Neither your God nor your non-God are universal.

As usual, I leave some of my best efforts in other blogger’s comment sections.  What follows is adapted from a response to this post, in which the writer criticizes “progressive Christians” for cherry-picking from Christianity only that which we agree with. Ultimately, I take issue with her/his underlying assumptions.


…I don’t know if you read Christopher Hitchens or not, but you and he both seem to be under the same weird notion that in order to be authentically Christian, one must accept everything in the chosen holy books verbatim, and if one doesn’t, her beliefs don’t count. I defy anybody to subject himself to a similarly foolish standard in any other scientific or philosophical field: take all of Plato verbatim, or take none of Plato. Take all of Nietzsche, or none of him. Take all of Sartre, etc. This approach to anything – knowledge, belief, science, etc. – is clearly absurd.

Where did we get this idea that there is no validity to any body of work unless it is all literally true? From Christians? Maybe some of us, sure. But when others of us reject this paradigm, please don’t act as if religion is supposed to operate differently from any other human activity when it comes to how we form our beliefs.

As a progressive Christian, I am a pluralist, which means that one of my foundational beliefs is that God is too big to be fully understood by any humans. Ergo, to quote one of my professors, constructing theology means “groping toward the infinite with the tools of finitude.” Rather than provide a single, unified view of God, I think the Bible’s various narratives and themes instead reflect ongoing traditioning and theological changes and different emphases over a thousand years or more, and such traditioning and changes in interpretation have been ongoing ever since.

I don’t mind anybody calling into question any aspect of faith that is found to be problematic. But I do object to atheists or Christian fundamentalists alike who try to mandate universal definitions to what it means to be Christian, or who God is, or Christ, and so forth, whether for the purpose of rejecting or affirming such dogma. Neither camp is capable of defining the terms and forcing everyone else to adhere to them. So, militant atheists and frothing Christians alike, kindly knock it off already.

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Separation of Church (marriage) and State (unions)

One of the more frustrating aspects about the current debate over same-sex marriage is the utter shallowness of the theology on the anti-marriage side.  Having wrongfully presumed that it is their prerogative to determine whether other people’s civil marriages meet their theological criteria, the only theological criteria they offer up is that of gender. Britney Spears wants to drunkenly marry some guy for 15 minutes?  No problem.  A couple of straight swingers want to get married and swap partners every night til death do them part?  Let ’em.  But to allow any two women or two men to get married would go against their religion.

Of course, few if any would advocate that we hold anyone else’ civil marriages up to religious scrutiny.  That would be considered inappropriate, overreaching.  Yet, that is precisely what we do any time civil marriage is denied on the basis of gender, as there is no argument against same-sex marriage that is not religious in origin.

Here’s the problem:  gay people not only are allowed to get married in my church, but have been for decades.  As far as religious marriage – as opposed to civil marriage – is concerned, we will continue this forever.  Yet, other peoples’ concept of religious marriage have overreached into our church building, effectively neutralizing our religious marriages so that they do not result in the same civil benefits as others.  If religious marriage is going to be interchangeable with civil marriage, as is presently the case in American society, fine.  But not if only one narrow interpretation of religious marriage is going to be enforced on everybody.

So the sanctity of marriage should be protected.  The marriages that my church conduct should have the same legal standing as any other religious marriages.  People smarter than me have drawn up big arguments around the following idea, but in a nutshell, here is my plan for restoring marriage in America.

  1. Religious and civil marriages should no longer be synonymous.
  2. Civil marriages should be called civil unions.
  3. Civil unions would provide all civil rights presently enjoyed by those who are married.
  4. Religious marriages would retain the title of “marriage” but would not, in and of themselves, provide any civil rights, benefits, etc. from the national, state, or local government.
  5. Civil unions would be not be denied on the basis of gender.
  6. It is up to the individual community of faith to determine its own rules regarding who may be married there.

Jeremiah Wright is still damn right

( This is a follow-up to this post, inspired by this comment.)

[UPDATE: If you haven’t seen Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments in their original context, follow this link.]

Each church has a unique context, with members who have particular needs and points of view. Trinity UCC has, since its inception, been one of the most honest churches I can think of in living the gospel and meeting the needs of the greater community on the south side of Chicago (read: low-income black folks, a community that has historically borne the brunt of America’s oppression). Depending on the circumstances that have brought folks to their point of need, “God damn America” can represent a liberating theological notion for those who have been harmed by America – or by the conflation of God/America like we’ve seen following September 11.

The powerful subtext behind “God damn America” is first and foremost that God is NOT America, and does not necessarily bless us just for being Americans. Depending on where you’ve come from, these can be liberating words that can lead people from despair, to God. As a pastor, Rev. Wright’s job at the pulpit isn’t to be politically correct, or to be safe, or comforting, or to not make waves or step on toes, but it is to declare the salvation of God – as effectively as possible, – for the folks who need to hear it. And if you listen to the tiny decontextualized video snippets of any of these “controversial” sermons, you will hear that Rev. Wright’s words deeply resonated with those who were there to hear them.

All I’m saying is, we – and by “we” I’m talking to outraged middle class folks who are so offended by Rev. Wright’s comments that they’re considering not voting for Obama as a result – we must realize that our self righteousness is not necessarily universal. It may well be crazy and indefensible for the pastor of our churches to preach “God damn America,” but then again, context is everything, isn’t it? (Yes, it is.)

Many are now asking, what does this say about Obama, and the emphasis that he has put on our national unity?

To me, it says that he has spent 20 years working in a church that has been a vibrant, saving institution for many low-income black folks in Chicago.

It says that Obama views the gospel message as one that requires adherence to God AND neighbor, just as Jesus commands.

Finally, it says that Obama, who has been through his own share of difficult times, has also spent his life meeting people at their point of need, without losing his optimism for the future of America.

And that is a candidate – and a faith perspective – that I can get behind.

BARACK OBAMA FOR PRESIDENT

Update: All Hail the Chief! The morning after…

There, I said it. If Super Tuesday is your day, make sure to VOTE!

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The Bible is not God

Many people seem to confuse faith in God with faith in the inerrancy of the Bible. Ergo, if you question the Bible, you’re questioning God. Not so–the Bible and God are not the same thing. God is…um…let’s see here…okay, let’s just say God is God. (We’ll solve that easy question later.) But the Bible? That’s a quantifiable, human-made compilation of some really awesome/terrifying/boring stories written by humans about God. We might say that many of these humans were divinely inspired, but that is not the same thing as saying that the Bible is on par with God (or Jesus).

This question came up at another site when somebody made the following statement:

“As the Bible is ALL ABOUT Jesus to declare it to be in error is to cast doubt about Jesus.”

(Here’s what I had to say):

You are conflating faith in Jesus with faith in the accuracy of the Bible, but one does not depend on the other. It is belief in Jesus Christ – not in biblical accuracy – that is the source of our salvation. Whether we believe the Bible is “in error” to some degree is ultimately a secondary matter.

Believing in Jesus Christ as Savior does not mean that you must avert your eyes to the contradictions, and yes, there are plenty, found in the Bible. Neither must we make excuses for depictions of horrific violence, nor for the disturbing ancient practices found in the Bible. The Bible itself does not claim that it is infallible, just like it does not claim that it must be taken 100% literally.

Having said that, I do not believe that the Bible is “in error” so much as “in flux”. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments there are full on disagreements between the biblical authors themselves–particularly how previous texts should be interpreted, or what God’s real priorities were.

In some cases, biblical authors wrote texts designed to “correct” what they saw as flaws in the standard versions of particular stories. (For a classic example of this, read the David narratives in II Samuel, then read how the author of the Chronicles retold the story, changing significant details as he saw fit.)

But you can call into question some parts of the Bible without saying the whole thing is useless! The Bible was written by faithful Israelites and Christians, many of whom we would consider to be divinely inspired. It is our heritage, and there is much to be learned from our ancestors.