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Understanding the Source of Evil by John S. Spong Part VI “Think Different – Accept Uncertainty”

“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part VI: Understanding the Source of Evil

Bad theology is inevitable when it is based on bad anthropology!  That is, the way we understand human life always determines the way we understand God. This becomes very clear when religious people begin to grapple with and to try to explain the source of evil.

One does not have to argue today about the reality of human evil.  Stories documenting that reality find daily expression on the front pages of our newspapers and are the lead stories on all news telecasts. Though an evil presence is all but universally acknowledged, defining what constitutes evil can, however, still vary widely and explaining the source out of which evil flows has been a major debate throughout the ages. The source of evil has been portrayed in a variety of mythological ways.  All people, however, seem to know intuitively that there is something deep in our lives, out of which hostile, spiteful, defensive and sometimes killing impulses flow.  The depth of this reality oft times surprises us.  It is as if it overwhelms our cultivated self image. Many of us are hesitant to own evil as something that is part of ourselves.

St. Paul, for example, saw evil as an external force that somehow held him in its grip. He explained its presence by saying, “It was sin, working death in me through what is good.” (Rom. 7:13).  Later, but in a similar vein, he explained that when he knows what is evil and still chooses to do it: “It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Rom. 7:17).

In Persia, where the Jews first ran into a radical dualism that divided the whole of reality into two realms, one good, one evil, another definition was operating.  Creation was a mixture of two competing and eternal powers, not just the beginning of God’s good world, as the biblical story of the Hebrews had maintained.  Life was a mixture of good and evil, light and darkness,  spirit and flesh and heaven and earth.  This dualistic idea found a major place in the writings of Plato, who describes human beings after the analogy of a charioteer being drawn by a pair of horses, one representing the higher aspiration of the soul and the other representing the lower yearnings of the flesh.  The task of the charioteer was to steer these competing forces so that the higher nature always led the lower.

Deep down in this theological divide that separated dualism from the biblical witness was their mutually exclusive images of God. For the dualists good and evil were equal divine forces contending for dominance. This counter force might be called the devil, Satan or evil, but it was portrayed as possessing a status equal to and independent of God.  For the Jews, to whom God was both ultimate and one, evil was not an independent power, but a corruption of the original goodness of God’s creation. This Jewish conviction was expressed in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one,” and it was grounded in the Commandments where it was written, “I am the Lord your God…You shall have no other Gods before me.”  This meant that for the Jews evil had to be understood as a corruption of that which is good.  So, in the Jewish tradition, Satan was not an independent creature, but a fallen angel cast out of heaven by God for leading a revolution against God and human life was not evil in its origins, but became evil through an act of disobedience that corrupted the goodness of God’s creation forever.

Although these ideas were present in the mythology of the Jewish stories of their origins, they did not get developed in a systematic way until the fourth century of the Common Era and then by the hand of the most significant Christian theologian in the first twelve hundred years of Christian history.  His name was Augustine.  He was the bishop of a North African town known as Hippo. Today he is canonized, both in fact and tradition, and is widely referred to as simply St. Augustine.

Augustine had an interesting personal history before he was converted to Christianity. Much of that history he has chronicled in a book called “The Confessions.”  He was captured, he  says, by “the lure of the flesh.”  He had many lovers and lived with one of them long enough to father a son by her.  He identified himself as a Manichean, which meant that he was a follower of Mani, a Middle Eastern dualist.  Finally, however, inspired by the witness of his Christian mother, whose name was Monica, and under the influence of a Christian leader named Ambrose, he became a Christian and put his enormous intellectual gifts into the service of his newly-adopted faith.  He assumed that it was his task as a Christian theologian to explain all mysteries.  One of those mysteries to be explained was the source of evil in a world that Christians believed was created by a good God.  To accomplish this task, he went to the scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which he believed, as the Christians of that day did, that these words were the “Word of God” and, therefore, that they held the key to the understanding of all things.  Augustine knew nothing of the source or background of these scriptures, but assumed it was his job to mine them to discover ultimate truths.

In that sacred text Augustine found two quite different stories of creation side by side in the book of Genesis.  They were actually written in two different eras about 500 years apart and under very different circumstances.  He blended them, however, and used them as his starting place in the definition of evil.  From the first story (Gen. 1:1-2:4a), he took the idea of the perfection of creation.  This was the “seven day” story, which suggests that God, the source of all that is good, created out of nothing the earth, the sun, the moon and all forms of living things from plants, fish and birds to the “beasts of the field” and “every creeping thing that creeps upon the face of the earth.”  Then late on the sixth day, to complete the act of creation, perhaps as its crown and jewel, God made human life.

God made this human life both male and female, presumably as equal expressions of the divine image.  To this newly minted couple God gave stewardship over all things and commanded them to be faithful and to multiply.  This story ends with God pronouncing everything that God had made to be good.  There was no dualism here between good and evil.  All was good, all flesh, all desires, all creatures.  Because creation was now complete it was assumed to be perfect.  Nothing can be perfect if it is incomplete or still evolving.  Completeness was established in this narrative when it announced that on the seventh day of that first week, God rested from all the divine labors and thus established the Sabbath day of each week thereafter to be a day of rest for all creation.

This familiar narrative was a product of the period in Jewish history known as the Babylonian captivity, which would date it in the late 6th century BCE. It was written to accomplish two things.  First, the writer, who was a member of a group we now refer to as “the priestly writers,” wanted to have a Jewish story of creation that could be placed as a contrast alongside the Babylonian story of creation.  Second, this writer wanted to establish the peculiar Jewish Sabbath day custom as a defining mark of all Jewish people and to cause that practice to distinguish the Jews from all other people.

The Jews must become, this author believed, people who refuse to work on the seventh day of the week and, in the separateness of that existence, keep themselves from losing their identity by intermingling and ultimately intermarrying with members of other ethnic groups.  Only in a strictly observed separation could the continuity of the Jewish people be guaranteed and only in separation could they fulfill what was, they believed, their God-given vocation, namely to be the people through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed.  That was their calling, their messianic role and their divine, historical destiny.  This hymn of creation was designed to affirm the oneness of God, the goodness of creation and to justify the stance of separation in which their hope of survival as a people rested.

When this group of “priestly writers” later compiled the sacred scriptures of the Jews, an action that also took place in and following the Exile in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, they placed this story of the earth’s beginnings as the first chapter of the first book of their sacred story, the first chapter of what they would later call “The Torah.”  This meant that it had to push a much earlier story of creation into a secondary position.

That displaced story of creation, which was written some 400 to 500 years earlier, was much more primitive and reflected its more ancient origins.  It was quite different and even quite contradictory when compared with the newcomer that now preceded it.  In the first story, the creation of living things came in an orderly manner from plants to animals to human life.  In the second story, the man was created first out of the dust of the earth and even after God had created a beautiful garden in which the man could live.  Then came the creation of all the animals, which were designed to give the man companionship, and finally, when none of the animals seemed capable of meeting the man’s needs for companionship, God created the woman.  The woman in this story was thus not coequal as in the earlier story.  She was quite secondary, made out of the rib of the man.  She was created to be the male helpmeet and support person.  The man had the power to name her as he had named all the other animals, which meant that he had the power to control her.  The names of this man and woman were Adam and Eve.  The garden in which they lived was called the Garden of Eden.  In both stories the perfection of creation was asserted, but how evil entered this paradise was yet to be told.  The Jews would come down on the side of evil being the corruption of that which was good.  St. Augustine would put these two stories together and make them the basis of his explanation of evil and just why it was that all human beings were corrupted, why they died and why they needed to be rescued and saved by an intervening deity.  I will turn to that story next week.

~John Shelby Spong

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Deconstructing the Story of the Fall – part VIII John S. Spong

“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part VIII: Deconstructing the Story of the Fall

The way Christians have told the Christ story, beginning with Augustine in the fourth century and continuing through Anselm in the twelfth century, is to postulate an original and perfect creation from which human life has fallen.  This original perfection was first perverted and then lost by an act of human disobedience. At least that was the way the biblical story of the Garden of Eden was interpreted. Expelled from paradise because of this act of disobedience, the only human hope was that God would somehow come to rescue us from this fall; to save us from this original sin and to redeem us from our lostness.

Given these presuppositions it should come as no surprise that Jesus was portrayed as God’s special rescue operation.  His death on the cross represented the terrible price that God had to pay to accomplish our salvation.  So on the Protestant side of Christianity we learned to say such things as, “Jesus died for my sins,” and on the Catholic side of Christianity we began to refer to the Eucharist as “the Sacrifice of the Mass,” which meant that the Mass re-enacted liturgically that moment when Jesus died for our sins. My last column in this series ended with the question: “What is wrong with these familiar concepts?”  My answer was “Everything.”  Today I seek to put theological flesh on those bare bones.

It is interesting to note how negative Christian churches have been about the work of Charles Darwin.  Enormous religious energy has been spent in attempts to blunt the insights of Darwin over the last 153 years since the publication of The Origins of Species by Natural Selection in 1859.  This negativity has given rise to a more militant fundamentalism, brought John Scopes to trial in Tennessee and spawned attempts to promote as alternatives such discredited concepts as “creation science” and “Intelligent Design.” It has captured the attention of State legislatures and even of the 43rd President of the United States.  It has motivated politicians to force upon school districts the judicious editing of public school textbooks to allow alternatives to evolution to appear to be credible. One does not see this kind of emotional reaction unless there is a deep emotional threat.

The work of Charles Darwin has clearly disturbed the security that traditional religion seeks to provide.  What, we must ask, is the nature of that threat?  Well, in its earliest phase Darwin clearly challenged the literalization of the Bible and especially of the Bibles’ creation story, rocking the claims of the fundamentalists.  That, however, does not seem enough to generate the levels of emotional hostility toward evolution that has been expressed in churches over the last century.  Indeed, very early in the dispute, fundamentalists decided that each day in the creation story could have been a billion years or so and that was enough to save their literal Bibles, or so they thought.  It was an answer that did not meet any scientific criteria of competence, but it did lower the threat and calm the fears.  The real reason for this continuing visceral hostility must be deeper than that.  It is as we shall see!

The real and unrelenting hostility of traditional Christians to Darwin rises out of the fact that Darwin has annihilated the familiar way the Jesus story has been told through the years.  If Darwin is right, and the world of science is overwhelmingly convinced that he is and his insights have been confirmed by the discovery of DNA, then the way traditional Christians have told the Christ story explodes before our eyes.  Let me examine that idea for a moment.

The traditional telling of the story, adapted from a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis, begins with a picture of the perfection of creation, which was both good and complete.  One cannot claim perfection for creation unless it is a finished process.  A still evolving universe could make no claim to be finished or complete. Yet that was at the heart of Darwin’s insight.  Darwin said that there never was a perfect, finished creation, but that we have been evolving for a very long time.  Darwin himself did not realize just how long that had been he only knew that it was ongoing.  At this moment new galaxies are still being formed.

There was, therefore, no such thing as a state of perfection in which human life was formed.  Human beings as part of life have been evolving since life began about 3.8 billion years ago, when in the form of a single cell it began its journey.  During hundreds of millions of years it evolved first into multi-celled complexity; then into the division between plant and animal life with primitive forms of consciousness appearing on the animate side; then into the journey of living things out of the sea and on to dry land that occurred about 600 million years ago; then into the rise of reptile dominance epitomized by the dinosaurs; then into the climactic changes that took place about 65 million years ago rendering the dinosaurs extinct and allowing for the emergence of the dominant mammals; then into the development of higher forms of consciousness, and finally into the majestic step from consciousness into self-consciousness that finally produced the recognizable form we call human life.

Depending on how one defines human life, that last step occurred anywhere from four million to 250,000 years ago.  There is absolutely no biological evidence anywhere that with human life the permanent goal of evolution has been achieved. Homo sapiens assume that, but my guess is that the dinosaurs also assumed that 65 million years ago.  Instead evolution indicates that life is a work in progress, not a finished product.  Certainly it makes no sense to claim today that human life began in an original perfection.  Look now at what this now established conclusion might mean for the traditional telling of the Christ story.

If there was no original perfection, there could be no fall from that perfection into a state we have called original sin.  So the idea of original sin is at best nothing more than pre-Darwinian mythology and at worst nothing more than post-Darwinian nonsense.  It is obviously no longer a viable way to describe the flaw we observe in human life that we call evil.  To continue the carnage, if there was no fall from perfection into sin, there could be no need for a divine rescue so the idea of seeing Jesus as the savior of the sinful, the redeemer of the fallen or the rescuer of the lost becomes nothing other than inoperable word constructs and, as a direct consequence, to call Jesus savior, redeemer or rescuer becomes untranslatable.

If there was no fall, not even metaphorically, there could be no restoration from this fall, for no one and no thing can be restored to a status that persons or things have never before enjoyed.  So Darwin first challenges and then demolishes the frame of reference in which Christians for centuries have told the Jesus story and the tragedy is that we know of no other way to tell our story.  So, if Darwin is right, Christianity, as we have understood it, is wrong and its days are therefore numbered.  This is a theological system based on a now abandoned understanding of human anthropology and good theology can never be constructed on the basis of bad anthropology.

This means that no divine figure ever came from God into this world to be the savior of a fallen humanity!  Yet this theology has shaped our worship, our understanding of the Eucharist, our hymns, our prayers and our sermons, to say nothing of our creedal understandings of both God and Jesus for centuries.  When we understand the depth of the Darwinian challenge, perhaps we will then begin to understand why fundamentalists cling so passionately to their outdated concepts and even seek to impose them on everyone else as the only way for their point of view to survive.  It also helps us to understand why mainline churches are in a statistical freefall.  They know that the old literalism no longer works, but they do not know how to replace it, so they drift without a message and they are no longer able to bind people out of loyalty to their institutional forms. Separating oneself from religion is now relatively easy.

Does that mean that we are witnessing the end of Christianity?  I suspect it does, if by Christianity we mean the traditional way of telling the Christian story.  The question we need to ask, and it is a deeply radical question coming at us from many angles, is this: Is the traditional way of telling the Christ story the only way to tell that story?  Is the only way to talk about God the theistic way, that is, to define God as a supernatural being who dwells somewhere external to this world and who can and will invade the world to come to our aid or to answer our prayers?  Is the only way to speak of Christ something that involves us in seeing him as the incarnation of this theistic deity, as one who, in the words of Charles Wesley’s Christmas hymn, was a divine being simply “veiled in flesh?”

The fact is that only inside these dated categories, can we still talk about being “saved,” about salvation, about meaningful worship, about achieving forgiveness or even about life after death.  Once we pull the central piece from this carefully constructed puzzle, is there anything left?  Does not the whole religious system of the past 2000 or so years come apart, shattering like a piece of precious glass into a million shards, never to be reassembled again?  To be able to think differently about the Christian faith or to accept uncertainty in the presence of this kind of challenge does not mean merely nibbling around the edges of our religious system.

It does not mean simply doing a facelift on the corpse of traditional Christian thinking.  It calls us, rather, to a radical re-visioning of our faith story.  It requires that we find a new entry point.  It means that we become willing to give up everything we have ever known in order to move to a place where there are no road maps or road signs and we still have the responsibility of putting one foot in front of the other as we are forced to step into the cloud of unknowing.  Many are no longer willing to risk this journey. They are the new fundamentalists. The pain of this transition is too intense, but the alternative is little more than a life of deception and illusion.  Theological honesty requires that we admit that we have arrived at the status of the total bankruptcy of our traditional Christian symbols.  What do we do now?

We first must recognize that good theology can never be built on the basis of bad anthropology.  So we must begin by understanding what it means to be human.  We will pick up this thread and see where it leads us when this series resumes.

~John Shelby Spong

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The Traditional Religious Definition of Human Life – Part V:

“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part V: The Traditional Religious Definition of Human Life

In this series we have looked at the changing understanding of God throughout human history. We have tried to separate the God experience of transcendence, wonder and awe from the God explanation that has ranged from animism to fertility cults and mother worship to a God understood after the analogy of a tribal chief and currently to a kind of monotheistic oneness that has become all but universal, yet is still conceived in widely different ways across the great religious systems of the world. Despite all the claims made by religious people that they possess certainty in their formulation of who God is, the fact remains that no human mind and no human religion can finally capture in words or creeds the fullness of the mystery of God, primarily because all concepts of God are the products of the finite human mind. This means that the regular religious attempts to do so or to claim that this has actually been accomplished are little more than expressions of human idolatry. In spite of the regular refrain of ecclesiastical propaganda, there is and cannot be any such thing as “one true religion” or “one true church.” So, how can we think “different” about religion and how can we accept “uncertainty” in religion if we do not face this truth? The fact is we cannot. Imperialistic religion is always employed in the quest for power and it will always seek to impose itself upon the world. Why? Because it is the nature of human beings to build a mighty fortress behind which they can hide their rampant insecurity. If anyone is allowed to question official truth then its power to provide security disappears. That is why “religious talk” so often devolves into irrationality.

When God is defined as a supernatural power, who is both ready and willing to come to our aid, then without realizing it we have also defined human life in a negative way. To be human is now to be inadequate. We are creatures who must seek the favor of a theistic God. To illustrate this reality look at the image of God and the resulting definition of human life that dominates especially Western religious systems. In the language of our religious systems we portray ourselves either as children relating to a heavenly father or as convicted felons standing before a “hanging judge.” We are supplicants eager to please the authoritarian deity. That is why so often in our liturgical language we find ourselves saying: “Have mercy, have mercy!” Can anyone not understand how distorting that stance can be to our humanity? Is it possible for us to escape this self-definition without abandoning the traditional and popular concept of the external, supernatural God who is our parent and our judge? I do not think so. That is why a religious reformation is required for the survival of Christianity that will enable us to “think different” and to “accept uncertainty.” If we are to find a way to escape the negativity that traditional religion pours upon the dignity of human life, we will inevitably have to move away from the idea of God as a supernatural, external being. The deeper question is: “Can we move away from the theistic definition of God without moving away from God? I believe we can, but traditional religious leaders will not make that distinction and because they will not they will almost inevitably distort totally what I am trying to say. Allow me to try to unravel this torrent of theological words.

Traditionally, those of us who are the recipients of and practitioners in the Judeo-Christian faith system that marks the Western World have in our definition of God attributed to God all of the things of which we human beings are lacking. God is infinite, we are finite. God is immortal, we are mortal. God is perfect, we are imperfect. God is all powerful, omnipotent, we are limited in power. God is everywhere, omnipresent; we are bound to one place at a time. God is all knowing, omniscient, we are limited in knowledge. God is timeless, we are bound by time. These ideas seem so obvious, but the sum of these definitions of God produces a picture of human life that is lacking in both talent and in ultimate worth. God is the heavenly extension of all of the things about which we feel inadequate. So, against this common definition of God, we human beings have been taught to judge ourselves to be inadequate creatures. This insufficiency of human life forms one of the major motifs of Christian worship. In our liturgies we human beings judge ourselves constantly as those lacking in worth. We sing of God’s “amazing grace,” but we soon learn that what makes God’s grace so amazing is that it saves “a wretch like me.” We sing to God the flattering words “How great thou art,” only to learn that God’s greatness lies in the divine ability to stoop to save a sinner like me. We refer to God in our hymns as the potter and to ourselves as the passive clay begging God to “mold me and make me.” We tell God in worship that “there is no health in us,” that “we can do nothing good” without divine help, that we are not even worthy to “gather up the crumbs” from the divine table. We portray this external deity as an inescapable judge from whose all-seeing gaze we can never hide. The plea for mercy that emanates from the lips of worshipers might be appropriate for a child standing before an abusive parent or for a convicted criminal standing before a sentencing judges, but is it ever appropriate for a human being standing before a God whose name is Love?

This definition of human life is also the primary background theme in the way we Christians traditionally tell the Christ story. Jesus comes, we say, as the savior of the sinner, the redeemer of the fallen and the rescuer of the lost. We are portrayed as helpless victims begging for the intervening God to come to our aid. We are pictured as standing in the lostness of our own weakness and guilt, waiting for the punishment we deserve. When raised to our awareness it is a strange portrait of human life, but it is so pervasive that we have been dulled to its debilitating presence and are thus surprised when it is lifted into our conscious minds.

How does this God then come to our aid? We say God sent Jesus to save us from our sins. How did Jesus affect this salvation? “He died for our sins,” we reply. That is, the unforgiving Father had to punish someone and since we were not able to bear the divine wrath, God punished Jesus in our place. Is that a healthy way to view God, Jesus or ourselves? One can, however, hardly go to a Christian church without hearing this aspect of the salvation story being proclaimed. Protestants have made a mantra out of the phrase, “He died for my sins,” repeating it unquestioningly week after week. Roman Catholics refer to their primary act of worship as the reenactment of the crucifixion. They call it “the sacrifice of the Mass,” because it makes timeless the moment when Jesus suffered and died for my sins. All Christians have made a fetish out of the cleansing blood of Jesus. Protestants want to bathe in it so that their “sins might be washed away.” Evangelical hymn books are filled with such titles as: “Washed in the Blood,” “Saved by the Blood” and “There’s a Fountain filled with Blood!” One Lenten hymn in my Episcopal hymnal exhorts God to “bleed on me.” Catholics on the other hand speak of being cleansed inwardly by “drinking the blood of Jesus” in the Eucharist. When these aspects of this “blood ritual” are raised to our consciousness, we experience a sense of repulsion. Yet we Christians wallow in this mentality Sunday after Sunday, year after year. Lots of people appear to drop out of the church because they find worship vaguely uncomfortable. Perhaps one of the reasons is that this theology of human depravity and degradation unconsciously pushes us down into the depression of feeling worthless.

When we analyze this theological understanding we find that it misrepresents God, distorts Jesus and destroys our human dignity. It is wrong in every detail! First, it turns God into an unforgiving monster who must have a victim for the wrath of the offended deity. This is a concept of God apart from love, forgiveness and compassion. Unable to extract the payment due from us sinners, God kills the son to accomplish divine justice. This makes god the ultimate child abuser. What a dreadful deity this is.

Second, this theology turns Jesus into a chronic victim. His love is seen as a willingness to accept divine abuse on our behalf. Perhaps that is why we have kept him hanging on his cross in the symbol of the crucifix. This allows us to crucify him daily through our ongoing sinfulness.

Third, this theology dumps enormous amounts of guilt, unbearable guilt, onto us when we are worshipers. That is why we are taught to beat our breasts and to plead for mercy. We are, this theology proclaims, responsible for the death of Jesus. Our sins resulted in his crucifixion. We are all “Christ killers.” Guilt has become the coin of the realm in church life. It is “the gift that keeps on giving!” Has the imposition of guilt ever produced life and wholeness in anyone? Is guilt not rather one of the most distorting emotions with which human beings have to deal? Have you ever known anyone to be made whole by being told what a wretched and miserable sinner he or she is? How does this square with the promise attributed to Jesus by the Fourth Gospel that his purpose was to bring abundant life to all?

The final thing that is wrong with this theology is that it is simply not true. It is based on bad anthropology and a bad understanding of what it means to be human. One cannot build good theology on bad anthropology. When this series continues, I will begin the process of dismantling this debilitating theology by looking at our human origins through a different lens. We are not “fallen” creatures who were born in sin. “Original sin” is a concept that has to go. With it goes the portrait of Jesus as the rescuer of the fallen and the image of God as the external and displeased deity. It will be good riddance! To go here, however, will require that we “think different” and “accept uncertainty.” Not to go there is to face the death of the Christian faith. So stay tuned.

~John Shelby Spong

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Responding to prejudice against homosexuales – John S. Spong

Should a Competent Newspaper Publish Uninformed Prejudice?

An article on homosexuality, which appeared recently on the Op-Ed page of the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis, calls into question the decision on the part of that paper’s editors to publish this piece. The article, signed by Don Nye of Edina, revealed no competence to address this subject and revealed little more than uninformed prejudice.  I understand and appreciate the right of free speech, but where is the line between free speech and an ill-informed public attack on the dignity and humanity of a group of human beings?  What is the bar of knowledge that must be met before a vibrant newspaper will refuse to give one’s opinions wide distributions? Does a newspaper print an article that is deeply anti-Semitic with no regard for the offense it will create among its Jewish readers?  Does a newspaper in our day print a piece that defends the opinion that the earth is flat and the center of a three-tiered universe?  I challenge the editorial board of the Star Tribune to review its decision-making processes and to consider the fact that the primary result of their decision was a massive perpetuation of ignorance.

 

Mr. Nye posed six revealing questions in his piece.  They are now in the public domain. He argues against allowing any change in the public attitude toward homosexuality, since the present attitude represents the “societal norm.”  Anyone wishing to change that norm, he maintains, should answer the six questions that he poses. In this column I will attempt to do so.

1 “Were our ancestors all dumb and bigoted because they thought homosexuality was wrong?  Some may think that accepting homosexuality is innovative and progressive, but others say that abandoning our previous norm may be presumptuous on our part.  In other words, our ancestors may have been right, and we might be wrong.”

No, Mr. Nye, our ancestors were not dumb or bigoted, but they did have limited knowledge and an underdeveloped consciousness. Our ancestors also practiced slavery, allowed children to work long hours in factories, burned heretics at the stake, forbade women from getting an education or voting and treated various sicknesses by bleeding the patient.  Would you like to argue that those things were good and that abandoning these “societal norms” was wrong?

2. “Don’t our sexual organs exist for reproduction?  How does homosexuality square with that?”

What you do not understand, Mr. Nye is that we all have but one sexual organ and that is our brain.  All else is equipment.  It is our brains that tell us to whom we are attracted.  We now know that a small percentage of the human population, estimates are between 5 and 10%, have brains that orient their affections toward their own gender. The same thing is true in the world of nature.  There is no reason to think that because this is a “minority,” it is abnormal.

3. “It is no secret that the human sex drive is a lot stronger than is needed for reproduction.  Do we just give into those desires or do we try to control them?  The ancients told us that controlling our physical desires is one of the things that distinguish us from the beasts.  Sexual desires if, not controlled, easily lead us into trouble.”

Of course, Mr. Nye, sexual desire needs to be controlled.  When not controlled violent things occur like rape, prostitution and child abuse.  Each of these behaviors is, however, acted out overwhelmingly by heterosexual people.  Are you suggesting that homosexual people alone must control their sexual appetites?  Rape, as a matter of fact, appears quite unnatural among those you call beasts.  I think any sexual behavior that violates another person is wrong.  But a sexual act that expresses love and commitment is and can be quite beautiful.

4. “Most everyone still agrees that humans can take their sexuality to where it is morally wrong.  Almost all will agree that among other things, adultery, pedophilia and bestiality are wrong.  Why should homosexuality that was once included in this group, be moved to normal sexuality?  It is based on an argument that there is no moral choice involved in homosexuality, that it is a product of nature?  Couldn’t others in the group above use the same argument-they just couldn’t help themselves-they were born with those desires?  Why does the nature argument work for homosexuality but not the others?”

What you do not understand, Mr. Nye, is that what you call “The Moral Law” was not inspired from on high.  It grew out of the human experience.  If there is a victim in love making, it is wrong.  If, on the other hand, however, in a sexual encounter both partners find their humanity enhanced, their ability to love others increased and there is no victim, a different judgment is called for, regardless of one’s sexual orientation.  When you say that homosexuality was removed from “this list of immoral acts,” you are referring to the book of Leviticus.  We have removed a lot of things from the ancient writings of the Torah.  Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient and who talk back to their parents. Leviticus calls for the execution of both partners in an adulterous act, as well as for anyone who worships a false god.  Leviticus mandated kosher dietary laws.  Those, like you, who want to affirm the condemnation of homosexuality in Leviticus, might want to read the whole Torah and see how much of it you want to take literally.

You might also be interested, as long as you are going to appeal to the authority of the Bible, to know that there is no reference to homosexuality in any of the gospels.  Jesus, however, is recorded as commanding us to love our neighbors and when asked who is our neighbor, responded by saying your neighbor is the one for whom you have the deepest prejudice.

5. “Prevalent homosexuality has made its appearance in human history before and has never lasted.  Why is it going to work this time when all other appearances failed?  Changes in norms require universal acceptance.  Why should we go down this road again when many, probably a majority, will always see homosexuality as going against nature, not normal?  Can’t we learn from the past that prevalent homosexuality will not work in society?”

Your statement here, Mr. Nye, is both patently wrong and intellectually absurd. Before you enter the public debate on any issue, you have a responsibility to read those who are experts in that field.  Prejudice does not constitute knowledge.  Scientists now believe that the percentage of persons in the human population that are homosexual has been both constant and stable throughout human history.  When homosexuality is culturally accepted, it flourishes in the open, but when homosexuality is oppressed, it goes underground.  The numbers, however, do not change because sexual orientation is fixed, an unchangeable given, no one can choose to be gay or lesbian any more than they can choose to be male or female, black or white, right handed or left handed.  Changes in norms have never required universal acceptance.  You clearly have no knowledge of history.  That is why those who can’t adjust to new patterns of life are eventually called “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic.”  There are always some who will never change.  What happens to them is that they die and their children change.  That has been the human pattern forever.  People with your attitude are simply those who are uninformed and out of touch.

6. “Here’s one religious question, directed not toward those practicing homosexuality, but toward those who support others who do.  Should we be trying to encourage others to repent of a wrong or pat them on the back as they go down a road that could lead to perdition?  The supportive group may consider themselves full of justice and love, but if there is a God who is opposed to homosexuality, as many religions claim, they may be doing indescribable harm to those they are patting on the back and most likely to themselves.”

This final question, which you, Mr. Nye, say is a religious question,  reveals, rather, a profound lack of any religious knowledge, to say nothing of scientific knowledge.  You are still operating on the outdated theory that people choose to be homosexual.  There is not one shred of scientific or medical data to support that. Our task as Christians is to help people to be whole, to free people to be all that they can be no matter where they fit in the vast spectrum of human possibilities.  For anyone to oppress another on the basis of a given fact of their lives, whether it be skin color, gender or sexual orientation, is simply wrong.  It is an evil act for one person to seek to impose his or her prejudice on another.  Of course, bigoted behavior hurts the victim, but it also violates the humanity of the perpetrator.

You seem to think religion cannot be wrong especially if it validates your particular prejudice.  Well, Christianity has tortured heretics, killed Protestants and Catholics, supported the Divine Right of Kings, opposed democracy, and encouraged slavery and segregation.  The author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” was a former slave trader, who came to the realization that slavery was wrong.  Yet Popes have been owners of slaves and the “Bible Belt” is the part of America where slavery was an accepted institution and where it took defeat in war to force Christians to give it up.  Christians have tried to re-program left handed children and have carried out crusades to kill “infidels” in the Middle East.  Sometimes it is religion that needs to repent!  For you to use an appeal to religion to try to validate your deep hatred and dark prejudice is itself shameful.  Instead of revealing your lack of understanding in an article in the Star-Tribune, Mr. Nye, I suggest you hold up a mirror to yourself and see yourself for what you are, a deeply prejudiced, significantly uninformed man.

~John Shelby Spong

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Judgment Day For Our Culture? Leonardo Boff

Judgment Day For Our Culture?

Leonardo Boff

Theologian
Earthcharter Commission

 

The end of the year offers a chance to make an accounting of our human situation on this planet. What can we hope for and what way will history go? Those are worrisome questions, because the global landscape is somber. A crisis of structural magnitude lurks in the heart of the dominant economic-social system (Europe and United States), with repercussions for the rest of the world. The Bible has a recurrent theme in the prophetic tradition: judgment day is near. It is the day of revelation: the truth comes out, and our mistakes and sins are revealed as enemies of life. Great historians like Toynbee and von Ranke also speak of judgment of entire cultures. I believe we really are faced with a global judgment of our way of living on the Earth, and of the relationship we maintain with her.

Considering the situation at a deeper level, one that looks beyond the economic analysis prevailing with governments, businesses, world forums, and the media, we can see with ever more clarity the contradiction that exists between the logic of our modern culture, with its political economics, individualism and consumerism, and the logic of the natural processes of our living planet, the Earth. They are incompatible. The first is competitive, the latter, cooperative. The first is exclusive, the latter, inclusive. The first puts its principal value on the individual, the latter, on the good of all. The first gives centrality to merchandise, the latter, to life in all its forms. If we do not do something, this incompatibility could lead us to a very severe impasse.

This incompatibility is aggravated by the premises underlying our social process: that we can grow without limits, that the resources are inexhaustible and that material and individual prosperity bring us the happiness that we so desire. These premises are illusory: resources are limited and a finite Earth cannot sustain infinite development. Prosperity and individualism are not bringing us happiness, but great loneliness, depression, violence and suicide.

There are two problems that interact, and could cause upheavals in the future: global warming and human overpopulation. Global warming is a term that encompasses the impact our civilization has on nature, threatening the sustainability of life and the Earth. The result is the annual emission of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane, which is 23 times more destructive than the former. The accelerating thawing of the frozen soil of the Siberian tundra (the permafrost), will create in the coming decades the danger of an abrupt warming of 4 to 5 degrees centigrade, that could devastate great portions of life on Earth. The increase in human population causes more goods and natural services to be exploited, more energy used, and more greenhouse gasses to be expelled into the atmosphere.

The strategies for controlling this threatening situation are largely ignored by governments and decision-makers. Our deeply rooted individualism has precluded a consensus from being reached in UN gatherings. Each country sees only its own interests, and is blind to the collective interest and the planet as a whole. And this way we are recklessly approaching an abysm.

But the mother of all the above-mentioned distortions is our anthropocentrism, the conviction that we human beings are the center of everything, and that everything has been created for us alone, losing sight of our dependency on everything around us. That is the source of our destructiveness, that causes us to devastate nature to satisfy our desires.

Some humility and perspective is urgently needed. The universe is 13.7 billion years old; the Earth, 4.45 billion; life, 3.8 billion; human life, 5-7 million; and the homo sapiens, some 130-140,000 years. Consequently, we were born only “few minutes” ago, the fruit of all the previous history. And from sapiens we are going to demens, threatening our companions in the community of life.

We have reached the apex of the process of evolution, not to destroy, but to guard and care for this sacred legacy. Only then will judgment day reveal our true identity and our mission here on Earth.

 

Leonardo Boff
12-30-2011

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Making Sense of Evolution By Bruce Sanguin

Making Sense of Evolution

November 16, 2011 By

The belief that we must choose between evolution and religion is seductive. Biologist, Richard Dawkins, is only one of many atheistic scientists who believe it’s one or the other. Intelligent Design (ID) proponents, freaked out by the capacity of nature to evolve itself through natural selection and genetic mutation, (and thus elbow out the need for a Designer), likewise try to persuade us that it’s evolution or faith.

Thank goodness for the clear-minded intelligence of theologian John Haught, who brilliantly reveals how the common underlying assumptions of both these camps give rise to the false choice[1]. Ironically, the embittered enemy camps share the same mythic God—a cosmic engineer God who intervenes episodically to design a perfect universe. One camp believes in that God and other doesn’t. So, they hammer away at each other. But it’s not a fair fight. The atheists are going to win this one every time, simply by pointing out the existence of evil, evolutionary dead-ends, and vestigial bits that clearly serve no purpose (such as the human appendix). The universe isn’t perfectly designed by a cosmic engineer. (But it is beautiful in its design, and imperfection is part of its beauty.)

Why don’t these atheists pick on someone their own size, like John Haught? Because anybody with real theological chops exposes the superficiality of their worldview, and how they have set up a straw theological man to tear down. They call John Haught an “accommodationist” (accommodating to ID proponents) but they can’t have actually read his theology. He is anything but. They make two basic “blunders” according to Haught. I will deal with one of the blunders in this blog, and the second one next week.

Blunder one: By presenting evolution and natural selection as an alternative to a designer God, they leave their own territory and enter the land of theology and metaphysics. The problem is that they seem to cross this border unconsciously. There ought to be border guards asking them for their metaphysical passports. They are at home when they describe the physical processes of life. But then, by stealth and under cover of the night, they cross the border into the land of metaphysics and make pronouncements about the nature of Ultimate Reality.

Here’s an example: Richard Dawkins new book, The Magic of Reality, is a delightful read when he sticks to science. I am reading it, and it is filling in many gaps from my pathetic science education. It’s written for adolescents and young adults, which is just about perfect for me. But out of the blue at the end of a delightful chapter on diversity, he drops in the following zinger: “Next time you see an animal—any animal—or any plant, look at it and say to yourself: what I am looking at is an elaborate machine for passing on the genes that made it. I’m looking a survival machine for genes. Next time you look in the mirror, just think: that is what you are too. (Emphasis mine). That’s “magical?” It’s terrifying and depressing.

But is it true? How does he know it’s true? Has science led him to that conclusion? But science doesn’t draw conclusions about the nature of Reality, just how that part of reality we call physical reality works. Am I the only one who finds this chilling? Is this any better than having fundamentalist Christians trying to brainwash children into believing that ID is a legitimate scientific theory? I don’t want my children growing up to believe that they are “machines”—didn’t this language go out of style with Newton? Nor do I want them believing that every thought, feeling, and choice is predetermined by a bit of physical matter.

Here Dawkins is no longer acting as the brilliant scientist he is.  He’s morphed into a metaphysician advocating a particular worldview—one could even say a theology. How did we get from describing physical reality—the proper domain of science— to this metaphysical pronouncement about the nature of ultimate reality?

Blunder one, again: natural selection is not an alternative to intelligent design. It is physical process, which partially describes Reality. Darwin’s discovery was brilliant and is still valid today, but there are other valid theories of evolution (See Back to Darwin: A Richer Account, by John Cobb). In the four-quadrant diagram below, philosopher, Ken Wilber outlines the four fundamental perspectives from within which we see and know Reality.

Each quadrant has its corresponding ways of knowing reality (epistemologies). The right hand quadrants are the domains of science—physical, tangible reality. The best method we have for knowing this external dimension of reality that we call “nature” is the scientific method. The left hand quadrants describe the interior, subjective dimensions of reality. The upper left quadrant is the realm of “I” or consciousness. The lower left (LL) quadrant is the realm of “We”, the intersubjective domain, where worldviews arise and evolve.

What Richard Dawkins and other materialists do is to collapse all of reality into their preferred quadrant, the upper right (UR). It’s called reductionism or in Wilber’s terms “quadrant absolutism”. EVERYTHING (the other three quadrants) can be reduced to the physical! If you want to know everything about the reality “machine” take it apart until you get to the fundamental unit of reality—for Dawkins, this is genetic material. Genes have replaced the mythic God for him in the sense that they absolutely control life. It’s not only scientists who can be guilty of this. Spiritual folk who make the claim that they create  reality in an absolute fashion through their consciousness collapse all the other three quadrants down to the upper left (UL).

Even consciousness (UL) is said to be created by the brain (UR).  But it’s one thing to say that consciousness and brain function are correlated (they are); it’s a completely other thing to claim that consciousness can be reduced to the spongy grey matter inside our skulls (it can’t be). Furthermore, when he ends his chapter on DNA with the claim that the young, impressionable reader is nothing more than selfish, physical bits of matter, using her to pass on genetic material, Richard Dawkins is either unknowingly or sneakily migrating into the LL quadrant and presenting a worldview—genetic determinism. I repeat, this is not science. It’s fine for him to weigh in with his opinions—if he would simply preface such pronouncements with something like, “I’m not speaking with the authority of science here. This is just my personal opinion.”

What Wilber proposes is that if you want a theory of everything you need to employ what he calls “integral methodological pluralism” (sorry about that). All it means is that there are methods of knowing reality that are native to each quadrant or domain. If you want to know about physical nature (UR and LR), then the scientific method is by far the best method.

But if Richard Dawkins wants to know reality as it arises in the UL quadrant (the realm of consciousness), he will need to follow the methodological injunctions of the historical religious traditions about how to meditate and then practice for 10,000 hours or so, and then weigh in on whether the Pure Awareness he is experiencing can be reduced to brain function. (There is a correlation, of course. Every quadrant is correlated to the others. But correlation is not to be confused with causation. Just because you can measure Theta brain waves in Zen meditators doesn’t mean that they are caused by the brain).  The problem is that Richard Dawkins is not the least bit interested in what religion has to say about the nature of reality because science, in his view, is the better “alternative”. It’s not an alternative, Dr. Dawkins, it’s just a beautiful and wondrous way of understanding one astounding aspect of reality—the physical.


[1] John Haught, Making Sense of Evolution, See chapter 2 on Design

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Ruled by the Blind and Irresponsible by Leonardo Boff

 

Ruled by the Blind and Irresponsible

Leonardo Boff

Theologian
Earthcharter Commission

 

 

 

Looking carefully at the many analyses of the crises that are destroying us, we see something that seems central, and about which we must think seriously. Societies, globalization, the process of production, the economic-financial system; the predominant dream and the explicit object of the desire of the great majority is to consume, and to consume without limits. A culture of consumerism has been created and is propagated by the media. We must have the latest models of cell phones, training shoes, and computers. 66% of the Northamerican GNP does not come from production, but from general consumption. British authorities were surprised to learn that, among those who created the disturbances in many cities, were not only the usual foreigners in conflict with each other, but many college students, unemployed, teachers; and even soldiers. They were people enraged because did not have access to consumption. They did not question the consumption paradigm, but questioned the means of excluding them from that paradigm.

 

In the United Kingdom after Margaret Thatcher, and in the United States after Ronald Reagan, and in the world in general, great social inequality is growing. In the United Kingdom the income of the wealthiest has increased 273 times as much in recent years as that of the poor, according to Carta Maior, of 08/12/2011. Because of that, there is no surprise in the disappointment of the frustrated, who face a «social software» that denies them access to consumption and forces them to confront the cuts in the social budget, 70% of which falls punishingly hard on them: 70% of the youth recreation centers were simply closed.

 

What is alarming is that neither Prime Minister David Cameron nor the members of the House of Commons took the time to ask themselves the whys of the looting in so many cities. They responded with the worst remedy: more institutional violence. Conservative Cameron said, emphasizing every word: «we will detain the suspects and will publish their faces in the mass media and we could care less about the fictitious worries about human rights». This is the solution of pitiless neo-liberal capitalism: if an order that is unequal and unjust demands it, democracy is annulled, and human rights are ignored. And this happens in the country where the first declarations of the rights of the citizens were born.

 

If we look carefully, we can see that we are embroiled in a vicious cycle that can destroy us: we need to produce to allow such consumption. Without consumption, enterprises go broke. Resources of nature are needed to produce. These resources are ever more scarce and we have already disposed of 30% more than what the Earth can replace. If we stop extracting, producing, selling and consuming there will be no economic growth. Without annual growth countries fall into recession, generating high rates of unemployment. With unemployment, explosive social chaos erupts, degenerating into all types of conflicts. How can we get out of this trap that we have set for ourselves?

 

The opposite to consumerism is not non-consumption, but a new «social software» as expressed by political expert Luiz Gonzaga de Souza Lima. That is, we urgently need a new agreement, between a frugal and solidarian consumption, accessible to all, and the limits of nature that must be respected. How to do it? There are several suggestions: the «sustainable way of life» of the Earth Charter, the «good living» of the Andean cultures, founded on the equilibrium human being/Earth, the solidarian economy, the bio-socio-economy, the «natural capitalism» (unfortunate expression) that attempts to integrate the biological cycles in the socio-economic life, and others.

 

But when the heads of the wealthy States get together, they do not talk about these things. They try to save a system that is leaking everywhere. They know that nature can no longer pay the high price charged by the consumerist model. It is already endangering the survival of life and the future of generations to come. We are ruled by blind and irresponsible leaders, incapable of understanding the consequences of the economic-political-cultural system they defend.

 

A new global path is imperative, if we want to guarantee our lives and the lives of all other living beings. The scientific-technical civilization that has allowed us exaggerated levels of consumption can ruin that civilization itself, destroying life and degrading the Earth. It is certainly not to such an end that we have reached this point in the process of evolution. We must have the courage and daring to create radical change, if we still have a little of love for ourselves.

 

 

 

Leonardo Boff
08-19-2011

 

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