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Playing Favorites: The Problem with Blessings and Curses

Synopsis: “Have a blest day?” What in this world does that mean? Better luck or good karma, instead of bad?In the ancient world, denoting someone as “blest” was a way of expressing a deity’s special favor towards that person. If that sounds quaint, there are still plenty of people today who believe they can curry favor or improve the odds of achieving more blessings than curses; while politicians routinely conclude their speeches by invoking the Almighty to bless the good ‘ol USA. There’s just one problem. It doesn’t work.  A pdf copy of the commentary below can also be read or printed  here.

 

“Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet.”
      Quote attributed to Roger Miller, Bob Dylan and/or Bob Marley

 

Preface

Exchanging perfunctory pleasantries with a bank teller the other day, he ended our conversation and transaction by telling me to “have a blest day.” He might have said, “Enjoy your day,” or the ubiquitous “Have a good one;” which always leaves me wondering “one” what? But being the word merchant that I am, who’s prone to dissect the meaning of the phrases we use, I walked away wondering what in the world he really meant!

 

Blessings & Curses

Paula White, a prosperity gospel preacher who is part of Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council says God has laid claim to the “first fruits” of your life and mine. “When you honor this principle,” she says, “it provides the foundation and structure for God’s blessings and promises in your life. When you apply this, everything comes in divine alignment for His plan and promises for you. When you don’t honor it, whether through ignorance or direct disobedience, there are consequences.” Uh-oh.

Nowadays, of course, the first fruits come in the form of cold, hard cash. And Paula urges it be sent to the Almighty diviner of your life in care of Paula White Ministries. You’ve heard this before, right?

Earlier this month, in the star-studded Santa Barbara suburb of Montecito, mudslides destroyed multi-million dollar estates and buried 16 people; including a toddler and a teen who are missing and presumed dead. It was in that affluent community that I actually got my first official paid gig in the ministry, serving a posh parish over forty years ago. I wonder if I failed to mention in my early preaching days the providential warning Paula White now peddles. I further wonder if those who recently perished there withheld the first fruits of their riches?

Almost simultaneous to the natural disaster in SoCal, but on the other side of the world in Manila, the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of religious devotees took part in an annual procession lasting 22 hours; carrying a centuries-old life size icon of a dark-skinned Jesus through the streets. The ebony statue was originally crafted in Mexico, and then brought to the Philippines in 1606.

Each year, barefoot worshippers frantically climb over each other to kiss, touch, or rub bits of cloth on the statue. Known as the Black Nazarene. It is believed to have miraculous healing powers; capable of bestowing special blessings on countless throngs of the poor for whom life has not been very favorable.

The scene seemed reminiscent of a passage in Luke’s gospel that’s the set-up line for what is commonly referred to as Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, and the delivery of that version of the blessed-are “beatitudes.”

And everyone in the crowd tried to touch him since power would flow out from him and heal them all.” [Luke 6:19]

This time, I wonder what might happen if a giant rabbits foot were strapped to the cross to rub; instead of an image of a Jesus who – by all historical accounts – wasn’t black, and hasn’t been around for nearly two millennia.

And finally in this same month, in Washington, DC, the current occupant of the White House predictably concluded his State of the Union address with all the presidential authority he could muster, by invoking God’s blessing on these United States of America; which he – Donald J. Trump, that is – is making great again.

The dissonance in the last two examples, regarding the dispensation of blessings could not be more stark; with Trump being the living, breathing embodiment of everything that is wholly anathema to the teachings and life-example of that 1st century CE Galilean spirit-sage known as Jesus of Nazareth.

So, have a blest day? What in this world does that mean? Better luck or good karma, instead of bad?

 

Currying Favor

If life is a mixed bag of taking the bad along with the good things that happen, human beings still seem to have a penchant for a perpetual search to explain why the bad things have to happen at all. Why? Because if we think we can find the elusive answers to the reasons why, then it is hoped that such an explanation might provide a proscription; so that in the future those bad things might never happen again. Instead, only manifold blessings will descend like manna from heaven.

Meanwhile, we live in a kind of mild terror that we still can’t control what happens, let alone explain it. So maybe it’s a good idea to hedge our bets, and curry favor where we can find it, or contrive it.

The late American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, said every religion starts with the word “help.” That may be so, but I would quickly add we often then proceed to ask what kind of a supernatural being might exist to intercede on our behalf to forestall or save us from the natural, but unfortunate, order of things.

So here’s the question: What is there – if anything – out there that can bestow such blessings and withhold such curses? What is there — besides you and me, and the space that exists between us — that could bring us as close as the com-union with one another on the one hand. Or, on the other hand, create a gulf between us and our would-be good fortune that, Lord knows, these days is as wide as the Grand Canyon?

We know from human experience that between us there can be love or hate; empathy and compassion, or mild indifference or disdain; judgment and condemnation, or the charity and grace of unmerited and unconditional acceptance; and the chance for forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal. These are all those virtuous or not so virtuous attributes one might accord an unknown, imagined deity; from which such blessings or curses might presumably flow. But in truth, such a doxology actually reflects all the aspects of our own human experience. It’s little wonder then how we came to end up with the idea of a whole pantheon of gods that reflect such attributes; or at least one that represents the whole ball of wax.

That’s why I’ve come to realize more than ever that the inscrutable question of why there is good and evil in the world is so often answered in a neat and tidy package by the irascible types who are all too happy to provide an explanation that is wholly inadequate in the end. This can range from the con artists and charlatans like Paula White to those formulating catechisms of long-established dogmas and doctrines that represent the vast bulk of orthodox belief systems.

You may ask, why are there so many people willing to fall for it, accept or believe what is not in the least bit credible? Perhaps it’s because folks just don’t seem to like the alternative that there is no answer. So get used to it, and get over it.

 

Blessings from whom, and for whom?

In the canonical gospels of the Christian faith tradition, Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the familiar “blessed are …” beatitudes. The first few beatitudes that refer to those who are poor, hungry and weeping are considered by many biblical scholars to likely be as close to the “voice print” of the historical Jesus as we can probably get.

Congratulations (blest be) to the poor in spirit!
Heaven’s domain belongs to them.
Congratulations (blest be) to those who grieve!
They will be consoled …
Congratulations (blest be) to those who hunger and thirst for justice!
They will have a feast. (Mt. 5:3-4,6)

In the ancient world, denoting someone as “blest” was a way of expressing a deity’s special favor. The Jesus Seminar scholar’s translation above replaces this traditional word, derived from Latin, with its modern equivalent: “Congratulations!” But congratulating those who would otherwise be regarded as accursed runs contrary to the common assumption that it is those who enjoy wealth, prosperity and happiness that are the blest, right?

As such, such congratulatory proclamations to those presumed cursed represent the paradoxical reversal so often found in the teachings of Jesus. And, in so doing, it nullifies the conventional notion of favoritism, and the futility of doing whatever we do in our vain attempts to curry favor.

Congratulatory proclamations to those presumed cursed represent the paradoxical reversal so often found in the teachings of Jesus. And, in so doing, it nullifies the conventional notion of favoritism, and the futility of doing whatever we do in our vain attempts to curry favor.

Luke’s version of the beatitudes not only adds the set-up about those crushing crowds straining to receive a favorable miracle, but goes on to include the addition of the opposite “curses”

Damn (curse be) you rich!
You already have your consolation.
Damn (curse be) you who are well fed now!
Damn (curse be) you who laugh now!
You will learn to weep and grieve. (Luke 6:24-26)

The addition of the curses are the work of the early faith community living in the hope of a future that would set right those inequities that are still clearly apparent. But the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel gives us only blessings. And they are blessings bestowed upon those who are already more than sufficiently cursed.

Alongside so much of Jesus’ teaching that included constant references contrasting the way things are to the way things out to be — or would be in some restorative future age often referred to as the “reign of God – it seems there has also always been the Lukan tradition and interpretation of the blest and the cursed, the sheep and goats; between those who may have it good now, but will pay for it in the end; when those who are persecuted now will get their just reward, and the persecutors will get their just desserts.

Ironically enough, the obvious delay of such a final reckoning (parousia) has certainly tested the patience of the faithful; to the extent that there have always been throngs willing to clamor and claw their way past each other to curry favor and have another heaping of blessings; and with the fervent hope of fewer curses.

 

A Personal Reflection

For a number of years, I spent much of my professional working life as a preacher, parish priest and pastor. Whether I had more sheep than goats amidst the flock, I could not tell. But as an ordained person, I was given authority by the power of the established ecclesiastical hierarchy to be an intermediary; to bestow (or withhold) blessings that were presumably from “God.” Some folks wouldn’t miss a Sunday, and a Sunday wouldn’t be complete for some folks without receiving a blessing.

One Summer, many years ago now, while I was vacationing in that same southern California community that was so recently devastated by mudslides, I got an emergency phone call. The teenage son of a family who was loosely affiliated with the parish had been thrown from a speeding car on a dangerous road in our community and killed.

I raced home the same day, and arrived at the local mortuary at dusk to find the father sitting stone-faced and tearful in front of an open casket with the body that was already cold and stiff. The apple of his eye was gone. As I sat down beside him, Joe turned to me and said, “I know we haven’t been very good churchgoers.”

Holding back my own tears, I immediately replied, “But you know that’s not the reason Kevin is dead.”

Whenever I made the sign of the cross with the swipe of my hand, I never likened the gesture to warding off some evil curse, or something akin to rubbing a rabbit’s foot. Because, if that had been the intention and assumption of either the one pronouncing it or the congregant receiving it, it frankly hadn’t worked very well. Collectively, the flock continued to live lives that seemed equally blest and cursed.

Instead, the blessing gesture was a reminder of the imprimatur, the stamp of a cross first imposed in an initiatory rite intended to lay out before the candidate a certain way of life to be lived amidst all the blessings and curses that come our way. And to do so without some supernatural power playing favorites. It was meant to impress upon the recipient the shared gospel truths enumerated in those beatitudes about the poor, hungry and weeping who were both blest and cursed.

The blessing gesture was a reminder of a certain way of life to be lived amidst all the blessings and curses that come our way. And to do so without some supernatural power playing favorites.

Conclusion, for now …

The other day, I dropped by an elderly neighbor’s house. I’ve been helping her coordinate some needed maintenance repairs on the home she’s lived in for the last sixty years. In the course of my visits, our brief chats have digressed into discussing politics, the news of the day, and the cursed state of affairs. On several occasions, she’s also volunteered her thoughts and disbeliefs about conventional religion, the existence of God, and the like. Because she was previously unaware I’d spent many years evolving in my own thinking on such matters, I offered to share a few of my own written thoughts on the subject.

So, it happened to be chilly, damp and raining a few days ago when I knocked on her door again to drop off printed copies of some commentaries I’d written this last year. “Damn,” I said, as she let me in. “It’s COLD out there!”

Bundled in layers of clothes but still shivering, Barbara thanked me profusely for the gift I’d brought her. She then went on to explain how drafty her house still was; even after all the things that’d been done to try to warm it up. We briefly discussed a long list of possible options.

Then she paused, gave a big sigh, and simply said, “You know, at ninety-five, I just feel so blessed to have a roof over my head.”

“And on top of that,” I replied, with a wink and a smile, “a roof that doesn’t leak when it rains!”

As someone once put it, “Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet.”

 

© 2018 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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Adios, “Dios”

Saying Goodbye to “God” in Sacred Text

 

A pdf copy to read or print is here.

Prologue: What Good is “God”?

 

In a single week recently, a born-and-raised Mancunian (that is, a citizen of Manchester, England) who’d become “radicalized” by a religiously inspired ideology about God, infidels and heavenly rewards blew himself up at a pop concert; killing and maiming dozens in what a terrorist organization called a response to the “crusaders” in the West. Almost simultaneously in Cairo, a bus filled with Coptic Christians on pilgrimage is sprayed with machine gun fire by ISIS-inspired terrorists, killing 28. Headlines in subsequent weeks have brought with it a familiar, repetitious and numbing effect to the point of ambivalent fatigue.

One can argue how much of the carnage is due to geo-political-economic conflict and age-old ethnic/tribal warfare. Or how much of it is a perverse and distorted religious crusade. But in the lethal mix of these human thoughts and actions, there is undeniably a humanly concocted notion of “God.”

In my last commentary, I suggested we might do well at this point in the journey to consider leaving behind the theistic notion of “god.” But before doing so, one might ask how did all the different ideas and conceptualizations of however you define that term arise? Was it humanly generated, or was it something that was planted in our consciousness by some supernatural force?

If one is able to even entertain the unlikeliness of that second option and consider the first, it raises a larger question by its implications. If “god” is, in fact, an idea, a notion, an invention, or even a figment of human imagination, what does that mean for all those attributes once accorded such a deity — or deities — of one sort or another?

OMG! If we were to delete both our traditional Western word and notion of “god” – not just as a supernatural being, but all the substitutionary replacement ideas we’ve concocted so far — from both our speech and thinking, what are the implications for such things we ourselves know and experience to be true in our own human experience? I’m talking about conceiving of such things as love, compassion, mercy, grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, even absolution, redemption, and salvation.

Just try experimenting with this intriguing idea: If one deletes that one word that — I would suggest — has become so laden and problematic from the best ideas we’ve come up with to try to express and describe that very term, can those aforementioned attributes stand on their own without it?

For our first experiment, let’s begin by turning to a well-known and well-loved gospel text; revered as sacred in the Christian faith tradition. In subsequent experiments we’ll explore the implications for other cornerstones of Christian faith like prayer, sacramental rites and ritual, even worship.

This is not easy. It makes me wonder if we’re shaking the foundations. If we remove what has been envisioned to be the central pillar, will the walls come tumbling down, leaving only rubble and dust?

But then again, we are the dust of the earth, and we return to dust. So consider if is a heaven on earth isn’t sufficient to fill the void, both now and for this time of simply being?

Have we reached a place in this journey, where we can look back on the littered path of human history we have trod, and sincerely ask what good is “God?” Might it not be better to simply leave an empty space, if we can tolerate such an idea?

 

Saying Goodbye to “God” in Sacred Text

 

In our Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the word “god” is biblically understood in theistic terms. Mono-theistic to be exact. That is, there’s only one “god,” Yahweh; who is the supernatural creator of everything, oversees everything, and will redeem everything in the end for those who keep covenant and believe. Along the way, there are certain ways we are to behave in order for the Almighty to make good on His end of the deal. A risen Lord, Jesus Christ / Messiah, is not only the example set for us, to emulate as best we can in word and deed; but the living proof, as well. How exactly he is still “living” is a matter of unending theological debate. But the “Spirit” of Yahweh presumably blows where it wills to sustain us in the meanwhile. And if we fall short (which we will, and do), the unmerited gift of grace will pick us up again, thank God; despite all our worthlessness.

There you have it. In a single paragraph I’ve summarized mainline, orthodox (i.e. “right-believing”) Christianity in a nutshell!

However, the premise is also the problem, which I’ve already laid out previously; so I won’t reiterate here. Instead, I’ll rephrase the question again, asking how we might take all the best attributes accorded our deity in all our wildest imaginings – e.g., love, compassion, mercy, grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, even absolution, redemption, and even salvation / “resurrection” – and see just how well they might stand on their own in nothing more than the deepest and fullest human experience possible.

For our first experiment, we’ll reconsider a portion of text considered sacred; a parable likely told by the historical Jesus, before being passed along and eventually recorded in Luke’s gospel (Luke 24).

There was a father who had two sons. The firstborn was more conscientious, even industrious. The other was more adventurous, and probably a lot more fun to be around. But he didn’t want to stick around, and took off. When some of his life choices caught up with him, he returned to face the music, tail tucked between his legs.

Little did he know that from the day he’d left, his father had been waiting at the gate with an aching heart, keeping a hopeful vigil. He’d spent his days glancing unceasingly over his shoulder, until he might one day see a familiar silhouette come over the far hill. And then all customary expectations would be tossed aside.

The injured party would rush to the would-be penitent as fast as his old legs would carry him with the sweetest possible homecoming gifts being compassion and mercy. No judgment or quibbling over what’s fair could be heard, let alone any recrimination. Deaf to any contrition on the part of the one as good as dead, the father’s only capacity was unbridled joy and elation. Where the best the penitent could have hoped for was forgiveness and reconciliation, there wasn’t time for anything but celebration. Why?

Because, sometimes there’s something more important than justifiable resentment, or fairness, or even faithfulness. In which case, consider just how untypically irreligious this story really is.

But further, the backstory to this tale is a universal story. It’s about journey and homecoming. And I’ve never known a better description of “home” than that place you can return, and – no matter what — they won’t kick you out. You’ll never be disowned or forsaken, despite your undeserving.

It’s about being lost and found. It’s about estrangement and being as good as dead; then being raised up again to rejoin life among those living most abundantly. So it’s about resurrection. And grace. Grace as mediated by the love one human being is capable of mustering for another.

And noticeably absent in this very human story of redemption and making something and someone whole again, is the handiwork of any divine figure or deity.

It’s about a kind of resurrection and grace as mediated by the love one human being for another. And noticeably absent in this very human story of redemption and making someone whole again, is the handiwork of any divine figure or deity.

 

Now, I realize and readily acknowledge I’ve arbitrarily selected a portion of the Bible that’s probably easiest to make my point. But we also know the early Christian church’s tendency to have moved such parables through its predisposed inclination and interpretation to a familiar type of adaptation; making an allegory out of such tales.

It all quickly became code language, where “God” played the part of the father, and the younger son represented the gentiles in the early Christian movement; while the role of the recalcitrant and resentful older son was played by the Judeans or the Pharisees that were at odds with those early believers at the time the gospel was written, after the fact.

As a result of such an allegorical application, some biblical scholars have conjectured the original tale may not even have originated with Jesus; while others view more of the layered approach, where theological motivations have modulated what was once pure parable for their own purposes.

While my little experiment to see how well the parable of the prodigal can stand on its own without divine assistance or even religious “contamination,” other parables attributed to Jesus clearly include a religious tone, if not presence. Allegorical interpretation is almost unavoidable in the parable of the Sower. At the same time, it’s worth remembering the religious figures in the Good Samaritan parable are cast only in a negative light. However, consider how the Parable of the Lost Sheep, can function just as well without any divine intrusion as does the prodigal son story.

 

What of the “Reign of God”?

 

But how can the “kingdom” parables – the majority considered original to the Galilean sage – possibly be reconsidered without including “God?” “The kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “is like a lost coin, a mustard seed, buried treasure, a pearl of great value, etc.”

Consider the fact that such a “kingdom” (now more often translated “reign”) is, of course, a vision of the human imagination; as conceived by the sage who sketched it for us, and the evangelists who recorded it. Further, the kingdom parables are always a juxtaposition of the way things are, and ought to be.

These parables are similitudes; meaning, they describe what it would be like if only those things to which we aspire came to pass, and with the human capacity we possess to achieve them. Consider this is what Jesus implied when he spoke of such a kingdom as this being imminent, or at hand; if only we were to use the eyes we already had to see, and ears to hear.

Clearly the Bible is a compilation of different kinds of recorded stories, covenant histories, theological treatises, gospel proclamations, letters, poems and sagas, and even hallucinogenic dreams, that are all intended to reflect two great mono-theistic faith traditions.

Over the different centuries of its compilation, the biblical narrative is a story of mere mortals arguing with “God,” wrestling with “God,” straying from “God,” returning to “God,” invoking “God,” pleading to “God,” swearing allegiance to “God,” giving thanks to “God,” loving “God,” cursing “God,” fearing “God,” fleeing from “God,” and — on more than one occasion — just being utterly confounded by “God,” and exasperated with “God.”

If one then considers the possibility that the notion of “god” described in the whole biblical story is the creation of a human document borne out of human experiences, it seems plausible to perhaps take another look at all those stories, and recognize how familiar they are when we recount all the ways in which we have dealt and interacted with one another!

In place of the word “God” in the foregoing paragraph, try the word “you” or “me.” Delete a supernatural deity, and see what’s left, or whatever might be really missing.

Then, if we come to the realization that “god” is really imagined and meant to be the representation of the best of ourselves — in relationship with one another — how might saying adios “Dios” in the journey we’ve undertaken not only un-encumber us a bit and quell some of the violence we inflict on one another in such a name and notion; but hasten, as well, the coming of that kingdom once, and so long, envisioned?

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

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

 

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How a “Non-theist” Celebrates “The Holidays,” Part II

A pdf copy can be read and printed here.santa-jesus

Preface

Part I (here) in this two-part commentary observed how the national Thanksgiving observance has been traditionally framed in a religious context; expressing our gratitude to a deity that dispenses blessings in an indiscriminate way. It makes little sense to me, so I subsequently reject such a notion of a theistic “god.” If I am truly thankful for anything, it is the sufficiently sacred now, and nothing more.

The Christmas holidays are even trickier for those who give even a token nod to a long-held doctrinal claim of orthodox Christianity; that a theistic god somehow enters into the human story, rather than a notion of a sacred whole arising out of our own consciousness and human imagination.

How then might a self-professed non-theist celebrate the nativity of a Galilean sage from days long gone by, and call it holy? It lies in an ancient message that – more often than not – runs counter to the cultural and political climate; but is central to the authentic character and teachings of Jesus.

don-smiles

A Non-theist’s Christmas

In case you hadn’t heard, it’s okay to say “Merry Christmas” again. As I wrote this commentary, president-elect Donald Trump had just uttered this proclamation on his victory tour. Standing behind a podium that read “Merry Christmas USA,” he reiterated a campaign promise made almost a year ago to a throng of Christian fundamentalists at Liberty University.

“You go into a department store now, right,” Trump said. “When was the last time you saw ‘Merry Christmas?’ You don’t see it any more. They want to be politically correct. If I’m president, you’re going to see ‘Merry Christmas’ in department stores, believe me, believe me. You’re going to see it.”

“Hey, we’ve been doing it for the last 22 years,” says Rev. Rob Schenck from Faith and Action. That’s a religious organization that annually stages a live nativity scene on the steps of the Supreme Court. Actors in biblical costumes portray Mary, Joseph, and a real live cooing newborn baby, shepherds, Wise Men, townspeople, angels.

pageant“And that’s not all,” says Rev. Schenck.“We even include the animals that likely surrounded that first CHRIST-mas scene at Bethlehem (Schenck’s capitalization): a donkey, sheep—and count them—not one, but TWO LIVE CAMELS! So, you can see, here at Faith and Action, we take saying MERRY CHRIST-MAS very seriously!”

Then there’s the closer: “BUT WE CAN’T DO THAT HERE WITHOUT YOUR CONTINUED AND GENEROUS HELP. So, If you believe we should keep saying ‘Merry Christmas’ in this dramatic, meaningful, memorable and compelling way, PLEASE MAKE YOUR TAX-DEDUCTIBLE GIFT RIGHT NOW!”

Having now been emancipated from the shackles of political correctness, I feel freed to speak my mind about how I might best observe Christmas. Or, CHRIST’S-Mass, as those religiously zealous fellow Americans feel compelled to do on the doorstep of our highest court in the land. It’s a court that constitutionally guarantees and protects both a separation of church and state; as well as the freedom of religious expression in any form without fear of a ban at the border, or required registration.

So here’s how I would express it, as a non-theist who deliberately bypasses the notion of a theistic god taking human form; since – along with the idea of a virgin birth – just isn’t that original or unique to Christian mythology alone. But as one of those minority voices who nonetheless still seeks to affirm a good news message in this mythic Christmas tale that still echoes the “voiceprint” of a human Jesus.

 

A Brief Review

Anyone who has ever read the source material for the amalgamated tale commonly known as the “Christmas Story” (the Christian scriptures) knows there are several separate and distinct versions that differ both in factual detail and – more importantly — theological intent.

The earliest canonical gospel (Mark, dated approximately 4 decades after Jesus’s death) contains no story of Jesus’ birth at all. He either had no source material, or no interest in the matter, or neither. And John’s late gospel (written decades after Mark) has so elevated the entire gospel about Jesus to such a lofty narrative that so few of the words attributed to his Jesus character are hardly considered authentic to the historical figure that there isn’t even a historical footnote about Jesus’ birth. Besides, the whole business about the “Word of God” becoming human flesh and dwelling among us results in a pretty dull script for a children’s pageant to enact.

It’s Matthew (dated 82-85 CE), followed shortly thereafter by Luke, that give us the two familiar versions, or variations. Matthew has Jesus born in a house in Bethlehem. Matthew’s version has the magi, the star, Herod’s treachery, and the holy family’s subsequent flight to Egypt. Luke’s got the shepherds, angels and a manger in a stable, because they were just visiting Bethlehem and Joseph had neglected to make hotel reservations. In Luke, there’s no post-partum flight to Egypt. Rather, Mary and Joseph head to the temple (presumably Jerusalem) 8 days after birth for the child’s circumcision, according to Jewish tradition.

Matthew’s version is primarily concerned with the infancy narrative fulfilling Jewish messianic expectation, including tracing the genealogy back to Abraham, the father of the Jews. Luke instead traces Jesus’ line back to Adam, the father of the entire human race. Since that includes me, I tend to like Luke’s fanciful tale better …

In his little book, The Birth of Jesus, Jack Spong puts it plainly, “The literal accuracy of both narratives falls apart on close examination of the two radically inconsistent and contradictory texts. They cannot both be true. The probability is that neither is true. They are interpretive narratives intended to say Jesus was the designated messiah from the moment of his birth.”

That’s right. But the real question is, designated by whom to be what kind of a messiah? This, I believe, is what is required to be asked by anyone of us who would presume to wish anyone else a Merry Christmas. And here’s how I try to answer this question for myself.

The real question is, designated by whom to be what kind of a messiah? This, I believe, is what is required to be asked by anyone of us who would presume to wish anyone else a Merry Christmas.

 

The “Christ” in Christmas

There have always been universal themes and elements to this ancient story that not only make it a mythic tale that is as true and universal as any human story could ever be; but as contemporary as this last week’s headlines, as well.

For instance, Matthew’s quaint Christmas tale has the holy family fleeing the wrath of the regime in power across the border, before the slaughter of the innocents. And Luke’s timeline for his version mentions Quirinius, then governor of a an ancient country called Syria.

Nowadays, the character playing the part of Matthew’s Herod is Syria’s Assad; while the stage is set in Aleppo, instead of Bethlehem, and the borderlines for the refugees running for their lives are simply known by another name.

There’s Luke’s inference about the inhospitality of an innkeeper who owns a chain of luxury hotels around the world; and would not hesitate to tell you it’s simply smart business to not let out rooms to people who can’t pay.

There is the whole motif of messianic expectation, so prevalent in Jewish history and mythology; the dominant theme being the restoration of the royal line of King David; versus that less popular pitch about the servant who sacrifices self instead of achieving presumed greatness by putting themselves first. The results are often a rise of nationalism arising out of fear of the ‘other;’ with a desire to build walls and restore a perceived former greatness. It’s nothing new.

It all leads one to ask, if you’re going to say “Merry Christmas” again, which Christ in Christ-mas are you talking about?

As far as I’m concerned, we need a whole new “Christology.” That’s just a big theological term debating what constitutes the nature of what kind of messiah would be given such an honorific title. I would suggest we do away with any perceived usefulness in making a (theistic) god out of a human being, who was actually named Jesus (“one who saves” us from ourselves), instead of Emmanuel (“god with us”). In the end, it’s the only thing that makes sense out of a crucified Christ, and any ‘god’ that is anything but powerful.

If Jesus is to be named ‘the Christ,’ is he the one who was born somewhere, sometime – no matter where or when –who is likely to have said something to the effect, “The poor and the peacemakers are the ones to be favored,” And who taught, “The one who would be first must be last, and servant to all.”

Or “Love your neighbor as you would yourself.” Or “Heck, love your enemy, while you’re at it.” “Turn the other cheek,” “Forgive seventy times,” “Give to anyone who asks, not just your shirt, but your coat, as well.” “And don’t get me started about touting your riches to prove your business acument, let alone your salvation.” Is that the Christ to be celebrated this holiday season?

To hell with any political correctness. I’ve finally found something on which Mr. Trump and I can agree, at last. We can both say “Merry Christ-mas” again.

As long as we don’t simply say it, but mean it, as well.

 

© 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 and http://thechristianprogressive.com

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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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Reconciling False Divisions, Part II

نبی اللہ ابراھیم خلیل اللہ Abofe: the name of the Islamic prophet, ʾIbrāhīm (Abraham), written in Islamic calligraphy followed by Peace be upon him.

نبی اللہ ابراھیم خلیل اللہ
Above: the name of the Islamic prophet, ʾIbrāhīm (Abraham), written in Islamic calligraphy followed by Peace be upon him.

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

 

 Part II: Islamic Roots

A pdf version to print and read is HERE.

“Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to Allah, does good, and follows the way of Abraham the true in Faith? For Allah did take Abraham for a friend.” — The Quran 4:125

First consider the times in which we live. Recently, a spiritual leader representing a large segment of Western Christendom celebrated mass before thousands of the faithful along the border between Mexico and the United States. In his remarks, he spoke of “The human tragedy that is forced migration,” which is “a global phenomenon today.” He described “a journey laden with grave injustices: the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted.”

On his flight back to Rome – and in response to a reporter’s question — Pope Francis then unwittingly waded into the quagmire of American politics, and the controversy over the proposed construction of a physical barrier along the entire length of the border separating two countries. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges,” he said, “is not ‘Christian.’”

Not being one to take criticism lightly, the politician who has proposed such a wall quickly responded, “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS … I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened.” Trump went on to add, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as President I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now.”

In response to Francis sharing his view of what he thinks it means to be Christian-like, I only wish Donald had done the same. I tire quickly when an unexamined or monolithic view of any religious tradition is asserted or presumed by anyone. So, as easily as one can build a wall distinguishing one side from the other, one should certainly be able to equally explain one’s real and distinct differences when it comes to what one thinks it means to be Christian; or any other such label – say, Muslim — for that matter. These are not false divisions, but real differences that should constructively challenge us, without taking personal offense as a way of deflecting one’s blind ignorance.

As easily as one can build a wall distinguishing one side from the other, one should certainly be able to equally explain one’s real and distinct differences when it comes to what one thinks it means to be ‘Christian;’ or any other such label – say, ‘Muslim’ — for that matter. These are not false divisions, but real differences that should constructively challenge us, without taking personal offense as a way of deflecting one’s blind ignorance.

A similar example would be another would-be presidential nominee with lagging poll numbers, who delivered this parting shot when dropping out of the race. “I believe Christians in this country can easily determine the next president of the United States … should they simply show up at the polls.” Informed as I have been by a lifetime exploring the Christian faith tradition, I doubt Ben Carson really means for me to vote my own particular religious convictions. He believes, for instance, the theory of evolution is a diabolical trick concocted by Satan, and I do not. Despite the faith tradition we share, we have obvious, real differences.

And finally, another politician who “won” a tie for second place in a primary race in a single state a few weeks ago began his victory speech by thanking all his supporters and donors who’d worked so hard and given so much. Then he concluded those customary remarks by placing the eventual future outcome of his entire campaign in the hands of the Almighty, and divine destiny.

“I know that God’s hand is on everything,” Senator Rubio said. “And so whatever God’s will is in this election is ultimately what will happen to us and to our country.” But then Marco just couldn’t help himself, adding, “But if it is God’s will that I serve as our 45th president …”

I thought to myself, if only he could have discerned the will of God upfront, he could save himself – and the entire political process that has been so filled with such rancorous, squabbling divisiveness — a whole lot of human collateral. But there’s the rub, when it comes to human pursuits that are integrally both religious and political (political in the broader sense of our human interactions and machinations). It’s about discerning the notion, or will, or intention of what one understands to be the nature, existence — or non-existence — of what some call “God;” while others of us might search the same limitless depths of the human imagination for a broader and all-encompassing way of appreciating any such notion.

A series of previous commentaries explored the inseparable confluence of our political and religious life. This current Series has turned to consider the shared, common roots of three great Abrahamic faith traditions; in an attempt to not only identify “false” divisions, but honestly acknowledge real differences, as well. It is a quest for common ground, arising from shared roots; along with and a shared respect for our different paths. It’s tricky.

So to do so, we’ve hearkened back to the origins of monotheism, and the earliest notions of that integral wholeness referenced above. We consider, once again, the “call” of Abraham, and the universal theme of leaving the place of the known and familiar; in order to faithfully risk the possibility of an encounter with something more than we can ask or imagine, hope or believe.

The figure of Abraham not only represents the progenitor of the outward expressions of three great monotheistic faiths, but the prototype for the internal spiritual journey, as well: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’ … So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” [Gen. 12:1-4a]

“The text (above) is so matter-of-fact it almost masks the significance… He does so silently, joining the covenant with his feet, not his words. The wandering man does what he does best. He walks. Only now he walks with God. And by doing so, Abraham leaves an indelible set of footprints: He doesn’t believe in God; he believes God. He doesn’t ask for proof; he provides the proof. Abraham’s unspoken covenant with God is so majestic it forms a central plank in all three Abrahamic faiths.” – Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

Abraham’s first steps begin a journey that eventually becomes a pilgrimage for those who follow after him. It is the reenactment of returning to a place. But it is a place that commemorates the one who willingly leaves for yet another place! In Arabic, the word for one who commits such an act – or reenactment – of surrender or submission is mʊslɪm, or muslim.

“March of Abraham, The” The March of Abraham, painting by József Molnár, 19th century; in the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.

“March of Abraham,” painting by József Molnár, 19th century; in the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.

In the Islamic tradition, all Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Such an act is considered by Muslims to stretch back thousands of years to the time of Abraham. Known as the Hajj, the word means “to intend a journey,” which represents both the outward act of a journey, and the inward act of intentions.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people converge, circling the Ka’aba seven times. Considered the holiest site in Islam, the Ka’aba is believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael, some 2,600 hundred years before. But even the counter-clockwise direction of the procession suggests the uniqueness of this particular, contrary quest and ritual observance.

Next, the pilgrim scurries back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah; as a reenactment of the story of Abraham’s wife, Hagar, running in search of water and provisions; all the while, worried about her son who she left behind.

Next, the observant drinks from the Zamzam Well, that miraculously sprung up from the place an angel’s wing struck the ground; before heading for the desert for a time of fasting and testing.

Muslim pilgrims circle the Hajj in Mecca

Muslim pilgrims circle the Ka’aba in Mecca

Personally – being a self-professed progressive of another faith tradition — I don’t believe in any of it. That is, of course, except for the willingness of those other children of the legendary Abraham to trek together, to journey en masse; and to experience something in the walking, the running, the bonds of affection, the trials and the quenching of one’s thirst. Even in the pilgrim’s homecoming to a place of fixity like a black, brick cube, there is dynamic movement that elicits the longing for yet another place to call home. And, in that longing, there is common ground with shared roots.

Even in the pilgrim’s homecoming to a place of fixity …, there is dynamic movement that elicits the longing for yet another place to call home. And, in that longing, there is common ground with shared roots.

In a world so filled with “forced migration” and walls of division, this is instead a response of faith, not belief. It is an act of trust. Put another way, it is an act of submission that draws one into another kind of journey. In this sense, all children of Abraham are muslim.

With such an undertaking, however, it is helpful to remember Abraham’s journey is an interior one; and his story is – for our purposes — an a-historical one. As was said in the first commentary in this Series, all those legends about Abraham that spanned centuries make it apparent we are talking about a character of mythic – and not necessarily historical — dimensions. If one needs yet one more example, consider this:

In the legendary tale — for his willingness to wander — Abraham is delivered into Canaan. The Quran calls his destination the land “blessed for all mankind.” Would that it were so. But geographic terms, ancient Canaan was part of what is now present-day Syria. It is now a place of civil strife, death and destruction, and refugees that are all but swallowed up in a wave of “forced migration.”

In its place, the task at hand appears to be self-evident; to seek ways to recognize our different experiences, reconcile our false divisions, and seek bridges where we might continue to journey and cross over together.

If not now, why not? If not now, when?

 

© 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 or http://thechristianprogressive.com

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Considering a Political Candidate’s Religious Beliefs: Why It Does and Doesn’t Matter

Jesus no endorsementLast in a 3-Part Series on Politics and Religion

 

A pdf copy to print or read is HERE.

 

Preface

 

This series began with the premise it was fair game to consider the mix of politics and religion as the two most powerful motivating forces in our corporate lives. The first commentary speculated what kind of political platform Jesus might have pitched, had he run for president. The second commentary followed on the heels of Pope Francis addressing a joint session of Congress two months ago; comparing and contrasting what Jesus might have said, given the chance.

Both inquiries were based on a suggested premise that beyond anyone’s particular political biases and religious belief’s lies a worldview that is theological, in nature; using the term ‘theological’ in a broader context than merely religious. To the extent any political candidates claim to be informed, shaped or guided by some unknown greater reality or ultimate value – and they nearly all do – that professed viewpoint certainly seems worth considering.

 

Introduction

 

In a stump speech, the once-frontrunner, Donald Trump reacted to poll numbers in an Iowa newspaper that indicated Ben Carson had taken the lead in the primary race in that state for the Republican presidential nomination.

“I love Iowa,” Trump said. “And, look, I don’t have to say it, I’m Presbyterian. Can you believe it? Nobody believes I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian! I’M PRESBYTERIAN! Boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”

Carson is an avowed, lifelong Seventh Day Adventist. Like many Christian traditions nowadays, the denomination includes those who adhere to literal interpretations of church teaching, and those who want to reform or modernize. Traditional beliefs of Adventists depict Catholics and Evangelicals who worship on Sundays to be spiritual foes in league with the Antichrist; who will persecute true believers in the End Times that are near at hand. In a 2013 interview, Carson declined to distinguish himself from such a belief; adding that he also fully accepts the church’s stance that God created the world literally in six days.

In addition — and like a number of candidates before him — Carson has described his decision to run for president as a prayerful response to a divine calling. “Lord, if you want me to do this,” he has related, “you have to open the doors. And if you open the doors, I will gladly walk through them.”

 

The Problem

 

This is the perpetual problem: On the one hand, Americans prize religious freedom, allowing our citizenry to believe whatever one wishes; as crazy or nutty as it may sound to the rest of us. We say it shouldn’t matter, as long as your religious beliefs don’t infringe upon my constitutional rights. And, if you’re a political candidate, I can choose to decide for myself whether your religious beliefs either sufficiently align with my own; or that they don’t matter to me and my position in the public policy debates. In which case, their religious persuasion is inconsequential.

On the other hand, if another person’s religious beliefs – or non-religious beliefs (which, of course, is another belief system) — don’t matter, and those beliefs don’t truly influence the thinking of the candidate asking to lead us, with the way they view the world and our corporate life together in that world, then what does that say about the importance – or lack of importance – of whatever they might deem to be of ultimate value, concern or reality?

When the Kentucky county clerk who disobeyed federal law by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples said she did so out of her deeply-held religious convictions that she said took precedent over “man-made laws,” presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee stood shoulder to shoulder with her; calling it a courageous act in defense of religious freedom. But what one person might call religious freedom, others could regard as downright discrimination, borne of religious bigotry. Differentiating those two disparate ideas may be akin to locating that line in the shifting sands that demarcates freedom of speech from illegal hate speech.

A report by Pew Research last year showed that, as in the past, 53% of Americans would apparently still be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who said they didn’t believe in God. At the same time, a newly released study by the same research firm found a continued decline in traditional religious beliefs and practices. On a steady rise is that segment of Americans that are religiously unaffiliated. They are the “nones” (none of the above), who self-describe their religiosity as “nothing in particular;” and who now represent 23% of the adult population.

Along with that “nothing in particular” level of discernment, one could include what is meant by that term “God” to begin with. Left undefined, and only assumed, it consequently reflects the un-reflective way in which the researchers, this season’s political candidates, the electorate, and the media all generally approach the whole question of personal faith when it comes to our collective political life. We typically steer clear of any serious inquiry; and instead itemize a laundry list of contemporary social-values questions, label them as “religious values,” and simply check off the candidate’s answer as to whether they believe in this, or that.

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