we do as the song says and try to “scrape away grey cement / And show the world as it was again.”
We need the mysteries. We need the myths.
Passover Seder April 21, 2011Posted by Matt in church.
Tags: Christianity, common ground, judaism, Passover Seder, shalom, St. Timothy's Episcopal Church
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Last night our journey through Holy Week at St. Timothy’s continued with the celebration of Passover Seder, another first for me. Following our normal midweek Healing Eucharist and unction service with a much larger crowd than normal, we headed over to the CAB (their version of a Family Life Center or a Fellowship Hall, in case you were wondering). Once there, we were greeted by several tables set for dinner around the room, as well as one table at the front of the room where two people, Jim (the Jewish husband of a woman who works for the church) and Carol (a fellow parishioner) sat next to each other. The ceremony then consisted of the two of them taking turns talking of both the Jewish and Christian understandings of the symbols used in the Passover, done in a manner respectful of “differences between us and the greater unity that surrounds us.”
Jim began with a telling of the Passover story and of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, followed by Carol explaining the significance of the Passover Seder to Christians. Though I did not understand the words, I was particularly taken with the times when Jim would break into Hebrew, making the ceremony even more fascinating and meaningful to me as a newcomer.
Next a person from each table would ask pre-written questions of the two speakers, who would then give answers from their respective Jewish and Christian perspectives. The audience queries dealt with the various aspects of the meal – the meanings of things like the roasted shank bone, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread. This method of discourse really worked to rouse my interest and I tried to take mental notes of all the answers given.
Following that section, the event continued with the ceremonial four cups of wine, each of which had its own meaning, interspersed with other actions like the Kurchatz (ceremonial washing of the hands), the eating of bitter herbs (to remember the bitterness of slavery), the parsley dipped in saltwater (tears and sweat of slavery) and the charoset (matzah dipped in an apple and nut mixture to remind us of the sweet taste of freedom). We then ended the ceremony with the fourth cup of wine in honor of peace, or shalom, and then a prayer recited together:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow peace; where there is injury, let me sow forgiveness; where there is doubt, let me sow faith; where there is despair, let me give hope; where there is darkness, let me give light; where there is sadness, let me give joy.
On Bell and Hell March 24, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: Christianity, hell, Love Wins, Rob Bell
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I’ve been reading the responses to Rob Bell’s new book and its challenges to the classic concept of hell with great interest over the past few weeks. It seems to me that there are two major camps in the debate: those who enthusiastically support his view (or something like it) and those who vehemently oppose it, with few in between. Granted, I haven’t read the book yet and have rarely been impressed with Bell’s work in the past, but the subject remains one that fascinates me.
Personally, I gave up on the idea of hell years ago and wrote about that journey to some extent in my Losing My Religion series back in 2009. I think part two, in particular, dealt with that explicitly, though it is implicit throughout that series and most of my other writings on religion over the past few years. The things I said, particularly regarding this subject, led to some pretty nasty confrontations, a few of which were face-to-face and many more via the internet.
Today, I’m happy to say that I’m in a place where I don’t feel threatened when it comes to voicing my ideas. The 2011 version of Matt is a kinder, gentler, and less defensive one than ever before.
Taking the Christ out of Christmas December 22, 2010Posted by Matt in Christianity.
Tags: Christianity, Christmas, secular holiday
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I just read this blog entry today and found it to be quite enlightening, particularly when considering the rabid nature of those who insist on creating a war on Christmas. You should check it out.
Conservatives vs. Christianity? October 20, 2010Posted by Matt in Christianity, politics.
Tags: Christianity, conservatism, homosexuality, youth backlash
Is Conservativism killing Christianity?
According to a recent article in the L.A. Times that echoes the sentiments of many others I’ve read in recent years, the answer may be a affirmative.
The article states that 17% or Americans (as opposed to 7% in 1990) say they have no religion, including 25-30% of those in their twenties. It goes on to say:
So, why this sudden jump in youthful disaffection from organized religion? The surprising answer, according to a mounting body of evidence, is politics. Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics.
The article goes on to say that one of the biggest issues alienating America’s youth from Evangelical churches is that good old Conservative bogeyman, homosexuality. The hardline view of conservatives since the 1980′s on this issue, caused a major backlash with the youth of the nation who increasingly “saw religion as intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic.”
From where I sit, as a 33 year old man with deeply held progressive values and strong spiritual beliefs, I sense their frustration. Over the years, I’ve walked away from two churches because of their hardline conservative politics and/or theology and I have often wondered if there is a place for people like me. Are we destined to always be marginalized outcasts in the greater world of American Christianity?
Thoughts? Will Conservativism kill Christianity?
School on Christmas? August 10, 2010Posted by Matt in education, religion.
Tags: Christianity, Christmas, David Bristow, school
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I just read this interesting editorial on CNN.com by a Christian youth minister, David Bristow, who I think makes a very good argument for keeping public schools open on Christmas day. Read the article and let me know what you think.