Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Third "E": Economy


Why are we in such a pickle in regards to ecology and energy? It has to do with the way we manage our house.

The word "economics" is from the Greek words οκος [oikos], meaning "family, household, estate," and νόμος [nomos], or "custom, law," and hence means "household management" or "management of the state."

Simply put: our economic system does not fit our ecological and energy realities. We are doing a bad job of managing our house, which is Earth.

Our economic system is based on unlimited growth and consumption of goods. “Unlimited” growth requires “unlimited” energy.

Thomas Berry put it better than anyone. In speaking about our current North American way of life he writes:

“The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress.”
Thomas Berry. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. (New York: Bell Tower, 1999), p. 76.

Our economic system is not sustainable. It will be dismantled by one of two events:

1) a decrease in the supply of energy or
2) ecological collapse.


Unless, of course, we drastically make conscious changes in the way we understand and practice economy. We need a new way to manage our house. Earth is our house. So when one country bombs another one, the destruction caused and the resources wasted affect the same house. It is like two brothers brawling in the living room and destroying furniture. They only hurt themselves.

What we need is an ecological economy. The realities of energy and ecology need to come before corporate interests. Theologian Sallie McFague speaks of it as rules of the household:

1) Take no more than your share.

2) Clean up after yourselves.

3) Keep our space in good repair for future generations.

Our space is Earth. We are all members of one house. Our world economy needs to reflect that reality. Currently, if everyone on Earth consumed at the rate of the average American, we would need four planets of resources. Take the quiz to see how big of an ecological footprint you make.

Americans are not following household rule number 1. But we can. Actually, we have to do so. Eventually, we will whether we do so willingly or not.

In March I preached a sermon entitled: “The American Way of Life or Life for All?” in which I shared some of these ideas including these paragraphs:

“That way of life—that economic model has no long-term future. The demands that way of living places on both the environment and energy resources are too great to sustain. At some point, by necessity, endless consumption will break down. We will transition into a new way of living. What will this new way of living look like? A positive vision will consist of some of the following elements:

“In this new way of living the food we produce will be produced locally not three thousand miles away. We will walk or bike from where we live to where we work to where we shop and to where we go to school. Public transportation will be the way we move from place to place. Our sources of energy will be clean from the sun and the wind and from places and through creative technologies we are currently discovering and developing. We will focus production on things of value such as food (mostly vegetables), medicine and clean water. Energy resources for our communities will be local and small scale. As Sallie McFague puts it: We will take our share and no more than our share, clean up after ourselves, and keep our space in good repair for future generations.

“That is our future. The sooner we become aware of the necessity of transitioning to that future the better. The hope is that we can transition into this way of living before necessity requires us to do so.”

Economy is the third E. However, there is one more "E" to come. Unless we are honest about that, our future could be nuclear winter.

On that cheery note, remember to always look on the bright side of life!

John

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Second "E": Energy


Hi Friends,

It is time for part two!

What makes stuff go? Energy, baby. As Eric Idle has shown us in song, the sun “is the source of all our power.” You might want to listen to him again to put yourself in the right frame of mind!

However, that darn sun is difficult to harness. For the last 150 years or so, we have found our energy source by digging. What makes stuff go? Oil, baby.

We are so addicted to oil that we can barely imagine other sources of energy. As much as I would like to hope that oil is in endless supply, it does not appear to be so.

A gentleman by the name of Dr. M. King Hubbert predicted way back in 1956 that the oil supply was limited. He predicted that U.S. oil would peak in 1970 and that our world’s oil supply would peak in 1995. He was right on in terms of U.S. oil, but missed by a few years on world oil.

But he may not have missed by much. Many really smart folks have suggested that world oil supply has already peaked or will peak soon.

The concept I learned just a few months ago is “Peak Oil”. If you search “Peak Oil” on Google this site will appear first.

One of the primary spokespersons for Peak Oil is Matthew Simmons. He is no left-wing Cassandra. He served as energy advisor to President George W. Bush.

I am not saying I agree. I am not saying I disagree. I advise you to check it out.

Wondering why gas prices are now $3.00 per gallon?

What does this mean?

It means we had better get our acts together.

The U.S. used to export oil. We had so much of the cheap stuff that we sent it away. Now, we import it. We import it from some countries that are not too friendly toward us. This site will provide much information regarding oil imports.

To get a scope on how much we import: The U.S. has four percent of the world’s population yet we use 25% of the world’s oil.

Oil is not our only source of energy. We still have a lot of coal. The Scientific American
has devoted its September 2006 issue to energy. The editor is confident that we have the energy we need. You can hear a podcast regarding this.

Yet even the editor of SA is concerned. Are we headed for a hard or soft landing? Can we make the transition?

I am no expert. Yet, I cannot imagine any of us not taking this seriously.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, our hero, Ebeneezer Scrooge, is confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Future. Scrooge asks him if the shadows the ghost presents are certain to happen or if they may happen. The Ghost does not answer. The answer is up to Ebeneezer.

The answer is up to us.

The first step is to get real about what is happening.

When I first learned of Peak Oil six months ago, I became really depressed. I watched the film, The End of Suburbia with several others in my congregation. It is an important film and a copy is in our church library.

It has taken me awhile to process this. I found help on a site dedicated to those who are aware and reeling. It is a place to talk about the feelings and the impact of Peak Oil.

Again, I am not saying that their conclusions are what will happen. But like Ebeneezer Scrooge after his revelation...

I am ready to get active.

We do not need to move from not being aware immediately to despair.
The middle step is action.

Conservation certainly would help. We could use less energy. However, if that is all we do, the prices would simply go down and we would use more. What if we added a dollar tax to every gallon of gasoline and then used that tax to fund R&D for alternative sources of energy?

I do not have the answers. But we do. We, together, the people, have answers. We need to put our heads together. We need to make our voices heard. And we need to demand of our elected officials (and those desiring to be elected) that they regard this issue as a top priority.

Here is an interview by Jim Puplava with Richard Heinberg entitled, “The Party’s Over.” Heinberg has the hope that “if we keep cool heads, remain optimistic and make good choices, our grandchildren could be living in a very beautiful world…”

Your thoughts?

Next time, I will talk about the major difficulty regarding change.

It is the third “E” Economy.

Blessings,
John

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The First “E”: Ecology


Hi Friends,

In my next three posts, I am going to speak about the things that most concern us as inhabitants of Earth. The three “E’s” are ecology, energy, and economy. I do not pretend to think that my way is the only way or the right way to conceive of our challenges. I really do not have a clue! But I am dumb enough or bold enough to say, "Hey! Isn't there a problem here?!?!?!" So here it is as I see it.

The first “E” is Ecology.

Before we jump right in, you need to watch and listen to the Galaxy Song by Eric Idle. It is good to have a perspective!

OK. Now, you are ready...

There are many definitions of ecology and I am not an expert. I am a simple country preacher. I gladly appreciate your responses. But I will take a stab at it. I am going to speak of ecology as an understanding of life systems. I am interested in how human beings participate in their understanding of ecology. In other words, to what extent are we self-aware of our participation in the life-systems of Earth.

“Man against nature” has been one way of understanding our relationship to Earth. Conquer, dominate. and control have been verbs used to describe our activity. However, man [sic] is Earth. We are not apart from Earth. We part of it. We are nature. We cannot disconnect except in our own fantasies that we are different from Earth and its life-systems. We are born of Earth and to Earth we return. As goes the squirrel, the worm, the elephant, and the poison ivy plant, so go we.

I am not interested (nor am I disinterested) in metaphysical theories about humanity such as an immortal soul, reincarnation, or other views. I am simply bracketing those in order to focus on the human species as a species of Earth.

Ecology has to do in part with populations and their relationship to their environment. Squirrels eat nuts. Therefore, if there are less nuts, soon there will be less squirrels. Increase the nuts, and then there are more squirrels until there are too many squirrels for the nuts, then less squirrels. And on it goes. In its most basic, simplistic form, that is how it works. Populations increase and decrease relative to the food or energy supply of their environment. Of course we need to consider predators and other environmental considerations. In the end, that is all part of the mix. A predator is another’s prey. We participate in a system.

I simply assert the obvious: populations increase and decrease in response to the energy that is available to them and to their ability to adapt to changes in energy and their environment. So what of human beings?

The population of human beings has increased exponentially in the 19th and 20th centuries. Check out this graph.

In 1970, when I was nine, humans numbered 3.9 billion. Today in 2006, our population is 6.6 billion. What is the reason for this increase? Let’s go back:

At the time of Jesus, the world’s population is estimated to be 170 million.

At the height of the middle ages, the world’s population was about 360 million.

When Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation in 1500, the population was 425 million.

At the time of the French Revolution in 1800, the population was 813 million.

Just before the Civil War in 1850, we passed the one billion mark to 1.1 billion.

When my father was born around 1920, we were up to 1.86 billion.

When my brother was born in 1951, the population was 2.4 billion.

When I was born in 1961, we were at 3 billion.

When I graduated high school in 1980, 4.4 billion.

When I graduated seminary in 1992, 5.4 billion.

At the turn of the century, 6.1 billion.

Today, 6.6 billion.

Between 1992 and 2006, by the time I graduated from seminary until today, the world’s population increased by 1.4 billion people. This is a larger increase in 14 years, than the increase in population from the time of Jesus to the Civil War. For reference check here and for a cool population clock watch this.

"So what?" you ask?

My question is why? What is the cause of such a rapid increase in the population of human beings from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries?

One could say: "We increased in population 'cause we are really smart."
I think there is truth there. Because of our intelligence we learned how to manipulate fire.

One could say: "God has blessed us." I have no argument except to say, "What??"

Perhaps many factors play into this, but it seems to me that the
key reason is that we have in the last 150 years discovered a source of energy that we have been able to utilize. That source of energy is found beneath Earth. We discovered fossil fuels. Think of what we can do because of oil and other fossil fuels. This animated film from the 1950’s describes it well. Take time to watch Destination Earth. This clever cartoon produced by the petroleum industry describes the philosophy which has driven our economy. The film ends on the hopeful note that because of oil and competition our destination is now unlimited!

Yup, oil has made life grand. I can hardly imagine life without it. However, the side effects include pollution, namely carbon dioxide emissions that are creating havoc with the environment. Global Warming appears to be one of the results. Al Gore’s new film, “An Inconvenient Truthdescribes what the future could hold for Earth.

And there is another problem. “Destination Unlimited” isn’t exactly accurate. Our oil reserves are not unlimited. An economic system based on unlimited growth which is based in turn on unlimited energy (oil and other fossil fuels) is a fantasy. But hey, who wants to spoil the party?

Ecology is not simply about preserving wildlife. It is about becoming aware of all of life including human life in the balance with all of Earth. As go the squirrels, so go us. Yes, it is sobering. But there are alternatives. We are not toast yet. Al Gore reminds us in his film that many people jump from unawareness to despair. There is a middle step. That is action.

I invite and encourage you to share positive ideas and steps for action! I will share what I know as well. Next time a sober look at energy.

But you should hear the Galaxy Song one more time first!

Blessings,
John

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Three E's: Ecology, Energy, Economy

Tennessee has on its ballot an amendment to the constitution to keep gay and lesbian couples from obtaining marriage rights. Probably 7 of 10 voters in East Tennessee support such an amendment. This is a wonderful thing for the political and religious right. We have big elections this November, including Bill Frist's Senate seat. What better way to get out the vote than to put unexamined prejudices on the ballot.

Eric Watson, a state representative from Cleveland, TN said: "It’ll be a sad day when queers and lesbians are allowed to get married ... and kiss in front of the courthouse."

There you have it.

So off we go to the polls, thinking that the most important issue facing us is gay marriage.

It will be a far sadder day when our environment becomes uninhabitable, when we are burning candles for light, and when our economy is in a shambles. The major issues facing the United States and the world are the three e's: ecology, energy, and economy. Our nation is failing at all three.

For the next three blogs, I am going to give my view of why I think that these are three most important issues and why if we fail to address them (that is elect political leaders who will seriously address them) we are in for a dark, dark age.

This is a religious issue. Sharing resources of Earth and sustaining life is about as spiritual as you can get!

Blessings,
john

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Marriage Equality

[On August 7th, The Johnson City Press requested readers to write their opinions regarding the amendment to the Tennessee constitution on the November ballot to restrict marriage to heterosexuals. In the August 20th edition, they printed some of these opinions. The paper wrote that in its "unscientific on-line poll" approximately 70% of the respondents were in favor of the amendment. Twenty-six percent were against it (1% undecided, 3% "don't care"). The paper published my letter, printed below.]

Voting Against
"I have been honored to officiate at holy unions for gay and lesbian couples that I believe are as holy and blessed as any of the marriages I have performed for straight couples. I serve a congregation that welcomes and loves gay and lesbian people, their partners and families, and regards them as full and equal members.

I will be voting against this amendment in November. Regardless of what happens with this legislation, it is even more important that sexual minorities in this area know that you do not have to choose between your faith and who you are. There are congregations here that are open and affirming. I am proud to serve one of them."

John Shuck
Minister
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton

[If you would like to learn about this issue and support equal rights for all people, you can check out this website: "Vote No on No. 1"]

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Earthrise



What are you doing, Earth, in heaven?
Tell me, what are you doing, Silent Earth?

--Giuseppe Ungaretri



I love this photo taken from the Apollo spacecraft. The world saw on their television screens in 1969 that the universe had flipped. Earth was heaven and heaven was Earth. Joseph Campbell discussed the implications for us in his essay, "The Moonwalk--The Outward Journey."

Of course, we knew this before 1969. We knew that Earth was not the center of the universe. Since Copernicus and Galileo, we knew that the universe of the ancients had vanished. But until we saw Earth rise from the perspective of our closest heavenly body, the moon, many of us could not feel the impact.

Where is heaven? Where is God? What is the meaning of it all? We are still reeling. We may for some time. Still, we dutifully recite the Apostle's Creed, a creed created when heaven and Earth were still in their "proper places."

A creed, that was created when heaven and Earth looked like this:



I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy *catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.

Amen.

How have you reconciled this?
Do you say the creed?
Have you given up on the creed?
Have you found a way to say it?
What do you mean when you say it?
If it has meaning for you, what is it?

Many Blessings,
john



Friday, August 18, 2006

Reformed and Always Reforming



“Reformed and always reforming according to the word of God” is the full phrase that is often used to describe what it means to be a Presbyterian. We change. Our views change, our polity changes, and our theology changes over time. “According to the word of God” is a check on change. We don’t just change for the sake of change but we change in light of the presence of ongoing divine revelation. That is my phrase. Calvin would say that we must be reformed by scripture. More on that later.

So what is the “word of God?” Some would say that the word of God is restricted to the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. Others would further add that the King James Version of those 66 books is the word of God. Others would say that the word of God is the original autographs of these 66 books in the original languages. Unfortunately, we do not have any of the original autographs. We have copies of copies of copies. For a readable and engaging look at how scholars (from the author’s perspective) determine which copies are older than others, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. We have a copy in the church library.

Some would say that the word of God is not restricted to the words on the page, but that the Bible contains the word of God. John Calvin (notice the handsome portrait) suggested that the word of God requires the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit who brings these words to the heart of the believer. We also say that Jesus Christ is the word of God. This is a more nuanced view even as it seeks to circle him with the canon by adding “as the scriptures bear witness to him.”

How else might we conceive of word of God? John Calvin was a product of the 16th century. We (whether we like it or not) are children of the Enlightenment. A lot has happened since Calvin's day, including the way we look at scripture.

Today, some would say that the word of God is not limited to the Bible or even to Jesus. We see (hear?) the word of God as we examine the atom, study the cosmos, and appreciate nature, art and literature. We seek truth when we discover what it means to be human and use our reason to a good end. The idea is that all truth is God’s truth. The word of God, then, is truth wherever we find it. We might expand that further. Not only is the word of God truth, it is also beauty, love, justice, joy, and the recognition of our own fallibility.

Perhaps there is such a thing as the unified theory of everything. I don’t know it. I cannot say that we will never know it. I cannot say for sure that no one knows it. I know I don’t know it. I, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “see in glass darkly.” So we are always reforming, seeking truth, seeking the word of God.

Reforming is messy. Change is struggle. We don’t agree on what is true. Change involves conflict, yet conflict is not so bad. Conflict can energize our creativity. Sometimes our conflicts turn into battles. I find that distressing, but so far, inevitable.

Yet, sometimes we can reform more peacefully. The Apostle Paul admonished us to “speak the truth in love.” That is a good axiom. Especially, when we realize that the truth we speak may not be true tomorrow and that the truth we speak may not be the whole truth, but our own interpretation of the larger truth, the word of God.

Blessings,
John

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Getting Blogged By E-Mail

[This post is purely housekeeping. If you would like to receive posts and comments when they appear on this blog in your e-mail inbox, e-mail me at johnashuck@earthlink.net and I will add your e-mail address to the list. That way you don't have to breathlessly check back to this site every other hour to see what is new! Of course, if you find that you are receiving too many e-mails, e-mail me and I will remove your e-mail address.]


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Jesus is Lord!

Hi Friends,

[The following is a post I sent to Presbyweb. It will likely be published on its website later today or tomorrow. Presbyweb is a forum for Presbyterian clergy and laity to share their thoughts. The editor, Hans Cornelder, searches the web for stories regarding religion and what not each day. It is a subscription service. Although, you pay what you want or can. I think you can have it for a month for free, but I am not sure. Anyway, you can see some of the replies that folks have made to some of my postings. Not that this is about me, but if you search my name on the Presbyweb site, you can read stuff I have posted over the years. Presbyweb has mostly an evangelical following. So often there is difference of opinion between my colleagues and myself. Regardless, I think it is important to keep lines of communication open. There are a few letters posted there about this blog. I am interested in the claim of the church regarding the resurrection of Jesus and what that means for us. I do not pretend to have the answers, but I think it is critical to explore the question.]


Dear Editor,

I am grateful to Presbyweb for providing this forum to discuss theological issues. I wish that we could discuss these things without the constant barrage of name-calling, threats, and assumptions. Some have suggested that I have denied the resurrection. (I do not deny the resurrection). Others appear to be frothing at the mouth to take me to ecclesiastical court. Be that as it may, it is worth all of that to talk about important issues.

I offer further explanation regarding resurrection.

Theology and history are two different disciplines. Historical scholars of the New Testament and Christian origins are interested in reconstructing the events. They seek to determine how the texts were composed. The goal is to determine what is historically probable. For instance, what is the historical probability that Jesus walked on the water? What is the historical probability that the corpse of Jesus was resuscitated? What is the historical probability that Jesus as an infant stood up in his cradle and said, “I am indeed a servant of Allah” as the Qur’an states? Many tools are used including literary criticism, comparing the writings of the New Testament and extra-canonical literature to other literature of the period, and by reconstructing the social, political, and cultural background in which the texts were composed.

In all of these cases, historical probability suggests that these texts do not reflect historical events, but theological interests. The gospel writers did not write history, although some of what they wrote might reflect an historical event. The authors of the New Testament wrote theology. Theology is about determining the character of God. It is about purpose and meaning, among other things.

I affirm the resurrection of Jesus from a theological perspective. Resurrection and ascension are inextricably linked. Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God. This is not an historical statement. It is a theological statement. History seeks to discover why the New Testament authors made this statement. They can give us the cosmological view of the time (a three-tiered universe), the circumstances in which this claim was made, and what it might have meant to people who lived in that time and place. History attempts to keep us from imposing our world-view onto the text. Granted, it is not hard science. We are dealing with probabilities.

To confess that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father is intended to tell us the character of the Father. Who runs the show? What kind of God is ultimately in control?

Historians tell us that in the time that New Testament was written the authors lived in a context of Roman Imperial Theology. (See Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul ) In Roman Imperial Theology, the emperor or Caesar was lord. Caesar was the son of god. After his death, the deified Caesar took his place in the Roman pantheon. He sat at the right hand of the power of the universe. This imperial theology was seen everywhere from coins to structures. You couldn’t miss it. What is the character of God? You see it in the way the Roman Empire acted in the world.

The authors of the New Testament dared to claim a different reality. They said, “Jesus is Lord!” Jesus is the one at the right hand of the power of the universe. Thus, the scandal. The one that Empire crucified is Lord. What is the character of your God? You see it in the way Jesus and his followers acted in the world. Who is your god? Who is the one you will follow—Caesar or Jesus?

That is why the teachings and the parables of Jesus are so crucial to understanding the character of God. Jesus revealed a nonviolent God. He revealed that to follow this God was to love enemies, to speak on behalf of the oppressed, to share the goods of Earth, and to shun the system of domination that was Roman Imperial Theology. Jesus hung out with those who had no value in Rome’s Empire and said “to the least of these belongs the kingdom.”

What does it mean for Christians in the United States of America in the 21st century to claim that Jesus is Lord? I believe it means to proclaim the reality of the God of Jesus over against the god of American Imperial Theology.

We live in a country that consumes 40 percent of the world’s resources. We live in a country that spends more on its military than “the next twenty biggest spenders combined.”

We act a great deal more like Caesar than Jesus.

Those who claim that Jesus has been raised, has ascended, and is Lord need to make some choices:

Is capitalism lord? Is Jesus lord?
Are American corporate interests lord? Is Jesus lord?
Is American militarism lord? Is Jesus lord?
Is oil lord? Is Jesus lord?
Is the American way of life (unfettered consumption) lord? Is Jesus lord?

I challenge all my sisters and brothers in the clergy to preach with the boldness of Paul that Jesus is risen, not Caesar.

In Christ,
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
http://shuckandjive.blogspot.com/

Monday, August 14, 2006

The B-I-B-L-E; Yes, That's The Book for Me!

Hi Friends,

What is the Bible? If the Bible is the "Word of God" what makes it so? What does "Word of God" mean? Is this a helpful metaphor? The following is part of a paper I wrote for the Westar Leaders' Seminar in the Fall of 2005. I am trying to find a metaphor for the Bible that progressive Christians can find credible. Here is the excerpt:

"What approach, lens, angle of vision, or metaphor might we take toward the Bible that will make it a helpful resource in the Sunday morning experience? I consider the Bible to be the family history of our spiritual ancestors. It is a collection of the record of human experiences canonized by various family historians. Our family history gives us rooted-ness. We have a story. We have a past. Our ancestors do have wisdom. I believe that they caught a glimpse of the fire. If we are wise, humble, and courageous, we can see that fire as well. It is out of respect for our ancestors, our need for rooted-ness, and our need to listen to the wisdom of the ancients that we “open and read.”

"The advantage of this metaphor is that it allows us to appreciate that there are other families on this earth. They have family histories as well. Telling our stories to one another (without the competition about whose is more objectively authoritative) will enable us to engage more positively and peacefully with those of other faith traditions.

"Also, family histories are never complete. Like the genealogist who discovers great Uncle Albert, who for some reason was not mentioned in the family history, so too, scholars of Christian origins have found remnants of communities whose stories were not told, or at least told positively, in the canon of accepted lore. These “Uncle Alberts” include communities reflected in the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and numerous others. As we discover the great diversity of our Christian past, we who are charged with adding to the family history for our descendants, will now be obligated to include these voices as well."

So, I have mentioned family history as a metaphor. There are others. What is yours?

John

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Wholesale God, Retail God

The other night I was talking with one of my daughter's friends. He is a young man about 20 or so. Knowing I am a minister, he told me why he doesn't attend church. His explanation went something like this.

"All the churches claim to be the true church. They condemn the other churches as false. They can't all be right. So they all must be wrong. I lost interest."

I remember thinking that very same thing for a long time. This mutual condemnation can be observed between Christian denominations and between Christians of the same denomination. The same is observed between religions as well.

How do we reconcile this? How can we appreciate the "truth" (if that is the correct word) of our own tradition as well as the truths of other traditions?

Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity uses an image from merchandising. He first of all says that all religions point to something "more" than what we observe. There is more to the universe than meets the eye. The fascination with the more leads to religious belief and practice. Borg suggests that there is a reality to this more. This more is the wholesale God. The specific religions sell various retail gods. It isn't that each one isn't true, it is just that they are packaged differently and sold in different outlet stores.

When I think of it this way, I can still practice my particular faith (ie. purchase from my favorite retail outlet) knowing that even though my store looks very different from my neighbors' stores, we are purchasing the same thing.

Matthew Fox says something similar with a different image, One River, Many Wells. I don't have to stop going to my well. But I go with an awareness that others have wells that draw from the same river.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace,
John

Friday, August 11, 2006

Evolutionary Christianity

"When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?" Psalm 8:3-4

When the pslamist was waxing poetic, this is how she saw the universe. A firmament above (heaven or sky), the stars, moon, sun, all within that firmament, a flat earth, and sheol below. Outside the firmament was chaos, the waters that Elohim separated to form the dome and the earth.

When I was first confronted with this in the first few weeks of my Old Testament survey course in seminary, lights flashed. Finally, I understood what Genesis 1 was about. More than that, I understood how biblical authors could say things like "Jesus ascended into heaven" and what that meant. Heaven was the location of the gods, regardless of which god to whom you sacrificed. From their posts in heaven, they ruled the world. One could imagine this scenario quite literally.

For the early followers to speak of Jesus ascending to heaven, they meant that he was in charge. The scandal of the faith wasn't that Jesus was the son of god. The miracle, the scandal, the big deal is not that Jesus rose from the dead and flew off to heaven. Many figures did that. Caesar was called son of god. The scandal was that Jesus was son of god. This is the question. What is the character of your god? Does your god resemble Caesar or Jesus?

Thus, the scandal. I miss the scandal unless I understand the universe in which these formulations were made.

We do not see the universe as the ancients did, of course. Earth is a tiny spinning marble. Heaven is neither up nor down. Carl Sagan joked that if Jesus ascended at the speed of light he would still today only be a third of the way through the Milky Way.

Scientists tell us that the universe is between 12 and 20 billion years old. Life on Earth originated four billion years ago. Homo habilis (our ancestors) begin using tools 2.5 million years ago. Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago. Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago. I emerged 44 years ago. Michael Dowd has a great website called The Great Story. Check out the timeline!

"What are human beings that you are mindful of them?" This phrase has even more significance in the way we understand the universe today. Our universe is a tad bigger than what the authors in biblical times observed it to be.

And yet, our creeds, our hymns, our theological language is still filled with imagery from the ancient universe.

How do we translate the meaning of Jesus, heaven, God, creation, hope from that ancient universe to this one? I find this one of our most difficult and important challenges.

Thoughts?

John

P.S. In my ongoing concern for Paul Peterson's livelihood, Friday's strip finds our heroes entering into a most peculiar realm. They find themselves at Simple Miracles Pizza at 825 Bates, a block and a half from the Hard Rock Cafe in Detroit. If you are in the neighborhood ask Paul for a simple miracle. He can't do anything too complicated, but you know, little things like cursing an enemy, not a real serious enemy, just someone who annoys you a little, Paul can curse him or her with an upset stomach, hangnail, etc.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Searching for the Body of Jesus

It appears this blog has raised some eyebrows. Awesome! I was going to tackle another topic, but I think I will stay with the body of Jesus for at least one more post.

When the writers of the Gospels wrote about Jesus, particularly the resurrection accounts, what were they communicating? What did they want those who heard their stories to take home with them? What is important about these stories?

Two are walking to Emmaus. They are bummed out. Their hero is dead. A mysterious stranger walks among them, listens to their story and reframes their story in light of a larger story. They stop and share a meal. In the midst of the breaking of the bread, they discover that the mysterious stranger is their hero. As soon as they recognize him, he vanishes. The two are renewed with hope. Their hearts are on fire.

This story is found in the Gospel According to Luke. That doesn't mean a guy named Luke actually wrote it. It was common practice to attribute the name of a famous person (ie. an apostle, or in this case, a companion of Paul) to a text to give it authority. As to the actual author, we don't know. We don't even know the author's gender. Luke could be a she. But for shorthand, scholars refer to the author as Luke anyway.

What is the author of Luke's Gospel saying? How do I read this story? Do I read it as I would an account in a newspaper? Is Luke's goal for me to read this account as something that literally happened? I don't think so. The author is a better writer than that. S/he is writing to strengthen the hope of people who have been demoralized by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. The Jewish hopes of an independent state--of the kingdom of God--are dashed. The Roman Imperial Army has won again. Caesar is Lord. Caesar and Rome proved it in the way that imperial armies always prove it, with ruthless force and public executions. Thousands have been crucified. Our hero was one of many. We have been beaten again.

Luke writes this story quite a bit after this event. Between 80 and 90 CE was the consensus of scholars when I was in seminary. Some scholars are now suggesting that it might be as late as the early second century.

By the time Luke writes, time has elapsed since the Jewish War. Time for reflection. Time to go back to the Scriptures and try to make sense of what has happened. Why has Yahweh appeared to have failed them? Where is the promised Kingdom of God?

Luke reframes the story. S/he writes about Jesus. S/he looks at what has already been written, Mark's Gospel, perhaps some of Paul's letters, other sources, and s/he writes a narrative, which is in two parts, Luke and Acts.

Luke wants to communicate to them about the kingdom of God. Where is it? We find in Luke 17 that Jesus says: "The kingdom of God is within/among you." (17:21)

Luke's story is the story of Jesus and the work of the Spirit in the community. The Walk to Emmaus story is a story about communion and the sharing of this hope. It is a story about the presence of Jesus in their midst when they break bread together. That gives them strength to keep on, to love their enemies, to trust in the way of compassion, and to be honest even at great risk.

I read these gospel accounts of the empty tomb and the appearances as parables of the power of the hope of God for people who need their hope renewed. The authors of the gospels used the media, methods, and literary devices available to them to inspire.

As time went on and the church evolved, these literary stories were were interpreted as literal accounts. Historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan, once said something to this effect:

"Are we so smart that we interpret these stories symbolically when they were intended literally? Or have we been so dumb as to interpret these stories literally when they were intended to be interpreted symbolically? I think the latter is true."

The point is not to "believe" that the corpse of Jesus was resuscitated. The point is the power of the Spirit alive in us. The presence of Jesus with them is so powerful that he changed their lives. Without that hope, without that presence, life is hopeless. That is what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 15. He saw Jesus in a vision. He didn't see a resuscitated corpse. But his life changed.

Our lives can change too. Emmaus continues to happen when we break bread, when we tell the story to one another.

What is that story? I think today it is the story the divine realm. How would we live if we lived with total awareness of the divine realm within us? For starters, it would be a way of life that included loving our enemies, engaging in new ways to deal with our conflicts, working for justice, speaking the truth, sharing the world's resources, living in harmony with Earth's creatures, denouncing war, seeking to reinterpret the faith in ways that make sense to people, developing compassion and peace within ourselves, and our communities. We would do this regardless of risk. We would do this even if we may be killed, shamed, lose privilege, or be taken to ecclesiastical court!

But it looks bleak. Sometimes it appears as if the divine realm is far from us. The worst thing we can do is to give up hope. The story is that the risen Christ in our midst. Don't give up. The Spirit of Jesus is with us. We are the body of Jesus. The kingdom of God is among us. Let us open our eyes, see it, and live it.

I am indebted to my seminary teachers and courageous scholars in the Jesus Seminar who enabled me to, as Marcus Borg put it: "Meet Jesus again for the first time." I recommend Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and The Heart of Christianity by Borg. Borg helped me to understand the Emmaus story.

I also recommend other books by scholars of the Jesus Seminar such as the classic, the Five Gospels , and A New Spiritual Home by Hal Taussig. Plus many more!

A teaser:
Hal Taussig and Perry Kea will do a workshop at our church November 3-4. More details to come on this blog!

Peace,
john

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Lightheartedness

Hi Friends,

Spiritual growth is related to the free exploration of ideas and asking questions. That is the view of this blog at least.

This blog is more like a Bill Moyers' special rather than say an adversarial radio talk show.

If you have a different viewpoint from mine or someone else who has made a post, by all means share it! Let us do so with lightheartedness, humor, grace--you know, style.

For instance,

Please use "I statements." "I think, I feel" as opposed to "You statements."

You know all that.

I will toss out a different topic when I think of it. These are things on my mind, in the news, or questions people in my various congregations have voiced over the years. If you have a topic you would like to discuss, let me know!

So if you can buy into the style, let's discuss!

I know you will want to check in everyday.

You can "Bookmark" this blog or post it to your "Favorites".

And/or, you can receive an e-mail when I make a new post!

Go to the upper right corner of this blog and "Subscribe to Shuck and Jive!"

Namaste,
John

P.S. Here is a guide to making links, bold, italics, etc. when making comments!


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Choose Your Afterlife

I turn 45 at the end of this month. Currently, I am half my father's age who at 88 is going strong. I admire him for that, but I admire him for much more that I don't need to go into here. This coming anniversary of my birth has set to me thinking. I don't anticipate living longer than 88. So when my 45th birthday occurs at the end of this month, I think it will be safe to assume that I will have lived at least half of my life. I have been contemplating my demise, but not morosely, instead, cheerily. I have been wondering about what will happen when I depart this fleshly shell. That language assumes that "I" am not my body. I am not sure if that is true.

I see three basic options with perhaps variations on each theme. So let's play "Choose Your Afterlife!"

Behind door number one:

1) I am my body. Like cats, and rats and elephants, I will cease to exist. I will experience it as I experienced life before my birth. No recollection. A peaceful, dreamless sleep.

Door number two:

2) "I" am somehow different from my body and will exist again in some hidden universe. Much of traditional Christianity has spoken of this as "resurrection of the body." When I lived in upstate New York, I remember being fascinated by the 19th century tombstones that faced east. So on the day that Christ would come with shout of acclamation and with the morning sun, the bodies would rise to meet him and enjoy bliss in heaven. Of course, we must also consider the fate of the poor souls who didn't believe correctly. Their bodies will be resurrected as well. Except they will receive a big "F" and spend eternity in hell. Variations on this theme include universalism or "everyone wins" kind of like the special olympics. And, of course, there are other speculations that we are passing through this veil of tears and will somehow be conscious in another universe in some form (ie. follow the light). This is the immortality of the soul view. We pass on into something else. Door number two in a nutshell is "I" retain self-awareness in another hidden realm.

Door number three:

3) This is similar to door number two. In this view our souls (self-awareness, or "I") are reincarnated in this universe at a later time. We keep getting recycled until we get it right. I don't want to sell this view short. I like the concepts of non-attachment and impermanence regardless of the metaphysics.

As I see it, these are the three possibilities. Which door to choose? What difference will my choice make in the way I live the remainder of my days? Is it really important what I believe will happen? I certainly cannot know. It seems that whatever will happen will happen whether I believe it or not.

I reject the heaven/hell view. I think that is manipulation and coercion by the church to control its sheep. Eternal lollipops or spankings depending on whether you obeyed its authority. That doctrine has done and continues to do a great deal of damage in my view.

Back to my choice. Do "I" cease with my body, go to another realm, or reincarnate in this realm?

Hmmm.

I am going to wimp out. I really don't know. And, I am at peace with that. Whatever happens is how the Universe (or God if you prefer) works. I am honest about not knowing. I may at some point be persuaded by one of the three (or a variation). I trust the outcome.

The Historical Jesus gave me a clue. He said, "The domain of God is within/among you."

I think that means that we are conscious now, so don't worry about it. This life is holy and sacred. This brief moment is good. Live it. I now choose to live in this moment and for the welfare of future generations so my children and grandchildren and your grandchildren and the grandchildren of people in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and every other place can also enjoy their conscious moments with as much bliss as possible.

If this life is it for "I", great. If there is another existence for "I", great. I hope to be aware and awake for any possibility. But I don't want to lose focus on the mystery and the beauty and the joy that is now.

What say you? What is your philosophy?

Peace,
John

Monday, August 07, 2006

What if we found the body of Jesus?

I am reading "Another Roadside Attraction" by Tom Robbins. This is his first novel that he wrote in the late 60's. In the story, one of the characters finds the body of Jesus in the basement of the Vatican. The character believes that if this becomes known it will destroy Christendom. That is all I will say about the novel so I won't spoil it for you.

I wonder if it would make that much difference if, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we found the body of Jesus or we determined that Jesus did not physically rise from the dead? What if we were certain that he died like the rest of us will some day. Would that shatter your faith? What would your faith be about?

I don't think we need to find the body. Critical study of the Bible and the study of comparative religions have combined to shatter the historicity of the resurrection. I would guess that many who call themselves Christian regard the resurrection symbolically. For many of us, the resurrection is a myth or a metaphor. We may understand the meaning of this metaphor differently. Perhaps it means that what Jesus lived for lives on in his followers. Perhaps it means that justice will have the final word. Or perhaps it is a reminder in fable that what we see isn't all there is and that mystery surrounds us.

Regardless how we interpret it, many Christians do not believe or think they should believe that the resurrection was an historical event. On the other hand, many Christians think that the resurrection was an historical event. As far as I am concerned, both types of Christians can co-exist and celebrate life together in worship.

What do you think? What does resurrection mean to you? Or to put it plainly, if we found the body of Jesus, would it make a difference?