John Bennison Words and Ways | 2016 | November

Something Old, Something New: How a Non-Theist Celebrates “The Holidays”

site_happy-thanksgiving14A pdf version of this commentary can be found here.

The Thanksgiving holiday in America is a national observance that has been traditionally framed in a religious context. Whether you like roast turkey or not, one is expected to be thankful for it, and express one’s gratitude to the “Giver” of all good gifts.

For those of us who have enough, or more than enough, it’s all sufficiently palatable; if not theologically problematic to sing the old standard hymn in the face of arms-length hunger and poverty.

God, our Maker, doth provide, For our wants to be supplied.
Come to God’s own temple come, Raise the song of harvest home.

The Christmas holidays are even trickier for those who give even a token nod to “the reason for the season;” with a doctrinal claim that a theistic god-being somehow enters into the human story; rather than being an anthropomorphic creation emerging out of our own human imagination. But that’ll be Part II.

Because it was the prescribed scripture reading for the Thanksgiving Day observance in a liturgical tradition I led for many years of ministry, the passage in Matthew’s gospel about not fretting about the basic necessities of life itself was always reassuring to those who were already among the favored, blessed ones. (Gospel of  – Jesus Seminar coding: Jesus might have said something like it (pink), probably not (gray), definitely the words of the gospel writer’s community, not Jesus (black).

Don’t fret about your life – what you’re going to eat and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there? Take a look at the birds of the sky: they don’t plant or harvest, or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re worth more than they, aren’t you? So don’t fret. Don’t say, ‘What am I going to eat?’ or ‘What am I going to dink?’ or ‘What am I going to wear?’ These are all things pagans seek. [Matthew 6:25-34]

In addition to the gospel writer’s agenda to usurp the original voice print of Jesus and demarcate the believers and non-believers, those earlier words in this passage that are more or less attributed to Jesus – or at least are Jesus-like – certainly employ that intimate, familial language of a father / child relationship in such pictorial terms that it may be difficult for a lot of folks to steer clear of the literal, in favor of the literary form of metaphorical expression being used.

Thinking about what I might share, and we might best explore in this Pathway’s gathering, I realized there’s something old, and something new. Earlier this week I remembered something I’d forgotten! It was that realization I’d had after about a dozen years in parish ministry that — after observing the same holiday, year after year, with the same texts, the same ‘traditional’ hymns, etc – there didn’t seem to be anything new or more to say. Except, of course, for the little hiccup that a traditionally theistic notion of an all-sufficient giver of all good gifts does not square with reality.

So what else is new? And, what’s part of the original past that could be new again?

Pathways Faith Community is a band of so-called “progressive thinkers” in the Christian faith tradition. After a decade with this little “experiment,” we’ve come ‘round to this observance for a sufficient number of years now that we’ve ended up with some rather established routines and repeated traditions of our own: a loosely-repeated liturgical framework, followed by a shared meal, an annual “gift” exchange where we simply give all our gifts away again, etc. There’s no organizational, ecclesiastical, hierarchical infrastructure, with buildings or budgets. We’re not disorganized, just un-organized

Come to think of it, it sounds a little like what little we know of that early pre-Christian community of followers of a dead-and-gone Galilean sage known only as people of the Way …

The other thing those earlier followers did was to tell and retell the best stories they could remember; and leave to us post-modern followers centuries later those words scholars today embrace as being the most authentic likely ever uttered by the historical Jesus. Most notably are the parables and similitudes Jesus told that – more often than not – had no religious jingoism whatsoever attached to them.

This is all by way of saying I’m reiterating a story I’ve told before; and retelling it for a couple reasons. First – and in my honest opinion — it’s not only the best thing I ever wrote (or preached) about a Thanksgiving observance. It’s also because there’s nothing explicitly ‘religious’ about it at all.

Second, I have an update and post-script to the old story, based on something new that happened a few weeks ago. Return for the Postscript after enjoying the story here.

 

Postscript

The original story was published over six years ago, but a few weeks ago I received an unexpected email from someone unknown to me named Stephen. Apparently, Stephen is a kind of internet sleuth and genealogist and passed along an update he thought I’d appreciate:

I read your note regarding your early days at Cranbrook, mid term and final history exams, with William Robert U’sellis and your further query as to his location.  To answer your question, Robert U’sellis passed away on August 15, 2011 in Huntington Beach, California.  However, his widow Elisabeth Maleen U’sellis (88 yrs) is still on the “grass” and resides in Orange County.

My research confirms your thoughts, he left Cranbrook to help establish the Athenian School.  Thereafter, in 1971, founded the American Community School of Beirut and was Headmaster.

I hope you find these tidbits a reply to your letter of gratitude sent to Robert and your Thanksgiving tradition to mention one thing for which you are grateful.

I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. U’sellis.  My research stems from the creation of a new branch on the family tree due to my nephew’s marriage to Robert’s grand daughter last year.  

Elisabeth Maleen U’sellis now resides with her daughter son-in-law and grandchildren at … Huntington Beach.  You were only a stones through away when he lived in Berkeley and Sausalito.  

I hope the information contained below will assist in your endeavor and best wishes for a pleasant holiday season.

Stephen M.

 

So I’ve continued the best Thanksgiving tradition I can imagine this year, and sent Maleen a Thanksgiving greeting this year:

Dear Mrs. Usellis,

I was a former student of your late husband, many, many years ago at Cranbrook School for Boys. Only recently did I learn of Robert’s death in 2011, and I simply wanted to share with you and the rest of Robert’s family an expression of appreciation that I regret I was unable to do earlier.

While I regret not locating Robert before his death to share this little remembrance from so long ago with him, I’m genuinely grateful in this holiday season to be able to convey some measure of my appreciation with his family.

With my sincere best regards, etc.

 

© 2016 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive go to

http://wordsnways.com

http://thechristianprogressive.com

 

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The God of Our Own Creation: Confessions of a Non-theist, Part II

A pdf version of this commentary can be found here.

Previously, at Pathways: A Recap: Balancing Head & Heart …

In Part I of this Series, “Away with God!,” we began to consider our conventional, cultural notion of “God” with a capital ‘G.’ This kind of ‘god’ is a theistic one. It is commonly assumed and understood to be about a being, distinct and apart from our selves. It is a “Supreme Being” who is at once transcendent; but who personally intervenes occasionally in what is otherwise intended by the same creator god to be the natural order of the all things, known and unknown.

What kind of a god is this, I’ve asked? More importantly for me these days, what kind of human conflicts result from such a human construct of our own mind’s imagination? [this assumes one rejects the notion some supreme being planted the idea of It’s existence in our mortal minds.]

The issue that is now front and center over my concern with this kind of thinking is how it has resulted in such exclusive claims in various forms and religious traditions; with adamant fervor, insisting on distinguishing orthodoxy from heresy, true believers from infidels. An example that should be familiar to our circle:

In the Christian faith tradition, there are the mainliners, who are good, God-fearing folk who simply accept the belief system handed down to them.

  • There are hardliners who take things so literally they can sometimes literally become “radical extremists.”
  • There are fundamentalists who are quite sincere, if not overly zealous; but are generally harmless, unless they become hardliners.
  • There are evangelicals of different sorts; a widely diverse group that range from guns-and-Bible social conservatives who wield their own electoral voting block, to bleeding heart social progressives who actually take the ethical teachings of Jesus seriously to heart.
  • And finally there are ascetics, a fringe group who, by all outward appearances, live in an alternate universe.

But the one thing they all seem to share in common is the notion of a theistic kind of a god; with a physical being-ness surprisingly not unlike our own! Theists hold to the notion of a “Supreme Being” to which they wistfully accord all the power and perfection from which we fall imperfectly short. Along with such thinking comes the inherent desire to curry favor with the “One” who can bestow such blessings.

 

The Misbegotten Notion of Special Favor

We currently find ourselves in the midst of the political conventions of the two major parties in our country. Speeches are framed and delivered along sniping sectarian lines; presumably in terms of diametrically opposite positions on just about everything, but claiming exclusive possession of the truth in each case.

But time and again in both the convention that has just concluded — as well as upcoming one this week – we’ll hear the same formulaic conclusion to practically every rousing speech: “… and may God bless the United States of America.”

It is so often repeated as to have become such a presumed throw-away line that I wonder if anyone stops to ask what in the world does that mean? Is it the same kind of favorable treatment sought not only by political opponents, but our nation’s competitors on the global stage; let alone our enemies who are just as fervently faithful in their own way of invoking favor with this one, true God?

If one were pressed, I suspect an explanation would fall along the lines of belief in a constructed covenantal relationship existing between a “Supreme Being” and, well, the rest of us. It may somehow suggest that our own righteous behavior and right beliefs — along with, perhaps, some experienced diplomacy, or artful deal making – will result in a better outcome when we invoke and curry favor with the One who presumably holds all the cards (e.g. “God shed his grace on thee …”)

As priest and pastor for many years, my primary role was to bless or absolve everybody (and sometimes everything) with whom I came in contact. I’d bless babies and corpses, baptismal candidates, supplicants and penitents, homes and boats, dogs and cats. You name it, I’d bless it. I was the human conduit through which God’s favor or forgiveness was graciously bestowed. In most cases, the outward projection of such an action – waving the sign of the cross in front of eager recipients – was typically understood as such, I’m sure.

However, there has also been a long-standing alternative within this same tradition that has sought to give voice to a human experience that looks within – rather than without, in our human inventions and projections of ‘god,’ when trying to describe that same experience. So often I wished that – instead of imposing the sign of the cross of Christ front of the recipient – I would have simply placed the palm of my hand over their heart; acknowledging the true blessing that already resides within, and hopefully stirred up once again.

Naming such a ‘god’ does not require deification or external objectification. The human spirit (geist) is a sufficiently holy spirit, in and of itself; and in unity with all else. It is akin, I think, to the monism to which Lloyd Geering refers in his book, “Rethinking God.”

What are the implications in this kind of evolutionary (or progressive) frame of thought?

The exciting possibilities of a non-theist’s vantage point provides more than simply a negation of theism; that human invention that is inherently riddled with its own self-contradictions. Instead, non-theism gives a fresh lens through which to understand and once again embrace some of the old standard tenets of belief (e.g. creation, redemption, etc, and even ) in a dynamic and tenable new way. This could include a new understanding of old, readily presumed notions of creation, or redemption, or even the use of a salvific “Christ” figure. What kind of Christianity would that be?

This is what I’d like to invite us to consider further.

 

© 2016 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive go to

http://wordsnways.com

http://thechristianprogressive.com

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Away with God! – Confessions of a Non-theist

A pdf version of this commentary can be found here.

I pray God to rid me of God.”
        — Meister Eckhart (1260-c1328)—“Non-dual” Christian mystic / sage

Prologue

For those who have known me for any length of time, who have traveled alongside me as we have shared life’s journey and questions of faith in a shared religious tradition, you know that I have always taken a progressive or evolving approach to all such matters. To some, that may have seemed a little strange; given the significant number of professional years I spent in the ordained ministry; presumably as an apologist for the entrenched or standard orthodoxy (“right thinking”) of one particular religious tradition.

In graduate studies over 4 decades ago, I theorized about the notion of cyclical expansion to all our explorations; where we can incorporate some the traditions of the past, leave other parts behind, and remain open to new, revelatory discoveries; either of our own devising, and/or as gifts gratefully acknowledged and received. In addition –while I have never believed or insisted there was only way to entertain or confess certain religious beliefs – I have always believed in the inherent danger of such thinking.

While it is apparent that religiously-infused thinking and speaking seems an inevitable and unavoidable human endeavor, it is when we distort such myth-based thinking and the metaphorical language used to express such thinking a finite and literal way, that what is presumed to be life-enhancing becomes instead something that is not only deadly-serious, but lethal.

As my thinking has consequently progressed and evolved, I have reached a point of reflection that we have come to another fork in the road; where for too long the employ of religious rhetoric and practice has become so irrevocably distorted and misused, as to make its further usefulness ineffective, dangerous and destructive. This includes the word and notion so bandied about, ‘god.’

[Note: what I colloquially refer to as a fork in the road, others more sophisticated than I have called the Second Axial age. More about that as we proceed.]

The starting place for me in this next part of the journey begins with a re-thinking of the commonly assumed understanding and use of theism, and the ‘god’ represented by such a notion. This commentary draft is the beginning of what I intend to be a larger and far more complex conversation.

 

Confessions of a Non-Theist

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you” is the standard condolence message reiterated each time disaster strikes; such as the most natural disaster — this week it was flooding in West Virginia — or the horrific act of human violence in Orlando just a week ago that has become numbingly routine.

The father of a wounded survivor of that latest and worst mass shooting so far tearfully related to a cable news reporter how he told his son his wounded son that he had evidently been spared by “God” for a greater purpose; and that the boy’s task now was to discover what that was.

As a father myself, my heart ached for the man who sought to make sense out of such senselessness. But with all such explanations, the inconvenient lingering question regarding those who were not spared the unspeakable consequences of human volition was left unanswered. So what? Their lives had no hidden purpose, yet to be discovered? If so, what kind of a god is this?

One answer is the one provided by a survivor of another natural disaster just two weeks ago. When Rebecca Vitsmun from More, Oklahoma heard the warning a tornado was imminent and headed straight towards her and her infant child, she climbed into their bathtub and pulled a mattress over their heads. Instinctively, she then changed her mind, grabbed the kid, jumped in the car, sped onto a nearby freeway and headed in the opposite direction from the impending whirlwind as fast as she could. After the storm had passed, she returned to what remained of her home, with a bathtub filled only with debris.

A CNN reporter on-scene interviewed the survivor. After hearing the harrowing tale, they remarked, “You gotta thank the Lord. Do you thank the Lord?” Taken aback, the woman smiled and replied simply, “I’m an atheist.”

Whether one believes, or doesn’t believe, in such a culturally-conventional notion of “God” with a capital ‘G,’ it is a theistic notion and invention. It is about a “Supreme Being,” who is typically understood to be transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal and unchanging; but who – at the same time – is believed, hoped or pleaded with to personally intervenes occasionally in what is otherwise intended by this same creator-god to be the natural and transitory order of everything other than this god.

But what kind of a god is this? More importantly, why does it matter? It matters because of the state of human affairs in which we find ourselves, time and again; but nowadays with an even more heightened sense of awareness about the extremist thoughts, actions and reactions in which we increasingly feel engulfed by religiously-inspired, religiously-infused, religiously-motivated, religiously-excused extremism. And all based on what I suggest is a theistic notion of however one would attempt to define and understand a humanly-imagine and devised notion of the term ‘god.’

It is theism that has resulted in the kind of contrived human constructs that routinely and historically result in such adamant — even “radicalized” — belief systems that typically insist on demarcating orthodoxy from heresy, and true believers from infidels. Each theistic-based faith tradition contains within it their own scriptures considered to be divinely inspired, condemn non-believers, and condone their violent demise (both the Bible and the Koran, for example, contain such sanctioned passages). It sets up the we/they dichotomy. If only they believed as we believe what has been divinely revealed to us, then we wouldn’t have a problem, now would we?

If, for example, a former Muslim has a change of heart, converts to Christianity, sincerely accepts Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, and becomes a Presbyterian like Donald Trump, might not the candidate — not unlike St. Peter at the Pearly Gates — rescind his idea of a ban on everyone he’s somehow able to figure out is a Muslim who used to hate us but doesn’t anymore, and allow them to enter his country?

While this is the kind of extremist (and theistic) thinking that can result from such nonsense, a-theism (or its cop-out cousin, agnosticism “I-don’t-know-what-I-don’t-know) is only the flip side of the same dead-end debate that goes nowhere. In between theism and a-theism, there have been many other ways throughout the course of human history humans have tried to create a god of our own imagining; if not in our own image.

Before there were humanly-devised religious constructs — let alone scientific inquiry that should have dispensed with all such long-lingering pre-scientific notions – there was, within each culture, a body of knowledge that explained otherwise inexplicable, but natural, phenomena. The forces of nature were imagined to be gods who displayed human personalities that – wouldn’t you know it – seemed an awful lot like us!

The god of thunder was an angry god to be feared. The god of springtime was one to be worshipped for the gift of rejuvenation and regeneration. And, when humans couldn’t figure out exactly what they might attribute something, there were always assumed to be gods of inscrutable mystery! The tales that arose to understand and explain such phenomena were mythic in nature; and fully credible (believable) as such.

There was pantheism and panentheism. Such a pantheon of gods constituted polytheism. In addition, there evolved other variations, i.e. deism; sort of a nature-based form of atheism, rejecting revelation and finding anything deemed sacred to be found in observable natural phenomena.

But because each culture had its own version or variation of this universal approach to humans striving to understand the world around them, certain tribes came to claim there was one god that not only happened to be their god (henotheism); but that theirs was the “God of gods, and Lord of lords.” This, for example, is the imagined god of the twelve tribes of Israel, who establishes a unique covenant relationship: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Instead of many gods reflecting and expressing an understanding of all the different human emotions and experiences, there was now one god (monotheism) that incorporated all those previously-distinct (and often contradictory) attributes we imagine in a biblical deity who creator, redeemer, sanctifier, judge and jury; who is both angry and wrathful sometimes, compassionate and merciful other times, but always present, yet out of reach unless we repent and mend our ways; or rely on grace to save us since we can’t really save ourselves!

If that sounds a little bit like biblically-based orthodox Christianity, you get my point.

In his books with such titles as, Christianity Without God and Reimagining God, author Lloyd Geering argues orthodox Christianity, when examined is not really theistic anyway. Christianity, he believes, should instead not only be seen as humanistic, but also as a rejection of theism. More about this in more depth another time.

But he, and others of his ilk and persuasion have been a fringe group of voices in what would typically be considered mainstream contemporary Christianity. Ever since the infamous “death of God” debates a half century ago (the title used by John A.T. Robinson, or Thomas Altizer’s The Gospel of Christian Atheism), there have been biblical scholars, thinkers and theologians who have attempted to call out scriptural literalists as heretics (Jack Spong’s numerous writings, for example) and propositioned in various ways a different way to define a different notion of “God” that does not distinguish whatever is deemed sacred from secular, good from evil, or divisiveness and otherness from union, harmony and wholeness.

This is not, however, an exclusively modern or post-modern phenomenon. The Christian faith tradition has long held within in those generally-unwelcome voices of so-called mystics and other presumed oddballs who observed and borne witness to the essential dangers and limitations of theism as a framework for religious thought. I believe it is something Meister Eckhart had in mind when he sought to be rid of a certain ‘god.’

How then can we speak of what we can only imagine, acknowledging the reality that is it is all only up to our own imagination. This is the premise upon which I begin this series and conclude Part I. Who, or what, is the god of our own imagining? Our own creation?

In the absence of a better label – and until something more comes along in this evolutionary thought process – this non-theist will confess and share what’s left. And what offers the possibility of so much more.

 

© 2016 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive go to

http://wordsnways.com

http://thechristianprogressive.com

read more

Reconciling False Divisions, Part III

Third in a Series exploring the shared Abrahamic roots of three faith traditions

 Part III: Christian Roots

We began this 3-part series with a hopeful assumption that three great faith traditions arouse from a common source; namely, the legendary figure of Abraham. and therefore, we shared more in common than whatever differences – be they real or false – may divide us.

In Part I, a jovial retired rabbi shared an evening with us, and taught us a simple song he’d composed, entitled Kulay Hai v’Ulay” (“All this and only perhaps.”) A liberal-minded Jew who still follows much of the ritual observances of his tradition, his open-ended approach to all things “human” was disarming and charming.

In Part II of this series, a Muslim shared with us as much as he could of his faith; particularly noting the many similarities in the stories both the Bible and Quran share in common. Exactly how each tradition reinterprets and applies those stories to their own faith story constitute real differences. Whether, and how, those differences necessarily constitute real or false divisions, is the deeper question we acknowledged the need to explore.

As we turn briefly to the Christian tradition of these three “Abrahamic” faiths, two points can be made upfront. First, Christianity – no matter its varied and diverse forms in which it subsequently evolved – must be understood as originating as a Jewish sect; out of which all that followed emerged.

Second, the common thread that provides continuity with that earlier faith tradition is the shared Abrahmic roots; and the central theme of progression, from a past and into an unknown future. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. … 2Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” (Hebrews 11:8, 12)

Whether or not Abraham was a real historical figure — or a legendary composite figure that emerged as a cultural formation that any notion of “God” was most meaningfully revealed or expressed in a unifying whole — the result was mono-theism. Put completely in the vernacular, the whole ball of wax was seen as the sum of all those various, attributable parts of what we humans choose to call “divine;” divine being something other, something more than we could presumably conjure for ourselves, and our own human imaginations.

For the Jew, being seen as genealogical descendants of Abraham was of penultimate importance. For gentile Christians, being “spiritual” descendants of Abraham was – as we’ll see in the Pauline texts we’ll read — the best we could do. For the Muslim, simply placing Abraham in the long line of prophets, culminating with Mohammad, was sufficient.

But of all the stories told and retold about Abraham – both within our separate, sacred texts and without – the original and most oft repeated story is the “Call.” It is the sense of summoning for Abraham to leave home and hearth; setting off to who-knows-where, with little more than a hope and a yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of something yet to be revealed and fulfilled. While the scriptures are often regarded with settled, even rigid permanence, the summons to venture forth is, in many respects, the biblical story in toto.

Albeit, very real differences of interpretation and application would subsequently arise about that call within each tradition; most often expressed in literal claims of exclusion. There would be a claim of being literal descendants for the Jew. For some Christians, there’d be the subsequent claim of a literal messiahship for a Galilean peasant sage named Jesus as the Son of God who would come to be regarded as being co-eternal and one in the same as God.

And the Muslim, there’d be a claim that those inspired teachings that became what is called the Quran, and were received in Arabic by an illiterate Mohammad in a cave early in the 7th century CE, were the literal word of God. But where might a non-literalist truly stand?

At this juncture, and not unlike that ancient figure of Abraham, we seem to find ourselves standing with our feet of clay and our head in the stars. Perhaps the important question to ask and explore is whether these very real differences are all based upon very limited, very human, very finite and self-imposed limitations. And, as a result, are those resulting divisions made “false” by our own doing? And if so, do they betray the very meaning of the original call of Abraham to move beyond one’s place of self?

With this in mind then, how might a so-called “progressive” Christian who has moved beyond any usefulness to the notion of a theistic god consider the implications and ramifications of a non-theist exploring the underlying (“mono”) oneness of monotheism; without the encumbrance of theism?

This is the new path that beckons.

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