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Jihad For Peace

Amadiyya“What is ‘jihad?’” one of the Christian women asked.

We were gathered in the basement of the masjid, a handful of Christian women among more than a dozen Muslimas of all ages and nationalities. The sisters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Glen Ellyn, IL were hosting a women’s interfaith fellowship event centered around the topic “Keeping the Faith In the Face of Hate.” The atmosphere was warm and joyful despite the gravity of the topic, and from the moment I walked in, I was greeted by smiles from ladies soon to become friends.

When the question was asked, we were in the middle of the “question and answer” session on Islam that was meant to be a precursor to the main topic at hand. The woman, I thought, sounded slightly apologetic, presumably because she understood that the term “jihad” must have a different meaning to Muslims than the negative, terroristic connotations it has in the Western media. But the Muslim ladies were quick to assure her that she had asked an important and helpful question.

The term jihad, they were eager to explain, does not mean “holy war,” as it is so often portrayed. At its root, it means “struggle,” and most often it refers to an inner struggle against sins of selfishness and turning away from God. While it can refer to the kind of struggle that is involved in physical battle, the primary meaning is the moral and spiritual struggle that manifests itself in so many ways in all of our lives. Our faith journeys are daily jihads in which we strive for greater understanding of and closeness to God. In terms of mimetic theory, this means submitting our desires – the basis for our rivalries – to the will of God so that we transform the goals of our lives from serving and preserving ourselves to honoring the Creator of humankind and serving one another, especially the “least” among us. Jihad can also take a corporate meaning as well as a personal meaning, referring to a struggle for justice, education, equality, dignity, and so on. Even when it refers to a struggle against injustice, it is urged that the means of jihad be undertaken peacefully – by the pen rather than the sword – except in urgent cases to defend life from immanent threat.

After the Muslims in the group explained how the media’s portrayal of jihad unfortunately reinforces the ideas of extremists and violent factions rather than reflecting the peaceful desires of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, I raised my hand.

“I have often wanted to use the word “jihad” to talk about my own faith journey and my vocation,” I told them, “but I am afraid of being misunderstood.” I explained that, having grown up with Muslims, I have long been aware that the primary meaning of jihad is “struggle” rather than “war.” I went on to talk about the violent connotations of our own (English) language. “I find it disturbing the way the word ‘fight’ is so often used in a positive sense,” I said. I went on to muse about how, in American culture, we use the word “fight” to mean so many things, to strive for a goal or struggle against injustice. “When I want to explain the passion I have for reaching my goals, few words in the English language convey that passion like ‘fight,’ and as a pacifist, that bothers me. What am I going to say? I’m ‘fighting’ for nonviolence! That’s an oxymoron!” Laughter echoed through the room as I gazed at the smiling, nodding faces around me.

I would much rather use the word “jihad,” I continued, because I see it as a positive word at its core. The English word “struggle” does not convey all of the passion, long-suffering endurance, and faith-rootedness that “jihad” does. Jihad also implies a campaign, whether personal or corporate, that involves long-term patience and self-sacrifice that go beyond what “struggle” can express.

“So I often find that jihad is the best word to communicate the way I seek to strive for peace,” I concluded. “It frustrates me that the word is so associated with terrorism and violence that I am afraid to use it.”

Layers of irony went unmentioned but not unnoticed. The Western media portrays Islam as a violent, intolerant religion, with Muslims eager to wage “jihad” against any who do not proclaim its truth. But the violence of Western society is so deeply ingrained in our very language that we hardly even notice it. We use violent words like “fight” as metaphors for good struggles because we are hard-wired to see “fighting” as something positive. For the United States to use terms like “jihad” to paint Islam as a violent religion is the height of irony considering that we lead the world in warmaking and weapons production to secure resources and expand imperial control. All the while we invoke ideologies claiming to value freedom and human rights while rendering the rest of the world captive to the poverty, destruction and chaos we leave in the wake of our wars. While America “fights” for these ideologies with guns and bombs and drones, Islam encourages “jihad” on behalf of freedom and human rights through education and service. (This is not to say that everyone in America agrees with militaristic methods used to spread “freedom,” or that no Muslim uses violence. But the rhetoric of “civilized” America versus “violent” Islam is as backward as it is pervasive.) All of this ran through my mind, but I didn’t feel the need to voice it. I had a feeling that our presence in the room was testimony to likelihood that we knew it already.

Amidst expressions of agreement and appreciation for my understanding, one of the Muslim women challenged me: “Use it!” She went on to declare that we have the power to change language by the context in which we use it. She was emboldening me to engage in jihad on behalf of the word “jihad.”

But she was also urging me to do far more than help change the popular understanding of a single word. She was inspiring me to have faith in the ability of people to change hearts and minds by example. I could help the world come to understand the peaceful nature of Islam, she explained, by using an oft-misunderstood Islamic word, commonly thought to mean war, in the context of an endeavor for peace. The heart of the challenge she posed to me was the same posed to every Christian in the room, as we all expressed our desire to help Muslims counter the misunderstandings, slanders, and suspicion they so often receive. Speak up, they implored us. Dispel ignorance. Resist fear.

Of course, this call to humble ourselves to learn from each other and walk the path of peace together is incumbent upon us all, regardless of religion. It comes from the source that binds us all in our humanity, the one God who transcends our religions and speaks to us in many ways. Our eagerness to gather together, listen and dialogue, and come to know each other as friends reflected our desire to heed this call together, and we have only just begun.

We never actually did come to the main topic. Instead, the conversation that developed so naturally, punctuated by laughter as well as wisdom, took on a life of its own and refused to be reigned in. But that is the way real relationships begin – organically, spontaneously – and real relationships are the best way to keep the faith in the face of hate. There will be plenty of time to answer the central question of the event which was, (in perhaps slightly different words), Why do you think religion is so often used as a tool of hatred and violence? This is an essential question, one that I will soon explore in a future article. But the task of dismantling that hatred and instead using faith as a foundation to build bonds of trust, mutual service, and love, is already underway. It is a task that will involve patience and courage, the humility to discover our own prejudices and the strength to change them. It is a task to which we must commit with our whole selves, presenting challenges unique to each individual, and also a journey that we must make together. It is a mission we undertake through faith that makes our faith stronger. It is our jihad for peace.

My Brainiac Faith on the Resurrection

image from www.123rf.com

image from www.123rf.com

For a long time I thought I was too smart for the resurrection. My progressive UCC congregation made a comfortable home for my intellectual faith – I wasn’t letting anyone force me to leave my brain at the sanctuary door. If my head couldn’t come along for the ride, my faith wouldn’t go there. And so my rational, scientific brain did away with miracles of all kinds. They were too easy to explain as metaphors or written off to first century worldviews. Of course the loudest pillar to fall beneath the weight of my brainiac faith was the empty tomb. That it happened to be the central pillar of Christianity didn’t bother me at all. I still called myself a Christian, albeit in a whisper and with the self-satisfaction of knowing my brand of Christianity was the wave of the future.

But then my pastor, the one who had told me I didn’t have to leave my brain at the door, knocked me for a loop. Some unsuspecting newbie to our community asked him if he believed in the resurrection. I felt sorry for the poor questioner because I knew what my pastor was going to say – or so I thought! When he said, “Of course I believe in the resurrection,” my brain nearly exploded! My rational mind couldn’t figure out how a fellow rationalist could “believe” in something so unscientific and irrational. Seriously, the software that had been running my faith crashed and burned. I felt betrayed. Either my pastor meant what he said and I could bring my brain along, which meant the resurrection had to go, or the resurrection stayed and rationality took a vacation.

I was seriously at a loss, but that’s a good place to be, it turns out, if you want to follow Jesus into new life. I’ve learned so much in the intervening years about the power of violence and death that permeates each of us, vibrating undetected at the very core of our identities. All that I’ve learned about violence, scapegoating, and the anthropological earthquake that Jesus inaugurated I’ve learned from the mimetic theory community that my pastor, now of blessed memory, introduced me to. Sharing that knowledge is what motivates our blogging at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement on Patheos and here at the Raven Foundation. If you’d like to experience the kind of conversation around the resurrection that takes place among mimetic theorists, I urge you to join the Theology and Peace Discussion Group on Facebook so you can see how my question about the resurrection was answered with an inspiring combination of reason and faith.

After years of letting my brain work through the anthropological impact of Jesus life, death and resurrection on humanity, my heart began to see things more clearly. By denying the power of God to raise Jesus into new life, I had been engaging in a secret form of idolatry. My logic had been simple: if humans couldn’t do it, then neither could God. Not only was I limiting God’s power by forcing God to behave within human limits, I had become an atheist without realizing it. Because if no power existed that was greater than human power, then no God existed. It was logical. But it was sterile, too. My faith and my life were drying up, cut off as they were from the source of life that God had made available to me, to us all, on that first Easter morning. I encourage you to take your brain for a long stroll through our blog posts, to pick up a good book on the anthropology of the cross*, and allow yourself to dare to peer inside the empty tomb. See how your brainiac faith reacts when reason is seasoned with “terror and amazement”. Do not be afraid this Easter – the stone has been rolled away and he has gone ahead of you. He is waiting even now for us to arrive.

*My short list for books presenting an anthropology of the cross are The Jesus Driven Life, by Michael Hardin; Virtually Christian, by Anthony Bartlett; Compassion or Apocalypse, James Warren; and Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, by S. Mark Heim. A great online resource for interpreting biblical texts is Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary curated by Rev. Paul Nuechterlein.

Advent: The Faith to Scream “It’s Not Okay!”

Advent candles symbolizing John 1:5 - "The light shines in the darkness." (Copyright: martinan / 123RF Stock Photo

Advent candles symbolizing John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness.” (Copyright: martinan / 123RF Stock Photo)

She sat in total shock. Her head rested in her hands as her long hair hid her face. She was silent for forty-five minutes. And then the river of tears began to flow.

It was the most traumatic event I’ve experienced in ten years of ministry. The pain and distress of a murdered family member were unbearable.

As she wept uncontrollably, her sister stepped into the void to hold her. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” her sister gently encouraged.

“No! It’s not okay! It’s not okay! It’s not okay!”

Those were the words that struck me that night. In the face of horror, trauma, and evil, the most faithful thing to do is to protest, to scream, “It’s not okay!”

Christians are in the midst of the Advent season. The word advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “an arrival or coming, especially one which is awaited.”

During Advent, Christians anticipate celebrating the first coming of Jesus at Christmas and we await his second coming when Jesus will set the world right. Since “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches, we know that some ideas about the second coming are wrong. Jesus won’t come again with a heavenly military and guns blazing to kill the “bad guys.” No. Jesus will come again to set the world right in the same way he came the first time – with God’s unconditional, universal, and nonviolent love.

Until then, we need to have the bold and subversive faith to protest. Advent faith doesn’t ignore the darkness of the world. It claims the world’s violence is not okay. But Advent doesn’t just protest. The Advent wreath is a symbol that the light shines in the darkness. Advent faith shines a light in the darkness by working through God’s unconditional, universal, and nonviolent love to participate in helping to make the world right.

Unfortunately, many of us have come to accept violence. Another school shooting? Terrorists holding people hostage? Another “casualty of war”? Police officers abusing their power? Continued racism? “Ah,” we apathetically respond. “It’s horrible. But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just how the world works.”

Others have a different response. We want to get the bastards! Violence rules the day and spreads like a contagious disease. As Ren Girard states in his book The One By Whom Scandal Comes, “People everywhere today are exposed to a contagion of violence that perpetuates cycles of vengeance.” These are the rules of violence and we play by the rules. We respond to violence with vengeance, only to lead the world deeper into future of apocalyptic destruction.

But Advent protests. It says no to apathy and to vengeance. Advent awaits the One who changed the world forever because he wasn’t apathetic. He refused to believe that violence is just how the world works. Rather, he challenged violence at its core precisely because he didn’t play by its rules. He played by a different set of rules – the Kingdom of God. Advent faith takes seriously Jesus’ command to forgive one another and turn the other cheek, not because we’re weak doormats, but because we’re rebels who disobey the rules of violence with a completely different set of rules: The nonviolent love of the Kingdom of God.

Like a girl weeping in the midst of a traumatic experience, Advent looks at the violence in the world and refuses to accept it. Advent faith proclaims, “No! It’s not okay. The light shines in the darkness. A better world is possible.”

America’s Leading Historian on the First Thanksgiving and Faith

We recently had the great honor of talking with Dr. R. Tracy McKenzie about his book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. Read my review of Tracy’s book here.

Tracy McKenzie

Tracy McKenzie

Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. His book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History was released last year from Intervarsity Press. The book explores the Pilgrims’ celebration of the first Thanksgiving, which is a keystone of America’s national and spiritual identity. But is what we’ve been taught about them or their harvest feast what actually happened? And if not, what difference does it make?

Tracy is also the author of One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee (Cambridge University Press) and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford University Press).  He is president of the Conference on Faith and History, a national association of Christian historians, and he blogs at Faith and History, where he engages the church in reflection about how to think Christianly about our national heritage.

Civil War buffs might be interested in McKenzie’s approach to Civil War reflection. Here’s a video recording of his keynote lecture at the Civil War and Sacred Ground Conference, sponsored by the Raven Foundation and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) at Wheaton.

Book Feature Friday: Pascale’s Wager by Anthony Bartlett

pascale

“I cannot know what darkness is, because it’s just darkness, but love can know it, and love always goes on regardless. Love is searching for endless love and it searches all the way around the empty universe until it meets itself coming back.”  — Pascale’s Wager

Some days I am tempted to despair.

As I write, massacres are taking place in various corners of the world, global warming is rapidly encroaching upon us threatening catastrophe, leaders are caught up in the throes of greed and pride, and it seems sometimes as if empathy is being drained from society. All of this weighing upon my heart and mind sometimes threatens to snuff out my hope, but for blessed glimpses of selfless compassion, rays of pure love that revive my spirit. For me, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven is one such light in the darkness.

Anthony Bartlett, Girardian theologian, friend of the Raven Foundation and hope-timist extraordinaire, is the author of this eloquent, riveting story of rebellion against conformity, compassion in the face of cruelty and hope in the midst of despair. In a future world that has been brought to the brink of destruction by global warming, life is sustained in a technologically-engineered frozen wasteland by a system of rigid order. Religion is a control mechanism, and dissent is forbidden and deadly. In this stifling atmosphere, Poll, an inquisitive troublemaker, and Cal, a perspicacious seeker, dare to pierce through the façade of the cultural myth that holds their tenuous society together. Pulling back the veil of lies incurs the wrath of the powers that be, but also tests the courage, resolve, and creativity of our two heroes in astonishing ways. Inspired by one-another, Poll and Cal are each thrust  onto separate but parallel journeys of survival and self-discovery in which a kernel of faith is nourished and grows in accordance with their unique personalities. Amidst their perilous circumstances, each of our heroes push the limits of their potential, defying odds, encountering love in surprising places and people, and changing their worlds permanently and inexorably.

Readers will be caught up in the fascinating worlds that Tony has created, compelled by the fast-paced action of the plot and intrigued by the dynamic characters, all of which in themselves make for an extraordinary novel. But for seekers, doubters, and anyone looking for a reason to believe in the power of love, the layers of theological and anthropological depth and rich symbolism permeating the story combine to make the reading of Pascale’s Wager a poignant, joyful and inspiring experience.

Without mentioning Jesus or referencing Christian doctrine, Anthony Bartlett accomplishes in novel form what we at Raven strive to do with our articles: proclaim the good news through human stories. Although the story itself is saturated with Gospel and theological undertones, Tony acknowledged to me in an interview that “the identity of God (big-G!) is very vague in Pascale’s Wager.” It is so vague, in fact, that I believe this story could appeal as much to my atheist father as to my more conservative Christian friends. While some readers will see the hand of the divine at work in the survival and development of our heroes, others may attribute their growth to the indomitable human spirit. None, however, will be able to miss the profound love that catalyzes the changes that forever alter the worlds Pascale and Palmiro (Cal and Poll) touch.

As Tony explained to me,

I think because Christianity has always been so problematic in my life–I suppose I have a love/hate relationship with it almost–I needed almost to start over with the whole thing. 



I depicted the world in the way I feel it sometimes, as if Christianity never existed. As if it has had no impact. And yet of course it has. The book testifies to that. So there are two things going on, an absence and a profound presence.

This simultaneous absence and presence of Christian influence can be seen most clearly in the contrast depicted between religion and faith. From the beginning, religion is portrayed as a wall of deception meant to pacify the masses and prevent anarchy. Yet what makes religion stifling lies not merely in the surface trappings – laws, stories, promises of heaven and warnings of hell – but in the underlying attitude of certainty that leaves little room for questioning or searching… or empathy for those who would dare to do so. This unspoken contract among the citizens of the Homeland makes the people a silent mob against dissenters. Even when it appears that the protagonists have escaped the trappings of “religion,” they find that this attitude of intolerance against those who would dare question the status quo is pervasive, even in drastically different communities.

Faith, by contrast, is the courage to question and doubt, a courage sustained by love, a love that gives us the confidence to believe in our own potential and the potential of the world. A religion built on certainty, disparaging of questions, will insulate itself against the outside world and cast out anyone who dares to think freely, whereas faith will reach out to bless and be blessed by others.

The sense of religion as mob mentality comes through clearly in Pascale’s Wager, and yet even those whom we would never consider “religious” fall prey to this mentality. But faith, the audacity to think freely, the willingness to become a misfit and stand with the outcasts, the confidence to become vulnerable and share compassion with those in need, has the capacity to redeem even religion. When our unspoken codes shift from protecting our identity to the exclusion of others to embracing all in love, our religion will truly be good news. This is what I believe Jesus means when he says we must worship “in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24). Pascale’s embrace of truth sheds all her defenses and opens her up others in pain, to shoulder and share their suffering. Without even a certainty in the existence of God (at least not one that would pass muster in many churches today), Pascale’s embodiment of love is an act of worship of the God of Love.

This for me was one of the most important messages of Pascale’s Wager, that faith is not about blindly clinging to identity, whether in the form of religion or ideology, but rather about making space for questions and compassion.  It is only in the willingness to seek beyond the comforts of certainty that one can experience and exude empathy that creates healing ripples as it touches one life after another.

How often do we lock ourselves into an artificial world, thinking we have all the answers, unconscious fear shutting out questions we dare not ask or ideas or viewpoints we dare not consider because they fly in the face of our comfortable understanding of the “way things are?” If we are honest, we might admit that we have found ourselves doing this – we may even be doing it now. If not in the realm of religion, then perhaps in the realm of politics. Or we may take great pride in our ideologies of marriage or parenting. Whatever the case may be, we seem to be afraid of the vast, mysterious universe in which we are so small, so we shrink our world down to size, to something we can handle, and whether consciously or unconsciously, exclude those who do not fit. And beyond our own little worlds, we also live within the mythology of our culture – the powers that be that write the unwritten rules of society and create outcasts.

Cal and Poll dare to reach beyond the confines of their world and challenge us to do the same. The artificial worlds that they begin to change through their quest for truth resemble our own in many ways, and the dangers that they face in the midst of hostile environmental elements and societies almost devoid of compassion are eerily similar to what we face today, with global warming encroaching upon us and the divide between the rich and the poor growing ever wider. In the abysmal bleakness of this world, the power of redemption lies in radical compassion. Pascale’s Wager teaches this lesson in a profoundly moving story that challenges the reader to pick up where Pascale leaves off. It is the Christian message stripped of dogma down to the core of good news. It is the gospel… in other words.

Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Nadia Bolz-Weber

alg-khloe-kardashian-lamar-odom-jpg

Merrit/Getty

One odd way that we all keep up with the Kardashians is in the extraordinary effort we put into maintaining our own personal “brand.” The reaction of Khloe to recent allegations of drug addiction against her husband, NBA player Lamar Odom, is a Kardashian case in point. In reporting on this newsworthy event (sarcastic sigh), Huff Post speculated as to why Khloe was continuing with business as usual, posting “booty shots” and making no reference to her husband’s problems. They asked, “Is the 29-year-old trying to avoid the harsh reality that her husband is struggling with drug abuse, or is she simply trying to keep up the family’s brand?”

Posturing like a Kardashian

We can all appreciate that Khloe might need some privacy from prying and judgmental eyes because you don’t have to be a Kardashian to want privacy when things go wrong. Who wants to be judged for our mistakes by gleeful critics and gloating rivals? When we err, we tend to hide our errors from others and all too often, from ourselves. We are as desperate to maintain our “brand” – our self-identities as flawless, perfectly good, failure-free paragons of virtue – as if we were the public face of a multi-million dollar empire. OMG, I posture all the time! I pretend I know stuff when I’m talking to smart people when I don’t have any idea what they are talking about. I just nod knowingly and stay alert in case a joke comes that I’m supposed to be laughing at. I fret about the way my hair flips out in the back, the way my waist is thickening with age day by day, about what to wear to impress others. I’m always trying to project that perfect combination of stylish and fashion indifference. I can’t tell you how much I pretend I don’t care what people think when the truth is, I care desperately. I want more shares on my articles, more glowing comments, more FB likes, more, more, more affirmation but if you asked me about my social media stats I’d say with all sincerity, “Oh, I don’t really keep track of those things.” And the worst thing is, I half believe the lie myself more than half of the time! It’s so true that the best liars are those who believe their own fabrications. As I love to say, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

What’s terribly tragic about my constant brand-upkeep is that all I’m trying to protect is my own self-image as someone who is smart, young, stylish and popular. The truth I’m so afraid to face is that I’m only a little smart, no longer young, never was stylish, and about as popular as a hangnail. What if, like Khloe, I was hiding from the reality of a husband with an addiction and a marriage on the rocks? I’m afraid to imagine how insanely self-deceptive I would get.

Nadia Bolz-Weber: The Divine Heart Transplant

nadiaMy new favorite Christian author, Nadia Bolz-Weber, is on to the whole game of pretending to be better than we are. As she put it in a recent interview with Krista Tippett at the 2013 Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, “Some sectors of Christianity think, well, you’re saved and then you’re good, right? And then you just lead a really nice life and you’re a good person and you’re redeemed.” But doesn’t that launch us into the brand-polishing business with a divine twist? Now we have to posture before God, too, working hard every day to prove our sincerity to God as well as ourselves.

Let’s face it, folks, this is a recipe for failure. Nadia admitted as much. “My experience is of disruption,” she explained, “over and over again, of going along and tripping upon something that I think I know or that I think I’m certain about, and realizing I’m wrong. Or maybe fighting to think I’m right about something over and over and over again until I experience what I call the sort of divine heart transplant… Like God reaching in and pulling out my heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh, like something that was actually warm and beating again.” As she grew in her faith she discovered that she “was simultaneously sinner and saint,” never one or the other, which turned out to be a big relief! Only when we accept our failures can we stop trying to deceive others, God and ourselves and relax into what is much more true, that we are big, fat screw-ups who are doing our best but regularly fall short. Hey, we are human and God knows it and for some weird reason, keeps on loving and forgiving us.

James Alison: Relax…Christianity is About Being Loved      

Interestingly, Nadia mentioned James Alison in a recent sermon titled, “On the Parameters We Prefer for Jesus to Work Under.” James helps us understand that the Christian faith is not about striving to keep up with anyone, but rather it’s about relaxing. As Nadia articulates in her distinctive style, “Alison suggests that faith is trusting so much that God is fond of us that we just fricken relax.”

So, I’ll close with the wise words of James Alison found in the new DVD curriculum for adults produced with the Raven Foundation called Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. After explaining that God knows all about our attempts to hide from the unflattering truth that we are variously “liars, fantasists, thieves, self-publicists, manipulators, addicts to phony reputations, to emotional blackmail, deeply self-deceived, muddled and sometimes quite vicious” James says that God is “not concerned with how little good we are… For many of us this is a difficult thing to sink into, since… our self-identity as ‘good’ is one of our most sacred idols. It is one of the things that makes us most dangerous to ourselves and others. Which is why it is so difficult for us to be forgiven. Only those people who are not good in their own eyes can allow themselves to be forgiven.” Hopefully we can begin to discover that “being good or bad” is not what Christianity is about. “It’s about being loved.”

God loves us – and Khloe and Lamar – just the way we are. Can you believe it?

The Rob Bell Blogalogue Part 3: What Do You Mean, “Open,” Rob?

(The controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About GodRaven Foundation Board Member Tripp Hudgins and I share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.)

 

Adam,

Thanks for your post. As usual, you cut to the quick. Rivalry. Tribalism. It’s a long-standing human trait and we’re very good at it. Rob is, I agree, trying to point that out and suggests that the ongoing Christian struggle is with that very impulse. Us or Them. Are you for us or against us (Matthew 12:13)? It’s tricky business. The next chapter is entitled “Open” and is about science and religion and, well, not about science and religion.

This is going to be a problem.

There, I said it.

This is going to be a problem. This chapter on faith and science and quantum mechanics is going to be a problem. Why? Well, because this faith and science thing has been done to death. Did you know that the Vatican has an observatory and that one of the authors of Red Shift Theory was a Jesuit. Yep. The famed Scopes Monkey Trial was more than a century ago and those of us in the Protestant Mainline have long ago made peace with it. The Vatican apologized for the oppression of scientists, most specifically it said that Galileo was right. Scientific inquiry and Biblical interpretation are not the same thing. So what’s Rob’s purpose for this chapter?

Well, it’s manifold. He’s an evangelical. He’s writing in some ways to other evangelicals, specifically those who have felt cut off from the tradition. Here in The States the classic evangelical line holds echoes of the arguments during the Scopes Monkey Trial. Some in that Christian tradition are still fighting that fight. Heck, some progressives are, too. Powerful (if false) dichotomies have been established.

There’s a giant either/or embedded in their questions, an either/or that reflects some of the great questions of our era:

Faith or intellect?
Belief or reason?
Miracles or logic?
God or science?

(Kindle Locations 266-269)

Rob Bell, author of "What We Talk About When We Talk About God"

Author Rob Bell

Rob is desperately trying to help us get past the false dichotomy of head and heart. Did you know that the head is part of the body? Did you know that the heart is part of the body? It’s rather difficult to think without the heart and to feel without the brain. There are some basic biological principles at work here that are hard to deny. Yet, we are quick to take up these dichotomies. Rob is trying to help us gather the shards of centuries of debate and offer us a holistic Christian vision of what it means to be in this world. He’s asking for a little humility. He’s asking for a little poetic imagination. He’s asking for some curiosity.

In short he’s asking for us to embrace awe and wonder and to be open to the possibility for many things…even seemingly contradictory things…to be true, beautiful, and good.

This is where he has a word for us progressive mainline folk. I have heard it said many times, “faith and science are not talking about the same thing.” Or, “science is the ‘how’ and faith is the ‘why.'” I like both of these tropes. But Rob…he’s asking for more (*shakes fist at the tall evangelical guy*). Faith is more than a metaphor. Science is more than a checklist. They both attempt to embrace the totality of life from Higgs Bosun particles to miraculous healings. We are encouraged, he says, to remain “open.” He warns of dis-integration.

This dis-integrated understanding of reality— the one that puts God on one side and not the other, the one that divides the world up into two realms— it’s lethal, and it cuts us off from the depths and separates us from the source. Because sometimes you need a biologist, and sometimes you need a poet. Sometimes you need a scientist, and sometimes you need a song. (Kindle Locations 930-932)

We are more than neurons and atoms. We are more than creeds or personal faith experiences. It is all infinitely and beautifully more complicated than we habitually allow.

Your turn, Adam. The next chapter: Both. Are words actually enough? Ha! Write about that. Words. Words. Words.

Peace,

Tripp

 

[divide]

Other parts in the Rob Bell blogalogue series:

Note: These posts will be hosted on the Tripp’s blog anglobaptist.org, on this space, and on Sojourners God Politics Blog. Follow along anywhere you like. Or on Twitter #whatwetalkabout

Part 1: An Open Letter (on Sojo)
Part 2: The God of Jesus: Beyond Religious Tribalism (on Sojo)
Part 3: What Do You Mean, “Open,” Rob? (on Sojo)
Part 4: Faith and Doubt Dancing on Good Friday (on Sojo)
Part 5: Awake Oh My Soul (on Sojo)

Science vs. Religion: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation

Will science someday rule out the possibility of God?

That was the sensational title of a recent MSNBC article by Natalie Wolchover. Wolchover interviewed Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist working at the California Institute of Technology. Carroll “says there’s good reason to think science will ultimately arrive at a complete understanding of the universe that leaves no grounds for God whatsoever.”

“No grounds for God.”

All that a theist such as myself can say is … Ouch.

In Carroll’s opinion, the formulation of a new theory called “quantum gravity” will reveal that the Big Bang was not the start of time, but just “a transitional stage in an eternal universe.” The universe has always been expanding and contracting. Big Bangs have been repeatedly banging forever.

Thus, science once again has proved that there are no grounds for God and has also proved the absurdity of the creation story in Genesis.  The article claims that “If, in fact, time had no beginning, this shuts the book on Genesis.

Science is leaving no grounds for God and shutting the book on Genesis! What are religious people going to do with the doctrine of creation?

We have options. The first option is to turn to scientism – the belief that science can explain everything there is to know about the world. The problem with scientism is that it can become just as dogmatic as creationism. I love science, but have little patience with scientism.

The second option is to turn against science. We can get into foolish debates with scientists like Carroll and assert Creationism over Science. Is God eternal, or is the universe eternal? And what does eternal even mean? These debates are foolish because nobody wins them. And all we do is mirror the dogmatism of the other. Thus, we only reinforce our own opinions and refuse to listen to the other. And then we miss the point of Genesis 1.

The third option is to claim that modern science and the creation story in Genesis are compatible. This argument tends to look like this: There is an evolutionary process to the Big Bang, and there is an evolutionary process to Genesis 1. The 6 “days” of creation can be interpreted not as 24 hour “days,” but as 6 “ages” of creation that last long periods of time – just like modern evolutionary theory. I’m somewhat sympathetic to this view. I certainly like it more than that anti-science option, but I find it lacking because the attempt to merge science and religion also misses the point of Genesis 1.

And so I want to suggest a fourth option that reclaims the doctrine of creation. First, a little background will help. The author(s) of Genesis 1 weren’t thinking about modern science. Rather, the author, and the ancient Jews in general, were thinking about human relationships. They were a people who were constantly being conquered and exiled. It started in Egypt with slavery, then came the Assyrian Exile, and then the Babylonian Exile. They were a conquered, defeated people. Basically they were the losers of ancient history. And yet their creation story has been more influential than all of the other creation stories told in the ancient world. Why?

Because in spite of the tragedy of their history, their creation story claimed the universe is fundamentally good, as opposed to other creation stories that claimed the universe is fundamentally evil. These other creation stories stated that the world was created after a violent war between a good god and an evil god. In myth, “good” violence always wins the day. These stories generally claimed the world was created from the body of an evil god who lost the war. Thus, the world, and everything in it, is fundamentally evil.

Compare that worldview with the worldview of Genesis 1. There is no violence in that story. The world is created through peaceful speaking of words. And Genesis insists that the universe is good. Not only is the universe good, but the anthropology of Genesis 1 is even better. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’ … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

There is a radical difference between these ancient worldviews. One claimed that the material world and everything in it, including humans, is evil and that the world is something we need to escape. The other claims the world is a good place that we get to inhabit.

The Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation is fundamentally about the goodness of the material world. It claims that all humans are inter-related and share in the likeness and image of God. If we took the doctrine of creation more seriously, we would never violently “other” our fellow human beings. We wouldn’t create distinctions that lead to “us” against “them” because we would honor the divine image within ourselves and others.

So, does science “shut the book on Genesis”? No. Because no matter what science says about the universe, I’m going to insist that the doctrine of creation found in Genesis is correct. The world is good, indeed, very good. But here’s the thing: Whenever Christians become dogmatic and debate the doctrine of creation with a scientist, we will lose. It’s a foolish debate, because the doctrine of creation is not about a debate; it’s about a way of life.

Genesis 1 provides a challenge that science simply cannot give us. It challenges us to live into the goodness of the world and to believe in the goodness of our fellow human beings.

If more Christians actually took up that challenge, instead of getting sidetracked by debating science or trying to make science and religion compatible, the world would be a much better place.

Theologian Brian McLaren on Voices of Peace Talk Radio

brian_mclarenRecorded on September 6, 2012 – Best-selling author, activist and public theologian Brian McLaren has never been afraid to ask Christians difficult questions, and his latest one gets to the heart of Christian identity in a divided world: How should followers of Christ treat members of other religions? That’s the subject of his new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, to be released on September 11. As the presidential election approaches and we find ourselves immersed in hostile political identities, Brian challenges Christians on both the left and the right to recognize how they have fallen into a pattern of hostile religious identities that promote hatred and incite anger. He invites Christians to imagine a strong Christian identity that is also kind and benevolent toward other Christians, other faiths, other political agendas.

Click the arrow below to listen to this critical conversation with your hosts Bob and Adam and their guest, the thoughtful and prophetic Brian McLaren.

Brian’s recent article in the Huffington Post provides an important practical reflection upon the dangers of the hostility and violence sown in our culture. For an introduction to Brian’s work and the topics discussed in the interview, read his article A Fertile Summer for Violence.

Listen to previous episodes.

Discovering God at an Atheists’ Convention

Sometimes you discover God in the most unlikely places.

This belief was confirmed as I listened to an episode of NPR’s program “All Things Considered.” The particular episode was called “From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith.”  NPR’s Barbara Hagerty interviewed Teresa MacBain, and, as you can guess from the title of the episode, MacBain is a former minister who became an atheist.

It brings up an interesting question: Why would a minister reject Christianity and turn to atheism?

Haggerty explains MacBain’s turn like this: “MacBain … was raised a conservative Southern Baptist. Her dad was a pastor and she felt the call of God when she was 6. She had questions, of course, about conflicts in the Bible, for example, or the role of women. She says she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.”

Over time, MacBain began to ask more questions. “Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all?” Those questions haunted her, until one day she rejected God and realized that she was an atheist.

The theological questions that led to MacBain’s atheism are certainly worth exploring, but I want to explore something else that fascinates me about her. Haggerty followed her to this year’s American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda, MD. MacBain decided she needed to say something to the conference’s 1500 atheists. She only had a few moments onstage. What she said during those moments was powerful:

“My name is Teresa. I’m a pastor currently serving a Methodist church – at least up to this point – and I’m an atheist. I was on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell. And I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m going to burn with you.”

Her fellow atheists cheered as MacBain left the stage. One man was moved to tears as he claimed that her speech was “one of the most moving things I’ve seen in years.”

Now, I’m no atheist. Yet, I’m moved by MacBain’s words, too. I find them powerful. And I think faithful Christians (and faithful adherents of other religions) should listen to her words for two reasons.

First, she makes a great point about human nature. “I was on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell.” It’s true that many of us Christians tend to have faith that we are on the right track because we know others are on the wrong track. We identify ourselves as “good” people by identifying others as “bad” people who are going to burn in hell. We reinforce our sense of goodness by uniting against others. These “others” could be Jews, Muslims, atheists, or even (maybe especially) our fellow Christians of a different stripe. There is an unfortunate paradox here. As strong as we Christians may seem when we fall into this trap of faith, we are actually quite weak. The reason many of us are so stridently against some “other” is because in order to feel worthy we need to faithfully unite with one another against a common enemy.

And that is a faith worth losing.

But there was a second thing that really moved me about MacBain’s statement. It was the sentence, “And I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m going to burn with you.” That resonated with me because it’s a powerful statement of solidarity. Instead of threatening others with hell, MacBain states that she will go through hell with them.

Ironically, as MacBain stood there at the Atheists’ convention and publically embraced her atheism, she was closer than ever to discovering the Christian God.

Here’s why: the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation makes a radical claim. First, it states that God is not somewhere out in the universe, far away, aloof and uncaring about humanity. Rather, it claims that God is fundamentally present in the world, especially in the places where humans suffer. Because humans (tragically, Christians aren’t the only people who do this) tend to gain a sense of goodness by uniting against others, we tend to make those others go through hell on earth. Jesus reveals that God doesn’t work that way; humans do. As humans forced Jesus to suffer through hell on earth, as Jesus hung on the cross, God revealed through Jesus that God stands in solidarity with all who suffer. It is there, on the cross, that we discover the God of solidarity. The God who goes through hell on earth with us.

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God says, “I’m going to burn with you.”

Faith in that God, and in that way of life, is a faith worth keeping.