Friday, August 31, 2007

Divinely feminine

She Who Is, originally uploaded by juliecinci.

Our discussion group wound up its investigation of the book She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson. The vase is a thank you gift. Pretty appropriate, don't you think? ;-)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 10

In addition to reading the Bible through the historical-critical methodology (which in itself was a genuinely new way for me to investigate Scripture), graduate school opened to me other modes of inquiry: ideological criticism, reader-response criticism, autobiographical interpretation, feminist and liberation critiques, narrative criticism and more.

The most powerful of these (to me initially) was ideological criticism, or sometimes called "reading against the text." In my years of evangelicalism, the aim of all Scripture readings was to find the harmonic thread - the way the passage being read fit into the rest of the Bible and validated our core beliefs. One such inviolable belief was that God never changed. That meant the God of the Old Testament who led the Hebrews to defend their lands, to take other lands and to wipe out other people groups had to be reconciled with Jesus, the Son of God who modeled radical notions of peace.

Another belief was that if the Bible said "God said it," then God must have said it. There was no chance that the words in the Bible were somehow the words men had put into God's mouth. If that were the case, then inspiration of Scripture (the version of inspiration that allows for no inconsistencies or errors) would be at risk.

Reading against the text, then, meant to consider that some stories consolidate power, subdue challenges to power or articulate proper hierarchies that control some and establish others as the God-chosen leaders. Ideological criticism, or reading against the text, means to ask questions about who gains what from a particular version of the story and who suffers loss. It means giving a close reading to notice if the text manipulates anyone.

I wrote a piece on Numbers 16 that takes an ideological critical view. Sometimes I think it's easier to understand how something works by experiencing it rather than my telling you about it. So I've included that short essay here.


Question #2; Numbers 16:1-50 (Ideological Criticism)

The Bible is peppered with narratives that shape our ideas about power relationships between people and God, particularly how those power structures are formed and reformed. Who has access to God, is one of the recurring issues confronting the ancient Israelites. Given the gradual shift from the human experience of intimacy with a fully anthropomorphized deity in the Garden of Eden, to the God of Exodus who dwells in smoke and fire on a forbidding mountain, it’s not surprising that the privilege to approach God dwindles from general access to a select few, of God’s own choosing.

Any time a common experience becomes scarce or a select few are given special access, the potential for jealousy, rivalry and abuse of privilege exists. Numbers 16:1-50 represents the skillful conflation of “two episodes involving defiance of leadership” (Blenkinsopp 173). Dathan and Abiram (two Reubenites) join with Korah (a Levite) and 250 lay leaders to challenge how hierarchy and authority are lived in the community.
“Ideological criticism is interested in examining the content and context of these various faces of oppression and their ethical significance” (Postmodern Bible 304). What are the implications of this text as a product of writers who have a power position to protect? How is divinely appointed privilege (that separates laity from clergy) dangerous? I’d like to look at the nature of the content and context of this story first, and then at the ethical significance of this passage for us today.

Korah’s challenge to Moses doesn’t demand more authority for himself, even though that is how Moses interprets it. Korah says, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy; every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (v. 3) Korah criticizes the system of leadership that operates according to pre-established degrees of holiness. He confronts the arrogance and exclusivity of the leadership.

Moses responds by asserting, “You Levites have gone too far” (v.7). He recasts the criticism as originating in a competing hunger for power and uses shaming tactics to underscore the danger of challenging or criticizing his leadership: “Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to approach him in order to perform the duties of the Lord’s tabernacle…?” (v.9) He assumes that the lay leaders and the Levites want to be full-fledged priests and argues that instead, they ought to be content with their current status in the community.

God confirms Moses’ interpretation and executes a spectacular judgment of Korah and his men; the ground opens and swallows the rebels including all that is defiled by contact with them–wives, children and even entire households (v. 32). No one could be in doubt of God’s meaning: don’t challenge the God-ordained leaders, nor should anyone desire a place in the religious hierarchy that has not been appointed by the Lord.

The judgment took place in the “midst of the assembly” (v. 33) and should have served as a teaching moment. But the congregation couldn’t discern that there had been cause for such a judgment, “You have killed the people of the Lord” (v.41), they protested. Their “rebellious” comments caused the Lord to send a plague upon the congregation, which was only quelled when Aaron (the rightful, ordained priest) executed the proper ritual to reconcile the people to God.

The ideological message couldn’t be clearer–leaders are appointed by God. Complaining about them lands followers in a heap of trouble. And only by the merciful execution of the proper atoning rituals by the elected leaders can the congregation remain rightly related to God and protected from further punishment. Situating this text in its historical context, Blenkinsopp suggests that a struggle for temple control and its revenues, as well as a challenge to priestly hegemony in the Persian period (6th-4th BCE) might clarify the ideological agenda of this story. The priestly writers, in an effort to protect their privileged position, have written a cautionary tale for the Israelites–a place for everyone and everyone in his place.

In my opinion, this story should not be used as an endorsement of authoritarianism. Nor is it a sanction against criticizing leaders. Read uncritically, one might find support for clerical superiority and resistance to criticism from the laity. As a woman in evangelical circles, I have experienced similar lines of reasoning: “Do not challenge male leadership of the church. God gives you your sphere of influence and it is wrong to question God’s hierarchical structure.” An ideological critique of this passage offers us a means for evaluating the dangers of authoritarianism, especially the kind that suppresses criticism of leaders by those who are in power.


An ideological reading of the Exodus account might ask why Egyptians not in power deserved to suffer the same way that the leadership did? An ideological reading of New Testament epistles might ask why such a strong hierarchy related to men and women is asserted when there is no corresponding teaching in the Gospels, or why Paul seems inconsistent in his beliefs about the roles and value of women in Christ.

There are loads of other ways to read the Bible (I've not even touched on half of them here). Scot McKnight, ironically, is doing a series on Jesus Creed right now that is outlining some of them.

Are these new to you? Familiar? Helpful? Distressing? What do you think?

Monday, August 27, 2007

How the Jesus Seminar Works

One of my favorite columnists over at R&S forums for UPI wrote a wonderful, concise explanation of the Jesus Seminar and how it works. If you have only a vague familiarity with it (or believe that the members are the spawn of Satan), I commend the reading of it to you.

18 Percent Jesus, Richard Hooper

A Doubting Teresa

I wrote for UPI this week (took August off). I'll probably be contributing once every two weeks (maybe even move to monthly) because I do so much writing now, it's been difficult to keep up with UPI as well.

This column takes some of the writing from the last two blog entries and expands the thoughts. You may or may not want to read it if you've been reading along here. I post it for those of you who are coming to the blog to discuss the article (found me through UPI) or those who aren't finished talking about this topic (or are just really nice and always read what I write regardless). :)

Thanks for everyone's participation the last several weeks. I feel I've been able to get inside some of the thoughts at a more profound level through your comments, challenges and contributions.

Salut! (as the French say)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mother Teresa: Part Two

I started to post a very long comment so I thought I'd just put up a new entry to discuss this further.

Dave said: It demonstrates to me at least that "faith" as practiced and understood by many Christians (and others) is not based on evidence or anything demonstrable, but is rather a choice of affiliations that we make for a variety of complex and individually diverse reasons.

I liked how you put this. The reason I raised the issue "what is faith?" is that that very term is critical to this discussion. Are we willing to overlook the persistent, unending doubt and lack of experience in Mother Teresa because she was "Mother Teresa?"

When I expressed doubt online several years ago (the extent of my doubts at the time had to do with not seeing Scripture as the inerrant word of God and wondering what the Son of God actually meant), I was asked to "re-sign" a statement of faith before I was allowed to be a camp counselor for a homeschool group. Never mind that I had already signed it years before. Never mind that I was expressing doubt, yet had not "settled" anywhere in my beliefs at that point in time.

The response I received from those in charge was that doubts assail us all, but we are not to express them publicly (only privately) and that if I could no longer sign the statement of faith at that moment in time, I no longer believed. Belief had to be asserted, not doubted. Had I been Teresa, apparently, I would have signed as an act of faith. Yet in my tradition, scrupulous honesty was valued. The woman who "outed me" to the leadership made it clear in a phone call that she was "counting on the fact that I'm an honest heart" (and therefore would not sign) and would not force her hand by "making her" send the "incriminating" writings to the leadership team.

In other words, had I signed the SoF, I would have had to endure the humiliation of being seen as someone who was lying about my faith in addition to doubting aspects of it.

So that brings me back to Teresa. She knew she could not express this doubt publicly and did not. She kept it private and in writing, asking for these testimonies of doubt to be destroyed.

So here's the first question: Why? Why did she know that doubt is incompatible with profession of faith? What consequence did she fear?

If not experiencing God and doubting God, yet working for God anyway is what constitutes admirable faith (and we all know that supposedly), why aren't more leaders and lay Christians openly expressing doubts on a regular basis, yet going to church and doing Christian work anyway? Why is there such emphasis on conforming to beliefs? How does doubt fit in with belief?

Carrie: I see Teresa's perseverance as proof of her faith, not evidence of lack of it.

Well, let's look at that for a minute.

In the article, it states:
She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. "The smile," she writes, is "a mask" or "a cloak that covers everything." Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love," she remarks to an adviser. "If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"
Is Teresa admitting to lying? Sounds like it. Hypocrisy is a strong word to use to describe self. Avoiding hypocrisy has been the guiding principle of my re-evaluation of faith. I have attempted "with God, without God and before God" (as Bonhoeffer might put it) to openly describe my spiritual state as truthfully as I knew how because I saw a close link between truth (Jesus is supposed to have said he is the way, the TRUTH, and the life) and spiritual health. Why didn't Teresa?

I suggest it's because she had the expectation that her condition was abnormal. She believed herself to be hated by God and couldn't understand why. That means at some point in time, she received teaching that did not suggest faith was the persistence in good works while filled with doubt and a lack of experiences in God.

When someone complains that they have never experienced God (or don't), what advice do you give? What helpful comments have you received? Most of the time, the suffering soul is asked to pray more, to confess sin, to receive the gift of tongues, to enter soaking prayer, to attend more powerful worship, to trust that some day that experience will reach him or her.

How do I know this? It's what I've heard taught - over and over and over again. Testimonials of how God warmed Wesley's heart (even Bonhoeffer's heart) are shared in church as evidence of God as personal, not remote, distant and hidden. Catholics have told me that if I received Eucharist again, I'd become faith-filled and find the Real Presence.

Teresa's story should be a shockwave heard around the world of faith. If not her (she was not to receive comfort or God's presence), then why me or anyone else? But even more, why not confess these feelings publicly?

For instance: would it have been more "faith-filled" for a person like me to pretend belief during doubt, to wear a mask, to act as though I believed while I doubted? Is that the model Teresa might be giving us?

Teresa writes:
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
We get a glimpse here. Blasphemy! The horrid word. Yes - exactly. That is why we hide doubt and belief is meant to be confessed publicly. But at what cost? What does that do to many who don't know the extent to which doubt is harbored even in the most holy of Christian examples?

Teresa persevered in her work (which could be described as faith, though that has not been the definition I've run into in most Christian contexts - confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, belief in the true doctrines of the RCC). She hid her doubts, learned to live with them, she acted as though God was real and with her despite a lack of experience to correspond with it (assuming the article is a fair representation of the book).

But there is a problem here that I think should be addressed theologically. When someone cries out to God (who purportedly knows all about us and could reach us as unique individuals) and eventually finds solace and comfort and another never does... what does that say about the responsiveness of God?

I wish we wouldn't run from the crisis for faith this ought to create, because theology could get a lot more robust and creative if we faced the disappointment it is to find out that we can’t know that we’ve ever apprehended God, that we can’t tell if he’s apprehended us, that our devotion and prayers don’t necessarily create “relationship” (the most popular way evangelical Christians, for instance, describe religion).

So I ask again: What is faith? If faith is the dogged persistence to hide doubts and live out precepts without any corresponding sense of their being true… well, wow. That's brand new news to me.

Is it good news? Is that the Gospel? Is that relationship and not religion? Is that what it means to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit? Is that what it means to receive the Real Presence?

I think these questions deserve more than a passing apologetic.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mother Teresa's "Come Be My Light"

Remember how I've said repeatedly that a theology that doesn't take into account Christian's lack of experiences with God as part of its description of what it means to be Christian is not a robust theology? I never would have thought Mother Teresa would be exhibit A for that statement. A new book featuring 40 correspondences by Mother Teresa to her superiors over a 66 year period portrays a very different Teresa than the public face so many of us came to know and love.

Time magazine has posted a lengthy article that discusses what might be made of this lengthy dark night of the soul that lasted even longer than the 45 year one endured by St. John of the Cross.
The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, "neither in her heart or in the eucharist."

That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. "The smile," she writes, is "a mask" or "a cloak that covers everything." Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love," she remarks to an adviser. "If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'" Says the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America and the author of My Life with the Saints, a book that dealt with far briefer reports in 2003 of Teresa's doubts: "I've never read a saint's life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented." Recalls Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light's editor: "I read one letter to the Sisters [of Teresa's Missionaries of Charity], and their mouths just dropped open. It will give a whole new dimension to the way people understand her."

Postscript: This morning I clicked around on other blogs looking at the ways in which Christians are interpreting the revelations about Teresa. One blog sums it up saying we can't guarantee spiritual experiences, but must cling to Christ's promises and God's character. He goes on to say that we have the "hope of mercies that are new every morning amidst a long dark night."

I couldn't help but ask: What new mercies? A 66 year dark night doesn't really include daily morning new mercies, does it?

Another blog (by Ruth Tucker - author of Walking Away from Faith which I've read) said, "There were times when Mother Teresa was tormented. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can come to terms with the belief and unbelief that coexists in our lives and know that we are not alone. Our prayer is simple: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."

What? I'm astounded at the idea that from the excerpts we read, someone could say that "it doesn't have to be that way." The reports so far (we'll read more when we have context and the book) is that it was that way for Teresa... unabated (except for a five week hiatus) in 66 years. I didn't have the impression that unbelief was the chief characteristic of her crisis. It was more existential in nature: how can a Christian devoted to God's service reconcile the absence of God's presence when companionship, new mercies, Real Presence (in the Eucharist) have been promised to the faithful yet denied to her?

And how useful is the prayer, "Lord I believe, help my unbelief" if you've never experienced his help in decades? What does that even mean?

I do consider Teresa heroic. Jon said this morning that it makes him admire Teresa for her courage to continue helping people which overcame her personal need to disclose her despair (and possibly end her work). She kept her despair well-concealed and confessed it only to those who were spiritually responsible for her.

Still, I'm sure more reminders that we are not to abandon hope that God will make "himself" known to us will flow in, utterly missing the point - Teresa didn't experience God for most of her life, felt despair because of it, yet kept at her mission anyway.

In Memoriam: Mary

I remember Mary. She wore the draping black lace veil over her hair during prayer. She put it on right as her husband, Colin, announced that it was time for the congregation to offer their prayers. Colin's French had a wonderful British quality to it. And distinctive to their church, he always allowed time for spontaneous congregational prayers saying simply after the announcements: "Prions."

Various church members would lift up their loved ones with impassioned voices - a sick aunt who needed surgery, a friend who moved out of town, a child about to wed. Some offered praises to God. Mary prayed in her Americanized French fluently. Her voice had a distinct quality to it - almost grating, yet tempered by kindness. Hard to describe except that I can still hear it in my head, both the French and English versions of it.

She and Colin welcomed me into their church family during my junior year abroad in Montpellier. They showed interest, they introduced me to their children, they had me out to their home for a meal (the only church family to do that besides the missionaries in training). Colin led the college Bible study I attended every Saturday night (and often drove me to it). He had this incredible way of fostering a lively atmosphere while managing to create a sincere attachment to the Bible and faith. As an Englishman in France, I found it remarkable how well loved he was.

Likewise, I'd see Mary after services intently conversing with other members of the church, her little veil tucked away with her Bible under her arm. She had an air of unhurried interest. And she always greeted me.

I asked her one time why she wore a veil and no one else in the church did (after all, she was a pastor's wife and usually congregations model themselves after their leaders). She replied simply: she didn't wear her veil as a matter of obligation, but because it drew her closer to God when she prayed. The point was how one felt related to God, not what one wore or didn't wear on one's head. (I wish I had taken that philosophy a little more to heart in the years immediately following my time at the Centre Biblique.)

I returned to the states in June, ready to complete my senior year in the fall. The Crows, who had foreign exchange students visit their church every year, didn't forget about me. In fact, they wrote to me, sent me Christmas cards. The following summer when I went on a mission trip to central Africa, little Centre Biblique was one of the few churches to support me. They sent 600 francs (about $100 at the time) - a most generous contribution.

On my way back from what was then Zaire, I stopped in to see Colin and Mary... and the church. They let me give a report in French to the gathered assembly. I still remember clicking along in my story when I noticed to my delight that I had been speaking French nearly fluently for ten minutes, and in front of an entire room of French people, and wasn't that amazing? and wasn't I doing so well? when all of the sudden, in my momentary self-congratulatory euphoria... I lost my place in the sentence.

I froze: a dangling French 'r' hanging off my tongue without any syllable to follow, eyelids blinking open, closed, open, completely at a loss for how to get to the end of the word let alone sentence. Dozens of pairs of suspicious French eyes stared at me, waiting. Oh no, I thought. I always knew I was one misspoken word away from confirming to the entire nation of France that I could not, in fact, speak their language well enough.

That's when I saw Mary smiling up at me, nodding encouragingly. Colin, in a smooth step forward, put his arm around my shoulders, chuckled and finished my thought on my behalf (whatever "pearl of wisdom" it was supposed to have been). The congregation broke into gentle laughter and I found a seat, grateful again to the Crows for being there at the right time.

I went home with the Crows that afternoon and stayed with them for three days (they even welcomed my traveling companion, Craig, who they'd never met). We ate the most delicious French dinners under the grape arbor in their backyard, kids joking and teasing, Mary laughing, fussing over details and serving, Colin happily hosting. What an image of it I still have!

I marked one such night in my memory promising myself that my future would hold a happy husband and outdoor dinners in summer with perfectly at ease, talkative teens. (I still think of the Crows when we do eat outside and enjoy each other.)

Each night after dinner and dessert, the teen girls and younger boy got ready for bed. Mary went from one bed to the next spending as long as each child needed to unwind and talk to his or her mom. Not even company prevented Mary from being available to her children.

As it went, the Crows were the ones who hooked me up with my mission agency (Frontiers) which eventually led to my meeting and marrying Jon. Mary's sister was married to the founder of the mission agency and ironically lived in the same community house as Jon. When Jon and I married and traveled through France, Jon was treated to a short stay with the Crows and the same wonderful outdoor dinners again.

Shortly thereafter, their kids started marrying and having babies. I've followed along all these years, knowing the Crows were about 15 years ahead of me in life. Somehow through it all, the Crows continued to care about keeping in touch with this forgettable foreign exchange student. Only they didn't forget.

Over the last three weeks, Colin has sent word to supporters that Mary has been suffering through radiation therapy to treat cancer and as a result, had brain swelling and a host of other ailments. In the midst of all the challenges Mary faced, Colin's own mother died in England the second week of August. And then, last week, the prayer requests became urgent.

Yesterday morning - an email pinged my in-box whose title merely said "Mary"... and I knew.

Colin phrased it like this:
Mary went to be with the Lord she loves this afternoon at 5pm... She passed away to her reward peacefully as we were holding her hand and praying. The loss is indescribable and certainly not what we were praying for or expecting but we trust that Jesus will be glorified in her departure as He was by her life.
Today, through tears and memories, I wished for it to be so for Mary who loved her Lord and lived in light of that love all her too-short life, and shared some of it with me.

Friday, August 24, 2007

So in my dream, I jumped from a speeding

car, onto the concrete, rolling to avoid broken bones, cuts and abrasions. I heaved myself upright, unharmed, and dusted my legs, when, "Yelp!"

A blur of images and confused thoughts.

I opened and closed my eyes.


I struggled to remember why Rocky barks in the wee hours of the morning except to ruin a perfectly good night's sleep. In a fog, I slid out of bed (like I do every morning to let him out to pee), and weaved toward the door, woozy. I reached for the stair rail to support my wobbly body as I gingerly descended our very steep, very slippery stairwell... and missed.

My hand nicked the wall, my feet shot out from under me and feet first, I skidded on my bottom, bumping the top of every step, sending the bottles of Lysol and hair spray flying (that had waited to be carried up the stairs) until finally I smacked the wood floors, arms hyper-extended taking the brunt of the fall, legs stiff, tail bone throbbing.

Yeah, I could so jump from a speeding car and walk away from it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 9

I'll be completing this series under this title with Part 10, but I'll continue to discuss issues drawn from this series and will change the title to reflect those changes.

A few emails have asked if I think "falling away" is an appropriate term for what has happened to me and others. I used that phrase because of what it means to those who are still in the more traditional formulations of the faith. It's often confusing to create new terms and then define them. What I've gone through fits the typical "idea" of "falling away" yet it also challenges it on some levels. So by using that title, I've given a signal about what kind of discussion this series will be, but I also hope I've challenged some of the assumptions of what falling away ultimately means or looks like.

I used to say that I had lost faith but never lost interest. That's still a workable distinction related to how I've changed in my relationship to Christianity. Still, we'll look at the word and idea of "faith" in another installment because the meaning of it has changed a bit for me as well.

Now for the next installment proper.


When I threw out the "Hail Mary" to Dr. Dewey about my concerns regarding the Pentateuch, I did so because I could tell that my thinking was still limited by how I'd been trained to think about the Bible. I didn't expect a response from Dr. Dewey, yet he sent one and it was at the time, completely surprising to me. I've excerpted the parts I thought would be useful here. The bits from my original email are in blue, Dewey's response is in black, my new comments are in red.
Anyway, we got into whether there is enough credible evidence for the exodus to verify it as a historical event. Clearly there isn't enough evidence to prove it happened. But there is also an absence of disproving evidence as well (which in the circles I come from is some sort of validation for the historical fact of the exodus event...).

If someone makes an assertion then one must deliver an argument; one cannot simply argue from the negative.

I haven't forgotten this comment. When I read now, I ask myself what the argument for something is. If there is no argument to be made, I resist drawing categoric conclusions.

...But then Dr. Melcher went further to say that we can glean spiritual truth from the story regardless of its historical veracity. The discussion even went so far as to affirm that God delivers spiritual truth through it whether or not the exodus actually happened.

Remember when we talked about "true fiction"?

I remembered the discussion about the Gospels and Paul's letters. It's not that the writers were lying, it's that they were shaping the narratives to deliver a message. I could relate to this a bit as a writer, since I find myself doing it all the time, never with the intent of lying or misrepresentation, but with an eye to delivering the message with as much power and insight as possible.

...Something that did not happen but the insight was what was at stake.

Remember the word "insight" because it changed everything for me.

Remember the ancient oral tradition wants to generate meaning -- not fact. At the same time the story tellers come from a time and place. There is an historical and social location for these "true fictions."

There is some evidence of covenantal formulae in the ancient east 14th to 12th centuries BCE; such treaties appear again around the 7th. So, the older argument is that one can link the covenantal formula with these artifacts. What does this mean? That some sort of covenantal treaty was possible, when during the period formerly known as the time of the judges. In the pre-monarchic times the hill peoples and some incoming nomadic tribes gathered in a federation against the urban Canaanite culture. This incipient revolt is possibly mirrored in the exodus tales.

This calm discussion of what might have happened in the historical context that mirrored the texts felt strangely soothing. It felt neither defensive nor destructive. Just curiously interesting.

This is when I started to get muddled. I asked her if the Jews and Christians of history didn't in fact believe that God actually did those miracles and saved the Jews from the Egyptians in that way. She said that they did but that that wasn't the primary point of the story.

The ancient people were "naive literalists" but be careful - for the term literalist only works truly with early 20th century Americans who read the printed Bible with modern scientific empirical eyes. What I mean is that the ancients took the stories and used them in their present and if the stories had meaning in the present --they would modify them if necessary --they would continue to use them.

The truth is, we do this still today, even with the Bible. We avoid certain stories and texts that make us uncomfortable and embrace others based on the meanings we generate from them.

...And what good is that "truth" anyway? Are these "beautiful ideas" sort of like the Greek ideals? Or is redemption (by God?) real? If it's real, how would we know it? Weren't these "miracles of old" God's evidence of his redeeming power for another age? And aren't we now stumped as to how to know or prove anything about God? And what good is redemption metaphorically anyway? What am I being redeemed of? from?

...Don't get caught up in the behavior implied in the overarching metaphor
without discovering the way in which the metaphor plays out. You sense this in the story of Abraham and Isaac. This is a story that masks the culture's move from sacrifice of children (evidently a Canaanite ritual) to a substitution model. The tradition keeps the story going, but the horror is somewhat muted. It is good to feel the horror again, to see what sort of breakthrough the story was gesturing at.

...It's times like these that I'm convinced I've lost all faith in God or contact with anything invisible or spiritual. I feel like a material girl in a material world. If I can see the bible as ancient literature that is both beautiful and horrifying, interesting and revealing (about peoples and times and religion from another era), I'm okay with it.

The Holy = fear + fascination according to R. Otto. There need not be any morality attached.

This was a brand new concept to me and it explained a lot of what I hadn't understood about the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

e.g., an automobile for many Americans is a sign of the holy - for the vehicle both attracts and causes caution --throw in a sexy babe or hunk and the fear/fascination is multiplied. But nothing moral just a sense of power running along the nerves. This is very close to much ancient sense of the holy. The Jewish prophets started connecting the story about a God who cares for slaves, for the no bodies, the throwaways, to the sense of the holy and a new chapter comes about...Buddha is making startling connections in his own way around that time too. Hmmmm.

For the first time, I got chills. Connecting a holy, amoral God to a God who cares for the nobodies brings about a crisis for the nature of God. The narratives cause us to reevaluate what we thought we knew about God and to redefine what holy means to us today.

...But the moment someone tells me that there is rich spiritual truth in a story for me today that probably doesn't represent historical reality, and the metaphor I'm supposed to appreciate means I'm endorsing partiality on God's side with a capital P, well, I'm lost. The bible becomes a source of real angst, anger and disappointment.

You are detecting the underside of the Bible. It is there and there is even more.... If God is only what we have in the Bible then you will want to get clear of such a beast. But the Bible itself is complicated with starts and stops about what the divine can be. The Hebrew scriptures already contain rebellious moments where the humans enter into the divine without leaving the earth. A poor way of putting it... Another way. God was real for them because God was there, present to them. Can we say that today? God is not in any book but in the Reality of our lives. Trouble is we tend to lead virtual lives. Wouldn't know Reality if it knocked...yet when it does well, it does. When the baby decides to come, when the water breaks, when the contractions start, you have to face Reality and go with the waves... The stories are told to help people identify the waves in their lives...the beauty and the horror...

I stopped cold when I read "God was real for them because God was there, present to them. Can we say that today? God is not in any book but in the Reality of our lives..." I knew that what I had been shedding was "virtuality."

And then to think of the stories in the Bible as helping people to identify the waves in their own lives, not just beauty, but horror too...


Is this all because I used to be a literalist? :-(

YES, you are taking things, words seriously. But look around for the context. It is probably more fluid and more complicated. But it still comes from human beings who are trying to make sense of things within their limits...

Something clicked back in 2004. I saw for the first time that the Bible might be a resource for exploring what humans understood to be the nature of the divine at any given point in time rather than a word-perfect for all time description of how God was, is and will be (that also needed to be harmonized and reconciled within itself).

Additionally, the idea that the biblical writers were moved to communicate insight (more than convey history) profoundly impacted how I read all texts. It's not enough to give a thumbs' up or a thumbs' down as to whether the writings represented 20th century standards of historical veracity. Rather, an author's intention in most instances is to describe an experience (a vision, a belief, an event) while delivering meaning. Even if the insight is one with which we ultimately disagree, finding out what that insight addresses is useful for theological reflection rather than merely validating it historically or scientifically.

In Part 10, I'll look at other ways to read Scripture that help us get at the "insight" layer.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Diversity: good or bad for community?

I was reading along at Tod Bolsinger's blog this a.m. and thought his post about diversity combined with the short news segment clip was surprising and worth sharing here. Definitely listen to the end. It packs a punch.

I posted my thoughts in his comments, but listen to the clip first.

When you win in spoons

Spoons, originally uploaded by juliecinci.

(meaning you yanked a legitimately grabbed spoon out of your mother's hand), you should always stand on a chair and touch the tip of the spoon to the ceiling to rub it in.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 8

Let's take a closer look at how a literalist reads the Bible, even when in the deconstruction phase of faith.

In February of 2004, I wrote an email to Dr. Dewey when I first entered the Pentateuch class (taught by a Presbyterian professor). That email does a good job of expressing my thinking at the time. I've quoted it below.

In another post, I'll share part of the response from Dr. Dewey. His way of interacting with what troubled me in the Bible was startling to me, and the beginning of a new way of reading the Bible.

I'll also share how my approach to Scripture has since shifted. There are methods of reading and interpreting the Bible that don't rely on a literalist mindset. Literalism plagues both believers and ex-believers. It's used both to support the accuracy of the Bible and to discredit it.

For instance, I remember one ex-evangelical saying on a forum that he remembers thinking when he was a Christian, that if he could just sit down for two hours with an unbeliever, and then could patiently walk that person through the Bible, by the end, the person would become a Christian. He could achieve a coherent reading of the meaning of Scripture that would "prove" the truth of the Bible and Christianity.

After he walked away from faith, he discovered that he had a similar feeling: that given two hours with a Christian, he could walk that person through the Scriptures showing the inconsistencies and problems with the text and by the end, the person would leave the faith. In posting these two similar accounts of his perceptions about how to relate to the Bible, he realized he had not changed his approach to Christianity at all, just his conclusions. His story describes well how literalism holds us (Christian and ex-Christian) hostage - we are beholden not so much to conclusions, but methods. Those methods lead us in circles.

I entered graduate school hoping to find a way to transcend the literalist tendency in myself. Unfortunately, my Pentateuch class had plugged me right back into that thinking and all the problems that came with it.
I'm stomping around my kitchen after tonight's class about the Pentateuch and I kept thinking one good conversation over a beer with you might clear things up. So I decided to type my rant out and send it as a kind of cyber prayer to you, my "professor /priest."

Anyway, we got into whether there is enough credible evidence for the exodus to verify it as a historical event. Clearly there isn't enough evidence to prove it happened. But there is also an absence of disproving evidence as well (which in the circles I come from is some sort of validation for the historical fact of the exodus event...). But what happened in class tonight really got to me.

Dr. Melcher pointed out that when we try to establish the exodus as a historical event by examining each of its details for historical credibility, we are laying a modern template over an ancient text and asking of it what it wasn't intended to deliver. The ancient writers weren't concerned with the degree of historical accuracy that we are today. They wanted to package and deliver theological truth in a narrative that may or may not have happened quite as they described it. So far, I understand. But then she went further to say that we can glean spiritual truth from the story regardless of its historical veracity. The discussion even went so far as to affirm that God delivers spiritual truth through it whether or not the exodus actually happened.

This is when I started to get muddled. I asked her if the Jews and Christians of history didn't in fact believe that God actually did those miracles and saved the Jews from the Egyptians in that way. She said that they did but that that wasn't the primary point of the story. The theological truth was more important still. Which truth?, I asked. "Well, the fact of God's redemption. God has worked as redeemer in many of our lives which validates that truth in the story."

Dr. Dewey, this is when I feel crazy. I want to stand up in class and say: What on earth are you talking about? If we can't verify whether or not God actually split the Red Sea (or the Reed Sea or the sand bar or whatever) to save the Israelites, if we don't know if the Israelites were ever slaves and then fled Egypt, if we can't verify the story factually, how can we possibly know if "God" is redeeming us "metaphorically" or "spiritually" in our lives today? And what good is that "truth" anyway? Are these "beautiful ideas" sort of like the Greek ideals? Or is redemption (by God?) real? If it's real, how would we know it? Weren't these "miracles of old" God's evidence of his redeeming power for another age? And aren't we now stumped as to how to know or prove anything about God? And what good is redemption metaphorically anyway? What am I being redeemed of? From?

But worse than all of that - whether or not the exodus really happened doesn't matter to me one way or the other. The idea that either in reality or metaphorically God would kill the first borns of all the Egyptians, would wipe them out playing "tribal god" to the Israelites as the means of delivering a message of redemption to believers for all ages, so sickens me I can't make heads or tails of what the powerful spiritual truth ought to be. I can't bear to think of God this way. I'm not moved. I'm not drawn into deeper awareness of God or redemption or spiritual truth.

Instead, I'm left horrified by both the potential reality and/or the metaphor.

So what the hell is wrong with me?

It's times like these that I'm convinced I've lost all faith in God or contact with anything invisible or spiritual. I feel like a material girl in a material world. If I can see the Bible as ancient literature that is both beautiful and horrifying, interesting and revealing (about peoples and times and religion from another era), I'm okay with it. I actually enjoy it. But the moment someone tells me that there is rich spiritual truth in a story for me today that probably doesn't represent historical reality, and the metaphor I'm supposed to appreciate means I'm endorsing partiality on God's side with a capital P, well, I'm lost. The Bible becomes a source of real angst, anger and disappointment.


Is this all because I used to be a literalist? :-(
In rereading the email, it's satisfying to think that I wouldn't write the same one today. On the other hand, I stand by the challenges to literalism that this email raises. So before I post the response from my professor, I'd love to hear what you think.

If the Bible depicts events that we can't be certain happened, of what value is the theological message? Are we dependent on the historical validation of our theological truths? Or is redemption something we experience only on a metaphysical level (the biblical narratives serve as metaphor for that inner salvation/liberation from sin, not as indications of God's real time acts of liberation/redemption in history)? On what basis can we know that that redemption/salvation/liberation is real, if we are depending on metaphorical narratives and not verifiable evidence of God's activity?

If we do side with the historicity of events like the Exodus, what do we do with the summary judgment leveled at all classes of society, not just at the architects of the evil? How does that comport with our ideas of a powerful, loving, saving God? Does this text teach us that God prefers "my group" over other groups? If so, is it moral to side with a God who demonstrates a willingness to kill, exterminate, or do violence against those who oppose God? (These are the kinds of questions many ask who are in the process of deconstruction.)

Or, finally, are there other ways to read this passage (and others like it) that frees it from these burdens while allowing faith to be both realistic and reinforced?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Iraqi blogs

Iraqi blogs from the BBC

I thought these were really insightful.

(Working on Part 8 and hope to post sometime today or tomorrow a.m.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What is the What?

What is the What?, originally uploaded by juliecinci.

I'm reading this book and can't stop but wish I could. It's the most discouraging portrait of Sudan and the nature of evil I've read in a long time. I keep thinking about the comments many have made that Christianity makes us kinder, more compassionate, decent people. I'm starting to think that actually it's money that does that. Having some. Not a lot, just enough. Seems to me that the best antidote to greed, cruelty and dehumanizing of others might be ensuring that everyone has enough food, shelter and fundamental rights. When those go... well, every side is vulnerable to becoming monstrous, it seems to me.

Anyone else read the book?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Comments on comments: encounter, experience, etc.

We've been talking about encounter, experience, propositions and revelation in the comments on Part 6. I wanted to post some of my thoughts on this topic and hope more will unveil themselves as I keep writing.

Some kind of "touch" (either a feeling of warmth spreading in the body, or specific words spoken in the mind, or deep conviction of sin and the desire for forgiveness, or inexplicable peace in trials, or a sign - as in, asking God to reveal Godself through a specific sign and then seeing that sign fulfilled) is often associated with evidence of God's existence and personal care through relationship. For some Christians, the sacraments are what mediate God's presence and create the encounter with God that offers the reassurance that God is with us.

However, there is a large group of Christians who report that they have not had a "God-experience" though they pray, read the Bible, seek forgiveness, are in community, take the sacraments and believe the doctrines they've been taught.

What is faith, then? What constitutes the basis for faith? These are the essential questions here. Christianity is a religion that proposes the idea of revelation - that God makes godself known through revelation. By that revelation, we enter a relationship with God. The supreme example of that revelation is in Jesus Christ. A less explicit form of revelation is found in creation. A more personal experience of revelation would be the inner conviction of sin (so some say).

Yet if we scale back each of these, we see that the conclusion that God speaks to us is one we draw after we have applied a Christian perspective to the naked experiences. For instance, it is because we have 2000 years of Christian witness and interpretation that we conclude that Jesus is the revelation of God. It is because of interpretation that we conclude that the Bible reveals God to us. We say that creation testifies to the glory of God after we consider the possibility that God exists. We attribute guilt about sin to the work of the Holy Spirit after someone suggest to us that the HS is the source of that conviction.

When we say that faith must be sourced in a person, in a relationship, not in propositions, it is a bit of sleight of hand. The idea that Jesus goes on existing and can be known today does not come to us without a Christian proposition that makes that suggestion. Apart from dreams and some reports of visions, most people have never seen Jesus, nor have they any reason to even know about Jesus apart from Christian history and witness. We are taking someone else's word when we say that we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. That idea does not come by itself. Someone teaches it, and we accept it, adopt it, believe it. We then learn to correlate the experience of warmth in the body or conviction of sin or words in the mind or peace without understanding as evidence of the proposition we've been taught.

This is what is called encounter with God in my circles.

But the experiences themselves don't have definitions until we give them.

Belief in God and the Christian worldview can occur without experiences, though. Many people are drawn to the faith based on the beauty of its ideals, the values it espouses, the forgiveness for sin which leads to a promise of heaven. Without a correlating experience of God, though, it is difficult to believe as easily. Something in us seeks tangible evidence that the invisible actually exists because we are comforming how we view all of life to suit the Christian frame of reference. When we diminish just how central experience/encounter is in this relating to God, we are not necessarily helping the one who hasn't had the experience. We may unwittingly be raising the issue of why the person isn't as worthy as others to receive specific evidence of God's presence in that person's life.

Why can she "feel" God's love and peace and I can't?

Why don't I feel close to God?

Why doesn't God speak to me?

Aren't these the building blocks of all relationships? How does one have a relationship without communication? Those who suggest that the Bible is the source of that communication help a lot at this point. For many who have no experiences of God, the Bible takes them a long way in giving them a tangible source of communication. Yet it's a double-edged sword because if the Bible is the primary source of relationship, the day that the Bible becomes suspect is the day the relationship to God is destabilized.

That's why experiences of God are so pivotal in reinforcing faith. Otherwise, what is the personal relationship built on, if not these experiences or encounters or revelations of God?

If we assert that relationship with God is by faith, not experience, then what is that faith? Is it assent to propositions? Is it a relationship to the Bible? Is it belief in an invisible deity, trusting in the idea of God's existence without any way of knowing it is real? Is it fundamental trust in reality absent specific beliefs and experiences? Is it participation in a community? Is it bringing human care to the oppressed? What is faith exactly?

And then what does relationship actually mean?

I'd welcome more of your thoughts on these questions. :)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 7

My second semester of graduate school plunged me into the Pentateuch. I'd read it, of course, numerous times. I had even recently read the five books in order aloud to my children. We worked through the chapters one at a time with a study guide, asking questions of the text as we read. Even though the source of the Bible study was a conservative homeschooling curriculum company, the questions we posed to the stories had the effect of provoking further questions which snowballed, as close readings combined with questions and children have a tendency to do. It had been much easier to read the Pentateuch infrequently and in bits, to think about the meanings of the stories, rather than facing the actual content directly.

Noah's ark - oh yes, lots of water, God punishes evil mankind, animals and Noah's family saved, olive branch equals peace, God redeems/saves humanity. But reading the text is different. Difficult to reconcile were the specific calculations - could there really be an ark built big enough to house all that food, all those animals? Really?

Worse, how many people were evil enough that they deserved death by drowning? Even babies? Children? Is this solution to the problem of evil moral? Just? Salvific? What does it say about God? About humans?

Having been so focused on the "rescue" operation directed toward Noah that always served to foreshadow the salvation story in Jesus, I had not allowed myself to contemplate the real deaths implied in the flood account. In fact, part of me didn't treat the story as factual history at all. I would assent to it as such in a Christian group, but in the rest of my life, I hadn't given it the same weight I gave, say, Hiroshima or even Pompeii (both catastrophic events that killed loads of regular people).

Taking the view that the Bible was literally, historically, scientifically true meant I had not questioned these texts, but had accepted them uncritically. They were part of the "salvation package" I had accepted right along with Christ when I converted. Yet even I knew not to talk about the Noah's ark story with my Dad, for instance. He's not a Christian. Somehow I knew that he wouldn't accept that story as factually true. I didn't attempt to persuade non-Christians that these events had really happened. I split history into two parts in my mind: biblical history that I shared with Christian friends, and "real" history that I thought about and studied in college or read in National Geographic.

So as I entered this Pentateuch class, I only knew two ways to think about the stories in the Pentateuch. They were either really true (scientifically, historically, prophetically and metaphorically) or they were not true. And for me, at that point in time, the first five books of the Bible had lost their historic credibility. I was especially unable to take Genesis as a word-accurate account of what really happened. Entering the Pentateuch class felt like entering a boxing ring, as a result. I expected to duke it out with the text (and maybe even the professor, depending on her take).

One thing I want to mention right here. Coming out of literalism is a bitch. When you finally put your finger on the text and suggest that these narratives can't be factually true, the next instant someone comes along to say "Well of course you don't need to take them literally. Whether or not Noah lived isn't the real point. The real point is that God is giving us the message of Christ thousands of years in advance and is foreshadowing the story of our salvation."

That kind of regrouping has always bothered me. Shifting the focus to the prophetic or metaphorical meaning exclusively avoids grappling with the challenges to the text, and more, to the method of biblical study and interpretation common in evangelical circles.

But even if I leave that aside, there's plenty in the metaphorical meanings to make the skin crawl anyway. What I really wanted was a good discussion about why it is disturbing to think about God drowning everyone on earth (factually or metaphorically). What difference did it make if it had happened or not, if the message taken from either reading was that God wanted a lot of people dead for being "irredeemably evil"?

And this is often as far as ex-fundamentalists and ex-evangelicals take it. Once the meaning is indicted along with the factual history, what use is there for a text like the flood account?

My Pentateuch professor helped me uncover new ways to read the Bible that changed how I thought about it. For instance, rather than choosing between a literal meaning and a metaphorical one (many people feel that these two ways of reading the text reflect conservatives versus liberals...), there was a third and fourth and fifth way.

Usually the first thing we did with the text in class was to analyze it as a text - to understand not only the words in it, but the authors behind it. How might it have been constructed? Who might have handled it? What kind of "paper" was it written on? What copies do we currently have? How old are those? What are the differences between the copies we have? Who determines the translation of difficult terms (those that are hard to read or smudged or unclear or not common enough to be well-known)? Who might the editors have been? How many times might the text have been transmitted, copied and transported? How many writers and editors contributed to each text? What other texts circulated at the same time as these narratives? How did these writings influence each other? How did the Genesis creation account, for instance, challenge the myths concurrent with it?

Further, were there any historically verified events in history that may have corresponded with the accounts in the text? What ways did this text relate to the needs and wishes of this people at this point in history? How did the narrative shine a light on the understanding of God at that point in time (that was limited by their time and place)?

Most of us don't take the time nor have the resources available to do this kind of study every time we open the Bible. It's why I wish more pastors would treat their congregations with respect and do this homework for them, teaching them about how to read the Bible and the importance of regarding the writings in it as fragmentary and fragile, historical and mythical. Bound in leather with my name embossed in gold across the cover makes the Bible I hold feel very different than it actually was and is, and consequently, we mistake the contents for transcription (of God's actual words and deeds) rather than narration (by human beings doing what humans do - writing stories to communicate their truths).

Another way to look at the texts is through the history of interpretations. How had the narratives' meanings changed over the thousands of years they had been in existence? How were Jewish interpretations different from Christian ones? How were modern interpretations different than the Middle Ages or ancient early church interpretations?

These two ways of engaging the text seemed obvious once we participated in them. Yet there were other methods still. And some of these proved to make Bible reading exciting and even beneficial again.

I will post some of these alternatives in the next installment.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Lucky 13: Tiger gets it done

I had a long luxurious day. I washed clothes, I cleaned and primped the bedroom for Jon's return from CA (he gets home tomorrow morning) and I watched the entire final day of PGA golf. Satisfying end: Tiger takes home the Wannamaker trophy.

I stayed up until 5 a.m. with my two teens last night. Yes, I need to go to bed.

And, I'm reading What is the What? about Darfur. Depressing! Well written, though. Extremely well crafted.

Anyway, all this to say: more soon about faith and life and God and experience. Just not tonight.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Tiger nearly makes history... again

Almost made a record breaking 62 yesterday. This tournament just got interesting.

For the non-golfing geek, Tiger needs to win this major or he will have gone all season without a major win for the first time since 2004. I think he can do it. :)

Where did I go wrong?

I've always prided myself on being a good parent... I've introduced the kids to the Boss, Bono, Andrea Bocelli... They returned the favor and brought me Linkin Park, Matchbox Twenty, the Streets, Corinne Bailey Rae, Metallica, Paolo Nutini...

But something has gone very wrong.

My kids, the Indie music scene fans, the kids who go to local shows instead of big concerts, the ones who ask for "Tegan and Sara" CDs for birthday gifts and not Daughtry... these kids who won't listen to top 40 radio like, no, they love Journey. Journey! Steve Perry. 1970s bloated vocals. Four part chords as music. Melodrama as emotion. Cliches as lyrics.

"When the lights, go down, in the ci-tay..." Oh God no!

I've had to listen to "Don't Stop Believing" on repeat in the family room up to ten times in one session.


I'm trapped in forgettable 1970s rock.

Get me out!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Happy Birthday to Jon!

Dad of the year, originally uploaded by juliecinci.

Jon turned 50 yesterday. He's in California soaking up the sun and the fresh mountain air. He went out to visit Noah (who is working construction) and his sister and nephews and nieces who all live in the same region (and for whom Noah has worked this summer).They're throwing a big party for him tonight. Jon is especially enjoying the dozens of cool bakeries in CA that make fabulous pastry.

He's in a gorgeous part of CA (Redwoods and canyons). I keep thinking of Bilbo. :)

I miss him!! He'll be home soon.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 6

After I left my faith behind, I rejoined the human race. I entered a period of profound, no-agenda curiosity which was both exhilarating and liberating.

For instance, when a friend confided that she had never once felt God's presence in her life despite praying for it earnestly as long as she could remember, I felt compassion. I didn't sense a sermon coming on. I didn't tell her new ways to pray, I didn't redefine God's presence, I didn't think she was insincere in her attempts to "feel" God, I didn't change my theology in that moment to recast non-experience of God as the same thing as experience of God. I simply listened and accepted her report as true. I also knew that I could never again believe in God's presence for everyone with absolute confidence. My theology would have to be big enough to include non-experience as well.

I went from being a believer (as in, believing propositions) to believing (as in, taking people at their word). I hasten to add right here that my belief in propositions was every bit as much about relationship to God through Christ as anyone else's. No matter how passionately we cast our faith in relational terms (meaning we didn't generate our experiences but that they are sourced in God), the facts remain: we interpret our experiences (peace, love, joy, forgiveness, freedom, hope, healings, wonder, awe, the conversations we hold in our heads between ourselves and what we call God) as evidence of our relationship to God based on propositions we believe (that there is a God who manifests godself in Christ who now resides in us through the Holy Spirit).

Christians also believe that this God speaks to us and interacts with us in discernible ways. That's what Christians mean by relationship. Christians refer to their experiences to validate those propositions they embrace and believe. That's why we call Christians "believers." In other words, Christians are those people who interpret their experiences through a specific propositional lens that they accept as true, which they describe as relationship. In turn, they present their experiences to others as validation of those propositions.

Muslims, humanists, scientists, Hindus, atheists, postmodernists, Jews, animists... don't. They interpret similar experiences of peace, connection, love, joy, miracles, mission, hope, wonder, mystery and so on, through a different grid with other propositions supporting their interpretations.

So I went from being a believer (in Christian propositions) to believing (that other people's methods of interpreting their own lives held validity for them and could make coherent sense of their experiences adequately). It made a huge difference in how I looked out at the world around me.

Mother Teresa once said that she looked for and saw Christ in the faces of those she cared for. She tended to them as though she were tending to Christ. When I first read her words, I thought I'd misread the quote. For so long, I'd been taught that my goal should be to live in such a way that people saw Christ in me, so that non-Christians would be attracted to Christ as I lived my faith before them. In other words, the goal was to have other people look at my face and see Christ. Certainly Christ wasn't in the "unsaved," as far as I knew. Yet Mother Teresa thought otherwise.

In this season of "un-faith," I tasted Teresa's point of view. I can't say I saw Christ in others as she did. However, I did see the other... without trying to manage the encounter. I listened. I valued. I believed. The "so that" never followed. I began graduate school with this disposition toward others.

My first professor taught Pauline Writings and is a member of the Jesus Seminar. He remains my favorite professor. Dr. Dewey helped me see the "first century other." Prior to that class, my grid for evaluating Scripture and beliefs came through the filter of the 20th century, of literacy and post-Enlightenment science. I unconsciously managed these influences when I'd read about biblical times and peoples. I would look for points of connection between the biblical text and my worldview. I'd shape my readings (not deliberately) to support both the propositions I held to be truly Christian while staying related to reality as our time and place defines it. It is a very tricky process and one that requires a great amount of discipleship to make happen "successfully."

Let me explain further. What I mean is that while most of us honor science as a valid tool for explaining reality, medicine, historical research etc., we also resist science's claim to explain everything. For example, while I believed in the resurrection, I didn't believe in resurrections. While I trusted that miracles in Christian churches were sourced in God, I dismissed miracle claims of other faiths and did so on scientific grounds.

It's a tenuous way to hang onto faith - this need to balance our worldview against an ancient one. And in fact, many ex-fundamentalists leave the faith when this gap becomes too strained.

I went into that first class wary of my professor's interpretations of Scripture (not because I didn't like the Jesus Seminar... on the contrary, I liked their books very much). I worried that the JS scholars were manipulating the Bible to suit their particular theological aims. During one lecture, my jaw dropped when the professor said that the first century Christians believed in Jesus's resurrection.

Rewind that tape, please.
Isn't the JS filled with anti-resurrection tweedy-blazered materialist intellectuals who eschew magical thinking? Naturally, my hand flew into the air to press that point.

Patiently, Dr. Dewey explained the worldview of first century citizens. Without reproducing the lengthy detailed discussion here, suffice to say that what stayed with me at the time was the idea that cosmology (how we understand the relationship of our physical world and the surrounding universe) impacts beliefs. It struck me forcibly that how the first century Christian described what he or she experienced was shaped by that cosmology... and even if we think we can adopt a similar point of view, we are actually believing very differently just because we are no longer living within that era.

In other words, I stopped thinking about how the first century believer's point of view might validate the beliefs I was supposed to have in today's century, and for the first time, listened to the beliefs and viewpoint of a first century person without needing to scientifically analyze them, without systematizing them theologically, without adopting or interpreting them (at least, I attempted to withhold my own immediate reactions to those beliefs). I allowed there to be profound difference between me and a first century believer and "read" texts with that difference in mind (not trying to harmonize or scientifically examine or criticize). As a result, I was put in touch with what constituted the insight that drove the descriptions of their faith experiences, rather than an apologetic that supported their claims. (I will develop this idea in future posts so just sit with it for now, if it doesn't quite make sense.)

I found the process of allowing the other to be different (really different) fascinating and wholly "other." Interest in difference became one of the the chief ways I spent graduate school. I stopped making evaluations (or rather, I stopped letting my evaluations control my readings and interpretations) and instead, adopted a posture of openness to and interest in difference. I allowed myself to be drawn into the utterly other (fascinated rather than threatened, for instance).

Another way to put this attitude is this: Dr. Dewey says that you have not fully entered another time and place sufficiently until you can smell the garlic. It's not enough to read texts, even in the original languages. We must make an attempt to inhabit the world with all five senses, as best we can.

As I moved forward in my theological odyssey, I made it a priority to "smell the garlic" first... to let myself adopt someone else's perspective (even when it drove me mad!), driving to understand how it cohered for that person (people), for that time, for that place, for that moment in history.

This dedicated process of standing in the shoes of the other created the greatest shift in my formerly fundamentalist mindset... a shift that didn't occur until I had screamed in the margins of several text books and stomped around the Xavier quad in tears.

More later today

Thanks for all the feedback on this little series. I can't tell you how helpful it's been to me to finally get to put all these thoughts and experiences into a kind of coherent order and sequence. (Yes, I do want to write a book so this is a great chance to help me sort through what's worth writing and what's not.) I love your questions. They help to shape what I write.

I've got #6 mostly finished. I can't write as fast as you all can read, apparently! But it should be up by tonight.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 5

Falling away from faith was not a dramatic moment of devastation, as though it all happened at once. There were moments of terror as I studied theology on my own. I remember opening the Jesus Seminar website with the door locked while sweating and shaking so much, I could hardly type in the website address. I deleted my Internet history the moment I logged out worried that if I died that night, I wouldn't want Jon to think my final act had been embracing heresy. I'm nothing if not dramatic.

Yet if you think about it, the stakes were that high. I was on the verge of apostasy (if you lived in my brain, you'd know it was true) according to the evangelical formulation of faith. Yet I couldn't stop. I had to know "everything," had to rethink everything.... which is impossible of course, but I was determined to try.

Jon and I had many conversations that were probing, difficult and at times, scary. He worried about me; he was upset with me; he loved me. I shared (how can I not share?) but I held back the scariest thoughts from Jon. I processed most of my theological journey with a couple of online friends who were reading the same books. I did accumulate a surprising number of Hans Kung volumes and Jon certainly noticed my nose buried in them most days.

And that's probably why one day Jon came home from teaching at Xavier excited to tell me that Hans Kung would be at Xavier that weekend! Like the good fan that I am, I immediately stacked up all my Kung volumes (better than working out with weights, I tell you) and stood in front of the mirror changing outfits six times.

We sat in the third row. Kung was brilliant, of course, but he never really answered the one question that drove me at the time: who gets saved and how? Or did he? Was I stuck in a moment I couldn't get out of?

Still, I bought Kung's latest book and threw myself at him for an autograph as he descended the stage. I'm pretty sure he didn't know what hit him. And rats! I forgot my camera but I have the memory.

The point is, Kung approached theology in a way that took me in new directions. His thinking about salvation had to do with the Kingdom of God in the here and now. His passion had to do with dialog and mutual sympathy between the religions. He felt all of these constituted Christian commitment and were in accord with Christian values and theology. In fact, he reminded me of my Aunt June (famous on this blog). She often spoke about faith in these terms and I had dismissed her theology for years as liberal... yet suddenly her words echoed Kung, and as I let myself consider them, they opened windows rather than slamming doors.

My aunt is the one person I thought to seek as I felt my faith collapsing. She's the one who said, "God likes ambiguity a lot more than we do." I knew I could ask her any question and she wouldn't be worried about me. Why did I know that? Why would she feel free to respond that way? And of course she did, in six pages of single spaced compassion and clarity. More fresh air rushed into the room of my heart.

Back at the Kung seminar, while I was standing in line for a glass of wine (yeah, a Catholic school - I know!), I met a woman in the theology program at Xavier. She told me Amazing Things, like Dr. Paul Knitter was one of her teachers (yet another hero of mine and friend of June's). So when Jon and I got in the car to drive home, he said, "It's a no-brainer. You should get your Master's in theology."

And with the sound of inevitability, I knew I would enroll. A year later, I began my program without faith but with much hope.

My primary problem (as I thought about it) was that I could not see how my own mind processed information. I still felt like a prisoner and victim of my thought patterns, and wanted someone outside of myself to help me see them. I wanted criticism, challenge, and most of all, the tools to evaluate the claims others made about the faith for myself.

I consider my entry into grad school (in hindsight) the most honest act of faith I've exercised. It's not often someone chooses to devote four years of life to subject matter her mind no longer accepts as true. It often struck me as funny that I was studying virtuality and could get a degree in it! I could not see anything clearly, yet I walked directly into devoted focus on Christianity in spite of not believing any more.

I determined that it was time to start over. Completely. Which I did.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 4

To hold onto Jesus. That was the idea. I figured there must be some consensus that would pull me back from what one of my professors calls "the postmodern abyss." When we face the depth of our biases, our limits, and the pervasive relativity of all other people's judgments and opinions as well, there is usually a point at which we want to throw up our hands in a "there's no hope" gesture... and then drown ourselves in vodka and chocolate.

Or in those darker moments, we want to hit the rewind button and unthink all the thoughts that led to such a bleak place of disappointment in faith, in the way things "just are."

One of the ways some Christians pull back from that edge is to commit to an authority structure that they choose to trust to make those discernments for them. Perfectly valid. Just didn't work for my overly busy brain. Others advocate a generous orthodoxy, focusing on what they call diversity within the tradition while embracing essentials. As long as we stick to essentials, the thinking goes, there can be diversity of opinion around things like baptism or confession, how the Lord's Supper is taken or how church authority is structured while embracing a similar view of the trinity, Jesus as God's Son, the story of salvation etc.

Yet even the essentials become divisive because, let's face it, some traditions really do think it is heretical to see the resurrection as a metaphor rather than a physical reality, for instance. As a result, a generous orthodoxy usually implies a conservative view of the faith and theology.... which means, then, that the more liberal branches of the church aren't considered part of that larger diversity after all. In the ancient and medieval world, church councils were called in order to "force" consensus over essentials... Today, most Christians take a dim view of that kind of coercion and therefore, there is less ability to enforce a particular definition of Christian essentials. Consequently, folks like me find themselves back in the morass of competing views even about essentials.

Not only do Christian essentials take a beating in our era, but if we move beyond our own western Judeo-Christian world to take a look around, we find that our faith must account for a much wider and more diverse humanity than the ancients ever considered.

History is peopled with far more non-Christians than Christians. What relationship does our faith have to their lack? Why has "our" God been silent on the far side of the world? Why do some people get to be born "into" the right faith while others must somehow surmise that the orientation of their culture, religious and philosophical worldview is askew, and they should be internally curious to find "the one true God" who has not been a part of that history or heritage?

Being a globe-trotting young person meant that this question plagued me.

I used to wish I had the spirit of Paul so that I would be glad to exchange my salvation for the damnation of the lost on the far side of the Atlantic and beyond. I wasn't quite that brave, but I did feel it was utterly unfair that I should be "blessed" and others "cursed." On what grounds could I claim that God's sorting of humanity (as I had been taught) was just?

Language, the plain meaning of words, became the new ground for this theological game. What did justice mean for God if it didn't mean the same thing for humans? Did forgiveness require blood? Is sacrificial death consistent with God's love and grace? Can the words "love" and "grace" and "justice" really mean the opposite of how I experience them when they are applied to God? And if language changes every generation, how can I know that the language of the ancients comports with our use of the same words today? What did heaven mean to a first century person compared with a generation who saw men land on the moon or the Hubble telescope's view out of our galaxy?

Truly, I came to the devastating conclusion that I could not know, did not know, would not presume to know the truth about God and reality in any kind of absolute, non-negotiable, categoric way - not even in a bare-bones essential kind of way.

While my mind would no longer accept what felt like a scripted version of the faith, my heart knew that I had loved the faith... loved it so much that it was still at work in me despite the fact that certain theological perspectives literally turned my stomach or made me angry. In spite of everything, I still loved the Bible and Jesus, I still found the narrative of redemption and lift powerful in my imagination, I believed in forgiveness and living in such a way that good overcomes evil. I was committed to repairing relationships, caring for the poor, and working to create conditions that promote community esprit de corps. Yet I didn't believe. The beliefs I had taken for granted as a Christian had evaporated and I couldn't fake that I still believed them, no matter what.

Bonhoeffer's writings rescued me from feeling utterly alone. In Letters and Papers from Prison, he underscored the importance of honesty and plain speaking about our Post-Enlightenment era and its impact on our beliefs. He wrote fearlessly about the loss of God in modern life. I was and am deeply grateful to him for giving me permission to admit the truth about where I was, at that time, without fear for my soul. I had lost faith. I had to face it.

So I gave up. I let go.

I stopped praying. I stopped going to church. I stopped reading the Bible. I trusted that answers (of another variety entirely, yet of what sort I could not say) would come some other way.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Part four is written but needs editing and....

today is Brave Writer registration day: aka - how to chain yourself to a computer for 24 hours without food or water. :)

See you on the other side.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 3

Once I walked through the door of who has the authority to interpret the Bible, I found myself facing Rome, the EO (Eastern Orthodoxy), the JS (Jesus Seminar), Luther, the latest evangelical best-selling writer, various Christian historians' versions of what the early church believed, contemporary theologians, the Early Church Fathers, and any number of other (almost all male) interpreters. I paid attention to academic credentials. I examined the ministries and personal lives of those writers as far as I was able. I listened to the stories of how these interpreters of the faith had come to receive the right to interpret on behalf of Christians.

I felt kinship with some perspectives because I liked the writers' writing styles more than others, or because they struck a chord with my experiences. I noticed that I "hoped" certain theologians were right because I liked the vision they cast better than others. I then chastised myself for controlling the process. I found out that some theologians didn't even address my central concerns. In Hans Kung's 687 page volume, On Being a Christian (which I read three times), the word "salvation" is not even in the index! I remember how it slowly dawned on me that the answer I wanted wasn't there because the question I wanted answered wasn't even on his radar. Heaven and hell, as I understood them then, were that far outside his understanding of the faith that he didn't address them. That was a mind-blowing moment.

In grad school I spent time reading writings from the early church period. You'd think that biblical writers and early church fathers would have had a better handle on the faith being closer to the originary event. Yet even they disagreed! There were all kinds of Gospels and letters not included in the Bible, there were entire Christian groups formed around interpretations of the faith that were later deemed heretical and their writings, destroyed. Christianity was not a straight line from Jesus to present with a set of clear directions for how to live out the faith. Yet most of the interpreters I read felt that they were in fact unpacking the clear, undiminished truth of what Christianity should be.

No matter where I looked (from Jerusalem to Rome to Wittenberg to Cincinnati), someone laid claim to superior credentials for interpreting the faith...

...and I still had to decide between them for myself.

For myself...

Which made me ask: who am I? What are my credentials for evaluating the claims made by biblical writers, scholars, theologians, Church Fathers, clerics, and Popes? How do I make judgments about God, theology, biblical interpretations, sin, the mission of the church, and salvation? When do I know that it is the Holy Spirit leading me into "all truth" and not my own human subjectivity? How do I avoid the mistake of adopting a belief system because it makes me feel better rather than the one that is actually true?

Can I ever gain enough spiritual acumen, education in the fields of scholarship (grad school was one attempt to gain those for myself), breadth in the possible answers to make a sound judgment, not just one I hope to hear? And does every person really have to make these decisions every time they convert, for all of history (I couldn't help but think about the dicey mission field where we couldn't even agree on whether or not Muslims had to give up fasting for Ramadan as new Christians... how would those new believers decide who to trust as authoritative in issues like baptism, church hierarchy, the role of women and so on?)? Is this really the way Christianity is supposed to work, each person weighing 2000 years of tradition, scholarship and theology to reach a decision?

Worse: Is there, in fact, an answer to be found (even if this is the cumbersome process through which every Christian must go)?

That question could drive a monkey mad. The crux of the issue boiled down to this for me: On what grounds could I trust someone else's spiritual judgment? What qualified me to make that judgment? I felt wholly unqualified.

In being pressed up against my limits - my education, my western background, my gender, my experiences living abroad, my Christian formation and experiences, my affluence, my nationality, my personal history and baggage, my native language, English (not Koine, not Hebrew, not Aramaic), my tendency to lean toward absolutes, my anxiety about not making God into what I wanted God to be, my need to be right and not make mistakes, my awareness that the Bible was written in a social and cultural context that I knew little about, my fear of hell - if these limits influenced how I understood God, theology, the Bible and the tradition, wouldn't similar factors also influence everyone else: biblical writers, pastors, Bible experts, Ph.D.s, the Popes, Bishops, Luther, modern day theologians, St. Paul, denominational leaders, the emergent movement, the Christian next door and anyone else claiming to know what the Bible teaches...?

And if it is true that everyone suffers from the limits of social-location, how might these limits create interpretations of the faith that cause ripples through hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years of mistaken judgments (e.g. patriarchy, authoritarianism, contentiousness with science, mistaking myth for history, justification for slavery, cultural imperialism, and so on)? Is it possible that the essentials were also time and culture bound as well?

We all know that the church (collective, individuals, RCC, Protestant local expressions) has plenty of mistakes from which they've repented over the 2000 years of church history.... what makes us think anyone has it right this time? The Protestant Reformation is perhaps the biggest example of the belief that the Church could perpetuate wrong theology in the name of the Holy Spirit's guidance. Whether or not you agree with the reformers, the impulse to correct the tradition supported (at least to me) the idea that we're all making judgments about what qualifies as God's message to us, all the time. Apparently the idea of what constitutes salvation, faith, Christian essentials is not static and has never been.

So then I wondered, how right do we need to be?

Claiming the Holy Spirit as the authenticating power behind an interpretive authority did little to resolve the disparity between authorities. Was the Holy Spirit leading and guiding the Pope or individual believers who read the Bible or the local denominational leaders, or...? I still had to decide which claim to the Spirit's power I was going to trust.

I hit a real low when I admitted that every person is limited by conscious and unconscious constraints that decidedly impact how Christianity is interpreted, presented and understood... and that I had those same limits in operation when I read and examined each of their positions. It was the ultimate vicious circle.... which led to a total breakdown in my faith.

As I faced my crisis of faith, I comforted myself with one refrain. One of my online dialog partners had left Christianity completely as a result of a similar search for truth two years earlier. She emailed me one day to let me know that she could no longer believe in Jesus as the Son of God. I had been truly devastated. I spent those next two years telling myself that as long as I didn't go as far as "Jane" in my questioning process, I'd be okay. My entire goal from start to finish had been to hang onto faith, to hold onto Jesus in spite of the contradictions, the ambiguities and the erring "certainties" I kept encountering.

And I did, for awhile...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

So You Think You Can Dance...

Two thoughts:

1. Nigel showed us how to be compassionate in the midst of tragedy.... You say that you're thinking of the ones who've lost family and loved ones and of those who are still waiting for bad news. You stop your show to tell them that they are in our hearts and minds.... that's it.

2. Dominic coined a new term tonight to explain break dancing with a plastic patio chair. Apparently a Korean breaker "evolutionized" the move.