ƒ Christianity for Thinking People

Friday, March 18, 2011

What Freud Taught Me About Faith

I have been fascinated with Sigmund Freud since my first encounter with his writings while attending a small Christian liberal arts college (1985-1989) in preparation for ministry.  The following passage seared its way indelibly into my new-forming pastoral psyche.
We know already that the terrifying effect of infantile help­lessness aroused the need for protection -- protection through love -- which the father relieved, and that the discovery that this helplessness would continue through the whole of life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father - but this time a more powerful one.[1]
That idea literally exploded in my mind.  What?  Is he saying that religion is rooted in the infantile wish to be protected from the dangers of life by a divine father.  What a wonderfully subversive idea!  I wasn't quite sure how to respond to that criticism of my faith but I knew instinctively that I couldn't ignore it.  The idea struck me with all the force of a divine revelation and has continued to shape my faith from that moment to the present.
The idea that religion is a childish illusion that keeps humanity from falling into the abyss of despair touched a deep nerve in me.  In retrospect, I understand now that on that day Freud became my lifelong teacher, a creative catalyst that opened a door in my mind, altered my thinking and enlarged my understanding.  Freud taught me that there is a vital connection between our beliefs and our deep-seated needs and desires.
That single sentence started a long process in which I began to think about the the inner significance of my religious ideas.  Thanks to Freud, I have no doubt that the idea of a divine heavenly father speaks to the human need for security and protection.  Such faith can be part of a healthy life as long as it doesn't lock us into childish ways of thinking that keep us from developing a mature perspective and taking responsibility for our lives.

[1] Freud, Sigmund.  "The Future of an Illusion," The Treasury of Modern Religious Thought, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1990); 75.

Monday, March 7, 2011

When Science Kisses Religion

I've been thinking lately about the relationship between religion and science. We often see these as competing systems of thought but that battle just seems tired and outdated even though people on both sides keep going at it. Over the years I've come to realize that science and religion are really just two distinct ways that human beings try to understand the world and our place in it. So instead of pitting them against each other as so often happens in the theism/atheism and the creation/evolution debate we should listen to each as a distinctly and legitimately human way to find meaning and purpose for our lives.

Here is what I think religion has to gain by embracing the type of thinking that undergirds scientific discovery.

1. Science is hypothetical and based on observation. As such there are ultimately no sacred ideas or theories. Everything is open to question and part of the joy of genuine discovery lies in demonstrating the inadequacy of all prior hypotheses. It just feels good to tear an old theory down! If religion would recognize this it would allow people the freedom to examine their beliefs in a playful and creative way. If we can recognize that our religious ideas are hypothetical contructs then we can experience freedom from the fear that stifles spiritual creativity.

2. Science is subject to falsification. This one is a bit tricky because most religions like to think that they have the "truth" in an absolute sense. However, this is a misconception. Ultimately, no human idea is ultimate or absolute because the human mind is not ultimate or absolute. Just like the eye cannot see infrared rays so the mind is not aware of much of the reality that exists in the universe. Because of this limitation in the structure of our thinking it is necessary to recognize that our religious ideas are likely to contain as much error as truth.

3. Science makes progress through controlled dissent. There is no real development or progress without the ability to disagree. Scientists like to engage in what they call, "discussion without domination." This is exactly the kind of thinking that is required in a healthy religious environment. Even the Bible itself contains writings that express dissent against the status quo of religious tradition. For example, Proverbs says that the world reflects a just order in which sin is punished and obedience is rewarded. However, the author of Ecclesiastes observes that often the wicked get what the righteous deserve and vice versa. So we have some dissonance even in our venerated religious text. But as in music the dissonance is as a much a part of the song as the harmony.

I would encourage you not to leave your critical thinking at the door of your religious texts and experiences. Instead take your whole self, including the rational and scientific part, into an engagement with your spiritual traditions!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How to Save Your Kids Without Having to Kill Them!

Rick and Sandy had a solid marriage. They had been friends since high school, and began dating in college. Sandy was ecstatic when Rick asked her to marry him during their senior year. They had so much in common. They both liked listening to and performing classical music. They both loved to read and hike. But their most beloved hobby was gardening and horticulture. Rick had won several competitions at the state fair for his prize butternut squash, while Sandy was more of a flower person. So when they got married it was a match made in heaven – or perhaps the garden.

After several years of successful and award-winning gardening together, Rick and Sandy decided to move beyond the plant kingdom, and have children. Over the next several years they had 7 children together. While many hobbies and activities were laid aside to raise their children, they still kept up the gardening together, especially Rick's prized butternut squash.

As the children grew older, Rick and Sandy followed the counsel of "few rules, well enforced". This allowed them to have a close and positive relationship with all their children. Of course, the most important rule was "don't mess with Dad's butternut squash" – don't play in it, don't eat it, don't even touch it, just to be on the safe side. The children weren't exactly sure what the consequences would be, but from the look on Dad's face and the tone of his voice, it looked pretty terrible, and they didn't want to find out.

Unfortunately, as with all children, the draw of the "off limits" pulled at them. They wondered, "What is so special about the butternut squash. I wonder what it tastes like. I wonder what it feels like. It looks like it would be fun to play with, almost like a football." Surely it wouldn't hurt to play with just a couple of them. After all, there were dozens of plants and squash in that special section of the garden. What difference would losing one or two make?

Finally, one afternoon, when Rick and Sandy were out ingathering in the neighborhood, Lucy, the oldest daughter and second child overall, said it was time to check out the butternut squash. After all, squash is good for us, and will boost our immune systems. Michael, the oldest, warned against it. "You know that's the one thing that father would definitely be angry about Lucy," said Michael. But, as Lucy had great influence with the younger children, and even with Michael, they all ended up playing in the butternut squash patch, and even eating a few of them. After eating a raw squash though, they had no desire for them anymore, and they slowly began to feel a sense of fear and dread about the return of their parents. On this afternoon, instead of greeting Mom & Dad when they came home as they usually did, all the children were in their rooms – quiet.

When Rick and Sandy inquired why they hadn't been greeted at the door, the squirming and downcast looks of the children caused Rick to inquire about his butternut squash. Soon the whole sad tale came out with accusations against Lucy as the instigator by Michael, and counter accusations that Michael was the oldest and should have controlled things.

From the devastated and distraught looks on the faces of Mom and Dad, the children really became afraid of the consequences of violating the butternut squash law. Sadly and carefully, Dad began to explain that because he was not only a loving Dad, but also a just Dad, he couldn't just forgive their trespass, even if they were truly repentant. They had violated the most vital of rule in their home, and even if he wanted to, he couldn't just forgive them, because he was a just and righteous father. The rules of the home had been violated, and the penalties must be dispensed – or he wouldn't be a just and right father.

First of all, because of their violation, he could no longer allow them to stay in the presence of him and Sandy, because misbehavior and good behavior could not dwell together. From now on, they would have to live in the shed, with the dogs – Winston & Chester.

Second of all, the penalty of their crime must be paid, in order for them to even continue to live on the property at all, even in the shed. Dad explained to them that long before they had had children, he and Mom had decided that if any, or all, of their children should violate this vital family law, then Mom would pay the price necessary for them to continue to live in the shed. She would bear the penalty for them. And then, if they accepted Mom's sacrifice in their behalf, and demonstrated an appreciation of Mom's sacrifice, they would eventually be allowed back in the house.

Sadly and slowly, father, mother, and children trudged out to the garden. There, Dad took one of the broken vines of the butternut squash plant. And as Mom stood under the apple tree, Dad made a noose in the vine, placed it around Mom's neck, threw the free end over a branch, and pulled until Mom's feet were dangling off the ground. Slowly Mom asphyxiated, and died.

Dad turned to the children and said, "Now my justice is satisfied, the price has been paid, the penalty I set is exhausted. You will now be able to come back and live in the house someday. Mom and I did this because we love you. The demands of the law were met."

Now a father and his children could be AT-ONE. Do you want to move back home with Dad?


Where "atonement" came from

The word atonement was first used in 1513, it was soon employed by Tyndale in his translation of the Bible in 1526. The word atone, from which atonement looks like it was derived, did not come along until 1555, through "back formation" from atonement. So what did it mean? The story you've heard is true: atonement really means at-one-ment. The idea of being at one, in harmony. It is a "made-up" word, formed by running at and one together, as the rather free writers of the time were fond of doing. To quote An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English: "atone. Originally to reconcile, from adverbial phrase at one, and preserving the old pronunciation of the latter word, as in only, alone." That's why we say "atone" and "at one" differently today, which disguises their commonality. But in reality, and when they were first used, they meant the same thing. (The original pronunciation of the word one continues in the words only [one-ly] and alone [all-one]).

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary describes the word atonement: "the condition of being at one with others; concord, agreement." There is no concept here of some necessary paying of penalty, of appeasement or placating a hostile person. It is simply "one-ness". The same source gives a further definition: "3. Spec. in Theol. Reconciliation or restoration between God and sinners. 1526 (Tyndale)." and then adds the note "Atonement is variously used by theologians in the sense of reconciliation, propitiation, expiation. (Not so applied in any version of the N.T.)"—an interesting "theological" comment from a work not particularly concerned with religious matters!

This is a far cry from the meaning that the word atonement has assumed in the present: that of doing something in the form of payment or penalty to "atone" for some wrongdoing; a very "legal" word in which recompense is made and obligations met. As Chambers Universal Learners Dictionary puts it: "Atone. To do something good to show that one is sorry for doing something bad."
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary also well illustrates the changed meaning: "atonement. 1. Archaic. Concord; reconciliation. 2. Satisfactory reparation for an offense or injury." The archaic meaning was the original sense, the second definition of making amends is the meaning most often used today.

In this way then the meaning of the word atonement has shifted considerably from its first meaning of one-ness and the state of "one-ment". Tyndale, who introduced the word into his Bible translation, saw it in its simple meaning. Jesus came to make us one with God: "One God, one Mediatour, that is to say aduocate, intercessor, or an atonemaker, between God and man." "One mediatour Christ,..and by that word vnderstand an attonemaker, a peacemaker." (Tyndale, Works, p.158, p.431, cited in An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, art. atone.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Jesus Mean and Wild

I used to wrestle in high school. And those wrestling matches were some of the most physically intense experiences of my life. No other sport that I have played quite compares to the intensity of a wrestling match in which constant pressure must be exercised against one's opponent. Every muscle is fully engaged and pushed to the limit if you are doing it right. The only match that didn't leave me completely exhausted was one that almost killed me when I was pinned in the first 10 seconds by a three-hundred pound dude that fell right on my chest!

That experience came back to my mind this week as I meditated on the intensity of Jesus' life experiences. Obviously there are many levels on which Jesus' life was very demanding. The man travelled hundreds, if not thousands of miles, on foot in extremely high temperatures! And his attitude reflected the toughness characteristic of such a hard lifestyle when he commented on John the baptist, "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? No, those who wear soft clothes are in kings' palaces" (Matt. 11.7-8). That dialogue is worthy of a line in a Clint Eastwood movie. Jesus and John were not soft men in soft clothes saying soft and soothing things! They were rough and tumble prophets, men hardened by tough circumstances. They were willing to stand up and speak out against the religious and political powers that were grinding the poor and oppressed in the dust!

Consider the following texts:

1.) "Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him." (Mark 1.12-13)

Jesus led a Spirit-driven life. And the Spirit will not be controlled by the human demand for comfort and convenience. It is a dangerous thing to pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit! The Spirit will drive us right into the ring where we will be forced to confront the powers of oppression and injustice in our world. Such a life may be difficult but it will be far more meaningful and rewarding than the easy way of just "going along" to "get along."

2.) "In fact, no one can enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house." (Mark 3.27)

Jesus came into the world to bind the "strong man," that symbol of all tyrannical power, whether it be religious or political. Jesus' life was difficult because he challenged the authority of every power that diminished and demeaned human beings. He angered the rich, strong and powerful because he stood up for the poor, weak and powerless. More than that Jesus actually empowered the poor, weak and powerless which undermined the ability of those in power to control them! An example of this is Jesus' teaching that the "Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath." The Sabbath command is not a means to dominate and control human beings, although that is how it was interpreted and used by the Jewish religious elites (and many since them have done the same!). Rather the Sabbath is a divine law that actually serves human need, and human need takes precedence over Sabbath law. Now that is truly revolutionary!

3.) "And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mark 8.31-33)

Jesus rejected every attempt to divert him from the extraordinary difficulty of his mission. Jesus even called one of his own disciples "Satan" when he (Peter, of course) suggested that Jesus would not have to die. Here again, just like in the wilderness with the great tempter, Jesus rejects the offer of imperial power. He rejects the path toward domination over others and chooses instead the path of service for others. And that choice and the iron will that carried it out ultimately established the Kingdom of God over the Domination System!

Jesus' life was intense because of the tension created by the incredible conflict in which he was engaged. As the bearer of the Kingdom of God he was engaged in nothing less than a jihad against the religious and imperial powers of his day. The only place that Jesus seemed to get any relief from this struggle was in the company of those that lived under the boot of the beast. Jesus enjoyed many parties in the presence of such people!

The Good News is That Jesus is Stranger Than You Think But Better Than You Can Possibly Imagine

The great theologian and missionary Albert Schweitzer said that Jesus was "a stranger and an enigma" to his generation! In his amazing review of Lives of Jesus written in the 18th-19th centuries he made the point that scholars had simply been making Jesus into their own image. Schweitzer's challenge was powerful when it was first written and it is powerful today. The temptation for all Christians is to shape the materials we have about Jesus to fit our own preconceptions and ideals. As much as possible we all want a Jesus that looks and acts an awful lot like us!

The problem is that Jesus just doesn't fit in any of the boxes in which we put him. For example, what happens when we try to fit everything that Jesus said and did in the "nice-compassionate-man" box? Well, Jesus actually breaks out of that box. Not only in the nasty outburst in the temple scene but in his encounter with a Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter. In response to her plea, "Lord, help me" Jesus said to her, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." Now that hardly seems like a nice or comassionate response by any cultural standard. And yet there it is. So we either have to worm our way around the not-niceness of the response and offer lame reinterpretations to make this incident fit our conceptions of niceness or maybe we just throw out the nice box altogether.

Here's a thought. Jesus doesn't have to be "nice" or "kind" or "loving" or "compassionate" or anything else. Maybe we shouldn't try to apply any external standards at all to the words and actions of Jesus. When we do this it actually places our human concepts above Jesus. In this way we turn ourselves and our human values and morals into the standard by which Jesus is judged! The result of this approach is that we just squeeze out all of the challenging material about Jesus' behavior and focus on the things that match our cultural and psychological conceptions of what is good and right. And whether the end result is a liberal or a conservative Jesus doesn't really matter. Either way we have an image of Jesus modified (in reality falsified) to suit our own tastes and preferences.

Let me suggest an alternate approach to the strange and difficult materials about Jesus in the gospel records. When asked by Moses to reveal His name God said, "I Am That I Am." Nothing like answering a question with a riddle! Interesting that Yahweh puts the emphasis on the "That" of his existence rather than the "What." Ultimately, what God is is dependent on the fact that God is! By focusing on the "That" of God's existence we come find a true answer to the question, "What is God?" The same is true of Jesus. Our task is not to judge "what" he said and did by our own human standards and values but to focus on the mere "That" of his existence. Instead of letting our concepts determine our image of Jesus we need to let the existence of Jesus itself shape our notions of what it means to be human, truly human!

Are Jesus Sayings Too Radical or Are Christians Too Conservative?

“Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12.32-34)

I have a book in my library that is entirely devoted to the "hard sayings" of Jesus. Interestingly, most of the hard sayings are actually pretty straight forward and clear. Maybe they are hard not because we don't understand them but precisely because we do. Take Jesus' statement, "Sell what you have and give alms." Is it really that difficult to understand or is it difficult precisely because it is absolutely clear? There is no argument that such an imperative would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most of us to practice. But then why would we expect Jesus' sayings to be any less personally challenging then his lifestyle itself? Maybe his sayings are as unique and unrepeatable as his life itself. And if the bar is set too high for most people to follow is that so surprising?

Maybe the problem isn't with the radical and difficult sayings of Jesus but with our comfortable and affluent capitalistic lifestyles that are offended by such radical concepts as "selling" our possessions and "giving" to the poor. Maybe Jesus isn't too radical, maybe we are just too conservative. Admittedly, it would be nice if Jesus' sayings were less challenging to our innate self-interest and love of personal comfort. But we should be careful about wishing Jesus to be other than he is! If we make him into our image then we'll be left with no savior but ourselves. Better to have a Savior that challenges are very existence then to have no savior at all!

Beware of paring the claws of the lion! Let us be careful not to water down Jesus' radical sayings until they fit our comfortable, materialistic, 21st century lifestyles. We don't need a Jesus that validates the consumersitic pursuits of our consumption-obsessed culture. We need instead a savior that can free us from the fierce grip of greed that ultimately dehumanizes all of us, rich and poor alike. We need the radical Jesus and his sayings precisely because they challenge the equally radical demands of our consumer-culture world!

Miracles are More Than Miraculous

"Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2.12)

There is no doubt that the things Jesus did while on earth were stunning and even shocking to those that witnessed his acts! Two thousand years later we still talk about them and try to understand them. And yet miracles are difficult for us to reconcile with the way that we normally experience the world. The daily grind of our lives is pretty routine and mechanical. Life for most of us consists in a series of mundane routines that feel as natural as the ceaseless spinning of the earth on its axis. And yet deep down we probably all long for a little more of the miraculous!

The thing about Jesus miracles is that their significance lies in more than just the miraculous element. In every miracle story in the gospels there is a surplus of meaning that goes beyond the isolated event. If it was only a matter of one man on one occasion walking on water, then so what? How in the world could that possibly be good news for all people in all times and all places? Such an act may very well be miraculous but that doesn't make it the good news!

Miracle is more than just supernatural physical event. There is a spiritual, social, political, and symbolic meaning of miracle that makes those acts of Jesus significant for us all. For example, in the story of in Mark 2.1-12 there is a message of good news that goes beyond an isolated act of healing for a single individual. In that story, Jesus offered forgiveness, the remission of debt, to a paralytic (2.7). However, that claim was challenged by the "scribes" (2.8). Now, the scribes as a social and religious class were the guardians of the temple, and above all the temple existed as an institution to ensure that sin was forgiven through the offering of animal sacrifices.

Jesus was essentially challenging the authority of the scribal class by offering forgiveness apart from the temple-based order. For this the scribes called him a "blasphemer." They essentially accused him of being a practitioner of unauthorized religion. And no matter how ridiculous the charge seems to us in retrospect, it stuck. However, the good news in the story is that in Jesus we find forgiveness of sin apart from any human institution, no matter how sacred, ancient, and venerable!

Jesus' miracles are tremendously good news because they symbolize the truly radical and subversive nature of the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom that cannot be controlled or manipulated by any human power, because it is itself a manifestation of that which is beyond all human power. It is a kingdom that turns the social order of the world on its head. It is a kingdom that embraces the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the unholy and the unclean! It is the anti-kingdom in relation to all worldly empires. And that is a message of good news for all excluded and oppressed people, for all those that long for more than just the same old corrupt and corrupting business-as-usual world!