Monday, July 30, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 27
July 30, 2007

As I understand it, only one out of the 535 representatives and senators in Washington admits to being an atheist. Judging only from my own experience and what we all know about honesty in our nation’s capital, I have a hunch the real number is significantly higher. Of course, every poll taken on the subject declares the vast majority of Americans want their congressmen and women to be God-fearing folk just like themselves. So the odds of adding to the pool of self-proclaimed atheists serving under the famous rotunda are very slim indeed. Nevertheless, I would like to propose a possible means for allowing honest politicians to proclaim their true beliefs.

Anti-atheist prejudice is not just pronounced in Washington but can be found in a vast array of professional and cultural venues. Cases involving unbelieving teachers, police officers, fire fighters and many more have been taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union and other defenders of religious and non-religious freedom. A recent profile in The New Yorker magazine on Vernell Crittendon, the former spokesmen of San Quentin State Prison, shows just how deep this discrimination permeates. Crittendon was quoted as saying he would advocate for reduced penalties even parole for prisoners who participated in the prison’s public service programs but not, he emphasized, for participating atheist prisoners…even if they were exemplary models. “Without a belief in something larger than yourself, you backslide.” was Crittendon’s definitive rationale.

Similar thinking is at the center of the highly popular 12-step programs, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous. I have known a number of atheistic or agnostic
alcoholics who were bemused by this requirement and were forced to seek treatment elsewhere.

All of us, I am sure, have heard the fuzzy argument against atheism that emphatically declares that without the fear of divine retribution society would be in chaos and sinful behavior would run rampant. Such a low estimation of human behavior may say more about the proponent’s self-esteem than the proposition’s accuracy. We all have known folk who do not share a faith in God but are loving parents, productive co-workers, community leaders, valued members of society. The fact that they do not believe in God seems to be irrelevant to their contributions. And, of course, any one of us can cite more than a few examples of despicable behavior perpetrated by deeply believing people.

The time is long past to fully honor atheism as a viable understanding of reality and a philosophy that can provide meaning for engaging in a moral and productive life. The continuing prejudice against atheistic proponents is tantamount to racial bigotry, gender bias or homophobia. One hopes that more national leaders will come out of the theological closet and admit their religious reservations and resistance.

As an inducement to these closeted congressmen and women, I propose an alternative understanding of God that some may find fits their own perspective and provides a means of articulating dialogue about divinity that is not limited to the conventional monotheistic model.

The briefest glimpse at religious history will show that there is nothing new in this proposal but it is offered as a reminder to present-day politicians and others that there have always been alternatives to orthodoxy that have found favor among many. Indeed, some of the most inspiring religious leaders, past and present, have been decried at one time or another as heretics for their unconventional thinking.

My proposal would have us leaving God as proper noun and utilizing this powerful word in more descriptive ways. God as a verb or a modifier may make shared theological understanding more attainable. We do this already when we describe someone’s action as being “god-like” or when a friend returns from a hike and describes his time in nature as “holy”. Why must there be a source for such epiphanies? Can’t the epiphany be divine in and of itself? Surely this is what Jesus was indicating when he spoke of the Kingdom of God. He was describing a new realm of experience, a heavenly world, entered in the here and now. A world that comes into being in every act of compassion…feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, liberating the oppressed, etc. These are divine acts. These acts are god.

The convolutions of Trinitarian thought that seek to reconcile a divine being with divine actions can be a huge stumbling block for many who, not irrelevantly nor irreverently for that matter, participate in holy actions without believing in a holy one. Accepting the legitimacy of such a philosophical position could go a long way in allowing all people, politicians included, to express their honest religious understandings.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Issue 26
July 16, 2007

I’ve taken a break from God recently. After thirty some years of being in God’s constant company, I decided to put a little space between us these past few weeks. I honestly can’t say I’ve missed God much, which may come as a surprise to some, but I have missed the church, which may come as a surprise to others.

Truth to tell, I find I get along quite well without God. Gone are the late night struggles trying to make sense of a god of compassion in a world of hurt. No more grappling with the timeless conundrum of Job via Archibald MacLeish: “If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God…”

It’s the church I’m missing…that eclectic mix of saintly sinners that can motivate, educate, contemplate and postulate in innumerable ways, igniting imaginations, focusing energies, finding solutions. In the church I’ve seen lives changed and compassion incarnated. I’ve witnessed disparate political views honored, apathy condemned and loving action accomplished. I’ve experienced conflicts resolved and tensions continued. It is that dynamic process of religious discernment and communal struggle I’m missing now.

Oh, yes. The problems, petty and not, that drain the spirit abound in the church but a healthy congregation finds ways to diminish their influence, a process that is often discomforting but almost always empowering. Shaped by the life and teachings of Jesus, a healthy congregation can take comfort and gain strength by focusing its energy on service to others. Doctrinal disputes or housekeeping chores seem petty when feeding the hungry or welcoming the stranger.

While wintering in Southern California, my wife and I discovered the joy of being in just such a congregation. All Saints Church in Pasadena, a parish of the Episcopal Church, has a long tradition of community service combined with a progressive theology. Each Sunday both the pews in the sanctuary and the chairs in the educational wing are packed with folk who, like us, were drawn by inspiring worship and critical thinking. I know congregations that provide similar stimulating resources exist but I can tell you from experience they are difficult to find.

As I was saying, God’s absence seems no great loss but being apart from the community of Christ is profoundly sad to me. So, during this recess, I am wondering if the experience of a dynamic church can replace faith in a theistic image of God? Can engaging in a community founded on compassion and social action rather than archaic theologies and ancient worldviews, be a legitimate expression of Christianity? Does following Jesus mean we must believe in God?

An initial argument would point to non-religious organizations that do good works (e.g. Rotary, Optimists, etc.) and suggest that such clubs might be an adequate substitute for those of us who seem to be looking for a Godless church. But is not godlessness we are after, rather a reinterpretation of what is divine. For a growing number of us, God is moving from being noun to becoming verb. The numinous is known in acts of compassion, service, hospitality and grace rather than through semi-comprehendible creeds or Augustinian doctrine. Hymns, liturgies, sermons and more that continue to point to a God up there, out there, over there, fail to reach those of us who are discovering quite the opposite. One of the great disappointments of the new Lutheran worship book is its failure to recognize those of us who find little inspiring in liturgies that continue to be shaped by an ancient theory of atonement that makes no modern sense at all.

Hillary Clinton was recently pilloried for her pronouncements on her Christian faith. One conservative commentator dismissed her religious reflections by saying that Democrats could win over religious voters who were…“religious in the way that Hillary Clinton is religious, which is to say a very liberal Protestant sort of view, in which they believe in everything but God.” Given my recent experience, I found myself thinking: “What’s so bad about that?”