Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Time to make the donuts

For those of you too young to remember, the title is a reference to an old Dunkin’ Donuts commercial. We lost the first battle, but the war has just begun. The Japanese won Pearl Harbor, but things didn’t end up in their favor in the long run. Let’s take our state back. Click on the link below to join the effort.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Problems With Christianity

First, this is my opinion. As such, you are welcome to disagree with it all you like, but any statement telling me it’s “wrong” is patently false – as opinions are neither right nor wrong by definition. Opinions are formed by one’s life experiences, so even though there may be commonality in our lives, each of our journeys are individualized and, as such, our opinions may agree with other opinions but they are never identical. Giving your opinion, and how it disagrees with mine, is one thing. All I ask is that you do so in a civilized manner. If you are rude your comments will be summarily deleted. If you are abusive your comments will be summarily deleted. If you tell me I’m wrong is an indication that your intellectual growth has been stunted along the way and your comments will be summarily deleted.
About me: I’m in my 40’s and have been happily married for 22 years to my high school sweetheart. I first attended the Baptist church with my parents and grandparents, and started attending an Episcopal church around age 9. As a teenager I was baptized and confirmed as a member of the church on the same evening. I was active in church, participating in youth groups as well as serving as an acolyte until graduation from high school. I was married in a traditional Episcopalian ceremony (family members will tell you that if the strength of a marriage is determined by the length of the ceremony we’re the most married people they have ever known.) I find comfort in the structured yet relaxed atmosphere of the Episcopal service. I like my religion, I enjoy discussing religion and spirituality with those who have different views and I don’t think everyone needs to be the same. If God wanted us to all think alike, then why are there so many different denominations of Christianity, much less all the other God-centered religions?
As a Christian I have been troubled these past years from the extreme positions displayed on social topics in our country and the continued negativity attributed to Christianity due to the caustic rhetoric that has been set forth. I saw some survey results recently that I found troubling. Two groups were surveyed, those who attend church regularly and those who don’t. The ONLY item on the survey they agreed on was the church being best known for being “anti-gay” – 80% of church-goers held this position (that’s 4 out of 5 dentists surveyed for the statistically impaired.) When is the last time you’ve seen 4 out of 5 random people agree on anything? Even more troubling, over 90% of those who don’t attend church gave the same response. I find it incredibly sad that organized religion is thought to be exclusionary by anyone, much less such an overwhelming percentage of people.* The gay marriage issue is a current hot topic and a recurring theme in this writing, but this goes well beyond a single issue. I am a proponent of the image God projected through Jesus as loving and benevolent teacher and take issue with those who promote the image of a spiteful God.
As I have contemplated the current state of affairs I have identified seven fundamental areas that give rise to my discomfort and present them here for consideration. I’m positive that these words can be parsed within an inch of their meaning to illustrate that I’m “wrong” – but please refer back to the first sentence before taking that step. 😉
Excessive Pride
The insistence that you have it “right” and everyone else is “wrong”
I find it painfully ironic that the most self-righteous among us, almost to a person, are guilty of the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, which is also considered a major contributor to the other six original sins. Perhaps it is their pursuit of power (greed) or simply that they are too lazy to apply a modicum of critical thought to the scriptures due to their sloth. After all, it’s much easier to accept what others spoon-feed to you or simply accept Holy Scripture at face value rather than to take the initiative to examine it from multiple angles and reach your own conclusions.
Perhaps they are simply envious of others and that is the source of their wrath – but any way you slice it, the condemnation of others is in direct conflict with The Gospel according to St. Matthew, Chapter 7. With 12 major religions, many minor religions and well over 30,000 Christian denominations recognized worldwide it takes a special kind of arrogance to insist that any one of them is “the” correct choice. Perhaps the prudent choice is to look inward and not worry excessively about the religious doctrine of others. Christianity is my choice; it may or may not be yours. Within the Christian faith I’ve chosen the Episcopal Church as my home, but I incorporate some aspects of Quakerism in my faith practice. I have family, friends and associates that cover many flavors of Christianity as well as several of the other major religions. I count among them ministers, deacons and lay-ministers. I respect their choices and they respect mine, following the teachings of Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31, both of which say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The fact that the concept of “do unto others” is found in some form in almost every religion across the globe makes it even more poignant to me, and further example that we often get too distracted by the details. So, if you would like for others to treat you with respect, offer them respect. If you are going to rail against others then you should expect the same in return – unless, of course, you’re going to toss aside these Biblical passages, which is another problem that I’ll discuss a little later.
As anti-Christian as it gets, is Satan working through you?
I’m not sure where to begin here, since so many of those people who are busy judging, condemning and doing-un-to-others are displaying intolerance of epic proportion. Tolerance doesn’t mean unfettered permissiveness, it means acknowledging the differences in each of us. Fundamentally these differences have been defined in the United States to be circumstances of birth, religion, sex, ethnicity, race, caste, disability, age or sexual preference. In our daily lives it is illustrated in the concept of equality before the law.
Isn’t it odd that there are those among us who assert that we’re not all afforded equality before God? To make that argument would imply that man is more knowledgeable than God, which I think everyone can agree is a pretty far stretch. How are you more omniscient than the all-knowing? Do they really think that God is going to play favorites due to attributes that we have no control over? (I have yet to find anyone who had a choice in any of the categories previously cited.) Consider the odds; even if Christianity is the “right” religion you’ve still only got a 1:30,000 chance of making the “correct” choice if God doesn’t practice equal opportunity. Continuing the discussion on the points made in the prior section concerning the variability of religion in the world, I don’t think it’s wise to be intolerant of others based on unwarranted pride. John 3:16 (aka “The Tebow Scripture”) says, quite plainly, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” The only condition on the statement is that you must believe, period. There are no cross-references to other sections of the Bible that you must adhere to in order to qualify; no “According to the terms and conditions of Schedule ‘A” incorporated herein by reference” – it’s pretty much clear-cut.
If you are intolerant of anyone for reasons other than how they treat others (remember, “do unto others”) then perhaps some deep personal reflection is in order – could it be that Satan is working through you and your intolerance is his way of sowing anger and divisiveness in the world? Jesus was loving and caring, lifting up the oppressed, the downtrodden and the disadvantaged and opposing the tyrants. If you are oppressing someone, then are you following the example of Jesus Christ?
How can you pick and choose which parts of the Bible “matter?”
I cannot begin to count the number of times people have thrown one section of Leviticus on the table while choosing to ignore another. Lev 20:10 says “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” – this passage is conveniently ignored, while verse 13; “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Is vehemently held forth as absolute and irrefutable. Verse 18, also inconvenient, is selectively ignored as well. “And if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness; he hath discovered her fountain, and she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people.” In Leviticus 21:5 Priests are forbidden from shaving their heads or cutting the corners of their beards. Those who choose to cast stones based on any one of these should probably make sure they’re in the clear on the others. (Unless, of course, they’re not concerned with Matthew 7:12 – which brings us back to the previous section on Pride, funny, no?)
Declaring one passage to be absolute and unerring while dismissing others as irrelevant is complete nonsense. A favored argument is that the Old Testament doesn’t apply to Christians, yet there they are touting good ol’ Leviticus 20:13. If you are going to maintain any credibility at all you must give equal weight to all or reference none. To do otherwise is to brand yourself a hypocrite of the highest order. Discussions must always make sense to be productive, and it simply does not make sense for someone to determine that one part of scripture is absolute while another is not. Scripture, like the world we live in, is simply too complex to be accepted without interpretation. How can you “Love thy neighbor as thy self” when the neighbor is committing adultery with your spouse, which is punishable by death? Do you forgive your spouse (and neighbor) before or after you kill them? If you forgive them before you kill them do you still have to kill them, since they are now forgiven? How do we figure this out? What if you’ve never been with a woman, is it OK to lie with a man? What about women with women? Where is that addressed? Is it literal or open to interpretation? (More on that later – see, it’s really not that simple when you get down to brass tacks…)
Divine vs. Divinely Inspired
Yes, there is a difference!
Scholars state “the Bible was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” – that is not to say that the Holy Spirit dictated the text to the authors, but rather they were inspired to write the passages. Those divinely inspired words of the New Testament were canonized sometime prior to 375 A.D. – meaning that the leaders of the early Christian church adopted it as the basis for Christian belief. So, we’ve got a group composed of men making this determination. They didn’t ordain that the words were divine, they measured the complete work by the standard of divine inspiration. If something is “inspired” then it is subject to the prejudice and opinion of the author, it is not objective. That doesn’t diminish the underlying message of the inspired work, but it can have significant impact on the precise syntax of the work, which has an obvious effect on any translation. Modern languages are in a state of perpetual growth and change, if they weren’t growing and changing they would grow stagnant and die. As languages grow and change the resulting translations will also grown and change, introducing additional entropy to the system.
As our view and awareness of the universe around us has changed we know that the Biblical authors weren’t even remotely aware of the vast universe and the entirety of God’s creation. Because of this the scope of the scriptures are quite limited in many respects, however the underlying messages remain relevant centuries after they were authored because, while there may be limits to the words, the concepts are infinitely scalable. You can spend 5 minutes gazing at the stars and be divinely inspired, but that doesn’t mean that the words you write about your experience are divine, only divinely inspired. Divine inspiration has resulted in songs, poetry, stories and novels – that doesn’t make any of them divine works.
False tautologies
If man is involved, it has errors!
Perhaps here’s where things get tricky, because I’m going to talk about the Bible as God’s word vs. the Bible as Man’s word as inspired by God. If the Bible is inspired, as opposed to transcribed, then as long as the underlying message remains intact the word of God will carry on, despite updates. If the Bible is God’s word (transcribed) then Houston, we have a problem! If we acknowledge that God (and therefore, his word) is unerring then how can we explain the movement afoot to “correct” the Bible and “bring it back to it’s conservative roots” – since we just said it is without error? A strict interpretation produces a paradox; you can’t have errors that need to be corrected in an unerring Bible – however, you can have versions of the Bible that have been modified by man that stray from the original message. So, to claim there are errors you must accept that the Bible is inspired by God (per Timothy 3:16,17) and not a literal transcription.
When you consider that the Bible has been translated into 2018 languages with over 17 versions in print in English alone the odds of variation are significant. Examination of several of the current versions will reveal that there are, indeed, variations in the syntax – however the underlying message remains generally unchanged. This is what leads me to the next issue.
Bible as parable vs. Bible as fact
Interpretation, or face value?
So, what do you consider the Bible? Is it an irrefutable set of rules to be followed to the letter, or a guide for better living in the service of all of God’s creation? If it’s an irrefutable set of rules then you’re all-in. No pork, clothes of a single thread, death to adulterers, death to children who curse their parents, and so on (Oh, that’s the Old Testament and it doesn’t apply to you? If it’s God’s word then how can you justify that position? – you’re all-in, remember?) If the Bible is absolute you have no choice in the matter, to do anything other than what is prescribed would be an abomination before God.
If the Bible is to be taken as a set of guidelines (as opposed to laws) intended to provide each of us inspiration and motivation to live our lives in a meaningful and productive manner reflecting the love of Jesus Christ then we’re talking about something completely different. In the adultery example above, if we’re allowed the latitude of interpretation we can choose to forgive those who have sinned against us (as indicated in some versions of the Lord’s Prayer) and move on with life (no killing required.) There may be a divorce looming in the distance, but homicide is pretty much off the table.
At the end of the day very few of us can relate to the specific circumstances presented in a text that was assembled by 40 authors over 1,500 years and written in three languages. How many of us have actually loaded loaves and fig cakes on a donkey or washed our clothes in wine? Very few, I’m sure! However, almost everyone can relate to the stories of love, charity and forgiveness that are described throughout the 66 books of the Bible. If we strive to lead our lives in a Christ-like manner and make a constant effort to improve ourselves and the world around us then I say we’re headed in the right direction. Time to go check the temperature on that pig cooker and shuck some oysters…
Judicial law vs. Religious law
Bad for Islam but good for Christianity?
Pundits are constantly condemning the Islamic concept of Sharia Law, yet they continue to propose laws in the United States based on Holy Scripture. Canon Law is the Christian analogue to Sharia Law. How on earth can anyone be opposed to one form of religious law while promoting another? Of course, when you consider the excessive Pride, Intolerance and Hypocrisy that have already been pointed out then it’s clear to see that this is just an extension of those behaviors.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution starts “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” and it has been argued and widely accepted that, as laws shall not be made establishing or restricting religious freedoms, nor should they be made to support religious doctrine, as that could quite easily conclude in the prevention of the free exercise of another religion. In order to maintain freedom of religion we must maintain freedom from religion as well; it’s that simple.
Our religion should be a guide, but our religion should not be codified in our laws, no more than we should allow others to codify their religion into law. This does not mean our laws should not be inspired by any religious principles, merely that we need to make sure we don’t use religion as a tool of legal oppression. If the meek are going to inherit the Earth, shouldn’t we be nice to them beforehand? “Thou shall not kill” is pretty easy to agree on, but women covering themselves head-to-toe in public goes a bit too far for most. It’s called compromise, and to have compromise we need discussion.

In conclusion, religion and spirituality is a journey to me. I know I don’t have it all figured out and think it would be foolish to assume that I do. God will reveal himself to us in his time, not our time. To think that we have reached our destination would be an affront to his power and wisdom.
The best any of us can do is to help others grow and prosper. There will be those that are beyond my help, which is not to say that they are beyond all help, they just need someone other than me at this point in their journey. Perhaps by writing this I have helped you reflect on your own journey. It may well be that all I have done is provide an opportunity for self-reflection that is part of my own journey.
Maybe a reader will offer insight that provides me the opportunity to see things from yet another point of view. By any means, the purpose is to seek growth and understanding so that I might leave the world a better place than I found it.
*Data taken from a talk given by Justin Lee, Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network