Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Saved by Faith

My congregation, Saint Peter’s (, an ELCA affiliate in Manhattan, New York, is sending daily Advent devotionals to its email list this year. Today’s devotional starts out: “When we have something major coming up, we take inventory of where we are and what we need to do to get there. The coming of Christ invites us to the same kind of reflection. Of course, we don't need to worry about saving ourselves - we're saved by virtue of our faith.” This last idea, it seems to me, encourages us, as so many other devotionals do, to “just believe.” That is, we should exert an act of will to somehow accept a series of propositions necessary for our salvation. This, of course, places us in the center of the action; we are dependant on ourselves for our salvation. God demands that we believe, and we struggle to comply.
I think what this devotional should have said is: We are baptized. We don’t need to worry about saving ourselves because we’ve been baptized. Baptism is done for us; we don’t do it ourselves. It’s a gift.
But what is salvation? I bet most people immediately have the mental picture of getting into heaven after we die. That’s not wrong, but it’s hardly right either, because it’s about saving me, and, by implication, what I have to do to save myself to get into heaven. I have to be good. Not bloody likely. I know what I’m like.
Baptism’s gift, the salvation given, is freedom from fear. We have nothing to fear, because God loves us and is with us always. Freedom from fear can give us strength to do what is right. The fact that we so often do wrong is a sign of how fearful we remain, even while God remains with us and loves us. God always calls us to accept the gift of baptism: to live without fear. As we accept and live fearlessly, we are saved. Living fearlessly requires that we become conscious of our fear and let go of it. Our consciousness is our great ally. Pray to be granted the gift of consciousness.
But what about the unbaptized? Are they saved? Lots of ink (and blood) has been shed over this question, and the answer is of course. Of course, they are saved if, like the baptized, they live without fear. They just haven’t received the sign of baptism as Christians have, but the opportunity to live without fear is available to all.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

ELCA decisions explained

The video below answers all your questions about the ELCA sexuality decisions. It's funny and very, very Lutheran.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

“Eternal Life: A New Vision”

Metaphor and analogy are the only ways we can think and speak about the great questions of religion. Traditionally, the metaphor of God as the focus of religion is external and separate from us humans. We say that God is not us. God is in heaven, above us, other than us. Alternatively, Moltmann has written that God is ahead of us, leading us into the future. In any case, God is the word we use to try to express that which is beyond our experience bound always by time and space. In “Eternal Life: A New Vision” (New York HarperOne 2009), John Shelby Spong employs another metaphor, one often used by mystics. God is within us; the divine can be experienced as an aspect of the human if we look inward.
Thus it seems that Spong in “Eternal Life” and Cupitt in “Jesus & Philosophy” are aiming at much the same idea: true religion is motivated from within, not imposed from without. Further, true religion is transformative. The truly religious are in the process of being possessed by the Eternal, slowly leaving behind concerns for security and punishment that stories of heaven and hell encourage. God is ceasing to be the judge above, but rather becoming the light within that guides our thoughts and actions. Freed from concerns about our welfare, we are free to work to help bring the Kingdom on earth.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

“Jesus & Philosophy”

In “Jesus & Philosophy” (2009 SCM Press, London), Don Cupitt assesses the place of Jesus in the history of ethics. Biblical scholars, particularly those in the Jesus Seminar, maintain that, starting about 20 years after his death, Jesus was made into the personification of his teaching and given an exalted cosmic status. After a few decades, a supernatural superstructure was built around him obscuring his own sayings, producing instead mostly fictionalized narratives of his life, as well as material pertinent to his followers’ current concerns.
Using the ranking system of the Jesus Seminar, Cupitt finds that the sayings most likely to reflect closely Jesus’ own teaching (coded red or pink) reflect a major innovation in ethics with a shift from realism to emotivism. The moral standard is brought down from heaven, thought to be real, and relocated in the world of human feelings and relationships, or, in Cupitt words, the world of ‘the heart’.
For Cupitt, Jesus stresses the moral importance of a high level of critical self-consciousness: Get the beam out of your own eye, calculate, and then be extravagantly generous, because that is what melts the heart, unfreezes human relationships, and breaks the culture of ressentiment (Cupitt’s emphasis). Ressentiment is the French word that Nietzsche uses to sum up the whole range of reactive or negative emotions, including scorn, disgust, dislike, envy, lust, disapproval, repugnance, contempt, impatience, malice, irritation, anger, rage, fury, fear, terror, hatred, boredom, indifference, recoiling, seething resentment, begrudging, outrage, indignation at, despair of, and many more. When they surge up in us in reaction to another, we want to separate ourselves as far as possible from that person.
In contrast, the positive emotions do not cloud or block our relation to the other person. These emotions are mostly very cool and transparent and not numerous. They include regard, attention, interest, sympathy, pity, respect, admiration, allegiance, friendship, and love. Usually the positive emotions don’t present moral problems, but the negative ones are often violent and a threat to social peace. To overcome them, we must often be almost supernaturally “big” and generous, going beyond justice.
To help us do this, the Jesus of the red or pink sayings urges us to choose a new moral world where everything is clear and brightly lit, completely open, explicit, bright and clear, not continuing with ill-feeling which is often double-feeling, such as malice, deceit, deception, and duplicity which imply a certain doubleness that maintains a gap between our displayed feelings and real but veiled feelings that are hidden behind them.
Because of his emphasis on feelings between people, Jesus values people more than the religious law. Stories like the healing on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14) imply the end of the rule of religious law and the appearance of a human who is more radically free and autonomous than ever before. Thus, Jesus radicalizes Jeremiah and Ezekiel who proclaim that the law will be written on people’s hearts and God will take away people’s hearts of stone and give them instead hearts of flesh (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26). Jesus becomes anthropocentric and emotivist, changing ethics profoundly by secularizing ethics, historicizing it, and humanizing it. However, to question the Divine Law is to question God, especially God who is “outside” us. Thus, these sayings may be some of the reason for Jesus’ troubles with the authorities.
Jesus’ teachings are difficult for individuals to follow, and, of course, threatening to the religious establishment. It is no wonder that an overlay of supernatural narrative was quickly put onto Jesus’ radical sayings. It is easier to worship than to follow and emulate. “Go and do likewise” is a difficult command; it is easier for us to leave the changing of the world to God. However, if the law is written on our hearts, we become God-like agents of change.
At the end of the book, Cupitt addresses this dilemma of direction from “outside and above” us and motivation from within, writing that ethics has two different faces or dimensions, corresponding to the doctrines of creation and redemption. “Creation” ethics would have us support existing reality: be loyal to the system as it is, obeying the rules, playing our parts, and raising the next generation. In contrast, “redemption” ethics would have us keep alive and spell out the Dream of a better world. If the Dream is sufficiently vivid and attractive, it will shape our values and the orientation of our lives. The Dream present in Jesus’ sayings has only recently, with the collapse of external religious sanctions, begun to be recognized and grasped as the way to the Law within us. Cupitt concludes by suggesting that the rediscovered historical Jesus might become the way to the reform and renewal of Christianity.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Apology for the treatment of Alan Turing

Today, the Associated Press reports that Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of Britian, has apologized for Britian's treatment of Alan Turing. See the news item below.

September 11, 2009
UK Gov't Apologizes to Gay Codebreaker Alan Turing
Filed at 11:58 a.m. ET

LONDON (AP) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered a posthumous apology Friday for the ''inhumane'' treatment of Alan Turing, the World War II codebreaker who committed suicide in 1954 after being prosecuted for homosexuality and forcibly treated with female hormones.

The mathematician helped crack Nazi Germany's Enigma encryption machine -- a turning point in the war -- and is considered a father of modern computing.

In 1952, however, Turing was convicted of gross indecency for having sex with a man and offered a choice between prison and ''chemical castration'' -- the injection of female hormones to suppress his libido. His security clearance was revoked and he was no longer allowed to work for the government.

Two years later, he killed himself at age 41 by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

As Britain marks the 70th anniversary of the September 1939 start of the war -- remembered as its ''finest hour'' -- Brown said Turing ''deserved so much better'' than the treatment he received from postwar society.

''It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War II could well have been very different,'' Brown said. ''He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war.''

Brown said Turing was ''in effect, tried for being gay.'' Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967.

''The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely,'' Brown said. ''We're sorry, you deserved so much better.''

Brown's apology follows an online petition that drew more than 30,000 supporters, including novelist Ian McEwan, scientist Richard Dawkins and actor and comedian Stephen Fry.

Computer scientist John Graham-Cumming said he started the petition campaign because Turing ''wasn't as well known in Britain as I think he deserved to be, as a hero of the Second World War and a great mathematician.''

Working at the wartime codebreaking center at Bletchley Park, Turing helped crack Germany's secret codes by creating the ''Turing bombe,'' a forerunner of modern computers, to help reveal the settings for the Enigma machine.

Turing also did pioneering work on artificial intelligence, developing the ''Turing Test'' to measure whether a machine can think. One of the most prestigious honors in computing, the $250,000 Turing Prize, is named for him.

Graham-Cumming said Turing had a strong claim to the title ''father of computing.''

''He was thinking about what it meant to have a computer long before they existed,'' Graham-Cumming said. ''He laid out the fundamental science of it.''

Turing was among a motley group of mathematicians, cryptographers, crossword puzzle aficionados, chess masters and other experts assembled at a mansion called Bletchley Park, northwest of London, to wage a secret war against Nazi Germany. Their goal: cracking Adolf Hitler's supposedly unbreakable codes.

The team uncovered the secret to the Enigma machine and other ciphers used by the Nazi high command, revealing details of the movements of Germany's U-boat fleets and handing victory on the seas to the Allies.

Their work also provided crucial information in the desert campaign against German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the preparations for the Allied invasion of France.

''It is doubtful whether the D-Day landings would have happened, let alone succeeded,'' without Bletchley Park, said Kelsey Griffin, a director of the Bletchley Park museum.

She said Turing ''stands alongside (Winston) Churchill as one of our great Britons.''

Secrecy about the work at Bletchley Park, maintained long after the war was over, meant that for decades the role played by Turing and thousands of other codebreakers was not widely known.

Brown's apology, published on his office Web site, was seen as rare. The British government has resisted previous calls to apologize for historical events. In 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed ''deep sorrow'' for the slave trade, but stopped short of saying sorry.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said Brown's apology to Turing was ''most welcome and commendable,'' but didn't go far enough.

''A similar apology is also due to the estimated 100,000 British men who were convicted of consenting, victimless same-sex relationships during the 20th century,'' Tatchell said.


On the Net:

Gordon Brown's apology:

Bletchley Park:

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rethinking Basic Christian Concepts in the Light of Charles Darwin

Below is Bishop John S. Spong's mediation today on the revolution in theology that the work of Charles Darwin has wrought. It outlines the task ahead if Christianity is to enter the 21st century with anything like intellectual rigor.

The Study of Life, Part 6
Rethinking Basic Christian Concepts in the Light of Charles Darwin
As I retraced Charles Darwin's steps through the Galapagos Islands, I contemplated anew his impact on traditional Christian thinking. I had been working intensively on Darwin for about three years in preparation for my book on eternal life. Darwin, more than anyone else, had shaken the foundations of belief in eternal life by defining human beings as animals with more highly developed brains, removing any sense of immortality from them. By the time we arrived in the Galapagos the time for any rewrites on this book was over. My manuscript was at my publisher, HarperCollins. The next time I will see this book will be in its published form. This book had been for me a grueling task since it drove me almost against my will to come to a new understanding of my faith. I discovered first that I could no longer make a case for life after death until I had journeyed to a place that was, as my subtitle suggests, "beyond religion, beyond theism and beyond heaven and hell." That was a direct result of my deep engagement with Darwin's thought. It is fair to say, however, that in the writing of this book I also became aware that Darwin's thought had also helped me to arrive at a new vision of what I believe will be the future of Christianity. Through this column I seek to share that process with my readers.
My struggle began with the recognition that the primary titles that we Christians have given to Jesus all carry with them a particular definition of what it means to be human. To call Jesus "savior" implies that human life needs to be saved from something. The same is true about the titles "rescuer," "redeemer" and "reconciler." This negative definition of humanity is why the traditional telling of the Jesus story focuses on Jesus' suffering, which was the price that Jesus had to pay for our salvation. The traditional Protestant mantra, "Jesus died for my sins," and the Catholic definition of the Eucharist as "the sacrifice of the Mass," both reinforce the assumption of human depravity that is a major theme filling Christian theology and history.

These distorting images began in a mythology that assumed that human life was a special creation, made in the image of God, and suggesting that human life originally shared in the perfection of God's finished creation. Falling from that status into what came to be called "original sin," however, quickly became the major focus of Christian theology. Starting with Paul, it has been the "fall" and its resulting distortion of God's creation that has been the bedrock of the way we have told the Jesus story. It was our sinful status that mandated God's divine rescue operation "for us and for our salvation." The heart of Christian theology, including such core doctrines as the Incarnation, the divinity of Christ, the Atonement and even the concept of God as a Holy Trinity, were all attempts to spell out the Jesus story in terms of this definition of what it means to be sinful. Human beings were those creatures who in an act of disobedience had destroyed the beauty of God's original creation and had plunged the whole world into sin. Charles Darwin's understanding of human origins ran directly counter to these assumptions. If Darwin was correct then this whole theological system, which featured the account of Jesus' sacrificial death to save us from our sins, was doomed to become inoperative.

If human life, as Darwin suggested and as modern science keeps verifying, is the product of millions of years of evolutionary history, then none of these theological formulas remain valid. Without an original, perfect and complete creation, there could never have been a fall from perfection, not even metaphorically. Original sin has thus got to go. Without that fall from perfection there was no need for God's rescue and no reason for Jesus to come to our aid. The idea of God as the punishing parent organizes religious life on the basis of the childlike and primitive motifs of reward and punishment. The cross understood as the place where Jesus paid our debt to this vengeful God becomes not just nonsensical, but it also serves to twist human life with guilt in order to make this system of thought believable. That is why Christian worship seems to require the constant denigration of human life. Christian liturgies constantly beg God "to have mercy." Our hymns sing of God's amazing grace, but the only reason God's grace is amazing is that it "saved a wretch like me." This theology assumes that God is an external being, living somewhere above the sky, whose chief occupations are two: first to keep the record books up to date on our behavior, thus serving as the basis on which we will be judged; and second to be ready to come to our aid in miraculous ways either to establish the divine order or in answer to our prayers. Darwin was only one part of the explosion of knowledge that rendered these ideas not only irrelevant, but unbelievable. Copernicus and Galileo had destroyed God's dwelling place above the sky by introducing us to the vastness of space, suddenly but not coincidentally rendering this God homeless. Then Isaac Newton discovered the mathematically precise and immutable laws by which the universe is governed, leaving little room in it for either miracle or magic, which rendered the miracle-working deity unemployed. One well-known English theologian, when he finally embraced these realities in the early 1980's, abandoned his Christian faith, pronouncing himself "a non-aggressive atheist." When asked why he was no longer a believer, he replied quite simply "because God no longer had any work to do."

It was Darwin, however, who applied the coup de grâce both to religion and to the belief in life after death, at least as traditional Christianity had proclaimed these things. To Darwin human beings were merely a work in progress. Far from being created perfect we had evolved into our present form like every other creature by "natural selection" over more than three billion years. Salvation built on the three premises of a perfect creation, a fall into sin and a rescue from above that was achieved on the cross became an exercise in fantasyland. Indeed the story of the sacrificial death of Jesus by crucifixion began to look bizarre. This theology made God appear to be a deity who required a blood offering and a human sacrifice in order to forgive. Jesus began to look like a perpetual victim, perhaps even a masochistic person who willingly endured, even welcomed, suffering and death on the cross. Human beings looked like guilt-ridden creatures whose sinfulness made the death of Jesus necessary. Finally, Christianity became a religion of guilt, which was encouraged liturgically. There was nothing about this scenario that could be called good news or "gospel," yet it persisted for centuries. These distortions in the Jesus message began to wobble under the impact of Galileo and Newton, but it was Darwin who made it clear that the Christian world could no longer go on pretending that nothing had changed. The foundations on which the Christian message had been erected had collapsed.

When I embraced what this meant existentially I came to the conclusion that if Christianity was to have a future, then I must find a new point of entry and a new way to hear and to believe the Jesus story. That was the challenge I had to meet before I could ever address the possibility of life after death. I began that reconstruction task in my book Jesus for the Non-Religious and now I had to complete this task by spelling out a new way to view eternal life.

I was delighted to discover that the greatest of the New Testament scholars in the 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann, regularly spoke of Jesus not as the "savior," but as the "revealer." That shift was not subtle. Bultmann was suggesting the Jesus "revealed" a new dimension of what it means to be human and in the process opened a new window into what it is to experience the presence of God. Suddenly I had found a whole new way to look at what divinity is in human life. Underneath the focus on sacrifice revealed in the gospels I began to view Jesus as one who was so deeply and fully human that whatever it is that we experience God to be could be seen in him and experienced through him. A new way to view the cross next began to come into view. The cross was not a sacrifice to placate an angry God, but a living portrait of a human life that was no longer controlled by the innate drive to survive. Here was a life free to give itself away, a life with no need to build itself up at another's expense. This was a new dimension of what it means to be human, what it means to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that life was meant to be. When I got beneath the level of later explanation, which dominates the gospel narratives, and began to ask what was the Jesus experience that compelled his followers to stretch the words available to them to an infinite degree to enable those words to be big enough to capture their Jesus experience, I heard them saying we have met and encountered in the life of this Jesus everything that we mean by the word "God." It was that word "inflation" that gives us virgin births, wandering stars, miracles, parables, physical resuscitations and ascensions into heaven. They were trying to say that in his humanity, which seemed to break all human barriers, they had found a doorway into the meaning of transcendence, the reality of God. The way into divinity became for me the pathway of becoming fully human. It was to affirm that we are still evolving into we know not what. Jesus was a new dimension of life for which we may all be headed.

So I had to begin my quest for life after death by going into the depths of the mystery of life itself. Just as we now know that life evolved out of lifeless matter, that consciousness emerged out of life and finally that self-conscious life has emerged out of mere consciousness, so perhaps the day is now arriving when we will experience the possibility of entering a universal consciousness that is beginning to emerge out of self-consciousness. We are thus part of the oneness of life, bound together by a common DNA and that oneness makes us part of God. It also suggests that we are linked to eternity since God is found at the depth of the human.

These words can only scratch the surface of the thought I try to develop in my book on eternal life, but they do presage the path I walk. Charles Darwin, who for me made a new Christianity necessary, turns out to offer the clue to that new direction. This vision now stands before me. I invite you to join me in entering it.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Pardon Alan Turing

Alan Turing was one of the fathers of computer science and a homosexual. Because of his sexual orientation, he was hounded to suicide. The article below describes how many in Britain want this injustice recognized and amends made. David Leavitt's biography of Turing, "The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer," is a good place to start learning about his life and work.

BBC NEWS: Published August 31, 2009

Thousands call for Turing apology

Thousands of people have signed a Downing Street petition calling for a posthumous government apology to World War II code breaker Alan Turing. Writer Ian McEwan has just backed the campaign, which already has the support of scientist Richard Dawkins. In 1952 Turing was prosecuted under the gross indecency act after admitting to a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself.
The petition was the idea of computer scientist John Graham-Cumming. He is seeking an apology for the way the young mathematician was treated after his conviction. He has also written to the Queen to ask for a posthumous knighthood to be awarded to the British mathematician.
Alan Turing was given experimental chemical castration as a "treatment" and his security privileges were removed, meaning he could not continue work for the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
"This added insult and humiliation ultimately drove him to suicide," said gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who also backs the campaign. "With Turing's death, Britain and the world lost one of its finest intellectual minds. A government apology and posthumous pardon are long overdue.”

National legacy

Alan Turing is most famous for his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during WWII, helping to create the Bombe that cracked messages enciphered with the German Enigma machines. However he also made significant contributions to the emerging fields of artificial intelligence and computing. In 1936 he established the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal paper called "On Computable Numbers", whilst in 1950 he devised a test to measure the intelligence of a machine. Today it is known as the Turing Test.
After the war he worked at many institutions including the University of Manchester, where he worked on the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers. There is a memorial statue of him in Manchester's Sackville Gardens which was unveiled in 2001.
"I kept reading about potential funding cuts at Bletchley Park and I suddenly felt really mad about it," said Mr Graham-Cumming. "I felt Turing was getting overlooked as being a British genius and that there was a blindspot in the public eye about an important man."
He has so far collected more than 5,500 signatures. He admits that an official apology to Alan Turing is "unlikely", as Mr. Turing has no known surviving family, but he says that the real aim of the petition is symbolic. "The most important thing to me is that people hear about Alan Turing and realise his incredible impact on the modern world, and how terrible the impact of prejudice was on him," he said.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) recently voted to allow gays in "life-long, monogamous" relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay leaders in the church. Although this is good news, it still imposes a “work” on clergy, and by implication on all church members, to be monogamous or in a committed relationship. The only other choice is to be not sexually active or chaste. As John Shuck writes in his blog “Shuck and Jive”
“The inherited (and largely unexamined) ethic (in the church) is that all sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and sinful. This is hardly an ethic. It is simply a rule. It says nothing of the quality of sexual activity within marriage including issues of power and consent, and it says nothing to the millions of people who are not married but (believe it or not) have sex. There is no guidance for them from the church except be celibate or be silent. The church can and should do better.”
He goes on:
“We need to have discussions about what is good, ethical, just, and life-affirming. As Rev. (Debra) Haffner (director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing []), points out…:
“The Religious Institute has long called for a new sexual ethic to replace the traditional "celibacy until marriage, chastity after." This new ethic is free of double standards based on sexual orientation, sex, gender or marital status. It calls for sexual relationships to be consensual, non-exploitative, honest, pleasurable and protected, whether inside or outside of a covenanted relationship. It insists that intimate relationships be grounded in communication and shared values. And it applies to all adults -- even those of us who are called to ministry.”
So the battle for enlightened sexual ethics and responsible sexual freedom is far from over. I pray that the ELCA will hear the call for these next steps and help us on the road to good sex. Will you join me in my prayers?

Afghanistan and the Drug War

America’s war in Afghanistan is getting bloodier. In August, so far, 45 Americans have died in that war, more than in June or July. So far, as editorialized in today’s “New York Times,” over 8 years of war more than 5000 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have spent more than $900 billions to achieve “victory” in those countries. Indeed, although our leaders tell us we will win the Afghan war, the chance of victory and our reasons for being there at all are murky. The English and the Russians before us tried and failed to impose their will on this country, but our government sees no reason why we shouldn’t succeed where they failed. How will our success be measured? In large part, we believe we’ll be successful if we engineer a “democratic” government there not enmeshed in the drug trade, which is Afghanistan’s main source of income.
Why is the drug trade so lucrative? Primarily, because opium-based drugs are illegal, and when drugs are illegal, a great deal of money can be made on the street. The U.N.’s drug czar, in the July 31, 2009 “Newsweek,” says about $52 billion of street drugs were sold retail worldwide last year. Of the $3 billion wholesale value, he estimates that the Taliban is raking off about 10% and is actively involved in the drug trade itself, as part of its terrorist activities. He also says that the Afghan government eradicated only about 3% of the poppy fields last year at the cost of 70 Afghan military deaths and at least two hundred million dollars. Three percent is hardly enough to deter growers.
This also is an example of the failures of the U.S. drug war, which continues unabated, wreaking havoc everywhere. From comes the news that so far in 2009 alone, we’ve spent over $33.6 billion on state and federal anti-drug efforts, while arresting more than 1.2 million people for drug offences. Many of those arrested will end up in prisons, which are breaking down under the load. This is all in the name of prohibiting drug sales. However, many addicts recruit others to finance their habit, so the number of addicts grows and sales increase. So, like the prohibition of alcohol, the prohibition of drugs is a failure, but prohibition is a moral crusade for the U.S. government because drugs, it is said, are bad. Perhaps a better way of thinking about drugs is that addiction is a medical problem that should be treated, rather than a crime that should be punished. If addicts could receive the drugs they crave from a clinic, rather from street sellers, they would have no cause to commit crimes to support their habit.
As long as drugs are prohibited in a moral war on drugs, the worse the drug problem will be. Our war in Afghanistan will not eradicate drug sales, only decriminalizing drug sales will do that. Does the U.S. have the moral courage to stop our crusade against drugs? Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Angry White Men lose one

Now gay Lutheran ministers can acknowledge their same-sex spouses in church. This is obviously the end of the world (as we know it), and God must be rolling over in his grave as a result.
So the angry white men are not getting their way in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a white male organization if there ever was one. Gun-toting, Fox-News watching white men have been very successful in other areas like derailing health care reform, so how did they drop the ball with the Lutherans? I attribute it to the first Lutheran commandment: “Be Nice.” For Lutherans being nice is more important (most times) than justice or truth. We only have to cast our minds back to the Lutherans’ role in Nazi Germany to remember that not making waves and looking the other way were more compelling actions for them than standing up for the Jews. By the way, German Lutherans didn’t stand up for homosexuals, either, and many perished in the camps also.
So, 68% of this year’s church wide assembly voted to allow congregations to call clergy in same-sex relationships. Although, not to be cynical, I’m sure many voted for this because it’s right, I’m also convinced many voted for it so it would go away and we wouldn’t have to talk about sex anymore. Talking about sex really isn’t nice; no Lutheran does it unless pushed to the wall. After all, Lutherans’ greatest theologian, St. Paul, told us how nasty sex is. Why would nice people want to talk about it, much less do it?
So now at least for a while we don’t have to talk about sex. The angry white men will plot and maybe eventually leave the ELCA, but for now, no more sex talk. Who’s bringing what to the next potluck supper in the church hall?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Comment on "Brueggemann's swing and a miss”

I have left the comment below on the August 5, 2009, post, “Brueggemann's swing and a miss,” on the blog, “Cyber Spirit Café”

Walter Brueggemann is the most respected Old Testament scholar active today, so his comments carry great weight, but his ambivalent crusade against historical criticism of the Bible gives the appearance of floundering: He writes that historical criticism undermines the church’s “textual memory.” However, it’s not going away, even if we bury our heads in the sand. The question is how should the church deal with historical criticism?
The presence of historical criticism in the life of the church has long been a preoccupation of Brueggemann’s. I was particularly struck by this in an otherwise magisterial review of Jon D. Levenson’s, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life” in the February 6, 2007, issue of “Christian Century.” In the review, Brueggemann writes that Levenson makes three main points. The first is “…faith in resurrection, when we have the courage to overcome the intrusiveness of Enlightenment rationality, is vigorous and central to both Jews and Christians.” I was so struck by this idea of overcoming the Enlightenment that I wrote a letter (unpublished) to the “Christian Century” about it. In it I ask, “How do we overcome the intrusive Enlightenment?” I go on to assert that, “Surely, we won’t by going down the dead-end road of fundamentalism.” I then offer a method by which moderns can embrace the frankly supernatural resurrection without abandoning rationality. This is the idea suggested by Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutic circle” in “The Symbolism of Evil.” He suggests that we moderns have lost our immediacy of belief, but we can aim at a second, post-critical naïveté in and through critical thinking. By interpreting, we can hear again. In hermeneutics, the symbol’s gift of meaning and the endeavor to understand by deciphering are knotted together. In the circle: “We must understand in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand.”
Another idea may amplify this. Don Cupitt, the English theologian, has written in “Radicals and the Future of the Church” that the church is needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” In the theater we usually naturally and easily suspend disbelief to enter into the world of the actors who by speech and action on stage in turn evoke in us actions, feelings, experiences and thoughts. So, likewise, during a religious service we may also suspend disbelief, and have religious feelings and experiences. In fact, following Schleiermacher, it is via our feelings aroused by worship that the Holy Spirit comes to us and guides our actions. This is in keeping with the classic Christian idea that Word and Sacraments are objective. We have the promise that if we attend to them, God is present to us through them. So, those worshipping should be intentional about entering the realm in which the Spirit is promised to be available to us. In worship we should seek the Spirit’s presence to strengthen us in our lives. So the questions to ask about the Biblical narratives are not about their historicity, albeit these questions are fascinating, but rather about whether these narratives are vehicles for the Holy Spirit to enlighten and enable good works in our lives. Of course, the Holy Spirit is Other. When we enter into worship, we are following the Spirit’s lead; we cannot control what happens. It is this very lack of human control that permits us to glimpse fleetingly and incompletely something of God. Thus we trust the promise of God’s resurrection knowing full well that it cannot be accommodated within rational thought. Like everything important in life, we trust the promise often with only the dimmest comprehension or certainty.

Friday, July 17, 2009

“The Evolution of God”

"For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” (Malachi 3:6)

God does not change; God does not evolve. Yes? Maybe not, writes Robert Wright in his new book, “The Evolution of God.” Maybe God does change and, surely, people’s understanding of the concept of God changes. We can’t know with certainty, but Wright sees a trend in the history of the Abrahamic God: the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, toward heightened moral imagination: our ability to imagine ourselves from another person’s point of view, to be empathetic. Wright calls this a “non-zero-sum relationship.” The more expansive your moral imagination, the more you lend your support to the other’s cause. He writes: “(This) can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause).” In other words, one hand washes the other. He detects a pattern of the change of the Abrahamic religions: “The tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum” (or I win; you lose, rather than, we both win.) In reviewing the histories of Abrahamic religions, he senses a trend toward more non-zero-sum relationships and counsels that for the sake of the planet, we should be conscious of any evidence of this trend and to work to enhance it. He also rather gingerly proposes that these trends might be taken as evidence of the guiding God of Abraham.
He doesn’t mention Jürgen Moltmann, but such a trend seems in line with Moltmann’s idea of God calling us into the future, a future containing many changes. Moltmann, writes about God not up there but out in front calling us into the future. Moltmann understands Christian faith as essentially hope for the future of human beings and for this world as promised by the God of exodus and by God’s resurrection of the crucified Jesus. Thus, an attitude of expectancy underlies all of faith. An active doctrine of hope gives hope for an alternative (my italics) future to the oppressed and suffering of our present time (adapted from The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology []).
I recommend “The Evolution of God” as a very helpful introduction to the history of Abrahamic religion and as a source of ideas about how they might play a useful role in making the world a better place.

Monday, July 13, 2009

“Charles and Emma”

Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgewood Darwin built a close and happy 43-year-long marriage despite serious religious differences. Deborah Heiligman discusses their marriage and family life in her new (2009) Young Adult book, “Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith.” In Heiligman’s telling, Emma was very traditional, if not fundamentalistic, in her Christian beliefs, believing literally in heaven and hell. Her belief was particularly strong because her sister Fanny, with whom she was very close, died early in Emma’s adult life leaving her bereft. Believing that she would be with Fanny again in heaven, gave Emma great comfort, and, conversely and anxiety producing, she also believed that if a person did not believe in eternal life, that person was doomed to hell forever.
Although Charles was baptized in the Church of England, the Darwin family had long been part of the church’s free-thinking, nonconformist, Unitarian wing. However, when Darwin went up to Cambridge in 1827, he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible and was planning to become an Anglican clergyman. He received his BA in April, 1831, and in December of that year, he sailed as the naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle. Although at the beginning of the voyage, his religious views were quite orthodox and literal, during the voyage, he began to develop his ideas on biological evolution and started to think that species could change, thus undermining his literal belief that all life was created at one time in the form of fixed species.
When in 1836, he returned from the voyage, he began to think about marriage, and in true Darwinian logical fashion, wrote two columns on a paper: Marry? And Not Marry? He decided on marriage, and soon he was courting Emma, his first cousin, whom he had known all his life. In 1839, he and Emma married, but not before his discussing with her his now unorthodox religious views. In this, he went against his father’s advice, who had counseled concealment of his views from Emma for the sake martial concord. These open discussions between them were, however, important in making their marriage strong and happy in spite of the many trials and miseries they encountered.
Perhaps chief among their personal sorrows was the death, in 1851, of their beloved child Annie who among their children was particularly close to both of them. Her death was particularly cruel for Charles and dealt the final blow for him of a traditional conception of Christianity, which at the time of Annie’s death was being shaped by his reading of Francis Newman’s book, “Phases of Faith or Passages from the History of My Creed.” Throughout his life Charles read widely in religion, and although Newman, like Darwin, did not believe in the literal truth of the Bible, he did believe in heaven and for him the way to heaven was by accepting the teachings of Jesus. Newman wrote that Christianity taught that people deserve punishment for offending God, and he concluded that in Christian belief, “the fretfulness of a child is an infinite evil!” Newman continued, “I was aghast that I could have believed it.” Charles in reading this thought of his brave Annie, pleasant during the day and crying herself to sleep at night. How could he adhere to a religion that saw a child’s fretfulness as evil? It was Annie’s illness and death that more than anything else turned Charles away from the orthodox Christianity of his day and, not incidentally, the religion of his wife. However, or perhaps because of their religious differences, their marriage bond grew stronger as they coped with this tragedy and the deaths of their other children, all of whom they loved dearly and indulged in a very un-Victorian way. Throughout their lives, particularly during times of tragedy, Charles and Emma continued to discuss their differing views. Furthermore, Emma was always Charles first editor, even though, because of her conservative religious views, she had serious reservations about natural selection, which Charles put forth as the basis for the evolution of life into many ever-changing species. This idea is the basis of “The Origin of Species,” Charles’s landmark book, and during the course of its development, Emma worked closely with him to improve his arguments.
Throughout her life, the hope of heaven remained the principal way that she coped with life’s disappointments, primarily the early and seemingly inopportune deaths of those she loved most dearly, including her sister Fanny and her children who died in her lifetime. Charles came to take a more stoic, agonistic view of life’s blows. Interestingly after Charles died and Emma grew old, her anxieties about the afterlife seemed to fade. Perhaps she found at least a portion of “The Peace that Passes Understanding.”

Friday, July 3, 2009

“Next Fall” and “The Tempermentals”

This past Sunday, we saw two very interesting gay plays: “Next Fall” ( and “The Temperamentals” (, as part of my 75th birthday celebration. I wouldn’t, as a rule, see two plays in one day, but this was the only time we had, so we did it.
“Next Fall” describes what happens when a gay man is in a serious auto accident in Manhattan and his family from the hinterland descends on the hospital without knowing he is gay and meeting his lover for the first time. The gay man is a born-again evangelical and his boyfriend is your typical wiseacre atheist New Yorker who keeps trying in flashbacks to get his boyfriend to explain and defend his beliefs. The Evangelical is cowardly for not coming out to his family long ago, and the New Yorker is irritating for his continual badgering, but they clearly love each other. The gay man dies and the play ends without the audience knowing if the family ever got it that their son was gay. The play is a good commentary on the cost of being in the closet.
The play in the evening, “The Temperamentals” was about the cost of being out of the closet. The main characters are Harry Hay and his lover Rudi Gernreich, the fashion designer, who in Los Angeles in the 1950s started the Mattachine Society, one of the first, if not the first, Gay liberation organizations in America. At a time when even being suspected of being gay was a cause for arrest, they proclaimed that homosexuality was not a perversion, a sickness, or a crime. Hay and the Mattachines organized one of the first trials of a gay man, who entrapped by the police in a sexual encounter, pleaded not guilty. Usually, gay men in such sting operations pleaded guilty and avoided the publicity of a trial. The man was found not guilty because the jury was hung, but interestingly, there was a conspiracy of silence with no reports of the trial or its outcome in the press. As a result of this silence, Hay founded the “The Mattachine Review,” a magazine, to publicize the trial and to provide other news of interest to the “Temperamentals,” which was Hay’s name for homosexuals. It was probably the first publication of its type in the U.S. The play is a little talky, but consistently interesting and clearly shows how brave it was to be out in the ‘50s. Also, for us the day demonstrated why New York is so essential to America. Only in New York would two plays like this find audiences, and both were sold out. “Next Fall” closes on July 11th and “The Temperamentals” on August 23rd. Go see them for yourself.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Revelation via Feelings: My discovery of Schleiermacher

What is revelation? Does it exist or is it merely a pious fiction? John Shuck’s recent post on “Religion without Revelation” ( got me thinking about this, and, as you can read below, I wrote a comment on the post. In it, I wrote that feelings are our revelation, however ever unreliable they are.
In thinking about feelings and revelation, I was led back, via Google, to Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the father of modern liberal Christian thought. The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology has a helpful set of papers on Schleiermacher ( For example, John Tamilio III points out that “Schleiermacher begins by distinguishing the cognitive from the visceral: knowing God intellectually and experiencing God affectively. The latter is the foundation of Schleiermacher’s systematics. Religious experience is grounded in a feeling of absolute dependence on God. Absolute dependence is both the ‘primary datum of religion’ and the way in which we are ‘to be in relation to God.’ This is a precognitive experience.” Tamilio continues: “…for Schleiermacher, faith is not the experience of isolated individuals, but rather the lived experience of a faith community.” So, for Christians, revelation is most likely to come from the experience of worship. The acts of worship and the behaviors involved in worshipping produce the feelings that led to revelation.
In the same set of papers, Holly Reed writes, “Schleiermacher is accused of being anti-intellectual in his emphasis on piety and feeling over reason. Schleiermacher, however, would not deny the need and value of “knowing:” he simply would not give it primacy over feeling. His concern was to enforce the fact that human knowing is limited and does not have access to all there is to know. We are not God, and our abilities are not as broad or deep.”
So, I guess that my emphasis on feelings as conduits for revelation goes back at least as far as Schleiermacher. File this under “Nothing new under the sun.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Comment on Religion without Revelation

I enjoyed John Shuck’s post on "Religion without Revelation" at his blog, “Shuck and Jive,” ( Here is my comment on that post, slightly edited:

Religion is a human activity. We humans have feelings and experiences that we name religious. We are often passionately convinced of the truth of our religion because our feelings about it are so strong. Such strong feelings must make right, yes? However, feelings are unreliable. They are fleeting; they are often gone before we can bring them fully to consciousness; they change; we can’t reproduce them at will. So we try to find a way to hold on to them, to preserve them. We are much like Peter in the story of the Transfiguration wanting to build booths to preserve the moment. Our booths are the institution, the doctrines, and the supernatural. These are all designed to hold on to and reproduce the feelings at the core of all religions. However, as Jesus pointed out to him, we must move on, even to death. Life and its feelings can’t be stored but must always be poured out until we too pass away.
So, far from there being no revelation, our religious feelings give us a sense of the Spirit moving in us. They are our revelation. If others have similar feelings and share them with us, we can arrive at a consensus as to what the feelings mean. It is from consensus that doctrines are developed: “Believed by everyone, everywhere, at all times” is a definition of orthodoxy.
Some feelings can lead us to “Delight in the law of the Lord” and to “Conform our lives to his.” Of course, these feelings are sometimes there, sometimes not and they can be overwhelmed by other more self-serving feelings. Regular worship can on occasion summon forth those feelings that, it is hoped, are more in keeping with a God of love, and we can leave worship remembering these feelings with the aim of acting upon them.
In “Radicals and the Future of the Church” (1989), Don Cupitt still thought that the church was needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” With the publication of “The Meaning of the West” in 2008, he announced that he has left the church, because, in the West, Christianity lives on most vitally in secular society, while the churches have become weak or irrational. Although I agree this assessment, I think that it is possible to imagine churches that can be useful to people. Most importantly, churches must embrace their role as vehicles for managing feelings.
I write more about this in my post of March 17, 2009, “The Church of the Afterlife,” which is below. I would appreciate your comments.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Church of the Afterlife


In his new book, “The Meaning of the West,” Don Cupitt writes, “…I can at last finally leave the old religion behind, not just because what is left of it has now become so weak and irrational, but much more because the afterlife of Christianity has now become so much bigger and more interesting than its earlier period of existence as a great world religion. The British Labour Party, for example, has done far more to build the Kingdom of God on earth during the past hundred years than the Latin Church achieved in the same territory during the whole millennium AD 600-1600.
He continues: “Christian supernatural doctrine has not been public truth for centuries. Jane Austen, for example, is a profoundly Anglican novelist. In her world clergymen abound, and many of her characters are very serious about religion. Christian ethics -- at least in the form of an acute awareness of and sympathy for the feelings and the misfortunes of others -- is everywhere presupposed. But nobody in the entire Austen canon seriously advances a proposition of revealed theology, or even so much as mentions the name of Christ. We cannot imagine any of them doing so. In brief, even in Jane Austen’s world Christian theology is already dead. The Anglican Church is still around, but Christianity is in reality already well into its afterlife period. (My emphasis.)

The Churches Today

Can today’s Church be part of the afterlife of Christianity? Cupitt thinks not. As he writes, what’s left of religion is weak and irrational. It’s weak because most churches, particularly of mainline Protestant denominations, are unwilling to proclaim the old supernatural dogmas with conviction, while fearing to preach new messages to their “base” that is perceived as clinging to the old ways for support. The price these churches pay for their weakness is that most people find them unnecessary to their lives. The churches say nothing helpful to most people, and they live in Christianity’s afterlife without missing these churches.
The churches that today are not weak are instead irrational. These, of course, are the fundamentalists; right-wing Ratzinger Roman Catholics (the latter most clearly seen in Opus Dei and Society of St. Pius X with its Holocaust denier); and the Evangelicals. The Evangelicals are now ascendant in the United States, a religious bloc that constitutes a quarter, perhaps a third, of the population (“Christian Century” editorial, January 27, 2009). Rick Warren, an Evangelical, was anointed by Obama and is, as a result, now the most powerful religious leader in the US. Although not a thoroughgoing fundamentalist, Warren’s invocation for the Inauguration showed him to be in the tradition of Church Christianity’s theological realism. Namely, God is a supernatural theistic being, not of this earth, who deigns to hear the prayer of us lesser, earthly beings but only if we pray in the name of Him who has sole access to God. The implication of the prayer was that others should get with this program or be left out. Such arrogance, of course, sets up a conflict between the saved versus the unsaved, and, many people I spoke to resented that this theism was given a national seal of approval.
Especially since the 18th century, theism has no longer held sway among either Christian clergy or people, and yet many people, even though they no longer identify with theistic language, expect to hear theistic language from Christian preachers. Thus, in the churches, both clergy and the people who still attend are using language that no longer moves them. As a result, the church has little effect on peoples’ lives. Of course, many people have already drifted away from the churches because what they’ve heard is meaningless to them. So except for the right-wing churches offering certainty for the timid, the churches are fading away.

The Afterlife of Christianity

Although the churches are fading away, Cupitt maintains that the postmodern West is secularized Christianity. Rejecting Christian dogma and leaving the church does not disconnect people from Christianity. He writes, “We remain what Christianity has made us, and in many respects the post modern West is more Christian than ever. If you are a Westerner and are committed to Western values, then you are a Christian.” In fact, Cupitt points out that the West is indelibly Christian. “…Much or all of what is most important in Christianity has become so deeply assimilated that we are no longer aware of it, and nobody has yet studied it in any systematic way.” No one has even thought of writing a theology of the indelible (Cupitt’s emphasis), namely all the vital cultural material of Christian origin that post-Christians have not and cannot throw off. The central example is the typically Western form of individual selfhood, specifically selfhood as anxiety and the consciousness of sin, derived directly from the seventh chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (see particularly verses 16-25), which leads to critical thinking, the basis of Western philosophy and science.
Other indelible ideas Cupitt identifies are the driving force behind Western humanitarianism:
1. The belief in the uniqueness and the unique value of each individual
2. The ethic of mutual love and forbearance
3. The principle that the weakest and most vulnerable members of society have a moral claim on our love and care. This, of course, comes directly from the Jewish requirement, as in Deut. 14:29, to care for resident aliens, orphans, and widows.
Many will see in these ideas the essence of the Gospel, which proclaims that this is what God wants and, therefore, God’s followers should “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Another “indelible” is ‘the uniformity of nature,’ a narrative picture of the world governed by universal natural laws accessible to us. This belief originally was strongly theological and is rooted in the covenant with Noah (Gen. 8:20-9:17) and in the belief in the faithfulness of God. Biblical theism has produced the indelible conviction that the uniformity of nature can produce reliable scientific knowledge and technologies.
The belief in progress is another indelible. It starts with the belief that God seeks the betterment of creation and that humans are God’s agents in this improvement. As humans act in God’s stead, power is gradually transferred from God to humans and with the irreversible transition of humans from innocence to experience we become more ‘God-like.’ Today, we are indeed burdened with our God-like destructive powers that can destroy the world, but we have yet to find the will to act fully as God’s agent for good. This one fact points to the urgency of our identifying how the Kingdom has already come and to work to bring it to earth more fully.

Society Without God The persistence of the indelible ideas from Christianity has been documented in the book “Society Without God” by Phil Zuckerman, even though he does not use the indelible concept. For 14 months, he talked to Danes and Swedes about religion, and his findings are discussed by Peter Steinfels in the February 28, 2009 issue of the “New York Times.”
Sweden and Denmark are among the least religious nations in the world, as measured by responses to poll questions about belief in God, the importance of religion in their lives, belief in life after death, or church attendance. And yet in these countries, the quality of life, as measured by life expectancy, child welfare, standard of living, and other categories, is among the highest in the world. Furthermore, these countries, Zuckerman found, were “moral, stable, humane and deeply good.” In addition, although they don’t seem to fear death very much and spend little time pondering the meaning of life, they were not “despairing nihilists,” but were “for the most part, a happy, satisfied lot.” Their Christianity is generally cultural with “little to do with God or creed,” but centered on “holidays, songs, stories and food.” Although not believers, many Scandinavians remain in the national, Lutheran church, and this cultural religion helps explain aspects of Denmark and Sweden that Zuckerman admires. One nonbeliever responded to a question about the sources of Denmark’s very ethical culture by saying, “We are Lutherans in our souls – I’m an atheist, but still have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor. Yeah it’s an old, good moral thought.” And, we might add, it is one of the indelible ideas from Christianity present in this no longer religious society.

Characteristics of the Church of the Afterlife

Cupitt believes that churches should be allowed to wither and die, as they are doing. However, I hope that if some of them can recognize the vigorous afterlife of Christianity already in western society, they could work to promote the coming of the Kingdom of God more fully here on earth, and thus have a role to play and be useful for people. The Church of the Afterlife’s main contribution can be to call attention to the afterlife of Christianity in signs of the Kingdom already here and to energize people to work to expand the Kingdom.
How would the Church of the Afterlife accomplish this? What would be its characteristics? Here are a few: Afterlife congregations will be explicit about religion as a vehicle for feelings aroused by experience. Also, these congregations will be forthright in discussing religion as myth, evolution as a new source for life-guiding myths today, and sex as a central human activity to be managed, not suppressed.

Religion as a Vehicle for Feelings We often think of religion in terms of doctrines: written statements of belief that characterize a religion. But doctrines are far from the basic stuff of religion. Rather, religion most profoundly is about our feelings, including our thanks, happiness, fear, love, hate, disgust, and surprise. In “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” Cupitt wrote, before he lost his faith in the church, that the church is needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” The theatre analogy points to what happens in church. When we go to the theater, we usually naturally and easily suspend disbelief to enter into the world of the actors who by speech and action on stage in turn evoke in us actions, feelings, experiences and thoughts. So, likewise, during a religious service we may also suspend disbelief in the words and actions, and have religious feelings and experiences.
Charles Darwin contended that all humans everywhere have the same basic set of innate and constitutive emotions that are expressed by two kinds of muscular action: facial expression and bodily movement. We communicate these emotions to others often quite involuntarily as the result of instinct, rather than by learned behavior. Everyone worldwide recognizes and “reads” them similarly. Thus, we and those observing us may sense particular emotions while performing particular actions in worship, such as standing, sitting, kneeling, speaking, and singing. Joseph Ledoux in “The Emotional Brain” writes that emotions can produce conscious feelings, which, in turn, can lead to belief.
Religious rituals can bring meaning, a hallmark of belief, into focus. God can be the name and the marker for the meaning we find together in worship. God, as meaning, appears horizontally among worshipers while we understand that God in the vertical, supernatural direction is an exciting special effect produced as we together find God in our church, our theater of feelings.
Organized religion has usually been suspicious of feelings, because they are unreliable and not easily codified. Feelings are indeed erratic and fleeting, i. e., they are often over before they are identified or named. They come and go; they are conscious, but represent only some of our emotions, most of which are unconscious and not subject to our control. Thus, feelings, and more so, emotions, can be dangerous, which can heighten our anxiety. Furthermore, feelings can be hard to conceptualize, verbalize, and understand. They, like emotions, are virtually impossible to stop or control while happening and, once gone, may be hard or impossible to summon up again. Thus, feelings are like life as Cupitt describes it: finite, time-bound, contingent, unpredictable, transitory, and impermanent. Our feelings, quick, acute, and intuitive, tell us we are alive, and as insubstantial as feelings are, they are the basis of our life, our experience. They suffuse our experiences, including our religious experiences. However, if our awareness of God comes from our feelings and experiences, we soon learn that supernatural ways of thinking “improve” our God experiences, preserving them perfectly and unchanging, as Peter would have done on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus’ light shone before the disciples. But, of course, as Jesus knew, experiences can’t be preserved, but must be lived, even to death.

Religion as Myth Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of and to interpret our feelings and experiences. Religious stories are myths; they are narratives we appropriate or develop to give meaning to our feelings and experiences. Religious narratives are not literally factual, but today’s dying churches usually assume that everyone is mentally seven years old and needs to be shielded from that knowledge. The influence of Fundamentalism, especially in America, is so strong that even mainline congregations are silent on the mythic nature of Bible stories and doctrines. Many of the people who remain in churches are either complicit in this deception or wishfully hoping that these stories are literal after all. They look for a return to childhood certainty. Of course, most people, even in the church, are past such pre-critical naiveté (this is Paul Ricoeur’s formulation) in which all stories are factual. However, people grow up; leave pre-critical naiveté behind, and sometimes embrace critical thinking, the next stage of maturity, as the best way of coping with life. However, few people in our culture, which demands certainty, move in their religious understanding to the third stage: post-critical naiveté. At this stage, we are able to apprehend the truth of myths, while embracing the knowledge that they are not literally factual. In Cupitt’s terminology, they are non-real. Non-realism is discussed on his website ( Here is an excerpt:
“In religion, the move to non-realism implies the recognition that all religious and ethical ideas are human, with a human history. We give up the old metaphysical and cosmological way of understanding religious belief, and translate dogma into spirituality (a spirituality is a religious lifestyle). We understand all religious doctrines in practical terms, as guiding myths to live by, in the way that Kant, Kierkegaard and Bultmannn began to map out. We abandon ideas of objective and eternal truth, and instead see all truth as a human improvisation. We should give up all ideas of a heavenly or supernatural world-beyond. Yet, despite our seeming scepticism, we insist that non-realist religion can work very well as religion, and can deliver eternal happiness. Cupitt sees his religion of ordinary human life as the "Kingdom theology" that historic Christianity always knew it must eventually move to, after the end of the age of the Church and the arrival of a religion of immediate commitment to this world and this life only.”
So, the Church of the Afterlife can become an aid for people immersed in the flux of life and in the struggle to make sense of their feelings and experiences. The classic myths of Christianity, including God, Heaven, Hell, etc, can be experienced not as timeless Truths handed down from above, but as shorthand explanations of feelings and experiences we find ourselves coping with, such as awe, gratitude, bliss, love, hate, guilt, fear, etc. However, the classic church language generally is so antique and the approach so realistic that most people just tune out, often muttering, as they leave the church, “How can you believe such stuff?”
The “church as theatre” idea is important, because it gives us a way of seeing that post-critical naiveté may yet work in church, in spite of Cupitt’s pessimism, in much the same way as in the theatre. People still flock to movies, plays, operas, TV programs, and video games to be entertained, yes, but also to enter alternate worlds where various possibilities are presented for living our lives. In the theatre, people suspend their critical faculties to enter a make-believe world, and, if the show is good, the feelings of the characters resonate with the viewers and ideas come to them on how they might cope with similar feelings in their lives. Of course, this process goes back to the ancient Greek theatre where plays, whether tragedies or comedies, were religious. Aristotle pointed out that viewers of tragedies may achieve catharsis, the purging of the emotions of pity and fear. Similarly, a liturgy, a sermon, a class at church is good if these activities touch us and help us manage our feelings wisely.
Notice that in this formulation, religion is not about abstract doctrines concerning grand religious concepts, but rather about the feelings our experiences arouse. Religious language and activity can help us put these feelings and experiences in perspective, but there is nothing everlasting about religious formulations. They change as peoples’ needs change. So the Church of the Afterlife will reformulate old myths and develop helpful new ones.

Evolution as a new Source of Myths The concept of biological evolution can be a rich source for new and re-worked myths. Evolution, in Darwin’s formulation, is the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor and change by natural selection into new species. Of course, the idea of evolution has been resisted mightily by the churches, both because it is not in accord with the Genesis account of creation, but also more importantly because, as Darwin saw, and biologists after him have confirmed, natural selection, the mechanism of evolution, is random, opportunistic, and purposeless. Or rather, the only purpose possible to assign to natural selection is that it ensures that the most fit organisms reproduce, insuring the appearance of the next generation. Natural selection allows for no Guiding Hand from above. The action is strictly down here on earth where the struggle for existence and reproduction is intense. The only conditions needed for evolution are chance (contingency, randomness), a very long time (billions of years), and natural selection. Darwin came to the idea of natural selection out of his experience of humanly guided breeding, in which humans select and breed plants and animals for certain desired characteristics, such as disease resistance in wheat or speed in race horses. Darwin reasoned that selection of organisms most likely to survive and reproduce is constantly occurring in nature, where there is no one guiding the process.

The Theology of Evolution Few Christian theologians have embraced evolution as a source of theological insights. John F. Haught is an exception, and he writes in “God after Darwin” (2000), that Darwinian evolution is a gift to theology. Although Haught’s argument is nuanced, certain points stand out as bases for new myths derived from evolution.

Accept chance as part of life New species arise as the result of chance events called mutations. Although most mutations are useless or harmful, a few give organisms a reproductive advantage. Out of such random and unpredictable events more reproductively fit organisms then arise, while other organisms, less able to compete for resources and mates, die out. Thus, new, fitter organisms arise because of contingency. Contingency is not a mask for a hidden necessity dictated by past events, not yet understood. Rather, it can be interpreted as a new myth. It is the way the cosmos breaks out of subordination to habitual routine and opens itself to the future.
Note that two popular catch phrases, often offered as explanations for events, are at odds with this understanding of contingency: “Everything happens for a reason” and “It is God’s will.” Often, no compelling reasons can be adduced for events, nor can God’s will easily be discerned in them. Notably, Jesus is recorded as sidestepping such reasoning in Luke 13:4-5, where he asked if those killed by the fall of the tower of Siloam were worst offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem. He answers no, implying that some events occur by chance or by unknown causes, and God’s will need not be put forth as a reason. The acknowledgement of contingency as a common feature of life can be the basis for myths that are more helpful than the anxious demand for reasons for events. A better catch phrase is “You should play the hand you were dealt as best you are able.”

With novelty, evolution moves toward the future Because unpredictable novelty is a central feature of evolution, the future is unknown and not merely the working out of past conditions. As humans contemplate the future, they can both acknowledge their ignorance of future events and carefully plan to minimize the harmful consequences of certain human activities. Our acknowledgement of evolution and of our profound, often unintended, effect on our survival and that of other species leads to new myths centered on the need for us to take care of the earth if it is to flourish. Our Garden of Eden has been ravaged and needs our help. Are we wise enough to provide it? This is the new narrative, the new myth we can step into now.

God “lets the world be,” permitting evolution Cupitt calls for “solar ethics.” This ethics presupposes a new myth about the future: We are to shine in the world for others like the sun. The sun does not grasp but empties itself, living and dying at the same time, and in so doing serves us all. Such solar language recalls the great hymn to Jesus in Philippians 2 that starts in verse 5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Jürgen Moltmann argues that the creation of the universe itself can be thought of not so much a display of divine might as a consequence of God’s self-restraint. In order to create heaven and earth, God emptied Godself of God’s omnipotence, and as Creator, took the form of a servant.

God opens the future Further, Moltmann maintains, God can be viewed as the God of the future, and this suggests possibilities for a new myth, namely, God is not “up there,” but rather “up ahead,” drawing the whole creation forward into the future. In being the God of the future, God does not “micromanage” as a designer, but rather gives the world room to be itself. The world emerges as separate from and uncontrolled by God. This metaphysical and theological framework provides a way of bringing meaning not only to our bewilderment about our broken world and our individual suffering, but also the apparent struggle, waste, and suffering occasioned by evolution through natural selection. Calvin wrote that the world is a theater with God as the audience. This vision of God’s emptying is as if a “theater” has been provided where the drama of creation could take place. Like all good dramas, this play has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Science has sketched the outlines of the beginning of the world and the middle, our current time, but the future only God knows.

Sex: Central to Life Since St. Paul, the church has sought to suppress sex, imposing the myth that sex is bad. Unlike Judaism, which views sex as essential for its survival, the church depended frequently on conversions, often forced, as a main means of growth. As opportunities for conversions waned, heterosexual marriage was seen as a second best source of growth.
Paul set up a distinction between the flesh (a major source of sin or evil in our bodies) and the spirit (the presence of God, thus goodness, in our bodies). Although many of the works of the flesh that Paul compiles, as in Galatians 5, seem nonsexual (idolatry, sorcery, enmities, etc), these come in the list after obviously sexual ones (fornication, impurity, licentiousness), thus leaving the impression that sexual activity is bad or at least leads to bad activities.
Whatever Paul actually thought about sex, his lasting legacy in this area for the church has been that our sexually inclined flesh is at war with God, and we should mortify our flesh and deny our sexual nature to become the people God wants us to be. Sexual renunciation became the sure path to spiritual holiness, and as Peter Brown documents in “The Body and Society,” some in the church became “spiritual athletes” by becoming seemingly totally nonsexual and thus, it was thought, pure and acceptable to God by their heroic efforts. This accounts, of course, in the church for the high regard in which virgins are held. They are venerated not so much because of their martyrdom for the Faith, but because they are biologically intact. These heroes, of course, were a source of guilt for the ordinary church members who were not so subtly reminded of their own impure, often nonvirginal state.
It is difficult to overestimate the damage that this “just say no” myth about sex has caused. Just one example is telling. Homosexual teenagers are 3 to 7 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual teenagers. It’s likely that many of the gay teenagers who kill themselves couldn’t live with the knowledge that they were an abomination to be put to death (Leviticus 20:13).
However, this misery has been very good for the church. People’s guilt about their sexual sinfulness kept them coming back to church for absolution granted with the proviso that the sinner renounce the sin of sex and promise to be “pure,” meaning nonsexual. Now, of course, more and more people are accepting their sexuality as part of their lives and not something to be excised. However, they are getting precious little help from the churches in their efforts to become responsible sexual persons. People attending church learn that sex is evil, unmentionable, or both. The fundamentalists are still denouncing sex, while the liberals make great efforts to say as little as possible about sex as they can. The contortions of the mainline Protestant denominations over the gay question demonstrate this. The major impression from these discussions is that the churches fervently wish that they didn’t have to discuss sex, gay or otherwise. Because of the demand for sexual renunciation by the church, most people are embarrassed by sex and often can’t cope effectively with their sexual feelings and experiences, nor can they talk freely about sex with others.
So, the Church of the Afterlife will preach and teach to replace the “just say no” sexual myth of traditional Christianity with a “just say yes” sexual myth that celebrates sex as a central feature of our humanity. This “just say yes” sexual myth has a number of important aspects: Sex is central to life, sexual feelings are common and natural, sex is not only for reproduction, everyone is sexual, People are different sexually, and in sex, as in all of life, love your neighbor as yourself.

Sex is central to life For most multi-cellular organisms, sexual reproduction is necessary for the survival of the species, and therefore sex is as important as eating, sometimes more so. This simple fact needs be the main message of “just say yes,” namely, we are sexual people.

Sexual feelings are common and natural Further, many of our feelings and experiences relate to sex, relationships, and love. These feelings should be celebrated, not quashed. A church that requires its members to suppress sexual feelings because they are bad leaves people with shame and guilt for feeling sexual. If the Church of the Afterlife can help people recognize and accept their sexual feelings as good, it will make a useful contribution.

Sex is not only for reproduction As important as sex is to reproduction, that is not its only function. Sex gives pleasure whether for reproduction or not. Sex can build relationships and be the basis for companionship and bonding, as in the connection between sex and love, but sex can also be friendly. Sex can help establish hierarchies in primate bands, so much the same dynamic may play out in human relationships. Aggressive power relations can be sexualized, accounting for the often homoerotic nature of male bonding and competition.

Everyone is sexual From birth to death, sex plays a major part in human life. Often only sexually mature, young people are thought to be sexual, but infants, children, and older people also are sexual. Thus, infants and children are not “innocent” in the sense of being nonsexual, but, they have sexual feelings, thoughts, and behaviors appropriate for their age. The “innocence” of children in sexual matters is often invoked in relation in instances of sexual abuse or exploitation. In such cases, it is the abuse or exploitation that should be prevented or stopped. Children should not feel guilty about their sexuality, and abused children should receive help, if needed, in understanding that the abuse was not their fault.

People are different sexually Everyone is sexual, but not everyone is sexual in the same way. Peoples’ sexuality develops at different rates, sex plays a bigger part in some peoples’ lives than in others, people develop different ideas about appropriate sexual behavior, and, of course, not everyone is heterosexual. Current studies indicate that 5 to 10% of the population is sexual minorities, including male homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. Children in sexual minorities would be particularly helped if early in their life when they normally ask questions about sex, the presence of these minorities were discussed with them. If this happened, many a gay kid would be spared the misery of being “all alone with no one to talk to” about his or her sexual feelings.
In sex, as in all of life, love your neighbor as yourself The second great commandment is, of course, a call to push back on our self-centered impulses. Evolutionary biologists suggest that altruism is an effort toward group cohesion. Protect the person who needs your help today; you may need it tomorrow. However, the second commandment is more radical. Do right by anyone who crosses your path, even though you don’t know what he or she might do in response. This can be dangerous. After all, the cynic’s motto is “no good deed goes unpunished,” but nevertheless we are called to treat others as we want to be treated. The union sex seems to promise may not always be realized. Sometimes, extending ourselves into sex can be punishing, filled with pain and heartbreak. As a result, we may go at sex warily, if at all, or become takers, rather than, sharers of sex. The second commandment is a good guide for us sexual beings, because as we try to follow it, we begin to see the situation from the other’s point of view.

Conclusion: The Trinity or Can God be Saved?

So, church is to become a place where expositions on myth, evolution, and sex take center stage? No, but churches should use these ideas to give people better tools to engage the world with a broad religious vision. The small, static vision of the world presented by most churches will make them even more weak and irrational, serving no need but their own survival.
Churches should be religious organizations, helping people apprehend and appropriate the “more,” in Williams James’s terminology, into their lives, so they might see the “big picture.” Of course, this “more” or the “big picture” is traditionally called God. However, “God” is rarely compelling in people’s lives. When people do make a forceful case for God it is usually because they are pointing us to the highest moral or spiritual values they can imagine. Nigel Leaves in his book, “The God Problem” writes of Feuerbach’s concept of a loving God as the human ideal of love projected onto the universe: “God” is love deified. God may become “real” when the feelings expressed about God strike us as real. Such a moment occurred for me watching Dustin Lance Black’s acceptance speech for his Oscar for best screenplay for “Milk” (, in which he assured gay teenagers that God loved them for who they were. Black’s obvious passion made God real in that moment. When we feel deeply, our use of God language to express our feelings can ring true, and God can become real.
From the record of the New Testament, something like that appears to have happened as people encountered Jesus or perhaps more accurately the post-Easter Christ. They began to experience him as God in human form. Bishop John Spong in his essay of November 20, 2008, entitled, “MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, Deepak Chopra and Biblical Illiteracy,” points out that it is possible to trace this divinizing trend in the New Testament from the writings of Paul in the 40s to the 60s of the first century CE, through the synoptic gospels in the 70s and 80s to the Gospel of John in the 90s with John’s writings clearly forming the basis of the doctrine of the Trinity. One way to explain this trend is to imagine people in worship listening to the Bible stories and having feelings for Jesus that could be best expressed in God language. Such language would lead to the idea of Jesus as God, embodied. The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to put such feelings into words, while maintaining the monotheistic understanding. However, words are never adequate to describe feelings. Without the feelings that first prompted the doctrines, they are lifeless. No one cares; they are but relics.
Such changes in our understanding of God are ongoing. In “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” Cupitt writes that some of us are coming to “... believe in an historically-evolving, human, and culturally-established God.” Further, “...we now have become responsible for our God. We’ve got to appraise him, update him, rewrite him continually.” Cupitt points out, following Hegel, that the doctrine of the Trinity is an obvious beginning for reinterpretation: “The co-equality of the second person (Christ, the Son) with the third person (The Holy Spirit) is an invitation to demythologize, because the full coequality and coeternity of the Son means that everything the Father is, the Son is also. And when the Son completely and irrevocably commits himself to becoming human then God has become human, without remainder. So everything that God is, this fellow human being beside me now is.” Also, “... the God of Pentecost (The Holy Spirit) is a postmodern God who has ceased to be a substance and has instead become the interrelatedness of everything.... the medium in which we live and move and have our being, the dance of signs.” Therefore, we humans can be God incarnate, expressing the Spirit through (as the old prayer has it) “our life and conversation.” The challenge lies in whether we can express God in our lives so that our words and actions will be in keeping with the ideals that we can envision.
By recognizing that religion is an attempt to make sense of and to share feelings, the Church of the Afterlife could revitalize old formulations in ways that capture peoples’ imagination anew. The power of their feelings could help them and those they touch to lead truly religious lives here, as they continue to help bring in the Kingdom on Earth.

(“The Meaning of the West” was published in 2008 in England by SCM Press. I bought my copy from for $22.49, including postage.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lenten Posts from CCBlogs

There are over 30 Lenten post recently posted on CCBlogs. You can access these at

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Marriages for Gays in the Lutheran Church? Maybe in Sweden

The Jewish Mosaic ( of January 30, 2009 reports a Swedish proposal on gay marriage presented to parliament on Jan 21, 2009.

STOCKHOLM (AFP) — Sweden may allow homosexuals to wed in the Lutheran Church or civil ceremonies as of May if parliament adopts legislation presented to parliament Wednesday, the prime minister's party said.
"The main proposal in the motion is that ... a person's gender will no longer have any bearing on whether they can marry. The marriage law and other laws concerning spouses will be rendered gender neutral according to the proposal," a statement from Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's conservative Moderates said.
The proposal has wide backing in parliament and is expected to be adopted, though a date has yet to be set for a vote.
While heterosexuals in Sweden can choose to marry in either a civil ceremony or a church ceremony, homosexuals are currently only allowed to register their "partnerships" in a civil ceremony.
Civil unions granting gays and lesbians the same legal status as married couples have been allowed in Sweden since 1995.
If the new legislation is adopted, Sweden, already a pioneer in giving same-sex couples the right to adopt children, would become the first country in the world to allow gays to marry within a major Church.
In 2007, 74 percent of Swedes were members of the Lutheran Church.
The Lutheran Church, which was separated from the state in 2000, has since January 2007 offered gays a religious blessing of their union.
It has previously said it wants the word "marriage" reserved for heterosexual unions, and a Church synod late this year is expected to take a formal decision on Wednesday's proposal.
According to the proposal, pastors who do not want to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony would have the right to refuse, something gay rights' activists criticised.
The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education said that gave "authorities a legal right to discriminate", and suggested that all religious communities' right to perform marriage ceremonies be withdrawn.
Sweden's four-party centre-right government has been split on the issue, with the junior partner Christian Democrats also opposed to the use of the word "marriage" for homosexual unions.
However the three other coalition members, the Moderates, the Liberals and the Centre Party, as well as the opposition Social Democrats, the country's biggest party, are in favour of a gender neutral law and would together garner enough support to adopt the legislation in parliament.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

“The Meaning of West”

In the modern West, we are in transition between two versions of Christianity. The first is the old ecclesiastical version that ended in the early nineteenth century and is now slowly passing away. The second is our late-modern or postmodern civil society, which, with its liberal-democratic humanitarianism is the “Kingdom on Earth” version of Christianity. This is the thesis of Don Cupitt’s important new book, “The Meaning of West.” Liberal-democratic civil society is, he suggests, Quakerism writ large. Christianity is now becoming purely this-worldly and human. People are just leaving the clerical hierarchy behind. Cupitt calls these the officer-class of religious professionals who would control everything. One need only look at the collapse of the church in, for example, Spain, Ireland, and Italy to see the truth of this. In these once actively Christian countries hardly anyone goes to church and hardly anyone listens to, much less obeys, church pronouncements. The division between the sacred and the profane is gone. Now, we know only one world, our secular, human world. The entire divine realm has become scattered or disseminated into human beings.
Notwithstanding, the West is indelibly Christian. We are what Christianity made us. The modern Western-led international ethic is simply a continuation of Christian ethics. The proof of the ascendancy of the new “Kingdom" version of Christianity in the West is the fact that civil, secular society is now more consistently Christian than are the churches. The Church holds onto discrimination and injustice, as with its own employees, women, and gays, fighting inclusion and equality at every turn. Thus, the church is obsolete, and, Cupitt writes, we should leave it and commit ourselves with full religious seriousness to the best of our contemporary secular cultural life. Doing so, we would become better Christians. Of course, it hardly matters what the few people in the churches do. They are seen rightly as outdated anachronisms.
But even without the churches, Christianity is the active heart of the modern West, even though, as Cupitt points out, both religious dogmatists and Enlightenment scientific rationalists err because both are “realists,” wanting us to believe that the special bodies of knowledge out of which they earn their bread are objectively and permanently true. This isn’t so because any knowledge is always conditioned by our own human vantage point, our place in history, and the language we think, speak, and write in. And, because our language is always changing, our reality is also always changing since we have only our language to describe it. As a result we are learning to live without eternity, without foundations, without any absolute knowledge or reality.
Cupitt argues that this attitude helps us glimpse the long-awaited Kingdom of God on earth. This nihilistic religious-humanism-for-a-world-that-knows-it-is-passing-away, was, as far a we can tell, he writes, the original message of Jesus. Because he came to a dreadful end, his followers couldn’t see how his vision could be realized unless he were to return. He thus became a heavenly figure who would return one day to set the world right. This hope persisted, and ironically, drove the Faith toward working for the Kingdom here, because believers felt that Jesus was with them in this world. Cupitt calls this Faith’s own self-secularization. As Jesus emptied himself for us, so we in the West continue to recognize opportunities to empty ourselves into the world to help bring the Kingdom ever closer.

(“The Meaning of the West” was published in 2008 in England by SCM Press. I bought my copy from for $22.49, including postage.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gay Children: Treating their families as allies not enemies

An article today at the website, 365gay (, makes an important point: “When families reject their lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) adolescents by telling them the way they act is shameful, excluding them from family activities, or similar behaviors, the young people are more likely to have health and mental health problems in early adulthood.” This point has now been quantified in a paper published this month in the journal “Pediatrics” by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and her team at the César E. Chávez Institute of San Francisco State University. They report that LGB young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were:
* 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide;
* 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression;
* 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs;
* and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse, compared with peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection. The study was based on a survey of white and Latino young adults, ages 21-25, recruited from diverse venues in and around San Francisco.

Carolyn Laub, executive director of California’s Gay-Straight Alliance Network, explained why Ryan’s research breaks new ground. “For too long, we’ve served LGBT youth without involving their parents, often because we have feared the parents would reject their child. But to insure that LGBT youth develop into healthy adults, we need to involve parents, teaching them how their acceptance of their child impacts their health outcomes,” she said. She added, “Caitlin Ryan’s research changes the paradigm for how we think about serving LGBT youth in the context of their families, and will have a profound impact on the safety and health of LGBT youth. These findings need to be shared with everyone who works with youth and their families.”

This, of course, includes churches: their members and their clergy. For too long churches have acted as if sex doesn’t exist, and if it does exist, it’s bad, at least until heterosexual marriage. Church people must begin to talk about sex with each other, including sex practiced by the sexual minorities in their midst. This means that sermons should discuss sex and that discussion groups should work with sexual issues. As the 365 gay article points out, “Dr. Ryan realized early on that the very process of being interviewed was therapeutic for the families, very few of whom had ever talked about having LGBT children before. Even parents who were rejecting of their LGBT children and reluctant to participate would end up talking for hours. After completing the research, she also went back to the families that had participated in the qualitative study, as well as families from other ethnic groups, to share the findings. “We were having a dramatic impact on their behavior,” Ryan observed. “For the very first time, they could see how their specific words, actions, and behaviors were affecting their LGBT child.”

So the lesson for churches is clear: Recognize that LGBT people are in your congregations; talk to them; let them talk with the people of the congregations. Maybe together as we talk, we’ll hear the Gospel.