Essay Archives View as a list
15 August 2013: On Building a Christianity without Security or Creeds
One of my readers, Henry Gael Michaels, has shared with me an anonymous story on the meaning of God with which I open this column. It also reveals, I believe, what is wrong with all theology. I am grateful for this gift. This is his story. The mystic was back from the desert. “Tell us,” …
12 August 2013: On Parting – Never to Meet Again – An Experience of Timelessness
There are some moments in life when the transcendent is expressed inside the mundane; where the eternal seems to enter the passage of time. They are moments, usually unexpected, perhaps not even recognized until later. I had such a moment earlier this year that will not go away and so I have decided to write …
I need some help regarding the Bible, especially the injunction to “Honor thy Mother and Father." I have read almost every book that Alice Miller, a famed Swiss psychotherapist, has written. She died just last year, but she bravely went against the grain of our culture and her colleagues to expose the damage caused by child abuse. She uses a great variety of historical figures such as Hitler and other dictators, writers and artists in her books to demonstrate her theories of how the repressed child maltreatment manifested itself in their lives. She also does a great analysis of Mel Gibson's refusal to question his father (who did not believe the Holocaust occurred). She is one of many who found that most people repressed the feelings that accompanied abusive treatment at the most vulnerable times of their lives at the hands of their caretakers in the name of socially sanctioned “parenting” and “discipline.” She finds that this abuse leads to crime, violence, addiction, illness and the perpetuation of abuse onto one’s own children (or an entire nation if you are a dictator) if not therapeutically worked through. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta also found huge correlations to illness and addictions with child maltreatment in their “Adverse Childhood Experiences” studies. The new findings by Bruce Perry and Alan Schore (among others) in the neuroscience of trauma are in alignment with this theory also. To think this all starts in “the family!” Even as I write this, I can feel my own deeply-embedded resistance to acknowledging these truths and how honoring and not questioning certain systems is as ingrained in me as my next breath. Miller found the Bible’s “spare the rod, spoil the child,” the scripture story of Abraham’s blind obedience to God and the “honor thy parent” command to encourage the perpetuation of these abuses of children throughout the generations of our culture. The idea of forgiving impedes healing for many adults, damaged in their youth as once again, the injured party must care for the adult instead of self. Why not “Honor thy son and daughter,” Miller asks? I have seen lives hideously damaged and so can readily see this in extreme forms I daily witness. Yet most of us have degrees of damage, less extreme on a continuum-than that which makes it so visible-though it is repressed and we are not aware of it. I ask you to help educate where these biblical references come from as most people cling to them (literally) like barnacles to a sea worn ship. Can you do some scraping? This will help me to do the prevention and intervention work I must do as a school counselor in the “Bible Belt” where children are whipped with belts as a norm as if God desired it. Only decades later will the results become visible in more child abuse, depression, physical and mental illness and sometimes even suicide.
With great appreciation for your work and your God-given intelligence.
1 August 2013: The Chalice Abbey: A Unique Ministry in Amarillo, Texas
The largest city in the Texas Panhandle is Amarillo, which has a population somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 people. Amarillo had its beginning as a result of being a midpoint on a railroad line that connected Fort Worth with Denver. With that connection established, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and the Chicago, Rock …
25 July 2013: On Teaching at Drew University’s Theological School
Drew University is my neighborhood institution of higher learning. It offers to Morris County, New Jersey, the enrichment that only a university can bring. There is a magnificent library on this campus that has three constituent parts: The University Library, a Theological Library and the Methodist Archives, in which the history of American Methodism is …
My question has the background of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" sermon. I believe the power of King's words lies not in poetry, emotion, nor logic, but from the moral core of all existence, the ground of our being that is love, what I call "God." I believe "I have a dream" is a modern example of prophetic speech, "Thus says the LORD." Is such a word to our culture possible today? With what authority could anyone speak such words?
The Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, is the Most Reverend George Pell. He is a tall, impressive-looking man, whose career in his church has followed the traditional path of those who become significant Catholic leaders. He, like most upwardly mobile priests, received at least part of his training in the Pontifical College of …
Thank you for coming forward in your series on the birth of Jesus with the Christian story formation that has been withheld from lay people in our churches overt the past two centuries. I initially heard you speak when you were interviewed on national public radio this year. I was shocked, but delighted by your honesty and bravery. For, as much as I have tried for 40 years to become a good Christian, I have always felt guilt at the same time for all the non-Christians of the world who apparently were not going to make it into heaven and for having to consider setting my science education aside to accommodate the Garden of Eden story.
Before this I did read one helpful book and took a class by the same name, When Science Meets Religion by theologian and nuclear physicist, Ian Barbour. This was the first time I had heard that Genesis doesn’t have to be taken literally. I have also, subsequently, been attending valuable classes on Buddhist psychology and learning to meditate.
I devoured your book Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World and am now reading Eternal Life: A New Vision as well as listening to your lectures on YouTube. I must say that I do feel betrayed by the Church. I’ve put so much energy into trying to have faith. Clearly, I’d have been better off hearing the truth as a boy. But, with your words, a load has come off my shoulders at the same time. At this point, I am very grateful to you for your hard work and for the clarity I have gained from it. I am also feeling the urgency, however, to learn as much as I can from you before you put your pen down. Please don’t ever do that.
The United States celebrated its 237th birthday this past week. It seems, therefore, a fitting time for some moments of national reflection. In today’s column I seek to identify some of the forces that now appear to hold this nation in its grip. America is, I believe, going through an identity transition in which a …
4 July 2013: JUNE 26, 2013, A GREAT DAY FOR AMERICA
I was surprised at how elated I felt on June 26 when the Supreme Court handed down its two historic decisions affecting gay and lesbian people. The first decision mandated federal recognition of gay and lesbian couples in states that permit same-sex marriage by declaring the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional. The …
I greatly admire your writings and find them very helpful to me in understanding how it is possible to be a Christian in this day and age. I have a question, however, that intrigues me. I have just read a wonderful book about the 16th century heretic, Michael Servetus. It is entitled: Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. Servetus was burned at the stake by John Calvin for being an anti-Trinitarian. I was struck by how modern (and appealing to me) the beliefs of Servetus sounded and how much that seemed to me like what I understand that you believe. I was also surprised to learn that his early followers started what became the Unitarian Church. Do you consider yourself somewhat like the Unitarians?
27 June 2013: My Mentors, Part 5 – Richard Henry Baker
He may have had fewer obvious gifts than any person I ever watched in a position of significant power and authority. He was not an impressive personality. One would describe him more as homespun than as notable. He was more like a favorite uncle or a comfortable neighbor. He was not particularly tall, perhaps stretching …
I have been following your work for many years, especially when we were living in New York Now in retirement in California, I found your book A New Christianity for a New World most helpful, as if tailor made to fit my needs. Before retirement, I had essentiality two roles: one of chaplain and lecturer in religion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1965-1976) and director of the Chinese Program, National Churches of Christ in the USA (1976-1993). Experiences in these two roles have sealed my definition as a bi-cultural person with dual belongings in value systems of both Chinese traditions and Christianity, despite the fact that I was born in the U.S. (San Francisco Chinatown).
In Hong Kong and Asia, I learned so much about Chinese and East Asian traditions, especially from students, colleagues and other faculty members. I was very much attracted to the best in the Confucian tradition, especially “Neo-Confucianism,” after classical Confucianism had interacted for centuries with native Daoism and Indic Buddhism to become a more inclusive system that embodies nature and the cosmos. While in New York, I attended monthly Neo-Confucian seminars at Columbia University, where professors from colleges and universities of the Atlantic seaboard did rigorous exegesis of ancient texts, the envy of Christian scholars.
In retirement I still worship regularly with my wife in a local Presbyterian congregation for the sake of discipline and community, although all of my work has been in ecumenical contexts. I have found Christian worship, however, to be essentially boring banality. Its confession and absolution are too facile, not to mention that my sins are much more sophisticated than what the superficiality of the confession texts state. Maybe this is all as you mentioned in your book, “familiarity breeds contempt.” I actually resonated well with your quote of Bonhoeffer in the Preface, especially “Before God and with God we live without God.”
Your liberating of Christianity from theism has enabled faith for me to converge more directly with so much in the Chinese and East Asian traditions. My first encounter with ridding the supernatural from Christianity was from David Ray Griffin’s book: Reechantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Cornell University Press, 2001). His rigorous and specific critique really did it for me.
Your intellectual honesty (a la John A. T. Robinson) resonates well with the best in Neo-Confucian fundamentalism, which is the fundamental commitment to the human discourse. Your beginning with the dawn of humanity’s consciousness and the struggle for survival reminded me of Robert N. Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard 2011), an interreligious work which took Bellah 15 years to write after retirement. The 746 pages appear to be his reading notes to himself.
Your stating that the description of religious experience can never encompass the entirety of that experience resonates well with the Daoist claim that all articulations of experience, if absolutized, can be “an idolatry of words.”
Your Christianity of expansion into larger and larger realms of exclusivity resonates with the best of the Confucian paradigm of each person being a center of relationship from family, to community, to society, to nation, to world, to the cosmos (ping tian xia) “all under heaven.”
Your integrating good and evil is likened to the Daoist yin-yang, where everything in life is seen an interconnected. There is no facile isolating of that which is “evil,” since every person is a combination of many facets of personhood. There is little dichotomy in Daosim; life and death are one.
Your idea of giving away self and love resonates well with Buddhist non-attachment to things, to loved ones, to life, even one’s own. It is the art of letting go in both Christian and Buddhist kenosis, though the latter has made it a vocation.
Your emphasis on the imperative of community is also central to Confucianism where to be human requires at least two; no one is an atomistic individual.
In retirement I have been trying to stay intellectually alive by reviewing books for an academic journal, China Review International, Center for Chinese Studies, University of Hawaii. To date they have published close to 70 of my reviews since 1995.
Thank you for answering one of my most fundamental questions by demythologizing the notion of a theist parent/fixer, alleviating us of all responsibility.
20 June 2013: The Birth of Jesus, Conclusions: Part XVI
Luke concludes his birth story with a series of episodes designed to point to the story of the adult Jesus. First, in Luke’s story, the shepherds depart, while Mary “ponders,” then the “Holy Family” goes through the initiation rites of Judaism to root Jesus deeply inside of the faith of his people. He is circumcised, …
My question to you is about a column you wrote about two years ago describing your second visit to China. Did you actually witness everything you talked about or did someone else tell you these things? The reason I’m asking is because I read/saw an article on China last year (I can’t remember the source but I think it might have been Time Magazine to which I subscribe). The article showed this beautiful modern city but there were no folks in it. The writer said the high rises and buildings were only a façade and inside many of them it was an empty shell. Since I have already jumped to conclusions, I’ll be interested in your response.
13 June 2013: The Birth of Jesus, Part XV. The Journey to Bethlehem
The creators of the birth narratives, Matthew and Luke, used two motifs in interpreting the life of Jesus of Nazareth. First, each was historically aware that Jesus hailed from Galilee, indeed from the village of Nazareth. Too often the gospels report that there was debate about his origins for this not to be true. Galilee was the rustic, …
The Episcopal Network for Science, Technology and Faith addresses food, climate change, biodiversity and water as important subjects for discussion, but "where's the beef?" Population explosions at the root of most of the problems humanity faces today. Is that topic too sensitive for thinking religious leaders to discuss publicly or are shrinking markets too horrendous to contemplate?
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