Jesus and the Samaritan woman1A year or so ago, I came across the following quote: “other people’s real lives were more important than my mere beliefs.

I copied this to my twitter feed and someone responded with a comparison to adultery and a story Philip Yancy told in a book he wrote about a person who excused his adultery with God’s grace saying, in essence, “God will forgive me.”

The story about Yancy’s friend raises a good point. Sin can hurt other people.  The person who sent me the story said “sexual sins hurt so many people”.

Yes, it is obvious that some sins have the power to really hurt other people. But I’m not sure that adultery is the same as homosexuality in this sense at all.

Adultery is not a sexual sin so much as a breaking of vows, and as a result, destroying trust and confidence — causing real and lasting harm. I’m not sure how adultery can really compare to a mutually exclusive homosexual relationship.

Adultery as a sin is not even about sex. Someone could have a non-sexual relationship with a co-worker and cause jealousy in and harm to his life-long partner (for example, his wife) if it began to compete with his relationship with his partner.

Sex is definitely a powerful urge and we can easily fool ourselves into doing things that are painful to a lot of people if we are not careful with our sexual desire, but I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that God picks “sexual sin” out as a special category deserving of careful consideration.

Jesus summed up the Law and prophets with two commands: “Love the Lord … Love your neighbor”. I can see making an argument from the perspective of purity that homosexuality violates the first commandment, but I don’t think homosexuality itself violates the second. Adultery, on the other hand, definitely violates the “Love your neighbor” bit.

Still, the first commandment (and the purity argument) is ignored every day. A couple of examples are in order:

First, America has an obesity epidemic. (I’m a “victim” of this epidemic if you use BMI to measure it.)  Obesity can be evidence of gluttony — a misplaced desire for food, and one of the deadliest sins — definitely a violation of the purity argument.

And, while times are changing, we still treat people who take God’s name in vain — one of the ten commandments, arguably more important than anything the Bible says about homosexuality, and another argument from purity — with more humanity than homosexuals.

This brings me to this bit from St Issac:

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?

Too often we confuse zeal for purity.  Even if we are pure as the driven snow, pride — another one of the deadliest sins — can creep up on us and we’ll become zealous in our pursuit of purity and start ignoring the admonition to “Judge not”.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying as an “excuse” for sin. I’m no more excusing my friend’s sins than I am my own lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, or pride.  But just as I pray for God’s mercy and hope in it, I hope for God’s mercy for others.

It is true that there are prophets in the Bible who pointed out other people’s sin.  And maybe you are like John the Baptist who zealously pointed out Herod’s sin, but I prefer to follow St. Issac here and emulate Christ’s gentler example.

Christ sat down with the woman at the well even though he knew she wasn’t pure and said “I do not condemn you” to the woman caught in the act of adultery. He said “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.

I suppose it is just a sign of my lukewarm ways that I’m more comfortable trying to be like Jesus here than John.

Alter_of_reason.jpgI recently read When Atheism Becomes Religion under its more provocative original title: I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

The author, Chris Hedges is becoming one of my favorite authors. The first book that I read of his, The Death of the Liberal Class was a great history of classical liberalism — something that all political ideologies today could learn from.

Chris Hedges is a fascinating writer and the perfect author for a book that offers a critique of the modern Cult of Reason. (It is important to note that the use of the word “cult” here reflects the thinking in this footnote of that article: The word “cult” in French means “a form of worship”, without any of its negative or exclusivist implications in English; its proponents intended it to be a universal congregation.)

In fact, although I had this blog post in mind, it wasn’t till I started looking for a picture to accompany it (the Alter of Reason was perfect) that I learned about the Cult of Reason from the time of the French revolution.

That period of time is a great precedent for what happened since September 11, 2001 in the New Atheist movement.

Some people saw religion itself as the cause for the violence inherent in the terrorist attacks. If religion didn’t exist, the movement seems to say, no one would have an excuse to slaughter any group of people.

Chris Hedges’ book is a powerful antidote to this fantasy. Not only does he remind us that the greatest genocides of the 20th century were secular in nature, but he also asks us to consider human limitations in any solutions we propose: No ethical stance, no matter how pure it appears, is moral if it is not based on the reality of human limitations.

Humans — whether created by God 6000 years ago, or just some random chance of the universe — have some very stark limitations. Making religion a demon while deifying reason will not solve anything.

I came across another book today while browsing the bookstore, You Are Not So Smart, that really began to drive home the point of our limitations. As the book points out, Even when we think we’re being rational and thinking things through carefully, our emotional brain, our subconscious, is the one really running the show. (I’ve requested a copy of the book from my local library, so I’ll post more about it after I’ve read more.)

Amusingly, Penn Jillette’s God, No! was nearby and I had time to read the introduction where he talks about the humility of Atheism. He’s right: we should all be able to say “I don’t know”.

But he says that saying “I don’t know” makes you an atheist and here I disagree. I know we haven’t done a great job of celebrating doubt, but even as great a Christian as Mother Teresa had doubts. That didn’t make her less of a Christian — it was simply part of her humanity. You have the chance to say — like Christopher Hitchen’s did — that this makes her a fraud, but I prefer the title “human.” Not knowing, doubting is a fully human thing to do.

It is fine to celebrate everything that reason gives us — and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot through the use of the rational mind — but, as Hedges rightly points out in When Atheism Becomes Religion, as much as reason has helped us reach new heights, it has empowered evil to new depravity.

There is no scientific utopia and efforts to create one only end in destruction. Achieving Utopia must mean destroying everyone that you can’t convince to join you. St Isaac the Syrian put it this way: “If zeal [using passion to convince others of the truth] had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did Jesus use gentleness and humility?”

Today I got my copy of “Fr Alexander Men; Martyr of Atheism”.

Since I like to read this sort of book with my kids, I sat down with them and we read the first chapter.

The book starts out with a broad overview of the history of the Church in Russia to provide a context for Fr Men’s birth and life. This is good for those, like me, who are mostly ignorant of history. As I’m sure many of you know, the Church in Russia did not have an easy time.

As is clear from the first chapter, the Church became dependent upon the State and then had to cope when the States protection disappeared.

My curiosity was piqued, though, by mention of the aborted Council of Moscow in 1918. The author says it had potential to be Russia’s Vatican II but, instead, became a dead letter. Research is needed!

Today, someone quoted Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians in which he says “if any would not work, neither should he eat.

This quote (or at least, this sentiment) is used a lot to support welfare reform in the United States, so I was amused when I found that the Wikipedia article “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” was part of the Socialism Portal and included quotes from the Soviet Constitution:

In the USSR work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”

In this presidential political season, the term “Socialist” has been bandied about a bit too easily by the president’s critics. My wife pointed out, though, that it is a good thing Jesus didn’t read Paul’s admonition before feeding the multitude of irresponsible adults with food from a (relatively) responsible child’s knapsack.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this week is Cheesefare week and last Sunday was Meatfare Sunday — the last Sunday to eat meat before fasting begins in earnest.

What struck me this year, though, were the first two sentences of the Epistle this Sunday:

Brethren, food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.

Right when I could get bogged down in legalism and judging others, they have to give me this thought: I’m no better off.

They really know me.

Related to this, Fr Stephen writes about the scandal of the Gospel in a way we don’t often think of it:

…the radical forgiveness of everyone for everything…

This is only a small aside from Cox’s chapter on the Bible: “Meet Rocky, Maggie, and Barry”.  For the most part, I find this chapter fairly un-controversial — which is not to say that people aren’t going to argue with him, just that I don’t feel the need to. But the one thing I stood out was at the bottom of page 159 where he says: But here “faith” is once again debased into accepting as true something for which you have no evidence. The problem is that this is exactly how the word “faith” has been used for centuries — at least since the author of Hebrews wrote: Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen. So what Hebrews calls “faith”, Cox calls “debased”.  No wonder I’ve been struggling with The Future of Faith so much: he’s re-defining a clearly understood term and expecting everyone to play along.  I imagine I’m not the only one confused.

Since I couldn’t get to sleep, I read some more of Cox’s Future of Faith.  Since I have read through most of his take on the early church (which I found especially hard to swallow — because of where he chose to put his emphasis and the frame that he used to present the history), I found the reading much easier. Perhaps it was also because I decided to read it as a Cox’s spiritual autobiography rather than, as the title suggests, a grand vision for how people of faith should live. Since, in these later chapters, I don’t feel the need to argue with him, I found myself agreeing with his assessment of where Christians are, for the most part, and where they need to go.  As I read about his encounter with Ratzinger in “No Lunch with the Prefect”, I found myself agreeing with his vision for the role the papacy could play in Christianity. He clearly doesn’t understand the inertia of social systems — at one point he seems to expect the Catholic church to make a dramatic course change because we now “know” that Peter himself didn’t teach Apostolic succession, though almost all of his successors did.  And his claim to “understand” fundamentalism because he spent a couple of semesters in college in <a href=”http://www.intervarsity.org/”>IVCF</a> is pretty shaky (though, he is right that he probably understands it better than those who lack even that exposure). But in these later chapters I find that I’m agreeing with him a lot more than in the earlier chapters.  I don’t like his view of history and I think he could benefit from some more exposure to Eastern Christianity, but when it comes to where Christianity is at present, I don’t think he is far off.    

John Gorezen had some great questions on the last reflections post that I did and I finally posted some answers. Hopefully this post will provide for further discussion.

Spiritual autobiography

The more I read of Cox’s book, the more I have to conclude that this book is more a picture of Cox’s own spiritual development rather than any grand vision of what the “Future of Faith” holds. Nothing convinces me more of this (so far) than chapter titled “The Road Runner and the Gospel of Thomas”. The first hint comes when he says, at the top of page 56, that “Christianity is no longer a ‘Western’ religion. … Its vital centers now lie in Asia, Africa and Latin America.” (emphasis mine) First, this ignores that Latin America is called “Latin” because it was Christianized by Europeans and the people living there now — the Christians living there now — are the descendants of Europeans and Native Americans. I suppose he gets past this problem with the insertion of “vital” but, there, too, he ignores the vital centers of Eastern Christianity: Constantinople (Asia minor) and then Moscow (Asia) were the “Romes” of the East until the 20th century. For a historical background of the church in the East, I recommend Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers series of lectures in podcast form. The Ethiopian and Egyptian churches continue to be vital centers of Christianity in Africa. I could even argue that, since the people of the Egyptian church are not the majority religion in that country that they have more in common with the early Church. For more on the spirituality of these churches, I can recommend Speaking of Faith’s Preserving Words and Worlds program. It provides some insight into native African Christianity’s long and lively tradition (as well as that of the Turkish Christian minority). Again, it looks like Cox seems oblivious to any Christianity that doesn’t have deep roots in the West or that was born of the West’s missionary movements. But if we see this book as Cox’s spiritual autobiography rather then as his view of the “Future of Faith”, we can certainly forgive him.

Three Changes

Cox outlines three changes that happened since he was in seminary. I was born and have lived entirely after all of these changes, so I see their impact in a completely different way than Cox. The changes he sees are 1) The understanding that Christianity was not as intellectually unified as he was first taught, 2) “Apostolic Succession” didn’t come directly from the twelve apostles and 3) the influence of the Roman Empire on the early Christians was enormous. The third item, the influence of the empire, is the least surprising to me. Cox claims that the church “softened [its] attitude toward the Roman Empire from passive resistance to docile subservience; then they tried to suggest that the Christian movement had been made up of loyal subjects of the divine emperor from the beginning.” I find this sort of slander against the post-Constantinian church revolting. One needs to look no further than early post-Constantinian bishops like St. Nicolas (yes, that St. Nick) and St. Chrysostom. In fact, if we look at Chrysostom’s “Two Homilies on Eutropius” we can quickly see that as the Archbishop of Constantinople (Rome of the East) he was no toady of the government or its emperor despite being appointed by the Emperor. And, as to the influence of the Roman empire on the early church, I have always understood that the early church saw itself as directly opposed to the empire. Certainly the Diocletianic Persecution has always been known to the church and to say that anyone ever suggested those Christians were “loyal subjects of the divine emperor” flies in the face of a very ancient understanding of history. The first and second points (intellectual unity of the early church and apostolic succession) don’t seem that important to me. Whether or not Paul and the other Apostles thought that there was such a thing as apostolic succession seems less important to me than the continuity of the church. And a lack of intellectual unity among the early Christians isn’t that surprising: they were persecuted and communication was difficult. If they weren’t able to hold big councils for a couple hundred years to hash out there differences, then I’m not surprised they had some.

Historical Jesus and Mystical Christ

The last bit I want to comment on is the way Cox divides Jesus Christ into the “Historical Jesus” and “Mystical Christ” as a way to avoid believing in the Resurrection while still remaining Christian. Once you’ve rejected the Creed and declared that “Modern” Christians just won’t be able to accept some things that are in the Creed, I suppose the separation of the Historical Jesus from the Mystical Christ isn’t a surprise. But first, let’s be clear about something. Early Christians who were not eyewitnesses to Jesus ministry were no more likely to believe in Jesus’ resurrection than modern Christians are. The gospel of John tells us as much when Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” That we’ve managed to convince ourselves that we’re just more sophisticated than early Christians simply because they accepted this idea of the resurrection where we do not is silly. It was a different time and, in many ways not something we can easily comprehend. But we can easily see in their writing and sermons, if we take a few minutes to look, that they struggled with the same things we struggle with. Again, I come back to the Creed. If everyone easily accepted what they were told, there would be little need to communally recite the “I believe” of the Creed. It could be relegated to some esoteric bit of knowledge the priests just tell their congregants “Here is what you have to think.” To put this, loosely, in terms of Freudian psychology, we recite “I believe” to remind ourselves of where we’re headed, not as a reflection of what is going on in our id or ego at this moment, but of where our super-ego is trying to direct us. (I’m not sure that analogy is completely appropriate, but it feels close enough for now.) After dismissing almost every mystical (i.e. any part that cannot be rationalized) aspect of the Creed — the Trinity, the Virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ — I’m left wondering why Cox even bothered writing this book. It isn’t as if these ideas about Christianity are new or that they compromise the “Future of Faith”. They’ve been around at least since the Enlightenment and before. I’ve written enough for now. I hope to finish this book up in the next couple of weeks and post my final take then. In the meantime, I welcome your comments. And I’ll try to respond more quickly.

I’m not planning on doing a posting for each chapter, but there was so much in the first part that I felt this was necessary. I wrote most of this up last week and discussed the first chapter with my peace-activist, Mennonite neighbor. When we met, he was preparing to protest the super-Zionist Johan Hagee’s appearance here in Lancaster. Signs were laid out on his dining room table asking “What about the Christians in Palestine?” His point of view was invaluble in helping think about my reaction to Cox’s book.

Preface

First, let me preface my comments by saying that I continue to be frustrated by Harvey Cox’s apparent ignorance of Orthodox Christianity. I suspect that if I were to ask him, he would know more than this book reveals, but, so far, he seems to studiously ignore Orthodoxy if he knows of it. That, or he reflexivly lumps it with Roman Catholicism. Orthodoxy is distinct in many ways from Catholicism. In fact, there are some areas (which I’ll talk more about as we go along) where Catholicism and Protestants have more in common with each other than they do with Orthodoxy.

Fundamentalism is Dying?

One of the first assertions that Cox made that seems premature to me is that fundamentalism is dying. The specific Chrstian Fundamenalist movement of the 20th century might be dying out. The word “Fundamentalism” has outgrown that particular usage, though, and grown to encompass any religious movement that has little room to acknowledge any truth outside itself. Fundamentalism in this sense is not dying out. The most extreme examples of religious Fundamentalism can be still seen when Christians bomb abortion clinics, when a Muslim blows himself up, or when Orthodox Jewish “modesty patrols” burn down stores they don’t like. And, less we restrict fundamentalism to “people of the book”, this same sort of fundamentalism can be seen in Hindu violence against Muslims or as Buddhists in Sri Lanka attack Muslims. While most of us would find this violent sort of fundamentalism foreign, there is a “soft” fundamentalism — a doorway fundamentalism — with completely understandable roots that appeals to a large number of people. These are people of faith living in community. They bond together because they have a common understanding of their faith. This fundamentalism, like the movement that began in the early 20th century, is a reaction to those who, in the eyes of the fundamentlists, want to diminish the “truth” their story, and replace it with a morality tale. This soft fundamentalism, reactionary in nature, is a opposed to the pragmatism of modern approaches to religion — as a moralistic, humanistic way of living. And, since one of our first instincts (as Cox notes in his second chapter) is to objectify people we do not identify with — especially those we see as dangerous, this soft fundamentlism can lead to violence. Once you’ve objectified someone, it isn’t hard to accept violence towards that person. Just as Cox notes that people were premature in predicting the death of God and religion, predicting the death of fundamentalism is premature. As long as people continue to take their scriptures seriously, there will be religious fundamentalists. And, as long as Christians use a “Just War” theory, there will be violent Christian fundamentalists.

Morality vs Ethereal

Which brings us to what Cox thinks is the reason people remain religious now. From page 2: “People turn to religion more for support in their efforts to live in this world and make it better, and less to prepare for the next.” Here Cox provides two different points of view as to the purpose of religion. These are his answers to why people are religious: essentially, Morality or fear of death But both of these are completely man- and self-centered. As the narrator of “The Gurus” (another book I’m currently reading) notes, these approaches leave people who are searching for deep spirituality wandering. Some are drawn to the more morally ambiguous Hinduism (as in “The Gurus”, for example) because they are looking for an experience with the divine now rather than the promise of the divine later or guidance on how to live now. It is these people, the ones who are not simply satisfied with morality, who aren’t cowed by fear of death, and who posess enough spiritual curiousity to look outside their culture, who Cox doesn’t even seem to see. People looking for morality don’t need religion. While Christianity certainly provides a unique paradigm for building a moral life, that is not the purpose of Christianity. Even escape from an unprovable, but horrific, after-death torment in Hell is not the “why” of Christianity (though you wouldn’t know it from a pass through the Hell House). Jesus himself said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” In quoting the Psalms (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”), Jesus was reminding his listeners that following a code of conduct wasn’t what was important. Framing Christianity’s purpose as a, or sometimes, the only means of conveying morality is just another reason to dismiss it. Being moral, following the Golden Rule, etc, doesn’t require faith, belief or even religion.

Faith vs Belief

Cox defines “Faith” is an individual experience while “Belief” is (generally speaking) the corporate expression. He sees us turning to an “Age of Spirit” that is more similar to the first 300 years of Christianity (the “Age of Faith”) than the “Age of Belief” that we’re just now leaving. While I’ll agree that the first 300 or so years of Christianity was unique, I think categorizing the past 50 years as an era just as distinctive as that initial period is just silly. But I also think he makes too much of this difference between “faith” and “belief”. Another way to explain how Cox differentiates these two concepts is to think of faith is as a person’s experience of awe, of wonder, and a “sense that behind anything that can be experienced this is something that our minds cannot grasp” (to quote Einstein, as Cox does). Belief, on the other hand, Cox defines as dogma that has its origin in religious institutions. Most emblematic of what Christianity has to offer as belief, in this sense, would be the Nicene Creed. Cox, in quoting Rober Wuthrow, says we’re “replacing explicit creeds and doctrines with implicit norms devised by the group.” (Emphasis his.) For non-, or should I say, anti-creedal Christians, the problem of the Creed is that doesn’t address what Jesus told us to do or what he did. This is absolutely true. So the Creed has been replaced in some Christian circles with the ambiguous, subjective question: What Would Jesus Do? Let me be clear that this is not a bad question. But it should not be used as a criteria for who is “in” or “out”. And this is what is happening whether we use the Creed or social norms (e.g. “Christians don’t smoke”, “Christians don’t dance”, “Christians aren’t gay”). We’re defining an identity. The Creed does not demand any standard of behavior from people, but simply says you’re “in” or “out” by what you claim to believe. Its an explicit standard with little to no room for subjectivity. As an added bonus it has remained the same, worldwide, for almost 1700 years. Implicit norms, however, change with culture. They vary from place to place and time to time. A tee-totalling Baptist from America, for example, might have trouble recognising an imbibing German Baptist as Christian because of his implicit understanding of how a Christian acts. A Creed is a means of identification. It is how a group defines itself. Profess the creed, and it doesn’t matter if your a smoker or gay.

Doubt

Now, where does doubt come into play here? Cox rightly identifies the existance of doubt as an area that has been dealt with poorly in the past. Fundamentalist Christians, especially, make it seem as if doubt is a sign that something is wrong with your Christianity. However, Cox seems to blame this problem on the nature of belief itself. He opposes doubt and belief:

Eliminating the spurious use of ‘belief’ to define Christianity has another advantage. It recognizes that often people who call themselves ‘unbelievers’ have episodic doubts about their unbelief. ‘Believers’ go through similar swings.”

He even uses Mother Theresa’s letters as evidence of this. And this is where he shows that he doesn’t understand another facet of the usefulness of the Creed. During every mass that Mother Teresa attended, the Creed was recited. And, yes, she had her doubts. This was not a reason, however, not to recite the creed. One can recite the creed while struggling with doubt. Perhaps the best expression of doubt and belief is found in Mark 9:24: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Cox’s overly specialized re-definition of belief versus faith would require us to re-translate this. In the same way, the use of creeds, the recitation of “I believe”, was never incompatible with doubt. By reciting the creed you’re identifying yourself with fellow strugglers. “We’re in this together, whether we’re drinkers or tee-totallers; whether or not were Democrats or Republicans; liberals or conservatives; peaceniks or warmongers; gay or straight. We hold this in common and, in humility, admit our need for mercy and our hope for healing.”

“Age of the Spirit”

Finally Cox’s claim about the Age of the Spirit and its opposition to the Age of Belief, really shows his lack of understanding of Orthodox Church and, perhaps, the Roman Catholic church.

[F]or centuries Christians have claimed that the Holy Spirit is just as divine as the other members of the Trinity. But, in reality, the Spirit has most often been ignored or else feared as too unpredictable. — page 9

I can only point out that from what I’ve read about Monastic life and the Orthodox celebration of “Fools for Christ” there has always been a place in Orthodox life for the free expression of the Spirit. Just as “Aslan is not a tame lion”, God, through the Holy Spirit, isn’t tame or predictable and never has been. Monastics live in self-supporting communities apart from the hustle and bustle of “normal” life to allow more time to commune with the Spirit. Fools, in the meantime, bring the Spirit directly into the hustle and bustle of “normal” life. They’ve suffered greatly as a result, but they’re also respected by many as having distinctly spiritual insight. Both of these approaches feel threatening to us, even in this modern “Age of the Spirit” that Cox claims we’re in. Finally, his claim that the Age of the Spirit looks to the future instead of the past seems disingenuous. For example, he makes several nostaligic comparisons to the Age of Faith when defining the Age of the Spirit. I would argue that looking towards the future is no better than looking towards the past. Neither is correct. We need to live now and focus on the present.