What Cynics Get Right About Christianity: and what they get wrong.

It’s been a little over a year since I lost a good deal of my eyesight and the learning curve is a long one. I remain grateful for peripheral vision good enough to allow me to “see” sidewalks and nearby objects.  I also have a variety of gadgets that read things out loud. It means listening is the main way I keep up with things.

I’ve discovered a hoard of university lectures available on the internet and have the pleasure listening to some for an entire semester, and some for a few lectures only.  Among the them have been a handful of religion cynics in general and Christianity specifically.  For them, Christianity is fanciful, superstitious, magical thinking.  If you strip the Christian story of all its supernatural silliness, they say, what’s left is a bunch of nothing built around an itinerant teacher no different than any other, and an institutional church interested only in power and money milked from the gullible.  Their understanding of Christian theology appears to be based on paintings in the Sistine Chapel and televangelist sales pitches..

In a sense, they are right.  If you strip away all that is supernatural, there isn’t much left, leaving too many believers with childish ideas about who and what God is.  Sadly, too many self proclaimed christians also tend toward magical  thinking. But, and it’s a huge but, the supernatural cannot be stripped away from Christianity.  God is supernatural.  The Word of God made flesh in Jesus is supernatural. The kingdom of God that is near is supernatural. The supernatural presence of God in the natural world of creation is the unshakable reality in which Christians live.  There is nothing magical about it. Anyone can deny there is such a thing as the supernatural and are free to do so.  Yet, we have three thousand years of testimony of those who experienced it first hand.   

What about all the religious wars waged in God’s name?, the cynics demand to know.  They are an abomination to God and one of the great sins of the church that belie the central teachings of the law, prophets, and our Lord Jesus Christ.  The same goes for the various forms of oppression, subjugation, and racism that have plagued the nations, often in God’s name. Our sins, individual and collective, may demean the faith in the eyes of others, but they don’t abrogate it. 

Some cynics express real animus toward Christianity, blaming it for every evil perpetrated on the people of Europe and indigenous people of the “New World”.  The institutional church bears some culpability but these evils were driven more by ordinary greed and lust for power of monarchs and adventurers. .  To the contrary, Christianity’s  central theme about life on earth is that we can choose to live in peace, reasonable harmony, and a general degree of prosperity by following God’s way of love articulated clearly in the prophets and confirmed by Christ himself.  What’s to object? It’s true that we are inclined to look over God’s ways, declare that they sound good in theory, and go about making our own way.  We are free to do so, but the unhappy results are predictable. Humans have proven it again and again with the same results.  Followers in the way of love, commanded by Jesus, have contributed much to the moral advancement of humanity. Christian cynics endorse for themselves, ad which have indeed made life progressively better for humanity despite humanity’s error prone stumbling forward.

The cynics can’t seem to tell the difference between what it means to follow Jesus, and sinful behavior sometimes perpetrated in the name of the church.  It’s nothing new.  It’s been going on for a long, long time.   Just keep following Jesus as best you can.

© Steven E. Woolley

The Holiday Season: Hype to Hope

The Holiday Season is almost here. A century ago it began on Christmas Eve. Then it moved to Thanksgiving and now it begins even before Halloween.  Of course that’s not counting the early September Christmas displays at Home Depot. Much of the holiday madness is driven by advertising promising more than can possibly be delivered.  The public is enticed to spend more than they should or to bemoan that they can’t meet spending expectations. In the end, the season can never quite live up to its hype.

Hallmark movies, advertising and oral mythology promise it to be a season of non stop parties, fabulous decorations, joyous reunions of friends and family.  It’s supposed to be the season of peace, joy, generosity, reconciliation, and gleeful greetings to strangers. Magic is in the air and on the air but somehow it never seems to come down to earth. Few of us experience the season in that fanciful way which can make it a season of anxiety about not getting it, not getting in on what others have, and not doing enough to reach Martha Stewart perfection.  

I’m not a humbug Scrooge. Why not relax and enjoy the frivolity in whatever way works for you?  Don’t get caught up in the excesses, anxieties or over indulgences that the season promotes.  It is a season of beautiful decorations that, whether yours or someone else’s, can be enjoyed just because it’s there.  Beautiful music can be heard in the streets, at concerts and on the air.  Enjoy it just because it can be heard.  If not end to end parties, there are always opportunities to get together for warm friendly conversation with neighbors, friends and family. Exchanging modest gifts given from the heart offer rich rewards for the one who gives and the one who receives. The key to the Holiday Season is to not make a big deal out of it, relax, enjoy what is enjoyable to you, avoid what is not, and let the insane ad driven frenzy pass you by.  If it is a season of grieving for you, don’t hide to grieve alone.  Share your grief with loving friends to rediscover the depth of consolation that grows from it. 

Christians should feel free to participate in the season as seems right for them.  It’s too bad there are some disturbed by the intrusion of so much paganish behavior in the holy season of Christmas, but they need to give it a rest.  Harvest festivals and midwinter celebrations have been a part of human society far longer than the Christian Christmas, and they’re not going away.  

It would be better for Christians to pay more attention to Advent, the four week preparation for the celebration of the nativity of our Lord on Christmas Eve and Day.  It’s a time for solemn remembrance of the events and prophecies leading to the birth of Jesus.  It’s a time for reflection on how to renew our intention to live more fully into the way of Christian love in the new year. It’s unfortunate that  some Christians skip Advent altogether, start singing Christmas Carols as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are done, and take down the tree before New Yaar’s Eve.

Advent is the prelude to Christmas that separates glitzy holiday stuff from the great need of the world for a Messiah bringing good news to the least and being born as one of them.  The Word of God made flesh in Jesus came as a baby dependent on his mother for human life and in need of his parents’ loving care to survive into adulthood.  Born in a stable in a time when Herod’s displeasure meant instant death, he was announced only to shepherds, animals, and probably some unknown women who came to aid the new mother, even though she was a stranger. The rest of the world slept on unaware and uncaring that in the nativity of Christ, the reconciling love of God was poured out for them. 

Observing Advent is preparation for the joyous celebration of the nativity from hearts filled with praise singing Glory to God in the highest and peace to everyone. And why not enjoy a few parties, decorations, food, and gifts as well, modestly, not to excess.

The Small Government–Low Taxes Future: an unworkable fantasy

The results are never good when leaders’ ambition for power wed their egos to ideology.  I don’t know how many historical records are needed to make that clear but apparently we’re not there yet. 

The current crop of small government–low taxes ideologues seem to think their way will produce a paradise free of government interference in which everyone, provided they work for it, will live an abundant life. If not, the consequences are their own fault and of little concern to the nation.  History says that every attempt at the small government–low taxes plan has resulted in three outcomes: rule by the wealthy few, a low standard of living for the greater number, and eventual economic collapse.

With all of that in plain sight, the current GOP leadership intends to do it again and is doing a sterling job of selling it to the very people who will be most hurt. In the meantime, they have accused Democrats and non-aligned voters of being socialists who would use government to take over everything.  I don’t know why that’s so easily believed since there is no evidence of it anywhere in the center right-left areas where most are located.  Is it that easy to scare the voting public with McCarthy like (Joe and Kevin) fear mongering about old time communism?  I guess so.  Maybe it works well because they stoke the fire by appealing to white supremacy, fearful distrust of immigrants, tales of rampant street crime, wokeness (whatever that is), and things that go bump in the night.

None of those boogymen frighten everyone but each frightens some voting subgroup that can be motivated to vote their fears rather than their interests.  After all, fears promote anxiety about imminent danger.  What is in the best interest for the nation and its people depends on implementing long term plans for new infrastructure, greater job opportunities for more people, and more equitable justice extended without prejudice, especially to the marginalized.  If the monster under the bed can be made to appear dangerous to life today, it can make laying the foundation for sustained growth and prosperity seem unimportant. 

When the United States has gone down this path in the past, it’s been led by oligarchs who made such a mess of things it took years to recover.  The Civil war, late 19th century panics, and the Great Depression are the most obvious examples of how bad things could get.  At a more subtle level has been the decades long aftermath of the Reagan Revolution that resulted in enormous transfers of wealth from working people to investors, low wage growth, and unfunded national debts.  The same path in other countries has ended in dictatorships by someone ambitious for power who had no interest in ideology, just raw, vengeful power.  Trump gave it a shot but was too incompetent to pull it off, thank goodness. 

The current GOP denies they ever did what they did to make a mess of the economy and to promote conditions of injustice affecting mostly “non-white” Americans.

I imagine some readers might complain that inflation is too high, the Democrats haven’t been able to fix it, and maybe the GOP should be given a chance to do better.  When the GOP has been dominated by small government-low tax ideologues, they have tried the same thing again and again, only to create a national economic disaster.  What on earth makes anyone think doing the same thing again will work this time?  The loudest voices know only what they are against, not what they are for.  Those keeping quiet do know; they want to preserve power and wealth in the hands of a few. It’s partly out of greed and partly out of a self aggrandizing fantasy that they, the few, are the only ones truly qualified to run the country.

© Steven E. Woolley

Democracy, Voting & Biblical Values

Most Americans identify as Democrats, Republicans or Independents. Some prefer to be known as conservative, liberal, or centrist. Their voting decisions tend to be made according to their political identity, and for too many, the sketchiest understanding of policy positions their candidates embrace. Their understanding is too often fueled by unfounded conspiracies, rumors, prejudices, political dirty tricks, campaign distortions and outright lies.  Would that, regardless of party affiliation, Christians voted for candidates and policies more nearly reflecting the moral standards commanded by Jesus Christ as fulfillment of the law and prophets. They don’t. They fall into the same grab bag of voters as the general public.

Christian morality is not exactly the same as accepted social mores practiced by the people of each age and era.  It is also more than personal commitment to God’s way of love, repentance, amendment of life, forgiveness and reconciliation.  It means living into the social and economic standards God delivered through the prophets, and sealed by commandment by our Lord Jesus Christ. The standards are not hidden, obscure, or vague; they are written in plain sight, clear, specific language.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah and other prophets cannot be read without coming face-to-face with God’s condemnation of nations’ social and economic sins, sins no different than from our own.

Lengthy prophetic lists enumerate what nations do that angers God but tend to fall into several sin sets: unfair taxation, dishonest lending and market practices; corrupt rulers and judges; policies that oppress the marginalized; tolerance of sexual predation; lack of integrity in foreign relations, and the like. National sins are a result and reflection of the dishonest, oppressive and discriminatory behaviors of the people

Christians cannot be satisfied with righteous scoldings of others. What is implicit in the prophets is made clear by Jesus: those who follow him in the way of love must engage in work needed to move policies in the direction of godly justice. Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles in Babylon to pray for the welfare of the city in which they lived because, “in its welfare was their welfare” is sound advice for us.  It wasn’t a prayer for God to do something, but for God’s people to act for the welfare of all based upon God’s standards. John Donne wrote that “no man is an island entire of itself,” and neither is a city, state or nation. The welfare of one is dependent on the welfare of all.

Christians are commanded by God in Christ Jesus to do what they can for the just economic and social welfare of all.  At a minimum that means voting, but for whom? 

God shows no partiality for the form of government a nation has.  God’s interest is in whether a nation has laws and practices that approximate the way of loving justice. Americans believe our representative democracy is the best way to ensure freedom, protection of rights, and opportunities for each person to enjoy an abundant life. It’s imperfect, messy, and sometimes inefficient, but it stumbles along in the direction of godly justice that enriches the welfare of all, especially those most in need. Voting is the most basic act needed to preserve and improve our democracy. For Christians it is a moral obligation.

Care must be taken not to confuse what some churches call a biblical world view with what God has actually revealed in scripture.  Christian voters must always be skeptical of being misled by contemporary social mores sold as traditional or biblical. God is not conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican. God is God and we are not. The only question for Christian voters is whether a candidate’s moral character and policy positions reflect godly justice for all.

Words, deeds, and the record of candidates that are more consistent with godly standards of morality are those for whom Christians should vote. Will they? Or will some stamp their feet, dig in their heels and vote for one who appeals to social prejudices, claiming biblical authority?

Paul Is Not Jesus: Part II

A while back I wrote a column entitled “Paul is not Jesus.” Since then I’ve stumbled across several online lectures and magazine articles giving Paul credit for creating the Christian religion. The articles implied that Jesus was a charismatic prophet whose legacy endures only because of Paul. I feel I need to write about this subject again.

As is commonly known, Paul was an enemy of those who followed Jesus, even to abetting in murder.  Several years after Jesus’ death and resurrection Paul recorded his own conversion  after being confronted with a vision of Jesus so brilliant it blinded him for several days.  His discipleship began then as an ignorant new “believer.”  It took him several years to learn the basics of “The Way of Jesus” from others with more intimate knowledge and experience, and the rest of his life to mature into deeper understanding.  Along with partners and assistants he established new worshipping congregations among the pagans of what is now Turkey, Greece and Macedonia.  He trained and guided his own disciples to establishing other congregations.  Letters to the congregations he founded, to congregations founded by others, and letters attributed to him, speak to the difficulties new Christians had living into their faith, and testifying to his own developing understanding in which he frequently changed direction.  

The letters were and still are included in the canon of the New Testament mostly because they were the only apostolic writings we had, and because they tell one story of a part of the early church.  It’s regrettable that some Christians take the letters to be the inerrant word of God. They certainly testify to God’s truth, and to the way one late comer apostle taught others about Jesus Christ in far off lands.  Divinely inspired as they are we can learn much from them, but they are not the inerrant word of God.

There was a vibrant Christian movement in the Levant by the time of Paul’s conversion.  By the time of his execution, around 65 a.d., there were centers of Christian learning in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome, none of which owed their  establishment to Paul.

With all of that said, the importance of the Pauline texts remains important and worthy of study.  They help us understand the troubles of early congregations that were often like our own troubles.  They illuminate and reveal God’s word even if they are not themselves God’s word. They tell us of the courage and perseverance demanded of the Christian life, regardless of conditions and happenstance.  For all these reasons and more, they carry great authority for modern Christians, but they are not the authority of Jesus Christ. It is the gospel record that bears the full authority of God’s word.

For Christians it is Jesus who fulfills all the law and prophets, both past and to the end of time.  Everything must be understood from that center.  It’s true that the gospels were written by different people at different times from multiple sources during the last half of the first century, after Paul had died. They cannot be harmonized, but each writer did the best he/she could to get the essential truths down right. Some historical scholars try to bracket divine inspiration, or anything supernatural, but Christian truth is supernaturally spiritual; it cannot be bracketed out.  To accuse gospel writers of fabrication is arrogant cynicism.  To claim their inherency in every word is to manipulate their message into idols of one’s own making.  To trust in them is to follow in God’s way of love, proclaiming the good news of the world’s salvation through Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.  None of us are up to the task, but we can do the best we can with what we have, just as Paul did, to continue spreading the good news by word and deed.

© Steven E. Woolley

What is Faith, Believing & Trust

“Increase our faith.”  It’s the request disciples made of Jesus (Luke 17).  At least that’s what the text says.  I wonder if they might have asked something more like, “How can we increase our faith?”  Who knows?  In either case, what did they mean by faith? Many have come to me with similar questions, often put as “I wish I had more faith, or how can I be more faithful, or even what is faith?

I belong to a weekly discussion group that took up the issue of faith a few months ago and recently became aware of Teresa Morgan’s new book, “The Theology of Trust.”  It turned out that a brilliant biblical scholar and a bunch of us retired small town preachers have been going in the same direction. Christians need to be directed more toward faith as trust, and less at faith as believing, especially when believing is dictated by adherence without question to specific teachings and rules. Most who came for Jesus’ advice understood faith to be some kind of believing, although they found it hard to say what believing meant. It didn’t help when others demanded to know if they were believers. Also, it didn’t take long to scan the horizon and wonder what and who they expected every believer to believe in. The demand too often comes with implied qualifiers such as biblical inerrancy, the authority of clergy,  or the words of some self appointed prophet.  Believing also carries an expectation of a warming experience of God’s presence, a conversion experience, or a declaration of warm fuzzy love for Jesus.  I suspect a lot of Christians proclaim it all just to keep their credentials acceptable to others who might judge them harshly if they knew the truth of a different reality.

Greek and Hebrew words translated into English are more strongly aimed at trust than what believing has come to represent in common usage, although believing is not excluded.  The point is that the disciples were not sure how much they could trust Jesus to be who he said he was, and that his words bore the authority of God Almighty. And why wouldn’t they be cautious? Who Jesus was and what he said were radical departures from everything they had been taught.  He stood alone amidst two thousand years of tradition as an entirely new voice.  I can see how their trust could be anything but tentative given the few years they had to learn from him.

How much trust did they need?  Not much, as little as a tiny mustard seed;  seed that would grow larger in time to become a place of shelter and fearless proclamation of the good news. If you trusted enough could you really cause a mulberry tree to jump into the sea?  As it turns out, there is a mulberry tree near our home that grows on the edge of a salt water inlet.  Would I be juvenile enough to test it?  Let’s say I did and the tree is still in its place. It may be that Jesus whispered in my ear, “Leave that tree alone and quit being an ass.”  Or maybe not.  I’m not telling.  But I digress.

There is a catch to trust.  It’s hard to trust in something one doesn’t know or have experienced.  It’s equally hard to trust in someone until they’re found to be trustworthy.  A few score of others, in addition to the twelve disciples, followed Jesus; it took three years of listening, learning, and experiencing for them to begin trusting what he said and who he was.  It was barely enough to survive the crucifixion but cemented for all time through the resurrection.  Perhaps it was only then that with all their hearts they could say,”I believe.” Then it took the rest of their lives to comprehend the depth of his words.

Another catch to trusting is that people have an almost childish willingness to trust and believe in imaginary things they wish could be true.  It’s not just the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, it’s the gullibility to fall for hucksters and con artists preying skillfully on peoples’ wishes.  Large crowds gathered around Jesus to be amazed by his optimistic words of hope and the magic of miracles.  They never got to know Jesus and never understood the deep meaning of his authoritative words.  When the entertainment was over, they went on to the next wonder worker. That human weakness of gullibility makes it easy for religious hucksters to combine religious language and promises of wish fulfillment in order to gather big congregations with the capacity to be mined for millions. As the last few decades have demonstrated, the same is true in politics. Parenthetically, it’s also what makes sleazy advertising work so well.  

To truly trust Jesus, you have to get to know him, listen carefully to his teaching, and spend years of intentional, prayerful study to comprehend even a bit more of his deep, meaningful words. The fact that God has not stopped speaking adds another level of complexity to the Christian life.  The word may be eternal but God keeps adding to it, conditions keep changing, and our ability to understand keeps evolving.  Honesty compels us to confess we can only blunder ahead and muddle through with the help of wise teachers and long tradition. Each of us are tested by our own ability to reason.  Not everyone can accept the word and learn from wise teachers, yet for those who have put their trust in Jesus, what can be said except,”Lord, to whom shall we turn? You have the words of eternal life.”

© Steven E. Woolley