Friday, April 20, 2018

Common Words, Uncommon Meanings


There are words we all commonly use and think we know what these words mean.  Words like God, Jesus, Jew, Holocaust, evil, and death.  We commonly use these words as if to say we understand but the fact is we do not.

These words possess weight, heft, timber, threat and mystery.  Smart people, smarter than you or me, have investigated them for millennia and still their meaning eludes us.  But they are important words, vital words, and they will not go away for they touch something deep in our souls and they ought to.

We are creatures that long to understand what we are doing here on this planet that floats and rotates in black space.  And these common words with uncommon meanings pull at us because they are “limit” words.  They take us to those places where, if we’re honest, we know we do not know, but we act and talk like we know.

Look at the word Holocaust.  The word means burnt offering and gives the impression of something done to appease an angry god.  But the common meaning is that of a horrendous disaster and we think we know what that means.   But the word Holocaust points to something much deeper and profound, the ability of human beings to be inhuman and to arbitrarily and systematically murder a million children under the age of ten.  The horror of the event is so horrible we dare not get too close or precise for fear of what we will see and what it will do to us.

Or the word and name, Jesus.  Here is a man, a Jew who lived over two thousand years ago, some call him the Christ without a second thought, Jesus, who remains a mysterious puzzle to many of us wrapped and bound in ambiguous messianic scriptures, sophisticated theological language, awful Hollywood movies where he is always strangely pictured as having a British accent, Jesus, whose followers have loved and cared for the neighbor and who have also murdered the neighbor in Jesus name, Jesus disputed by Jews and Muslims with sound questions, weighted down with creeds, and dogmas and hymns and liturgies, books upon books and yet this poor Jew is still not understood.  For all the religious christological hoopla and faith, we do not know who he was and what he really accomplished.  Yet, the word Jesus, has an ongoing intricate place in our culture’s vocabulary.

There’s a wildness and a secrecy about these words that keeps us from getting too close.  Holocaust, God, Jesus, Jew, evil, and death:  all these common words along with others with uncommon meanings haunt us because they are so much part of our lives and yet we do not know what they mean.  We talk and write, not with these words but, against them.  And whether we are for or against them, they will not let us go. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Mansplaining and Teaching Religion?


My wife tells me that I have a problem called mansplaining.  She says I explain things to her that do not require explaining and I sometimes do so in a condescending and patronizing manner.   Since she is quite honest and usually right, I am asking myself where I might have acquired this ailment.  Do all men have this problem or only male Religion professors and teachers?

Some have explained mansplaining as a combination of over confidence and misjudgment over what someone else (usually a woman) knows and does not know. 

I was not aware of my mansplaining, and I suppose it means I too easily and arrogantly assume I have knowledge which no one else possesses.  Or, the more likely, as a teacher, I am used to repeating myself since some students tend to forget and the exam is on Monday.

So, I hereby apologize to my wife for mansplaining and promise to be more aware and do better. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Stephen Hawking and God


When asked what his thoughts were about God, Stephen Hawking replied:

“It is clear that we are just an advanced breed of primates on a minor planet orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among 100 billion galaxies.  But, ever since the dawn of civilization, people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world. There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe. And what can be more special than there is no boundary…And there should be no boundary to human endeavor. We are all different.  However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. While there is life, there is hope.”

Most of us were fascinated by Stephen Hawking.  Here was a brilliant physicist suffering from ALS, confined to a wheel chair for many years, unable to move but a muscle or two, suffering in ways most us will never have to experience, searching for the truth, and these were his thoughts about God.  We are compelled to engage his ideas.

He knew what religious people wanted to hear but that was not what his scientific enquiry into the universe had told him. 

We need to pay attention to Hawking and ask ourselves whether our images of God, given to us by our respective religious traditions are accurate. Do we need to rethink or reimagine what we mean when we say the word, God? What measure of God would create a universe that looks like this?  Could our way of talking about God be wrong?

The problem is we have so much invested in our ways of speaking about God.  And many are desperate to retain the old images of the deity.  And what new images would appeal to us?  How would we ever know whether they were correct?  But if Hawking is telling us something true about the nature of time and the universe, and if we care about the truth, must we not alter our way of talking about God?  After all, God does not live and is not boxed inside the Church or the Synagogue or the Mosque.  God lives in the world and in the energy of the universe and is not bound by our religious notions.

Some would argue, asking a scientist about the existence of God may not be wise.  Some religious folk will just ignore Hawking anyway and go on as usual.  But, I advise anybody out there who wants to be an honest religious person to ponder with care Hawking’s words and the mystery that is God.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Passover and Easter: Questions and Glimpses


Every year Passover and Easter share an intimate relationship on our calendars.  They dance and wrestle with one another.  Passover, this year, begins on the evening of Good Friday, the day Christians remember the murder of Jesus. 

Both holidays begin with questions.  The Jewish seder or meal starts with the youngest person present, asking “the four questions”, as to why this night is different from any other night.  And Good Friday scriptures talk of Jesus on the cross in Mark and Matthew’s gospels asking the question: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  These questions lead to stories of deliverance, the Exodus and the Resurrection. 

But, did you notice?  From year to year the questions do not go away.  They keep being repeated.  The questions are an integral part of our traditions.  The questions remain questions because all the talk of deliverance from sin, death and evil is just that, talk!  In our time, sin, death and evil are doing quite well, Torah and Jesus notwithstanding.  The stories of deliverance are glimpses of hope yet to be completely fulfilled for Jews or Christians. 

During this season, we hold on to both the questions and the glimpses.  After all, Jews and Christians are two communities that continue to wait and wait and wait, at the same time doing what we can to reduce the madness of human beings.

Despite all the differences between Jews and Christians, and these should not be ignored or diminished.  The argument between them is important.  But this time of the year is about remembering, remembering who we are, where we came from, the questions we must ask, and the hopes that motivates us to get out of bed in the morning. 

Passover and Easter remind us not to forget. “In memory lies redemption.” And these holidays are ways we try to remember the problematic fragility and mysterious substance of our hopes.

Friday, March 23, 2018

A True Theologian


A true theologian is someone who knows he or she does not know.  There are such Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians.  The word theology means “words about God.”  And, we who are theologians know we do not know what we are talking about.  It’s part of the dilemma of being a theologian that you are compelled to talk about an inexplicable, indescribable, elusive, mysterious being.  For thousands of years the three monotheisms have claimed this being has revealed itself through them.  And yet, to this day we remain frighteningly unsure whether there is anything there.  Is there even a there, there?

So, why do we keep talking?  What is the point of doing theology? 

Theology, when it is done well, is an honest articulation of the faith of the community.  Theologians are not arrogant or boastful.  A true theologian talks about what we trust, why we trust it, and how ought we live in view of what we trust.  Theology is always tentative and searching for the right words.  A deep part of theology is hope.   This hope is based on the promises made in scripture.  It is a “hope against hope.”  Again, it is not an ignorant or fearful hope, but a hope rooted in promises we continue to trust despite what happens in human history.

This “despite” is not an excuse.  It is a fanatical declaration of trust which refuses to concede to the meaninglessness and emptiness of life.  This trust is built on the belief that “something.” Is going on and we, as people who care about truth must bear witness in our lives to this something, vague, obscure and puzzling as it may be.  

Theology can be a good thing when it doesn’t talk about what it does not know.  In fact, some talk about God can be quite helpful in moving us to live a life of character where we care for the hurting neighbor.  Remember, the goal of religion is not to be religious.  The goal of every religion is to transform us into human beings. 

So, whoever you are out there, keep up the good fight and trust you are not alone. There may yet be a force at the heart of the universe that is for us and not against us. 


Friday, March 16, 2018

Love the Stranger???


Over 36 times in the Jewish and Christian Bibles people are commanded to “love the stranger.”  The scriptures are insistent!  Why this concern to be hospitable to the stranger?  And who was the stranger? Whether he or she was someone loosely attached to one of the tribes, a convert to Israelite religion, or a foreigner, the stranger was clearly a threat, an outsider who was different.

The person who is different or strange can hurt you.  This is not an illusion. The stranger can be a threat; Strangers look different.  They talk different.  They eat different.  They are different.  The stranger can be a threat by his or her mere existence.  And it doesn’t take much for us to be afraid. 

Being “different” does not always have the best connotation.  When I first came to live in this part of the world I learned about the word “different.” How was your date last night?  She was different.  How was your meal at the new restaurant?  It was different.  How was your class with Haar?  He was different.

So, why does the scripture implore people to “love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt?”  It is true the Hebrews were aware of what it meant to be treated in a terrible way just because they had always been foreigners.  They were made slaves, oppressed and their babies murdered. They were commanded to be different yet they were and are today desperate to belong.  But why should all of that result in a general command to “love the stranger?”

“Love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  It is a warning to us all.  To not care for the stranger is to not be hospitable. This was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah,  to be indifferent or hostile to the stranger.  And Wiesel has a point:  "The opposite of love is not hate.  The opposite of love is indifference." And Indifference is decadence.  Indifference means to not care.  A person who is indifferent is already dead but he or she doesn’t know it yet. 
Love the stranger because we have all been and felt like strangers, like we were different,  like aliens, like we did not belong, like we did not fit in. We have all felt like outsiders. We are indeed a nation of outsiders whose forebears got into boats and came to this country hoping to belong.

Love the stranger despite your fear. The stranger may frighten you but do not live your life out of fear.  Love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Loving the stranger is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew, a Christian and if nothing else, a person of character.

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Mature Faith


I keep telling my students to create for themselves a mature faith.  But what does a mature faith look like?

Martin Luther said:
“The Holy Spirit is no skeptic, and the thing He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions-surer and more certain than sense and life itself.”
While Luther may be right, the Holy Spirit is also not na├»ve and does not condone lies about human and divine indifference. The nagging questions surrounding faith will not disappear just because we will and proclaim it.  We can sing all the hymns and recite all the creeds, ignore or decide not to think about the questions, but they will not ignore us.  
A mature faith trusts God with heart, soul and mind and is not fearful or distressed by the questions.  We welcome them!  I have said this again and again.  Faith is not opposed to questions.  Faith and questions are inter-related and inextricably connected. 

But why?  Because faith is a relationship based on honest thoughtful trust in the promises of God.  We trust in the mystery that is God without knowing exactly what that means, hoping against hope that our trust is not in vain and that God is working with us and for us, whatever that means. 

I wish for you a mature and honest faith, a faith which propels you to care for the neighbor in pain and is unwilling to lie about the questions.