Friday, October 19, 2018

A Few Thoughts on Religion

1.        Religion is not about getting but about giving.  Ask not what you can get from religion, ask what you can give to care for the neighbor and make the world a bit more just.  

2.       If you want to know what someone believes, do not listen to the mouth, follow the feet.

3.       Keep trying to change what is wrong even when you fail, or what is wrong will ultimately change you. That means vote, vote, vote!

4.       Faith is trusting without knowing for sure.  Theology is talking about God without knowing what you’re talking about.  A true theologian is haunted by the silence of God and knows that she or he does not know.

5.       Whether we like it or not, there are different religions and different ways to be religious.  Some ways of being religious are helpful and wise, while others are not.  The key lies in the communal argument not the conclusion.

6.       In religion, the question is more important than the answer to the question.

7.       Arguing about which religion is the best, the truest, the right one, is like arguing about which star is brightest in the dark sky.  They each have their moments, some constructive, some destructive, some explosive, some implosive.

8.       Religion is a mysterious romantic adventure.  It gives people hope, keeps them sane, trains them to act well.  But it can make other people crazy, mad or insane.  Pascal was right, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

9.       Facing the limits of religious truth takes wisdom and courage.  The serious religious person searches for truth and is skeptical about any unsupported assertions. 

10.   Do not be too religious.  Religions offer us but a glimpse into the mystery.  At the same time, do not dismiss the power and force of religious truth.  Religions were invented by human beings; what God has to do with each religion, only God knows.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Problems with Jesus

Jews, Christians and Muslims who think about their religious traditions will have problems with Jesus.  The problems are not talked about much in public, but they are substantial.

For Jews, Jesus lacks the credentials to be the Messiah or Christ.  Jesus did not rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.  He did not bring peace throughout the world.  He did not cause all Jews to live in peace in the land of Israel and he did not cause non-Jews to flock to Israel to study Torah.  Historically, many Jews have been persecuted and killed in the name of Jesus.  And the Christian Gospels have many texts that are anti-Jewish.  Jesus may have been a prophet.   He may have been a charismatic divine instrument trying to make gentiles as Jewish as possible.  But for most Jews, as the messiah, Jesus is problematic.

For Muslims, Jesus was born of a virgin and is the Christ, but he is also not divine.  According to the Quran, Jesus did not die on the cross but was saved at the last minute and someone else died in his place.  Jesus as part of the Trinity is a problem because it means Christians are worshipping a man and engaged in idolatry. There is tremendous respect for Jesus within Islam, but for Muslims, the Christian Jesus remains problematic.

For Christians, the problem with Jesus is subtle and complicated.  The problem is Jesus was an incomplete and insufficient Messiah.  Christians are assured by their scriptures and traditions that God sent Jesus into the world to die for their sins and to be raised for their justification and eternal life.  But, every Advent, Christians face the fact that Jesus came but has not come back to complete his work.  Some have called this waiting for Jesus’ return, “the delay.”  It has been over two thousand years and this delay is a problem.

Yes, there are problems with Jesus.  But, despite all these issues, we have before us three communities, with something in common.  They are waiting for God to act.  There is an old Jewish prayer called Ani Maamin (I believe).  “I believe in the coming of the messiah and though he tarry I shall wait, I shall wait, I shall wait.”  For all the unresolved problems with Messiahs, and there are many, the secret still resides in the waiting. And maybe that is enough for now?

Friday, October 5, 2018

Interpreting the Bible and Staying Sane

There is a common phrase among some religious people: “the Bible says.”  But our scriptures without exception cannot speak unless they are interpreted.  When someone says, “the Bible says”, what they are saying is, “This is what I hear or think the Bible is saying.”  And it seems so clear to that person that they shorten the sentence to “the Bible says.”

This is important because I have had people say to me, “Dr. Haar, you interpret the Bible, I read it.”

As soon as you have a text, and someone reads that text, you have interpretation.  Interpretation asks, “What does what I just read mean?  And as soon as you’ve decided what the text means, you have interpreted the text.

I suppose what bothers some people is they want to believe the Bible comes directly from, God, word for word. They want to believe they have in their hands the literal word of God and they can therefore interpret that word literally.  They may also think the word, interpretation, weakens the power and authority of that word. 

But, our Bibles were made to be interpreted.

At best, our Bibles were written by human beings and inspired by God.  That means we are not only compelled to interpret the text; we can argue and disagree with the text.  The Bible is not God and we ought not worship it.  Whenever the Bible points us to faith in God and teaches us to be people of character, we respect it.  Whenever it does not, we may dispute with the text.
Whenever we wrestle with and study the scriptures; whenever we interpret the text we can be assured we are taking the Bible seriously and staying sane.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Order and Chaos

Life is a mixture of order and chaos.  We humans desire and seek order but sometimes create chaos.  Order is when everything makes sense and we feel in control of what is going on.  Chaos may best be defined as the feeling of being out of control. 

In our scriptures God is pictured as constantly wrestling with chaos, the chaos of nature and the chaos of human nature.  Sometimes God prevails and sometimes God fails to prevail.  Example:  Cain kills Abel and God does not stop it.  The blood of Abel is pictured as crying to God and God laments the killing but loses to the chaos within Cain.  Not everything described in the Bible is the will of God!

When we say God is in control of everything that happens we make God responsible for everything that happens. I suppose it matters what you mean by the word “control.” But, if everything happens according to God’s plan, it makes God the author of good and evil.  It turns God into an arbitrary monster who hurts people every day in all sorts of ways.

I know it can be comforting for some to think everything happens to us as part of some grand divine plan but just think about it.  If that’s true, it means the Holocaust was part of God’s plan.  Destructive diseases of every ilk are part of the plan. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and every accident and every suicide, is part of the plan.

Some will argue God has a deeper, longer, grander hidden plan which humans cannot understand.  That is possible, but if that plan includes God committing evil, why would anyone want to worship a God who does such terrible things as part of some mysterious plan?

The life we experience every day tells us order and chaos are real.  Accidents happen.  Diseases are part of life.  Hurricanes and earthquakes are part of nature.  God appears to be wrestling with the chaos of the earth, with the freedom and inconsistency of its human creatures, with the fact we all live on a small blue planet with distinct laws of nature in an obscure part of the universe.

The contest between order and chaos is messy and uncertain but it sure beats the idea of “the plan.”

Friday, September 21, 2018

Being Mortal is Not Easy

Mortality is not for the weak and cowardly, and it doesn’t work very well for the strong and courageous either. Let’s face it:  our brains do not like the idea we have to grow old and die no matter how incrementally and gradual the process.   We are not happy about it. We do what we can to deny the fact and try not think about it.  Read, The Denial of Death by Ernst Becker.

Over the millennia, the human brain has devised all sorts of mechanisms to deal with and thereby try to control death.  As I get older, I find myself worrying, anticipating, being fatalistic, going to the doctor in the hope of catching some potentially catastrophic ailment before it develops, going through multiple colonoscopies, telling myself not to worry since it is out of my control. 

But I’m also a theologian and I think about dying theologically.  There are many theological rationales:  It’s all in God’s hands.  It’s part of some inscrutable mysterious hidden plan.  Or it’s not part of any plan.  It’s a matter of chance but God will walk through it with you.  Heaven means being with God forever.  There is no heaven.  All the rationales can be quite subtle and sophisticated.  Or I sometimes think, there is no God and when you die, you will just disappear the same way you do when they put you under for surgery.  The tumble of the pinball electric thoughts in my brain do not stop.

Then, I get tired of obsessing about the subject.  Yes, I’m getting older but I’m just not going to think about it.  I’ll read a book, teach my classes, watch another show, talk about politics, have a cookie or two cookies, go out and eat at a nice restaurant with my wife, eat more bagels, watch more baseball, have a beer, enjoy life.

Finally, there are the gratitude people, the Stoics and the Buddhists who try to assuage their fear by declaring they are grateful “for a life well lived” and welcome their fate and the setting sun.  And just when I say to myself, “that’s the way to go”, I hear the raspy voice of Dylan Thomas urging his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage Rage against the dying of the light.”

Is it worth it?  Is mortality worth the worry and the anxiety of getting old and walking into that night? 

Yes, it is!  For all the craziness of life and there is more than enough, we want more.  Debilitating diseases, monster hurricanes, destructive tornadoes, massive earthquakes, cancers large and small, crazy political leaders, Holocausts and more.  Nothing diminishes our desire to see the morning sun one more time. 

Being mortal is not easy but we were created to love life, so I am glad to be sitting here typing another blog and hoping you will take time in your brain to read it.  Being mortal is not easy but the old joke about the two Jewish grandmas eating at an old restaurant is apt.  One says to the other, “The food here is terrible.”  The other replies, “Yes, and they don’t give seconds.” 

Friday, September 14, 2018

In the Middle

Jews are presently living in the middle between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  These are the holiest days of the year for Jews, between the New Year (Rosh Hashana, 5779) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  It is a ten-day period of introspection.  Jews are supposed to reflect on how they have acted during the past year and to whom they must go and seek forgiveness, before they can ask forgiveness from God on Yom Kippur. 

In Jewish tradition you cannot ask forgiveness until you have examined in what ways you have hurt someone during the previous year.   In this tradition lies the unique Jewish belief there are some things God cannot and will not forgive.  The Rabbis teach when you hurt someone you are not hurting God.  You are hurting a specific someone.  And you must approach that someone and ask for forgiveness.

So, why can’t God forgive you?  Because you did not sin against God.  You sinned against another person.  That’s a whole other relationship.  You tell me about someone who robbed you and how violated you feel.  I listen and say to you, “I forgive the robber who did this to you.”  But that’s crazy.  It’s not my place to forgive something that did not happen to me.  Just so with God.

Between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, the middle part, the ten days of reflection are the most important.  Figure out who you wounded this past year.  Text, call or do what you can to seek reconciliation.  When Jews do this, they will have celebrated the New Year and are ready to meet God on Yom Kippur.

Btw, non-Jews are welcome to do the same.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Justice and the State of Israel?

There may be no more controversial and disputed piece of real estate in the world than the State of Israel.  Seventy years after its establishment, Israel remains a nation surrounded by terrorist groups and enemies who believe that Israelis have settled the land illegally and immorally. To the north are Hezbollah, to the south Hamas, to the north and west, the Syrian civil war and the Palestinian Authority.  And this is not to mention the larger Arab community, especially Iran, which for the most part is hostile to Israel.

Israel is a relatively small nation, about 50 miles east to west and 150 miles north to south. About eight and a half million people live there.  Seven million are Jews and about one and a half million are Palestinians. Israel was created by people who believed in a movement called Zionism.  To many Jews the word Zion means home and Zionism is the movement to return Jews to their ancestral home.  Many Palestinians say, the Jewish return to the Jewish ancestral home has caused Palestinians to be removed from their homes. 

The result is a “war of narratives.”  “Great wars in history eventually become great wars about history” wrote Michael Oren.  True indeed!

The Israeli Palestinian argument has historical, religious, geographical, economic and emotional components.  There are extremists on both sides and many are armed.  At the same time, a pervasive antisemitism exists in the Middle East and in parts of Europe.  Some Israelis believe in a “greater Israel” while some Palestinians will accept nothing less than “return” of all their land and an end to the State of Israel. 

It is a messy situation.

Where then is all this going?

My sense is there can be no simple justice that will satisfy both sides.  And by the way there are many sides within each side. The final settlement, when it is reached, will have to be made up of compromise and proximate justice supported by a courageous political leadership willing to negotiate and enforce a peace agreement.

When this will happen is difficult to say and it is hard to be optimistic these days.   But we have seen the Berlin wall come down.  We have seen apartheid overthrown in South Africa.  We have seen the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is relative peace in Ireland.   So, let us hope against hope.